Thursday, October 04, 2007

Battle in Seattle and Redacted, as seen through a jaundiced eye

The neatest thing about Battle in Seattle, to me, is the cameo by Haskell Wexler. I didn't notice it when it happened - nor the quote from his most famous film, Medium Cool, which, I know now, is shown on a TV screen at the beginning of the movie - but I still smiled when I caught Wexler's name in the credits. Medium Cool is a well-respected piece of politically engaged filmmaking from the 1960's, starring Robert Forster (best known to young'uns as Max Cherry in Jackie Brown) as a reporter forced to question the media's role in the coverage of the Democratic convention protests of 1968. Wexler is sort of a hero to liberal filmpeople - he's shot many films, including John Sayles' Matewan and politically engaged docs like his own Bus Rider's Union. I will confess (to my embarrassment) to not having SEEN Medium Cool yet (Mark, Jack: forgive me!), but I know enough about the film and Wexler to like that Battle in Seattle pays its dues; writer-director Stuart Townsend noted when I asked him about Wexler's cameo that "Seattle was the first major mass mobilization in the USA since the Democratic convention riots," so he thought it important to tip his hat. He also explained, for anyone who sets out to "spot Haskell," that Wexler briefly appears holding a camera: "blink and you'll miss him."

As for the film, there's little question that the audience it's playing for will love it, and it drew warm cheers and whoops and applause at the screening I was at (and not JUST because it was shot in Vancouver with a local crew -- people ate it up politically, too.) Since it congratulates the viewers warmly at every turn for believing the right things, and confirms and rewards their (our?) every opinion, this is hardly surprising, tho'. It MAY have merit as a history lesson for some; it MIGHT open the eyes of viewers who haven't heard of the Seattle riots before; and it's laudable that it doesn't flinch from showing the city/ police as being excessive in their use of force: BUT, still, I'm really not sure what films like this accomplish. Call me jaded, and I am, but... remember all the hype and drama over Fahrenheit 9/11? Neverminding that it's not a very good film, it still had enormous momentum, yet did nothing to stop Bush from being elected a second time (and in a way, as a cinema-goer, I'm kinda perversely grateful: Moore would have been unendurable in his self-congratulation had Bush actually lost). Likewise, it's doubtful films like this will have any lasting impact on the WTO or global capitalism, raising the very valid question of whether, really, there is any point to them at all. Unless they somehow challenge us to think or act in a new way -- unless they provoke us to learn something about ourselves or the world -- unless they actually TELL US SOMETHING WE DON'T ALREADY KNOW, then I can't understand why they need to be made. I felt rather like I did when marching against the war in Iraq a couple of years ago: unconvinced that my being there did any good at all, even if I did feel slightly pleased with myself at the end.

I guess it's to the film's credit that that's the best analogy I can think of -- it's as useless as a protest march. If you dig protest marches, you'll probably dig it, too. At the very least, it made me want to watch This is What Democracy Looks Like again.

More significant, but also more questionable, is Brian de Palma's Redacted (that's the official site, but it's "under construction" at the moment, so you might also want to look here, where you will find a sizeable presskit for download). I expected to rejoice, watching it. I was very excited to hear that de Palma, whose last politically engaged film was 1989's Casualties of War, about Vietnam, had made a "furious and incendiary take on the Iraq conflict." Though he is often accused of misogyny and exploitation, anyone who has seen his early film Hi, Mom knows that de Palma is capable of using his penchant for pushing boundaries and his fascination with voyeurism for political ends, to assaultively provoke complacent viewers and challenge their preconceptions; and at least one of his middle-period films, Blow Out, is masterful at leaving the viewer feeling unclean as all hell, questioning whether his/her own cynical specatatorship is moral. Even his dumbest (Snake Eyes) and his most "offensive" films (Body Double, say) are richly crafted and thought-provoking on a meta-level. I'm almost always happy to watch his films, even when I don't like them.

For all the craft and fury that de Palma brings to bear in Redacted, though - ambitiously stitching together a narrative not unlike Casualties of War out of supposedly "found" footage from video diaries, video blogging, surveillance cameras, a French documentary, Youtube, and so forth -- at the end of it all, I just felt depressed. The subject matter is undoubtedly a part of that - it is based on a true story about five soldiers who participated in raping and murdering a 14 year old Iraqi girl and her family. Strong stuff it is - and it also takes on insurgents, Al Qaeda murder porn, beheadings, racism, and the idiocy of sending vicious rednecks into a complex diplomatic situation; it even allows those vicious rednecks to speak for themselves, the main rapist offering a speech in his self-defense that reminds one of Tony Montana speaking up for "the Bad Guy" in Scarface. It does all this, too, with abundant self-consciousness: the presskit describes it as a "profound meditation on the way information is packaged, distributed and received in an era with infinite channels of communication," and it may well be - people excited about self-reflexivity in cinema will find much to think about in it, and de Palma's detractors will even find themselves robbed of the predictable litany of objections to the film -- that he is just an exploiter, a parasite, a sadist, feeding off human misery, puffing himself up by attaching himself to the events he depicts -- because de Palma incorporates these very accusations into the text. Clever guy, de Palma. I have no congratulations to offer, though. When it comes to the war in Iraq, I've had enough; and to be honest, much as I was grateful to see him trying to make a real film -- I enjoyed the sheer beautiful fluff of Femme Fatale a helluva lot more.

Maybe it's just me, you know? Maybe I've just seen too many movies. I've sung along to too many protest songs and done too little to change the world: I do not believe even this film, angry as it is, will make the slightest positive difference in the state of the world. Audiences will go to it to vent their indignation and their outrage, will cheer at the scene where an internet protestor likens America to Nazi Germany, and will pat themselves on the back when the whole thing is done, but odds are, they will DO NOTHING that they would not have otherwise done, for having seen the film, that will help hasten the US retreat from Iraq. We simply cannot consume our way out of that war. The first world's addiction to stimulation of all sorts is PART OF THE PROBLEM, part of the reason that Bush is still in power, even though the whole fucking world knows better; the harshness of Redacted is first and foremost an indicator of just how little a threat the world of cinema poses to the powers that be. If Redacted could change things, they'd make it illegal; since it can't, again - why bother?

One interesting note about the Redacted presskit: it provides no information about the actual killings that the film is based on, nor does the film. One would think, for all the moral furor that supposedly motivates the filmmakers, they'd want everyone to go home and visit fuckin' Wikipedia or something, to see what actually happened. From that site:

"The Al-Mahmudiyah killings occurred on March 12, 2006 in a house located to the southwest of Yusufiyah, a smaller village, to the west of the larger town of Al-Mahmudiyah, south of Baghdad, Iraq in which five United States soldiers with the 502nd Infantry Regiment, Spc. James Barker, Pfc. Jesse Spielman, Sgt. Paul Cortez, , and Pfc. Steven D. Green (discharged before the crime was discovered), gang-raped and murdered a 14-year-old Iraqi girl named Abeer Qasim Hamza, after murdering her mother Fakhriyah Taha Muhsin, 34; her father Qasim Hamza Raheem, 45; and her sister Hadeel Qasim Hamza, aged 5. As of August 2007 Barker, Spielman and Cortez have been sentenced for this crime. The matter came to light when a private first class in the same platoon, Justin Watt, reportedly revealed the crime during a counseling session on June 22, 2006 following the deaths of two other soldiers in the same regiment. One of the soldiers, Steven Green, was honorably discharged from the Army on May 16, 2006, due to "antisocial personality disorder" and has been charged with these crimes by the FBI, not the military, as his discharge released him from military jurisdiction. Steven Green has been arrested as a civilian within the United States and as such has received the majority of press coverage related to the incident. The other four soldiers, SGT Paul E. Cortez, SPC James P. Barker, PFC Jesse V. Spielman and PFC Bryan L. Howard, were on active duty when charged by the United States military. Currently they remain confined to the Forward Operating Base in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. According to military spokesman Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell they could face the death penalty."

If Redacted sounds like something you want to see, don't let me stop you, but in my opinion, you'd be better off spending the time chasing down the links in the article that that's from, and asking what you can do to change a world where such things can happen. If you want to see a movie, just go see somethin' that sounds fun, for fucksake. Or a documentary. (I'm really hoping I'll like Adam Curtis' The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom; I'm told it's remarkable).

You know, it's nearly 4 AM, and I'm worn out. These films both play again as part of the festival, but I can't bear to chase down links. Go here and figure it out, if you're interested. G'night.

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