Monday, March 22, 2010

Lessons Learned

by Brandon Colvin

At the conclusion of Green Zone, the film’s whistle-blowing soldier-hero-everyman protagonist, Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon), sends a mass e-mail to writers for every major American news publication containing classified documents which prove the intentional duplicity of governmental officials in fabricating the presence of WMD in Iraq. Fueled by frustration and the humiliation of being duped, his laconic message suggests that its recipients see the controversial attached files and features a simple command: “Let’s get the story right this time.” This imperative is the driving force behind director Paul Greengrass and Damon’s Bourne-style revisionist Iraq actioner.

Scripted by Brian Helgeland (as well as the uncredited Greengrass) and inspired by journalist Rajiv Chandresakeran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006), Green Zone is about applying the lessons learned from our most recent military debacle – namely, that “official reports” are not inherently reputable, that those in power manipulate the truth to their own ends, and that it is our responsibility as citizens to take our country’s wellbeing into our own hands. Or, as one of the film’s repeated maxims simply and cumulatively commands, “Don’t be naïve.” Set in 2003 Baghdad, just after the initial invasion, the film serves as an ex-post-facto reimaging of how the war could have been different if this heuristic had been followed, if complex truth had been privileged over convenience and opportunism.

Green Zone begins, appropriately, with the breakdown of its hero’s naïvete, and, implicitly, the unenlightened viewer’s. During the film’s opening sequence, Officer Miller reaches the cusp of his already overstretched faith in his superiors, storming a location reported to be housing WMD, but which ends up being a long-abandoned toilet factory. It’s the third consecutive false alarm for Miller’s team. Miller gets the feeling he’s on a wild goose chase. Not only a wild goose chase, but one with casualties – unnecessary casualties. His voiced suspicions of faulty intelligence are repeatedly refuted by those around and above him, save for a long-serving Middle East expert with similar fears and a penchant for raising a ruckus: grizzled CIA operative Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson). Urged by Brown, Miller begins deviating from his orders, pursuing alternative intelligence, including that of a helpful Iraqi, dubbed “Freddy” (Khalid Abdallah). He hits the jackpot, bringing in a slew of important targets and nearly taking down Saddam’s top official, General Al Rawi (Yigal Naor).

Success seems imminent. However, Pentagon official and all-around neo-con sleazeball Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear) intervenes, sending in a squad of roughneck lunkheads to do his dirty work by intercepting Miller’s prisoner and harassing his unit. Poundstone subsequently serves as an increasingly nefarious stumbling block to Miller and Brown’s muckraking endeavors, attempting to protect a mysterious source of WMD information codenamed “Magellan” – the originator of the faulty intelligence used to justify the 2003 invasion. In protecting their source, Poundstone and his Pentagon cronies utilize any means necessary, ranging from Abu Ghraib-style torture to outright assassination – not exactly a pretty picture of the highest of the higher-ups.

Though it is certainly not a flattering depiction of its “Mission Accomplished” celebrants, Green Zone is not the piece of liberal propaganda many have accused it of being. There is no humanistic tear-jerking or multi-cultural relativism. There is only pragmatic political reality, which demands the watchful interest that characterizes responsible citizenship. Miller does not investigate intelligence claims to gain an upper-hand for left-leaners. He does it to assert his legitimate right to be informed of the real reasons he is risking his life, to exercise his ability to ask.

Likewise, General Al Rawi is no sanctified victim of imperialism. Though he might be a crucial asset to securing peace – a leader to be dealt with diplomatically – he proves to be brutal when backed into a corner, killing numerous Americans with his gang of soldiers. The Iraqi militants in the film are undoubtedly dangerous and potentially ruthless, not over-sympathized or victimized. Green Zone is not interested in sugarcoating the circumstances. Instead, it views them with hindsight and healthy skepticism, concerned with solving a problem rather than following a political platform, warning the viewer against the comfortable complacency epitomized by the politically disconnected inhabitants of the titular “Green Zone” – the secure International Zone set up in Baghdad during the invasion. Such individuals, who lounge by pools sipping beers as Miller looks death in the face, lack any sense of real involvement. They are merely passive spectators, amused and safe, allowing misguided bullies like Poundstone to run the show unchecked.

Greengrass’ signature snatch-and-grab style of frenetic, yet coherent, composition and editing – honed in United 93 (2006) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) – eliminates such passivity in the film’s viewer at the most basic formal level. Jarring and somewhat disorienting, Greengrass and veteran cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s jittery technique is given rhythmic elegance by Christopher Rouse’s relentlessly full-throttle cutting – requiring the viewer to actively process and decipher a series of suddenly shifting images. Particularly impressive is a nine-minute set-piece that details the spontaneous raid of a covert meeting of Baathist officials, culminating with the crucial acquisition of a notebook that proves central to Miller’s investigation. The lengthy, propulsive sequence is lean and vigorous, each shot riddled with anxious uncertainty and the seeds of tense mistrust, expressed in the camera’s nervous framings and movements. Paranoia lingers throughout, up until the final scene, in which Miller fears Freddy has made off with the precious book, only to be assuaged when Freddy willingly returns the tome, indignant at Miller’s suspicion. Jagged and quaking, Green Zone is not a film that “washes” over the viewer; rather, it is a film that enlivens the eyes, while also seeking to awaken political awareness and curiosity.

Perhaps the most subtle, and therefore most effective, of the politically apt observations presented in Green Zone revolve around Freddy, Miller’s unofficial informant and translator. A veteran of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) who lost a leg in battle, Freddy perceives the American presence as his country’s best hope. Not only is Freddy a knowledgeable, dependent ally for Miller, he is also Miller’s Iraqi mirror image, a fact that lends Green Zone much of its concluding wallop. Throughout the film, Miller experiences self-actualization, refusing to serve as a disenfranchised tool in the political machinery of others. He takes initiative. Freddy must undergo this exact process in relation to Miller, who seems to view Freddy as a handy sidekick to be ordered around, no matter how morally dubious or incriminating a situation might be. Freddy’s final act, a brave burst of insubordination, challenges Miller’s authority and represents Freddy’s own political actualization, vocalized in his direct declaration, “It is not for you to decide what happens here.” Freddy wants to protect his country much more than the Americans, and, when he feels it is his duty to act, he does, in many ways following Miller’s lead while also educating the (justifiably) self-righteous soldier about his own capacity for manipulation.

None of Green Zone’s characters is perfect. But a handful – Miller, Freddy, Martin Brown – are certainly heroic, as is unwitting-political-puppet-turned-investigate-assistant Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), a Wall Street Journal reporter who helps Miller “get the story right.” These characters most likely existed in some form in 2003 Iraq, at least their characteristics must have, but, through and through, they are today and tomorrow’s political champions, their narrative infused with the knowledge gained from the massive, continuing failure of the Iraq War. Green Zone’s whistle-blowing conclusion amounts to a bit of wish fulfillment on par with that of Inglourious Basterds (as J. Hoberman pointed out), but with major differences: this war is still happening and similar conflicts loom. Individuals like Miller and Freddy will have the opportunity to correct the errors of the past, to latch onto the truth, to act like patriots.

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Bullseye from the Archers

by Brandon Colvin

Of all the greatest “color” films – those cinematographically-immaculate demonstrations of chromatic control – one stands above the rest in its mastery of expressive hues. Flawlessly photographed and delicately designed, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1946) is a startling demonstration of colorfully cohesive narration and tone, from its costuming to its sets to its breathtaking matte effects. Utilizing a bold palette that does not shy away from geographical grandeur or ethereal atmospherics, The Archers’ film – their best, along with The Red Shoes (1948) – is undeniably gorgeous from first frame to last. Aided by the unparalleled craftsmanship of their frequent Pinewood Studios collaborators – legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff and influential production designer Alfred Junge (both of whom justly won Oscars for their work on Black Narcissus) – Powell and Pressburger’s film boasts stunning visuals, but is not merely a work of superficial spectacle; the film’s psychologically dense narrative reflects Hitchcockian levels of tension and complexity, perhaps even influencing the subsequent work of the Master of Suspense himself, while adhering to a melodramatic mode reminiscent of Douglas Sirk at his most feverishly expressionistic.

Closely adapted by Powell and Pressburger from Rumer Godden’s best-selling 1939 novel of the same name, Black Narcissus takes place in Godden’s signature setting: British-occupied India, specifically, the Himalayan region near Darjeeling, where a group of Anglican nuns naively seeks to endow the locals with a Westernized school and hospital. Led by the young Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr, at her best), a handful of nuns, including the maniacally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), initiates the project, taking the Young General (Sabu), a regional aristocrat, under their collective wing. Cultural conflicts quickly create strife between the nuns and the locals, however, whose religious ideal is embodied by the stoic mysticism of a silent holy man (the Young General’s uncle) rather than the intrusive ethnocentrism of the Anglicans.

Further complicating matters, Sister Clodagh becomes oddly attracted to the generally repulsive Mr. Dean (David Farrar), an alcoholic atheist groundskeeper with lascivious intent, causing her to confront her repressed romantic inclinations, particularly in the form of flashbacks (which feature Kerr at her most ravishing) to the failed courtship that forced her into the nunnery. Not only does this sensual temptation lurk like a specter in the shadowy, gothic corridors of their Himalayan convent, it seems to demonically possess the disturbed Sister Ruth, plunging her into the throes of psychotically violent jealousy while seeking to claim Mr. Dean for herself. Black Narcissus becomes not only a critical commentary on imperialist arrogance, but also a dreamlike, expressionistic narrative of the “return of the repressed” and the overpowering sexual subconscious – an untamable desire, impervious even to the rigorous discipline of divine duty. It is no surprise, then, that Powell declared Black Narcissus the most erotic film The Archers ever made.

The film’s scintillating sensuality is certainly not limited to its thematic content. Black Narcissus’ approach to color and design is rooted in a resolutely maximalist style, externalizing and celebrating the unbridled sensory extravagance buried within its outwardly ascetic characters. The painterly detail and lush imagery displayed in Cardiff and Junge’s work, approached only by that of Antonioni’s The Red Desert (1964) or Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) or Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965), is astonishing and predates the comparable efforts of those 60s masterpieces by two decades – eons in terms of film technology and technique. Inspired by the vibrant paintings of Vermeer, Cardiff and Junge’s palette is full of stark whites and grays, deep blues and greens, purple and orange-tinted lighting, and kaleidoscopically-brilliant traditional Indian garments and interiors. Working in Technicolor, but without ‘Scope, Cardiff’s cinematography beautifully captures Junge’s glass mattes and blown-up, pastel-chalked landscape paintings to depict an uncanny studio-built sense of Himalayan majesty.

The artificiality of Black Narcissus’ world accentuates the surreal, psychosexual interiority explored throughout the narrative, appropriating landscape and architecture by transforming them into symbolist playgrounds. The matte mountains are crafted to evoke the sublime spiritual abyss which Sisters Clodagh and Ruth teeter over, both figuratively and, later, literally, in a climactic scene bearing a remarkable resemblance to the conclusion of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). An eerily-lit artificial wood, glazed in ghastly orange, attains metaphorical significance when the manic Sister Ruth, her face rouged and eyes wild, stumbles through it en route to Mr. Dean’s abode, wandering through the dark forest of her own mind. Powell and Pressburger are at their most expressionistic in Black Narcissus, employing emotionally-charged artifice without the diegetic mediation of the stage, which distances the “real” from the artificial in The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann (1951). In Black Narcissus, the two are inseparably fused – reality and artificiality interlocked in a crisp, vibrant cinematic environment, dripping with color and oozing the unreal in a way analogous to Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955).

It is with the latter film’s concluding frames that the final shot of Black Narcissus shares a certain kinship. In Sirk’s film, the closing image is of a lone deer, standing on a studio-crafted patch of forest beyond a blue-tinted, frosted window as huge imitation snowflakes float down to the falsely snowy ground. The image is a final self-reflexive suggestion of All That Heaven Allows’ constructed nature, its recognition of its own falseness, a fact underscored by the isolated actuality of the deer, surrounded by fakery and obvious unreality. In the last shot of Black Narcissus, this scheme is inverted, but a similar effect is achieved. As Sister Clodagh and the defeated nuns somberly flee their Himalayan environs astride miniature horses, studio rain begins to trickle, dropping on leaves in one of the only non-studio locations in the film before building to a fake downpour, blurring and hazing the nuns’ retreat through the real surroundings. The real and the artificial are merged in the film’s final moments, the sheets of false rain representing the subsuming of the real under the power of the film’s design and artifice, its expressionistic bombast flourishing, being absorbed into every celluloid particle like the wash of rain. Indeed, it is impossible for the viewer of Powell, Pressburger, Cardiff, and Junge’s masterwork to avoid succumbing to the same incredible spectacle of color and craft, a visual smorgasbord of Technicolor, mattes, and shadows as striking today as it must have been over 60 years ago.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Burning Yourself Down

by James Hansen

Given the recent events in Texas, Breck Eisner’s The Crazies initially seems full of restrained timeliness. Something is wrong in Ogden Marsh. The small-town has been filled with something causing several residents to act strangely. A man saunters onto a local baseball field during a game with a loaded shotgun. Another locks his wife and child in a closet before lighting his house on fire. Local law enforcement – notably the sheriff, David, and his deputy, Russell – scrambles for answers as the town begins to implode home by home. Ah yes, small town America is as crazy as ever. And what could be the cause? This would-be timeliness vanishes pretty quickly with a sloppy narrative and even messier director. Unfortunately, The Crazies follows the fate of the town and burns itself down entirely too quickly.

This premise, slightly reworked from George Romero’s 1973 film of the same name, fits the bill for standard horror fare, yet Eisner and his production team instill in the opening sequences a taught atmosphere creepily mimicking the quickly dissolving population. The first 20 minutes are a wonderful balance of hard and soft light, noise and stirring silence, and craft a dangerous aura that one can only hope is sustained throughout. But just as the narrative’s zombie-fied residents and baffled authority set up a strong base for the “small-town on the brink of nothingness” dilemma, Eisner and screenwriters Scott Kosar and Ray Wright pull the rug out from under their own first-act momentum by abandoning Ogden Marsh and heading for larger power struggles between the individual and the government, as well as internal debate, that only feels confused and half-hearted. After about an hour, it becomes impossible not to ask, “Where in the hell did the movie go?”

The Crazies shifts gears moving away from the town and into a government-run facility before our sheriff and deputy break out, wander around, go back to the government-run facility, and then walk around some more. Losing interest in the town, The Crazies tacks on story after story of David, Russell, and Co. trying to run away from...something...and defeat the...zombies?... government?... a disease?...their self worth? Trouble of it is, there is never a sense of what the characters are trying to do as they cycle around looking for “answers” amidst a narrative that never posed any questions. Instead, the characters just wander, as does the film, without the faintest purpose ultimately recalling shoddy Romero fare that has been placed in a broken blender and liquified with half-assed versions of The Road and Gerry.

Perhaps too indebted to Romero or not bold enough to move away from Romero’s obsession with trapping characters in buildings and having them escape with large vehicles (hard to know how much influence Romero had with an executive producer), The Crazies screenplay traps itself in a narratological no-man’s land. Of course, Romero, at his best, knows how to work through what he has created. The same cannot be said for Eisner and his team. After Ogden Marsh becomes totally incidental, maybe unintentionally, The Crazies pulls out a small bag of tricks to keep it moving (warning: secondary characters introduced an hour into a horror movie have no chance for survival) but it just becomes canned, flat, and crazzzy boring. After it gets lost, there is no finding its way back. In destroying its own ability to reflect on Ogden Marsh in a movie distinctly about small-town mania and destruction (you can really tell how misunderstood the material is with the inclusion of an abysmal coda) The Crazies locks itself in a closet and lights its house on fire. But if we know the house is empty, then why bother watching?

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