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FireflyCity Paper declares "Serenity" Movie one of the year’s sharpest political movies
Saturday 31 December 2005, by Webmaster
Hustle’s Flow: Stephen Chow kicks globalization’s ass in one of 2005’s overlooked allegories. The year’s sharpest political movies hid in plain sight.
"Serious, serious, serious-why is everone so serious?" Patrick "Kitten" Braden, where are you when we need you most? The transvestite hero(ine) of Neil Jordan’s Breakfast on Pluto (opening Jan. 6) put his dainty finger right on it. With wars military and cultural raging on, movies like Good Night, And Good Luck. and Capote spared no quarter, mercilessly browbeating audiences until they looked like extras from Land of the Dead. George Clooney’s tendentious paean to Edward R. Murrow turned its hero into a living waxwork, while Bennett Miller’s backstabbing portrait exploited its subject’s fame to attack celebrity arrogance. Preaching to the converted works when your sermon sings, but this was more like lecturing a captive audience. Still, the movies’ po-faced self-seriousness achieved their intended purpose, capturing op-ed space and intriguing moviegoers who discern political content only when it’s served up on a silver nitrate platter.
Where, just for example, were they when Serenity was released? Joss Whedon called it "political but not partisan," but Buffy-watchers know how to read between the lines. A future in which a well-meaning conglomerate government has been seized by fundamentalist zealots who want to sedate their own populace into comatose complacency? Gee, what could that be about? Mal Reynolds, Nathan Fillion’s disillusioned ex-revolutionary, was the soul of every whipped-dog leftist crushed by the country’s tumble into trembling credulity and made-for-TV factionalism, his journey back from the darkness a reminder that secularists need faith, too. Mal’s face-off with Chewitel Ejiofor’s Rovian operative housed the year’s most chilling exchange: When a disgusted Mal spits, "I don’t murder children," the operative coolly responds, "I do-when I have to." In that instant, the moral fabric of the universe warps like Harry Potter’s guts on a Floo-powder jaunt, and the audience comes face to face with a fanatical ideologue who will betray every one of his principles for a shot at victory. Next to him, Joe McCarthy looks like Marvin the Martian.
The year’s most radical conspiracy theories were spun by British documentarian Adam Curtis, whose broad-stroke secret histories have apparently been judged too hot for American TV (and, so far, for Philadelphia audiences). The Power of Nightmares is an urgent, sometimes overstated, attempt to fuse the histories of American neocons and Islamic radicals, both movements formed in reaction to a disgust with contemporary culture. (You have to wonder if right-wingers feel about Brokeback Mountain the way Sayid Qutb did about "Baby, It’s Cold Outside.") More persuasive was Curtis’ even-less-seen The Century of the Self, a four-hour distillation of Sigmund Freud’s influence on the 20th century-and, more importantly, the influence of his nephew, Edward Bernays, who invented the profession of public relations. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but sometimes a cigarette is a "torch of liberty," as Bernays had them rechristened to flog cancer sticks to post-WWI women. Bernays and his followers discovered how to replace needs with wants, a technique that, at least in Curtis’ film, culminates with Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election, secured by trading sweeping initiatives for focus-group-dictated mini-policies: a victory secured by public whim. Curtis hasn’t updated Century to take in the 2004 election, but he doesn’t have to.
Nightmares’ eminent topicality was not enough to secure it a national release or even widespread festival exposure, but Curtis made it available free through archive.org, while the still-unreleased Century was as easily gotten through slightly less legal means. Convergence may still be a pipe dream, but studios’, distributors’ and exhibitors’ collective allergy to risk meant that some of the year’s most essential viewing was perforce done at home. Homecoming, satirist Joe Dante’s contribution to the Masters of Horror series, gave Iraq K.I.A.s the voice the Bush administration has thus far denied them. Rising from their concealed coffins at Dover AFB, the zombie vets brought the war home, their unscripted comments demolishing the image of noble soldiers going happily to their graves. And that wasn’t the scariest part: Dante’s thinly fictionalized story has an incumbent president running for re-election-in 2008. Even more than Land of the Dead, with its survivalist CEO and undead Abu Ghraib, Homecoming was a nightmare vision of the near-future that feels uncannily like the here and now.
Equally overlooked was Raoul Peck’s Sometimes in April, which should have gotten at least a little of Hotel Rwanda’s run-off hype. Broadcast on HBO and bowdlerized on PBS, Peck’s shattering drama-which, unlike Hotel Rwanda, was made in Rwanda, with an African director, African actors and Rwandan extras-skillfully addressed the issues its more-touted predecessor skirted. Its hero was not a solitary savior, but a conflicted Interhamwe commander who must confront guilt as well as loss. Peck rejects the racist assumption that Western audiences need a bourgeois service worker as a point of entry, and feels no need to remind us that his protagonist is "not even a nigger." What’s more, the film toggles between 1994 and the ongoing war crimes trials, depriving viewers of their period-piece security blanket. Good Night, And Good Luck. may have triple-sourced its scenes (although Jack Shafer’s Slate take-down said otherwise), but its Playhouse 90 mise-en-scene swamped any attempt at contemporary relevance; even in the 1950s, it would have looked dated. As with the Clooney-produced Syriana, the conspiracy was visible only to those predisposed to see it.
Even when political movies do reach the mainstream, the evidence suggests that audiences don’t like to be challenged politically and aesthetically at the same time. (It’s no coincidence that the year’s "official" tracts were among its most stylistically conservative.) Radical in form as well as content, Sally Potter’s Yes and Todd Solondz’s Palindromes were sneered at when they weren’t ignored, but the disgraceful back-alley stomping they got from most critics only confirmed their confrontational power. Solondz has kicked a few hornet’s nests before, but he’s never had such a juicy target: the sanctimony at both ends of the abortion debate. Pro-life and pro-choice extremists took it equally on the chin in Solondz’s Godardian fairy tale, whose septuple casting made hash of both sides’ appeal to, and failure of, empathy. Some took the pro-choice Solondz to strafing his own side, but the convictionless Citizen Ruth this is not. Unlike Alexander Payne’s tepid satire, Solondz’s film is a sincere attempt to redefine the debate.
Potter took heat for couching her dialogue in iambic couplets, mainly from critics who don’t know the difference between verse and "poetry." But Yes’s rhymes were more than internal: The romance between Joan Allen’s American microbiologist and Simon Abkarian’s displaced Lebanese surgeon perfectly mirrors the difficulties of cross-cultural love in the time of anthrax. Was it Potter’s uncomplicated nostalgia for Communist Cuba that proved most offensive, or daring to imagine a middle-aged woman with her erotic impulses intact? You’d think more people would have fawned over Joan Allen the way they did over Zhang Ziyi in 2046, especially since Aleksei Rodionov’s cinematography is as roughly sensual as 2046’s is smoothly suggestive.
Of course, great, even significant art, doesn’t have to be difficult. Kung Fu Hustle was the year’s most concentrated thrill, a nonstop barrage of existential slapstick and riotous, self-critiquing CGI. But it was also a subtle essay on globalization, with the Cantonese clutter of Pig Sty Alley pitted against the Mandarin purity of the top-hatted Axe Gang. After I showed it at an art-house film series, a patron stomped up and demanded, "What is the lesson of that movie?" as if anything so enjoyable must be bad for you. Then again, audiences didn’t cotton to Jia Zhangke’s The World, either, rejecting as "obvious" the otherwise unexplored vision of a future where national distinctions are reduced to virtualized trinkets, but people remain as separate as ever. Even in the titular theme park, where the twin towers and the Great Pyramid are just a monorail ride apart, regional dialects and mistranslations persist, giving the lie to the notion of one world plugged into the same DSL socket. It’s increasingly rare to see a foreign film where the characters all have the same skin color and speak the same language, but Hollywood (and Indiewood) persist in churning out manufactured, monotone visions of Balkanized communities relieved only by the occasional tokenistic drop-in.
Although convention dictates The World’s place on this year’s list, I was first awed by it at the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, saw it again at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival and eagerly await its International House screenings on Jan. 27 and 28. It’s somehow fitting that a movie which so questions the nature of boundaries won’t fit snugly into a single year. Likewise Wong Kar-Wai’s time-traveling 2046, which took 15 long months to wend its way from Cannes. By the time it hit Philadelphia, it seemed like everyone I know already owned the coveted DVD, but many held off for the big-screen thrill, an act of fetishistic denial perfectly in tune with Wong’s universe. Purportedly a sequel to In the Mood for Love, Wong’s prismatic romance was ravishing and heartbreaking all at once, circling its own mysteries but skidding over their depths, its constant motion reflecting the restlessness of Tony Leung’s heartbroken roué. For all its artifice, 2046 reveled in the outsize emotions Hollywood no longer knows how to invoke (even if there’s a giant monkey involved): Zhang’s plaintive cry, "Why can’t it be like it was before?" taps a depth and simplicity of feeling most filmmakers have neither the courage nor skill to plumb. What other filmmaker would fill the frame with a single tear, as if the screen itself were crying?
His frames as simple as Wong’s are ornate, Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul matched Wong’s plangency in Tropical Malady, his black-on-black palette as rich in its way as Wong’s red-and-gold kaleidoscope. Malady’s elliptical romance between a soldier and a country boy was the favorite beating-stick for left-wing critics of Brokeback Mountain, but the comparison only underlines the absurdity of classing movies, or people, by sexuality. Brokeback is deliberately, triumphantly, mainstream, where Tropical Malady is visionary and elusive, the rare contemporary movie that deserves to be called "queer." If Weerasethakul’s movie lacks a performance as galvanic as Heath Ledger’s Brokeback turn, its haunted junglescapes more than equal his tight-lipped eloquence.
In No One Knows, Hirokazu Kore-eda dramatized the real-life case of four abandoned Japanese children who, at their vanished mother’s instructions, kept their existence secret for more than a year. Spacing out filming so his actors visibly grow on film, Kore-eda used cramped spaces and natural light to create an uncanny sense of place and a touching, tragic re-enactment of childhood loneliness.
The Squid and the Whale took infantile solipsism to new heights. Like Ledger’s Ennis, Jesse Eisenberg’s Walt handed the movie its soul: If Jeff Daniels’ smug literato weren’t his father, you’d be happy to watch him spiral down the drain. Squid may be minor art, but it’s perfect in its way, every detail feeling as if it’s just been retrieved from the memory box. Partly it’s generational synchronicity-like, I totally had a Burger King glass just like that one!-but Noah Baumbach’s choices are unfailingly sharp. It’s one thing to remember that Short Circuit and Blue Velvet played the same month, another to seize that confluence as a way to express Walt’s rude transition to adulthood. One moment you’re watching Fisher Stevens banter with an Erector set, the next a bruised, naked Italian woman’s screaming in your face.
In Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell literally gave the performance of a lifetime. Unlike The White Diamond’s Graham Dorrington, a Fitzcarraldo fan who willingly cast himself as Herzog’s lead, Treadwell got his big break posthumously, but he seems to have lived a Herzog movie without knowing it. Some speculated that Herzog had found his next Kinski, but in fact Treadwell seemed to be Kinski and Herzog in one, both the unbalanced psychonaut and his own best exploiter. Splitting his movie in two, Herzog told the story of Timothy Treadwell, failed actor and sometime depressive, and "Timothy Treadwell," fearless explorer and Friend of Bears, who glibly predicts his own death as if he were talking about someone else. Treadwell was the latest, and in some ways the saddest, of Herzog’s self-made hermits, an attention-seeker who convinced himself that bears made better friends than humans. As Treadwell’s mild eccentricity deepened into full-blown madness, the audience around me continued to snicker, mistaking Herzog’s openness for Capturing the Friedmans’ voyeurism. But Herzog’s decision to leave Treadwell’s death agonies unaired rejects documentary’s claim to omniscience, even if, in characteristically grandstanding fashion, Herzog sets himself up as the arbiter of its limits.
Year-end lists are by nature incomplete, especially since distribution continues to elude global masters like Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Hong Sang-soo. Hou’s Three Times and Hong’s A Tale of Cinema make my presumptive best-of for 2006, along with Tsai Ming-Liang’s shattering The Wayward Cloud, Abel Ferrara’s daring Mary, Aleksandr Sokurov’s meditative The Sun, Philippe Garrel’s entrancing Les Amants réguliers, Guy Maddin’s poignant, madcap My Dad Is 100 Years Old, Cristu Puiu’s mordant The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Lars von Trier’s sharp-fanged Manderlay. Here’s hoping they, along with worthy also-rans Darwin’s Nightmare and Good Morning, Night, turn up in Philadelphia theaters by this time next year.