(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2008)
Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side won this year’s Oscar for best documentary. The taxi belonged to a young Afghan man, picked up in 2002 and taken to be questioned at Bagram prison; six days later he was dead. The “dark side” alludes to a Dick Cheney quote, a few days after 9/11, foreseeing how the pursuit of evil would require loosening the moral gloves. As we now know, this brought us the war in Iraq (superbly dissected in another Oscar nominee, No End in Sight), Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, torture in all but name, and a profound erosion in America’s moral status. The Bush administration, like a mantra, cites six and a half years without a terrorist attack as the justification for all things – one of the most corrupt and careless cause-and-effect analyses imaginable.
Taxi to the Dark Side
Gibney’s film sets out the atrocities in meticulous, almost painful detail, drawing on interviews with former detainees, soldiers, and numerous informed observers, and a wealth of photographic and documentary evidence. It shows the wretched ripple effects of Bush/Cheney contempt for the Geneva Convention, arrogant disregard for the supposed enemy, and sloppy definition of meaningful “intelligence.” Gibney’s focus is deliberately and rigorously narrow – he doesn’t critique the war as such, and avoids tangents (although some, such as the glimpse of 24’s dunder-headed glorifying of terrorism, must have been tempting to pursue further). Obviously, I’m in a group that’s pre-disposed to lap up such an expose, and I suppose Gibney could have done a little more to provide “balance” – assuming there’s anyone alive who can argue the other side of this stuff in more than sloganeering terms. But as I’ve said before, given recent and ongoing US atrocities, balance is no virtue.
Definitely Maybe - a Valentine’s Day release actually, but I got to it late – struck many critics as a cut above the usual romantic comedy, and I think that’s right, although I don’t know how big a gap “a cut” would be – a few more smiles, a few less cringes. Ryan Reynolds (pleasantly bland) is Abigail Breslin’s father, and tells her the story of how he met her mother, although with names changed to prolong the suspense; she (and we) follow him through almost two hours of entanglements, with three women taking turns at being the one, then not, then the one again. Once you get past the contrived set-up, it rolls along smoothly. Reynolds starts off as a volunteer for the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign, and this backdrop meshes quite well with the theme of youthful idealism yielding to realism/disappointment. It never seems like much more than a gimmick though.
In many ways my favourite sequence was the opening credit sequence, where Reynolds plugs in his earphones and strolls through a world of soundlessly flapping lips and unperceived annoyances and threats – right away we sense both the allure of progress and its under acknowledged dehumanization. But this isn’t a movie of big ideas. And watching the 1936 Libeled Lady a few days later underlined Definitely Maybe’s lack of energy and snap and sheer engagement. The characters all treat each other so tentatively, almost sexlessly.
Michael Haneke has remade his 1997 film Funny Games, in English instead of German, but otherwise with almost Xerox-quality precision, and no one can quite figure out why. The original was deliberately unpleasant to watch, with its story of a well-to-do family terrorized by two chilling fiends; coming at the peak of Tarantino mania it could at least half-plausibly claim to be commenting on the genre rather than creatively glorifying in it (although it did at least enough of the latter to sow some plausible ambiguity). Haneke has made some great films in the last ten years, and he’s a fascinating if rather forbidding figure. He’s also as articulate as hell, and with Funny Games he’s created almost the ultimate Dean Martin to his intellectual Jerry Lewis, an artistic straw man he can bounce pronouncements off forever. And now he’s produced a remake, extending the Rorschachian potential almost ad infinitum. I don’t think people are biting quite as much this time, and they shouldn’t – the film is pristinely made, like all his work, but it’s not worthy of a great filmmaker. It is conceptually interesting…up to a point. I could certainly get a full column out of it. But given that we’re defined by the choices we make, I won’t try.
The Bank Job, directed by Roger Donaldson, isn’t as conceptually interesting, and I’d find it hard to say much at all about it without resorting to blatant padding. But it’s always good viewing. Based on the true story of a somewhat mysterious early 70’s London robbery, it posits that a shadowy government branch set up the heist – using real small-time criminals unaware of their strings being pulled - to retrieve some compromising photos of the Queen’s sister from a Malcolm X-like villain’s safe deposit box. Also in the mix – dirty cops, a porn king, and various other powerful figures with something to hide. It gets convoluted, and I’m not sure by what sleight of hand it justifies its ending; Donaldson’s tight handling provides good momentum, but limits the wider resonance. A good cast (if not quite as good as the endlessly flavourful ensembles that seemed to come together so easily in 60’s British cinema) brings a lot to the table.
Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park is a rather beautiful enigma, another in his series of intimate, formally challenging examinations of urban youth. The central figure here is a Portland teenager who accidentally causes the death of a railway security guard; the possibility of being caught becomes the weightiest plank in his unfocused, wandering sensibility. That sounds like usual alienated teen stuff, but Van Sant is extremely successful here at avoiding cliché and confounding any easy reading. Paranoid Park is the city’s main skateboard park - a scary destination that however allows the possibility of sheer abstraction. The film could be seen as a series of poses, but I think it would repay multiple viewings; the thematic, psychological and aesthetic choices are continually fascinating.
David Gordon Green’s Snow Angels is an engrossing film too, but I take the message to be merely this: if you’re stuck in nothingville USA and you’re older than say twenty-five, it’s basically all over. It follows that among the film’s multiple plots, the most refreshing is the teenage romance, even if it’s another case of a quirky attractive woman making it way easier for the shy male protagonist than I or any of my contemporaries can ever remember being the case.
Continuing his downward trajectory since his excellent debut George Washington, Green juggles his small-town plot threads with some good observation, but allows too much actorly excess, and too much lurid plot development. Like some of the other movies mentioned above, it feels rather like a make-work project. Try to choose something necessary.