Picks: Best Films
The film is an excellent crime drama. We believe the police and their world; there is no glorification of their work. We learn about the political infighting in the police force, and we learn again the sad reality that some cops are good people and some are no better than the criminals they are supposed to hunt. Ledda tries to connect with one of the good cops. He even calls the detective and tells him that he did some of his work for him (after he kills the man that hired him to kill the girl). But Ledda is not finished. All roads lead to the top—to a baron with impeccable credentials and great political power. That’s the man Ledda is after. I was often reminded of Robert DeNiro’s role as a former CIA agent in Ronin (1998). Ledda is a kind of true force. He lives by his wits. He knows all sorts of tricks of the trade. He is now using all that was immoral in him for moral purposes. Intelligence is the best survival skill after all—and that is why his increasing loss of short-term memory is so terrifying to him. In a great scene our hero Ledda storms the castle—that is, the estate—of the baron, and no one is able to stop him. He stands before a corrupt and contemptible man and fires his last weapon; but it misfires because when he assembled the gun, he forgot to install the firing pin. The advancing dementia caught him again! So Ledda sends the police evidence that the baron was running an operation of corrupting young girls by sending them to a pimp. One of those girls was the 12-year-old prostitute we saw earlier in the film—the one that was murdered by someone (but not by Ledda). In fact, Ledda has an ace card up his sleeve. He has hidden a videotape that will show convincing evidence of the plot run by the baron. Unfortunately, his short-term memory betrays him. But he is not sure he can recall where he hid the video.
So how does it all end? Do they find the videotape? Is the evil man punished? To me, the film played like one of those films from the 70s—where a good man (like Serpico, for instance) fought layer after layer of corruption (bad cops, bad district attorney, evil baron), where no one listens to the good man’s call for reform, and yet where somehow the good man makes a breakthrough—but not before suffering greatly and in some cases paying the ultimate price. I wrote in my notes, “Joyous close!” when the film ended. It was a happy ending, I suppose—as happy as one can expect in an imperfect world.
Brokeback Mountain. Dir. Ang Lee. I have followed Ang Lee’s career since his breakthrough film, Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, in 1994. Three of his later films made my top 20 lists, and here it is six years after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and I think I have seen the best film of 2005. Perhaps it is too close call—when compared with Capote. Both films focus on character development and plot as a reflection of character—certainly my highest value as a film viewer. When in doubt, give me a real character to sink my critical teeth into. In the case of Brokeback Mountain, I was given two characters who are perfect complementary opposites of each other. Early in the film, Jack Twist is always complaining about the unfairness of the world. He has thought hard about his years of being a gay man in 1950s and then 1960s Wyoming, and he is fed up with the oppression he has suffered. Ennis Del Mar has come to this point in life with little outward criticism of the Ways of the World. He knows he’s gay, of course, but he has decided it is something that he cannot change—it is something that he has to live with. As I watched the first section of the film, I began to wonder if Ennis would ever really complain about the State of the World (and indirectly criticize the world for ostracizing him rather than affirming him). It takes Jack a while to make an impact upon his shepherding partner—but he does eventually, and it’s a thing of beauty to see Ennis begin to externalize his feelings for the first time. At the end of the film, the last time the two men see each other, there is another example of Jack’s typical externalizing and complaining and wishing the world could be different so that these two men could be left alone to live in peace—and just when we are tired of hearing him going on that way, Lee holds the camera tight on the back of Ennis’ neck, and you wonder, “What kind of a shot is that?” and then he cuts back to Ennis, who moves to a ¾ turn, and then comes around—and he’s crying, and all of a sudden he is making a cosmic complaint about how hard it has been for him to hold in his feelings all of these years. And then Jack’s response is the perfect statement of how character prevails in the creation of story—because plot is character, and character is plot. Suddenly Jack gets off his high horse, comes over to Ennis, and puts his arms around him and tries to settle him down. That moment in the film is when I knew for sure that these two men shared an abiding love that could never be broken by society. Jack loved Ennis, and Ennis loved Jack. That’s all there is to it. Except for one thing—and that is that both are gay men in an era in America long before Stonewall (and Stonewall in 1969 likely had little impact on the lives of gay men in remote Western settings anyway).
Oh, this film sings with the quality of shot selection, editing choices, cinematography of the great Western settings, subtleties in acting styles, and respect for the pain that every characters goes through. Where to begin? How about their first meeting—as the two stand across from one another while they wait for their employer to show up. These two men check each other out—but the subtext of their checking is heightened when you realize that they are two gay men checking each other out—not any different then the way two heterosexual people (a man and woman) would check each other out. The film takes its time developing this relationship between the two men, isolated from the rest of the world as they herd the sheep high in the mountains. Soon the men are sharing their stories about broken homes and interrupted lives. Soon they are checking each other out at long distance—one looking up into the mountains, the other looking down into the pass where the base camp lies. At first they work separately, only meeting at mealtimes. When Ennis falls off his horse (spooked by a bear), Jack reaches out to touch him with a rag—to wipe away some blood on his forehead. But Ennis pulls back—a typical man thing—and yet that near touch by Jack is searing to observe. When Ennis shoots a moose, then Jack can touch him—but using the etiquette of celebrating linebackers after sacking the quarterback. “How about those bears!” (Remember that great scene in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles?) Then another great moment when the two men switch roles, and Ennis goes up to the mountain to watch the sheep while Jack stays back in camp. One morning Ennis is washing himself, and he stands naked only 15 feet from Jack. The camera holds on Jack in a close-up, and you can tell that he wants to look toward the cheesecake, but he holds back with every ounce of strength. Jack’s volubility finally opens up Ennis, and the latter spills many details of his life story—and there is affection between the men in that sharing. “More than I spoke in a year,” Ennis says. A word here about Heath Ledger’s acting. If you have ever seen him interviewed, you’ll notice that he can’t stop moving his hands, his head, his upper body—the man virtually squirms nonstop. But Lee told him he had to be still in this role. And Ledger takes that stillness all the way from the exterior stillness to an interior tautness and rigidity and inflexibility. His words seem to come from a deep well inside of him—as if his vocal chords are rusty from lack of use. He has so much held back deep within himself—there is a wellspring of pain down deep, and he has survived by keeping it down there. Then the two men begin to drink together, and the liquor loosens the tongue, and then out of a great comic scene (drunken Ennis trying to sleep under a blanket outside the tent, long after the fire has gone out) to a compelling dramatic scene with the seeds of the tragedy within it. For in this scene the two men consummate their love for each other with some mad, passionate sex, and everyone watching the film knows, “What now? What are they going to do now?”
And that’s it. What can they do? They cannot “light out for the territories.” Ennis has already made plans to get married in two or three months. He doesn’t see himself as a gay man. How could he—when every force in society compels him to conform to the heterosexual way of life? The heterosexual lifestyle has a far greater draw upon the souls of these men than any homosexual lifestyle agenda that homophobes could propose as the source of their evil. “It’s a one-shot deal that we got here,” Ennis concludes, because that is the only thing he could conclude. Here is their tragedy—right before us. They are not going to live happily ever after. They are not going to be able to reconcile their gay identities with the identities that are required of them in the real world of the 1960s and even the 1970s.
Did you notice that this film begins in the summer of 1963, just a few months before President Kennedy was assassinated. Most Americans think of November 1963 as being one of the great change points of their lives. But compare your memories of 1963 with the story of these two men, who fall in love in 1963, just months before Kennedy dies. For these two men, the Kennedy assassination is a backdrop to the real drama—and the real change point—of their lives. Another sidebar. The film Hud came out in 1963—and it was the quintessential modern western story of a no-account son of a wealthy rancher who spends his days drinking and womanizing. What if Hud had been gay? How would he have dealt with that secret?
The first time Jack and Ennis are separated, after they bring the sheep down early (at the orders of their employer), the moment of their parting is filled with poignancy and loss. They can barely look at one another. Ennis holds everything in, and after Jack drives away, Ennis sneaks into an alley and his body is shaken by dry heaves as he sobs and sobs. To see a man let go like that is to know how much he is trapped by the mores of society. Seeing a character alone in dramatic films is an essential means of knowing what really is going on in his heart.
Life goes on. Both men marry. Finally they are reunited in one of the most compelling reunion scenes I have ever seen. Their embrace is no longer that of two celebrating linebackers. They have missed each other’s touch so much that they can barely contain themselves. Their unconscious selves pour out and control their movements. And it’s at this moment that Ennis’ wife spots them—trying to hide from anyone’s sight—from her second-floor window. As they experience further reunions over the years, Jack keeps coming back to the idea that they should go away together and find their own measure of happiness. But Ennis has always been the careful one. He tells Jack, “If this thing gets hold of in the wrong place and the wrong time, we’re dead.” Ennis shares with Jack a compelling memory of the time his father took him into a field and showed him an old man, mutilated by several neighbors, when it was revealed that he and his ranch partner were gay lovers. To Ennis this was an object lesson of what happens to homosexuals when they flaunt their identities in public. He never forgot that memory, and it likely contributed to his strategy for survival when he was growing up. “If you can’t fight it, you’ve got to stand it,” says Ennis—wise words for everyone, but especially for someone who is gay in this era. Then in 1975 Ennis and his wife divorce, and the first thing that happens is that Jack shows up. He drove up from Texas because now the two can live together. In this brilliant scene Ennis reminds Jack that he has his teenaged daughter with him. He only sees her once a month, and that means Jack has to leave. Ennis is the survivor. I admit that he has paid a horrible price for surviving, but give him credit for being the one who talks sense. Jack’s feeling of rejection drives him right past Texas and into Mexico so that he can satisfy his lust—and that’s another sign that these two men will never end up together. The fact that Ennis has two girls who worship the ground he stands on is another deciding factor of how the film has to end. Ennis’ reason for living is right there in front of him—his legacy, his genes, his future grandchildren. Ennis bonds with his children; but Jack is a stranger to his only son, whose affection has been co-opted by his grandfather. Jack is the one who really is alone. As I watched their reunions unfold, I could not help but think of the film Same Time, Next Year (1978) with Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. That was a wonderful film, too, and it was obvious in that film that the two would never end up together. Strange that we had to wait 28 years to get a version of that film with two gay characters.
I referred to the climactic scene in the film earlier. Again, that scene confirmed, for me, the love they felt for each other. As angry as Jack felt when he lambasted Ennis in that scene, and told him, “I wish I knew how to quit you!” his comforting of Ennis was the telltale sign that his heart belonged to Ennis. And the tragedy of this relationship reared up again, and it was painful to see them separate a last time. The ending scenes of the film are equally poignant and memorable. I will only refer to one key image—and that is the shirt that Ennis somehow left behind on Brokeback Mountain in 1963. At the end of the film, we find out where that shirt was all this time—and it’s important to consider the placement of that shirt compared to the other shirt it is arranged with on the one hanger. Notice that the first time we see it the blue shirt is on the outside; and the second time we see it the blue shirt is on the inside. Now that’s all you need to know about heaven and earth on this one, Horatio. That’s what love does to a person—it makes someone want to protect and take care of their partner, whether that partner is straight or gay. And it works the same for both parties in the partnership. The film ends with a scene between Ennis and his 19-year-old daughter—so we must be in the early 1980s by now. For Ennis the next generation is the one to concentrate on—that’s what keeps him going. He is the survivor.
Brothers. Dir. Susanne Bier. (
Now comes the plot point—the older brother is not dead. But in his captivity, at the hands of Muslim extremists, he has to suffer a horrible fate. He is imprisoned with a weaker Danish soldier, a radio man. Our older brother is an officer and a leader—and the extremists push him to the limits until we are forced to watch an unimaginable scene of horror that changes everything about this film. That one scene makes all the difference because it reveals the depths of the human unconscious and the rage that lies just beneath the surface of even the good and the righteous.
This film knows what it wants to accomplish—and the screenplay and acting delivers on that promise. Connie Nielson is amazing as the wife of the good brother, and when their relationship begins to deteriorate because of the horrors of his post-traumatic stress disorder, then you just have to stand back and look with awe at the actors and what they are able to draw upon to enact their characters. That darn kitchen becomes the climactic setting at the end of the film—when the good brother becomes enraged and destroys that beautiful renovation—tearing it asunder as if it were a representation of the rage he repressed in his months of captivity. For a second time he explodes, and this time he is taken away from the family in order to begin his recovery. All modern films, especially those of the past 10 years, come down to the word healing as the key ingredient of plot and character. And so this film follows that formula and leaves us breathless with the potential for regeneration, love, family, and loyalty.
Caché (Hidden). Dir. Michael Haneke. (
Capote. Dir. Bennett Miller. The film stayed with me for days—primarily because it captured the ethical dilemma in the famous writer, Truman Capote, as he struggled with his own set of demons regarding his reportage of the brutal killing of four people in a Kansas farmhouse in 1959. The film shows the hook being set in Capote when he first reads about the murders in the newspaper. Soon he is telling his editor, “I think that’s what I want to write about.” So this famous man, the darling and dominating presence of a myriad of cocktail parties, spirits himself across the country via train, along with his assistant, Harper Lee (who went on to write To Kill a Mockingbird), and visits the local lawman responsible for the case. Then Capote visits the funeral home and sneaks into the casket room, where the four caskets lie. He opens one of the caskets and sees the white shroud covering the face of the corpse. Then he visits the farmhouse where the murders took place and where the blood has dried on the floorboards. The film works because each of the scenes advances the story and utilizes visual means to do so. The scenes show rather than tell. When Capote then calls his partner, also a writer, there is such intimacy in their interaction—and the introduction of the partner is crucial to what happens later in the film as well. When Capote interviews the young woman that found the four bodies, his skills as interviewer were obvious—but so was his capacity for manipulation. You could tell he was the sort of man that got what he wanted out of any situation.
But the hook was set in me when Capote visits the sheriff’s house. Here was midtown Manhattan meeting small-town Midwestern America—how could one find two more unlikely characters? I was reminded, in that scene, of how my own education—as well as my background in poverty—has allowed me to talk both to Deans and auto mechanics. It takes a certain level of skill to pull off these differing class-based conversations. Capote had that skill. He was highly educated, but he had not lost touch with that part of himself that was poor and lower class and white trash. And in that scene I admired the reality of the characters. The lawman, played convincingly by Chris Cooper, is a defender of Midwest values and a gentle man at heart. Capote comes across like an observer, someone who functions like a detective—trying to figure what really happened.
There was such power to these images—the farmhouse, the flat Kansas countryside, the details of daily life in the late 1950s. Small moments are the critical ones. When Capote visits the cells at the back of the Sheriff’s office in town, and sees the two murder suspects, something happens to him—something clicks in an unconscious way. When he sees, Perry, one of the two suspects, he feels an instantaneous bond something akin to the chemical reaction triggered within the brain when one person falls in love with another person. Capote’s bonding with this man is one of the most unnerving elements of the film. It’s not as if he falls in love with Perry; but the depth of his commitment to this man is best summed up by his own words, when he tells another character, “It’s like we were born and raised in the same house, and I went out the front door—while Perry went out the back door.”
Soon it becomes obvious that if Capote is to finish his nonfiction novel, this new genre of writing he is said to have discovered, then the two men, once convicted, will have to be put to death (one ending)—but even more important—Capote will need to hear exactly what happened that night in that farmhouse (the other ending). Capote is not interested in getting Perry and the other killer off the hook; he uses the intimacy of his relationship with Perry to get what he wants (and thus that manipulative side of him rises up again).
The screenplay does not simply indict Capote as a selfish, egotistical bastard who manipulated Perry for his own ends; it suggests that some of Capote’s motives were secrets even to himself. Somehow his unconscious self responded to something in Perry’s character and make-up. Somehow he fooled himself as much as he fooled Perry and the others.
Finally, when Perry tells Capote what really happened that night, and we finally see it for ourselves, there is a macabre satisfaction to those visuals. Now Capote has the ending of his book. Now all that remains is the execution of the death sentences on the two convicted men. By this time Capote has worked on the book for four years. Now at the same time Harper Lee’s book comes out, and all that Capote can think of is that he is being tortured because she has her end point but he does not. In 1965 Capote finally visits Perry for a last time, on the night of his execution. And he is in the audience when the man is hanged for the murders of the Kansas family. It was amazing to see the great talker Capote speechless in front of the man who gave him fame. When he tells Perry, “I did everything I could,” you could sense the deception as well as well as the self-deception in that line. Now Capote really has his ending. His book, In Cold Blood, becomes a masterpiece; but at what cost to his soul? This film was an x-ray of the soul—and it worked also because of the fine performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Finally this well-known supporting actor is given the leading role in a film—and he carried it off with perfection. He became the man Truman Capote as only an actor’s actor can embody a role.
Crash. Dir. Paul Haggis. (2004).
A great film inspires one to think about a topic in
a new way. A great film portrays characters who are transformed even as they fight their transformations.
A great film embraces the diversity of truths and self-deceptions
that human beings are capable of.
In the case of Crash I was moved by the director’s understanding of how much rage
exists just under the surface in modern American life. People move through their days with politeness
and reserve (or in our case, Minnesota
Nice), and yet each of us carries around our own sets of trip
wires, each of which is capable of triggering an explosion.
And just in case you have noticed, we are living in a multicultural
world. In this world, Miss
Congeniality is foul-mouthed and oblivious to the diversity of life
around her. In this world, racism still holds sway, and
we are reminded that racism is about the expression of one’s power
over others one considers inferior.
So early in the film, when the character Matt Dillon plays “pats down” a beautiful black woman after a simple traffic stop,
he plays out his power in disgusting order to humiliate her husband
and her. In this world everyone
is judgmental of everyone else.
There are no opinions; there are only harsh and irrevocable
judgments. This seems to
be an Old Testament World—an eye for an eye, humiliate others when
you have been humiliated. What
is the source of these responses. Everyone
seems to be emotionally hurting in this film.
Everyone seems to need therapy.
They are not being touched by loving and sensitive hands,
or they are turning away any attempts to be given solace and respite
from their pain. This world is a world of cycles. It has always been this way. One bad turn deserves another. Trash in, trash out. Shit Happens.
One character says, “I’m
angry all the time and I don’t know why.”
No one has conversations.
Everyone yells at everyone else.
The merest tripping of the tiniest trip wire leads to an
escalation of vulgar language and confrontations.
Life’s a battle in this Darwinian world.
Only the fittest survive.
Do you recognize this world?
Are you living in it? Don
Cheadle turns in another heart-stopping
performance, as does Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillipi. These actors
zero in on their characters and make us reckon with them. In one scene Dillon tells his fellow cop
Dear Frankie. Dir. Shona Aurbach. (UK, 2004). Right away I was interested in and committed to this small family unit: a single mother, a small boy, and a grouchy grandmother who lives with them. They arrive in a new town in the first scene, and we learn soon that this is not the first time they have moved? Where is Frankie's father? The kid's touchstones are his stamps (on letters from his Dad) and a map of the world showing where his father's ship has been in port). Soon we learn that the mother, Lizzie, has been writing those letters, and each new address they move to she makes an arrangement with the post office to intercept Frankie's letters to his Dad-and then she writes the letters and posts them with stamps she buys at a stamp shop so that the boy will believe he has received letters from diverse and romantic locales. Throughout these early scenes I appreciated the intimacy of the family, the mother's beautiful letters (written as if they were from her "husband"), and the boys' rich fantasy life-holding out hope that someday his father's ship, the Accra, will stop in a local port and he can see his father face-to-face. Frankie is deaf, but with the help of a hearing aid (and lip reading) he is able to communicate. You know what has to happen next: one day a school chum (and rival) shows Frankie the paper that says that a ship called the Accra is going to be in port in a short time. Frankie told him about his Dad, and so the boy thinks he is going to win a bet because he does not believe Frankie is telling the truth about his father being a seaman. So Frankie writes a loving letter to his father, and (thanks to the post office intermediary), Lizzie reads it. Now she faces her dark night of the soul. She confides in her mother, and the grandmother gives sage advice: "He needs flesh and blood." Lizzie makes her decision: she dresses up to get a "date," and she goes out. Frankie is shocked: Mom is going out! In a long montage sequence, she cruises the bars in the neighborhood and never is able to pop the question to any of the men. The slow dissolves and the classical music played during the montage was perfect! This is basic and effective filmmaking. Finally, a co-worker spots her and comes to her aid. Lizzie confides in her-because she has no idea how she is not going to have to tell Frankie the truth about his father. But her co-worker saves the day: she knows someone who might do what Lizzie needs.
This is a film about perfect moments: the domestic scenes showing this family of three in humble surroundings; the sweet montage and music showing Lizzie going through her dark night of the soul; the quiet interaction between Lizzie and Davey (the fellow who agrees to impersonate Frankie's father); a scene showing Lizzie, her mom, and her co-worker squeezed into Lizzie's couch and all sharing a drink; Frankie's heartfelt hugging of his "father" after Davey gives him a book about the sea; Davey carrying Frankie, asleep in his arms, after a long day together; and especially the moment between Lizzie and Davey, standing outside the door to her apartment after a day spent with Frankie-and looking at each other with longing and yet hesitation-until they share a brief kiss, and the scene ends. This is also a film about the power of reaction shots-as characters develop new relationships, share new experiences, share stories, reveal truths, and face life-changing decisions. But the reaction shots are not forced and/or formulaic, as they are in soap operas. Here the reaction shots flow naturally from the drama of these people's lives.
Along the way I kept thinking, this young mother and her mother have gone through a lot together. In one scene they share a whisky and Lizzie does her mother's nails. He mother tells a story about her childhood-and I realized this was a scene about women as survivors. Later in the film we discover the extent of the danger they have survived-when we find out about Frankie's real father. I was not ready for this plot development. In some ways the film shifts to an unexpected direction at the end. Lizzie deals with unfinished business. In one scene, after a second perfect day spent between Lizzie, Davey, and Frankie, she tells Davey that her husband did not leave her-she left him. She tells him that her husband abused Frankie, and that as a result of his beatings the boy became deaf when he was 2 or 3. Davey's reaction shot is powerful. There is so much on the line in this relationship now. "You protect him every single day," he tells her. When he says good-bye to Frankie, Davey's point of view shots inside the apartment, along with his reaction shots, show much he really wants to share this domestic life with these good people. Then we go to the scene I referred to above-Davey and Lizzie standing in the hallway, and the moment of intimacy. This moment would be enough to end the film-especially with a deep embrace between two people that have found each in this seemingly random universe. Two young people in love-and a little boy to raise. A happy family. But this unfinished business must be seen to. And much is required of Frankie as well, for he has to deal with his part of the unfinished business, too. And Davey? Late in the film Lizzie's co-worker tells her the truth about her friend Davey. Her friend Davey is her brother Davey, and the co-worker must have believed that her brother, long hurting and lonely in the world, could benefit from a chance encounter with a strong woman like Lizzie. In a film like this things will work out-you believe that time will heal all wounds. You know that these characters have lives after the screen fades to black. You know that a reunion is coming, and someday a family of three will be a family of four.
Downfall. Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel. Germany, 2004. This film, the story of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker (before he commits suicide) is extraordinary in several ways. First, it is an acting tour de force by Bruno Ganz. He plays Hitler with great skill. He captures the gentle, sensitive, and affirming man in many scenes, and yet he is capable of unleashing the malicious fury of Mein Fuhrer when he is confronted what he increasingly considers the incompetence of his generals and military planners. I do not think the film humanizes Hitler or creates a sympathetic view of Hitler as much as it renders his humanness in all of its contradictory dimensions. I could believe that this man was the Chancellor of the Nazi Party—a kind of God to his followers. I could believe it, and it made me weep as I thought of the implications of his mad pursuit for world conquest. There was an aura around this character—and Ganz captured it via posture, the inflection of his voice, and movement. At the same time I could understand why his generals and others in his close circle could not stop him when he needed to be stopped. He was a force—an unquestioned man. And what bile comes out of this man’s mouth. “No compassion for the weak,” “It’s immaterial that the people perish,” and “There are no civilians in wartime.” Other times he vilifies the Jews, and late in the film he tells Albert Speer he is proudest that he “confronted” the Jews and all the evil they represented. Although Hitler is never portrayed as a monster in the film, it is apparent that many of his ideas were monstrous. All of the characters from the past, including Himmler, Speer, and Goebbels, also are introduced. But in a lesser film they would be portrayed as stock figures of evil, one-dimensional and incapable of surprise. I appreciated the depth of characterizations of all three characters. Himmler wants to capitulate in the face of Allied and Russian troops closing in on Berlin; Speer is the sensitive architect who disobeys Hitler’s orders to undermine the enemy advance via a scorched-earth policy; and Goebbels is portrayed as an absolutely loyal follower, an even more insane version of Hitler.
But all of these three-dimensional characterizations would stand for nothing if it were not for the one stylistic approach that drives the meaning of this film. That technique is a basic aspect of editing—the point of view/reaction shot. That type of editing is a primary means of telling a story. The subject of the point gets the point of view shots; and the subject of the point of view gets the reaction shots. In other words, you see the world through the eyes of the subject, and you also observe the subject’s reaction to the world through reaction shots. Hitler seldom is the subject of the point of view/reaction shots. Instead, he is usually the object of others’ gazes. For instance, in several scenes we see Hitler meeting with the generals and other staff in a crowded room in the bunker. As he pores over maps of the positions of the various forces, Hitler plans strategy and refuses to admit that the Germans are nearing defeat. These scenes are all about the reactions of the men standing in a circle around Hitler. These men stand in awe of their leader and are immobilized by his insane ranting at what he considers their incompetence. The key to the technique here is that we identify with those who are reacting. We observe Hitler with the other characters and understand their feelings of helplessness and vulnerability.
Thus, if Hitler is not the subject of the point of view throughout the film, then through whose eyes is the story told? In the first scene we see 22-year-old Traudl Junge applying for a job as Hitler’s secretary in 1942. She is part of a four-woman line-up as Hitler approaches them, one at a time, and seems to be responding more based upon their good looks rather than their skills. When he talks to Traudl, and she tells him she is from Munich, he seems moved. “A Munich girl,” he muses. He invites her into his office and begins dictation (as she types). But she cannot keep up with. The camera shows her reaction: her body begins to shake, and she is nearly in tears. He is going to reject her. When he realizes she cannot type as fast as he talks, he simply tells her they must start over again. She has the job—and she is ecstatic! Just think! Mein Fuhrer selected me as his personal secretary! As the film moves on, in several scenes we return to Traudl’s reaction to the unfolding drama of life in Hitler’s bunker. She becomes the anchor of the film’s multiple points of view as the film shifts to Hitler’s birthday, April, 1945, and the primary action unfolds in the bunker below the streets of Berlin. She begins the film and she ends the film.
But in between, the writer tells the story of the bunker from many other points of view. Some examples: a 10-year-old boy is part of an artillery battery—defending Berlin with other young boys and girls. Early in the film he is lined up with other children just outside the entrance to the bunker. Hitler comes out and thanks the children for fighting for the Motherland. “You have more courage than my generals,” he tells them. He pinches the boy’s cheek with great affection. What a moment for a child. The film returns to this boy’s drama several times as he survives one firefight and artillery barrage after another. In these scenes we see what the boy sees, and we see his reactions to the increasing madness of the last days of the Third Reich. The resolution of the boy’s story is one of the most satisfying in the film. For other characters, the technique of point of view/reaction shot is used most effectively by means of showing characters either moving through a chaotic space or entering or exiting Hitler’s bunker. As they do so, we see them reacting to the scene around them. We see their point of view shots—as they look left or right—and of course we see them reacting to the horror that surrounds them. One of the characters is a general who receives word from the bunker that he has committed a treasonous act by ordering his men to retreat from Berlin. Of course, he has done no such thing. His troops have been fighting for days on the front lines. So he simply strides into the bunker and informs the staff there that he is reporting for duty—and that he is to be shot for treason. Another character, a compassionate internist, explores an abandoned hospital, and suddenly he comes upon several dead bodies stacked in a corner, and then in the next room scores of old men and women, patients in the hospital, left behind when the medical staff departed. Through characters like these two men, we come to identify with and have compassion for the suffering that surrounds them. Even Albert Speer gets a similar treatment. Late in the film, when he returns to the bunker for the last time, his entrance is shown through this point of view/reaction shot technique. Again we see the scene through the eyes of a character who is not insane, is not evil, and is capable of a more balanced perspective on the events of his time.
Withholding point of view is equally important. The film would less effective if it showed the points of view in key scenes. For instance, when Hitler and Eva withdraw to kill themselves, the director cuts to a shot of the hallway, and then a shot is fired from inside their room. Cut to the staff members in another room—all sitting around the table. The moment has come. Now Hitler’s adjutant enters the room, and we see him respond to the scene—but we do not see his point of view. By not making Hitler visible in this scene, the director diminishes his impact. We do not have the image of the fallen leader engraved on our consciousnesses. But when the bodies are carried out, one at a time, the director does cut to two point of view shots—first of one of Goebbels’ children, and then of Hitler’s secretary. But what do they see? First Eva’s body, and then Hitler’s body, both with their heads covered. Later, however, Hitler’s secretary sneaks into the room, and from her point of view we see the bloodstain on the carpet and Eva’s purse on the sofa. Those shots, with her reaction, reinforce the approach this film takes to telling its story. The film is not about Hitler, but about the way people respond to Hitler during his last days. The film ends with a magnificent scene showing the way Traudl Junge escapes. She was the subject of Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002), and a brief clip from the film is shown at the end of this film. As much as she is the center of the point of view/reaction shot technique in the film, the problem with our response to this character is obvious. She was a devoted follower of Hitler, and in some respects she was enamored with the man. She was a true believer. Although she was by all means naïve, she was in no way blameless. And therein lies the rub as we respond to this film. The core of the film was the sane response to an insane context (life in Hitler’s bunker). How to explain the extent to which some of these Germans followed Hitler like lemmings heading over a cliff in the arctic? How to explain the concept an unflagging loyalty to Mein Fuhrer? How to justify the madness of war that was unleashed by the Third Reich? Sometimes a film is like a sermon: it is meant to stimulate us, make us think twice about the way we judge things, and make us wonder if we can change our lives.
Grizzly Man. Dir. Werner Herzog. Timothy Treadwell spent 13 summers in an Alaskan wildlife refuge living among grizzly bears and filming them in their habitats. For part of the rest of the year he visited schools and showed them some of the films he created while he was living with the bears. Most of the footage showed Timothy in the foreground and one or more bears in the background, or Timothy standing in front of a beautiful mountain range and expounding upon the virtues of his work in the North, or Timothy petting a fox, or scenes in his camp. Usually the camera is sitting on a tripod, and in his films he cut out all the prep work, the moving to and fro to deal with the technical aspects of the camera. He also did not include in his films the multiple takes, sometimes as many as 15 takes, he made of a scene. He was an instinctive filmmaker, and I think Herzog relates to him at one primary level as filmmaker to filmmaker, and he appreciates the “ecstatic truths” (Herzog’s phrase) that Treadwell revealed through his filming. But there are a number of darker truths associated with this young man. To start, on his 13 th summer in the refuge, he brought along a young woman (for the second straight year), and at the end of the summer both Timothy and the young woman were eaten by a grizzly bear.
Everyone that watches this film will come away judging this young man. What did he think he was doing up there? Did he really appreciate the dangers he faced? Others have made wildlife films, and films about grizzly bears. But no one has camped right in the midst of the bears’ habitats and been a stone’s throw (and in some cases a few feet) away from these huge wild animals. When I was a boy, I was taught the difference between tame animals (cats and dogs), farm animals (cows and pigs and chickens) and wild animals (everything else). Now my older brother blurred this division when he raised pet crows a couple of times. One of my most vivid memories is the last time I saw one of those pet crows at the end of the summer it was raised by hand and fed by spoon a warm gruel of chicken feed). That crow, which we had named George, flew off to an adjacent farm field at the edge of a woods and joined a circle of crows wheeling about in the thermals. Then he flew back to your yard, flew over me—almost as if to say good-bye—and then rejoined the other crows. We never saw him again. Perhaps the other crows eventually pecked at it and killed it; perhaps he was able to be integrated into the world of crows. I don’t know. I was taught that nature can be cruel—not that nature is cruel. I tell this story because viewers will enter the debate about this character, Timothy Treadwell, based to a large extent on how they define their own relationship to nature. Near the end of the film, Herzog says, “I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony but chaos, hostility, and disorder.” In a later scene, he shows some of Treadwell’s footage of a close-up (probably using the telephoto lens) of a bear’s face. As we see this immense head in the frame, we hear Herzog say, “In all the faces of the bears I saw in his footage, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” I can identify—to some extent—with Herzog’s attitude here. The bears were in that third category of animals to me—that of the wild. And I was taught to respect the wild and to stay out of the way of those animals.
But Timothy Treadwell loved teddy bears as a child, and he grew up in a normal family on Long Island and got a diving scholarship to a private college. But there he began to drink—probably because of social obligations with his peer group—and he dropped out of college. He ended up in California,, tried his hand at acting (he had a lovely shock of blonde hair), changed his last name to Treadwell, got nowhere with that idea, and tuned into the drug scene in a big way. After he overdosed once, and almost died, he had a kind of religious conversion, I suspect. He took on a new persona for a second time. He re-invented his identity and his roots and claimed (with his Long Island accent) to have been raised in Australia. And then he discovered the bears. That first summer must have set the hook for him. He was a novice. He had no idea what he was doing up there. He was camping out right in the middle of an Edenic locale and the bears did not eat him. So he became strong and self-confident, and as he admits in one of his films, he stopped drinking so that he could take care of the bears. He says, “And the miracle was the animals.” He viewed them paternalistically; he saw them as great big teddy bears. He loved them, he doted on them, and he vowed to be their protector (although the bears were already protected by inhabiting a wildlife sanctuary with tolerably low levels of poaching). In order to maintain this new identity, Timothy had to have an enemy—someone to push up against in order to prove—to himself and to the schoolchildren he made t he films for—that he was really the bears’ protector.
But he was in over his head all 13 years. It is a miracle he was not mauled or eaten earlier. To t he bears he was an invader and a potential rival and a potential meal. He was alien. He was a curiosity. He marveled in a childlike way at these beautiful animals. He saw them as domesticated; but they were wild. “He’s a big bear! He’s a big bear!” he croons. We see him petting a fox’s head, and he says, “Thank you for being my friend!” He films himself running away from a fox—while the fox runs after him as if the two were playing a game. Then he stops and says breathlessly, “I love you! I love you!” He stands his ground when a bear gets too close, and when the bear walks away, he stoops and says, “That’s okay! I love you!”
But there is another film in this documentary, and that is Herzog’s own journey of discovery. As the filmmaker he finds a number of people to interview: the bush pilot that found the bears eating the two campers; the coroner, who recites his narrative of what he thinks happened during the fight; the helicopter pilot who says, “We hauled away four garbage bags of people out of that bear”; the curator of a museum who complains that he disrespected the bears by invading their territory; Jewel Palovak, who lived with Timothy for three years and organized the Grizzly People Foundation with him; another woman he stayed with at the beginning of his summer tours; and Timothy’s parents—filmed in an American Gothic two-shot in their Long Island living room. The most intense scene occurs when Herzog listens to the audio on a digital video tape that was in the camera the day the bear ate Timothy Treadwell and his companion. Why only the audio? The lens cap was never removed from the camera. We see Herzog sitting across from Jewel Palovak in her living room. He is bent over, his elbows on his knees, and the camera shows her face—responding to his facial expressions as he hears the screams of the two young people. Timothy kept screaming, “Get away! Run!” as the bear gnawed at his head and then began to lacerate his leg. But she stayed, and the bear got her too. We hear nothing of the audio; only Herzog hears it. And when he asks her to stop the tape, he pauses, and he says, “You must never listen to this tape, Jewel. And you must never look at the photos I saw in the coroner’s office.” (Obviously, he is referring the photographs of the body parts removed from the four garbage bags.) Then she leans forward and takes his hands in hers, their eyes lock, and all a viewer can do is ponder the mysteries of the human heart—in this case, the mysteries of a young man’s need for finding affirmation of his own life in what he considered to be the natural world—as opposed to the cruel and indifferent world of society and men.
Mad Hot Ballroom. Dir. Marilyn Agrelo. Documentary filmmaking rules! This documentary portrays a process (how kids learn to dance the various ballroom dances and then how they prepare for and then compete in a
I am delighted to report that after watching Spielberg’s films for years and years, and never really feeling satisfied with them (except for his recent Catch Me If You Can), I was impressed with this film. It was well-written and well-acted and well-directed—and it moved with real precision. Some critics have complained that the film moves forward and then jars to a stop, in fits and starts, with the somber and quiet scenes undermining the adventure-action-suspense scenes. No. The somber and quiet scenes are essential to the whole because they provide a contrast to the adventure-action-suspense stuff. This combination of fast-moving and slow-moving scenes becomes a metaphor for the entire operation. It moves in fits and starts because it is half-baked from the get-go. First progress (one hit at a time) and then no progress—and we are as frustrated with this lack of flow as are the characters themselves. And in those quiet scenes the characters are able to be human beings—they talk about the context they find themselves in. They question their motives, they critique the mission, and they argue about the meaning of good and evil. Each time the team makes a hit, one of the members adds up the expenses related to the hit. For example, the first man costs $350,000, and the costs seem to escalate with each further hit. Eventually more than $2 million is spent. What are we to conclude here? What are the economies of scale when it comes to killing people? And what are to conclude about the seeming virtues in the plan to kill only the 11 terrorists on the hit list—and no one else. In other words, the Israelis seem to believe they are more virtuous than the Palestinians because they do not kill innocent people. But try as they might, even this value is compromised. So much time is given to the scene where a young girl, wearing a red dress (shades of Schindler’s List), is almost killed because she is in the wrong place at the wrong time—and also the scene where a honeymooning couple are almost killed because they happen to be staying in the apartment next door to the one that is bombed by the squad of assassins.
Spielberg personalizes every hit. In one scene, for instance, Avner (stationed in apartment on the other side of their target), actually has a conversation with the intended victim moments before the bomb goes off. In a later scene Avner and a member of an elite Palestinian terrorist group have a long conversation about their opposing points of view. Later, Avner meets the young man again—but this time on the field of battle. This is the second film I’ve seen this winter (the other was Syriana) where I was reminded of the film The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) with Richard Burton as the British spy who is betrayed by his superiors in order to protect a double-agent behind the Iron Curtain. That film was masterful in its depiction of one man’s moral dilemma. He chose wisely at the end; and of course he did not survive. Avner chooses wisely at the end of this film; and it is a blessing that he survives. In one of the most tautly-directed scenes in the film, the hit squad closes in for t he kill of the number one Palestinian terrorist, and their attack is spoiled by a brilliant tactic by two CIA agents—who suddenly show up and pretend to be drunken Americans. And what can we conclude from that scene, you ask? Oh, yes. This is a 1970s film, all right. Hurrah for 1970s films in 2005. We need more of them. The film begins with a rather pedestrian recreation of the kidnapping of the Israelis at the Olympic village. But the point of view is an external and objective one. We watch it as we watched it then—as observers, watching it all unfold on television. Jim McKay’s poignant summary, “They’re all gone,” is the climax of the opening scene. But later in the film, Avner begins to have nightmares—and they represent another recreation of the events of the kidnapping.
The climactic moment in the film is an extraordinary internalization of Avner’s emotional and psychological stress. One of the two scenes is the recreation of the climax of the 1972 kidnapping. In that scene we see the Israelis killed from the point of view of the Israelis themselves and the Palestinians who kidnapped them. We are on the airport tarmac. We are inside the helicopters when the shooting begins. All of this plays out like a nightmare scene inside Avner’s mind. And the other scene parallel cut against that scene. Let me just say that it is a risky combination of filmic material. That second scene is about home again—that new definition of home that Avner has begun to grasp. Earlier he tells his wife, “I have no idea where I should be.” But in this scene he knows—at an emotional level. He is thinking about the future. He is becoming his own man. He is able to tell his case manager, “There is no peace at the end of this.” Like every good war film, this is an anti-war film. It is a film that questions the wisdom of governments. It is a film for the past and a film for the present. That last shot in the film is a final critique. There they stand—the twin towers—back in the 1970s—and you know what is being communicated by the filmic image. If this is how we are going to act (you can fill in the blank), then “there is no peace at the end of this.”
Murderball. Dirs. Henry Allen Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro. Murderball is what quad rugby used to be called. The players are all quadriplegics with varying degrees of disability—all using specially designed wheelchairs. I loved this film because it took seriously these quadriplegic men as athletes and knew how to follow characters and reveal their idiosyncrasies and values. The film jumps right into the sports aspect of the film and shows the 2002 World Championships where
So let’s summarize the plot lines. What will become of the Joe Soares and son relationship? Will Soares coach the Canadians to victory at the 2004 Paralympics? Will Mark Zupan and the American team derail Joe’s juggernaut? Will Keith begin to adapt to his disability? Will Mark Zupan and his old buddy Igoe ever reconcile? One of the details covered early in the film was that these athletes have girlfriends and wives. Most have some level of sexual functionality, and a short section is devoted to answering the typical curious questions about whether these guys “can do it.” But then the film, after an update on Keith’s progress, heads straight back to the sports angle with the selection of the final teams for the Olympics—with one profound detour. And that is the news that Joe Soares suffered a serious heart attack and almost died. As he begins his recovery, we wonder how that major health scare will affect his future life? And we are bound to find out later in the film. Before the Paralympics, Team