Archive for February, 2005

The Harder They Come Review

Quick note to self: when I teach Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come next time, it might make sense to teach it after teaching Bonnie and Clyde, especially when talking about the editing in the final showdown scenes of each film.

Update: A Salon review of the Critereon DVD from November 2000.

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Book Meme: 123.5

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
5. Don’t search around and look for the “coolest” book you can find. Do what’s actually next to you.

Like Scrivener (who got the meme from Dr. Crazy), I have a shelf full of books nearby, but based on a completely unscientific estimate, William Faulkner’s Pylon, which I never reshelved after watching the Douglas Sirk film adaptation, The Tarnished Angels) happened to be closest by an inch to spare over Bill Nichols’ Representing Reality. The Faulkner sentence was also too good to pass up: “‘I will eat and sleep on Roger and I will eat and sleep on you.'”

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Blog Block

I’m suddenly finding it incredibly difficult to compose blog entries, and the longer I wait to blog something, the less likely I am to blog it. I’ve had this kind of blog block before, also during a pretty stressful time (I’d rather not talk here about the things that are stressing me out), so I know that I’ll get back into the groove soon. In a way, I think this post is simply intended to get me back into the habit of blogging and to remind me that I’ve had similar periods of uncertainty in the past.

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Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst

I caught Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (IMDB, the title must have been changed in order to avoid confusion with a recent Oscar contender) on Friday night, but haven’t really had the opportunity to write a review until now (and even now I should be working). Guerilla tells the story of the brief history of the Symbionese Liberation Army, focusing to some degree on the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and Stone’s film effectively captures the media frenzy inspired by the “Bonnie and Clyde” antics of the SLA, a fantasy he gently (though somewhat obviously) mocks with his inserts of clips from various Robin Hood films, including an animated Disney version from 1973.

In telling this story, Robert Stone chose not to interview with Patty Hearst, focusing instead on other members of the SLA and San Francisco journalists who covered them. The result is fairly haphazard, with Stone ultimately portraying Hearst as a shallow Stepford wife-meets-spoiled heiress, which seems more than a little unfair (the film’s final shot, presenting footage of her on a morning talk show, portrays her as completely shallow). But what struck me as interesting about Stone’s film is its connection to the recent doc, The Weather Underground, which focused on another late-60s/early 70s terrorist group. It seems significant that documentary filmmakers are revisiting these topics at this point in American history and that both documentaries seem to treat their subjects as charismatic media figures rather than as political figures. Guerilla is also far less nostalgic and less ambiguous in its portrayal of these radical political groups. Whether that’s due to the specific actions of the SLA or some other factor is a little unclear.

Steven Holden’s New York Times review is a little more generous than mine, with Holden noting that the film does trace the source of the SLA’s political commitments via footage of Kent State and Vietnam. And it may also be that the group’s political commitments were shallow. As one of the interviewees notes, not in apology as much as explanation, the members of the SLA were all very young, mostly in their early- or mid-20s when they kidnapped Hearst, who was herself only 19.

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Million Dollar Baby

Quick reviews tonight as I’m still in the midst of my first grading marathon of the new year. Like Chris, I was mildly underwhelmed by Million Dollar Baby (IMDB). I certainly understand the film’s appeal to the critics, many of whom have compared Eastwood’s recent work to either the auteurist films of the 1970s or classical Hollywood. The film’s cinematography (by Tom Stern) is impressive, his use of shadows adding to the grittiness of the story, and Dunn’s gym effectively conveys his own sense of resignation as he reaches the end of his career. And the final shot (which I won’t reveal) almost rescued the film for me.

Like Chris, I also found myself annoyed by the film’s “dodgy class-regional politics,” especially when it came to the portrayal of Danger, the mentally challenged Texan who hangs out at Frankie Dunn’s (Clint Eastwood) gym. I tend to have problems with using mentally challenged characters for comic relief and/or easy emotional payoffs, and although his character is relatively minor (the film could have done just fine without him), I think Danger serves precisely that function. Hillary Swank’s Maggie, the female boxer Frankie trains after losing his best male fighter, also seemed rooted in class stereotytpes (scrappy hillbilly with a heart of gold). The film also left the issue of race somewhat unexplored, other than a brief anecdote Eddie (Morgan Freeman) relates about his first meeting with Frankie in Mississippi. Perhaps Million Dollar Baby just wasn’t going to live up to the Oscar-fueled hype that I’ve been hearing for the last few weeks, but I simply found Maggie too undeveloped and many of the film’s explorations of class, gender, and race (and how these categories relate) to be insufficiently explored (Cynthia offers an insightful reading of Eastwood’s exploration of gender). Million Dollar Baby is still a solid film, well worth seeing in the theaters, but not quite as good as the hype. I’d like to write a longer, more reflective review later, but things are kind of crazy right now.

By the way, did anyone else out there find Morgan Freeman’s voice-over to be unnecessary and overdone? I know there’s a clear motivation for it at the end of the film, but in a few places, the voice-over seemed to be trying too hard or to be explaining too much.

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Gunner Palace

During a brief statement before tonight’s screening of Gunner Palace (IMDB), filmmaker Michael Tucker claimed that one of his goals in making the film was to avoid being overtly political, to “leave politics out of the film.” While I am inevitably suspicious of such claims of political neutrality, I found watching Gunner Palace to be an incredibly valuable experience, but watching it with an audience that included the filmmaker was utterly compelling and sometimes quite troubling (I’ll try to explain why in a few minutes). Tucker has also been promoting the film by conducting screenings near military bases in such cities as Columbus, Georgia, indirectly communicating that he believes soldiers and veterans to be one of his most important audiences, and that audience captured for me in vivid detail some major questions about the politics of representation.

The film itself is an incredible achievement, immersing the spectator in the everyday life of a group of soldiers stationed in one of Uday Hussein’s palaces. Tucker vividly portrays the absurdity of the soldiers living in the palace as soldiers relax by the palace swimming pool, oblivious to the sounds of war in the distance. The artificial grandeur, augmented by Uday’s garish tatses, also provides some bitter humor. Other moments in the film do convey that Tucker is far from politically neutral. During one scene a soldier sarcastically displays the Humvee armor his unit bought off an Iraqi junk dealer, his comrades actually rolling on the ground laughing at the dark humor. A follow-up voice-over of Donald Rumsfeld pledging to increase the military budget doesn’t hide Tucker’s disdain for people who support the military in their words but not necessarily in their actions.

But Gunner Palace is at its best during two distinct, but recrrent, elements. First, Tucker carries his handheld camera during several of the soldiers’ missions into Baghdad. The jostling camera, the sudden movements in the streets, and the long takes without a cut suggest that anything could happen. Bags of garbage in the street suddenly appear threateneing because they might hide an improvised explosive device (or IED). Men and women who seemed helpful yesterday are now conspiring against the soldiers. The film’s lack of a clear narrative–the plot is chronological, but presents no specific mission or goal–only adds to the sense that it’s not entirely clear why the soldiers are there or what they can do to make things better.

Second, Tucker allows the soldiers to speak for themselves, and for the most part we hear from low-level soldiers, not the officers who have been trained in military PR-speak to provide the answers we want to hear. These are regular folks who just want to go home and want to try to portray something about their everyday lives, as impossible as that goal might be. The soldiers who speak are poets, free-style rappers, and class clowns. Although they constantly try to describe their experiences, they are all acutely aware of the fact that we’re not getting their stories on the six-o’clock news. While I can talk about the politics of representation, the difficulty of conveying one’s experience, these soldiers are living it. As one soldier notes, “After the movie’s over, you’ll get your popcorn out of the microwave, and you’ll forget about me.” And, of course, to some extent he’s right. Another adds, “For y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie.”

As Tucker himself notes, the film inevitably focused on these issues of representation and mediation. He notes

The longer I stayed, the more it became their movie—one laced with cinematic déjà vu. At times, it didn’t feel like I was shooting a documentary, rather a war movie that we have all seen a dozen times. For the older officers and NCOs it was M*A*S*H. They brought aloha shirts for poolside BBQs. For others it was Platoon and Full Metal Jacket—you could see it in the way they rode in their HUMVEES. One foot hanging out the door—helicopters with wheels. For the teenagers, it was Jackass Goes to War.

Of course the clearest referent was Apocalypse, Now, especially during one scene in which the soldiers play “Flight of the Valkyres” while on a mission. This comparison is also echoed through the director’s voice-over, which I found unnecessarily dramatic.

And this comparison to Apocalypse Now is where I struggled most with my reaction to the film. I couldn’t quite shake the idea that Tucker’s film–far from being politically neutral–was actually politically ambivalent in Frank Tomasulo’s useful phrase. I don’t have Tomasulo’s essay handy, but in my vague recollection, I’m taking Tomasulo’s description of Apocalypse to mean that the film yields a multitude of political readings, both pro and anti-war, a description that might apply to Gunner Palace as well. One audience member commented that he couldn’t imagine the Pentagon being offended by anything in the film, perhaps wilfully ignoring the critique of Rumsfeld, but noticing the film’s sympathy with the grunt soldiers. An Iraq War veteran in the audience read the film as anti-war because it failed to show the “positive effects” of the war, a position challenged by an officer who had been stationed in Gunner Palace and joined Tucker at tonight’s screening. Another audience member had the rather troubling response that the number of dead and wounded in Iraq didn’t compare to the numbers in previous wars, prompting an immediate emotional response from several veterans in the audience. Such reactions, in my reading, suggest that the film is far from neutral in its content. It’s difficult not to identify with the soldiers, especially given the use of continuity and POV editing that aligns our gaze with that of the soldier. And while Tucker is careful to present the confusion and disorientation any war will create, we don’t ever see things from the perspective of Iraqi citizens even though many of the soldiers clearly sympathize with them. After writing this review, I’m more convinced than before that I’ve just seen an incredibly complex, nuanced, challenging film. I’m not entirely sure I’ve come to any conclusion about it, but I also can’t recommend this film enough. It may be the most thoughtful and thought-provoking film I’ve seen to come out of the Iraq War so far.

Update: Blackfive’s review seems to support my claim that Gunner Palace is “politically ambivalent.” It’s also worth noting that the MPAA has seen fit to give Gunner Palace an R rating, a ruling which Palm Pictures is currently appealing. I’d imgine this appeal will likely fail, in part because of the film’s complicated politics, which is a shame because GP should be required viewing for teenage boys and girls who may soon face a decision about whether or not to serve in the military.

Update II (2/24): David Ansen offers a similar reading of Gunner Palace, arguing that the film presents material that “will confirm and confound both right and left” (thanks to GreenCine for the link).

Update III (3/5): Also check out Cynthia Fuchs’ review of Gunner Palace, which makes the connection to Michael Herr’s Dispatches, which seems crucial to my reading of the film via the mediated lens of Apocalypse Now.

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Experimental Films

Several days ago, Matt pointed to this interesting experimental multimedia project.

Meanwhile, Wiley Wiggins links to four ealy medical films. No conclusions here. I just found both links sort of interesting.

By the way, I’ll be seeing Gunner Palace tonight in a last gasp of freedom before my first grading marathon of the semester.

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Miracle Workers and Million Dollar Babies

Over the last several months, I’ve been quietly admiring Frank Rich’s New York Times columns. His columns alalyze the intersections between political and popular culture in refreshing and insightful ways. Today’s column, in which Rich addresses the surprising controversy over Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby is no excpetion. According to the critics, Eastwood’s film, which I haven’t seen, endorses euthanasia, and conservative critics and pundits have been pounding this point home on talk radio. Like Rich (and Clint Eastwood himself), I find it odd that the man who played Dirty Harry and held elective office as a Republican has become a target of these conservative critics. I also find it strangely inconsistent that these critics are railing against the cinematic representation of one death on-screen when the number of dead people in Iraq doesn’t seem. But that’s another story.

But what I also found surprising, and somewhat disturbing, from Rich’s column is the brief mention of a planned new show called Miracle Workers to be aired on ABC. According to another New York Times article, Miracle Workers focuses on a team of medical professionals who scour the country looking for people who need urgent medical care but cannot afford to pay for it. The show was produced by the same people who brought us Blind Date, but the creators promise that the show will feature no competition or contests. After all, people’s lives are at stake here, ladies and gentlemen. We wouldn’t want to do anything crass or exploitative. This show is just about taking care of people. Then again, a subtext of such a TV show might read: Why don’t these people have health care in the first place? Where is the outrage that said sick people must rely on “miracle workers” in order to get the mediacl treatment they deserve? Of course, they get to be on a reality TV show. That makes them pretty lucky, I guess.

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I caught Moolaadé (IMDB), the most recent film by Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, Friday night and found it to be a very impressive film. Moolaadé focuses on the practice of female circumcision in a remote village in Burkina Faso. The film opens with four girls who flee the purification ritual, turning to Collé, a woman in their village known to oppose the practice. Collé offres the girls “moolaadé,” a kind of sanctuary that will ensure their protection. Like Roger Ebert, I fear that a rough sketch of the film’s plot might discourage viewers from actually seeing Moolaadé, but the film is well worth watching if it happens to make it to your community.

In many ways, Moolaadé is about issues of modernization, with battery-powered radios intersecting with the ancient rituals of the village. The women clearly treasure the radios, seeing it as a lifeline to the world outside their village, but when Collé and several of the other women begin to resist the traditional practices, the men in the community collect the radios, piling them in front of the village’s mosque and setting fire to them in a beautifully composed juxtaposition. Collé, one of the more compelling characters I’ve seen in some time, brings a great deal of pleasure to her resistance (see the Bright Lights Film Jornal review), dancing and singing with the girls she is protecting, though later in the film she is forced to pay dearly for her actions, taking a beating from her husband, who has been coerced by elders in the viallage into enforcing his power over her. Her ability to endure this punishment prevents the film from falling into the trap of pitying the characters.

I think that part of what made the film work for me was Sembene’s ability to generate genuine suspense, and until the end of the film, I was uncertain how things would play out (a quality also noted by James Berardinelli). Few of the characters were purely villainous. Even the most traditional characters act primarily out of a fear of change.

I’ve been having a difficult time reviewing this film, in part, I think, because of my own awareness of my status as a viewer consuming these images of another culture. I’m not sure how to respond to the film’s presentation of the crisis between modernization and globalism against the village’s traditions, many of which are quite clearly harmful, especially to young girls and women. These contradictions are played out in the character of Mercenaire, a traveling merchant who provides the women with their precious radio batteries, but who also quietly sells condoms and displays posters promoting AIDS awareness. But at the same time, I’m not sure the film delves deeply enough into the harmful consequences of globalization and modernization on these villages.

If any of my other readers have seen the film, I’d love to hear your take. While I really liked the film, I haven’t entirely resolved my interpretation of it.

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Special Screening of Gunner Palace

Atlanta readers may be interested to learn that there will be a FREE screening of Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace (IMDB) on Thursday, February 10, at 7 PM at the Midtown Art Theater on Monore Drive. The documentary focuses on a military unit, nicknamed “the Gunners,” stationed in one of Uday Hussein’s old palaces, and the film shows how the soldiers find ways to deal with their sometimes overwhelming everyday experiences. Director Michael Tucker and Iraq war veteran, Capt. John Powers, will be present at the screening.

I picked up a few extra passes (although I assume that obtaining passes won’t be that difficult), so if you’re interested in attending, email me at chutry[at]msn[dot]com or leave a comment.


Benjamin Smoke

Intrigued by a discussion of Lost Book Found (still haven’t been able to track down the film here in Atlanta), I rented Jem Cohen’s documentary, Benjamin Smoke. The documentary focuses on Benjamin, an openly gay, HIV-positive, speed freak rock performer from Atlanta who died in his 30s. Benjamin’s music channels the gravelly vocals of Tom Waits but mixes in the influences of punk (Patti Smith is a major influence), jazz, and even country. Given Benjamin’s rock-and-roll lifestyle, it would have been easy to turn his story into a VH1-style Behind the Music morality play (as this unsigned review points out), but Cohen handles this story much more effectively, allowing Benjamin to speak for himself, and Benjamin is a natural in front of the camera, a great storyteller, speaking to us as if he is conversing over coffee with an old friend. Cohen provides little narration, and doesn’t pretend to offer a total picture of Benjamin. While the film is certainly biographical, it resists offering anything that would resemble the final word on this fascinating performer.

But what I found more interesting about the film is it’s treatment of Benjamin’s place within an Atlanta culture that itself seems to be on the verge of being lost. Benjamin lived much of his adult life in the eccentric community of Cabbagetown, where most of the town’s residents worked for a cotton mill until it closed in 1970, and the Cabbagetown community became populated by local legends such as Benjamin and Kelly Hogan, lead singer of the Jody Grind. This local culture is now fading away as the neighborhood is gradually being transformed by gentrification. The film captures much of this local culture incidentally, with archival footage of local performer, Deacon Lunchbox, as well as footage taken inside Atlanta’s notorious alterna-hip strip club, the Clermont Lounge. But Cohen also has a wonderful eye for everyday objects, for allowing the camera to linger a few extra seconds on some beads hanging in a window or a piece of furniture or a run-down store front or some kids playing in their homemade go-carts. Benjamin leads us through a Cabbagetown tunnel heavily decorated in graffiti (unfortunately the film can’t do this particular space justice). These images all present a weird Atlanta that I found absolutely fascinating and suggest that the familiar images of the city–the Peachtree Plaza, the Bell South building–are part of another city altogether, with the Atlanta skyline appears as a mere distant backdrop.

The film itself is visually rich, as A.O. Scott points out, combining photographs, archival footage, and black and white and color film. The DVD includes several nice extras, including more footage of Benjamin’s band, Smoke, performing in the Clermont Lounge and other local venues, and Jem Cohen and co-director Peter Sillen use these images to preserve a weird Atlanta that could have easily been lost.

By the way, G Zombie also mentioned the film a few weeks ago when he was recommending music by two of Benjamin’s bands, Smoke and the Opal Foxx Quartet (and if you haven’t heard their music, you absolutely should).

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General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait

I finally took the sage advice of Jonathan (scroll down to the comments) and the cinetrix and rented General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait last night, and as they both note, Idi Amin is a fascinating subject. General, directed by Barbet Schroeder, portrays Idi Amin as utterly sociopathic but also as oddly innocent and charming (see David Ehrenstein’s Critereon essay). Schroeder made the film with General Idi Amin’s complete co-operation, and although Amin clearly seems to think that the documentary will be sympathetic, Schroeder’s camera constantly reminds us that the audiences that seem to adore him are clearly fabricated.

There is a frighteningly humorous scene in which Amin sends a telegram to the leader of Tanzania, telling him, “I want to assure you that I love you very much and if you had been a woman I would have considered marrying you although your head is full of gray hairs. But as you are a man that possibility does not arise.” According to the cinetrix, Amin demanded that the scene be cut from the film, and Schroeder complied at the time, restoring the footage after he was deposed. There are scenes showing Idi Amin gleefully playing the accordion (Schroeder even gives Amin a credit for composing the film’s music). There are scenes showing General Amin dissing other world leaders, including Henry Kissinger. And yet the film constantly reminds us that Amin was one of the most brutal dictators in recent history. Fascinating, disturbing stuff. A really amazing documentary.


Blog Talk

I’m giving a brief talk this afternoon on blogging at an electronic pedagogy seminar for first year Brittain Fellows here at Georgia Tech. One of the major points I’m planning to adress will be how blogs function differently in more topical courses, such as my Rhetoric and Democracy class, and my literature- and film-based courses. I’ve noticed, in particular, that I tend to post more frequently in these topical courses, while in “Spectacle, Surveillance, Control,” the blog has done little other than serve as a slightly more public course management tool.

I’ll also spend some time talking about the advantages and disadvantages of having students keep individual blogs versus having small group blogs and some of the course manaagment issues that arise from using blogs rather than other course management tools. At any rate, here are some links to previous courses where I’ve used blogs:

If you, my readers, see anything I should add or emphasize, feel free to leave a suggestion in the comments.

Last minute update: Here’s a graduate student seminar paper that discusses a variety of ways in which English instructors have used blogs in their classes.

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Documentary Dilemmas

Several months ago, Brian Flemming mentioned a rather frustrating dilemma for documentary filmmakers, noting that “a corporation can (and often will) sue simply because you caught a trademark or copyrighted media product in the background of a shot.” Flemming notes that the ubiquity of corporate logs can make filming certain kinds of documentaries difficult at best.

Now the cinetrix reports another documentary dilemma. The civil rights doc Eyes on the Prize is unavailable on video and TV “because of expired copyright licenses.” These expired licenses include footage of a group of people singing “Happy Birthday” to Martin Luther King, Jr. The producers of the film cannot afford to renew these licenses, so the film may not be re-released for some time. The good news: A group called Downhill Battle has called for public screenings of the documentary on February 8 at 8 p.m. I’ll be attending the Atlanta screening, and hope that other bloggers can attend screenings in their communities.

The cinetrix also makes some important points about the fragility of video and the potential for films such as Eyes to disappear from public consciousness, so be sure to take a look at her entry on the screenings.

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Post-Iraq Invasion Films

Too tired to write a longer post, but this Yahoo article about a showcase of post-Iraq invasion films at the Rotterdam Film Festival is pretty cool. Among the highlights: Salam Pax got some tutoring from the folks at The Guardian and made the movie Baghdad Blogger. Also worth noting is Underexposure, the first feature film made after the invasion using 1980s-era Kodak film cobbled together from the former Ministry of Culture building.