Monday, August 17, 2020

Buckle Up and Stay Home

Robert Duvall - MASH | Robert Duvall Picture #94859242 - 454 x 239 ...

Way back in 2009, writer-director Jody Hill’s black comedy Observe and Report rode a wave of controversy to modest box office success and, perhaps better in the long term, notoriety. The deeply imperfect film is awfully enamored with its own ostensible subversiveness, confusing self-flattery for gimlet-eyed realism. If it sounds like I’m kind of down on the movie, I kind of am, except for one aspect of it that actually is subversive, that actually does buck against the status quo of Hollywood and film culture, and the arts in America as a whole: its portrayal of Nell (Collette Wolfe), a character who is not merely a Christian but a born-again Christian, as a genuinely kind person who is not hiding darkness and hypocrisy within her. Hill’s attitude to pretty much everyone else in the film is bilious, but in this instance he refuses to construct the easy villain that will flatter his audience’s worldview. (I suspect Born Again Christians did not make up a large percentage of Observe and Report’s audience.) She held one of a handful of character traits that more often than not, in American films, signal that This Person Is Not To Be Trusted: active Christianity, military authority (grunts are sometimes fine, though certainly not always), political views that are to the right of Jane Fonda. That sort of thing. For decades, this has been part of our storytelling tradition — one that filmmakers and critics alike are inured to thanks to the privilege that accompanies being a liberal working in the arts — and it allows the audience to easily identify a villain, or a potential villain, before they’ve even had a chance to do anything wrong.

Consider M*A*S*H, Robert Altman’s 1970 breakout film, in which we are introduced to the character Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) when the film’s main protagonist Hawkeye (Donald Sutherland) joins the unit and is shown by Capt. Forrest (Tom Skerritt) to the tent he’ll be sharing with Burns. The two men find Burns in the tent, teaching Ho-Jon (Kim Atwood), who works as a mess-boy on the grounds of this particular mobile Army hospital, to read English using the Bible. Burns is a Christian, and Hawkeye and Forrest regard the situation with a smirking cynicism, offering the boy a nudie magazine as a better way to learn the language than the Bible. On one level, fine, objecting to missionary conversion, which is the subtext here, makes sense and is a defensible moral stance. But Burns treats Ho-Jon very kindly in this scene. Whether or not a given audience member views the religious tradition in which he is engaging here as ultimately damaging (never mind the charitable aspects of missionary work), Burns himself appears to be a very nice and moral person. One may disagree with him, but perhaps one can respect his decency at the same time.

Or maybe not. Shortly after we’re introduced to Frank Burns, there’s another scene where he enters the same tent. Hawkeye and Forrest are already there, being served martinis by Ho-Jon. (One might say the two white men are both condescending to and exploiting the Korean boy, but never mind.) Soon after Burns arrives, Ho-Jon leaves. Hawkeye and Forrest offer Burns a martini, which he declines, saying he doesn’t drink. Hawkeye makes fun of him for that. Burns then kneels at his cot and begins praying. The whole time he does this, Forrest and Hawkeye mock him (“You ever encountered this syndrome before?” “Not with anyone over the age of eight years old”). Not because he’s doing anything wrong, but because he’s praying. Of course, it eventually turns out that Frank Burns is one of the film’s villains when he blames someone else for the death of a patient that he caused. No matter: we’re already supposed to hate him. His (eventual) villainy is merely confirmation of what his Christianity ostensibly communicated to us: he is bad, because our prejudices are correct.

Now, M*A*S*H being a Robert Altman film, things are a tiny bit more complicated than that (though I’d argue the film is still among his worst), as there is another Christian character, Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois), whose ineffective faith in the face of human horror renders him merely pathetic rather than actively vile.

 ‍Shape of Water, The - Internet Movie Firearms Database - Guns in ...

But this sort of thing needn’t be complicated at all! Look at Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, which won the 2017 Best Picture Oscar. In that film, about a janitor (Sally Hawkins) who works at a top-secret military lab in the 1950s and falls in love with a humanoid amphibious creature (Doug Jones), it’s established early on that the men who run this lab, led by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), are small-minded, mean, cruel, in some cases racist. If there’s a shining moral light in the lab, apart from the cleaning staff and the sea creature, it’s the scientist Hofstettler, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, who we eventually learn is a Soviet spy. Del Toro doesn’t seem especially enamored by the other Soviet agents who appear in the film – they’re among the film’s many villains, in large part because they have succumbed to decadent American bourgeois living – but Hofstettler’s commitment to science and humanity means he is basically good.

The same can’t be said of the American military in the movie. So much so that when we get to the part of the story where our motley crew of heroes carries out their plan to free the amphibian humanoid from the lab, Hofstettler, a willing participant in this plan, uses a syringe of poison to, well, let’s not mince words here, murder an MP who stopped the van the film’s heroes were using to commit their act of sabotage.

It should be noted here that we have not seen this MP in the film before. He’s a grunt. Not particularly important. We just know that he’s a member of the American military, which has been depicted throughout as racist, cruel, et cetera. Because this young man chose to join the Army, he must be those things, too. Of course, if del Toro wanted to complicate things and make his film interesting (which it is not, and I say this as a del Toro fan), this murder would reverberate among our heroes. Some rumination might occur: “We have done this good thing, freeing an innocent creature who was being tortured, but in doing so we have also done this evil thing.” But no, after the MP is killed, Giles (Richard Jenkins), the driver of the van who saw Hofstettler commit that murder, says, in a humorously trembling voice “I think he just killed that man!” This is meant to be funny, because part of Giles’s deal is that he’s usually not the kind of guy to take big chances or do things that scare him, but gee oh boy, look at him now! This is the only acknowledgment, apart from the audience’s own eyes, that the death even occurred.

That American soldier is never shown doing anything wrong, but the audience is meant to be happy that he’s taken out. At least Charlie Peck, Dennis Quaid’s character from this year’s The Intruder, eventually murders somebody. But of course, that is simple plot mechanics; by the time of his misdeed the audience already dislikes him intensely because when we first meet him he is doing something legal and civically responsible, and this we cannot have. At the beginning of the film, Scott and Annie (Michael Ealy and Meagan Good) are shopping for a house. They find one they like tucked away in a nice, secluded, woodsy area, and while looking around they see a deer, who, despite the enchantment the couple feel in their hearts, is immediately shot down by Peck. Peck is the former owner of the house, and has been maintaining the place while it’s on the market. He tells the horrified couple that it’s important to keep the deer population down (which in many parts of the country is true!) and in any case, that’s why he was on the property — to hunt legally — and he didn’t see the couple before he fired. But he shot a deer and, worse, owns a gun. The murder he eventually commits is, in terms of audience manipulation, merely a formality.

There’s a scene later in The Intruder that is instructive. Charlie has been invited by Scott and Annie to a dinner party (despite Scott’s insistence that anyone participating in gun ownership and legal hunting is a dangerous psychopath). At one point, one of the other guests (the eventual murder victim, in fact) disagrees with something Charlie says. It’s a minor point, but the film suddenly changes its point of view from Scott and Annie to Charlie, and we see a fantasy: Charlie standing up and violently attacking the man who challenged him. Again, this didn’t actually happen in the world of the film, it’s in Charlie’s mind, but director Deon Taylor and/or writer David Loughery felt it necessary to briefly up-end their film’s whole structure so that the audience could see the violent thoughts in Charlie’s mind. Perhaps because they realized they hadn’t laid the necessary groundwork to justify Scott’s paranoia, which is essential? Or because they think passing fantasies are the same as action? It can’t possibly be both, can it? Surely when casting those with whom you disagree as the villain, more thought is put into it than that.


It’s all a matter of empathy, an emotional and intellectual state that demands you try to understand the feelings of everyone, especially those with whom you might not side with in a given situation. (If you’re already prone to siding with someone, it’s not really empathy when you agree with them.) Films that are truly empathetic can pose a challenge for the audience (not to mention the filmmaker) and are therefore best left unproduced. Usually, anyway.  In Debra Granik’s 2010 film Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a young woman living in Appalachia. Due to her missing father, sick mother, and the secluded criminal environment she was born into, Ree must raise her two young siblings; out of desperation, she decides to join the Army, because she heard that by doing so a person is guaranteed $40,000.

She meets the Army recruiter at the local high school, and I, when I first saw the film, habituated as I’ve become to the very idea of military recruitment of young people being presented in modern American films as anything other than insidious and exploitative, was somewhat shocked by the scene as it unfolded. The recruiter (Russell Schalk) doesn’t try to fool Ree, doesn’t try to entice her into giving up her life and family just so he can throw her into machine gun fire. No, he actually talks her out of it. The recruiter sees how difficult her life is, sees her bruises, and teases out of her the fact that she’s raising her brother and sister alone. He tells her that she needs a better reason to join the Army during wartime than $40,000, and that she’d be doing more good back home.

I was quite unprepared for Debra Granik’s actual empathy. The cinema could use more of it.

He's Talking and Talking and Talking

Review: In 'American Dharma,' Steve Bannon takes credit for Trump ...

In the late 1990s, Errol Morris screened a cut — what he believed would be the final cut — of his documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. to a film class at Harvard University. In this version of the film, Leuchter, a designer and builder of electric chairs and later lethal injection machines, is presented alone, explaining why he would go on to a career of writing “scientific” papers denying that gas chambers were ever used by the Nazis in World War II to execute Jews. These papers were used, and even commissioned, by the neo-Nazi Ernst Z√ľndel at his trial in Canada, on charges that his publications denying the Holocaust criminally spread false information. Morris’ original intention was to focus solely on Leuchter: There would be no experts or historians present in the film to refute Leuchter’s blatant nonsense. Morris wanted to understand how this man, seemingly free of anti-Semitic beliefs, could believe something not only so vile, but so easily disproved. To do that, Morris felt no need to hear from anyone but Leuchter. In the Leuchter material present in the final, quite different, 1999 picture, Leuchter refers to a time in his life when he was contacted by a state prison system about designing a gas chamber for their executions. Leuchter himself says that this made no sense, as his expertise was only in electric chairs and lethal injection machines — that knowledge does not translate to an understanding of gas chambers simply because each device is used in executions. Nothing else in Mr. Death so precisely illustrates the man’s lack of self-awareness and intellectual shallowness better than that moment.

However, the Harvard film class disagreed. According to Morris, in an interview with Ron Rosenbaum, roughly half the class bought into Leuchter’s theories, and the other half saw Morris himself as a Holocaust denier:

Well, it shocked me. I guess it's little bit like the Stockholm syndrome. You're trapped in a room with this one man — namely, Leuchter. He's talking and talking and talking and talking. There is no one in the movie to grab you by the shoulders and say, "You know, this is, of course, nonsense."

It's a scary thought. What if there is no one (or not enough people) in a society to say a man like Leuchter is crazy . . . or wrong . . . or evil . . . isn't there enough stuff inside ourselves . . . an insanity detector . . . something. Well, in this Harvard class, there wasn't.

Morris ultimately decided that the class’ professor, who questioned how Morris could not call Leuchter to task, was correct, and so he, Morris, did interviews with experts and cut them into the film. Expertly, it must be said, and for all I know the version of Mr. Death most people know is better than what he showed to that class. But I’m not convinced that Morris actually agreed with that professor, because in his next film, 2003’s The Fog of War, Morris stuck to his moral and aesthetic philosophy. The subject of The Fog of War, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, truly is the only person on screen. We hear only him speak (barring a rare example of Morris interjecting), and outside of stock footage and news footage cut in, he is all we see. The Fog of War is McNamara telling his story about 20th century American wars, focusing ultimately on Vietnam, the war he controlled. Morris does not attack, or directly refute, anything that McNamara says, but instead contrasts the man’s words with images of World War II and Vietnam bombing campaigns, for example, as a way of injecting his own anti-war (a simplification, but anyway) philosophy into the film. This, combined with McNamara’s own moral ambivalence about his place in the history of the 20th century, makes The Fog of War’s point of view, finally, unmistakable. Somehow — and I’ll confess that I don’t have a theory as to why this turned out to be the case — no one mistook Morris this time. He, in fact, won the Best Documentary Oscar for that film. Everybody got it. Four years after being pressured into changing his aesthetic for Mr. Death, Morris took another swing at it and everybody said, “Yes, okay, this makes sense.”

Errol Morris began his career making documentaries about “unusual” people. Look at the scientists and lion tamers and gardeners in Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control, or the pet cemeterians in Gates of Heaven. His career blew up with the true-crime film The Thin Blue Line, a landmark documentary that changed the course of a man’s life. None of this is to say that before The Fog of War and Mr. Death that Morris’ films were apolitical, but rather his politics were either subtextual or buried under layers of things that interested him more, such as human behavior, motivation and psychology. But after The Fog of War (barring digressions into tabloid insanity in Tabloid and his fascination with photography in The B-Sides), Morris’ films skewed into the overtly political. First, there was Standard Operating Procedures, his brilliant, dispiriting, yet coldly empathetic film about Abu Ghraib, and 2013’s The Unknown Known, his Fog of War-esque documentary about another Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Though he once seemed to seek out obscure stories that could illustrate his philosophy of human existence, the very specific, front-page news stories of modern times seemed now to obsess Morris.

Most recently, we have American Dharma, Morris’ documentary about Steve Bannon, the film producer/director/political strategist/alt-right manipulator who, more than anyone, structured the political campaign that ultimately succeeded in pouring Donald Trump into the Oval Office. In this film, Morris has dispensed with his Interrotron, a camera device he invented that allows his interview subjects to address his questions directly, meaning they appear to be looking directly into the camera (which they are). Morris has used this to great effect for years, but with Bannon he chose to sit across the table from his subject (in a studio constructed to look like the air hangar in 12 O’Clock High). It’s more intimate: You can see Morris (or his back anyway), and you hear him more often having at times a straight, fairly genial conversation with a man whose politics and philosophy he abhors.

You can imagine what happened. When American Dharma was playing festivals, critical reactions were not unlike those that Morris received from that Harvard class that saw the original cut of Mr. Death. In his review for rogerebert.com, critic Peter Sobczynski calls American Dharma “fan service,” because Bannon is familiar with Morris’ work, and goes on to say:

The closest the film ever gets to this point comes when Morris admits that he voted for Clinton over Trump and Bannon seems genuinely baffled that someone who he considered to be on his wavelength would even consider doing such a thing.

This is, in fact, wildly inaccurate. Morris admits to voting for Clinton out of fear in the primary, and in the context of the conversation it’s quite clear that both Morris and Bannon can’t quite believe that he, Morris, didn’t vote for Bernie Sanders. There is no question that Morris would have ever voted for Trump, and the fear he felt that led him to vote for Clinton, came from Trump (as well as Bannon). It’s a disingenuous, or at least thoughtless, review.

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody understands the film better, while still disliking the results:

At another moment, after Bannon has emphasized his harnessing of the “angry voices” that filled the comment sections of Breitbart News (of which he was formerly executive chairman) and declared that Trump’s electorate was telling “the establishment, ‘go fuck yourself'," Morris turns the tables on Bannon, calling Trump the “fuck you” President: “You want health care? Fuck you. You want clean drinking water? Fuck you.” Bannon’s momentary silences in the face of such remarks seem like an onscreen scorekeeping (chalk one up for Morris), but it is far less satisfying than a further, confrontational follow-up question might be. Many of Morris’ challenges to Bannon’s assertions come not in discussion but in a sort of cinematic esprit de l’escalier, by presenting (with a variety of effects) headlines, tweets, quotes and clips that undercut or contradict some of Bannon’s claims.

American Dharma - Webster University: Worldwide Events

At other times in the film Morris, for example, calls Bannon crazy and pushes him on the basic racism of his politics. While Bannon is allowed to defend those politics, Morris runs across the screen one headline after another, making explicit the racist consequences of Bannon’s rhetoric. If Morris doesn’t call Bannon an asshole to his face, it’s because he wants to hear him, and understand why we’re here. He calls Bannon an asshole with his film. It also ends with a prophecy of Bannon’s own philosophy of apocalyptic change. Brody writes: “The symbolic apocalypse [that Morris depicts] is, among other things, victimless, even self-sacrificing.” Forgetting, apparently, that the film ends with a blasted landscape (Morris’ own set has gone up in flames) leaving only Bannon. If that’s an image of self-sacrifice, then I’m John Robert Fox.

Morris has a distinct aesthetic and moral philosophy: When confronting someone he disagrees with, even hates, he would rather understand than attack. This strikes me as noble and intelligent. But even though he still criticizes the likes of Leuchter and Bannon throughout those respective films, many audiences and critics would rather he blast them with a metaphorical shotgun, thereby winning points for one side or another, with nothing to hold onto afterward.

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