Archive for August, 2009

Film: Neill Blomkamp: District 9 (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on August 28, 2009 by baker

On one hand, we could use the first half of District 9.  It’s got ferocious energy and a campy treatment of aliens living more or less peacefully among us, and – to a point – is told with the schlocky enthusiasm of reality TV that somehow feels more legitimate with its racial overtones.  Partly this has to do with its look: director Neill Blomkamp and his cinematographer, Trent Opaloch, have enormous fun with the throwaway suggestiveness of a well-placed documentary camera, tagging along as a team of government bureaucrats attempts to evict over a million aliens from their South African internment camp.  And partly it’s their unyielding commitment to present the situation with a straight face; Blomkamp deserves some kind of credit for trusting that we don’t need to see him tipping his hand.  If they’d stuck to this concept religiously, they might have had a wonderfully pleasurable little parable along the lines of Starship Troopers (1997), and retained the self-contained mystery of why the alien ship has stalled above Johannesburg to begin with, leaving its amusingly docile crew subject to the tactless anxiety of the human race.

On the other hand, it gives me no pleasure to agree with the contradictory likes of Armond White, but in the case of District 9 I think he’s deeply right.  Furthermore, whatever your personal feelings about a director’s implied intentions, Blomkamp hasn’t done himself any favors with interviews in which he discusses his disappointing failure to pull off Halo with producer Peter Jackson.  I doubt Blomkamp has much interest in the social metaphor lurking within District 9 outside of the extent to which it’s yet another familiar trope to add to this ratatouille – which includes the Hollywood war-realism of Black Hawk Down (2001) mixed with the disturbingly chaotic violence and social/racial undertones of Children of Men (2006), and a weird dash of Aliens (1986) – and this is okay, except that he’s consciously alluding to real, complex issues with the casual flippancy of a college sophomore with scant perspective (it’s no excuse that he’s from South Africa; he’s still making a movie).  I don’t know what I’m supposed to make of such a slapdash stew.  But Blomkamp’s silly descent into ultraviolent mayhem in the movie’s final third seems to tell me everything he makes of it.  I found his infantile insincerity making me angry.

What kind of reaction is that?  I guess I’ve just had enough of joyless destruction in movies.  If it’s supposed to be fun, make it fun; let the fascist army of Starship Troopers lose their heads – and arms, and legs – in a broadly allegorical campfest, but don’t leave enough room for us to invest a fuller-dimensional social context for the scenario in District 9, and then start annihilating the human quotient in wet splatters of blood and tissue for our amusement.

Film: Paul Thomas Anderson: There Will Be Blood (2007)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on August 23, 2009 by baker

I fear tackling a review of There Will Be Blood.  It’s every bit a function of my own literary limitations, my shortage of vocabulary, and my suspicion that, when presented with an absolute marvel in one medium, encapsulating it in another is near futile.  Imagine a film adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; no acting chops or trickery of light and sound can approximate Joyce’s sumptuous, visually suggestive orchestration of written words.  So I am tempted to just declare Paul Thomas Anderson a master of cinema.  I am tempted to call his film a virtual catalogue of flawless writing and direction, his craft the steak to his performers’ potatoes.  I’m tempted to call Daniel Day-Lewis not only the subtlest, fullest actor in cinema history, but also the consummate collaborator, as there’s no mistaking this as anything but an Anderson film.  I am tempted to simply demand that all people see There Will Be Blood and experience my wonder first-hand.

And this would, of course, be fruitless and silly.  Blood is a film, no more or less, two hours and forty minutes of flickering celluloid with no more real power to chop down mountains than the feelings of sheer elation that compel me to write.  Yet I remember the feeling of seeing it for the first time, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in January 2008: the unalloyed joy of a film wholly executed.  Not scrapped together from spare parts, or joined at the seams with putty for the sake of a bigger picture that, seen from afar, looks pretty good.  There is something spit-and-polished about the thing from a distance, appearing lumpy and askew, dangerously hewn to a performance above clarity or depth.  But Blood holds up best under acute scrutiny, in the same manner as a Joyce novel: utterly crafted with the singular tools of its author, with a purpose and focus that reveals itself fully only at length.

It’s impossible to say whether Anderson considers craft or narrative more crucial to his filmmaking at this point.  I venture to argue that with most filmmakers, it’s going to be one or the other.  There’s a Spielberg on the one hand, who’s honed his own eccentric style ad absurdum.  No story ever takes as much formal precedence, or sways Spielberg far from his dazzling kineticism (Schindler’s List (1993) alone stands up for debate, but opens other questions of craft versus manipulation).  There are the untold numbers of styleless hacks who’ve forgotten the term motion picture.  And then there are the few in between, but among contemporary American filmmakers I can think of a small number – Scorsese and Coppola in their respective primes, Altman as his finest – for whom there is no discernible distinction between form and meaning, and Anderson, years ago with Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002), joined their ranks.  Those films saw projected light for what it can be: a palette for sketching, vibrantly, a few of the countless mysteries of being alive.

There Will Be Blood is the most fully realized film of his career.  It is a film about fathers and sons, and greed.  It is about inflammatory bile that has festered below the surface, waiting to explode.  It’s about the ugly commingling of the hypocrisies of blood-oil and religion that might be used to define American culture even today.  Anderson’s Daniel Plainview (the name is so obviously descriptive as to be beyond symbolism; Plainview might have named himself) is substantially more than hell-bent on plundering.  He’s out to succeed above everyone around him, if at all possible at the cost of their faith – in him, or, more accurately, in his total, annihilating success.  Plainview is a demon, sick of the stink of human failure but determined to mire himself in it if that will keep his head above its putrid inconsequence.  “I see the worst in people. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need. I’ve built my hatreds up over the years, little by little.”

He adopts the orphan son of a worker killed in a well shaft, for reasons that Anderson suggests very quickly in a long take that pushes in on the two of them during Plainview’s first speech to a crowd of townspeople who’ve just discovered a vein of oil.  Plainview puts on one goddamn hell of a well-greased show (and can appreciate those of his competitors), explaining in his oddly syrupy, dust-choked voice why he’s the only oilman for the job.  But he’s quick to abandon a squabbling crowd – and their oil as well – preferring to cajole man-to-man, or whenever appropriate, family-to-family.  He is a salesman, with unconditional love only for his product.  Until the last third of the film, though, Plainview shows hints of the last strains of human warmth left in him, toward two children and a man who appears one day on his doorstep; a baptism scene, appeasingly undertaken for the purpose of completing his pipeline to the Pacific, reveals the stunning depth of Plainview’s self-hatred: the Godfatherish purgatory for conflating family and business.  And there is a final-act flashback of heartbreaking unselfconsciousness, where for the briefest of moments Plainview was capable of real affection toward his ‘son’ before, likely embarrassed, he drifts off again toward his isolated derrick on the scrubby plain.

There’s a catalyst for his disintegration: the son of a local farmer, and the apparent twin brother of the young man, Paul, who led him to the town of Little Boston.  Eli Sunday is a preacher of fire-and-brimstone damnation who entirely undermines Plainview’s shifty negotiations for buying the Sunday ranch.  Is Eli really Paul, screwing with Plainview to cash in his family’s property to build his church (or is he just Eli doing it)?  As the well goes into the ground and begins to produce oil, the two men vie for the faith, trust, and capital of Little Boston, and for the entrapment and destruction of each other’s souls: Plainview with his wells, “blowing gold all over the place”, and Eli with his church (Eli: “You will never be saved if you…” Congregation: “Reject the blood!”).  Eli and Plainview’s evershifting power struggle takes on a subtle, complex momentum, propelling the film toward a beautifully surreal ending, both men reduced to their moldy basest in a bowling alley.  Not from lack of habit does Anderson allow a carnival atmosphere to creep, shrieking with delight, over his final sequence, a lunatic creature ecstatic at its inevitable release.  It is a magnificent thing to anticipate on a second viewing.

If this much were all the film had to offer, a pleasurably intricate script played cleverly by gifted actors, there could be little chance of blowing the whole thing.  But Anderson is also a consummate maker of cinema, as energetic as Tarantino but more patient; as articulate in his craft as latter-day Scorsese but with no softening urge to please.  A landscape is not simply a vista for Anderson.  It’s an expressive canvas, and he puts his camera immediately to work in the opening shot, framing three massive hills against a baking midday sky, followed by a younger Plainview biting with a pickaxe at the wall of a mineshaft.  The first fifteen minutes of the film contain not a word of discernible dialogue, but by the end we’ve seen an entire backstory and have a firm sense of the way Plainview approaches the world (with an axe and alcohol, stubbornly).  Later, whole scenes play out in wide shots on the plain, with characters roving in and out of view, forward and backward in space, critters with agendas toiling over an indifferent earth.

What Anderson does not try to do, graciously, is mimic or approximate Plainview’s psychology with his camera.  For all the shots of the man on an empty landscape, I’d argue that to just call Plainview isolated would be to trivialize Day-Lewis’ complex performance.  If Plainview is a lonely man, he’s lonely by choice and intent, and both actor and director are too intellectually active to summarize the character in cheap visual metaphors. We’re meant to understand Plainview as the master of his own destiny – inasmuch as any man can be – skulking across creation in his outsized hands and feet, a crab-monster with a dangerous capacity for burying other men facefirst in the mud.  He’s also an observant man, who watches and plans his next move as an erupting oil well sets fire to a towering derrick (while the son lies badly wounded in the opposite direction).  In the middle of this sequence, Anderson provides a startling shot: the burning pyre of a derrick, small in the middle of a vast black prairie, the dusky sunset on the horizon.  It’s an island of human destruction-achievement, a tiny hole in the world torn open by measured greed.  These moments hover over us from Anderson’s perch as the executor of his own peculiar universe, and I find it encouraging to see a filmmaker acknowledging his authority as a sculptor of sound and light, rejecting the idea that his invisibility somehow best articulates a story’s purpose.  We might otherwise not have such ebullient, self-contained master classes like Last Tango in Paris (1972) or Raging Bull (1980) – or, for that matter, Citizen Kane (1941) or The General (1926).

Oh, yes.  As with so many others, above that scene – competing with it for the bolder declaration of metastasizing chaos  – is Jonny Greenwood’s thumping, roiling score.  A post sound mixer friend of mine finds Greenwood’s music intrusive, mixed as it is very high in the soundtrack.  It frequently overtakes the natural sound in a scene, sometimes even the dialogue, with its slippery, discordant strings or its aggressive percussion.  Taken as a tool of the craft, I don’t see why Anderson can’t use it with pointed affect rather than as subliminal tone (it does both).  It has a life of its lively own, as much a part of Blood‘s complexion as the people who occupy the film, or the pensive dance of light and motion that characterizes Robert Elswit’s camerawork.  It’s got a tendony quality, like most scores, holding together and helping to flex the muscles of separate scenes, but I can only imagine the pure joy Anderson must have taken ladling it over his film, several years in the making, an au poivre over Day-Lewis’ medium-rare performance.

A measure of my ability to wrestle with art at all, it’s taken me the better part of two years to be able to articulate my understanding of this film.  And coming to the end of a review so rambling and lopsided, I’m reminded of the many alarming times I’ve worried that There Will Be Blood might ultimately be a hollow, flamboyant exercise.  It takes giant chances with its circuitous storytelling, risking coherence for consistency of tone and style.  The story itself offers no redemption of any kind.  It’s left many of my friends feeling drained and confused; a few have suggested that, without Day-Lewis’ hypnotizing presence, Blood would be boring.  They may be right, but that’s like saying that without wings a plane may not fly.  It also wouldn’t be a plane.  More to the point, a work of art constantly risks subjective failure.  Real communication through a medium as intuitive as film is profoundly personal, operating more on the rhythms between concrete action than on the mechanics of narration alone.  To read a Joyce novel is surely to receive a story at one level, but the degree of a reader’s receptivity to literature as artful tides of suggestive language, ebbing and flowing with the command of the writer, determines the depth and quality of the reader’s experience.  I say the same holds true of There Will Be Blood, with cinema in place of literature.  I can’t prove it objectively, but I can try to relay the ways in which it’s arrested my intellect and engaged my emotional faculties, developed as they are from my own experiences.  With a bit of cinema, and a bit of life.

Dr. Abdullah, the Lion’s Politician

Posted in Commentary on August 13, 2009 by baker

We first met this man for an hour one day before lunch, at his office in Kabul.  He is a slight diversion in our film about photographer Reza, but they are old friends from their years with Massoud.  Despite prior communication with his staff, it took the better part of an earlier hour to get inside, so we sat on the curb and waited, the bustling late morning traffic at curious shrugworthy odds with the lackadaisical pedestrians hunched nearby.  Dr. Abdullah’s armed guards patrolled the front gate, a nondescript alleyway between a fitness shop and, well, some other shop, as forgettable as those of any city block.

The thing about security in Kabul is that, when told not to film in one direction or another, you must simply wait until no one’s around to say no – or, just as good, until you’ve made friends with the people who’ve told you no.  One end of the street bordered an administrative building of some kind, heralded by a red-and-white enclosure , so, with Reza wired for sound, we filmed his impromptu conversation with the lemon vendor parked in the opposite direction to kill time.  Soldiers armed with Kalashnikovs – a sight so common throughout Afghanistan that their relative absence in provincial villages began to parody their abundance elsewhere – patrolled a razor-wired gate across the street, beyond a cart loaded with watermelons whose caretaker dozed in the dry heat.  We snuck off shots of the soldiers, between cars, when we guessed they weren’t looking.

bicyclesBetween mixing Reza’s lavalier, I took pictures of the watermelon vendor, the men passing time on the sidewalks, a pair of bicycles chained to a tree.  And then suddenly we were beckoned in, granted permission by a cadre of invisible higher powers working immediately below Dr. Abdullah – the Lion of Panjshir Ahmed Shah Massoud’s ally and chief political advisor during the Soviet war; former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Northern Alliance during the war against the Taliban, reappointed during the interim administration in December 2001, and confirmed the next year to serve under the Transitional Islamic State of Afghanistan; a trained opthalmologist; and candidate for the presidency of Afghanistan, having formally registered the day we arrived in Kabul on May 6, 2009.

His gate patrol was friendly and polite, no doubt treating us as friends of Reza instead of Americans or media; they glanced at my shotgun mic and searched my mixer bag as a matter of course – the airport guards would ransack my bags two weeks later as I was on my way out of the country as though I were smuggling their burka-clad women.  Behind the gate sat a small office building with a front desk and a single hallway branching off into the various meeting rooms, where quiet bearded men sat in comfortable chairs around glass tables laden with dishes of dried fruit and sugar-coated almonds.  Hallways are our lobbies; whatever takes place behind the frequently open doors is never far away, and the pertinent door is never entirely clear.

I had a picture of Dr. Abdullah before we arrived.  I knew little about him, except that we was a medical doctor and a confidante of Massoud’s.  I imagined him as an older man, looking serene and wise in a robe and long beard, well-trimmed as befitting a politician but humbler in dress, as befits a freedom fighter.  Dr. Abdullah is full-on politician.  He dresses – in Kabul – in fine suits, wearing a short beard and groomed gray hair.  He is average height and carries a middle-aged belly, and a face that, on the stage of geopolitics to which he aspires, is entirely unnoteworthy.  It did occur to me then that there should be no practical reason why Massoud’s most trusted associates should have distinguished features, but given Massoud’s own striking face and unmistakable scarecrow physicality, I envisioned a Dr. Abdullah who would first and foremost impress in appearance alone.  He does not.

What does strangely impress is his quiet way of speaking, his immediacy of presence.  We filmed his initial greeting with Reza before meeting him ourselves, and there is no doubt that as a politician – as a meeter of people, as a social entity, as a potential leader – he wields considerable gravitas.  But as is often the case with politicians, you’re simply not aware of it until afterward, when upon reflection his stature begins to stack up against the people around him.  With Reza, he is familiar, even intimate.  They speak closely and softly from four or five feet away in opposing chairs, both conscious of our cameras and completely complicit in each other’s faint posturing.  They are men of self-aware prestige, and have finessed the art of pose.  It’s not unnatural, really, nor false, not among equals.  They both know their weight in their relative fields, and care, passionately, that they do not appear insincere.

Their conversation is slight, somewhat rigid.  They have not met in some time, and their personal ease mixes awkwardly with their need to say something important for our camera.  Even as a sound guy, there are times when I’m more absorbed by a person’s behavior and the environment than by his words; Reza and Dr. Abdullah speak skirtingly of the need for proper leadership in Afghanistan, its brittle future, its chunky past, but I examine the open laptop in front of the fireplace; the tight organization of the couches and chairs in the room and our cameramen’s attempts to manuever them; the carefully framed position of Reza’s and Dr. Abdullah’s chairs, so clearly arranged for two conversing men to be photographed.  The windows just behind them are tightly curtained, so the room is oddly dark, illuminated only by the sunlight coming in from the glass doors across the room that somehow fails to bounce off the yellow walls.  Dr. Abdullah’s men stand silently in the front of the room near the door, a handful of suits without personalities.  The job of a politician’s henchman can’t be a glorious one, especially when your man is so obviously risking his life to run for the presidency, and these guys took it with a humbling seriousness.  When the meeting was over, they shuffled us out of the room with little more than the usual pomp, reserved mostly for Reza, and we were out of the building in a minute or two.

The next day we were on our way out of Kabul for the Panjshir Valley, and within the week met Dr. Adbullah twice in the valley.  As a Northern Alliance mujahideen, he would be greeted in Panjshir a virtual hero.  Ostensibly he was there to run for president, but his office and our crew were in irregular communication along the way, and the possibility of appearing in a National Geographic documentary couldn’t hurt him.  We ran into him – or rather, his convey overran ours – on the rutty, unpaved road heading north through the valley.  His SUVs passed ours and stopped in the village ahead of us as Reza tried to hurry our driver to catch up.  The doors on his vehicles opened with military precision and his armed guards flanked the road ahead and behind the convoy, ignoring us as we pulled to a stop just behind the last SUV.  Their AK-47s felt excessive here, among their strongest supporters in the entire country; that Dr. Abdullah did not appear, and his convoy suddenly packed in and raced ahead before Reza could get his attention, seemed indicative of the show of effortless force a presidential candidate probably feels he has to exhibit to convince the Afghan populace he’s worth voting for.

Dr AbdullahOur vehicles caught up with Dr. Abdullah’s a few miles up the valley, in a tiny village.  The local elders were all there, and Abdullah was dressed in a traditional white kurta instead of a suit.  We joined them in the second story of the only building in sight, in a room barely long enough, we would discover that night, for four men to sleep head-to-foot, as a giant meal – entirely out of scale with our rural environs – appeared on the floor before us.  A small, wizened man at the head of the room dominated the conversation by status and reputation alone, it would seem, as he uttered only a few words among the roomwide banter but drew rapt attention for each of them.  He commanded substantial respect from both Dr. Abdullah and Reza, and the hierarchical configuration of tribal Afghan society was never clearer to me than it was during this lunch.  The tone among leaders is one of lighthearted mutual respect, reminiscing on old times with a ponderous, vaguely self-conscious solemnity that, from time to time, can veer into emotional displays embarrassing for those of us without the cultural background to grasp its purpose.  The past is something to acknowledge and revere with feeling.  Our foreign selves excluded, every man in this room shared viscerally in that past.

Dinner wound to a close, and before Dr. Abdullah left, he and Reza repeated their conversation in Kabul, but this time with patience and greater openness, discussing the current trajectory of Afghanistan and Afghans as it seemed to them rather than as it played well for a camera crew.  They sat side by side on pillows in front of the window and spoke in low, intimate tones, so low that at times I had opened up their microphone channels all the way on my mixer, magnifying every foot shift and murmur from the other men in the room.  Dr. Abdullah speaks as a gunless general leading troops to bloodless battle, calm in his self-assurance and confident of his mission, and Reza listens as an old friend, trading Abdullah’s candor for unqualified support for his candidacy.  They strike me now as a pair of veterans, corraling their vast experience and complicated knowledge toward a sincere plan for the country’s future.  They understand Afghans’ fierce national pride and their collective shortcomings, and Dr. Abdullah voices more than once the inherent personal danger in running for Afghanistan’s presidency, of the almost certain voter fraud and, let’s say, extranational coersion that he feels will surely put Hamid Karzai back in office on August 20.

* * * * *

We ran into Dr. Abdullah once more, outside a mosque in Panjshir where he and his retinue had stopped for noon prayer.  He emerged from the mosque into the gathering supportive crowd, shadowed by his Kalashnikoved guards and hounded by our enormous camera, appearing at ease and in his element.  Our trip ended on May 21, and he has continued his abbreviated run for president since.  He holds second in the polls only to Karzai, who’s reviled in Afghanistan as a feckless Western appointee but who may win, perhaps on those very grounds.  Abdullah has traversed the country, addressing crowds in places, like Kandahar, where many of his opponents are afraid to appear; on July 28 gunmen wounded one of his campaign managers in western Afghanistan in an attack that killed the car’s driver.

Even if he wins the election, Abdullah would face the Taliban in the west and south of the country, growing insurgency against the American occupation throughout the country, and a pervasive cultural attitude that does not yet grasp the dynamics of democracy as we understand it.  He will be expected, like Obama, to fix the frustrating failures of the last administration with inordinate speed, and to bring peace to a country at current war with its former conqueror and on the verge of a second war with a current ally.

He seems to know he will lose to Karzai; his late arrival to the race suggests a near half-heartedness to his candidacy, but then, there is something unpredictable about the country’s mood anyway.  Afghanistan is pie-sliced from top to bottom: broken in the east, on fire in the south, and barely healing in the north, in terrible need of a unified direction thus far eluding its factions, tribes, and national politicians.  Yet Abdullah runs, with a heedless, unreasonably bold assurance Afghans should recognize.  The approach may or may not put Afghanistan back on a progressive, self-sustaining track, but for the last 30 years, nothing else has.

Posted in Photography on August 4, 2009 by baker

Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights promenade