Sunday, September 06, 2009

End of Summer

Anyone who follows the movie industry probably already knows that there are "down" periods, when the big studios start unloading the stuff they don't have any confidence in. Some clever studios counter-program during these periods, but the conventional wisdom is that these periods are wastelands. Usually, these fall in February through early April and late August through early October. Lately, though, I've been very interested in these periods, because some of those throwaway projects are a LOT more daring than the stuff from blockbuster season and award season. Case in point, two movies I've been mulling over for a couple of weeks.

The visitor's mother ship hovers over Johannesburg.

It's taken me a while to write about District 9 (2009, directed by Neill Blomkamp) because I've needed to divorce myself from the actual experience of watching it. I saw it in a theater with state of the art equipment, one that seems to have resurrected the old Sensurround process that rumbles through the audience with such force that it vibrates the fillings out of one's teeth. The screen itself was huge, though it was a shade smaller than an IMAX. In all, the equipment at the theater was pummeling. In truth, it gave me a headache, which wasn't helped by the visual conceit of the movie, which posits a cross between Alien Nation and The Battle of Algiers. Given the distance of a couple of weeks, I think I can divorce all of this from my reaction, and focus on the actual content of the movie.

What this is is a political allegory, though what the symbolism actually means is a matter of interpretation. The film is pointedly set in South Africa, where the "District 9" of the title calls to mind the ghettos during Apartheid. Certainly, the brutal tactics shown by the authorities towards the alien visitors confined here are deliberate echoes. The story itself follows a minor functionary who is tasked with clearing the alien visitors from the ghetto. This guy, one Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely) calls to my mind Hannah Arendt's evocation of Adolph Eichmann as "an efficient bureaucrat." Evil is banal, after all. Wikus, though, has a political awakening after he's infected with alien DNA, which makes him able to operate the alien's technology. His transformation--literalized on screen as he begins to morph into an alien a la Seth Brundle in The Fly forms the moral argument of the movie. The other major character in the film is an alien named "Christopher Johnson," who has an agenda all his own. He's a pretty expressive character for being a computer generated avatar. This is all very interesting, but at some point, I began to wonder what was the point. I mean, it's a protest movie, of sorts, but in protesting Apartheid, it seems to me that it's waving its arms at the train after it has passed. Apartheid has been dead for a while.

So obviously it has something else on its mind.

The aliens in this film could be any demonized "other." The techniques used by the authorities--many at the hands of private contractors--seem very timely given revelations about how the United States has conducted the so-called "War on Terror." But some of these themes are undermined by the depiction of itinerant Nigerian gangsters, who are portrayed as cannibals. This seems a pretty racist depiction, really, but maybe the rest of the world has different standards of racism. This film is an international film, after all. I think it's a pretty confused movie, but it's not one without pleasures. Certainly, Wikus is a fun character to watch, all the more so because he's not a very likable character who manages the not inconsiderable feat of becoming a hero. He reminds me a bit of the lead in Peter Jackson's Braindead (Dead Alive to Americans), though he's more of a prick. He almost has to be for the audience to enjoy watching him slowly stripped of his privilege as the movie progresses. And, of course, the movie blows shit up real good. It mercifully shys away from the run and gun approach to action, which is odd given its hand-held shooting aesthetic. In a lot of ways, the climax of the film takes its cues from Japanese Animation rather than Hollywood action films.

In any event, it's an interesting movie.

Shoshana (Melanie Laurent) contemplates her revenge.

The other interesting movie is Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds (2009). Whatever else the film may be, it's a conversation piece, and not just for its willingness to re-write the end of World War II. I wasn't really sure there was anything there as I walked out of the theater, but I've had more discussions about this film than I have about any film in recent memory.

I don't really have any recollection of the details of Enzo Castellari's prototype. I saw it on HBO in the dim and distant dawn of cable television. I remember being titillated by nekkid women with machine guns, and I remember Bo Svenson because I had seen one or the other Walking Tall movies at about the same time, but of the plot, I remember nothing. Not that it matters, because this film doesn't have anything in common with Castellari's film apart from a title with the spelling slummed, and cameos by the director and by Svenson. This isn't a "remake" in any sense of the word.

The movie itself has two story tracks. The first is the story of Shoshanna Dreyfuss and Colonel Hans Landa, respectively a Jewish girl and an SS officer tasked with tracking down hidden Jews. Landa massacres Shoshanna's family leaving only her alive. She survives and shows up several years later as the owner of a Parisian movie house. A chance meeting with a German soldier who is also a movie fan sucks Shoshanna back into Landa's orbit and she conceives of a fitting revenge. Meanwhile, the other story track unfolds. This is the story track that gives the film its name. The "Basterds" (sic) are an elite unit of Jewish soldiers assembled by good ol' boy Lt. Aldo Raine and tasked with killing Nazis. Because of their position, they become the point man for "Operation Kino," a plot to kill the entire Nazi high command at the premiere of one of Goebbel's propaganda films. Obviously, these two plots have a collision course, but something odd happens near the end of the film: they never really connect. In more than one of those conversations that I've had about his movie, I've speculated that the movie might be better if the entire "Basterds" plotline were removed wholesale, because it's by far the weakest element of the film.

It doesn't take a genius to look at that plot synopsis and conclude that the movie is yet another of Tarantino's odes to his favorite movies. You can already find catalogs of all of the allusions online. I won't go into them here. The question I was asking myself when I left the theater was: "Okay, what is this actually saying about the movies?" My initial, knee-jerk reaction is that this was an example of pop eating itself, but that's too facile, because, whatever else it is, the way this movie re-writes the end of the war is too big a fantasy convention to be meaningless. And it's really no more offensive than the way war movies have always re-written the war, in spite of the way it takes it to an extreme. Our perception of World War II, now that it is receding from living memory, is always, always going to be drawn from movies, and I think this film is acutely aware of this fact. I might even be tempted to claim it as Inglourious Basterd's central thesis.

As pure abstraction, it's a showcase for all that Tarantino has learned from movies, and even though they're pastiche, he makes his found images uniquely his own. I'm not one of those people that thinks Tarantino gets all of his ideas from other movies. His preference for long takes, for example, is distinctive. So is his recurring foot fetish. The director has also relearned the potential of conversations to build suspense. The threat of death seems a bit more serious than it did in the Kill Bills.

As I say, I don't think much of the men on a mission part of the movie, though I like Brad Pitt just fine. He gets a good joke out of his southern accent late in the movie. Eli Roth (who directed the "Nation's Pride" film-within-a-film) apparently used up the production's entire budget for eyeliner. The other half of the movie, though, is fascinating. Landa is a charismatic monster, and Shoshanna, as played by Melanie Laurent, is basically Marlene Dietrich to Tarantino's Von Sternberg. The ending, in smoke and fire, is a love letter to Laurent's face, echoing an earlier sequence in which that face is made up to the strains of David Bowie's theme from Cat People.

All told, it's a prickly movie. Greatly flawed, admittedly, but it has people talking about movies in a way that they usually don't. It's certainly Tarantino's first really important film of the decade, just in time for the next decade to start.

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