Sunday, January 25, 2009

The View from the Tank: Still Life (2006), The Reader (2008), and Slap Shot (1977)



Still Life (2006; U.S. release 2008)
A quietly stunning film. Again and again, I caught myself marveling at the incredible cinematography in this movie -- despite that often the vistas were of crumbling demolition sites, shirtless workers eating in a hovel, or partially submerged neighborhoods. I don't know why the director, Jia Zhang-ke, felt the need to include the bizarre sci-fi elements throughout -- they seemed almost comical.

The film is an interesting book-end to the excellent 2006 documentary Up the Yangtze, which also focused on the massive displacement wrought by the Three Gorges Project. The film demands to be seen: it feels like one of the most relevant and realistic pictures to be had of the crumbling, exploding, confused, gigantic confusion of China today. Four tentacles (out of five).

The Reader (2008)

A confusing, but intriguing work, which seems to struggle between convention and something completely different. The movie is, in some sense, a Holocaust movie, and includes a visit to a preserved concentration camp, a review of cages holding thousands of victims's shoes, the protagonist's hands touching barbed wire ringing the camp, etc. The source of the film's controversy is that it focuses on a former SS camp guard, Hannah Schmidts (Kate Winslet), and her young lover, Michael (David Kross -- the older Michael is played by Ralph Fiennes, who is not that good here). Hannah is illiterate, which you inevitably know going into this film; in one of the weaker points in the film, the director tries to build a sense of revelation during Hannah's trial, when Michael "figures out" (via a cheesy montage) that Hannah is illiterate. This unfortunate piece is filmmaking catering to the lowest common denominator of the audience, and comes off as vaguely insulting to the viewer.

More to the point, the film, through Michael's point of view, puts the viewer in the impossible position of trying to decide how to feel about Hannah's past, as we watch her being put on trial two decades or so after the war. We're made to feel that Hannah was just signing up with the SS because she "heard there were jobs", though we also learn that she knew that the prisoners under her watch were being sent off to their deaths. The film offers us a lot of Hannah's present humanity, and only verbal testimony of her past inhumanity, so the emotional "evidence" is a bit stacked.

Winslet plays Hannah as a conflicted and haunted woman (and she is excellent, though I was probably more impressed with Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married), though we are never quite clear on what Hannah feels about the past. She seems to think of it as something completed and finished -- what is the point of contemplating it? she suggests. There are some interesting discussions of the purposes of punishment for individuals like Hannah -- can punishment, in the form of a life sentence, serve to make her "learn" something? What is the purpose of having her "learn" something? What does the film want us to feel for Hannah? Forgiveness? That seems impossible. Understanding? Again, we are tempted, given the humanity of present-day Hannah we are shown, but it is impossible to square that empathy with her SS duties. There seems to be a larger indictment of all of Europe -- and a suggestion that the singling out of individuals such as Hannah for education through punishment is somewhat misguided or a mere distraction -- lurking in the film, but it's not fully expressed.

Perhaps the sense of confusion I was left with was the very point of the film: recognizing evil, the evil in the otherwise humane, and the humanity in the otherwise evil. Is it better to complicate the picture of the Holocaust rather than simplify it? I'm not sure, but this film (and the underlying novel) have put a tremendous amount of thought into that question. It took some bravery to make a film with so clouded a message. Three and a half tentacles.

Slap Shot (1977)

I don't know why it took me so long to see this movie. I am not a huge hockey fan, and I don't really watch too many sports comedies these days, but I'm supremely happy that I did finally see this movie: it has to be the most hilarious movie about sports I've ever seen. It's certainly one of the funniest movies, period, I've seen in years.

Paul Newman is in great comic form here, but at the heart of the movie are the Hanson Brothers: the bespectacled, man-child goons who show up on player-coach Reggie Dunlop's (Newman) failing minor league hockey team in the failing mill town of Charlestown, West Virginia. The Hanson Brothers became such a hit through this movie that they apparently still go on tour throughout Canada, where fans of the film (and its two sequels) are legion.

The film features what has to be one of the more inspired endings in sports-film history. An all-time classic: four and a half tentacles.

1 comment:

MK said...

Re: the Reader, you misunderstand something here. You say:

"We're made to feel that Hannah was just signing up with the SS because she "heard there were jobs", though we also learn that she knew that the prisoners under her watch were being sent off to their deaths."

You're missing the point. The issue is not one of convenience but of vanity and insecurity driving a person into becoming a butcher. Hannah signs up with the SS when she is offered a promotion at Siemens, which, had she accepted, would have inevitably revealed her illiteracy, which she was trying to keep secret at all cost. She runs from Siemens into the arms of the SS. (Siemens was then, and still is, the largest German electronics company.) The same happens when she suddenly leaves Michael's hometown: she is given a promotion at the public transportation authority and is asked to work in the office, which once again would have revealed her illiteracy. She freaks and bolts. In the book, Micheal researches her background nad finds out that she pulled the same stunt in a couple of other places. She is from a broken family background with no education and at all costs wants to maintain the image of a normal member of society. This drives her to hurt people, whether literally as an SS agent, or by discarding lovers on a whim as she does with Michael.

Also, you say:

"She seems to think of it as something completed and finished -- what is the point of contemplating it? she suggests."

Not sure where you get that. She is tormented by her past and trying to escape it throughout.

Exhibit A: the scene where she is weeping in the church during their bicycle excursion. Clearly, the church brings back memories of that fateful night and causes irrepressible feelings of guilt to well up. This scene is not in the book, IIRC. Instead, in the book, once she learns how to read in prison, she devours all literature on the Holocaust that she can get her hands on. For obvious cinematic narrative reasons that would have been somewhat harder to depict.

Exhibit B: her court testimony - she is clearly at a loss as to what society expected of her then and what it expects of her now, very much indicating that the past for her is not a closed case, but an ongoing struggle to comprehend. Her punting the question back at the judge "What would you have done?" is one of the best moments in the book - somewhat less successful in the movie - but it illustrates the central question: when caught in a web of social entanglements, conventions and the pressure to maintain your own facade and hide your secrets, how would other humans behave? It is easy to self-righteously declare something evil ex post facto, but how would your own psychological vulnerabilities have driven your response at that time and under those circumstances? How would you have judged your behavior then? *That* is the question. And it is the answer to this question that explains how it is that so many tolerated, aided and abetted such evil for so long. And it is this question that is so rarely seriously explored in movies, and therefore what makes the Reader so valuable.

Exhibit C: Her will. Nobody who considers the past completed and finished, comes around and asks for her meagre belongings to be donated to the surviving victim of the massacre in which she participated.

Again, as regards ex post-judgment, the reason you have that scene with Michael visiting the camp is that here you have a member of the postwar generation trying to understand the enormity of the crime; not in an academic sense in which he is studying it in class and without the detachment which allows his classmate to rant so self-righteously, but on a human level. I thought Kross did a great job just with his facial expressions conveying how hard it is for a generation once removed to reall grasp that. It is in that sense not at all a Holocaust movie, but one of the German postwar generation trying to come to terms with its inextricable Nazi heritage. That Michael commits generational incest with Hanna is so to speak the metaphor for this inseverable relationship.