Tuesday, March 02, 2010

View from the Tank: Multi-Pak



BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1966):

A stunning film. Beyond its remarkably balanced and thoughtful treatment of both the resistance fighters and the French colonial forces, the film is also a technical marvel, in its use of music, its editing, and its cinematography. The film is shockingly relevant today, especially in highlighting the fluid and malleable nature of the label of terrorism, the futility of occupation, and the corrosive effect occupation has on the occupiers. Simply one of the greatest films I have ever seen. A+

SHUTTER ISLAND (2010):

Gripping, over-the-top, and enjoyable for a good part of the movie. The ending is a bit disappointing, as everyone has noted, though there are minor hints thrown in to try, unsuccessfully, to make the ending more complex than it is. As absorbing as the film is, the effect seems to dissipate immediately upon leaving the theater -- nothing stays with you. B-

A SERIOUS MAN (2009): (SPOILERS)

In many ways, a hilarious film -- but possibly also a profound film. An often trippy take on the Book of Job, set to Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix, and set in the aluminum-sided, squat ranch neighborhoods of 60's or 70's American suburbia. The Coen brothers riff on their greatest works here, but to a new, often dazzling effect. Their movies often feel like they keep trying to say something, over and over, in a way that we ultimately don't quite get (though we're kept thoroughly entertained all the while). Never has that feeling been as acute as it is here.

It does seem that the filmmakers are trying to say something by having the protagonist, Larry Gopnik, say, over and over, as the people around him take action and begin to destroy his world, "I haven't done anything!" Indeed, the film opens with the quote: "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you." Gopnik is hounded throughout the film by someone calling from the Columbia Record Club: they want to be paid for the records they've been sending Gopnik. Gopnik (or his son) has apparently signed up for the Record Club, and they send him records, and charge him, if he doesn't do anything. As Gopnik's wife is telling him she is leaving him, Gopnik protests that "he hasn't done anything," and his wife says, "That's right. You haven't done anything."

The theme of passivity and reception, of allowing things to happen to one is highlighted in Gopnik's opening scene, where we see him in the doctor's office. The doctor is looking into his ear, and then checking his pupils: we're looking at Gopnik's portals on the world. We aren't shown Gopnik's hands or his mouth, with which Gopnik would actively participate in the world -- with which he would take action and do something. (When Gopnik later takes action, the shot focuses on his hands, taking action in the world.)

Later, Gopnik is on his roof, adjusting the television aerial, and as he touches it, he begins to hear television signals: he becomes a receiver, an extension of the antennae. Later, his son Daniel, at his bar mitzvah, is holding a metal staff, pointed at Hebrew script in the Torah. Daniel hesitates and a rabbi pushes the staff across the text -- and there's a sound like a needle across a record (record players keep showing up throughout the movie) and then Daniel catches a groove, and begins to read, singing a prayer, the staff moving along the text as he reads. (Daniel, in his opening scene, is shown in a close-up of an earphone in his ear; the earphone is playing rock music in his ear as he sits through a Hebrew class.)

The idea of simply allowing things to happen to one's self seems to be connected, at a profound level, to the distinctions between ancient Greek and Hebrew thought -- a foundational division in Western thought. Greek (and not-so-distantly related Indian) religion and philosophy emphasized the image, the aspects of vision and form. The Romans continued this. In contrast, God's command to the Jews was often "Hear, O Israel!" Where the Greeks (and Indians) reveled in physical forms, depictions of bodies, God forbade the Jews from creating or worshiping graven images, and emphasized the word. Greek and Indian gods appeared, took physical form; the Jewish God was never seen -- only heard.

So there is plainly a theme here, of being open to the world, allowing it to act upon you -- perhaps as a way of hearing God's voice -- but it's unclear if the filmmakers endorse this attitude toward the world, find it flawed, or simply find it a hilarious premise: have a character to whom things happen, and who is unable or unwilling to actually do anything. The film suggests, undermining its opening quote, that doing nothing is not always the moral, ethical, or wise choice.

In the bizarre but fascinating opening scene, a husband and wife confront a possible dybbuk -- a possessed body. The husband laughs off the possibility that the visitor is a dybbuk, but the wife takes action, stabbing the dybbuk with an ice pick. The strong suggestion, in my reading, was that the wife was correct to act -- though we cannot say with certainty that she was not wrong, and did not bring down a curse upon the family. Either way, the scene seems difficult to square with Gopnik's story.

Later, the father of one of Gopnik's students, referring to a perplexing situation Gopnik does not understand, urges Gopnik to "accept the mystery." In his class, Gopnik completes a proof "showing with certainty that the only thing we can be certain of is uncertainty" (a line that seemed a bit on-the-nose). The filmmakers seem to be trying to underline this theme of allowing the world to happen to one's self and accepting uncertainty, but they show how this posture can lead to the collapse of everything. And when Gopnik does act, at the end of the film, it appears that he's immediately punished for it, with an ominous call from his physician (following up with Larry on the results of the physical exam we saw at the opening of the film). At the same time, a tornado is approaching Daniel's Hebrew school, and the children are milling around in the parking lot, watching it come -- doing nothing -- suggesting that passivity, and allowing the world to happen to you is often a terrible idea.

No doubt, the contradictory messages were intentionally constructed. And perhaps the filmmakers mean for us to accept the mystery of not knowing whether the film is suggesting that we should accept the world as it comes to us or attempt to change it. Perhaps the ultimate answer, as one of the rabbis Gopnik consults suggest, really does not matter -- or we're not entitled to it (if there is one). That the film raises these questions in such an interesting way is in itself a major feat.

The technical aspects of the film are superb. The story of the inscribed teeth, set to Jimi Hendrix, is hallucinatory, incredible. The actors, mostly unknowns in Hollywood, are all excellent. The cinematography is wonderful.

To say to the audience "accept the mystery" could be seen as a cheap cop out -- somewhat like the "twist" in SHUTTER ISLAND. But it feels richer, more substantial that that. This film is full of substance, full of matter to be considered. It is confusing, seemingly contradictory, and not fully coherent, but it feels like an attempt to struggle with how to see the world. But that may be a reading too serious for the film, which in its choice of title, goads us not to take the film seriously, and to laugh at the absurd things that befall Gopnik. A-

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