F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 4, 2014)

4 07 2014

sTabloidOn the occasion of the United States’ 238th birthday, why not celebrate a lesser-trumpeted American fascination? (Not that freedom, liberty, and equality aren’t nice.). This is a value we share with pretty much the whole world, and we might have even invented it.

The concept to which I’m referring, if you haven’t caught on by now, is celebrity culture and our seemingly insatiable desire for every salacious detail of their lives. Incisive documentarian Errol Morris explored this predilection in his 2011 film “Tabloid,” a compulsively entertaining tale that played out in cheap, gossipy newspapers in the 1970s. It gets my pick as the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because of the way it provides non-stop ridiculous fun even while posing some peculiarly perplexing issues to ponder.

It was described as “a story with something for everyone,” and they weren’t kidding.  Joyce McKinney’s rise to tabloid infamy had all the bizarre elements of a Hollywood movie: sex, cults, brainwashing, kidnapping … and maybe love, depending on who you ask.  After falling in love with the devoutly Mormon man Kurt, Joyce refuses to let their relationship be torn apart by the customary mission.  She organizes a team to go extract him from England, and crazy hijinks ensue that give Joyce an unusually bright-shining 15 minutes of fame.

Morris lets McKinney tell her own story on her terms, but he certainly doesn’t take it at face value.  He amasses a whole host of other subjects with their own ties to the events, be they participants or the tabloid reporters that made her and then destroyed her.  “Tabloid” provides a fascinating tussle for the truth; we’re never quite sure who to believe or trust.  Everyone has their own motive for spinning the narrative their own way.  Who can say if we’ll ever know what actually happened or why people acted in the way they did.

The film clips along thanks to Morris’ quite literally ripped-from-the-headlines aesthetic.  (Newspaper clippings abound, dispersed throughout the interviews and the archival footage.)  For people like me who weren’t alive in that era, “Tabloid” serves as a reminder that E! and the reality TV phenomenon didn’t just come out of nowhere; our culture has a rich history of using whatever the predominant news media is to elevate the average citizen to superhuman status only to bring them right back down to earth.

REVIEW: The Unknown Known

28 06 2014

The Unknown KnownMost great documentaries about political malfeasance features countless interviews with academics and reporters, the majority of whom are extremely knowledgeable about the topic.  Yet rarely do you see direct participants sit down and talk with filmmakers about their role in the events.  (We can thank their cautious PR people, worried of a negative soundbite in a nonstop news cycle.)

None of the big names in the financial crisis, on Wall Street or in Washington, sat down for “Inside Job.”  (Prominent decliners are even listed on the film’s website.)  SeaWorld didn’t talk to the makers of “Blackfish.”  Yet for some odd reason, Donald Rumsfeld actually faced off with documentarian Errol Morris in an extensive interview that forms the backbone of “The Unknown Known.”  Yes, the man with his hands in the cookie jar during events from Watergate to the war in Iraq agreed to sit down with a documentarian whose work has literally gotten someone off Death Row.

The very fact that “The Unknown Known” exists is dumbfounding in and of itself.  Rumsfeld is no idiot, and he surely must have realized that the film was not going to be some puff piece to exonerate him in the annals of history.  In fact, it was more likely to be a hatchet job than anything.

Morris, however, does not indulge all those who would love nothing more than to have the documentary serve as an unofficial trial for war crimes.  He largely lets Rumsfeld spin his own narrative, occasionally interjecting with objections or pointed questions.  At least from what we see, Morris and Rumsfeld never engage in an all-out shouting match like you’d see on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

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REVIEW: The Act of Killing

30 07 2013

The Act of KillingRecently in a film class, a discussion arose about disturbing film scenes.  The conversation kept coming back to the rape scene in David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which many people found uncomfortable and hard to watch.  Someone interjected as the voice of reason and said, “Well, yeah, that’s the point.  It’s rape, a horrible act – you aren’t supposed to feel comfortable!”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” tackles another tough subject, one affecting societies rather than individuals: genocide.  Unbeknownst to many (but perhaps surprising to few), the new Indonesian military government commissioned gangsters and paramilitary groups to exterminate dreaded communists in 1965.  As you can imagine, their targets grew in scope beyond avowed Marxists, and the term “communist” came to signify anyone that they consider to be their opposition.  By the next year, they had killed over a million people.

Believe it or not, these perpetrators have not been tried for war crimes.  They proudly walk the streets of Indonesia, boasting of their murders and willing to simulate their violent acts.  Documentarian Oppenheimer crafts an unconventional film around these men by asking them to film reenactments of how they killed and what it felt like.

What ensues in “The Act of Killing” is nothing short of a crash course on the social construction of morality.  Men such as Anwar Congo have a level of impunity in Indonesia because their society does not deem such acts as wrong.  If you’ve ever thought a cinematic gangster was cool, prepare to feel rather shameful when Congo and his band of gangsters talk about how they felt inspired and empowered by films like “The Godfather.”

At times, though, the film fixates a little too strongly on these cultural differences.  The result is a rather dark comedy that happens to end on a harrowing note to drive home the horror of these acts.  While this conclusion (that I dare not spoil) is effective on perhaps the most collective of gut-levels, I didn’t leave feeling all that unsettled or discomforted.  What I’ll remember is that “The Act of Killing” was the most blackly humorous documentary I’ve seen since “Inside Job.”  That’s an accomplishment, to be sure, but not quite the one I think Oppenheimer was aiming for.  B2halfstars