Wednesday, August 24, 2005

On Spielberg and the Mossad assassin

There’s an aspect of commercial film-making that I dislike intensely and it comes up in this article in the New York Times. The subject: Spielberg’s as yet untitled film on the massacre of Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at Munich 1972. Turns out that Spielberg’s film only opens with the massacre but is mainly about the Israeli retaliation that followed as Mossad painstakingly and calculatedly hunted down and assassinated persons believed to be among the kidnappers.

The Munich episode has already been effectively captured in a documentary that I saw last year – One day in September. One Day, which is narrated by Michael Douglas, recreates an almost second-to-second account of the hostage crisis by inter-cutting actual footage, interviews with officials, onlookers and the relatives of the hostages. It also incorporates interviews with the lone surviving Palestinian hostage-taker, a man who has been in hiding since then and has escaped several Israeli attempts on his life. That documentary was unequivocal in assigning blame – not, however on the moral implications of the Palestinian actions – on West German officials in Munich who were anxious, at all costs to show that they were capable of dealing with the crisis when they clearly were not. Critics have accused One day of being a “thriller” but I thought that the movie was rather detached; in a sense, the makers wanted simply to recreate the nightmare that was Munich 1972. Beyond highlighting the incompetent West German actions, they clearly did not want to get into any kind of discussion on the morality of the parties in question, since any discussion on the Israel-Palestinian takes only seconds to get inflamed. (At Columbia, where I studied, any article on the dispute in the Spectator meant publishing at least four letters subsequent day with a different interpretation of events).

But back to the offending paragraph in the article:

The film, which is being written by the playwright Tony Kushner - it is his first feature screenplay - begins with the killing of 11 Israeli athletes in Munich. But it focuses on the Israeli retaliation: the assassinations, ordered by Prime Minister Golda Meir, of Palestinians identified by Israeli intelligence as terrorists, including some who were not directly implicated in the Olympic massacre. By highlighting such a morally vexing and endlessly debated chapter in Israeli history - one that introduced the still-controversial Israeli tactic now known as targeted killings - Mr. Spielberg could jeopardize his tremendous stature among Jews both in the United States and in Israel.
Yes, it’s called losing stature (the aspect of commercial film-making that I hate). That’s probably why any commercial film-maker will never make a film that engages with politics beyond the superficial. Ridley Scott – a director with magnificent visual skills – made Kingdom of Heaven on the Crusades. Yet his movie is stultifying in its political correctness – both sides are essentially humanists/multiculturalists – and the reason for that is simple: Scott doesn’t want to come across as anti-Christian or anti-Islam. (See David Edelstein’s scathing review in Slate).

Michael Oren (who recently argued in a stimulating New Republic article that the new German film Downfall merely gave Germany and Germans a guilt-free pass) has this to say:

"I don't know how many of them actually had 'troubling doubts' about what they were doing. It's become a stereotype, the guilt-ridden Mossad hit man. You never see guilt-ridden hit men in any other ethnicity. Somehow it's only the Jews. I don't see Dirty Harry feeling guilt-ridden. It's the flip side of the rationally motivated Palestinian terrorist: you can't have a Jew going to exact vengeance and not feel guilt-ridden about it, and you can't have a Palestinian who's operating out of pure evil - it's got to be the result of some trauma."
The guilt-ridden Mossad assassin is also the center-piece of the new Etyan Fox movie Walk on Water. As the film begins, we see Eyal, who comes back after a “job” to find his wife has killed herself. Recovering from a depression, he is given a small assignment. To keep an eye on two visiting German siblings – Axel and Pia – who are the grand-children of an absconding Nazi war-criminal. Assigned as a guide to Axel, Eyal takes a liking to the young man (played in a lovely performance by the German actor Knut Berger). He is confused when he discovers Axel is gay and furious when Axel picks up a young Palestinian in a gay bar. Male bonding is clearly Fox’s forte and Walk on Water sparkles in the Israel scenes. The slender waif-like Burger and the tough Lior Ashkenazi are an attractive couple and the actors sparkle in their scenes together which are lovely and unforced (it’s astonishing how physiognomically similar these two are to Fox’s Yossi and Jagger).

Yet when Eyal is forced to follow Axel back to Germany (in a torturous plot twist), the movie self-destructs spectacularly. The tone turns melodramatic and the narrative turns into an archetypal tale of redemption; clearly not Fox’s best genre. The fault has less to do with Fox’s direction but instead with his use of narrative clich├ęs, so at odds with his naturalistic direction. We know that the tormented Eyal will have to choose – between the human being he is and the killing-machine he has become. We also know that his wife’s suicide had something to do with his “occupation”. Yet the finale is wooden and not remotely convincing.

I should admit at the outset that I have rather a soft spot for Fox (Yossi and Jagger is a little gem of a film in my opinion). His characters are clearly like him: idealistic, passionately political and without an element of irony or cynicism. Walk on Water is only a small misstep for him but I hope he keeps on making his kind of films.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Media bias, church-state separation etc.

A couple of things that I simply mentioned in passing in one of my earlier posts have suddenly acquired a life of their own.

Judge Richard Posner wrote a huge piece in the New York Times Book Review on – well, don’t hold your breath – media bias. Posner’s essay is long and a little unwieldy. Jack Shafer of Slate rips into it here. There are certain things in Posner’s essay that ring false even on first reading. For instance:

The latest, and perhaps gravest, challenge to the journalistic establishment is the blog.
And later:


How can the conventional news media hope to compete? Especially when the competition is not entirely fair. The bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking up any of the tab. The degree of parasitism is striking in the case of those blogs that provide their readers with links to newspaper articles. The links enable the audience to read the articles without buying the newspaper. The legitimate gripe of the conventional media is not that bloggers undermine the overall accuracy of news reporting, but that they are free riders who may in the long run undermine the ability of the conventional media to finance the very reporting on which bloggers depend.

First of all, as Shafer also points out in his article, most people haven’t even heard of blogs. I’m surrounded by fairly internet-friendly group of people – people my age, comfortable with the internet, who think email is indispensable and who use Google as the first resource for finding information – and most of them don’t read blogs. The ones who do know what a blog means sometimes start their personal ones or comment on their friends’ pages but political blogs are still the exclusive realm of political junkies. Most people who read the newspapers (online or paper) normally wouldn’t read the book reviews. It’s the same with political blogs which are too insiderish – I mean who wants to know that Michael Kinsley and Susan Estrich had a fight recently? – and just do not interest people, at least the normal kind (Abnormal ones, like me, on the other hand, love such juicy squabbles).

It is absurd to insist that the readership of the New York Times has decreased because of the internet and the blogs. If anything, the readership has increased. Many more people, who would ordinarily never even have considered buying the New York Times now read it online. And that’s leaving out people outside the US. No? (Of course – the question of how to make internet advertisements work or how to charge these new readers is still open. But I think the market will solve them in due course).

Well – the second article is one by Noah Feldman (of What we owe Iraq) – an extract of his new book (the man churns out books, apparently). Feldman has a solution to the church-state wars: strictly no funding of any religious institutions but let them display symbols all they like. In other words, remain firm on the important issues, give away on the less important ones. Slate, as usual, has a critique.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Wes Craven's Red Eye

I saw the new Wes Craven thriller “Red Eye” yesterday and Rachel McAdams, the young actress is certainly impressive. I looked up McAdams filmography on imdb.com and apparently, she has had some high-banner movies under her belt including a turn in Mean Girls (which I loved - the movie, not her turn, which was good, not great!) and The Notebook (the trailer was so horrendous that I never quite ventured anywhere near it). I can see why Craven chose McAdams for the role – the girl has a toughness about her, a way of looking directly, arrestingly, at the camera. She’s more than a match for Cillian Murphy, who after Batman Begins, gets to do another creepy role (He is “Jack Rippner” who does “oh, government overthrows, high-profile assassinations, the usual stuff” for a living). And really Murphy is far too creepy for my taste – with those pink lips and blue blue eyes. And this is the actor who first broke into the big scene as an old-fashioned protagonist in Danny Boyle’s 28 days later! Murphy and McAdams are going to go far, methinks.

And the movie? It’s a very well-crafted thriller. Craven can’t quite sustain the tension during the air-plane ride. Instead he looks at the actors in hard close-ups and lets them do their bit. The claustrophobic environs of an airplane are well-captured and I particularly liked the bit inside the restroom. The movie ends with a flourish however, in the kind of scenario that Craven knows inside-out – a slasher with a knife chasing a young nubile girl in a deserted house. Despite seeing the scenario hundreds of times, it’s still astonishing how it still manages to wring you out, when done well.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

On my late coming to the BBC's The Office

When I generally watch a television show on DVD, the temptation to go on watching episode after episode is almost irresistible. I’ve watched shows for hours without stopping in the DVD format (but shows aren’t meant to be watched in this way; I got tired of the OC and Six Feet Under in just twelve and forty episodes respectively J ): Sex and the City, the O.C., Six Feet Under, Friends. But I couldn’t watch more than an episode of The Office, the BBC’s acclaimed sitcom/reality/drama (There are six episodes in each of the two seasons besides a two hour finale). Not because the show’s not any good. But the show’s (brilliantly constructed) combination of excruciating pauses, bad jokes, and social satire is only ingestible in small doses. The Office is probably the only sitcom (but it’s not a sitcom) which is expressly designed not to be funny. It is a little closer to reality tv (but it’s not reality tv) but much less condescending, to its characters, than say your average dating show.

Dana Stevens of Slate calls the Office as “cringe-theater” and the epithet fits it to a T. My own favorite cringe-moments (from the first episode) are the pained expressions that the blonde receptionist Dawn shoots, when manager David (played pitch-perfectly by creator-director Ricky Gervais) makes one of his all-too-frequent conversational (bad) jokes. The Office is a series one admires (for the style, the syntax, the acting, the script – everything!) more than loves – but it is on every level, a classic. Now I’m all set to watch the marathon NBC version on Wednesday (in it’s first season) - lets see how it compares!