Monday, January 16, 2006

The New Red Cross advertisement...

Seth Stevenson analyzes the latest American Red Cross ad in Slate.

The ad itself goes like this:
A young guy delivers a monologue. "When I found out my jeans were made using child labor in sweatshops," he begins, "I wrote a letter to the company saying, 'Reconsider your labor practices.' " He goes on to tell a convoluted tale about his efforts to change the world—and how they are thwarted at every turn. Ultimately, he argues, his attempts to stop child labor will—in an indirect fashion—eradicate the rain forest, kill off indigenous tribes, and impede cancer research. A tag line fades in: "Saving the world isn't easy. Saving a life is. Just one pint of blood can save up to three lives. Give blood."
Stevenson asks:
Since when do charities bash the competition? Imagine a spot arguing that Ethiopian orphans are more worthy than Somali orphans. That tsunami victims are more worthy than Katrina victims. Wouldn't happen. Yet this ad argues that giving blood is a better choice than advocating on behalf of those child laborers. It presents do-gooding as a zero-sum game.
Point taken. But the ad has a point too. Activism is rarely as simple as activists make it sound. When one is protesting a systemic injustice, nothing is really as cut-and-dried as it looks, unless of course one is using the easy language of simple moral criticism. Consider the twin thorny issues of child-labor and sweat-shops. Michael Kinsley argues (very convincingly, I think) that it is one thing to ask governments to restrict imports that have been made with child and/or unpaid/low-paid labor. It is quite another to argue that working-conditions in developing countries be changed altogether, which is what some of the protestors against sweat-shop labor seem to imply. After all, as Kinsley tersely puts it: It is no favor to be forbidden to take advantage of your poverty, when poverty is the only thing you have.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Unforgettable moments...

The New York Times has a section called “Unforgettable Moments” where its three critics, describe what they feel is an unforgettable moment in the movies this year. Manohla Dargis describes a scene from David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, A.O. Scott goes for Jeffrey Wright’s barbecue scene in Stephen Gagan’s Syriana (more on this in subsequent posts) but the tour de force is by Stephen Holden describing, in his own words, a vignette from Rodrigo GarcĂ­a"s Nine Lives. I’ve heard a lot about Nine Lives, in particular about the lovely performances of all its leading ladies, notably Robin Wright Penn. But Holden has condensed his unforgettable moment marvelously; he gets its flavor across but also conveys how much more unforgettable it would be seeing it on screen. Read it. (Also read Holden’s review of Nine Lives here). 

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain

To misquote Madeline/Judy writing to Scottie in Vertigo: And so I finally saw Brokeback Mountain . After months of hearing about the movie, after months of wondering how it would be, whether it would work or not, I saw it. It was, as they say, an anti-climax.

The story goes back a year or two. I remember reading, perhaps two years ago, that an Annie Proulx short story about "two gay cowboys" (or rather, their doomed love story) was about to be filmed. There was enormous speculation: which two actors would "risk their images" for the two lead roles? (Clearly this is one of the most fatuous lines of inquiry that I've ever encountered. This Caryn James article is a perfect example of utter silliness). Who would be the director who would add his own name to this enterprise? Would the studios go through with it? What about the sex? How would they film it? Would people see it? And on and on and on.

Sometimes when one's questions are answered, it takes the piss out of the whole thing. There is a "buzz" around Brokeback Mountain now. It's been raved about to death. It's an Oscar contender, perhaps the leading Oscar contender. It's been proclaimed to be a film about "universal love" (as opposed to "simply a gay love story"), even as a "paean to masculinity". Frank Rich wrote a predictable editorial in the New York Times making the "rash prediction" that the movie would play well in the heartland. People around me who would never have heard about Brokeback Mountain now want to see it. I should be feeling happier -- I certainly know I am -- but the feeling remains. Something has been lost. Our film has become simply our film.

It wasn't so a year ago. I read Proulx's short story then, (after hearing that it was going to be filmed). Having never read Proulx before (and I only managed to read one other story in that collection), the prose seemed different, relying almost entirely on formal restraint. Her words fall over one another but they are careful words, always stoic, never sentimental. The story's power was in its afterglow, its capacity to remain in mind long after the words have been forgotten. It was meant to be savored, to be thought about, and perhaps read again. Ang Lee's adaptation is scrupulously faithful to Proulx&# 39;s story in most respects. It also adopts completely Proulx's tone -- her detachment -- that makes the afterglow of her story so poignant.

That is a tragic mistake. Lee does everything: he shoots the breathtaking landscapes perfectly, exacts excellent performances from his actors, keeps the spirit of the story intact but he is never able to make the story come alive, never able to take us into Ennis's or Jack's heads. Brokeback Mountain is too distanced for its own good, far too aesthetic, too controlled, and perhaps even too intellectual. The formal restraint, the careful distance, may be to people's liking but I wish Lee had done it differently. I wish that, like the best of Douglas Sirk's films, he had poured out his characters' repressed emotions into the background score, into the beautiful Montana backdrops and gone deep into them, bringing out in vivid, detailed colors what they only hinted at.

But Lee is a tasteful director. He is also studiously unsentimental, or tries to be. When he lets go, as in Ennis's scene with Jack's grieving parents, the effect is marvelous; the restraint works. Perhaps Stanley Kauffmann has a point: Lee's Taiwanese background and his American training make him uniquely sensitive to filial relationships (his endearing The Wedding Banquet is one of the most lovely portraits of parental grief and disappointment). But in most other scenes Lee's camera only observes, never participates. This is not to say that Brokeback Mountain is a bad film. God, no. But it never moved me as much as it could have. Who knows, perhaps that's a good thing. Emotion is a tricky thing, hard to balance, hard to restrain; perhaps restraint is the best course.

Heath Ledger, who has been praised to the skies for his performance, is certainly restrained as Ennis. Stephen Holden of the NYT compared Ledger's turn to the best of Penn and Brando. As a comparison, this is bizarre. Penn and Brando are flashy actors. If anything, the template for Ledger's performance Nick Nolte's Wade Wodehouse in Affliction . Ledger is good, I'll grant him that and God knows, he has tried hard. But he is less-than-convincing because his persona precedes him. He is always Heath Ledger with the twinkle in his eye and the smile on his lips -- his personality hovers over his character's. The opposite is true of Jake Gyllenhaal, who on first appearances seems to be miscast. He is a far cry from the buck-toothed short jaunty Jack Twist of Proulx's story. But the spirit he has created on-screen, with that woebegone face and the hangdog look, is authentically Jack Twist's. Jack waits for Ennis eagerly, gives unselfishly and dreams radiantly if in futility; Gyllenhaal captures him perfectly. his performance makes Ledger's (well-acted) final scenes truly poignant.

For both actors, even if not for Ang Lee, Brokeback Mountain is a triumph.

And yes, if it does manage to win the Oscars, I know I'll be happy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

On Warner Herzog's Grizzly Man

In TNR, Christopher Orr has an interesting take on Warner Herzog's latest documentary, Grizzly Man. While I don't agree with it, it's worth reading. Orr believes that Grizzly Man is only "ostensibly" about Timothy Treadwell, a man who spent thirteen summers in the wilderness of Alaska, living in close proximity to grizzly bears and who ultimately was killed by one of them. The documentary, in fact, reveals more about its maker Warner Herzog: a man who embodies a "cold, rationalistic" view of the universe (as opposed to a sentimentalized view) and yet, is tender-hearted enough to desire that his views not infect others, that his pessimism not interfere with their desire for transcendence, their belief.
It is the fervor of Treadwell's belief, more than the particulars of his circumstances, that seems to fascinate and perplex Herzog, the cultured European rationalist. For him, nature is cruel and cold and desolate. Surveying a gorgeous glacier near Treadwell's site, Herzog muses, "This gigantic complexity of tumbling ice and abysses separated Treadwell from the world out there. And more so, it seems to me that this landscape in turmoil is a metaphor of his soul." Responding to Treadwell's "sentimentalized view" of nature after the discovery of the dead fox, he declares, "I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder." (Whose soul is supposed to be in turmoil here?) Near the very end of the film, he confesses, "And what haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature." This conflict between Treadwell and Herzog, between delirious belief and cultivated nihilism, is at the core of Grizzly Man.
I happen to share Herzog's view, expressed in the film, that nature is cruel and cold and desolate. When Herzog makes the statement near the very end of the film, that "what haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature", the camera has zoomed in on a bear's face and the sight is chilling. Animal faces don't really have expressions, it is as much a mistake to read too much into a dog's cute face as a bear's stony visage, but I felt sorry for Treadwell at that moment, sorry that the animals he loved so much could never reciprocate, were, in fact, not very capable for caring much for any one.

When Herzog declines to share with his viewers the final recording of Treadwell and his girlfriend's death, Orr finds in it evidence that Herzog is an "anti-evangelist":
He (i.e. Herzog) does not want Jewel (or us) to share his pitiless vision of the universe, whether because he himself has doubts or because he thinks a comforting lie is preferable to the horrible truth. He is an anti-evangelist for his own nihilism.
But it makes no difference really -- the bears' faces, the pitiless version of nature that comes through in the footage, the rain, the cold, the hardship, they all have already told the tale. Herzog is merely sparing us the horror of hearing Treadwell's pitiable cries; cries that would have robbed Treadwell's transcendent footage of its sheen, and in fact, would make Treadwell into the kind of tragic figure that he wasn't and never wanted to be. Indeed Orr's article, more than anything, convinces me that Treadwell did, in fact, find a kind of transcendence ("a chance to touch something purer, simpler, more divine") in living in the wild. (Or as Foucault would have put it, he looked upon it as a "limit-experience").

On another note, Orr finds it "remarkable"
that Treadwell was able to spend "many hundreds of days" without being attacked by a bear. In fact, he goes on as far as to suggest that Treadwell, in fact, had found a way to co-exist with nature, what killed him wasn't nature itself but a deviation from the routine, the "way" that he had found. That's an interesting thesis but Treadwell's footage makes it clear that it wasn't so. Treadwell ventured dangerously close to the bears and I am inclined to attribute the fact of his survival to pure luck. There are moments in his footage -- excruciating moments -- when it appears (to me) that he was dangerously close to being attacked. That he wasn't was probably a mix of providence and his own ingenuity. One might almost call it a quirk of nature, if only the term wasn't so ironic.