Thursday, March 7, 2013

Land Between the Rivers: Ahlaam

The 20th of March marks one decade since the US-led invasion of Iraq. The ensuing war there lasted 8 years, 8 months, 4 weeks, and 3 days. 

Ahlaam (2006)

Called Dreams in English, Iraqi filmmaker Mohamed Al Daradji's debut feature is an ensemble piece concerning the lives of patients and doctors inside a Baghdad mental hospital during the opening salvos of the American invasion of 2003. It was filmed in the same city amidst some of the war's greatest hazards; several crew members were kidnapped and killed during production. The choice to shoot the film in country as fighting still raged is courageous and certainly brings the film a danger and authenticity that Post-WW2 Italian neorealism would envy. And any gracelessness or minor technical shortcoming can be overlooked given the circumstances of the film's production.
We spend the first act of the film in 1998. Our principal characters are Ahlaam, a young woman who's engaged to be married to the love of her life; Ali, a soldier on Iraq's frontier; and Mehdi, an idealistic medical student on the eve of graduation. We live with them as they go about their seemingly normal days under the heavy yet mostly unseen shroud of Saddam's dictatorship. In this Iraq, the people suffer a quiet terror which they attempt to bury with educational pursuits, romance, and song. Each character's world is shattered in one way or another, and then we fastforward to find them populating the asylum in a besieged Baghdad; Mehdi is a doctor there and Ahlaam and Ali are patients long ago driven mad by their respective trauma. Stewing in regret and sadness, they act out an interpretive dance of madness. 
In the third act the asylum is bombed and many of the inmates escape to wander a crumbling city that is quickly going crazier than them. I doubt much if any production design or set dressing was necessary to convey this urban warzone. Anywhere the filmmakers point their lens we see piles of rubble, bombed out buildings, and all over the city the specter of death hangs like a giant, suffocating cobweb. After years contained in the institution, Ali and Ahlaam spill into the streets to discover that their country has traded a familiar, repressed, whispered fear of the state for a blaring, new and bombastic terror. 
Ahlaam was the first film produced in Iraq after the fall of Saddam and was that country's entry into the Academy Awards the year of its release. It is a harrowing and poetic expression of how things must have felt in Baghdad when the bombing started; it tells a story that rarely finds its way to most American viewers, lost amid the jingoistic propaganda of the Shock and Awe period and then the war-weariness of the years that followed. Find this film and watch it. 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

SPIES! Zero Dark Thirty vs. Argo

Zero Dark Thirty

Outwardly, master of suspense Katherine Bigelow's latest film is all about the desperate, decade long hunt for Osama bin Laden, but really it's all about obsession. This obsession belongs to and consumes CIA analyst Maya, played with dogged determination and grit by Jessica Chastain. Finding and eliminating the terrorist mastermind begins as simply a part of the job for Maya, but over the years she does "nothing else", in her words, and the international search comes to dominate her life so much that she must hunt for bin Laden for the sake of it; she becomes an animal of what she does.
The film displays a matter of fact treatment of history. The subject of the hunt needs little introduction, as does the nation's thirst for his blood; Bigelow simply begins the film with a title card indicating "Sept 11, 2001", along with a harrowing audio collage of emergency calls from that day against a black screen. The director knows that no images need to be shown to us to illustrate this event. Mentioning the date is enough to start the reel playing in our own minds, scarred as we are by the memory of the day when everything changed.  
Depicting a vast non-fiction story that stretches over many years can cause a movie to be tired and unwieldy, yet the events in Zero Dark Thirty feel fresh, spontaneous, organic, and unpredictable despite our knowledge of how it all ends. Chastain is the driving force of the film, but by no means is it a solo act; she's the center of a robust ensemble of sometimes morally ambiguous CIA intriguers and enforcers in Af-Pak torturing and tracking their way to UBL. Jennifer Ehle plays a more world-weary colleague who brings a breezy, southern-fried levity to many of her scenes and keeps Maya from being the token female in a relatively patriarchal milieu. Jason Clarke is introduced to us doing the ugly work of enhanced interrogation, and his cruel speciality is practiced in a very straightforward fashion that neither outright demonizes nor glorifies torture. Kyle Chandler plays Maya's boss in Pakistan for much her time there, and at first he comes off as stuffy and by-the-books, but we come to realize the twin pressures of violent culture clash outside his office window and demands from DC for results have crushed him into a timid, bureaucratic diamond.
The film draws us in so effectively and completely that we don't even notice when the narrative structure shifts in the last act from a montage of scenes over many years to a nearly real-time depiction of the 20 some-odd minute raid in a Pakistani suburb on bin Laden's now infamous compound by Seal Team 6. This kinetic and engrossingly suspenseful sequence is built meticulously from many bricks of details, and in some respects recalls the first-person robbery scene which opens Bigelow's 1995 sci-fi film Strange Days, though this raid is carried off with a great deal more deliberation and wise directorial confidence.
Along with tension and technical precision, the film is admirable for its humanity and restraint. The past decade of moving picture entertainment has been plagued with ugly and 1-dimensional portrayals of Arab and Muslim characters which are often reduced to mustache twirling evil geniuses or mindless, swarthy thugs. Zero Dark Thirty cannot avoid populating its world with folks who may or may not be Islamic extremists given the subject matter, yet even the smallest bit player is depicted with subtlety and without any reliance on racist or xenophobic preconceptions. 


Snark, bore.
Ben Affleck's third feature as director is based on the real life events which took place when CIA operative Tony Mendez coordinated with elements in Hollywood and the Canadian government to rescue, or exfiltrate, six US embassy workers from Tehran during the hostage crisis there in 1980. This premise should make for a fresh and intriguing movie-going experience, but instead it comes off feeling like predestine, paint-by-numbers storytelling. Even if you watched the film with no foreknowledge of how the events unfolded, their presentation here would still feel predictable. 
Ben Affleck foolishly casts himself as Mendez, and he is the stale saltine at the center of this parched mouth of a movie. He possesses no urgency, despite the high stakes subject matter, and he sucks the energy from every scene he's in, which is most of them. He surrounds himself with dependable and much more talented supporting players, but they don't break much of a sweat; John Goodman does his affable John Goodman thing, Alan Arkin does his snarky Alan Arkin thing, and Brian Cranston does his growly Brian Cranston thing. Kyle Chandler even shows up in this film as well, playing a government suit role similar in function to his character in ZD30 but without any of the nuance. The most prominent women in the story are two of the hostages to be rescued, yet they are left to spend most of their scarce screen time telling their husbands how frightened they are. 
Just about every Iranian in the film is one-dimensional and often downright cartoonish in their snarling villainy. Having taken in a fair bit of actual Iranian cinema, I know that even the most jack-booted government thugs can be portrayed with at least some shred of humanity, even as they harass women about their hijab or arrest young people for playing the wrong kind of music. Affleck had a great opportunity with this film to explore the very complicated relationship between Iran and the US, but he elected instead to play it safe and rely on tired and counterproductive stereotypes.
Argo was given several Oscars, including Best Picture, along with a number of trophies from other contests. I suspect all the Tinseltown love is due to the film's perceived theme of Hollywood saving the day, which isn't much of a stretch considering how self-important and -congratulatory the movie industry is in general, and especially so when award season hits. I wonder if Affleck knew this and counted on such collective narcissism to buoy his lazy little film to far more acclaim than it deserves. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"Her Third Dream"

Another thing keeping me away from the blog has been working on my own films. Mostly I've been writing, but I also decided to revisit a short I made at the beginning of last year and make a few needed changes. Here is how it looked before -

And here it is all shiny and new-like:

Beyond the Black Maria: Not All Accounted For/ "A Cure for Pokeritis"

This blog has fallen silent recently, and mainly this is because I've realized that not all of the 600 films on the National Film Registry are necessarily at my finger tips. Due to this, I've regrouped and decided to go ahead and watch those films that I can and keep searching for those which are more elusive. With that, our next film takes us into the world of early slapstick.

20. "A Cure for Pokeritis" (1912) Watch
This entry is pretty silly and cartoonish. The story concerns a man, played by the massively rotund silent film slapstick comedian John Bunny, who is racked by a hopeless poker addiction, or 'pokeritis' as the movies title bizarrely puts it. The vice drives his frustrated wife to enlist the help of the local constabulary to cure her husband through a series of strange interventions. Some of the behavior is baffling, but I don't know if that has more to do with how temporally removed I am from the picture. I have to admit, I had difficulty even beginning to write about this little film; it simply does not speak to me. Even after multiple views, I am not moved by the piece whatsoever. Not by the hammy scenes of the poker addict's spouse pleading with him to give up the game, not by the frantic tableaux of lawmen flipping over card tables. This movies simply fell at my feet like a wet rag and I felt nothing. 

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: "Little Nemo"

"Little Nemo", 1911. (public domain)

18. "Little Nemo" (1911) Watch
One trend in the brief history of cinema is relatively quick evolutions. In only the last decade, we've seen almost an absolute eclipse, at least in the US, of hand-drawn animation by the sparkling juggernaught that is CGI, led by the galactic success of Pixar and to a lesser extent Dreamworks. Not since the advent of commercially viable talkies in 1927 all but wiped out silent films has there been such a rapid and monumental shift in the business of moviemaking.
"Little Nemo" is metafictional. The short film consists mostly of live-action scenes depicting New York Herald cartoonist Winsor McCay trying to convince a group of his colleagues that the Little Nemo comic strip which he created can be adapted into moving pictures. We see him toil away at his drawing table cartoonishly surrounded by stacks of hundreds of sheets of paper which will make up his animated film. The story culminates after a month's time when McCay shows off his efforts in 2 minutes of well drawn but crudely animated characters from his comic strip. Not only is this film an early example of animation, but also the genre of films about filmmaking, and given that it was adapted from an existing comic strip, it could also be considered the first comic book movie. It's really somewhat astonishing just how rapidly the very new medium of cinema began to change and grow even in the first decades of its existence. What an excited time to call oneself a filmmaker, when there were really no rules and the future of the art form must have been a Wild West of endless possibilities. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: "White Fawn's Devotion"

"White Fawn's Devotion", 1910 (public domain)
16. "White Fawn's Devotion" (1910) Watch
Though depictions of racial minorities in American cinema, and indeed contributions to the art by members of those groups, have increased in number and authenticity with each passing decade, Native Americans remain to this day criminally underrepresented, both as characters and artists behind the scenes. And on the rare occasions when Native Americans are cast in films, they are usually in supporting roles which all too often perpetuate one-dimensional stereotypes. Even a self-proclaimed liberal cinephile like me is hard pressed to summon up a substantial list of prominent Native American filmmakers from this or any era of cinema. It is against this backdrop that I marvel at the existence of "White Fawn's Devotion", a short film starring Red Indians and directed by James Young Deer of the Winnebago tribe; this title is the earliest known example of the work of any Native American director. The director's wife hauntingly portrays White Fawn, who's settler husband has just been informed that he must leave the homestead to collect a far off inheritance. Overwhelmed with the thought of living without her spouse for even a moment, White Fawn attempts suicide, the optics of which leads the nearby tribe to accuse her husband of murder. 
Despite some over-exaggerated acting from some of the cast which I suppose was typical of the era, along with a few unnecessary and obvious inter-titles, the film is a compelling tale full of irony, melodrama, and veiled social commentary, all elements which post-WWII Italian filmmakers would  later embrace to create the genre of neorealism. "White Fawn's Devotion" is a rare and singular piece of filmmaking, not only for its improbably successful journey through time, but also for its much too uncommon portrayal of Native Americans in a medium which is still reluctant to give this country's first people a proper voice. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: On Reaching into the Past

A kinetoscope parlor, 1894. (public domain)

When I began this journey to view every film included on the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, which covers almost every year from 1891 to 1999, I suppose I should have anticipated that some of them might be scarce. So has been the case with at least two entries so far - The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897) and "Lady Helen's Escapade" (1909). Corbett-Fitzsimmons was only added to the list this past year, so it is understandable that the Library of Congress has not yet made it available. It's really quite amazing that any of these old films still exist at all. I'll continue to do research and contact the appropriate parties until I am able to view these films and any others which are hard to find, but in the mean time I will keep going down the list and watch as many of the 600 hundred movies as I can locate. The closer I get to 1999, I think the easier and more accessible the films will become.
The notion of accessibility brings me to a peculiar element of this project. Since I'm viewing the films beginning with the earliest, so far all of the films I've viewed have been on the internet as they are now in the public domain. I'm utilizing the 21st century's answer to television to consume a few of cinema's first titles, some of which were originally exhibited inside a kinetoscope, which was the device that introduced motion pictures to the public in the late 19th century. With only a couple of exceptions, I have been able to effortlessly reach back into the past and view these films at my leisure and at no cost. Soon my journey will see me making regular visits to Scarecrow Video in order to obtain copies of the films I require, but for the time being I will use this amazing wormhole which sits on my desk to summon movies made by and starring people who are all long dead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: "Princess Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy"

15. "Princess Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy" (1909) Watch
This 5 minute short is very silly. Most of the bloated products lumbering out of Hollywood every year are nothing more than thinly written and badly acted excuses to showcase the latest in visual effects technology, and this little film is an early example of the same. The piece's main effect, cutting to a set built to look like props at a huge scale so that the 'fairies' will appear tiny, is actually pulled off with surprising success, though some glaring jump cuts at certain moments help to ruin the illusion. It seems there is even some rudimentary forced-perspective used at one point; this is a method used to make an actor seem bigger or smaller than reality by placing them at different distances from the camera along the z-axis. In this case the fairy is farther from us than the man, yet they cheat their eye lines to give the illusion of being the same proximity from camera. This same technique is still used in such relatively recent films as The Lord of the Rings and shows us that the simplest special effects are often the most rewarding and seamless. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: "A Corner in Wheat"

"A Corner in Wheat" 1909 (Library of Congress)

13. "A Corner in Wheat" (1909) Watch
This socio-politically charged short film is the earliest of many entries on the Registry directed by the staggeringly prolific D.W. Griffith. The infamous cinematic pioneer simply and effectively uses cross-cutting and what the soviets would later refer to as the 'collision montage' to juxtapose the greed of a wealthy tycoon who decides to corner the world wheat market with the plight of the destitute masses who can no longer afford bread as a result. We are shown a succession of tableaux vivants displaying the tycoon in question, a violent trading floor on Wall Street, and the poor in a general store as they grapple with rapid inflation. This all culminates in a classically ironic ending, when the tycoon takes some wealthy friends to visit the grain elevator where he suffers an accident and is crushed to death by his own greed. 
Bookending all this economically harrowing action are scenes of a farmer and his family working a wheat field. This storyline also constitutes the only exterior location shooting, in an agrarian setting that is shockingly gloomy and downright funereal. The field might as well be a desert, and the wind tugs at people's ratty clothes and what sparse vegetation there is in a subtle and haunting fashion which suggest a stinging chill in the air. These elemental effects are lacking in the studio-shot scenes and lend an integral yet undefinable quality of authenticity to the film. Nature is an unpredictable but always compelling costar. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: In San Francisco

"A Trip Down Market Street" 1906. (Library of Congress)

11."A Trip Down Market Street" (1906) Watch
If you operate similarly to myself, then you can't deny that when you travel down a street in your city or town, you do not notice the details. You don't notice the ebb and flow of all your fellow citizens who are late for work or about to buy some coffee or walking with no purpose at all; you don't notice the great variety of clothes they choose to wear and so you don't wonder about where they acquired the articles or why they selected them for this particular day. You don't notice the unwritten agreement these pedestrians have with their automobile-bound counterparts, and you don't notice the silent ballet between foot traffic and the steely, rubbery river of cars which takes place mostly flawlessly hundreds of times as you move along the thoroughfare. 
"A Trip Down Market Street" was filmed on the eponymous road in San Francisco shortly before the earthquake and fire which almost completely destroyed the city, though just how shortly before is a matter of some debate; one theory puts it in 1905, another says early April of 1906. Whenever the exact date, this one-take film was captured by attaching a camera to the front of a cable car and shooting as it traveled down Market Street for about 10 minutes. The method is simple but the effect is compelling and in fact a little moving for an urbanite like me. It's a hypnotizing look at the pulse of a city, something only cinema can capture in this way. The steady pace of the cable car sets a beat for the shot, while the people and their insane myriad of conveyances, be they feet or hooves or engines, provide a palpitant rhythm which bangs around haphazardly against the canyon of buildings containing the action. 
Many differences are apparent between the world captured here and the one I live in. The clothing all appears very similar in the film, almost like metropolitan uniforms, though my chronological distance from the subject could have less to do with this than the city I reside in and am native to (Seattle), whose citizens I've been told all look like they're in costume. Another difference I notice is that evidently the people of the time had not yet learned an efficient way to manage the convergence of automobiles and people on the street. Several San Franciscans can be seen almost being rundown by cars or trolleys as they leap in front of the machines like frightened deer. 

12. "San Francisco Earthquake and Fire" (1906) Watch
One way I know we are living in a more modern era is that our cities don't burn down quite as much as they used to. On April 18th, 1906, San Francisco was struck by an earthquake which ruptured underground gas lines and precipitated a blaze that destroyed most of the city and killed around 3000 citizens. The rebuilding process began immediately, but was plagued by looting by civilians and United States soldiers sent in to maintain order. 
This film is an incredibly early example of moving news pictures, yet many of the common 'disaster porn' tropes we've come to know and tolerate on CNN can be seen in this primordial example of sensationalist journalism. Narrated with fancy intertitles, the 14 minute piece begins as we land on a smoking shore which appears almost alien. Quickly the camera moves to survey a nightmarish hell scape, full of crumbling ruins and smoldering piles of rubble, which barely resembles the once mighty city by the bay. We're then shown a rather awkward scene of a family dining in a flotsam-strewn street which very well could have been staged to increase the drama.
Are all depictions of real-life catastrophe inherently exploitative? Should a tragedy be left for only the victims to experience? I don't know if the makers of this piece contemplated such questions, but I know they should certainly come to the mind of any journalist who finds themselves running towards the latest disaster ready to get a story. 

Friday, January 11, 2013

Beyond the Black Maria: Westinghouse Works, 1904

Westinghouse Works, 1904 "Steam Hammer" (Library of Congress)

10. Westinghouse Works, 1904 (1904)
At a time when the horse was still a common mode of transportation,  giant mechanisms of industry thundered. Working for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co., cameraman G.W. Bitzer captured these images of humans and machines at work, a compelling ballet of metal-working, in East Pittsburgh. Did Americans of the day take consumer goods for granted in the same way as we in the 21st century do? Have people always felt thus? Did the fact that a greater share of products were manufactured in the US, perhaps by yourself or a neighbor, give you more of an appreciation for them? These films are a huge comment on the changes that have shaped the global economy in the past century, especially when juxtaposed with the thought that an analogous present-day project would most likely feature Chinese or Bangladeshi women and children hard at work, in tandem with machines, making many modern conveniences possible for our oblivious American minds and bodies to enjoy and take for granted. 
This collection consists of 21 short films, each capturing a different scene within the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company and offered without explanation or much context. Three pieces in particular stick out:

I'm not sure exactly what is happening in this scene, but it is compelling and fascinating nonetheless. A great glowing hunk of metal is pulled from a furnace and repeatedly pounded with a giant hammer in a way that is hypnotizing and nearly cartoonish in its violence. It is dramatic to witness, though the drama is diminished somewhat when one realizes that the men in the film must have carried out this task so routinely that such an incredible display of metallic smashing and leaping sparks very well might have been ordinary in their minds. 

Here we see about 200 female workers passing by in a great river of stacked hair and ankle-length dresses in order to collect their time checks. Judging by the gleeful expressions on many of their faces, this might have been filmed at the end of the work day, though they could simply be mugging for the camera; I don't doubt the possibility that they were threatened with termination by their supervisor if they did not make themselves look happy at work. Though their faces flash upon the screen for only a few seconds apiece, I cannot help wondering about the thoughts that occupied them in that moment, and what kind of life they went home to each night. 

This piece is an entertaining and fascinating symphony of movement. The first visual rhythm so to speak is the almost exaggerated movements of a man working some kind of pulley. His action is theatrical and would be at home in a production of H.M.S. Pinafore. The next and predominant movement is the percussive pounding on the big ring by two to three men with sledgehammers, used almost like instruments. Though the film is silent, I can hear the sound of hammering that my mind is injecting into this viewing experience.