War During Lifetime

in 51st BFI London Film Festival

by Leo Soesanto

WThe timing was of course perfect for the London Film Festival: it presented the European premiere of Oliver Stone’s W., a surprisingly soft – well according to Stone’s standards – biopic of George W. Bush; and a new US president will be elected the week after. Organized by the BFI and “Time Out”, the panel (held on Tuesday 28th October) Cinema under George W. Bush briefly tried to analyze the impact of the neo-con Bush administration on world cinema. The subtitle was sly (8 years of Attack and Counter Attack), suggesting that cinema was (and had to be) aggressive, if not challenging, regarding these dire times.            

Moderated by Dave Calhoun (the “Time Out” film editor), the guest panelists belonged to perspectives completing each other: Alex Gibney (director of Taxi to the Dark Side and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) and Nick Fraser (BBC Storyville series editor and executive producer of Gonzo) brought their expertise on documentaries; yours truly tried to add his views on films, leading to a conversation where Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 clashed with Michael Bay’s Transformers.          

Here are some observations taken from the discussion.          

1 – One idea was that many post-9/11 films had so far much in common: they were bad in every sense. Fahrenheit 9/11 is probably politically useful but it is as aesthetic as watching someone yelling at Speaker’s Corner in London. In the realm of fiction, Robert Redford’s Lions and Lambs looks like a play where characters seem to read editorials when they debate. Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Ellah – like James Strouse’s Grace is Gone – is slightly better but is preoccupied too much with melodrama and individual conflicts rather than questioning why the U.S. invaded Iraq. Whether they’re straightforward or too gentle, they miss their point (in terms of the aesthetics of subtlety) and their audience. Most of them have flopped, raising other issues about Hollywood: do making these films reflect its natural left-wing, liberal orientation, or its cynicism on targeting a sub-market of viewers who don’t watch Fox News?        

2- One question was about timing: do these films come too early? One person in the audience complained that she hadn’t the need to watch those films. Hollywood waited before green lighting United 93 or World Trade Center. But there’s a sense that, given the war on terror is still going on, filmmakers have yet to find the big picture which makes sense. Major films about Vietnam were made after the war ended (such as Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter): but for Nick Fraser, these films are just fantasies about Vietnam. I should add that if these are great films, that’s because they were obviously not only about Vietnam.        

3- The best films which sum up the spirit of the Bush era are in fact the less obvious. We agreed that the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men and (much less obviously) their dark non-sensed comedy Burn after Reading were superb, passionate statements about the American Empire of Evil. I extended to blockbusters or commercial productions which were imbued with these themes like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It should be pointed out that some of these films could be read as pro-Bush or at least ecstatic revenges against the other, such as Michael Bay’s Transformers, which fantasizes about crushing alien robots in the desert. Counter attack indeed. The Saw franchise is wet dreams about a gothic-chic Abu Grahib prison.        

4- Documentaries are useful. But who watches them? Who’s converted? Structurally, they don’t appeal to mass audiences. Applied to fiction, documentary-style filmmaking raises ethical issues such as in United 93, where Paul Greengrass ‘remakes’ dramatic events. An artist has all the rights but I prefer the Greengrass Jason Bourne films to United 93…    

5- The main trouble about these films is the lack of another point of view. Where are the Iraqis or the Afghans? Seemingly remote, Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima was graceful enough to show the so-called enemy (the Japanese). Even if not groundbreaking in its reconstruction of events, Nick Broomberg’s Battle for Haditah had at least the benefit of his casting of real Iraqi people.          

I should mention the most challenging – even if flawed – of these films: Brian De Palma’s Redacted. The way De Palma reconstructs facts is a very disturbing anamorphosis (then Hitchcock, now facts), because he can’t help adding twisted suspense. With him, even a neutral security camera is still a Peeping Tom. A fake (French) documentary has a taste of cynical parody. The film is a patchwork of points of view (soldiers, journalists, terrorists) and the nature of its contrasted contents (home movies, YouTube videos, TV news) challenges the classic cinematic storytelling which is the journey of a character. In the closing credits of Redacted, De Palma includes real photos of Iraqi victims, almost annihilating his own efforts. A radical, even humble way to express the limits of cinema, which was the underlying – pleasant irony, I think – idea raised during this panel. Well, especially when we turn on the TV.

Edited by Steven Yates
© FIPRESCI 2008