Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 5, 2006

Four more mainstream movies

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

Unlike the last batch of movies I reviewed here, I cannot recommend any of these as should be obvious from my remarks.

1. Babel: This is the latest work by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu that follows a formula he has used in past films, including “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams”. Coincidence joins together various characters whose stories are interwoven through the course of the film. This is a genre that Quentin Tarantino unleashed on the world in his 1994 “Pulp Fiction” and that has become internationalized based on the evidence of Iñárritu’s work as well as the 1998 German film “Run, Lola, Run”.

Iñárritu not only borrows this plot device from the American, but his nihilistic obsession with violence as well. As Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett wend their way on a tourist bus through the mountains of Morocco, two young local boys decide to test out the range of their new rifle on the bus. A bullet flies through the window and lodges in Blanchett’s shoulder. If this weren’t bad enough, the American couple’s two young children will soon end up in the Mexican desert with their housekeeper. Her nephew Santiago (played by Gael García Bernal, who played a thug in “Amores Perros” and Che Guevara in “Motorcycle Diaries”) has abandoned them trying to elude INS agents who have accosted the group in his car at a border-crossing. In a most unlikely turn of events, the housekeeper had decided to drag the kids into Mexico for her son’s wedding after nobody could be found to assume her duties.

If switching between the arid mountains of Morocco as Blanchett lies bleeding to death and the sun-parched Mexican desert was not depressing enough, the third subplot involves a Japanese father and his deaf-mute teenaged daughter who has been driven to nymphomania by one too many rejections. The tenuous connection between Tokyo and Morocco is made through the rifle, which was a gift to the father’s native hunting guide, who has sold it to the father of the two wayward youths being pursued by a posse of brutal local cops.

Iñárritu is trying to say something about communication–hence the title of the film. The Japanese girl degrades herself because she can’t speak. The Mexicans are harassed at the border because they don’t speak English. Brad Pitt is driven to distraction because the Moroccans, who speak no English, can’t respond to his remonstrations about the need to properly care for his wife.

Unfortunately, the tower of Babel is a better metaphor for this film’s inability to say anything meaningful to the audience. The Moroccan boys are grotesques, driven as much by sexual impulse as they are by the impulse to shoot complete strangers. Up in the mountains, they take turns masturbating and firing the rifle aimlessly. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are absolute ciphers. Their characters remain total mysteries to the audience, a function no doubt of the scriptwriter’s inability to put together meaningful dialogue. Pitt’s lines consist almost exclusively of him cursing at Moroccans for not moving fast enough to help his wounded wife. One only regrets that the two boys had not reserved a bullet for him as well.

2. Catch a Fire: I have seen two films by Director Phillip Noyce, one very good (“Rabbit-Proof Fence”) and one not very good at all (“The Quiet American”). I am afraid that “Catch a Fire” is also not very good at all, although it shares a certain political commitment with the other two. It is the real-life story of Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), an apolitical Black South African who decides to join the armed wing of the ANCafter he is falsely arrested and tortured. The screenplay was written by Shawn Slovo, the daughter of the late South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo.

“Catch a Fire” is much more the story of one man’s desire for vengeance than it is about politics. Unlike “Autobiography of Malcolm X” or “Battle of Algiers”, the main character has very little to say about why he wants to risk his life. Once he makes the decision to join the ANC, the film dwells almost exclusively on the minutiae of military training, crossing the border back into South Africa from training camps, planting explosives at the refinery Chamusso once worked at, etc. Now there is nothing wrong with making a movie about a military operative sneaking into enemy territory and blowing things up, “Guns of Navarone” being exemplary. But Shawn Slovo does not have a flair for writing these kinds of action stories evidently. Nor does she seem that interested in drawing out the political motivations of the characters. Even her father Joe Slovo, who runs the training camp in Mozambique that Chamusso trains in, has not a single interesting thing to say politically.

Apparently, Shawn Slovo has a bit of a history in suppressing politics. She wrote the screenplay for “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin,” which was based on the novel by Louis de Bernieres that has a cult following. Although I have not seen it, I recall that it is about the romance between a music-loving Italian fascist officer played by Nicholas Cage and a local woman named Pelagia whose Greek isle his men are occupying. Just what the world was waiting for, fascism with a human face.

In the novel, there’s a Greek character named Mandras who has organized a revolutionary militia to expel the fascists. Slovo decided to soft-pedal the politics and make Mandras Captain Corelli’s rival for Pelagia’s affections rather than a rival in politics. This is how she explains her decision:

It makes the love story between Pelagia and Corelli more exciting. For me the main draw in the film is the love story. There are two people who are not looking to fall in love – I mean, he certainly isn’t, she’s got a fiance – and I think it’s that kind of reluctance, that coming together in spite of the obstacles, that makes a good love story, don’t you?


The Village Voice summed up “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” pretty well as a Kumbaya type movie that sounds a bit like the final scene where Chamusso decides not to beat his torturer to a pulp after the ANC has taken power:

The locals are unfailingly, anachronistically plucky. (The mayor’s official response to the Italians’ request for surrender: “Fack off!”) The big message seems to be that tolerance is good, but since the film doesn’t differentiate between politics and jingoism, it needs to demonstrate that We’re All the Same Inside, right down to how everybody on the island speaks English with a similar intermittent Mediterranean accent.

3. Little Miss Sunshine: I have gotten lots of complaints about this horrible movie based on my impressions of it after 10 minutes (I walked out.) Here’s just one:

A scathing review of the first 10 minutes of any movie is not going to be very convincing to anyone. If you’re not going to watch it don’t review it.

Since I got a screener from the studio in conjunction with our awards nominations in NYFCO, I decided to satisfy my critics and sit through till the bitter end. As should be obvious, I remain scathingly yours.

Basically, “Little Miss Sunshine” is a road movie about a dysfunctional family along the lines of Chevy Chase’s 1983 “Vacation” that even includes an elderly relative dying en route. While Chase’s movie exploited this incident to great comic effect, “Little Miss Sunshine” hardly knows what to do with it. In “Little Miss Sunshine,” the family smuggles the dead grandfather’s body out of a hospital and sticks it in the trunk of the rickety VW bus they are traveling in. Filling out official papers would have made them late to a beauty pageant their daughter competing in, so they decide to take care of the corpse later on. When a cop pulls them over on the highway because of a broken horn, he fails to spot the body. The comic moment instead turns feebly on his discovery of a couple of porn magazines that are stashed next to the concealed body.

For a movie that wears its “indy” colors proudly, there is a lot of prudishness in the film. We are supposed to laugh at the gay men’s porn the cop discovers, we are also supposed to laugh at the grandfather’s homophobic outbursts, etc. Oddly enough, when the film concludes with the daughter doing a sort of strip tease to the shock of the beauty pageant’s judges, we (or I at least) fail to identify strongly with the family rallying around her performance. Too much petty bigotry has preceded it.

4. United 93: Like Oliver Stone’s “WTC,” this is one of those rally-around-the-flag efforts that depict innocent Americans under siege from swarthy, Koran-reading fanatics. That being said, it is fairly well-crafted. The best decision made by director Paul Greengrass is to cast unknowns in the leading roles. I could not recognize a single actor from previous flicks. This comes as a bit of a relief. The last thing I wanted to see is somebody like Bruce Willis in the control room barking orders to his subordinates. The film moves along at a brisk pace until the plane crashes into a Pennsylvania field.

What it does not deliver is drama. Since “United 93” involves villains, you want to know what makes them tick. Even in a James Bond movie, we get some insights into what motivates a Goldfinger to want to take over the world, namely greed. The Muslim terrorists in “United 93” are totally opaque. The audience has no idea what would lead them to such desperate acts. When popular culture takes such an adamant stand against informing the audience, no wonder so many Americans continue to believe that Iraq was behind 9/11.


  1. Louis —

    I know that you accept the “official story” concerning the events on 9-11, but the physical evidence from the flight 93 crash site strongly contradicts this. Published comments from the Shanksville mayor, a Pennsylvania State Trooper, et al., all confirm that debris from the aircraft were spread over several miles, a clear indication that it must have broken up while airborne. I appreciate that you picked up on the fact that the movie was shallow and patriotic, but noting that it was also fictional propaganda would have been valuable to your readers.


    Peter Hollings

    Comment by Peter Hollings — December 5, 2006 @ 9:43 pm

  2. This is a pretty good effort to separate fact from fiction in “United 93”. Of course, I have dealt with 9/11 conspiracy theories elsewhere and assume that this is not what Peter is driving at. At least, I hope not.


    Comment by louisproyect — December 5, 2006 @ 9:55 pm

  3. One thing I liked about United 93 was its depiction of the deadlocked US bureacracy watching the events unfold. From the FAA to the Defense Department, to the Air Traffic controls, all anyone could seem to do is communicate information with no action. To me it struck me as a kind of “Weberian” critique of the “Iron Cage” of bureacratic rationality. The system was so overloaded with formal procedures it has no capacity for a quick, creative response.

    Comment by Matt — December 6, 2006 @ 3:31 am

  4. […] Update: I finally got around to watching this film in its entirety. My review is here. […]

    Pingback by Little Miss Sunshine « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 6, 2006 @ 9:56 pm

  5. Removed three movies from my Netflix queue. United 93 was never on.

    Comment by Rosemary — December 6, 2006 @ 11:11 pm

  6. I read some book chat about Gore Vidal where that Immortal said that what beat sex, fame, gossip, reading, writing and everything else was going to the movies. That doesn’t seem to be The Unrepentant Marxist’s position. His displeasure with “Babel” made me wonder if he shouldn’t review only factual documentaries with a clearly articulated political message. That has not been the main role of fiction in any form since the Middle Ages. To say “Babel” deals in “nihilistic” violence is to deprive nihilism of a precise meaning and make it a general term of abuse like “running dogs of imperialism” or “lackeys of Wall Street” in the good old days. The lumping together of “Pulp Fiction” and “Babel” clarifies nothing. Tarentino made a joke of violence. For Inarritu it hurts. They may both use a structure of loosely connected episodes—a structure that has been around, by the way, since the invention of cinema—but they use it to different ends: Tarentino to hold together anecdotes that share a how-things-are-now black humor; Inarritu to show what very different societies have been brought into contact by our technology. Any catchall, such as “mainstream,” that can contain both these films isn’t a very useful critical category. Though far from a masterpiece, “Babel” deserves a hearing on its own terms and shouldn’t be given flak for not being “meaningful” in an explicit and didactic sense. Yours, Peter Byrne

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 7, 2006 @ 8:25 pm

  7. Well, look, “Amores Perros” was not bad, but his work has gotten formulaic. I don’t mind nihilistic violence in fact. I am not sure I have written about Hong Kong flicks here but my Columbia website has a number of favorable reviews of such films. Babel’s main problem was that it was plodding and pretentious. Here’s a pretty perceptive review of “Amores Perros”, although I don’t think it was as bad as all this:

    The Toronto Star
    April 27, 2001, Friday, Edition 1

    BYLINE: Geoff Pevere

    Eight years after Pulp Fiction toured the world as one of the
    most successful American independent movies ever made,
    Tarantinian echoes reverberate through Mexican filmmaker
    Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Oscar-nominated debut feature
    Amores Perros.

    The story of six characters linked by violent narrative coincidence (literally, a car crash) and the metaphorical theme of a dog’s life – the English title is “Love’s A Bitch” – this stylishly gritty, much-praised urban epic is proof of the triumph of yet another kind of cultural globalization: the homogenization of international cinematic style.

    Although set in Mexico City, the key to Amores Perros’s enthusiastic U.S. reception nevertheless probably has less to do with the film’s cultural and geographic particularity than its faintly exotic familiarity. Like Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run, Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita, Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, and even to a certain extent Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Amores Perros is American-style filmmaking with international seasoning, and as such is pretty unmysterious in its stateside critical coup.

    As a rousingly entertaining endorsement of the standard-setting worldwide impact of off-Hollywood commercial style, it’s as much a vindication of contemporary Hollywood cultural influence as Mexican President Vicente Fox’s taste for free trade and cowboy boots. In the New World Order, all movies aspire to the condition of Yankee cool.

    Which is not to suggest that Inarritu’s film isn’t without its kinetic charms – on the contrary, the movie’s propulsive pacing, cheapjack nihilist hysteria and aura of switchblade menace signals a filmmaker of considerable showmanship – just that those charms are conspicuous for their quality of predigested familiarity. Nevertheless, I’ll bet you a year’s supply of liver- flavoured puppy biscuits he’s in line for an English-language studio gig.

    In the same way that the movie’s setting of Mexico City could be easily transported to South Central L.A. or the Bronx, its situations and characters – the Cain and Abel barrio brothers played by Gael Garcia Bernal and Marco Perez, the hobo-hitman played by Emilio Echevarria, and the yupscale couple played by Alvaro Guerrero and Vanessa Bauche – could just as easily be played by SoCal-certified substitutes. Even the visual style, featuring hand-held camerawork, high-grain cinematographic exposure and whiplash cutting to industrial-strength techno music, is by now an indie-processed staple.

    Amores Perros is thus a tellingly paradoxical contemporary pop-cultural product: a foreign movie that plays like a domestic one, and a tacit certification of the border-trammelling power of the made-in-America indie aesthetic.

    Which is to say that a dog, in any country, and by any name, is still a dog, and no amount of grooming can hide the fact that this one is eagerly performing some old tricks. One suspects that’s why it’s being lapped up.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 7, 2006 @ 8:50 pm

  8. This throws me. I say it’s a mistake to tar Tarentino and Inarritu with the same brush. You say a reviewer already did in 2001. Apparently his word is law. I say Inarritu’s use of violence isn’t nihilistic. You say you like a bit of nihilistic violence yourself on occasion. Maybe we’re illustrating babel.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 8, 2006 @ 6:07 am

  9. “The audience has no idea what would lead them to such desperate acts.” Of course, YOU have complete understanding of what would lead them to such “desperate” acts. I’ve read two of your reviews and feel like upchucking. Thanks a lot.

    Comment by Max Taffey — December 23, 2006 @ 4:25 am

  10. You should have stuck with your gut feeling of only watching LMS for 10 minutes, it hasn’t helped much that you sat through it.

    “For a movie that wears its “indy” colors proudly, there is a lot of prudishness in the film. We are supposed to laugh at the gay men’s porn the cop discovers, we are also supposed to laugh at the grandfather’s homophobic outbursts, etc.”

    No we are not supposed to laugh at any of these.

    Actually in both situations you didn’t get the “joke”, which was actually just bleak satire. A corpse is in the van and the policeman walks away with the porn mags in oblivion, mildly displeased with the gay rag.

    Your self righteous marxist (in the worst sense of course) mentality also leaves you lacking in any understanding of the reasoning behind the homophobic outbursts of the grandfather, it’s called character development, and it’s not supposed to be funny. You are accusing others of prudishness yet you can’t allow for a cantankerous old character in a film to be homophobic?

    “It was written by one Michael Arndt, who had never written a screenplay before. It shows.”
    The irony is that by reading your resume, it seems that you ‘ve been writing essays for close to 50 years now; sadly it doesn’t show.

    Comment by John B. — June 1, 2010 @ 3:42 am

  11. No we are not supposed to laugh at any of these.

    Oh, I get it. It wasn’t a comedy. Silly me…

    Comment by louisproyect — June 1, 2010 @ 7:05 am

  12. […] I decided that he was not the great genius and savior of Hollywood after seeing “Babel” in 2006, about which I wrote: […]

    Pingback by The Business of “Art vs. Commerce” in Hollywood » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names — November 21, 2014 @ 8:32 am

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