This is the second installment of 2009 movies in review. Those discussed below arrived as DVD screeners from the studios, except for “Thirst”, a Korean movie about a Catholic priest turned vampire. This movie and the two others—”Sin Nombre” and “Men Who Stare at Goats”—will get a ‘fresh’ rating from me on Rotten Tomatoes; all the rest to be reviewed in subsequent posts get a ‘rotten’. Generally, this has been a bad year for Hollywood as well as the supposedly innovative “indie” movies that crop up at the Sundance Festival and elsewhere. Fortunately for me, I am spared the onerous task of attending all sorts of crappy movies—an occupational hazard of my full-time professional colleagues in NYFCO. Indeed, the studios seem to send out la crème de la crème to NYFCO as should be obvious from their generally high ratings and pretensions to High Art. As always, I don’t believe the hype.
Some of you might be familiar with Park Chan-wook’s past work. As director of “The Vengeance Trilogy”, which included “OldBoy”, Park specializes in darkly comic grand guignols. “Thirst” is the story of Sang-hyun (Song Kang-ho), a priest who after beginning to lose faith volunteers for a medical experiment in which an antiviral agent transforms him into a vampire. It departs completely from the romanticized hogwash of the Twilight series and represents bloodsucking as a thoroughly debased activity. Starting off at a relatively leisurely pace, it gathers a horrific momentum when the priest takes on Tae-ju (Kim Ok-bin) as a lover who he eventually turns into a vampire as well. Unlike the priest, she enjoys going out and killing people. The movie’s central drama revolves around his ambivalent relationship to her. Despite being defrocked, he still retains a conscience.
When Sang-hyun first meets Tae-ju, she is married to the doltish and sickly son of Lady Ra. As an orphaned street urchin, Tae-ju was most vulnerable. After she falls in love with Sang-hyun, the two conspire to kill her husband and consummate their unholy passions. Park Chan-wook’s plot borrows elements from Emile Zola’s novel “Thérèse Raquin”, another tale of a love triangle and murder, which reminds me of what a writing instructor at NYU once told me: there are only perhaps 10 plots in all of world literature. After all, when you really get down to it, neither Zola nor Park are saying anything that much different than what Homer said in the Iliad, but it finally devolves into how you say it. Park, like Zola, understands how to make a well-traveled path fresh and new. All it takes is a good sprinkling of blood.
This was filmed in Mexico and features Latino actors, many of whom are not professionals. However, it was written and directed by Cary Fukunaga , an American with Japanese and Swedish parents. It can be described as a mixture of “City of God” and “El Norte”, drawing from the former a lurid fascination with gangs and from the latter a compassionate identification with Latino émigrés. Two stories in one, it starts off by looking at the mayhem in a Honduras barrio that is divided between two gangs. One of the gangsters is Willy, who is in his late teens and in the process of recruiting Smiley into the gang. Smiley, who could not be more than 12 years old, looks like he would be more at home watching Sesame Street.
Their paths cross with a group of Hondurans headed north to the U.S. on a freight train like 1930s hoboes. Indeed, you will be reminded immediately of William Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Open Road,” a 1933 feature about the unemployed on the move. Along with their boss, the heavily tattooed Lil’ Mago, they have boarded the train in order to rip off the refugees at gunpoint. When Lil’ Mago appears ready to blow off the head of Sayra, a pretty girl about Willy’s age who refuses to turn over her desperately needed savings intended to help her to get to her relatives in New Jersey, Willy slashes his boss’s throat with machete and orders Smiley off the train. Once back in the barrio, Smiley volunteers to kill Willy and thus help complete the initiation into the ranks of the gang. Meanwhile, Willy heads north on the train with Sayra who appears to be falling in love with him. As soon as he becomes aware of her feelings, he insists that she forget about him since he is a dead man walking.
I found the barrio sequences of this movie far less involving than those that take place on the train. Fukunaga tends to make the gangsters, especially Lil’ Mago, a bit cartoonish when more complex characterizations were called for, especially in light of the fact that gang culture is simply another expression of the economic disaster that has forced others to flee to the North.
Fukunaga gave an interview to Socialist Review, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, where he had some refreshingly candid things to say about immigration and the power of a film-maker to effect political change:
Do you think people’s views of immigration will change when they see the film?
I do think films can influence people, and especially influence them to learn more. When I was growing up I’d watch a movie and something would really fascinate me and I’d go and learn a lot about it. But to change people’s minds I think it takes much more time and you have to hit them personally, so I’m not sure I expect the film to change people’s minds. If someone’s anti-immigration they’re going to be anti-immigration after the film – they’ll probably think the film is some kind of propaganda. And someone who is pro human rights is still going to feel that way after the film.
My philosophy in film school was the idea of filmmaking as what the griots do in Africa – you collect stories then you record them. The story’s not meant to be any more than a record of a time. So this is Mexican immigration 2007.
The Men who Stare at Goats
This one took me quite by surprise. As was the case with “Inglourious Basterds”, I was all set to despise it. I got the impression from commercials and from a cursory look at reviews that this was one of those George Clooney vehicles like “The Informant!” that was an “edgy” treatment of an historical event that was calculated in the final analysis to strengthen the lead actor and director’s hipster reputations.
This is Grant Heslov’s first turn behind the camera as director, having up until this point worked mostly as an actor, including a performance as Don Hewitt in the excellent “Good Night and Good Luck”.
The script is by Peter Straughan, an adaptation of the book of the same title by Jon Ronson that describes the military’s experiments with ESP. The film essentially tells the story of how the book came into being, with a character named Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) filling in for Ronson.
Wilton has come to the Middle East in the early days of the war in order to hook up with a military detachment as an “embedded” reporter. While in a Kuwait hotel, he runs into Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) in the bar. Very soon, he discovers that Cassady is a veteran of the ESP experiments who takes the reporter along with him into Iraq in the course of describing his experiences through flashbacks and demonstrating them in a series of encounters largely played for laughs.
Screenwriter Straughan made a perhaps unwise but cinematically essential decision to make some of the ESP-inspired exploits plausible, such as Lyn Cassady toppling a goat through his brain waves (hence the title of the film). If the ESP experiments were revealed as sheer hokum, there’s not much left the film. So we end up with some fairly pointed satire about the army’s idiocy tacked on to some conventional plot elements not that different from other movies “inspired” by the war in Iraq, with Cassady and Wilton just one step ahead of the bad guys—a kind of latter-day Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
The movie is best when it focuses on the military’s experiments, which are led by an officer named Bill Django (a fine performance by Jeff Bridges) who comes across as a mixture of Timothy Leary and Oliver North. For those who have studied the army’s experimentations with drugs and mind control experiments, this is not as far-fetched as it seems. The movie actually refers to the MK-Ultra experiments with LSD that had the effect of turning Django into a hippie/Special Forces hybrid.
The final scene of the movie involves a subversive use of LSD on American forces in Iraq, a fictional embellishment of Ronson’s story to be sure—I believe. With all its faults, this movie is worth seeing if for no other reason that it invites further examination through Ronson’s book and similar material.
You can read chapter one of Jon Ronson’s “The Men who Stare at Goats” on his website to get an idea of what is in store:
General Stubblebine’s trip to Fort Bragg was a disaster. It still makes him blush to recall it. He ended up taking early retirement in 1984. Now, the official history of army intelligence, as outlined in their press pack, basically skips the Stubblebine years, 1981-84, almost as if they didn’t exist.
In fact, everything you have read so far has for the past two decades been a military intelligence secret. General Stubblebine’s doomed attempt to walk through his wall and his seemingly futile journey to Fort Bragg remained undisclosed right up until the moment that he told me about them in room 403 of the Tarrytown Hilton, just north of New York City, on a cold winter’s day two years into the War on Terror.
“To tell you the truth, Jon,” he said, “I’ve pretty much blocked the rest of the conversation I had with Special Forces out of my head. Whoa, yeah. I’ve scrubbed it from my mind! I walked away. I left with my tail between my legs.”
He paused, and looked at the wall.
“You know,” he said, “I really thought they were great ideas. I still do. I just haven’t figured out how my space can fit through that space. I simply kept bumping my nose. I couldn’t…No. Couldn’t is the wrong word. I never got myself to the right state of mind.” He sighed. “If you really want to know, it’s a disappointment. Same with the levitation.”
Some nights, in Arlington, Virginia, after the general’s first wife, Geraldine, had gone to bed, he would lie down on his living-room carpet and try to levitate.
“And I failed totally. I could not get my fat ass off the ground, excuse my language. But I still think they were great ideas. And do you know why?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you cannot afford to get stale in the intelligence world,” he said. “You cannot afford to miss something. You don’t believe that? Take a look at terrorists who went to flying schools to learn how to take off but not how to land. And where did that information get lost? You cannot afford to miss something when you’re talking about the intelligence world.”
Reading this, I cannot but help be reminded of Leon Trotsky’s observations about European culture during the rise of fascism. In 1933, ten years before the death camps, Leon Trotsky wrote an article titled “What is National Socialism.” It does an excellent job of diagnosing the madness of the Nazi movement that had just taken power:
Fascism has opened up the depths of society for politics. Today, not only in peasant homes but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside of the twentieth century the tenth of the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms. The Pope of Rome broadcasts over the radio about the miraculous transformation of water into wine. Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance, and savagery! Despair has raised them to their feet, fascism has given them a banner. Everything that should have been eliminated from the national organism in the form of cultural excrement in the course of the normal development of society has now come gushing out from the throat; capitalist society is puking up the undigested barbarism. Such is the psychology of National Socialism.”