Criterion Collection on Hulu

English: en: Grauman's Chinese Theatre, photog...

Criterion Collection on Hulu

If you’re frustrated with the relatively low-grade streaming selection on Netflix, you might want to grab a hulu subscription.  The site is now featuring access to 700 films in the Criterion Collection–an incredible mix of foreign and Hollywood classics from the highbrow to the B’s. 

Zero Dark Thirty Will Catch You Looking

zero dark thirty eye So much of the Zero Dark Thirty conversation has been about whether it presents torture as effective in gaining intelligence. For me most of the interesting questions are about how–how visually, how in filmic language–Bigelow’s film presents torture. 

I’m not saying that there aren’t worthy arguments to be made about the film’s politics.  But, in my view, any discussion of its politics that doesn’t take its filmcraft seriously will be sorely lacking.

The opening of the film is unrelentingly tense, an immediate plunge into the national memory of confusion and tragedy of September 11, 2001.  With nothing to look at (literally a black screen), we instead hear the jumble, the confused bits of air traffic control, first responders, reporters, terrified Americans –none particularly clear or complete.  No visuals anchor these sounds with the certainty of what is going on.  We are literally in the dark as a national crisis unfolds.   But far from leaving us with this abstract sense of panic, Bigelow then quiets most of the din and one voice emerges, one voice of one woman in the World Trade Center.  One woman telling the 911 operator that she believes she is going to die.  In a matter of minutes and with nothing to see, the film has already evoked emotions wrapped up with both the national and deeply personal proportions of the terrorist attacks.  This emotional primer helps ground us in the mentality, in the urgency that has fueled political justifications of our own dogged pursuit of the war on terror.

From that unconventional and unsettling opener, viewers are immediately taken into a room where CIA operatives torture a detainee for information.  We join Maya, our main character, there as it is both her first time through such an interrogation and ours.

And then we all have to sit through it.

Much has been made of whether or not Maya looks away, her non-verbally expressed level of acceptance treated as a kind of proof of the film’s stance on torture.  I’m personally interested in whether or not we, the audience right there in the multiplex, look away.

If we do keep our eyes on the screen, do we find ourselves able to stay fixed on the “action”  of the terrible deprivations and injuries inflicted on this detainee? Or do we look away even within the frame, searching Maya’s face instead, searching her reaction as a way to understand our own?    Do we feel permission for our own discomfort when we see hers? Our own mettle when we see hers?  Are any of us, regardless of our political orientation, really unflinchingly okay with this?  Do we register our own complicity in this process as we register Maya’s, as we watch her give assistance to the interrogator even when she does not seem altogether at ease with the torture?  

Whatever else it does, Zero Dark Thirty makes us sit in a room with a man being tortured for probably thirty minutes.  We are literally occupying the proverbial front row seat.  We must face it or find that we can not face it.  Whatever stance we take on torture, we can not take it abstracted from this emotionally and visually riveting scene.  A scene that takes up too large a proportion of the film, too much of our way into the film’s universe to shake off easily.   Bigelow’s film relentlessly presents us with the cost of information extracted through this sort of extreme duress.   A cost borne most palpably by the tortured but which also impacts the torturer.  This carefully orchestrated opening aims, in my view, to count the moral cost, to count the cost to the humanity that this approach requires of the interrogator and of the people who sent him there.   It aims to cost us our illusions.

Zero Dark Thirty serves up the challenge to be able to look torture in the eye no matter your point of view.

The American (2010 film)

I’d been wanting to see The American and with HBO on demand, I finally did.  The American is that assassin picture starring George Clooney–the one with the cool, sort of ’70s-throwback-looking movie poster.

The poster did on its job, luring me in with a visual cue back to the tense psychological and political thrillers of 30 or 40 years ago.   

But as it turns out the poster could be used as a metaphor for the whole viewing experience.   It visually conveys  tension using a retro aesthetic but gives you no sense of character and little hint of plot.

These are strong words from a gal who sincerely likes 70s political drama.  Sure, a lot of people did at the time, but have you seen one lately?  By today’s standards, these things move like molasses.  I’m a believer in that slow narrative pacing, however.  I’m a fan of those long takes with little dialogue.  Those movies were about intense situations in uncertain, even paranoid political times.  There is arguably something brilliant in making you stew in anticipation just like the people you’re watching on screen.  Seriously: I’m the person who actually likes Klute, a movie so slow that after it, my husband announced a 3 month moratorium on renting 70s films.  

But The American tried my patience.  Not so much because I can’t be a patient viewer (see above endorsement of Klute), but because I need a reason to be patient.  Don’t ask me to stare at a guy who talks about as much as Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western and then not deliver on a reasonable reason to care about him.

The American started strong but began to sputter mid-way.  I felt the urge to bail when it became apparent that the relationship through which we are, presumably, supposed to root for Jack (Clooney) to find relief (redemption is beyond his reach) is with the prostitute he’s just met.   I do not have a blanket policy against sympathy with prostitute characters (again, see Klute endorsement above).  But I failed to connect with whatever was supposed to be going on here.  He sleeps with her twice.  The second time we have to sit through a soft-porn-ish scene of him “pleasuring her.” [Why do polite terms for such actions always sound like junior high health class?]  This intimacy is immediately followed by a terse exchange that seems to undo the implication of, well, intimacy.  And then for the rest of the picture to work, we need to believe in and root for them to find a way out of their unsatisfying lives and be together.  It’s totally absurd.  Not only as a concept, but in its execution.  The chemistry between these two is not strong enough to persuade us to overlook how under-written this implausible arc is.   And when the writing kicks in, it’s predictable and heavy-handed.  Biggest eye-roller: When Jack asks Clara to run away with him, she actually asks him if they could be together [breathily] forever.   Aww… really?

Of course, we’re probably supposed to be okay with the weakness of this romantic, escapist undercurrent because the movie also sets up a suspenseful (or suspensefully shot) plotline about unearthing who is trying to assassinate our gun-toting leading man.  But the answer is too obvious, too soon.   I worried far less about who was after Clooney and whether he would survive than I did about, say, Donald Sutherland in Klute (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The American hits all the aesthetic marks creating the feeling of an intentionally well-shot, intentionally broody, intentionally plodding film.  But it does little to back up its intention to tell us a good story.

I should have trusted the instinct to bail when I had the chance.