Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 05/25/08 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Much like the second coming of the Star Wars franchise, the latest release of a new Indiana Jones film is for many, many people, an opportunity to step back to their excitement and enjoyment of some time ago.  It’s been nearly 20 years since the last film, but much as with Star Wars, the John Williams orchestral soundtrack kicks in and the heart starts a-pitter-patterring…

I have to say, I love Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  I think it’s a terrifically fun movie that manages to deliver exactly what it intended to: an adventure yarn like something from the early film serials or the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Rider Haggard.  The stunts, the gags, the invetiveness, Harrison Ford, Karen Allen, great villains.  The car chase.  The fist fight by the airplane propellors…for me, it still works.  It still looks great.  And John Williams score actually does inflect a heightened sense of the popular adventure.  For this film, I am not a cynic.

But for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), which I saw moderately recently, the quality level dipped seriously.  It may have been nearly 20 years since I saw the third film, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), but I remember it fondly, for Sean Connery’s bantering with Ford.  I haven’t seen it recently.

But now, the new one.

The bottom line is that I did enjoy it.  It was fun.  I’m not so cynical as to not have enjoyed it.  It has its qualities.  Ford has aged, but has aged well.  Karen Allen is back and her lovely smile is as lovely as ever (even though her role is less cleverly written).  Cate Blanchett makes a sultry Russian vixen (even though her accent is not even as good as Natasha Fatale).  There are some great moments, good stunts, clever devices and, heck, I didn’t even dislike Shia LaBeouf.  I liked it.

But the “wow” factor wasn’t there.  There was nothing that was truly exciting, ennervating, thrilling.  The car chase through the jungle was perhaps the best set piece, but it’s nothing compared to the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And then there are the weird and bad things.  CGI gophers?  What the hell was that?  Did Spielberg want to tip his hat to Caddyshack (1980)?  I was waiting for Kenny Loggins to come blasting over the soundtrack.  The CGI monkeys were also bizarre but they at least played into the action.  But actually, when they teach LaBeouf to swing like Tarzan through the jungle, the credibility factor was sinking kind of low.

Actually, I think that is true for several of the narrative tropes in the film.  Their believability is a tough thing to swallow.  And then I thought back to the other films, the hearts pulled out of the chest, the spirits from the lost ark, the ancient knight protecting the chalice…  It’s not like they were based in hard science.  But maybe there is something much, much less believable here, like how quickly Indy and Marion reconcile and make up their adventure family.

It’s bizarre.  I was going to take Felix to see this, but when his mom realized that the film was PG-13 and saw the violence and frightening segments, she demurred.  I saw it at the Castro Theatre, which is interesting because I think a lot of more “classic” movie houses got to run this film in its first run, perhaps to add to the mystique, perhaps to open more seats for a big-ass cash weekend.  Still, it was kind of cool.

I feel almost like a bit of a jerk for not liking it more.  But who knows.  There is that cynic again, cringing at some of the film’s more corny moments.


Gojira (1954) movie poster

(1954) dir. Ishirô Honda
viewed: 05/25/08

The giant rubber monster movie that started it all, Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla), was released with some pomp a couple of years ago with its original Japanese name and all of it’s orginal footage and dialog with subtitles for the non-Japanese speakers of the world.  As a kid, growing up with Godzilla, we had Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) with a lot of added footage with Raymond Burr showing up to handle the narrative and the dubbing.  It’s been years, but it must be said that this is a very different film.

Gojira is a striking horror film, shot with shadowy efficacy in black and white.  The monster is far more menacing and strange in his looming darkness, less campy and cartoony than in his color features.  The story, said to have been somewhat inspired by the Ray Harryhausen The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) (another giant dinosaur attacks the city film), is loaded with clear and eerie references to the atomic blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki only 9 years prior.  It’s a cultural phenomenon, this film, its legacy, and the film itself is surprisingly effective.  I say that because it is far more like a horror film in and of itself than what it begat as its legacy.

Godzilla is, of course, a lost dinosaur, aroused by the atomic testing in the sea and empowered with his own radioactive breath, unleashes his vengeance on Tokyo and the people of Japan.  Echoes of a legend of his origin touch back to some reckoning of tradition and nature, mutated into a new form of destruction.  His footprints are radioactive.  People are getting killed, but they are also getting radiation poisoning.

It’s also interesting that the scientist who creates the method of destroying Godzilla, a method more dangerous than the atomic bomb, destroys all knowledge of his massively lethal creation and commits suicide in killing the monster in the end.  His awareness of the devastation that his invention can create and the fact that he only uses it to destroy the monster is in itself somewhat of a commentary on the scientists who developed the technology of the bomb, whose legacy has been one of great devastation.

But what is also interesting, and still seemingly quite representative of Japan itself, is the evolution of Godzilla from apocalyptic monster to a hero, a defender of Japan, through film after film, he becomes the good guy.  And a huge cultural artifact, an international celebrity of sorts.  It’s a strange and bizarre legacy, but interesting, certainly.

Going back to this original film, though, was quite satisfying.  I didn’t watch it with the kids because I wanted to watch it in Japanese and to hear the language and keep the pacing.  I am a little unsure of how to approach this film with them.  But that said, there is an awful lot else out there for us to see.

The Blob

The Blob (1958) movie poster

(1958) dir. Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., Russell S. Doughten, Jr.
viewed: 05/23/08

Originally, movie night with the kids this week was meant to feature Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), another personal childhood favorite long since not seen.  But when the disc of that film failed to play in the DVD player, I had to resort to a film that I had been talking to the kids about, one that actually resides in my very small personal library of DVD’s (despite the fact that I watch a lot of films, there are not many that I collect), the 1958 science fiction horror classic, The Blob.

I always liked The Blob.  I don’t know that I would call it a childhood favorite, but it always stood out from so much of what I had watched, and that was before I really even knew who Steve McQueen was.  The film is notable for being one of his first starring roles and that it features a hipster theme song penned by the notable Burt Bacharach.  And also the cool effects of the giant, faceless, gelatinous blob that has come to terrorize small town America.

I categorize The Blob in a proud tradition of excellent horror films that were created independently in the more central parts of the U.S. by commercial filmmakers, ones who wanted to get a toehold into narrative film production and release, films as notable as George A. Romero’s brilliant Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Herk Harvey’s brilliant Carnival of Souls (1962).  It’s struck me as interesting that these amazing films came from outside of the primary Hollywood machinery.  The list could no doubt go on.

But The Blob is quite wonderful.  Its “teenager issue” themes draped upon the horror film invasion and that the amazingly “alive” blob is in action, full color, devouring people left and right, a “thing”, almost an abstract concept come to life.  What does it embody?  It is out and out out there.  And yet poppy almost in its kitsch and color.

The kids were cool with watching this.  They were pretty scared at times, bored at others.  But their recollection today was that “it was pretty scary”.  Realizing that this film is 50 years old struck me notably, too.  That’s a concept that they cannot fathom fully.  Actually, I don’t know if I fully fathom it myself, though I try.


Rude Boy

Rude Boy (1980) movie poster

(1980) dir. Jack Hazan, David Mingay
viewed: 05/22/08

This film, a feeble attempt at making a narrative story of a drunken would-be roadie for The Clash during their earliest heydey, is a jumbled and often boring mess.  Cobbled together as it was, the film attempts to capture the zeitgeist of late-1970’s England, the racism, the conservatism, poverty, hopelessness, the landscape that brought about the rise of the Punk scene.  But these glimpses are muddled and misbegotten.  The only thing this film really has going for it, its probably raison d’etre, is the close following of The Clash through 1978 and 1979 with lots of great performances from a seminal band finding its prime.

I’d always been curious about this film because it was one of the films that seemed to play every month on the late-great cable television show, Night Flight, which introduced me to an unbelievable amount of fascinating stuff.  It was a great show and they showed some films, cartoons, music videos, all sorts of stuff from 11PM to 5AM.

But this movie sucks.  And the producers seem to know it.  On the DVD, you have the option to just watch the band’s performances, skipping all the extraneous storyline about the misadventures of the would-be roadie.  This is probably the way to enjoy this, actually.  The “movie” part is awful.  Oddly, this film chose to go in the direction of narrative instead of documentary, but oddly its documentarian pieces, casual chats with the band, band practices, landscapes of London and other English cities’ glum and poison, The Clash in their absolute prime…this is the value.  The documentary aspects.

Still, ugh.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Sydney Lumet
viewed: 05/21/08

This movie, which received a great deal of critical praise when it was released last year, seemed to fly under the mainstream radar quite a bit, which is a shame.  The critics were right.  This film is surprisingly strong, energetic, and intense.  The primary trope of critical discussion has focussed on the fact that this is an amazingly strong and vibrant film from an octogenarian director, Sydney Lumet, who has directed for years in Hollywood with a long list of notable films including classics like 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976).  Just making a film that isn’t just good but alive is an accomplishment for anyone, certainly.  But to be in your eighties with a strong filmography that stretches back fifty years and to put out a film that has this much contemporary panache,…it’s really something.

The other side of the critical acclaim struck around the performances of the actors, namely Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and Marisa Tomei, which is also valid.  I’m not usually into “actorly” films mainly because performances of quality can mask an otherwise weak film (and often do), so that is not usually a selling point for me.  But it has to be said, it is one of the film’s strengths.

When did Ethan Hawke learn to act?  I swear that the last time I recall seeing him, he was some still snivelling simp of a twenty-something trading on his disshevelled good looks.  He’s actually good in this movie.  Hoffman is typically strong.  Marisa Tomei has less to work with (this is certainly not a film about women), but she’s good.  And as off-color as it may be to say it, she has gorgeous breasts.  Okay.  It struck me.  I said it.

The film is not light-hearted.  It’s a drama, a crime film, a family of incestuous hatred and resentment imploding upon itself in what one might normally say is in “slow-motion”.  But the motion isn’t slow.  Lumet stops and goes back and forth in time with a rat-a-tat beat that jars and yet opens the story toward a multiple perspective view of the crises and the outcomes.  And that technique doesn’t actually slow things down.  It adds to the multiplicity of the perspectives and the characters, but unfolds with a building inevitability of tragedy that is downright Shakespearian.  Monumental.  Epic.  Nasty.

The bottom line is that this film is very good.  The direction and cinematography are interesting, lively, active.  It has an energy like something a young filmmaker might bring, but with an efficacy that is more than simply polished.  It’s not a masterpiece of vision like something like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), but it’s a riveting and intense film.  I certainly recommend it.  It’s good stuff.

And the critics were right.

Speed Racer

Speed Racer (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Andy Wachowski, Larry Wachowski
viewed: 05/17/08 at the Fremont Theater, San Luis Obispo, CA

At first, I thought I was going to end up seeing this film with my son, who had shown avid interest during previews, but then it’s long length, bad reviews, and loss of notice by my son (who is far more excited about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), Kung Fu Panda (2008), and WALL-E (2008)), I figured that I wasn’t going to have to watch Speed Racer.  But then, on vacation in San Luis Obispo, seeing the Speed Racer was playing at the fabulous Fremont Theater, I decided “what the heck?”

The Fremont is a beautiful theater, the last Art Deco style cinema built on the West Coast, it is a truly fanatastic place to see movies.  From its amazing nightly neon facade, to its gorgeous stylishly glowing interior, it’s one of the nicest cinemas that I have ever been in.  While we have the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, a couple of our other excellent movie palaces have been repurposed in my time there, namely the Alhambra and the Alexandria.  It’s still something much much more to see a film in a theater like this than in any other place in which I have seen films.  And so, I figured, it didn’t ever really matter what movie I went to see…even the highly-panned Speed Racer.

Well, it’s not as bad as all that.  I mean, there are flashes that are deeply groan-inducing and it’s nothing to be excited about, but I oddly found it entertaining, even enough to say that I kind of enjoyed it.

More than anything, the film is perhaps literal eye candy.  Shot almost entirely if not exclusively on green screen, every frame of the film is either saturated, out-and-out manipulated and designed, or utterly and completely rendered by digital artists and designers.  And it’s quite dazzling a lot of the time.  It’s psychedelia, influenced highly by anime, but far more borne of the full-on digital aesthetics, something fresh and flashy.  And its use of color reminded me of films like Dick Tracy (1990) and Super Mario Bros. (1993), both of which also suffered from the real actors against a hyper-cartoon aesthetic.

Of course, there is a story here below the facade.  And human actors.  Largely, though, the actors seem to have been chosen for their ability to become cartoons themselves, and Christina Ricci is perhaps the most uber cartoonish-looking of the cast, which includes people like Susan Sarandon, John Goodman, and Emile Hirsch, too.  Mostly, it’s a little unclear what beyond visual aesthetics drove any of the choices for the film.

The brothers use an enormous amount of narrative cross-cutting, chopping into the action left and right to give the sensibility that perhaps the cartoon from which this film was adapted once utilized, I don’t know.  It’s part of the visuals as well as the narrative technique, with foregrounded close-ups tracking slowly across the screen while other action takes place behind it.  It’s an interesting or at least fun aesthetic.  However, it detracts from the out-and-out excitement of the car chases and car battles for any real pulse-pounding adventure.

Some of the kicks and scenes and sequences are more fun and entertaining than others.  Among the criticisms I’ve read are about how the only people who could enjoy this film are little boys.  I actually do think that Felix would enjoy it, but he’ll have to do it on DVD.  I liked it enough, but I am not going to sit through it a second time.

One of the critiques I’ve also read is the main discourse of the film is that about the evil corporation against the individual and the small family-run business and the general hypocrisy that lies within such a critique in a film funded by corporations with tie-ins and marketing driven by others.  And while that’s true, I think that the directorial brothers are frequently on the side of faux and shallow idealism.

Ah, but whatever.  It was more fun than I thought it would be.  Don’t take that as a recommendation, mind you.  Maybe I was just in a good mood.


Teeth (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein
viewed: 05/12/08

“This pussy has teeth!”

That is a quote that I’ve always remembered from the cult classic Liquid Sky (1982), from a performance art piece in a film that is essentially a performance art piece.  But just to say, even as a teen with no context or knowledge of history or anatamy or feminism, I got the meaning.  Emasculating, female empowering, a statement of strength and threat.

When I was at some film earlier this year, I saw a trailer for Teeth, a horror/comedy about vagina dententa, an ancient fear and legend about quite literally, a vagina with teeth in it.  The trailer focuses on a scene in which a gynecological exam happens, tensing around her abnormality, and ultimately its chomping ability.  I found it intriguing partially because this trailer showed in the “art house” leaning Landmark Theater chain and not the straight up mainstream horror distribution.  So, what we have here is an “intellectual” horror/comedy about a girl with teeth in her vagina.  It came and went in the cinema fast, but got pretty good reviews.

The problem that I had with this film was its ability to navigate the different tropes it tries to gather together.   The very cute Jess Weixler plays Dawn, the girl with the teeth, who begins the film as a hardcore abstinence-touting virgin, naive and committed, innocent to the extreme.  Partially, this is a need of the film, I guess.  She has to be that naive to have never explored her vagina to find the teeth therein.  But for the starting point of this character to be so far in this direction, her change and evolution over the duration of the film (only a couple of days) into a avenging angel of sorts.  Her turn to sexual maturity happens way too fast.  That change lacks believability.

It’s a shame, because Weixler is good, dewy-eyed, pretty like the girl-next-door, and she delivers a sincerity that starts as believable.  But let’s face it, this is a far-out fantasy, but still…it didn’t work.  Her brother, whose unlikeability is ridiculous, her rapists, who are essentially everyone, are also overdone.

The gore factor is pretty intense.  The comedy is occasionally double-entendred (after “biting” off her boyfriend’s penis, she tells her parents “I ate”, when asked if she needed dinner.).  There is also the ubiquitous dog eating the chopped-off penis of one of the bad guys.  This film has a bit of a personality disorder.  It tries to play the intellectual, occasionally the raw comedy, and only partially the gore-fest horror film.

I was struck by the final shot, in which Dawn gives an “aside” look toward the camera, signifying her plan to chomp off the penis of her latest harrasser, implying an empowerment, an awareness, a signifier of her awakened self.  It reminded me of the final shot of Catherine Breillat’s coming of age film, 36 Fillette (1988) in which the precocious and mixed-up heroine gives a look of “knowledge” and a smile acknowledging her sense of self coming out of having lost her virginity.  In 36 Fillette that knowledgeable look might be controvertial but it made sense.  In Teeth, it’s somewhat troubling.

The empowerment of the ability to emasculate is not so much a superpower, but a defense mechanism.  Dawn has to be physically penetrated in order to take action.  It’s a complex mixture of strength and vulnerability that the film doesn’t fully address.  And her vengeance and attitude, swung from dedicated innocence to malevolent violence is just not an arc that fails to ring true.

So, the bottom line, this film didn’t work for me.  I didn’t like it.  It’s not terrible, but it’s a failure in my mind.  The other notable thing about the film is that director Mitchell Lichtenstein is the son of Pop Art painter Roy Lichtenstein.  Not that that really has any bearing on anything.

I imagine that there are a lot of men who will take a visceral fear from this film.

Still Life

Still Life (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Zhang Ke Jia
viewed: 05/11/08 at the Roxie Film Center, SF, CA

A few months back, I’d read about Still Life in the New York Times or something and became quite interested in the work of filmmaker Zhang Ke Jia, one of a group of Chinese filmmakers referred to at the “Sixth Generation”.  A month of two ago I rented his earlier film, Unknown Pleasures (2002), which I liked and which continued to resonate for me since watching it.  His films seem like a more naturalistic view inside a part of China (cultural strata and location) much different from anything I’d seen before.  His characters are isolated amidst great change, culturally and physically, within the world’s largest country, the world of the small individual situated within the enormous world of dramatic change.  Isolation and a sense of loss pervade his films.

The other truly fascinating thing about Still Life is the settings and the location of the film.  The backdrop is the ancient cities and villages among the Three Gorges that are being evacuated and demolished as they are to be flooded in the process of damming the Yangtze River in the massive Three Gorges Dam project.  Perhaps one of the most enormous projects of its kind from an industrial, physical human change to the landscape, ecological, and human in the displacement of millions of people, this is truly the “massive” background against which Zhang Ke Jia’s characters are centered.

I first drew interest to this change, though it has been going on for years, when I saw Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, Manufactured Landscapes (2006).  Burtynsky’s work focuses on the human hand in reshaping the world, landscapes that are oppositional often to the natural, oppositional to an extreme.  In that film, Burtynsky and Baichwal had great difficulty in getting access to photograph or film in the project as the Chinese government is very protective of the project from getting bad publicity or bad analysis in the world’s eye.  It’s what makes Zhang Ke Jia’s film so fascinating.   The landscapes, the soon to be submerged city in which people are still living and working, is a sight to see.

The story follows Han Sanming, a man from another village, who comes to find his long lost wife of 16 years in a town already underwater.  He takes up a job with a sledgehammer, felling the buildings that will soon be below water.  Even the building in which he takes up residence eventually is marked for destruction.  The world is the center of destruction, living on the fringe of a world that will soon be swallowed up by “progress”.  Some of these villages and towns are over 2000 years old, and the culture of the people is beautifully captured by Zhang Ke Jia’s camera.

While his films rely on a form of neo-realism, focusing on a strata of culture that is perhaps not the lowest on the ladder, but near bottom, he uses non-actors to gain a style of performance that gives the film a tone unlike other films.  One, especially myself, who has never been to China, nor these specific locations, can only speculate to the accuracty of these depictions, to their naturalism.  But at face value, that is how I read it.  Neo-realistic depiction, whose power, when handled well, speaks of a truth and a naturalism, one of belief.

But interestingly, Zhang Ke Jia uses some CGI for a couple of moments of fantasy: a UFO siting, a structure that blasts off like a rocket, a man tight-rope walking between to towers.  These flights of fantasy, I think, are meant to reflect the characters’ mentality to an extent.  The outre-ness of their world, perhaps of hope, and escape.  But they seem to detract from the film’s naturalism distinctly.  I don’t know if he’s used such techniques in other films, but it did sort of disconcert me to an extent.  I still don’t know exactly what to make of them, but they add to the question of belief in the naturalism of the film.

Other shots and sequences are striking.  As Sanming passes these derelict buildings, he turns to see an entire wall felled.  This seems like a beautifully timed shot.  But later when an entire structure is detonated in the backgroud, I wondered whether or not that was also CGI.  Some of his lingering shots of people sitting together are the most striking and beautiful, but his contrasts of these individuals against the massiveness of the river, of the bridges, of the gorges themselves, the iconic quality of this whole thing is still very powerful.

I am eager to see more of his films.

My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Amir Bar-Lev
viewed: 05/11/08

The story that spawned this documentary, that of a 4 year old Binghampton, NY girl whose abstract paintings were being shown and sold in galleries in New York, had come to my attention back when the story first gained mainstream media attention in an article in The New York Times four years ago.  So, when I’d seen that a documentary feature had been made on the subject, I wasn’t surprised, but I was interested.

There are some obvious pre-thoughts one might bring to such a story: exploitation by the parents, the question of non-representational art inspired by the film’s title, the whole media frenzy over things like such a phenom.  What signifies a true “child prodigy”?

The film delves into all of that, but more, happily.

I am always a bit skeptical of documentaries that figure their directors in their narratives, not due to obvious lack of objectivity but rather egotism, the need to insert oneself into a narrative about something or someone else.  And when the opening shot featured director Amir Bar-Lev chatting with Marla Olmstead, the four year old of note and her brother, I was a bit worried.  But as the story goes on, as the film takes on a personalized view, one in which the director himself expresses his lack of certainty and the basic nature of “knowing” what the facts of a story are, it comes to have made sense.  And I think overall, Bar-Lev did an admirable job with the subject matter.

Marla Olmstead’s story starts innocently enough.  Her father gave her paper to paint on while he was painting simply to distract her rather than putting her in front of the television.  She showed an aptitude for non-representational imagery and visual aesthetic higher than the average toddler and he moved her on to canvasses to see what she would do.  When on a whim, a friend at a cafe offers to put up her art to see what people would say, the family finds themselves on the threshhold of a world of art and media and public scutiny that they had never anticipated.

A local artist (interestingly a photo-realist painter himself, who turns out to truly have issues with non-representational art) capitalizes on the pint-sized ingenue and after an article in the local paper gets usurped by The New York Times, all hell breaks loose.  Marla’s art starts selling for thousands of dollars.  She gets calls from Jay Leno and Oprah and 60 Minutes.  The local artist who pimped her work locally gets her a show in New York City and the whole show sells out.

Marla’s mother clearly never pushed for her daughter to experience the limelight, focussing on her experience as any child, not seeking money nor fame.  Her father, especially with the help of the local promoter, saw opportunity for money and fame, but perhaps with a naivitee that might absolve the father at least of greater disdain.

When the 60 Minutes piece runs, two days before her West Coast art opening, the shit hits the fan.  Interviewing with a psychologist who specializes in “child prodigies”, anchorperson Charlie Rose raises great skepticism of Marla’s authorship, suggesting that Marla’s father either coached her or actually painted the paintings himself.  Everyone is blindsided, including the film’s director, who had not questioned the work’s authenticity.

Here is where the issues become so much more complex.  In interviewing Times art critic Michael Kimmelman, the most discerning and wide-ranging discussion of the issues around non-representational art are raised.  The historical criticism that “my kid could paint that” and how such visual gibberish is an affront to the hard-fought skills and draughtmanship of the fine and representational painter are well-elucidated.  That the impressario, Marla’s dealer, the photo realist, later comes to voice these specific critiques after the 60 Minutes scandal and that he had ulterior motives to sort of put a “fuck you” to the art establishment underscores the continued reality of such perspectives.

The family becomes devastated by the question of authorship.  But the authorship is a big part of the golden eggs that little Marla is birthing.  The paintings have aesthetic beauty, but none of this story would be a story if her father Mark Olmsted was the artist.  It’s utterly that the hand of a 4 year old could create something so aesthetic and so beyond the typical artistry of children that makes the images fascinating and gives the story its story.  But for the family, as well for the promoter, integrity becomes a much bigger factor.

The rise to celebrity, the stink of scandal, the sense of betrayal by those whose exploitation was initially sought…it’s a very compelling story.  I would say so even more so for parents who have had small children and can relate even more to the choices and reprecussions therein.

And for the director, who also has the local author of the initial newspaper article on Marla as his other primary strong interviewee (a mother herself, and a sensative and sincere, intelligent counterpoint), there is a balance struck, one that singularly questions the perspective taken on representing this story.  The objectivity of documentation, in primal counterpoint to the subjectivity of non-narrative representation, has to recognize the limitations of objectivity, especially when pointedly questioning the integrity of people upon whom his own success as a filmmaker relies.

There is a lot here in this film, a lot to consider.  I certainly recommend it to anyone who has thought this far in my description that anything within it might be worth inspecting.

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara

The Fog of War (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Errol Morris
viewed: 05/09/08

I had always intended to see this film when it first came out.  Errol Morris is probably one of the more well-known and perhaps important documentary filmmakers of the past 20 years, and this film, stemming from a long interview or series of interviews with Robert S. McNamara, one-time Secretary of Defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson, during the period of the Cuban Missle Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and the onset of the Vietnam War.  It’s interesting stuff.  But when contrasted with the many documentaries that I have seen lately in reference to the current war in Iraq, it seemed utterly timely.

That and this week saw the opening of Morris’ new film Standard Operating Procedure (2008), a documentary about Abu Grhaib prison and use of torture in the U.S. government.

I have to say that The Fog of War is a tremendously contemplative film.  Before it’s release, I wasn’t even familiar with who Robert McNamara was.  Which is scary that such an important, key figure in the history of the past 50 years is obscure enough that I have trouble knowing who he is, much less the average American.

The stories he tells, interpreted as “lessons”, are stunning, fascinating insights into American history, into politics, the process of information distribution and what is really happening in the world.  McNamara is strikingly intelligent and his life story, rising from his role as a Harvard professor into military analysis and into the ultimate role as advisor to the U.S. presidency about the steps to take in some of the most important crises of the past half-century.

He strikingly notes that under his few years as Secretary of Defense that the U.S. came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war, World War III, perhaps the end of life as we know it three specific times.  There is a depth of insight and reality here that echoes deeply into much of what we have come to accept and understand as “history”.  And it’s not that McNamara is offering a “no holds barred” interview.  He clearly states that certain understandings up culpability and of responsibility he will not address, nor the effect that these choices and experiences had on his own family.

McNamara is an incredibly intelligent man, whose role in history is significant, whose insight is keen and specific, whose knowledge and ideas are well worth hearing, taking for what they are, for their specific clarity and specificity.  Knowledge is never 100%.  Hindsight is not necessarily 20-20.  But hindsight is history.  And this personal perspective is fascinating and well-evoked by Morris.  I do recommend it very much.