Sunday, February 24, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Into the Great Wide Open

Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.

- William Butler Yeats
  "Easter 1916"

Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's follow up to The Hurt Locker, encapsulates post- 9/11 America.  As we follow Maya in her pursuit of Osama Bin Laden through interrogation rooms, embassy hallways, and satellite photos a historical tunnel vision sets in.  Many reviews have focused on Maya as a "blank slate" type character with not much of a personality, no real relationships in the film, and a self-righteousness bordering on obsessive.  But these are recurring types in American lore from Captain Ahab of the Pequod to the Mark Zuckerberg of the The Social Network.  They are driven by revenge and a sense of justice to set the world right- even to the point where their will and determination leaves them with a unique type of emptiness.

As cinematic entertainment, Zero Dark Thirty towers over the rest.  At 160 minutes the film builds to a chilling climax (or an anti-climax) with the killing of Bin Laden.  The years fly on by with no context provided for what else was going on in the world.  The geopolitical background behind 9/11 and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are too complex for any to film to handle so instead we get an epic about a capturing a charismatic terrorist.  As one insightful critic noted, trying to make sense of modern history is akin to staring into the sun.  A 24 hour news cycle gives all of us a tunnel vision where there is no historical context for anything.  No one will even a agree on a narrative because we don't know where to begin.

The past few months I've been teaching a class on Western Civilization and we examine the Roman Empire in some depth.  While it is tempting to think of America as  the "New Rome" the parallels are striking.  During the height of the Roman Empire, the "Pax Romana,"  Rome defended their borders while those inside the empire went about their lives with prosperity quite rare in the ancient world.  Trouble from the Barbarians rarely effected them directly.  Have we reached a similar moment in American civilization?  Unless you know someone in the armed forces one can go about their lives with little concern for what's happening in the world.  Instead we have video games, movies, Fox News, and strip malls. Yes, America is now an Empire.

As for the film, it is tightly edited, well acted, procedural and is more interesting by what it chooses not to address.  Bigelow's narrative drive is so seamless it left me disoriented. The final 45 minutes are filmed through night vision as the Navy Seals close in on Bin Laden's compound.  They exchange banter before the raid that exudes a professionalism one expects from the most elite unit in the military.  On the one hand it is a marvel to see them at work.  On the other, there is a banality to it making it all the more haunting.  As the film ends Maya stares blankly into the camera there in the midst of ominous silence inside an empty cargo plane.  What is she thinking? Have we all stared into the void of history?

In perhaps the greatest of all procedural films All the President's  Men is about two heroic reporters who pursued the Watergate scandal and helped end a corrupt administration; thereby preserving the idea of democracy.  Zero Dark Thirty is working in reverse:  a film working from within the national security state.  Security is the theme, but it adds up to a negation and an aimlessness implying a future shrouded in fog and unpredictability. 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Revisiting Pulp Fiction

Recently I had the experience of watching Quentin Tarantino's 1994 masterpiece, Pulp Fiction on the big screen.  Nearly twenty years old, the film remains vibrant and alive.  Seeing every shot as the director intended is full of riches. One example is just watching the eyes of the actors.  During an early, now iconic, scene when Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) turn a routine hit job into performance art, one can observe Jackson's eyes shift eerily from whimsical to thoughtful to deadly.  Television fails capture those nuances.

At over 2 1/2 hours, Pulp Fiction has a narrative drive rare in American film.  For Tarantino, plot means everything and nothing.  His screenplay (written with Roger Avary) does not follow the three act conventions of most scripts usually greenlighted by the studios.  Long sequences of dialogue between two characters are often punctuated with intense action.  Tarantino's dialogue displays his virtuosity as a writer since it is used to add dimension to the film instead of advancing the plot.

Another example of the film's genius is how it uses genre as a means to reinvent storytelling.  By working within the confines of the "mobster" film genre, Tarantino simultaneously deconstructs, destroys, and recreates. In fact, how many people even think of Pulp Fiction as a "mobster" movie?  The three stories are standard "b" movie plot - taking out the boss's wife, a boxer deciding whether to take a dive, and taking care of a job going all wrong.  Few mob films contain ongoing discussions on metaphysics or "divine intervention."  Scorsese's gritty epic Goodfellas is about wiseguys doing their thing in everyday life: Can we imagine such a scene in a Scorsese film?

In fact since the term "Tarantinoesque" is now part of cinema parlance- meaning a potent cinematic experience.  For example, when John Travolta and Uma Thurman dance to Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell" Tarantino allows his actors to reconnect with audiences through dance and nostalgia, recalling Travolta's 1970s classics Saturday Night Fever and Grease.  Meanwhile Uma Thurman's French New Wave style elevates the scene to a pastiche of Godard.  The entire setting for the sequence, a retro- 1950s car hop fits the film perfectly; a simulated artificial environment with enough verisimilitude to make it realistic, but not like real life.  Tarantino's is realistic in terms of cinematic reality- that's his playground.

Since Pulp Fiction really is what exactly the title promises it's a film of escalating moments of terror, hilarity, loyalty, and even beauty. Characters in minor roles deliver some of their best work such as Eric Stoltz as Lance or Harvey Keitel as "Mr. Wolf."  Tarantino is well aware it is character actors who make movies worth watching and uses them maximum effect.  

I always thought the "Butch's" story seemed the weakest of the three since it relied more on action and pure shock value (thinking the "gimp" scene.)  But after watching it again I was struck by its optimism and subtle themes of loyalty.  Butch decides his self-respect is more important than money so he refuses to take the dive and outsmarts Marsellus and his crew.  But in the heat of battle he decides to save Marsellus when they confront an evil neither has experienced.  Butch's redemption  foreshadows Jules in the last act. 

And what of the final scene?  In the opening scene Tarantino sets up the ending with the absurd criminals Pumpkin and Honey-Bunny (an inept Bonnie &Clyde) plan to rob a diner.  Meanwhile Vincent and Jules are having an intense discussion about what constitutes a miracle.  In a final irony the post-modern epic ends with a sermon.  But is that the final joke?  Or do we read this as "character development?" Is their a hidden spiritual meaning to Pulp Fiction?  No more than one gets from Paradise Lost or The Pickwick Papers.  Pulp Fiction is a vivid film of color and humanity pulsating with a love of film - and throwing some profound questions around in the process.