29 September, 2011

What I've been doing

So, Brussels is nice. But one can only do so much sight-seeing without exhausting oneself. And a hotel isn't exactly the most welcoming place to relax, especially when it doesn't even provide free wifi so that one can email one's family. So for the past few days I've been taking full advantage of the Brussels Film Festival, during which one can get into the movies for only 4 euros. Not bad at all. So I've gotten a chance to see several movies which had intrigued me while I was in the US, but not enough for me to fork over $8 to the theaters. All were indeed decent in some respects, so I didn't regret the money, especially when there's so little else to do (other than walk around and spend money in restaurants). None of them was great. Which I kind of expected. Some brief comments: 
  •  Captain America: A fun, classic-comic-book style movie that doesn't bother with trying to make the material particularly thought provoking. That's not a bad thing, because its real charm is its evocation of a less jaded time when it was all right to be patriotic, even if one didn't agree with all the politicians, and when it was good to be a hero, whether the skinny type who ends up getting beaten up in a back alley, or the super powerful type who can bring down a Nazi munitions plant almost single-handedly. It focuses winningly on the difference between being a "message" and really doing something heroic. It returns unabashedly and successfully to the David vs. Goliath trope that people understandably love, but which seems like aesthetic pandering in many movies. The only real problem that I had with it was the ending. Sure there's a sacrifice, and sure, it's in keeping with that person's character. It's just really that it seems really abrupt, and that the follow-up is profoundly unsatisfying, leaving as it does all the previous story lines unresolved. It's as though they decided to scrap the "ending" idea and substitute "beginning of sequel".
  • The Debt: This one could have been so much better if they had scrapped the second story line entirely. I'm okay with having the original tale told in flashbacks; in fact, I think the director managed that quite skillfully, starting each flashback precisely where it needed to be started, and including precisely the right material in each one. The content of those flashbacks, which really is the bulk of the movie, is genuine John LeCarré style stuff: a thought-provoking exploration of the toll that deception (even for a good purpose) and revenge (even just retribution undertaken with proper authorization) takes on the human soul. I know that in the second story, the one that takes place about 40 years or so later, the filmmakers are attempting to pursue the whole "consequences of living a lie" theme in a much more radical way--the agents are now deceiving the world instead of their target, a much more obviously problematic activity. But I think the point was kind of made already through the sinister mockery of the ex-Nazi doctor in the first part as he scoffs at the agents' lack of conviction and claims that "Jews can't do what is necessary," that they're "weak" (essentially, not a direct quote), meaning that these agents won't be able to work up the nerve to go through with their plan. That the pressures of doing something that is so morally borderline (or that at least affects the conscience as being so, even if one agrees intellectually that the action is justified, as all of them do) will eventually break down their determination. Okay, deceiving an ex-Nazi in order to kidnap him and bring him to justice isn't the same as deceiving the world by pretending that the mission was completed when it wasn't. But the theme is already present in a more nuanced way in the first story line, and the viewer really doesn't need to be beaten over the head with it. The issue of the failure of the mission and the subsequent cover-up could have been dealt with much more skillfully, much less blatantly, and could have been done without the drama of the "second story" that commences about 2/3 of the way into the movie. What the movie really has going for it is the fact that the first story line is long enough and compelling enough to keep one watching. Too bad they didn't end it there.
  • Contagion: Not much to say about this one. Good cinematography, good acting, use of certain thriller gimmicks that actually made sense in this context. I certainly did leave the theater reluctant to ever touch anything or eat any meat again. On the other hand, while those technical successes keep one watching, one never feels anything but distant from the events that are unfolding, and I basically think that that's because they are events, but they don't constitute a story. We get snippets of many different characters' experiences, but they are just that: snippets. The frenetic movement of the script from scene to scene, country to country, character to character leaves every single character's story with gaps that really shouldn't be there, from the viewer's perspective. We aren't satisfied with seeing Marion Cotillard just run somewhere after returning to the movie almost out of nowhere...what has been going on? What's behind her decisions? We get enough information to deduce some of these things, but a story isn't supposed to be a puzzle: one doesn't "deduce" a plot, even if the genre is mystery. The Matt Damon storyline is the most humanized, the most complete. But again. We are told it in fragments, albeit larger ones. We follow it up to a certain point, but there is no ending. The credits just start to roll. I understand that this may well be intentional, meant to highlight the fact that a world-wide epidemic isn't going to be a nice Aristotelean drama and that it depersonalizes through its non-selectivity. However, even the most modern modernist isn't this impersonal, and even the most tentative of plot-creators (like Virginia Woolf)  at least have a plot for us to follow. For heaven's sake, if you want to depict The Nature of the Plague, do a documentary about the Black Death. If you want a story, however, find some human beings who are affected, discern their story line, at least with respect to this epidemic, and follow it to some conclusion. It doesn't have to be an utterly conclusive conclusion, but please, do conclude instead of just finishing.

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