Fair Game (US-UAE, 2010) and Green Zone (Fr-US-Spain-UK, 2010)

How it was

Movies about the Iraq war have, unsurprisingly, been box office poison. It was a war that was still going on when most of the films were released and one that most people knew was about oil and not about ‘freedom’ (come to think about it, it probably was about American ‘freedom’ to secure oil supplies). Most of the films have been about this mendacity; foremost amongst them for me is In the Valley of Elah (2007). So well done to the producers for getting these expensive productions mounted even after it was clear that punters didn’t want to know what really happened; I hope they weren’t burned too badly.

Paul Greengrass has directed two of the best political films of recent times, Bloody Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006), and while Green Zone isn’t in their class, it’s still a very effective representation of disastrous American policy in the aftermath of the invasion in 2003.  It concerns the search for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WMD) which most knew, despite not being given any intelligence, did not exist. As Fair Game makes clear, it’s highly likely that the American government knew they did not exist but had to magick them into existence in order to justify going to war.

Credit to Matt Damon for starring in another film, after Syriana (2005), that questions American policy in the ‘Middle East’. He carries the film well, as a professional soldier who wants to do a proper job. I wonder how accessible, without knowledge of the war, the script is. It rattles along at pace and neophytes might be forgiven for being confused.

Anything goes

The same might be true for Fair Game, based on the true story of the CIA agent outed by the White House for political reasons. If Green Zone tells the truth via fictional characters, Fair Game features real life characters who were hung out to dry by the Bush administration for telling the truth. Again it should be emphasised how important it is for stars, such as Naomi Watts and Sean Penn in this film, to make liberal films that will help write the history of the time. And the history recited here is shameful; as the postscript states that although the man who revealed Valerie Plame’s (Watts) identity, Scooter Libby, was convicted he was immediately pardoned by President Bush.

In a key scene Joe Wilson (Penn), husband of Plame, tells an audience of young people that it is their responsibility to know what is going on and to challenge the abuse of power. Maybe in the era of the ‘occupied’ movements young people will engage in politics more and disconnect themselves from their smart phones long enough to realise that they must engage in a fight for their future. They cannot rely upon the older generation as we allowed the mess to brew in the first place.

This is a convincing insider’s account of how intelligence services work and how vulnerable they are, through careerists who only want to get up the greasy pole, to government manipulation.

The Shock Doctrine (UK, 2010)

Well, it’s certainly not working for the people

Naomi Klein’s book (2008), of the same name, is a brilliant analysis of how free market economics has destroyed democracies and the lives of millions of people for  the benefit of corporations and the pigs that run them. This documentary is an entirely effective run through of her arguments, with the added benefits of actuality footage. Klein’s book is brilliantly researched and extensively annotated; no one would think it was simply a product of left wing dogma (well, no one without a prejudiced viewpoint). So it’s dispiriting that, after the Great Recession that started in the year of the book’s publication, politicians can still speak with approval of the ‘free market’, the economic ‘system’ that created the crisis in the first place.

Free markets can only exist in theory as they require that everyone in that market must have access to all the available information, otherwise the market won’t operate properly. That isn’t possible and the only reason the Friedman’s (and Hayek’s before him) ideas have thrived for so long is that they serve those in power: hence the rich get richer etc. What’s mind boggling is that a majority of the  ‘people’ seem to accept the need for ‘austerity’; that is, we pay for the mistakes of the rich! Hopefully, in the UK, Osborne’s entirely economically inept, if ideologically honest, budget will serve as a watershed and this hegemony will fail.

Watching The Shock Doctrine will help in that; better still read the book too.

The Bridge (Bron/Broen, Denmark-Sweden)

Quality narrative and characterisation

Scandinavian noir is thriving in both literature and television and it’s great that we’re able to watch the latter on BBC4: two series of The Killing (2007 & 2009) and Sebastian Bergman (2010), not to mention to brilliant political drama Borgen (2010). The Bridge may have topped them all primarily through the interplay of the protagonists, with Sofia Helen’s brilliant performance as the autistic Saga Noren.

However, the narrative was also gripping if a little far fetched given the omnipotence of the serial killer a la Se7en (1995). However, that’s a trope of the genre and I can think of no television series that’s managed to sustain such a gripping climax over the final two episodes. Whether it’s narratively justified to have a sequel featuring the same characters I doubt, but I do hope to encounter Sage Noren again.

Prometheus (US, 2012)

Looking for answers

Spoiler alert! Ridley Scott’s prequel to his 1979 classic SF movie Alien is typical of the director with its brilliant visual conception and weak narrative construction. The narrative holes seem to have bothered other critics more than me, though I don’t think that the film clearly explains how the humanoid alien, with its chest exploded, gets to where it’s found in the original film. That, apparently, was the starting point of script rather than explaining the monster aliens’ ‘backstory’. I was uncertain, in Prometheus, as to whether they were a creation of the humanoid aliens, who were responsible for life on earth, or not. Were they designed to eradicate humanity for some unexplained reason; the inevitable sequel will no doubt delve into that one.

Prometheus is described as a US movie by imdb though this seems to be a simplification – see Roy Stafford. The cast and crew are multinational and it is a good example of the internationalisation of Hollywood. Michael Fassbender, almost inevitably, is the scene-stealer with his portrayal of David, the android that’s meant to serve but is clearly following another agenda. He echoes Ash in the original and one of the fascinating things about Prometheus is how it uses Alien as a palimpsest. Viewers new to the franchise need not know the preceding films but those who do are offered playful hints, such as just when we’re thinking that Charlize Theron’s ‘ice-queen’ Vickers might be a robot, Idris Elba’s captain asks that very question. He also suggests that, to prove otherwise, that they have sex. Vickers agrees and it’s noteworthy that this is an exception to the Hollywood rule as it still eschews ‘black-white’ sex, a hangover from the Production Code.

Other moments when the original looms large is when Noomi Rapace (Shaw), as the only survivor, enters the apparent safety of a spaceship only to discover that there’s a monster aboard. All it lacked was a cat called Jonesy. Earlier in the film Rapace, when dressed only in bandage material, reminded me very much of Milla Jovovich’s Alice (they share a similar body shape) in the Resident Evil (2002-10) series.

Vickers and Shaw (she is certain of herself) are the final two ‘girls’ and it is typical of Ridley Scott to feature strong female protagonists – see previous post that was plugging the kindle publication of my book on Scott’s Blade Runner on kindle (was that a meta-plug?).

Ridley Scott as an auteur

Just out in kindle

The following is extracted from Film Notes: Blade Runner, just published in kindle:

The idea of the director being the author of a film originated in Francois Truffaut’s ‘A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema’, first published in Cahiers du Cinema in 1954, which attacked what he called a ‘Tradition of Quality’. Truffaut’s intent was polemical and the notion of the auteur (see Part Six: Cinematic Terms) was not ‘turned’ into a theory until the publication of Andrew Sarris’ The American Cinema in the 1960s.

The auteur ‘theory’ was useful in enabling academics and critics to give legitimacy to their investigation of popular films that had previously been dismissed as ‘trash’. Auteurs are directors who put a strong personal stamp on their films, usually through the mise en scene. They are contrasted with the metteur-en-scene, the director who merely functions, more or less, at the service of the script. Once acknowledged as auteurs, distinctive Hollywood (see Part Six: Cinematic Terms) filmmakers, such as John Ford and Nicholas Ray, could be acknowledged as great artists and their films given serious discussion.

In such a collaborative medium there is a certain absurdity in assuming one person is the author of the film. However, there is also no doubt that insights can be gained by comparing films of the same director; just as there can be with novelists. These points are not necessarily contradictory: powerful directors will often write the script, produce the film and always use the same team of collaborators to fulfil their vision

Although in academic discourse the ‘theory’ is now somewhat passé, film marketing has taken it up and virtually all films are prefaced by ‘A film by…’. This is absurd as most director’s visual style is completely anonymous but Ridley Scott, more than many other contemporary directors, can lay claims to being an auteur.

Scott’s roots are in art direction, for the BBC, and advertising, he created his own company in the late 1960s. It is unsurprising then that Scott’s movies, like those of his brother Tony, all look great. He has been taken to task for this as if glossy visuals on their own could be a corrupting influence. The charge that Scott’s movies are all gloss and no substance, however, is a serious one that, as we shall see, can be satisfactorily answered. This glossy look, derived from advertising, has been one of the defining features of Hollywood production in the last quarter of the 20th century. Tony Scott can be seen as the epitome of the High Concept (see Part Six: Cinematic Terms) movie director with films like Top Gun (1986).

Although the script is rarely the most important element of a film, it obviously provides the framework from which Scott produces his visuals. In the work of David Peoples, who co-scripted Blade Runner, it is possible to see echoes of the film’s themes. He has also written Unforgiven (produced in 1992 but written many years earlier), a western starring Clint Eastwood and Twelve Monkeys (1995) a SF film directed by Terry Gilliam. Unforgiven has been described as, ‘veteran manhunter, bullied from retirement, shoots down undeserving fugitives’ (Philip Strick, 1992, p. 9) which has obvious similarities to the narrative of Blade Runner. Twelve Monkeys focuses on the role memory has in our lives using the metaphor of time travel and a mentally ill protagonist.

Another influence is Dan O’Bannon who co-wrote the cult SF movie Dark Star (1973) and co-scripted Scott’s first box office success, Alien (1979). O’Bannon had also written, with Moebius (the nom de plume of Jean Giraud), ‘The Long Tomorrow’ in Heavy Metal magazine that greatly influenced the design of Blade Runner (see Part Three: Style – Set design and setting). Jean Giraud also designed the space suits in Alien.

Clearly so many authorial voices militate against the idea of the ‘director as auteur’; however Scott is the ‘controlling voice’ in his films, he runs Scott-Free productions, and employs people to realise his vision.

We can use the auteur theory to assess the charges of misogyny that have been made against Blade Runner. Alien, Scott’s first major film (that is one with the full weight of Hollywood’s marketing machine behind it), introduced the iconic Ripley who has since appeared in three further episodes of the franchise. Ripley is a rare character in Hollywood, the strong and charismatic woman of action. Her superiority to men is evident. Scott, however, was criticised for the voyeurism of Alien‘s final scenes when Ripley strips down to her underwear. But it is arguable that this serves to emphasise her vulnerability particularly when compared to the alien that has not yet been despatched.

His follow-up to Blade Runner, Someone to Watch Over Me (1987), also emphasises the female over the male; during the climactic battle between the women, the male lead can only watch.

Thelma and Louise (1991) would appear to offer a clear-cut example of Scott’s ability to deal with women sympathetically. He used his status in Hollywood to get Callie Khouri’s first script made and remained faithful to her vision. This included the controversial ending where the protagonists commit suicide rather than face patriarchal law. This film was something of a departure for Scott, particularly after the gloss of Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) and Black Rain (1989), because it foregrounded the relationship between two women. Thelma and Louise is a sumptuous visual experience that uses the Utah and Colorado landscape as a monumental backdrop to the women’s flight for freedom. The landscape represents pre-social nature where patriarchy does not dictate that women have to be defined solely in relation to men.

Thelma and Louise is a road movie, but it is a road to nowhere. At one point the heroines swerve off the road and find themselves surrounded by an oil field with phallically pumping wells. The environment looks alien and the music, even though it is instrumental and not synthesised, segues into the plangent tones of Blade Runner; undoubtedly an auteurist touch. Other Scott ‘signatures’ appear elsewhere: the rain that lashes down periodically, even on occasions accompanied by bright sunlight; the steam that gushes out of streets; the bright lights of the trucks and the truck stops that cast a neon glow throughout the film.

Thelma and Louise, like the Blade Runner, is about choices and freedom. Deckard’s alienation is engendered by his isolated existence; Thelma’s by her life as housewife to the childish Darryl; Louise’s through the trauma she experienced when raped which makes it difficult for her to commit herself to Jimmy. The couple escape their psychic entrapment but, like Deckard and Rachel, they have nowhere to run.

The film that preceded Thelma and Louise, Black Rain (1989), has a look that is astonishingly like that of Blade Runner and it too deals with alienation. Set in Osaka, Japan, Michael Douglas (whose star persona, see Part Six: Cinematic Terms, is one of the most masochistic of contemporary male actors) plays a corrupt cop who learns the dignity of honesty. While its representation of the Japanese is problematic, to say the least (the police need a gung-ho American to show them what to do), the representation of the city is visually stunning. It looks like a clean LA-2019, neon dominates slick and glossy surfaces. After having seen Blade Runner it is quite startling to see the future already exists.

Scott’s most recent movie, at the time of writing, G.I. Jane (1997), once again has a female protagonist who proves herself to be better than the men around her. Although it could be argued that the sexual politics of the film suggest that, in order to compete with a man, a woman must become a man (the Demi Moore character shouts ‘Suck my dick!’ at a climactic moment), this does not detract from the film’s engagement with male misogyny.

Using the auteur perspective we can see that, If anything, Scott’s oeuvre is strong evidence against the charge that he is sexist. We shall return to the misogyny charge in Part four: Ideology – gender.

Most critics, even if only to disparage him, recognise Scott’s ability to make a film look good; less often commented upon is his extraordinary good direction of actors. While the talents of Harvey Keitel, Sigourney Weaver and Susan Sarandon are likely to grace any film they appear in, Scott has also garnered, in Blade Runner, ‘performances of a lifetime’ from Rutger Hauer and Sean Young.

Scott is a cinematic talent who probably chooses projects for their visual potential rather than any desire to comment upon the human condition. However, if his only cinematic legacy was Blade Runner then that alone represents a substantial achievement.