Archive for category Mr. Spillett’s Academy Of Film Study For The Mentally Tormented
Let Them Eat Schools: An Entirely Hostile Review Of Charlie Wilson’s War
Posted by Keith Spillett in Mr. Spillett's Academy Of Film Study For The Mentally Tormented, Pointyheaded Highbrow Stuff on May 30, 2011
Charlie Wilson’s War is a highly entertaining film. It is funny, fast-paced and extremely well acted. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is captivating as Gust Avrakoto, the cynical, highly skilled CIA agent who helps Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) and Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) finance a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Apparently, you can make a good-natured, romantic comedy out of nearly anything nowadays.
The film sets out to make “Good Time” Charlie Wilson, the hard drinking, womanizing Democratic politician from Texas, out to be the greatest American hero since Abe Lincoln. Sure, he’s got some character flaws, but when it comes down to it he worked hard for the cause of freedom and democracy. Blah, blah, blah. I personally could care less about his love for whiskey, his multiple girlfriends, his cocaine use or whether he was a good juggler or not. His decisions as a Congressman are what disturb me. The halo simply does not fit.
Afghanistan was not Wilson’s first crusade. He spent much of the late 1970s championing the cause of Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle, Nicaraguan dictator and serial human rights abuser. Somoza’s reign of corruption was legendary. He was best known for stealing millions of dollars that were supposed to go the victims of the devastating 1972 Managua Earthquake. To Wilson, Somoza was not the evil bucket of slime that tortured and murdered just about anyone who disagreed with him publicly while robbing his country blind. Somoza was a great representative of America in the fight against communism. The dictators big mistake was to get drunk and attempt to make a move on Wilson’s girlfriend, Tina Simons. It was only at that point that Wilson decided that Somoza was, in fact, not a great representative of truth, justice and the American Way. This is not to say that Wilson was entirely awful. He was a very complex man who made some important contributions while in office. He also gave aid and comfort to a monster. The second part was apparently not significant enough to make the final cut of the movie (the book by George Crile does cover this in detail).
The movie focuses on Wilson’s role in arming the Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union. The film uses the familiar Russians=Evil theme that was quite popular in Cold War propaganda movies. At least in Red Dawn we saw the Russians doing something beyond killing innocent people for a few frames. The only Russians in this film are the ones shooting unarmed peasants from the sky or getting shot down by American supplied Stinger missiles.
It’s easy to find fault with what the hideous actions taken by the Russians in Afghanistan. The problem with how the Russians are portrayed in this film is two-fold. First of all, it is mindlessly simplistic and creates the idea that the war was an easily understood battle between good and evil. It was not. The second problem is that it supports the widely accepted narrative that the Russians were solely at fault for the war. In fact, evidence exists to the contrary. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter, has stated that the United States began arming the mujahedeen fighters, who were trying to overthrow the Soviet backed government, months before the Russian invasion. The goal, according to Brzezinski, was to “knowingly increase the probability” that the Soviets would invade. Can you imagine what the reaction of the United States would have been if the Russians were caught doing the same thing in Mexico? This is extremely significant because it clashes with the official story of how the war began. Through the lens of Brzezinski’s comments, Charlie Wilson was not simply helping out a group of people fighting to free themselves from the Soviets, but rather was continuing a pattern of expensive and wrongheaded U.S. intervention into sovereign nations that wreaked havoc across the world.
The film ends with a strange postscript. Wilson is recognized as a hero for getting weapons into the hands of the mujahedeen and helping to end Soviet dominance in the region. However, when he tries to get a million dollars in aid to the Afghans after the war he is rebuffed. A Wilson quote about us winning the war but messing up the endgame runs across the screen right before the credits. The message seems to be that it was totally justified to give over a billion of dollars to arm a group of Islamic radicals, but we should have built some schools. Are you kidding me? The largest covert war in American history is fine as long as we build a few schools at the end? As if throwing a few bucks into rebuilding the infrastructure of the country can somehow compensate for the untold damage that arming and training many future Taliban members caused.
The idea is reminiscent of some of the crackpot schemes hatched by Kennedy/Johnson advisor Walt Whitman Rostow. He was the guy who decided we could win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese by taking them off of their land and moving them to fancy, new, isolated towns called Strategic Hamlets. The Vietnamese didn’t want our makeshift Levittowns, they just wanted us to leave. The common thread in this logic is that United States intervention is justified as long as the people get something that we deem valuable out of it. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give a country is to leave them alone. Unfortunately, this message is entirely absent from Charlie Wilson’s War. It is replaced with the twisted idea that the U.S. can plant its flag anywhere it wants as long it brings “civilization” and modernity with it.
Jason X: A Spiritual Journey
Posted by Keith Spillett in Mr. Spillett's Academy Of Film Study For The Mentally Tormented on February 23, 2011
James Isaac’s classic 2001 film Jason X proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that horror films can be about much more than blood and guts. Instead of plodding down the well-worn path of past slasher films, Isaac takes the series in a bold and beautiful direction. In Jason X, Jason Voorhees discovers that there is more to life than simply killing frightened co-eds with chainsaw. He has tired of a life of senseless murder and finally finds inner peace. Jason X is the redemptive tale of Jason’s conversion to Islam and the strange course it sets his life on.
The film begins with Jason’s arrest and capture for the murder of 827 people at Camp Crystal Lake. While in prison, Jason begins to feel a deep sense of inner sadness for his crime. He is lost in a sea of sorrow when he meets Baines, a convict who changes his life forever. Jason is introduced to the Koran and the way of Muhammad and for the first time begins to see something greater than himself in the world. One of the most poignant scenes in recent memory comes when Jason, feeling terrible remorse for his crimes, begins to cry uncontrollably. The image of tears rolling down that hockey mask is something I don’t think I will soon forget.
Jason is finally released 20 years later. He returns to society and begins to work for Elijah Muhammad, one of the day’s great religious leaders. At first, he gives speeches supporting Muhammad, but quickly becomes a well-known, popular leader with a slew of his own followers. In order to stop Jason from taking over the Nation of Islam, Muhammad has Jason kidnapped, cryogenically frozen and hidden in the basement of a local public library.
Jason is re-awoken in the year 2455 by a crew of space travelers who are returning to reclaim the Earth (which was abandoned years earlier because of global warming and high taxes). At first, when the crew discovers Jason they treat him well, but soon they begin to harass and chide him because of his unwillingness to take off the hockey mask. Jason’s spirituality is tested as he begins to consider taking a machete to the explorers in revenge for their taunts. Will Jason overcome his demons and chose the path of peace or will he go absolutely berserk and start killing people with random power tools? The conclusion is a deep and powerful statement on the human condition and on the effects of liquid nitrogen on a person’s skull.
Sympathy for Il Divo
Posted by Keith Spillett in Mr. Spillett's Academy Of Film Study For The Mentally Tormented on December 20, 2010
Paolo Sorrentino‘s 2008 film Il Divo might well be the best movie about politics I have ever seen. After reading a great write-up of the film in Dr. Matthew Ashton’s Political Blog and seeing the Roger Ebert‘s it’s “Nixon meets the Godfather” blurb I knew this was one I had to get my hands on. The minute the opening credits flashed on my computer screen I was hooked. The film, quite literally, takes you by the throat and never lets go. It is the story of Guilio Andreotti, Italy’s seven-time Prime Minister, might be the most polarizing Italian politician since Benito Mussolini. Andreotti has earned more nicknames than Apollo Creed and is known as everything from “The Hunchback”, to “Beelzebub”, to “The Divine Julius”, to “The Black Pope”. Andreotti, who once said, “aside from the Punic Wars, which I was too young for, I have been blamed for everything,” has long been alleged to have significant Mafia ties and has been linked to all forms of malfeasance up to and including assassinations. He has the Clintonian ability to survive every political disaster and emerge with his fingernails firmly lodged in the cliff of political power. Andreotti is a walking advertisement for the ability of an intelligent but thoroughly unprincipled politician to overcome all obstacles in his quest for continued political power.
Il Divo is two hours of mind-blowing scene after mind-blowing scene. Sorrentino has a style that borrows heavily from some of the great masters of the craft, yet he manages to take those ideas in a unique and bold new direction. The film starts with a startling opening sequence, a modern, bass-driven update of the baptism scene from The Godfather. It is followed soon after by a slow motion introduction to Andreotti’s gang that feels like something out of a Leone Western. Then, there is the drum laden post victory celebration dance number featuring one of the most awe-inspiring tracking shots since Kalatazov’s pool scene in “I Am Cuba“. And all that is just in the first twenty minutes. Watching this film is like wandering through the Louvre; everywhere you look there is another classic moment of artistic expression.
About two-thirds of the way through the film, there is an absolutely jaw-dropping soliloquy where Andreotti (played to perfection by Toni Servillo) explains his internal contradictions and motivations. This two-minute section is the film’s crowning achievement. The short speech is an appalling vision of what it means to wield power. It is a statement of pure, unbridled cynicism. In it, Andreotti seems to justify every possible act of iniquity that he has committed as being in the public interest. What is really horrifying about this scene is how convincing his words are. Is the price of power the complete betrayal of all human values? Is this what a person must do to rule? Andreotti’s charisma almost makes you believe that anything is justified in the name of power.
Another element that contributes to the majestic feel of this film is the pulsing, resounding soundtrack. The film’s composer, Teho Teardo, provides one of the most compelling scores in recent memory. He seems to have a preternatural ability to frame the tone and character of a moment with blasts of inspired auditory brilliance. If Sorrentino’s camera is the film’s heart and soul, Teardo’s music is the blood that pumps through its veins.
Il Divo succeeds both as a sprawling masterpiece of epic dimension and a simple allegory of human frailty and weakness. The film never allows you to hate Andreotti but instead presents him as an acutely flawed leader with a deteriorated moral compass that seems to always point south. Sorrentino allows the audience to see Andreotti as not only a powerful man, but also a prisoner of his own power. It is a horrible cage he lives in and we are its bars.
Buggin’ Out: The Paranoid Style in American Motel Rooms
Posted by Keith Spillett in Existential Rambings, Mr. Spillett's Academy Of Film Study For The Mentally Tormented on December 15, 2010
Few films capture the spirit of modern American paranoia better than William Friedkin‘s 2006 film “Bug“. It is a bleak, disturbing picture of two people consumed by sadness and connected through a shared feeling of conspiratorial persecution. Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) is a drifter who wanders into the life of Agnes White (Ashley Judd). They quickly find themselves embroiled in one of the more unhealthy relationships in recent film history. Agnes has barely survived a horrifically abusive marriage and the kidnapping of her young son. Peter has just finished a stretch some sort of shadowy psychiatric hospital where, depending on who you believe, he was either a severely disturbed escaped patient or a survivor of a series of Operation MK-Ultra meets The Manchurian Candidate type experiments. Together, they become the proverbial Bogey and Bacall of the Black Helicopter set. It would be easy to dismiss their ideas as the demented imaginings of two troubled people, but the narrative they construct about the meaning of lives and their relationship to the world is a powerful statement about modern mass hysteria.
Peter gets the paranoia party started by insisting that a mysterious THEY have put bugs in his blood. He is deeply committed to this idea, to the point of yanking some of his own teeth out in order to remove the egg sacs that are in his mouth. Quickly, things spiral out of control. They cover the walls of the room in tin foil, buy up half the bug zappers in Oklahoma and embark on a wild spree of shared psychosis and Dionysian self destruction that eventually annihilates them. The logic that gets them to this point is nothing short of amazing. They come to believe that everything that is happening to them is somehow connected to a greater plan. Peter connects his own experience to sixty years of back room schemes created by a mysterious unnamed cabal bent on completely enslaving the entire human race. In an amazing monologue, Peter manages to link the bugs he believes to be carrying to The People’s Temple in Jonestown, the Bilderberg Group and their secret meetings from 1954 until the present and even Timothy McVeigh (who was apparently the other lab rat who was given these bugs). Agnes soon links her own experiences to his and comes to realize that her abusive ex-husband and missing child are also products of the exact same treachery. It is the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy writ larger than life. All of these random, non-intersecting parts mean something. Each person’s life is a giant puzzle where all the pieces fit. It’s just a matter of collecting them all together and putting them in the correct places and then it will all make sense. This is the sort of thinking that Kurt Vonnegut lays bare in his book “The Sirens of Titan“. In that book, the entire arc of human history has been measured and calibrated in order create a replacement part for an alien space ship which will one day have the important task of placing a “greeting” message on a far away planet. We all have a purpose and that purpose happens to be completely absurd.
“Bug” takes this theme and runs wild with it. The characters have created meaning for their lives out of a mess of half-baked theories. Peter and Agnes really believe that this crazy composite of events was created for them. They see themselves as the protagonists of human history. They don’t simply pick one story as their narrative; they pick every single one that they have ever heard. The world really does revolve around them.
As I was watching this film I began to wonder if this was an accurate portrayal of the condition of the paranoia that exists in the minds of most Americans? Since I have never been in the minds of most Americans, I am not really able to say for sure. However, things are getting pretty weird out here in the real world and I have to wonder whether some of this isn’t the product of the same ideas that drove Peter and Agnes into mental oblivion. After all, there are a good number of people who will tell you that our President was born in Kenya, the National Security Council masterminded the 9/11 attacks, or the Federal Reserve killed John F. Kennedy. I’m not really interested in debating the validity of the ideas, I personally don’t believe them, but if you do that is really fine with me. I have a few pretty bizarre ideas about human history myself. What I find interesting about these theories is that how they illustrate the Woodward and Bernstein fantasy that some people are living. We are the investigators of some great cosmic puzzle whose pieces are scattered willy-nilly through a series of cultural and political markers. We are Sherlock Holmes turning our collective magnifying glass on everything. Media events are not things unto themselves; they are clues that connect us all to a larger picture.
Marshall McLuhan argued in his book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” that modern technology had “extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace”. In “Bug”, Peter and Agnes disappear as individuals and instead try to take on the narrative of the human race as their new identity. McLuhan saw this loss of identity as a dangerous thing. He ominously noted that “the loss of individual and personal meaning via the electronic media ensures a corresponding and reciprocal violence from those so deprived of their identities; for violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful” (Canadian Forum, 1976) This quote is “Bug” in a nutshell. Two beings entirely destroyed (first as individuals, next as physical beings) by the electric connection to the rest of the world. If violence is a necessary and eventual component of this search for identity then maybe we do have a great deal to be paranoid of.
An Inconsistent Truth: A Psychological Review of The High Art Museum’s Showing of La Moustache 11/5/10
Posted by Keith Spillett in Existential Rambings, Mr. Spillett's Academy Of Film Study For The Mentally Tormented on November 6, 2010
“No one who has not experienced how insubstantial the pageant of external reality can be, how it may fade, can fully realize the sublime and grotesque presences that can replace it, or exist along side of it.”
-R.D. Laing “The Politics of Experience”
It is truly frightening to be in a room full of people who are laughing and not get the joke. I don’t just mean not get the punch line, but not get the words, the meaning or anything else. To feel as if one is from another planet and has landed here with a cursory knowledge of the English language and a two-day session on the lives and mating patterns of human beings under his belt, only to have to listen to two voracious baseball fans discussing the importance of the infield fly rule. Maybe I missed something; maybe something was never there.
I walked into the High Art Museum at about 9:30 at night and was greeted by one person in a fake moustache, then another, then another. I was overwhelmed and confused. Apparently this was the theme of the evening. Moustaches, moustaches everywhere. I had heard that at some point in the evening some men who had real moustaches were going to shave them off. It was one of those hipster rollicking good time things that I’m sure would have really impressed me back when I had rollicking hipster intentions.
The main purpose of this whole thing was to show Emmanuel Carrere‘s surrealist film “La Moustache“. Because of this, I decided to leave my house on a Friday night for the first time since Carter was in office. I love the film. It is a deceptively simple story of madness and personal alienation. A man shaves his moustache and no one believes he ever had one. That’s really all of it. In spite of its insane story line, it manages to come across as a remarkably realistic picture what it is like to experience genuine confusion. For some reason, I had it in my head that seeing the film in a theater would be even better. What I didn’t really get until the lights dimmed was that seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey in a theatre is a unique experience because you have an opportunity to see special effects that were meant for a big screen. Seeing a yuppie French couple arguing over the husband’s bizarre personal grooming fantasies is not anymore enjoyable around a bunch of popcorn chomping film fans. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty damned depressing.
The woman who introduced the film was some former film critic from the Atlanta Journal Constitution who really didn’t know very much about the film or the writer or the director or French cinema or how she got to the building in the first place. She kept saying over and over that this film was “funny…really, really funny.” This set a monumentally bad tone for the evening. The crowd immediately settled in, ready for a French yuckfest on par with the work of Johnny Knoxville. I have to tell you, I’ve laughed at a lot of thoroughly inappropriate things in my day, so I guess I had this evening coming to me. I nearly got tossed out of the Phipps Plaza Theater some years back for nearly laughing myself into straightjacket for the last 15 minutes of the faux horror classic “The Devil’s Advocate”. I spent a good portion of my younger years telling horrendously insensitive jokes about everyone from Mother Theresa to Ted Bundy. This night was my punishment for many a sin against good taste. Hopefully, this will count as my confession and I will be absolved of further mental floggings.
I sat there for a good hour and a half with blank expression on my face. The audience exploded with laughter over and over again at the most inopportune times. Marc, the main character played by Vincent Lindon, wanders through the film slowly losing touch with everyone he knows and loves. He begins to doubt the very fabric of reality, becomes a stranger in his own body and disappears into a blinding fog of regret, scorn and loneliness. Hysterical stuff! Marc sifts through the trash, trying to find any proof that his experience is real, that he is not living an unexplainable fantasy and that his mind isn’t decaying. Stop it, my side is hurting!
Truth be told, this is a horrifically sad movie. So many wander through life trying to catch up to the world, trying to understand an endless series of in jokes and references that fly by them, hoping to understand what the world means while being handed self-help books and truisms about “being yourself” and “trying your hardest”. Our personal realities often do not mesh with the world. Our truths are often only true in our minds. One minute’s certainty is the next minute’s mirage. There are nearly 7 billion of us blindly groping for a light switch in the dark only to be handed an octopus. This is the message of The Moustache. To take this film as a lighthearted romp is to miss a wonderfully genuine explanation of what it is like to be a human. Or maybe I just don’t get it.