#0109 - THE END OF FILM - While most of us distract ourselves with the Golden Globes, People's Choice, Oscar handicapping, and end-of-year lists, business magazines are contemplating the latest economic and creative shift in the movie industry: digital filmmaking. As far as most of us can see, shuttling from the latest Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to Star Wars to Spielberg, digital filmmaking is already here.
This year, two characters - the entirely digital Dobby in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and the mostly digital Gollum in The Two Towers - finally arrived "in the flesh" and made good on a threat that had implicitly followed digital filmmaking from the beginning: compelling, believable digital actors with as much - perhaps even more - screen presence as real ones.
Never mind that that milestone was reached two years ago with the famously annoying Jar-Jar Binks in George Lucas' The Phantom Menace. For digital thespians, there will always be something winceworthy about the fact that the first totally realized synthetic actor was the binary bitstream equivalent of Carrot Top.
The two poles - eager futurist and reactionary Luddite - in the Hollywood digital debate are represented by two directors who, besides being longtime friends and collaborators, are undeniable giants in their industry: George Lucas realized his dream this year and released a film that could, in select circumstances, be screened for an audience without a single frame ever making it onto celluloid. Steven Spielberg, at a preview screening of his latest film, Catch Me If You Can, declared proudly that "I AM a Luddite", according to a feature in the year-end issue of The Economist.
The facts are simple enough, and The Economist lays them out for us. "The technology in cinemas is essentially unchanged since the 1920s." True enough, but the same could be said for the automobile, and in the case of both Hollywood and Detroit, any serious talk about discarding either celluloid or the fossil-fuel-burning internal combustion engine has, until just right now, been considered either heretical or laughable.
Each screening print of a movie costs up to US$2000, and weighs up to 20 kilos, adding considerable shipping costs to the equation. A digital print of a film could be stored on a medium weighing a few ounces, or beamed through a network. A study made by consultants Booz Allen Hamilton stated that Hollywood could "save $1 billion and reap extra revenues of up to $800 million a year" by doing away with celluloid.
But there's a catch: "The long-term economic case for digital is strong, but today the movie business is driven by short-term economics," writes The Economist. There are less than 100 digitally-equipped theatres in the US, out of 36,000, so the initial cost - five to seven billion dollars according to Booz Allen Hamilton - is apparently more than the industry is willing to pay, in spite of record revenues and the apparently inexhaustible loyalty of the moviegoing market.
Things could change, however - the cost of equipment is falling, and will continue to fall, and satellite networks will help defray costs in pursuit of a huge new market. "History suggests that Luddites eventually lose," writes The Economist, and just as sheet music gave way to the phonograph, and radio was able to co-exist with the music industry, Spielberg's position on digital film will probably one day seem as unfounded as Jack Valenti's famous 1984 warning about videotape: "The VCR is to the American film industry what the Boston Strangler is to a woman alone."
This quote - reason enough to question Valenti's continued importance within the industry - is recalled in a long Business Week feature on "Hollywood's Digital Love/Hate Story". The story begins with Robert Rodriguez, who launched his career with a film that cost less than $8000 dollars to make, and was one of the earliest converts to totally digital filmmaking. He shoots on HD video, and finishes his films on his home computers. His most expensive film - Spy Kids - cost US$35 million, compared to the wildly escalating average film budget of $54.8 million in 2000, "up from $9.4 million in 1980."
"Most of Rodriguez' films, which include Desperado and From Dusk Till Dawn, are budgeted at less than $20 million." It's doubtless outside Business Week's purview, but most of Rodriguez' films, and especially the two mentioned, are utter garbage. Still, he returns a profit on his investment every time, and so Rodriguez, a technically savvy if doubtfully talented director, "can demand full creative control - a dream for all but the most high-powered directors in Hollywood." On the recent (and disappointing) sequel to Spy Kids, Rodriguez was "director, writer, co-producer, cinematographer, editor and co-composer of the movie's score."
Still, Rodriguez is in the minority, and the viewpoint of directors like Spielberg and Oliver Stone still holds sway. "The reality is that even though big movie studios and music labels could benefit enormously from digital technology, they're also terrified of technological change that could alter the status quo."
The problem, it seems, is that the conglomerate nature of the industry means that movie studios are hewing closely to the panicked attitude of their cousins at the record companies, who send their lawyers after every percieved threat, and stumble from one ill-conceived, half-assed digital distribution and protection scheme from another, always a mile behind eager file traders and disc burners who, to the industry's endless frustration, refuse to neatly identify themselves among the sea of music consumers, and are that much less easy to isolate and litigate into submission.
As long as even broadband networks afford scant pipeline, and movie files remain relatively large, the movie industry is safe from the kind of locust-like predation that has wounded the music industry through file-sharing among avid consumers. But that could change, and Business Week tries to describe a few of the likely upstarts that ominously portend the next big change to Hollywood's venerable business model.
Some of these upstart start-ups, like the publicly-traded Netflix, seem like real contenders; others, like Film Movement and CineSpace, look more like old-school cineclubs in new drag, thrown into the story to make it more of a story. A digression into the new technology CNN has developed with IBM to catalogue its library of news clips is even more off-topic, but serves as a bridge to a discussion of P2P (peer-to-peer) software and the inroads made by non-studio entities in screening short films and trailers online.
It's hard to imagine that any of this activity is a threat to Hollywood; short films are a fringe interest at best, little more than training ground for hopeful directors, a Sundance preoccupation with a negligible market share, while trailers are basically a loss-leader for studios, part of the necessary but expensive publicity machinery - if a few more million people download a trailer off an "unofficial" site, it's hard to imagine that as anything but a feature, not a bug, for a studio.
Hollywood, it's plain enough, has its hands firmly enough on the digital reins, but only as long as unofficial downloading of high-definition copies of feature films is more inconvenient than old-fashioned bootleg piracy which, existing as it does in the "real" world, is easier to quantify and isolate. There's no reason this can't change, however, and if the industry continues to drag its feet on digital screening, it'll find itself tethered to a nag while the herd thunders ahead.
The digitalization of the movie industry is a classic example of how market economics can accelerate technological change - and create a lopsided, anachronistic technological system. Digital production - from cameras and software to storage medium - has grown by leaps and bounds ahead of digital projection, thanks to a keen demand for products both from professionals and amateurs. A decent digital camera will cost anywhere from $1500 to three or four thousand dollars, depending on what you need. A professional-quality 35mm camera by Arri or Panaflex can cost up to half a million dollars. A decent, memory-rich computer workstation and a registered copy of Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro will cost a few thousand dollars; a film editing suit used to cost thousands more, but Movieolas and Steenbecks are being practically given away, so quickly did digital editing become the industry standard.
According to Business Week, "digital video is the great democratizer for the notoriously elitist film industry." There's essentially no reason why a talented person can't make a good film with a consumer-quality video camera and the copy of iMovie that comes loaded with their iMac. It wouldn't look as slick as a major release motion picture, but it would hardly be unwelcome in the sort of lo-fi, independent market that thrives at film festivals and just occasionally launches careers. It's essentially the same basic career trajectory that launched a director like Robert Rodriguez, and every year there seem to be more directors - established names like Steven Soderbergh and Mike Figgis - who want to play with the new medium if only to work, if only briefly, under the fiscal radar of a studio.
In fact, these lo-fi experiments by name directors will probably to more to publicize affordable - that is to say, non-Lucas style - digital filmmaking than the hundreds of low-budget shorts being made in spare time for spare change. Business Week features a few quotes from Scott Saunders, a struggling director who, while keeping his job as a promo editor at the Lifestyle Channel, has made three features and twenty short films. Despite (or maybe because) of C-list casts stars like Tatum O'Neal and William Forsyth, his films don't seem to have made much of a stir outside Sundance. "Cheaper tools give you a chance to make your vision a reality," Saunders says, already a master of the starry-eyed, aspirational rhetoric that Hollywood adores. "Getting an audience to see it is still as difficult as ever."
The only thing that will make this change is the proliferation of low-cost, P2P distribution sites and accompanying - and utterly necessary - online screening/reviewing organs that would mimic the established studio/publicity/media machinery of the established industry. It's one thing to put thousands of songs or movies on the net; it's another thing to know, from a reputable source, what they sound or look like. So far, a combination of indifference and legal harassment has prevented just such a doppelgänger from threatening the music business, but there's no reason to think that it still can't happen. Once in place, a touch of enterpreneurial spirit could launch a cinematic equivalent. It's the only real threat the movie industry really faces in the future, and some people - myself included - would welcome it with open arms.
(posted 06:37pm | 12.29.02)
NEW REVIEWS! - The Pianist: Roman Polanski is working at the peak of his powers again, and that's a very impressive thing to see. A harrowing holocaust story; yes, they're all harrowing, but this one goes the extra, awful mile. Antwone Fisher: No one, I think, liked this film as much as I did. Worth it for Derek Luke's performance alone. DVD REVIEWS: Back to the Future box set, Criterion's Solaris reissue, Sunshine State and The Emperor's New Clothes.
#0108 - THE SUMMING UP - A couple of months ago, I was voted in as a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, which came as a surprise to me, since I didn't recall asking to become a member. It was, nevertheless, an honour, so I paid my dues and was shortly asked to vote in the annual TFCA awards.
I'm not, by nature, a joiner, a character trait confirmed for me by a year of Boy Scouts thirty years ago, but despite that, apart from my yearly dues and a dinner to celebrate the awards in January, my obligations to the TFCA are minimal. Film critics, as far as I can tell, are not prone to eager socializing with each other - within the boundaries of a city, the simple fact is that they're constantly in a simmering competition with each other, for jobs, for reputation, for readership, so polite distance seems to be the default mode of behaviour. Fine by me - I barely have enough time to be nice to the people I call friends and family these days.
But if there's one activity critics adore it's list-making. Up until a year ago, my credentials as a music critic were just barely viable enough to elicit one final invitation to vote in a local rock crits' poll. This year, the TFCA awards were timely, saving me from going list cold turkey. I like the exercise of making lists in the waning days of a year, a backwards glance at the year that invites other, more introspective reviews of one's progress. This is the year that, besides becoming knighted as a professional movie critic, I held a desk job for the first time in my adult life, and took the first steps on the journey towards fatherhood. A momentous year, any way you look at it.
A week or so ago, the winners of the TFCA ballots were announced. In the significant categories, I barely agreed with my colleagues, which somehow didn't surprise me. I also probably didn't see nearly as many films as they did. To aid with the voting, a list was compiled of every eligible new release of 2002 - 332 films, of which I saw 130, not including DVDs reviewed, video rentals or films watched on TV. Nearly a third of the total, and the most films I've ever seen in one year, but probably less than the majority of other TFCA members, most of whom do nothing but write about film for a living.
Here were my top five picks, and runners-up, for best film of 2002:
1 - Far From Heaven
2 - Platform
3 - Punch-Drunk Love
4 - 24 Hour Party People
5 - The Pianist
runners-up: The Son's Room, Dog Days, Under the Sand, The Rhino Brothers, 101 Reykjavik, L.I.E., Festival in Cannes, Maya, The Triumph of Love, Time Out, Late Marriage, Son of the Bride, Baran, Nine Queens, The Emperor's New Clothes, Devdas, The Lady and the Duke, The Believer, Spirited Away, Quebec-Montreal, The Grey Zone, The Way Home, Antwone Fisher.
In the run-off vote for best picture, the TFCA narrowed down our lists to three films: Adaptation, Punch-Drunk Love and Y Tu Mama Tambien. I had only seen two of the three films at that point, but my choice was clear enough, even if it was only my third-favorite film of the year. Adaptation won.
I wanted to like Adaptation - I ended up watching the "For Your Consideration" Academy screener that TFCA members were sent, somewhere between the first big nominating vote and the run-off. It was clever, well-acted, and as far as I can tell, written almost entirely for film critics, film buffs, and anguished screnwriters. A lot of reviewers hated the final act - the knowingly cynical, arch clot of car-chase, shoot-out, death of major character and revelation that smirkingly betrays everything that Nicolas-Cage-as-Charlie-Kaufman complained about from the moment the film began - but that didn't seem to hurt it on countless end-of-year lists and polls like this. It was clever and utterly unsatisfying, though I didn't find it as annoying as the film's worst detractors. Frankly, I suspected something like it was needed to get the film out of the self-abnegating but amusing rut Kaufman-as-Kaufman had paced obsessively for the first hour or so.
BEST PERFORMANCE, MALE
1 - Aurelien Recoing - Time Out
2 - Ryan Gosling - The Believer
3 - Dennis Quaid - Far From Heaven
4 - Adrien Brody - The Pianist
5 - Adam Sandler - Punch-Drunk Love
runner-up: Steve Coogan - 24 Hour Party People
When the run-off vote came around, I had to choose between Cage in Adaptation, Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, and Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt. I had, by this point, only seen Cage's movie, and wouldn't have put him in my top five even if I'd seen it earlier. Nevertheless, he was the only one of the three I'd actually seen, and so I had only one choice. Cage won.
Time Out was a great film, mostly because of Aurelien Recoing's performance, and I wish more people had seen it. It should be out on DVD soon, so there's your chance. Ryan Gosling could be the next Edward Norton or Owen Wilson - a critically respected, name actor who makes good choices as often as his agent will let him. Or he could become the next Eric Roberts - a really interesting actor whose filmography took a sudden turn south and never recovered.
BEST PERFORMANCE, FEMALE
1 - Julianne Moore - Far From Heaven
2 - Ronit Elkabetz - Late Marriage
3 - Charlotte Rampling - Under the Sand
4 - Hiam Abbass - Satin Rouge
5 - Emily Watson - Punch-Drunk Love
It's a lousy time to be an actress in Hollywood these days, even in the waning hours of the Nubile Era. The children of the boomers, only now starting to enter their twenties, are usually scapegoated for making Jennifer Love Hewitt the prototype for female roles in the last few years. It's a cynical sort of theory, and only half the story. It's hard to write good roles for women, since they don't easily conform to the tried and true Robert McKee heroic protagonist's three-act struggle and triumph formula. In a time like this, where lazy scriptwriters are only outnumbered by unimaginative film executives, there's often only one or two actresses who snatch up the short menu of really good female roles. Once upon a time it was Betty Davis; today it's Julianne Moore.
Which would explain why three of my five choices were actresses appearing in foreign films. When the run-off vote came back to me, I had to choose between Moore, Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary, and Isabelle Huppert in The Piano Teacher. I'd only seen Moore's performance, but since it was my own #1, it wasn't a hard choice to make.
BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE, MALE
1 - Brian Cox - L.I.E.
2 - Cedric the Entertainer - Barbershop
3 - Chris Cooper - Adaptation
4 - Jim Broadbent - Iris
5 - Eric Bana - Black Hawk Down
BEST SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE, FEMALE
1 - Jennifer Ehle - Possession
2 - Karin Viard - Time Out
3 - Patricia Clarkson - Far From Heaven
4 - Catherine Keener - Lovely & Amazing
Hard categories to vote for, since you have so many more kinds of roles to choose from, and only the vaguest definition of what "supporting" really means. The Academy boils it down to a formula involving screen time; I left it to my own discretion, grouping together standard character roles - like Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson - and virtual lead performances squeezed aside by star billing - Jennifer Ehle eclipsed by Gwyneth Paltrow only by virtue of screen time - with smaller parts that caught my attention - Eric Bana, who managed to stand out amidst the carnage and handheld-camera-induced vertigo of Black Hawk Down. Brian Cox, turning in a typically fantastic performance by humanizing the role of a predatory child molester, had as much screen time as the juvenile lead in L.I.E. but you had to relegate his performance to the supporting role, since acknowledging it for what it really was - a sickening kind of romantic lead - is simply too awful to contemplate.
I called Dennis Quaid's role in Far From Heaven a lead role; the TFCA voters called in a supporting one, and so I voted for Quaid against Chris Cooper in Adaptation and Paul Newman in Road to Perdition. I also thought Emily Watson in Punch-Drunk Love was playing a romantic lead role; the other voters put her up against Kathy Bates in About Schmidt and Toni Collette in About a Boy. I didn't see either film, so I voted for Watson.
1 - 24 Hour Party People
2 - The Grey Zone
3 - Quebec-Montreal
4 - Punch-Drunk Love
5 - Adaptation
Frankly, screenwriting is almost invisible to me in a finished film, unless the dialogue is so attention-demanding - like in Preston Sturges or Paddy Chayevsky films, or something like All About Eve or His Girl Friday - that it becomes as obvious as the cinematography or art direction. Voting for 24 Hour Party People is basically another way of voting for Steve Coogan's performance as Tony Wilson, whose simultaneously withering and simpering shows of erudition were the kind of thing that glows red-hot on the pages of a shooting script.
Adaptation - a film about a screenwriter making a movie out of a book - called attention to itself, but I didn't think it was as good as everyone else seemed to think it was. In the run-off vote, it was up against Paul Thomas Anderson's script for Punch-Drunk Love and David Hare's script for The Hours (which I haven't seen.) Sensing inevitability, I impulsively voted for Adaptation over Punch-Drunk Love. I still regret it.
1 - Todd Haynes -Far From Heaven
2 - Jia Zhangke - Platform
3 - Paul Thomas Anderson - Punch-Drunk Love
4 - Roman Polanski - The Pianist
5 - Hayao Miyazaki - Spirited Away
Frankly, I think Best Film and Best Director are almost the same category, but I also think Polanski and Miyazaki are geniuses, and this was my only chance to say as much. When the run-off vote came back, I had to choose between Haynes, Anderson, and Alfonso Cuaron's work on Y Tu Mama Tambien, which I hadn't seen yet. Picking Haynes wasn't hard.
I reviewed fifteen Canadian films this year, a significant chunk of our national cinematic output, but I hadn't seen Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner or Atom Egoyan's Ararat when it came time to vote. I was supposed to pick five nominations, but I could only come up with three, all of which lasted barely a week or two in the theatres. I'd love to write more about the state of Canadian films, but the subject is as depressing now as it's ever been.
When the run-off vote came back, I had to choose between Atanarjuat, Un Crabe dans la Tete, and FUBAR, none of which I'd seen. I abstained from voting in this category. That just about says it all, alas.
I adore documentaries, but I could only think of four I'd seen all year that were good enough to deserve a vote. In the end, none of my choices made the run-off. Another abstention.
BEST FIRST FEATURE
1 - Nine Queens
2 - The Believer
3 - Antwone Fisher
4 - Quebec-Montreal
5 - Satin Rouge
runners-up:The Rhino Brothers, 101 Reykjavik, Maya, Late Marriage, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.
I had no problem coming up with a list of great first films. Almost nobody liked Antwone Fisher as much as I did. Neither did the other voters, but the run-off list - Atanarjuat, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and Igby Goes Down - still comprised three films I hadn't seen. Yet another abstention.
Next year, either I've got to see more films - probably impossible, considering that we'll have an infant in the house by June - or I've got to resign myself to being eternally out of step with my colleagues. Considering that almost no candidate I've voted for has ever won an election, federal, provincial or municipal, it shouldn't be that hard.
(posted 07:33am | 12.28.02)
#0107 - THE PENN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD? - And yes, I know it's an obvious title. By now, Sean Penn is back from his much-publicized trip to Baghdad. Expressions of ridicule and support have already appeared in the press and online, but there's every reason to believe that Penn knew what he was in for, when he accepted the offer by the obliquely-named Institute for Public Accuracy to "find my own voice on matters of conscience." If Mr. Penn does come away from his trip with a unique perspective on Iraq, he'll probably be the first person who was ever so publicly used by a think tank, liberal or conservative, to manage this rare feat.
Penn has been, since the US$56,000 ad he ran in the Washington Post, the most visible celebrity who's come out against what is probably an inevitable war against Iraq, most of whom have united behind former "M*A*S*H" TV star Mike Farrell's Artists United to Win Without War. Besides the inevitable names, either on AUWWW's petition or in public statements - Martin Sheen, Barbra Streisand, Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, Jane Fonda and Ed Asner - are celebs like Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Kim Basinger, Angelica Houston, Matt Damon, Ethan Hawke, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Laurence Fishburne, Mia Farrow, Danny Glover, Olympia Dukakis, Dave Matthews and the whole of REM.
Farrell's group has pointedly called itself "patriotic", and claim that they share with the administration "the belief that Saddam Hussein cannot be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction." However, they think that "war talk in Washington is alarming and unnecessary," and that "A pre-emptive military invasion of Iraq will harm American national interests." They have, by choosing to use the same language as a State Department briefing, undertaken a kind of Mexican stand-off with their government, in effect daring Bush to divulge precisely what intelligence his government has about Saddam's WMD capability. In turn, they're apparently unwilling to explain precisely what "national interests" are threatened.
Their form of resistance is unique, an exchange of bluff-calling in the media, though how precisely it's supposed to sidetrack war plans is yet to be seen. One this is for certain - the administration owns the language being used to talk about the war - there's no "pigs" or "fascists" or charges of warmongering, at least in official statements made by Farrell and his group, who have somewhat tortuously adopted a strange facsimile of diplomatic prose: "We support rigorous UN weapons inspections to assure Iraq's effective disarm". The only intemperate, 60s-style adversarial language was used by veteran Hollywood radicals like Martin Sheen ("I think [Bush] would like to hand his father Saddam Hussein's head.") and Ed Asner, who made his opinion of the American people - a majority of whom still support a war with Iraq as well as the wider "war on terrorism" - clear enough:
"They're sheep," he said. "They like him enough to credit him with saving the nation after 9/11. Three thousand people get killed and everyone thinks they're next on the list. The president comes along, and he's got his six-guns strapped on, and people think he's going to save them."
The AUWWW has been up front about their plan: "After winning the support of performers, they said they planned to organise among Hollywood's other pillars: the producers and directors." While it's likely that they'll probably get a few directors on board - Robert Altman and (big surprise!) Oliver Stone have already publicly come out against a war with Iraq - it'll probably be harder to pull in bigger fish like Spielberg, or producers like Joel Silver or Jerry Bruckheimer who cherish their relationships with the American military, so useful in aquiring expert consultants and hardware for big-budget war and action flicks. In any case, it's unlikely that anyone will stand on principle and let battle-lines be drawn across the industry, preventing anyone from getting the actor or the role they covet for a project - Hollywood, decades after the blacklist, is simply too bloodyminedly pragmatic for any stance so exquisitely idealistic.
Penn, to his credit, has made a great show of deliberation and carefully distanced involvement since his more stridently and dramatically-worded Post ad ("Sir, I beg you, help save America before yours is a legacy of shame and horror.") and his trip to Baghdad. A NY Times piece on Penn's trip compares the actor to Jane Fonda, whose 1972 visit to North Vietnam earned her the sobriquet "Hanoi Jane" and the undying resentment of thousands of veterans. Writer John F. Burns also brings up the writers, actors and directors (not to mention philosophers and artists) who visited Stalin's Soviet Union in the 20s and 30s and came back with their sympathy for communism reinforced.
(Interestingly, he doesn't mention the numerous artists and especially politicians who found much to admire in the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, among them Canada's long-serving prime minster, Mackenzie King, a devout table-rapper and lifelong bachelor. It's hard, though, to place someone like Saddam Hussein on the political spectrum between Stalin and Hitler. It may be that we've evolved another dimension politically, a deeper kind of spectrum on which to plot political principles. It may be that the whole left-right polarity has become utterly meaningless, but don't tell the anyone on the anti-war left; they might discover that their interests lie much closer to someone like George Bush than the political figures they're so eager to defend on principle, like Yasser Arafat and Hussein.)
Burns has his tongue slyly in cheek for sections of his story on Penn, noting that the actor has been sparing of his opinions about what he'd seen in his carefully-supervised tour of Baghdad, "chain-smoking, self-questioning and insisting that he had come to Iraq to 'learn and not to teach'." Penn "chose the diplomat's path, sparing both Mr. Bush and Mr. Hussein the full power of the 'conclusions' he said he had reached in the momentum toward war."
Penn, though, is aware of just how brief his glance at Iraq might have been: "You come here on a Friday, you leave on a Sunday, and you start throwing out flamboyant and contradictory messages - that doesn't seem to be of advantage to anyone...I can read something one day, and the next day I read something else, and I think 'Oh God, I didn't even think about that,' and that's humbling. So I'm afraid of saying something that might hurt somebody, and then find out I was wrong in the first place."
After the inevitable visit to a children's hospital, a "dilapidated school in the Baghdad suburbs, and a water treatment plant on the Tigris River bombed by American aircraft in 1991", Penn met Iraq's deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, the Ba'ath party's mouthpiece and possibly the most cynical human being alive, the evil universe Kissinger to Saddam's Nixon. Penn also somehow managed to evade his official minder and make a second, unescorted trip to Saddam City, a "teeming Baghdad slum" where he "walked the streets taking photographs and talking to people who recognized him from the video cassettes and DVDs of American movies that are wildly popular in Baghdad."
According to the Times, a particularly popular Penn movie, at least in Iraq, is Dead Man Walking, the Tim Robbins-directed anti-death penalty film. There was nothing in the piece, however, about what Penn learned from Iraqi fans of the film, or whether they personally knew any of the thousands of people who've been executed by Saddam's regime. It's to be assumed that Mr. Penn, like Tim Robbins and his wife, Susan Sarandon, don't support fundamentalist muslim shari'ah law, with its prescriptive use of capital punishment for a wide variety of crimes.
While Saddam's Ba'ath regime is essentially secularist, Saddam has been cynically playing on fundamentalist sympathy in the middle east and elsewhere, using money that could have been spent feeding children and building hospitals and schools on monstrosities like the Mother of All Battles mosque to curry the support of a growing radical Islamic movement within and without his party. Anti-war arguments often insist that toppling Iraq will only mean more Taliban-like regimes in the middle east, inferring that Saddam, a Stalinist despot who has made no secret of his wish to have and use the first "Arab bomb", is our best bet to keep fundamentalist regimes at bay. Somehow, they've assumed the same flawed logic that the Reagan regime used when it funded Iraq's war against Iran in the 80s.
The Times was also unable to report on the fate of Penn's minder after the star returned home, or whether the Mukhabarat, the Iraqi secret police, made a sweep of Saddam City, rounding up anyone who talked to the star. These kind of details are lost to view, and may only emerge after Saddam's regime has been toppled. Penn, in any case, was cautiously in favor of regime change, telling the Times that "there's a lot of things I'd like to change in this country...If I was a citizen of Iraq, I'd consider all options on behalf of my country." He had no advice, however, for those Iraqis who might be as eager for regime change as Penn or the administration of Penn's country, insisting, though, that it was a matter for Iraqis to decide, not Americans.
(posted 02:18pm | 12.18.02)
#0106 - PYONGYANG NEVER KNOWS - Most moviegoers walked out shaking their heads at the baroque silliness of the latest Bond film, but North Korea has taken Die Another Day much more seriously. In a typically colourful statement to the press, Kim Jong-Il's Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Unification of the Fatherland (or SOCPUF, as they call it when the Dear Leader isn't around - I mean, it just sounds so fricking Pentagon, doesn't it?) accused the newest installment in the Bond franchise of "insulting the Korean nation". The film, a huge but tired rehash of You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever and Moonraker, opens with Bond being captured and tortured after singlehandedly destroying a rogue North Korean army base, and ends back in the skies over North Korea, where Bond foils a hardline coup that intends to invade the south.
The film's grasp of geopolitics is as loose as the North Korean government's understanding of Hollywood production machinery, since they leapfrog the Broccoli family's production company and MGM pictures to pin the blame for the affront on the U.S. itself, who they seem to feel made the film as "a dirty and cursed burlesque aimed to slander North Korea and insult the Korean nation." They go on to accuse the U.S. of being "the root cause of all disasters and misfortune of the Korean nation and is an empire of evil." The last shot being thrown in, obviously, as a nyah-nyah to U.S. president George W. Bush, the world leader's equivalent of "I know you are but what am I?"
These days, it's hard to imagine that Hollywood is so solidly behind the Bush presidency that they'd willingly provoke one of the administration's enemies with a film, never mind one that, like most Bond films, takes as long to get in the air as a new fighter plane. Obviously, though, there are no copies of the Hollywood Reporter being passed around in Pyongyang. Still, someone at the Secretariat of the Committee for the Yadda Yadda should think about getting a job reviewing films or writing the odd piece for the Guardian, judging by lines like these: "The US is the headquarters that spreads abnormality, degeneration, violence and (my favorite line) fin de siècle corrupt sex culture." Very tasty. It's funny, but wasn't that the kind of stuff that Michael Medved and the National Review used to write about Hollywood just a few years ago? How times change.
(posted 12:08pm | 12.17.02)
NEW REVIEWS! - The Way Home: A shamelessly sentimental film that works, and the most unlikeable child ever shown on film. Looking for Leonard: A low-budget film from Montreal that, unique among Canadian films, looks better than it is. Go figure. Saint Monica: It's rather like breaking a butterfly's wings to be so negative about such a little film, but I'm not paid to be nice. A handful of script doctors could really clean up in this country, if anyone would just acknowledge that they're needed. Also, some new dvd reviews, including one for a Canadian film that actually works.