Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Walking dead

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2008)

Martin McDonagh has written several acclaimed plays. I saw one of them, The Pillowman, here in its Canadian Stage production, and it was a scorcher. He made a short film, won an Oscar for it, and has moved on now to make a first feature, In Bruges. Rather like many of David Mamet’s films, it suggests McDonagh doesn’t view his cinema career as an extension of his theatre one particularly, but as a necessarily more lowbrow endeavour. To me it smells of condescension (although maybe we should withhold judgment, and view this as a set of training wheels).

Highly generic, although lively and more artful than it seems, it has Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as a pair of Irish hitmen sent by their evil boss (a miscast and over-compensating Ralph Fiennes) to cool off in the Belgian city and wait for orders. Gleeson gets to work lapping up the culture; Farrell’s more about the beer and babes. It’s a little bit violent all the way along, and then it gets really violent. As I’ve said before (and I apologize to regular readers for this), assassins are so over-represented in the annals of cinematic employment that any director taking on the subject all but disqualifies himself (is there a female example?) from serious consideration (and no, I’m not overlooking No Country for Old Men). Yep, In Bruges, for all its skills, need be considered about as seriously as boxer shorts on a dog.

Diary of the Dead

Which many might think still puts it comfortably ahead of Diary of the Dead, seriousness-wise. George Romero is at the very least a cult figure, and his zombie movies in particular have always had pockets of critical support, but how far can admiration for this stuff possibly stretch? Master filmwriter Robin Wood, for one, thinks pretty darn far – his article in the current Film Comment calls Romero a “great and audacious filmmaker” and finds brilliant elements in the new film.

I might be halfway there. The new film, forming a completely separate story rather than a continuation of the four previous works, focuses on a group of students, who take off in an RV, headed for their various homes or else just to take off, as reports start to circulate of the dead coming back to life and feasting on the living. They’re mostly film students, and Romero structures his picture as an assembly of material shot through a DV camera one of them perpetually wields, supplemented with footage from the Internet, security cameras, and so forth. It’s not Romero’s fault that as he worked on the film Brian De Palma was simultaneously applying a similar approach to the Iraq war in Redacted, nor that Cloverfield was doing almost the same thing as well; still, it inevitably undercuts the technique’s impact.

There’s a lot of conversation about the ethics of the student’s continual filming – arguments about whether this records reality or distorts it and suchlike – and this intersects with the film’s broader theme of unreliable media: we see how the official network version of one of the initial attacks differs from the full version (secretly uploaded onto the Internet). Information is withheld throughout – the film stays with the students on the road, with relatively few other people in sight; they download information or pick up news in bits and pieces, but neither they nor we ever really know how far things have gone.

Collapse of Everything

Even the zombies aren’t as visible as in the previous films, and the kids figure them out pretty quickly, so it’s hard to focus on them as being specifically threatening or “evil.” Instead it always feels – and this version perhaps is more clearly and eerily metaphorical than any of its predecessors– that we’re watching an embodiment of the big unknown future upheaval that will force a reinvention of everything. As Wood points out, the films have always systematically demolished central building blocks of our society and worldview: the nuclear family, consumerism (in Dawn of the Dead, my own favourite of the quintet), the military, capitalism. In Diary, it’s perhaps more generalized and thus more despairing than its predecessors – the whole damn thing, it seems, just can’t be sustained, and maybe shouldn’t be.

I do wish that Romero had a little more finesse in some respects. The new film has a lot of over-emphatic dialogue and a hackneyed approach to some of the characters. Some of the specific notions – such as a lame scene of a damsel in distress pursued by a mummy being played out twice, once within the student film they’re shooting at the start and later for real – are distractingly clunky. But you have to take the director for what he is – he’s not a minute craftsman but, rather, it seems, a brilliant mess of high and low impulses, serving as a conduit (maybe in large part unknowingly) for some of our great under-examined fault lines.

And as Manohla Dargis pointed out in her New York Times review, there’s a humane aspect to his work here. At the end of the film (which can’t deliver anything even half-approaching closure in the usual sense), a character asks if we’re worth saving, tying the question specifically to more Internet footage showing redneck abuse of the zombies. There’s a link there, perhaps, to the US’ mistreatment of enemy captives and terrorist suspects, and how that’s undermined the country’s place in the world. Do such atrocities and transgressions, step-by-step and drip-by-drip, erode our existential credit and prepare the way for the collapse of everything?

The Band’s Visit

I was careless on the day we went to see The Band’s Visit, and had it in my mind it started at 2.25 rather than 2.40, so that we missed the first couple of minutes. In the old days I would have called off the whole thing, but I’m much more philosophical now. After twenty minutes or so, I was thinking it was a shame not to have a beverage and a snack (once realizing our mistake, we’d swept past the concessions) so I ran out to get us something and of course, life being was it is, had to stand through a change-making process that took as long as some public company audits.

There will Be Blood, to cite one example, is an hour longer, but if I’d missed even half a minute, I would have (and should have) been bothered. I got lucky, because it seems to me that any random fifteen minutes of The Band’s Visit suffices to extrapolate almost perfectly to the whole. Not to the exact details of course, but to the overall aftertaste, which is pleasant but hardly rich. It’s about an Egyptian band inadvertently stranded in a deadly dull Israeli town. It’s nice, but I might have wished for someone to pull a gun, or get eaten.

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