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Friday, December 01, 2006

"Dicembre, erano mesi che non usciva il sole..."

Today in Film we watched Three Kings (1999), which I hated when I first saw it in the theater, primarily for its visual style, which I found pretentious in its attempt to be "artistic." The fact that these overwrought and self-conscious visuals masked a narrative that was not only extremely violent, but thoroughly vapid, merely added to my distaste. I had not been looking forward to watching it again.

This time through, somewhat surprisingly, after three more years of college and two and a half of grad school (including almost a full semester now of Film), I found the visuals less offensive. I'm not sure whether that had to do with the recent upsurge in that particular style of production (its ubiquity rendering it familiar and banal), my own exaggerated memories of the film, or my intervening education, but this time what I hated most about this film wasn't its visual style.

What I hated most was its flippant inanity. The film goes from raucous extended scenes of frat-boy soldiers drinking and dancing after "liberating Kuwait" to lots of shooting and explosions, with the same driving rock soundtrack (mixed up at times with middle-eastern samples); then tries to redeem itself by inserting an accurate (but generally lost) political statement on the Iraqis who had been hung out to dry by an American administration that had promised support for an uprising against Saddam, but then had failed to deliver. There are some very funny moments, and even a few interactions that actually border on touching, but overall the film is a schizophrenic mismatch with delusions of artistic and philosophical grandeur and, for all its pretensions, is merely another Hollywood film that both glorifies war and trivializes its actual costs.

There is one classic scene during which an Iraqi asks the American soldier who he has imprisoned, "What is the problem with Michael Jackson?" He continues, "Your country made him chop off his face....A black man make the skin white and the hair straight, and you know why? Your sick f*ing country make the black man hate himself just like you hate the Arab and the children you bomb over here."

However, the occasional insightful, if hardly subtle, messages like this one are overwhelmed by the general attitude of the film and the actions of its characters. The tacked-on "happy ending" essentially erases any lingering thought that may actually have been provoked--and using U2's "In God's Country" for the epilogue and credits was simply unforgivable.

Clearly, not everyone agrees with me: it scored a 93% on the tomatometer at RottenTomatoes.com. Then again, Last King of Scotland got an 89%.

Personally, if I'm looking for saturated, eclectic visuals with minimal content, I'll stick with music videos. (And in Italian, the lyrics even seem deep!) Hollywood films are disappointing when they purport to have a message but fall apart upon thoughtful viewing and analysis; music videos, where relatively low expectations are a given, can only impress.

8 comments:

Daniel said...

So do you think that was Spike Jones' downfall, his previous experience with videos? Because I really like his music videos. It might also be that he was unable to separate the mentality of his character in the film, one who idolizes "Marky Mark," from his role as director. My second question is whether Hollywood has an obligation to be responsible in its presentation of war, or does hoi polloi have a responsibility in what they endorse/consume?

Cerise said...

Actually, I didn't even realize that Jones' background was in videos; the film definitely has that look, but I don't think that's my primary complaint. To address your second question, "responsibility" is always a tricky issue. Part of the problem is that there can probably never be real honesty; even if the filmmakers really knew what war was like, could they accurately portray it? And if they somehow could, would the previews actually reflect that, or show/say whatever they could to fill theater seats? Is it better to attract an audience to a shiny picture that has some excavatable "meaning" than make a truly impactful one that no one sees? My problem with this film was that it pretended to say something--and left some audiences feeling good about themselves for seeing a film that did.

What do you think, though?

bryant said...

I have the same question about most stories/films, can and artist ever completely understand let alone accurately portrey a situation to someone from another culture? After all, the people that the film is trying to portrey have lived in that culture for their etnire lives, and we are trying to condense and understand it in an hour and a half.

I haven't actually seen Three Kings but I have seen some videos on YouTube. Here are a couple that I think people sould see.

here
and

here.

Things that make you go hmmmm.....

Daniel said...

How do you compare this film to Jarhead? I think that was based on a book from a soldier, so it might have been closer to "reality." I think there are plenty of similarities between the two, especially with the downtime. Of course the treasure map taken from the body of the Iraqi soldier and the subsequent actions are quite a departure from any reality, which is why I never put that much weight on the message.

However, it has been a while since I've seen the film, so I can't accurately speak to the messages therein, these are my remembrances. Sure there is some anti-establishment vibe with the media commentary and suffering of the citizens, but that might be more of a play to be "cool" with the MTV generation that Jones has already proven capable of reaching.

I'm not trying to get millions of dollars to make or distribute a movie (I'd think differently if I were.), so in an ideal world, it would be nice if artists would create for their own purpose, and not to attract an audience (unless their goal is to reach a lot of people). Cream rises, someone will find it. Of course, when the swine are paying the bills you might put some gruel around your pearls to grease the wheels of the economy. Can you imagine what we, or our government, could do to help people with just box office profits?

Yet, your question was which is better: put some meaning in a shiny film, or hope somebody finds your meaning when it is on the back shelf at the rental store.

I think it is better to put "excavatable" meaning into a shiny film (I really like the connotations of that term too. You have to dig for it.) I think this has been done to varying success by Clint Eastwood/Paul Haggis in Million Dollar Baby, not as good, and George Clooney in Good Night and Good Luck (which I haven't seen, but having done a report on McCarthy back at DAA, I appreciate any attacks on his cancer.) People hardly talk about the documentaries that have come out of Iraq this last time, much less watch them, not a way to get out a message.

Thanks for reading.

Daniel said...

Bryant, do you mean an artist from one culture/reality trying to relate to another culture, or do you mean an artist from a different culture trying to portray a culture not their own to anyone?

I think there are plenty of limitations of film, but I think a good filmmaker can relate truth better than a poor filmmaker who has lived that truth. The trailer to The Tenants, with Dylan McDermott, has a white author living in an apartment building in the projects ask why he can't write about the Black Experience better than a black man.

And while there are limitations on the medium, maybe truth can be revealed without reality. But then again, why do we need our truth to come from movies? Amusing Ourselves to Death, the book, says that the medium controls the message, at least where television is concerned. Yet we aren't directing our attention toward books, or more importantly spending thirty million dollars on one book in a weekend, like we do with films. So it would be nicer if there were some quality stuff for us in them.

Scott said...

I've found that learning how to deconstruct anything has heightened my already high tolerance for excrement in media. I can watch the most vapid emissions of our culture as long as I'm ready to read it like a text. It's when I want to turn off my brain for a while that I can't tolerate anything without wit and meaning.

By the way, a good movie I'm currently recommending to everyone is Everything is Illuminated

Ellen said...

i was going to recommend everything is illuminated to you, scott, but never got around to it. through the whole movie i thought about how much you would love it.

Dragonfly said...

I'm a bit late on this posting, but here's why I believe that I enjoy the inanity and banality of many Hollywood movies (though I too thought Three Kings sucked). I enjoy the fact that movies that adhere unabashedly to the 5 or 6 script formulas out there, and do it well, are enjoyable in themselves.

It's much the same way I feel about music based in European tonal harmony. Most music in our lives is based on the expectation and fulfillment from using the same three chords...a pretty small aural world. But working within that small world yields sounds that are truly moving, to me.