Friday, March 28, 2008


“…a loathsome, crude, amateurish and grotesque assault on our troops in Iraq … a wretched, irresponsible film that richly deserves the public rejection it will, inevitably, receive.” – Micheal Medved

“…De Palma admits he made the film to hurt the Iraq war effort ... [De Palma is a] vile man and [Redacted is a] vile film ... If even one [new terrorist] enters the fight and kills an American, it's on Brian de Palma ... During World War II, President Roosevelt, the liberal icon, would have put De Palma in prison.” – Bill O’Reilly

Not many people saw Brian De Palma’s Iraq war film Redacted (the title means to suppress by censorship), certainly not enough for De Palma to bear responsibility for all future deaths of American soldiers in Iraq. Most only know of the film from ranting pundits like Medved and O’Reilly, the first a “film critic” by title only, the second long ago having had his motivations called into question by the maddening documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism. And that is a shame. While not perfect, by any means, Redacted is a fascinating and important piece of work. It is important as a somewhat fumbling first foray into promising new territory by one of America’s most complex and compelling filmmakers. It is also important as a statement of outrage. It is unforgivable that in a “democratic” nation people must resort to rummaging around on the Internet to learn what is going on in the world.

Essentially, Redacted is Brian De Palma’s Noam Chomsky-fueled response to how he sees the events in Iraq being censored by the media. Chomsky famously pointed out in books like Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies that the American media acts as a highly efficient propaganda machine – though not necessarily with conscious intent. He points out that Justice Powell’s ideal (“By enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process, the press performs a crucial function in effecting the societal purpose of the First Amendment.”) has given way to James Mill’s view (The media’s role is to “train the minds of the people to a virtuous attachment to their government.”). De Palma, longtime radical-minded guy that he is, definitely agrees with Chomsky.

And this frustration with the media informs the film’s structure. Based on the true story of a teenage Iraqi girl who was raped, killed, and burned by American soldiers, Redacted is a fictionalized recreation of those and surrounding events as if discovered in bits and pieces scattered about the Internet, an American soldier’s home video, a French documentary, surveillance camera footage, Iraqi television news casts, and video files on assorted web sites. This is all edited together to create an impression of what took place, or a very rough approximation really. What we see is far removed from the level of detail and the well-rounded portrayal of the characters involved that would be presented by a talented journalist following the story start-to-finish, which is De Palma’s point.

Through this collage-like approach, employing digital video throughout, De Palma has used Redacted as an opportunity to explore the very implications of the documentary form. The film is like the ultimate faux-documentary turned inside-out to peer at its own inner organs. In an early scene, we are shown a soldier looking down at the ground to watch a scorpion being devoured by ants. This is framed within a French documentary titled Checkpoint and seems to be either making a comment on the sadism of the American soldier(s) or on the way American soldiers are being overcome by Iraqi insurgents or on how the documentary’s director watched Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch too many times – or all three. What’s easy to miss though is De Palma’s interest here in how cleverly – and potentially deceptively – documentary films are constructed. We never see the soldier and the scorpion/ants in the same shot. The shot the soldier appears to be looking at could’ve been lifted straight out of Peckinpah’s western for all we know.

This almost invisibly playful examination of documentary ethics finds even more compelling expression in later scenes. A car is shown driving up to a checkpoint and then we are suddenly inside the car looking out. This heightens the dramatic effect of the scene, but how is it possible? We can see as the car drives up that there is no cameraman sitting in the front seat, plus the cars in the two shots are clearly different. Once again, the documentary filmmakers have pieced a scene together out of footage shot possibly days apart to create an effect. In a later scene, one of the American soldiers wields his camcorder but swish-pans quickly back and forth between two bits of action, torn between which should hold his focus. All documentaries are only as true as the 45 degrees or so of action the camera captured. The other 315 degrees only exist in some alternate universe with the camera pointed elsewhere.

This sort of intellectual gamesmanship is exactly what De Palma’s fans have learned to expect from him. He is the man, after all, who made it his mission to teach us about the deceptive qualities of the cinema. He famously inverted Jean-Luc Godard’s line about the truth of images (“film is truth, 24 times a second”) to form his own dictum which is repeated verbatim in Redacted by one of the soldiers (“[that] camera lies all the time”).

De Palma fans also expect his films to be highly self-referential. He has always been obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (even remaking it at one point under the title Obsession). The central dilemma in Vertigo involves a character named Scottie who loses – or so it seems – his lover due to his failure to act at a crucial moment. This has been reanimated like a recurring nightmare throughout a great many of De Palma’s films from Carrie and Blow Out to his criminally underrated Mission to Mars and The Black Dahlia. And a soldier’s failure to act and save the life of the Iraqi girl in Redacted is the source of much of the films' anguish.

De Palma earlier made the Vietnam War drama Casualties of War about a soldier failing not once but twice to save the life of a Vietnamese girl. Actually, De Palma’s Vietnam and Iraq war films tell virtually the same (based on true) stories of American soldiers venting their frustrations over a fallen comrade (as well as sexual frustrations; both films are filled with homophobic rage; Redacted has a telling moment where a soldier misunderstands his being called a war virgin and berates “I’m not a virgin!” and many scenes in Redacted are decorated top to bottom with images from men’s magazines) by raping and killing a young girl. Both end with their “hero” tormented by his failure to prevent the tragedy.

Redacted is also a throwback to early 1960s overtly radical De Palma movies like Greetings and Hi, Mom complete with a sense of playfulness and humor and the joking labeling of characters. A rubber ducky makes an appearance very unexpectedly and a scene between the two “heavies” is punctuated by squawks emanating from one man’s bird-shaped hat every time he adjusts it. The embedded journalists in several scenes run around like headless chickens with signs fixed to their jackets reading “Press.” And the dumb, fat bad guy recruit is simply referred to as “Rush.” (Okay, maybe De Palma took that one too far.) Redacted is laced with a surprising amount of sly humor.

Ignoring the inane “criticisms” of Medved and O’Reilly, I do have a few criticisms of my own – many echoed by other critics. For a film that is supposedly constructed out of scraps of this and that found here and there, Redacted seems too elegantly composed, the shots just a bit too perfect in their framing. After some thought though, I no longer find this to be a valid criticism. The most obvious offenders are the scenes taking place within the French-made documentary and the home-movie footage of one of the soldiers (Angel Salazar). But, the French documentary is clearly intended as a very elegantly and professionally made piece, more Pare Lorentz than Maysles Brothers, complete with a musical score right out of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. It’s a spoof of documentaries at their most manipulative and pretentious. It should be well-composed. Salazar intends to use his footage as an audition film for USC Film School. He should be wielding the camera with care.

Many have knocked the film for having “terrible” acting and I suppose they are correct, at least to a point. De Palma is taking aim at character types with Redacted and, much like his radical counterpart George Romero did in Day of the Dead, he resorts to grotesque stereotypes to make his points. No beating around the bush with the bad guys in either film. They are simply bad. I do think Redacted’s performances within this context are quite effective though. The evil seems to find surprising new twists of expression from each moment to the next. De Palma is also back to games again with the acting. One of my favorite aspects of documentary film is how people have a natural way of turning into actors – and often very bad ones – when a camera is pointed at them. Redacted makes conscious commentary on this by breaking a pivotal scene in half, first with the characters aware of their being filmed, second with their being tricked into thinking the camera has been turned off. The subtle changes in behavior are fascinating. At another point, Salazar dons a hidden camera on his helmet saying, “I don’t want the guys getting camera-shy.”

My only real criticism of Redacted is that the first scene is too heavy-handed. One of the soldiers says the first casualty of the war will be “the truth.” Salazar then gives a speech about the film he is making not having any sense of conventional narrative or Hollywood drama. He of course says this into the camera as a direct comment from De Palma to us about Redacted. These statements of theme and method are simply too blunt and too awkward. They’ve sent my eyes rolling every time I’ve watched the film.

Fortunately, while Redacted starts off badly, it ends on an amazingly powerful note. In a sequence titled “Collateral Damage,” we see a series of photographs of war victims (eyes covered by black bars in an ironic instance of redaction that irked De Palma but oddly works to the film’s benefit) culminating with an artfully faked photo of the teenage rape and murder victim (whose burned remains we haven’t yet seen) and a surge of music that leaves my hair standing on end every time. Wow, I get chills just thinking about it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That

My Kid Could Paint That is a terrific film. It examines a multitude of subjects ranging from the nature of modern art to how hard a child should be pushed toward greatness to the relationship between a documentary film and the truth. And all of this breezily realized thanks to the screen presence of a very cute little girl named Marla.

Marla Olmstead is a phenomenon. Starting at age three, she’s been creating modern art masterpieces that have drawn not surprising comparisons to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock. By age five, she was well on her way to a well-padded college fund with her works selling at over five grand a pop. New York got whiff of her. She was everywhere in the art world news. Then 60 Minutes got a hold of the story.

All it took was some footage of Marla struggling away at a painting and an “expert” saying “she isn’t doing anything any other kid wouldn’t do” and the paintings stopped selling, collectors of her work started fretting and grumbling and possibly suing, and her parents began getting a litany of really nasty emails. (Yes, there is predictability in the arc of the story. As with all of those rock star bios, this is Marla and her parents’ tumble into the belly of the whale.)

Speaking to filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, Marla’s mom Laura pleads, “We’re just going to have to trust you.” All hope is placed on Bar-Lev’s capturing Marla in a true act of artistic creation to erase the damning evidence made all too public by Charlie Rose, to help the Olmsteads wash up on the beach still alive and kicking like that famous wooden boy. (My Kid Could Paint That earns kudos for leaving the “alive and kicking” part tantalizingly uncertain.)

That’s the plot. But the film’s fascinations and pleasures fall between the plot points. Placing the kindergarten masterpieces by my daughters side-by-side with works decorating the walls of the Museum of Modern Art, I’ve often asked one of the film’s central questions: Why do some paintings sell for millions while others that appear – at least to my eyes – every bit as beautiful hang taped to dining room walls? Is it really just a matter of a work of art being worth whatever someone can be conned into paying? Is it the whole legend of a tortured soul that arose around Jackson Pollock that made his works priceless or is there really something on those canvases that my kid couldn’t paint?

With the Olympics just over the horizon and a film like Spellbound (the one about spelling bees) still a fresh memory, kids with talents being pushed to the edge and beyond by overzealous parents are enjoying a high level of visibility. I’ve even had my own low moments pushing my daughter to higher rungs: “You better not miss a practice to play with friends or you won’t win the 100 butterfly.” Marla’s dad, Mark, is criticized for standing over his daughter, prodding her along, and scolding her for not using enough of the color red. The paintings are more about him – or by him? – than Marla it seems.

Bar-Lev’s filmmaking process is left fascinatingly transparent. It is filled with all the little moments – an interview subject’s “off the record” remarks, a scene between Bar-Lev and Marla’s parents that feels like the whole film is on the verge of collapse – which a filmmaker would normally cut to avoid incriminating himself. My Kid Could Paint That plays like an essay on how all documentaries manipulate the truth. We never know who to trust from one moment to the next. When is Marla being her true self – or Mark and Laura, or Bar-Lev – as opposed to some other creature under the influence of a movie camera? Who was more on the money? Jean-Luc Godard (“film is truth, 24 times a second”) or Brian De Palma ("the camera lies all the time”)?

My Kid Could Paint That reminded me of the movie Pollock. Pollock was portrayed as a man driven by instinct. When asked about his creative processes, he lashes out in fits of rage, realizing he has no idea how he creates his paintings. Still held by childhood’s embrace but every bit as unaware of her processes, Marla responds with an annoyed “No!” She then dashes off to fight with her brother, to draw doodles while talking a bath, and to get rides on her dad’s shoulders. It made me wish she’d stop painting altogether, before she grows up.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Isn’t it strange how bits of insight and inspiration come at you when you least expect them? This morning, I took part in an annual deacons/elders meeting at my church. The issue of dealing with change was placed at table center and the need to establish a “bottom line” of non-negotiable issues was discussed. A few hours later, while re-watching Deepa Mehta’s beautiful and haunting film “Water,” my morning’s lessons seeped into the experience, finding new significance.

Set in India in 1938, “Water” opens with a beguiling scene of a young girl, Chuyia, mysteriously traveling with her family and a very sickly looking man. What’s going on? Who is this girl? Who is this man? Is he her father or her uncle? In the next scene, we learn that the man was actually the 7-year-old’s husband and that she has now joined India’s multitude of widows.

In short order, her head is shaved and she is – in spite of lively protestations – locked into an ashram where widows are forced to live out their lives honoring their deceased husbands. “Water” opens with a title card reading: “A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven. A woman who is unfaithful … is reborn in the womb of a jackal.” What follows is a tale of the conflicts this tradition provokes for our young heroine and another somewhat older widow, Kalyani, who befriends her.

Chuyia functions in “Water” as our eyes through which we observe the forbidden relationship that develops between Kalyani and a young man, and follower of Mahatma Gandhi, named Narayan. And this approach, with Chuyia being so young, questioning, and disbelieving, works exceedingly well for a Western audience. It’s very alien, even maddening, watching these women suffer simply because they’ve outlived their husbands. It seems strange indeed for this to happen to a girl as young as Chuyia (and we learn she isn’t the only child widow to have found her way into this “prison”).

Similar to the way Chuyia stands in for our modern eyes, Narayan embodies our modern sensibilities. One of his first actions upon arriving home from college is replacing a photo (that looks like a picture of his high school class) on the wall of his parent’s home with a photo of Gandhi – new learning replacing the old. “Passive resistance” is poised ever-ready to leap from his tongue as from a tiny springboard. And when he tells his mother he plans to marry Kalyani, a widow, she scolds him saying his study of Gandhi’s teachings has driven him crazy. He finds this treatment of widows as unacceptable as we do.

At first, I found “Water” a truly foreign viewing experience. I enjoyed it and was taken by the beauty of its images, its conflicts between traditional and new ways of thinking, and the many playful uses of the title liquid. (One thing is for sure, you will have no difficulty discovering why the film is titled “Water.”) But the tragic climax bothered me until I connected my lesson from this morning to this line of dialog: “What if our conscience conflicts with our faith?” Suddenly, the whole film crystallized. To risk repeating a cliché, traditions die hard and change only comes with great struggle. The tragedy of the film’s climax is the result of Kalyani’s encounter with her “bottom line.”

My summation is a cliché, but the film’s realization and especially its shattering and unforgettable ending is pure and original poetry. The final shot of one of the ashram widows is framed with a train disappearing into the background carrying with it all the hopes of future change for India’s widows. The cinematic poetry derives from extremely shallow depth of field. The woman remains in the foreground in sharp focus, face pensive, while the train becomes an indistinguishably distant blur. This is then underlined – unnecessarily I think – by a closing title card: “There are over 34 million widows in India according to the 2001 Census. Many continue to live in conditions of social, economic and cultural deprivation…”

Thank you Reverend Deanna. Your words were heard, though maybe not yet put to use quite as you expected.

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Red Balloon/White Mane

Imagine a little boy walking along and spotting a kitten on the sidewalk. He pauses to give it a pat on the head and goes happily on his way. Only the kitten has a mind of its own and starts following the boy. With delight, the boy tries to pick up the kitten, but it scurries away. As soon as the boy turns his back, the kitten returns to continue his pursuit, and so on.

Now, imagine this kitten and boy game continuing through many inventive variations including a fair amount of playfulness along with some fearful suspense. Then, add one more twist by replacing the kitten with a bright red balloon and setting it all in the streets of Paris and you have the delightful children’s film “The Red Balloon.”

Director Albert Lamorisse makes his intentions clear in the opening shot. The young boy happens upon a kitten on the sidewalk before moving on to discover his vivid red costar. (“The Red Balloon” was shot in gorgeous Technicolor and the balloon really stands out against the more muted and rainy Paris backdrops. If you’ve only seen Hollywood Technicolor, you owe it to yourself to experience how creatively the French put it to use.) The balloon becomes a newfound pet for the boy.

Lasting a mere 34 minutes, “The Red Balloon” effortlessly develops into a full-fledged story filled with helpful citizens willing to offer their umbrellas to protect the boy and his balloon from the rain. The story also has its villains in the form of seemingly countless jealous other boys. They can be avoided and thwarted for a while, but when they have the boy and his pet balloon cornered and take careful aim with their slingshots the game is up – or is it? The ending is, shall I say, quite memorably uplifting.

After the success of “Duma” last year, we at Cinema 100 put on our thinking caps trying to come up with something else to offer our younger patrons – as well as the kid in all of us – and we happily noticed that this beloved classic was touring on a double-bill with another classic French short from director Lamorisse, “White Mane.”

I feel certain that Carol Ballard was familiar with Lamorisse’s boy and his horse film when he directed his own “The Black Stallion.” Both films fall deeply in love with the graceful movement of running horses and the photography (in “White Mane” it is striking, Italian neo-realistic inspired black and white) richly displays that love in every shot. Both films also present the relationship between boy and horse as a mutually and gradually developing friendship, very poetically expressed.

And as with “The Red Balloon,” “White Mane” has its villains, this time a band of men depicted as almost pure evil that capture and tame wild horses. They’re just ranchers doing their jobs of course, but the film sees them through the horse infatuated eyes of the young boy, as something to be feared. This leads to a few moments that may prove a bit frightening (so sit close to your kids) including a fight between White Mane and another pent up stallion that is a bit brutal as well as quite remarkable and even beautiful to watch.

Of course, White Mane and the boy prevail and escape the “evil” men. The ending to this 47 minute film isn’t quite as clear as with “The Red Balloon” though. My younger daughter (age 11) sat for a bit after the film was over weighing two possibilities, one happy and one sad. Being a happy kid in general, she settled comfortably on the first option.

This pair of classics makes for a great introduction to French cinema for young movie fans. Both are largely visual poems that play like classic fairytales. They also won’t pose any challenges to young viewers lacking the reading skills for subtitles. “The Red Balloon” is almost wordless and has about 30 words of subtitled French dialog none of which are essential to enjoying the film. “White Mane” is being presented in an English translated version.

So, don’t forget the kids – and don’t forget the popcorn – and settle back for a unique experience, for young and old.