All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

(- seen on video; [v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)


[NOTE: This section does not include my reviews of films seen at the Toronto IFF. For those, you know what to do.]




Idiocracy (Mike Judge)

Okay, let's get a few things straight. This isn't being dumped by Fox because it's an incompetent piece of shit. It most certainly isn't, although on a technical level there are some problems, most notably a spells-it-out-for-ya voiceover that suddenly drops out of the film until the final moments. (This smacks of post-test-screening interference.) But lots of films make questionable formal decisions, and far fewer can boast Idiocracy's striking vision of long-slow-apocalypse America, all garbage heaps and skyscrapers held together with twine. As rich and compelling a dystopian horrorscape as anything since Brazil, Judge's complex world of consumer detritus (the ultimate "throwaway" gag) in itself rewards the arduous effort of locating a theatre actually screening the thing. Also, this thing isn't being dumped by Fox because of Judge's swipe at Fox News, or due to any direct hits at the Bush administration. The thing is, Mike Judge has made a political film without a constituency. This is practically a film version of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, and as such manages to be offensive even to those to whom it purports to reach out. On the one hand, Judge takes the conservative stance that our language and culture are being degraded by hip-hop and urban slang, as well as white trash influences. (Although several white dumbasses are highlighted, the film's crowd scenes are unnerving in their dense thicket of black and brown faces; a dubious argument about eugenics implicitly becomes a severely wrongheaded example of miscegenation-panic, the sort of complex mutt-culture of, say, Code 46 reimagined as a chorus of grunts and farts. Judge may have been striving for color-blindness, the promise that class-based critique always holds out, but seldom delivers. It's scary how much it looks like sheer racial callousness.) On the other hand, Judge makes it clear that rampant privatization and the substitution of consumerism for civil society is equally to blame. So this isn't going to jive with today's Christian Right, operating as they do with a sort of Max Weber For Dummies assumption of the free market as God's will. (Go to Texas to see this in action most "successfully." The whole state seems to want to walk the mall with Jesus.) There's a lot in Idiocracy that's flat-out hilarious, and often I found myself laughing at the very jokes and ideas I found most troubling. That's the highest compliment I can pay Judge's film -- more so that any recent comedy I can think of, it's a true think-piece, as as such, certainly worthy of far better treatment than what it got. The ensuing discussion on "The McLaughlin Group" would've been dividend enough.


-Our Daily Bread (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austria / Germany)

Although Our Daily Bread is a German co-production (it has some ZDF money behind it), this film is Austrian to the marrow. Like the films of Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, ODB is an almost perversely dispassionate examination of a topic that seems to call either for firm intervention or paranoid defensiveness. Geyrhalter turns his camera on the mechanized food industry in nearly all its conceivable forms. Although we spend extended sequences in salt mines and lettuce fields, the benighted stars of ODB walk on four legs -- that is, until they end up hanging from one leg by a metal hook. Baby chicks are debeaked, cows led into a sort of Iron Maiden device that kills them near instantly, pigs are herded onto the killing floor, anally probed, bled dry, eviscerated, their bodies then indelicately sliced lengthwise. What's truly strange, and eerily effective, about Geyrhalter's presentation is its almost antiseptic formalism. ("Almost," in that blood is copiously spilled and power-hosed away, and no amount of symmetrical camera placement can sufficiently sterilize the mise-en-scène.) Even as we slowly track through the long hallway lined on either side with overcrowded chicken coops in one of the first shots of the film, one very quickly admires the rigor and elegance Geyrhalter brings to his documentary observation. No commentary, no direct-cinema bobbing and weaving; just razor-sharp camera set-ups down the middle. (An inch or two in either direction would lend these scenes the off-balance disquietude of a de Chirico painting. Geyrhalter resists the urge. Only when movement through the scene requires bodily adjustment -- e.g., the final tracking shot across the bovine slaughterhouse -- does Geyrhalter pivot off the axis.) I found myself moving from the aforementioned admiration into increased agitation, watching these animals meeting their mechanized Auschwitz. But eventually I got used to it, and that's a large part of Geyrhalter's accomplishment here. As you watch (presuming you don't turn away -- I know many avid filmgoers who wouldn't last ten minutes with this film, and I intend no slight to them, nor do I mean to cast my own moral decision to stick it out as macho bravado), Geyrhalter's formal control and somewhat fugue-like repetition structure conditions us to accept what we're seeing. It becomes social content, and as we witness the abattoir workers slitting throats and then eating their lunch, we realize that they're doing their jobs (no revelation there), but we spectators are doing ours as well. Everybody's settling in, allowing horror to atomize into a dissipated tinge, a grim nod.


But by placing these images (which certainly contain nothing revelatory; disturbing, yes, but who since Upton Sinclair could be surprised by what we see?) alongside more benign, less violent forms of food production, Geyrhalter poses a challenge, one that doesn't always pay off. On the one hand, equating the abattoir, the cucumber pickers, the industrial thresher, etc., Geyrhalter makes it all about labor. This doesn't tell us very much, since as labor, some seem to have an easier time of it than others. The equation doesn't hold. On the other hand, placing these passages side by side raises questions about the ethics and ecology of agribusiness. In "The Question Concerning Technology," Heidegger compared the mechanized food industry to the atom bomb and, implicitly, the gas chamber. This has struck many readers as disingenuous to the point of tastelessness, coming as it does from a former Nazi, but Geyrhalter seems to be picking up Heidegger's larger point -- humankind's domination of nature, the reduction of the world to use-value and "standing reserve" -- and running with it. Where does it lead us? I'm uncertain. Geyrhalter's method cannot reveal the deeper social and economic connections binding the meat, dairy, and agriculture industries, so we're left with a vague sense of ominous forces, all receiving the same visceral urgency by convection, as it were -- their proximity to the "hot" slaughterhouse material. James Benning has found a way to step back, allowing carefully composed pictures of the modern world to reveal themselves, and, over time, their secrets. His landscapes are both achingly gorgeous and inscribed with power, and the exploration of that dialectic gives Benning's cinema its aesthetic and political force. Geyrhalter, by contrast, opts for both the guttural jolt and the passive voice. His filmic disengagement transfers its moral quandary onto the viewer and, through its serene formalist exactitude, seems to magically absolve itself. That's Austrian cinema for you.




-Sketches of Frank Gehry (Sydney Pollack)

I'm the last person you'll hear defending "documentary objectivity," which is usually just a slightly more skillful way of disguising authorial bias from the inattentive viewer. Nevertheless, Pollack's overly-chummy portrait of leading post-Postmodern architect Frank Gehry is essentially a New York Times Magazine fluff-piece on video. (The film was made for PBS's "American Masters" series, but several such productions over the years have profiled their subjects in far more substantive ways. The assignment itself isn't the problem here.) As Sketches never stops reminding the viewer, Gehry and Pollack are longtime friends, and although Pollack admits to having little knowledge about architecture (as well as never having made a documentary before), Gehry asserts that that makes him perfect for the job. Well, yes, if the "job" is to provide a fawning great-man portrait with virtually no analysis, no context, and no real dissenting voices. Hal Foster, one of America's preeminent art critics, is given about ten seconds in which to articulate his disapproval of Gehry's work, just enough time to allow Pollack to set him up. Almost immediately, Sketches cuts to painter Julian Schnabel, practically a parody of himself swirling his brandy snifter in a white terrycloth bathrobe. He dismisses Gehry's critics (and all critics, really -- which may be the ultimate point of Pollack's film) as "flies buzzing around the neck of a lion." What value Sketches might've had, despite its smug anti-intellectualism, is diminished due to Pollack's inability to use the camera to describe Gehry's buildings in space. Truly remarkable-looking structures (the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in particular) are turned into a series of flat, disconnected, well-composed images. I suppose it could be argued that this is the essence of Gehry's work; more than spatial invention, it's about making keen-looking elevations and eye-catching shapes that look good in photo spreads, i.e. "spectacle," as Foster suggests. By failing to articulate Gehry's work as space (cf. Teshigahara's Gaudi film, or even Louis I. Kahn's work as depicted in My Architect), Pollack inadvertently bolsters the claims of the anti-Gehry contingent. And, by failing to observe any social difference between civic projects like Bilbao (which does look fantastic) and the mansions Gehry builds for wealthy private citizens, Sketches of Frank Gehry primarily functions as a million-dollar white guy circle jerk. Despite making some of the only insightful remarks in the film, Dennis Hopper and Ed Ruscha (and the whole L.A. scene, really) unfortunately look guilty by association.


-V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, U.S. / Germany)

As we all know by now, the Kerry 2004 campaign failed when it came to delivering a compelling message that really resonated with voters. Personally I think he should have tried: "Vote for me, or endure four more years of simpleminded dystopian art." Now, I haven't yet seen Mike Judge's Idiocracy (currently being flushed by Warner Brothers) or Richard Kelly's much-maligned Southland Tales (currently, it seems, being shorn of an entire hour by Warners, and sure to receive a half-assed rollout, if it sees theatres at all), but I'm prepared to go out on a limb here. Judge and Kelly are intelligent artists whose visions simply cannot be any less valid than that of the men who made V for Vendetta, a preposterous corporate turd that Fox, a segment of the critical community, and a sizable segment of the filmgoing public appear to have taken quite seriously. I can only assume that Vendetta's success is due to its florid flattery of the target audience. The film seems designed to serve as a totem object for armchair pseudo- revolutionaries, the sort who exist across the political spectrum (who doesn't feel pushed around by The Government?) and are all too willing to conflate the viewing of a semi-competent action film with the actual changing of the world. McTeigue and the Wachowski brothers (who wrote and produced) have fashioned a film that hails its viewer as a dissident intellectual, and even prompts us to fantasize about how we, too, would fight the power if we found ourselves in the characters' shoes. (Ah, but could we ever truly be so cool?) Playing the future as a meaningless mash-up of the past (Orwellian Third Reich vs. retro-heroics out of Hugo and Dumas), V for Vendetta triangulates itself through your own personal interpretation of the present, whatever that may be, just so long as it smacks of restlessness and dissatisfaction. We aren't an audience. We're dot-connectors. Just as they did with The Matrix -- can't virtually any allegory be squared within its appearance vs. reality template? -- Team Vendetta evacuate all specific content, shine on a few glossy signifiers, and call it a "mythology." No dice.