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Film Review: 22 July

November 18, 2018 Leave a comment

22 July (2018; Directed by Paul Greengrass)

The latest tense, clear-eyed, cinema verité-style current-affairs drama from English filmmaker Paul Greengrass treads with a mixture of technical confidence and intellectual hesitance onto the sensitive ground of one of the most shocking and heinous acts of violent political terrorism of our age. The director of painfully direct dramatizations of massacres from the Irish Troubles and the hijackings of cargo ships off the Horn of Africa and U.S. airliners on 9/11 (to say nothing of the two finest of the comparatively light and frothy Jason Bourne films), Greengrass now takes on the 2011 Norway attacks orchestrated by far-right fanatic Anders Behring Breivik, which resulted in 77 deaths and exposed a dark, extremist underbelly in one of the world’s most prosperous and peaceful nations.

Shooting in Norway with a Norwegian cast and crew (but completely in English), Greengrass draws out the narratives of two main natives of the Scandinavian nation embroiled in the events as foils to the chillingly methodical mass murderer Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie). Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gravli) is the popular, politically idealistic son of a local politician from the northern archipelago of Svalbard. Viljar was in attendance at the summer camp retreat for members of the Workers’ Youth League (a sort of leadership club affiliated to Norway’s Labour Party, then in governmental power) on Utøya Island when it was attacked by Breivik, who targetted the children attendees as future leading lights of what considered the country’s “Marxist elite”. Viljar saw some of his best friends die and was himself badly wounded by multiple gunshots. 22 July follows the physical and psychological agony of his recovery and his preparation for an eventual in-court victim statement against Breivik and his beliefs, delivered before the killer’s watchful gaze. An inside view of Breivik’s legal defence is provided through his lawyer, Geir Lippestad (Jon Øigarden), who does his civic duty as a solicitor in defending a man that he soon comes to view with contempt at some personal cost to him and his family.

22 July (the title is the date of the attacks, and would be recognized by any contemporary Norwegian as a 9/11-type shorthand for the traumatic event) therefore is more of a genre-crossing affair than is usual for Greengrass. The pained personal drama of Viljar’s struggles is set against the courtroom drama of Breivik’s trial and the plot twists of his defence: never denying that he carried out both the Utøya massacre and the bombing of a government building in Oslo that provided a distraction for his island assault, Breivik is declared mentally unfit to be tried by one examination and then mentally fit for another, deciding that escaping life imprisonment is better but then shifting gears and deciding that being declared insane would invalidate his political mission. The last two acts of 22 July build dramatically to Viljar’s testimony in a way that lends the impression that only he can effectively repudiate Breivik’s hate. But ultimately both his and Lippestad’s arcs are better understood as case studies in civic engagement and moral principle, as statements of democratic strength and solidity in the face of a terrible eruption of viciously fascistic weakness that seeks to destabilize that strength and solidity.

These stories spiral out of the riveting, unsettling opening-act depiction of the attacks themselves, and, truth be told, stand in uncomfortable disequilibrium with it. This first section of 22 July unfolds with masterfully crafted tension as an extended sequence of crescendoing dread and horror, as Breivik’s execution of his heinous plan is intercut with the reactions of government authorities and Viljar’s parents in Oslo and the children at Utøya, their joy at each other’s company at their safe and happy camp transitioning to shocking shaky-cam violence and death. This is Greengrass working at the peak of his powers with all the tools in his filmmaking kit, and it’s a stunning, galvanizing experience. But, as in Captain Phillips and United 93, it comes with a sense of disquiet and hesitation for a thoughtful viewer. How do we feel at being so effectively moved (manipulated, even) by the cinematic language of the Hollywood thriller, language that serves to enthrall and frighten us, in the context of a real-life act of deadly terrorism that still is of such horrible proximity?

Greengrass appends Viljar’s hopeful story (as well as that of a friend of his from an immigrant family, whose positions in Norway are particular targetted by far-right campaigns of terror) as an antidote to Breivik’s hate. But his film sweats and strains through genres at which he is less prodigiously skilled to catch up to the powerful vision of contemporary terror constructed in the first act. A film ostensibly about an act of violent hate and oppression being defeated by hope and love and freedom gives the former too much potency early on for the latter to overcome when it gets its chance to counterattack.

One wonders if more could have been done by Anders Danielsen Lie, who gives the film’s sole fine performance as Breivik. Lie gives this extremist a mask of self-possession and confidence in his righteousness that shifts almost imperceptively into brittle, pompous isolation as an entire nation summons the fortitude to prove him wrong. But could not Breivik’s insufferable faux-medieval cosplaying as a proud paladin of the European master race, his pretentious manifesto, his clueless Nazi salutes in the courtroom have been further defused by rendering them as ridiculous as they truly are (the latest season of ITV’s detective drama Shetland achieved this in blunt but effective terms, with Douglas Henshall’s steely-eyed DI Jimmy Perez tearing down a Norwegian far-right agent’s suggestion that Breivik was a hero by exclaiming, “He lived with his mum!”)? The President of Norway’s and law enforcement’s deft disarming of his ludicrous demand to suspend all immigration to Norway lest his brothers in the Knights Templar unleash a second attack (of course, Breivik was always very alone) comes close to achieving this, and both Viljar’s testimonial diminishment of Breivik’s convictions and Lippestad’s unambiguous blowing off of further contact with his client after his conviction are mildly satisfying. But Greengrass is no satirist; indeed, it’s hard to think of a more self-serious working filmmaker than him, and the sharp, subtle knife of anti-fascist humour is not to be found in his toolkit.

As with all of Greengrass’ pictures, the highly-specified realism of 22 July does not preclude consideration of contemporary sociopolitical concerns but does tend to render them ancillary to the action. There is a strong case to be made, possibly one carrying the risk of folk-anti-hero valourization, that Anders Behring Breivik is one of the most evil people alive today; 22 July generally makes it. This is because of his mass-murderous choice of actions, of course, but is he not also evil because of his ideological beliefs and convictions? After all, men who believe essentially what Breivik believe, who share his broader anxieties and sociopolitical goals, have served (and still serve) in the White House of Donald J. Trump. That they haven’t adopted his methods, haven’t built bombs or fixed teenagers in the sight of a semi-automatic assault rifle and pulled the trigger, to get what they want is a matter of a confluence of factors to tangled and interdependent to easily unravel (22 July, like many considerations of violent terrorism, does not consider with any depth the self-amplifying feedback loop of sociology, ideology and psychology that warps dissatisfied men into sociopathic monsters). It does not absolve them of the consequences of the policies they pursue, which may, in the longer run, damage and extinguish the lives of many more people than Breivik personally slaughtered or traumatized.

22 July offers a glow of neoliberal hope to counter the authoritarian bigotry of Breivik and his hard-right fellow travellers. But as is so often the case right now, it leaves us wondering if this glow is quite enough. Norway’s is a social democracy with more emphasis on the social than Canada and certainly than the U.S., which has embraced its allied Prime Minister’s infamous pronouncement that there is no such thing as a society. The social safety net and general stability of the Scandinavian social democracies in general but Norway in particular (the offshore oil money certainly helps) serves as a frequent model for American and Canadian liberals arguing for similar policies in their own capital-captured countries. Anders Behring Breivik’s horrid act of terrorism suggested that whatever advantages this model carries, it is subject to the save cleavages of white supremacist prejudice that have afflicted the North American democracies through their history down to today. Paul Greengrass suggests in 22 July that to defeat such raging but marginal forces, a re-assertion of the principles of democratic principles (Norwegian or otherwise) in a new multicultural age are required. One hopes that he is correct at the same time as one doubts the depth of his consideration of these problems in this uneven but potent film, whose strengths lie in the visceral but rarely in the higher faculties.

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Categories: Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Dune

November 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Dune (1984; Directed by David Lynch)

Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 science fiction novel Dune is one of the most influential works of the genre, and indeed of American popular culture, of the century past. But it only barely feels like it. Herbert’s involved world-creation, synthesis of older global mythologies and narrative tropes, and invocation of political currents and ideas contemporary and historical in Dune not only set the standard for popular literary sci-fi but was a major formative influence (or a source of shamelessly pillaged material for it, depending on your point of view) on George Lucas’ Star Wars, the true colossus of American pop culture of the past half-century.

Dune, in comparison to its marketplace-astriding genre progeny at least, has come to feel like a boutique piece of niche interest and dated importance. This is almost certainly because it has proven stubbornly difficult to bring to the screen and has therefore not stepped far beyond its page-bound generic detention cell. A pair of high-rated and award-winning Syfy television miniseries around the turn of the millennium are generally agreed to be the best filmed adaptations of Herbet’s Dune series, but they remain in this genre jail by their very nature (perhaps today, in a cultural landscape where serialized television is challenging film’s cultural primacy, they might have slipped through the bars).

Until we see what Quebeçois impresario Denis Villeneuve has in mind for the material in his forthcoming (likely two-film) version of the initial Dune novel, the best that the big screen can do for Herbert’s classic is David Lynch’s notoriously compromised 1984 release. This film rose from the ashes of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s astoundingly ambitious mad-scientist vision for Dune, which collapsed without funding in the mid-1970s but directly transformed into Ridley Scott’s Alien shortly thereafter. Emblazoned with the imposing imprimatur of Hollywood mega-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the sharply contrasting directorial credit of the extremely idiosyncratic David Lynch, this Dune was not necessarily doomed from conception, but a mélange of creative choices, production and editorial interference, and technological limitations does it in fatally.

Set some eighty centuries in the future, Dune tells the epic tale of a galactic rivalry of powerful aristocratic houses over the most valuable commodity in the universe, a mysterious resource known as spice. Spice can be refined into a powerful narcotic-like substance which extends life, expands consciousness, and allows interplanetary travel, but it can only be mined on the desert planet of Arrakis (a.k.a. Dune). Long the domain of the sinister House Harkonnen and its corpulent, depraved, sore-encrusted Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan), Arrakis is handed over to the honourable, martially-minded House Atreides and its leader Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow) as part of a complex double-cross by the universe’s Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer), who seeks to eliminate the Atreides generally by allowing the Harkonnens to arrange a devastating ambush but whose true target is the Duke’s son and heir, Paul (Kyle MacLachlan). The Emperor has been warned by a spice-imbibing Spacing Guild Navigator (deformed by years of spice exposure, this one is visualized as a floating brain-slug with a mouth disturbingly like a vaginal opening) that Paul Atreides might have messianic powers and could prove a greater threat to the old man’s rule than even his popular father the Duke.

The dominoes begin to fall even before House Atreides is established on Arrakis, and soon (but maybe not soon enough, given the film’s top-heavy pacing) Paul is on the run from the Harkonnens on the sand dunes, which are infested with enormous worms the size of ocean liners and inhabited by obscure spice-connected people known as the Fremen with their own plans for Dune and for the future of spice extraction. Considering the obvious truncation in editing boiling down to two hours a film that would be far better at nearer to three, Lynch (working from his own script) does an admirable job in the info-heavy expository first act. It can be a bit stiff as info-dumps in this genre have a habit of being, but the world-building effort is aided immensely by the fanciful production design and detailed costumes (the film was shot in Mexico City of all places, using 80 sets, and the expense and effort shows). The key matter is that the players, stakes, and forces at play are well-established when the Harkonnen net falls on the Atreides.

Unfortunately, it’s in the last hour or so that Dune runs off the rails. This is partly due to the action-heavy later acts falling victim to greater editing compression and partly due to its reliance on special effects that, despite being the absolute state of the art in the early 1980s, fall woefully short of convincingly depicting the epic scale of the narrative events. Observers objecting to the age of CGI ought to be asked to account for why they feel dodgy combos of optical and practical effects like this are better. Lynch’s odd choice to make characters’ inner thoughts audible hardly helps; a common narrative practice in genre fiction, it is employed on film with little thought to how jarring it can be (especially when applied across the board, in major and minor characters alike, to emphasize key points but also tangential and quickly-forgotten observations and emotions).

Lynch makes some such errors, certainly, and he doesn’t get the support he needs from the effects or the requirements of the editorial overseers or indeed from his cast (MacLachlan became a legendary Lynch favourite but he’s adrift here, while recognizable faces from Ferrer and Prochnow to Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, Brad Dourif, Sean Young, and even Sting drop in and out as needed). But it has to be said that Herbert’s themes, some of them feeling rather dated, do him no favours either. Neither the spice-related elements of drug addiction nor environmental and societal implications of imperialist resource-exploitation get much play from Lynch’s plot-focused script, and the rampant white-saviour tropes of Paul Atreides becoming a messianic leader to the indigenous insurrectionary Fremen are taken at absolute face value (and largely neutralized by the Fremen being cast entirely as white folks as well).

Of course, even Herbert could not have anticipated that some of the then-obscure Persian, Arabic, Islamic, and Kabbalistic Jewish terms that he pillages for his Dune world (namely the Fremen’s belief in a holy war, or jihad) would take on wider cultural prominence and newer and more sinister meanings decades later. Lynch, never an artist with a particularly keen focus on the nuances and contradictions of politics and history, does not strain to process the implications of Herbert’s ideas. Lynch is a visualist who encodes his meanings in images and prefers his words to be gnomically poetic or defamiliarizingly comedic (which is why Twin Peaks remains his defining work, being grounded in both of these poles). Dune is source material that greatly rewards the former but requires greater skills of writing synthesis than the latter displays. It is also, it must be said, not ambiguous in terms of intellectual intention or moral justice. Lynch is less interested in Dune‘s mythologically-derived moral playgrounds, and immerses himself instead in its imaginative realms. Dune, it seems, requires more than David Lynch can bring to it, or could bring to under constrained circumstances in the early 1980s at least, to be successful. Perhaps this is more of a statement to its core potency than box-office returns or large-scale cultural penetration can provide.

Categories: Film, Reviews