11 February 2013
According to Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects will be his last film — for a while, at least. “The tyranny of narrative is starting to frustrate me,” he explained to New York Magazine not long ago about his decision to do other forms of art. “Or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”
I want to celebrate that decision. Just because Soderbergh’s so good at his craft doesn’t mean the work is necessarily enjoyable to him year after year. Anyone who’s read the Harry Hole novels by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø can see that you can be eminently skilled at something and yet find that your job is slowly killing you. And so, upon seeing this last Soderbergh film and wrangling for the last 24 hours with its ending … well, I think I’m okay with his taking a break.
After seeing the film with superior friend and excellent human being Aldine, we sidled up to a bar to debrief. (The timing of our debriefing was important, as we planned to follow up by stuffing ourselves so full of Ethiopian food as to be incapable of higher thought). The bartender asked if the film was good. What does one say to those questions?
Here’s a provisional answer: there’s a sweet spot in the film, during its second quarter or so, when you have no idea where the story is going. It keeps tipping out of your reach, tempting you with possibilities and then feinting in new directions. Is this going to be a story about a Lazy Psychologist? about the Bad Pharmaceutical Industry? about the Guilt And Responsibility? about the Subconscious Gone Wrong? When I say sweet spot, I mean that I stepped out of myself for the moment and wondered if this was going to be the best thriller ever.
I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? you see, this is how the tyranny of narrative works; I started telling you about Soderbergh’s last film, and then started telling you about the bartender who wanted to know whether it was good — and all because that’s how it followed in my life (except for the intervening 24 hours, in which Aldine and I had a successful trip to Nieman Marcus and drank more cocktails). I should at least offer up a squib of the film’s plot. A proper film comment always lays out the plot.
How’s this: Emily (Rooney Mara, looking not at all like a girl with a dragon tattoo) brings her husband home from prison after a term for insider trading, but all the while she’s slipping into a terrible depression, a “hopelessness,” she calls it. Not that anyone would doubt it, with her big eyes and little-girl teeth and pale, pale skin. In one particularly grim moment, she gets into her car and drive straight into a brick wall. In another even better moment, she accompanies her husband to an uncomfortable cocktail party on a yacht with some of his former colleagues, only to see herself distorted in a mirror and lose it.
The psychologist who takes her case, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), earnestly seeks out appropriate pharmaceutical help by ticking through a list of anti-depressants, many of which she has taken and rejected in the past for their debilitating side effects; he even consults with her prior psychiatrist Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones, doing an exaggerated version of “I am a professional”). Eventually they settle on a new one called Ablixa (oh, lordy, how I love that minor plot point alone).
Ablixa’s awesome. Emily gets her sex drive back, enjoys happy days in the park with her husband, and ceases feeling nauseated. The only side effect is an alarming tendency to sleepwalk. And thus the film hustles us toward that perfect sweet spot of the second 30 minutes or so, as it establishes a dark undertone to the narrative, gives us a horrifying scene of violence, and proceeds to pull us in different directions as the director inspires you with the pleasure of trying to guess where it’s going.
Now, I’ll tell you what I told the bartender: yes, it’s good. You always know when you walk in to a Soderbergh film that you’re going to be interested, that the cinematography will be unusually evocative, and that he’ll offer up some surprises.
But what I found so odd about Side Effects — and so disappointing — were the specific ways the film ultimately commits to a storyline, and the film’s overall determination to be as crystal clear as possible. And as that narrative emerges in all its clarity, you can’t help but feel disappointed. Not least because it trots out some old chestnuts (I won’t reveal them here, but honestly, Steven?); but most of all because you feel as if Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, decided the whole story needed to be over-explained and wrapped up in an excessively tidy box with a bow, as if it was no longer a thriller about the unknowns of real life but in fact a repackaged Ocean’s Eleven in which we have clear good and bad guys.
Now, I get it about the tyranny of narrative. Even in the academic business we create narratives, so often adhering to one genre or another. But what I don’t understand is why someone in Soderbergh’s position would feel so tied to tidy, wrap-it-all-up tales given the vast storytelling creativity out there (to wit, this year’s The Master). I consider Soderbergh to be one of the most creatively free directors out there. Why doesn’t he experiment with alternative endings?
I’m complaining, and yet what he does with that early portion of the film — he toys with us in a way that’s so enjoyable to watch that I’m already looking forward to his return to directing.
One more note: during our drunken debriefing Aldine wanted to know my favorite Soderbergh films, but my phone’s battery had died and we couldn’t remember all of our favorites without internet assistance. So here’s a short list of mine, in rough order:
- Out of Sight (1998) — totally my favorite Soderbergh ever.
- Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
- Erin Brockovich (2000)
- The Informant! (2009)
- The Limey (1999)
- Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Looking forward to seeing you back sometime soon, Steven, once you’ve got your groove back.
Remember Blue Crush (2002)? Kate Bosworth as a Hawaiian surfer who works as a hotel maid and is sorta-kinda working her way back to serious surfing competition with the help of her tough-love friend Michelle Rodriguez? The film spent a lot of time showing us beautiful bodies and truly great, beautiful shots of surfing & Hawaii, while offering up an “I’m not ruling it out” relationship to feminism (aside from a couple of really stunningly great lines, but that’s another matter). It also sported a pretty interesting relationship to class and sex if you could be distracted from the hot bodies long enough to notice. There was just enough dramatic tension to hold the whole thing together, and it remains a better-than-okay thing to catch on TV on a Saturday afternoon.
Sigh. In too many similar ways, Magic Mike follows suit with predictable (yet not cheesy enough) plot points and a general lack of commitment to any one vision. (And certainly not enough to be the Citizen Kane of male stripper movies.) The renowned director Sidney Lumet’s eloquent book, Making Movies, reminds us of the simple question every director must answer before beginning: what is this film about? I don’t think Soderbergh would have an answer.
Steven Soderbergh made Magic Mike with the same cool vibe as Blue Crush — it resists going too far down any particular path, but flirts with a number of them. It’s not nearly the cheesy romp you might expect/ hope for (sigh x 2), considering the male stripper subject matter, and despite every single appearance by Matthew McConaughey (and after laughing at him, you want to wash your hands).
Also: it’s not nearly as gay as it ought to be. I was afraid that’d be the case (sigh x 3). Even though it shows men touching one another and loving one another — “Hey, Mike, I think we should be best friends,” Adam (Alex Pettyfer) says with unfiltered gushiness — it spends more time trying to get nervous laughs from its straight viewers from some of those scenes. And let’s not forget that it shows so much straight sex that, frankly, this straight girl got a little bored; I preferred the dancing, which suggests a broader, pan-sexual range. Its sole openly gay actor, Matt Bomer (as one of the strippers) is, oddly, the sole character portrayed as married in the film.
In fact, the gay potential is so subdued that you have to go looking for it — which makes no sense for a film like this. I mean, all those shots of bulbous, perfectly hairless butt cheeks? The Village People-style outfits/ personae the dancers don for their routines? The scene of Mike (Channing Tatum) and Adam shopping for thongs?
On the plus side, goddamn that Channing Tatum can dance. I’ve never cared for him — and his acting/ face still leave me meh — but dude can grind. The dance sequences rock, even when they’re ensemble routines that include the strippers who can’t dance for shit. The choreography of those strip routines is creative and occasionally hilarious and make up for a lot of the film’s shortcomings; there’s just not enough of them. I still doubt I’ll ever be a fan of Tatum’s, but watching him dance was sometimes jaw-droppingly fun, almost to the point that I might have to check out Step Up (2006) to see what he does beyond the male stripping métier.
So why does the film feel so scattershot?
First, the filming style is ambivalent about its relationship to the audience’s gaze. On this point I chime in with bloggers Dark Iris and Alex over at Film Forager about distancing tactics. About half the dance sequences are filmed from a distance — sometimes a crazy far distance — resulting in a weirdly untitillating style of camerawork, to paraphrase Iris.
Dark Iris wonders whether the filmmaker tried to be respectful of the male dancers’ privacy, and perhaps as a nod to the odd (nervous) straight guy who wanders in. Alex wonders about all that audience giggling:
The ladies in the audience (both the one onscreen and in the real-life theater) are giggling like crazy. Is this because we’re uncomfortable with all that sexual energy being directed at us, since usually it’s the other way around?
Whatever’s going on, it’s clear that Soderbergh wants to make his viewers self-conscious of the fact they’re watching strippers — registering with all that nervous giggling and those long shots (just when you want a closer look at Pettyfer in that cowboy outfit) what a strange phenomenon male strip clubs are, with their screaming women and/ or gay men.
That’s what’s weird, right? The many degrees of separation between truth and fiction, lived experience and virtuality, the titillating and yet distancing camera. This story is sort of based on Tatum’s real life, but he was the Adam character, not Mike. How many women in my audience would never, never, ever go to a real-life male stripper show, even if it had Channing Tatum in it? Yet they showed up in packs at my theater, all squealing and hooting — truly, the best part of watching this film was the fact that the audience insisted it live up to its promise to be hot.
You can’t watch this film without thinking how much safer it is to go see this stuff in a cinema with your friends rather than drive out to that skeezy place on Route 365. It’s safer because you’re not implicated in the watching. Magic Mike shows just as many screaming, stunned, drunken women as it does great dance numbers, reflecting back on its cinema viewers their own faces. So the film gets marketed heavily to women and gay men due to its representations of dance scenes in the club — and we all dutifully file in — but it’s so anxious not to replicate the scene of the club that it turns a mirror on us?
I’ve spent a goodly amount of time thinking about this and can’t figure out what the rationale would be to pull back from the cheesy/ titillating dance scenes. There’s no larger point the film is trying to make about the audience’s gaze.
Now, I shouldn’t give the impression that the dance scenes fail to be titillating altogether. In fact, one of the most stunning things about Tatum’s dancing is his bumping and grinding and mimicking really banging sex onstage. It’s just that once the film shows some of those full-on sexy dance routines, it backs away from the implications of those scenes to cool off — like with some chill scenes at the beach, or Mike working at all his other jobs, or actual sex scenes that are just boring compared to that the simulated sex onstage. The Magic Mike persona is the sex fantasy; the real Mike is a mensch.
“Am I Magic Mike talking to you right now?” he demands of Adam’s sister Brooke, the sort-of love interest, during a fight. “I am not my lifestyle.” But he kind of is. And he’s actually a lot more interesting when he’s Magic Mike than when he’s just Mike. Brooke fires back, “Do you believe what you’re saying right now?” The audience thinks, yawn, now please do some dancing.
The second disconnected thing about the film is its uncertainty about the self-made man narrative — the way it gestures at telling a story about being a man during a terrible economy, about working as hard as you can to realize a dream and still failing — but the writing/ filming never really commits itself to that purpose. Mike is working about three and a half jobs so that he can work his way up to doing what he wants to do: building custom coffee tables. (Tables that are really ugly. Anyway, a dream’s a dream, I guess.)
That same Runnin’ Toward A Dream theme undergirded Blue Crush, as did the threat that our hero might get distracted away from it. Except that whereas in Blue Crush her desire to compete seriously in surfing competition gave the film a goodly part of its feminist potential, Magic Mike is about dudes, and it’s about a post-financial crash America.
And there’s something crazy that happens toward the end of Magic Mike. ***SPOILERS AHEAD***
The film holds up Mike as a kind of idealized Everyman — he’s hotter than shit (or so the film tells us), works like a dog, saves his money, looks out for his little buddy Adam, and is ultimately the male stripper with a heart of gold.
But (and here’s the spoiler): Mike fails. He’s no self-made man; he’s a schlemiel.
In Blue Crush, Kate Bosworth loses the competition but (like Rocky) she really won because she proved something to herself. She even got rid of the lame-ass guy because he was getting in the way of her dream. Magic Mike reverses all those narratives. He finds that no matter how hard he works, he can’t win. His own niceness gets in the way; he learns he can’t control the behavior of a young gun like Adam. He can’t even get paid decently by his supposed partner at the club, even though Dallas (McConaughey) wants him to move to Miami to set up a new club.
Finally, defeated and distressed, he turns to Brooke for a real person to talk to — and she (finally) propositions him before he can say much of anything. Having gotten them to the point of having sex, the film ends abruptly. WTF?
What’s weird is that it’s a girl ending. Well, to be fair, a real girl ending would have her reluctantly face the end of her dreams just as the handsome guy proposes to her, and she rapturously accepts. Even Blue Crush wouldn’t go there — it’s so retrograde as narratives go. But in having Magic Mike end that way, it weirdly feminizes Mike — turns him into the girl whose dreams aren’t important enough to overshadow love with the right person.
Now, there are a lot of things about the current economy that make men (and women) feel helpless, or perhaps forced to choose between chasing the dollar at any expense of one’s moral code. The financial crisis turned all of us into girls, too afraid to leave our bad jobs lest we lose our health insurance and never find another one. On some level we’re all working girl jobs, hating our bosses and feeling desperate for the lack of options.
If only this narrative felt intentional, brilliant, purposeful, a statement about manliness in the modern world. Instead it feels like a punt. Mike faces a genuine crisis, seeks out the one person whom he feels might help him find answers, and she proposes they go to bed. In other words, the film kind of says he really is just a sex object — Brooke ignores his personal crisis, or (worse) she assumes that sex will resolve it all.
In 2002 I walked out of Blue Crush feeling ridiculously disappointed — I was full of mixed feelings just as I was after seeing this film. But in the years since when I’ve caught 30 minutes or so of it on Saturday afternoon TV, I always find myself viewing it with fondness — an affection for its willingness to open up to other narrative possibilities. I’ve stopped blaming it for its weaknesses, its missed chances.
Will I feel the same way about Magic Mike? Will I laugh again at those crazy dance numbers, at those plastic male bodies onstage and their screaming white lady-fans? Will I see that Soderbergh is attempting to say something more profound about manliness, gender, or the female/ gay male gaze?
I’m honestly not sure. But the film’s generally cool, laid-back aesthetic — punctuated with hot dance scenes — will probably get better on second viewing. And who knows? Once I stop approaching it with other expectations, it might grow on me. (Heh: I said grow on me.)
Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself: she’s watching films like Magic Mike and Ted? Mainstream comedies in regular theaters oriented to general audiences?! Has this blog been hijacked by an evil-minded imposter?
(I admit: in retrospect it appears that watching Ted at the theater goes against all my principles. All I can say is that my friends chose it.)
But I must defend my anticipation of Magic Mike — because it’s being eagerly anticipated by so many of my favorite gay and/or female film critics, including Louis Virtel’s videos The Weeklings:
[Sidebar: I’m relatively new to The Weeklings, but I have now scanned about one-third of these 2- to 4-minute videos and they’re so quick-witted that sometimes you have to watch the videos 2 or 3 times to absorb everything. To wit: the episode in which Louis Virtel takes issue with moron Adam Carolla’s views on whether women are funny. Or when he proposes to do a proper interview with Anderson Cooper about coming out — his list of questions is genius! “How do you feel about forcing straight kids to come out as uninteresting?” Or when he joins the rest of his troupe, The Gay Beatles — oh, the episode in which they explain which Beatle they would be … which leads them to explain which member of Sex and the City they would be, or which Cosby Kid, or which Fanta Girl….]
But back to the issue at hand: Magic Mike. Because I believe it is my duty as a woman — nay, as a human being — to hand over my money to see a film about male strippers. I fully expect that within a few days’ time, I will be back reporting that Magic Mike is, indeed, the Citizen Kane of male stripper films.
I confess: that is not my line. It really belongs to film critic extraordinaire, Libby Gelman-Waxner.
My most secret and powerful desire might be to get paid to write film reviews not just with a nom de plume, but an entirely made-up persona like hers. When I was in college I discovered Gilman-Waxner’s genius reviews in Premiere magazine. She is a middle-aged wife of a dentist, mother, suburban New Yorker, and buyer for the juniors department (also: “she” is secretly screenwriter/ humorist Paul Rudnick). She’s always spot-on with her criticism, like when she describes Daniel Craig in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: “He wore reading glasses, which on a dreamy guy like Daniel are the male equivalent of a nurse’s uniform or a schoolgirl kilt.” In short, Libby is the perfectly melded combination of gay man and straight woman.
That’s the real secret, you see: Magic Mike represents the sweet spot where the interests of people like Libby Gelman-Waxner, The Weeklings, and Feminéma converge. Libby and I agree that there’s basically zero chance I will not enjoy this movie. Moreover, it is SO much fun to anticipate seeing it. I mean, just listen to her imagine the possible plot points:
And I’m praying that one guy is stripping his way through medical school, and that another guy gets drunk and falls off the runway, and that finally all of the strippers pull together and become a family and strip to rebuild a local orphanage, and that someone declares, “We’re gonna help those kids because, dammit, that’s what male strippers do.”
I mean, what’s the worst that can happen? I walk out and say, “The dancing was awesome, but it wasn’t gay enough.”
Want to know what I concluded after seeing it? Here’s the answer!
17 September 2011
Didion: Hollywood has some oddities, and the biopic/advocacy picture is one of them: those films based on true-life accounts of ordinary individuals who encounter, and decide to address, some kind of horror. Think of Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), in which the titular character comes to realize that a Pacific Gas & Electric station had knowingly poisoned the water near one of its stations in a lonely community out in the southeast California desert. Or Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), in which a generally nonpolitical hotelier seeks to save his fellow citizens from the exploding Hutu/Tutsi civil war, a genocide ignored by most of the world.
The biopic/advocacy picture is often the kind of film that doesn’t forge a lot of new ground cinematically or narratively, yet still seems nicely positioned for awards and prizes because of its role in educating the public about serious matters and offering us a real-life hero.
Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower (2010) faces these same challenges and opportunities. Set in the aftermath of the mid-90s Bosnian War, where the American ex-police Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) has gone to work temporarily with the UN peacekeeping mission, the film traces her gradual transformation from a contract employee to a serious adversary on the subject of violence against women and sex trafficking. Like so many heroes of biopic/advocacy films, Bolkovac is no freedom fighter — she’s taken the (highly lucrative) job because it allows her to earn the money that will allow her to move to Texas, where her ex-husband has moved with their daughter. Yet when she comes across a savagely beaten wife being dismissed by a group of Serbian police working alongside the UN peacekeepers, she becomes infuriated and fights to get the husband convicted. Even still, she sees this as simple good police work, not a crusading mission…until she begins to realize the extent of rampant sex trafficking and sex slavery in the region, likewise being ignored by local authorities, the UN, and a Halliburton-like company (called Democra in the film). Warning: Spoilers ahoy in this conversation!
First-time director Kondracki has written, “When you put together the words Bosnia, peacekeepers and sex-trafficking, people assume it’s going to be either ‘educational’ or ‘important’, in other words: medicinal.” Has she succeeded in moving beyond a “medicinal” film?
I don’t know about you, JMM, but talking about this film requires something more substantial than a beer. I’m drinking my new favorite, a Sidecar (cognac, triple sec, lemon juice), reportedly the only Prohibition-era cocktail that’s still drinkable. And it has the added benefit of the lemon juice, which both evokes summertime and helps me avoid scurvy.
JustMeMike: Can you buy the Sidecar drink pre-mixed, you know, like in the supermarket for a stay-at-home treat? Anyway after seeing the matinee today, I feel like I need to drink a Boxcar — that’s a four pack of Sidecars. The Burns Court Cinema had what could be called a sparse crowd today for their opening screening of this film which was at 2:15 PM — maybe a dozen and half people. When the film ended, the “crowd”, that’s stretching the truth, was silent as we filed out. It felt like we had all been beaten up. I know what I was thinking — am I a member of the same gender as those sex traffickers? So I am setting the table to say that the film was a lot to take in, and it made me angry.
Didion: Yeah, the only downside of the Sidecar is that the lemon juice thins out the alcohol required to recover from the unmitigated horrors of sexual violence depicted here.
I have mixed feelings: on the one hand, I think it’s good that people might leave the theater angry about what they’ve seen. It’s particularly frustrating here, as the UN and the Halliburton-like Democra seem jointly concerned that the scandal not affect their reputations. On the other hand, I’m not sure what we’re supposed to do with that anger. Does the movie tell us?
JustMeMike: Well my anger actually bounces back and forth from grand to a much a smaller scale. So I’ll table your comment about the private contractors for the moment. I’m upset that Kondracki has painted such a bleak picture about the sex-trafficking and then hasn’t built a very good film around it. Seems to me that Bolkovac should have been in greater danger as a direct threat to the status quo. But a few muttered threats on the phone aren’t exactly scary. That was all we got. I never felt that Bolkovac was in peril. The direct result of that is that our anxiety for her is lowered.
Didion: So long as we’re staying on the big-picture level, I’ll confess that there were elements I just didn’t believe — which is too bad given that Kondracki has spoken about the extensive research she did on the subject and Bolkovac’s tale in particular. Here’s what I had trouble with: I totally believed that sex trafficking might be so pervasive, and I believed it might be rife with violence toward women. But I had a harder time believing that once Bolkovac started to uncover the complicity of UN officials and Democra employees, those individuals didn’t back off and close down their activities in Sarajevo.
The film tells us that above all, these men are brutal, evil misogynists so utterly depraved that they’re willing to risk their whole enterprise — they’re so eager to keep savaging their sex slaves that they put their lucrative operation in danger, even going so far as to recruit a major UN official to risk his career facing off with Bolkovac. I feel as if I ought to be her ideal viewer (that is, I fully believe such misogyny exists), but instead she lost me with such exaggerated bad guys.JustMeMike: Good point. Seems a bit off, doesn’t it? The whistleblower is doing her thing, tooting her whistle, and they say, never mind, ignore this person — business as usual.
While we are making hay with the negatives, I have another. So Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave just continues to impress me) introduces Bolkovac to Peter Ward (David Straithairn). Rees tell her (and us) that Peter Ward is a good guy — you can trust him. Then Kondracki gives us a big plot twist. Don’t know about you, but I saw that one coming as well as the second twist. Seemed like she might have done better by bringing us in beforehand during the plotting. Anyway, I wasn’t fooled.
Didion: This returns to your earlier point: the film uses some of the oldest tricks in the thriller book, yet leaves gaps in logic — why didn’t we ever feel that Bolkovac was in danger for her life from these guys?
I’ve been thinking back to Hotel Rwanda and how educational it was for me — it made me realize that even if ethnic violence is so complex that outsiders cannot perceive good guys and bad guys, international intervention is necessary to stop massive genocide. As hard as that film was to watch, its message was crystal clear. The Whistleblower certainly raised my feminist hackles and showed me that the UN was so concerned with reestablishing a certain level of normalcy that it purposefully looks away from the issue of violence against women. That’s quite believable, and quite disturbing. But what more are we supposed to learn from this film?
JustMeMike: So who says The Whistleblower is meant to educate — if you mean call attention to the issue of sex-trafficking or violence against women, then certainly, but if you mean the UN looking the other way — then I’m not so sure. Of course it’s disturbing — but even the UN is administered by officials who are in charge of the local situations. So even if the local officials in Bosnia were either playing ostrich or were part of the profit taking — can we safely say that the entity known as the UN is directly responsible? That the blame goes all the way to the top?
Yet I can’t help but agree, that the issue of violence against women is quite disturbing. I wonder if Kondracki’s point is to alert and educate about the continuing violence against women, or to put the UN and private corps on notice that the whole world is watching and will watch even closer, or both?
But you know what’s tragic? I’m never going to watch The Whistleblower again, nor will I watch Hotel Rwanda again — they’re just so gruesome. I guess I’m saying that I did find this film “medicinal,” to use Kondracki’s terms, and that I find these biopic/advocacy films medicinal almost all of the time, which makes me loath to see them. So here’s a question: when these films are, say, less than stellar, does that actually have a negative effect: it makes viewers never want to see these films (and therefore keep their heads in the sand about Important Issues)?
JustMeMike: Whoa! Slow down a bit. I think you’re leaping into an abyss here. It is only a less than stellar film, not truly a film to abhor, and more likely while the film lacks that excellence that we want so much, it shouldn’t cause a pell-mell journey in an opposite direction…
Didion: But remember walking out of the theater with all those viewers stunned into silence? Ugh, who wants to experience that again?
JustMeMike: Guilty as charged your honor, but I meant that as in bruised and battered. If the film was a true dud, or worse, than the crowd would have been in a muttering and grumbling mode. I mean no one was demanding a refund, or saying that the Director’s Guild should rethink Kondracki.
Didion: All right, all right, I promise I’m not saying this is a bad film. It’s actually very effective, as I think both of us have attested, in getting viewers angry. But it’s SO bruising. Really, would you want to see this film again? That’s why I say “medicinal.”
This actually gets back to one of my favorite rants: that filmmakers should never show rape onscreen — and now I want to expand that rant to include violence against women. It’s so horrifying, such that I think film ultimately just stuns the viewer and makes you not know quite what to do with all that horror — when in fact these are horrors that happen to real women and children all the time.
JustMeMike: Wow — I think we could go for hours just on this last statement of yours. While I am agreeing that the rape scene was horrific, I think that the intent was exactly as you described it — to stun and horrify. All for the purpose of making sure we knew exactly how desperate and dire these women’s situations were. But yes, sadly, it went on far too long and was simply too much for most of us to bear. And on that basis — I will not watch the film again any time soon. But I won’t go as far as never again. Let’s revisit that rape and violence against women again later on.
Didion: There’s a less horrific, but more affecting scene in which Bolkovac goes out to the woods to find a woman dead — a woman she’d tried to protect, a woman who’d suffered extreme beatings earlier, a woman she’d persuaded to testify against the traffickers, now killed by them. For the first time, Bolkovac breaks down, even though she’s surrounded by some of the worst corrupt cops and UN employees (who are certainly responsible for the murder): she screams and cries. It’s a striking scene that, for me, completely worked in achieving what you describe: showing her sense of absolute horror at what’s taking place there. It’s a strange scene, too, in that it didn’t provoke me to tears (and everything gets me teary-eyed) — but I felt a true power in the scene.
There’s also a subplot that doesn’t involve Bolkovac: a story of one of the victims’ mothers, who asks her sister-in-law for money to travel to Sarajevo to find her daughter. Very slowly, she comes to realize that her brother is the very person who sold his niece into sex slavery. This, for me, was the plot element that showed how simple greed for money is the core of the entire problem.
JustMeMike: There you go. Weisz breaks down with a combination of horror and guilt after she finds that Irka has been killed. Very potent stuff. I am on board with your thought about Greed for Money being at the core of the entire problem. Greed rarely exists on its own. It generally goes with seeking of power. When combined, there always will be victims.
But let’s take a look at the film the opposite angle. What did we like about the film? I liked Weisz/Bolkovac’s fearlessness and determination. I liked Redgrave’s grace and her soft looking but steely authority. Talk about aging and looking great. Wow. And I liked Straithairn’s beard.
Didion: And let’s specifically note that if at all possible, one really ought to have such piercing, bright blue eyes if one is permitted to age with a magnificent head of silver hair like Redgrave’s. I’d also be willing to watch David Straithairn butter pieces of bread for two hours straight.
Weisz was great — really great. But no matter how good she was, and no matter how she seemed absolutely present for all her scenes, the part didn’t allow her a whole lot of range. Sorry to keep bringing up Erin Brockovich, but that part was kind of delicious in contrast — Bolkovac was much more straight-up police in contrast.
JustMeMike: Since we’ve covered stuff that we didn’t care for, and then we slid over to stuff we did like, I’m wondering if we can find something where there is a divergence of opinion. To start I’ll offer a question — why are these monitors granted diplomatic immunity?
Didion: We do seem to be arriving at an unusual level of agreement on this one. I’m not sure why they’re granted immunity, but we can speculate that it was due to the perceived importance of protecting UN missions in general and perhaps concealing the complicity of higher-ups? Or at the very least protecting the higher-ups from having disregarded Bolkovac’s charges.
The more I think about it, the angrier I become — this film discusses such disturbing and important subjects, and shows how much they’ve been ignored by international overseers like the UN, yet it’s not a tight enough or persuasive enough film to make heads seriously roll. It was also weirdly buried with a late-summer release, as it’s the very furthest thing from a summer film — I mean, it had to compete with Rise of the Planet of the Apes!
JustMeMike: I guess we are still agreeing. The late summer opening may not be so weird. If the producer and releasing company privately feel that the film is flawed, then giving it a bad slot, as well as a limited opening, virtually guarantees a smaller ROI (return on investment). It’s called limiting your down-side because by reducing the number of screens you also reduce the number of physical pieces of film that you need.
How about this as a question: Is there something about Bolkovac’s make-up that we haven’t enough facts for? I mean in her divorce, and it was her second divorce, isn’t it still unusual for the court to decree that the husband got sole custody of the daughter. Why did that happen?
Since we don’t know — are we supposed to guess at a reason — or reasons: Is it possibly that Bolkovac was a woman who took up relationships rather easily? Maybe she slept with other police officers while still married?
And three — we witnessed a phone call from Bolkovac to the daughter — who seemed not to want to talk to her mother. The call ended all too quickly. So what is your take on these three events, either singly, or taken altogether as group?
Didion: Wow, I’ve got two very different responses to the question of Bolkovac’s personal life. The feminist in me says, I want her personal life to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistleblowing. The one thing that seems obvious is that this is a woman who took her job so seriously that it was doubtless detrimental to her relationships. There’s a big moment early on when she decides to stay in Sarajevo rather than return to her daughter — and she decides to stay because she knows she’s doing good work there. Re: her custody agreement, I assumed that, as is becoming more common these days, a judge determined that her ex offered a more stable home life for her daughter than she could (and there’s a reference to her having a poor attorney). If there’s one thing I’ve learned from police procedurals on TV, it’s that cops are often too distracted to make good partners and parents. (Thank you, The Wire.)
I did find, however, that her relationship with the Dutch peacekeeper to be both wholly under-developed and more than a little nerve-wracking. I kept wondering whether he was really a bad guy, whether her leap into that relationship was poorly-considered. I think the filmmaker ultimately didn’t know how much to make this a biopic, how much to make it a thriller, and how much to make it a ripped-from-the-headlines tale. I wished Kondracki had either left out that storyline, or delved in further.
JustMeMike: You said, “As a feminist, I want her personal story to be as irrelevant as possible, because this is really a story about her whistle-blowing.” The underline italics are mine, not yours. But can you clarify that statement. Isn’t this about whistle-blowing? I think that you are right when stating that the whistle-blowing is more important than the personal story — but why is this from the perspective of a feminist, rather than just a perspective?
Didion: It gets back to Erin Brockovich (again), in which the story is humming along and she’s got the new thing going with the hot biker guy next door and she’s figuring out all the details of the PG&E coverup — and then the story screeches to a halt so she can get an earful about how she’s not spending enough time with her children. Message: women who really care about their work are bad mothers. I was furious with that element, because otherwise the film showed a working-class woman who’s given a chance to care about something beyond the usual caregiving blah blah blah.
So if Bolkovac had been portrayed as prone to extramarital sexual relationships with her co-workers and/or not a dedicated enough mother, the film would have engaged in that same kind of preachiness and cheap explanation: “oh, she’s interested in helping these women because she’s kind of a slut!” or, “her work is so absorbing that she’s returning to her old bad habits of being a bad mother!” Films are more inclined to indulge in that kind of cheap explanation with female characters more than with male characters.
Instead, I like the idea that she’s just kind of a normal, straight-laced police officer who’s appalled by the situation she encounters partly because it’s just an example of really bad police work.
JustMeMike: Okay, that works for me. Avoiding the personal story because it would come at the expense of the real story of the whistleblower. Makes sense, especially since you have experienced a similar story and witnessed a derailment because the main story was hijacked for a while.
But that last line is also puzzling. Do you really mean the situation that Bolkovac encounters is an example of bad police work? I have a problem with that. If a narcotics cop busts a drug dealer and confiscates drugs, but keeps a portion of the drugs for his own personal use, or for use in getting confidential informants to snitch, or even for re-sale, is that bad police work, or is that simply criminal behavior? I’d say that the private contractors who were heavily involved in sex trafficking were big-time criminals.
Didion: Whoops: I meant to refer to an early point in the film, when she sees the police failing to go after the wife-beating husband. It’s really early on, when no one suspects anything about the sex trafficking — and what I liked so much was that she seems to approach the issue wholly from the perspective that this is lazy/bad police work. That is, she didn’t respond “as a woman” or from any exaggerated feminine sympathy — she just wanted a crime prosecuted properly.
JustMeMike: Okay, makes sense. And yes, I liked that part very much. She became gung-ho about solving that one, and seeing that justice, or at least an investigation, stepped into the picture.
Didion: I think, after thinking about this for a couple of weeks, I most regret that Kondracki had chosen to make this as much of a thriller as it is. I think this made her inclined to gild the lily — as in, it made her exaggerate plot elements like the way the corrupt UN officials and peacekeepers went to such lengths to humiliate and discredit Bolkovac in order to keep beating and raping women sex slaves. I kept thinking, “Even if that’s true, it’s not believable, and once my trust in the story’s gone, I just don’t know what to do with all those gruesome images of women being beaten.”
JustMeMike: I’m with you on all of that including Kondracki’s decision to make the film into a thriller. Only I won’t go as far as you do. I think (like you) that this was her fundamental mistake. On that basis, I won’t call it a thriller. But I will go as far as to label it a thriller-wannabe.
Didion: I like the mixing of genres on the whole, but I do think here it muddies the waters. Can I ask one more question of you — that is, what do you think this does for Rachel Weisz’s career? I’ve been thinking lately that she’s making some smart choices lately — from The Constant Gardner to The Brothers Bloom to this … she’s good at American accents, and she’s getting a wide range of very smart acting imprinted onto the American conscience (and god knows this is where the movie money is made by international actors). What do you think — was this strategic?
JustMeMike: Absolutely strategic as in well-played. I recall first seeing her in a film about a sniper called Enemy at the Gates. She played a Russian girl called Tania Chernova and she certainly seemed European to me then. Now, she doesn’t seem European at all. I think she’s marvelous — she has the looks, and the smarts, and I think variable roles are her strong suite. By the way, Weisz has a new film coming quite soon — The Dream House — her co-stars are Daniel Craig and Naomi Watts. It is in the horror genre. Coincidentally, and strangely, Craig’s character is guess who — another Peter Ward.
I saw a preview for The Dream House recently — alongside trailers for a number of creepy thrillers (one called Martha Marcy May Marlene [whew!], and the other called Take Shelter, with the always-creepy Michael Shannon). Looks like a damn good Halloween season coming up, if you ask me.
So, JMM, do you have any final thoughts on this one? A quip? Some kind of pun on the idea of whistleblowing?
JustMeMike: Not really… I don’t think this film needs a pun from me. I would recommend the film and despite its flawed structural elements, one can walk away at least pleased that some one, even from the wilderness of Bosnia stood up and blew the whistle. I have a feeling that I should give you the last word so you can get in a final thought about on-screen violence against women. By the way, I’ll be in China for Halloween.
Didion: I’m less enthusiastic about the film overall, and not just because of the on-screen portrayal of violence against women. As much as I appreciate what Weisz and Kondracki wanted to do, it’s not as good a film as I’d like, or effective enough re: advocacy against sex trafficking.
Many thanks, JMM — and let’s keep our eyes peeled for good films coming out this fall that might offer more good conversation — maybe even one of these creepy Halloween flicks.
JustMeMike: Thank you Didion for the enjoyable dialogue. I’m ready and more than willing to toss back a few more Sidecars with you again.
25 May 2011
When I saw this film — in the theater in 1989 — I was on a really early date with the man who became my partner, who (I believed) looked a little bit like James Spader, except not so Hollywood pretty. They both had great hair, truly liked women, and had a bit of softness that gave them immense appeal, especially during those ugly days of George Bush I. My date jumped during the dinner table scene in which Graham (Spader) gets pressured by his old friend John (Peter Gallagher) to get an apartment, and he explains he doesn’t want to have more than one key. “That’s my line!” my date/partner whispered. “I’ve said that a million times!”
The scene is tense. Despite being old college (frat?) buddies, the two men have gone in painfully obvious different directions. I love the way the dialogue progresses to show not just their differences, but how much they discover that they don’t like each other after all those years. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the full film — but that scene (watch the entire sequence here) remains a tight, awkward experience.
Graham. Well, see, right now I have this one key, and I really like that. Everything I own is in my car. If I get an apartment, that’s two keys. If I get a job, maybe I have to open and close once in a while, that’s more keys. Or I buy some stuff and I’m worried about getting ripped off, so I get some locks, and that’s more keys. I just really like having the one key. It’s clean, you know?
John. Get rid of the car when you get your apartment, then you’ll still have one key.
Graham. I like having the car. The car is important.
John. Especially if you want to leave someplace in a hurry.
Graham. Or go someplace in a hurry.
One key. It’s a perfect example of metaphor meeting reality. I have nine keys now — to all the kinds of things Graham eschews. Locks for protection, to a (new) storage space full of things, multiple keys for my job, to anchor me to a house and a car (and my partner’s car too). I’m going to lose some of them for the next year. And while I won’t be able to whittle it down to the ideal one-key life, I’m looking forward to a life that’s clean, you know?