Saturday, May 31, 2008

Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

This is almost totally gone from Los Angeles, so I'm glad I saw it in time, although it's not exactly the kind of film you walk out of smiling.

Before getting to the substance of the film itself, I want to say a little something in appreciation of Errol Morris: his storytelling instincts, his mastery of editing, his interviewing skills, they're all just remarkable and it's a pleasure, independent of the content of the movie itself, to see a film artist working at the top of his game.

As for the film itself, it's probably his best in a decade or so, possibly because I think Morris does better when he can juxtapose multiple storylines and narratives in a single movie, as here and as in The Thin Blue Line or Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, than when he's dealing with a single character, as in Mr. Death or The Fog of War. Morris's perspective is always broad and expansive, and focussing on a single character's flaws, even through their own voice, hasn't been as interesting as seeing the clash of individual perspectives, the contingent, complicated, messy truths that have been the underlying theme of Morris's career.

Standard Operating Procedure is the story of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in central Iraq, where thousands of photos were taken of the military guards demeaning, humiliating, and mentally abusing, the Iraqi prisoners. Morris makes the point that just as there would have been no scandal without these photographs, they also limited the reach of the scandal to those American soldiers who were dumb enough to allow themselves to be captured on film; and that where there's smoke, there's fire, and that the worst atrocities must have only occurred in places where people were smart enough to not allow idiots with cameras around.

I was outraged by the Abu Ghraib situation when it came to light, and I'm sure Morris was as well, but he's smart enough to know that these kind of events don't come out of nowhere, but rather emerge from a set of conditions, rules, culture: put a bunch of young and inexperienced soldiers in a place where they basically have absolute power over a demonized and diminished enemy, allow their superiors to turn a blind eye, add in the stress of long hours and the occasional mortar attack from outside, and the results were pretty much inevitable. What Morris does is make clear that, while the actions of the soldiers were reprehensible, that it's the system that's ultimately to blame. Morris also makes a point of the inherent amorality of human beings: stick a person in a culture where brutality is the norm, and they'll settle into it, even if beforehand and after the fact they understand what they did wrong.

The movie's biggest shock, for me at least, isn't the elaboration of the human pyramids or genital-pointing, but the determination of which prisoner treatments were illegal and which were acceptable: the revelation that the prisoner who had wires wrapped around his fingers and was forced to stand on a box, beyond a puddle of water, for countless hours out of fear of electrocution, we are told, is 'standard operating procedure' to 'soften up' a prisoner for purposes of interrogation. Amazing, but true.

All this is structured by Morris in a series of fascinating interviews, where the participants are allowed plenty of rope to hang themselves (one former guard whose military career was ruined for witnessing abuses and not reporting them out of loyalty to his fellow soldiers laments, "I guess that's what you get for being a nice guy") and the occasional reenactment, shot in a stylized, distanced, indirect manner by master cinematographer Robert Richardson, plus an uncharacteristically elegant score by Danny Elfman.

I haven't seen a lot of the many Iraq War documentaries of the last few years, but this is now my favorite thanks to Morris's thoughtful perspective and his lack of interest in making it a simplistic anti-administration screed. It's the kind of film that actually has meaning above and beyond its immediate moment.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Harvey Korman, 1927-2008

Wow, this year people are really dropping like flies. I'll always primarily remember Harvey Korman from the Carol Burnett show (which I saw in syndicated reruns) and in a bunch of Mel Brooks movies. He was one of the great character actors, with perfect comic timing and totally unafraid to do or say incredibly silly things.

And of course, we'll always remember him from the Star Wars Holiday Special.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mon Oncle (1958) & Playtime (1967)

One of the greatest things about living in Los Angeles is the opportunity to see a lot of movies on film prints that are only available to most of the rest of the country on DVD - it definitely makes up for the traffic and pollution. Once or twice a year the American Cinematheque will show 70mm prints of a selection of movies, usually including stuff like 2001, Apocalypse Now, and Jacques Tati's Playtime. While I've been a big fan of Tati's M. Hulot's Holiday for years and years, I had somehow never seen any of his other films, so I went down to Santa Monica this last Sunday to catch up.

Playtime is the kind of film that, after seeing it for the first time in 70mm, you wonder how you ever got along without it. It's a spectacular achievement, a reconstruction from the ground up of what modern life in Paris felt like in the 1960s, reconfigured and choreographed into a gentle comic ballet. Tati constructed entire office buildings and streets in a Paris backlot, shot for something like three years, went bankrupt, but emerged with this amazing film.

When I see people commenting lately about the Wachowski brothers 'reinventing cinema' with Speed Racer and its frenetic rush of images, I want to counter with this film, which has a very leisurely editing pace but crams so many characters and activities and motivations into every frame. One film scholar has said that the film not only needs to be seen multiple times, but from multiple different areas of the theater, to be fully appreciated, which sounds right to me, especially in the madcap hour-long sequence set inside a fancy restaurant on opening night in which all hell breaks loose.

Afterwards I watched the DVD of Tati's Mon Oncle, which is set partially in a modern suburban house full of uncomfortable furniture and electric gizmos, and therefore bridges the gap between M. Hulot's Holiday, set in a small seaside resort town, and Playtime. Mon Oncle is probably the least of the three films, lacking the unity or purpose of each of them, but even a relatively weaker Tati film is still pretty much a masterpiece, especially when it involves both a satiric critique of the French bourgeoisie, and watching people walk face-first into streetlamps.

Mon Oncle: 8/10
Playtime: 10/10

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Mars Phoenix lander

Nerd news, the NASA Phoenix lander touched down on Mars on Sunday. I'm always excited when a spacecraft lands on another planet and doesn't immediately roll into a crater and then is never heard from again. After the successes of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the mission is to search for water ice at the North Pole of Mars, water being obviously extremely useful for whenever we finally send a manned mission.

This is especially cool - we now have enough spacecraft orbiting Mars that they could take pictures of the Phoenix as it landed. That's it, dangling from a parachute, in the lower left-hand corner box.
It's Martian Summer at that particular location now, and the hope is that the lander will keep working until Martian Winter begins (the Martian year is almost 22 months long), to learn more about weather and climate on Mars.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sydney Pollack, 1934-2008

Another loss of a respected, classy director. I'm sorry to say that I've only seen a handful of Pollack's movies, with Three Days of the Condor probably my favorite, a loose-limbed yet suspenseful spy thriller with a terrific cast. I mostly was familiar with Pollack for his performances in movies like Husbands and Wives and Eyes Wide Shut, where his presence as character actor was almost unique in this day when directors can't humble themselves to work for other directors, even though he's perfect in both of those films; and as producer on such modern classics as The Talented Mr. Ripley and Michael Clayton. He was a multitalented guy in the true sense of the word, crafting and working on intelligent, grown-up projects with unpretentious taste, and in a world increasingly dominated by movies for preadolescent boys, his contribution will be missed. Unlike so many others who were apparently on death watch for him, his passing comes as an unwelcome surprise.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

A proper review will be up soon, but I wanted to provide the illusion of actually spending time on it first. Also I'll add that I like the movie just fine, although I'll admit it's kind of pointless, one more go-round lacking the insane kineticism of Temple of Doom or the personal emotional core of Last Crusade. But it's a well-crafted, fun romp with plenty of Spielbergisms.

(Updated, ramblingly, 5/24/08 1:18 a.m)
I think one of the key features of this film is that the Steven Spielberg who made it is a subtly different filmmaker than the guy who made the original three films in the 1980s. It's my belief that there's a pre-Schindler's List Spielberg, who made movies characterized by clean narrative storytelling, and a post-SL Spielberg, more formally inventive, more interesting in complicated and even perverse stories, less interested in giving his audience a purely entertaining movie experience - and this is the Spielberg people don't like when they complain about the bookend scenes of Saving Private Ryan, or the endings of Minority Report or Munich, or pretty much all of A.I. Spielberg's always tried to straddle the line between mass-market blockbusters and personal art, and he's gotten more self-conscious and direct in his artistic endeavors over the last couple of decades.

So, as that relates to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the experience of it is substantially different from the experience of the older Indiana Jones movie - there's a distance, which makes me thing that Spielberg is kind of bored with the enterprise, doing 'one for them' to trade off against his Lincoln film and whatever else he does in the near future; and/or, that he's just not interested in giving his audience a smooth, pleasing experience, and the contrast between the older films and this one is thus more glaring. (In the same way, I think that Jurassic Park is a substantially less inventive, dynamic movie than The Lost World, but it offers a cleaner narrative and fewer narrative and thematic puzzles, and consequently JP is called one of Spielberg's minor masterpieces and TLW one of his flubs, but if you ask me, they're roughly equal in quality). At the same time, I don't think there's any way that this movie could have possibly seen as anything other than disappointing - we're talking about the fanboys, who basically just want to rehash the same experiences over and over again, and when something isn't the-same-but-a-little-different, they complain.

So once again, back to this new movie: I need to see it again to decide how I feel about it, but the range is limited: either it's a minor piece of work along the lines of The Lost World, a sequel made for trade-off purposes and thus essentially work-for-hire, yet containing some striking visuals, a terrific John Williams score, and the best Harrison Ford performance in at least a decade; or, there's a personal, subversive message embedded within it that I haven't cracked yet. If this latter is the case, the key is probably to be found in the movie's two most striking shots, which I realized today are mirror images of each other: the spectacular image of the mushroom cloud that Indy ponders, having miraculously just escaped; and the climactic image of the alien spaceship lifting off, disappearing into some other dimension, and leaving a wake of damage in its behalf. A contemplation of 20th-century scientific hubristic devastation?

More to write when I see the film a second time.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Indiana Jones Trilogy (1981-1989)

I'm pretty sure that I've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark more times than any other movie. My grandmother had HBO back in the 1980s when nobody else in my family did and it seemed like Raiders was always on when we'd go over to visit (along with Poltergeist and Cannonball Run II). And as a result, it's one of those movies that is utterly impossible for me to look at objectively - it's part of the bedrock of my internal cinematic landscape. And it's a perfect movie for a kid to watch, because you don't need to be able to follow things like characterization or theme, you just watch the amazingly well-made action sequences and zone out (except for when the bad guys' heads melt, that was freaky for a little kid - in a good way).

Raiders is also probably one of the most shallow great movies ever made - and I don't mean that as a slam, but merely as a description. It's an insanely well-shot and -edited adventure movie that doesn't have a lot to say except that Nazis are bad, you can be a wise-cracking rogue and still want to put artifacts in museums instead of cashing in on them, and that the God of the Old Testament is still lurking around, waiting to unleash some wrath (although apparently His being locked away in a government warehouse kept Him from stopping the Holocaust, whoops). Yeah, the joke involving the no-consequences shooting of the Arab swordsman is a little questionable in the light of the Iranian hostage crisis, but none of that matters when you're five years old. Raiders is beautiful, compulsively watchable, uniquely American (Indy just wants to do the right thing and bust some bad guy heads) and features what might be the best female performance in any Spielberg movie from Karen Allen. Also, can anyone tell me how Indy is supposed to ride the submarine for hundreds of miles to the Nazi base?

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a very uneven movie. The stunts and action scenes are even more mind-blowing than those of Raiders while being marred by an over-reliance on special effects, some of which look like they were never quite finished. The screenplay (from future Howard the Duck auteurs Willard Kuyck and Gloria Katz) is clunkier, the humor is frequently miserably lame, and then there's Kate Capshaw, and I can't think of any Spielberg movie with a moment as shoddy as the dubbed-in screams over shots of crocodiles, somewhere, chewing on leftover costume shreds - it's kind of a mess. Temple of Doom is, however, one of the first instances of Spielberg's more self-conscious side, opening with the lavish "Anything Goes" number in Cantonese on a stage impossibly large to fit within a Shanghai nightclub, the same cinematic side that would years later lead to the subtle self-referentiality and subtexts of A.I. and Minority Report. Anyway, Temple of Doom is guilty of many of the same flaws of 1941 (shrillness, obnoxious humor), but redeemed by Spielberg's raw ability to keep us entertained and Harrison Ford's presence to keep it all grounded.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the least flashy of the three movies, being in a lot of ways a return to safe Raiders territory after the dark fantasies of Temple of Doom, and yet it's also the most richly emotional of the three movies, thanks to perfect interaction between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery (this is the movie Connery should have won his Oscar for, not The Untouchables) and Spielberg's efforts to make a movie that would be more than just a thrill ride. Last Crusade also reaffirms the notion at the end of Raiders, that when faced with our deepest desires, we often need to be willing to do without, to efface what we've told ourselves are our deepest desires. On top of that, the three movies together give us the lesson, 'all major religions are valid', which is an only-in-Hollywood statement to make, that in Tinseltown dream factories, the Gods of the Jews, Hindus, and Christians have equal opportunity to kick bad-guy ass in the third act.

Besides Lucas and Spielberg, a huge amount of credit has to go to John Williams's amazing scores and Michael Kahn's Oscar-winning editing. Watching Harrison Ford in these movies is also interesting, because of how completely he underplays nearly every scene in all three movies, basically mumbling and grimacing in the face of all the beatings and torture that he endures. It's hard to imagine Tom Selleck being willing to so blend into the costume and era as Ford does.

Raiders: 9/10
Temple of Doom: 8/10
Last Crusade: 8/10

Friday, May 16, 2008

Robert Rauschenberg, 1925-2008

It's worth noting that this week we lost this pioneer in the art world, who bridged the gap between the Abstract Expressionists of the post-war era and the more postmodern realm of Pop Art and conceptual art in the 1950s and '60s. He's probably best-known for his 'combines', which followed on the lead of the Dada artists of the 1920s in bringing together painting, sculpture, and found items in a mental framework that broke down traditional barriers between art and life.

I personally don't care much for a lot of contemporary art, which usually seems more based on rehashing stuff learned in art history classes and finding new ways to make money through faux 'shocks' than actually creating works of shared emotion. That said, Rauschenberg's works were genuinely pioneering in an era when American art was fairly homogenous, and bold in a time when boldness was less of a commodity than it is today.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Prom Night (2008)

Weak stuff. It's been widely understood for a couple of decades now that one of the major audiences for horror movies are teens looking for narratives of self-actualization, coming-of-age stories that involve fighting back against the bigger, stronger bad guy and eventually defeating him, all the way back to the original Halloween. Clever producers have refined this formula over the years to more specifically focus on female audiences, so that we've had a slew of incredibly generic girl-centric horror movies that have managed to make lots of money - in addition to the above-average Scream movies, there's I Know What You Did Last Summer, When a Stranger Calls, and now this one, where the traumas of being attacked with a knife are blended with the horror of dealing with the bitchy rich girl at the Senior Prom.

The problem is that these movies are all so blandly similar, which I know is one of the hallmarks of the horror genre, but...jeez, throw me a bone here, Prom Night producer Neal H. Moritz! This version of the movie, which has nothing in common with the 1980 movie beyond the title, begins with a teenage girl (Brittany Snow) discovering the murder of her parents at the hands of your standard psycho creep (Johnathon Schaech), ending as he's about to stick a knife in her, and then we cut violently back to the present (it was just a flashback). All well and good, and obviously setting us up for the climax of the movie when this unresolved scenario will find its consummation, when the young girl, chased and tormented, finally takes matters in her own hands and gets rid of her tormentor, all according to genre plan. Right? Wrong (uh, spoilers), because instead concerned cop Idris Elba simply blows the bad guy away after about 85 minutes of movie and then credits roll. All Brittany Snow learns is that she's going to have to sleep more lightly and hang out with more cops.

So it's a movie that can't even get the basic cathartic release right, which means that it's an hour and a half of watching attractive teens wander, one at a time, into a hotel room where Schaech patiently offs them. I prefer to blame director Nelson McCormick, who has a lot of TV credits, for not bothering to actually think about what his material might be about on any level beyond how often to have a sudden music cue startle his characters (to the movie's credit, it has no frightening cats thrown at the actors by off-screen PAs). There's so much potential in a movie like this to address the fears and desires of teens and moviegoers in general, as proven by the films of John Carpenter and Wes Craven, and it's a shame to see something so bland just pooped out onto movie screens like this.

FYI, I wouldn't have seen this except that I saw that it had been doing pretty well, box-office-wise, and I felt a curiosity to know what was up. I should have known. Still, better than Saw IV.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Speed Racer (2008)

I have mixed feelings about this one. The intellectual, avant-garde, postmodern side of me loves the idea of an utterly mind-blowing 4-D freakout made of equal parts Picasso, Super Mario Kart, and Pixie Stix, a liberating and over-the-top visual experience.

The problem that I have with the movie is that, too often, the Wachowski Brothers weigh down the effervescence of their film with too much narrative (135 minutes is just too long) and obnoxious sloganeering about the evils of capitalism - or rather, capitalists in the form of Roger Allam's sneering bully Royalton. I have no problem with a movie that encourages kids to follow their dreams and families to support one another against the harsh outside world, but I really think it takes a lighter touch than the Wachowskis show here to work effectively. For me, the movie's worst element is that of the bad guy, Royalton. The Wachowskis can't just let him be the cackling villain in the corner, they demand that we fear and loathe him, and the heavyhandedness and one-sidedness rubs me the wrong way. The monumental, messianic transcendence that Speed reaches in the movie's final race is a little bit much for me, too, especially when it's coupled by huge, adoring crowds applauding our hero. I usually don't care for Anthony Lane's 'criticism' in the New Yorker, but when he calls the movie's climax 'pop fascism' I have to admit he has a nugget of a point - it feels forced, heavy, manipulative, when it should feel breezy and cathartic.

So basically, my problem with this candy-coated live-action cartoon is that it takes itself too seriously. Who woulda thunk?

Now I don't want to leave the impression that I disliked the movie, merely that I think the Wachowskis are better at visuals than they are at character and narrative, and that they seem to be a little too full of Joseph Campbell pretensions (which basically spoiled the Matrix sequels for me). But the races, even when they're inconsequential, are fun, the visuals are spectacular, Michael Giacchino's score is excellent, and the comic relief from Speed's little brother Spritle (Paulie Litt, giving the movie's best performance) and the family chimp Chim-Chim is perfect. I wish the movie had a little bit more of their anarchy amidst all the rest of the intricate designs.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Explorers (1985) & Innerspace (1987)

Some lingering business after the Joe Dante festival at the New Beverly here in Los Angeles, I rewatched a couple more of his movies for the first time in a long time.

Explorers was Dante's follow-up to the wildly successful Gremlins, a story about three boys (including a young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix) who build their own spaceship out of plans transmitted to them in their dreams and travel to an outer-space alien encounter. The pitch had to have been simple, a scaled-down kids' version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Even though it looks like the perfect mid-'80s Amblin production, it surprisingly didn't involve Steven Spielberg at all, which makes me wonder if he passed on it after reading the screenplay and getting to the third-act twist where (SPOILERS!) the boys discover that the aliens aren't the same kind of Spielbergian transcendental figures of awe but merely a couple of teenagers themselves who've stolen the family spaceship for some joyriding around our planet, and who speak mainly in pop culture gibberish they've picked up from TV and radio transmissions.

My fuzzy memories of seeing this when I was 8 are of being totally jazzed at the movie's hour-long setup, hinting at a wondrous close encounter with beings unknown to us, yet possessed of superior technology and apparently mystical abilities, and then being confused and let down when it turns out that not only are the aliens banal, but they're actually kind of annoying. It's a perverse choice for Dante to make, to take some of the hot air out of the transcendental streak of pop sci-fi, and I'm sure it hurt the movie at the box office, just as his snarky sense of humor and unwillingness to give a mass audience quite what it wanted ended up throwing viewers out of Gremlins 2 or Small Soldiers. But the movie still ends on a transcendental, mystical note, meaning that ultimately Dante's experiment was to reframe the genre, to make a film less about escapism (each of the three boys is trying to get away from divorcing parents, poverty, etc.) and more complex. The results are mixed because, sadly, the aliens really are pretty irritating, but the film as a whole stands up regardless, especially thanks to Jerry Goldsmith's score.

Innerspace turned out to be a surprise flop for Dante, which is really a shame because it has just about everything you could want in a 1980s adventure-comedy: an engaging odd-couple pairing with the alcoholic, womanizing test-pilot Dennis Quaid injected into nebbishy Martin Short after a miniaturiation experiment is sabotaged by corporate bad guys; a great supporting cast including Kevin McCarthy and Robert Picardo; fun action scenes; terrific non-digital special effects of Quaid's capsule floating around inside Short's body; and Dante's standard wry sense of humor (my favorite bit: Kenneth Tobey sees Martin Short in a men's room, seemingly talking to noone, and says to him "Play with it buddy, don't talk to it"). The screenplay is a little ungainly, especially in its first half-hour, which I ascribe to a desire to cram the movie as full as possible with extra subplots and bits of business. But any movie that has a bad guy dissolved by the protagonist's stomach acid puts a smile on my face, especially when Dante punctuates this mini-cannibalism with a burp punchline.

Explorers: 7/10
Innerspace: 8/10

Saturday, May 10, 2008

We're living in the future

And not in the nifty, Jetsons, flying cars kind of way, but in the crass, stupid, Robocop kind of way. Or maybe real life and The Onion are just converging. Example number one: the Time Warner corporation calling for us to invade yet another country - you know, for their own good. I mean, I'm a liberal and I'm in favor of people not starving from natural disasters, but I don't want these kinds of things proposed by multinational corporations posing as 'news' organizations - even if only for rhetorical purposes.

Second, the new stories about the U.S. military subcontracting cremation of dead American soldiers to a pet crematorium. It's obnoxious enough that our government has sought to sweep the caskets of dead soldiers under the rug for the last give years, so as to keep people from noticing them at all; but to cheap out on a level like this really gives the lie to the 'support our troops' argument the Republicans have been harping on (again).

Monday, May 05, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

[First of all, I'm a little annoyed to notice that I've seen about 25% fewer movies so far this year than I did last year. While that means that this year I haven't seen as many Ghost Riders and Disturbias, it also means I've been missing the occasional Reign Over Me or Away From Her, so I hope to get caught up soon.]

Perfectly entertaining, mostly thanks to Downey's charming movie-star performance and Jon Favreau's handling of tone and comic timing. I can't say it rises to the levels of the absolute best superhero movies, but that's partially just a matter of personal taste: for me, the most interesting superhero stories are the ones about outsiders - Peter Parker's loneliness, the X-Men and their estrangement from society, Bruce Wayne's obsessions. Tony Stark, on the other hand, is a total insider, the man who has everything except superpowers, so he builds his own. And that means that a lot of the movie is given over to lifestyle porn, as we ogle Stark's Malibu house and car collection and female conquests (although for a multi-millionaire, his lifestyle isn't that lavish - he only has five luxury cars in his basement? Get a job, hippie).

The drama of the movie is split in two: the first half of the movie is given over to making arms dealers cool again, which is basically a substitution for making America-as-military-power cool again. Tony Stark learns to be a little more careful and focussed in his use of power, saving women and children from Mideast thugs, and certainly that's how we'd all prefer to think of ourselves as Americans right now, bogged down in two wars, and this part of the movie is one of the major reasons I think the movie is going to be cathartic for audiences this summer (and profitable). The other major reason is the savvy decision to shift the movie, midway through, away from the Mideast storyline and into a more conventional kill-the-mentor storyline, the same one they've run through in the Spider-Man movies plus Hulk and Batman Begins, so we don't have to think too much about terrorists. It's a smart move but it basically lets us off the hook for our complicity in Stark Industries' potential war crimes. But it's a summer action movie, so I don't want to get too Village-Voicey for a movie that is, in general, fine.

Favreau is obviously more comfortable working with actors than he is at coordinating action scenes or manipulating complex narratives (like the super-clumsy exposition-by-video at the film's opening), and I'm glad he kept the movie as low-tech as he did, with a lot of practical effects in addition to CGI. My favorite scene in the movie, Pepper Potts assisting Tony Stark with open-heart surgery, was performed with a good old-fashioned fake rubber chest and two actors who know what they're doing. That said, I wish Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, and Terrence Howard were all given a little more to do in the movie than just run through the plot points. I can already see Howard suiting up in the next movie while Downey's on a drunken binge. Oh, and the Nick Fury cameo? Whatever. Let's see a good Thor movie first.


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Tribulation 99 (1992)

After watching Joe Dante's The Movie Orgy it put me in the mood to finally watch my DVD of Craig Baldwin's found-footage film Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America. Made from a huge number of clips from 1950s monster movies and newsreel footage, the movie operates as a crackpot underground 'documentary' of the conflict between the American government and the alien Quetzals, refugees from an alien planet come to Earth (hiding underground, flying spacecraft in and out of a hole at the South Pole) to secretly conquer the planet, illustrated using clips from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Kennedy assassination, and so on.

That's a fun enough premise for a movie, but Baldwin's real point is to offer a subtle, subversive history lesson about American military and political involvement in Latin America since the end of World War II, told in the manner of a sarcastic, almost Eisensteinian montage; the CIA overthrow of President Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954 is justified by his being an alien doppelganger, accompanied by a clip from It Came from Outer Space with a man turning into a one-eyed monster and a Mothra sound effect to heighten the effect. Fidel Castro's survival in the face of multiple assassination plots is explained by his being a super-powered android ("You can't kill something that isn't alive!" the narrator whispers conspiratorially), matched with footage of a bearded man from some Biblical epic and the Mission: Impossible theme song.

The effect of the movie is to turn the meaning of the movie clips it presents inside-out. Most of the monsters seen in clips from movies like Black Scorpion or The Deadly Mantis were originally made to express and capitalize on American Cold War fears, nuclear mass destruction and paranoia of enemies barely understood. By matching these clips with their real-life counterparts, Baldwin manages to express and subvert American mainstream thoughts and feelings from this era. Discussing the left-wing President of Grenada, Maurice Bishop, and matching him with footage from Blacula, leading into the 1983 U.S. invasion, makes a simple point about how our politicians and media manage to frighten us into agreement and complicity in their various power games.

Once you get past the basic joke of the movie, its pleasure lies in absorbing the complex montages and clashes of iconography, and it resembles what would probably go on in Oliver Stone's head if he was less interested in mainstream filmmaking. It's a thoroughly one-sided film, meant to channel Craig Baldwin's dissent in a particularly entertaining, subversive manner that a more straight-forward film couldn't manage.

Also on this DVD are two earlier, shorter films: Wild Gunman, a mash-up of Marlboro ads and arcade games, and RocketKitKongoKit, a similar 'alternate history' of neo-colonialism in central Africa that doesn't have the same oomph as Tribulation 99 but ends on a more ominous note.