Friday, February 22, 2008

Friday Double Feature: Be Kind Rewind & Taxi to the Dark Side

Be Kind Rewind is the latest from writer/director Michel Gondry (director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind --which had a notably disappointing ending--and writer/director of The Science of Sleep --a notably beautiful and affecting film whose ad campaign mistakenly pushed it as a romantic comedy). The story centers around Be Kind Rewind video in Passaic, NJ. The owner, Mr. Fletcher (Danny Glover) is being forced out so the city can tear down his store/home and replace it with upscale condos. He leaves his one employee, Mike (Mos Def), in charge while he takes a week to see how the competition runs their stores. While he's gone, Jerry (Jack Black), a local mechanic and yahoo who hangs out at the video store gets electrocuted while trying to sabotage the power plant. He becomes magnetized and inadvertently erases every tape in the store. Mike and Jerry shoot their own version of Ghostbusters in the hopes of delaying Mr. Fletcher finding out what happened to the store--only the people in the neighborhood like Mike and Jerry's versions better than the originals.
The movie's sweet without overdoing it. It reminded me of '80's movies where the community has to come together to save the old store or help someone out. If you want to get into meaning, the movie's a portrait of how people draw sustenance from narrative and fold stories into their own lives and expand their lives through the stories they consume. They are telling stories based on the stories they've been told and then laying claim to the telling of the stories, not to the stories themselves. That's an important distinction. When the inevitable foil shows up and ruins everything just as things are starting to work out, what stands out is the community's reaction. They protest that the videos are “our movies.” The conclusion then becomes an act of seizing a story and the telling for themselves.
Gondry has more than a knack for producing visually stunning, dreamlike images. In Be Kind, however, he seems a step removed from their creation. While still inventive, charming and occasionally stunning, they seem to spring from the minds of the characters instead of from him. The piece feels more organic, more real than his previous films. The two I mentioned above, Spotless and Science explicitly occur within characters' dreams. This time he's created a world where the characters can make these images for themselves, and that's a little more satisfying, a little more hopeful. It's one thing to say you can dream whatever you want, it's another to show people making a world that matches their dreams.

Taxi to the Dark Side proved to be a major disappointment. I expected some grand condemnation of Bush's torture policy and his abrogation of powers that have led us to the point we're at today--the President of the United States, whoever they may be, currently has the legal right to order anyone anywhere in the world, American or foreigner, seized, tortured and killed without any sort of trial or review. Taxi, which is supposed to be an eye-opening documentary outlining the current policy, doesn't even go as far as the sentence I wrote. In fact it seems to portray some of the soldiers who beat, tortured and murdered Dilawar, an innocent Afghan taxi driver, as victims.
Granted, it's trying to show that the soldiers are scapegoats and it is rewarding to see people from inside the situation speaking frankly about what went on, but what they say seems removed from what the movie is talking about. There wasn't any flow to the film, no sense of a rising action or argument being made. The film felt sloppy, scattershot and that made it feel slow. I started drifting off to sleep at one point. During a film about torture. That had graphic images of torture. And I don't see gory things that often.
Much of my disappointment comes from my expectations going into the film. I wanted to learn something. It is the height of grotesque absurdity that this nation has a “debate” about torture. There is no debate--no torture is acceptable. Yet here we are. And I learned nothing mostly because I've been paying attention the past seven years. I've read Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib and I listen to Democracy Now!. Part of my disappointment stems from the fact that I feel like I've only paid cursory attention. I haven't been trying to learn everything I can and still this movie had no revelations for me. Nor did it explore a media environment so craven and uncritical of executive power that it doesn't even raise questions about torture.
Maybe it's also the issue of relevance. It's incredibly crass to say, but the general feeling is so what if our soldiers are torturing people “over there.” After all, it's not “us,” it's “them.” The threat of torture needs to be made relevant to Americans--and not just in portraying the fate of those few who were scapegoated for the decisions from the top. Darius Rejali, author of Torture and Democracy, noted in a recent interview in Harper's that torture always comes home. To put it more bluntly, as Jello Biafra said after Abu Ghraib broke, the soldiers who were charged were prison guards back in the states. If they thought what they were doing to prisoners over there was “funny,” what are they doing to us over here? The issue of torture, and the dangerous idea that excuses it, is the strange dualism that says there is good and there is evil, and they are not matters of action or choice. There are no evil deeds, just evil men and anything done to them by “good” men is therefore justified. President Bush has decided that he is one of the “good” men and Congress has given him authority to seize any person, anywhere in the world, to have whatever he wants done to them. The President, who cannot talk about the Iraq War without giggling, has the authority to order your child raped with hot irons. This is the issue, this is the concern.
And that is why Taxi--which has John Yoo, author of the so-called “Torture Memo,” on tape saying it's okay for the President to order the testicles of a detainee's child crushed, but does not take the final intellectual step of saying we are threatened with the same depredations we inflict upon others--ultimately fails. It imagines itself as highly critical even though the harshest criticism it can muster of the Bush administration is that they are a bunch of bad leaders even though they're committing crimes against humanity.

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