Rob Harmon’s Picks 4/29/4

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer [co-dir. Christine Cynn & Anonymous], 2012)

The history of documentary filmmaking is filled with examples of directors exploring the nature of evil in regards to genocide, but few have done so with the strange combination of artiness and directness of Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE ACT OF KILLING.

When I first heard about the film’s central premise—to offer a few of the more prominent perpetrators of Indonesia’s state-sanctioned (and Western government-funded) purges of communists in the mid-1960s (“communists” oftentimes serving merely as a catch-all term for anyone targeted by the government, including, for example, the ethnic Chinese) a chance to re-enact the nature of their killings in any setting of their choosing—I have to admit that I cringed a bit. Oh god, I thought: another documentary about atrocities in the third world told from an aristocratic, first world perspective. What to make of a film which gives power—any amount of it—to former death squad members?

In spite of my initial reservations and queasiness, I found myself mesmerized: The Act of Killing delivers fully on its promise and even paves interesting new terrain, occupying a hypnotizing bit of cinematic real estate somewhere near the intersection of the Stanford prison experiment and Stanley Milgram’s infamous “authority” experiments, Barbet Schroeder’s GENERAL IDI AMIN: A SELF-PORTRAIT, and Errol Morris’ THE THIN BLUE LINE and his witheringly sophisticated interrogation/conversation with Robert McNamara, THE FOG OF WAR.

The protagonist of The Act of Killing is Anwar Congo, a man who was considered the most feared executioner in north Sumatra during the purges, and who is today revered as a sort of national hero, especially by the paramilitary group Pancasila, which plays a large hand in Indonesian politics. Throughout the film it is mentioned on a few occasions that Congo was alone responsible for killing 1,000 people. Two other main characters are Herman Koto, a younger Panacasila paramilitary leader who seems to be a friend and neighbor of Congo’s, and Adi Zulkadry, a fellow executioner of Congo’s from the 60’s. There are numerous other characters, as well, like Soaduon Siregar, a low-level journalist at the time of the death squads who today survives as a sort of servile and withered Brutus, refusing to admit that he ever saw or knew anything.

Congo and other members of the death squads, it turns out, were heavily recruited from the ranks of the “movie theater gangsters,” or toughs who made their living by selling scalped movie tickets to overcrowded screenings of American films. This connection to films—especially American ones—is important, as the swagger of freewheeling gangster-ism indelibly shaped the character of Congo and others involved in the executions, which has flowed into the political rhetoric of the present. That very mythology—at the urging of Oppenheimer in The Act of Killing—is finally given its, fittingly, cinematic shape.

The scenes created by the film’s subjects are hard to characterize for one who has not seen it: Some are hopelessly stiff, ponderous evocations of genre, usually war, gangster-ism, and other tough-guy antics, with even a nod to the bucolic Western. One sequence—the recreation of the burning of a village—pulses with a frightening level of naturalism while others are baroque slices of phantasmagoria, oftentimes filled with garish musical numbers and even dancing girls, seemingly designed with the same sensibility that gave birth to the velvet Elvis painting and the lawn ornament. One wonders if the perpetrators of such grotesqueries should not also be prosecuted for unnecessary camp along with war crimes, but the sequences, regardless of their artistic merits, or lack thereof, resoundingly succeed in another respect. Yes, The Act of Killing is strangely and vibrantly alive, cinematic and surreal, in a way which few films of its type ever are, the majority tending towards heavy verbosity over image, stultifying and somber atmosphere over space.

Not that The Act of Killing is fun and games. On the contrary, as the film progresses one senses that the camera, a sort of silent Socratic interrogator, has begun to wear down its protagonist, Congo. In scene after scene we see him at work on his movie and even viewing his efforts, Jean Rouch-style (see CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER in Hot Docs!), and commenting upon them for the camera. In all cases, Oppenheimer’s MO seems to be to just keep the camera running: what insights there are appear out of sheer patience, and the director seems to have had the time and money sufficient to wait.

In fact, so bracingly candid are the subjects of The Act of Killing that one is reminded what it is like to live in a land unused to having its every movement and statement recorded and transmitted via the internet and social media. For example, the leader of the Pancasila paramilitary group, Yapto Soerjosoemarno, seems defiantly unwilling to adapt to the presence of Oppenheimer’s camera: except when he is smiling for the sake of the public just about every word out of his mouth is some jaw-droppingly lewd or profane comment, usually about women (this in a predominantly Muslim country, no less). But if the statements and actions of the film’s central bullies seem cartoonishly ham-fisted and bullheaded to the extreme, then the flipside to this situation is represented in the end credits, where crew member after crew member is listed as “Anonymous,” a chilling reminder of the very real dangers these courageous Indonesian filmmakers faced in standing up to their tormentors.

As a believer in the less-is-more school of editing, I watched the two-hour theatrical version of the film but the DVD also comes packaged with a “director’s cut,” which runs about 45 minutes longer, and a number of other interesting extras. Oppenheimer succeeds remarkably in his stated intention, and with the damning revelations of The Act of Killing there may be some hope for change for the better in Indonesia’s embattled future. The word “important” tends to be an overused one in film criticism but this seminal piece of agitprop more than deserves it, a sustained and unnerving meditation on despotic acts which takes the daring gamble of making the audience privy to the despot’s febrile imagination.

New releases 4/29/14

Top Hits
Labor Day (drama/romance, Kate Winslet. Rotten Tomatoes: 33%. Metacritic: 52. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “Labor Day occupies the same psychic territory as ‘Peyton Place,’ Grace Metalious’s heavy-breathing 1956 novel, later to be a movie and television series. Both share a similar erotic fantasy of threatening, sexy male dominance. Frank is that fixture of pulp romance, a Real Man who embodies a woman’s secret dreams of a dangerous but sensitive stud as handy in the bedroom and kitchen as he is in the garage.” Read more…)

The Legend of Hercules (action, Scott Adkins. Rotten Tomatoes: 3%. Metacritic: 22. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “The Legend of Hercules, a new 3-D work of Classical beefcake scholarship, directed by Renny Harlin, is likely to be met with ridicule. At the crowded preview screening I attended on Thursday night in Manhattan, there were audible hoots of derision, which were, for the most part, well earned. But really, this movie, with its relatively modest running time and not-quite-household-name cast, is no more ridiculous than, let’s say, the Thor movies, and a lot less pretentious.” Read more…)

Gloria (Chile, comedy/drama, Paulina Garcia. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 83. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “The great accomplishment of Gloria, the Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio’s astute, unpretentious and thrillingly humane new film, is that it acknowledges both sides of its heroine’s temperament without judgment or sentimentality. In a North American movie — a fizzy Hollywood comedy of empowerment or a glum indie kitchen-sink melodrama — a woman like Gloria would most likely invite either pity or condescending encouragement. But Gloria, played with dignity and gusto by Paulina García, is too complicated for such treatment.” Read more…)

Devil’s Due (horror, Zach Gilford. Rotten Tomatoes: 18%. Metacritic: 33. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “From Rosemary’s Baby [1968] to The Brood [1979], demon spawn has been erupting from innocent wombs, to the surprise of mothers who unaccountably fail to greet this vile emission with a pillow to the face — presuming it has one, of course. Maternal instincts aside, Devil’s Due, the latest monster-in-utero movie, brings nothing new to the birthing table except the already tiresome found-footage contrivance.” Read more…)

A Farewell to Fools (drama/comedy, Harvey Keitel. Rotten Tomatoes: 40%. Metacritic: 40.)
Bad Country (action thriller, Willem Defoe)

New Blu-Ray
Labor Day

New Foreign
Gloria (Chile, comedy/drama, Paulina Garcia, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 83. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “The great accomplishment of Gloria, the Chilean writer-director Sebastián Lelio’s astute, unpretentious and thrillingly humane new film, is that it acknowledges both sides of its heroine’s temperament without judgment or sentimentality. In a North American movie — a fizzy Hollywood comedy of empowerment or a glum indie kitchen-sink melodrama — a woman like Gloria would most likely invite either pity or condescending encouragement. But Gloria, played with dignity and gusto by Paulina García, is too complicated for such treatment.” Read more…)

Il Sorpasso (Italy, 1962, drama/comedy, Vittorio Gassman. From the unsigned 1963 New York Times Review [requires log-in, contains spolier]: “Mr. Risi’s fast-paced direction and, more important, the truths he underlines, give his uncluttered film meaning and poignancy as well as mere speed. He is fortunate in his principals, too. Vittorio Gassman makes a superbly brash, coarse, hail-fellow-well-met Bruno who, in one of his rare moments of honest sadness, warns Roberto away from his ‘easy life’ because ‘I’ve never had a real friend.’ As the diffident, introspective Roberto, Jean-Louis Trintignant, who has been seen here in a variety of French films, is excellent as his opposite number, an impressionable youngster whose shame and fears finally turn to admiration of his strange friend’s ‘easy life.'” Read more…)

The Rocket (Laos, drama, Sitthiphon Disamoe. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 72. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “This is the most recent movie from the Australian director Kim Mordaunt, whose last was the documentary Bomb Harvest, about an Australian explosives disposal specialist and Laotian children who gather bomb scrap metal. The prevalence of unexploded bombs is a running motif in The Rocket and, in one of the sharpest, most effective scenes, a surreal interlude in an abandoned mountainside village, large missiles can be seen propping up homes.” Read more…)

New Classics (pre-1960)
The Strange Woman (1946, period drama, Hedy Lamarr. From A.W.’s 1947 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “Undoubtedly every actress this side of ten yearns for a tour de force and Hedy Lamarr, who plays the title role in The Strange Woman, which came to the Globe on Saturday, can consider that yearning wholly realized. For the somber drama of a Suave sinner in Bangor, Me., of a century ago affords Miss Lamarr her meatiest assignment in years, a chance at large chunks of choice dialogue and an opportunity to wear a wardrobe that won’t go unnoticed by the ladies. But as a study of a singular distaff temperament set off by a coterie of ruined males, this adaptation of Ben Ames Williams’ best-selling novel of a few years back has a way of telegraphing its punches. A revealing dissection of a predatory femme fatale it nevertheless lacks motivation for some of its supporting players, pace and suspense to make it completely moving drama.” Read more…)

New Documentaries
Bettie Page Reveals All (social history, bio, Bettie Page. Rotten Tomatoes: 76%. Metacritic: 64. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “Directed by Mark Mori, written by Douglas Miller and — best of all — narrated by Page in her low, gruff Southern drawl, Bettie Page Reveals All covers much of the material that’s been related elsewhere, but with some nice differences. For starters, Mr. Mori actually seems to have liked Page, for whom he displays genuine, believable affection, and he shares the bad along with the good without giggles, judgment or rank sensationalism. Her voice-over, stitched together from less than optimal audio interviews, suggests that Page liked him in turn. This helps warm up the story, particularly when she discusses her often-brutal childhood, which was marked by sexual abuse and a stay in an orphanage, and some of the equally desperate interludes that marred her adulthood.” Read more…)

Men at Lunch (social history, photography. Rotten Tomatoes: 42%. Metacritic: 53. From Miriam Bale’s New York Times review: “On Sept. 20, 1932, 11 workers sat on a beam 69 floors above Manhattan during the construction of Rockefeller Center. The photograph of this moment, one of the most famous images of New York, is called ‘Lunch Atop a Skyscraper’ [even though a cigarette and a liquor bottle in the hands of these workmen are as noticeable as any sandwiches]. Opening 81 years to the day after that photograph was taken is Men at Lunch, a documentary about the picture’s resonance as a symbol of Everymen and about the mystery of who those men really were.” Read more…)

Approved for Adoption (documentary memoir, animation, ethnic history. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: 73. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times revew: “It’s common for animated movies to tell stories about feeling like a fish [or a mermaid] out of water, but the hand-drawn hybrid Approved for Adoption is an actual memoir steeped in that sensation. Adopted at 5 by a Belgian family, Jung Henin was a difficult child from South Korea who ultimately sought refuge from his identity crisis in drawing. This episodic film, directed by Mr. Henin and Laurent Boileau, traces his rambunctious childhood up through an awkward adolescence, complete with parental shouting matches and camaraderie with his many siblings.” Read more…)

New Music DVDs
The Rise and Fall of The Clash