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 01/21/14

Top Hits
Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen-directed drama, Cate Blanchett. Rotten Tomatoes: 91%. Metacritic: 78. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “When Cate Blanchett first cruises into Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, playing a Park Avenue matron fallen on hard times, she looks like a million bucks. She’s wearing pearls and a white Chanel jacket, with an Hermès bag as big as a Shetland pony hanging off one arm. It’s the sort of important accessory worn by women accustomed to being chauffeured around town. Soon after, though, as she stands with her monogrammed luggage on a nondescript San Francisco sidewalk, she looks frightened, alone — like someone who could benefit from some kindness. Instead, she waves off a stranger and, posing a question that’s as existential as it is practical, demands, ‘Where am I, exactly?’ She’s in the Mission, for starters, but Jasmine French — this lost, lonely woman brilliantly brought to quivering life by Ms. Blanchett — is more properly in a Woody Allen movie, his most sustained, satisfying and resonant film since Match Point.” Read more…)

Machete Kills (action comedy, Danny Trejo. Rotten Tomatoes: 29%. Metacritic: 41. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “Until your eyes glaze over after about a half-hour, Machete Kills might put a twisted smirk of guilty amusement on your face. The high point of those opening minutes is a fantastically gaudy fake trailer for a sequel, Machete Kills Again … In Space, which embodies the director Robert Rodriguez’s nostalgia for trashy B-movie exploitation flicks.” Read more…)

The Act of Killing (documentary, history, Indonesian genocide. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 89. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “There are, nonetheless, a few movies that try to take us inside the minds and motives of [those] guilty [of genocide], and to show us the familiar — the banal — face of evil. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah [recently reissued on DVD by the Criterion Collection] is a notable and still notably rare attempt to explore genocide not only as a historical cataclysm but also as a result of innumerable instances of actual, ordinary behavior. Though his methods differ from Mr. Lanzmann’s, and his aims are less comprehensive, the 38-year-old filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer undertakes a similar inquiry in The Act of Killing, his dogged, inventive, profoundly upsetting and dismayingly funny documentary about the Indonesian massacres that began in 1965 and claimed, by some estimates, as many as 2.5 million lives over the next year.” Read more…)

Captain Phillips (action thriller, Tom Hanks. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. Metacritic: 83. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “Captain Phillips, a movie that insistently closes the distance between us and them, has a vital moral immediacy. It was directed by Paul Greengrass, the British filmmaker who quickened the pulse of contemporary action cinema with the second and third installments in the Bourne franchise, features that proved yet again that big-screen thrills and thought need not be mutually exclusive. Kinetic action and intelligence are similarly the driving forces in Captain Phillips, which, like Mr. Greengrass’s Bourne movies, shakes you up first with its style and then with its ideas.” Read more…)

Instructions Not Included (Mexico/U.S., comedy, Eugenio Derbez. Rotten Tomatoes: 56%. Metacritic: 55.)

New Blu-Ray
Blue Jasmine
Captain Phillips
In the Heat of the Night

New Foreign
Instructions Not Included (Mexico/U.S., comedy, Eugenio Derbez, also in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 56%. Metacritic: 55.)

New Documentaries
The Act of Killing (history, Indonesian genocide, in Top Hits. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 89. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “There are, nonetheless, a few movies that try to take us inside the minds and motives of [those] guilty [of genocide], and to show us the familiar — the banal — face of evil. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah [recently reissued on DVD by the Criterion Collection] is a notable and still notably rare attempt to explore genocide not only as a historical cataclysm but also as a result of innumerable instances of actual, ordinary behavior. Though his methods differ from Mr. Lanzmann’s, and his aims are less comprehensive, the 38-year-old filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer undertakes a similar inquiry in The Act of Killing, his dogged, inventive, profoundly upsetting and dismayingly funny documentary about the Indonesian massacres that began in 1965 and claimed, by some estimates, as many as 2.5 million lives over the next year.” Read more…)