Friday, March 18, 2011

Bearing Witness

A few posts back, I argued that Mayor Vaughn's warning against "yell[ing] shark" in Jaws was a moment of open self-reflection by Steven Spielberg, describing his own M.O. in directing the film but cloaking the revelation in narrative conversation. I brought up that concept again when discussing Betsy's "walking contradiction" line in Taxi Driver; it's a pet game of mine. Spielberg's remained one of my favorite directors even at his worst (Hook, The Lost World, The Terminal). The only thing that's ever shaken my faith is how rarely he returned to that moment of explicit contemplation following Jaws' unprecedented success. The obvious, glorious exception is Indy's "Oh, a sword? How adorable" move in Raiders of the Lost Ark (a happy accident resulting from Harrison Ford's dysentery, but I'm a hopeless auteurist and too young to know better, so I give the director credit). Yet Spielberg, inventor of the blockbuster, unparalleled CGI pioneer, and majority shareholder in the collective American memory of the Holocaust, stands to benefit by shedding some more light on his own success. I say this only partially for the sake of my own private parlor games (stop judging me, imaginary contemptuous audience). It bothers me that Spielberg displayed less and less reflection on his films' status as popular icons even as, through the '90s, he tackled weightier, trickier material. A good wink would've cut perfectly through the string-soaked treacle of Saving Private Ryan.

Over the last decade, that subtle self-awareness has returned to Spielberg's films, but in a manner fitting the grave, futurist urgency of his best new works. The mass-produced Davids in A.I. and the unreliable video-visions in Minority Report hinted at a director uncertain about his own place in the American popular consciousness, and willing to explore how such power might play itself out decades down the line. As I said in the aforementioned Jaws post, however, it wasn't until 2005 that Spielberg returned to that most elemental of wake-up calls, blank horror devoid of any meaning beyond our own shared fear.

In Spielberg's hands, War of the Worlds becomes a misnomer. Wars tend to have turning points, back-and-forths that bubble over into comebacks like the one feverishly recorded in Saving Private Ryan. What War of the Worlds records is extermination, barely staved off near film's end. As such, the turning point deals with something different, and far more complicated, than victory.

An hour into War of the Worlds, the Ferrier family is traipsing through yet another desolate farmyard on their way to yet another sanctuary that won't be enough to protect them from the hell raining down from the heavens. Robbie (Justin Chatwin) suddenly speeds up, ignoring his father Ray (Tom Cruise) and sister Rachel's (Dakota Fanning) cries for him to return. Robbie straggles his way up a shallow hill, beyond which we can see an unearthly yellow glow: the promise of carnage unending, cinematic thrill-violence with the safety off. Ray is Tom Cruise possessed of his most unfettered (and, in this film, comforting) athleticism, and he catches his son easily. "Why are you doing this! Why!" Ray roars, finally bereft of the puckish bravado he had previously hid his wounded alienation behind ("Boston? That how it is?") Robbie just stares back at him. Chatwin's eyes had previously exemplified the annoying prettiness common to male goth teens in American cinema. Now, the obnoxious (if unerringly justified) anger is gone, as are the kid's stuttering attempts at explaining the passion that drives him. They are replaced with a blank, reverent acceptance as frightening as any mecha from beyond the moon. "I have to have to let me see this."

Ray understands, as his body sags away; he watches unmoving as his son runs, possessed, to his doom. And, ultimately, that's all there is to War of the Worlds, the most artfully (and brutally) simple blockbuster in recent memory. There is no lesson, there is no arc, there is no skill, there is no war. All you can do is watch, bear witness. As Robbie's eyes testify, there are few more powerful lures. Surely we can agree--don't we show up in droves to watch, pile into the cinema to see?

This is violence as irrevocably physical, a purely instinctive transfer from the action to the observer: a sly generic transgression as unsettling--and resonant--as Cronenberg's A History of Violence that same year. Spielberg returns to that idea in the first part of the film's ending, which he swipes neatly from Wells--the aliens defeated by Earth's innate reactions, while we scurry around on the planet's surface, powerless as ever. Yet, as much as I'd like to forget about it, there's the matter of the actual ending, in which Spielberg pulls such a spectacular cop-out (the kid survived) that I had to suspect some sort of massive, cannibalistic cynicism at work, rather than the easy sentimentality staring me in the face. If Robbie lived, is bearing witness Spielberg's salvation, the only way to come through the fire with your humanity intact? Certainly, it's an idea that dovetails with the filmmaker's intentions for Schindler's List, but it doesn't jive so well with the rest of War of the Worlds itself, in which watching is but the purest locus of horror. Robbie's religious pilgrimage over the hill isn't a moral victory, it's an instinctive rush, and rewarding (or punishing) him for it seems beside the point. Witnessing is its own phenomenon and end, and death is merely an inevitable formality when the sky rains fire.

Or, hell, maybe Spielberg was just frantically looking for a way to end this traumatic scar of a blockbuster, the darkest fantasy he's ever unleashed on the popcorn-buying public. War of the Worlds' ceaseless flow is never swept up by the cavalry, rarely leavened by calm or humor, and absolutely devoid of the charming, magnetic, and/or redemptive individuals that mark Spielberg's earlier landmarks. It's Jurassic Park without any experts. It's Raiders of the Lost Ark, not only without Indy, but without any top men. It's Saving Private Ryan, with no way to fight back and no "back home" to fight for. It's Empire of the Sun, but with no chance to reach across the borders. E.T., with no individuals among the intruders. Close Encounters, but they want to farm your blood after they beam you up. Schindler's List, but they've come for absolutely everybody.

Was that last one in poor taste? Perhaps, but grave reverence would dilute the pure existential chill that haunts that pivotal eye-to-eye in War of the Worlds. With all taste and palatable history stripped away, leaving only the simplest of fantasies and the starkest of realities to collide, it was difficult for many to embrace War of the Worlds as a deadly serious and aware film, beyond the expertly calibrated genre trappings. Certainly, it was easier to wait a few months and fall over ourselves praising Spielberg's Munich, but I feel the two work best taken together. 2005, then, is endgame for Spielberg's best ideas: as sinuous storyteller, as soul-shaking image factory, as allegorical myth-maker, as humanist saint. No wonder Kingdom of the Crystal Skull felt so inessential--Spielberg's planet-sized philosophies had reached their peak. War of the Worlds is that philosophy's purest expression, blurring the lines between spectacle and tragedy, reminding us all the while that our approach, for better or worse, is the same for both: to look and see.

Family Business

Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated Munich is still very easy to write about, should you need a grimly respectful paragraph in a pinch. This is so because of, not in spite of, Spielberg's admirable refusal to offer answers to the questions his film poses. Few things are easier to shallowly praise in art than ambiguity. Witness every purblind accolade offered up to The Hurt Locker for "not taking a side" in Iraq, for being "about the warrior, not the war." Every filmmaking decision is political, and not taking a side is certainly itself a position like any other. This is not to argue that explicitly historical and political films are lesser for not offering resolutions, but that since ducking the debate entirely is impossible, films would benefit from more open-minded explorations of ambiguity as a position.

Munich does so. Its visual and narrative arcs dutifully follow ground-rule political thriller tropes: the cold lighting, the austere European settings, the gradual moral and physical collapse of our heroic fighting team. Spielberg, of course, could out-direct the likes of Marc Forster from his deathbed, and Munich's technical craft remains a marvel. The opening sequence, covering the Olympics massacre itself, contains some of Spielberg's most stunning shots and powerful montages, primal images worthy of haunting protagonist Avner for the rest of the film. Spielberg's still got the chops to re-invigorate basic thriller DNA seemingly at will--that tumultuous phone call, that terrifying hotel explosion. These are all triumphs, but triumphs of degree, not kind, and they don't alone elevate Munich above the level of well-meaning garbage like Syriana.

As Arnaud Desplechin's most simpatico muse, Mathieu Amalric is synonymous in my mind with contemporary European (and Euro-centric) film. As such, his appearance in Munich as mysterious information dealer Louis immediately expanded my perception of the film beyond the well-worn cycles of 20th-century violence. Sure enough, Amalric's character is something deeper than a Bond-ready Frenchie plot device. As Avner's vengeance squad grows suspicious of Louis' motives and begins to act contrary to his instructions, Avner is forcibly introduced to Louis' world, and it's there that Munich truly attains masterpiece status.

Avner is blindfolded and driven away, and when he opens his eyes again, the visual and emotional infrastructure of the film has vanished. Gone is that shadowy, faceless urban architecture. Here instead is an impossibly beautiful (and impossibly French) countryside home. Gone are the moment-to-moment peril and underlying moral confusion and decay. Instead, we see contentment, earned safety, and family. Amalric immediately looks more at home, and it's not just because his character lives here. We're on modern European film turf: a lovely dinner outdoors and a philosophical stroll in the garden, scenes that wouldn't look out of place in Assayas' Summer Hours or the recent I Am Love were it not for the preceding tension, violence, and hate.

Again, Spielberg isn't exactly inventing archetypes here. The modern European as both politically involved and blissfully apolitical is a sturdy enough trope (and is therefore easily spoofed: "we believe in nozzing, Lebowski.") But in the context of the furious flurries of action and the even more furious ideological debates that mark the rest of the film, this calm, lovely oasis takes on greater weight. The relentless moral quandaries that mark Munich's central conflicts are enough to make even the keenest observers throw up their hands and fall back on well-informed neutrality. According to many of Munich's supporters and detractors alike, that's exactly what Spielberg did in this film. I don't disagree, but I do believe the sudden aesthetic leap to the "farm and family" scenes represents a glimpse behind the curtain, revealing Spielberg's true focus.

Family, of course, carries totemic power in Spielberg films, whether employed to warm hearts (E.T.) or chill them (A.I.) Avner spends most of Munich apart from his wife and young child, and Spielberg never devotes much time to building bonds of brotherly friendship among Avner's team. Louis' family represents the only functional family unit in the film. And how do they stay alive, how do they preserve their all-too-idyllic country retreat? By wielding that careful, studied neutrality, expertly manipulating political wills while using that power to maintain a safe distance from the explosive consequences. It's this balance--and perhaps only this balance--that allows one to engage with the struggles of one's time without taking a firm side, which would endanger not only one's political honesty, but also the survival of one's family.

Steven Spielberg isn't Michael Haneke, and while Munich's director unabashedly exposes the eyes-wide-shut mentality behind political neutrality, he doesn't condemn his characters--or his audience--for it. How could he, when he shares it himself? Still, he isn't as willing as Louis and Co. to hide from the fallout. I'm not referring to that closing shot of the WTC towers, as resonant (and earned) as it is. Spielberg proves himself an able and erudite political filmmaker throughout Munich, but it's in two moments of the personal and familial that he grounds the legacy of the film's deliberate confusion.

Just as the movie's thriller arc really gets cooking, speeding us along from one artfully constructed assassination to the next, Spielberg stops the film dead for Avner to gaze into a shop window. He sees a model kitchen, glowing with a welcoming but unearthly sheen, perfect but empty. In Avner's reflected eyes, we see both his desperate love for his family and his longing for a collective, safe homeland for his people. And then, Louis appears in the reflection behind him, and the heavenly image is blurred; this is what it means to be both a soldier and a family man, this is what it takes to secure a safe place of your own.

Eventually, of course, Avner returns to his family. His reunion with his wife is the film's climax, lending that final meeting in New York a fitting listlessness. The couple screws, making their next baby, but Spielberg's camera is drawn back in to Avner's tortured mind's eye. Avner finally (ahem) consummates the fantasies of the Munich massacre he's been toying with the whole film, but his simultaneous identification with the killers and the victims offers him no real release, and it's only that confusion, those personal and political conflations, that he can pass on to the next generation.

Is it any wonder that the only idea worth toying with in the otherwise useless Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was Indy's place in a grounded family? It's there, amidst potential banality and sentimentality, that Spielberg unleashes his strongest ideas. National identity and historical terrorism are an appropriately fraught backdrop, but Spielberg knows where to let the real weight of being "ideologically promiscuous" settle: around the dinner table, and in the marriage bed.

What Happens

When Richard Dreyfuss' Matt Hooper, cinema's original Badass Marine Biologist, enters Jaws, it's as much to buoy the narrative as to sink a shark. His deadpan humor and immediate, easy camaraderie with Roy Scheider's Chief Brody quickly marks him out as the film's wry heart. In spite of his comforting presence at Chez Brody and aboard the Orca, however, Hooper is most at home at the autopsy table, fully exposing the bloody horrors that tug at the Chief's eyes and mouth. From a narrative standpoint, Hooper's first dissection (of the nameless dead girl) merely confirms what we, the omniscient audience, already know: "This was not a boat accident. And it wasn't any propeller, it wasn't any coral reef, and it wasn't Jack the Ripper. It was a shark."

Then, of course, Spielberg cuts to a dead shark, and we're allowed to cheer along with the crowd of fisherfolk for a moment before Hooper again goes to work. But step back to the autopsy. A curtain is pulled back and Hooper is shown the mangled body, which lies below the camera's gaze, momentarily out of our sight. Hooper barks jargon, gulps back vomit, and scolds the Chief for not calling the Coast Guard and for smoking.


And then Spielberg cuts.


"This is what happens."

And then he cuts again.


Those first and third shots, only six seconds apart, are nearly identical: the Chief smokes in the background, bemusedly looking on as Hooper stares down at the table. Taken together, as part of a continuous framing, they neatly carry along the humorous, sanitized feel of the scene.

Those six seconds, however, irrevocably alter the scene, and arguably the film as a whole. It's the clearest example of the Eisensteinian influence Pauline Kael saw coursing through Jaws: the pure montage, using shots not as discrete building blocks but as cells of an indelible whole. The Chief, his cigarette, Hooper, his glasses. Hooper raises an arm, the Chief is horrified as all his worst fantasies are realized, Hooper murmurs "This is what happens" from offscreen. The Chief, his cigarette, Hooper, his glasses.

It's such a palpable, horrific intrusion, left so unrecognized once it ends, that it becomes difficult to believe. I'd re-watched Jaws on a two-to-three year cycle for my entire life before these cuts recently jumped out at me. Certainly, the film contains several such montages, but none are so jarring, so insidiously surreal. Compare Spielberg to his New Hollywood peers, and this triptych recalls less de Palma's multi-tiered POV fantasies than Scorsese's slow tracking shots in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull: not suggesting dreams or multiple perspectives, but moments of crawling intimacy. Thrown off the blockbuster train tracks, this scene is the closest the audience comes to being fully integrated into the Chief's/Spielberg's horrified fascination.

was the launching pad for one of the most successful careers in entertainment history; Spielberg would later seduce millions into watching Nazis liquidate a ghetto and soldiers being blown apart on the beaches of Normandy. But this moment of purest cinema: like no other, it chills me to the bone.

The Beast is Something You Can Hunt and Kill

While it seems laughable to call Steven Spielberg "underrated" in any sense, his ability to convincingly juggle different emotional states often goes overlooked in favor of his supposed sentimental/serious binary. Chief Martin Brody (or the Chief, as he's properly referred to) is sharp, hardworking, and, though he'll rarely admit it, bored out of his skull as the police chief of the sleepy summer town of Amity. He's tremendously sympathetic as he stomps through the opening scenes of Jaws, back straight and brow furrowed, but it's undeniably funny to watch him furiously buy wooden planks and paint because Amity lacks a "Beach Closed" sign. The giggles continue when that car matter-of-factly follows the Chief onto that tiny ferry-raft, and grow when the absurd Mayor Vaughn pops out in his totally awesome anchor-festooned suit jacket and babbles about the summer rush. The Chief's retort, "That doesn't mean we have to serve them up a smorgasbord," is guaranteed to make my father laugh anytime, anywhere, and rightly so. Then the Mayor, with a smarmy, shit-eating grin plastered on his face, takes the grumbling, righteous Chief aside for a more private chat.

"I don't think you appreciate the gut reaction people have to these's all psychological. You yell "barracuda," everybody says "Huh? What?" You yell "shark"...and we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."

The camera lingers on their profiles for a split second longer before cutting to the ferry pulling in; then comes the beach scene and the Chief's tension and the next attack, and we happily hop gears back to the suspense thriller. "Young Spielberg," as Hitchcock knighted him after walking out of Jaws, knows enough to rapidly distract us at this point, lest it become too obvious that he's just given away the secret of the film, the reason it became the highest-grossing film ever made, virtually created the summer blockbuster, and, unlike most of its successors in that category, continues to top lists into the 2010's.

To quote Mulholland Drive: "He's the one who's doing it." Through the mouthpiece of the film's least likeable (and dumbest) character, Spielberg outlines the guiding rule behind his masterpiece--namely, yelling shark.

Although he isn't seen in his entirety until more than halfway through the film, any mystery or detachment surrounding Bruce the shark is dispelled from the beginning. The film opens to the shark's own theme song, the most unshakeable strand of movie music since Bernard Herrmann's strings first sliced Psycho in half. We see a terrifyingly quick zoom past some gorgeous ocean flora: we are seeing through the shark's eyes. Later on, it'll be other eyes looking for him. The Chief scans the beach horizon, jumping from kid to dog with stick to laughing couple back to kid back to...stick...and nobody, nothing is safe if you can't see Bruce. Red herrings like the brat with the fake fin are essential not only to add some levity and extend the suspense, but also to re-emphasize Bruce's central power. It's not that he's an otherworldy being who can be everywhere--it's that he could be anywhere, and as the Chief scans the sea, he visually confirms that the sea, functionally, has become the shark. Hidden but familiar, perfectly defined but pregnant with potential: one of the ultimate sensuous objects in film, on par with the Maltese Falcon or Kubrick's eternal obelisk. And I say "object," because in no way is Bruce a character or a villain. He is a locus of wonder, nearly religious in his ability to draw all concern to him. Spielberg has spent his career in large part vacillating between the fantastic and the familial, finding the spectacular and charmingly mundane in both. Early in his career, he finds the perfect fusion in his shark.

It's significant that he first fully reveals himself to the Chief, whose bigger-boat quip is but a speck when set next to the wonder in his eyes. Quint's driven on by his past psychoses, yet it's utterly essential that the Quint-Ahab parallel, while tantalizingly obvious, is never actually explored. The white whale is the quintessential metaphor-for-everything. For all the profound terror and wonder he induces, Bruce's greatest source of power is that he is a stand-in for absolutely nothing. He is singular, himself, the Shark-- the Great White Shark, but that's it. Sure, he evokes some vague fears of nature, but nothing that's not more explicitly hammered home in Jurassic Park, and Quint's monologue makes it very clear that the shark stands alone.

How many other filmmakers would have shoehorned in Quint's blood-red history to set up some awkwardly bombastic parallel? "We delivered the bomb," Quint says, and his horrific story simply runs out and dies. We delivered the bomb, and there is a shark out there who will kill us if he can. The two sit together, stewing and festering, but they're both irrevocably themselves.

After Jaws made him a superstar, Spielberg would continue to restlessly pursue his sacred objects: the ultimate totems of religious (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and secular (Jurassic Park) power, the the fantastic creatures we find (E.T.) and create (A.I.) It would be thirty years before he would again open up this particular kind of space, both blatantly specific and undeniably significant. War of the Worlds, like Jaws, ends on nothing so grandiose as survival, escaping a terribly beautiful killing machine that reflects back nothing but our own blank-faced horror.

Bruce gets exploded, our heroes swim for home, reach the beach, and…the credits roll. We never see young Michael Brody get out of the hospital; the last we see of Ellen Brody is as she flees Quint’s storehouse in terror. There is no grand reconciliation, no tearful goodbyes, no final wrap-ups or last quips. There is only a shark, and then not a shark.

The Eyes Have It