My week in film: Zero Dark Thirty and McCullin

The Hurt Locker, McCullin, Zero Dark Thirty: this week has been all about war and its representation. Each film addresses the impact of war on the individuals that fight them and in the case of McCullin, the devastating burden of memory that comes with bearing witness to the atrocities of combat. Watching The Hurt Locker again I was surprised by how straightforwardly it makes its argument for war as a drug – the first time I saw it I took this single-mindedness as a sign of focus that serves the tension in the film very well. On second viethe_hurt_locker28wing, there seemed to be moments of narrative emptiness – or at least that the trajectory that central character, James (Jeremy Renner) is on, naturally involves lows as well as highs and that this occasionally results in watching a character that is hard to engage with.  This focus pervades Zero Dark Thirty as well, as CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain), following 9/11 becomes obsessed with finding and killing Osama bin Laden; at the cost of any friends, family connection or personal relations at all. The screenplay not having included a romantic/parental guilt subplot is not just a welcome relief; it also provides the moral, human critique that many of the films’ detractors have said it lacks, by showing that the efforts of Maya to achieve hers and the governments’ goal don’t solve anything, or justify the war, let alone release Maya from the weight of her obsession. Maya’s emotional numbness; her blank expression on seeing the body of bin Laden represents perhaps a most disturbing judgement of torture that suggests its use has lead to an anticlimactic nothing – a truly chilling notion. zero-dark-thirty-trailer-final

Its problematic that screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow didn’t choose to emphasise the enormity of the moral outrage and complexity surrounding the use of torture by the CIA, instead portraying it as one method of getting information, that is then replaced by others, such as bribery. However the result is a film that allows for ambiguity – for the viewer to think and engage critically, not just after, but also during the film. Even as Maya is portrayed sympathetically – grieving for the loss of her last ‘friend’ and colleague – she remains somewhat unreachable; unsympathetic; pushing her team to the limits – perceiving that bin Laden’s death will somewhat correct the imbalance caused by the enormous US and UK death toll from terrorist attacks. This distance allows for a viewing that at every turn, can consider what the impact of her actions really are, on her colleagues, the economy, the public perception of the hunt, and most importantly, for the victims of torture. esq-thirty-1012-xlg

The raid scene itself rewards the procedural approach of the preceding hunt, delivering palpable tension as the SEAL team approach, broach and invade the ‘fortress’ in which their target is concealed. Using an aesthetic most closely akin to video games, and utilising the inherent eeriness of night vision POV, these scenes put the viewer in the midst of the action, following the soldiers as they move up each level – a moment given to dwell on every life taken.

mccullin-northern-irelandLives taken feature heavily in McCullin; David and Jacqui Morris’s documentary portrait of war photographer Don McCullin, who, over three decades covered conflicts the world over – Biafra, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Cambodia – with an unflinching, yet sympathetic eye. Paced steadily, with a solid, if unimaginative chapter-like approach, McCullin traces its subjects’ career, placing the photographs themselves at the heart of each tale of brutality and violence. McCullins’ images, most poignantly described by the man himself – show the humanity that is being lost in times of conflict, or with regard to one devastating account – finding dignity in a place where it would be least expected. Some of the most tragic and heartbreaking moments in McCullin however, are those in which his articulate testimony, without visual representation, conjure a vivid image, allowing the viewer a means to imagine what horrors still haunt the great man.

Also watched, in the Filmhouse Polanski season: Cul de Sac – a delight.

My week in film: Knife in the Water and The Trouble with Harry

cap429Despite 2012 being the year Alfred Hitchcock was consistently celebrated; with a retrospective at the BFI in London, including restorations of his early, silent films – the ‘Rescue the Hitchcock 9’ project, which was part of the Cultural Olympiad; and two films The Girl (Julian Jarrold) and Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, released on 8 February), I still didn’t manage to catch up on the great director’s entire work. So, to continue my efforts The Trouble with Harry (1955) was this week’s Hitch selection. Set in a quiet and picturesque New England town, the film opens with Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) talking to himself as he seeks the victim of a morning’s hunt, whilst young Arnie (Jerry Mathers) plays alone nearby. The Captain’s chatter can be taken as an idiosyncrasy of the character or more likely – a self conscious way to guide the viewer as to his thoughts Trouble With Harry Hitchcock pic 1and motivations as he goes about trying to decide what to do with Harry’s corpse.
A true dark comedy in keeping with Hitchcock’s oeuvre, but without any pretensions towards being his usual thriller; the main attraction in this uneven film is the debut of Shirley MacLaine as Harry’s widow, Jennifer Rogers – mother to Arnie. MacLaine manages to raise herself above what results as an unnecessary romantic through-line, pretty much upstaging the arrogant (and annoying) Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) – at least until the inevitable matrimonial union. Its undoubtedly enjoyable and The Trouble with Harry may feature some gorgeous landscape shots, unusually for the studio-loving Hitch, but it can’t escape the throwaway nature of the script which tries too hard to tie up all loose ends. knife

Starting this week at Filmhouse and the BFI Southbank is a retrospective of works by esteemed director, Roman Polanski, including some lesser-seen early gems. Knife in the Water (1962), his first feature film as director is a tense tale with a very simple plot – a couple go sailing and take a hitchhiker with them. What results is a struggle of power as Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) essentially shows off in front of their student guest, testing the loyalty of his patient wife, Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka). The claustrophobia of the boat – staying onboard and being confined by the water surrounding them – is suggested perfectly in Polanski’s use of deep focus, never letting the immediate interactions lose association with the activities of the other character(s). tumblr_mc5z8twngl1qzbahzo1_1280

There’s also a wry sense of humour on display such as a visual gag that sees the unnamed ‘young man’ as Christ, implying the initial parent-child dynamic of this unlikely trio. At the screening I attended in Edinburgh the audience were also most amused by the jibes at Krystyna’s inflatable crocodile and her unexpected deception of her oblivious husband. With a screenplay by Jerzy Skolimowski, one couldn’t help noticing his influences elsewhere, such as Andrzej listening to a radio broadcast of a boxing match and the liberal use of frenetic Jazz on the soundtrack for moments of high tension. Skolimowski also co-wrote the screenplay for Wadja’s Innocent Sorcerers (1960) in which he appears as a boxer, (alongside Polanski as a musician) making Knife in the Water a clear product of the director’s then regular collaborators amongst the Polish Film School. trading-places-original

Also watched: John Landis’ comedic take on The Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places (1983) which brought to mind the legacy of slavery (now with added pop culture thanks to Django Unchained) in its depiction of men’s clubs staffed exclusively by African Americans.