Wednesday, October 22, 2008

W. Has No Exit Strategy

The great filmmaker and critic Thom Andersen has often opined that a film should either be 90 minutes or over 3 hours. While at one time I thought that this was a merely polemical assertion, a year full of Hollywood movies that could have trimmed the fat has made me see the light. No Country For Old Men’s extra half-hour transforms what could have been one of the best genre movies ever made into a mere “prestige picture.” 3:10 to Yuma wears out its welcome after the ninety minute mark. At 152 minutes, The Dark Knight trades narrative arc for an episodic defense of the Project for the New American Century; just like the global war on terror, it never ends. Narrative cinema is, in some ways, a symphonic art form and the best symphonies keep it under ninety.

Of course, the only rule in art is that there are no rules; some of the greatest films ever made are two hours plus. Maybe that’s even part of the problem. Sitting through a film class, watching only the “greats,” you get the sense that it’s got to be two hours to really mean anything. Well kids, Duck Soup is only 68 minutes long and speaks more directly and more deeply to our current political debacle than Oliver Stone’s new opus. Weighing in at 129 minutes doesn’t make W. a heavyweight, just overweight.

While watching a fictionalized instant replay of the past seven years is not without interest, one gets the feeling that even a little bit of hind-sight would have made this a better film. Not only have the facts not sorted themselves out into something like a coherent narrative, but there is something inherently disconcerting about watching a biopic of the people who currently run the country. I’m not a terribly conservative person and have never been a lover of President Bush, but even I was scandalized at how much screen time the Bushs spend in their underwear. And a scene that features Bush coming to a political epiphany while “taking a Cheney” gives a whole new meaning to the term “sitting president.”

In terms of technique, Stone has somewhat tamed his signature super-montage for a more restrained version of rhythmic cutting with well-timed inserts. (Apparently belt buckles play for a lot of laughs in Los Feliz, where I watched the film). The film flashes forwards and backwards from pre-born to re-born Bush, with a corresponding camera/editing technique for each version of the future decider. Now, I am a great admirer of Ken Jacobs’ camerawork, but seeing Bush’s wilder years described by a wide-angle lens doing handheld acrobatics in cinemascope made even me a little woozy.

Even so, Stone is an able filmmaker with a command of the form. We know the story, but the slow, musical build to the world-wide-protests-that-would-be-ignored moved me to tears. This is also the first time the film cuts to television footage and what comes across as a gimmick in other films is a powerful intrusion of fact upon fiction in this one.

While this is, for me, the highlight of the movie, it also points to its greatest flaw. To return once more to the ideas of Thom Andersen, “cinema is a continuation of the novel by other means.” It shows us the world, not as it is, but as already processed through an intentional consciousness. This presents us with an illusion of the omnipotence of thought, an illusion that, Andersen asserts, is at the core of our perception. By turning Bush into Don Quixote, W. doesn’t present us with a picture of how we arrived at this historical moment, but an “I once was lost and now I’m found” story about a bad boy trying to do right by his dad. The world as processed through Bush’s interior consciousness isn’t a picture we need to be presented with; it’s a reality we’re trying to change.

(Thanks to The Trade Mark Blog for the Image of Bush)

Posted By Madison Brookshire