Getting ready to teach course on terrorism and torture in June. Cheery summer reading/viewing:

Hany Abu-Hassad, Paradise Now
Albert Camus, The Just Assassins
J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale
Don DeLillo, Falling Man
Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden
Paul Haggis, In the Valley of Elah
Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony
Gillo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers
Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

Here’s hoping my students have strong stomachs.


Hangmen Also Die!, Fritz Lang (1943)

You could think of this film as the epitome of German exile influence in Hollywood during World War II; the story was written by Lang and Brecht (it was Brecht’s only American screenplay credit), and the score was written by the great Hanss Eisler, of whom many Billy Bragg and Wilco fans have sung, many probably unwittingly. The setting is occupied Czechoslovakia. The (very) bad guy is Reinhard Heydrich, who is soon executed by the underground. (Note that this takes place off-camera; we’re firmly in the hands of the Lang of M‘s bouncing ball and the Brecht of Verfremdungseffekt.) The remainder of the film is a veritable tutorial on the agonizing conditions of resistance and the manipulations of occupation. Are you a traitor if you betray one to save many? What about betraying many to save just one — your own father, or lover, or even simply the grocer across the street you’ve known all your life? Ostensibly a drama, and just dramatic enough to “sell” as a thriller, this is actually very much an epic in the Brechtian sense: we’re required at every turn to evaluate, consider, and critique. The movie feels somewhat mechanical in this respect — it’s Important, and knows it — but a half-century on, its questions about how to tell the difference between a traitor and a hero remain relevant.

In Bruges, Martin McDonagh (2008)

Whatever you think of McDonagh’s plays . . . Let me start that again. Martin McDonagh, the playwright, has here made a movie which is neither play-like enough to provide stage pleasures nor movie-like enough to provide screen pleasures. We shouldn’t be surprised. There’s only one playwright I know of — David Mamet — who understands the screen as well as the stage; the exception, I think, proves the rule. Remember Pinter’s awful Turtle Diary? Of course you don’t; no one does, for good reason.

I am sure that the cast and crew had a very nice time shooting in Bruges and drinking the lovely beer there, but the result of their effort is utterly lacking in fizz. The characters are one-dimensional caricatures, the plot manages to be both simplistic and creakily contrived (watch near the midpoint for the ten full minutes spent ginning up a reason why Farrell’s escape will be foiled at the climax), and whenever the director seems unsure of what to do next, he just points the camera at a nice old building or a canal with a swan in it, as if to say, well, at least it’s a pretty view, eh?

On a meta-note. The reviews for this film are so wildly over the top that it’s really worth thinking about why. Maybe people are desperate to believe that Europe still looks like this, when it really looks like this? Or everyone wants to get lost in Colin Farrell’s eyebrows? (I personally prefer him sans.) Not sure, but something’s fishy.

Good Bye Lenin!, Wolfgang Becker (2003)

Perhaps a bit too charming, but nevertheless effective and affecting. In East Berlin in early 1989, the gung-ho socialist mother of a doting son has a heart attack and goes into a coma. When she wakes up eight months later, the doctors say she mustn’t be agitated, but meanwhile, the world’s changed. Doting son goes to extreme — and ha ha comical — lengths to maintain the illusion that the GDR still exists. But as the charade goes on, it gradually becomes clear that it’s the son, not the mother, who is afraid to let go of the past and move into the future. A lovely instantiation of the idea that history isn’t a set of objective facts but a series of intentional constructions.

Gone Baby Gone, Ben Affleck (2007)

I don’t care for Boston, I don’t care for Ben Affleck, and I double don’t care for Ben Affleck’s sentimentalism for Boston, which makes it I think something like quadruple surprising that I loved this movie. Intelligently constructed, subtly acted, and, maybe most importantly of all, shot with a kind of this-can’t-go-on-it-will-go-on melancholy that suffuses every scene with grace and gravity.

A stray observation: You know what Affleck’s Boston reminds me of? The South, as I have gradually come to understand it. Neighborhoods are universes. Secrets are cherished. Appearances are everything. Smart of Affleck to have Ed Harris’s character hail from Louisiana, and to cast Mississippi’s native son Morgan Freeman as the movie’s top cop. Is Ben Affleck smart? Can that be? Must. Recalibrate. Prejudices. . . .