Beau Travail directed by Claire Denis
Ready, Set, Cinema Three Kings should have opened the New York Film Festival as a gateway to the extraordinary fall movie season. This satire about America's 1991 Gulf War against Iraq's Saddam Hussein that killed hundreds of thousands of people and won the closed hearts and narrow minds of sleepy American patriots is actually a wake-up call to how bracing and political pop culture can be. Many people, having forgotten when American pop cinema used to be astute, may have given up the idea that movies can delight, convey meaning and affect the way you see yourself in the world. So they go to film festivals for distanced sober seriousness. Yet Three Kings' war comedy is so incisive?making points with every bomb and shootout?that it startlingly connects to the most erudite and fastidious European art films, like one of this year's New York Fest highlights, Claire Denis' Beau Travail.
Denis examines Western imperialist impulse through an iconic, formally precise update of Melville's Billy Budd. Poeticizing the internal politics of a single, jealous French Legionnaire (Denis Lavant), her subject is first-world citizens' personal indoctrination to military hierarchy and ideology. Denis evokes Ousmane Sembene's study of how militarism and colonialism affected individual soldiers in Camp de Thiaroye, and both these artists' global/personal visions dovetail with the conscientiousness that makes Three Kings so brilliant. As George Clooney, Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg (our troops) tear through the Middle East sand dunes looking for gold hidden among the weapons stockpiles, director-writer David O. Russell also kicks George Bush's asshole politics across the desert. Most of all, Three Kings tears through the barrier of political indifference?the apathy of individuals who comprise both the pop audience and the Gulf War military. Few critics have appreciated the superb achievement of this film, and it's too good to let slip away. Unlike the past decade's culture of denial (which Russell and Denis upbraid), Three Kings reminds us we do have personal responses to art and politics.
Russell reassesses Desert Storm mania. Like Denis, he's aware of how contemporary private citizens deny their political status. This is not regular movie material. Denis goes at it abstractly, but Russell unearths American political indifference by showing its roots in the GIs' illiteracy and back-home poverty and the rapacious urge of news reporters exploiting the desert conflict as their own career opportunities. The American urge is both libidinous and materialistic?Russell's observation, not cynical judgment. Capt. Archie Gates (Clooney), Sgt. Troy Barlow (Wahlberg) and Staff Sgt. Elgin (Cube) find an opportunity to reward their tours of duty by stealing Saddam's gold bullion. It's a typically selfish American, post-Communist impulse, vividly underscored (proven) by the soundtrack motifs "Can't Do Nuttin' For Ya Man" by Public Enemy and Snap's "The Power" ("I will attack/And you don't want that!"). Russell shares the joy we all take from American pop (it's played during sex and dancing among the coed GIs), and he understands how pop incitements to pleasure and fantasy contribute to a blase social attitude that the era's politicians could exploit for larger, alien, aggressive purposes.
This insight is as complicated as the psychological study of Beau Travail (the title's an ironic term for the best work available to the ungainfully employed). Russell, whose previous film, Flirting With Disaster, pondered the young generation's ideological inheritance, now extends that film's study to the moral choices Gulf War enlistees faced. Essentially they're pop consumers; that's their birthright and their connection to the very people they've been sent to fight. The Iraqis are also neocapitalists, hoarding watches, tvs, cell phones and deluxe, gas-guzzling automobiles. Russell treats global commerce as a great sick joke. (His Three Kings title kids the traditional Christmas carol cuz the gift American mercenaries bear is bombs and artillery and greed.) The Yankee bandits discover unexpected solidarity with the (Third) world our culture normally subordinates. They're caught between surrendering Iraqi soldiers and desperate civilians encouraged by U.S. policy to fight Saddam Hussein but now, as powerless refugees, looking to the three kings for help. Amid the land mines, buried treasure, aerial gas bombs and Louis Vuitton luggage, wartime confusion expresses the modern geopolitical dilemma.
That's witty?it's also why Three Kings is festival-worthy. This agit-pop dares to make politically risky statements about American might and righteousness; it even subverts postmodern cynicism to revitalize humanist impulses. That's what healthy pop art does. In Beau Travail Denis takes the artsiness of Malick's Thin Red Line and uses it for politically conscious purposes?another meditation on existence, but influenced by Frantz Fanon and the Genet of Prisoner of Love. Russell shows equal astuteness in the way he updates the GI platoon movie, doing honor to Michael Curtiz's swashbucklers and Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. That's about as thrilling and moral as movies get.
Three Kings' opening begins, "The War Just Ended" (referring to Bush's March 1991 ceasefire) but Russell means something more: the war over Pop Art doesn't really end. Films like Godard's Le Petit Soldat and Les Carabiniers and the NYFF itself once waged battle by keeping art and ideology alive. And Beau Travail continues in its elegant way: repeated scenes of the white Legionnaires scoping Arab girls in a disco capture the timeless complex of fascination and exploitation. Denis digs deep into psycho-political confusion but not better than Three Kings reifies America's cultural domination. The dynamism of great pop?a Hum-Vee cassette-player impudently changing from Bach to the Beach Boys ("I Get Around") while GIs enter a desert city?complicates pleasure with the problem of Western privilege.
Russell knows American movies used to combine intelligence and sport?that was the early promise of this century's great art form. But pop has been debased lately; comedy and action became decadent and self-serving around the time of Desert Storm. A friend enthused about Three Kings, "This is the kind of movie Tarantino would make if he had politics." Right, but he'd also need the right politics, not casual indifference to policy and issues but a principled concern with what Americans hold dear as well as what they hold speciously. Inside Desert Storm's ideological maelstrom, Russell explores exactly those prerogatives. Along with propaganda murals of Saddam in cap and gown, a Rodney King video plays in an Iraqi bunker; a soldier races through underground tunnels carrying blue jeans as booty; when Troy is interrogated by an Iraqi he's asked, "What is the problem with Michael Jackson?"?a serious question with which Russell poses the fullest moral, racial inquiry, a great Godardian moment. Then when Troy is questioned about U.S. policy, his all-American ignorance is rewarded as per custom?a CD stuck in his mouth and oil poured down his throat.
Neither Beau Travail nor Le Petit Soldat surpasses such agit-pop. Russell's directing skills now include visual allegory as well as character nuance. His widescreen compositions have comic-strip brilliance, using space to show the disastrous desert fires and distance to dramatize the phenomenon of violence?lively sequences to instruct a new generation on the effects of violence by slowing down bullet trajectory or, in an inspired f/x, going inside a wound to show its impact on internal organs. It isn't grisly, it's a pop provocation that redresses conventional movie gore with conscientious visual humor.
The Gulf War, unlike Vietnam, depended upon the modern audience's desensitization to violence; that's what a tv reporter implies when proclaiming that Desert Storm "exorcised the ghost of Vietnam with a clear moral imperative." Three Kings refutes such media propaganda with a sharp sense of how 90s morality has become unclear. (Troy imagines several brief flashes of domestic brutality that give him an emotional bond with his grief-stricken torturer.) In an astounding battle between rebels and Iraqi soldiers, Russell details an Iraqi mother being shot in head. This not only balances excitement with horror, but evokes the famous shocking photograph of a Vietnam execution, raising the stakes of movie consciousness. Russell asks for a long-overdue moral response, wondering, Can conscience be affected by art? By pop cruelty? Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel desaturates the desert to heighten awareness. The mother's blood flows into the sand, black as oil.
Such images let Russell triumph over the banality of war/action movies. Three Kings ranks with such American triumphs as M*A*S*H and Walter Hill's Trespass that used conventional form to express modern anxiety. Instead of glamorizing war (or Hollywood immorality) Russell turns the enjoyment of genre to political effect. Denis works similarly with her Billy Budd archetypes, but Ice Cube's ethnic sensitivity and religious faith, Wahlberg's working-class simplicity (and in a smaller role, Spike Jonze's trailer park pathos) are more directly effective. Also recognizable is Clooney's neo-Gable machismo: self-centered yet weary of American habit, he sees past the greed to the humanism the war requires of him. In a wonderful turnabout Capt. Gates leads his troops to join the rebels. His speech is a wily joke on how sincerity has been degraded into cant. ("We will rise up together, many races, many nations.") He isn't simply selling brotherhood, but an authentically American notion of its accessories?Lexuses and Infinities.
Only someone who swallowed CIA propaganda or felt Bush's self-proclaimed war was just could find fault with Russell's lampoon. Any movie that keeps you surprised and thinking, that clarifies current moral amazement, deserves a high five?and the appellation "art." Not just the stuff of European intellectuals (Kusturica's unwatchable Black Cat, White Cat), movie art can include the energy that Three Kings epitomizes but that Americans are prone to take for granted. During a great week of New York Film Festival screenings, it's Three Kings that announces conscientious art is still possible in Hollywood; that an indie director like Russell can rise from the fringes, integrity intact; and that 1999's fall movie season is gonna be magnificent. The best Festival entries so far are Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy, Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, the Dardenne Brothers' Rosetta and Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother. Together with David Lynch's The Straight Story and Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, it's enough to make you believe in a pop renaissance.
Next week I'll report on Festival trailblazers Boys Don't Cry and Pola X.
Julien Donkey-Boy directed by Harmony Korine
Responding to the era's hypertechnology, young folks want to believe in realism again?even if it's faked and gilded with real-life mutations, perversions, aberrations and deformities. That's why Harmony Korine's mix of actors and freaks gets taken seriously. Now he claims adherence to the already specious Dogma 95 movement of Danish filmmakers. But Korine's second film, Julien Donkey-Boy, simply uses that gimmick to sell this exploitation of what he admits dramatizes his schizophrenic uncle's life.
What the gullible media (as obtuse as art-critic Giuliani) don't understand is that Korine isn't serious. Like his other relative, Huntz Hall of the Bowery Boys, he's a comedian. Korine's slapdash surveys of American seaminess is nothing more than cruel comedy?he dares you not to laugh at the albino rapper, armless card dealer and drummer, obese dancer, German-fascist father, the incestuous pregnant teen, the blind children bowling and ice-skating, and the exotic, superstitious blacks in church.
It's not avant-garde, but, veritably, a cable access Gong Show. Using expensive video technology for editing, colorizing and up to 30 cameras including one- and two-chip digital cams, Korine contradicts Dogma 95 ascetic precepts, a fatuous pretense anyway. Casting Werner Herzog as the father provides no validation. Herzog himself may like showcasing freaks, but he's also a genius?with a great visual sense?and as an actor he improvises better absurdities than Korine conceives. Following Julien (Ewen Bremner) to the church, Korine shows him looking lost and crying, but no wonder: Korine jump-cuts the sermon to be incomprehensible. All it shows is Korine's skepticism and contempt for anyone's normality or attempt at coping. His deliberate obsession with obfuscation and obliteration culminates in a blind girl saying, "I thought I could really see," until being told she couldn't. More cruelly, the preggers teen (Chloe Sevigny) asks, "How do you think the future looks for the baby?" and the blind girl answers, "Bright." That's more than one desires for Korine's career.
But the media's always ready for a naked emperor; so are naive cinephiles. And Korine's punkish anger and nescience flatter their fearful stupidity. Reflecting a nihilist generation's self-regard and doom, Julien kills a child, rapes his sister and becomes part of a cycle: Indifferent God/Bad Father/Retarded Julien. Even when Julien takes the stillborn fetus from the delivery room and huddles up in bedclothes like a mutant newborn, Korine still dares you to laugh. And you should. He's made history's most exalted Dead Baby Joke.