News and Features
In a weapons producing nation under Jesus
In the fabled crucible of the free world
Camera crews search for clues amid the detritus
And entertainment shapes the land
Although I'm mad for Paul Thomas Anderson's new picture, Punch-Drunk
Love, I also suspect it's made me a little crazy.
On his new album, country-rocker Steve Earle lets politics infuse his music.
The Bush Administration seems to be gunning to make history as the first
great unilateralist government of the twenty-first century.
The closest thing you get to a dull moment in Michael Moore's latest
picture, Bowling for Columbine, is an interview with Marilyn
Near the end of Jazz Modernism, Alfred Appel Jr.
While going about their business, great artists often make monkeys of
the people who write about them.
On September 17, PBS aired Darkness at High Noon: The Carl Foreman
Documents. On the surface, this documentary is a posthumous homage
to a worthy blacklisted screenwriter.
Walking at a good New Yorker's clip, you would need about fifteen
minutes to go between Film Forum and the World Trade Center site: a
straight shot down Varick Street from three cozy screening rooms and
fresh-made popcorn to the remains of a mass grave. I sketch this
geography to suggest what September 11, 2001, meant to the Film Forum staff, and to clarify the meaning of their decision to commemorate the other September 11 attack: the one that killed Salvador Allende in 1973.
The calendar links these two events, and so too does the roughest kind
of arithmetic. About as many people died at the World Trade Center as
were snatched up and murdered by the Pinochet regime. Because the United
States helped install and maintain that dictatorship, you might imagine
that Film Forum is also connecting these Septembers politically. You
would not be entirely wrong; after presenting Patricio Guzmán's
new documentary, The Pinochet Case (on view through September
24), the theater will continue its Chilean theme by showing The
Trials of Henry Kissinger. But if you know the Manhattan streets,
you will realize this schedule doesn't mean to explain--or, worse, to
excuse--the criminals who destroyed the Twin Towers. Rather, the Film
Forum staff have added sorrow to sorrow, looking beyond themselves and
their neighbors to others who are neglected at this moment. Generosity
inspires this programming choice, along with hope--precisely the
qualities that shine through The Pinochet Case.
If you remember the dangerous immediacy of Guzmán's
now-classic The Battle of Chile, you may be surprised to see
The Pinochet Case begin as a landscape film. Guzmán sets
the tone by showing views of mountains under a clear blue sky, as
glimpsed from a car on a lonely highway. A little time passes before the
car reaches its destination: a site where corpses were dumped. Two fully
clothed men, breathing and fidgeting, lie on the ocher ground to show
where the remains were found. By the very inadequacy of their imposture,
these surrogates hint at a horror you can't imagine; and maybe they
suggest as well that this place belongs to the living. Nothing is left
of the victims except for a few fragments--precious to the forensic
experts--and the memories borne by their families, who have come here
with Guzmán so they can testify to what cannot be seen or heard.
A woman speaks of her missing son, meanwhile fingering a photograph that
she has slung around her neck. A man recalls his missing brother by
reciting a song lyric by Victor Jara: "The spring will come from your
heart." He says the line several times over; and somehow, in this place
of natural beauty and man-made bitterness, he doesn't choke on the
The Pinochet Case belongs to witnesses like these. They sit for
their portraits, singly or in groups, sometimes while the moving camera
seems to caress their faces. They talk about whatever was hardest for
them to endure. (For Nelly, it was admitting that her missing husband
would never use the suitcase she packed for him. For Gabriela, who was
tortured and raped, it was seeing others killed.) Above all, these
witnesses hold out. "My revenge," Luisa says, "is just staying alive."
Not subsisting--staying alive. For Luisa and other witnesses, that meant
compiling data that Chilean society preferred to ignore, pressing
lawsuits that Chilean courts refused to hear, seeking justice that
seemed unattainable even after Pinochet stepped down. Underneath the
forms of democracy, as one witness explains, Chile remained unchanged,
since the thousands who had cooperated in state terror were still
around, still powerful, still unwilling to see their deeds uncovered.
And yet, "The spring will come from your heart." The witnesses went on
expecting justice--and suddenly, in 1998, they got it.
Narrating the story with brisk reverence for its heroes, The Pinochet
Case explains how Spanish prosecutor Carlos Castressana ingeniously
recognized that "crimes against humanity" are by definition the business
of all courts everywhere. Charges of torture and political murder could
therefore be brought against Augusto Pinochet in a Spanish court, even
though the crimes took place in Chile. Judge Baltasar Garzón
accepted this argument and began to hear testimony--quixotically, it
seemed, since no one imagined there would be a trial. But then
Castressana and Garzón had the further insight that if their
court could enter charges, it could also request extradition. They
sprang upon Pinochet during his annual visit to London. All at once, the
Senator for Life found himself under house arrest, while the British
legal system began fitfully to strip away his immunity from prosecution.
Another surprise: While The Pinochet Case is meditative and
leisurely when dealing with the witnesses, it becomes lively and even
raucous when it details the court proceedings in England. Part of this
energy comes from the polyrhythmic demonstrations that sprang up around
Pinochet. (Wherever he was, Chileans and their supporters turned out in
force, to bang on drums and shout "Murderer!") Another part of the
film's energy comes from the personalities of the lawyers--Castressana,
for example, is memorably forceful when he speaks of the historic ties
he feels with the Chileans--and still more is contributed by the
filmmaker himself. Guzmán illustrates the legal tactics with a
chessboard; the political maneuvering with some patched-in footage of
Margaret Thatcher, who paid a courtesy call on Pinochet during his
period of house arrest. "I'm very much aware," she intoned for his
benefit and the camera's, "that it's you who brought democracy to
What kind of laughter should those words arouse? If I know my New York
audiences, a jeer will greet them. We're good at jeering, and Thatcher
deserves it. What haunts me about The Pinochet Case, though, is a
far different expression of amusement: the bright smile of one of the
witnesses toward the end of the movie. She has lived to see Pinochet
humiliated; she knows the history books in her country can no longer
pass over his crimes; and although full justice has hardly been done,
although killers live unmolested all around her, she speaks with a tone
of laughter in her voice, a laughter without spite. The killers, she
says, are ashamed before their children; but we, we are free.
In September 2002, in New York City, The Pinochet Case is a gift.
Short Takes: The Method actor and the sensitive young junkie
emerged together in film history. New versions of the rebellious city
boy, scruffy yet soft and inward-looking, they both elected to hunch
over a pain in the gut, seeming to protect and even savor the inner
flaws that made them writhe.
Half a century later, those figures are still with us, most recently in
a Warner Bros. release titled City by the Sea and in a film from
China, Quitting. Both are based-on-a-true-story movies; both are
exercises in acting. Only one of them touches on the social disaffection
that used to spark these now-mythical types.
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones from a screenplay by Ken Hixon, City
by the Sea stars Robert DeNiro as a police detective whose
long-abandoned junkie son (James Franco) is now wanted for murder. The
dialogue is thick with intergenerational doom; the images with
establishing shots, as the action bounces between lower Manhattan (where
the cop lives and works) and the derelict boardwalk of Long Beach, the
son's all-too-symbolic hangout. But the real locus of interest is the
face and body of DeNiro, who once might have played the son but now has
grown meaty and measured, avuncular if not exactly paternal. You spend
the movie admiring his self-control but waiting for the performance to
start, until it finally does, on schedule, at the very end. Too bad the
acting doesn't benefit the son. The turmoil in this pretty-good picture
serves only DeNiro, helping him say farewell to his Method youth to
settle comfortably into a chair at the beach.
So I prefer Quitting by Zhang Yang, a fiction film in which young
actor Jia Hongsheng, playing himself, re-enacts his years of drug
addiction, his struggles with his family (who also play themselves) and
his time spent in a psychiatric hospital. Directed and performed with a
mercifully light touch, the movie is full of telling details, not just
about the characters but about their world: Jia's contempt for his
parents' "peasant" manner of speech and dress, for example, or his
fascination with Western youth culture, meaning drugs, rock and roll and
Method acting. (On the door of his room hangs a poster of DeNiro in
Taxi Driver.) All this is right on the surface, unlike Jia's
sexual orientation; but if you've got an eye for tight blue jeans and
midriff T-shirts, maybe that theme, too, comes to light.
Can function follow form?