Natural Born Killers

Natural Born Killers

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, Eliav Lilti’s Israel: A Home Movie, Jerry Bruckheimer’s Enemy of the State


The film of the year is Enemy of the State. I don’t ordinarily go in for pronouncements like that, let alone make them in July; but we live in unusual times, and in this case the month hardly matters. Enemy of the State came out in 1998.

In those days, the op-ed chorus was not yet chanting that 9/11 had changed everything, and Edward Snowden, future leaker of the National Security Agency’s secrets, was a 15-year-old high school student. In retrospect, maybe a film critic could be forgiven for having laughed off Enemy of the State, interpreting it as a projection of the conflicts within producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s psyche, rather than praising it as a reasonably accurate depiction, in pop movie images, of the power of a hidden government, permanent and unaccountable. To see my error, look up my column in The Nation from December 14, 1998. For a preview of Snowden’s revelations and their impact in 2013, watch Enemy of the State.

It is the story of an all-seeing National Security Agency that already treats the laws against domestic surveillance as the flimsiest of fictions—accessing and cross-referencing your telephone records and bank accounts at will, deploying satellite cameras that can “read the time off your fuckin’ wristwatch”—but intends to accrue still more power through passing a Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act. Under its terms, “privacy” is what individual citizens will formally surrender to the NSA, in exchange for putative protection against terrorists. “Security” is what the NSA will gain for its budget and operations, in perpetuity.

Anyone who appears to threaten the enactment of this legislation, even unknowingly—as does Will Smith, here in the youthful fullness of his lankiness and charm—may run all he likes from the NSA’s death squad but will always remain in plain view of his pursuers. Without understanding how or why, Smith is caught in a conflict between freedom and constraint that director Tony Scott translates, cinematically, into the juxtaposition of different points of view and types of space. To himself, Smith is a human being, dashing through three-dimensional streets, tunnels, industrial warehouses and railyards. To the NSA, Smith is a blip within a two-dimensional computer image, to be tracked, zoomed into and obliterated.

Watching Enemy of the State in the year of Snowden, I’m struck by the jocularity of the NSA technicians. Played by actors (Jack Black, Jamie Kennedy) chosen for a raffishness that is less than fully adult, they not only instigate and observe Smith’s desperate troubles but also narrate them mockingly in real time. Incurious about the purpose of their jobs, the tech boys take for granted the existence of a massive telecommunications apparatus and simply enjoy the cheap sense of superiority it offers them, as if they were couch-bound buddies riffing on a shabbily predictable TV show.

In exposing this mentality, this bland and self-congratulatory illusion of sharing in great power without having to accept responsibility for it, Enemy of the State was prescient about the shrug with which many Americans would respond to Snowden’s leak. But then, the nasty joke built into Enemy of the State—a joke that has even more sting in 2013—is that prescience is unnecessary. When I first saw the film, I complained that the fictional Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act was too thin a contrivance to drive the plot (the movie’s version of the NSA already having whatever it wants), and that Gene Hackman, in the role of a former NSA spook, is too much of a mouthpiece for the filmmakers. (Disclosure: I know one of the uncredited screenwriters, Henry Bean. We knew each other in 1998, too.) Back then, Hackman’s instructive rants against the covert government seemed to me to blend into the general Bruckheimer-Scott silliness, like the obligatory orange fireball, the gratuitous parade of lingerie models and Smith’s formulaic demand, “I want my life back.”

Of course, he’s not getting it back. Everything in the movie tells us that, just as it tells us that no one can dislodge America’s secret government. (What do you think Congress is going to do with that 1.5-million-square-foot facility in Utah now that Snowden has stepped forward—turn it into a skating rink?) Now, a little late, I see the point of the almost Brechtian phoniness of the story, up to the moment when the heroes (the FBI, no less) rescue Smith as if galloping into the scene on toy horses, waving a banner inscribed “Happy Ending.” I now understand that the MacGuffin in Enemy of the State, the thing that sets off the chase but is ultimately irrelevant, is not the telecommunications act, or the video evidence of a crime. It’s democracy.

* * *

The silence has recently begun to lift on the state-organized, American-backed massacre of civilians in Indonesia in 1965–66, a slaughter so widespread that some have called it genocide. In 2010, for example, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court made it legal (within limits) to publish the testimony of survivors, and in the past several years hundreds of witnesses have had the courage to speak. Still, the pall of the massacre hangs so heavily over the country that a number of the Indonesians who helped Joshua Oppenheimer make his documentary The Act of Killing prefer to be listed in the credits as “Anonymous.” On the film’s evidence, which varies in strength from hair-raising to mind-boggling, the regime that consolidated its power half a century ago remains proudly in control, and the killers, at every level of society, are not only unrepentant but boastful about their crimes.

Imagine seeing Indonesia’s vice president address a large paramilitary organization, Pancasila Youth, to thank it for its support, to praise gangsters and vigilantes for having made the country free, and to encourage these quasi-official thugs to continue to threaten violence. That’s the sort of outrageous moral inversion that The Act of Killing documents at base level, when the filmmaking method is plain point-and-shoot. For the real kick, look to the more ambitious scenes documented within the mind of Anwar Congo, one of the men in North Sumatra who did the hands-on killing.

A so-called movie gangster, who made a living in the early 1960s by scalping tickets at Medan’s theaters, the slim, halo-haired, grandfatherly Congo seems to have been more than willing to speak on camera about the murders he was recruited to commit. (He is often accompanied in these scenes by a sidekick, Herman Koto, who seems too young to have joined in the slaughter of 1965–66, but who cheerfully associates himself with it anyway.) Congo was not content merely to reminisce for Oppenheimer, or even to demonstrate his favorite method—garroting—at the actual site of the crimes. According to an essay by Oppenheimer that appears on the film’s website and in its production notes, Congo and Koto were eager to re-create the murders as scenes from the types of films they love—crime thrillers, war movies, westerns—with themselves as the stars.

I can’t say to what degree they volunteered this idea and to what extent Oppenheimer elicited it from them. (The film, as distinguished from Oppenheimer’s written account of it, is full of deliberately unresolved puzzles and oddities.) All I know is that The Act of Killing begins inside a couple of these cinematic deliriums, which Oppenheimer realized according to Congo’s instructions, and never fully emerges after that from a tone of bizarre fantasy.

In between the passages of real-world reportage, you see heads sawed off (from stage-prop dummies), faces beaten raw (or rather covered in horror-movie makeup), cowboys saddling up to kill the Commies (urged on by Koto in a dance hall madam’s gown), and 1940s cops (or are they gangsters?) giving the third degree to a sobbing, sniveling bit player. The fact that this volunteer actor is the stepson of someone killed in the massacres gives his brief film noir scene a jolt of realism, but does nothing to awaken you from the nightmare.

Oppenheimer has said that he hopes the genre movie scenes he created for Congo and Koto will give audiences an insight into the killers’ imaginations, so we can understand why these men were willing to murder and how they can look back today with an apparently easy conscience. That sounds reasonable—and yet it seems to me that the power of these micro-movies is less explanatory than evocative. What’s evoked, moreover, is often unsurprising, although vividly grotesque. As you’d expect, the killers exude a creepy brio in their savagery, while performing for the camera with an equally predictable but disturbing amateurishness that comes close to seeming ingenuous. 

But maybe these little movies reveal as much about you, the viewer, as they do about Anwar Congo. They attract and repel, continually pulling you into The Act of Killing as if into a freak show, and pushing you back whenever you think of the underlying horror. In the end, the little movies also speak to your need to see somebody answer for the murders—a need that’s gratified when Congo begins to unravel. Although he may still enjoy legal impunity, the process of reliving his crimes through film acting finally inflicts on him an emotional retribution. Again, it’s no surprise—but only a saintly viewer, or a dishonest one, will deny that the outcome satisfies.

Maybe Oppenheimer had loftier goals; but at minimum he has, like the wise Mikado, made the punishment fit the crime. That the resulting merriment, if you can call it that, does not feel at all innocent makes The Act of Killing one of the few films now in theaters that demands to be seen.

* * *

Because we’re in the middle of the summer movie apocalypse, I suppose I ought to comment on some of the important pictures out there, such as Brad Pitt’s zombie epic World War Z, or the Seth Rogen–Evan Goldberg come-to-Jesus comedy This Is the End. If I have no choice except to watch a noisy end-of-days movie with plenty of CGI, then I suppose I prefer the Rogen-Goldberg venture. It’s almost Iranian in its self-reflexive playfulness (compared, I mean, with the Pitt zombiefest, not with an actual Iranian film).

Maybe I can make myself think about it next month. For the moment, I’d rather focus on a couple of small, quiet pictures that bring out the not-so-ordinary textures of what we call normal life.

Museum Hours takes all the saturated color and nuanced light that writer-director-cinematographer Jem Cohen can muster and lavishes them on a lost glove lying on the ground, an empty beer can, an abandoned note written by someone unknown: discarded objects that, to the narrator of the film, a security guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, are not unlike the detritus—a broken eggshell, a chewed-up bone—he finds in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It’s winter in the film, and a sense of mortality lies over the city and its people, principally the guard (Bobby Sommer), who is in late middle age and knows this is the last job he’ll hold, and his new friend, a visitor from Montreal (Mary Margaret O’Hara), who has entered her mature years without money or a steady job but has managed to come to Vienna to spend time with a dying cousin. Two calm, steady people who savor the moments they’re given, they sit together at the cousin’s bedside (where O’Hara sometimes sings, with a lovely Celtic glissando), go to whatever attractions Vienna has to offer that don’t cost much, and from time to time think about the artworks in the museum. They wear their sense of mortality lightly. That’s all. That’s everything.

The casual, the haphazard, the half-forgotten are the very substance of Israel: A Home Movie, playing at Film Forum in New York City (July 10–16). Producer Arik Bernstein and director Eliav Lilti have compiled the film from the home movies recorded by many different Israelis, of many backgrounds and political viewpoints, from the 1930s to the 1970s, and from voiceover narrations by the amateur cinematographers’ surviving family members. You see historic moments, poorly framed and out of focus, mixed in with the jerkily recorded weddings and beach vacations of people you don’t know, and somehow they add up to the story of a country, pained, hopeful, infuriating and heartbreaking.

On that note, let me bring you word, as I should have done long ago, of the Palestinian-Israeli nonprofit organization Just Vision, which makes high-quality documentary films (Budrus, My Neighbourhood) as a way to raise awareness of nonviolent resistance to the occupation and encourage support for these efforts. Just Vision is jointly led by executive director Ronit Avni and creative director Julia Bacha, which makes the organization feminist and artistic in nature, as well as binational and activist.

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