Within the Context of No Context

Within the Context of No Context

Reviews of Blood Diamond, Inland Empire, The Good German and The History Boys.


Down to hell Ed Zwick tumbles, over his good intentions. The director of Glory and The Last Samurai has set out willingly for the inferno of 1990s Sierra Leone, where drug-addled child conscripts carried out massacres for a rebel army, using guns bought through the diamond trade. His golden intention: to stir the conscience of moviegoers in the North so they will seek to end such horrors. When Americans go out for a date on Friday night, when they seek holiday recreation, Zwick will appall them with scenes they previously refused to watch on the 11 o’clock news. All he will ask, by way of thanks, is an Oscar or two.

In this way, Zwick has arrived at a substitute hell: the cinematic Styx titled Blood Diamond.

It is long (or, if you prefer, epic), expensively expansive, marvelous to look at (no matter how awful its events) and incorrigibly expository. Considering how much information Charles Leavitt’s screenplay dumps into your ears, you might at least expect to leave the theater with a focused analysis. But given the number of clichés Zwick has lavished on the subject, you are more likely to lose track of the argument, so that you’ll go away with nothing in mind but triumph and tragedy. The triumph belongs to thrice-noble Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who starts out as a poor fisherman but by the end has a briefcase full of cash, a handsome new suit and lip service from a chamber of white diplomats. (So much for the suffering of Africa’s people.) The tragedy is that of Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly), a conspicuously hot globetrotting correspondent for The Nation, or some such magazine. By the end, this unlikely figure has filed the biggest story of her career, but at what cost? Maddy will never again ride up and down on mercenary-smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio)–so tanned, so sweaty, so interesting.

Don’t get me wrong: If any onscreen love interest would be worth Jennifer Connelly’s attention, it would be Leo, who comes to the role pumped and gives good dialect, too. But why (apart from the obvious reason) should Blood Diamond waste so much time building sexual tension between him and Connelly? With so many chases to cut to, why don’t they? Why, as Connelly waits for the inevitable, must she take seriously a role that Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark played for laughs? And speaking of those chases: How do the stars of Blood Diamond make so many improbable escapes from hails of bullets? You’d think the movie ought to be called Near-Death Experience.

“I know people who say there is something wrong inside our black skins,” Hounsou tells DiCaprio at a meditative moment between machine-gun bursts, “and we were better off when the white man ruled.” For all of Zwick’s good intentions, I see nothing in Blood Diamond to contradict this foul opinion. With exceptions that are painfully few (and painfully stilted), the film’s black Africans come booming their blood-lust song straight out of Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.” The white mercenary-smuggler, by contrast, is at heart a soulful fellow, trembling for Connelly’s redemptive touch. (“An entire country made homeless,” she sighs to him, with her right breast fetchingly displayed.) Anyhow, the white man still seems to rule, since the solution to Africa’s problems, evidently, is for several of the species to pass a resolution at a G-8 conference.

But it’s up to you to make that resolution binding! As a title explains at the end of Blood Diamond, power ultimately rests in the hands of the consumer. So next time you splurge at Tiffany, Nation reader, demand conflict-free sparklers, lest you add to Djimon Hounsou’s troubles. Though maybe you should add to them, so he can get a second briefcase full of cash. Hell, I’m not sure what to do for the guy.

* * *

Some people admire David Lynch because he does not just use the conventions and atmosphere of “the movies” but revels in them, and without any burden of Zwicklike social purpose–in fact, without discernible purpose at all. Though certain of his fans may stare mistakenly at his narrative threads, hoping for a pattern to emerge, wiser moviegoers know that Lynch just wants to pull the rug out from under them. Then he slips it back under their feet so he can pull it again.

So it goes with Inland Empire, one of the longest and most self-involved works in the Lynch canon: a film (video, actually) that purports to play the old game of trapping an actress within the movie she’s making so that she loses herself in the maze of role and identity, illusion and reality. Having set up this game, Inland Empire also mocks it, making cheesy, portentous use of images like the Hollywood sign and the Walk of Fame. Folderol happens (generally involving the actress being abused, menaced, bewildered, abased); a plot begins to suggest itself; and then, just as intelligibility threatens, the whole thing collapses back into folderol. Some people call this the free play of signifiers. I say it’s a prison-house of futility.

Laura Dern stars as the movie actress (maybe) who is or is not making a picture titled On High in Blue Tomorrows. At one point, this project is said to be the remake of an unfinished, accursed German film that was based on a Polish gypsy folk tale. I would like to see that movie. What I got instead, for three hours, was a catalogue of vintage David Lynch motifs, unified only by the director’s fascination with Laura Dern’s mouth.

Inland Empire is about nothing but that. Lynch shoots upward at Dern in close-up, to make her mouth loom in the frame. He floods the screen with light so her face washes out except for the lipstick. He plants a big fake bruise on her chin, right where it will draw attention to the jut of her lower lip. He directs her to breathe orally, so you can see her teeth framed by a gently curved, vertical box. Her tremulous orifice, red-bordered, white-lined, soft and pliant at the center of its bow, hard and linear at the edges–this fleshy abyss that nervously sneers and stammers–seems to speak and act on its own, since it is attached not to a character but to a mere notion. It is more than a synecdoche, more than a fetish. The mouth of Laura Dern is the sole subject and protagonist of Inland Empire.

Unless, of course, you count the family of giant, bourgeois rabbits.

With apologies to Steven Soderbergh, who has never wanted to play Baby Bear to anyone’s Papa and Mama, I will say that coincidence has made him do just that, now that he shares the release calendar with Lynch and Zwick. His new film, The Good German, is like Inland Empire in being a self-conscious parade of old movie tropes. It is like Blood Diamond in having a movielike fable to tell: a moral tale about war and corruption (with a little sex). Not too hot and not too cold: In its fusion of style and substance, Soderbergh’s film goes down just right.

But how important is that?

In any month but December, you might not ask, because you could enjoy The Good German simply as a jeu d’esprit. It is a slightly exaggerated re-creation of a 1940s studio-made film, shot on soundstages and back lots using old-fashioned lenses and boom mikes, camera tracks and rear projection. The image is black and white; the lighting, chiaroscuro; the performance style, extroverted; the musical score, through-composed. I get the feeling that Soderbergh had been nursing a directorial urge, a desire to make his own version of Casablanca or The Third Man, and found a narrative appropriate to that purpose in a recent novel by Joseph Kanon: a book that is no better (and no worse) than the average literary fodder for 1940s movies, and that has the advantage of being set in the ruins of Berlin, after the Allied victory but before the Japanese surrender.

Here, then, are the world-weary not-so-wise guy (George Clooney), the damaged dame out of the past (Cate Blanchett), the sharp operator (Tobey Maguire), the savvy foreign officer (Ravil Isyanov) and even the sidekick bartender (Tony Curran), all caught up in a murder mystery, a political intrigue, a romance gone bad. If you want to take pleasure in these characters as stock figures, stylishly realized, then there’s much to like in The Good German, from Blanchett’s throaty languor (as she knowingly evokes Marlene Dietrich) and Clooney’s haplessness (so different from his usual swagger) to the fleet pace of Paul Attanasio’s screenplay, which allows these people to figure one another out just a beat before you manage to.

But The Good German has in fact come out in December, when producers and distributors try to appeal to Oscar voters, or at least grown-ups; and this context creates problems. It might remind you that elements of this story–the Holocaust, say–are more than the occasion for a jeu d’esprit. You may notice that Soderbergh, for all his intelligence, hasn’t gotten beneath the surface of his stock figures, into the lived experience that might underlie them. And when you realize that the intimate drama of The Good German has no necessary connection with its world-historical themes, you may feel as if you’ve slipped back into Blood Diamond, with a black-and-white Leo and Jennifer.

I come at last to a holiday release that has no cinema–The History Boys–and discover it’s the most satisfying of the present lot. About Nicholas Hytner’s direction, I can say only that it keeps the actors in the frame and misuses just one of them. (Clive Merrison is the victim, in the role of a comical headmaster. He’s encouraged to be such a gargoyle that the movie could turn to stone around him.) Whatever style you find in The History Boys comes solely from screenwriter Alan Bennett (adapting his own play) and from poetry anthologies, which are the chief resource for the characters’ chattering, flighty, competitive dialogue.

Richard Griffiths leads the ensemble cast as the head chatterer: a waddling, walrusy old teacher in a boys’ secondary school in Yorkshire, who amuses his pupils with games, songs and wistful gropes. His antagonist (Stephen Campbell Moore) is a slim young part-timer, equally gay and closeted, who’s been hired to prepare the best students for entrance exams at Oxford and Cambridge. A handful of these multiethnic middle-class lads have a chance to step up in the world. Is that what education is for?

The new man talks as if knowledge is just flash; the old one insists it has meaning. (Here, too, the Holocaust comes in for discussion, as a reality not to be trifled with.) Had David Hare written The History Boys, that would have been the whole movie: a canned debate between postmodernism and tradition. So thank God for Alan Bennett. He knows there’s a school corridor where the two sides can meet, in disappointment and longing, and smile over secrets that were never much concealed.

You should watch Griffiths and Moore do that. There’s real style in their acting. The substance is a joy.

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