Summer is here, that great diastole of American cinema when the cash floods into an artistically relaxed industry, later to be strenuously pumped out again during the systole of awards season. Though autonomic, this annual lub-dub is hardly without interest. Already, in the early phase of the present year’s spasm, the flow has carried in Prometheus, a long-awaited 3-D blockbuster concerned more or less with the death of God (as well as more predictable matters, such as the imperative to scare audiences into losing sphincter control). Meanwhile, in the little counterswirls that occur in any current, films of less commercial potential but even greater interest have bobbed to the surface. On the festival circuit, The Invisible War, a Sundance Audience Award winner, is showing in New York screenings for the Human Rights Watch Film Festival this summer, bringing audiences information about a problem both urgent and chronic: rape in the US military. In the art houses, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom has been demonstrating how it’s possible for a film to have a heart.
Like most of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom seems to have been made in a lovingly constructed hall of mirrors, where youthful hope and adult discouragement infinitely reflect each other. Grown-ups take on a juvenile appearance, as Edward Norton does, playing a scout troop leader with khaki shorts and a nicotine habit; and kids go about encrusted in someone’s memorabilia, as do Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, playing 12-year-old lovers who escape into the wild lugging everything from a Davy Crockett coonskin cap to a plastic portable record player. It’s as if the boy and girl, whose adventure takes place in late summer 1965, were being shown not as they were then but as they might remember themselves in 2012, amid the trappings of nostalgia; as if the backward perspective of almost fifty years had flattened the emotional difference between their generation and that of their parents. Bill Murray, white-haired and hangdog as the girl’s father, throws tantrums like a 5-year-old, pitching his shoes at an enemy and himself at the nearest tree trunk. Bruce Willis, as the sad, lovesick cop who becomes the boy’s protector, pours a beer for his young ward as casually as if sharing a Coke.
To Anderson’s critics, his stories of wayward grown-ups and solemn, precocious children are too whimsical and precious for their own good. Whether the setting is the New York City townhouse of The Royal Tenenbaums, the sea lab of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou or the railroad line of The Darjeeling Limited (which somehow passes through India without ever seeming to touch down in the country), there is nothing at stake in Anderson’s enclosed little worlds except his design sense, and nothing for the characters to confront except a risk of death from coyness. But if you see that Anderson is in effect collapsing disparate stages of life (especially mental stages), disparate eras and viewpoints, into a single image, you understand that the world of Moonrise Kingdom, though cute and miniature, can scarcely contain all the love and disappointment, conflict and absurdity that’s been compressed into it. (Suzy, the runaway girl, standing over a terrier who was shot dead with an arrow: “Was he a good dog?” Sam, the runaway boy, with wisdom beyond his years: “Who’s to say?”) Then you understand that Moonrise Kingdom is not just one of the best films of summer 2012 but is among the few that are redemptive.
It has all the artifice you’d expect of Anderson: doll-size models placed in toylike settings, elaborately staged theatricals and an instructive soundtrack. (As Leonard Bernstein explains at the beginning, courtesy of that portable record player, we are being treated to a theme and variations.) Tracking shots unfold like scrolls; close-ups illuminate their subjects like figures in a diorama; and the costumes seem to have been bought in an old New England junk shop that never existed until Anderson had it created for this production. He has possibly the most comprehensive style in current cinema, so obsessively ordered that it tames even the story’s hurricane. (Although Anderson filmed much of Moonrise Kingdom outdoors on a lushly wooded island, nobody has made nature feel so interior since Michael Powell in Black Narcissus.) Most studied of all is the acting, with the troubled young lovers—bespectacled, round-faced Gilman, and Hayward with her burning eyes—always speaking in pure Anderson deadpan.
But there’s more to Moonrise Kingdom than style, however much of it is piled on. Those back-and-forth reflections of now and then, yearning and disillusionment, dart about like fireflies that Anderson has trapped between the mirrors in his hall: wonderfully pretty, achingly transient. No wonder the house in Moonrise Kingdom is called Summer’s End.
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The Human Rights Watch Film Festival is concluding its annual round, as usual, with a visit to the Film Society of Lincoln Center (June 14–28), where the makers of The Invisible War, director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, are being honored with the 2012 Néstor Almendros Award. They’ve earned the distinction. Dick and Ziering have committed impressive resources of research, skill and moral gravity to The Invisible War. In doing so, they also happen to have touched on many of the themes of the 2012 festival: women’s rights, personal testimony, LGBT rights and reporting in crises.
If this range of issues seems large, so is the scale of the problem the film documents. To judge from statistics presented in the film, some 20 percent of the women who go into the US military will be sexually assaulted by the people they most trust: the servicemen with whom they live and work. The real percentage must of course be much higher, given the daunting pressure on victims to remain silent. As the filmmakers point out in The Invisible War, this is not just a problem for women. Men on active duty are raped too, at a lower rate but in higher absolute numbers than women. Nor is this exclusively a problem for the military. Many uniformed perpetrators retire into the civilian community unpunished, unidentified and amply experienced in sexual predation.
Spurred into action on this subject by a 2007 report by Helen Benedict, “The Private War of Women Soldiers,” which was published in Salon, Dick and Ziering gained interviews with approximately seventy survivors of military rape. Out of this body of material, which must not have been easy to come by, the filmmakers then selected the testimonies of some two dozen women and men to be the soul of the film.
The witnesses are stunning in their pain and courage—none more so than Kori Cioca, a former Coast Guard seaman who became (with her husband and daughter) a particular focus of the film, and Myla Haider, a sergeant in the Army Criminal Investigation Command and herself a survivor of rape, who is perhaps the most sharp-tongued of the film’s commentators. But as much as the testimonies are overwhelming, so is the way the film deploys them. Dick will patiently lay out a topic by presenting extended conversations and contextual scenes with a handful of survivors, then follow them with a succession of rapid comments from another five, ten, fifteen. You get an appalling sense of outrage piled upon outrage, even as the film moves along calmly and logically. Here is how a culture of rape flourishes in the military. Here are the physical and emotional effects on the victims, for years afterward. Here is a twenty-year history of repeated sexual assault scandals, complete with repeated declarations that the military has “zero tolerance” and will investigate fully. And here is why nothing changes: because the people charged with addressing the problem are the very commanders who allowed the rapes to happen in the first place, and who in some cases are rapists themselves.
The Invisible War opens in theaters across the country on June 22.
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Nothing like the metamorphic creature designed for Alien by H.R. Giger had been seen before that film’s 1979 release; or rather many things had been seen like it—snakes, phalluses, vaginas, giant squids, poisonous insects, carnivorous reptiles with telescoping jaws—but never before had they shot out of the dark one after another as the multiple, unpredictable forms of a single horror. Despite this element of novelty, Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay for Alien might have established a franchise more than a myth—the heroine being much like the survivor figure from the period’s slasher movies (the character that Carol Clover, in her invaluable book Men, Women, and Chain Saws, calls the Final Girl) and her antagonist being a sneakier, corporate-lackey version of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Still, Ridley Scott’s realization of the story infused a new level of mystery and suggestiveness into movie monsters. You did not know, from one scene to the next, exactly what you wanted to get away from.
Decades later, the alien is an old friend to movie audiences, and like many an old friend is beloved precisely because it’s set in its ways. You know what to expect from it in Prometheus—a 3-D prequel to Alien, directed by Ridley Scott as his first contribution to the franchise since the original—and you wait for it to perform its repertoire of tricks. I sensed relief in the theater when Prometheus got to the discovery scene, with the now-standard view of multitudes of creatures stored in rows and files. (Here the container is a kind of metallic vase rather than a leathery egg.) I sensed enthusiasm a few scenes later as the creature committed its first attacks, as if the audience had united imaginatively not with the human victims (whom they had scarcely gotten to know) but with the familiar, creepy, sex-fiend killer parasite.
But Prometheus still gives the audience a Final Girl to root for—someone who deserves to live, though no longer because she is a hardened professional who knows when to be insubordinate. The elongated, athletic Ripley played by Sigourney Weaver has been replaced in 2012 by petite, sensitive, broad-faced Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), a scientist who wants to discover the origins of human life and who earns her survival by continuing to believe in Jesus despite everything.
To explain the large and self-contradictory scope of that everything, I must reveal two secrets of Prometheus. What the hell—within a month, everybody will know them anyhow.
First, Darwin was wrong. We did not evolve from African apes, but were spawned in a river of Scotland by an extraterrestrial who looked like a large, bald, albino Woody Harrelson. Second, abortion is not merely permissible but is highly recommended in certain cases, even when the woman must perform the procedure herself, at full term and without anesthesia. That’s what Elizabeth Shaw does, despite her faith in a loving creator of all life, in the movie’s most memorable scene.
This is challenging stuff—and not just because anti-Darwin people usually don’t endorse abortion on extremely urgent demand. In changing Shaw from a quivering, wide-eyed do-gooder into a blood-spattered fighter dressed in bikini bandages and staples, this core scene also initiates a thematic transformation within Prometheus. By the time it’s done, we see that superior beings who seem to us physically ideal (made in the image that we take for our God) are not necessarily to be trusted, despite their having blessed us by making single-malt Scotch run through our veins. For all we know, the space Harrelsons might be even worse than the ugly, bestial shape-shifters. We also see that the work of our own hands (represented here by Michael Fassbender, who has almost too much fun for an actor playing an android) is not always to be distrusted, even though we’d better keep a close eye on it.
I could credit Prometheus (and especially its screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof) with having brought agnosticism into the sci-fi horror formula. They have taken the audience’s uncertainty about the powers and nature of the original Alien creature and extended it to the universe itself. I might also say that this was maybe more trouble than it was worth. If not for the demands of commerce, agnosticism would not need 3-D computer graphics, an interstellar Monument Valley and the sort of screenplay that culminates with a cry of “We’ve only got one shot at this!” From the frequently clever, sometimes handsome, fitfully engaging Prometheus I take away not cosmic doubt, but only the inescapable knowledge that the ticket-buying gods must always be appeased.