Simone Bitton’s sad, thoughtful, sometimes disturbingly beautiful documentary Wall might be categorized as a landscape film–the terrain in this case being Israel/Palestine, or more specifically the slash inserted between those contested place-names. This slash–which is at once symbolic, social and overwhelmingly physical–runs along Israel’s so-called wall of separation, which Bitton’s camera tracks in its many forms, from the Galilee down to Jerusalem, for almost the full length of her film.
What exactly is this wall? The official position is put forth in the film’s only formal interview, a question-and-answer session marked by the atypical stiffness of the image and the undisguised hostility of the subject. General Amos Yaron, who is in charge of building the wall for Israel’s Ministry of Defense, is shown in a head-on shot at his desk, flanked symmetrically by Israeli flags, as he declares that the wall is simply a security barrier between Israelis and their potential Arab attackers. With evident pride, he calls the project the biggest engineering job in Israel’s history: a zone of barbed wire, ditches, concrete, military road and surveillance equipment some fifty meters wide, planned to run for more than 650 kilometers in length and costing $2 million a kilometer to construct. How does he define its route? Does this “seam,” as he calls it, run between Israel and the Palestinians’ land? General Yaron impatiently dismisses the question: “We see no difference between the sides. They’re both ours.” And what of the damage that the wall is so obviously doing to the land? “Any intervention causes damage,” he snaps, then picks up a folder from the desk and walks offscreen.
Distributed in segments throughout the documentary, this scene with General Yaron is clearly an exception in the film’s fabric. All the other definitions of the wall come from ordinary Palestinians and Israelis: people with no authority, who in some cases are seen glancingly and in others are not shown at all.
“It’s a prison,” says Bilal Mansour, a farmer in Qalqilya. “Without peace, it’s worthless,” says a nameless construction foreman from Nablus–a Palestinian, like almost all the laborers on the wall–adding, “Don’t show my face, or they’ll kill me.” Shuli Dichter, a resident of Kibbutz Maanit, angrily relates how the wall cut off the Palestinian residents of nearby Qafia from the orchards that are their only source of income; last year, the olives simply rotted on the trees. “We Israelis have had a love affair with this land,” he says, but now possessiveness has driven them to deface what they and their neighbors both love. For others in the film, though, neither love nor neighborliness enters the picture. “They shoot at Arabs from there,” cheerfully explains an unseen Israeli child on the soundtrack. “No,” says her friend, “the Arabs shoot at us.”
While you hear these opinions, Bitton is meanwhile showing you the wall itself–showing it in slow, studied shots that function as her own eloquent commentary. In one scene, the lovely view of a distant town is gradually blocked, as cranes lower concrete barriers into place until they occupy the whole frame. Another scene shows the wall as porous: You look down from a hill as Palestinian workers cross at dawn to get to their jobs in Israel. Judging from the evidence before your eyes, you’d think the permeability was meant to vary. In Jerusalem, there are shots of Palestinians sneaking through, even with infants, as they carry on with their daily tasks. But in Bethlehem, Bitton shows streets that are completely depopulated, except for the religious Jews coming by tour bus to pray under armed guard at Rachel’s Tomb.
Of all these views, the one that sticks in my mind as perhaps most characteristic of Bitton is the film’s opening shot, which shows the wall as a work of art. From the window of a car, she records a long, long stretch of concrete that people have decorated with paintings: Matissean dancers, mazelike geometric figures, pastoral images of the sort you might find in an illustrated Bible. This shot strikes me as Bitton’s confession of faith and also her self-critique. She, too, has made a work of art out of the wall. Rather than address it through an exposé or polemic, she has approached it almost as an object of contemplation, in the conviction that art is a refusal of despair. Like the wall’s painters, she imposes human expression on something blank and brutal. And like those painters, she prettifies what she cannot change.
I don’t say this as an accusation against Bitton, or as more of an accusation than she has implicitly leveled against herself. She has too alert a conscience, and is too good an artist, not to have questioned her art’s purpose. But I happened to watch Wall just when such doubts deserved to be especially keen: at the moment when an influential segment of Jewish opinion was loudly crying against Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. The timing of this disengagement could not have been accidental; it came immediately after Tisha B’Av, the day on which observant Jews mourn their nation’s catastrophes and the faithlessness that caused them. No other date for the withdrawal would have so inflamed the religious right. No other schedule could have allowed Ariel Sharon to disembarrass himself of Gaza, while redoubling the will of a major constituency never to give back an inch of the real prize, Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Not for the first time, I wonder why the other side’s symbolic acts are so powerful and my side’s so often ineffective. I also wonder why religious voices are absent from Wall. From a political standpoint, the film is pretty well balanced. (General Yaron can’t complain that Bitton excluded his ideas; he placed them beyond belief all on his own.) But from a social standpoint, Wall is as lopsided as can be. It’s as if Bitton could create her composed view of the landscape only by ignoring one of its strongest, most slashing forces.
I think Wall is a weaker picture for this omission. But I also think it’s a serious and moving work of filmmaking, which asks you to look clearly and closely but without despair. If that’s as much as art can do at the moment, then I will be grateful for it.
The allure and insufficiency of art also happens to be a theme of Tony Takitani, Jun Ichikawa’s small, perfect fable of a film, based on a story by Haruki Murakami.
Born into a postwar Tokyo that still looks like a rubble dump, the title character grows up alone–his mother dead, his father always off touring with a jazz band–and takes solace in making little replicas of objects: minutely detailed drawings and sculptures that mimic precisely the look of the real thing. On the strength of this clear but limited talent, Tony develops a career as an illustrator; but he remains shut in his own world, oblivious to any emotional needs, until the day he meets Eiko, a lovely woman who is fifteen years his junior. He falls in love with her because of the way she wears her clothes. She eventually manages to love him, too–but she also continues to love her clothes, and to Tony’s dismay buys them in alarming quantity. She can’t resist beauty.
In short, Tony Takitani is a story about appearances, and the danger of being too fond of them. It’s fitting, then, that the film plays tricks on your eyes. The brilliant actor Issey Ogata (perhaps best known in the United States for his role in Yi-Yi) plays both Tony and his old bohemian dad. The wildly popular actress Rie Miyazawa plays both Eiko and a second woman, Hisako, who gets a chance to wear some of Eiko’s clothes. This doubling makes the film’s world seem smaller than it claims to be–an impression that’s reinforced by the voiceover narration, which is taken up at odd moments by this or that actor on the screen, who speaks a line or two while still in character. It seems as if everyone already knows the story of Tony Takitani. Meanwhile, the camera is perpetually dollying to the right, so that scene after scene unfolds as if on a scroll.
A mango-sorbet movie: The flavor is subtle, exquisite and floats away as soon as you taste it.
If American movies are to remain a living culture–I’m talking about movies here, as distinct from films–then young actors must have frequent opportunities to work and develop their screen personalities, preferably under the direction of old pros who can tell a story without making a fuss. By young actors, I mean performers such as Rachel McAdams, who lit up Wedding Crashers with a presence that’s bright, spunky but just a little troubled, or Cillian Murphy, who darkened Batman Begins by being creepy, threatening but just a little accident-prone. The old pros, of course, are genre guys like Wes Craven, who have fun working by the rules and deliver a whole movie experience in less than ninety minutes.
In tribute to all of the above, I rattle my popcorn box for Red Eye.
For McAdams, Red Eye is another opportunity to establish herself as the girl who looks too good to be true. In the role of Lisa, the top clerk at a fancy Miami hotel, she first seems as smoothly competent as an advanced-model pleasure android. She can field an emergency phone call, soothe a flustered colleague, direct a cabbie through a rush-hour rainstorm and keep an eye on the scheduled departure time of her airplane, all while modulating her voice to a pleasant lilt and keeping her smile framed perfectly with the loose, dark masses of her hair. At this point, only a few surface cracks appear: a slight break in her composure when someone asks how she is, a thin welt across her chest when she quickly changes outfits.
Murphy again gets to freeze you with his eyes–a pair of blue-metal weapons that he carries half-concealed–and worry you with his puckered mouth. It’s so soft, so babyish, so insincere. In the role of Jackson, he first seems friendly enough, except for the iron grip he momentarily lays on a fellow’s arm. But even while he’s amiably chatting up Lisa, you know he’s a villain, since Red Eye comes onto the market accurately labeled as a woman-in-peril thriller.
We can skip the plot details. You just need to know that Red Eye is not entirely claustrophobic–about a third of it takes place somewhere else than a turbulence-stricken airplane. Also, the writers want you to imagine that the head of Homeland Security is a benevolent family man. All right, it’s a fantasy–and its main purpose is to show when, how and why the woman-in-peril changes from prey to predator.
Is the change satisfying? You bet. The filmmaking lacks the bravura invention of Craven’s best films–those are real DreamWorks–but in its stripped-down way, Red Eye gleefully fulfills every requirement of the genre, while also reminding us of important truths: Men who make lots of plans need to learn to be flexible, and women who work in service jobs don’t always have to smile.