While the younger directors present in Toronto this year have been throwing up bricks (with the notable exception of Jason Reitman's Juno, about which more later), the two most vital movies I've encountered here—the ones most deeply engaged with the culture that has produced them and with the language of cinema itself—are the work of two filmmakers who are already collecting their Social Security checks: Brian De Palma and George A. Romero.
One of somewhere near a dozen films screening in the festival that bear some thematic connection to the war in Iraq, De Palma's Redacted represents an audacious attempt by the Carrie and Carlito's Way director to reconstruct the events leading up to and following the widely reported rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl by four U.S. soldiers in the town of Mahmoudiya in 2006. It is an event rife with discomforting parallels to the 1966 rape and murder of a teenage Vietnamese girl that served as the basis for De Palma's masterful 1989 film Casualties of War. But whereas Casualties was staged as straight drama, Redacted plays out as a roundelay of pseudo-documentary formats combined by De Palma in increasingly dense permutations.
The movie begins as the purported video diary of an American army Private, morphs into a French documentary with delusions of humanistic grandeur, becomes a Muslim fundamentalist website's streaming video of IED attacks on U.S. soldiers, and sheds its skin nearly a dozen more times before it's over. Each time the form of the film shifts, so does the perspective on the material: Did, for example, American soldiers indiscriminately open fire on a pregnant Iraqi woman after waving her through a checkpoint, as is reported by an Al Jazeera-like TV network? Or was it just a matter of linguistic confusion, as appears to be the case from the French documentary? And do such distinctions even matter given the chilly lack of remorse exhibited, in the video diary scenes, by the soldier who pulled the trigger?
Redacted poses many such questions and offers few conclusive answers, splintering and obfuscating the “truth” at every possible juncture—sometimes obviously, sometimes less so—as when De Palma inserts a single staged photograph into the montage of “actual” Iraq combat photos that concludes the film. For those and other reasons, Redacted has angered many viewers here, as it did in its Labor Day weekend screenings at the Telluride Film Festival, and that, I would argue, proves just how effective the movie is. De Palma wants to rankle audiences, especially those who may enter the theater anticipating some genteel, hand-wringing, good-little-liberal lament about the physical and emotional scars of wartime. Redacted is unapologetically angry and direct, and De Palma does very little to ease you into the movie. Some have suggested that this is evidence of haphazard construction, or shoddy acting by the film's largely unknown cast, but it is the entire point of Redacted that we are observing crude, found video objects, and that their subjects, aware of the camera that's recording them, assume the awkwardly self-conscious stances of people in vacation pictures and birthday-party videos.
Indeed, the biggest enigma of Redacted may be that anyone could take the film's dizzying manipulations of image and reality as anything less than fully intentional on the part of a director who has spent his entire career pondering the art of voyeurism and who is on record as saying, “Where the camera is placed is, to me, as important as the material itself.” But De Palma's movies have rarely been less than divisive affairs, and unlike some of his recent work (including last fall's The Black Dahlia), Redacted can withstand the criticism and then some: In a sea of dramas, docudramas and documentaries all trying to make some sense out of our misbegotten Middle East adventure, it is the only one I would rank alongside Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight in the category of essential viewing.
Romero's Diary of the Dead isn't an Iraq movie per se, though like Romero's last picture, 2005's Land of the Dead, it features one unmistakable reference to the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib and the commemorating of said atrocities with pornographic photo and video keepsakes. Like Redcated, Romero's film also dons several guises, primarily that of a student-made documentary called The Death of Death that has been uploaded onto the web in the days following the outbreak of zombie mayhem. In a conversation following the Diary of the Dead press screening, a friend who works for a prestigious New York museum tells me how, nowadays, the vast majority of the museum's patrons are not content to merely stand and observe the paintings and other objects in its impressive collection, but rather feel compelled to take digital photographs of themselves and their friends/relatives in front of, say, a Van Gogh or a Rodin. And Romero's film is, I think, partly a response to this very tendency—to our perpetual camera-readiness, to the feeling that to film something is to somehow legitimize it, and to the counter-intelligence that says seeing is no longer believing.
Some, of course, will come to Romero's film wanting to see only a gory zombie movie, and they will not go away disappointed. This has always been part and parcel of Romero's subversive genius. Diary of the Dead is chock full of exploding heads and popping eyeballs, includes what may be moviedom's first act of human-zombie murder-suicide, and—since this wouldn't be Romero otherwise—some literal eating of the rich. In the note for Diary in the Toronto festival catalogue, Romero himself points out that the film is neither a sequel to nor remake of his earlier Dead films, but rather something of a new beginning. “This one comes from my heart,” he says—and while few of Romero's films have ever seemed less than heartfelt, there's no denying that Diary of the Dead pulsates with the radical vigor and sense of experimentation one expects of a much younger filmmaker.
“It's too easy to use,” remarks one of Romero's film-student characters, first of a camera and later of a gun, which is roughly the same lesson learned by the cameraman protagonist of Haskell Wexler's 1969 cinema verité classic Medium Cool. Like that movie and David Cronenberg's 1983 Videodrome (which, a good two decades before “reality TV” became a media-world buzz word, offered the sage forecast that “Television is reality, and reality is less than television”), Diary of the Dead and Redacted both posit that our culture's so-called “democracy of images” comes with certain responsibilities—that what, where and when one chooses to film are decisions not to be made lightly, and not without significant consideration of the moral and ethical consequences. These are not new ideas, but in our YouTube'd, MySpace'd age, when young people are as (or more) likely to make their own film as they are to watch somebody else's, they have taken on new resonance. Here in Toronto, De Palma and Romero have been actively engaged in trying to figure out what—if any—place cinema has left in a world of cameras filming cameras and screens reflected in screens.
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