Archive for fascism

Review: Coriolanus

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2012 by freedonialives

Fascism and cinema have a long and uneasy history together, filled with tyrannical directors that push auteur theory to authoritarianism. A unification of group effort towards the vision of one man above all else, a leader who creates an orderly narrative out of the chaos of the real world. In Coriolanus, Ralph Fiennes asks the viewer to follow the journey of Caius Martius Coriolanus as he walks the path of hatred, oppression, and power. Other directors may have softened the lead character, but in doing so would twist the narrative to an even darker tale. A fascist leader in an anti-fascist story can’t be the good guy, as that undermines the whole point.

Fiennes’ Caius Martius is a man more at home in the battlefield than the halls of power in his home city of Rome, or even resting in his palatial estate with his mother, wife, and son. There seems to be a clarity of purpose in war that makes sense to him; there’s an enemy that must be defeated, and every action taken is in service of this goal. The path to that goal may be paved with the gruesome horrors of war, but it’s an approach to life that makes sense to him. The endless politicking in the capital disturbs him greatly, both in it’s apparent pointlessness, and as a reminder that this is the supposedly great civilization that he’s been fighting for his entire life.

Martius’s contempt for politicians is only trumped by his hatred for the citizens of Rome. They’re presented in the film as a collection of peoples from all over Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and even Asia. What they lack in ethnic unity is more than made up for by their collective poverty, and very real hunger. Martius begins the film tasked with preventing the protesting citizens from raiding the city’s grain stores, relishing the chance to show them just what he thinks of them through the cudgels of his soldiers. He’s called away to fight the external threat of the Volscians before he gets that chance, but not before making enemies of the people.

The Volscian commander Aufidius(Gerad Butler) is a bitter rival of Martius, the two having fought many times before. While their respective armies are fighting for the city of Corioles, they’re much more interested in defeating the other. They wallow in the cruelties of modern urban warfare, understanding the post-structural nature of it, the way that it undermines human preconceptions of constructed space.

this space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. […] The question is how do you interpret the alley? […] We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. […] I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war.

Martius finds Aufidius, and the two resolve to end the conflict through single combat with knives. The ensuing combat is partially reminiscent of West Side Story in it’s ritual aspect, while also bringing to mind the brutal fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live. Before a clear victor is decided, Aufidius’s men pull him away, and retreat from the city. Cauis Martius has taken Corioles for Rome, and gains a cognomen in honor of this victory: Coriolanus. Soon enough, this is the only name he has left.

Cauis Martius Coriolanus returns to Rome a hero, is thrust into the world of politics by his family and so called friends, and leaves the city an exile, stripped of title, rank, name and surname. Only Coriolanus remains, only the warrior conqueror who desires revenge upon Rome. His contempt is so great that he entrusts his life to his old enemy Aufidius, who accepts him with brotherly arms. A cult of personality grows around him, his shaved pate becoming a symbol of allegiance, the barber’s chair his throne. With his intimate knowledge of Roman defenses, the army easily pushes into Rome. While his wife(Jessica Chastain) and child try to appeal to mercy, it’s his mother(Vanessa Redgrave) that forces him to break down in tears to spare the city. A peace treaty is signed, but Coriolanus acted against the wishes of Aufidius, and he is killed on the road in an unceremonious group stabbing. It’s the kind of the end that fascist leaders often face.

Fiennes does not hesitate to make his Coriolanus hateful, easy to dislike, and yet filled with a brutal masculine charisma. The film’s modern aesthetics contrast wonderfully with the Shakespearean language, creating a world that is alien and chillingly familiar. The audience is privy to all the backhanded scheming of the consuls, so that the violent simplicity of Coriolanus seems refreshingly honest. The viewer is invited to become complicit in his contempt, his rage, and his hate mirroring the charms of fascism. The simplicity of viewing the world in stark black and white terms is made much more appealing when the shades of gray are so perfidious. The pair of opposing Roman consuls, Brutus and Sicinius, are so brazen in their attempts at destroying the political future of Coriolanus that it’s shockingly easy to forget that they’re completely justified in trying to prevent him from gaining any more power.

The tragedy of the film isn’t just that of Coriolanus, but of our own history.



Review: Act of Valor

Posted in Review with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2012 by freedonialives

Act of Valor may be the most troubling film of the year, if not the last few years. There’s no way to evaluate it as anything other than propaganda, making many of the narrative choices rather disturbing. Although it began as an internal recruitment film for people already in the American armed forces, the filmmakers convinced the Navy to let them turn it into a feature length film for theatrical release. This makes for an oddly paced, strangely plotted narrative filled with non-actor active duty Navy SEALs in the hero roles.

None of the SEALs are credited, ostensibly to protect their identity, but the effect is oddly dehumanizing when combined with their stilted wooden acting. It’s as if they’ve subsumed their personality and identity completely to the military completely, no longer even retaining their names. That they’re noticeably  not Hollywood caliber actors isn’t a knock against the SEALs, it’s explicitly not what they’re trained to do, and they had no real choice in appearing the film as they’re acting under orders. It’s not clear if they were paid to appear in the film beyond their normal military pay, and it’s faults are certainly not on their shoulders. It’s not like they could just quit.

Opening with a white Muslim terrorist bombing an international school in Manila,Philippines using an ice cream van so that he can kill the most children possible, the film makes it very clear that subtlety has no place in this narrative. Same with character motivations, as the terrorists never make it clear what their goals are beyond killing innocent people, and hurting the American economy. That level of understanding may work on Fox News, but providing some kind of insight into the antagonists’ motives is normal in a narrative; James Bond villains are typically better developed. He has help in maybe the most antisemitic character in modern American cinema, an international Jewish businessman who seems to be funding South American drug cartels, Eastern European textile sweatshops, and inexplicably the Jihadi from the opening. Later in the film when he’s pressed to explain this, even he has no answer. Their plan is to use their global network of anti-American allies to sneak suicide bombers into the US through Mexican drug cartel controlled tunnels under the border. It’s a conspiracy so insane that it’s taken seriously by the far right wing in US politics. The SEALs only stumble onto this plot when they rescue a CIA agent who has been kidnapped and tortured by Columbian narco-terrorists. The sequence where they rescue her is the most coherent in the film, but also filled with strangeness.

Since the action scenes were originally shot to demonstrate official tactics and Standard Operating Procedure, there’s an odd lack of tension every time a battle occurs. It’s as if every pedantic complaint about the lack of realism in action films was taken seriously, and then some. The SEALs operate so perfectly that despite the attempt to be as real as possible, it feels like a videogame. Every shot is a headshot, they’re able to move unseen like ghosts, and not a moment of fear or trepidation is expressed. There are numerous shots from the first person point of view, looking down the sights of their guns which only adds to the videogame-like nature, but the moment that pushes it over the edge is when a SEAL who was shot in the head seems to self-resurrect. One moment he’s in the back of a truck with a gunshot to the face and no pulse, the next he’s alive, awake, and talking. That the CIA agent was tortured with a powerdrill so that she has wounds resembling stigmata can’t be accidental either. In this film there is a God, and he’s on the side of America.

While the SEALs are slightly dehumanized, the antagonists outside of the two villain characters are completely faceless. The ease with which they’re killed by the SEAL team makes them feel like animals being culled. As the SEALs close in on their compound, the film intercuts their actions with a shot of a spider in it’s web, trapping and killing a flying insect. Within the film, it’s only natural that these faceless foreigners die at the hands of SEALs. They’re portrayed as both a serious threat to America, and totally incompetent. Not only does this make for disturbing subtext, but it’s bad cinema. The narrative limitations of a recruiting film prevent the technical excellence of the filmmakers from shining through on an almost constant basis.

Connecting the action sequences is a story that highlights two of the white SEALs as brothers in arms, and it’s this element that might be the most troubling. One is a family man with 5 children, the other is an expectant father who deploys hoping to get back home in time for his child’s birth. The interaction between these two men is almost exclusively focused on family, and how military service is an integral part of their family life and history. On top of that is the near constant narration by one of the men, pushing the themes of blood and honor to levels that approach parody. It’s implied at one point that an old family flag carried under the body armor of one of them is what protects him from taking an RPG to the chest. As in, a rocket propelled grenade hits his chest, bounces off, and doesn’t explode.

Roger Ebert’s review contrasts the film with a documentary, Hell and Back Again, about Marine Sgt. Nathan Harris and his experiences serving in Afghanistan.

I have a feeling that the teenage Nathan Harris, who wanted to kill people, would have loved “Act of Valor.” But “Hell and Back Again,” in describing his life today, doesn’t play like a recruitment film. A great deal is made by the directors McCoy and Waugh that actual live ammunition was used in the making of their film. Actual live ammunition was also used in “Hell and Back Again.” If you asked Sgt. Nathan Harris what he thought about using live ammo in a Hollywood action movie, what do you suppose he would say? My best guess is, he would say they were damned fools.

Act of Valor’s attempt to be as realistic as possible ends up as a twisted jingoistic mess, on a similar level to the recent sci-fi tinged Air Force recruitment ads. Audiences deserve better, and the troops sure as hell deserve better.