Friday, March 12, 2004

Starsky and Hutch

At its best, the new cop comedy Starsky and Hutch feels like a Hope-Crosby "Road" movie as scripted by Quentin Tarantino. The film doesn't imitate the original television series so much as it parodies late-'60s and mid-'70s cinema in general: Easy Rider, Bullitt, French Connection and Saturday Night Fever are some of the more obvious targets; an extended cameo from Fred Williamson evokes no-so-fond memories of "blaxploitation" cinema as well. The film's color palette seems pre-faded, and Todd Phillips's direction exudes all the style and confidence appropriate to American film's "Second Golden Age." Starsky & Hutch may not be as movie-mad as Bertolucci's The Dreamers (or Tarantino's own Kill Bill), but it comes pretty close.

What's more, the film stretches its PG-13 rating to the absolute limit with an exposed female breast and barely visible nipple (both played for laughs), a bisexual orgy (mostly but not entirely offscreen), one major character's suggested homosexuality, and loads of "Just Say Yo!" drug references. Doubtless some kulturkampf conservative, fresh off the bloody rush of Passion of the Christ, will denounce the comparatively benign Howard Stern shenanigans of Starsky & Hutch as yet another example of the coarsening of our culture.

I, on the other hand, might cite this film as evidence that our culture hasn't coarsened enough: It manages to be a bit naughty from time to time, but never gets as gritty or sleazy as it could or should. What this movie lacks is the sense of random, unpredictable violence that could give its easygoing comic action that all-important edge of dread. So instead of an instant cult classic, we have an unexpectedly well-crafted middle-of-the-road comedy for horny teenage boys -- which is good enough, I suppose, but just barely.

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson essay the title roles, though instead of emulating the trademark cool of Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul, they move in the opposite direction, making their characters as thoroughly neurotic as possible. As Starsky, Stiller seems borderline-insane, even a bit frightening. In his hands, the tight jeans, leather jacket and red muscle cars seem less like '70s fashions, and more like expressions of deep-seated insecurity and psychological castration. He even provides Starsky with a suitably Freudian backstory: This cop is haunted by memories of his domineering mother -- who we're informed was "a legend" at the "Bay City Police Department." All in all, his character is only a few steps away from Travis Bickle territory, a situation not nearly as harmless as the film would have us believe.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), Owen Wilson sets the film's overall tone. His best roles tend to be little more than variations on the same slacker-stoner theme -- which is fine, considering how confident and accomplished he is within that range. His Hutch is as laid-back as Stiller's Starsky is uptight. Wilson's comic timing is never quite as spot-on as Stiller's (Stiller's double-takes alone are worth the price of admission), but the two still perform well as a comedy team. Several scenes involving bickering between Stiller and Wilson seem largely improvised; the director simply points the camera in their general direction and let them do their thing.

To carry the film's homoerotic theme one step further, we have Snoop Dogg in the sort of third-billed supporting role that would ordinarily be filled by the likes of Dorothy Lamour. Here he plays a pimp-informant named "Huggy Bear," which seems like a misnomer, since as portrayed here the character seems more feline than ursine. (Also, we never see this pimp in the actual company of women, a curious omission to say the least.) The very presence of rap's "Doggfather," drifting in and out of the film in a perpetual cloud of marijuana, would be sufficient to give this film a PG-13 for drug references; needless to say, he steals every scene he's in -- and not only is he not punished for his obvious drug abuse, he even gets rich from it.

Gay audiences have long cracked wise about what all those super-macho buddy-cop teams do in the back of the squad car. This film takes those winks and nudges one step further, as Stiller's castrated, unstable Starsky begins visibly to fall in love with Wilson's Hutch. An artfully crafted soundtrack underscores scenes between the two with seemingly inappropriate love ballads, and Starsky even fantasizes about long romps on the beach with his partner -- in matching rainbow-colored T-shirts, no less. The tyranny of the PG-13 rating prevents Stiller, Wilson and director Phillips from developing this joke to its full potential, although Will Farrell as a kinky Gay inmate provides a few fiendishly clever hints as to where this scenario could go.

Starsky & Hutch is an extremely subversive film: It's ostensibly anti-drug, yet the good guys just say yes and get away with it. (In the case of Snoop Dogg, the words "no" and "drugs" seem not quite to belong in the same sentence.) The film is ostensibly macho and heterosexual, but female love interests are mostly absent, and the Gay subtext between the two partners is unmistakable. The film pulls its best punches to keep the MPAA from deeming it off-limits to teenagers -- a strategy which I don't much care for -- though it lets them fly just often enough to keep audiences off their guard. With its stylish evocation of the 1970s, a strong supporting cast, and the comic team of Stiller and Wilson leading the way, the film proves a pleasant enough divertimento, though little more.

It's a bit of a waste, I suppose, but under the circumstances it might be a tad churlish to complain.

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Funny, I don't hear anyone telling Spain to get out of Basque Country ...

While grieving over the heinous murder of nearly two hundred morning commuters in Madrid, I couldn't help noticing that European condemnation of terrorist activity has grown a bit ... well, selective of late. To my knowledge, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon has never met with leaders of the Basque separatist movement. Yet on several occasions Spanish officials -- including the current prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar -- have negotiated with a certain well-known terrorist mastermind in the Middle East.

I've taken a recent CNN story about a worldwide "outpouring of sympathy" for Spain, and replaced a few key words to reflect other terrorist attacks that have taken place lately. Alas, the sympathy expressed below is more fantasy than fact.

World outrage at [Jerusalem] attack

LONDON, England -- The deadly bombings on [Jerusalem's] [commuter] network have drawn an outpouring of condolences from world leaders.

"These irresponsible acts, which cannot have any justification whatsoever, are to be fully condemned. ... In these appalling circumstances, I want to offer you the most sincere condolences, both in my name and in that of the French people." -- French President Jacques Chirac

"These atrocities are a disgusting assault on the very principle of [Middle Eastern] democracy. ... We stand shoulder to shoulder with the [Israeli] people and government in their fight against this kind of terrorism." -- British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw

"With grief and outrage, I have heard of the terrible attacks in [Jerusalem] this morning. I am horrified at the high number of deaths and injured. I ask you to convey our sympathy to the victims' families and the [Israeli] nation. Those who were injured, I wish a speedy and complete recovery." -- German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder

"We were horrified by the news of the bomb attack in [Jerusalem] this morning. This detestable act of terror that claimed so many victims fills us with deep sorrow and outrage." -- German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer

"Terrorism has once again shown it is prepared deliberately to stop at nothing in creating human victims. ... An end must be put to this. As never before, it is vital to unite forces of the entire world community against terror." -- Russian President Vladimir Putin

"Once again we see senseless killing of innocent people. The killing of innocent people cannot be justified, regardless of the cause. I offer my deepest sympathy to [Sharon], to the government and people of [Israel] and to the people and friends who were killed or injured. And I hope that the perpators will be brought to justice swiftly." -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan

"The Holy Father reiterates his firm and absolute disapproval of such actions that offend God, violate the fundamental right to life and undermine peaceful coexistence." -- Pope John Paul II in a message from the Vatican to Spanish Church authorities

"Every [Middle Easterner], every democratic person, has to condemn these people who wanted to interfere with an electoral campaign, producing suffering for hundreds of people, leaving families broken, without any objective." -- European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana

"This is not a political act, it is criminal act against defenseless people ... a perverse act of terrorists." -- European Commission President Romano Prodi

"It is the worst act of terror in the history of [Israel]. ... There shall be no safe haven for terrorism and terrorists in our European Union. ... It is an outrageous, unjustified and unjustifiable attack on the [Israeli] people and [Israeli] democracy. ... What happened today is a declaration of war on democracy." -- European Parliament President Pat Cox

"The timing of the bombings was clearly designed to wreak the greatest level of havoc and carnage. They are an attack on the democratic process and cannot be justified by any political cause." -- Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency

The attacks are an "abominable violence that wounds every principle of civil existence. ... [Israel's] tragedy reminds us of the need that ever more cohesive action by the European Union and the international community must achieve efficient and swift results in uprooting terrorism and see that the reasons of dialogue and solidarity prevail." -- Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The Fog of War

After seeing Errol Morris's Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, I found myself at a loss for words. In many ways The Fog of War is Morris's worst nonfiction film to date. It's also his most overtly political film, dealing extensively with the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. One gets the sense that Morris, who works so confidently with off-beat, humanistic subjects, has gotten lost in the intricacies of international diplomacy.

The core of the film is some twenty-five hours of interviews shot over two years ago between Morris and the then eighty-five year old McNamara. They've been edited down to a little over an hour of this hundred-minute film -- which, as anyone who makes documentaries can tell you, is a pretty high ratio of footage used to footage discarded. (McNamara must be an excellent interviewee; his performance here is simply top-notch.) These interviews place Morris in a radically different position than he occupies in his other work: Instead of remaining unheard, we hear his voice fairly often from behind the camera, prompting and prodding McNamara. Morris seems to yell his questions from the next room, while McNamara's replies are cordial, occasionally even intimate. The unintended effect is that throughout the film McNamara seems cornered by an unpleasant heckler.

Perhaps Morris should have heckled harder, since much of what his subject tells us simply doesn't add up. Discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis, McNamara claims that all parties involved were "rational": Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro. Yet shortly thereafter he indicates that Castro wanted to use nuclear weapons against the United States, even though he knew that if he did, American retaliation would have reduced Cuba to a glowing rock in the Caribbean. Morris never asks the obvious follow-up: How could Castro's willingness to embrace nuclear war be construed as rational? But then again, American leftists seldom ask awkward questions concerning foreign tyrants (at least as long as they're good communists like Castro and Chavez, and not capitalist swine like Pinochet).

When the subject of Vietnam comes up, McNamara makes the shopworn claim that the North Vietnamese weren't Communists at all, but patriots fighting for their country's independence. Having been sold this bill of goods many times before (most notably in Peter Davis's agitprop film Hearts and Minds), I'm not so eager to buy it this time. Again, Morris lets an important question slide: If not the Chinese or the Russians, what nation was arming the Viet Cong? More importantly, if the North Vietnamese were unaffiliated with China or Russia, why is today's Vietnam a brutal Communist dictatorship in which human-rights advocates are regularly thrown into prison?

Since Morris fails to ask these questions, the film feels like a classic suck-up job: All it lacks is a questionnaire at the end where we learn McNamara's favorite curse word. But given the film's political agenda and its determination to lionize McNamara as a great statesman, any question that's not a complete softball might prove somewhat awkward. Both Morris and McNamara wish to criticize America's international presence over roughly the past six decades. And if Morris's Academy Award acceptance speech is any indication, he also intends The Fog of War to serve as a polemic against any future American foreign policy decisions that might involve something unpleasant like sanctions, military action, or just about anything. Still, my primary objection to the film isn't that it's simplistic left-wing boilerplate -- it is, but so is the original cut of Apocalypse Now. I object to Fog because it claims to possess depth, intelligence and objectivity, when even a cursory glance reveals that all of these qualities are at best severely compromised.

Of course, the critical establishment doesn't take things like objectivity seriously anymore. Last year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary was Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, a film which embodied the worst tendencies of agitprop to general acclaim. Last April I wrote that Moore's film was "great propaganda, on par, I think, with Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin. But everything, and I mean everything, in Moore's alleged documentary is either a distortion or an outright lie. To Moore's credit as a filmmaker, he has ceased to mouth his falsehoods himself. Instead, he lets his images and montage lie for him." Errol Morris is more deliberately artful than Moore, but unlike Bowling for Columbine, The Fog of War is neither obviously nor deliberately falsified. It does lean considerably to the left, though, and tries to place an anti-American spin on both World War II and the Cold War. (It also may present a distorted image of McNamara himself, as I've indicated in my final note.)

Morris's film has aesthetic problems, too. The interview footage is all cockeyed camera angles and extreme closeups: I'm sure there's a technical term for these strange, arty, off-center compositions, but Michael Blowhard simply calls them "Method Cropping." It says something when you've watched a man's face for a hundred minutes, and you're still not sure just what his forehead looks like. We never see McNamara's entire body at one time, which makes him seem both larger-than-life and disembodied. I am sure all this would work well enough on television. But in a cinema Morris's screwy compositions merely offer an orthodontist's-eye view of McNamara's mouth, with its bottom row of snaggled teeth.

Aside from the interviews and occasional archival footage, the film feels much like Godfrey Reggio's recent video project Naqoyqatsi. (The resemblance may not be entirely coincidental, since the translation of Reggio's title is "Life as War.") Fog features Philip Glass's trademark "noodle-noodle" music, fast- and slow-motion montages, and scads of digitally altered footage. One image of a bomber dropping numbers on Japan seems lifted directly from Naqoyqatsi; other digitized montages of contemporary Tokyo seem at the very least inspired by Reggio. Usually Morris is a stylish filmmaker; from his first feature Gates of Heaven onward, each of his films has possessed a unique style and original images. The Fog of War, in contrast, is so obviously derivative that a lawsuit for plagiarism might be in order. Perhaps we could rename the film "Docu-qatsi."

I've been pretty hard on Fog, so I should note that though it isn't particularly good, it isn't exactly bad either. Morris has done worse over the years: The Dark Wind, his sole fiction film, is a Navajo mystery movie so uneven and uninvolving that I found myself wondering how much control he really had over the project. Still, Fog is his weakest documentary to date: There's certainly no reason to spend nine dollars on what is basically a standard-issue PBS project.

Final note: Morris never depicts McNamara's life after 1968. Yet for thirteen years, until 1981, McNamara served as director of the World Bank -- a record which is much more controversial, and more interesting, than his mere seven years as Secretary of Defense. More importantly, McNamara's tenure at the World Bank established him as a hard-line leftist instead of a right-wing Cold Warrior (as Morris tries to portray him). At the World Bank, he favored directed economies over free markets, and threw billions of dollars recklessly at failing Communist polities and brutal dictatorships. Small wonder that Reagan's election was the beginning of the end for McNamara and his policy of financial appeasement: Reagan wanted to put an end to the threat of Communism, rather than uphold it indefinitely. That may explain why Reagan eventually won the Cold War that Kennedy, Johnson and McNamara almost lost.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Let's Hope the Next Revolution Is Televised

Hugo Chavez, star of the hit Venezuelan show "Alo Presidente" and the Euro-TV documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, has just vowed to wage a hundred-year war against the United States if we ever decide to invade Venezuela. His remark betrays delusions of grandeur, of course. But since every terrorist group under the sun seems to have found safe haven in his country -- and a few may have even received financial support -- it may not be an entirely idle threat.

Here is a photo of the Great Dictator on his favorite television show, holding a copy of the Venezuelan constitution. You may have noticed, gentle readers, that the Venezuelan constitution is very small. And it gets smaller every day.

Since seventy percent of Venezuelans are already opposed to Chavez, it probably won't take something as dire or drastic as an invasion to unseat him. All we Americans need to do is stop buying Venezuelan oil for a few months, and let the opposition take care of the rest.

(Peace be upon him: Allahpundit.)

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