Stuart Klawans

The Best Intentions

I want America to watch a serious movie about guns and oil, spooks and money, geopolitics and fractured family life, in all their Tolstoyan interconnectedness. What I need, though, is for George Clooney to joke manfully about having the world's coolest toys. I want a thriller where the establishing shots ("Beirut. Hezbollah Headquarters") set up instructive scenes showing how the poor and dispossessed struggle in the Middle East, the wealthy enjoy their high life in Geneva, the powerful scheme for more power in Washington. What I need, though, is for Matt Damon to zoom through a crazy car chase, followed by sex with a startling woman. I want ambition and substance and contemporaneity and big ideas, and I want them released nationwide. What I need is for Jeffrey Wright to act everybody else off the screen.

I want--or am supposed to want--the big and very serious new movie with Clooney, Damon and Wright. But sometime during the second hour of watching CIA operative Clooney, bearded and plump, schlep around like Zero Mostel doing baggy-suit tragedy; sometime while seeing Damon behave no more colorfully than would his character, a market analyst, and witnessing Wright's unrelieved confinement in the role of a corporation attorney--the kind of guy who would iron his underpants, after starching them--my personal cravings fell into conflict with the good of the electorate. I wanted Three Kings, The Bourne Identity, Angels in America, no matter how much the American people might need Stephen Gaghan's Syriana.

Does an informed citizenry require this picture? Maybe. Television and radio do a poor job of analyzing the relationships among oil companies, lawyers, financiers, governments (at overt and covert levels) and the world's Muslim population (whether militant or just hanging on). In fact, television and radio generally welcome such analysis as they would a tax audit from a hepatitis carrier. They prefer such unpleasantness to be handled by The Nation, a publication that goes unread by 99.93 percent of Americans. So all honor to Gaghan, his producers and Warner Bros. for taking on the job. If Gaghan (best known for the screenplay of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic) has overreached, then he's failed the right way, through an excess of virtue. Syriana's flaws, presumably, would come from his faults as a first-time director.

Maybe. Inexperience might account for the stuttering rhythms of Syriana (new scenes keep breaking in before the old ones really get started), or the frequent use of images as mere accompaniments to dialogue, or the lapse of having Matt Damon and his movie wife, Amanda Peet, attend a funeral looking like the world's best-rested mourners. Nonlethal errors, you might say, even though they blow across the screen with the monotony of a sandstorm. The bigger problem--for which inexperience cannot be an excuse--lies with the script itself.

Gaghan has focused the screenplay on characters who work as midlevel functionaries: the aging covert operations guy who's too professional for his own good, the young market analyst who blunders his way into serving a Persian Gulf prince, the lawyer who's assigned to search for illegalities in a huge corporate merger. In the course of Syriana, all of these men get squeezed by people with more power and a greater stake in the game--a premise that helps to structure the film and has the added merit of being plausible. Yet the contrasting ways in which these characters respond to pressure turn out to be irrelevant. Their choices have large personal consequences--destroying an individual career here, advancing one there--but they cannot affect the great oiled machine that Gaghan has constructed as his cinematic world. It rolls over everyone without so much as a cough in the carburetor.

This is neither realism nor tragedy. It's cynicism, which exposes itself most nakedly in Damon's addresses to the Arab characters, and in Gaghan's own portrayal of them.

Damon first. In speeches that pointedly dispense with all courtesy, his character castigates the Persian Gulf princes for arrogance, incompetence, addiction to luxury and indifference to work. Damon bellows these charges straight into the camera--and in the movies, energy doesn't lie. He's thrilling the crowd (a presumably non-Islamic audience) by telling off the Arab elite on their behalf. Although Gaghan, in a gesture toward fairness, has invented one good Arab prince (Alexander Siddig), whose principles are so wholesome that Sesame Street could teach them, I think he expects most viewers to recognize Damon's angry tune and to hum along with it.

When Gaghan turns from the elite to Islam's masses, he uses no mouthpiece. Instead, he directly sums up untold millions in the character of a Pakistani guest worker (Mazhar Munir), who follows a predictable route from the unemployment line to a terrorist-spawning Islamic school. Like the other characters, he is mere fuel for Gaghan's world-machine; but unlike them, he isn't given even the illusion of choice. His course is set from the moment he comes on screen--which makes nonsense of the pretty talk of democracy that you hear from Damon and his prince.

In this way, Syriana spreads before you a grand political vista, only to deny the possibility of political agency. In the film's terms, the sole effective sphere of action is the family--and, more specifically, the father-son relationship. This, too, is a structural element of the screenplay, which sets up contrasts among all the characters. But just as Syriana misses the fun of a good thriller, so too does it fall short as family drama.

Put it this way: At the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy filled the father's hand with a soaking diaper. In Syriana, unfortunately, we don't get that much juice.

iCinema

Fussing repetitively with a lock of blond hair, nervously flashing an incomplete set of front teeth, the figure on screen begins to cough up her "testimony" in the accents of a Southern trailer court. The story that spills from her sounds all too familiar – the boot in her stomach while she was pregnant, the gun muzzle shoved against her head, the sound of her husband shouting, "I'm gonna kill you, bitch!" – but the speaker herself is a novelty, and is perhaps more devastating than any incident she relates. "Hillary," as she calls herself, is actually an 11-year-old Houston boy named Jonathan Caouette. You are watching a scene he improvised in 1984 before a home video camera.

Few boys his age would have chosen this character for their role-playing, or could even have conceived of her. What's heartbreaking about Jonathan – and impressive – is that he turned himself into Hillary with true conviction. How did a kid get access to such emotions? By the time this scrap of footage comes up in Caouette's sensational film memoir "Tarnation," you know the unfortunate answer, having experienced the beginnings of his story and his mother's.

A New York-based actor and filmmaker who is now in his early 30s, Caouette put "Tarnation" together from some twenty years' worth of his home videos, plus scrapbook photographs, audiocassette diaries, saved answering-machine tapes, favorite pop songs, clips from movies and TV shows and a few sections of recently shot footage (both documentary and staged). Emerging from this assemblage – which is more collage than montage – are three stories in one: Caouette's tales of the calamities of a lower-middle class household, the education of a Texas gay boy and the formation, at last, of a redemptive new family.

The original family, it turns out, was Jewish, which puts "Tarnation" into a category with "Capturing the Friedmans" as a demolisher of stereotypes. Caouette's maternal grandparents, the Davises, appear to have been presentable enough when young, but throughout "Tarnation" they come across as toothless, impecunious, crotchety and ignorant – so ignorant that when their only child, Renee, suffered an ill-defined sickness at the start of her teen years, they turned her over to psychiatrists for a prolonged course of electroconvulsive therapy. Softened up by the experience, and also (no doubt) by the hippie drug culture that had reached Houston, Renee entered her 20s as a disaster-prone single mother with a long record of hospitalizations. She was unable to hold on to Jonathan, who began his career in foster homes at the age of 4 and would eventually go on his own tour of mental hospitals, thanks to some PCP-laced reefers and his grandparents' willingness to sign forms.

I don't hesitate to put all this into writing, because you would have to read it anyway in "Tarnation." The film's information – or the part of it that can be paraphrased – generally takes the form of texts, projected on a plain background or, more often, superimposed on the images. Although these words show up less frequently as "Tarnation" goes on, they also help pull together the other two parts of the film: Caouette's memories of gay teen life in Houston, which he lived as a punk-rock boy (and sometimes a Goth girl); and the real-life drama of his assuming responsibility for his mother and bringing her to live in New York, in the household he'd established with his lover, David.

The stories you get from the texts are crucial to "Tarnation"; they explain material such as the Hillary videotape and allow you to feel its impact. But even though the texts often dominate the images and sounds, they also have a way of merging with them, so that the written words become yet another element in the collage. In the first section of the film, for example, the texts have a fairy-tale quality, with their account of a beautiful young princess betrayed and brought low. They allow you some distance from the film's most harrowing material, which through them becomes almost dreamlike. (In fact, "Tarnation" begins with a staged scene in New York, in which Caouette tells David that he's just had a strange dream about his mother.) In the final, most hopeful section of the film, by contrast, the texts are terse. Their effect here is rhythmic more than informative; they punctuate the scenes, repeatedly bringing them back to the matter-of-fact.

If I were to think of a comparison to "Tarnation" – an unfair one – it would be with Su Friedrich's autobiographical masterpiece, "Sink or Swim," in which the words sometimes carry the emotional weight of the story (about Friedrich's troubled relationship with her father) and sometimes provide it with a riddling, ironic counterpoint. The difference is that Friedrich's film contains its overpowering emotions within a rigorous structure. It's cerebral, allusive and visually crisp, even while being confessional; whereas "Tarnation" splats and throbs over the screen in bruised-fruit colors, psychedelic patterns and post-Warholian confrontations with physiognomy.

The explanation of how Caouette achieved these effects is almost as important to the film as the story of Renee's shock therapy. He made "Tarnation" using iMovie editing software, which he discovered was a standard feature of his lover's new Apple computer. Other people use iMovie to create little retrospective videos for weddings or bar mitzvahs; Caouette found in it a tool for organizing his vast personal archive, not so much ordering it as shaping it into a simulacrum of his roiling memories, dreams and impressions. In interviews and within the film itself, Caouette has said he suffers from depersonalization disorder, which leaves him experiencing his own life as if he were watching a movie. You could describe the associative, variegated, expressionistic flow of "Tarnation" as a re-creation of this mental state; or, just as reasonably, you could say it's a product of iMovie's limited repertoire of special effects. The program is good at multiple images, grids, superimpositions, strobe effects, kaleidoscopic distortions and solarization, all of which Caouette used with a lavish hand.

The film's supporters – please add me to the list – have perhaps made too much of the Apple computer backstory. Maybe, lacking iMovie, Caouette would not have begun to make "Tarnation." Certainly, without iMovie, he could not have assembled the initial epic-length cut, working single-handed on a $218 budget, in time for the 2003 MIX Festival. The MIX screening led to the rest of the success story: a rapturously received showing of the current eighty-eight-minute cut at the 2004 Sundance Festival, followed by inclusion in the 2004 New York Film Festival and a nationwide theatrical release (beginning Oct. 6 in New York City). So was iMovie helpful? Did it guide Caouette's directorial decisions to some degree? The answers, clearly, are yes. But does "Tarnation" therefore represent a new era of personal filmmaking, as claimed by producer Stephen Winter (of the MIX Festival) and the executive producers, John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant? I doubt it – and to make the point, I would compare "Tarnation" not only to earlier works such as "Sink or Swim" (an utterly handmade, noncomputerized film) but also to a current Paramount release, which was temporarily the country's box-office champion: "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow."

Because the writer-director of "Sky Captain," Kerry Conran, created virtually all of the settings and events in the computer, shooting nothing in the real world except for his costumed actors posed against a blue screen, the producers began saying months ago that they, too, had achieved a cinematic breakthrough, a claim that many journalists uncritically echoed. I must confess here that I assisted in this hype, reporting in advance on a very minor feature of "Sky Captain" for the sake of a byline in the New York Times. Like other mainstream publications, the Times seldom gets excited about artworks in themselves; it prefers to see them as occasions for business stories, or for features on technological innovation (which then become business stories). Newspapers and magazines have therefore been all over "Sky Captain," since its creation involved the heavy use of gizmos and the realization, according to the producers, of great economies in filmmaking.

But the facts, like the movie itself, are less than thrilling. The computer-generated imagery in "Sky Captain" differs not in kind but in quantity – and even in that category, it doesn't push ahead by much. (See "The Phantom Empire," or Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness." For that matter, see "The Age of Innocence.") The only worthwhile question concerns the use that Conran made of his digital toys.

The answer: Whereas Caouette employed the computer for mind-blown underground-cinema effects (plus some music-video-style lip-syncing), Conran went for the retro-futurist look. "Sky Captain" takes place on the eve of World War II – or, rather, in a world of serials and sci-fi programs made in that era – and so boasts a hazy, color-drained, Art Deco Manhattan, in which dirigibles dock at the Empire State Building and searchlights are forever cutting through the sky. By its nature, such architecture adapts well to a computer-based blue-screen technique, which favors big jumps in scale between the foreground (where you find the actors) and the background (where the feet of colossal robots are stomping vintage cars). I thought the pictures in "Sky Captain" were handsome – as a writer-director, Conran makes a good production designer – and that the period setting was a splendid excuse to put Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law into slouch hats and trench coats. When costumes and surroundings are faithfully recycled from the 1930s, they may have the charm of the old. The same cannot be said for plots, characterizations and dialogue.

After much ballyhoo, "Sky Captain" turns out to be a mildly pleasant curiosity, which is marketable not as a result of its computer effects but because of its clichés. When you put down your money at the box office, you know exactly what you're buying. "Tarnation," though destined for a different and smaller audience, turns out to be compelling, absorbing and completely unpredictable. You may know the story when you buy your ticket, but you won't be able to guess from one moment to the next what will pop up on the screen.

As for the opinions expressed in this review: I wrote them down with a computer, but they would have been the same if I'd used a pen.

Ashes of Time

It was the perfect setup for an op-ed article: the release, between the Democratic and Republican conventions, of Alien vs. Predator, bearing the tag line, "Whoever wins...we lose." I could imagine what cleverness the columnists would expend, pairing each candidate with his sci-fi monster. Maybe 20th Century Fox had actually planned for that reaction. Maybe the company had hit upon a critic-proof way to sell its movie, while thickening the wise-guy atmosphere in which the larger Fox organization thrives.

Terrifying – especially the realization that if I can think like that, I must now be as cynical as a Murdoch marketing exec.

So, in contrition, I've decided to give the partisan struggle a brief rest, at least in my movie life. While the Republicans swarm into town, I'm heading to Film Forum, which is counterprogramming the convention with a work of thoughtfulness, warmth and unbitter irony: Ross McElwee's new documentary, Bright Leaves.

Of course, you do encounter a form of politics in Bright Leaves, since nothing human (and very little that is animal or vegetable) is foreign to McElwee. He devotes a large part of the film to the physical and emotional costs of "the ultimate consumer product," cigarettes, as seen within the heartland of the industry, his home state of North Carolina. You meet a series of ailing, older smokers, including a hospital patient who was introduced to cigarettes by his grandmother at age 4. You hang out with giggly teenage smokers – students at a hair-cutting academy, which now operates out of a historic tobacco warehouse – who cheerfully promise to quit as soon as they get cancer. You visit with a twentyish couple, friends of McElwee, whose target date for giving up cigarettes somehow keeps receding into the future. You accompany a mourner to the grave of her sister, killed in her prime by consumer products.

McElwee gives due weight to this evidence of grim corporate reaping – and yet he begins his film lovingly, with a dream.

The screen shows a paradise of tall, broad leaves, so alive that they seem to breathe and whisper in the sun. On the soundtrack, McElwee relates his dream: He was standing in a field of plants, whose warmth made him happy. His wife, he says, gave him the interpretation. The plants were tobacco, for which he yearned because he had stayed in Boston too long. He needed to go back to North Carolina for a while, for his "periodic transfusion of Southernness."

With that as prelude, McElwee transports us directly back home, into the house of one of his cousins, and so (as it happens) into a different layer of dream. The middle-aged fellow you meet, who at first seems blandly Rotarian, turns out to have walls that are entirely covered with framed movie posters, file cabinets that are full of publicity stills, a walk-in closet lined with neat, built-in racks of film reels. We are into an obsession so complete that it takes itself for granted. For McElwee, it's also a communicable obsession – because this cousin claims that the life of their great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, was the source of the 1950 Warner Bros. movie Bright Leaf, directed by Michael Curtiz, with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.

Yes, John Harvey McElwee's bitter, losing contest with the Duke family over the rights to the Bull Durham brand is the subject of a lesser Curtiz melodrama. Bright Leaf is a home movie of sorts, and Gary Cooper is their great-grandfather!

Given the sorts of dreams that Southerners have entertained over the years, this isn't exactly lunacy. As McElwee sets off to investigate his family's history and learn more about Bright Leaf – the two endeavors, for a while, seem to be one – he begins to muse over how different his life would have been had John Harvey McElwee triumphed over the Dukes. Visions of lost wealth and honor; bittersweet thoughts of how the family has fallen. Why, North Carolina created a whole state preserve around the Duke family's original land holdings. And what did the McElwee family get? McElwee Park: a strip of lawn with two benches and a single scrawny tree, set next to the loading dock of some industrial building.

Faulkner, for all his genius, would have missed the mildness, the humor, that co-exists with McElwee's disappointment at his fate. But here, to bring in a more sympathetic literary voice, and a more embracing disappointment, is McElwee's friend Allan Gurganus, who chats with relaxed eloquence about the changes he sees in the North Carolina landscape: the disappearance of a beautiful valley of tobacco fields (which killed so many people) and its replacement by densely packed housing for relocated Northerners, who have destroyed the very environment they came here to seek out.

With the fluidity of a dream, the history of a region blends into the history of an industry, the history of an industry into the history of a family, the history of thefamily into a sequence of moving images. McElwee knows about the effects of tobacco because his father and grandfather were medical doctors. He has the legacy of their knowledge, and also a trove of home movies of them (real home movies, without Gary Cooper). McElwee also has a legacy of his own to pass on, to his son Adrian. It won't be a vast fortune, like the Dukes', but will at least amount to his own knowledge of the past, plus many additional miles of celluloid. He's got images of Adrian at every age. There's even footage that Adrian himself helped shoot, when McElwee started to train him in the new family business.

If it's a miracle that all this should hold together – I haven't even mentioned the goats, the gospel choir, the Duke family chapel or the interview conducted from a rolling wheelchair – then the wonder is performed through the agency of Ross McElwee's personality. He is a disarmingly modest companion for the audience, and (in a muted way) perpetually hopeful. He narrates the film softly, with odd little hesitations in his voice, as if he doubted his right to speak aloud such well-crafted sentences. When he ends his brief, frequently static scenes, he can't bring himself to fade to black but goes only so far as indigo. There is always some light in his landscape of funerary monuments and beautiful, deadly vegetation.

I would have savored Bright Leaves whenever I saw it (the film had its local premiere last fall, in the New York Film Festival); but its living sense of history, well-earned humor and clear-eyed enjoyment of human variety seem that much more valuable now, in this frantic season. Whatever happens in the election – and, like you, I'm obsessed with the outcome – it will still matter to me that McElwee, in his obsession, has magically reversed what Michael Curtiz did in Bright Leaf. Rather than wrap a Hollywood fiction around the contingencies of a real family story, he has implanted in his home movie a crazy imagination worthy of Hollywood.

The shots of his son matter to me, too. Kids grow like weeds.

Bad Brains

More than once in Jonathan Demme's re-imagining of The Manchurian Candidate, a distraught Denzel Washington jabs at his skull and rasps, "They got in here." He means it literally. Gone are the Communist brainwashers of the 1962 film, who controlled captured GIs by means of superpowerful Asiatic hypnosis. The global capitalists of Demme's version implant orders by the more up-to-date method of drilling into the brain.

Jitters have replaced goose bumps as the key audience reaction, now that the process of mind control entails sound effects reminiscent of a dentist's office and the sight of skull powder dusting the air; and given Demme's purpose, the change is appropriate. He's using the slightly sci-fi element of his plot as a cautionary exaggeration, to sensitize you to an actually existing form of brain invasion. For the most humane reasons, he wants this movie to get into your head.

Of course, the plot has already been embedded. Most moviegoers have at least heard about the original Manchurian Candidate (directed by John Frankenheimer from a screenplay by George Axelrod, based on Richard Condon's novel), and many of them know how that film managed to have its Red Menace and laugh at it, too, since the story's Chinese Communists turned out to be working in America through a clique of McCarthyite politicians.

Demme dispenses with this through-the-looking-glass effect. In his version – I call it Demme's because the screenwriters, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, have not risen to this level before – an overseas conflict again provides the occasion for the initial abduction and brainwashing; but the foreign enemies have disappeared. No Kuwaitis, Iraqis or even Iranians bored into the minds of our boys during the 1991 Gulf War. Instead, the villains worked for a privately held investment firm and military contractor, Manchurian Global, whose US agents have no need to conceal themselves but work openly on the floor of Congress. Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep) is the company's close personal friend. Her son Raymond (Liev Schreiber), an official hero of the Gulf War, is a strangely awkward and detached fellow who is now running for Vice President because his mother tells him to, and who responds with similar obedience to whatever instructions Manchurian Global beams into his head.

When stated this baldly, the premise sounds as if Michael Moore himself would send it back to the shop for nuance. So let me begin again, properly this time, and sketch out not the conspiracy but the story, as Demme tells it:

Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) is giving a talk to a small troop of Boy Scouts – an odd assignment, you think, for so impressive-looking an officer – when he is accosted by a ghost. In revenge dramas, the dead often come back to urge on a troubled hero; and so, even though the figure who pops up before Marco is nominally alive, you can readily see the rags around him as grave clothes, or imagine the smell of damp earth in his clotted hair. This man, who had served under Marco in the Gulf War and now wants to ask him about his dreams, is played with a Lazarus-like stare by the brilliant Jeffrey Wright. So rich in talent is The Manchurian Candidate that it can expend such an actor in a role that effectively ends after one scene, but is powerful enough to propel Marco through the rest of the movie. In a memorably uncomfortable exchange, made all the more painful for taking place in the narrow vestibule of a school as children play outside, Marco clumsily tries to pay this Corporal Al Melvin to go away, then counsels the exasperated ghost to "get help." The appropriateness of this advice becomes evident as soon as we see Marco return to his apartment. Odd, you think, that such an impressive-looking officer should live in a storage closet for old newspapers.

As drama rather than politics, The Manchurian Candidate is the story of how Marco almost decomposes like Corporal Al Melvin (whose own apartment has turned into an outsider art installation). Instead, through defiance, he holds together, like other avengers before him. In Demme's hands, The Manchurian Candidate also becomes a drama about friendship. As part of Marco's heroic struggle for sanity, he seeks out another of his former soldiers, Raymond Shaw, and after a bad start the two manage to overcome their soul-killing isolation. They discover the sad but substantial bond of being damaged men.

Audiences who have followed Denzel Washington's movie adventures will find that his realization of Major Marco rings profoundly true. We have often seen Washington wear a uniform, and he frequently plays an unraveling man of action, whose strength must be turned inward to control himself. (Only a few months ago, Tony Scott's unforgivable Man on Fire wasted him in such a role.) The Manchurian Candidate draws on, and deepens, this well-established image, and not just by mixing in some politics. To the restrained, well-centered bearing and unpredictable surges of power, Washington now adds a keyed-up thoughtfulness, which you sense at work behind even his most lurid acts. His achievement in The Manchurian Candidate is to do the most mad things, under the most extreme pressure, and make them seem coolly experimental.

Washington in this movie always seems to be holding back tears, for fear they'll impede his thinking. Schreiber, on the other hand, gives the impression of fighting against chronic vertigo. His Raymond Shaw walks stiffly, with his hands dangling in front of him. When he speaks, a deep, smooth voice rolls out from no identifiable source in his body. He's the very picture of what it means to forget oneself – until, unexpectedly, an internal gear catches, and he begins to talk to rather than at the person before him. What he says would embarrass a normal 34-year-old, but it almost doesn't matter, since something human has been switched on. Schreiber's achievement in The Manchurian Candidate – a feat that is perhaps even more remarkable than Washington's – is to do all this almost simultaneously. His Shaw is made up of multiple, translucent layers of creepiness and vulnerability.

This is the human core of The Manchurian Candidate, to which Meryl Streep contributes nothing. She doesn't need to. Her assignment, which she carries off with breathtaking brio, is to provide explicit political content and laughter. When she's absent, the grotesque humor that was so much a part of the original Manchurian Candidate is nowhere to be found. Demme allows you that pleasure only when Streep is on screen, tossing off idiosyncratic choices so quickly, and so precisely on the mark, that she might be Vladimir Horowitz playing a scherzo. Here's a sudden pianissimo, dropped into a sentence just for fun; here's a rude marcato, executed by crunching an ice cube with the teeth.

And here, at the beginning of the film, is a tirade delivered to the leaders of her political party, to tell them why today, in a time of international terror, her son Raymond must be made the vice-presidential candidate, or there will be hell to pay. After Streep's Senator Shaw concludes her well-calculated rampage, the party elders meekly give in – which makes you wonder why Manchurian Global would need brainwashing technology.

The fact is, the company doesn't need it – and that's not a weakness of the plot but the point of the movie. Demme has filled The Manchurian Candidate, supersaturated it, with examples of the actual mind-control technology that drills into our heads today: the twenty-four-hour, 360-degree yammer of cable news shows and talk-radio programs. He's made the ambient soundtrack thick with these electronic voices, often piled one on top of the other. Their reports (always false) envelop his characters wherever they go. Their generalized warnings and moralized reassurances get in here, and nobody (except a presumed madman like Marco) wants to dig them out. The masters of the airwaves give us something we enjoy to the point of physical addiction, as Demme subtly reminds us in perhaps the scariest effect in the movie: the smile of pleasure that opens on Raymond Shaw's face when his controllers plug into his brain.

I walked out of The Manchurian Candidate thinking of how Demme, with his devotion to classical storytelling, prefers not to draw attention to his technique. Two hours later, as the movie throbbed obsessively in my skull, I began to wonder how much more overpowering anyone's technique could be. The dense textures and hypnotic imagery of his Manchurian Candidate don't distract from the onward rush of events while you're watching the picture, which runs for more than two hours and yet seems to speed by. But later, when the full effect hits, you realize that the electronic sounds around you can no longer be ignored. Later, you begin to grieve for Major Bennett Marco, who found that revenge can't wash away the past.

Before Sunset

Like many intelligent women of advanced political beliefs, Celine detests the ideology of the soulmate. She says as much, with torso-twisting vehemence, about three-quarters of the way through Before Sunset, shouting the word "evil" at the notion of there being one right person for her. Although she is, by all conventional standards, a strikingly beautiful woman and still young, you can see weariness in her face as she rails about the wasted years, when she either pursued the phantom of true romance or felt dead because she had abandoned the chase.

Like many intelligent, advanced women, Celine also has learned that the heart has its reasons. Despite the justice of her tirade, despite the genuine outrage behind it, she makes her speech in the back seat of a luxury car, driving through a shimmering Paris afternoon with a man who gives her exactly the right response, always, and has the looks of an endearingly scruffy dream.

Were this scene to happen in another American movie, you might grouse about Hollywood's need to have things both ways. Hollywood, though, played almost no role in making Before Sunset, which comes from the deeply independent soul of Richard Linklater; and nobody here is being had. Linklater wants to increase your enjoyment of human complexity, not simplify it out of existence. If he makes Celine's emotions work in two directions at once, it's because he knows people are like that.

He also knows what people are like when they gather in an audience: They demand honesty and substance but also want their wishes fulfilled, and will give a filmmaker just ninety minutes to do it. Gifted enough to oblige, and happy to do so, Linklater satisfies on all counts. He draws you into an intense, richly textured interchange between two wholly credible characters – that's the explicit side of Before Sunset – and at the same time, implicitly, conducts a formal experiment, in which he reveals the requirements of a good movie by systematically ticking them off.

I could watch this picture twice a day for the rest of the summer. But before I rave on, let me explain the premise of Before Sunset for those who have not yet been introduced to Celine (Julie Delpy) and her possible soulmate Jesse (Ethan Hawke). When moviegoers last saw these characters, at the end of Linklater's 1995 Before Sunrise, they were saying goodbye at the train station in Vienna, having met just a day earlier, and were sharing one of the most convincingly passionate kisses in film history. From a chance encounter on a westbound train – she, a French girl, was on her way home from Budapest, and he, the American boy, was bumming around – they had gone together impulsively into the city, to wander through the late afternoon and evening, to talk about everything beneath the sun and moon and to share the Taj Mahal of one-night stands. Why Taj Mahal? Because for all the magnificence of the encounter, Celine, at age 23, had a head full of gravestones, and Jesse, equally young, believed that every good experience will wither and be lost. Rather than expose themselves to routine and disappointment, the two chose not to exchange telephone numbers or even last names but pledged to meet on the same platform in a year's time. No! Make that six months!

The rendezvous, we now learn, did not take place. But nine years later, in Paris, Celine and Jesse happen to meet again – and so we have Before Sunset.

It is a retrospective film, obviously: a meditation on opportunities lost, fantasies recollected, alternative selves that did not appear. From the beginning, though, you may feel that the one-time lovers have grown more confident and hopeful, now that they're older. What's past is past; and yet time is more slippery than we usually think, as Jesse says near the start of the film, speaking with the philosophical air of a pothead (or a Proust). Time remains open to all sorts of possibilities – and that's what Linklater goes on to prove.

He does so by setting a deadline for the lovers, as he'd done in Before Sunrise. It seems that Jesse has a plane to catch and must leave for the airport in an hour and a half – as long as it takes for a feature film to unspool. The events that follow fill this cinematic slot precisely, because Before Sunset, unlike its predecessor, takes place in real time. In the earlier film, a cut or a fade to black made minutes or even hours disappear. In this picture, a stroll through the Left Bank that would take five minutes takes five minutes, and the ensuing ten-minute conversation in a cafe takes ten. As a whole, then, the action of Before Sunset represents "what can happen in a movie."

What happens? First of all, a movie draws us through space; and so the camera in Before Sunset is almost always traveling. It accompanies Celine and Jesse from the Shakespeare & Company bookstore to a cafe, then along a garden promenade between buildings and down to the Seine, where the two hop onto a sightseeing boat. ("It's for tourists," Celine cries, "it's embarrassing." Then she enjoys the view, as do the people in the audience.) After disembarkation, the couple continue their trip by chauffeured car. They drive to Celine's neighborhood, then walk through a courtyard, up the stairs, into her apartment. The time is up; the trip is done.

What else happens in a movie? We visit with attractive hybrids: characters who are both dramatic inventions and extensions of the actors' personalities. Here again, Before Sunset satisfies the requirement, since it would be hard to find more pleasant companions for ninety minutes than Celine (Delpy) and Jesse (Hawke). She has a little frown that gathers between her eyes, offsetting the loose and sunny aura of her hair, the broad conviviality of her lips. His hair might belong to a 5-year-old who just got up from a nap, and the mischievous smile pulls up one corner of his mouth; but along the cheeks run hollows that resemble twin dueling scars. These extraordinarily good-looking people are roughed-up enough to be interesting. What's more important, though, is that they interest each other. They can't stop confessing, teasing, commenting, contending, laughing abruptly in the middle of the conversation and talking on top of one another's words, so great is their desire to respond to one another. Where does the characters' interplay end and the actors' begin? It's impossible to say, since Delpy and Hawke collaborated with Linklater on the dialogue. All I know is that these lovers delight in the answer more than the statement; and their pleasure becomes the audience's.

A movie may also give pleasure by flattering the audience. It invites us to imagine ourselves as ordinary people, only a little better – which is why the "average" social class gains some luxe on the screen, the "normal" job gets more excitement and daily inconveniences (bills to pay, diapers to change) fade away. In this spirit, Before Sunset makes Jesse a bestselling novelist and gives Celine a meaningful job, with travel, at an environmental NGO. Money is not a pressing problem; domestic encumbrances remain out of sight. We're able to feel that Celine and Jesse are good people, and that we, too, are good, caring and intelligent for dreaming ourselves into their company. The trick here – an excellent one – is that the lovers know they're in a time bubble. When it pops and life's mess pours in, Celine and Jesse won't seem so admirable.

But will the bubble pop? A movie builds suspense; and as the minutes tick by in Before Sunset, the people on screen and in the audience alike wonder more and more intently if Jesse will catch that airplane.

I will say no more, except that time has rarely passed in a film with such apparent ease and spontaneity, yet with such rightness in every moment. Working with the very rudiments of movies, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke have sustained a flawless performance – one that's warm, thoughtful, funny, sexy, charming and in all ways alive.

Make that three times a day.

By Way of Deception

Not the judgment of film critics but the passage of time will decide whether Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 can change the world. Change, of course, is the whole purpose. Whatever satisfaction Moore derives from his ever-mounting income and awards, he clearly will consider this picture a success only if it helps drive George W. Bush from office. Voters will write the real review. I can merely fill time until November, with the thought that Fahrenheit 9/11 might be interesting as a movie after it has done its work as politics.

As with any good polemic – and this is an excellent one – you sit in the theater thinking of how someone else would respond, some imaginary "undecided" in a swing state, or perhaps your Uncle Max the Republican. You don't much monitor your own reactions. But then, as you leave the movie house, you might notice that the sidewalk chatter sounds oddly muffled, the traffic looks a little blurred, as you begin to realize that your attention has not come outside with you; it's still in the dark, struggling with the feelings that Fahrenheit 9/11 called up and didn't resolve. Are you outraged, heartbroken, vengeful, morose, gloating, thoughtful, electrified? Moore has elicited all of these emotions and then had the nerve – the filmmaker's nerve – to leave you to sort them out.

I think there are two bundles of messages in Fahrenheit 9/11, one political and one emotional – and while the first is about as ambiguous as a call to take up pitchforks and torches and storm the castle, the second is too complex to unsettle those in power. It works to unsettle you. It's what makes Fahrenheit 9/11 a real movie.

For clarity's sake, then, let's start with the politics: the film's bill of particulars against Bush, and also against the Democratic leadership, which in Moore's view has colluded most shamefully in the misrule the world now suffers. The prologue to Fahrenheit 9/11 revisits Bush's rise to power in late 2000, paying particular attention to the hunched posture of the Democrats who let him step on their backs. Here are Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle, counseling "acceptance" of the non-election; and here is Al Gore, mildly officiating over the Senate session that legitimized the theft of his presidency. For the first time in Fahrenheit 9/11, but certainly not the last, Moore tells his story through borrowed but decidedly nonstock footage, which you most likely have not seen before – in this case, a scene of members of the House, all of them African-American, coming forward to contest the election, while Gore calmly rules their objections inadmissible because no senator, not one, would satisfy Congressional rules by signing on to them.

Moore's antagonists, being Republican, won't go so easy on him. Their attacks will no doubt include the charge that his film is Democratic Party propaganda. You should understand from the preceding the flimsiness of this accusation – although it's true that Moore spares us the sight of one notable Democrat, John Kerry, voting to authorize Bush to start a war on his own say-so, at any time that suited him.

But enough of Democratic malfeasance. Who is this Sage of Crawford, that he may choose for us between life and death? Moore answers, in part, with more footage you probably haven't seen until now: a substantial portion of videotape from the morning of September 11, 2001, when Bush and his handlers staged a photo opportunity at an elementary school in Florida. After an aide whispered to him that a second airplane had struck the World Trade Center, Bush sat in place for seven minutes, pretending to read a book titled My Pet Goat. Have you ever before had a chance to study his face on that morning? Has anything other than this movie made you feel the unendurable length of his inaction? What do you suppose he was thinking for all that time, as he stared into space? Moore himself asks that last question on the soundtrack, as a way of opening a biographical digression about Bush, his family and their business interests. This section of the film will particularly incense Moore's attackers, who will pronounce on him the dependable slur of "conspiracy theorist." So, to digress on my own:

Moore alleges no conspiracies. He merely says that Bush has motives beyond those he's willing to state. To make this case, Moore begins by showing that the Bush family in general, and George W. in particular, have received lavish support over the years from the Saudi elite, including the bin Ladens, and have offered valuable help in turn. Unlike the actualities footage that Moore uses in the film, these facts are by now widely known – although it was news to me that Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador, had dined with Bush at the White House on September 13, 2001. In speculating about this dinner, and about the subsequent airlifting out of the United States of more than a hundred Saudis when everyone else was grounded, Moore goes only so far as to say that the overwhelmingly Saudi makeup of the September 11 attack teams could have proved embarrassing to Bush. He would not have wanted journalists just then to begin looking into his personal ties to Saudi interests, or to ask whether any useful information had emerged from the two dozen bin Ladens who had been in the country, and whom he soon spirited away without the indignity of questioning.

Nothing conspiratorial about that. The worst you can reasonably say of this section of the film is that it gives Moore the opportunity for one of his man-on-the-street pranks. He films himself and Craig Unger (author of the book House of Bush, House of Saud) in front of the Watergate complex in Washington, directly across the street from the Saudi Embassy: a choice of location that insures interruption. Sure enough, onto the scene drive carloads of Secret Service agents, who just want to ask, politely, why a film crew is working on this spot. The agents move off readily enough when given the answer, although one of them seems abashed when Moore blandly delivers his punch line: "I didn't realize the Secret Service guards foreign embassies."

In fact, reasonable people may find this to be the best part of the section.

You may have heard, by the way, that Moore is less of a presence in Fahrenheit 9/11 than he was in his previous pictures. Actually, he's always with you, in voiceover; but he does perform for the camera less than usual. At times, his stunts serve to drive home a point, as when he accosts members of Congress on the street and offers them recruiting brochures, in case they want to enlist their children in the military. At other times, his antics are pure comic relief. (After complaining that the House passed the USA Patriot Act sight unseen, Moore corrects the situation by reading the bill aloud to Congress, circling the Capitol in an ice-cream truck and reciting the provisions over a loudspeaker.) Either way, though, Moore makes sparing use of this sort of material in advancing his main charges against Bush.

The first principal accusation is that Bush had gotten along just fine with the Taliban before September 11 (which is demonstrable) and didn't much care about fighting them afterward (which is unproved but plausible). Bush invaded Afghanistan, Moore claims, because he had to be seen to do something, because the war helpfully diverted attention from the Saudis and because those closest to him would gain lucrative contracts for a natural gas pipeline. Moore's second accusation is that Bush undertook the war in Iraq for even shadier purposes. As Nation readers knew, and as others have since caught on, Bush attacked without even the excuse he'd had in Afghanistan of pursuing bin Laden. There were no terrorists in Iraq to destroy, no military threats to counter – and unless you define "democracy" as the creation of profit-making opportunities for Halliburton, no process of democratization to pursue.

There is also a third principal point, most devastating of all. But before I go into that, let me digress once more, to sum up the impressively varied materials that Moore assembles to make these arguments.

The film contains, as I've said, a few of Moore's little skits, along with a lot of borrowed actualities footage, which is usually surprising and sometimes shocking. (How many shots have you seen of daily life in Baghdad immediately before the war? How many dead and wounded Iraqi civilians have you looked at close up?) In addition, you find pop-culture images, which Moore takes over for purposes of sarcasm or parody (as when he remakes the TV western Bonanza as the Bush adventure Afghanistan); talking-head interviews with expert commentators (such as former counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke, former FBI agent Jack Cloogan and Senator Byron Dorgan); a range of texts and graphics; patches of direct cinema (for example, an excursion to a shopping mall in Flint, Michigan, with a couple of Marine recruiters); and, most critical of all, filmed encounters with ordinary citizens, who pretty much have the frame to themselves while Moore stays quietly out of the way.

The most important of these citizens, the one who takes over the final portion of the movie, is Lila Lipscombe of Flint, mother of Sgt. Michael Pedersen, who served in a helicopter unit in Iraq and was killed in action sometime after "the completion of major combat operations." Lipscombe is a pleasantly robust woman of modest means, patriotic and Christian in convictions, guileless in manner, whose role in the polemic is simple: She is meant to embody disillusionment. Having once despised all protesters against war, feeling that they were slapping our soldiers in the face, she now grieves over a dead son, whose final letter home said of Bush, "He got us out here for nothing." In a succession of artfully spaced scenes, which constitute the film's third damning charge against Bush, Lipscombe speaks of the meager possibilities open to most young people in Flint; she recalls having encouraged her own children to enter the military, believing it to be a good thing to do and a good opportunity; and at the end, bereft, with Moore trailing behind, she visits the White House (or as close to it as you can get these days) and says she is glad to be there, since it gives her a place to put her anger.

Lipscombe makes a very efficient witness – but she is an intractably complex movie character. She just doesn't fit Moore's scheme. He generally relies on economics to explain the behavior of the elite and psychology to account for the rest of us. (As you may recall from Bowling for Columbine, he is very interested in the way politicians and the communications media use fear to grab attention and elicit compliance.) But when it comes to Lipscombe, Moore (to his great credit) forgets about his standard categories. For perhaps the first time in his career, he shows someone as a fully rounded personality, animated by beliefs and loyalties that he does not necessarily share but must respect; and so he allows her emotions to overwhelm his cleverness.

This is the point at which Fahrenheit 9/11 may overwhelm you, too. Perhaps it will seem trivial to a pollster, counting and recounting those swing votes, that this campaign tool should also qualify as a work of art; but I can't believe the effect will be lost on moviegoers.

Fahrenheit 9/11 is Michael Moore's most urgent diatribe and also his best, most moving film.

Disappearing Muslims

When you go to the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, you expect the screen to be a window onto the world. Feature-length documentaries will outnumber fiction films -- the ratio this year is 16 to 3 -- and even in the latter category, fact will predominate over artifice. You will get glimpses into Israel and Palestine (Paradise Lost, One Shot), Peru (What the Eye Doesn't See), the two Koreas (Repatriation), India and Pakistan (Born Into Brothels, For a Place Under the Heavens), Africa (Liberia: An Uncivil War) or Iran (Leila); and however maddening, disquieting, bracing or astonishing these views might be, you look forward to seeing them directly, as if through nothing more than a sheet of glass. What you might not expect -- although you get it anyway in this seventeenth annual edition of the festival � is a riddle: When is a window not a window?

The answer: When it's in Persons of Interest by Alison Maclean and Tobias Perse.

Persons of Interest addresses the cases of about a dozen of the Muslim men in the United States who were imprisoned after September 11, 2001, on slight charges, if any at all, and held without trial for a year or more. You already know, of course, that our authorities shut away many people back then for nothing more than being named Muhammad. You also know, without believing a word of it, Attorney General Ashcroft's claim that he was rounding up only terrorists, or those who knew terrorists, or maybe lived down the block from somebody whose second cousin knew someone. But unless you belonged to the family or legal team of a detainee, you probably do not know the name and face of anyone who was locked away, nor could you readily get such information on your own. Our government prefers not to say who, or how many, it held. (Human Rights Watch estimates the number at more than 5,000.) So Maclean and Perse have done us a valuable service by showing some of these people and their families and letting us hear their stories. Window metaphors suggest themselves: The filmmakers have shone a light on the situation, or let in fresh air. And, sure enough, the interviews take place in a bare room with whitewashed walls, with a glowing window niche at the left.

Then, about halfway through the film, the camera moves around the room until it offers a glimpse through that niche, which you see is not a window at all. The room is built on a soundstage. The niche opens onto a view of electrical cables and floodlights.

If Persons of Interest had a different subject matter, you might interpret this revelation as a routine gesture of academic skepticism. Yes, the film is a representation. Yes, the stories being told are stories (apart from the claims to truth that they make). But after more than half an hour of listening to people's bewilderment and outrage and sense of betrayal (so many insist that they came to America to be free), after watching these witnesses break down in tears or hunch into themselves or lift their faces as if pleading with an unseen judge, I lost my breath at the sight of that dark enclosure where an opening had been promised. There is no play of appearances in the window that is not a window, no liberating distance from the subject matter or the self, but only suffocation. The outside has disappeared.

And what if I had seen that nonwindow on a different week? I watched Persons of Interest around the same time that Mr. Bush made his reassuring declaration that he would tear down Abu Ghraib prison: a public relations ploy that might have been suggested to him by Homer Simpson, and was pronounced as if under Homer's tutelage. Who else would expect to be praised for destroying evidence, and in a criminal case brought against himself? No one laughed at the speech, though. The giddiness is gone even from the war party, many of whose members now adopt a somber tone to boast of their growing wisdom. Even they know there's no sunshine behind that opening toward which Mr. Bush points, but only machinery for maintaining an illusion.

In this year's Human Rights Watch festival, the films show you Peruvians struggling with their false-front democracy; Koreans grappling with the mutually reinforcing lies of North and South; Palestinians traveling through a homeland that seems to vanish right under their feet (Like Twenty Impossibles, by Annemarie Jacir); good citizens of Illinois tearing holes through the fictitious justice of the death penalty (Deadline, by Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson). Whatever the individual merits of these films -- I believe they're variable -- they all set you thinking about what a real outside might be, there, beyond that window we can't get through.

Too Hip for Homer?

I know, you're too hip to see Troy. Even if you grew up venerating some irresponsibly talented hero, a night-life Achilles such as Charlie Parker or Patti Smith, the warfare of Troy is not for you, no more than is the sober allegiance to an ancient text. It's a hipster tradition to prefer the contemporary and impromptu to the classic, the humanly flawed to the studio-made.

Not that there are many hipsters around, compared with the audience for Troy--but those few will have a grand time watching their heroes and heroines being cool in Jim Jarmusch's new film, Coffee and Cigarettes.

As several of Jarmusch's characters observe, Coffee and Cigarettes isn't any kind of lunch. In the same spirit, I might say that Coffee and Cigarettes delivers a buzz but isn't any kind of master narrative. It's an unabashedly modest anthology of eleven short films, the earliest of which dates from 1986, when Saturday Night Live invited Jarmusch to contribute to the program. He brought together actor Roberto Benigni and cinematographer Tom DiCillo (with both of whom he'd worked before) and comedian Steven Wright and created a brief, cheerfully pointless sketch in which the performers meet, smoke, abuse espresso and trade places, all the while talking past one another. Three years later, while shooting Mystery Train in Memphis, Jarmusch put together a second, equally shaggy episode, again working with the actors and cinematographer on hand. In 1992 came the third segment, made in a California lounge with Iggy Pop and Tom Waits. Although the pace eventually picked up -- Jarmusch filmed six segments in 2003, in a two-week stretch -- Coffee and Cigarettes still gives you the impression of something personal and casually assembled, like a scrapbook or journal kept over a long period.

It is, however, a journal kept according to rules. All the episodes are shot in black and white and take place in real time, each within a single, sparsely populated setting. All incorporate overhead shots of the table where the characters gather, and all involve the pleasures or hazards of the title substances. As for the variations among episodes: background music and decor change, different brands of cigarettes show up on the tables and the actors either do or do not appear as themselves.

In addition to the performers I've already mentioned, the self-impersonators include Jack White and Meg White of The White Stripes, GZA and RZA of Wu-Tang Clan, Isaach de Bankolé, Alex Descas, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett and underground legend Taylor Mead. Among those who do not impersonate themselves are Steve Buscemi (very, very thinly disguised as a coffee-shop waiter in Memphis) and, once again, Cate Blanchett (who appears, through the magic of split screen, as her own deeply envious cousin). As this roster will tell you, Coffee and Cigarettes is a kind of no-budget backstage musical, concerned with the lives of entertainers and with the tunes that play around them. I don't know, however, whether Renée French is an entertainer or is playing herself. A conspicuously attractive and unapproachable woman who is shown sitting alone in a New York coffee shop, poring over a gun catalogue, French is explained in the press booklet only as someone who leads a mysterious life--which makes her, I suppose, the hippest character of all.

And that's the fundamental joke of Coffee and Cigarettes. These people who seem so wised-up, cutting-edge and flagrantly out-of-the-norm, who have gained celebrity from their idiosyncrasies (or, like French, look like they ought to be celebrities) are doing nothing special in this movie -- they're just killing time. They're dope fiends whose drugs of choice are the same as everyone else's. (As Iggy Pop and Tom Waits confess to each other, the coffee's good at International House of Pancakes.) They're stars who play at being ordinary and artless (like Cate Blanchett and Alfred Molina), or anti-stars (like Taylor Mead) lost in nostalgia for a glamorous, vanished world -- Paris in the 1920s, say, or New York City in 1979.

I could tell you that this adds up to a critique of our celebrity-mad culture, or an ironic conversion of the avant-garde into the mundane, or a multitiered exploration of interpersonal power games. More to the point, though, Coffee and Cigarettes plays like a series of eleven eloquent shrugs, each one more droll than the last. The twelfth shrug is this review, which can't explain how Jarmusch got such inordinate fun out of the freakishly ordinary.

Maybe the IHOP coffee is worth a try. Maybe it would be OK to see Troy.

All right, then: Let me begin by offering thanks to God, who did not order Mel Gibson to adapt The Iliad. Black ships, rosy dawns, the salt sea and the high walls of Troy itself would have disappeared under his torrent of fake blood -- whereas the new Warner Bros. version of the story, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, flings through men's skulls only the minimum number of spears needed to do justice to Homer, while offsetting these murders with enough panoramic views and manifestations of movie gods to give you a sense of epic sweep, if not poetry.

Chief among the movie gods in Troy is flowing-haired Brad Pitt, whose Achilles is first seen in a prologue episode: a little war in Thessaly, to which he shows up late because he's overslept with two, um, companions. Although Pitt is now past 40 and has gained the upper-body bulk to go with his age, he's still the perfect actor to convey the yawning, leave-me-alone attitude of Achilles performing yet another task for Agamemnon (Brian Cox), conceived here as a kind of gross, sarcastic high-school football coach whose star quarterback hates his guts. Long before Pitt's Achilles has begun to sulk, he's already radiating the disdain and laziness of a jock who is bored with winning too easily. He impiously beheads a statue of Apollo with one stroke of his sword, then saunters away with a try-and-stop-me slouch. He faces in single combat the biggest, ugliest Thessalonian you can imagine and dispatches him with an efficiency born of contempt -- not for the opponent, who is just one more victim in his path, but for Agamemnon, the fat old windbag who orders everyone around. In a world of earthbound batterers, Pitt's Achilles stands out by his boldness, speed and agility. He leaps and whirls to kill.

You could resist Pitt's appeal in Troy, although I don't see why you'd want to. My only regret about his Achilles -- and it's not the actor's fault -- is that I didn't get to see him disguised among the women. Other performers in Troy, though, are less Homeric. As Hector, Eric Bana (The Hulk) reminded me of a young Victor Mature, though without the bubbling wit and astonishing range. As Helen, shining among women, Diane Kruger succeeds mostly in being blond. This is her first big movie; I question whether she'll bring to a second her forgettably perfect features and rote line readings. Her Paris, the smooth and likable Orlando Bloom, has almost nothing to play against. Priam, on the other hand, is too much for anyone else in the film. He's played by Peter O'Toole, who of course is superb, but whose presence has the distorting gravity of a star -- the celestial kind -- warping space and time around it.

Yet the mere fact that I can complain about the imbalance between O'Toole and the other actors testifies to a strength of Troy. Petersen lets his performers occupy the frame together and interact, instead of isolating them in close-ups. He also provides a real physical setting for these interactions. Although many of his grander images are computer-generated -- the swarming armies, for example, or the burning towers--Petersen has been sparing with his digital effects, unlike others among today's big-budget directors. For a comparison, try looking at Stephen Sommers's Van Helsing -- a patched-together, computer-dominated horror movie so long, loud, leaden and ersatz that it clearly was assembled not by Dr. Frankenstein but Igor.

Troy, though, despite its shortcomings, comes off as a real movie. I will be curious to learn how an America now disastrously at war in western Asia will respond to this picture about an ancient conflict in that same part of the world. How will it strike people that in this telling, the victorious invaders are a rapacious monarch and a self-infatuated killer, while the losers are on the nobler, more humane side?

I'll tell you this much: The horse is magnificent.

Chronicle of a Disappearance

A rough but accurate gauge of national resilience: When dictators fall, how soon do filmmakers rise again? In the case of Argentina, the recovery was impressively quick. Almost as soon as the generals were gone, artists responded to the immediate past with remarkable feature films and documentaries: Hector Olivera's Funny Dirty Little War (1983) in the first category, Susana Munoz and Lourdes Portillo's Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo (1986) in the second. Since then, films inspired by the "dirty war" have developed into a large and significant subset of world cinema, with Luis Puenzo's The Official Story, Marco Bechis's Garage Olimpo and Hijos, David Blaustein's Spoils of War and (in a different mode) Fernando Solanas's La Nube among the most notable on the list.

We may now add to them Albertina Carri's complex and fascinating The Blonds (Los Rubios). It is, I admit, not an easy picture to grapple with--but then, neither is its subject matter, which is the gaping hole in the filmmaker's life.

In 1977, when Carri was 4 years old, the police kidnapped and murdered her parents, the underground leftists Roberto Carri and Ana Maria Caruso. Years passed before the little girl learned what had happened. She grew up without memories of her mother and father; and no one has been able to supply for her what was lost. Her older sisters, who do remember the parents, evidently prefer not to talk about them, at least not for the record. Former comrades, when questioned, just rehash their own experiences and discourse on politics. The neighbors who saw Ana Maria and Roberto hauled away know only that they themselves did nothing wrong and don't want trouble; and the cops, strangely enough, have a hard time recalling anything before 1983.

Everyone, it seems, wants to forget what Carri can't remember. (Those old friends who mythologize her parents merely consign them to a different kind of oblivion.) As if to sum up this will to amnesia, the state agency that funds film production reviewed Carri's proposal for a movie about her parents and sent back a letter -- incorporated into The Blonds -- saying that it could not yet decide whether to support this very worthy project and therefore was not supporting it.

Carri, in her various lives as baffled orphan, filmmaker and citizen, must find some way to cope with an ineradicable absence. Her response -- by turns a documentary, fiction, essay, memoir and very low-budget animation -- is no easier to describe than it is to categorize; but perhaps a list of topics will suggest what you may find, and admire, in The Blonds.

Doubles: The filmmaker you glimpse toward the beginning, conducting a hit-and-run interview with one of the parents' neighbors, turns out not to be the filmmaker. As a voiceover soon explains, she is the actress Analia Couceyro, who has been hired to portray Albertina Carri. Does this mean that Carri, for the sake of discretion, has taken herself out of the picture? No. She's on screen, too, and is often seen coaching her double.

Blonds: The neighbors used to refer to Ana Maria and Roberto as "blonds," implying that the couple were nonindigenous, inauthentic, un-Argentine. Another blond in the film -- another victim of kidnapping and torture -- is Melanie Griffith, who may be seen in the background of Couceyro/Carri's editing studio. She appears, bound and gagged, on a prominently displayed poster for John Waters's movie Cecil B. Demented.

Filmmakers: When you watch Couceyro in the studio reviewing videotaped interviews, or when she pretends to be interviewed herself or visits sites associated with the parents, you also get to see Carri's crew in action. They discuss how to proceed, conduct run-throughs, slate shots, film the filming; and as they do so, you get to know these young people. You understand that they have become Carri's present-day family and are the real protagonists of the movie.

Masquerades: If so, then the surrogate family and the Carri double must be blonds, too. In the last section of the film, they all put on wigs, as if to fake -- or is it flaunt? -- the identity that was fatally assigned to Ana Maria and Roberto.

For a filmmaker -- indeed, for a generation -- that has been violently severed from its elders, this duplicitous, make-believe identification may be the only form of memory available. It's a self-contradictory basis on which to live, but not without hope. In the final shots of The Blonds, we see Couceyro from behind, at a distance, walking down a country road, and at the same time overhear someone from the film crew saying, "It's better. The film ends with her alone." But then, the film doesn't end like that. The shot is repeated, this time with the whole film crew walking together into the distance, their ridiculous blond wigs bobbing and shaking.

It's better. She is cut off but not alone.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The lights go down in the courtroom, a 16-millimeter projector shoots out its beam, and into the trial blazes evidence of an unprecedented nature: not a report of criminal events but the crime itself, stored on film and now released again into the world. Strange to think that only seventy years have passed since Fritz Lang imagined this moment in Fury. Lang was arguably more sophisticated than anyone now alive about camera tricks and propaganda -- he'd led the world in deploying special effects, and had been offered the cordial support of Goebbels himself (in response to which he had fled Germany); and yet, as his first artistic act in America, Lang told a story about the reality of filmed images and their liberating potential. Who among us today would second him? We live in the era of asymptotic prophecy: The truth, which we'll never arrive at, would make us something like free.

Here, though, are two people who share Lang's faith: the Irish filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O'Briain. In their thoroughly remarkable documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, they show how a critical public event was seen in three different segments of the moving-image media. The event was the coup in April 2002 against Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, and its abrupt failure. The media in question are Venezuela's privately owned television stations, which fomented the seizure of power and tried to sustain it; the state-run television station, which helped break the coup, serving at a key moment as the sole link between the besieged presidential palace and the outside world; and the Bartley-O'Briain documentary itself.

Whether the filmmakers intended the truthfulness of their own work to be questioned, I can't say. I suspect, in fact, they did not. Bartley and O'Briain had come to Caracas in autumn 2001 to film a profile of Chávez -- a profile that he must have thought would be admiring, since he gave them access to the Miraflores Palace and his presidential plane. They recorded his rallies, his visits to the rural poor and his weekly call-in television program. They interviewed Chávez supporters in the ranchos, those makeshift neighborhoods that rim the basin of Caracas, where shanties are piled up by the thousands like teetering stacks of broken crockery; they went into the whitewashed apartment blocks of the central city, where Chávez's opponents warned one another to beware their domestic servants and be prepared to use firearms. It looks to me as if Bartley and O'Briain were gathering material to portray Chávez as a popular and fundamentally democratic leader, who champions the impoverished majority and stands up to the oligarchs, at home and in Washington. I'm not saying this reading of the situation is wrong, just that the filmmakers must have been inclined from the outset to believe it. They found scenes (no doubt plentiful) to confirm their opinion.

Then events gave them more urgent scenes, which transformed their project from a reasoned polemic into the documentation of a crime. In early April 2002, they recorded the inflammatory broadcasts on private television that threatened Chávez with a coup, provoking his supporters to gather outside the Miraflores Palace and helping to rally an opposition march. Soon after, Bartley and O'Briain were on the spot when the march approached the palace, and snipers suddenly opened fire on the Chávez supporters. The ensuing gunfight produced images, repeatedly broadcast on private Venezuelan television and reported in the United States, that seemed to show Chávez's irregulars shooting from a bridge at unarmed protesters below. Bartley and O'Briain have telltale footage that wasn't broadcast or reported: images that show there were no marchers under the bridge, but that the Chávez gunmen, in between taking shots, were cowering under fire.

Over the hours that followed, Bartley and O'Briain had the guts to continue filming on the streets, capturing scenes of a bloody police crackdown on Chávez loyalists. Meanwhile, in the Miraflores Palace, a staff cameraman was filming the entry and self-congratulatory speeches of the coup leaders, and the events surrounding the late-night negotiations in which Chávez refused to resign but allowed himself to be removed under arrest, to avoid a military assault on the building. This extraordinary footage, too, is incorporated into The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. And so are scenes of an astonishing broadcast the following morning on private television, in which journalists and coup leaders boasted, out loud and explicitly, about having planned the previous day's confrontation as the occasion to seize power.

So private television, which had broadcast so many slanders about Chávez, now blurted out a confession. In turn, the state television channel -- a propaganda vehicle for Chávez, like him or not -- also reported a plain fact, to immense effect. After having been shut down for forty-six hours, the station resumed broadcasting from the Miraflores Palace when Chávez loyalists retook the building. They were, however, cut off from military forces throughout Venezuela, who continued to believe what they were hearing on private TV. When state TV got out the word that the elected government was back in the palace, soldiers began declaring their loyalty, and the coup was broken.

I conclude that you will know the truth through moving images, and the truth will make you free. It has the power to do so precisely because images are so often made to lie. Sometimes, as with the private TV stations, the truth is pushed out only by internal pressure, as in psychoanalysis. Sometimes, as with state TV, the medium must be reduced to its most basic function before it sends a clear and factual signal. And sometimes, as with Bartley and O'Briain, events need to force themselves on an informed preconception, so the work becomes more than the filmmakers had planned. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised incorporates all three kinds of truth-telling. It is not just a documentary but an invaluable document. I'd almost call it prophetic.

The Alties, AlterNet's Second Annual Alternative Movie Awards, won't be televised either but that's no excuse for not voting.

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