Friday, March 19, 2010

War is bad and people die.

Paul Greengrass isn't the best working director right now (that's Christopher Nolan), but I don't think it is debatable as to whether there is anybody who makes better action movies than Greengrass. We all know I love Michael Bay, but there is a definite difference between his movies and those made by Greengrass: Bay makes movies that are more incredible than good, while Greengrass makes incredible movies that are also objectively great. I have mentioned here that the Rock is my favourite action movie, but I know that when I take my own personal attachments away from it, the Bourne Ultimatum (and maybe even Supremacy too) is probably a better movie made with a more interesting style.

The main reason I love Greengrass as a director is something that I have cited for most of my favourite movies in that he combines Hollywood ideals (in this case the blockbuster action movie) with many things you would be more likely to see in an independent movie. The best thing about this is that Greengrass does it all in a style that is not only visually appealing, but looks like something I could personally pull off. The handheld style of his movies has been heavily criticized, and I understand that criticism. While I think the editing and camera work in these films is so well done that they are never hard to follow, I can understand people simply not liking the aesthetic. Greengrass' films aren't trying to appear as fake documentaries, but it's clear he is using that style to add an element of realism to the action movie, which I say works every time. I have read this criticized as a way of merely simulating excitement, which I think is ridiculous. It's a fucking action movie, of course it is simulating excitement, and I think this style allows for the most simulated excitement possible. By using this handheld, liquid style for his films' camerawork, Greengrass creates movies that feel like they exist in spaces as opposed to sets, which heightens the level of excitement and realism by placing the viewer in the middle of the action. Kathryn Bigelow, director of the Hurt Locker (which was shot by Green Zone and United 93’s cinematographer Barry Ackroyd), has explained the style about as well as one can: "That's how we experience reality, by looking at the microcosm and the macrocosm simultaneously. The eye sees differently than the lens, but with multiple focal lengths and a muscular editorial style, the lens can give you that microcosm/macrocosm perspective, and that contributes to the feeling of total immersion."

Greengrass' movies also lack a certain sheen that is typically seen on the big budget Hollywood movie: his Bourne movies, and Green Zone especially, look as though there has been very little done to the image in postproduction. There are scenes that are dimly lit, and the image does not appear to be brightened in postproduction. You even get to see what I think would be called visual noise, where the image is so dark that an adjustment is made to the actual camera to brighten the image while it is being shot but at the cost of clarity. I realize that it is possible, and maybe even likely, that this noise is actually applied in post, but the thing about it is not when it is applied, but that it is in fact done. Even before I was a camera nerd, I noticed that there was something different about certain images in the Bourne movies and United 93, and it added a certain level of realism to me even then.

I saw the Bourne Supremacy for the first time in 2004, and to put it as eloquently as possible, it was un-fucking-real. I already had a deep appreciation for the fake documentary format (thanks, Christopher Guest and Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant), but the Bourne Supremacy took all of the great visual elements of that format and applied them to the action movie… and the result maintains one of the most exciting movies I will ever see. While I have surely romanticized this memory plenty over the years, I remember being legitimately shocked early in the film, the hand-to-hand combat being eye-opening, and the car chase leaving me in a state of badassery-induced shock. Even now when I rewatch this movie that I have seen at least 25 times, I still get shivers at certain moments. It is a small number of media texts that I find legitimately inspiring (there is one other text I could apply this adjective to), but every time I watch a Greengrass movie, I find myself thinking of movies I want to try to make, and his movies make me feel like I actually can do just that*. It sounds weird, but it’s the triple truth, Ruth.

The last thing I really enjoy about Greengrass films, although this is not something I figured out back in 2004, comes in the ideology of his movies. He is borderline obsessed with debunking what he considers government wrongdoing, and he is the most explicitly countercultural director working within Hollywood. His Bourne movies are more subtle than his overtly political movies Bloody Sunday, United 93, and Green Zone, but even then they do not try too hard to hide their politics. Jason Bourne is, as Greengrass calls him in the commentary for Ultimatum, the spirit of the opposition, and I think Ultimatum even has characters that are meant as stand-ins for members of the Bush administration. More overtly, the film features many shots that evoke some of those taken from inside Abu Ghraib prison and the various forms of torture the US government subjected its occupants to. That something like this can be done inside of what was one of the biggest movies of 2007 is something that makes me hopeful for the future of the blockbuster: the blockbuster as a whole is generally considered shallow and dumb, but there are still spots out there for subtle (or overt) political commentary within one every once in a while. This is why it’s unfortunate that Green Zone… uh… bombed.

I was excited about this movie, and honestly really liked it despite its flaws. The script was far more explicit in its politics than anything else Greengrass has done, but outside of that I have few complaints about the movie. Much like Nolan's Inception will be this summer, Green Zone felt like a movie that Greengrass knew he would only have a tiny window to make: he's coming off a gigantic hit, so he can secure a massive budget for something he would never be able to get made under just about any other circumstances. The sad part about this is that Green Zone was never going to be a hit, and it never even had a chance. No big-budget Iraq movie has succeeded, and Green Zone is not the exception to that rule. I think Greengrass knew this was his chance to get a budget to do pretty much whatever he wanted, and he made a good thriller that is at times too explicit with its politics. Some of these lines of dialogue are pretty awful, and at some points I was reminded of Keenan Ivory Wayans' small role in Don't Be a Menace. However, the fact that a movie like this merely exists still makes me quite happy.

Michael Moore recently posted on his Twitter page that he can't believe this movie ever got made and that it was poorly marketed as an action movie, which stands as the first time I fully agree with something Moore says. But, like I said earlier, Green Zone never had a chance to make money with a budget of at least $100 million, and the best shot it had was to market all of the Bourne similarities (of which there are a couple too many). While there is some incredible action in the movie, it is at heart a political thriller, and the politics were definitely put ahead of the thrills. The real issue I have with Green Zone comes with its twisting of the truth: it is basically left-wingers doing what they hate right-wing people for doing. By conveying Greengrass and company's perception of the truth through a fictionalized version of the Iraq war, they are doing precisely what they would likely accuse Fox News of doing, but on a much larger stage (albeit as a one-off as opposed to a 24/7 news network). While I think Greengrass' version of the Iraq war is closer to the truth than how Rupert Murdoch's News Corp often presents it, I don't know that I can really say with objectivity in that my views are far closer to the former than the latter. I like that a more left-wing opinion is in a mainstream blockbuster, so long as it is not presented in a way that is excessively brash. If you’re going to call out somebody who opposes you, don’t do it in the same way they’re using making their points… which brings me to that stupid fucking woman who sat behind me in Green Zone.

This woman seemed to think that her ticket purchase was a vote for the real truth, and that everybody in the theatre was of the most left-wing thought process possible. She decided that whenever a character made a broad comment about the war existing because of state-sponsored lying, this woman applauded and would loudly vocally agree with whatever point the movie was making as if it was an absolutely truthful account of the Iraq war. When the film shows Bush declaring America to have won the war, this woman yells out "Fool's gold! Fool’s gold!" If some right-wing thinker had been doing the opposite and yelling out "shenanigans!" when Miller questions something and applauding when Poundstone speaks his mind, this left-wing crazy woman would have surely been furious. Loud leftists are just as bad as loud rightists, and I worry that Green Zone might just be a loud leftist. I like to think that it is merely stating an opinion, but is hopefully not doing so in such a loud way as to offend people that may not agree with it.

I am firm in my belief that no movie can create any direct change in reality, and I am apprehensive enough even calling a piece of media personally inspiring, but I do believe that movies like this have the ability to raise awareness of certain subjects and can often lead to a viewer wanting to learn more about the subject. The second time I saw Green Zone, a father and his teenage son sat in front of me, and I expected them to be disappointed with the fact that they didn’t get more of a Bourne-style thriller. After the movie was over, however, they got up and walked past me, and the son was asking his father more about the actual war. The kid seemed genuinely interested in something he saw in the movie, much like I became far more interested in filmmaking after I saw the Bourne Supremacy for the first time. Green Zone's financial failure may stop Paul Greengrass from securing a blockbuster-level budget for his next attempt at overtly political filmmaking, but I am hopeful that his movies, and Hollywood blockbusters in general, will be able to continue to occasionally inspire people in a number of different ways.

*I feel I should mention that these are not necessarily all Bourne-esque ideas.

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