Friday, March 28, 2014

The Wind Rises Review

The Wind Rises
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Released in 2013

Any aspiring screenwriter has read Pixar’s “22 Rules of Storytelling” by now. Rule Six reads, “What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?” Pixar enjoys a sterling reputation because it tells tight, satisfying stories, wherein an unlikely protagonist braves a mountain of intensifying conflict and emerges victorious. Up fits all it’s got into a three-act structure, the Hollywood standard, and somehow makes it unforced, even sparse.

Only Hayao Miyazaki and the powerhouse he co-founded, Studio Ghibli, rival Pixar in the international market for acclaimed animated films. Yet Miyazaki tells stories that do not conform to Hollywood structure. It explains why the meandering Spirited Away proved so jarring to my nine-year-old brain, in addition to all its weird ghosts and pigs. His films use ma, the Japanese word for “space” or “pause,” to contemplative, disarming effect. The best of them are flat-out art films. So it is awkward to critique The Wind Rises,Miyazaki’s latest and potentially last film, for it conforms to a straightforward biopic formula that plays against Miyazaki’s strengths. Of course, everything on screen still brims with beauty and rewards symbolic reading.

For the first time, Miyazaki dramatizes the life of a historical figure, with the same name, look and all. We meet the young Jiro Horikoshi in his dream, in which he flies a plane of his own invention high in the sky until a monolithic flying fortress emerges from the clouds and sends Jiro and shrapnel plummeting to the ground. The Icarus myth recurs throughout the film, for while Jiro’s poor eyesight precludes a piloting career, he instead dedicates his life to designing the world’s sleekest and fastest airplanes, just as World War II beckons. That most prototypes snap and set aflame on test runs only motivates Jiro to try harder, yet he must balance his perfectionism within a military sphere willing to sacrifice speed and safety if it means bolting a machine gun onto a wing, with compassionate, grounding human relationships.

Unfortunately, this conflict — between career and life, war and grace, male superiors and female loved ones — fails to reach us with Jiro at its center. From the start, Jiro is perfect: He saves a woman and child from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, fastens a splint on the former’s broken leg like a Boy Scout, carries them to their families and ducks out before they can ask his name. Voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the only occasionally awkward English dub, Jiro could not be sweeter, what with his command of etiquette and mastery of kenjōgo (“polite language”). His romance with Naoko (Emily Blunt), a sickly girl with a mature outlook on life, offers only overwhelming sentiment, effective as it may be. Their love colors the second half of the film, and Miyazaki strains to connect them with his larger questions. Naoko can only whisper into Jiro’s ear how great he is so many times until they both flatten into cardboard. To quote Reverse Shot critic Eric Hynes on Dallas Buyers Club, “Never trust a film that applauds its own protagonist.”

The undisciplined narrative disappoints, since Miyazaki works best in looser, more radical genres than the standard biopic. But count on Miyazaki to trot out the weird and fantastic, in spite of all else. Werner Herzog lends his Bavarian tenor to a watercress-loving German whose quivering pupils resemble black, cartoon suns. Out of his mouth slither omens of impending war or wishes of health and happiness, and nothing in between. He haunts a resort in midland Japan more like an apparition than a human, as does the Felliniesque inventor Giovanni Caproni (Stanley Tucci), who Jiro encounters multiple times in high-flying dreamscapes. In both Jiro’s dreams and reality, struggling aircrafts emit moaning, guttural sounds. Miyazaki refrains from flooding the soundtrack with ambient particulars (think of all you hear during one establishing crane shot from, say, Pirates of the Caribbean), so this aural motif stands out as it humanizes machines that, to Jiro, serve a higher purpose than as weapons to kill.

Miyazaki has sustained attacks from his homeland that The Wind Rises communicates an “anti-Japanese” message in its depiction of the military as droning thugs and the war effort as misguided, at best, and sinful, at worst. I admire the film’s stance, even though it could have gone further by maybe mentioning the anti-Korean violence following the Kanto earthquake. But now and then the film looks out from its bubble. When Jiro and his best friend Honjo (John Krasinski) visit Berlin, they catch a glimpse of Gestapo agents chasing renegade Jews through streets bathed in German Expressionist shadows. The Nazis stop to shove their flashlights in Jiro and Honjo’s faces, gritting their teeth to round them up too. Jiro saves them both, of course, but the uneasy alliance amongst Axis nations casts a more permeating spall over the film than any material gains Japanese engineers enjoy in their collaboration with the Nazis. That is a good thing.

Obviously, there is a whole lot I like about The Wind Rises. Miyazaki mulls over the outrageous paradox that only in times of war do governments support artists, provided they sacrifice all humane values they hold dear. Yet as pretty as every frame is, the film proves far more stimulating after you watch it, as you try and fish out significance from Miyazaki’s sincere intentions. Jiro is simply too good and thus boring a protagonist for a film so concerned about mortality, compromise and geopolitical tension. He stands aloft the breakers of global tumult, undampened by its waves of red as he floats away on a raft of saccharine fantasy, one that he sees as the world entire.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Courtesy of Santi Slade
For the first time in what feels like forever, I had a real conversation with my brother. His name is Nick, he is a freshman at UCLA and he is just over a year younger than me, though you would not think it if you put the two of us back-to-back. By that, I mean he frequents the gym a lot, and it is there, back home, where he would advise me on what exercise to do and  precisely how to do it. He makes a great trainer, and I thank him for helping his little older brother, but in our house or driving around, at dinner or just lazing about with nothing better to do, I sensed a distance between the two of us.

So it was a pleasure to call him Wednesday evening, after missing two of his calls, and hear nothing about video games, money or fitness — our go-to topics for half-hearted discussion over the last few years. Instead, he could hardly contain his excitement as he ran through everything that’s lately been on his mind: student government, campus activism, careers and the Westboro Baptist Church. Regarding that last one: Apparently members protested near UCLA a few days prior, brandishing their infamous “God Hates Fags” signs. I told him to save his bile for evils less fringe and trollish than that dinosaur, but I knew his head was in the right place.

Nick is starting to look at the bigger picture. It took me until second semester freshman year to do the same, to see college as a means not only to read books, have fun or get a good job but to change: First internally and then, you hope, out in the open. I never thought I’d talk divestment, the Israel-Palestine conflict and diversity in college admissions with my brother, but there he was, chewing through these issues and more with a passion that tells me further research and even action await in his future. In all likelihood, he will best my knowledge on these subjects, regardless of whether they are tied to his college curriculum or not. That is what is special about this kind of awakening: Important questions, regarding geopolitics, racism, faith and so on, leave the classroom and colonize your downtime, breeding lifelong pursuits and realigning your priorities.

I have used this line before, and I’m sure I stole it from somewhere, but the way I see it, you go to college to become a person. Sure, you may have scored a 2400 on the SATs and led your debate team to the championships and wrote a tear-jerking college essay that, together, proved to an Ivy League admissions office how much of a hot commodity you are. But the real test comes after, away from parents, class rankings and other ruthless motivators. In fact, college offers so many avenues for distraction that it can undo all that high school overachieving, which may not be a bad thing for some. For the rest of us, however, bridging the obligation (studying, worksheets, etc.) with the distraction (music, writing, activism, etc.) becomes the newest and mind-blowing possibility.

I realize now how little I thought before. Maybe I was also a little happier, on the whole, back then — me in my ignorance. Then one day, months into the college experience, away from home and immersed in ideas that I didn’t totally understand, I came to a deflating realization: I do not matter. I was taking an astronomy course at the time, so the verdict may have been closer to “None of this matters.” If we keep this to comprehensible earthbound terms, the ramifications are the same: All those superlatives on your transcript amount to nothing in the grand scheme of things. It’s a rather depressing subject of consideration and it will always be, since once that internal switch turns on it cannot be turned off.

The only viable response to that humbling epiphany is as follows: But I want to matter! Whether you scream it aloud or never summon those exact words, therein lies the reason you get excited at anything more substantial than ice cream, from here on out. You think humanitarianism motivates fracking protesters or U.S. presidents? It does, of course, but so does reputation, self-importance, ego. We are too narcissistic a species to base our lives solely on the needs of others, and anyone trying to do good, by writing some preposterous novel or building the most efficient solar panel, knows this, deep down.

My brother is coming to grips with the effort, fueled from within, it will take to realize his dreams in life. His idealistic, go-getter oratory spells a future politician, entrepreneur or physician. Whatever path he chooses, he will outearn me, that’s for sure. I look forward to being there as witness and, now, confidante.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Need for Speed Review

Need for Speed
Directed by Scott Waugh
Released in 2014

Now, here is a video game movie. Typically, Hollywood buys the rights to a game like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time for typical, Hollywood reasons: an exotic, albeit totally depoliticized, setting; a nifty time travel conceit; a male lead who can look good while swinging a sword. Need for Speed, a 20-year-old series of racing games, has no core locale, no human characters and no story. Back in fourth grade, I played Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2 on GameCube because it had a McLaren F1 LM that went so fast I could lap the cops chasing me. That simple pleasure motivates this adaptation, a film so poorly written and devoid of any self-awareness that its fundamental, thematic emptiness makes it a fascinating text, as well as a superficially, stupidly enjoyable one.

As if to prove its commitment to The Real and the spirit of Americana, Need for Speed spends its first 30 minutes in Westchester County. Because when we think muscle cars and blue collar roots, we think Westchester and, to be specific, Mount Kisco. I have visited that town before and found it surprising how the production transformed a town of 10,000 into an urban center 20 times as large. Turns out it filmed those scenes in Columbus, Georgia. Why didn’t the movie just start there?

I am at a loss, and so is Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, née Aaron Paul — here a mechanic named Tobey Marshall, who has spent his whole life in the town and never once boasts about a local restaurant or expresses any sense that he lives in an actual place that he either longs to break free from or hopes to never leave. The most he can summon is “Are you still allergic to Mount Kisco?” to an ex (Dakota Johnson) at a yellow-tinted, Drive-esque drive-in theater. Even the thespian who could break down at the sight of a vial of ricin has little clue what to do with a line like that.

Tobey gets his diverse — sans Asian dude, unlike The Fast and the Furious movies — band of bros pumped for the initial conflict when he mutters, “I’m, uh … behind … on the loan.” When Benny (Scott Mescudi, a.k.a. Kid Cudi) interjects about “last time,” Tobey, via the pen of screenwriter extraordinaire George Gatins, says, “This time is different,” and, “If you guys don’t show up tomorrow, we lose this place.” That place is an auto shop/man cave they run now that Tobey’s dad has passed, just before the movie starts so that his cause of death can remain perpetually and pointlessly cryptic. It takes another death — this time of Tobey’s closest friend, after schoolyard bully-cum-racing millionaire Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) bashes his fast car with his own fast car and instigates a fiery, though undeniably pretty slow-mo inferno — and the framing of Tobey, with Dino going scot-free, to set up the barest outline of a conflict: For Tobey to win the De Leon, a secret race of modified supercars, in order to, somehow, prove his innocence and reassert his masculinity in the process.

This may not be obvious so far, but every character in Need for Speed is a terrible human being. Dino Brewster kills people, sure, with his pride and fake name and all. But the supposed good guys are sexist, unfunny idiots, too: Little Pete (Harrison Gilbertson) flirts with Tobey’s British love interest, Julia Maddon (Imogen Poots), with winning lines like, “I really like Piers Morgan.” The only discernible arc in Tobey’s character is in his eventual acceptance of Julia as an actual person, only after she drives well and helps him evade police custody. Meanwhile, violence against pedestrians or civilian cars is ignored or even glorified: When Pete hits a homeless man’s shopping cart during an earlier street race, he smiles and laughs as the man screams, “My house!” During every race, Tobey manages to cause at least a half-dozen car pileup by driving on the opposite side of the road and cutting off SUVs and even school buses.

Naturally, the film never indicts its characters’ behavior. Whereas Transformers 2 can be easily lambasted for its offensive stereotyping, director Scott Waugh maintains a weird, remarkably open visual style that is either lazy assembly line craftsmanship or sly, subversive commentary. The host behind the De Leon game is none other than a nutty Michael Keaton, going by “The Monarch.” He spews pop philosophy into his microphone and webcam, like “Racing is art. Racing with passion — that’s high art.” Everyone in this film knows him and thus reveres him, and you wonder if his marked isolation, in a circular room with a long-suffering swivel chair, clues us into his questionable sanity. Is he any different from The Joker and his home videos in The Dark Knight? Through the grammar of film, he is not, or not by much.

Then there is Benny, who commandeers a news helicopter and eventually a U.S. Army helicopter for reconnaissance during Tobey’s cross-country trek. He could bring down the whole American military with his smile and gift of gab, which Waugh shows us whenever he can, whether on-screen or through isolated intercom. That all these dudes get away with their reckless, irresponsible behavior and never even reflect on their violence could be just brainless filmmaking, or perhaps a super-ironic treatment of machismo and other harmful byproducts from exclusively homosocial relationships. I mean, given that one of the last shots is Tobey looking up at white lighthouse, framed askew so it juts about 45 degrees across the screen, is it wrong to think a queer reading of this entire thing is in order? This is one of those films that is all surface, and inadvertently or not, the motivation behind such surface-level violence lies underneath it all, if you are willing to look. It’s fun, dumb and sexless enough that it already feels like a camp classic.

Final Verdict:
2.5 Stars out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

More Than a Feeling

William Blake's illustrations to Milton's
"L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" (1816-1820)
So last week, the College Board announced big changes for the SATs, an awful and borderline anti-intellectual institution most of us — in college and beyond — survived and have since tried to forget. Who cares, right? Well, unfortunately, I do, because, effective in 2016, the College Board will no longer require students to write an essay. If you shoved any of my SAT essays (I took the test thrice) into my face today, I would hurl expletives, and maybe my lunch, back at you, because I’m sure they were platitudinous, benign and boring. But, goddammit, did I ace them. Removing the essay component in the SAT puts our academic priorities in all the wrong places, away from the written word, the value of a good argument and the process of creation.

I swear I’m not going to spend this whole column talking about SATs — I’ll get to movies shortly — but humor me for a little while as I reminiscence on that time of so much undue stress. On test day, a Saturday, I woke up around 6:15a.m., stood outside in the cold and waited on a slow-moving line just to flash my pass and student I.D. to some underpaid teacher. It was a miserable migraine of a so-called academic experience, yet the mood shifted once the SAT actually started.

I had 25 minutes to fill two pages with the best points, vocabulary and gerunds I could muster. There was no guessing, process of elimination or wasted seconds. You had to just go at it, and that’s what I did. Some impotent, probably underpaid knockoff of the Muse that Milton invoked so religiously in his poetry visited me in that high school classroom, for the thrill of besting my peers and the crunch of time inspired some … I wouldn’t call it literature, but it was some pretty good bullshit. And what surprised me, reading it over before the proctor called time, was how I packed all this ephemera into a discernible structure, with a shape to my argument and, most crucially, some evidence backing it up.

The rest of my SAT experience sucked, of course, but I value its essay component for reminding me what I excelled at, and how writing mattered as much as a doing a bunch of math problems. The College Board only introduced the writing section, — and the 800 points that came with it — in 2005. Whatever its motivations then, the dismissal of SAT writing now pushes the narrative that the humanities are on their way out — that numbers and filled-in circles equip prospective patrons of higher education better than an inspired, never-before-seen arrangement of words. This is a big problem in academia right now, one The Sun will dedicate a “Dialogue” to tomorrow in Ives Hall.

The delusion governing this administrative decision-making, in favor of STEM fields and against the liberal arts, is that the latter is not “practical” or even “rigorous.” This world needs more problem-solvers and fewer manchilds pouring their feelings onto a page or piece of canvas. While the belittling of art bothers me, I take issue with the fundamental dichotomy being drawn. The worst English essay abandons “practicality” just as the laziest scientific paper tosses out the scientific method. A misguided student may ignore form, coherence and citations when writing about To Kill a Mockingbird, and instead lapse into solipsism, asserting how touched he or she was by the book and why that emotional response is so precious. 1000-plus words later, the reader of this essay learns nothing and wonders how someone forced through the crucible of college essays and SAT writing could so thoroughly forget the lessons they were supposed to learn.

Art should never be devoid of feeling, but those evaluating it must keep that side of themselves in check. University humanities education focuses more on critical and analytical engagement with texts, whether they be books, paintings, films or songs, than the process of creating them. Whereas the former requires schooling and immersion in a medium’s theory and history, the latter depends on shakier, unteachable tenants like vision, originality and, again, the Muse. Great criticism is an art on its own, for the author tests and engages with those three things during the act of writing. But in order for an analysis to carry absolutely any import, a critic must follow some form and move past his or her initial emotional reaction: Okay, you like this movie. Now, what evidence can you share?

That word “form” matters. Even the most perplexing film, like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., hits you at a rational, analytical and thematic level. Part of the thrill of watching that movie depends on an ineffable engagement with it, yet I know it is truly great because I detect a rigorously constructed chassis of ideas and storylines underneath all the superficial and beautiful obfuscation. If I can glean order from a surrealist nightmare such as Mulholland Dr., what can I learn, and subsequently teach, from the crisis in Ukraine or our ongoing economic imbroglio? I’m not sure, since I have not invested much time investigating those issues and am content sticking with the arts, thank you very much.

But the point is that criticism, when done right, is inherently constructive. The act itself, of putting pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard, constructs ideas, as if from whole cloth. Of course, we borrow and steal thoughts and turns of phrase more than we even know, but the balanced critic has come to terms with this. And when I use the word “critic,” I don’t mean the professional pundits who write for newspapers. Someone who just finished an SAT essay may find the cogs in his brain whirring at a most unusual brisk speed, surprised that such a stupid exam with such a stupid prompt can inspire such elevated, almost automatic thought. He continues to think; he continues to write; he wonders how to channel an awakened passion for good.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Non-Stop Review

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Released in 2014

If you really love movies, you must respect the genre film: the not-quite-blockbusters, shot for $50 million or less, serving time-worn action, horror, sci-fi and Western thrills. To revere Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Anthony Mann and dismiss those following in their footsteps is a most common hypocrisy amongst film enthusiasts today. Genre films bring home money instead of Oscars, yet the best of them exert intelligence and an impeccable command of cinematic technique. Non-Stop is not the best of the best, but it is up there. While Liam Neeson reprises a more nuanced take on the badass paternal figure he has been playing since 2008’s Taken, director Jaume Collet-Serra situates his actor in a story and setting packed with more post-9/11 commentary than its poster would have you expect.

It all starts pretty Screenwriting 101: In slow motion, a pair of hands tip a flask into a coffee cup, stir the drink with a toothbrush and reach for a wrinkled photo of a little girl. Bill Marks (Neeson) is a grizzled alcoholic with a sad, yet-to-be-explained backstory sitting alone in his car when he receives a call that, yes, he has one last job to do. He works as an air marshal, despite being scared of plane takeoffs, and this flight from New York to London should keep him on his toes. There is a reticent Muslim (Omar Metwally), a non-PC cop (House of Cards’ Corey Stoll) off to see his “fairy brother marry a guy with a British accent,” Julianne Moore yapping in the seat next to him and, worst of all, a giggling supermodel (Bar Paly) cuddled with her beau behind him. It’s all clichés, tropes, been there, done that for the first few minutes.

But you stick with it, because all Liam Neeson movies these days start the same, and this one gets a whole lot better than any of them, save for The Grey. Midway through the flight, over the Atlantic, Bill receives cryptic text messages over his secure network that if he does not wire $150 million to an account in 20 minutes, a passenger will die. Neeson’s Savior Mode activates, as he recruits Moore and a familiar flight attendant (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) to look for conspicuous cell phone use. But this is 2014, so everyone is a suspect. The Agatha Christie vibe escalates once 20 minutes elapse and, through Bill’s direct actions, a passenger ends up dead in a bathroom stall. The TSA traces the terrorist’s bank account to Bill Marks’ name, and it looks like our imperfect hero has been framed. People keep on dying; you keep on watching.

At this point, I could describe the fight scenes, which are scarce but claustrophobic, intense and awesome. When reviewing a bad action film, you can adjectivise hand-to-hand combat and fill six paragraphs. Thankfully, Non-Stop is quite good, so there is more going on than Neeson kicking ass and, therefore, much to talk about. In fact, the story’s momentum depends on Bill Marks backing himself up, through tactical miscalculations, into a corner for most of the movie. Targeting the Muslim on-board proves to be a prejudiced and rushed judgment, as does singling out a black man wearing a hoodie for search. The issue of profiling criminals according to race and gender vexes Bill throughout his mission, and the diversity of the flight’s passengers represents a microcosm of America at large. Lupita Nyong’o, the beloved Mexican-Kenyan actress who won fame and an Oscar on Sunday as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, can be found roaming the aisles as a little-seen flight attendant. Her do-nothing character stands against the provocative questions the film raises, but I mention her because the world is in love with her right now and two minutes of Lupita is better than none, I guess.

The matter of security — its necessities, limits and enforcers — in post-9/11 America also haunts Non-Stop. When the possibility arises that Bill, their avowed protector, may be the terrorist, the passengers fret over what action to take. They know what happened on United 93 and recognize that Hollywood and U.S. history posthumously (and rightly) valorized the civilians aboard it because they took decisive, selfless action. Meanwhile, the irony that a federal agent assigned to defend would turn and hijack a plane proves too appealing for news pundits to ignore. There is a great shot of passengers plugging in their headphones and watching, on those back-of-headrest screens, talking heads accuse Bill of terrorism or worse on live television. The isolation of today’s media — everybody has their own screen — prohibits conversation and connection, for we prefer to take for truth the words of a suited man before a camera than whatever a real, beat-up human being seated next to us might say.

The politics of Non-Stop are difficult to decode, but they are there. Collet-Serra leans Jack Bauer conservative, in that homogenous bureaucracies often distort and lie while flawed but passionate agents wield their dogmatism to best unfavorable odds (Take note of what the omnipresent Shea Whigham, as Agent Marenick, says over the phone at the very end). The script stoops to two sappy, on-the-nose speeches about such themes — grandstanding, from heroes and villains, is sort of a requirement in a movie like this. Take them with a grain of salt, for Collet-Serra embeds his own perspective through camera placement, text message superimposition and other cinematic techniques alone.

Prior to its release, Reverse Shot critic Nick Pinkerton tweeted, “What sort of human garbage gives a poor review to Non-Stop?” I don’t think he was being facetious, and neither am I. Non-Stop follows the book, yet it fills in its margins with questions, patterns and Liam Neeson. The challenge here is to enjoy the superficial thrill of it all while daring to appreciate it as, if not art, then seriously smart entertainment. Balance those two tasks and you may just save America.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Last of the Unjust Review

The Last of the Unjust
Directed by Claude Lanzmann
Released in 2013

In 1944, the Third Reich released Theresienstadt, a propaganda film billed as “A Documentary from the Jewish Settlement Area.” S.S. Major Hans Günther coerced Kurt Gerron, a successful German-Jewish actor, into directing a beautified look at the Theresienstadt concentration camp and promised him his life in return. The resulting film showed the outside world a hamlet of happy Jews reading, eating toast, running in the sun and playing chess. It is a typical propaganda film edited in a cut-cut-cut fashion, where any given shot lasts no longer than a couple seconds and truth lies outside of the frame. Before a final cut was complete, the Nazis deported Gerron, his wife and the film’s cast to Auschwitz, where they died on Oct. 28. It should be noted that the gas chambers closed the next day.

Claude Lanzmann includes a clip from the film Theresienstadt in The Last of the Unjust, a new documentary that screened at Cornell Cinema last Wednesday. Watching Nazi propaganda today exposes obvious lies, for we all know what the European-Jewish experience at the time was really like. But Lanzmann screens this clip in the opening section of his film to call attention to his own cinematic style. The Last of the Unjust unfolds over three hours and 40 minutes, a span of time ruled by long takes, wide-angle shots and general quietude. Lanzmann encourages — nay, forces — you to consider what you are watching, to annotate an open document rather than accept what is on-screen as just there.

There is no way you will leave The Last of the Unjust and see Benjamin Murmelstein, the film’s subject, as anything less than a complicated and compelling human being. When Lanzmann interviewed him in 1975, Murmelstein lived in Rome in self-imposed exile because some prominent fellow Israelites believed that he should be hanged. From December 1944 to the war’s end, Murmelstein served as Theresienstadt’s “Elder of the Jews,” the man tasked with talking to, and from some Jewish perspectives, “collaborating” with the Nazis in charge, most notably Adolf Eichmann. Somehow, he was the only Elder, anywhere, to survive the war. After seizing the camp in 1945, Allies in Prague grilled him, “How are you still alive?” “How come you’re alive?” he said in reply, likely leaning forward and peering into their eyes as he does to Lanzmann here.

With his beady eyes and Hitchcockian jowls, Murmelstein makes a fascinating presence to fill a screen for over three hours. Lanzmann does not attack a man some have accused of negligence, at best, and genocide, at worst, so the portrait you will take of Murmelstein is mostly sympathetic. An Elder of the Jews “must be condemned, but he cannot be judged,” Murmelstein says near the end, with his hands behind his back and looking most wise. His predecessors, Jakob Edelstein and Paul Eppstein, were executed, the former forced to watch his wife and son die before receiving a bullet himself. You can say Murmelstein, faced with the challenge to “accomplish something without having any power,” was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Among the historical episodes Lanzmann prompts Murmelstein to retell, two words stand out: embellishment and emigration. Embellishment relates to the aforementioned Nazi documentary and how Murmelstein coordinated efforts to make Theresienstadt look clean and pretty for a Red Cross visit. After comparing himself to the “pragmatic and calculating” Sancho Panza, Murmelstein tells Lanzmann, who is on camera for most of the film as well, “If they hid us, they could kill us. If they showed us, they couldn’t.” While this embellishment occurred near the end of the Holocaust and thus did not have much diplomatic impact, this reasoning is inherently paradoxical: If you lie about your conditions to save your own skin, don’t you risk warping a systematic atrocity into a non-issue?

Murmelstein strikes me as the antithesis to Anwar Congo, the self-proclaimed star of Joshua Oppenheimer’s Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing. In the mid-’60s, Congo killed over a thousand innocent people in the Indonesian government’s anti-communist purge, and Oppenheimer spoke with him 50 years later to find a lackadaisical and honest man oblivious to his monstrous actions. Whereas Congo enjoys impunity in the corrupt Indonesian government, Murmelstein hides in Rome, in fear of retribution that he stresses again and again he does not deserve. 

Yet even while Murmelstein offers eloquence and reason in his defense, he comes across as unapologetically callous and political. His motto, “Survival through work,” echoes, to a disturbing degree, the sign, “Arbeit macht frei (work makes you free),” that welcomed prisoners to Terezin, Auschwitz and other camps. By working within the Nazi bureaucracy to help his people, Murmelstein had to adopt somewhat of a Nazi mindset, emphasizing numbers and paperwork over empathy. One of his truest conclusions is the following: “I did things that others didn’t do, but I’m not a hero. I’m not mad.”

The Last of the Unjust also digs into the bizarre Murmelstein-Eichmann dynamic, flirts with blacker-than-black humor involving misplaced cyanide and spends a lot of time with Lanzmann, in the present day, as he tours Theresienstadt and reads from the Elder’s writing. But the most powerful moment includes neither him nor Murmelstein in the frame. The camera first stares at a wall of names, illegible at such a distance, and pans 360 degrees across Prague’s Pinkas synagogue, where 80,000 such names cover the walls in tribute to the local Holocaust victims. They bleed across the screen, unable to be read and thus, again, willingly ignored. Then without zooming in, the camera finds a crop of names in close-up and Lanzmann gasps, “Then all of a sudden, they become legible.”

To see the Holocaust, nearly 70 years later, for what it was demands not scope but focus. Hone your eyes in on the individual and you will uncover a bundle of paradoxes that amount to one human life. Most did not make it, but Benjamin Murmelstein did. He tells Lanzmann his life for him to make sense of it, and Lanzmann, in turn, passes the burden onto us.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Dancing Around Misogyny

Below is a short blog post I wrote for my Global Cinema II class. I talk about Frederick Wiseman's High School (1968).

Frederick Wiseman makes movies for people who read into movies. His fascination with American institutions means that most professors should feel comfortable screening a Wiseman film for their class, assured that their students will take away a message or two since, well, you’ll either learn or sleep when watching a movie called High School. You learn a great deal from Wiseman’s deconstruction of public secondary education — far more than a draconian or worse, boring teacher might want you to. To glean something from High School, you must take an active role while watching it. As a result, High School not only heightens your awareness of the flaws in a school you went to or currently attend; it implants its messages into the very construction of the film, teaching you how to unpack it as you do the unpacking.

If you ride passively along with the film for its first few minutes, you have little choice but to take action once the girls in gym dance to “Simple Simon.” These medium-to-close shots of girls from the waist down are uncomfortable, to say the least. They fixate on the gyrations of these girls without affording the slightest glimpse of their faces — textbook misogyny, you know. A modern viewer may be tempted to call out Wiseman as a chauvinist on the evidence of these shots alone, but first consider the rest of the movie he builds around this awkward interlude. 

The shot immediately prior to the gym dance is of a hall monitor, whose back we only see in a sustained, handheld tracking shot. You do not see his face, either, but Wiseman gives us a sense of his lumbering physique as he prowls around the halls and makes quibbles with loitering students. He walks toward the gym doors and looks through their window, when Wiseman cuts to the girls dancing. That cut implies the shots following belong to the hall monitor’s point of view, yet Wiseman does not personalize the hall monitor in any way — withholding his name, as is typical for Wiseman, and hiding his face, which is not — so he stands in, instead, as a manifestation of the school’s male authority. Wiseman does not so much accuse that individual hall monitor of peeping on female students as call out the entire male-centered educational system for seeing the girls under its care through that inappropriate, objectified lens.

As Wiseman stresses, however, the system in place only works because the women in control have bought into it, too. The “Simple Simon” scene foregrounds the matter of adolescent female sexuality, so that we keep it in mind. Just a couple minutes later, Wiseman shows us an older woman lecturing girls about fashion, posture and body image, or, rather, insulting every one of them for falling short of her idealized, depersonalized standards. With close-ups on her face, in contrast to long shots of the silent girls, Wiseman lets us witness the confidence and shocking disregard for self-reflection that characterizes an influential female administrator in public high school. She is supposed to be a role model for the girls under her stead, girls who, like their male peers, have not developed the critical facilities just yet to take their teacher’s words with a grain of salt, or, better yet, start a feminist revolution. 

In their place, Wiseman applies a discerning, critical eye onto the happenings in high school, where bad teaching leads to harmful conditioning, societal injustice and deep-seated unhappiness. It says a lot of good that, in 2014, we laughed at the fashion show rehearsal. Wiseman and the rest of the world’s progressive filmmakers, writers and thinkers have done a good job indoctrinating us into questioning indoctrination.