Monday, February 21, 2011

The Morality of Noir: Femme Fatale

This is my contribution to For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Nehme of Self-Styled Siren, in what I sincerely hope is becoming a yearly tradition. Be sure to click the button at the bottom of this post and donate what you can - every penny counts. For a poignant (if I do say so myself) reminder of the rich history lost with every destroyed film, read my contribution to last year's blogathon, on the sad fate of many of the films shot in my hometown of Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale can be viewed as the director's personal essay on film noir, a great movie artist taking what he responds to most about a genre and applying to it his perspective on morality, ethics, and politics. This is not to say De Palm'a film "elevates" the genre or should be viewed apart from noir in any way - the noir elements recontextualize De Palma, not the other way around. De Palma, so frequently trivialized as a mere Hitchcock plagiarist/imitator, can be thought of as an American Godard as well, in that a considerable element of his artistic identity is analyzing the morality of cinema.

Proper film noir could certainly be viewed as a moral movement in American film - more or less all film noirs deal with people who are rotten to some degree, and many are blatant morality plays - but I feel that can be reductive as it implies that there was some kind of unified aesthetic, which I don't think has ever been the case in mainstream American movies. These stories were told because they were popular for a time, reflecting a desire to be "bad" vicariously within the safe confines of a movie theater; to get a glimpse into a sleazy underworld of detectives, criminals, beautiful women, sex, and violence. With Femme Fatale, De Palma similarly gives us a glimpse into that world, but as is typical of the film maker he forces you to think about what it means to watch.

And the very act of seeing has always been vital to even the weakest of De Palma's films - his elaborate camera work, extensive use of split screens, propensity for depicting voyeurism, and grounding in movie history aren't merely stylistic flourishes, they are examinations of perception, and Femme Fatale contains his greatest ruminations on the subject. Consider the director's often imitated but never equaled use of split screen in an early sequence, where one half of the screen is taken up by the tabloid photographer Nicolas (Antonio Banderas) while he photographs Laure from his balcony, the other taken up by Laure's former accomplices as they watch her through a pair of binoculars from afar. One half of the screen depicts curiosity while the other half depicts resentment and rage; as with everything in life, it's all a matter or perspective.

Femme Fatale is undoubtedly a post-modern noir, a movie very much aware of film noir aesthetics and its place in cinema history. This is established masterfully in the film's opening shot, which shows the main character Laure (Rebecca Romijn, who was a Stamos at the time) watching Billy Wilder's seminal Double Indemnity on French television, and we see Laure's reflection superimposed over that of Barbara Stanwyck's standard setting femme fatale. Though you can't even begin to compare Romijn's acting abilities to that of Stanwyck's - who could literally do it all, and brilliantly - one thing they share is that neither woman is overwhelmingly beautiful, but each exudes sexuality. Watching them cast their feminine spells, one gets the impression that they're the ones in charge (perhaps no actress was ever better at being the sexual aggressor than Stanwyck) To put it bluntly, both chicks know how to work it, though naturally by virtue of working in post-code Hollywood De Palma is able to be much more frank about the film's sexual undercurrents.

Although Femme Fatale is ultimately a serious movie, it opens with De Palma at his most playful, though De Palma when he's playful is still as incisive as it gets. The picture opens with a heist, though the heist doesn't take place at a bank or a casino, but at the Cannes film festival. This sequence is both thrilling and satirical, and it plays as a "fuck you" to the film making establishment that De Palma has always remained on the outskirts of, in spite of his sporadic critical and financial success. The heist itself - of an outfit worn by a film director's date, made of gold that just barely covers her breasts, another hilarious gag that paints the film making establishment as decadently bourgeois - is a brilliant sequence, a visual symphony that showcases De Palma's incredible aesthetic sensibility and his inventive use of camera movement that establishes and explores cinematic space as radically as any director since Carl Dreyer.

What with Laure being cut from the classic femme fatale cloth, she fucks over the people in her gang of criminals and makes off with the loot herself. She disguises herself, is found anyway, and is thrown off a high railing by a pissed off ex-accomplice, and when she hits the ground a couple mistakes her for their troubled, suicidal daughter and takes her home with them. If all this sounds contrived it is, but here De Palma is taking the classic mistaken identity element of film noir and making it genuinely, profoundly existential. She walks around their home, sees pictures of the daughter she has been mistaken for, in effect getting a glimpse into a life. Again, it is the very act of seeing portrayed as a reflection of human experience.

And this is the point when the film dives down the rabbit hole, morphing from thriller to metaphysical examination of existence that invites comparison to David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. Laure falls asleep in the bathtub and dreams that the real daughter comes home to kill herself, and she observes her suicide and follows through on stealing her identity, in effect transforming herself into another human being. She takes the dead girl's plane ticket to the United States, and as it turns out the plane was overbooked so she moves to first class where she winds up seated next to a kind, wealthy American, who she proceeds to marry. This is where De Palma begins exploring the concept of fate, which will play a vital role in the remainder of the picture.

Flash forward seven years - the wealthy American that Laure (who now goes by Lily) married has become the American ambassador to France (in a touch typical of the politically charged De Palma, there are implications that he purchased the Ambassadorship), so she finds herself back in France and doing everything she can to hide her identity, lest her ex-accomplices find her ("Bad people read newspapers, too", she remarks late in the film). An interested party calls on Nicolas to find a way to take her photograph, and he manages to sneak a picture of her by pretending to have been hit by the Ambassador's car, which ignites a cat and mouse game between the two.

And naturally this interplay between the two becomes not just a battle of the sexes but a battle of sex itself, culminating in a sexually charged fever dream that allows De Palma to put on full display the themes of latent sexuality that true noir had to mask. After taking her picture Nicolas tracks Laure down in a hotel room and finds her with a pistol, and tries to stop her from committing suicide; he convinces himself that she's a damsel in distress and he's her savior, but really she's one step ahead of him and manipulating him every step of the way - in typical De Palma fashion, the woman is the one in charge and the man is powerless, in effect emasculated. Laure never planned to kill herself, she wanted him to take the gun away from her, and the moment he steps out onto the streets she calls the police, reports a bogus crime, and has him arrested. The hopelessly masculine desire to save the beautiful woman blows up in Nicolas' face.

While he was under arrest, Laure sends an e-mail from Nicolas' computer to her husband telling him that she's been kidnapped and demands a ten million dollar ransom for her return. He comes home and discovers this, and realizes that he's essentially fucked and has no choice but to go along with her plan. He meets her on a bridge overlooking the Parisian skyline, and she uses her sexuality in an attempt to lure him into going along with her plan. She takes him to a bar, and in this sequence De Palma fully explores the themes of emasculation and voyeurism, depicting sex itself as an expression of gender power dynamics, hostility, and attraction. Once again, Laure uses the masculine desire to protect against Nicolas, putting herself in a position where a man will be forceful with her so Nicolas can step in to save her. He beats up the would-be rapist, and then proceeds to have aggressive sex with Laure - she thinks he's fallen into her trap, and he thinks she's fallen into his, as he records her saying that the whole kidnapping plot was her idea.

On the bridge, with Nicolas in kidnapper attire, the Ambassador arrives with a briefcase full of cash, and Nicolas tries to explain the truth of what's happening. Laure shoots the Ambassador and turns around and shoots Nicolas, and as she walks over to Nicolas to shoot him one more time, her ex-accomplices grab her and, as they did in the beginning, throw her over the railing. As it did the first time, being thrown from a high distance begets a rebirth, as she lands in the river and is suddenly naked, and it's clear that she's not actually in the river but in the bathtub once again. This is a deeply, profoundly spiritual moment - a linking of life, death, and dreams that examines the infinite depth of a single instant.

Laure awakes in the bathtub suddenly, as every movie character in history does from a nightmare. Once again, the real Lily comes in to kill herself, but only this time Laure stops her and informs her that, in spite of how awful things may seem, a great life awaits her - all she has to do is get on that plane. Laure needed to see how awful things would get before she made the moral decision to change her life, to not indulge her desire to fuck over everyone, to cease being an archetypal femme fatale and to become a true human being. While the film acknowledges fate as a spiritual precept, De Palma also seems to be saying that we're ultimately the ones in control of our destiny - Laure writes Lily's future by telling her to get on the plane, and ultimately her commitment to changing her ways will bring her to her true love, Nicolas, who is the only character in the movie who has proved to be her intellectual (and sexual) equal.

Femme Fatale is simultaneously De Palma paying homage to film noir and expanding it by expressly highlighting the moral, political, sexual, and spiritual elements of it. De Palma has always been a director with an aesthetic deeply rooted in genre and film history, and Femme Fatale may contain his most pronounced analysis of each, as the genre is a perfect vehicle for his sensibilities. By looking to cinema's past, De Palma found an eminently beautiful way to relate out history to our present.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My 2010 Movies

Well, looks like another year has passed us by. It was a good one for me in virtually every way imaginable, and that extends to the movie theater (or DVD player, as was the case more often than not) as well. It was a terrific year for movies, and anyone who tells you otherwise just isn't looking hard enough.

Anyway, here are my favorite movies of 2010, presented chronologically as always.

Shutter Island

Part mystery, part psychological portrait, part human tragedy, Martin Scorsese's best film in many years was the year's first great film, and an unexpected treasure. Review here.

The Ghost Writer

Sad that when a movie comes along that does the sort of thing Hollywood used to do well - that is, tell a cohesive story with style and craft - it is something we have to savor, as it's the exception as opposed to the rule. This is not to take anything away from The Ghost Writer, which is as good as genre film making gets - and there are some very pointed, non-preachy insights into the political process to boot. Review here.


Hye-ja Kim gives one of the year's great performances in Bong Joon-ho's unusual film, which was a real treat after his interesting though highly problematic previous effort The Host. Whereas the manner in which that film tried to balance the serious and the silly was borderline offensive, Bong has found a way to streamline his sensibility much more effectively in the years since The Host. A disturbing tale of the extents a mother will go to protect her child - right or wrong - Mother is a simultaneously twisted and hilarious document of parenthood, permeated by a cruel irony.


Marco Bellocchio's Vincere is a deeply affecting film about a fascinating historical footnote - the plight of Benito Mussolini's first wife (portrayed by Giovanna Mezzogiorno, in a performance that is nothing short of stunning), the hell he put she and his first born child through after he went away to fight in the first World War and met another woman. As he ascended to power, he had their marital documents destroyed and had both her and his son committed to insane asylums, where they both died tragically young - she at the age of 56, their son at the age of 26. The remarkable thing about Vincere is that it puts you through this anguish without being exploitative in the slightest.

The Eclipse

Easily one of last year's most unique films, Connor McPherson's The Eclipse is at once a frightening horror film and intimate human drama; a fascinating exploration of both the horror genre and human loneliness. A lovely, scary, and deeply affecting film that showcases one of Ciaran Hinds' two great performances from the last year.

Wild Grass

Alain Resnais' latest film is a quixotic recapitulation of the French New Wave; an elegy about aging, a simultaneously comic and tragic examination of love and lust, and quite frankly the most inventive aesthetic work I've seen in a long time. In short, it is nothing short of a total fucking masterpiece, and hands down my favorite film of last year.

Life During Wartime

Todd Solondz is now so much more than a bitchy, though perceptive, observer of the faults of our culture, he is one of our great humanitarians - a director who challenges you to empathize with those society teaches us to hate. Considering the extent of the cruelty in our world, this is revolutionary. Review here.

Eccentricities of a Blond-haired Girl

Perhaps the only film you could ever call "delightfully antiquated", Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blond-haired Girl is just about the most sublime 60 minutes imaginable - a recontextualizing of an Eça de Queiros short story written in the 19th century to the modern world, a dramatic conceit that at once makes the past feel immediate and the present feel timeless.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

One of last year's most pleasant surprises, Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger isn't any less cynical than Allen has been for the last, oh, 30 years, but here he plays it in almost a gentle way, which is not to say he softens the punch of the material in any way. You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is yet another of Allen's odysseys of infidelity, but what separates You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is he deals with the misery people inflict on one another in an emotionally honest way, acknowledging that your actions have consequences both on your own life and on the lives of those around you. Review here.

Secret Sunshine

Chang-dong Lee's Secret Sunshine is a radically structured melodrama, one that takes such unusual turns throughout its 2 and a half hour run time that you feel emotionally drained as you watch the tale of Shin-ae, a widow who moves to her husband's hometown Milyang in South Korea after his death. For the first 45 minutes, the film plays as a borderline quirky drama/comedy hybrid that you could almost see Indiewood doing (poorly). Then the film takes a sharp, sudden shift, one that would be literally criminal to discuss here as it's so dramatically potent. But suffice to say, it changes the film completely, and it transforms into something deeply tragic and, I think, pretty great. Jeon Do-yeon anchors the film with a sensational performance that is nothing short of haunting.

True Grit

What I would consider the Coen brothers greatest virtues as film makers - their idiosyncratic humor, their insights into the American south, their elevation of American folklore to almost mythic stature, their sense of morality, their reverence of film genre, their genuine considerations of spirituality and faith - are all on display in the brothers' adaptation (not remake) of True Grit. While the film is on one hand a scathing satire of Old West racism and sadism, both as it existed in history and on film - some of the Coens' sharpest gags in years highlight the casually cruel treatment of Native Americans - True Grit is, ultimately, a moving portrait of family, and the manner in which the film's three characters (Hailee Steinfeld's Mattie, Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn, Matt Damon's Labeouf) transform into that family over the course of the film is incredibly powerful. By the end, True Grit becomes a meaningful testament to history and our place in it; the final line, which I dare not reveal here, is at once a simple profound truism. All the performances are great, but it is Hailee Steinfeld who is the true revelation here.

Another Year

You could label Mike Leigh's latest film as "The Abyss", as his latest is quite dark and extremely troubling, yet there is a palpable optimism as well. Of course, this is a Mike Leigh film, so the drama springs out of the narrative in the most unusual ways - as opposed to the central characters providing us with the drama and the supporting characters existing solely to be thoughtful listeners and advice-reciters, the central characters - a married couple played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen - are as stable as a rock; as in love with one another as the day they were married, happy as can be, and just all around good people. It's everyone around them who is fucked up. What is remarkable about Another Year is that it pays homage to the depth of suffering and unhappiness in the world, yet is in no way oppressively glum or downtrodden; like life itself, there is joy and misery and everything in between.

Favorite Male Performances:
Jeff Bridges - True Grit
Jim Broadbent - Another Year
George Clooney - The American
Leonardo DiCaprio - Shutter Island
André Dussollier - Wild Grass
Lars Eidinger - Everyone Else
Jesse Eisenberg - The Social Network
Ciaran Hinds - The Eclipse & Life During Wartime
Anthony Hopkins - You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
Ben Kingsley - Shutter Island
Mark Ruffalo - Shutter Island
Jason Schwartzman - Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Ben Stiller - Greenberg
Justin Timberlake - The Social Network

Favorite Female Performances
Sabine Azéma - Wild Grass
Jeon Do-yeon - Secret Sunshine
Greta Gerwig - Greenberg
Shirley Henderson - Life During Wartime
Iben Hjejle - The Eclipse
Hye-ja Kim - Mother
Jennifer Lawrence - Winter's Bone
Lesley Manville - Another Year
Giovanna Mezzogiorno - Vincere
Birgit Minichmayr - Everyone Else
Natalie Portman - Black Swan
Ruth Sheen - Another Year
Hailee Steinfeld - True Grit
Olivia Williams - The Ghost Writer

Now, bring on 2011! I promise I'm going to be on top of my shit this year, as the paltry amount of output from me this year is literally depressing.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Streets of New Haven

In July of 2007, I found myself standing on Yale's campus dressed in a tweed jacket, a bow tie, knickerbockers and penny loafers, surrounded by probably 150 other similarly dressed individuals in the hot summer sun. No, this wasn't a costume party, and I hadn't fallen into a time warp, though it felt like I did - I was fortunate enough to be on the set for the what was the then unnamed fourth Indiana Jones picture, working as an extra, which still stands as amongst the most rewarding experiences of my life. Not just because it was about an exciting beginning to what I hope will be a long career in the making of motion pictures, but because I got to witness firsthand the directorial methods of a man I consider to be the greatest cinematic artist in the United States. Watching Steven Spielberg work his movie magic first hand was and is, quite frankly, the thrill of a lifetime - an experience that I'll never forget, and one I'll always be grateful for.

This saga began in May of 2007 when I noticed I had a missed call on my cell phone from a good friend of mine. Now, this guy is as close a friend as I have in this world, but he's not one to call you for anything, ever. You wanna see him, you have to do the initiating, but I like this individual so much that he's one of the few people for whom I'm actually willing to make that dreaded first phone call. But on this day, he called me, so I figured something must be up - maybe someone died, maybe he robbed a bank, who knew, but I knew it was something big if he was picking up the phone and calling me.

As it turned out, he did have big news, but not on the order that I could have possibly predicted - he told me that he'd just read that the next Indiana Jones movie was going to be shooting in New Haven, Connecticut, just an hour and a half away from where he and I live in New Jersey, and that there was an open casting call for extras. "Do you wanna go?", he asked me, clearly trying to contain his excitement - "Hell yes", I replied, not trying at all to contain my excitement. Here it was, one of the most anticipated and talked about movies of the decade, a film that had gone through endless stages of development hell, a movie that would reunite the legendary Lucas/Spielberg tandem, and we had a chance - however outside it may have been at the time - to be in it? There wasn't anything that could keep me away.

A few days later, he came by my house bright and early and we hit the road for New Haven. From where we live, it's about an hour and a half up Interstate 95, so it was an easy, relaxing trip. We parked somewhere on the street and headed for what I think was a Marriott and were shuffled into this room with lots of chairs where we filled out an application - which was, surprisingly enough, just like every other job application I'd filled out - and waited for it to be our turn to go talk to the casting directors. When our time came, I did what I usually do, got friendly with everyone and tried to endear myself to them in some way. They asked me if the distance would be an issue, I said absolutely not, that I had a car and was willing to make any and all arrangements necessary to work on the movie. My friend and I gave our headshots, and that was that. We headed back to Fort Lee, figuring we didn't have a shot, but happy that we tried at least.

Truthfully, over the course of the next few days it was the farthest thing from my mind. I'd more or less resigned myself to the fact that I wasn't going to get it - that there were people more qualified (i.e., better looking with more experience) and closer to New Haven than I. Then, while sitting at work one day, the phone rang and it was someone who worked for the casting agency, informing me that, yes, I had indeed been cast as an extra. I somehow managed to avoid screaming into the phone and deafening the poor fellow, and when I hung up the phone the first thing I did was call my friend to see if he'd received the same glorious phone call that I did. He did not. To this day, the fact that I was cast in the film and he was not is a source of heartbreak for me, a blemish on what is an otherwise perfect experience. I met more than a fair share of interesting people in my time working on the film, but ultimately, I did it alone. A few weeks later I made the drive up to New Haven, all by my myself this time, to get my hair cut and to get measured for my costume. I was given a date and time to come up in July, and until then, I waited for my day to come.

And when it did, I woke up before the sun was out and, once again, made the trip to New Haven, this time watching the sun rise as I drove. I arrived at the very same hotel that I had just a month prior, this time not as a hopeful but as an employed member of the cast of Indiana Jones IV. I went to get made up (an experience I was used to because of the little bit of acting I'd done in High School), then I went to get my costume. On my way out the door, I walked past the prop master who goes "Hey! You! You want a bike?". Now, I hadn't ridden a bike since mine got stolen in 8th grade (a truly traumatic experience), but there was no way I was saying no to a bike - especially a vintage one. For what it's worth, I discovered later on in the day that I was given a girl's bike.

So, after helping myself to the complimentary breakfast (man I loved working on a Hollywood movie - you make great bank and they feed you), I walked my bicycle over to the Yale campus where the other extras had gathered. I decided to ride my bike around and get a feel for it, because I hadn't ridden one in years and the last thing I needed to do was make a jackass of myself (or make more of a jackass of myself). I pedaled about the campus and stopped at a gate away from everyone else and just kind of looked around, taking in the surroundings, when I heard coming from behind me a voice I recognized instantly. I turned around and there was Steven Spielberg, and he walked past me and stopped in front of me to the side, where he stopped and waited for his assistant, whom he was a good 40 paces in front of. It somehow made perfect sense that Spielberg would be in such a rush to get to work that his assistant wouldn't be able to keep up, and though he stood near me for a solid few seconds, I didn't dare say anything to him, though I know I should have. Not "OMG I love your moviez!!!!", but something simple like "Good morning". But I couldn't. I was star struck, for the first and only time in my life, and though we made solid eye contact we exchanged no words. His assistant finally caught up to him, and one of the great American artists continued on his busy way.

The rest of the day seemed to go along smoothly. They were basically filming 2nd unit footage, though Spielberg was supervising it, for the motorcycle chase that occurs early in the film. The whole sequence is masterful, displaying Spielberg's near perfect sense of geography and his inspired use of camera choreography - my favorite bit of staging being when Indiana Jones hops off his motorcycle, goes through an open car window, and comes out the other side and gets back on - but what was filmed in the courtyard over the course of the two days I spent there is visually uninteresting in the film. My guess is Spielberg was there to shoot a crucial shot of the Marcus Brody statue being decapitated, but the short sequence - about a minute of the finished film - was by and large standard from a compositional standpoint.

My first day on the set was a Friday, and I'd presumed that would be my only day. I was surprised when, on the following Monday, they contacted me in the later part of the morning and asked if I could come to New Haven - like now - because apparently they had to do re-shoots in the courtyard and were scrambling to get extras. I told them of course, and as quickly as I could got in my car and drove (really, really fast) back to New Haven, donned my costume, and went back to the Yale Courtyard for another day of riding my bike around the campus.

My reward for coming so far on such short notice was being offered to join them the next day, which truthfully didn't thrill me at the time because that would mean I get home just in time go right to sleep, wake up at 5 AM and do it all again, but obviously there was no way I was going to refuse. And I'm glad I didn't, because my third and last day was by far the greatest I spent on the set, though also the longest and most exhausting (though getting paid time and a half was a consolation). I spent a 10-12 hour day inside the Yale Law Library, and it was here that I really got a sense of Spielberg's directorial methods, because the staging was more intensive and required a more active presence on his part. The man worked with an energy that was infectious - his enthusiasm for his work was truly inspiring. One of the more touching displays I saw in my three days occurred when a young man, who has a few quick lines in the finished script, thanked Spielberg when he was through shooting. It was clear he was very deeply touched by being given this opportunity, and as he was in the midst of thanking Spielberg it was obvious to me that he was on the brink of tears. Spielberg sensed this, and just gave the kid, whom he probably barely knew, a big hug. Spielberg is truly as warm a human being as his films would have you believe, and that kindness was on full display in my three days on the set. Which is not to say Spielberg is a pushover by any means - on my first day, he kicked a member of the crew off the set for dicking around. Though the set was a very pleasant place to be, you never forgot for a second that you were there to work and work hard.

He filmed the whole sequence that day, and I had a feeling it would be my last. It couldn't have ended more perfectly. As I walked to my car, up the streets of New Haven which were decorated with vintage store fronts and lined with pristine 1950's cars - which, combined with everyone being dressed in period costumes, was truly surreal - I suddenly realized I was walking through Steven Spielberg's memory, his vision of his childhood both as it existed to him and our culture's perception of it. This feeling was very much echoed when I saw the film when it was released in May of 2008, which opens with a shot of teenagers driving their car through the desert while Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" plays on the soundtrack, through its opening which ultimately finds Indiana Jones on a nuclear test site and nearly killed by a bomb, to the sequence's shot in New Haven which convey cold war era political tensions, and through the finale which conveys a genuine wide eyed appreciation of science fiction pulp. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is Spielberg at his most personally populist, a channeling of the popular conception of the '50s through his own personal memories and imagination. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is by no means a perfect film, but it's certainly a film that illuminates a lot about where Spielberg is coming from as an artist, and to be able to participate (however insignificantly) in its creation is an experience I'll always cherish.

Yours truly, decked out in 50s attire, caught completely off guard (though that's the expression I usually have on my face) by some dude with a camera while riding my prop bike around New Haven, July of 2007.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Spielberg's 9/11

In 2005, Spielberg did what he had done in 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2002, that is make two films in the same year. This feat is pretty incredible in and of itself, especially in modern Hollywood, and though it seemed to follow in the standard formula of blockbuster in the summer and serious film in the winter, the two films are really more alike than they are different. War of the Worlds and Munich are both, essentially, reactions to September 11th - the former is a channeling of the imagery from the attack through science fiction aesthetics, the latter is a philosophical consideration of the aftermath via a combination of an early shared memory of Israel/Palestine relations and, fittingly, 70's spy movie tropes. Together they form a rich, fascinating tandem, and still stand as amongst the most thoughtful reactions to the September 11th attacks by an American artist.

When I saw War of the Worlds when it was released in the summer of 2005, my opinion was pretty much in line with that of many other people - that it was a failure with some effective moments, that Spielberg's sappiness ruined the ending, and so on. When I saw Munich later that year I was forced to reconsider a film I had dismissed, because Munich made me stop viewing War of the Worlds as a piece of summer entertainment and made me think of it as a serious consideration of 9/11, as Munich most certainly is. Now I think of War of the Worlds as the dream and Munich as the reality, like when you wake up after a nightmare and begin to comprehend the imagery and dream logic; that which seemed irrational or nonsensical while you slept suddenly makes perfect sense.

Spielberg subverts standard blockbuster formula with War of the Worlds, which is all too fitting as he allegedly invented the genre (which is another topic for another day). War of the Worlds is, essentially, the world's first avant-garde blockbuster. Upon its release in the summer of 2005, though the film did well at the box office, everyone I spoke to about War of the Worlds treated it with a kind of hostility, and I think that's because it does not aim to excite, it aims to capture an emotional frame of mind, and a painful one at that. There are moments in the film that are downright frightening. It is a masterful, if imperfect, symbiosis of 1950s martian mythology - itself symbolic of communism hysteria - and imagery directly inspired by the September 11th attacks and our subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Spielberg forces us to see ourselves on the wrong end of an invasion - which is truly radical in a time when the media barely documents the atrocities of the wars we wage - by reminding us what our home looked like as a warzone, and then expanding that nightmare to a full scale invasion. But rather than using the imagery as a gateway to cheap thrills by justifying our knee jerk desires for revenge and further brutality, Spielberg vividly dramatizes what an invasion looks and feels like, turning the American landscape into a desolate warzone. 9/11 was a nightmare, but it was only a glimpse into the true nature of living in a place where war is being waged, and Spielberg's film serves as a powerful visualization of invasion and occupation - something the United States has never been on the receiving end of. As Wells' novel, written at the height of the English empire, was a blatant allegory for the spread of imperialism and colonialism it's only fitting that Spielberg, King of Hollywood, shift the setting of the film to the modern day United States.

By recontextualizing Wells' text to modern America, Spielberg is able to express themes that have been vital to his work throughout his career while still remaining faithful to the source material. By making the film's central character the typical Spielberg absent father, Spielberg is able to examine the issues of family that have been so vital to his work. As in his first feature, The Sugarland Express, Spielberg paints a portrait of a parent who is really still a child, who has been unable (or unwilling) to grow up, and the casting of Tom Cruise as the perpetual adolescent is a stunning example of casting against type. I've always thought Cruise was a better actor than he was given credit for, and the way he portrays his characters transformation from an immature, incompetent man to a capable, mature father is truly remarkable. It probably didn't hurt that he was given a fully capable co-star, whom he shares many of the film's most deeply affecting moments with, Dakota Fanning, in one of the best performances Spielberg has ever received from his child performers (which is saying something).

Spielberg's affinity for familial drama is put brilliantly on display early on, when the tensions begin between Tom Cruise's Ray Ferrier and his teenage son, Robbie. What other film maker could use a simple game of catch between a father and son to express the emotional distance between them? Only Spielberg could elevate such iconographic American imagery as a father and son tossing a baseball in the backyard into something so intimately personal. Ray, who has been seen adorning a Yankee cap for the entire film, is miffed when his son comes for a weekend visit wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. This detail could have been merely juvenile bickering, but in Spielberg's hands this visual detail becomes truly heartbreaking, a metaphor for how Ray Ferrier has lost his children in the time since he divorced his wife. Spielberg, by shifting the focus from the children onto the neglectful father, challenges himself to sympathize with a character he has demonized in the past.

The examination of the dissolution of the nuclear family in the modern era gives Spielberg an emotional vessel to illustrate the manner in which extreme trauma is capable of at once uniting and dividing humans; Spielberg's martian invasion brings out the best and worst in humanity simultaneously. There is a harrowing sequence where the Ferrier family, who have one of the few working automobiles left, suddenly find themselves in a town surrounded by hungry, exhausted, desperate people who steal their car from them - one particularly unsettling image shows a man breaking the windshield glass with his bare hands. The person I saw the film with in 2005 criticized this moment as being unrealistic, whereas I felt the exact opposite, that the sequence is an all too accurate dramatization of exactly what would happen - it wouldn't even require a disaster on the magnitude of an alien invasion to unleash our barely restrained animal instincts. In Spielberg's 2002 film Minority Report, a character has a line that essentially serves as the precursor for this scene in War of the Worlds. "It's funny how all living organisms are alike. When the chips are down, when the pressure is on, every creature on the face of the Earth is interested in one thing, and one thing only: its own survival". Though this sounds like a cynical sentiment, it's really not, as we are animals and our latent desire to survive above all else is something that Spielberg has elevated to profound heights in films like Schindler's List, A.I., and here in War of the Worlds. All of Spielberg's films are, essentially, survivor's stories, which makes the ending of the film where Robbie inexplicably turns up alive - which is a very accurate approximation of the book's ending, for what it's worth - not as out of place or absurd as it has been accused of being. Yes, it's a bit contrived, but people have been shown to be capable of surviving against all odds - let's not forget that there were people on 9/11 who survived having 110 story buildings collapse onto them. To quote Dr. Ian Malcom from Jurassic Park, "Life finds a way".

Spielberg has said that they key image he took away from September 11th was people walking in large groups away from Ground Zero, and he channels that imagery of mass exodus beautifully in War of the Worlds, filtering an almost absurd science fiction concept through our collective memory of our home being attacked. Spielberg invokes the attack to give way to catharsis, challenging us to stop seeing 9/11 as something that happened to the United States and to instead view it as something that happened to the human race. I may not have responded to Spielberg's profoundly empathetic sentiments the first time I saw War of the Worlds, but little did I know at the time that Spielberg was in the process of making a film that would turn the very concept of national identity on its head.

War of the Worlds forces you to relive September 11th. Munich, on the other hand, forces you to think about it. Though War of the Worlds deals with the attack more directly, the fact that Munich fictionalizes a real life event - the massacre at the 1972 Olympics - allows Spielberg to draw a direct parallel between an event that introduced many in the United States to the realities of radical Islam and September 11th . Munich begins with the members of Black September hopping a chain link fence and breaking into the Israeli athlete's hotel room and ends with a shot of the World Trade Center, and Spielberg here is illustrating that the events at the Munich Olympics in 1972 and the atrocity in September of 2001 are directly linked, and Munich can be viewed as serving as a straight line between the two events.

Spielberg always claimed that Raiders of the Lost Ark was the result of his desire to make a James Bond movie, but we could argue that Munich is actually his 007 movie - but it's a Bond movie as only he could do it, one that thoughtfully considers identity on both a personal and national level, that evaluates the morality of killing another human being, that analyzes the sacrifice a person must make to become an assassin. It's James Bond with a moral center, in other words (though obviously morality is not the reason we watch 007 movies). In Munich Spielberg transcends nationalism before the film properly begins, as the title sequence shows a collage of major world cities before ultimately highlighting the word "Munich" - rather than portraying this act of terrorism as something that happened to Jews or to Germany or to any one group of people, Spielberg is suggesting throughout Munich that this was a tragedy that happened to the human race, that the murder of human beings is something that should be treated as tragedy regardless of your religious, ethnic, or political affiliations.

Munich is, at its heart, the tragedy of a man - that man being Avner, in an unforgettable performance from Erica Bana. We are introduced to Avner at the end of a long montage showing people of various backgrounds - Israeli, Palestinian, families of both the athletes and the members of Black September - watching the events unfold on television; as with September 11th, this is a tragedy that television was an inseparable part of, where the news reports are a vital element of the popular conception of the event. Spielberg captures the feeling of being glued to your television by this real life drama beautifully in these opening sequences. The next day, Avner is contacted by no less than Golda Meir herself, who requests that he lead a mission of retaliation against the architects of the Munich massacre, essentially Government sponsored terrorism in the name of revenge. Out of a sense of duty to his people and his country, he accepts, not realizing that by agreeing to take part in this mission that he will lose his soul as well as his cultural and spiritual identity in the process.

In the hands of lesser artists, Avner could have been an empty symbol, but Tony Kushner (whose screenplay surely ranks amongst the very best of the last 10 years), Spielberg and Bana manage to make Avner work on both a symbolic level and as a flesh and blood human being. The same is true of the supporting players - Daniel Craig's Steve, a nationalist who has no moral qualms about the mission and makes this fact repeatedly known, Ciaran Hinds' Carl, who has nothing but moral qualms about the mission, Geoffrey Rush's Ephraim, the pencil pushing bureaucrat - who, between the quality of the writing and the excellence of the performers, manage to play Kushner's admittedly philosophy-heavy script as very real human drama. But it is Avner who is the heart of the film, and Bana plays his pathological dissent into guilt, paranoia, and borderline insanity masterfully.

The tragedy of Avner is that, at the outset of his mission, he truthfully believes that what he's doing is right, and as the mission presses on he gradually comes to the realization that killing is not only wrong but that it doesn't accomplish anything; that anyone you kill will only be replaced by someone who is even worse, that murdering your enemy will only escalate their desire to bring harm to you - essentially, Avner comes to understand the reciprocal nature of violence over the course of the film. More than violence being morally reprehensible, it doesn't solve a damn thing except our desire for bloodshed, which is only a temporary fix anyway. Yes, Avner loses the notion of Israel as a home over the course of his mission, but he gains a philosophical enlightenment by becoming a man without an ethnic identity; he stops seeing humans as a collection of countries and religions and sees us all as one. That Munich was accused of being anti-Israel by some and anti-Palestine by others (depending on your bias) illustrates the depth of the film's powerfully anti-nationalistic, humanistic sentiments.

Avner is clearly meant to represent a certain discontent that Spielberg and Kushner feel as pacifists with the militant actions of Israel. Late in the film, Avner's mother has a beautiful speech about how whatever he did - and she doesn't actually want to know - was worthwhile because it means the Jews "now have a place on Earth". Kushner and Spielberg certainly aren't arguing that the Jews don't deserve to have a home, they're just theorizing on what extents are acceptable to ensure that they don't lose that place on Earth. Avner - and by extension Kushner and Spielberg - draw the line at bloodshed, radically suggesting that the murder of another person is wrong regardless of if it's in the name of revenge, country, or religion. In a time when the United States launches invasions predicated on the concept of vengeance, this is a truly bold sentiment.

The film's brilliant final scene - which features some of the best screen acting you are ever likely to see - sends this message home in a powerful way. It details the final meeting between Ephraim and Avner, and in it Avner makes his stance clear that he firmly believes that the mission he undertook was wrong, while Ephraim argues that what he did was brutal but necessary; he reminds him that he did what he did he did for "the future, for Israel... for peace", to which Avner responds "There's no peace at the end of this". While Ephraim still believes in his responsibility to his country above all else, Avner has comes to the realization that his responsibility to humanity overrides his responsibility to his country. Avner invites Ephraim to break bread with him, and Ephraim refuses - it's a truly devastating moment, but their worldviews are ultimately irreconcilable. As Avner walks back to his Brooklyn apartment, alone, the camera pans to reveal the World Trade Center off in the distance simply waiting to be destroyed, another casualty in the war between Israel and Palestine. Here, Spielberg cuts through the nonsense we were fed by our Government after the attacks - that we were attacked because those stinking Arabs hate freedom, democracy, and capitalism - and acknowledges that 9/11 happened for political as well as religious reasons. September 11th was another act of retribution, and it has only yielded further murder and destruction in the name of revenge.

The Spielberg Blogathon

The day is finally here! Be sure to check back throughout the blogathon for updates to this post, and read our friends' hard work and, most importantly, comment.

Day 1:

Over at Icebox Movies, my co-host Adam Zanzie takes a look at Spielberg's early short Amblin', featuring an interview with Caryle Camacho.

At Radiator Heaven, J.D. offers his observations on Catch Me if You Can.

At Little Worlds, Hokakey offers a take on Jaws.

At Not Just Movies, Jake Cole applies his considerable critical skills to an essay on Empire of the Sun.

At The Flickering Myth, Trevor Hogg begins his five part examination of Spielberg and his work.

At Seeti Maar, Ratnakar Sadasyula examines what it means to love and A.I.

At Cinema Viewfinder, Tony Dayoub defends Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

At 24 Frames, Jon Greco takes a look back at the summer of Jaws.

At Cinema Directives, Tom Hyland analyzes themes of identity in Catch Me if You Can.

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos examines Munich.

Noel Tanti pays tribute to A.I. at

At Taking Barack to the Movies, Tom Shone celebrates the 35th anniversary of Jaws.

At They Live By Night, Bilge Ebiri takes a look at "Spielberg's Fantasies of Reversal".

At The House Next Door, Keith Uhlich announces our blogathon and reprints a terrific series of reviews of the Indiana Jones quadrilogy, written by Odienator, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Keith Uhlich respectively.

Day 2:

At Not Just Movies, Jake Cole gives us a review of Hook.

At Diary of A Movie Lover, Ratnakar Sadasyula celebrates the power of Schindler's List.

At Icebox Movies, my co-host Adam Zanzie defends Jaws as a New Hollywood film.

At The Man from Porlock, Craig Simpson details his problems with Spielberg's "maturation" as a film maker.

At Things That Don't Suck, Bryce Wilson appreciates Catch Me if You Can.

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos celebrates Jaws.

At four:48, Tom Elce waxes poetic about E.T.

Jaime Grijalba offers the blogathon its first non-English contribution, a celebration of the spiritual essence of the Indiana Jones films.

Day 3:

At Icebox Movies, my co-host Adam Zanzie considers Jurassic Park as Spielberg's "Howard Hawks film".

At Hell and Beyond, Lee Chase IV takes a closer look at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

At Diary of a Movie Lover, Ratnakar Sadasyula writes up E.T.

At Flickering Myth, Trevor Hogg gives us part 2 of his five part profile on Steven Spielberg.

At 30 Years at the Movies, Sean Stangland analyzes A.I.

Day 4:

At Not Just Movies, Jake Cole writes up Always.

At 30 Years at the Movies, Sean Stangland takes a look at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

At Icebox Movies, my co-host Adam Zanzie writes a tome on Schindler's List.

Day 5:

At Only the Cinema, Ed Howard takes a look at Minority Report and what it means to see.

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos examines family in the Spielberg canon.

At Edward Copeland on Film, Damian Arlyn discusses Schinlder's List, the greatest film he's ever seen.

At Venetian Blond, Machelle Allman looks at some of the best moments with Spielberg's kids.

At The Kind of Face You Hate, Bill Ryan examines the way Spielberg uses violence.

Day 6:

At Icebox Movies, Adam Zanzie asks "What is happening?" in Saving Private Ryan.

At A Fish in the Percolator, Elliot Gallion loses his mind puts Spielberg in a villainous context.

At Cinenoxi, Chris Zafeiriadis celebrates Duel.

At Not Just Movies, Jake Cole examines The Color Purple.

At The Flickering Myth, Trevor Hogg gives us Part 3 of his 5 Part profile on Spielberg.

At The Dancing Image, Joel Bocko asa visual tribute to Duel.

Day 7:

At Scanners, the great Jim Emerson ressurects a duel piece on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.

At Diary of a Movie Lover, Ratnakar Sadasyula takes a look at Raiders of the Lost Ark.

At Ferdy on Films, Roderick Heath defends Amistad as Spielberg's best history film.

Day 8:

At Things I Know About Movies, Adam Gentry tells us what he knows about A.I.

At The Flickering Myth, Trevor Hogg contributes Part 4 of his 5 part Spielberg profile.

At Wonders in the Dark, Allan Fish defends A.I.

Day 9:

At Cinema Styles, Greg Ferrara discusses how George Pal paved the way for Spielberg.

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos takes a closer look at War of the Worlds.

Day 10:

At Pussy Goes Grr, Andreas takes E.T., "the sacred cow", to task.

At The Flickering Myth, Part 5 of Trevor Hogg's Spielberg profile.

At Flak Magazine, Sean Weitner looks at "the Spielberg ending".

At Invincible Defeat, Ilias Dimopoulos waxes poetic about A.I.

Day 11:

At the Indiewire Blog, Eric Kohn offers a piece on Duel and escapism as art.