Thursday, October 26, 2006

Beyond the Multiplex

Documentaries a-plenty and what a fine crop it is, too.

By Andrew O'Hehir

I covered "The Bridge" extensively at Tribeca last spring, so I won't repeat all that. But yes, this is the movie whose makers trained a series of wide-angle and telephoto cameras on the Golden Gate Bridge for an entire year (it was 2004), and photographed most of the 24 people known to have jumped off it during that year. Much has been written about the juxtaposition of awesome scenery and personal despair that has marked the history of that impressive work of engineering, and Steel's film imparts that message as pure image.

"The Bridge" isn't pure horror, although we do indeed see people, several of them, plunge off the bridge's eastern pedestrian walkway, against a spectacular California sky, for the four-second drop into infinity. Steel tells the stories of several of 2004's jumpers, and forces us to face the most painful facts about suicide: Sometimes it seems completely unnecessary, the semi-random result of a depressive or psychotic episode; but in other cases -- the people who plan for years, building their lives around impending death -- it seems nearly inevitable. This is a shocking film, but in its own way a profoundly humane one.

"The Bridge" opens Oct. 27 in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, with a national rollout to follow.

"Death of a President": The assassination of George W. Bush considered as a downward spiral into tragedy
Much controversy has surrounded British director Gabriel Range's TV docudrama "Death of a President," which purports to report, from some future date, on the assassination of President Bush outside a Chicago hotel in October 2007. Inevitably, most of it is made-up controversy, fomented by possibly well-intentioned people (but also by boobs and morons) who haven't seen the film and who ascribe powers to mass-culture products that they don't actually possess. Nobody's going to kill Bush because it happens in a movie. Any lunatic who may have such aspirations already possesses them, and Range does not depict the assassination or its aftermath as positive events for anyone.

CNN and NPR are refusing to carry ads for the film, and several of the country's biggest theater chains are refusing to show it. That's their right, of course; it's not censorship. It's just chicken-hearted, pants-pissing cowardice (and free publicity for the filmmakers). All that said, of course this is a hot topic: Range ingeniously blends actual news footage with fictional elements and "Zelig"-style digital insertions to depict the killing of the current, real-life (and widely disliked) United States president by -- well, by somebody.

In the film's universe, Bush is shot after giving a standard speech (one of his better ones, actually) defending his aggressive posture to the world before a group of Chicago business leaders. The assassination itself is a blend of familiar elements: a sniper in an office-tower window (à la JFK), a moment of exposure amid the random crowd outside a hotel (à la Reagan). The event itself is surrounded by angry protesters (drawn from images of real Chicago protests over the last few years), some of whom have successfully broken through police lines and entered the Secret Service "containment zone." It's chillingly and convincingly rendered: A couple of loud pops, a man falls to the ground amid chaos and screaming, a limo squeals away at high speed toward the nearest hospital.

I can state with some authority that Range's depiction of the antiwar movement is rather thin, and to pretend that a demonstration of 10,000 to 12,000 people for a presidential visit is a large protest is nonsense. (There have been at least two antiwar marches in the United States since 2003 that drew upward of 500,000 people, probably larger than any comparable events of the Vietnam era.) But it isn't entirely misguided to suggest that a tiny, hateful minority exists within the antiwar movement, and it's clearly true that the weight of law enforcement would come down hard on anarchists, radicals and other nonconformists in any future 9/11-level national disaster, as happens here.

But who actually did it? Is the shooting in fact the work of left-wing antiwar agitators, a conspiracy by al-Qaida and various Axis of Evil states (as the newly enshrined Cheney administration is eager to assert), a disgruntled lone nut or somebody else? Range's whodunit is reasonably clever, even if most viewers will guess right away that the Syrian-born software engineer who's immediately arrested is the wrong guy. But the mystery really isn't the point of "Death of a President." Range has a marvelous feel for the clichés and conventions of TV-news documentary, and the tone of mournful elegy he strikes here is both convincing and -- believe me, I'm shocked to be writing this -- moving.

Range deploys elements of Ronald Reagan's state funeral for his own purposes, even editing Dick Cheney's oratory on that occasion so that it appears to be that of a new president mourning his fallen predecessor. I don't imagine this will make the film's conservative critics any happier, but it forced me to consider certain things about George W. Bush I am generally reluctant to face. Watching this film in late 2006, when Bush is already "dead" in the political sense -- a lame-duck president, likely to lose his congressional majorities -- carries a particular, painful pathos.

I find myself agreeing both with the Bush-hating demonstrators and with Cheney, and if I read the film correctly, Range is inviting us to make that bizarre leap of imagination. Bush has been partly responsible for a historic decimation of the U.S. Constitution and for an unnecessary war that has caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, but he did so because he is/was a man of profound personal conviction, and misunderestimated intelligence, who firmly believed he was doing the right thing for the future of his country. If the assassination of Bush might lead America, as in the film, even closer to becoming a police state, wouldn't that be a fulfillment of his vision, and that of many others among our fellow citizens?

"Death of a President" opens Oct. 27 nationwide.

"The Wild Blue Yonder" by Werner Herzog
I suppose in some technical sense "The Wild Blue Yonder" is Werner Herzog's first new fiction film since whenever -- since "Invincible" in 2001, I suppose. But like all of Herzog's recent films (except, I guess, the relatively straightforward "Grizzly Man," which I liked) this evokes a sort of blissed-out, contemplative mood where questions of fiction vs. reality seem unimportant.

There's a plot, kind of, with Brad Dourif as one of the last of a group of aliens from a distant galaxy who settled on Earth, only to discover that they'd lost all their scientific knowledge and couldn't succeed in our society. ("I hate to tell you this," he says to the camera, "but aliens all suck.") Most of the film consists of footage Herzog has pilfered or extracted from real-life NASA space missions and Arctic underwater exploration, all to tell the tale of Earthling astronauts' long and desperate voyage to the Andromedans' home planet, made possible by various discoveries in chaos-theory mathematics that piss the Dourif alien off.

The equations that might make long-haul space travel possible are real, if entirely hypothetical, and the images in this short, witty, dream-state film are lovely. But Herzog and Dourif make no real effort at rendering a convincing science-fiction universe, and such is not the point. The "dying planet" in this parable is not a distant one, and the "disrespect" the human astronauts show for Dourif's world and its lonely, abandoned wildlife hits pretty close to home. Not a major Herzog work or one that will draw a large audience, but a must-see for those who suspect (as I do) that he's one of the greatest talents now working in this medium.

Opens Oct. 27 at the IFC Center in New York; available on DVD in mid-November.


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