Heroism

15/11/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Argo (2012)

Argo (2012)
Director: Ben Affleck
Writer: Chris Terrio
Stars: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman

 

A dramatization of the true story of CIA agent Tony Mendez’s miraculous rescue of six American diplomats during the famous 1979 Iranian hostage crisis — a feat made possible by disguising them as Canadian filmmakers.

What was I thinking? Three action thriller films in one week? Not my usual style as a seeker of mythic themes in film with cultural relevance. Being blown, thrown and ripped from my wits on a virtual roller coaster of near death encounters might be an occasional choice but not a ride I’d take over and over in one week. That said, there was a discovery to be made.

Watching The Matrix and The Hunt for Red October just days before I saw Argo gave the film a mythic framework. To recap a bit, The Matrix conjures up a computer-enhanced hero who plugs in and out of virtual realities with the ease of a Zen Master. The Hunt for Red October is about two heroes; a rescuing CIA operative and a defecting Russian navy captain who confront one another under the ocean as a nuclear-armed submarine heads toward the U.S.

By contrast, Argo is a real life story in which the hero is a real life man, Tony Mendez (played by Ben Affleck) who rises to mythic stature by making illusion truth at just the right moment. Mendez successfully crosses the Iranian airport in full view of armed guards with six fugitive American diplomats disguised as a Canadian film crew on location in Tehran scouting a science fiction film.

The chutzpah of the Argo play on words, “Ahrwgofugyrself” (exquisitely delivered by Alan Arkin) reflects an inspiring triumph of mind over matter. The audience laughed every time the slogan was uttered, and its sentiment easily expresses the pleasure taken when courage and integrity visualized in film are mirrored in life. Tony Mendez (and, for that matter, Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Jack Ryan and Captain Ramius) refused orders to follow his conscience when the CIA wanted to pull the plug on the rescue mission mid-stride. Independent action, taking responsibility into one’s own hands – or by the balls (these are very male films) – is never a sure thing but when the other way, the sure way, is for sure a dead end, it’s is worth a shot.

In Argo, Mendez’ efforts are infused with a mythos of heroism as might’ve happened in the ancient days of Greek when Odysseus called upon the gods to give him safe passage. The six American diplomats who ran from the back door of the besieged American embassy found temporary refuge in the Canadian Embassy. They hid there until Tony Mendez arrived with a plan more likely to succeed in a fairy tale than a war zone. The real life rescue mission drew cover from a different sort of mythic raiment than the Greek skies — Hollywood moviemaking. Mendez, with critical but not guaranteed help from his agency, transforms the six fugitive American diplomats stranded in Tehran into a Canadian production crew of a faux movie – an epic scale sci-fi film, funded, storyboarded and publicized with movie posters in the trades with a direct phone line to a Hollywood production studio.

While Argo is a story with an awfully good ending, there’s no spoiler in knowing the hostages escaped. In the film, anxious, dispirited American captives walk within an arm’s length of soldiers whose shackles promise torture. Fifty-two other hostages were detained 444 days in Iran. And terrorism ended the lives of four Americans, including an ambassador, in Libya a bare month ago. The danger is actual, not virtual. Argo is the dramatization of a true life C.I.A. caper dreamed up and carried out by one of the bravest men on the planet, yet it’s supported by a tradition of science-fictionalized heroism that everyone in the world believes even though it’s clearly make-believe. Only Orson Welles could’ve done it better.

The thread of mythic storytelling runs through all three films. In The Hunt for Red October, King Neptune himself commands the action, allowing state-of-the-art Cold War nuclear submarines to navigate murky waters while we hold our breath not wanting to utter a disturbing sound. It’s like being submerged in the psychic depths of a dream where unconscious encounters between behemoth monsters occur in slow motion. The Matrix engages our imagination for other worldly experience just as conclusively. We’re effectively dropped into an inner core of subsistence survival, a womblike murky fluid with bacterial attackers into which a few human survivors plug in through a cybersocket splice in time and space from one world to another. With the magnetic pull of possibility heightened by computer animation, The Matrix engages viewers in an exhilarating, albeit sobering mythic in-between world where dodging bullets is key to peace and well-being.

Like Ginger Rogers who did everything that Fred Astaire did — only backward and in high heels, Argo plays out as an action thriller through the lens of a fake movie. As the faux Canadian film crew, conspicuously white and swarmed by Iranian pedestrians, carries out a faux location scout on Tehran’s humming streets in a crowded outdoor market, we’re as alert as if we were 20,000 leagues under the sea anticipating a collision of humongous submarines. I physically flinched when an Iranian storekeeper leapt angrily to his feet objecting to a photo taken by a young woman in the role of the movie’s location scout. She quickly offers him the polaroid photo but he’s not interested. She profusely apologizes but he’s not interested. When I visited souks in Marrakech, I experienced a similar angry tirade from a shop owner to a photo I’d taken of his booth. He didn’t care about the photo. He cared about an insult vibrant in his own mind. Physical assault was avoided but like Trinity disappearing into a telephone as she’s about to be crushed by huge truck, escape felt close. Imagine then, the odds of extricating six Americans from a revolution – an impossibility without the magic of a Hollywood script.

As a true story with a little fast fingered editing of events for box office leverage, Argo walks the same fine line between fantasy and reality as The Matrix or The Hunt for Red October. We imbue Tony Mendez with special powers as he traverses the Iranian airport with six fugitive Americans in full view of armed guards just as we do when Jack Ryan shimmies down a wire from a helicopter into the freezing cold ocean to a waiting submarine or when Neo bodily invades a digitalized agent and, like so much silly putty, turns himself inside out! But more importantly, the armed guards suspended disbelief just like we do while watching movies and let Mendez through.

One of the funniest, barely plausible scenes in Argo is when one of the faux Canadian filmmakers explains – in Farsi – the faux film’s faux storyboards to a very real life Iranian Guard. He translates – fabricating on the spot – wild planetary invasion drawings of storyboarded scenes with metallic men and latex women into a convincing saga of acceptable Iranian family values – and gets his group past a key checkpoint. Maybe outrageous schemes are the only ones to fly in the face of an enemy as invisible as fear.

For me, three action thrillers in a row turned up a truth that breaks through facts. We walk a fine line between fantasy and reality every day. Some days, it’s more obvious than others; The Matrix, a widely popular film based firmly in myth offers a choice to live a fictionalized version of the ordinary or realized version of the extraordinary. The Hunt For Red October fictionalizes an enlightened vision of men from nations at war who relinquish the power to wipe humankind off the face of the earth. Argo, an arguably lesser film packs a larger truth because we live so close to facts of terrorism – wherever in the world they occur – thanks to an invisible world wide web of eyes that doesn’t wait for a movie theater to reveal what it’s seeing. And, yes, it’s funny. There’s nothing duller than truth without humor.

And Argo has the last laugh. What if anything has meaning when fiction works better in reality than reality itself?

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15/05/03 Film Essay # , ,

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Directors: Andy WachowskiLana Wachowski
Writers: Andy WachowskiLana Wachowski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss

 

Is it a bird, is it a plane — is it Superman?  No.  It’s Matrix Reloaded.  Not quite machine, not quite human, not quite movie, not quite video game, Reloaded is so much faster than a speeding bullet that the comic book transmogrification to big screen makes leaping tall buildings at a single leap seem like child’s play.  Matrix Reloaded is no Matrix, but for the kid in all of us, heroes who can counteract the modern madness of terror are welcome.  Too bad it’s just a movie.”

Caught up – as I was – by the extraordinary ability of the first Matrix to reach beyond the common place, turning Hollywood’s familiar simplistic and dualistic resolutions of the never-ending fight between good and evil into an inspirational Zen koan, I naturally anticipated something less from its sequel, Matrix Reloaded.  Matrix had spun the complex, elusive psychological concepts of personal integration and transformation into a world class film.  It aroused hearts and turned minds toward a hopeful vision — an ordinary human being could overcome the enemy within, fighting back against war in the world by means within personal grasp.

Very satisfying.  And not, in my opinion, needy of a sequel.

But I’d heard that Matrix Reloaded redefined the meaning of space and time in movies and so, if for no other reason than curiosity, I bought a ticket.  I wanted to see how close the Wachowskis could come to spinning the straw of their mind’s eye into the gold of cyberspace.  Sure enough, they did just that.

They don’t beat the Matrix.  They don’t tell a better story, embellishing poorly on the old one with a nod to the triumph of love over death that fails to create anything more than old-fashioned romantic chemistry. They reload the issue of mind over matter but create more laughter than thoughtfulness.  The idea of imagining reality into existence, a mystery of Aborigine origin touched upon in the first Matrix becomes, as I said, like leaping tall buildings in Matrix Reloaded.  Funny book time, not timelessness.  Special effects take over, delighting the eye with tricks that require no explanation and make no demand. Updated, with an invisible someone pushing the red and blue buttons of choice on the controller.

Matrix Reloaded is open to so much criticism of character, plot and meaning that the only way to engage is not to.  If you can, don’t think of it as a sequel.  Reloaded actually unloads what was significant in Matrix.  In Matrix, Neo integrated Agent Smith, bearer of an evil machine reality that stole the human soul, but now Smith returns with the human ability to clone himself without restraint.  This guts the original Matrix promise that evil can be integrated and transformed by an enlightened consciousness.  You could identify with an underlying scheme of truth and possibility in Matrix, make it your own.  The characters felt both real and not.  The plot seemed plausible and not.  The significance held true, entertaining the adolescent and affirming the adult.  But in Reloaded, heroic feats are so far beyond human accomplishment that they deny personal identification.

The point of invisible marionette’s strings is to stimulate a participatory emotion, creating an empathic connection between audience and puppet.  Reloaded goes the other way, separating observer and actor by making it impossible for viewer to identify with character.  Stereotyped to the max, love and affection as well as lust and thrust are flattened, stripped of messy feelings that could get out of control.  A mob scene with no heat?  A love scene on a concrete pedestal?  And the high jinks on the freeway are beyond anyone, suitable only to a super computerized action figure.  No real person could ever catch himself by the toes of his shoes on the back end of a truck roof traveling seventy miles an hour on a freeway.  Yet for the kid in all of us who loves a game where no one stays dead for very long, no high speed chase scene could go on for too long because there’s always the next wild, way out, over-the-top, gravity defying feat coming up.

Funnily enough, Reloaded gives away the secret of what keeps a kid (and lots of adults) sitting for hours playing video games.  It’s a form of soft core gambling!  Repetitive, newfound chances to win against all odds keep popping up, leaving the player swimming hopefully upstream against a powerful downward spiraling current of adversity.  Magical forces and splendiferous entities morph into different concoctions of good and evil to pit their wits against one another, momentarily claim power and then lose it.  The good guys fight against despotic rules and regulations for the sake of freedom and love.  The bad guys bear down like evil weevils, attempting to suck the life out of the good guys’ core of motivation and determination.  That’s the spin.  And the reloaded truth, “Some things never change, and some things do.”

Not without redeeming features; Matrix Reloaded jams from beginning to end with life-saving conquests, overlapping realities and doors of perception.  It leaves a few questions hanging in the air for now and future consideration.  When is a dream not a dream?  Who’s really in control? What’s the role of belief, purpose and prophesy? What’s choice got to do with it?

The Wachowskis reliably bend time and space into a thrilling, never-seen-before action event that, most likely, will change the way we see things in film for a long time to come.

And it’s not too much of a stretch to see Lois Lane morphed into Trinity; she still needs to be rescued by a super man.

Take your earplugs.  Be prepared to laugh.  It’s no sequel.

“Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound —

‘Look, up in the sky,’ ‘It’s a bird,’ ‘It’s a plane,’

‘It’s Superman….’ ”  Reloaded.

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22/11/02 Film Essay # , ,

Frida (2002)

Frida (2002)
Director: Julie Taymor
Writers: Clancy Sigal (screenplay), Diane Lake (screenplay), Gregory Nava (screenplay), Anna Thomas (screenplay), Hayden Herrera (book)
Stars: Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush

 

“If you have ever stood in front of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, wishing you knew the real woman who lived that neverending pain, those wild choices and odd triumph of becoming one of the few women painters ever to become a household word, you’re in for a treat withFrida. Filmmaker, Julie Taymor, peels Frida straight from her canvas, giving us the gift of her vivacious, courageous spirit in full living color.”

In the film’s opening scenes, Frida Kahlo is being carried from her cobalt blue, red-trimmed house in a small wooden bed onto the back end of an open truck. Frieda smiles through excruciating pain as the cobble-stoned road jostles her fragile body. Where is she going? She turns her head and – with a little film magic – enters the blossoming body of a teenage girl racing through a hallway without encumbrance.

Exuberantly full of life and gathering boys as she runs, a young Frida laughingly exposes Diego Rivera in an illicit sexual moment with one of his nude models. Only moments later, Frida herself tumbles half-dressed from a scramble in a closet with a young boyfriend. And, before we can blink an eye, Frida’s vagina is pierced by a steel rod in the infamous bus accident that turned her voluptuous body into one that would never know another pain free day.

Frida captures Frida’s quixotic heroism, inspiring us all to embrace that belief in the triumph of spirit that we often find elusive. Life, for Frida, was far more than any materialistic, corporeal existence. She spun her art from somewhere deep within that broken, crumbling body that gave out too soon. Her vibrant sexuality sustained her in the darkest moments of despair and disillusionment, bringing her great joy, infusing her with stature and rescuing her more than once with an adventure that lifted her beyond the ordinary. She was a woman who left few stones unturned. We’ve known the details – the open marriage with Diego, the fling with Josephine Baker and the affair with Leon Trotsky – but until this film, we had no picture of her charisma, the allure of her astonishing vitality. Lying flat on her back, she painted. Second fiddle to a genius, she flourished. Humiliated, she took charge. Seemingly, to the end, she was like the three-year-old who says unabashedly and without reservation, “I’m adorable”.

“So, where are you going?” this portrait of Frida asks. It’s not a question of destination. It’s a matter of choice. It’s a matter of the choices we make, every day. It’s the path of the Uroboros (the rippling circle of life symbolized by a snake biting its tail), making new beginnings from old endings. Where was Frida going in the flatbed of that truck? You can answer that question for yourself after you see the film.

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18/06/99 Film Essay # , , ,

Run Lola Run (1998)

Run Lola Run (1998)
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup

 

(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1999)

From post-postmodern Germany comes a film that gives a girl the role of Hero, the special one born with the power to prevail against the collective odds. Lola (Franka Potente), despite her punked-up hair and striking looks, is Everygirl, an ordinary young woman of today, whose mother thinks she’s going out on an errand when she’s really running for her life. This Hero, as if in a fairy tale reinvented, has a daddy who betrays her, is weaker than he looks, and turns out to be irrelevant to her problems. At best, he can’t protect her; at worst, he won’t. But the girl still manages — through her persistence and surprising good fortune — to escape the limitations of the disempowered daughter role and score a victory for the feminine.

Lola is a Hero waiting to happen. Fate interferes with her picking up her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtrue), after he pulls off a drug deal in Berlin and that misstep sets off a series of events in which Lola has to tap into an amazing ability to reconfigure consequences. Manni, calling from a telephone booth, reaches her at home on her red phone, and, after blaming her for the predicament he is in, pleads with her to come up with a way to save his life — in twenty minutes. Hapless fellow, he has lost the big bag of cash that belongs to mob bosses who are already on the way to pick it up. They will kill him if he doesn’t have their money.

As if held back only by imagination, Lola transforms herself into an animated cartoon. The sheer challenge of the impossible energizes Lola into using magical powers to rescue the Manni she loves. Her hair is dyed bright red as if to signal her affinity to the troupe of wild women who roamed the hippie San Francisco of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb’s fantasies in the sixties. As Lola slides into action mode on the brink of the millennium, she stretches seconds beyond minutes, banishes the past before it becomes memory, and flips the future back into the present so that she, not time, will be in charge of the outcome.

With a wondrous autonomy, Lola revisits her boyfriend’s crisis three times as if learning from her mistakes, each time increasing her focus and decreasing the constriction of circumstance. Her progressive return to the choice-points of the rescue scenario structures the three segments of the movie: in each segment she gets better at releasing herself from her parental legacy and takes on more creative responsibility for shaping the outcome. In the first episode, Lola is revealed as the daughter of a highly placed banker who could rescue her but instead viciously rejects her. In the second episode, Lola turns the tables on her father and manages to save herself but loses what means the most to her. As she repeats the same flurry of activity attempting to wrest enough money from the “world of the fathers” to avoid disaster, her internal interpretation of events shifts and so do the events themselves. Finally, Lola relies on herself, backs up her date with fate by tampering awesomely with the inevitable and walks away with a new future.

As Lola proceeds though her three scenarios and bumps into the same people one after another on her sprint through the city of Berlin, flashes of images appear on her mind’s screen like 15-second commercials, advertising the way her life is changing. Lola’s internal images align with the different external scenarios and envisioning styles. Imagination strongly figures into how things turn out for Lola, who is like an Imaginal Hero.

There’s a wonderful scene that repeats itself in each of the three episodes. A group of people carrying a huge piece of clear glass is walking right in front of an ambulance that is racing to save a man’s life. In the second episode, the ambulance crashes through the invisible barrier posed by the glass. Once this shield of time and space has been broken, the patriarchal order can’t be put back together again, and the movie shifts decidedly in another direction. In a redemptive, Buddhist way, reality becomes what Lola makes of it through her conscientious mindfulness. This insight is the boon this feminine Hero brings back from her challenge to the odds against a victory for compassion.

If I were a girl, I would like to be told “Run Lola Run” over and over again. Every night when I went to bed I would ask for the Lola story. Tykwer’s film makes me feel like it is okay to be Lola, spinning her red telephone in the air, warping time and slipping from one reality to another like an animated cartoon hero. “Tell me the part about what she did to the phone again,” I would like to beg of the freestyling storyteller.

Forget Clever Gretel who saves her brother through trickery, forget Snow White who, though fairest-of-them-all, doesn’t know a witch when she sees one, and forget that persona-struck Cinderella who goes for a guy who can’t recognize her in street clothes. I want the colorful Lola, who leaps into action when her boyfriend is in trouble, keeps her wits about her when time is running out, and manipulates her perspective like a kid with a computer game. I would insist. If I am to grow up and be comfortable on city streets, I want flaming red hair (not a short red cape) to mark my coming of age, and I want the death-defying, life-affirming ending that any decent Hero gets. I need a fairy tale where the girl is unique, triumphs over evil, and inspires hope.

Miraculously, Lola’s race against the odds is also winning at the box office.Run Lola Run has gotten a better run for its money than most independently produced foreign films: in many cities, its time on the big screen has been extended. Wherever you live, beg for this movie – insist upon it. When you see Lola go for the big bag of fairy dust, you’ll enjoy being with her, and believe again in the possibility of change.

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