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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Woody Goes West: "Blue Jasmine"

With each film, the whole “career retrospective” thing for Woody Allen proves unavoidable–which is ridiculous, considering how he has a film every year, and, seeing the 90+ year life span of both his parents, may well be active into his 90s. But since watching Blue Jasmine, a fantastic serio-comic study of unraveling materialist Jasmine (Cate Blanchett, staggeringly good) who’s tumbled from Fifth Avenue riches to the modest guest-room of her just-making-ends-meet adoptive San Fran sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins), I’ve been on an Allen kick, going through my collection which plays like ambient background noise as I go about my day. Does this happen with every new Allen release? And if so, isn’t having a 14-day Allen immersion kind of like a seasonal cold? Again I’m delighted with Love and Death, fawning over the Gordon Willis compositions from Manhattan and Sven Nykvist set-ups from Crimes and Misdemeanors, and even struggling to watch the why-so-serious September from beginning to end without falling asleep.

Blue Jasmine

Reviews typically bring up how Allen’s either “lost it” or is “back in good form,” so talk about the macro career while mining the micro details of the new picture on hand is familiar, if distracting, stuff. Yet bridging the hills and valleys of yesterday to what’s new can be a positive exercise. Current movies want to pound us to dust with rapid sensory firepower, immersing us in right now without much perspective. But Allen is bent on reminding us, to quote Midnight in Paris (or rather, William Faulkner), the past is not past.  Maybe the bulk of mainstream films are like Allen’s protagonists, such as Jasmine, overpowered by present temptations that impel her to feign ignorance or reformat history to suit short-lived opportunities (when coping with real history proves too difficult).  Blue Jasmine‘s first image has Jasmine fleeing her past in a grossly obvious CGI airplane, while Allen pulls us back into the pre-digital.  Nearly 80 and bearing the same creative sensibilities of someone who cinematically matured 40-50 years ago, Allen is uncannily old fashioned, maybe, some might say, “out of touch”–I’ve seen Facebook posts complaining about how he uses the phrase “making love,” which I guess people in reality never say anymore. He’s still tirelessly punching out feature-length scripts, presiding at an altar like an existential bishop with sacramental reiterations of perennial themes, humor, despair, and, in collaboration with some of the very best cinematographers (such as Willis, Nykvist, Carlo DiPalma, and in more recent years the likes of Darius Khondji and Harris Savides), unshowy though absolutely impeccable craftsmanship.

I suppose if Allen’s “lost” anything–aside from not scaling the heights of Annie Hall, Manhattan, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Crimes and Misdemeanors (and you know, like Francis Ford Coppola with his ’70s masterpieces, he really doesn’t have to)–it’s his woman foil, embodied by Keaton in Love and Death and Annie Hall, Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, and most especially Mia Farrow throughout the 1980s, each case reflecting brilliantly on Allen’s male directorial voice.  The collaboration with Farrow was severed, infamously, with 1992′s Husbands and Wives and in a way he’s not recovered. He’s written wonderful women since that period (Dianne Wiest and Jennifer Tilly in Bullets Over Broadway, Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown, Elaine May in Small Time Crooks, Penelope Cruz in Vicki Cristina Barcelona), but they’re marked less for stalwart attributes than for self-deluded silliness, hubris, duplicity, stupidity, naivete, and destructiveness (to be fair, the men can be just as bad). They’re in the irrational vein of Anjelica Huston’s scorned lover from Crimes and Misdemeanors, or the manic Judy Davis from Husbands and Wives.  Farrow might have exhibited negative characteristics, for example as the tough-talking mob moll from Broadway Danny Rose or the aspiring ditzy performer who evolves into a sophisticated diva in Radio Days, even displaying facepalming weakness by choosing slimy Alan Alda over Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors. But she was still a pillar of assured stability balancing out Allen’s misanthropy, a glimmering sentience in the muck of a world given up for folly. Allen has never created as soulful an image as Farrow’s Cecilia, the neglected Depression-era housewife in The Purple Rose of Cairo, gazing up at the movie screen with adoration and fascination, escaping God’s crapshoot universe. Since Farrow’s split with Allen, we’ve lost Hannah and are left only with her sisters.

The Purple Rose of Cairo

Blue Jasmine has Allen’s most remarkable character since Martin Landau’s guilt-stricken eye-doctor Judah Rosenthal in 1989′s Crimes and Misdemeanors, and his most potent woman since Farrow. That’s not to say Jasmine is as lovable or exudes the integrity of Farrow’s best creations, but she’s the richest ink-blemish born from Allen’s antique typewriter in many moons. A woman absorbed in overactive delusions, much like the New Age fancifulness lightly parodied through Gemma Jones in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Blanchett dazzles as someone who initially reads like a Blanche DuBois reprint, a hungry ghost assaulted by passing shades of departed happiness.  Her wealth went away with her conniving Madoff-like husband Hal (Alec Baldwin), incarcerated for unethical financial behavior.  Tapped out and babbling incoherently about her life, she pursues an artificial dream.  After Allen opens with the aforementioned CGI airplane, she name-drops Horace Greeley, “Go West,” fleeing her infamy and worn-out prospects, but her spirit is stuck in the past, in Manhattan, and in her wealth.  Even though the government has taken everything she’s got, she’s still somehow splurging, flying First Class with the best luggage and casually giving her cab driver $100.  Unable to be independently prosperous–plagued with the “freedom” of free enterprise– she’s increasingly rattled and alone with the damning consciousness of her self-made undoing.  Allen effortlessly relaxes the film in a perfect rhythm of downward spirals and beaming prospects, through San Francisco’s Inferno with flashbacks of Manhattan’s 1% Paradiso. Through different times, places, and economic conditions, Blanchett could be playing two women. But she’s not.  Indeed, she’s not playing one or three women either. What we come to understand in Blanchett’s performance is that Jasmine is an assorted myriad of drives acting and reacting, groping and adapting. Constructed by the contagion of wealth, there’s not really a “there” there.
Predictably, Blue Jasmine continues the director’s long-held Freudian notions of instinct-driven human nature and his commitment to exploring human despair, but, rare for Allen, it’s a topical film bridging present day realities to his protagonist’s madness–in this case, an insane economy enabling amoral privilege for the lucky few.  That might not sound like too novel a framework as it joins a corpus of recent Too-Much-Excess pictures like The Bling Ring, Spring Breakers, the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street, and The Great Gatsby (it also suggests that Woody Allen’s The Great Gatsby would, believe it or not, be much better than Baz Luhrmann’s), but Allen’s loudest condemnation of the ruling class, whom he’s always mocked even as he lives and dines among them (remember Rachel McAdams’ contemptible right-wing family in Midnight in Paris, eager to prosecute their lowly hotel maid for some missing jewelry, McAdams telling her sympathetic nice-guy fiancĂ© Owen Wilson, “You always take the side of the help! That’s why daddy says you’re a communist.”), has an unexpected flavor in tying elites to the most famous enemies of human freedom.

Blue Jasmine

In Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen asked his father “How can there be a God if there were Nazis?”  In Blue Jasmine, the post-2008 world leads him to examine a present day Banality of Evil with Hal and Jasmine. The rich get by moral perimeters with a winning strategy of flagrant, casual sinning.  Hal’s affairs occur as openly as his shady financial dealings, with propositions to sexy lawyers, personal trainers, and decorators in Jasmine’s plain sight.   She pleads ignorance when it comes to her husband’s money matters.  She has her habit, we’re reminded, of looking the other way. Hal, meanwhile, even has that heralded bad-guy Nazi line, “There are ways,” when asked how it’s possible to keep one’s fortune out of the government’s hands.  The casting of Andrew Dice Clay and Bobby Cannavale as the uncouth men in Ginger’s life doesn’t simply tie them to Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski, a macho demeanor juxtaposed against Jasmine’s pretentiousness, but emphasizes an ethnic barrier between the two worlds.  When Augie (Clay) and Ginger visit Hal and Jasmine, there’s a tacit contempt exchanged between the wealthier couple for the earthier tourists.  Though siblings, we’re reminded of the differences between Jasmine and Ginger, who aren’t biologically related but were both adopted.  Ginger ran away from home while their parents favorited Jasmine because, according to Ginger, she has “better genes.”  Jasmine may deny it, but she can’t resist implicating Ginger and her men she attracts as second-class citizens.

Allen and cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe capture San Francisco in a way that accents ethnic idiosyncrasies (building murals, the multicultural grocery store) in addition to something working class.  The film’s most troubling–and overlooked–chapter, regarding Jasmine’s part-time job as a receptionist in a dentist’s office while she tries to understand computers (so that she can take online classes for interior decorating), addresses an unspoken racial dimension.  Jasmine retreats the advances of Dr. Flicker (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is undoubtedly creepy, but his Semitic attributes (Stuhlbarg’s appearance in a dentist’s office can’t help but spring the very Jewish A Serious Man and “The Goy’s Teeth” to mind) juxtapose against the WASPy “substantial” men Jasmine gravitates toward, like Hal or the up-and-coming politician Dwight Westlake (Peter Sarsgaard), with whom she sparks a flirtation at a party.  All three men are successful, but considering how Jasmine voices bitterness toward the government it’s curious how she has no problem in adjusting, chameleon-like, to the prospect of being a wealthy politician’s wife while refusing to even acknowledge Flicker–the one man who would make demands on her (he chides her for doing homework on the job).  Allen invites us to ponder the dark observation spilled by Ginger earlier: she had better genes (Flicker himself mentions how she has good teeth), and the dark eugenicist mindset that’s explicit in fascism is implicit throughout the almost exclusively white world of Jasmine and Hal’s luxurious parties.

Blue Jasmine

Those “genes” work behind Jasmine’s gears, and miserable as she is throughout her San Francisco ordeal, her luck is astounding when we consider how easily she bags Westlake through some recklessly drastic self-reinvention, rewriting herself as a widowed interior decorator, whose surgeon husband had a fatal heart attack.  And of course he buys it–Jasmine has the poise, diction, and genes (tall, blonde haired, blue eyed, aesthetically sharp) to sell it, even if it’s totally absurd.

The dark haired and ganglier Ginger has different problems.  She struggles with Augie, to whom she’s now divorced, and new beau Chili (Cannavale), both despised by Jasmine as “medial” brutes. Augie’s bitter because Hal and Jasmine ruined his one big chance to be an honest businessman after luck granted him a $200,000 lottery win.  He was convinced by Hal, for whom such money is a drop in a bucket, to invest in offshore real estate, and the money was lost with Hal’s subsequent imprisonment. Augie’s now laying pipe in Alaska; “Go West” isn’t about individual achievement. For Augie it’s linked to necessary servitude to big capital (oil) interests.  Chili, “another version of Augie” for Jasmine, isn’t afraid to interrogate her about Hal’s guilt (“Did you not suspect anything or did you just not care?”), but he’s susceptible to being childishly overwrought when Ginger meets sex-crazed sound system installer Al Munsinger (Louis CK), a “gentleman” who pays sweet compliments before getting dirty in cheap motels.

It’s not about genes.  Things aren’t fixed. Adaptation is aided by inheritance, opportunity–and finally fate (to quote Husbands and Wives, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe, he plays hide-and-go-seek”).  The Manhattan women we see with garish wedding bands can afford to luxuriate in baths, go to yoga, and spend hours with a personal trainer. A child born from money, like Hal’s son Danny (Alden Ehrenrich), can transition from an Ivy League golden boy to an unkempt and addiction-rattled seller of used musical equipment in a matter of years. Under Jasmine’s influence and Al’s “charms” (his craft does, after all, change the atmosphere of an environment), Ginger lies to Chili and irresponsibly leaves her children under the care of booze-drenched Jasmine, telling them her life story, at Chuck-E-Cheese. People change all too easily.

Blue Jasmine

Allen shows this in an early and unexpectedly moving scene between Augie and Ginger, fresh from their lotto win and vacationing in New York, returning to their hotel room after Jasmine’s birthday party. Ginger is disturbed because she believes Hal’s cheating on Jasmine with a family friend, Raylene (Kathy Tong). She struggles to express the suspicion to an inebriated, though affectionate and sympathetic, Augie.  Augie remembers Raylene by name, which means that she also caught his attention (when we see her talking with Hal at the party, her nipples threaten to burst through her dress). Ginger jokes with Augie that she has nothing to worry about, because a woman like Raylene would never sleep with him anyway.  Allen’s banter between the two is very poignant, because the scene conveys how if things were a little different (say, Augie wasn’t the kind of person to tell Polish jokes), he could be as unfaithful as Hal, and the imperfections these two modest characters wear openly make them closer to each other than Jasmine and Hal ever could be.  We also know how misfortune will tear them apart.  Later on, audiences may scoff at the sexual politics between Ginger and Chili as being crude and regressive (“the man always gets the last slice of pizza!”), but Jasmine, with either of her lovers, is bereft of that organic degree of intimacy.  In Allen, love is always seeking if rarely successful, and even when it’s honest and true it treads on fragile thread.

We’re told that Jasmine’s real name is Jeanette, but that she changed it for something classier, demonstrating how the wealthier characters tap dance and shape shift their way through life. Hal can fix some financial glitches by switching a few words around in the paperwork. Even if she’s disdainful of the government, Jasmine isn’t lying when she tells Ginger that she has the pedigree for a life in politics. An empty vessel who babbles about her life to uninterested strangers, Jasmine once majored in Anthropology, the study of human origins, ironic considering how she severs her own roots and lacks an origin. She now wants to go back to school and be an interior decorator, reflecting her tendency to camouflage psychologically, deceiving herself along with others when she’s in the throes of fantasy. She recalls another one of Allen’s great characters, the far more sympathetic human chameleon Leonard Zelig from Zelig, whose insecurities lead him to transform into the guise of surrounding people.  As with Jasmine, he also undergoes “Edison’s medicine” of electric shock therapy in attempts to set his mind right. But in the meantime, he has several wives in accordance with multiple personalities. Both Jasmine and Zelig are strained by the uncertainties of freedom and become aligned with respective evils–the absurd greed of Wall Street, and the Nazi Party.


Zelig is saved, though, by the one person who would listen to him, Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Farrow), a voice from the past who calls him back from Hitler’s circle, the epitome of evil conformity.  Fleeing Germany with Fletcher, Zelig heroically lands a faulty plane by flying upside down. “It goes to show that you can accomplish anything if you’re a hopeless psychotic,” he tells a crowd.  Psychosis almost saves Jasmine too, in her compulsive lies to her prospective trophy husband, Westlake. As with Zelig, her Manifest Destiny is also interrupted by a voice from the past, Augie, who by perplexing chance runs into Jasmine and Westlake in front of the jewelry store where her new ring will be purchased.  He lays his bitterness on thickly and the carefree Jasmine dismisses him, “Can’t you put this behind you?”  Confronted with reality, Jasmine’s defenses regress her from high class sophisto to an unreasoning adolescent.  The blueprint for her new golden pavilion begins to crumble.

Luxury affords Allen’s heroes to live life disconnected and rootless, unbound to relationships and responsibilities, morals and ethics. When we hear Jasmine say, “Can’t you put this behind you?” and later see how Hal eventually falls in love with one of his mistresses and then, without much discussion, has plans for moving on to his third wife, you could speculate that Woody Allen is sublimating some feelings about Mia Farrow and his own infamous affair, his excuse for which simply was, “The heart wants what it wants.” His son with Farrow has, much like Danny to Hal and Jasmine, become hopelessly estranged from him, which certainly affects his creativity (it’s a strain that undoubtedly influenced a troubled father-son relationship in the more buoyantly comic Hollywood Ending).

His condemnation of Jasmine, the architect of her own demise (like Chili, heartbreak and neediness leads her to do something quite destructive with a telephone), might be an attack on what he sees as Mia Farrow’s over-reaction; or, rather, perhaps it is his own self-censure, however subconscious.  Neither the guilty or the innocent can put the past behind them, and it’s the human condition to deny, rationalize, and run. Andrew Dice Clay, a comedian whose star has drifted far from the heights of 25 years ago, almost breaches a fourth wall when he tells Jasmine, “Some people, they don’t put things behind so easily.” It’s a moment beautifully played by Clay (whose work as a Lefty Rosenthal-type in Michael Mann’s Crime Story proved long ago that he had solid acting chops), embracing his derided Ford Fairlane persona by tossing a barely-smoked cigarette on the ground after speaking his piece, the specter of What Could Have Been having the final word before sadly walking away.

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine is an immaculate and fascinating portrait of a scattered identity being painfully exposed, going from First Class airs to rambling nonsensically as armpit sweat builds up on an expensive blouse. It’s a funnier film than it’s been given credit for, and also a richer one, but its bitterness–and sympathy–toward human folly is the lacerating testament of a great misanthrope and human observer. Jasmine has hidden from herself in the ritual of the remembering the lyrics of “Blue Moon,” the song playing when Hal swept her off her feet. But young Danny’s lowly station in life emphasizes how the instruments behind music are used, refurbished, and resold cheaply, just as the slimy Al Munsinger can change a room with a little iPod. Did the Hal she construct from her imagination during that incipient musical moment ever exist?  Did Danny, a holdover from his previous marriage that she’s nearly taken as her own adopted son?  Did anything from that warm and luxurious life, quickly taken away from her, actually belong to her, when she wasn’t even there? The anthropology of Jasmine/Jeanette is a foolhardy expedition, another delusional Manifest Destiny, and now she wanders aimless and mad while the words to “Blue Moon” are forgotten, just a mash of jumbled words.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Born Free: Joshua Oppenheimer's "The Act of Killing"

“I know my bad dreams came from what I did. Killing people who didn’t want to die. I forced them to die.” -Anwar Congo
Anwar Congo
Anwar Congo
(This writing on THE ACT OF KILLING is based on the 115-minute theatrical cut of Joshua Oppenheimer's film, distributed throughout specialty cinemas in the United States. It's one of 2013's best films and the most unsettling. However, the 160-minute director's cut, presented at such venues as The Walker Art Center, is immensely superior, and, more than the best motion picture of 2013, will probably be considered one of the best motion pictures ever made, period). 
Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary The Act of Killing is an exposĂ© of a person’s soul, or as the filmmaker calls it, “a documentary of the imagination.” Its images and staged recreations of 50-year-old atrocities are probably less illuminating about concrete historical incidents than they are about the veiled and jagged contours of the perpetrators’ inner lives. This is a film that understands the power of images, the viewfinder reaching inward, the undertaking an exercise in psychological voyeurism not only taking us into the mystery of a mass killing, but also the dark heart of how we now, presently, reflect on the creation and ingestion of moving images – how they influence us, how we see ourselves in them, and how we want to use them to project our inner lives. In filmmaking, a monument is given to memory, and the anti-heroes in The Act of Killing are play-acting through memories quite happily, emulating the Hollywood films that inspired and entertained them. But we also see how the process of “seeing” may, Hamlet-like, set up the mousetrap to catch conscience and provoke a deep and painful reflection. The film forces us to excavate this mystery further, transcending its setting with perennial exhortations of identity and guilt. Is the guilt real, when heinous past deeds have given power and happiness? Or is it performative, even in cloistered intimacy with only the watchful gaze of one’s conscience?
The Act of Killing
Danse macabre at the beginning and end of civilization: Lake Toba in "The Act of Killing"
Oppenheimer’s main subject is Anwar Congo, a leisurely and genteel grandfather who observes his haughtier peers with searching eyes, his relaxed walk exuding control and sage-like calm, but also muted lethality. This man is a killer made by — and made for — the movies. Cinema has bookended his existence as a gangster. Unable to find normal work as a youth, he scalped tickets outside of a theater, falling in love with the Hollywood films that featured masculine Western icons he would emulate, like John Wayne and Marlon Brando. He appropriated the postures and techniques of movie murderers for the state-sanctioned killing of over 1000 people during the Indonesian genocide of 1965-66, when over a million so-called “communists” were exterminated by paramilitary officials and gangsters like him. He would sometimes exit a movie theater, dancing giddily across the street with Elvis songs running in his head, and proceed to torture and murder — “happily” — his victims who were detained in a building across the street. With his bloated and ridiculously outspoken gangster friend Herman Koto, he mentions how the leftists were responsible for banning the Hollywood films that not only entertained him, but also gave him bigger profits as a scalper. Murdering them could have been the vengeance of the most opportunistic and outrageous of film programmers.
Act of Killing
The Odd Couple: Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, on the street where they scalped tickets for Hollywood films.
Now he’s the guiding hand of his own motion picture, trying to accurately recreate those brutal years. With Oppenheimer’s funds, Anwar and his friends gladly are starring in a film about what happened in 1965. Anwar might be luring in his audience by comparing the “action” here to what you’d see in a James Bond movie. He also grasps the morbid sadism of a commercial audience, claiming that he can make something more sadistic than any film about Nazi atrocities. Though the grueling gangland violence of The Godfather trilogy, Goodfellas, and Scarface came years after the genocide, his name-dropping of Brando and Pacino indicates how those pictures reinforced his tastes, and as such films glamorized the gangster life, he insinuates that, if the result is accurate, his life story will be equally entertaining.
The Act of Killing
"There are many ghosts here."
A fan of these iconic gangster films myself, I’ve always been somewhat convinced that they’ve been unfortunately misunderstood and hijacked from their true themes of dehumanization. Businessmen, drug dealers, and military strategists idolize the Corleones and Tony Montana for their surfaces showcasing success.  Anwar appears to be no exception. Yet at times caught unaware of Oppenheimer’s camera, we observe a more thoughtful and enigmatic individual.  His story shares something else with those aforementioned motion pictures: a sense of operatic tragedy alluding to the hollow and dark side of success, the empty void in the center of prosperity and “freedom.” Surrounded by a web of remarkable characters, Anwar Congo is no less compelling as a dramatic figure than Michael Corleone through The Godfather trilogy, or Henry Hill in Goodfellas, if not, as executive producer Errol Morris has pointed out, the tragic figures of Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, two individuals representative of the insolubility of identity: we ask “who’s there?” and there’s always another layer of the onion to peel away before we have nothing at all.
Ridiculous and sublime: Anwar's victims returning as ghosts.
Throughout The Act of Killing, Anwar is not only a mystery to us. Does he even know what’s driving him? We’re uncertain of his motives, which appear distinct from his peers, who are uniformly less conscientious of their history, of their “karma,” of eternity.  Like Michael Corleone, Anwar  is a man held in deep respect by his society, in love with his comforts and sensitive to family matters. But as mortality becomes a very real thing, he’s restlessly haunted.  
He’s swimming between the sacred and profane, and the film likewise wavers on an unsteady–and unsettling–beam of simulation and reality, true horror and staged performance, with all the blurriness between them. We wonder what scenes and utterances are real and what’s scripted.  Much of it we’ve seen before in other films.  A rapacious and repugnant thug passive aggressively demands money pay-offs from Chinese merchants, so much like the “Black Hand,” Don Fanucci, in Godfather II. Is this happening now or is it a recreation of what these men saw as “the good old days”? The merchants give odd smiles after they’ve hesitantly handed over money, as if they were awkwardly gripped by the camera’s vice-glare. Wearing fedora hats and smoking cigars, Anwar and Herman act out an interrogation scene, lit like a noir crime film. As the moment of strangulation approaches, Anwar breaks, noting, “It’s morning prayers.” There’s something observant about him (the director's cut--40 minutes longer and exponentially superior to this already fantastic film--has Anwar talking about how his mother instructed him to pray as a child), and we have other hints denoting an uneasy and strained relationship with something “eternal,” permanent, spiritual. During this break and pacing between shadows he gives a speech which he recites so assuredly that we wonder if it can’t be scripted. “Human rights. All this talk about ‘human rights’ pisses me off. We want a little human rights. Back then there was no human rights.”  Is he wary of international law coming down on men like him, who prospered at a time when “human rights” weren’t an option? Trying to convince himself of legitimacy? Or playing his role as “a movie theater gangster, a free man.”  
Act of Killing
A very "Black Hand" moment from "The Act of Killing," as Chinese merchants are forced to pay off paramilitary enforcers.
But the darkness around him, swallowing his face, betrays his words just as they corroborate them. His foil in this film is a man named Adi Zulkadry, who speaks of the transitory hollowness of language in international law, especially when other genocides perpetrated by winners — the Native Americans, segregation, the British Empire, Belgian colonialism — go unpunished. Both Anwar and Adi are right about the emptiness of language, the performative stage act which leads politicians to become “soap opera actors,” something we hear while Herman runs for parliament–the thuggish killer of union leaders now claiming to fight for worker’s rights, our villain wearing a Transformers good-guy Autobot t-shirt.
As with Shakespeare where tyrants’ sins are manifest in apparitions–Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III–Anwar sees ghosts. He takes Oppenheimer’s camera on a tour through a building rooftop where a thousand people died “unnatural deaths.” He says, “There’s many ghosts here.” He’s been having bad dreams where the dead linger with hateful visages. He’s staged his murders and interrogations like the lurid gangster film, but we also see scenes that look like Westerns, and the spectacle of a consoling heaven as Bollywood musical number, the philosophy of being “free” affirmed as Anwar and company dance with thankful victims, “Born Free” on the soundtrack. He films his nightmares, overseeing one of his peers in heavy makeup and a freakish costume, playing the cackling ghost who won’t let Anwar sleep. “But I killed you!” Anwar cries, pointing a finger as the film crew looks on. The ghost is not terrifying or sad. Rather, the vengeance of the dead is absurd, ridiculous, even hilarious.  Because Anwar is tortured by the reality of what he's done, he cannot simulate it correctly. 
The Act of Killing
Anwar Congo plays out his nightmares for the camera, Herman in drag looking on.
Notice how between takes Oppenheimer cuts to Anwar alone on his bed, imprisoned in the camera’s frame and visibly wrestling with the source of his hackneyed script-writing. The artifice of filmmaking is a buffer for him, assuaging guilt as he processes his deeds. He cannot reconcile the purposeful terrain of artistic representation with the terrible corporeal reality of the what he’s done — stage blood doesn’t become real blood any more than wine does during Mass. Off the set, he’s still a respected man whose reputation is built on corpses who were efficiently dispatched with piano wire and then dumped in ditches.  He can show his grandchildren the images of his crulety and teach them lessons of kindness as a limping duck passes by. But this is “only a film.” The dead are still dead, and they knew they would die and that they were powerless. Anwar’s masochistic endeavor — going so far as to act as one of his victims — is futile and troubling, whether or not “terror possesses his body” while it’s happening. I don’t think Anwar is simulating remorse for us, but I do question whether or not he’s doing it so that he can live with himself.
Propaganda kept the political officials for whom Congo killed in power to this day (another excision from the theatrical version shows one of brutal, anti-communist films children were forced to watch; the red overtly artificial blood can't help but remind one of Alex watching thuggish films with pleasure in A Clockwork Orange) . Even though there is apparently a semblance of “democracy” now in Indonesia, the paramilitary rallies we see in the picture show how strong-arm fascism, hijacking and twisting the word “freedom” along with it, is running the show. “It’s not about ‘fear,’” we’re told about this “happy” and “accurate” depiction of mass murder staged by the murderers. “It’s about image.” Everything is about sight, of open secrets that are transparent though ignored out of convenience. Adi proclaims his lack of remorse while also being skeptical about the film project because, he says, “I believe God has his secrets.” Adi says, “Killing is the worst crime you can do. So the key is to find a way not to feel guilty. It’s all about finding the right excuse.” We see him sitting with his family in a shopping mall, looking dispassionately near fancy perfume counters, escalators, and flat screen televisions as his voice-over describes the sadistic things he did many years ago. His family members take selfie pictures with a smartphone.
Act of Killing
"It's not about fear. It's about image." An unrepentant mass murderer with his selfie-ready family at a shopping mall in "The Act of Killing."
It’s a powerful moment, and Adi’s chosen lack of conscientiousness parallels ours, as a Western audience far away from the sweat shops of the distant East. The “open secret” of genocide runs alongside the suffering enabling our access to ingenious tools of mass communication and entertainment, to easily create and reconfigure our self-images (like Adi’s family) while the laborers creating those tools could never dream of possessing them. Without an image, they have no voice and are as easily forgotten by us as Adi’s victims (including a girlfriend’s father) were by him.  At times while listening to him, I couldn’t help but think of Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), the eye doctor and philandering murderer who chooses to look the other way from Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors. “People carry awful deeds around with them,” Judah says. “This is reality. In reality we rationalize. We deny or we couldn’t go on living…I’m talking about reality. If you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie.”  Adi denies nothing, but he is able to carry his awful deeds around without any problem, nihilistically embracing Identity as a vacuum with his practical sensibility. He’s probably the most intelligent and philosophically sophisticated character we see in The Act of Killing, even if that philosophy endorses something shallow. It might be representative of our philosophy more than we care to acknowledge.
By design or by accident, Oppenheimer’s exploration of these killers has an archetypal quality. The film opens with the dark reflective water of an ancient lake, and we’ll see Anwar’s soul searching accompanied by images of him fishing. The film’s most notorious image is of a giant goldfish, out of which dance women smiling and beaming joy for the camera. It’s a startling and surreal picture out of a dream, running counter to the manufactured fish decoration that sings Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” seen later. In contrast to the “Relax and Rolex” free-man gangster-life celebration of apathy and willful Don’t Worry Be Happy blindness, Anwar’s guilt stems from a pair of open eyes. He tells us about a man he decapitated, the corpse’s eyes catching him offguard. “Why didn’t I close his eyes?” he asks. “That is the source of my nightmares. I’m always gazed at by those eyes that I didn’t close.” 
But limiting to that one set of eyes is a cop-out. It's an ocean of dead with which he struggles. He’s now surrounded by the dark, looking on, detached and guilty, on replayed sins.  Anwar is reflecting against the indifferent landscape at Lake Toba, his dreamlike dance macabre–much like the conclusion of Fellini’s 8 1/2–playing out next to that rusting giant goldfish. A cataclysmic volcano erupted here 75,000 years ago which, according to some scientists, killed all but one group of our ancestors. Some fishing line in his hands, Congo ponders karma, “the law of nature, straight from God.” Distant lightning strikes behind him as he speaks and turns on a flashlight into the dark water of the lake. Oppenheimer cuts to a full moon, a symbol of clarity and reflection, an emblem of a light revealing something that’s not real (what we see of the moon is only the sun’s light reflecting on it). “Imagine in all this darkness,” he says, “it’s like we’re living at the end of the world. We look around. There’s only darkness. It’s so very terrifying.”
Act of Killing
Anwar Congo, blindfolded, plays one of his victims.
Like Claudius in Hamlet, Congo’s awakening has paradoxically thrown him in an omnipresent darkness, the insatiable void of black time that laps up the transitory trifles of politics and quick fixes. Claudius was driven to his private quarters after seeing how the art of Hamlet’s play reflected his act of fratricide. His new crown has given him legitimacy: “In the corrupted currents of this world / Offence’s gilded hand may shove by justice, / And oft tis seen the wicked prize itself / Buys out the law,” he says. But then he realizes, “[But] ’tis not so above, / There is no shuffling, there the action lies / In his true nature…” (Hamlet, III.3) Oppenheimer’s setting at Toba is fitting, as the beginning and end of human civilization becomes the film set of Anwar Congo’s fantasies and fears.
The dynamism of Oppenheimer’s innovative approach to documentary filmmaking makes Anwar one of the most ecstatic characters in any film, fiction or real. The Act of Killing is certainly an admirable document of humanism and activism, but its descent with Anwar into the bottomless well of the past only leaves us more uncertain, if even more resolute to get at the core of a person or incident. It’s a beguiling and monumental journey into the nature of identity. Film as Collective Memory was recently invoked by Martin Scorsese’s lecture “The Persisting Vision.”  Scorsese is the architect of several gangster sagas that feel eerily similar to Anwar’s journey (especially when we consider Scorsese’s Catholic relationship to guilt and penance, paying for sins “my way” beyond the bullshit of words, if we recall the opening minutes of Mean Streets), and his fraternal mob movies meditate on a violent culture’s history (the motifs of violence and good food go hand-in-hand in the Inferno of Goodfellas, for instance). Scorsese brings up Thomas Mann’s opening to Joseph and His Brothers, “The deeper we sound, the further down into the lower world we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its history and culture, reveal themselves unfathomable.” Anwar’s dreams by Lake Toba feel like pure cinema, and are the culmination of his story even though it leaves us wondering “What the fuck?” in the web of an indiscernible mystery of human nature. In his lecture, Scorsese is wondering about the beginnings of humanity running alongside the origins of cinema, bringing up the Chauvet caves from 30,000 years ago, the subject of one of The Act of Killing‘s most vocal champions Werner Herzog with his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
Act of Killing
"I imitated Hollywood movie stars." A photograph of the young Anwar as executioner and "gangster."
Herzog was framing the drawn images of primitive human beings, wondering how these ancient artisans were transmuting action into representation. Unfathomable, we’re still brought closer to distantly removed ancestors living in contexts alien to our own. Oppenheimer’s film, with its archetypal quality and Ring of Fire setting of searching eyes amidst shadow, is descending into the dreams of humanity’s worst capabilities, and becoming intimate with figures we’d gladly relegate to a dustbin of handily labeled antagonism. In this soul-and-species searching odyssey of sight and sound and history and memory, we become aware that cinema is probably the only art that could make us feel this way. The perplexing emotions and numbing truths of The Act of Killing would be ill-served by a book or play or photograph, where it would be too abstracted and detached from our senses. Seeing and hearing these people, the actual role-players of an ugly history, perform for a camera and become immersed in their dreams–or, like Adi, openly discussing why they’d rather not immerse in them–could only work with the intimacy of filmmaking and filmgoing. It’s problematic because of the resistance to identifying with these people. And though you’d think that totalitarian government figures would work to ban and burn films, note how the official we see feels “awful” while watching the recreation of a village being burned, with crying children whose trauma feels too visceral to be performed. “It’s dangerous for our organization’s image,” he says, though later amending himself, “Don’t erase it! Use it to show how ferocious we can be! In fact, we can be worse.”
It’s the most perverse and unexpected side of film preservation. Such propaganda has kept descendants of the genocide victims living in fear since 1965, preventing them from forming unions. It reminded me of a moment from Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, where the filmmaker shows us Nazis filming Jews being boarded onto trains that will take them to a final destination. Whether it’s the (however we label them) heroes or villains that are documenting cruelty, it’s still important that it be preserved so that we can see, accurately, who we were and what we did, comparing past contexts to present ones, however much the camera affected the historical performers encaged in the frame. This was an important–and often overlooked–theme of Spielberg’s Lincoln, where Spielberg and Tony Kushner have special emphasis given to Alexander Gardner’s photographs of slaves. The president, mindful of how history is always wavering through an ongoing dialectic, says, “Be careful with them.” We’re also meant to note how particular relationships in the film mirror now derided representations in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the first filmic depiction of Lincoln from nearly a century before.
The Act of Killing
Images might be born from cruelty, but upon reflection in the darkness, the light projected is, quite possibly, an awakening, where, so much more important than textbook documentation, the maelstrom of an inner life’s ecstasies unfold. The Act of Killing magnificently traces the cautious boundary of that window between spectating seeker and projected imagination. We can’t ever know Anwar Congo, and no matter what he does he can never atone for what he’s done or know with certainty that he is sorry. But the past won’t release him and he keeps on looking. Like the aging Michael Corleone, who prayed but still wouldn’t repent, his mind suffers and his body cries out. Looking over a ghostly destination, he bends over with unnatural sounds of regurgitation, but only spit comes out. The past won’t release him, and I fear his bad conscience won’t either. This is a film about how the division of past and present is illusory. So it is with film goer and film, where what we’re seeing isn’t separate but so often a component of our identity, controlling conscience when we delude ourselves into thinking we’re born free.