Standard Operating Procedure
America has a dark secret, one it’s unwilling to face: Errol Morris’s films are boring. His “interrotron” technique is supposed to be penetrating but it makes everybody look like they’re on a job interview.
Maybe he’s auditioning people to find out if they’re worthy of being in one of his important works of non-fiction. But no one is worthy of the form he’s devised—he wants to expose the banality of evil but insists banality prove its humanity, and vice versa.
Enter Lynndie England, American nightmare imp, cigarette-smoking Abu Ghraib leash girl. Standard Operating Procedure’s real subject is not torture at Abu Ghraib so much as the confrontation between people like Lynndie England and digital cameras. Morris is more interested in the pictures she’s in than in England herself. He didn’t need her in person to make this film. Yet there she is, dragged in to redeem herself so she can be admitted into humankind.
Standard Operating Procedure concludes that prison-guard soldiers like England photographed the abuse they dished out because they were improperly supervised—they resented their neglect. The uninterviewed Chuck Graner and “Chip” Frederick, torture ringleaders now in prison, instigators of “the human pyramid thing,” stand in for Cheney and Rumsfeld, supervisors of the larger debacle still on the loose.
Danny Elfman’s score implies that any minute Iraqi prisoners are going to be interrogated by Edward Scissorhands, who doesn’t appear either.
Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay
In the first one, white people were clueless idiots; in the sequel Harold and Kumar face a world where the War on Terror has turned everybody into idiots. The film dispenses with the torture angle early, after an interlude with prison guards that brings out all the psychosexual hypocrisy ignored by other discussions of American torture, including Standard Operating Procedure. Later, this stoner comedy reverses Abu Ghraib by having a rich Arab kid at a pool party force American girls to walk around with their pants off. Of course the girls are into it—the Arab kid has to restrain them from taking off their tops.
When Harold and Kumar travel through a completely Bush-ified American South and then head to Amsterdam, the film’s message couldn’t be clearer. You can’t find freedom here—escape to a place where it’s legal to smoke pot.
I’m hurtling through icy clouds toward Earth. I’m standing in what appears to be the gondola of a balloon, except it’s more like a cheap plastic wastebasket, flimsy and thin, a detached bucket with just enough room for one.
I have a red-and-white Netflix envelope in my hand, sealed and ready to be returned. I must have watched the movie in it, but I can’t remember what it was. The ground rises to meet me; this appears to be one of those dreams where you experience your own demise.
I crash and feel my bones break. The DVD inside the Netflix envelope shatters, but the envelope remains intact, not even torn. With great effort I pick myself up and limp to a mailbox on the street. I pull open the blue door and deposit the DVD. The shards inside rattle lightly as the envelope falls to the bottom.
Baby Mama belongs to a small group of films, maybe larger if you live in New York: films you see because they were shot in your neighborhood. Which is strange, because my neighborhood is in Brooklyn and Baby Mama takes place in Philadelphia. Evidently Brooklyn is the new Toronto.
Since this part of Brooklyn is exactly like the gentrified, baby-obsessed Philadelphia described by the movie—in fact, it is more like that than Philadelphia is—it was a puzzle to me why the film was set there.
I thought and thought about this. I remembered how The Departed was shot across the street from me in Brooklyn even though it was supposed to take place in Boston, where I used to live until I escaped. I got pissed off all over again at Martin Scorsese, the ultimate New York filmmaker, for bringing Boston back to my doorstep when I hoped I’d never see it again. The irony!
Then I realized The Departed doesn’t take place in Boston at all. What does Martin Scorsese care about Boston? He just wanted to show he could make a movie about hoods that didn’t take place in New York. No, The Departed takes place in a city called Not New York, a movie city that—even though it is New York—exists to reassure the perceived audience of non-New Yorkers that the New Yorkers who made the film they’re watching don’t actually hate America and don’t hate leaving New York to work out-of-town.
So it is with Baby Mama. You could tell the producers were worried the whole film might be seen as an insult to regular America. They were afraid that if it took place in Brooklyn, where it was shot, it would be construed as mean to the white-trash people it gets so much fun out of.
Changing it to Philadelphia deflected that potential criticism by setting the film among non-New Yorkers in the city of Not New York. If Tina Fey’s wealthy yuppie were a Brooklyn mommy-wannabe everyone would know she was a snob; Amy Poehler’s good-hearted Tastykake-eater would be seen as condescended to. But make them Pennsylvanians and they’re both lovable dopes. Problem solved.
Except for the problem that by any objective standard, the film takes place in Brooklyn, not Philadelphia. And the other problem that the only thing marking Poehler as trashy is that she doesn’t have to kiss her boss’s ass all day like Tina Fey does. Other than that Poehler is regular, like any other girl you’d meet around here.
My Blueberry Nights
It never occurred me that I’d rather see Lynndie England in a movie than Norah Jones. Nothing works in My Blueberry Nights. Even Wong Kar-wai’s famous ability to pick music deserts him. Regardless of what’s playing on the soundtrack, it’s “After Midnight” you hear—the film looks like a ten-year-old beer commercial starring Eric Clapton.
What has Wong Kar-wai been doing for the last eight years? None of it makes sense. He seems more lost than any of his characters. Today we live off revivals of Days of Being Wild or As Tears Go By, but when In the Mood for Love came out in 2001 it was a film you pressed close, you looked into its eyes, it was tragic, true and hot. Its soundtrack got us through many nights or car rides home—”Quizás, quizás, quizás.” Seven years later, it’s over. The thrill is gone, the nights are cold.
Flight of the Red Balloon
While everyone was loving Wong Kar-wai in the 1990s, Hou Hsiao-hsien became this flashpoint director film critics could get fired for liking. It wasn’t that his films were controversial because of what happened in them, it was that his films were controversial because nothing happened in them.
It was assumed that the public, hostile to boredom, was also hostile to proponents of boredom, so praising Hou was frowned upon. No responsible film critic—meaning no film critic who liked to eat—would bother saying good things about a Hou Hsiao-hsien film unless he absolutely couldn’t avoid it. Fortunately for the working press, Hou films appeared infrequently in first run and many jobs were saved.
Those days are over and everybody knows better now. For one thing, most of those jobs are gone. Their disappearance had little to do with Hou Hsiao-hsien. For another, Hou keeps making great films. Now he’s only hated by the kind of critics it’s fun to have hate you. Kurt Loder, the guy who used to read the news on MTV (maybe he still does?) called Flight of the Red Balloon “monumentally boring” and “intensely frustrating” on vh1.com, which I swear I saw by accident when I was doing a search to find out what the piano music in the movie was.
Like in The Errand Boy, puppets express the theme of Flight of the Red Balloon: “How angrily fate treats each of us differently.” The film is about how friendships run out and how people coldly move on. It takes place in Paris—it’s a remake of The Red Balloon, although that doesn’t matter—where Juliette Binoche works doing voices in a Chinese puppet theater. The balloon, this red circle that gets in front of things and blocks your vision like Julie Delpy’s eye problem in 2 Days in Paris, floats across the screen and somehow never gets hokey or irritating.
What irritated the person I saw the movie with was the way the character of Song, Binoche’s Chinese nanny and an aspiring filmmaker, kept saying “d’accord.” “I wanted to slap her if she said ‘d’accord‘ one more time,” my friend told me after the movie. When Hou’s film Millennium Mambo came out, another woman I know saw it, then said, referring to the heroine played by Shu Qi, “If that girl lit one more cigarette I was going to have to slap it out of her face.” What’s with these white chicks who want to slap the Chinese girls in Hou Hsiao-hsien movies? It’s true that all the characters in Flight of the Red Balloon are kind of irritating, not just Song; the film is a documentary on Paris.
No one has time to go to the movies anymore but because of the Internet they have plenty of time to watch trailers.
Son of Rambow: The cinema has become such an unsophisticated medium that now even four-year-olds can make a Rambo movie. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: The cinema has become such an unsophisticated medium that now even old people can make an Indiana Jones movie. Sex and the City: Terrible, like watching dinosaurs fight—the fake dinosaurs at the beginning of Robot Monster that are really just lizards dressed up.