Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer
With the fiancée off at a weekend of business classes in DC, I found myself—along with another film fan friend—able to knock off some of those “I’ll get to this later” films over the weekend. I’ve said before that it helps to have a buddy when you see a film, but not anyone who isn’t into film. They have to be able to stomach virtually anything or their own subjectivity can helplessly ruin your own experience. So, over the course of a weekend, I absorbed four films worth discussing, along with a few that were background noise during drunken debauchery and which I don’t care to reexamine.
We began with Blood Diamond. Like so many critics have already said, this film is the finest of the “African genocide is bad” camp. And Leo DiCaprio, fantastic as the diamond smuggling Zimbabwean Danny Archer, says it all in a sneakily pivotal scene. He’s confronted by the do-gooder journalist Maddy, played by the voluptuous Jennifer Connelly, and essentially asked, “How can you do what you do?” His reply is simple: TIA, or This Is Africa. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the repetitive “Must it be? It must be!” line from The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Put together, This Is Africa is the kind of saying that can burrow under your skin and stay with you.
Early in the film, there’s an unfortunately necessary scene, meant to educate those who don’t know what is happening in Africa, where an American diplomat discusses how whenever anything of value is discovered in Africa, the powers that be always find a way to steal it while the inhabitants of that area are immediately thrust into atrocities, whether as perpetrator or victim. That’s a longwinded version of This Is Africa, although it’s meant to reflect the moral disgust that most people share.
But not Danny Archer, a man who will do anything and say anything to get what he wants; and what he wants is a perfect, pink diamond worth roughly $4 million. He means to retire using that age-old “to do good you must do evil” mantra. His motivation reflects his past as a soldier for South Africa following his own country’s civil war. He feels as though he is just as African as the native Africans, and is therefore entitled to deal in conflict diamonds. What he comes to realize is that he lives in a fantasy world where morality means much less than what a person can do or will do if given the proper motivation. His character arc generally reflects the moral of Blood Diamond, so it’s worth following.
Fantasy played a large role in my weekend, actually, because I caught the matinee of Pan’s Labyrinth the following morning. This wonderful film, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, almost didn’t make it into production after the director left his extensive notes in a taxicab. But luckily, in a strange twist of fortune, the driver tracked him down and returned his notes, allowing me to sit and watch his beautiful and haunting work.
Fortune, appropriately, plays an enormous role in Pan’s Labyrinth. Little coincidences and asides aren’t the stuff of The Big Sleep. That is to say, when Del Toro opens a door, he makes sure to shut it. The simple act of following a cook when she puts her knife back in her apron plays a large role later on in the film. The birth of the villain’s son—seemingly a side plot that carries little weight—eventually transforms itself into an essential plot element. In that regard, one must pay close attention to this film if one wishes to understand what Del Toro is driving at. I’m now two days removed from it and I still feel like I’m only half in agreement with what I witnessed. If anything, Pan’s Labyrinth reinforces determinism, especially with its fantastic premise.
The subtleties of Del Toro’s direction are in stark contrast to another director’s work in a similar genre. I caught M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water Sunday morning and found it to be at once incredibly written while also terribly obvious. The successes outweigh the failures about twofold, but certain glaring deficiencies cannot be ignored.
Among them, the camera work is so derivative as to be insulting. Shyamalan’s been doing this for years so I wasn’t remotely surprised. He places the camera in an awkward position and lets his actors have at it. The result is a mixed bag. With The Sixth Sense and even Signs, there was enough heavy dialogue and plot tension to keep us from falling asleep, but with Lady in the Water, most of the dialogue surrounds—I hate to say it—an obviously bullshit fairy tale. Add a stuttering Paul Giamatti, a catatonic sea nymph, an annoying film critic, and a host of other peculiar central characters, and a few Tony Scott-ish cuts to get the film going would have been more than welcome.
Shyamalan does do some cool things here, though. He has a cast of about 50 people, yet each of their screen times seems appropriate. Plus, the self-contained nature of this film definitely keeps our mind on the topic at hand…and WHAT A TOPIC! It was such an incomprehensible idea to write a fairy tale for adults that this film got Shyamalan canned by Walt Disney. And what is the purpose of this fairy tale? The sea nymph AKA narf (in Shyamalan lingo) says it herself, actually. Something about how we’re all connected and that all of our actions determine the future and what not. Sound familiar? Well, I wasn’t at all surprised when one particularly grim character had the Iraq War on in the background of his apartment. Determinism once again rears its ugly head, but this time in a less-than stellar motion picture event.
These three films tuck determinism away until it is suffocating and burning a hole in the director’s pocket. Blood Diamond never really mentions action and reaction, per se, while Pan’s Labyrinth sort of overtly discusses the inevitability of our actions’ results, and Lady in the Water slaps you in the face with the concept like a Pike Place grouper hurler battling a stick-up artist. Each of these films delve further and further into the definition of “fantasy”, as well, as if to say that only in perfectly scripted action or pretense does the very nature of determinism become manifest.
Then came the 4th film in my weekend of unfinished business: An Inconvenient Truth. Without vague allusions to determinism, this film would still succeed. It isn’t about philosophy, after all, but rather, cold, hard facts, sometimes even in the form of cold, hard glacier core samples. Al Gore takes the idea of actions and consequences to whole new levels by giving us exactly what we need in the debate over global warming—that being a wonderful tour through murky, difficult data by a warm and likeable political veteran.
I was pretty confident that I’d heard it all before watching this documentary, but I was sorely mistaken. Every time the film could easily have taken the Fahrenheit 9-11 route of Bush-bashing and mockumentary, it instead took a sharp left turn back towards irrefutable data, its saving grace. The case for global warming, as presented by Gore, seems so airtight as to be foolproof. I urge all mammals to see this film at least once.
In fact, I urge everyone reading this to catch all these films as soon as possible. Blood Diamond is like the live-action An Inconvenient Truth, so I say, “Pair those two together.” Meanwhile, watch Lady in the Water first, allowing it to tell its simple and almost profound story. Then, get a burger or something. Let it settle into your brain—it ain’t that hard—then catch the evening showing of Pan’s Labyrinth. I think that, if absorbed in this order, all will become clear to you. The gist is a slice of determinism, sure, but the overall impression one gets depends on the film, who you see it with, and how ready you are for deep thoughts.