"The Act of Killing"

The way viewers react to Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary “The Act of Killing” comes down to the way each viewer is able to expand their notion of the act of killing. In the liberal, privileged and mono-cultured West, we vaguely, yet virulently, understand murder (especially mass murder) as an unforgivable crime. Abstractly, we judge such crimes harshly; the openness of our understanding immediately shutters- and of this strong reaction, we are proud. We fancy ourselves a world away from such acts, though some members of American society have taken to shooting their fellow citizens in premeditated attacks in public spaces like schools, movie theaters, and shopping centers. Aside from our difficulty in reconciling mass killings here or there or anywhere, one thing is certain: we abhor it all. We consider the concept of the act of killing other humans resolutely inhuman.

So, what happens when we watch a film which documents the glorification of retired mass murderers? We may just freeze up for the first few minutes. Why are watching? We are stuck between walking away and keeping our minds open to the words, the sounds, the visions, and, in the case of Oppenheimer’s latest feature, the plotting…the reenactment of murders long buried. Difficult as it is to swallow, there’s another side to act of killing. Not a captured serial killer’s demented final testimony or the weeping, barely coherent statements of a criminal of passion. This professional, calculated and perhaps above all, government-sanctioned kind of killing of thousands of people for political purposes is in fact a necessary piece of the puzzle of what humans are capable of on a larger, less judged and more active scale. Recognizing a human who is speaking of having committed crimes we never thought there were questions about is necessary to understanding things like war from the level of the gangsters who act as contracted killers for bigger fish.

All that said, and from the same perspective I’ve just laid flat, I’ll be blunt: there is nothing sympathetic about the men who own the screen in this documentary. Their current cluelessness about the world beyond their sphere of brutality doesn’t make up for the brutality. Their smiles make them human, but the crimes they describe with wit and boyish energy maintain their cold-heartenedness. That part seems without a doubt, that they are missing something that makes other cringe at the sight of a crying child, a face in pain, straining muscles and veins, too much blood. These men -gangsters, they say- are free in a society in which people speak carefully, quietly, and have only popular open opinions, if any at all. They would have viewers believe that their freedom was born of some innate treasure chest of deservedness. They were special, in spite of being born into poverty. In fact, they became “free men”, gangsters, by virtue of their absolute lack of empathy.

In a conversation between one of the main characters in this vivid retelling, Anwar, and his old world cronies discuss a scene they planned in which the big boss Anwar gets covered in gory prosthetic flesh and plays one of his victims. He says he feels like one of them, that being in the position of having no dignity, even knowing that it is unreal, is like truly having none. Just as Anwar used glorious, hyper-masculine visions of Elvis Presley and the stars of the Western genre to lead his gangsters to kill over 1,000 so-called Communists during the 1960’s rebellion on foreigners, minorities, and unionized workers, Anwar’s feeling for acting and embodying a character is summoned up in the flow of energy- ever-violent and awful, no matter the side he chooses to take in it.

In a scene where the gangsters lay siege upon a village, massacring anyone they meet, the child actors -in some cases the sons and daughters of the gangsters- sob uncontrollably long after the cameras stop recording the reenactment. In other moments, the crowds cheer and laugh as women and children pretend to be victims of events that not only actually took place, but occurred at the hands of the men playing the murderers, and in many cases on the same grounds. They do so out of a fear bred into them by powerlessness against gangsters who lack the empathy that prevents men from shedding blood. The men speak of feeling haunted, but they do not have mercy. They refuse to repent.

So, “layers upon layers of disturbing” doesn’t begin to describe the fathomless depths of absurdity and horror that this kind of action portrays. And yet, it is a film. And it is a successful documentary about history.

Does watching “The Act of Killing” make an American college student view murder differently? The my referee? It will probably not have that effect- bloodshed is abhorrent to normal people. But the shameless absurdity that unfolds in the reenactment sheds light on what it takes to kill on a massive scale, and it isn’t exactly hatred, greed, for power- no. It’s the sanction of those who control things and the summoning of a collective coldness of heart that make it happen: the ability to believe that some people can die without negative consequence, without deserving guilt to ride on the killer’s back.

Frances, O, Frances, where are you? Brooklyn, in the era of Hipsters and post-feminist feminists, in which no twenty-something without a trust-fund can get by on just one job, one gig, or one talent. Not if she pays her own rent and wants to live. That’s where. The words “But I should save money… so I can pay rent” are nothing like poverty, but not many parents understand why recent college grad’s need multiple roommates to pay for such tiny (and not exactly adorable) apartments. This is a somewhat cramped and more expensive version of bohemian luxury, and we wouldn’t need it if we would just move. But this is Brooklyn, New York. We walk and fall and get back up on the tight rope all day: walking is like flying, falling sucks, but getting back up again means we belong here.

To the movie, though- Frances wanders through a New York life, stubborn against the idea of giving in to any daily grind that isn’t her passion and admittedly “always so tired”- a realistic portrait of how thousands of Frances’ are existing right now within a five mile radius of where I sit typing at this moment. The charming realism is impressive, by which I mean that the script is very good.

For better and for worse, a large population can relate to the words, the looks, the views that Frances, Sophie, Lev, and all live out in the film. Many more sat yearning to have that realism be theirs for as long as they could survive it. There you have the market- a great grasp on an elusive subject.

Script, check. Market, check. Vision- spectacular. The film, beyond my very personal understanding of the subject matter, needs to be on did many more New New York films. I write this having heard just hours ago that Pearl Paint has been shuttered, and am coming to terms with the fact that life blood here in this grungy city must be renewed.

The new city must mean something close to what Frances knows- how she survives. I don’t mean running up debts on a pre-approved credit card at the age of 27 or avoiding a day job only to become an RA at your alma mater…no. I mean the conclusion, when she starts to reach forward with open arms, to use the available space to create with what time she has between surviving and resting. Making New York her own is how she ends up, and that isn’t a dead-end, it highlights that a universal purpose can and should be experienced in this city of sleepless nights, jerkfaced gangster landlords, ever-absurd expectations, and still more random beauty…don’t miss it if it’s what you’ve been surviving for.

The truest expression of horror is exacting terrifying measures on innocent creatures in an emotionless state. “Blue Caprice”, based on true events, is a horror film. Without much blood, and with very little intimate expression on the part of the murderer, the viewer is left with a knot of unknowing in their vulnerable belly: this boy who shoots at the direction of this angry, heartless psychopath could be almost any unloved young boy. Watching the abuse of the abuser, the boy whose voice is only distinctly heard reading lines from a manual for snipers in training, is abhorrently chilling. Disgusting. Saddening. All because this happened, and shootings like this have happened and do happen in this country and no film analysis of events can manage the collective grief or mitigate the unknowing we experience over those thoughts: it could be him, it could be us, it could be any time and there’s no way of telling when or where. Evil has no boundaries. “Blue Caprice” is a horror film about an ever-expanding reality of passionless murder.

If you have ever worked with kids, and you appreciate their age, you know that they teach you more than you can possibly teach them. The big up (though it rarely feels like it, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit) is that, as an adult, you get to…have to…are charged with working in a system to make decisions about the kids you look after. They can’t know your limitations, or they won’t respect your authority- the authority you need to help them and they need to feel -and actually be- safe in the world. “Short Term 12” is about kids who grew up under the wrong kind of adults, and who, with a sense of purpose, turned around as adults to help kids in the same cycle of abuse and neglect, fostering and lost time. Their power is more potent because it moves across a backdrop of devastation they are familiar with. The way they manage games and crafts and free time- the things kids do- is heavy, knowing. They are aware of how these things will never feel normal for these kids who never got to be kids. Kids who, having been robbed of being young, may always be in a purgatory of growth. Adulthood is where people make mistakes with authority, and people who have experienced such horrible abuses of authority must be careful to decide how they will be when they have that kind of power, a power they perceived as great when they were being abused. On screen, this hardship is unspoken to the last third of the film. Before the protagonist, Grace (Brie Larson), speaks of her own abuse, it is a shadow, a heaviness over her actions. Her body is heavier, more defensive. She has a lot to carry inside, already, so when we learn that she’s pregnant, there is a dual cycle that forms: her horrible childhood, her life as a caretaker of children experiencing that kind of childhood, the looming threat of all those horrendous things continuing after they leave her, and the kind of mother she will be, if she so decides to be one. Her lover, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) is from the system, too. His role is another layer upon the cycle. He represents the good one can find in their heart, under any circumstances. As a pair, he finds her softness, and she allows him to see her as someone who can be loved. Vulnerability is not a constant for her, but his willingness to remain open brings them into balance. He is convinced that they will have the family they wished they were born into, and she wants to be there with him. The problem is that the cycle- her childhood, her child, her self- they are all affected by the weight of her history. Then she meets Jayden, a girl whose pain breaks the cycle. Her father is like Grace’s father. She hurts her body like Grace hurt her body back then. She wants to save Jayden so that she herself can feel safer. Stopping the cycle of abuse she witnessed is the only use of her power that can help save her own life, and maybe give her the ability to give birth to a new life. Before she knows she can accomplish this, everything is uncertain. She breaks off from Mason, she has plans to get an abortion- “I can’t do this, I can’t.” But when she does, a new world breaks open, her own world. The same job, the same lover, but she has life once she begins to handle the weight of her past. “Short Term 12” is about reflections and growing up through those reflections we see of ourselves in others. It’s about summoning up what’s left, the other side of devastation. Destin Daniel Cretton wrote from his experience working in the kind of facility where his characters, Grace and Mason, spend their days managing, comforting, and legitimately raising children who have been all but abandoned. His script and direction expose such tenderness, focusing not on the volatile actions of the abusers, but on the healing process that comes after. By shining the light solely on the survivors, he gives viewers a unique experience to consider the situation with empathy, mixed with much less blind anger. The softness in us meets Grace and Mason, Jayden and the rest of the characters picking up the pieces and making something grow where few people thought the feat was possible.

Twitter / KateSansoucie: #NYC - 4/11/14 - the #sky says ...

The Brooklyn Sky told me a little something tonight

From the first moment, “20 Feet from Stardom” inhale-exhales devotion. Devotion to a group of mega-talented performers who held up (and still do) the music industry during the come one come all simultaneous golden eras of soul, rock n’ roll, blues, jazz, funk, r&b- decades of human soul blessed vocal support by extraordinary professionals trained in churches across the United States. These are what we call back-up singers. Paid like they’re the parsley garnish, when, as this documentary brings to light, they are the ingredient, the method, the infusion of spice in the recipe of a best-selling band.

Forever in my mind, the vision of Merry Clayton’s description of her first meeting with the Stones says it all. Her hair is in curlers, her make-up washed away- she’s ready for bed, when the phone rings. It’s a call that will change her life. She jumps in a taxi, prepared to blow away these rock stars. She has zero doubt. Greeted by the sleepless band mates, she belts out a raunchy, husky, LOUD “it’s just a shot away”, and “Gimme Shelter” rushes in a stunning, visceral flood from the collective mind’s womb: the bloody, gasping life of a top 20 song- all thanks to Clayton, a singer with more skill and belly fire than any of the chart topping, gloriously wealthy voices of the rock scene. With this documentary, her name will be remembered, and yes, she still sings.

Through the smooth tunes and interview segments that welcome viewers warmly into the circle that sings, the topics taken on are heavy: classist industry and personal failure. The latter is a mystery, given how stunningly talented the cast is, but the proceeding point about classism is intricate and explains a lot. This isn’t classism in the sense of rich and poor, but of the valued and the undervalued; it isn’t reality, but perception that makes a star ring “potential” for producers. Unfortunately, perception was masked by dollar signs, even during a time when people purchased music (they had no choice) and there was a direct, more easily regulated form of profit. Most backups stayed and some still stay a few feet behind some better-managed star, at least in the big leagues.

Whomever the singers backed-up -Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen- they all tried to use those connections to break away and find their own spotlight. Consider it a paid apprenticeship, only that isn’t how it’s ever worked.Whoever can be marketed will succeed, as Sting explains in a short clip: it’s talent, but more about luck and who’s backing you and “the best people understand that and deal with it.” Ah, yes. In all industries, the ones who hit the ceiling have to deal with it. And they don’t all get to sit before a talented director’s camera to do it. Gladly, Morgan Neville opened the topic for a wider audience, with the grace of gorgeous lighting, smooth transitions, dare I say perfect sound editing, and a gentle way of telling a story of the struggle to reach stardom.

The makings of a film people will watch: NEW YORK CITY + Music + The Coen Brothers made it. Not necessarily in that order, and there are indeed many other factors that can score a profit, but to be realistic (which is what I’m going for, here), not many. Location (location, location), something joyous with a fan base like music or music, and the names. The holy names, yes. ”Inside Llewyn Davis” had all the dominant qualities an indie / Independent needs to be seen. Thumbs up, because that is a tricky climb. Onward to the content…

Llewyn is a song man who nearly just nearly “made it” in the 1960’s folk scene, until he didn’t. When we meet him, he’s couch hopping with a friend’s cat in his arms and his guitar over his shoulder. Freezing in the winter air in his corduroy jacket, he admits in attitude that he is significantly down on his luck. So stays the drawn face, which only softens when he’s around his friend’s girlfriend, who he happened to get pregnant, who treats him with a perfect Carey Mulligan-y dose of wistful, curious, cussing contempt. She reminds us that we’re not dealing with a man who will redeem himself. Ever. He’s a loser. And in case we forget it, because he’s the protagonist and he sings pretty, she repeats: YOU ARE A LOSER. I hate you. Got it. (Might I just mention here how much I love Mulligan’s sugary spice wherever it graces audiences. Very much.)

So, summary: the Coen Brothers made a movie about a groovy time in the most fascinating place, with a sweet soundtrack and an old school hipster-mirror wardrobe (when men had beards because they were that much closer to their ancestors, not because models had them), about…a total loser guy who not even a sweet cat wants to stick around with, who ends up getting punched to the ground in an alley on his own turf in the back alley of the hotspot of the folk movement…for drunk-heckling a middle-aged mama type. It grossed over $31 million. Are you impressed? I can’t believe it if you said no, so I’ll ignore you. 

For the yes people, I assume you saw the film. Did anybody like Llewyn? Because I think that the point went beyond liking him. He was relentlessly acidic in temperament- a downer. 
Anyway, beyond to where? To what’s increasingly, boldly becoming the purpose of risky films with All Star cast / productions: damage. Not just drama, but the damage of massive consumer impulse relay technology and its imminent mismanagement. A helpless downfall of the have-nones.

Llewyn owns nothing, really. He nearly joins the armed forces when he’s a foot in the grave of the rock bottom (don’t worry, he didn’t succeed in rejoining, either). Anyway, he’s the main guy in this movie, but he only really serves to highlight the fact that bigger forces of consumerism control his fate, not his talent, but his marketability. Can he be packaged? If not, then nothing else matters. This damage is the wear of continuous, long term rejection by seemingly skill-less and colorless forces. And the artists, they don’t understand. The free spirited people get damaged. What they are is not easily adaptive. They see colors even when they are living in the darkest shades of gray, but not being able to show their colors, feeling unworthy, that leads to damages. That’s where our drama lies these days. That’s why Llewyn is one of the most important losers of 2013: he really hits the bottom on all fours, and he never breaks, he merely demonstrates the fear of the era, a mirror. 

'Concussion': She said “I have to do something.”

Abby Ableman reads and vacuums at the same time, fixes up hole-in-the-wall apartments in Manhattan, and spends inordinate amounts of time in cycling classes, amidst the aimless, though healthy-minded chatter of other soccer moms. Most importantly, Abby violently, helplessly curses at her son when he hits her in the head with a baseball, causing her first concussion- a bloody mess, which starts off a spiraling breakdown of her marriage and family life, her energy punch-redirected into fulfilling her suppressed appetite for sensual exploration. The extent of her passion, pre-prostitution, can be summed up in the following piece of dialogue, exchanged after the ball incident, when Abby’s hair and face are streaked with congealed blood:

Divorce lawyer wife Kate to stay-at-home-cycling-mom Abby: “Don’t you think you were a bit hard on the kids?”

Abby to Kate: “I’m going to start working again. I mean it.”

It’s worth asking what is work to the one who chooses what they will do every day, without a care for the price their hours are worth? Choices, choices. Abby has them. She chooses to have sex with women who pay her, as she remodels a fixer-upper property…between the mom stuff and the married friends dinner dates, the spinning classes and advanced yoga, she re-values her time, when we meet her from this refreshed perspective.

Between our vision of Abby vacuuming, cycling, bleeding, sweating, and bored, the affairs, which come on carefully, almost innocently, and somewhat in the way psychologists meet new patients, seem interesting at best- a hobby, temporary…for health. When things start getting darker, when relationships begin to scratch at the surface of her protective layer, it becomes clear that Abby has chosen to lie, through infidelity, to find herself: to gauge the extent of get innate passion, even at the cost of the life she’s built and the children she’s made. Once Kate finds her out, she flounders. Late to one too many after school pick-ups and fiery against the dullness of Kate’s complacence, Abby shines through the holes, brilliant in all she’s experienced, but the image of pain to her spouse.

Should she have talked it out with her before taking amorous appointments? What a logical thought, the thought of someone who can’t or won’t imagine being stuck between the beige walls of cohabitation. Communication itself can get boring. Does talking bring on a fit of passion? Does couple’s therapy lead to endearment? Or is it so that only a spark will lead to flames, and it can’t be found on solemn grounds? All that’s judgmental
aside, Abby’s dramatic fall makes for an insightful, chilly look into independent drama’s favorite topic: the mundane + the family + the sin = the flame, a moral Phoenix rising quietly. ‘Concussion’ is one of the best films of 2013 because it trampled the lead without pinning her, explored her circumstances unflinchingly without a judge to follow.