Monday, August 13, 2007

Grim All Over

Watched a rather odd double feature over the weekend: Hal Hartley's "Fay Grim" and Steven Okazaki's "White Light Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki". It was a random pairing, as I came across Okazaki's film on HBO while channel-surfing, and the wife brought home Hartley's sequel to "Henry Fool" from the library. Although these offerings are very different, I did notice a connection of sorts --

Fay Grim: A fictional concept of how the world really works.

White Light Black Rain: How the world really works.

Hartley's film was the more baffling one, especially since, until quite recently, I didn't even know it existed. I was introduced to Hartley's work through a lefty cinephile I dated in the late-80s/early 90s, the robust dawn of "indie" features and the metro-hipsters who appreciated them. In this rarefied atmosphere, I met critics like J. Hoberman and Manohla Dargis, both of whom seemed to be at every premiere, no matter how tiny or fringe. And then there was Hartley and his crowd, in my direct experience the actors Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly, among several others. I didn't know enough about Hartley's work at the time to be wowed or overly-impressed; and Hartley himself was fairly distant, observing his surroundings rather than engaging those in front of him.

Then I saw "Trust" and "Simple Men", and instantly connected to Hartley's vision. Like Hartley in person, his films were distant, reserved, analytical. Passion, to the degree it was present, was muted, almost kabuki-ish when displayed. Hartley's screened reality is antiseptic, filled with detached wordplay and some genuinely clever observations and one-liners. Normally, not my cup of Flavor Aid. But, back then, it spoke to me; and when "Henry Fool" was released, I thought, and still think, that Hartley finally put it all together in a single package. "Henry Fool" is as close as Hartley will let you come. Plus, any plotline that features a garbage man who writes mind-bending poetry has me hooked from the git-go.

Was there a sequel anywhere in "Henry Fool"? I suppose one can extend anything, but I didn't see it. Yet, nearly a decade later, Hartley brings back the old gang to comment on, of all things, our post-9/11 world. Why he thought these characters were the best vehicles to make his cultural/political points about this savage age, I've no clue. "Fay Grim" does begin with some promise, humorously updating the lives of those touched by Henry Fool. But as the film slogs on, and it does begin to slog early on, you are left wondering how a Queens-based, former party girl like Fay adapts so readily to global espionage and the specter of jihad. It's so absurd that I thought the whole thing was a sadistic joke thrown at Hartely's fans. But I don't think Hartley sees "Fay Grim" as a joke. It's too self-involved to laugh at others, much less at itself. This is Hartley's statement about Us and Them, complete with a scene where Henry argues with an Osama bin-Laden figure hiding in Turkey. Again, this scenario seemed ridiculous. How the hell did a drunken, self-destructive no-talent like Henry end up not only sharing a space with bin-Laden, but berating him in front of his minions without suffering any punishment? Is Henry Fool that magnetic and insightful a man? We are led to believe so, for even Fay, after all the bullshit she suffers via Henry, still loves him, wants to be with him, and is denied her wish at the end.

Jeff Goldblum's turn as a nihilistic CIA operative has its moments. But I preferred the Israeli agent, a beautiful woman (played by Saffron Burrows) who justifies her violent actions as a defense of civilization. There are elements of American life she enjoys, even admires; but at bottom, as she informs Fay, Americans are too soft to deal with what the Israelis view as threatening. For her, it's all or nothing. Masada in a mini-skirt.

The wife, who had her own personal (non-romantic) moment with Hartley, and who knew and had worked with some of his stable, sat with me for the last half-hour of "Fay Grim". And oh, how she laughed! When the thing mercifully ended, I threw up my hands and yelled, "What the fuck was that?!" The wife kept laughing, only this time at me. When it comes to films, shows, or music she deems as awful, but that I might like or appreciate, the old lady does not show mercy, and really lets me have it. Even when I agree that I've wasted my time with something, she drives the point further home and does not let me forget it. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Afterward, I was curious to see what some of the bigger critics thought of "Fay Grim". The New York Times' Stephen Holden did not like it, but for reasons I hadn't really considered. He ended his review thus:

"But 'Fay Grim' gets so carried away with the intricacies of its plot that it gets lost in its own excessive cleverness. In the decade since 'Henry Fool,' it implies, fear has driven the United States stark raving mad."

It does? Somehow, I missed that angle. It made me want to watch "Fay Grim" again -- well, almost. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane does a better job dissecting the film, and thanks to him, I can allow Fay, Henry, and the rest of the Fool crowd to fade from my mind.

There's no chance that "White Light Black Rain" will fade from my mind anytime soon. It is one of the most gut-wrenching films I've ever seen. The newly-released color footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors showing their graphic wounds against the backdrop of rubble and ash is hard to stomach, especially the children, who are crying from the pain. But what is perhaps more unsettling is how unemotional many of the present-day witnesses appear. The Japanese survivors tell stories about the blasts with no real embellishment, and this sharpens the horror they suffered and saw, for we have to engage our own imagination to fully grasp what being nuked is like. (In Nagasaki, the winds were 1000 mph, and the ground temperature was 9000 degrees. Think about that when you're having a rough day.) The Americans who helped to design the bombs, and who dropped them, seem to feel little guilt about their deeds, with the minor exception of one veteran, who appears to have done some serious thinking about his role in history. Yes, they were young men caught up in the war and the racist "Jap" propaganda of that time, so I'm sure incinerating a few hundred thousand buck-toothed animals didn't mean all that much back then. Remember Pearl Harbor, and all that. Plus, they were told that the bombings would end the war, which indeed was true. But these guys didn't come across as monsters, and I cannot believe that, at some point in time, they haven't seriously meditated on the mass murder they helped to unleash. Yet, how deep can one go without hitting some kind of emotional snare? Only those who were in on it can really say; and in "White Light Black Rain", they're not talking, not on that front, anyway.

There are those who, when faced with a film like this, dismiss any concept of Japanese suffering. What about the Rape of Nanking?! What about the inhuman treatment of Allied POWs?! Yeah, nuking civilians is rough, but hey, they had it coming. After all, they allowed their leaders to drag them into war. What did they expect after bombing Pearl Harbor? (Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" dramatizes what the average Japanese draftee actually endured and viewed the imperial higher-ups.)

You can read many of these and related sentiments at Salon, attached to an interview with Steven Okazaki. And I addressed this mentality in response to the late Steve Gilliard, who argued that nuking Japan was the right and just thing to do. Few pro-nukers are objective when it comes to collective punishment, for if they were, then we Americans would doubtless be atop the Must Nuke list. But that could never be, could it?

I confess that I couldn't finish watching "White Light Black Rain". I got about two-thirds in before being overwhelmed. It wasn't so much the gruesome imagery, melted faces, charred figures of young children, and worse, but that such savagery is very much a part of us. This reality is getting to me more and more, even though it's hardly news. I suspect that I'm becoming like those soft Americans that Hal Hartley's Israeli agent disdains. How about you?