Saturday, September 4, 2010

Fog of war

A number of commentators on The Green Zone, directed by Paul Greengrass are still complaining about the immersive camera technique Greengrass favors. Come on, folks, you've had at least since 2002 when Bloody Sunday, Greengrass's brilliant film on the 1972 incident in which British troops fired on and killed unarmed protesters in Northern Ireland. If you haven't seen this superb film, rent or borrow it NOW! Put it in your queue now. Open up another tab on your browser and go to Netflix NOW! I'll wait.

OK, back again. Greengrass has an unusually coherent body of work in film which is bound together by unity of subject matter and style. In fact, the two may be indissolubly linked.

Greengrass makes movies about people who are seeking the truth. Not big, universal, philosophical truth; just trying to find out what happened. And today, with the welter of media outlets mostly controlled by a few outlets, governments managing information and news items categorized not by significance, but by "buzz," finding out what happened is about the most difficult think one can do. It's not comfortable, it's not simple, and the information doesn't arrive in a nice linear order or an elegant three-act structure.

In this context, Greengrass's camera style, being in the thick of it, not moving smoothly from master to medium to close, not framing things perfectly, with foreground obstructions and uneven lighting, makes perfect sense; the truth is got at incrementally, the bits one can piece together which the world conspires to obscure.

Incidentally, contrary to those contemporary films with over-edited fight and chase scenes in which the viewer cannot orient himself and therefore feels alienated from the action, in a Greengrass film I always now where I am, where the other characters are, where the danger is coming from. (A side benefit from a one-camera-on-the-shoulder approach is that it is rare to find a cut across the axis, because the director has not made those kinds of shots.)

Frankly, I am getting sick of the critics my age or older who say "It's cut too fast," or "The camera shakes" or "It's so meta- [or so subjective] that I can't identify what the objective reality is." Who guaranteed anyone that a film would present a view of objective reality, or that editing rules of classical Hollywood would go on forever and ever. How is that different from complaining, "That music today is just noise." Either retreat into the past or go away--life is change, and to stay alive, you are obligated to keep up with that process.

Anyway, back to Green Zone. Damon plays a military professional who gradually realizes that his stated mission is nonsensical and that it is based on either bad or deliberately false intelligence. This is evidently a source of political controversy. I admit room for debate as to the wisdom of the invasion of Iraq (but only because I want to err on the side of reasonableness), but is there a serious argument that planning and early execution of the invasion was amateurish, based on unfounded beliefs and wishes? This is not a matter of left or right--Damon's character's question is simply: "What is it I'm supposed to be doing? And if it's looking for imaginary things, that's an insult to my professionalism and a detriment to the safety of my men."

Thus Greengrass's camera style, which some find confusion and disorienting (I don't) is not a stylistic flourish but a statement of the central theme of the film, if not of the entire body of Greengrass's work: that truth is not-obvious, seldom if ever grasped in toto and ever-changing.

The counter-argument, that truth is always simple and obvious, is a natural point of view for those who are simple and obvious.

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