Monday, November 15, 2010

Sins of the fathers

Watching The White Ribbon (2009) feels like taking a bath in disinfectant. You are better off when you're finished, but it's pretty tough while you're going through it. The pleasures of the film are more ascetic than aesthetic.

One cannot deny the purely cinematic artistry of a film like this. Whereas I found his previous film, Cache a confused jumble of jabber about a number of conflicting ideas, The White Ribbon is purely visual, clear, specific and precise. It speaks through simple objects: a pen, a dead bird, a burning barn, mangled cabbages, and the white ribbons of the title. In the pre-Christian world, white ribbons offered protection from evil and harm; here, a father ties the white ribbon on his children to protect them from being harmed by the evil in their own minds.

The viewer most wonder if the use of black and white is a reflection of the community's Manichean view of the world, or of fallible memory, for the narrator confesses at the opening of the film: “I don’t know if the story I’m about to tell is entirely true.” (This has the added advantage of excusing Haneke if his interpretation of the German character is incorrect -- it's just that the schoolmaster remembered it that way. )

Moreover, black and white makes it easier to conceal the tripwire that brings down horse and man in the first sequence and starts the cascade of horrors visited on this village. The source of that evil remains as invisible as the tripwire itself, even though it is out in the open and plain to
see, if one has the will to do so.

Most of the discussion of this film has been about morality, sociology, psychology or history. This is merely a film blog, so let me reserve my opinion along these lines. What is striking about this film is that it is possible to make a good film without a scrap of beauty. There is no music but for some diagetic dance music at a harvest festival. There is not one blue sky, not one lovely tree, not a human face depicted with tenderness. All is cruel and cold and terrible. The implication is that cruelty like this is passed on unless one makes a conscious effort to break the chain. And the film simulates the cruelty by communicating the chill.

In an analogous fashion, the documentary Tell Them Who You Are (2005) gets invited into our cinematic parlor by purporting to be a portrait of cinematographer, documentarian and sometime director Haskell Wexler (photographer of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, In The Heat of the Night, American Graffiti and director of Medium Cool). But it quickly develops into a portrait of an overbearing, unfaithful, jealous and sometimes controlling father who, over the course of the film, learns to accept his son as an independent and worthy artist of his own.

On the way, the younger Wexler gets advice from a surrogate father, Conrad Hall, Paul Newman, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda (who both had toxic fathers) and Michael Douglas, who must have fought similar battles for artistic and personal identity with his father, Kirk Douglas. The challenge is to stop the cycle of attempting to control that which will follow us, always a feckless task.

If you come to Tell Them Who You Are merely as a film buff, you will be disappointed. The clips are few and limited, and the only good "making of" stories are about the films Wexler was fired from, usually for trying to control the direction (most notably One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest). That need for control, for recognition, for acknowledgment seems to make so many men into Willie Lomans who push their children away the harder they try and pull them in. (The answer to the film's title is: You are my son. The implication is: ...and nothing else.)

Tellingly, although father is famous as a shooter and father and son are both seen handling cameras throughout the film, it has to be acknowledged that Mark Wexler's triumph in Tell Them Who You Are is as a cutter. The cinematography is unremarkable -- why would it be in a videotape documentary, the writing and direction nonexistent. (A good deal of footage is taken up with Wexler pere attempting to tell fils how to stage a scene.) A documentary is directed in the cutting room, and Mark Wexler's success is testified to by his father's tears at seeing the finished product.

I'm not saying you'll be in tears, although if you have a judgmental parent you have struggled to get out from under, you might be. The White Ribbon shows how this parental poison may be left to fester and infect another generation; Tell Them Who You Are demonstrates how it may be purged.

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