I’ve now seen Zero Dark Thirty three times and not only has it grown in power and resonance with each viewing, I have also become increasingly incensed by the ridiculous controversy surrounding the movie’s depiction of torture (which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, its detractors claim it endorses). Actor David Clennon (thirtysomething), a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recently announced he would not be voting for it in any category at the upcoming Oscars because the film “never acknowledges that torture is immoral and criminal.” Martin Sheen and Ed Asner, among others, have also publicly joined Clennon in this boycott. Well, I suppose they’re right about Zero Dark Thirty to the extent that it features no lines of dialogue in which a character acknowledges the immorality or criminality of the torture being practiced. But, I would argue that Bigelow, being a true visual artist, also understands the crucial importance of showing instead of telling. How do I know ZDT isn’t pro-torture? First, let’s acknowledge that Reda Kateb, the great Arabic actor who plays Ammar, the man being tortured, lends the character dignity (which is more than the actors playing the one-dimensional baddies in the non-controversial Argo are allowed to do), and this is equally true of Homayoun Ershadi (the lead in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry) who plays another detainee. More importantly, even if the movie showed that “torture worked,” which it doesn’t, even if Ammar had blurted out bin Laden’s address while being waterboarded, ZDT would still not be pro-torture because the overall tone of the torture scene is pathetic. Kathryn Bigelow has said that she wishes torture was “not part of that history” and her attitude is reflected in many subtle decisions she makes in terms of composition and editing: in the torture scene, notice the reaction shots of Jessica Chastain’s Maya recoiling in disgust, or the way a tear involuntarily falls down Ammar’s face as soon as he starts drinking from a juice bottle, or the quick close-up of Ammar clutching the bottle tight against his chest as if he’s afraid that Dan, his CIA “interrogator,” is going to take it away from him. If anything, viewers are asked to identify with Ammar over the unlikable Dan, whom Ammar calls “an animal” and whom the filmmakers have pointedly tricked out with frat-boy mannerisms (he calls people “bro” and references kung-fu movies and Bob Marley). There’s an irony, I suppose, in the way Clennon and his ilk imply they could’ve conceivably enjoyed the very same movie if only the filmmakers had bothered to have a CIA character say something as simple as “This torture business is terrible. We were wrong to do it!” Fortunately for the rest of us, Bigelow doesn’t believe in making movies for the dumbest members of her audience.
Speaking of torture, the execrable phrase “torture porn,” which has entered the unofficial critical lexicon to describe a relatively recent subgenre of the horror film, did run through my mind while watching Michael Haneke’s Amour. This movie’s primary reason for being is apparently to make the audience suffer as much as possible by not only showing the inexorable physical and mental decay of a stroke-addled old woman but stretching it out for a near-pornographic eternity. In a way, it’s a shame I can’t recommend it; the lead actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) aren’t just great performers, they’re iconic symbols of a heroic era in French film history. I mean, a love story about an octogenarian married couple where the man is played by the lead from My Night at Maud’s and the woman is played by the lead from Hiroshima Mon Amour? Who could screw that up? Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, that’s who. The only Haneke films I had previously seen were the original version of Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, both of which turned me off because of what I perceived as their hypocritical mixture of titillation and moralizing. Amour has been regarded in some quarters as a more “mature” version of Haneke but it seems to me he’s really only substituted euthanasia here for the violence in Funny Games and the sex in The Piano Teacher. This wouldn’t be so offensive if Haneke were more upfront about what he was doing. But never in cinema’s history has a filmmaker tried so hard to hit the viewer with a sledgehammer while simultaneously trying so hard to pretend that’s not what he was doing. Haneke is like a more dishonest version of Lars Von Trier (who at least acknowledges his role in rubbing your face in unpleasantness) in that he’s much more careful about stacking the deck when it comes to punishing the audience – notice how Trintignant’s Georges isn’t just a good husband, faithfully devoted to his wife, but impossibly good, flawless, and practically saintlike? Contrast this with the way a truly great director like Leo McCarey presents a more complex, human and heartbreaking dynamic in his similarly-themed masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow by having his elderly protagonists occasionally behave in ways that are kind of annoying. Pauline Kael once derisively used the phrase “a clean pornographer” to describe Stanley Kubrick but that’s a description that I think better suits the morally and intellectually bankrupt Haneke, a master of exploitation who always hides his visions of human nastiness beneath the alluring veneer of high culture. I hated, hated, hated Amour.
Amour Rating: 4.9
(While I can’t endorse Amour, I can highly recommend this parody twitter account for Haneke. This is the funniest thing on the internet: https://twitter.com/Michael_Haneke)