Location, location, location!

I’ve been underwhelmed by three of the most recent films I’ve seen: Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained and Lincoln. Yet these are all films that have received rave reviews from the critics; for instance, Kathryn Bigelow’s latest received a Metacritic score of 95/100, Django Unchained has a Rotten Tomato score of 88 out of 100, and all three were Best Picture nominees at the recent Academy Awards.

Lincoln Obviously an argument can be had about the Oscars and whether they truly reflect what’s best about movies – an argument I’m not particularly interested in getting involved in. What I’m more interested in is this: do all these films depend on the particular culture that gave birth to them? More specifically, to what extent do they depend on an American audience?

As a non-American, it’s not that I’m disinterested in the films’ topics, but I don’t have any connection to them. Slavery, particularly as it was practised in the United States, and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden – neither of these have any particular, personal relevance to me. Going into the films, though, I felt that they required, perhaps even demanded such a personal connection to be at their most effective. For an audience that saw the 9/11 attacks as aimed at them – not at the Western world in general, but at them as Americans – it might be easier to identify with Zero Dark Thirty‘s heroine and her obsessive hunt for Bin Laden. For an audience that culturally still lives in the aftermath of slavery and its legacy, the sight of a black gunslinger exacting brutal revenge on the one side of the cinematic spectrum, on the other a tall, gangly president seeking to end not only a war but a racist, inhumane practice deeply entrenched in the national culture – I expect that these resonate in ways particular to that audience.

Zero Dark ThirtyExcept that resonance wasn’t there for me. Whereas 9/11 felt like a shared event even on this side of the Atlantic (with some caveats – the discussion on the terrorist attacks very quickly became critical of the United States in Europe), the hunt for Bin Laden didn’t. The most personal connection I have to slavery is remembering seeing Roots on TV, which barely counts. Yet there are films that manage to make essentially American topics more universal, where I don’t feel I have to have grown up in a specific culture to connect to them. Did these three films end up less effective, and less successful as movies, because they were aimed at a very specific audience?

It’d be interesting to hear some opinions on this issue. What were readers’ opinions of these three films? To what extent did you feel that they spoke to you – or failed to speak to you?

Note: While Argo could also be said to be about a particularly American topic, it didn’t feel like it to me. This doesn’t mean I agree with the Academy’s opinion on the film – I enjoyed Argo¬†but would call it a good film, not a great one – but in the end I enjoyed it more than either Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained or Lincoln. Then again, I haven’t fully enjoyed any of Spielberg’s movies in a very long time… but that may be material for another blog post.

… when she says nothing at all

Anyone who’s used the words “Leni Riefenstahl” unironically to describe Kathryn Bigelow and her latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, needs to get a handle on themselves and a sense of proportion (and if they ever saw even an episode of 24, chances are that their frontal lobes would explode into mush). Seriously, if Zero Dark Thirty is supposed to be pro-torture propaganda, it is extremely inept at furthering a pro-torture agenda – and being inept at her craft is about the last thing you could criticise Bigelow for.

No, the problem with Zero Dark Thirty isn’t that it espouses problematic opinions – it’s that the film hardly has any opinion at all. It effaces practically every trace of an ideological or political position from its story, becoming one big Rorschach test in the process. Depending on one’s own view of the issues – the war on terrorism, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, the use of torture – it’s easy to read any set of diametrically opposed intentions into the film. The same scenes can serve as evidence, with a bit of prodding and tweaking, that Bigelow approves of torture and that she sees it as a dehumanising evil, but without the outside input of the viewer’s opinions the movie does not forward any statement beyond “And then this happened.”

Zero Dark Thirty

I don’t particularly want to get into the quagmire of What Really Happened. I accept that this is a fictionalised version of the events, added to which I doubt there’s an unadulterated, unbiased, and most importantly unredacted version of what happened that Bigelow – or anyone, really – had access to. My issue with the film isn’t its political position but its blankness, which makes it difficult to engage with the film. I like cinema to be ambiguous, I enjoy making up my own mind and thinking for myself, so it’s not that I wanted Zero Dark Thirty to tell me how to feel about what was happening – but the film, its events and its characters are such blank slates that there isn’t even much there to engage with. There is a distinction between even-handedness and utter neutrality, and Switzerland could learn one or two (or two-hundred) things from Bigelow’s latest.

As a result, I found myself thinking and feeling relatively little about what was happening on the screen, beyond “Yeah, this – or something like it – did probably happen at some point.” Shouldn’t the events on screen carry some dramatic weight? The main adjective describing Zero Dark Thirty for me is this: professional. The film is well directed, shot, acted, edited; there is little to fault (except one clumsily manipulative scene that makes the characters involved look stupid) except its blankness. If anything, perhaps its very basic plotting can be criticised – a mere string of events reminiscent of a schoolchild’s essay on “What I did on my hols hunting for Bin Laden” – or its pedestrian characterisation, but both of these reflect what seems to be Bigelow’s intention, not to impose anything on the audience. But, Ms Bigelow, imposing on the audience and giving them something, anything, to work with, those are two very different things. Should I come away from a film on this topic feeling faintly impressed by the craft, faintly bored by the sheer length of the movie, but mostly just blank?