Monday, May 01, 2006

Enjoy the hijacking.

Like the country as a whole, I have been generally avoiding movie theatres for the past two years. No one knows what has driven audiences away, but some think commercials and advertising are to blame. Whether or not these ads have caused the industry slump, they certainly seem inappropriate before United 93. But what doesn't seem inappropriate at a showing of United 93? A group walks into the theatre, everyone carrying soda and food. One of them has all three available junk food options: soda, popcorn, and, in case he runs out of popcorn, a carton of candy. Is it acceptable to use the hijacking of flight 93 as a visual aid for your munching and slurping? But, then again, are we supposed to treat this like church just because a big, Hollywood action filmmaker decided to make his next movie about September 11th?

As the groups walk up through the theatre's stadium seating, Coca Cola and Skittles in hand, I see a Coke ad come on the screen. I guess they've decided, then, that it's not disrespectful to drink soda while you watch this particular movie. Go get your drinks. Then there are the previews. I had been told that there wouldn't be any for this movie, given the subjectmatter. Not the case at this theatre. There's Jennifer Aniston, breaking up with Vince Vaughn. Boy, she's devastated. Must be hard, breaking up with Vince Vaughn. Everything leading up to the movie serves as a little reminder of all the things you thought would never matter again when September 11th happened.

An image of a cell phone takes over, and a booming, yet pleasantly feminine voice tells us to silence our cell phones...and, "Enjoy the show." I think that would be quite wrong! Finally, the actual movie. Now we can remember what we're here for.

9/11 happened so recently that the film project became consumed with appropriateness. Everyone is portrayed as a hero of some kind. No one is a coward. Those who don't participate directly in attacking the hijackers are on the phone with their families or passing out objects to use as weapons. I find it very hard to believe that no one in a randomly selected group of flight passengers would behave in a cowardly way under those circumstances. But this only happened five years ago, so production relied on the support of all the families of those on the plane. In the opening of Saving Private Ryan, one of the best moments shows a soldier lying on the beach and crying for his mother. The timing of this movie means that a normal variety in the kinds of human reactions you would see in a life-threatening situation are never shown.

This movie has been widely praised for its gritty realism--in particular, its "documentary feel." Anyone who claims this movie has a documentary style has obviously not seen a documentary in a very long time. Over time, people have started to use that term when they really mean "shaky camera." If this were documentary footage somehow shot on flight 93, it would look completely different. In all likelihood, it would have been shot with one camera, maybe two. For it to be in real time, which this movie tries to be, it would either have to be all one shot or seem like an alternation between a very small number of cameras. In United 93 the movie, there is rapid cutting, cutting back-and-forth between all parts of the plane. The viewer, in fact, has no sense of where in the plane he or she "is." The uprising itself is cut quickly and with conflicting camera angles that give a sense of chaos over any objective view of what is going on. You are shown flashes of bodies moving, given in too fragmented a way for the viewer to piece together a picture of the whole. This is the opposite of what a documentary looks like. United 93 is shot like an action movie, not a documentary. It has a near-constant score, as well. In a documentary, this kind of Hollywood thriller music might seem pretty unusual. Yes, there are some shaky images and grainy film stock, but these are both typical of Hollywood action movies today.

Does the fact that United 93 was shot and edited like an action movie make it exploitation? Not necessarily, because those stylistic elements are only associated with the action genre because they happen to be used by action filmmakers. There's nothing about quick cutting that makes it intrinsically about entertainment; in this case, it was done in an effort to capture the psychology of those on board. The effect on the viewer, despite the defensibility of the filmmaker's intentions, is that one feels as though one is watching an action movie.

What we are left with is a film by a director whose experience is in the action genre, with the conventions of that genre used, probably by default, as his way of conveying chaos. The movie tries to please everyone who might be offended with a sugar-coated view of human nature. In the process, it adds little, other than an action movie aesthetic, to the scenario as we have all imagined it since the day it happened.

8 Comments:

Blogger al said...

I truly hope no one reads your post before seeing the movie as it may ruin the viewing of an excellent film. You seem more concerned with the presentation rather than the content and appear to have overlooked certain items.

There was at least one passenger advocating a passive approach to dealing with the terrorists and acting 'cowardly'. There may have been others but I wasn't taking notes.

As for a 'documentary feel' I'd say that gritty and realistic fits better. It was frantic - just as anyone would expect.

Just curious - did you look up Paul Greengrass on IMDB? Three films prior to United 93. One comedy, one drama, and one action movie. Hardly what one would expect from a "director whose experience is in the action genre".

7:38 AM  
Blogger amba said...

Hey Christopher,

Is it acceptable to use the hijacking of flight 93 as a visual aid for your munching and slurping? But, then again, are we supposed to treat this like church just because a big, Hollywood action filmmaker decided to make his next movie about September 11th?

I went with a Pentecostal friend to see "The Passion of the Christ" in a movie theater rented by her church -- a church of humbly grateful born-again souls, many of them saved from drug addiction, histories of sexual abuse and all kinds of terrible suffering. To them, this movie was a religious experience, and the theater was an extension of church.

With no apparent sense of contradiction, THEY BOUGHT POPCORN AND SODAS TO EAT WHILE THEY WATCHED THE CRUCIFIXION.

I didn't have a blog yet at the time, but my post would have been titled "Popcorn Communion."

10:07 AM  
Blogger Christopher Althouse said...

al: So, his experience isn't purely in the action genre; I guess I was making a statement based on his most well-known movie.

amba: Yeah, I'm really surprised more people don't find that offensive!

12:08 PM  
Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...

Saying that United 93 wasn't shot like a traditional documentary isn't incompatible with saying it has a "documentary feel," unless you're really in the mood to get into a semantic debate.

As someone who's rabidly anti-semantic, I would just say that while you're correct when you say that "if this were documentary footage somehow shot on flight 93, it would look completely different," it's really splitting hairs to say that this means it can't have a doucmentary feel to it.

United 93 is not a documentary, nor is Greengrass claiming it is. But by choosing to shoot his interiors with mostly handheld cameras, by not placing the camera in the perfect position at every moment, by using overlapping dialogue, by having the camera follow actors around as they walked from room to room, etc., Greengrass does imbue his film with a "you are there," "this is really happening" documentary feel.

Perhaps we can agree that it would be better to say that Greengrass gives the film a newsfootage feel. You say that:

"The viewer, in fact, has no sense of where in the plane he or she "is." The uprising itself is cut quickly and with conflicting camera angles that give a sense of chaos over any objective view of what is going on. You are shown flashes of bodies moving, given in too fragmented a way for the viewer to piece together a picture of the whole. This is the opposite of what a documentary looks like."

Maybe, if you're talking about the type of doc that Michael Moore makes, in which every shot is planned, every event coordinated. But have you forgotten the incredible footage shot on 9/11 by people at or near the WTC? Whether it was shot by professional cameramen or amateur videographers, most of that footage is "fragmented," and if you used it all in the same documentary, you'd end up with "conflicting camera angles that give a sense of chaos over any objective view of what it going on."

The fact that you came away feeling as though you had seen an action movie is more a comment on how good action movies have become at expressing the chaos of conflict, and, as with many things in Hollywood, Steven Spielberg is probably the one to credit, or blame, for this. It was Saving Private Ryan's opening and closing battle sequences that paved the way for much of today's action movie directing, shooting, and editing styles.

We apparently also disagree about the impact of the film, which I felt to be quite strong. But that's a more subjective, er, subject. (I'm still trying to figure out how the worst film of 2005 won the best picture Oscar.)

Anyway, good luck with the blog. You've clearly inherited some writing skills from your mom. And it's nice to have another Nick Cave fan blogging away.

Best,
The Cranky Insomniac

6:29 PM  
Blogger Christopher Althouse said...

I think people who find my issue with misuse of the "documentary style" term semantic would probably find the majority of academic film studies quite semantic. If you claim something is in the style of a certain genre, that has to engage in some, concrete way with the actual elements of that genre. Otherwise, you're just discussing the vague associations that you have with the genre, regardless of whether or not its an accurate portrayal. If you're interested in a real understanding of film history, you should care about describing film style in an accurate way. Most people, even those who are fairly serious about film, are not very good at doing this. That doesn't make it semantic or arbitrary, it just means that it takes some real analysis to make those comparisons. Documentary, actually, requires a lot less knowledge of film history than other comparisons you could make; it's really a matter of common sense.

the cranky insomniac: The point you raised that people could chop together fragmented documentary footage from 9/11 in a way that seemed chaotic is interesting, but I still think this would create an effect unlike what you see in United 93 (and other action movies). United 93 is set in a very confined space, and it would be physically impossible to get all the different camera angles that you see in the movie, with the action that is taking place and the rate at which those angles change. This means that the sequence is INHERENTLY UNREALISTIC. I hate to be so snooty as to bring up Andre Bazin, who was primarily concerned with capturing reality on film, but I kept thinking to myself, watching this movie, that Bazin would have said it did not have the effect of realism at all because it was the creation of careful shot setups, and the ending sequence was the product of editing. This creates an effect of chaotic cutting within a confined space that is specific to action movies; it shows a spatially limited event, happening all at once, and obscures what is going on through editing. Rapidly putting together documentary images from 9/11 in a confusing way would be interesting and might also create a sense of chaos, but in a very different way, outside of a spatially confined event.

9:39 PM  
Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...

Christopher,

I said that it is not wrong to say that United 93 has a "documentary feel." You changed this to "documentary style," which, as long as we're being semantic, is quite different. A documentary "feel" can be achieved through the non-documentary techniques you talk about, whereas documentary "style" implies the exclusive use of documentary techniques.

You seem to limit the term "realism" to "could the camera(s) really have been in that (those) exact place(s)." I would argue that this is an extremely narrow definition of realism. In fact, using this logic, any post editing done to a documentary makes it "unrealistic," since those cuts did not really happen. I think that realism is a lot more than this, and can apply to a visceral sense imparted to the audience regardless of the techniques used to achieve it.

I would also argue that obscuring the precise nature of events is not compatible with capturing a sense of realism. There have been interesting studies done that show that in criminal cases, direct eyewitness testimony is often highly unreliable. This is because in a stressful situation, chaos can be magnified, making people swear they saw things they couldn't possibly have seen, and swear they didn't see things that happened right in front of them. Duplicating this sense of realistic chaos through the use of quick cuts and shaky camera work is a fairly recent innovation in action filmmaking (and one that has become terribly overused), and while it may not be realistic in the "this is exactly how it happened" sense, it can be realistic in the "this is what it felt like to be there" sense, Bazin notwithstanding.

11:34 PM  
Blogger The Cranky Insomniac said...

Correction to my last comment: In the first sentence of the last paragraph, "compatible" should be "incompatible."

5:28 PM  
Blogger Maxine Weiss said...

You know, that's so true: what are the chances that every single person...in a crisis, does the exact right thing they are supposed to?

People don't fall in line during ordinary non-crises...

...so automatically, during the worst possible circumstances......everybody becomes a Saint?

It would be nice to think so...but my instincts tell me that bad times, bring out the worst....in at least a few people.

There had to be at least one coward in the bunch.

Peace, Maxine

7:48 PM  

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