Sunday, January 01, 2006

MUNICH AS A MOVIE. I’m not much on late Spielberg. Schindler’s List, for example, struck me as three good movies – one about Oskar Schindler, one about Amon Goeth, one about the Nazi persecution of the Jews – smashed together to make the super-duper holocaust spectacular I suppose Spielberg wanted to make.

These movies aren’t bad. Spielberg is very good with his tools and, as well-developed craft seldom comes without passion, he can orchestrate the hell out of scenes and sometimes (as in the Goeth thread) grasp beyond what I imagined to be his reach. But by and large I just don’t think he’s a very deep thinker. Sam Fuller wasn’t a deep thinker, either, but The Big Red One is a whole lot more grown-up than Saving Private Ryan. Fuller had been in the shit, of course, but Robert Aldrich never served, and he made the magnificent Attack!.

So I think this is more a question of artistic temperment, and maybe personal temperment, than biography. Spielberg has a gift for seeing the world through a child's eyes, but when it comes time to process the information, I’m not sure how much more developed than a child he is.

Munich isn’t bad, either. It’s very watchable, especially considering the pains taken to de-glamorize the violence. The acting is first-rate -- I expect people will stop ribbing Eric Bana for The Hulk now. But again I don’t think Spielberg was up to the material.

For Munich, Spielberg seems to have picked up some vibrations from the dark sensibilities of Seventies films. This may seem odd for a director who got famous making "movie-movies" full of references to much earlier pictures, but Spielberg’s a movie buff first and last, and can’t help but absorb the spirit of whatever milieu he’s working in. As I watched it I kept thinking of The Kremlin Letter, The Quiller Memorandum, and Sorcerer. The visuals are bleak, the downturns in fortune inevitable, the mission increasingly absurd. Avner, our counter-terrorist hero, starts as a cipher and becomes luminescent as he accumulates despair.

So far as it goes, this is a creditable approach that might have served, say, Alan Clarke or Costa-Gavras well. Try, though, to imagine Spielberg sticking to a format like this. He just can’t do it, and has to reach out of the moral morass for his nearest equivalent to redemption, the Big Movie Moment that is his stock in trade: the Moment of recognition between Avner and his Arab counterpart (across a bloody street battle), the Moment of personal crisis (cribbed rather tastelessly from The Conversation), several Moments of Mom involving the women in Avner’s life -- his mother, his wife, and Golda Meir -- and the biggest Moment (and biggest mistake), of Thanatopsis, when Avner recalls the climax of the Munich massacre during a physical act of love. (Not the mention the Moment with the radio, which would have made a nice Coca-Cola commercial.)

It says something that the most genuinely eloquent, unforced, and moving moment in the movie is Avner’s reaction to his infant daughter back in Brooklyn saying "Dada" on the phone. Home is where the heart of Munich is. The screenwriters have loaded the story with references to home, and made it the McGuffin for the widening gyre of violence. Maybe this is what attracted Spielberg to the project: E.T. wanted to go home, and so does everyone else, including people who haven’t got one. I suppose Spielberg thought pointing this out would suggest a common ground on which these feuds could be settled, and sharpen the sense of waste and futility of the struggle.

But "home" really is one thing coming from a muppet in a kiddie picture, and another coming from adult commandoes on a blood-hunt. This is not a political but a dramatic observation. In the context of what actually happens in Munich, the endless talk among the counter-terrorists and their contacts of home -- and of morality, ethics, and nearly everything else more exalted than munitions and procedure -- is revealed to be absurd, and the sentimental gestures that inflate the movie are all a con. The team’s Mossad handler is very clear-eyed (not to say correct) about the whole business -- when Avner confronts him about the reciprocal nature of violence, he shrugs, "Why should I cut my nails? They’re only going to grow back again." Did none of the other team members ever consider this point of view, either to adopt or reject, before joining the mission?

Clearly Spielberg doesn’t see it that way; even as characters become disillusioned, worn-out, and dead, the high-minded talk goes on, and there is no sign even by the end that we are meant to find the ceaseless killing as anything other than the result of a tragic misunderstanding among moral, reasonable people who happen to be blowing each other up.

Spielberg took over A.I. as a project from Stanley Kubrick, a man whom Spielberg eulogized, ridiculously, at the Oscars for his "message of hope." Only a cockeyed optimist could see the director of Paths of Glory, The Shining, and Barry Lyndon that way. For a while, Spielberg’s A.I. is creepy and riveting: Pinocchio turned into a nightmare. But he has to reward the Little Silicon Boy’s quest for home, resulting in a science fiction climax of dizzying insanity: time and technology create a DNA-enhanced Mom who will love him. For all the deep feeling that may have produced this, this strikes me as an appalling evasion of life as it is actually lived by human beings, which art was created to encounter as a means to understanding. I wonder if a director’s cut of Munich exists in which aliens solve the middle-East crisis.

MUNICH AS A STRAWMAN. In Munich there is, as I have said, much discussion of morality, Jewish and existential. Everyone has his reasons, and explains them at length. One might wonder, then, why so many yahoos have been attacking the film as pro-terrorist even without actually having seen it.

This pre-emptive attack on the double-plus-ungood is not limited to Free Republic types, though they are its most humorous practitioners. Michelle Goldberg has covered the "neoconservative War on Munich" well at Salon. When word got around that the film was not going to be Starship Troopers with Arabs in place of bugs, these people apparently saw a public-relations threat, and used their pulpits to denounce the film as a matter of politics. This must be a popular duty. If they can depress attendance of a Steven Spielberg film -- well, someone's getting a promotion!

Most of the operatives doing this dirty work have no natural interest in the lively arts, but have a lively interest in propaganda. Correspondents to NRO’s Corner have posted criticism of other people’s endorsements of the film, which said correspondents, of course, had not themselves seen. Warren Bell, who may have seen it (it’s hard to tell), complains:
Ultimately, Spielberg admits he made a movie that asks more questions than it provides answers. My argument is that the questions aren't that hard, and Steven Spielberg is in a unique position as America's most popular modern filmmaker to take a real stand on the side of right and the side of justice. That he didn't is an act of moral and artistic cowardice.
Bell seems to think that artists have a moral (and artistic!) duty to promote conservative talking points; if a director makes a film that "asks more questions than it provides answers," he is a coward. This idea is more Soviet than American.

A new low, though, has been reached at OpinionJournal:
Maybe it has something to do with Mr. Spielberg's curious use of "Jewish" tropes. Again and again in "Munich," the Israelis are seen counting the cost of each kill, down to the last dollar: $352,000 for an assassination in Rome; $200,000 for a bombing in Paris. "Killing Palestinians isn't exactly cheap," remarks one of the members of the Israeli team. A Frenchman in the business of retailing the whereabouts of wanted men praises Israeli squad leader Avner Kauffman (Eric Bana) because he pays "better than anyone." A Mossad officer warns Kauffman not to overspend his budget. "I want receipts," he says.
Yes, you read that right: Brett Stephens suggests that Spielberg and his Jewish co-scenarists are promoting anti-Semitic caricatures.

In the actual film, the quibble over receipts is a humorous, bureaucratic in-joke, a humanizing device. (Some of the squad are shown enjoying wine with meals; I wonder why Stephens didn’t accuse Munich of portraying Jews as drunkards.) Money is not a "’Jewish’ trope, but a terrorist trope: Avner overpays the Frenchman to buy his future acquiescence. And the "isn’t exactly cheap" line is a mordant rejoinder to a Golda Meir quote, "I want to show them that killing Jews is expensive."

Stephens’ elision is baldly slanderous. But why should he care? He had his mission, and he fulfilled it. Being a dark, downer movie, Munich will not be seen by many, while the operators of the Mighty Wurlitzer will spread the word that Spielberg hates Jews and Americans and the proof, trust them, is in a movie you haven’t seen. There’s more than one kind of assassin.

UPDATE. At The Corner, Tim Graham mocks a gathering of prominent critics. "They started with 'Munich,'" he says, "bashing conservative critics who haven't seen it."

2005's hottest trend was reviewing films you haven't seen. This year, I predict, the know-nothings will press even further, vigorously defending the argumentum ad ignorantiam against those arty-farties who actually see the movies they talk about. ("They even discussed obscure movies they liked," marvels Graham. By "obscure" I guess he means films on which he can have no opinion, as the Central Committee has failed to classify them.)

Zhdanov, your children are here.

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