Data Points


“There are two narratives,” Maya, the paranormally selfsure protagonist of the extraordinary Zero Dark Thirty, tells a group of Navy SEALs about to be tasked with the capture and execution of Usama bin Laden. They’ve gathered in Area 51 in Nevada, known as “The Box” to some, “Dreamland” to others, a place where government research secrets are locked away; all that’s left to us are speculations and projections, lurid fantasies, stories uncontained by the rational. The director, Kathryn Bigelow, knows something about that. Her early films were outlandish rips on disreputable genres: vampires slashing and gorging their way through desert nightscapes; SoCal actioners with rococo plot architecture and Zen For Beginners dialogue; gunned-up urban melos thrumming with psychic snaps, military line formations and sick dread. Bigelow’s story was that of sub-coherence and frenzies of tone married to one of the surest compositional senses around. She was a bombthrower, a slippery maker of strange art objects in easy-credit genre wrapping—in short, an American filmmaker, fully in the tradition. The Hurt Locker, Bigelow’s first collaboration with the screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal, was a thematic leap forward, a grunt-cynical meditation on the contradictions between altruism and nihilism, bravery and death wish. As potent as The Hurt Locker was, Zero Dark Thirty ups the ante in every possible way. The verité immediacy has been shorn of fashionable zoom and jitter, the accumulation of event underinflected to a nearly monomaniacal degree for a Hollywood product. The hairs on Boal’s and Bigelow’s necks must have stood up when they happened upon “Jen,” the CIA analyst credited with figuring out bin Laden’s whereabouts. Every story needs a hook, and this one’s irresistible: one woman clings to a strand of information for years, a single name, teasing and testing a theory, using her gifts of deduction and suasion to divert the course of an imperial bureaucracy to one sole aim.

Iconoclastic filmmakers test the limits of our identification with their characters; they poke at our sore spots and risk kneejerk dismissals (“unreal,” “unrelatable,” “unsympathetic.”) But Zero Dark Thirty is unusually severe in its demands on a viewer who may not be given to a charitable view of the Central Intelligence Agency. Jessica Chastain’s Maya is more than an audience surrogate; she’s a guide into, and an avatar of, Stygian depths. She first reveals herself to us by pulling off a hood during a break in an interrogation—call it what it is, an assault, a torture session—conducted by Dan, a senior operative and Ph.D who one imagines was eyed by the Agency early on, just as Maya is later revealed to have been recruited in high school. She’s shaken at first, but soon graduates to helpmate and shot-caller, filling pitchers with water that will soon fill lungs to bursting, giving a nod to a goon to beat down a detainee who is not sufficiently forthcoming. (“Fulsome in your replies,” to quote her arch, chilly phrase.) The torture scenes are prolonged, but not staged for prurient effect. There’s an element of sick theater to them that’s awful to witness, as they should be. Dan and Maya work from a script; his recriminations have a blustering tone with echoes of tough-guy movie dialogue, while Maya wears bad wigs and delivers the same lines with minimal affect, like a casting director reading sides during an audition. The “sessions” all end in the same place, though: blank, terrorized stares, the uncontrollable twitches of beaten muscles, a single tear streaming down a scourged cheek. Bigelow never makes the prisoners ciphers, and the actors, especially Reda Kateb as Ammar, are skilled and passionate. When Ammar calls Dan “a garbageman for the corporation,” it’s more than radical rhetoric. It gets to the heart of things quite succinctly.


But Ammar’s a garbageman as well, a cash conduit and stasher of munitions, as Dan is quick to point out. Both things are true, and Zero Dark Thirty is full of warring truths, motivations and veiled narratives. Maya comes off as no less fanatical than the detainees whose interrogation videos she watches and rewatches in near-pornographic detail. She’s an ultra, too, a technoradical with a head full of data points who is herself a data point in a vast organism created for vengeance, submission and order. We admire her pure chops, the tensile focal relentlessness and clear assessment of her new post as “pretty fucked up,” but can’t help scrutinizing her willingness to dive into the muck. Maya has a messianic streak that adrenalizes her long tear through the national security apparatus. She survives the bombing of the Islamabad Marriott and loses her closest friend and a host of colleagues in the infamous Camp Chapman attack and later tells a covert ground op (played by Edgar Ramirez—more of him, please) her conviction that she was “spared” so she could finish the job. And so she does, plowing through the cavils and dodges of her superiors, wheedling and threatening her way to get surveillance teams to track the man she’s certain leads to bin Laden, profanely turning the whole apparatus on its ear and eventually making her case to the highest councils of government and getting them to pull the trigger in much the same way she taps a thug to smack around a suspect.

Zero Dark Thirty’s implacable forward thrust matches Maya’s. Both staging and performance contain precise but numerous expressive gradations. Bigelow’s action sequences, in concert with the excellent cameraman Greig Fraser, are directed and formed instead of covered, and her small scale dialogue-driven scenes avoid monotony through minute variations of camera setups; the spatial good sense from shot-to-shot is a marvel. Your eye never wanders from what she wants you to see, but it’s also the least blunt film, imagewise, that she’s yet made. This lack of foregrounding extends to theme as well. I can’t recall a big, or biggish, budget suspense film so doggedly experiential, so resistant to telling you “what it’s about.” It begins with a sound montage of phone calls from those trapped in the dying World Trade Center, then drops two and one-half hours of pure incident in your lap and practically stares back at you as if to ask, “So – what do you think?” (It’s not coincidental that the punishing metalcore song blasting in Ammar’s abattoir is “Pavlov’s Dogs” by a band named Rorschach.) Bigelow and Boal assume that the audience brings some context and a personal view of a decade-long war and vexing elusiveness of Usama bin Laden into the theater with them and then lay out the methods that brought the latter to his end, leaving the individual to decide if those methods were justified. One can view the lack of signposting and the choice to tell the story wholly within the chosen framework as uncut NatSec hagiography and a validation of vengeance. I don’t see it. This picture’s genesis was as a story about the attempt to capture bin Laden in Tora Bora, a massive and unsuccessful undertaking and the primary reason for the institutional belief that bin Laden was dead, or at the very least not worthy of the risk of another high-profile failure. To make a big-ticket movie about failure takes a peculiar and contrarian mindset, one formed by a worldview that isn’t easily cast aside, the same sensibility as a film like The French Connection, with a similarly obsessive and compromised “hero” of a paramilitary apparatus who ends up chasing a ghost—becoming a ghost. Zero Dark Thirty is still a film about failure: a Melvillian fable of mania, violence and the cost of responding in kind.


Despite their preeminence and power to subsume our senses, film artists stand stubbornly outside the quotidian, insinuating their way into our heads for a brief time, then retreating. They make objects, data points in a cultural narrative that are in no way a substitute for the homework an attentive polis shouldn’t have left for another day. But the really strong stuff (and the potent garbage, too) refracts as well as reflects, their effects shooting off into the world every which way. Boal and Bigelow have been taken to task for giving Zero Dark Thirty a sheen of hard reportage while playing fast and loose with facts, especially the question of whether information about the al-Qaeda courier Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti was obtained in the torture rooms. Their only public comments as of this writing have been terse, boilerplate defenses of their reporting and a piece in the Los Angeles Times that is equal parts declaration of good faith and PR tourniquet. They stand by their work. The sense is they’ve been advised not to be more forthcoming about their methods because of a potential government investigation which would not be necessarily inappropriate; they were allowed close access to a taxpayer-funded agency and any information given them out of turn is certainly subject to scrutiny. Notable and accomplished chroniclers of the American government’s regime of “enhanced interrogation” (that decadent phrase, that parlance of moral defectives) haven’t found it sufficient to rightfully expose its practitioners as the sickest of criminals but also find it necessary to maintain as holy writ that these methods “never work” anyway, a stance which beggars belief as it undercuts a defense of the virtue of forswearing these acts. Mark Boal’s journalistic career was, by most accounts, an honorable one, but the prevailing insinuation is that he was gulled by sources and cut corners. There’s nothing wrong with casting a cold eye on his sourcing, but one might also note that his accusers buttress their arguments by citing investigations (whose findings remain largely classified) conducted by figures with no small culpability in these matters, officials who may themselves have much to hide. Zero Dark Thirty has a few moments of banal heroics, but they are outweighed by scenes both pointed and disquieting: the loaded image of Dan sharing soft-serve with caged monkeys only a few steps away from penned-up prisoners; operatives plotting strategy while TV footage of Barack Obama’s declaration that “America doesn’t torture” looms in the background; and finally the raid on bin Laden’s compound, shot by Bigelow with directness and severity—no martial stings, no heroic angles or worshipful framing—simply men flying through a mountain range where empires come a cropper to an appointment with cold murder to be carried out in pitch blackness.

Late in Zero Dark Thirty, a character in an assessment meeting says, “We all come at this through the filter of our own past experiences.” The experiences of many tell them that Bigelow and Boal are hard propagandists, modern Riefenstahls or, at best, irresponsible naifs. More than a few of their fellow artists hold this view. Last week brought word of a movement afoot in the Hollywood community, a clarion call to boycott this picture. Not calling for a ban, understand, just that you needn’t see it because it’s already been vetted by people with a more finely tuned moral sense than yourself, good citizens who are certainly more upstanding than Bigelow, this gun nut, this sensation peddler, this pretender to a seat at The Big Kids’ Table. One wonders if Martin Sheen suffers through bleak nights, his own zero dark thirties and later, wondering if the expensive hallucinations of Apocalypse Now are, finally, an insult to a decimated people and those tasked to cut them in half up close or rain fire from on high when “necessary.” Or if David Clennon regrets his participation in Star 80, wherein Bob Fosse, making an aesthetic choice informed by ethical, legal and storytelling imperatives, crosscut between Dorothy Stratten’s rape and murder, Hugh Hefner eyeing proofs of Playmate stills through a loupe, and a filmmaker who is Not Peter Bogdanovich editing footage of Stratten (all of which “happened,” though certainly not in that order) leaving the audience to ponder a connection between the Industrial Beautiful Girl Complex and one woman’s aspirations, exploitation and extinction. Perhaps they do. I would suggest that those who take this group’s advice are foregoing an opportunity to contend with a work of uncommon subtlety and integrity and no small measure of moral sense: a chance to bear witness from a far remove, to ponder the actions of men invading a house far from their own homes, in a country that’s not theirs, pumping rounds into already lifeless bodies, stealing a dead man’s Kalashnikov, taking cell snaps, counting coup, all under the removed but unblinking gaze of a person who never fires a weapon, never screams at a child, but watches, on a large screen, the acts she, and others far more powerful than herself, set in motion.



If It All Made Sense I Wouldn’t Be Interested: Considering ROAD TO NOWHERE

Commenting on Road To Nowhere, the first feature signed by Monte Hellman since the late Eighties, God help us, at a remove of many months from its North American unveiling, makes one feel like the singleton who shows up at the door well after the party’s over; its provincial box office tale has been told, the commentariat has had its say, and spotty distribution has made holding out hope to see it on anything bigger than an LCD a delusion.  But why should this film be different from his others?  Someone stumbling across The Shooting or Ride In The Whirlwind on a snowy VHF channel in 1966 and wondering at their severity and unsentimentality would have to wait five long years until Jack Nicholson was a star before seeing them on a big screen; Two-Lane Blacktop was dropped like a hot rock because of Lew Wasserman’s fury at its thorny lack of modishness;  Cockfighter and China 9 Liberty 37 were one week theatrical wonders, surviving as Z Channel and nascent-HBO high points, then entombed for years on cassettes passed from adherent to new convert. And so it is with Road To Nowhere. One waits for it to show up in a theatre for more than a minute, months slip by, the give-in to DVD happens, and as one sees its opening gambit unfold – a woman and man sitting in a small room, the man slipping a DVD into a laptop, the camera slowly, exquisitely, approaching the small screen, the song coming from the laptop’s speaker delicately boosted in the mix at just the right moment – one is not only aware that the transformation from film to inner film is beautiful (though it surely is) but also that one is (to summon Robert Warshow) a man or woman watching a DVD in a small room due to a farrago of financial and aesthetic conditions. Such has been the directorial life of Monte Hellman; such has been the lot of his admirers.

There are, though, worse ways in which to encounter this particular picture.  Road To Nowhere is a noir and a metafiction, a movie about a director (Tygh Runyan) showing us a movie he has made about a “true” crime in which ill-gained money leads to the apparent death of two conspirators. He refuses all entreaties to cast a bankable star, fixating instead on an actress of limited experience whose look and bearing haunts him. (He first sees her on his laptop, lovely and contained. As it turns out, both the character and the woman who plays her, Shannyn Sossamon, are quite resistant to being hemmed in thus.)  He flies to Italy to convince her to act in his film. She insists she is not an actress but in truth she is a terrific one; she is one of the thieves whom the story is about and is, having successfully staged her death, now flush and peripatetic, on the run under an assumed name. The production commences, as does a love affair. A cast and crew are assembled, including a blogger who made her name reporting on the aftermath of the crime and an insurance investigator who insinuates his way into the production. Things go straight to hell, and it’s a slow burn. The director strays from the plan, shifting the focus of the film to the actress, his key muse and object of desire, bewildering the writer and the lead actor in the process. He becomes distracted and jealous when she is out of his sight and his grip on the professional and personal loosens. The blogger and insurance investigator believe they have caught the actress out and scheme to expose her and blow the lid off the whole show, which they do, with tragic consequences.

So then, a noir, and a classic noir scenario: criminals and liars and crazy lovers weave and twist and torture and toss themselves and everyone nearby straight into the shitter. Is it an in insult to Steven Gaydos, the writer of the screenplay, to say that even after three viewings the particulars of the plot hardly matter at all? I don’t think so. The story is supple and allows for tributaries of character and motivation. It has real depth of field. But just as one might imagine a different production of the same material, like one might conjure, say, a California Split directed by Spielberg instead of Altman (as was originally planned), one must finally contend with what happened, this particular take on the blueprint, this product of a specific directorial metabolism, and be glad of it.  A genre scenario and its enactors have been distilled, purified, reduced to an essence – Hellmanized.  One can quite literally disregard the workings of plot and luxuriate in the characters’ situation – which is to say, plight. To call them types, or archetypes, is imprecise. Hellman’s people are slaves to impulse, scurriers, obsessives determined to order a world in which order is, finally, an illusion, a fantasy that kills. They end up in trapped in box canyons, automobiles, prisons actual and metaphorical. The beauty of Hellman, his great aesthetic achievement, is his determined refusal to allow excess inflection in staging and performance, a stance which, while distanced, is not Olympian or scabrous or cruel. Though  Road To Nowhere is characteristic of noir in its ultimate bleakness, it’s notable for its lack of mechanistics; its people might be, like all of us, screwed in the end, and no less so in the beginning and the middle, but Hellman’s appraisal, unsparing as it may be, is not accusing or superior, and does not lack for compassion. And though we may love certain films that are sleek, pacey and portentous doom machines, it is a pleasure to see a noir that probes, but does not arbitrarily punish – a noir that breathes.

Road To Nowhere’s flow, or rather, flows, are fascinating.  Though Hellman’s main concern is the gaze, the fixation on image collection and the ultimate cost of that pursuit, he does not smack you over the head with the notion – he is patient and bides his time getting to his fatal upshot. The languorous setup gives way to a barrage of short scenes of the film (also called  Road To Nowhere) being written, cast, and eventually going into production. They end abruptly, capped with volleys of Gaydos’s mordant showbiz koans. (The tetchy awkwardness and increasing marginalization of the inner film’s screenwriter, played by Rob Kolar, is especially comic; at the end of a greenlight meeting our director shakes on the deal, saying “All we can do now is fuck it up,” and Kolar too-quickly adds a wobbly, “And we will!” He, of course, delivers the line offscreen.) The movie bursts and retreats, and does not make it easy to get your bearings. There is no valet, no Sir Basil Exposition to orient you to the shifts in narrative tense. As Runyan says at one point, “If it all made sense I wouldn’t be interested.” It is as it ever was with a Hellman film; either you hang with it or you don’t. The structure is not a nihilistic game of 52 Pick-up, though; Hellman isn’t playing games at all, not even in a self-reflexive movie-movie, a genre in which it is easy to get cutesy with the illusion-reality thing. Directly put: though this discreet, non-pushy craftsman is not above taking you by the short hairs with a painterly frame, an unexpected sound cue, or even a plane crash, he absolutely will not lead you around by them.

About that movie-ness. Unfair as it may be to say about a film so packed with unique visual and incidental density and in-the-moment vitality, I’m not sure that it’s possible to grapple with Road To Nowhere properly without a feel for Hellman’s history and the elements of that history which he shares with other filmmakers. As the vice tightens on his Director (who also has the initials M.H., just as the Writer’s initials are S.G. ) and his authority to order his set and life is undone by lover’s jealousy, the mistrust of his crew, and the killing cabal of the Blogger and Insurance Man, one hears echoes of late Sam Peckinpah fantasias like the Hellman-edited Killer Elite, with the attempts of its wicked Company to kill off its crippled but unyielding operative serving as metaphor for The Suits carving piece after piece off of Bleeding Sam, and The Osterman Weekend, with which Road shares some funhouse aspect and sense of the camera as a weapon which will eventually turn on its operator. (It does not share, however, those films’ self-aggrandizement and coked-out paranoia; Hellman is too sensible both in art and life and has had to fight enough dragons in his day that there’s no need to flat-out hallucinate any more of them. Talk about metabolism.)

I’m also reminded of something said by Dennis Hopper many years ago at a screening of The Last Movie, a film whose financial and artistic profligacy was, as it happened, a spike in the heart of any prospect that Two-Lane Blacktop would find support from their common banker, Universal Pictures. His introduction dealt primarily with the movie`s notoriety (the great disaster of its birth, to allude to the sonnet by Santayana that is read aloud in Road To Nowhere) but the last question asked of him was, “Whats the film about?” His sad reply before the lights dimmed was, “Young people’s dreams.”  After all the knowing asides, the feints, the modesties, the matter-of-fact presentation of an antagonist as working for a firm called Universal Benefit Systems (it’s not a stretch to note that no system has ever worked to Monte Hellman’s benefit, especially the Universal Studio System),  Road To Nowhere’s crux is, simply, a man, a woman, and the price of dreams. Though most of its cast is young, this film is recognizably the product of people with some mileage on them, who have known death and disappointment, have weathered the slow creep of time and have learned the limits of ambition. The Director tells the Actress that a filmmaker never wants to admit how much time he spends obsessing over other people’s dreams, and in Hellman’s final gut punch of an image the Director is consigned to a hell of his own making, doomed to live with a simulacrum of lost love, a dream frozen in digital aspic. It is a parting shot equal to the famed ending of  Two-Lane Blacktop and a similar purgatorial vision, but there is no distancing to it. It is the purest of emotional leaps. “Devastating” may be a word debased by overuse, but none other will do, and I have no hesitation in doubling down with another. If the word “masterpiece” is to have any useful definition, that is, a singular expression of the technical and thematic concerns of one who has proven mastery in his field, then, yes,  Road To Nowhere is certainly one of those.

There is art and there is philosophy, but in the end there is life as it is lived day to day. Monte Hellman, it seems, has tried to make the best of his particular human plight. When he has been unable to direct he’s worked as an editor. He has pulled saves on troubled productions and he has taught young people. (How lucky is the student who gets to learn the grammar of cinema from such an exacting yet unfussy artist?) He has worked as a reliable pro by vocation and as one of our great filmmakers by avocation, when allowed. He has gotten on with it. I indulged recently in a bit of a wallow about damaged reputations, lost people, lost films. Hellman is tougher – no wallow for him, no aspic. He has made a movie and it is a great one. And one must also make special mention of this film’s cast, crew, producers, scrappers and hustlers all, working for a dollar and a dime, if that. At the end of a path strewn with decades of intrigues, lies, disappointment and sheer horseshit, their efforts have gifted us with a lovely rare bird, a Resplendent Quetzal of a picture that is to be all the more treasured for its fragility – another Monte Hellman Picture.


My morning doings were stopped short when I came across notices that Francois Truffaut would have been eighty years old today.

I’ve always made an effort to not overpersonalize the effect certain artists have on me—that is, to feel unearned proximity to people I don’t know. Their expressions may hit you in ways that make you feel like you’re somehow inside them, but their lives are their own, and by bathing overlong in an empathic glow you risk your life becoming something that isn’t fully your own. That said: I gasped when Truffaut died; the mere mention of a round number never reached sent me inside myself for hours on a day which needed to be more verb than noun; and the thirty years between have been marked with more sadness than not when thinking on him.

The slow tides of reputation are, for an enthusiast, often depressing. Has a looser, more generous filmmaker, one whose work is so full of casual delights, ever been so quickly consigned to the waxworks? The only explanation that made or makes sense to me is that Truffaut died at a point when a particular idea of him was hardening, a sense that he had become what he beheld – a purveyor of tasteful entertainments.  With death the stance became an idée fixe, and the bathwater that was thrown out by opinion makers contained one beautiful baby. Within his life and writing and films are pointed lessons in how to discover and assert one’s own taste by burrowing deeply into the work of others (in short, how to grow up) and how to become an artist and public citizen with passion and grace. Any tide which brings with it a happy reconsideration of Truffaut, even one more severe than I’m capable of, is one that can’t crash in too soon.

One might think that mourning for films that will never be made is a base sentiment, but what is mourning if not the selfish wish for a sensation you’ll never have again?  I love the films that certain old people make, the Bunuels, Hustons, Eastwoods and Lumets, those who have the will and vitality to keep bringing it, to find new veins and angles in life, and I’ve always been (sentimentally, yes) quite unshakable in my belief that Truffaut would have been one of them. I think it’s because I just plain trusted him. How could you not trust someone who made something as nimble and complicated as JULES AND JIM, as volcanic as THE STORY OF ADELE H? Or as steely, yet tender as




And, again, Nestor…

As an actor – the confident movement, the delicacy of the gesture with the apple, the tilt of the head, the smile…

Godard, whose friendship with Truffaut fractured publically,  famously, and is most certainly one of those who is, through some combination of volition, genetics, and plain cussedness, still kicking it hard, wrote in the foreword to Truffaut’s collected letters, “Francois is perhaps dead. I am perhaps alive. But then, is there a difference?” At the risk of being terribly literal with the words of a man who is anything but that, I would have to say that there is a difference. All the difference in the world.