12/24/2005

Munich

***SPOILER WARNING: Plot and ending details follow***

Went to see Munich last night with this friend of mine who's a real fidget. But he said there were three movies he was up for seeing: Brokeback Mountain, Syriana, or Munich. Not only had I already seen Brokeback Mountain (I wrote about it here, and here, in fact) but it's a long-enough film, and one in which nothing really happens (aside from a little sodomy in a pup tent *yawn* and that's in the first twenty minutes). Brokeback Mountain is a movie about deferred choices and sins of omission, more than anything. So the thought of seeing it a second time, especially so soon after having seen it the first time, much less with a fidget was...well, it was out of the question. Syriana, I have read, is a bit scattered and unfocused, as for plot, and very complicated--to the point of being indecipherable. It's been compared to Traffic. It probably would have been perfect for someone with Adult ADD, like my dear friend, but I was particularly interested in Munich for a number of reasons, so that's the one I chose.

I'll get to the movie itself momentarily. It clocks in at nearly three hours (about the same length as the new installment of the Harry Potter franchise), and while it's an emotionally complex film with a lot of action, it's still a tough one for a fidget not to fidget through. And since we saw it at Harvard Square in one of the smaller theaters upstairs, and he's a big, tall bloke, it was all the worse. He wasn't the only one. There were some students right behind us. One of them hit me in the head when he came in and took his seat, and didn't say "excuse me," or anything, and then proceeded to kick the back of my seat at fairly regular intervals throughout the film. But, you go to see a movie in a cramped little theater, and you get what you get.

There was also a bum two seats over and one row down, who was talking to himself. I say he was a bum because he had that peculiar smell--of stale beer and cigarettes, when they have infiltrated every atom of your being, when it's Bud, not blood running through your veins. He got up midway through the movie, and went out to have a smoke, I guess, and when he came back he missed his row, and sat down at the end of ours instead, right on top of somebody's coat! After a couple of minutes, the guy whose coat it was was like, "erm, excuse me, I think you're sitting on my coat." The bum was like, "ssssshhhhhh!" They got it straightened out eventually.

So after the movie (which I will talk about in greater detail in a minute, I swear) my friend and I went to have a beer and a bite to eat, and I said something about his fidgeting. First he denied it outright. Then it was like, "I didn't fidget that much." I mean, relative to what? Then, he struck back: "you're a film-snob!" he said. Because he fidgets, I'm a film snob? Partly this was a reaction to my admitting that when we go to movies (and we have seen many together), his fidgeting is a factor for me. I at least acknowledge the reality of his fidgeting, and opt for films that are as reasonably fidget-proof as films these days can be. He found that patronizing, apparently. I said, it was purely practical. He then told me I should not have said anything about it, at least not to his face. I shrugged. It's not like he doesn't know he fidgets. He can't not know, right? And personally I don't think there's anything wrong with factoring in fidgeting. The fidget factor is real, and why shouldn't we acknowledge it?

I don't know if I'm really such a film-snob. I suppose on the snobbery scale, where zero's, say, Look Who's Talking Now and ten's maybe Warhol's Empire, I'm probably a six. But the problem is everyone's film-snob index is different. If, for someone, Look Who's Talking Now is a ten, then what do you do? Not that that's the case here, mind you. But I'm afraid this incident has thrown our joint film-viewing future into doubt. No more Frog and Toad At the Movies. No more Itchy and Scratchy Out On the Town. The fidget and the film-snob. Hmph.

One thing I did that would have annoyed me if I were him (did you get that?) was three times during the film I leaned over and whispered something to him. About the film, of course. But you can be sure I was showing off my level-6 film-snobbery whenever I did. The first time, it was when Daniel Craig appeared, and I whispered "he's the new James Bond." He's not very suave in Munich, but he has an undeniable magnetism. Very sexy in a Steve McQueeny kind of way. I might actually go see a Bond film if he's playing Bond. Up to now, there's been no other Bond but Sean for me. Which is perfectly appropriate for a level-6 film-snob, don't you think?

The next two times I leaned over to whisper, "that's Budapest." I lived in Budapest for five years and many scenes in Munich that are supposed to take place in Paris were filmed there. I recognized Andrassy ut, a very--and very deliberately--Parisian grand boulevard in Pest--several scenes were filmed in front of the opera house there, and other scenes took place on Vecsey u. between Szabadsag ter and Vertanuk ter, right around the corner from the Parliament on one end, and the American Embassy on the other. You could see the Soviet monument at the end of the street (though the big gold Soviet star was missing), and the very distinctive Hungarian National TV (MTV) building in the background. That added levels to the film for me. And I could not contain myself. I felt I had to let my friend in on it.

He returned the favor, as for whispering, when the always, always scrumptilicious Mathieu Kassovitz is dispatched by a bomb in the last hour of the film. "Did he blow himself up?" My friend asked. Well, it seems so, but it was, as many things were in Munich, somewhat ambiguous. But I wasn't going to whisper all that. So I whispered back, "yes." On reflection, I do think it was a suicide, myself.

As for the film itself. It is the best, most mature Spielberg film I've ever seen. It was not flawless by any means, but it is as close to flawless as the director is ever likely to get. And it is a peculiarly, and powerfully Jewish film, too. Much more than the very-nearly vile Schindler's List, even, for which Spielberg felt he needed the goy intermediary of Schindler to bring the story of Shoah to a mass audience. There was no such intermediary here, although Eric Bana's Avner is never seen sporting a yarmulka or anything. More important, the story is the kind of dialectic Judaism fairly invented.

Spielberg has a penchant, like Oliver Stone, for clobbering his audience over the head repeatedly with whatever message he is trying to convey. He cannot be serious without getting all didactic. And I have felt that, like Stone, he thinks the gravity of the film, its seriousness, is related to its length. The longer a movie, the more serious it must be. But one of the most serious, emotionally and intellectually complex, and moving films I have ever seen is a little over ten minutes long (laugh if you like, but it's Yuri Norstein's Hedgehog in the Fog). One emotionally dense film that came out this year that gives us no less than four richly imagined and beautifully-acted characters and clocks in at a measely hour and 28 minutes is The Squid and the Whale. The strange alchemy of film pays no head to ordinary time. We can watch a four-hour epic and have no feeling whatsoever for any of the characters in it (Alexander, anyone? Or how about Troy?) or we can develop a deep attachment to characters in, like I said, a ten minute short. That is the mystery and magic of film.

But while Munich is occasionally too something--or too everything--thanks in part, I think, to the coupling of screenwriters Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame and Eric Roth of Forrest Gump, its characters are real-enough, richly-enough acted by an indisputably incredible cast, that we do come to care for them, which is the absolute minimum requirement of a film, if the director expects you to spend three hours of your life watching it.

The Forrest Gump aspects of the film are the characters themselves, who are touchingly human. Eric Bana's Avner is the undisputed protaganist, but he is not the moral center of the film. He is the Everyman who never reaches a conclusion, who never articulates his moral quandery, and is still conflicted at the end. The Moral center of the film is Mathieu Kassovitz's at once Gump-like and supremely Speilbergian bomb-maker. He is mercifully underplayed by Kassovitz. his character risks becoming precious, but blows himself to bits before he does. He could have ended up a speechifying caricature, but Spielberg, showing what must have been superhuman restraint, allows him only a few short lines that provide the only unequivocal expression of a moral conscience in the film. It is a beautiful, urgent scene (that was filmed, I think, in Eiffel's Nyugati train Station in Budapest), and it comes off as utterly human. Avner is never able to articulate a moral argument for or against what he is doing, but he pays an enormous price, emotionally for doing it.

The Kushner bits of the film seem to me to be structural. I found Angels in America affecting at times but also affected in the extreme, which fit the subject matter, although the last forty-five minutes of the HBO miniseries were overbearing (not to mention interminable). Here the bits I'm willing to bet Kushner had more of a hand in come off as contrived, and take us out of the narrative in order to force a point. The jarring flashbacks--or "imaginings"--of the scene in Munich by Avner at key points in the film remind us that this is an exercise. I think if Spielberg had foregone flashbacks and left the chronology intact, it could have been as powerful a film, if not more powerful than it was. The final "flashback," that takes place as a shell-shocked Avner is fucking his wife, approached the ridiculous on every conceivable level.

There were lots of typically Spielbergian touches, and there were a couple of Schindler moments. The dialogue between Avner and the PLO operative about the importance of having a home is mirrored near the drawn-out denouement of the film (drawn-out denouements are also a Spielberg specialty) when Avner's mother says basically the same thing. The scenario that allowed for the first soliloquy demanded suspension of disbelief in the extreme, but was apparently the only way Spielberg could humanize the Palestinian perspective.

Which brings up the issue of "equivalence" that some critics are so up in arms about. The idea is that showing the Palestinian side is tantamount to excusing the crimes and condoning the methods of groups like Black September. I don't think Spielberg ever reaches "equivalence" in Munich. What he seems more interested in exploring, in the character of Avner, is not anything to do with "equivalence," but more with the extent to which, as Lynn Cohen's Golda Meir says, a nation or people is forced to compromise its highest values, and the implications (both personal and political) of such a compromise for those who are forced by circumstances to make it.

Spielberg makes it perfectly obvious that he is speaking not only to Israelis here, and not only about Munich, but to Americans after 9/11. The very last shot of the film frames Lower Manhattan with the Twin Towers center-screen.

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