Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Everything May Be Connected, But Is Anything Illuminated?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—

Ajami (2009; Dir.: Scandar Copti & Yaron Shani)

Ever since I've started posting on my blog more regularly, I've been waiting for a movie like Ajami to come along. It's yet another one of these so-called "network narratives" (a term coined by film scholar David Bordwell) that crams several major characters into a feature-length film; gives each of those characters fairly equal weight; and spin multiple narrative threads with those characters, sometimes intertwining them. Robert Altman is perhaps the most famous employer of this form, in films like Nashville (1975), A Wedding (1978), Short Cuts (1993) and Gosford Park (2001); more recently, this multistranded narrative structure has been used in both American prestige pics—Traffic (2001), Crash (2005), Syriana (2005), Babel (2006) among them—and celebrated art-house fare—Elephant (2003), The Edge of Heaven (2007) and Gomorrah (2008) spring immediately to mind.

Not all of these films use the form to similar purposes, of course. Some may try to connect the various stories of a network narrative, while others deliberately leave them unconnected. Some may intercut the plot threads together, scrambling chronology as well; others simply divide them up into sections, with maybe a character or an idea binding them together. And, of course, some of these films use the form more revealingly than others.

This seems to have become uncool to admit in recent years, but I'll go ahead and say it: I like network narratives. Or, rather, I like the idea of network narratives—not so much because of the form's inherent implication that people are connected in certain ways (not something I necessarily believe, anyway), but because I think there can be something of value in a form that can be used to present different viewpoints on a similar situation or idea.

I work for a company in which, every so often, snafus pop up which demand that editors get to the bottom of what went wrong—and usually what arises from said detective work are complaints about how one department doesn't understand what another is doing, and how either miscommunication or lack of it lead to a major error being made. It's bureaucracy at work, yes, but to my mind it also encapsulates the way we all tend to react to many situations in life: not always doing so with awareness of a fuller picture; reacting only with immediate knowledge; always assessing something within one's own physical or mental space, be it cultural, philosophical or otherwise. I'm reminded of that classic parable of the blind men feeling the various parts of an elephant, each believing that he's touching something different; I see something like that played out almost every day.

In other words, I think, structurally speaking, the network narrative is a perfectly valid cinematic mechanism, with an ability to encompass a wide variety of perspectives to illuminate the truth of a given situation or idea. Whether the form is deployed effectively or even responsibly is, of course, another story. For every Nashville or Edge of Heaven—films that combine a vast network structure with attention to character detail to produce a work of genuine dramatic power and keen human/worldly insight—there are glorified public service announcements like Crash or Syriana that feel dispiritingly like third-rate dramatists arranging pawns on a big chess board. And then there are films like Babel that are somewhere in the middle of those two poles: well-intentioned network narratives that, for some reason or another, never fully add up to the sum of its parts, though some of those parts can be quite powerful.

Ajami, the Israeli film that was just nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, resides somewhere in the middle—though, upon reflection, I ultimately think it comes out more on the plus side than on the minus. An artistic collaboration between an Israeli (Shani) and a Palestinian (Copti), the film aims, through five disparate stories (divided up into "chapters") that eventually cross paths in a sobering incident of violence, to sum up the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict on macro and micro levels. I'm not convinced that the stories themselves are interesting enough to live up to its lofty aims: most of the plot threads are merely dressed-up variations on crime-drama mainstays—a tough-yet-sensitive cop avenging his brother's death; an inter-religious romance that receives parental disapproval; and so on—and for all its scrambling of chronology, sensitivity to character detail and fine acting, Ajami can't quite escape a feeling of treading familiar paths.

To its credit, however, the film mostly succeeds on the micro level: using mostly nonprofessional actors to inhabit these multifaceted roles, the filmmakers evince enough compassion for all their characters to invite us to respond to them as individuals. And through its deliberately rough handheld digital-video camerawork (it was shot by Boaz Yehonatan Yaacov), Ajami often exudes a palpably lived-in feel that grounds even the more overtly clichéd storylines in a realistic milieu. Even if the whole doesn't quite measure up to its parts, the whole thing is nevertheless distinguished by care and intelligence.

And in one important sense, the network-narrative structure wholly suits the film's view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an endless series of bitter feuds escalating to the point of utter meaninglessness. We see the aforementioned violent incident—a "drug deal" gone wrong, more or less—replayed through different perspectives, and through the various chapters of the film, we come to understand the complex, hostile emotions that have led up to this explosion of brutality. The film's carefully worked-out structure may inspire empathetic understanding, but it's put at the service of explaining an incident that seems rather petty amidst the larger forces—ethnic and class divisions, deep-seated familial loyalties, etc.—that Ajami touches upon in the midst of its two-hour tapestry. Maybe it's appropriate that the film comes to a full stop with a medium shot of one character, having escaped from the scene of the crime, looking around in utter bewilderment. How did he get here? Do any Israelis or Palestinians really know anymore how the long-standing conflict got to the volatile point it has today? If nothing else, the network-narrative structure in Ajami deliberately obscures as much as it clarifies.

(Ajami is about to conclude a two-week run at Film Forum tomorrow, but it will still be playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas after that.)

From Paris With Love (2010; Dir.: Pierre Morel)

Well, I had a blast at this. As with his previous produced-by-Luc Besson film, Taken (2008), director (and former cinematographer) Pierre Morel proves himself to be an efficient action craftsman, and much of the pleasure of his latest unapologetic B-movie actioner comes from the speed, imagination and coherence with which he puts together some pretty audacious action setpieces. But From Paris With Love also has a sharper sense of morality underpinning the action fireworks than Taken. The earlier film, through Liam Neeson's sheer gravity, made gestures toward a tough-minded awareness of the unsettling political/personal implications of this ugly American bulldozing his way through Europe just to save his own daughter; by the end, though, it mostly reaffirmed its solidly right-wing values. This follow-up isn't that much more enlightened in its politics, but along the way, it does offer some complications to our enjoyment of the blood being shed in Charlie Wax's (John Travolta) mission to squash a terrorist threat in Paris.

The key to this film's ethical quandaries lies in Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' character, James Reece, an assistant to the U.S. Ambassador in France who harbors dreams of becoming a spy of his own—dreams that he begins to reconsider once he witnesses Wax's swaggering swath of destruction. After a shootout in a slum apartment building, Reece is seen staring at his blood-splattered face in a mirror, looking genuinely flustered as he quickly cleans the blood off his face. It's an unexpected touch, but it's indicative of the tantalizing ways Morel, Besson (given a story credit) and screenwriter Adi Hasak, through this audience surrogate Reece, ask us to be as deeply aware of the ruthlessness of Wax's methods as we are exhilarated by his sheer ballsiness.

This is the kind of moral suspense that the television series "24" used to be good at before it became (its underrated seventh season notwithstanding) repetitive and overextended; it's also more politically nuanced than the equally topical-minded The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Even better, From Paris With Love rarely takes itself too seriously—which makes the moments when it does exude a certain moral seriousness all the more exhilarating.

2 comments:

andrew schenker said...

Kenji,

It seems everyone was falling over themselves to praise Ajami, so it's nice to see a more measured consideration on the film. Your take onthe film seems pretty close to my own, even if for me it comes out more on the minus side than the plus side.

You're certainly correct in pointing out that it's on the micro level that the film is most successful - I found the intricate narrative framework more distracting than enlightening (if admittedly skillfully enacted). I think what really bothered me is that the film seemed so concerned with providing a rounded view of contemporary Israel that it stuffed its relatively simple central narrative with dimly imagined (and frankly embarrassing) side stories - the two you name being the worst. But it's certainly a cut above the worst of the recent network narratives - which for me are probably Crash and Babel.

As for From Paris with Love, my extreme aversion to John Travolta means I probably will take a pass on that one.

kenjfuj said...

I think what really bothered me is that the film seemed so concerned with providing a rounded view of contemporary Israel that it stuffed its relatively simple central narrative with dimly imagined (and frankly embarrassing) side stories - the two you name being the worst.

That is certainly a danger with trying to cram these network narratives into a feature-length film; a writer/director may get so involved in the big picture that smaller details—such as creating living, breathing characters—get lost. (However, When you're Paul Haggis, in Crash at least, not even those smaller details matter.)

When Gomorrah came out here last year, quite a few critics I read compared it unfavorably to the great HBO series "The Wire," raising the interesting question of whether that kind of multi-narrative structure not only was a better fit for TV than movies, but perhaps also whether the technique was inherently more TV-ish than cinematic. Well...I still think those kinds of narrative frameworks can be successfully pulled off in movies; Altman's large ensemble films are proof of that, to my mind.

As for From Paris with Love, my extreme aversion to John Travolta means I probably will take a pass on that one.

Hehe yeah I don't think this movie will change your opinion on Travolta any. He's given pretty free rein in this one, though I prefer his flamboyance in this particular context than in his bad-guy role in Tony Scott's Taking of Pelham 123 remake (I'm assuming you didn't see that one either?).