Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Redacted (2007)

Brian De Palma returns to his roots whilst simultaneously constructing one of the most angry, and far from subtle, films to deal with the Iraq War. The cultural memory of Vietnam and De Palma’s own early films like Greetings! (1968) looms large over Redacted’s libellous bent, as well, of course, as his ferocious if ill-focused Casualties of War (1989). It’s interesting that the most ambitious efforts to deal with a multimedia age of late have come from older directors like De Palma, Assayas and Romero. De Palma, who failed to get the rights to real pieces of film and video for a documentary, goes the full distance in trying to make Redacted look like a collage of found footage and internet MPEGs.

Built around a terrible true story, of a teenage Iraqi girl’s rape and murder by American servicemen, Redacted attempts to mimic the look and feel of embedded war-zone action, absorbing through unblinking technology the horror and madness it conjures, but it's not really as concerned with reproduced realism, the facile appearance of docudrama immediacy so popular with contemporary directors, but, like all of De Palma's movies, turns realism into a mode of expression first and foremost. He portrays a panoply of contemporary cultural responses to horror, tossing in abusive radical chicks ranting on You Tube and the greasy ooze of insurgent websites, suggesting a polarised world of rogue loonies, fanatics, and ideologues, squeezing the sane and conscientious between them with lethal intent, as spiralling violence feeds the dark fantasies of all. Most of the film’s narrative is sustained through the aestheticised pretence of a supposedly French-made documentary, complete with languorous Handel music overscoring the gritty reality, and the fly-on-the-wall documentary Angel Salazar (Izzy Diaz) is making about his unit’s deployment in the hope to be admitted to film school. Much like Robert De Niro's Jon Rubin in Greetings!, the reproduced image is far more important to Angel than the actual moment, and like him war becomes only a new, strange zone to explore his obsessions.

De Palma’s fascination with the metastasising perversities of observation through technological media and the way it entwines with questions of political perspective, blurring into scarcely distinguishable quandaries, is as urgent as ever. Again, like many of De Palma's recent films, it's also disinterested in nuances of tone. He doesn’t chase artful award-worthy cool. His murderous GIs are drooling redneck beasts, a feat of broad manipulation indeed, but also a sustained and stinging critique of the notion that a violent purpose can be ennobled by rhetoric but fought by social dregs. De Palma makes clear his revulsion for the hints in such incidents as the one he’s fictionalising and the readily referenced Abu Ghraib, that America’s armed forces have been beefed up with economic conscripts containing unreconstructed racists and thugs who, not being allowed to run rampant in their own country, find ample opportunity in foreign adventuring. The air of hysteria that envelopes their more conscientious fellows is compulsively convincing, bullied by psychopaths handed all the power they want on one side and by a military structure anxious not to see anymore bad publicity on the other.

Simultaneously, De Palma encourages a note of jet-black humour which clashes queasily with the despairing compassion, especially in a lengthy sequence where the two avatars of unleashed aggression (Patrick Carroll and Daniel Stewart Sherman) attempt to complete the video project of their murdered squad mate Angel, calling him their “own Private Ryan” and seguing into Sherman’s long monologue about his murderous brother – here De Palma’s delight in bleakly funny improvisatory sequences could have been transferred directly from his early films. Simultaneously, De Palma’s perspective on the opinions of home front know-it-alls, like the aforementioned ranting chick, is just as revealing and suggestive of the way people and societies simultaneously use media to essay truth and yet also construct their own realities: De Palma helps define that intellectual echo-chamber many discern in contemporary cultural sectors.

Whilst not as poised and "exciting" as Kathryn Bigelow’s intensive but conventional The Hurt Locker, Redacted is far more disquieting and indeed original. De Palma makes ruthless meta-critical fun of the idea of corralling reality within the limits of any artful metaphor, as when Salazar first ignores and then later purposefully includes the famous Somerset Maugham passage at the beginning of John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samarra”, reading the words of self-dramatising import, hoping he’s found a perfect epigraph for his work. Which of course he has, and yet cannot comprehend the immediacy of the threat. He will, naturally, later be hoisted by his own petard when he’s used as a prop in a vicious piece of fundamentalist theatre. Redacted almost succeeds in burning the war movie itself down to the ground, as it keeps the spirit of enquiring, experimental narrative as defined in '60s art alive and relevant.


deadrodentyping said...

Excellent review, probably better than the movie (although I haven't seen the film but De Palma generally bores the hell out of me so I'm pretty skeptical I'll ever see it).

Roderick Heath said...

Well, DRT, I'm a De Palma fan, although I know of few directors capable of such wild swings in quality. I've never understood the perverse need of some uber-fans to pass off his duds as great cinema, although then of course one gets into fierce arguments about which of his films are the duds. Anyway, I doubt you'll find this boring.