Media : Armchair Cinephile

Provoked conversations

Since watching United 93, I’ve been dazed. News reports sound different to me, as if I’m somehow hearing them through both today’s ears and the ones I had five years ago. Many Americans will understandably refuse to see the film, no matter how good and thoughtful it is, but its arrival seems like an important opportunity for all of us (those who watch it and those who can’t) to try to look at politics, war, and everything that contributed to and resulted from 9/11 with fresh eyes.

United 93 rejects jingoism and overblown statements about national identity. But many have used the memory of the dead to sell dubious ideas about America and our place in the world. Noam Chomsky can always be trusted to challenge such talk. Imperial Grand Strategy is the latest DVD of Chomsky’s lectures; these are aimed at debunking arguments for war and uncovering authoritarian policies. IGS is new from AK Press’s self-described “Agit-Prop” series, which also presents that other famous promoter of alternative views, Howard Zinn, in Readings from Voices of A People’s History of the United States. Here, actors and writers gather onstage to read some of the personalized-history documents Zinn has gathered over the years. Zinn also pops up in One Bright Shining Moment (First Run), a wistful look at a time when progressives had a high-profile politician (George McGovern, who lost to Nixon in ’72) they could feel good about rallying behind.

AK isn’t the only company with a new series of left-leaning DVDs. A film club called Ironweed sprouted last December (, geared less toward selling films than to getting them seen and discussed by as many people as possible. They sell by subscription only ($14.95/month or $159.90/year), and each month’s title is a limited edition — that seems wrongheaded to me, but it does give people reasons to participate in the company’s activist plan, which encourages group viewing, discussion, and action. Titles released so far include the timely doc Wetback, a monologe performance, Red Diaper Baby, in which a filmmaker recalls being reared by American Commies, and the film-history landmark Salt of the Earth, the only feature to be officially blacklisted in the US.

Speaking of landmark documents, Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda epic Triumph of the Will (Synapse) has just been reissued. The improvements over the earlier DVD are slight; but the film, which shows how image control and fearmongering can convince a nation of humans to allow horrible things to be done in their name, remains sadly relevant.

After being sold a war, of course, some thoughtful citizens experience buyers’ remorse. Winter Soldier (New Yorker) captures one of the most famous manifestations of that, as more than a dozen filmmakers document a 1971 gathering of Vietnam veterans who meet to grieve over what they did and saw during their tours of duty.

On the non-documentary side of things, current attempts to make sense of the world’s discord aren’t meeting with complete success. Recent films such as Crash and Lord of War (both Lionsgate) are obviously well-intentioned, tackling racism and the arms trade respectively, but not all filmmakers are up to the challenges Big Issues present. Then there’s Jarhead (Universal), where underwhelming the audience (by failing to move us or offer startling insights) is a way of being true to its subject, a half-baked desert war that neither made a sequel unnecessary nor stirred Americans to reject Part Two once it arrived.

One lesson to draw from last year’s crop of Serious Movies is that the smartest filmmakers will usually avoid telling you what to think, and will sometimes be ambiguous about their very subject. David Cronenberg’s gripping A History of Violence (New Line) hints in its multiple-entendre title that the story he’s telling — of one man who may or may not have a lot of blood on his hands — might be open to allegorical interpretation. It is, although the specific tale Cronenberg offers works perfectly on its own terms. As with United 93, though, the film’s greatest value is in the conversations, whether between friends or within our own heads, it provokes.

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