Arts & Culture

Ape Shit

By Alexandra Bush January 29, 2010

This week marks the beginning of FilmNerd Friday Roundups:  Every week, I'll give you one or two must-see films, plus this fun assignment: "Totally Agree" and "Totally Disagree"— where I weigh in on other people's (opinions, reviews, essays, decisions) from the week in movies.

(This week, for example, I Totally Disagree with Northwest Film Forum's decision to back down from its cinematic standoff with SIFF Cinema.)

This week's must-see film is a no-brainer:  Austrian director Michael Haneke's latest film, winner of the Palme D'Or at Cannes 2009, opens at the Harvard Exit tonight.  The White Ribbon is the best film I have seen in 2010, and I wouldn't be surprised if I'm still saying that in December.

In the age of Avatar, digital tricks and special effects seem increasingly necessary to keep films interesting.  Haneke's somber portrait of an early 20th century German village is an edge-of-your-seat thriller sans CGI, sans explosions, without even a score or color film.  It's a film in which nearly every deeply emotional action—sobbing over a wife's death, being beaten by an angry father—happens just off-screen, while you sit there and listen, your eyes deprived of the cathartic experience.

Haneke takes up the age-old (and particularly Germanic) theme of terrifying children.  The kids in The White Ribbon live a childhood of repression and abuse in a Lutheran village, and ultimately begin to perpetuate what they have learned, often on the weakest members of their own micro-society.

Sparse voice-over  by an elderly narrator looking back at the events, gives just enough advance information about approaching disaster to keep the audience gritting teeth and clenching fists in dreadful anticipation.

Beyond its brilliant plot construction, this film is a catalog of cinematographic genius.  There's something about the best black and white movies (I feel this way about Salesman too) that feels like flipping through a giant book of stunning photographs from an otherworldly place.  The stark black and white images from The White Ribbon, its dusky shadows and unspeakable cruelty, are engraved on the insides of my eyelids—and I hope they stay there.

And now, a rave and a rant:

I Totally Agree with Slate film critic Dana Stevens' take on biopics, which she outlines in this week's Culture Gabfest, one of my favorite podcasts.  Stevens argues that Creation, the new Darwin biopic, suffers from a common biopic problem: Namely, it talks down to its audience.  Instead of engaging the drama of Darwin's thought—a revolutionary thought if ever there was one—this film takes up his family drama, not believing that the general audience could possibly be interested in the most hotly debated scientific question of our time.  I agree with Stevens that biopics often miss the mark, choosing the schlock from a fascinating life instead of the important achievements.

I Totally Disagree with the Northwest Film Forum and SIFF's decision to cancel the duelling versions of Planet of the Apes (NWFF's 35 mm vs. SIFF's digital Blu Ray screening) "in the spirit of community."

That's all I know about how the decision was made, but it seems symptomatic to me of the cliched Northwestern fear of confrontation.  As a friend said to me this week, "Confrontation creates dialogue, and dialogue is what creates community.  So in the spirit of community, let them duke it out."  Not to mention that I really wanted to see Planet of the Apes on film—color me disappointed.
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