{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


In Redacted, Brian De Palma dramatizes a real event - the rape and murder of a 14 year old girl in Iraq by five US soldiers. He constructs a base camp in Samarra with stereotypical soldiers, one of them read John O'Hara's 1934 novel "Appointment in Samarra" and the other reads Hustler, the wall behind them is covered with pin-up girls, they all look bored, one of them is photographing everybody else and as he adjusts his camera to shoot, he pompously proclaims "Truth is the first casualty of war".

The primary concern of De Palma has remained the point of view (I think the whole Snake Eyes is made to prove that a certain point of view has only a piece of truth, although there always exists a whole truth which eludes us just because we have the disadvantage of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Here the hunger for truth is given. If it doesn’t exist, nothing, irrespective of our place or position, will register to us. That hunger may be called humanity in one sense, morality in other). Redacted starts with one point of view that is from the video camera of Angel Salazar (definitely a stand in for the director's own guilt of filming a crime as an act of intrusion and exploitation), who is making a video diary of his experiences. He even tells the viewer his directorial preferences - "I will tell what I see", "There will be no logical narrative to help make sense of it". He is essentially a voyeur and even opportunistic. Even when his fellowmen decided to rape the girl, he didn't stop them but accompanies them to shot the crime. As the film progresses this single point of view gets lost in several such POVs, there are many opinions, images and fragments of truth and lies. Brian de Palma, the master of irony, stores pure seriousness for special moments. There is a moment later in the film where an Iraq returned army man, weeps when he is supposed to smile and pose for a photograph with his wife. But this image too, doesn’t capture the whole truth, just some of it, and of course it’s posed.

As always, in our complex minds and lives, a lazy logic works that looks for the arbitration of our roles, shedding of responsibilities and cleaning off our souls. A little gush of impolite wind gives us all the reason in the world for our missions to save our souls. The young boys in Iraq are soldiers are with no reason to be there other than get orders, get a valid passport to become the part of mission whole heartedly when one of their buddies gets blown up. Now an unjustified war against a nation is translated to a personal war between us and them, a revenge of sorts. But the point to note is that both of them are victims, or to use title of De Palma's Vietnam film, "Casualties of War". The wrong-doers of Redacted don't show remorse, rather they try to cover up and justify what they have done, the remorse is shown by other colleagues due to their inability and disappointment to stop them doing the wrong (here crime and remorse are not hard coupled, they travel across consciences, so its not a zero sum game as in films like Munich where the guy weeps off his crimes towards the end to come out cleaner) and here De Palma daringly suggests that whole of America share this guilt and frustration.

De Palma's technique and filmmaking choices here are kind of double-edge swords. De Palma's use of mixed sources (websites, chats, you tube, French doc, surveillance cameras) and techniques (hand held cameras, HV video, improvised acting, imperfect shots) looks both amateurish like a school play and urgent like an activist's campaign on one side, and also an act of desperation to find truth and sort it into some coherent thread (which, we know, is a lost cause in De Palma’s world) on the other side. One should note that these choices are not ad hoc, but precise assortment of the crap and the credible, which, in today’s world, are becoming increasingly difficult to sort out.

There are many surface flaws (Bad acting is definitely not one of them, there are few very good performances especially from Patrick Carroll, who plays the hollow-eyed sinister, Reno Flake) in Redacted like the incoherent plot device (one of the soldier is shooting the war so that he can apply for film school), naive dialogues, over the top reportage, in your face long rants etc but these are De Palma's usual trademarks, especially of his earlier political films. In Hi, Mom! , De Niro's Jon Rubin, a Vietnam vet (there are references of Vietnam in Redacted too, when an angry girl on youtube rants "You don't see the My Lai Massacre in the movies, because the truths of that fascist orgy, are just too hellish for even liberal Hollywood to cop to. Oh, but that doesn't stop them from making another movie about 9/11, because an American life is worth so much more than a Vietnamese life, a Palestinian, a Lebanese or an Iraqi life because we are the uber race"), rents an dirty apartment in front of a big building to photograph women, and even sets up a date (the funniest date in films I have ever seen) so that he can make a film of them making love which he can sell to a producer of pornographic films. Things go little weird when Rubin gets involved with a group of activists doing some guerrilla theatre (the famous "Be Black, Baby" campaign, which is a must-see). Here too, stupid plot device, rants and naive dialogues are used but they are not used in a similar way as in Redacted. In Hi, Mom! (made about a decade and half after the war), things were in post-mortem state and therefore director has the luxury of irony, surrealism and even comedy. Hi, Mom! has the post-war insight and irony but Redacted has the present-war frustration, anger and polarization (Redacted is not balanced and that’s why the cry from all over that it will harm the troops). Here these surface flaws are the flaws of the sources that De Palma borrows from and it create a fractured fuzzy picture - gritty, crude, true but ultimately posed.

It should be noted that Redacted is nothing near De Palma's masterpieces like Hi, Mom!, Body Double, Blow Out and Femme Fatale, but it also not a low point in director's career. A director, who has always dealt with dreams and fantasy and in the illusion when they are mixed with reality and truth, is definitely not in his safe territory, but it is also important to note how he uses his primary visual and moral concerns in filmmaking to explore how the war is presented to us and how we are made to consume it.

The film ends with real pictures of killings in Iraq war (a segment named "Collateral Damage"), with a final fictional image of the dead girl, brutally raped, mouth open and lying in the pool of blood. This image placed along with real footage is again De Palma questioning about the truth of images. It’s most ironic and disturbing that a fabricated photo is more terrifying to us than the real ones. The beauty of De Palma's art is its ability to generate true empathy from a faked image.

Few words about the music. De Palma never misses a note. The end credits are totally silent, and Handel Sarabande is used evocatively, and only wherever it is totally necessary.


Alok said...

I haven't seen it yet but I was a little amused to read your comments about Snake Eyes. I never once thought about those things while watching... but that was very long ago. I am also not as familiar with De Palma's oeuvre as you are.

Did you see the un-"redacted" version of the film. I was reading that the producers removed the real Iraq images from the film and de Palma was very angry about it. Don't know what version finally came in the theatres.

anurag said...

Snake Eyes, like many other films, is usually dismissed for stupid (and wrong) reasons like Nicolas Cage or being too-stylish or over the top, which are paradoxically its merits. De Palma uses (and even mocks) Cage's over enthusiasm. :)

It was redacted version. The images are not removed but their faces covered with black bars.