Thursday, February 05, 2009

Of Fact, Fiction and Finitude

This post is going to be a short review of three films under the above title.  The three films are (i) Defiance, (ii) The Wrestler and (iii) Frost-Nixon, all three of which I have viewed in the past several weeks.  Of the three The Wrestler is fictional while the other two are fact, though embellished fact indeed for dramatic and cinematic purposes.  The silver screen is no respecter of historical fact at all and conspires to recreate the past in dramatic scenes, and, indeed, to create incidents and scenes which never happened at all.  After all, cinema is entertainment, not documentary.

Objectivity, even in the hands of professional historians, is at best an approximation of what really happened, an imputation of likely motives to historical characters and indeed inferences of particular actions from papers and other historical records.  They are in all probability likely to have happened, but, objectively it may not be 100% accurate.

Defiance (2008), directed by Edward Zwick, featuring Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Alexa Davalos is a thriller or action/war movie which tells the story of a pocket of Jews who did resist the Nazis.  Again the bare story is re-worked for dramatic effect with the insertion of the typical love affair, brotherly rivalry and super-human resistance in battle scenes – all the stuff of Hollywood.  However, the tale is certainly worth telling and is, indeed, based on fact.

Gabriel Murray (Olympia Films) gives the following by way of summary:

The Bielski family were farmers from Belarus. Following the German '' Operation Barbarossa " the invasion of the Soviet Union that began on June 22,1941, the town Nowogrodek where the Bielski family lived became a Jewish Ghetto. The four Bielski brothers, Tuvia , Alexander Zisel "Zus", Aseal, and Aron , managed to flee to the nearby forest after their parents and other family members were killed in the ghetto in December 1941. Together with 13 neighbours from the ghetto, they formed the their partisan combat group. Some 4,000 Jewish inhabitants were ordered by the Nazis to dig 40 deep pits. In temperatures that had plunged below zero, they were forced to take off their clothes and stand, facing the graves. Then they were shot, their bodies whether killed outright or injured falling into the graves where they were buried. Tuvia's parents were among the dead.When he learned that his parents had been murdered, Bielski was tortured by remorse... At that moment, he swore that he would not only try to rescue the rest of his family, but also as many Jews young, old, frail, or ill as he possibly could. 'I'd rather save one old Jewish woman than kill ten Nazi soldiers,' he declared. 'It was simple,' Tuvia later recalled… The group's commander was the eldest brother, Tuvia Bielski (1906-1987), Hundreds of men, women, and children eventually found their way to the Bielski camp eventually numbered 1200 individuals. (See this link here: Defiance)

In sum, it is a brilliant film and explores a very much forgotten episode in European Jewish history – the resistance of some Jews against the Nazi death machine. As the director, Zwick has said: "You have these chapters of history that get lost.  Sometimes that's down to political agendas or because mythologies are created. Ideas and events that are contradictory to those myths often disappear. That's what's happened here. The image of European Jews going passively to their deaths is inaccurate. We hope this film corrects that view, while also exploring the specifics of the Bielski story. You have to consider how they felt. Where is God when they are hiding and scratching out this existence in the forests? Where is love in the forest? What is it like to be a child in the forest? All these things were important."  If, in the end, Zwick embellishes his tale with romance, the over-the-top heroism of Hollywood and brotherly rivalry, to make a good movie, he can be forgiven because he has captured well an important moment in the history of the Jewish people.

Frost-Nixon (2008) is also a wonderfully worked film based on the famous Frost interviews of the disgraced president in the summer of 1977.  Director Ron Howard has really pulled off a gripping film which holds the viewer’s interest from start to finish.  That a film could be based upon a series of interviews is an audacious undertaking which does indeed come off.  If Frost had risked all to get his interviews with Nixon, it seems to me that likewise Howard risked a lot for this film.  The main roles are played by Michael Sheen (Frost) and Frank Langella (Nixon) who are equally superb.  Langella holds our attention superbly.  He walks and talks and manages to look like Nixon, even though he bears little resemblance to the real historic figure.  He gets Nixon’s voice, his gestures and his gait so exactly that we willingly suspend our disbelief – he is the real Nixon for us there on the screen.  Moreover, Langella manages to bring a considerable depth of tragedy, almost of Shakespearean proportions, to our man Nixon.  He captures the flawed hero that was the disgraced president so well.  One can see the reflective sadness and regret in his eyes despite the outward show.  I won’t rehearse the substance of the famous interviews here as they are widely available on video and even exist in edited highlights on YouTube.  Nor will I describe the drama of the sparring between the two during the interview.  This is a finely edited film with not a spare part or excess anywhere.  The script is pared down to the minimum as are the scenes.  I should imagine once again that no little dramatic licence was taken with the scene where a drunken Nixon phones Frost and even totally forgets later that he did so.  Likewise, the story of the gift of Italian shoes seems somewhat apocryphal, yet it adds a very human touch to the whole thing.  This film is a tour de force of accomplished acting by the two main characters.

Finally The Wrestler (2008, directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Robert D. Siegel) is a marvellous film which depicts a perennial cinema, if not literary, portrayal of a broken-down fighter (wrestler in this case) attempting to make a come-back.  The plot is pretty straight-forward and somewhat hackneyed as it has been done to death so many times in the cinema.  However, it is the brilliant acting of  Mickey Rourke which saves the whole film.  Also the script is superb and is pared finely to a minimum.  Rourke is very believable and credible as the broken-down wrestler.  One immediately feels his angst as a character – probably because Rourke put a lot of himself into the part, having been a boxer indeed for much of his early life.  His disfigured and almost expressionless plastic-like face lends some credibility and pathos to the whole thing.  One can feel his frustration at life in every line that he utters and in every glance that he takes at the camera.  Also the visual effects are excellent and all too gory, e.g., having the staples removed after a fight in which his opponent used a staple gun on him.  However, the film does contain a few funny scenes e.g., where “Ram” Robinson quits the ring for the job as shop assistant in the deli in the local supermarket.

Likewise, the musical score is superb as is the song called The Wrestler, written and performed by Bruce Springsteen. (Clint Mansell, the composer for Aronofsky's previous films, π, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, reprised his role as composer for The Wrestler. The Springsteen song, plays over the film's closing credits. The Guns N' Roses song "Sweet Child o' Mine" is played during Randy's ring entrance at the end of the film. In his Golden Globe acceptance speech, Mickey Rourke mentioned that Axl Rose donated the song for free due to the budget, and the film's closing credits thank Rose for this. Rourke had used the same song as his intro music during his stint as a boxer in the mid-90s.)

These films, then deal with the universal themes of struggle against injustice and sheer evil, the struggle of all men and women everywhere to eek out an existence and to earn both a living and to create an identity for themselves in this often too painful world.  In these films fact blends with fiction and fiction blends with fact.  They creatively interweave to make for a wonderful experience of cinema.  Films of fact, films of fiction and films of fact-fiction or fiction-fact must all deal with the finitude of humankind if they are to hit home.  Indeed they are wonderful vehicles to portray the angst-ridden existence of modern survival.  That they can have humorous scenes in them is also a testimony to their authenticity.  To laugh in the face of their finitude has long been a characteristic of humankind.

Above the many faces of Mickey Rourke!

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