The Spielberg Transition #2

Bana hulks out.

MUNICH is one Spielberg I hadn’t seen until recently. I still haven’t managed to steel myself to run THE TERMINAL or THE BFG, but I guess I will at some point. They’re sitting on the shelf opposite as I type this, looking at me with their big puppy-dog eyes.

But MUNICH seemed like it was at least an attempt to do something interesting and different, so I felt vaguely ashamed of not giving it a shot. And I recall an interview from the time of production where Spielberg was talking about how the movie was going to make EVERYBODY angry. The great crowd-pleaser, going out of his way to be unpopular. This seemed worthy of attention.

Well, in a way the film’s refusal to firmly endorse or condemn the Israeli assassination programme depicted (targeting those responsible for the Munich Olympics atrocity) is standard Hollywood hedging, but Spielberg is right too, in that the film isn’t going to satisfy anyone with an entrenching position on the Palestine question. You can probably position Spielberg, based on this film and his other work (notably the penultimate scene of SCHINDLER’S) as a Zionist with qualms.

Fine, I’m a Zionist with qualms too. In that Israel exists and is here to stay, and you can question whether its creation was a good thing, but that’s wholly academic because what acceptable action would dissolve the state at this late stage? You can’t be genuinely anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, because what’s your non-genocidal solution to Israel’s existence?

On the other hand, I’m opposed to practically everything Israel is doing in the name of self-defense. It’s apartheid, it’s a slow-motion genocide, it’s not even in any sane conception of Israel’s own best interests.

My problem with MUNICH started with my inability to accept the arguments Golda Meir, or the film’s version of her, puts forward in favour of the assassinations (or “executions,” as Kevin Macdonald’s ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER disgustingly calls them). So, although the film tries to take you on a journey from accepting the mission to questioning it (without ever arriving at a definite position), I was never on board to begin with. So, although I found the film “interesting,” I wasn’t INTERESTED, apart from when Matthieu Amalric and Michael Lonsdale showed up (“Things always get better when the good actors show up,” said a distinguished produced friend once, talking about Bob Hoskins as a dwarf, but the point stands).

Spielberg described his influences as European thrillers, and one thinks Costa-Gavras, or Melville, but Lonsdale suggests a more Hollywood influence: DAY OF THE JACKAL. And it’s all very loud and impactful and bloody and explicit. It has the first, I think, full-frontal nudity in a Spielberg joint, both male and female, but predictably the straight male audience wins out with a voluptuous enemy honeytrap (Marie-Josée Croze) while everyone else has to content themselves with Ciaran Hinds’ small dead cock.

The image up top is Bana, near the end of the film, having sex with his wife but seeing images of terrorist massacres, and the machine gun fire from his fantasy (a flashback to events he didn’t witness?) illuminates his face in the present tense reality — I found this ludicrous, but I’m actually going to semi-allow it because it’s certainly BOLD.

But earlier in the film, while travelling by plane, Bana has another flashback to events he didn’t see, the Munich massacre itself, and that has two fantastically horrible transitions. First, we move into the aeroplane window as Bana gazes at it, and the terror attack becomes progressively more visible. I’m reminded of the supremely eggy moment in Polanski’s BITTER MOON where Emmanuelle Seigner’s face appears in the plane window as a Romantic Vision. I think that film is a grotesque comedy (Polanski’s funniest film?) so the moment kind of works, even as it makes me cringe. And I guess both filmmakers were thinking of a kind of in-flight reverie and trying to evoke that sort of boredom-distraction-fantasising. But, you know, it doesn’t WORK.

But the really bad one is the end of the fake flashback (he wasn’t THERE!), when automatic rifle fire rakes a poor Israeli athlete and Spielberg shows bullets tearing up a blood-spattered wall, then dissolves/morphs to little pink puffy clouds seen through that aeroplane window.

I have no words. Except these ones: What. The. Hell?

Well, all really impressively bad ideas have something good going on in them. As with the eros + massacre up top, the idea of something attractive being infected by a vision of something murderous isn’t a terrible one. Nic Roeg would probably have made a hard cut here, and left the audience the option of seeing a connection between the bloody, perforated plasterboard and the sunrise sky, or of seeing the things as merely contrasting. Spielberg is more controlling, so he can’t bring himself to leave that to chance.

Or, as Fred Schepisi advised Spielberg when he heard about SCHINDLER’S, “Don’t do it, Steve. You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.”

I think SCHINDLER’S LIST works, or works well enough overall. But I think there’s a transition in there that might be worth talking about…

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6 Responses to “The Spielberg Transition #2”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Israel is here to stay and it’s NOT a good thing. Straub-Huillet’s “Fortini/Cani” regarding why. I’m glad you brought up Roman Polanski in passing as he knew the horrors of the Holocaust in Ways Spielberg couldn’t possibly comprehend. The “The Pianist” is far superior to “Schindler’s List” Roman escaped the ghetto by crawling through the walls other was not so lucky. She was sent to Aushwitz and was exterminated on arrival. A beautiful and fashionable woman Polanski had Faye Dunaway’s look in “Chinatown” modeled after her.

    “Munich” is just an action movie.

  2. Fake flashbacks or imagination on the character’s part?

  3. A settlement in Trump’s name seems… horribly apt.

    No doubt the fake flashbacks are the character’s imagination, but they’re rather confusing. It’s odd that he wouldn’t imagine himself taking part in the exciting video game action, it’s odd that the movie uses imaginary sequences to (seemingly) educated us about real events. It’s just a very strange storytelling choice, of which the transitions are only the most awkward element.

  4. “You’re too good with the camera”

    This seems reminiscent of the criticism Rivette made of Kapo, where he objected to a virtuoso camera movement over the concentration camp. I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I understand the moral qualms involved in aestheticizing an atrocity, or even the unintended effect moral underlining or extrapolation (like you mentioned, Roeg’s hard cut might have left that to our own conclusions, although I’m still convinced that act of montage is still some form of nudging us in one direction) has on the viewers. it’s either off putting, hectoring or self serving.

    On the other hand, would something still have to be “crude”or deliberately sober to work? Kent Jones argues that its simple moralizing in his piece on ‘A History of VIolence” (he brings up the Kapo example, and the automatic idea that Straub – Huillet will always trump J Lee Thompson, for example). So is any form of stylization or underlining automatically wrong then? I believe a Forgotten post on Jean Epstein mentioned that his poetic devices made the grim subject of orphanages more meaningful and hopeful than a mere catalogue of misery would be.

    Sorry if this post was incoherent, but it’s an interesting dillema. Thanks for the article!

  5. No, clear enough! Spielberg argued fairly convincingly that one charge laid against him, that Schindler’s List “failed to do justic to the horror,” was true of any artistic approach you could make. I haven’t heard him deal with specific accusations of exploiting the subject for emotion, e.g. with the showers scene.

    Hugh Hudson, in the midst of shooting the turkey Revolution, argued convincingly that “It doesn’t make it any less valid if it’s well lit.” And the likes of Fires on the Plain and Come and See show that something CAN grapple with colossal horror and still have a stunning aesthetic.

    The reason it’s called art is that there’s no hard and fast rule, no straightforward maximum number of corpses you’re allowed to tapdance on, no point at which we can say for sure that a bravura effect is impermissable.

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