Toronto: Tanks for the memories
Wed Sep 16 2009
Elia Suleiman makes deadpan comedies. They're often as witty, at least in terms of pacing and unspoken desperation, as Buster Keaton's stuff—take a look at this image of the director himself, from his latest, The Time That Remains (which rocked the press corps with laughs),and you'll see why he often gets the Great Stone Face comparison. But here's the provocative thing: Suleiman's subject is, and always has been, Palestinian-Israeli relations and Arabic issues. Perhaps black comedy is the only sane response to an insane situation (paging Dr. Strangelove). The Time That Remains, also a sweet ode to the director's Nazareth parents, is filled with small, brilliant set pieces. My favorite has to be the shot of the Palestinian kid pacing back and forth on a cell-phone call, discussing a new dance tune, while a giant Israeli tank follows his head with its enormous turret. Suleiman's character watches from behind a wall; as soon as the clubber departs safely, the tank notices him. To observe is to interfere: Suleiman is turning the political into something extremely hysterical.
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More tanks: Lebanon, set almost entirely inside a grungy Israeli machine of war, won the Venice Film Festival's top prize last week, and deservedly. It's the Das Boot of tank movies, using claustrophobia and disembodied, static-laced voices to suggest a larger sense of metaphysical nervousness. A must-see at the forthcoming New York Film Festival, Lebanon, like the Suleiman comedy, also puts innocents in the crosshairs.
But two new documentaries—both about individuals who place themselves in the scopes, maybe pathologically—seem a lot more timely (and proved more enjoyable). Videocracy, an eerie, atmospheric profile of the media-politico godhead Silvio Berlusconi, is like a Fellini horror movie in documentary form: a real-life La Dolce Vita, utterly cynical and frightening. Filled with wildly gyrating club girls and the men who put them on TV, it captures a climate of total hedonism, doubly depressing for being interchangable with Italy's actual government. Scary and important, the documentary is required viewing for reality-TV addicts and media theorists alike. I'd say it's where America is heading as well, if I didn't think we were already there. Chris Smith's Collapse takes the nerve-racking theories of Michael Ruppert, a doom theorist, and places the chain smoker front and center to deliver them personally for 82 riveting minutes. Ruppert predicted the economic meltdown with great specificity; he also sees the end of police forces, road systems, air-traffic control and capitalism—within the next 20 to 50 years. You can't take your eyes off him, even if he does seem a little crazy. (He's not crazy, just seriously impassioned and probably right.) If you watched Collapse and The Road in a double bill, you'd want to go home and build a bunker.