posterIt has been almost 30 years since performance artist/musician Laurie Anderson directed a movie about herself. What a leap in perspective is Heart of a Dog, a cinematically poetic meditation on love, death, government surveillance, Buddhism and her own upbringing in a house of seven children.

Anderson recently endured some heavy losses in her life, her husband Lou Reed and her rat terrier Lolabelle. Death is a heavy thing and does not have meaning without life. Regrets, ghosts and Anderson’s upbringing as part of a large nuclear family with a mother she wasn’t sure really loved her, not to mention NSA surveillance, all thus heavily figure into this ingenious, free-associative documentary.

On her record albums, Anderson’s existential concerns have long been on display. On her 1982 avant-garde pop music debut, Big Science, song titles like, “Born, Never Asked” and lyrics like “You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling,” capture the simple but rich ideas Anderson has long experimented with. It may seem as though she has devoted her career to turning the big questions of life and experience into art. Her musings have grown much more sophisticated, even wittier over time but no less embracing of the great mystery of the ominous inexorable punctuation point to life and how these two notions weave together.

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As with her thoughts, Anderson’s distinctive sing/speak voice is also present in the film with all its soothing character, kicking the film off with thoughts like, “What are the very last things that you say in your life? What are the very last things that you say before you turn into dirt?” She composed her own score whose melodies come from cello and violin but also feature samples of nature and helicopter propellers mixed with quiet, synthesized drones. The opening titles feature a minor key melody but also a bright quality, reflexive of the dichotomy of exuberance of life and the sadness of loss.

Visually, there is a similar musical quality to Heart of a Dog. The film feels like a sprightly montage of Anderson’s paintings, photos and video of Lolabelle mixed with liberal images of beautiful plays on light through the filter of decayed, damaged film stock or images of rain-speckled sepia windows. The worn still film images of Lolabelle in happier times frolicking in the meadow or home video of Anderson’s siblings on decayed 16mm home movies, slowed down to highlight blurry figures of people, also represent mortality in the decay, similar to the films of avant-garde filmmaker Bill Morrison.

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Anderson’s voice, soft and clear in its delivery, over these expressive images feels like guided meditation. Anderson has always sung/spoken with a relaxed, staccato, even deadpan tone, but it has grown less antsy over the years. She also has an amazing sense of humor. Early in the film, she notes the notion that rat terriers are said to understand 500 words. After Sept. 11 — when the oppressive surveillance of Manhattan inspires Anderson to escape to seaside California meadows — she decides she will spend some time figuring out exactly what those 500 words are. Another fine example of Anderson’s humor uses a series of famous quotes by Ludwig Wittgenstein, where she turns the Austrian philosopher’s thoughts that experience is limited by language, into one of the biggest jokes of the movie. This, in turn, becomes a triumph for her chosen medium of film and visuals to explore life and death.

Some viewers may find the tangents to concerns of Sept. 11, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the NSA rather oblique. But, as with anything by Anderson, everything is connected. There are inextricable links in the film’s perspective. The green and gray surveillance images are compared to how dogs see the world, linked to another sense: smell. Humans lost their acute sense of smell after learning to walk upright, notes Anderson. There is also a sense of humanity lost in the surveillance images, with their wide, all-seeing gaze on traffic. They take in so much information that is never processed as anything more than data, removed of the human experience that we filter through stories we tell, whose details, both chosen and ignored create false impressions. Both have detriments when taken on their own, but what if we were aware of both, could it make life and death easier to understand? Death matters. Images matter. Music matters. Stories matter. They are life and give death and love value.

Hans Morgenstern

Heart of a Dog runs 75 minutes and is not rated (it may have some rare cases of some salty language). It opens in our Miami area this Friday, Dec. 11, at the Coral Gables Art Cinema; further north, in Broward County, it opens at the Cinema Paradiso Fort Lauderdale. It continues its run theatrically in South Florida on Dec. 18 at O Cinema Wynwood and the Lake Worth Playhouse. On Dec. 25 it begins its run at the Living Room Theater in Boca Raton. Finally, it opens Dec. 27 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For dates in other U.S. cities, visit this link.  All images courtesy of the film’s distributor, Abramorama. The Coral Gables Art Cinema provided a screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Edgar Ramiraz in Zero Dark ThirtyWhen I got the assignment to interview Édgar Ramírez for his small but key role in Zero Dark Thirty, I jumped at the chance. I respected this actor immensely for what he brought to the title character of Carlos the Jackal in the miniseries Carlos (2011). I caught that film as a marathon cinematic  five-and-a-half-hour experience at the Bill Cosford Cinema on the University of Miami Coral Gables campus. I came for the filmmaking of Olivier Assayas but was blown away by the performance by Ramírez.

Though an hour late to start, the low-key but charming Ramírez made the resulting round table interview with a group of five other local journalists a pleasure. The resulting piece was published early yesterday morning for the “Miami New Times” Arts and Entertainment blog “Cultist.” I think the story I wrote up captures the subtle intelligence and charm of this talented man. Read it by jumping though the blog’s logo here:

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Of course, plenty more information was covered, so allow this blog post to stand as a supplement to the above piece. I was interested in the working relationship between director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal, as much has been about the writer’s constant presence on the set (here’s a great “Hollywood Reporter” article about it).

“He was always around,” Ramírez confirmed of Boal. “He’s very involved. It was a huge privilege to have the writer there, in case we needed to change something, in case a line was not working. Then, you could always discuss it with the writer, so it’s always very helpful, and you don’t get that privilege very often to have the writer on set. For me, it was very helpful also because it was a very fast-changing situation, and also because of the location we were at, the tension that was there because of the stakes, then we had to change and re-shape things as we were shooting, so it was great to have that.”

Ramírez also noted Boal’s producer credit, a rare thing for a writer to achieve in a Hollywood picture. However, Ramírez said, Bigelow had a firm hand on the visual elements and working with actors. 1134604 - Zero Dark Thirty“She’s directing. She’s directing the movie. She’s directing the actors, and Mark is there to support as a producer and to support as a writer when we needed him for something … There are certain things that look great on paper, then, for some reason, they don’t get to fully work on a scene, so it is great to have someone who understands, who has an overview of the whole script, who can tell you, ‘Well, this is what you should say because everything was related to something in other places of the script.’ Sometimes you can improvise things on movies, you get stuck, then you improvise, but in a movie like this, so accurate and based on firsthand accounts, you could not take the liberty of just changing one term for another.”

Another good question worth noting, which circled back to his role of playing Carlos the Jackal, is how the film handles history. He offered a very astute observation that too many take for granted while watching what is ultimately entertainment. In my review of the film (‘Zero Dark Thirty’ brings obsession with elusive truth to vivid light) I link to an interview with Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School and editor of “The Torture Papers.” Jason-Clarke-Zero-Dark-ThirtyShe argues that history remains unclear on how fruitful torture was for crucial information in the tracking of Osama bin Laden. Yet one of the reasons the film has received so much heat for the torture scenes is that they result in the first utterance of the name Abu Ahmed, bin Laden’s courier, who ultimately leads CIA operatives, including the character Ramírez plays, to bin Laden’s hideout.

Though, again, more information can be found in the “Cultist” piece on how he felt about the torture scenes of Zero Dark Thirty, Ramírez put the narrative into perspective: “We were recreating reality. It’s impossible to reconstruct reality. It happened once. What you do is re-interpret, you recreate, and that’s what you try to do. Even if you have the person who lived it, the person who did it next to you, that happens just once, and I know this. I’m familiar with this because of Carlos. We also had first account information, very accurate research and navigation of facts, and however, it was a work of fiction. There’s no way to imitate reality because it’s not about imitation, it’s about realization.”

So, ultimately, remember, it’s just a movie.

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Zero_Dark_Thirty_posterZero Dark Thirty hits theaters in limited release tomorrow riding a wave of critical buzz but also controversy. Having had the opportunity to attend a preview screening early last month by the invitation of Sony Pictures, I can understand why both the hype and concern would crop up. The film opens with 20 minutes of the intense and persistent torture of a prisoner by CIA operatives that had me noting the duration of these scenes when they finally ended. Media analysts and even political figures have protested that the film endorses torture. The filmmakers, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have been on the defensive ever since.

No matter what anyone says, the answer to the question in a film about linking together pieces for a greater whole, comes from one’s ability to put together the film’s components. It’s a poetic notion for this episodic film that covers 10 years of investigations that led Seal Team 6 to Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan. The film sets out a clear correlation to the end result with its first narrative scenes: the torture of a man called Ammar (Reda Kateb) at a “black site” in an “undisclosed location.” Secrecy and mystery abound in this film, even though everyone now knows how it ends. But it’s all about finding meaning in associations in the selective dramatization of events, from the vivid recordings of suffering and panic during the Sept. 11 attacks against a pitch black screen in place of the opening credits to the film’s final emotive shot of the its key character played by Jessica Chastain with a concentrated potency that belies a human fragility transcending gender.

The drama of this film lies in the main character’s zeal to keep alive what she believes are credible clues in the face of countering facts and doubts by everyone around her. Throughout the film, the CIA operative Maya (Chastain) tries to keep her beliefs alive by repeating her information to any doubters. The truth lies within her repetition of the importance of a courier’s name gleaned from Ammar, the man so thoroughly tortured by Maya’s PhD-holding colleague Dan (Jason Clarke) during the film’s opening scenes.

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Dan is vividly established as a genius at his craft. “In the end, everybody breaks, bro. It’s biology,” he tells a wiped out Ammar strung up by his arms in a large, cavernous cell. Maya stands in the background throughout most of these scenes that span the gamut of all torture techniques you have ever heard about. Though Dan coolly repeats lines like “When you lie to me, I hurt you” to  Ammar, Maya stands back. She recoils from the beatings, waterboarding and humiliation Ammar endures.

What Maya’s face shows is put into words by a soldier who observes Dan toying with monkeys in a cage outside another black site: “You agency guys are twisted.” In the end, as Dan predicts, Ammar breaks. It looks like kindness finally does it. Maya and Dan sit with him outside in the sun, as Ammar enjoys a meal and spits out various names. But that does not discredit any contribution of the torture prior: the beatings, the degradation and sleep deprivation all build up to the relief of this meal out of the binds. Though Maya recoiled in the early scenes of torture, she is all too eager to reap the rewards after Ammar settles down to name names, including that of the courier who ultimately led the CIA to bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan: Abu Ahmed.

The middle of the film is all about keeping that name relevant. The names of Ahmed and bin Laden appear in subtitles during many other interrogation videos Maya watches (again, the association of torture and relevant information). Zero-Dark-Thirty_10However, the film also spends lots of time throwing up obstacles of relevance against that name. She is told she is “chasing a ghost” by both terror suspects and colleagues alike. Her station chief, Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler), tells her, “You’re fucking out of your mind.” However, while Bradley plays politics, Maya persists, even as her clues seem to crumble around her. This middle part of Zero Dark recalls David Fincher’s slippery use of clues and obsession that fueled his underrated 2007 masterpiece Zodiac. Though lives are lost and even her life winds up on the line, Chastain plays Maya with edgy stoicism throughout, earning the film’s closing shot powerfully. This mission is all the emotional attachment she needs, and in uncharacteristic Hollywood fashion, no love interest is involved. Women will love her for her power as a strong self-supporting female, and men will love her for the power she brings to statements like “I’m going to smoke everybody involved in this op, and then I’m gonna kill bin Laden.”

It all leads up to that grand finale when Maya’s information leads Seal Team 6 to the complex bin Laden has hidden away in. This is when the score of Alexandre Desplat swells up to swirling strings and the cinematography and editing takes over. 1134604 - Zero Dark ThirtySeal Team 6 becomes an extension of Maya’s fatal reach. The men are obscured by night vision goggles and heavy gear. The darkness of the scene is all shifting shadows. The distinctive voices of Chris Pratt and Joel Edgerton sometimes stand out, and close up views of their eyes are some of the brief glimpses of humanity in the film’s most cold and distant yet intense scene. Little terse whispers of “Khalid” and “Osama” by the soldiers lead to fatal mistakes by those hiding inside who dare to peek around corners before precision-like shots and double taps take out the near helpless targets. It’s a brilliantly choreographed and well-earned climax to a film that has earned the recognition and buzz leading up to awards season. It should be an interesting contender for Bigelow and Boal who once again prove they are a directing/writing team to contend with when it comes to intimate war films.

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer:

Zero Dark Thirty is Rated R (these are some angry people throwing angry words and acting angry) and runs 157 min. It opens in limited release in only two theaters in South Florida this Friday, Jan. 4: the AMC Aventura and the Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton. The following Friday the film will open wide at most theaters.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)