The path from Stop Making Sense to Storefront Hitchcock and now Neil Young: Heart of Gold marks not just a director's trajectory but the progression of life. Each is a luminous work, celebratory of music, art and human potential, all recordings of artists at work yet of a piece with the vision of Jonathan Demme, possibly American cinema's most radiant living humanist. Life and its wondrous flowerings, bright and dark, are Demme's ongoing themes, although the mortality hanging pervasively over the director's lovely film of Young's August 2005 concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville must come from its subject. The singer, now 60, had been diagnosed with a brain aneurism, and his album "Prairie Wind" is crammed with references to the ephemerality of existence, ticking clocks and time lived, "It's only a dream/Just a memory fading away." Young looks wizened in the back of his taxi in the video prologue; a perfectly full moon blesses the event from the sky, and the curtains are parted for Demme's camera to track towards the stage and find Young, burly, sideburned, cowboy hat and wrinkled gray suit, standing tall in front of a big backdrop scrim. "If you follow every dream/You might get lost" goes the song, but to dream is to live, and the man who looked like a serial killer in Year of the Horse is here grizzled yet rubicund, haunted yet tranquil, sorta like Andy Devine in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another sublime valedictory.
The Stetson is tipped to father ("I'm trying to remember what my daddy said"), daughter ("You might say I'm here for you"), spiritual forefather Hank Williams ("This old guitar ain't mine to keep"), and pooch ("That old King was a friend of mine"), but Twilight Young is scarcely cuddly. This is the same artist, after all, who made Greendale last year, and whose "The Needle and the Damage Done" is one of the most chilling drug laments on record; Demme, himself 62 and responsible for Melvin and Howard and The Silence of the Lambs (and, above all, the mixture of the extremes in Something Wild), stages the "Harvest Moon" staple as a single setup, the camera tracking forward evocatively, as it did backwards at the close of "I Am a Child," into a needle's eye of a spotlight, Young's face obscured by the hat, only words and emotions in the darkness. The gelid Emmylou Harris, Pegi Young, Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas, Kart T. Himmel and the Fisk University Jubilee Singers share the stage, but the main focus remains on the Southern Man, literally the "Old Man" now -- Young's rendition of that trademark hit acknowledges the irony, not with bitterness but acceptance of the passage of time and, possibly, even death, as the inside of the Ryman shifts from mock-prairie to stained-glass church. A communal bow to the audience in the shadows, then one final performance, "The Old Laughing Lady," with Young with glasses and no hat, picking his guitar to an empty house as the credits scroll. Keith Uhlich, characteristically alert and soulful, identified it at Slant as Heaven; I see it as Earth, transformed by the serenity of age.
Neil Young: Heart of Gold offers personal and spiritual progression, while Why We Fight, a more somber documentary, argues that some other things, namely America's rapacious war machine, have stayed the same at least since World War II. "Did he envision all wars that were fought in his name," Young asks in "When God Made Me," although the abuse dissected by Eugene Jarecki's inquiry here isn't so much of the Lord's name as okey-dokey seal for institutionalized butchering as of what Dwight Eisenhower (or, rather, his ghost speech-writer) tagged, in his 1961 presidential farewell speech, "the military-industrial complex." Ike warns of its "grave implications," and the picture freeze-frames and cuts to modern-day audiences wowed by whooshing jets and dark clouds emanating from explosions, not to mention videogames, gun fairs and red-white-blue parades, everything stirred together by Jarecki's well-oiled Mooresian montage. The Iraq occupation after 9/11 provides the starting point -- "We had the world behind us... What happened?" A reprise of previous peace-at-the-end-of-a-bayonet interventions in Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile, Afghanistan, Granada, Lebanon, ad infinitum, all to erect the "new Rome," according to political analyst Chalmers Johnson. "Our grandest achievement" is sighed over the atomic cloud mushrooming over Hiroshima, and from then on only smarter and smarter bombs, the unerring efficiency of which is measured over the remains of villages. Civilians, shmilians, as long as the militarist behemoth gets fed.
So why do we fight? Like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the picture sees things as the extension of capitalism, though its scandal of choice is Halliburton, out of which we get "a government contractor as vice-president." Sen. John McCain, William Kristol, Richard Perle, Charles Lewis, Col. Richard Treadway and Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski are among the talking heads weighting in from either sides of the fence; Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld have long had their lies recorded for posterity, so all Jarecki has to do is select the footage. Explicitly linked to the automobile industry, the business of war is fleshed out via a trifurcated narrative, following the two fliers responsible for dropping the first bombs in 2003, an eager young enlistee, and, most notably, Wilton Sekzer, a retired NYPD officer who, having lost one of his sons in the Twin Towers, successfully asked to have the young man's name placed on a missile destined for Iraqi ground, only to feel betrayed when the president later denied the link between the 9/11 attacks and Iraq. Capra's use of the title during WWII gave moral assurance to our fighting forces; Jarecki asks Why We Fight less reassuringly, but, with almost 500 billion to be funneled into the Pentagon this year alone, the machinery of U.S. expansionism provides its own answer. "This doesn't need to be a film," moans Ebert, the top reviewer of the United States of Amnesia, yet can we ask too many questions when "freedom" has become a rug under which dirt is mercilessly swept?
The Pink Panther -- another documentary, this time on Hollywood incompetence. Remaking Blake Edwards' svelte daisy-chain slapstick is a sinking ship of an idea when the one behind the camera is Shawn Levy, putting Steve Martin through Peter Sellers' paces as the epically inept Inspector Clouseau, who can't sign a contract without causing his pen to explode. To be fair, Martin is a huge improvement over Roberto Benigni, who provided the character's unendurable previous incarnation, and the inspector's penchant for pratfalls allows him enough crumbs of physical invention to recall his last great performance, the slaphappy ACME Chairman in Looney Tunes: Back in Action. The enormous Pink Panther diamond is missing, and who's got it? Henry Czerny? Roger Rees? Beyoncé? Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Kevin Kline, a fellow stranded farceur) doesn't care as long as he gets his medal, and stooge Clouseau gets the boot; Jean Reno and Emily Mortimer are by his side, but nobody can defend the inspector from the avalanche of fumbling gags. Martin has a nearly-sublime moment scrambling to Americanize his pronunciation of "hamburger" (almost a validation of the wanton "funny" French accents), but this Panther is hopelessly defanged and more merde-brown than Pink.
Reviewed February 23, 2006.