Too Soon? Caught in the Flow of History with United 93 and Three Times
By Fernando F. Croce

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I remember going to a screenwriting class and, as news of the tragedy poured in, the students assembling the outline for a script that had the hijacked plane passengers turning the tables on the abductors, Die Hard-style. A ghoulish exercise, of course, yet, lo and behold, five years later and that picture has been filmed -- United 93 is now boarding theaters, and, if it is too filled with "taste" and "respect" to parachute Harrison Ford into the action, in the end it is just as unclean. A reconstruction, and, lest audiences continue on shouting it's "too soon," a completely scrubbed one, safely leached of historical or political context; overall, the reductive effect is comparable to Mel's spiritually-bankrupt, viscera-soaked Calvary, and, like The Passion of the Christ, Paul Greengrass' 9/11 evocation cannily exploits a subject that comes already embellished by viewers' emotional responses. We know that United Airlines Flight 93 will be one of the airplanes taken over by jihadists that horrible morning, that the Twin Towers will be burning moments after we spot them from a window, and that the passengers will revolt and patriotically force the suicide mission into a kamikaze crash. Or do we? Who knows what happened in that flight? Every artist has the right to interpret reality (itself a shaky concept) his or her way, but I start to get uneasy when Greengrass' version of the events, a slow-mo death march about as soulful as a Michael Bay smash-a-ton, gets hushed hosannas for its "inspiring truth."

Greengrass, having recreated Ireland's 1972 Derry massacre in Bloody Sunday (and, subsequently, the supple genre calisthenics of The Bourne Supremacy), knows how to raid Gillo Pontecorvo's docudrama aesthetic in Battle of Algiers for facile immediacy, even while professing scrupulous neutrality toward his filmic memorials. Yet every stylistic choice is a moral (or, here, immoral) one -- choosing the low angle to guide the terrorists into the plane further plays on viewers' dread, just as the frenzied montage of the passengers' "Let's roll" mutiny provides the ejaculatory release to cap all the tightening-the-screws manipulation that preceded it. Families of the victims have approved of the movie's cautious tastefulness, but what good is a tasteful work of art, particularly when dealing with a subject that demands inquiry instead of fastidious morbidity? The approach shades into callous cruelty -- the cruelty of reducing the passengers to a big, faceless bunch, the cruelty of having one of the flight attendants say "I wish I were with my babies" as the plane takes off, the cruelty of having real-life FAA national operations manager Ben Sliney play himself while reenacting traumas experienced first-hand. Most of all, the cruelty of riding people's feelings toward the tragedy without generating a single illuminating moment. A black hole in artistic and human terms, United 93 isn't one artist's personally felt reaction to history, merely a commercial packaging of grief from a system bent on perpetuating fear, not the least in critics.

*

No need to squeeze the audience's arm via epileptic cameras for Hou Hsiao-hsien: the Taiwanese doyen gets the most striking effects from a girl brushing her hair, or an elderly storyteller recalling a cure for fever. The characters in Three Times, no less than the ones in United 93, are caught in the pitiless flow of history, though whereas Greengrass' faux-documentary eye shrinks the zeitgeist to a mournful thrill-ride, Hou's formalism enlarges single moments into whole epochs. So it goes with the billiards parlor opening, Shu Qi and Chang Chen performing a shy romance call as ritualized as the pool playing, all wrapped in one take timed to the entirety of the Platters' "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" -- the 1960s. Or 1966, to be specific, the first of the Times in which the couple is teleported through the years, each segment a poem on the director's beloved motifs of connection and ennui, freedom and evanescence. Indeed, the first segment is dubbed "A Time for Love," by itself a crystalline display of the filmmaker's matchless emotional and spatial talents. Shu keeps scores at a small-town pool room, recently recruited Chang ambles in, timid flirting ensues, and promises for the future; separation then, and a search for reconnection. The tender tone, just as nostalgic as Wong Kar-wai's, posits the eponymous "Love" possibly as Hou's own, caressingly remembered with all its heartbreaking awareness of transience summed visually under an umbrella, "Rain and Tears" as one hand reaches for the other sublimely.

A "Time for Freedom" is the subtitle of the second panel, set in corseted 1911, though the title is no more ironic than the tinkling piano accompaniment Hou employs for his silent-movie images. Taiwan is under Japan's rule, news from the outside brought into the stifling brocades of a high-class brothel by Chang, decked in period silks and a pigtail as a revolutionary-minded newspaper writer, drinking tea while watching Shu as a demure courtesan singing to him. Compositions of exquisite oppression, a still-life of a steaming kettle, the supreme control of gesture and ritual -- Flowers of Shanghai territory, characters suppressed within an indoors life cycle. From pregnant stasis to meaningless movement with "A Time for Youth," Shu and Chang whooshing through Taipei streets in a motorcycle; it's 2005, so, even though the pair (she a warbling, bisexual clubber and he a photographer this time) is soon seen fucking in a messy apartment, the two are separated by a continuous barrage of cell phone messages, e-mail, and the frenzied, neon-lit alienation of modern-day Taiwan. "No past, no future, just a greedy present" is scrawled on a website screen, and for the most temporally sensitive of living directors it's this distance from cultural roots that constitutes the characters' ultimate tragedy, no freer than the boxed-in courtesan of the previous incarnation. Hou never presses anything too hard, yet Three Times is devastating, a ravishing elegy to the cycles of life and, in an era of pervasive amnesia, the essential role of history. A lambent film.

*

Back to America, and back to 9/11 baggage, for Hard Candy. The boyish shag of star Ellen Page is attributed to Jean Seberg, though it's no coincidence that she resembles Pvt. Lynndie England at Abu Ghraib, so David Slade's meretricious Venus-flytrap thriller appropriately follows suit as a torture mechanism. It opens with a chatroom screen dripping with innuendo, a cyber talk between a 14-year-old gamine (Page) and Patrick Wilson, a thirtysomething photographer; the two are quickly sharing a chocolate cake before heading out to his large, isolated house. A "missing" poster is glimpsed, and blown-up jailbait pictures adorn the walls, but Little Red grabs the controls before this Wolf can show his perv-side -- a drugged cocktail lands Wilson on the ground, and he awakens to find himself strapped to a chair, his crotch exposed for what the avenging nymph dubs a little bit of "preventive maintenance." From there, it's just a monotonous marathon of prolonged agony and power shifts, seasoned with spurious provocation and rigorously devoid of any real insight. (Who is this squeaky, castrating angel? "I am every little girl you've ever watched, touched," etc.) Slick slime wrapped as a high-toned, girl-power shocker, although Nabokov-meets-Saw must have sounded like a sweet pitch.


Reviewed May 4, 2006.

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