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10 09, 2017

The Unknown Known (2014) — Dir. Errol Morris

By | 2017-09-11T11:25:10+00:00 September 10th, 2017|Categories: #8 WHY WE FIGHT|Tags: , , |0 Comments

© The Unknown Known — Errol Morris/Radius-TWC

2014, 96 minutes

With The Unknown Known, Morris continues his analysis of high-profiled bureaucrats, as he paints the portrait of Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under President Ford in the 1970s, and under President W. Bush in the year 2000s. A leading neoconservative voice and ruthless advocate of hawkish policies, Rumsfeld quickly became one of the most recognizable architects of the costly U.S. ‘War on Terror.’ Following his examination of prison guard misconduct in Abu Ghraib in the 2008 film Standard Operating Procedure, Morris offers here a spiritual sequel to The Fog of War, exploring, in a one-on-one conversation, his subject’s career and the war he helped shape.

The title “The Unknown Known,” a play on Rumsfeld’s memorable response at a 2002 press briefing to a question on the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Rumsfeld, in his debates with the press or in his conversation with Morris, never shies away from using the technicalities of language to elude from the disconcerting truth.
In his four-part essay, “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld,” published in the New York Times in 2014, Morris observed, “When I first met Donald Rumsfeld in his offices in Washington, D.C., one of the things I said to him was that if we could provide an answer to the American public about why we went to war in Iraq, we would be rendering an important service. He agreed. Unfortunately, after having spent […] the course of a year interviewing Mr. Rumsfeld, I fear I know less about the origins of the Iraq war than when I started. A question presents itself: How could that be? How could I know less rather than more?” A victim of self-deception and wishful thinking, Rumsfeld appears in the film unable to introspectively reflect upon his past, drawing no further conclusions from the memos he frenetically used to write in the White House or in the Pentagon. These memos—dubbed ‘snowflakes’ because of the white paper they were printed on—serve as the basis for the movie’s narrative structure. As the film unfolds, they reveal how Rumsfeld—despite his intentions to modernise the Pentagon—created a harmful “climate where mistakes could be made with little or no way to correct them.”

Cut down from 33 hours of conversation, Morris deploys in the 105 minutes film all his highly stylized trademark mannerisms—intimate sequences of Rumsfeld in the Interrotron, lush soundtrack by Danny Elfman, selective newsreel close-ups, and archival video and audio footage to name a few. Yet except for some ironic metaphors used to illustrate the possible limitations of Rumsfeld’s obsessive fixation on words—which include sequences of seascapes culminating with an abstract and highly stylized sea of words—Morris remains very much withdrawn from his subject’s narrative. Indeed, contrarily to The Fog of War, Morris allows his subject’s testimony to be delivered almost unobstructed, letting Rumsfeld himself succumb to the contradictions of his own linguistic obfuscations.

By focusing on the architects of the two most controversial wars of modern U.S. history, Morris surely intends for the audience to draw its own conclusions on the existing parallels between Vietnam and Iraq. From neither a strategic context nor an operational standpoint does there appear to be any strong resemblance between the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the latter having been modelled as a reverse image of the first. Yet, from a political standpoint, both wars present compelling similarities that reveal an ideological blindness to the destructive character of imperialism among the heights of the U.S. government. As we learned with The Pentagon Papers, avoiding defeat in Vietnam quickly became the predominant U.S. war aim—with McNamara pressing publicly for an expanding commitment of U.S. troops while deeply disillusioned, since 1965, about the prospects of the war. In the case of the ‘War on Terror,’ the U.S. moved from Afghanistan—a historically complex country to strategically control—over to Iraq, which provided much richer material to legitimize further military actions by the U.S. government, under a supposedly messianic agenda.

Despite the obvious political failures of the ‘War on Terror,’ Rumsfeld remains absolutely convinced of his own rectitude, having no remorse whatsoever throughout the duration of the film. While McNamara appears in The Fog of War somewhat capable of self-analysis as he admits to some wrongdoing, Rumsfeld, on the contrary, is seemingly unwilling—or unable—to engage in self-reflection, let alone self-criticism. Even when discussing the photographs of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib, Rumsfeld remains evasive, shifting the discussion on technical issues, and employing the same insensitive and spiritless language he had initially used in his attempt to mitigate the gravity of the offence. “My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe, technically, is different from torture,” he told reporters after the scandal erupted, as if this contrast would make any difference to Arab minds. While such a technicality might influence an Army judge in a military tribunal, it represented inconsiderate rationalization for a nation shocked by pictures representing the sexual abuse of its men. Indeed, the U.S.’s self-absorbed reaction to the abuses—epitomized here by Rumsfeld’s response—only added fuel to the raging fire.

Ultimately, as Morris observed in ‘The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld,’ Rumsfeld created a climate in which “absence of evidence could be evidence of absence or evidence of presence […] An obscurantist’s dream.[…] It’s not the more familiar version of evil, but evil as a kind of disengagement and thoughtlessness. I’ve coined a new phrase for it, ‘the venality of evil’.”

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10 09, 2017

The Inextinguishable Fire (1969) — Dir. Harun Farocki

By | 2017-09-10T17:37:53+00:00 September 10th, 2017|Categories: #8 WHY WE FIGHT|Tags: , , |0 Comments

© The Inextinguishable Fire—Harun Farocki

1969, 25 minutes

In The Inextinguishable Fire, Harun Farocki’s analysis of Dow Chemical’s ambiguous bureaucratic development of Napalm B, the German filmmaker is clearly working from the skeptical assumption that a display of the horrendous effects of chemical warfare in Vietnam would be a sufficient instigator of change. Suspicious of the image and its modes of production, Farocki—in a constant search for truth— deconstructs, fictionalizes and reconstructs archives of film history to examine our role as part of a society that needs revising. Refusing to submit himself to the ‘compassionate voyeurism’ often found in contemporary representations of war on television and in films, Farocki tackles in this piece one of the most controversial political questions—the production of terror—and simmers it down to synthetic, rationale substance.

Produced in 1969 during the height of the protests against the war in Vietnam, the film is divided into three parts. In Part One, Farocki, donning a suit and tie, sits at a bare desk and reads a text. Cast as a grim television news anchor, he recites the poignant testimony of That Binh Danh, a Vietnamese man who experienced firsthand the horrid effects of Napalm: “Napalm burned my face, both arms and legs. […] For thirteen days, I was unconscious.” Farocki then turns away from the text, looks into the camera for the first time, and asks, “How can we show you the damage caused by Napalm?” Evidently worried about the way images can deplete space for critical thinking, Farocki is deeply committed to offering knowledge to the audience in a clear and engaging form, ‘incorporating a Brechtian desire for a synthetical approach to the language of cinema’ (“in order for it to persist”). Talking directly to the audience, he concludes:

When we show you pictures of napalm victims, you’ll shut your eyes. You’ll close your eyes to the pictures. Then you’ll close them to the memory. And then you’ll close your eyes to the facts. Then you’ll close your eyes to the entire context. If we show you a person with napalm burns, we will hurt your feelings. If we hurt your feelings, you’ll feel as if we’ve tried napalm out on you, at your expense. We can give you only a hint of an idea of how napalm works.

Clearly aware that relying on the power of images to create an emotional response—whether an excess or lack of—is too narrow a view, the filmmaker refrains from making any sort of emotional appeal to reach the viewer. From Farocki’s monotone voice, to the thorough scientific description of napalm and its effects (temperature, chemical composition, consequences of gas emanations, etc.), no emotion seems to transpire in the documentary essay. Yet, while the film appears on the surface quite didactic—especially as Farocki, sitting across the table like an anchorman, addresses the viewer in a mechanical way—a sense of urgency never disappears. This is particularly visible when Farocki, definitively more punk than what his preppy schoolboy attitude may at first have indicated, promptly puts out a burning cigarette butt on his forearm, ingeniously forcing the viewer to connect a very palpable sensation with the unimaginable reality and pain of victims of napalm.

“If viewers want nothing to do with the effects of napalm, then it is important to determine what they already have to do with the reasons for its use.”

Part Two, the longest of the three parts, is staged in a Dow Chemical plant in Michigan. It includes philosophical—and often even rhetorical—conversations between workers, scientists, engineers, plant managers and government officials about Napalm’s relations with the military-industrial complex. Through the seemingly disinterested actors playing the role of Dow Chemical employees, the spectators are taken through the chain of events in the creation and production of Napalm B. In addition to the actors’ impersonal performances and highly stylized dialogues, Farocki includes actual documentary footage of U.S. nightly news television reports on Vietnam. As the camera zooms in on a television screen, images of the Vietnam War start filling the space. Much like Marx’s distinction between essence and appearance, Farocki argues here that this documentary footage does not necessarily indicate what should truly matter for the viewers—namely, the conditions and context that led to the production of such images. On the contrary, the profusion of these documentary images often only serves the interests of the capitalist forces in place, and contributes to the reproduction and reinforcement of pre-existing social conditions.

The commentary provided by the journalists narrating the footage—from the number of casualties to the effectiveness of Napalm—further reinforces Farocki’s critique over the framing and manipulation of images by the media. Chemists, scientists, plant managers, and workers are either terrified (“Nothing but blood, hunger, misery, violence”) or desensitized by the images of war they see (“Darling, I’m so terribly cold”), but they refuse to acknowledge their culpability in the mass- production of these atrocities until it is “too late.”

Part Three of The Inextinguishable Fire changes locales; the action is now set in the washroom of a vacuum cleaner factory. The first character, portraying a worker, explains that since his wife wants to purchase a vacuum cleaner, he has been stealing one component everyday at the factory in the goal of reassembling at home the domestic object. Yet no matter what he does, the product of the reassembly “always turns into a submachine gun.“ The second character, a student, is convinced that the vacuum cleaner factory where he works is actually “making submachine guns for the Portuguese.” In an attempt to expose the treacherous vacuum company, he steals parts everyday to recreate the weapon at home. Yet, no matter what he does, the product always turns into a vacuum cleaner. The third character, an engineer, reveals that the “vacuum cleaner can become a useful weapon”, and the submachine gun “a useful household gadget.” Through the repetition of sequences, the rhythmic reiteration of linguistic elements, and the use of three characters—a worker, a student, and an engineer—played by the same actor, Farocki demonstrates that all are implicated, intentionally or not, in the global military-industrial complex.

Rather than explicitly demonstrating the atrocities of napalm in action, the film reveals a larger system of capitalist complicity within which the viewer unconsciously takes part, and provokes a deeper reflection on the ethics and uses of labor. Viewers quickly realize the evident connections between the atrocities of war committed in Vietnam and regular individual citizens. As a result of the “increasing global division of labor,” the people have become less aware of the part they play in producing mass terror throughout the world. Yet Napalm B, like many other weapons of mass destruction in our society, is in the end—as the film states—“the product of the workers, students and engineers.”

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10 09, 2017

The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. Macnamara (2003) — Dir. Errol Morris

By | 2017-09-10T17:38:27+00:00 September 10th, 2017|Categories: #8 WHY WE FIGHT|Tags: , , |0 Comments

© The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. Macnamara — Errol Morris/Sony Pictures Classics

2003, 95 minutes

With The Fog of War, Errol Morris delves deep into the complexity of the human psyche, examining the life and actions of one of the most influential and controversial figures of his time: Robert Strange McNamara.

A former president of Ford Automotive Company and
 Secretary of Defense for both Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara—aged 85 in the film—offers his account of some of the most politically charged events of the last century, as he remembers participating in them. Here, Morris achieves what he was not able to do prior; that is, to organize the movie around one individual and exclusively focus on his testimony as sole narrator of the film. McNamara’s subjectivity and personal memories become opportunities for Morris to investigate the internal ways in which his subject sees and tries to grapple with the outside world—and the implications of his mindset in the devastating decisions made under his control. Arguably qualifying for prosecution as war criminal by his own uncomfortable admission, McNamara repeatedly dismissed principles of international humanitarian law—like the rule of proportionality—in the name of instrumental rationality. A ‘heartless’ bureaucrat obsessed with producing quantifiable results, McNamara surely epitomizes the idea that great evil may arise from the false assumptions of otherwise rational beings.

Cut from more than twenty hours of interview footage, The Fog of War is structured around eleven lessons that Morris has plucked out of McNamara’s observations. These lessons—all rippling with irony in their contradictions, according to Morris—allow the audience to better understand the mindset in which McNamara operates, and the possible limitations of his expertise. “Get the data” and “Maximize efficiency,” for example, provide an introspective view of McNamara’s highly calculated way of thinking, while simultaneously revealing the disastrous consequences—in Japan or Vietnam—of his single-minded emphasis on quantifiable data. Other lessons like number eleven, “You can’t change human nature,” are decisively more ambiguous, especially put in contrast with the alleged repentance of the subject in this confessional with the camera.
In order to better investigate the interplay between history and subjectivity, the chronology of the film is fragmented, woven in a temporal back-and forth that connects distant events in time. This subjective juxtaposition of time creates a space for critical reflection, allowing the audience to further reflect upon McNamara’s observations, and their relevance in today’s world.

As noted above, McNamara’s running commentary functions as the backbone of the film’s narrative structure. Yet while he admits guilt in some instances (“we behave like war criminals”), and even breaks down at other times (as he talks about the death of President Kennedy or the negative toll on his family caused by his high profile position), McNamara is still very much in control, presenting a side of history that may diverge from the historical truth in an effort at self-preservation. While some have criticized Morris—an anti-war protester during the height of the Vietnam War—for allowing McNamara’s testimony to go unchallenged, the film’s formal voice is actually not McNamara’s, despite being the only person interviewed. Morris employs in The Fog of War a wide range of stylistic devices that investigate the claims made by the narrator, and questions their veracity. Herein, we will examine some of the devices used by Morris to create distance from McNamara, his subject.

When discussing issues of truth and subjectivity in The Fog of War, one should first note that McNamara’s influence on the film’s structure as sole narrator does not hinder Morris’s ability to conduct an independent character study of his subject. Although Morris remains off-screen throughout the movie—his voice being the sole indicator of his physical presence—his control over McNamara’s power of representation is clearly apparent. Starting with the opening scene, a grainy television recording from a 1960s press conference, in which a young McNamara, standing beside a map of Vietnam, is preparing to speak about the war. As he adjusts the height of the chart, we can hear him ask the people gathered in the room whether they can see the map clearly or would like it lowered. He then directly asks the TV Crew whether everything is “ready—all set?”. Morris then abruptly cuts to black, music by Philip Glass begins, and the credit sequence starts rolling. To begin to access McNamara’s subjectivity, Morris here explicitly presents ways in which McNamara is constantly performing. Moments later, McNamara—now much older—appears again, this time in Morris’s studio using the Interrotron. He proceeds to ask Morris if he is ready, the latter replying with frustrated affirmation before cutting the image back to black again. McNamara then declares: “Now I remember exactly the sentence I left off on, I remember how it started. You can fix it up some way. I don’t want to go back and introduce the sentence, because I know exactly what I wanted to say.” By not “fixing” it, Morris is actively fighting the constructed persona McNamara wants to present and fully wresting control of McNamara’s representation away from him.

As the opening also announces, Morris uses archival video and audio footage throughout the movie to help contextualise McNamara’s persona and commentaries. Whether McNamara speaks of his youth during WWI, his involvement in the firebombing of Tokyo, or the escalation of the Vietnam War two decades later, historical documents often conform to his words in surprisingly precise synchronicity. These documents also expose at times some of the contradictions and mistakes in McNamara’s narrative, opening interpretations about the (un)reliability of his own subjectivity. Talking about his involvement in the firebombing of Tokyo, McNamara at one point tries to absolve himself from some of the responsibility, arguing to the camera “I don’t want to suggest that it was I who put in [United States Air Force General Curtis] LeMay’s mind that his operations were totally inefficient and [had] to be drastically changed. But anyhow, that’s what he did.” Morris follows this denial of guilt with a montage of McNamara’s signatures on official documents. Though the signatures do not explicitly and conclusively undermine McNamara’s claims about the limited impact of his recommendations to LeMay, the montage suggests that McNamara may have been more influential than what he presently recalls in front of Morris’s camera.

Finally, Morris repeatedly employs ironic visualisations and powerful metaphors to take distance from McNamara. Dominos falling over a map of Asia for example, not only illustrate the Cold War foreign policy theory on the influence of communism, but also expose the erroneous assumptions that led to the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Ultimately, the most chilling and horrifying images in The Fog of War are numbers; blue digits falling out like bombs over the city of Tokyo. After a dramatic sequence that links each of the 67 Japanese cities bombarded during the war with American cities of comparable size and population, the blue grease-penciled numbers come as a powerful reminder of the limitations of McNamara’s analytical mind.

By elevating instrumental rationality over other alternative analytical approaches—McNamara used numbers to somehow ‘depoliticize’ politics, removing conrstraining issues from the realm of ethics to the domain of seemingly objective, scientific problem solving. In converting the “unthinkable” into a technical and impersonal resource allocation problem, he allowed the banality of evil to permeate the Department of Defense, resulting in the unnecessary implementation of countless devastating policies in Japan and Vietnam.

Ultimately though, The Fog of War—one part lecture, one part confessional—is also a story of repentance, with McNamara admitting some failures of imagination and wrongdoings during his time in Washington. At least, McNamara appears somewhat capable of self-analysis and self-criticism—something not many other politician have been inclined to do.

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