4/13/03:

I'm really impressed and excited by the high quality of films this year. Today I saw an American documentary and a French detective story, both excellent. Sarah accompanied me to both screenings.

Films I saw today: The Weather Underground, A Private Affair

The Weather Underground

This is another film that I didn't really want to see, but that I ended up seeing and enjoying. It's a documentary that deals with a part of history I knew little about: the social upheaval in America in the late '60s and '70s. Around 1969, a group of mainly white, middle-class kids called the Students for a Democratic Society broke up into a number of different groups, one of which called themselves The Weathermen (they're named after a line in Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues"--"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"). They later changed their name to reflect the fact that they had gone "underground"--meaning, left their lives behind in order to act outside of the knowledge of the authorities. And why did they go underground? Because their primary purpose was the violent overthrow of the United States government. They were a terrorist organization, working under the belief that the U.S. had become so corrupt and evil that the only way to fix it was to destroy it and rebuild it. The main thrust of the film seems to be to discover what drove a bunch of well-off white kids to the point where they felt this kind of action was necessary. The answer seems to be the Vietnam War. Of course, it isn't as simple as that, but in a large part it was the war that fueled their rage, and it was not long after the war that the group disbanded and many of them gave themselves up.

Of course, this film is particularly moving given the current climate in the world today. As in the '60s and '70s, America is right now in the midst of waging a war in another country, and many people here at home and abroad are protesting that war. (In fact I was struck by the similarities between a clip from Nixon's speech shown in the film, wherein the president said he would not be swayed by protestors, and things that George W. Bush has said only recently.) There is also a lot of fear right now that terrorist groups may attempt action against the US. But the terrorists we fear now are not quite like the ones depicted in The Weather Underground. As I said, these are relatively well-to-do American teenagers performing acts of violence against American institutions. What makes the film really interesting is that it includes interviews with many of these key members of the Weather Underground, as they are now. We hear the story from their mouths as they tell it in the present, with the perspective of age, and with many years and changes in between. However, the film is not one-sided, or too distanced in time from its material; also included are many video clips from the era, as well as interviews with the former chairman of SDS (who is understandably hostile to the Weathermen, since they broke up his organization), and with an FBI agent who was out to capture the Weather Underground. And, in fact, some of the members of the Weather Underground themselves have mixed feelings about what they did, and in one particular case, are totally ashamed of their actions.

Near the opening of the film, we are given some vivid background on the situation in America just before the rise of the Weathermen. We see footage from Vietnam, and hear descriptions of the atrocities of that war. Even though I'd seen and heard such things before, I was still somehow not quite prepared for this--it was truly shocking and horrifying. Next we see riots in the streets of America, and scenes of anger and violence all over the world. This footage, as well as the many interviews, gives us the clear sense that these were revolutionary times when everything was in turmoil, and all things--both terrible and wonderful--seemed possible. Strangely enough, the parallel I thought of here was with early Christians. There seemed to be that same sense among the young people of the '60s that some big change was going to go down within their lifetimes, and that it would bring with it an end to the world they knew. As one member says in a recent interview, the revolution seemed days away.

The film does a great job of setting this scene. It is completely absorbing and fascinating from beginning to end, pulling us right into the world and times of the Weathermen. We come to understand their frustration and rage (though perhaps not wholly sympathize with the actions that were their response to those emotions). The Weathermen see themselves as only one part of a global movement. As one of them says, in a speech from the era, it's time for the white people to join their black, brown, and yellow brothers in revolution, before they get left behind. The Weathermen considered themselves close allies with the Black Panthers (although, as another interview from the time shows, the Black Panthers did not always agree). They didn't want to just change one thing, but everything. They also saw themselves allied with the prison population, and supported prisoners' demands for better treatment. They were also, in a way, part of the women's liberation movement; some of their most prominent and important members were women. Not surprisingly, the Weathermen also dabbled in sex and drugs (we hear a journal entry from a member of the time describing an orgy; and we hear the story of how the Weathermen helped free Timothy Leary from jail). In a lot of ways, the Weathermen were at the center of American culture in the late '60s and early '70s. They became a symbol of all different kinds of revolution. But they weren't just a symbol; they were a real live terrorist organization, and the film does not let us forget that. These kids weren't used to doing violence--they had to psych themselves up to it--but they managed well enough. As one of them says in a recent interview, the war in Vietnam had driven them all a little crazy. They had seen what was going on, and they didn't like it, so they decided to act. They started with simple acts of vandalism, breaking the windows of stores and cars, but quickly moved up to building bombs, and that's when things started to change.

The chairman of the SDS says in his interview that the Weathermen did the same thing that all of history's greatest killers did--convinced themselves that no one was innocent, and that their cause was more important than human life. And the Weathermen say as much in their interviews. They had decided that the regular citizens of America who sat by and did nothing were also participants in the oppression--that by doing nothing they were fighting on the side of evil. This meant that almost any person could be a victim of the Weathermen's violence. But before the Weathermen got a chance to bring this thought to its conclusion in actual deeds, their own violence backfired on them. One of their cells mistakenly blew itself up with its own bomb. This event was a turning point for them in many ways. It was around this time that the government saw that this group was really a threat; that they had the means and the will to do real damage. And the Weathermen also realized with this event that they didn't want blood on their hands. They decided that they would go through with their plan of strategic bombings, but that everything would be timed and prepared carefully and precisely so that no one would be injured--only buildings and symbols of government oppression would be destroyed, no people. Also, now that it was clear that the government was aware of them as a real threat, it was time to go underground.

The film goes on to chronicle the many bombings that the Weather Underground successfully performed. One former member pointed out at the beginning of his interview that he could talk in general about the bombings that he had been a part of, but that he could not give any specifics, for obvious reasons--now we see the results of his work. As they had planned, the Weather Underground never hurt anyone, and, even more amazing, none of the main members of the group were ever captured by the FBI. They successfully eluded the government for many years, until in the mid to late '70s, after the war in Vietnam was over, they started to come out of hiding and give themselves up. They were tired of living like criminals, and with the war over, it seemed like the reason for their fight was gone. Ironically, even after the Weather Underground members had turned themselves in, the authorities couldn't do much in terms of prosecution, since they themselves had used highly illegal methods in their attempts to apprehend the group.

At this point, the film treats us to a wonderful montage of scenes from the '80s, perhaps trying to show us what the world of that time period must have seemed like to a group of retired terrorists. We see shots of Ronald Reagan intercut with scenes from a Jane Fonda workout video, the soundtrack of which is playing constantly in the background. It seems a rather ironic and cynical view of the '80s--as a decade of emptiness and meaninglessness. The passion and idealism of the '60s and '70s is gone. But then again, so is the violence and turmoil, at least to a certain extent. Things seem rather calm and bland.

And how do the members of the Weather Underground feel now, in this new age, which is not quite the one they thought they were going to bring about? The film answers this question, with further interviews of the members, and a final kind of "where are they now?" montage (this montage, thankfully, is not backed by the soundtrack from a Jane Fonda video, but instead is accompanied by the excellent "Intro" from Sonic Youth's album Bad Moon Rising). It's very strange to see where some of them ended up. Most have continued the fight in their own ways, although one man now works as a math teacher at a community college. When his students ask him what he did in the '60s, they're quite surprised to hear that he was one of the founding members of a terrorist organization whose goal was the violent overthrow of the United States government. This is the man who has perhaps changed the most of all of the members interviewed. He's very ashamed of what he did. Other members are not nearly so regretful; one woman says she would do it all again--perhaps she'd try to do it smarter and better, but she'd definitely do it again. After leaving the Weather Underground, this woman joined various other organizations, and ended up going to jail for some years. In fact, in its concluding sequence the film offers similar revelations about many of the former Weather Underground members. After seeing them and hearing them talk throughout the entire movie, and viewing footage of them from the '60s and '70s, you think you have a sense of who they are, and then you suddenly learn things about them that totally change your perspective. One of the men, who was involved in the bombings, later won a substantial amount of money on the TV quiz show, Jeopardy. The film includes video of his appearance, and I even thought I might have remembered the episode. Another man, who seemed likable and even rather charming during his interview, turns out to have been involved--after his time with the Weather Underground--in an armored car robbery that lead to the murder of a policeman. He had given his interview from inside a jail, where he is currently serving a life sentence.

The Weather Underground is a surprising, informative, thought-provoking film. I'm not sure how impartial an account it is of the group and the times (much of its commentary on the Weather Underground comes from the members themselves, and the few interviews with outsiders are rather short, and at least in the case of the FBI agent, leave the interviewees looking rather foolish), but then again I'm also not sure if it's even trying to be an impartial account, or if it's even possible to have an impartial account, especially of events and issues as charged as the ones depicted here. It does include a great deal of actual video and news footage from the time, and some people consider footage like this to be "true" and "real." But every camera angle and every edit is a choice--a choice to include one thing and leave a lot of other things out. Even documentaries inevitably have particular viewpoints and biases, and tell particular stories which may not necessarily be "the truth." The Weather Underground tells a story of turmoil, rage, violence, and revolution. It also tells a story of regret, sadness, and bitterness. It does not offer any obvious morals or answers. It gives us a compelling view of things, as they were, as they are, and as they could be, and it makes us think. You can't ask for much more from a documentary.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

Interestingly enough, a contemporary revolutionary, obviously aware of what film had been playing inside, had stationed himself outside the theater and was handing out copies of a sort of underground magazine or newspaper. Sarah took one, but after we'd looked it over later, neither of us were very impressed.

We had a long break before our next film, so we took the chance to have dinner and relax. Then it was off to the Prince Music Theater for our final movie of the day.

Back to Top

A Private Affair

The title suggests an exclusive event, or a secret, illicit relationship. It refers to both of these, and more. A Private Affair is a French film (written and directed by Guillaume Nicloux) about hidden things being brought to the surface. But of course, that's only natural, since this is a private (there's that word again) detective story, and ultimately that's what all detective stories are about. It has many other characteristics of the classic noir detective story: a world-weary but implacable anti-hero as our protagonist; a dizzying number of characters, plots, and sub-plots; a descent into the seamy underworld of humanity; a scene in which our hero is beaten to a pulp as a warning to not proceed any further (which he promptly does); lies, secrets and red herrings galore; sex, violence, and freakish behavior; and plenty of freaks, creeps, and thugs. However, whereas most detective stories are rather subtle and secretive about the fact that they are really more about the detective himself (or herself) than they are about the details of the specific case, A Private Affair is quite explicit about it. More than anything else, this is the story of the detective Francois Maneri. The movie follows his investigation into the disappearance of a girl, but really it is an investigation of him: his personality, his life, his secrets.

Which is not to say that the mystery itself is not also entertaining and absorbing; it is. The film begins, like many do, in the middle of the story. Maneri is engaged in one of the main tasks of any detective--he is following someone. We don't know who or why, so the pursuit is almost abstract--in many ways, the film is also an examination of, and ode to, the process and form of a detective film. Soon we flashback to the beginning of the case, and the story really begins. A 22-year-old college student named Rachel has disappeared, and her mother approaches Maneri's agency for help in finding her. She is dissatisfied with the official police investigation and is hopeful that a private detective can uncover something more. Maneri is given the case, but is reluctant to pursue it. The trail is cold by now, and the chance of finding the girl is slim. Finally, after much convincing, he agrees to try it for a few days. At first his investigation is quite perfunctory. He goes about interviewing Rachel's family members and friends, asking them the standard questions seemingly only as a formality, with little interest in the answers. He smokes constantly, barely looking at the people he talks to, flippant and disinterested. But he records the conversations on a tape recorder and plays them back later. In fact, we see many of his interviews in this way; we watch him ask a few questions, hear a few answers, and then later we listen to the tape of the interview, and this time we hear more questions, and in a flashback we see that there were other, more important parts of the conversation that we were not privy to the first time around. The most important parts of the story (including, of course, the disappearance and the mystery itself) have all happened in the past, and are visited as memories. So there is a great deal of jumping about in time. This is not surprising from a French film; many French movies and novels are about time and memory (for example, see Proust's huge, dense cycle of novels Remembrance of Things Past, Chris Marker's La Jetee [the short film that 12 Monkeys was based on], or Alain Resnais's moving Hiroshima Mon Amour and complex Last Year at Marienbad). And many French filmmakers, especially during the French New Wave of the late '50s and '60s, were profoundly influenced by the Hollywood noir detective films of the '40s and '50s (in fact, it was they who coined the term "film noir"), and indeed many of the French filmmakers of the New Wave period made their own stabs at the noir detective film genre. So Maneri's character owes a lot, not only to American detective film characters like Bogart's Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but also to the French New Wave characters based on them. Like many of the main characters from such influential New Wave classics as Breathless, Le Samourai, and even Alphaville, Maneri is a man used to violence; blase, wry and sarcastic; so emptied of emotion, so well-versed in the ways of the world and so bored by them that he seems dead inside. And yet occasionally he does show emotion--very strong emotion, as if for a moment something repressed inside of him, something very hidden and private, has flared up and out to the surface. And unlike those New Wave classics I mentioned, which just seem to wander about pointlessly and then end, without having gotten anywhere, entertained you at all, or said anything of interest (did I mention that I despise French New Wave films?), Private Affair has something to say, and says it in an interesting and entertaining way.

As the story goes on, we realize more and more that Maneri's interviews are being turned back on him. The people he's supposed to be questioning are constantly questioning him, asking him about his job, about his life. What is it really like being a detective? Isn't it terrible to have to annoy people with questions about their personal lives all the time? And Maneri keeps getting more and more personally involved. By the time people start telling him to get off the case (which happens inevitably in every private detective movie), he's too deeply entrenched to give up (which is also inevitably true in every detective movie). He says he doesn't give a damn about the case, or about anything else, and acts completely disinterested in everything, but he still quietly refuses to stop investigating, and silently goes on with his work--even after two men take him into an alley and beat him savagely, telling him to "stay away from the girl." Why? Who is this man? What are his motives?

We are constantly shown scenes from Maneri's private life, and eventually it becomes part of the case (if it ever really wasn't). He has recently been divorced from his wife and is having an affair with a married woman. After he is beaten up by those two men in the alley, he goes up to his apartment and takes a piece of paper out of his case file, pressing it against his face to staunch the blood. Later he learns that the men were sent to beat him up by his mistress's husband (she was the girl they were talking about), and have nothing to do with the case. He opens the case file back up, takes the bloody page out, and throws it away. But disentangling his personal life from the case isn't that easy. When he meets Rachel's best friend--a young, pretty college student, just like Rachel herself--they are immediately attracted to each other (she seems to be almost a match for him in wit and wordplay), and end up in bed together. But Rachel's stepfather (who's already quite angry about Maneri's intrusion on his life) may also have had a relationship with Rachel's friend, or even Rachel herself. During Maneri's second interview with Rachel's stepfather, the man asks Maneri who this case is really about. Maneri answers, "Lately, it's been more about me." He couldn't be more right. Maneri is the true puzzle at the heart of the film. His manner implies that he doesn't care about anything, but his actions suggest otherwise. Who is he? What does he want? What does he really care about? When the married woman he's been having sex with shows up and tells him it's over, and she never wants to see him again, he hardly reacts at all. All right, he says. Good-bye. Was their relationship just one of convenience? Did he just need someone around to fulfill his physical needs, and now that he's got Rachel's friend, he doesn't need this woman anymore? At another point in the film, we see a meeting between Maneri and his ex-wife. He's come to pick up his son for one of their scheduled days together. While he's waiting for the kid to get ready, he shares a quiet moment alone with his ex-wife. They exchange some fond remembrances, and then some harsh words, and that seems to be that. But later on, we discover that Maneri also taped that conversation, just as if it were another interview for the case, and when he listens to the tape, we hear more of what they said to each other, and see that Maneri kissed her and attempted some kind of reconciliation. She kissed him back, but ultimately rebuffed him. When Maneri talks to his ex-wife's new husband later, the man attempts to make conversation. He reveals that his wife told him about what happened, but that he doesn't mind and totally understands. He is clearly trying to become friends with Maneri, but Maneri ends any possibility of friendship with a few choice phrases. He has destroyed almost every relationship he's ever had; later he nearly ruins his relationship with Rachel's friend with some more nasty words. He seems almost determined to insult and alienate everyone he meets.

But Maneri also seems determined to get to the bottom of Rachel's disappearance. So, yes, Maneri isn't the only puzzle in the film. There's also the case, and Rachel herself. At first she seems to be a pretty normal, well-behaved kind of girl. She had a nice boyfriend and was a good student. But soon enough we learn that she had plenty of secrets, and that in fact she lived a kind of double life--so here is another of those detective movie tropes: the beautiful woman who is not what she seems. Maneri discovers that she visited a club where members, often masked, meet and have sex with each other in open booths. Maneri shows up there and talks his way in, watching the show with a bemused expression on his face. (The totally deadpan conversation he has then with a regular at the club is hilarious.) Further investigation reveals that Rachel had a relationship of some kind with the chiropractor who works across the street from her apartment building, and whose office is visible from the window. The landlord of the apartment building is a rather creepy old man who knows more than he's willing to tell; and most of what he does tell turns out to be lies. His bedroom is right beneath Rachel's, and he enjoyed listening to her have sex with various men in the room above. Rachel seems to have left a package with him, or did he take it himself without asking? It's from this landlord that Maneri learns about another detective who was on the case before him, and who died rather mysteriously.

More and more of these strange characters and stories rise up to confuse and intrigue us as the film goes on. Like most mysteries, A Private Affair is full of conflicting clues and information, all seeming to lead off in different directions, and yet all somehow connected. Following this bewildering web of stories and characters is absorbing and entertaining in its own right, though the film, as I've said already, is much more than a regular old whodunit. Again like a lot of French films, A Private Affair is about sex and love, and it examines Maneri and Rachel in these terms. Indeed, that is very much what this film is--an examination of the two characters, Maneri and Rachel, as sexual creatures. They both seem to be predators, moving from one strange, illicit relationship to another, never settling down with anyone. And perhaps that is why Maneri sticks with the case--he is fascinated by Rachel, and attracted to her. She is a kind of kindred spirit. But we don't really know for sure any of Maneri's motives or feelings; he remains a question mark, as in many ways does Rachel. The film is less about what happened to Rachel and who did it, and more about who Rachel was and who Maneri is--even if the former questions are answered by the film, and the latter are not. As if to underline this fact, as the film progresses, more and more of the clues and sub-plots that we've learned about are revealed to be meaningless red herrings, and burn away like fog. When the truth of what happened is finally revealed to Maneri, it's not because he's managed to work it all out himself. Rather, it's because the person responsible for Rachel's disappearance has confessed to him. And even then he almost misses out on the solution of the mystery--he hardly listens to the confession and doesn't believe it at first; the confessor is forced to convince him. Ultimately it turns out that most of the leads Maneri followed had nothing to do with the real case. In fact, what he was looking for was right under his nose all along. He just wasn't looking hard enough to notice it. The final scene of the film is playful, clever, satisfying, and frustrating all at once. We feel as tricked as Maneri. Somebody was playing with us the whole time.

A Private Affair is a wonderful little detective movie that plays with the style and structure of detective movies. The real mystery at its heart consists of its two main characters--the detective and the woman he is looking for. Maneri's life--specifically, his love life--becomes the case, and the story. In the process of looking for someone, he reveals himself. And yet, as I've mentioned, even after the case of Rachel's disappearance is solved, Maneri and the object of his search remain a mystery. We, the audience, are the ones who must interpret the facts given and solve that mystery. And that's as it should be.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Epilogue

On the walk home, Sarah and I discussed A Private Affair and tried to puzzle out how we felt about it. Really my essay above, like a lot of these essays, was the continuation of my attempt to puzzle out what I thought about the film. And that's what I really enjoy about writing these essays--they give me a chance to sit down and put in order my ideas about these movies, and help me a great deal in figuring them out. After I've written one of these, I often feel like I've gotten a much better grip on the film, and, as you may have seen in earlier diary entries, my rating and opinion of them will change from when I first saw them.

Anyway, the festival continues to be a lot of fun. I saw another couple of great movies today. Tomorrow will be yet another change in pace for me: only one screening, and it's a group of short films.

Back to Top

Jim Genzano





© Copyright 2003-2017 Jim Genzano, All Rights Reserved

Like what you see here? Show your gratitude in the form of cold, hard cash, and you could help me make it even better!