Sep 18, 2009

Quicktakes: On Disgrace, Fatal Promises, Harmony and Me

Despite being a prize winner at Toronto last year and its impressive literary pedigree (J.M. Coetzee’s Booker prize winning novel is the source), I wasn’t expecting much from Disgrace. Maybe John Malkovich’s last top lining foray into a smallish “indie”, the morbidly unfunny and demeaning The Great Buck Howard, left a bad taste in my mouth. Or maybe, having not read the novel but being quite familiar with its story and themes, I was expecting the film to cop out, to not reach for the difficult truths Coetzee is trying to grapple with in South Africa’s dark and damaged heart.

At once provincial and accessible, it's a look into post-Apartheid psychosexual dynamics that threaten to swallow whole a white Afrikaner, a literature professor (Malkovich in top form) living in Johannesburg, who loses his job after a clandestine affair with a largely disinterested black student. First timer Steve Jacobs, while certainly no budding visual maestro, has given us a film that doesn’t shy away from presenting a country where white men like our protagonist, used to wielding their power over women and minorities both, have ceded control of the means of governance and production and must now deal with chickens that are coming home to roost sooner and in more morally troubling ways than they ever imagined. I won’t say more, but this is a film worth seeing and thinking about late into the night.

Fatal Promises, a new documentary about human trafficking from director Kat Rohrer, isn’t going to tell you anything the Dateline NBCs, Nightlines and 20/20s won’t. Dotting around the globe interviewing the formerly enslaved, those who have worked in this treacherous industry and the various individuals who are trying to stop this dastardly practice, Rohrer sticks to the issued oriented doc playbook pretty closely. Yes, talking heads galore. Although it's not breaking much new ground from a news standpoint and the aesthetics are simply pedestrian, the film does have its place in the dialogue and serves as a good primer for the uninitiated.

We trot out to conferences, listening to academics, NGO presidents and celebrities (Emma Thompson and Gloria Steinem among them) site statistics and invite us to ponder the human toll. We do, but as Susan Sontag once so elegantly pointed out, the suffering of others, especially as rendered in photography, will always seem remote to even the most empathetic viewer. It’s the responsibility of art that tackles matters of this gravity to make us care. While Fatal Promises doesn’t aspire to the level of artwork, it would need the same type of bracing impact to reach the level of affective advocacy. It doesn’t, but it was worth a try.

Don’t confuse Harmony and Me for a real movie, one with identifiable human beings pursuing recognizable goals. It is a cartoon. Nothing is at stake in its characters lives. No one has anything resembling values informed by experience and intuitive moral instinct. This cousin of mumblecore, featuring several of that already dead subgenres leading lights, it's a poorly executed attempt at free wheeling, low budget comedy. If only it were funny or insightful or a bit less mean spirited. If only the camera where not on auto-focus. Does the term, cinematography mean anything you, Mr. Byington? The film includes scores of performers I’ve found interesting a variety of different contexts (Kevin Corrigan, Pat Healy, Justin Rice, Alex Karpovsky), which only lends a greater sense of betrayal to the whole enterprise. Calling this filmmaking stretches the already malleable limits of that term even further.