Paul Haggis, Sean Penn and the Kucinich Factor
During this train wreck of a writers' strike, it's worth remembering that working in Hollywood is not all that it is cracked up to be, even in better times. The Writers' Guild has some 12,000 members, some half of whom are normally employed and not many of those on anything that really interests them. For most, the glamorous life of The Industry means taking a random assignment on a TV show they would never want to watch or doing the fifth rewrite of a movie with a dreadful premise they know will never get made anyway. In other words, it's a gig.
Not so for Paul Haggis. He is one of those rare WGA members who - for a short time in his career anyway - can do practically anything that he wants. A veteran of episodic television, his elevation to cultural icon began with a deserved adapted screenplay Oscar nomination for Clint Eastwood's brooding boxing flick Million Dollar Baby, which won Best Picture that year (2004).
In 2006 it only got better when Haggis won the Academy Award for original screenplay and Best Picture for Crash, a movie he directed. And since it was not an adaptation, it was pure Haggis.
When I saw that film, I was certainly impressed with its author's chops - the guy could write dialogue and entertain us with arresting scenes. But something disturbed me. Crash was a portrait of Los Angeles as a city of races perpetually at war with each other. I had lived in Los Angeles for over thirty years and did not experience it that way. Not always, anyway. And yes, I lived in Echo Park where the Mexican gangs battled the Vietnamese and was here for the riots and burnings in South Central we all know about. In fact, I had taught screenwriting in Watts and helped organize the fundraiser by the very Writers Guild to replace the torched South Central library in the early nineties.
Still, Haggis - who arrived in LA from Canada in 1975, only a half dozen years after me - and I live in a very different Los Angeles. He sees that horrifying racism where I see the new melting pot with more Iranians than anywhere but Tehran and more Koreans than anywhere but Seoul (not to mention gazillions of Mexicans, Chinese, etc), all getting along as well, or better, than anywhere else in the world I know of, particularly now. Call it the half-full/half-empty syndrome - or maybe I'm just nuts for the ethnic food (I admit it). Anyway, Haggis and I can agree to disagree on our hometown.
But nothing prepared me for his latest venture - In The Valley of Elah.
I came to this movie - the tale of a retired military policeman (Tommy Lee Jones) in search of the murderers of his son, who had gone AWOL on return from Iraq - expecting to be put off by its antiwar message. But I was even more put off by the ineptitude of the film itself, especially the screenplay. Simply as a mystery, it's worse than a mediocre episode of the Rockford Files. Much of the movie is taken up with a red herring about drug dealing so obvious (and so out of an old TV show) that they might as well have had flashing neon of a red fish on the screen. The rest mostly shows Jones moaning and groaning about his dead son with Susan Sarandon and a 'de-glammed' Charlize Theron. The acting is good enough, I suppose, but not nearly sufficient to overcome the banal plot.
The whole enterprise was soporific and my mind kept wandering, only to be pulled back intermittently by intense antiwar screeds given, completely out of context, by various characters, as if we were suddenly plunged into a clumsy agitprop flick produced by the cultural ministry of some former communist country (Albania?). The writer-director apparently did not trust his own story to make his point, although, at the end, it is no more than the old chestnut "War is Hell" with a special (and entirely predictable) anti-American military fillip. And, for those still awake... and with IQs under triple digits... who could possibly miss the import of this fillip, Haggis hammers it home with a metaphor more ham-handed than any I can remember in recent cinema. He has the formerly patriotic Jones solemnly raise the American flag upside down over his hometown - the last image of the movie.
Although this puerile melodramatic gesture has been commented on in many reviews, few have actually seen it in the theatres. Like the rest of the current crop of antiwar films, the audience stayed away in droves.
But what fascinates me in this is not the audience disinterest in these turgid antiwar flicks. That was as predictable as the message of the films themselves. What interests me is what happened to the talented Haggis. Where did his skill go? Why did he make - let's be honest - such an atrocious film out of this material (originally a 'true story' article in Playboy which he, apparently loosely, adapted)?
Haggis, unlike the DePalma of Redacted, was at the top of his career. So we can't ascribe this failure to comeback desperation. We could, as always, "Blame Canada" and call it unfair for a foreigner, especially one who has made millions here, to attack America in this over-bearing and slanted manner. But Haggis, as I indicated above, has been with us since '75. And if he hadn't been, he'd still be entitled to his view in a free country. But still, what's behind that extreme knee-jerk opinion and that (same word alert) ham-handed filmmaking?
Perhaps it's the Kucinich Factor.
What does that mean, you may rightly ask? Well, according to Wikipedia, like Sean Penn, Paul Haggis is a supporter of and donor to Dennis Kucinich.
Now if I were antiwar - which in the case of Iraq I am not, though I was during Vietnam - I would run from Kucinich like the proverbial plague. The candidate is a slightly lame-brained, show-off narcissist who claims to have seen flying saucers and dances about like a Dervish, cavorting in any manner necessary to attract the attention of television cameras. It's hard to take him seriously and the public apparently doesn't. He barely registers in the polls. In fact, I imagine Kucinich hurts the antiwar cause considerably more than he helps it.
A man as subtle and intelligent as Haggis must see this. But he evidently doesn't care. He makes a bigger statement by supporting Kucinich, a statement of a kind of leftist purity. Supporting Kucinich for people like Penn and Haggis is more about them than it is about the candidate. So what if the candidate is a loser (who would want Kucinich to be President in real life anyway?)! What counts is that I (capital I in block letters) am for him. I am the true man of the left.
This was demonstrated by Penn just the other day when making his public declaration of support for Kucinich at San Francisco State: "I found the (recent Democratic) debate infuriating, nearly an argument for fascism with few exceptions, key among them Dennis Kucinich." Argument for fascism? Is that infantile hyperbole supposed to help Kucinich get elected? In fact, according to this report from NBC11.com, it clearly made Kucinich's handlers nervous. And the actor went further, casually referencing Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice as being fit to be hooded and placed in front of a firing squad, although he, of course, would not pull the trigger, since our boy Sean is "opposed to capital punishment," not that the actor is, as the world knows, a stranger to violence. Nor, as we also all know, is adult self-control the "progressive" Penn's long suit.
No wonder Dennis' people were worried.
As far as I know, Haggis is in no way an out of control personality like Penn. But the upended flag is clearly in itself a similar form of cinematic infantile hyperbole. If the world were as simple-minded as that metaphor it would be simple indeed - like a Dennis Kucinich "no strings" dance.
And, as with the Kucinich campaign, the auteur of In The Valley of Elah seems more interested in demonstrating or parading his own views than in inducing others to agree with him. It is a form of showing off (like Kucinich) that does not make for great art. As somber, indeed grim, as In The Valley of Elah is, it is not fundamentally serious. It's a self-involved game (again, like Dennis Kucinich). No wonder it's so boring.