Review Bag IV: Three Men On The Brink (Ray, Ferrera, Romanek)

Shattered Glass (2003) Billy Ray

The first viewing was satisfying, the second was refreshing, and now the third time proves ever more the charm.  Quietly released in 2003 and soon after forgotten, Billy Ray’s dramatization of the outing and fall of Stephen Glass — a wunderkind writer for The New Republic who fabricated dozens of stories in whole or in part, and was fired in 1998 — is holding up very nicely.  The plotting always impresses me; it’s lean, subtle, and guided with a steady hand through several layers of flashbacks, lies, and supposedly objective narrative.  For such a static, indoors-set film, the choice to shoot it in scope seems puzzling at first, but the results speak for themselves: Mandy Walker’s images are sleek and satisfying, and beautifully framed on just about every straight line to be found in an office setting.

What most stuck out on this viewing was the open ending: TNR editor and Glass-inquisitor Chuck Lane reading off the titles of various Glass stories he believes were cooked, while Glass remains silent, indicating that each title listed was indeed fabricated in some fashion.  The scene jumps back into Glass’ little narrated world that began the film – a sort of journo-dreamland in his head where he’s contentedly waltzing around a convention – before being pulled back to reality, sharply, by Lane’s voice: “Steve?”  Glass looks up and the image cuts to black.  On the one hand, it’s a simple reinforcement of the flimsy fantasies that Glass has cooked up – he’s deluding himself as much as he’s trying to fool us – and only the hard voice of Lane, the true journalist, can shatter the illusion.  Lane defeats Glass one last time.  This is an effective and understandable reading of the film and its stated themes.

At the same time, I wonder if Ray is quietly commenting on the subjective nature of narrative filmmaking itself, and especially that of film narratives that are “based on a true story” or “true events.”  After all, the title of the film refers to Stephen himself, so the uttered “Steve?” and subsequent silence from Glass almost seems like a veiled admittance that the very film that contains it is itself “fabricated in part,” however small or necessary the changes may be.  In fact, one might begin to question the ethics, if any, of docudrama filmmaking, especially in how the end result of such endeavours often results in a condensed “record” that replaces (or outright creates) the public’s perception of the real incident, which may or may not have already been specially crafted by various media outlets.  It is this, Ray’s focus on a storyteller — a facts-based one by profession, but a storyteller all the same — justly condemned for his falsehoods,  that allows the film, caught in its own tension between truth and fiction, to fold back on itself.

The audience is left in a similar position to Glass’ colleagues, who chose to disbelieve the evidence of his lying because they liked him so much, except the only relationship viewers have with the film’s “heroes” is through the virtuous portrayal of Chuck Lane; Peter Sarsgaard’s acting is efficient in quickly establishing Lane as a no-BS truth-teller and allying him with the viewer, while the audience grows irritated with Glass’ shenanigans.  But like Glass’ friends, we too are placed in a position of epistemological bias, and once Lane has won the day, the viewer that is convinced of his own objective sight (established by Ray’s navigation of perspectives; by beginning with Glass as a sympathetic if somewhat irritating kid and ending with him as the king of weasels, slain by the righteous Lane) may find it hard to return to a more balanced view of these determined people, seeing both the truth-tellers and the liars in all of their humanity.

How many novels does Stephen Glass have to write before he’s redeemed and maybe even appreciated for his supposed gift for fiction making?  Can this film, with its condensed account of the events, be blamed for writing Glass’ story sort of like Glass might?  By all accounts and the assurance of involved parties, Ray’s reconstruction sounds accurate.  But it will never be perfect.  I wonder what real-world consequences have been added to Glass’ plate because this film exists and tells the story in this particular way.  And what that might mean for docudrama type films in this age; its own ability to entomb certain accounts of incidents bolstered by the all-seeing, all-remembering networks that make up our daily lives.

Bad Lieutenant (1992) Abel Ferrara

It’s a slog.  It may be one of the most rewarding slogs in it’s genre — it leads to a climax that proves genuinely affecting, depending on your tolerance for the miraculous — but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.  Ferrera treads a fine line between exploiting the sordid situations of his anti-hero — see how far I can go with this bit of depravity! — and allowing them to shock, horrify, and browbeat the viewer into harboring absolutely no hope for the salvation of the Bad LT (Harvey Keitel).  By the time Ferrera lingers over a long heroin-shooting scene, all feelings, including revulsion, seem to have fled the picture.  For both the (resilient) viewer and the LT, only numbness remains.  For any other film, this would be the appropriate point for declaring the picture dead.  Not here, though.  This vacuum of feeling is Ferrera’s secret weapon.

It is because of that numbness that the film’s climax registers with scalpel-like accuracy, and painful intensity.  Numbness is destroyed by realization, by inner conviction, and by trickles of grace.  Ferrera plays the LT’s breakdown completely on the nose, and yet still it feels understated.  It’s difficult to evaluate Keitel’s performance on a simple “good/bad” scale; surely my generation, for whom sarcasm is a sacrament, would scoff at his animalistic moans as “overacting.”  There is a sliver of truth in that view.  And yet when he groans under his sins, I can see into the abyss with him.  I can feel the weight crushing him.  Few performances that I’ve seen have so clearly, so painfully, so poignantly expressed the world of a man who by his own reckoning (and probably most of the audience), is completely beyond hope.  A viewer who is spiritually tuned into the film will understand that there is no way to overstate the anguish of a lost soul, a realization that gives the scene and its antecedents, and the film as a whole, an overwhelming and perhaps undeserved power.  It shouldn’t be any other way.  After ninety minutes of filth, the last thing you’d expect would be an invasion of total, scandalous grace.

One Hour Photo (2002) Mark Romanek

Fine.  I was tense.  I was in suspense.  But let’s get one thing clear.  This is not Kubrickian.  This is not Hitchcockian.  What it is, is just plain sadistic, without any of the psychological depth that Kubrick would bring to the table, nor any truly thrilling formal approach that would accompany Hitch.  It’s sadistic in the sense that Romanek’s sterile visual scheme, his lingering (but not long) shots of William’s sad puppy expressions indicate to me a director more interested in toying with his strange specimen of a character than revealing him.  Well, I’m not playing.  This is porn for people who enjoy watching pathetic, awkward souls go off the deep end.  Is he or isn’t he a pedophile?  Oh look he’s watching the kid!  Look he has a hospital-clean, sparsely furnished apartment!  Psycho!

Maybe I wouldn’t be so angry about it if Romanek didn’t try to have his art-film cake and eat it too.  There are techniques used here that belong in a more humanist examination.  Take the aforementioned “lingering” takes: many shots of Williams’ somber face seem to go on a bit longer than your typical Hollywood picture, and, as they linger, seem about to invite the viewer, acclimated to briskly paced-cutting, to get comfortable and peer closer at the sight.  I think there’s a certain timetable to how observation of long shots work, which involves the viewer realizing after about thirty seconds or so that this shot is going to be longer than usual; that there must be something more to it.  At that point, the viewer’s perception of the shot resets and begins combing the image for details; the viewing effort exerted by the viewer increases in order to meet the curiously protracted shot length on its own terms.  If the viewer is game, the more active engagement rising from the “reset” helps the viewer to glean some sort of meaning, whether they project it or actually “get” some of the director’s intent.  One Hour Photo seems poised to take advantage of this technique, except the decision to linger — but not to wait (or to put it differently, to tease in an art house kind of way) — destroys any chance of the viewer getting to spend some sort of realistic, organic time with Sy; and make no mistake, in a film as sewn up in pre-ordered creepster character clichés as this — the stiff walk, huge glasses, fussy neatness, the stunted social skills, that damned empty apartment, his art-department pristine wall of photos, and on and on it goes — the only hope we have of connecting in a human-to-human sense with the man would be through a sense of having shared real time and real moments with him.

In a similar sense, I would chalk up the failure of Williams’ performance to really affect me as another casualty of Romanek denying us the time we need to get to know Sy, however blank he might be.  It’s difficult, and in this case I’d say impossible, to genuinely engage with Williams’ blankness while watching from a mental framework wherein each slightly longer-than-usual-shot is under girded with the expectation that this boring face will soon be replaced by another image anyway, so there’s little point in trying to connect with it.  I’m not convinced that Williams’ performance even has any real depth, but the stunted editing eliminates any possibility of an open-ended result, and subsequent interpretations.

So that’s what the film isn’t — actually insightful on any human or formal level — but there are nice Fincher-esque close-ups of film being developed and bright PTA-style shots of store aisles, and the overall feel of a train derailing in slow motion for the sick amusement of all us normal folk — thank heavens we’re not weird like Sy the Photo Guy!  And it is strange to see how Sy’s wall of pictures, however silly and overblown it comes off in the movie, visually anticipates Facebook, Flickr, and other digital means of sharing thousands of personal moments with entire strangers.  Sy had to steal his clients’ memories in order to put together his wall of obsession; eight years later we offer our most intimate selves freely and even assemble the collage for him.  Make of that what you will.

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2 Responses to “Review Bag IV: Three Men On The Brink (Ray, Ferrera, Romanek)”

  1. I had just watched “Shattered Glass” for the first time earlier tonight, and now I’ve happened across a new post in your blog discussing it! I was less pleased with it than you seem to be, however, and I think it’s because I was disappointed that it didn’t explore the ethics of docudrama film making at all, as a story of a man fabricating stories and claiming them to be true. You, however, think it does. Here is where I believe our arguments diverge.

    The reading of Glass’s silence towards “Steve?” as a self-reflexive motion on the film’s part is one I would love to subscribe to, but it’s far too tenuous. The leap, from Admission of fabrication —“Steve?”—> Stephen Glass —“Glass” in Film title—> Film, seems to expect the cart to pull the horse. I buy into the idea that it implies that Glass himself is a fabrication, but does a character name in a title indicate that that character stands for the very craft of film? Is “Jaws” a metaphor in itself for the “bite” that thrillers can effect on their audience? The interpretation strikes me as too broadly applied to almost any film.

    The film, I think, is not a metaphor for itself. As fascinating and well-suited to the subject matter as that would be, I don’t believe Ray has the ambition and, frankly, he treats the film too much as an exercise in journalism. (Ray’s initial career path was one of journalism.) He treats his characters with careful reverence. Ray is careful that each time we see TNR staff criticizing Chuck we see him in clear dilemma, or responding to a promotion offer with great humbleness, or otherwise in the midst of sorting out the path to his noble intentions. Instead of seeing Chuck as an enigma whose actions in some ways redeem an unpopular and perhaps unscrupulous man, he is at worst an awkward nice guy and at best an unassailable hero.

    I say this not only because it dulls the film’s dramatic impact and leaves the climax – the mutually but differently earned applause – feeling a little unsatisfying, but because it’s a prime example what seems to be Billy Ray’s ethical approach to the film: Dramatized/Fictionalized elements are only justified when they are favorable to the subjects. He refuses to overturn the rock of fakery, journalistic and otherwise, to examine what’s crawling underneath. The kid-gloved approach prevents him from using the film itself as the medium for examining lies and credulity, and is a far greater hurdle to perceiving the characters “in all of their humanity” than any epistemological bias. Rather than folding in on itself as you say, the film seems stubbornly straightforward, though the creases to fold with are there for Ray to use as he will.

    I take no notable issue with the cinematography of the film, except to say that Ray does very little in the way of direction. It is “a static, indoors-set film”, as you said, but I see no reason why Ray couldn’t do more to increase the tension. This past weekend I indulged in another film about journalism – maybe THE film about journalism – “All the President’s Men” – and though Pakula’s directorial hand is not particularly flashy, his staging of scenes and camera placement are precise and effective. Is there anything in “Shattered Glass” that can be compared to the six-minute take of Redford closing in on a new lead? Indeed, do any of the camera’s placements or motions enhance a visceral reaction at all? That shot’s length, slow zoom and split focus engross the viewer so well that they can easily slip by even the most trained eye, which preserves the scene’s static location in the Washington Post offices. Bit Billy Ray’s approach to “Shattered Glass” is too careful. He doesn’t take risks, presumably because he’s trying not to editorialize.

    Ray tries to apply the ethics of journalism to a work of fiction. I wouldn’t say that ruins “Glass”, but it does limit it to being a skillful yet perfunctory film.

    That and it’s damned over-scored.

    I have just received a Criterion copy of Kiarostami’s “Close-Up” in the mail. That film, as I’ve heard it, is a documentary-docudrama hybrid, with the real people playing themselves, and provides the critical insight towards “truthful” filmmaking that I felt was missing from “Shattered Glass”. I’m excited to see it in light of this film.

  2. (Please forgive some of the typos and dodgy wording in that reply; my rhetoric may not have come through but I think my meaning did.)

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