oscar run vii: little miss sunshine (jonathan dayton, valerie faris, 2006)
when you're right, you're right

oscar run viii: united 93 (paul greengrass, 2006)

I did not look forward to watching this movie. Having seen it, I’m not sure why I let my desire to watch possible award winners overcome my desire not to watch the movie. But it’s done, and so on to whatever I might have to say.

I remember when it came out, and I didn’t want to see it. Outside of that remembrance, I couldn’t recall much else of my thoughts at the time. So I was surprised to go back to those thoughts, after finally watching United 93, and realizing I had it right before I’d seen it. (This is not a good thing … one should never pass judgment in advance.) My thoughts were posted on my friend Charlie’s blog, after he’d written some useful notes on the film, which he saw with someone who, like Charlie, knew one of the passengers on the flight. Here is what I wrote at the time:

I often decline to see a movie because I sense in advance that it will be crappy or I simply won't like it (of course, those may be the same thing). I rarely decline to see a movie because I object to it on some level, regardless of whether or not it's any good. I really hate people who make choices about movies, or books, or music, or whatever, based on how much they agree or disagree with what they perceive will be the socio-political stance of the work (so that people who couldn't tell you which Dixie Chick is Natalie will start buying their albums the minute they diss George Bush).

But I am pretty sure it is going to be a very long time before I watch United 93. I'm not sure why it was made, and I find myself disapproving of the reasons even before I know what they are, no matter what they are. Part of this may be the lack of distance to the event ... it was Lenny Bruce who pointed out that time is needed to make something funny (in the 50s and early 60s, he could make all the jokes he wanted about Napoleon, but Hitler wasn't funny yet to most people, because most people still remembered Hitler). But that's not entirely my problem ... I just read a review of a new film called The Bridge that is about suicide jumpers off the Golden Gate Bridge, with footage of actual jumps, and that seems far more exploitative than United 93 yet I wanted to watch The Bridge the minute I read of it (suicide being something I probably obsess about too much).

I also don't object to revisiting past horrors for what we might learn. The Sorrow and the Pity, to take one excellent and very long example, is near the top of my lists of all-time films, and you don't see me objecting to it because it's an honest documentary look at the German occupation of France (any more than I object to what is clearly set up to be a metaphoric representation of that occupation in the upcoming Season Three of Battlestar Galactica). But United 93 just doesn't feel right to me. I only have second-degree-of-separation connection to the people on that flight, and based on your [Charlie’s] post here, I know that others with a much closer connection were willing to see the movie on the first night of its release. But me, I'm going to pass for a couple of decades….

I would read a book about the subject. I have already read Charlie's take, and cpratt's, and am thankful they've both written their immediate responses to the film. I would go to a movie that offered a fictionalized version, something that was "about" the events without being literal about it ... the way Elephant is about Columbine, say, although I really hated that movie, so maybe that's not the best example.

What I don't want to see is a recreation of the events, perhaps especially one that does a good and mostly accurate job of recreating. I can't justify my position, I just know I won't see the movie.

Well, now I’ve seen it. And I don’t know that I’d change much, if anything, of what I wrote before I saw it. One question was never answered for me: why was this movie made? I still don’t know. It’s very well done, it seems pretty honest and “accurate” whatever that means. But it was like porn, only porn I don’t like … I’m happy to look at movies of people fucking, but United 93 seemed barely better than a snuff film, in terms of its need to exist.

One problem with writing about culture is that there is always someone else out there who has already said what you wanted to say, and usually said it better, besides. Oftentimes, when it comes to movies, that person for me is Stephanie Zacharek. Her review was “positive” enough that it was given an 80 on a scale of 100 by Metacritic, yet her concerns (and mine) were evident from her very first paragraph:

Paul Greengrass' "United 93" is a movie made with tremendous care, and with almost boundless sensitivity to persons living and dead. But just hours after seeing the picture, I'm finding it hard to care about Greengrass' integrity: I've never had a more excruciating moviegoing experience in my life, and as brilliantly crafted -- and as adamantly unexploitive -- as the picture is, it still leaves you wondering why it was made in the first place.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


Charlie Bertsch

Thanks for mentioning my take on the film. I understand what you and those who preceded you mean when you ask why this film was made. While I think what the film does is fascinating from the perspective of film theory, as I noted in my Live Journal entry about it, I doubt whether anyone involved in its production was consciously trying to destabilize the distinction between victim and perpetrator. Still, my tendency is to believe that, when lots of people find the experience of a well-made work uncomfortable, it's worth spending some time reflecting on why and how that sensation comes about. Maybe Greengrass's drive to make this film is bound up with the need to process identifications "real" and textual without really understanding how to go about doing that.


I agree that feeling uncomfortable isn't enough for me to condemn a work ... indeed, I often find myself returning to things that I previously detested, to find that there is a depth which welcomes reconsideration. In this case, I'd separate the discomfort people feel from my central question: why was this film made? I look forward to continuing discussions of that question ... I have not completely given up on the possibility that there is an answer. I just haven't found the answer within myself yet.

I think the problem comes because the film was clearly made with much care and sensitivity. I'd understand an exploitation version of the events, but United 93 is not exploitative. And so I find myself wondering, what were they thinking when they decided to make this film? The reasons I can think of do not appear, from the results on the screen, to be the reasons the film makers chose. The movie's documentary-style, you-are-there approach removes most context from the movie. I've seen at least one critic claim this is one reason the movie is great: we experience events as the people in the movie experience them, a difficult task for the director given that everyone in the audience knows what happened. There is no suggestion of why the terrorists did what they did ... there are hints of foul-ups by the government, but they aren't made clear, and mostly what we learn is that the people on the ground had a tough job and they did their best, which I doubt was inspiring enough for someone to make a movie about it. In short, the film offers no lessons we can learn, at least not obvious ones.

And I am usually in favor of such an approach ... in fact, I hate it when lessons are beaten into our brains. I prefer that we are presented material and left to figure out the import on our own. But I don't see the import here ... I think it's a red herring.

So, as I see it so far, the movie isn't made to push an agenda, it isn't made to exploit a market ... I'm left grasping at straws again. Why was it made?

Charlie Bertsch

What I was stumbling towards suggesting in my previous comment is that the film was made because the filmmakers felt the need to make a film, but were also smart and sensitive enough to not make the sort of film that would scream out "Exploitation!" I think we can learn something from that sort of compulsion, which is a characteristic of a lot of high and popular art that doesn't really "work." The mere fact that it prompts the question, "Why was it made?," testifies to its power as a document of the need to document, even when doing so seems to work at cross-purposes with the documentarists' stated goals.


I haven't seen the film, and don't have a desire to, but after reading the comments, I wonder if Charlie's statement, "its power as a document of the need to document" doesn't suggest that this movie was made to be viewed sometime in the future, when our memories have faded.

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