Friday, July 16, 2010

Family Business

Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated Munich is still very easy to write about, should you need a grimly respectful paragraph in a pinch. This is so because of, not in spite of, Spielberg's admirable refusal to offer answers to the questions his film poses. Few things are easier to shallowly praise in art than ambiguity. Witness every purblind accolade offered up to The Hurt Locker for "not taking a side" in Iraq, for being "about the warrior, not the war." Every filmmaking decision is political, and not taking a side is certainly itself a position like any other. This is not to argue that explicitly historical and political films are lesser for not offering resolutions, but that since ducking the debate entirely is impossible, films would benefit from more open-minded explorations of ambiguity as a position.

Munich does so. Its visual and narrative arcs dutifully follow ground-rule political thriller tropes: the cold lighting, the austere European settings, the gradual moral and physical collapse of our heroic fighting team. Spielberg, of course, could out-direct the likes of Marc Forster from his deathbed, and Munich's technical craft remains a marvel. The opening sequence, covering the Olympics massacre itself, contains some of Spielberg's most stunning shots and powerful montages, primal images worthy of haunting protagonist Avner for the rest of the film. Spielberg's still got the chops to re-invigorate basic thriller DNA seemingly at will--that tumultuous phone call, that terrifying hotel explosion. These are all triumphs, but triumphs of degree, not kind, and they don't alone elevate Munich above the level of well-meaning garbage like Syriana.

As Arnaud Desplechin's most simpatico muse, Mathieu Amalric is synonymous in my mind with contemporary European (and Euro-centric) film. As such, his appearance in Munich as mysterious information dealer Louis immediately expanded my perception of the film beyond the well-worn cycles of 20th-century violence. Sure enough, Amalric's character is something deeper than a Bond-ready Frenchie plot device. As Avner's vengeance squad grows suspicious of Louis' motives and begins to act contrary to his instructions, Avner is forcibly introduced to Louis' world, and it's there that Munich truly attains masterpiece status.

Avner is blindfolded and driven away, and when he opens his eyes again, the visual and emotional infrastructure of the film has vanished. Gone is that shadowy, faceless urban architecture. Here instead is an impossibly beautiful (and impossibly French) countryside home. Gone are the moment-to-moment peril and underlying moral confusion and decay. Instead, we see contentment, earned safety, and family. Amalric immediately looks more at home, and it's not just because his character lives here. We're on modern European film turf: a lovely dinner outdoors and a philosophical stroll in the garden, scenes that wouldn't look out of place in Assayas' Summer Hours or the recent I Am Love were it not for the preceding tension, violence, and hate.

Again, Spielberg isn't exactly inventing archetypes here. The modern European as both politically involved and blissfully apolitical is a sturdy enough trope (and is therefore easily spoofed: "we believe in nozzing, Lebowski.") But in the context of the furious flurries of action and the even more furious ideological debates that mark the rest of the film, this calm, lovely oasis takes on greater weight. The relentless moral quandaries that mark Munich's central conflicts are enough to make even the keenest observers throw up their hands and fall back on well-informed neutrality. According to many of Munich's supporters and detractors alike, that's exactly what Spielberg did in this film. I don't disagree, but I do believe the sudden aesthetic leap to the "farm and family" scenes represents a glimpse behind the curtain, revealing Spielberg's true focus.

Family, of course, carries totemic power in Spielberg films, whether employed to warm hearts (E.T.) or chill them (A.I.) Avner spends most of Munich apart from his wife and young child, and Spielberg never devotes much time to building bonds of brotherly friendship among Avner's team. Louis' family represents the only functional family unit in the film. And how do they stay alive, how do they preserve their all-too-idyllic country retreat? By wielding that careful, studied neutrality, expertly manipulating political wills while using that power to maintain a safe distance from the explosive consequences. It's this balance--and perhaps only this balance--that allows one to engage with the struggles of one's time without taking a firm side, which would endanger not only one's political honesty, but also the survival of one's family.

Steven Spielberg isn't Michael Haneke, and while Munich's director unabashedly exposes the eyes-wide-shut mentality behind political neutrality, he doesn't condemn his characters--or his audience--for it. How could he, when he shares it himself? Still, he isn't as willing as Louis and Co. to hide from the fallout. I'm not referring to that closing shot of the WTC towers, as resonant (and earned) as it is. Spielberg proves himself an able and erudite political filmmaker throughout Munich, but it's in two moments of the personal and familial that he grounds the legacy of the film's deliberate confusion.

Just as the movie's thriller arc really gets cooking, speeding us along from one artfully constructed assassination to the next, Spielberg stops the film dead for Avner to gaze into a shop window. He sees a model kitchen, glowing with a welcoming but unearthly sheen, perfect but empty. In Avner's reflected eyes, we see both his desperate love for his family and his longing for a collective, safe homeland for his people. And then, Louis appears in the reflection behind him, and the heavenly image is blurred; this is what it means to be both a soldier and a family man, this is what it takes to secure a safe place of your own.

Eventually, of course, Avner returns to his family. His reunion with his wife is the film's (literal) climax, lending that final meeting in New York a fitting listlessness. The couple screws, making their next baby, but Spielberg's camera is drawn back in to Avner's tortured mind's eye. Avner finally (ahem) consummates the fantasies of the Munich massacre he's been toying with the whole film, but his simultaneous identification with the killers and the victims offers him no real release, and it's only that confusion, those personal and political conflations, that he can pass on to the next generation.

Is it any wonder that the only idea worth toying with in the otherwise useless Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was Indy's place in a grounded family? It's there, amidst potential banality and sentimentality, that Spielberg unleashes his strongest ideas. National identity and historical terrorism are an appropriately fraught backdrop, but Spielberg knows where to let the real weight of being "ideologically promiscuous" settle: around the dinner table, and in the marriage bed.

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