Integrity in Filmmaking

Originally loosed upon the interwebs March 12, 2007.
[Spoilers follow. Consider yourself notified.]

It may sound strange to say that a film prominently featuring a half-nekkid woman chained to a radiator has integrity, while calling out the “serious” documentary for intellectual dishonesty, but here goes:

Saw Black Snake Moan last week after something of a movie-going drought. Now, I’ll admit to a little trepidation going in—the sexed-up posters had me worried, but I’d read an intriguing review, so I took the chance. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this film embodies an ideal of cinema. The finesse and intelligence that it took to walk the fine, fine lines BSM walks is rare these days, both on the screen and on the street.

Don’t let the sweat-ringed wife beaters, the chain, the dirty blues fool you: this movie is ultimately about that exceptional kind of open-armed, quietly courageous love that leads folks to look out for each other, without the need to own or control or dictate. That it happens to come Blues-soaked and muggy is just icing.

Craig Brewer, best known for 2005’s Hustle & Flow, has pulled a remarkable feat here: he’s taken a few ugly, pathetic stereotypes, found the human seed of truth inside them, and coaxed life back into the shells. Christina Ricci’s fragile, sex-crazed anti-heroine could have so easily been a wan, Jerry-Springer-esque caricature; instead she becomes a sympathetic damsel in a very contemporary brand of distress. Samuel L. Jackson takes the insult to the cuckold’s heart and pride and excises it with rage and wistful sorrow and that particular wounded joyful noise that we call the Blues. And, lord help us, even Justin Timberlake surprised me—as an anxiety-plagued would-be soldier, his character is a viscerally real dreamer of dreams, be they sweet or terrifying.

Like the deft touch he showed with Hustle & Flow, Brewer infuses real depth into a cinematic vocabulary—sex, rap, violence, poverty—that frequently gets more than its share of short shrift. BSM is remarkable in that the sex (poster art to the contrary) isn’t gratuitous softcore—it’s here because, for better or worse, it has become one of the primary media by which folks (young women in particular) work out their own salvation. It’s an integral part of our current cultural vocabulary, and, for Ricci’s character, it’s the route by which old hurts and the ever-present hunger to be loved are expressed. Sex—the act itself and the artifice of sexual attraction—is the language she permits herself. This, I’m thinking, isn’t too far off the mark these days. Though she spends half the film wearing little more than a cut-off tee shirt and a pair of white undies, the effect is not so much alluring or titillating as it is pitiable—she’s not a pole dancer; she’s your little sister, playing sex kitten and yearning to be seen.

As uncomfortable or untraditional as this might be, it is brutally and beautifully honest. Black Snake Moan is not Crash. It will not win an Oscar for wearing its self-styled integrity on its sleeve. It won’t try to convince you of how “gritty” and “real” and “poignant” it is—it simply will be. Paul Haggis take note: this is how it’s done.

Which brings us to Werner Herzog and Timothy Treadwell. I finally came to Grizzly Man in my Netflix queue, and I can think of no better foil for the bold sincerity of Black Snake Moan.

This film pissed me off.

Treadwell alone would have been enough—his megalomaniacal romancing of the Great Outdoors was infuriating in its cluelessness—but Herzog is the bigger problem. Treadwell’s caretaking ultimately caused more harm than good (the scene in which he watches aghast as one of the bears he himself habituated to human contact has rocks thrown at it for approaching a party of humans had me laughing just to control my own ire), and, likewise, Herzog’s attempt to craft an empathetic portrait of the self-appointed Grizzly Friend trips over its own earnestness.

The interview segments reek of carefully scripted nostalgia. Just as Herzog remarks on Treadwell’s painstaking approach to filming—Treadwell frequently taped multiple takes of his wilderness monologues, donning various costumes and trying out different inflections and moods—Herzog seems to have been determined to craft a tearjerking “think piece” about his hero. Segments such as the one in which Treadwell’s friend receives the watch that was recovered from his body (“It’s still running!”) come across as absurdly maudlin. Watching a scene that might be moving and bittersweet but instead feels stiff and rehearsed is almost unbearable.

Treadwell engaged in his own brand of intellectual dishonesty—fastidiously creating an alone-in-the-wilderness mythology around himself but all the while sharing a tent with his girlfriend—and Herzog is no less guilty. The interview segments feel so forced that by the time we reach the ash-spreading climax, I’d begun to imagine looks of are-we-done-yet? on the faces of the interviewees. Treadwell’s friends seem to be part of the film not so much to memorialize the departed but instead to bolster Herzog’s fascination with a man he so clearly wants to admire as a fellow filmmaker.

While we’re all certainly entitled to our narcissistic diversions, it’s always good to be able to acknowledge the truth-bending required for those amusements to even exist. Styling yourself as the “only guardian” of Grizzlies on federally-protected land while fostering behavior sure to earn any one of them a bullet smacks of self-delusion. Packing your documentary with rehearsed eulogies insults your audience and degrades your subject. To clear the hurdle and then deny you had a pole makes the heights you soared irrelevant.

Werner, take a note from Craig: Clear vision is the most precious quality you can bring to your art. Wipe off that mirror, polish those glasses. See what you’re doing.

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