Wednesday, June 13, 2007

In the Valley of Elah

dir. Paul Haggis

Hollywood is an unmysterious place.*

Spencer Owen, BERKELEY
with special guest: John Doe, LOS ANGELES
June 12, 2007 - 35mm - unnamed L.A. movie theater

The Introduction to the Introduction by Spencer Owen

I've never seen The Sopranos more than four times. One of those times, it even happened to be a rerun of another one of those times. This summer, I plan to start the series fresh. But it has been hell -- "hell," I say -- trying to avoid finding out details about the ending. At this point, thanks to Google News, Reuters, MOG, Defamer, and the Daily Show, I know the form of the ending, and I know that it's ambiguous, and I even know the song that plays, but I don't know the content. That's okay with me. I'm proud that I've managed to evade the meat of the issue. The furious people, I guess, are getting the press, and then my friends love it. (A reaction like the one being reported by the media makes me think that the show wasn't, at least at large, appreciated for what probably made it so great. But I digress.)

The point is, no amount of spoiler alerts can prevent a worldwide discussion from at least partially making itself known to a person so connected to certain media outlets like myself. Luckily, the new Paul Haggis film, In the Valley of Elah, is not currently being discussed worldwide, so my urgent SPOILER ALERT for the following post should be absolutely heeded by anyone wishing to see the film untainted when it arrives at theaters later this year. I haven't seen Elah yet; needless to say, neither has almost anyone. However, if you hated Crash like I did, and you couldn't care less, perhaps you'd care to engage vicariously in this minor bit of critical revelry concerning the introduction and conclusion -- that is, the framing device -- of In the Valley of Elah. In the following discussion between myself and guest John Doe, the outrage manifested towards writer-director Paul Haggis and the society that spawned him easily rivals the globe-spanning fury from jilted Sopranos fans. Except, and I'm taking my friends' word on this one, we're right and they're wrong. I'll let John take it from here.

The Introduction by John Doe

Hello friends,

John Doe of Los Angeles here. I went to see Paul Haggis' new film In the Valley of Elah the other night. In my opinion, it was generally a bad movie, done in by Mr. Haggis' overwrought approach to nearly every single sequence, scene, and moment. I would rather not review the entire thing, as it was definitely a rough cut and I'm sure played much longer than it will once released. Also, one can always hope that certain post-production adjustments might improve a project like this. As bad as it is, it's not some piece of assembly line nonsense. Mr. Haggis is certainly trying to make a great film about something he cares about, and that's never something to completely dismiss. Still, he's a preachy, simple-minded filmmaker so much of that time that his ambition seems to almost backfire on him; he aims to engage complex issues, and seems so certain about his ability to do so in an intelligent way, that he chooses to leave absolutely no room for interpretation, or even for an audience member to get a thought in edgewise. This has the unfortunate effect of simplifying the "issues" in his films to the point that there seems to be nothing left for an audience to do. Nothing, of course, but to clap.

Anyway, after coming home, I began a conversation with my friend Spencer Owen, and what follows is a transcript of my description of (and our subsequent discussion about) Elah's framing device, which is one element that I'm certain will remain in tact once the finished product arrives at a theater near you. This device was so indicative of Mr. Haggis' unfortunate tendencies, and our conversation so indicative of our problems with him as a filmmaker, that we both agreed it was worth posting here at the Six-Reel Shuffle. What follows is a relatively detailed description of the film's final scene (as I remember it), right up to the "fade out." There are also some other plot spoilers contained here. And think of this not as a review, with measured critical thoughts, but as an in-the-moment reflection on something that really left a bad taste in my mouth. Consider this our passing that taste on to you.

The Brief Discussion

JOHN: Early in the movie, as Tommy Lee Jones is first setting off to find his son, he's driving his truck out of his hometown and sees that a janitor guy, who's Hispanic or something (but speaks fairly good English... I say "fairly good" because he's still a pretty dopey "Hispanic" character), is hanging the American flag at the high school upside down. So Tommy Lee stops and has him take it down, turn it the right way, and then raise it again. And he says, "You know what it means when you hang the flag upside down?" "No." "It means our country's in distress, send help, we're at a loss," or something to that effect.
SPENCER: Uh huh.
JOHN: So then... the movie happens, and, you know, Tommy Lee discovers how traumatic Iraq was for his son, and how it completely ruined his brain, basically. So then at the end he gets a package from his now-dead son (sent while he was still alive), and part of the package's contents is a pretty tattered American flag... I can't say I really know why his son sent him a tattered American flag, but whatever... Cut to: the next morning, Jones is again at the high school with the janitor guy, and he seems to be raising the flag his son sent him. So he's putting it on the thing, and he raises it (we don't see it yet), and then he pulls out a roll of duct tape and duct tapes the rope to the pole so nobody will mess with it (stupid). And then the janitor says, "So I shouldn't take it down at night?" and Tommy Lee's like, "No, you leave it just like that."
SPENCER: Wait, wait. Wait.
JOHN: Hold on, I want to finish this. ... and janitor's like, "Oh. That's easier." And then the janitor says, "It looks pretty old!" and Tommy Lee says, "It's been well used."
SPENCER: God, this is torture...
JOHN: Then Tommy Lee drives off. Pan up, and the tattered flag is hung upside down. Applause. Fade out.
JOHN: (laughs)
SPENCER: I swore you were gonna say, "There's a shot at the end of Tommy Lee putting the flag on upside down" and I would've been like, "Oh, okay... that's not so bad." But JESUS!
JOHN: That's what I'm talking about! That's the fuckin' Haggis way!
SPENCER: You know what else is the fuckin' Haggis way?
JOHN: What?
SPENCER: A stupid Hispanic guy putting it on upside down.
JOHN: (laughs) Yes. It is. Very much so. It would never happen. None of that would ever happen.
JOHN: By the way, the line "Oh. That's a lot easier," or whatever, gets a pretty big laugh. Asshole.
SPENCER: Wow... holy Christ... I get madder at this by the second. I seriously was ready to not care, and have it be ordinarily lame, but no... I think that Haggis and Spielberg must have had a long talk.
JOHN: Spielberg would never stoop to this, I don't think... his sensibilities wouldn't allow a full scene like that.
SPENCER: I just think Spielberg was like, "Tell you what, I'm interested in making less boneheaded political movies. But there's still a place for truly boneheaded ones. Here's all the tricks." And then Haggis ran with it longer and deeper than Spielberg ever could.
JOHN: He'd go for the flag shot, perhaps (though I'm talking in spirit, because Spielberg would never make a movie about this). But it really just comes down to Haggis sucking as a writer. That's it. He sucks as a writer, and is even worse as a director of his own writing.
SPENCER: Funny thing is, though, he's also great. Totally great. Really worth watching out for his next projects. Really captures the zeitgeist.
JOHN: Right, he's really putting some dents in the American dilemmas of the day.
SPENCER: I think this is a key problem, a curse that Haggis shares with many amateur (or even professional) screenwriters you're faced with on a day to day basis. These films rely -- whether intentionally or not, and usually because of the faults of the writer to be unable to see the big picture -- on the viewer's inattentiveness. For that ending to work, the viewer has to not notice all the things that are wrong with it.
JOHN: Well, yeah, that's true. But it's also true that, based on almost every script I've read, I really can't even tell you what subtlety looks like on the page. It's so, so, so rarely there.
SPENCER: Okay, but more crucially, the viewer has to not really care about the continuity and not really be interested in putting two and two together right away. Like, when that opening scene happens, it happens... and then when a flag appears any other time in the film, the viewer has to NOT remember that first scene in order for that excruciating final sequence to work. Either that, or the viewer has to be like "Oh, I see what he's doing... this is fun to watch play out!" ... which has to be rare.
JOHN: Yeah, that's very rare. It's just something that's never quite happened with popular movies... it's never been okay, really, in a popular sense, to make a movie that doesn't do all the thinking for you. audiences prefer to applaud a statement rather than a question. And the way it's done in this movie is, like, TEXTBOOK framing.
JOHN: A reasonable person would say, "Oh, this is going to come back later, isn't it? Sheesh." But no way. Nobody does. It reeks of planning, is what I hate.
SPENCER: And furthermore, the audience has to be inattentive enough not to notice the idiotic, baseless stereotype of that janitor character.
JOHN: Yes. The stereotype that a janitor of Hispanic descent, who speaks fluent English, and clearly isn't illegal, doesn't know the right way to hang a flag... mindblowing.
JOHN: Why not make it a fuckin' little kids job? A kid who just didn't care that he'd done it wrong, not someone too stupid to know better.
SPENCER: Why not ... not make it anyone's job, and just have him notice that it's upside down, and change it back, and not have to have the conversation...
JOHN: Yeah, totally.
SPENCER: ...because if you live in this fucking country, and even if you don't, you understand the basic symbolism of the American flag... for god's sake.
JOHN: Of any flag!
SPENCER: Let's take this a step further. Why not have that first scene not exist. And then if you have to end your movie with the shot of Tommy valiantly and defiantly putting up the flag... it would be unexpected and, perhaps, more powerful. What about THAT!
JOHN: Well, but see, Haggis is all about planting seeds. He needs that stupid dialogue so we know what it means EXACTLY when Jones does it in the end.
SPENCER: Yeah, because we wouldn't know otherwise.
JOHN: Right. We'd just be totally in the dark. Clueless and confused.
SPENCER: All we'd have is this totally unforeshadowed moment. Jeez... never heard of it.

* The above photograph, we've been told, was actually taken in Mr. Haggis' living room. The giant Oscar behind him was a preemptive gift from the Academy, which expects him to lead a lustrous, progressive, award-studded career. The back of the human-sized award, which sits on a rotating pedestal, is lined with shelves, with places for at least ten more of the little gold fellows.