Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Battle In Seattle" is not "Medium Cool"

"Battle in Seattle" has gained more press exposure than the average
independent film due to its controversial setting, the riots and
demonstrations attended by over 50,000 at the WTO conference in
Seattle, Washington of 1999, as well as its talk show hopping
Hollywood star; Cherlize Theron. Yes, the talented actress who
surpassed expectations when playing an overweight killer in "Monster"
(2003) is presently melting her Oscar for an engagement ring by
starring in her Irish fiancé's directorial debut. In truth "Battle in
Seattle" follows so many narratives, it is difficult to say that
Theron is the star, even if her name is its publicized feature; by
following the trials and tribulations of four racially diverse young
hetero-activists, and in addition a television reporter, a cop, his
pregnant wife, and the mayor of Seattle, the narrative strives to be
Altmanesque, but results in a collage of under-developed stereo-types.
In truth, though the film's production company, "Insight" is
independent, "Battle in Seattle" does not appear to subscribe to the
rules of such categorization; the film takes no risks in casting
unknowns (and instead casts many minor players of the major world) and
its plot follows the classical Hollywood paradigme complete with an
emotional score and a happy ending.
Yet the film's influences prove its espoir to higher filmmaking. As
already stated Townsend nods to Altman, but his primary inspiration is
another political film of a protest turned riot, Haskell Wexler's
"Medium Cool" (1969). "Medium Cool" follows the story of a television
journalist obsessed with capturing the real story of change in Chicago
despite being dismissed by his station. Only weeks before the DNC he
develops a relationship with a West Virginian mother and her
12-year-old son. The narrative thus comments on the state of media and
the interdependent web of the personal and political, while its
editing and cinematography further blur documentary and fiction. This
attempt at transgressing fiction and non-fiction is Townsend's most
overt reference to "Medium Cool"; actors are placed within the riots
by splicing documentary news footage when an establishing shot is
needed. This is seemingly infantile when compared with Wexler's
approach, for rather than researching footage of police brutality at
the DNC in '68, Wexler anticipated the protests and wrote his script
to include it. By physically placing his fictional characters within
the unrest, Wexler questioned the nature of cinema. Townsend rather
questions the nature of originality, or lack there of, while
celebrating predictability. While Wexler captures the beat of 1968 in
the year itself, Townsend reconstructs what he only witnessed via the
web, almost a decade later. Hence, though Townsend is emulating the
immediacy and realism of "Medium Cool," the montage looks as if he
badly cut and pasted videos. Furthermore, the artificial dialogue and
the flat characters contrast greatly with the actual footage of the
riot. Thus the film's Hollywood tendencies are enhanced and the
realism of "Medium Cool" or "La Battaglia di Algeri" is never
Though no slight reference is made to the political circumstances of
2008, the film premieres roughly a month after the RNC where police
again used teargas on peaceful protestors. Similarities between the
need for action in 1999 and 2008 abound and one might assume that
Townsend hopes to inspire current activism with the stories of
fictional scruffy jeans and tee-shirt heroes. Jay (Martin Henderson)
is the most post-hippie looking with a beard and a scarf, and thus
deserves as the white male protagonist to be cast as the mastermind
behind all of the protest organization. His blossoming romance with
Lou (Michèle Rodriguez) struggles to keep our attention, and almost
wins through the sheer humor of trite sexist dialogue. Rodriguez who
started her career as almost butch in "Girlfight" (2000), continues to
play feisty and tough, though now with a sweet loving feminine touch.
She relaxes her fist throwing anarchist tendencies when sobbing in her
jail cell, and then holding hands through the bars with Jay as he
tells her to "stop crying like a girl." (How serendipitous that within
all the chaos of the 1999 Seattle WTO shut down, our lovers' would
land next to each other in the jailhouse!) Unfortunately, if Jay and
Lou do inspire you to activism, it will not be in hopes of romance.
The romance plot does not even seem to interest the actors, and adds
nothing to their "Let's go out and get those motherfuckers! (direct
quote)" ideology.
The other activist to note is the African-American one, Django
(Outkast's André 3000). Django is like most black supporting roles,
and most are supporting (and most are played by rap artists), he
offers comic relief and optimism for the white characters and
audience. Django can be facing the teargas, at the end of a police
baton, with others bleeding in jail, but will always, as a good
performer, wear a big smile. Although Jay's back story is the death of
his activist brother who was chained to tree and then cut down, and
beforehand Lou became a wanted criminal when she incinerated her
father's animal testing lab, Django's past is only referred to when he
recounts a bedtime story his grandpa told him about turtles. One must
suppose that this sweet story is what inspired Django's love of
turtles and subsequent fierce opposition against the turtle-killing
fishing industry. Although Outkast deemed "Scooby-Doo" the non-cartoon
2002 feature, worthy of a soundtrack song, the only hint of André's
musicality in "Battle in Seattle" is a acapella rendition of Bobby
McFerrin's "Don't worry be happy" completing his feeble part with yet
more black entertainment.
If the actors appear as cardboard cutouts of radicals and anarchists,
one should note that Townsend in a search for accuracy did consult
David Solnit, a real Direct Action Network organizer who was part of
the WTO protests in 1999. Solnit tried to correct the script, and
evidently did alter large sections despite the director's resistance.
He explains in Yes Magazine, that he with other activists succeeded
with a pressure campaign, "applying tactics (they) often used in
anti-corporate campaigns," but were consulted "too late to change the
film's basic narrative." Alas, one may hope that perhaps with more
time, Solnit and friends could have corrected not only the stereotypes
of activists but also the consistently banal dialogue, and what
becomes an obstacle course of characters. Other veteran WTO-protest
participants who do not agree with the film's portrayal of Seattle in
1999 have bonded together on a website, therealbattleinseattle.org,
which follows Solnit's conclusion to settle for the mediocre. Their
website statement: "It's a huge improvement over corporate media lies,
but won't tell the motives or thinking of the people who shutdown the
WTO." Although, one can easily agree that the Direct Action Network
characters are superficial constructions, the film primarily affronts
the activist community with its weak script piped full of lofty
meaningless inspirational statements and a badly directed cast that
was then later, badly edited.
Although the film inserts footage of the violence committed to
protesters by cops, police are in no way demonized. In fact Dale,
(Woody Harrelson), a low level mob-control cop might be the most fully
developed character. Dale's pregnant wife, Ella (Charlize Theron), is
beaten and miscarries when she passes through an unavoidable riot on
her way home. Dale's sadness turns to rage when he is forced to return
to work after learning the unfortunate news, and this fuels his
violent attack on our peaceful protagonist, Jay. Dale alone chases Jay
through Seattle's side streets and beats him to a pulp at a church
before he handcuffs his narrow wrists. But because this climatic
confrontation between antagonist (cop-bad guy) and protagonist
(Jay-organizer-good-guy) must be resolved, the film allows for major
character development in a jail make-up chat where Dale visits Jay and
says that he is sorry several times. Jay then tells him that it is
okay, "You were just doing your job." This is a surprising turn around
for the audience who has only twenty minutes before watched the two
characters thrash violently at one another with objects.
Theoretically, the miscarriage of Dale's wife and his apology would
allow the audience to sympathize with his character despite his crime.
Yet the opacity of Dale's attack and the apology leave the viewer
apathetic. This is part of larger general disinterest, for the
audience cannot relate to any of the stereotypes presented in "Battle
at Seattle," whether it be a cop or a radical.
First time Irish director Stuart Townsend (whose career highlights
include a guest role as a pastry chef on "Will and Grace") filmed with
a didactic purpose for those who might have forgotten this historic
clash between activists and police, vandalism and media. He thus
begins and ends "Battle in Seattle" as a very expensive power-point
presentation, with charts dissolving into more charts, arrows pointing
to dates, and photos cut into smaller photos. Despite Townsend's aim
to win a place in classrooms, his over-wrought style becomes less
educational than clunky and confusing, and though the film aims to be
objective in capturing both the activist and the cop perspective, the
bookends of data wash the film in a liberal preachy-ness. If you do
consider yourself to be politically liberal, "Battle in Seattle" is
another film that will shame you, by painting left politics as the
simplistic wet dreams of the Hollywood industry. Indeed in an act of
self-respect one is tempted to deny affiliation with the
fatigue-jacket backpack crew already described. If this situation
befalls you, I recommend returning to earlier times of American
activism by rediscovering "Medium Cool," a film that is
ground-breaking and relevant forty years after its release. The riots
of "Medium Cool" are frightening in their violence, and compelling in
their place within a fiction narrative; "Battle in Seattle" is at its
best a watered-down tribute to this film of '69 that still exposes the
reality of protest and media in the United States.

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