2006: The Year in Movies

Week of December 28, 2006

It's Soooo High School
And that's a compliment to Rian Johnson's teen detective noir

BY ROBERT WILONSKY

Dashiell Hammett goes to high school — the perfect studio pitch. Yet after wowing 'em at the film fests, Rian Johnson's knockout debut as writer and director, Brick, languished in theaters and on DVD. It took a bunk, as Hammett mighta said, and wound up wearing a wooden kimono.

"Iraq is not an ugly country": Fragments  


is documentary-making at its very finest.
"Iraq is not an ugly country": Fragments

is documentary-making at its very finest.

"Iraq is not an ugly country": Fragments  
is documentary-making at its very finest.
"Iraq is not an ugly country": Fragments is documentary-making at its very finest.

Johnson, who wrote Brickwhen he was twenty and shot it after he'd passed thirty, kind of expected that. He knew there were plenty of people who didn't dig his movie — who said it was too arch, nothing but a smarty-pants put-on starring kiddies playing shamus-and-dames dress-up while spitting black-and-white dialogue out of their Technicolor yaps. He knew the risks of flashing SoCal sunshine on pitch-black noir. And he knew it wasn't going to be easy convincing an audience that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was Humphrey Bogart — a gumshoe in tennis shoes.

"Definitely people tend to go one way or the other with Brick," Johnson says now. "One of the things people are turned off by is the fact these are high schoolers acting like adults."

Ironic, because not only is Brick one of the year's best movies, it's also among the greatest high school movies ever made — deserving of its place in the trophy case alongside the likes of Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, even Rebel Without a Cause. Yeah, yeah — Johnson's got a gimmick. But barely concealed beneath the ironic quotation marks is your high school experience, complete with jocks, mathletes, stoners and loners, but this time starring Bogie and Bacall instead of lousy ol' you.

The story goes that Johnson wrote the film without any intention of setting it in a high school; it was straight-up noir, an homage to such Hammett novels as Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. He likes to say the decision to set his murder mystery, filled with archetypal loony goons, good-girls-in-dutch and scrawny bespectacled sidekicks, in a high school was random, almost an accident. But soon he would find that setting a film noir inside the hallways and lunchrooms and smoking porches of a high school — his high school in San Clemente, as a matter of fact — made perfect sense. Johnson knew the high school genre — the "clique flick," as its been dubbed — well. "John Hughes' movies were the touchstone of my adolescence," he says. Plus, where else but high school is every little experience given larger-than-life significance?

"Look at a movie like Heathers," says Johnson of Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters' 1989 film. "When I watched it when I was younger, even though there was all this ridiculous violence and the stakes were life or death, it made sense to me. It captured the way high school feels — that intensity and that insane level of, 'If this friendship falls apart, my life does too.' In high school, the stakes aren't as 'serious' as they are in the adult world, but when you are a teenager and in that subjective reality you don't think of yourself as a kid or a high schooler. You're just a person in this world trying to survive in it."




Iraq's Cinema of Longing
A conversation with director James Longley
ROB NELSON

James Longley's Iraq in Fragments is a one-man production of startling audacity and aesthetic provocation. It isn't just that Longley (Gaza Strip) worked unembedded in Iraq for two years after the start of the war, gaining access to the stories of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in wartime and risking his life at almost every turn. It's that he used this occasion to make an art film.

Iraq in Fragments has kept the Seattle-based Longley on airplanes and in hotels for much of the past year, and it's still making its way, accompanied by the filmmaker, around the U.S. and the world. In between flights, the 34-year-old director talked on the phone about his film.

Rob Nelson:You've said that the film was made to spur discussion and debate, that it's a political film only "under the surface." But was the style of the film — your choice to make Iraq look immensely beautiful — a political decision?

James Longley: Well, the fact is that Iraq is not an ugly country [laughs]. But of course there are a million ways to film any subject. On some level, the beauty of the film is a reflection of the reality that I found. A lot of Iraq is stunning in that sensual kind of way, with very lovely, earthy colors. I wanted the film to be experiential, for people to really be in this place when they're watching it. I don't want the viewer to be pushed out. I want them to be almost seduced by the visual world, to feel beckoned inside.

Most docs aspire to pure reportage rather than poeticism. Do you find that audiences are taken aback by the film, that they don't expect to see so much longing?

Well, that's funny, because I feel that the film is pure reportage [laughs]. If "pure" reportage conveys the essence of a place and a situation, then yes, that's what I'm trying to do. I'm not trying to make a film that has a lot of assumptions built into it. If you look at the reporting of Iraq on CNN or PBS or whatever, it comes with political assumptions. I don't blame them: In mainstream media, there's almost no way to escape that kind of issue-driven, news- and event-driven work. For me, the work is a way to play a game with myself as a filmmaker. I'm almost trying to escape my own politics.

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