2013 Milwaukee Film Festival #2 – Abortion, Really Bad Activists, and David Lynch’s Deathbed Visions
Post Tenebras Lux (Dir. Carlos Reygadas) – 2/5
Post Tenebras Lux is a mostly boring mess of a movie made all the more frustrating by the immense talent on display doing absolutely nothing. The first two scenes are terrifying and surreal like few things I've seen (maybe what David Lynch sees right before he dies?), and if the movie had kept up that momentum, we'd be looking at the best movie of the year. Hands down. Instead, the emphasis on atmosphere and impressionism gives way to mundane domestic scenes and characters fleshed out barely enough to make us feel like we should care about them, but not enough to enable us to do so.
Carlos Reygadas won the Best Director Award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for the movie, something I could understand if the jury was taking the film on an isolated scene-by-scene basis. Certain moments are captivating, but taken together they fail to connect. With a film like this we need the cumulative effect of each sequence to congeal into something meaningful on a larger level—the literal plot elements of the story don't have to connect, but the more cerebral ones do. Post Tenebras Lux fails in this regard so much that even though I was desperate for it to end, when it finally did, bafflingly, I still managed to be disappointed. I gave it a 2 instead of a 1 simply because I keep thinking about it after the fact, though maybe that should have lowered it to a 0.
After Tiller (Dir. Martha Shane & Lana Wilson) – 4/5
After Tiller follows the four doctors still performing third-trimester abortions following the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in a Wichita church in 2009. It doesn't try to make a case for or against anything, really, but rather to provide a bit of understanding of why these doctors continue to perform the controversial procedure (only legal in 9 states), and what reasons and circumstances may compel a woman or couple to need them.
The strength of the documentary is the way it gives voice to these two groups. Scenes of patients (their faces are never revealed) explaining how they discovered that their babies, many of them planned pregnancies, would be born with severe diseases and a lifetime of pain and struggle go a long way to establishing that the choice to have such a procedure performed is not often a reckless or careless one. And discussions with the doctors early on regarding how they came to perform late-term abortions in the first place makes clear that, regardless of your own views, they are providing what they genuinely and deeply believe to be a necessary social service.
The patients' reasons and needs are well-established, but I would have liked to hear more from the doctors about their own views on what separates late-term abortions—occurring in a medical grey area where the fetus may already have become a “viable” independently functioning baby—from those that take place early in the pregnancy cycle. In one scene, one of the doctors explains that she doesn't view the process as aborting a fetus, but that they are in fact babies; another doctor's office describes the procedure as “euthanizing” the fetus—these moments cut straight to the moral and ethical dilemma at the heart of the larger debate, but the film avoids getting into too many specifics.
Instead, After Tiller focuses on humanizing the doctors and patients and their own personal struggles, and providing a more nuanced context from which to view the controversial procedure. Its achievement is pushing decisively back on a simplistic and judgmental view of those involved with late-term abortions as heartless baby-killers, but I wonder how many people who think that way to begin with are going to be swayed by the movie.
Informant (Dir. Jamie Meltzer) – 3/5
In 2008 Bradley Crowder and David McKay were arrested and charged with making Molotov cocktails with the intent of using them on police vehicles at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, MN. Their arrest was revealed to be due to information provided by undercover FBI informant Brandon Darby, a well-known activist who the young men claimed encouraged and pushed them toward violence in the first place. Informant documents Brandon Darby's evolution from radical left-wing activist in post-Katrina New Orleans to FBI informant and, eventually, right-wing Tea Party darling. It's not a particularly complicated story—Darby implicates himself unwittingly in his own interviews as a deluded, self-obsessed fraud who jumps from cause to cause simply as vehicles for his own ego—but Jamie Meltzer tells the story in an entertaining and compelling way.
The documentary shows how Darby rose to prominence as an activist who helped form the Common Ground Collective following Hurricane Katrina, became disillusioned with his own revolutionary politics (which he never seems to have understood on more than a superficial level) on a trip to Venezuela to meet high-ranking government officials (which may or may not have actually happened), and eventually became an informant for the FBI. Interviews with Darby, Crowder, McKay (via the phone, as he was still in prison at the time), and other members of their communities suggest that Darby's need to be a major and revered figure at all costs led to him influencing the young men into the activities for which they were arrested and imprisoned.
The movie isn't really concerned with a comprehensive and nuanced debate on the subject—Darby is, to be fair and professional, a douche—but rather to show us a person who seems one desperate half-step ahead of having to confront himself for the privileged and poorly informed white middle-class man that he is. One excellent sequence relays through a friend how devastated he was when one night, invited to meet with several Black Panthers in New Orleans, thinking the meeting was about planning some clandestine revolutionary act, they instead offered him the opportunity to invest in real estate. Another sequence has Darby explaining a plot he hatched with other Common Ground organizers to get himself imprisoned so that he could help arrange a jailbreak for prominent political prisoners “from the inside,” followed by interviews with said organizers laughing off the “plan” as something that existed solely in Brandon's head.
Next Update (Tomorrow, Oct. 4) – A secret Milwaukee Film members screening, Reality (from Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone), and Vanishing Waves (think The Cell meets Altered States).