Beyond the Multiplex

Werner Herzog's explosive POW drama -- a love letter to America? Plus: Bad parents, interesting women.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published July 5, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

In a week most of us spend eating potato salad and fishing wasps out of beer bottles, there's an awful lot of indie-film news to cover. We'll start with the good news, though there's also some of the other kind. Werner Herzog, the German-born director of "Grizzly Man" and many other recent genre-busting documentaries, is finally unveiling the first American narrative feature of his long career, "Rescue Dawn." As any Herzog fan would expect, it's an odd and thrilling mixture, and I can't imagine a better Fourth of July present to his adopted country.

"Joshua," a sneaky little Manhattan horror picture that was a sensation at Sundance last winter, is also reaching audiences this week. Some viewers have apparently hated it, but I'm tempted to see that reaction as evidence of the film's effectiveness. "Joshua" is a twisty, chilly vision of haute-yuppie parenting as unrelenting nightmare, an ingenious reworking of the demon-seed genre in which the evil child is not the real villain. Also this week, New Yorkers can catch the theatrical release of Jennifer Fox's six-hour TV series "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman," an extraordinary personal documentary that's likely to spread like a cultural virus from one middle-class woman to another all over the globe.

I've been out of town for a family funeral, and on the same day we buried my father-in-law came the sad news that Taiwanese-American director Edward Yang had died at 59, after a long battle with colon cancer. Yang was known almost entirely in the United States for his 2000 art-house hit "Yi Yi (A One and a Two)," and it's a damn fine movie to be remembered by. Distilling the intimate domestic realism Yang drew from European sources like Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson with his focus on middle-class life in a rapidly changing Taiwan, "Yi Yi" was his definitive work.

It was far from Yang's only worthwhile film and arguably wasn't his best. At this writing nothing else he made -- not the generational epic "A Brighter Summer Day," not the Antonioni-esque murder mystery "The Terrorizer" (my personal fave) and not his early masterpiece of urban anomie, "Taipei Story" -- is available on video in any form. He wasn't alone, of course. Asian art cinema is a particularly tough sell these days, both at home and in the West. Yang's countrymen and contemporaries Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang are only marginally better known than he was. Hou and Tsai will presumably make more movies; Yang's seven features are all we're going to get. (GreenCine Daily has an excellent compendium of links to commemorative essays and tributes.)

Another director deserving of much wider recognition -- and who is, thankfully, still with us -- is Austria's Barbara Albert, whose new picture "Falling" is just now concluding a U.S. premiere engagement at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Especially in contrast to the star-loaded awkwardness of "Evening," Albert's film stands out as a pitch-perfect depiction of female friendship with all its intimacies and deceptions. Wrenching, redemptive and marvelously acted, it's among the best things I've seen this year. Whether it will ever get wider theatrical distribution is anybody's guess, but don't hold your breath.

"Rescue Dawn": Little Dieter needs to become an action hero
You can pretty much count on Werner Herzog to confound expectations, and he's certainly done that with "Rescue Dawn," a grueling POW escape drama based on the real story of a U.S. Navy pilot's ordeal during the worst years of the Vietnam War. To at least some of Herzog's admirers, this subject matter may seem willfully perverse: an all-American tale of war heroism, delivered on one of the gloomiest national birthdays in American history, as we sink deeper into a war we'd all like to forget.

Divorcing oneself from the passions of the moment may help: "Rescue Dawn" is in no sense pro-war propaganda, even if right-wing critics and viewers may wish to spin it that way. Herzog clearly depicts the tremendous asymmetry between the American forces' heavy weaponry and the bands of peasant guerrillas they were fighting, an asymmetry that was abruptly reversed for Dieter Dengler (played by Christian Bale as a combination of ferocious intensity and Zen-like calm) when his plane was shot down over the Laotian jungle in 1966.

If anything, "Rescue Dawn" views the Vietnam conflict in ironic and fatalistic terms, although, as always in Herzog's films, the moral questions are difficult to parse. (Dengler was never officially listed as missing in action, because his mission was secret and the United States did not acknowledge its bombing campaign in Laos.) To some extent war was just the inescapable background noise to Dengler's peculiar struggle toward individual transcendence. Although Herzog keeps the biographical back story to a minimum, Bale's Dengler delivers an explanatory monologue to a tiny group of POWs in their remote jungle prison camp. As a small boy, he was a German World War II orphan who watched American pilots strafe his village in the Black Forest and was enthralled. From that point onward, he tells Duane (Steve Zahn) and Gene (Jeremy Davies), "little Dieter needed to fly."

That's an inside joke that only a few viewers will get; Dengler's story was first explored in Herzog's 1997 documentary "Little Dieter Needs to Fly." But no one familiar with Herzog's life and film career will miss the obvious parallels with Dengler, who like so many of the director's fictional or nonfictional protagonists is an obsessive with a powerful life force, both charismatic and bafflingly naive. Dengler was a German immigrant who came to America to pursue a dream of escape and freedom, and who wound up imprisoned in an extraordinary situation for which even his deprived childhood had not prepared him.

If Herzog is implicitly comparing his troubled, peripatetic career in the movie business to being captured and tortured by Laotian guerrillas, well, that's pretty grandiose. But no one has ever accused him of undue modesty, and after 40-odd years of tireless artistic independence, he's earned some degree of self-regard. Of course, none of this behind-the-scenes analysis explains why "Rescue Dawn" is likely to be a surprise summer hit. If that happens, it'll be because this marvelously photographed, tautly constructed big-screen spectacle puts you through the emotional wringer and hauls you out the other side. For somebody who's made hardly any narrative films since the '80s, Herzog remains a master of the form. He may have relaunched his career yet again.

Seemingly unbowed by the beatings and brutality he absorbs after his capture, Dengler immediately informs his fellow prisoners that he plans to escape. A former tool-and-die apprentice in Germany, he makes keys so they can unlock their leg irons at night and plan a getaway. It's perfectly true that the prisoners -- which include the emaciated Duane and Gene, along with a few Vietnamese and Laotian soldiers from pro-American forces -- have no idea where they are. Even if they evade the vicious guards, most directions into the jungle will lead only to death from starvation, disease, drowning, snakebite or simply angry villagers eager to behead American soldiers. Dengler remains almost pathologically upbeat: He's got a plan. They'll kill the guards and strike out together for the Mekong River. Across it will lie Thailand, with its pro-Western government, and relative safety.

"Rescue Dawn" divides roughly in half, between the odd intimacy of a prison-camp movie, in which Dengler struggles to rally the mood of his mates, who are getting sicker and ever more delirious, and the pell-mell adventure of the escape itself. Both halves are enthralling, full of hilarity, edge-of-the-seat tension and sudden explosions of deadly violence. Without giving anything important away, let's just say that Herzog avoids the ideological clichés of the standard action-adventure, in which "our guys" are always tougher and more ingenious than the enemy. Nothing about the escape goes according to plan, and Dengler and Duane wind up trekking alone through the jungle with no food, no fresh water, and half a shoe between them.

There is unquestionably an element of self-conscious patriotism to this film: Dengler survives thanks to his optimism, courage and resourcefulness, classic American qualities if ever there were any. You could view him, with equal validity, as another kind of American as well, a bull-headed individualist who pursues a dream while ignoring its moral consequences, a boy who yearns to fly but never considers how that might affect people on the ground. You can't watch this exciting movie without rooting for little Dieter, but decoding the lessons of his ambiguous story will take a lot longer.

"Rescue Dawn" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and opens July 13 in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, with more cities to follow.

"Joshua": Manhattan parenting as a horror show (the truth hurts)
There's an inherent marketing problem with George Ratliff's canny little chiller "Joshua," which is shot in the medium-bright lighting and decorous interiors of mid-period Woody Allen but is even more frightening than that suggests. Only viewers with some appreciation for the odd, bloodless character of moneyed family life in New York will really understand how hilarious and deadly accurate this movie is. But then again, New York parents are the last people who will want to see it.

When Brad (Sam Rockwell) and Abby (Vera Farmiga), uptown parents of a piano prodigy named Joshua (Jacob Kogan), attend the music recital at their son's uptight, suit-and-tie elementary school, they nervously reassure themselves that they aren't "those people." They mean the rich, white, status-obsessed young Establishment parents sitting all around them. Many of us have made remarks like that to ourselves and our spouses, perhaps in less rarefied circumstances. We are "those people" on the outside, but we retain some inner core of our bohemian, quasi-rebellious post-collegiate selves.

Except maybe we don't. "Joshua" is an oft-told tale in the horror genre, the story of an unloved older child who seeks revenge (or at least a redress of perceived injury) on his parents and newborn sibling. But the ingenuity of George Ratliff's film (co-written with David Gilbert) lies in its complicated interplay of emotion and sympathy, not in its standard-issue plotting. Nine-year-old Joshua is a strange and morbid kid whose behavior borders on the diabolical. He may be hatching an ingenious plan to destroy the family that has afflicted him with a baby sister. But if he is, he has his reasons.

There's nothing so exceptional about Brad and Abby, which may be why the movie is so creepily effective. Operating with reasonably good intentions and a normal mixture of selfishness and stupidity, they have somehow concocted a toxic home environment. Brad's away all the time at his soulless finance job and spends the rest of his time in a cocoon of iTunes classic rock or TV sports. Abby's spiraling down into postpartum depression, crippling migraines and possible psychotic delusions. Their baby girl has gotten colicky, after a few peaceful early weeks, and won't stop crying. Joshua sits in the living room practicing Bartók, and his teacher thinks he should skip a grade (or two). Even before anything bad happens, his parents are pretty scared of him and grateful for every chance to ignore him.

There are a lot of clues about what's really happening as Joshua's family becomes increasingly unglued, but they don't all point in the same direction. Joshua becomes more and more fascinated by Egyptian mummies and disembowels his teddy bears to preserve them for eternity. School guinea pigs and household pets die mysteriously. He screws up his piano recital on purpose, and only Abby's brother, the playwright and composer Ned (Dallas Roberts), has any inkling of why. Ned, in fact, is another stock character -- the gay uncle, brother, cousin or friend -- handled with great subtlety here. Without consciously intending to, he essentially becomes Joshua's accomplice in detonating this nuclear family.

Brad eventually discovers a cache of night-vision videos suggesting that Joshua has indeed been awake late at night, roaming the huge apartment in pursuit of sinister errands. But those aren't the first found videos in the movie. Joshua has already watched his parents' old VHS tapes of his babyhood, when he cried far worse than his sister has ever done and his mom suffered a crashing, sobbing breakdown. The conclusions his precocious 9-year-old brain draws about this family and his role in it are not, on the face of things, unreasonable.

There is nearly no violence or gore in "Joshua," but its crisis is all the more tense and terrifying because of that. Brad and Abby are far from the worst parents in the world, but they're lazy, inattentive, fearful and more than a little ambivalent about the whole thing -- and in this morality play, all those highly normal deficiencies come back to bite them in the ass. (I told you parents will dread this film.) Brad's born-again mother is mostly a frightful hysteric, but she's quite right when she proclaims, "This is a building. This is an apartment. It's not a home."

Joshua may do some unforgivable things in his demented quest to reorder his family. (Ratliff wisely refrains from explaining everything.) But he's not alone. The scariest moment comes early in the film, when Abby and Brad are just beginning to suspect that Joshua is a dangerous freak. He's going out to give away toys to the poor -- by himself, in New York, at age 9. He turns at the door and says, "Mommy? Daddy? I love you." They stare at him and don't say anything. Whatever happens after that, they had it coming.

"Joshua" opens July 6 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider release to follow.

"Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman": A globetrotter's journey into the female self
Jennifer Fox's six-hour nonfiction series "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman" is undoubtedly bound for television, where both its self-absorption and its amazing weave of interconnected characters will be thinned out somewhat. I'm really not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. My reactions to "Flying" are already contradictory, but I think its power depends on surrendering yourself, for better and worse, to Fox's wide-roaming intelligence and neurotic subjectivity.

Fox is breaking new ground in terms of personal documentary, turning a navel-gazing survey of her own midlife crisis into a globalized, collaboratively created exploration of "this new female life," as she constantly and irritatingly calls it. (What she means, as she does realize, is the life of individual autonomy that has been made possible, largely in the industrialized West, by material wealth and cultural privilege.) About five years ago, Fox began traveling around the world, "passing the camera" to friends, friends of friends, and other women she meets along the way, allowing them to film each other, themselves and her. The result is an extraordinarily revealing and intimate series of girl-talk conversations, ranging from Berlin to Johannesburg to a remote village in India and an Indian reservation in Wyoming, among many other places. (In one startling sequence, Fox interviews women in India who don't even understand the concept of female masturbation, let alone practice it.)

Throughout all this, Fox keeps circling back to her own life as a filmmaker and teacher in New York, where she lives in a huge Tribeca loft that will incite severe real estate envy from all other Gothamites. Based on her acclaimed 1988 film "Beirut: The Last Home Movie" and the PBS series "An American Love Story," Fox has built a worldwide career teaching filmmaking workshops and producing other directors' work. (The number of women she describes as dear friends is pretty daunting all by itself.) She's aware that her own personal problems are insignificant in themselves, but she offers them to us in perhaps unnecessary detail, as totems of the inner and outer conflicts faced by independent-minded career woman.

Fox has a married lover in South Africa, and although we see his hands and shoulders and hear his (muffled) voice, his presence in the film, as in her life, is more spectral than physical. Thanks to him, she's having trouble committing to Patrick, a pleasant Swiss-German sound engineer whose patience seems inexhaustible. After much angst, she's decided she wants to get pregnant with one or the other of them, but she keeps miscarrying. There's an admirable nakedness to Fox's on-camera mooning over these two guys, and her tormented conversations with girlfriends over the nature and varieties of love, the link between love and sex and child-bearing, the possibility of permanence, the self-delusion of the "other woman," etc., etc.

Fox knows she is risking ridicule with this material, and there were moments over the six-hour stretch of "Flying" when I found her insufferable and whiny. Furthermore, I'm suspicious of her essentialist notion that men and women have fundamentally different modes of communication, and that the extended, talky, personal-meets-political mode of "Flying" is inherently female. (Whereas the 90-minute, three-act movie-movie, I guess, is male.) But yeah, I know, there's an epistemological problem when it comes to my judgment about Fox's ideas, isn't there? And I wouldn't be at all surprised if "Flying" finds a phenomenal following among women, and women-friendly men, all over the world.

At some point, I finally swooned and surrendered before the raw power of Fox's reiterative method. (She has boiled down these six hours from something like 1,600 hours of raw video.) While I still found the director's on-screen persona irritating, she had become an irritating person I cared about, just as I cared about her two old friends who are fighting cancer, and her naive young pregnant friend, her friend locked in an endless court battle with her ex-husband, her friend the human-rights lawyer in India and so on. I don't know how male or female that is; it feels more like reading an enormous multi-character novel by Thackeray or Tolstoy, or getting swept up in a much slower and more intelligent version of "Sex and the City," than like an entirely new mode of communication.

"Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. Other engagements should follow.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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