Tuesday, August 18, 2009


This summer I spent two weeks in Germany where, among other diversions, I immersed myself in the history of the Third Reich and the Cold War and thought deeply about the mechanics of propoganda and group evil. In the three weeks since I returned, I've seen two excellent films that furthered that exploration of lying, in very different ways.

The first was "In the Loop," (8) a biting and bitterly insightful comedy that takes as its inspiration the lead-up to the Iraq war. By means of the most artful profanity imaginable ("Deadwood" is the only thing I've ever seen that comes close to this), the film depicts how functionaries imbroiled in the political process can each become so focused on his or her own personal self-interest that they lose sight of any coherent principle or defensible version of reality. Even if profanity offends you (it doesn't me), that may in fact be the point--one should be offended by lying that comes this fast and furious. And yet it is utterly hilarious. The laughs come so relentlessly that I expect it will take several viewings to feel like I'm getting anything like the full effect of this exceedingly clever script. I'm already planning my DVD purchase so I can watch it with subtitles; it is that good.

The director (who wrote the script with five other screenwriters--for once a group project that feels amazingly unified) gets a lot of comic mileage out of the differences between the Brits and the Americans. The Brits veer from sycophantic to apoplectic (particularly two Scots who have the best and most furious lines in the film--is this some private joke?) while the Americans are boorish, entitled, or, as Mick LaSalle put it, "cheerfully psychopathic." (San Francisco Chronicle) There's a hilarious running joke in which the Brits are persistently appalled that the American government is basically run by children barely out of college.

Beneath all this humor lie some pretty profound observations about how groups of people vying for power can lumber toward decisions that no one really believes in, heedless of the devastating consequences. Having observed close-up less far-reaching but still disturbing examples of this same phenomenon, I found myself wishing I was clever enough to generate an internal commentary even half this funny and apt, so that at least I could keep myself entertained. (Not rated but assuredly deserves an R rating for rampant but artful profanity.)

The other film comes at the theme of massive lies from an entirely different, more disturbing, and, I daresay, more important angle. "The Cove" (10) is itself an act of subversion: this daring documentary sets out simply to show (not just tell--since telling so far hasn't worked) the truth about the appalling treatment of dolphins in a Japanese village that portrays itself as a center of dolphin love, complete with monuments and a dolphin museum.

Every year in Taiji, Japan, thousands of dolphins are forced into captivity. Hundreds of them are sold into the very lucrative but inhumane international dolphinarium trade--and the rest are brutally slaughtered by the thousands in a secluded cove and sold as mislabled, mercury-poisoned meat. This senseless and violent deception is carried out under secrecy enforced by a fierce and highly organized network of police, corporate interests, officials at all levels of government, and petty thugs. It is shocking how much energy is devoted to lying about what is happening and to preventing anyone (by any means necessary) from photographing or even seeing what is going on.

Ric O'Barry, the man who got rich creating the "Flipper" show in the early '60s that, according to him, sparked the dolphinarium trade, recounts how, after a decade, he finally came to realize just how profoundly cruel it is to keep dolphins in captivity after one of the "Flipper" dolphins died in his arms in what he was convinced was a suicide. He then spent 35 years trying to break down what he feels responsible for starting--and in the process finds the walls of protection around the industry impossible to penetrate by legal means. He eventually finds an ideal collaborator in documentary filmmaker Louie Psihoyos, who assembles a dream team of champion free-divers, a military reconnaissance expert, and Hollywood special effects designers to mastermind an operation that aims to simply show the truth of what is happening.

The result is profoundly disquieting and absolutely essential viewing. How can people shield themselves so completely from recognizing how lying destroys their humanity? How can they fail to see that deliberately and forcefully squelching the truth rots one's insides? How did O'Barry find the courage to look so square in the face of a wrong that he helped to perpetrate and to never look away in 35 years? Watch his eyes for evidence of the pain he absorbs as he devotes himself to a life of bearing witness to unspeakable evil. Attend to the filmmakers' struggle to anticipate the objections to their attempt to make sense of what is happening. The details and explanations they lay out so carefully are important--but such details cannot truly account for such senseless evil. One must look at the bigger picture--and the courage it took to collect the images necessary for us to bear witness to that picture is hard to fathom. Especially since the lies continue. Don't miss this one. (Rated PG-13 for disturbing content.)

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