In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

41. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Aquarius Theatre

Landmark's Aquarius Theatre was built in 1969 and acquired by Landmark in 1985.  One of its most striking features is a marquee wide enough to display the twelve-word title of the movie I came to see (albeit on two lines).  That lamp post really ought to be relocated.

Some cool tile work adorns the columns on either side of each of the two entrances.  The theater has two screens, and I can't find any reference to the theater having been twinned.  When you purchase your ticket, you will be directed to one of the two doors on either side of the box office.  When you go in through the appropriate door...'ll find yourself in the aquatic-themed lobby, with the concession stand bisecting the room.  Without intruding into the box office/concession area, I don't think there's a way to get from one side of the lobby to the other without going outside and reentering through the other door.  That's an octopus on the far wall near the door to screen 1.

According to the official site, the Aquarius Theatre showcases midnight movies.  I know I'm not getting old, because I devised a dynamic formula by which old = the age of my eldest parent + 10 years.  The formula is ingenious because it ensures that neither my parents nor I will ever be 'old'.  Despite that fact, the idea of going to see a movie at midnight seems like more work than fun.  My idea of fun at midnight involves a bed, and I won't be picky after that.

Auditorium one seats 235, while auditorium two seats 145, for a total of 380 seats.  Auditorium two (showing The Most Dangerous Man...) has painted walls that look a bit like theater set design.  From a distance, they appear to be trees (or perhaps seaweed), but up close they look like blotches of color.

An usher introduced the film, asked us to silence our cell phones, and to alert him if the auditorium became too hot or too cold, or if the movie were too loud or too quiet.  It's always a classy touch to have the film introduced.


That stupid ad for Sprint 4G again.  Ads for cars and cell phones give me a technophobic urge to unplug.

Another great ad for South Africa, after this one here.  This time, it follows one man around as he says he came just as a tourist, but fell in love with the country, and decided to stay.  My first thought is that his experience as a tourist will be drastically different than his experience as a resident.  As a tourist, he's staying in hotels, eating out at restaurants, and going out on safaris.  I would expect that he'd settle down a bit once he moved there, and suddenly wonder how it's all that different from the city he used to live in.  I love it when people come to visit me because in entertaining them I am forced to leave my house and see the sights of my own neighborhood.  I learn more about where I live by walking around with a non-native than I do by living here.  ("Oh, I didn't know you had a park here!"  "Neither did I!")  The ad ends with this great slogan: "South Africa: it's possible."  I don't know what exactly that means, but I had fun with it all evening.  "Would you like naan with your rice?"  "It's possible."

If you've been to a Landmark theater you've no doubt seen the ads for Stella Artois.  They are usually entertaining, though sometimes really depressing.  One such ad depicted a middle-aged man noticing that his aging mother has holes in her shoes.  When they pass a shoe store and he sees her admiring a beautiful pair of shoes, he determines to get them for her.  He works extra hard, herding goats, hauling kindling, etc., until he finally has enough money.  Then, on the way to the shoe store, and being exhausted from all the work, he stops in at a bar and blows the money on a Stella Artois.  When he next sees his mother, he stuffs the cardboard coaster from his beer into her shoe to cover the hole.  Seeing only this kind gesture, and having no idea what an ungrateful imbecile she's raised, the mother smiles warmly at her son.  "Stella Artois: it's better than your mother's health."  In tonight's more subdued ad, we focus almost entirely on the pouring of the beer.  These ads love to show the beer overflowing, then having the foaming cap scraped off right at the gilded rim of the glass with some flat object, leaving a perfectly full glass (never mind that the outside of the glass is now sticky).  The ad finishes with this pleasant aphorism: "It's good to know there's a ritual, so when it comes up, you can enjoy it."

There is some television show that stars Edie Falco (nurse) and Toni Colette (dissociative identity disordered housewife).  The show looks riveting, and as I watch the commercial I anticipate seeing the two of them together in a scene.  And I wait, and I wait.  And the show begins to feel very disconnected to me.  This is just like every other show, where they have too large a cast to fit into one scene!  Then, at the very end, it's revealed that this is actually an ad for two different shows, Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara.

Discovery's eleven-part series Life has begun showing.  Every shot in the trailer is gorgeous.  When I checked out their website, though, I was treated to a clip of fish wrestling in the mud.  Nature can be both beautiful and disgusting.


Exit Through the Gift Shop

What seems at first to be an interesting look at the world of graffiti artists ends up being about the man who was trying to make the movie about the world of graffiti artists.  I would much rather see the movie he was trying to make.  32 cuts.

The Secret of Kells

When a spooky child whispers, "I've seen the book, the book that turned the darkness into light," it's not reassuring.  It's just spooky.  Children should never be taught to whisper.  Vikings are attacking a village (in Ireland, I'm guessing), a boy is running scared through a forest, chased by wolves, and a girl who is perhaps a wolf or a fox herself befriends the boy and ferries him to safety.  If you can construct more of the plot than that from this stunning trailer, you are more observant than I.  The animation style is two-dimensional, similar in ways to Sita Sings the Blues, but with more background and foreground layers, and less adherence to reality.  The movie might end up being as incomprehensible as the trailer, but it will be a beautiful journey.  66 cuts.

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

In Ron Howard's masterful The Paper, journalist Michael Keaton defends his work-now-love-later priorities to his pregnant wife, Marisa Tomei, by telling her that when she needs him, he'll be there.  Tomei counters that Keaton is saving himself up for some emergency that will never come; that her need of him is constant and incremental.  We all know the terrible aphorism about the frog in boiling water: if thrown into the boiling water, the frog knows to leap out immediately.  But if placed in tepid water that is only gradually brought to a boil, the frog will boil with it.  So too is the indoctrination into a conspiracy.  No one on their first day on the job is shown the secret army of ninjas training in the back room; the new hire has to work up to it, so that by the time they make the big, damning choice, it is only slightly more evil than the choice they made immediately prior.

Daniel Ellsberg is hired as part of the RAND Corporation, a government think tank charged in part with finding evidence that Northern Vietnamese attacks on their southern neighbors have injured Americans.  When Ellsberg comes up short, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, under pressure from President Johnson, tells Ellsberg to dig deeper, and Ellsberg, in turn, desperate to please his boss, applies pressure to various American military commanders in Vietnam to report even the slightest incident.  Ellsberg is the frog in tepid water; he begins his job as an anti-war dove, but through mundane tasks, each not so different from the last, empowers Johnson to publicly escalate the U.S. presence in Vietnam from spectator to aggressor.

But unlike the thousands of others who were aware of the government's desire and efforts to go to war, even as they said the opposite to the American people, Ellsberg finally reached a threshold of morality.  What makes his transformation from accomplice to informant so interesting is that it is not so much a reaction against a particularly distasteful event, but rather a recognition that his daily choices have aggregated into mass murder.  His moment of change comes when he sees a man willing to go to prison rather than be drafted.  According to Ellsberg, that "split [his] life in two".  Disgusted with himself and his government, and sure that with better information the American public would denounce the war, Ellsberg began to secretly photocopy the seven-thousand page document that proved the U.S.'s presence in Vietnam was intentional, and with the active consent of presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and finally Nixon.

Act Two of the film is about the dissemination of the document to various newspapers, and about Nixon's attempts to suppress publication of the document.  Nixon's obsessive audio recordings have gifted us with proof of what a scoundrel he was.  When Kissinger warns Nixon not to bomb too many civilians, less he be seen as a mass murderer, Nixon says, "I don't give a damn."  In favor of dropping nuclear bombs on North Vietnam, Nixon says, "For once we've got to use the maximum power of this country against this shit-ass little country to win the war."

Ellsberg soon learns that America is not quick to act on the printed word, especially when excerpted from a seven-thousand page tome.  Though Ellsberg's efforts contributed to our withdrawal from Vietnam, and Nixon's vendetta for Ellsberg lead directly to the President's resignation, the film does not dissuade me from believing that America's disgust with the war was ultimately tied to the loss of life among our own troops.  There is a strong parallel between Vietnam's losses (outweighing the U.S.'s 30:1, and mostly civilians) and Iraq's losses today (outweighing the U.S.'s 20:1, again mostly civilians), as well as between our government's pro-war agenda during both eras.  It's not our ignorance but our complacency that allows our government to repeat history, and in our name.

The film often annoyed me by employing familiar documentary tropes.  Reenactments, thankfully, have been so overused in television that everyone ought to know better now than to clumsily insert scenes of a shadowed figure in darkness reaching for the handle of a filing cabinet.  That isn't drama; it's just silly.  Either hire Robert Redford and shoot the entire film as fiction, or commit to showing only what we know or believe to be true.  I also dislike cameras that watch a person in action, yet the constantly shifting angle of the camera suggests that the person isn't authentically walking, but rather is being directed to walk in front of the camera multiple times, to simulate truth, rather than portray it.  My biggest issue with this film is the juxtaposition of Ellsberg's narration with graphic images of Vietnam.  When he relates general ideas about U.S. involvement, it is appropriate to show an example of that (e.g. the statement "We bombed them" goes well with an image of us bombing them).  But when he tells a specific story, and we're shown an image of what could only be some other specific story, I think this is untruthful.  For example, he relates a story in which he visited a village that had been burned to the ground.  While he is telling this story, we're shown footage of a village being burned to the ground, but I doubt the village shown is actually the village he mentions.  This is the equivalent of saying the Oakland Fire Department arrived on the scene, but then show images of the San Francisco Fire Department arriving on the scene.  One village is not the same as another, and they are not interchangeable.

(Bank of America started offering customers the ability to customize their ATM cards by including on it a picture of a dog or a cat to remind the customer of their favorite pet.  As if a picture of some random dog would remind me of my dog.  They might as well have a picture of a random person and say it's supposed to remind me of my favorite friend or relative.)

Still, the film is enjoyable, instructive, inspirational, and relevant.  It ends with an image of Ellsberg being arrested protesting our invasion and occupation of Iraq today.  He said "enough", and he hasn't flinched since.

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