Bully Pulpit


The great box-office beneficiary of the new bellicosity, Black Hawk Down has proved perfectly attuned to the present moment in its tone of aggrieved injury. The events of September 11 allowed Americans to feel like victims and act like bullies—just like the hapless soldiers of the 1993 Somalia mission. It’s difficult to construe BHD as a pro-war movie, but to question its representation of us-versus-them is the next worst thing to being an American Taliban. (My own less-than-enthusiastic review prompted an instant invitation to spar with right-wing TV gasbag Bill O’Reilly.)

Given the Fox network’s failure to french-fry John Walker Lindh’s balls during halftime at the Super Bowl, we have Arnold Schwarzenegger’s long-awaited, well-advertised Collateral Damage, which, by the time you read this, has most likely replaced BHD as the nation’s premier (and most protested) box-office attraction. Its release tastefully postponed after September 11, this once routine tale of an L.A. firefighter’s revenge on the Colombian terrorists who blew up his wife and child has been reborn as an Event—endorsed by no less an authority than Rudolph Giuliani and subject to demonstrations a week before its opening.

An embarrassment on September 12, a patriotic vision five months later. Warner Bros. evidently began testing, and perhaps tweaking, Collateral Damage back in November—discovering, to no one’s surprise, that audiences were far more responsive to the scenario than before the terror attacks. (The intra-studio paper trail would doubtless provide a crash course in emergency marketing.) Thus the movie’s release version begins as if in the fiery heart of the WTC holocaust, with Arnold and his fellow smoke-eaters saving lives. “Heads up—let’s do it!” the star cries, as if anticipating the anti-hijacker signal, Let’s roll!

One scene later, Arnold’s central-casting wife and son are vaporized before his eyes when a bomb detonates outside the Colombian consulate. Small by WTC standards, the explosion reportedly leaves nine dead and 24 injured, but it is more than sufficient to light the fuse of Arnold’s one-man war on the El Lobo terrorist cadre. Perhaps newly added to the film is the scene wherein the hooded guerrilla leader sends a videotape blaming “American war criminals” for provoking his group’s action. Even more key to the movie’s emotional thermostat is the Colombian leftist who openly sympathizes with the terrorists, using the U.S. Army phrase “collateral damage” to rationalize Schwarzenegger’s dead family, thus prompting Arnold to redecorate the guy’s grungy headquarters with a baseball bat.

Schwarzenegger has said that Collateral Damage showcases his vulnerable side. True, he does have to fight mano a mano with a girl. (As usual, a signifier of revolutionary cadres is a heavy sprinkling of grim-faced warrior-women in their combat-fatigued ranks.) Suffice to say that, whether sprinting through the rainforest or digi-diving down a waterfall, der Arnold is more than tough enough to wipe the smirk from beneath El Lobo’s mask. The revolutionary’s quotes are largely from the Al Qaeda fakebook: “Americans hide behind family values . . . they have forgotten the reality of war, not like us.” This reality is apparent when the sadistic guerrillas prove their native cruelty by exotically forcing one of their own to swallow a live coral snake.

Intermittently, in attempts to articulate a coherent argument, Collateral Damage shifts from pulse-pounding mode to something more migraine-conducive. It takes a sudden segue to fisticuffs and ear-chomping for the movie to escape from a tautological debate on moral equivalence between good vengeance and bad. (“You Americans are so naive. You never ask, why does a peasant need a gun? You think you are the only ones to fight for your independence?” The non sequitur riposte: “Independence to do what—kill women and children?”) Similarly, in the aftermath of Arnold’s single-handed decimation of the guerrilla camp, El Lobo asks the Fireman (as he is usually known) to explain the difference between them, prompting Arnold to ponderously elucidate, “I’m just going to kill you.”

This is the sort of burly action flick where one coincidence pummels another, narrative necessity is a drunken roundhouse, and whatever passes for logic is a factor of the last plot device left standing. It’s a small world after all, particularly in comparison to Arnold. When the star instructively yells, “You cannot fight terror with terror,” at the resident CIA sleazebag (Elias Koteas), he’s creating his own foreign policy; when he extends his protection to El Lobo’s consort (Francesca Neri), he’s acting as a nation unto himself.

Collateral damage is something that Americans have inflicted far more than they have suffered, but in this case, the phrase is synonymous with windfall profits. Just as George Bush’s questionable presidency was consecrated by the War on Terror, so Schwarzenegger’s flagging career should be revived. Perhaps the Fireman will again decide to run for governor. All together now: “Heads up. Let’s . . . do . . . it!”

The nuclear family comes under another sort of terror attack in Wendigo, a nifty supernatural chiller by independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden. A Manhattan professional couple, commercial photographer George (Jake Weber) and psychotherapist Kim (Patricia Clarkson), along with their eight-year-old son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan), are en route to a winter weekend at a Catskill farmhouse when their Volvo station wagon hits a buck on an icy back road and a subsequent encounter with a hostile hunter (John Sperednakis) turns their getaway into a nightmare.

From the first scene on, Fessenden orchestrates the tensions within the isolated family—George’s barely suppressed anger, Kim’s resentment, the child’s fear of the aggression he senses around him. George frequently teases Miles by playing monster, and before turning in for the night, the boy has his mother check under the bed and inside the closets. (Sullivan’s tight, wizened face eerily expresses his parents’ middle-aged anxieties.) The old dark house may be rattling in the wind and riddled with mysterious bullet holes, but the locus of terror is the surrounding forest. Like The Blair Witch Project, Wendigo evokes the primal fear of the continent’s white settlers—it’s named for the malevolent spirit that haunts the woods in Indian legends.

This cannibal creature was used to grisly effect a few years ago in Antonia Bird’s gross-out, anti-militarist western Ravenous, but Fessenden’s Wendigo is a movie of suggestion and foreboding, most of it filtered through Miles’s spooked consciousness. The backstory is provided when the family drives to town for provisions (at a general store well stocked with toy guns and hunting paraphernalia) and a mysterious Native American informs the boy about the shape-shifting wendigo. To add to the historical guilt, George learns that a nearby town was flooded to make a reservoir for New York City. Fessenden finds a landscape of agonized-looking wooden Indians and totem poles, but it’s the cold emptiness of the Catskills that seems most uncanny—a vacuum into which the beleaguered family (and the audience) can project their fantasies.

Despite occasional intimations of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wendigo is more atmospheric than splatterfying. As the story turns violent, Miles’s hallucinations come to the fore. Among other things, we learn that Svankmajer’s Little Otik may also have been a wendigo: Grounded in Fessenden’s handheld camera, stuttering montage rhythms, and time-lapse photography, the engagingly primitive animated special effects contribute to a mood that’s sustained through the surprisingly somber conclusion.

Much Ado About Something—showing, in a Film Forum first, as projected videoóis veteran Australian documentary filmmaker Michael Rubbo’s humorously tendentious intervention into the who-wrote-Shakespeare controversy. Rubbo, who made a memorable portrait some time back of France’s then “new philosophers,” has a fondness for enthusiastic intellectuals riding their hobbyhorses. He’s forever breathlessly stoking the excitementówhether getting Mark Rylance, artistic director of London’s Globe Theater, to vent his uncertainties regarding the Bard’s actual identity or encouraging a married couple’s differing opinion on the 400-year-old controversy.

Suspecting the greatest literary cover-up of all time, Rubbo throws in with the supporters of Christopher Marlowe, detailing circumstantial evidence ranging from Marlowe’s superior education and Shakespeare’s busy schedule, through the “parallelisms” in their work, to the sonnets’ repeated references to exile and the plays’ frequent use of foreign sources, primarily Italian. Ultimately, the filmmaker offends the hardcore Marlovians by developing his own theory: Shakespeare and Marlowe were actually writing partners, with Shakespeare acting as the exiled (and officially dead) Marlowe’s front. It’s a pleasingly Hollywood notion that plays well with Rubbo’s interpolated quotes from Shakespeare in Love.