Culture Clash 

This week in movies: Vanity Fair and Control Room.

It would be difficult to find a drearier way to spend two-and-a-quarter hours than with Vanity Fair the Reese Witherspoon vehicle that is generating Oscar buzz for the actress whose trademark contribution to her films is zest and spunk. Vanity Fair, a bloated but hollow, gaudy antique of a movie based on the 1848 classic novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, is zest-free and spunkless and feels every bit of the book s 900 pages.
Vanity Fair, the novel, was a biting social satire of high society, and by 1848, England was overdue for a little introspection. It was then a somewhat gentler version of a caste system, with mostly impenetrable divisions and few opportunities to ascend from, say, orphan to duchess.
In the film, Becky Sharp (Witherspoon) is a poor orphan. The child of a starving artist and a French-opera chorus girl, she has the good fortune of landing a governess job, thanks to her command of the French language. While she doesn t much care for her employers a family of downtrodden semi-nobles led by the unshaven Sir Pick Crawley (rumpled, mischievous Bob Hoskins) she cunningly manages to work her way through the family to its richer side in the form of Pick s spinster sister, Matilda (Eileen Atkins, who strikes the same profound balance between wit and worry she brought to the role of healing crone in Cold Mountain). A secret elopement with Matilda s dashing but ne er-do-well favorite nephew, Rawdon (James Purefoy), estranges Becky once again from opportunity, leaving her to her own devices. (Husband Rawdon is too busy gambling to do much work, and he s not a good gambler.)
Meanwhile, Becky s sole childhood friend, Amelia (Romola Garai), has found romance of her own in the form of handsome but fickle soldier George (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). George wants what he can t have and doesn t want what he s got, and Becky s irrepressible spirit are alluring and annoying to him all at once. Becky dodges George s advances and continues her social climb, but she lands again in treacherous territory: the lust of the rich but restless Marquess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne). Only then does Becky realize that there is a price for the many jaunts she has taken up the social ladder and that her own choices may have been poorer gambles than even the luckless Rawdon has taken. War with France escalates, and all around her, Becky finds that there are greater concerns than getting invited to tea parties. But still she climbs.
Part of the joy of watching period films is the exoticism of the past: Did people really wear that? Is that really how people brushed their teeth back then? Look at those sideburns! In that regard, Vanity Fair satisfies. There is plenty of curiosity. We look in on a particular time when the English too suffered a yen for exoticism that of colonized India. Britons were fascinated by all things Indian dress, dance, curry and so Vanity Fair is chock full of images, references, and cutaways to the influence of Indian culture on England and vice versa. So, in some ways it s intriguing to look in on people who are looking in on people. But the people we are looking in on are drawn out in all the detail of a novel, not a film. Scenes are mercilessly episodic in nature; there is no momentum from one scene or moment to the next, no glue, no push.
Compounding this is the fact that key plot points are revealed as exposition after the fact: the elopement, an important death near the end. You can do this in a novel, but in film we must see. The essential axiom of good story-crafting, Show, don t tell, is ignored in favor of a literal, dusty, page-by-page approach. Vanity Fair is, in all fairness, sumptuous to look at and its performances are inarguably well-acted. Witherspoon proves again that she can rise (or descend) to whatever occasion is required (be it the hoity-toity Importance of Being Earnest or the white-trashy Freeway). But Vanity Fair suffers too badly from the Who cares? to impress anyone of high or low society.

Bo List


In this election season, are you weary of the he-said/she-said ineffectuality of American media, which too often offers a balanced depiction of what opposing sides say about real situations rather than an honest evaluation of the situations themselves? If so, then check out Control Room for a reminder of how important a free press can be.
Directed by Jehane Noujaim, an Arab-American filmmaker who also co-directed the popular business documentary Startup.com, Control Room is a glimpse at the inner-workings of Al Jazeera, the Arab CNN, as it covers the U.S.-Iraq war.
Broadcasting out of Doha, Qatar (also the location of U.S. Central Command during the war), Al Jazeera boasts an audience of more than 40 million and offers an independent alternative to the government-run stations in most Middle Eastern countries.
Noujaim s camera follows Al Jazeera from March 2003, on the eve of the war, through the U.S. siege of Baghdad, never leaving Doha and never making judgments.
Demonized by officials within the Bush administration, particularly Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, yet also condemned by the notorious Iraqi information minister for promoting American propaganda, the hard-working, multinational crew of Al Jazeera comes off as less self-deluded (or self-righteous) about its supposed objectivity than American news sources while being just as, if not more, reliable. That the Bush administration accuses Al Jazeera of being a propaganda tool while cozying up to something as Orwellian as Fox News is telling, especially in light of a respected publication like The New York Times having to apologize for misleading pre-war coverage after buying into the administration s own argument for the war.
This word objectivity is almost a mirage, an Al Jazeera producer tells one accusatory and uncomprehending American reporter, before turning the tables on her to question the detachment of the U.S. media. The implication seems to be that objectivity is impossible and that truth, honesty, and fairness are higher callings. To the chagrin of the U.S. military leadership, Al Jazeera s coverage of the war focuses on the human cost. They show graphic depictions of casualties on both sides of the conflict and seem puzzled by their American counterparts refusal to do the same.
If Rumsfeld thinks Al Jazeera is an instrument of anti-Americanism, then he might be surprised to see Control Room and meet some of the journalists he s demonized. Iraqi-born senior producer Samir Khader rhapsodizes over the American dream. He says that if he were offered a job by a U.S. network, he would take it. He yearns for his children to go to college in the U.S. and stay there.
More compelling is Al Jazeera producer Hassan Ibrahim, a Sudanese national formerly of the BBC. Ibrahim has a wry, sharp wit and doesn t hide his bemused contempt for the American actions in Iraq, which he describes as democratize or we ll shoot you. Editing footage of angry Iraqis greeting American troops, Ibrahim deadpans, These are the Shi a of southern Iraq, receiving Americans with flowers.
Yet when some of his frustrated colleagues yearn for an equal military power to stand up to the U.S., Ibrahim defends the essential goodness of the American enterprise. The United States is going to stop the United States, he insists, perhaps thinking of Election Day. I have absolute confidence in the American Constitution and the American people.
Over the course of Control Room, we see Ibrahim sparring with Marine Lt. Josh Rushing, a media-relations specialist at CentCom who is often perplexed by the questions and attitudes of Arab journalists. Ibrahim tells Rushing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the core of Arab attitudes about U.S. intervention. Rushing tells Ibrahim that for Americans, these are separate issues. And you can see pretty clearly how one man s propaganda can be another man s truth.
Rushing comes across as a profoundly decent man perhaps the most sympathetic figure in the film attempting to represent his country without misrepresenting the truth. As the film, and the war, progresses, Rushing and Ibrahim develop a mutual respect and then a friendship. Perhaps after the war they will sit down together for coffee and Rushing can meet Ibrahim s wife, who lives in Israel.
Rushing says that he s learned a lot about Arab attitudes, and after the war he wants to work to bridge Arab and American perspectives. Here s the hopeful ending befitting an American movie. But, as always, things aren t so simple: Salon.com reported earlier this summer that Rumsfeld s Pentagon forbade Rushing from reacting publicly to the film. In response, the 15-year military career man quit the service. n

Chris Herrington

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