Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wrong Is Right (1982)

Let’s discuss the idea of shaky cam, and let’s start with a definition (or at least my definition).  Shaky cam is the technique of filming with a handheld device in such a way as to make any action (and even inaction) onscreen completely incoherent or just to induce nausea in the viewer.  This is accomplished by shaking the camera (or i-device or whatever) violently during a take, whether it is warranted in the scene or not.  Now, if we go back in time, the practice of employing handheld cameras goes back quite a ways, but it is most associated in history with documentaries or on-site news reportage.  In those situations, though, unless there is some type of sudden violence which both attracts attention and also causes the cameraman to beat a hasty retreat, you’ll notice that the shots caught on film and video were remarkably steady.  That’s because being a cameraman was something of an art form, requiring attention and discipline.  I defy you to watch something like, say, Harlan County, USA and tell me you don’t understand everything you see onscreen at all times. 
Since this isn’t a treatise (yet), let’s skip ahead to today.  There are still filmmakers who understand and know how to utilize handheld cinematography in their films (aided greatly by the invention of the steadicam in the mid-1970s), but there has also been a massive rise in a style of filmmaking which (from my own ignorant perspective) feels wholly concerned with expediency over purpose and a mistaken notion that the more the camera moves, the more immediate a film will feel.  To be fair, it can work to a degree and can even be artfully done, but what these folks don’t seem to realize is that the truly talented among them are lumping themselves in with those simply interested in grinding product out (and there’s a whole conversation to be had there, the answers to which I’m sure would prove most elusive) and defeating the purpose (in my eyes) of making an action film.  Compare, if you will, a film like The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter with something like A Quantum Of Solace (a film that I like, but we’re not here for that argument, either).  The latter may be flashier than the former, benefiting as it does from nearly a quarter of a century of sophistication in stuntwork techniques and special effects, but the former is simply a better depiction of cinematic action.  Don’t believe me?  Go ahead and watch the two back to back and get back to me.  I’ll be around here, somewhere.  

Patrick Hale (Sean Connery) is a globetrotting reporter who meets with fellow journalist Sally Blake (Katharine Ross) while doing a story about his friend King Awad (Ron Moody) in some Middle Eastern country.  Chancing upon terroristic arms dealer Helmut Unger (Hardy Krüger), who is delivering two suitcase nukes to Awad, Hale soon finds himself embroiled in a scenario as frightening as it is credible, with ties to everyone from loony Presidential hopeful Mallory (Leslie Nielsen) to loony Arab terrorist Rafeeq ( the chillingly humorous Henry Silva) to loony current President/health nut Lockwood (George Grizzard) .  And it’s kind of funny, too.

Wrong Is Right (aka The Man With The Deadly Lens) is Richard Brooks’ (who hails from my home state and has turned out some great films, including The Professionals and Blackboard Jungle) adaptation of the novel The Better Angels by Charles McCarry.  The film is a satire of the time in which it was made, when it felt like everything was topsy-turvy (hence the title), and it was entirely within the realm of possibility that a large portion of seemingly insanely-run factions would want to possess and/or detonate a nuclear device.  What’s really compelling about the film and its characters is that this could almost have been produced yesterday.  There are still deranged religious zealots who want to annihilate their enemies in order to gain power for themselves.  There are still self-involved morons at the very highest levels of power making decisions without thought of the people they swore to serve.  There are still violent programs inundating people in this country via the church of the cathode ray (apologies and thanks to Mr. Cronenberg).  In fact, there are probably even more now, since television is now a twenty-four-hour-a-day business festooned with hundreds of channels that still insist on running epic marathons of a single program for days on end (surely, not out of laziness?).  Its prescience notwithstanding, the film’s satire is far more subtle than it could have been, and for my money, that’s not only more difficult to achieve but also more malleable as an entertainment.  Not being saddled with hamfisted, pass-or-fail jokes a ten-year-old would likely scrawl in a lavatory stall, the quality of the humor is dependent on the viewer to get it and encourages a slightly more engaged viewing experience.  That’s not to say there aren’t more undisguised jokes going on (which also work by and large and are seemingly centered on Robert Conrad’s character of General Wombat [get it?]), but for the most part, the writing herein doesn’t “mug” for the camera, and I for one appreciate that sort of style.   

As long as we’re on the subject of writing, though, we do need to discuss the film’s biggest problem, and it is rooted in the script’s structure.  Adapting a novel is a difficult task for even the most straightforward story, I’m sure.  When you add in a lengthy cast of characters and a plot which spans multiple continents over a short time period, things can get a little muddy, and such is the case here.  One of the “commandments” of screenwriting has long been “get into a scene late and get out early,” and the screenwriter here (Brooks) obeys this tenant religiously.  Unfortunately, he also seems to be trying to follow the structure of the novel (I cannot be sure of this, not having read the source material), and consequently, the film feels like it is hopscotching (if you don’t know what hopscotch is, there’s probably an app that will play it for you) around, breaking the story up and making a complicated plot into a labyrinthine one.  It is also disconcerting, because many of the same characters appear in multiple scenes back-to-back in settings which either they shouldn’t have been able to get to so swiftly or which doesn’t account for the short time frame in which the plot takes place.  It’s no deal breaker, but it is demerit-worthy.

What most intrigues me in the film, however, is its view on violence in society.  In the opening of the film, Hale reports on a company (dubbed “The Happy Farm,” and not to be confused with the “funny” variety, surely) where people can simulate murdering the people in their lives who irritate them.  Interestingly, a very young Jennifer Jason Leigh sums up the facility with which violence has become a solution stating that she doesn’t hate her parents; “they’re just useless.”  I am by no means the sort of person who feels that media are solely to blame for the actions of mentally unbalanced folks, but I do accept that said media has sensationalized violence to nigh-pornographic levels and de-sensitized many of us to its very real impact.  But that’s entertainment, for better or worse.  At some point, we, as individuals, have to take the responsibility for how our families process that violence and draw the lines of demarcation.  It’s not a perfect answer (if it’s an answer at all), and I don’t mean to go off on a screed here (I think we can all agree I did enough of that in my introduction), but violent media are not going anywhere anytime soon.  If society is to regain that essence which allows it to be called “civilized,” let’s face it, it begins with us.  You can write my name in on the next election ballot, thanks.

MVT:  Without the level of writing at work in this film, it truly would fall apart.  Granted, it does indeed threaten to at multiple points, but it never totally does.  And the lead is never buried in the minutiae or sacrificed for the sake of a laugh, and that takes a deal of integrity rarely seen these days.

Make Or Break:  The opening with “The Happy Farm” draws you into the film handily.  It’s also effectively creepy and verisimilitudinous at the same time, and it’s this scene and its significance which remains with you after all the nuclear shenanigans have been sorted, and Connery’s toupee has flipped (yeah, a fellow bald guy went for the bald joke).

Score:  6.5/10

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