Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Day 4: Hotel Rwanda

Brian Wilson: Help Rwanda, help help Rwanda.

I’m against genocides. I’d like to state that up front, just so there’s no confusion. In fact, to my mind, genocides are among the most vile and disgusting things that human beings do to one another. Hotel Rwanda is a movie about an attempted genocide in the country of Rwanda, one that took place while I was in high school and, due to the fine, fine journalism we have here in the United States, an attempted genocide I had little knowledge about prior to watching the movie. The movie plays a little like Schindler’s List in Africa, though it lacks a lot Schindler’s weight and panache and substitutes for these things a few genre tropes borrowed from other movies and filtered down to a PG-13 rating. It’s based on a true story, but doesn’t get into much of the nitty gritty that would make it feel as if it was based on a true story. The movie is certainly compelling and has a fantastic lead performance by Don Cheadle, but ultimately feels too pat, too safe, and too pandering.

Don Cheadle plays (pardon me as I check IMDB for the proper spelling here) Paul Rusesabagina, the manager of a Belgian-owned hotel in Rwanda that caters to wealthy clientele. There is a growing conflict between the Hutu people of Rwanda and the Tutsis, divisions among the people created, we are told, by the Belgians who used to run the country. Paul happens to be a Hutu, but we see very early on that he has no particular allegiance to this group, beyond what they can provide for the hotel. His job gives him access to many important political figures and he is very good at giving these people the sense of refinement they feel they are due. Through Paul’s dealing with these people, the political situation in Rwanda is efficiently delineated and we get a sense of the arbitrary, yet deadly, nature of the conflict. When things turn serious, Paul will turn to all of his associates on both sides of the conflict for aid and, more often than not, he is able, through bribery and bluffing to get it.

And, thankfully, things turn serious pretty quickly. We get a sense of Paul’s love for his family, for his belief in style and money as problem solvers, and the people he is connected to, and then, an order is given and the Hutus begin slaughtering the Tutsis. Paul’s wife and, by extension, his children, are Tutsis so, naturally, they must run, lest they be caught and killed. They eventually wind up at the hotel where they begin sheltering refugees from the conflict, surrounded on all sides by Hutu militants bent on killing them.

The rest of the movie details Paul’s attempt to keep the handful of refugees, particularly his family, at the hotel alive while planning for an escape. As he does this, the movie turns the screws on Paul pretty well and Cheadle is more than up to the challenge of expressing this. His anguish and fear is palatable and ratchets up nicely with each new obstacle until, at the characters lowest point, he begs for a solider to shoot him, telling him that it would be a blessing to be dead. In another moment after being confronted with the extent to which the atrocities in his country are occurring, Paul struggles to tie his tie and Cheadle shows first the amusement that such a simple act should give him trouble, then the frustration, until finally, he vents his anger, fear, and frustration at the clothes he is wearing.

These are nice moments, both hinging on Cheadle’s performance. This is where the movie succeeds. Where it fails is, I think, is in a certain lack of cinematic aggression. From what I know about it, the Rwandan genocide was a horrific event. Much of the killing was done by machetes. Machetes! That would hurt! One of the characters says “The machete is an awful way to die.” I would agree, but the movie provides nothing to support this. Despite a nicely implied moment where we witness through Paul’s eyes some rape cages, there’s a curious coyness to the movie about cruelty, barbarism, and sheer human awfulness. A moment that seems lifted from The Killing Fields shows us the extent of the damage, but there’s nothing, really, showing us the cause.

If this seems like I’m wishing for a movie that depicted more cruelty for the sake of displaying cruelty, I’m not. I just can’t get over this feeling of patness to the whole thing and am trying to pinpoint certain areas that seemed lacking. It may be that the character of Paul (who, I’m aware, was a real guy) never engages with any serious moral decisions. There’s a moment where he leaves his family that comes close, but the movie (and, I suppose, life) give him the opportunity to retract this decision that takes away whatever weight that decision had earlier. There’s a feeling of “Paul and his people good, other people bad” that seems far too black and white to truly reflect the situation at hand.

Additionally, at many points in the film, I was thinking of Assault on Precinct 13, Night of the Living Dead, a handful of other zombie movies, Schindler’s List, The Killing Fields, and The Road Warrior. This movie is aiming higher than many of those movies were, but could have used some of what they offered to intensify the conflict, cinematically. All of these movies have the distinction of depicting their conflicts to extremes, often grotesque, to ratchet up the viewer’s empathy for the besieged. Here, I felt a remove most of the time. I was watching a really well made recreation of an event, but never got right down into the dirt, the mud, the blood.

I liked this movie while I was watching it. I think it’s admirable for trying to bring attention to a conflict many Americans weren’t aware of. After I watched it, though, I felt a little conflicted about my feelings. I wondered about the PG-13 rating, wondered if the movie was toned down in an attempt to bring its message to a larger audience. I wondered if it was worth it. Liberal white guilt says, yes. The cinephile says no.

Questions, questions, questions

So, I'm wanting to make it a habit to write a "discussion question" in the mornings, simply to blog about thoughts I'm having with regard to movies. I'd love to hear thoughts from other peoples out there so, if something strikes you, I'd love it if you commented like it's 1999.

Last night, I was discussing good movies, bad movies, Gates of Heaven and the ending to A History of Violence with my girlfriend, Tara, and she said something that I liked a lot. It was something along the lines of "All movies ask questions of the audience. The good movies explore these questions, the bad ones try to answer them." I like that a lot. You could certainly apply that to all works of art, but for the purposes of this blog, I'll think about it in terms of movies.

I don't know if attempting to answer its questions makes a movie "bad" automatically, there are many other things about movies that can save them from that label (including something about pure kineticism that I'll probably start talking about when a couple of Rambo movies come in from Netflix [which will be pretty soon, actually]), but I believe that most of the great movies I've ever seen state their questions, show several possible answers, ask new questions of those answers, and, ultimately, throw their arms up in frustration and say to the audience, "well, what do you think?"

I think it's a particular problem in mainstream Hollywood fare, to be sure. I mean, I like mainstream Hollywood fair 99% of the time (I'm easily entertained) but Hollywood no longer produces great movies. The best you can hope for is something that, while it's telling you the "right" answer to the question it has posed, is speaking in a way that's entertaining. Perhaps the reason mainstream Hollywood movies have such a problem, on a whole, is that the questions they're asking are not conducive to exploration (Aliens invading? Your smarts will save you. Or your love of family. Or your love of family & God) They ask questions that can have only a "right" or "wrong" answer. Or questions that don't apply to anyone (when did you stop beating your wife?). Or maybe they're not even asking questions, mabye they're just assuming we all have the same questions and telling us the answers to them by showing how loveable retarded people can teach us all important lessons.

I'm not sure and am now throwing up my arms in frustration. What do you think? har har har.