“It is the cinematic image that has expressed in a particularly profound manner this new condition of the image as the inscription of a blank beyond, a closure to the senses, internal to the world and to the very activity of the senses… this beyond that is part of our world, that which makes our eye experience its own blindness as the dimension of futurity (and of an immemorial past)”
— Eyal Peretz, ‘Becoming Visionary: Brian De Palma’s Cinematic Education of the Senses’, 2007
Brian De Palma is an angry man. His latest film, ‘Redacted’, leaves no question about that. De Palma has always been a passionate and critical filmmaker, making cinema that is in itself meta-cinema, smuggling ethical as well as structural concerns in blockbuster narrative films, making the viewer examine what happens in- as well as outside the frame (a friend actually called De Palma “the Michael Snow of Hollywood”). In most of his films he reflects in one way or another – although not always in a very subtle way – on the ambiguous power of images, the mechanics of image-making and the complicity of the viewer in the process, but in ‘Redacted’ (see also earlier post) his critical eye is not only directed to the role and impact of media, but to a world that is slowly but surely loosing its sense of humanity and thruth, a world that is no longer mediated by images, but is becoming all image. De Palma is, as Emmanuel Burdeau of Cahiers du Cinema writes, no longer solely interested in putting other images than the media’s in front of us; “it is no longer to put the truth behind the images that are hiding it; it is not the search for the right point of view, the quest for the initial shot of the film to be as thrilling as it is impossible. We are no longer in a Brian De Palma film. The task at hand is simply to offer a certain way of laying out existing visuals: horizontally, as flat and glistening as the screen these lines are written on.”
‘Redacted’ is a remake of sorts. The director refers several times, sometimes literally (the interrogation scene, the confession in the bar etc. – it’s funny to see how he’s copying parts of his own films now) to his 1989 Vietnam drama ‘Casualties of War’, which had a similar subject. But it’s also a remake of images that are available on the internet, on blogs, forums, social network sites; images that De Palma discovered while doing research and that shocked him to the bone. ‘Redacted’ is based on the true story of a teenage Iraqi girl who was raped, killed, and burned by American soldiers, told as if discovered in bits and pieces scattered about the Internet. The images are mostly recreations or reinterpretations of actually existing footage: an American soldier’s video diary (titled ‘Tell Me No Lies’), a French documentary about routine searches at checkpoints, surveillance camera footage, Iraqi television news casts, and video files on assorted web sites. Through this collage-like approach and the use of new media forms, De Palma explores the very implications of the documentary form and the tension between what we see and what we want to see – the sweet little lies we have become accostumed to.
“What fascinated me was that here was a new set of styles that provided a new way of telling a story I’d told before. I also tried to make you aware, as a viewer, that the images you’re seeing and the way they’re constructed can be presented to create any point of view. You think this is real because of the form it’s in, and of course it’s all fictionalised. So maybe you should think twice when watching a report by an embedded journalist who’s running around convincing you everything is real, authentic and spontaneous.”
De Palma shows no cynicism in using internet images and digital procedures, but rather embraces the potential of the net as a way of making visible the images that are refused by the mainstream media, a medium that is not (yet) as corrupted as television is.
“What I’m trying to do is to make the viewer aware of the techniques that are used to present supposedly the truth to them. They sit there and watch their television screens, and see these embedded reporters and infomercials from Iraq, and how well things are going in Iraq, and they think that’s the truth. In anything on television, somebody is selling something – whether it’s a product, whether it’s a policy. You look on television, this is a commercial medium and everything is for sale. Once you understand that, then you can understand the medium a little better. The web is not so corrupted because there is not that much money involved. Believe me, when the money gets in there, it will probably go the way of television. We’re living in an era where everybody is performing all the time, and posting their performances on the web. Plus there’s reality television, where you’re supposed to believe all this stuff is real, and of course it’s made up.”
The result is a provocative investigation of formal cinematographic conventions and the schizophrenic relationship between reality and fiction, while at the same time De Palma adresses his trademark themes: voyeurism, violence and the relationship between the individual, the image and history in a media environment (btw it might not come as a suprise that De Palma was slaughtered by the press and the audience in the US – f.e. Bill O’Reilly of the right-wing Fox Network called De Palma “a vile man and [‘Redacted’ a] vile film … If even one [new terrorist] enters the fight and kills an American, it’s on Brian de Palma … During World War II, President Roosevelt, the liberal icon, would have put De Palma in prison”). ‘Redacted’ is however also a contemplation on how, as cultural theorist Paul Virilio has remarked, audiovisual media have generated a new relationship with death and disaster, how the spectacle takes the place of critical distance. The space between the camera and the event, screen and viewer is so reduced that death is practically tangible. While De Palma hardly ever turns his camera away from the atrocity, at the same time he seems to propagate a critical, self-reflective distance. In ‘Redacted’ for instance there are some scenes that are staged like a amateuristic Brechtian theatre play.
“One of my favorite aspects of documentary film is how people have a natural way of turning into actors – and often very bad ones – when a camera is pointed at them. Redacted makes conscious commentary on this by breaking a pivotal scene in half, first with the characters aware of their being filmed, second with their being tricked into thinking the camera has been turned off.”
As other recent films, such as Romero’s ‘Diary of the Dead’, ‘Redacted’ is also a reflection on the implications of the all-video, all-the-time society, where reality TV is always on. As Romero said in an interview: “the world is a camera these days, and it seems to be part of the collective subconscious”. An article in Newsweek describes this culture of overexposure, talking about the “Look at Me Generation”, for whom image has replaced “essence”. As an example they quote filmmaker Errol Morris, director of ‘The Fog of War’ and ‘The Thin Blue Line’ who has just finished his new film ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ ‘SOP), about the torture scandals at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib Prison and the shocking photographs that lead to it. In his “non-fiction horror movie”, as Morris calls it, he investigates just how the Abu Ghraib photographs came to be taken, what they revealed and how they were interpreted by the media, exploring what he calls “the irony of images”. In the film we see the dozens of photos the soldiers—most of whom were in their teens and early 20s at the time—took of the prisoners they abused, and of each other, posing and goofing around. In some of the shots with the prisoners, other soldiers’ cameras are visible as well. Their eagerness to document themselves seemed to blind them to the consequences of creating a record of their actions. The pictures not only resulted in the guards’ downfall—without the photos, there would have been almost no proof of crimes—but they may have fed their ugliest impulses. As Morris says, “I often think that if cameras had not been present, these events would not have occurred.”