The Essential and the Unclear

Vincent Gallo is one of the most disliked of current film actors, while George Clooney is one of the most admired, but most viewers of Essential Killing—American, Belgian, Sri Lankan, or Japanese—probably have more in common with Gallo’s “Mohammed” than they have with Clooney.

Gallo vs. Clooney

Essential Killing (d. Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland, 2010) / The American (d. Anton Corbijn, US, 2010)

George Clooney made a revealing remark in an interview about his film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), which concerns how Edward R. Murrow used his CBS-TV program to denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy’s tactics in the crusade against Communism. “I started watching [Murrow’s] speeches again,” Clooney told IGN, “and I thought they were incredibly inspiring. . . . I miss that kind of clarity at times. When was the last time you saw Network and listened to Paddy Chayefsky’s words and you go, ‘Wow, I wish somebody had spoken like that.’”

Though neither Clooney nor his interviewer seemed aware of it, the phrase “I miss that kind of clarity” is a quote from Sydney Pollock’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), in which it is spoken by John Houseman’s CIA director, recalling the world wars of the past. It’s interesting to hear a liberal repeat the words of a fictional CIA director to praise Edward R. Murrow, not just because the choice of phrase implies some ideological confusion but because it suggests that real historical figures exist in the same space as the characters of 1970s conspiracy thrillers. As for Sidney Lumet’s Network, the 1976 film is evoked again in a later Clooney project, Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton (2007, starring and co-executive-produced by Clooney), in which Tom Wilkinson’s Arthur, a corporate lawyer who suddenly balks at defending a client against a class-action suit over a carcinogenic weed killer, reincarnates the Peter Finch figure of Network, the successful organization man who turns against the organization in an apocalyptic, all-or-nothing way that the audience is meant to regard as basic truth.

As Houseman’s Condor character was nostalgic for his Great Wars, now even the cold war era, looked back on, seems a lovely time when people could enjoy the luxury of an uncomplicated view of American power. Of course this possibility, given the real content of cold war politics, is a fiction, but today it has the force of a mass-culture hallucination. This is why the Bourne films are successful: not because having U.S. spies play a villainous role constitutes some important step forward in escapist action movies, but because the films sell nostalgia for that simpler time when it was possible to see the CIA as the worst the USA could inflict on the world.

Another aspect of 1970s cinema that is today viewed with nostalgia is the freedom of filmmakers to make what might be regarded as art films for mainstream audiences (e.g., Zabriskie Point, Five Easy Pieces, The Conversation). Limping stylishly after that interrupted trend, Clooney’s The American (2010, directed by Anton Corbijn) is a lethargic work that breaks out intermittently into action and suspense, an American movie for people who don’t like American movies. Clooney’s Jack is in the profession of killing: the beginning of the film finds him in snowbound rural Sweden, where he efficiently dispatches two gunmen who are after him; for good measure he also kills his innocent girlfriend. Jack relocates to sunny Castelvecchio, Italy, where he takes on a new assignment. Who Jack’s employers are is never known; nor are any political stakes indicated in either his activities or those of the people who keep trying to kill him. The tattoo on his shoulder reads “ex gladio equitas” (justice from the sword), which is not a motto of any (known) American military entity but suggests a military provenance. The vagueness that surrounds Jack stamps him more firmly as someone who doesn’t just happen to be American, but represents America.

The switch in landscapes, the brutal killing, the ambiguity about politics all link Corbijn’s film to a work that is in some important ways its opposite: Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing (2010). The clarity that Clooney said he missed can be found in spades in Skolimowski’s film, whose clarity has a demonic ineluctibility that is enough to wipe out the vagueness of a dozen movies. Maybe the only failing of Essential Killing is that everything in it is seen so sufficiently that one doesn’t feel the need to go back to watch it another time (unlike most great films, which improve on repeated viewings).

Essential Killing is all the more political a work for refusing the obvious ways it could be about politics. Vincent Gallo plays a person who apppears to be an Arab, perhaps an Afghani, though this is never declared; neither are the nationalities of the changing landscapes—initially bright desert and rock, later an icy wood—through which he moves. The opening sequences, in which Gallo’s character is captured, interrogated, and tortured by American soldiers (from whom he then manages to escape), turn the ostensible political substance of the film into caricature, divesting it of weight. The way the Americans look and talk is a kind of uncanny simulation of American-ness, reminiscent of the way Italian genre films of the 1970s and 1980s that were set in the United States (such as Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper or Antonio Margheriti’s Cannibal Apocalypse) sometimes seemed too American. Meanwhile, the brief flashbacks that show the Gallo character undergoing what might be Islamist indoctrination are almost perverse in their emptiness. The resort to cliché in the early scenes of Essential Killing knocks politics out of the film, along with ideology and nation, advising us that we should respond to the film on a different level, where, eventually, politics returns. This is the opposite of the procedure of The American, which keeps nudging us to add political content to a narrative that has been drained of any.

Vincent Gallo is one of the most disliked of current film actors, while George Clooney is one of the most admired, but most viewers of Essential Killing—American, Belgian, Sri Lankan, or Japanese—probably have more in common with Gallo’s “Mohammed” than they have with Clooney. Anyone can be targeted, victimized, have their eardrums blasted out, be forced to hide and kill in order to survive. All these are possibilities of human existence that, at the advanced stage of civilization we enjoy, are available to everyone. But to be George Clooney? He may make it look easy. It’s in the voice, however, that the deceptive quality of the Clooney figure can best be detected. Clooney, who is from Lexington, Kentucky, speaks with an unmarked accent, an accent of zero. His vocal deadpan (so soothing in Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox [2009]) projects a reasonableness and an authority that do not impose themselves through any apparent violence. When he talks, it’s as if he were saying nothing. Such a talent makes him indeed The American.

Clooney’s saying-nothing quality is used in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Syriana (2005), Michael Clayton, and The American to suggest an abstract being, a cipher. The very incorporeality of Clooney’s CIA agent in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (which he also directed) becomes the main device by which the film denies the historical reality of the USA’s actions. The people of the world of low-grade espionage to which Clooney’s shadowy figure introduces TV-game-show producer Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell) are all, like Clooney himself, disembodied apparitions; the film presents Barris’s “problem-solving work” for the CIA as another of the unreal image-spheres Barris trades in. In Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana, what little Clooney has to say has to be dragged out of him, as in a scene in which his character, a veteran CIA Middle East expert, irritates some high-level US officials by speaking his mind about the prospects for democratic reform in Iran (not that he offers anything more insightful than his initial, tentative “it’s complicated”). Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn after Reading (2008), which makes fun of the discourse of intelligence by having its CIA experts habitually refuse to distinguish between the merely asserted and the actually true, aptly casts Clooney as an obsessive who finds himself living in a parody of 1970s Hollywood conspiracy thrillers.

If Clooney talks but says nothing, Gallo goes further in Essential Killing: he doesn’t speak at all. We confront this non-hero strictly as an object, but he is so purely an object (the course of the film, its one-thing-after-another survival narrative, is a strange purification ritual) that he is absolutely comprehensible, beyond language and beyond the intention to signify. Part of the success of Skolimowski’s work lies in a simple strategy: even while the film estranges us from the Gallo character and his surroundings, certain things also appear that are familiar. The mother riding a bicycle on a road through the woods (at the start of what has become the most notorious episode of the film) carries, along with her infant, a shopping bag. The detail of the shopping bag suddenly brings Essential Killing into a familiar world, one where women take their babies along with them to do their marketing and go home with shopping bags. This world solicits us and claims us totally because we know that we, like this mother, are the signs of our activities. Only Gallo’s character is not a sign: he is pure activity without signification. Stripped of the need to communicate, reduced to the effects he can make on his environment, this entity (in this light he can’t be called a character) is us as we would be if we didn’t have the option of accommodating ourselves to reality but instead were forced to try to reconquer it step by step in every one of our acts.

Here is where Essential Killing can be considered a political film rather than just a brutal epic of survival. Skolimowski shows the Gallo figure struggling (for the most part) not with the elements, wild animals, and mere mechanical forces, but with a world that is constantly being changed by money, a world dominated and maintained for global capitalism. Not physical reality as such but the world of total twenty-four-hours-a-day televisuality where everything is visible and exploitable. What he opposes to this world is not this or that banal and strident cause, god, or program but unadulterated Shakespearean need.

In the sublime last section of the film, he comes upon another person who can respond to his need, not out of fear and self-preservation but in recognition of a possibility in humanity that must be preserved. With each scene, by way of images and landscapes that cancel one another out, Essential Killing has come closer and closer to the unadorned statement of this possibility.

The exact opposite of Skolimowski’s policy of saying nothing in order to be about the most important things can be found in films such as Syriana and The American: despite being about many things, they contrive to say little. The tourist-like quality that gives these ostensibly courageous works away as routine Hollywood productions is especially pronounced in Syriana, which shows us the mean streets of Beirut from the back of a taxi, through Clooney’s eyes. Pretending to pay homage to the collective, this multi-storyline film conjures it away by making the collective merely an element in a tired personal drama. The excruciatingly glib cutting from one story to another relieves the film of having to commit to any sustained analysis or point of view. Notable too is the need to arrive, through all the self-congratulatory ambivalence of the screenplay, at a happy ending that is irrelevant to the political issues and exists in purely personal terms, a pat reconfiguration of the points on the connect-a-gram of the cast list.

Syriana and The American are films designed to flatter the American audience by worrying them. These films ask: Is our conscience clear? Have we learned enough yet? To pose these questions is the limit and the point of the exercise. Essential Killing doesn’t bother with issues of conscience, of learning, and it doesn’t even address or construct an “us.” The Westerners of Skolimowski’s film are no less alien than the Middle Easterners. The politics of the film could be stated like that: whoever we may be, we are aliens too.

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