Tuesday, October 09, 2007

THE SLIFR FORUM: REDACTED GETS REDACTED?



On to horrors of other sorts. Like the horrors of war, and intimations of censorship, and the chilling effect of the looming specter of litigation. All of these got mixed up into a bitter brew at the New York Film Festival this past week during the press conference following a screening of Brian De Palma’s Redacted. According to reports from those who have seen it (I as yet have not), the movie, assembled from gathered multimedia footage, including graphic images of death obtained from the Internet (presumably the images directly referenced in David Edelstein’s recent comments about the film) and staged footage, uses its collage approach to tell the story of American soldiers buckling under the strain and terror generated by their participation in (and their inability to get a grip on the purpose of) the Iraq war.

Redacted has been shown as festivals such as Cannes, Toronto and Venice, where De Palma took home the Best Director prize, and now, as it nears its American release date (Nov. 16) through distribution by HDNet/Magnolia Pictures, the pioneering digital filmmaking corporation owned by Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner, De Palma has used the New York Film Festival to denounce Cuban and his company for not standing behind the film’s use of graphic war photos depicting mutilated Iraqi citizens, which were shown without alteration in previous film festivals. At the point in the NYFF press conference when the video begins, De Palma makes a statement that Cuban himself “redacted” the images because he found them “disturbing.” He is immediately challenged by Eammon Bowles of Magnolia Pictures, who argues that Cuban and the company began to worry about the possibility of endless and expensive litigation based on the use of those images. Then producer Jason Kliot takes the stage, borrows moderator J. Hoberman’s microphone and attempts to relate a rather more diplomatic explanation for the risks Cuban took to finance the film in the first place. Kliot makes a very strong statement about the nature of Fair Use laws in the United States as being set up “so we cannot use images of our own culture to tell the truth about our own culture.” But then he follows with an odd comment implying that Cuban not only has financial concerns regarding the use of the imagery, but also that he and his partners are worried over being “associated” with unredacted images showing massacres on the screen.*

It’s a fascinating piece of video. At Movie City Indie, Ray Pride posts the clip and a comment from filmmaker Jamie Stuart, who courts the possibility that the confrontation was a publicity stunt, but then concludes, largely from the uncomfortable look on De Palma’s face, that it’s the real thing.

The piece left me thinking about a couple of things. I want to hear more about how the film itself came to be redacted. At what point did Cuban decide this was too great a risk to take? Comments from the Reuters article at Venice suggest that the process had already begun by the time De Palma accepted his award. Obviously De Palma believes in his film as a work of art that has been designed, at least in part, to effect change, to be a part of furthering public opinion toward ending the war. In that regard, it’s not surprising that he should be on the defensive and protective of his work. But what about Cuban, Wagner and Magnolia Pictures? Are they right to protect their interests over those of the film? Are they being disingenuous in making changes to the film now as opposed to insisting that they be presented in a certain way from the outset? And is Eamonn Bowles, who is not the director of the film, just covering his bosses asses during the taped conference, or could he be right that the black-barred images actually work thematically as a brutally ironic commentary within the film about the incendiary nature of those images? I say “could” because, again, until I or any of us have actually seen the film, it’s all speculation on the order of art versus commerce. But think what those black bars imposed on the sex scenes between Selma Blair and Robert Wisdom did to heighten the commentary about race that was at the center of the first half of Todd Solondz’s Storytelling. What does seeing this clip of the NYFF press conference for Redacted make you think about? What questions are you asking?

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UPDATE 10/9/07 3:47 p.m.: Here are myriad Redacted links reporting on the movie itself and its reception at the New York Film Festival as gathered by the invaluable David Hudson and Green CIne Daily. Thanks, David!

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* UPDATE 10/9/07 7:46 p.m.: Karina Longworth has a fine and well-considered post on the Redacted situation that incorporates a statement she obtained from Mark Cuban. You can read it here. Part of Cuban's statement seems to clarify the point Kliot was apparently trying to make. Karina reports: "Cuban characterizes this business decision, at least in part, as a moral issue. In other words, don’t expect the montage to resurface as a DVD extra on his watch. `There is no way I am going to include images of people who have been severely wounded or maimed and killed when the possibility exists that their families could unknowingly see the images and recognize a loved one,' Cuban writes. `In this day and age, those pictures will be stripped out of the DVD release and unquestionably be posted on the internet exponentially increasing the likelihood it could happen. I wouldn’t do that to anyone.'”

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UPDATE 10/10/07 10:09 a.m.: I'm not sure how I overlooked it, but there is a very good collection of information about Redacted available at the essential Brian De Palma site De Palma a la Mod, courtesy of site curator Geoff Songs.

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22 comments:

Geoff said...

Dennis, just to try to clarify a few things you've written of above:

1. I believe the film's final montage was redacted even for the Venice Film Festival showing-- De Palma stated at NYFF that he submitted the film to all of the fests in unedited form, meaning that the film selection commitees would have seen it unedited, but audiences so far (including the judges in Venice) have not seen the unredacted version.

2. Karina Longworth's discussion is good, but I think she is confused about the way Cuban/Magnolia wish to redact the film. I believe they wish to present the film in its current redacted form, with the montage still existing, but with faces blacked-out, which angers De Palma. She seems to think they want De Palma to cut out the montage altogether.

bill said...

For various reasons, I haven't been able to watch the video yet, but based on what I've read and what Geoff posted, I would think De Palma would be able to see Cuban's point, and realize there are more important things to consider than his movie.

bill said...

Another thought occurred to me: does De Palma even know the names of the dead men and women whose images he's using? Or did he just pick the images that "worked best"? Whatever the answer is, if he can't see Cuban's point -- and I mean the ethical/moral point, rather than the legal one -- then I find De Palma's stance repellent. He's coming awfully close to viewing these dead bodies as meat.

Piper said...

This is an interesting piece and while it does look like DePalma is uncomfortable I'm sure he's loving every moment of this. I tend to agree with geoff and bill on their comments. DePalma is looking at this strictly as an artist, which he absolutely should, but unfortunately there is another side to this. And DePalma should step back and look at the greater good here. And he needs to be careful that in his quest to protect his film, he isn't doing more damage to others.

And yes these pictures came from the internet, but it's a lot easier going after Mark Cuban than some schmo on the internet.

And one other thing. Despite its format is no one else talking about that the plot of Redacted is very close to Casualties Of War?

Stan Czarnecki said...

De Palma himself has acknowledged the connection between REDACTED and CASUALTIES OF WAR already.

Even though I haven't seen the film yet, I am completely with De Palma. Because if its the artist's wish to have these images in their original form, than that wish should be granted, as its his vision.

Btw: Dennis, I wrote you an email recently and don't know if you got it. I don't know whether it got through or not, but I used the email address listed on your profile. I would be happy to hear from you.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Geoff, thanks for the clarification. I have added a link to De Palma a la Mod which, I suspect, will be a very good place for those interested to keep up with late developments on this story.

As for the black bars, I thought it was pretty clear from the press conference that the images weren’t being deleted but instead subjected to the familiar masking in order (I presumed) to cloak the possible identification of the victims in this situation. I find it interesting that this is such an issue for De Palma—he seems to believe that not seeing the faces will reduce the humanity of the victims in our eyes. On one level I agree that looking into the faces of those who have paid the ultimate price for this disaster is important. But, in addition to the moral question, which seems unimpeachable, I also think there’s something to the idea that the barring of the images might add a particular, perhaps unwanted, level of irony to the film and serve, in a roundabout way, as a commentary on what Kliot is talking about in the conference regarding how difficult it is to use images of our culture, or the destruction caused by it, in order to comment on that culture, its government and its effects. And again, I want to make it clear that I am speaking here as a very interested party who has not yet seen the film for himself.

Bill: De Palma is taking the hard line as an artist, and sometimes artists end up looking like assholes. He’s protecting his work. And it’s understandable that he be so adamant about his movie because he truly believes it could serve as an alternative, or a corrective, to the ways the war has been filtered through the Bush Administration and the media up to this point. But it does seem pretty reductive for him to try and turn this into a censorship issue when no one is asking him to cut anything, but instead only allow for the possibility that further damage to the people he clearly sees as victimized by the war could be done by the presentation of these people’s lifeless, destroyed bodies. When all is said and done, though, I suspect we’ll see the redacted version on Cuban and Wagner’s dimes.

Piper: Actually, I think there have been several comparisons to Casualties of War made in talking about Redacted, some from De Palma himself. I’ll see if I can find some of those discussions and pass them along.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Hi, Stan!

I did indeed get your e-mail and it made my whole weekend-- I needed a shot in the arm, and your missive was it! I'm sorry I haven't yet had time to send something back, but I will have a chance to do so in a day or so!

bill said...

"Even though I haven't seen the film yet, I am completely with De Palma. Because if its the artist's wish to have these images in their original form, than that wish should be granted, as its his vision."

How does this take precedent over the wishes or needs of the families of the dead? I'll tell you how: it doesn't. Who cares what his "vision" is? I have a sneaking suspicion that De Palma doesn't care that much for the dead people in those images, because if he did all of this would have already occurred to him, and if he had a sense of decency he would at the very least have tried to discover the identities of the people in the photos so he could contact their families and ask for their blessing and/or permission. But no, he was too wound up about making his political point and causing a sensation. I believe that, rightly or wrongly, he thought legally he was in the clear, which exempted him from any other considerations.

(Not only that, but practically speaking, it may be De Palma's vision, but he wouldn't be the one getting sued, should it come to that. As far as I can tell, he's wrong on every count, from the most shallow argument to the deepest one.)

I realize I'm presuming a lot here, but if you're going to use these kinds of images in your film, you have to think about these issues. The fact that -- from what I understand -- all De Palma seems to be talking about is his film, and its fate, and his supposed mistreatment at the hands of Cuban and Magnolia, indicates to me that he didn't think about them.

bill said...

Dennis - Somehow, when I was posting my last comment, your comments hadn't shown up yet, so let me just add that I appreciate and understand and admire artists taking stands to protect their work (I may have implied otherwise in my previouse post). But to me, in this case, the artist, in protecting his work, is taking the unethical position, and I cannot support him on that basis.

stan said...

Bill: certainly the wishes of the families of the dead take precedence here, but may I ask what makes you assume that De Palma didn't get their blessing? Maybe I'm a little behind the current information regarding this case and maybe you know more, but I so far haven't read anything regarding De Palma ignoring the victim's wishes.

The main reason for De Palma's stubbornness is simply the fact that he's been struggling throughout his entire career: with critics, the MPAA, producers etc. Now, yet again, somehow is taking a stab at his movie, again trying to compromise what he set up carefully. That, naturally and understandably, upsets him. De Palma certainly is in a very hot-blooded mood here. This isn't so much a film project for him as political activism through artistic expression. And as that activism (ever since films like HI, MOM) has always been important to him, I am not surprised to see him react this way.

bill said...

I don't think I've read anything you haven't. But why would Mark Cuban say that one reason for him removing (or partially obscuring) these images is that family members wouldn't accidentally see them? And why would anyone mention the possibility of lawsuits?

I haven't heard anyone say specifically that De Palma didn't talk to the families first, but I don't think any of this would be happening at all if he had. If I'm wrong, then I'll admit it, but I don't think I am.

jim emerson said...

Hi Dennis: The eyes of the victims in the montage of war casualties at the end of "Redacted" were marked over at the Toronto screenings, too. They aren't neat black bars, but are designed to look as though someone had used a black marker to disguise the identities of these people -- except for a few shots that De Palma staged for the movie and inserted into the sequence. (I don't know about Venice, but geoff indicates that version was the same way.)

The "YouTube" site used in the movie also has the logo scratched out -- apparently for legal reasons.

While in Toronto, I read an interview with DePalma in which he said he had gone to various media outlets and said: Give me everything you've got that you haven't been able to use. It was my impression that he was asking for images that editors had deemed too disturbing to show.

I can only imagine what these images would look like without the black marks on the faces, but one could argue that the effect of the "redacted" images not only makes DePalma's point about how war coverage has been presented (masking the pain and individuality of the victims, attempting to reduce them to abstractions), but is disturbing in a different way, since it's so obvious that we are being shown a version of "the truth" and denied seeing the whole picture at the same time.

I don't know what the legal implications of showing the faces -- or the YouTube logo -- might have been. My guess is that because this is a commercial feature (explicitly fictionalized) instead of a journalistic report may have something to do with it. If, say, the BBC or "Frontline" or an actual (as opposed to simulated) documentary were to show the actual images -- or actual YouTube video rather than simulated ones -- I can't imagine there would be a problem.

But notice that the backers' concern was supposedly a financial one rather than a legal one. It's not that they couldn't have made a case in court, it's that the possibility of a bunch of lawsuits was deemed not worth the risk. I can't blame them for that. One of the obscenities of the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been that the press itself has been too afraid to show the realities, for commercial and/or political reasons. Documentaries, fictionalized features and blogs have done a better job of reporting on Iraq than traditional media -- which is part of the subject of De Palma's film (using the fictional French documentary, web sites, and amateur video).

I'm not convinced this wasn't a publicity stunt (seems perfectly in character for De Palma, a director who has deliberately made a career of being reliably untrustworthy). But it raises another question I find worth examining: Would De Palma have been able to use similar real images of Vietnam in "Greetings" or "Hi Mom!"? And, if so, why? Would the legal arguments have been any different then? Or has technology (and the urban combat zone) enabled more people, including Iraqis, access to the law? Would the poor, rural, non-English-speaking Vietnamese, with no way of communicating with the world beyond their immediate surroundings, have been considered a serious legal threat -- or could images of them be used with impunity?

Surely De Palma is aware that "Redacted" is, and will be viewed as, a combination of many things -- including exploitation movie.

stan said...

Maybe the main reason for De Palma is simply attention. Maybe he isn't at all bothered by the censorship, but just wants to create a little scandal which will make the film more publicly known. After all this is a movie which was shot in a very unusual way and certainly without big-name actors, so therefore it rather speaks to a small audience. Maybe this is De Palma's way of enlarging it. I look forward to hear/read what De Palma will have to say about this in two or three years. Right now, it may all be an usual way of promotion.

Christian said...

Does anyone else find it depressing, when the camera pans to Eamon, to see how many empty seats are in the theater for this press conference?

Later, when another person takes the stage, we can see several people seated in the front rows. But for all the publicity this movie has generated by the time of its NYFF screening, wouldn't you think more people would've attended the press conference? What does this say, if anything, about the film's prospects? (The subsequent publicity via the Internet changes the equation, obviously.)

Piper said...

Stan,

If De Palma had spoken to all the families of the people in the photo don't you think he would have made that known? In this clip, De Palma shows no remorse or sensitivity for the dead, just anger for censorship of his film. While it may be true that De Palma looks uncomfortable in this video, this feels like a stunt to get people in to see the film.

bill said...

That's another thing: how can anybody say that they think this is a stunt and not say anything about how, if true, reprehinsible that would be?

I don't know why I'm bringing that up myself, though, since I don't think it's a stunt. I don't think anybody on that video is a good enough actor to come off so naturally.

Piper said...

Bill,

I agree. No one is good enough and if it is a stunt, De Palma isn't in on it and I don't think that would ever happen.

bill said...

Over at Scanners, a poster named Karlo made the best argument against De Palma I've seen. He's saying more or less what I've been trying to say, but he says it better.

Now, where are all those horror film posts, Dennis?

Mizoguchi said...

Sounds to me like De Palma is just ripping off another director again -- in this case, Lars von Trier and the montage at the end of "Dogville."

Thom McGregor said...

Dennis, you know how I feel about De Palma, but I'm all for "Redacted" based on everything I've read/heard about it. However, in terms of showing real dead bodies, I've always felt that death is one of, if not the most, personal moments of a person's life and therefore should only be shared with loved ones, if at all. I'm against showing real dead bodies in any art form. I feel that I have no right to view anything that personal regarding strangers. I could never feel enough to truly honor the person.

Jonathan Lapper said...

Sorry I haven't been my usual serial commenting self but I must ask, completely off-topic of Redacted: Whatever happened with this - In the upcoming days before Halloween, look for more than just a few words... on James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986).

My anticipation is building. I hope it's coming soon.

bill said...

Me too, Jonathan Lapper. Me too...