Friday, September 25, 2009

The Informant!

At the core of Steven Soderbergh's new film, The Informant!, is a protagonist without a center. Matt Damon is cast as Mark Whitacre, a corporate whistle blower in an early-90s FBI investigation into price fixing by Archer Daniels Midland, manufacturer of invisible synthetic food ingredients that dot the lists of nutritional information in supermarkets across the world. Layered by uglifying make-up that adds one more mask onto a character who's already tricky enough to pin down, Damon plays Whitacre in two broad registers. In his relationships with other people - his wife, the FBI agents he imagines himself friends with, and the co-workers he's secretly trying to bring down - he projects the constant need to be seen as a moral do-gooder. But in his first-person voice-over, Whitacre is presented as a delusional man given to waxing philosophical over the magical properties of lysine, a manufactured amino acid used in agriculture and the object of ADM's price fixing. Neither of these two levels - which intersect powerfully in the final minutes of the film, when Soderbergh uses the voice-over to anticipate how Whitacre will respond to other characters right before the fiction he has built around himself comes crashing down - draw us inside Whitacre, the man. And, the film seems to be telling us, the impossibility of knowing Whitacre the man apart from the corporate world that serves as his fantastical measure of all things is precisely the point.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

On the value of lists

In a Salon column posted about a month or so ago, Andrew O'Hehir writes about a poll taken by Iain Stott of the cinema blog The One-Line Review. The poll asked a variety of film critics, historians, and bloggers (with the greatest number of participants coming from this last category, although I can't say how many of these also fit into the other two categories as well) to pick their "fifty greatest films." O'Hehir is at once surprised by the "flexibility and idiosyncrasy" of the list, but also begrudges it for same: taking to task, for example, the ranking of Annie Hall over the likes of Raging Bull, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Grand Illusion. (Whether or not listing a film like Annie Hall, which, to my mind, is already canonized - it has a BFI Film Classics volume dedicated to it, after all - is really a sign of "flexibility and idiosyncrasy" is another question entirely; perhaps if Crimes and Misdemeanors or Deconstructing Harry had made the final list I'd be more convinced). More interestingly, O'Hehir suggests that while the list leans too American (even the sole foreign choice in the top ten, Seven Samurai, is a heavily American-inflected choice, as O'Hehir points out) his main beef is not its tendency to skew close to home, but rather its exclusion of new films. The cinephiles taking this poll, O'Hehir suggests, are most comfortable with old favorites - suggesting that cinephilia itself, at least on the face of it, tends to repeat received knowledge rather than create knowledge anew. "In the bigger picture," O'Hehir writes, "over the last 20 years the tastes of critics and film buffs seem to have ossified around a central canon of classics that may shift position but don't change much. There are only four films on this entire list made since 1980, and only one made after 1990."