[2000] Traffic

Traffic, for all intents and purposes, is what Crash (winner, 2005) should and could have been if Crash wasn’t a misanthropic and clear and utter disaster.

It’s quite a laugh the timeline of events in that last sequence. Crash had before it five years’ worth of knowledge from a critical and stylistic standpoint from the point-of-view of Traffic and its offerings, which are plenty. And the team behind Crash still managed to offer a too-long and pedantic tale of race and relations that somehow managed to trick The Academy to offer its top prize. Crash fails, in a broad stroke, in the banal presentation of its message; it tells instead of shows. It does instead of is.

Trafficin a word, is anticlimactic. Where Crash throws the “point” in your face, Traffic is mostly back story and denouement. Where Crash tries to push a message, Traffic is deliberately restrained. There are three main story-lines: Michael Douglas’ Robert Wakefield, a conservative judge appointed to head the “war on drugs,” which he approaches in truly a bullish fashion until he discovers that his own daughter (Erika Christensen) is one of the many players in this fight against futility.

As a character, Wakefield is an open and reserved man wanting to understand the nature of his problem, while approaching it with an open mind. We follow him as a man from ruralish Ohio entering the sharp incisors of the Mexican/American drug trade. He questions the demand to the usual supply. More importantly, he questions his motives and ideals when he finds that his daughter is a victim of the cycle. He is no ideologue: a fountain through which many a film auteur has decided to spout “wisdom.” He is, however, an idealist, and in a brilliant piece of screenwriting, more value exists in that one sentence that isn’t said than what is and you, as the audience, can soak in the message. There’s no pandering here. Continue reading

{Second Take} [2000] Traffic

Traffic, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2000 epic about the War on Drugs, gets a ton of mileage out of telling gritty, taught stories about real people, and letting an audience decide. For an infuriating, maddening issue like the war on drugs, he seems to have prescribed a hard-reset on narrative conventions of genre and heroism. What we get instead feels like a documentary: a film in which every character arrives in frame motivated by circumstance and emotion. Nobody is good or bad, they are simply victims of their environment. Suddenly it’s all understandable – there is no “evil” in this world, there are simply people doing the best with what they have, and sometimes that means taking a bribe, or pushing freebase, or selling out to wealthy criminal. It’s a bold choice to humanize the enemy, rather than vilify him, but I’d say it does the trick.

In his insanely good State of Cinema speech to the San Francisco Film Festival this year, Soderbergh called art “a very elegant problem-solving model.” In the hands of a smart filmmaker, this idea has enormous power – suddenly the medium is no longer about escape or transportation. With this idea, film can even aspire to be more than “life-affirming,” which seems to be the benchmark of absolute quality. As a model for problem solving, film can be life-prolonging. Did Traffic make people think twice about starting or continuing to use or buy drugs? Absolutely. Were lives saved in that equation? Hard to say, but I’m cool with ‘yes.’

I was very frightened by Traffic when I saw it in the theater. I was in sixth grade, and it wasn’t really any of the violence or unsavory characters that frightened me, or even the underaged drug use, but by the choice it left me with. The events in Traffic are emblematic of a problem that defies solution – some days getting worse, some days getting better, but always, always there. My take-away was very personal. I remember thinking that I, myself stood on the precipice of choice, not just on viewing the film, but every day henceforth – to wake up every day prepared to reject drugs, or in one puff to become both victim of and accomplice to a war being fought every day, complete with bloodshed, corruption, and no-end-in-sight. By asking us to make a choice, Soderbergh has taken a major step toward “solving” a problem – with a choice, there can be progress. Continue reading

[1975] One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

I haven’t read a lot about One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, intentionally, for the first twenty-four years of my life. There is a certain lore to the performance and mystery to the allegory that intrigues the brain to either watch this film right away or to categorically forget it. I didn’t want to spoil my decision either way.

But as an impetus for this project, I decided to tackle this movie early on. My initial reactions are somewhat split: it might be a hangover from the campiness of San Francisco or I might just be dull to shock and awe, but I didn’t find the ending particularly powerful or Nurse Ratched to be particularly evil in the traditional sense. I want to explore these reactions in depth.

This movie is justifiable in its major oscar sweep, even among the movies nominated in 1975. Remember, five years after the release and idolization of Patton, the middle of the 1970s showcased the greatest density of the greatest movies ever made, and Cuckoo’s Nest is nested right in the chronological center. This affords it more than modest exposure – perhaps overexposure – and not just because of its shining performances from Milos Forman in the director’s chair to Jack Nicholson’s delightfully misanthropic R.P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher’s domineering and understated Nurse Ratched. The story is singularly linear and does a perfunctory job developing all of the characters as a series of exposes – both demonstrating character strengths and flaws through the particular brand of Ratched’s evil.

But as for the lasting impression of Ratched’s evil? I’d argue she’s paradoxically too evil and not evil enough. She’s the head nurse at a small Oregon state mental hospital, in charge of the well-being of 18 patients with varying levels of mania. Some patients are self-committed, some state-mandated, like Nicholson’s McMurphy. But Ratched morphs her power as a caregiver into that of a caretaker. A minor distinction, sure, but to the absolute stature and reputation among the “Doctors,” she has the power to literally take and take and take, all for the sense of decaying the atrophy of the crazy. Her evil is seen through the lens of the general oppressor so relevant in the ’70s, off the heels of Cuba and Russia and especially Vietnam.  Continue reading