Sunday, May 6, 2007

Movie Reviews: "The Lives of Others," "The U.S. vs. John Lennon"


Anne and I saw two movies this weekend: "The Lives of Others" (at the theater, no less) and, at home on DVD, "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." Both are worth seeing.

"The Lives of Others" is a German film that managed to earn some Oscar nominations in 2006. It takes place in East Germany, years before glasnost is on the horizon. A harsh Stasi agent spends his days eavesdropping on a playwright whom he suspects of anti-Socialist leanings, and through that process comes to care (too much for his professional well-being) about the man and the people, art and ideas he loves.

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon" is a documentary about the Nixon Administration's surveillance of John Lennon in the early 70s. During this time, Lennon was living in New York and causing quite a stir with his anti-Vietnam War activities. The film is cut (a bit too obviously at times) to draw parallels between that president and this president, that war and this war, that culture of spying and paranoia, and this culture of spying and paranoia.

The films seemed similar on the surface, and it's true that the elements of government-sponsored spying did open my eyes a bit. On Friday, the uber-drab German film reminded me why it's so luxurious to be an American. On Saturday, I was reminded that the "betterness" of America, like so much of our self-belief, can be based more on idealism and theory than on reality. We have the same fears as the now-extinct East German Socialists. We have similar methods and goals. Our government can overreach at will, especially now. The difference is that the GDR of the early 80s was probably spying on half of its citizens, while the U.S. of A. in the 1970s was spying on John Lennon, Abbie Hoffman, Phil Rubin and Bobby Seales. The U.S. of the year 2007... well, I'll admit that for the first time ever it occurred to me that one too many snide letters to the editor could cause a mouse to click somewhere in the bowels of Homeland Security. (Imagine the square-jawed FBI agent being treated to incendiary conversations like, "Hey Anne, it's me. Do I need to stop at Whole Foods and pick up some milk and bananas on the way home?")

But what struck me most after watching both movies had nothing to do with politics or the limits of governmental authority. It was the fact that movies about voyeurism are so doggone riveting. In fact, truth be told, "The Lives of Others" has much more in common with "Rear Window" that it does with "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." (There's a scene in "Rear Window" when Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly witness the character they call "Miss Lonely Hearts" push a young man out the door, then collapse in tears on the tiny kitchen table. They guiltily lower their lenses, and Jimmy Stewart says, "Maybe Doyle was right. This is pretty private stuff out there." That's pretty much the same conclusion the Stasi agent comes to.)

What is it about movies with voyeuristic themes that's so enticing? Tomes have been written about how the silver screen itself is nothing more than a giant peephole. When you think about it, the very act of reading a book, seeing a play or going to a movie is an act of voyeurism. That's the main reason that "Rear Window" is such a work of art... Hitchcock created a movie where people spied on people spying, turned the medium's mirror back on the audience and made them question their own morality.

There's something about movies in particular that really drives this point home, and I'm still not sure what it is. Maybe it's because watching film requires as little work as looking through a peephole. You don't have to imagine. You don't have to think. You don't even have to deal with the fact that the people you are watching are flesh and blood. They're just images on a screen, so go ahead and watch. And if the main character is spending his time watching other people, all the more reason for you to identify with him... and feel less guilty about what you're choosing to do for entertainment.

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