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Manhunt: religion and the director’s eye

[ by Charles Cameron -- with an assist from Wm Benzon, under-appreciated and brilliant film and literary critic, musician, author of Beethoven's Anvil ]
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Screen-time is valuable: movie directors don’t just throw it away.

Here are screen-grabs of two moments in Greg Barker‘s HBO bin Laden documentary, Manhunt, offered for your consideration:

and:

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As you know from my review of Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo) and Black Friday (Kashyap), I’m a film buff.

Screen time is the life-time of story: every second counts. And thus it is that if a director uses the same shot with variations at two or more points in a movie, they don’t just follow along, the way the elements in the narrative through-line follow along, one after another — they stack up. They “mean” cumulatively, synchronically…

Putting that in musical terms, they take on the function of rhythm rather than melody — and it is rhythm that can make the body dance, just as it is melody that can make the heart soar.

So, this repetition, this striking parallelism — why?

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Here’s my friend Bill Benzon, writing about the use of parallelism in Apocalypse Now:

The Assassin and the Surfer

Now for the less obvious parallel: Willard and Lance, the only member of the boat crew to survive. One can’t miss the parallel killings nor Willard’s statement of kinship with Kurtz. This parallelism, on the other hand, is easy to miss. That is to say, it may well elude conscious notice. Unconscious notice, on the other hand … Well, what is that?

Here’s three frame-grabs that point up the parallel. The first is from the opening montage of Willard in Saigon just before he gets his orders:


Montage AN 19 martial arts

The second shot comes much later in the film. Clean has been killed (bullet), then the Chief (spear). Lance is the one who floated the Chief’s body down the river. Now they’re heading upriver toward Kurtz again, with Lance in the bow of the boat:


AN Lance dance1

He’s doing a martial arts dance. Not the same one as Willard did in the opening montage, but a martial arts dance. No one else in the film does such a thing. Clean does some dance moves while listening to the Rolling Stones, but they’re in an entirely different style; faster, jerkier, more angular.

Finally, we have this scene in Kurtz’s compound. Willard’s in the foreground, and Lance is in the background:


AN Lance dance2

One might suggest that this parallel is a mere accident, one might. And perhaps it is. In cases like this, however, my default assumption is that it is not an accident. It may not be there by conscious intent and deliberate plan; but it is not there by accident. The people who made this movie are too skilled to do such things inadvertently.

That final remark of Benzon’s makes exactly the point I was hoping to make here, before commenting on those two screen-grabs from Manhunt:

The people who made this movie are too skilled to do such things inadvertently.

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There’s actually a third shot in Manhunt with a view of a dangling rear-view-mirror ornament — let’s take a look:

This one’s from the van Peter Bergen and his cameraman, Peter Jouvenal, took in the docu’s re-enactment / flashback to their CNN interview with bin Laden, back in 1997. I don’t think this one is a rosary-like thing though it might be — I think it’s just the sort of tassel decoration you’ll find on saddle-bags, or decorating a camel or a car in Afghanistan.

The other two, however, seem clearly religious, both of them are shots of the cars in which American counter-terrorist folks would have gone to work during their efforts to track down bin Laden — and I find it significant that one features a (Christian) cross while the other very likely shows (Muslim) prayer-beads.

I say “very likely” because the beads could be (secular, Greek) worry-beads — but they look more like a tasbih to me. And why would that be interesting — why would a film-maker be interested in such a parallelism?

Besides the fact that these shots allow voice over and show us the various folk involved going to work, they specifically point up the fact that those working to defeat bin Laden were not all kuffar but included Ali Soufan of the FBI and “Roger” — the fellow described by Greg Miller in this March 2012 piece in WaPo, At CIA, a convert to Islam leads the terrorism hunt.

Am In right? I don’t know. But the subliminal message, if I am, is that the manhunt for bin Laden was indeed not a “Crusaders against Islam” affair.

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May I recommend Wm. Benzon’s Beethoven’s Anvil to all who read here who have an interest in cognition and / or music?

For more on parallelism in cinema, see David Bordwell, Julie, Julia, & the house that talked, to which Benson also pointed me.

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4 Responses to “Manhunt: religion and the director’s eye”

  1. Bill Benzon Says:

    Yes, Charles, seems like a “classic” example of parallelism.

  2. Charles Cameron Says:

    Clearer tasbih image from Manhunt at the 52.11 mark.
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  3. Suzanne Schroeder Says:

    Much clearer! Yes, I am in complete agreement.

  4. Grurray Says:

    Another parallel more pronounced was when they arrived at Kurtz’s camp.
    After the welcome, they ascended up the steps, and Willard met Colby who was sporting a bloody broken hand. 
    The difference apparently was Colby reached his “breaking point” at the end of his mission which prevented him from completing it. Willard was broken all along. Sailing up the river into a den of savages to kill an officer was probably just another day at the office for him.

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