Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Early in   Peter Landesman's  Parkland, we see a group of doctors working on the dying body of President John F. Kennedy. They're up to their elbows in blood, hammering at his chest to get  his heart going. Fifty years later, it's as if we're still elbow deep in the man's blood, while filmmakers, authors, and historians, are still pounding on his chest, hoping for a sign of life. This is a story that has been told hundreds of times, from hundreds of different perspectives. Somehow, Landesman pulls off the impossible: he unfurls the events of Kennedy's assassination and makes it seem new.
By focusing on characters at the periphery of the story, Landesman makes the action pulse in unexpected ways. Kennedy is merely a small player in the story. Not only is this a welcome relief in that we don't have to hear another actor struggle with that grotesque Hyannis accent, but it gives room to the other players. We see instead the doctors, nurses, and FBI agents who try to keep their heads during one of America's darkest hours. By giving these bit players the focus, the story feels fresh, pulsing at us in new ways. Landesman's attention to detail and ability to ratchet suspense in unlikely places made me think of Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon.

Landesman is also helped by a cast of Hollywood's most unheralded actors, each taking what would beconsidered a smallish part and making it gleam like an emerald. Billy Bob Thornton is a show stealer as the head of the Secret Service in Texas, a veteran of 30 years who has never lost a man, until this day. Zac Efron and Colin Hanks are the young interns on duty at Parkland Memorial Hospital  in Dallas, where Kennedy's body is brought; Marcia Gay Harden is the no-nonsense head nurse in the hospital trauma unit;  and Paul Giamatti is Abraham Zapruder, the onlooker who  feels cursed to have taken the tragic Super 8 footage of the motorcade that ended up in Life magazine.  The scenes where Thornton's Secret Service man patiently talks Zapruder into handing over his film are among the best in the movie.
The bloody hospital scenes, including one where Jackie Kennedy (Kat Steffens) gently handles a piece of her husband's skull, are played  against scenes of Kennedy's aids who react to his death like high school jocks reacting to the death of a beloved coach. There are several moving scenes involving these game young men, including a near fracas at the hospital when a Texas medical examiner demands the case be treated as a local murder. I also loved the image of the men hauling Kennedy's coffin up the stairs into an awaiting airplane at Love Field. Their struggle reminded me of  the American soldiers at Iwo Jima hoisting the flag.
The second part of the film segues smoothly into the Oswald chapter. Jeremy Strong looks exactly like Lee Harvey, but he's given only slightly more screen time than Kennedy. It's James Badge Dale as Oswald's brother Robert who grabs the second act of Parkland for himself. He is stunned by the news that his brother killed the president, but barely has time to register his thoughts when he has to deal with his arrogant, self-absorbed mother (Jacki Weaver), a delusional woman hungry for her 15 minutes of fame (She suggests that her son was an important American and should be buried next to Kennedy). Ron Livingston is excellent as FBI agent James P. Hosty, who had been studying Oswald from afar, and had even received several crackpot letters from him. 
The movie speeds along. Landesman's trick is that even though we know this story, we're still watching to see what happens next. It feels as breathless as the real incidents must've felt. There's also a calmness that takes over when people buckle down and go about their business. I found it especially touching when Robert Oswald plainly asks some photographers to help carry his brother's casket to the grave. Grimly, not thinking twice, the photographers put down their cameras and help. Moments like that make this film, Landesman's directorial debut, well worth seeing. Like the scene where Jackie searches for a spot on her husband's torso that isn't covered in blood to give him a farewell kiss, Landesman found the part of the story that hadn't been told.

The problem facing any documentary about the "riot grrrl" movement of the early 1990s is the same problem facing documentaries about the folk music boom of the early 1960s. Taken out of their historical contexts, the music doesn't always hold up, and the importance of it is lost on anybody who wasn't paying attention at the time. The Punk Singer, an interesting and well-made documentary about Kathleen Hannah, founder of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre,  can almost transcend this problem. The film is energetic, and Hannah is a worthy subject. There is also, these days, a slight nostalgia for the riot grrl movement; the film ends with a 2011 tribute to Hanna at Brooklyn's Knitting Factory, where several groups performed her songs.

The first time we see Hanna in the film, she's at an early '90s spoken word performance, stomping her feet and reciting a "poem" about being molested in her house. Then, in a rhythmless blur we learn the Kathleen Hanna saga: that Hanna was friends with Kurt Cobaine;  that Courtney Love punched her; that  Hanna may or may not have been sexually harassed by her father; that she worked part-time as a stripper;  that she married one of the Beastie Boys;  that she once recorded an entire album in her bedroom; and that the career that began as an effort to empower women was ended by a tick bite.
A lot of the film is typical band stuff about the long hours on the road, and the pressure cooker of being in a band and getting on each other's nerves. We hear that Bikini Kill couldn't agree on anything, but we're not really told what the disagreements were about. Instead, we get a lot of talking head appearances from other female musicians who praise Bikini Kill's influence.  Perhaps the film should've been called And We Now Praise Kathleen Hanna.
Director Sini Anderson obviously reveres her subject, but The Punk Singer borders on hagiography. We're told that Hanna's a brilliant lyricist, but nothing in the movie backs that up. We're told she's a great singer and performer, but from what we see in the film, she was a standard, post-punk yowler. We're told that she's some great beauty (someone compares her to Liz Taylor!), but in the film it's sometimes hard to distinguish her. It took me 20 minutes to figure out that the older woman with dark hair talking about Hanna is actually Hanna.

Hanna and her peers can put a person off, if only because they're always on the defensive. If you comment that they can't play their instruments - they can't - you're told that you're stupid, and that they don't give a shit. In fact, the phrase "I don't give a shit" is repeated at least 50 times in this documentary, and the effect is numbing. Hanna is so strident that she almost encourages you to not like her. It's the old, "You're either with us or against us, and if you're against us, you're one of our oppressors."
There's also something embarrassing about the other people in the movie. Their feigned inarticulateness is monotonous. Hannah's husband, Adam Horovitz, reacts to everything by saying, "This is crazy shit," or, "this is serious shit." Many of the women, all college educated, adapt, like, an ironic valley girl pose, which is a strange way to, like, make a personal statement.  Like, ya know?

It's not a surprise that the entire "angry girl" music genre was sideswiped by the various Disney acts to come. That's the traditional curve of the pop culture. Folk was usurped by the Beatles. Punk was replaced by its more danceable cousin,"New Wave." Riot grrrl was replaced by Britney and Katy and Miley. Anger isn't built to last; it's usually just camouflage for sadness, which doesn't sell like perkiness. To the film's credit, there isn't much bitterness about this.  The women here didn't make a lot of money, but they were happy to make some noise and inspire other young women, sending the message that you could talk about important issues and still be a "girl." They were the new face of feminism. Their mission was noble, even if it developed a "save the whales" atmosphere. Still, I kept wondering  about girls who didn't want to be in bands. Were they less feminist? Does the message only matter if you're screaming?

I felt bad for Hanna as she revealed the various health problems that shortened her career.  The film ends with Hanna chastising her invisible critics, accusing them of not believing her because she's a woman.  I imagine her  cracking up someday,  driven into a mental ward by the fear that no one believes her. She'll be the Frances Farmer of punk rock. 

Then again, there's a great deal of narcissism in Hanna. I think her complaints about the press are just a form of vanity, as is her distrust of the male gaze.  She's like someone who keeps screaming "Don't look at me!" and wonders why people stare. 


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