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20 March 2010

Who Is 67, Who Is Magellan and Who...Are...You?

I've written before about the only literature paper I took at university, which was called Visions of Hell (I got extra brownie points for reworking a famous Jean-Paul Sartre quotation about hell in an exam on Dante's Inferno, Levi's Se questo รจ un uomo and Svevo's La coscienza di Zeno). I think the conclusion we were supposed to draw is that hell means different things to different people and can be comic as well as tragic.

Over the past week, I've seen three films, which, collectively, could be seen as the introduction to a course entitled Visions of Madness. Shutter Island, Alice in Wonderland and Green Zone don't have much else in common but each presents a contrasting depiction of madness and sanity, reality and deception.

It's hard to say too much about Shutter Island without spoiling the film but, in brief, Leonardo DiCaprio is a US marshal with a lot of baggage in his past, sent to investigate the disappearance of a female prisoner (patient) from a locked cell in the mental asylum for the criminally insane on Shutter Island in the 1950s. What begins like an episode of Jonathan Creek soon descends into a paradox of the unreliable narrator as Leo finds a note in the cell of the missing prisoner, which reads: "THE LAW OF FOUR... WHO IS 67?" and begins to uncover some sinister goings on on Shutter Island. Or does he? And who can he trust, anyway? Surely not the oh-so-creepy Sirbenkingsley? Who, for that matter, can we trust? Martin Scorsese doesn't exactly go out of his way to cover his tracks, and although Shutter Island is rather silly in places (some say intentionally so), it works well as a thriller and as an examination of what is sane, anyway, and whether you can tell if you aren't sane.

In a sense, Leo's character Teddy is in Wonderland, although not a Wonderland from Lewis Carroll's or Tim Burton's imagination. Like Alice, Teddy is on a journey of discovery--he wants to go back home but he also wants to find the truth. And along the way, nothing and no one is as they seem.

I probably wouldn't have gone to see The Disney-Burton version of Alice in Wonderland but I won a free ticket to see the film in 3D on the IMAX screen and I thought that in that cinematic environment, it was bound to be visually stunning, at the least. Although the decidedly mixed reviews of the film had made me wary, I actually rather enjoyed it. It was interesting to see an older Alice down the rabbit hole, one whom the Mad Hatter could fall for and whom the Red Queen's henchman could try to seduce. The animal characters were, for the most part, lovable and funny (Stephen Fry's Cheshire Cat was particularly funny and somehow reminded me of Antonio Banderas's Puuuss in Boots). Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter was funny too, although he, like the film as a whole, felt a lot like Burton Lite. Nonetheless, it was a perfectly likable film.

Again, the themes of madness and reality often recurred. Is Alice mad to have wild dreams of this Wonderland place or has she just been smoking too much opium? Is she dreaming at all or is Wonderland and its inhabitants real? Given the constraints of the Victorian society from which Alice comes, I suspect she would have been shipped straight to Shutter Island rather than to a new life as a businesswoman in China at the end. Then there is the Hatter. Like some of the patients on Shutter Island, at times he seems quite coherent and can hold a normal conversation. You wonder whether he merits being called mad. But then, his mind "resets" and he asks his favourite question ("Why is a raven like a writing desk?") for the hundredth time and you begin to think that he may actually be crazy after all, running on autopilot. As for the swollen headed Red Queen, an egomaniac, megalomaniac, dictatorial sadist, she certainly seems crazy when compared to the White Queen, her good, kind (and somewhat boring) sister.

Green Zone is more specific in its portrayal of madness: it looks at the lies and the crazy decisions that led America into the Iraq war in the search for the weapons of mass destruction. Matt Damon (restored again to Team America) plays Roy Miller, an army chief who suspects that his team have been given some "bad intel," namely that all of the places they have been told to raid or blow up because they are supposed to contain chemical weapons have turned out to be empty. The intel is supposed to come from a very reliable source--someone high up in the Iraqi forces, codenamed Magellan. Miller begins to dig deeper, with the help of an Iraqi named Freddie, but some powerful Americans in both Washington and Iraq start to worry about what he will find out and what he will do when he discovers the truth. In this film, a war started on the basis of false premises is madness. All of the unnecessary deaths, explosions and destructions are madness. Whether it is mad to die fighting for your country or for your freedom is less certain. Paul Greengrass certainly presents an interesting view of the Iraq war, in any case and the Americans sitting next to me in the cinema seemed to agree.

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