Monday, 7 June 2010

The Movie 'Homicide' (1991)

This is one of these odd ponderings about a movie, which has been lurking in my mind for many years.  To start with I am referring to the 1991 movie, 'Homicide' rather than 'Homicide: The Movie' (2000).  It was written and directed by David Mamet who had previously produced screenplays for 'The Untouchables' (1987) and 'House of Games' (1987) and later for 'Glengarry Glen Ross' (1992), 'American Buffalo' (1996), 'Wag the Dog' (1997), 'Ronin' (1998) and 'Hannibal' (2001), amongst many others.  He also directed 12 movies 1987-2008.

At the start, 'Homicide' seems to be a straight forward police procedural movie starring Joe Mategna (born 1947) who has been in scores of television series and movies including 'The Godfather - Part III'.  He has also been a producer and once a director (of the 2000 movie 'Lakeboat' based on Mamet's 1970/81 play).  He plays a police detective with a Jewish background,  Bobby Gold, known as 'The Orator' because of his skills in negotiating with criminals to have a peaceful resolution.  He is set to investigating the murder of an old Jewish female shopkeeper in a predominantly African-American district.  It turns out the woman used to be a Zionist terrorist back in the late 1940s when Jews were fighting for the establishment of Israel in Palestine which at the time was run by the British as a mandate, effectively a colonial territory until Israel was created in 1948.  Other circumstantial evidence such as the word 'Grofaz' (an acronym attributed to a title held by Adolf Hitler) found on the roof of a neighbouring building it seems that the murder was driven by anti-Semitic feelings.  Jews that Gold interviews are very harsh on him portraying him that he has turned his back on his culture because he cannot read Hebrew and that working for the police is in fact to some extent in league with Satan (because the police wear a five pointed 'pentagram' star rather than the six-pointed Star of David).  Exploiting Gold's increasing feeling of guilt a Zionist terrorist group manipulate him into carrying out a bombing for them, so utterly compromising his integrity as a police officer and leaving him utterly in his power.  Gold's descent into this position is underlined when it turns out that 'Grofaz' came from a chemical to control pigeons and the old Jewish woman was killed when trying to stop some black youths who thought she had lots of cash on her premises.

Some reviewers see this movie as Mamet's best movie or certainly rating alongside 'House of Games' and it is noted as being very thought provoking.  I can only agree with that because I am still thinking about it 12-15 years after I first saw it.  Mamet is often interested in how our perceptions are altered and both 'House of Games' and 'The Spanish Prisoner' (1997) [fascinating role in this for Steve Martin, far removed from his usual goofy performances] feature confidence tricksters. To some extent the Zionist terrorists are confidence tricksters by effectively distorting Gold's perception of what is right and wrong.  However, unlike the other confidence tricksters Mamet portrays these are far more bullying and rely a lot on making Gold feel that he should feel guilty and then playing on that guilt, very unpleasant.

Other reviewers have noted how devastating the end of this movie is, the hero who throughout is seen as a good and honourable man, loses out utterly.  There is so much going on in this movie and I am surprised it did not attract more controversy, especially from the American Jewish community.  To some degree it is critical of people who are so deep in a particular heritage that they cannot but perceive occurrences in that light.  Of course, the killing of a shopkeeper for her takings is incredibly common in the USA and yet with the sight of the people Gold meets it has to be a racially motivated attack.  Mamet is certainly not arguing racial attacks should not be taken seriously, but seems also to be saying that we need to take account of our modern society and its behaviour first before getting lost in more esoteric explanations.  Gold is a Jew who functions successfully in US society and in fact has now shed his Jewish identity yet works in the society in which he lives, which seems to be far too much of a compromise to the zealots.  In some ways Mamet is suggesting that orthodox Jews ghettoise themselves.  In the 2000s Mamet has returned to these themes.  He has written commentary on the Torah but has also written 'The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-hatred, and the Jews' (2006).

To some degree I see 'Homicide' a little as a critique of the state of Israel. While much of the world was sympathetic to the Jews after the Second World War in receiving a homeland and could even understand them fighting against their Arab neighbours to maintain their state, by oppressing Palestinians and invading neighbouring states, notably Lebanon in the 1980s and beyond, there is a sense that Israeli paranoia has turned the state into being as aggressive or more aggressive than anyone who might want to attack the state these days.  In ways I see parallels with China which despite behaving as a neo-colonial power in Asia, Africa and South America still complains that it was a victim of colonialism in the past and so somehow thinks that excuses its neo-colonial behaviour now or thinks it exempts it from being charged on that basis.  The USA seeking exemption for its troops from any war crimes charges is another example.  Gold recognises the severity of the consequences of his actions, he cannot avoid facing up to them, even if at the time he believed his motives were pure.  So, to an extent, this could be seen as a plea from Mamet for Israel to try to step beyond its now hackneyed claims for waivers from the judgements that would be levelled against other countries and to be more critical of its own actions at the point of deciding to carry them out.

Some reviewers have noted that in contrast to the character of Robert Scott in 'Spartan' (2004 which Mamet directed) who is hampered by loyalty to his superiors and Mike Terry in 'Redbelt' who is similarly constrained by a military code these men buck against these restrictions more successfully. Gold is in an 'eel trap' in this movie and he is not far behind us in realising he has got into a situation he cannot back out of, especially when he is shown photographs taken by the Zionist terrorists of him planting the bomb.  They still do not feel they trust him sufficiently so they rely on blackmail.  However far Gold goes in trying to 'prove' his Jewishness it will always be insufficient for the zealots, in that way he has 'lost' before he has started, he will never achieve the acceptance he has come to yearn and knowing that the Zionists exploit him and he becomes their tool. 

One would expect outrage to have dogged this movie.  However, I guess that Mamet's role in exploring Jewishness gave him some leeway.  In addition, whilst I do not know US Jewish culture at all well, I have to only guess that many American Jews would distance themselves from the kind of zealots portrayed in the movies anyway.  To some extent that may be why they remain in the USA rather than live in Israel.  'Homicide' can be seen a little as a counter-balance to 'A Stranger Among Us' (1993) which features Melane Griffith as a detective working undercover in the Hasidic Jewish community of San Francisco and 'Witness' (1985) with Harrison Ford as a Baltimore police captain who moves into an Amish community to protect a child witness to a murder committed by a police officer.  In both these movies the outsider comes at least to understand and appreciate something of the culture.  In 'Homicide' we have an effective member of the broad community portrayed as an outsider by particular types of individual within the community and ultimately he comes to see the zealots' approach as invidious and undermining all the values he once had rather than refreshing positive aspects of his character from spending time amongst them.

'Homicide' niggles in my mind, I think primarily because I see it as being so unjust to the hero, very well played by Mategna.  I always hate circumstances in which the protagonist loses control over his life and in which it is 'later than you think' in that when the character realises things are going wrong they are already further advanced than s/he knows.  Mamet's movies are often low key, to the extent sometimes of being drab, but that reflects reality and it allows him to explore the ideas without the distraction of eye-catching settings.  You could argue Mamet has a cynical view of the world, but I would argue it is realistic.  Having come through a situation at work in which I had no control over what was being done to me, and every lie by others was taken as truth, alterations to history were accepted without question and everything I said dismissed as irrelevant, I probably can feel more affinity with Gold in this movie than at any time previously.  I will not recommend anyone watch this movie as it could damage your sense of wellbeing.  It is too good at showing how vulnerable we are to being twisted around by those with a very narrowly focused view of the world that means they feel that any actions they carry out are 'right' or 'just' because they are doing them, no matter what harm they do to others.  For being able to capture that Mamet is deservedly lauded, but 'Homicide' is certainly not a movie to watch for entertainment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Best analysis I've read.