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Keeping It Real

By JAMES PARKER  |  June 20, 2007

Vector of interesting things
Winterbottom’s conversation, like his movies, is not about great lines: he speaks in a high-speed mumble, fluid with “you knows” and “in a ways” and “sort ofs.” Ideas occur to him, he reacts to them, and then he moves on. As a director, he is astoundingly prolific: since his full-length debut with 1995’s Butterfly Kiss, he has made 15 movies and is currently working on three more. Yet at two o’clock in the afternoon, with a glass of San Pellegrino in his hand, there is nothing of the powerhouse about him, and none of the cramped energy of the driven man. On the contrary: he is mild, modest, attentive. “I’m not the kind of director who tells actors how it should be,” he says. “I’m more interested in creating a situation in which they do what feels right, and we’re observing their behavior.” He seems to have made himself, in the most unassuming way, a vector for interesting things.

Some of those things, of course, are more interesting than others — or interesting in more successful ways. 24 Hour Party People (2002), his take on the post-punk scene in Manchester, England, and the rise and fall of Factory Records, was a triumph: the protean nature of Factory boss Tony Wilson — visionary and bullshit artist — was exactly captured by actor Steve Coogan, whose delight it was to break off in the middle of a scene, stare at the camera, and address himself to posterity. Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004), on the other hand, was a disaster: a half-baked mélange of live music and live sex. Here, Winterbottom filmed an evening of bands at London’s Brixton Academy, and then spliced their performances between scenes in which two non-porn actors had real, no-doubt-about-it penetrative sex. The music (Dandy Warhols, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club) sounds terrible, the lovemaking is chemistry-free, and the improvised dialogue between the two leads is snuffling, awkward, and minimal, like Godard’s À Bout de Souffle performed inside a meat locker.

Winterbottom’s failures, however, are never failures of nerve. There is nothing timorous or mediocre in his work: when he falls, he falls on his face. The rewards of this openness to experience, to alien-ness, are similarly obvious. Islam, for example, has a unique presence in his films.

The physicality of Salat, the daily practice of Muslim prayer, runs through his three post-9/11 movies like an impulse from some alternate planetary nervous system. In mosques and at roadsides, the ritualized movements are observed without comment, in long takes — the prostrations and the murmurings and the graceful supplicating motions of the hands. The camera circles watchfully, and a nearly subliminal sense of the Ummah, the worldwide Islamic totality, is communicated.

Greengrass, too, in United 93, creates a cool, disinterested space for the religiosity of his subjects. As the film begins, we see Ziad Jarrah, the most complex and Westernized of the group, whispering prayers on his motel bed. It is the morning of September 11.

There is a voice from across the room and he opens slowly focusing eyes, recalled with a touch of sullenness or confusion to his final obligation in the world. It is as if we are seeing the trance moment from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” — “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream” — in reverse.

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