11'09"01 - September 11 (12A)<br/>Blood Work (15)

It's tough being an auteur, you know
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The Independent Culture

11'09"01 – September 11

Imagine you're commissioning a film about 9/11, composed of 11 shorts by film-makers from around the world. What would you want such a film to be? A monument, perhaps, a sombre slab of a compilation bearing witness to the unthinkable? A celluloid bulletin board, a kind of cinematic CNN, gathering up-to-the-minute responses from global correspondents? Or maybe you'd imagine, as French producer Alain Brigand did, a "cinematographic mosaic", which rather begs the question, what sort of bigger picture are all the disparate fragments supposed to add up to? That's just one question posed by Brigand's diffuse and surprisingly unaffecting project 11'09"01 – September 11. For example, why these film-makers? Why, for the most part, well-established international auteurs who usually work in fiction, and why from these particular countries (Iran, France, Egypt, Bosnia, Burkina Faso, Britain, Mexico, Israel, India, the USA and Japan)? The idea of a selective spread of nations is fine in principle, but in this context smacks rather of the spurious ideal of a "United Nations of Cinema" – as if all these film-makers were ambassadors carrying responses from their own national cinemas. In fact, each contributor offers something quite idiosyncratic and personal. And yet you wonder whether the personal response is really the most appropriate for this particular commission – whether to provide a virtuoso performance or an arresting authoritative statement isn't a little like drawing attention to yourself by launching into an interpretative dance at a state funeral? The most foolish contributors, indeed, are the ones who can't resist showing off. Both Sean Penn and veteran French vulgarian Claude Lelouch indulge in fancily-executed, sentimental balderdash, speculating in hackneyed poetic terms about what it must have been like to be in Lower Manhattan that day: a gesture that seems either naive or grossly arrogant. The worst contribution of all is from Egypt's Youssef Chahine, whose film – in which Chahine is himself played by an actor – is primarily about the burden of being a renowned auteur who must carry the conscience of the world on his shoulders.

Some all but throw their hands up in despair. Japanese veteran Shohei Imamura either misses the point entirely or cuts straight to the heart of the matter – depending how generous you're feeling – with a parable about a soldier so repelled by the human condition that he turns into a snake and takes to chomping rats.

Perhaps the most brilliant, dynamic film-making is from Israel's Amos Gitai, following the chaos in a Tel Aviv street after a car bomb, with a harassed reporter refusing to be distracted by a news flash from the other side of the world. But the fact that Gitai has choreographed this frenzy in a single 11-minute take seems almost like inappropriate extravagance. You wonder if this is really the place for virtuoso stylistics.

The moment which most captures the world's bewilderment on hearing the news is the scene in Idrissa Ouedraogo's comic vignette in which a Francophone African radio announcer is heard breaking the story in a crowded Burkina Faso market place.

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, of Amores Perros fame, over-reaches interestingly in something that's very close to gallery-video material. Onto a black screen, set to a sampled cacophony of radio and documentary voices, he flashes almost subliminal newsreel shots of people leaping from the World Trade Centre. It's extremely powerful as long as it stays this side of austerity, but once the film builds to a crescendo – with extended shots of the towers' collapse, set to the Kronos Quartet in full flight – it crosses the line into imposingly executed, religiose kitsch. One thing you feel these films should not be doing is offering us an emotional payoff: the first rule should have been to avoid the temptation of false catharsis.

The most persuasive films, indeed, are the ones that eschew stylistic brilliance to get straight to the point, that sideline the personal to address other people's experience. India's Mira Nair offers an urgent, unfussy vignette, based on a true story, about a Pakistani woman in New York whose son, among the missing, is accused of being a terrorist. By far the most eloquent and lucid contribution is by Ken Loach, who chooses to address another 9/11 entirely – the date of the Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973. The film is in the form of a letter from Chilean exile Vladimir Vega to the families and friends of the New York dead – a profession of solidarity, but also an attempt to bring the Twin Towers attack into a context that some might regard as taboo in such circumstances, the history of the US's own involvement in sanctioned brutality like Pinochet's. Loach's film, largely assembled from documentary footage, is painful and cogent, whether or not you like the point of view expressed or even think that it should be expressed in such a context. Some critics have found his entry opportunistic, even callous – in fact, Vega's presence as first-person narrator makes it compassionate as well as exceptionally thought-provoking. The main point is that Loach has taken the opportunity to bring a real argument to the table, where some of his peers bring only their whims or worse, their egos.

Brigand prescribed a standard length of 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame, which feels like a facetiously conceptual conceit to impose on such a project. However honest most of the contributions are, somehow the combination of all 11, and the portentous linking graphics, contrive to make the overall project seem pointless. Maybe not entirely pointless – it does at least expose the fallacy that eminent fiction film-makers, any more than eminent novelists, are somehow specially qualified to comment on world traumas.

"Pretentious" is never a word you could apply to Clint Eastwood. Over the last decade, he has been much praised for growing old gracefully, which means that, now in his seventies, he tends to play characters who are appropriately wheezy. In Blood Work, he creaks around with a face so like distressed tree bark that he could convincingly have signed up as one of the Ents in The Two Towers.

It also means that, as a director, he has no truck with the fancy-schmancy flourishes beloved of whipper-snappers. Blood Work is frill-free in the extreme: Eastwood's old cop returns as a private eye two years after a heart attack and gets embroiled with a story from his past. Based on a novel by Michael Connelly, the film feels so casually executed that you might easily dismiss it as straight-to-video standard (indeed, the film barely registered on its US release). But in its apparent mundanity, Blood Work is very nearly as bare-bones as a Fritz Lang noir – scarcely more than a pencil sketch of the film that another director might have made. It has some of the compelling, leisurely coolness of those Seventies thrillers like Night Moves, about investigators cruising straight for the edge of the abyss, leavened by a few touches of Eastwood's self-effacing humour: for a man who's not essentially a wag, he's pretty good at fencing with Anjelica Huston's tough doctor, or jesting dryly with tough cops over a box of doughnuts.

In the end, though, the film is not nearly Langian enough – it lacks the merciless detachment to really mesmerise you. By the time the killer is revealed and we're into a routine action denouement, you might as well go home. For its first 90 minutes, though, Blood Work is pretty watchable – and given the state of Hollywood thrillers these days, I'm afraid that counts as rather more than faint praise.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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