Thursday, October 10, 2013


The middle stop on our honeymoon was a long weekend at an eco-resort in Belize. On one of the afternoons we did a horseback-riding trip, which was pretty miserable, because my wife (a somewhat experienced rider) got a horse well into its dotage, while I (a less experienced rider) got one that galloped at any opportunity that presented itself. (I could be heard yelling "Too fast too fast too fast!" to no one in particular.)

On our way back from a very edifying trip to see cave artifacts, the length of the day was really wearing on me. I knew we were taking a different (longer) route home, and I had just about reached the breaking point. When I couldn't stand it any more, after much internal deliberation, I finally asked the guide how much longer it would be until we got back to the resort.

I figured he would set me at ease by telling me it was just around the next bend.

Instead he said "About an hour."

This is how I felt Monday when I realized there was about an hour left in The Act of Killing.

Now, coming out of The Act of Killing is exactly the wrong time to use a word like "torture" to describe the experience of watching it, without feeling like an insensitive bastard who makes light of the actual torture he's been witnessing on screen. But I did emerge with the sense that I had been forced to endure something for a lot longer than I'd planned.

By now you have heard an NPR story or a review or someone talking about this movie -- for me it's been all three, I think. In fact, as the movie is only just now being released in Australia (it came out in July in the U.S.), I'm going through another round of same now. But if you haven't heard about The Act of Killing, I'll give you a short synopsis.

Documentarian Joshua Oppenheimer went to Indonesia (he speaks the language) to create a film -- though the kind of film changes depending on whom he's talking to. To the government-sponsored gangsters who killed possibly as many as two million communists or suspected communists in 1965, he was making a kind of action/gangster fiction film tribute to their experiences, which would enhance their legacy as national heroes. To anyone not directly involved -- and perhaps some who were -- he was making an expose of the brutal murderers who have gone unpunished to this day. Not only did he get these gangsters, now in their 60s and 70s, to talk about and even simulate the ghastly crimes they committed "off camera" -- as in, in a traditional documentary-style interview format -- but he also filmed scenes from this theoretical fiction film, with them playing both the torturers/murderers and their victims. Then there's also a bunch of B-roll -- like a guy brushing his teeth so vigorously that he's getting a thick lather of toothpaste all over his chest -- that just goes into the category of "bizarre extra stuff."

It is without a doubt one of the singular experiences a person can have watching a documentary, and it is consistently disturbing, if not in actual graphic content (of which there is not a huge amount) then merely in spending time with murderers who gleefully discuss their exploits. After about two hours, I'd had enough of it. Which was okay, because that was when I was expecting the movie to end.


My screening of The Act of Killing started at 10:30 a.m., which means I was expecting it to get out at about 12:20. Somewhere I'd gotten it in my head that the movie was 115 minutes. But we hit 12:20 and then 12:30 and then something I'd seen on my ticket started to make sense.

See, one of the cool things they do at Cinema Nova in Carlton -- the place with the $6 tickets on Mondays -- is tell you the exact running time of the movie on the ticket. I was going to save this little tidbit for a post of its own, but really, it's probably not newsy enough to warrant an entire post, and I need it now anyway. The ticket lists the start time, and then the minute that the last credit disappears from the screen, with a dash separating them.

My ticket for The Act of Killing said 10:30 - 1:24. I had assumed it was a typo and they really meant 12:24. I mean, what documentary is nearly three hours long?

Answer: This one.

The Act of Killing ran past 12:30 and then 12:40 and then, by golly, then I was downright sure that I would be sitting here for another 45 minutes yet. Soaking in another 45 minutes of these despicable characters before, well, before some kind of ending that I hoped would at least partly redeem them. Not because they deserve redemption, but because a movie like this just has to end with some kind of comeuppance or definitive moment of soul-searching agony ... it just has to.

When the credits finally rolled, the first comment someone behind me blurted out was "Way too long." I hadn't been the only one enduring this torture.

I later on realized that I had seen the director's cut of The Act of Killing, which weighed in at a whopping 160 minutes. However, the version most people have seen and been praising is 122 minutes. I don't know where I got that 115-minute figure.

This gets at my problem with films that have multiple versions available. You'd think the essential core of a movie would be similar enough that you'd rate it about the same, no matter which version you saw, but that simply isn't the case. For me, two hours of The Act of Killing would have been plenty. Cutting out 38 minutes would have benefited the film terrifically, allowing Oppenheimer to examine the evil that men do, rather than wallowing in it for a sadistically long time. It makes a crucial difference between me calling The Act of Killing a very good film and a great one.

Usually, it's easier than this to tell when you're getting the "wrong" version. For example, when you walk into a theater, you should be fairly certain you're getting the "official" version of the film. On DVD, you need to look for words like "unrated" or "director's cut" or other giveaways that put you on notice. But there's a general assumption that subsequent versions are just that: subsequent. Home video allows you to give us new things we hadn't seen before, either things that wouldn't have made it through a ratings board, or things that incentivize us to buy a second or third or fourth copy of the movie. The cinematic release is your starting point, and it should be just one point.

It makes a substantive difference to how I might review the film as well. Take the scene I mentioned above where Anwar Congo's sidekick, Herman, is brushing his teeth in a haphazard way that gets toothpaste foam all down his chest. That could easily be part of those 38 minutes you aren't seeing in the U.S. If I mentioned that scene in a review intended to be consumed by Americans, they would wonder what the hell I was talking about.

Well, I saw the version of The Act of Killing that I saw. I can't change that. And I certainly don't plan to sit through another 122 minutes of this stuff to see what the differences are.

Torturous? Only for someone sitting in a comfortable seat in an arthouse theater in Melbourne. Not for a communist in 1965 Indonesia.

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