'Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.' Joyce Carol Oates
'The recurring image, the one that says more than any of his videos or statements, is the Warholian one we now have: bin Laden watching a video of himself, caught in a jihad for fame.' Christopher Hitchens
Some real-life fictions have an immediate impact on Hollywood ones. Nothing stops production, of course, but this month, the death of the world's most wanted man has created a conundrum. Two weeks ago there were two Osama bin Laden films being shot, and both must be hurriedly rewritten. Now, the general public will not abide by Kathryn Bigelow's as-yet untitled film about the fruitless search for the al-Qaeda leader. The ending must now be bloody and final. Word is that Bigelow's liked tale only because it had no 'closure' (a hopelessly modern term that, when used, sounds like it means something, but rarely does); now there must be, imperfect and prosaic. Similarly, Oliver Stone's fever dream With Us Or Against Us, (imagining a predictably bombastic afterlife in which a certain former US President and his nemesis collide with sticks, resulting in mutual destruction) was due in 2012, but now seems an exercise in angry cartoonish bloodlust too far: why put up with such overcooked satire when the wreckage of a real-life lynch-job is ripe for the picking?
Through flickering videotape, one man slipped into an iconography that it seems it didn't need his death to seal. He was already a ghost, turning up in Western dreams since before he was born.
He is there in Vick Kissing's The Phantom (1942), which follows a manhunt through Montana that ends in starvation and freezing to death. The group discuss the whys and wherefores of their eye-for-an-eye existence, but the audience never discovers the extent of the actual murderer's guilt. His size, ethnicity and gun hand are all argued over, and their harried accounts seem to describe a several different men. The fracturing and failure of the group seems inevitable from the outset, leaving the question of whether the killer exists at all (and by existential extention, whether a group hunting a non-existent man can 'exist', not to mention an audience of a film about them). Clint Eastwood,(1) himself existing somewhere between icon and human, remade it as A Horse With No Rider (2004). His last Western, it fit into a Bush narrative all too easily, with a posturing son leaning ever more on the Descartian double-bind: 'We're chasin' him. He must exist!'
1996: The year the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, and Arsene Wenger began introducing a new purist mindset to Arsenal Football Club. Twin narratives, two sets of idealism. Arsenal were hitherto the epitome of English gung-ho: Tony Adams drink-driving, Ray Parlour letting off fire extinguishers in Pizza Hut (and is there a more tawdry metaphor than that?), on a heroic death-charge for the old guard of banal boozers, facing up to their own terms of endangerment in a new world. Footballers in England would now eat pasta and drink soft drinks. They would no longer be seen gurning down the lens on Top of the Pops, arms around each other in a parade of uncool fun, like rictus Astleys.
1996 also saw the filming of Nick Hornby's loveletter to boyish men and Arsenal, Fever Pitch (David Evans, 1997). It also saw the release of a lesser known North London narrative: Gooner (1996) is Peter Harris' account of Osama bin Laden in London in the 1980s, going to see Arsenal play at Highbury. Or is it? Harris took the loose facts, that bin Laden had been known to frequent Gunners matches in the Thatcher years, and spun a tale about how a rich and bored man might be swayed by religious dogma or weekly worship of a sporting kind. This came out before the World Trade Center fell, of course, but after the earlier failed attempt in 1993. Harris' film does not predict the significance of his subject to a worldwide narrative (and it must be said, he has always claimed his character is a fiction, known only by the name 'Al'; Harris he also denied all knowledge of bin Laden until after his film was finished, but this matters little). Alfred Molina (2), that man of a thousand ethnicities, plays Al with no little sympathy. He seems lost and unsure as he buys up Arsenal memorabilia.
This could be the lost British terrorist film, Molina flickering across London like M.Vurloc in Conrad's The Secret Agent, unsure of his sympathies, building his resentments. Harris' denials fit the Osama myth perfectly, erasing a man from his own biography, until he is only a figment of the world's imagination, hiding in a dark cave of the collective mind. There are parallels with Chris Morris' Four Lions (2010), but the action is looser, less dramatic; like Gus van Sant (in Elephant or Last Days mode) if he had been asked to interpret a Hornby novel shorn of women and music, leaving only the football.
Gooner Directed by Peter Harris Written by Peter Harris, Rob Watts Produced by Rich Robbin Starring Alfred Molina, Dexter Fletcher Flickknife/BBC Films 99 mins Release Date UK: Sept 1996/US: N/A Tagline: 'Who Are Ya? Who Are Ya?'
1. Eastwood's films frequently deal with the potency of symbolic masculines. Could any other action hero dissect his own mythology so frequently and cuttingly? Compare and contrast with other tough guys as the butt of their own jokes: Vin Diesel, Hulk Hogan, the second half of Sylvester Stallone's career. And don't think that Arnold Schwarzenegger's barrage of limping comedies of the early 90s (think Twins, Cinderfella, Kindergarten Cop, Austrian Thunder and Last Action Hero) display any kind of self-examination, as they are all one-note riffs on the same big-guy slapstick he'd always wrought.
2. There is a rumour that Alfred Molina has appeared in every film made during his lifetime, and even some that preceded it, such is his multi-faceted glory. He is one of those faces that link texts, jumping between them at rapid speed, cementing them as real live artifacts. His startling turn as John O'Neill in He Knows Everything And It Doesn't Even Matter (2006) was as hidden from view as Osama Bin Laden at the time: sporadic video showings, unverified. Peter Bradshaw praised the film, but said that 'it suffers from a huge problem. That John O'Neill's story spins on a real-life irony too implausible for fiction: the FBI's best man on al-Qaeda who, having been forced out of the Bureau for maverick genius, takes up his new job as the head of security at the World Trade Center. He died on his first day at work, on September 11th, 2001, and this is too perfect to ring true, even though ity is true. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but it can also be more truly fictional. Sven Hassel's gutbusting By Their Necks (1965) does not suffer from the same problem, as the musclebound romps through Torah Borah lay no claim to credibility.'