Allah To Put Up With
THE KILLOUGH CHRONICLES | REVIEW
by James Killough
What set me off yesterday was driving to lunch in Weho with my friend Louise Ward. No, it wasn’t the fact that I knew Louise had scheduled lunch at the café in department boutique Fred Seagal’s just so she could get some shopping in as well as seeing me. I have long since let any irritation over Louise’s ADHD give way to admiration and even a little envy that I don’t have it myself. The cause of my tutting was yet another program on NPR, this one about the Arab Spring, which has now officially given over into some sort of Arab Scorched-Earth Summer.
At a certain point over pasta primavera, Louise mentioned how there was a scandal about a certain someone saying something un-PC about Muslims. “Oh, fuck that,” I blurted. “The Muslim world is like a Steampunk version of the Middle Ages with modern technology. Say whatever you want about them. I’ve had enough.”
As an orthodox atheist, I have no more problem with Islam than I do with any other religion. In fact, as a member of a Sufi order, the last time I said prayers I said them in Arabic bowing in the direction of Mecca, but that’s sort of like a white man married to a black woman who thinks he now has license to make racist jokes. Just because I have a more in-depth, first-hand experience of the Muslim world than most Westerners doesn’t mean I have a greater tolerance for what is going down right now. In fact, I am probably less tolerant because I am that much closer to it.
When I take NPR’s mash-up survey yesterday of the Arab Spring—from Lybia, to Egypt, to Syria and Iraq—and piece it together with what is going on in non-Arab Muslim countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, it seems as if there are two planets inhabiting this one, orbiting each other, sharing the same airspace, warring against each other, but just light years apart.
And that is never more clear than when watching Lee Tamahori’s Devil’s Double, which is an oddity for many reasons, not least of which is that this is a film in English about Arabs with no Western roles, which means it’s not going far at the box office. In fact, I was surprised this was made at all. I mean, who the hell is Dominic Cooper?
Well, if you didn’t know Cooper before, you certainly will after seeing Devil’s Double.
The story is the dramatization of the lives of of Saddam Hussain’s son Uday and his reluctant double, Latif Yahia, as adapted from Latif’s book. As the film would have it, Latif is a blameless hero thrust into the pit of hell by the misfortune of looking almost identical to Uday. After refusing to comply despite severe beatings, he eventually relents when his family is threatened with harm, undergoes plastic surgery to refine the resemblance together with a dental bridge that lends him Uday’s same Bugs Bunny grin.
The pas de deux that Cooper dances with himself as both Latif and the psychopathic Uday is dazzling to watch, but it is called upon to sustain the entire film. When it is just Latif as the brooding resistant hero up on the screen you find yourself studying the brilliantly replicated tacky décor of an Arab dictator’s palace instead of paying attention to the drama. (Indeed, the production design by Paul Kirby deserves special mention.)
The whole reason I went to see this is I glimpsed repeated comparisons to Scarface in the press and remarks about Cooper’s performance, with early mutterings of the O word from critics. Would that director Lee Tamahori were Brian De Palma, the director of Scarface, at the height of his powers. De Palma himself has always been known for his homages to better directors, so I’m not quite sure what to call an homage to an homage? Maybe fromage, but that’s just because it rhymes; as gold-plated and loud as Devil’s Double is, it never dips into cheese.
I have been waiting for Tamahori to follow up Once Were Warriors with something as worthy if not better, but that has never happened. I loved that film, even the hokey final monologue, when the brute Maori anti-hero, Jake, is down on his knees, defeated by his own hand, and his wife looks at him spits, “Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana, pride; people with spirit. If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything.” It was up there with Gone With The Wind, but with Haka face tattoos and tongue wagging rather than hoop skirts and overblown Southern accents.
What I admire most about Tamahori is not his directing skills, but his arrest in 2006 for soliciting sex from an undercover cop on Santa Monica Boulevard while dressed in drag. He offered the cop a blowjob. Given the he was 55 at the time, this must have been a pretty sight indeed, not to mention seriously sleazy and not a little surreal because Tamahori is straight. His love of latex and the BDSM scene was already pretty well known in the film world, but he was always very much the womanizer. It appears that while he was directing the forgettable Bond film Die Another Day, starring Pierce Brosnan and Halle Berry, he had a threesome with his girlfriend Sascha and Berry’s stand-in. This is a man after my own heart: gender is a pretzel, baby.
So I was willing Devil’s Double to be that follow up to Warriors with all my might. After all, the financing credits at the beginning of the film show that Tamahori was unfettered by the restrictions of the Hollywood Crap Machine, in the hands of Belgians. But the film is one-note: a single, screeching, bloody, tortured wail. Yet I’m not sure it could have been made any other way, unless you slowed it down and made it into a sinister torture porn horror flick like the Saw series, which might have been a more effective direction.
If real-life events transpired more or less the way they are shown on screen—and I understand that the constraints of collapsing any narrative into a feature-length format will reinvent the truth in its own way—then Latif Yahia is a bona fide hero. The story might not have much in the way of nuance or dramatic development, but that doesn’t make it less remarkable. You might not find Latif the most interesting person to party with—he spends much of the film being a recalcitrant stick-in-the-mud—but that’s always the problem with writing good guys: they are invariably the quietest, least glittering characters at the dinner table.
I have considerable experience dealing with psychotic super-wealthy brats who have little accountability. The film business is a magnet for guys like Uday Saddam Hussain. You can spend years humoring them, listening to them scream and giggle in clubs like Tom Hulce as Mozart in Amadeus, which is exactly what Cooper sounds like as Uday. Sometimes the cash will flow, sometimes the film will get made, but your own sanity will suffer. There was a certain point when I completely identified with Yahia’s actions: he picks up a knife and opens his own wrists in front of Uday as the only way to stop the madness. Better that than another moment listening to the screeching giggle, of not being in control of your own life, of wondering if you’re going to take a bullet in the head whether you do what he asks or not.
To my point in the beginning of this post, the film is symbolic of this pas de deux dance of death we are engaged in with the Muslim world and much of its psychotic leadership: the Talibanis, the Pakistanis, the Gaddafis, the Assads of Syria, the Ayotollahs, and on and on. As un-PC as it sounds, at a certain point you want to make like Latif and just shoot them in the nuts already, if only to get them to stop the madness.