Film Reviews

A Selfie Goes to War

Can profundity be accidental? Marshall Curry's documentary Point and Shoot is a study in naifdom that seems to think it's about something else: masculinity, honor, war. But it's mostly about the way Americans of means see the wider world as a self-help proving ground, an exotic backdrop against which to stage movie-star adventures. The difference here? The Mitty-style American actualizing himself is also filming himself — and, hey, look, now he is the movie star he daydreamed of becoming. He's even the de facto narrator, ensuring that nothing — not even an Arab Spring revolution — distracts us from his hero's journey.

Matthew VanDyke, Point and Shoot's hero/subject, can't forget the mediated, imitative nature of his adventures even when he has dedicated himself to a grand cause. In the film's second half, he throws in with the opposition forces who brought down Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, filming a revolution even as he's insisting he's a soldier, not a cameraman. Gangly VanDyke gushes, "When I saw myself in news reports fighting, it became validation that I was a real rebel fighter." Dodging bullets in the desert isn't enough for the experience to, like, count.

VanDyke and the men he fights with seem under near constant assault. I say "seem" because the footage, as seen here, lacks narrative context; we see VanDyke shot at in a jeep, then shot at near some houses, then in a jeep again. The focus is entirely on his danger — and how being harrowed by war helps him triumph over his once-debilitating OCD. Toward the end of the war, VanDyke is tasked with bringing down a sniper. We see him flatten himself against the wall of some dark room, peeking out a window, waiting for his shot. Finally, he lifts his gun, fires and waits. A moment later, we hear him reflect in voiceover: "I had myself filmed trying to take another human life, and what does that say about me?"

Before his choices apparently became more interesting than the overthrow of one of the world's great tyrants, VanDyke stewed for five months in Libyan prisons, an experience that Point and Shoot renders in evocative animation. (There's a lesson in that: Footage may not exist of his imprisonment, but no reasonable person believes we would need it to believe VanDyke's suffering was real.)

Here's how he got there: After taking a find-your-smile motorcycle trip across North Africa and the Middle East, pausing to film himself popping many desert wheelies, VanDyke hit it off with a handful of Libyan men who would later take up arms against Gadhafi. The impetus behind VanDyke's first trip was to prove to himself that he possessed the kind of manly traits he admired in the stars of action movies. Adopting a tough-guy persona helped: He started calling himself "Max Hunter," and viewers of Point and Shoot must sit through painful footage of him practicing flipping open a knife in front of a mirror. After being Hunter for 35,000 miles, VanDyke returned to the States — and then rushed back to Libya once the revolution started, and his newish friends were seeing their friends and families murdered by Gadhafi's forces.

There VanDyke took up arms, wound up in prison, got broken out of prison, developed stirring cross-cultural camaraderie, and with his camera captured a half-dozen or so wondrous/terrible moments: a rug with Gadhafi's face floating in a tidal pool; that attempt to snipe a sniper; his friend Nuri saying, "If the shooting comes to you, I'll send you in a good box to you mom"; Libyan men spotting him and saying, "American?" and then, with jubilant thumbs up, "Obama!" But Nuri and those men and Libya itself are all extras in the story of Point and Shoot, the millionth movie about an American having adventures abroad and then "finding himself," or whatever. If that was the point, maybe the movie's actually brilliant.

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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl