Monday, April 12, 2010

We are lost here

The Hurt Locker is a film about a three-man bomb disposal team working in Iraq. TIME critic Richard Corliss called it ‘a near perfect movie’; The Los Angeles Times pronounced it ‘the film about the war in Iraq that we’ve been waiting for’; and it took the highest average national box office returns for its opening weekend. Then it won the 2009 Oscar for Best Picture. And at first I could see why. The cinematography was well considered, gelling neatly with the editor’s urge to cut faster than I could blink, and the actors seemed convincingly disoriented by the resulting effect. But as the movie drew on, I came to think that what The Wall Street Journal called ‘austere technique’ was really the most recent perfection of an utterly familiar sequence of pull focuses, tense high angles, and jerky claustrophobia. The dialogue was as jarring as the camerawork, and the characters felt as if they were assembled from soldiers killed in previous films. They included a tense, neurotic coward who gets shot (but does manage to kill someone first); a stolid African American resistant to the idea of children; and the new commander (replacing Guy Pierce, who explodes in the first scene), whose cowboy antics endanger the team, yet never quite reveal the disturbed rag doll beneath. I felt myself watching something ghostly and familiar, a noontime apparition that could never quite shake its shadow.

The Hurt Locker was very well received, which makes it the latest example of that most revealing of American misonceptions: that an explosion is an event. An explosion is an instant, which the surrounding material illuminates and gives impact to. In other words, it really depends what’s being blown up, and in The Hurt Locker the surrounding material slowly revealed itself to be little more than the wadding from other, better films: the cowboy is lodged in a profound emotional rut; he at first jeopardizes then unifies the squad; the psychiatrist, focusing mistakenly on the coward’s rationality, is blown-up when he decides to join them on a mission, and son. These plot-by-number details are disguised by the care Kathryn Bigelow, the director, takes to isolate her characters from the larger picture of war – a picture in which her characters’ arthriticsm would be more crippling. It reminds me that there is a certain beauty that turns men’s heads, which makes for a profound banality when admired for longer than it takes a woman pass in the street. Bigelow assembles the fragments of her film with a student’s sympathy, but if it lives up to its claimed ‘perfection’, it must be that perfection lies in her merging of details – perfection as an act of obscurantism.

And this is the essence of my complaint with the Hurt Locker – not in the ongoing fatalism of the military myth; nor the insidiousness of its representation of Blackness (as something with a cellular fealty to values upon which America has an implicit monopoly); nor even the killing of Guy Pierce and then Ralph Fiennes within five minutes of meeting these fine character actors. The hard core of my gripe is: It told me nothing. Characters are bootstrapped to events and the result is a handful of angry humuculi backlit by a series of aborted explosions. About the most we learn is that Iraq is hot, dusty, and very confusing – but so what? I know war is confusing. Every piece of decent writing since Frost has told me this. Joseph Heller told me this. Norman Mailer told me this. Francis Ford Coppola told me this. I even found myself enjoying Sam Mendes when he was telling me this. I get the point. War fucks you up. How often must I hear this before the reality takes the course of all good fiction, and changes? The options are: a) an end to war, or b) make a different kind of modern war film. Though neither seems particularly likely, the latter is at least conceivable. However, it was never something in Bigelow’s ambit. She was once married to James Cameron, and her control of spectacle is no less impressive. Spectacle, after all, must first and foremost be managed, presented, packaged, but this does not make Bigelow a talented director, it makes her a seamstress. One who is very adept at disguising her stitches.

I distrust an audience that can regard this species of pastiche as ‘incisive’, let alone critics who term it ‘a penetrating study’. We know that power can be drawn from repackaging the old as new, but the critical response to the film seems oblivous – almost obeisant – to this part-way honesty, the semi-sufficiency of the half-truths it wallows in. Like the war itself, in which a partial lie first mobilised an invasion, then was castigated by a similarly incomplete revelation, America’s reluctance to investigate its own mythology has predictably turned into flagellating the mythology itself. The film’s aim is to challenge the viewer, one senses this in its air of doubt and discontent, but only an audience deeply inured to or sheltered from modern film could find it confronting. It’s challenging in the way that everyday life must be arduous to someone missing an arm. What it is not, is interesting. The question, then, is this: was The Hurt Locker's vibrant reception based in the mainstream audience’s lack of acquaintance with cinema, or their numbness to it?

The circuitous answer, I suspect, is that materialism focuses on circumstances over psychology. It is an almost unforgiveably general statement, but modern life is largely concerned with material conditions. Always outwards, pointing in, behaviourism has become a sort of default social stance, in which the individual’s situation is assessed in terms of access to infrastructure, income, known history and any other details we can glean. Only literary biographers and post-Colonial theorists bother with the inner states of groups. Educated to look to events and objects as measures of well-being, audiences respond to characters informed by those same forces, while writers, directors, artists and poets treat realism as a kind of fastidious documentary process: an explosion is the latest sign that the stolid, black character is unhappy. He does want children now? see conflagrations 3 through 7. Realism, under either of these conditions, is no longer realism. It is a collage of approximations, a subalternation of the truth.

I cannot say when precisely we past the crest of this realist wave, probably in the seventies or late sixties when a brand of surrealism the likes of which informed Catch 22 or Apocalypse Now was turned to realist ends. These films reached at the truth through overstatement, exaggeration, the vile twisting of some unconcious recognition. Unfortunately – as the surrealists discovered in the mid-fifties – after this movement, there is nothing. The terrain through which you were moving at last swallows up your point of origin, leaving you lost, directionless and perhaps unreachable. After that, films that sought to deal with war could only tell us this one thing: We are lost here.

In the space between form and formulaism lies all of art. Confronted with an accustation of cliché or triteness, the writer’s response is frequently to point to Joseph Campbell and mutter something about the monomyth. This is the narrative equivalent of a three-year-old standing beside a broken window and pointing to the dog, as if to say, he did it. Wittgenstein struggled to find the atomic elements he felt constituted all of language, but I do not think it’s seriously in doubt that there are fundamental features of fiction. In fact, I would go further and say that ‘story’ can be reduced to a basic, finite componentry and remain both meaningful and useful (if a little blurry). This is not the same thing as seeing, tucked into the tailends of testaments to The Hurt Locker's brilliance, adjectives such as ‘sturdy’ or ‘efficient’. This suggests something more mechanical, with joints and pivots we can reveal, if we just pull back a little of the film’s skin. When this is done, what is on display is not a shining, oiled cinematic skeleton, but a fairly typical oblivousness of the inter-workings of the classical mythologic structures.

True to Ecclesiasties, there is nothing new under the sun. It is the essence of this misleadingly nuanced declaration that Campbell takes his bearing from, and unless one is directing a French new-wave film from 1972, there will always be a Change of Circumstances in a story, there will always be a Girl, there will usually be a Coward. These are the ideas that any apprentice should be inculcated with. But still it can be taken too far. We had seen the characters in The Hurt Locker before, but this was literally true in the case of the coward – the actor Brian Geraghty played an identical character in Jarhead, a far more potent film on a more or less identical subject. I hadn’t seen Jarhead recently, so had to check the Wikipedia page to quite believe it. Bigelow co-opted the character in toto. Near the film’s end, he is shot by the cowboy, who is trying to save his life (the coward doesn’t die, he is only injured), and afterwards is evacuated from Iraq, whining and swearing. Over 120 minutes, the character had not altered in the slightest. The stunning arc of the black character, by comparison, moves through five or six near-death set pieces until he realises that having children may be the only way to save himself from a job that will almost certainly kill him. It might have been touching, but there was no movement toward this point. We simply arrived there, making the moment seem like a pirhoutte. Having ticked the ‘revelation’ box, that was the last we saw of him. The cowboy’s disregard culminates in him stepping into the shower in full battle kit, and collapsing. I would have thought that this scene was terminally shop-soiled, but apparently most of America has never seen Macbeth (though surely they must have seen Casino Royale, or The Abyss, or even Moon 44 ...). The cowboy’s anxiety is not investigated, merely inserted. A character in need of an epigram, he finally falls victim to a quote seen at the outset: to the effect that war is a drug. We see him return home after his year in Iraq, play ironically with his son, try to buy some cereal and become utterly lost in the comforting, price-check-isle-three contentment of middleclass America. Cut to the cowboy, back in Iraq, suited up for another round of hurt.

The film’s ending, too, is Jarhead’s. In each a soldier cannot relinquish the warrior, though at least Jake Glynhaal makes it home. The impression in The Hurt Locker is that the tension of wartime Baghdad induces a homeostasis that supports the cowboy – the denoument shows him suited up, walking into a bomb disposal job. The music is jaunty. We are offered in these last few seconds a romantic view of the antihero, condemned to his post, this Sisyphus of conflagrations. It is not much of a message and might as well describe the debauched, bored fashions that produce such films. Though this was not the opinion of Peter Howell in the Toronto Star: ‘Just when you thought the battle for Iraqi war dramas has been fought and lost,’ he wrote, ‘along comes one that demands to be seen ... The Hurt Locker strips the Iraqi conflict of politics and brings it right down to the garbage-strewn pavement, where lives are saved through skill and nerve but lost through bad luck and malevolence.’ The erasure is noticed and applauded, as though the whole conflict were just too complicated and thank god someone focused on real people. Anti-heroism is a natural pose for current American mythology, and this tightened, individualist focus is useful to it – this is no war, just something that’s happening.

Beyond being a painfully ironic phrase, the idea that ‘the battle for Iraqi war dramas’ could have been over before the conflict itself finished is a prominent spike on the graph of oblivion drawn by war films in the last 40 years. The real people on show are, of course, American. Iraqis are kept to the roles of rude mechanicals, and not even Howell seems to have noticed that the ‘battle’ has yet to actually feature an Iraqi perspective. Snipers are silhouttes rather than people. Admitedly, this is how soldiers see the locals. The problem is the presentation – that this is okay, this is bravery, rathery than institutionalised stupidity. We are offered these soldiers as heros, rather than accomplices. Anything else might interfere with the carefully controlled descent of the mythology into ambivalent territory. Thankfully, Bigelow lands squarely in the Green Zone.

As an acknowledgedly tendentious piece of synechdoche, take the title – exactly what a ‘Hurt Locker’ is, or who coined the phrase is never made clear, though by the end of the film one gathers what it must mean, this unascribed colloquialism. It is a neat trick to convey that sense without spelling it in brazen dialogue, but this sort of trick is repeated throughout the film, a camoflauging of lineage: allusion after allusion is drawn together, coiled into a piece of visual rhetoric so tight that it obscures its own origins. The effect, if not the purpose, of this erasure is, predictably, to isolate a situation from its causes. In Bigelow’s case, this is her art – the seamstress, tucking away the edges of stories she has transfused. The Iraq war, in all it’s flamboyant, dull horror, is no longer an extension of an ambiguous American will. We are presented only with confusion; any opportunity we had for unravelling this or moving away from such inertia has been artfully precluded.

If The Hurt Locker never leaves its moral Green Zone, this is perhaps the most realistic thing about it. Edward Said believed that such refusals of context were the essence of occidentalist power playing, and the film’s form certainly speaks to that idea. Critical response focused broadly on its verisimilitude, implicit being the notion that a sufficient description is also a causal one, as it lays clear a variety of relations. But Bigelow is not so thorough. Hers is an incorrigibly partial view, through the eyes of characters whose flimsy derivation leaves them with only one foot in the film. The point is not to seriously investigate the effect of an unvalourous war on its combatants, but to descend far enough to give the antihero somewhere to rise up from. In this sense, one begins to suspect that the film is successful exactly because America is so hungry for myths of redemption right now. A narrative that offered to rehabilitate a nation’s view of itself, while seeming to deal honestly with the conditions that required it, was always going to find a place in the pantheon.

The Hurt Locker's predictablility is anchored to a single fact: God is still American. It is a Hollywod movie that strives to deny its Hollywood pedigree, but like the rest of its ilk, must abide by certain covenants made long ago. This is the rule set the film cleaves to – not traditional myth structure, but the American myth. There is no room for a true anti-hero, someone genuinely unlikeable, or whose downfall we hope for. On the cowboy’s shoulders rests America’s image of itself – brazen, conflicted, but ultimately just. Notions of fate – that most Islamic of forces – are quietly conscripted into the service of a story that has been told and retold since the first wagons rolled West. Something, though it would be extraordinarily difficult to say precisely what, has come full circle. Some story even older than California. God has returned to his old stomping ground, but he has clearly found a new chosen people. For in the final analysis, this is Babylon, familiar and vile. Virtue will always be an intruder here.

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