Wednesday, April 14, 2010

War Movies

I meant to write about these closer to when I saw them, so my recollections of details would be fresh, but I got intimidated by the task and put it off. So we'll see how this turns out.

I did some reading from The Films of the Eighties by William Palmer. There's a chapter in there about Vietnam War films which was very interesting. He divides them into three categories: the "Epic Phase" (Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter), the "Comic Book Phase" (Rambo, M.I.A. series), and the "Symbolic Nihilistic Phase," which includes the films I want to talk about- Platoon, Casualties of War, Hamburger Hill, and Full Metal Jacket. Instead of trying to craft some kind of eloquent treatise of organized thoughts about it, I decided to make a list of observations I made over the course of my experience with these films. In addition, I watched Hurt Locker a couple of weeks ago, and Brothers a bit further back and there were some connections I made to the Vietnam War films, which I'll include as well.

-The films I saw (including Hurt Locker and Brothers) seemed to fall imperfectly into a couple of distinct categories: plot-driven and episodic. Platoon, Casualties of War, and Brothers seem to fall into the former category, while FMJ, Hamburger Hill, and Hurt Locker fall more into the latter.

-Palmer mentioned that Platoon was criticized for being a "morality" play of sorts because of its (melo)dramatic plot. I was interested to note that CofW seemed to be very melodramatic as well. The soundtrack was curiously epic for a film with such a cynical view of human nature. Brandon, you complained about Brothers for its melodrama, but it doesn't seem so extreme when you put it next to CofW. I suspect that these kinds of war films might be theatrical on purpose. I mean, was is so hellish on its own- it's not like you need to add anything to increase the drama, right? I couldn't find out whether or not Brothers was based on a true story- apparently it stays pretty close to the Danish original, which I haven't seen. CofW is based on a newspaper article about an incident that was similar to what happened in the film. So whether or not Brothers was believable itself, that kind of crazy stuff does happen in wars, uncommon though it may be. So, adding another layer of tragedy upon the tragedy that is war itself seems to create an almost abstract reality that may lend itself more to reflection than the films that are more episodic in nature.

-Regarding the episodic films, they impacted me more (in the moment and long term), but (to perhaps illustrate my earlier point) left me more confused as to how to process them. I was left with more emotion rather than thought. The chaotic nature of the films- of war itself- may be more true to the every day reality of war, but are less useful perhaps from an analytical standpoint. What do you think about that?

-Hamburger Hill was a little different from FMJ and Hurt Locker in that it was very linear, almost objective in its telling. It very beautifully balances itself as simultaneously pro-soldier and anti-war, and was similar to Hurt Locker in that way. Pretty much all the rest came across very clearly as anti-war. Not that soldiers are disregarded, but their roles serve the anti-war message more so than not.

-Hurt Locker's vignettes recalled FMJ, and seems to me to be a very effective (perhaps the most effective?) way to tell a grey war story (as opposed to the more black-and-white WW2 films, though I'll admit that I have probably not seen enough WW2 films to make an educated observation). If there's no meaning to a war in itself, we can find meaning in stories about the people who are a part of the war. I'm thinking of Jarhead right now and wondering how it fits in with all this. I saw it too long ago to make any intelligent observations. If I recall correctly, it, too, is episodic in nature, though certainly less obviously violent than any of the examples I've mentioned so far. But as I remember, it focuses very particularly on its main character's (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) story and perceptions.

-FMJ and Platoon are similar in that they incorporate both melodrama and chaos, though the former separates them into two acts and the latter weaves them together. Because of how effectively they combine these elements, I'd probably cite Platoon and FMJ as the best "symbolic nihilistic" war films made to this point. I don't think we're removed enough from Afghanistan and Iraq for anyone to make films like these. Despite Hurt Locker's excellence, it's still subtly propagandic in nature and knowingly plays to both sides of the debate over our involvement over there. Contemporary war films have learned a lot since Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, but their pantylines are still showing.

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