Friday, November 11, 2005

War is Dinner Theatre.

2005, USA
Sam Mendes

Like all genres, war films have grown, matured, and in certain cases mutated as cinema history progressed. Originally, movies like All Quiet on the Western Front and La Grande Illusion portrayed war as a pageant of foolish pride, false honor, and needless sacrifice. Hollywood’s interest in the genre brought about a slew of war movies post-WWII, glutting the market with a whole bunch of stupid titles like The Devil’s Brigade and The Wild Geese. And because Hollywood doesn’t like to read, they got rid of all the modifying adjectives in the list above, relegating war films to glorified ads for paintball tournaments. Then Vietnam happened, and audiences quickly discovered that the army was not full of noble soldiers, or brave men willing to die for their country without questions, or rough, gritty warriors whose sense of duty was second only to their sense of honor. Instead, it was a bunch of illiterate rednecks and high school football stars that didn’t get college sports scholarships. War films lost what most critics would call their innocence, but I would call their thick-skulled idiocy. The stupid people moved over to sci-fi, where James Cameron and the host of agents and managers that do all his thinking for him carved out a new niche of fantasy-war films with Alien, where you could stuff all the bravura and machismo you wanted into your murderous heroes, because now they were killing aliens instead of real people or Vietnamese. For a decade or two, the war genre threatened to become interesting, but then the US bullied its way into another useless conflict, and war films were on shaky ground again. The heroics were back but without the dark undertone that allows intelligent people to watch them on anything but an ironic level. Those films that bucked the trend, like Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, did so only by showing us that war was not about drama, or honor, but rather was an incredibly pretty place to sit down and write poetry for three hours.

How much wood would a wood chuck chuck if a MOTHER OF CHRIST MY FUCKING ARM!!!

Jarhead is aware of this progression in a simultaneously intelligent and incredibly annoying way. The film isn’t really about war at all, but not in the way you think. You think, because you’ve read eight hundred other reviews of Jarhead, that I mean it’s not a war film because nobody dies and there’s no action. That’s still, however, a war film, albeit a boring one. But what Jarhead actually is, is a film about war films. It’s about how war is theatre, how it’s nothing more than an elaborate display of sound and fury, bluster, pomp and circumstance that culminates in a massive disappointment, like a burlesque show when the lead dancer doesn’t pop golf-balls out of her vagina as an encore. The fact that the movie is about war movies is made abundantly clear in the numerous scenes of soldiers watching, referencing, and mimicking other war films, as well as the cinematographer’s repeated visual insistence that he’s seen Three Kings. It’s also reflected in the characters’ inflated and specific expectations of what war is actually like. Their experience, however, is nothing like the movies. It’s long, boring and frustrating. Unfortunately, so is Jarhead. It’s one of those films that you know you’d enjoy if you could just stay awake through the second act. So, you over compensate and over-intellectualize because you’re having flashbacks of trying to bullshit your way through a class discussion of Solaris in film school when you can barely read the tag line without falling asleep.

I swear to God, it's like a Russian sleeping pill, only it won't give you cancer.

The performances in Jarhead waffle, however, between effectively conveying the high-tension frustration of the coitus interruptus of the war experience, and coming us a both whiny and homicidal. Lead Jake Gyllenhaal succeeds, playing Anthony Swofford with all the intensity of a guy whose girlfriend just came home halfway through him jacking off to a downloaded rip of Where The Boys Aren’t 14. She didn’t catch him, but she’s not in the mood to finish him off, and she’s going to spend the rest of the night on the computer burning Sex and the City DVDs. Peter Saarsgard, on the other had, is unexpectedly weak in his role. Until now, I’d never been disappointed in his performances, as he conveys either a quiet menace or a barely buried libidinous sexuality in all his roles. This performance, however, has a little of both, which is a little disconcerting. And since both leads don’t wear their shirts very often, I kept expecting Saarsgard to snap and bugger Gyllenhall with a Marine issue combat knife. Instead, that didn’t happen, and all we get is long, contemplative scenes of washed out desert shot like the DP picked the wrong film stock, and plenty of Full Metal Jacket inspired quotes. And if that’s not frustrating, I don’t know what is.

So, let's have it. Best war films?


Blogger Jerk Of All Trades 2.0 said...

YES!! A post for ME, a review for ME!

I liked Hamburger Hill, but then again I thought it was a fast food restaurant employee training film.

9:57 p.m.  
Anonymous Je Suis said...

White Christmas

2:15 a.m.  
Anonymous Rin said...

It's difficult to pick out exactly what a war film is. So many films are set during wars without really being about wars. And then there's future fictional wars. War is just a theme, but there are so many varieties. It's not the same as saying "best prison film" because war films can be presented in a million different ways.

For example: Life is Beautiful. I fucking love this film. It's set in the war. Is about the war. Has some Germans. Has some Jews. Has a concentration camp. Is is a war movie? Not by my definition. But then I never really thought about what my definition was. So, I'll list some and argue about whether they are or not later.

I really like The Killing Fields. A bit too lengthy and a shame about the happy ending, which is never true of war. It still has some totally captivating parts. I love the way it was filmed and Sam Waterston is fucking brilliant.

I like Patton. And it's way way too long for me and length always annoys me without fail. However, George C. Scott literally is Patton. It's an amazing performance. And most of the film is just really really well-made.

The Bridge On The River Kwai. I like a good start to a film. I hate being bored whilst a director tries to introduce everyone and build a film up. This film leaps straight in, and whilst again it FAR TOO LONG, it's still brilliant almost throughout. And despite the confusing finish, the message throughout is pretty strong.

Others I can't be bothered writing about that might count and that I like; Casablanca, Ran, The Colditz Story, Europa Europa, Dr Strangelove, Stalingrad, Breaker Morant.

5:53 a.m.  
Blogger Ash Karreau said...

I hate, hate, hate Life is Beautiful. Concentration camp comedy? Sounds like a great idea, so long as the jokes don't involve falling down a lot and retarded pantomime. Oh, wait. Benigni's in it, so there's really no other option. The guy's like Charlie Chaplin, which sounds great on theory, but we've moved on in the past 50 fucking years, so get some new schtick. I know the movie's more bittersweet than funny, but I cannot cannot cannot abide Benignini in any way shape, or form. Whether that's a personal failing or a fault of the film's I leave to you, the reader, but my opinion will remain unchaged.

The rest of your selections, Rin, I couldn't agree more with.

Jerk - Hamburger Hill is a film I haven't thought of in a while, but it's a good one.

White Christmas? Nothing with Bing Crosby counts as the best of anything, including Bing Crosby films.

Oh, and on a side note, no one is allowed to mention Saving Private Ryan.

2:28 p.m.  
Anonymous Rin said...

I've had arguments about Life is Beautiful before. I won't bother repeating them, since it's pointless. Needless to say, the slapstick humour did bother me and is a negative side to the film. However, I felt it was a nice turn on the concentration camp story and it was more human than say Schindler's List because it didn't try to be too dramatic and end up overbearing. I totally understand why you would hate it though and it definitely wasn't the comedy aspect that appealed to me.

5:04 p.m.  
Blogger Ash Karreau said...

Well, Schindler's List is fairly awful, so I'll agree with you there.

I was going to say that my favorite war movie is Barry Lyndon, to try and be contrary, but I think it might be something fairly banal, like maybe Full Metal Jacket.

12:17 a.m.  
Blogger DeFilmGuy said...

Best character representation in a war movie, Fuckin Platoon. Take it from me, I've actually met people like that in the Army.

Best war sequences in a war movie, Saving Private Ryan. Sorry Ash but its the damn true. It may be a bunch of spectacle, but its still the biggest fucking spectacle I've ever seen in a war movie.

Best strategic battle in a war movie, We Were Soldiers. I can't really recall a war movie that cuts back and forth between the two commanders trying to out smart eachother.

The most badass war movie though is Black Hawk Down and that's the fucking truth.

1:08 a.m.  
Anonymous B.De Palma said...

Duh, the best war movie ever made is Casualties of War. And anybody that disagrees with me is a god-damned idiot.

5:28 p.m.  
Blogger Gaijin Girl said...

Ash, I'm a long-time reader, first-time commenter. I am in awe of your style my friend ... speechless in fact.

'Gallipoli' may not be the best war film of all time, but it is certainly my favourite. (And I'm not just saying that coz I'm Australian.) For me it sums up perfectly the insanity and absolute pointlessness of most wars, and the buffoon's who orchestrate them.

9:03 p.m.  
Anonymous E. Zundel said...

Ash, I totally agree with you about Life Is Beautiful. This movie is terrible. Is a good concentration camp comedy too much to ask for? I mean, Shindler's List is funny, but it's not "ha-ha" funny.

11:06 p.m.  
Blogger Ash Karreau said...

Defilmguy - it's not the spectacle I have a problem with. It's the horrible, horrible acting and unbearably cheesy moments. "Earn this... Earn this..."

Uh, Mr. De Palma, please don't bring Michael J. Fox into this discussion. I liked Femme Fatale by the way, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

Dee - Thanks a lot for the compliment. Gallipoli is, indeed a great film.

Mr. "Zundel", I see through your sham. Everyone knows that, were you to be the real noted Neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, you would have called the film "Swindler's List".

11:37 p.m.  
Anonymous broadzilla said...

In no particular order: The Guns of Navarone, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Gallipoli, Bridge on the River Kwai, Das Boot.

Not necessarily classics, but I do have a soft spot for the Maltese Falcon - if mostly for Clint Eastwood's ludicrous bouffant and because all the Germans speak English - and The Dogs of War, for its touching but misguided belief that a slightly effeminate American with couple of hired guns is all it takes to bring down an Evil African Dictator.... who is probably being financed by the CIA anyway.

3:38 a.m.  
Blogger Jerk Of All Trades 2.0 said...

I like Zulu and Memphis Belle, do those count as War movies, or do they have to be land based, northern hemisphere stuff?

10:02 a.m.  
Anonymous broadzilla said...

Sweet lord, I might have my citizenship revoked for forgetting about Zulu. Jerk - thanks for reminding me.

10:51 a.m.  
Blogger gretchkal said...

ok, i'm a total lame-o but i love kelly's heroes. and stripes? that movies cracks me up ... although is that technically a war movie?

11:22 a.m.  
Blogger David Wester said...

In Soviet Union, Solaris falls asleep during you!

Apocalypse Now and Dr. Strangelove for me.

12:08 p.m.  
Blogger Ash Karreau said...

You know, I'm not the biggest fan of Dr. Strangelove. The satire is a little overplayed, and though Sellers is great, I don't really connect with the picture.

Broadzilla - I'm assuming you mean Where Eagles Dare instead of Maltese Falcon? Or did something get mixed up when the title got translated into whatever click-tongued language you speak in South Africa?

Jerk - They all count. Memphis Belle scarred me as a child. I think it was Harry Conick Jr, in particular that did it.

Gretchkal - Stripes is certainly not lame. Kelly's Heroes, on the other hand... Let's just say that you're breaking even.

I tend to break my war films up by the war they take place during. I'm trying to decide between Jarhead and Three Kings for the Gulf war, currently.

6:58 p.m.  
Anonymous broadzilla said...

Oops, apologies - it is Where Eagles Dare, of course. (Insert witty 'bird-brain' rejoinder here. Bonus points if it's in one of our 11 official languages.)

2:31 a.m.  
Blogger gretchkal said...

thought of another of my favorite war films: m.a.s.h. maybe this will save me some of the shame i feel for actually liking kelly's heroes.

3:48 p.m.  
Anonymous THE SNEERING (war-mongering) POPINJAY said...


2:41 p.m.  

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