Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Shooting A Blank: Army of Shadows and Letters from Iwo Jima

Cross-posted at newcritics

I used to love war movies. In part, because they were so darned…reliable.

Serve up a viewing of Bridge Over The River Kwai or The Dirty Dozen, and you could rely on a heapin’ helping of gunfire with the bare minimum of chit-chat. You could rely on knowing – I mean really knowing, as only fellow warriors can know – your racially-mixed band of brothers. And yes, even sniffing away an unacknowledged tear once payment came due on their ultimate sacrifice. You could rely on the fact that – no matter how many times you’d seen the movie before – your heart would race with the fear for your guys. All at once, you’d find yourself wondering if, in fact, the war had not turned out the way you’d thought it had.

Would Jim Brown still take it “all the way” before that final grenade blew up? Would Steve McQueen finally jump his bike clear of that barbed wire fence?

But above all, you could always rely on the fact that – even though the good guys sometimes lost the battle, or even died a nasty death – their sacrifice always brought an end to the insanity and chaos of war. And that meant the return to a benign world in which an 11-year-old could sit watching war movies instead of working in the fields as a Nazi slave, or even doing his homework.

Even when the post-Vietnam crop of anti-war, war movies came along, the rules of the game didn’t really change. If the soldiers’ world in Catch 22 or Platoon was immoral or absurd, it was the absurdity of the war itself, or the foolishness of the commanders, that made it so. Even more nuanced films (or those 2,500-year-old Greek plays) – hinting that the real chaos resided in the human soul – saw war as the catalyst, the releasing agent for passions otherwise held in check.

As I say, I used to love war movies. But, then, I don’t know much about war.

Perhaps that’s why I found watching Army of Shadows and Letters from Iwo Jima such a queasy experience – both in different ways but, I think, for the same reason. They left me with a feeling I can only describe as existential – the sense that behind the horror and chaos and inhumanity of war lay…the real horror and chaos and inhumanity. War isn’t just hell, in other words. It’s even worse…it’s a total blank.

Together with much praise, Clint Eastwood has also enjoyed a fair amount of criticism for his even-handed treatment of a purely Japanese perspective in Letters From Iwo Jima. In the course of the savage battle, in which 7,000 Americans and 22,000 Japanese died, Eastwood is careful to show – in Letters and in the earlier, American-focused half of his diptych, Flags of Our Fathers – instances both of courage and atrocity on the part of both armies.

This, to some critics, made him guilty of a creeping relativism – there were savageries on each side, the reasoning goes, but there was a good deal more of it on one side than on the other. Fair enough, I suppose. But I’m not sure that was Eastwood’s point.

Why, after all, would a filmmaker go to such lengths to make two different movies built around the same event? Because “war is evil, since we’re all just the same underneath the skin?” As a warning about the toxicity of jingoism and wartime propaganda? Maybe. He would have topical reasons aplenty for that approach, heaven knows.

But I don’t think that’s it. Rather, I think Eastwood wants us to experience the same feeling of nausea…of bottomless horror at the brute fact of mortality, no matter which characters are doing the dying. He wants us to feel like we’re all the same under the skin, all right. But he does it by letting us watch as the defeated Japanese soldiers transform themselves through ritual suicide – not into warrior Shinto spirits – but into bloody, truncated flaps of meat.

No glory in victory, suggests Flags. No glory in defeat, whispers Letters. Half of me wonders whether these really qualify as war movies, at all. On the one hand, of course, the action is all about war. But in another sense, the war is just a convenient place from which to look out at the abyss.

Army of Shadows is another oddity of the genre. Released just in the wake of the anti-Gaullist events of May, 1968, Jean-Pierre Melville’s story of the wartime Resistance is told in the somber voice of a still-numb survivor. Its exquisitely neutral slate-blue and gray images are like those of an often-repeated, little-welcome dream, both familiar and repellent at the same time.

Like Eastwood’s films, Army of Shadows is simultaneously about the war…and not about the war. Although the film fairly seethes with Nazis, for instance, we never see them in an act of violence onscreen. Conversely, we’re treated to a positively excruciating scene in which the men of the Resistance execute – literally by hand – a captured informer.

Again in Melville’s film, as in the Iwo Jima diptych, there is no glory in victory or defeat. In fact, there’s no glory at all. There’s comradeship. There’s duty. There’s certainly courage. There’s pity and fear…but without tragedy.

In fact, the film’s most transcendent moment is one that’s told – but unseen. During an earlier imprisonment, the movie’s protagonist, Phillipe Gerbier (Lino Ventura) is, together with his fellow prisoners, herded into a cavernous tunnel, at one end of which is a machine gun manned by German soldiers.

Told by the camp’s commandant to run for his life, Gerbier, aware of the futility, at first refuses. Seconds later, prodded by the Nazi’s pistol, he finally runs and is somewhat too-miraculously saved by his waiting comrades. Yet he soon regrets his decision to run. Perhaps he feels it was a craven cowardice, perhaps a betrayal of a central truth to his existence. The truth that in order to survive, he and the others must accept the fact that they are already long dead.

Later, in the epilogue, we learn that Gerbier, put before the German machine gun a second time, is true to himself and at last, refuses to run. This – in the still-grim winter of 1944 – is as close to a victory as Gerbier will ever get.

Indeed, Gerbier’s truth is at the heart of all three films. The single, unforgettable image for me is that of the burrowed Japanese soldiers, peering out from what will soon be their freshly dug graves into the flat, blinding sunlight of a world that no longer seems their own. They are, in fact, already dead, peering out from their tombs if only to see how the story ends.

Ahoy, y'all

I'll admit to having gone a teeny-weeny bit obsessive on this America's Cup thing. Risking the scorn of the masses (not to mention the nickname "Skip"), I've spent literally dozens of otherwise useful hours over the past few months watching sailboats hurtle across the Mediterranean at breakneck speeds of 9 mph or more.

I do this, not because I love the America's Cup itself -- it's an appallingly overdetermined regatta, promoted with an appeal to crude nationalism, raced in boats that would collapse like a soggy ice cream cone in 25 knots of wind -- but rather because of the attention it attracts. No other sailing event boasts -- or will ever boast -- full scale cable television coverage (ecce Versus), with all the helicopters, computer animation and logo-ed polo shirts that normally entails.

But express your enthusiasm to anyone -- even family members -- and they will look at you as if you'd just heaved a sigh for the days of the Raj...or that you liked nothing better on a Sunday afternoon than a good, old-fashioned game of capture-the-wog. And then come the questions...

Do you know how many millions they waste on those boats? Wouldn't the money be better spent on a good cause?

Excuse me, but have you added up the Redskins' payroll recently? Yes, they do spend a ridiculous amount of money on boats, sails, gear and crew, but I'll wager that it's only marginally more than Dan Snyder's skybox bar bill.

How can you get excited about which bunch of rich guys beat the other bunch of rich guys?

You're thinking back in the days of Ted Turner. Sailing is a 100% professional sport now. And -- leaving aside the syndicate owners and the stars like Dickson, Baird, Spithill and Coutts -- not a well-paid one, at that. Every member of the top crews -- from the sewer man to the grinders -- is an Olympic class sailor in his own right. The AC offers them a 4-year sailing job, so they don't have to go back to selling hardware at their local West Marine.

What could possibly be more boring than watching them race round and round in circles?

Hello...have you ever watched NASCAR?

Actually, round-the-buoys racing -- particularly when the boats are competitive, as they are this year -- is a kick to watch on TV. Check out the next starting sequence, in which two 25-ton boats will come roaring at each other, head on, in what's essentially a game of chicken played without brakes. Watch the ballet of a crew faking a gybe to make their opponent hesitate for just a second...just long enough to steal an inside position at the next mark.

And just in case you're interested, it's tied 2-2 (Go Kiwis!), and you can check it out for yourself here.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Horror

I’ve got a bit of a cat problem.

I’m not talking about an “I’m-an-old-lady-with-50-cats-living-in-the-wallboard” kind of problem. Unfortunately, my cat problem rests firmly on the slinky shoulders of a lone tabby named Yoko.

Yoko came to us, her unsuspecting family, three years ago, one of a West Virginia barn litter, irresistible as such furry little kittens tend to be.

From the beginning, though, we noticed something a little…different about her. Not content to playfully gambol with her ball of yarn and toy mouse as other kittens might, our Yoko – all 8 inches of her – treated them more in the manner of Achilles dragging Hector’s bloody remains ‘round the walls of Ilium. In short, she had a genius for murder.

Sad to say, as then went the kitten, so now goes the cat.

It being summer, and good hunting, she’s now out all night, stalking the fescue, crouching in surprise for what little-knowing fauna comes her way. And, oh my, what a feast of fauna comes her way...

So far this season, our front doormat has been transformed into the final resting place for: 3 adult mice, 1 baby mouse; approximately 5 vole-like creatures; 2 baby robins (separate days); one extremely large crow; an unidentifiable rodent, as well as numerous, well-camouflaged bits of gore and organ meat.

Put it this way – we do not venture forth, without wearing our shoes. In fact, my current nightmare involves walking out the door to pick up the paper and finding a small poodle or even an unwary toddler blocking my way.

All this would be fine, were it not for Yoko’s territorial ambitions. Our mere quarter-acre of savannah not offering quite enough prey, she’s recently gotten in the habit of raiding robin’s nests in our neighbors’ yards. Inevitably, she winds up mauling a baby bird in full view of said neighbor’s once-innocent, now-crying four-year-old daughter. You can well imagine the darkened looks that are passing across property lines.

But the final straw snapped one morning earlier this week, when, leaving the house, I was delighted to discover that Yoko had outdone herself, strewing a debris-field which included both a vole and a bird, as well as an ineffable, kidney-like thing.

Picking up the flat garden shovel I keep handy for this purpose (less stomach-churning damage to the corpse), I scooped up the dead and set off down the block toward the storm drain I use as the all-purpose crypt for Yoko’s victims.

At precisely this moment, out of a neighboring home steps a young mom and her two small children, off to run chores or pick daisies in a world that simply does not include what will all-too-shortly be the vision of grim, violent death resting on my garden shovel.

To change course was impossible. I thought for a moment of lifting the shovel high over my head so neither the children nor the adult would see what it was carrying, but I was more afraid of having the little bodies roll off the blade and drop, crushed and broken, directly in the toddlers’ path.

So I just kept going, smiling politely, just as though I were carrying a tray of deviled eggs. I will not attempt to describe the shadow that passed across my neighbor’s face as she glanced at my grim cargo. I will only say that, as they hurried on behind me, I heard one of the toddlers ask, “Mommy, was that birdie sleeping?” I’m sure that Mom was thanking me ardently in her heart for serving up an existential crisis for her pre-schooler.

A bell simply isn’t enough for this cat. Does anyone make an “air-horn collar?” Or where could I find that face-cage thing that Hannibal Lector wore in Silence of the Lambs?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.

The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.

The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.

Weird...I was just thinking that.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Now, what are we to make of this?

This photo has been stuck in my head since I came upon it in last Sunday's New York Times. In it, gun-enthusiast and Cat-Scratch Febriac Ted Nugent treats journalist Jim Zumbo to a wheel on his ax -- a popular semi-automatic weapon known, misleadingly in this case, as a "Black Rifle."

Tempting though it may be to wonder once again, in the aftermath of Virginia Tech, about America's Collective Sanity, this post has nothing whatsoever to do with our hallowed and harrowing Second Amendment rights. It is rather to marvel at the design sense still possessed by the erstwhile Minister of Wango-Tango. In short, what's with the neon pink, tiger-striped cannon? I can appreciate a "Free For All" as much as the next wacko...but pink stripes? What do you call that...Vegas camouflage?

Perhaps it's simply the latest indication that -- with age -- The Great Gonzo is at last at peace. No longer, when in close combat with a grouse or illegal immigrant, does he need to broadcast his own masculinity. And if he's okay with that...I jolly well guess I am too.

Not everyone, after all, can have the biggest almonds on the nut farm...