Sunday, July 16, 2006

 

Brother Jarhead?

posted by Corey Reid

It's interesting to compare Sam Mendes' Jarhead, an honestly anti-war war movie, with the Hanks/Spielberg extravaganza of Band of Brothers.

First disclosure: I love Band of Brothers. I can watch it again and again. And do.

Second disclosure: I'm not sure what I think of Jarhead. It doesn't seem to earn much emotion by the end. But maybe that's the point. I DO think about it and what it says, that's for sure.

Okay, getting to the point (but not quite): I called Jarhead an honestly anti-war war movie because it really and truly yanks the rug out on every violence-glorifying trick most war movies rely on. Even movies that are supposed to be cautionary. The scene of the Marines cheering the "Ride of the Valkyries" sequence from Apocalypse Now is chilling and hilarious. It seems as though Mendes is telling artists that they don't get to control how their work is interpreted, and that making something beautiful (no matter the intention behind that beauty) is to glorify it. Coppola may have wanted to make a film castigating the American involvement in Vietnam, but these Marines see only the beauty of mayhem and violence, and they respond to it.

Is Mendes chastising Coppola here? Is he saying that Apocalypse Now is just as guilty of glamorizing violence as the most jingoist propaganda film? That there's no escape from the camera's beautifying gaze? That whatever you put on screen, no matter what you intend, will be glorified just by its presence up there in front of us?

The rest of Jarhead seems to bear out this sort of reading.

But that's not really the point I wanted to make. I just thought it was interesting.

No, I kinda sorta wanted to focus on one little moment from Jarhead. When Swofford first shows up at the training camp, a guy at a desk looks at his papers and asks, "Swofford? What the fuck kind of name is that?"

As Swofford tries to explain, the guy just dismisses him and sends him on his way.

That's it. It's a common enough scene, especially in modern war movies where the absurdity of military life figures prominently.

But in all the ten hours of Band of Brothers, there is no scene like it. The military of Band of Brothers is NOT absurd, NOT impersonal, NOT pointlessly bureaucratic. There are MEMBERS of the military who are incompetent (Peacock), or even destructive (Sobel), but they are aberrations within a system that works, that respects the dignity of individuals and that adapts intelligently to make the best use of its members.

Is this because, in our modern world, the efforts of the Allies in World War Two has become sacrosant? Is it because we can't accept any notion that the soldiers and officers who fought the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army might have been just as short-sighted and petty and self-centered as we like to believe the soldiers and officers who fought the Vietnamese and Iraqis were? Because the Second World War is so central to our national and cultural identities that to accuse those men and women is to accuse the very basis of our own notions of entitlement (we get to be rich because we beat the Nazis)?

Well, that's a lot of questions. Questions I don't really have the answers to (gee, thanks for asking them, then, ya lazy bastid).

It would be ironic if that were the case, though, since the classic modern tale of military bureaucracy, Catch-22 is set in World War Two. But times have changed since 1961, and the canonization of World War Two soldiers has continued apace.

But it's damn hard NOT to canonize these guys. Just watch the interviews with them in Band of Brothers. Listen to Richard Winters' words: "I wasn't a hero. But I served with some."

Damn.

We canonize them because firstly, we can still believe that their war was worth fighting. That what was happening was important enough to kill and die over. And secondly because, well, just look at how they carry themselves. At their strength and their dignity.

Now maybe it's easier to be strong and dignified when you come home victors to a nation that embraces you. And I know there's plenty of strong and dignified veterans of every conflict. I'm nobody to evaluate that. But I also know it's harder to be critical of your successes than of your failures.

Maybe Jarhead's faceless bureaucratic military is a simplification, one especially comforting to those who want to believe that force is never the right answer. Even if it is, I have to salute Mendes' determination to NOT glamourize war or violence. To not even show it.

But I think I salute more the view that Band of Brothers takes -- that yes, there are experiences that even as horrible as they are, provide us with things that no other experience can, and that in itself makes them precious. That we can hate and be fascinated by something at the same time.

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Comments:
Ohhh, good post! Cleverer than usual even. I agree that things put up on screen are thereby glorified, regardless of the director's intent. Infidelity, murder, drug overdoses - everything looks like great fun on screen. I had a friend who wanted to try heroin, so I took him to see Trainspotting, thinking it would convince him it was a mistake. After the movie he was more determined to give it a try, despite the fact that even the characters in the movie really wished they were no longer doing it. Yet he somehow saw their suffering as an endorsement. Huh. I suppose you see what you're looking for.
 
I guess that's the difference between art and instruction. You don't get to tell people HOW to interpret your art, and they'll always, as you say, see what they're looking for.
 

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