Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, March 07, 2010

I got a home in that 'Raq (Hallelujah): THE HURT LOCKER

Similar to the possible future prison showdown between Manson and Polanski, it will be interesting tonight to see whether the Oscars go Cameron or his ex, Kathryn Bigelow.  Now I'll confess up front, I haven't seen AVATAR. I just can't work up any enthusiasm for it, but THE HURT LOCKER (2009) gives us a remake of something I do have enthusiasm for - the tough guy "group" movie of Howard Hawks, where brave lads face death daily without flinching or preaching or engaging in expository dialogue.

William James (Jeremy Renner) stars as a fearless bomb diffuser, and his fearlessness makes him a warrior out of his own time, like Patton in World War Two. His nonchalant courage would be right at home in Patton's third army, storming through occupied France or repelling wave after wave of Japanese banzai charges on Okinawa. But Iraq is a different beast-- more like an occupation force, ala the British in India or the British in Palestine, or the Israelis in Palestine, or the French in Algeria. In short, the bad guys, or at least we're compelled to realize how thin the line is between colonialism and the best intentions of queens and walruses. But while his comrades worry and wait, James goes right for the fuses, as focused and relentless as Mel Gibson in a world of Glovers.

While none of this is made didactic in the film, a soldier's anxiety about being killed is seen as more of a detriment than an asset to a soldier's sanity and skill development. I've never even been close to a war zone (aside from 9/11) but I've seen a lot of war documentaries, and I can tell you: those marines and GIs? They were badasses. In Bataan or Iwo Jima or Okinawa, the marines would lose 40,000 men on a single island and bend but not break. In that light, our Staff Sgt. William James would fit right in. But this Iraq war he finds himself in is so screwed up that soldiers can get all whiny about losing only a handful of men, say a dozen--in a bombing, as if it's not fair that wars should involve killing and maiming. It's like why Patton was so tough on his men - give them dirt to eat every day and eventually they get stomachs like iron, they can't even taste cake. Let them eat cake every day and they all whine like babies when it's time to eat even a spoonful of good old dirt.

Man, we have a saying in AA: If you go to a barbershop, sooner or later you come out with a haircut. Or the shock of realizing you have cancer after a lifetime of smoking... mmmm, but so worth it, you thought... at the time, or do you worry so much about staying alive you lose all joy of living? The most vehement "playing it safe" proponent, Sgt. Sanborne (Anthony Mackie) freaks out constantly as James tries to focus on his bombs, yet later Sanborne admits he's got nothing to live for... it's just fear for the sake of fear, a true indication of how consumerism has warped our concept of tribal loyalty.

Kathryn Bigelow winning might mean more stylized semi-deconstructed violence in cinema than ever before, which would be awesome. Bigelow's unflinching feminine eye for what war is shows how much damage the male psyche--man's need to prove himself against real physical danger--has suffered over the years trying to be "nice" in the long twisted, never-ending, ever-more draconian and litigious wake of early 80s PC thuggery and "bare life" fearmongering. No pain, no gain, goes the slogan --but while women are born into a cycle of menstruation and the agony of birth,  what do men get to do? No wonder they've grown anti-dirt. But our James here has passed this by; he's materialized from a breed of men that seem unfazed by the dubious comforts of peacetime (as brilliantly portrayed in a simple shot of James powerless in the face of a gigantic supermarket cereal aisle).

The key to living the charge of THE HURT LOCKER is to embrace the chaos and the way all the Arab faces in the street vibe possible suspects one second and merely local citizens checking things out from their windows the next, possibly on cell phones, possibly with guns... oh wait, a paint roller. Firefights take place sometimes miles away (the sort of thing a movie like BODY OF LIES tried to achieve while also adhering to outmoded rules of dramatic cohesion and liberal equality) and the natural leadership of our James makes you realize that what The Dog Whisperer says is so: the leader is the one who is most relaxed under fire. Renner strides boldly forward where Leos fear to tread. Hurt Locker, I'll be praying for you to win... Thanks Renner for looking a lot like my gun nut brother Fred and helping me understand him more, and to see that shrapnel-burn can look a lot like acne and have that be okay, to have a square nose like Reid, the World's Toughest Milkman and have that be okay, and to have a clean shaven guy show up all these wispy characters floating around the ABC sitcom promos with their exquisitely disheveled casual wear and perfectly mussed 11-o-clock shadow.

I am imagining Kathryn Bigelow (above) as the Evelyn Mulray to Howard Hawks' Noah Cross and I mean that in the best possible way because I revere Hawks uber alles and this would be perhaps a non-incestuous version, one with more fishing and hunting and target practice. I'm sure Hawks would have called HURT LOCKER "a damn good picture" and Bigelow "a damnned good-looking girl."

Dear Kathryn, let Oscar be the wings that lift you into the A-list auteur roster next to Paul Thomas Anderson and John Ford and make us all re-evaluate STRANGE DAYS or at the very least, struggle to fathom your age-defying hotness. Praise the Lord and pass the hollow point BLUE STEEL ammunition.


  1. "I am imagining Kathryn Bigelow (above) as the Evelyn Mulray to Howard Hawks' Noah Cross..."

    I followed you up to here. Do you mean Huston's Noah Cross, or is there some weird tangential connection between Cross and Hawks I am missing? I do agree with you that there's a lineage between Hawks and Bigelow though, and that Bigelow has bigger balls than 99% of the guys.

  2. Haha, thanks Doniphon. I guess I was just doing some weird metatextual dot connecting:

    a) Kathryn Bigelow reminds me a lot of the character played by Faye Dunaway in EYES OF LAURA MARS, a beautiful model-style woman with a gift for imagery and a fascination with violence that makes her more of a guy than most guys.

    b) Hawks and John Huston are a lot alike as maverick iconoclast genius film directors--friends in real life--hunters, macho, etc.

    c) Chinatown - Huston and Dunaway...

    Too much?

  3. Great post. It was nice to Bigelow win. She's gorgeous isn't she? Um, not that it matters...(Alec Baldwin seemed to think it did.) And of course the whole Cameron angle adds a nice juicy twist to it (on top of the fact that their war films seem diametrically opposed in terms of point of view and general stylistic attitude, not to mention technique; all of Hurt Locker's effects were in-camera...)

    I don't know if Hawks would have liked The Hurt Locker but I'm positive if he'd did, he'd speak those golden words you wrote above...

  4. 'Avatar' as a three hour remake of 'Pocahontas' affords it a gravitas it doesn't deserve. Try a three-hour remake of 'Ferngully'.

    So glad Kathryn Bigelow cleaned up on the night.

  5. Sounds fair to me. My only reservation is that I think Noah Cross and John Huston are (intentionally) pretty inseparable. Huston was, by all accounts, an incredibly likeable ne'er-do-well (he was a good friend of my grandfather's), but Polanski gives Cross that same charm, highlighting how easy it is for the people we love to do really horrible things. I remember watching an interview once with one of the Hustons (I think it was Anjelica, but I'm not sure), and she was saying how she loved him in Chinatown, how he was just acting like himself, which I think reinforces this point. But that by no means negates your points. Great work, as usual.

  6. thanks Doniphon, that's cool about your grandfather. The Noah Cross thing is complicated and I'm sure Huston relished the chance to be such a complex and menacing figure, larger than life and odious in ways unfathomable to the common man. AFter all, who knows what corpses are buried in Hollywood. Picture making can be as ruthless and soul-deadening endeavor as any water rights theft.

    Thanks Neil, you just talked me out of seeing Avatar, like, ever. And it might have been a magic carpet ride to imaginationland.

    Movieman, god bless you as always. The choice of Bigelow over Cameron was a shout out to all the bad filmmakers out there that their days are numbered, and that all the CGI and liberal guilt tactics in Hollywood can't beat genuine insight and artistry.

  7. I love this write-up. SO glad the right film (and woman!) won.


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