Monday, 8 March 2010

Why The Hurt Locker Matters

This post will probably be less about The Hurt Locker than it will be about Iraq, and will probably be less about Iraq than it will be about me.

The day after I was born, Israeli jets bombed the (French built) Osirak Nuclear plant in Iraq. I was nine when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, and I can still remember hearing the news on TV AM when military action began the following February. The other class in my year would write letters to British Forces in the Gulf, and got a signed photo of a Tornado in return. Yes, I'm still bitter that our teacher never let my class do that. When that war ended, the nice old woman who lived across the road had her bungalow decked out in Union Jacks to welcome her son home. In time, I devoured the memoirs of that conflict; Bravo Two Zero, The One That Got Away (filmed by Paul Greengrass) and Tornado Down. Of course, the conflict didn't end there; British and American forces continued to patrol the skies over the south and north of Iraq, occasionally bombing sites in the country. People who dismissed Blair as Bush's poodle should note that Blair was bombing Iraq as part Operation Desert Fox while Bush was still a failing and flailing Governor of Texas. The continued presence of American troops on Saudi soil was, of course, a major feature of Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa against the US.

The 2003 Iraq War politicised my generation like no other event. I moved to London last year, and now my MP is the one figure in British political life that did not only oppose the war, but became a cheerleader for the other side. Seven years after the invasion, we're still there, both physically and psychologically (the Chilcot inquiry rumbles on). After their elections, Iraq is on the front pages of the papers today. So for most of my life my country, and the US, has existed in a state of war with either the government of Iraq or some element of the people of Iraq.

And how many good films have been made about this? A few. Off the top of my head, I can think of Three Kings, Jarhead and now The Hurt Locker. Greengrass's Green Zone is out this week, so I will reserve judgement until I've seen that, but that's not a great showing, is it? Three films in near enough twenty years. Too often films that deal with the subject - I'm thinking of In The Valley of Elah - like The Hurt Locker, scripted byMark Boal, and Stop Loss too - do so not only from an American perspective, but one in which the action takes place at home. To paraphrase from a book I read about Vietnam War films years ago, the tragedy of a film like Redacted is not that people were killed, but that Americans debased themselves by killing them. That said, Nick Broomfield's Battle For Haditha was a decent stab at depicting an actual event, but otherwise unremarkable. A film like Avatar beats us about the head with allusions to the conflict - mentions of "shock and awe" "daisy cutters" and "martyrs" are thrown at us in quick succession just before the final battle, just to ram the point home. Other than that, it's slim pickings if you want a decent modern war film.

Television has served the Iraq War better than film - Generation Kill being a notable example, and the BBC have made a good fist of it with Ten Days To War, a series of shorts about the run up to the invasion, and the three parter Occupation, which dealt with the aftermath of the war.

The Hurt Locker
worked because it didn't wear its politics on its sleeve - it just told a thrillingly tense story of a bomb disposal team in Iraq. Kathryn Bigelow said that "wars dirty little secret" is that some men enjoy it. No Michael Moore style hectoring, no self pity because Americans killed or were killed, just a rollickingly good movie. Given that we're only just seeing films that deal with the 1982 Lebanon War now, it may be some time before we see more Iraq War films, but when we do, let's hope they are more like The Hurt Locker than most that came before it.

Friday, 5 March 2010

On My Ignorance, and Subsequent Enlightenment, of Actors and Acting in Film

Although actors are incredibly important to film, for some reason I’ve spent a lot of my life (approximately all up until January 2010) regarding actors second to the text they occupy. As a youth (I had little else to bother myself with), I always believed that the work of the director was undervalued in public discourse, feeling that its focus predominantly lay on what was before the camera – the actors, or in some cases, special effects – whilst neglecting those that operated behind/BEYOND it.

This was, however, before I had any academic schooling in film, where, pleasantly enough for my tortured soul, the situation was reversed. 2nd year Auteur Theory classes would have one believe that all is director; the actors scarcely putty to be moulded in His/Her god-like hands.

Beginning to admire Hitchcock and Bresson, directors who both explicitly state their actors are nothing more that ‘models’, only strengthened my precondition.

There is, of course, star theory and strands of that sort – but it never seems to assess acting as a technical form, as one would attribute to a camera movement, or a particularly provocative graphical edit. They instead, in my ignorantly limited reading, preoccupy themselves with notions of the actor as auteur (in that one can tell immediately this is a ‘James Cagney film’) or in the marketing of a subject’s specific star persona. What is needed is the mechanical deconstruction of performance – to treat the actor as one would obsess over a pan in the wrong direction (see: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange) or an effective use of light.

There is more emotional weight in one moment of falsetto speech than the rest of the The Royal Tenenbaums. Even Anderson’s cartoon world cannot rob it of its rawness. As Gene Hackman sits on the street’s curb, outside an imploded wedding, with his son, Ben Stiller, a little flicker in the latter’s voice sends all the deadpan that precedes it crashing down into a rubble of melancholy and rebirth. “It’s been a tough year, dad” – his voice breaks, in the way a 13 year old boy’s would, at the start. This second, if that, Ben Stiller ceases to be an actor. He is Chad, the oppressed griever of his wife’s premature death. It is a note, as in one on a piano, that is hit so crisply, yet with such tenderness, that it beats Luke Wilson’s stylicide (I tried to merge the words ‘stylised’ and ‘suicide’ into one) as the film’s most humanly invested instance.

In reflection (as opposed to ‘on reflection’), my gushing for drama may be a coping tactic for an upcoming assignment, a quasi-Stockholm syndrome if you will. For the first time ever I will be dealing with actors as a director, and I’m relishing the idea. And just as when one learns a new word, for that word to then crop up everywhere one looks, I have began to come away from films thinking as much about performance as I have about narrative and technique. Previously, I don’t recall it ever entering my mindset, bar those exceptional performances that one can do nothing but talk about.

However, it is a welcome change, and one I feel a tad idiotic and embarrassed for dismissing so readily before. There is a notable example I would briefly like to mention.

The Lovely Bones, a frustrating film (and one I can imagine even more so for readers of the book), does not excel in acting. That is, at least, I think. I’m still a newcomer to this ‘appreciate the acting’ lark, but on an innocent’s experience nothing really impressed me. But for that matter, little of the film did. Yet on sitting through the credits (another new habit I have picked up to the annoyance of some companions) Stanley Tucci’s name scrolled upwards. “Who was Stanley Tucci in that?” I asked impressed. “The killer” came the reply.

I had lost interest in the film when it premiered about 5 years before its general release. Much of my anticipation had been rooted into other ventures (mainly, the live Monday night war between WWE and TNA starting IMMINENTLY), and had left me very lacklustre about even seeing it. When I did get round to seeing it, I had forgotten the film’s premise and actors. Whilst watching I would pick them up here and there. One can hardly miss Mark Whalberg (who I have always been a huge fan of despite my animosity towards thespians, and he is responsible for my favourite moment in the film – an entire character summed up in his neurotic, but charming questioning of whether developing one roll of film a month, as promised, for his daughter was fair or not), and eventually one realises that that is Rachel Weisz; the grandmother is Susan Sarandon; that is girl from Atonement; I neither care about the actors or the characters for the majority of the supporting cast. Apart from…holy shit is that Chris from Sopranos – it totally is. A friend from work still calls him Spider from Goodfellas. And he has completed the Sopranos. I don’t agree with that, but it’s interesting how one can place an emphasis on an actor as always belonging to a certain role. Well, that, I suppose, is star theory…

I digress…

…I always thought, throughout the film, that the killer was played rather fun. In the way that hideous characters can be fun because they are so interesting, not because I find child rape (a theme that is pretty much absent from the film, it rather focusing on the much more acceptable and public-friendly child murder) fun. He was the atypical loner. He trimmed his roses. He has a retro moustache and Denis Taylor glasses. He made model dollhouses and presented himself as an obsessive, or rather, a perfectionist (a trait he shared with Mark Whalberg, whose hobby was boats in glass bottles, but I never quite worked out this parallel). A complex character, yet so steeped in obvious psychological motives that psychoanalysing him became redundant (besides, who does that anymore, it’s soooo 1970s). One was released from these shackles to enjoy his performance, a rather campy villainous type. Indeed, much of my enjoyment came from not knowing who he was, as an actor, and suppose I must have fully bought into his portrayal – preferring instead to focus on the character rather than thinking “Wow, [insert actor’s name here] is having a lot of fun with this character”.

This is why I was so pleasantly surprised that this was in fact Stanley Tucci. A name and face I’m very much acquainted with – making the prospect of me not realising who it was even more absurd. To me, at least.

From this absurdity I obtained a large sense of bemusement and glee. A grin carved on my face like a loon, I walked through the Bexleyheath Cineworld foyer constantly updating my facial expression. From furrowed eyebrows of disbelief to looking up at the ceiling (there was no sky inside) to find an answer. All this time my companion was providing insights into how the film had differed from the book. Usually, as I did not want to see the film in the first place and submitted only because my preferred choice was The Crazies, I would have been gloating “I told you so”. Although I know that if I had developed an attachment to the book and had gone along to see an unfaithful adaptation of it, I would be in the same state of resentment and annoyance. However, the criticism that “it wasn’t nearly as good as the book” has become such a generic thing to say (despite being completely valid and nearly always right), to those with no emotional involvement with the source text it merely becomes white noise. Yet none of this crossed my mind. I just walked and muttered in disbelief, that that was Stanley Tucci, and I had no idea throughout the entire 120 minutes that it was anyone other than a real character. My disbelief had not only been suspended, but hoisted up into the rafters with reinforced adamantium.

It’s simply such a fresh experience. And imagine that was the case for all film. No billing to gloom over the poster and every actor so lost in character that it is impossible to place them in your head - the task becoming pointless and for one to accept them for what they are, people. Not fictional characters, but also not real actors. People.