' Cinema Romantico: Countdown to the Oscars: The Bigelow Backlash Has Commenced

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Countdown to the Oscars: The Bigelow Backlash Has Commenced

(Warning: Spoilers involving "The Hurt Locker" ahead.)

Pardon the self-referentialism but on this blog on July 13, 2009 in relation to Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" I wrote the following: "...at one point (two of the main characters) find themselves in a mentally and physically exhausting standoff with some enemy snipers in the middle of nowhere which is what nearly led to my fleeing of the theater. It is among the most grueling war movie passages I have ever witnessed. Many critics and filmmakers will tell you that even anti-war movies can be considered recruitment films and while there is definitely a percentage of the population that would view some of the more testosterone-fueled portions (Baghdad's version of Fight Club, for instance) in that manner I can only speak for myself and these moments of James and Sanborn in the dirt just trying to hang on re-confirmed for me what I already knew - I'd last about 4 seconds in Iraq."

Later in the same review I wrote: "Late in the film when Sgt. James sends he and his two men hurtling into the darkness against everyone's better judgement for reasons he never makes specifically clear it transforms into one of those transcendent moments that becomes more than just what it's about. You feel helpless, wanting to scream, 'What the hell are they doing?' It's a good question in more ways than one."

It seems that Martha P. Nochimson had a mildly different view of the same film when considering her scatching diatribe on Salon about "The Hurt Locker's" director entitled "Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist pioneer or tough guy in drag?" Rest assured, she answers her own question.

I encourage you to read the entire piece since merely listing quotes from it - like pegging Bigelow as the "Tranvestite Of Directors", meant to suggest that she "masquerades as a hyper-macho bad boy to win the respect of a male-dominated industry" - can't summarize its entire point but a solid part of Ms. Nochimson's focus seems to be on "The Hurt Locker's" supposed pro-war overtones. "OK, I see you objecting back there in the last row," she writes. "Is it because Bigelow and (screenwriter Mark) Boal seem to think they have made an antiwar film, as they made clear when they accepted their BAFTAs (the British Academy Awards)?"

She continues: "Our field of vision is so completely limited to (main character Sgt. 1st Class Will James') expertise in defusing bombs and dealing with invisible enemies that our capacity to think about the larger context of the American presence in Iraq is replaced by nuance-free instincts more characteristic of the tea party movement."

How does one make an "anti-war" film? Must there be a scene in which a main character openly laments: "My, this war is foolish and without reason?" Do we need to see politicans on the homefront debating its merit? Do we need to see vociferous anti-war protestors?

Or do we need to see a movie that presents a main character - say a Sgt. 1st Class whose specialty is defusing bombs - and follow that main character through thick and thin, all the way down the line, by utilizing a screenplay which bases its narrative almost entirely on the escalating decisions made by this character and his cohorts and that allows these decisions to provide the context?

I say the latter. If you say the latter, too, then, hey, that's "The Hurt Locker". A movie's effectiveness is primarily related to how it tells its story, no? On that count "The Hurt Locker" scores.

I do not dispute Nochimson's assessment regarding the "machismo" of the James character. Not for a second. What I find interesting is her take on one of the passages I alluded to in my own review. She writes in relation to a subplot involving a young boy whom James befriends: "Will gets one of his fellow American soldiers badly shot up trying to avenge what he thinks is the boy's horrible death -- before he discovers that the Iraqi boy is alive. D'oh, he has misidentified the corpse. And he joyously embraces the living child ... No, he doesn't. He renders himself superhuman by cutting himself off from the kid because -- see? -- this is where caring gets you. And this is why he prefers 'just one thing' to his family!" Somehow in Nochimson's eyes all this renders the James character as a "majestically manly man." A majestically manly man?

I viewed these passages differently. James deliberately taking his men into harm's way for a most unwise reason which is what led to me writing, "You feel helpless, wanting to scream, 'What the hell are they doing?'" His actions speak to the bigger picture without SPEAKING(!!!!!) to them. The final sequences are truly terrifying as James returns from his homestead to the war zone, apparently the only place where he feels right, where he feels alive, a place from which he is unable to (ahem) extract himself.

One of my favorite movie-related stories has long been Spike Lee telling of the time he saw John Singleton's "Boyz 'n the Hood" in the theater. He spoke of seeing people openly applaud and cheer at the climax when the Ice Cube character shoots and kills the three men who earlier had gunned down his brother. Lee bemoaned the fact that these people were missing the point of the movie and wrote that, sure, you could subsitute the scene of Ice Cube's retaliation for a scene of someone preaching, obviously, that "guns are bad" but then Singleton would not have made the best movie he could have made. To betray the character to forcefeed the message is wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

The character of Sgt. 1st Class Will James is filled with machismo and he speaks to the quote that opens the film - "War is a drug" - and it is through these characteristics that "The Hurt Locker's" message of anti-war is shaped. It seems Nochimson is less concerned with a well-told, thrilling story populated by characters true to themselves than the theme of anti-war being dropped like a mammoth anvil on top of the audience's head.

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