Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Straight, No Chaser? Those Hurtin' Basterds

I watched The Hurt Locker recently and started thinking about the nature of film and how writers and directors use different approaches to achieve various results.  In this case I was thinking of war movies and specifically the two most recent I have seen, The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds.   I started to think about those cocktail party distinictions between the Documentary-Style war film and the Hollywood war film.  Basically, the Doc-Style film, The Hurt Locker, has a gritty verisimilitude, an uncomfortable relationship with reality that keeps the viewer off-balance while the Hollywood war film, Inglourious Basterds, goes for fantasy and mythos and uses the language of film to achieve something that in the real world does not exist.  These days most war films fall into The Hurt Locker column but for decades most war movies fell squarely into the Inglourious Basterds one.  

Back in the forties and fifties Hollywood made almost as many war films as it made westerns but even when Hollywood was trying to play it in earnest, with films like The Sands of Iwo Jima, they still wore their patriotism on their sleeve and kept the physical horrors of war well hidden from the innocent audience.  There was the occasional film like Battleground to keep the Doc-Style fires burning but for the most part Hollywood went the other way.  By the sixties and seventies, with movies like Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone and Kelly's Heroes, the Hollywod war film became the standard and World War II - the greatest conflict in human history with over fifty million (some stats say 60) casualties, the first use of nuclear weapons on a civilian population and a wholesale and systematic genocide that shocked the world - became a backdrop for the latest action or heist plot.  While there were serious war films, like Battle of the Bulge or the biopic Patton, they still had a glossy technicolor finish that distinguished them from the gritty black and white of Battleground in the years before.  Some films like Tora, Tora, Tora even tried to overtly emulate a documentary style but still came off feeling like an action movie (at least its last 15 minutes), not a presentation on the horrors of war. 

Then by the late seventies Vietnam became a subject for war films and because the actual war had been seen in news footage during the sixties and seventies it seemed wrong to try and gloss it up for a movie version, as John Wayne had done with The Green Berets in 1969.  But somewhere between The Deer Hunter and Platoon, Rambo was born and suddenly Vietnam had the same Hollywood style action pics of old being made with it as a backdrop.  The Missing in Action movies would continue the trend.  It was in the nineties, with Saving Private Ryan in particular, that the gritty Doc-Style war film finally wound its way back to World War II but moreso found its new look with a decision director Steven Spielberg and DP Janusz Kaminski made to desaturate the colors for the film's in-the-field scenes and desaturation has been upon us ever since.  In fact, it has become so prevalent, achieving cliche status years ago, that most studios attempt to use it to repackage the past.  Below is the new DVD cover for Patton as well as the original cover.  The new cover takes the glorious technicolor of Patton and desaturates it in, I suppose, some sort of futile effort to fool the modern viewer into thinking that Patton has the same textures of the modern war films to which they have become accustomed.  That Inglourious Basterds nixed this approach and went back to the classic Hollywood style look seems downright revolutionary considering the now standard Doc-Style approach. 

But which is better?  Or is one better?  Or is it something to be taken on a case by case basis?  Most likely case by case as with most things in life.  I find I enjoy the Hollywood style more although at a younger age I would have certainly gone with the Doc-Style.  I can just see my younger self spouting nonsense about the gritty realism and the verisimilitude and how those older films, while great, didn't really give one the feel of war.  Well, yeah, I guess but cinema is an art form.  I'll never have the feel of war unless I go to war and listening to the stories of soldiers in interviews and seeing the horrific scenes in news photos and videos will bring the experience much closer to me than any movie so I turn to the cinema, as I always do, to give me something else.  I turn to the cinema for unique experiences that fall outside the range of the real.   I love The Bridge on the River Kwai precisely because it doesn't give me story of what it's like to be a prisoner of war under the Japanese, it gives me the story of a mentally unbalanced Colonel unwittingly helping the enemy and a slacker American soldier forced to go stop him.   There are certainly elements of realism throughout but that's not why I go to it.  I go to it for the story and the characters and how the war is used to support that story and those characters.  In many ways, Kwai is the best balance between both styles of war movies, giving us some realism and plenty of fantasy.  And it's here that my thoughts return to The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds because they exist not in between, as Kwai does, but at opposite poles. 

I found The Hurt Locker to be an excellent example of Doc-Style war filmmaking but as Roderick Heath said to me an online conversation, I find it hard to have anything else but technical admiration for it.  It is intense, as they say, with one tension-building suspense scene after another.  The camera is hand held but not too shaky.  The shoot-out in the desert is brilliantly done.  But when they got to the end, and the heavy metal started playing and the lead character was back on duty I found myself profound unaffected on any real cinematic level.  Emotionally it worked as well as it could I suppose, and to it's credit it doesn't waste time trying to insincerely tug at the viewer's heartstrings.  It presents the situation as is (soldiers, death, bombs, diffusing, the end) and leaves it up to you to take or give whatever emotional response feels right.  But cinematically it felt too technically proficient and not artisically reaching enough. 

Should The Hurt Locker win Best Picture I will have no real qualms but given the choice between it and Inglourious Basterds I'll go with the basterds every time.  That movie, brilliantly using cinematic formalism to contrive a post-modern fantasy, felt alive to me and pulsating in every frame.  No shaky cam, no blurred action, no ramping, just steady shots following the characters in dialogue as their actions and words lead us to a fantastical conclusion that redefines both the Hollywood style war film as well as the Revenge Fantasy film, mixing Where Eagles Dare with Death Wish and then presenting the whole thing with the patience and confidence of a director not afraid to observe his characters and scenes until they are ready to exit on their own terms. 

I have several Doc-Style war films that I love but probably many more Hollywood style ones in the final analysis.  The Bridge on the River Kwai, falling in between as it does, will probably always be my favorite as well as many other 'tweeners, like Patton.   I may like the occasional straight up, no chaser serving of the gritty war drama, but in the end I think I prefer to have mine with a twist.