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Sunday, March 14, 2010
The Lie That Tells The Truth
(Photo courtesy of Flying Pig Brewing Company, Everett, WA.)
Despite the swarm of buzzing helicopters Sunday afternoon, I more-or-less forgot about the Oscars until the show was two hours old. With a load of laundry to wash and a sink full of dirty dishes, I had more pressing matters. Once the chores were done, I tuned in but was instantly bored to death, and flipped the channel to something else until 8:00 p.m. Then -- all out of viable options -- I settle in to endure the final hour as “The Hurt Locker” collected most of the gold.
That was fine by me, since “Hurt Locker” was the only nominated film I’ve yet had a chance to see.
Not that anybody asked, but a few impressions from that last hour stuck to the inside of my skull like the remains of last night's burrito splattered all over the microwave glass.
Sean Penn is a wonderful actor on the big screen, but he comes across as a complete moron on television. During his brief appearance Sunday night, he was typically incoherent – I had no idea what he was mumbling about -- but at least he didn’t punch anybody in the face or publicly call for his many critics to get cancer and die in screaming pain. That's progress, I suppose.
Barbara Streisand seemed to float right out of “Sunset Boulevard” – unsteady and glassy-eyed, she was out of touch, out of steam, and way out of her time. Do yourself (and the rest of us) a favor, Barbara; go back to Malibu and stay there.
Although some people seemed put off by Sandra Bullock’s acceptance speech, I thought hers was the best of the lot during that final hour. I’ve been a fan of Jeff Bridges since “The Last Picture Show,” but his acceptance “speech” was embarrassing -- The Dude did not abide. Still, it was great to see him win an Oscar at long last. Although I was afraid poor Katherine Bigelow might pass out from hyperventilation while repeatedly praising all men and women in uniform throughout the universe (everyone but meter maids, near as I could tell), I was glad to see her win.
One hour of the Oscars was more than enough. It baffles me that people can sit through four hours of this stuff, but to each his/her own.
Something else bothered me a lot more than the Oscars themselves. Leading up to Sunday’s show, the media gave endless press to a few Iraq war vets loudly complaining that the “The Hurt Locker” did not provide an accurate portrayal of the war or the delicate art of bomb disposal. Even the PBS Newshour got into the act, pairing a Washington Post film critic with an Iraq war vet (head of an organization called the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) who was very unhappy with the film. The LA Times added fuel to the fire with a piece that gave voice to yet another group of irate veterans, describing the efforts of a few Hollywood professionals to train and equip these vets in the art of film-making so they can tell their own stories as they see fit.
I have enormous respect for those who serve our country in the military, and have done (in many cases) multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Too many haven’t come home, and of those who do, many more have suffered irreparable damage that will blight the rest of their lives. A frighteningly large percentage of those who emerge physically unscathed have suffered terrible psychological damage that can have devastating long-term consequences. The extent of their sacrifice cannot be overstated, and I totally understand how those who have endured the searing horrors of war would be put off by Hollywood movies that inevitably get things wrong, or don’t ring true to their own personal experience. If the resulting anger motivates them to make their own films and set the record straight, more power to them.
I can understand why they’re pissed – they suffered (and continue to suffer) in ways we civilians can’t really comprehend, and resent seeing their experience warped by Hollywood’s relentlessly commercial lens in presenting something on screen that does not reflect their war. Truth be told, I had my own problems with “The Hurt Locker” -- after a tense opening scene that had at least one major flaw, the film went into overdrive with three extended scenes that made very little sense even to someone with no military background. In most movies, such gaping holes in real-world logic would be enough to turn both my thumbs down, but there was enough good about “Hurt Locker” – a riveting tension that had me on the edge of my seat, and a need to see what happened to those three central characters – to pave over the potholes. I don’t consider “Hurt Locker” a great film, but for me, its virtues far outweighed the sins.
Were I a veteran of the war, maybe that wouldn’t be enough – perhaps I too would be angry that this movie did not echo my own personal experience. As one vet was quoted in the LA Times: “I’m so mad that there has been such critical response for ‘The Hurt Locker,’” said Kyle Hartnett, a Los Angeles-based Army veteran who studied film production at San Francisco State University after serving in Afghanistan. “It’s so inaccurate.”
For the benefit of Mr. Hartnett (who apparently didn't learn much at SF State) and all the other vets who’ve been carping about this movie: “The Hurt Locker” is a feature film, not a documentary. Documentaries strive to tell a relative truth* about a given subject, while feature films (even those based on fact) are fiction through-and-through -- and as with all good fiction, a well made feature spins a lie that tells a greater truth. The critical acclaim showered on "Hurt Locker" acknowledged the movie's acting, camera work, editing, sound, direction, and overall production -- the totality of the film. That's how the system works. This movie was not meant to be an educational film demonstrating the proper method of bomb disposal in a combat zone, but rather a drama about a solider who has become so addicted to the "drug of war" -- a purpose-driven adrenal rush that gives his otherwise unremarkable life a heightened level of intensity and meaning -- that he's been ruined for anything else. It's a very old story wrapped up in the trappings of a brand new war. So long as the drama is presented in an acceptably believable manner (which it was -- just barely -- to this admittedly ignorant civilian) the actual nit-picking minutiae of military tactics are beside the point.
Look at the forest, gentlemen, not the trees.
Could the movie have been made as well had the production strictly adhered to the hard facts of war zone reality? We'll never know, and it really doesn't matter. This is the movie the producers and crew managed to make under very difficult circumstances -- and for all its problems, “The Hurt Locker” is a pretty good film. Given that the budget was a hair over eleven million dollars -– probably less than the craft service budget of “Avatar” -- it’s actually something of a miracle.
I don’t mean to sound unsympathetic to these vets. If some misguided producer/director was foolish enough to make a movie about the life of three juicers on a film set, I too would probably be up and yelling at the screen over the resulting (and inevitable) glaring technical inaccuracies. Good drama doesn't let the facts get in the way of telling a story, which is why experts in any field are bound to be frustrated at how their world is portrayed in a feature film. For that reason alone, soldiers would do well to avoid war films, cops should forgo police dramas, and doctors might be happier if they ignored movies centered around their chosen profession. All feature films are fiction, and fiction is the art of telling lies. Anyone who goes to a movie expecting to see the literal truth up on screen might as well dream that pigs could fly.
Even very good "true” stories usually require serious manipulation – the application of poetic license -- to create a dramatically satisfying arc that forms the spine of every good movie. War stories are among the most highly contrived of all, as they depict human behavior in the most subjective, extreme, and horrific of circumstances. I've never seen a movie about World Wars One and Two that showed combat the way it really was, nor did the majority of the Vietnam era war films.** Most of the Gulf and Iraq war movies have been ignored by the viewing public until "Hurt Locker," and even it hasn't exactly set the box office on fire. The dramatic focus of most war movies is on the people involved -- their reactions and what happens to them as events unfold. The actual military tactics and historical record form the background against which the real drama plays out.
Those vets profiled in the LA Times will learn this first-hand if and when they try to put their own stories on film. It's not so easy to make a good movie -- you don't just turn on a camera and start telling the "truth." Still, I really hope they get that chance. The Industry is always in need of fresh voices bringing a real-world perspective to movies and television. As our world changes, so do our modes of storytelling, and perhaps some of these vets will form the vanguard of another cinematic new wave in Hollywood's future.
* Just as all writing is a form of lying, so is all film-making. Generalizing about documentaries is a dicey business, since they cover such a very wide spectrum, from the unblinking eye of the Maysles Brothers or Frederick Wiseman, to the slash-and-burn polemics of Michael Moore. Still, it’s safe to say that many (if not most) documentaries come with the baggage of an ingrained point of view that tends to exclude, minimize, or discredit opposing perspectives.
** Full Metal Jacket may have provided a reasonably accurate rendition of the Vietnam experience, but although individual scenes of that film were absolutely brilliant, they didn’t add up to a coherent cinematic experience – not to me, anyway. I thought Platoon was much better, but not having personally experienced Vietnam, can't say how accurate the film was.