05 June 2012

Seeing War

I was futzing around trying to create a video essay showing links between Cornel Wilde's 1967 war movie Beach Red and Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line, not really getting anywhere, when I watched Kevin B. Lee's video essay "War Movies for People Who Don't Like War Movies". Most of the video offers his take on two films, Marwencol and La France (films well deserving more attention), but as someone who has seen a lot of war movies, and who would put a few on any list of top movies of all time, I struggled with the opening of his essay, even though he quotes my beloved Francois Truffaut:
There’s no such thing as a truly anti-war film, Francois Truffaut once said. By depicting the adventure and thrill of combat, war movies can’t help but glorify their subject, fueling fantasies of spectacular, heroic violence. It’s a case where the sensational beauty of cinema works against our humanist impulses rather than for them.
I'm not sure that categorizing war films into either a pro-war or anti-war box is the most helpful view of them, but the question of the spectacle of war in the spectacle of cinema is certainly worth thinking about. Lee says he's a "not a fan of war movies as a general matter of principle", but his set-up doesn't do anything to distinguish the violence of war movies from the violence of westerns or crime films or whatever — what makes the subject of war more likely to inescapably "glorify their subject, fueling fantasies of spectacular, heroic violence"? By that logic, Lee must not be a fan of any violent movies. That's a nice principle, and I might believe it from somebody who didn't much like movies in general, but Lee clearly likes movies. (Perhaps the problem is really the word "fan".)

It seems to me that while yes, we can point to specific techniques that glorify war and embody fantasies of glorious violence, we can't necessarily predict how those techniques will affect all audiences. For instance, I loathe Saving Private Ryan. Every frame of it. Yet I also realize my loathing is pretty personal, and that plenty of people have found that film, particularly its first 25 minutes, a deeply powerful conduit toward understanding some of the horrors of war. Alternately, being a Malickoholic, I love The Thin Red Line, but I'm not entirely unsympathetic to criticisms that it aestheticizes war in a way that is not so much glorifying as it is perhaps trivializing or fetishizing or something. (I don't agree, obviously, but I do think it's necessary to think through the beauty of the film's images.)

So anyway, with all that in mind, as well as a recent re-viewing of one of the most affecting and disturbing war movies I know, Come and See, I broadened the scope of my Beach Red / Thin Red Line essay and turned it into an essay on war movies and spectacle:

3 comments:

  1. Have you ever read any Lee Sandlin? This particular essay seemed suddenly appropriate.

    http://leesandlin.com/articles/LosingTheWar.htm

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  2. A beautiful essay -- I had not encountered it before. Thanks, Brian.

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  3. No problem, and glad you liked it! Also, on your recommendation, I went out and got Come and See. (We have a really good local video store.) Whoa.

    Though this reminds me: Have I recommended Bloodlands to you yet? History book by Timothy Snyder. Unbelievably good.

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