Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Lethal Addiction of Battle

26 – 28 December 2009

So where does an army orphan go in 2009? Well, it’s not as if there isn’t a war zone somewhere where s/he might be deployed. We have at least two – Afghanistan (which itself comprises a multiplicity of war zones) and Iraq – ever deadly, its dangers exponentiated by its illegitimacy, notwithstanding a gradually receding American ‘footprint’; to say nothing of Pakistan, easily conflated with Afghanistan’s border and mountain regions, as well as more covert operations inYemen, Somalia, and – who knows where else? A pity that this latest generation of orphans is as culturally orphaned as it is economically – although this is both overstating and understating the conditions of their ‘orphanage’ on a certain level. It’s not as if the senior officer ranks are any more culturally equipped to deal with the full range of exigencies and repercussions of armed conflict in these regions; though a ‘blind leading the blind’ staffing situation is not exactly ideal in what is very treacherous terrain. But on another level, how different is the state of their cultural ‘orphanage’, or simply alienation, from what is encountered pretty much across the board and even across class lines – especially given the state of public education – throughout America? Fortunately, this generation has grown up with current technologies within their grasp practically from the cradle. That’s one advantage – how much it’s hard to say. But also a whole range of entertainment media and forms have evolved right alongside the technology. How significant were video games and digital interactive media 20 or 30 years ago? Now, the release of a new digitally animated interactive game is a cultural event – albeit one some of us are only rarely (ironically) afforded opportunities to sample. In a sense, this generation has been prepped for a certain type of high-tech warfare before they’ve been out of children’s clothes much less contemplated donning combat fatigues.

All the more reason for this generation of orphans to opt into a military which offers to continue their technical/technological schooling and take it a level of professional competence that might be the difference between life and death. (Talk about being schooled within an inch of one’s life!) Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker offers a glimpse into one such class of ‘orphans’ – an emerging elite of “specialists” caught between the educated officers and rank-and-file recruits – in what must be one of the best, if not the best film on contemporary warfare, made to date. In its principal characters, it also gives us complex and fully dimensional portraits of three such ‘orphans’ – their social and cultural profiles, their psychology (and their professionalism) – on a par with anything available in cinema from the days of Lewis Milestone forward. What is brilliant about writer Mark Boal’s and Bigelow’s portrait of the senior specialist sergeant William James (I have to wonder if the name is a bit of a joke – a play on that godfather of American pragmatism, so many worlds apart from the contemporary world of these soldiers) – and to some extent the other two principals – is the extent to which they capture the extreme social alienation and psychological isolation embodied in his military renegade-wildcard-‘cowboy’ character. He half-saunters, half-swaggers his way through this devastated, dessicated landscape with an extreme, monomaniacal focus (which on a certain level doesn’t seem too far removed from the mindset of a championship game player), and a professional pride that is probably not so far removed from the pride of a professional like the hapless army psychiatrist, Col. Cambridge; with just enough of his core humanity in the game to connect him with his surroundings – the real consequences for communities and stark suffering of their inhabitants. We also get, by contrast, the depth (or surface – one in the same here) of his cultural alienation in ‘the homeland’. (You can also see how difficult it was to play this contrast here (and I suppose, write it into the script) in what is otherwise a truly superb performance by Jeremy Renner.)

The film opens with a very well chosen quote (like a flyleaf note on a book’s first page) from Chris Hedges, whose exceptional journalism out of Egypt and the Middle East, and many many war zones was (for me anyway) for many years one of the highlights of the front page international news coverage in The New York Times and elsewhere, and who understands some basic truths about armed conflict and the personalities engaged in it on various levels better than most. “The rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The movie plays out with the same ‘grace note’ – with a clearly gung-ho Sgt. James (Renner) redeployed to Iraq with yet another army company. This is simply an amazing film that is not to be missed.

There have been many other fine films this Oscar nomination season (The Hurt Locker was actually released much earlier this year – though this was the first time I saw it.); and I may have a few notes about a few of them when I return to this space.

There is also some news – a warning note – out of LACMA, which may raise a few alarms; but that will wait for the moment, too. Suffice it to say for the moment that it may make for a certain painful contrast of its own with LACMA’s rather aggressive (at least in public media outlets) advertising.