In a vain attempt to calm down the perhaps-schizophrenic character of this blog (Movie reviews! But I like politics! But I like movies more!), I recently did a double feature of films about the First Iraq War. As it turned out, neither film had anything to say about Operation Enduring Quagmire Freedom, but at least I tried. Plus, I got one film further in my exploration of my new Favoritest Director of All Time.

A little while ago on this very blog, there was a bit of a dustup over whether Jarhead was sufficiently moralistic in its treatment of the Gulf War, particularly in terms of whether or not it said enough about the relationship between that conflict and our current Middle East imbroglio. In one corner:
"What we have, then, is a film made during one of the most needless and tragic conflicts in our history about the genesis of that conflict that refuses toacknowledgee that there is anything right or wrong. I'd be much happier with a film that somehow adapted the novel into a pro-war story than with one that so irresponsibly thinks that it is okay to use the Gulf War as a setting for pure entertainment."
And in the other:
"[F]ilms approached as deliberately political tend to wind up more as cheerleading for a particular ideology than meaningful storytelling. If the filmmakers believe the war is wrong (as I think they all did in this case), that's going to come across even if they're trying to keep politics out of it.And so it did, and the film derives its effectiveness from that subtlety."
Now I get to add a third opinion: gee willickers, Roger Deakins sure is a great cinematographer!

I shall expand on that: in order for Jarhead to say something about Operation Enduring Fuckup Freedom, it has to say something about Desert Shield/Storm. And to say something about Desert Storm, it would have to say something about war in general. And to say something about war in general, it would have to have themes. But this is a Sam Mendes film! We'll have none of that "theme" business here, sir! It might get in the way of the fancy camerawork!

Yes, once again, the man behind American Beauty and Road to Perdition has cranked out a work of sublime technique (Deakins behind the camera, Walter Murch in the editing room, and a raft of great performances, on the subject of which when the fuck is Jake Gyllenhaal going to become a movie star?) without even a trace of substance behind it. I'm beginning to think he deliberately looks for bad screenplays, so he doesn't have to worry about dialogue upstaging his marvelous compositions.

Sure, it's disappointing that the film doesn't make more of a stand on the War Against Mid-East Secularists, but I can forgive it; it's the story of soldiers as a class, and uses the 1991 war as a prism for that. Far worse is that I Just! Don't! Give! A! Damn! about Anthony Swofford's 150+ days of waiting in the desert. It tells me nothing about the mind of a Marine. Only that there's apparently a lot of HoYay! in the Corps.

There's one really interesting scene: soon after Swofford completes training, he and a bunch of other Marines gather to watch Apocalypse Now. They get to the "Ride of the Valkyries" helicopter sequence, and start to cheer for the destruction of that village. We all know that Francis Ford Coppola was a pacifist, and that sequence was meant to showcase the grotesque excess of the overblown fantasies enacted by the officers in Vietnam; but to these young men, it's just rousing. Thereby confirming the observation that no film can be anti-war, because on some level any film showing battle makes it look exciting. In this sense, Jarhead is the perfect anti-war film. Because it just makes the whole thing really fucking boring. 6/10


Herzog released Lektionen in Finsternis [Lessons of Darkness] in 1992, so it's not fair to complain that he has nothing to say about Bush II. But even if he had waited 13 years, I still think he might have avoided anything political; because he certainly didn't go out of his way to comment on the first war.

In 1991, as the oil fields burned in Kuwait, most of us (and I was juuuusst old enough to remember) would not have thought of Hieronymous Bosch. That is because most of us are not Herzog, and that is why he is a great filmmaker and no-one reading this blog is. Because the "documentary" (thoughts on that later) he produced is not about the Gulf War, or even war as a fact. It is a documentary of Hell. It shows images of apocalyptic destruction, aggressively (even misleadingly) ripped of context, creating a visual collage whose net result is: Hell. When he focuses on individuals, even interviewing a few, he makes no effort to identify them or why they have come to the pass they are at. They are simply The Tormented.

It is an extraordinary achievement, and one that speaks to the evilness of war far more damningly than I would have deemed possible. But to say that it is anti-war undersells it. War is nothing more than a modality of destruction, but there are others, and this film is focused on the awfulness (both senses) of total annihilation. Herzog compared it to Bosch and Dante. I can't trump that. Like those two artists, he achieves something beyond moralizing or editorials: he taps directly into nightmare.

This is of course because unlike every other filmmaker who set out to create Hell, Herzog had the real thing right in front of him. I was inevitably reminded of the burning scenes in Jarhead, and marveled at how ineffectual that film was at capturing the belching flames and vast plains of smoke that I saw here. There are images that are so unthinkable as to transcend horror and move into a kind of abstract beauty.

And that is where, as so often happens with Herzog, the line between documentary and art and fiction blurs. Because the model for this film is not CNN (though footage from that network appears); and despite Herzog's claim, it's not science fiction in any real sense (the film is framed from the point of view of alien anthropologists come down to Earth). If it has any analogues, they would be Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, or Herzog's own earlier Fata Morgana. Like those two, it uses image and aural counterpoint to suggest theme. But it is, in a way, diametrically opposed. For here, Herzog uses beautiful music from Wagner, Verdi, Mahler, etc. against the images of utter apocalypse. The music doesn't reinforce anything. It begins to make the visuals almost grand in their scope. That's Herzog for you: footage of the depths of hell, and he still manages to trick you into thinking, "that's pretty."