Monthly archives of “June 2007

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Jarhead, Sam Mendes (2005)

scr-6The Gulf War. A group of Marines dig in for the night in a desert lit up orange with burning oil wells. Somebody starts playing The Doors, and Jake Gyllenhaal says, “That’s Vietnam music. Can’t we get our own fucking music?” Understandable frustration. These boys have grown up on Apocalypse Now and Platoon, and here they are in their war, out for glory, and all they get to do is tramp around in the 130 degree heat while the Air Force vaporizes every Iraqi man, woman, child, and camel for hundreds of miles in every direction, plus some U.S. troops too, by accident. Don’t they deserve to have their own fucking movie, too?

Of course they do. And this isn’t a bad one. Not as interesting as Three Kings, but a worthy addition to a scanty roster. Vietnam veterans suffered terribly because their war was so unpopular at home; these veterans suffer because while their war may have been brutally traumatic for them, it registered on the national consciousness as a painless and instantaneous victory. Mendes captures these kids’ frustrations very well. On the one hand, they’re eager for glory, on the other, they’ve completely absorbed the cynicism of the post-Vietnam era, and don’t quite believe that glory still exists.

Mendes sometimes overreaches in his efforts to add to the canon of seminal war movie scenes. In the eerily lit desert Gyllenhaal comes across an oil-covered horse with no rider, which is supposed to feel symbolic and resonant, I suppose, sort of like the dancing plastic bag in Mendes’s American Beauty. But the horse, like the bag, is a little overcooked for my taste.

But many scenes work pretty well, frequently thanks to Gyllenhaal, who I found surprisingly strong here. Near the end of the movie, the squad, having learned that the war has ended without their having had a chance to kill anyone, start firing their guns into the air, Gaza-style. It looks like a celebration, but it reminded me of the sad scene earlier, when Gyllenhaal tries to masturbate to a picture of his girlfriend and can’t perform.

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Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Shane Black (2005)

Like Altman’s perverse update of Raymond Chandler in his The Long Goodbye, this movie pays homage to the hardboiled detective flick by messing with its conventions and referencing the high points of its canon. Unlike The Long Goodbye, Kiss Kiss can’t decide, finally, whether it means to be a spoofy pastiche of the genre or a contribution to it. This ambivalence creates a mildly interesting sense of vertigo as the director constantly climbs to meta altitude and then suddenly dives to plot level. That’s about it. Oh, except there’s an incredibly persistent and apparently gratuitous stream of gay jokes. I didn’t really get why that was.

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Waitress, Adrienne Shelly (2007)

We all know it, but sometimes we forget: critics lie. This movie is not tart or bittersweet. It is a vat of treacle. But I guess there was really no way of knowing that in advance. You know how it goes. You read the reviews of a new “indie” movie and they praise the quirky characters and poignant discoveries, and off you trot to the theater, because sometimes movies of this ilk turn out to be genuinely, amazingly beautiful and affecting (fer example You Can Count on Me, or You and Me and Everyone We Know, or the surprisingly and delightfully weird Nurse Betty. But far, far, far, far and, yes, far more often, they’re half-assed swamps of saccharine and incoherence like this one, filled with forced charm and, in this case at least, really strange mixed messages. Waitress courageously dares to suggest that a young woman doesn’t need to have a man in order to be fulfilled as a human being–ooh! how controversial!–but on the other hand strongly suggests that having a baby pretty much guarantees that a young woman will be fulfilled as a human being.

Someone should come up with a index of warning signs for movies like these. If it’s set in the deep South or in a suburban housing development, that’s one danger point. If any of its scenes are shot in a diner, that’s two points. If anyone in the movie drives a self-consciously nerdy car, wears cat-eye glasses, works as a clerk in a record or bookstore but lives in a great apartment: point, point, point. You get the point.

UPDATE. A week later I’m still thinking about how annoying this movie was. The woman is literally beaten by her awful husband in front of all her friends and co-workers, and everyone just dismisses it by ruefully saying that she has had the bad fortune of marrying a mean husband. Then she gets pregnant by this man, makes vociferously clear that she doesn’t want his baby, but never does she or any of her friends or co-workers entertain the idea of abortion for more than a second. Also, it occurred to me out of the blue, this movie is supposedly set somewhere in the rural South, but there are no black people. I mean, not only are there no black characters, I can’t even remember seeing a black person on the screen.

An extraordinarily strange and evil movie.

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Torture and Truth: America, Abu Ghraib, and the War on Terror, Mark Danner (2004)

This volume collects five essays Danner wrote for the New York Review of Books in 2003 and 2004: two from the period before the Abu Ghraib abuses came to light and three specifically addressing that scandal and the events that precipitated it. The rest of the book contains some of the famous photos from Abu Ghraib, as well as a collection of the Department of Defense and Department of Justice memos that paved the way to torture of detainees and military and congressional reports issued in the wake of the scandal.

There are better ways to access the primary documents Danner includes; the Greenberg-Dratel book provides a far more comprehensive set of documentation, and the Salon.com exhibit of the abuse photographs is more complete and better annotated.

Danner’s measured but passionate essays still earn this book a place on the short shelf of books that serve to clarify the ways in which we have failed and are failing in Iraq. The basic message is horribly simple. We did not treat the Iraqis like fellow human beings when we arrived, and we are not doing so now. Instead we have treated them and are treating them like recalcitrant factors in a complex equation which, in our ignorance and impatience, we have tried to solve with force and intimidation instead of subtlety and good faith.

This is a good companion to Hersh’s book that I read last week. Hersh is good at the politics part: who OK’d what and who said what to who, that sort of thing. Danner’s more of a political philosopher, asking more “why” and “how” questions than who, what, when, and where.

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My Life as a Fake, Peter Carey (2003)

A pleasant enough novel which takes the story of the Ern Malley hoax and spins out its logical, however impossible, consequence: the fictitious poet brought to “life” by the hoaxers actually comes to Life. This of course opens up lots of room for asking puckish questions about authors, authority, authorship, etc., and it’s fun enough to watch Carey ask them. But the real joy here is the rare and weird thrill of seeing “poetry” occupy the position of the object of desire. The novel’s macguffin is a set of poems that the narrator, an editor of a literary magazine, is desperate to publish but can’t get her hands on. Imagine! All these characters running around getting all exercised not about the jewels of Topkapi or an atomic bomb concealed in an umbrella or a chance to sleep with Kate Hudson but about poetry! “It slashed and stabbed its way across the page, at once familiar and alien . . . my heart was beating very fast indeed.” As is mine, as is mine! Carey has the great good sense not to show us the poem itself in this early scene where the cynical editor swoons over the lines she’s shown; any actual verbiage would be an anticlimax. Which in fact leads to a pet theory of mine. I know certain segments of the culture are in love with the idea of poetry, the way it slashes and stabs its way across the page and all that, but honestly: is there really any need for the stuff itself? Seems to me that if the poets were to moon about their garrets with rapturous looks on their faces for a few hours each day (or week, or semester), and those who fancy themselves poetry lovers could just peek in at the poets from time to time (perhaps by webcam?) to verify that indeed exquisite torments of soul were taking place, everyone would be a winner: the poets wouldn’t have to go to the bother of actually producing poems, the lovers wouldn’t have to pretend to enjoy reading them, but everyone could still feel that something beautiful and ineffable was taking place. Everyone wins! And think of the savings in paper and ink!

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Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib, Seymour M. Hersh (2004)

A blazing illumination on so many subjects, but the main one that keeps coming back to me is that all of this Administration’s many missteps seem to derive from a common source: a desperate lust to force narrative coherence upon events which are essentially incoherent. Why try to pin a death sentence on Moussaoui and thus ensure a failed trial, even though he’s obviously a nutjob who couldn’t blow up a balloon, rather than using him as a way to gather intelligence? Why allow torture and illegal extradition of detainees even though it costs the country credibility and results in lousy intelligence, rather than sticking to the moral high ground and using what all the experts say are more effective techniques of persuasion? Why leave the Afghanistan in dangerous disarray in order to marshal forces for a far less necessary and far more complicated invasion of Iraq, rather than doing the doable and necessary job correctly in Afghanistan? The answer to each of these questions is, I think, the same: because that’s what would happen if the situation were to arise in a movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. All of the Administration’s decisions seem designed not to move toward long-term strategic goals, but to engineer spectacular appearances of narrative catharsis: the criminal executed, the keepers of secrets forced to talk, the arrogant dictator humbled. It hardly matters that the criminal has never been linked by evidence to the crime, that some of the alleged terrorists at Guantanamo are 80 year olds in the throes of dementia and teenagers in the throes of, well, I suppose terror, or that the dictator in fact had clay feet and no nuclear or biological weapons. It would almost be pathetic if it weren’t so disgusting, this blind hunger for narrativity fueling our country’s foreign policy.

Notice that I’m using “the Administration” rather than “the President.” An interesting thing about Hersh’s book. The President hardly comes up at all. Hersh doesn’t comment on this, but the implication’s pretty clear. The people running the country during the post-9/11 period were the Vice President and the civilian leadership at the Department of Defense. Not the diplomats at State or the intelligence community or the military or the elected legislators, but seven or eight political appointees with a very clear and unified agenda and an utter disregard for reality. It was basically a coup, executed by a handful of wonks with a collective case of magical thinking. A revenge of the nerds.

I found Hersh particularly helpful in explaining the Kafkan legal statuses of detainees in Guantanamo Bay, secret CIA prisons, and third-party prisons. The prisoners who’ve been denied due process and habeas corpus and/or have been detained illegally or been subjected to torture following extraordinary rendition to third party countries and/or are being secretly held by the CIA are in a legal limbo with no possible egress. They can’t be released, because they’ve been declared enemy combatants and, in theory, are dangerous. They can’t be brought to trial before a legitimate court, because the evidence against them either doesn’t exist or has been collected in a manner that would outrage the conscience of any court. And they can’t continue to be detained without charge, because the Supreme Court overturned in 2006 the President’s 2002 determination that enemy combatants are not entitled to habeas corpus. These are impossible people. First they’re put through hell, and now they have no logical/legal means of existence.

In general, Hersh is great at explaining what happened and how, but I’m stuck on some very important “why” questions. Even if you approach the question of interrogation, say, from a completely stone-hearted perspective, it is well understood by trained interrogators that identification and relationship-building is the only way to get good intelligence, and that interrogations under torture, or even severe duress, yield lousy intelligence. This is one of those rare and happy situations where the moral and the expedient coincide, and yet the Cheney/Rumsfeld cabal deliberately chose the path of inhuman treatment and, as a direct result, bad intelligence. Why? The only answer I can think of, other than the thoughts about narrative pleasure above, is revenge. That the President, in declaring the Geneva Conventions inapplicable in the “war on terror,” wasn’t motivated by a pressing need to gather intelligence. If that had been the motive, he would have let loose the trained interrogators of the FBI, not the untrained soldiers with the baseball bats. He was motivated by good-old straight-up eye-for-an-eye revenge. He wanted to say to Al Qaeda, you have brought indiscriminate wanton terror to me, and now I am going to bring the same to you. Not as a means to gathering intelligence about you, but as an end: to terrify you as you’ve terrified me. If that’s true, then we’re in serious trouble, because it means we haven’t learned anything since 9-11, and that we’re not going to.

A crucial book to understanding America’s evolving role in the Middle East.