Friday, June 18, 2010

Questions of Value: THE HURT LOCKER and Critical Misreading

The question of value is one of the most difficult of questions that we have to face in matters of culture. It is most difficult precisely because it is burdened by the vagaries of individual temperament, constitution and character and also it is shrouded in the relativistic view that cultural value is little but a transparent window into the ideologies and makeup of the society and individuals who are entertained by this or that work of art. This theory of relativism takes some kind of immediate reception as constituting the meaning of a work and holds that works don't have intrinsic value apart from the peculiar and particular subjectivities of those who made a work and those who consume it. This is almost an utility based model of culture.

Yet, nevertheless, works that authors create - whether those authors are collective ones of script dramatists and costume designers and art directors that play partial roles in the end result, or single painters at their canvas - have things inside of them or about them and still other things which are not a part of them. Thus it follows that there are better and worse ways of looking at what the theory minded among us call texts.

I will illustrate this principle using a case of a poor reading of a popular movie, a movie that was indeed so popular as to win the Oscar for best film this year. I mean, of course, THE HURT LOCKER. By looking briefly at just a few comments by a critic more suited to political advocacy, anti-war journalism than she is suited for basic aesthetic understanding or indeed even her own cherished political and ideological ways of approaching a text. Thus she gets both the politics and aesthetics wrong, and it is as if she did not see the movie in front of her but rather some other movie that she imagined due to her emotional responses and to her beliefs about how movies with war as their content should proceed.

As a result she can be said to have misread The Hurt Locker. The critic is Tara McKelvey and she wrote of the film in The American Prospect. I don't mean to pick on McKelvey in particular but the fact that a major political journalist has failed to comprehend a rather traditional narrative feature by issuing in elements that are in fact not present in the film and that the critic failed to see the purpose and intent of the film shows how deeply our culture of arts and letters has failed in some basic understanding of some of the ways works of art make meaning and in generally create their effects.

THE HURT LOCKER is not a masterpiece. It may, as veterans point out, have historical innacuracies. (But it is also extremely faithful and accurate in other respects). It is organized around some traditional tropes concerning suspense, perennial interest in and delight with the energies of male warriors, and an almost voyeuristic curiosity with charismatic males who "get the job done". Part of this is in keeping with director Bigelow's ouevre in general as she has always been interested in male bravado and technology as being inherently exciting and interesting. (The LOVELESS, BLUE STEEL, POINT BREAK, STRANGE DAYS for example).

But these features in no way implicitly make the film guilty of the charges McKelvey brings against it, when she claims it is an advertisement for the US military. To put it bluntly, the film in no way endorses the Iraq war in particular nor any war in general. That is not really the film's subject. Rather, like many good works of art, the film picks up where such political evaluations of a thumbs-up and thumbs-down variety LEAVE OFF.

From beginning to end THE HURT LOCKER, like TIm O'Brien in fiction, and perhaps Peckinpaw in cinema, and even the structuralist avant-garde (the latter in which Bigelow was involved before she started making large budget studio films), is part of a long and noble tradition in which the author attempts to give us an EXPERIENCE of something rather than to exactly tell us what to conclude about it. This emphasis on EXPERIENTIAL style throughout THE HURT LOCKER - through the editing of its sequences, the tight and intense focus on the soldiers, the use of immersive camera techniques, and above all the emphasis on opposed and opposing character types who argue their differences through word and action - has always been misunderstood in different periods and in works that operate in this manner. Because the emphasis is on immersive experience rather than discursive moral teaching, such works always fail to satisfy a certain political Left as much as they fail to satisfy certain conventional expectations about psychological character.

Indeed the charismatic, daredevil lead is utterly mysterious and inaccessible. We admire his bravery but we also sense he is a borderline sociopath. He may be sexy and yet represent that which most frightens our sense of morality. This denseness and opacity of him - he is a man of action is a way for Bigelow to make our belief in easy psychology one of the questions she raises in the film.

But make no mistake about this film: in no way can it be considered pro war or an advertisement for the military as McKelvey saw it. This is a film that wants us to reflect and ask questions, yet it does so through perceptual relations. What makes it truly different than the commercial so-called "anti-war" cinema like Platoon or other middlebrow work, is that it makes us ask those questions by its very action. The "action" of the film is a way to get us to disable our normal moral evaluations. (Whereas in the other kind of war films the action is a way to do precisely the opposite to freeze us into a final decision about war). That is, the film neither heroizes and glamorizes its figures nor does it condemn them. It shows us a process, even to the point where, when a soldier is shown back in the civilian world it is all too clear how traumatized he is by his experience and how ill suited he is for his normal life (crucially, in keeping with pairing of family and domestic versus military and public, in the supermarket sequence).

Now a more propogandistic filmmaker like Oliver Sone would try to make a point about war in a most obvious and childlike fashion. Not once does Bigelow indulge in this. The fact that Bigelow conspicuously and conscientiously avoids the simplistic and reductionistic and does so chiefly through STYLE, through a mode of artistic presentation, is reason enough to recommend the film. I wonder if, in the end, McKelvey would be more comfortable with Oliver Stone's approach to "history".

But as is usually the case, many of our journalists don't know or care how or why art works the way that it does and merely evaluate the work based on preconceived and ideological checklists. Luckily, however, given the reception of the film there is a hunger in people for serious works of art that address "topical" subjects without being "bogged down" by the topic alone.


  1. I wanted to start simply by saying that I enjoy your blog and its many insightful and interesting posts.

    I am commenting on the above post with the hope of better understanding where you're coming from because I'm someone who viewed THE HURT LOCKER in much the same way Tara McKelvey did. Since I have a hard time talking about things like this (aesthetics, taste, value) in detail, I'm basically going to throw a whole bunch of stuff against the wall and see if any of it sticks. (Pardon the length!) I'm curious to hear your response (if you feel like it and have the time, of course). Your point of view is something I agree with, ie, that works of art have intrinsic value and our personal biases should be overcome in order to better understand and appreciate works of art. I even think that a worthy goal in life is to continue to refine our personal taste to the point where it matches more and more closely with what is "good". But I've always had trouble with the part about what exactly it is that gives art value. Many people agree with the idea that works of art should be approached objectively and not subjectively, yet these very people seem to be unable to agree on the quality of various works of art. THE HURT LOCKER will be used simply as a template to approach the larger discussion of value.

    * * *

    To being with, I don't see how you can unequivocally say that the film can "in no way be considered pro war or an advertisement for the military." A case can be made for this very easily. From Jonathan Rosenbaum's MOVIE WARS:

    "I'll never forget the experience I had escorting the late Samuel Fuller, the much-decorated World War II hero and maverick filmmaker, to a multiplex screening of Full Metal Jacket, along with fellow critic Bill Krohn, in Santa Barbara 13 years ago. Though Fuller courteously stayed with us to the end, he declared afterward that as far as he was concerned, it was another goddamn recruiting film — that teenage boys who went to see Kubrick’s picture with their girlfriends would come out thinking that wartime combat was neat. Krohn and I were both somewhat flabbergasted by his response at the time, but in hindsight I think his point was irrefutable. There are still legitimate reasons for defending Full Metal Jacket, in my opinion -- as a radical statement about what conditioning does to intelligence and personality, as a meditation on what the denial of femininity does to masculine definitions of civilization, as a deeply disturbing experiment in sprung and unsprung narrative, and no doubt as other things as well. But as a piece of propaganda against warfare, it remains specious and dubious, providing one more link in an endless chain of generic macho self-deceptions on the subject. And for all its technical flair, it might be argued that the principal achievement of Saving Private Ryan is to extend that sort of self deception into the nineties."

    [my comment is too long so I'll have to break it up]

  2. Sam Fuller thought that pretty much all war films were "recruiting films", and I think there is a lot of truth to that. Our culture is obsessed with spectacle, so naturally anything made into an entertaining, suspenseful thrill-ride will be appealing (even glamorous) on some level. Ran Prieur, commenting on why we watch films like THE ROAD WARRIOR for entertainment, said: "That's how bad our own world is -- that we fantasize about a world with war, hunger, and no trees, just because we'd get to be outside all day fighting for something that matters, instead of cowering in sterile buildings rearranging abstractions." For the many young men and women who sit in front of computer screens all day, or who work at the checkout line at the grocery store etc., and especially for those who can't afford to go to college, a film like THE HURT LOCKER can easily say to them: "Look! Come have an Adventure! Fight for something important!" If you take a thrilling film about a current event with a protagonist as a stand in for invincible masculine bravado and combine it with America's unquestioning patriotism and pro-military mindset, what you have is "another goddamn recruiting film."

    Also, and perhaps most importantly, the STYLE of the last few minutes of the film -- loud helicopter blades, music in the background, Jeremy Renner stepping off the helicopter, louder guitars, slow-motion shot of Renner walking in fatigues, then LOUD, HEAVY guitar music -- mirrors the exact style of various RECRUITING COMMERCIALS. (The main difference is the quick cutting, but THE HURT LOCKER has plenty of that throughout.)

    You're right to say that Bigelow isn't interested in the war; she's completely uninterested in politics, period. But that doesn't mean that the film doesn't reflect certain ideologies. Bigelow's intent was to make an action film that gives an experience to the viewer, yes. And she succeeds on that level (she made a thrill ride). But making a war film for the sole purpose of providing a visceral experience without caring at all to give the audience any context or value judgments pertaining to what's being shown is by itself an ideological position. An example: The film is based around a bomb disposal unit, so yes, it makes sense that much of the geography consists of ruined buildings and rubble. But, without context, this immediately gives the impression that the buildings have been destroyed by insurgent bombs, even when we know this is not the case. By not showing a single bombing done by the United States -- the country responsible for most of the crumbling landscape -- Bigelow gives a false impression of the unit sent there to disarm bombs. It suggests that our military was sent there to save the Iraqi's from the insurgents without hinting at the irony of a bomb disposal unit sent overseas to disarm bombs, many of which wouldn't even be sitting there waiting to be disarmed if the military hadn't been sent to begin with.

  3. Bigelow very well may not intend to tell us what to conclude about the experience she has created, but she's left behind some clues, intentionally or perhaps because she didn't notice them or see their implications. The characters, situations, and narrative, whether consciously or subconsciously, all work together to reveal the assumptions and ideologies of their creator(s). The characters in her film are not real people of course, so we can assume that they're used in some way to reflect what she wants to express, like colors on a painters palette. Through her characters she endorses and favors a macho, Rambo-esque mentality over empathy, compassion, and understanding. This is the mentality of the armed forces, and especially that of the recruiter: DO YOU HAVE WHAT IT TAKES?; ARE YOU TOUGH ENOUGH? (Yes, I suppose I may very well have a bias which views empathy and compassion towards others as an objectively superior worldview; if so, color me biased. But perhaps, like art, worldviews also have VALUE.) Here is an example of this in the film:

    Early in the film one of the soldiers, Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), is reluctant to shoot an Iraqi who's holding a device. Another soldier, played by Guy Pierce, is killed as a result. Geraghty's character is shown, in this moment and in others, to be the most emotional and reluctant soldier in the entire film, and for these qualities he is portrayed as weak and unstable, due largely to the stress imposed on him by not wanting to take innocent life. It's interesting that, of the three main characters, only the one played by Geraghty gets hurt. He pays for the sins of Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), the most bold, borderline insane, character in the entire film (and the films protagonist) with a bullet in the leg.

    Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum reacted against the idea that THE HURT LOCKER is apolitical: "This is a film whose most courageous character is shown to be myopic to the point of insanity when it comes to perceiving Iraqi people in his midst — or at least one Iraqi kid in particular whom he supposedly knows and has some fondness for. He’s so convinced that this kid has been killed by a terrorist that he can’t even see the kid greeting him. This kind of blindness surely implies something about American perceptions of the Iraqi people, the ones whom American soldiers have allegedly been fighting for. It even, I would argue, implies something political." I didn't see the scene that way myself. I thought that Renner, once realizing that the kid was alive, ignored him because he didn't want to feel what it was like to lose him for a second time. He wanted to keep his distance and not get to know any Iraqis because the emotional investment was too large. And, as Brian Geraghty's character shows us, too dangerous. In the film's insular world, this expression of compassion would open Renner up to the possibility of being killed (Rambo never dies). And yes, Renner's character is myopic and not exactly made out to look the best -- he's both a hero and an anti-hero -- but he's still a fearless, tough soldier who can seemingly do no wrong. Geraghty's character is made out to be somewhat culpable for his psychologist's death, but Renner's, as I mentioned, only for accidentally putting a bullet in Geraghty's leg. And the film seems to suggest that this bullet is not Geraghty paying for Renner's sins, but Geraghty paying for what the film perceives to be his own: the sins of emotion, reluctance and empathy, which lead to fear.

  4. "It shows us a process, even to the point where, when a soldier is shown back in the civilian world it is all too clear how traumatized he is by his experience and how ill suited he is for his normal life"

    Is he traumatized or addicted? The premise of the film is War is a drug. It seems to me that the film takes the point of view that it is Geraghty who is traumatized, and it's his own fault because he's weak (again, weak in the film means reluctant to kill). I suppose you might say that reluctance to kill is indeed a weakness in war, but this position presupposes a point of view which inherently supports war.

    "Now a more propagandistic filmmaker like Oliver Sone would try to make a point about war in a most obvious and childlike fashion."

    If war is not Bigelow's subject then how could she make a point about it? And yes, Oliver Stone is a hack, I agree. But so is Bigelow (albeit for different reasons). Put Bigelow's or Stone's war films next to Tarkovsky's IVAN'S CHILDHOOD or Larisa Shepitko's THE ASCENT (to name two of many examples), and what you'll see is CRAFTSMANSHIP versus ART. SKILL versus GENIUS.

  5. That is surely a lot that calls for a response. I can't respond term for term but here is an attempt. It is unfair to compare Bigelow's film to Tarkovsky's Ivans Childhood because the latter is so excellent and the former better than average.

    I can't see the judgement of character you seem to see in the film. The film never makes statements about weakness or strength, either implicitly or implicitly. The Renner character is a kind of sociopathic character in his single mindedness; if he is reticent in one occasion on many more he is ruthlessly aggressive, and the film doesn't appear to be classical in passing judgement. If the film can be said to make us feel the exhileration of his point of view and that is akin to a kind of recruitment or endorsement, then by definition any work of art recreating an EXPERIENCE of war is somewhat guilty of such things. (Which is one reason why high modernist accounts of war love to use Brechtian or elliptical devices to make sure and disarm the work of any or all seductiveness. The ethical cost in Bigelow's case is a gain in terms of what is her real subject. I submit her real subject is the formation of identity and character in a contemporary, digitized, immersive world rather than war per se. In that sense it is in keeping with her oeuvre i.e. Strange Days. To have as your subject immersion and simultaneity and the collapse of distance, volume, mass and other marks of the old epoch or order requires the kind of flaws that that many critics decry.