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.