The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Hurt Locker" and "Where The Wild Things Are" (2009)

The Hurt Locker (2009)

I first heard about this movie almost a year ago. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, it was said to be the most realistic and non-political film concerning the Iraq War. I was fascinated because Bigelow is one of the very few female directors who can handle action, and handle it well. There is, for whatever reason, one real split I've seen between male and female directors and their approach to action: male directors will move the camera during an action sequence, and most female directors seem to leave the camera in one place, and choreograph the action around it. This can lead to a sense of "static-ness" if you aren't careful. Bigelow, who directed "K-19", "Near Dark" and "Blue Steel" doesn't fall into this trap. Yes, she tends toward a more static camera (she is a very accomplished painter) but each set-up seems designed to probe the psychology of her characters under stress. There is barely a scene in any of her work where you leave the scene without new and important knowledge about her characters.

Because of the question of "why aren't there any positive images from the Iraq war?", preliminary comments that "Hurt Locker" gave a mostly-positive view of American involvement intrigued me. Apparently Bigelow had real difficulty funding her movie in the U.S., and went with French (!) funding, not even knowing if they would find an American distributer. Note something: funding for films is spread over hundreds if not thousands of funding entities across the country, NOT just "Hollywood Studios." It sometimes seems that every circle of dentists, doctors, real estate agents or heirs with some extra capital want to be in the movie business want "in" to the movie business. And trust me again: they may be MORE liberal than average, but there are plenty of conservatives among them, and if they ain't funding positive Iraq images, well...I think you need to talk to conservatives about that, and stop thinking there is some conspiracy to keep them from independently producing and releasing a film. There simply is no such thing, and there are too many avenues of distribution for something like that to work at all.

But "Hurt Locker" was praised in Hollywood, got tons of good reviews, but only a limited release...and not a hugely successful one. And lots of Oscar buzz. But the public didn't seem to respond. The film deals with a crew of bomb disposal experts a month away from rotation back to the U.S. There are seven action set-pieces, and trust me, they are unnerving as hell, some of the best war footage I've ever seen, accompanied by some truly penetrating psychological insight. I saw this yesterday at Paramount Studios, and Bigelow stated that she and the screenwriter (Mark Boal) deliberately structured the piece so that the lead character (Jeremy Renner as bomb disposal expert SSgt William James) does not change, but the audience's perception of him does. That is a lovely idea, something rarely done. And VERY rarely done this well. Does it have a political perspective? I would say that it seems more positive than negative about our involvement, but is somewhat brutal about the costs to our soldiers, who clearly are basically good, decent people trying to make a difference in a difficult situation. I would love to hear comments from some of our more Conservative friends about it. I don't think Bigelow was interested in this from anything other than an intensely personal perspective. But I could be wrong. An "A."


Where The Wild Things Are (2009)

A children's movie for adults. Spike Jonze' version of Maurice Sendak's classic children's book is rather masterful, but not entirely for children. The original book was a literalization of childhood alienation (say that four times fast), and turning it into a 100-minute film required the creation of much context and content. Sendak is a producer, and has signed off on the whole thing, so we must suppose that he approved of the direction taken by Jonze and screenwriter Dave Eggers. And the direction is a dark one indeed. The story deals with Max, a disobedient little boy apparently grieving over the breakup of his parents' marriage--or perhaps his father's death. Arguments could be made for either position. Running away from the sight of his mother snuggling with another man, he flees to a magical island filled with gigantic monsters with family issues. It is tempting to try to apply "Parts Party" ideas here, and ask what aspects of his psyche are represented by the various beasts, but the filmmakers are far too canny to make this a simple process. Let's just say that Max is on the edge of a growth spurt emotionally, coming to grips with death, pain, and the struggle for power within families and human hearts. And it ain't pretty, and it ain't easy. "Let the wild rumpus start!" indeed. There is definitely a point at which the whole attempt to balance the "monsters" in his heart starts going bad, and you can feel the audience's growing restlessness. There is real danger here: the monsters make it very clear that Max can be their king, but if he doesn't please them, they will eat him. And it would have been a sell-out not to bring this threat closer to the surface. Childhood is a time of wonders, but also terror at the idea of moving out of the safety of parental control into the stark terror of true responsibility and understanding. And bless them, they don't shy away from that. The last image of the film is beautiful, and heart-breaking, and mundane. The beasts are among the most magical ever created onscreen, a combination of practical puppetry and CGI that is...wonderful. Just wonderful. Not a perfect film, but a strong and honest one, I think. Jonze is a fascinating director. His inner child is strong, and awake, and slightly twisted. A very strong "B+" on this one. At times it is absolutely breath-taking.


Ethiopian_Infidel said...

"...most female directors seem to leave the camera in one place, and choreograph the action around it."

Curious, since female film pioneer Leni Riefenstahl is frequently credited with originating moving camera techniques, innovations she first employed in Nazi Propaganda films such as Triumph of the Will.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely admired Hurt Locker.

I'd been waiting for years to see Hollywood, or anybody, make a movie about American soldiers in Iraq that merely treated them as the people that I know they generally are: not "plaster saints" (as Kipling put it), not invincible supermen, not Michael Moore-ish villains, but just people -- ordinary people given heroic jobs and stepping up to them, under moral conditions that were neither simple good-vs.-evil nor purely nihilistic.

Given just how many (totally money-losing) movies Hollywood made that were strongly anti-U.S. army and anti-war, I don't buy the idea that Hollywood's politically neutral or close to it. Hollywood's got an empirically proven willingness to burn up money on repeated bombs of movies, as long as they follow a hard-left view of the Iraq war. But a single movie like Hurt Locker went a long, long way to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.

(Another movie I liked, for quite similar reasons: The Kingdom.)

--Erich Schwarz

Ethiopian_Infidel said...

"I don't buy the idea that Hollywood's politically neutral or close to it."

IMHO, Hollywood Leftists are the Champagne Socialist variety. That is, they champion "superficial" leftist causes that don't impact them specifically, while defending the social privileges conferred through white skin as staunchly as their conservative "opponents". Hence the Cinema Intelligentsia bombards us endless negative depictions of American interventions, evil corporate environment despoilers, peaceful Muslims, all the while doing their utmost to effectively castrate People of Color, thereby stripping them of humanity. Easy enough to be liberal abroad, but conservative in bed.

Steven Barnes said...

I am quite certain that Hollywood is dominantly Liberal. But it only takes a few million to produce a movie and release it on DVD. People make vanity projects, churches make religious movies that appeal only to Christians, there are ultra-low budget films galore. SOMETHING is interfering with the Conservative view of the war rolling out, but "Hollywood" simply isn't enough of a monoblock to prevent millionaires from clustering their money and making something that promotes their POV. Give Conservatives more credit than that, and stop thinking Liberals are all-powerful. What do I think is going on, then? Really not sure.
But if Eastwood and Bruce Willis, staunch Conservatives, wanted to make a tiny movie and release it, trust me, nothing would stop them. I'd ask them why they don't make a One Million loss-leader. Hold their feet to the fire, and stop thinking Liberals rule the universe. They just don't.