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the diary thing 
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05.25.01
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 infamy
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EVERY THURSDAY I pick up the new issues of the city's two free weeklies. I've worked for both of them, and scanning them to see if my work appears is one of the rituals by which I run my life. Yesterday, I picked them up and found an obituary in each for onetime employees. David Maltby, a photographer, died last week of bacterial meningitis; Emily Smith, a writer, died over the weekend of cardiac arrest after an asthma attack. David was just two years older than me, Emily a year younger.

I knew them both, though certainly not well enough to say they were friends. I recall a few serious talks with David about the business of photography, and some silly, drunken episodes at parties with Emily. Her photo, above the paragraph summing up her life ("...a spunky woman who for a few years flew the punk-rock flag in the music department."), was taken by me, several years ago, to go next to her by-line. I recall that she thought it the best one she'd ever had. 

They might not have been friends, but they were peers, and their death was sobering. From now on, I suppose, people will start dying, not of accidents or foolishness or despair, but of mere illness, the failure of the body they have, up till now, regarded as an old, sturdy, previously reliable friend. So far, it's been people I only knew in passing, lives glimpsed; how long until it's someone I know well, someone I love, someone whose loss will make days, weeks, even months feel dark, and not just an hour or two?

I'VE BEEN LOOKING FORWARD to Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor for a year now, in spite of myself. I've had dibs on reviewing it at K.'s paper ever since the first trailer hit the theatres. A few months ago, she brought home a promo tape of the second, longer trailer, a three-minute pastiche of Japanese planes swooping over the mountains of Hawaii, a swarm of metal locusts, while an actor playing FDR (Jon Voight, as it turns out) intones an incantation of America's lost innocence. Corny, bathetic, jingoistic stuff, but I watched the trailer almost a dozen times in a row one afternoon, a lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit.

The movie, I was certain, was going to be rubbish. I've hated everything Bay's done, especially Armageddon, an ugly, jagged piece of crap that banished any residual fondness I might have had for Aerosmith. In spite of the fact that I watch them habitually, and consider Patton one of my favorite films of all time, I don't love war films. K. would find that statement funny -- hysterical, even -- considering how many times she's caught me watching them, late into the night, but the truth is that I'm fascinated by war, among other things (class, pornography, politics, architecture, religion -- that's just a short list.) I'll watch a movie about anything that interests me, even if I know it's bad, because, unlike many of my friends, who adore films, I regard cinema as the most compromised art form of all time.

As much as a patron or an editor can affect the making of a sculpture, a painting, or a novel, and as much as a building is subject to influences from city zoning and corporate vanity to weather and geology, I can't think of an artistic product as malleable as a movie. Believe in the auteur theory all you want, the simple fact is that no movie is made to remain unseen, and in the best of worlds, no filmmaker hopes that no one will see their work. Quite the opposite -- after all the hell that goes into making a film, I can't imagine that any director, actor, screenwriter, producer, key grip, gaffer or extra imagines an audience of less than millions for their work. It's a mass medium, and that makes movies both interesting and essentially flawed.

Movies, probably more than any other art form, are about a moment in time, and tend to date themselves at a glance. We might see a newly released movie to entertain ourselves, but we head for the rep theatre or the "favorites" shelves at the local Blockbuster to see the past, captured on film. Most of the time it's our past -- an evening of our life spent with Jack Nicholson, Jane Fonda or the Brat Pack that we'd like to revisit -- or a "classic", a moment from the past we'd like to try to enter. A modern costume drama -- Elizabeth, say, or Shakespeare in Love -- says more about the time it was made than about the English renaissance, much as Charles Laughton in The Wives of Henry VIII says more about the nineteen-forties than about the same period. Battleship Potemkin is more about the Soviet Union in the early days of Stalin than about the first sparks of the revolution, barely a decade before. (That would probably explain why -- film buffs hold back your horror -- it's so incoherent. Eisenstein was only learning the new language of vagueness and gesture that he would need to survive Stalin.)

I DON'T LOVE WAR MOVIES, any more than I long to be in a war. Still, man's inhumanity to man is a preoccupation -- probably my basic preoccupation -- and war movies take up a lot of shelf-space in the cultural library of human beastliness. With rare exceptions, war movies are dishonest. Even the most realistic -- Das Boot, or Stalingrad -- hold back on the utter horror, the mixture of boredom and terror, that characterize being in the front lines of a war. The best war movie ever made would be days long, and alternate from hours of dreary routine to moments of panic and chaos. You wouldn't be able to leave the theatre, or change your clothes, and the food and drink provided to you while the movie ran would be mostly tasteless nutrition, meant to keep you alive without enjoying life. The only way out would be a patient wait for the anticlimax of "The End", or self-mutilation and ritual humiliation. 

Certainly, any war movie that tries to make you like war, long for war, or rush from the theatre in search of an active role in a war, is a sure sign that you've been had. Needless to say, most war movies, by their very nature, are specifically, intentionally guilty of this species of dishonesty. They can't help it -- a movie fails as a movie if it doesn't make the world look beautiful, if it doesn't make every action of its characters dramatic, if it doesn't catch you up from the first moment and propel you forward, at whatever speed, to a satisfactory conclusion. In other words, the very antithesis or war, or life, depending on how much of a curmudgeon you are. According to friends and other reliable sources, I tend to tip the scales.


 
"From Here to Eternity was written by a rugged, recalcitrant, independent human being who, grudgingly, was there at Pearl on the day it was bombed. Pearl Harbor is made by and inhabited by people who have no independence, who have never been anywhere and who would rather stand as stuffed patriots tossed around by special-effects explosions than face the challenge of thinking for themselves."
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- David Thomson on Pearl Harbour in Salon

 
A bit of real death, and whole lot of the fake kind.

WHICH BRINGS ME TO PEARL HARBOR, which is, I'm afraid, even worse than I expected. My review of the film, for K.'s paper, pretty much says all I need to say, except for a few, additional gripes:

> At least Tora Tora Tora, the 1970 docudrama about the attack, is content to end with the Pacific fleet in smoking ruins while Admiral Yamamoto, the architect of the attack, delivers his somber line about "waking a sleeping giant". In 1970, I suppose everyone knew that the United States got their payback, without having to add another hour to the film with the Battle of Midway. I can't explain why -- except as an exercise in condescending bad taste -- Bay and Bruckheimer thought it essential to end Pearl Harbor with Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett joining the Doolittle raid on Tokyo, six months later. 

Do they really think no audience could tolerate a downbeat ending, or have we reached the end of a fifty-year cycle where it's okay to make painfully jingoistic propaganda films, even in the absence of a war?

> If this is the case, will we see a succession of war films re-made, again, with the benefit of modern special effects, re-written without the complicated, muted heroism of the post-war models? I imagine The Bridge at Remagen with Arnold Schwarzenneger as a German-American immigrant, a sergeant who leads his decimated platoon over the Rhine and into the Third Reich. ("Honey, I'm home." says Arnold, in signature monotone.) 

How about Patton with Russell Crowe as the heartthrob general whose mystical belief in reincarnation propels him into an affair with a WAC, played by Cameron Diaz, whose own well-travelled soul had been his lover and wife in Napoleon's army, at the Battle of Crecy, and in the Punic Wars? Imagine what the CGI boys could do with the Third Army's tanks merging with Hannibal's elephants as Patton becomes unhinged during the Sicilian campaign. It couldn't be any worse than Pearl Harbour.

> Perhaps we're doomed to a further decade of awful war movies, if only because few, if any, of the producers and directors making these films have any experience of war that doesn't come from other war movies. As dishonest as postwar films like Twelve O'Clock High or Merrill's Marauders could be, at least they were made by a generation that lived through the war, even fought in it, and drew a line in the sand at a certain level of melodrama. Today, we can make a film like Saving Private Ryan that, on one hand, re-creates D-Day with spectacular realism while inflating itself with gaseous, second-hand patriotism. 

Perhaps it's what we deserve, in a time where the leader of the only great military power in the world goes from being a draft-dodger to a rich boy who did his service in the Air National Guard, the equivalent at the time of being paid to play the best flight sim in existence while staying away from real bullets. 

Considering the way G. Dubya Bush's administration seems bent on a foreign policy that alienates or aggravates most of its friends and enemies, we may be closer to living through another war than we think. At least the movies might get a bit more honest, in twenty years' time. The downside is the thought of thousands of recruits, even millions of conscripts, going into battle with Pearl Harbor in their heads. 

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writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
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In the interest of giving value for your time, I've added a new feature to this site: Rick's Movie Reviews. It's been a year since I started reviewing movies for K.'s paper, and vanity has forced me to give these short pieces a second life, online. I'll add new ones as they're written, and put the back catalogue up over the next week or so. Hope you like 'em.
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