Friday, September 10, 2010

At War

Samuel Maoz’ debut film Lebanon came out of nowhere to win the top prize at last year’s Venice film festival, which as an instance of over-rewarding promise and innovation seems to me a bit like giving Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. The film is indeed set in Lebanon, in 1982, although there’s a bleak irony in that title, because as far as its participants are concerned, it could be anywhere. They’re an Israeli tank crew, and except for the first and last shot, the entire film takes place in the tank’s interior – we see the outside only through the crosshairs of the scope. With no autonomy, taking all orders from the commander outside – who occasionally comes inside to berate them for various errors – the men encounter a Syrian prisoner, and a couple of Christian Arabs, one of them from Turkey. The view outside is sometimes pure horror-of-war – a chicken farmer bleeding to death from his severed limbs, a hysterical woman whose daughter has just been killed, running around naked after her dress catches fire – and sometimes just chaotic abstraction.

Bad For Morale

This sounds like an exercise in intense, distilled realism, and partly plays like that, but the overall effect for me was closer to a cinematic concept piece like last year’s Paranormal Activity, in which the entire narrative was seen through a video camera existing within the world of the film. Of course the tank is claustrophobic by its nature, but the film doesn’t feel as intense as you might imagine, despite the repeated shots of the dirty water on the floor and the general sense of sweat and grime. There’s a lot of conflict between the men, often expressed I’d say in rather stagy terms: an early exchange in which one of them questions why he’s been chosen to stand guard could easily play like a whining Woody Allen monologue, if delivered somewhat differently. And the scenes of the exterior have a shifting impact. They don’t all seem to be pure point of view shots, because Maoz frequently cuts to tighter close-ups. Compared to the dirty colour scheme inside the tank, the outside frequently looks pristine and glowing, giving even the more horrible sights a sharpness that blunts their pure horror a bit, sometimes even evoking a sense of very black comedy. The tank spends a big patch of time parked at the site of some kind of travel agency, where the camera gazes at images of the Eiffel Tower and the World Trade Center; the safe location they’re headed towards is known as San Tropez.

This bewildering confusion of coordinates, along with the fact that the tank crew barely seems to have any grasp of the underlying politics, connects the film to a long series of works that, if they’re not explicitly anti-war, certainly see a vast gulf between the human experience and the rhetorical one. The tank crew, a representation of Israel’s conscript army, is a pretty dismal example of military efficiency, with no governing coherence and failing several times to carry out their basic orders. J. Hoberman in The Village Voice reported that the movie had a mixed reaction in Israel itself: “Conservative commentators saw the movie as bad for morale; on the left, Lebanon has been criticized for identifying with Israeli soldiers and objectifying their Arab victims.” Both perspectives seem plausible, but then “morale” in the context of war has often depended on maintaining blindness and ignorance, and the second criticism is inherent in the film’s very concept, where we only see what the tank crew sees. Lebanon doesn’t have any parallel to the scenes in American movies where the half-crazed soldiers get high on mowing down the Vietnamese; the soldiers barely seem sufficiently integrated into the war effort to register killing as a duty.

Sam Fuller

Lebanon runs a very tight 90 minutes, and you can see it’s an engrossing experience. I find myself though tending to describe the film rather than productively react to it – it doesn’t prompt any particular thoughts about Israel, or combat, or cinema, which I didn’t have before. Maybe that sounds like imposing a high hurdle, and yet if art doesn’t move us forward in some way, what’s the point? Hoberman calls the film “at once political allegory and existential combat movie—Sartre's No Exit as directed by Sam Fuller” and sums up the allegory like this: “Lebanon may be the movie's title, but, blindly plowing through everything in its path, the beleaguered tank is Israel.” Well, maybe, but as allegories go, that’s not much of one – and actually the tank spends as much time sputtering and almost breaking down as it does blindly plowing through everything in its path.

The Sam Fuller reference is interesting though, especially since a few weeks previously I’d watched his 1958 film Verboten! Set in occupied Germany immediately after the end of World War Two, the film is even more concise than Lebanon, lasting just 80 minutes, but explores an astonishing canvas, encompassing a GI’s marriage to a German woman (for him it’s love, but she admits later in the film that she did it for the stability and the money), her brother who’s flirting with the Nazi revival movement, and the Nuremburg trials. It’s obviously a film of strained means, drawing heavily on stock footage, but ultimately carrying a staggering scope and impact. Fuller marshals a great range of perspectives on the war and the reconstruction, but starkly setting out the central chasm between unambiguous Nazi evil, and the lack of glory attaching to even a “just” war against such evil. Set against this hopelessness at the centre of civilization, tolerance toward the calculations of a desperate woman ought to come easy.


Elements of Verboten! may well seem cheesy now, such as the theme song that croons about their love being verboten, but when you watch it you find your sensibility in overdrive, whipped up by Fuller’s untiring kineticism and the density of his interests. If we’re ever to transcend our primitivism on this topic, it will only be by blowing open the heavy, distorted calculus of threats and obligations, and the neutering language of patriotism and “supporting the troops,” and Fuller’s movie still seems to me a more productive contribution than Lebanon, or just about any other recent film about war, to developing that ideology. Closing where I began, my enthusiasm for Obama largely evaporated with his Nobel acceptance speech, blathering about necessary wars; his failure to reshape America’s disgusting adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan wipes out any sense that he might even be a more progressive brand of warrior, let alone a peacemaker. Lebanon isn’t a pro-war film by any means, but I’m willing to mark it down for not being anti-war enough.

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