Sunday, February 9, 2014

Hurt and hurter

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2009)

Quite a few of the highly positive reviews for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker come across as expressions of relief. Take Roger Ebert, who calls it: “a film shot clearly so that we know exactly who everybody is and where they are and what they're doing and why. The camera work is at the service of the story. Bigelow knows that you can't build suspense with shots lasting one or two seconds.” Now, on its own terms, this seems rather strange doesn’t it? What’s so amazing about filming things clearly – isn’t that kind of, you know, basic? Whoever said you could build suspense with one or two second shots?

The Hurt Locker

Now, he doesn’t mention Transformers 2 in there, having thrown it a brief one-star dismissal elsewhere, but that film really rubbed critics up the wrong way. They almost all thought it was long and boring and stupid and poorly made, and they told the world so, and then it became a mega-hit anyway. If you were a salesman, and customers kept spitting in your face, you’d probably go and sell something else; film critics don’t have that kind of mobility, so they just sit there and seethe (since I occupy a more enviable niche as far as film reviewing goes at least, I just didn’t see Transformers 2, and thus need have no angst about it.)

 The Hurt Locker isn’t quite a way of sending the spit back, but it’s been brandished at least as a suitably eloquent retort. It actually screened originally at last year’s Toronto festival, almost a year ago, and was well enough received, but not in a way that separated it from the pack. Cut to ten months later and it’s greeted as the answer to all our problems. This is probably just more proof of how quickly the world is getting worse.

The movie is set in Iraq, focusing on a bomb defusing unit; the leader is blown up in the film’s first scene, and we focus from there on his replacement, Sgt James, played by Jeremy Renner. The opening quotation tells us “war is a drug,” and after over eight hundred successful missions, James has become somewhat dislodged from the normal procedures and protections, disregarding convention in a way that might be foolhardy, might be his only remaining way of feeling alive, might evidence the extent of his honed intuition, or all of the above. There’s not much analysis or “bigger picture” in the film: one mission follows the next, each life threatening by definition, each testing soul and stamina in its own way.

It’s certainly gripping viewing, and it’s not that I disagree with the rapturous reviews as such; it’s just that I’d grade the achievement inherently a little lower. As I suggested, I’m not sure others wouldn’t too, if mainstream Hollywood movies were inherently better. The action sequences are marvelously done, but hardly revelatory, and James’ form of addiction to the “drug” certainly fits comfortably with a long history of taciturn movie mavericks. As presented, actually, the drug isn’t war as such, but more its capacity for allowing extreme personalities to craft themselves a suitably stylized persona: watching James do his stuff, usually watched from doorways and windows and rooftops by numerous local civilian spectators (sometimes likely including the people who planted the bombs in the first place), the term “theater of war” comes to mind. Popular culture responds with gusto to such displays – why, for example, is the highly implausible Kilgore (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) the best-remembered element of Apocalypse Now? But these displays surely take place in war’s colourful margins, rather than its degrading, deadening heart.


Bruno, starring Sacha Baron Cohen as a gay nincompoop out to attain celebrity, is actually a more stimulating movie to me than The Hurt Locker, in the sense of leaving more to think about afterwards, and greater uncertainty about what it all amounts to. Peter Travers in Rolling Stone says the film is “Swiftian — crude, profane, fearless in using ridicule to bite hypocrisy on the ass.” Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle counters: “Cohen's strategy is to make audiences laugh at homosexuality itself, or perhaps at his outrageous lampoon of homosexuality - and then think less of the unsuspecting people who take his act at face value..(but it) can't succeed as satire, because it has no moral grounding or honest point of view.” Nearly everyone who’s written about the film seems to evaluate it slightly differently, which may in fact be its primary achievement. Oh, plus that it’s as funny as hell in places.

I’m more on the LaSalle side of the spectrum. The film deserves points for sheer pace and variety – Bruno’s project takes him from Hollywood to the Middle East, from swingers to preachers, from politicians to cage fights, and as in Cohen’s Borat (directed like this one by Larry Charles), many of the set-ups use real (and presumably unsuspecting) people, manipulated by Cohen usually into either meltdowns or incoherence. These generally involve Cohen flouting all accepted standards of behaviour, or private space or social convention, for example getting himself into a private situation with a straight guy and then starting to take his clothes off; whatever messy, spontaneous reaction the other might have to that, I’m not sure it’s fair to label the set-up as “biting hypocrisy on the ass.”

Actually, a lot of people either get the joke and play along or else demonstrate a sometimes-admirable pragmatism (sometimes it’s almost poignant, suggesting people are just trying in their unsophisticated ways to keep going). But however you score the individual scenes, it’s hard not to think the whole enterprise is conducted – again – in the margins of things. There’s nothing here about mainstream industry or business, nothing that’s relevant to the core question of what discrimination gay people trying to live an honest and equal life might suffer. But then, I just don’t think the movie’s about that. To be honest with you, I don’t really think it’s about anything: it’s like a lowbrow conceptual performance art creation, cleverly designed to facilitate opposing readings, and thus (perhaps) to illustrate what a crock these readings all are. Certainly you feel the audience reaction is as much part of the show as anything on the screen – the whole thing has a loose-leaf kind of feeling, as if inviting annotation. But if it is about anything, then it’s about how a really talented and largely fearless straight guy can rake in laughs from behaving like a moronic, sex-obsessed homosexual. Almost Swiftian, no question.

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