The Impossible Familiarization of Movies Bringing The Homefront Home

By  · Published on February 28th, 2012

Editor’s Note: With Landon still celebrating Marcel Pagnol’s birthday, Cole was left to write this week’s entry. Please don’t riot.

Every so often, The History Channel will play The Planet of the Apes, and it freaks me out. In recent years, the station has lost the meaning of its name completely, but a few years ago, I genuinely worried that someone would stumble upon the movie in progress, see the logo at the bottom, and be convinced that there was a time in Earth’s history that we were ruled by simians. There’s no proof, but considering that people have tried to rob banks with permanent marker all over their faces as a “disguise,” it seems possible that at least one person would be confused by a non-fiction station about our past playing a fictional movie where Moses pounded his fist into the sand in horror.

Maybe there’s no real danger of that, but it still displays a certain power that movies have. They, like all stories, are how we share with each other. From person to person, from culture to culture, movies provide a certain shared sentience. A great story, told well, can transport and give insight into What It’s Like, especially in a world where photography and audio recording are relatively new technologies. The hitch is that there are still limitations to the art. The camera always lies, so even as we grasp toward understanding, it’s easy to be misled when it comes to experiences we have no personal knowledge of.

For millions, war falls under that category, and it’s a massively popular focus of film. So, even with as dauntingly large a topic as this, why not explore the battles of the past, the present, and a legitimate war of the future through a camera lens?

The Past or What’s so Civil About War Anyway?

Yesterday, the world lost a hell of a historian and teacher. C.W. Webb was a human library of Civil War knowledge. He was also my grandfather. Every Christmas, he and my grandmother (who we called “Ne” because I couldn’t say “Granny” as a small child) would visit our home in South Texas – a time which consisted mostly of him sitting and explaining the origins of a Union uniform button. Here’s the thing: the guy could make buttons riveting. He was an ace storyteller that filled your mind with a battleground hallowed by the men, now dead, who struggled there. With the antique farming tools hung dangerously on the living room walls and a grandfather who stopped by yearly to expound on the War Between the States, I lived as much in 1862 as a kid in 1990 should.

Last night, my wife and I watched The General in his honor. Now, Buster Keaton’s masterpiece of physical comedy is not at all meant to be a war film, but it deals directly with a real event that took place – The Great Locomotive Chase – and focuses on the idea of being a soldier. Keaton’s character, Johnny Gray, is rejected from the Southern Army and told by his one true love that he shouldn’t talk to her until he’s in uniform because without it, he’s not a brave enough man for her. A year later, when his train is stolen with her on it, he chases it into enemy territory in search of a Hollywood ending.

It’s a great example of a movie that takes its idea, location, costuming and plot from a real war event but is completely divorced from the reality of the conflict. Perhaps that’s one reason that it successfully makes a Confederate the undisputed hero of the whole affair (it’s still slightly jarring to see Johnny Gray boldly raise the Confederate Battle Flag in triumph even as it’s used for a sight gag). Of course, it’s important to remember that the movie hit theaters 62 years after The Civil War and The Great Locomotive Chase actually happened, meaning that many of the people who saw it had fathers that had fought in the war. That makes it the comedy equivalent of World War II movies that hit in the late 90s. There’s a connection there, but it’s at least one degree removed, and that’s a huge cognitive distance. Today, we’re at least two more degrees removed and knowing What It Was Like to Fight in the Civil War is still as impossible to know as What It’s Like To Be A Bat.

The effect is a temporal game of Telephone where authenticity might be possible, but it’s impossible to confirm. While Ken Burns can use history to create feeling in his documentary The Civil War, other filmmakers like those behind Glory use feeling to create a history. Even a great filmmaker who utilizes eye witness accounts and journal entries from the time to craft something new is still an interpreter telling his or her own story with someone else’s parchment. Unlike cultural or foreign films, there are no representatives from the past to nod their heads and proclaim that a film accurately reflects their experiences, so the game of Telephone leaves us romanticized and still grasping forever for truth (even as Keaton lunges for another piece of firewood to power his engine).

The Present or You’ll Know When You’re In It

In 2008, a Pew Research Poll found that awareness of Iraq fatalities had dropped from 54% to 28% in 6 months. It’s sort of shocking that it was in the mid-50s to begin with, as we’re living disconnected from the wars (now war) in which we’re currently engaged. This is not new or surprising information, but it’s sort of fascinating to think about it in the context of:

Speaking of the latter, The Hurt Locker’s advertising even played off of its experiential quality (even if the movie itself was fast and loose with reality). “You’ll know when you’re in it,” was plastered all over posters and television commercials, but that doesn’t mean the film did anything to let audiences know what it’s like to be in a war. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being married to someone in the military, it’s that I still know exactly the same amount about what it’s like to be in the military. Watching the movie wasn’t enlightening either. And how could it be? It strives to create an environment of war with shots from the Hummer and a genuine skill at making the camera the fourth man in the unit, but it’s still a story about the Iraq War made by people who don’t know what it’s like to fight the Iraq War.

Which brings up the difficult question: can a filmmaker accurately display war fictionally? The simple answer is probably, “No,” but the complex answer might be, “No, but it does the best job possible displaying war in the way most people can handle seeing it.”

This was the lesson of the Berlin Film Festival where I saw Korean WWII epic Mai-wei and Yemen revolution documentary The Reluctant Revolutionary on the same day. It was striking that the war movie used Saving Private Ryan-style bombast to display gorgeous and impacting battle scenes that felt weighty in a percussive way, while the movie that technically wasn’t about war felt far more carnal and violent. An artist’s rendering of a man being run over by a tank just can’t compete with video of a real 10-year-old boy with real blood flowing too freely from where the real bullet ripped through his neck.

Perhaps that’s why it’s important to watch those kinds of documentaries, for the media to persist in sharing the story of the war, and why it’s also important for fictional movies to continue the romanticism that we can process without going insane.

The Future or The Things That Separate Us

As fun as it would be to dissect the brilliance of a future war movie like Starship Troopers, it’s more intriguing to consider a movie that sits at the center of a possible future war. A Separation, the first Iranian film to win a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is celebrating this week with national pride and increased audience numbers as people around the world (including especially Israel) head to see it.

In his acceptance speech, writer/director Asghar Farhadi made a plea for a broader view of Iran:

“At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us, and I imagine them to be very happy. At the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. . . I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

Completely missing the point (or chafed that Farhadi dared to wear a decadent, Western-style tie on international television), the Iranian Film Czar, Javad Shamghdari, considered the win a triumph over Zionism (since the film was up against the Israeli film Footnote) and said, “American judgment bowed for Iranian culture.”

This is a movie from a country that current American Presidential contenders are suggesting we bomb. Or suggesting we help Israel to bomb. Right now our President is wrestling with the specter of both intervention in Syria and with an Iranian bomb which is seen as abjectly unacceptable by an ally in the region. There is, at the very least, a possibility that our country will be drawn into more military action in the Middle East.

Yet even while they’ve jailed their most prominent filmmaker, Iran has a movie representative using his well-earned time on the international stage to point out that the Iran that we know, is not the Iran that he knows. That the regime is not the people. That the stories we’ve been told that shape our perception are incomplete.

The Lying Camera

Michael Haneke was right. Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth, or at the service of the attempt to find the truth. What he doesn’t mention is whether the camera is successful at finding that truth or not, and when it comes to war – or other experiences that are alien to the average person – it’s difficult to determine where or how that truth can be found.

It’s difficult for the medium to handle. For example, The General’s look was actually inspired by the raw war photography of Matthew Brady – a movie modeled after photography which represented in print what actually happened. Not exactly a copy of a copy, but far from the real thing living and breathing through the screen. This is the inherent flaw in filmmaking, as noble as its intentions may be.

Still, it’s comforting to see that members of Iranians middle class are praising A Separation specifically for how accurately it depicts their lives. After years of playing stereotypes or nausea-inducing jingoistic elements heralded by their state media, it must be refreshing.

Can that accuracy be applied to war? Maybe there’s hope. Now the next question is: should it?

Hopefully our future ape overlords can answer that. After all, history repeats itself.

More Culture Warrior at 24 frames per second

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.