Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Home Viewer (1): In Which They Serve

The good folks--in particular, Jane Carlson--of the Galesburg Register-Mail have given me a new outlet for endless prattle: an "occasional column"--in the old-fashioned sense of the term, in which I write about films suitable for certain occasions--called "The Home Viewer"--which, stalwarts of my postings might remember, is the name of my first blog. If good artists borrow and great artists steal, what the heck are you if you steal from yourself? Oh, yeah: a blogger.

First up: Veterans Day. Here--because in the end this Viewer is not quite as Humble as he makes himself out to be--it is:

The Classics

Of course, before becoming a veteran one must do some soldiering. Few films bring us closer to that hellish business than Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998). Legendary director Sam Fuller says somewhere that the only realistic war picture would involve shooting live rounds at the audience. Yikes. Still, Spielberg comes close, in a movie about making a small gesture of kindness amid massive bursts of brutal chaos. It begins and ends with a single veteran, whose memory is the film, which in turn provides glimpses into the varied hearts of front-line combatants. In the end, whether Ryan "earns it" does not seem as important as his searching face, eager not to forget why they fought.

In Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978), the undertow-pull of memory draws down both the strong and the weak. Beneath the homecomings and long-gone fades of its steel-worker vets, the war itself shrinks to a cramped, isolated space where combat is Russian Roulette made irresistible only because it's all that's left. Critics have taken as ironic the final scene, in which Michael (Robert De Niro), Steven (John Savage), and their friends and family tearfully sing "God Bless America." But tragedy demands its epilogue, and sorrow its music.

Soldiers, though, can bring back more than fear and pity. In Glory (1989), Edward Zwick pays tribute to the Civil War's all-black 54th Regiment, and the stellar cast (Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Cary Elwes) personalizes the experience of fighting for a cause larger than oneself, as the 54th's soldiers endure the bigotry of the Union they defend and transcend all doubts, proving their worth cannot be measured by any other standard than their own.

Ones You May Have Missed

Based on the true story of the Army Rangers and Philippine guerillas who rescued 500 American survivors of the Bataan Death March - losing twenty-one Filipino and only two American lives (with 800 Japanese soldiers dying in the surprise attack) - John Dahl's The Great Raid (2005) meticulously charts the complex strategies necessary to maximize success and minimize loss behind enemy lines. And get out your handkerchiefs for the footage of the actual rescued prisoners and those who risked everything for them.

Another film more about survival than conquest, Sahara (1943) offers a microcosm of war by pitting a single ramshackle tank crew (led by Humphrey Bogart) and hitchhikers of varying nationalities, religions, dispositions - and allegiances: at one point they're joined by a German soldier - against the desert itself, drawing them closer to not only death but each other. A remarkable movie that reveals, with slam-bang heroics, humor, even tenderness, how soldiers left on their own can achieve both military and moral victories.

Speaking of soldiers on their own, Danis Tanovic's satirical-somber No Man's Land (2001), set in 1993 Bosnia, dismantles futile warfare in the confines of an increasingly public foxhole/trench, where enemy "combatants," frozen by a landmine held down by the weight of a third, wounded soldier, wait - and debate the "virtues" of a conflict so absurdly convoluted it may as well be settled in a muddy hole, while the press, blue-helmeted U.N. troops ("Smurfs") and the world wait with them. This is "bringing the war back home" literally by the seat of one's pants.

Ones You Need to See

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and The Big Red One (1980) express Samuel Fuller's typically matter-of-fact dictum, "all war stories are told by survivors." Fuller, a World War II combatant himself, in the second picture follows a sergeant (Lee Marvin, unforgettable as a "carpenter of death") and his men all the way through their war, including the liberation of a Nazi death camp. It's grim work, demanding appalling impartiality.

For his part, William Wyler finally brings 'em home in The Best Years of Our Lives, frank in its depiction of the difficulties-personal, economic, and social-a trio of veterans (Frederic March, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell) face. The standout is Russell as Homer Parish. Russell had lost both hands while training paratroopers, and he was awarded two Oscars for his role. These three demand a real Veterans' Day, when we should pay tribute to their service, nurse their wounds, and, for future veterans, make promises we intend to honor.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Rating Game Redux 18: Once More, with Screaming

Another vain effort, this time in the service of "3 Scariest Horror Movie Scenes." A contrarian part of me wants to point to the appalling death of eroticism in Showgirls--every time I look, my leer turns to stone!--or the nameless terror of the words "Extended Version" and "Quentin Tarantino" on the same DVD box--but I get it: only actual jeepers and creepers admitted. so here's a random three, strewn like broken blossoms along the bread-crumb trail, lost in the gingerbread woods. Say goodbye, kiddies:

1. Karloff’s entrance in Frankenstein (1931), back to the camera, then turning around in close-up, his dead-alive face, “blank and pitiless,” filling the screen. My Dad told me kids ran from the theater. Smart kids.

2. Wendy sees Jack’s writing--“All work and no play …”--in The Shining (1980), and finally realizes she’s in a horror film.

3. In Audition (1999), a young woman sits, her phone ringing unanswered, a big burlap bag behind her. Just as we assume the scene will end, Something in the bag lurches. The later, all-but-unwatchable revenge-torture scene is almost less dismaying than that simple movement of the sack, which captures every promise we wish horror films wouldn’t keep.

Oh, and Jeff Goldblum at the mirror in Cronenberg's The Fly. And The Exorcist, every four minutes. And John Hurt's face hovering over the egg in Alien. And bedtime in the original version of The Haunting. And, when I was a kid, the dripping jaws of The Black Scorpion descending. Good Lord, as they used to say in E.C. comics, it simply doesn't end. (Choke!)

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