“I know what eats a man who has endured the tension of war for years. It’s like a drug. A man can’t live without it.”
- They Died with Their Boots On
“The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”
- The Hurt Locker
Even though I thought highly of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker when it was first released in Chicago in 2009, it has only continued to rise in my esteem over the last three years. Prior to its Best Picture Oscar win, I found myself relentlessly championing it to skeptical friends, mostly by comparing it to classic Hollywood movies by John Ford and Howard Hawks. It does, after all, examine group dynamics and the theme of “professionalism” a la Hawks. And, in its unforgettable lead character of Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), it also arguably provides contemporary audiences with a 21st century equivalent of The Searchers‘ Ethan Edwards: a tragic hero whose “virtues” are ironically what prevent him from becoming a productive member of the very society that he is ostensibly helping to save and thus allowing to perpetuate. (I firmly believe that the film’s controversial and ambiguous ending is an illustration that James will never be a good husband or father.) Now, after going on a binge of watching movies by the great Raoul Walsh, I realize that my analogy was a little off; it is Walsh that Bigelow resembles more closely than his contemporaries Ford or Hawks.
Andrew Sarris (RIP!) aptly, and famously, summed up the heroes of Raoul Walsh by contrasting them with the heroes of Ford and Hawks: “If the heroes of Ford are sustained by tradition, and the heroes of Hawks by professionalism, the heroes of Walsh are sustained by nothing more than a feeling of adventure. The Walshian hero is less interested in the why or the how than in the what. He is always plunging into the unknown, never too sure what he will find there.” In other words, Walsh’s heroes, like Walsh himself, were “adrenaline junkies,” a phrase that has also been used to describe Bigelow’s characters. The adventurousness of Walsh’s heroes, whether they are gangsters, cavalrymen, prizefighters or western outlaws, was explicitly mirrored by Walsh himself, who captured their stories through an adventurous brand of filmmaking – usually by shooting on location in exotic locales and favoring sequences involving elaborately choreographed action over dialogue-based scenes. It is precisely this “feeling of adventure,” filmmaking as athleticism, that binds Bigelow and Walsh and that makes the Hurt Locker helmer the old master’s true heir apparent.
The question then arises: why has The Hurt Locker been treated like an art film instead of the Walshian action film that it is? This can only be answered by looking at how the action genre has evolved over the last century. It is a sad reality that the American action movie has suffered more than any other single genre since the decline of the old studio system. The very phrase “action film,” as utilized by a great critic like Manny Farber, used to be synonymous with a movie that was made cheaply, quickly and on a small scale. (It now seems incredible but Farber used the phrase “underground film” to essentially mean action movie.) No more. While good unpretentious action films are still churned out on a regular basis by various Asian filmmakers (Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Na Hong-jin, etc.), Hollywood has all but doomed the genre by consigning it to the fate of the bloated, CGI-laden spectacle. The contemporary Hollywood action movie, as exemplified by Michael Bay and his alarming number of imitators, typically clocks in at over two and a half hours, does not exceed the PG-13 rating and has a budget of over 100 million dollars (traits that are all, depressingly, interrelated). What does it say that a film like the original Die Hard, a Hollywood action juggernaut that still probably stands as the finest of the 1980s, now looks both relatively modest and adult by comparison?
I hasten to add that the real problem with Bay and his ilk has nothing to do with money spent nor technology used. The biggest problem is that the filmmaking is simply inept (e.g., the axis-of-action rule is mindlessly disregarded, hyperkinetic editing is employed less to complement the action than to keep the viewer in a state of perpetual agitation, etc.). Money and technology do not automatically have to take the place of craftsmanship, as David Fincher’s ingenious and seamless use of CGI proves, and yet the best technology and the worst art frequently do go hand in hand. My first thought upon seeing the relatively lo-fi Hurt Locker (it was shot partly on 16mm and partly on digital), after getting over its initial heart-stopping, visceral impact, was to marvel at just how damn well made it is. I’ll never forget watching, for the first time, the firefight scene with the mercenaries in the desert and having this strange feeling come over me; it seemed almost novel to be watching a new American film involving characters shooting at each other over a long distance where the spatial and temporal relationships between them made perfect sense. More than anything else, I believe it was respect for Bigelow’s craftsmanship that lay at the heart of The Hurt Locker‘s critical love. Sadly, while Raoul Walsh used to direct action set pieces better than anyone, he has still not gotten his critical due (and was never even nominated for an Oscar), probably because his basic skills as a director weren’t considered unusual in his time.
Word now comes that Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie, Zero Dark Thirty, which chronicles the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, will be released before the end of the year. The film already garnered controversy when Republican politicians criticized the White House for sharing classified information about the Navy Seal mission with the filmmakers, and claimed that the finished movie would function as an advertisement for Obama’s re-election bid. Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal fired back a joint statement that the film concerned the efforts of the past three presidential administrations and that the story was non-partisan. In any case, Zero Dark Thirty won’t be released now until December 19th, well after the election. As if taking a cue from this flare-up, the Weinstein Company has just purchased distribution rights to a competing “Kill Bin Laden” movie, Code Name: Geronimo, which they have vowed to release before the presidential election (in much the same way that the Weinsteins dropped Fahrenheit 9/11 before the 2004 election). My hope for Zero Dark Thirty is that it functions, in typical Kathryn Bigelow fashion, as a masterfully made and deeply thrilling action film, one that just so happens to focus on the search for the world’s most wanted man. Whatever the case, the politics surrounding the release dates of both movies have already made Code Name: Geronimo feel like the one destined to garner more controversy and, given Harvey Weinstein’s shrewdness, more end of the year accolades.
In hindsight, The Hurt Locker‘s Oscar glory is probably an example of a great work of art achieving success, as is often the case, for the wrong reasons. While most critics and audiences probably initially responded to the film for what it is, a beautifully directed action/thriller chock-full of breathtakingly suspenseful set pieces, I get the feeling that few were comfortable publicly embracing it at face value. In an era when American genre filmmaking has reached a new low, critics and Academy voters have had to justify their love for lowly genre fare by claiming that the subject matter (the Iraq war), and the movie’s pedigree (a screenplay by Boal, an acclaimed journalist who was embedded with bomb squads), have somehow made it “timely” and “socially relevant.” The irony is that The Hurt Locker has nothing to say about the Iraq war specifically, although it does have plenty to say about war in general. The film’s much talked about “war is a drug” analogy was already explicitly used as far back as They Died with Their Boots On, Raoul Walsh’s fanciful George Custer biopic from 1942. I would also argue that my other favorite action movie of the 21st century, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil, is almost as well made as The Hurt Locker but its disreputable source material – a video game – has made it impossible for critics to view it through a similar lens. And while I’m complaining about critics allowing themselves to be swayed by the superficial signposts of respectability, I’d like to point out that there is very little, in terms of artistic quality, separating Guillermo del Toro’s terrific but unheralded Hellboy II: The Golden Army from the same director’s unanimously praised Pan’s Labyrinth.
I don’t know if the title of Bigelow’s new film has anything to do with this rap song by Aesop Rock but, given her inspired use of Ministry in The Hurt Locker, I would not be surprised. In any event, this lyrical gem is well worth a listen. You can check out the amazing lyrics below the video:
Unsigned hype, front line aeronauts flurry, zero dark thirty, zero friends, minotaur-fugly stepchild, evoke lunch jumped over plunging necklines, up, beside tongue-tied hungry enzymes, devolved into mothmen munching textiles, punisher, out past go-time, back 10 fried worms chubbier, brown grass both sides, canned food, manmade tools, Lanacane, band-aids, mandrake root, bindle on a broom stick, pancaked shoes and handshake-proof campaign, can’t lose, can’t gain, smoke out moles like a force of nature, pray fortune return to his favor, swiftly, maybe in the form of a nest egg, maybe in the form of a tesla death ray, or a solid gold scene with something better to celebrate than powder on your face like a flat foot on jelly day, m-m-moral compass all batshit, spinning in the shadows of immoral magnets, are we supporting the artist or enabling the addict, I mean, I guess it matters to me, I wish it mattered to you, how a thousand virtues, kick the same bucket like chinatown turtles
Roving packs of elusive young, become choke-lore writers over boosted drums, in the terrifying face of a future tongue, Down from a huntable surplus to one
(check his own) Breakneck pulse over colors in a drain that emote sugar skulls in the rain, flower-eyes melting, guided by a levy made of bath tiles tilting, quarter up and headed for the kill screen, no corner cut, no build team, only a particularly menacing, angle perpendicular to everything, boys room cherry bomb, boy/goon very much runnin’ with the devil in the mellotron, hello, here’s where a tale of caution, pounds coffin nails to bootlegs of Hawkwind, saw tooth, nevermind straw to gold, spin hearts on sleeves into heads on poles, arm in the maw, fish out pith like a business card from a jar at the mall, A-alike androids dreaming of carbon applause get stuffed with cartoon cigars, cold pack, neti-pot, home to roost, around folk backed into what they most lampoon, shook to the fevered brow and broke ankles, daisy, declawed pound, no thank you, fade me, failed all basic training but I spent a couple groundhogs days with a changeling, silouhette the god last cigarette, anything less would be re-god-damn-diculous