Like & Don’t Like: AVATAR and Mr. Cameron

December 18, 2009

What makes a movie a good?  It’s a straightforward question with a surprisingly straightforward answer: whatever you think makes it good.

Over the last few years I’ve come to the full realization that my extensive film school background has amounted to little when it comes to deciphering what makes something “good” on the popular level. We like to think that the opinion of someone who has seen thousands of different kinds of movies somehow accounts for a more qualified opinion, but this is truly not the case. Sure, it may provide someone with the ability to articulate their opinions and provide a historical or cultural context for their statements…  but really it makes no difference, as the court of public opinion always wins in the end. Thus there is a kind of acceptance needed when making a statement that you believe to be true, but fully recognizing that it’s nothing more than like, your opinion man. So here’s an opinion:

I don’t think James Cameron makes good movies. So there.

Oh don’t get me wrong, he’s a hell of a technical filmmaker. I’m not just regurgitating the popular rhetoric you see everywhere. This is going off all that “trained opinion” nonsense mentioned above. The guy simply “gets” cinematography. He knows how to line up the camera subject with enough spacing for the eye to process the movement. And he’s THE great editor of big budget action films (1, this is a really good footnote). With those two abilities he stages some of the best action I’ve ever seen on screen. Not in WHAT necessarily happens, but instead HOW it happens. I also greatly admire his commitment to creating full, tangible worlds and staying true to his vision. He is never half assing it and you can always be assured that movie goers get their money’s worth. This is to be admired. But as I have just lauded him with superlatives, we must always consider the whole filmmaker if we are going to speak to his merits. These are just aspects of his proverbial “game” and can in no way assure a singular, fully-formed piece of goodness from anything he does.

For example, he cannot write a screenplay. This is fine. A lot of great directors can’t do it. Spielberg never could and the dude is considered the best. Tim Burton famously insists that he has no idea what makes a good script. The problem is that Cameron thinks that he can write a screenplay. And proceeds to do so stubbornly.

It really is a shame that Cameron seems to have the brain of 12 year old. Sure, he’s a really smart 12 year old who is super-duper into perfectionism and computers and stuff, but all his films operate on in extremely juvenile plane of interest. And if you’ve ever heard anything about him as a person he’s operating on a 12 year old social level too.

So let’s actually get into AVATAR in relation to this topic. Having just seen the movie earlier yesterday, the thing that sticks out most in my head is how all the characters often swear in the silliest, 5-th grader like mentality. Really. The swears are the absolutely point of each line when they are uttered. They’re the joke. For example say there’s a big reveal and a pause: “Oh SHIT” or during a fight scene our witty dialogue is “take this BITCH!” The words are capatilized cause ever actor is so emphasizing these swear words that’s it’s like they’re delighted by their guts to swear. That’s because that’s exactly what Cameron is doing. It’s a PG13 movie and he’s using these swears in such a juvenile and silly manner that the entire theater was eye rolling  and groaning. I also fully recognize that these moments are completely harmless, but it’s just so prevalent and on the nose that you can’t help but get the full window into Cameron’s mind… the guy has a 12 year old ‘s sensibility to swearing.
He also has a 12 year old sensibility when it comes to military ideology, politics, ecology, and socialization. Sure that super advanced 12 year old brain converts these things into logical setups complete with a fully realized set proper nouns for his movie, but that doesn’t change that this is the most obtuse kind of rhetoric and analysis. The entire construct of the plot is the most in-your-face allegory of American imperialism I have ever seen. The details are hilarious: a precious resource, “unobtainium.” A earth goddess who you can actually hear through trees. References to modern warfare tactics that are literally thrown in to hammer home the Imperialism comparison (but in hilarious fashion, are the complete wrong use of those words). And make no mistake about this “original” story, it’s just Dances with Wolves in space. I’m talking beat for beat the same movie with 3rd act battle thrown in. Hell, throw in some Star Wars, Dune, and vast array of other films to be grossly aped and you have AVATAR. And let us not forget the short story he absolutely and totally ripped off :

Seriously, you got to see this cover:

http://www.chud.com/articles/articles/21297/1/WHAT039S-THE-LATEST-CLASSIC-SCIFI-CAMERON-RIPPED-OFF/Page1.html

Beyond that there is the fact that every single character in the film is the most broad and ridiculous stereotype possible. And no, not in a scenery-chewing, fun and self aware meta way that guys like Cronenberg and the Coens are absolute masters of. This is Cameron. And his characters will be willfully fucking obtuse. The general is absolutely insane, invasion-happy beefcake. The head scientist is stuck-up, military-hating, granola tree hugger. The guy in charge of it all is an aspergian dickhead who only wants his profits and to get at the precious resource beneath the Na’Vi’s home (not to mention work on his putting game… ugh). The girl Na’Vi who connects with the earth is nothing more than the infamous Noble Savage stereotype. And our main character, the jarhead marine, is nothing but the uneducated white man, who must learn the ways of the lesser people and connect back with the world. Now, all these stereotypes could be just fine for the movie. Actually, you use those five stereotypes and you’ve got all your angles, themes, and conflicts covered so that might not be a problem at all. You got your base. You just have to find away to make it organic.

Cameron don’t do organic. Nope. This is balls out broad. The idea of badassery. It’s all posing and posturing. Like 12 year old suburban kids starting “gangs” or that weird thing Japanese teens do where they literally pose to look cool. This is the cinematic equivalent of whatever the hell that is. And it’s laid on thick. This is cartoon villainy and college freshman idealism. And it kills the movie. (2)

So okay, we have some broad 12 year old dumbness. So what? Lots of films do that and are embraced by millions.

True. I’ll take Cameron’s logical filmmaking and epic scope any day over the parade of nonsensical trash and litany of directors who simply seem to have no interest in making good movies… but not by all that much.

The central problem is that Cameron makes these big action movies as if they’re actually prestige pictures. As if he’s making the singular profound statements for all man kind. Really, it’s just soaking in that kind of hubris. Once again, coupled with his real life obnoxious persona you start to get the idea of just what Cameron is all about. It’s all up there on screen, readily apparent. This is the stuff of the inane.

So obviously, I didn’t like AVATAR, right?

Actually, I kind of enjoyed it.

Devin Faraci over at CHUD, who evaluated the movie in far better terms than I have, made the excellent point that your ability to enjoy AVATAR fully depends on you ability to get into the designs. It sounds like a strange comment but it’s wholly accurate. The film takes a turn after the first act and essentially becomes a world viewing sequence where the viewer is brought along on a 40-60 minute tour of Pandora.  And unlike Devin, who was not able to get into the design of the creatures, I eventually went along with it. And when this all happens, the film soars.

I should note that this is largely due to the 3-D, which works amazingly well. It gives Pandora a real sense of depth and texture. You not really emoting FOR the actors or anything, but you’re emoting with them as they emote with Pandora too (you can surmise this works best because Cameron is in love with the world he created as well, and it shows). In particular, the first flying sequence with those pterodactyl thingies I found to be the most exhilarating part of the movie. This whole chunk of the film is enough of a cinematic experience for me to recommend it to anyone.  It just works.

But eventually this too must pass and the film heads into heartbreak mode/final battle sequence. Of course that’s when the wheels fall off. Not for any good reason either. This was always what was going to happen and you knew it was coming. Hell you can predict every single moment of this movie beat for beat, but that’s okay.  The real reason the wheels fall off is you realize you just spent the last hour on the cinematic equivalent of a nature walk and there was no actual story to begin with. Thus the climactic battle is taking place and I’m sitting there not caring if anyone lives or dies. This is not my usual modus operandi either. I’m an empathetic motherfucker when it comes to my movie protagonists. I actually found it a little distressing: “I was just enjoying these two and now I don’t care?”  Really, there was just nothing there to begin with.

Just hollowed out tropes and clichés desperately hanging onto the sublime skill of action filmmaking on display. It all looks fantastic. I just didn’t care.

To wit, if there was one word I would use to sum up this “game-changing” “action epic” called AVATAR, the word would be… pretty.

It is a very pretty movie. Which might be considered highly insulting to a movie that is trying desperately to be so much more. But it doesn’t have a single idea of how to transcend its base qualities or indulge in nuance.

And no, I’m NOT saying I need my big action movies to have Merchant Ivory level subtext or anything. I’m just saying they need something that transcends the basic archetypes into something resembling good movie entertainment. Like Ironman’s delightful sense of humor and organic characters. Like The Dark Knight’s moral complexity and stunning performances. Like The Lord of the Rings sense of balance and scope. Even Star Wars works because Harrison ford just kills it as Han Solo. These were all popular, epic-feeling movies that used certain strong qualities to move past the archetype and become a good movie for the popular consensus.

And with AVATAR, the prettiness, world-building, and actioneering almost get it there. But Cameron just relishes too much in the Archetype.

Almost.

Footnotes

(1) Let us speak for a moment about what editing truly is: there’s a popular notion that good editing is when you notice really good cuts and stylizations and juxtapositions. This notion fully feeds into that awards season it’s not “Best picture” or “Best acting” or “Best editing”, but instead “Most picture” “Most acting” and “MOST editing”. That’s why the Bourne films always win. Because it’s the only tangible thing an untrained eye can gravitate toward. And that’s totally understandable. The paradox is that great editing is truly invisible. Cuts in action that blend so seamlessly it feels like a perfect flow.  This is especially significant in action films. And Cameron and his rotating cast of editors are masters of the invisible cut (the rotating cast means that’s it’s really just Cameron doing most of this stuff).

(2) I should at least point out that I thought Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana did their fricken damndest to make it all work. In fact I thought they were both rather good in their roles (extensive mo-cap and animation to boot). But there’s just no saving the inanity of it all.

ADDENDUM

A) I always argue that the reason Titanic was so beloved was because (obviously) it was the perfect storm for girls and (not so obviously) because the music of that film is so amazingly beautiful that you simply had to swoon with it. The music was what transcended that movie from being a horribly forced allegory of class struggle and tragic romance into a movie that actually had some legs to stand on. There is a reason that soundtrack went on to become more iconic and referenced than that actual film, which was sort of just a moment in time.

B)Mr. Beaks over at AICN made an interesting note that even with all the problems with the movie, the cinematic world still needs Cameron.  And they need him to be successful. The need guys like him and Spielberg to go huge, push technical boundaries, and stretch budgets. And I think I agree, but it is an uneasy bargain for me.

C) Reader Kevin linked a positively great article in the comments section below about Cameron written by David Foster Wallace. Everything he says about T2 and the approaching Titanic, can completely be said for AVATAR. http://www.theknowe.net/dfwfiles/pdfs/Wallace-FX_Porn.pdf


Like: Inglourious Basterds

August 25, 2009

Yikes. Inglorious Basterds might be my favorite movie of the year (for the record, I’m still deciding between Up, Drag Me To Hell, District 9, and Tetro in some fashion). It is also probably my favorite Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction.

The revenge picture seems to be making some sort of cinematic comeback. It’s an odd little genre and unlike say Kill Bill, where the revenge is kind of a literal plot level thing, the revenge picture is kind of like a revenge surrogate for the audience in a larger social text. There’s some of the old blaxploitation movies that skewed that direction (eg. Sweet Sweetback’s Badaaass Song) and the rape-revenge movies (like I Spit On Your Grave). The goal of these movies is simple: catharsis. Show the revenge and the audience feels a sense of elation that often don’t get to feel in the reality of those situations. This is not an insidious practice. These movies aren’t advocating revenge in real life or anything (those who say they do, psssh… nonsense), but what does seem to matter is what exactly you’re justifying in revenge.  Racial injustice and sexual assault sure make a whole lot of sense , which is why the aforementioned movies relatively embraced by some critical communities. Meanwhile movies with bad revenge desires, like sayyy Death Wish (paraphrasing: “I’m going to go shoot up random minorities cause I’m sick of their shit!”) are much more problematic. Even something like Crash or Glory which are merely made to appease White Guilt I find kind of distressing. So either way it’s kinda murky territory but the point is there are revenge pictures and they serve a function.

So imagine if you will, a World-War 2 revenge picture.

We forget that we kinda used to make them all the time (Dirty Dozen, etc.), but the last decade or more has featured a lot of sobering, serious World War 2 movies. Don’t get me wrong, these films have varying degrees of  importance and immersion that I greatly admire, but they also made us forget that we can make audacious non-historical WW2 movies too. It’s OK. Not everything has to be Saving Private Ryan. This bears mentioning because I think I saw about 10 films that felt as if they simply had to be SPR, even with having no reason to be.

Enter Quentin Tarantino, who seems to have come at just a perfect time.

Inglourious Basterds is brash, audacious, tense, vibrant, list of great adjectives with wholly cinematic allure. 95% of it’s running time is rich with the highest quality Tarantino dialogue (not what I felt was sometimes a lame imitation in Death Proof) and those moments are punctuated by brief but intensely violent moments; the kind of moments that are well-served and often built up to brilliantly.  The film starts simply “Once upon a time in Nazi Occupied France”, which couldn’t be more perfect because although the settings are often startlingly intimate, the ultimate version of the Third Reich we get here is not all that different from the version we get in Indiana Jones movies; which is to say, the complete encapsulation of movie-time villainy. It’s like we’ve forgotten that you can portray the Nazis that way without turning into an Us vs. Them fascistic dick.  You can. It’s okay. It’s part of an accepted movie and cultural language and in our desire to be thoughtful rounded people we have somehow come into the belief that our villians have to be just as thoughtful or rounded. Nonsense. It’s knee jerk liberalism (and this from a hardcore liberal). God, they’re the NAZIS. They were the most hateful and evil group of dicks in the recent history of western civilization. It’s okay to make them the embodiment of evil. BECAUSE THEY WERE.

Now, that is not to say Quentin Tarantino would EVER make the mistake of hollowing out his characters to the point of simplistic archetypes and cutouts. Quite the contrary. For starters Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine knows EXACTLY how to march right up to the line of ridiculousness and keep it… well not grounded, but just grounded enough not to lose the audience. Sure Pitt’s chewing scenery, but he’s doing that infamous tight rope walk where it’s all balanced in perfect movie reality. Ebert talked in his review about Tarantino’s uncanny ability for doing this. He can make a line or moment utterly ridiculous and yet finds this unmistakable way to ground it and give it emotion.  Pitt gets to give a tongue thrashing assault and does so with such utter committment I usually find missing in most of his “serious” roles. As a result, it’s probably my favorite Pitt performance. He’s having a ball and so are we; taking absolute delight in every little verbal tick and inversion of his oh-so-balls-out Tennessee diction. It wholly showcase’s Tarantino’s world famous ear for dialogue as it reverberates through and through. He’s a perfect vehicle for the basterd’s grim and unflinching philosophy/behavior as most of them don’t say a word; they’re just an outright presence, scalping their way across the countryside.

As counterpoints, there are the two central females of the film: Melanie Laurant’s Shoshana and Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark. I kind of think it’s better to keep their involvement in the plot a secret, not because it’s twisty or anything, but because it’s just no necessary. Suffice to say they are two completely realized characters with vibrant personality, layers, and depth. This bears mentioning because Tarantino is unfairly thought of as a kind of guy’s guys director and instead, looking over his filmography, he’s litered his films with about a dozen+ fascinating female figures.  They get to espouse rich dialogue. They get to perform their butts off. They get to be heroes. He never asks them to get naked. They are more or less treated on an acting level with complete respect. They’re simple characters in other films (ie “the girl”) and here they are something so much more. Let’s stop and think about not only how rare this is, but how incredibly refreshing it is.

This leaves “the bad guy” as a matter of discussion. It has been said many times already but Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa of the S.S., is without a doubt one of the best performances of the year. Probably the best. Landa is such a all encomapassing figure: an authority, a mannered gentlemen, a seething detective, a fucked-up sociopath, a delighted nave, a touch fay, all-together menacing, and yet completely and totally coherent. How can you even do that? It’s a mystery for sure, but it is such a great combination of writing, direction, and performance to be sure. I can’t speak highly enough of it. But it’s one of those performances that EVERYONE gets, like Ledger’s Joker or Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview; no one misses what’s going on from the visceral forefront to the many subtlties at play. It’s a remarkable achievement.

So as for what this whole freaking movie is actually about (and it is about something given my opening bit about Revenge films). Let’s get into what actually happens in this sucker.

WARNING HUGE FUCKING SPOILERS AHEAD BUT ITS WHAT I WANT TO TALK ABOUT SO TURN AWAY NOW IF YOU HAVEN”T SEEN IT. REALLY… AND IF YOU REALLY DON’T CARE THEN FINE I SUPPOSE… OKAY… Getting back to the Revenge film bit… Basterds is wholly cathartic because you get to see the war you want to happen and not the war that did. We get to see Nazis utterly shot, scalped, beaten to death, scarred, and blown up. And it’s not like some parade of violent delights either. I mentioned the matter of buildup and punctuated violence which gives all of this said violence some hefty weight. The idea is catharsis in every possible form. And if you’re doing Jewish revenge, if you’re going to go ALL THE WAY with that logic. Then your ending is simple (again spoiler, here’s the ending), why not have your jewish ww2 revenge picture end with  Hitler, Goebbles, and all the high ranking nazi officials getting gunned down and burned alive in movie theater? Why not have your more humane Nazis get forever branded with the nazi symbol on the forehead so they “can never take off the uniform.” What the heck is more cathartic than that?

Nothing. It’s the ending we never got. Sure WW2 was born out of revenge for WW1 (more debatable than is commonly accepted by the way), but that’s not a concern. In reality, Hitler was the true to form and cowardly shot himself in a bunker (we’re pretty sure about this). So, in the interest of catharsis, why not shoot him over and over again in the head?

Some critics seem to have a problem with this. Particularly David Denby of the New Yorker (not even going to bother to link to his knee-jerk nonsense). But to label this kind of revenge film as stupid or insensitive is just as stupid or insensitive. That’s because doing so means you’re mistaking Tarantino for an amateurish idiot who indulges in violence or revenge for revenge’s sake. Sure he’s a brash persona, but he’s no dummy. That kind of indulgent simplicity is what many of his imitators do, but not he. Tarantino is a master of both wholly exploiting a genre for all it’s worth and then subverting or transcending it in the most interesting ways. DFW once wrote a great piece on how his lynchian tendencies are played for “coolness” rather than discomfort and therefore lose effect, but I think his work from Pulp Fiction on works beautifully in terms of transcending that surface coolness. He simply cuts above garrishness. It’s not because he has lengthy dialogue scenes or simple tricks like that, which people often mistake for being smart, it’s because of a much more nebulous tone of intellect and emotional gravity. It’s beyond simple irony or dissaffect. It’s genuine care and love for these, the depraved archetypes and conventions at play.

It’s a wholesale acceptance of the human condition, IE understanding that the desire for revenge (in cinematic form) is cathartic even for the most liberal, a-fascist personalities in the world, which once again I am. I’m practically a freakin pacifist, but I can wholly understand and engross myself in the Tarantino ww2 reality. Yet for some reason it seem to urk other critics, colleagues, and friends who find this kind of treatment of a “serious subject” to be offensive. The same people who find Dirty Harry to be some kind of fascistic guide to life.  I don’t understand that. It’s like they’ve never seen a movie before. Movies don’t have to espouse your sense of politics or life philosophy (hell, we kind of perfer if they don’t). And I don’t say that in a “it’s just a movie don’t take it seriously” kind of way. I say that in the sense that there’s this cinematic social contract that what you’re seeing is a representation of a kind of dream or inner will.  The best directors know what’s happening, acknowledge it, and go past it. But so many people get trapped in Tarantino’s acknoledgement of base tropes, they can’t get past it. Come on! You’re not falling victim to a movie, it’s falling victim to you, ultimately. It’s a such a freaking shame too because they’re missing out on the best kinds of movies. The kind where you get to subvert your own freaking pretentions of what is proper and ride your own id. And unlike most trash, Tarantino guides your id with such utter care and poignancy. God… You’re missing out on those movies.

And missing out on the genius of Inglourious Basterds, probably the best movie of the year.


Like: Generation Kill

April 8, 2009

gk13

So I went back and finally finished/re-watched all of Generation Kill.

… Amazing.

For those unaware, Generation Kill (GK)is an HBO miniseries about the invasion of Iraq from the perspective of the 1st marine recon unit (which for the purposes of that war, was basically a marine battalion in Humvees). It was made by David Simon and Ed Burns, the geniuses responsible for the greatest television show of all-time: The Wire. For those who tire of the ham-fisted Iraq politicization  and fictions, GK is about as far from that as you can get. Yes, GK is very much of The Wire formula/sensibility, but the wonderful thing about The Wire formula/sensibility is that is it is inherently designed to mimic the truths and forms of the subject itself. GK does not approach the war and Iraq from an ideological and didactic standpoint, it approaches truths through character. Look, I’m not going to say that Generation Kill is definitive truth or anything that grandiose, but it might be as close as you can get because it approaches its subject from a journalistic standpoint. There is no true intention of GK except to supplement the experience for those who were not there. It simply tries to deal openly and honestly about the condition of singular moments and not to make something accessible, but to make something of the experience that rang true to the marines on the ground. And to be sure what they did was authentic, they had an actual marine in the writing room at all times, as well as original writer  Evan Wright.

Getting to the matter of character: Generation Kill was originally a book written by Evan Wright who was doing an article for Rolling Stone. He ended up riding point Humvee in 1st recon and writing about his experiences. He is represented as a character in the miniseries too (which sort of makes GK is a basically a factual recreation if you will).  And Evan really makes no attempts to prognosticate, but rather to assimilate into the population. He is not really a character in the singular sense, but our observer, like Ishmael in Moby Dick.

The two central figures Wright observes are the two men in the front of said point Humvee: the first is the driver, Cpl. Josh Ray Person,  played by James Ransone (Ziggy from The Wire season 2!). Much like Ziggy, Ray’s entire existence is a force of nature; he is 100% pure black humor. As a recon marine, Ray frequently stares into void of potential death and the reality of killing other human beings, but he only finds inherent irony and silliness. It’s one part coping mechanism and one part destiny: Ray’s predisposition makes him a Marine through and through, it is almost as if it was the only thing he can do. He wants combat. He wants action. He’s also somehow endearing as hell (being funny often helps in that regard), despite completely typifying the titular “Generation Kill.” But that’s the real rub of the title, much like Ray, it is laced with irony. But in truth it is  Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert, played by Alexander Skarsgaard (son of stellan!), who is the most amazing part of GK and the proverbial anchor of the series. Brad brings a deeply parental nature to his team; he leads by example with a serious demeanor, but so much boils under his surface: reservations, contempt at inept officers, rage, fear, and happiness.  It is such an introspective performance; a man who’s has all the reason in the world to be grandiose (considering the grandiose setting and events) and thus has to be muted in order to cope. Alexander/brad is a compassionately brooding figure; also a massive figure, towering above most others (notably: Alexander was a former Swedish marine). To use my favorite saying: he is just stupid good in the role. Really, make no mistake, this is the stuff leading men are made of.  It’s no surprise Kenneth Branaugh is basically going nuts trying to get marvel to sign off his casting of Alexander as motherfucking THOR (it’s perfect).

The two characters of Ray and Brad are somewhat antithetical, yet both are excellent examples of good marines. They are responsible and knowledgeable. They care about their fellow marines. They are great in combat and subvert any of their fears. Truly, they seem to have no fear of death. But there is another member of their point Humvee team and his name is Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombly. He is rather easy right off, because he contains so many qualities that define a scumbag, yet every bit of that is mixed with an oozing innocence. His actions infantile and child-like, but not in an insufferable way, but a vulnerable way. He could be grumbling about wanting to kill dogs, but there is an odd, daft sweetness to his manner. Really Trombly is the kind of guy who’s situation in life never really gave him a shot at being “normal.” But Ray and Brad in thier relative maturity, seem to give him guidence. It’s a very interesting relationship.

Meanwhile, there is also Lt. Nathaniel Fick. He is Superior officer to Brad and the great example of a wonderful leader who tries to serve his men and make the best of his middle management position. Taking orders which put your men in danger are exceptionally difficult choices and most of the time Fick was admirable, and sometimes he let the pressure from above get to him and made mistakes (the “petting a burning dog” moment). But what was most respectable about Fick was that he was always honest with is men and never seemed to think of his career first. But as GK takes the wonderful time to show clearly, Fick’s greatest problem is that when he questions orders (often in the absolute critical interest of his men and their safety) he is regarded as a malcontent who undermines his (incompetent) officers. The best example being the time he was penalized for providing a superior officer from killing himself and everyone in their platoon. How dare he! (Forgive the sarcasm)

All of this makes Fick the shining example of leadership against the bevy of dumbass officers that seemed to populate this marine battalion. To GK‘s credit (or sense of earnest), none of these officers seem to be bad people, but are instead good/delicate/well-intentioned men who simply have no competency or leadership abilities.  It happens all the time in all lines of work; people can be promoted for being good at what they do, but often end up being terrible managers.   One officer was so woefully incompetent that if I ever saw the man Captain America was based on (I don’t care if the actor who played him might have been a little over the top), I would punch that motherfucker in the face. As Captain America was represented in GK, he was an officer who’s absolutely fearfulness of warfare itself, complete over-willingness to fire, lack of regard for prisoners, willingness put others in jeopardy, and constant terror of his superiors officers, made him a perfect storm of recklessness and ineptitude. According to Evan’s account of the battalion, Captain America was directly responsible for more of the Battalion’s  injuries than the enemy (the official Marine account would be very different). It’s just unspeakably disgust.  Slightly more forgivable, however, was Cpt. Craig “Encino Man/Hitman” Schwetje. Yes he was incompetent, often putting his men also in jeopardy (a ridiculously decided danger-close bombing scenario which Fick attempted to subvert was solved purely by Encino Man giving the wrong coordinates), but most of his problems stemmed from his juvenile demeanor and alpha-male boyishness. He’s in a middle-school mindset: stupid and eager to please his officers, but at least he seems somewhat well-intentioned.You get the feeling that while unlikely, he could grow into a better leader. Captain America, however, never belonged in a uniform. And unfortunately the structure of the marines officer system all but ensures he’d stay in one for the remainder of the war.

What is then interesting is seeing the man on top, Lt. Colonel A.K.A. “Godfather” (he has a raspy voice), and his leadership of the battalion.  Godfather does not seem like a particularly unreasonable person, but rather a good motivator who will communicates his intent with clarity and serves his superiors rather well. The problem seems to his structural detachment to both the action and his men. He is far enough removed from what is happening that conflicting accounts of Captain America’s incompetence gives him pause, but not enough to demote or discharge him (which again, should happen). This same dynamic works in an opposite capacity when he hears similar grumblings about Lt. Fick from the incompetent officers that he questioned. Now of course to the audience, the two soldiers are night and day when it comes to serving their country and the Marines, but to Godfather, the breakdown of truth in the military ranks renders the two mutually equal in terms of problems. It seems to be a sin to even suggest that, but that’s the problem: the structure of marine command creates difficulties for both the effectual and ineffectual alike. The problems with emotional detachment are played out in a wonderfully in a  scene when an injured Iraqi child (shot by Trombly) is brought by the unit’s doctor and other morally inclined officers to Godfather’s camp so he can get shipped back to a hospital for medical treatment. Godfather proceeds to give them a long list of reasons why that is implausible and exceptionally difficult from their current position, all of which are surprisingly sound reasons… and then, he gives the OK order anyway. It’s a great moment, but one that highlights the problems of detachment. It’s easy to say “no” when you’re on the phone, not watching a child die when you had the power to do something about it… no matter how problematic that something might be.

There is a larger problem still with Godfather’s detachment, one which has political ramifications. Much of his battle plan is designated from politically inclined generals; many of which he is  eager to impress. The recon marines battle plan for the war instantly becomes haphazard, roaming, and purposeless. They hit political targets yet skim around Iraq barely addressing problems, bombing before investigating, and ignoring problems they themselves create. It is incompetence in its purest form, a basic ignorance of the facts on the field in the pursuit of successes determined in Washington. The war in Iraq was a mad dash to Baghdad and everything since has been a matter of picking up the pieces from that destruction. The Marines regularly lament the cluster-fuck of what is occurring when compared to the skillfully executed missions they performed in Afghanistan. This isn’t a political reality. This is a reality of warfare. We see it time and time again in the trials of these recon marines. Were they to stay and handle a situation at hand, the situation could be solved and they could move on in good tactical conscience and good conscience at large. Which is exactly what the tactic became during the surge, you know, the moment where the war turned around and genuinely started to be rebuilt… it just took 4 years for the top brass to figure it out.  Meanwhile, these guys knew it the moment they got into the cities.

Look, the problems of the officer/soldier dynamic is nothing new. TS Elliot perhaps illustrated it best in The Hollowmen as had Coppola in the Apocalypse Now, as had Kubrick in Paths of Glory. But those were, well, artistic representations of a larger truth. They were inherently constructed. Not to get all non-fiction-vs.-fictiony, but what I liked about GK was that the examples of the officer/soldier dynamic are soundly concrete. The examples are factual, yet provide complete metaphorical representation of the larger political problems of the war. We rushed into a Iraq for perhaps unsound reasons, and then then competent, tactical soldiers had to deal with the consequences on the ground.  But of course things are never that cut and dry. Much like The Wire, Simon and Burns always let reality get in the way of any point they may try to make. The best example I can think of and most beautiful moment of the entire series deals with an officer whose name I can’t find (d’oh!) but he was the one complete and total asshole who always gave people crap about the marine dress code. He’s the complete stereotype of the hard-ass how harps on completely unimportant things and chews his men out. He’s in the mold of Lee Emory, almost acting as if that man was his hero. But near the end of the series, after a few marine injuries and some static development leave the Battalion’s morale rather low, the Asshole Dress Code Officer guy goes up to his fellow officer and has the following exchange:

(Paraphrased…)

Asshole Officer: Morale seems pretty low.

Other Officer: Yeah things look rough.

Asshole Officer: Well if things get any worse I can start harping on the dress code again.

[They share a wry smile]

… honestly it made me a bit teary.  It’s a kind of ego-sacrifice that you rarely see in real life. The Asshole Officer was willing to be “the asshole officer” for the greater sake of the men. The character is fully conscious of his effect and it’s wonderful to see, especially when many of the other officers (like Encino Man) are defined by their ego-centrism.   Ultimately, that’s what Simon and Burns have an amazing ability to do. They take some one who would either be a cut and dry asshole and they humanize him without ever dipping into forceful schmaltz (which the moment could have easily been and even slightly reads like in my summary. It wasn’t. It was great).

I think that’s all I have to say…

Generation Kill is amazing.

Endnotes:
-I may be mixing up my use of the word battalion, so anyone please correct me if I’m wrong.