Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Hurt Locker

I saw "The Hurt Locker" at the Garneau cinema near the U of Alberta campus Sunday. Although a review at the left-leaning Prospect dubbed the film "propaganda", many others say what distinguishes it from other Iraq movies is its apolitical nature. I'd first note that these two perspectives are not absolutely contradictory. Why? Because a "conservative" message is often non-verbal. The message may be received subconsciously despite the fact no message is obvious. I might add that the message might even be sent without the author/creator being fully conscious of it.

Until 2003, the University of Alberta graded on a 9 point scale, which was theoretically a stanine system meaning just 4% of a class received a 9. Although I ultimately graduated with First Class Standing during my last 2 years of undergrad, I only received two nines out of the dozens of courses I took, and one of them was for Film Studies. As I recall, all or almost all of the mark was based on a single final paper, and the thesis of my paper with that the cinema was a vehicle for appealing to a "nostalgia for the savannah", for a time and place when life was brutish and short on the one hand but simple and without need of modern analysis on the other. By communicating visually, film has a broader "bandwidth": it can deliver messages that are not apparent in the text of the dialogue. I have long believed that these sort of truths are, loosely, "conservative", in that they are not easily, perhaps not even possibly, explicable or justifiable by appeal to abstract argument. It's like trying to explain the colour "red" to a blind man. You can't, because organisms understand the phenomenon directly as opposed to abstractly. The idea of a depth psychology, that humans are not fully rational, is a key element of "right wing" thinking. Although I did not use the Lord of the Rings trilogy as an example of the "nostalgia" I talked about (the first of those movies not being released until 2001), I perhaps could have. It always amazed me that liberals could laud Lord of the Rings when at its core is, to be perfectly blunt, a race war.

But I digress. "The Hurt Locker" has a message, and it isn't one that is clear in the early goings (watching it, early on I thought the film was going to be far too cliched). The message is that the protagonist, Staff Sgt William James, is alienated and abnormal... as natural warriors are. Sgt JT Sanborn is the normal one: he becomes disillusioned by the stupidity of war and becomes increasingly interested in survival and the idea of family as the story progresses. Although Sgt James is described as "addicted" to war, I'd rather say that he does not believe he can really find the meaning of life apart from a proximity to death. And so a conventional existence as a husband and father with a white picket fence and a 9 to 5 job leaves him unsatisfied.

Where the "propaganda" comes in is in the subconscious message that Sgt James' type is necessary: a society without warriors is either impossible or stagnant and lifeless. One review comment I came across complained about the use of the countdown to when the team's tour is over. The countdown is, in fact, critical, because it sets up the walloping effect of the restarted countdown for James at the film's dénouement. One gets the full blast of subconscious identification with the dragon slayer archetype at that point.

Where the apoliticalness comes is in the implied suggestion that Sgt James is no hero. He's stupid tactically and disturbingly short on empathy.

The bottom line is that this a good, if not great, movie since it has something of the "iceberg" effect of great film and literature: one feels there is more there than is readily apparent.

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