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Wednesday, June 24, 2009
ARMOND WHIITE ON HURT LOCKER
AND OTHER VIEWS ON REDACTED, CASUALTIES OF WAR

Armond White reviews Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker in this week's New York Press, and the second word of his review is "Brian De Palma"--

Although Brian De Palma lost his artistic bearings on the anti–Iraq War bandwagon, director Kathryn Bigelow found her perfect subject. That’s the difference between De Palma’s confused, preachy Redacted and Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Bigelow (working from a script by Mark Boal) stays focused on the personalities of soldiers during Bravo company’s last 39 days of rotation in 2004 Baghdad. An early reconnaissance jest (“It’s my dick.”) between Sgt. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce) recalls De Palma’s ribaldry, but it also indicates Bigelow’s erotic view of masculine endeavor—here defining the propensity for violence and bravery during war.

It's nice to know that White is chalking up his dislike of Redacted to De Palma "losing his artistic bearings" because he supposedly jumped on the anti-Iraq war bandwagon, but I would counter that with Redacted, De Palma had just begun to discover new artistic bearings that were compromised even within that film's already meager budget. In the introduction for this interview with the British artist Legofesto, writer Andy Carling describes how De Palma had wanted to use Legofesto's recreation of the rape and murder of a Mahmudiya family by soldiers in Redacted. He quotes De Palma discussing the things he had to leave out of his film:

It started with small things, like the Legofesto site for example. Here’s a site that actually reconstructs the incident with Legos, shows a Lego figure being raped, blood on the floor, etc. and is critical of the event, but the lawyers come and say, we can’t use it because it has a brand name - Lego. Not that they are to blame. If you put it in its real context - an Internet blog using Lego figures to illustrate an event, I could not see the problem, but legal vetting is set to safeguard and in that respect, who wants the possibility of going to war with Lego?

De Palma did not even originally plan to have a screenplay for Redacted, but was forced to write one and to follow it by the studio. He must have realized he would need one to get financing for a future movie in the same vein as Redacted, so he wrote a script tentatively titled Shoot The Messenger, a project which would have used a form similar to that of the purposely fractured yet streamlined Redacted. It is a shame that financing could not be found for a more radical project such as Shoot The Messenger, which purported to use another internet-like web of sources to delve into the way stories are invented and sold to the public as a way of distorting the truth.

In a double-review of Errol Morris' Standard Operating Procedure and Nick Broomfield's Battle For Haditha, Phil Nugent delved into a discussion of De Palma's war films:

In Haditha, as in some of the Vietnam war movies such as Full Metal Jacket, war puts decent young men into situations where they're temporarily driven insane, which means they cannot be judged. Some reviewers--and, it seems, the director himself--have taken the opportunity to use Broomfield's movie as a club against Brian De Palma's Redacted, just as De Palma's Vietnam movie Casualties of War was denounced by the critics who'd hailed Full Metal Jacket and Platoon as realistic and morally tough-minded. Part of De Palma's message in both his war movies was that atrocities happen when there's an instigator there to get the ball rolling. The other Vietnam movies were part of a culture that sought to make peace with Vietnam vets who felt they'd been maligned and even demonized as part of the overall effort to criticize the war when it was going on, and they did that in part by saying that "war" is so deranging that those who'd done bad things in the field shouldn't be held responsible for anything at all, though they did have the option of feeling sorry for themselves. The ball somehow gets itself rolling. Haditha, portraying American soldiers going batshit psychotic for a brief bloody spell and then switching back to their normal selves, like the Hulk turning back into Bruce Banner, just in time to deliver a climactic soul-searching speech to the bathroom mirror, is a continuation of that trend, and it may seem a very comforting approach for people who want to express horror at what goes on in Iraq but who are terrified that if they seem to criticize any individual soldiers, they'll be accused of not "supporting the troops." What's missing from this attitude is any awareness of, let alone respect and sympathy for, the soldiers who don't go batshit and manage to hang onto their moral bearings, such as the soldier who reported the actual abduction and rape that formed the basis for the story told in Casualties of War, or the helicopter pilot who broke up the My Lai massacre, and all the numberless members of the military who go through just as much hell as anyone in war but resist the urge to run amok. One of the most resonant interviews in Standard Operating Procedure is with a guy who explains that he didn't break up the fun at Abu Ghraib and who agreed to take some pictures because, "Me being the kind of person I am, I try to be friends with everybody. I'm a nice guy, so I took [the picture]. I try not to have anybody mad at me." (This sap goes on to say that the fact that he got in trouble for his actions proves that "being a nice guy doesn't pay off," and then laments, or boasts, that since he got home, people say he's not as nice as he used to be.) The Iraq war was unnecessary, and served no good purpose, but once the president decided that he really, really wanted it, it didn't take too much work from the government to sell the media on making it seem that if you wanted to be a nice guy, if you didn't want anybody mad at you, you had to want this war too. The heroes of My Lai and the Casualties of War rape case and other nightmares were the ones who were willing to be disliked, who thought it was more important to do the obvious right thing than to be thought of as nice guys, and who, by their very existence, show the "War makes you crazy and absolves you of responsibility" school of thought for the self-protective, buck-passing line of horseshit that it is. The people at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere did unforgivable, monstrous things for the best and worst of reasons: they didn't want to be thought of as troublemakers.


Posted by Geoff at 12:19 PM CDT
Post Comment | View Comments (5) | Permalink | Share This Post

Friday, June 26, 2009 - 9:08 PM CDT

Name: "Matt Scott"

Of course, if De Palma's 'artistic bearings' - if we are going to use that phrase - were at the outset so severly compromised by 'the studio' he very well had the option to not make the film. He probably could have kicked up as much dust in the press over redaction in the hollywood system with the lacuna of the unmade film as his vade mecum. As it stands, every quibble about compromise and censorship to the press looks like an excuse for a poorly received film.

 Nonetheless, it is important that De Palma make war films: they are touchstone films that go towards explaining his filmography. For these are without question deeply felt films, yet share many of the characteristics people tend to consider 'parody' - melodrama, cliche, tacky references to contemporary art, etc. - in his other films.

Monday, June 29, 2009 - 12:00 PM CDT

Name: "Geoff"
Home Page: http://www.briandepalma.org

Hi, Matt-- when I delved into the issue of compromise above, my main intent was to show that De Palma's impulse to make the film seemed to be a fresh creative energy on his part, and that, counter to what Armond White suggests, he was not trying to jump on some anti-war bandwagon, but was being offered money to make whatever film he wanted, and he found a subject that compelled him not only because he was passionate about it, but he'd felt he found a new way to tell a story, which was the way he himself experienced that story on the internet. I didn't mean to get into the "quibbles" that suggest he should just not make the project, etc., but I was trying to make clear that De Palma wasn't trying to jump on any bandwagon-- he was rather amazed and disturbed by the similarities between this recent story and the one he'd depicted in CASUALTIES OF WAR.

 By "the studio," I mean of course Magnolia. I go by the idea that an artistic idea is naturally compromised almost from the start, once you start to try to get the idea realized. As is apparent from many of De Palma's interviews about REDACTED, several of his original ideas for the project had to be altered or dropped, and as always, he understands this, and does his best to work with his collaborators to create a good film. Sometimes he fights hard for something, such as the hurricane at the end of SNAKE EYES-- but he lost that battle, changed his ending, and claimed that he liked the new ending better. So De Palma is aware that his ideas can be compromised yet may still lead to something he still feels good about. So it would take, I think, something he really really felt was important to the project to make him drop a project altogether because he couldn't get it (like maybe using green paint instead of blood for the prom prank in CARRIE-- that might have been a deal-breaker).

With REDACTED, he seemed to understand Magnolia's position of having to check everything from an insurance standpoint (he didn't like it, but he understood their position), but with the photos at the end, he claims that everybody knew about them, they had seen them, etc., was told it was fine, but then after it was all done, they decided to censore the photos. He was upset, he said, because had he known of this compromise, he would have done it a different way, by perhaps having the photos staged (as he did with the final photo of the girl). When he talks about the other compromises, I don't think he's doing it so much in a complaining way as much as he is giving the facts of the matter, things he had to deal with while making the film. But they were artistic compromises nonetheless, which was what I was trying to get at, and I meant to suggest that, having learned from REDACTED, another project in this vein might have been (and still might be) extraordinary.

Monday, June 29, 2009 - 12:08 PM CDT

Name: "Geoff"
Home Page: http://www.briandepalma.org

Regarding your statement that every quibble, etc, comes off as "an excuse for a poorly received film"-- it is odd to think this, because at the time De Palma was saying these things, he was on a high, as the film was very well-received at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival (where he won the Directing award), and the film was getting into many other festivals, including the one in New York. I think all of this attention for the film led him to feel that if he was vocal about those photos at the end, Magnolia would cave in and let his film be what he thought it was going to be when he placed those photos at the end.

Friday, August 21, 2009 - 6:05 PM CDT

Name: "Adam Zanzie"
Home Page: http://www.iceboxreels.blogspot.com

Thanks for sticking up for "Redacted", Geoff. When even a De Palma apologist such as Armond White can't defend the filmmaker's latest masterpiece, well... someone has to.

 I think "Redacted" is a superior film to "The Hurt Locker" because it's more passionate, is bolder and takes more artistic risks. I'm planning on submitting a long essay on the film to Cinema Viewfinder during the De Palma Blog-A-Thon in September.

Saturday, September 5, 2009 - 4:03 PM CDT

Name: "Geoff"
Home Page: http://www.angelfire.com/de/palma

Hi, Adam-- Yes, the more I look at REDACTED, the more I see it as a masterpiece. I look forward to your upcoming essay!

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