17/04/12 Film Essay # , , , ,

Theater of War (2008)

Theater of War (2008)
Director: John W. Walter
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner


An odd, but ‘must see’ film, Theater of War is a work of art about the staging of an extraordinary work of art, Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children, and the amazing odyssey of the man who created it. The woman, Mother Courage, in Brecht’s play, is both prophetic character and mythic symbol of a detached determination to overcome fear in wartime that ignores deadly consequences. In Walter’s cinematic documentary, the play becomes a character in its own right, immersing its viewers in the magical transport of theater. We watch Brecht’s play turn war into a timeless event that one must resist, to which one must never capitulate.

I read that Brecht went to great trouble to develop techniques of staging to minimize audience emotional identification in order to maximize intellectual condemnation of war. He failed. I, as his many audiences since 1939, was swept into identifying with Mother Courage. He also prevailed. No one can walk away from this film justifying war. As fertile ground as war proves to be for making money, it’s never just another way of doing business. Brecht makes the cost explicit. We lose our children. And so I recommend you take a couple hours, rent Theater of War and see Tony Kushner stage the production of Brecht’s play for The Public Theater in New York City, 2006, with notables, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

But, be prepared for odd. Odd because there are so many elements spliced in with so many other elements without labels for clarification that time, place and character are elusive. This documentary covers a lot of ground, putting up scenes from Brecht’s play and filming backstage preparations as well as exhibiting historical war photos and mapping Brecht’s exile. In the midst of portraying the captivating work of actors – in particular, Streep immersing herself in the characterization of Mother Courage and attempting to avoid being her very entertaining self when she sings – rather dull professorial classroom lectures appear. In recurrent classes, the eyes of students are struck with black rectangles to prevent recognition as if they might be accused of participation in an illicit activity. Brecht’s life after leaving Germany did go around the world to Los Angeles and into HUAC hearings where he was questioned about being a communist but, as students, identification wouldn’t make them associated with Brecht’s life’s complications. However, Theater of War never strays from its purpose to look closely, not away from the message in Brecht’s play about adverse consequences of profits tied to war.

Therefore, ‘must see’. Where you will be drawn in, I can’t say. For me, it was Mother Courage. Personally and archetypally, I identified with the courage that Mother Courage – a tinker by trade – musters to protect her children in hostile circumstances only to discover that succeeding at business diverts her attention from her children and leaves them vulnerable. In other words, even the highly applauded, deeply held virtue of courage blinds its possessor when taken to an extreme. Not bravery, nor honesty, nor kindness averts harm. Looking at the fate of Mother Courage’s children, it isn’t difficult to reflect on a woman’s fear that a son will grow up to be a hero only to – or way too easily – fall victim to sweeping powers beyond his control. Mother Courage’s daughter gives up her own life to save other children. Another son, named Swiss Cheese as if to symbolize holes in his wits, throws away the cash box that would save him. Not all children have what it takes to survive in a world that survives by war.

Brecht’s messages are strong, important to our times when the future of children is much at stake. I’m in favor of emotional identification. It makes choice personal. It brings the large down to small where I can use Brecht to validate my own decision to work part-time while my children were growing up. At a time when money and time were ridiculously at odds, I often felt like a fool. I am one of many welcome benefactors of Brecht’s resistance, avoiding conscription into the army, escaping Germany while Nazi terror increased and writing for his life…and mine. His work reaffirms my belief that even a virtue taken to an extreme wreaks havoc, brings down its possessor and necessitates opposition. I especially like Brecht’s cautionary dramatization of the importance of reflection on virtue, his provocation to examine anything we label ‘good, great, wonderful’ because it requires being contrary to convention. To see hope in opposition is as important as the courage it takes but I believe, in moderation, we must. Real wisdom embraces uncertainty.

And Theater of War is a good ‘look see’ — well done, entertaining and engaging.

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14/11/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Peter Weir (screenplay), John Collee (screenplay), Patrick O’Brian (novels)
Stars: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd


Original version published in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library
Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2.


“New Heroes for New Times”

When I first conceived of this essay on the forging of true male friendship on the high seas in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, I simply thought of the gift of mythic inspiration being offered by the portrayal of a dynamic caring between two splendid men. But then I saw Fog of War in which the inability of two powerful men to speak honestly to one another — a U.S. President and his Secretary of State — resulted in one of the great disasters of the twentieth century. That was when I realized that open communication between men of immense power who know that they must sometimes commit evil in the name of good cannot be judged as ‘gay’ or ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ or ‘irrelevant’. Now, in these modern times, when it’s not just a matter of individual deaths but the death of nations that’s at stake, our mythology of what makes a real man is critical. In Master and Commander, duty is wed to compassion as both friend and opposite, inseparable companions worthy of and dependent upon one another for survival, healing and success.

In Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a deep friendship between men is elevated to the level of heroes. And manliness is given a new strength to face an unknown future. The film reinvigorates the old mythology of what makes a man a real man, showing how consciousness and identity can be forged in intimate relationship as well as in battle. And then it goes one step further. Master and Commanderputs forth a new kind of hero – a boy who finds insects as fascinating as dragons, pencils as necessary as guns and good male role models more compelling than bad. It seems like a good time to be a boy.

A boy’s odyssey to manhood may still be held captive by Homer’s ancient tale of the man who bears its name – Odysseus – but the nature of the journey, once completely singular, has begun to change. Master and Commanderprojects an expanded vision of expectation meeting the boy who is growing to manhood in our society today. It holds friendship with other men and caring for children central to the task of becoming a ‘real man’. This heroic image of manhood calls for self-reflection and listening as well as decisive action and conquest. And decisions, solo as they must remain, are not without context. Individual performance often emerges from intense interaction, be it warm and complementary or antagonistic. And, important to the challenge of today’s complicated conflicts, the expanded myth of manhood taking symbolic form in Master and Commandershows an empathetic understanding of an enemy’s point of view beginning to compete with brute force as a tool for victory. Purposeful expression, honest communication, and a genuine feeling for others gain stature as an integral part of leadership. The consequence is a complex, more complete and more fulfilled image of male identity.

Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World opens fast, sweeping across a wild, vast sea with only a fluttering of sails to suggest that men are present. But present they are. In the creaking hold of a British ship of war, a lone lantern makes its way through the dark. A disembodied hand flips the daily sandglass and shadowy sailors exchange places on the tall masts of HMS Surprise against the dawning light of a new day. Napoleon may represent the enemy in 1805 to British imperialism, threatening to claim the South Seas for France but, in this film – in the hands of master filmmaker, Peter Weir – the French enemy ship, Acheron, represents the threat of a future dominated by technological advancement. The Acheron comes like a phantom from the fog, pinpointing the aging Surprise as if equipped with laser beam radar and sporting an invincibility that will require more wit than gunpowder from its Captain, “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). Aubrey’s orders may be to keep the Southern Atlantic Ocean under English control, but his truer purpose will be to assert the spirit of man over the reach of machine. This is the stuff of mythology, the coming of a new hero for a new time. But Aubrey, unlike Odysseus, brings friendship to an even level with the power of personality as key to a man’s stature. He enters into a creative tension with the ship’s physician, a man his equal and opposite, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Friendship undergoes close examination inMaster and Commander, articulating a modern, yet very manly, vision of caring for others. It is the forging of a fit, compassionate image of leadership from a friendship between two extraordinary men on the far side of the world at the cusp of a new age that lies at the center of this film.

Homer’s famed Odyssey established Odysseus as a new hero for his times, a man with a more enlightened consciousness, one in which a mere mortal possesses heightened god-like mental as well as physical abilities. As the tale goes, when Agamemnon forced Odysseus to join Ithaca’s war against Troy and bring civilization to a primitive world, he dragged Odysseus from his fields as a man who knew how to sow seed, nurture it to fruition and reap the rewards of civility. When war became Odysseus’ only pursuit, he hardened and learned to defend himself with a cleverness and pride that excluded concern for community, honing his mind to the fine art of thought designed for action in battle. If we were to imagine Odysseus’s twenty-year journey home from the Trojan wars as a personal quest to develop a male identity more suitable to society than battle, his extended visit with the goddess Calypso could be seen as necessary to the transition, critical to the development of emotional and spiritual sensitivities. Woman was regarded – borrowing words from Joseph Campbell – as ‘being there’ at the center of a man’s quest for wholeness. Odysseus was a battle weary man in desperate need of getting in touch with feelings that would allow him to re-enter his previous life. He was headed across the great seas of the Mediterranean toward home and Penelope, his devoted, patient and much desired wife who had kept his palace, lands and marriage bond intact during his absence. Odysseus could be seen as a man in great need of integrating emotion into his being. He accomplished this task of learning to love, empathize, and be sensual in the typical way imagined for a hero – with a woman. In the time of Odysseus, a man’s spiritual desire was deemed synonymous with capitulating to the lure of feminine beauty beheld in a woman.

The notion of a Greek hero developing or emanating empathy in context of another man was a contradiction in terms. So, when Peter Weir’s Master and Commandershows the brave, cunning and charismatic Captain Jack Aubrey of the HMS Surprise expressing private worries, seeking out frank opinion and playing impassioned string duets with Dr. Stephen Maturin, his stature as a traditional hero is either in question or under revision. And the same could be said of Maturin, a man of no small heroic stature even though he serves in a secondary position as ship’s surgeon. He not only performs brain surgery in a makeshift open air amphi-theatre of the ship’s hold while the patient’s shipmates look on but he digs the remnants of an errant bullet from his own belly, with little or no anesthetic, backwards through the reflected image of a mirror! These are men whose manhood should not be in question. But, of course, that is what’s at stake. Aside from the intensely emotional confrontations that stretch anyone’s notion of male bonding, there will be two crucial moments when each of these men must choose between his egoistic goals and friendship. Their decisions challenge the self-contained image of stoicism traditionally thought critical to the definition of a real man. The oceanic forces of the collective unconscious are at work once again. Under the pressures of war and weather in Master and Commander, they set male identity in motion — and demand from audiences a greater appreciation of the breadth of male heroism than previous myth would have it.

The two men of Master and Commanderare strong individualists – and worthy adversaries in conversation and vision. Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin are about as contrary in temperament and calling as two men can get. But the differences that lie between them are not there to be mollified, lessening either man’s stature by negotiation or compromise. Having a friend not like himself proves useful, making each man feel unique, strong and true to his nature. At the center of this story lies a choice point for each man, a moment when each must look deep within and choose what marks himself as a man – honoring friendship or pursuing ambition. They shift and ponder and groan, determined to integrate the feelings they have for one another into their larger sense of purpose in the world.

“Lucky” Jack Aubrey is a man of action, Master and Commanderof what it takes to keep men, ship, and country together under siege. As he dares to round the Horn of South America in his creaking brig against great and dangerous odds, he yields to Maturin’s pressure to be self-reflective. Not easily, but he does. He finally admits to his friend that his pursuit of the more advanced Acheron into treacherous seas is, indeed, no longer dictated by orders from England. It is his own will, his own interpretation of duty that sends him forward. Only in the privacy of intimate conversation does he admit such hubris. Aubrey feels he must prove that an experienced man of skill and intelligence will be relevant to a future that promises to be dominated by advancements in technology. As he casts his eyes upon a small model two of his men have constructed of the Acheron, he declares, “That is the future”. But he also comments, “it is still vulnerable at the star, like the rest of us”. Subtly, he refers not simply to the construction of a ship but to the ego of his enemy, the man behind the weapon. This is a leader who values empathy as an advantage in war not to be forgotten.

Dr. Stephen Maturin is a quieter man of science, observant, thoughtful and sardonic, preoccupied by a curiosity for nature. He may be aboard a ship but he is not a man of the sea. With nerves as steely as Aubrey, he holds his own and inspires high regard from seasoned sailors. ‘He’s a physician, not just a bloody surgeon’, snaps a seaman who knows most naval doctors simply cut off limbs after a battle. In spite of his ignorance of sailing, Maturin is not a man to be taken lightly. He may not understand nautical terms but that doesn’t stop him from grasping intention and expressing strong opinions about the direction Aubrey chooses. He also operates upon wounded men with a cold confidence that denies his awareness of the limitations of medical treatment at sea and leaves him optimistic about the future of a boy who loses an arm from the nasty consequences of war. It was common practice for boy children to be sent into naval service by their parents in 1805, but uncommon for them to be regarded with such respect as they receive aboard the HMS Surprise.

Together, Maturin and Aubrey set a tone of mentoring and convey a vision beyond war. Maturin is as intent upon using the Royal Navy to further his scientific investigation of the unknown world as Aubrey is intent upon extending Britain’s power into it. He bristles with anger when Aubrey dismisses his scientific investigation as a hobby, not of worldly consequence. Maturin takes Aubrey equally to task when he refuses to turn back toward England when both men and ship are stressed past the breaking point. “Can you really claim that there is nothing personal in this call to duty?” The two seem to thrive on being honest to the sticking point with one another. Intensely competitive, their exchanges reveal the workings of a friendship, showing an interplay between passion, honesty, and respect that feeds achievement. Each man sees himself in line for legend and, with a little mythic imagination, can be seen as using the navy for higher purpose – to further the reach of mankind beyond the known.

Even when they’re having fun, an exchange between the two carries mythic significance. As all the officers are having a meal together, Aubrey mocks Stephen’s serious nature with a joke. He asks Stephen to make a choice between two bread weevils. And then, with a twinkle in his eye, he takes advantage of Stephen’s gullibility. ‘Don’t you know, Stephen, that there is no better of two-weevils?” Might it be the two natures of these men that pose the choice? Or perhaps something even more profound? Later, when Jack and Stephen are discussing the responsibility they both feel for the deaths of young men aboard ship, the joke comes back to haunt them. Stephen owns to Jack that guilt weighs heavy on him when he operates. He must remind himself that when a man dies under his knife, it has been the enemy and not himself who has caused the man’s death. Then, in somber tone, he returns Jack’s joke to its source. “It’s service to war, Jack, that requires a choice between two evils.” Aubrey’s casual joke is brought full circle, revealing the emotional complexity required of responsible men.

More than the buddy camaraderie seen in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid or in a myriad of movies with the likes of Hope and Crosby, the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin often requires each man to become introspective, look within himself and reconsider what’s important to him. Thus, each man is called upon to develop himself and stretch beyond his own consciousness. The string duets with Aubrey on violin and Maturin on cello are described by the ship’s cook as ‘scrape, scrape and screech, screech’ which is, indeed, an amusing characterization of the insistent nature of their collaboration.

Aubrey, long past his orders and against Maturin’s counsel, pursues theAcheron ’round Cape Horn. It is at this point that Master and Commandertruly lifts into mythic storytelling and opens the way for an alchemical transformation of common friendship into something heroic. The weather gods are not with Lucky Jack this time. Raging storms, freezing winds and bizarre blankets of snow are not relieved but aggravated by a blistering hot dead spell. A stream of fear passes from man to man. Rumors of the Acheron as a supernatural enemy, one meant to sink them into the deep, replaces reason. As tensions escalate, Jack comes down hard on his men to keep order but it’s clear that things are out of his hands. It will take a sacrifice of human life – a young officer committing suicide – to get the winds moving. It’s as if HMS Surprise has entered another world, where life and death choices scrape against one another.

When the Surprise comes upon the strange and never explored Galapagos Islands, rare wildlife comes into view. Flightless cormorants and swimming iguanas can be sighted from aboard ship. Maturin feels they should be his to examine up close. Aubrey, believing the Acheron is long gone, grants Maturin his wish. But then Jack learns from a couple pirates that theAcheron is nearby and can be caught with small effort. He breaks his promise to Stephen, favoring the opportunity to chase after the Acheron. Maturin is furious, confronting Aubrey with the meaning of breaking one’s word. Tempers fly but Aubrey is resolute. And then an uncanny accident occurs that will force a character defining choice from Aubrey. Maturin is shot by mistake; a shipboard marine, attempting to shoot an albatross flying in and out the ship’s sails, misses and hits Stephen. He is not killed but the bullet wound contains a scrap of cloth that will fester and take his life. Removal is tricky, not a task to be performed by a skilled surgeon on board a rolling ship much less by Maturin’s inexperienced assistant. Aubrey must decide. Friendship or duty. Saving Stephen’s life or catching the Acheron.

Aubrey faces the crux of the matter in a world beneath and below; is he Maturin’s friend or, solely, his captain? Scrape, scrape. Duty is no longer a defense he can throw at Stephen in anger. He must ask himself. Is he on this journey alone or is Maturin an integral part of it. To Aubrey’s mind in the moment, it is his friend’s life or his dream, the chance to prevail in English history with singular ego. England’s praises await him. And he’s capable of heartless action to achieve his goals. But, to chase after the Acheron will mean certain death for Maturin. The doctor’s survival requires a steady hand on steady land. In a pensive set of cinematic reflections, Aubrey walks amongst his men, looks at the Acheron so tempting within his scope and ponders Maturin’s cello without a hand on its bow. He makes up his mind. Aubrey aborts his chase and escorts Maturin ashore for the surgery.

Aubrey’s decision to be in service to his friend, however, calls for a bit more of him than captain’s orders. It requires a reversal of roles, casting him in the role of a nursing assistant. For a few moments, he is handmaiden to Maturin who must take the scalpel to save his own life. Seeing Stephen operate on his own body exposes Jack to a queasiness he never feels in battle, a feeling he could’ve avoided for a lifetime but now has an opportunity to integrate. Then Aubrey, who believes the Acheron is long gone, grants Stephen a week to explore the island. Of course, because they are in the land of the gods, Stephen is miraculously up and about the next day, taking a five-mile hike to the far side of the Galapagos Island.

Then, the weevil joke turns again. Maturin faces Aubrey’s choice between ego and friendship. While hiking to the edge of a cliff to get a close look at a flightless cormorant, he sights the Acheron just setting sail from a hidden inlet. Screech meets scrape. Friendship makes another call. Maturin could ignore his duty to the Royal Navy, sure in his own mind that he’s fulfilling a higher duty by bringing home to England an unprecedented treasure. But he can’t deny his emotional commitment to Jack. He must match him. Maturin stares with longing eyes across an island as rare as the moon. He must abandon his investigation, releasing his exotic specimens from their cages, and rush back across the island to alert Aubrey. Now, friendship drives this man away from his chance to go before god and country as a singular hero. In Maturin’s case, there is even more at stake since Aubrey is intent upon taking them into battle with the Acheron, a battle that could take his life as well as his goal into the deep dark sea.

But their friendship yields an unexpected gift.

Later, under sail with Maturin back to work making notes and drawings, Aubrey pays him a visit. Jack commends Stephen for, what in his mind, was the right choice. But he also commiserates with Stephen’s loss. “Nothing saved? All lost?” Then, as they screech and scratch their way through a sensitive parry of pride and loss, something magical happens. Maturin shows him one ‘save’ from the island. He hands Jack a small branch of a bush and, enjoying a moment of foolery at Aubrey’s expense, looks on without saying anything. Aubrey plays along, especially since he has the audience of young Will. He holds the stick under his gaze until it moves ever so slightly and reveals itself to be an insect. Stephen explains that the insect camouflages itself as a stick to elude hungry birds. A sly look creeps across Jack’s face. Maturin has given him just the note he needs to draw in the phantom Acheron and, with Lucky Jack’s luck, possibly take it as a prize. He will disguise the Surprise as a whaler, pretty prey for the Acheron.

The creative tension between Jack and Stephen, epitomized in the music they play together but drawn out in detail in the choices they’ve made to elevate friendship above duty, yields an edge for the HMS Surprise in battle. Jack turns Stephen’s trick of nature into a ‘ruse de guerre’, using an insect’s instinct for survival not simply as camouflage for survival but as a way to get the upper hand against a superior force. Stephen, of course, can’t resist teasing his friend by pointing out that it is Jack, not the captain of theAcheron, who is the hungry bird! Later, in hand to hand combat on theAcheron, it will become necessary for Stephen to pick up a sword, exercising physical aggression as well as intelligence to defend himself. Each man must become more than he has been to meet the future.

And then there’s Will. Early on, when the Acheron came out of the fog like a phantom, its long cannon crashed into the HMS Surprise. It took its toll on ship and men alike. Will Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a bare teen, lost his right arm. But it seemed to make him stronger, more of a leader among the men. He gladly accepted the consequences of battle, determined to make others feel better about their weak points. The boy rises above the wound, using his recovery to study and learn. He reads Aubrey’s books on war at sea, (in particular, one about the renowned naval hero, Lord Hornblower) and draws pictures of Maturin’s insects. He softens the blows of Aubrey’s stubborn command upon Maturin and buffers Maturin’s angry judgments against Aubrey. He is a voice of kindness, especially providing a calm presence to the sailors around him as fear fed superstition characterizing the mightyAcheron as a devil ship. But he also steps up to take command when necessary. Will fills the bill as ‘the one’. He connects the above and the below, the opposites of rule and exception, reason and emotion, light and dark. Hermetic, he listens, carries messages and furthers a mysterious connection between forces when all else is failing. When an officer, designated by the seamen as a scapegoat for the unexplainable adversity of bad weather befalling the Surprise, takes his own life to appease the gods, Will is there to witness it. Of course, the winds began to blow. The ineffable connection between belief and effect has been paid homage – and acknowledged, much like in the ancient days of Agamemnon.

It is no small gesture of mythic storytelling that the fledgling image of a ‘relational masculine’ takes its human form in the ship’s very young midshipman, Will Blakeney. Will may be destined to the action of war but he harbors talents as a naturalist, gluing opposites together with empathy. His mentors may turn to one another for sibling-like solace but Will’s caring is key to his personality, instinctual not behavioral. He not only draws insects, he cherishes a lone beetle saved from the Galapagos. The beetle proves a bit of welcome salve for Maturin’s loss as Aubrey takes off after the Acheron. In case the implication of Will as a new kind of hero in the making might be missed, Maturin reflects out loud to Will that – perhaps, somehow – he will grow up to combine the qualities of a captain of war and a doctor of science. Will likes the idea. “Perhaps I could become a fighting naturalist.” If so, he would transcend and unify the opposites that Maturin and Aubrey find so antagonistic – and add an alliance of male strength to the myth of what makes a real man.

Novel idea, two heroes in the same story. Each made more unique by the other. True friendship. Novel idea, two men parenting a ‘fighting naturalist’, a real man for a future that will call out for both. Out of fierce confrontations, solid disagreements and embarrassing concessions, Aubrey and Maturin wring a broader version of manhood from mythology than the one left by Odysseus. The conflict between two friends drives the center of a drama in the mythic territory of wild seas on the far side of the world. And the boys who watch, the boys who would become men under such unusual tutelage constellate an Odysseus who turns egoism to compassion, avoiding the pride that brought Poseidon down on Odysseus. As Stephen says of the Iliad, “The book is full of death, but oh so living.” Yes, as it is also in the film, Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World.

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07/02/03 Film Essay # , , ,

The Quiet American (2002)

The Quiet American (2002)
Director: Phillip Noyce
Writers: Christopher Hampton (screenplay), Robert Schenkkan (screenplay), Graham Greene (novel)
Stars: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen


“Graham Greene’s Quiet American likens the U.S. rescuing a country to a man rescuing the woman he loves from danger. She may be vulnerable but his life is at stake.”

Viet Nam, 1950’s. The French are losing the war to Communists. An aging, jaded British journalist, Thomas Fowler (exquisitely performed by Michael Caine), lives in Saigon, filing as few stories as possible until his paper threatens to pull him home. He feels about Vietnam the same way he feels about Phuong, his live-in concubine; he loves them both as sources of respite, balm to a seared skin of cynical depression.

Enter the Americans, covertly (in the 50’s) competing with the French and the Communists for Vietnam. This triangle of warring suitors doubles back and over a romantic triangle that develops when a young American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Frazer) arrives. Pyle is a doctor seemingly intent upon healing the eyes of thousands of Vietnamese with a new and simple technique. His mission reeks of hypocrisy, right down to the metaphor of clearing Vietnamese eyesight. Of course, Pyle isn’t there to administer medical treatment and, of course, he falls in love – at first sight – with Fowler’s mistress, Phuong. He’s the predictable wolf in sheep’s clothing. Phuong is the quintessential symbol of Vietnam, an idealized beauty no one wants to see fall into the hands of a predator. This film may have been shelved for a year due to 9/11 but it’s easily argued to be even more provocative now. Like it or not, the”Quiet American” raises questions about American intentions in Iraq.

The opening shot in”Quiet American” of the idealistic young American face down, dead in the water in a white suit, memorializes an already known ending to American desires for Vietnam. In the”Quiet American“, Pyle is the nice young man next door who went to Vietnam with patriotic zeal. Not the rowdy one crashing parties or wearing long hair, Pyle looks like an All-American football player who drives a beat-up car and takes his girlfriend to the movies on Saturday night. He is the young Martin Sheen going up the river in Apocalypse Now, finding more than he bargained for. Or is he? Why is that super nice guy Pyle speaking fluent Vietnamese when American schools barely offer French or Spanish? In fact, Pyle’s trained. In fact, he’s on a military mission, however well dressed.

The film especially provokes reflection on the way American advertising equates a woman with her country — and how qualifying as a real man in America can be sealed by rescue missions in love and war. In the”Quiet American“, Alden Pyle feels about Vietnam much the same way he feels about the Vietnamese woman he falls in love with; he wants to protect her, show off her beauty and possess her — be her one and only. There’s an old fairy tale where a king takes the most beautiful songbird in his kingdom home from the forest because he fears predators will kill her, depriving him of her song. He places her in a golden cage by his bed. Sadly, the songbird dies in captivity. To re-invoke his beloved songbird, the king orders a perfect replica that performs upon command but, alas, sings mechanically. The king soon dies of a broken heart. In”Quiet American“, Fowler tells the young American who lusts after Phuong,”Of course, I’m not essential to her but if I lost her, I would begin to die.” Pyle listens without hearing. He can offer Phuong the marriage that will save her from the horrors of Saigon. Fowler cannot. But Pyle, like the king in the fairy tale, does not see what awaits him as he pursues domination of the Vietnam spirit.

The American loses his life as an innocent who believes that ‘caging the bird’ can prevent evil from happening. The Brit must give up his wasteful way of life to ‘get the girl’, get his spirit back. He will file the horror stories that mark one of the worst wars of the century; he must give up his depression, choose sides and devote himself to revealing the truth of man’s inhumanity to man.

How many deaths of innocent kings and princes will occur before the resplendent bird of paradise can take her own chances in the wild? Of course, with Graham Greene’s hard-hitting truth behind the film,”Quiet American“, Phuong represents her country well; she goes with the suitor who offers her the most.

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19/09/01 Film Essay # , , ,

No Man’s Land (2001)

No Man’s Land (2001)
Director: Danis Tanovic
Writer: Danis Tanovic
Stars: Branko Djuric, Rene Bitorajac, Filip Sovagovic


“NO MAN’S LAND tells you everything you never wanted to know about war, making you shake your fist at the sky and shout ‘there’s got to be a better way’.”

No Man’s Land may be subtitled but it is by no means foreign in the conventional sense of the word. Bosnian writer-director Denis Tanovic’s winner of the Golden Globe for best foreign film and favored nominee for an Oscar asks a question close to the bone. “Why war?” What’s war got to do with the problems we face coming together as a world of neighbors?

I’m hoping, of all the films you have an opportunity to see this Oscar season, that you will seek out No Man’s Land. There is no other film so relevant to the challenges of getting along in today’s world. Clearly, foreign no longer means distant. No Man’s Land may take place halfway around the world in the fields of Bosnia but its enemies are neighbors. They know each other. The two men caught in the film’s ‘no man’s land’ —— a trench between enemy lines —— speak each other’s language!

That’s funny. Oddly, No Man’s Land is funny. It may be the funniest, real war film you’ve ever seen. But beware, humor has a way of opening us up, taking us deeper and deeper into the true emotional core of something we don’t like to look at too closely. From the film’s opening scenes of a Bosnian relief squad lost in a fog following a guide who doesn’t know where he’s going, we chuckle along with the soldiers at the absurdity of it all. As day dawns, we’re amused for a moment to find the Bosnians still lost, blinded this time by the sun, scratching their heads wondering where they are. Then we find them —— in the crosshairs of Serbian guns. Blam, swivel and find. Blam, aim and fire. We are stunned to see single shots kill Bosnians like rabbits in the grass. Background the humor, horror leaves us shaking our heads in despair, holding back tears of wonder and frustration.

Then we drop in behind Serbian and Bosnian front line troops complying with a certified cease-fire. The gift of No Man’s Land is its ability to open our hearts to a simple fact. Nice, normal, ordinary human beings kill and get killed in wars. We experience more amusement as we observe neither side wanting to deal with the murders that just took place due to bad luck and bad rules. Serbian soldiers hang back not wanting to risk their own lives checking out whether the Bosnians they’ve shot are dead. The Bosnian soldiers decide to simply wait to see if “anything changes…see if the dead walk” as they put it. It’s a cease-fire after all. See what I mean, funny in an odd sort of way. Neighbors killing each other without any real desire to do so.

Through a set of circumstances best left discovered by seeing the film, a Bosnian and Serb end up together in a trench dividing the two front lines with a third Bosnian lying atop a spring-loaded helicopter mine. All three are wounded. This ‘No Man’s Land’ incident gives rise to a drama that —— if it weren’t so tragic —— would have you laughing in the aisles. Perhaps the last film to broach this level of absurdity in war was Catch 22. No one knows what to do. No one wants to rock the boat. No one wants to act. In order to wave white rags of truce, Serb and Bosnian strip to their skivvies to avoid being identified by either side and shot. Ironically, both sides react with heavy fire and bombing!

To whom can these men appeal, we might wonder? Both sides want these men to disappear because they represent a violation of the cease-fire. In peacetime, no one wants to be accused of pulling a gun. In frustration, a French UN peacekeeper acts against orders from headquarters to sit tight, moving in to offer help. But when he arrives at the trench, he finds a situation virtually unsolvable by ordinary means. The global press moves in, waves a flag of its own and leaves the true issue untouched. Our only hope lies with the two men who speak the same language. We long for the intimacy that has developed between the two men to prevail, rising above the madness of rules, regulations and contrived enmities. For heaven’s sake, they’ve shared the same girlfriend before the war. But oddly, now, help is straining their relationship to the breaking point.

One man holds out hope that the other will form an alliance with him, see that they are in this together. He believes there’s a solution in sticking together in spite of their differences. Two men against the world. But the other feels sure that there is no way out. Only personal survival counts. He takes no side, trying to hide inside the shadow of authority. They betray each other, each in their own turn desperately taking matters into their own hands and making matters worse. Although it would be easy, even just, to assign blame for what happens to a lack of trust, that’s fundamental to war. The culprit in No Man’s Land is the fact of ‘no man’s land’ as an area beyond will, force or logic. If ever there were a time to shake one’s fist at the skies and cry…or cry out, this is it.

As I sat waiting for the next film to show after “No Man’s Land” at the Telluride Film Festival, a man approached from my left looking for his seat to my right. At the same time, a man a few seats to my right decided to go for popcorn. They met just at my knees. Each looked the other in the eye with clear intent that they had the right of way. Pulling my knees in as far as possible didn’t help. But all of a sudden, we started to laugh. We recognized where we were. We were caught in ‘no man’s land’. The popcorn man backed up, taking his seat so the other could pass. Unfortunately, there’s no backing up in “No Man’s Land”. Only forward motion was considered acceptable, resulting in something worse than no motion at all.

When knowing —— even caring about “the other” —— fails to prevent stupidity, defensiveness and denial of responsibility, we must all give thought to what it really, really means to be at war and also, how intimate war is. What’s left behind in “No Man’s Land” when the credits roll and the lights go up leaves a brain twister that doesn’t go away easily. “What would I have done?” or better yet, What could I have done?”

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