Editor’s Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 04/28/2004, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).
Casualties of War subverts the conventional guilty pleasures of the Vietnam genre by stressing the guilt and blunting the pleasure. Alternating between classical and modernist modes, the film employs subversive techniques at its several narrative climaxes to break open a space for the audience to interrogate its modes of representation and their own complicity in the spectacle. Testing but ultimately disregarding the naturalized conventions and stereotypes that fail to accommodate its verboten subject, director Brian De Palma advances the genre into the territory of American atrocity, specifically the rape and murder of a female civilian whose brutalized body represents the decimated topography of her country. Treating the Vietnam conflict not as the exception to Western codes of behavior but as its ultimate patriarchal manifestation, the film exposes the origins of war at the level of sexual difference and castration anxiety. Although based on a true story, the narrative is framed as a dream of the protagonist, a strategy demonstrating a suspicion of the cinema’s capacity to objectify personal ideology and private experience, and in the process misrepresent the Vietnam War film as an objective, historical document.
CASUALTIES OF GENRE
Released in 1989, near the end of Hollywood’s Vietnam cycle, Casualties of War typifies the genre in its mature stage. Drawing upon documented events as its subject, the film nevertheless inscribes much of its narrative within the conventions of Vietnam films that precede it, thereby conflating historical and cinematic memory. Based upon Daniel Lang’s 1969 report in The New Yorker about the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a Vietnamese farm girl by a patrol of five American soldiers, the script by David Rabe for the most part adheres scrupulously to the particulars of the trial depositions and interviews on which Lang’s account is based. Where the scenario veers into speculation is in its expository sequences in the jungle, village, and base camp. Within these fictional sequences, which on the surface appear to provide a psychological and ethnographic explanation for the atrocity that follows, De Palma reveals that the sentiments and ideologies playing for the viewer’s sympathies are little more than exhausted stereotypes that ultimately fail to rationalize the patrol’s criminal behavior. The film’s first half hour, therefore, functions paradoxically as both narrative realism and an interrogation of the cinematic conventions that have come to signify popular conceptions of American troops in Vietnam.
The jungle sequence
The opening sequence in the jungle commences with an analogy comparing the experience of making war to the experience of making movies, both activities requiring a mastery of sound and image, and the split-second mobilization of personnel to achieve the desired effect. Much of the dialogue concerns questions of vision, sound, and character position: conjecture about hidden VC tunnels “as far as the eye can see”; endeavors to “fix that sound”; and inquiries about positioning (“Is that Third Platoon over there?). Organizing the elements of their mise-en-scene with sense-making procedures, the projects of the soldiers and the filmmaker coincide.
Employing the “in-the-trenches” style of combat films, the frame closes tight on the GIs to evoke their feelings of isolation and vulnerability within the dense foliage and darkness that all the more obscure the inscrutable enemy. Eliding the long shot and collapsing the viewer’s scopic field to the grunt’s point of view, the camera conceals the “big picture” by equating the war’s reality with the grunt’s experience of it. The soldier’s view of the war becomes the view; or at least in combat films such as Platoon, it becomes an objectification of the director’s view, propped up by conventions of psychological realism, which may be mistaken as history itself. In its earliest moments, Casualties of War mimics Platoon’s framing mise-en-scene as a transparent window onto the American troops’ experience of Vietnam, a strategy that sets up spectators to anticipate that the film’s central dramatic experience will focus on the plight of GIs, as is most typical of the genre. Soon after, however, and for the remainder of the film, De Palma will continue to expand the focus to include the plight of the Vietnamese, both literally within his wide-screen framing, and figuratively by using a variety of distancing techniques to decrease the spectator’s empathy for the American soldiers.
For example, the latter portion of the sequence deconstructs the realism posited at the beginning by revealing the filmmaking process and italicizing the conventions of heroic action-adventure from which the combat film is derived. At the onset of the mortar attack, De Palma manipulates imagery, music, dialogue, and rhythmic editing to such an artificial degree that spectators are thrust out of their conventional sense of transparent verisimilitude and into a self-conscious awareness of the film’s highly stylized technique. This transition from conventional realism to heightened artifice makes visible the conventions of the combat film that generally lie beneath the surface just deep enough for spectators to suspend disbelief and trust the verity of the world being presented to them.
At the climax of the mortar attack, Eriksson is forced waist-deep into a tunnel by the pressure of an explosion. Only moments earlier, Hatcher had mused about the possibility of the tunnel’s existence concealed from their sight, reinforcing the opacity of the scene to human vision (and of the genre’s conventions to the spectator). Yet, rather than remain above ground or cut to the tunnel’s interior in an effort to preserve the verisimilitude of the jungle environment, the camera audaciously pans vertically in front of Eriksson and below ground level to reveal the tunnel and the jungle as a set (as far as the camera, if not the eye, can see). Here the film enunciates itself at the level of technique and production design. In the distance, Meserve regroups, notes the absence of Eriksson, and heralds his decision to rescue him: “Here comes Audie.” Here the film enunciates itself at the level of allusion, recalling the conventional heroics of the World War II Audie Murphy action serials.
At this juncture, the sequence gradually swells in operatic abandon, rhythmically punctuated by Eriksson’s cries for help timed perfectly with exploding shells and camera edits. Intercutting between Eriksson’s prostration, Meserve’s intrepid quest, and the Viet Cong soldier’s approach underground, the camera constructs the classic imperilment triangle: Eriksson as damsel in distress; Meserve as White Knight; and the VC as Red Dragon. Meserve’s heroics are hyperbolically choreographed to strains of martial music; diving through the brush, crawling on hands and knees, and stopping momentarily to comfort an amputee, he recalls John Wayne of The Green Berets and his too-good-to-be-true descendants like Michael (The Deer Hunter), Elias (Platoon) and Rambo. In contrast, the VC creeps ant-like in the dirt, knife lodged in his gritted teeth like Magua in Tourneur’s Last of the Mohicans. The lurid music, subjective tracking camera from the VC’s point of view, and Eriksson’s dangling feet reminiscent of Jaws create for the spectator a stereotypical image of the enemy as the alien, stealthy Asian. By coding these initial impressions of the Vietnamese as monstrous and the Americans as heroic, only later to subvert that polarity, the film will eventually disturb the viewer’s conventional recognition of virtue and malevolence, of right and wrong.
Punctuating and arresting the sequence, Meserve pulls Eriksson from the tunnel, suddenly thrusts him to the ground, and to Eriksson’s wide-eyed bewilderment, shoots wildly at the emerging VC. Shot from a severe Dutch angle, his primal screams drowning out the music track, Meserve appears momentarily insane: the psychopathology driving his heroics has been unearthed. The White Knight is tarnished, the romance of battle deflated. The film must look elsewhere for insight beyond American wartime heroism.
Unlike Full Metal Jacket’s satire that questions the conventions of the Vietnam War film from the outside, the jungle sequence impudently risks self-parody, providing spectators visceral excitement while reminding them of their manipulation. Foregrounding the Vietnam film’s emphasis on how rather than what events take place, the sequence exaggerates the conventions of the genre, only to subvert them at the end. The spectator’s identification with the grunts thus alternates between involvement and estrangement, a rhythm sustained throughout the film.
The village sequence
The film’s next sequence introduces and ultimately demystifies a motif predominant in Vietnam films: the education of the “Cherry” by the war-weary but wise black veteran. Whereas the jungle sequence manipulated the conventions of combat, the village sequence overdetermines the character of “Brownie,” a stereotype of the ineluctable black grunt derived from characters like Manny (Platoon), Snowball (Full Metal Jacket), OD (84 Charlie MoPic), and Doc (Hamburger Hill). Jiving in the language of the ghetto, these characters provide comic, choral relief in the form of witty banter and pithy asides. They also function as teachers, educating the new recruits in combat, as if their African roots, urban street smarts, and heritage of Western oppression have somehow conditioned them as naturally superior in jungle warfare. Their good-natured wisdom and exemplary soldiership break down racial barriers between them and their white “brothers,” for whom they are most often sacrificed in a stirring death scene, during which they try to make sense of their lives.
These vaguely racist figurations come together in Brownie, whose instantly recognizable characteristics (evoked by his name alone) function as a nexus of identification and cross-examination. Although these characteristics can be understood primarily as stereotypes, they have become naturalized, being so ubiquitous throughout films in the genre. In the construction of Brownie’s character and through the actor’s stylized performance, however, the excess compression of these stereotypes generates a distortion that allows the viewer to negotiate Brownie’s significance. The components of his personality, which in classical narrative would emerge more gradually over the course of the plot, are instead telescoped in a quick series of scenes, only to be as quickly shattered by his abrupt demise at the pinnacle of the viewer’s identification with him. Moments before the fatal shooting, Brownie urges Hatcher to “wake up,” a warning directed as much to the passive viewer lulled by the facile, comforting conventions that Brownie personifies.
Other than staying alive—the primary motivation for spectator identification that trumps all others in the war genre—Brownie’s virtues are something of a mockery. His tidbits of wisdom include recommendations to stop “ballin’ them slanty-eyed bitches” and to stick with the unit so that he can “get home to do his own plowin’.” In contrast to the sincere but equally inadequate Methodist chaplain at the film’s end, when Brownie plays “priest,” he merely wants to force Eriksson into a confession of humiliation: “Did you pee in your pants, motherfucker?” Brownie smokes pot while on duty, can’t remember “what the fuck” he’s been talking about, and disparages the villagers. Only his charm and his ability to survive his tour of duty recommend him to his fellow platoon members, and through identification with their fear, to the viewer as well.
In this way, Brownie’s role as educator is ironic. Reminiscent of Rooney in Rabe’s stage play, Streamers, Brownie simultaneously epitomizes and undermines the typical Vietnam narrative’s subscription to the grunt code of ethics that valorizes the “valid” in-country experience of the vet over the “invalid” state-side training of the new recruit: “Without the Sarge, you ain’t nothin’ but a sack of monkey shit … You’d so much be bagged and tagged that your raggedy-assed people is pissin’ and moanin’ all their heart-broken lives.” Later Meserve will reveal the travesty of Brownie’s loyalty by mocking this line when he threatens Eriksson’s life. Meanwhile, undercut by his own hubris, Brownie and his code of ethics are literally and figuratively shot down: in country only three weeks, Eriksson, in fact, not only demonstrates his skill during the ambush by shooting a hand-grenade in mid-air, thus saving the patrol, but will maintain his integrity in the face of Meserve’s moral degeneration. Thus, in the village sequence, the dramatic discontinuity between the rise in the viewer’s emotional identification with Brownie and the shattering collapse of the values he represents breaks open a space for the viewer to question Vietnam’s “natural” order.
Brownie dies melodramatically, but without offering viewers the ennobled death scene typical of the black grunt, whose only revelation about his experience here is the senseless, now ironic repetition of his previously comic slogan: “I’m armor-plated, motherfucker.” Brownie leaves Meserve and his troops no legacy other than being “on the dead frequency.” Once again echoing the conventions of Platoon, the remainder of the sequence is overlaid with plaintive music and photographed with a heightened documentary realism. The spectacle of Brownie’s death—his gasping, bleeding, and struggling to stay alive in naïve hope—imitates his antecedents with one significant exception: his last words are “Fuck this shit!” Lacking the haunting pieta in Apocalypse Now or the dignified dissertation on racial oppression in 84 Charlie MoPic, Brownie’s death draws the audience in by ironic use of sentimental conventions, only to deprive them of the genre’s typical payoffs. “Fuck this shit!” denounces the conventions that lead the black grunt to his noble sacrifice: in his last moments, Brownie ultimately transcends the stereotype by crying out in despair. Like Meserve at the end of the jungle sequence, he shatters what we have been led to feel about him by De Palma’s subversion of predictable conventions.
As the only American casualty at the hands of the enemy in a film populated with Vietnamese killings, Brownie’s death implicitly critiques the motivating strategies of films like Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and 84 Charlie MoPic, whose narratives and structures of suspense focus primarily on GI casualties and effectively rewrite the history of the Vietnam struggle as the history of American suffering. Leaving Brownie behind, Casualties of War will in fact take the opposite course, by focusing on a Vietnamese casualty and redirecting viewer sympathy for the enemy, thereby transforming the protagonists of this early sequence into antagonists later on. The “schizophrenic” Vietnamese, whom Brownie affirms cannot be trusted, will be outdone by their “dubious” American liberators.
The base camp sequence
The base camp, conventionally the site of narrative regrouping, character exposition, and increased spectator identification, is in the next sequence the site instead of an interrogation into pathological male bonding. Spare in its details of camp life, the film conspicuously rejects the pot parties, drunken confessions, deep conversations and public letter readings of its predecessors. Prior to the atrocity, we learn few details about the personal histories of the individual patrol members. Introduced briefly and matter-of-factly, for instance, Diaz replaces Brownie like a movable part, a cog in the war’s machinery de-emphasizing his individuality. Nevertheless, each character exhibits at least one strong, distinctive personality trait that De Palma and Rabe resolutely refuse to subsume within the single-minded conformity of the homosocial peer group. By highlighting each patrol member’s difference from the others, the sequence preserves for the viewer some moral clarity by which to evaluate each soldier’s individual participation in the scandal.
Opening the sequence with the film’s farthest long shot to this point, the camera will maintain an omniscient distance from the characters to prevent increased viewer identification. The characters themselves are grouped in isolating configurations. For example, a towel concealing Meserve from his men splits the screen in half, illustrating his permanent severance and self-isolation from his men. In the group shower scene, during which Hatcher, Clark, and Eriksson are framed in a static horizontal line-up, their dialogue is entirely uncommunicative: Hatcher complains about his tour of duty, Eriksson defends the draft policy, and Clark rants about wiping out the Vietnamese. Later, they lie in their racks, shot from above in another horizontal line-up, detached in their private worlds: Clark hiding behind his sunglasses, Eriksson sucking a beer, and Hatcher wondering aloud whether he’s talking or not, since the others pay him little attention.
Caressing a bottle of Jack Daniels between his legs, Hatcher covets a Playboy magazine to help relieve his sexual tension, having been denied access to the whorehouse in town. Tellingly, it is only during the scene in which the patrol visits the brothel that the characters move as a fluid, compact, integrated group. Dressed alike, walking together, holding up their passes in unison, the patrol bridges its individual differences of rank, experience, and personality in the prospect of having sex. This unity suggests that male bonding is defined less by the group’s internal similarities (they seem to have nothing in common but their tour of duty), and more by external disparities—sexual and racial difference—that draw them together in concerted opposition to the “Other.” Thus, when they are denied access to the Vietnamese prostitutes because “Charlie’s in the whorehouse,” the threat of castration sets in on both fronts. The enemy has defeated them not only on the battlefield, but in the bedroom as well.
Having been nearly killed by the village civilians, the patrol’s phallic power has been severely undercut. Clark’s first impulse off-duty is to rectify this usurpation: “I’m gonna get shitfaced and go hump the brains out of them dink hoagies.” Meserve echoes Clark: “I’m going into town to get laid.” The viewer is spared, however, the genre’s inevitable whorehouse bonding scenes that tend to stereotype young Vietnamese girls as desperate prostitutes (“Me so horny” having now become a common catchphrase). The elision of the scene not only blocks the remasculization of the patrol, more importantly, it allows the viewer’s first impression of Oahn to remain free from any connotations of immorality. For it is onto this innocent farm girl that Meserve will project his castration anxiety by constructing her as a “whore” in need of punishment. Shaving before a mirror, his “Audie Murphy” image shattered, Meserve nervously wields his razor, the mark of his castration (a disturbing, illuminating echo of De Palma’s Dressed to Kill). At the same time, the razor represents his reconstituted image, a perverse double-edged phallus with which he will threaten his men and murder his prisoner.
At this point in the narrative, Meserve initiates the narrative’s central event and presents both Eriksson and the viewer with the film’s central enigma: to what extent will deciphering Meserve’s behavior unlock the perverted essence of the American involvement in Vietnam? Eriksson spends an equal amount of time watching Meserve as he does Oahn, wondering like the viewer, “What are we doing Sarge?” Unlike the classical hermeneutic agency that eventually resolves the enigma and closes the narrative, Meserve’s character grows more plural as his psychological profile grows unstable. A stylized characterization recalling the mannerisms of both Robert De Niro and John Wayne, Sean Penn’s Meserve is fraught with contradictions: crying for his friend Brownie, he later mocks him; affirming the value of mutual dependence, he expects authoritarian obedience; adhering to rank order, he hates the army; objectifying a young girl, he calls her a “real” woman; feeding Oahn aspirin for her pain, he later rapes and beats her.
Meserve moves the film into virgin territory. Having never seen the rape and murder of a civilian as the central focus of the Vietnam War film before the release of Casualties of War, the viewer echoes Rowan’s disbelief just prior to the kidnapping: “That’ll never happen GI.” As it did in history, so it does in the film, whose next scene opens the atrocity sequence with a first person point-of-view tracking shot that shifts the spectator’s role from outside observer to implicit witness.
CASUALTIES OF DIFFERENCE
If Meserve is a metaphor of the enigma of America’s involvement in Vietnam, then Oahn is an allegory of Vietnam itself. Post-colonial narratives have traditionally defined the Orient through metaphors of the female Other, who becomes available for Western penetration. In Casualties of War, this feminization of the land is self-consciously foregrounded as a critique of patriarchy threatened by national and racial difference. As a signifier of sexual difference, the original mark of castration, Oahn functions as a screen on which the patrol members project their fears of the enemy and each other. Constructed as an object worthy of and in need of conquest, in microcosm Oahn represents the military’s exploitation of Vietnam, dramatically portrayed in the sequence crosscutting between her murder and the riverside battle.
The sadistic narrative
As the hermeneutic figure driving the narrative ahead, Meserve assumes a sadistic position. The hermeneutic fits snugly with sadism, on both the level of Meserve’s relationship to the characters in the narrative and the level of the film’s relationship to the viewer. As Meserve puts Oahn through the paces, so De Palma forces the viewer to follow.
Realizing that the alien presence of the girl will expose his illegal breach of military decorum, Meserve constructs a space in which her abduction may be integrated into his reconnaissance mission, and thus the narrative. In plotting her kidnapping, he traces his finger over a topographical map, locating the caves (mysterious, threatening, interior spaces of the jungle) that the patrol will investigate before veering into the village where they will capture the girl. Once in the village, Clark chooses “the pretty one” by shining a red light on her face, exposing her as the “whore” that Meserve will construct through his twisted rhetoric. Silencing her with a gag, Clark makes possible Meserve’s linguistic commands imposed on Oahn’s image as a bearer of his imposed meaning, which she will be unable to refute in a shared language.
Meserve’s construction of Oahn as a “VC whore” employs tautology (“A VC whore is a VC whore”) and negative definitions strung out in a process of elimination with literal consequences (“This ain’t a VC, Clark ain’t. Hatch, he ain’t no VC. Diaz ain’t no VC. I ain’t no fuckin’ VC. Now this [referring to Oahn], this is a VC.”). In defining Oahn’s sexual and racial difference as the Other, Meserve reverses Andrea Dworkin’s “first rule of masculinity”: Whatever Meserve is not, women are. This blueprint for conformity, logically, excludes those who bear any likeness to Oahn. Therefore, when Eriksson defends Oahn, Meserve must condemn him, not merely as a VC sympathizer, but as a homosexual, if only because Eriksson must be feminine according to Meserve’s twisted logic. Ironically, for Meserve to preserve the patriarchal male collective, he must exclude Oahn from the circle, yet drag her along. Oahn’s presence is necessary to give order and meaning to the platoon’s phallocentric value system that, through Meserve’s rhetorical manipulations, she has come to define by negation.
Meserve will later project these qualities of the Other onto the theater of Vietnam, attempting from the ridge to scope out and identify the enemy with his binoculars. Although Diaz doesn’t know what to make of the figures in front of him and Hatcher wonders if they’re fishing, Meserve constructs the scene to ensure its suitability for attack and, consequently, provides the expectant viewer with another battle sequence that, like those before it, will end badly. When Oahn is brought to the ridge, her visual presence works against the theater that Meserve oversees, in that he fears she will give away their position and terminate the mission. Clasping his hand over her mouth to suppress her coughs, Clark once again silences Oahn, allowing Meserve to impose his meaning and orchestrate her final place in the narrative. When the prospect of killing her as a “bitch” fails, Meserve repositions her as an escaped prisoner: “She’s getting away!” In his sadistic manipulation of Oahn’s image (and of the order in which his men rape her), Meserve engineers a version of the atrocity that serves him best, while serving the spectator a vision of horror.
From gynocide to genocide: the mark of castration
Oahn must suffer the anxiety of the heterosexual male confronted by the possibility of an autonomous Other whom he cannot control. The grunt battle cry, “Get some motherfucker!,” displaces the trauma of the castrating father or unresolved Oedipal son onto the alien face of the enemy, which reverberates onto the body of Oahn, figure of the phallic mother. Meserve’s taunting of Diaz to “Be a man!” and murder her, taps into the displaced anger of the adolescent’s emergence into early manhood, one that can lead to rape and lethal violence.
As Loren Baritz has pointed out, most Vietnam recruits were still teenagers whose lives revolved around six-packs, cars, and chasing girls. Hatcher is the embodiment of this description. During the rape sequence, he turns as easily from Oahn as he does to a thirst for beer and memories of his brother’s Chevy Bel Air. There is more at stake than naïveté, however, in his abuse of the girl. The stooge of his patrol, Hatcher is an impotent soldier. When Eriksson’s single shot during the village ambush saves the day, his rifle jams; while Clark is a Corporal, he is merely a PFC; even Diaz, the new man, is responsible for communications. In his conquest of Oahn, Hatcher can play “Genghis Khan” to fulfill delusions of grandeur and reconstitute his inferior self-image.
As Brownie’s replacement and the only Hispanic in the group, Diaz fears ostracism: “There’s gonna be four people on that patrol, and an individual.” In joining the gang rape, he is able to elide his ethnic difference. Nevertheless, given the option, he would have preferred to avoid participation in the rape. Recognizing this conflict in Diaz, Meserve elects him to knife Oahn, slapping his face and taunting him to “do it.” Once again employing rhetorical manipulation, Meserve berates Diaz as a “yellow piece of shit,” associating Diaz’s cowardice with the enemy through an ethnic slur, effectively raising the issue of ethnic difference that would mark Diaz as “an individual.”
Clark, on the other hand, aggressively seeks to dominate and destroy Oahn. Because Meserve repeatedly attenuates his authority to make decisions, Clark reacts by pulling rank on the others, demanding that Hatcher “hump” his ruck and ordering Eriksson to “baby-sit the whore.” Still, issues of military rank are hardly sufficient to explain Clark’s vicious misogyny, which perceives women only in the context of their sexual availability. In the village sequence, he distinguishes the Vietnamese as neither enemies nor civilians (as all are enemies), but as either “old or kids, and that ain’t good.” Raping the elderly and children would be unpleasant, killing them unmanly. In the barracks, when Eriksson tries to back out of joining him in his quest to “hump” the local prostitutes, Clark retorts: “Are we on duty or off?” Whereas the military code of ethics condones killing only on duty and sex only off duty, kidnapping Oahn conflates the difference: “We’re gonna win her heart and mind, Eriksson. If she’s got one.” Clark personifies the attitudes of real grunts who mocked the military bureaucracy’s effort to win over the Vietnamese by referring to its program as “WHAM.” Like Meserve, he despises Vietnam, would willingly “torch the fuckin’ place.” A “stink hole” from which escape means “you get to live forever,” the country is Clark’s Hell and Oahn is the Eve responsible for his fall. Carrying the male burden like all women before her, Oahn humps Hatcher’s ruck barefoot through the defoliated wilderness on the way to her sacrifice, trudging heavily by a serpent, the mark of man’s original castration.
The male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: reenacting the original trauma by investigating the woman, or disavowing the threat by the substitution of a fetish object. The men in Meserve’s patrol tread both paths, whose convergence leads to murder. Raping Oahn to confirm their possession of the phallus and displacing her threat onto their rifles, they will riddle her body with both their penises and their bullets, blurring the distinction. Inscribing the sexual fetish within standard military discourse, Meserve equates acts of violence and acts of pleasure through his system of contorted logic: “The army calls this [holding up his rifle] a weapon, but it ain’t. This [grabbing his crotch] is a weapon. This is a gun. This [penis] is for fighting. This [gun] is for fun.”
Film Comment noted that Casualties of War “disquietingly displays the sexual pathology of war, going beyond Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, to push kill-conditioning to its logical conclusion: wargasm. It replaces Kubrick’s climactic metaphoric rape of a girl sniper with the literal rape of a Vietnamese civilian.” Films in Review added that “unlike the lengthy, symbolic ’sniper’ sequence that serves as the conclusion of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Casualties’ plot is all the more disturbing because the incident it recounts really took place.” Although Kubrick’s film makes a brilliant anti-war statement in its entirety, Joker does perform a mercy killing, fulfilling the sniper’s wish, not necessarily his own. In effect, this first of Joker’s “hard-core” kills acts as his rite of passage from fear and resurrects his patriarchal military duty. Susan Jeffords contests that “the masculine is thus cleansed in this film of any involvement with death. The soldiers have not killed each other nor have they killed irresponsibly or even willfully. The impetus for death lies wholly with the enemy, and that enemy is shown as female.”
While De Palma’s film more consistently and successfully probes the psychosexual underpinnings of the industrial military complex, it does so at the risk of objectification. If, as Christian Metz observes, the camera is “trained” on the object like a fire-arm, and if, as Laura Mulvey notes, the cinema builds the way women are to be looked at into the spectacle itself, it would appear that film is the perfect medium to capture the female as a metaphor for Vietnam. De Palma had already evoked the idea as early as 1969, when in Greetings, De Niro’s character ends up in the Vietnam jungle before a television camera crew testing out the possibilities of rendering a female VC fighter as an object of the pornographic gaze. Twenty years later, his Vietnam film must walk the thin line between spectacle and exploitation, particularly in the portrayal of Oahn’s kidnapping and murder. Both of these sequences build melodramatically and climax in an orgy of physical abuse: in the village, Oahn is bound, dragged screaming from her hootch, and gagged with a scarf; on the train tracks, stabbed, bleeding and disoriented, she stumbles forward like a phantom until shot down after a prolonged agony of suspense.
At one level, her pitiable image exploits the camera’s capacity for objectification. At another, it critiques the camera’s tendency to exploit the spectacle of Vietnam. Unlike Apocalypse Now, a film whose political ironies may seem at odds with its celebration of the war’s phantasmagoria, Casualties of War spoils any lasting pleasure the viewer may take in the beauty of the scenery or the excitement of battle by inserting the broken image of Oahn into the spectacle. Thus, the gorgeous vermilion sky of dawn breaking after Oahn’s capture serves as a blood-stained backdrop for the film’s most disturbing image: a silhouette of marching soldiers, their prisoner thrown over shoulders, her hair whipping violently in a struggle to escape. Oahn’s image later arrests the rhythms of the final battle sequence. Her stabbing by Clark, like her rape, is merely suggested in the distance, but its intimate brutality is pointedly contrasted with Eriksson’s gun sight, whose point of view illustrates the potential for both soldier and camera to objectify the human being in order to dispose of him. Unlike the Vietnamese casualties who in most other Vietnam films are ideologically kept at a distance in favor of foregrounding American suffering, Oahn’s mutilated body is resurrected for the gaze. Moving closer and closer in the frame, the dying girl demands that the audience take the same notice of her condition as they did of Brownie. Like him, Oahn is shot down in slow motion: this technical link illustrates that the typical extended focus of the Vietnam film on the American casualty alone is a reflection not of history, but of cinematic convention.
At the same time, Oahn’s connection to Brownie confirms De Palma’s vision of the war as one in which “everyone is a casualty.” As Eriksson reviews the carnage of Oahn’s body contrasted with that of the American gunboat, floating corpses, and flaming foliage on the river’s other side, her death suggests the absurdity of war (and alludes to the futility of Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai). Her scream, which will haunt Eriksson as Sally’s scream haunts Jack in Blow Out, cries out as loudly as the “wounded American boys” so lamented by Captain Hill. Choppered out of the valley and lying dazed in a military hospital, Eriksson confuses the sounds of helicopter propellers and machine gun fire, of Oahn’s scream of terror and the screams of agony from the wounded soldiers lying next to him.
The critique of patriarchy
Although Oahn’s body functions as a metaphor for the failed spectacle of Vietnam, and despite its symbolic inscription in the film’s mise-en-scene, the moral issue of her abuse is not subsumed by narrative closure. In maintaining Eriksson as the film’s moral yardstick and innocent bystander, the question of individual responsibility remains open and is displaced back onto the men. Although the film offers several examples to suggest that Meserve’s moral deterioration results in part from the trials he must endure on his tour of duty, the expository sequences dispense with the training scenes of Full Metal Jacket to imply that American males are always already predisposed to committing such atrocities, because the social structures in which they grow up have supported the objectification and exclusion of women.
Clark, in particular, kills Oahn simply because he can. His borderline personality is rigidly fixed upon stereotyped images of Oahn closed to any appreciation for her situation beyond his own needs. First introduced in the now clichéd posture of the crucified soldier, arms slung over his rifle resting on his shoulders, Clark is a mockery of Elias, Platoon’s martyr, whom director Oliver Stone introduces in the same pose. If Elias represents the good intentions of the GI not yet tainted by the horrors of Vietnam, Clark personifies the latent misogyny existing in American recruits prior to arriving in country. In two striking examples, Clark uncovers the misogynist potential of seemingly innocuous American pop songs, taunting Oahn with a depraved rendition of “Hello, I Love You” and provoking Eriksson and the spectator with a travesty of “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” during the rape scene. Clark’s personal code of ethics, grounded in a Hobbesian state of nature, is perfectly suited to the American military code’s aggressive (and ironic) defense of Western civilization. During his trial, Clark testifies that “you throw guys like us in the stockade, and you’re helping nobody but the Viet Cong.” Clark’s sentence to life imprisonment is ultimately hypocritical, because his testimony reveals a disturbing element of truth: the male capable of cold-blooded murder may be both condemned by the American justice system, and condoned by the American military complex.
This scathing critique of patriarchy has led Pauline Kael to praise Casualties of War as feminist, although her attribution is inaccurate. As victims of oppression, De Palma’s heroines have few options besides survival or annihilation—their self-determination is almost always undermined by the strategies of men. And De Palma’s heroes most often fail to rescue women from their ill-fated destinies, being paralyzed by their inscription into the phallocentic values of capitalist democracy. An imprimatur of De Palma’s films is their frequent expose of the patriarchal institutions that objectify woman as spectacle: Carrie (high school ritual), Blow Out (low-budget exploitation films), and Body Double (pornography); that construct them as a nexus of capitalist exchange: Obsession (international business), Blow Out (national politics), and Scarface (organized crime); and that conceive of them as the origin of male sexual anxiety: Dressed to Kill and Sisters (psychoanalysis). In Casualties of War, which synthesizes De Palma’s work, the motif of violence against women becomes situated within the broader military and capitalist economy as the inevitable corollary to a male-dominated social system run on the principles of aggression, competition, and the survival of the fittest.
CASUALTIES OF VISION
Eriksson and the feminine subject position: “I’m your friend”
In Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan, Robin Wood’s description of a changed and improved gender construction is one in which “men can move with ease, and without inhibition, into identification with the female position.” In Casualties of War, this idealist proposition is tested by Eriksson’s endeavors to empathize with Oahn. A somewhat passive character to begin with, Eriksson is more capable than his compatriots in taking the feminine position, having been nearly victimized by the enemy and sadistically constructed as a feminized Other by Meserve. Simply being the newest recruit in the patrol, he is the virgin recruit, the “Cherry” yet to be popped. Twice Eriksson has assumed the position of victim: in the jungle sequence during which he cries shamelessly for help, impotent from the waist down; and later, on the train tracks, before aborting Meserve’s first attempt to execute Oahn.
In the latter scene, which recalls and inverts the viewer’s first impression of the enemy introduced in the expository jungle sequence, Diaz slowly crawls toward the girl, paralyzed in Clark’s embrace, from an angle echoing the approach of the VC in the tunnel. Lying next to Oahn, nearly adopting her perspective, Eriksson shares her terror as the knife looms ever nearer. Having been concealed from Eriksson’s vision in the tunnel, the “enemy” here resurfaces ironically in the figure of Diaz, whom Eriksson recognizes as such by adopting Oahn’s perspective, and who demonstrates to the viewer the ideological power of cinematic identification.
Eriksson’s negotiating posture is tainted because it is both male and female. When Eriksson refuses to participate in gang rape, Meserve feels his authority threatened, his Phallus usurped, and so swings his rifle violently in a scythe-like, castrating outburst: “Motherfucker, you think you’re standing up to me?” He proceeds to define Eriksson as a feminized Other, using the exclusive rhetorical strategies that defined Oahn as a “whore.” Adopting the drill sergeant’s traditional boot camp technique for turning boys into soldiers, Meserve accuses Eriksson of being homosexual: “Don’t you like girls? Haven’t you got a pair? Are you a faggot? Maybe he is a queer. We’ve got us two girls on our patrol.” The equation made explicit, Meserve can then proceed to threaten Eriksson’s life: “You’re a goddamn VC sympathizer. You could get killed real easy, don’t you know that? Maybe when I’m done with her, I’m gonna come after you. Maybe when I’m done humpin’ her, I’m gonna come hump you.”
Now a potential (if only symbolic) rape victim himself, Eriksson is vulnerable, thus more able to assume Oahn’s subject position. In turn, by identifying with Eriksson, the spectator, too, will more likely be able to empathize with Oahn. With Eriksson frequently positioned in the frame as the apex of a dramatic triangle, observing the interaction of the characters at its base, the audience spends as much time watching Eriksson watch the other characters as they watch the characters themselves. Eriksson’s point of view provides the action its ethical framework. As Terrence Rafferty puts it, “the crime is not more awful because this decent American is seeing it, but feels more awful because Eriksson’s awareness provided a moral (and physical) tension that we couldn’t experience so powerfully if we were simply watching a unanimous bunch of madmen.”
As early as the kidnapping sequence, Eriksson moves in to bridge the distance that Meserve is committed to preserve between Oahn and his men. Turning impotently to the girl’s sister and mother, Eriksson apologizes for his patrol’s scandalous behavior, yet his plaintive, “I’m sorry,” falls vainly on their uncomprehending ears. Later in the hootch, as he cleans her wounds, Eriksson assures Oahn of his friendship. Prevented from living up to his word, however, he takes security during her rape, ironically providing the patrol protection. This schism damages their fledgling relationship, leaving each of them afraid of the other when left alone together in the hootch: Eriksson observes Oahn cowering, veiled by her hair in mystery; Oahn, meanwhile, backs away from his approach, fearing more abuse. Scuttling across the room to create distance between them, Oahn unwittingly reveals the marks of her torture to Eriksson’s horror. Ridden with guilt and pity, he attempts to close the gap. Separated by a language barrier, they communicate with nonverbal gestures, verbal intonations, eye contact, food and water. Feeling the fever in her forehead, Eriksson finally perceives Oahn as more than just an object of his duty, but as a human being in dire need. Gone is the self-complacent GI giving Hershey bars to village children; here is a man sacrificing his rations for a starving young woman.
Whereas Eriksson looks for the human being in Oahn, Meserve looks out only for the enemy, indiscriminately grouping the girl with the VC on the shore and demanding that his men shoot her down. Staring in disbelief as her riddled body plummets off the bridge, Eriksson screams in unison with Oahn, cementing his identification with her. But how effective is his identification? Oahn lies dead in a ditch. Prior to her murder, just outside the hootch, Eriksson has his “chance” to rescue the girl, but his hesitation between escape and court martial paralyzes his resolve, as if still stuck in that tunnel, half of him pulled toward the Vietnamese, the other half struggling to rejoin the patrol. Pushing Oahn from him, Eriksson briefly distances her to maintain his sense of military objective, and misrecognizes her ability to save herself. Eriksson’s identification with Oahn, then, consists merely of occupying her position rather than altering her situation. Although less ambivalent than in other De Palma films, the hero in Casualties of War is, nevertheless, characteristically undermined.
Spectator complicity: “Are you gonna watch?”
Inevitably, Eriksson is yet another in De Palma’s repertory of anti-heroes who observe more than they act. Proceeding to rape Oahn in front of Eriksson, who gazes back in outraged disbelief, Meserve turns his head in the direction of the camera, and asks: “Are you gonna watch?” His question appears to be addressed directly to the spectator, implicitly suggesting that, by identifying with Eriksson, the audience is equally caught in the moral ambiguity of looking at an atrocity that they are powerless to prevent.
In other instances, the look of the camera is distinct from Eriksson’s point of view, such that it provides an opportunity for the spectator to assume a lateral perspective on the action, as if joining the patrol as its sixth member. For example, in the scene just prior to the rape, where Meserve’s pep talk fails to win over Eriksson, the subject position of the camera begins from a tree-top perspective of limited omniscience, as if eavesdropping: Eriksson is out of frame and the conversation between Clark and Meserve is barely perceptible. As Meserve leaves Clark behind and walks into the foreground, the camera descends to ground level, revealing Eriksson beneath the tree and settling beside him as Meserve asks, “Can I pull up a chair?” In effect, the spectators pull up their own chairs as well. In another example, when the patrol first discovers the hootch in the jungle, as Eriksson inspects it for VC, the camera begins a 360-degree pan, seemingly from Eriksson’s point of view; yet when the pan comes full circle, the camera reveals Eriksson and the four other men behind him. Only the disembodied camera could provide this point of view, which, when taken up by the spectator, once again functions like a member of the patrol.
Even within shots that eventually identify a seemingly disembodied point of view as one of the 5 men on patrol, the revelation of the identity is delayed long enough to make the spectator feel complicit, having taken up the perspective in advance. For example, the first-person POV tracking shot that begins the kidnapping sequence runs a full seventy seconds before the reverse shot reveals that the POV has belonged either to Clark or to Meserve. Impossible (and perhaps unnecessary) to judge which of the two GIs actually owns the POV, it is equally probable that it belongs to any one of the patrol members, and to the spectator as well.
In one the film’s most provocative moments, Diaz addresses the camera directly, breaking the classical cinema’s prescription against looking into the apparatus, lest his gaze fall on the audience and make their voyeurism explicit. After resting for an uncomfortable half-minute on the disquieting image of Oahn, gagged and befitted with a helmet, the camera pans to Diaz, who turning to meet it, asks, “That was some hump, huh?” before standing up, walking into the foreground, and staring into the camera in extreme close-up. Although Eriksson eventually receives his look in the reverse shot, Diaz compels the audience to consider his question themselves, in their space beside Eriksson; to identify their own moral positions without deferring responsibility to the protagonist alone; and to prepare for the spectacle of the rape, which will provoke even greater voyeuristic unease.
A sequence whose point of view is disembodied for nearly two-and-a-half minutes, the rape of Oahn disturbs not in its portrayal, whose details are concealed for the most part, but in its confrontation with the viewer. Before the spectator can conjecture that the camera’s distant subject position belongs to Eriksson, Clark turns to the camera like a perverted emcee, singing and gesturing for the audience to enjoy the show. The illusion of omniscience shattered, they become uncomfortably aware of watching this atrocity, desiring identification with a character to overcome the overwhelming feeling of self-consciousness and helplessness, while appalled by the behavior of the collective before them.
Only after Meserve approaches the camera to communicate that “Diaz will relieve you 2400,” is the viewer granted reprieve in a reverse shot to Eriksson, by this time reduced to a benumbed countenance. The spectators, relieved that their subject position is Eriksson’s after all, may take comfort in imagining themselves free of involvement. But the more acute viewer must consider Meserve’s proposition more literally: is Diaz in fact the character more likely to relieve the spectator’s discomforting subject position? Isn’t it easier to imagine ourselves staying outside with Eriksson, rather than giving in like Diaz, and following him into the hootch?
Objectifying the hero: an excessive vision
Despite his failure to rescue Oahn, during the film’s final half hour, Eriksson recuperates a portion of his dignity. He learns that “because we might be dead in the next split second, maybe we gotta be extra careful of what we do”; he breaks the chain of command; he defies Captain Hill’s authority; he turns in the patrol; and he witnesses their court martial. De Palma’s style in these sequences is relatively straightforward and conventional, with one remarkable exception: the fragging sequence in which Clark nearly murders Eriksson. Shot from the classic “stalker” perspective, for the first time, Eriksson is framed completely as a scopic object, first by Clark’s binoculars and second by Clark’s roaming point of view. Severing any potential for the spectator to adopt a secondary identification with Eriksson, the effect is uncanny and polyvalent. Viewers unable or unwilling to suspend their need for identification with Eriksson must seem to watch themselves in danger, uncomfortable with the prospect of being sized up for victimization. Viewers whose ideologies have renegotiated their identification by rejecting Eriksson’s position in favor of Meserve’s may find a space in which to eliminate Eriksson’s moral threat. Self-reflexive viewers who acknowledge the presence of the film apparatus will recognize the power of cinema to manipulate subject position at will.
Once he realizes that he has been the object of a mortal conspiracy by his own compatriots, Eriksson takes an active role, passionately and aggressively confronting Meserve and whacking Clark’s skull with a shovel. Dramatically cathartic but thematically reactionary, this bit of last-minute heroics stems less from Eriksson’s self-righteous anger and more from his inability to bear any further objectification. Roused into action by the threat of castration, he falls into the same pattern of violence for which he has condemned Meserve. De Palma foregrounds this regression by casting Eriksson’s behavior with connotations previously reserved for Meserve. Striding toward the barracks accompanied by strains of the martial music used to score Meserve’s exaggerated jungle heroics (its only repetition in the film), Eriksson grasps a shovel (a fetish of a fetish), swings it at Clark (an act of castration), and throws it at Meserve (a reversal of the manner in which Meserve throws his rifle at Eriksson just before the rape). In the next scene at the bar, Eriksson gets drunk in front of a mirror, trying to reconstitute his shattered self-image, his rifle close-by. Like Meserve, whose sympathy for Brownie conceals a narcissistic fear of his own mortality, Eriksson cries more for himself than for Oahn: “I failed to stop them.”
But even more is going on in this peculiar sequence than meets the untrained eye. Viewers versed in De Palma’s work should readily identify a pastiche of elements lifted from The Untouchables and grafted onto Casualties of War. Clark’s stalker point of view, window peeping, and gloved hands evoke the scene of Malone’s murder; the hand grenade and explosion recall the field house showdown; the round table, head whacking, and Clark’s spreading pool of blood imitate the infamous baseball bat beaning; and Penn as Meserve, gambling, chomping a cigar, and mugging like De Niro, revives the figure of Capone. The suspense of the sequence, stylistically arresting in its context, is articulated in prolonged, Hitchcockian rhythms.
What exactly is a thriller sequence doing in a Vietnam film? On one level, it further illustrates De Palma’s postmodern approach to Hollywood classical narrative, in that he treats his previous works as research that later films will build upon and surpass. Accentuating style to a degree even in excess of the jungle sequence, whose parodied conventions still fall within the war genre, De Palma inserts into his Vietnam film conventional techniques of the psychological thriller and allusions to the crime drama, creating an intertextual rip or explosion of genres that increase self-reflexivity. At another level, De Palma pushes the limits of genre conventions: why should a Vietnam war sequence rendered as classic suspense be any more or less credible than the in-your-face realism of Platoon, the anti-war satire of Full Metal Jacket, or the psychedelic action-adventure of Apocalypse Now? In its excessive exhibition of technique, in its cross-dressing of conventions, in its blurring of genre difference, the fragging sequence in Casualties of War suggests that the cinematic spectacles of Vietnam are more likely to be expressions of the personal and aesthetic ideologies of their filmmakers, rather than objective historical documents.
Dream or nightmare: “It’s over now, I think?”
To isolate his vision of Vietnam as peculiar to an individual consciousness, De Palma frames the dominant narrative as Eriksson’s dream. He dramatizes Robin Wood’s notion that popular films “respond to interpretation as at once the personal dreams of their makers and the collective dreams of their audiences.” As they have shared in Eriksson’s point of view, the audience shares his dream. Like a spectator in the theater, Eriksson is first introduced sitting passively in a crowd of strangers, images flowing by in the frame of the subway car window. After establishing its subjective position, the camera glides smoothly into a close-up on Eriksson, who is dozing on and off. His memory triggered by the Asian girl who has come on board, he drifts back to sleep as the subway car dissolves into the Vietnam jungle. Closed behind Eriksson’s eyelids, the spectator gives in to the illusion of looking in on a private world. Both he and the viewer are bound up in a process they cannot control: Eriksson can manipulate neither his dream imagery nor his past; the spectator can change neither the film imagery nor history. Just as Eriksson would have liked to rescue Oahn, so many in the audience would have liked to win the war in Vietnam.
Since neither wishes can be fulfilled, perhaps the dream narrative is better explained as a nightmare. Or more precisely, as a nightmare within a nightmare. Unlike the audience, who can withdraw from the spectacle, Eriksson has been trapped in Vietnam by his tour of duty. Coming home with haunting memories of Oahn, the horrific images of war appear whether he opens his eyes or closes them. In the narrative itself, after the girl has been shot, Eriksson loses consciousness on the train tracks, his head falling against the rails to the haunting strains of Oahn’s theme, in imitation of the way his head falls against the subway window at the film’s beginning. Choppered to a M.A.S.H. unit, he hallucinates machine gun fire and Oahn’s scream. Waking with a jolt from this nightmare of rape and murder to the nightmare of the hospital’s amputees shrieking in agony, Eriksson cannot escape a vision of horror. Even at the film’s conclusion, he awakens on the subway, only again to be confronted with his vision of the Asian girl, a visual reminder of Oahn, whom he, like the spectator, turns to for some kind of resolution, some form of symbolic closure to this endlessly fearsome spectacle of horrors nesting one inside the other (a concept elaborated to delirious effect in Raising Cain). For those in the audience who would like to put the Vietnam experience behind them as a “bad dream” in the national psyche, the girl’s exchange with Eriksson, “It’s over now, I think,” will come as words of comfort.
But De Palma has never let his audiences leave the theater complacent. He has said: “I don’t believe essentially in letting people off the hook, letting good triumph or basically resolving things, because I think we live in an era in which things are unresolved and terrible events happen and you never forget them.” In this light, the more skeptical viewer will hear the irony and hesitation in “I think.” Eriksson has brought Vietnam home with him, after all. The girl, the palm trees behind her, and the shriek of the subway car wheels, torment him with memories of Oahn. Coming home offers Eriksson no guarantee of his personal safety, nor that of his family. Meserve, the wild card, has returned to the States as well. Although the words Meserve whispers in Eriksson’s ear on his way to imprisonment are never disclosed, the voice-over of Captain Hill’s euphemistic threat that the boys will soon be out and “looking for a little payback,” intimates that Meserve may wreak his revenge even on this side of the world. Unaccommodated by genre, psychology, justice, or incarceration, Meserve is the signifier of the immanent sense of doom hanging over every Vietnam veteran.
On the other hand, the girl on the train is the signifier of every vet’s wish to revive the dead, to release the prisoners of war, and to find the missing in action. Although no Rambo who returns to Vietnam to make that wish come true, Eriksson displaces his guilt for Oahn’s death by fetishizing the girl as a substitute. Replaying the trauma of the kidnapping, during which he watches Clark gag Oahn with her scarf, Eriksson stands in as Oahn’s mother, returning the girl her scarf accidentally left on the train, in an act of belated apology and a desire for a second chance. Like Scotty in Vertigo, Courtland in Obsession, and Scully in Body Double, Eriksson hallucinates a resurrection of the dead woman he has failed to rescue, replete with an expressive but ironic heavenly chorus on the soundtrack. The illusion shattered as the girl departs, Eriksson turns back toward the train, his expression a cipher, seeking an answer that may never arrive.
Return to the Real: the Big Picture
The device framing the narrative as Eriksson’s dream thus exhibits the power of cinema to represent a subjective perception or personal exegesis as “the real thing.” Eriksson’s subway car holds as many stories as people, any of which the camera could have selected to portray, any one of them a unique vision of Vietnam. (Indeed, until the camera seeks out Eriksson, he is introduced in the film’s opening moments at the margins of the frame).Thus, the film suggests that the ’Big Picture’ includes but transcends Eriksson’s experience, his point of view, and thus ours, who share it.
It transcends the filmmaker’s interpretation of the events as well. Rather than frame Eriksson’s dream in a setting contemporaneous with 1989, when the film was released, De Palma reconstructs the action in a San Francisco subway train in 1973, whose newspaper headlines and clothing styles yet again demonstrate that even this return to the real from the dream of Vietnam is itself a construction of the filmmaker’s (and the audience’s) popular memories of the period. In choosing the same actress to portray Oahn and the girl on the train, De Palma foregrounds the casting process, triggering in the spectator an awareness of his method. Thus, the frame itself is as unreal as the dream—yet another construct. Like a set of Chinese boxes, the “Real Picture” seems to require an endless reframing.
The film’s final image, the widest in scope and deepest in focus, provides the action’s broadest reality, its frame ultimately excluding Eriksson altogether and focusing on the girl disappearing into a crowd. Its panorama of San Francisco, (whose palm trees take on insidious ironies), emblazoned with the film’s title, suggest an American amnesia that forgets its imperialistic heritage and the decimation of its own native population in preserving its image as the bastion of freedom for the rest of the world. Only an inverted logic and perverted American military could wish to overlook the rape and murder of one Vietnamese girl in order to welcome yet another into their own.
Conclusion: the discursive vision
An avowedly apolitical filmmaker who has repeatedly demonstrated cinema’s inherent tendency for objectification, De Palma distrusts a transparency of style that denotes authorial subjectivity as history, that signifies personal ideology as the natural order of things. As Leo Braudy has observed, “it is illegitimate authority, aesthetic even more than political, that is the sin for De Palma—and at his best he does not exempt his own.” In choosing a discursive method that foregrounds his representation of the Vietnam conflict through a screen of popular memory, an enunciation of the filmic apparatus, and a manipulation of convention and stylistic technique, De Palma exposes patriarchal abuse and subverts notions of absolute historical realism, yet avoids articulating the war’s specific political causes. De Palma presents the Vietnam War as the private memories of the individual subjects (including the filmmakers) whose consciousness produces them. Like the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., Casualties of War is a monument to personal recollection, in whose reflection above and beyond the inscriptions of the dead, we tend to see ourselves.
Jim Moran is a writer based in Los Angeles. He holds a Ph.D in cinema-television from USC. HIs articles on media and popular culture have appeared in Film Quarterly, Wide Angle and Filmmaker among other periodicals, as well as encylopedias, book anthologies and festival catalogs. He is also the author of There’s No Place Like Home Video, published by the University of Minnesota Press. In addition to writing, Jim has taught film and TV courses for over a decade.
Review: Ophelia Wants, and Fails, to Transform a Victim into a Girl-Power Icon
Transforming Ophelia’s abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of Hamlet.1.5
Based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein of the same name, Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia reimagines Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of the troubled Danish prince’s would-be betrothed. Here, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) is a tomboy forced into court-life femininity, her tragedy rewritten as a triumph, but it’s hard to say that she comes out, in the end, either as a more full-blooded character or as a girl-power icon.
Given Hamlet’s sustained cultural influence, Ophelia might be described as the original “refrigerator woman,” the girlfriend or wife whose shocking death serves to motivate the male main character to action. In Shakespeare’s play, the vengeance-obsessed Hamlet callously drives her to suicide, first by spurning her as part of his insanity charade, and then by accidentally murdering her father, Polonius. Gone mad due to her lover’s too-perfect performance of madness, Ophelia drowns herself in a river, her death exacerbating both Hamlet’s anguish and his simmering feud with her brother, Laertes.
In the film, Ophelia recounts her side of the story in voiceover: how she, the common-born daughter of an advisor to the Danish crown, was taken in by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and raised as one of her handmaidens; how she became privy to Gertrude’s affair with the king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, glowering throughout from within a villainously matted Severus Snape wig); and how she fell in love with Hamlet (George MacKay), the crown prince with the awful bowl cut. But first, the film opens with a fake-out, the camera skimming along the water of a river until it lands on Ophelia’s floating body, surrounded by water lilies and other vegetation in a vision of tragic, all-natural femininity. It turns out that she’s alive, and that floating peacefully in the river is just a habit of hers, which has the unintentional effect of fooling us into thinking the film’s about to end every time Ophelia slinks into the water.
Ophelia looks and feels like a syndicated ‘90s television special, with its blandly lit sets, skeletal romance between the girlish Ophelia and its bro-ish version of Hamlet, and haphazard imagining of 15th-century speech and customs. The film can never quite decide whether it should be exploding or paying homage to Shakespeare’s text. What we see isn’t simply the events of the play from Ophelia’s perspective, but it also isn’t something radically new. Unintentional humor results: In the well-known scene from the play in which Hamlet first maniacally spurns Ophelia, they whisper secret messages to each other between simplified Shakespearean lines—margin notes as dialogue. Rather than an alternate take on the play, such moments simply shoehorn new material into the old. Other lines clumsily rewrite the play’s sexism by turning Hamlet’s verbal abuse into lovers’ code: When Hamlet advises Ophelia “get thee to a nunnery,” he’s just telling her to hide out from the coming violence.
McCarthy’s film concocts an original plot involving a medicine woman in the woods outside the castle who’s a dead ringer for the queen (and is also played by Watts), which ultimately places Ophelia in the Danish grand hall as the bloody climax from Hamlet plays out. In this moment, Ophelia, who’s been known to everyone in the court since childhood, improbably passes as a male page because her shock of red hair is a few inches shorter. It might be argued that resonant whispers and unlikely misrecognitions are a part of the Shakespeare toolbox, but Ophelia otherwise makes few pretentions to replicating the tropes of the Elizabethan stage. Early in the film there’s some woeful faux-Shakespearean banter between Hamlet and Ophelia, but the filmmakers quickly abandon a dialogue-driven approach in favor of a plot-heavy structure of court intrigue and scandalous revelations.
Ophelia, in fact, ends the film at a nunnery, a twist which completes the process of transforming Hamlet’s abusive words—symbols in the original play of the blurry line between cruelty and its simulation—into the signs of true love. In the end, Ophelia’s no longer defined by her victimhood, but transforming her abuser into a helpful co-conspirator hardly seems like the most daring feminist reading of English literature’s most well-known drama.
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George McKay, Tom Felton, Dominic Mefham Director: Claire McCarthy Screenwriter: Semi Chellas Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 114 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Annabelle Comes Home Suggests a Harmless Game of Dress-Up
The film is at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks, and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.1.5
The Conjuring Universe suggests the rural cousin to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. Though the latter is breezy, bright, and flippantly secular and the former is heavy, dark, and noticeably Christian, the genetic link between them is unmistakable. Both have succeeded by streamlining a popular genre in the extreme, subordinating writerly or directorial personality to the tone and narrative trajectory of the whole; both have concocted a palatable, PG-13 version of their genre’s inherent violence that’s neither offensive nor impressive; and part of the appeal of each universe is the way the films are connected by a network of allusive Easter eggs designed to create that satisfying in-group feeling.
Watching Annabelle Comes Home, the third title in the Annabelle series and the seventh in the Conjuring Universe, one sees that this cinematic universe and the MCU are also coming to share a tone of self-parodic humor. The film knows you know what its mechanisms are. When psychic paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga), in the first real scene of suspense, holds up a road map and obscures the camera’s view of the graveyard outside her car’s passenger window, Annabelle Comes Home takes the opportunity to wink at its fans. Obscured parts of the frame obviously spell danger, and therefore the reveal is a joke rather than a genuine scare—a reversal that happens so often across the film’s early stretches that it becomes as tiresome as Tony Stark making a crack about a flamboyant superhero costume.
In the film’s prologue, Lorraine and her husband, Ed (Patrick Wilson), who as the connecting thread of the Conjuring films are kind of its version of Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D., have recovered the malicious titular doll from whatever family she was most recently haunting. Annabelle the doll is, as Lorraine helpfully explains in the film’s opening shot, not possessed, but is rather a conduit for the demon who follows her around. Later, Lorraine will revise her expert opinion and describe Annabelle as a beacon for evil. That the film never feels the need to specify or reconcile the meaning of “conduit” and “beacon” in this context suits the general incoherence of the series’s mythology, based as it is in the Warrens’ scattershot pronouncements.
Annabelle Comes Home ties together a disparate set of unsettling phenomena using the single, paper-thin premise that demon-conduit Annabelle is also a demon-beacon. After Wilson and Farmiga have delivered their universe-consolidating cameo, their pre-teen daughter, Judy (McKenna Grace), her babysitter, Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman), and the latter’s friend, Daniela (Katie Sarife), are left alone in the Warrens’ home. The married paranormal investigators have stashed Annabelle in their storeroom of assorted mystical curios, all brought to demonic life when Daniela—so inquisitive, mischievous, sexually adventurous, and so forth—lets the doll out of her glass case of honor/imprisonment.
The series is still gore-lessly devoted to making us jump by following moments of extended silence with sudden cacophony, but with all its noisy phantoms from the beyond, Annabelle Comes Home is undeniably silly, a monster team-up movie that often feels like a harmless game of dress-up. An undead bride bearing a kitchen knife, a Charon-esque ghost come to ferry people to hell, a monstrous hound from Essex, a TV that foretells the future, a haunted suit of samurai armor, and Annabelle herself comprise the ragtag team that (rather ineffectively) hunts the three teen girls now trapped in Warren’s house. The scares, untethered to any deeper concept or theme, are more akin to friendly pranks than they are to distressing events, as if the monsters were friends jumping from around corners in rubber masks.
Annabelle Comes Home is a series of scenes that all follow the same structure: One of the girls finds herself alone in a space and doesn’t notice the malevolent presence in the room until well after the audience does. It’s then that she screams in horror and the film smash cuts to a different room where the same scenario is playing out with a different girl. There’s a certain game-like quality to predicting the precise moment the scare will pop up in each scene, but it’s a formula that, after a few repetitions, no longer holds much tension. Gary Dauberman’s film is a carnival ride of cheap thrills, at least as likely to elicit laughs as shrieks—there can only be so many slow-zooms on Annabelle’s blue-gray face before the doll becomes funnier than she is creepy—and certainly unlikely to leave a lasting impression.
Cast: McKenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Michael Cimino Director: Gary Dauberman Screenwriter: Gary Dauberman, James Wan Distributor: New Line Cinema Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Three Peaks Tensely Charts the Dissolution of a Would-Be Family
The film ably plumbs the fears of a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.2.5
Throughout Three Peaks, writer-director Jan Zabeil acutely mines a specific kind of familial tension as he follows a couple, Aaron (Alexander Fehling) and Lea (Bérénice Bejo), vacationing in the Italian Dolomites with Lea’s young son, Tristan (Arian Montgomery). This trip is a try-out for a new arrangement, mostly for Aaron as a husband and undefined parental figure to Tristan, as Aaron and Lea are contemplating a move to Paris, which would take Tristan far away from his biological father. Tristan, a sharp child, can read this subtext, and toggles between affection and contempt for Aaron, sometimes in a matter of seconds. The suspense of the narrative is driven by a question of deliberation: Is Tristan actively screwing with Aaron, grieving over his parents’ divorce, or both?
At times, Three Peaks resembles a relatively realist version of horror thrillers in which an evil child orchestrates a conspiracy to undo a family, but Zabeil doesn’t go for melodrama until the third act. The film is mostly an exercise in tension, driven by an ironic emasculation, as Aaron, a sensitive outdoorsy stud who would be the dream of most women, is continually embarrassed and upstaged by the withdrawn Tristan. These characters are essentially in a no-exit situation, and their forbidden emotions are often expressed via fleeting, often disturbing gestures—as in Tristan threatening Aaron with a saw, and the suggestion that Aaron might throw Tristan off a mountainside—that Zabeil complements with increasingly self-conscious symbolism. Looking at the gorgeous Three Peaks Mountains, Tristan remarks that they resemble a father, mother, and a child, and he often references a story, about a giant, that scans as a sort of rebuke of Aaron’s attempt to be the new man of the figurative house.
The verbal metaphors feel too clever and on point, though Zabeil’s imagery often shrewdly telegraphs the family’s shifting power dynamics. In the opening scene, we see close-ups of Aaron and Tristan’s faces as they play a game in a swimming pool, trying to hear what each person is saying underwater. This moment also foreshadows the climax, a perverse life-and-death dilemma that’s reminiscent of the ending of The Good Son. In fact, every game that Aaron and Tristan play in the film becomes an expression of their oscillating desire and contempt for communion, from the languages they use (Tristan pointedly refuses to speak French, signaling his resistance to Paris) to the hikes the boy and man go on in the Three Peaks. Most poignantly, Tristan calls Aaron “papa,” though he quickly reassumes the role of nemesis, leading one to wonder if this brief bonding moment was an illusion of some kind.
Zabeil and Montgomery, in a mature and measured performance, capture the casual eeriness of children, particularly to outsiders who can discern how easily kids can command and manipulate their guardians’ attentions. The filmmaker’s sympathies are with Aaron, as Lea is disappointingly pushed aside in the narrative, functioning mostly as a MacGuffin, the center of an unconventional masculine duel. Yet Tristan is never reduced either to victim or aggressor, not even in the film’s nearly biblical survival climax, which resolves little of the family’s issues except to posit, potentially, that Tristan isn’t an overt sociopath.
One supposes that’s a start, though it’s evident that Tristan is a barrier, between Lea and every potential suitor, which might never be breached. This lonely possibility is suggested by the mountaintops, nearly mythical wonders that stand in front of the characters, reachable yet ultimately dangerous and unknowable. By the end of Three Peaks, the mountains transcend Zabeil’s early thematic handwringing to become a haunting symbol of estrangement, as the filmmaker has ably plumbed the fears of a single mother and a well-meaning man who tries his best to play by the rules of middle-aged courtship.
Cast: Alexander Fehling, Bérénice Bejo, Arian Montgomery Director: Jan Zabeil Screenwriter: Jan Zabeil Distributor: Greenwich Entertainment Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Avi Nesher’s The Other Story Is Melodramatically Replete with Incident
Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, Nesher’s film continually trips over itself.2
Director Avi Nesher’s The Other Story probes the tensions between the secular and religious worlds of modern-day Jerusalem. The story pivots around Anat (Joy Rieger), who, alongside her formerly drug-addicted boyfriend, Sachar (Nathan Goshen), recently shunned her hedonistic past so as to devote her life to studying the Torah. But it’s Anat’s decision to marry Sachar—thus committing herself to the restrictive moral code and officially sanctioned subjugation of women required by Orthodox Judaism—that serves as the film’s true inciting incident, causing her atheist mother, Tali (Maya Dagan), and grandfather, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai), to join forces, even going so far as to recruit Anat’s estranged father, Yonatan (Yuval Segal), to help thwart the impending marriage.
It’s a compelling setup, namely in the ways it pits harsh dogmatism of orthodoxy against an equally stringent form of atheism that, as a moral philosophy, is just as closed-minded and fiercely held as the religion it rejects. When the film homes in on the strained father-daughter relationship between Anat and Yonatan, who left the family for America when his daughter was a young child, it precisely renders and examines the tremendous emotional baggage behind Anat’s drastic decision to convert while also retaining a clarity in its broader allegory about the role of religion in Israel. Through Yonatan and Anat’s clashing of perspectives, one gets a sense of how their competing belief systems can be weaponized to both self-destructive and vengeful ends, all but ensuring an unbridgeable gap between two sides.
As The Other Story teases out the myriad causes for Anat and her father’s troubled relationship, it also taps into the resentment Tali feels toward Yonathan for leaving her and follows Shlomo’s attempts to rebuild his bond with Yonathan. It’s already a narrative with quite a few moving parts, so when a secondary story arises involving a married couple, Rami (Maayan Bloom) and Sari (Avigail Harari), to whom Shlomo provides court-mandated counseling, the film slowly begins to come apart at the seams, with a once intimate account of one family’s travails giving way to needlessly convoluted melodrama.
While Anat finds herself increasingly drawn to Judaism, Sari is ultimately repelled by it, becoming entrenched in a feminist cult whose pagan rituals she eventually exposes to her son to, and in spite of Rami’s vehement protests. Nesher tries to draw parallels to the two women’s equally extreme experiences, which lead them to swing in opposite directions on the pendulum from hedonism to asceticism. Yet as these two stories intertwine, one creaky subplot after another is introduced, effectively dulling the emotional resonance of either woman’s story by drowning them out it an abundance of trivial incident.
Not only does Anat’s involvement with Sari’s affairs result in an unlikely friendship between the women, but it also leads to Anat bonding with her father as they do the legwork to investigate whether or not the cult is putting Sari’s child in danger. All the while, Yonathan and Tali’s passions are somewhat reignited as they’re forced to work together for the supposed good of their daughter. Through this endless string of undercooked subplots, The Other Story continually trips over itself, struggling to weave together far too many disparate threads. Both character behaviors and the film’s action become driven less by any sense of cultural specificity than a cheap and manipulative need to ramp up the emotional stakes at all cost.
Cast: Sasson Gabai, Joy Rieger, Yuval Segal, Maya Dagan, Nathan Goshen, Avigail Harari, Maayan Bloom, Orna Fitousi Director: Avi Nesher Screenwriter: Avi Nesher, Noam Shpancer Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 112 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Music at a Crossroads: Les Blank’s Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón
Blank’s films on norteño music provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style.
Les Blank, a filmmaker deeply enamored of the sights, smells, and flavors of particular regional subcultures, was devoted to activating the viewer’s senses, and sometimes in unconventional ways. Depending on which one of his films was playing in a theater, you could count on the scent of red beans or garlic to be piped into the room. It was a process that was cheekily called “Aromaround.” But even without such accompaniment, his work remains some of the richest, most palpable sensory experiences ever committed to celluloid—films that welcome viewers into vibrant, authentic cultural spaces and treat them like special guests.
Newly restored in 4K, Blank’s companion films on the norteño music that originated in the Texas-Mexico borderlands, 1976’s hour-long Chulas Fronteras and 1979’s 30-minute Del Mero Corazón, provide typically peppy examples of the director’s immersive, seemingly effortless style. Eschewing explanatory narration or canned talking-head interviews, Blank isn’t all that interested in teaching us about this jaunty, polka-like style of music. Instead, he wants us to experience for ourselves the cultural ferment from which it arises.
Both films play like mixtape travelogues, bouncing around from beer joints to backyard barbecues to a 50th wedding anniversary—anywhere and everywhere that norteño music is played. In Chulas Fronteras, a few interviewees explain their personal career trajectories, and one musician traces the style’s roots in German polka. (It’s essentially the same, he claims, except that Tejanos “give it a different taste.”) Predominately, however, these aren’t films about the development of norteño, but rather works that use the music as a lens through which to view an entire subculture of food, celebration, family, and labor.
If the dominant mood of Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón is undoubtedly festive—a perfect match for the jubilant accordions and lively vocals that fill their soundtracks—a deeper pain nevertheless courses through these films. Many of the lyrics to the songs we hear touch on difficult subjects, such as labor struggles, personal loss, and racism. Blank brings these issues to the fore in many of the films’ loose-limbed interview segments, which generally catch the subjects while they’re cooking up a big meal or just about to perform a song. In one, a migrant farm worker discusses his life of transience, ceaselessly moving from one area to another, follow the crops. In another, a musician relates an infuriating anecdote about being refused service at a roadside hamburger stand because of his ethnicity.
Blank, though, isn’t one to dwell on such cultural strife, as there’s a different song being sung elsewhere. There are simply too many wondrous sights to take in for Blank to linger on any one subject too long, like the priest blessing cars with holy water or the woman scooping the meat out of a pig’s head to make tamales. Blank’s approach to documentary is immersive and inquisitive, at one point rendering a cockfight, an event that’s potentially off-putting to outsiders, as the authentic divertissement it is for the people of the region.
Of the two films, Chulas Fronteras is the clear standout, offering a deeper cultural immersion. Del Mero Corazón, which Blank co-directed with Guillermo Hernández, Chris Strachwitz, and Maureen Gosling—the last of whom would become Blank’s regular collaborator—is a bit more lyrical, focusing on its subjects’ personal relationship to their music and interspersing poetic quotations from love songs and folk tales throughout its running time. But the similarities between the two films overwhelm their differences. They’re essentially extensions of each other, with Del Mero Corazón moving beyond the Texas-Mexico border to explore a bit of the San Jose norteño scene, particularly singer and accordionist Chavela Ortiz.
More than 40 years after their making, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón not only provide a rich portrait of a region and its people, but an amusing time capsule of mid-to-late 1970s tackiness as well. Providing an unvarnished look at kitchen interiors full of ugly wood cabinets and orange laminate countertops and men in checkered polyester pants sucking down cans of Schlitz, these films are also a blast from an ineffably gaudy past.
And yet, at a time when migrants are relentlessly demonized and brutalized, held indefinitely in government detention centers for the crime of crossing a somewhat arbitrary line separating two nations, Chulas Fronteras and Del Mero Corazón offer a timely and incisive reminder of how porous and artificial the U.S.-Mexico border really is. Cultural exchange doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, a fact of which the people in these films are acutely aware: As the group Los Pingüinos del Norte proudly sings in Chulas Fronteras, “Mexican by ancestry/American by destiny/I am of the golden race/I am Mexican American.”
Review: Though Inspiring, Maiden Doesn’t Evince the Daring of Its Subjects
Director Alex Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to his thematically rich material.2
Alex Holmes’s documentary Maiden is an account of the true adventure of the first all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. As their filmed testimonials attest, skipper Tracy Edwards and her crewmembers’ defiance of the sailing circuit’s rampant sexism back in 1989 proved to be just as grueling as their journey of 33,000 miles through the Earth’s harshest oceans. The film, at heart, is the story of women dramatically pitted against the dual forces of nature and human nature. Pity, then, that Holmes ultimately takes a frustratingly simplistic approach to the thematically rich material.
The film paints a vivid portrait of the patriarchal sailing community during Edwards’s period as an up-and-coming skipper, even gathering male sports journalists and sailors who seem all too eager to cop to their past chauvinistic viewpoints. Of course, while this effectively establishes some of the large obstacles faced by Edwards and her crew, there’s a feeling of repetition in the subsequent inclusion of the subjects’ stories about their feelings of vindication in proving the naysaying men wrong by successfully staying the course.
Each anecdote begins to sound like a rehash of the last, and to the point where they feel as if they’re intended as applause lines. The detailing of the immense mental and physical strength that the Maiden’s crew summoned in order to sail around the around is scant. In fact, Holmes is so frustratingly short on specifics that, with the exception of Edwards, you’ll walk away from the documentary without knowing what role each woman filled aboard the vessel.
By extension, we hardly get a sense of the camaraderie that started to build among the crew during the race. It comes off as an empty moment, then, when Edwards describes how each woman essentially knew what the other was thinking by race’s end. The fascinating and candid archival footage shot during the race hints at the singular sisterhood formed on the boat that Edwards speaks of, with each member helping one another out through tedium and the dangers of the sea. It feels like a missed opportunity that Holmes didn’t utilize this footage of fortitude through female unity more frequently as a statement against sailing’s sexism, but, then again, it’s in line with a film that doesn’t evince the daring spirit of its subjects.
Director: Alex Holmes Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 97 min Rating: PG Year: 2018
The Best Films of 2019 So Far
Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like these.
In our present day, it feels like we’re sitting on the edge of too many abysses to count. Confining our perspective to the world of film, it’s arguable that the streaming apocalypse has arrived. Consumers are already fed up with the glut of services offering a library of films at low, low prices that, in sum, add up to the price of the premium cable package we thought we’d escaped. We’re still months away from the launch of Disney+, which now looks not so much like the herald of the apocalypse as a behemoth that will arrive in its wake to rule over the vestiges of the internet’s cine-civilization.
And there’s a different ongoing streaming apocalypse, at least according to the defenders of the movies as a unique medium. The year opened with cinema’s old guard attempting to forestall the effects of streaming’s rise on the rest of the film industry: Most visibly, Steven Spielberg attempted to cajole the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into disqualifying Netflix-produced films from competing for Oscars. And is streaming also to blame for this summer season’s dismal box-office numbers? Perhaps in part. In any case, the cracks in the Hollywood fortifications are showing. For years, prognosticators have predicted the unsustainability of the “tent pole” model of film production, but the outcome is that everything is coming up Disney: Even Fox is Disney now, or soon will be.
But if streaming is indeed facilitating the long-delayed collapse of the tent-pole model, then more power to it. The year so far has been disappointing from the perspective of box-office returns, and it has been downright dreadful in terms of the so-called blockbusters themselves—another summer of sequels, side-quels, and soft reboots that has made it difficult to recall a time when big-budget superhero flicks like Dark Phoenix felt like cultural events.
That said, it’s worth noting that streaming isn’t simply killing the box office, but offering an alternative to a moribund institution, as the best chance to see many of this year’s best films, for those outside the country’s major markets, will be on streaming services. Whatever the outcome of the streaming wars, we should hope that when the dust clears, there’s still a digital home for films like the ones on our list. Pat Brown
3 Faces (Jafar Panahi)
Jafar Panahi works references into his film to some of the compositions, landscapes, and boundary-pushing plays of fiction and documentary evidenced in Abbas Kiarostami’s cinema. But instead of mere replication, 3 Faces filters these elements through Panahi’s own unique sensibilities. Rather than letting the mysteries in his film stand, or prolonging its ambiguities, Panahi prefers to signify potential plot directions and formal strategies and then promptly pivot away from them at the moment they outlast their usefulness. This isn’t the mark of a lesser filmmaker, but merely one who recognizes that his own strengths lie in his intuitiveness, his wit, and his humor. Sam C. Mac
Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhang-ke)
The political dimensions of Jia Zhang-ke’s films hve led to a strained relationship with state censors in the past—and so the director’s appointment this year as a representative of China’s 13th National People’s Congress, and the larger indication that he was working to gain the favor of the state, created some worries about the integrity of his films going forward. But thankfully, the clever, subversive, and hugely ambitious Ash Is Purest White assuages those concerns. The film serves as a considered retrospection, and a coherent transition between Jia’s neorealist early films and his more recent populist melodramas. It’s a quixotic and profound statement on the spatial and temporal dissonances that inform life in 21st-century China. Mac
The Beach Bum (Harmony Korine)
Despite its lax, vignette-like quality, The Beach Bum is perhaps Harmony Korine’s most straightforward film to date, even while its form fully embraces its inherently circuitous, nonsensical subject matter. Indeed, the way Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) buoyantly moves from locale to locale, Korine’s semi-elliptical style, and a tendency for events to just happen lend the film a chronic haziness where even life-threatening occurrences are treated with a cheery dementia. At one point, a character loses a limb, but it’s “just a flesh wound”—something to quickly move on from and to the next toke. Not for nothing has Korine likened the film’s structure to pot smoke. Its dreamy, associative style is pitched to its characters’ almost random inclinations, while mirroring the spatiotemporal dilation of a high. Peter Goldberg
Birds of Passage (Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra)
A narcotrafficking origin story embedded inside an ethnographic study of a vanishing culture, Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s Birds of Passage starts and ends in the harsh Guajira desert peninsula that sticks into the Caribbean Sea from northern Colombia. Showing the same fascination with the interstices of Western and native cultures that Guerro and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal brought to Embrace of the Serpent, the story initially takes a back seat to an examination of ritual and belief. While the basics of the narrative are familiar from other stories about how Colombia tore itself apart serving America’s drug culture, the film stands apart for Gallego and Guerra’s studied focus on the drip-drip-drip of traditions falling before encroaching modernity as a family grows in wealth and shrinks in awareness. Also, their arresting visual sense power the story in the eeriest of ways, from the sweeping vistas of desert and sky to the surreal appearance of a glistening white mansion where an ancient village once stood. Chris Barsanti
Black Mother (Khalik Allah)
Black Mother finds Khalik Allah doubling down on his established aesthetic to bold, hypnotic ends. This essayistic documentary is organized into “trimesters,” chapter headings marked by the growing stomach of a naked woman, and it drifts between digital, Super 8, and Bolex footage as Allah tours the home country of his mother, beginning with a remarkably cogent examination of Jamaican political and religious history through the voices of those the director encounters on the street, before sprawling into more existential terrain, chiefly the feedback loop between humans and the environment. Allah is attracted to loud, confident voices, and the ways in which they hold forth about poverty, sex work, spirituality, and food is crucial to the filmmaker’s vision of the proud, angry beating heart of a nation. Christopher Gray
Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same
By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.2
Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.
The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.
It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.
Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief
The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.2.5
As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.
Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.
Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.
Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)
Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.
Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018
Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend
In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.3
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.
The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.
As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.
Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.
The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
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