Lamenting that Nick Broomfield couldn’t muster a more rigorous, professional job of recounting the Haditha massacre in Battle for Haditha is like bitching about the technical deficiencies of a kiss or a death cry. This film is as simple as war is not the answer/only love can conquer hate. Too simple for those who prefer to rationalize the Iraq War with statements like “Nobody wants war, but…” Battle for Haditha declares that there is no “but,” not for anyone with a genuinely humanistic, pacifist pair of eyes.
“Nobody wants war, but…” is chanted in company break rooms, congressional halls, at bar stools, etc. But it is never uttered by the folks who find themselves huddled behind the sofa while projectiles carve up their living rooms and exotic gasses tear at their children’s lungs. Of course, we know that a lot of people do want war and have the juice to make it happen, but Broomfield doesn’t bother with them. This film is about those folks crouching behind the sofa, whose annihilation we deem a terrible necessity mainly because we’re still here. We’re still here. Think about that for a moment.
When I was 23 years old, just getting to know the world, a man in a sweathood came out from an alley and pointed a pistol at my head. It was around 1am. I turned and ran like hell, waiting to hear the blast and feel death. While I waited, I thought of all those I knew who had died in this ridiculous manner. Babies like me. I also thought, “This poor fool. If only he knew my life, knew who loved me and needed me, he’d probably drop the gun and fall to his knees weeping.” He never fired. I got away. Here I am.
Battle for Haditha says, here we are, the living, and there they are, the soon-to-be-dead. Not since Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, a much more sophisticated sculpted-in-time requiem, have I been so moved by the spectacle of impending loss. Elephant made the ambient light and teen cacophony at play in the halls of a suburban high school as soothing as a pastoral song. Battle for Haditha has similar regard for light and life (if not so gentle a touch). A beautiful muslim woman peeling off her hijab (the balls on Broomfield, to unleash such an image in the climate of fundamentalist sexual hysteria) to make love and shower with her lover. A goofy G.I. smearing sticky candy all over his lips and teeth, going, “gimme kiss” to his comrades moments before his convoy gets blown to shit. The beguiling song and dance of a family whose local sheik has advised them to do what Bush or Blair would advise of their flocks: Go on with life as normal—despite the fact that a roadside bomb planted in front of their homes may (and in fact does) lead to their deaths in a retaliatory massacre.
When the massacre jumps off, Broomfield uses many of the hyperrealistic techniques of films like United 93 and The Kingdom but with far less prime time newsmagazine efficiency or Jerry Bruckheimer gusto. Broomfield, for all his documentary brashness, is dramatically a lazy slob, and that turns out to be exactly what this film needs to stand out as more than just the latest Iraq War term paper. Battle for Haditha gives us a pretty solid breakdown of the whens and wheres, but only a basic rough sketch of its characters. Broomfield lets his actors—mostly Iraqi refugees and Marines who lived through their own private Hadithas—take it from there. As filmmakers like Ulrich Seidl, Cristian Mungiu and Harmony Korine (among thousands of others) already know, this is the salvation of hyperinflated, supercompetent, plasticized contemporary cinema: placing non-actors (or actors who don’t “act”) in environments that extract the truth from them like a juice machine. In this case, the filming location is Jordan, where the roads and urban clutter resemble Iraq cities like Tikrit, Baghdad, Fallujah and, of course, Haditha.
There are moments that tear the flimsy articifice nearly to shreds, as when a Marine mechanically kisses a picture of his loved ones before putting it inside his helmet. “This is what I’m fighting for,” he drones with the mortified smirk of an 8th grader at a talent show. I imagined Broomfield just off camera directing this guy with a cattle prod. But this moment serves fitting notice that he will rest his film on the shoulders of real people. As in amateur porn, attempts at faking it don’t wash, but when things get real, they get real. The broad shoulders that Battle for Haditha ultimately settles upon belong to former Marine Corporal Elliot Ruiz. Ruiz’s character, Corporal Ramirez, is all Marine and all manchild. Combat trauma has prematurely chiseled his baby face into a sculpture of youth at the onset of adult moral awakening as startling as that of the slumlord’s son in La Promesse. Ramirez starts off on the quiet edge of a nervous breakdown, absorbing new jolts as he goes along which nudge him that much closer to implosion. Everything comes to a head in a barracks bathroom, where Ramirez delivers a broken soliloquy about the Marines with all the heartbreak that might linger within Ruiz himself, who was nearly killed in a Tikrit assault early in the war.
At this point in the film, Ramirez has already led the slaughter of 24 civilians in and around their Haditha homes—and we were right beside him. Without split screens or any state-of-the-art tricks, Broomfield also puts us right beside Ramirez’s victims and the Al Qaeda-conscripted mercenaries whose roadside bomb precipitated the massacre. There are no zealots or monsters here, just human beings caught in the gears of war. Here we are, and there they were. Who’s next?
Watch: Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Starring Honor Swinton Byrne and Tilda Swinton, Gets First Trailer
Joanna Hogg has been flying under the radar for some time, but that’s poised to change in a big way.
British film director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg, whose impeccably crafted 2013 film Exhibition we praised on these pages for its “disarming mixture of the remarkable and the banal,” has been flying under the radar for the better part of her career. But that’s poised to change in a big way with the release of her latest film, The Souvenir, which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Prior to the film’s world premiere at the festival, A24 and Curzon Artificial Eye acquired its U.S. and U.K. distribution rights, respectively. Below is the official description of the film:
A shy but ambitious film student (Honor Swinton Byrne) begins to find her voice as an artist while navigating a turbulent courtship with a charismatic but untrustworthy man (Tom Burke). She defies her protective mother (Tilda Swinton) and concerned friends as she slips deeper and deeper into an intense, emotionally fraught relationship that comes dangerously close to destroying her dreams.
And below is the film’s first trailer:
A24 will release The Souvenir on May 17.
Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Mixing
For appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore, one film has the upper hand here.
Given what Eric wrote about the sound editing category yesterday, it now behooves me to not beat around the bush here. Also, it’s my birthday, and there are better things for me to do today than count all the ways that Eric and I talk ourselves out of correct guesses in the two sound categories, as well as step on each other’s toes throughout the entirety of our Oscar-prediction cycle. In short, it’s very noisy. Which is how Oscar likes it when it comes to sound, though maybe not as much the case with sound mixing, where the spoils quite often go to best picture nominees that also happen to be musicals (Les Misérables) or musical-adjacent (Whiplash). Only two films fit that bill this year, and since 2019 is already making a concerted effort to top 2018 as the worst year ever, there’s no reason to believe that the scarcely fat-bottomed mixing of Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody will take this in a walk, for appealing to voters’ nostalgia for drunken karaoke nights of yore.
Will Win: Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody
Could Win: A Star Is Born
Should Win: First Man
Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth
By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.
Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcoming dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.
For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.
Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.
Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.
Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.
Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:
In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.
In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.
Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:
I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?
The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.
Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.
Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.