When I interviewed Bruno Dumont for his Existential French horror film Twentynine Palms, he said he was very interested in observing his characters from a distance and generating tension as a result of the tenuous links between the scenes. That led him to understand that, “The more you take risks by reducing the script, by reducing character, by reducing all of the constitutive elements of the film to the strict minimum while preparing and shooting the script, the more powerful the film becomes.”
But what if, instead of reducing those elements to the bare minimum, you decide to reduce them just enough, omitting exposition, the heightened effect of a soundtrack or score, introduction of character and establishment of geography? A television mini-series for HBO cannot hope or dare to hone itself down into near-wordless visual poetry, and I suppose that’s one of the differences between the Americans and the French. However, trimming all of the fat out of a project is something we hold very dear. Lean, exposition-free, image-driven entertainment, with a little bit of social statement, where we the spectators glean information that’s encoded into the pictures. So we know we’re in Iraq because it’s out in the desert, and we know it’s in the early days of the second Gulf war because there’s a fair amount of enthusiasm from the Marines (still smiling, happy, excited, ready to kill, full of energy) and Saddam Hussein is still alive.
With Generation Kill, we’re dropped into the middle of such a situation. There’s an old saying that, in good storytelling, action precedes explanation and commitment precedes realization. So here we are, dear spectators, in the midst of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, hanging around in their tents and speaking in Marine lingo that makes no concession to the casual viewer. We don’t know who these young men are, and they all look alike with their skinny, wiry muscles and shaved heads. Perhaps in some ways we establish character though a sense of status: where men are deferential to others, we assume that equals rank. Scene one is a combat exercise, but we don’t realize we’re not involved in real combat until the skirmish is resolved. By osmosis, we glean that the year must be 2003, but we never get a true sense of time and place.
Events are shot with what feels like a long lens that is often incredibly tight on faces and hands, registering activity (repairing cars, fixing tents in dust storms, stuffing big hunks of chewing tobacco into mouths, tossing on gas masks whenever there’s a warning of “Gas! Gas! Gas!”). I suppose there are also wide shots of the desert, but it’s usually in the context of a camera perched over someone’s shoulder as they look out at Iraqi farmers wondering if they are friends or foe. The only official character introduction we get is of an unnamed scribe from Rolling Stone (Lee Tergesen), based on Evan Wright, the actual writer of the non-fiction book Generation Kill. When we meet him, all we really get to understand is that he is treated with hostility and derision until the soldiers learn he also used to write for Hustler, at which point he is given the bare minimum of respect, just as we are given the bare minimum of everything else.
But when the Marines talk, it feels authentic. When they’re reacting to situations, it feels somehow culled from the material of real life. Maybe that’s because Generation Kill sticks close to its source, as if every precious word and activity was meant to be represented onscreen in sheer authentic detail, which inadvertently makes you wonder if every other war movie ever made was somehow slacking off. If we were in the business of heralding screen stories for authenticity, Generation Kill would have to be some kind of high water mark, and even if it’s fooled us and it’s only authentic inasmuch as it doesn’t feel like actors in dress-up pretending to be soldiers, that’s still better than the sentimental tarting-up of war that happens 99% of the time.
So yeah, I’m impressed that they put us smack dab in the middle of this world, riding around in Humvees and disgusted at the lack of support the Marines get from the higher-ups (they always seem to be complaining about a lack of batteries and equipment) and expressing frustration that they don’t get to shoot or kill anybody in Episode One. The day-to-day monotony is documented, the hierarchy is established, and the absurdity is presented gleefully (there’s tons of bullshit from a commanding officer about hygiene and presentation, from tucking in of shirts to shaving of moustaches). Casual homophobia, racism, right-wing braggadocio, childish blabbering, frat house karaoke-style a capella singing of pop tunes, and, above all else, a hunger for action are peppered throughout. If we start recognizing any of the actors, it is because the guy with the cleft in his chin who seems to be in charge registers a certain amount of face time, and the journalist is usually scribbling in a small black notepad and making an ass out of himself, as when he can’t get his gas mask on fast enough and somehow manages to get the straps of his uniform too tight around his balls. If that sounds childish and crass, well, that all seems like the Authenticity, Authenticity, Authenticity that Generation Kill is religiously adhering to, at the cost of coherence and connection.
The “You Are There” depiction of wartime life in Generation Kill doesn’t seem as aggressively non-narrative as it would have been were it made by some French existential filmmaker (although it was an Italian who made The Battle of Algiers, which influenced the “You Are There” war pictures from 1966 until today). It’s just enough to be bold and audacious without alienating the core American audience that’s tuning in to HBO. That’s all right with me, since we don’t go to American television for avant-garde philosophizing. But Generation Kill tries to steer itself in that direction as much as it dares to. It remains to be seen whether that will pay off in any meaningful way, or if at the end of the day we pin a medal on its chest for Authenticity. “That’s kind of sort of how it really was,” we might say. “Anyway, it’s as close as a TV series with actors can get to being Authentic. It’s as close as we dare get to the Real Deal.”
But to be frank, I’m not sure how much it matters whether television shows and movies are authentic. I mean, an attention to detail is great, and makes one feel like the creators have truly done their homework, but there’s something else we go to the movies and cinema for, and that’s the leap beyond representation of everyday reality into the fantasia of the imagination. If we stick to the hard facts of reality, we feel like we can somehow wrap our minds around the truth, as though the truth were a digestible thing, but when movies and television take an imaginative leap into the otherworldly, something explodes in our minds. Michael Mann, for example, did impeccable research into the worlds of cops and robbers in Thief, Heat, and Miami Vice, yet there’s something larger than life, epic, even operatic about the desires of the characters, which are painted in bold colors as big and bright as Odysseus and Achilles in the work of Homer. “I am alone, I am not lonely” exclaims a thief, and he’s expressing a Life Philosophy. Similarly, when a cop says, “I will never doubt you,” it’s like an overture of Great Love. These stories are somehow larger than we are, and yet we see in them the bigger and most majestic parts of our selves. Will Generation Kill ever rise to such morally charged heights, or will it stick to being proud of its ability to stick to the facts, as it were? Time will tell.
I have hope, though. In the broad and general sense, I’m impressed by HBO’s original series, and within the past ten years they’ve given us some astonishing work: Deadwood, The Sopranos, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, to name just a few. They also gave us five seasons of The Wire (from the same creative team as Generation Kill), and though I’m still several seasons behind on this intricately woven, highly suspenseful, impeccably researched cop show, it has so far exceeded my humble expectations. How many cop shows do we really need? Our networks are overstuffed with one police procedural after another, and while they widely vary in quality, you pretty much know what to expect from all of them. The Wire gave no indication that it was much different, since we’re still dealing with cops in rumpled plainclothes suits drinking coffee (or booze) and grumbling about the lack of support they’re getting from city hall while the drug dealers prosper on the streets.
But what makes The Wire special is its attention to detail. Executive Producer David Simon started out his career as a journalist, and his writing partner Ed Burns (not that Ed Burns) was a former homicide detective. It goes beyond the clichés of “fuck the bureaucracy” and a love of high-tech surveillance gadgets, perhaps because (a) it weaves an elaborate web of institutional corruption and compromise, and (b) it gives a sense of urban decay where the rot starts at the highest level and works its way down like so many rotten weeds, until it scrapes the bottom dredges and the lowest on the food chain. Even if there’s a sense of accomplishment where the crack team of “good poh-lice” get their man, they often fail. And critics, including yours truly, tend to delight in stories where the protagonists and antagonists are morally gray, where the cops are out of control with their drinking problems and womanizing, and the drug dealers are protective of family and covetous of middle class values that many Americans share (clothes, cars, television sets, nice houses and furniture, a good education for the family, a chance at making it in American capitalist dog-eat-dog society, and treating the drug business as just that, a business).
The Wire can be grindingly slow-paced at times, taking its cues strictly from Aristotle’s Poetics and building its epic tragedies piece by piece, culminating in nail biting peak moments and reversals at its conclusion. While it is never as philosophically power-housing as, say, a French existentialist novel, or as smart and revealing of character as a Russian one, or as daring as American experimentalists who like to shake up the dramatic systems that have become part and parcel of our movies and television shows, The Wire is workmanlike in the very best sense of the word. It delivers its entertainment, and its social statement about urban life and desiccation wisely and well. There’s no wonder it gained a reputation for being good TV, because it is.
Simon and Burns have returned with Generation Kill, and already we can detect some of the same themes: a sense of trust in applying technology with human instincts behind the nuts, bolts and gears; a vague distrust of the chain of command and a slightly renegade spirit in terms of “getting things done,” a belief in character building based on action (as well as basing the characters on real life people so they feel Authentic, to the point where their individual voices and inflections are wonderfully, hysterically idiosyncratic), and cynical slang as a mode of communication that cuts through the bullshit. Just the other day, I was talking with Slant Magazine editor-in-chief Ed Gonzalez about differences in writing style not just as a personal affect, but as a school of thought, where subscribers go to, say, Ernest Hemingway or Salman Rushdie to see how to behave when they write.
If we’re to impose that kind of limitation, the Simon/Burns team is definitely Hemingway, which means they are tough and lyrical and contemplative and lean, occasionally drifting into the realm of the sublime when their tough talk leans into the absurd functions of daily life, but rarely if ever daring to dream, or stepping outside the self-imposed confines, or digressing, or meandering and shuffling into the magical and otherworldly. There’s just no time for that. No fat on these bones. The Wire is as good as that Hemingway mode gets, and if you dig it, you’ll put it on the pedestal above all those cop shows that wallow in sentimental crap and don’t bother to do their homework. One thing I learned from The Wire is patience, because it also subscribes to the “slow burn” rule of storytelling, where the information presented gradually increases in power, like an ever-tightening vise. Generation Kill may prove to be in the same zone of storytelling.
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.