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New York Film Festival 2009: Lebanon

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New York Film Festival 2009: <em>Lebanon</em>

Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon is a good old-fashioned Sam Fuller war picture, all capital letters and tight close-ups. There is not one narrative surprise in it, and it doesn’t need any. Maoz is drawing on his experiences as an Israeli tank gunner during the first Lebanon war just as Fuller raided his World War II combat memories for the epic The Big Red One. But Lebanon is more on the scale of Fuller’s Korean War cheapie The Steel Helmet, filling the screen mostly with soldiers’ sweaty, greasy, bug-eyed faces in the moments before and after decisive violence. Maoz pushes for the ultimate in subjectivity, never letting his camera leave the tank interior. We are stuck in there, just like the shell-shocked crew whose superiors force them into hostile, bombed-out territory without a clear objective or sufficient support.

The real work for Maoz (besides dredging up personal traumas sublimated for three decades) is creating a sense of the tank as a living, ravenous organism. If the title weren’t already taken by another lost tank patrol movie, you’d have to call this one The Beast. The first scene of the tank coming to life is a dazzling tour de force. Sound designer Alex Claude creates much of this beastly life with mechanical sounds that don’t just appear on the soundtrack but emerge from stillness, gather force, sputter, rage, climax and expire like a life cycle or, um, like sex. This dank tank, constantly spewing oil and slime when the action gets hot and heavy, seems to welcome an intense, if familiar, homoerotic reading. With all the verbal references to home and “mother,” it could also be taken as some kind of (somebody stop me) womb. Just tossing a bone to the signs-and-meanings crowd there.

Maoz’s capital letters come in the form of POV shots through the tank’s gun sights. With each jerky pan, tilt and magnification, the viewfinder clicks, whirrs and bloops. The bloops are devastating. They sound like the slate tone of a Nagra tape recorder and accompany jump cuts to closer or wider views of the hellish war tableaux. No zooms. The images just swap out like prime lenses mounted on a turret or an optometrist’s phoropter. Each bleep introduces a startling new detail or panorama of civilian carnage and military anomie. It’s reminiscent of Gaspar Noé’s gunshot blast sound effect in I Stand Alone—except that it creates the opposite effect: Noé’s shotgun sounds punctuate his hateful protagonist’s astonishingly cruel declamations; Maoz’s bloops are cries.

Given all the familiarity, none of these devices would be worth our investment if Moaz didn’t get the psychology right. Lebanon’s characters are high-definition wonders, from Moaz’s stand-in, the dangerously green gunner Shmulik, to the charismatic malcontent who should be in charge, to the asshole superior who insists on using illegal white phosphorous on civilians but later reveals his own fear and fragility. In a real beaut of a monologue, Shmulik recalls exploiting a female high-school teacher’s sympathy after his father’s funeral, using it as an opportunity to dry hump her. “That’s right, let it all out,” he recalls the teacher whispering in his ear as she held him close, unaware that he was letting it out, alright. That’s Fuller’s Law in practice: Stylize the war but draw the people in the finest detail, especially those emotions too dizzyingly contradictory, poetic and improbable to be anything but true.

Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.