Dvafoto Book Club, Vol. 1: The Hurt Locker

Today we are introducing a new feature for our humble blog: The Dvafoto Book Club. I see it as a regular place for photographers, artists and other people we admire to share some of the art (literature, music, film, photography, painting, etc.) that inspires them or they want to talk about. I will be asking some of the interesting people I know to share in this space and hope that we can strike up a dialogue.

In this first installment I want to excerpt an email conversation I’ve been having recently with my good friend John Malsbary, who writes the excellent film blog Prison in Cinema. I watched The Hurt Locker with skepticism after reading some early reviews and seeing the trailer. I ended up really disliking the film on a number of levels. I mentioned this to John and he fought back with some pretty interesting points. Since the conversation veers into something of a discussion of cinema versus documentary, realism versus fiction and what we might gain from each, I thought it would be interesting for our audience. For starters, consider Michael Kamber’s review in the NYT Lens Blog, which criticizes Hurt Locker for dabbling in fantasy at the expense of the lived experience of deployed US troops. For example, “The movie’s denouement — the explosive ordnance disposal (E.O.D.) team responds to a massive truck bomb in the Green Zone — is so completely wrong in every respect that it borders on farce.”

Realism in movies is something I’m interested in. I am a big fan of the Italian neo-realists and their offshoots. But they’re not the end all of cinema. In fact, they’re passé. I think most directors would be pretty unhappy to be labeled realists.

So let’s just think about Hurt Locker as naturalistic instead of realistic. It goes for the people and the sounds and smells and cats and buildings, but does not restrict its story to the actual.

Good fictional films do not concern themselves with the Sisyphean task of replicating truth. It’s impossible… obviously. And it usually backfires when academics have a more complete view of posterity. I’ve said before, or rather, I’ve aped Werner Herzog to you before. Art, especially film, can lead to an “ecstatic truth”. A more powerful truth than adherence to the actual would ever accomplish.

The Hurt Locker elicits a strong visceral connection. This is a tense movie. It is really hard not to take part very actively in the characters frightening experience. Strangely, the release comes during the super slow motion explosions.

The visceral connection is unique in the Hurt Locker. It escapes the John Wayne jingoism that haunts many war films. (I’ve been binging on Westerns lately, and have had plenty an opportunity to see film used to promote war.) Hurt Locker does not instill a nationalistic rah-rah-rah feeling. It announces quite frankly that Will James is a piece of shit. His comrades seriously consider blowing him up on purpose! I can only feel disgust when a superior officer congratulates Will’s cowboy attitude. At the same time, I am rooting for Will, and getting off on the rush of things. Instead of heroism, Hurt Locker invokes confusion.

James is a metaphor. He’s this detestable, unshakable need we have to keep on fighting. Not because we are helping anybody. Not because of some John Wayne sense of duty. Not because of camaraderie with our brothers in the shit. Simply because we, the American public, are addicted to the rush. Addicted to the television that fetishizes and glorifies the whole mess. I really like these quotes from Glenn Kenny: “First and foremost, Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a movie about junkiedom.” and “… The Hurt Locker isn’t about the Iraq War per se, but rather about war as a condition.”

This film is so much more subversive than you’re giving it credit for. It starts out with an American in a space suit. Don’t you love that it Otherizes us from the very first scene? We’re the aliens.

I appreciate what you do, and what documentary filmmakers, and news creators do in general. I think it’s a hugely under exposed creative endeavor. It is not what fictional filmmakers do. When fictional filmmakers try to do what you do, they usually fuck it up (Take note Paul Greengrass). The Hurt Locker isn’t even trying to do what you’re talking about.

If it is what you say it is, and I’m inclined to trust you but also not to agree, I can’t see how the majority of the movie going public understands or enjoys it for those reasons. Maybe I’m wrong, I hope so. But I still hear so many people talking about this film in terms of its accuracy in bringing home the war to the US, and they mean it literally. And we know this is not true.

I’ve said at points that the failures of realism in Hurt Locker are what screw this all up. Because this point undermines the rest of the puzzle and the message you’re describing to me. This is the same thing that happened with the film ‘Brothers’ (another recent American film about war and its effects on soldiers/families). On the whole there are too many schizophrenic characters and scenes that don’t add up. It isn’t a clear message. You can see the subtle and subversive treatment of issues in some moments very clearly but it is the widening gap between those moments and the cliché depictions of war and military that takes everything down for me, in both films. The melodrama and ludicrous scenarios get in the way. They kick me out of the story and out of any message.

I am not calling for utter realism, just something as realistic as serves the story and subject. It is not a documentary and doesn’t need to be. It is a drama about psychology of soldiers, inherently elusive and not tied to specific scenes or events that could be recreated. But you don’t need an action filled, melodramatic, farcical plot to achieve that. In fact, I’d imagine you’d want to avoid those things.

David Simon, creator of The Wire and Generation Kill, quoted Picasso in an interview (go to 2:55) and I think it is very relevant here: “Art is the lie that shows us the truth”

Fiction is absolutely a worthy choice in such a story, it does something beyond journalism and documentary, and I’ve always and will always believe this. But it has to be done right. All art is not the same, it can get in the way of the message. I’m saying Hurt Locker doesn’t get it right, even as fiction.

I’m left thinking about the scene in the desert where the EOD squad, on its own, stumbles upon an incompetent team of British mercenaries. Our squad saves the day, totally outside of the plotline as we had up to that moment expected. And totally unrealistically (they wouldn’t be there, they wouldn’t be alone, they wouldn’t know how to fight like that). What purpose does this scene have other than melodrama? One more instance of the hero saving the day against all odds? Another chance to get off on Americans winning the war?
I’m curious what you make of that scene and what I might have missed?

I thought the desert shoot out scene was pretty satirical.

When I was sitting in the theater, and that came on, I was like “Really, a hokey bonding scene? That’s where you’re going with this, Ms. Bigelow?” As it dragged on, I was more like, “I’m thirsty”. Then they pulled out juice boxes, and I was cracking up. Here are these macho guys, in the desert bonding over their juicy juice like little boys in the cafeteria.

I wasn’t really worried about the British dudes. And I didn’t really think the Americans saved the day. I just saw the British guys as a foil for the Americans.

The Brits didn’t work together, couldn’t cooperate, and they got killed off. The Americans did work together, they found some redeeming leadership in their jerk-off leader, and it was this moment of unity. But the satirical juice boxes diluted what would have been a clichéd scene.

A lot of Westerns and WWII Band of Brother type movies would leave the cliché alone. More people would die, but it would all be for the heroic cause. Hurt Locker undermines the heroic Will James. His addiction results in his comrade being injured shortly before he would have left Iraq on leave. Anthony Mackie’s character ends up bitterly swearing at Will. The camaraderie is shredded. That could happen to John Wayne, but it would be couched as a joke. In Hurt Locker, it just feels shitty.

You bring up this point “We’re not talking about if they had the correct weapon but if there really is ever just one truck out in the world. Is it metaphor, that every truck of men feels like it is on its own?…”

To my mind the truck is a 2-D metaphor, and this is where the film sort of stumbles for me. The truck is in Iraq unilaterally, like America. And that’s all.

Straight through the entire movie, these guys are America, and America is addicted to war. America is acting heroic, but it’s America’s presence that is causing the violence. The whole time they’re trying to defuse these bombs with ever more quixotic absurdity.

It’s not a complex reading. I’d like to be swayed by people who think there’s a whole lot more going on, especially in regards to gender. Read some of these articles at Film Studies For Free about the thrill of transcendence in Bigelow’s earlier work. I refuse to accept that the creators of Hurt Locker are such jingoists that they would sign off on the film you’ve described. Katherine Bigelow is smart. Look at this article about her roots in the art scene. Look at this homage to the body of her work.

This is a tormented Rambo, but the plot is Rambo all the same in the veneer of what war ‘actually looks like’. It doesn’t come across enough as fantasy or allegory. Maybe I’m being thick, but I don’t see how this film is undermining the institution of an action thriller or of war by using these motifs again. I think you need a different visual language to divorce yourself from all that baggage. For me, this is necessary, I can’t see myself getting beyond that, and maybe that is to my detriment as a viewer.

But here is the most interesting part of this to me right now: I’m also conflicted by the Michael Kamber’s account that all the soldiers dislike this film because it got so much wrong. There was a great piece in Harper’s from some years ago about war films and their use as motivational porn by troops called “Valkyries over Iraq: The trouble with war movies.” (behind a paywall, for better or worse). It leads from one of the scenes in the film Jarhead where US troops rallying before the first Gulf War watched the infamous Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now. It got them fired up, they got off on it. And I hear that people did the same during the latest invasion of Iraq. This can’t be the ‘meaning’ of the original scene can it? How do troops ignore the atrocities that take place in the scene?

The false heroism and “one against the world-ness” that you take as metaphor and critique of America’s position in modern war is too easily read at face value. I’m confused that is not being embraced by troops, not because they’re not capable of a nuanced reading of media but because it would seem to reinforce the actual mission they’re conducting. War in the Hurt Locker and the modern era often begins in the individual combatant’s head and is a reflection of their society’s condition. In that sense this film does a good job, but then why is it not being received well by the military itself? (if one can cull one opinion from a diverse group).

Very often films that are to many ‘anti war’ can be re-purposed as firestarters in a different context. If this film can’t be used that way, I guess it is doing something right?

(It is very likely that John and I will continue this in the comments below, and I encourage you to include your thoughts here or on our Facebook page. One of my goals with this Book Club is to get more discussion going of interesting and important things beyond photographs themselves, which we often have enough of. Lets talk about what else inspires and informs our work)

6 Responses to “Dvafoto Book Club, Vol. 1: The Hurt Locker”

  1. Emmy Gran

    What does it say about the American public, who gobbles up a bloodied Rambo-esque movie as a true portrayal of American military in the Middle East? Is real war, as sickening and horrifying as it is, not enough to capture the American attention span, that it has to be amped up? That to me is the the most bewildering part of the Hurt Locker hype.

  2. Patrick

    Interesting stuff. I’ve watched the Hurt Locker quite a few times since it came out, I really like it.

    I didn’t see the desert scene like you did thats for sure. To me it didn’t feel like the Americans saved the day or that they knew how to fight, snipers aren’t such bad shots … it felt like a big joke and in the end what I thought was most unrealistic was that they all lived to fight another day.

    One of your critics about the film is that you can’t see how the movie going public could see the deeper truth or message to a movie like that (if there is one). I would tend to agree but it made me think … is it an obligation for movie producers (hollywood ones) that a movie should have a clear message thats easily understood by the dumbest link in the chain? Translate to photojournalism and photography, does an essay or story or single image need to be comprehensible by the masses they be considered good and a success? I ask myself that question often … who do we have to cater to?

    • John M

      “is it an obligation for movie producers (hollywood ones) that a movie should have a clear message thats easily understood by the dumbest link in the chain? …who do we have to cater to?”

      I guess Hurt Locker was not all that successful at the box office. More of a critical darling than a $$$ machine. So sure, we can cry the producer a river…
      But it has a public, maybe not the same public lining up for Clash of the Titans, but there’s a public out there eager to engage with subtlty.

      I think Hurt Locker would have pulled in more money if there’d been wider distribution. Maybe the “dumbest link in the chain” wouldn’t articulate anything useful about HL, but I’m sure they’d leave conflicted and personally impacted.

      The catering business is probably a lot more lucrative than photojournalism.

  3. Yusef

    “It got them fired up, they got off on it. And I hear that people did the same during the latest invasion of Iraq. This can’t be the ‘meaning’ of the original scene can it?”

    I don’t think anyone watching this scene in the theaters when Apocalypse Now was first released mistook the intent of this scene…It was chilling and horrifying, even if strangely satirical.

    It may be,however, that we weren’t unaffected by the excitement and energy of the scene–the rush. And also, as this segment of the movie ends, the narrator remarks on the love of the commander for his troops, and their love and respect for him–this seems significant now, and in the context of your review.

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