July 9, 2009
I really liked Hurt Locker. Which is interesting, given my strong anti-war inclinations and its profoundly open-ended stance on this, our war in Iraq. The film plays this war as it is—an emotional roller coaster of fear and boredom, action and waiting—and its political meanings are left to the eye of the beholder. If you hate this war, its daily work-flow of carnage reminds you why. I assume if you love it, the same is true.
Which is quite similar to an anecdote I inevitably tell my college students about the work of Frederick Wiseman. After he finishes a verite illustration of any particular institution (a high school, a bomb silo), I have been told that the people he films will say, “yes, this is what the place is like,” while the institution’s critics will celebrate the scathing expose writ into ever scene. As I’ve been writing a lot lately, (images of ) reality are meaningless; sense gets inserted through mise-en-scene or a viewer’s own desire. Now, of course, Hurt Locker is not a documentary. These are not images of reality, although of course IEDs, and the men who diffuse and are killed by them are all too real. But Kathryn Bigelow empties story, emotion and drama from the scene (making it more like what we understand as the feel of direct cinema), leaving only a series of macho adreline rushes in their place. A bomb ticks. Men try to diffuse it. Innocent/guilty residents may be killed. And again. Where a melodrama places music, Bigelow plays anticipation. The nonsense of war and its related but arbitrary life and death stakes are all that is left.