t: Better than Avatar?
N: Yes, better than Avatar. Like leaps and bounds.
t: If it had to be this or Avatar, I'm very happy this won.
N: But we had lots of other options to win that Oscar.
t: I think Inglourious Basterds and A Serious Man were better, in terms of being a movie that succeeds as a movie.
N: I have trouble with the ending of A Serious Man, but I have trouble with the endings of lots of movies. I definitely like IB better, it succeeds even as a war movie almost better than this one.
t: But this isn't Oscars, this is movies you should see before you die, and I'm pretty sure Up and A Serious man and IB are all in the new edition anyway. But in terms of this movie, yes, I think it belongs in there, even though I had huge issues with one whole section where for me, the character of Will completely goes off the rails and goes rogue and it is a failure and a betrayal of what they've taught us to know about him. I think that he's supposed to be the perfect soldier, he's a machine that's built for war, and him going AWOL and trying to chase down the people who tried to kill that kid and trying to narrativize that bomb and run wily-nily into the city is ridiculous and almost sinks the movie.
N: And doesn't work with his character and doesn't do anything for the movie . . .
t: Except turn it into a generic action movie, which up to this point, I was its best advocate! I was like it's trying to be an action movie, but it's going to frustrate all our expectations, he's an action hero, he's going to have that cocky, devil-may-care attitude that we like, but it's going to show how that makes him an insulated man in that suit, he's completely shut off from everything and everyone and that's what it costs to be that kind of hero, to be that kind of man. And then it doesn't even let me make that argument because of the stupid middle section where it turns into a shoot-em-up vigilante movie.
t: For like twenty, twenty-five minutes, and then it goes back to being sort of interesting.
N: Right. And the more interesting parts are actually the most boring parts of the narrative.
N: It's the quieter, we've-got-to-diffuse-this-bomb and we're actually going to spend two minutes . . .
t: Real time!
N: Real time . . . talking about how we're going to get this done and we only have two minutes to do that. At least the first time I saw it that built up tension and anxiety and the second time . . .
t: I think so too. We know which bombs are going to go off and which aren't.
N: Right. So it's not good for re-watching, I don't think, I wasn't tense at all.
t: No, just because I couldn't remember when that first one went off . . . I couldn't remember when Guy Pearce gets blown up . .
t: I was a little tense there, but other than that, yeah, we know, very methodically, he does what he does. I think there's a certain beauty. . . . I think the movie thinks there's a certain beauty in what he does and the movie tries to figure that out.
N: Yes. And he has to be so precise and the image of wars that we get so often are the average everyday soldiers who aren't dealing with this sort of thing, calling and saying "hey Jeremy Renner, you need to come diffuse this bomb."
N: They don't have to be this methodical; house raids aren't like this.
t: Nooo, nooo.
N: Shoot-outs are not like this. This is a very quiet, almost boring side of war, but the most intense and the most dangerous. He's gotta be on top of a bomb that could blow him to hell at any minute.
t: And he's very, very good at it.
t: And I think that the other part that's sort of interesting . . . usually whenever they're talking, I'm usually like "Oh God, stop . . ."
t: Because it's so cliche: "I want a SON."
N: "I want a SON."
t: When they find his box of bombs, which you pointed out is like a serial killer's souvineers, which I'd never thought about.
N: Yes, it is.
t: But that's true, you need to be a bomber to be a bomb diffuser, you have to have that kind of mentality, to know how something goes together in order to know how to take it apart.
N: He has to be able to build one.
t: And I think that's really interesting! I think that's a good point. It's something I hadn't thought about.
t: The only other bomb diffuser I've ever seen is in The English Patient. What's-his-name is a bomb diffuser.
t: And he also has to . . . and for him I think he's more like an artist. You know, it's a different representation of this kind of character. It's a very different kind of war, too.
t: Um, but yeah. There are parts of it I like, like I was saying, in theory, very much. When I think back on what we just saw, I love that you have this robot and this man who turns himself into a robot. And what does that do to him, to his capacity to interact with other soldiers, his capacity to have this son, that Mackie wants so badly, and he can't even, "I don't even think about it." You know, all he can think about is getting . . . the problem in front of him.
N: Yes, diffusing the bomb. He takes his ears off a lot during the movie because he can't hear people. He can't deal with other people.
t: And I think it's kind of genius that they're called ears. He dismantles his body. His body is moving parts. It's an interesting companion to Hugo, the metaphysics of Hugo, that we're all machines and that's beautiful, that makes us human, that connects us? And this is, if you are a machine . . . the more traditional view I would think, you're completely alienated . . .
N: The less human you are.
t: . . . from everything even though you can work really well. I think it's interesting what that argument is. We can actually look to see what this book says about it. If it captures the Iraq War in a way that seemed to be more successful, because all the other Iraq War movies seemed to fail in some way, they couldn't capture an audience. But this one doesn't seem to be really about. . . .
t: At least the political implications of the conflict.
N: Right. This one seems pretty apolitical. And I think in a certain way apolitical Iraq War movies have the same problem as 9/11 movies . . . they're either too much, they're not enough, they're not on the right side.
N: And that's a problem of audience, not of art.
t: Yeah, I agree. This is hard.
[tracy cannot work the index to the book. Looooong pause. Natalie explains how the book works. tracy reads the book's essay. It connects it to the "good war" sentiment, which tracy disagrees with.]
t: This is so tight in focus; it couldn't have happened in any other conflict, just because of the nature of the combat.
N: No, not even the first Iraq War. It's very specific to this war, this situation.
t: But I don't think it's trying tap into the sentiment of the "good war." I think it could care less whether it's a good war or a bad war.
N: No, it's about diffusing bombs. It's not about the war as a whole.
[More reading of the essay. Bigelow is first female director to win Best Director.]
N: Which is why I think this is in the book. Not for any . . .
[t reading essay: Bigelow's fascination with violence . . . "steady hand of screenwriter Mark Boal"]
t: I hated the script.
[t resumes reading essay: Film focuses on character, avoids politics, episodic, nature of the warrior rather than nature of the war.]
t: I agree with that paragraph. I think it negates the first paragraph.
N: It's definitely the nature of the warrIOR to the exclusion of the nature of the war in this situation.
[t resumes reading essay. Talks about soldiers being better suited to war than peacetime.]
t: I don't agree with the plural. None of the other soldiers seem to be like Renner.
N: No that's the point. He's different. He's shaking things up. The other guy didn't cause problems, he didn't take off his ears, he didn't do reckless things. He didn't go off the reservation, quite literally.
t: Right! One's traumatized to the point of paralysis, and the other one, Mackie, is doing the best he can.
N: Yeah, he's doing the best he can, he's following the rules, he just wants everybody else to follow the rules.
t: Yeah, he's trying to protect people, but Renner is the only one who's this complete addictive compulsive guy, and I don't think he cares about heroics, I just think he cares about doing the job. Anyway.
[t resumes reading the essay. Essay says Renner is ably supported by the other actors, including Guy Pearce. t pauses for snark. The essay concludes with a bullshit line about how "fun" the men of war can really be.]
N: THEY'RE NOT FUN AT ALL. Jeremy Renner is not fun at all.
t: He's a nightmare! He's a disaster.
N: I mean, Sanborn is friggin' stressed out for 99% of the movie because of Jeremy Renner!
t: I know, they don't all love him, there's not all this buddy-buddy camaraderie.
N: I mean, how many times does Sanborn try to talk and say "Where are his ears? Is he wearing his ears? Hey, do you hear me? Hello?"
t: It's funny his name is William James, although I don't think that's thought through at all. William James is at his best when he's in that combat situation with Ralph Fiennes, when he talks the kid though the situation.
t: And poor Mackie is trying to have an honest conversation at the end, and just be like, I'm scared, I don't want to die, and all he can be like is you're fine, bro, no problem amigo, he talks in absolute cliche.
N: There's no danger, so there is no ability to get him through the situation. James can only operate if he is about to die, if he is in an actual situation where he can be physically blown to bits, then he can operate. That's when his head is straight. When he's not in that situation, he can't operate at all, he comes up with hare-brained schemes, it doesn't work.
t: So I think the book is off, for all sorts of reasons.
N: In terms of talking about the book, too, Up is not in the book, IB is, A Serious Man is not, District 9 is.
N: Up is a serious problem, that it's not in the book, but that's just me, maybe.
[t audibly distraught.]
N: But that's not this discussion.
t: So. Yeah. For me and my personal research interests, it gives me a lot of hay to make because I like stuff about the body. I like stuff about masculinity. I like stuff about trauma. And this makes arguments about those things. As a movie, I think it's got big flaws.
t: But I do think it tries to be of its moment, I think it's ambitious. So, it's not as good as I remembered, but I still like talking about it, but like we were saying, I think it's a personal thing.
N: It's a personal thing. I may like it less because I dislike war movies and because of my former research interests. It's in essence a 9/11 movie. This movie doesn't exist without 9/11 and talking about 9/11 of course, and there are huge problems with 9/11 movies and Iraq War movies, and I don't know if any are wholly successful. I can't think of one good, I-don't-have-major-problems-with-it 9/11 movie or Iraq War movie, even if you get down into the indie movies that nobody saw or liked.
t: The 9/11 movies I like the best are very tangential. I'm thinking of 25th Hour where there's a scene, they're having this conversation over Ground Zero, his apartment window . . . it's never mentioned but it's a presence.
N: So it's either a post-9/11 thing, where we're not actually going to talk about it, but we're going to show that it happened, but if you have 9/11 as a central pivot point, or the Iraq War, as a central concern, the movies tend to not work. As a whole.
t: Yeah! I think the movie as the book said, and we were talking about is, it needs to be the Iraq War but on the other hand it doesn't. It's about warriors instead of about war. It's about this particular warrior. And violence.
N: It's absolutely about violence.
t: And I guess, I've just seen a couple about Katherine Bigelow movies but she's very interested in violence and the nature of violence and how violence intersects with people.
N: Which is . . . and let me go on a complete different tangent when we were talking about Pearl Harbor movies, and there aren't really that many, there are only a handful of Pearl Harbor movies. And I would say, I haven't seen Tora Tora Tora, but the other one.
t: From Here to Eternity?
N: From Here to Eternity works as a whole but when we get down to other movies we've got WWI and II, we've got tons of movies that work as a whole about those wars. We've got movies about Vietnam. We don't have first Iraq situation movies that work
t: Have you seen Three Kings?
t: I like Three Kings. But again, it's not really a war movie, but it's a movie that is saturated in the first Iraq War.
N: But for some reason certain wars don't seem to work as well cinematically, or we're still too . . . we shouldn't still be too close to Pearl Harbor.
t: No, but you know, WWII, follows a
t: You know, it follows a narrative that lends itself well to a traditional kind of war movie. Which is why I think Inglourious Basterds is so interesting.
N: But then we should be able to switch if we're.
t: Where's the successful Korea movie?
N: Where's the successful Korea movie? There should be a point at which film can transition the way literature did and move into postmodernity and move into, okay, we can't work with a war that has a narrative, that's modernist, we can't do that anymore, so how can we consider these wars in a postmodern sense, and actually be able to put them on film in a way that is successful as a whole movie as opposed to "the first part is good, the last part is good, the middle part is kind of a disaster, or the movie's a failure, or we're going to only kind of mention there's a war going on and the whole movie isn't going to be about that."
t: Yeah, I think almost the expectations of the genre and the business of moviemaking is that you try and sell: okay, this is a war movie, people go to the theatre expecting a certain sort of war movie and a postmodern movie isn't going to give them that.
N: Right. But we've had 60 years to transition the genre and it doesn't seem like anybody is doing that. We're still working with very traditional sorts of war movies. I mean, this is, in a sense, a very traditional sort of war movie. We're focusing in on one guy, and his life. The Woody Harrelson movie where he is . . .
t: The Messenger
N: Very traditional where guys are coming home, informing family members of deaths. Very specific in terms of home, but we're not dealing with the war, but we seem to be stuck in traditional war movies as opposed to moving the genre forward to fit with the type of warfare that we now have.
t: I think Inglourious Basterds does it, but doesn't do it with a modern war.
t: If there's a movie that says war is text, it's Inglourious Basterds. And there are people who I know, who I've discussed IB with, who are very upset by that. Because I guess the idea of it cheapens it somehow.
N: Yeah, and that's the whole argument against any 9/11 texts of any variety and Iraq War texts, that you're not taking it seriously, that you're not making these guys heroes, that yeah, they can't have any problems whatsover because they're saving our asses on a daily basis. They're the ones who give us our freedom despite the fact that we have a Constitution that did that first. So we can't disparage them, or show that they have flaws, or show that they fuck up, or show that they don't know what they're doing at any point because they're over there and we're not.
t: And as much as I hate to admit it, the movies that I think about that do that not structurally but do that in certain instances are movies that I didn't like that much. Like Jarhead. That's what Jarhead does: says these guys are a bunch of fuck-ups, they don't want to be here, they're not heroes, they don't want to be considered heroes, and they sit around jerking off all day. And In the Valley of Elah does the same thing.
N: Whatever. That's a terrible movie.
t: But it ends up saying that look, we did this horrible thing, and he has to put together the video . . .
N: [skeptically] Yeah . . .
t: He wasn't a hero, you know, but I don't think the movies were good in other ways, for other reasons.
N: That's Haggis, right? Yeah.
t: And I didn't like it, but that is what, you know, it ended up saying.
t: That these horrible atrocities are happening and people are papering them over because of that hero mythology that is so powerful. So I don't know, I mean. I don't think . . . it seems there are all these gestures toward it . . . there are these moments when we say Renner is an asshole. We hate this guy. But there are other moments where it's kind of cool that he takes out his ears. There's something in me that responds to that, like oh, he's badass. So it's hard to sustain?
N: Yeah, it seems that this is the closest to showing that sometimes soldiers aren't quite you know, just following protocol and doing what they're supposed to be doing. We're not in the Revolutionary War. We're not in lines shooting people. Yeah.
t: I would keep it in. But it has a lot more problems than I ever let myself remember. Because when I was thinking about it, I had completely forgotten about the middle section, and then when it started again I remembered I had this huge problem with it.
t: And I had completely forgotten about that part.
N: I think the movie's success is that we remember it as that tension filled moment to moment "is he going to blow up and die at any minute now"? Because at first viewing at least . . . I mean other people might feel the tension at other viewings, but I didn't. But at first viewing I did feel that tension. You didn't know what was going to happen. This seems like the sort of movie where Renner could blow up at minute 20 and we have a new bomb diffuser.
t: Yes, it does.
N: So, it at least accomplishes that and leaves the viewer with tension and a successful feeling. I think that's probably at least what it was trying to do, so we forget about the middle part which was failing. So at least it covers up its failures!
t: A lot of movies don't manage to do that.
N: Yeah, it's like "here's our failure!" I'd keep it in. I like Go, See, Become better. It's a more interesting viewing experience for me. And I think a second viewing would be as interesting as the first. But I'd keep HL in. It's important for a lot of reasons. The subject matter, seeing him diffuse a bomb: I don't think we get many other places, if any, where we talk about these bomb diffusers. And Katherine Bigelow won an Oscar. It's an important moment in film history.
t: Yeah, somebody had to do it. It's interesting we give the first Oscar to the woman for the war movie.
N: For the war movie.
t: And there's one woman in the movie, for five seconds?
N: Five seconds. Well we get the family at the beginning, the one woman he chases with the gun, when he goes off the base.
t: Which is my own problem, right? I completely forgot about the Iraqis. And I think this movie . . .
N: Yeah, it doesn't want you to remember the Iraqis.
t: The Iraqis are wallpaper.
N: That's it. Because the one Iraqi with the bomb . . . you're concerned about the bomb, not the Iraqi.
t: Yeah. But there are those female characters.
N: But they're useless, they don't have to be there. You could see him in the grocery store and never see that woman.
t: Yeah . . . and it would still be . . .
N: They could cut that grocery store scene down to just those cereal boxes.
t: That's all the movie wants you to see: Oooh! Mass consumerism!
N: And that he can't decide. He doesn't know what kind of cereal his kid eats, he can't choose between them. They are not bomb wires, he doesn't know what do with them.
t: It would be like me in front of a bomb wire.
N: Yes! I don't know what to do with this! Except cereal isn't going to blow you up. Okay: consensus! Keep it! Except also keep Go, See, Become and The Big Lebowski.