Saturday, February 18, 2012

Michael Dean Benton: Response to Jarhead (2005: Sam Mendes)

[Originally posted at the defunct website Bluegrass Film Society: November 6, 2005]

I went to see Jarhead on friday afternoon after reading the recent Harper's magazine profile essay on the film and the problems associated with anti-war films. I first became familiar with Swofford's memoirs about his service in the first Iraq War primarily because of Swofford's legendary party-session with University of Kentucky grad-students after a Lexington reading.

The setting:

I showed up at the 3:20 pm showing at the Regal theater (a typical shopping area multiplex). Arriving somewhat early, there were only two other people in the screening area and I thought that this might be a typical early-friday screening (the last afternoon showing we had experienced was The Constant Gardener which had only six people in the audience).

Slowly groups of 2-4 people filed into the theater until there was about 20+ people. At about 10 minutes before the showing three groups of 12+ people showed up, obviously, from overheard conversation and their collective-huddling, they were the local fraternities come to check out the latest war film.

The audience was easily 90% male and, as my companion noted, the testosterone blanketed the theater. One could sense that they were there for some action and some butt-kicking. In my imagination I heard them rallying the guys to go see the film: "Enough of the daily reports of violence and death in the current Iraq-war, lets go see a film about the one where we kicked some serious ass!"

The film (general comments because I don't want to ruin the plot):

This film is going to produce extreme reactions. It will be one of those polarizing films that will be an ideological litmus-test of the people who watch it (like Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing) because it doesn't make an explicit stand either way on this war, or war in general. It simply presents Swofford's personal story of training to be a Marine scout and his experiences in the first Gulf War.

A lot of commentary I have seen is that this film (and Swofford's book) is anti-military. I don't see it... yes it exposes the cruelties of collective male-bonding that is centered around the hatred of an "enemy-other," but is that really shocking to anyone? It portrays the insanity and dehumanization of contemporary warfare in which buttons are pushed and hundreds of people are immediately incinerated/blown-up, but is this unrealistic? It depicts the trauma experienced by those who serve in the military, but one only has to read studies of post-traumatic syndrome all the way back to WWI to realize this reality.

What I think is disturbing about this film for many of the people attacking it is that it de-mythologizes the glorification of personal combat--the individualistic hero-figure who rises above even the scewed-up absurdity of the military situation, bringing order to the madness. In this film there are no heroes. Even Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, perceived as anti-war films, allow us points of identification and characters we can "root" for in their quest to make sense of the insanity of war. In Jarhead, there are no places we can rest, we are kept disturbed, we are uneasy, we really don't know what is going on, perhaps the military terminology best suited to the atmosphere of the film is FUBAR.

The audience afterwards:

As we walked out you could sense the frustration of the bands of fraternity-boys who had sought the glories of represented warfare. They complained loudly that the film lacked the spectacle they had come to experience. I wondered, how many of these boys, from their fraternity-association and position of privilege in our society, would ever have to worry about serving in the military. Why, if they were so lucky to escape this service, unlike their less-fortunate peers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world, was it so necessary for them to feel a part of the rituals of war, even if it was through the spectacle of a Hollywood film. As we walked out many of them were on phones planning the night's parties, their frustration so evident, I wondered how it would manifest in the night to come.

Since we are coming up on a week devoted to the military film I assigned Jarhead as an extra credit opportunity for my students. I will post some of the more interesting responses:

Leanne Harvey

Lance Cutshall

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