Saturday, January 7, 2012

Apocalypse Then

It’s an arbitrary construct, the “new year.” It gives us false hope—which becomes real—of rebirth. Yet it is of course made of pieces of the real, the revolution of this planet we are on, its revolutions around a solar system in turn. We can’t get off even if we want to! Instead, we can leave it only by being buried a few feet into it.

Think about that for a moment.

I am doing so right now, as I sit by the fire, with R.E.M., a dead band, revolving on the turntable. It all goes around and around, the years and the records both. Music is just a construct too, but made of real bits of mathematics and resonances and neurology. Perhaps it could never not have been conceived. It is that much a part of who we are. I feel that way about movies. I feel I can never see enough. I feel that we were just waiting all our history for 1895 and the coming of the movie.

On Christmas Day, we sat in three seats in the second row, a crappy vantage in any theater. But it was opening day, and across the land, those of us unmoored from a family feast were looking forward to being transported by an epic vision, followed by the requisite Chinese food (or, in our cases, Indian). This is what is known as “Jewish Christmas.”The boy has long been wondering, in his preternaturally smart way that frequently dumbfounds me, why World War I is relatively infrequently considered. After a little thought and a little reading, we discussed the probability that such unspeakable destruction, based on a lie that then gave rise to another horrific multinational bloodletting, was simply too hard to look in the face. Better to bury it, and hope it does not rise again. But of course it does; the world turns always anew in revolutions of willful forgetfulness.

After the happy chocolates in the stocking and the strewn wrapping paper and ribbons of youthful fiction—Santa came!—I strongly suspected that a movie scheduled to open wide on December 25, even if based on that unfathomable episode, would not partake too much of truth: nothing won; so much promise, contorted in frozen pain in the mud. No, in the malls of America, one must be certain of a happy end. Certainly there would be moments of fear, but they would be quickly relieved in a spreading pool of corn syrup, our national food. Children’s movies now permit death to come to only peripheral characters in whom we have invested ten minutes or less. I knew thus at least one War Horse would survive. Even if none of his real-life counterparts ever did. Over eight million horses died in varying levels of agony in the war. Those that managed to survive got a trip to the slaughterhouse as a medal.

What has happened to Steven Spielberg? Has he completely given up? On the evidence of this movie, apparently it is he who has laid down and died. There is no heart even in his conventions, of which “War Horse” is a cryonically sealed package full. There is not an original moment, or a true and human word, in the full 146 minutes. Yet there is a performance of toweringly noble proportions, though the actor speaks no line. The horse, with four white socks and a white star, says in his silent appraisal of this foolish world of men all that could possibly be said.

Otherwise, two scenes, and two scenes only, rouse the viewer. The tracking shot of the first cavalry charge, through the wheatfield, is a moment that widescreen film is made for (only a construct,--but also all that we can make of this inscrutable life). The movement, the rhythm of the editing, the vantage given to us even in the second row, work simultaneously on eye, brain, and heart, and it is thrilling, as it must always be when the recipe’s measurements are followed precisely. Yet it leads necessarily, given the particular plodding mission Spielberg has set himself, to pedantry: in the next moment, we are lectured on historical fact. Cavalry is retroactively rendered anachronistic by machine guns. They do not belong in the same place at the same time. War is an awful place to discover the mistake.

The second time the emotions rise, though duly bidden by cinematic manipulation that feels awfully familiar, is when the horse is in danger. In terrible, potent danger. The type that an actual horse could never survive for a fraction of this time, not enough to wind us into the frenzy of sickening dismay that a fictionally extended run through razor wire does. I longed for the larger shoulder in which to bury my face. Instead, I used my own coat. And when I looked again, he was there, bowed but unbroken (and barely bleeding!), ready for his own Christmas Truce made by wire cutters.

As I had suspected, our appetite for samosas was undiminished by the ending, a happy reunion and the promise of endless fields of emerald green. Not that I wanted to cry. But then, I do. When I go into the dark theater, I want to feel something, life and its awful beauties compressed like poetry, by the revolution of the spools and what is made by a simple turn.


Shybiker said...

I try not to criticize artists, but I've never liked any of Spielberg's work. It always seems too conventional, too pandering, too trite.

Borrowing a concept from "Outliers," I suspect Spielberg got lucky by being in the right place at the right time where his mediocre pablum got overpraised. He was always grouped with Lucas, Scorsese and Coppola. Artistically, he is the weakest of the bunch.

brittany said...

I can't believe I didn't realize that of course someone who loves horses would have to see War Horse. I mercilessly mock the trailer because it looks so painfully maudlin in that glossy, richly hued Spielberg way that I feel way too old too tolerate. And yet I will read anything you write,* so I was sort of pleased that you hated it, even if I'm sorry that you did. Or maybe you didn't expect to like it but felt obligated to see it anyway?

I saw The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and ran out of the theater because the graphic rape scene upset me so much. And then I went back and watched the rest but I can't recommend it based on those few minutes alone. What the actual fuck was David Fincher thinking.

I can't decide which is worse for a holiday opening film -- ridiculous rewrites of history featuring animals, or actualized brutality that we all fear.

Ho ho ho.

*which sounds so fan-girly, sorry

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Brittany, you nailed it. I think perhaps movies and our political life in this country are intimately linked: both have become so stripped of substance and are so cliche-ridden and inherently false that I suspect something's going on here. "Let's have a *happy* ending!" No matter what it costs.

And it has nothing to do with being too old to suffer having a cinematic scam perpetrated on you: my 12-year-old has a fine radar for this type of thing, and feels personally offended by it. Yay.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

SB, I'm in complete agreement. That is what sometimes happens with early success. (BTW, where is Coppola these days??).

But Spielberg did have a way with the archetype, the fable. He could have stuck with that. And we can stick with his first film, "Duel," which is very effective. It is simply what it is.

Pierre Sim said...

Oublions ce film au sujet d'un cheval de guerre pour un instant. Mélissa, allez voir le film Drive, un film violent,mais bien construit et sans doute un grand film d'amour platonique. Ce film deviendra un classique !

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Pierre, "Drive" is now in my Netflix queue. With a recommendation from you, I can only imagine it's good. I'll report back, wearing my occasional film critic hat.

Scotty from Devon said...

I really don't want to see this - any I won't for a whole lot of reasons, many of them you have raised very well. I don't wish to speak ill of the USA, as I really do love the place and hope to visit one day, but the films made now are often so evicerated as to leave little human emotion and warmth. We are just left with pap.

For a few minutes of television that captures far far better than "War Horse" the whole damned futility of it;


for my own countries involvement - Australia lost a lot of men for a country with few people, and they were all volunteers.

Lest we forget.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

How right you are--Blackadder went straight to the heart (the real one, not the plastic concocted one).

I am feeling much better now that I see how many "Worst Movies of 2012" lists "War Horse" has made.