Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Not at the Movies

This is going to be one of those posts that irritates people because I'm going to write about Hollywood while freely admitting not only haven't I seen the movies in question, I haven't seen the inside of a movie theater since 2004.

Another anti-war movie appears to be dying of lack-of-interest at the box office this week. Here the star of it bravely attempts to cast it as a nonpartisan human interest story:

In "Grace is Gone," John Cusack plays a young father struggling to tell his daughters their mother has been killed in Iraq. He says he wanted to get inside one family's grief and the Iraq war's personal toll.

"I just wanted to do something that just told the human side of it and would allow people of any ideological perspective to kind of come together and find common ground," Cusack told ABC's "This Week" in an interview that aired Sunday.

In the Weinstein Co. drama, Cusack's character delays telling his two daughters about their mother's death, instead taking them on a road trip while the former military man sorts out his complicated feelings about the war.

"I wanted to explore the reality of grief and loss, so that the war didn't become another abstraction that's on the television, and the pundits of both sides of left versus right, you know, they attack each other and use it as a political football," Cusack said. "I really felt very strongly that I wanted to tell a story about one of those coffins coming home and tell a story for those families."

Not that the coffins ought to be ignored. Or that they are not tragic. Hemingway's dictum always stands: "We never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified is not a crime. Ask the infantry and the dead."

That was from a piece titled "Treasury for the Free World," written after World War II. And the "no matter how necessary, nor how justified" is the key to it. You could tell the tale of the coffins in any war. You could look at this:

And see only the ghastly dead men in the foreground. They cannot tell you if it was "worth it" or not. But the painter will. Or the producer will lead you to think one way or another by how he frames the scene. And anyone who wants to anchor the discussion of any topic -- be it a world war or a new refrigerator -- exclusively on the cost of it, is not concerned about reality vs. abstraction, or finding common ground. He's trying to talk you out of it.

Telling only a tale of loss, without a consideration of what it was for, what could be accomplished by it, may make a good movie (or a bad one), but it has nothing to contribute to an adult discussion of a difficult issue.

This is propaganda.

This, had it been all the artist painted and called it "The Battle of Eylau," would have been moreso. Not less true; cold corpses are the one indisputable fact of any battlefield. But less complete, and thus less honest. As would it be to only paint Napoleon on horseback and the adulation of the Lithuanian hussar, or whoever it is kneeling beside him.

So why aren't people going to these films? Some say they're just plain bad movies. I guess they might be, but people have flocked to bad movies in the past. Ever seen one of the "Batman" flicks that packed them in in the '80s?

Or maybe the people are just ungrateful students who don't appreciate the lecture they're being given.

And so far, all show how tough it is to turn this war into edifying entertainment for the mass audience.

For one thing, this war is tragic but not inherently dramatic.

... As a critic, I give the Iraq films now in release passing marks for good intentions and audiences an incomplete for poor attendance. Although nonfiction directors have tackled the war vigorously, from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 to Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight, it looks as if we may have to wait for Hollywood's definitive Iraq-war film. ... The great Iraq movie -- like a solution to the current Iraq quandary -- is still a thing to hope for.

Wonder how much it hurt him to type "qua-" and end with "-ndry"? Like stopping in the middle of a piss, I bet.

This confused post, meanwhile, would have the Hollywood Iraq movies aimed at "a lucrative safe haven in the populist antiwar movement," but at the same time an effective tool for "shaping our national conversation" because they are seen by "the Saturday night Twizzlers contingent" -- that would be you and me.

But that's a dubious proposition, at least as put forth at Huffington Post, since it's based on Michael Moore being on the cover of Time magazine (decidedly non-Twizzler media) and on an unlinked-to study that shows more people in Oregon bought Priuses after Al Gore's movie came out. Never mind that the tax break kicked in and gas shot up and stayed up at the same time. Correlation equals causation, except to us turnip-heads with Twizzler-stuffed maws.

Here's an older guess, but a better one:

Hollywood doesn’t need the Heartland anymore. There’s basically no pressure for Hollywood to change what it’s doing, because there are plenty of Blue State audiences and DVD sales out there to make even something like the gender-bending “Transamerica” a hit, so long as the film doesn’t cost too much.

I’ve heard conservatives tell me for years that ‘market forces’ will eventually force Hollywood to change, become more mainstream. The argument goes something like this: Hollywood’s product will eventually become so toxic, so nakedly political, that there will eventually be a ‘backlash’ from the public - at which point things in Tinseltown will magically change for the better.

Guess what? It ain’t happening. Hollywood simply doesn’t need the Red States any more. Hollywood’s more interested in how a film plays in Mexico or France these days than in Kansas. After all, Charles Krauthammer may hate “Syriana” - but the Germans and the Brits love it! So do the Spanish and the Italians. That’s the global economy for you - Hollywood’s now out-sourcing its audience.

It's been noted, I'm sure correctly, that anti-war films like "Lions for Lambs" have been scrupulously respectful to the U.S. troops, even while decrying the war as a fiasco. This only shows that Hollywood has one more brain cell than the average political blogger, and realizes the way to be persuasive is to praise the individual while making of him a victim, sent on a fool's errand by a corrupt and uncaring government.

It doesn't surprise me that people don't line up to see that, when the preaching about the government is the pill and the praise for the fighting men and women is the sugar coating. The answer to that isn't a "conservative" or a "pro-war" movie. It's one that tells the stories of real people in extraordinary conditions.

Like her or them or him or her. They could be Iraqis as well. You easily could make an anti-war polemic out of any of those lives. That would be a mistake. These are lives that blazed out from their circumstances. They are not victims; they did not live to spell out your easy answers.

I suspect Hollywood's apologists soon will hit on the answer that people are just tired of Iraq and don't want to see anything to do with it. I don't believe that. A local media columnist this weekend wrote about an afternoon drive-time DJ at one of the top stations in town who spent his whole young life building up a career in radio. He just pitched it all for a one-year contract to work as a "morale, welfare, and recreation coordinator" for troops in Iraq. He'll be organizing basketball tournaments for off-duty soldiers and marines. He wanted to do something meaningful in this challenging situation, so he did.

He didn't expect the response. A flood of e-mails poured into the station offices. Women called up in tears to express their admiration. Perfect strangers showed up in the lobby just wanting to shake his hand.

There's your audience, Hollywood. The Twizzler set and all. Can you stop sneering or lecturing long enough to bring them back?