Archive for August, 2006

Teaching the Intro to Film Course

I’ve been thinking over the last couple of days about how I might be able to contribute to this month’s Teaching Carnival. Like Mel, I think George has asked some excellent questions, and because I’ve just started a new teaching gig here at Fayetteville State, I’m most interested right now in thinking about what I’ll be doing differently this year. I addressed this question in passing a few weeks ago when I discussed my plans for my freshman composition classes this fall, but I haven’t really discussed my other course, Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy, in much detail.

Right now, I’m teaching the course as a variant of the Introduction to Film courses that I’ve taught at Purdue, Illinois, and Georgia Tech. Like an Introduction to literature course, the intro class requires a lot of juggling, introducing students to the formal language of film study (close-up, low-key lighting), to film genres and histories, and to the basics of film theory (the male gaze, etc). And because I’m interested in how social and technological forces affect our experience of moviegoing, I’ve decided to teach the Intro course using Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White’s The Film Experience, but in general, like Chris at Dr. Mabuse, I’ve been thinking about what the Introduction to Film texts and courses–including some specific classroom practices–say about our discipline, and I’ve been specifically trying to address this question as it relates to my position withing Fayetteville State’s student population.

One of the challenegs I’ve faced so far is the lack of a recent institutional history of teaching an Introduction to Film course, which means that I’ve had to scramble a bit more than usual to organize screenings of the films that we’ll be discussing in class. At the same time, the relatively small class size (15-17 students) and the number of students who work or live off-campus have translated into screenings attended by only a few students each night. In the past, one of the pedagogical goals of the screenings was the hope that it would model for students the colllective experience of moviegoing. Now, if my course proves to be popular, these numbers may change, making it more productive to schedule class screenings, but given the challenges of setting up these screenings, I’m wondering if my students will be served just as well watching the films independently, either by placing them on reserve in the media center or by allowing them to track down movies on their own. But this experience has also alerted me to the fact that the Intro course practice of scheduling required movie screenings may in fact be the result of a technological history in which many of the films would be shown on film rather than on DVD.

The second question I’m confronting is related to these technological issues and is also implied in the official title of the course, Film and Visual Literacy. As I put together this semester’s class, I found myself becoming acutely aware of the degree to which the Intro course should perhaps be more honestly described as an “Introduction to Classical Hollywood Cinema” course emphasizing film’s status as an art, a bias resulting in part from the need to justify the cinema as worthy of study. And this question draws from my own interests in new media studies. Should a course introducing students to the discipline of film studies today spend a week looking at videos on YouTube? At home movies? At industrial or pedagogical films such as those found in the Prelinger Archives? These questions might be more relevant at a university such as Fayetteville State where I’m not involved in the task of preparing students for a film major because there won’t be other opportunities for me to present such alternative film practices to my students. The most recent film that I teach right now is Run Lola Run, a movie I love, but I can’t help but think that my Intro course, as it stands right now, needs to be updated for the new ways in which we watch and engage with motion pictures of all kinds.

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Undiscovered Gems

Via Agnes, information about Undiscovered Gems, a new film series sponsored by IndieWIRE, Emerging Pictures and the New York Times. The goal of the series is to present the films at screenings around the country and have audiences vote on their favorite films. The prize for the winning film: a distribution deal with Emerging Pictures. One of the participating venues is the Galaxy Theater in Cary, NC, just outside of Raleigh.

Some of the films in competition include Jem Cohen’s Chain (one of my favorite films in recent memory), the Duplass Brothers’ The Puffy Chair (another recent fave), and this month’s selection is Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, which I’ve been wanting to see for a while. If you’re in the neighborhood of one of the participating venues, this series looks like it would be well worth supporting.

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Little Miss Sunshine

As I watched Little Miss Sunshine (IMDB), this year’s Sundance-endorsed dysfunctional-family road-trip indie (and, yes, I think that’s officially a genre now), I felt as if I’d seen something so carefully calculated to appeal to its indie audience that I couldn’t really buy into the genuinely interesting, humorous, and sometimes genuinely tender moments offered by the film. Even the film’s impliict “messages,” that all families are dysfunctional and that it’s okay not to be perfect seemed ripped from the pages of previous Sundance-ready scripts. The road-trip in question is a 700-mile journey from Albequerque to Redondo Beach so that seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin) can compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. Olive’s family includes Richard (Greg Kinnear), a wanna-be motivational speaker waiting for his big break, Sheryl (Toni Collette), his wife who works to supprt the family, Dwayne (Paul Dano), the sullen Nitzsche reading son, Frank (Steve Carrell), Sheryl’s sucidal brother who also happens to be America’s “foremost Proust scholar,” and of course the foul-mouthed, heroin-snorting Grandpa (Alan Arkin).

Even with their quirks (and across-the-board solid performances), the characters seemed more like types than clearly-defined personalities, particularly Arkin’s grandpa gone wild. And the obstacles on their 700-mile journey, taken in a quirky VW van naturally, were utterly predictable (including at least two that reminded me of a Chevy Chase movie). The VW van’s broken clutch does provide an excuse for one of the film’s funnier motifs, the image of the family pushing and running alongside the van to get it started, with each family member running and leaping mock heroically into the open door. And once the family arrives at the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, the satire of child beauty pageants seemed a bit thin (although the arrest of a suspect in the Jon Benet Ramsey case gave these scenes a strange timeliness). Of course, as the pageant unfolds and the family worries that Olive will be humiliated when she performs in the talent competition, the film’s best, and most sentimental, surprise comes into play. But even as I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but feel that LMS was being cloying, as if disliking the film is tantamount to rejecting Olive’s pluckiness and spirit, and in several of these scenes, I could have easily been pulled closer to a more affirmative reading along the lines of Stephanie Zacharek’s.

Again, I feel as if I’m being unnecessarily harsh on LMS, but the film seems to illustrate much of what I find distressing (or at least remarkably uninteresting) about Indie Film today, which I want to distinguish from truly independent film, but as Jim Ridley’s Village Voice review implies, the film seems to embrace some of the worst excesses of recent indie film (although I disagree with him completely about Me and You and Everyone We Know falling into this category). At least the filmmakers had the good taste to include two Sufjan Stevens songs on the soundtrack.

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Fayetteville Drinking Liberally

Just wanted to mention that the Fayetteville, NC, Drinking LIberally is making its debut tonight. We’ll be meeting at Huske Hardware from 7-9 PM. If you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to drop by (if you can’t make it tonight, we’ll be meeting on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of every month). I very much enjoyed the social scene at the DC Drinking LIberally gatherings and hope we can get something similar rolling here in Fayetteville.

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Lazy Wednesday Night Links

Coming down from a long first day of teaching (three sections of freshman comp, one of intro to film), but didn’t want to lose these links. First, by happenstance, I came across Emanuel Levy’s review of Jesus Camp, the documentary about the evangelical “Kids on Fire” youth camp. His take on the film is similar to my own, but it’s worth highlighting his observation that the documentary “is directed in such a way that I won’t be surprised if Becky Fischer and her cohorts are delighted with the results.”

Also worth noting: two Pop Matters articles by two of my regular film blog reads, including one by Shaun Huston (blog) on the perception that digital technologies will lead to the death of cinema. Huston argues, correctly in my opinion, that “rather than see the rise of digital as the death of film, it makes more sense to view the newer media as expanding options for movie making.” Also check out Andrew Horbal’s review (blog) of The Syrian Bride.

In other news, I’m watching Sundance Channel’s The Hill for the first time tonight, and given my obsession with documentary and politics, I could become addicted very quickly. And, if you get a chance, I can’t recommend enough Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke. I probably won’t have time to write a longer review, but Lee’s film brought home FEMA’s incompetent handling of the hurricane and the outrage that many New Orleans natives feel a year later.

Update: I forgot to mention that the trailer to Chris Hansen’s brilliantly funny mockumentary, The Proper Care and Feeding of an American Messiah has been climbing the “comedy trailer” charts on iFilm. In just a couple of days, Messiah has vaulted into the top 15, passing the trailers for My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Little Man, and other recent theatrical releases. The trailer provides a nice glance at Messiah and reminded me of just how much I enjoyed the film.

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Lens on Lebanon

Via Filmmaker Magazine Blog, information about Lens on Lebanon a new media activist and documentary organization currently seeking donations and support. First imagined during the onset of hostilities in July, the group seeks “to provide technical support to local communities in order that they might document lived experience of the conflict and its aftermath in their own terms.”

There’s already an impressive collection of interviews, personal narratives, personal videos, and other documentary materials available at Lens on Lebanon that can provide us with a closer look at the effects of the recent conflict and the current fragile ceasefire.

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Smile, Senator Allen, You’re on YouTube

I never got around to commenting on the recent controversy surrounding George Allen’s use of the racial slur, “macaca,” to refer to S.R. Sidarth, an audience member of Indian descent who had been attending many of Allen’s public speeches on behalf of Allen’s rival for a Virginia Senate seat, Jim Webb. But the discussion of Allen’s slur has prompted a wider conversation about the role of YouTube in shaping political discourse, particularly in this somewhat alarmist New York Times article by Ryan Lizza that worries that YouTube will remove any remaining spontaneity from political campaigns, even at the local and state levels.

In the video Allen is shown telling the all-white audience, “Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” Sidarth, who was born in the United States and happened to be taping the encounter posted the video on YouTube, where it has been viewed over 200,000 times since it first appeared on August 14. Allen’s remarks have also been picked up by Keith Olbermann, Jon Stewart, and other late-night talk shows, forcing Allen’s campaign to enter serious spin mode. The story is further complicated by Allen’s previous behavior, which includes ” a lifelong embrace of Confederate symbology — lapel pins, bumper stickers and, until recently, flags — while exhibiting some worrying behavior toward African Americans,” documented in this New Republic article (also by Lizza).

The remark has sparked a number of interesting conversations about what Allen intended, including this insightful discussion at BlackProf.com and a characteristically playful one at Wonkette. I think it’s fair to say, as the New York Times article suggests, that YouTube may be altering the political landscape, keeping the elections in the public eye during August, a month typically characterized by its lack of news. For the most part, YouTube’s presence has been read as a means of democratizing politics, but Lizza asks an important question, “If campaigns resemble reality television, where any moment of a candidate’s life can be captured on film and posted on the Web, will the last shreds of authenticity be stripped from our public officials? Will candidates be pushed further into a scripted bubble? In short, will YouTube democratize politics, or destroy it?”

I think it’s valid to ask whether YouTube might be negatively affecting political discourse, but the tone of the article borders on alarmist, particularly the implication that online videos might “destroy” politics (by which he means, I assume, politics as we know it). Lizza also worries about the loss of “authentiicty” that YouTube seems to represent, another concept that warrants unpacking. What makes a politician working from a carefully-worded script less authentic than someone who appears to be more spontaneous? And, in the case of Allen, his slur warrants attention, whether it was planned or not, as a way of provoking an important conversation about Allen’s racial politics.

But what seems most explicit in Lizza’s article is the implication that YouTube seems to function primarily as a mode of surveillance, yet another means of catching candidates (and possibly the jounalists themselves) off-guard. Overlooked in this article are the ways in which candidates can use YouTube as a means of connecting with voters. I’m thinking in part of something like Spike Jonze’s video of Al Gore during the 2000 election, in which we see Gore at home relaxing with his family and talking about his taste in movies. In general, I think the article exaggerates the effect of YouTube and online videos on political discourse, but I’ve been intrigued by the ways in which the Allen video has been read and discussed.

Update: Also check out MyDD’s discussion of the Lizza article.

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Snakes on a Plane

I happened to be reading Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture this weekend as I was thinking about the blog hype for Snakes on a Plane (IMDB). The film has been anticipated for its potential B-movie schlockiness and for the role of fans in pushing New Line to retain its original title and to revise the film from a PG-13 yawner into an R-rated film with added violence, nudity, and profanity. As Stephanie Zacharek points out, the fan involvement has transformed SoaP from a film into an event, perhaps the most enthusiastically anticpiated film event of the summer, at least among its hardcore fans who have what Zacharek describes as an “ownership stake” in the film. And I think that Jenkins’ discussion of the “collective intelligence” of online forums and discussion boards devoted to popular culture texts offers a useful way of thinking about the appeal of what might have been a quickly forgotten action thriller. Instead of dismissing Snakes as a form of “prefab populism” as Chuck Klosterman has, I would read SoaP as licensing some valuable conversations about popular culture, specifically about the processes by which films are manufactured and marketed.

Before I go too far with this analysis, I should say that I genuinely enjoyed the film. The ultra-thin plot is hardly worth recounting. Super-competent FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson, playing his star persona to the point of parody) is commissioned to guard surfer dude Sean on a flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles, where he will testify against a ruthless crime boss, Eddie Kim. To prevent Sean from testifying, Kim’s thugs smuggle snakes into cargo. At a timely moment, a pheremone is released that will make the snakes go wild. They attack in pretty much every imaginable way, biting into a woman’s breast as she seeks to join the mile-high club, crawling up muumuus, crawling up through the plane’s control panels, you get the idea, until Flynn, Sean, and a soon-to-reire flight attendant, Claire (Julianna Margulies) fight back. Several of these scenes are filmed in green snake-vision, mocking the sinister POV shots of more serious action thrillers.

But, as you might imagine, it was far more fun to watch the audience response. At the Saturday night screening here in F’ville, audience members gleefully mocked the pseudo-sincerity of the newlyweds who honeymooned in Hawaii, but obviously the most exciting moments were the nods to the internet culture (Sam Jackson’s f-bombs, the gratuitous nudity, etc), and these moments, at lest for me, represented one of the few times in recent memory that audiences seemed to view themselves as a collective entity, and that’s what I enjoyed most about the film. Here, I think New Line’s decision not to screen the film for critics was an effective one, not because bad critical reviews could have hurt the box office (SoaP was and is pretty much critic-proof) but because it required critics to take the audience’s response to SoaP into account as they were writing their reviews (perhaps most evident in Zacharek’s review, but also see Manohla Dargis and James Berardinelli).

And here is where I think Jenkins’ discussions of fan culture are pertinent. The involvement of fans in shaping the film, at lest in my reading, allows fans to feel at least some stake in a popular culture that seems disconnected from them and their interests and desires. And even if New Line’s decision to change the film was calculated to maximize profits, conversations about SoaP have become, by extension, conversations about popular culture in general. In discussing the five days of re-shoots edited back into the film to acheive an R-rating, James Berardinelli observes, “All of this stuff is clumsily edited in. It doesn’t take much imagination to re-construct the PG-13 cut. The film probably would have worked better if it had been envisioned as a hard R from the beginning.” But in my reading that’s part of the point for me. By calling attention to the clumsiness and gratuitousness of the edits, we can, by extension, discuss the ratings system itself. By not screening the film for critics, we can provoke conversations about how we watch movies and why audiences matter, about the limits of evaluative film criticism. Even the schlockiness of the visuals (the CG-animated snakes are clearly fake) can provoke conversations about how special effects shape our expereince of watching a film.

Whether SoaP replaces Rocky Horror as “the greatest audience participation movie of all time,” as Pete Vonder Haar of Film Threat imagines, remains an open question. But I think SoaP has helped to revive some questions about our investments in popular culture and that’s pretty cool.

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Short Attention Span Saturday

The new semetser begins on Wednesday, which means I probably ought to be doing something other than writing blog entries, but while skimming Green Cine this afternoon, I noticed that James Urbaniak, who has starred in at least two movies I truly admire, Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool and Hilary Brougher’s vastly underrated Sticky Fingers of Time, has a blog. Of note: Urbaniak’s description of some his recent auditions, including one for a Michel Gondry film.

Also worth checking out: AJ’s report on the summer box office for some of this year’s most popular docs, which reports that Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth has now passed Bowling for Columbine for third highest grossing documentary of all time.

Update: Reading Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, I was reminded of Jeff Gordinier’s Entertainment Weekly article about the “narrative innovations” he observed in movies such as The Matrix, Run Lola Run, Being John Malkovich and Fight Club, which I want to address in an essay I’m currently writing (more on that later). David Poland has a more skeptical take on the “revolutionary” content of many of these movies.

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Who Killed the Electric Car?

As you might imagine, the answer to the question in the title to Chris Paine’s Who Killed the Electric Car? (IMDB) is relatively predictable. Viewers probably won’t be suprised to learn that corporate profits outweighed envoironmental interests or that politicians were in the pockets of many of those oil companies. Electric Car is smart enough to spread some of the blame to consumers as well, but in my reading, the documentary is less interesting as a detective story about who is to blame for the electric car’s untimely death and more significant as an illustration of just how quickly and completely the history of the electric car disappeared down the memory hole.

The documentary opens with a playful bit of political activism, a staged funeral for the EV1, GM’s prototype electric car, which briefly appeared in the mid-1990s. A number of celebrities participated in this bit of political spectacle including Ed Begley, Jr, Peter Horton, and Alexandra Paull (who went as far as being arrested in support of her convictions). The funeral also introduces us to the “star” of the documentary, Chelsea Sexton, a young Saturn executive charged with marketing the EV1 who eventually became one of the biggest champions of the highly efficient electric cars. As Christopher Campbell observes, Sexton might even be described as the “EV1′s widow,” especially if we read the film as a sort of mystery story. Later we see Tom Hanks, interviewed by David Letterman, describing his enthusiasm for the electric car (not to mention their practicality for daily commutes). But these scenes underline the degree to which the buzz about the EV1 was silenced and quickly forgotten.

If Paine places too much emphasis on the celebrities who endorsed the electric car (including Phyllis Diller who remembers the popular electric cars from the 1920s), as Manhola Dargis implies, part of the blame here might be attributed to the limited number of EV1s that were produced and leased (no EV1s were ever sold, a point that becomes significant over the course of the doc) and to the initial attempt to popularize the car using celebrity endorsements. And, of course, their enthusiasm for the cars is contagious. The EV1s are described as fast and quiet, with zero emissions, offering a means specifically of cutting down on California’s notorious problems with smog and more generally of cutting down on the emissions that contribute to global warming.

Who Killed the Electric Car? serves as a useful companion doc to Al Gore’s global warming doc, An Inconvenient Truth (it might also usefully be compared to The Corporation. While Electric Car only briefly discusses global warming, both films underline the ways in which corporate profits often outweigh prudent environmental policy. While Electric Car covered this material in a slightly breezy fashion, it is relatively informative, clarifying some of the misconceptions I had about this particularly episode in automotive history. Also worth noting: the film mentions Sexton’s continued work in promoting the use of electric cars through her involvement with Plug In America, an organization that promotes “the use of plug-in cars, trucks and SUVs powered by cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity to reduce our nation’s dependence on petroleum and improve the global environment.”

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Buying Into Iraq

Interesting Washington Post article about the innovative fundraising efforts used by Robert Greenwald and Jim Gilliam’s Brave New Films for their latest agitprop political doc, Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers (trailer), which takes on “the connections between private corporations making a killing in Iraq and the decision makers who allow them to do so.”

As regular readers of my blog will no doubt know, I’ve been intrigued for some time by Brave New Films’ innovative efforts to use the netroots to distribute their films, and like many of Greenwald’s earlier efforts (including Outfoxed, which I now think may be his best doc, and Uncovered), Iraq for Sale will be distributed on DVD for screenings at homes, churches, synagogues, and community centers. But, as the Post reports, Iraq for Sale is unusual in that Brave New Films turned to the “thousands of people who had purchased DVDs or expressed interest in Greenwald’s movies” to raise money from its audience before shooting even began on the documentary. Needing approximately $300,000 to complete the film, Gilliam wrote a passionate email asking for donations with the promise of a credit at the end of the film. Within 10 days, they had raised $267,892 from over 3,000 donors.

As always, I’m looking forward to seeing Iraq For Sale, in no small part because Greenwald’s films function not only as documentaries but also as “events” that now attract relatively significant audiences (the Wal-Mart doc was shown at around 7,000 screenings with around 500,000 people in attendance), and I will also be interested to see how Greenwald’s film contributes to the political discourse in the upcoming midterm elections.

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DeLay’s Dollars

While skimming Robert Greenwald’s blog this morning, I came across his link to DeLay’s Dollars, which is designed to raise awareness of the Hammer’s ethics violations and his questionable fundraising practices. The game requires the user to move DeLay across the bottom of the screen to catch bags of cash falling from the sky while dodging indictment and ethics violation letters, with each round taking DeLay to the sites (St. Andrews in Scotland, for example) most associated with his funraising efforts. When DeLay loses (and he inevitably does), he announces in a huff, “I’m going home!” After playing the game, the user is taken to the website of Nick Lampson, the Democratic candidate for DeLay’s (former?) district. The game works well as relatively humorous political satire, even if DeLay is now a bit of an easy target.

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Friday Film Reads

I managed to survive day three of faculty orientation without any major scars, so here’s yet another lazy entry with links to what I’ve been reading and thinking about this afternoon. First, Henry Jenkins, responding to an email from a former student, discusses in “City Blogging in Beirut,” the role blogs and other digital media have played in the current Middle East conflict. Jenkins concludes that “We might think of these practices as a low tech form of grassroots convergence — people taking up the responsibility to transmit information, stories, and images from one medium to another and in the process, broaden their circulation.” I’m currently skimming Jenkins’ Convergence Culture for one of the articles I’m writing, so I may have more to say on that a little later.

Second, via a comment on Eric Alterman’s blog, I found a mention of WTC View (IMDB), which sounds far more interesting than Oliver Stone’s 9/11 rescue story World Trade Center, and as Ruth Rosen points out, it’s worth noting that Stone’s film does little to dispel some of the false perceptions about the WTC attacks.

Finally, Green Cine has some early (and generally positive) Snakes on a Plane reviews, including Stephanie Zacharek’s review for Salon, which reads the film less as a movie than as an experience: “Because while Snakes on a Plane barely stands up as a movie, it definitely qualifies as an event. A fellow critic present at the same showing said that afterward, he couldn’t quite tell if the crowd actually liked the picture. But everyone sure liked being there.” I’m going to try to catch a late screening (maybe at midnight) to see how SoaP plays down here, but the local art house is showing Who Killed the Electric Car?, and I’m enough of a documentary geek (and car hater) to delay seeing Snakes, even if it’s only for a few hours.

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TV and Documentary Miscellany

I’m exhausted after two long days of benefits orientation seminars here at my new gig, but I came across a few links I don’t want to lose.

First, Steve Rosenbaum points to a discussion of Current TV, Al Gore and Joel Hyatt’s San Francisco-based cable and satellite channel featuring three- to seven-minute video clips produced by amateur filmmakers and other citizen journalists. As Joe Garofoli’s article points out, early reviews of Current TV were relatively tepid, but in a post-YouTube universe, Current TV has become just a little more timely. I’m hoping to have a little more to say about Current TV later (I just realized this afternoon that my local Time Warner sevice carries it).

Matt Dentler discusses a Boston Herald article on this weekend’s premiere of Snakes on a Plane, noting that the film’s success as a “user-generated movie” may not be measured on its much-anticipated opening weekend, but the following week when word gets around about the film’s quality.

And via Green Cine, a link to Anthony Kaufman’s review of Nice Bombs, Usama Alshaibi’s Iraq documentary, which draws from Alshabi’s perspective as both Iraqi and American. Worth noting: filmmaker Alshaibi has a blog.

Update: I forgot to mention that I caught Jeff Tweedy in concert last night in Raleigh with George (pics). Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m so exhausted this afternoon. Not that I’m complaining–it was a great show.

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The War Tapes

I’ve just returned from a special screening of Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes (IMBD), and like many reviewers, including Mick LaSalle, I find myself with a lot to process. As I’ve mentioned here before, The War Tapes takes a novel approach to documenting the soldiers’ experiences of the war in Iraq, with the director Scranton equipping members of Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Mountain Infantry with cameras, allowing them to film their experiences of the war while Scranton remained in communication with the soldiers via IM and email. Ultimately, five soldiers filmed for an entire year, with the stories of three soldiers, Sergeant Steve Pink, Sergeant Zack Bazzi, and Specialist Mike Moriarty featured prominently in the film. The result is a remarkably candid and unsettling portrait of the soldiers’ experiences in Iraq and their struggles to cope with those experiences after the war.

Many of the events depicted in the documentary are remarkably familiar. Much like Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, The War Tapes opens in the middle of a battle scene, the first-person camera recording the soldiers’ P.O.V., his gun extended into the bottom of the frame, and like Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’ Occupation: Dreamland, the soldiers in The War Tapes witness the mounting insurgency as it builds momentum in Fallujah. But perhaps because the soldiers themselves were involved in the film’s production, Scranton’s film offers, as LaSalle notes, “an exploration of the soldier mentality,” not to mention an exploration of how that mentality affects those left behind by the soldiers–the wives, mothers, and girlfriends who watch the war from home.

The three soldiers whose stories are depicted in the film, Moriarty, Pink, and Bazzi, also offer three very different perspectives on the war, with Moriarty, who originally joined the Army in 1988 deciding to reenlist and volunteer to deploy to Iraq after September 11, starting out as perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the war. During his self-introduction, Moriarty describes taking time off of work to help out with rescue efforts on Septmber 11th. Pink describes the “rough decision” he made to join the Guard in order to pay for his education, while Bazzi, who immigrated with his family from Lebanon when he was ten, explains his desire to become a soldier while also acknowledging that he regrets not being able to choose the war in which he serves, gesturing at one point towards a copy of The Nation, which he sardonically notes “is not a pro-Bush magazine.” Gradually, over the course of the film, Moriarty and Pink in particular become increasingly disillusioned with the war, with both Moriarty and Pink becoming acutely aware of their role in protecting and furthering American financial interests, namely those of Halliburton-KBR. Several of the scenes feature the soldiers escorting Halliburton trucks filled with cheese along perilous roads, protecting drivers who receive salaries that far exceed those of the typical soldier. This ambivalence becomes most explicit when we see the soldiers emptying a sewage truck and noting that the light shining through the sewage is creating a rainbow. One soldier sarcastically wonders whether there’s a “pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.” Perhaps for stockholders in KBR. And while the film cuts from the truck dumping raw sewage to a speech by President Bush, I’ll assume that’s just a coincidence. These scenes also emphasize the plight of “third country nationals,” workers who are hired from outside the US or Iraq to complete dangerous work, often at low wages.

While I appreciated the honesty of all three soldiers, I found Bazzi’s story and perspective most compelling. Because Bazzi was born in Lebanon and relatively fluent in Arabic, he offers a sort of double consciousness, recognizing his role as a soldier but also conscious, at least to some extent, of the perspectives of Iraqis who are seeing their homes and communities destroyed. He also recognizes the process of “othering” that makes the destruction possible, hearing this in the sodliers’ derogatory references to Iraqis as “hajis,” while speculating that Iraqis have similar dehumanizing terms to describe the US soldiers. As a result, Bazzi admits that he often finds himself in the middle, to the point that he eventually declines requests to act as an impromptu translator.

Despite this remarkable candor, I couldn’t help but watch the film with some degree of skepticism. During one early sequence, a soldier recites the Bush administration spin on the war, with Sgt. Pink teasing him to tell us his “honest” opinion about the war. When the soldier demures, Pink responds, saying, “I’m not the media dammit!” In another sequence, a soldier complains that he wasn’t permitted to show footage he had taken of Iraqis killed by an IED. But by including these scenes, Scranton, Moriarty, Pink, and Bazzi are at least acknowledging the potential limits of a soldiers-eye documentary. And the soldiers often demonstrate a powerful literary touch in describing their conditions, with Pink’s journal often working to structure the film while Moriarty takes us on a tour of the “equipment graveyard,” a junkyard filled with trucks, humvees, and other vehicles destroyed by IEDs and RPGs, noting that each of these destroyed vehicles recalls, for him at least, the people who were injured or killed in those vehicles.

The War Tapes concludes with interviews of all three soldiers and their families after they have returned stateside. In all three cases, the soldiers have been changed by the war, with Moriarty’s wife noting that her husband now loses his temper more frequently and Pink noting that many people ask him “ignorant questions” about his experiences. And I think these stateside interviews are the major strength of Scranton’s film, allowing it to provide something unavailable with other embedded documentaries by providing the experiences of soldiers after they’ve returned from the war, and for that reason, The War Tapes is an important contribution to our on-going attempts to understand how wars affect the lives of the soldiers as well as the people around them.

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