Generation Masturbation

There is a scene in Sam Mendes’ Jarhead from 2005, where a helicopter flies over a group of US Marines busy digging into the hard, oil-covered desert earth, blasting through a set of speakers Break On Through (to the Other Side) by The Doors. Our protagonist, Tony Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal) looks up and says, irritated: ”That’s Vietnam music, man. Can’t we get our own fucking music?” 

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Meet Anthony ‘Swoff’ Swofford (Jake Gyllenhaal)

In that very scene we get to the core of the issue that Jarhead, a movie that upon its initial release in 2005 was deemed pointless and boring, wants us to think about. Jarhead in fact reinvented the cinematic depiction of war as we know it. Few people realized this, with Roger Ebert being one of the few critics who liked the movie and got its message. ”Jarhead sees the big picture entirely in terms of small details,” he wrote. And he was right. Indeed, Jarhead, in my opinion, did to the war genre what Goodfellas did to the gangster genre. It changed the formula for years to come, and by doing so, it made other filmmakers steer away from the genre.
Think about it, how many war movies about modern day conflict can you think of that have been made in the last fifteen years? I can only think of a few, The Hurt Locker, American Sniper and The Lone Surviver. The quality of these is arguable, sure, their agenda and the message they send even more so. Jarhead, however, was different. It talked about a new generation of soldiers. A new generation of men. It questioned and put a lot of themes into perspective.

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”Sir, I got lost on the way to college, sir!”

The core of the issue, as mentioned above, is Jarhead’s persisting question of why can’t we have our own war? Its protagonists, being the sons and nephews of Vietnam veterans, arrive in Kuwait in the summer of 1990 to prove everyone that they too can write their own history. They too can make their families proud by fighting their own little war. But, to their surprise, and the viewers’ surprise as well, the war they will be part of is going to be different. It is going to be a new type of war, one we hadn’t seen up to that point.
After 9/11, Hollywood engaged in the production of extremely patriotic movies. It had to, after all, an entire nation was in mourning, and people wanted to see bravery and sacrifice. Thus, movies like Black Hawk Down, which looked at the failed US military intervention in Somalia by showing young, brave Americans fighting against a whole town of faceless Somali demons, came out, made a lot of money and went back into hiding, after having satisfied the audience’s needs.
It would take another four years for Jarhead to be released. By that time America was already engaged in its second Gulf War, having invaded Iraq two years prior. One might say that Jarhead was more relevant than ever, as questions regarding the nature of the first Gulf War in Kuwait resurfaced and awaited necessary answers. Answers that men like George Bush Jr. and Dick Cheney did not deliver.

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Jarhead’s landscapes resembling Dante’s Inferno.

First, let’s talk about the most important aspect of Jarhead, and namely the soldiers that are depicted in it. In the movie, a new breed of soldiers is introduced. Unlike the boys in Full Metal Jacket, who had no idea what they were getting into once they entered boot camp, the boys in Jarhead, are more than ready to go. They cannot wait to be part of a war that might just happen to define an entire generation of people. Their generation. After having had to sit through endless stories told by their grandparents about D-Day, the Pacific theater, Korea, and their fathers’ stories about Vietnam, Jarhead‘s boys want to fight their own battles and tell their sons and daughters how they went to some shithole country and fought a war to protect and serve the nation. Well, did they?
In Sam Mendes’ film, oddly enough, the Marines quite frankly don’t give a fuck about ideals. That’s the surprising aspect of it. Because, as awful, robotic and soulless as they were, Full Metal Jacket’s Marines had signed up because something deep down had spurred them to do so. After all, Joker (played by Matthew Modine), Kubrick’s protagonist, was a politically engaged pacifist.

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There are no ideals.

In Jarhead, however, the ideals are gone; this is a generation that witnessed first-hand the effects of Vietnam and Watergate, and thus saw where ideals get you (answer: in a worse place than before). No, the soldiers in Jarhead, although nicknamed jarheads because of their supposedly bald skulls resembling empty jars, are pretty smart boys, aware of the circumstances and of the war America had gotten itself into this time. In fact, one of the Marines, a young Texas kid named Kruger is the first one to question their motives going into Kuwait: ”You think we’re here for what? They got their fat hands in Arab oil. That’s why we’re here, to protect their profits.” Everyone around him stays silent, but the looks are of men who know the reality of the situation; they’ve seen it before, on TV, in newspapers, hell, their own president, Bush Sr., addressed these concerns when he publicly stated ”In our country, I know that there are fears of another Vietnam. This will not be another Vietnam.”
But words don’t matter to these kids. These kids want to fight. They’ve seen death before unlike any other generation before them. Death in video-games, movies, shows. Death is everywhere. Their reference points are The Terminator and Rambo, for crying out loud. Their idols are Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Chuck Norris. During training camp, they spend entire afternoons rewatching Apocalypse Now and the Ride of the Valkyries sequence, cheering ”Get some! Fuck yeah!” and pumping their fists in excitement as the choppers riddle the Vietnamese village with missiles and machine-gun fire. They, too, want to experience that rush, that adrenaline everyone’s been talking about; they want  to experience it first-hand by squeezing the trigger themselves.

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Get some!

And so off they go. After months of excruciating training, after, similarly to Full Metal Jacket, having been turned into machines and experts in the art of taking someone’s life be it from long range, like our protagonist Swofford who’s an elite sniper, or from up close with a knife or even a fucking helmet, the boys are off to fight their war. However, unlike in Full Metal Jacket, where as soon as Marines hit the ground in ‘Nam they find themselves engaged with the enemy, the skills they’ve learned being put to an immediate test, in Jarhead training continues even on the front lines.
They dig, they go on patrol, they throw hang grenades and learn to detect mines beneath the rocky surface of the Kuwaiti desert. They clean their weapons, learn about the effects of nerve gas and train some more. And as they do so, the testosterone builds up, their thirst for blood increases. Some will be so desperate for some sort of conflict that they will go off to shoot some poor farmer’s camel. Just for the pleasure of it. Just because this war is unlike anything they imagined it to be and they need that rush. They need to feel accomplished.

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Any strange encounter becomes an excuse to open fire.

And yes, it would have been tempting for Mendes, the director, to steer away from the source material that is Swofford’s book of the same title. It would have been a perfect example of Hollywood messing with reality, had Mendes included some sort of action sequence in this movie. And yet he doesn’t. Jarhead sticks to the tyranny of a soldier’s routine. Jarhead‘s war, as described best by Swofford himself in a voice-over narration, is one long masturbating session. You follow the motions in the hope that eventually, something will happen. But that something is a long way away. The soldiers keep masturbating. They masturbate, play football, go on patrol, masturbate, sleep, dig, go on patrol, and yes, masturbate some more. Meanwhile, their war is coming to a slow, predictable end, slipping through their fingers like the sand they have to wade through day in and day out.

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Masturbation, a vital element of any war.

Finally, let’s talk about war itself. Kubrick’s war in Paths of Glory was the first instance of realization in the cinematic world, unlike its predecessors such as John Wayne’s Sands of Iwo Jima and Gary Cooper’s Sergeant York that glamorized a soldier’s sacrifice, that perhaps governments act in their own interest, often inflicting pain and suffering on the people that serve the country’s cause. Coppola followed suit by making Apocalypse Now, where for the first time soldiers were portrayed as confused lunatics sent on suicide missions by their superiors just to come back with a couple of medals and an enemy death ratio that would satisfy the officials in Washington and give the country something to cheer about.
And then there is Jarhead and a war that, despite being known for having introduced live news coverage from CNN, went on to become the epitome of a faceless war against a faceless enemy. Swofford’s breakdown at the sound of the Doors’ song is a testament to a war that passed by somewhat unnoticed by the public. Nobody was there to give it an identity, a sound, a visual cue, anything. It was just a war in a nameless desert, in a nameless country, in a nameless region of the world.

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Killing time.

One could say that Mendes’ film is focused on man’s inherent quest for meaning.  Stripped of ideals and values, these titular jarheads go off into the desert to find out, more than anything else, if they have what it takes to make their families proud. Having been raised by fathers with PTSD, they march across no man’s land just so that they can come back home and break that silence, and say ”Yeah, I felt it, too. Now, I understand.” And that’s where the tragedy of Jarhead lies. These boys left everything behind, including their girlfriends, new-born sons and daughters, pregnant wives,  just to experience war, because for them, war, the most primitive act of all along with fucking, is what makes a man. But unfortunately, their war is different. Like Swofford narrates in his voice-over: ”Every war is different. Every war is the same.”
Sure, at the core of it the idea is the same; to kill and come out alive. Fight to defeat the enemy and prevail. But Swofford’s war is unlike any other war. The Gulf War is nowadays otherwise known for Operation Desert Storm, a military operation entirely based on air raids and aerial bombing. Ground soldiers meant nothing in this war. Covering the same territory that in World War I took three months to cover and in Vietnam three weeks, here took less than ten seconds. That’s the tragedy of Jarhead. This war was not meant to be fought the way these boys had imagined.

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Witnessing man’s impotence in the face of technology.

Mendes, along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins paint a vivid, nightmarish desert setting; oil fields covered in molasses-like substance, rocky dust patches and dry, hallucination-induced flat landscapes. As our protagonists go out on patrol, we are reminded of the final scene in Full Metal Jacket, when the platoon marches down the burning ruins of Hue City, cheerfully singing the Mickey Mouse song. Out here, however, instead of the Mickey Mouse song, there is a deafening silence. There is no reference cue. There is no trademark sound. It’s all so colorless, bland. These Jarheads have suffered mental breakdowns, have been physically tested in an arid environment where, on a lucky day, you can fry an egg out in the open, have been betrayed and left hanging by their loved ones back home, and what do they have to show for it?
This is the futility of war, one can argue. It doesn’t matter if you fight to the death or you sit at the rear, gripping the barrel of your rifle with all your strength, you will still return a different person, a shattered soul. A has been, more than anything else.

Because every war is different, every war is the same.

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”Abandon all hope ye who enter here…”

Show Me a Leader

Cinema has always represented an escape from reality, a place where science did not apply, where superheros were in fact regular citizens and where love beat them all. After all, we still hear some people say: ”Life’s not like the movies!” as if to say that life is too difficult and too serious to be encapsulated into an art form such as film. However, people seem to forget that movies can indeed encapsulate the gravity, the struggle and the difficulty of what we are faced with everyday.
Enter satires. From the very beginning, satire was meant to turn life upside down by presenting audiences with a grotesque yet faithful representation of the actual state of affairs. Think of Chaplin’s bold masterpiece about fascism, The Great Dictator, and how it was used to send across a message of hope, when hope was nowhere to be seen on the streets of war-torn Europe. Think of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove as it tried to make sense of the chaos and absurdity of two superpowers pushing each other toward the very edge of destruction, for what? Think of Sidney Lumet’s Network, and how the protagonist Howard Beale desperately tried to warn regular citizens of the danger that modern-day media represent. In short, satire has been with us for an extremely long time, yet for a while, most notably post 9/11, cinema preferred to remain silent and let facts do the talking (e.g. Michael Moore’s documentaries and 60 minutes) after such a great, unspeakable tragedy took place in the land of the free and home of the brave. It looked like Hollywood and the rest of the world were dried out, nothing was going for them as audiences went back to blockbusters and scary movies. Everyone was afraid to laugh. What followed next is up to interpretation. I like to think that Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street shook things up, introduced a fresh initiative and led to the emergence of a multitude of satires based on real life events, such as The Big Short and War Dogs. Thus finally, people rediscovered the fun and the tragicomic truth that lies at the core of such kind of satire, where everything is exaggerated for storytelling purposes, anything goes and yet everything makes sense, because life is just like the movies, isn’t it?

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Martin Scorsese’s movie that rediscovered satire was funny, accurate and thought-provoking.

Obviously, once Hollywood discovers a certain formula, they like to stick to it, and satire, unlike so many other genres, such as action, thriller, horror, cannot be subjected to a formula, because the fun and the wit of satire is the juice of its execution, the unpredictability of it, the swagger and the bravado a filmmaker possesses in the face of the cruel reality from which a certain story is drawn. And here’s why I intend to pick two recent satires, one of them being very good, the other one being a poor, mishandled, misjudged collection of vignettes, because satire is a genre that is too smart to become formulaic, too important to become just another box office attraction. Enter the excellent The Death of Stalin from 2017, and the not-so-excellent Vice from last year.

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The all-powerful Dick Cheney staring right at you.

When Donald Trump was elected US President, Hollywood decided that now is the big chance to rediscover itself, and that everything that would come out of its vaults, be it 2016’s Get Out, 2017’s The Shape of Water and, in fact, last year’s Vice, is to be considered meaningful and looked upon as a critique on a broader scale. Get Out‘s horror tropes were meant to represent the beneath-the-surface racism that plagues America; The Shape of Water toyed with the idea of modern-day xenophobia and chauvinism; and finally Vice was to be analyzed as a big statement about how America’s past is a thing of the present. While Vice made millions, Armando Ianucci’s The Death of Stalin struggled box-office-wise, its appeal lost due to the simple fact that it told a story of many, many, many decades ago in the far, unreachable territory of what was once referred to as the Soviet Union. And yet, while Vice struggled to depict a coherent, complete and humorous retelling of America’s most infamous vice-president aka Dick Cheney, The Death of Stalin succeeded in telling the story of the days following Stalin’s death, encapsulating absolute truths about politics, power and populism. Here’s how and why.

First of all, time frames matter in satire. Most satires do not cross a time frame of a day or two, a week or two, sometimes reaching a maximum of a month or so (Wolf of Wall Street being one of the few exceptions). To go beyond that means risking everything for the benefit of reality. But satire is not about reality, right? Satire is about a twisted version of reality.
Well, this is where Vice fails.  McKay’s previous effort from 2015, the innovative The Big Short, a fun roller-coaster ride that made the most of the financial crisis of 2008, presented us with two time frames; days leading up to the crisis, and the days following the crisis. It worked because instead of focusing on a general story, it focused on certain key, real life characters and their involvement in the world of finance at the time when the world froze and exploded into a million pieces. Vice, unfortunately and most importantly, approaches the subject matter of Dick Cheney in the wrong fashion. See, McKay instead of, for example, focusing solely on Cheney’s actions post 9/11, decided to make a biopic on the man, which means he decided to compress a man’s personal as well as political life spanning over 50 years into a two-hour satire. This results in a humongous amount of unnecessary information that is neither truthful, funny or provocative. Who cares if Dick Cheney drank as a student? Who cares if he was arrested multiple times drunk-driving at the of 21? Who cares if he was not popular in college? What audiences care about is seeing the juice of the action, in other words, why the hell was this man given so much power at an advanced stage in his career? Why was he so special following one of the darkest days in the war on terror?

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Young Cheney’s road to political glory could not have been duller.

Meanwhile, The Death of Stalin knows exactly how utilize its time frame of the day leading up to Stalin’s sudden death and the days following the great leader’s passing and the chaotic re-distribution of power amongst Soviet Union’s Central Committee.
Ianucci, an expert in modern-day satire with the likes of In the Loop and Veep under his belt, uses such a limited time frame to its full effect, making every single day that passes weigh double. We, the audience, begin to feel the pressure that our protagonists feel as the mourning nation awaits a new leader and a functioning state of things. In this case, time-related pressure leads our political protagonists such as Beria, Khrushchev and Malenkov to the most hilarious and extreme situations in order to gain advantage over one another. And while he’s at it, Ianucci does not deviate from historical accuracy; Beria’s reign of terror following Stalin’s death as he sided with the new interim Premier, Malenkov, and the coup that resulted in Beria’s trial are all in here, but instead of stretching the time frame to realistic proportions, Ianucci compresses it to increase the unpredictability of our characters’ actions.

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Beria whispering sweet nothings into the dead leader’s ear.

Second point: well-crafted characters go a long way in satire. Even if the cast of characters is big, their depth matters, a lot. Think of Dr. Strangelove and the characters that inhabit the Cold-War inspired cartoonish universe of Kubrick’s imagination. Although there’s plenty of clichés within each one of them, Kubrick’s characters are lively and recognizable, be it the bomber crew lead by the Southern major King Kong, or the war room’s team composed of the vulgar and patriotic General Buck Turgidson, the vulnerable and confused President Muffley and the neurotic and sociopathic Dr. Strangelove. The key element of these characters is that they are unique and memorable. Obviously, when you are dealing with real life characters, things get tougher for a writer and filmmaker. But satire is meant to take life by its horns, and tame it, twisting it around as anything goes and rules can be broken. The Death of Stalin does exactly this. With little to no evidence of the personality of the likes of Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov, Molotov or Stalin’s children, Vasily and Svetlana, Ianucci has a free range of possibilities, a writer’s dream-induced playground. Beria becomes a savage, power-hungry monster, Malenkov is a blabbering idiotic yes-man, Khrushchev a rational, ambitious leader, Molotov a naive, indoctrinated child, the little Stalins spoiled, terrified brats that will do anything to keep their family name alive. The cast of characters is much larger, but the point stays; the audience is aware of each character’s traits, and therefore, has a vague idea of what to expect, especially in a race of who’s going to be the next Soviet leader.

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The hilarious Central Committee of power-hungry idiots.

What does Vice do instead? Nothing. McKay limits himself to paper-thin, Wikipedia information about real life characters, including Cheney himself, his wife, Bush Jr., Donald Rumsfeld, and more of the American crème de la crème.
And here’s also where time frames and character depth collide. By extending the time frame, stretching it over 40-50 years, McKay is forced to introduce an endless number of minor characters along the way, preventing our most relevant ones to make any sort of progress in the viewer’s eye, limiting them to their physical presence. And that’s the main problem. Christian Bale’s depiction of Cheney never goes beyond its physical characteristics put forth by some excellent make-up. His beer belly, the balding scalp, the imposing, towering figure are the only memorable elements of an otherwise undercooked protagonist. Look, we get it: Cheney was a mysterious, heavily scrutinized political actor who for the most part of his life tried to stay away from the cameras, sticking to the more ‘undercover’ side of American politics. But so were Beria, Malenkov, Khruschev. Instead of going all out and actually having some fun with his protagonists, McKay seems intimidated by the stained legacy of the Cheneys and Bushes. However, satire, dear McKay, is supposed to tear these legacies apart.
Did Chaplin hesitate when he made fun of Mussolini and Hitler as the bloodiest conflict of the century was reaching its second year? 

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Bale’s Cheney and Rockwell’s Bush Jr. reduced to cartoonish proportions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, satire is all about critique and provoking the audience. Just as the Truman Show did with its final scene that included a clear breaking of the fourth-wall as Jim Carrey stared into the camera and said; ”In case I don’t see you, good afternoon, good evening and good night,” laughing in the face of the all-powerful eye, satire, at the end of the day, is about making a statement that speaks to us, so that we, the audience members, can go home, think about it, and come to the conclusion, that yes, indeed, we have learned something, something valuable and relevant for our time. In the case of The Death of Stalin we are left with a shot of Khrushchev sitting in a theater audience as the main leader of the Soviet Union, with Brezhnev sitting a couple of rows behind looking on and smiling, as if to say that this vicious cycle of power struggle is going to continue, that the war between egos is endless and the victims of it are always the poorest members in the audience, the civilians that shed blood, the ones that have to sacrifice their livelihoods for these ego wars to continue. Meanwhile, after two-hours of chaotic editing, intertwining story-lines, odd freeze frames and misplaced voice-overs, Vice comes to a point where the only solution to end this mess is to have Bale’s Cheney address the audience face-to-face, have him staring into the camera, justifying his own actions in the name of America’s safety and common good. To what effect? Here’s a movie that tells the story of this monstrous villain, responsible for the US involvement in Iraq, for bombing millions of innocent people, for torturing and keeping these torture practices secret in Guantanamo, for signing deals that benefited the elite instead of regular citizens, and somehow manages to end in such a way that allows this man to justify himself, thus going against its own initiative.

While The Death of Stalin shows the repercussions of evil, Vice shows the glamor of it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is not only bad satire. That is bad filmmaking.

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Laugh in the face of evil.