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…”

Where are the Kids?

Let’s talk about women. Women on screen. Most of the time when we think of women in movies we have a clear image, a predefined vision of what a cinematic woman should be like, look like and act like. And when the tables are turned, and we finally get a performance that does not reflect a woman that way, think of Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer as the quiet, docile yet ruthless wife that asks for child custody, or Charlize Theron in Monster as a prostitute that goes on a killing spree after having been molested one too many times, the general public’s response is to reward them. Usually with an Oscar. But that is a rough sketch of the overall picture. But what if I told you that once upon a time there was a director whose entire filmography revolved around unconventional, in a way uncinematic women? What if I told you that he was a director who revolutionized the image of a woman on screen? I am talking about a filmmaker who understood women in all their complexity and embraced everything about them when making a movie. Often times he’d paint the female protagonist as the hero and simultaneously as the antagonist, too. I am talking about John Cassavetes and I want to dedicate this post to the character of Mabel Longhetti in his 1974 effort, A Woman Under the Influence.

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Mabel and Nick: a couple to remember.

Initially conceived as a play, A Woman Under the Influence quickly became a screenplay for a movie with the same title, as Gena Rowlands, John Cassavetes’ wife and lifetime collaborator (appearing in 11 of his movies), felt that playing the character of Mabel would become too excruciating in the long run, as most plays are on five to eight times a week. Because yes, Mabel Longhetti is a mentally disturbed woman, but the mental illness is never made too explicit in the film. In fact, Cassavetes never, in all of his interviews, guest appearances and lectures, never referred to Mabel as a mentally unstable woman. To Cassavetes, Mabel was a woman who suffered many things, just like most people, and to him, that was what made her a character worthy of a movie of her own; Mabel to Cassavetes was a person that lived life with everything she had. To Mabel, every emotion is amplified, and that is also perhaps why A Woman Under the Influence is one of the most disturbing portrayals of family life ever put on screen, and perhaps why Richard Dreyfuss, in an interview following his hit movie Jaws in 1975, when asked what movie had scared him the most in the past decade or so, pointed to Cassavetes’ film, admitting that the emotional intensity of the film, the relentless focus on Mabel and her psychological journey as a mother and wife, was enough to make him vomit in exhaustion upon his return home from the movies.

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Mabel’s suffering.

So what is it that makes A Woman Under the Influence one of, if not, the greatest portrayal of a woman in the history of cinema? For starters there is Gena Rowlands, giving a career-defining performance (more about Gena in a post from 2016) as Mabel Longhetti, devoted mother of three, loyal wife of a construction worker (played by an equally powerful Peter Falk), and above all, a woman tormented by her inability to express her overwhelming love. It is in fact Cassavetes primary goal as a filmmaker to talk about love, as he often stated in some of the interviews prior to his premature death in 1989;

I have a one-track mind. That’s all I’m interested in – love. And the lack of it. When it stops. And the pain that’s caused by loss of things that are taken away from us that we really need.

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Mabel’s primary source of joy: her kids.

And it’s true. I remember watching A Woman Under the Influence for the very first time and being highly disturbed by the display of mental illness in the movie. I couldn’t take it, and similarly to Richard Dreyfuss, I felt sick and had to pause the movie a few times just to distance myself from what was taking place in Mabel’s world. However, upon revisiting it a couple of days ago, I watched it with Cassavetes’ idea that it is a film that revolves around the weight of love and what happens when someone is sensitive, vulnerable and in love to the point that even the smallest of things will make that person go crazy and lose balance in life. Because Mabel Longhetti is exactly like that. The first scene we see her appear in, is the scene where she is getting her kids ready to go off with grandma for the weekend. Mabel runs around the driveway making sure her three children have all they need for a weekend away; she tucks in their shirts, she runs back into the house to find an extra pair of shoes, and she keeps repeating to her little joys as they get into grandma’s car ”Get your fingers in! Watch your fingers!” And when finally grandma drives off with the kids, Mabel shuts herself inside the house and starts pacing up and down the hallway, biting on her fingernails, murmuring to herself that she shouldn’t have let them go. The instances when her illness takes over are the instances where her overwhelming love does not know where to go. After a short while, Mabel asks herself in panic ”Where are the kids? Kids? Where are you?

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A happy household… at times.

Mabel is most vulnerable on her own. It is then that her condition turns her into a threat, a threat mostly to herself, as she goes off into the night in search of an adventure and ends up inviting a stranger into her home (it is never made if it is a one-time thing or a repeating occurrence). Meanwhile, her husband Nick is her only life saver, her only certainty in a world that otherwise could be considered her greatest danger, as the immense metropolis that is Los Angeles is bound to push her off-balance into free-fall. When Nick is not home, and that is quite often as his work demands a full 24-hour availability, Mabel is on her own, squaring off with her demons. She indulges in weird moments of self-harm, punching herself in the head, making faces in front of the mirror, drinking hard liquor, smoking packs of cigarettes, running up and down the house in search of something she could her pour love into, but as Cassavetes himself said about how he tackles the theme of love in his movies; ”To have a philosophy is to know how to love, and to know where to put it. […] What everybody needs is a way to say where and how can I love? Can I be in love so I can live with some degree of peace?” Most of the time Cassavetes movies do not deliver an answer to this question. Yet, in A Woman Under the Influence, this very quest to achieve a degree of peace through love is the main focal point of Mabel’s condition.

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Mabel’s greatest fear: to be alone.

When Nick comes home from work with a group of hungry co-workers, we see Mabel spring to her feet in excitement: it is time for to express her love for her husband by preparing a wonderful meal for the numerous guests that Nick considers friends. As Mabel sits in silence, looking at the hungry and tired men devouring home-cooked spaghetti with sauce, we can see glimmers of utter happiness. These are the moments that Mabel lives for, these are the instances when she is at her best, and yet… and yet the condition kicks in. The love that Mabel has for people, for her husband, her family, the family’s friends and relatives, is too strong and is bound to go off any minute. In this scene, for example, Mabel becomes friendly with some of Nick’s co-workers, too friendly, to the point that she embarrasses her husband and makes the guests uncomfortable. When they leave, everything dies down, including Mabel.

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Mabel at her happiest.

If Mabel could have one wish from a genie, that wish would be to be able to put her arms around all the people she loves and keep them there, as close to herself as possible. But that is not how the world works in a Cassavetes film as Mabel is soon deemed to be dangerous for her loved ones (she is eventually put in a mental institution for six months); the danger she poses lies in the affectionate way she plays with her children and her children’s friends, in the way she wants to satisfy everybody that enters her home, the way she maniacally runs up and down Hollywood Boulevard asking strangers for the time as she waits for the school bus to arrive and return her kids safely. It’s as if the most ordinary things make her seem crazy in the eyes of others. But to Cassavetes, the film’s writer and director, this is the essence of a woman; forget the beauty and sex-appeal, the essence of a female protagonist lies in her quirks, her flaws, her habits, her dreams, ambitions and regrets. Mabel is full of them. Cassavetes criticism of women’s depiction in movies is key in analyzing A Woman Under the Influence;

I’m very worried about the depiction of women on the screen. It’s gotten worse than ever and it’s related to their being either high- or low-class concubines, and the only question is when or where they will go to bed, with whom, and how many. There’s nothing to do with the dreams of women, or of woman as the dream, nothing to do with the quirky part of her, the wonder of her.

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”When a man loves a woman…”

In Cassavetes’ brilliant psychological domestic drama we experience a woman. An ordinary woman who is not successful, who doesn’t have a job, who doesn’t go out shopping, who doesn’t do things for pleasure or out of interest. Her world, and her experience comes from inside, because Mabel is crazy in the eyes of others, but when she looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see a crazy person; she sees an emotionally rich person, who through a vast range of emotions that can quickly turn happiness into fear, fear into anger, anger into pure joy, confusion into bliss, is desperately trying to find a way to fit into the environment she is forced to be part of. Her body is tied to the physical world, but her mind isn’t. Mabel wants to live for others, through others; in numerous scenes she simulates the behavior of her children because it is her understanding that a mother raising children should feel the same things as her children. And so she dances, she whistles, she races down the street, she makes faces and puts on costumes because her children deserve to be at the center of her attention. And when her husband brings around his friends she finds fitting to emulate his attitude, that of a tough, working man, a macho figure, a bread winner and the head of the household. What comes off as ridicule to Nick is Mabel’s way of telling him, Look how much I love you. Look how much I care about you. Look how much I admire you.

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Nick battling with his own demons.

To end this piece, Bo Harwood, the film’s music composer said that to him the score to A Woman Under the Influence is ”basically about love […] about loving somebody, loving your family, loving them no matter what,” which is a fitting conclusion, considering that Mabel is full of imperfections but so are the people around her, above all Nick, her husband, who at times reveals himself to be just as crazy as his wife. Then you might say, well if this is about love and loving somebody, what does the concept of a cinematic woman have to do with this post? To which I’ll reply, everything. To me, and famed critics like Roger Ebert, Mabel represents Cassavetes himself, and his experience with dealing with love, family, betrayal and hardship, and that is why, the portrayal of this particular woman is the most accurate, complete and telling I have ever seen; Mabel represents everything that we might want her to represent. Her condition is the accumulation of values, emotions, stories, incidents and thoughts that we all have, that we all share. That’s what makes her so multidimensional, so unconventional, so beautifully unique, and that is also why cinema would never be the same after the film’s release. Cassavetes and Rowlands, in other words, together revolutionized what a woman can do in a film, what she can stand for and what she can bring to the art form that is cinema.

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It’s about loving somebody, loving them no matter what.