YEAR IN FILM: The year hyperreal cinema of the combat zone replaced pedestrian politicking
YEAR IN FILM As the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq nears its second decade, the question of its influence on modern American cinema has been redoubled by this year's sampling of seminal combat films. Not only were Quentin Tarantino's epical Inglourious Basterds and Kathryn Bigelow's anti-epic The Hurt Locker two of the best releases of 2009, they represented a startling mutation in the zeitgeist's popular narratives of geopolitics, absenting the requisite leitmotifs of nationalism, ethic, and archive. The disappearance of a moral imperative in Inglourious' Holocaust revenge parable and Locker's chronicle of an adrenaline junkie flummoxed numerous critics who admonished them for a dangerous aestheticization of war. Having accentuated the alternative fantasies and ecstasies of military violence, Tarantino and Bigelow committed the cardinal sin of privileging the inner experience of war over its ancillary politics, or, rather, made them one in the same.
Most of the putatively titled "war on terror" pictures, solidified as a genre in the aftermath of 9/11, fulfilled one of several bog-standard paradigms: the preening, ideological propaganda of Michael Moore (2004's Fahrenheit 9/11) and Errol Morris (2003's The Fog of War and 2008's Standard Operating Procedure), with its leftist moralizing thinly camouflaged as real "documents" of war; the quasi-jingoist paeans to American imperialism in Black Hawk Down (2001) and We Were Soldiers (2002); and the grid-skipping, pan-global tourist thrillers Syriana (2005), The Kingdom (2007), and Body of Lies (2008). Regardless of their ideological positions, all of these war on terror films linked cinematic politics with moral engagement and the need for historicizing the truth of combat.
But Inglourious and Locker fail to follow any of the necessary formulae and are thereby excluded from the generic privilege of the modern war film. In its attempt at a sui generis retributive fantasy, Inglourious details a vicious gang of Jews who collect Nazi scalps and immolate Hitler in a third-act ejaculation as cartoonish as it is intertextual. Treading in a Pynchonian zone of alternative history, the film not only lampoons but seeks to rewrite the archive of the 20th century.
But Tarantino's violence is not ballasted by any of the ruminative "what ifs" (what if the Holocaust could have been prevented? What if you could kill Hitler?) that have become the ethicist's fundamental paradox. He obviates such moral concerns in favor of bloody spectacle and, in so doing, risks erasing the last, sacred vestiges of the Holocaust — namely, that it occurred. In Tarantino's comic-book universe, fiction-making refuses to be caught in the crossfire between truth and engagement. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek alludes to as much in his recent treatise on violence when he claims "the threat today is not passivity, but the pseudo-activity, the urge to 'be active,' to 'participate.' Those in power often prefer even a 'critical' participation, a dialogue, to silence. Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do." Such valuations are a disturbing reproach to the oft-repeated Holocaust maxim, "Never again."