A Philosopher's Blog

Hollywood & War

Posted in Aesthetics by Michael LaBossiere on March 22, 2010
Inglourious Basterds
Image via Wikipedia

Caryn James presents an interesting assessment of war movies in “Hollywood Goes to War (Again).” Her overall thesis seems to be that in order to resonate, a war movie must be relevant to today.

James presents her view in the context of criticizing HBO’s The Pacific, the follow up toBand of Brothers. James contends that this series lacks cultural resonance, which is presumably a serious flaw. In contrast, a movie like Inglourious Basterds is really about today’s wars rather than WWII (actually, the movie is science fiction-it is set in a parallel reality).

In making her case, James contends that an historical movie  “always reflect two eras: the ones in which they are set and the ones in which they are made.” To support this, she uses the example of Gone With the Wind and the recently mentioned Basterds. As she sees it, Gone With the Wind is about the Civil War, yet thoroughly grounded in 1930’s values, stereotypes and political context.

In the case of war films made today, James contends that they must take into account the changes in the view of warfare caused by Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of  Basterds, James takes the film to be properly set within the contemporary views of war. As James notes, Rachel Maddow takes the movie to show  “the modern strategic history of Al Qaeda.”  The Pacific, as she sees it, fails to take into account such changes and, instead, simply sticks within the time in which it is set.

Naturally, since Band of Brothers was a great success (that is, resonated), James has to explain this. After all, this series was set firmly in WWII. James contends that the movie resonated because the series arrived prior to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the United States was still in a “greatest generation” mood and Americans were inclined to pull together in a unity comparable to that of WWII.

The Pacific, she contends, fails to do this. For example, she notes that the movie shows war as matter of controlling territory which contrasts with how she sees contemporary war (winning hearts and minds).

Of course, there might be another reason why historical movies seem to be about contemporary matters. As Oscar Wilde put it, vanity leads people to think that art is about our time, rather than being about itself. It is natural for movies to act as mirrors so that people see in them a reflection of their time, values and so on. However, as Wilde argued, this could be seeing in them something that is simply not there.

As far as why historical war movies need to take into account contemporary matters, the answer is rather straightforward: James contends that movies that do not will fail. She presents Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers as an example of a failure. As an example of a success, she presents Eastwood’s  Letters From Iwo Jima.

Her explanation for the movie’s success is that the characters “echo with the suicide bombers who have become so common, yet remain so alien.” Roughly put, Letterswas a success because it is really about now and not about then.

This explanation is certainly appealing. After all, as Hume notes in his discussion of the paradox of taste, people have a preference for their own time and country in regards to art. So, people will tend to like movies that are “about” them. Also, relating to a different time and place can be difficult. Relating to what is based on our current situation is much easier and thus a film that does this is more likely to appeal to a broader audience.

This is an interesting explanation, but not the only one. After all, Letters’ success might have little or nothing to do with its alleged relevance to today’s wars. For example, it might simply have better acting,  a better plot, and have whatever else it is that makes one movie better than others. Letters seems to be a thoroughly WWII film. After all, the suicides in the movie are not anachronistic devices used to make the film resonate with now. Japanese soldiers really did commit suicide.

Of course, it could be argued that the film resonates because it just so happens that the situation is similar to that of today (that is, WWII is like the current wars in certain ways). But, it can also be argued that the film resonates because it addresses themes that are universal. As Hume argues, a fad might take hold for a while and appeal across a limited time or space, but truly good art would overcome such limitations and have an appeal beyond its locality and time.

In my own case, Letters resonates because it addresses matters that go beyond the particular wars of then and now. For example, the young Marine’s letter is not about WWII or today. Rather, it captures something universal across all wars. So, it is about all wars, in a way.

As such, my view is that while a movie might be appealing because it is relevant to the specifics of our time, for it to have true and lasting appeal, it must be relevant in a general way. That is, it must touch on what is universal in human experience.

This is obviously possible. There are movies (and other works of art) that are clearly not about our time in particular that still resonate. To use an obvious example, the works of Shakespeare resonate across time even though they are not grounded in post 9/11 assumptions.

As Hume argued, works might enjoy a temporary or local appeal by being about here and now. However, a work that is too locked into its time will, of course, be left behind as time moves on. This is not to say that such works do not have an appeal or value. However, such works will suffer a diminishing status as they become increasingly irrelevant. They will fail the test of time and this is a mark against them. Wilde, of course, was even more harsh. He regarded modernity of subject matter to be the way to create bad art.

There is, of course, a certain artistry in making an historical movie set in a past war that is really about today’s wars. After all, a movie set in the Iraq War is not a metaphor of the war, it is simply about the war. A WWII movie that is grounded in contemporary views of war can have such a metaphorical role.

However, there is a concern about such alterations. After all, historical films are supposed to be historical and altering the past to please the present can be regarded as somewhat questionable. To use a specific example, if the Pacific were to be altered to so that it followed the assumptions held about wars today, then it would no longer be a true WWII movie, but a movie about today set in WWII. While it is tempting to revise history (and historical films) so they match the views of today, this does violence to the past and violates an important purpose of history: to show us what was. At the very least, I can appeal to a selfish motive-do we want our time revised away in the movies of our descendent’s? Presumably we do not and, as such, should be wary of doing this to our ancestors.

That said, it can also be argued that such alterations can be acceptable. After all, historical movies are not history and their primary purpose is not to show what was, but to achieve certain aesthetic goals. As such, making historical movies grounded in contemporary assumptions is just fine.

This does seem reasonable. However, it also seems reasonable to accept that movies that stick with history can also achieve those aesthetic goals. Unless, of course, audiences have such a poverty of feeling and intellect that they cannot get beyond their own time and place.

James finishes with an obvious concern: what about movies about contemporary wars? James claims that the Hurt Locker, which has been wildly successful, is actually a defective film. James’ criticism is that the film’s flaw is that it “appropriates old-fashioned Greatest Generation hero worship while blithely ignoring the urgent question of whether the war should be fought at all.” She seems to regard the film’s critical and general success as an amazing trick on the part of Bigelow.

Naturally, James is assuming that the film must address this question. While this is a good question, it seems to be an error on James part to assume that a film about the Iraq war must address the question she thinks is important. After all, a war film need not address a major political (and moral)question of the day in order to be a good film. In the case of the Hurt Locker, its quality and the success which it has earned seem to be the most effective arguments against James’ criticism.

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2 Responses

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  1. magus71 said, on March 29, 2010 at 7:11 am

    I find that any “resonance” amounts to political commentary by the director, and since it’s Hollywood, we always know which side that commentary will fall on.

    My problem with this is not only because I am at the opposite political spectrum of Hollywood, but also because it’s become so cliche’. I mean, it’s all the same now. Few dare to step outside the thought patterns. The movie, Green Zone is an example of beating a horse that died 4 years ago. Do something new, without trying to tie it in with the Iraq War or Bush administration. It feels as if the directors are trying to wring every last dollar they can from the situation, instead of making honest, original work. This compromises art.

    I barely watch movies or tv anymore because it’s all the same. Over and over I see subtle (or not so subtle) commentary on the Iraq War. Lame and boring.

  2. magus71 said, on March 29, 2010 at 7:14 am

    “James claims that the Hurt Locker, which has been wildly successful, is actually a defective film. James’ criticism is that the film’s flaw is that it “appropriates old-fashioned Greatest Generation hero worship while blithely ignoring the urgent question of whether the war should be fought at all.” She seems to regard the film’s critical and general success as an amazing trick on the part of Bigelow.”

    While I have several problems with Hurt Locker, James’ argument here is absurd. Actually, most of the best books I’ve read on Iraq and Afghanistan have avoided the question of if we should be there and concentrated solely on what actually happened. Only by knowing what happened can we decide if we should be there.


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