Friday, April 30, 2010

Easy Rider

“This used to be a helluva country,” says Jack Nicholson’s character George Hanson at a critical moment in the 1969 film Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper). Later, the character Wyatt (Captain America, played by Peter Fonda) announces in response to Bill’s joy over their newly acquired wealth that “We blew it.” The plural pronoun “We” refers to more than simply these two biker dudes, who bought and sold drugs to fund their cross-country ride. “We” also refers to “we” Americans, to the nation and the American Dream.

This film is so much a product of its time that it seems more revelatory today than it did 41 years ago when it was first released. It clearly sets out the polarities into which, from one simplistic way of thinking, the counter culture and the nation as a whole divided ideas, ways of thinking, and people in the 1960s: young vs. old, those in power vs. those without power, the rich vs. the poor, white skinned vs. dark skinned, individuals vs. group think.

The most important scene in the film takes place shortly before George is clubbed to death in his sleeping bag by hostile local citizens of the small Southern town they’ve just passed through. The alcoholic lawyer George is wondering what has happened to the country. Billy, who thinks on a fairly impetuous and superficial level, believes that the reason he and Wyatt have been refused hotel rooms and experienced other forms of discrimination is because of their long hair:

“George: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.

“Billy: What the hell is wrong with freedom? That's what it's all about.

“George: Oh, yeah, that's right. That's what's it's all about, all right. But talkin' about it and bein' it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don't ever tell anybody that they're not free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it's gonna scare 'em.

“Billy: Well, it don't make 'em runnin' scared.

George: No, it makes 'em dangerous.”

Scenes in this film range from the sublime to the ridiculous, from profound to shallow. But this particular exchange is a key to the underlying themes and symbols in Easy Rider, and one of the most important scenes in American films from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. It’s a statement about profound economic, social, economic, and philosophical divides, an explanation of how in a certain way the American idolatry of the individual is really veneration of conformity. Individuals who do not conform to the requisite social and cultural expectations are cast out and held in contempt.

The American South in Easy Rider epitomizes the failure, from the film’s point of view, of the American experiment and the American Dream.

In a small Louisiana town, the three riders enter a small restaurant. They are ogled with admiration and interest by a booth full of Southern high school girls on the one hand, and eyed with contempt and hatred by another booth full of older Southern white men. “I don’t think they’ll make it to the parish line,” a gaggle-toothed man in a Cat hat leers as they watch Billy, Wyatt, and George. The South from this film’s viewpoint provides a ready vehicle for illustrating and exploring the failure of democracy and the egalitarian spirit.

Certainly one might complain about the one-sided and stereotypical view the film gives of the South. But though there are many other rooms in the Southern mansion, the room the film portrays is undeniably part of the larger structure.

The film makes clear that, no matter how cool and trendy they might appear to be, Wyatt and Billy have been a part of the American marketplace. Though Billy seems impervious to this realization, it hits Wyatt hard in the later scenes of the film, especially after the murder of George.

A number of scenes focus on people on the social and cultural margins. These especially include scenes featuring black people in the American South. Other scenes focus on images of power and affluence: a small-town courthouse, for instance, and white-columned Southern mansions. There are numerous images of waste, refuse, junked cars and machinery, abandoned houses. This is how the film construes America: a nation of waste, loss, disappointment. The film may be simplistic in its view of things, but at least it makes its view clear.

The Hurt Locker

The Hurt Locker (2008; dir. Katheryn Bigelowe) was difficult to like even though I admired it. It’s well made, and imaginatively detailed. About a team of American military technicians whose assignment in the Iraqi war is to defuse IEDs (improvised explosive devices), it should be fraught with tension. In a way, it is. But after a while the tension becomes so much an element of what the film is about that you don’t feel it as much. And when you realize that the real issue is how that tension affects the main character, that he isn’t going to die in an early scene, the suspense diminishes further. Instead you pay attention to how tension affects members of the unit. Each member is different. Sanborn, the black sergeant who is a long-term veteran of the war, is cautious to a fault. He follows procedure scrupulously and wants to survive his assignment to return home to his family. Specialist Eldridge is traumatized by the death of a former member of the unit. He doubts his own courage. Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner), called in to replace the team member who dies, relishes in the danger and pressure of defusing bombs. These moments bring him to life. He sees each bomb as a different challenge. He saves fragments from the devices he disassembles to remind him of his close encounters with death.

The Hurt Locker is about the breaking moment between one’s conscious life and the possibility of sudden annihilating death. It is about how familiarity with that possibility brings about its own normalcy.

The film’s central character is Sgt. James, the senior member of the unit. The highly episodic film is mostly fashioned around scenes in which the team undertakes to defuse various roadside devices. One would expect that the film therefore constantly generates tension over whether the IED is going to explode, whether one of the team members is going to die. In the opening scene a character who is not one of the primary figures works to defuse a bomb. Because in this early scene we do not know what to expect, because of how the scene is constructed (especially how it is edited), tension builds to an intense level and is then resolved. Midway through the film, the team drives out into the desert and stumbles into an ambush, with bullets whizzing back and forth from an indeterminate source, and American soldiers suddenly falling dead. This scene generates much tension. In another scene James tries to defuse an intricately rigged bomb in a military vehicle. He removes his helmet and protective gear in order to see better. He smokes a cigarette as he works. He knows that if he fails and the device explodes, the protective gear won’t help him. From nearby buildings, and in a more distant minaret, men watch him with binoculars and cameras. We do not know how they are, but the implication is that they had a role in setting up the bomb and want to see whether it explodes, whether James succeeds in defusing it.

The scene with the greatest tension occurs after Sergeant James return home from a tour of duty. He has survived hair-raising encounters with hostile soldiers, bombs rigged to explode in the most ingenious of ways. He has rescued Specialist Eldridge from kidnappers. He’s risked death on a daily basis. This scene shows him in his home with his wife and small child. He wanders down the aisle of a grocery store, picking out items. It’s a most domestic and banal moment. You expect something to happen, some crazed lunatic to enter the store and begin firing, whereupon James will try to intervene and be killed. The irony would be great (and hackneyed)—survive the horrors of the warfront, killed on the home front. But nothing happens. Nothing at all, which is why it is so tense.

War is supposed to be long stretches of boredom interrupted by brief and intense moments of violent terror. The Hurt Locker is built on this principle.

The final scene in this film reminded me of the concluding image in Runaway Train (1985; dir. Andrey Konchalovskiy), with the escaped and doomed convict played by Jon Voight standing on the top of a locomotive careening at breakneck speed down the track towards a dead-end. This is his willing apprehension of his own impending annihilation. It’s a moment of terrific glory, of existential self-assertion. In The Hurt Locker Sergeant James heads alone down a deserted street towards an IED that he must defuse. He doesn’t know if he is going to die, but’s it’s clear that the uncertainty, the tension, makes him alive. It makes him who he is. It’s the essential scene in the film.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Up in the Air

Up in the Air (2009; dir. Jason Reitman) is certainly stylish. It reminded me in ways of Stephen Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can (2002), though this film explores issues of substance too: unemployment, the increasing tendency of business to treat employees like faceless integers, the conflict between family and career. The film is well made. The acting by the three principals, George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, and Anna Kendrick, is certainly good, and Clooney is especially effective as the corporate terminator Ryan Bingham who travels from one assignment to another, informing employees in the most positive, cheerful, and upbeat way imaginable (but working mainly from a script he has long had memorized) that the company they work for no longer requires their services. Clooney loves his job. He lives in the airplanes and hotel rooms that are the warp and woof of his work. His real apartment, which we see only once in the film, is empty and bare. He has no settled life at all.

The crisis arises when Bingham’s firm hires a young woman (Kendrick) who convinces the owner that terminations can be as effectively carried out via long-distance video as in person. This would save the firm big money in travel and lodging expenses. Around the same time, Bingham becomes involved with a woman he meets in his travels. Like him, she seems to have no home, is always on the move. He invites her to accompany him to the wedding of his sister’s daughter. Later he discovers that she has a settled life with a husband and children.  These three events reveal to Clooney the emptiness of his life.

This discovery may be a big one for Clooney’s character, but it could hardly be for the viewer, who is probably aware from an early moment that Clooney’s job is one no one would want, that he deceives himself into believing it allows him to engage personally with his clients, that his lifestyle is no life at all.

I enjoyed the film but found it to be an exercise in emptiness. You could see the conclusion coming a mile away.