Thursday, August 28, 2008

Why 'Rambo' Is Probably a Better Movie Than 'Saving Private Ryan'

The opening scene of Rambo shows Burmese soldiers throwing mines into rice paddies, hustling prisoners out of a transport, then forcing them to run through the rice paddies until they trip the mines. The soldiers bet on which prisoners will be the ones to die. Eventually, a prisoner's body erupts in a fountain of crimson and muddy water. From there, the movie only gets more meaninglessly violent. The thing is, that's probably what makes it good.

Ten years ago, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan ushered in an era of ultra-realistic violence in film with a frenzy of dismemberment, fragmentation, ventilation and explosion that was accepted almost uncritically. This acceptance derived in part from the fact that Spielberg brings a great deal of gravitas to any production, in part because he's an excellent filmmaker — and in part because he's Jewish, which lends a cultural weight to his rightfully demonizing Nazis — but also because Spielberg is very good at controlling the narrative tone of what he's showing.

Think back to the bookend scenes in Saving Private Ryan. An old man, with his family, approaches headstones at a veterans' cemetery on the Normandy coast. The message is already clear: lots of people who could have been loving husbands, fathers and grandfathers never left this beach. You haven't even seen the violence yet, but the pity and the importance of it are already unquestionable. If that lesson weren't obvious, Spielberg then clobbers you with it ruthlessly at the end. The father weeps and stammers and needs to know if he "was a good man" — i.e. did the way he lived his life measure up to the value of those who gave their last full measure to save him? The answer, duh, is yes. Of course he did, because we spent the last parts of the pre-battle WWII scenes seeing what a swell guy he was, and because even now his family envelops him in their many arms and comfort him because he's a really swell old guy now.

At no point is it suggested that, swell people with families aside, the war might still have been pointlessly horrific and morally questionable, see:
carpet bombing of civilians in cities
use of nuclear weapons
war crimes, like executing surrendered/surrendering soldiers, which was all too common; taking Japanese skulls as trophies; ripping out gold teeth with pliers
criminally and morally unsupportable internment of Japanese-American citizens
the fascistic mobilization of the American home front, complete with the erosion of civil liberties and newspaper headlines written by intelligence agencies and sanitized beyond any remaining vague resemblance to the truth
the fact that one of our allies (Unca' Joe!) ran a totalitarian regime even more nightmarishly lethal and terrifying, in the long run, than Nazi Germany, and may have executed as many as 20 million of his own citizens before the war even started etc.
Spielberg's too canny for that. Opening up any ambiguity about the subject matter would open up questions about the film itself; e.g. "Did it need to be this violent?" But by telling a saccharine homily, inwardly, from both ends of the plot, Spielberg succeeds in making a family friendly bloodbath, itself a goal so nauseatingly oxymoronic that it's only acceptable within the same sort of mindset that conceives of NewSpeak. Better still, by making the moral of the story "Americans sacrifice their lives nobly in big noble bloody effort," the film instantly created legions of defenders for whom the uncritical celebration of America was enough to excuse almost any sin.

Never mind that the film centers on the utterly hokey premise of wasting manpower and resources to rescue one guy who might be alive because, gosh, that's just the sort of ludicrously stupid things Americans do — sort of the war equivalent of sprinting through a riot to bring a neighbor on the other side of town a cup of sugar. Never mind that the composition of the characters comes straight out of the contemptibly pat propaganda "movies" of the WWII era.
The film-makers... were trying to "fix up 'an ideal situation from a picture point of view... trying to recreate war as we were all taught in history books.'" That is, the action must be rendered in the received clichés: otherwise it will look inauthentic to the audience.

Infantry units are all melting-pots, with the "universal platoon" comprising something like the following mixture:
One leader who dies
one inexperienced youth
one comic
one cynic (transformed before the end into a true believer)
one black or Hispanic, and
one person each from
Texas, and
the Middle West.
Of course, that's from Paul Fussell's Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War, written nine years before the movie came out and describing such dated and unappetizing fare as Guadalcanal Diary. Yet change black/hispanic to "Jewish," play up the religiosity of the southerner, stunt-cast a Hollywood wunderkind famous for writing a screenplay at a young age as the inexperienced youth, and you have Spielberg's offering.

Yet the existence of the clichés themselves are, in the end, of less consequence than the fact that they exist in service to a veritable orgy of violence and destruction. That sexual term might seem unfair until you reach the scene where a German hushes and whispers, while penetrating an American soldier's chest with a bayonet, like a strong and overconfident boyfriend taking his virginal date for the first time. And just when you'd start to have any doubt whether all this was really truly bearable or necessary, there's a nice old fellow in a sweater being hugged by yuppies and moppets who assure him that, yes, it was all worth it.

Conversely, Rambo makes almost no attempt to convince you of anything. The Burmese soldiers are obviously sadists, the products of a system invested with tremendous power and no accountability, but almost everything else is a mystery. Are the rebels "good" people? Who knows? They seem to be by dint of not being the Burmese soldiers, but beyond that they might well be awful. No attempt is made to ennoble them, to make the violence they commit pretty while the Burmese soldiers' violence is ugly and reprehensible. What you can be sure of is that everyone is very violent. There's no nobility here; dismemberment has no moral. It's incredibly ugly and unpleasant to watch. Bodies are hacked apart and suddenly atomize into standing mists of blood. Bones and parts are stripped away, torn and scattered. It's a struggle to see how it's at all supposed to be fun or something you watch because you want to see it.

The natural counterargument to make here is, "You're mistaking the accidental for the deliberate. The fact that the rebels aren't explicitly portrayed as the Good Guys while the violence is over the top isn't indicative of deliberate ambiguity and an anti-violence message. Sylvester Stallone is just a terrible director. Come on, you saw Staying Alive, right? This is the same guy who thought that, 'Strut,' was the word and scene to go out on."

Ordinarily, that Occam's Razor explanation would be correct. But remember that this movie franchise actually started out on a dynamic and subtle note. First Blood came out in 1982, before a broad idea of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder took hold in the United States, but the plot stars a textbook sufferer of the condition. Instead of being set upon by peace activists, he's mistaken for an unkempt drifter and persecuted by uptight law-and-order local police with no respect for civil rights. The exact same group that would normally be trying to out-Hitler Hitler on the Dolchstoßlegende front, consoling the returning warrior for fighting in spite of heartless liberal queers stabbing him in the back, instead persecutes him and sees him as a problem. The rest of the film isn't a revenge fantasy against liberals but a desperate attempt by the powerless to compel even a local government of conservative law-and-order bent to give him both liberty and justice.

Rambo pulls similar baits-and-switches, seeming to play on the most negative possible instincts in the viewer before failing to deliver on them. A tense scene on a boat and later in a prison camp raises the possibility of Burmese soldiers raping blonde leading lady Julie Benz, better known for being a pregnant vampire or the girlfriend of a serial killer. Yet just as the "they're violating our beautiful WHITE women!" specter looms, it's dissipated by the very real and very imminent rape of several asian women by asian men. Their rape is no less horrifying for not being interracial; if anything, it's far more so because it's very obviously going to happen, which leaves you with the realization that the movie is teasing your capacity to see or be sensitive to bigotry. Similarly, a Burmese officer walks away with a young boy, obviously to sodomize him, which perhaps provides a moment's amplified tension that homosexual rape will occur. But again it's secondary to the reality of the inexorable beginnings of heterosexual rape. Why should one form of violation be any more or less horrible? Why are you getting more upset or anxious about this? Finally, one character persists in decrying all forms of violence, refusing to take up arms in his own defense. In any other movie, he'd be sucking down a venti macchiato and obviously worrying more about why he couldn't ride an electric boat. In this one, he's a devout evangelical Christian.

At any one of half a dozen points, Rambo could turn into a slaughterhouse of any number of straw men in service to self-congratulatory right-wing mythology. Instead, just when you begin to expect the plot to venture down these paths, it suddenly changes course and subverts the prejudicial attitudes you've imported to the process of watching. This tactic unfolds with the most effectiveness at the end. Just as Rambo and the rebels are about to triumph — at the moment in time when you're likely to be most gratified, even sanctified, by blood — the violence remains just as off-putting. The message isn't that there is just and wonderful killing, that there are times when we are, indeed, good men for dwelling in a vale of death. The message is as elemental as Snowden's Secret: man is meat, and that statement's realization is always horrifying.

Unlike Spielberg's extended panegyric for murder and the United Goddamn States of America, this movie attaches no facile codicil for you. No puppet character asks you what the moral of the story is, inviting someone else to tell you. Remarkably, Rambo seems to have more respect for the intelligence and character of its viewers than Saving Private Ryan. It assumes you'll be smart enough to ask what happened and what was said. Better yet, it assumes that what you come up with on your own has just as much value as the lesson it might want you to learn. Its effects and acting may not be as smooth, but intellectually it's probably a better and more challenging movie. Plus, Stallone shoots a dude with arrows to the face.