The Rear-View Mirror: Jules et Jim (1962)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Jules et Jim (1962) wasn’t my first film by François Truffaut, but it might as well have been: while I saw The Last Metro (1980) earlier, it didn’t fully register that this was a film directed by Truffaut, one of the founders of the French nouvelle vague, and I only remembered The Wild Child (1970) very, well, vaguely. In fact, I was more aware of Truffaut in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

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The Rear-View Mirror: Jurassic Park (1993)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

I have a confession to make: I don’t particularly like Jurassic Park. Sure, Spielberg gets the sense of wonder just right, the visual effects still hold up well, Bob Peck’s death scene is fantastic and it’s got Samuel L. “BAMF” Jackson – but I will take that big, rubbery shark over T. Rex and Friends any day of the week.

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Whatever happened to Steven Spielberg?

Yes, I’m a pretentious film geek who salivates at the sound of “Criterion Collection”. I like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (a little known Swedish children’s movie about a boy and a seal at the local circus – it’s basically Free Ølåf) and Fellini’s La Strada – but I love the great popcorn movies. For me, there are two almost perfect representatives of that hallowed group of films: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws.

What happened to the man who made those films, though? Spielberg is still one of the best craftsmen in Hollywood, but the thing that was exhilarating about his early films was their sheer energy. There was a joy to the filmmaking, a childlike sense of fun, that made Spielberg unique. It’s there in the two films mentioned, and it’s also there in E.T. (mixed with a generous dollop of sentimentality) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind – but the biggest failure of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was that it was tired and felt forced. There was little of the exhilaration of the earlier films in the series, especially of the first. Obviously this could be attributed to Indy having aged himself, but that’s a disappointingly humdrum explanation that pretty much begs the question: why have a fourth Indy movie in the first place?

More than that though, rewatching Jaws over the weekend I was made aware of how Spielberg in his early days was much more ruthless. He didn’t have qualms about having a young boy be chomped by a shark, he didn’t think twice about having a number of pretty gruesome deaths in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It wasn’t the childish sadism of Temple of Doom, but it basically meant, “Yes, horrible things can happen. Anyone can get it in the teeth.” And as a result the films were more exciting. If even a kid can be eaten by a shark, well, then nobody’s safe. (Compare Jurassic Park, where the kids and the heroes are never really in jeopardy – it’s pretty much nobodies and evil lawyers that get eaten. It’s amazing that a cheesy, bad film such as Deep Blue Sea gets this better by making it clear from the first that anyone can die – even Samuel L. “Badass” Jackson.)

The much-ridiculed CGI retouching of E.T., replacing guns with walkie-talkies is symptomatic of this fretful, overly squeamish Spielberg. The BMX chase in the original version of E.T. is exciting, and the moment when they get out the guns, we know: Uh oh. Something bad could happen. Compare the same moment in the ‘remastered’ version, where the impression we get is that the worst that could happen is, they might be caught by the grown-ups and given a severe talking-to. Where’s the danger? Where’s the sense of actual risk? If you take that away, characters that we care about become invincible video game characters with the god mode turned on.

I’m in a minority in that I quite liked much of War of the Worlds, but it’s a prime example of a film that suffers from Spielberg’s “playing it safe” doctrine. It’s pretty clear, in every single scene, that he wouldn’t kill off Dakota Fanning – and while her brother puts himself in a situation where he’s almost sure to die, we get an unbelievable, corny deus ex ending that many filmmakers who are much less skilled than Spielberg would have scoffed at.

Obviously Spielberg isn’t the young man he was when he made Jaws or Raiders. He’s older now, so it’s only to be expected… but did he have to become so damn po-faced? Where’s the glee? Reduce Spielberg to his (considerable) skill while taking away his sense of joy and adventure, and you get Zombie Spielberg.

And everyone knows that only Godzilla Lucas can fight Zombie Spielberg.

Late to the game, as usual

So, I hear there’s this new Indiana Jones film on. What’s that? It’s been out for a month or so? Aw shucks…

I’m probably exactly the right age for the Indy movies. I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at the cinema when I was 14, and I got Raiders of the Lost Ark on video later that same year. As a teenager I enjoyed the hell out of these films – except for Temple of Doom, which I already didn’t particularly like at the time. It’s got fantastic set pieces but doesn’t hold together very well as a film. (And it’s the one Indiana Jones movie, in my opinion, where the stereotypical natives do become offensive and racist… but that’s not my beef here.)

My favourite one of the films was always Raiders. It had a magic, a rawness and an energy that the others don’t match. Last Crusade is the funnier film, but it comes dangerously close to self-parody – added to which, well, it’s pretty much a rip-off of Raiders. So many of the scenes made me think, “Yeah, cool, but haven’t I seen this one already?” You get the same type of intro sequence, followed by scenes at Barnett College, followed by the story proper. You’ve got rats instead of snakes. You’ve got the wrath of God visited on those undeserving. And all of it tries just a bit too hard to be funny.

Last Crusade fares worst when it comes to the side characters that were introduced in Raiders. Both Sallah and Marcus Brody are turned into jokes – and they aren’t particularly good jokes. If it wasn’t for the interplay between Indy and his father, Last Crusade wouldn’t be much better than, say, The Mummy or any other Indiana Jones rip-offs.

Now, finally, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford got their act together and made a fourth film. Lots of fans hated it. Correction: lots of fans hated it on the internet. There’s something about Web 2.0 that brings out the extremist in fanboys and nerds. Something can’t be pretty good or sort of bad – it’s all either perfect, worthy of geekgasms, or utter shite of the “George Lucas raped my childhood!” ilk.

Crystal Skull is neither. It’s the third best Indiana Jones film. It’s enjoyable but forgettable. And it makes a couple of very unfortunate mistakes:

  • There’s little to no motivation for Indy. He’s only reacting to what’s happening. For a hero, he’s pretty damn passive. Compare that with Raiders, where something is actually at stake for him. Here the baddies have ten times more of a motivation to do what they do. Indy’s just along for the ride, really.
  • What happened to the guy who got shot, who bled, who looked worse for wear after his big scenes? Indy’s always survived things that no real human being would survive – but he was never indestructible. Here, one of the first things we see the man do is survive an atomic blast. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it’s one hell of a cool image. But if a hero isn’t touched by a nuclear explosion, well, are we supposed to be thrilled when he’s being chased by bumbling Russian soldiers?
  • David Koepp, the script writer, didn’t really know what to do with his characters. Many of them are utterly unnecessary for the plot and take time away from one another. Was Mac necessary? Not really. The Russians could have done what they did without him. Oxley? He was basically a talking version of Last Crusade‘s Grail diary. Even Marion, although she had some nice scenes, was basically wasted, as was Mutt. There was no urgent reason why any of these characters were in the film – and if you’re making what should be a rollercoaster ride of a film, superfluous characters slow you down.
  • I don’t have any problems with aliens instead of religious artefacts – if they’re intriguing. The Ark of the Covenant had mystery, it felt positively alive. (It was also helped by John Williams’ wonderful score, which I’ll talk about in the next bullet.) The Grail was already much less interesting, but Last Crusade didn’t focus on it: it focused on Indy and his father. The crystal skull? It’s a pretty uninteresting gizmo. It doesn’t have much character. And the ending pretty much lacked awe… which the Ark had in spades.
  • I don’t remember a single one of the new tunes Williams penned for Crystal Skull. All three former Indiana Jones movies had memorable tracks, and the Raiders March is one of the most iconic pieces of film music there is. I can’t remember the last time Williams wrote music that didn’t feel like B-sides. The man wrote some of the most memorable film scores – but from what he’s been producing in the last, say, ten years, he should finally retire.
  • The villains… Raiders had its iconic Nazis, and it had Belloq, to date still by far the best adversary Indy ever had – because he wasn’t actually that different from the man. Belloq had a great introduction, his interactions with Indy were well written and acted, and he actually had charisma. Cate Blanchett tries hard, but the script doesn’t know what to do with her. Is she evil? Driven? Obsessed? Is she actually a tragic figure? I don’t mind ambivalent characters, but I mind scripts that seem to have an attention span of five minutes. Koepp didn’t really seem to have much of a concept of any of the characters… which is probably why the film feels mostly like a string of episodes, none of which are really terribly compelling. And what’s Indy without a good adversary?
  • And what’s with the horrible over-exposed wedding at the end? It looked like Heaven in Always! Walk into the light, Indy…

Anyway, the film’s had enough of a critical pummeling. All in all, it was entertaining enough, but not much more so than a competent Indiana Jones knock-off. And somehow mediocrity is almost worse than an out-right bad Indy movie. I just hope that Lucas and Spielberg won’t try to keep flogging this almost-dead horse. At some point it becomes terribly, terribly undignified.

And talking of undignified: have fun with this! 

Nazis. I hate these guys.

In the meantime, we’ve finished watching Band of Brothers. Since I’d avoided it at the time, thinking that it would probably be Saving Private Ryan extended over 10 hours (due to Spielberg and Hanks’ involvement), I must say that I am positively surprised and very impressed. Yes, there was some pathos and sentimentality, but these need not be bad. The series does try to give an impression of what it was like for the soldiers, and there is room for these emotions. It’s silly and not a little arrogant to condemn all instances of sentimentality in war-related films, series and books, as some European critics would seem to do.

Clearly, the winning countries would seem to be more comfortable with war nostalgia, and at its most extreme I do find it rather distasteful – and dishonest. Rhetorics of “honour”, which usually go along with war sentimentality and nostalgia, so often gets in the way of an honest, complex discussion that addresses the darker aspects of the winning side’s engagement as well.

This is one thing that Band of Brothers does really well. Especially the last episode makes it clear that, yes, there is heroism in the men who fought, but that doesn’t make them infallible good guys. You get Liebgott going off on vigilante missions, shooting the people suspected of having been involved in the running of concentration camps. You understand his anger and hatred, clearly, but even Webster (whose occasional glee at killing ze Germans has been chilling at times) can’t bring himself to go along with Liebgott’s making himself into judge, jury and executioner.

At this point, after the German army has surrendered, many of the men have become their own worst enemy. But then, throughout the series, the Germans as such haven’t really been the enemy. The soldiers on the other side of the line – the people who will kill you if you don’t kill them (and it’s the same for them) – are the enemy. The sheer randomness of artillery fire, explosions, whizzing bullets is the enemy. Bad commanding officers, bitter cold, gangrene – those are the enemies. In that respect, the series has been consistent in providing the perspective of the men fighting – a perspective curiously, at times uncomfortably unaware of the larger context.

Which is why the ninth episode, “Why we fight”, was so important and so uncomfortable. It’d be too reductive to call it “the concentration camp episode” (echoes of “They call me Concentration Camp Erhardt!”, but that might just be me). It’s the episode that addresses the Germans’ culpability, the way none of the civilians, when facing the soldiers, seem to have been Nazis or Nazi sympathiser. They all claim to be innocent bystanders. But faced with the incomprehensible horror the American soldiers find when they happen upon a work camp (not even one of the more gruesome concentration camps), it’s difficult to swallow that line of “It wasn’t us, it was the others, the bad Germans, and anyway, we’re as much victims as them!”

What made the episode, and the series, for me is how Band of Brothers very rarely makes explicit comments and judgements. It leaves that to the viewers. In the last scene of “Why we fight”, as Nixon watches the German civilians bury the decaying corpses (some of the Germans clearly physically sick, others crying – some still children, some too old to have done anything much) , he sees the proud, if not even arrogant elderly woman he’d happened upon earlier. There’s defiance in her face as she looks back at him. Does she judge him for this collective punishment? Is she telling him, “Yes, I accept our culpability. Would you do the same?” Is she simply showing him that she – and by extension, Germany – can’t be broken? Or perhaps a combination of all of these? We don’t know, Nixon doesn’t know, perhaps she doesn’t even know.

The last episode has a similar moment – not quite as strong perhaps and rather simpler in terms of good/bad/right/wrong, but still very effective. The US soldiers watch as a German general addresses his troops. The general’s demeanour is arrogant, yet what he tells his men (in German, translated by Liebgott) strikes a chord in the paratroopers: “Men, it’s been a long war, it’s been a tough war. You’ve fought bravely, proudly for your country. You’re a special group. You’ve found in one another a bond, that exists only in combat, among brothers. You’ve shared foxholes, held each other in dire moments. You’ve seen death and suffered together. I’m proud to have served with each and every one of you. You all deserve long and happy lives in peace.”

Out of context, the speech may come across as “Yeah, we know, yadda yadda, blah blah”. Within the episode, and coming at the end of ten episodes, it works – and it is interesting that it was put in the mouth of a German general, speaking to his soldiers. At first this way of melding the two sides – Allies, Axis – felt uncomfortably apolitical to me, but I’ve accepted that the series chose to represent the perspective of the fighting men, and that perspective is different from that of the history graduate looking over from a comfortable distance of fifty years.

I’m very curious about the follow-up project that HBO is working on now, covering the war in the Pacific. I remember many of the (sometimes angry) reviews of Letters from Iwo Jima, denouncing Eastwood’s inadequate relativism (see for instance the Salon.com review). But the discussion of why it’s worse to humanise the Japanese soldiers than the Germans will have to wait for another time. Otherwise we’ll still be here by tomorrow…

P.S.: I apologise for the lack of photos – there simply don’t seem to be any good pictures of the last two episodes to be found, and I didn’t have time to make screen captures. If I get around to writing a short review of Iron Man, though, there’ll be pics and videos. Yay!

Airborne, tumbling down…

I resisted watching Band of Brothers for a long time, just as I still haven’t seen Saving Private Ryan and am not planning to do so any time soon. While I acknowledge Spielberg’s skills as a director, I tend to mind those films of his that purport to be “important”, because usually he mistakes pathos for importance. (I’m excluding Schindler’s List from this, though.) Band of Brothers came out in the wake of Spielberg’s Omaha Beach Party, and I assumed that it would be more American WW2 pathos.

When we watched the first episode, I was afraid that my expectations would be proven true. The main theme of the series, without the context of the actual episodes, dripped with solemn, righteous pathos, like a particularly constipated John Williams on Fourth of July. The episode itself neither confirmed or rebutted my fears, though: it concentrated on the battalion’s training in England, so there was little space for outright heroism. The episode was interesting enough, although it was hampered a bit by casting David Schwimmer as a bullying instructor. Schwimmer did a good job, but it’s more or less impossible to look at him without thinking “Ross! From Friends! and wanting to smack him in the gob.

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It was only in the second episode, “Day of Days”, that I came to realise that my fears were unfounded. Yes, there may still be lots of soldierly pathos in the remaining eight episodes, but there was little to none of that here. It’s extremely difficult for a war movie – even for a supposed anti-war movie – not to make scenes of warfare exciting, so the implication is “War is hell… but it’s a bloody adventure, innit?” Instead, the first scenes we get of the characters involved in an actual battle is them sitting in the planes, waiting for the jump, as flak fire shoots several planes to bits. The soldiers are powerless, and whether they live or die isn’t down to their heroism but rather to sheer luck.

We were eating lunch when we started watching the episode, but both of us stopped digging into our sandwiches pretty soon as horrible, frightening, saddening things started to happen on the screen: as a plane went up in flames, and you saw little human specks on fire tumbling from the conflagration to fall to their death. The surviving soldiers’ first direct encounter with the enemy was no more heroic, as they shot a group of Germans on a horse cart from the safety of an ambush, riddling the horses as much as the enemy troops with gunfire. At this point, you got the impression, wartime reality for these men was probably not that different from that of the German soldiers: you point your gun at the guys in differently coloured uniforms and you hope that they die before you do.

This impression that even the Good Fight is a pretty crappy fight became even stronger when Sgt. Malarkey gets to talk to a prisoner of war, a German-American born in the States whose parents decided to move back to the Fatherland. Just after he stops chatting to the young man who, but for the accident of family might have been wearing the same uniform as him, all the POWs are rounded up and shot. Can’t waste time and men on protecting these prisoners.

Right now I’m impressed at the lack of “Rah, rah, Allied Forces!” pathos and very curious as to how the series will continue. After a pretty gut-wrenching second episode, will it be able to maintain this level of intensity?

And, perhaps more importantly, will I manage to remember the names of all the soldiers (looking so similar under their over-sized helmets, where you haven’t even got hair colour to go on) before we get to the end?

P.S.: Talking of distracting cameos by TV comedians – there was this little guy in one of the scenes in the first episode, and I thought, “Man, he looks just like Shaun from Shaun of the Dead… but it can’t be him, because why would they want to cast a Brit for an American?” Well, turns out that Simon Pegg is far from the only Brit playing a US soldier in Band of Brothers. Is this payback for all of those villainous Germans played by British actors?