Thursday, October 14, 2004

The 40th Chicago International Film Festival 2004 - Part 3

The Big Red One: The Reconstruction - The restored version of Fuller's war film is being touted as a major film event of the year. For the fest, Jonathan Rosenbaum was on hand to interview film critic Richard Schickel (of Time), who headed up the project. I hadn't seen the original. I've seen a couple of Fuller's best-known films (Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor), neither of which wowed me. This one didn't either. But I was surrounded (especially with the core audience that stayed for the post-film Q&A) by die-hard Fuller fans, who mentioned a few more of his films in discussion (Run of the Arrow and Fixed Bayonets). It reminded me of the time I took an Ozu film class at Facets and found myself in way over my head because I was going just to expose myself to the films but many in the class had already seen most of his films several times. Anyway, I got some insight into the Fuller phenomenon. Fuller, like Welles and Cassavetes, seems to be one of these American auteurs whose difficulties making movies have become the stuff of legend, especially for a certain mostly male, liberal, straight, white, college-educated crowd. With these movie martyrs, you get tired of hearing phrases like, "The film got taken away from him by the studio when...." After a while you stop feeling that it was a great injustice and start wondering, were these guys naive or stupid about the process? I don't know. My impression based on the discussion is that Fuller's become a hero partly because he had more of a working-class background and sensibility--he fought in WWII, and many of the incidents in the film come from his (and his acquaintances') experiences--and also because of what he achieved on B-movie budgets.

Being a Fuller neophyte, I can't give a definitive review. I need to see more of his work to understand it. The Big Red One struck me as a strong film, but also too silly at times, too ambitious (or insufficiently creative) for its low-budget at times, and lacking in the acting department. (It is not, by and large, a "fine" film.) Lee Marvin has an interesting face, but he's not up to the challenge of leading a film like this. Mark Hamill, in one of his few major film roles that didn't involve The Force, is surprisingly able and sexy (Luke Skywalker never seemed sexy) but underutilized. The biggest liability is Robert Carradine (of the Revenge of the Nerds films, which I've only seen clips of), whose persona seems all wrong for a meaningful war movie, even one, like this, which emphasizes the mundane and the vulgar (one character who suffers from hemorrhoids carries a cushion with him everywhere). Carradine's presence is foregrounded through narration, and if you hate corny film narration as all good citizens should, take solace in the fact that, as Schickel told us, it has been peeled back to what was strictly necessary, so it could have been much worse, but Carradine is just a little too antic for the kind of gravitas the film sometimes goes for. Then again, you could argue that Fuller's expression is more honest because of the way it mixes the profane and the absurd into the life-threatening, culture-shock experience of war. I kept thinking about Saving Private Ryan (one of Spielberg's worst) while watching this movie, because they're very similar in the episodic way they narrate World War II. (In Fuller's film, the soldiers see action in a greatest hits of WWII battles: Africa, Sicily, Normandy, and the push into Germany, culminating at one of the camps that had ovens.) Spielberg's film overemphasizes the almost holy aspect of war, tapping into that cultural phenomenon which (so I've heard) writer Chris Hedges criticizes in War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. By comparison, Fuller's tone is refreshingly down-to-earth. In fact, both films depict the Normandy Beach D-Day invasion battle, and comparing the way they do so would make a fascinating lesson in itself. While Spielberg marshalls a huge array of cinematic techniques to convey horror and confusion, Fuller is much less showy. To convey the fact that time passes while the men are stuck on the beach, he simply occasionally cuts to a watch on the arm of a fallen soldier in the waves, the water pinker and then redder with blood as each hour passes. The 50-foot bazooka weapon which the men must assemble piece by piece under a rain of bullets in order to advance is a persuasive summary of hell. After seeing the movie, I read J. Hoberman put it this way: "An influence on (and reproach to) Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One tempers sentiment with cynicism." Yes.

There's a strange current of homoeroticism in the film. Homoeroticism is common in war films, but here it's unusually overt. American and French soldiers kiss each other on the mouths when their forces come together in Africa after a brief skirmish. And, in one of the film's hilarious moments, a standard debauched Nazi comes on to Lee Marvin's character, who is recovering from gunshot wounds in a hospital. "The doctors don't know how you stayed alive," he says. The he purrs, "I love a superman" and plants a kiss on Marvin's lips. Marvin opens his eyes and grabs the guy in a stranglehold. "I can understand your being horny, Fritz," he says, "but you've got bad breath."

Schickel opined that the film is one of the greatest war movies ever made, among the best half-dozen or so, along with Full-Metal Jacket and The Big Parade. I don't buy that, but I was taken with his opinion that the great war movies are those that de-emphasize heroism, that depict "heroism as almost accidental."

In other news, the nominees for the National Book Awards were announced, and the fiction nominees are all women. I'm disappointed that the one book I've heard of is that dreadful-sounding Madeleine is Sleeping, which I recently kvetched about here on my blog. I hate seeing writers getting rewarded with recognition for such cheap stunts. The Silber book, though, sounds intriguing.

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