Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Extended Summer, Week 13 (The War)

I watched "Saving Private Ryan" for the first time the other night, and by the time the credits started rolling, I was already so distracted by how corny and embarrassingly derivative (given this is Steven Spielberg we're talking about) and patronizing to the audience in an America-is-the-best-place-in-the-world way the ending is, that I started thinking how the movie totally deserved to have lost Best Picture to "Shakespeare in Love" because "Shakespeare" was indeed an equally ambitious but miles more creative film than this war flick.   
I thought about the first and final shots of "Saving Private Ryan," with the American flag proudly waving before our faces, and I thought about how American directors - the whole of Hollywood, really - sometimes find the need to convert a film into their own private Fourth of July event. I thought about how this somehow helps (not necessarily that it's a direct cause) in promoting a culture of ignorance in American classrooms, especially in the subject of geography, when all these Stateside kids get to see and hear all day are America, America, America. Like in that classic movie "Mean Girls," where the character of Amanda Seyfried asks pre-rehab Lindsay Lohan, "If you're from Africa, why are you white?" and that random anecdote about many an American school kid not knowing where Guam is or, heaven forbid, even Hawaii. (But perhaps the reference to Mean Girl Karen may just be a bit unfair.)

And then I started thinking about Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter," the one where Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken go to Vietnam and get captured and play Russian roulette, and where Meryl Streep plays the long-suffering wife, and Walken goes cuckoo because of the madness he witnesses in Saigon and instead decides to be a Russian roulette prodigy. And I was reminded of the movie's length (three hours!) and that I watched it during that week when I almost got a cold but successfully suppressed the virus through a combination of vocal rest (imagine that!) and gallons of water, and how I had to pause "The Deer Hunter" every thirty minutes to drink a glass and pee some. And it brought me to the final scene of the movie, where Meryl Streep starts singing "God Bless America," and I realized how it could have been the only perfect ending at the time (the film came out in 1978) and the gamut of emotions that must have flooded every screening in every theater back then.

And I thought to evaluate more carefully the merits of "Shakespeare" as a Best Picture winner, and decided that it's very much a "clean" film (and here, observe how I've shifted from using the populist term "movie" to "film"), meaning that the plot is carefully thought out, and the storytelling is neatly structured. From there, however, I realized how little I remember about my experience of watching it a few years back - mainly, Judi Dench's delightful, if rather literally mortifying, appearance as Elizabeth I, and all those excerpts from "performances" of The Bard's plays, and that mesmerizing final shot of a woman walking down a seemingly endless beach. And so I decided that I should probably stop comparing "Saving Private Ryan" with it until I get around to watching "Shakespeare" a second time, and that it was totally wrong and rash of me to have mentally condemned the former simply on the basis of an overtly manipulative ending.

And then I read Roger Ebert's review, and gee, did a lot change. For example, realizing that the first thirty minutes, depicting the initial stages of the invasion of Normandy, is truly one of the most gripping and skillfully made battle sequences of all time, and that this section alone is justification enough for the critical acclaim the film had earned. Also, that if we just get hold of the reel and cut off the opening and closing scenes, "Saving Private Ryan" is really a magnificent, magnificent film (see what i did there). But most of all, that my frustration over the character of the cartographer/translator/believer of goodness and the rational/battle virgin Upham (Jeremy Davies) in that part during the culminating fight sequence where he ends up cowering on the stairs with a string of unused bullets the length of a reticulated python, could only be, to echo Ebert, my subconscious way of relating to the character.

And so I imagined how I'd fare in war as a civilian abruptly thrown in the thick of action, how I'd face the endless barrage of bullets, how I'd gun down the enemy or if I'd even get around to doing it, how I'd trek across towns reduced to rubble in my muddied, bloodied uniform. And I remembered how my paternal grandfather, long before he became a chain-smoking alcoholic, but also a great and humble man, as many in our city remember him, was supposed to have been a guerrilla messenger or something during the Japanese invasion. And that next week will be his 15th death anniversary.

This city is vicious. It has sucked the writer in me dry.

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