Wartime

Finally saw Generation Kill, which somehow managed to live up to its reputation. Like The Wire, it’s marked by such an even distribution of mood and energy across its episodes that it’s impossible to settle on just one as a favorite. Part of this is thanks to the wall-to-wall military jargon (it’s even more unapologetically jargon-intensive than Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange), but mostly it earns its stripes the old-fashioned way, through solid direction and writing that’s tighter than J-Lo’s kootch. (Just to be clear, that’s a reference to something in the script, and not yours truly being a foul-mouthed fucker just for the shits and giggles it gives him.)

I’m amused by the counterintuitive casting decision that made macho pinup boy Alexander Skarsgård a subordinate to the girlish (and much shorter) Starks Sands, and by the fortitude David Simon and Ed Burns showed by including, and then summarily forgetting about, an off-color running joke revolving around a picture of the reporter’s girlfriend. (Any other production in the history of entertainment would’ve made it the focal point of his goodbye scene.) And yet another raft full of good actors comes out of nowhere? Just how many great actors can possibly be hiding out there? Seriously, they should just all come on out now, from whatever school or shitty job they’re holding down, just to give us some idea of just how many scripts it’s gonna take to keep them all working. (I by no means begrudge him the paycheck, but Skarsgård deserves a lot, lot more than teen vampire flicks.) I especially loved James Ransone in this fucking thing, and the fact that he benefited the most from the writing also worked to our advantage: Ray Person’s ephedra-fueled monologues could have made Ziggy Sobotka’s numbskull perorations sound like the wartime Churchill if they weren’t truly funny.

That said, my biggest grumble about the show involves the scribe’s exit interview with Godfather, the battalion C.O.; it’s a joyless, unworthy scene that resuscitated all of the didactic impulses one hoped Simon had laid to rest in The Wire’s farewell tour. For better or worse, Generation spurts out all of its bullshit in its closing installment as well, its other notable lapses being the chain-yanking close-ups of the incompetent “Captain America” every time he suffers a crisis of confidence and, more generally, a too heavy beating of Simon’s “institutional corruption” theme, which, no matter how legitimate a cause for outrage, has already become a hobby-horse in his hands.

But apart from that it’s a hell of a ride, one which individualizes its characters much as The Wire allowed us observe its characters on their own terms, without preconceptions clouding our gaze—quite an accomplishment given their respective milieus. Much of the humor in Generation Kill derives not from punchlines but from some very droll camera moves, e.g., the slow push-in from an indolent Ransone to a quartet of Marines a mere few yards away as they give some suspicious locals an intense once-over. And the action scenes run absolute circles around all the soft-headed handheld quick-cut bullshit that passes for action filmmaking nowadays: think about The Hurt Locker and then think about the ambush at the bridge in episode 6, and tell me which one looks like Gladiator and which one looks like The Wild Bunch. At its core, though, Generation Kill is a Howard Hawks work for our time.

Claude Chabrol’s The Eye of Vichy provides insight into a different type of military order.  A mix-tape of primary sources, Vichy consists of two hours of newsreel and propaganda shorts—though the two forms are indistinguishable much of the time—which are only occasionally broken up by a narrator who sketches in some rough historical context for what we’re looking at. The material is ordered chronologically so we can feel both the peak and then the long decline of Vichy and its chief of state Philippe Pétain, around whom the Reich and its French minions created one of the shabbiest, most unseemly personality cults the world has ever known. The ancient warrior had been made prime minister just as history was casting about for a dupe, and in that role he was both a manipulator and nakedly manipulated. We see him meeting with Hitler (who kept him waiting) and with Franco (who couldn’t have looked more bored), but he spent most of his time implementing laws designed to curry favor with Berlin (when they didn’t actually originate there) and making appearances designed to swell the hearts of France’s pepperpots and schoolchildren. The Eye of Vichy also contains some interesting cultural sidebars: ads for powdered soap and Scandale girdles; the rats sequence from The Eternal Jew; middleweight Marcel Cerdan giving an opponent a thorough drudging; and various propaganda efforts, some of which came in unexpected forms.

But it mostly observes official functions—rallies, conferences, visits from Reich big shots, all the while tracking one of the most important components of Franco-German relations in those years, the work programs by which French POWs and civilians “volunteered” to leave home and provide labor for the German war machine. (Cue clip of many tight-lipped smiles at the Gare du Nord.) But the real face of Vichy is clearest in the speeches given by such ugly-souled functionaries as Jacques Doriot and Philippe Henriot, men who in any other time would be dismissed as the thick-necked bullies they were. Chabrol closes his film with a clip from the famous speech that Charles De Gaulle delivered after the liberation—the speech in which he uttered the words “Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated! By herself, liberated by her people, with the help of the whole of France!” Whether he meant them to or not, De Gaulle’s words helped lay the groundwork for a generation of denial; by laying down such clear divisions, he reduced the moral complexity of the war in general, and the Occupation in particular, to an Indiana Jones adventure, and France would pay the price for decades to come.

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