Saturday, May 17, 2008


In the last century, Europeans have felt the cost of war more directly than Americans. Perhaps that explains why their filmmakers consistently make superior political films than ours. Generally - and specifically post-9/11 - America's political films have been little more than rants, propaganda, and preaching to choirs. Directors seem disconnected and incapable of tapping into a common social consciousness. This is why Iraq War films tank at the box office (why still so many articles about this?... is it not obvious after seeing the films?).

For example, there are scenes in both Flags of Our Fathers, and the recent Stop-Loss, where a soldier (coincidentally, it's Ryan Phillipe in both...) visits the home of a fellow soldier that has fallen in combat. In both cases, the families come off as caricatures and/or loaded representations of the the director's personal ideals sans the complication and authenticity of true family dynamics. Contrast that with the post-WWII Italian family in My Brother Is An Only Child, and the difference is immediately distinct.

Accio and Manrico are brothers in a working-class family of five. The younger, Accio, is a fascist, while Manrico is a communist. In modern America, this idea of a far-righty and a far-lefty coexisting seems possible only in the realm of an Odd Couple-type sitcom. (Woody Allen had fun with intrafamilial right/left divide in Everybody Says I Love You, but ultimately he chickened out with it...) At first, observing Accio and Manrico in the same household is shocking. We've been conditioned to think that a person's political opinions defines the whole. But as Manrico's girlfriend says, "I like your brother for who he is, not because he's a communist.... and I like you too."

By making the divide between brothers so extreme - a proud fascist and a proud communist - My Brother Is An Only Child shakes American audiences awake about the silly, soft bigotry that exists between members of our two mainstream political parties. Like this week's DVD release of Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise, the ultimate conclusion of My Brother... is that ideological extremism, with its unbudgeable and unbridgeable idealism, is as fruitless as a sibling quarrel over drumsticks.

The title, My Brother Is An Only Child, is misleading. It implies a story about fraternal shame and embarrassment. But read the fine print of the tag line and the secret is revealed: "Sometimes The Things We Fight About Are What Bring Us Closest Together". It's optimism fashioned out of hopeless idealism.


Jason Bellamy said...

Fox: I'm with you in being tired of all the "Why are the Iraq movies bombing?" articles, and I agree with you that American war movies in general are often disconnected. But that leads to one piece of disagreement...

If I'm remembering correctly the two Phillippe scenes you mention, I'm not sure those scenes fall outside the Standard American War Movie approach. I'd never make an argument that "Stop-Loss" is in the class of "Saving Private Ryan," but talk about a movie of ideals! Yet Americans by and large responded to "SPR." So why aren't they responding to these Iraq movies?

Most of them (documentaries aside) just haven't been very good, sure. But as much as this argument has been made, I think it's mostly true: it's just too soon for these movies. It's not so much that audiences can't stomach Iraq imagery at the moment (though certainly we get enough of it already), it's that even with W's approval rating down to almost zero the country is still trying to come up with its collective feeling about Iraq. That takes time to develop. In the meantime, even the anti-Iraq pictures try to play it down the middle, lest they alienate folks whose boys and girls are in the line of fire this very moment.

Films needn't be black or white, because life is more complex than that. Yet movies don't do well if they seem conflicted. I think that's how a lot of these Iraq War movies come off.

Maybe in 10 years, when everyone (please lord) is home, then filmmakers/studios might have the guts to make a TRUE anti-Iraq picture (something they're only doing half-ass job of at the moment). Until then, they keep trying to damn the war machine and bow down to the troops at the same time. They end up doing a poor job at both. And as audience members, I think most Americans are either too caught up being pissed at the government to want to spend too much time adoring the troops and vice versa. These Iraq movies keep trying to hit the emotional center of a public that's still shifting, month to month, year to year.

Anyway, I haven't seen "My Brother," so I've got nothing to dispute there. Sounds good. And can't be as gag-worthy as "Flags." That's for sure. Thanks for getting it on my radar screen.

Pat said...

Your point about Europeans making better political movies because they've more directly felt the impact of war is very insightful. Good review - I'm looking forward to seeing this.

Fox said...

Jason: I agree with on you the "it's too soon" point. Not that I think directors should wait out of any wartime courtesy, they're just not connecting with the public because of it. I think your comment about these films trying to make contact with a shifting public is dead on.

Even though most Americans are against the war, I think they balk at seeing a film where U.S. soldiers and/or the country are portrayed poorly. To me, *Saving Private Ryan* wasn't political, and its war was one that most Americans consider just. And, as you said, it had the benefit of having decades of distance between its release and its real-life happenings.

But I do think *Stop-Loss* and last year's *Home Of The Brave* are at least CLOSE to something when they keep their focus on the experience - at home, and abroad - of the soldiers. (*Stop-Loss*, for me, falls off the tracks when Kimberly Pierce can't keep her personal politics out of it.)

Pat: Thanks for the compliment. There was a film out last year called *Flanders* that dealt with war in an interesting way. (I think it was French... it's poor that I can't remember.) Anyway, I didn't think it was great, but I felt it got at something that's missing from current American Iraq War films. And the lead actor in it is great.

Martin said...

Good Job! :)