All That Is Solid Melts Into War

by Joshua Clover

From Film Quarterly Autumn 2007, Vol. 61, No. 1

The problems war presents film columnists are negligible by any human measure. But by the measure of Cultural Studies, the problems are near-absolute. War is war in part because it has the force to warp the world around it, even at a great distance, so thoroughly that every third song, advert, or movie seems to be about the war. In times of crisis, we must all decide again and again to notice the obvious: the sphere of culture is always “based on a true story.”

Hence this version of film criticism seems of late like child’s play. The geopolitics decoder ring always works, and with a minimum of twiddles: 1–2–3 Baghdad! (Alternately, the count can go 9–11-New York!) Cinematic administrations are always dummies for the current regimes; villains, once mere criminals, now tend toward self-serving ideologues, worshipping at the altar of blow-stuff-up-ism. When we go out at night, terror is the order of the day.

What’s dubious is whether the forcing factory of the present has made the films any better. Much less improved the reviews. But there is no wishing it away; history is a nightmare from which movies cannot awaken. The least (perhaps the only) thing one can do is ask what films of the current killing season have made something interesting of history’s most recent maneuvers, and how? And try not to feel too proud of ourselves for discovering a subtext that can’t help but be there.

While The Host (original title Gwoemul, Joon-ho Bong, 2006) is surely as allegorically resonant as any Anglophone horror film, it resists schematic interpretation through something like a surplus of subtext (just as the monster has a surplus of appendages, hard to gather in all at once). Indeed, it’s not always clear what’s happening in the moment. Near the climax, the heroic family confronts the beast in the midst of what seems to be a protest, or festival, or both; it may have to do with the monster, or the government, or neither.

The family’s escaped from government quarantine, and now must pool their talents—the cinematic shorthand for collective action—to rescue the captive youngest child. Everyone finally brings their particular gift to bear on the task at hand (big sister is an Olympic archer, natch) — all except for Nam-il (Hae-il Park), who sacrificed and went to college and as a result is unemployed and useless. Or so he says in a self-pitying and perplexing monologue. But as he discovers in crisis, he has learned exactly the one thing he needs to know, the one thing every Korean learns at university, apparently: how to prepare and lob a Molotov cocktail. It turns out that terror (or is that counterterror?) is now part of the basic middle-class skill set.


Teaser poster for the theatrical release of 28 Weeks Later. © 2007 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

More precise than the monster film genre, the zombie flick (a perennial CultStud fave) is cinematic Silly Putty: cheap, gross fun, with a knack for picking up the day’s newsprint and stretching it across the warp of what looks a lot like dead flesh. For a brief passage of time, it seems like 28 Weeks Later (Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, 2007) will be the best war movie ever. This despite the fact that it’s barely distinct from predecessor 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002), origin of the fast zombie trend.

The current iteration starts in London several months after the “rage virus” has emptied the streets of the City (a certain kind of Londoner’s fantasy, that). Shock-numbed civilians are escorted back into the beachhead of civilization under heavy manners, courtesy the U.S. Army. This quarantined lockdown area is called … the “Green Zone.”

The only thing to do with such a blatant set-up is push the logic to breaking; for a dozen minutes the movie gives it a go. The panoptic views of the Green Zone apartment towers are shot entirely through sniper scopes. While military shepherds peep their flock, we hear their transistorized communications crackle: soldiers’ mordant play-by-play, soundtrack of security detail. It seems possible that the audio comes from field recordings of the Baghdad Green Zone, with a series of shots improvised around it—sort of like What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (Woody Allen, 1966) in the mirror. One suspects this is the greatest idea ever; for a moment, anything is possible. Then a family romance breaks out and everything gets a good deal less ambitious. At least it ends with a Channel crossing toward the land that gave us The Terror in the first place, leaving us to wait for 28 Months Later, in which zombie Robespierre and zombie Saint-Just race toward a zombie Thermidor.

History, in its lumbering way, can still outpace Hollywood. The original trailer for The Kingdom (Peter Berg, 2007) played late last year, promising the purest propaganda film of the era. An American base in Saudi Arabia has been suicide-bombed by a terrorist mastermind. Voice of liberal reason: “You have to let the tools of diplomacy work.” Cue Jennifer Garner, no-nonsense forensics expert: “If we can’t get there now, we will not find the man responsible for this crime.”

Perhaps, the trailer proposed, the Bush/Blair rationale of Gulf War 2, always fantastical, might be more persuasive in fictional form. Iraq is played by Saudi Arabia; Osama by “Abu Hamza, the guy who teaches these guys how to kill!”; in the role of the U.S. military, the FBI’s “Evidence Response Team.” In we go, in high dudgeon.

But something curious happened. After an advance screening or two, the film vanished; trailers too. Life went on. The test numbers for the real war surged downward to darkness.

In June, Universal floated an autumn release date—and a new trailer. It recuts much of the same material with some new stuff, newly dark and ominous, now scored to U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky.” “Allow us to help your men catch this criminal,” pleads team leader Jamie Foxx. “We shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be here!” professes their host. Cut to patrician politico: “The end comes no matter what. The only thing that matters is, how do you wanna go out?” A movie about why we had to go in becomes a movie about how we should comport ourselves while there, with hints of exit strategy and a militant-pacifist soundtrack—the film seemingly edited from pro- to antiwar, without ever being released. The circuit of culture grows shorter than ever; the intermediate phase, where Cultural Studies labors to suture the film to the history around it, has been rendered obsolete.


Children of Men: the bloodspattered lens. © 2006 Universal Studios. DVD: Universal Studios (U.S.)

What is there to see, then? Formalism, one supposes— remembering that form itself is no more able to stand apart from history than the eye can stand apart from what it regards. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006) has an annoying plot, with dud intriguing and an empty messianism. But its look, its way of looking, repay such annoyances and then some: the gray and permanent state of emergency; the acts of terror demoted to the background, quotidian and nearbanal; the sensation of quarantine that extends, unnamed, in all directions.

The war of all against all has perhaps never been better filmed than in the prolonged escape through the warrens and streets of Bexhill camp, redolent of Guantanamo and Long Kesh, of Abu Ghraib reenactments. There’s no order because there’s no cause, just as there’s no cause offered for the biological crisis; it’s all simply become a way-things-are, some endgame of imperial decline. The camera, red smear on lens, shifting subtly between over-the-shoulder and POV, doesn’t know where to look. Everyone’s shooting at everyone. It moved me, to paraphrase the poet Robert Creeley about Bresson, that life was after all like that. You are in war. You race through the town, with blood on your eye, burdened. The story is true.

JOSHUA CLOVER is the author of The Matrix (BFI Modern Classics, 2004).