21 June 2009

Saving Private Ryan, once more into the breach

I've watched this crummy movie three times now this week. THREE TIMES, in about five days. I suspect I have developed an unhealthy obsession, but why not? My brain needs a break from...er...what I usually think about (whatever that is).

Tonight's screening - after I purchased the dvd, for crying out loud, used and cheap, but still paid for with my own money - tonight's screening gave me a rather sharp turn at the end. I watched some of the "special features" at the beginning, old Mr Spielberg being self-important, Stephen Ambrose being likewise self-important. Tom Hanks being NOT self-important [side note: what's WITH him? why is Tom Hanks so...unpretentious, even after all these years?]

We get the usual dribble about Honoring Our Veterans; "this movie is for them," we are told. Salute, salute, cue the fluttering american flag. The old platitude about Everyday Men, The Common Man, stepping up and paying the ultimate sacrifice so We Can Be Free. TWICE, the old (yet true) chestnut, "Freedom is not free" is trotted out.

JC, my historian acquaintance of old, has offered some illumination on some of this re-visioning of WWII. I need more historian acquaintances, I suspect, as well as some film scholars, before I can get my brain around this movie.

I watch the movie, with subtitles on for most of it. That opening sequence on D-Day still works like a doozy. I keep flashing back to The Thin Red Line (also a War Is Hell WWII movie, but one I've seen a couple of times, once for a grad film class). Why anyone on this earth would get on one of those damn amphibious landing crafts is beyond me.

Spielberg seems to want us to read his movie as part homage, part memoriam, part reminder, part lesson. We are supposed, I think, to come away from the movie thinking: Gosh, war is awful! The ultimate sacrifice was paid [passive voice required] so I could enjoy the freedoms I have today! We should learn so we never repeat this kind of terrible thing.

Which sounds great, except clearly no one took away that last message from the film (witness American politics, post 1998; we've got TWO WARS! going on!]

Tonight, it occurs to me, at the (weak) end of the movie, with stupid Matt Damon in his old-man makeup, weeping unconvincingly at Tom Hanks' character's grace - perhaps Private Ryan is US? Perhaps Pvt Ryan is the "reader in the text," the analog for us, the viewers. Instead of understanding him - and the mission undertaken in the film to "save" him - literally, as a pretty darn FUBAR exercise - why not read him metaphorically? Make that leap across time, and say: instead of Pvt Ryan having to justify his existence, why not make it be you and me and everyone else having to justify our existence? Tom Hanks and Giovanni Ribisi DIED so we could Be Free. But more seriously, thousands of poor kids and jerky dudes and completely inoffensive, benign people, died - evidently willingly - in WWII. And we need to earn it. We need to replace Private Ryan with our own image, and say: "Earn this. Earn it," every damn day of our lives.

except this formula, this reading of the film, suddenly makes me feel perilously close to some kind of christ-like pattern of dying for others' sins.

But then what do we do with that hideous, ratty Judas, dumb weak old Upham? Normally, I am a sucker for the meek among us, but Upham is beyond the pale. I want to shoot him in the face at the end of the movie. or sooner, really. I am unclear why HE isn't the one who gets killed, instead of Giovanni Ribisi (whose character is a medic. and medics, I learn by googling, were not combatants. they had a gun or knife for immediate self-defence, but did not carry weapons for warfare. And intentionally firing on a medic was a violation of the Geneva Conventions. I got interested in this medic business not because of my inexplicable lust for Giovanni Ribisi, but because my own grandfather was, in fact, a medic in the Pacific, on Guam. Google tells me that medics were frequently conscientious objectors. The scenes of Wade (Ribisi's character) walking with his hands folded together, unarmed, while everyone else has guns out at the ready, are kind of striking once you notice them).

And the Jesus-analogy doesn't work anyway, because - well, I refuse UTTERLY to read Tom Hanks as a christ figure, ever. And war is NOT an act of God.

But the result is the same. They died so we can live. Earn it.

I feel EVEN MORE confused about this movie than I did yesterday.

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