Monday, November 07, 2005

The New Yorker has a very DRAMAtic weekend

As I patiently wait for Fall’s blockbuster releases like Zathura, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Narnia, and Kong, I found myself at the theatres this weekend going to see some of the more serious adult dramas out there right now.

North Country and Jarhead were both adapted from non-fictions books; North Country was based on “Class Action: The Story of Lois Jensen and the Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law” by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy, and Jarhead was based on “Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles” by Anthony Swofford.

Besides the fact that both of these books have very long titles, they also both depict recent events that occurred in the late 80’s, early 90’s, and are meant to have specific resonance to modern American life on the whole. They are also primarily about the working class, the average American, and their struggle under the force of the larger global powers, be they corporations or government. Of course for all these similarities, there is also one major difference, North Country is a female driven story, and Jarhead a male one. And its not just that the main character in NC is a woman, and that Jarhead it’s a man, it’s that each film respectively explores the modern meaning and implications of each gender.

In North Country, we follow the story of Josey Aimes, played by Charlize Theron, a woman who is struggling to support herself and her two children, after leaving her husband for physical abuse. Josey moves back to her hometown, and realizes that the best job for her economically speaking, is working at the local mine, which is where her father also works. Of course, this is Minnesota circa 1989, and traditional gender roles are still pretty entrenched within day to day life. The flack that Josey recieves from her father when she first decides to get a job at the mine is a small hardship in comparison to the abuse that she and her fellow female co-workers face on a daily basis at the job. Despite a lack of solidarity among her female co-workers, after several disturbing encounters of sexual harassment, Josey decides to sue the mine, and its parent corporation. Woody Harrelson plays her pragmatic, former hockey star lawyer, who takes on the case more as a personal challenge than a personal cause.

North Country was directed by Nikki Caro, who’s other film was Whale Rider. Caro got some good performances out of her actors, not only with Theron, but also Frances McDormand, Sean Bean, Sissy Spacek and Richard Jenkins. The screenplay was written by Michael Seitzman, and spent time establishing and developing characters, though at times it strayed into the zone of a Lifetime Television for Women Original Presentation. Woody Harrelson’s dialogue in particular felt somewhat stilted and over the top especially in the courtroom scenes. But the movie felt like it was made by smart people, albeit smart people who were afraid of their studio coming down on them for being too radical. Josey’s children were an important part of the story and gave her motivation to find and keep the job at the mine. But I was slightly resentful that the film tried to make Josey’s story more palatable by reiterating that she was in a situation where she had no choice BUT to work at the mine, because she had no husband and was trying to be a good mother, as opposed to simply choosing the job because she wanted to do it.

Despite some of its choices, North Country redeemed itself by telling the story of a working class woman in today’s day and age, and addressing certain difficult issues from a female persepctive. While there are few female filmmakers, and few female driven stories there in Hollywood, there is an even smaller percentage of films set in the world of the blue collar woman. North Country is a place of gritty realism, where there are no knights in shining armor nor Platinum Visa’s to solve everyone’s problems (see Pretty Woman) North Country was fairly predictable, and even if you hadn’t read the book upon which it was loosely based, you had a pretty good sense of everything that would happen by the end. Even so, I thought it delivered in this arena, and made for an engaging drama.

For every estrogen laced minute of North Country, Jarhead represented the polar opposite in terms of narrative tone. This was a movie that pulsated with testostorone in every single celluloid frame it projected. Jarhead, a much more faithful adaptation to its source material than North Country, took a comedic and dramatic look at the implications of the marine corps and manhood in present day. Not a heck of a lot happens in this movie, and its no coincident that The Stranger by Albert Camus makes a cameo early on. The book is reading material for the protagonist, as he sits on the can faking a stomach flu with the help of some Ex-Lax. When we are first introduced to “Swoff”, we know very little about where he was, and where he would like to go, only that he somehow finds himself as an enlisted marine. “Swoff” has a sort of emptiness that is eager to be filled with anything, even military agenda.

There aren’t many surprises during the early boot camp scenes where Swoff recieves his training. His drill sargents are mean, the other members in his unit are crazy, and life in general….sucks (hence the tagline: “Welcome to the suck”). But when the regimen of highly trained snipers is called up among other units to report to Iraq for Operation Desert Shield, things start to get a little more interesting. The film, which was directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) looks terrific, and the lands of bleak desert and fiery sunsets are beautifully photographed. There is a sort of adolescent angst and cry for identity as these men try to figure out what their war is all about, and how it will be classified. They use Vietnam as their role model, since it is the conflict chronologically closest to them, and the marines watch Apocalypse Now with a hysteria, chanting and cheering as they hope to emulate what they are watching on screen. In another moment, when a helicopter passes above their head blaring a classic rock song of the 70’s a marine shouts “Can’t we get our own music for this war?!” When Operation Desert Shield finally becomes Operation Desert Storm, the film delves into deeper questions, brushing up not only against the familiar absurdity of war, but what it means to be a soldier at war and not kill anyone, and what it means to be a man without having fought in a war.

Jarhead also resonantes because this country has once again found itself engaged in a miliatary conflict on Iraq soil. The film is aware of this parallel, and the film almost serves as some ominous fable of foreshadowing of what was to come. Desert Storm was a small little war lost in obscurity, where casualities seemed minimal, and technology kept things smooth and clean. Not so with the current warring.

Though not particularly novel, Jarhead also tries to put a new spin on the sense of loss that men inevitably feel when they come home from the battlegrounds. The brainwashing, trauma, and unique and bizarre circumstances that these men encounter while in training and abroad, leave them forlorn when they return to the monotony of everyday life. Boredom as a marine is a given, but there is always the anticipatory sensations of when the next battle is going to be. A sense of constantly looking forward to an unknown impending event, be it seeing some action or finally being discharged and going home. But once at home, the boredom remains, but there is no promise that anything will come along to disrupt their routine of doldrums. But what happens when boredom is never fully excised overseas? Is banal day to day life only a welcome numbing agent, when you have seen all hell break loose? What if you never see all hell break loose? These are the sorts of questions that Jarhead asks.

Neither North Country nor Jarhead had monumental revelations or were cinema groundbreakers. But they both told a good story, and took the time to inflate their characters with detail and life and embellish upon the meanings that their lives held.
Though told through the eyes of a man and a woman respectively, they might not be different after all. All parties involved just seem to be searching for some steady ground.

12 Comments:

Blogger Elliot said...

Whale Rider is a absolutely amazing film.
Have you seen it?
If so, is it even remotely as good?

8:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

is it just me, or doth the lady have VERY bad taste?

not even David Manning of the Ridgefield Press, liked these.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous DoorFrame said...

You've got some real detractors New Yorker.

10:23 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Whale Rider is terrific, yes I did see it when it came over to the states in theatres. North Country is much more studio, safe and bland. But you can still tell she's a talented director.

10:58 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Doorframe, all detracting comments you see from said "Anonymous" are written by a friend of mine who thinks he's funny. At least most of the time.

It's actually kind of disappointing, as I like the idea of having a nemesis somewhere out there.

10:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you say you want a "nemesis," newyorkerinhollywood? you've found one...

as for you and your friend doorframe, i am disheartened that neither of you cinephiles got my reference...

david manning of the ridgefield press was the fictitious critic that sony fabricated a few years ago and subsequently landed them in court on charges of fraud...

*sigh*

but that still does nothing to address your misguided affection for jarhead and north country...

i guess, if like yourself, i hadn't seen many movies made before 1983 i might feel the same as you do towards them, but many permutations of these two movies have come before, and many of them much, much better...

2:22 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Like I said anonymous. If you read what I actually write, you would note that I did not proclaim either of these films as groundbreaking cinema, like Apocalypse Now or Norma Rae.

However, they are well done films.

Also, you haven't even seen North Country, so your opinion on that film is uninformed.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous DoorFrame said...

"as for you and your friend doorframe, i am disheartened that neither of you cinephiles got my reference..."

First off, I'm pretty sure I don't qualify as a cinephile. Hell, if you hadn't written it out for me I probably couldn't have spelled cinephile.

I'm unclear why my lack of response to your David Manning joke indicates that I didn't get it. Does one need to verbally acknowledge every reference that they get? Because if so, watching an episode of family guy would be a very loud experience.

9:24 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

O Doorframe, thou art my knight in shining armor.

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh newyorkerinhollywood, how you make me laugh...

unlike seth mcfarlane...

(oh no i didnt, doorframe!)

11:53 PM  
Anonymous DC Dionysian said...

Jarhead = Bleh. It's a movie about boredom, and it's really, really boring. Pretty, but boring. As I was sitting in the theater, I realized that this was the first movie I actually regretted seeing in a long while. And I saw XXX two this year. I commented to the people I went with that I liked Three Kings a lot better and their reply was: "Yeah, but this is real!"
Um, Not really, Still a movie dude.

The thing was, Three Kings, though satirical, actually had something to say about the first Gulf War. Jarhead went about belaboring points that have already been made at great length. It did it prettily, but there was no there there.
It was a boring enough movie to make people think, as you seem to New Yorker, that the 1st Gulf War was no big deal. Sure, it wasn't such a big thing from our perspective, but you'd think the scenes on the highway would have made such statements a little hard to blurt out. Yes New Yorker, you're being lectured on sensitivity by a Republican.

10:37 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

The point of creating a sense of "boredom" is the director's attempt at trying to bring in the audience into what the soldiers themselves felt.

Also, what scenes on the highway. Also, I didn't say it was no big deal ---I said (something which has been said many times before me) that it is like the forgotten little war that no one thinks about.

But I'm tired of defending this movie --maybe I just liked it b/c of the strapping young lads in it.

9:47 AM  

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