The telltale scene in Jarhead would have to be the screening of Apocalypse Now for the Marines of Camp Pendleton, awaiting their assignments in the forthcoming Desert Storm. Their response to the helicopter attack on the Vietnamese village at dawn differs from the one you would get at the Pacific Film Archive, let's say, or the New York Film Festival. They sing along in full-throated unison with the Wagner, unconcerned about any Nazi overtones; they cheer the firing of missiles into the straw huts and the mowing-down of peasants by machine-gun fire. Ah, the smell of napalm in the morning! Art, as we are told, is open to more than one interpretation. And so is nonart. Spectators who like to see blood will like to see it no matter why it has been shown to them. (See, most recently, A History of Violence, but only if you see it with the sort of crowd I saw it with.) Coppola's Vietnam War movie can very well serve as the model for Sam Mendes's Gulf War one. The view, at least from the seats at the Pacific Film Archive and the New York Film Festival and other such venues, similarly spotlights the absurdity, the futility, the brutality, the insanity. But that won't prohibit anyone so inclined to see it as a salute to Our Brave Fighting Men, a platform for the latest generation of them (not, unless Tom Brokaw says so, the greatest generation of them) to share their war stories, a chance for us sheltered weenies on the home front to find out How It Was and, eternally, How It Is.
That latter angle of vision will not be deflected more than a few degrees by noticing that the field commander in Kuwait is played by the same actor, Chris Cooper, who played the repressed homosexual Marine in the same director's American Beauty. The homoerotic element in Jarhead -- the pantomime sodomite horseplay, the steamy showers, the Santa-hat jockstrap, etc. -- can be made as large or as small as you please. Outright bloodlusters, on the other hand, will surely be left thirsty. There are no real combat scenes; the only witnessed American casualties are "friendlies"; and the Scout Sniper's yearning for "the pink mist," otherwise known as "the JFK shot," will go forever unfulfilled. The real-life hero, or better say real-life protagonist, Anthony Swofford (played by a somewhat desensitized Jake Gyllenhaal), on whose memoir the movie is based, never even gets to fire his weapon at an enemy. Only a scant handful of other characters come to be recognizable as people; none of them, including the protagonist, come to be really knowable as people. But maybe that's one of the points of the uniform, or one of the points of the filmmaker.
Fundamentally, this is a lot of old stuff made over for a new war, a new era, a new age in filmmaking. Which means, whatever else it means, a bleached-out image, long before we're under the desert sun; a compact disc's worth of golden oldies; a crutchlike dependence on first-person narration; a surplus of four-letter words; a bluntness in the depiction of piss, shit, puke, if not blood; a nose-rubbing focus on the physical, the palpable, and a blindness to what we might blushingly call the spiritual. (John Ford's alternative view of the military is "wrong" in the sense that a derby hat is "wrong," the fashion sense.) While the commitment to the material is never in question, while the effort is never less than intense, the details that might make the old seem fresh again are only occasional: the hard-ass drill instructor (Jamie Foxx) who compels the new enlistee to "blow" reveille without the aid of a trumpet, and then for an encore Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life"; or the Wall-of-Shame at the base of operations in Kuwait, a bulletin board of faithless wives and girlfriends, the Dear John correspondents, back home. Those sorts of details grow thicker the closer the movie gets to the front line: the horrific tableau of charred bodies and vehicles frozen in flight; the black rain; the oil-slicked stray horse; the plumes of flame from the burning wells. I'm not too sure, in the final tally, that it adds up to much. I'm more sure that that depends on who's doing the adding.
* * *
Zathura is relatively speaking an imaginative children's film (from a book by Chris Van Allsburg, author also of The Polar Express and, more relevantly, Jumanji) about two battling brothers from a broken home, ages ten and six-and-three-quarters, who find themselves adrift in outer space inside the "creaky" old house of their absent father, after the younger one dusts off a wind-up board game in the cellar, labelled Zathura, A Space Adventure. (If ever there was an excuse once again to cue the opening bars of Also Sprach Zarathustra, this would have been it: Also Sprach Zathura.) They encounter a hailstorm of meteors, a haywire robot, a marooned astronaut, and a troop of light-seeking, flesh-eating reptiles called Zorgons; and over the course of all that, they learn brotherhood. The interplanetary house should bring to mind, provided it ever entered your mind, the elegant antique Winsor McCay cartoon, Flying House, from his Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend series. The whole thing, for that matter, fits the definition of "dreamlike," albeit in ways very dissimilar to those of Winsor McCay. The loudness, the violence (nonlethal, nonsanguinary), the tons of special effects, and the dearth of visual skills (Jon Favreau, director) are simply to be endured as conditions of existence in the 21st Century. I enjoyed it nonetheless. I especially enjoyed the cryogenically frozen older sister taking a tumble down the stairs like a toboggan, and, still in one piece, getting lugged back up again like a mannequin.
* * *
Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic, a video concert film by Liam Lynch, gives the moviegoer a ticket to the titular comic's stand-up routine, or one-woman off-Broadway show if you prefer. The coy prologue and epilogue with two other actors, and the intermittent cutaways for illustrational fantasies and flashbacks (with costume changes and hair re-dos), do not make the stage act into much more of a film. If it has little interest as cinema, however, it has plenty of it as comedy. The self-described "sassy and brassy" comedian, one of the less illuminating participants in The Aristocrats, proves herself fearless, reckless, heedless, and utterly un-PC in pursuit of her limited goals, extracting laughs, extinguishing illumination. "The best time to have a baby is when you're a black teenager." "By 'retarded' I mean 'they can do anything'." "When God gives you AIDS -- and God does give you AIDS, by the way -- make lemonAIDS." And so on. Naughty, yes. Dirty, yes. (I wouldn't touch any examples even with latex gloves.) Yet she's an adept actress insofar as her deadpan proclaims a certain innocence, while the malicious gleam in her eye belies it. She is also, for her purposes, an adept writer. Through her sudden, unsettling changes in perspective and scale (e.g., 9/11 was doubly "devastating" for her, personally, not just in watching the Towers go down but in finding out just beforehand the number of calories in her daily latte), you never quite know where you stand with her. It's best to be sitting down.