The Hurt Locker (a review)

By the most glorious of chances – a chance, I might add, which has a perfectly reasonable explanation and should not be reduced to fate, luck, fortune or any other absurd cause – I viewed both The Hurt Locker and In The Loop on the same day.  Even if the films were completely different, to see, or experience, anything in such close proximity would provoke comparisons.  Where the films were similar, where they contrasted, the difference in themes, performance, aesthetic techniques – a dialectic stance is inevitable in such instances.

Due to its Oscar win, and presumably a sense of victory for ‘independent’ cinema, The Hurt Locker was screened yesterday afternoon – 18:20 to be precise – at my local, independent cinema, Genesis.  Coincidentally, In The Loop was present on BBC iPlayer, having being screened earlier in the week on Sunday night, and as this was my only chance to watch it before its expiry date (the life of a student being so busy) I watched it only hours after having seen The Hurt Locker.

I very much enjoyed The Hurt Locker.  In the rare instances where I remembered I was watching a film, I recalled Hitchcock’s musings on cinema as instrument…

“I enjoy playing the audience like a piano”

In a lengthier quotation, Hitchcock asks his cinematographer to image a day when a machine, like a piano, exists, and all the director need do is hit a button on it to obtain a specific emotion from his audience.  The notion that if a director uses a certain shot at a certain time, it causes me laugh out loud is fascinating, and it was at full work in The Hurt Locker.  Not so much with the laughter response though.  A tense sequence of bomb diffusing needs to be portrayed.  Fine – we’ll use a series of cut aways of people watching, juxtaposing long shots with extreme close up.  Parallel editing, depicting two events unfolding simultaneously – we’ll use that too.  We can show someone running away, who is already established as the potential bomb planter beforehand, at the same time as showing someone diffusing the bomb.  Simple.  Can the bomb be diffused?  Will the enemy be captured? – too many questions need a response for one’s attention to stray.  This is a supreme method of emotional engagement, and one that Katheryn Bigelow uses to perfection, plucking one’s heartstrings just as Hitchcock plays his keys.

The human element too, of our boys in Iraq (soldiers, for me, despite being anti-war, seem to command a sense of respect – of sympathy) keeps one emotionally invested to an extreme.  That she manages to draw out, over the course of a feature film (130mins, in this case) the rather tired premise of “blue wire, red wire?” is commendable.  ‘Which wire to cut?’ has become such a gimmick in mainstream actioneers that it has resigned itself to cliché.  But this film answers the conventional, suspense building technique, the gimmick, with reality.  In a Warhol-esque style, bomb diffusion is robbed of all its style, of its spectacle.  In being desensitised from it through constant exposure, one is allowed to objectify it, to focus more upon the routine of it all.

The Hurt Locker is an extraordinary film, and I would recommend it to all.  However, as an Oscar winner, I teethe with it slightly.

I try not to judge, as I have yet to see Avatar (I’m booked in for the IMAX this Sunday night [is it meant to be written in capitals like that, or is it because when I think of the imax, I actually think IMAX?]), but the Oscar winner for Best Picture, for me, always signifies a certain style.  Every year I have a personal favourite American film.  2007 was Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  2008 was There Will Be Blood.  2005, like it matters, was Brick.  Now, although I don’t expect my favourite, American film of the year to win best Oscar, in my mind, it always stands out as the true winner, overshadowing the official ones.

For me (I fear I use that introduction to a point far too much), I always envision superior American film to be of a specific aesthetic, as an example of a national cinema.  Inherited from John Ford and Nick Ray, I always think of the mature American cinema as being slow, long panning shots.  A very restrained editing pace.  Very understated character motives.  My favourite example of this is Cool Hand Luke.  Slow…superficially deep (in a paradox I’ve only ever experienced the Americans to manage)…long shots of landscapes.  Like I said, I don’t expect my favourite American film of the year to win an Oscar (it won a best supporting actor Oscar – who? – George Kennedy – oh yeah, I REMEMBER HIM), but certain aesthetics are key, certain outlooks are needed.

The Oscars, contrary to what it would like to believe, will very rarely crown the world’s best film of the year.  It will barely even crown America’s best film!  Yet it is still representative of a conservatism to the American ideal.  As distorted as the Baftas are today by its subordinate status to the Oscars, the Oscars themselves are distorted by its love of excess, of success.  This year, instead, it came from a particular, political dialectic, between an underdog and its juggernaut.  As I said, I have yet to see the latter and refrain from judging, but I would suspect the more worthy, more traditionally worthy films, for Best Picture were ignored.

Now this is where the paradox stands up to me, shouting “erm…like, you’re full a shit”.  I looked at the nominations list for Best Picture in hope of evidence for defence against my claims.  No such relief.  There is no film here that embraces this mature, American style…

  • Avatar
  • The Blind Side
  • District 9
  • An Education
  • The Hurt Locker
  • Inglourious Basterds
  • Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire
  • A Serious Man
  • Up
  • Up in the Air

Now, in order, I haven’t seen Avatar, from which I gather is a spectacle like no other – having accomplished incredible technological and commercial bounds (just note, how I left out ‘critical’)

The Blind Side, from what I understand from its trailer, is for idiots.

District 9, as much as I love shit blowing up, is just making up the numbers to 10.

An Education, again, I haven’t seen, but I fail to think it appeals to the American ideal  – it seems too in tune with the British style, from what I gather.

The Hurt Locker, as I neglected earlier (in account of its extraordinary merits), has the attention span of a 24-series camera operator, on Chomp bars and the editing pace of a serial, music television flicker.

Inglorious Basterds won’t win Tarantino an Oscar.

Precious, I haven’t seen, but from people whose opinions I respect, I gather it to be rather generic.  Only boosted by the ‘Oprah’ factor.

‘Up’, at the end of the day, as emotionally crippling as it is, will never get the award because it’s an animated film.

Up in the Air, likewise, although I haven’t seen it, I presume suffers from the same cartoon style that the Academy so readily distances itself from.

Now, I have left out A Serious Man.  Mostly because I believe that this was the most suitable winner.  It is an incredible film, and to be honest, my favourite film of the year (bar Sherlock Holmes).

However, and I’ll confess right now which may be due to the 350cl of whiskey I drunk whilst watching it, that In The Loop was my favourite film of the year.

Surprisingly, compared to the eventual Oscar winner, the film exhibited many similar techniques.  The only differences were the time – In The Loop happening in the lead up to a war, The Hurt Locker occurring during.  And the power level – The Hurt Locker obviously focusing on its soldiers, In The Loop centring on the moronic forces behind its policy.

In The Loop was just incredible.  The Hurt Locker was only incredible.

Both films used the same shaky camera, broken editing, but for different means.  In The Loop used it to stress the farce of it all, but The Hurt Locker used it to desperately grip onto reality through its connotations with documentary.

But here lies the problem.  The Hurt Locker, as brilliant and enjoyable as it was, could have been that special American film if it only wanted to be.  The Hurt Locker should not be about action.  For me, that doesn’t seem to be its point.  Instead it is about the routine of war, and the commonplace of shock.  All it needed to do was switch from its ADD style to a slow, restrained camera.  Long, static shots.

Now, this may rob some of its suspense and paranoia, which is the film’s other great strength.  Loosing this would reduce the viewing experience somewhat, but the film’s impact upon leaving the theatre would be immense.  One could then digest the film’s politics (made present by their absence) rather than be in a permanently submissive state.

As great and intelligent as The Hurt Locker is, it could have been so much more if it simply slowed itself down.

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