Insights

by The New Republic | April 23, 2008

Body of War (Film Sales)

My Brother Is an Only Child (THINKFilm)

During the debate in the fall of 2002 on the resolution that would empower President Bush to launch war in Iraq, Senator Robert Byrd--then age eighty-five, a trembly, impassioned opponent to the measure--quoted Hermann Göring's formula for seducing a country into war: promote the idea that the country will be attacked and that all who oppose its defense are traitors. (We can almost see the obese Göring smiling his dimpled smile and rubbing his hands. ) But the use of the quotation (however inappropriate the historical comparison), Byrd's opposition, and the opposition of twenty-three other senators could not prevent Congress from passing the resolution.

This scene occurs early in a documentary called Body of War. Just before it, we see a wounded Iraq veteran at home, laboriously putting on his trousers in the morning. He is Tomas Young of Kansas City, who was shot soon after he got to Iraq and is paralyzed from the chest down. We foresee, especially considering the title, that this film will be an occasion for horrified compassion, for familiarity in a large doomed sense, almost for responsibility on the viewers' part. Body of War is all those things, but something else amplifies it.

Throughout, the film interweaves congressional action on that resolution with the views of Young's life that followed from its passage. The complicating result, in two timelines, is that Body of War is at least as much about politics, indeed about history, as it is about Young's physical and emotional travails. Mercilessly, the film flaunts quotation after quotation from congressional speeches in that debate--missing no chance to cite parrotings of White House phrases--and intersperses all this with scenes of Young's life since his return. Some of the senators and congressmen who objected to the resolution are also seen in that 2002 debate, but the soundtrack rings with "Aye" after each of the proponents.

We see Young's marriage--the groom in a wheelchair--and his married life, with his mother much present and helpful. (We rarely see his stepfather, who, oddly enough, is almost a cartoon of a satisfied gung-ho type.) The difficulties of the newlyweds' sex life are discussed in detail by Young. But despite those details, sex is not mentioned when, after a time, the couple separate. Young, an intelligent, aware, unillusioned man, is now active--as far as that word can apply--in movements against the war.

Thus the film's intent is to braid two historical elements: political action to start a war and some of the less publicized results. The theme is realized quite simply at the end, when Young visits Senator Byrd in his office and the old senator says that the proudest moment in his public life is his vote against that resolution. The film's last shot is of the two men moving down a grand hall away from us, Byrd walking, Young wheeling along next to him. There is no originality in either segment of the theme: unfortunately, they are constants. But the cinematic intertwining gives them special size and ache.

One surprise about the picture is that the co-director, along with Ellen Spiro, was Phil Donahue, who has smiled in many a television viewer's home. He and Spiro have put together a well-shot, adroitly edited work that will, as usual, have very little of the effect that the makers wanted it to have.

But it does summon a disturbing question. As with Vietnam, objection to Iraq raises the matter of basic validity. An argument against Body of War might be that it attacks only what it considers to be an unjust war, not war itself. (During the Vietnam War, it was unpopular to say that young people were protesting the war--understandably enough--to save their own skins. When the risk to them diminished, so did the antiwar protests.) If Donahue and Spiro supported the Iraq war, would they have made a film about a wounded soldier?

 
My Brother Is an Only Child joins the growing list of inexplicable titles. This Italian film deals with the lives of two brothers in the 1960s and 1970s. Though they have sharp differences, and though the conclusion is violent, nothing justifies the alienation that the title suggests.

All through the picture, I kept being reminded of The Best of Youth (2003), a three-hour film that dealt with young Italians maturing and changing. The screenplay of that picture was not good enough for its cast and direction: the script wobbled, while everything else was steadfast. I felt the same about My Brother. When I looked at its credits, I saw that two of the screenplay's three authors were Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, who had written The Best of Youth.

The third writer was the director Daniele Luchetti. (The writers adapted a novel by Antonio Pennacchi called Il Fasciocomunista, a title that really does fit.) This is Luchetti's eleventh film, and from moment one we know that we are in the hands of a director whose experience has made him impatient. He has no time for trifling or beautifying. He implies all along that film is important and screen time must be used. Nonetheless, or perhaps thus, the most rewarding elements in the picture are personal habits, interplay, small stuff--broken gestures, averted glances, unfinished sentences. Luchetti and his actors give their picture a strong sense of cultural verity, of Italian-ness, even when the screenplay moves into computerized arrangements.

Accio is the adolescent younger brother of Manrico. When the film begins, in 1962, he is in a seminary, but he leaves because of dissatisfactions and is drawn to the still-alive Fascist Party. Cut off from religious life, he is attracted by the idea of an omnipotent figure (Mussolini is still on headquarters walls), the discipline and patent purpose. He fights, often in truly rough roughhousing, with Manrico, who is a communist. Their differences lead to adventures and misadventures as they grow older, including relations with Francesca, who first appears as Manrico's girlfriend.

Allegiances, political and otherwise, alter arbitrarily, for story convenience. Some episodes are utility pieces, not germane; impure melodrama obtrudes. After a while, we find ourselves watching just for the sake of watching, to see these actors--Elio Germano and Riccardo Scamarcio, volatile and sensitive as Accio and Manrico; Diane Fleri reticently appealing as Francesca; Luca Zingaretti forceful as a fascist leader--and to respond to Luchetti's vitality. This director made me wish I had seen other of his films, though I hope they had better scripts.

 
Walter Murch, who is a splendid film editor, is also a splendid writer about film editing. (See his book In the Blink of an Eye.) He proves it again in a brief yet memorable article in the Spring 2008 issue of The Threepenny Review, an illumination derived from experience and talent.

Murch's subject has been treated by innumerable writers: the relation between film and dream. His insight is the most interesting that I know. In the early days, he says, the evolution of film grammar, the idea of editing, seemed impossible. "The instantaneous replacement of one moving visual field with another is not part of our daily experience. ... Nothing in four hundred million years of vertebrate evolution prepared us for the visual assault of cinema."

But amazingly enough, the process succeeded. "Even more, a mysterious extra meaning [was] gained from the juxtaposition of two images which was not present in either of the shots themselves. ... In short, we discovered that the human mind was predisposed to cinematic grammar as if it were an entirely natural, inborn language." Perhaps it is inborn, he says, because we spend one-third of our lives "in the nightly world of dreams. There, images are fragmented and different realities collide abruptly with what seems ... to have great meaning." So he sees film editing as, probably unknowingly, employing the power and means of dream.

This percept is like a flash of lightning that lasts. Murch concludes that for many millions of years, human beings were carrying within them the ability to respond to film and were unconsciously awaiting its arrival in order to employ their dream-faculty more fully. Some of us have long believed that, through more recent centuries, theater artists and audiences have been longing for the film to be invented even without a clue that there could be such a medium. Many tricks of stagecraft in those centuries were, without knowing it, attempting to be cross-cuts and double images. Some dramatists imagined their work in forms and perspectives that anticipated film (most notably and excitingly, Büchner's Danton's Death).

Now Murch tells us that these theater attempts at prognostication a few centuries earlier are puny stuff: for millions of years, homo sapiens has been unwittingly prepared for the intricacies of film, has indeed been preparing for them every night. Murch proposes with stirring insight that the last century, the mere one hundred years of film's existence, has been, for one human faculty, the emotional and psychological goal of the ages.


Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.




By Stanley Kauffmann

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