Hollywood and War

Yesterday I went to see Paul Haggis’ new film, In the Valley of Elah. I didn’t know much about it when I went in, beyond the fact that it starred Tommy Lee Jones. I thoroughly enjoyed the film; it was well-paced, quiet and yet hard-hitting. A lot of this is down to Tommy Lee Jones, who has perfected a minimalist style of acting which won him Best Actor at Cannes in 2005 when he starred in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

The mise-en-scene is grey and sparse, with the plot moving us from the bunkrooms at the army base, to a police office, to an equally bare motel room. The streets are empty, the little open country we see is a place of death and concealment. Paul Haggis paints a bleak picture of life in small-town America.

What I am interested in, though, is how the war in Iraq is approached in this film. It is important to note that Hollywood is a crucial engineer in American culture; it does not so much perpetuate cultural memory and feeling so much as create it in the first place. As such, Hollywood has never been keen on war films which do not show America as the hero.

Many Hollywood World War Two films, for instance, would have us believe that America won the war single-handed. Vietnam-based films are the most interesting– for a long time the only films that so much as touched on the Vietnam war were ones like Rambo, which had the all-American hero and which engineered history in their favour. It was a decade after Vietnam that critical films started to appear, simply because it took that long for the zeitgeist to shift and make it acceptable. Simply put, it took America a long time to admit that they hadn’t ‘won’ in Vietnam, and that it was a total disaster, and it took a similarly long time for this to be reflected in their cultural industry.

Hollywood seems to be taking a different path in regards to the Iraq war; there is more acceptance of problems in and concerning the Iraq war, but these concerns have been mostly mapped onto World War Two films (Flags of our Fathers ; Letters from Iwo Jima) or onto narratives from the first Gulf War. However, this is a habit of the film industry as a whole, not just Hollywood– current problems are transposed onto another situation, another time, another place; they are still addressed, but we see this from a spatial or historical distance.

What is interesting about In the Valley of Elah is its focus on the aftermath of the war. It is less concerned with the war itself than it is with how war effects people. Late in the film, an explanation for the torture of a wounded civilian is given as, “It was just a way to cope.” The film is not interested in pointing fingers, in excusing or condemning. Instead it just documents the problems faced by those who come back from war. Tommy Lee Jones’ character is a Vietnam veteran, and he shows an understanding for the young soldiers that does not seem to be shared by Charlize Theron’s detective. He understands the inability to move between the two worlds of war and civilisation; if you acclimatise to one, you struggle in the other. The breakdown of morality, of human compassion, is presented as a quiet desperation; the young man who laughs to himself about the running over of a child is as much a victim as the child.

In the Valley of Elah does not point the finger, but it does point towards culpability. It doesn’t condemn the war, but it gives a stark insight into how it ruins people. The final image, of the American flag flying upside-down, is a subversion of that trope of American movies, the patriarchal flag. It is not being flown as a declaration of pride, of independence, but is instead a quiet cry for help. As Jones’ character says, “It means we’re in a whole bunch of trouble, so come save our asses cos we ain’t got a prayer in hell of saving it ourselves.” This film isn’t about America saving, it’s about America needing to be saved from itself.


That magic little pill

It has just been brought to my attention that today sees the 40th anniversary of The Pill, and I just felt like doing a little blog about it. Not much– I don’t really have time to do what I wanted to do, which is argue against the idea that the pill = women being promiscuous = bad. Maybe I’ll do that later.

For now, I just want to say that I, at least, am incredibly grateful not just for the magical pill, but for the fact that the packet has the days of the week written over each pill, meaning that you will know whether you’ve missed taking one or not. I can be rather airheaded, and it’s a saving grace at times.

So, whoever, designed the packaging for the pill, thanks a lot.

Expensive Pretensions

So, for lack of things to blog about when my life is revolving mostly around essay deadlines and wordcounts, I am going to repost entries I made on my last attempt at blogging. So here is the first of them, originally written on January 31st:


Now, I am a student, and as such I have consumed a decent amount of alcohol in the year and a half that I have been at University. I have always been partial to a glass of wine: it is a drink that will get you nicely tipsy but will also give the illusion, if only to yourself, that you are actually rather sophisticated. Recently I decided that cracking the code of wine might assist in this illusion as well as provide me with another level of snobbery to add to my rapidly expanding repertoire. So yesterday evening, after joining the Wine and Whisky Appreciation Society, I headed off to campus to begin my education.

Initially it was rather daunting. My friends and I sat down at a long table which rather resembled what one would see in an executive board meeting (the range of wines and wine glasses excepted), and pored over the sheets of ‘tasting terms’ and ‘aroma and flavour characteristics’. These seemed to suggest that wine could taste like leather or wet wool, neither of which I can admit to having tasted before. It can also, somewhat worryingly, taste ‘meaty’. I think I would feel more comfortable with some specificity here, as ‘meaty’ is something I have come to associate with the more dubious 2 a.m. kebab shop visits.

Nevertheless we dutifully listened to the Wine Expert telling us about the various wines we would be tasting, as well as explaining what ‘vertical tasting’ is (just so you know, it’s comparing the same wine from different vintages, rather than different wines from the same vintage which is, shockingly enough, ‘horizontal tasting’). Then we began to hold our glasses up to the light, debate the difference between ‘lemon-green’ and ‘lemon’ and to stick our noses in the glass with a hearty sniff. It was all jolly good fun, though at first I’ll admit to being able to say nothing more than “fruity” or “sweet”, which is apparently impossible to smell. As we progressed through the four types of wine however, we developed rather more ability, or so it seemed. It is debateable as to whether we were smelling and tasting that much better or whether we were just becoming more adept at bullshitting. The tastes of petrol, pepper, smoke and Wimbledon were starting to come through and we were beginning to fancy ourselves as sophisticates.

After two hours of this I am looking forward to developing this knowledge. I will soon delight in sitting in restaurants expertly swirling my wine glass and, after a thoughtful sip and significant pause, pronouncing the wine to have a rather burnt aftertaste with a hint of liquorice on the tongue. Or some other such bollocks.

Yesterday was, as my fellow newbie wine-taster said, the beginning of a very expensive lifelong habit. And I plan to enjoy it. 


Screw you, God

So, at last, the House of Commons has voted to abolish the archaic blasphemy law, with votes of 378 to 57. The fact that it took until 2008 for this to finally happen is rather depressing, but at last we have a step in the right direction. If it is acceptable to deny the presence of a god or gods, then we don’t have far to go before it’s totally reasonable to have no god.

Of course, Britain as a country is much more secular than, for example, the United States, but the fact remains that we do not have a separation of church and state, and we still have a national religion. Repealing blasphemy laws is one small movement towards this separation and the disestablishment of the Church of England.

It may take a while, but one day we will hopefully see a time when religion does not have any privileges or preferential treatments. That will be a good day.

Until them, I’m going to be happy with what’s happened this week, and I’m going to plan a blasphemy party. And you’re all invited.


It would probably be a good idea to do some sort of introduction post, although I am well aware that the people that read this blog will be people that already know me in some way, shape or form. Nonetheless, it seems prudent to get a few facts out of the way with before we proceed with blogging.

I am an undergraduate student of modest means, and my future, such as it is, holds a year of travelling once I graduate before I plunge once more into the murky depths of academia. As a student of Film and Literature, there is very little hope for me around the job market, so I plan to view such horrors from the safe distance of my University.

I enjoy unneccesarily complex film analysis, nitpicking the grammar and syntax of others, undermining this nitpickiness by straying into bad grammar and syntax myself, wearing overly stripy and/or colourful items of clothing, making rash decisions based on my lower impulses, coming up with memorable last words or epitaphs, atheism, and equestrianism.

It is important at this point to note things that they cannot take away from me: the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, the memory of all that, the way your smile just beams, the way you sing off-key, the way you haunt my dreams, the way you hold your knife, the way we danced ’til three, the way you changed my life… and the Best New Society Award.

Things of current note: I have just eaten a delicious bowl of Chinese-style chicken and sweetcorn soup. I am going to have yet another cup of tea in a few minutes. I have an essay for my US Writing and Culture module due on Friday, and I am not even halfway through. I feel that a more pressing matter is winning the mini golf game on my mobile (I was winning on my bus journey home, but was thwarted at the last hole. Curses!)

I hope this will tide you all over until next time.