Wednesday, November 15, 2006

When It’s Dark, Nobody Knows You’re Alone

The problem with war movies is a confusion about who is who, especially these days when moviemakers strive for accuracy, all the Marines storming the hill look exactly alike. No longer do you have the swagger of John Wayne on the “Sands of Iwo Jima” to tell him apart from the rest of the Leathernecks, and, in that desire for accuracy these days, actors don’t charge pillboxes without a helmet so you can tell it’s Gregory Peck in “Pork Chop Hill.” For today’s action-packed, visually stunning retrospective war movies, it is a different story, and if you’re not paying acute attention to subtle characterizations of the actors at the beginning (usually when they’re in basic training), I’m afraid one camouflaged soldier in a low-to-the-brow steel helmet will look like all the others who accidentally get in the way of the shells… just before you think the lead character bought it in a dramatic pirouette as he steps off the LCVP, don't worry, that was Stunt Guy Number 65.

I’m just glad I read the book first, so I knew all of the characters, their names and what happens to them. In affect, I knew the ending fairly well, but I wasn't there to see how it ends, I just wanted to see how they got there. Reading this book is one of the few movies I've been able to do that to; in fact, the only other book I think I read before I saw the movie was "To Kill a Mockingbird." Come to think of it, besides those two examples, I can only think of two other books in my life that I read that are also movies ("Goonies"--don't laugh, I was young, and "LA Confidential."). Secretly, I don't really like to read... Shhh, don't tell Kara, she won't let me buy any more books if she finds out!

I have always been interested in military history, a genetic byproduct from my dad, who collects historical mementos from the “greatest generation.” As a sub-category of my interests, I have always been fond of Iwo Jima, that little island in the middle of the Pacific that played host to the culmination of two nations' struggle for supremacy in that grand drama only true history can offer. On that small piece of land, only eight square miles, seven thousand Americans lost their lives and the lives of 20,000 other American’s were forever changed. Yes, high drama indeed, so when I heard that they were making a movie about it—that Clint Eastwood was the man responsible—I was eagerly anticipating its arrival.

This, of course, is “Flags of Our Fathers,” an adaptation of John Bradley’s book of the same title, about the lives of the six flag raisers (his father being one of them).

At our house, going to the movies is a major upheaval of everyone’s scheduling, from getting a babysitter (at $10/hour) to finding an appropriate day for a night out. Needless to say, it is a complicated task, and expensive just for a night at the movies…and compound that with a movie that Kara says, with an indifferent shrug of her shoulders, “eh,” it means that I either wait to rent it or go see it by myself.

Finding a certain day to go, even when I’m the only one that is planning the event, is just as difficult as if I were orchestrating a Fourth of July Parade, as it seemed that over the last few weeks, there is always something standing in the way. Last week, we flushed $110 down the drain by having a pest control guy come out and, probably, just spray water around the house… as there are now more ants in this house than ever. Albeit, they’re wandering around the place in a quiet stupor, seemingly drunk, they’re still wandering around the house. The day after that, we had a meeting with our financial advisor at 3pm, just a few minutes before the Thursday matinee would finally let out. The week before, I had a project due and it would have been monumentally irresponsible to duck out to the movies with that looming over my head, plus on Wednesday, for the 12:50pm show, it was an “open caption” showing at the theater, which means that the movies, even though the dialogue is in English, it is still captioned (and I dearly hope it is for old people who may not be able to hear rather than people from out of town who can’t speak the language).

So, last night, I figured the best medicine for a guy who is feeling a little out of his element lately would be to sit in a dark theater with a bunch of strangers and take a vicarious trip back in time to an event about which I have read several books and watched countless documentaries. Yes, today was the day.

Granted, I felt a little guilty dumping the kids off at daycare and then running off to the movies, but if you don’t do certain things for yourself, you slowly lose your own identity. Maybe not, but it is a good justification.

For some reason, I assumed that I would be the only one in the theater. The movie has been out for a couple of weeks and it was the middle of the day in the middle of the week (in the middle of the month), so I thought they would play the movie just for little old me. However, when I was in line for a Diet Coke (more on that), in front of me was an older guy with a t-shirt that said “Death from Above” and I knew that guy—the 18-theater Cineplex lobby was barren aside from a few people—was going to share the movie with me.

Why is it that I was okay with paying $5 for a Coke? It wasn’t in a gold cup. It didn’t come with a book or a magazine and there was nobody there to wipe my mouth after each drink. The cup was plastic and quite non-descript, and it wasn’t 10 liters, which is what $5 would buy at the store. So, why? That, and I got a pretzel, which together with the Coke cost more than the ticket to get in the movie… on top of which, I paid for a ticket, walked in, and nobody in a bellman’s outfit with a pillbox hat greeted me, tore my ticket and insisted that I enjoy the show. What a waste.

I have always been okay with doing things by myself. I’m not going to say that I’m an independent person by nature, as I could be easily classified as shy and introverted, but I enjoy some level of autonomy in my actions. Sometimes I just want to be left alone, and telling this to the people around you always comes off as defensive and rude; how can you tell someone you love (and who loves you) that you want to be by yourself without them cocking their head to the side in that worried way, asking, "Is everything okay? Do you want to talk about it?"

Some would say that going to the movies by yourself is pathetic and sad, but it is the same to me as reading a book and I rarely read with someone else (or over their shoulder). The desired outcome is the same…escapism and entertainment. I read to glimpse into other lives, other times and other places, and I watch a movie for the same reasons. I don’t mind that I didn’t have someone to share it with; plus, I told Kara all about it when I got home and it was like she was there with me.

So, stop feeling sorry for me. I have friends, they're just busy. Yeah, that's it.

Once in the theater, I found a seat in the second row of the balcony, a little off center; the paramilitary guy was all set up for the duration and he commanded front and center. His shoes were off, his $5 Coke was in one cup holder and a host of other things lined his seat. On top of which, he was reading a book in the ever failing light of the theater, which I found as a strange duality, either read or watch, not both.

Then, the place began to resemble a porn theater, as nothing but single men began slinking in and occupying far-flung seats with enough girth between himself and the rest of us to seat a small classroom of children. Of course, then it happened, as it always happens… an older couple walks in, she the only woman out of seven, and where do they sit? That’s right, right in front of me. Out of the whole theater, they choose the two seats directly in front of me to park, probably because it was in the front row, but really, there’s only five seats occupied out of probably 300 and you choose two in front of me. He was too young to be a World War II veterans, so I didn’t refrain from burning a hole in the backs of their heads as I shifted down a couple of seats.

I ate my pretzel and drank my Coke, a costly mistake on my part. The house lights dimmed slightly for the previews, then completely for the feature presentation, and as far as movies go, I was awestruck by the special effects. I was on Iwo Jima. I was in the Corsairs as they strafed the island. The visceral carnage that I’ve read about splashed into my lap, but wasn’t gory like “Saving Private Ryan” or cerebral like “The Thin Blue Line.” The film, as a whole, was cursory and pedestrian, as are most movies made from books I’ve read. Some of the plotlines, while integral to the movement of the story, were different from the book, and there was one aspect of the book I was worried they were going to include in the movie, but didn't to the degree they could have. I knew they had to touch on it, but I was anxious they were going to use this one very important psychological element of John Bradley (played rather anonymously by Ryan Philippe), and that is what happened to Bradley’s Marine pal “Iggy.” The book tells all, but the movie gives the scene a decorously dignified treatment in the same manner you see Jimmy Stewart’s face when they tell him that they’ll close the Building and Loan if he doesn’t stay on in his father’s place and Humphrey Bogart’s troubled “gin-joints” speech in Casablanca. That was Philippe, face caught in anguish in a slant of light, when they finally found out the fate of his friend Iggy.

The downside of drinking your entire Coke a few minutes before the movie was about to begin is that an hour into the film, nature calls in a most unrelenting way, and I ended up missing a scant three minutes of the 132 shown. But still, I felt cheated and betrayed by my own body, as you hurriedly return to the theater with that "What happened? What'd I miss?" empty feeling.

Though it isn't that great of an image, here is a comparison between the real Rosenthal image (on the left) and a capture from the movie (on the right). Look at the flags especially. Now that's attention to detail. Thank you, Dirty Harry.

The movie ends, and the house lights partially come up…everyone gets up and leaves. No sooner than the final scene fade to black were the old couple hobbling their way back to their Buick Cutlass to watch Matlock at 3pm, and everyone else followed suit, except for the “Death from Above” guy and me. Me? I'm a credits guy, plus I wanted to see where they filmed it, and would you guess "on location" at Iwo Jima? Me neither, and I can't imagine the dipolmacy that took to pull off, especially since Nixon gave the island back to Japan in 1968. Of course, to sweeten the deal, I'm sure the fact that Eastwood was making two movies at the same time about the same thing (the second one due out next year called "Letters from Iwo Jima" from the Japanese point of view).

Well, lucky that we stayed for the end, because during the credits, they showed actual pictures of the real people portrayed in the film and scenes from the battle itself. On top of which, the pictures they chose to show us, were images that were used as inspiration for the movie itself; I could remember certain scenes that were duplicated, and to me, that gives the movie another notch up on my ratings system. Aside from the accuracy elements in “Titanic,” regardless of what you thought of the movie, the storyline, Bill Paxton’s incredulous acting, or Kate Winslet’s horrific accent (even though it is her real one!), this movie put me right in the battle. At the very end, it shows what the island looks like today, from the vantage point of Suribachi and the memorial that is there now.

It was a sad picture in many regards and I left the theater in a pensive mood but feeling a little more American than when I went I first went in there.

At least I got to see a movie this year. One a year, that’s all I can ask for, right?

I think 2007 will be a good year!

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