by Lindsay Corriveau
Society places a lot of value on the genre of a film. We rely on it to prop up our expectations when engaging in a visual story, allowing us to control—to some degree—the film going experience. As society develops, however, so does our taste for films that break the mold of our preconceptions. Thus we inherit films such as The Thin Red Line (Malick, 1998) and Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012); these films fit within a certain genre but also manage to stand against the stereotypes that have built up the genre from the beginning. The reason this matters links into the ideology of filmmaking itself, exploring the many facets that cinematic form and reality in our society. The war film genre serves as an excellent window into the vast world of discussion on this topic, as it is riddled with matters of principle, emotion, violence, and politics.
First and foremost, one must have a clear understanding of what film genre actually means. Thomas Schatz—author and film theorist—defines it as a range of expression for filmmakers and a range of experience for the viewers. There are no rules that apply when addressing genre, and often a film can fit well within multiple categories. This is because genre is a system of conventions that have formed over the course time, not a concrete system for strict categorization. Rick Altman, another scholarly theorist, notes that the expectation for genres is based off of repeating elements and historical alterations [Braudy]. For example, the war film genre is often defined by its climatic battle scenes, male assertion of dominance, violence, patriotism, and heroism. We’ve seen all of these elements time and time again in war-based films. Sample titles include Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009) and Black Hawk Down (Scott, 2001). In context of high budget, Hollywood-produced movies, America is usually portrayed in a heroic light when pitted against the dark, ‘savage’ forces of the foreign. Even in films critical of war, such as Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979), the Western soldiers are seen as more civilized and righteous than their native counterparts [IMDB].
The breaking of these habitual values is what makes Zero Dark Thirty and The Thin Red Line so notable. Both films remain within the war genre while still drastically challenging the norms. Consider Malick’s film: predominately male characters, placed on a remote island during World War II. Starting out, the film runs the risk of becoming another war genre cliché, but due to the stylistic elements of Malick’s filmmaking, the story fell far from the usual standard. For instance, Malick uses battles as a backdrop to the more subsidized emotional development of the soldiers. Normally battles would serve as a climatic developing point for the plot, but in this film they are not afforded that luxury. Malick extracts the glory of battle further by intercutting it with shots of natural beauty: birds, grass, sky, water—all things natural and beautiful that contrast sharply with the inhumanity of war. Evidently this film does not pretend that violence and war is a necessary evil, or that there are heroes on any one side. In fact, it goes so far as to cast a heavy fog over the ground during a battle. This seems to be nature retaliating against brutality by blurring the lines between who is who, effectively equalizing both sides of the fight. In fact the only people in this film that seem to be engaged in normal, sustainable behavior are the natives that would normally be portrayed as savage and inhuman in other war films. Finally, Malick’s film differentiated itself from those in its genre—even anti-war films—by lacking the anger and bitterness that accompanies films like Apocalypse Now. The story doesn’t place blame anywhere, but instead allows the weight of war to sit alone and isolated like a blister on the natural development of humankind.
Now consider Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Right from the start, it begins blurring the lines between who is good and evil by opening with an American torturing a Middle-Eastern detainee. The prisoner looks, for all intents and purposes, savage. Covered in filth and stripped of human pride; we would normally assign him to the role of antagonist, someone to be feared. Yet it’s the Americans that flail their barbarianism behind a mask of clean pale skin. The film draws hard, complicated lines over the age-old question: "Do the ends justify the means?" Bigelow accomplishes this by constantly reminding the viewer of the brutality found on both sides of the war. Furthermore, the film steps out of the pool of stereotypes by having a female lead in the middle of a beastly war. In fact, men are treated almost satirically sometimes, when the female gaze is used as a lens to view them. This point is supported by the type-casting decision to place Chris Pratt in the S. E.A.L. team that is sent to kill Osama bin Laden on Maya’s behalf. Pratt is famous for being a silly, somewhat irresponsible ‘boy next door,’ whose physical prowess is accompanied by a big heart but not a lot of sense. Compared to the cool, disengaged Maya, it seems likely that Pratt was cast specifically to contrast her in the sharpest way possible. Normally soldiers would be afforded more dignity and face-time, but Bigelow only brings in the soldiers at the end and gives them a singular, straightforward task.
In some ways, both Malick and Bigelow’s films conform to certain standards in the war genre. It’s impossible not to conform on some fronts (tests of loyalty, human sacrifice, the miserable nature of war) or else the film could not logically be considered part of that genre. What is significant is that the films take the foundation of their genre and build new ground upon it. Genres are a by-product of humans addressing issues important to them, but they are not meant to be boundary lines and limiters. It is worth noting that films within the war genre—as well as many other genres— bear a certain responsibility to the public in the way that they correlate with reality. Films in any cinematic form are always going to be illusions, whether they are an exact copy of reality or an utter farce. They can never truly encapsulate reality, although they don’t need to in order to be impactful. Therein lies the risk; when addressing matters such as war and human relations, films that portray a bias or stereotype as an unquestionable reality feed into an ignorant and radical culture. But how is it that films can convincingly show reality or simulate it within the boundaries of a script and camera?
Maya (Jessica Chastain) in Zero Dark Thirty.
Theorist Jean-Louis Boudry believes cinema to be a ‘simulation apparatus’, where the viewer can be drawn in by the film and experience its contextual reality—much like a dream. Film technology, according to his theories, constructs an alternate, dream-like reality by which we can experience the story with the emotions appropriate to what we’re viewing [Baudry]. Although not a war film, regard the example of Her (Jonze, 2013), a film in which people are experiencing companionship with computer programs. We willingly accept that, in the reality of this film, computers and programs have advanced beyond a point in our personal understanding. We don’t require a summary of how that fact came to be in order to understand the story and its impact. Instead the viewer accepts the authenticity of the dream world in order to follow the heart of the story.
Thomas Elsaesser examined the different techniques films use to put viewers in the
simulated reality. In short, he defines cinema as a window and frame, an eye, a mirror and face, an ear, or skin and touch [Elsaesser]. Using film as an eye is a technique used in Bigelow’s film in a way that is unique in the industry: the female gaze. Maya’s perspective on the men around her affects the way the audience views the men. As previously stated, the S.E.A.L.s seemed almost satirical in their boyish nature. But this could be a product of viewing them through the eye (and therefore, lens) of a cold, calculating woman, who stands on the outside. It is fascinating to note the difference between the male and female gaze. Male gaze, when turned toward women, tends to focus on the masculine superiority and the sexualization of the female form. The female gaze, in the context of Maya, sees men in humiliation, naïve over-confidence, and in death. It would appear our society is pushing for a more thorough and analytical cinematic eye from which to gaze, and Bigelow provided one.
In regard to Malick’s film, the audience experienced war from a window and frame cinematic perspective. Malick used a lot of powerful imagery and voice-over to convey his plot, but the audience still remained separated from the brutality and nature of the film, safely hidden behind the proverbial window of the screen [Elsaesser]. He often shifted the hypothetical frame to different parts of the larger reality in order to show the contrast between battle and nature. We assume there is more to the world they inhabit than what we are seeing, but we are content to view only what falls within the frame of our cinematic window. In other words, we experience the reality of war that Malick wants us to view without getting lost. It’s this manipulation of actual reality (where the world is limitless) that focuses the story and keeps our experience on track. Without it, we would be wandering aimlessly in a reality we can’t grasp or fathom and any real-life application of the story’s message would get lost with us. In regards to form, two film forms that are consistently relevant in the popular genre experience: narrative and documentary. Narrative seeks to tell a story by taking a base standard, and then adding style to create a total system of cinematic storytelling. Documentary chases after reality, seeking real information and forming its substance from findings rather than story. Genre serves as the base standard: love story, war film, fantasy, mystery, etc. The style and elemental decisions of the auteur or director is what spins the story into a unique experience [Boudry].
There has recently been a rise in documentaries and low-budget narrative films. This may be happening because our society is developing into a more educated, self-aware conglomerate that doesn’t appreciate the coddling provided by high-budget, low-risk films. The irony on the condition of cinematic production is not lost here: the higher the budget, the less meaning a film will likely have. The risk for failure and backlash are too high, although the potential for making an impact is greater. Meanwhile , the low-budget indie films attack important societal issues ruthlessly, having less to lose for their efforts (although their public impact forum is much smaller). This is another example why Malick and Bigelow’s films are so significant in our society today as high-budgeted films that took a risk in the way they developed within their genre.
Conclusively, the way our society interprets films within genre is developing. We long to stretch out our fingers from the standard norms of storytelling , but at the same time cling to the comfort blanket that genre provides. Malick and Bigelow’s films broke a lot of standards with the war film genre without alienating its viewers, which is a massive forward step in high-budget filmmaking. In the end, film is an illusion that the public will experience as an actuality. Therefore there is a certain responsibility held by the industry to expand its horizons past the limited scope of the American or Western gaze on the world. That way, our simulated realities can continue to positively impact our tangible realities without being bound by the assumed standards of the genres they fall within.
• Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen. Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.
• Elsaesser, Thomas, and Malte Hagener. Film Theory: An Introduction Through the Senses. New York: Routledge, 2010. Print.
• IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 10 May 2015.