Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Watch it for the Combat Scenes, Ignore the actual history!

I went to a war last night, and for two and a half hours had my adrenaline pumped and my patriotic heart strings tugged by US soldiers in battle, bravely tracking down and trying to capture the enemy. No it wasn't Osama (he is dead, you see), because the movie which felt like it might have taken place in the rubble of Kabul or Baghdad was actually a replay of the battlefield disaster of Mogadishu in l993. 

The film is Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, an account of elite Ranger and Delta force soldiers fighting the good fight based on the book of the same name by Mark Bowden. Their mission, the publicity flyer tells us, "to capture several top lieutenants of the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, as part of a strategy to quell the civil war and famine that is ravaging that country." 

The action is non-stop; only the outcome is/was disastrous. Nineteen Americans were killed along with over l,000 Somalis dead in the Battle of Mogadishu before US forces were withdrawn in an intervention that started nobly and ended in one of the bloodiest messes you can imagine. The movie shows  what the TV news of today does not: actual combat, and the feelings of those engaged in it. You see soldiers fighting with great courage, but they are not motivated by a cause or an ideology; they fight to protect each other, for personal survival. Obvious is that US forces have a clear advantage in terms of technology, helicopters, communications, etc. But in the end they are defeated by the determination of a far less organized urban guerrilla force that sees itself defending its hometown against a foreign intervention. And like the TV news accounts of Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, the movie comes to us largely context-free, with a twisted and distorted perspective that simplifies that conflict beyond recognition. 

Black Hawk Down also seems part of a obvious propaganda strategy aimed at Americans, not people overseas where it is unlikely to win many hearts and minds. Larry Chin noted in the Online Journal when this movie was released: "True to its post-9/11 government-sanctioned role as US war propaganda headquarters, Hollywood has released Black Hawk Down, a fictionalized account of a tragic 1993 US raid in Somalia. The Pentagon assisted with the production, pleased for an opportunity to 'set the record straight. The film, though, is a lie that compounds the original lie that was the operation itself." 

Forget the revelations that one of the story's big heroes who was awarded a Silver Star, in real life, later got convicted as a child rapist. Forget the dramatization formulas. Just think about the impression left with the audience, and how that perception has little to do with reality. After watching the film, which made me uncomfortable because it showed how senseless the US policy was as well as how ineffective, I also realized how little it conveyed what really happened in that tortured land. 

The film starts with signposts - literally, writing on the screen, a few short paragraphs, to remind us what happened. The problem is this: the information is false. It implies, for example, that US troops were sent to Somalia to feed the hungry. Maybe the initial shipments of troops were, as part of a UN force, but not by the time the Black Hawk Down disaster took place. 

In David Halberstam's book, War in a Time of Peace, which recounts the Somalian mishap in some depth, the Defense Secretary apparently told an associate, "We're sending the Rangers to Somalia. We are not going to be able to control them. They are like overtrained pit bulls. No one controls them." Doesn't sound much like a charity mission, does it? The Rangers were indeed sent with great fanfare, to hunt and capture Aidid. Their mission failed. 

Halberstam's book mentions, but does not detail, the bloody background: The massive crimes of the Somali dictator Siad Barre, who the US backed and who Somali warlord Mohamad Farrah Aidid ejected. Halberstam also describes the American hatred for Somalis, expressed in the much-bandied phrase, "The only good Somali is a dead Somali." Is it any wonder Somalis fought back? (In the movie, the battle looks like a racial war, with virtually all-white US forces going mano-a-mano with an all-black city.) Halberstam reveals how these forces made arrogant assumptions in Somalia, underestimating the resistance, and how the urban "battlefield became a horror. . .a major league CNN-era disaster." 

You can read Halberstam's book, and many others, if you want to know more becuase Balck Hawk Down is riddled with falsities and many inaccuracies. Anyway, the major point is that the romanticization of our modern warriors all too often misses the underlying political dimension of a conflict. In Somalia, we intervened in the domestic affairs and conflicts of another society we least understood and we still least understand. What started as a war on hunger became a war on Aidid. We became warlords ourselves and Somalia is still a lawless country.

In spite of all its battle oriented combat realism and the sad reality of the many dead, Black Hawk Down still comes across as a ensemble casted action movie starring big name actors like Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Sam Shepard and many more that tries to turn a US defeat into a victory by encouraging you to identify with the men who bravely fought their way out of an urban conflagration not of their making. Danny Schechter

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Horror Flashback - The Fun Side of Fear

Reminiscing Comic Horror Cinema, from the Laughable to the Humorous 

When I was a youngster, and by this I mean much younger than today, for I am by no means entirely beyond the folly of youth, that is idealism -- I overheard someone, probably even a someone I knew well and respected, comment about how fun it is to go to a scary movie. Well, needless to say, that seemed a bit odd, even perverse. But as hope I have made perfectly clear in my opening sentence, I was quite young. Probably still an infant. Probably. Hardly matters these days, for I've heard the expression far to many times to count in a single sitting. Never really had a penchant for counting that high, anyhow. Patience is most likely the problem there. Patience has always been a problem of mine. So I hope no one is going to force me to go into detail about the extent to which I have been assaulted by that particular phrase about which I have so far concentrated my energies. BUT: 

I do know one thing. Being scared is not fun. There is not a single person I know who has ever laughed about how dang funny it was at that moment when he or she was sure death was unavoidable. Oh, yeah, the time the Miller kid pissed his pants 'cause he was sure there was a ghost behind the tree... folks laugh at that crap all the time. But it is hardly real horror, and I doubt the Miller kid ever really thought it was funny. 

And that brings us to the topic of movies. Where did this 'fun being scared' thing get started. Certainly not with "Psycho (1960)" Although there are plenty of funny moments in that film, I have read too many accounts of early viewings to believe people went to see it for kicks. Besides, my mother still has trouble taking a shower while weird violin music is playing. So the phenomenon must have had earlier roots. (I know this also because of my mom, for she told me about how her friends used to amuse themselves with 'horror' films as kids.)

Now, I feel I must assure you, dear reader, that I have indeed done my homework on this matter. Very quickly in life did I take up the advice found in, "there's nothing like a good scare." And once VCR's became widely available, I availed myself of all the more filmic atrocities. Cinematic horrors, if you will. And I finally, one winter night, realized what the trouble was. And fortunately, in the last few years and especially the coming few, the problem appears to be on the verge of elimination. So, what is the problem? Actually, it is compound. 

First, there was the audience. Then there were the producers. And lastly, there were the writers, actors, and directors, etc. It's hard to fault this last group, however, as it is so difficult to find work in Hollywood. Especially if you aren't particularly good (or too good, as the case has frequently been). The producers were only doing what was profitable. So I guess that the blame appears to fall solely upon the audience. Blame, that is, for the ultimate problem. It is a problem from which audiences and filmmakers alike have suffered from since at least the early thirties (arguments have been made that pre-date film, I must add, and as such my time approximation is thoroughly arbitrary). And this problem has many names, not the least of which are "Stupidity" and "Bad Film making." 

For purposes of clarification, I would like it known that I do not believe either of these things necessarily makes a film a waste of time. Sometimes a dash of stupidity or technical ineptitude is the saving grace of a film. Take, for instance, the self-proclaimed "horror classic" known as "The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)." Shot in about two days from something less than a script, it is brilliant in its stupidity and spontaneity, and holds a certain appeal that the high gloss musical version could never touch. But of course, Roger Corman was good at that sort of thing. However, "The Little Shop of Horrors" is not at all scary. Not even the acting has sent too many people running. But I must get back to the problem before I digress so far as to forget entirely about mentioning the good news. 

Quite simply, it really was not a whole lot of fun being scared. At least not as far as I can tell. The fun part might come afterwards, in the comforting stages ["Honey, I'd better stay with you tonight so you don't have nightmares"], but that would be the fun AFTER and not the fun OF. And I do not believe being frightened will EVER be particularly enjoyable, at least in the pure sense. Interesting, perhaps, under the right circumstances. But maybe I should mention what is not frightening, just to be sure there is no confusion. Roller coasters are not frightening. At least to the people who ENJOY riding on them. This is because of the (sometimes erroneous) assumption that they are safe. Movies are not frightening, unless the viewer has a problem differentiating realities. For the purposes at hand, we will assume that this problem is too tiny to address. I realize my ethnocentric assumption may upset some people, but please bear with me, as I am only trying to appeal to those already involved in the situation. 

{Naturally, people have been frightened by certain films they have seen from time to time. This must be attributed to a perceived element of reality in such films and would vary on a personal basis. Often this is a psychological reality, as in "Psycho," or a photographic reality as in some documentaries, though reactions to these usually can be categorized under repulsion rather than fear. And, anyway, the claim is not then made that, boy, were they fun.} 

It is time to confess something. I do enjoy a good scare. I love horror films. But I am never truly frightened by them. It is a sort of vicarious fear, really. A sick, voyeuristic thing. So, what is the fun of going to a horror film? Certainly not the fear. Yes, a great plot with tight suspense and a lot of psychosis can be intriguing and keep viewers on the edge of their seats in fascination. But fun is a laughter kind of thing. Fun is comic and light. A really good horror film is rarely comic and light. In fact, even the bad ones are traditionally dark, but that tends to be due to a lack of exposure. And that last sentence gives it all away, almost. Put simply, people used to go, and still often do, to see movies and laugh at them. That is the real problem I was getting at earlier (and it seemed I had forgotten about). There is a big difference between laughing at and laughing with, one I do not feel needs explaining. In fact, people used to go in amazing numbers to see incredibly horrendous pictures. And this only intensified the problem. 

Yet, if it were not for the problem, there could be no solution. That solution is the 'horror comedy.' Certainly, it can be argued that the horror comedy has been around as a genre since "Abbot and Costello Meet the Wolfman," or whatever it was called. But the problem was that these low budget flicks were, with the rare exception, just as bad as the films they were supposed to be having fun with. And the elements of fear were so watered down as to be non-existent. So let's leap forward through the years, shall we? 

Let's discuss the seventies. But briefly. We had such titles as "New Year's Evil (1980)" and people went to see them. Granted, it was mostly impressionable kids whose parents were not thinking clearly. But those kids have grown up as my friends, so I will try not to talk too harshly about them. The point, there, was that the laughter came from the stupidity of both film and viewer (it varied). Plot and character were virtually thrown to the wind by the end of the decade. Kids mistakenly thought they were having fun watching their would be contemporaries become shish-kabob, but found they were laughing at the inanities of the situations. A whole new set of rules evolved, where the moment a girl revealed her breasts, she got knifed. This was not a healthy sort of thing, and a perverse fascination drew viewers to these films (more perverse than I, let me assure you). It was not a sense of 'fun,' at least not in the socially acceptable sense. 

The eighties brought us sequels upon sequels of bloody bodies, slightly toning down the sexual implications while increasing the gore. But in general, any 'fun' was due to the ineffectiveness of the filmmakers. For I will say it again, a good horror film is NOT fun. If it is, something is wrong, most likely with the viewer, and a shrink should be involved. And yet, it appeared that this may not be entirely true. That, maybe, a good horror film could be amusing, make one laugh... But that was a confusion dealing with irony and satire. For, yes, a man named George Romero had done an experiment with a couple of films done many years apart, yet continuing the same story. The first failed to start an intelligent trend in the late sixties, it was "Night of the Living Dead (1968)," and it was very, very amusing, as well as appearing to be a decent horror film. The trick here was satire, as opposed to comedy. Unfortunately, few people were able to catch onto this right away. The second film, "Dawn of the Dead (1978)," was much more horrifying, and still satiric. It was also very dark in nature, and not particularly easy to laugh at. The third, "Day of the Dead (1985)," was even darker and more serious. But the point was that elements of humor could successfully be injected into horror films without ruining their effectiveness. 

Now it is not uncommon for comic relief to take up a good deal of time in most horror films, especially those aimed at the pop audience. Freddy Krueger has more witty one-liners than you can shake a stick at, now doesn't he. But, before I go off track again, this is the time to reintroduce the genre of horror-comedy. 

Because of the increased use of comedy in horror films, and the infrequency with which it worked, it became something of an art form to pull it off. Also, there was an ever-growing awareness of the bad stuff that had gone before. Call it camp or call it crap, the fact is it had a following. Little can touch, however, the likes of "Orgy of the Damned" for shear boring stupidity, and there is a line to be drawn before offering too much nostalgic reverence in its direction. So there were bad bad films and there were good bad films. The problem was often telling them apart. Be that as it may, some success has been made in that matter, and the horror comedy is often a self-conscious acknowledgement of that fact. Fortunately, it has also become something more in recent years, no longer relying on mistakes of past history for their humor, many horror-comedies today are as fresh and original as anything coming out of Hollywood [read that as you may]. 

"House" was fairly effective in offering humor alongside comedy. However, Sean Cunningham's efforts left the direction (by Steve Miner) a little too far on the comedy side to be fully effective as a horror-comedy, for this genre relies very much on a balance of power. Meanwhile, his former partner, Wes Craven, was still leaning very much on the horror side of things, with his films (as good as they may have been) being not very good natured at all, even with Freddy's previously mentioned quick wit. 

About 1985, however, things took a permanent change. A man named Stuart Gordon moved out to L.A. from Chicago to direct movies, helped by his friend, Brian Yuzna. The two of them made "Re-Animator (1985)" which was both funny and intelligent while going over the top with its elements of horror. Not long after (early 1987), Sam Raimi directed a remake of his film, "Evil Dead 2 (1987)," calling it a sequel, and adding intensely to the plot and action. (Technically, it is the next day, but the entire first film is capsulated in the beginning of the second one, leaving out surprisingly little.) This second film, however, is at once a superb comedy (if you prefer slapstick to the subtle) and a daring bit of horror. With it, a revolution had been completed. 

Unfortunately, it seemed as though these two early successes could not be topped. Things relaxed back into horror films with wit or comic relief thrown in frequently. But the fun had once again faded in a sad way. Some exceptional horror films were released, but nothing to really have fun with. That trend, however, was about to change again. 

Very soon, theaters were playing a couple of films by Brian Yuzna. "Society (1989)," which is more satire than anything else, perhaps the most effective use of the horror-comedy, mixes gruesome effects with a pervading, surreal sense of humor. It tends toward biting at times, but in general retains less acidity than sense of fun. Unfortunately, this was one of those quick to video releases, where it found a sizable, and deserved audience. 

Considerably more anticipated was Yuzna's "Bride of Re-Animator (1989)," with a hell of a lot more laughs as well as a sizable dose of violence and gore. (Somehow, though, it still almost comes close to coming off nearly as a sort of a family film. But no.) Both of these films have nasty special effects and a bit of nudity and fowl language, all jumbled together for that nifty R-rating. But there is still something in both of them that appeals to the child inside. And along the way, a message even manages to squeak through, something that rarely occurs in most straight horror films. (The main objective here is not body count, but quality of entertainment, even if it is a little sick.) 

Anyway, the point is this: just as I thought we were all doomed to a sea of mediocrity, along comes the rebirth of a fairly new genre that had all but faded in the few years since it was put into any serious practice, and it sticks itself in my face. Now I'm sticking it in yours. It is time to really have fun at the horror movies now, my friends. The trend has moved from laughable to humorous, and even tacked on intelligence along the way. Jeffrey Poehlmann

This blogpost was adapted from a work-in-progress originally conceived for a now-defunct newspaper serving the Los Angeles community in the 90s called "What's Up LA" for which Mr. Poehlmann was the original editor of the Film section. 

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