Friday, September 7, 2007

In time of war

There are scenes in Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley that recall Goya and Bergman's Shame -- harrowing illustrations of Wilfred Owen's "Anthem For Damned Youth" registered in the quicksilver flickers in Cillian Murphy's bottomless blue eyes -- and others that seem unaware of the tortured ambiguities expressed in Yeats' "Meditations in Time of Civil War" and "Easter 1916." When leftists like Loach politicize their films they're often accused of making "tracts," but I don't see how depictions of war can be anything else. Once committed, soldiers move inexorably forward; what pangs of conscience arise are contemplated alone, in the dark, if you're not dead yet. However, the filial dynamics let him too easily off the hook; while the last ten minutes are as devastating as any I've seen this year, the cowardice that motivates the drill sergeant to sell out his men in Paths of Glory (and Cillian Murphy's final scene deliberately recalls the Kubrick film), and the way in which Kubrick forces the character to writhe in anguish while officiating a firing squad execution, says more about how combat dissolves even the most elementary bonds between strangers.

The film this most reminded me of was The Crying Game (really), whose national politics are arguably more complex than its sexual and probably the least commented upon. Adrian Dunbar's stern, relentless IRA chieftan in the 1992 film, whose commitment to duty is so complete and genuine that it comes to seem textured and at last human, represents what Murphy never becomes (when Dunbar mumbles, "You're a good man, Fergus" to Stephen Rea's conflicted anti-hero after the latter accepts the responsibility for shooting Forest Whitaker, we shiver -- we understand why Fergus might thrill at this rare compliment, and how it still doesn't mitigate the horror of what he's about to do). Loach, the creator of twentysomething full-length films, has devoted an entire career to Zola-esque naturalism; in The Wind That Shakes The Barley, we watch his leftism feast upon itself, while Loach watches us, as if to join us in mourning. The film's conclusion really leaves us with smoke and ashes:
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

-- W.B. Yeats, from "Meditations in Time of Civil War"

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