Monday, July 14, 2008

A Sunday Night's Viewing of Iraq

Downtown Maputo Dressed as Baghdad for HBO's Generation Kill (Source)

Generation Kill is an HBO miniseries that fictionalizes (in an all-too-documentary way) the exploits of the Marines 1st Reconnaissance Batallion during the opening moments of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Like Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers, or Stuart Cooper's Overlord, Generation Kill uses this effacing of boundaries between fiction and non-fiction to give a different, urgent reading to the military subject. And like its predecessors, it aestheticizes its subject in order to propel the story forward.

The main protagonist in this series is the landscape. Rows upon rows of tents and barracks fade into the distant horizon. Humvees and support vehicles, bedecked in tan desert camouflage, diffuse and bleed into the desert air. This is all intentional of course, for these opening moments reaffirm what we were always hearing as we watched American troops prepare for combat on CNN: deserts make for inhospitable climates, and nothing emphasizes this better than the sordid business of war.

And yet landscape has always been a vital element of books and movies about war. Take, for instance, Gert Ledig's brutal account of the Eastern Front, The Stalin Organ (Die Stalinorgel) (1955). In the opening moments of the book, a Wehrmacht machine-gunner is quite literally torn apart, his various body parts dangling from trees, the trees cut down and plastered underneath the treads of advancing Russian tanks. The body is literally subsumed into the landscape.

The primacy of landscape over soldier in Generation Kill is no doubt emphasized by the uniformity of the military garb. Every one wears the same flak vests, the same helmets, same goggles. This makes keeping track of the individual characters in the opening episode an arduous task, no doubt emphasized by the wooden, rote acting. These characters behave like almost every other soldier we've ever seen in a war film. Take away the color palettes, the standard-issue body armor and camouflage, and the normative universe of Generation Kill is reduced to a handful of swearing soldiers.

We are not intended to understand this as acting. The slow, yet urgent pacing makes us see these actors not as characters, but as the soldiers themselves. This is underlined by the fact that some members of the 1st Recon Batallion play themselves in the film.

Last night, however, before the first episode of Generation Kill came on the air, HBO ran a short documentary about the mini-series. In terms of behind-the-scenes exposés, this one was quite paltry. But again, it was interesting hearing the show's production designers and actors talk about the importance of accurately depicting the Iraqi landscape.

All the desert scenes were filmed in Namibia. Parts of Maputo, Mozambique were digitally altered or dressed to look like Baghdad. In one arresting scene, an actor who participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom (and presumably a military advisor to the show) points to the sky and says (I'm paraphrasing here): "The sky. It's the same hue as Baghdad's."

1 comment:

Steamboat said...

You make a very good point. Landscape and place have become literal characters in many books and films. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is a great example as is Sex in the City. Not only does landscape set the feel and tone of the story, the harshness or lushness can parallel the story and the struggles or successes of characters.