Friday, 28 August 2009

The Hurt Locker: 'War Poetry'?

The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow's highly acclaimed Iraq war film, has just been released in the UK. It comes with the promise that the war will be freed from the guilt and sentimentality which, many suggest, have blighted war films in recent years.

I'm intrigued by this review from the astute Kevin Maher in today's Times. This is how he ends his eulogy:

As such, [the film] speaks of greater concerns than the absurdity of a war that very few people wanted. In fact, with its eye for ground-level reality and sympathy for the soldier as cannon fodder, it has more in common with Wilfred Owen’s 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' than Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

For, in short, in its gutsy, bare-bones beauty, The Hurt Locker is not simply a war movie. It is war poetry.

There are several fascinating assumptions here. It is pleasing to see 'war poetry' evoked as the gold standard for artistic representations of war. Cinema has little need for poetry except when there are lively biopics to be made: the last decade or so has seen films about T. S. Eliot, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and (most recently) John Keats. So when a film aspires to the condition of poetry --- even if only in the eyes of a reviewer --- it acknowledges a value system distinct from commercial imperatives. The Hurt Locker escapes its genre. Its closest kin, Maher suggests, is Wilfred Owen, not Stanley Kubrick.

Maher's comparison also draws on an assumed peculiarity of war poetry. If something is described as 'poetical', that description suggests an embellished beauty, a gorgeousness which is full perhaps even to excess. Maher refers to 'beauty', but this is 'a gutsy, bare-bones beauty', concerned with 'ground-level reality'. War poetry, then, is beautiful because realistic, unrhetorical, and tough ('gutsy'); war poetry is unpoetical.

That being the case, 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' is a strange example to choose. Maher's allusion to 'the soldier as cannon fodder' brings to mind the poem's opening line: 'What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?' Yet 'bare-bones' Owen's style is not. As Geoffrey Hill has argued, Owen remains in thrall to 'a residual yet haunting echo of ... nineteenth-century rhetoric', and 'applies a balm of generalized sorrow at a point where the particulars of experience should outsmart that kind of consolation.' The melancholic music of the 'sad shires' is an escape from circumstances which Owen elsewhere faces more candidly. The bare-bones poet is not Owen but Keith Douglas, who describes his style as 'extrospective' ('regarding external objects rather than one's own thoughts and feelings' --- OED), and who tells one correspondent that 'To be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and to others.'

Kevin Maher gives the film five stars (out of 5). That is, The Hurt Locker is good enough to be a poem.

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