Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011)

A few delayed responses to Battle: Los Angeles:
  • Friday, March 11th, 2011: two disasters arrive simultaneously on American screens, one real (on the small screens of televisions and computers), one imagined (on the big screens of multiplex movie theaters), and, as always, the real one is conformed to a fictional narrative (specifically, the narrative of disaster movies, complete with nuclear powerplant cliffhanger) while the fictional one seeks—bluntly, shoddily, thuddingly—to give itself an iota of credibility by stealing from reality.
  • Battle: Los Angeles is a bad film, and, as bad films tend to do, it not only reveals its flaws but the flaws of the audience it was made for.
  • Serge Daney once said that only imperialist countries made disaster films—or, really, what he said was “it's only imperialist countries that can afford disaster films,” but ultimately one does what one can afford. Even more accurately, there are two factors: 1) only imperialist countries have the resources to make disaster films, and 2) only imperialist countries have audiences that want to see disaster films.
  • The proliferation of alien invasion / disaster films in the US since the 1990s—of "national survival" narratives, masochistic wish-fulfillments for audiences that want to be told that they, as a society, will do the right thing when the time comes—has a fascinating contrast in the fact that the greatest disaster to befall the modern United States, Hurricane Katrina, was more of a moral and social failure than a natural calamity.
  • "Invasion literature" dominated British popular culture from about the 1870s to World War I and, like many American disaster and invasion films, it was often produced with the help of military advisors. Sometimes the writers were military men themselves: George Tomkyns Chesney was a lieutenant colonel at the time he wrote The Battle of Dorking and was eventually promoted to general towards the end of his life.
  • Saying that Battle: Los Angeles is an advertisement for the Marines (and it is in a certain way) or that it resembles a recruitment ad (which it does) overlooks the fact that it serves as an advertisement for numerous other products as well: Vaio computers, Pepsi Max (whose billboard stands proudly amongst the ruins of Los Angeles), even Yellowtail wine.


Anonymous said...

BATTLE L.A. is a bad movie, but I don't believe that genres it partakes of--the war film (specifically the grunt-level subgenre), the sci-fi invasion movie and the disaster movie--are inherently meretricious.

The disaster narrative done right is about all sorts of things--community, leadership, who and how to trust in an emergency, self-sacrifice, human ingenuity and surviving against impossible odds--that are worth telling stories about.

In disaster films, spectacle almost always trumps story, but here are a few where it doesn't: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, ALIVE (based on a true story), WINGS OF HOPE (Herzog's doc). I had hoped for something similar from 127 HOURS--ideal material for the most minimal survival story ever told--but alas got a Mountain Dew commercial instead.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to add this. [Spoilers!] There's an amazing scene in the middle of Kathryn Bigelow's otherwise uneven K-19: THE WIDOWMAKER where a submarine's nuclear reactor requires emergency repairs which a few brave men must undertake immediately. The most harrowing moment isn't given to the men first in, but to the ones who are waiting their turn. After the first crew stumbles out, already overexposed and suffering from radiation sickness, it is these waiting men who must chose to act selflessly and decisively or to cower in fear.

Whenever I hear about the workers in Fukushima and try to understand their heroism, I can't stop thinking of this scene.

This is why we tell ourselves these stories, so that we can grope toward imagining the unimaginable. If only other disaster films had this kind of moral seriousness and integrity.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

1. I don't think the genres are without merit, even when it's more spectacle than anything else -- for one, I happen to quite like Roland Emmerich's big Pop Art disasters.

2. I'd disagree that K-19 is uneven -- it is, in fact, my favorite Bigelow movie (I've written about it here before), and perhaps if someone gives her the money, she'll produce a disaster movie with the same level of "seriousness and integrity."

Jon Hastings said...

I like Emmerich's apocalypses, too. My favorites, though, are the original Godzilla and Fukasaku's Virus, so, maybe to extend Daney's generalization, it takes someone from a defeated imperialist society to make good disaster movies. (A good genre for Griffith?)

re: Battle: LA - these kinds of "invasion inversion" movies (i.e. ones where American audiences get to feel like they're on the receiving end of the kind of destruction their country is in the habit of dishing out) are pretty queasy-making. Even when, as with Spielberg/Koepp's War of the Worlds, they're meant as a metaphor for American imperialism, they never work that way because the spectacle, which works on our lizard brains, overwhelms any simplistic metaphor.

Matthew Flanagan said...

"it not only reveals its flaws but the flaws of the audience it was made for."

This strikes me as bullshit. As Daney also said after the imperialist quote: "it is the parties who write history." Blaming the public here is a fool's game -- "one does what one can afford" indeed.

dave said...

Matthew - I think you're right in your locus of critique, but one might argue that the problem is equally, or at least partially, that the party histories stick -- that those parties have memberships, and that workers choose to join these organizational forms knowing full well what compromises that entails.

Matthew Flanagan said...

This analogy could run and run, Dave. :) I don't disagree, but am extremely wary of shifting the onus so baldly from the commercial culture industry to the public (especially as IV is referring, rightly, to western imperialism in the same breath!)...