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by Harlan Kennedy


As Tolstoy once said, at least according to TV's SEINFELD: "War, what is it good for?" That was the original title of WAR AND PEACE, Jerry persuaded Elaine to believe (with disastrous results for her publishing career). War is indeed, as the question implies, good for nothing much. It is good, we have learned over the last several millennia, for death, destruction and worldwide suffering.

But in the mostly non-lethal world of a film festival war is transformed, annually or seasonally, from a destruction force to a debating topic. "War war" becomes "jaw jaw," cinematically speaking, which like Winston Churchill we can view as far, far preferable.

The 66th Venice Film Festival, more than any in recent memory, was obsessed with unpicking the mysteries and miseries of war. If war didn't exist, the festival's movies almost imply, humans would have to invent it. Art thrives on tragic extremes, especially if rooted in reality, and the whole globe today - which means the whole globe's culture - is troubled by the shape war will take in coming decades. Will that shape be destruction by nuclear blasts? Will it be an ongoing sequence of asymmetrical wars like those fought in the last half century (from Vietnam to the war on terror')? Will it be war by military violence; will it be war by chemical virus? The scenarios multiply. So do the movies. You show me your dreams or nightmares, I'11 show you mine.

The Golden Lion victor, Samuel Maoz's LEBANON, was merely the most upfront and out-front example of the variety of films on this theme. Before LEBANON, Venicegoers had sampled Giuseppe Tornatore's BAARIA, John Hillcoat's THE ROAD, Todd Solondz's LIFE DURING WARTIME, Lei Wangzi's YONFAN. After LEBANON, they had Claire Denis's WHITE MATERIAL, George A Romero’s SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, Grant Heslov's THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS. All different facets of that dark jewel called the war movie.

The very first two entries in the competition's schedule staked out the opposing styles and approaches. (Or the principal set of opposing styles and approaches). In BAARIA Tornatore gives us, in his film's middle section, a World War 2 actual and factual - this is broadly how it was - even if inflected by the CINEMA PARADISO director's brand of magical neorealism. The child's-eye view enhances the heroism and the horror. Tornatore's war has to be broadly real; it is there to catalyse the characters' lives and to explain an entire Italian generation; it is there to show how the resistance's anti-fascism sowed the seeds of postwar Marxism.

THE ROAD is fantasy cinema's response. Australo-American fantasy. An unreal, but in US novelist Cormac McCarthy and Aussie filmmaker John Hillcoat's heads all too possible, conflict has detonated the world's end. America is a smouldering ash-heap. Across it trek the hope-challenged survivors, the father and the boy, plus a few stoical or sinister bands of vagrants. This is how the planet finishes or might do. With a wipe­out bang followed by the poignant whimper, the doomed defiant rallentando, of the lives that refuse to let go.

This yin and yang - realistic versus imaginary delineations of war - continued like a pendulum throughout the festival. What enriches this two-way rhythm was that few of the movies were simply representative of one side or the other. You could call THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS a comical-Kafkaesque fantasy on the extremes of paranoid behaviour possible in alumni of the Pentagon: those `psy ops' graduates who think that human bipeds and goatee'd quadrupeds can both be felled by the killer stares of trained military psych-artists. But the film was based on a nonfiction book, culled from interviews with actual members of Uncle Sam's cabal, by journalist Jon Ronson. So what was fantasy and what was fact?

Similarly, yet differently, Clair Denis's WHITE MATERIAL seems to be a story inspired by Zimbabwe: a white farmer (Isabelle Huppert) threatened with eviction during a black-ruled country's brutal war on its onetime colonials. Yet the country is unnamed and Denis, as befits the director of CHOCOLAT and BEAU TRAVAIL, seems more interested in stretching the story into a ballet sauvage, a Greek-tragedy-­gone-African, than in inviting nitty-gritty comparisons with actual modern history. WHITE MATERIAL is about the eternal war not just between the haves and have­nots but arguably - and provocatively - between the should-rules and shouldn't-rules.

With Lei Wangzi's underrated, fascinating YONFAN another real convulsion in a real nation's history, the anticommunist purges in 1950s Taiwan, is turned to myth or even fairytale. The child's eye view reigns again (as in BAARIA), though it becomes a chillingly believable tool of vision - even amid the pastel picture-book colours - as the children concerned watch the persecution, purging and in one scene execution of those dearest to them. This is a story about the dreamtime of childhood turning, without identifiable transition point, into nightmare.

Two American movies, finally, gave us a different and even deeper pairing of `yin' and `yang.' Neither SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD nor LIFE DURING WARTIME is about any war you can find in a history book. But each is about war in its own way. George A Romero’s latest zombie gig is about war as pandemic, a disease that once set raging - like this latest outbreak of lumbering-undead mayhem - knows no frontiers, no border posts, no quarantine refuges like (in theory and expectation) the island the characters flee to in hope of safety. But even here, exacerbated by an old feud between families, the virus soon rages. For Romero the ultimate truth of life is: everyone wants to kill everyone else. Whether you are on the good side or the bad side, whatever those terms mean, is a technicality.

There is more kinship than we ever thought between George A Romero and Todd Solondz. There is no war at all, despite its title, in LIFE DURING WARTIME. Yet there is a state of war ruthless and unending. It involves all the characters and it implicates, like SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, the oldest locus belli of all: the family. No one can war like a family. Not just a family which opens hostilities against other families, but a family warring within itself.

Solondz's film is a sequel to HAPPINESS. Which raises the mischievous question: Is there a sequel to happiness? If so, what is it? Perhaps, like war, it is the desperate, violent, no-holds-barred attempt, by those who have known and lost happiness, to retrieve and repossess it. Someone - call him the enemy - has stolen it away from us. And life, even emotional and interior life, is territorial. When hostile humans or circumstances move in on Fortress Happiness, we are all quick to declare war. From that microcosm of conflict it is a small step to the macrocosm. From the macrocosm, it is an even shorter step to the apocalypse. THE ROAD merely lies at the far end of the highway, a highway littered with intervening realities and tragedies, from LIFE DURING WARTIME.






©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.