In life sometimes we are torn between using our head or our heart when faced with certain events. Pragmatism may be my default setting, but the romantic in me also takes hold occasionally. Especially when it comes to good art.
One of the more poignant and difficult to watch movie scenes I have seen in my life is the opening of Saving Private Ryan. In its sheer, brutal brevity (almost half an hour of a 169-minute-long film) lie many of the unpalatable elements that make me hate war. Yet, this graphic, unforgettable sequence is a magnet to which my artistic sensibility is drawn like a hapless moth trapped in a spider’s web, watching its hungry host(ess) getting ever so closer, knowing its fateful dénouement and yet, being unable to do anything about it.
Until recently I had never managed to go beyond that opening scene. I usually left the room afterwards. The footage is too real, like war archive material. Were it grainier and more worn-out-looking, it could pass off as a documentary. This was not, however, the only reason why I refused to sit through the almost-three-hour-long film. The artistry of it is too enticing, too alluring. This is not cinema-cinema, but cinema-as-dance. These men are not at the mercy of Ares, but Terpsichore. The only sound we hear at the start comes from the untamed sea, waves crashing on the shore of Omaha Beach. The first sign of human life to which we are exposed is not the myriad helmeted heads bent down on the boats but a trembling hand trying to uncap a bottle of water. The camera pans out slowly, revealing lines of soldiers, a couple of them being sick. This is not a regiment but a corps du ballet and Spielberg is monsieur le choreographer.
Dance carries poetry within and so does Saving Private Ryan. It is hard for me, though, to accept this verse-inspired narrative. To equate the carnage of human beings (even when the motives for the killing are noble) to one of the most beautiful literary genres feels wrong. And yet, as I watched the movie recently I thought of other war-themed works of art that had inspired in me a similar love-hate dichotomy. One of them was also a film, Waltz with Bashir, an animation about the Sabra and Shatila massacre. In a scene I can only describe as surrealistic, one of the Israeli officers grabs a submachine gun and begins dancing a waltz (hence the movie title) in the middle of the road as shots rain down on him from nearby buildings without killing him. The gun in his hands never stops releasing bullet after bullet but the effect of the whole setup is hypnotic. You cannot take your eyes off this daring figure, moving almost en pointe down the street and surviving.
Another example is Picasso’s Guernica. It never grabbed me as much as it did other people. I wanted to see what they saw but all my eyes were able to capture was muddledness. Until one day in my late teens when I saw the picture again and all of a sudden each figure in the composition fell into place like a jigsaw puzzle. I saw chaos, but the chaos provoked by war. In its mouths, fully open and skywards pointing, there was a cry for peace.
Michael Longley’s poem Wounds was also on my mind as I watched Saving Private Ryan. Especially the lines: “Now, with military honours of a kind/With his badges, his medals like rainbows/His spinning compass, I bury beside him/Three teenage soldiers, bellies full of/Bullets and Irish beer, their flies undone.” Go back to Spielberg’s movie and watch how the camera zooms in on the men’s faces as they are about to land. It picks them up, one by one, stopping no longer than two seconds. Two seconds. That’s all it takes to provide the viewer with the real experience of war. War as a killing vehicle. War as an act of defence. War as cinematography. As dance. As art. Even though I hate it, still, war as art.
Next Post: “Killer Opening Songs”, to be published on Wednesday 1st February at 6pm (GMT)