Saturday, April 19, 2014

Please Sink My Battleship

The movie Battleship is critically reviled and if I were a critic of film I would definitely join the party in hating it. It is a children's game that was blown up Jerry Bruckheimer style into a massive, special-effects laden, clunky, chunky and funky action flick. It lacks any delicate touches or even nuances, unless of course you count slow motion shots of epic faced characters with over-saturated color as a nuance.

The story itself should be familiar. Aliens attack the world and they are fought off. One unique aspect of the film is that it takes place in Hawai'i, usually known as a setting for fantasy-paradise jaunts of the Western, American-centered world. Or Hawai'i as a locale is often invisibly inserted into films provided the scenery for ancient jungles, humid alien worlds or lost islands. Many of these films attempt to hide the contemporary nature of Hawai'i and instead film, edit and crop the place into becoming something majestically camera ready for wasted, privileged metropole imaginations. Battleship doesn't give the reality of Hawai'i, because as with most representations, including locally based ones, they have trouble dealing with the Native Hawai'i, or the fact that Hawai'i has natives, who have claims to the land, and the island reeks with layer upon layer of injustice. But what Battleship represents in spectacular, bloated, ridiculous fashion is the militarized nature of Hawai'i. Hawai'i may be a "tourist paradise", but it is also a heavily militarized place. The US military (and to an extent the Japanese military) are the main characters of Battleship. They take center-stage in so many ways, and like a film which lingers in almost ridiculous ways on the yummy parts of their main actor or actress, Battleship is filled with gratuitous military love.

Now to be perfectly clear, I really enjoyed the movie Battleship. But I have a long history of loving terrible films. And when I say terrible I don't mean the way people glorify low-budget indie or obscure films, which achieve an intimate cult status. Battleship had plenty of resources behind it and plenty of chances to find some generally redeemable characteristics, but it is bad in a way which you could excuse as being unapologetic, as in it knows it is basically propaganda, or you could see it as a bull trying to tiptoe or tiphoof its way around a china shop, and failing miserably and destroying everything around it. It is bad in the same way that a film like The Lone Ranger is bad. Like the way Avatar was bad. The politics of it are so ridiculous, you have to marvel at what process formed this train wreck of poor politics?

But for me, these types of films can be important and have lots of critical potential, even if the creators didn't intend it. Such is the joy of discourse and the play of meaning, no matter how much a politically conscious person sneers at a film like Battleship, their assumptions don't control the potential meanings of it anymore than those who spent millions marketing the film.

Battleship is intriguing to me because even if lots of people didn't like the film, it nonetheless represents in lumbering ways, many of the reasons why militarism, militarization and military service are attractive to most societies. I began writing about this last week but had to cut my thoughts short because of other projects. But I'm returning to it now, because the line of thought keeps popping up in my head.

I wrote last week about the need to understand militarism as a complex process not a simple one. For many people who want to demilitarize or resist militarize, they reduce it so something simple and negative. They assert it, often unintentionally as something monolithic, something which has a very clear consciousness and so something you can critique and despise apart from those who participate in it as an institution (as soldiers for example). This leads to assumptions that militarism is all about violence, control, discipline, order, exploitation. Even if it is about those things, this assumption can be problematic because of the way it limits the way you can perceive the agency or lack of agency of those who join. In places like Guam where there is so much participation for the US military and for militarism as being a central facet of society, it is easy to see the reasons why people join the US military as being about the blindness or the hopelessness of people. People join because they are lied to, because they have no other options, because they mis-recognize their relationship to the United States and therefore have colonial patriotism sentiments. All of these things are true, but they are at most part true. The simplicity of this vision of the world leads to natural assumptions that those who serve in the military must do so because of their lack of agency or lack of freedom. In order to both protect those serving but also keep things simple and easier to process, you have to strip soldiers of that agency in order to keep that primarily negative portrayal of the military.

Battleship is of course a positive portrayal of the US military, and it is important because it represents so many of the ways that people see the military, militarism, military service and therefore see it as something important, natural, inspiring and exciting. What I find problematic is that the image that many who want to resist militarization have of militarism, doesn't come close to portraying the way most people see militarism. What I may see for example as a drooling, decaying, disgusting and destructive hydra that ravages all it comes into contact with, will be seen in completely different ways by most others. They may see faint traces of what I see in the ways I articulate this shared discursive formation, but will those traces motivate them to change their relationship or will it motivate them to reaffirm and reinforce it?

Many films with a military focus promote ideas of fraternity and brotherly bonds and loyalty. They show soldiers fighting for freedom and dying for ideals, overcoming incredible odds to save lives, save the day, save the country. Battleship has all these dimensions in it, but it also goes a little bit further in ways I just could not shake.

For example, the human military versus alien forces is a very common trope in sci fi films. This is usually handled very differently though. In the War of the Worlds for example, the dynamic is one of futility. Humans fight and they struggle, but ultimately they are powerless and incapable of defeating their alien foe. Only something which is completely beyond their control, something that benefit from, but cannot take any real credit for, something in their biology or the natural world is actually the true victor, the true defender of earth.

Transformers is an interesting franchise that shows the ways in which the military itself helps to influence the creative process. If you are creating a film that will require military hardware or personnel, if your film falls in line with the way the Department of Defense wants to represent itself, than you will get plenty of resources and plenty of help. Sometimes this can even mean that changes will be made in the scripts of films to accommodate a pro-military message. Some writers and directors will make these changes on their own, but other times changes are made only after the military has made their support conditional on characters being added, taken out, scenes removed or a message shifted. In recent years, the use of private contractors in movies is not only due to their prevelance in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are regularly used because they can provide a bad guy that looks, smells and feels like they are military, but are not actually military. You can tap into the negative feelings that people feel against military culture, violence, power, discipline, while also not challenging their feelings of patriotism and "support the troops" mantras. The relationship that people have to the militaries of their societies is always significantly more complicated than what they say or admit to. Movies which make the military as an institution or even as a set of people as the bad guy can easily turn off an audience, since it might compel them to question certain things they'd rather not. The military stand, to use a familiar movie metaphor, atop the walls of a nation, guarding watching, keeping its enemies at bay. It does not sit well with people to think of them as anything but trustworthy. Audiences tend not to like being reminded of that and so often times alternative characters or groups are created

Alternatively, the military does not like to support any film which makes them appear infective or incapable, even if the threats are otherworldly or overwhelming. For those of us who remember the old school Transformers, the reboot by Michael Bay and company feels completely different primarily because of the heavy focus on militarization. The Transformers work closely with the US military and the US military fight alongside them. In the original Transformers, humans tended to be chaff that was swept aside by Decepticons, but in the most recent franchise the human soldiers fight and do struggle but also overcome the Decepticons and play key roles in saving the world. In essence they fight side by side the Autobots therefore keeping alive notions of camaraderie and fraternity, making the narrative power of the Autobots and the military flow into each other, imbuing both with greater potential strength. It is no wonder that there are so many damn American flags in the Transformers movies. It is like watching a big, long, metallic ad for American militarism.

In Battleship, things are slightly different. It is just humans against alien foes. The power of the foes appears overwhelming, but the military is able to handle it in the end, but only after lots of sacrifice and heroism. One thing that truly makes the ideology of militarism seductive is the level of excitement that is often attributed to it. The slow-motion shots, the pounding rock music, the fast and chaotic visual cuts. It is a way of life that can fill you with so much excitement, but also with fear and with dread. It is something that not all could be cut out for, living with such intensity and with loud, angry noises surrounding you at all times. This contrast between the glamorized, bombastic, intense nature of the world that militarism both offers and keeps at bay is important, especially if you consider attempting to take that style of aggressive representation into other forms of life. If you were to collect together different spheres of social life and then relate the way that they are represented through creative media, and the value that they are ascribed as needing to not be touched, critiqued or even considered in a transformative way, the rule as I see it is that the more violent and the more chaotic something can appear to be, the less likely people are to critique it. These portrayals of militarism that cram together violence, heroism, sacrifice and elite qualities help to create that ideological insulated effect. For those who live quiet lives of crawling desperation, it is easy to see militarism through that fetishistic gaze, where you move between marveling and fearing what is presented to you.

Militarism, like anything is a path in life, a set of ideological choices, that have every real ramifications in the world. Its soundtrack is more exciting than most possible choices. As a choose your own adventure it seems to offer a bigger potential slice of the world, more power, more potential respect. These aspects can't just be dismissed as "not being true," because they always possess some element of truth, and that sliver has to be dealt with, because it most likely connects the person to some of the basic parts of their identity in society.

One aspect that I found very interesting about Battleship was the way in which the old, the antiquated, the outdated comes to save the day. This is a common enough trope in war films. In a high-tech fight, usually all that is high-tech ends up being disabled and rendered useless. But that which is low-tech, from a previous era, supposedly useless is suddenly so important, so essential, it can help save the day. Take for instance one of my favorite sci-fi universes, Dune. In it people have created an elaborate force-field system, personal shields that will protect you from most attacks, but as the saying goes "the slow blade penetrates the shield." A regular blade, without any sort of advanced adornment will easily slice through what the most advanced weapons may not.

In many war films, the ancient tech that is utilized is usually Morse code. With contemporary communication  lines down or compromised down, old networks for communication, the arcane knowledge of it becomes essential in achieving victory. In Battleship the movies goes beyond the ancient being helpful, but it being what drives the final victory.

Battleship flirts with the usual tropes of alien invaders having an achilles heel, in this case sunlight. But as soon as you consider the movie as a whole, you realize that this weakness adds close to nothing in terms of the overall action of the film. If they were not sensitive to sunlight everything with the exception of three scenes, where the weakness plays a dramatic but not necessarily central role, would be pretty much the same. What this creates is a stage where aliens and humans are matched, with the aliens clearly superior, but it does have the effect of making the guts, the bolts, the hard edge of war machines seem that much stronger and tougher.

At the end of the film, all the "modern" ships of the humans have been destroyed. They are forced to rely on using an ancient battleship that has been decommissioned and now sits in Pearl Harbor as a museum. In addition to this, a squad of veterans from previous wars appear to help them start the battleship, man it, and defeat the aliens with it. The final fight is filled with a ridiculous amount of inter-generational solidarity, as the old, the very old and the young all work together, using a 70 year old hunk of metal to defeat an advanced alien enemy. The amount of messages glorifying militarism as an ideal and beautiful part of life in these part of the film are almost too overwhelming it is easy to miss them as they layer atop each other. You are meant to feel, see, taste and idolize the way militarism and militarization creates this heroic solidarity. The weapons, the tools, the ideology, the discipline that one receives now or received then, can bind everyone together, with respect, admiration and precision to vanquish your enemies. The timelessness of the ideology of militarism is double and then tripled in both technology (ancient defeating alien) and human (because of their shared service, sacrifice and commitment, they can all work together and win). The marketing is that the power you receive through this service never expires, will always be useful, will always be needed.

These fantasies are powerful, even if they aren't presented in the most sophisticated ways, that which feels universal, essential, natural doesn't have to be for it to maintain hegemony.

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