Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Anti-Anti-Movie

I've just finished Peter Weir's Gallipoli which tells the tale of hundreds of thousands of young Australian men lead to their deaths in a battle that made really no sense to anyone. It is often, rightfully, compared with Stanley Kubrick's anti-war masterpiece Paths of Glory, which got me thinking: what does "anti-war" even really mean?

You could throw that term in front of a lot of war movies and it would stick. Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, Oliver Stone's Platoon, Speilberg's Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, David O Russell's Three Kings, Randall Wallace's We Were Soldiers and so on. But at what point do we define a movie as being anti anything? The reason the term sticks so well and is so uneasily refuted is that when the question is posed of what exactly could be named as an example of a pro-war movie, not too many titles instantly fit the bill.

And they rightfully shouldn't, but does that not mean that any movie that depicts the death and destruction caused by war is, in some way or another, anti-war by default? I can't think of too many movies, no matter how graphic or glorified the violence, that would stand up and openly claim themselves to being pro-war because, knowing the innate horrors or warfare, who would ever stand up and make a bold public statement in favour of it?

But let's assume, as we must, that not all war films are anti-war. At what point then does a film justifiably become anti-anything? Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting was originally criticized upon its release by some who felt it was pro-drug in it's stylized glorification and comedic outlook towards a bunch of Scottish junkies. I don't know about anyone else in the world, but seeing images of a man lose his bowels all over the bed sheets or another dive into the filthiest toilet in Scotland, no matter how humorous or stylized, should certainly be enough to turn most rational minds away from the temptations of heroin use.

Could this then simply be another one of these faux critical terms that seem to instill an importance in a film that simply inherently exists under the surface anyway based on the content? With the depiction of war itself, the realization of senseless death on a massive scale, the confusion and horror of being trapped alone in a place where each new step brings the possibility of death, are these things not the statement in and of itself without taste makers underlining and bolding it for us as well? I've heard many arguments about how Inception is a film about filmmaking, which I always dismiss as too easy a reading: of course Inception is a film about filmmaking. Every movie about dreams is, whether purposefully or not, a film about filmmaking.

That is of course not to take away from films such as Paths of Glory and Gallipoli, which are both, in similar and yet different ways, very affecting stories that rise above simple depictions of brutal combat. My point is, to come back to it again, at what point do we differentiate a war film from an anti-war film, a drug film from an anti-drug film, a violent film from an anti-violence film and so on? And how then, in all our infinite wisdom and critical capacity can we even begin to answer such a question when it is next to, if not completely impossible to separate a film's content from its message?


  1. A good question; I wouldn't say all films can be called antiwar - I think calling Private Ryan that renders the term somewhat meaningless - but antiwar films are so ubiquitous it almost becomes redundant to call a war film "antiwar." As for your thesis, well I would say it works both ways. On the one hand, any war film showing the horrors of war (in other words, any war film showing war - because even a bloodless, sanitized death is still death) could be seen as "antiwar." Yet as Truffaut put it, most films (I'd say all, but I've seen the loathsome Little Children) are inherently romantic. So in that sense even the most antiwar film is going to come off as rather prowar, inadvertently glorifying the carnage through excitement, transcendence, and catharsis. And I suppose the same could be said of any work of art, not just a movie.

  2. Nice piece and nice comment, Joel. (I happen to agree on Little Children.)

    I've been racking my brain to think of anything where there are legitimately pro and anti depictions in movies, with both positions being defensible using ordinary morality. I talk myself out of each example I come up with.

    I'd say "antiwar" could still have meaning if it were applied more selectively. Like, maybe you'd reserve for it a film like Born on the Fourth of July, where the antiwar movement itself is a big part of the film.