Friday, February 05, 2010

The Theater and Its Double

As the ten movies nominated for Academy Awards this year are announced, I have to say something about two front-runners: the popular favorite Avatar and the critical darling The Hurt Locker.

I've had some unkind words to say about the first movie, in a blog post that might get me into trouble with Sarah Palin with its title.

The Hurt Locker speaks more directly to my critical interests. It's a movie that treats the subject of the Iraq war, digital simulation, and online media representation in ways that invite analysis from a Virtualpolitik standpoint. The main character on the bomb detonation squad gets right into the zone of most physical danger and avoids interacting with improvised explosive devices from the recommended position of a computer-screen spectator and operator of a mechanical robotic prothesis. Yet he also loves playing violent videogames that facilitate the detachment and disembodiment that allow him to do his work dispassionately. In the periphery we see Iraqis with ubiquitous communication and recording devices that can turn threatening. There is even a reference to wanting to shoot the person ready to put the squad's situation on YouTube.

But The Hurt Locker isn't really about technology. It's about masculinity. And in many ways I thought it was an inferior film to the movie that won critical lauds last year: The Wrestler. Both movies are about the subcultures of particular professions that both express and contain violence in a hyper-masculine discipline. Both contain an isolated hero who is unable to connect to his mate or to his family members, because he is inexorably drawn back into his high performance, high adrenaline, virtuoso, risk-taking specialization. In The Wrestler, this profession finally kills him, but in The Hurt Locker we have a charmed man who seems to be unkillable, even as he gathers collateral damage all around him with the men in his unit. What makes The Wrestler a superior film is the tight control of its point of view and its tolerance of silence and uncinematic routines.

Similarly, Avatar and District 9 constitute a kind of pair. The latter, more interesting film presents aliens who aren't noble savages however and who have a more complex and less romanticized relationship to technology. Although both stories involve a hero going native, District 9 makes this metamorphosis much more tortured and also much less complete, because this transition is set against the historical conditions of colonialism and globalization rather than a mythic past or a utopian fantasy.

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