Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Original Cin

by Drew Martin

Cinema is rife with references. In some cases the references out-perform the plot, or actually are the plot as we see in a kids' film such as Shrek and classics such as Star Wars. There can be direct, indirect and unintentional references happening at the same time, where the inclusion of an icon is less about borrowing or nodding to the original as it is about perpetuating a myth, which the director may or may not even be aware of.

This happens in Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal's The Hurt Locker with the "suit", which is the protective gear worn by the main character, Army Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), who disarms IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the streets of Baghdad. Whether or not you like the film (I did, for many reasons I won't go into here, although I have never so strongly opposed a concluding message) the bomb suit is a brilliant icon and vulnerable superhero.

The suit references deep sea diving as well as space walking and that is the divide where Bigelow leaves us each time its wearer dons it and goes off into the unknown. The slow and deliberate movements inherent in the suit conjure space and the sea; voids, which make the baked land of Jordan (where it was filmed) a unique experience.

It is worth mentioning The Diving Bell and the Butterfly memoir/movie by/about journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, and how the diving bell is used as an analogy to his isolation from a stroke that left him with a condition called locked-in syndrome. The protective bomb suit is definately a heavy metaphor for James' isolated personality.

The movie referenced the most by Bigelow and the cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, is 2001: A Space Odyssey, almost to the point of visual plagurism. What comes prepackaged with that visual reference are the fatal experiences and the tension that something terrible is about to happen. What I liked about The Hurt Locker is recalling those references in a completely different world: the arid and littered streets of Baghdad, which makes the sun feel hotter and the Americans just as far from home as outerspace or miles underwater. To not make the audience too sure of the protective suit, Bigelow and Boal kill off Staff Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) in the first few minutes at what seems, in cinematic terms, a safe distance from the explosion of an IED.

This opening scene establishes the extraterrestrial feel by focusing on a "bot" that scurries around the streets to look closely at a roadside bomb. It is Martian, it is lunar, but it is the Middle East. The space and oceanic references, as well as those to revamped superhero movies such as The Iron Giant, Iron Man and G.I. Joe are decendents of something else, which I do not think was on Bigelow and Boal's minds.

The source I would follow all of these back to is Golem of the Jewish ghetto of 16th century Prague. It is the source for creatures such as Frankenstein's monster. The story of Golem has many variations. It can be an ambivalent character, both good and bad, but in the end a protective friend. In Hebrew the word golem literally means rock, as well as fool, dumb, or even stupid and is a term for an uncultivated person. Similarly, it is a Yiddish slang insult for someone who is clumsy or slow. While James is cautiously slow, he is the most dexterious character in the film, but he is quickly labelled as a redneck and what he does is not sensible to the average person.

The main disability of a golem is its inability to speak. Here this is both an Arabic language barrier as well as James' reserved character. Towards the end, at home, he does speak to his wife about the missions and what is happening in Iraq, but there is no way for him to express his own emotions. To a speechless infant he expresses that his only love is for his job. With that confession, he leaves his boy and his wife for another mission in Iraq.

In the Prague narrative, Golem was created to defend the Jewish ghetto from pogroms. Bigelow and Boal did not consciously set out to retell the story of Golem. It is too distant and obscure a reference for them but at the same time they made a wonderful modernization of the tale, appropriately in the Middle East.

For another Museum of Peripheral Art reference to Golem see >>> The Garden State Golem

For another Museum of Peripheral Art reference to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly see >>> Different Strokes