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October 2010

Lebanon

cast: Oshri Cohen, Yoav Donat, Michael Moshonov, Itay Tiran, and Zohar Shtrauss

director: Samuel Maoz

90 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Lebanon

In a recent issue of The London Review Of Books, the American cultural critic T. J. Jackson Lears argued that, despite some very public introspection and self-flagellation in the wake of the Vietnam War, American cultural elites have settled down into an understanding of American foreign policy that is not only monolithic but also remarkably self-serving. Whether we are discussing Paul Greengrass' Green Zone (2010), David Simon's Generation Kill (2008), Peter Berg's The Kingdom (2007), or Robert Redford's Lions For Lambs (2007), the party line remains intact: the guys doing the killing are great guys, they've just been told to kill the wrong people. Hate the war; love the people fighting in it. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Support our troops. Four more years... However, as brilliant as it may be, Lears' assessment of artistic responses to the Vietnam War does manage to overlook the equally toxic and equally prevalent representation of warfare as a cauldron of madness.

In a haze of river mist and pot smoke Francis Ford Coppola set the tone. Apocalypse Now (1979) depicted warfare not as a moral failure or a political folly but as the rocky shoreline upon which wave after wave of human minds break like waves. As The Doors' The End climaxes and a local chops up a water buffalo, colonel Kurtz lies dying. His face framed in profile against a dark background. "The horror... the horror..." he mutters as the life runs out of him. This scene, recreating as it does the climax of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart Of Darkness (1899), begs the same questions as that novella. In a now infamous academic denunciation, the Nigerian novelist and critic Chinua Achebe asked is it not racist to reduce an entire continent to serving as the mere backdrop for break-up of one unremarkable European mind?

Lears is quite correct that seeing America's wars as noble warriors fighting for incompetent and corrupt politicians is nothing more than a self-serving and cowardly capitulation to the political right. However, the mendacity required for such an understanding is as nothing when compared to the cowardice and solipsism required to re-cast modern warfare as a stage for psychological crises. Fuck political context, fuck hundreds of thousands of dead bodies, and fuck the souring of political relations between entire regions for generations to come: Colonel Kurtz is having a breakdown. This vision of warfare underpinned Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2009), and it also seems to be emerging as the dominant paradigm through which Israeli filmmakers understand their country's foreign policy.

Ari Folman's animated film Waltz With Bashir (2008) struck a chord with a global audience by examining 2006's Second Lebanon War through the prism of 1981's First Lebanon War. Folman engaged with the more recent war by looking beyond the politics and morality of the first war in order to focus upon the psychological repercussions of an entire generation of young men being sent off to invade a neighbouring country. Folman went on to suggest that, at best, the veterans of the First Lebanon War found themselves living in denial. At worst, they were still traumatised decades later.

The implication being that if one war can cause psychological suffering and contribute to a political climate in which peace is impossible, how likely is it that a second war would merely extend the same problems to yet another generation of Israeli men? Samuel Maoz's golden lion of Venice-winning film Lebanon is a film that makes a very similar point to Folman's Waltz With Bashir.

The film opens with green tank gunner Shmulik (Yoav Donat) joining the crew of a tank that goes by the call-sign Rhino. Rhino is nominally under the command of the flaky Assi (Itay Tiran), but Assi's every decision is countermanded and questioned by the much more experienced loader Hershel (Oshri Cohen) who has a knack not only for asking awkward questions of Assi but also for winding up the emotionally fragile driver Yigal (Michael Moshonov).

Place this already unhealthy relationship dynamic under the command of a dead-eyed and terrifying paratrooper named Gamil (Zohar Schtrauss) and you have a recipe for disaster as a seemingly straight-forward escort mission descends into a nightmare of self-destructive introspection as gunners refuse to shoot, drivers refuse to drive, commanders refuse to command and dead-eyed paratroopers float in and out of radio contact in a way that suggests that everyone inside the tank (or possibly everyone outside it) may well be dead.

Most of Lebanon's impact comes from its astonishing visual flair. The tank itself is a dank and claustrophobic place fiercely reminiscent of the cramped submarine spaces depicted in films like Wolfgang Petersen's Das Boot (1981), and Tony Scott's Crimson Tide (1995). But aside from being small and industrial, Rhino's insides are also a filthily organic nightmare of dripping oil, pooled water, spilled piss cartons and old cigarette butts. In fact, after the tank is hit with a rocket-propelled grenade, the tank's cabin becomes so grotesquely organic that one suspects that the tank crew may well be sitting inside the belly of an actual rhino.

Separated from the realities of war by a goodly amount of armour plating, the crew of the tank look out upon the First Lebanon War through an infrared periscope. This limited perspective on the world is reminiscent of the visual iconography of the 'first person shooter' video-game genre and the unreality of the outside world is only compounded by a number of fantastic sequences in which the paratroopers seem to snap into poses purely for the benefit of the gunner, through whose eyes we see the war.

By creating a tension between the cramped and organic space inside Rhino and the unreal and staged world of the war outside the tank, director Maoz and cinematographer Giora Bejach are clearly riffing on war's capacity not only for dehumanising others but also fragmenting the self. Indeed, the various voices of the tank crew members could be seen as different aspects of the same fractured self.

Numbskull-style personality fragments forced apart under the stress of combat and forced to negotiate and argue over every single decision. Unfortunately, while Lebanon is a visually stunning film with a lot of potential, that potential never quite materialises into anything more concrete than some neat ideas and a few beautifully composed set-pieces. The problem, as is so frequently the case when directors double-up as writers, is one of weak scripting.

Firstly, the film's characters lack the depth required for their disagreements to acquire any kind of significance. An interesting point of comparison here is Malcolm Venville's 44 Inch Chest (2010), which pulls the same trick of having an ensemble cast act out the various aspects of a single personality. However, where Moaz's characters frequently fail to stand out, Louis Mellis and David Scinto's script for 44 Inch Chest is positively overflowing with fully fleshed-out creations that not only stand out as individuals but also come to represent the different drives and instincts of the master personality.

Because each character successfully embodies a different trait, the arguments between the characters not only function as dramatic human confrontations, they also contribute to a broader psychological narrative in which a person debates with themselves what they should do next. Macrocosm and microcosm... In contrast, Moaz's characters never acquire the sophistication or the individuation necessary for them to bear the burdens of metaphorical representation. When Assi argues with Herschel the argument does not mean anything. It is just talk.

Secondly, the film's narrative never really goes anywhere. The tank rolls from one encounter to the next but there is never any sense of anything being at stake or of any message being communicated: the film begins, shit happens, the film ends. This sense of narrative aimlessness is only exacerbated by Moaz's ill-judged decision to go for one of those mysterious and enigmatic endings that is supposed to make the audience speculate as to whether the characters might be dead or mad. The problem with this technique is that it has been ground into the earth through over-use:

In 1936, when William Faulkner wrote Absalom! Absalom!, a novel going out of its way to avoid having a coherent narrative was nothing short of revolutionary. In 1976, when Roman Polanski's The Tenant presented its story as a closed time-like loop, the gesture was a boldly surreal one. Even in 2005, when Neil Marshall's mainstream horror film The Descent ended with a degree of death/ madness ambiguity, the technique was still fresh enough to intrigue.

However, Lebanon is a film produced in 2009. It is a film that has competed for and won some of the grandest prizes on offer to works of art house cinema. It is a film that is very clearly intended to be taken seriously. For such a film to end by ambiguously suggesting that the characters are all either mad or dead is nothing short of a lazy descent into clich´┐Ż. It took courage and creative vision to subvert the laws of narrative back in 1936 but to use almost identical narrative techniques in 2009 is to subvert nothing at all. It is to copy, to rip-off, to replicate.

Despite its many flaws, Lebanon is produced with enough visual panache to maintain an engaged viewer's interest over its 90-minute runtime. Despite its politico-historical framing narrative is has nothing at all to say about Israeli foreign policy and despite its psychologistic posturing and flirtation with surrealist cinematic techniques it has nothing to say about either the self, reality or anything else worth paying attention to.

Charitably viewed, Lebanon is a well-made but ultimately light-weight piece of pseudo-art house fluff. Uncharitably viewed, Lebanon is the intellectually bereft product of a director with absolutely nothing to say other than to parrot the received wisdom that war is a form of insanity. A view of war that effectively serves to legitimise human conflict by suggesting that war is an aberration in a state's behaviour patterns rather than a fundamental expression of that state's true character. Either way, this is decidedly lightweight fare.

The DVD comes with a somewhat dry commentary track and some entirely superfluous text-only historical bumpf about the First Lebanon War. Far more interestingly, a purchase of this particular DVD will allow you to download a digital copy of the film to watch on your laptop. Going by the review copy I had access to, this digital version of the film is not crippled with digital rights management software but it is encoded at a bit-rate so low that not only is the film's visual impact considerably diminished but it is also makes reading the subtitles quite difficult.

However, while this particular digital version of the film did not add very much to my enjoyment of Lebanon, I think that the initiative is an excellent one that should be encouraged. It really is time that film distribution companies realised that their customers should be entitled to watch the films they have purchased where and how they wish and offering digital versions of the film to those people who buy the DVD is a step in the right direction.

Also worth commenting on is the fact that much like Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising (2009), and Florian Gallenberger's City Of War (2009), Lebanon has been released with a DVD cover that tries very hard to make it look an entirely different kind of film. Going by their UK DVD covers, Winding Refn's introspective and psychotropic meditation upon human savagery is actually a testosterone-fuelled 300 clone, while Gallenberger's worthily dull account of the Nanjing Massacre is a macho war epic.

Despite the cover artwork, Lebanon is not a kick-arse action-adventure story. On the one hand, this trend towards misleading packaging is lamentable as it suggests that the people who are releasing art house films in the UK have no faith in there being an audience for them. On the other hand, I can imagine a future in which every single art house film to come down the pipe is marketed as an action movie until British audiences become wise to the trick and start avoiding real action movies for fear that they are serious and impenetrable meditations on the human soul.

This second possibility amuses me so much that I think that this fondness for fraudulent packaging should be encouraged. I say bring on the re-issues of Ozu and Bergman with muscle-clad thugs on the cover! One thing is for sure; it is far more subversive than ending a film by suggesting that everyone is either mad or dead.



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