What might it mean to call a film indispensable? Perhaps not much. At base level, we’d merely be asserting that other films (maybe the vast majority) are candidates for the garbage heap. Since experience so powerfully ratifies this definition, we might say, in plain words, that an indispensable film is a keeper. But what would we keep it for?
The pleasure of its parts, to begin with: a personality, a setting, a moment that is worth revisiting. Beyond that, we might mean that the film as a whole is an experience we can no longer imagine being without. It has changed us and so has become a part of us. This is a more forceful definition, though one that still covers a great many cases. I have known people who considered the masterpieces of Yasujiro Ozu to be transformative in this sense, but also George Cukor’s Les Girls.
But then there’s the strongest and most restrictive meaning. An indispensable film is one that we keep because we have no other choice. An urgent circumstance thrusts it upon us, as the battered shield is pressed on the hero of a quest romance. Were we to let it drop, we would fail a situation much larger than ourselves. I think the documentary Gunner Palace, by Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, is indispensable in this highest sense. Every adult citizen ought to see it. So should every kid over the age of 13.
The circumstance that forces Gunner Palace upon us is the Iraq War. The United States government has declared victory in this conflict more than once; a semblance of Iraqi self-government has been established; and still 150,000 American troops patrol the country, to the incurious approbation of their countrymen. What exactly do these troops do? How do they feel about it? Despite all the yellow ribbons, no one (except for immediate family and friends) seems to want to know. I offer this judgment not as my own opinion but as the angry, disdainful verdict of several of the soldiers in the 2/3 Field Artillery–the Gunners–who opened themselves to Tucker.
For a month in the autumn of 2003 and another month early in 2004, Tucker lived in Baghdad with soldiers in the 2/3, who apparently accepted him as their own. It’s not improbable that they should have done so. Americans are an astonishingly candid people (so noted an Iraqi interpreter, interviewed in Gunner Palace) who will pour out their life stories after knowing you for all of ten minutes. They are also a media-saturated people, who willingly play to a camera because they already imagine themselves in show business. (The film is full of soldiers who doubled as rap artists, rock stars and stand-up comedians.) Mostly, though, Tucker’s subjects seem to have been grateful for the attention, however short-lived. Did they think that anyone back home understood what they were going through? The answer–the eternal soldier’s answer, adapted for an era of cable TV–was no. We’re “just entertainment,” said one, “better than any action movie.” Said another, “You’ll forget me by the end of this movie. You’ll forget all of us.” As the unit’s leading poet, Specialist Richmond Shaw, declared, “For y’all this is just a show, but we live in this movie.”
It had a hell of a set, too. The 2/3 was stationed in a bombed-out palace formerly occupied by Uday Hussein, giving the unit a billet with three strata of architecture: the self-aggrandizing gaudiness of the old regime, covered with a thick layer of rubble and then topped with the quasi-suburban functionalism of today’s Army (which supplied inner tubes for recreation in Uday’s swimming pool, and even materials for a putting green). “The staircase is still pretty safe to use,” a soldier explained to Tucker on an introductory tour, pointing amid the wreckage to a buddy mounting a grandiose, spiraling heap of marble. A note of triumph. (“Now we own this place.”) A note of fatalism. (“But it might collapse under our feet.”)