Although Occupation: Dreamland was filmed entirely in Falluja, only two of its three main settings are Iraqi. Those places are the shadowless streets, their bleached yellow walls huddling together on a dusty plain, seen in long shot during daylight hours; and the murky interiors of houses, shot after sundown with a nightscope to yield shaky, close-up, glowing-green views. The third principal setting, by contrast, might as well be a lamp-lit American dormitory, cluttered with rumpled beds and wallpapered with pinup photos. This is the barracks of the 82nd Airborne’s Alpha Company, 1/505.
Here the soldiers feel sufficiently at home to talk about their discomfort–their contempt, despair and rage–at stepping into foreign spaces. “I was never out of the country before, except for booze runs to fuckin’ Mexico,” marvels Pfc. Thomas Turner, expressing a commonly held sense of disbelief. Like many of his buddies, he says he never imagined that enlistment in the Army would result in his being sent to someplace strange and dangerous. You have no cause to doubt that his frayed ingenuousness is real, or that Sgt. Eric Forbes is voicing an equally common response to this posting when he says of Falluja, “I hate these people.”
Forbes makes that comment soon after a fellow soldier has died in a roadside bombing, so you may take the remark as no more than situational. Forbes seems to have no existential loathing for Iraqis–in fact, he describes them as caught haplessly in the way, as the United States lunges for oil–but whatever hostility he’s sparked in Falluja, he will return it, and with twice the firepower. At their most gung-ho, soldiers like Forbes think of combat as a release from the tension of policing the Iraqis. “I like bein’ shot at. It makes it interesting,” claims Staff Sgt. Ryan Mish, who says that sometimes “I just want to light everybody up.” On the more mature end of the scale, the soldiers regard the occupation as an end in itself, self-perpetuating and self-enclosed. “What are we securing here?” asks Capt. Terence Caliguire at a staff briefing. “We’re securing essentially ourselves. So what are we protecting? I don’t know.”
Shot in January and February 2004 by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, this admirably direct and spare documentary is the second feature released this year to record the lives of American soldiers in Iraq. It follows Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, which was shot in Baghdad at almost the same time (autumn 2003-winter 2004), and which focused on soldiers in the 2/3 Field Artillery. At the risk of sounding heartless, I will describe Gunner Palace as the more entertaining of the films. It dwells on the surrealism of the Field Artillery’s having billeted itself in a bombed-out pleasure palace, and it makes the most of the soldiers’ desire to play to the camera. Freestyle rappers, poets and platoon flakes are much in evidence. Also, while it presents a thoroughly unsentimental view of the war, Gunner Palace gives a varied account of the occupiers. You sometimes see them trying hard to help Iraqis; you witness moments of generosity and even tenderness.
Occupation: Dreamland is a drier experience, and a more somber one. Its lightest scene records how one GI tries good-heartedly to converse in phrase-book Arabic, despite getting stuck at “Salaam aleikum.” In a more touching sequence, Spc. Patrick Napoli uses an Army manual to drill his squad in sign language. The soldiers work hard at it, and Napoli expresses pride in momentarily being a leader. But he adds, “I’m in Iraq. It’s a little late for a sign language class.”
That’s as hopeful as it gets in Occupation: Dreamland, a picture in which most of the soldiers admit to having enlisted for lack of anything better to do, and now find they have nothing to look forward to other than self-preservation. Why the sense of futility? The reason becomes clear whenever Arabs take over the scene (as they never do in Gunner Palace), to deliver extended, impromptu street tirades against the occupation. They shout at the soldiers through an overburdened interpreter, and they shout at the filmmakers, too. You’re not in Baghdad any longer, the men warn. “This is Falluja. Be careful of Falluja.”
And why should the foreigners be careful of this particular place? On this subject, Occupation: Dreamland is silent, Scott and Olds having chosen to present only what they recorded themselves, during one slice of time. So, if you rely solely on the words spoken in the film, you might conclude that Falluja is populated by principled anticolonialists, or perhaps tradition-bound paternalists. (There was much outrage on the streets, when Scott and Olds were in town, about the Americans having taken a woman into custody.) On the other hand, if you’ve absorbed some of the news media’s standard phrases about Falluja–Sunni Triangle, Baath loyalists–you might write off much of the anger as the rage of a corrupt minority at losing power.
Or perhaps you know more. Maybe you’ve read of how Saddam Hussein wasn’t all that fond of Falluja, whose clerics had been annoyingly independent. Maybe you can even remember how Falluja, though correspondingly cool toward Saddam, became a center of insurgency. In April 2003, just three weeks after US tanks entered Baghdad, American troops opened fire on a protest march in Falluja, killing a reported fifteen people and wounding seventy-five. After that, the citizens were dead set against Americans–a piece of information that was highly relevant to Alpha Company, and might be relevant to your understanding of its soldiers, but cannot be gleaned from Occupation: Dreamland.
In short, you have to bring your own context to the picture, which is that much poorer for its own stinginess. I would not stress this complaint, except that every record we can get of the occupation is crucial. Fighting is no longer beamed into everyone’s living room as it was during the Vietnam War. The pictures are now available mostly to the funny people who visit art houses and rent obscure DVDs, or who might tune in to a premium cable channel that’s showing Gunner Palace or Occupation: Dreamland. Precisely because this core audience is limited, the information in the documentaries shouldn’t be. Every new viewer who stumbles across these films is statistically significant.
That said, Scott and Olds can claim the integrity of having given you just what they saw and heard themselves during six weeks in residence with Alpha Company. The material may be fragmentary and ambiguous by nature, but it was hard won, and it has an undeniable force. This is what it’s like to be bored, itchy, angry, isolated, underprepared and far outnumbered among a foreign people who hate you. This is what many of us art-house types will never know firsthand.
The title character of Tim Burton’s latest movie has a radiant smile, part of which is visible through the gaping hole in her left cheek. Her figure is lush, except where eaten away. Her eyes are large and expressive, though the right one often falls out, providing egress for a worm who lives in her skull. Although her nature is musical, her pianism is slightly marred by the tapping of bones against the keys.
She is (to use the full name) Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride; and as you can tell from even a brief description, it is not entirely a joke for a living man to be bound to her.
Her appearance so soon after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is welcome evidence of a return to form for Burton, whose greatest gift may be a talent for jesting seriously. When he’s off his form, the humor may turn into sentimental whimsy (as in Big Fish), or the seriousness become lumpishly grotesque (witness Sleepy Hollow). But in this summer’s Charlie, aided by his longtime collaborator Johnny Depp, Burton has toyed giddily with the line between reward and punishment. (Every river of chocolate has its undertow for the unwary; every child’s downfall is celebrated in psychedelic song.) In Corpse Bride, the terms have shifted somewhat–we’re now dealing with the line between desire and revulsion–but Burton continues to play jump-rope with the border, and Depp still does much of the skipping.
The story, though told through stop-motion animation, may be better suited to adults than children, not only because of those flesh-eating worms but because so much of it has to do with cash-poor aristocrats and wealthy, parvenu merchants–a dauntingly nineteenth-century theme for most kids, especially when the exposition is given through Danny Elfman’s patter songs. So if you intend to frighten your favorite little ones with Corpse Bride, be prepared to explain that skinny, poetic Victor (voice of Depp) is being married off to sad, lonely Victoria (voice of Emily Watson) so that his family may be elevated from its status as fishmongers and hers may pay the upkeep on the ancestral mansion. Yet even though the marriage is forced and the surroundings gloomy–the whole town is a sooty gray–romance blossoms. Victor and Victoria fall in love at first sight; but when, at the wedding rehearsal, the inept groom repeatedly flubs his vows, he makes the terrible mistake of wandering off alone to practice. Deep in the forest, under cover of darkness, he at last says the formula correctly–and so marries the unfortunate virgin (voice of Helena Bonham Carter) who has been lying underfoot for many years, buried in a rotting wedding dress.
Her ecstasy; his horror. And your bliss, since Corpse Bride now takes Victor to the Land of the Dead–a colorful and convivial place, where no one feels pain, almost everyone grins (being skeletal) and physical form exists to be violated. Bodies interpenetrate, split apart, get jumbled, reassemble. Each part is as good as a whole; and in the shared space of the grave, each neighbor’s parts are as good as yours. At first, Victor doesn’t appreciate this melting away of personal boundaries–but for the audience, it’s an ever-increasing delight, as the screen turns into a happy, teeming mass of corporeal impossibilities.
Burton co-directed Corpse Bride with Mike Johnson. The screenplay is credited to John August, Caroline Thompson and Pamela Pettler. Alex McDowell was production designer, and the cinematographer was Pete Kozachik. Lifting my head gently off the neck, I tip my skull to them all.