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.”)
The reason for the fatalism became clear whenever Tucker rode out of the palace with the 2/3. The unit had been equipped and trained to hold back a Red Army advance across Germany, not to police the streets of Baghdad. Now they were bumping along in their Humvees through the Adhamiya district–a place where Uday used to feel comfortable–keeping order among people who dabbed the walls with pro-Saddam graffiti, staged anti-occupation demonstrations at the mosque and planted the occasional roadside bomb. Early in the course of production, Tucker was with the Gunners when they thought they’d discovered one such improvised explosive device lying on a major street. The soldiers stopped traffic in both directions; they hung back and conferred among themselves. After fifteen minutes, while Tucker somehow kept the video camera steady in his hands, one of them walked up to the suspect object and gave it a kick.
The daily round. Tucker’s video diary gives you the sense of a cycle, at once repetitive and nerve-racking, of daytime patrols and nocturnal raids, interrupted by periods of blowing off steam in the palace. (One notable poolside party had the title of “Gunnerpalooza.”) Thanks to the immediacy of Tucker’s video-diary format, the effect in Gunner Palace is alternately gripping and surrealistic, although somewhat murky as well. He recorded exactly one woman dancing with the guys at Gunnerpalooza but was unable, or unwilling, to apply his eyewitness method to the obvious question: So what do these people do for sex? Unanswered questions of a more troubling kind are suggested by Tucker’s footage of the nighttime house raids. In one instance, he videotaped the troops as they arrested two brothers on charges of building bombs. Who had accused the men? Neither the footage nor Tucker’s voiceover will tell. All we learn is that the soldiers found no evidence–but forwarded the detainees to Abu Ghraib.
Of course, the merit of Tucker’s approach is that it treats you as a grown-up. You are free to ask your own unsettling questions, and also to acknowledge that much of what Tucker saw the Gunners do was useful, even admirable. He videotaped them as they picked up a ragged, glue-sniffing kid off the street and deposited him, with extraordinary gentleness, in a safe place. He followed the soldiers into an orphanage, where they spent their Saturday morning feeding lollipops to the children and cradling newborns. He watched as the unit’s patient, thoughtful, thoroughly decent commander, Lieut. Col. Bill Rabena, brought calm to a shouting match at a meeting of the District Advisory Council; and Tucker was there for the follow-up, when Rabena provided a handgun and small-weapons training to a female council member whose life had been threatened.
For those of us who have opposed the war, it is important–indispensable–to witness the care and self-restraint of these soldiers. Maybe they were on their best behavior with a video camera around–maybe Tucker had harsher footage, which he chose not to show–but there is still plenty in Gunner Palace to put to shame the standard Brechtian caricatures.
As for those who endorse the war: It ought to be indispensable–required, in fact–to listen to the soldiers’ voices in Gunner Palace. You hear the cold, suppressed rage when they come to the scene of a bombing, expecting to help the wounded, only to be stoned by the crowd. You hear professionalism strained to the snapping point when they arrest one of their former interpreters, who has been accused of aiding the insurgency. Disillusionment freights the words of one soldier, who loves being in the Army but feels like “I’m not defending my country anymore.” Weariness and disgust hang in the throat of another, who has been assigned to shape up the Iraqi forces: “I can’t train someone who doesn’t give a shit. These people are just here to pick up a paycheck. The minute we’re gone, you know what’ll happen.” And from the unexpected source of the unit’s premier flake, Specialist Stuart Wilf, comes the voice of pained conscience at the end of the movie, when Tucker asks whether he can rationalize the violence. “I don’t think it’s worth the death of someone’s family member,” Wilf replies. “I don’t think you can rationalize a child dying.”
For what it’s worth, Gunner Palace is also indispensable in all of the lesser senses.
Will the digital video camera save cinema? Jean-Luc Godard had someone ask him that question midway through Notre Musique, just so he could reply–or refuse to–with a prolonged, glum deadpan. Despite his rebuke, I note that digital video has encouraged the making of documentaries such as Gunner Palace (not exactly salvation, but a good thing even so); and it has become a favorite tool of Abbas Kiarostami, who used it for both his documentary ABC Africa and his fiction feature Ten.
An extended paean to the digital video camera–“a lightweight, discreet companion on my real and imaginary travels”–serves as one of the “lessons on cinema” in 10 on Ten, a documentary monologue that just had its New York theatrical debut at Anthology Film Archives. It’s as direct and straightforward a little film as you could imagine, and since it’s by Kiarostami, it’s as tricky as hell.
The film was prompted, he says early on, by the comments of people who saw Ten and were evidently disappointed by its urban setting. Some said they were used to seeing landscapes in Kiarostami’s films; Ten was shot inside a car, which drove through the streets of Tehran. So 10 on Ten begins as a compromise. It is shot entirely inside a car, driven by Kiarostami; but the route lies outside Tehran, in the green hills that were the setting for Taste of Cherry. He has returned to this spot, Kiarostami says, “to express my sympathy with viewers.” But he also lets drop another purpose for coming back: “In the future, I may no longer find a reason to bring my camera here.” That sounds ominously final, when you recall that Taste of Cherry was about a suicide–but Kiarostami says no more, passing on at once to his lessons.
They address his preference for camera, subject (everyday life), script (as little as possible), location (the automobile, since it makes people feel secure and yet confines them, pushing them to express their feelings), music (as little as possible), actors (nonprofessionals, of course, though someone trained may do in a pinch), costumes and makeup (whatever the people like to wear) and director (nonprofessional actors need a nonprofessional director). He talks to the camera. The landscape unfolds behind him, at several different times of day. And questions arise. If the confinement of a car encourages self-expression, then what feelings does Kiarostami need to get out? If clothing is a basic expression of identity, then what is he showing us about himself, with his informal, open shirt but off-putting, tinted eyeglasses?
And why does he doubt he’ll be coming back here? Ten, he says, was about the objective, social problems of women; but Taste of Cherry was about the inner life of a man. What has Kiarostami just revealed about his own inner life, driving around the landscape of Taste of Cherry?
10 on Ten is a structuralist, documentary mystery story.