Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Movie Week -- Jarhead

Here's one reason I was eager to see Jarhead: The author of the original book, Anthony Swofford, studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and I was able to meet him when he returned to Iowa City for a reading last year. Even though we all say it's about literature and the work, there's a healthy amount of envy swirling around when someone gets his or her book made into a movie.

To Swofford's credit, he talked more about the book and the writing process, and resisted opportunities to name-drop (unlike me in that first paragraph). And no one asked him how it felt to have Jake Gyllenhaal play him in a movie. So he must be a better man than me. Because if Jake was playing me in a movie, I'm sure it'd come up in conversation. Frequently. Especially to the ladies sitting in the front row at one of my readings. Or at the bar afterwards.

"Why yes, my ass looks just like Jake Gyllenhaal's. Hey, I have a Santa hat in my car! Wanna go back to my place?"

Okay, I think it's only fair to give those who know me a minute to collect themselves while they try to get the visual of me naked with only a Santa hat covering up my nethers out of their minds.

(Image from A Socialite's Life)

Ready? Where was I? Before my ass, I mean.

By the way, in case you're thinking I Googled "Jake Gyllenhaal," "naked," and "ass" to find that image, it actually comes from Fried Rice Thoughts' New York Bureau Chief, Mis Hooz. Painstaking research on that task. She really busted a hump, and earned every penny of her paycheck. Thanks, Hoozie.

Hello? Mis Hooz? Still with us? Are you going to read the rest of this post? I'm still writing here.

Okay, she's off to get a bootleg of the movie from some dude near her subway stop on the way home.

Ian! What about the movie?

Here's one reason I wasn't eager to see Jarhead: I fear Sam Mendes is an overrated director. In fairness, I only have two films to go on, which isn't a large sample size. But I would argue (and have in the past, though not on this blog) that American Beauty largely owed its quality to Alan Ball's writing. (I think Six Feet Under supports that theory.) And with Road to Perdition, Mendes took a movie about mobsters, rolled with the theme of fathers and sons, and tried to aspire to something higher, which resulted in a surprisingly boring (though nice-looking) film. Gun violence has rarely been so elegant.

So I was worried that Mendes would take many of Swofford's vivid descriptions of desert landscapes and make a movie that looked beautiful on screen, yet somehow made soldiers and warfare seem dull. But maybe I'm just jealous that he's married to Kate Winslet, and I'm not.

Fortunately, he didn't make a boring film. I actually thought Jarhead was much better than the critics have been saying. It's disturbing, provocative, and funny - much like Swofford's book. He also somehow takes seemingly every cliche from war movies (dickhead drill sargeants, guys who love war a little too much, soldiers going crazy) and manages to create more of a tribute to those films than an imitation.

I will say, however, that the story feels a little aimless. There's not much of a narrative. But that's the spirit of the book. These guys were trained to become elite killing machines and were pumped up with the idea that they'd shoot holes into hundreds of Iraqi soldiers and become American heroes, only to get shipped out to the desert and... wait. And never get to confront the enemy they were conditioned to destroy. What do you do with all that free time and all that aggressive energy screaming to be released?

Not exactly the stuff of beginning-middle-end. Or Act I-Act II- Act III. And that works just fine in a book - especially a memoir. Not so sure it works in a movie, though. But Mendes gave it his best try. So I'll take back that "overrated" crack. Yes, I said "crack." Go ahead and scroll back up to the Jake picture. Geez. And here I was, about to write another 500 words on translating a book to a movie...