Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Timely Look at The Hurt Locker

Make no mistake about it: I am about to spoil The Hurt Locker. I'm about to type things (spoilers) that--if you were planning on seeing the movie, and don't want to know what happens in the plot (spoiled)--please, stop reading this.

But the funny thing about The Hurt Locker is that it somewhat spoils itself. The reason the film is successful is because it shows you what it feels like to endure the pressure and adrenaline of an army bomb-squad expert (supposedly). Obvi you couldn't feel the real pressure and adrenaline, but you can certainly feel the cinematic version. But the film suffers from a relationship to the form of cinematic narrative which adds an extra layer of separation from exploding-Afghan reality (the first layer being the theatre/living-room/screen layer). This is admittedly no fault of the film, but as soon as a "main character" was established, I knew for a fact that he wasn't going to die.

This seems like a rather pedestrian point to be making, and every suspense thriller since the 80s has the same issue. Only problem is that most suspense thrillers are entertainment, whereas The Hurt Locker is art. We don't mind knowing that Jason Statham will survive all 90 impossible minutes of larger than life this-can-never-happen-fests because the point of watching the movie is... "I had a long week at the office". But The Hurt Locker isn't escapism. It's not supposed to thrill, in the traditional sense. It's supposed to transport you to the real world of flying shrapnel for a grueling two hours of humanity--after which you can ESCAPE to the cushioned safety of your office. As a work of art, it's supposed to say, "Here's something fucked up for you to wrap your head around. How is this gonna change the way you view foreign policy, the military, fellow human beings, religion, going to the supermarket, medical prosthesis, etc." It's supposed to compel your worldview to re-examine itself for possible redirection.

And it does all this somewhat well. As well as it possibly could, I suppose. But as much as it tried to cover its tracks.. as a film .. (by killing one of the first guys we get to know), as soon as a main character was established, and a dramatic narrative-dependency was created between him and the two other main characters.. I sat supremely comfortable that they wouldn't be getting killed--at least for the vast majority of the movie. I realized they could be toast at the end, but 1) not ALL of them would be toast at the end, and more importantly 2) they would all survive the bulk of the intensely dramatic bomb scenes that make up the fabric of the film. This knowledge of their relative safety flies in the face of the whole purpose of the film. I knew that no movie could get studio backing if: the main characters die at 45 minutes in, and the movie ends suddenly; or the remainder of the movie is the protagonistless paper-work and red-tape involving military fatality--this has never been done (at the multiplex). And if The Hurt Locker HAD been the first to do it, it would have had a visible layer of infamy for doing so.

This is not a particularly effective criticism of The Hurt Locker, so much as on the effectiveness of film as art. There are certainly art-house films you can see in any big city which more readily fly in the face of convention to reflect the cluster-fuck of life in more eye-opening ways, but those films are less noticeable/attractive/available, and--by virtue of these anti-traits--doomed never to become part of our common cultural experience (and the bottom line of any movie, even artistic ones... is to be seen).

Still, I thought The Hurt Locker was quite well done, although it should have had a different title. 'Hurt' is more commonly a verb, or adjective, than half a compound noun used as an adjective. By the time the brain deciphers the literal meaning of the title, the academy awards are over and you never got your ballot filled out.

The purpose of the title is to refer to a symbolic storage place where you keep your hurt (pain). It's a great metaphor for the emotionality required to do a job like theirs. The previous traumas have to stay out of the field, but you can't dispose of them altogether, and if you could you'd have an army full of psychopaths. But a locker (military speak for any old box) (I believe) is used to hold physical symbols of your past physical and emotional injuries. By keeping them in order within this box, you can more effectively compartmentalize the pain during your daily (or weekly, monthly--whatever is required) visits with the box. I imagine unattended trauma gone rogue for a few years can eventually turn into a number of situations that I'd rather not speculate about. That's why the film is called The Hurt Locker. A great metaphor, but linguistically speaking, not an ideally turned phrase.

First problem to address when fixing this title is to get rid of 'hurt'. It's too indirect a word for something that should KNOW then FEEL immediately. For the first 50 times I heard the title I was wondering if there was some storage locker that was getting mean slurs hurled at it. Change 'hurt' to 'pain', 'wound' (not ideal for speaking out loud), 'trauma', 'scar', 'injury', etc. Whichever word we use needs to be recognized immediatly as a noun, and never a conjunctive adjective.

Second--the common movie-goer probably isn't that familiar with the term 'locker' in the military sense. The only common experience we have with the word 'locker' is from highschool, where we stuff everything we own into a tiny closet which becomes our home-base of sorts. The mental image conjured by 'locker' is too wayward to warrant this wording. Even though it may be more REAL, it's not so much realer than a different word that the film would lose integrity to have a more linguistically pleasing title for us jackasses to remember it by for the rest of time. So here are some more effective titles that The Hurt Locker could have gone by:

The Shit Box (obviously inappropriate and potentially too silly for the subject matter)

The Contusion Container (contusion is too unusual a word and results in the same mental over-processing as 'Hurt Locker')

The Harm Carton (now we're getting somewhere)

The Ache Case (linguistically imperfect for saying out-loud because the first word ends with the same consonant that the second word begins with)

The Pain Purse (not masculine enough)

The Injury Chest (not bad, imperfect because of 'chest's' distracting double-meaning)

The Trauma Coffin (beautiful... and even if it doesn't invoke the exact mental image we discussed, it invokes a specific, only slightly incorrect mental image that your brain settles on and moves along, then later we learn what that Trauma Coffin really is, and it's all the more powerful)

Okay so that settles it, The Hurt Locker should have been called The Trauma Coffin, or at least The Harm Carton. Also, I don't think we're THAT far from being able to list a dramatic thriller called the $hit Box at the mega-plex... to me this would be simultaneously the most linguistically pleasing title and realistically viable nickname for it that soldiers might use.

This has been another webisode of The Inappropriate Thesaurus. Bye, now!

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