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Music for this Post: Resistance by Muse

The best of American-made cinema, in all its many incarnations, has always boasted colloquialism; one would hope, in any case. Discursive topics over the years range from love and life’s meaning, to history and society. Western film often chooses bloodshed and the trauma it forges as two of these major themes. Over the years, violence, particularly the portrayal of battle, has evolved and, as far as interpretive meaning, intensified over time.

While most contemporary action fare seems to give no thought to the violence it espouses, the war film has meditated on the place of violence, sacrifice, and supposed heroism in society quite a bit.This is an action film of a different color, where the action serves these greater themes, rather than just occurring self-indulgently.

I noticed this developing change in two films I’ve seen in the last few years: Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Gary Ross’s The Hunger Games. The fact that one was written 14 years after the other speaks for itself in many ways; naturally, the style is vastly different, but inherently there is something deeper in the differences between them…

When compared back to back, Ryan and Hunger really speak to the changing opinions on the violence…sacrifice…heroism trope in society, something the military continuously exploits to this day. Both films exhibit violence as major centerpieces of their stories. However, Spielberg’s approach to the visual carnage in Ryan holds a vast contrast to Ross’ style.

The retrospective vision of war, based around the storming of Normandy circa WWII, is explicit and unflinching; several scenes are dedicated almost solely to body parts, viscera, and bloody explosions. It’s noteworthy that in the opening scene, the gore gets very close, the spray flies past the camera lens, before panning back to take in the scale of a World War; the violence isn’t celebrated or indulged, but instead bombards you as though you were there. The focus is on the soldiers’ increasingly horrifying experience, and their tireless effort to keep fighting despite the mounting odds. Spielberg tells us that these are brave men, heroes by a traditional standard of patriotic fervor. They’re fighting a generally universal foe here, and its hard not to root for them.

Ross’ Hunger holds a different interpretation of violence–it’s fairly demure in visual execution (no pun intended, for real). There is far less shock value in the way of persistent gory images. Instead, the violence comes in short bursts, or hardly at all. You might catch a spray of blood at the edge of a shot, or a quick cutaway from the use of a weapon. Images are blurred, obscured, and fleeting.

These seconds of brutality have their own brand of intensity. The handheld, docu-drama style of the camera work combined with those brief moments keeps you from ever really resolving what you see; you can’t process it, because it’s already gone, leaving a startling imprint on your eyes. With as much effect as Spielberg accomplished in communicating the scope and terror of a “heroic” war, Ross delivered a more contemporary statement: the sudden and pointless nature of murder.

Though it was written little more than a decade ago, Ryan is already a retrospective, both of our film culture and our societal opinions on war. As I said earlier, WWII was essentially a war everyone could get behind: stop the Nazis from scorching half the world’s population. The entire country banded together to defend truth, justice, and the American way. Ryan reads like a veteran tribute, a hard-hitting but honorable salute to the courageous thousands who gave their lives. While this is certainly an admirable choice for a film, it is no longer society’s focus, as evidenced by films like Hunger…

Hunger Games speaks for today, when rising numbers of citizens in several countries protest the continued waste of human life over international conflicts. We’re numbed by the violence that coats modern media, so instead the film focuses on the effects of violence, and how deeply it can shift a person’s experience.

Both of these films have been very invaluable to me in understanding how they help us relate to ourselves…as historical beings, as patriots, as individuals, and as a culture.