The art of war

Ending just over a century ago, World War I, originally known as The Great War or the War to End All Wars, turned out to be none of the above, since it was eclipsed by its sequel, World War II — to date, the planet’s only nuclear war — which also outdid the first World War in terms of “greatness” if you take “great” to mean number of deaths. Also, obviously, the fact that there was a II to follow the I — and many other wars thereafter to the present day — means that World War I didn’t end any wars at all.

What’s often forgotten about the aftermath of that wr was the effect it had on the people who lived through it — sometimes barely — and especially the effect it had on the arts and culture, as well as the politics of the rest of the first half of the 20th century. It left a generation that was as stunned as the post-Vietnam generation. In fact, it gave us the original term for what we now call PTSD: shell-shock.

In the arts, it gave us things like Dada, which led to Surrealism, which were both efforts to deal with the absolute horror of what really was the first modern war. After all, WWI gave us the first aerial warfare with planes (after a brief prelude in Mexico), the first trench warfare and the first large-scale chemical warfare. It also led to the development of new techniques in plastic surgery. Hey, gotta figure out how to rebuild all those faces that got blown off, right?

But it was the art connection that really hit home, because I can think of three films that dealt with World War I that have really stuck with me — the first because of the way it manages to demonstrate the pure horror of that war and all wars, and the other two because they show, brilliantly, how that war went on to influence the arts and artists of that generation as they grew up after it.

The oldest film and oldest source is Johnny Got His Gun, based on a book written Dalton Trumbo in 1938 — or, in other words, right before the sequel to the Great War was released. Ironically, he was later blacklisted as a communist in the 1950s. The movie came out in 1971, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement. Both it and the book tell a first-person story about a young veteran of World War I who comes home with all of his limbs and his face blown off. He basically has no way to communicate with the world, and keeps reliving the war while telling us what he can sense — which is mostly the sounds and touches from the nurses around him.

It’s a very dark and hopeless story. This man has basically been condemned to be trapped in his own practically useless body which is just being kept alive because, well, it’s what you do for the wounded, right? He is denied euthanasia and can’t even commit suicide. Even though he finally manages to try to communicate in Morse code by banging his head on his pillow, he’s ignored — just like so many veterans of that (and other) wars have been.

The second film, Savage Messiah, is one of Ken Russell’s earlier biopics. Released in 1972, it tells the story of artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Gaudier was his birth name, but he had a rather unconventional relationship with a much older woman and took her name as a hyphenate way before it was even a thing, even though they never married.

Eventually, he marches off voluntarily to fight in World War I, and one of the scenes near the end of the film is one that has stuck with me since I first saw it in an art-house revival years ago. One character is reading a letter from Henri on the front that is glorifying the war, talking about killing the enemy. Another character, pitched as somewhat of an antagonist, says, “Whoever wrote that should be shot,” and the man reading the letter replies, “He was. This morning.”

And that is how we find out that this artist and sculptor is dead. It’s one of those rug-yank moments that works so well.

The final film, Max, came out thirty years after Savage Messiah, but is perhaps the strongest synthesis of the “how this war affected the arts” with “how this war got a sequel.” In it, John Cusack plays the titular character, a would-be artist who lost his painting arm in the trenches and so who is now just an art dealer and agent. He meets a young Hitler, portrayed by the brilliant Noah Taylor, and tries to mentor him, but it does not go well because Hitler cannot understand the human side of art while Max cannot see Hitler’s nascent fascism in his works.

One of the highlights is a Dadaist performance piece by Max in which he is lowered, apparently nude and with lost arm in full view sans prosthetic, into a giant meat-grinder while he talks about the war, tons of ground beef pouring out the business end. While the character of Max Rothman in 1918 may have been fictional, the film is still a very effective take on the emotional scars that this war left on everyone who had to live through the battlefield. Only the dead were left with just physical scars, and not emotional ones, although that’s probably not better.

Of course, there are a bunch of top-rated World War I movies, some made before, a lot made after; some of which I’ve seen, a lot of which I’ve haven’t, along with the long list of all World War I movies. Also, I can’t forget Black Adder Goes Forth, which basically ended a beloved series with (SPOILER ALERT) all of the characters rushing out of the trench to their certain deaths. But, c’mon. It’s a Black Adder series. That shouldn’t be a surprise at all, considering how the first one ended.

Finally, to really bring it full circle, Rajiv Joseph wrote a play about the start of World War I called Archduke which was pretty amazing and that played in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 2017, exactly a century after the U.S. finally entered WWI.

Oh yeah. The other big effect of that war? It’s the one that solidified the U.S. as a world super-power after we fired the first shot in the Spanish-American War but before we stole the thunder from Britain and France by finally jumping in to end the First World War. That part is not necessarily good, though, either.

What films about war particularly move you? Tell us in the comments! And Happy Bastille Day!

Friday Free-for-All #17

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What are two things you’ll never spend money on?

I do consider myself frugal, but I don’t think of myself as cheap. There is a difference. Someone who’s frugal will look for the best deal and, if that means spending a little more now to save later, I will make the trade. Someone who’s cheap will just go right for the least expensive version of whatever — which does wind up costing more in the long-run.

Now, I am a fan of the 99-Cent Store, because I do know that buying the right things there does save you money. That’s because a lot of the stuff you can get is going to be single-use anyway, like party supplies or gift-wrap, or cheap tchotchkes. They’re also great for dishes, glassware, mugs, and non-mechanical kitchen tools, like measuring cups.

On the other hand, there are things to not buy there, some because they’re just crap, and others because they’re not really cheaper. I mean, that 10 oz. bottle of shampoo at the 99 really isn’t a better deal than the 10 oz. $1.99 bottle at the grocery store, you know?

I also like thrift shops, bust mainly because you can find unique things you won’t find anywhere else, and for cheap. For example, I have a room mood-light that’s actually an old X-ray light box from some medical clinic that cost me, believe it not, all of $30 once upon a time. I also have a full-size, 3×5 cloth California State Flag — $5 at a thrift shop, at least $40 to $50 new at the time, and who knows how much now.

So home décor, used clothing, books, DVDs, and random whatnots from Thrift shops are great deals.

And dog knows that in my day, I’ve certainly spent a ton on all kinds of electronics, particularly if they were related to computers, tech, or musical instruments. In fact, I’ve owned exactly as many synthesizers as I have cars — although I still have all of the synths and only one of the cars — and needless to say the number of computers and printers I’ve gone through probably outnumber both.

So what won’t I spend my money on? Well, a no-brainer is that I won’t donate it to political candidates I don’t agree with, but that’s true of everyone, so I’m not going to count it. And I really can’t say I won’t spend my money on cigarettes or other forms of tobacco because, while that’s certainly true now, at one point in my life it wasn’t, to my great detriment and shame.

But two things do stand out and, oddly enough, in the future, it may be easy enough — or even impossible — for any of us to spend a lot on one of these. I’d like to hope that it would also become at least unnecessary if not impossible for the other.

I was going to originally define the first as “sporting events,” but then realized that, for me, it’s a little bit broader than that, and there are a few parts to it.

One is that I don’t really like being at any event that takes place in a gigantic arena full of screaming and frequently drunk people. Hell, I don’t like doing that in even a small venue — a little ironic because I used to be a musician in a band, but at least we only ever played only the smallest of venues.

Second is that I’m not really that big enough fan of any group or band to want to deal with their fans to see them play live in less-than-ideal acoustic situations when I can just listen to the studio version at home.

The only exceptions are when I know someone in the band, but that’s most likely going to be in a small club anyway.

Third is that I really have less than zero interest in sports, which take place mostly in arenas, but I can extend that to non-arena places, like race tracks.

Oddly enough, the one time in my life I went to the horse races, I did enjoy it, and made a little money betting, but I didn’t pay for the trip and, given what I’ve learned about horse mortality rates in the pursuit, I never will.

This kind of brings me to the third part of my disdain, and those are events that take place in large areas that are not arenas and not concerts, but which still attract gigantic crowds of seemingly oblivious people. (Hint: county fairs.)

Again, I only went to one of these once, it was a paid-for company trip, and I hated every damn second of it. Everything was over-priced, most of the visitors would probably go on to be future MAGAts, it was mobility scooter galore, the only healthy food I could find in the whole place was a $12 smoothie, and it boggled my mind that the city of Los Angeles was even a part of this County.

So, what to call it? I won’t spend money on mass events of the “bread and circuses” variety. No sport, no arena shows, no… well, you get the idea, I hope.

The other thing I will never spend money on? Guns. Well, guns, bullets, things that shoot, arms. That kind of thing. For one thing, I don’t need them. They’re expensive, they’re only designed to kill, and when it comes to self-defense, oh, don’t worry. I’m well-stocked in that regard. I’m just not going to advertise it.

And yes, I actually have fired guns, doing target practice, and yes, it was fun and exciting to do so. The feeling of that kick in your hand, followed the “thwap” of the bullet hitting the target is powerful.

But, for me, it was really only a power I needed over some paper targets stuck up on a dirt berm on a friend’s family ranch in the middle of nowhere. Over a person? Nah. Never. There are betters methods of defense.

I have two very direct contacts with guns in my life, both of which oddly enough involve my father. In the first, I’m in my early teens, and discover, in a cardboard box on the top shelf of the linen closet at the end of the hall, two of his war-time souvenirs: a small pair of binoculars and a service revolver.

Both of them have taken on a green patina since they were decades old by this point, but I sneak them out of the box and into my room because — teenage boy, interesting shit.

The revolver is not loaded, which I confirm by figuring out how to swing open the cylinder by pulling the release at the front of the frame, then spinning it to see that all six chambers are empty. Then closing it back up, cocking the cylinder, and… click.

In my mind, my interest is more historical than anything else. Why did my dad have a gun in the war? What did he see through the binoculars? Did he ever kill anyone?

When I got bored, they went back into the box, and I thought nothing of it until later, when I went back up to grab them a year or two later and… gone. The binoculars were still there, but the gun had vanished.

I never said anything to my parents about it, and they never said anything either, but I would guess that it was my mother who told my father, “Get rid of this” once they figured out I’d found it.

My other gun story with my dad takes place near the end of his life. Mom was long dead and, to be brutally honest, my father was always a racist fuck. Fortunately, I escaped that by growing with such diverse friends that I didn’t even have any idea that race, religion, native language, gender, or whatever was even a thing.

Dad, not so much.

So… around the turn of the century and just before Alzheimer’s swooped in, he one day proudly pulled out a fancy walnut box, opened it, and showed me the gun he’d bought. It was a 9 mm, I forget what stupid amount he told me he paid, but then he told me he’d obtained it in case the (record scratch… oh, Dad, fuck no, you did not just say… Oh shit. You did.) showed up.

Yeah, my dad was fucking racist as hell, and now he was armed. And all I could think was, “Okay, how long is it going to be before I see him on the news being arrested for shooting the mailman?”

It got worse as his dementia ascended, and especially when he started accusing me  of suddenly materializing in the middle of the street with my friends and having loud parties in the middle of the night when I’d been nowhere near the house.

And then he landed in the hospital for the first of the last two extended stays, well into his 80s, and on one of my visits, he was simultaneously hallucinating the presence of an old fellow officer named Larry and sincerely telling me where in the house his gun was, then asking me to go get it, bring the box to the hospital, set it next to the bed and leave so that he could blow his brains out.

That was, of course, a hard “fuck no, Dad.” Ironically, in one of the last conversations I had with my half-sister who stole everything later, I told her what he told me, and she did to that gun what Mom and Dad had done to his service revolver when I’d found it, even though I’d never expressed any interest at all in shooting myself or anyone else.

But there you go. Sports/Stupid Crowd Evens and Guns will never get my money. And you?