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Dante, Hendrix, Apocalypse

Notre musique and Gunner Palace

There's a simple rehearsal exercise some actors do when their dialogue seems stale: swap roles and run through the scene again. The idea is to disabuse you of your proprietary egotism and self-enchantment, to get you to listen better and to help you rediscover the truth of what you're talking about. It's unorthodox, but presumably it's in the interest of making meaningful contact with the audience.

Having just seen two recent war movies, Jean-Luc Godard's Notre musique and Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's documentary Gunner Palace, it occurs to me that film directors might benefit from a similar experiment. These two movies differ so strongly that they seem accidentally complementary, and now, I'm wondering, what would happen if each filmmaker had some of the other guy's material to work with? For starters, it might keep them honest.

Like Dante's Divine Comedy, Godard's film is divided into what he describes as the "kingdoms" of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, in a formally experimental mixture of fiction and documentary narrative. Hell, for example, is a ten-minute montage of real and invented war footage, punctuated sporadically by beats of blackness, scored by stark piano music and a disembodied voice that tells us, "It's amazing that anyone's survived."

While Notre musique exists in a cinematic ether, some strategic headspace, Gunner Palace works at the level of instinct, of boots on the ground, and seems comparatively old-fashioned. Epperlein and Tucker's film is a documentary about the soldiers of the US 2-3 Field Artillery in Iraq, who operate out of what used to be Uday Hussein's pleasure palace, shortly after the official end of "major combat operations." As Tucker explains and demonstrates from the first few frames, post-war Baghdad remains besieged with "minor combat."

"They live to blow stuff up," Tucker says of the young soldiers. "But out here, on the streets of Baghdad, they become policemen, social workers and politicians, truant officers," patrolling streets by day, raiding suspected insurgents' homes by night. They use Uday's pool, golf green and fishing pond for recreation.

Tucker's first-person narration sounds affectedly disaffected, though, and makes us wonder if we should know who he is. Hearing him, it is impossible not to think of Martin Sheen narrating Apocalypse Now and the cogent epigram that was that movie's opening line: "Saigon ... shit." The message here isn't so clear, though. Analogously, Godard incorporates footage from Apocalypse Now, among other films, into his hellish opening montage. It's a tall order: not only do these films presume to tackle the enormity of war, but also to dally with the understood codes of the war movie.

Notre musique and Gunner Palace are so deeply immersed in their material that they risk opacity, a lack of perspective. Each film tells its story elliptically-with omissions that seem at once glaring and authentic-as in the way we really talk about war, without the answers, running out of things to say, shrugging, gaping, moving on. Each is an opinion piece on what movies can and should say about the moral agonies of human aggression-and in neither case could I decide whether that opinion, finally, was radical or equivocal.

Gunner Palace is unusual in that it seems as likely to be recommended by servicemen and servicewomen as by anti-war activists. Tucker has said that, since living with the soldiers for two months and completing the film, he doesn't even know what his bias is anymore. Godard, who likens Palestinian exile to the Holocaust in Notre musique, has since called himself "a Jew of the cinema" and said, "I want to be with others, and at the same time not with others." After a relentless century of wars and movies, and a war-movie continuum extending from D. W. Griffith to Michael Moore, Tucker and Godard, apparently, are wondering how to stay properly sensitized to both violence and propaganda.

So, what if, in their groping toward a functional humanitarianism, the directors had reached out to each other? The "atlas of forgotten America" to which Tucker refers when naming his subjects' hometowns, let alone the surreal Middle Eastern landscapes-cradle and, possibly, grave of civilization- he photographs, might instruct and inspire the ivory-towering, Eurocentric Godard. On the other hand, it might be healthy for Tucker's gunners to forgo the hurry-up-and-wait purgatory of their smashed-palace pool parties for Godard's Purgatory of a "literary encounters" conference in Sarajevo, which involves champagne brunches with iconoclastic intellectuals and conversations like this one:

"Humane people don't start revolutions, they start libraries."

"And cemeteries."

Likewise Tucker, who contradicts his own narration visually and edits his scenes abortively, would do well to sit in on Godard's "text and image" lecture on cinema basics, an exploration of, among other things, how history has been written by its winners. In Israel, in 1948, Godard explains, "Jews go into the water to reach the Holy Land, Palestinians to drown. Shot, reverse shot. Jews become the stuff of fiction, Palestinians of documentary."

And surely Godard, with his corresponding impulse and his ideas about history's underdogs, could also make use of Gunner Palace's truckloads of bound, blindfolded detainees, destined for Abu Ghraib despite a lack of evidence against them.

Both filmmakers toil and trouble with the issue of fidelity. This comes to mind with Godard's deliberate casting of actors alongside people playing themselves and with the tendency of Tucker's subjects to perform for his camera: through variously affecting amateur raps or, most notably, through the showboating of Pfc. Stuart Wilf, age nineteen-decked out in a flagrantly obscene T-shirt or blasting out a Hendrixesque rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" on his guitar. Wilf seems more aware of himself, however ironically, as a character in a movie than as an armed combatant.

A greater cognizance, perhaps gleaned from Godard, might serve Tucker's impulse to bear genuine witness to the soldiers' lives. And surely Godard, with his corresponding impulse and his ideas about history's underdogs, could also make use of Gunner Palace's truckloads of bound, blindfolded detainees, destined for Abu Ghraib despite a lack of evidence against them, or of the Iraqi translator who collaborates with the Americans on their raids, then betrays them and becomes a prisoner himself.

In Notre musique, Olga, a Russian Jew who has been moved by Godard's lecture, visits the shattered Mostar bridge. She meets the architect overseeing its reconstruction, who tells her, "It's not to restore the past, it's to make the future possible." What would it be worth to hear a voice like that echoing among the ruins of Gunner Palace?

Later, we learn Olga took hostages in a Jerusalem movie theatre, threatening to blow herself up. When she couldn't get anyone to die with her for peace, she let them all go, only to be killed by marksmen and discovered to be carrying not a bomb, but a bag full of books. Godard has this scene described to him in the film; he doesn't stage it. But I'm playing it in my mind, and for some reason-probably because the director has left it open for me to fill in with some movie-made daydream-I want it to include the soldiers of the 2-3 Field Artillery. They're willing to die for something. Is it peace? Is the movie playing in that theatre their own? Or are they the ones who take Olga out?

Notre musique and Gunner Palace make an improbable but illuminating double bill. Both achieve a rarity in movies about war: the unexpected. And when you take them together, you do gain a sense of an ongoing renewal, against very long odds, of cinema's means, its prospects for commenting on the current world. When you start to mix them up in your mind, not just as antithetical treatments, as shot and reverse shot, but as a synthesis, you discover the real power in role reversal: a new and true kind of dialogue, between director and subject, artist and audience, us and them.

Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.