Sunday, February 13, 2011

Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash #16: Patton (1970)

The usual caveat: Believe it or not, for someone totally obsessed with movies, I do a lot of selective editing, snubbing, and ignoring. That is to say: there are a whole lot of well-known movies I've actually never bothered to watch. I've spent a lot of time hunting down obscurities and not quite as much time seeing the movies you've probably been watching since you were 10 years old (for example: I decided maybe I should watch Saving Private Ryan in Winter 2008). Because of this, in conversation I frequently have this interaction. Me: "I've never actually seen that movie" You: "What? I've seen a movie you haven't?" Me: "Yes" You: "How have you not seen that movie?" Me: "I never wanted to" You: "Really?" Me: "Yes, really." Thus: Yes, Really with Wilde.Dash a feature in which I fill in my pop culture education, watch all the boring basics, and let you know whether or not I decided they were worth my time. Get it? Got it? Good.

Ladies and gentlemen, it has been awhile.  Today I realized that this feature was abandoned roughly five months ago.  That's an eternity in internet years, and brought much shame upon my house.  Over the past several months I've left several movies in the Yes, Really discard pile.  You've missed out on fresh reactions to Elf, Varsity Blues, Onibaba, and Splendor in the Grass, amongst others.  Now, of course, it's Oscar season, and the film year will begin anew like some cliche phoenix rising from the dust pile of Prince of Persia.  To get into the spirit of things, I picked up Patton, one of the dozen or so past Best Picture winners I've never seen, and the biggest "I really need to get around to watching that" contender in the bunch. 

What the collective consciousness knows about Patton is best represented via that iconic image of the general (portrayed by George C. Scott) speechifying in front of an American flag that fills the screen.  Up until earlier this week, that was all I'd ever seen of Patton, and from this I'd long gathered that that was really all there was to see.  Period.  Of course, as I knew going in, that whole scene is little more than the film's opener.  It's just the damn prologue.  So, in my complete lack of enthusiasm for military/war epics, all the past instances in which I'd attempted to watch Patton had culminated in me stopping the DVD for no reason other than simply not being in the mood.  I was disinterested, you see?  I mean, come on, one exhaustive monologue in and it felt like I'd barely bitten into the next three hours of my life...

Let me be perfectly frank: with few exceptions, I tend to avoid historically accurate battley battle movies for as long as possible.  I believe I've mentioned, for instance, how it took my until just a couple years ago to bother watching Saving Private Ryan.  Which was....good, but, you know, just...not my thing.  I've put some thought into why I'm so averse to war epics and have come to the conclusion that it may have something to do with the whole 'limited range of motion' implied.  No matter how artfully done a siege is, when you've got a 30 minute scene of dudes firing at each other and barking orders, it gets old fast.  Especially, you know, when it's not politically correct to stylize the violence.  Anyway, I watched Patton.  Good news: there aren't many literal battles.  Patton is about Patton.  And Patton?  Well, I'll reluctantly admit he may be a lot more interesting than imagined.  You see, whatever American history lesson I'd been treated to wasn't the one that included discussion of the celebrated officer as a sort of armored romantic taking his obvious autodidactic study of classics and poetry into battle with him.  This Patton, the love and rockets Patton?  I can go along with that Patton.

What I like about Patton is that he's got convictions.  He loves what he does, even if that's stomping the enemy to a pulp, but he can admire the methods of others in his field.  Patton is an artist whose medium is heavy artillery and mass destruction.  It's what he does.  If he can't do it, if he's excluded from doing it, it destroys him.  There's a swaggering cowboy, honorable samurai ethic to Patton, but also a penchant for theatricality.  Patton is an actor.  He grandstands and hollers and pours himself fully into his work.  There's nothing outside of strategy and battle for Patton.  He has no real personal life, seemingly no personal allegiances or friendships outside of an abstract notion of what he's there to defend or prevent.  He oscillates wildly between larger than life megalomaniac and the odd vulnerability of the historical romantic.  Here is where all of history connects with one individual.  Patton isn't part of the 20th century.  He's from a time when war was indicative of valor and the best soldiers were kings.  Patton doesn't know that things have changed.  He doesn't seem capable of reconciling the congruities between the ultimate evils of war with his own actions.  The result is that the film is more of a character study and the final message is one shrouded totally in ambiguity.  What does Patton reveal?  The charismatic individual in the midst of war?  The heroism of combat?  Or, does it peel back the facade to display the realities of what the individual must believe to enthusiastically commit such atrocities, the delusions one must have to fall victim to gung-ho WWII nationalism?

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