Moving Pictures
Apr 16, 2024, 06:28AM

Civil War is Psychotic

Alex Garland's latest is a reflection of a reflection, a simulacra, the product of a media-poisoned brain.

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Alex Garland’s Civil War (2024) isn’t as interested in the inner workings or complexities of the Balkanization of American politics as one would assume, as many have pointed out everywhere from professional reviews to social media. What they don’t as readily point out is that the “what if?” scenario of Civil War is less a fictional reflection of machinations in order—it’s not Peter Watkins’ Punishment Park (1971), where the Nixon administration declares a national emergency and has everyone vaguely left-wing rounded up, and the tribunals shown pretty much paraphrase real American radicals.

Civil War is more a reflection of a reflection, a simulacra. It’s a psychotic film. The filmmaker is trapped in the kind of psychosis that’s trapped so many since 2016. The images in Civil War are less causal and more subconscious—they’re grabbed from the uprisings from the summer of 2020 and January 6th. Turns of phrase like “antifa massacre” and “Portland Maoists'' are said so quickly and as unexplored as the ideology or goals of any of the warring factions grabbing the eyes of the journalists at the center of the story, which is a Heart of Darkness-riff along the war-torn byways from New York to Washington, DC.

I was sitting in the palatial Theater 1 at The Senator—a holdout of Baltimore’s more cinema-obsessed days. The ornate theater is full of Art Deco light fixtures and features Maryland and U.S. flags flanking the screen. The grandiosity of the massive picture hall is subverted somewhat by the banality of the sparse late-afternoon crowd of geriatrics and people, like myself, with apparently nothing better to do. Trailers for a new Planet of the Apes and Mad Max suggest a cinema both of the bygone days where big movies were a part of everyday life and also a world trapped in repetition. Behind me is someone with an awful dry cough that’ll play as a partial soundtrack to my movie experience.

Going to the movies is simultaneously a communal experience, wherein a number of people share in the same images and sounds in the same place at the same time, and an internal one, where intake of information can lead to different conclusions, emotional reactions, and personal experiences between audience members. It felt appropriate that I was seeing a movie so lost in a psychosis that feels born out of Facebook fearmongering towards the uprisings from the summer of 2020 and January 6th (it is also appropriate that I saw it in the same theater that I rewatched The Sweet East—a film with a mirror psychosis which rejects the unreal realities bred by social media, yet whose astounding texture and aesthetic accomplishments are often betrayed by its constant signaling towards people who’ve been poisoned by coked-out anorexics).

The images in Civil War are contextless ideas—they have no purpose besides aesthetic ones. Their substance is immaterial but their texture is important. What’s interesting is that this is reflective of the social media reality that’s spiraled, in the US especially, since 2016 and reached its neurotic apex during the lockdowns in the early-Covid days. Reality became the screen, the image. People went on the ground searching for reality—fighting for autonomy from policing or storming into the Capitol to stop an election result, but these efforts, both left and right, were futile. I remember hearing an observation from a friend who was on the frontlines of the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest say, upon seeing the size and scale of the New York protests happening simultaneously, that it was ridiculous they weren’t using their collective force to storm Wall Street.

Or take January 6th, wherein a theoretical fascist vanguard tried to “take their country back” but revealed themselves to be just a bunch of tourists who own used car dealerships with no serious aspirations for a revolutionary struggle when one of them got shot and everyone cried for an ambulance and went home. There were some kitted-out neo-Nazis in their ranks that were ready with zip ties so they could lynch politicians, but those were fewer and farther between amidst the sea of upper-class boat-owners that made up the bulk of the insurrection (to borrow from Baudrillard: the coup did not take place). Yet the images of these incidents have led to an imagining of American disaster, one where all these parties were professional, where they could fight in a conflict with the zeal of suicide bombers or the expertise of Tier 1 operators. I couldn’t tell you if Alex Garland uses Facebook, but he seems caught in the terror imagined by so many on it.

Garland may not even realize what kind of film Civil War is. In an interview, Garland parrots the old Truffaut stance that anti-war films don’t really exist as they’re often enraptured by the images of war. He uses Apocalypse Now (1979) as his key example, which is strange given that he seems to be criticizing Francis Ford Coppola for being enchanted by war while one could easily point out the many similarities between the two films (I’ve already called Civil War a Heart of Darkness-riff). Garland goes on to mention that Come and See (1985) may be the closest thing he’s seen to an anti-war film. It’s obvious that Civil War is inspired by Elem Klimov’s once cultish movie that has more recently been memeified the way that or A Serbian Film (2010) was—it’s an “extreme” film meant to get a reaction, and with reaction content become hot, Come and See is now viral. Garland’s Civil War devolves into increasing atrocity, from a couple tortured prisoners at the beginning to full-on mass graves as the movie progresses. It’s similar to how Come and See builds and builds to emphasize the historic atrocity at the root of it: the ethnic cleansing of Belarussians by the SS and German military in WW2 as a part of lebensraum. Come and See is an affective film, and that’s what makes it effective as a piece of propaganda.

This element isn’t often remarked upon, but it does serve a very specific political goal that’s counterintuitive to the modern viewer. Despite its “anti-war” credentials, Come and See presents an argument for the Soviet state’s militarism: they’re facing the threat of annihilation by external forces, and are in an unending state of warfare because of it. It’s the Siege Socialism film par excellence for the Gorbachev Era—it’s not about the Glory of the Revolution or Ultimate Victory of Communism like, say, The Fall of Berlin was for the Stalinist days, but instead an exhausted polemic trying to grip onto an enduring spirit for a country still devastated by their prolonged, bloody, and ultimately pointless war in Afghanistan.

Because of the context, Come and See is a much more specifically complex film than the pitch makes it appear, and because of Civil War’s distinct lack of contextualization, it can’t function in the same way, despite Garland thinking he’s doing what Klimov was apparently doing while failing to see was Klimov was actually doing.

Come and See is against the ethnic cleansing of Slavs, obviously, yet is decidedly in favor of partisan resistance to it, which is a form of warfare—the issue is more complicated. So too is Civil War. Its war photographer heroine (played tiredly, for both good and ill, by Kirsten Dunst) believes her images may warn people not to fall into such barbarity, yet they apparently do nothing. Her images, no matter how powerful they seem, are useless. Yet they fascinate. They possess the photographer to stand in the line of fire to capture time and light onto an emulsion. Initially we see the ones that haunt her, the moments she turned into masterpieces: a man set on fire somewhere in Africa, a wounded soldier in front of a burning building somewhere in the Middle East. They’re contextless, much like the conflict we get glimpses of which make up the civil war raging across the US. There’s a “Western Alliance” apparently besieging the American government, there’s an unaffiliated secessionist Florida trying to recruit other states to their side, etc. None of it really matters, it’s immaterial beyond being generative for the film’s images.

Some have commented that this is the point of Civil War, that its context is opaque because Western war photographers are obtuse towards the conflicts they cover—that they only care about getting that perfect shot. That’s not true, they have to care, even if their detachment from behind the lens has deprived them of some humanity. War photographers, as much as any other journalist, has to have as detailed knowledge as possible in order to do their jobs well. Ron Haviv‘s photo of members of Serbian ultranationalist paramilitary group Arkan’s Tigers was one he risked his life for—grabbing a war crime on film as one of the men kicks a civilian’s dead body while his comrade stands guard. This photo is the subject of examination for Je vous salue, Sarajevo (1993), the most powerful two minutes of Jean-Luc Godard’s entire filmography.

Set to Arvo Pärt’s Silhousan’s Song, Sarajevo rips apart this single image of atrocity into constituent parts—familiar images like “boot,” “gun” and “cigarette”. Godard narrates the words of Georges Bernanos, the anti-fascist Catholic monarchist who’s best remembered by cinephiles as having written the novel Diary of a Country Priest: “In a sense, fear is the daughter of God, redeemed on Good Friday. She is not beautiful—mocked, cursed, disavowed by all. But don’t be mistaken, she watches over all mortal agony, she intercedes for mankind.” Godard adds his own commentary:

“For there is the and there is the exception. Culture is the rule, and art is the exception. Everyone speaks the rule: cigarette, computer, t-shirt, television, tourism, war. Nobody speaks the exception. It isn’t spoken, it is written: Flaubert, Dostoyevsky. It is composed: Gershwin, Mozart. It is painted: Cézanne, Vermeer. It is filmed: Antonioni, Vigo. Or it is lived, then it is the art of living: Srebrenica, Mostar, Sarajevo. The rule is to want the death of the exception. So the rule for cultural Europe is to organize the death of the art of living, which still flourishes.”

Godard finds within Ron Haviv‘s image many of his own—he blows it up, explodes the colors, aims at small scenes within the larger whole. He turns the momentary glimpse of the camera into an eternity of storytelling. Yet for him to do so, all that material had to be there—not just the specificity of the incident, which Godard does home in on, but the more immediate signifiers he also points out.

Garland’s Civil War is just the signifiers. They’re floating, unfettered. They’re deprived of underlying truth or meaning beyond that they look like they fit the bill. One could imagine Hawaiian-shirt clad militiamen fighting vague US forces because those are two images we’ve seen presented to us as opposing sides via social media. They already exist in a latent violence, and Civil War is trying to realize its kinetic potential. But by doing nothing besides applying the energy, not understanding or investigating its mechanical forces, it’s politically meaningless, it’s just the perfectly realized, meticulous noise of gunshots rattling around someone’s head filled with a barrage of videos from Facebook before they try to find enough entropy within their body to drift off into sleep at night.

Civil War is made up of that “unthinkable” violence (unthinkable that it would actually come to pass—it’s easy to imagine since the aesthetics of it are baked into those who wish to do it). It realizes an American landscape that’s supposed to be at a peaceful stasis as a world of snipers and mortar fire. There’s the banal rural America turned into a battleground, a la Red Dawn (1984), but it’s biggest aesthetic influence, strangely, feels like Call of Duty. The video game franchise that went from niche to dominant in the recession days of the Xbox 360 and PS3, and with its entry Modern Warfare 2 (2009) it presented an America under attack by paratrooping Russians, with besieged suburban fast-casual restaurants and trench warfare in front of the Capitol. It’s a ridiculous premise, but one that sold well. And, not to sound like an alarmist politician from the 1990s about video games causing violence, but I believe the popularization of weapon customization in first-person shooter games as pioneered by Call of Duty has spawned a new cultural fetishism towards firearms. All of a sudden, gamers are experts on weapon models and modifications, although there’s plenty to be said about how video game guns are their own simulacra of real weapons, with their rules and conventions that aren’t based in reality.

This technical fetishism has extended towards the fixation on “realistic” portrayals of the military. This was first making waves when Steven Spielberg was having actors go through a real bootcamp to get ready for Saving Private Ryan (1997) and Band of Brothers (2001), and since then it has become a kind of industry standard. Actors who want to portray soldiers have to look like real soldiers, and to do so they have to consult real soldiers. It forces collaboration with the US military especially, and has turned the goofy guys from The Office and Parks & Rec into CIA stooges. Seemingly every actor now knows how to hold a rifle like a special forces member and where to rest their trigger finger when not ready to shoot.

This kind of technical fetishism, and in films like Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), has become the norm, with every action movie apparently trying to replicate the cool detachment and professionalism of a film like Sicario (2015) (there is something to be said about Heat and Mann’s overall revitalization over the last few years as being related to this phenomena, and it’s also probably no accident that one of the lead actors in Civil War, Wagner Moura, starred in the Elite Squad movies, a pair of Brazilian films that have been accused of being fascist for glorifying Brazil’s Special Police Operations Battalion). Civil War is no different—it’s meticulous with the sound design of its bullets ricocheting off concrete or guns echoing in an open field. It’s as obsessed with the accuracy of these details as the war photographers are with getting the perfect shot.

Civil War isn’t a movie about neutrality, or a prediction of what’s to come, but is a film caught between the perverse desire for disaster and the innate fear of impending doom that’s been accelerated by social media. One needs to go no further than checking in on their Boomer relative posting on Facebook about a boogeyman “antifa” that defies any definition to realize that the images of impending American destruction don’t have much grounding in what different actors believe or the systems at work driving the increasingly divisive and unreal politics of the contemporary United States, where either polarity lives wholly vacuumed in their own social media feedback loop. Civil War isn’t a movie about the politics that this has shaped, it is of it. Coppola said that Apocalypse Now is not a movie “about Vietnam. It is Vietnam.” Whether Alex Garland realizes it or not, Civil War is the insanity of social media.


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