JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

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A Face of War lays claim to capturing the reality of the Vietnam War.

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A Face of War casts an extreme close-up on one who bears witness to war from the trenches.

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A Face of War appears nestled within the “master metaphor” of WWII through such footage as U.S. Marines participating in the birth of a Vietnamese baby.

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Sands of Iwo Jima contributes to the genre conventions of WWII, which are generous enough to include the sudden, shocking death of war hero Sgt. Stryker (John Wayne).

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A Face of War aims to capture the chaos of war: visual and aural disorientation strike viewers as the camera goes awry during a sudden attack.

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A Face of War films a sequence of events that seem emblematic of the U.S. military strategy of destroying a village in order to save it.

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A Face of War offers a curious close-up on a Marine who appears to embody “the notion of American innocence.”

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A Face of War: The Marine is shown saving a puppy, which apparently falls outside of what one critic considers a “non-ideological” account of the war.

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A Face of War: Spectatorship and the sniper. Providing a grunt’s-eye-view of combat experience helps to create what David James calls an “aesthetic of empiricism.”

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A Face of War approximates a soldier’s perspective even as it conveys the radical otherness of war and limit to comprehensibility.

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A Face of War delivers the affect of war through a close-up on a wounded Marine who cries out, “Please take me home.”

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A Face of War: An overhead shot of “evacuees” rounded up and rescued for their own good by a benevolent U.S. military.

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A Face of War:  Marines lend a helping hand to the less fortunate: the unacknowledged “pacification” program is passed off as humanitarian gesture.

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Documenting a soldier’s perspective:
A Face of War

Nothing quite so obviously contrived appears in A Face of War, the documentary debut by director-producer Eugene S. Jones, whose portrait of the common soldier seems even more direct and unmediated than that afforded by The Anderson Platoon. Against black and white footage of Marines on maneuvers through the Vietnamese countryside, an opening title states:

“The sights and sounds you are about to witness were filmed and recorded in Vietnam. The events and circumstances were experienced by a single American infantry unit over a period of 97 days.”

Some 75 minutes or so later, a closing title reads:

“The actions and incidents you have just witnessed were experienced by Mike Company, 3rd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment, and are representative of the day-to-day encounters of the United States Marine Corps during that period in Vietnam.”

In between, the film offers an unflinching view of such encounters without relying on narration or non-diegetic music, basically holding to the observational mode that, for Nichols,

“stresses the nonintervention of the filmmaker. Such films cede ‘control’ over the events that occur in front of the camera more than any other mode” (38).

The central theoretical question thus raised by A Face of War — whether Jones worked to refrain from any telling other than bearing witness to events (the unobtrusive “fly on the wall” effect that conveys lived time) or whether the filmed incidents were edited in such a way as to construct a temporal order that effectively narrativizes the real —strikes at the very heart of the documentary project, a question no less pressing now as it was then.

Indeed, A Face of War has earned a rather vexed position in the debate over documentary form and representation. In Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties, David James takes the film to task not only for succumbing to “the fallacies of the cinema vérité model” (200), but also for its “covert appropriation of WWII as a master metaphor,” by which he means Hollywood war movies:

"Most of the motifs A Face of War employs — the man on point listening to the jungle and waving his troop on, the chaplain’s pre-battle address giving the imminent self- sacrifice a divine sanction, the football game in the mud, the communal bath in a natural pool, the smiles and gratitude of the natives, and even the birth of a baby—are recruited from Hollywood features; their silent intent is to rewrite imperialist invasion as the anti- fascist liberation of Asia from the Japanese, or of Europe from the Nazis" (201).

In his essay “Teaching Vietnam: The Politics of Documentary,” Thomas J. Slater criticizes James’ reading, arguing instead that the film “works to debunk such myths” perpetuated by Hollywood, especially

“the notion of American innocence—that we never ask for war, we only fight to protect peace and freedom, and we always act out of benevolence— [which] animated most World War II films” (276).

Against the ideological designs of this tradition, A Face of War, as Slater points out, recalls The Battle of San Pietro, “which also presents soldiers’ concerns as basically nonideological.” For Slater,

“Both directors place the camera at the front line, demythologizing death, showing it to be real, sudden, and shocking” (273).

Yet one could look to a classical messenger of the war movie genre like Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), which ended with the hero (played by John Wayne) dying in much the same way (fictionalized of course), implying that the “master metaphor” does not necessarily preclude the relative realism of Hollywood fictions. “Although Jones does borrow some standard sequences from WWII films,” concedes Slater, “his approach cannot be labeled as an attempt to justify the war” (277).

The persistence of WWII as a “master metaphor” can be heard resonating into the current debate over how to frame and rationalize the “war on terror” (which will be addressed shortly). For now I want to consider Slater’s defense of A Face of War as a “nonideological” document, one that remains faithful to the “soldiers’ perspective” and “their main concern: survival, not politics or ideology” (275). “The film’s reticence with regard to American war aims,” writes Slater, “clearly contrasts with the conventions of World War II films,” even as that legacy provides the documentary with an unspoken “metaphoric structure” (275). Neither Slater nor James dispute that the “sights and sounds” captured for A Face of War were “real” or that the events actually took place; rather what is at issue is the documentary’s overall structure, its formal sequencing of the filmed “actions and incidents.” Without the aid of voice-over narration or even interview segments to anchor comprehensibility and orient spectators, the film appears as a nearly impressionistic parade of disconnected events.

Yet this recorded take on the “chaos of war” has been clearly edited to form a complete narrative, with a recognizable beginning, middle and end. Deliberately constructed to make meaning, the film’s disparate elements gather together to forge at least an implicit argument, one that seeks assent to the inherent virtues of soldiering and its attendant values of courage, honor and sacrifice.

Consider, for example, one sequence near the end of the film that follows a particular scene of carnage in which a U.S. military vehicle has hit a landmine in a Vietnamese village, killing one Marine and leaving several more badly wounded. Following footage of the wounded soldiers carried on stretchers to helicopters and a few shots of the post-explosion wreckage that focuses on mangled equipment, the film cuts to a burst of brief shots in quick succession of heavy construction vehicles, including a bulldozer labeled “Honcho Hog,” moving into the village (presumably the same one responsible for the fatal landmine). Vietnamese peasants are shown being rounded up and herded into a massive transport vehicle. Packed with dozens of peasants and their meager possessions, the vehicle motors off as the roar of its engine descends into the distance.

The camera pans across a quiet, empty village, now bereft of life. Cut to a medium close-up on the face of a young Marine, who curiously appears to be wearing the slightest of smiles. The camera slowly pans down his chest to reveal that he’s cradling a puppy nestled under his shirt, its tiny head poking out for a moment from the safe confines of military fatigues. The film then cuts to a shot of the platoon marching away from the village, as we hear a voice via radio transmission asking whether the “evacuees” have been cleared out. Orders are given to detonate tunnels. A series of explosions that decimate the village is filmed from a distance, before cutting to footage from atop a tank, taken from an angle aligned with the barrel of its flame throwing cannon, which proceeds to burn everything in its path. A tremendous roar of blasting liquid fire accompanies shots of huts ablaze and trees scorched. Everything in sight is incinerated.

In the midst of such savage devastation, placed precisely between footage of the “evacuation” of rural peasants and the merciless torching of their village, blown up and burned to the ground, the filmmaker inserts a shot of a soldier holding a puppy — a fleeting glimpse of life within a world of death and destruction. Such a sequence points less to the “invented” image before us — that is, a rumination on the ontological status of the referent or its indexical trace — and more toward the prosaic act of willfully selecting the relations between audio-visual materials — the very constructedness of the documentary project. That Jones chose to edit in a shot that gestures toward humanizing the soldiers — somehow arising at the very moment when all humanity has literally been extinguished — suggests very much the “ideological” at work.

This unmistakable sight of the inextinguishable humanity of (U.S.) soldiers, while less familiar to the “master metaphor” family of motifs as the chaplain’s blessing or the birth of a baby, is no less affective, situated as it is within a narrative framing designed to coax emotional responses from (U.S.) audiences. Even as he becomes a generous repository for an entire constellation of spectatorial emotions — from pride to pity, much of it bound up with a specific denomination of nationalism — the soldier stands apart from his common audience back home, separated by his very identity as a distinct participant in the otherwise inaccessible experience of war.

Herein then lies the essential paradox of such documentary work: attempting to draw spectators closer to the reality of war by approximating a “soldiers’ perspective,” these films only exacerbate the otherness of their subjects by enclosing comprehension within the experiential. By foregrounding such felt experience as the exclusive means to the truth of war, documentaries like The Anderson Platoon and A Face of War, as James puts it, “propose the GI as the site of exemplary understanding” (198). James writes:

“The affirmation of presence in the film image supposes a parallel aesthetic of empiricism, a repression of knowledge that can be countered only by an engagement with what it must suppress: history” (201-02).

In other words, the truth claims by these documentaries based on proximity to the “action” require a seemingly simultaneous separation from the sphere of critical thinking (in particular historical knowledge), just as the fiction of “presence” requires avoiding undue attention to the material production of the work or indeed any sign (such as the formal device of voiceover narration, which again is absent from A Face of War) that might occasion reflection on the very process of documenting what Philip Rosen calls “a preexistent, profilmic field” (241).

We need to look no further for evidence of this dehistoricized approach to documenting the war than this same sequence in A Face of War, which likely is footage of the so-called pacification program in South Vietnam. With its roots in counterinsurgency doctrine dating back to the late 1950s, the “resettlement” of rural populations, as part of the larger program of “pacification,” was military-speak for the U.S. policy of forced relocation, the countrywide crisis that created the “refugee generation” during the war (see Baritz; Ngo; Hunt). Yet the sequence in question, appearing to reveal a measured military response to attack by an “enemy” village, unfurls as a humanitarian mission, in effect obscuring any realization that what took place before the camera was very likely indicative of a pre-determined strategy. What the film does indeed bear witness to, but fails to provide any context for, is its documentation of the waging of this “other war” in Vietnam — the winning (and losing) of hearts and minds.

With their temporal and spatial coordinates constricted to the visceral impact of combat experience — fixated on a present without a past and fastened to an event without any cause — documentaries like The Anderson Platoon and A Face of War go to great pains to valorize the warrior only to eclipse the war itself, providing a favored model in the documentary representation of war that will find its most recent manifestation in the first generation of documentaries on the Iraq war.

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