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October 24, 2008 |

By Ted Boynton | Boozehound Cinephile | October 24, 2008 |

Pop Culture Item Consumed: Body of Lies, the Russell Crowe/Leonardo DiCaprio spy thriller about a CIA operative (DiCaprio) working in the Middle East who begins to have trouble obeying the lines of demarcation set by his handler (Crowe). The only remarkable thing about Body of Lies is the amount of talent squandered on a bland mediocrity of a film, but it got me thinking about the cultural significance of the recent spate of films relating to the so-called War on Terror. More important, it was my first encounter with an exciting new trend in viticulture.

Beverage Consumed: Three Thieves Pinot Grigio Bandit, a recent addition to the portable boozer’s arsenal. After years of relying on Pajiba’s own Stacey Nosek to keep the low-rent boxed wine industry afloat, winemakers recently have begun studying new approaches to packaging wine, with the focus on convenience. The most important innovation, screw-top wine bottles, is a subject for another day. For now, if you’re a movie-boozing enthusiast, you need to be aware of the individually portioned, easily concealed juice-box-‘o-wine, the most important invention for the tippling cinéaste since the Pocket Shot.

The Three Thieves Pinot Grigio Bandit is currently the most popular juice box wine. Pinot grigio is the Italian varietal of a popular European grape, pinot gris, that produces a range of crisp white wines. Oenophiles, cover your delicate eyes while I roughly approximate this for the lay drinker (there’s a good sex joke in that phrase somewhere). If you’re unfamiliar with the more esoteric wine varietals, think of pinot grigio as the missing link between Chablis and chardonnay.

Aside from sharing an unfortunate name with a Skoal product, the Bandit is a marketing inspiration, ingeniously packaged as a four-pack of 250-milliliter portions in an eye-catching chartreuse mini-box. While pinot grigio can be complex and wonderful — especially those appellations good enough to be drunk with only a light chill — the Bandit is best described as “miscellaneous white,” or, as Litely Salted would refer to it, “dinner.” It’s not great, but it’s certainly not bad at about $8 for four servings. More importantly, it fits neatly in a trouser or coat pocket or a purse or messenger bag. (That’s what I call my man-purse; Mrs. socalled refers to it as my “vagina.”) The packaging is also not a good thermal conductor, meaning you can smuggle it in your underwear without frostbiting your junk.

Other major advantages of the wine juice box:

- Conveniently fits in the cupholders of nearly all automobile makes and models.

- Kid-friendly: A Bandit and a straw are just the thing to shut the little fuckers up during a film; also makes a handy Halloween treat or last-minute stocking stuffer for the little ones.

Summary of Action: After the ghastly experience of seeing The Dark Knight at a movie house packed with shrieking kids and their ineffectual parents, the missus had vowed never again to visit the theater for anything south of an “R” rating. With its psychopathic monster of a villain and blistering levels of violence and mayhem, TDK is about as “family friendly” as a mick whose sister has a pint of Bushmills stashed in her knickers — i.e., going to some dark places with unsavory yet genuine affection — but the PG-13 rating provided zero deterrence to the presence of toddlers and elementary schoolers.

Body of Lies, on the other hand, is a solid “R,” and the by-now infamous torture scene effectively discouraged people from dragging along their fuck-trophies. I can’t say that the scene in question was any more disturbing than the darker parts of TDK — is a graphic depiction of smashing someone’s fingers worse than watching a psychotic killer incinerate Maggie Gyllenhaal? — but it accomplished our goal of child-free viewing.

Any significance attached to Body of Lies has nothing to do with the film itself, which is spectacularly ordinary, despite an impressive suspense/thriller pedigree that includes the director of Alien and Black Hawk Down and the leads from The Departed and American Gangster. Indeed, the most striking aspect of the film is the relative lack of advance buzz it generated, compared to American Gangster, for example, a comparable tête-a-tête of major dramatic stars. Political thrillers dealing with the U.S. presence in the Middle East are a dime a dozen these days, but so are ensemble detective stories.

I can’t help thinking that Warner Bros. took a hint from the quick demises of Rendition, The Kingdom, and Vantage Point, just to name a few, and decided to cut their losses by foregoing an aggressive marketing campaign. To that end, Body of Lies got me wondering about the last time U.S. involvement in an actual shooting war contemporaneously inspired so many films. Considering that nearly all of the significant Vietnam films were made well after the U.S. withdrew its bloodied nose, you have to go back to World War II to find comparable real-time Hollywood involvement. The tone and reception of the films from that era offer a study in contrast about the way the American public views its role in these situations now versus 1942, while at the same time confirming some unpleasant truths about the American psyche.

World War II-era war films were produced by a Hollywood that was firmly part of the U.S. propaganda machine. It’s easy to ironically deadpan that “it was a simpler time,” but the fact is the societal mores of the 1940s made it impossible to greenlight a movie questioning the United States’ role in the war. It’s easy to forget that U.S. participation in World War II was incredibly unpopular with large segments of the domestic population — don’t forget the theory that FDR intentionally buried advance intelligence about the Pearl Harbor attack in order to push the U.S. into a fight the people didn’t want. Nevertheless, it really was a simpler time in the sense that, once the U.S. government declared war on the Axis, the American media committed to the cause pretty much wholeheartedly. I’m certainly not aware of any significant films from the time championing an isolationist viewpoint or questioning U.S. motives or political decisions relating to the U.S. entry into the fray.

As a result, Hollywood began pumping out pro-military films almost overnight, and the early 1940s saw a flood of war hero turns by well-known stars. Less than a year after the declaration of war in December 1941, John Wayne starred in the October 1942 release of Flying Tigers, a complicated (for the time) special effects picture about U.S. warplanes fighting the Japanese. He couldn’t beat Humphrey Bogart, however, who preempted The Duke with Across the Pacific in September of the same year. (The Korean War, another white-hat situation, also had its share of heroics by Hollywood stars, such as Bogart’s Battle Circus and William Holden’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri.)

Two decades of political growing up made a major difference in how the American public perceived war, and the Hollywood machine didn’t spring into action during the Vietnam era — not even in the mid-sixties, before words like “quagmire” and “debacle” came into popular parlance. It’s easy to blame the unpopularity of the Vietnam War for the lack of cultural artifacts about it, but during the early years of our military engagement there, political resistance at home was relatively light; lighter than that of the anti-war isolationist movement of the late 1930s. Even after the U.S. quit Vietnam, there were famously few Vietnam films during the 1970s, and nearly all of them dealt with the consequences at home, as opposed to the action in the hot zone. Not until the 1980s did films like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket begin exploring the actual combat aspects of U.S. troops in Vietnam. It almost goes without saying that the Vietnam genre is a collection of brooding, contemplative films about the confusing, twisted nature of war and its inherently destructive impact on humanity, whether soldiers or civilians.

So what does one make of the tepid reception given the current crop of movies about U.S. military involvement abroad? Occam’s razor suggests the straightforward explanation that most of them suck, as with Body of Lies. With the exceptions of Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah, this genre has failed critically as well as commercially. The U.S. filmgoer has never let a little thing like lack of quality inform his movie choices, however, and the weak coffee served up in Lions for Lambs would very likely go down just fine if Tom Cruise were blowing-up-shit-real-good as Ethan Hunt. Something else is at work.

Perhaps the most obvious trend is the lack of appetite for contemporaneous combat films. With the exceptions of Home of the Brave and American Soldiers, there are virtually no feature films about Iraq combat being made — nearly everything focuses on the political or espionage aspects. (While I enjoyed HBO’s “Generation Kill,” there was a striking lack of focus on combat and its consequences even in a series hailed for its truth.) This likely results from the post-Vietnam realism in filmmaking, which wasn’t present in the 1940s and 1950s and would not have been tolerated in any event. Saving Private Ryan couldn’t have been made during or immediately after World War II, because an American populace simply won’t tolerate graphic images of war casualties when they know those images reflect an immediate reality within their control. One might call this a mass collective hypocrisy, if one were not feeling charitable.

The larger picture — the aspect most focused on as the media tries to make sense of the abject failure of mainstream films like Stop-Loss and Rendition — reflects a generalized malaise among Americans about facing what is happening. While conservative-leaning Americans simply do not want to hear what the “liberal elite” in Hollywood have to say about an increasingly unpopular war, the vast middle of the country resists being shaken from its apathetic slumber with images of wounded and dying American soldiers or operatives, much less unjustly imprisoned and tortured foreign nationals. Vietnam taught our parents not to care too much, not to get too personally invested in our foreign interventions, lest we end up disillusioned about our liberties and free democratic processes. We learned that lesson well; we can’t even be bothered to walk three blocks to vote once every two years, much less sit through two hours of unpleasant reminders of what is being done by and to our young brethren in uniform.

An equally unpleasant explanation stems from an element of our national psyche that few like to discuss but that defines a great deal of our country’s history. We like winners. Americans don’t like to back a loser, and the quickest way to lose U.S. support is to show weakness or to display a tendency toward a long campaign requiring deep focus and a steady attention span. The Iraq War went off the tracks almost on cue from the Chimpanzee-in-Chief’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” gaffe in May 2003. While few in the media will openly say it, most people privately acknowledge that we have been either losing the Iraq War or stalemated by the insurgency since beginning the occupation. (The Greeks would have written a play about the hubris of dropping a banner on a naval vessel before the battle had begun. Sum presidints dont studdie hard in skool.) That’s five-plus long years of studiously ignoring a rag-tag band of dirty teenagers kicking our piggledy-jiggle American asses. If we can’t be bothered to pay attention to CNN showing it to us nightly, are we really going to pay $10 to see it rendered in 70-mm glory by Reese Witherspoon and Samuel L. Jackson?

Guh. I can barely get through “The Daily Show,” and I like watching that.

How the Pairing Held Up: Given the questionable quality of the film, it was strangely cathartic to drink ϋber-hipster box wine in peacenik San Francisco while watching a CIA spook traipse around the Middle East killing Arabs. It felt post-modern and nihilistic. Also, I wouldn’t let either of them into my actual home.

Tastes Like: Wine in a box, in the best sense of that phrase. We’ve come a long way from the days of drinking Sutter Home White Zin out of a silver bladder in an oversized milk carton, but I’d rather have a nice bottle of Mersault. Still, when it comes to theater-friendly packaging, I’m breaking out a phrase I haven’t used since Burt Reynolds roamed the highways during the Carter administration: It’s hard to beat the Bandit.

Overall Rating: Four out of four juice boxes. You’re going to need them.

Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at [email protected]

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