This Chronicle is dedicated to Doug and Hélène Collins, my recent hosts in Seattle. It contains a number of ideas that emerged from my conversation with Doug following our viewing of Saving Private Ryan, some of which may find further development in a later column.
It is simple yet sufficient to explain the first of these qualities as greater “realism.” The notion of realism is the most tantalizingly difficult of all esthetic ideas. All representation is revelatory; it can do no other than claim to show its object “as it really is.” An esthetic can only claim not to be realistic when, as with modernism, a prior mode named “Realism” exists against which it can define its own truth. Thus we may begin by understanding realism, not as a specific historical movement, but as the claim that a given representation is “more real” than previous ones. Realism in this sense is a universal function of the historicity of the human, the necessarily “progressive” nature of culture that stands in tension with the necessary “decadence” of its ritualized traditions. We may then understand Realism in its historically specific sense as the thematization of “realism,” that is, the expectation of experiencing a Realist work, independently of its content, as more real than previous works. A novel or a film appears realistic precisely to the extent that it makes earlier novels and films appear unrealistic. This process requires the unanticipated and revelatory foregrounding of some new element that “thickens” narration, at the same time deferring its end and intensifying its effect. High-cultural realism tends more toward the former pole, popular realism to the latter; in the first case, the detail nuances the violence of the narrative conclusion; in the second, it intensifies it.
As a historical phenomenon, Realism accords significance to industrially produced detail in a bourgeois society ever more dependent on the mediation of mimetic conflict by such detail. Cinema’s original vocation–for example, in the horse-galloping experiments of Eadweard Muybridge–was the mechanically determined and therefore objective revelation of such detail. This is true of both documentary “Lumière” cinema and fantastic “Méliès” cinema–the latter being, as it had been in literature, a byproduct of the former. Films like Star Wars or Jurassic Park are as realistic in their methods as Titanic: they create illusion through the perceptible reality of their details.
Saving Private Ryan is more realistic than earlier war films; it is distinguished by a new revelation of violence that is at the same time a new deferral of violence. What makes it exemplary is that this is the exemplary violence from which the postmodern world emerges—it is our era’s originary scene. World War II is the last time that human violence, including nuclear weapons, could conceivably be fully unleashed without destroying humanity altogether. It was also the last time that market society would conceivably have to fight for survival. In retrospect, victory over Nazism now appears as the first and decisive stage in the triumph of the market system over the system of authoritarian solidarity that we may call, in the broadest sense, “socialism.” After the crushing of right-wing socialism, the end some forty-five years later of the threat of world domination posed by left-wing socialism seems almost an afterthought. For victory in WW II and the ensuing impossibility of all-out conflict guaranteed victory in the Cold War as well, although we did not see this at the time. Authoritarian systems may have a chance against democratic ones on the battlefield; they have none in the marketplace.
Just as WW II was the occasion of humanity’s ultimate foreseeable violence, the key moment of the war–both symbolically and strategically–was the D-Day invasion that provides the subject of Saving Private Ryan. No doubt (not to speak of the action in the Pacific) the fighting in North Africa and up the Italian peninsula, the Red Army’s struggle back from Stalingrad were as material to the final Allied victory as the invasion of France, which revisionist historians have long criticized for its tardiness. But D-Day begins the final showdown between the leading powers of both sides, the one characterized by the maximalization of openness and the other by esthetic-political closure. The antisemitism that reaches its paroxysm in the Holocaust is the sign of the extreme form of this closure, which would revoke the Hebrew abolition of the figural center that is the foundation of Christianity as well as Judaism. The not impossible success of this revocation would have meant the end, or the long (“ten-thousand-year”) deferral of the liberating drive of Western culture.
If Saving Private Ryan’s realism reveals the founding violence of the postmodern era, it is particularly noteworthy in today’s historical context that it does so while remaining entirely free of PC. There are no “majority” – “minority” relations, not even the Euro-American multiculturalism of earlier WW II films in which a group of soldiers exemplify the Melting Pot. The members of Captain Miller‘s detachment come from a varied set of subcultures, but these are never discussed; with the perhaps unfortunate exception of the Jewish soldier who, like Red Buttons in The Longest Day, flaunts his Jewishness before a line of German prisoners, ethnic self-assertion is wholly absent. Women appear, only very briefly, as mothers, wives, typists. When Ryan reminisces about his last night at home with his brothers now killed in action, he thinks of the most un-PC scene imaginable, a sexual encounter between one of the brothers and an ugly girl who, if I heard correctly, bears the name of a well-known feminist. The crudity of this scene reflects Hollywood’s own prejudices, less against women than against the great un-bicoastal Center. Crude it surely is, but it makes a point: that this film avoids the least hint of PC even at the risk of sinning in the opposite direction. In Saving Private Ryan, popular culture returns from the celebration of resentment, whether through the display of victimization or of gratuitous violence, to the memorialization of our last, foundational sacrifice.
Private Ryan is the inverse of the deceased Unknown Soldier: he is the Unknown Survivor. (The recent DNA determination of the identity of the Vietnam War’s Unknown Soldier points up the inherent instability of this designation: no one can be expected to accept eternal loss of identity for any cause.) I hope I will not spoil the film for anyone by revealing the simple but powerful narrative trick of the frame story. When, in the opening sequence, we see an old man kneel before a grave on the plages de débarquement, the closing-in of the camera and the ensuing match cut to the Captain’s face (to which the old man’s bears a faint resemblance) leads us to think that it is he who is remembering these events. This reassures us that he will survive amid the carnage. But after the body of the film is over, we see that it is not Captain Miller but Ryan himself who kneels before what is now revealed to be Miller’s grave. (Miller’s death at the end of the rescue mission is still uncertain as we leave this scene.) The memory of the landing at Omaha Beach, in which Ryan himself did not participate, is seen through his eyes because it was his and not Miller’s survival that the landing made possible. Miller’s experience has not been lost; it has been preserved in Ryan’s, and our, continued existence.
Culture is, before anything else, about survival. We use representation to defer violence not because it is prettier or more intelligent than prehuman communication, but because we need it to survive. Unknown Survivor Ryan and his wife, his well-groomed and healthy children and grandchildren, are the representatives of all of us. We don’t know what Ryan does or did for a living, nor do we want to know. When he asks his wife if he’s been a good man, worthy of the sacrifice of Miller and the others, he is asking the question for every American and, by extension, for every member of the global civilization that has survived the war. This is a sentimental moment that transcends all sentimentality.
The operation of “high” art we have inherited from the Greeks relocates us from the sacrificial mob to the central place of its master who is above all its victim. In contrast, popular art imaginarily realizes our resentment in the mass destruction of this central figure and/or the acquisition of his mastery. But the historical filiations of popular culture lead, in Saving Private Ryan, and to a degree already in Schindler’s List, Spielberg’s earlier film about World War II, to the incorporation within popular art of the elevating goal of high culture–an incorporation that is at the same time its evacuation as a distinct ideal.
The war movie justifies the imaginary exercise of violence as victory over an enemy whose triumph would mean our destruction. In its most vulgar form (e.g., Independence Day) the enemy is dehumanized and the danger he represents is assimilated to the natural calamities of disaster films. But if we simply treat the disaster film as a demonized version of the war film, we miss the originary element that it preserves: the asymmetry between periphery and center. The “enemy” is a society symmetrical to our own, but it can only figure in a war (as opposed to anti-war) film as a justified focus for our aggression. One cannot tell a good war story in the Voltairean-pacifist mode that casts a plague on both houses.
The D-Day invasion is an exemplary war subject because we are indeed the active force and the enemy a mere obstacle to our liberating advance. The film takes full responsibility for this aggressive position, even to the point of depicting without condemnation the killing of surrendering German soldiers. In the most elaborate development of this theme, the Captain lets go free (with orders to turn himself in to an Allied patrol) a captured enemy soldier that the interpreter had befriended. This angers one soldier so much that he threatens to desert the mission–a situation resolved only by the Captain’s revealing his hitherto secret–and non-heroic–peacetime occupation. But in the final battle sequence, this same enemy soldier, who had returned to combat, is recognized and killed by the interpreter after, paralyzed by fear, he had failed to come to the aid of a comrade killed in hand-to-hand combat: his first act as a real soldier. The viscerally non-violent intellectual is made to understand that peace itself must be in principle defended through violence.
The realization of resentment in justified violence is the fundamental hallmark of popular as opposed to high culture. Yet in this film it is inseparable from the necessity of historical remembrance. We must recall the sacrifice of other lives for ours, and the modality of this sacrifice is not, as the narrative trick of the frame story reveals, reducible to their mere martyrdom. The final battle sequence is, in itself, a story of survival; the little squad’s task is to hold a bridge until reinforcements arrive so that it may be used by the Allied army. Not just Ryan but the Captain too is a survivor, even if his survival through the invasion’s perils ends here. Were we to see the Captain and his men solely through Ryan’s knowledge of them, we would not sufficiently appreciate their roles as survivors through violence who enable our own life of peace.
Saving Private Ryan is by no means a celebration of violence, but what turns its violence against itself is not the esthetic irony of high art. The Captain is no Oedipus whose acceptation of guilt is the ironic prolongation of his central role. Like the GIs he commands, he just wants to return, his duty done, to his wife and family. Historical objectivity itself provides a sufficient deconstruction of mythical narrative through the critique of sacrificial violence. The convergence in this film of the techniques of popular art with the aims of high art realizes at last the aims of a mature postmodern esthetic: to appeal to collective identity, yet so minimally as to exclude no one. The threadbare transparency of the flag that opens and ends the film, which some have interpreted as a sign of the weakness of patriotism, is a sign rather of this minimality. To identify ourselves with those who fought under this flag in World War II is to demonstrate a national pride that lets through as much human light as possible.