Wednesday 28 February 2018

The expendables: "Erase and Forget"

At base, Andrea Luka Zimmerman's fascinating and disconcerting documentary Erase and Forget comprises an extended study of an apparently representative figure. The figure is a man with the spectacularly American name of James "Bo" Gritz: one of the most decorated of all Vietnam veterans, credited inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's character John Rambo, and now a stalwart of the red-state gunshow scene, he's a one-man fighting machine, first observed here replaying Special Ops moves in the desert for the camera, obliging invisible foes to submit to his grey-haired might. The desert seems significant, however, as does Gritz's solitude. There is no wife or family in this picture; we hear talk of a Chinese sex worker whom Gritz brought back to the States at one point, only to see her run away with a handyman, and while footage from the late 80s/early 90s shows a middle-aged Gritz in the company of a bubble-permed younger admirer, she too is nowhere to be seen in the present day.

We sense Zimmerman didn't have to press particularly long or hard to get her subject to share memories of his days in uniform: not long after that prologue, we're shown Gritz poring over the many photos on display around his house of erstwhile brothers-in-arms, offering a running commentary on the injuries, fatal or otherwise, which they incurred. At one of his gunshows, the camera catches Gritz casually reaching for the handgun in his bag, just to check it's still there and functioning; he gives the filmmaker an effusive grand tour of the many weapons dotted around his house, from the rifle resting against his nightstand in anticipation of nocturnal intruders, to the hunting blade he keeps sharpened in an ankle holster. He remains garrulous good company, and a goldmine of material, caught muttering about Apocalypse Now ("a bad movie") even as he claims a measure of credit for its idea of Kurtz. (Were it not for all the guns and knives, Joe Conrad would surely raise some objection.)

The question is what this manliest of men represents. A walking embodiment of decades of US foreign policy, almost certainly; the gun fetish made flesh, perhaps; arguably even the point where might-is-right masculinity intersects with the most genial form of sociopathy. Gritz could be an easy target, you sense, a piñata just waiting to be beaten and brought down by a filmmaker wielding forceful liberal-left intentions: it's no surprise to discover the younger, snarkier Louis Theroux sought Gritz out as the site of one of his very first Weird Weekends. Yet Zimmerman has a knack of reframing her material scene by scene, in such a way as to change the film's lines of inquiry and attack, and to make us think anew about our attitudes towards her subject. Early on in Erase and Forget, we watch someone fast-forwarding through 2008's Rambo reboot while logging an onscreen death count: it seems a barbed editorial interjection, until the sequence is revealed as a viral video created by a Facebook group called Carnage Counts, intended to be disseminated among those who share its bloodlust. This mindset gets passed on; its consequences spread ever wider.

Gritz himself appears gripped by some ambivalence as to how his experiences have been seized upon and weaponised, as seen by his suddenly sombre to-camera rumination on what it truly feels like to take a life; more shocking yet are those remarks, seemingly collected during a depressive night and layered with savage irony over a yee-hawing recruitment video, that suggest his former employers in the US Army convert bright, shining, idealistic youth into "garbage". Zimmerman doesn't have to look too far to find evidence of angry, hopeless or otherwise debilitated veterans who, having once been deployed as tools of the state, found themselves being tossed on the scrapheap. The question then becomes: what happens next? For Gritz, clearly, it was a matter of finding other battles to fight: teaching his patented Spycraft system of self-defence, using funds from Clint Eastwood and William Shatner to stage a very Rambo-like but ultimately abortive mission to rescue POWs rumoured to have been kept behind enemy lines in Indochina, a drift into white supremacy, and towards no-budget straight-to-video actioners trading on his expertise and persona.

The conflict between fantasy and reality in movies and television and the American popular imagination - how the dream factory reclaims and repackages the stuff of nightmares - may be what Zimmerman's really getting at here. She goes to the lengths of seeking out Ted Kotcheff, the Canadian director of First Blood, who still seems tormented by regret at the manner in which John Rambo, a much more ambivalent, even peaceable figure in that first iteration, came to be lionised by the American right; with a sagacity you perhaps wouldn't expect from the creative who gave the world Weekend at Bernie's, he warns "be careful of the engines of violence you create". Whether highlighting the original (test audience-rejected) ending of that first Rambo film, which would have brought the franchise to a very different conclusion, or seeking out the degraded videotape that may or may not show Gritz giving the fascist salute to the skinheads gathering at the foot of Ruby Ridge, Zimmerman wants us to interrogate those images of conflict others would simply have us consume; there may be no easy way to swallow her montage of actual historical atrocities, which goes beyond Stallone's playacting, and doubtless accounts for the film's 18 certificate.

Nothing, however, is quite as arresting or alarming as James "Bo" Gritz himself, a figure very much of the present tense, caught visibly struggling to process a half-century of trauma, with no-one, save his fellow gun nuts, to help, and no endpoint save death in sight. (In any number of senses, the desert is calling out to him.) In the final moments of Zimmerman's film, we witness him visiting a private collector's house, and addressing a small army of mannequins dressed up in military uniform, like a Poundland Patton ("I could live with these guys"). Befuddled beneath his veneer of bluff clubbability, unable or unwilling to separate his fantasies of domination and power from sad reality, battered and to some degree broken by all that he's seen and done (and been forced to carry out), here is someone who stands for the America of 2018 better than anyone in this year's Best Picture nominees.

Erase and Forget opens at selected cinemas from Friday. 

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