I won’t say much before the film, as there is a long Post section, but some things to know about the story of how Overlord came to be:
Stuart Cooper was commissioned originally in 1971 to do a documentary for the Imperial War Museum in Britain about a very large embroidery that was made to commemorate the Normandy Landing. He never finished this, but in the process of making it, got access to the museum’s over 39 million feet of footage from WW2. At some point over the 4 years he spent in and out of the museum watching nearly 3000 hours of footage, he came up with the idea of making a mixed medium documentary dramatic film that combined this archival footage with a staged wartime story. John Alcott, most well known for being Stanley Kubrick’s cinematographer, worked with Cooper to shoot the film, choosing to first scour London for old German period Lenses so that the footage would match. Kubrick on seeing this film says to Cooper, ‘You know Stu, I’ve got one problem with the film. … The only thing wrong with Overlord is it’s an hour and a half too short.’, and I feel pretty similarly.
Prefix: I realized part-way into writing this, that my response to this film is, in principle, exactly the same as my response to my last film club pick, namely that it is difficult to engage in objective interpretation when your subject is intentionally an abstract work, which of course turns interpretation into an exercise over one’s own memories and ideas, bringing to bear what art historians and cognitive scientists call the beholder’s share. This time around I will try and carry the idea through rather than just express the idea.
I think you can say a lot about this film because there is a lot to appreciate. I don’t think it is especially challenging or critical in the way many great and classic films are. It, instead, is almost impressionistic, and much of what there is to be appreciated from it comes almost entirely from what the viewer evokes from it through his own experience. So to do a technical analysis or presentation of this film seems inappropriate. Moreover, it rings true to me, as James Wood argues in an excellent set of essays The Nearest Thing to Life, that an essential aspect of literary (film) criticism is not in explication or speculation, but rather in personal elaboration. It’s the idea that an effective way of writing about a story or its significance is to tell another, related story. He does this really beautifully in his essays by presenting his near encyclopedic knowledge of books and authors alongside his own often mundane memories and experiences, but which together offer his readers bits of more profound illuminations around the original work, despite the fact, or because of the fact, that they are just restatements of the stories in someone else’s personal terms.
So in this spirit, rather than saying the typical ‘I liked this’, ‘this moved me’, or ‘this silenced me’, which I feel is often all anyone can really say upon experiencing a moving work (and why it’s so difficult for me to talk about the really beautiful ones), I’ll offer some scenes from my own memory without making many points, but rather to share what I found personally to be what Woods calls a ‘sameness of vision’ with the film.
I’ll start by saying that when you’re holding a hammer, everything tends to look like a nail, and for me when I watch this movie, the most natural thing for me to find, even if it’s not unquestionably there, is an impression of alienation, impotence, confusion, frankness in the face of rank absurdism, the coercion by and dependence on the social machine, all of this interwoven among brief moments of meek charm or engrossing effort against an indefinite, and so anxious, background sense of waiting or anticipation. It’s the mental condition I’ve come to call paranoia, and it’s nothing new. It serves to be the mass of impressions which regularly debilitates, isolates, and eventually motivates me, an effect which I suspect is in part true for anyone whose had the ostensible luxury of being able to think too much over the course of the last century.
It is a pretty pessimistic movie, and one which expresses anti-war sentiment, except it doesn’t do this in the traditional ways of pointing out some essential irony, or depicting some horrific account, or making some dark comedy of it, but instead juxtaposes poignantly but impartially, the sentiments of an individual soldier against the vast machinery of war. That juxtaposition is made much more stark by the reality which comes along with knowing half of it is archival footage. Where this is done most beautifully is the scene in which Tom writes and narrates his letter home voiced on top of footage in military camps where men are finding ways to pass time waiting for action. His demeanor here is characteristically modest, as we’ve come to expect from him, but you get the sense that he has by this point changed in some irreversible way, as he describes a premonition of his death to his parents with a calm and frank air of detachment.
I don’t have any direct experience with war. But this scene did trigger memories for me. When I was 9 or 10 years old, a sister of mine had just turned 18 and joined the military, in what she thought would be a reasonable short term commitment in exchange for a fully financed education at a public university. Within a year of enlistment, the surprise of 9/11 happens and her first deployment after finishing basic training is a multi-year stay across bases in Kuwait, Iraq, and Pakistan. About once a year I’d receive a letter from her, usually telling me of how she’d been moved from some base to some other, sometimes describing her experience as extremely strenuous, sometimes as incredibly boring, and one time, she enclosed an empty M-16 cartridge with the letters CHEUNG-2442 spray painted on it accompanying a story of target practice in the desert with dummies which they had irreverently taped the face of Osama Bin-Laden onto. I kept these letters and that cartridge for years in a box of what were very valuable things to me in childhood, that included, among other things, the dried carcass of a lizard I once kept as a pet, a third place medal from a state math competition, and a rock that I had found in some place which I now forget. I hadn’t much of this idea of paranoia in mind at that age, and I haven’t much since reflected on these particular memories (I even get the sense that there’s a good chance these memories would have been lost if this film hadn’t been so obviously a trigger for remembering them and processing them), but in any case, it’s hard to think now that these letters didn’t somehow contribute at that time to my growing sense of the paranoid idea.
Another fitting memory from this time of my life that I have little business forgetting, but which I might well have forgotten were it not for this film or something like it, are various memories from hiding in her barracks at Ft. Eustice Virginia for some number of weeks near the end of her enlistment. It’s funny I forget so many of the details now because I remember the stakes of my being there seeming to be so high. I don’t remember, for instance, why I was there at all, other than a vague memory that I could neither stay at home, nor was I old enough to take care of myself. Thinking back, the unreality of that time feels like some tenuous dream I had, and even now there’s no real way of validating whether or not these events happened at all, save for a few unusually detailed memories: 1) a rectangular room with two twin-sized mattresses laid out in an L-Shape against a corner farthest from the entrance. 2) the other bed belonged to her roommate, Zadoorian, or Z for short, and she was a vital and friendly brunette young woman from Texas, owned a white Jeep Liberty, and was a lesbian 3) Wooden dressers across from the beds which were immaculately organized, stocked with uniforms and many plain brown t-shirts rolled up into burrito shapes (I was told that rolling the shirts was required because it was more portable than folding, and that you can learn a hard lesson in basic if you are not tidy with your closet) 4) a tiny television, DVD player, and collection of burnt roms, which were to be my daily companion for many hours a day as I waited for her to come back with meals (I watched Vanilla Sky, Shakespeare in Love, Shaolin Soccer, and Gia, all of which I’ve mostly forgotten, but I do still remember that Angelina Jolie has a topless scene against a wire fence in Gia). 5) Being suddenly awaken by sirens and strobing lights in a middle-of-the-night emergency response drill (I was given military grade earplugs and told to stay in bed while she uniformed quickly but calmly before moving outside to stand stiffly at attention near the window)
From the vantage point of 2018, watching this film and footage from WW2 in general leaves me with a feeling similar to having read one of Kafka’s stories. Things like fire bombings, excavating people from piles of bricks, bizarre inventions like The Great Panjandrum (that experimental rocket-propelled, explosive-laden water wheel designed by the British military during World War II), or the operation of a mine flail are far enough from my direct experiences of living that they seem fantastic, all while being staged in the general psychological conspiracy of assumed normalcy, amounting to the same eerie and somewhat intolerable feeling one gets sometimes in strange dreams, or in quiet moments watching one’s life pass. It’s in this reality-as-fantasy premise that this film, for me, finds its timeless appeal. On the whole it is a very understated film, and has somehow mostly avoided mass or cult appeal, despite dealing pretty deftly, I think, with an articulation of what is in my mind the century’s most profound philosophical question.
Leopards invade the temples and drink the wine from the chalices; this happens suddenly; in the end it was foreseen that this would happen and it is incorporated into the liturgy.
Kris argued that when an artist produces a powerful image out of his or her life experiences and conflicts, that image is inherently ambiguous. The ambiguity in the image elicits both a conscious and unconscious process of recognition in the viewer, who responds emotionally and emphatically to the image in terms of his or her own life experiences and struggles. Thus, just as the artist creates a work of art, so the viewer re-creates it by responding to its inherent ambiguity. the extent of the beholder’s contribution depends on the degree of ambiguity in the work of art…Kris argues that ambiguity enables the artist to transmit his own sense of conflict and complexity to the viewer’s brain.
Paranoia is the Truman show, it is Albert Camus’s absurdity, it is disillusionment. in today’s context it is the deep feeling of impotence, the suspicion that causality is imagined. it is our conscious self declaring an unfamiliarity with itself, despite its own intimate proximity. it is the plausibility of our actions as consequence of our psychology as consequence of our impressions as consequence of what is effectively random entropy. it is, at its core, an articulation of an explanation for human action. it is imposed on us through illustrations of patterned complexity juxtaposed with suggestions of cognitive and physical inadequacy.
At the same time it is typically also a lithe claim of injustice that positions the paranoid in the space of his own agency–a moral space–but which has in some way been violated such that he cannot act as he would like to, or as he feels he has some right to. this claim of injustice can similarly come to surface as a result of not having made or not wanting to make a concept of current affairs or a concept of a more preferable state of affairs, for moral agency is predicated first on creating an impression of current affairs, then a concept of a more preferable state of affairs, and finally a sense of the capacity to bring about the second from the first.
Paranoia is a disease of justice, with symptoms of wanting to or needing to displace personal blame for an unbridgeable discrepancy between reality and ideality, and finding nothing there to blame.