Friday, December 4, 2015

Combat Obscura (2019)

When she finished reading Into The Wild, my daughter wrote "one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience" on her full-length mirror in greasy, red lipstick from Lasting Finish's Kate Moss collection.

In the age of streamers and unlimited bandwidth, the World Wide Web offers more than its share of unfiltered viewing experiences to eat up the bandwidth of the Web and of people the center of whose lives the Web has become.

Of the two best known streamers, Netflix seems to be streaming better video than Amazon Prime these days. Both The Keepers and Roma, a film that probably should have been a series, were worth watching. But Amazon has streamed Combat Obscura (2019), distributed and promoted by Oscilloscope Labs, a viewing experience that may turn out to be more iconic and important than anything Netflix has come up with yet.

Combat Obscura is episodic, elliptical and, yes, unfiltered by anything except the time and bandwidth allotted to it by Amazon. Taped by Miles Lagoze, a Marine Corps videographer assigned to Helmand Province in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, shortly after Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were nominated for an Academy Award for Restrepo (2010), Combat Obscura is a fragmented and blurred view of combat, obscured not so much by the fog of war as by the videographer's tunnel vision, his shaky camera and his inability to decide what if anything is important.  It's a restless, no point, no center, no grasp, searching but not finding kind of video.  We never know where we are or when we are. Restlessness and indecision worry and finally defeat the entire video. Even video of a fire fight and a Marine with a head wound, the best combat footage in the video, fails to satisfy. The camera moves away from the wounded Marine just as the realization that he has been shot begins to sink in. Institutions like the Marine Corps imprint themselves on people like bulldog tattoos. Lagoze has a chance to mine that vein. He lets the moment pass him by.

I don't doubt there are viewers who will find Lagoze's tapes hard hitting and revealing. But for others they will be a collection of tropes. We've seen Marines and soldiers smoking dope so many times it would be surprising if they didn't smoke in front of Lagoze.  And we've seen things far worse on YouTube than the body of Lagoze's dead shopkeeper, an Afghan apparently shot by mistake.  Even the Marine Corps finally decided the stolen tapes weren't worth worrying about.

It's amazing how little we see that is new in the 68 minutes Combat Obscura takes up in our lives. Except for a few scenes and images whose promises are unfulfilled, most of the content is uninspired.  The form of the video may be worth talking about, however, if we can find a way to do that.

Since the footage is only structured by the videographer's tour of duty and what he could steal of his own and other videographers' work when his tour ended, deconstructing it ("unpacking" is the current buzzword) would do more harm than good. Although you might think that deconstruction would lighten the load a film or video carries, the opposite is true. Deconstruction lays on a heavy burden of significance that a little video like Combat Obscura would never bear up under.  We should settle for describing it if we can. What we need is something to compare it to.

But it's not that easy to say what Combat Obscura is like. Is it a Marine videographer's journey from youth to manhood? A coming of age story, a personal odyssey as Lagoze claims? We would have to take his word for that. There is no evidence of growth in the video itself. Even the fact that the videography seems to improve over time might be explained by the fact that Lagoze didn't shoot those segments.  Is it a "home movie" then?  It seems too intentional for that. And the aim is negative. Most of us don't shoot video of our friends and family to embarrass them. There is an urban myth that demonstrators spat on soldiers and Marines returning from Vietnam. That never happened. But Lagoze appears to have something like that in mind. "Stop looking at these kids as heroes," he told Stars and Stripes during a phone interview before the video's release.

As a "war film" Combat Obscura begs to be compared to Restrepo. Lagoze actually told The Daily Beast that he thought he was up to something "Restrepoesque" when he was on assignment in Afghanistan. If he was, he failed to pull it off.  Unlike Combat ObscuraRestrepo has a focal point.  We know where we are, when we are and why we are there.  Operation Rock Avalanche, a long battle at the climax of Restrepo, fixes the action of that film in time and space. Nothing in Combat Obscura even comes close.  The creators of Combat Obscura ask us to buy the idea that narrative and structure are unnecessary to film and video, even undesirable, but Lagoze and Oscilloscope Labs haven't closed that sale with me.

What Combat Obscura is most like is the information leaks that WikiLeaks dumps into the blogosphere now and then for the media to amplify. And in a world where journalism professors call leaks the lifeblood of journalism, that may be the future of streaming video.  If that's the case, distributors like Oscilloscope Labs should give up the idea that the leaks have to be feature length and bundle short videos like tranches of sub-prime mortgages or collections of lipsticks.  And beyond that, maybe the way of the future is to cut out middle men like WikiLeaks and Oscilloscope Labs and stream video from drones, satellites, surveillance cameras and videographers like Miles Lagoze in real time to pump a constant intravenous fix of unfiltered experience directly into our bruised and swollen brains.

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