Friday, April 17, 2009

johnny got his gun, by dalton trumbo

So this week for Film Club, we continued our string of films about restless minds trapped within radically damaged bodies, watching Dalton Trumbo's anti-war classic Johnny Got His Gun (1971).

People who are around my age and who share my basic bank of cultural references may know Johnny through the Metallica song "One," a song written from the point of view of Trumbo's protagonist, Joe. The video for this song goes so far as to incorporate pretty substantial chunks of the film's footage:

I include it here because does a good job of presenting the basic narrative conceit of Johnny: a young man, in the prime of life, gets blown literally to pieces by a mortar shell, losing his arms, legs, and facial features, as well as his capacity to see, hear, and speak.

The film opens with Joe getting wounded, and being taken to reside permanently in a convalescent hospital. Opening your film this way presents a certain amount of screenwriting difficulty in that it sets up a situation wherein the protagonist—the character who, in a classical screenplay, would be the primary active agent driving the narrative—is specifically defined by a near-absolute lack of agency. He's silent, mostly immobilized, and literally under wraps:

It's fruitful, at this juncture, to compare Johnny to last week's pick, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That film opens nearly the same way, and so faces this same problem. Diving Bell's director, Julian Schnabel opts to solve this problem in a fairly classical way: he introduces a desire on the part of the paralyzed protagonist (specifically, the desire to dictate a memoir). Joe also has a desire—he wishes to be put on display as a cautionary spectacle—and, as in Diving Bell, this desire requires that the protagonist communicate effectively with the outside world, which necessitates the development of an ingenious means of non-verbal communication. But whereas Diving Bell shapes this into an (admittedly slender) narrative through-line, Johnny lets this desire crop up only intermittently, and it really only takes shape as a coherent problem around the exact time that he comes up with the solution.

So we might be forgiven, at this stage, for thinking that maybe the Metallica video is actually the appropriate format for this story: it delivers the payload of the ghastly concept and the arrestingly creepy key visuals without needing to be burdened with the necessity of trying to develop a story around this character. It's win-win!

Except... well, the primary way Trumbo attempts to fill up the run-time is by presenting us with the phantasmagoric weirdness that's unfolding in Joe's head: a mish-mash of hallucinations, memories (often of psychosexually-charged interludes), and fantasy sequences. This is the stuff that gets discarded when you reduce the film to a music video or an anti-war soundbite, and really, more's the pity: it represents some pretty whacked-out filmmaking, somewhere between engagingly weird and just plain addled. This dimension of the film can maybe best be illustrated by this shot of Donald Sutherland, portraying Jesus the Locomotive Engineer:

Or perhaps by this interlude, which is the type of sequence for which the word Fellini-esque was coined:

Or the sequence in which Joe hallucinates his former girlfriend, lost in a kind of Neoclassical nightmare landscape, of the sort that only 1971 can really deliver:

I'm choosing images that have a bit of camp value, and that's not by accident: it must be said that the film doesn't always stay on the safe side of that line. Often the sequences threaten to collapse into the simply laughable. But at their best, these sequences are actually oddly mysterious and compelling. (Which is not also to say that they're not also totally bonkers.)

The whole film's like that, in a way, even its more celebrated passages—the actor who plays Joe, Timothy Bottoms, has a willowy softness to his voice that often seems at odds with Trumbo's weighty dialogue: a seeming mis-match which threatens, again, to skew the proceedings into camp. But then it goes around the bend and becomes affecting again: after all, what is it the film wants us to look at if not the suffering that war visits upon the people least equipped to bear it?

There are other movies that look at that same point, and I considered choosing some of them for the next Film Club pick, but ultimately I was more intrigued by the theme of disfigurement, and the aspects of personhood that cohere around our recognizable features, a line of thinking that led me to choose Georges Franju's Eyes Without A Face (1960).