A Series of Unfortunate Events

No, I'm not talking about Lemony Snicket, although we just checked the first book out of the library. Instead I'm talking about the HBO miniseries, The Pacific.

Bear in mind that Band of Brothers is one of my favorite movies of all time. It is flawless in almost every way. Keven and I were talking about its story structure and why it works so much better than The Pacific, and the results of that talk have colored how I watch this new miniseries. It's by the same people--writers, directors, producers--but the result has been radically different. I think that was intentional.

Band of Brothers is about Easy Company of the 506th PIR. Literally. It's not about any one person but about this particular company, its ever-changing membership, its experiences, the leaders who shaped it (either by greatness or by failure), and its near-mythic place in WWII. If you take Easy Company as the actual star of the show, then applying constructs such as The Hero's Journey becomes much easier. There are mentors and tests, as well as instances of accepting the call and resurrection. As such, the cohesive story of Easy is one that we as Western viewers can latch onto with comforting familiarity.

The impressionistic means of describing Easy, through profiling several different members, only serves to enhance its deeper character. Focusing on Winters, Roe, Lipton, Nixon, and others, as well as their means of interacting with one another, fosters a genuine sense of the company's authenticity. This is no cookie-cutter regiment but a living, breathing, changing organism. Its eventual success makes for a compelling narrative.

Perhaps this was accomplished so easily because of the nature of combat in the European Theater, particularly for regiments that first engaged the enemy on D-Day. There is a definite start point (June 6, 1944) and a definite end point (May 8, 1945). There are also clear-cut bad guys and good guys. Ta-dah! This is a recipe for classical storytelling.

Not so with the pesky, messy PTO. The Pacific Theater has a start date as neat as a ragged hangnail. Start with Japanese aggression against the Chinese? With the US build-up of forces in the Philippines? With Pearl Harbor? You can actually see the decision the producers had to face by how badly they handled the opening ten minutes of episode one. It may as well be a history lesson and one big admission: "We didn't know where to begin!"

That's one strike. The other strike is "Who's the villain here?" Civilian warfare in the PTO foreshadowed the difficulties American troops would eventually face in Korea and Vietnam. The territories being fought over were just that--territories, not sovereign nations. And the long, grim, disgusting nature of warfare in the PTO, not to mention how dangerous and constant the fighting was, created a distinct lack of narrative voices that could span the duration of the Pacific war. Whole regiments were destroyed, let alone individual men. Who would tell this story?

After this most recent episode, which featured Jon Seda as Sgt. Basilone, I think I've finally figured it out. The storytelling, like the Pacific war, is controlled chaos. Instead of telling the story of one particular character, namely Easy Company, it's speaking through three archetypes. These three archetypes serve as our points of entrance.

The first was Bob Leckie. His match in Band of Brothers would be David Webster. Both were thinking men who kept detailed journals of their experiences. This sort of character can be difficult to get behind, hero wise, because there's nothing overtly heroic about him. Neither man would be described as particularly adept at warfare or especially brave. Their bravery was more by way of simply enduring and doing their part. No medals. Just gritty survival, battling their fear each step of the way.

The second is Eugene Sledge. His match, to my thinking, would be Don Malarkey. He also resembles Albert Blythe in how they constantly struggle with the meaning of it all. They start out young, even cocky, and wind up haggard--worn down by long and bloody experiences, the souls jerked out of their bodies. This archetype is "innocence lost." They're the soldiers who fall the hardest from the world that was to the hell that is. If I have my guess, Sledge will have a difficult time readjusting to life outside of combat.

The third is Basilone, the man under the microscope. Despite his limited screen time, Basilone is the most intimately detailed. We know his brothers' names, how his parents' dining room looks, how he courted his wife, his bravery, his indulgence in fame. He is, quite literally, a hero. But in the end, as the camera pulls up and away from his dead body, he was just that--another dead body. From there we're intended to extrapolate the myriad lives of every other corpse at Iwo Jima.

This technique is effective but only to an extent. Eddie Izzard once described serial killers in that if you kill one person, you go to jail. If you kill five people, you get the electric chair. If you kill twenty people, you get locked in a room so doctors can study you for the rest of your days. But if you kill 1,000 people...or more...um, well done? You must get up very early in the morning!

The brain can only handle so much, like trying to comprehend graphics such as this one, which depicts the 426,000 cell phones retired every day in the US. After a while all the blood and guts--and, damn, they didn't spare a bit of that--start to blend together. We get fewer distinct images of individual carnage and more of an impression of extreme waste. It was hell. The men who survived it, and those who did not, were diverse and strange and very ordinary.

It's not been the makings of great story-telling in the classical sense. This is not the sort of miniseries one can walk away from with a feeling of accomplishment and hope. I very much doubt that was the filmmakers' intention. Not with this program. Not with this war. Instead we get chaos, confusion, very few answers, and a whole lot of dead bodies. I'm impressed. I really am. Yet it wears at the soul until all I want to do is look away. That might be disrespectful of the men who fought and died, but it just shows the real cinematic accomplishment of The Pacific. They've stripped the veneer of glory to reveal WAR. That, unfortunately, doesn't exactly make for repeat viewing material. It's just too damn upsetting.


Donna Alward said...

Hey Carrie - fantastic assessment and I agree with you 100%...except with the impressed part. I keep wanting to be. I KNOW that what's been done has been intentional. The problem is all I feel is a disconnect. All the reasons why BoB worked are the reasons why The Pacific isn't working for me. I can't connect with the characters and so I haven't connected with the show.

The closest I got to connecting was Leckie's furlough in Australia. And perhaps in epi 7 I think? When the Captain is killed by a sniper.

I keep feeling that the lack of a cohesive unit is the problem, but perhaps it's also that it's a show where the characters DON'T have the bond that Easy Company did.

And yet...we keep watching. Truth? Yes. But the anti-story is what will keep me from watching again.

Carrie Lofty said...

I understand the disconnect entirely. It's all become rather metaphorical rather than real, to the detriment of genuine emotion. Numbness seems to be the intention here. When Ack-Ack died (what you mentioned) and in episode one when Leckie found the dead Japanese soldier's possessions...those were hard-hitting. The rest has been blood and guts, like the producers want us to sink into the same violence-induced numbness that soldiers must have endured. Ugh. So painful.