Questioning the place of “theatre” in “theatre of war”

Memorial Day

on February 05, 2009 by John P. McCarthy

His intent may be more subtle, but the effect of Josh Fox’s Memorial Day is to impugn the integrity of every member of America’s armed forces. He does so by filming a group of actors portraying soldiers as they party over a holiday weekend and, during the movie’s second half, as they humiliate detainees inside a military prison. At times engrossing (like a horrible car crash or a Girls Gone Wild video), the intentionally crude performance piece reveals two things: people act out for the camera—even when it’s embedded in a cell phone—and anybody who abuses him or herself is more likely to abuse another person. The raunchy film doesn’t add to any socially significant dialogue and won’t be a big earner when it unreels at New York’s IFC Center.

During Memorial Day weekend in a beachside town, approximately a dozen drunken revelers, male and female, tape their debauchery. They stagger through the streets, shouting, cursing and generally being obnoxious exhibitionists. Billions of brain cells bite the dust. A disturbing sequence shows two of them copulating in a moving SUV, with their associates watching and egging them on. The action switches to a motel room where the wild party continues. Individuals vent for the camera and deliver confessional speeches; there’s a fistfight. The tension level is high. Anything could happen next. Part of you wants to stop watching; another part is fascinated.

Not knowing who these people are accounts for some of the intrigue, as does the realization that the blurry, distorted footage and soundtrack have been carefully put together. While there are hints that these folks are in the military, it’s made explicit about halfway through in a jarring switch to less erratically photographed footage of soldiers lounging around in uniform addressing the camera. Three guys shave another’s testicles; there’s banter about bestiality. At one metaphoric point, the horsing around includes putting plastic toy soldiers in a microwave as “Ride of the Valkyries” plays on the soundtrack. The same characters from before begin surfacing. It becomes clear they’re serving in Iraq. One soldier, while riding through a town in a transport, offers a discourse about the necessity of American military intervention abroad. A house-to-house search is conducted and the Arab inhabitants cower. A quarter or so of Memorial Day is an explicit recreation of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, with soldiers humiliating and hazing naked prisoners for the camera.

Fox, a New York-based theater director, got the idea for his first feature film after seeing the Abu Ghraib photos and then going to Ocean City, Maryland on vacation. He decided to bring members of his experimental theater company there the following year to shoot the film in the midst of actual partying. For the film’s second part, real soldiers provided tutorials on official guidelines for handling detainees. He trained a few of them to act and they appear in the movie. Fox claims he’s not making a statement but simply asking a question about the two sets of behaviors and the role the camera plays in encouraging them. But what does our national obsession with recording everything and anything say about Abu Ghraib? Does the ubiquity of videos in the YouTube era explain the phenomenon? Merely juxtaposing two sets of behaviors isn’t very revealing, even allowing for the fact that the camera’s presence isn’t objective and may shape the behavior by prodding people to act out.

The idea that the dehumanizing of prisoners has a blowback effect on the perpetrators is a richer theme and one Fox doesn’t explore. The supposed irony of the title is offensive, as though atrocities committed by some, and the existence of a chain of command that condoned and covered-up them up in one theater of war, means the service and sacrifice of all should be called into question. Much like Battle for Haditha, Nick Bromfield’s technically proficient docudrama about misconduct in Iraq, and Redacted, Brian de Palma’s foray into the same territory, Memorial Day comes down to the realization that grunts can be psychos, that our protectors can act like animals and treat others like animals. Does Fox intend to make a companion film that shows how Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney let off steam?

Distributor: Artists Public Domain & International WOW Company
Cast: Sarah Nedwek, Pedro Rafael Rodriguez, Robert Saietta, Nick Konow, Maria McConville, David Skeist, Harold Kennedy German, Giovanni Rich and Tess Mix
Director/Screenwriter: Josh Fox
Producers: Hunter Gray, Jim McKay, Paul S. Mezey and Laura Wagner
Genre: Drama/Docudrama
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 91 min.
Release date: February 4 NY

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