Neil Young’s Film Lounge – War

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

WAR

5/10

USA 2004 : Jake MAHAFFY : 84 mins

Abstract-noun-title alert! American-art-film ahoy! There’s quite a like about Mahaffy’s one-man-show debut, and the fact that it took him years to make using a hand-cranked camera (the production company is even called Hand Cranked Films), plus his intriguing-sounding stint at Moscow’s Russian Institute of Cinematography (where he seems to have overdosed on Tarr and Tarkovsky) will lead many audience members to give him the benefit of the doubt. At the Edinburgh Film Festival screening, however, quite a few patrons preferred to vote with their feet and exit long before the end – among them former festival artistic director Mark “Moviedrome” Cousins, who has presumably endured more than his share of glacial-paced stamina-tests over the years.

Yes, you do need reserves of stamina to endure War even at a skimpy 84 minutes. The narrative is negligible to the point of non-existence: in the aftermath of what we initially presume to be some kind of nuclear conflict (“this is the world after the end of the world”) various individuals go about their business in a scenically desolate corner of the US (filming took place in Warren County, Pennsylvania).

What is it good for?These include a young lad whose closest companion is his dog (doomed, needless to say); the boy’s monosyllabic father; a chubby chap driving around in a car (fuel is presumably still available) listening to evangelical God-box radio broadcasts (electricity hasn’t yet packed up) of the kind now over-familiar from countless US indie and mainstream movies. As we watch, however, we do wonder whether there’s been any kind of armed conflict at all… There’s a bleak dreamy/nightmarish quality to events, a nagging sense that the world is off kilter. Perhaps this is more an intrinsic spiritual malaise than the result of any external cataclysm.

Of course, Mahaffy – who is credited with direction, production (with Willard Weatherby), script, editing, cinematography and sound – provides more questions than answers, eschewing explanation in favour of a kind of news-from-nowhere apocalyptica, as if what we’re seeing is the last usable film having been passed through the last usable camera. His grainy, suitably lo-fi monochrome images are often striking – especially those compositions which foreground natural phenomena, or machinery, or landscapes, or animals (horses/cows), or fire.

He shows much less flair when people are on screen, however – the voice-over is generally clunky, and the picture too often bogs down into trite, hackneyed, first-week-of-filmschool, overextended-short kind of stuff: closer to Songs from the Second Floor than Night of the Living Dead or The Time of the Wolf. If it’s no-budget, near-wordless rural weirdness you’re after, J T Petty’s Soft For Digging is several cuts above. As for Mahaffy’s overly enigmatic film… well, the last shot is something of a corker. But on the whole… ce n’est pas tres magnifique, et ce n’est pas vraiment la guerre.

6th September, 2004
(seen 27th August : Filmhouse Edinburgh : public show – Edinburgh Film Festival)

click HERE for our full coverage of the 58th Edinburgh Film Festival

by Neil Young