Friday, September 07, 2007

Combat Shock (1986)

Ever had one of those days? Well, it's nothing compared to the day in the life Frankie, the main character in Buddy Giovinazzo's 1986 film Combat Shock. Still haunted by memories of his service in Vietnam, Frankie lives an apartment nearly as filthy as the last one I lived in with his miserable shrill wife and agent-orange-deformed baby, wandering through Staten Island at its ugliest, and trying desperately to get work and avoid being evicted from said shit-hole or killed by the local crime lord. And it gets worse from there.

Combat Shock is one of the ugliest, most depressing, and powerful films I've ever seen. The first thing you want to do after watching it is stand in a scalding shower crying. I first watched it when I was 15 and remember being blown away by how uncompromising it is; the film sticks to its message that life holds very little promise for mentally-shattered veterans all the way through to the end. Frankie doesn't become an American folk-hero, fall in love with a beautiful girl, or rediscover God on a shrimp boat. I don't want to give away the ending, but it certainly doesn't end well.

I was thinking about the movie recently because we've been talking about dark, shocking, and disturbing art on Hiromi's blog. I think the reason that a film like Combat Shock doesn't strike me as exploitation is that it uses its grime and grue towards a larger purpose- there's a philosophy behind the film, and even something of a social conscience. Having moved from one of the poorest cities in the United States to one of the poorer in Canada, I can say that there's very little exaggeration to this film. Aside from some of the ''thug'' characters and the child prostitute sequence, most of the film rang true. It looks like a dilapidated city. Instead of heightened-reality, it's a bit like heightened despair.

Having dug up the VHS tape and watched it again, I can also say that the performances are much more realistic than I remember. Buddy Giovinazzo's brother does a good job in the lead role and there isn't as much overacting as you'd expect in a zero-budget film. The Vietnam scenes look like Long Island; but otherwise it's a painfully realistic film. And the writing is fairly sharp- it's not a stupid film by any means. Giovinazzo has gone on to write a few novels, and is currently turning one of those novels, Life is Hot in Cracktown into a film, with a fairly impressive cast.

It's hard to recommend Combat Shock- it's certainly not a ''fun'' experience. However, it's committed to its story in a way that few films are. It's not a people-pleasing unit shifter. And it certainly makes films like Born on the Fourth of July or Platoon seem like bullshit.

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