More a provocation than a fully realized film, “Memorial Day,” New York experimental theater director Josh Fox’s feature debut, strives for a bold connection between spring-break party excess and Abu Ghraib. That’s right …. Abu Ghraib. Built on a jolting structure that borrows ever so slightly from Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” pic shifts from a mad, drunk weekend to a you-are-there view of U.S. troops abusing Iraqi prisoners. Deliberately divisive and ultimately vacuous, if unforgettable, Fox’s pseudo-report from the front is sure to draw fest interest and gain some cult status as a film too hot for distribs.
For the first 20 minutes, even the broadest-minded viewers will wonder if they’ve stumbled into the wrong room and are stuck watching some goofball’s spring-break video. That’s exactly how the opening salvo plays, as Fox’s pixelated DV cam woozily trains on a gaggle of friends at (unidentified) Ocean City, Md., home to annual revelries among students and off-duty soldiers.
There’s something oddly unsettling about watching people daring to do things (like exposing themselves) they’d never do sober. And when the antics turn ugly, as one of the women in the group is apparently raped while her friends watch, Fox seems to be channeling the worst side of Gallic provocateur Leos Carax (although the “Girls Gone Wild” vid series will be the most obvious reference point for most auds).
With a cut, the same partyers (the males, that is) are now in fatigues, watching porn and roughhousing in what look like barracks. Another cut leads to a night-vision sequence of a platoon raid on a house sheltering suspected insurgents.
Another cut, and the former spring breakers are now in charge of Iraqi prisoners in what is undeniably a re-creation of Abu Ghraib’s notorious hellhole. Fox’s camera roams the prison and views the prisoners’ increasingly ghoulish and sexually suggestive torture without judgment, and even (in an attempt to parallel the Ocean City footage) implies that the camera operator is part of the prison unit.
As with “Full Metal Jacket,” the shift of locale and situation forms a sudden narrative break; here, however, the intended connections between abuse of one’s own and abuse of “the other” are unearned and poorly thought through, as if Fox were driven to ram through his concept without pondering its implications.
The notion that the soldiers are entirely on their own to do whatever they want (no supervisors or commanding officers are visible) is refuted by what actually happened at Abu Ghraib. Beyond this, the link between sanctioned torture while one wears the uniform and sanctioned rape while one wears civvies may be theoretically sound, but proves dubiously fake in this staged “reality” horrorshow.
Even more controversially, “Memorial Day” leaves the most overwhelmingly negative view of U.S. troops in Iraq of all the docs and dramas that have been made about the war to date. Presence of military adviser and Iraqi vet Jason Christopher Hartley in the credits (or onstage with Fox and the ensemble at pic’s CineVegas world preem) will likely not calm the inevitable wrath of vets and vets’ families who may see it.
That ensemble, drawn from Fox’s downtown theater Intl. WOW Company, blend so completely into an undifferentiated unit that no individual characters or performances can be cited. In the end, this is clearly one of the film’s most impressive qualities.
Lensing and sound are deliberately rough, sure to send some tradition-minded auds out of the theater even before the really bad stuff begins.