Monday, December 3, 2012

Argo, Art and the need for Camouflage

"Argo F__k Yourself!"
Nicholas Rankin in his book Churchill's Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914 -1945 tells us that "The word 'camouflage' itself is French, and was said by Eric Partridge to derive from Parisian slang verb 'camoufler' meaning 'to disguise', or perhaps from the Italian camuffare, derived from 'capo muffare', 'to muffle the head'.  'Camouflage' entered the English language during WWI, and the Oxford English Dictionary's first example of published usage is from the Daily Mail in May 1917: 'The act of hiding anything from your enemy is termed 'camouflage'".
English Skills
Gerald Thayer "published a groundbreaking book, Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, an exposition of the Laws of Disguise through Color and Pattern...'The disguising patterns worn by animals are, in the best sense of the word, triumphs of art."

Rankin continues, "Picasso, who once defined cubism as not painting what you see but what you know to be there, recognized camouflage as his bastard child.  Gertrude Stein recalled being with Picasso on the Boulevard Raspail in Paris one night in 1915 when one of the first camouflage-painted heavy artillery pieces was hauled past them.  Picasso looked amazed at the canon with its blocks of disruptive pattern and then cried out, 'C'est nous qui avons fait ca!' ("We invented that!)."

The Royal Academy artist S.J.Solomon wrote this letter to The Times on January 27, 1915...

"Sir, -- the protection afforded animate creatures by Nature's gift of color assimilation to their environment might provide a lesson to those who equip an army; seeing that invisibility is an essential in modern strategy.  To be invisible to the enemy is to be non-existent for him.  Our attempts in this direction might well be a little more scientific.  A knowledge of light and shade and its effect on the landscape is a necessary aid to the imagination of a design of the uniform in particular, and the appurtenances of war in general."

Source all quotes: Churchill's Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914 -1945, 2008, Nicholas Rankin  (

S.J. Solomon later volunteered to assist the British armed forces in their camouflage efforts in WWI.

Rankin makes the point that the art of deception carried on by camouflage artists and various espionage services was an essential part of British victory in two World Wars (see earlier post, Double Cross: the D-Day Spies, 7/1/12).

The role of artistic camouflage was equally central to Ben Affleck's film Argo and the history on which it was based.  Argo is based on the true story of the rescue of six American hostages from the Canadian ambassador's residence in Tehran during the Iranian hostage crisis of the later Carter years.  The central character, portrayed by Ben Affleck, is Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who helped to exfiltrate six Americans from Iran by posing as a film crew scouting out locations for a cheesy science fiction movie called Argo.  Art imitates life, imitating art all for the sake of life.  The heroic and indispensable role of Ambassador Ken Taylor and the Canadians is duly saluted.  The courage of the Canadian Ambassador's Iranian housekeeper, Sahar, provides a welcome counterpoint to the hysterical fervor of the Iranians caught up in their Islamic revolution.  Sahar's role, played by Sheila Vand, is suggestive of millions of Iranians longing for peace and real reform in their benighted country today.

Confronted by the challenge of how to come up with a credible plan to extract six Americans from Iran under the noses of the Iranian Revolutionary guard during the height of the hostage crisis, Tony Mendez turned to an acknowledged expert in camouflage -- Hollywood make-up and design artist John Chambers (1923 -2001). Mendez engaged the Hollywood professional Chambers, played by John Goodman in this film, who created special visual effects for The Outer Limits and Star Trek television series.  John Chambers was  a master of illusion who won the first Oscar ever awarded to a make-up artist for his work on Planet of the Apes.  After serving as a medical technician during World War II, Chambers found employment repairing faces and making prosthetic limbs for wounded veterans at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Hines, Illinois.  Chambers, like S.J. Solomon in WWI, made a study of nature in order to perfect his artistic craft.

Affleck's movie is "based on true events" but is a work of historic fiction rather than a documentary.  The tarmac chase scene, the tense moments at the airport and the bazaar sequence were all Hollywood additions designed to add dramatic interest to the film--and they succeed.  The Lester Siegel character, played with panache by Alan Arkin, is a fictional character invented wholly invented for the film.

Mendez chose to deploy a strategy of  high-difference, dazzle camouflage that is explicitly NOT about invisibility.  It was about disruption and confusion.  His American hostages would not try to fit in, but rather to be so outlandish that the Iranians would accept the premise of those crazy Canadian/Hollywood types trying to rip off a new Star Wars Persian-style.  If you want to baffle them with bulls__t, then Hollywood is always your very best option.  The Revolutionary Guards' heads are indeed muffled by illusion.

Actors are routinely asked to deceive the public with makeup, costumes and special effects for the purpose of selling tickets or filling seats in a theater.  These are the tricks of the trade.  What an unadulterated joy it is for the Chapman and Siegel characters to have an opportunity to practice their art on the side of the angels in the service of human liberty!

Argo also depicts multiple cultural collisions on several different levels.  America's open democratic society is contrasted with the closed fear-based society of the Ayatollahs' Iran, but the film also features the collision of the buttoned-up CIA and loose-living Hollywood and the collision of the public/political domain with the private world of children and families.

Commander Kelly says, "Argo works as a taut well-crafted caper movie.  It is exciting to see those unsung heroes in the shadow world of intelligence receiving some of the recognition that they so richly deserve and to see how the artistry of movie magic or camouflage can sometimes be used for a noble cause.  The MGM slogan was Ars Gratia Artis --"Art for Art's Sake", in Argo we see "Art for Man's sake".

Special thanks also to my friend Scott Cummins for this link which includes a discussion of dazzle camouflage...

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Commander Kelly said...

In the introduction to his book Argo Antonio Mendez tells us that he "had been painting since my early childhood, and was working as an artist when the CIA hired me in 1965. I still considered myself to be a painter first and a spy second." Source: Argo, Antonio Mendez, 2012.

When Mendez hired Chapman he was really one artist hiring another. Not exactly our stereotype of James Bond!

Tobin Pierson said...

read on commander: