Friday, March 11, 2011

The Deer Hunter.

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

Category: Sad film about deer. Ohhhhhh the deer.

More significantly (in life and for this blog), this is a sad Vietnam War film. I believe this is the first war film I’ve covered for this blog, which is more than a little surprising. But it’s about time I switched over to more masculine sad movies. Men cry, too, you know. Just ask the Miami Heat.

Vietnam is a real raw nerve, artistically speaking. It’s recent, it’s controversial, and it was the center of the kind of big important social debate that comes around once in a generation. And also it was a WAR, in which over 58,000 Americans died, many of whom didn’t choose to go and fight. The idea that there was so recently a draft in this country is pretty crazy, considering how unthinkable the idea of a draft was this past decade, when our country was involved in two (2) wars. And add to all of that the fact that the vast majority of people nowadays consider the war “pointless” or “unnecessary,” and that a lot of people thought the war was pointless at the time. Like I said, a lot of tsuris going on here. The films that have been made about this period in our history feature a lot of these weighty issues: futility, guilt, anger, drugs, the horror, the horror, the horror. They include Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.

My familiarity with this issue: Yeah, I was in the shitOK fine I wasn’t in the shit. But I’m somewhat familiar with the shit. I’ve seen a few films on the subject (most notably Apocalypse Now), I’ve read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, and I’ve listened to the song “Goodnight Saigon” by Billy Joel, which effectively portrays the fear and confusion that the young soldiers dealt with, not even knowing who was wrong and who was right-ight-ight-ight-ight. Interesting stuff all around.

As mentioned, Vietnam reached a level of cultural pervasiveness that’s been wholly unmatched by the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. From a purely selfish Taste My Sad standpoint here, this is really lame, as we’re missing out on the kinds of great sad movies that would deal with the wars and their effect on what it means to be American that were so prevalent after Vietnam. I realize that the great Vietnam movies came out sometime after the war’s end (starting with this film in 1978 and Apocalypse Now in 1979). But I just don’t really see it happening anytime soon, for two reasons: (1) we as Americans tend to forget about the wars if we aren’t reminded of them often enough (Iraq was on the forefront of everyone’s mind for most of 2003, but we completely lost interest right around the Janet Jackson nipple incident), and (2) those kinds of movies don’t make any money, and making money is a lot more important to movie studios now than it was in the 1970s. The only culturally significant movie about Iraq/Afghanistan so far has been The Hurt Locker, which I really liked but doesn’t offer anywhere near the kind of insight into the war’s effect on our country as, say, Born on the Fourth of July. (I do plan to watch The Messenger, about an Iraq veteran who gives notice to the families of deceased soldiers, which I hear is good and sad, but made little impact in its US theatrical release.)

OK enough Vietnam. The Deer Hunter is only partially set there; its opening section concerns the Pittsburgh area and Russian-Americans getting married, if Wikipedia is to be trusted. And deer hunting! Let’s not forget that. I’ve never hunted and kind of think it’s terrible, to be honest. (Except if Ron Swanson is involved.) My relationship with animals is a bit paradoxical: I don’t think anyone should kill them, because that’s mean, but if any of them are within a 50-foot radius of me, I really really wish they were dead. Just get them away from me. And also I eat many of them. But hunting just seems wrong, or at the very least, not a fun way to spend one’s time. (There’s a great scene from the show Sports Night on this subject that I wish I could link to here, but the Youtube of it has no sound. You’re killing me, Internet. Also everyone should watch Sports Night, it’s awesome.)

But there are people who know more about this than me who say that hunting is alright, and talk about natural predators and fair chase and Teddy Roosevelt and all that. If I were in a conversation with these people, I would undoubtedly pretend to agree with them, because I’d know that they have experience in killing. KILLING! Imagine! Very few of my friends have killed. Then again, when I lived in West Virginia, hunters would frequently drive by my house, guns strapped to their backs, ready for some recreational murder, and I’d always wave at them and say “hi.” I wasn't condoning what they were doing, it's just that animals don’t wave and say “hi.” You can never be too careful.

Plot summary yoinked from IMDb: “Michael, Steven and Nick are young factory workers from Pennsylvania who enlist into the Army to fight in Vietnam. Before they go, Steven marries the pregnant Angela and their wedding-party is also the men's farewell party. After some time and many horrors the three friends fall in the hands of the Vietcong and are brought to a prison camp in which they are forced to play Russian roulette against each other. Michael makes it possible for them to escape, but they soon get separated again.”

What I thought of the movie: WHOA. Epic. Three hours! So much stuff, and so much of it sad. Not really a war film in the end, but still with an incredibly moving story about the effects of war and all that. The movie seemed to be full of really interesting contradictions. It’s a three-hour epic, centered on a small group of friends from a small town. It has a lot to say, but the characters don’t really say very much. It’s full of intense dramatic action sequences and long slow nature sequences. Russian roulette is a central symbol in the film, reflecting the random pointlessness of war, but most observers agree that Cimino’s use of Russian roulette is historically inaccurate. And most interesting of all: we care a lot about these characters even though we barely know anything about them. We know where they’re from and what they do, but little else. Very “show, don’t tell.” I’m a fan.

I read a lot on Wikipedia about the difficulties that Michael Cimino had in making this film (only his second film), and about his next one, the infamous flop Heaven’s Gate. Cimino has a reputation now as the kind of overblown, pretentious auteur because of Heaven’s Gate, and it affects the way people view The Deer Hunter. His modern analogue is probably M. Night Shyamalan, who followed up The Sixth Sense with six movies that were progressively more and more terrible (as shown in this handy graph), including his most recent film, The Last Airbender, which FsOTB Micah Lubens and Sarah Orton saw at midnight the day it opened. Fact. (Later that day, I received the following GChat: “Micah: oh dear jesus.”) But anyway. I don’t think it’s fair to retroactively change your opinion on a movie based on later movies. Michael Cimino could have directed Jaws: The Revenge, Batman and Robin and The Lovely Bones back to back to back after The Deer Hunter and it wouldn’t change the fact that The Deer Hunter is awesome. (OK maybe it would. The Lovely Bones is just so terrible.)

How I, John Krizel, related to the movie: So Cimino is one of those intensely committed directors, the ones who fill the frame with details and shoots miles and miles of film and all of that, and in this movie it all works. The wedding scene feels really authentic, even though I’ve never been to a Russian wedding. (PS someone invite me to a Russian wedding. They look AWESOME. The dancin’! The drinkin’! The rituals!) There’s a scene that really has nothing to do with the plot at the beginning of the movie, wherein Meryl Streep gets slapped by her drunken asshole of a father, and it just works so well to help us understand why she acts the way she does later in the film. Making me relate to working-class Pennsylvanians whose experiences are so vastly different from mine is a real accomplishment.

The war stuff is super-intense and gets to the heavy stuff REAL QUICK. They’re in Vietnam for two seconds and boom, captured. I could DEFINITELY relate to that. (Of course I know that they were probably there for a while before actually getting captured, but Cimino only shows us like three minutes of non-captured time before the capture. My point is that I would have been easily captured if I were a soldier. You saw what I was trying to do there, right? You could have let that one slide.) Where was I? Oh yeah. The war and that. So they get captured, and then there’s Russian roulette (thankfully not a feature of Russian weddings). I’m not a gambling man, so normally I’d pass on it, but the Vietnamese guys seemed to really insist. Jesus. 

Here’s the thing though: the effect that the Russian roulette has on the guys is SO INTENSE, and it’s completely understandable. I can see someone going completely bonkers after having to do that/watch their friends do that. It's inhuman. But then Walken and De Niro, after escaping the POW camp, keep the Russian roulette flame alive (in differing ways that you really should see the movie to understand). Which is a little confusing, because, you know, it’s very easy to die in one of those games. But in the end I can see where they’re coming from. When I’ve played really cool games that others of my friends didn’t know about, I've tended to proselytize a bit and enthusiastically show them how to play. I’m thinking mainly about the drinking game Douchebag. You guys gotta play it, it’s great. Slightly less dangerous than Russian roulette.

How I felt after the movie ended: It’s given me a whole new perspective on Christopher Walken (who won an Oscar for this film). Before this film I focused on his awesome SNL prowess, and also his ability to defy gravity while dancing in hotels. But he brought the Acting in this. Mad respect. (I will continue to do poor impressions of him.)

Srsly though, Roger Ebert wrote that The Deer Hunter is one of the most “emotionally shattering” movies ever made, and that’s a good description. Maybe it’s the length (that’s what she said), maybe it’s the intensity (that’s what she said), or maybe it’s just the subject matter (…), but it’s crazy haunting, the type of movie that stays with you for a long time. Although I just saw it yesterday, so, I guess we’ll see. I still remember most of the stuff from it. That’s a good sign.

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