Monday, March 28, 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

Editor's Note: This piece was originally posted on November 25, 2008.

On October 25th my wife and I took in Strangers on a Train at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was a great experience to see it on the big screen for the first time after having seen it so many times on the small screen exclusively. Once again it was a wonderful audience who laughed and gasped at all the right places and once again the film historian introducing it went on a little too long and offered up a little too much elementary interpretation for what we were about to see. But when he asked how many of us had already seen it (it was a sold out show) I was happy to see that you could count on one hand the number of hands that didn't go up. This was an audience of film lovers waiting to see the film again on the big screen, many of us, as stated above, for the very first time.

But the real treat of seeing this showing of Strangers on a Train was the fact that Farley Granger was there and spoke with the audience after the show and signed autographs after that. Sometimes Hollywood stars disappoint in person but this was not one of those times. Granger was entertaining, honest and kind in every way imaginable. When I met him after the show and shook his hand he seemed genuinely friendly. I asked him to sign the program to my wife and he happily obliged. The interview he did on stage with the film historian, whose name I can't remember and who is not listed on the AFI site or the program (maybe he just wandered in off the street), was illuminating and delightful. Granger's bluntly honest response to several questions was refreshing but my favorite was:

Interviewer: "Did Hitchcock discuss the psychological motivations of the character with you before shooting?"

Granger: "No, no. He wasn't big on bullshit."

Granger was so endearing that even when he spoke of his love of the stage over film (something we've all heard from Hollywood stars at one point or another) he sounded like he actually meant it, not like so many stars sound where they think saying that will give them instant credibility. And he discussed his other works as well. Rope he said was a chore. "You do eight minutes and something falls on the set and you gotta do the whole goddamn scene over." And "Jimmy (Stewart) wasn't right for the part and Hitch knew it and Jimmy knew it and Jimmy felt he had to struggle with it. The part is a snooty, elitist professor and Jimmy just doesn't project snooty elitism. Someone like James Mason would've been better suited for the part."

On Nicholas Ray: "He had such a feel for gritty personal films and then he started doing a bunch of glitzy crap. I said, 'Nick what's with all the glitzy crap' and by that point he didn't care what he was making anymore."

On Shelley Winters: "We were at this hotel that had pictures of the stars and she says to the manager, 'You should have my picture up there' and the manager didn't even know who she was and wouldn't put her picture up (Granger laughs). I just told her to shut up about it. She was a great lady to work with but you know, these stars sometimes, they get a little big headed." Amazingly he pulled that last statement off without a hint of irony. He really didn't have that "Star" mentality about him so he could talk about "stars" as if he wasn't one.

And then there was Samuel Goldwyn who he didn't like at all. Goldwyn had demanded Granger pay him all the money on the contract that he had received because Granger wanted to quit working with Goldwyn after Hans Christian Anderson. Granger paid back the money and left. The thing is, aside from relaying those facts, he didn't elaborate any further on what problems he and Goldwyn had and when asked about the book he had written he said he had contacted everyone or their relatives before writing it and told them what he wanted to write. If they objected to anything he left it out. He even called Goldwyn's children and asked if it was okay to recount the stories of the troubles he had with Goldwyn. They said it was okay. Geez louise, what a guy. I don't have the book myself, but I'm told it has the same "blunt honesty without being mean spirited" attitude that came off in the interview. And it mainly concerns his life in the theatre which he enjoyed much more than film.

Of course, for me, the highlight of the interview was when he spoke about Robert Walker during the course of making Strangers on a Train. I've written about Walker here before and prior to that Sheila O'Malley had an excellent write-up on Strangers on a Train so I won't rehash the story of Walker's life or his excellent performance in the film. Rather I'll let Farley Granger have the final word from this video I shot of the interview (I was in the back lower balcony area, the best place to sit at the theatre. The seats back there are bigger, more like recliners, and have tables between them for your refreshments and at least four feet of room before the next seat in front of you or behind you but you have to get there early for those seats - which I always do). In the clip Granger describes the first night he, Hitchcock and Walker got together in Washington, D.C. before the first day of shooting. They went out to dinner downtown before retiring to their rooms at the hotel, at which point Walker started to panic. The rest I'll leave to Granger but from this story I was reminded of how fragile was Robert Walker, and how gracious and sympathetic was Granger. Walker must have sensed that to let himself go in front of him like he did, and Granger didn't let him down. They had just met but Granger treated him like a brother. It's a great story and it was a great experience seeing and meeting Farley Granger. Enjoy the clip.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Countdown to Zero provides exceptionally low-yield

Any regular reader of Cinema Styles knows that I have watched and read dozens of documentaries and books on the construction, deployment and testing of nuclear weapons. I have reviewed several documentaries and fiction movies on the subject here and my fascination with it goes back to reading a biography of Robert Oppenheimer that belonged to my dad when I was in middle school. I've read several different ones since then as well as all the usual suspects of the history of the bomb's creation: Day One, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Brotherhood of the Bomb, etc. I do strange things sometimes when I'm bored like read essays on surviving a nuclear holocaust or revisiting the details of how the first bombs were made and tested or honing my knowledge of the Teller–Ulam design. I have a great deal of layman's knowledge about this subject and I can thus say with confidence, Countdown to Zero fudges the facts almost from the start. And that's a shame, because its premise is an important subject that should be discussed: the possibility of terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weaponry. Instead, Countdown to Zero is insecure about the facts at hand and goes down the road of yellow journalism fairly quickly.

At only 89 minutes, one would think there wasn't enough time to cram all the information needed into a documentary probing such a subject, and one would be right. Unfortunately, 89 minutes is too much time for Countdown to Zero, which appears to have only around 20 minutes or so of ideas that it is content to repeat endlessly for its hour and a half running time.

Right at the start, scare tactics take precedence over clarity. Now, I realize it's difficult to discuss nuclear destruction without scaring the hell out of the viewer, but the facts are played with fast and loose and quotes are taken out of context to suggest something much more ominous. For instance, inside the first three minutes we are presented with a story about the great Enrico Fermi. Apparently, he looked out over New York from an office building window, cupped his hands to about the size of a tennis ball, and said, "A little bomb like that, and it would all disappear."

Now, anyone having read up on nuclear weaponry would know, without having to be a nuclear physicist, that Fermi was referring to the size of the fissionable material, the enriched uranium (Uranium 235) or plutonium. The bomb itself is necessarily much bigger, containing the casements and the high explosives that surround the core and the timers and on and on. Even a very small nuclear device is going to be too heavy to casually carry around. This may seem like nitpicking but what they are doing at the very start of the documentary is misleading the viewer. The clear impression given is that a terrorist could take a bomb the size of a tennis ball and walk right into the center of Manhattan and blow it up.

And that kind of lazy impression-making wouldn't be so bad if the experts (and, brother, have they got experts! Practically everyone who has ever worked for the CIA, Pentagon or presidential cabinet in the last thirty years is interviewed!) didn't constantly make statements that disproved what they were actually trying to prove. That seems pretty hard to do, but they do it, early and often. Matthew Bunn, Associate Professor at Harvard (no, they don't actually say in what, it's that sloppy) recounts two cases of nuclear theft at about the ten minute mark. He talks about how poorly guarded the nuclear materials are in Russia and mentions two separate cases of men stealing the material to sell it. He talks breathlessly about how they just walked right in to the old shipyards, broke padlocks and took the materials and no one noticed. He says that. He says the words, "No one noticed." He even quotes the prosecutor in the latter case who said, "Potatoes were guarded better."

Wait, the prosecutor?

Yes, see, they were caught, tried and convicted. See how that worked? Professor Bunn says "no one noticed" but, well, I guess somebody did because they're both in prison now. That is, in fact, the only way Professor Bunn knows of their existence, because they were caught. They even interviewed the nuclear thief, in prison. Then the professor tells us he was caught by accident (arrested with his friends who were also stealing car batteries) and that every time they catch someone with materials, they didn't know the materials were missing until they caught the person. But the point that is ignored, is that they keep catching them. They mention at least six more cases. That's a lot of accidental arrests.

Then they spend a lot of time talking up how casually one can smuggle enriched uranium or plutonium into the country. And yes, it is easy to do, in theory. It's tempting to say this part of the documentary is irresponsible but the fact is, anyone who has access to a computer and certainly anyone who's actually trying to obtain fissionable material can find very quickly and easily what materials will hide the nuclear signature of fissionable material. This section is mainly filler and provides more scare tactics, complete with animations showing how easily the material could be hidden aboard container ships.

The doc then moves on to accidental destruction and, again, the experts make curious statements. We are told of the myriad of nuclear accidents that have happened over the decades, and yes there have been many, and we are told that the problem is that there are too many redundant safety systems. The more complicated a system, we are reminded, the more likely it is to fail. This is true but that's not the same thing as redundant safety systems and yet they refer to them as though they are interchangeable. In other words, a nuclear device is very complicated which means it could fail. Safety systems that are simple are put in place to prevent this. Since they could fail too, they put in several. That is why, despite accidental h-bomb drops over Florence, South Carolina and Goldsboro, North Carolina, plane crashes with h-bombs in Greenland and dozens of lost planes with bombs and explosions of planes with bombs, not one has ever blown up. Not one. We are reminded, however, that in this case or that case, only one safety system stood between the bomb and nuclear holocaust. True, but that's why the safety systems are redundant, and why they've worked. The fact that the expert can remind us "only one" safety system worked indicates that the system did indeed work.

One thing the doc hammers home, and this is quoted early on, is that the hardest part of building an atomic bomb is getting the fissionable material. Once you do that, building it is easy. Well, no. Entire countries working with every possible scientific advantage have failed to do so. One can assemble all the parts from easily available materials, which a panel before congress did a few years ago to show it could be done (the doc shows this). But getting all of it to work, perfectly; the timers, the high-explosives, the lenses, all of it, is no easy task. Conventional bomb makers blow themselves up working with gunpowder. Working with the complications of putting together an atomic bomb is a whole other matter.

What we're left with at the end of all this is lots of graphics showing aerial views of cities like New York, London and Paris with rings of destructive range rising up from them to let the viewer know how much of the city would be destroyed. They even describe the level of destruction that would come to New York City if a bomb went off but don't reveal what size bomb they're talking about. It is assumed they are describing a bomb made by a terrorist but the destruction they reveal clearly indicates a large hydrogen bomb, not a smaller fission bomb like the kind a terrorist would actually have. Then, Nuclear Arms Analyst Jeffrey Lewis describes how utterly complicated would be the efforts of terrorists building the bomb, tallying up millions of dollars, dozens of different experts in different fields and problem-free locations to do it all (because who's going to notice 100 or so people working on a large-scale project requiring $50,000 furnaces and used artillery cannons, right?) and calls it simple! Why, it'd be the easiest thing in the world for them to do it. "It's not rocket science," he says, "that's actually hard." Good grief.

Finally, Countdown to Zero comes to a close by calling the viewers to activism by... wait for it... going to a website. Yes, a "Demand Zero" website where you can sign petitions and donate money and somehow stop nuclear weapons from being built. I do believe it is towards a noble goal if, one day, all countries of the world can agree to never produce nuclear weapons again. But, seriously, a website? I guarantee you no president of the United States, or congress, or Prime Minister of Britain or Pakistan or any terrorist leader really gives a rat's ass if you go to "Demand Zero" and sign a petition. I'm not ridiculing the activism, I'm ridiculing the almost invisible scale of it. This isn't an ill-advised war that protests can hope to change through influencing policy making or elections. This is nuclear arming and, frankly, that isn't something decided by the wave of public opinion. Where and when and how often they're tested? Yes. Whether we have them? No. That's not going to change until we're sure no one will ever build another one and that's something we can never be sure of so don't look for nuclear disarmament any time soon.

Until then, the threat of nuclear terrorism is something that should be seriously considered and discussed in serious terms. Countdown to Zero, unfortunately, isn't the place to go for such a serious discussion. It's too bad. A documentary on this subject is welcome but Countdown to Zero is only interested in cool graphics, alarmist out of context quotes and strange contradictions that keep it from ever truly standing on solid ground. Countdown to Zero is a missed opportunity but aptly titled: By the end, the reductive "insights" have left us with nothing. Absolute zero.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Deer Hunter Redux
A Look at the Film and the Controversy

I watched The Deer Hunter again recently for the first time in over 25 years. My memory of the film was shaky but I did have a strong recollection of not much caring for it the first two times around (having seen it twice in its entirety by the mid-eighties). I also recalled the controversy surrounding it and wondered if the recollection of any of that might be peppering my memory. I decided to give it another look, 25 years later, to see what it would feel like, decades removed from any controversy over the content of the film or the war in Vietnam itself. The experience was an interesting one, if not least of all for the fact that it has much to admire within its frames and much to deride. Suffice it to say, The Deer Hunter makes for a very conflicted viewing experience, giving the viewer plenty of time to process information about its characters but giving up precious few secrets about them on which to base that processing.

The film focuses on a group of friends in Clairton, PA during the height of American involvement in Vietnam. As the film opens we meet three friends who will travel to Vietnam together, Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage) and their buddies Stan (John Cazale), Axel (Chuck Aspegren, real life foreman of the steel mill used in the film) and John (George Dzundza). Steven is getting married to a woman pregnant by another man, Nick is in love(?) with Linda (Meryl Streep) and Mike is on his own.

As the film opens we see the three friends saying their goodbyes to coworkers as they will be leaving for duty in Vietnam after the wedding and a hunting trip. The wedding and hunting trip comprise the first third of the movie (the movie has a neatly partitioned three-act story) and it's here that the film's own storytelling conflicts reveal themselves.

The director, Michael Cimino, was coming off of his only directorial effort, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, when he took on The Deer Hunter, a story he had co-developed for a couple of years. It's hard to say anything about one movie influencing or instructing upon the other since they are so very different but it seems that Cimino combined some of the basic camaraderie elements of Thunderbolt... with the meandering mise en scène of Robert Altman to mixed effect.

That mixed effect is the result of clashing styles, something from which Altman never suffered. For instance, in the opening fifteen minutes the audience is treated to several wandering scenes of the friends saying goodbyes, joking around, drinking beers and talking about anything but how vastly different their lives will soon be. None of it is done in close-up, no one line is given any special attention and all of it feels like documentary-style eavesdropping. In the middle of this is a stilted belabored scene, mercifully brief, of the old world (Russia) mother of Steven delivering this awful piece of exposition to the priest:

"I still do not believe this. My own boy with a strange girl and not so thin, if you understand my meaning...The next thing you know, he goes to Vietnam...I do not understand, Father. I understand nothing anymore, nothing...Can you explain? Can anyone explain?"

The scene is less than a minute but it's a minute so awful and ill-fitting it lingers beyond its screen time. This example is the first instance of something that will happen throughout the movie: Long, fascinating Altmanesque sequences in which we voyeuristically gaze upon the characters weaving in and out of their own lives abruptly interrupted by obviously scripted moments. A well written movie never seems scripted. When it does, it's hard to recover. The Deer Hunter does recover, however, and for most of the first act, the Altman style dominates and renders the more obviously scripted moments bearable. But the clashing styles isn't the only problem to be overcome. The other is the clearly labeled metaphors. I must be honest right now in the interest of full disclosure: When a movie starts speaking in metaphors, it can lose me pretty fast.

While it's true that many films, and much great art, deal in metaphor, the fact is The Deer Hunter wields its metaphors in such a paint-by-the-numbers style that even the most obtuse viewer should be able to match the right colors to the right numbers every time. Most viewers would probably surmise on their own that the deer hunting rituals of Mike were religious to him without having a chorus singing Orthodox hymns behind the action. And the chorus starts right when Mike spots the deer and begins his pursuit. The Deer Hunter doesn't miss an opportunity to point out what it's doing whenever it can. This happens in the wedding sequences as well when, in the middle of several minutes (the sequence is roughly 25 minutes long) of Altmanesque perusing, our heroes happen upon a Green Beret at the bar where another obviously scripted sequence takes place to let the viewer know that the macho dreams of Mike, Nick and Steven are but puffs of smoke. It's handled well enough, much more so than the earlier mother scene, but is unnecessary. In fact, it's completely unnecessary, so much so that the viewer feels a bit insulted that the scene is even happening.

After the wedding and hunting sequences the gang heads back to town, goes to John's bar, drinks some beer, listens to John play a longing piece on the piano as the distant sounds of a helicopter come over the soundtrack until we are burst into Vietnam, and the second act.

It is the Vietnam section of the film that caused the original controversies swirling around the film and contains its most famous scenes. But the scenes caused controversy for a wide variety of reasons, some valid, others less so. In Vietnam, Mike, Nick and Steven meet up, somehow, as a village is being bombed. Something happens (it's not clear what but vaguely looks like advancing Vietcong troops) and in the very next scene they are prisoners of war, held in a bamboo cage along the river. Here, they are forced to play Russian roulette for the amusement of their Vietcong captors. Steven is clearly suffering a mental break from all of it while Mike and Nick try to figure out what to do. Steven and Mike are pitted against each other and Steven gets the bullet in the chamber but the gun slips and he only grazes the top of his head. Both are returned to the cage and Mike tells Nick that the two of them will play next and he will get them out by demanding more bullets in the chamber, which he does and they do.

This is probably the single most famous scene in the whole film and one that worked exceedingly well for me as a young teenager taking in the horrifying, gritty brutality of it all. Seeing it again 25 years later the scene wasn't as nearly as gripping as I had remembered. Oh, it's done well and is quite gripping at times but not for the reasons I remembered. What stood out for me this time was not the actual scenes of Russian roulette but the scenes of Steven gasping for air in a state of shock every time he hears the revolver's hammer come down. John Savage is so extraordinary in the scene that it's baffling how he escaped nomination for his performance. Christopher Walken won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor that year for his performance as Nick, and while he is excellent, I felt John Savage did something quite amazing with his very small part.

Later in the second act, after their escape, Nick is separated from Mike and Steven who make their way back home, although Steven loses his legs and won't leave the Veteran's hospital in Pittsburgh. Nick is lured in by a French man, a remnant of Vietnam's colonial period, who promises him riches playing Russian roulette. He never returns home.

The third act finds Mike back home, dealing with the loss of Nick and heartbreak of Steven. He turns to Linda for solace and the two form a bond as a means of keeping Nick alive between them. The third act has some good moments, particularly with the weaselly Stan getting his comeuppance by an angry Mike, sick of Stan's bullshit bravado in the face of what he's experienced. John Cazale, once again and for the last time in his acting career, excels at the role and reminds us how much the cinema lost when John Cazale succumbed to cancer at the all too young age of 42. The third act stumbles when Mike decides to go back for Nick as Saigon falls. Here, and for inexplicable reasons, Cimino inserts stock footage from the fall into the actual footage he's shot. It's inexplicable because the actual footage shot by Cimino is amazing and jarringly disrupted by news footage so far from visually matching the film's footage as to be almost comical.

To add to the faults of the third act, Mike's visit to find Nick is too pat. It's so easy and happens so quickly the viewer cannot help but ask, "Why didn't he just do this before he left?" That's a valid question because before he leaves Vietnam the first time he sees Nick and it's clear that Nick is unresponsive to him and going awol. And yet, nothing happens. Nonetheless, Mike does go back, finds him easily and challenges him to a game of Russian roulette, where Nick has been playing professionally for six years without getting a bullet in the chamber once. The viewer would be a fool to bet against that happening now that Mike has shown up.

And, of course, it does happen. It happens just as there is some sign that Nick might realize who Mike is. Afterwards, Mike returns home with his body, we watch the funeral and at John's bar, everyone joins in an impromptu singing of God Bless America as the film closes.

What surprised me more than anything this time around was how unmoving was the ending. The character of Nick is so removed from the film by the time we witness his suicide that he seems little different than any of the extras we have watched shoot themselves. Now, I don't know, however, if that is a fault of the film or not. Here's what I mean: When we see Nick wander off with the French man late in the second act we already know he's gone so by the time we see him again, we've adjusted to the loss. Imagine losing a friend at the height of your friendship with them. It would be devastating. Now imagine that same friendship, only this time you gradually grow apart, move apart, lose contact and then, years later learn of their death. The blow is now considerably cushioned and easier to take. And I think, or at least believe it's possible, that that's the intention of the film. If we view Nick as the POW/MIA, we see him as a loss already accounted for. When he physically dies, it's more of a relief than anything else.

The Deer Hunter has conflicts in its storytelling styles but in one area, cinematography, it excels from the first frame to the last. It was photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond and it's a beautiful piece of work. Zsigmond has the task of doing intimate interiors (the bar, Linda's trailer), claustrophobic interiors (the bamboo cage, the Russian roulette den), menacing exteriors (the journey up the river, the shots of the refugees fleeing), gorgeous exteriors (the mountains of Pennsylvania), expansive interiors (the Cathedral wedding) and even both interior and exteriors at once (the car scenes in the mountains). The fact that a single cinematographer handled that many different settings with the absolute majesty that Zsigmond achieves is an extraordinary feat, and while I realize it is cinematic blasphemy to write the words I am about to write, I think it deserved the Oscar more (just a tiny bit more) than the also extraordinary work of Néstor Almendros for Days of Heaven, which did win.

Another area of supreme achievement for The Deer Hunter is in its performances. There's not a bad one in the lot, with even one-time actor Chuck Aspegren doing a fine job with his limited role. While De Niro certainly deserved his nomination for Best Actor, its a film of supporting performances and picking just one, Christopher Walken, from the group left a lot of fine work unrecognized. There's the aforementioned John Savage, about as good as he's ever been, and John Cazale, also doing great work and Meryl Streep, unfamiliar to most audiences at the time, turning in an excellent performance as Linda. But George Dzundza, an actor everyone knows but far too few appreciate, turns in a performance at least the equal of everyone involved. In fact, it's his performance that extracts the most emotion as his character seems to wear his feelings on his sleeve. When he silently breaks down in the kitchen of his bar in the final scene, it has a power most of the finale is lacking.

Finally, the music is superb. Stanley Myers' beautiful composition Cavatina is played evocatively by guitarist John Williams and used throughout the film to great effect.

Despite these good points, in the end, The Deer Hunter is hopelessly conflicted with how it wants to tell its story. It wants Robert Altman's stream of consciousness but also the formal drama of an old-school Hollywood war film. It wants gritty realism but infuses it with obvious metaphor and wooden exposition. Intentionally or not, it ends up as conflicted as the war itself. It's not a bad experience, though. I walked away from my fresh viewing with an appreciation for Cimino and Zsigmond's gift for framing and enjoyed that fact that movie did not attempt to answer any questions the world might have about Vietnam but asked a few for the characters, and made sure they were questions they couldn't answer. I'd have to say my experience was a good one but not as good as I'd hoped.

But that's my opinion of the film as it is, as a story separate from our actual experiences with Vietnam. The film's message, or construed one as it may be, was the focus of intense controversy at the time of its release, one that got to the heart of much of the debate about America's involvement in Vietnam. I made it a point, after deciding to watch the film again, to read not a word about the controversy until after I viewed it. I remembered some things, like Jane Fonda and husband Tom Hayden yelling, "The Deer Hunter is a lie!" at the Oscars, but not much else. When I finished processing the movie I started to read up on the criticisms, most of them having to do with the Vietnam sequences. As I said earlier, some seem valid, others less so.

The primary criticism was that the portrayal of the Viet Cong captors, as well as the Vietnamese roulette gamblers, was racist and one-sided. The secondary criticism, and one that you'll find repeated in one review after another, was that there was no documentation of Russian roulette ever being forced on POWs. The secondary criticism goes hand in hand with the first. That is, by inventing such a cruel device to portray the captors and free-market gamblers of Vietnam, they are caricatured as animals beyond redemption. The implication seems to be that there was plenty of horrific behavior on the part of the Viet Cong to show without having to make something up. One need but read up on the activities at the Hoa Lo Prison (The Hanoi Hilton) to know this to be true. So by devising the roulette game, the film was able to implicate both the North and the South Vietnamese in the cruelty, since both seem intoxicated by it.

In his defense of this criticism, on the commentary soundtrack of the DVD, Cimino states that the film is surrealistic and not intended to be "about Vietnam" any more than Apocalypse Now was or The Bridge on the River Kwai was about World War II. It is, he says, entirely fictional and the captors and citizen gamblers are but metaphors for a bigger picture (well, obviously - everything's a metaphor in the movie).

I buy into Cimino's view more. The film is, as stated several times so far up to and including the preceding sentence, clearly metaphorical. While it employs realism in its scenes it is not meant to be taken as a literal portrayal of events in Vietnam, at least not to my eyes. This is, you will recall, one of my problems with the film, the fact that it can't stick with the voyeuristic realism long enough to forget all the metaphor and allegory. The fact that this is a problem for me also means, by definition, that I don't believe Cimino is trying to bullshit his way out of this because it is all so clearly surrealistic. There are far too many contrived situations in this film (not least among them the fact that three friends from the same town all somehow end up in the same bamboo cage half a world away) to take is seriously as intentionally realistic and not metaphorically stylistic.

Of course, the criticism goes, one can be metaphorical and still include some decent Vietnamese characters. That's true as well but if they are not important to the story I'm not sure where to put them. In Brian De Palma's Casualties of War, the focus is on the crime committed by United States soldiers in Vietnam and the one soldier who stands up to them. It is necessary to the story to show the sole important Vietnamese character, that of the abducted raped captive, as humanistic and victimized. This does not mean De Palma was racist in his portrayal of American soldiers and glorifying in his portrayal of Vietnamese women as suffering angels. No, it meant he was showing the characters he needed to show to tell his story the way he needed to tell it.

Still, one does chafe at the gambling scenes in the village where Christopher Walken becomes a roulette star. The idea of people betting on other people like so many spins of a roulette wheel seems hard to take or, at least, hard to fathom that kind of inhuman cruelty for the sake of gambling. Not only that, but how soon is your business going to end? I mean, how many possible people can you drug up enough, and fast enough, to keep a lucrative suicide game going? Business-wise, it's idiotic and nonsensical.

So where does that leave us? Well, several decades removed from the original controversy, it's hard to see what all the fuss was about. Eight years later, Oliver Stone took metaphorical/allegorical Vietnam storytelling to ridiculous heights with his badly dated Platoon. With its simple-minded moralizing (Old America: Bad. New America: Good.) and laughably one-dimensional symbolic stand-ins for characters, it's hard to believe it didn't get raked over the coals far worse than The Deer Hunter ever was. But by 1986 America had already forgotten the Vietnamese anyway (they're not even a minor subplot in Platoon) and was focused on how hard it was for all of us so Platoon was aces in their book.

The Deer Hunter had to happen when it did. While there were other Vietnam movies that very year, and the year before, including The Boys in Company C, Go Tell the Spartans and Coming Home, America needed a mad, grand over-the-top opera like The Deer Hunter to get the conversation rolling. It may not be the best Vietnam movie out there (is there, in fact, a best one?) but its place as the one that really got Hollywood finally opening up to the idea of examining Vietnam, something The Green Berets failed to do nine years earlier, is an honored place and there are a lot worse movies that could hold it. That's pretty faint praise, admittedly, but it's sincere. And with all its faults, so is The Deer Hunter.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Wanders: Richard Libertini

Guys like Richard Libertini don't get Oscar nominations. You know why they don't? Because the world sucks, that's why.

Because he's played supporting and bit parts on practically every television show from the seventies on, without doing enough "serious" film work.

Because he's never had a big meaty supporting role where he discovers his wife is cheating on him the same week he's diagnosed with a rare brain disease and gets to die a horrible death so the much less interesting lead actor can learn something from all of it.

Because he's dependable, talented and never a problem.

But mostly, it's because people are stupid. Well, the people in the Academy, that is. I mean, is there anyone on earth who hasn't enjoyed a Richard Libertini performance in something? If you're not sure which movie you saw him in, or which one you enjoyed the most, just pick up the remote and start clicking. Odds are even after about ten minutes you'll come across one. That's how much this guy works. Personally, I put him on my short list for his hilarious turn as General Garcia in the original The In-Laws. That's a performance that is entertaining, perfectly timed and expertly played but it's also played entirely for laughs and that's not Oscar worthy.

Yeah, yeah, I know, "Screw Oscar!" That is, in fact, my view most of the time. But it's also a peer award and that's important to people in the industry, people who have been working their asses off for decades with no recognition. And it would be nice if every now and then someone like Richard Libertini got a lifetime achievement award for, you know, a lifetime of achievement!

But that's not going to happen. What is going to happen is I'm going to give him my heartfelt thanks for providing me with something more than entertainment all these years. I'm going to thank him for providing me with assurance and comfort. You see, whenever Richard Libertini comes on the screen, I am assured that no matter how bad the show or movie I am watching may be, it will be good while he's onscreen, and that brings me comfort. If the show or movie is good, well, it's all icing.

Celebrate and Testify! Richard Libertini, Wanderer Extraordinaire!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Unexplained Cinema

Just a quick bit of self-promotion: If you were one of the utterly select, unique, creative, imaginative and all-around awesome people who followed Unexplained Cinema, formerly on Blogger, you may have noticed I shut down operations over there and moved it to tumblr where it works a hell of a lot better. Most of those who did follow showed up after Film Comment wrote it up last year (along with Cinema Styles) so I certainly didn't want to abandon it but Blogger just wasn't working for what I wanted to do there.

Tumblr allows a wider variety of links, including stand-alone audio links, as well as picture sets that scroll through the frames like a slideshow and since picture sets was the main staple of Unexplained Cinema, it made sense to make the move. Another advantage of tumblr is that there are no comments. Since Unexplained Cinema was all about the posted screengrab speaking for itself, comments seemed superfluous. Instead, if you're a member of tumblr, you can favorite a post or reblog it, whichever you desire.

Keep in mind, it's starting over from scratch so there's only around 20 or so posts to look at right now but more go up every day. Thanks, in advance, for stopping by.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Still Kingly After All These Years

78 years ago today, King Kong premiered and lived up to its hype as The Eighth Wonder of the World. King Kong was the result of the hard work, creativity and talents of co-directors Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, writers Ruth Rose and James Creelman, story developer Edgar Wallace, actors Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong and Bruce Cabot, and of course, stop-motion animator Willis O'Brien who made Kong the legend he is today. David O. Selznick put the whole team together, hyped the hell out of it and 78 years later, it stands taller still than most action adventure movies made since.

I've returned to it time and again, as a viewer and a writer. Recently I pondered the merits of Carl Denham as a director and earlier tried to answer the question that audiences, critics and historians have been asking since it opened (and my friends and I asked as kids): Why is there a door in the wall big enough for Kong? I chose to be optimistic in my answer, I hope you agree. I even put Charles Grodin on my short list for his role in the remake.

Speaking of which, when Dino De Laurentiis put together that multi-million dollar remake in 1976, I was there opening weekend. Same in 2005 for the Peter Jackson heralded remake. Being such a fan of the original I was disappointed in both but being a Kong fan in general I also liked much in both even as I longed for the simplicity of the original.

The main problem both remakes run into is mistaking one of the most ridiculous premises in the history of storytelling for something to build real characters around. The original made no such mistake. Wray, Armstrong and Cabot play caricatures and play them to the hilt. The relationship between Wray and Cabot is given nothing in the way of development nor should it have been. The original contains an honesty that is rarely found anymore in this type of filmmaking. That is to say, they knew people were showing up to see the big gorilla do lots of big gorilla stuff and that's what they gave them. The movie is streamlined unlike few others.

Being made in 1933, it is also filled with racial stereotypes that make the modern viewer uneasy. The Chinese cook aboard the S.S. Venture is played as a foolish simpleton and the islanders are played as stereotypical jungle tribesman. Not only that but, of course, when they lay their eyes upon the white woman, they simply must have her for a sacrifice, although in this case it's probably more of a "hey let's try something new for Kong" than anything else. King Kong is not a movie to turn to for enlightenment on any subject, much less racial harmony but has, for the most part, escaped the pitfalls of some of the more racist elements of early cinema, of the Stepin Fetchit variety, by virtue of the fact that all of its characters are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. That and, as noted earlier, none are developed in any meaningful way.

What we're left with is watching amazing stop-motion animation of a giant gorilla fighting dinosaurs, shaking men off of logs and climbing the Empire State Building. That was enough for audiences in 1933 and it's still enough today. Happy 78th Birthday to King Kong. Long live the king.

Kong and his leading ladies:

The original, one and only Fay Wray

Jessica Lange

Naomi Watts

And, for good measure, non-Kong leading lady Syvlie Vartan poses with the giant Kong model made for the 1976 remake