27 September 2010

Good Guys Wear Black

United States - 1977
Director - Ted Post
HBO Video, 198?, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 36 minutes

We're talking, golden boy here: this is Chuck looking his film finest and on an upward trajectory, not yet fully tarnished by the stigma of culture war. Hot cars, fast women, tight leather and a strawberry blond moustache; it almost seemed as if Chuck might go on to have an actual “acting” career. If only he had been able set aside his marrow-deep bitterness about the 1970 death of his brother Wieland who was killed in action in Vietnam. I suppose it was still fresh in his mind in ‘77, and it was certainly fresh in the minds of the nation as it attempted (or not depending on your point of view) to come to terms with ten years of death and waste.

The MIA and POW peace negotiations at the end of Vietnam were for Good Guys Wear Black, the turning point of American dignity at the end of a bitter and unnecessary defeat. As the legend popular among Chuck Norris’ particular demographic would have it, the common G.I. was the primary victim of Vietnam. Answering the call of his country, he was sent to a overseas to save democracy and get shot at, but much worse, when he returned, he became a victim of domestic politics. Villainized by the citizenry who either thought he was a babykiller or just wanted to forget he existed, and treated by the politicians who had used him as a pawn in their dominoes and developmentalism power game, he had been robbed of his dignity and his masculinity. The myth of Soldier was dead.

In Good Guys Wear Black Norris plays John T. Booker a veteran of the Black Tigers, a Special Forces unit sent into the jungle during the Paris Peace negotiations in 1973. Ostensibly their mission was to rescue P.O.W.’s, but as soon as they hit the ground it became evident that they were a ruse. The betrayal of the Black Tigers, who were promptly shot to pieces, functions as Norris’ blunt assertion that both the fighting men on the ground, and the P.O.W.s were hung out to dry by the Nixon administration, sacrificed in a political shell-game.

Years later in his civilian life as one of the few survivors of the Black Tigers, Booker is the embodiment of redemption. He works as a professor of history who teaches a class about the Vietnam War, literally divulging the “truth” to his students. In his spare time he also recharges the masculinity and all-Americanism of the Viet-vet trope by racing expensive sports cars and seducing women, using the same terminology to refer to both. Vietnam vets in Norris’ world are neither fools nor beaten men, and it only remains for him to physically avenge his comrades. When some of them begin turning up murdered, Booker joins forces with a chainsmoking CIA man to discover why and who wants to “silence” the experiential “truth” of the veterans. This really amounts to having a series of heated conversations with minor politicians, but in order to make it interesting the next 45 minutes are a James Bond espionage action story complete with cheesy fake beards and “exotic” locations.

Norris speaking the truth in a snowsuit and with Soon-Tek Oh who is wearing a disguise. Norris then kicks him to death through the windscreen of his speeding car.

Good Guys Wear Black is Norris’s attempt to punch and kick his way through a simulacrum of Nixon-era politicos and lay blame at the doorstep of Government. The trail leads to a longwinded booze-soaked down-and-out congressman Edgar Harolds (undoubtedly based on J. William Fulbright) who explains over a glass of breakfast scotch why maintaining the myth of American power required duping the public into expending vast amounts of blood and treasure. Harold’s outspoken guilty conscience and drunkenness have robbed his opinion of any official respectability however, and all he can do is point Booker toward up and coming Secretary of State nominee Conrad Morgan. Like his real life analogue Henry Kissinger, Morgan negotiated the secret deal that ended the war, hanging the Black Tigers out to dry but ensuring the President’s reelection as a “peace-maker.” (Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize and Nixon predictably won in ’72.) Confronted with Booker’s accusations, Morgan counters with a dose of remorseless realpolitik, leaving Booker/Norris little choice but to resort to his trademark hands-on approach to problem solving.

By illuminating the extent of betrayal that occurred at the top levels of U.S. government, Norris hopes to restore the dignity of the average soldier while leaving the war itself unaddressed. The Black Tigers are Norris’ cypher for all soldiers. In their only combat scene they express the full range of soldierly sentiment, from outright fear to reluctance to a sense of patriotic duty. This last is Norris himself of course, whose vindication of the “experiential truth” of all G.I.s through the use of soldierly violence back home reinvigorates the heroic masculine ideal (Booker is smart, strong, attractive and righteous). By illustrating that any breaches of ethics (i.e. My Lai etc.) took place at an individual level, Good Guys dismisses the notion that Vietnam as a whole was part of a systematic immorality. He differentiates the political parties; describing the Democrats (Harolds) as weak-willed and hypocritical, and the Republicans (Morgan) as heartless and secretive, but in both cases deceitful. By indicting them both in the dishonorable conduct of the war he asserts that in contrast the Black Tiger’s “cause was just,” thus parroting a frequent claim of the patriotic right wing.

If you are interested in some of the actual history behind these events check out The Trials of Henry Kissinger, The Fog of War and In The Year of the Pig.

I love this shot near the end of the movie: We observe Booker and his CIA pal Murray Suanders (Lloyd Haynes) (left) listening to Morgan's explanations. The camera looks through an open shelf with John F. Kennedy (just below Suanders) and Lyndon B. Johnson mugs bookending the whole tableau. Gee, whose fault is all this?

I think the tagline on this poster is very prophetic. "Why is everyone trying to kill this man?" Of course they're referring to Booker, but if you consider that the popular image of the Vietnam veteran in the late 70's was that of a criminal, a lowlife or a nutcase; Booker was none of those. They may as well be asking why everyone is trying to kill the "real" veteran, the normal guy, whom of course, Booker represents.

A nice Dutch VHS cover from Rolfens DVD

25 September 2010

Spooky Midnight VHS Assault #3: How to Field Dress Big Game

How to Field Dress Big Game
United States - 1989
Director - ?
MNTEX Entertainment, 1989, VHS
Run Time - 30 gloriously grueling minutes

Here in Montana we know all too well that keeping your eyes on the prize is a euphemism for more than just the actual hunting and shooting part of the fun. One your prey is felled, the fun part starts, but if you're going to get your hands on the good stuff, you've got to stay focused and reach for it!

Now you are one with the creation of God, with his love, and you can feel the souls of his children pouring quietly to the ground in a cloud of steam, cooling, and congealing as flesh separates from bone.

What follows is a deminstration on how to butcher a bear in order that it's hide might be preserved for a rug. You might also be wondering what happens with all the meaty bits that are contained within that matted, stinking future carpet. As much as possible these are also to be consumed for a true woodsman does not waste.

Conqueror of nature, man-beast of infinite knowledge, exercise your power to mete out death though you fear it yourself. 

These hand of mine, arbiters of life, protector of the sanctity of the Lord's creation, instrument of his divine will....grant me the power and strength to kill and butcher this innocent creature that I might tread upon its flayed skin in a display of my prowess with a collapsible mini-camping hacksaw, available for $39.99 from Cabella's.

20 September 2010

The Sounds of 'Nam

United States - 1972
Director - Francis Ford Coppola

I love this Japanese Apocalypse Now poster by Haruo Takino because it is so disproportionate. What I mean is the size of the surfer compared to the waves compared to the UH-1s definitely gives one the sense of overwhelmingness that is central to the film.
If you follow this link over to Illogical Contraption you will find a piece I wrote about this film as well as Full Metal Jacket and their respective soundtrack/scores and how the experience of unreality that infuses both films is not entirely a work of fiction but a created collective memory of the Vietnam War Era.

13 September 2010

Distant Thunder

United States - 1988
Director - Rick Rosenthal
Paramount Home Video, 1989, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 54 minutes
Starring - Ralph Macchio and John Lithgow

Distant Thunder is a formulaic Viet-Vet film starring John Lithgow as a deep reconnaissance Navy S.E.A.L (or perhaps a LRRP) who has returned home but estranged himself from his family and secluded himself deep in the Washington wilderness with a number of other loose-cannon veterans. On the verge of graduating from high-school, his son, Ralph Macchio discovers that his father is in fact alive and not killed in action as he had believed.

Distant Thunder is one of a fairly large body of films that deals with the returned Vietnam veteran and the difficulty he has re-assimilating into civilian society. All of the films in this tiny subgenre characterize Vietnam vets as psychologically or emotionally damaged (always male; usually but not always white) by their experiences and either violent or withdrawn or both. If the vet is not outwardly damaged he usually acts as the foil for another crazy friend (as in Jacknife or Cease Fire) whose recovery or inevitable (but cathartic) death he must sanction, for he is the only one who can possibly understand (Deer Hunter or again, Cease Fire.) If the veteran doesn't have any war buddies with whom to commiserate, he may be lucky enough to have a family member or friend who refuses to give up on him. In all cases, and Distant Thunder is the archetype here, the veteran feels guilty for something he and/or his comrades did in the war, something for which he and his friend/family/buddy must forgive him and for which he must forgive himself. The entire narrative is a veiled effort to discuss the U.S. national trauma of the Vietnam War (Era), and its attempt to come to terms with what it had done and to move on. It was a proxy self analysis which externalized the blame from the system (all of us) to the individual (the participant).

Macchio makes contact with a woman who has been sympathetic to Lithgow's troubles and travels to Washington to try and meet his father. In white jeans and a windbreaker, he climbs deep into the mountains to find the isolated vet-encampment and stirs up a hornet's nest of partially restrained PTSD violence which very nearly destroys them all. It's an overstuffed version of a well worn storyline, but despite this is well acted. Even Macchio puts in a good performance in this one, but Lithgow in particular transcends the cookie-cutterness of his role and imbues the haunted-Vet trope with significant pathos. The first time I saw this in 1991, it was on a bus  in South America and I didn't speak Spanish. It should say something that Distant Thunder was memorable enough for me to track down over a decade later and rewatch.

From Movie Poster Shop.

10 September 2010

Casualties of War

United States - 1989
Driector - Brian De Palma
RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, 1990, VHS
Run Time - 2 Hours

Coming at the tail end of the last wave of popular 'Nam films DePalma's Casualties of War is difficult to take seriously for a number of reasons. I personally am unable to separate Michael J. Fox from his "self" simply because he has done little else as remarkable and memorable to me as Marty McFly. Back to The Future came at a crucial moment in my brain's formative years and for better or worse is frozen there. Sean Penn has done much more significant work since his role as Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High that I am able to mentally separate the actor from his character here.

The Casualties of War story is itself much too simplified. The plot here is too separated from the context of the war. It feels as if it could have taken place anywhere and Vietnam was just a convenient and popular cinematic trope at the time. Despite its basis in a true story, the Meserve (Penn) and Eriksson (Fox) characters are too flat, too uniformly bad and good respectively to really buy as real. This was particularly noticeable because the war itself has little role in the film, it doesn't motivate the actions of the characters as it should and thus there is little rationale for their actions, hence why use Vietnam except that it was in the source material?

Don't get me wrong it is an entertaining if not encouraging film, and it is notable for the screen debuts of John C. Reilly and John Leguizamo, (an another appearance by Dale Dye) but the story lacked the depth and worldliness I had hoped for and failed to analyze the role of the war itself in the actions of the people it affected.

06 September 2010

Pierre Schoendorffer's Vietnam

My copy doesn't have a box, but it is an Interama release which used this (low rez) art.
Original Title - La 317eme Section
France - 1964
Director - Pierre Schoendorffer
Interama Video Classics, 1990, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 34 minutes

Most of the cinematic output that we in the States are exposed to is centered on the U.S. war in the 60’s, and with the exception of The Quiet American, ignores even the French conflict in the 1940s and 50s, much less any Vietnamese input on the subject. Not surprisingly, the Vietnamese and the French have made films about their own experiences of conflict, it’s just that there is little interest in the U.S. and so, the films are not readily available here. It’s not so much that the output exclusively focuses on the U.S. war then, just that for U.S. Americans that’s all that’s really interesting.

During the French war, which was largely bankrolled by the Eisenhower administration, French troops attempted to reassert colonial dominance over the entire country with far fewer men than the U.S. had 15 years later for half the country. Pierre Schoendorffer’s La 317eme Section aptly captures the strategic futility of the French position at the end of the war in 1954. The film centers on a tiny border outpost where two French Foreign Legionaires command a platoon of indigenous troops. They are ordered to leave their post and march through the mountains while evading the enemy. This turns out to be an order much more tactically and psychologically difficult than it sounds. All of this takes place during the prolonged battle of Dien Bien Phu, giving the film a lingering sense of doom (assuming you know, as a French audience would, the significance of that battle).

Considering that I am not French, much of the plot’s more subtle cultural implications are likely lost on me, but the platoon’s leadership suggests some important themes. The commanding lieutenant is a freshly minted French officer with little practical experience in the field, while his platoon sergeant is a German veteran of the Wehrmacht in WWII. Together they represent the profound change that France underwent in the aftermath of the Second World War as it transitioned from an outward looking colonial world power to a self-contained, modern nation-state. After the Second World War, the Indochinese War was one aspect of France’s attempt to reassert what it had been before. The fate of the 317eme section parallels this mission as past experience increasingly fails to provide insight into present circumstances. This is driven home in the concluding text which informs us of the Sergeant’s subsequent fate in Algeria. The platoon is a microcosm of France undergoing a traumatic, forced transformation at the hands of her own history.

Original Title - La Section Anderson
France - 1966
Director - Pierre Schoendorffer
Home Vision Public Media, 2000, VHS
Run Time - 1 hour, 5 minutes

Long before it reappeared in Full Metal Jacket, Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 #1 hit “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” captured the brilliant irony of the U.S. experience in Vietnam in Schoendorffer’s follow up to The 317th Platoon, The Anderson Platoon. In the 1960’s the director returned to Vietnam as a war correspondent for various French magazines, and in 1967 spent six weeks in the field filming a documentary about a single platoon of U.S. Army infantrymen. The entire film is narrated by the director, and in his opening lines he explains his conclusions: “I went back to rediscover the Vietnam I had left thirteen years ago with the French Army. Except for a few poignant scenes, I discovered, above all, America.” At first this would seem to be a rather obvious claim, but its deeper significance is revealed gradually throughout the film.

Schoendorffer’s cinematography focuses on the projection of U.S. culture and worldview into its foreign policy. It focuses on the pervasive atmospheric and psychological rather than physical presence that was created. This manifests in a sense that the U.S. restructures and recreates the familiar wherever it goes. The military appears as an encapsulated but pared down version of U.S. culture, while the civilian life visible to us on screen mirrors U.S. expectations. There is the feeling that the military and economic power that the U.S. exudes creates a bubble of conformity around itself which prevents the U.S. from ever really seeing a Vietnam not colored by its own presence, and thus unable to understand what the war might be about to the Vietnamese. The feeling one gets from this is that the United States is so inward looking that it is unable to perceive the unique identities and desires of other peoples. It appears as a cultural juggernaut, so monumental and diffuse that its disparate parts act independently around an ambiguous goal. It becomes oblivious, ineffective and self defeating, a blunt instrument of cultural hegemony.

Schoendorffer fortunately doesn’t try and ascribe a moral value to this phenomenon, he merely observes and reveals the way it manifests. The Anderson Platoon could be seen in this sense as the flip side of The 317th Platoon. It contrasts the overwhelming and potent presence of all things U.S. with the fragility of Frenchness in 317th. They are different national experiences separated by a great deal of history, but as a veteran of both wars (a combatant in the first and what we now call “embedded” journalist in the second) Schoendorffer is able to see the beginnings of a tragic similarity that wouldn’t be visible to most of us for at least another decade. It is important to remember that both of these films privilege a very limited Franco-American perspective, leaving out entirely any Vietnamese perspective. Despite the fact that they cannot tell us the whole story of these wars, Schoedorffer's films remain a powerfully reflective experience.

Some alternate cover art for Schoendorffer's films:

The first of the Anderson Platoon covers looks like someone's Photoshop project. To the best of my knowledge neither film has been released on DVD in the U.S.