Monday, September 20, 2010

Come See The Elephant

What made the Vietnam War such a fucking brain twister for the U.S.? Why did it haunt the public dialogue for so long and require such a bloodsoaked and violent catharsis? I would argue that it was/is its historical and cultural context. Simply, it was a major moment of rupture in the U.S. cultural fabric at a time when social norms and the status quo were seriously challenged at home by the Civil Rights Movement (which it is often forgotten included Native American and Chicano Movements), resurgent Feminism and the beginning of a public Gay Rights Movement among other economic and domestic upheavals (think hippie kids and duck-n-cover parents). It is no surprise then that to many it may have seemed as if U.S. American society was tearing itself apart.

As a military conflict, the Vietnam War was little different from prior wars in its simplest incarnation, that of people killing people, destruction and death in the name of ideological righteousness. In Vietnam itself, the psychotropic perception of the war was accentuated by a juxtaposition of forces that could hardly be more polar. The U.S. was far more technologically and tactically complex, but high-tech couldn’t cope in a primitive subtropical jungle. We were physically far better armed, but ideologically fragmented and increasingly ideologically divided against an adversary that if not politically uniform, was thoroughly united in its commitment to independence.

And as the status quo was being profoundly shaken at home, images of the carnage and chaos in Vietnam were daily being broadcast side by side on the evening news. It is really no surprise then that the cultural memory of the “Vietnam Era” in the U.S. is one of unreality and instability. Particularly for those of us who are too young to have any personal memories of it, much of this cultural memory is dispensed in the form of film. Much of U.S. cinema regarding Vietnam is centered on the individual experience of unreality and it’s transformative effect. Two of the most profound examples of this unreality and transformation discourse are Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

Both films are in fact based on novels; Coppola’s on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Kubrick’s on Gustav Hasford’s Short Timers, and while they should not be mistaken for realism, they have an undeniable authenticity which solidifies their status as cultural documents. I would argue that the greater responsibility lies with writer Michael Herr who co-scripted both films. Herr was a correspondent for Esquire magazine between 1967 and ’69 which he spent in Vietnam, and his excellent book Dispatches is a record of that experience. Many of the scenes and surreal dialogue in both films are taken directly from Herr’s account which captures the cognitive dissonance that has contributed largely to our “memory” of the Vietnam experience. This is largely due to the fact that it was one of the first popular books to deal with the subject, and its immediate successor, Apocalypse Now, one of the first popular films to do so. As a result much of the Vietnam related media that followed took its cue - at least in part - from these two sources.

The final factor making these two films so iconic, and what this post is in the end all about, (a-la IllCon) is the music. Both use a combination of historically contemporary pop music and original score to create yet another juxtaposition of familiarity and mutation that mirrors the narrative. The director’s father Carmine Coppola takes credit for the original music in Apocalypse Now. Although he worked as a professional musician, this is perhaps his best known film work and it is good stuff. HEAR IT HERE

Kubrick’s Daughter Vivian Kubrick (as "Abigail Mead") scored Full Metal Jacket, one of only three films to her credit. HEAR IT HERE Coppola’s score works best in conjunction with the rest of the music, partly because the film’s structure is much more subtle and prolonged than Full Metal Jacket, something reflected in Mead’s compositions which I think work well within the film, but in a strictly aural context stand out more due to their darker tone.

As you read this I am actually in the country of Vietnam, in part trying to divest myself of the American cultural memory of that place by seeing it outside of "our" context. My conception of Vietnam was so colored by all the history of the war years that I had read, and by these films, that when I was doing research into the country now, I was shocked when I saw modern pictures of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) that dwarfed my home Seattle. It’s a reminder that the world outside us keeps moving no matter how important and immediate our own experience seems.

The title of this post refers to the anticipation of a new experience, as in, "seeing the elephant", a term invoked by new recruits in numerous U.S. wars in reference to experiencing combat and "real" war for the first time.


The Thing That Should Not Be said...

Good post sir. I too am a great admirer of Herr's 'Dispatches'. I don't know about you, but I always tend to think of 'Jacobs Ladder' as being a movie about Vietnam, and the experiences of those who fought in the war, from a psychological viewpoint. Is it just me?

Anonymous said...

I agree about Jacob's Ladder. I would also add Platoon and The Deer Hunter to the list.

The Thing That Should Not Be said...

Well, yeah, they're a given really.

Aylmer said...

Great post. I think a lot of people who aren't familiar with Asia would be surprised by how developed and progressive it is.

The Thing That Should Not Be said...

I grew up near a place called St Helens. ANYWHERE is developed and progressive by comparison. It has an area that holds the European record for inbreeding, and is second on the list for...uh....'animal husbandry'.

Asia is home to some KILLER metal bands.

Anonymous said...

The Short Timers is an AMAZING and incredibly underated book. Way better than the movie in my opinion. Also as far as movies go I'd recommend "84 Charly Mopic". I've yet to see "The Siege of Firebase Gloria" but hear it's pretty good. Also some of the Ivy LURP books are worthwhile.

The Thing That Should Not Be said...

Oh, I clean forgot about '84 Charly Mopic'! Yes, great movie. Haven't seen it in years.

Anonymous said...

Goodkind's in the Nam man. Smoke some opium and fuck some whores!

The Goodkind said...

Glad y'all liked the post. The reason I chose these two ST's is because they are so closely related to Dispatches, which has been called, and I agree, the best book to come out of the war. Here are my comments in brief about each of your suggestions on the other films.
Jacob's ladder is a good film, it occurs to me that it may be more about the emotional conflict between the returnees and their home society. Which one has changed, why and how. It is based on a book though as I recall so I digress until reading it.
Platoon is a great film, one of my favorites, largely because of the soundtrack. I definitely agree this is a film about the transformation of an individual, but it didn't fit in with my concept of surrealism. I feel that Stone was trying to capture the diversity of small-unit infantry, and the fine edge between compassion and brutality that each of us rides without being really aware of it.
The Deer Hunter is really good, but I think it is much more about the transformation of a community, and what the war does to their cohesion and sense of unity and connectedness. Robin Wood says some very interesting things about this film in his book Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond.
84 Charlie Mopic is great, it was also written and directed by a Vietnam Vet, and the soundtrack was done by Donovan! It's been too long since I have seen it to comment on it.
Siege of Firebase Gloria is entertaining but pretty hokey, it does star R. Lee Ermey,and Wings Hauser, but it's pretty cheesy, and gung ho. I would recommend Hamburger Hill for another good one. Anyway, thanks again for reading the post and check out my other 'Nam related stuff at Lost Video Archive, even though you'll never understand because you weren't there man!