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.
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.
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.
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.
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.