Remembering Michael Cimino’s Masterpiece, ‘The Deer Hunter’

The_Deer_Hunter-918336850-large

Imagine this: Michael Cimino, fresh off five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director) and the next big “thing” fails to complete the filming of Heaven’s Gate (1980) and stops making movies, all because he couldn’t handle the pressure of following up on not only the movie he needed to make, but the movie America needed him to make: The Deer Hunter (1978).

Discussion would forever boil down to what masterpieces we were robbed from seeing, how a too-sensitive soul could not stand up to the pressures and pettiness of Hollywood, and so on. Bonus scenario: if Heaven’s Gate were only half-finished when he stopped directing, scholars would write dissertations about whether the next Citizen Kane (1942) got sabotaged, or was never meant to be, or too impossibly perfect to reach completion.

Instead, of course, Heaven’s Gate was finished and, due to its underwhelming commercial and critical reception, so was Cimino.

Over the top? Well, so was Cimino. I mean, have you seen Heaven’s Gate? Or even, dare we go there, The Deer Hunter?

In truth, Cimino’s The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as its younger brother, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), but there are many legitimate reasons for this. Apocalypse Now was always imperfect, and, in ways no one could have anticipated; its very messiness, inscrutability, and shoehorned ending only gain stature as the perfect metaphor for the imperfect fiasco that was Vietnam.

If Dostoyevsky had written about Vietnam it might have been a lot like Apocalypse Now; The Deer Hunter, on the other hand, is possibly the most Tolstoyesque American movie ever made.

The Deer Hunter was a novel on the screen, with plotting, tonal shifts, character studies, and a conclusion that, while equally rushed in its way—including the unforgivable kitsch of the crew singing “God Bless America” at the finalé, which is like being bludgeoned with a star-spangled sledgehammer—tries to tell it straight, illustrating not only the senselessness of what went on over there, but the horror of what happened to the people “lucky” enough to make it back here.

Certainly, Coming Home (also from 1978) had similar designs and was also a necessary turd in the punch bowl for anyone opining that we all needed to just move on. But compared to The Deer Hunter, Coming Home was a novella, or a short story; its scope was narrow and effective for keeping things focused, even if it gets a little fluffy toward the end.

It’s also interesting to consider how the respective films reflect the director’s drug of choice: Coming Home, by the time it’s over, is like taking a steam bath in an opium den; Apocalypse Now rips out of the gate on a cocaine rush, settles into an uneasy acid trip and, by the end, is a whole cocktail of uppers, downers, hash and whiskey—the pharmacological equivalent of whatever was happening, in real time, inside Dennis Hopper’s head.

The Deer Hunter, by contrast, is from an older school: its shot-and-a-beer sensibility is ideally suited for the steel town locale. It’s even old fashioned in its way: the aftermath (a separate war unto itself) was one long hangover, filled with regret, recrimination, and self-loathing. Redemption, too. It also, at times, suffers from the weird mix of self-consciousness (that wedding scene could easily have been cut in half and, with a lesser director calling the shots, it should have been) and shed inhibitions. Was it too many Rolling Rocks that convinced Cimino the aforementioned “God Bless America” singalong was not only a wise, but necessary, decision?

So if The Deer Hunter has not aged as well as most folks in 1978 would have anticipated, its fatal flaw was being, for both better and worse, as perfect as it could have been at the time. There probably wasn’t an American film with such recalcitrant confidence and stunning results, however indulgent, made until There Will Be Blood (2007). Both films have the modest aim of explaining everything, and using one event (Vietnam, the oil industry) to elucidate the tragedies inherent in America’s tendency to overreach, due to greed and inexorable recklessness.

Of course, The Deer Hunter must be celebrated for what it got so right, and while even the best scenes in Apocalypse Now have that quirky genius of lightning captured in a bottle of “33”—kind of like Hunter S. Thompson at the top of his game—Cimino’s masterpiece has a formal elegance, its ambition never overshadowed by its pretensions or showboating. For a study in contrast, consider Platoon (1986) which, while incredible and important for its time, can hardly be watched today without sensing Oliver Stone’s sweaty, self-satisfied mug in every other frame.

It’s regrettable that the movie is best or most often remembered for the gruesome Russian roulette scenes. Those moments were perhaps necessary for anyone delusional enough to think this, or any war, is a reductive contest of good guys shooting bad guys and vice versa (itself a horrific enough scenario to warrant unlimited empathy and funds to assist veterans of these affairs). Even as metaphor, the idea of brothers in arms holding guns to their heads is as eloquent in its insanity as, say, the surreal depravity of a white Alpha male blasting Wagner as he blithely massacres a village of men, women and children: all before breaking out the surfboards.

Again, The Deer Hunter does get war, including the lead up and load out, definitively in its sights, but it manages to also nail the beautiful, if banal simplicity of working class existence: the honesty of that industrious lifestyle, sculpted and fueled by sweat and pitchers of beer.

It takes only one succinct, devastating scene to demonstrate a screenplay worth of suffering in the relationship between Meryl Streep and her used-up and spit out old man. It skillfully captures the way men bond (shooting pool, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”) and fight (“This is This!”). It subtly conveys how alcohol enables dudes to express vulnerability (“I love this fuckin’ place!”).

There’s comic relief, with the immigrant mother browbeating (and beating) her son on the afternoon of his wedding. There are layers of meaning within the insinuation that the bride’s growing belly might not be courtesy of her husband. Then there’s everything about Stan (Jon Cazale): his character, the type of complicated coward everyone has met, and everything about Jon Cazale, whom everyone on set knew was dying while they filmed.

As a movie rightly celebrated for its epic scale and achievement, The Deer Hunter boasts a series of immaculate scenes which, when isolated, deftly encapsulate the whole in miniature, while standing on their own as iconic moments in cinema.

Certainly it’s a tad heavy-handed, but the agitated vet stumbling into the wedding reception foreshadows much that the giddy groomsmen don’t understand, but will. “Fuck it,” he repeats, unwilling to shake hands or even look at the young men he knows (and we know) are about to grow up in an abrupt and ugly fashion.

Flash forward to the first post-war reunion between Michael (De Niro) and Steven (John Savage). Michael, full of obligatory bravado and reassurance, smiles at his wheelchair-bound friend and says “We made it”, then leans in for the hug as the smile—and façade—disappears and he repeats, a forceful whisper, “We made it.” Or, the close-up on Michael who, after skipping his homecoming party, paces in a hotel room, doing everything he can to keep himself intact.

Yet, while certain scenes from the wedding, Vietnam, and in the woods will endure as classics, it’s one of the quieter sequences that packs, quite possibly, the most concentrated punch. Back from a successful hunt, the men have squeezed every morsel of joy out of their final hours before shipping off. Finally, more beers are opened, and a friend not headed to Vietnam (George Dzundza) sits down at the piano. As the others gradually recognize the tune being played (Chopin’s Nocturne #6 in G Minor), the merriment ceases and they pause, reflecting.

In a book, there’d be little choice but to tell; Cimino and the actors are able to show, without words, things both obvious and implied. They stare at each other lovingly, appreciating all that’s brought them to this moment but no longer able to ignore the ways so much is soon to change, and none of it for the better. The scene’s already indelible, but the way Dzundza looks at Cazale (who was about to succumb to cancer in real life) after the last note is played is the kind of perfection that can’t be planned; it’s the rarest instance of life and art imitating each other in the service of reconciliation.

In the end it’s this, along with several other subdued moments, that illustrate innocence not merely lost, but obliterated. It’s ultimately the story of decent men from an increasingly forgotten time and environment, and they, of course, represent the many thousands of men from similar places. They all went off to represent a cause they couldn’t fathom, and those that came back faced a different world that in turn couldn’t, and wouldn’t, understand them.

It’s for telling their story, and putting names and faces on uncomfortable statistics (the dead, the crippled, the suicides) that make The Deer Hunter a different, and better, kind of Vietnam movie. It’s a war story, but it’s also a human story. The Deer Hunter is the type of film that, once seen, is capable of creating the right kind of change. It’s for this, above all, that Cimino should be remembered and celebrated.

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Wagner at 200 or, Get Your Götterdämmerung On (Revisited)

Composer-Richard-Wagner-c-001

Or, If Loving Wagner is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Reich.

(More on one of the most complex and controversial composers ever, who was born 200 years ago today, HERE.)

Seriously though, I came across an amazing article on Wagner, written by Nicholas Spice (from the London Review of Books). Check it out HERE (warning, it’s long).

Reading this I could scarcely contain my giddiness and I realized, not for the first time, that I anticipate sustained analysis of music (whilst listening to said music) the way teenyboppers regard a boy band concert, or many of my peers look forward to reality TV. Which is to say, I’m weird.

The writing is so solid, and the insights so keen I feel like this is legit music/nerd porn. See for yourself:

Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.

Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time.

The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.

Music can, of course be sacred, and this is sacred music.

If Bach titillates your brain, Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul.

This music is all-consuming, insatiable, and mesmerizing in a way that invokes “other” places not of this earth. (And if that sounds sappy and unconvincing there are two primary reasons: one, I’m not sufficiently qualified to describe this, or any music, and two, you have not had the opportunity, or possess the requisite skills –or soul– to comprehend what the best music instills in a receptive listener’s mind.)

I came at Wagner the old-fashioned way, through movies. (I mean that literally and facetiously, it being 2013 after all.)

First, of course, through the epic (I mean that literally and literally) employment of Wagner’s oeuvre in the immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?”. All hail Bugs (and Mel Blanc).

Then in Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, both of which used “Ride of the Valkyries” to delightful, absurd effect.

By the time I saw Excalibur, in the theater, with Pops, in April 1981, all bets were off.

I was (and remain) captivated by the film, a flawed masterwork from John Boorman.

More than anything else, the music struck a chord –in the literal sense– with me, and I did (and do) consider it the perfect accompaniment for the material. I’ve seen Wagner utilized before and since, but no storyline is sufficiently important, or epic (in the literal sense) as the King Arthur myth. And, of course, the Tristan and Isolde as well as Parsifal operas have multiple connotations with the Lancelot and Guinevere and Percival sub-plots.

I’m somewhat surprised that after 1,000-plus posts on this blog (or at PopMatters), I’ve not yet attempted to do a proper assessment of this greatly misunderstood and underrated film. It has not been for lack of contemplation; indeed, I intended to do something in 2011 for its 30th anniversary but…it just didn’t happen. A proper “review” did not seem quite right, and an uncritical appreciation seemed too…personal. More on it later, I’m sure.

But to simply focus on the movie’s deft and, at times, uncannily perfect employment of Wagner’s music, I can say that the impact it had on me was profound, and permanent. Of course, at the time I had no idea who it was or how to get hold of it. (As I’ve said before, probably in these exact words: it is all but impossible for anyone born after, say, 1980 to understand or even imagine a world pre-Internet. Back in the bad old days, if you couldn’t find it in a library, you were out of luck.) If there had been a proper soundtrack, that would have made matters considerably more simple, and awesome. Alas, it was not to be. I had to wait another seven years or so, during “Music Appreciation 101”, my freshman year of college, to figure out who Wagner was, and which compositions were featured in Excalibur. I acquired a compact disc of Wagner overtures as quickly as I could, but I had to figure out the hard, and expensive way, that the most important stuff, specifically “Siegfried’s Funeral March, from Götterdämmerung” were part of “The Ring”. The rest, as they say, was history.

Of course, Wagner has more than occasionally been a lightning rod for conflict, some of it serious, some of it frivolous (much of it opportunistic on the part of the offended). The laundry list is detailed here. At best (worst?) the same type of criteria applies to Wagner as it does to any creative person: no matter how insufferable or puny the person may happen to be, we seldom celebrate the creator so much as what they created. Or, we can choose to focus on the very good that sprang, however improbably, from a person who chose not to overcome the issues/prejudices/vices of their life/time.

Here’s Spice, again:

The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.

Here is an entire century of debate, loathing (self and outward), and confusion deconstructed by the man best suited for this work, Larry David:

There is a reason Wagner continues to resonate, inflame, confuse. He is relevant for the most simple, yet profound reason any artist remains known decade after decade: the work endures.

Discussion of the man, his music and the visions (ill or illuminated) that informed it will remain ongoing. Wagner, and the work he did, is impossible to ignore, and it is too important to fall prey to fads or fashion.

This is art capable of changing you, to be sure. But it does more than that: it elevates you.

Share

Wagner at 200 or, Get Your Götterdämmerung On (Revisited)

Composer-Richard-Wagner-c-001

Or, If Loving Wagner is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Reich.

(More on one of the most complex and controversial composers ever, who was born 200 years ago today, HERE.)

Seriously though, I came across an amazing article on Wagner, written by Nicholas Spice (from the London Review of Books). Check it out HERE (warning, it’s long).

Reading this I could scarcely contain my giddiness and I realized, not for the first time, that I anticipate sustained analysis of music (whilst listening to said music) the way teenyboppers regard a boy band concert, or many of my peers look forward to reality TV. Which is to say, I’m weird.

The writing is so solid, and the insights so keen I feel like this is legit music/nerd porn. See for yourself:

Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.

Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time.

The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.

Music can, of course be sacred, and this is sacred music.

If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul.

This music is all-consuming, insatiable, and mesmerizing in a way that invokes “other” places not of this earth. (And if that sounds sappy and unconvincing there are two primary reasons: one, I’m not sufficiently qualified to describe this, or any music, and two, you have not had the opportunity, or possess the requisite skills –or soul– to comprehend what the best music instills in a receptive listener’s mind.)

I came at Wagner the old-fashioned way, through movies. (I mean that literally and facetiously, it being 2013 after all.)

First, of course, through the epic (I mean that literally and literally) employment of Wagner’s oeuvre in the immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?”. All hail Bugs (and Mel Blanc).

Then in Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, both of which used “Ride of the Valkyries” to delightful, absurd effect.

By the time I saw Excalibur, in the theater, with Pops, in April 1981, all bets were off.

I was (and remain) captivated by the film, a flawed masterwork from John Boorman.

More than anything else, the music struck a chord –in the literal sense– with me, and I did (and do) consider it the perfect accompaniment for the material. I’ve seen Wagner utilized before and since, but no storyline is sufficiently important, or epic (in the literal sense) as the King Arthur myth. And, of course, the Tristan and Isolde as well as Parsifal operas have multiple connotations with the Lancelot and Guinevere and Percival sub-plots.

I’m somewhat surprised that after 1,000-plus posts on this blog (or at PopMatters), I’ve not yet attempted to do a proper assessment of this greatly misunderstood and underrated film. It has not been for lack of contemplation; indeed, I intended to do something in 2011 for its 30th anniversary but…it just didn’t happen. A proper “review” did not seem quite right, and an uncritical appreciation seemed too…personal. More on it later, I’m sure.

But to simply focus on the movie’s deft and, at times, uncannily perfect employment of Wagner’s music, I can say that the impact it had on me was profound, and permanent. Of course, at the time I had no idea who it was or how to get hold of it. (As I’ve said before, probably in these exact words: it is all but impossible for anyone born after, say, 1980 to understand or even imagine a world pre-Internet. Back in the bad old days, if you couldn’t find it in a library, you were out of luck.) If there had been a proper soundtrack, that would have made matters considerably more simple, and awesome. Alas, it was not to be. I had to wait another seven years or so, during “Music Appreciation 101”, my freshman year of college, to figure out who Wagner was, and which compositions were featured in Excalibur. I acquired a compact disc of Wagner overtures as quickly as I could, but I had to figure out the hard, and expensive way, that the most important stuff, specifically “Siegfried’s Funeral March, from Götterdämmerung” were part of “The Ring”. The rest, as they say, was history.

Of course, Wagner has more than occasionally been a lightning rod for conflict, some of it serious, some of it frivolous (much of it opportunistic on the part of the offended). The laundry list is detailed here. At best (worst?) the same type of criteria applies to Wagner as it does to any creative person: no matter how insufferable or puny the person may happen to be, we seldom celebrate the creator so much as what they created. Or, we can choose to focus on the very good that sprang, however improbably, from a person who chose not to overcome the issues/prejudices/vices of their life/time.

Here’s Spice, again:

The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.

Here is an entire century of debate, loathing (self and outward), and confusion deconstructed by the man best suited for this work, Larry David:

There is a reason Wagner continues to resonate, inflame, confuse. He is relevant for the most simple, yet profound reason any artist remains known decade after decade: the work endures.

Discussion of the man, his music and the visions (ill or illuminated) that informed it will remain ongoing. Wagner, and the work he did, is impossible to ignore, and it is too important to fall prey to fads or fashion.

This is art capable of changing you, to be sure. But it does more than that: it elevates you.

Share

Wagner at 200 or, Get Your Götterdämmerung On (Revisited)

Or, If Loving Wagner is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Reich.

(More on one of the most complex and controversial composers ever, who was born 200 years ago today, HERE.)

Seriously though, I came across an amazing article on Wagner, written by Nicholas Spice (from the London Review of Books). Check it out HERE (warning, it’s long).

Reading this I could scarcely contain my giddiness and I realized, not for the first time, that I anticipate sustained analysis of music (whilst listening to said music) the way teenyboppers regard a boy band concert, or many of my peers look forward to reality TV. Which is to say, I’m weird.

The writing is so solid, and the insights so keen I feel like this is legit music/nerd porn. See for yourself:

Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.

Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time.

The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.

Music can, of course be sacred, and this is sacred music.

If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul.

This music is all-consuming, insatiable, and mesmerizing in a way that invokes “other” places not of this earth. (And if that sounds sappy and unconvincing there are two primary reasons: one, I’m not sufficiently qualified to describe this, or any music, and two, you have not had the opportunity, or possess the requisite skills –or soul– to comprehend what the best music instills in a receptive listener’s mind.)

I came at Wagner the old-fashioned way, through movies. (I mean that literally and facetiously, it being 2013 after all.)

First, of course, through the epic (I mean that literally and literally) employment of Wagner’s oeuvre in the immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?”. All hail Bugs (and Mel Blanc).

Then in Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, both of which used “Ride of the Valkyries” to delightful, absurd effect.

By the time I saw Excalibur, in the theater, with Pops, in April 1981, all bets were off.

I was (and remain) captivated by the film, a flawed masterwork from John Boorman.

More than anything else, the music struck a chord –in the literal sense– with me, and I did (and do) consider it the perfect accompaniment for the material. I’ve seen Wagner utilized before and since, but no storyline is sufficiently important, or epic (in the literal sense) as the King Arthur myth. And, of course, the Tristan and Isolde as well as Parsifal operas have multiple connotations with the Lancelot and Guinevere and Percival sub-plots.

I’m somewhat surprised that after 1,000-plus posts on this blog (or at PopMatters), I’ve not yet attempted to do a proper assessment of this greatly misunderstood and underrated film. It has not been for lack of contemplation; indeed, I intended to do something in 2011 for its 30th anniversary but…it just didn’t happen. A proper “review” did not seem quite right, and an uncritical appreciation seemed too…personal. More on it later, I’m sure.

But to simply focus on the movie’s deft and, at times, uncannily perfect employment of Wagner’s music, I can say that the impact it had on me was profound, and permanent. Of course, at the time I had no idea who it was or how to get hold of it. (As I’ve said before, probably in these exact words: it is all but impossible for anyone born after, say, 1980 to understand or even imagine a world pre-Internet. Back in the bad old days, if you couldn’t find it in a library, you were out of luck.) If there had been a proper soundtrack, that would have made matters considerably more simple, and awesome. Alas, it was not to be. I had to wait another seven years or so, during “Music Appreciation 101”, my freshman year of college, to figure out who Wagner was, and which compositions were featured in Excalibur. I acquired a compact disc of Wagner overtures as quickly as I could, but I had to figure out the hard, and expensive way, that the most important stuff, specifically “Siegfried’s Funeral March, from Götterdämmerung” were part of “The Ring”. The rest, as they say, was history.

Of course, Wagner has more than occasionally been a lightning rod for conflict, some of it serious, some of it frivolous (much of it opportunistic on the part of the offended). The laundry list is detailed here. At best (worst?) the same type of criteria applies to Wagner as it does to any creative person: no matter how insufferable or puny the person may happen to be, we seldom celebrate the creator so much as what they created. Or, we can choose to focus on the very good that sprang, however improbably, from a person who chose not to overcome the issues/prejudices/vices of their life/time.

Here’s Spice, again:

The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.

Here is an entire century of debate, loathing (self and outward), and confusion deconstructed by the man best suited for this work, Larry David:

There is a reason Wagner continues to resonate, inflame, confuse. He is relevant for the most simple, yet profound reason any artist remains known decade after decade: the work endures.

Discussion of the man, his music and the visions (ill or illuminated) that informed it will remain ongoing. Wagner, and the work he did, is impossible to ignore, and it is too important to fall prey to fads or fashion.

This is art capable of changing you, to be sure. But it does more than that: it elevates you.

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Wagner at 200 or, Get Your Götterdämmerung On

Or, If Loving Wagner is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Reich.

(More on one of the most complex and controversial composers ever, who was born 200 years ago today, HERE.)

Seriously though, I came across an amazing article on Wagner, written by Nicholas Spice (from the London Review of Books). Check it out HERE (warning, it’s long).

Reading this I could scarcely contain my giddiness and I realized, not for the first time, that I anticipate sustained analysis of music (whilst listening to said music) the way teenyboppers regard a boy band concert, or many of my peers look forward to reality TV. Which is to say, I’m weird.

The writing is so solid, and the insights so keen I feel like this is legit music/nerd porn. See for yourself:

Like anyone who has spent time thinking about Wagner, I have inevitably come back to the subject of boundaries and limits, and in particular to questions about the boundary that lies between Wagner’s works and his listeners, and about the experience, apparently not uncommon, of that boundary becoming blurred or even disappearing, an experience that may hold a clue to the feeling, also not uncommon, that Wagner’s work is in some sense not altogether good for us.

Wagner has kept me awake at night. Sleepless, I turn my thoughts to Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s most extreme work and the nec plus ultra of love stories, and I notice a kinship between aspects of Tristan and Isolde’s passion and the experience of a certain kind of insomnia. The second act of Tristan und Isolde is Romanticism’s greatest hymn to the night, not for the elfin charm and ethereal chiaroscuro of moonbeams and starlight, the territory of Chopin and Debussy, but night as a close bosom-friend of oblivion, a simulacrum of eternity and a place to play dead. Insomnia is a refusal to cross the boundary between waking and sleeping, a bid to outwit Terminus by hiding away in ‘soundless dark’, a zone beyond time.

The usual thing to say about this (and Wagner himself said something along these lines) is that the music enacts the experience of desire, forever on the verge of satisfaction but never satisfied, a state of suspension symbolised by the first three bars, which ‘resolve’ the startling discord of bar two – the famous Tristan chord – onto a dominant seventh, itself a discord crying out for resolution. But we can also read this reluctance to resolve as the musical equivalent of staying awake: a bid to suspend the passage of time, in which sleep gratefully acquiesces.

Music can, of course be sacred, and this is sacred music.

If Mozart heads straight for your heart and Beethoven always gets you in the gut, Wagner is not satisfied until he has your entire soul.

This music is all-consuming, insatiable, and mesmerizing in a way that invokes “other” places not of this earth. (And if that sounds sappy and unconvincing there are two primary reasons: one, I’m not sufficiently qualified to describe this, or any music, and two, you have not had the opportunity, or possess the requisite skills –or soul– to comprehend what the best music instills in a receptive listener’s mind.)

I came at Wagner the old-fashioned way, through movies. (I mean that literally and facetiously, it being 2013 after all.)

First, of course, through the epic (I mean that literally and literally) employment of Wagner’s oeuvre in the immortal “What’s Opera, Doc?”. All hail Bugs (and Mel Blanc).

Then in Apocalypse Now and The Blues Brothers, both of which used “Ride of the Valkyries” to delightful, absurd effect.

By the time I saw Excalibur, in the theater, with Pops, in April 1981, all bets were off.

I was (and remain) captivated by the film, a flawed masterwork from John Boorman.

More than anything else, the music struck a chord –in the literal sense– with me, and I did (and do) consider it the perfect accompaniment for the material. I’ve seen Wagner utilized before and since, but no storyline is sufficiently important, or epic (in the literal sense) as the King Arthur myth. And, of course, the Tristan and Isolde as well as Parsifal operas have multiple connotations with the Lancelot and Guinevere and Percival sub-plots.

I’m somewhat surprised that after 1,000-plus posts on this blog (or at PopMatters), I’ve not yet attempted to do a proper assessment of this greatly misunderstood and underrated film. It has not been for lack of contemplation; indeed, I intended to do something in 2011 for its 30th anniversary but…it just didn’t happen. A proper “review” did not seem quite right, and an uncritical appreciation seemed too…personal. More on it later, I’m sure.

But to simply focus on the movie’s deft and, at times, uncannily perfect employment of Wagner’s music, I can say that the impact it had on me was profound, and permanent. Of course, at the time I had no idea who it was or how to get hold of it. (As I’ve said before, probably in these exact words: it is all but impossible for anyone born after, say, 1980 to understand or even imagine a world pre-Internet. Back in the bad old days, if you couldn’t find it in a library, you were out of luck.) If there had been a proper soundtrack, that would have made matters considerably more simple, and awesome. Alas, it was not to be. I had to wait another seven years or so, during “Music Appreciation 101”, my freshman year of college, to figure out who Wagner was, and which compositions were featured in Excalibur. I acquired a compact disc of Wagner overtures as quickly as I could, but I had to figure out the hard, and expensive way, that the most important stuff, specifically “Siegfried’s Funeral March, from Götterdämmerung” were part of “The Ring”. The rest, as they say, was history.

Of course, Wagner has more than occasionally been a lightning rod for conflict, some of it serious, some of it frivolous (much of it opportunistic on the part of the offended). The laundry list is detailed here. At best (worst?) the same type of criteria applies to Wagner as it does to any creative person: no matter how insufferable or puny the person may happen to be, we seldom celebrate the creator so much as what they created. Or, we can choose to focus on the very good that sprang, however improbably, from a person who chose not to overcome the issues/prejudices/vices of their life/time.

Here’s Spice, again:

The difficulty we have tying non-musical meanings back to the notes on the page has a direct bearing on the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism and, in my view, it makes the arguments in this debate convoluted and unsatisfactory. For this reason, I shall merely skirt the topic. Moreover, the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer, especially when the focus of the reflections is the music rather than the ideological content of the work, such as it can be construed. Music is a promiscuous and adhesive medium: as soon as you introduce powerfully expressive music into the vicinity of words, images and ideas, it jumps the gap and attaches itself to them (as Wagner understood better than anyone, before or since). A host of circumstances, not least Wagner’s own writings (some of them utterly abhorrent), drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe. That Wagner’s work became indelibly associated with German Fascism is a fact. Whether his music can be understood as a sinister prolepsis of this ideology is another matter altogether. I don’t believe we are in a position to make this argument, although the tack I am taking may suggest ways of situating Wagner’s music within the bigger context of music’s amenability to exploitation for political purposes.

Here is an entire century of debate, loathing (self and outward), and confusion deconstructed by the man best suited for this work, Larry David:

There is a reason Wagner continues to resonate, inflame, confuse. He is relevant for the most simple, yet profound reason any artist remains known decade after decade: the work endures.

Discussion of the man, his music and the visions (ill or illuminated) that informed it will remain ongoing. Wagner, and the work he did, is impossible to ignore, and it is too important to fall prey to fads or fashion.

This is art capable of changing you, to be sure. But it does more than that: it elevates you.

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Dennis Hopper: He Made Our World More Weird And Wonderful

So cancer finally succeeded in cutting short the odd and inimitable life of Dennis Hopper. That is a shame, of course, although we would probably be wise to give thanks that he managed to stick around as long as he did. He danced with the devil so often they were on a first name basis. And if Thoreau was wise to encourage us all to suck the marrow out of life, Hopper sucked, slurped and occasionally mainlined it. I’d like to think you could cut him open and a good chunk of 20th Century DNA would come oozing out. He may have had a few more battles in him, but no one can deny he left it all out on the proverbial field.

To acknowledge his eccentric and very original brand of genius, I’m inclined to leave the biographical nitty gritty (important as it is) to others and celebrate a handful of scenes that helped make our world a more real, and less predictable place.

First up, a one-two punch from one of the more controversial (and, for my money, overrated) films of all time, Blue Velvet. Despite its oblique narrative, wooden acting and David Lynch’s unparalleled capacity for pretension (which entirely too many suckers wrongly diagnose as audacity), there are still more than a handful of epic scenes to savor. Two that feature Hopper each illustrate what made him so singular and, at times, untouchable. Exhibit A is that Top of the world, ma! celebration of perverted depravity, one of the more genuinely scary and disturbing moments in all cinema. Exhibit B is the brief, beautiful shout-out to that most American of beers. No actor but Dennis Hopper could have pulled off either scene with similar success.

 

Speaking of overrated, take Easy Rider (please!).

I’m just kidding. Kind of.

To me, this movie is actually a lot like Bob Dylan: you see it, you get it, you appreciate the influence and you can’t front on the near-universal endorsement he gets from every artist who came after him. Ditto Easy Rider: it was iconic and of its time (boy was it of its time), and like Bob Dylan, laid a foundation that several other writers and directors (and actors) improved upon. Speaking of wooden acting…well, you get the picture. In fairness, it may be that Hopper (and, to a lesser extent, Fonda) were not playing roles so much as projecting themselves. And then, of course, there is Jack Nicholson. Even if this movie served merely as the delivery device to bring Big Jack into the mainstream (and let me be clear, it remains much more than that), it certainly served its humble purpose. Speaking of Jack…let’s appreciate him doing that thing he did, arguably without peer, for at least another decade:

It quite possibly says more about me than the movie, but one of the handful of scenes (sans Nicholas) I can stomach happens to be the one where Hopper dies. And no, I’m not saying that the acting is so bad that seeing him get shot is a relief; I’m talking about how effective and unsettling this abrupt ending remains (and I can appreciate how unprecedented it was in 1969). Full credit to Hopper, who directed, and help write, this material. Much like the equally celebrated (and beloved) The Graduate, I find the movie almost unwatchable, but there is no denying the impact it had (good, bad and definitely ugly) on film-making in America and America, period.

And then, of course, the unforgettable role in Apocalypse Now that begged questions about life imitating art or, more likely, the exact opposite:

And finally, inevitably, his unequalled moment (from True Romance, a movie that, pound for pound, features as many sublime scenes as quite possibly any other made in the last two decades).

This scene, notorious for its, shall we say, frank discussion of racial relations, and hilarious for its rather unorthodox delineation of history, is one of the most-quoted from all contemporary films. For good reason, and all praise to Tarantino (who wrote it), Tony Scott (who directed it) and the bravura performances of Hopper and the genuinely incomparable Christopher Walken. It also includes the hulking presence of the then-unknown James Gandolfini.

The scene is certainly problematic (and no politically correct critic would want to touch it with a ten foot soap box), but more than the adults-imitating-schoolchildren one upmanship it sardonically presents, there is serious acting going on here. It is to the considerable credit of all involved that this scene never degenerates into (self) parody and is able to be hilarious and horrifying, often at the same time. There probably aren’t too many examples of scenes in semi-recent cinema that so successfully skirt the switchblade’s edge of tension and release. Hopper goes from scared to crafty, then understands he’s screwed and decides to go out with a bang (literally). The moment he realizes he is a dead man, you can almost feel him resignedly saying “fuck it” as he decides to have a cigarette, after all. And when he lets out the mirthful little laugh (a very Hopperesque touch), you get the chance to savor him saying “fuck you” to the men who are about to murder him.

The scene is uncomfortable and amusing in equal measure (well, in all honesty, it’s probably a hell of a lot funnier than anything else), but mostly a tour de force on every conceivable level. It just might feature Hopper’s finest work.

Dennis Hopper came close to death so many times he may have figured he was never going to actually die. But he ultimately found out what all of us will discover sooner or later, and all that proves is that we are human. More importantly, he certainly took more from life than it took from him. And we got more out of this weird, wonderful man than we had any right to expect.

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Waterloo This

I love the smell of health care reform in the morning. Smells like victory.

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Robert McNamara: The Things He Didn’t Carry

VietnamWall_2933
By no means can all (or most) of the blame for the catastrophic clusterfuck that was Vietnam be placed at the shiny wingtips of Robert McNamara. But his legacy is not subject to debate. Mea culpa, he said, about three decades and a little over 58,000 American casualties (and approximately 8 million Vietnamese, give or take a mil) too late.

In an irony that could only happen in this country, it was right around the time that the documentary The Fog of War was being made that the next generation of the “best and the brightest” (including some throwbacks who famously avoided serving in the previous war they endorsed, such as chickenhawk-in-chief Dick Cheney) were cooking up the propaganda to ensnare us in Iraq. You could watch this movie in spring 2003, then watch the news and see how it works in real time. You expect men like Cheney and his leering band of armchair generals to beat the drums; but you don’t expect men like Colin Powell, who saw the folly (then) and understood the consequences (in ’03) to raise his voice. In that regard, he is a sorry bookend to McNamara representing men who could have done the most to prevent loss of life and did the least.

About the only silver lining one can take from the war and its aftermath (an aftermath that lingers on today) is the humanity the survivors have displayed and the handful of lessons we actually did learn. And, of course, the art. Always the art. Just seeing the news that McNamara passed on to that great war room in the sky made me stop and contemplate the number of songs, books and movies that America’s involvement in Vietnam inspired. I am tempted to begin and end with Tim O’Brien’s masterpiece The Things They Carried, in part because it might just be the perfect (artistic) document of what happened before, during, and after that war. I wonder how many politicians that voted to invade Iraq in 2003 read that book. (I’m not naive enough to suggest that having read it would have put a trivial consideration like innocent lives in the way of political expediency, I’m just genuinely curious how many of them read it. And what type of reaction they had. Or, if they read it (or read it again) now, how it might affect them.)

Here is a quick sampler of some of the more painful, amusing, and enduring snapshots I could grab while thinking about this topic.

 

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