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

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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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The American Dream in Stasis: Another Look at ‘Five Easy Pieces’

Five Easy Pieces, 1970 (9)

McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Jake Gittes in Chinatown; Jack “Here’s Johnny!” Torrance in The Shining—these aren’t just characters from famous movies, they are permanent fixtures of American culture. Robert Dupea from Five Easy Pieces seldom registers on the short list of all-time great acting performances, at least in part because the protagonist, like the movie, is not easy to admire or understand. Indeed, the title is more than a little ironic, as there is nothing “easy” about it: the material, the characters, the closing scene’s infamous lack of closure, etc. The type of role tailor-made for an artist who insists upon working without a net, Bobby Dupea is at once emotional, withdrawn, silent, boisterous, persistent and lethargic to the point of apathy.

Five Easy Pieces is, well, easy to recommend, but it’s definitely a movie that demands to be appreciated on its own cantankerous terms. The casting is perfect and the performances are stellar, yet special kudos are warranted for Karen Black, the patient yet pathetic girlfriend and Helena Kallianiotes as Palm Apodaca, the furious yet refreshing hitchhiker. And then there is the scene, which remains one of the supremely amusing and satisfying in cinema history, when Nicholson clashes with the truck-stop waitress and the system she represents.

In the disquieting climax, when Dupea unsuccessfully attempts to persuade the first woman who seems perfect for him, she poses a rhetorical question that underscores the paradox of his antipathy: “How can a man who has no love of himself ask for love in return?” His inability to answer her, and his unwillingness to change himself, suggest that his self-imposed impasse will remain unresolved.

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Five Easy Pieces endures as a study of the restless soul of a gifted individual (who could have been, and still could be, an artist) too smart for his own good, and who has thus far squandered his youth, talent and energy in an ennui-ridden funk where he floats from job to meaningless job, woman to faceless woman, sensation to numbing sensation.

Most us can discern something of ourselves in the insatiable drifter, the citizen who is not content to live a banal existence even as his every action (and lack thereof) further ensnares him in a perpetuation of the life he abhors. In this regard, Five Easy Pieces is not only a commentary on the itinerant American rebel, it also examines the suffocating dynamics of a dysfunctional family, and the dilemma of an individual blessed with extraordinary faculties he feels compelled to suppress.

Five Easy Pieces (screenplay by Carole Eastman—as Adrian Joyce—with considerable input from Rafelson and, on set, Nicholson) encapsulates a very particular American phenomenon, circa 1970, and as such, remains a touchstone of its time and a prescient depiction of the cultural rupture that would accelerate during the “me-decade”. The film is a character study, of sorts, focused on a very familiar trope: the individual caught between two worlds, and with a remarkable lack of judgment, illustrates the pressures, appeal and conflict inherent in each.

Dupea leads a life of not-so-quiet desperation, equally out of place amongst the working class and the condescending academics. Talented enough to pursue a respectable, possibly even fulfilling career as a concert musician, Dupea is both fallible and free-thinking enough to understand (not happily) that no matter how much this existence is encouraged, if not expected—and is something his father and siblings have done—it’s simply not for him.

He’s not a malcontent so much as he can’t help comprehending that no matter what you’re paid or how much you’re admired, you’re still a trained monkey, in a monkey suit, doing something (however proficiently) that many other people have done before. Dupea is keenly aware that for all his skill, he is still playing songs someone else wrote, and even if he were sufficiently obsessed to dedicate himself to being the best interpreter of, say, Chopin, he’s still inauthentic on some level.

Of course, he’s certainly not satisfied working on the oil rig, but if a dead-end job has anything going for it, it’s something you can walk away from, without notice or regret, at any moment. Too smart and, despite the aloofness he projects, sensitive for his own good, Dupea is the American Dream in stasis, unable to find satisfaction, much less meaning, in the prescribed existence he was born into, or the peripatetic drifting he capitulates to. He is Ahab, but there is no white whale to chase; he is Ishmael, compelled to return to the sea, only he does not know where he’s going and the only safe harbor is a family home where he finds no peace.

Dupea, finally, is neither an anti-hero nor an everyman. A product of the first generation ostensibly unburdened by class-consciousness or convention, he’s paralyzed by his peculiar autonomy. As the hippie hangover from the ‘60s begins in earnest, Dupea has neither tuned in nor entirely dropped out: his terminal indifference belies a genuine desire to find something that can’t be taught or bought.

Five Easy Pieces is an obvious, if overdue addition to the Criterion Collection. Finally, we have the deluxe treatment, with bonus features and audio commentary (some of this material was already included in the DVD box set America Lost and Found: The BBS Story from 2010). The two mini documentaries, BBS: A Time for Change and BBStory provide wonderful and welcome insights into the DIY ethos that ended up influencing a generation of filmmakers. Nicholson, Rafelson and many familiar faces from the early ‘70s all offer up interesting anecdotes and some genuine nostalgia for a (much) more progressive, unshackled era.

If you own a previous edition of Five Easy Pieces this is a worthwhile upgrade. If you don’t own (or have never seen) this masterpiece, it needs to be part of your collection immediately. This is, to be certain, a movie that can be returned to over time: the nuances of the story and the subtle mastery of Rafelson’s direction are to be savored, and studied. This might be Nicholson’s ultimate performance, and the reverberations from his urgent yet honest portrayal still linger on the lower frequencies of our collective consciousness.

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Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Dreams’: A Late Masterpiece from The Master

Understanding that Dreams was among the last films Akira Kurosawa made inexorably adds a regal and elegiac air to the proceedings. The fact that the work is semi-autobiographical (based on or inspired by actual dreams the legendary director had during the course of his life) renders the final product a rather intimate look into Kurosawa’s mind. Perhaps most intriguing is the unguarded way we are able to understand and appreciate the great man’s muse: we are in a sense seeing the way he saw, artistically. As such, Dreams could be considered the maestro’s most human film.

The concept, eight “dreams”, rendered as vignettes (or tone poems, or short stories, or fantastical reveries—or all of the above), could—and likely would—in almost any other director’s hands, be a recipe for farce. In fact, Dreams remains controversial and critical opinion on the film’s success is decidedly mixed. Those who dismiss it find the material mawkish, preachy and haphazardly constructed. Those who endorse it accept it on its own terms and relish the opportunity to explore Kurosawa’s creativity and, more than occasionally, his conscience. Perhaps more so than any other great director, Kurosawa was incapable of separating artifice from morality, and the tension of this human (and artistic) struggle recalls Dostoyevsky perhaps more than any filmmaker.

If nothing else, Dreams is a visual triumph; the cinematography is truly epic and the film succeeds purely as spectacle. Indeed, most of the “action” is rendered through images, and the emphasis is on showing, not telling. Dialogue is minimal and the music, when utilized, is strategic and effective (the use of Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude is particularly inspired). While each of the segments have a discernible trajectory, they don’t necessarily begin and end—at least not in a strictly linear fashion, as is appropriate for any authentic rendering of a typical dream.

The most affecting stories are associated with his youth. (Whether or not these were inspired by actual dreams is almost beside the point; Kurosawa imbues each segment with impressions that balance the surreal elements of dreams with the symbolic inventions of a creative mind. Both of these, then, are also commentaries on what drives an artist and compels creation.) “Sunshine Through the Rain” and “The Peach Orchard” serve as slightly surreal Aesop’s Fables, only instead of a lesson we get a revelation. In both instances a young boy is enticed by a love and appreciation of Nature, ultimately coming too close to some ancient and enigmatic authority. Rather than providing a clichéd contrast to “reality” or adulthood, Nature is at once capricious, inscrutable, and even vengeful. In other words, the mysteries of tradition and the unfathomable forces of history prove irresistible but also perilous. It is almost impossible to see these intriguing parables and not be moved by Kurosawa’s subtle commentary on the events and attitudes that influence an artistic sensibility.

Subsequent stories engage with the concerns and obsessions Kurosawa grappled with throughout his life. Both “The Blizzard” and “The Tunnel” (which ostensibly concern survival in harsh elements and the aftermath of war) can also be viewed as allegories for perseverance, literally and artistically. The film does stumble a bit with the two “horror” stories, both involving a nuclear apocalypse. Certainly the subject matter is anything but trite but the results are a bit ham-fisted and, as many critics have opined, preachy. The last segment, “Village of the Watermills” is a peaceful meditation on existence (again, literal and artistic) and serves as a sort of living eulogy for a life well-lived (and featuring legendary actor Chishû Ryû as “the Old Man”, an actor as indelibly associated with director Yasujirô Ozu as Mifune was with Kurosawa and whose only other appearance in a Kurosawa film was at the very end of Red Beard). By the time Dreams is over, we’ve seen youth, old age, life, death, magic, enchantment, illusion, and redemption. What else is there?

Special mention must be made of the film’s centerpiece, “Crows”, which involves an extraordinary encounter with Vincent Van Gogh (played, more than a little appropriately, by Kurosawa disciple Martin Scorsese). The famously tormented painter discusses “devouring” the natural scenes he paints, but admits “it’s so difficult to hold it inside.” If there is a better or more succinct explanation of the forces that inspired and destroyed this delicate man, I’ve yet to come across it. The only thing to do, he asserts, is work; to battle the inhibitions and push oneself past where even the demons can go. That way lays Glory and down there, deep, resides Beauty. And madness. “I drive myself like a locomotive,” he says, staring defiantly at the sun. What happens next, I’m not at all sorry to state, must simply be seen to be believed.

Dreams endures as an exercise in the art of nostalgia: memories are elevated into visual splendor that is at once soothing and unsettling. Sort of like life. By experiencing this film we have the indescribable opportunity to behold the world through the eyes of an exceptional, sensitive soul who just happened to be a genius.

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Ten Songs For Myself

Eight years ago today.

I’m sure anyone who has lost a parent (or heaven forbid, a child) can understand that when this happens it becomes a line of demarcation: your life before and your life after. It doesn’t mean nothing is ever the same or that you never get past it (everything is the same and you get past it except for the fact that nothing is ever the same and you never get past it. You don’t want to).

One year ago today this is what I had to say, and I’m not sure I can (or need to) improve upon this sentiment:

Blogs are, or can be, like diaries.

Except that diaries, by nature, are private. Which begs the question: do people who blog censor or soften the observations, complaints or critiques that in other times would exist inside a document designed to remain unread by others? (Or more to the point, should they?) To be certain, only a few years ago, thoughts like the ones I’m about to express would have been safely ensconced inside a journal, not read by anyone else, even including myself (I don’t often return to old journals, hopefully because I’m too busy living in the here and now). And for whatever it’s worth, I am humble enough to know that small numbers of people visit this blog, and I have enough sense (or self-respect) to instinctively acknowledge that nobody is well served by overly earnest airing of personal trivia.

Put another way, I don’t begrudge anyone else documenting every last detail of their existences (no matter how mundane or mawkish); I simply remain uninterested in reading about it. In that regard, blogs are self-regulating: if you don’t write things that others will find interesting, you won’t have an audience. And who cares anyway? In that regard, blogs are like diaries: people post on them because they want to, or need to, and the concept of friends or strangers reading their innermost thoughts won’t necessarily hamper their willingness to compose. Still, only the sensation-seekers looking for notoriety (usually the already famous, and even those folks have a shelf-life of about six months) go out of their way to wax solipsistic in a public forum.

When it comes to the death of my mother, I of course have meditated on the loss privately and publically, and anyone who knows me (or reads this blog) understands that her life and death are an unequivocal component of my ongoing existence. Nothing remarkable about that, really: it is what it is. I am not alone; in fact, one need not suffer the untimely death of a parent to understand that their presence is inextricable from one’s own. That said, it’s not because my feelings or experiences are unique, but because they are the opposite that I have little compunction sharing some thoughts on this plaintive anniversary. Indeed, for me these occasions are much more a celebration of her life (and her unambiguously positive influence in my life) than any sort of disconsolate meditation on death. It is what it is.

As I have mentioned in other pieces (most recently on my birthday), one of my earliest and most positive memories of art and discovery is associated with my mother: listening to Nutcracker Suite and drawing pictures. I still listen, as anyone who knows me knows, and I still draw pictures, only I use words (and, whenever possible, my mouth –as anyone who knows me knows).

I’ve long maintained that while I don’t begrudge anyone their pleasure in augmenting their musical experience with altered substances, I am happy to take it straight, no chaser. When I listen to music it does everything I suppose it is designed to do: it soothes me, inspires me, consoles me and makes me genuinely grateful to be alive. To be among the same species that was capable of creating this magic. To be transported to other times and places while being wholly present in the here-and-now (what a miracle that is when you think about it; something drugs cannot do half as reliably, or inexpensively…or legally). I don’t turn to music when I need it most, because I always need it. But certainly there are some songs I need at certain times more than others. There are, fortunately, too many to list or share, but there will be many more anniversaries of this day to remember, and I’ll look forward to sharing more at the appropriate occasions. For today, here are some songs that always help.

Chopin, “Waltz, Op. 64, No. 2” (performed by Artur Rubinstein):

 

Grant Green, “Exodus”:

 

Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry”:

Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, “Sunny Side of the Street” (with epic, miraculous vocals by Diz):

Jeff Buckley, “Dream Brother”:

Led Zeppelin, “In The Light”:

Neil Young, “Motion Pictures”:

Living Colour, “This Is The Life”:

Sonny Sharrock, “Who Does She Hope To Be?”:

Jethro Tull: “Reasons For Waiting”:

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1973: The Things They Carried

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 From NYT: On March 29, 1973, the last United States troops left South Vietnam, ending America’s direct military involvement in the Vietnam War.

I can’t recall the last time I watched The Deer Hunter in a single, uninterrupted sitting. I suspect, reflecting on the first Vietnam-inspired Hollywood epic (preceding the similarly overstuffed Apocalypse Now by a full year), the extensive overture is necessary not only to set the tone, but to signify, on literal and figurative (artistic) levels the last glimpse of a way of life that was about to irrevocably change. With minimal pretension (that would be saved for the movie’s third act) and effective subtlety, the elaborate, unhurried scenes depicting the plans and preparation for the big wedding illustrate a way of life that, even without the war, was almost obsolete: the steel mills and coal mines, of course, would not figure as prominently in the lives (and livelihoods) of the next generation. Less remarked upon, but equally significant is the vivid depiction of a reliance on religion and ritual that seemed much less archaic in an era when it was not uncommon for first or second generation immigrants (mostly from Europe) to comprise the (invariably blue collar) workforce. As such, the film’s first act is a document of a time that was slouching, not exactly innocently but less than fully prepared, toward the end of its own history. First there was the ’80s and what the powers that were did to the unions, then the ’90s and what computers meant for the majority of workers unfamiliar with the Internet.

 The Deer Hunter’s second act deals with the horrors of combat and the third act with its aftermath; those are the parts that, while not as deliberate and languid as the less eventful opening act, become weighted down with their own urgency and all-encompassing compulsion to illustrate Big Truths. This is where the (inevitable?) lack of subtlety and (unfortunate) pretension sometimes suck the air out of the action on the screen. Still, the scene where De Niro skips his own homecoming party and paces nervously around his motel room says as much about the alienation and subsequent disillusionment (where he came from, where he went, where he is headed) than most films and books devoted to the uneasy homecoming Vietnam veterans endured. For an unfettered and forceful examination of this awkward chapter in our country’s history, I’ve yet to encounter a work that improves upon Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. But the single scene (from any film, and more immediately than any book) that successfully synthesizes the before and after of that war, and that era, is the brief, devastatingly beautiful scene that concludes the first part of the film: post-wedding and pre-war; no words are spoken but a great deal is conveyed. The world will soon be a different place for the friends headed to war as well as the ones who stayed behind. It is an elegy for folks who are beginning to understand that everything has already changed.

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