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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Memorial Day*

I. I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive

Cyrus has never actually discussed his brief stint in the army that took him to Vietnam. On a couple of occasions he has commented that he went to Vietnam with nothing and came back with a disability. The permanent limp—and the cane—are unavoidable and obvious enough that he feels obliged to make mention of them, almost as a defense mechanism, to defuse any questions or concerns. What he is understandably much more reluctant to discuss is the incurable tic he developed during, or after, the war: the nervous twitch in his left hand that he may have been able to master if he had been able to stay away from the drink. Either way, years of abuse have made the impairment to his reflexes irreparable.

Cyrus has talked about many things. How he ended up washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant. How he is still bitter that he didn’t get severance pay, which he is convinced would have enabled the surgery that would have prevented his limp. The dozens of jobs he’s held over the years, and the seven states in which he has had legal residency. He rarely mentions the war, but his twitch, his cane and his tired eyes are a continuous reminder that for a person who has experienced the reality of unwanted combat, there is no convenient line dividing past from future, there is only an enduring, agonizing present: this is the condition that destroys lives, kills families and prevents perspective.

Few answers, many questions:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

When you find yourself being asked questions like these, it’s time to ask yourself some questions. Like these:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

II. Paint It Black

It is night, as usual. It is late, as always. Cyrus does not want to go home. Again.

This is his life: You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here!

Christ, he had actually heard these words, often. And more significantly, he felt them.

Cyrus sits in the silence, trying not to think about anything, unable to stop thinking about everything. He thinks, for instance, about the heat. The heat. It drained all your energy, especially at this point in the summer.

Cyrus sits in his truck, watching the monotonous orange flashes of the fireflies flickering beneath the canopy of dark branches that surround him like a shroud. The air hung languidly, holding its breath. It seemed to resignedly acknowledge that its seasonal reign would eventually expire.

Cyrus sits silently, trying not to think about anything. Inevitably, he thinks of the flowers. Of all the redundant tasks his job required him to complete, day after identical day, the most maddening was the maintenance of the flowerbeds that formed a colorful halo around the crumbling plaza. As always, they thrived in spring and had managed to make it through the early stages of summer not too much the worse for wear. But in the last several weeks they had finally begun to sway under the inexorable force of the unyielding heat. Despite their frailty they were admirably resilient, yet there was only so much they could be expected to endure. Rooted in their soil, they could not remain impervious to the extremities they were unable to escape. Eventually, all attention given was futile as they fell prey to the same warmth that initially sustained them.

They’re not so different from us, Cyrus had thought to himself, earlier that afternoon as he looked down on the shrinking stems, his sweat dripping compassionately amongst the petals. They did not ask to receive life, they just existed. The weather acted and they reacted, that was all.

And yet, it was his job to keep them alive, to do his part in cheating nature and interfere with the iron will of inevitability. It could not be done, and he could not say what was more unjust: the sufferings these flowers were subjected to or the expectation that any one person could alter their fragile destinies.

The sun had set almost six hours earlier, but the impenetrable humidity lingered heavily in the air.

Enough. Drive, just drive. Get away, go somewhere. Do something. Get out of here.

He drives.

It occurs to him, after a while, that music might help—music always helps—and he reaches gratefully for the radio. And immediately, the music is there for him, old friends making familiar sounds and singing familiar words.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

I have to turn my head until my darkness goes…

Yes. Always he has listened to this song, and it has always spoken to him. And now it is speaking to him again, saying things he’s heard hundreds of times but never understood, in ways he’s never suddenly does not like, a new way that unnerves him:

I look inside myself and see my heart is black

No colors anymore I want them to turn black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue

I could not foresee this thing happening to you

Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts

It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black…

The road swirls gray and white and he feels cold and realizes he should feel hot and sees that he is sweating and not paying attention then he is sliding and it’s okay because it’s not his fault how could they say it was his fault these things happen isn’t that what they say shit happens…

Cyrus is no longer on the road.

He watches the other cars move by, white and red lights as they arrive and depart from the scene. He can feel the drivers staring at him inquisitively, frowning as they pass him.

“What are you looking at?” he shouts. “You got a problem? I’ll solve it for you!”

He yells at a few more cars and then realizes where he is, and sees that he is shaking. He grabs the steering wheel with all his might and carefully negotiates his way back on the road, driving slowly the rest of the way, occasionally wiping the sweat from his steaming brow.

At last he pulls into his assigned space and turns the car off. He looks up in the mirror and examines the ragged hole he has bitten through his bottom lip. He touches it and the blood feels warm on his fingers. He grins and shakes his head.

I’m okay it’s okay it’s okay I’m okay

He looks back in the mirror and stops smiling. Closing his eyes tightly he reaches out and punches the windshield and it splinters under the force of his repeated blows.

He sits in silence for a while, gazing at the shattered glass, resolutely ignoring the pain in his hand.

It might cool off, he thinks. If only it would rain.

But it would not rain, and it would not cool off. It seemed resigned to its reality, content to exist indefinitely in its intractable state. And wishing it away would do no good. It never did.

Eventually he realizes he is getting blood on the seat and goes inside for a bandage.

III. This Ain’t Living

Miles was drunk, but he had more drinking to do. It was a holiday after all. Actually, it was well after midnight, so technically, the holiday was over. But Miles wasn’t much for holidays anyway. If you celebrated holidays, then it tended to trivialize the important other occasions for partying, which were pretty much every night.

He walked away from the bar, confused by the lack of cabs. Not only did he dislike the prospect of hoofing it home in his condition, he realized that by the time he arrived, he would most likely be too tired to keep drinking.

And then, as they so seldom do, the angels intervened: up ahead, idling angrily, was Cyrus’s truck, rusting greedily in front of God and everyone. Finally, someone he could hang with, someone who could keep up with him. He even had drinks! A well-serviced Styrofoam cooler brooded quietly in the front seat, sweating it out in the heavy evening air.

Drive, he said.

They drove. They drank. They communicated, commiserating silently, as they had done so often this summer. Eventually, there were no more beers and Miles was forced to pay attention to something other than his empty, anxious hands.

“So what do you say there Cane?”

“What do I say about what?”

And that was that. Clearly, Cyrus did not feel like talking, and Miles was in no shape to care. This was the way his best customer and more than occasional drinking partner could be at times. Usually, he was content to listen, which suited Miles, who was usually the one talking. It was just the way it was.

Miles might have been surprised, and possibly a little alarmed, if he understood the appreciable alteration that had occurred in only the last few years. Jackson noticed immediately, having been away for so long, and having known Cyrus since the café opened. Back then Cyrus was, in turn, equally morose and amusing, a mostly pleasant and ubiquitous presence at the bar. Miles did not know that two summers ago, most people still knew Cyrus by his real name. It was only over the past couple of years that everyone had begun calling him Cane, a designation he embraced and encouraged. For reasons that would have been obvious to anyone paying attention, Cyrus had begun to become increasingly invested in his short stint in Vietnam. While it was something he used to speak of curtly and even cryptically—when he spoke of it at all—the war had come to provide an outlet, and an otherwise unattainable identity.

Miles could not know—and by now, no one was certain either way—that Cyrus had not always carried his cane around, not until he started seeing, and wanting others to see, himself as a wounded veteran. Did the discussion of war compel the escalating complaints about the deteriorating condition of his foot? Or was it the pain of an oppressive injury that caused him to crave the compassion he had heretofore never found? No one knew for sure. The more Cyrus talked, the more he drank, and the more he seemed to retreat inside himself, closing off the feelings he could not communicate.

Miles could not help but notice the hair: Cyrus hadn’t cut his hair all summer and was now sporting a rather impressive Afro. What sort of statement was he making? Was he trying to grow it out to appear younger, to stave off the aging that his body was otherwise unable to ignore? Or did he just not care anymore? The fact that his hair could still grow so quickly, so abundantly, should have indicated a certain vigor, or resilience. Unfortunately, the longer the hair got, the more prominent the gray became, betraying what he hoped to conceal. The gray hairs in Cane’s ‘fro spoke about the things no one wanted to know. That you get older, inevitably, no matter who you are. And that some people get older quicker, and harder, than everyone else. That an aging body was a son of a bitch, a bastard that delighted in turning on you, turning attention to itself, which turned all eyes on the changes going on. And what changes were underway inside him that no one could see?

The silence did not suit Cyrus. He did not feel like talking, and Miles was too drunk to converse in any event. Finally he turned on the radio, surprised he had not thought of it sooner. Immediately the music was there, and Miles, who had passed out against the window, quickly came to life. Few sights could be as ridiculous as the passenger, clean-shaven kid’s face contorting with energy as he sang along in mock falsetto. Marvin Gaye he was not. And Cyrus had to laugh. He could still laugh.

Miles got out of the car. Marvin kept singing. Cyrus stopped laughing.

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading

Oh make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

Yeah make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

This ain’t livin, no this ain’t livin…

Cyrus stopped listening.

He remembered when he used to love this song, when this cassette used to get all kinds of play in his car. He loved it. He remembered when he used to love all sorts of things.

He decided not to think about it. He drove off slowly to nowhere, certain he’d soon find the nothingness that waits for some of us out there.

(*excerpted from the novel The American Dream of Don Giovanni)

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Memorial Day*

I. I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive

Cyrus has never actually discussed his brief stint in the army that took him to Vietnam. On a couple of occasions he has commented that he went to Vietnam with nothing and came back with a disability. The permanent limp—and the cane—are unavoidable and obvious enough that he feels obliged to make mention of them, almost as a defense mechanism, to defuse any questions or concerns. What he is understandably much more reluctant to discuss is the incurable tic he developed during, or after, the war: the nervous twitch in his left hand that he may have been able to master if he had been able to stay away from the drink. Either way, years of abuse have made the impairment to his reflexes irreparable.

Cyrus has talked about many things. How he ended up washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant. How he is still bitter that he didn’t get severance pay, which he is convinced would have enabled the surgery that would have prevented his limp. The dozens of jobs he’s held over the years, and the seven states in which he has had legal residency. He rarely mentions the war, but his twitch, his cane and his tired eyes are a continuous reminder that for a person who has experienced the reality of unwanted combat, there is no convenient line dividing past from future, there is only an enduring, agonizing present: this is the condition that destroys lives, kills families and prevents perspective.

Few answers, many questions:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

When you find yourself being asked questions like these, it’s time to ask yourself some questions. Like these:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

II. Paint It Black

It is night, as usual. It is late, as always. Cyrus does not want to go home. Again.

This is his life: You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here!

Christ, he had actually heard these words, often. And more significantly, he felt them.

Cyrus sits in the silence, trying not to think about anything, unable to stop thinking about everything. He thinks, for instance, about the heat. The heat. It drained all your energy, especially at this point in the summer.

Cyrus sits in his truck, watching the monotonous orange flashes of the fireflies flickering beneath the canopy of dark branches that surround him like a shroud. The air hung languidly, holding its breath. It seemed to resignedly acknowledge that its seasonal reign would eventually expire.

Cyrus sits silently, trying not to think about anything. Inevitably, he thinks of the flowers. Of all the redundant tasks his job required him to complete, day after identical day, the most maddening was the maintenance of the flowerbeds that formed a colorful halo around the crumbling plaza. As always, they thrived in spring and had managed to make it through the early stages of summer not too much the worse for wear. But in the last several weeks they had finally begun to sway under the inexorable force of the unyielding heat. Despite their frailty they were admirably resilient, yet there was only so much they could be expected to endure. Rooted in their soil, they could not remain impervious to the extremities they were unable to escape. Eventually, all attention given was futile as they fell prey to the same warmth that initially sustained them.

They’re not so different from us, Cyrus had thought to himself, earlier that afternoon as he looked down on the shrinking stems, his sweat dripping compassionately amongst the petals. They did not ask to receive life, they just existed. The weather acted and they reacted, that was all.

And yet, it was his job to keep them alive, to do his part in cheating nature and interfere with the iron will of inevitability. It could not be done, and he could not say what was more unjust: the sufferings these flowers were subjected to or the expectation that any one person could alter their fragile destinies.

The sun had set almost six hours earlier, but the impenetrable humidity lingered heavily in the air.

Enough. Drive, just drive. Get away, go somewhere. Do something. Get out of here.

He drives.

It occurs to him, after a while, that music might help—music always helps—and he reaches gratefully for the radio. And immediately, the music is there for him, old friends making familiar sounds and singing familiar words.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

I have to turn my head until my darkness goes…

Yes. Always he has listened to this song, and it has always spoken to him. And now it is speaking to him again, saying things he’s heard hundreds of times but never understood, in ways he’s never suddenly does not like, a new way that unnerves him:

I look inside myself and see my heart is black

No colors anymore I want them to turn black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue

I could not foresee this thing happening to you

Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts

It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black…

The road swirls gray and white and he feels cold and realizes he should feel hot and sees that he is sweating and not paying attention then he is sliding and it’s okay because it’s not his fault how could they say it was his fault these things happen isn’t that what they say shit happens…

Cyrus is no longer on the road.

He watches the other cars move by, white and red lights as they arrive and depart from the scene. He can feel the drivers staring at him inquisitively, frowning as they pass him.

“What are you looking at?” he shouts. “You got a problem? I’ll solve it for you!”

He yells at a few more cars and then realizes where he is, and sees that he is shaking. He grabs the steering wheel with all his might and carefully negotiates his way back on the road, driving slowly the rest of the way, occasionally wiping the sweat from his steaming brow.

At last he pulls into his assigned space and turns the car off. He looks up in the mirror and examines the ragged hole he has bitten through his bottom lip. He touches it and the blood feels warm on his fingers. He grins and shakes his head.

I’m okay it’s okay it’s okay I’m okay

He looks back in the mirror and stops smiling. Closing his eyes tightly he reaches out and punches the windshield and it splinters under the force of his repeated blows.

He sits in silence for a while, gazing at the shattered glass, resolutely ignoring the pain in his hand.

It might cool off, he thinks. If only it would rain.

But it would not rain, and it would not cool off. It seemed resigned to its reality, content to exist indefinitely in its intractable state. And wishing it away would do no good. It never did.

Eventually he realizes he is getting blood on the seat and goes inside for a bandage.

III. This Ain’t Living

Miles was drunk, but he had more drinking to do. It was a holiday after all. Actually, it was well after midnight, so technically, the holiday was over. But Miles wasn’t much for holidays anyway. If you celebrated holidays, then it tended to trivialize the important other occasions for partying, which were pretty much every night.

He walked away from the bar, confused by the lack of cabs. Not only did he dislike the prospect of hoofing it home in his condition, he realized that by the time he arrived, he would most likely be too tired to keep drinking.

And then, as they so seldom do, the angels intervened: up ahead, idling angrily, was Cyrus’s truck, rusting greedily in front of God and everyone. Finally, someone he could hang with, someone who could keep up with him. He even had drinks! A well-serviced Styrofoam cooler brooded quietly in the front seat, sweating it out in the heavy evening air.

Drive, he said.

They drove. They drank. They communicated, commiserating silently, as they had done so often this summer. Eventually, there were no more beers and Miles was forced to pay attention to something other than his empty, anxious hands.

“So what do you say there Cane?”

“What do I say about what?”

And that was that. Clearly, Cyrus did not feel like talking, and Miles was in no shape to care. This was the way his best customer and more than occasional drinking partner could be at times. Usually, he was content to listen, which suited Miles, who was usually the one talking. It was just the way it was.

Miles might have been surprised, and possibly a little alarmed, if he understood the appreciable alteration that had occurred in only the last few years. Jackson noticed immediately, having been away for so long, and having known Cyrus since the café opened. Back then Cyrus was, in turn, equally morose and amusing, a mostly pleasant and ubiquitous presence at the bar. Miles did not know that two summers ago, most people still knew Cyrus by his real name. It was only over the past couple of years that everyone had begun calling him Cane, a designation he embraced and encouraged. For reasons that would have been obvious to anyone paying attention, Cyrus had begun to become increasingly invested in his short stint in Vietnam. While it was something he used to speak of curtly and even cryptically—when he spoke of it at all—the war had come to provide an outlet, and an otherwise unattainable identity.

Miles could not know—and by now, no one was certain either way—that Cyrus had not always carried his cane around, not until he started seeing, and wanting others to see, himself as a wounded veteran. Did the discussion of war compel the escalating complaints about the deteriorating condition of his foot? Or was it the pain of an oppressive injury that caused him to crave the compassion he had heretofore never found? No one knew for sure. The more Cyrus talked, the more he drank, and the more he seemed to retreat inside himself, closing off the feelings he could not communicate.

Miles could not help but notice the hair: Cyrus hadn’t cut his hair all summer and was now sporting a rather impressive Afro. What sort of statement was he making? Was he trying to grow it out to appear younger, to stave off the aging that his body was otherwise unable to ignore? Or did he just not care anymore? The fact that his hair could still grow so quickly, so abundantly, should have indicated a certain vigor, or resilience. Unfortunately, the longer the hair got, the more prominent the gray became, betraying what he hoped to conceal. The gray hairs in Cane’s ‘fro spoke about the things no one wanted to know. That you get older, inevitably, no matter who you are. And that some people get older quicker, and harder, than everyone else. That an aging body was a son of a bitch, a bastard that delighted in turning on you, turning attention to itself, which turned all eyes on the changes going on. And what changes were underway inside him that no one could see?

The silence did not suit Cyrus. He did not feel like talking, and Miles was too drunk to converse in any event. Finally he turned on the radio, surprised he had not thought of it sooner. Immediately the music was there, and Miles, who had passed out against the window, quickly came to life. Few sights could be as ridiculous as the passenger, clean-shaven kid’s face contorting with energy as he sang along in mock falsetto. Marvin Gaye he was not. And Cyrus had to laugh. He could still laugh.

Miles got out of the car. Marvin kept singing. Cyrus stopped laughing.

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading

Oh make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

Yeah make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

This ain’t livin, no this ain’t livin…

Cyrus stopped listening.

He remembered when he used to love this song, when this cassette used to get all kinds of play in his car. He loved it. He remembered when he used to love all sorts of things.

He decided not to think about it. He drove off slowly to nowhere, certain he’d soon find the nothingness that waits for some of us out there.

(*excerpted from the novel The American Dream of Don Giovanni)

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The Things They Carry, Continued…

Two stories from today’s New York Times.

What a coincidence.

 

ON THIS DAY

On March 16, 1968, during the Vietnam War, the My Lai Massacre was carried out by United States troops under the command of Lt. William L. Calley Jr.

Accused G.I. ‘Snapped’ Under Strain, Official Says

By ERIC SCHMITT and WILLIAM YARDLEY

The American staff sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers had been drinking alcohol and suffering from stress tied to his fourth combat tour, a senior official said.

 

As ever, our capacity to resist learning anything from our mistakes remains impressive, and appalling.

Revisiting some thoughts from 9/09:

Chris Hedges knows more than you do.

So it is his prerogative to be pissed off. He’s seen the things many of us have not seen (indeed, have not even heard about because it would require being in the places he has been since our mostly craven media certainly isn’t providing anything approximating an unfiltered account). It is sometimes painful to read his work because he is so obviously aware of what he is talking about, and he is so utterly vindicated by the courage of his convictions. The uninitiated are encouraged (and the ignorant are admonished) to pick up a copy of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning (excerpt here). Little is likely to change, but the war against war is a battle that can only be won one victory at a time, and each person who becomes awake and enlightened counts as a victory. The only people who can speak truthfully about war are the people who fight in them and the people who witness them. More on that, shortly.

Hedges contributes a column each week to truthdig and, as I say, his writing is both unsettling and essential. In this recent piece he elaborates one of the dirtiest and most despicable open secrets in American society: how we handle veterans of our wars. I feel obliged to quote extensively because there is little I could say that is as persuasive, intelligent and disturbing as what he so cogently lays out.

The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have unloaded hundreds of thousands of combat troops, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression, back into society. According to a joint Veterans Affairs Department-University of San Francisco study published in July, 418,000 of the roughly 1.9 million service members who have fought in or supported the wars suffer from PTSD. As of August 2008, the latest data available, about a quarter-million military veterans were imprisoned on any given day—about 9.4 percent of the total daily imprisoned population, according to the National GAINS Center Forum on Combat Veterans, Trauma and the Justice System. There are 223,000 veterans in jail or prison cells on an average day, and an unknown number among the 4 million Americans on probation. They don’t have much to look forward to upon release. And if any of these incarcerated vets do not have PTSD when they are arrested, our corrections system will probably rectify the deficiency. Throw in the cocktail of unemployment, powerlessness, depression, alienation, anger, alcohol and drugs and you create thousands, if not tens of thousands, who will seek out violence the way an addict seeks out a bag of heroin.

War and conflict have marked most of my adult life. I know what prolonged exposure to industrial slaughter does to you. I know what it is to confront memories, buried deep within the subconscious, which jerk you awake at night, your heart racing and your body covered in sweat. I know what it is like to lie, unable to sleep, your heart pounding, trying to remember what it was that caused such terror. I know how it feels to be overcome by the vivid images of violence that make you wonder if the dream or the darkness around you is real. I know what it feels like to stumble through the day carrying a shock and horror, an awful cement-like despair, which you cannot shed. And I know how after a few nights like this you are left numb and exhausted, unable to connect with anyone around you, even those you love the most. I know how you drink or medicate yourself into a coma so you do not have to remember your dreams. And I know that great divide that opens between you and the rest of the world, especially the civilian world, which cannot imagine your pain and your hatred. I know how easily this hatred is directed toward those in that world.

 man

Those who cannot cope, even by using Zoloft or Paxil, blow their brains out with drugs, alcohol or a gun. More Vietnam veterans died from suicide in the years after the war than during the conflict itself. But it would be a mistake to blame this on Vietnam. War does this to you. It destroys part of you. You live maimed. If you are not able to live maimed, you check out.

But what happens in a society where everything conspires to check you out even when you make the herculean effort to integrate into the world of malls, celebrity gossip and too many brands of cereal on a supermarket shelf? What happens when the corporate state says that you can die in its wars but at home you are human refuse, that there is no job, no way to pay your medical bills or your mortgage, no hope? Then you retreat into your private hell of rage, terror and alienation. You do not return from the world of war…There is a yawning indifference at home about what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hollow language of heroism and glory, used by the war makers and often aped by those in the media, allows the nation to feel good about war, about “service.” But it is also a way of muzzling the voices that attempt to tell us the truth about war. And when these men and women do find the moral courage to speak, they often find that many fellow Americans turn away in disgust or attack them for shattering the myth. The myth of war is too enjoyable, and too profitable, to be punctured by reality. And so these veterans nurse their fantasies of power. They begin to hate those who sent them as much as they hate those they fought. Some cannot distinguish one from the other.

It is we who are guilty, guilty for sending these young men and women to wars that did not have to be fought. It is we who are guilty for turning away from the truth of war to wallow in a self-aggrandizing myth, guilty because we create and decorate killers and when they come home maimed and broken we discard them. It is we who are guilty for failing to defy a Democratic Party that since 1994 has betrayed the working class by destroying our manufacturing base, slashing funds to assist the poor and cravenly doing the bidding of corporations. It is we who are guilty for refusing to mass on Washington and demand single-payer, not-for-profit health care for all Americans. It is we who are guilty for supporting Democrats while they funnel billions in taxpayer dollars to sustain speculative Wall Street interests. The rage of the confused and angry right-wing marchers, the ones fired up by trash-talking talk show hosts, the ones liberals belittle and maybe even laugh at, should be our rage. And if it is not our rage soon, if we continue to humiliate and debase ourselves by begging Obama to be Obama, we will see our open society dismantled not because of the shrewdness of the far right, but because of our moral cowardice.

Veteran

I’ve waded into these waters a handful of times over the past year, offering my thoughts here, here and here. Mostly, I’m content to pass the proverbial mic to those who know, and get out of the way. Tim O’Brien has spent most of his life reflecting on his time spent in Vietnam. Miraculously, he has been able to grapple with the demons and despair and somehow managed to turn his pain into profoundly beautiful fiction. Fiction that, in a phrase he is fond of repeating, is truer than truth. I consider The Things They Carried to be one of the five best books written by an American in the second half of the 20th Century. Let me put it this way: it is impossible for me to take anyone seriously who wishes to speak about war (and veterans, and the homeless) if they are not at least acquainted with the work of Chris Hedges and Tim O’Brien (not to mention Senator Jim Webb, who wrote one of the enduring masterpieces of the Vietnam experience, Fields of Fire). It’s true that some of the better fiction writers are able to imagine other realities and some successfully write about things with which they are not intimately aware. That said, no one who has not been to war could write The Things They Carried. And even most people who have been to war could never compose something as shattering as the short, deceptively simple “How To Tell A True War Story”. Here is an excerpt:

We crossed that river and marched west into the mountains. On the third day, my friend Curt Lemon stepped on a boobytrapped artillery round. He was playing catch with Rat Kiley, laughing, and then he was dead. The trees were thick; it took nearly an hour to cut an LZ for the dustoff.

Later, higher in the mountains, we came across a baby VC water buffalo. What it was doing there I don’t know – no farms, no paddies – but we chased it down and, got a rope around it and led it along to a deserted village where we set up for the night. After supper Rat Kiley went over and stroked its nose.

He opened up a can of C rations, pork and beans, but the baby buffalo wasn’t interested.

Rat shrugged.

He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee.

The animal did not make a sound. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hindquarters and in the little hump at its back. He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away. Nobody said much. The whole platoon stood there watching, feeling all kinds of things, but there wasn’t a great deal of pity for the baby water buffalo. Curt Lemon was dead. Rat Kiley had lost his best friend in the world. Later in the week Rat would write a long personal letter to the guy’s sister, who would not write back, but for now, it was simply a question of pain. He shot off the tail. He shot away -chunks of meat below the ribs. All around us there was the smell of smoke and filth and greenery, and the evening was humid and very hot. Rat went to automatic. He shot randomly, almost casually, quick little spurts in the belly. Then he reloaded, squatted down, and shot it in the left front knee. Again the animal fell hard and tried to get up, but this time it couldn’t quite make it. It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose. He bent forward and whispered something, as if talking to a pet, then he shot it in the throat. All the while the baby water buffalo was silent, or almost silent, just a little bubbling sound where the nose had been. It lay very still. Nothing moved except the eyes, which were enormous, the pupils shiny black and dumb.

Rat Kiley was crying. He tried to say something, but them cradled his rifle and went off by himself.

The rest of us stood in a ragged circle around the baby buffalo. For a long time no one spoke. We had witnessed something essential, something brand new and profound, a piece of the world so startling there was not yet a word for it.

This is a story that is truer than the truth. If we hope to see change we can believe in, more of us start need to believing –and confronting– the types of truths witnesses like Hedges and O’Brien are describing.

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Billy Bang: Goodbye and Rest in Peace

This hurts.

Of course jazz enthusiasts are (always have been?) a small if discerning bunch, so it’s unlikely the sudden passing of Billy Bang will register as much as it should on the collective consciousness. This is a shame, but it can’t be helped. Those who knew Billy, and those who know and love his work, already miss him, and shall have to console ourselves that a great man has moved to the great beyond.

I fall back on what is, at this point, a somewhat formulaic observation, but I’m content to repeat it since it’s true: the death of any meaningful artist, particularly at a painfully young age (Bang was 63, which might not seem particularly painful or young to you, but it does to me, especially since, as a working jazz musician, he was still relevant, engaged and important to music) is always difficult to endure, but we have little choice but to console ourselves with the work left behind.

In the end that is probably the fairest trade we can expect or ask for: we respect the artist and mourn their absence, but we keep them alive by listening –and responding to– their efforts. This is the only type of immortality we can verify, and it seems more than a little satisfying for all parties.

So…who was Billy Bang?

Check out an overview of his life and career here.

A more detailed, and very touching tribute, from NPR, is here.

Pretty remarkable and very American life. He came up in a time when intolerance based on skin color still held sway, and of course that pain was reflected in his subsequent work. Not being wealthy or connected, he was one of the thousands drafted to fight in Vietnam. Needless to say those experiences played a significant role in his aesthetic. Indeed, he made two masterpieces that draw specifically –and movingly– from those experiences, Vietnam: The Aftermath and Vietnam: Reflections. For anyone interested in Bang’s work (and sublime semi-contemporary jazz in general) would do well to check out either.

From the NPR story:

At least initially, the period after his service was hardly any better. In 2005, Bang told Roy Hurst of NPR’s News and Notes that returning was a shock.

“When I came home from Vietnam — when I got off the airplane — the next thing I was on was the New York City subway, and that was extremely traumatic for me — I mean, just really destructive to my whole system,” Bang said. “I couldn’t take the sounds. I couldn’t take the people all around. So I finally got home; I didn’t want to come outside for a long time, which I didn’t do. So my mother was coaxing me to come out and sort of — she was trying to help me to get back to some kind of normality. But I still criticize the United States government for not having a real bona fide re-entry program for veterans.”

Again from the NPR piece:

The Vietnam albums proved to be more high-water marks for his career. Bang called up fellow musicians who had also served in Vietnam for the recording sessions, including conductor Butch Morris.

“It was quite heavy,” Morris told Howard Mandel. “I’ve never seen so many grown men cry. It’s not only how he brought this thematic stuff back — it’s how he brought the experience back, the experience of being there, the experience of smelling, the experience of seeing, the experience of feeling, the experience of fear, the experience of joy, the experience — he brought back all these experiences. That’s what was so frightening in the studio. He brought back the same experience that each of us had.”

My personal favorite is his 2003 collaboration with William Parker and Hamid Drake, Scrapbook. If you are the sort of person who still pays for music, you can download this sucker for $6 at Amazon: a dollar per song; it’s worth missing a meal to procure. Of course this is somewhat of an acquired taste: it’s jazz and it’s just bass, drums and…violin. For me, it’s musical crack, but I also think it’s sufficiently accessible and original that anyone with half-opened ears can pick up what’s being put down. And like all top-tier efforts, it never loses its luster. It still entrances and inspires me every time I hear it, and that is not only because of the first-rate compositions, it’s all about the playing and the indescribable empathy these musicians have for one another (Parker and Drake, as I’ve opined, are far and away the bass/drum combo of this generation, no one else especially close).

Unfortunately, there is only one song from this album on YouTube; I wish a few others were available since this one (typically) is probably the most difficult of the six. The last song on the album, “Holiday For Flowers” (link at Rhapsody here) is one of my desert island tracks from the last decade: it is swinging, ebullient yet elegaic; a particularly appropriate tune to serve for this somber occasion.

Here he is, live with Parker, in 2007.

The more I think about Billy Bang, the more I’m convinced his life is the kind of story someone should write a novel about. Except someone already did: Billy Bang did, and his novel was his life, and his life’s story is articulated in his music. And his music lives on.

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Memorial Day*

 

I. I’ll Never Get Out Of These Blues Alive

Cyrus has never actually discussed his brief stint in the army that took him to Vietnam. On a couple of occasions he has commented that he went to Vietnam with nothing and came back with a disability. The permanent limp—and the cane—are unavoidable and obvious enough that he feels obliged to make mention of them, almost as a defense mechanism, to defuse any questions or concerns. What he is understandably much more reluctant to discuss is the incurable tic he developed during, or after, the war: the nervous twitch in his left hand that he may have been able to master if he had been able to stay away from the drink. Either way, years of abuse have made the impairment to his reflexes irreparable.

Cyrus has talked about many things. How he ended up washing dishes in a Mexican restaurant. How he is still bitter that he didn’t get severance pay, which he is convinced would have enabled the surgery that would have prevented his limp. The dozens of jobs he’s held over the years, and the seven states in which he has had legal residency. He rarely mentions the war, but his twitch, his cane and his tired eyes are a continuous reminder that for a person who has experienced the reality of unwanted combat, there is no convenient line dividing past from future, there is only an enduring, agonizing present: this is the condition that destroys lives, kills families and prevents perspective.

Few answers, many questions:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

When you find yourself being asked questions like these, it’s time to ask yourself some questions. Like these:

-Did you ever kill a man?

-How does it feel to kill a man?

-Did you ever get shot?

-How does it feel to get shot?

-Did you ever feel afraid of dying?

-How does it feel to feel afraid of dying?

-Do you hate Vietnam?

-Do you hate America?

-Why can’t you just forget about it?

-Why can’t you just move on?

II. Paint It Black

It is night, as usual. It is late, as always. Cyrus does not want to go home. Again.

This is his life: You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here!

Christ, he had actually heard these words, often. And more significantly, he felt them.

Cyrus sits in the silence, trying not to think about anything, unable to stop thinking about everything. He thinks, for instance, about the heat. The heat. It drained all your energy, especially at this point in the summer.

Cyrus sits in his truck, watching the monotonous orange flashes of the fireflies flickering beneath the canopy of dark branches that surround him like a shroud. The air hung languidly, holding its breath. It seemed to resignedly acknowledge that its seasonal reign would eventually expire.

Cyrus sits silently, trying not to think about anything. Inevitably, he thinks of the flowers. Of all the redundant tasks his job required him to complete, day after identical day, the most maddening was the maintenance of the flowerbeds that formed a colorful halo around the crumbling plaza. As always, they thrived in spring and had managed to make it through the early stages of summer not too much the worse for wear. But in the last several weeks they had finally begun to sway under the inexorable force of the unyielding heat. Despite their frailty they were admirably resilient, yet there was only so much they could be expected to endure. Rooted in their soil, they could not remain impervious to the extremities they were unable to escape. Eventually, all attention given was futile as they fell prey to the same warmth that initially sustained them.

They’re not so different from us, Cyrus had thought to himself, earlier that afternoon as he looked down on the shrinking stems, his sweat dripping compassionately amongst the petals. They did not ask to receive life, they just existed. The weather acted and they reacted, that was all.

And yet, it was his job to keep them alive, to do his part in cheating nature and interfere with the iron will of inevitability. It could not be done, and he could not say what was more unjust: the sufferings these flowers were subjected to or the expectation that any one person could alter their fragile destinies.

The sun had set almost six hours earlier, but the impenetrable humidity lingered heavily in the air.

Enough. Drive, just drive. Get away, go somewhere. Do something. Get out of here.

He drives.

It occurs to him, after a while, that music might help—music always helps—and he reaches gratefully for the radio. And immediately, the music is there for him, old friends making familiar sounds and singing familiar words.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

I have to turn my head until my darkness goes…

Yes. Always he has listened to this song, and it has always spoken to him. And now it is speaking to him again, saying things he’s heard hundreds of times but never understood, in ways he’s never suddenly does not like, a new way that unnerves him:

I look inside myself and see my heart is black

No colors anymore I want them to turn black

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue

I could not foresee this thing happening to you

Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts

It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black…

The road swirls gray and white and he feels cold and realizes he should feel hot and sees that he is sweating and not paying attention then he is sliding and it’s okay because it’s not his fault how could they say it was his fault these things happen isn’t that what they say shit happens…

Cyrus is no longer on the road.

He watches the other cars move by, white and red lights as they arrive and depart from the scene. He can feel the drivers staring at him inquisitively, frowning as they pass him.

“What are you looking at?” he shouts.  “You got a problem?  I’ll solve it for you!”

He yells at a few more cars and then realizes where he is, and sees that he is shaking. He grabs the steering wheel with all his might and carefully negotiates his way back on the road, driving slowly the rest of the way, occasionally wiping the sweat from his steaming brow.

At last he pulls into his assigned space and turns the car off.  He looks up in the mirror and examines the ragged hole he has bitten through his bottom lip.  He touches it and the blood feels warm on his fingers.  He grins and shakes his head.

I’m okay it’s okay it’s okay I’m okay

He looks back in the mirror and stops smiling.  Closing his eyes tightly he reaches out and punches the windshield and it splinters under the force of his repeated blows.

He sits in silence for a while, gazing at the shattered glass, resolutely ignoring the pain in his hand.

It might cool off, he thinks. If only it would rain.

But it would not rain, and it would not cool off. It seemed resigned to its reality, content to exist indefinitely in its intractable state. And wishing it away would do no good. It never did.

Eventually he realizes he is getting blood on the seat and goes inside for a bandage.

III. This Ain’t Living

Miles was drunk, but he had more drinking to do. It was a holiday after all. Actually, it was well after midnight, so technically, the holiday was over. But Miles wasn’t much for holidays anyway. If you celebrated holidays, then it tended to trivialize the important other occasions for partying, which were pretty much every night.

He walked away from the bar, confused by the lack of cabs. Not only did he dislike the prospect of hoofing it home in his condition, he realized that by the time he arrived, he would most likely be too tired to keep drinking.

And then, as they so seldom do, the angels intervened: up ahead, idling angrily, was Cyrus’s truck, rusting greedily in front of God and everyone. Finally, someone he could hang with, someone who could keep up with him. He even had drinks! A well-serviced Styrofoam cooler brooded quietly in the front seat, sweating it out in the heavy evening air.

Drive, he said.

They drove. They drank. They communicated, commiserating silently, as they had done so often this summer. Eventually, there were no more beers and Miles was forced to pay attention to something other than his empty, anxious hands.

“So what do you say there Cane?”

“What do I say about what?”

And that was that. Clearly, Cyrus did not feel like talking, and Miles was in no shape to care. This was the way his best customer and more than occasional drinking partner could be at times. Usually, he was content to listen, which suited Miles, who was usually the one talking. It was just the way it was.

Miles might have been surprised, and possibly a little alarmed, if he understood the appreciable alteration that had occurred in only the last few years. Jackson noticed immediately, having been away for so long, and having known Cyrus since the café opened. Back then Cyrus was, in turn, equally morose and amusing, a mostly pleasant and ubiquitous presence at the bar. Miles did not know that two summers ago, most people still knew Cyrus by his real name. It was only over the past couple of years that everyone had begun calling him Cane, a designation he embraced and encouraged. For reasons that would have been obvious to anyone paying attention, Cyrus had begun to become increasingly invested in his short stint in Vietnam. While it was something he used to speak of curtly and even cryptically—when he spoke of it at all—the war had come to provide an outlet, and an otherwise unattainable identity.

Miles could not know—and by now, no one was certain either way—that Cyrus had not always carried his cane around, not until he started seeing, and wanting others to see, himself as a wounded veteran. Did the discussion of war compel the escalating complaints about the deteriorating condition of his foot? Or was it the pain of an oppressive injury that caused him to crave the compassion he had heretofore never found? No one knew for sure. The more Cyrus talked, the more he drank, and the more he seemed to retreat inside himself, closing off the feelings he could not communicate.

Miles could not help but notice the hair: Cyrus hadn’t cut his hair all summer and was now sporting a rather impressive Afro. What sort of statement was he making? Was he trying to grow it out to appear younger, to stave off the aging that his body was otherwise unable to ignore? Or did he just not care anymore? The fact that his hair could still grow so quickly, so abundantly, should have indicated a certain vigor, or resilience. Unfortunately, the longer the hair got, the more prominent the gray became, betraying what he hoped to conceal. The gray hairs in Cane’s ‘fro spoke about the things no one wanted to know. That you get older, inevitably, no matter who you are. And that some people get older quicker, and harder, than everyone else. That an aging body was a son of a bitch, a bastard that delighted in turning on you, turning attention to itself, which turned all eyes on the changes going on. And what changes were underway inside him that no one could see? 

The silence did not suit Cyrus. He did not feel like talking, and Miles was too drunk to converse in any event. Finally he turned on the radio, surprised he had not thought of it sooner. Immediately the music was there, and Miles, who had passed out against the window, quickly came to life. Few sights could be as ridiculous as the passenger, clean-shaven kid’s face contorting with energy as he sang along in mock falsetto. Marvin Gaye he was not. And Cyrus had to laugh. He could still laugh.

Miles got out of the car. Marvin kept singing. Cyrus stopped laughing.

Panic is spreading

God knows where we’re heading

Oh make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

Yeah make me wanna holler

The way they do my life

This ain’t livin, no this ain’t livin…

Cyrus stopped listening.

He remembered when he used to love this song, when this cassette used to get all kinds of play in his car. He loved it. He remembered when he used to love all sorts of things.

He decided not to think about it. He drove off slowly to nowhere, certain he’d soon find the nothingness that waits for some of us out there.

(*excerpted from the novel The American Dream of Don Giovanni)

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1973: The Things They Carried

Front Page Image

 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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