Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Other Vietnam War

James Monaco opined that had Francis Coppola released a low-budget Apocalypse Now in the late 60s (as originally intended) its impact would have been "revolutionary". Instead it became the unwieldy, merely interesting, spectacle beloved by generations of student stoners; more notorious for its hazardous production than any relationship to history. Somewhat taboo as it was actually occurring, Hollywood was said to have finally 'got to grips' with Vietnam during the Carter years. It did this the only way it knew how: through familiar tropes of genre, romance and redemptive personal journeys. For films set 'in country' (at war) it fell back on the western or imperial quest, often with irony and added pain, but never far from racial arrogance. Back in 'the world' (at home), it was through the groovy Californian prism of therapeutic love, emotional epiphanies and self-actualisation: war as encounter group. Coming Home (Hal Ashby's worst film) overcame the agonies of military mutilation and domestic servitude through the liberating, healing powers of emotional intelligence, marijuana and cunnilingus. As castrated warrior cum sexual dynamo, Jon Voight offered a gentle intermission between the anguished, sensitive drifters of the early 70s and the anguished, sensitive killing machines of the 80s. Hanoi Jane, feminist firebrand, Commie traitor and imminent aerobics guru, led the nation in learning to love itself again (later reconciling with uptight, reactionary Old Hollywood in On Golden Pond). She would later marry Ted Turner, just as his CNN helped America regain its hard-on for wars spectacular, winnable and brief; with a minimum of foreplay.

After re-imaging the heist as homoerotic courtship with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Michael Cimino further inverted the male gaze for The Deer Hunter. Christopher Walken teased Robert Deniro from pillar to post, tormenting his declarations of love; to pursue the least promising sporting career imaginable. Lacking the beach side congruence of Coming Home, its working class characters fumbled through longing glances and three-word sentences ("This is this."). As with Cimino's previous film, and true to Hollywood rules of gay love, the 'bottom' inevitably had to die from a brutal brain injury (see Brokeback Mountain for further confirmation). Deniro reluctantly settles for the quiet desperations of domestic life, as his romantic yearnings drift elsewhere. With Meryl Streep as his consolation prize, they drown their sorrows in method acting for the healing to begin. Its closing rendition of 'God Bless America', brings men, women, 4-Fs and amputees together for the emotional, supposedly ambiguous finale (as much as The Searchers, to which it pays almost obligatory homage). It is perhaps best read as a Douglas Sirk melodrama with flame throwers. Both films' Oscars were received as a kind of national group hug. American manhood was ready to win one for the Gipper again; as shame, domesticity or castration anxiety recovered through narrative therapy. The long dark night had been endured. Morning In America was on its way. Lurking around all this were the Vietnamese themselves, who had little to say for themselves but an animalistic "Mao!" As base, cruel, and easily disposable as any number of Hollywood Commanches - who cared how they felt? The white man's burden was at stake here. Never again would Hollywood let defeat be cause for national therapy - the dreaded "Vietnam Syndrome". It had to move on.

As these stirring emotional arcs played out in Hollywood, war just kept on coming to Indochina. Ravaged by Nixon's bombing campaigns, Cambodia entered a new, darkly metaphysical, level of agony (a "skull-based economy" as the Onion memorably coined it). Those dastardly Vietnamese, so insensitive to America's self-esteem and masculinity issues, ended up taking on the Khmer Rouge. An enemy for whom 'just war' is surely applicable, if applicable at all. After millions of deaths, blanket bombing, defoliation, napalm, agent orange, economic chaos, mass displacement, and the combined weight of two retreating empires, they could still humiliate Pol Pot's powerful allies. Having prevailed against the techno-industrial mass killing of Rolling Thunder and Death From Above, they had enough energy left to defeat the most populous nation on Earth. China has never really won a war. In past centuries it's managed to absorb defeat, but as invader or defender in the modern sense its been distinctly unlucky. Turning a different spin to the U.S., they re-staged their 1979 defeat into glorious victory (see below). Method acting, the clitoral orgasm, or blue collar gay romance was yet to catch on as a propaganda tool in the People's Republic. As for the Vietnamese: heroic vanquishers of the Khmer Rouge, victors over three powerful empires in a row, supported by the Soviet Union but hardly its puppet; arguably the most successful, sustained resistance against imperialism in the late 20th century... what can I say? They're as hard as fucking nails. They survived. They never needed Jane Fonda. Nor did they need their very apparent national pain to be validated at the Academy Awards. They had faith in reality.

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