Saturday 31 January 2015

Blindspot - "The Deer Hunter" and "Coming Home"

Whenever the blind spots of our history of film knowledge come up in conversation, one of the most common questions is "Why haven't you seen movie 'X' yet?". Sometimes it's just matter of "Hey, ya just can't see them all!", but usually there's a specific reason for not having ventured into a classic film (especially for those of us who list movie-watching as a passion). In the case of this month's tandem Vietnam War selections (The Deer Hunter and Coming Home), the reasons are several fold. The first is the subject matter - though I have no issues with war films or specifically ones about Vietnam, like many I had reached a bit of a saturation point in regards to the topic. Not that war films are typically happy-go-lucky affairs or that I want all my viewing experiences to shut out the evil world, but the Vietnam films seemed to have cornered the market on depressing (for many valid reasons of course). As well, both films gave the sense of revolving around a single main event or condition and (from my poor memory of hearing about them when I was younger) didn't really pull me into their plotlines. Not to mention the fact that The Deer Hunter is a full 3 hours long and the vast majority of the first half of the film takes place before any of the characters even head overseas.

But this is why I'm continuing the Blindspot efforts...Things aren't always quite what they seem. For instance, the long preamble in The Deer Hunter not only introduces the film's main characters before they go to Vietnam, but it also gives ample reason why they would volunteer to go. Their lives at home don't appear to offer much more than what they already trudge through daily (hard physical labour, drinking and hunting) and maybe the possibility of gaining a mortgage on a small house in a decrepit part of town with a spouse that you can somewhat stomach. This rather bleak view of the working class environment inhabited by the characters is built through a wedding and its preparation. By the time the nuptials take place it feels a bit like a drunken wake - though they toast the marriage of Steven and Angela, it is also a farewell party for Steven (John Savage), Mike (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) before they leave for Vietnam. The entire time spent in the town is slow, awkward and entirely depressing in its limitations regarding the potential scope of these characters, but it is also highly effective at painting this way of life and the strong community bonds. After almost half the film has unspooled, the three wind up in Vietnam and the film wastes no time in painting a new picture - a horrendous, gruesome and inhumane one. After Nick and Steven rescue Mike from a particularly nasty battle, the three end up captured in a small camp where the guards entertain themselves by pitting their prisoners against each other in games of Russian Roulette. The film is justifiably known for this sequence as it is terrifying, tense and remarkably hard to watch. Their home back in the steelworks of Pennsylvania looks like a damn paradise at this point. A desperate plan is hatched, escapes are made and the three are separated and wind up in different states of disrepair.

With Coming Home, the rehabilitation of paralyzed vet Luke (Jon Voigt) became more than just the expected simple melodrama of a love triangle with complications. Though old school friend Sally (Jane Fonda) does indeed slowly fall in love with Luke while her husband Bob (Bruce Dern) remains overseas, the film patiently provides fully developed characters that grow, change and adapt over the course of the story. It never becomes a straight up love conquers all story or a flag-waving salute to the injured men from the war. It actually tries to deal with the mess - the physical and mental wreckage of people and their attempts (or lack thereof) to make it through life changing events. Luke begins as an angry, railing-at-the-world patient in the hospital but slowly warms to Sally's attempts to help. She's volunteered at the hospital to keep her occupied while Bob is away and as she slowly assists Luke in regaining a sense of purpose, her own world begins to expand. The conservative values and outward appearance begin to loosen up, her political eyes open and she starts to question things - even the possibility that she could be falling into love with someone else. Luke for his own part rediscovers his passion and campaigns against the war effort while realizing that he could indeed still build a life. Sally and Luke emerge as fully realized people who are flawed but willing to make efforts to repair what's been broken and get on with focusing on their loves and desires.

Both films spend much less time in Vietnam itself than you'd think classics of the genre would do. The Deer Hunter's first trip to Vietnam lasts for only about 35 minutes while Coming Home spends almost no time there at all (apart from a few scenes showing some of Bob's experiences). Neither film suffers for its lack of time spent there since neither film is really simply about Vietnam. The focus of both films is how people try to make it through to the other side and how they don't always succeed. The Deer Hunter shows some harrowing consequences - particularly the mental slides of Steven (after his own paralyzing injury), Angela (unfortunately playing the cliche poor woman so scarred by emotional toil that she retreats into catatonia) and Nick. Walken is particularly effective in that latter role as he transitions from the cocky boyfriend of Linda (a gorgeous young Meryl Streep) to a disconnected zombie roaming the streets of Saigon. After having returned home, Mike suspects Nick is still in Vietnam and returns to find him (despite his love for Linda no longer being unrequited). He too has changed - no longer the man of black and white viewpoints, he can empathize and wants to heal the wounds and make things right. His hunting days may be over...

Coming Home also shows the process and difficulty of healing both the physical and mental scars. Just as Luke is regaining a place in the world, Bob returns even more coiled and frayed than when he left. His view of war, his country and himself has changed, but he doesn't know what to do with all that information. His wife's infidelity adds kindling to the fire and allows Dern one truly excellent "freak out" scene when he yells at his wife with a blazing rage. He's not the only one suffering though - the brother of his buddy's girlfriend Violet (now good friends with Sally) is struggling in a mental hospital to regain his footing. Robert Carradine plays him with a great deal of sensitivity and you can almost feel the pain and stress as he tries to do a simple thing like play his guitar. Nothing remains simple for those exposed to the ugliness of humanity and it can infect others around them as well. Both films have moments of hope and show strength of character and community. But in the end, no one truly walks away unscathed.

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