The Deer Hunter: Lost and Found

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I definitely have something to say about this film. I’m 100% sure of it. I’m not entirely sure of what I have to say on it, but it has definitely provoked me into thought.

The Deer Hunter (1978, Dir. Michael Cimino) is a landmark film, regardless of the opinion surrounding it. It stands in that pantheon of 70s films made by the New Hollywood era filmmakers which was not only an international phenomenon at the time of release (among other things, happened to find out it was my grandmother’s favourite film), but it has transcended its space-time to be one of those films that you just “have to see” if you love cinema.

So what do I have to say about it that’s not been said already? Well with the passing of Michael Cimino still in recent memory, I wanted to examine what has made the film endure and what made it capture the hearts and minds of people so successfully in the first place.

The Deer Hunter follows a small group of friends in a steelworks town in Pennsylvania, all of them from a Russian American background. We’re guided through they’re world, from its opening in the steel mill itself, their downtime in the bar, a long illustrious wedding sequence (which I think must be the greatest one ever filmed), and more. I’d like to say we inhabit this world more than anything, because we spend time with all of these characters, who put the plot on the back-burner to allow us time to actually see who they are in the context of this world. We watch them in their loud moments, in happy moments and angry moments. The three dimensionality of everyone involved is paramount to the world,  and it helps to capture that feeling of life when there is no “supporting cast”, just people. It’s unbelievable how well this film manages to observe “mirth”, that warm joyous feeling of spending time celebrating with the one’s you love and know, even if they can’t keep it together for very long.

It’s this world then, this world of people who have strong faults but are not evil, that feels so close to our own and by spending so much time in it you become entrenched in their humanity. So when the film jarringly cuts to Vietnam, and we bear witness to the extensively stark scenes of Russian roulette, it hits hard just how terrifying the situation is. I found it very interesting how restrained the cinematography is in this sequence, as I feel the scenes are so intense that naturally the cinematography could have been ramped up to 11 to match it, but instead its quite restrained, allowing the performances to take center stage.

When we return from Vietnam there are no grand confrontations. I think what elevates the film in its highest points is its very absence of conventional dramatics. Mike (Robert DeNiro) and Linda (Meryl Streep) growing closer together is not a torrid love affair against all odds, it’s this quiet intimate desire for closeness that speaks to the unsaid loneliness and isolation in both of them. Mike comes back to the world fundamentally changed, evoking an experience that almost every veteran must have faced returning to civilian life. That disconnect between what you see, what you live through in wartime and how to adjust to those around you who just can’t understand. Mike’s desire to save his friends, Steven (John Savage) who’s been left with only one arm in a mobilised wheelchair and Nick (Christopher Walken) who went AWOL in Vietnam, is the one thing which cements the two periods of his life and what pushes him to return.

In the climax of the film then, the piece most ripe for dramatic confrontation, we find instead this muted, desperate pleading to save his friend. With the cinematic history of films set in the Vietnam war, the likes of the hellish Platoon (1986, Dir. Oliver Stone) and the nightmarish Apocalypse Now (1979, Dir. Francis Ford Coppola) it is strange to see a film that is so interested in rescues, in salvaging anything left rather than the hellish destruction of it all. The forces of evil in the film is the nature of war and the other side, and it’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in the camps of the Americans treating the North Vietnamese POW’s. It’s final scene, the ambiguity lending itself to those wanting to wield it as a weapon to condemn the film for being pro/anti-American is ironic to see considering the follow history of extremely anti-war films that Oliver Stone would build his career on.

But all I’ve done so far is just recount its narrative. So why did the film itself capture the imagination so powerfully, not an escapism blockbuster like we experience today but a thoughtful, emotional reckoning with American history of the time? I really can’t say for sure. Robert DeNiro’s presence must have been a massive draw, but according to my mother it was “the film which people who didn’t go to the movies went to see”. So what drew them in?

I’ll never know, I can only look at why it deserved such attention. Cinema’s history is filled to the brim with the exceptional, the out of the ordinary, the piece of gold among the rocks. What makes The Deer Hunter so very compelling is these actors are doing their best to play real people, people you imagine being on your level. When you watch someone like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942, Dir. Michael Curtiz) you wish you could be friends with him. When you watch Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter you feel like you are friends with him. No one is idolised in the film, no one escapes the ravages both minor and major of war. And the film is not a piece of propaganda either, even though it was held up as one by both sides. For a film so mired in the politics of the time, its focus lies on the human costs and interactions. It evokes an experience that most drafted men in America must have experienced, going off to fight a war they had little to no say in. From the ground, the politics of it all seems very far away, and I believe this must have resonated strongly.

It’s also a far more emotionally sensitive film that what had defined the American New Wave at the time. All the main characters are good guys, and I found it easy to imagine that before the war the Vietcong shown in the film could have inhabited the same space. The violence corrupts men, like an infection, and through Nick it consumes him. Under the strain of the psychological trauma, the heroin to numb the pain, its easy to see how someone can truly lose themselves so far they can’t be brought back.

I like The Deer Hunter because it’s an epic of people on a small-scale. It’s really about people, and that’s the most interesting topic out there. It’s about the long internal struggles we have with ourselves, often within us in the silence of our souls. I guess it’s a film that at its core, everyone can relate to, and that’s what makes a lie, a film filled with actors and staged action, feel honest. That’s what makes it hold the truth.

My mother told me when she saw the film in a cinema in Switzerland, behind her was a Asian couple, possibly Vietnamese, and the woman cried through the whole film. Then when they left the cinema, my mother and her partner went to dinner at a restaurant and the Asian couple also happened to be there, and she couldn’t stop crying through the whole dinner. She could have been crying for multiple reasons, for the films political views or for the noted poor treatment and one-dimensionality of the Vietnamese people, I’ll never know why she was crying. I just like to believe she was crying because it was sad.

-Alex

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The Deer Hunter: Lost and Found

Saló or 120 Days Of Sodom : Mythologising The Inane/The Insane

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The mythology that surrounds Saló is more interesting than Saló.

(WARNING: This post contains a discussion on matures themes in a mature film, and if you are underage or possess a weak constitution, I would advise that you venture no further than this warning. And that full stop.)

What I mean by this, is that the ideological conflict which was spawned due to this films release, the censorship, the bans, the death of Pasolini himself, the entire genre of depraved cinema it gave birth to, and the battles of its meaning which have raged (quietly, by intellectuals with too much time on their hands) has been near ceaseless, with the film still inspiring those with that deep instinctual reaction, one of admiration or one of disgust. That history attached to Saló, will always be more interesting than Saló itself. So in provoking discussions on the human condition in it’s all hideousness, the film has succeeded.

I’m struggling to think of anything else it does well.

 

People are desperate to plant their flag after seeing Saló. It’s exactly the sort of film that provokes either extreme love or extreme hatred. You can roughly sum it up as; Admired by Nihilists, Reviled by Moralists. There’s not really much room for my reaction, which was one of mostly indifference.

And I’m upset by my indifference towards it. I wanted to be incensed by it, I wanted to be filled with the extreme adoration or extreme anguish that the film supposedly provokes. It’s a musing on power. It’s an exploration of sexual depravity. It’s a hate filled, misanthropic bastard film. It’s disgusting. It’s beautiful.

It’s not really anything. If anything, the best term I can come up with it is this. “It’s a limp sketch”. Limp because its pretty boring. A sketch because its pretty half-baked. If that’s me throwing down the gauntlet, it’s not much of one. I don’t want to hate this film, generally most cinephiles spend their time railing against mass manufactured, uninspired films made on formulas. The generic if you will. We always try to champion the individual artistic statement (hell it was cinephiles who had the arrogance/self belief to invent the auteur theory, a theoretical prism of viewing film which attributes sole intent to the director) over the mass-produced schlock.

Pasolini made his statement. And I commend him for that. But his statement is caught in an odd place. For its one of the most controversial films ever made, and yet in comparison to the story it is based on, written by the infamous Marquis De Sade, well it looks positively PG.  And I think here lies an incredible crux. Because the depravity of the story has been effectively dismantled, the revulsion inspired by the film is incomparable to the revulsion that can be inspired by the text, because the text is really untransferrable, because its fantasy.

Now of course, millions of fantasies have been transferred from book to screen. But the kind of fantasies involved in this are not the fantasies we ever expose ourselves to. These are fantasies of the most profane, the kind of fantasies we dare not speak them out loud for they represent such abject horror that to utter them is almost a sin. De Sade does not just call for sexual liberation, he calls for absolute sexual freedom, the ability to get your rocks off to anything, no matter how monstrous. And I’m not just talking BDSM (the S is for Sadism, named after guess who) or some peculiar fetishes here. The book uses pedophilic pleasure as a base for every other story told by the madames to enjoy. In the final months of the book, equivalent to Pasolini’s “Circle of Blood”, the madames tell stories about men getting their rocks off to disembowelment of pregnant women, skinning of children alive, and an infinite number of unimaginable horrors. The best the film does in this regard is the torturing of the captives.

Pasolini would have been a genuine madman to ever attempt to properly capture the absolute mental insanity, the unhinged words of Marquis De Sade. No one could ever do justice (ha) to it, besides De Sade himself, and the only way he could do justice to his vision was to enact his fantasies into the real world. The libertine’s destruction. So Pasolini fundamentally changes the internal structure of the tale, turning it from an indulgent fantasy to an indulgent allegory. I can’t find the direct source, but it is said that Pasolini meant the corprophilic scenes as a comment on the fast food industry, the willingness and often desire for people to literally, eat shit.

But who cares at the end of the day, because this film exists almost as a blank slate to inscribe your meaning onto. It’s oppressively neutral. It’s a vacuum, because it ignores for the most part, the second half of human existence. The first is action. The second is consequences. There are no consequences to any of the actions. There’s just a general descent into highly detailed degeneracy. The insular world becomes a mirror to its own hollowness. Even crumbs of construction, the girls that develop a lesbian relationship, the socialist salute of the ‘transgressive’ guard who sleeps with a black servant girl, don’t really offer anything besides fleeting fragments of meaning in an ocean of grey void.

Look maybe the reason why nihilism never took off is because it’s really fucking boring, and it doesn’t contribute anything interesting. It’s the ultimate critic, because all it does is deconstruct everything, and contribute nothing. Sade finds his construction in his pursuit of pleasure. Pasolini doesn’t even find it in that.

It takes no stance. It’s characters discuss the relationships of power without ever coming to any conclusions. They drop famous libertine writers in, Nietzsche being the name most people would pick up on, without actually discussing what the ideas mean, or what they can mean. Nobody contains any depth, any motivation. Because their motivation for desire is completely separate from the films stylistic concerns.

Everybody says exactly what they think, which ends up as an effect described in this video essay underneath as “Talking Wallpaper”:

We are not invited to be part of these events, the window does not open and we cannot climb through. We simply watch them from the vast chasm of the room, their passivity not allowing us any conduit to witness the events from a viewpoint. This is not entrancing, hypnotic cinema. It is not making you complicit in its crimes, it’s simply making you an uninvolved witness. Which is without a doubt, the worst message Pasolini could ever have conveyed.

Pasolini was a well know left-wing filmmaker and political activist in Italy, and his films have been the endless study of marxist film critics and those with Communist leanings. His films are just begging for that indulgent transcribing of political subtext onto film, something I am not a great fan of. And the literature on this film fills books (the BFI edition I purchased comes with a booklet of essays). But at the end of the day, if you really believe this film’s worth, then the best compliment you can give it is your silence. Because it’s not a film which wants to be talked about. It’s a film which does its best to confront you with examples of human cruelty, and its ability to adapt, and leaves you to draw your own conclusions. It’s the abandonment of everything beyond primordial desires, far beyond the realm of judgement. Anybody who tries to inscribe it as a condemnation of fascism is missing the point, because all it is conveying a well-known platitude; that people with power have the ability to abuse it.

So enough with this film. Saló is controversial, but controversy doesn’t mean its good, and it doesn’t mean its interesting. Enough using this film as a litmus test for how out there a film is, because it’s not very out there.

In fact, it’s not very much at all.

-Alex

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Saló or 120 Days Of Sodom : Mythologising The Inane/The Insane