19 June 2014

The Deer Hunter -- Stripped of Controversy it is a Magnificent Film


Never dreaming that I shall be clarifying and condensing that chronicle of simple things through which I blundered so diffidently. - From Memories of an Infantry Officer by Siegfried Sassoon.

I left part of what I loved most in the back of my life. The joy that I accumulated was safely stowed and I was left with thecesI left part of what I loved most in the back of my life. The joy that I accumulated was safely stowed and I was left with thes of deep longing and the fervent hope that I could regain lost awakenings. The desperate cries of broken dramas tore at my psyche and rendered me incapable of lifting burdens from my tormented heart. I was alone with 1,000 yesterdays and many more fretful dreams.

Lost. The day gone. The achings buried. The time spoiled by muckings and droppings of my corduroy youth. The last of on the morrow when yearnings would be least loved and only lightly remembered. 

So I learned. 

A movie can carry a lot of baggage with it. We read the book. We first saw it with someone we subsequently broke up with. We last saw it on a day when we got some bad news. We read all about the controversy surrounding the film and didn't see it for years. We read a spoiler before seeing it the first time.

Perhaps the ideal way to see a film for the first time is to know absolutely nothing about it. Our mind completely clear of any preconceptions. Of course that pure virginal experience can still be tainted by events after the movie -- someone we respect has a diametrically different view of it or we subsequently read a horror story about the director's behavior on set.

I first saw Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) upon its initial theatrical release unaware of much of anything other than that it was a critically acclaimed movie centering around the Vietnam War. Back then a film's critical acclaim didn't mean so much to me and being about Vietnam was interesting but not a selling point. The US had only left Vietnam a few years before and movies having anything to do with the fiasco were only just beginning to be made. And in truth while the war was a central issue to the film less than a third of it was set there.

The Deer Hunter provided one of the most profound cinematic experiences of my young adulthood. The scenes in Vietnam -- especially of course the Russian Roulette ones -- made my heart pound palms sweat and imagination race. I wanted to see the movie a second time and never see it again. I wanted to think and talk about it and avoid it completely. I had nightmares about it.

Then came the controversy -- or at least my awareness of it. The Deer Hunter, it was said, was racist as it suggested that the North Vietnamese were sadistic stick figures who forced prisoners to play Russian Roulette. Also the closing scene where the characters sing God Bless America was maudlin sappy patriotism. Surely this was a pro war film for the right and violated my political beliefs. Now I would have to turn my back on the The Deer Hunter and decry it. Which for decades I did.

It was not until I discovered Cimino's subsequent film, Heaven's Gate (1980), a year and a half ago that I even considered re-visiting The Deer Hunter. Happily I did.

The Deer Hunter, despite the controversy that surrounded it, was highly acclaimed by critics and earned numerous awards including the academy award for best picture. While hardly forgotten today its telling that I got my DVD copy of it for under $4 and there were no commemorative special editions for its 20th or 25th anniversary or any other anniversary and I see no plans for one in the future. I can only speculate whether this is a result of  the controversy surrounding it.

The cast was top rate with Robert DeNiro in the lead and a supporting cast led by Christopher Walken (who won an Oscar for his role) Meryl Streep and in his final film role before his death from cancer, John Cazale (this was one of five films Cazale appeared in and they all were nominated for best picture with three of them winning).

The film is long but only if you look at the time of the film. If you just watch it The Deer Hunter is just as long as it needs to be. It needs to take its time in the small steel town in Pennsylvania at the job at the wedding at the bar on the deer hunting trip. And of course in Vietnam and back home again. You need to become acquainted with these American working class people as they go through their rituals and laugh and cry and drink drink drink. It is not idyllic but it is happy and it is American and there is a spirit of life to it and thus there is the incredible shock when suddenly we see the boys in Vietnam. At war. With death and fire and bullets and the enemy their new companions. The horror of capture. The rats the confinement the cruelty. Okay it was an exaggeration in reality the Russian Roulette was not done but movies should bot be taken literally. The idea of using Russian Roulette came before it was decided that the movie would be set in Vietnam. This is also a film rich in symbolism that viewers can explore in depth or ignore at their pleasure and the Russian Roulette scenes are rife with symbolism.

And that God Bless America ending is infinitely more ironic than patriotic.

The Deer Hunter is a hefty film. It weighs on the psyche. It is heavy with our culture and with meaning. It reflects the rape of innocence that war brings to a society. It is filled with loyalty friendship and the degeneration of the human mind in the face of utter horror. It is about hope and promise and love.

Cimino became a Hollywood golden boy with the success of The Deer Hunter a sterling reputation that went straight down the toilet with the incredible budget fiasco that was Heaven's Gate as well as the tepid response to that film. Okay not so much tepid as scathing. That film has been restored re-released and hailed by many including yours truly. It's Criterion edition is spectacular and it was one of my favorite films of all time. The Deer Hunter is also a film I now revere as I am able to watch it mindless of any controversy extraneous to the cinematic experience. I can recommend the film without qualification.










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