Monday, July 18, 2016

Michael Cimino | The Deer Hunter

this is this
by Douglas Messerli

Deric Washburn and Michael Cimino, screenplay, based on a story by Louis Garfinkle and Quinnn K. Redeker), Michael Cimino (director) The Deer Hunter / 1978

When my companion Howard and I first saw Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter in 1978, I was very moved by it; but after my strongly leftist friend, Bruce Andrews, mentioned his disdain for its portrayal of the Vietnamese, I had to agree; and after that I began to think of the movie quite differently, particularly since there has never been any documentation that the Viet Cong actually played Russian roulette with their captives. Over the years, and particularly after the hubris Cimino revealed in his huge flop of a film, Heaven’s Gate, any enthusiasm I once felt had dwindled away. Even The Deer Hunter, given Cimino’s near-maniacal meticulousness, cost the producers twice their committed budget.

Yet, upon the death of Cimino on July 2nd of this year, I determined to once again watch the film, but, despite its later inclusion The National Film Registry, was still put off by its three hour length. When I could not get a copy of Heaven’s Gate, however, I dutifully ordered The Deer Hunter and determinedly sat down to watch. After all this time, I perceived it with a less jaundiced eye, and returned to my first gut feelings. It was, after all, an excellent work of art, even if its portrayal of the Vietnamese was exaggerated and its central metaphor—that the Viet Nam war for all those involved and even those who remained home a bit like playing a dangerous game of chance that utterly effected generations of Americans—was somewhat over exaggerated, particularly given the other sketchy plot elements of the three central figures during the war and after.

      It is only in the first act, the early steel mill clips, the long wedding scene and the deer hunting trip after, that we truly get to know something about the lives and personalities of the film’s characters, which explains Act 1’s hour-long length. Without that, indeed, we could not begin to comprehend the hero’s later behavior as captives and escapees. And surely we might find it impossible to believe the self-destructive actions of Nick Chevotarevich (Christopher Walken). Presumably, that is why the director need his cut of 3 hours rather than the studio cut of 2.
      What now became even more apparent watching the film this time around, was that these several friends, mostly of Russian extraction, working in the steel mill of the small town of Clairton, Pennsylvania are already living in a kind of hell. Their small homes are ramshackle creations that might remind one almost of Popeye’s comic Sweethaven. Parents are brutal and dominating; Linda Prior’s (Meryl Streep) drunken father even beats her, while Steven Pushkov’s (John Savage) mother takes a stick to him to bring him home. These men find their little pleasures primarily in one another’s company, falling into relationships with the opposite sex seemingly by accident. Steve is about to marry a woman who is expecting another man’s baby. And Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro) and Nick are both attracted to Linda. Their work in the mills, where they faced with its Vulcan flames, is very much like their battles in Viet Nam and the horrors of Saigon.
     Together these men share alcohol and horse around with one another as if they were eternal adolescents, using of the language of high school locker rooms and wrestling with one another while describing anyone who acts in any other manner as “faggots.”
     Film critic Robin Wood has described their relationships as “homosocial bonding.” And like him, I now perceive a “putative homosexual subtext” in this film, particularly in the relationship between Mike and Nick. Mike, indeed, is the most controlling and seemingly mature of his group, and Nick, younger and more charmingly open to the world around him. 
     Cimino establishes their relationship early in the film as they celebrate at the local bar, John’s (which he correctly argues complements the later gambling den in Saigon, together sharing a game of pool as Frankie Vali croons out Bob Crewe’s lyrics (Crewe, an acquaintance, was openly gay), “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” while they sing along, as they almost longingly stare down each other:

                                   You're just too good to be true
                                   I can't take my eyes off you
                                   You'd be like heaven to touch
                                   I wanna hold you so much
                                   At long last love has arrived
                                   And I thank God I'm alive
                                   You're just too good to be true
                                   Can't take my eyes off you


     I’m not so certain that I might go as far as Wood does when he argues that Nick’s fixation with Russian roulette is a displacement of the time when he and Mike were most closely bonded in their captivity, and which he describes as "a monstrously perverted enactment of the union he has always desired.” But their interconnection is palpable, even at the wedding ceremony, and it is their unstated love which, perhaps, also explains their attraction to the same woman.

     Moreover, Nick clearly does feel betrayed by Mike when not only does he insist they must leave behind their weaker friend, Steve, but when later both Nick and Steve are left to possibly die when Mike makes his helicopter escape (their breathtaking drop back into the river was, evidently, an accident which Cimino left in the film cut that nearly killed cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond). 
      Certainly Mike is a controller. He insists that anyone killing a deer must do it with one “clean bullet.” And when somewhat finicky and fussy friend Stan (John Cazale, who was in a relationship with Meryl Streep and who died of cancer soon after shooting stopped) wants to borrow his extra footwear, having once again forgotten to bring his own, he absolutely refuses, astonishing the more compliant Nick. Yet, it is Mike who brings the legless Steve back from the Veteran hospital to his wife, and it is Mike who flies to Saigon to claim Nick from the insanity of his behavior—even if the act does end in Nick’s suicide. Mike is believer in the obvious: “This is this.”

       In some respects, however,—although he has, in his mad game of chance, truly gone into a kind of insane trance—Nick may be the greatest truth teller of the group. He has come to recognize the war for what it truly is: a deadly nihilist game of chance. And just like the daring William James in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, so has Nick become addicted to war and its dangers, from which even Mike’s love cannot cure him. Surely, he realizes that in his “This is this” attitude, Mike will always insist upon normality, however repressive that may be. 
      The last scene, played out after Nick’s funeral in this small town American version of hell, reveals that, in fact, all of the survivors, Steve, his wife Angela, Mike, Linda, Stan, and the bar owner John Welsh are, somewhat at least, deluded in their naïve patriotism. But by choosing “God Bless America” to sing aren’t they also asking for guidance, praying for God himself to come down to show their country the way to move forward? 
      As I have written several times in this volume, I am not a believer. I cannot imagine any god who can “bless” or has “blessed” this country. But I also cannot dismiss anyone who wishes for further guidance and a desire for future hope. And, despite many initial viewers’ negative reactions, it’s this ending that helps to make what, otherwise, is a deeply negative view of the world, a great movie. In the Viet Nam war (in any war), Cimino and his co-writers suggest, many Americans lost their innocence; but most went on to reclaim their lives. It’s too bad, it seems, that we must rediscover these truths again and again.

Los Angeles, July 18, 2016

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