Sunday, November 13, 2011

This is this...

On a sickbed (nasty cold) and on leave from a family gathering (not wanting to spread germs), I decided to revisit Michael Cimino's only masterwork, 1978's The Deer Hunter. I've had a love/hate relationship with this film since first seeing it when it was released.

I was still in high school when I saw it the first time and, in fact, saw it twice in '78. The first time I saw it with a friend and the decision to see it was based on my recommendation as I had probably read a review about the film and knew it was not to be missed. A couple things I remember about seeing it then - neither of us realized how long the movie was. We went to a 9:00 p.m. screening on a - God forbid - school night. I wasn't under the hammer of strict parents and curfew but my friend John was. I remember him whispering at around the two hour mark (about 11:00 p.m.), that he was dead. But I was the driver and I wasn't about to leave. By the time it ended, just after midnight, John ran out of the theater to get to the car fast - as if that was going to make up being late. We still had a about a half hour drive home ahead of us. And that drive home was in complete silence.

And, while John may have been fearing the wrath of his parents, I think the silence was due to the film. At 17, I couldn't fully grasp the establishing first hour (what was that all about, I wondered), the second hour was unbearably tense and the final hour unbearably sad. Probably 95% of the film's symbolism and flash forwarding was lost on me on a conscious level. But something happened subconsciously.

I saw the film with another friend a couple weeks later and this time I eased into it's flow and time frame. The film's three-part structure made more sense and I realized that the conclusion of the film wouldn't have had the same power had not the establishing first hour happened. Simply, I needed that second viewing to come to terms with it. And the friend I saw it with - Larry - got it immediately. He had also been writing a paper on Vietnam for a class so the film provided a humanistic framework for his research. John, on the other hand, got in trouble at home and that overshadowed his experience with the movie. He never wanted to talk about it.

When I saw the film on videotape 10 or so years later I was disappointed. The image (though I now know why) was washed out, small, chopped, and crushed. Because it was panned and scanned, its vistas were lost, main characters in the margins of the screen were missing. It was like watching half the film but in its three hour time frame. I was depressed by it and found it completely unbelievable.

In the early days of DVD, I watched it again and saw its power but strugged with character believabilty. I also had a problem with the "God Bless America" ending and wrestled with its meaning. Directorial irony? Too forced. Reality? Possibly. Maybe the characters would do this and mean it on a literal level but I don't know if they were capable of irony except possibly for Michael, a character who undergoes phenomenal change by the end of the film. But I don't know that Michael would do this because, by the film's conclusion, he is a fully internalized man.

So with this recent viewing, I didn't try to find all of its subtext. And this time I believed these characters would act how they did. I believed in the environment on all fronts - home pre-Vietnam, Vietnam and home post-Vietnam. I believed Nick would end up where he did and I believed Michael would have kept his word to Nick even though he failed.

And, shedding the struggle to find deeper meaning, I even believed the "God Bess America" finality.

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