A Working Class Movie Without Middle Class Condescension
Compared to the bitter controversy generated by The Deer Hunter, the recent debate over the merits of Apocalypse Now seems a model of patience and critical civility. The issue of the latter was not whether Francis Ford Coppola missed his mark, but by how much he missed it, and why? Not so with The Deer Hunter. Despite five Academy Awards and some intelligent praise (notably from Vincent Canby), Michael Cimino's movie was roundly condemned by ex-Vietnam journalists and most of America's critical elite. Writing in The Nation, Gloria Emerson, author of Winners and Losers, called this film "the creation of a shrewd monster," and put forth a special plea: "Do not enrich him further by going to see The Deer Hunter." John Simon, critic for the National Review, capped his own unsparing denunciation with the ad hominem argument: "It is no wonder that Michael Cimino has made so mendacious a film, since he himself is a liar." Implicit in these angry words is a quarrel, not just with Cimino, but with tens of thousands of perceptive Americans who found The Deer Hunter moving, credible, and thought-provoking. Righteous or otherwise, wrath settles nothing. And in fact nothing has been settled. Critically speaking, The Deer Hunter is still on the loose. Part of the explanation for this is prejudice: not the nasty prejudice of unrepentant hawks, but the wholesome prejudice of morally earnest citizens who are afraid of being cozened by any of the myths that sent us to Vietnam in the first place. The Deer Hunter may be an anti-war film, but it is not an anti-Vietnam War film; it says nothing about the political dimension of America's involvement in Southeast Asia and next to nothing about what really happened there. The two Vietnam sequences are dreamlike, grisly, and racist. Except for one wickedly decadent Frenchman (Pierre Segui), all of the film's villains are Orientals, and all of its Orientals are either villains or victims. We are given ample reason to pity the Vietnamese, but no reason to respect them. To make matters worse, the Viet Cong atrocities shown in the first Vietnam sequence bear striking resemblance to published accounts of the My Lai massacre—only on a much smaller scale. As such, the film deserved rebuke, and those critics who raised the issue of moral responsibility were right to do so. But they were wrong to belittle the film as a whole.
Though probably inevitable, it is nevertheless misleading to categorize The Deer Hunter as a film about Vietnam. One would do better to call it a film about closed societies in Pennsylvania, or a study of the lower limits of verbal communication. In spite of our discovery early in the film that Mike, Nick, and Steve (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) are leaving for Vietnam "in a couple of days," that knowledge weighs on us almost as lightly as it does on the characters themselves. There is no discussion on screen of why these men have enlisted, nor of how they perceive the war, nor of what they expect to find when they arrive. For over an hour our attention is diverted by scenes of drinking, driving, dancing, and hunting. The mood is nervous at times, but generally playful. A banner at the wedding reception in seedy Lemko Hall (American Legion or VFW) proclaims that Mike, Nick, and Steve will be "SERVING GOD AND COUNTRY PROUDLY." Yet apart from a few one-word references to Vietnam and a brief encounter with a morose Green Beret, there is nothing to particularize their destination.
The break from Clairton, Pennsylvania, to the jungles of Vietnam is absolute. Using an unmarked "slam" cut, Cimino jolts us from a scene of midwinter nights' camaraderie in John Welsh's bar, with John (George Dzundza) at the piano playing a Chopin Nocturne, to a burning village overrun by sadistic Communist soldiers, a barrage of mortar shells, and a half-crazed pig gnawing on a human limb—under the benign canopy of a sunny tropical sky. In less than five minutes, Mike, Nick, and Steve, implausibly reunited, find themselves caged in a watery stockade run by a band of Viet Cong guerillas, who are systematically exterminating their prisoners by forcing them to play Russian roulette. As the horror unfolds, so does our skepticism. We are prepared to believe the worst about Vietnam, but not this worst. We search our memories for news service references to Russian roulette during the Vietnam years, and come up with nothing. The sets are right but the action is wrong. We are looking at a mock-Vietnam, oddly out of touch with historical reality.
Only in retrospect can we appreciate the point of these Vietnam episodes. What we have witnessed is not an attempted recreation of historical reality, but a semi-symbolic representation of a personal nightmare. (Cimino has called it "surrealistic.") The perspective is that of G.I.s who have suffered immensely in an alien conflict, which, despite their own complicity, they are unable to comprehend. The artistic problem is that of conveying their unenlightened agony to a jaded audience with definite ideas (pro or con) about the Vietnam War.
In Hal Ashby's film Coming Home, paraplegic veteran Luke Martin (Jon Voight) asks Sally "Bender-over" Hyde (Jane Fonda) if her husband has written to her about his combat experiences in Vietnam. Without waiting for a reply, Luke adds bitterly, "Whatever he says, it's a hundred times worse." If words fail, so too may pictures. (Both fail nicely in Apocalypse Now.) It is difficult to move an audience surfeited with violence. The War in Vietnam was a nightly TV series long before it became acceptable fare in Hollywood. Coming Home tries to convey the brutality of the war by not showing us what happened there. The Deer Hunter tries by showing us something that did not happen there—or happened so rarely as to be mere aberration. Whatever its aesthetic drawbacks, Russian roulette, complete with gushing blood and punctured crania, is gripping, intimate, and rigorously maniacal. (A predictable achievement for Cimino, who served his apprenticeship under Clint Eastwood.) We all get two for flinching.
And yet, the real strength of The Deer Hunter lies elsewhere. Though working class films are common enough, it is a rare thing for an American movie to portray working-class life without middle-class bias or condescension. Most Americans, including many working-class Americans, take for granted the unspoken tenet of the American dream that the life of an ordinary laborer is a slightly dishonorable state, above which any capable young adult should naturally aspire to rise. What surprises us about the characters in The Deer Hunter is their lack of discontent with their glamourless jobs and dingy surroundings. These men and women are not ashamed of the work they do, nor of the homes in which they live, nor of how they spend their time. Unlike such recent converts to the American dream as Tony and Stephanie in Saturday Night Fever or young "cutter" Dave in Breaking Away, they exhibit no ambition to "better themselves" or to escape the confines of Clairton's Russian-American ghetto.
When we first see Mike and his friends, they are sweating out the night shift inside Clairton's mammoth steel mill (the interior was shot in Cleveland). They are surrounded by hulking machinery and streams of molten metal; fires blaze from blackened apertures amidst a constant din of clanging steel and hissing furnaces. It is a perfect image of a manmade hell—and ideal employment for The Deer Hunter’s widescreen cum Dolby sound system. Although we do not re-enter this sheltered inferno until after Mike's return from Vietnam, and then only for a moment, the sprawling mill's grimy exterior pursues us throughout the film. We see it from Mike and Nick's mobile home, from the street in front of Welsh's Lounge, from the basketball court where Mike and Nick talk, from the edge-of-town motel where Mike and Linda (merely) sleep together, and—most pointedly—from the graveyard where Nick is buried. Set against the green hills of the Alleghenies, it conjures up Blake's "dark Satanic Mills" and stirs our repugnance to industrial blight.
But this dim view is not shared by the characters themselves. For them the mill is a natural and integral part of their protected community. It is a place to work, just as their lavishly decorated church is a place to pray or marry, their favorite bar a place to drink, and their mountains a place to hunt. We discriminate, they do not. For these second and third generation Russian-Americans, Clairton is very close to being a "New Jerusalem." Sitting with Mike on a frozen basketball court after the wedding reception, Nick, still half drunk, utters the most revealing lines of the film: "The whole thing is right here. I love this fuckin' place." Though different only in point of language from the homey wisdom of Edgar Guest and Dorothy Gale, this unfashionable sentiment informs the entire production. Without sacrificing the individuality of its characters, The Deer Hunter gives us more than a sympathetic portrait of provincial steel workers; it gives us an artful depiction of one of America's least vocal minorities from an axiological perspective remarkably similar to their own.
Nearly thirty years ago, the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre advanced the extraordinary claim that the truth of a social order can only be seen through the eyes of the poorest of the poor. Certainly, the chaacters of The Deer Hunter are not among the poorest of America's poor—except, perhaps, in one vital respect. The peculiar poverty that afflicts Michael and his circle of friends is a poverty of words rather than a poverty of material resources. Whatever the causes of their privation, and one suspects that it is largely a function of cultural heritage, these robust men and women seem to lack the linguistic wherewithal to articulate their deepest concerns, convictions, perceptions, and doubts. Language for them is not so much a means of communication as an obstacle to communication, and perhaps an obstacle to private reflection as well. Oddly enough, the same paradox applies to the smart verbal profligates of Woody Alien's Manhattan. Alien's characters handle language like a stack of credit cards; they substitute wit for plain thoughts and feelings, and end up buying what they cannot afford. Cimino's characters negotiate with the small change of bowling alley vernacular; they sell short their best thoughts and feelings, holding nothing in reserve for times of crisis.
The depth of this verbal poverty does not become evident until after Mike's return from Vietnam. The dialogue that we hear during the first hour of the picture is simple and coarse enough, a realistic blend of blue-collar banter and halting efforts at more serious conversation, but it seems roughly adequate to meet the needs of the speakers. Toward the end of the first Vietnam sequence, we watch Nick reduced to speechlessness by the irksome questions of an insensitive army doctor. Yet, given his recent agonies, the larger significance of Nick's verbal breakdown remains unclear until we see Angela (Rutanya Alda) cowering in bed, helplessly mute in Clairton. The other survivors do better, but not much better. In spite of the emotional bonds that unite them, Mike and Linda have enormous difficulty getting beyond an exchange of banalities. Their longest and most intimate conversation takes place in Mike's mobile home the night after his return to Clairton: "No, don't go," Linda says, "I got all this food. I'll make you a nice sit-down dinner." "I can't," Mike replies.
"Mike, . . . why don't we go to bed? Can't we just comfort each other?"
"No, I can't, not tonight. I got to get out of here. Sorry, I got to get out. I'll be ... I don't know, I feel a lot of distance, and I feel far away. I'll see you later." Mike leaves. And after a moment Linda follows him.
A few days later, outside the supermarket, Linda makes a stab at philosophical dialogue: "Did you ever think life would turn out like this?" "No," says Mike. The dialogue ends.
Mike's conversations with his male companions are a bit less strained, but just as inarticulate. Even with Steve, who has shared the worst of Vietnam and owes what is left of his life to Mike's heroics, the level of discourse is pitifully low. There is, no doubt, a limit to the amount of solace that words can provide, but these linguistic paupers are nowhere near that limit. Before Vietnam intruded on their lives, much of what they lacked in verbal skills was made up by ancillary forms of communication. Relying on the protection of familiar routines, they filled in the gaps with curses and clichés, facial expressions, gestures, rituals, and music. Now, the gap is too wide.
After Nick's funeral, the survivors gather at John's bar for breakfast. Except for one brief remark about the weather, their entire conversation consists of bland suggestions for preparing the meal. They speak of coffee, cups, eggs, toast, and beer. Standing alone in the kitchen over a large bowl of partially beaten eggs, John—whose special mode of communication has been a joyfully infectious laugh—starts to cry. In a palpable effort to hold back his tears, he begins to hum, and then to sing "God Bless America." Though feeble at first, his voice gradually regains some of the strength and resonance that it had in the wedding choir at St. Thedosius's Church. The song is clearly audible in the next room, where the rest of the party is now sitting in silence. Linda is the first to pick it up. After a moment, the others join in. When the song is over, Mike raises his glass: "Here's to Nick." "To Nick," the others say. The movie ends.
Far from being an expression of recalcitrant jingoism, as some critics have charged, this final scene is a gently ironic depiction of baffled mourners reaching out for words that they themselves cannot command. Lacking the capacity to articulate the mix of emotions they feel or to formulate justifications for what has happened to them, Michael and his friends fall back upon the simplistic verse of a rote-learned school song. The note of affirmation is genuine, but what they are affirming is neither the geo-political philosophy behind America's ill-fated involvement in Vietnam nor some comic book version of "the American way." They are affirming what they can understand and what, for them, has not changed. The emphasis falls upon the last line of the song, "God bless America, my home sweet home," with the added qualification that "America" is nearly synonymous with "Clairton." There is a bit of wisdom for us all in this sadly ingenuous supplication, but not a shred of knowledge. Through the eyes of these linguistically "poorest of the poor," what we see of the larger social order that defined, debated, and ultimately repudiated America's role in Vietnam is only dismay and confusion.
Of the several techniques that save The Deer Hunter from pathos the most intriguing is the unpredictable progression of the film's dramatic action. Although the behavior of the principal characters—outside of Vietnam—is eminently believable, we have no sure sense of what they will do or say next. As a rule, American directors are more faithful than Greek tragedians in following Aristotle's dictum to present "what is possible as probable or necessary." From the moment that Jane Fonda knocks over Jon Voight's urine bag in Coming Home, all the signs tell us they will end up as lovers. But Cimino practices a different art: by maintaining a mix of behavioral signs, he presents the possible as plausible without making it seem probable. The reddest of The Deer Hunter's dramatic herrings is Mike's tough advice to Nick in the VC compound: "I'm saying forget [Steven], he ain't coming back." In fact, they don't forget him and he does come back. If we are slightly surprised later on, when Mike decides to go deer hunting just after his return from Vietnam, we are also slightly surprised when he decides not to shoot the deer—though we would have been equally surprised if he had shot the deer. Angela's pregnancy turns out to be a non-issue, as does the romantic triangle between Nick, Mike, and Linda. There is nothing particularly mysterious about such alterations. Life is full of loose ends, false starts, changing circumstances, and spontaneous decisions. But art? Cimino pays a price for defying the canons of dramatic unity, but in return he gives his proletarian characters a quality rarely found in American movies: a convincing semblance of freedom.
A film worth seeing is no cause for wonder: probably ten percent of the films being made today warrant the high price of admission. A much rarer find is a film worth talking about. With all its flaws, and to some extent because of them, The Deer Hunter is a film that deserves to be discussed at length and in detail. It is soothing to discover one's own convictions embedded in celluloid, but considerably more instructive to have those convictions called into question by a cinematic viewpoint different from one's own.