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  Viet Nam Generation
Journal & Newsletter

V4, N1-2 (April 1992)

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Film: Viet Nam Regurgitated

Cynthia Fuchs, Film Studies, George Mason University

"Freedom of speech? Yeah...Just watch what you say." -- Ice T

Revising the Viet Nam War is one of this country's few remaining growth industries. The versions are many, but also similar and increasingly familiar: good white guys confront the U.S. government that betrayed them. That is, the much- celebrated freedom to speak out against corruption is limited by prescriptive, conventional mythology which recycles hetero-white-male heroism even as it laments damage done by just such mythology.

The irony is that this fantasy persists despite what may be Viet Nam's most radical corollary, its transformation of the notion of "history" itself. After being sustained for decades by official and personal lies, the War is now a term --"Viet Nam"--which now represents an undiscoverable and odiously buried truth, a "real" War that must exist "out there," but one that remains forever beyond narrative recuperation.

To resurrect some new and improved history from under the onus of fiction is the self-assigned task of two recent films. On the surface, their approaches to this excavation could not be more different: Oliver Stone's JFK rewrites the Kennedy assassination as the critical moment in the War's escalation, while Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper's Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse revises a revision of Viet Nam by tracing the notoriously overwrought production of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). However, the thematic similarities of these films are far more disturbing than their differences, in that they reinscribe nobly obsessive white men as their heroes. Just whose history is at stake in these revisions? (Watch what you say.)

JFK is a messy, angry, and compelling movie. This is in part attributable to Stone's very visible and messy anger. When, prior to the film's release, theaters ran the trailer hailing "The story that won't go away," I heard more than one patron, on different occasions, yell back at the screen, "From the director who won't go away!" But if the perpetrator of such disturbing and hugely popular films as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July is inarguably lunatic in his self-appointed sense of mission, he is also a resourceful and effective propangandist. The film's multiple repercussions include public demand for release of the assassination files and various discussions of fallacious "histories." (When even TV Guide [Feb 23-29] is concerned that media news may not be gospel--evidenced by a cover story called "Fake News?"--such anxiety is clearly contagious.)

The well-advertised purpose of is to fuck with the Warren Commission's explication of the assassination. It does this with some style, less grace, and more than a little recourse to the bland appeal of superstraight Kevin Costner. The combination of Stone's too familiar inability to get his mind around any non-white-hetero-male character, and Costner- as-Jim Garrison's impeccably virtuous pursuit of the villains, severely hampers the film's argument against the System. For such other-phobic concoctions are repeatedly produced by that System, and add up to yet another white-man- saves-the-world myth.

Here that man is a weird conflation of Garrison, Stone, and the ubiquitous Costner persona. His position as good guy is established by his enemies, outrageous homosexuals whose part in a New Orleans underground is revealed by a strangely coded flashback. At the same time that "real" businessman Clay Shaw/Tommy Lee Jones denies his acquaintance with "real" David Ferrie/Joe Pesci and "fictional" prostitute Willie O'Keefe/Kevin Bacon, the silent image shows the three of them (plus an unnamed fourth) with painted bodies, acting out some sort of 18th-century decadence. (Watch what you say.) Silenced and condemned, the men in this scene are presented as raging perverts, the sort who would need to prove their masculinity by engineering what Garrison/Costner calls a "coup d'etat."

This assault on all that is right and good (embodied by the dead Kennedy and reincarnated by the Garrison/Costner/ Stone character) is further illustrated by Garrison/Costner's troubled relationship with a wife (Sissy Spacek) who demands his (sexual) attention. Her lack of sympathy regarding his pursuit of Truth and Justice makes her seem unforgivably selfish, as Garrison/Costner declares his desire to recover "history" for his son (played by Stone's son Sean: whose history is this?).

At the same time, though, the film displays a remarkable understanding of officially sanctioned history as a text recorded and revised by white men who have something to hide. This is an insight rarely manifested in mainstream movies. To upset everyone from Gerry Ford to Entertainment Weekly to Newsweek to Robert Sam Anson, all of whom have accused the movie of didactic and persuasive lying (which, granted, is nothing new in Stone's work) is highly commendable. The film's swift intercutting of the Zapruder film, news footage, color, reenactments, models, black and white, sepia, stills, charts, photos, and hyperbolic speculation, tends to leave difficult issues out. (We can only assume that Stone plans to address charges of homophobia in his next movie, based on the life and death of Harvey Milk.)

But Stone also offers a suspect and unconvincingly staged revision of the historical Kennedy as woulda-been savior, a champion of everything from Civil Rights to a withdrawal from Viet Nam. For instance, after Garrison/ Costner gets the summary low-down on the CIA-FBI-Naval Intelligence-Anti-Castroites conspiracy from Mr. X (Donald Sutherland as a version of Fletcher Prouty), the devastated DA looks up to see two black girls in white dresses and pigtails dancing on the Mall in Washington DC. As if this glorious vision of what might have been is not enough, Garrison/Costner then visits JFK's grave. While he gazes at the eternal flame, the camera pulls out to reveal a black man who appears to be instructing his young son on the virtues of the fallen leader of the Free World. Like the gay cavorters, this scene is also in pantomime, as the John Williams score has by now transcended any conscionable soundtrack level. If only the great white president had lived, Stone implies, its own tedious conventions would be atavistic, its careless use of racist and heterosexist images unimaginable.

Dream on.

JFK's methods are crude, its final courtroom scene lifts staging from Capra's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, it bends myth around fact, and it evades some issues when it hammers at others. It's giddy and erratic, like a mission fulfilled. Even when Shaw is absolved of Garrison/Costner/Stone's conspiracy charges, the film vindicates its hero: he walks down a lonely courthouse hallway, flanked by his wife and son, a noble hysteric in search of a history that no one else will recognize.

Compared to JFK, Hearts of Darkness seems almost subtle. Which is not to say that it is any less delirious, desperate, or self-delusional. The difference is that it presents Coppola as the Star of his own mess, a white man who is too big, overbearing, and fretful to disguise in any heroic trapping. The documentary is assembled from footage taken by Eleanor Coppola (FFC's wife) during Apocalypse Now's principal photography in the Philippines from 1977-78, plus audio recordings, a 1938 recording of Orson Welles reading Conrad's Heart of Darkness (an unmade movie that obsessed that great white lunatic as well), and recent interviews with the principal players (including both Coppolas, George Lucas, Sam Bottoms, Frederic Forrest, and Dennis Hopper, whose wry confession--"I was not in the greatest of shape"--is evidenced by his amazing fried-brain performance as the photographer at Kurtz's compound). The result is a text determined to undo itself.

Hearts opens with Coppola on top. "My film is not a movie," he says after winning the 1979 Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or. "My film is not about Viet Nam. It is Viet Nam."

Talk about fucking with history. Eleanor Coppola's reserved and weary voice-over and the general tenor of the film imply that Francis Coppola is a kind of whacked out genius, a visionary revisionist who is beset by weather, financial crises, and sick and difficult actors. The movie leans heavily on this personal crisis plotline. And there is a kind of borderline bravado in his ranting on screen, but this massive self-exposure is never quite ironic in a self- conscious way. It is fascinating, however.

If Coppola makes himself up, he also makes up the movie and, in his way, makes up the War. Lucas recalls that they (the LA Film School boys) wanted to go to Viet Nam to make the movie during the War, armed with 16mm cameras and mighty egos. But Warner Brothers wouldn't let them go. (You have to wonder at the studio's atypical intelligence in this case.)

It's well-known that the eventually and miraculously finished Apocalypse Now exemplifies U.S. too-muchness, the overkill that characterizes the War, its iconography, and its persistent racist and heterosexist mythologies. The documentary confirms some suspicions about its composition: the Kurtz compound sequences, for example, were indeed improvised, fragmented, stupidly unplanned, as they have always looked. (Eleanor reveals that she was watching native rituals one day; when the folks began to hack at a buffalo, she ran to get Francis, because it was so extraordinary. From such happy accidents, as they say, history is made: the scene is integral to Kurtz's overstated demise.) Hearts is finally less about the distinctions among ideology, entertainment, and self, than about their continual collapsing. History, meet your maker.

As Stone and Coppola seem to intuit, cultural stakes are continually inflated over Viet Nam, despite and because of the Gulf War's genocidal quick-fix for U.S. self-doubts. In fact, Hearts is specifically about certain failure that is renamed success. Unknowingly recorded by his wife, Coppola moans, "This movie is a $20 million disaster! Why won't anyone believe me?" As she quietly observes in voice-over, her husband was increasingly frenzied as project costs and interpersonal anxieties escalated. But sympathy for this devil is difficult to muster, for his massive project enacts its own version of an imperialistic tragedy revised to reap financial benefits. When Coppola couldn't make the film in 1969, he made the highly successful first two Godfather movies. But Coppola went back to Apocalypse Now, ultimately regurgitated as Conrad's novella via John Milius script via Coppola's mania. In Hearts this journey back and back seems like a regression to mythic darkness and human souls, but it's also about money and exploitation and abuse, very mundane and familiar problems after all.

While the history of this notorious enterprise is not news, Hearts occasionally affects such unself-consciousness that it feels revelatory. The saga includes the replacement of Harvey Keitel (after a week of shooting) by Martin Sheen, the monsoons, the deal with Marcos for use of a helicopter fleet (occasionally called away to fight insurgents in the South), lots of drugs, Sheen's near-fatal heart attack, and a massively overweight and uncooperative Marlon Brando's arrival on the set (to play the script's emaciated Colonel Kurtz).

Larry Fishburne, interviewed on the set when he was playing the part of "Clean" at age fourteen, says, "War is funny. You can do anything you want to." This seems to hold for the production as well. Interviewed later, a grown-up Fishburne and others recall excesses of drugs, anger, jungle hazards (enacted in Apocalypse Now's fiction as Chef's encounter with the tiger), and improvisational panic (Forrest remembers showing up for work and being handed a script marked "Scenes unknown").

Hearts reels with unreality and self-serving hallucination: original scriptwriter Milius reads reverently from a section dropped from the movie as Coppola rewrote it, where Kurtz rhapsodizes about the "power in his loins," worshipped by women and "natives" alike. And in an incredibly naive self-appraisal, production designer Dean Tavoularis remembers paying Filipino laborers a dollar a day for hauling 300-pound adobe blocks: "I hope we weren't taking advantage of these people," he wonders sincerely. Such colossal ignorance permeates Apocalypse Now's production and haunts its maker, who says, "My greatest horror is to be pretentious...to make a really pompous film on an important subject, and I am making it." It's a horror as relevant to New World Orders and revisionist histories as it is to grandly visionary movies.

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