Cinema of Cynicism

In a 29-film series, Oak Street Cinema puts Hollywood's most complicated decade, the Seventies, onscreen

My guests straggled through the door, some in tears. A few embraced silently. It was May 4, 1970, a date I've never forgotten. In New York I was giving a party for a London editor; arranged long in advance, it was a semiprofessional gathering. Shortly beforehand we'd heard that four students had been killed on the Kent State campus, shot dead by the Ohio National Guard. Two had been in a group protesting the war in Vietnam, the others were merely walking to their classes.

Shock surged through millions of Americans; whether you supported the war or hated it, there was no neutral ground where emotions could be buried. Some pro-war citizens declared that the students had provoked their own deaths. Rumors spread swiftly: They were riddled with venereal diseases and hard drugs, they were a menace as well as a disgrace to the nation.

My phone throbbed. In choked voices the writers and editors I'd invited to meet the Englishman told me they couldn't possibly go to a party. I wanted to cancel it, but felt an obligation to the visitor, whom I knew only slightly. I expected almost no one to appear and that he and I would dine on the leftover appetizers.

Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter
Inside the death chamber: Christopher Walken (far right) plays Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter

Then everyone came. As they entered, shaking their heads or wiping their eyes, they said they didn't wish to mourn alone on this vile day, that they needed to be with kindred spirits. So the party became a memorial for the murdered students. Grief collided with rage: at the government, at Richard Nixon, at ex-President Lyndon Johnson, at the general widely known as Waste-More-Land (William Westmoreland, the U.S. Military Commander in Vietnam). Some talked about leaving the country, about settling in Europe or Canada. Two even spoke of Fiji. An ordinarily mild publisher said that the next time he saw a police helicopter hovering over an antiwar demonstration, he would figure out a way to bring it down. Nobody drank much. And almost no one ate the hors d'oeuvres: The bits of salmon shriveled, the celery went limp--most appetites had died with the Kent State students.

Not long ago, when I described that scene to a 26-year-old friend, he remarked that people hadn't reacted that way to last year's massacre at the Columbine High School, horrible as it was. The difference, I said, was Vietnam: The Kent students were killed in the war as much as the GIs dying overseas. Individuals who opposed our nation's policies were surrogates for many of us, and the random victims were like draftees who hadn't chosen to fight.

For six weeks this summer, the Oak Street Cinema will be presenting scenes from that decade. Their series "Out of the Seventies" will present younger audiences with an opportunity to see some of the rarely screened, seminal works of one of Hollywood's most fertile periods. Those who remember those years will be able to view some movies again--Altman's bleak comedies, Spielberg's downbeat debut--at a clarifying remove from their background. In either case, the 29 films in this series stand out as among the most original and most melancholy in studio history.

Hollywood hardly approached Vietnam until our helicopters pulled away from Saigon in 1975. And when Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter was released in 1978, there were fierce arguments about it even among people who hadn't seen it--due to the depiction of the Vietnamese and because it seemed to uphold the value of war. Therefore I was startled by the appealing first hour of the film, which establishes the decency of its blue-collar characters without patronizing them. The bonds between the young Pennsylvania steelworkers--as they sing along with a jukebox while playing pool or erupt in horseplay in cars and bars--are touching, and so are their female counterparts: long-skirted bridesmaids hastening through the streets, dropping wedding presents and laughing. The Russian Orthodox wedding sequence unfolds so skillfully that even those who are skeptical of marriage can be moved by it, as the guests revel in the songs and dances of their forebears.

So I wasn't prepared for the preposterous episodes that follow. Since both the South and the North Vietnamese are portrayed as vermin--gleeful torturers in wartime, foul criminals thereafter--the movie recalls the yellow peril that cackled through the crudest movies of World War II. The Deer Hunter is certainly racist. Yet Cimino insisted that wasn't his intention (if not, he must have lunched on obtusity every day). He also said he wanted the war scenes to be surrealistic, rather than accurate--thereby defending the bouts of Russian roulette that his Vietnamese villains force others to play. But Cimino ultimately had to admit that those atrocities were fictional.

When the movie opened, Vietnamese refugees had already been abused in different parts of this country, and I wondered if the cruelties of the movie torturers made trashing the newcomers' homes and beating up their children seem justified. Because the film plays havoc with history, the refugees may have appeared all the more like enemy aliens to their American neighbors. (We don't expect people to take Hollywood movies literally, but sometimes they do; a young man told me that after seeing JFK he would never vote, because he could never again trust the government.) The heroic Robert De Niro (largely a wooden performance) is presented as superior to his closest friends: He was brave in Vietnam while they crumbled. With a lunge of archaic machismo, The Deer Hunter punishes those who weren't tough enough to take it. To that extent, it's a very judgmental film, even though it's mindless about the war.

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