Old (Film) School: Hearts and Minds

Originally written on November 26, 2002

heartsandminds

The documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) directed by Peter Davis is a scathing indictment of US involvement in the Vietnam War. The disjointed structure of the film leads the director to slowly reveal his ideas about the conflict. The aura surrounding the film is one of scolding the US government and also those associated with the war who still believed in its’ validity even after returning home. Hearts and Minds is a powerful documentary that skews the perception of the war in favor of the opposition.

To say the Vietnam War was a good idea is a fairly unwise statement; most people now would agree with this.  Yet during the early 1970’s the Cold War was still very real and Communism was a perceived threat to freedom. Those in the documentary who support the war, includind a POW who was captive for six years, were relegated to the role of fools. The idea that they could find the war important is mocked by the director. These men are held up as examples of the evil of the American government. Yet in the context of the time in which this film was made, the notion that the Vietnam War was a good idea was the prevailing and accepted idea. To hold these men up to ridicule because they were loyal to their country is unfair to them. They served their country as best they could and to deride their image for a personal, and at the time marginal belief, is just as bad as those who spit on Vietnam Vets or called them “baby killers” when they came home.

Another device the director uses to convey the wrongness of the Vietnam War is curiously high school football. This scene juxtaposes images of poor Vietnamese peasants being killed with scenes of a night at a high school football game. The young football players get riled up before the game and then play while concerned and peppy cheerleaders watch. The images from Vietnam during the montage show feeble adults and scared children being brutalized by American soldiers. One has to ask though, what is this montage supposed to be conveying? Is the director saying that high school football trains young Americans to be able to engage in atrocities during wartime? Most probably, this is what the director is trying to imply and this rings very false. The relationship between football and savagery are tenuous, at best. Davis could have just as well spliced in images from a rugby match, which is much more violent than football, being played with no padding or helmets. Therefore, his allusion that American youth culture breeds violence is unfair to those school children whose images were used in the film and who may or may not have turned into violent people because of football.

This documentary proves the fact that it is very difficult to produce an objective portrayal of truth, even in non-fiction films. Noel Carrol argues that documentaries may not project reality, but on the other hand, fiction can sometimes be considered close to reality(Carroll, 239). As in the case of Citizen Kane, which is loosely based on William Randolph Hearst’s life and which caused Hearst to ostensibly ruin Welle’s career for his honesty about the mogul. The whole issue of objectivity in documentaries brings out the fact that every person has a unique view of reality, which varies widely from other people’s view of reality. Therefore, the maker of Hearts and Minds was just introducing his view of the Vietnam conflict from his specific position of reality. Though the portrayal of veterans is often underhanded, this is apparently how Davis felt from his own reality. Hearts and Minds stands as an example of a documentary that exposes important information about the Vietnam conflict but also skewers those involved in it. Overall, the film is uneven in its sentiments but that is because everyone’s take on reality is different and therefore valid, no matter how upset it makes the audience.

Carroll, Noel. (1996) Theorizing the Moving Image. New York: Cambridge University Press

Shoah: My incomplete viewing of a wrenching masterpiece

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I am cautious to include too much of my emotions in a film review, but Shoah(1985)is a documentary which makes that notion nearly impossible.  I figured since everyone speaks about this film so reverently and the Criterion Collection just released a new box set, it was time to watch it.  I only got through a little over four hours of the film.  I could not continue watching.  This is not due to the film being bad in any way, but because I could not handle it mentally any longer.  Perchance due to being bereaved since the beginning of the year, a blow that will never really heal, I was not in the optimal state of mind to view this testament to death.  Shoah is a documentary of the highest order; a masterpiece that is so well constructed it will destroy your heart and make you seriously question if there is any humanity in this world.

Shoah is a documentary which uses the voices of victims and witnesses and images of the landscapes of the Death Camps in the present day to paint the most terrible images of the Holocaust ever compiled.  How can the images be terrible if there is no archival footage?  The images that are evoked by the combination of disembodied testimonials and the slow pan of the deserted Todeslagers create the most visceral images in the viewer’s heads.  The interviews with the victims and perpetrators are often matter-of-fact, which makes the horror even more real.  The Polish farmers who were teens when the Death Trains rolled by their fields practically joke about how they would signal the Jews on the trains which were transporting them to their death. The farmers speak of making throat slitting motions to the imprisoned Jews and how the passengers could not understand what the farmers were trying to warn them about.  The men interviewed chuckle a bit, but not to make fun of those who were exterminated, but to simply break the tension of the situation.  They were young, strong men who could not stop trains of people being slaughtered; they have carried the guilt throughout their lives and it is shows on their wrinkled, ill-at-ease faces.  It is the only way to get through each successive day; to tell what happened and then go on with their lives.

One aspect of Shoah which haunted and upset me was the fact that life returned to normal after the war, whatever normal is, in relation to the ultimate horror wrought by the Nazis.  The men who were tasked with the saddest job ever invented, the Sonderkommados, tell their stories in detail with occasional bursts of emotion peeking through.   The Sonderkommados were the Jewish prisoners who were kept in isolation and forced to usher victims into the gas chambers, forced to sort through the dead’s remains and forced to work the Krematorium ovens.  Only a few survived the hideous ordeal, but the look in their eyes shows that they will never wash the images from their minds and the guilt from their hearts.  They were not guilty in truth, the Nazis forced the prisoners to complete these terrifying acts, but they hold forever the guilt of survival that is a heavy, crushing burden to bear.  Yet, they live on, they moved to new countries and tried to live like people not touched by the deepest evil.  They do a competent job of trying to forget and soldier on, yet one knows their lives were destroyed back when they were so young and also so powerless.

I stopped watching the documentary after an interview with a historian who tries to answer why the Holocaust is such a unique event in human history. Genocide and war have always existed, yet the Nazis invented something new, as the historian phrased it.  The Final Solution to exterminate all of the Jews in Europe was exacted with new, experimental technologies and at a break-neck speed.  Never before had genocide reached such a large scope and caused such permanent damage to a cultural group. All operations were mechanized and refined for the optimal, swift death of the prisoners.  It is truly unbelievable to think that these events really happened in the recent past, but they did and we have to sort through what this means for humankind, which is the ultimate question which has no answer. I can attest with even a partial viewing that Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is a brilliant examination of the Holocaust and the burdens and nightmares which it released onto subsequent generations.

Old (Film) School: Underground

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Originally written on  April 10, 2003

Underground(1995), directed by Emir Kusturica, tells the tale of the once great nation of Yugoslavia through the fictionalized relationship of a group of friends. Kusturica uses overblown acting, music, and circumstances to give a glimpse of the past and to evoke societal breakdown. The director creates a fairy tale or conversely, a eulogy for a country that collapsed due the misguided ambition of its people.

This film starts just before the Nazis bomb Belgrade. This action illustrates the initial cause of the nation weakening. Blacky had just became a member of the Communist Party, due to his friend Marko, and this ultimately serves to be his undoing. Communism was supposed to give the Yugoslavians a strong cause to stand behind and its leader was Josip Broz Tito. Tito bolstered the populous to crush the fascist invasion and to ultimately live in communist splendor (Udovicki, 64).

The direction that Underground takes in placing Blacky and his family in the basement for twenty years is used as an allegory of how Tito insulated his people from the outside world. The following are just a few of the policies that Tito enacted during his regime: a constitution and laws that supported only a one-party system, private businesses and property became rare, civil rights were minimized and the media became entirely state controlled (Udovicki, 67). In essence, Marko becomes the symbol of the Tito era by keeping his friends in captivity, just as Tito kept the Yugoslavian peoples’ will in captivity.

The continued adulation of Blacky and his fellow “resistance fighters” to Tito was actually not false. Tito was, in fact, hailed as a hero because he did not enforce strict Stalinist Communism on the Yugoslavians (Udovicki, 65). The policies were strict but not to the frightening extent that they were in Russia. Many visitors to Yugoslavia during communism viewed the country to be the most open of all the communist states, because people were allowed to speak freely (to an extent) and to keep remnants of their culture (Lampe, 265).

The culture that was most represented during the communist years was Serbian. The Serbian culture was embraced by more than one-third of the population and was not eradicated by the government (Udovicki, 65). Serbian cultural elements pervade the entire film. The riotous brass band that follows much of the action fills the film with Serbian flavor. The robust drinking and dancing that the people enjoy is also indicative of traditional Serbian culture. Some may even view the use of Serbian culture the film as an example of “Yugonostalgia”, which is a wistful look back at traditional Yugoslavian cultures (Lampe, 342).

The use of slapstick that infects much of the film is a reflection of Serbian culture and serves to ease the memory of the sadness of the past. Marko repeatedly breaks bottles over his head to prevent Natalija from drinking and this, though overtly “Three Stooges”, is also a reflection of the culture. Traditional Serbian culture tend to enjoy strong emotional displays and frankness in actions (Bougarel, 163). The use of such wild mannerisms and mise-en-scene project an almost happy idea of the culture and not of how it finally disintegrated into civil war.

The aftermath of Blacky and the others leaving the cellar reflects the disintegration of the nation. When Ivan searches frantically for his beloved monkey Sonny, it is symbolic of the Yugoslavian people searching for their lost identity. The disintegration of Yugoslavia began with Tito’s death in 1980, which caused a power vacuum to come into existence (Lampe, 332). The communists had a difficult time retaining power and this allowed such hideous people, like Slobodan Milosevic, to be able to gain power. The reign of Milosevic brought with it fervent Serbian nationalism, at the expense of other ethnicities.

Marko’s demise comes at the hands of Blacky, which is quite overt in its symbolism of the civil war. As the film states, war is when a brother kills another brother. Though Marko and Blacky were not technically brothers, their rivalry got the best of them and served to destroy their lives. This is the same as the war itself, in which various ethnic groups battled, even though they had lived together somewhat peacefully for years (Lampe, 338).

This section of the film is also telling, from a cultural standpoint, because the mise-en-scene is literal. We find Blacky leading a mercenary army that does notreally have a “side”. Blacky is representative of the idea that the civil war was a “war of everyone against everyone”(Bougarel, 157). The reality of this section is diametrically opposed to the lush composition of the rest of the film. The full horror of the war is felt, in this passage, when Marko and Natalija are immolated, Ivan hangs himself, and Blacky disappears into the well. The corruption, vengeance, and loss of self that accompanied the civil war are well addressed by this frightful end.

The finale of the film can be interpreted as the dream of Yugoslavia that many of the nation’s people still yearn for. The rapture and community that is witnessed in this scene is fairly maudlin. Though we may be happy that everyone is friends again and can continue their lives in what is possibly heaven, it is still a reminder that this will never happen. Underground stands as a love letter to the unattainable past of Yugoslavia and the vitality of a fractured culture.

Works Cited

Bourgarel, Xavier. Yugoslav Wars: The “Revenge of the Countryside” Between Sociological Reality and Nationalist Myth. East European Quarterly. V. 33. no. 2. Pgs. 157-175. June 1999.

Lampe, John R. (2000) Yugoslavia as History: Twice There was a Country. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Udovicki, Jasminka & Ridgeway, James, eds. (1999) Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia. Duke University Press: London.