BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE DEER HUNTER

By • Jan 6th, 2013 •

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MY SECRET LIFE AS A CHARACTER IN A MICHAEL CIMINO FILM

For the past few months, I’ve been suffering from postherpetic neuralgia, an inflamation of the main nerve stem in the brain. The world has become a strange and hostile place, filled with sounds and movements I would rather be without. It’s difficult to go down the staircase of my apartment building, for I often make mistakes in my footing, and start to fall. My doctor refers to this as “cognitive dysfunction.” Whenever I do manage to get on the street, it’s equally hard for me to navigate among the throngs of people on the Upper West Side where I live. In addition to the pain I am experiencing, there is also the feeling of being out of place. I’m certain my fellow human beings must see this mark of difference upon me. Everything that once seemed so natural, like going to the deli on the corner to buy a loaf of bread, is now filled with torment and confusion.

I have discovered this feeling of estrangement to be profoundly expressed in THE DEER HUNTER, Michael Cimino’s Best Picture Oscar Winner of 1978, which has recently been issued on Blu-ray by Universal. In particular, I find the sense of loss I am going through to be reflected in Robert De Niro’s performance, especially in the film’s later scenes, when Mr. De Niro’s character, Michael Vronsky, has returned from the Vietnam War to Clarion, the small steel mill town in Pennsylvania where he was raised.

Although THE DEER HUNTER was released to great acclaim in 1978, in the intervening years the film’s reputation has suffered, along with the reputation of its director, Mr. Cimino. I myself disparaged the film on its original release, finding it self-indulgent and neo-fascist. Oddly, many critics now see the film this way, while my views have completely changed.

It’s funny how an illness alters one’s perception of things. Sounds and colors, not to mention subtle shifts in light, become more pronounced. There’s also a difference in one’s sense of time. Events are compressed or absurdly stretched out. Looking at Mr. Cimino’s film today, I’ve realized the feelings generated by the way in which the film was made are very close to what I have been experiencing.

Although this deliriously familiar sense of unease I feel from watching THE DEER HUNTER is partially due to Mr. Cimino’s use of the camera in a way that goes against the narrative flow of the film, I believe it also reflects the consciousness of a Vietnam Veteran experiencing post-traumatic stress. If a viewer reads the film from the point of view of Michael in 1974 who is looking backward, then the story, which initially seems an awkward jumble of neo-realism, mythic posturing and melodrama, makes perfect sense.

THE DEER HUNTER can be seen as forming a triptych. The first section is set in Clarion, Pennsylvania in late 1968, and introduces the main characters, Michael Vronsky (Mr.De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Stephen (John Savage), first generation Russian-Americans who work in a steel mill and are about to enter the armed services to fight in Vietnam. Michael and Nick are roommates. Both of them are in love with Linda (Meryl Streep), a local girl who works at the supermarket near the Russian Orthodox Church and is the maid of honor in Stephen’s wedding that afternoon. Stephen is to be married to Angela (Rutanya Alda) who is pregnant with another man’s child. Stephen is aware of this, but loves Angela just the same.

Most of the opening hour is taken up with an extraordinarily detailed, visually stunning depiction of the wedding party, filled with dancing and drinking townspeople which brings to mind the paintings of Bruegel. It is here that the characters are introduced through their interactions with others, in scenes that are mostly without dialogue and emphasize the intersection of glances in order to delineate feelings. Somehow, in this long, vividly realized scene, Mr. Cimino manages to create a novelistic sense of character and place, filled with the kind of subtle minutia that, through careful examination, takes on cultural and philosophical meaning.

It’s funny, but even though I throughly disliked THE DEER HUNTER back in 1978, I still recall seeing the film at the Coronet cinema across the street from Bloomigdales. In particular, I remember Meryl Streep’s eyes. On that big, slightly curved screen, every time her eyelids fluttered, I was transfixed. It’s possible she made such a strong impression because her character hardly spoke.

According to Mr. Cimino’s commentary on the UK Blu-ray of THE DEER HUNTER (which unfortunately isn’t included in this release), Ms. Streep’s character didn’t have any lines in the script. Mr. Cimino asked her to make up the dialogue herself as the filming progressed. This kind of improvisation which occurs throughout the film, finds its counterpart in long takes that evolve over time, enabling an audience to live through the actions in the film to the point that one’s own breath becomes joined to that of the characters on the screen.

The wedding party, for instance, seems to go on for so long that the scene turns into “pure” cinema, exploring the notion of the camera moving through time and space in and of itself. Mr. Cimino’s method of using improvisation allied with long takes forms a mosaic of small moments, whose function is to reveal the emotion behind these seemingly inconsequential events. As the film develops, these moments take on the significance of large dramatic movements.

The second section is set in Vietnam, where Michael, Nick and Stephen all end up in a prisoner of war camp. This can be seen as a violent interlude between the first section set in Clarion, and the third, when Michael returns home. Whereas the footage in the Pennsylvania mill town is based on long takes that involve the detailed rendering of small, simple acts, the Vietnam scenes are expressed through rapidly edited images that are brutal and emotionally charged, especially since after an hour, one has a stake in the characters’ well-being.

Michael’s return from Vietnam to the life he left behind is expressed through the accretion of ordinary details that he had performed earlier in the film, such as putting on a pair of boots, or placing napkins on a table, whose function and significance have indelibly changed. In fact, the entire film could be seen to involve a process of doubling, with the scenes in Clarion before the main characters go to Vietnam often being repeated shot for shot once Michael returns, but with a completely different feeling.

What I find particularly extraordinary about Mr. Cimino’s film is his ability to somehow fuse indelibly the minimalist with the mythic. He is immensely aided in this task by the entire cast, especially Mr. DeNiro, who creates an impression of direct experience with every gesture, placing in the present tense a character that has more in common with Odin than a working class stiff from Pennsylvania.

The film’s ability to realize its dramatic moments through simple actions is strengthened by the symmetry in both the overall structure, and also in the composition of specific images that echo through the film. For example, after a few establishing shots, the film proper begins with Michael in the steel mill brandishing a spike that causes sparks and flames to appear. The Vietnam section begins with Michael using a flame thrower with the same composition as that in the steel mill. The episodes in Vietnam have highly saturated color, a phantasmagoria of red, yellow and green, while visually the scenes in Clarion are dark, with overcast skies. Finally, there is an epilogue, with Michael returning to Vietnam in search of Nick who has gone AWOL, followed by an even briefer coda set outside the church and inside the bar, now empty, where the film began.

Robin Wood, in his book Hollywood From Vietnam To Reagan, analyzes what he refers to as the “architecture” of THE DEER HUNTER, in particular focusing on the two hunting scenes in the film. Mr. Wood sees the first forty-five minutes of the film, including the extended wedding sequence, as a prologue. For him, the important thematic concerns of the film are initially expressed in the first deer hunt, which takes place in the morning after Stephen and Angela’s wedding.

It is here, in the hunting scenes, that many critics of the film express their ire, complaining of “mist and nothingness.” But mist and nothingness are not only elements of Marlboro commercials, but can also be found in the films of the Bengali master Satyajit Ray and Kaneto Shindo (who recently passed away in Japan at the age of 100), where it is used to illustrate the contradiction between our capacity for violence alongside our spiritual longing.

After the extremely long takes and hyper-realist style of the wedding, the deer hunt comes as a shock. Suddenly, the landscape completely changes. Rolling hills and rusty industrial towns give way to craggy mountain peaks capped with snow. While the city of Clarion is set in southwestern Pennsylvania, the hunting scenes were shot in the Rocky Mountains.

The essence of the film, Mr. Wood feels, is the relationship between Michael and Nick, which finds its fullest expression in the first deer hunt. Michael, in his insistence on “one deer, one shot,” is almost mythic in conception. (Mr. Wood compares Michael to James Fenimore Cooper’s character the Deerslayer.) Nick, on the other hand, goes deer hunting because he “likes the scenery.” In Vietnam, Michael’s insistence on “one shot,” and an almost spiritual discipline in willing the bullet out of the chamber during a particularly brutal episode of Russian Roulette in a Viet Cong prison camp, turns Nick towards a fascination with violence that ultimately leads to his own destruction.

In the commentary on the UK Blu-ray I referred to earlier, Mr. Cimino states the theme of Russian Roulette wasn’t his idea, but was the basis of the original story by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn Redeker that producer Michael Deeley hired Mr.Cimino and his writing partner Deric Washburn to expand upon. While there is no record of Russian Roulette being played in Vietnam, the idea of gambling one’s life in a game of chance does express an essential dilemma of the Vietnam era, the loss of self-identification as part of a community and with it the loss of personal meaning, directly linking the deer hunting episodes with Michael and Nick’s experience as POWs.

At the center of Mr. Cimino’s film is a silence. During the wedding scene at the beginning of the film, a Green Beret is sitting alone in a dark corner near the door. Michael notices the solider, and tells him that he and his friends are about to fight in Vietnam. At first the man says nothing; then, after Michael’s repeated entreaties, utters an obscenity. For both Mr. Cimino and his characters, Vietnam is a huge abyss, a question that can’t be answered, a gap that can never be bridged between Michael and the others who have stayed behind.

Not that the lives of Michael’s friends haven’t changed as well. One of the most moving scenes in the film is a moment where nothing seems to happen. Michael and Linda are walking down the main street of Clarion the day after his return, past scores of storefronts that were thriving during the opening scene but are now, due to the recession of the early 70’s, boarded up and empty. Just as his friends stand on the edge of economic ruin, there also exists in Michael a deep, unapproachable void. The singing of God Bless America at the film’s end is an attempt to fill this silence, not as an ode to patriotism as some have claimed, nor as an implied criticism of the US, but simply as an acceptance of what has come to pass.

Just as the Japanese director Shohei Imamura transformed Yasujiro Ozu’s focus on the family, expanding this theme through his use of radical form, Mr. Cimino reworks in a contemporary context the thematic concerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks; that is, the fragility of community in a world of violence, and how the individualism of the frontier spirit can undermine that community. In fact, this is happening today, as our national myths take dangerous shape in the political arena.

Universal Studios, which has a history of releasing Blu-rays completely devoid of detail or texture which might in any way resemble the original, has produced a disc of THE DEER HUNTER which is rich in grain and accurately reflects the filmic experience. Some of the colors are, to my eyes, more striking than they were in a first run theatre, even when reflecting the grime of an early morning mill town street, steeped in stark shadows and cracked concrete. The images on this disc are so lovely and lifelike, it appears one could simply walk into one’s own home screen, and out into the beer-encrusted floor of the Clarion Bar & Grill.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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