Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Deer Hunter

Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) is filmmaking with balls. The first thing one notices about this ambitious three-hour film is the time Cimino takes with the long opening scenes, set in a Pennsylvania steel town, and the breadth of his canvas. Favoring groups over individuals and long shots over close-ups, almost to the point where the individual characters become interchangeable, the film gives us a wedding banquet so well attended that one finds it hard to believe there are even that many people living in the town. And the languid pacing and accumulation of small details indicate that Cimino is in no hurry to get on with the plot. The film's style and content secrete masculine excess from every pore of their being.

The story is about a group of guys who work at the steel mill. As the film opens, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) are about to go into the army, giving Steven just enough time to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Angela (Rutanya Alda), before shipping off to Vietnam. Nick is in love with Linda (Meryl Streep), but at Steven's wedding, it becomes evident that she has feelings for Michael as well. There's a fourth friend, Stan (John Cazale, in his last performance), who doesn't go to war, but carries around a revolver, "just in case," hinting at sexual hang-ups involving impotence. In Vietnam, Michael, Nick, and Steven are captured by the North Vietnamese and made to play Russian roulette at gunpoint. Curiously, given the amount of time the film devotes to the wedding banquet (to name just one example), the film choses to skip over the characters' actual capture, cutting directly from a scene of Michael, Nick, and Steven on the battlefield to them in captivity.

In any event, Cimino's singular talents have less to do with storytelling than sounds and images. There's a joyous early sequence in which the guys go to a local bar after work and singalong to Frankie Valli's "Can't Keep My Eyes Off of You" on the jukebox. The day before they ship off to Vientam, after a hunting trip, the guys return to the same bar, where the bartender, John (George Dzundza), begins playing a plaintive number on the piano, which puts the guys in a thoughtful mood. This sequence, and the film's final scene in which the characters spontaneously sing "God Bless America," are both examples of pure feeling rather than an attempt to make a particular point.

As a response to America's involvement in Vietnam, the film is problematic. The horrors inflicted on the characters are blamed exclusively on the Vietnamese without any mention of the American government that sent them there. Meanwhile, the American soldiers don't participate in any atrocities themselves, like the massacre at My Lai, but are unambiguously heroic. At one point, we see a Viet Cong soldier throw a grenade into a cellar full of civilians; when a woman crawls out, badly burned and holding a child, the soldier finishes her off with his rifle. Thus, we're supposed to feel a sense of satisfaction when Michael burns him alive a few seconds later. The South Vietnamese don't come off much better, since we also see them taking bets on games of Russian roulette, as if it were the national sport. I've yet to see a film that represents the war in a satisfying manner.

The Deer Hunter was only Cimino's second feature after the Clint Eastwood vehicle Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). And its success emboldened him to make Heaven's Gate (1980), an even longer and more ambitious film, in which Cimino's limitations as a storyteller and the clunkiness of his dialogue are more of a serious flaw. (Conversely, in the early scenes of The Deer Hunter, the dialogue is so low in the sound mix, it's often difficult to make out what's being said.) Although he was able to continue making films until the mid-90s, Cimino hasn't been able to work on the same scale since Heaven's Gate, whose commercial failure hangs over his reputation like a shroud. This is a shame because, even if The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate aren't masterpieces, they feel like the work of some one who could've made one.

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