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January 31, 1989 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1989-01-31

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Tuesday, January 31, 1989

The Michigan Daily

Page S


,,... r

Films portray the Vietnam

The average age of a soldier in the.
Vietnam War was 19. But what do
today's 19-year-olds know about
what happened back then? High
school American history classes have
a disturbing tendency to be cut off
'somewhere after World War II by
summer vacation.
Most likely, then, they'll think of
Charlie Sheen, or his father Martin,
or maybe Robin Williams acting in
fictionalized accounts of the war.
'Films like The Deer Hunter, Apoca-
lypse Now, Full Metal Jacket , Pla-
loon, Good Morning, Vietnam, and
Hamburger Hill have presented
American audiences with a range of
perspectives on the topic. Most of
these claim to present an authentic
view of the conflict. None, however,
use even an inch of documentary
Dear America: Letters Home
From Vietnam, on the other hand,
uses actual NBC News films to de-

pict the horrors faced by the young
soldiers and the Vietnamese people.
We see men marching, terrified,
through six foot tall, razor sharp
grass; the utter destruction of the Tet
offensive; American POW's being
led, handcuffed to one another, past
mobs of shouting Vietnamese; badly
wounded men saying they've had
enough and want to go home; even
our own soldiers burning villages (in
a "zippo raid", as this film's super-
imposed titles tell us) and harrassing
the people they are supposed to pro-
This film also shows us some
rare moments of relief from relentless
marching and hiding: some soldiers
mingle with Vietnamese women at a
bar; others watch Bob Hope's
Christmas presentation; and, in a in-
stance of sheer joy, a group of men
hear that their division will be sent
home. At such moments, when Di-
rector Bill Couturie allows soldiers
to speak for themselves and simply
shows us stark images of the Viet-

...andin vapid vacuity
I want to be a prosthetic make-up artist when I grow up.
Cecille Baun, holder of that illustrious position in the film The Siege of
Firebase Gloria, rouges those fake limbs to perfection. She sprinkles a little
blood on an armless trunk here, creates a mutilated carcass there. Baun does
such a good job that director Brian Trenchard-Smith uses the same soldier
with a severed leg in not one, or two, but three different scenes.'
But like it or not, Baun's craft is overshadowed by the film's wonderful
dialogue. Which superhero could best bail the Americans out of the Vietnam
«War, Mighty Mouse or Underdog? This oh-so original antidote to the war
Fan only be heard to be believed. And the insight! Sergeant Major Hafner (R.
Lee Ermey), the man who's going to whip drug-and-peace-infested Gloria
into shape, proselytizes, "There's no such thing as an atheist in a combat
situation." (No, really?) Corporal Di Nardo (Wings Hauser), the barbar-
ian/poet who's either torturing Vietcong prisoners or consoling orphans with
a recorder, laments, "Fucking war. And they call it a police action." Gee, the
impeccably dressed Vietcong only get to utter proverbs, and Chinese ones at
And it's awfully kind of Trenchard-Smith not to depress the audience with
his treatment of the Tet Offensive in Siege. His portrayal of shock and
bloodshed is so boring, you just can't become upset. It also might have be-
come somewhat tedious if you felt in the least way affected by the death of a
cbaracter. Trenchard-Smith solves this problem by replacing all of the per-
formances with caricatures. Emotions are conveyed by widened eyes, bonding
inoments are heavy-handed, and "epic" confrontations are inconclusive. An
bverwhelming feeling of devastation is supplanted by a yawn.
What is notable about Siege is not what it does, but what it doesn't do.
Fake it for granted that it's a really bad movie - a film that defies criticism
because a critic wouldn't know where to start even if the labor was worth
undertaking. It's a typical war B-movie. But surprisingly, the film isn't jin-
koistic. The Siege of Firebase Gloria portrays the Vietnam War as futile,
And this battle is no less so. "Charlie" is neither faceless nor evil. Few peo-
ple live; no one escapes without scars. And at the end of the battle, there's
Do winner, but the Vietcong do lose less badly than the Americans.
O But if a film takes a commercial, controversial topic like the Vietnam
War and neglects to make a statement or even to entertain an audience, this
leads to just one conclusion:
g Why?

far in verity...
nam experience, Dear America is an
insightful document of a misguided
Unfortunately, Couturie presents
this great documentary footage
within a questionable framework.
Letters written home from Vietnam
by soldiers and nurses accompany the
sounds of bombs and machine gun
fire on the soundtrack. These are read
by a slew of well-known actors, in-
cluding Martin and Charlie Sheen,
Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe, Kath-
leen Turner, and Sean Penn. Their
presence interferes with the unfettered
realism of the news footage. Many of
their voices are clearly recognizable
- it is hard not to envision Alex
Keaton when Michael J. Fox is read-
ing. The voiceovers have an
inappropriate professionalism about
them; there is little of the hesitation,
the wavering uncertainty one would
expect to hear from a soldier or nurse
in Vietnam.
The soundtrack is further ham-
pered by Couturie's choice of music.
It often sounds as if Dear America's
music director turned on a classic
rock radio station and recorded any-
thing that sounded like it could be
appropriate to the movie's theme.
The upbeat music makes the film
more watchable than it should be -
it diminishes the impact that the
documentary footage has on its own,
and gives the images additional
meanings which are not necessarily
Another fundamental problem
with the film is Couturie's weak at-
tempt at presenting a historical per-
spective. Subtitles provide explana-
tions and dates of the events we see,
as well as statistics, but these are of-
ten distracting. Sometimes, he re-
moves us from the intensity of the
war by taking us far from the action
in East Asia: every so often he inter-
jects scenes of events outside of
Vietnam, including President John-
son's 1967 State of the Union Ad-
dress, the Kent State shooting, and
John Lennon's "Give Peace a
Chance" film.
Ironically, this last clip is a re-
minder of Imagine: John Lennon, a
documentary film that is more suc-
cessful than this one because its
makers primarily let the documentary
footage speak for itself without em-
bellishment. If only the makers of
Dear America had used a similar
style of filmmaking, they could have
created an eye-opening document of
the Vietnam War experience.
ing at the Michigan Theater.

The Cowboy Junkies have received wide critical acclaim for The Trinity Sessions, even earn-
ing praise from the man who called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band "gooey pap" -
Lou Reed, whose "Sweet Jane" the Junkies cover on the LP.
TimmiUns injects Junkies
wi*th haunting vocals

IT'S been so long, I can't remember if it really hap-
pened, or if it was just one of those dreams that stays
with you.
I had just crawled between the icy sheets of a motel
room bed, after nine or ten hours on the road. Outside
my window, the crickets were having a war, and a har-
vest moon hung big and brilliant in the night. I didn't
plan on getting to sleep for awhile. Then, from the
next room, I heard someone singing to herself. She
was whispering a soft country melody, maybe by Patsy
Cline. I thought I could just make out the clink of ice
cubes in a glassful of bourbon. Her voice, poised and
willful, echoed out along the plains for miles and
When I first heard The Trinity Session, the major
label debut by Toronto's Cowboy Junkies, I was pretty
sure I had found the voice behind the motel wall. She
was Margo Timmins. With a consistently haunting
vocal performance, Timmins leads the band through a
selection of thoughtfully chosen covers and artfully
rendered originals in the country blues domain. The
record is beautiful.
Now I have the chance to speak with Timmins un-
der the pretext of writing this preview for the Junkies'
show at the Blind Pig. Somehow, I know it wouldn't
be right to ask her, so we just talk about the record in-

She tells me about all the work that went into the
preparation of The Trinity Session, which was recorded
in 14 hours by Margo and the other Junkies: her
brothers Michael and Peter, and bassist Alan Anton. "If
you're going to sing a Patsy Cline song, or a Hank
Williams song, you better be damn good at it," she
says. "Otherwise, it's an insult." To reassure her, I
promise that she had indeed done a damn good job, and
I even hint that her cool delivery is an improvement
over Hank's warble. She doesn't like that: "No, not
improvement. You can't improve on Hank Williams;
he's untouchable. We just want to be as valid."
She elaborates, "'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry' is
a song written at one time by a person in one world. I
come from another world." Thinking she had made a
joke, I laugh sympathetically, but I am met with a
disapproving silence. I hope I haven't blown it.
I push on with my interview, warily. I inquire about
the dominant mood of the record which to me is
somber, deliberate, at times even murderous. "But I
also see a hopeful side," she counters. Personally, I fail
to see the hopefulness of one of the originals, "To
Love is To Bury," a scarifying dirge about icing your
own husband, and I tell her, but again, she points out
my misunderstanding. "In order to have pain, you have
to love, and in order to love, you have to have pain,"
she lectures without irony. "She loved him. She killed
him. But she did love him."
I have so much to learn.
THE COWBOY JUNKIES perform at the Blind Pig at
8 and 10 p.m.tonight. Both shows are sold out.


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