Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Watching Blade Runner 2049

Note: This post contains minor spoilers about Blade Runner 2049.

Last Saturday I finally got around to seeing Blade Runner 2049. I missed the opening weekend due to other commitments. The film has performed poorly at the box office, but that did not deter me from wanting to see it on the big screen. I was not disappointed. 2049 melds seamlessly to the original Blade Runner (1982) in terms of its dark, alluring aesthetic. Like the original, 2049 is dystopian, yet beautiful to behold.

The original Blade Runner was released the year after I graduated from college. I was still living in Athens, Georgia at the time, working odd jobs and partying a lot. I remember being blown away by the cinematography, the philosophical undertones about (among other things) the yearning for more life, and the unsatisfying "happy" ending that seem out of place with the rest of the film.

Years later I bought "The Director's Cut" (1991) when it came out on VHS. Blade Runner is rather infamous for its multiple versions, most of which I now own in a blu-ray collection I bought several years ago. With that collection I watched the bonus features about the making of the film and "The Final Cut" (2007) version in which director Ridley Scott finally was able to edit his original vision for the film into a the definitive version. Noticeably changed from the 1982 release was the absence of Harrison Ford's ridiculous narration (which Ford opposed doing in the first place), the accentuation of the famous "unicorn" dream sequences, and the originally intended ambiguous ending.

Ambiguity was part of the art form of Blade Runner, just as important to the film's unique style as the amazing cinematography and wonderful musical score. All three of those elements carry forward nicely to 2049. The basic philosophical content is expanded in the latest film from its focus on the yearning for a longer life to a nostalgic reflection on the past, the consequences of love, the quest for power, and the possibilities and possible meanings for a new form of life in terms of "self" and "person." All of this is woven into a traditional noir genre narrative layered in a postmodern context (just like the first film), filled with the dynamic tension between the effects of mass commodification and eroticism.

Blade Runner was set in 2019. Which means the world did not turn out as badly nor as spectacularly as Scott envisioned back in 1982. 2049 obviously extends things by several decades and, while the specifics will likely remain a bit off, the effects of capitalism upon advertising and human objectification as consumers as well as how we live out our lives in an environmental wasteland remain relevant to social forces shaping our future today.

Ryan Gosling's low-key performance as Agent K is deceptive. His character is on a quest to uncover a freedom movement within replicants (basically robots with a high degree of artificial intelligence) and this ultimately leads him on a journey of possible self-discovery when he uncovers the fact that Deckard and Rachel apparently had two off-spring (one boy, one girl) from the loving relationship we saw form in Blade Runner. This is a revolutionary (and possibly evolutionary) surprise as replicants are not supposed to have a reproductive capability. This has great metaphysical ramifications in and of itself, but it becomes much more intimate for K's character when circumstances lead him to believe he is, in fact, one of the twins.

Blade Runner 2049 is an investigation with a lot of dead ends. The "intimate" truth, though appropriately ambiguous, is revealed in the end. Whereas the larger questions raised by the fact that replicants have gained a greater sense of "personhood" in 2049 remains largely unexplored.

I find myself ruminating upon several scenes in the film days later, which is usually a sign that it has affected me on a subconscious level. The depiction of street life in Los Angeles is almost exactly the same as in the original. This helps to connect the two films but it also reflects, I think, a deeper awareness and expression how our postmodern life feels as opposed to how it has tangibly manifested itself. Contrast LA with the acute, disorienting desolation of Las Vegas, which is captured just as picturesquely, in burnt orange hues, as if it is a elaborately deserted Burning Man festival.

As I mentioned, the film has plenty of erotic undertones. The most obvious is a strange threesome that takes place between K, his artificial, hologram girlfriend and a hooker. It isn't as 3-way as you might expect. In another subtle examination of artificial intelligence, the hologram girl desires to have "physical" intercourse with K. So it overlays itself unto the body of the pleasure girl and the two for them, constantly morphing between each other, make out with K. It is a strange and unique exploration of sexuality within the technology of the future, though the scene limits itself to the two (three) characters only making out. The only actual sex in the film is a brief background occurrence that is highly suggestive though not explicit.

Like the original film, 2049 is more a feeling than a rational experience. The stunning, often bizarre beauty and the grand darkness of mood and tone work on the viewer's emotions, creating, for me at least, a very satisfying experience that transcends the story itself. One could almost watch the film silently and be just as affected by it. There is a sense of contrast between the two films, however. Even though both films are somber, Blade Runner has a more magical, playful, sense of wonder about it, whereas 2049 feels heavier, more ominous and foreboding.

The ambiguity and non-traditional narrative expression (devoid of an irritating narration to help the viewer contextualize what is shown) demands a level of engagement by the audience that has to be arrived at without a lot of action sequences or traditional plot points. The sex and violence are minimal and the dialog doesn't explain nearly as much as the images do. As I mentioned earlier, Blade Runner 2049 has been a disappointment at the box office, just like the original film in 1982. I highly suspect, though, that this will carry on as a "cult" classic in the years to come, just as the original film continues to resonate with audiences today.

This was my first time to enjoy the directorial work of Denis Villeneuve. I heard good things about his previous film, Arrival, but I haven't gotten around to seeing that yet. He is definitely someone I want to explore further. Blade Runner 2049 is a film of the future for the future. It will likely be years before it is truly appreciated for the striking, magnetic work that it is. Just like its predecessor.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Watching "The Vietnam War"

On Sunday I finished watching  The Vietnam War, the 10-episode PBS series by distinguished documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick.  For the most part it was a riveting, if at times challenging and depressing, viewing experience that featured interesting in-depth interviews from a variety of soldiers on all sides, reporters, draft dodgers, politicians, activists, wives and families, prisoners of war, advisers - basically the entire gambit of participants in that tangled and protracted conflict.

I was rather obsessed with the war in Vietnam back in the late 1980's and throughout the 1990's.  I read everything I could get my hands on about the conflict in order to better understand it as both a military and cultural phenomenon.  So I already knew most of what Burns and Novick detailed in their 18-hour rendering of the seemingly endless and hopelessly convoluted story of what started out as a savage revolt against discriminatory French colonialism and ended as an American failure to stop North Vietnam from reunifying the country under autocratic rule.

The initial episode offers insight into the French rule of Indochina in the nineteenth century, the rise of Ho Chi Minh and his initially democratic movement for Vietnam.  American OSS operatives played a small role in the country immediately following the end of Japanese occupation in World War Two but ultimately our country rejected the movement toward democracy in favor of support for what was traditionally a sphere of French imperialism.  Ultimately, the Viet Minh rose up against the French as Ho Chi Minh, neglected by America, turned to China and Russia for support.  All of this culminated, of course, with the French military disaster at Dien Bien Phu.

Episodes 2 and 3 focused on the pervasive "domino theory" that guided American foreign policy during the Cold War.  President John F. Kennedy wrestled with what to do about South Vietnam and its corrupt leader Ngo Dinh Diem.  He committed more "advisers" and aid to Diem despite his reservations about his ability to govern.  Ultimately, Diem was assassinated, as was Kennedy.  President Lyndon B. Johnson then widened the war and sent in the first U.S. troops with the intent of guarding the American airbase near Da Nang.  Due to the continued incompetence of the South Vietnamese army, the US soon widened its involvement under the direction of Secretary Defense Robert McNamara, who believed victory could be attained through superior American technology and firepower as long as everything was sufficiently quantified and analyzed.

Episodes 4 and 5 discuss the first major operations (mostly "search and destroy" missions) against the Viet Cong by US ground forces.  The value of "body counts" fed McNamara's demand for a quantifiable war.  The ability to win the war already came into question, yet US politicians continued to send more troops guided by a belief that a "tipping point" could be reached where the US was killing Viet Cong and North Vietnamese at a rate faster than these enemies could be replaced on the battlefield.  The Johnson administration (against its private doubts) repeatedly assured the American people that not only was the war winnable but that victory was in sight.  Yet, the anti-war movement gained momentum in America.  McNamara's doubts about US policy led to his resignation.

The best episodes of the series were numbers 6 and 7, dealing with what I consider to be the true "tipping point" of the war - which was completely at odds with American operations and understanding.  The 1968 Tet Offensive is covered in graphic detail.  Ironically, this was an overwhelming defeat for the military masterminds in North Vietnam yet the intensity and nationwide pervasiveness of the offensive ensured that it was interpreted as a defeat for the United States instead.  Assurances by the Johnson administration that victory was at hand seemed bogus and the American public's overwhelming support for the war began to waver.  This lead to Johnson refusing to run for re-election, and chaos in the streets of America following the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy, massive police brutality in putting down rioting at the Democratic National Convention and the election of Richard Nixon as president by a narrow margin.

By this point, the series was bringing to light a lot of information of which I was not previously unaware.  Much of it was not public knowledge back in the 80's and 90's when I was reading and studying the war so much.  Probably the most jaw-dropping revelation for me was the fact that Nixon used backdoor channels to collude with the South Vietnamese government against peace negotiations just before the election in 1968.  

Nixon was comfortably leading then vice-president Hubert Humphrey in the polls until there was a breakthrough in peace negotiations.  In Paris, after many weeks of getting nowhere, the North Vietnamese finally agreed to allow the South Vietnamese to sit at the negotiating table.  Johnson rewarded this concession by stopping the intense American bombing campaign (Rolling Thunder) around Hanoi.  Humphrey's poll numbers began to rise, closing the gap on Nixon.  But, using a go-between with South Vietnamese president Nguygen Van Thieu, Nixon made the case that he would be a stronger advocate for South Vietnam than Humphrey would be, if elected.  Thieu sided with Nixon and chose to boycott the negotiations.  President Johnson knew about this through various CIA and FBI operations.  Though he rightly labeled Nixon's initiative as "treason,"  Johnson nevertheless chose not to make the public aware of it, lest the covert nature of how the information was attained be exposed.

The final three episodes covered the American draw-down in Vietnam.  The continued anti-war protests, the issue of low morale among American soldiers, rampant drug use in Vietnam (tens of thousands of US servicemen became addicted to heroin while serving in Vietnam, for example), the struggles of American POWs, the incursions into Cambodia and Laos, and the Kent State shootings are all presented.  North Vietnam switched from guerrilla warfare to conventional warfare, using tanks openly for the first time.  The only thing that stopped their 1972 "Easter Offensive" was massive American air power under the guidance of American military advisers.  

When the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, however, the American POWs came home and all American military assistance ceased, leaving the South Vietnamese army on its own.  The country fell to North Vietnam by means of conventional warfare in 1975.  The documentary closes with a protracted look at the effects of PTSD, the efforts of veterans to come to terms with the war experience, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the return of many soldiers of Vietnam in an attempt to bring closer to their psychological and emotional wounds.

Burns and Novick justified the effort I put into watching this rather tragic 18-hour documentary.  In addition to fascinating and insightful interviews they showed me a lot photographs and film footage I had never seen before, as well as featuring important audio tapes of conversations by Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon that gave a sense of fresh relevance and immediacy to the material presented.  This was a captivating history, filled with ironies and deceit as well as bravery and sacrifice well-told from a multitude of perspectives and a great supporting soundtrack.  Though certainly not for the faint at heart, The Vietnam War is an outstanding documentary.

Even though the series reports on the political and cultural aspects of the conflict from all sides, the meat and potatoes of it were a fair accounting of military operations.  The battles of Ap Bac, Dak To, and Hamburger Hill are covered in detail along with more extensive operations in Ia Drang, near the demilitarized zone at Con Thien, and in the Mekong Delta with "Speedy Express."  Various massacres are also covered such as the incident My Lai by the Americans where hundreds of civilians were murdered, as well as at Hue where the North Vietnamese murdered as many as 6,000 men, women and children. 

The biggest lesson I learned from watching The Vietnam War is that bad things can always get worse.  The situation was bad when President Kennedy first wrestled with how to "contain" communism in southeast Asia.  Sending in military advisers and foreign aid only made things worse.  The South Vietnamese government was completely corrupt and was never legitimate in the eyes of its own people.  Attempts to prop it up made matters even worse by polarizing the South's people and swelling the ranks of the Viet Cong.

The bombing of North Vietnam had no effect on that country's resolve to reunify the their country.  But it killed thousands of civilians which only further enflamed the North's resentment of the United States and propelled the anti-war movement in the US.  The result was violence and greater instability at home, while the escalating military operations only brought greater dissolution among the military leaders and politicians who absurdly found it impossible not to escalate bad things further.  Vietnam just kept getting worse, the situation never improved, one horrible event followed another as the folly spiraled seemingly out of control right up to the pathetic attempt airlift tens of thousands of fleeing South Vietnamese as the North overran the country and captured Saigon in 1975

The unlearned lesson is that perpetual war never improves the situation that brought the war about in the first place.  This rings true today with the continued instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, America's latest versions of Vietnam.  Did we learn anything from all that fighting in the 1960's?  It doesn't seem like it to me.

Also, the documentary series helped me understand that the war was not a military or political occurrence.  It was a reflection of America's deeply ingrained violent, dark culture.  The vast majority of America supported sending in Marines in 1965.  The majority of Americans supported the police in brutally putting down the demonstrations in Chicago and elsewhere in 1968.  The majority supported the Ohio National Guard's response in the Kent State shootings in 1970.  Though support for the war eroded as the years went by, the majority of Americans supported American military and police violence in all its forms right up to end.  The Vietnam War shows American culture for what it truly is.  Despite the veneer of progressiveness, a majority of us will always choose violence in the face of fear or instability.  Such is the American animal.  

The Vietnam War accomplished what every great documentary should - it reignited a discussion about its subject matter.  The public discourse is important but, for me, this has lead to a revisiting of an inward journey I began some 30 years ago.  In a future post, I want to give a brief overview of what I have read about the war and how that reading has informed my perspective. 

As I said, the excellent interviews and the new photographs and footage were the strong points of the series, making it well-worth watching whether or not your agree with the Burns-Novick approach to the subject.  But, in taking this journey through history, it was four photographs I have seen all my adult life that still captivated my attention and more or less summed up the Vietnam experience for me.  The story behind each photograph is splendidly told in the documentary.

The first is of a Buddhist monk immolating himself in 1963.  According to Burns-Novick, this was the culmination of frustration from years of discrimination by the ruling Catholic minority over the Buddhist majority in South Vietnam.   When President Diem's brother was elevated to a higher position within the Catholic Church, Christian flags flew for days all around Saigon.  But when Buddhists flew their flags a few weeks later in recognition of the Buddha's birth, Diem had the military take down all those flags.  The self-immolation was a representation of the oppressive, autocratic South Vietnamese government.  It was this style of government America sought to prop-up and defend.

Next, there is the famous photo of South Vietnam's chief of National Police shooting a Viet Cong in the head during the Tet Offensive in 1968.  The timing of the photograph is extraordinarily horrible.  You can clearly see that the trigger has been pulled and the bullet is about to exit the victim's elongated skull on the opposite side.  Scenes of military violence like this became common in America's press, making the war the first to be literally fought in America's living rooms.  Though it remained strong, support for the war declined after the American victory in the Tet Offensive because the American public could not see the victory through the pervasive violence needed to attain it.

The tragic shootings at Kent State in 1970 are best symbolized in this classic photograph.  America was already withdrawing from Vietnam but the Cambodian incursion made it seem as if the war was widening rather than ending.  This was a mistaken assumption on the part of the increasingly militant and hyper-sensitive anti-war movement, but perception is truth where current and historic events are concerned.  No photo better captured how America had turned on itself regarding Vietnam.  Nor do we have a better example of how violent American culture truly is.

In 1972, the South Vietnamese air force mistakenly bombed its own civilians with napalm during a North Vietnamese attack.  The Burns-Novick documentary goes into more detail about the circumstances surrounding this photograph than the others presented, including a fascinating interview with the photographer who took the picture and the initial difficulty he had in getting it published due to the fact that it contained a naked girl, regardless of the circumstances.  Almost everyone found it tragic and repulsive when this photo finally reached the covers of major newspapers around the world.  But Burns-Novick also offered us what was perhaps the most hopeful image of the entire documentary when they showed the girl today as a scarred mother, naked with child.

The most hopeful thing I saw in the documentary series.
All four of these black and white photos won the Pulitzer Prize in their respective years.

For me, the most emotional part of the documentary came when Dr. Hal Kushner, a medic for the 1st Cavalry Division who was captured and spent over five years in prison camps, spoke of his release and return home.  He tells of coming off the aircraft that brought him out of Hanoi and being greeted by a brigadier-general in full dress uniform.  "He just looked magnificent," Kushner recalls.  Then Kushner got to perform a courtesy he had been denied while in prison.  He saluted the general, who returned the salute and then warmly and affectionately embraced the soldier.  Kushner tears up and his voice cracks as tells of the general, with tears in his own eyes, saying "Welcome home Major.  We are glad to see you doctor."  

Kushner is barely able to utter "It was such a powerful moment."  I couldn't help but tear-up myself as the weight of his imprisonment, told in unfolding details along with all the other fascinating interviews over the course of several episodes, came fully to bear on me as a viewer of his initial moment of freedom.  Kushner was reunited with his wife and two children including his five year old son who he had never seen.  The documentary simply acknowledges that, like so many other marriages of returning veterans,  it would not last.

I can't say The Vietnam War was an enjoyable viewing experience.  Like the war itself, it is too absurd and tragic to find any reason for pride or to even smile.  Nevertheless it is a first-class documentary on a difficult, convoluted, and still divisive  subject.  Burns and Novick did their best to make sense of it all.  Their greatest challenge was the simple historical fact that none of it makes any sense to begin with.  

Still, I recommend you make the effort.  The insights it imparts, if unsatisfying, are definitive.  And it makes its own small contribution what might be called a "healing process" even though, for me, it becomes obvious that we cannot heal from something we actually are as a people.  Vietnam is still with us because it reflects much of America's very human, cultural limitations.  To that extent we can only hope to cope with it all.  It may be beyond our abilities to heal.