Thursday, December 13, 2007

Great Dads of the 1970s #1: Jon Voight as Luke in COMING HOME


"Ah, the smugness, I can't stand it." -Jane

"I dont belive it will change, but you're beautiful when you're excited." - Jon

I was just a kid when COMING HOME came out but I remember its impact. Along with THE DEER HUNTER, released the same year, there was a whirlwind of controversy and outpourings of support, anger and raw feeling over a war that hadn't been over more than a few years. The media was aflame and Oscars fell like rain and now, thirty years later all we have left are the DVDs, while another war rages and the best we can get are polemics like LIONS FOR LAMBS. But what of 1978? In hindsight, The DEER HUNTER seems to have almost nothing to do with Vietnam, being instead an American Reifenstahl Alpenfilme, but it's still good and gets repackaged and made glossy and classic, but why not COMING HOME?

The red state stigmatization of Fonda and her strong character may have something to do with HOME's lack of corporate support as far as DVD re-marketing, but I would guess the answer really lies in the fact that its genuinely subversive, in a positive almost painfully human way. Leonard Maltin's guide gives it a mere three and a half stars to the DEER's four, citing the film's "lapses into melodrama" as the reason. Of course THE DEER HUNTER (like APOCALYPSE NOW which came out the following year) is really a "guy" movie. (Maltin says it "packs an emotional wallop"), COMING HOME is neither a man's nor a woman's picture. If I wasn't all obsessive and insane at the moment I would probably never use these sorts of words, but: it's a human picture. It's a picture for the non gender-specific lover archetype which we embody only when we are at our best. A lot of us can't stomach that sort of intimacy for long; we'd rather reach for the easy comfort of our threadbare genre straitjackets. I'm as guilty of that as anyone. I can barely watch COMING HOME even now. I'm watching the DVD as I write this and I have to pause every few minutes, for breaks that stretch into hours. I have to write like mad to deal with the pain.

And no, Voight's character, Luke, is not an actual parent--nor shall he ever be one, apparently, thanks to his waist-down paralysis--so his being considered a 1970's dad might seem a bit odd. But hey, man, there are people all over the world needing parenting, not the bossy, browbeating kind but the unconditional nurturing and sense of strong support kind. One need only grace, gravitas and guts, genuine non-gender specific love, and maybe a mustache and fine foxy beard to be the best of 70s dads; kids will come from all over, from all ages and groups.

Luke has those things and as he goes from soul-ruptured angry young paraplegic to nurturing activist/lover, you get to see deep into his wide-open soul--both the actor and his character--and his innate majesty shines out at you; he's the wounded fisher king accepting the fact no Parsifal is coming. As a knight you need to serve a king, and Voight fits my bill in COMING HOME. I watch and I want to help him do whatever it is he needs to do, because you know it's right and just, whatever it is. He becomes the sort of man that James Dean's character was on the road to becoming in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. He becomes a leader that inspires what is best in men.

Contrasting Voight in the film is Bruce Dern's character, a smarmy officer and Jane's husband. He embodies the Beatles' lyric heard in the film: "Living is easy with eyes closed..." and Bruce Dern is so good at portraying this type you fear for his soul. In short, he's odious. His character eventually loses out and goes for "the long swim" (if only he'd hung around awhile of course, he wouldn't have to worry--the Voights of the world lost to the banal conformity of the Derns after all). Too bad, because the pain he was feeling might have made him a better person if he just faced it rather than running. The Derns of the world don't ever face the mirror, they don't need to and so they don't, and then when they need to suddenly they can't - they'd rather off themselves than see how their unexamined life has left a shitty legacy.

Luke certainly has his work cut out for him in facing that mirror, learning to use the wheelchair, etc. all while being utterly reliant on others. There's a feeling of futility and angst surrounding his situation, and it reaches a head when he first crashes into Jane on her first day volunteering at the VA, sending his colostomy bag flying and humiliating him to the breaking point so that he goes on a furious tirade that would not be topped for sheer greatness until he himself topped it seven years later in RUNAWAY TRAIN. It's a rage that is so fierce it reaches alchemical-level heat and from its raging molten crucible comes a humility akin to divine grace.

Luke's humility in this film represents a path for men that was never overtly spelled out and so was lost in the shuffle when we went from subtle to sledgehammer in our cultural cum corporate aesthetic. If you look at old films--like Howard Hawks' in particular--they all depict an unspoken code of "good" behavior that men measure one another by; it's a code that operates free of gender and physical strength and asks only what was asked of Laertes in Hamlet: "To thine own self be true, and thus it follows as night follows day, thou cannot be false to any man." The path up to this heavenly ethical plateau is through things like therapy,  the 12 steps, meditation, volunteer work, helping others --all the shit we'd often rather die than deal with directly. But if we don't deal with it, it deals with us and we're back in the jungle or the desert faster than we can run. 

There's a great moment when Luke first gets asked to dinner by Jane and as she heads off-screen he slowly pulls himself up the hospital's wheelchair ramp, his newly muscled arms rippling as he pulls his wheelchair and bulk. Those muscles represent not just Voight's devotion to getting the details of his part right--and by association doing right by the paraplegics he studied for the role--they represent the triumph of love against the sort of rage and shame that he expressed earlier. Luke begins to grow like a flower in the sun of Jane Fonda; he will become a dad figure to Billy, the shell-shocked neurotic guitarist played by Robert Carradine; and he will become an inspiration even to a whole high school assembly at the film's climax.

What makes the final speech so moving and profound is not just his tears, but his acceptance of responsibility; he doesn't condemn Vietnam with the self-righteousness of a screaming protestor; he doesn't bemoan his loss. Instead he admits he "doesn't feel very good" about having killed people for "not enough reason, man." He doesn't blame the U.S., or the recruitment officer who spoke before him. He admits defeat and admits he made choices that he believes were wrong. In doing so, he begins the possibility for genuine social change. It's such a scary thought I believe the powers that be would just as soon this movie never existed, was forgotten, and overshadowed by the grim fatalism of The Deer Hunter.

Everyone celebrates and remembers Voight in that big final high school speech, so rather than discuss it further I'm going to delve a bit into their first date at Fonda's apartment: She's nervous and he orders her to sit down. He asks if this is "Bring a gimp over to dinner night," and rather than get indignant (a reaction which you see cross her face) she instead looks him directly in the eye and  slowly shakes her head no; the result is nothing short of a true human connection, and he connects back and admits, "I know you didn't."

In today's edit-happy world this scene would probably be cut down to a few seconds. Instead we're allowed to see each of them overcoming fears and prejudices, connecting as real people, and Ashby makes it possible for us to see this in a magnificent natural light that illuminates their eyes. He gives Voight and Fonda all the room they need to make these characters real. Even though we might squirm in embarrassment while it's happening, in the end we're in love with them as much as they are with each other; the kind of love that transcends sex and gender (literally since Luke is effectively sexless) the kind of love that spreads outwards to all who come in contact with it... except for the Bruce Derns, of course, living easy with their eyes closed.

Later in that same first date, Voight says to Fonda: "When people look at me they see something else, they don't see ... who I really am."  In real life, people still don't see Voight or Fonda as who they really are (I'm sure I'm not seeing Dern as he really is either). They see publicity and Angelina and Hanoi Jane and ANACONDA and whatever else. In 1978's COMING HOME we can feel the aperture of spirit close around us, feel our willingness to embrace the gossip rags rather than the unwritten riches, but first we get this wide open view of the human spirit at its most noble and compassionate... and yes, it can be painful to watch, especially for men. We're not comfortable seeing a man so dependent upon a woman (two words: wheelchair accessible) and COMING HOME lingers right on that sensitive spot, like a lover trying to tickle some embarrassing secret out of us while we're tied to the bed.

Is it any wonder then, that cinema fans in media-saturated 21st century prefer the cool macho alienation of THE DEER HUNTER? COMING HOME challenges us to be more open and loving with one another and it does so by practicing what it preaches; it gets all sticky and gooey, it "lapses into melodrama." It asks us to feel deeply. Conversely, THE DEER HUNTER asks us only to pop open another cold one and turn up the game; to drown out that subtle, soft voice that would point us towards the love we'd prefer to think irretrievable. If things get too intimate, just drown that sensitivity in another game of Russian roulette, like a real man.

And so Jon Voight in COMING HOME gets first place in the 1970s dad pantheon, without his character even having any kids... or even any legs...or the ability to ever walk or inseminate again. All he has are the guts to ask for help, and to love without limit, and to administer a cool beard... and he's beautiful. And I almost forgot: he's got such cunnilingual skills he gives Jane her first orgasm. As far as hostility towards this picture by mainstream society, that explains a hell of a lot.

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