Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Acid Cinema Special Edition: The VIETNAM Experience (Part 1)

The topic of critical backlash against INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is still hot two weeks after the film opened, and seems aimed primarily at the "light" portrayal of the plight of the Jewish people under Nazism, and the Jewish-American commando squad's glorified brutality-- the "fire with double-fire" approach. These issues point me to a dilemma that afflicts many Americans, the refusal to see beyond the bogus facade of "civilized morals"--even when their own lives hang in the balance.

When Wes Craven or Charles Bronson turn the other cheek back around and start blasting and hacking, we're supposed to go "oh how quickly civilized behavior falls to reveal the savage!" and supposedly go home and feel bad about how much we enjoyed seeing it happen. But to me, I just feel bad that the sucker vacationers in American horror and revenge movies don't start reverting to savagery fast enough, and when they do, there's little celebration of their return to the true wilderness of the chthonic. Once you realize mom's not coming to help you, or any cops, and you fight back, you can stop crying and cringing. It happens automatically--like when a kid sent to his room until he stops crying suddenly realizes he's stopped crying. Hollywood's forgotten or doesn't want to remember this, it still thinks mom will come if it just cries and screams long enough. Now when the final girl finally kills the slasher, she no longer bellows her victory cry; instead she reverts back to being a frazzled whiner... and it all leads me to ask why and realize that my Acid Movie thread must now address Vietnam.

The story of acid in the America of the 1960s is a story of a nation in conflict between a renewed lust for life and an enhanced drive towards death, between the rebels and the republic, the old guard Don Draper types clinging by their fingernails to the 1950s American dream as it dissolves around them, and the crazy peaceniks mocking and deriding everything that dream stood for. While dad swills a beer and cheers the bombers on the news, his kids are out in Central Park, dropping tabs and waving peace signs. Seldom before or since in American history has the line between old and young, life and death, love and hate, conformity and free-thinking, been so sharply and clear drawn. And in the field of combat, the same line existed between delusional top brass notions of "heart and minds" and the real blood-and-ambiguity-drenched quagmire of the killing field.

LSD erased all those lines...as well as all other artificial social constructs. It could make you very peaceful with yourself as you committed horrific violence against yourself or others, merrily merrily merrily, life is but a dream of disconnect... even killing can be an expression of love, just ask the Manson family, or the babysitter nuking the kid in the microwave, or Native Americans who apologize to the deer as they kill it, and sing its praises, understanding that they're killing themselves. All murder is just projected suicide; the Native American's knew we always only ever eat ourselves. With acid, we knew it too.

Taking acid certainly could prove a boost to your perception, heightening and sharpening your senses, whether over in the war or at home, and what seemed like unshakable bedrocks only hours before: marriage, church, state, government, patriarchy, tradition became suddenly clownish, yesterday's papers, tools of hypnosis to keep the cattle placid. Acid made killing 'real' to non-combatants because it shuckered one loose from the grip of the patriarchy, helped you think like the enemy, or how you imagined the enemy thought, slinking through the jungle, hard-wired and alive to every flapping beetle wing and blowing leaf, and best of all, free of all the moral inhibitions about killing people you don't know. Smashing open an innocent farmer's face with the butt of your rifle would be intolerable sober, but is just another freaky thing to trip out once you surrender to the fact that you're living in a world... of... shit, as Private Pyle puts it in FULL METAL JACKET (1987).

An integral -- though demonized by the liberal press-- part of boot camp is hazing, the beating of new cadets with soaps wrapped in towels, to toughen them up, give them a face-to-face taste with unendurable pain, the kind that transforms you, darkens you, makes you less afraid since you know it can't get any worse. Anything less than that level of prolonged and traumatic beating up is just business as usual from then on; the volume is turned way down. It's nothing new, and corresponds to Native American rituals that involve hanging by pierced shoulder muscles until you see your white buffalo vision and know you are a man. Or, you could just try taking too much acid, a sort of self-medicated hazing. Either way, you have to do something to free yourself from living life in a state of fear-based wussiness... it takes a jolt to your whole body-mind-spirit in order to shake the civilized cowardice out of a man, to sever all apron string breadcrumb trails back to moms, that's a fact. You can't wait to turn savage after you're savagely killed, you have to be already on fire to fight fire with fire.

In Private Pyle's case it works all too well, but he doesn't even wait to get to the jungle before he has to start blasting. There's always that one dopey kid in your circle who makes the mistake of letting the newly freed inner demon take over completely, rather than just harnessing its energy. This dopey Pyle-type always has to do something stupid like mess with the cops and get you all arrested and validate drugs being illegal in the first place, or talk back to the judge, try and rape an elderly lady in the middle of the park, or play one last round of Russian roulette.

But if you do it right and stay open to change, just allow the demon to have a share in the company and not full ownership, then you're in business. You can let the demon out when you need to be cold and merciless, such as in breaking up with a long-time lover or breaking a dog's neck to put it out of its misery after you accidentally run it over on the side of the road, or pulling the plug on grandma; that's all important stuff and the demon can make it all possible. With the demon at the reins, hearing someone plead for their life doesn't break your heart anymore; it makes you amused and disgusted at their cowardice. Don't they see that death is no different than life? That they're just scared of the unknown, of change? Like a kid trying to talk his mom out of his having to leave for the first day of school? They're just scared to die, ego death fear, the way a person whose never dropped acid is afraid to try it. When your brain is exploding with the eternity of existence, what is war but an amusement park, a rollercoaster on which you give your war shout and wave your hands because if you don't you'll probably scream like a Poe character buried alive.

In Oliver Stone's PLATOON (1986) the life/death line is drawn between the "cool" soldiers who smoke pot and dance and sing like a bunch of ANIMAL HOUSE meets MASH regulars, headed by Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) vs. the bourbon-swilling conservatives, represented by Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger). You may be too young to remember, but PLATOON really hit a national nerve when it came out in 1986. Vietnam vets would see it and cry afterward, right in the theater, finally recognizing and then releasing some of the horror they had been holding in for so long. I was a sophomore in college and our homework in America in the 1960s class was to somehow get out to the off-campus theater and see it, and so my gang of hippies and I figured, why not eat mushrooms beforehand? We called a cab, piled in, and the cool driver takes one look at our tie-dyes and says "go ahead and smoke a joint if you want, I could stand some myself." We knew this homework assignment had become a spiritually-sanctioned vision quest!

For me, it was a brilliant descent into a palpable madness of paranoia and nihilism. In the surround-sound theater I could sense every bug, every snap of a twig in the jungles all around me. The foley work was amazing, buzzing gnats slowly moving around and every possible rustle of leaves might mean your death. Heightened senses were in order, and heightened senses we had. Interestingly, some of my party had to leave for awhile during the Mai Lai massacre segment, but I was really into it... It was that feeling of "why not just kill 'em all?" that comes from being pushed past your limits, the realization that insanity has a purpose, a grisly kind of freedom (I was 19 and just at the right age for the draft if there was one) that comes from "nothing left to lose." The mushrooms had freed me to see and feel this, had shown me the ambivalent killer I once was in lives past and maybe future.

This "death-embracing" aspect of LSD is something America never has been able to reconcile with its more peaceful half, just throwing baby and bathwater alike into prison and barring the door on any further conversation, at least in the US. In England the late-inning demonizing was taken with a grain of salt, and the Nietzschean rebirth from civilized wanker into super-warrior thing appears in British films to this day. Leo DiCaprio taps into it for his psychedelic interlude during a stretch of THE BEACH (2000) and Cillian Murphy finds his inner psycho for the climax of 28 DAYS LATER (2002). Shauna Macdonald (above) experiences a similar death/rebirth when falling into a pit of menstrual blood signifier slime in THE DESCENT (2005). It's the last straw of horror that snaps her free into CARRIE-style warrior woman.

The Japanese have always been fans of this conversion and the slew of samurai films such as SWORD OF DOOM (1966) illustrate a cosmic understanding of the difference between sympathy and compassion. The antihero main character played by Tatsuya Nakadai, for example, kills a weary old man he meets on a hill, just because he seems to be a burden to his granddaughter. In sword battle contests he only cares about perfection of technique, barely noticing the corpses he leaves in his wake. Perhaps the Japanese, British, and Germans for that matter, are just a little better at "going there." May I venture to guess it comes from being bombed?

But Americans can't abide that kind of freedom from moral head games without a little help from their lysergic friends. They need far more push than just a dip in a slime pool to shed their civilized moral paralysis, as we see in their terror of issues like euthanasia, castration and abortion, where comatose, paralyzed, dying patients are kept alive for years, and convicted sex offenders begging to be castrated are turned down flat. Every hospital should have a man like Willard/Kurz in APOCALYPSE NOW or SWORD OF DOOM's Tatsuya Nakadai (above) to walk through the wards and dispassionately off the incurably sick or comatose, castrating and severing and doing whatever needs to be done. But it's shocking just to think of it; we are too scared to face death square in the eye! Won't someone think of the children!!?!?! BUT, we do have Vietnam, the 'state of mind' where American hypocrisy collapses on itself and leaves you standing there in the bush with a gun in your hand, clinically insane from lack of sleep, and head full of contradictory orders.

APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) is the ultimate trip for Vietnam, the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY of war films, updating the original acid story, Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS to accommodate a broad spectrum of black comic situations. Brando's ambiguity as Kurz in the last section is always a bit of a let-down to what came before. The peaks happen often: the Colonel Kilgore scenes of course, and the scene that's preceded by Lance mentioning to Frederic Forrest as they're cruising up to the final checkpoint, beyond which is Cambodia, "You know that last tab of acid I had? I dropped it." Forrest replies, as if barely listening, "Far out." Willard (Martin Sheen) gets off the boat, bringing Lance with him like a magic protection symbol, like the white cloth pinned to the nurse's jacket in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Everyone at this bridge seems lost and abandoned ("Who's in charge here?" "Ain't you?") until they find a taciturn spectral presence named Roach (the Duane Jones zombie figure equivalent from IWAZ) who they bring out of his pot smoke and Hendrix-filled cubby hole so he can take out a crazed VC sniper off in the distance. "He's close man... real... close", says the Roach, his eyes glazed over with the 1000 yard stare. He loads his grenade launcher and just fires it straight up into the air without even looking, BAM, all is quiet, no more sniper. Roach's face barely changes except to snarl a bit at the end as he whispers, "motherfucker."

"Soldier," an impressed but utterly spooked Willard asks him. "Do you know who's in charge here?"

The Roach looks at him, "Yeah." and exits. What does the Roach mean? the devil? the lord of chaos? Or something even more bizarre, past duality, the Kali energy loosed upon the world. Roach is the end point of the Lance and Bunny mystical surrender/conversion... the ultimate acid soldier... his very name is synonymous with adaptation and survival, the Roach will inherit the earth and in his stoned, gone expression is the true spirit of the Vietnam War.

Willard's question is, to Roach, just the same as Jimi Hendrix's question in that song, "But first are you experienced?" The answer to both is the same: "yeah." (Roach looks a lot like Hendrix might). No doubt that Roach is "experienced."

Earlier in the film we see the crew panic and machine gun a boat full of Vietnamese, but it's they who then label Willard the cold blooded killer when he shoots the sole wounded survivor. Willard notes that the American approach to Vietnam was "to shoot you full of holes and then give you a band-aid." and that taking down Kurz for killing a few suspected spies is "like passing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500."

According to the documentary, HEART OF DARKNESS, Coppola, cast and crew did lots of acid on set in the Philippines and you can feel it in the film's pulsing dissolves and apocalyptic imagery. Similarly, for PLATOON, Oliver Stone was actually in Vietnam, on acid. In each case you can feel the understanding of the killer instinct and the refusal to condemn it in the hypocritical "give 'em a band-aid" way of the American social structures. THE DEER HUNTER focuses on the moment of facing this fear of death, but it never gets past it. Walken's addiction to Russian Roulette indicates a kind of suicidal ideation autopilot. But the moods of APOCALYPSE NOW and PLATOON move beyond fear of death and into deep archetypal breakdown like true acid poetry.

In the end, you need to overcome your fear of death in order to become a true warrior. For some reason the bulk of cowardly Middle America thinks of that as somehow treason against humanity, and yet LSD would make for better soldiers. Almost all the people who want drugs to stay illegal have never tried them. NRA forever! People who want guns illegal don't own one. They're against the death penalty because their friend or family was never murdered.

Who's in charge here? Anyone with the balls to let go of fear and stick out their tongue for the real Eucharist. As Brando advises in APOCALYPSE NOW, "you must make a friend... of horror."


  1. EK:
    Another spot-on acid essay; thanks!

  2. I like that you tapped into the dark side of the mystical here - too often forgotten in pigeonholing of altered states as "hippie" or "far-out." I'm probably doing a piece tomorrow on a book about LSD & religion from the 60s, written by a Chicago journalist who closes the book with his first trip on mescalin - a bad one. He opens the book with a possibly (hopefully) apocryphal anecdote about someone tripping on LSD who devoured a kitten live - a useful reminder that despite the flakey title and trippy psychedelics on the cover, this will not be a book about lovey-dovey acid cliches (besides which, the 60s drug culture was so new at this point it hadn't had time to devolve into cliches yet, another reason I like the book).

  3. MM, It's not William Braden's The Private Sea: LSD & The Seach for God, is it? My favorite book on the subject from 1967. And Ivan, thank you so much!

  4. You should watch Forced Entry (Shaun Costello, 1973). It's like this essay in movie form!

  5. This is a great film but not as good as predator.

  6. God forbid the author of this post ever pick up a book, rather than see a film, or actually speak to a typical Vietnam veteran. Here's a hint: your average Vietnam vet was a volunteer, hailed from the rural Midwest or South. Something like 5% of them ever tried acid, and the majority were non-combat troops. Your average Vietnam vets home life would've been something like out of The Outsiders. And that's not even getting into officers, who made up a pretty big chunk of the guys over there and made up a larger proportion of casualties... COL James McDonough (read: Platoon Leader, 1985) is a good example of what a good officer would do to a soldier who does drugs in the field. It involves pistol whipping. Hell, pick up the book "Platoon, Bravo Company." Oliver Stone's real life boss had some interesting things to say.

    That said, all of these movies are outstanding achievements in cinema and most of the author's points not relating to the history of Vietnam (or the men who fought it) are pretty spot on.

  7. Thanks for your tough love, Anon... I'll tell the author to start reading some less druggy Vietnam books. That reminds me I still need to see HEARTS AND MINDS.

    I of course never meant to besmirch the troops, the vets, especially those still struggling out there. I was mainly writing about the films and the 'cultural faux reality' they conjure.. I'd also like to remind everyone that when you see guys selling old books, incense and whatnot legally on the street in NYC, they're usually vets! They get to do it through a special program, so buy your incense and weird old books on the street! Support the homefront!