Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Russian Orthodox Roulette: Lindsay Lohan, THE DEER HUNTER, TROUBLE FOR TWO

"It's a cursed life where even death has become a luxury." 
- Prince Florizel (Robert Montgomery), Trouble for Two (1936)

I had been working on the below post for almost six months, until finally publishing it mainly because I had nothing else more 'relevant' to put out... then, the very next day, or the same day, these sad, twisted photos come out of our dear Lindsay. Of course, it's coincidence... or is it? Just look up into her false-colored eyes above; if anyone in the media would join a suicide club like in THE DEER HUNTER or TROUBLE FOR TWO, it's Lindsay.

Let me tell you, to be FORCED to stop drinking and doing drugs when you don't really want to, either by court order or just your almost dying too many times from your escalating addiction (for me, well, alcohol withdrawal will kill you, unmedicated DTs are dangerous; opiate withdrawal just causes you pain but isn't fatal), and to have your every vulnerable misstep chronicled by hyena pack press photographers, well, I can truly understand the pain in her eyes... and I've seen it before, in the pictures of Kurt Cobain, who would be my age were he alive today. It's like your last escape from the insanity of your mind / life / reality / is locked and your stuck in Hell with only one way out.

All I can say is, just hang on, LL --keep your powder dry and your pecker hard... and the Earth will turn.(that's from PLATOON)

Over the years I've seen Michael Cimino's tale of small PA town Russian Orthodox churchgoing / hard drinking steelworkers going to 'Nam, THE DEER HUNTER (1978), in a lot of different situations, but the weirdest was via Betamax in high school Social Science class, where it was supposed educate us on the Vietnam war (and allow the hung-over teacher--and some students--a nice nap in the dark). I can still remember the collective sigh of relief at the sight of some AV geek dragging in the big old TV stand, killing the lights and drawing the blinds against the 11 AM sunshine, knowing this meant there would be no test or class discussion, just VC goons and Pittsburgh drunks.  Each class period was only 45 minutes, so we saw HUNTER in daily installments, the Social Science teacher rewinding and forwarding trying to find the right spot (since each class the teacher had was watching the same tape, but left off in different spots), so it seemed to stretch on for weeks, until it seemed half my junior year of HS was spent watching Asians slap around Bobby De Niro and Chris Walken.

Not a lot of the film made sense, especially back then (1983), a land before internet could put us wise to some things. The film's central group of buddies for example never need to sleep. They work the late shift at a steel mill, clock out at dawn, drop by the local bar on their way home to breakfast, then get dolled up for a wedding reception that afternoon into the evening. They party all through the early morning hours then drive out to their cabin in the mountains to go deer hunting, drinking all the while. Until finally -- after being awake for 24 hours at least -- they're back in the bar, playing piano and standing around. BAM! Vietnam. Well, no wonder shit was so fucked up over there!

And so it came to pass that everyone in Bridgewater-Raritan HS West thought Russian roulette was the cool game to play overseas. Russian roulette was simply what one did in Vietnam, the way bridge and shuffleboard are what one does on a cruise ship. Sitting there, even in 10th grade, we knew the law of averages made prolonged play of the game impossible, but to point out its absurdity required raising your hand, and the teacher would label you a smartass and hand out a quiz, the same one he was supposed to give us a quiz last week.

And hey, man, no one had studied for that quiz, or knew what it would be about, that was why hearing those squeaky TV stand wheels coming down the hall every day was like hearing the empty chamber click on that roulette pistol. We knew we were safe for one more round.


Sometimes, Mike, when I dream, I'm back in class, still unprepared for that quiz, hoping against hope those TV wheels are going to come squeaking down the hallway.

And of course we were too cool even after it was too late for the test to be administered to ask the teacher why Christopher Walken's character, Nick, becomes addicted to Russian roulette, why--even after escaping the VC--he plays it of his own free will in sordid back alley games; nor could we dare point out the sheer absurdity of the idea that anyone could work an eight-hour steel mill shift followed by 24+ hours of partying, or last more than a week on a suicide circuit, not to mention months. It all was accepted without comment. After all, this was a modern American classic, with something to say about our national identity. It must be because these guys are from Russian immigrant stock (the wedding is at a Russian Orthodox church), we figured. Russian are fearless and disturbed. Violence is in their blood like vodka; that's why it was called Russian roulette instead of, say, Polish roulette, or Jersey roulette. (Russians didn't invent it I later heard, nor has it ever been a thing outside fiction - it's based on a rumor of one angry moment in the life of an old Cossack general.)

Don't try this at home

Since those HS screenings, I've seen the HUNTER dozens of times, each time thinking it's both better and worse than I remembered. And despite the yawning chasm of illogic in its actual prolonged practice, the ambiguity of Walken's motivations on 'the RR circuit' has over the years forced a nation of film lovers to contemplate macho self-annihilation at its most terrifyingly nihilistic. Here's what one helpful scholar notes of the film:
The roulette stands for the horror, the abjection, the repetition-compulsion, the split of subjectivity and the male body, the unwilling fratricide, the collapse of otherness and of the symbolic order. Negating the sexual gaze, the Russian roulette image transforms the Corpse into the subject of the history of defeat (Peter Lang, Defeated Masculinity: Post-Traumatic Cinema in the Aftermath of War, p. 187)

But according to the actual vets and POWs, that whole RR aspect of the story was total bullshit: there never was no such suicide circuit, either in or out of POW camps. While seeing the film in the sacred situation of high school Social Science class may have planted seeds of sexual gaze negation and defeat in our eggshell minds, it did nothing to actually tell us anything about Vietnam, which negated why it was in Social Science class to begin with.

Here's what a Vietnam war correspondent says:
I am now discovering that increasing numbers of Americans believe that the last act of the war took place in a sinister back room somewhere in Saigon, where greedy Chinese gamblers were exhorting a glazed-eyed American GI to blow his head off. Had I as a working reporter missed such a vivid human-interest story on the last day of the war, I might have opted for a similar fate.
I have found that enthusiasts are genuinely hurt when I tell them that while Vietnam had all manners of violence, including self-immolating Buddhist monks, fire-bombings, rape, deception, and massacres like My Lai in its 20 years of war, there was not a single recorded case of Russian roulette, not in the voluminous files of the Associated Press anyway, or in my experience either. The central metaphor of the movie is simply a bloody lie....

But Cimino defends his creative rights. During the filming in Thailand, he told reporters: "War is war. Vietnam is no different from the Crusades. It's a question of survival, friendship and courage, and what happens to these things in people under stress." But they didn't play Russian roulette in the Crusades either. (Peter Arnett - LA Times, via The Veteran)

Creative rights or no, it's hard to believe Nick has been playing the game nonstop through the time it takes Michael to come home from the war, hang around their steel mill town awhile, move in on Nick's girl, visit folks, hunt deer, feel guilty, fly back and search for him while Saigon falls. The odds of surviving that long are probably the same as Nick winning the national lottery five times in a row. Further going unmentioned for good reason is that, after being released from the hospital in Saigon, Michael first spies Nick at an RR game which Michael himself is attending! How many roulette matches are going on all over Saigon that, well, fancy meeting you here! Is the yen for competitive suicide so unshakable, or is there just nothing else to do in Saigon? Have they tried heroin? It's soo much safer! Instead both Nick and Michael, independent of each other, find the same French promoter in a convertible parked behind the 'Mississippi' club, like he's just waiting for traumatized soldiers too zonked to care about booze, drugs and/or hookers to wander through the rear exit and get in the game, following the irregular sound of gunshots like zombies following the sound of human screams. That Frenchman must go through dozens of these shell-shocked soldiers a day, like Warren Oates with his cocks in Cockfighter.

The idea of competitive suicide is of course fascinating to the minions of places like Central Jersey, and though it wasn't 'real' in any way before The Deer Hunter, it sure is now.

TROUBLE FOR TWO (1936) features a kind of Russian roulette (It's based on Robert Louis Stevenson's story, "The Suicide Club"), wherein a group of people gather around a long table and the emcee deals cards instead of a gun. The one who draws the ace of spades kills the one who draws the jack of diamonds (not at the club, but later). Set in Victorian London, the club is more of a response to the stigma of suicide as well as a condemnation of jaded thrill-seeking. Rich young scoundrels join the club, apparently because it's the only thing left that's new under the sun and they've already gambled up their inheritance and are left with nothing but shame -- a shame they've no wish to expound with suicide, which was then a 'crime' punishable by jail time or even execution (what irony  - being hung for trying to hang yourself) as well as a permanent blight on your family's honor. Old people with terminal illnesses are there too, at the table every night for the dealer to pass them a tasty card.

Robert Montgomery stars as a royal prince from the continent visiting London who stumbles on the club and goes just for thrills (as a baby he once played with a lit bomb tossed in his crib by an anarchist and has been unafraid of anything since). Rosalind Russell goes to the club also, because she's spying on him. Love ensues, but the next night she draws the ace of spades and he the jack of diamonds, so they better do some declaring, fast.

Of course there turns out to be reasons for all this suicide clubbing: it seems royal persons must prove their worthiness through regular bouts of courage. Luckily a gentlemen can always call on the aid of other gentlemen when it comes to scourging anarchists. And at any rate, duels, wars, rebels and horse-related hunting accidents were common enough at the time that a young man of honor probably had a one bullet / six chambers chance of surviving into his thirties anyway. Chances for bravery came close to home, with gentlemanly pauses while the other guy picks up his dropped rapier, and a doctor standing by, having a cigar with the seconds, instead of a lot of chain-smoking VC slapping one around.

In other words, for all its old world Queensberry rules Col. Blimpishness, Trouble is more realistic to its time than The Deer Hunter. The roulette angle works as a metaphor for courage-proving in general, i.e. if you were on the front line, you probably had a Russian roulette trigger pull chance of surviving....but that's for the entire war. If you're going to do a huge budget historical recreation, though, you don't need metaphors. After WW2, guys didn't need to hang around the backs of German and Japanese saloons huffing flame thrower exhaust to feel alive (though Dana Andrews did return to the nose of a bomber in Best Years of Our Lives, the effect was created just through sound and a nap).

Cimino perhaps makes the mistake of putting the masculine critique before the horse and sacrificing coherence for intensity, of trying to make it all super authentic and true by focusing on something that never actually happened. His vast crowd scenes, all brilliant and complicated, are suffused with such realism and vivid detail that we're automatically put in the position of assuming historical sweep and accuracy might be the same thing.

There's nothing wrong with adding fantasy / fictional elements into war films, ala, say INGLORIOUS BASTERDS but we know from the beginning that BASTERDS isn't about war but about war films. We presume from the beginning that THE DEER HUNTER is about war's victims, 'real people' from small American towns who play with fire and get burned, but it turns out it's not about them at all. It's about Cimino's desire to morph blue collar alcoholics into Slavic mountain gods who are then consumed and brought low by gibbering Asian devils and their own thousand yard staring contests. Suicide may be painless, but make a habit of it and you become a pain... in the ass... of valor.


  1. Christopher Walken used to be cute!?

    I can definitely understand Russian roulette as a symbol of what war (and life, I guess) is for everyone. In all three, people tend to start confusing dumb luck for talent.

    We used to just watch "Jaws" over and over again in my classes in school. No idea why...

  2. Thanks Katy, --I know, right? Walken used to be a kind of alien godling... it's wild you used to watch Jaws over and over, but I'd hate to associate such a fun film with school. They did for me too with Rosemary's Baby - somewhere or other we had a 16mm film copy of it, as well as, FUTUREWORLD, the WESTWORLD sequel, so I've seen Futureworld a million times but Westworld not even once! Now I can't see any of them without thinking of school, so I almost never watch them.

  3. I would have loved seeing The Deer Hunter in class, chopped up and played over months, twice! As it is, TDH was the first movie I drove my first car to, right after getting my license at 16. Even then, I took the POW camp roulette to just be bored guards using the prisoners as entertainment, and the idea that it spawned an industry was a real weird leap. The next time I was between guard duty shifts on a vcr in a cold, dark guard shack in Germany, dressed just like the guys on TV! "You see this? This is this; this isn't something else," put a lot of Who's On First routines into play in my mind as I silently argued with the TV's "this" - the actual army - was not "that" - the TV bearded army - and that "these" - the real bullets and weapons I was holding - were not something else either, but "that" - DeNiro's bullet - was likely a dummy round prop, ergo, completely something else. We were always really high on hash when we were on guard duty, so, yeah, it was both better and worse than than it was even at the time.

  4. Re: Addendum: god DAMN...


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...