To honor the passing of Michael Cimino, I’ve been having a small film festival today, with two of my favorite movies: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter. I’m not quite getting the “damning with faint praise” Cimino’s passing is receiving on the internet. I’d be more than honored to come up with something as direct, honest and lasting as The Deer Hunter.
But that’s how the world is now. Grave pissing is the order of the day, people with no heart, soul or mind imagine themselves on a higher level than those who’ve created something far beyond their reach. This is the imaginary world where we’re all equal. Not the real one where people will watch The Deer Hunter decades from now and still feel something profound. You don’t make a critical analysis of someone’s work at his funeral … unless you’re a complete asshole.
When people ask me where I’m from, I can say “northeast Pennsylvania,” but I’ll just as often say “the first half of The Deer Hunter.” When I first saw the movie on HBO in the late 70’s, I didn’t get it. How could I, as a teenager? I didn’t give a shit about where I was from – if anything, I looked down on it. I was far more drawn to the intense, flashy Vietnam sequences (which really make no sense without the first half to show you this trio of young men going through hell in war).
I can’t remember when it dawned on me that the first half of The Deer Hunter truly captured what it felt like to live in most parts of Pennsylvania in the 1960’s and 70’s. The movie’s setting may have been Pittsburgh, guys making steel, working-class Russian/Ukranian background, but it could just as easily have been Scranton, guys on the tail end of the hard coal industry, working-class Irish background. Northeast Pennsylvania was and is heavily Irish and Polish/Ukranian. Every town has a domed church of the kind you’ll find in any town in east Europe.
The Deer Hunter perfectly captures three young men on the eve of abandoning that way of life, by force, in their case joining the army to fight in Vietnam: Mike (Robert DeNiro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (Jon Savage). It’s the little things that ring true: the rotund Russian mother pulling her son, Steven out of the local bar on his wedding day, bitching at him for hanging out with low lifes when she’s really upset that she’s “losing” her son to marriage. The wedding is like more than a few I’ve been to, although the ones I’ve attended back there featured pop songs and not Ukranian (or Irish) folk tunes. Still, everything else was note perfect.
Mike and Nick discuss the concept of “one shot”: the art of taking down a deer when hunting with one rifle shot. Two is bullshit, indicative of an unskilled hunter. Both recognize the rest of their friends are goofballs, two-shot guys at best. But they understand one shot. While talking about this in Nick’s trailer after their last day of work before leaving for the army, Nick makes Mike promise he won’t leave him over there in Vietnam. He senses Mike may be a little nuts, but he’s hard as nails and understands the world is the same way. As you could imagine, with DeNiro and Walken, it’s an intense, quiet scene.
Sure enough, shit happens in Vietnam. Harrowing, ugly stuff that damages all three of the men in every way possible. In short, Mike doesn’t keep his promise: he loses track of Nick on the streets of Saigon after all three friends escape a doomed situation in a prison camp, and he comes back to Pennsylvania to find that while Steven is there (permanently damaged and living away from home out of shame), Nick is missing in action. Steve informs him that he's receiving thousands of dollars at his veteran's hospital every week from an undisclosed source in Vietnam. Mike knows this is Nick, hooked into the grim Russian Roulette gambling scene where they last lost sight of each other. He decides to head back to Vietnam and keep his promise.
This is where I’ve learned a lot about the movie in the past decade or two: one shot. That concept of staying true, in some sense. To a sense of home, or a time and place, or an ideal. Life gets weird when people start dying. Or things stop working. The buoyancy of youth gives way to the realities of aging and passing time. “One shot” still seems like a good idea, a code to live by, but it becomes harder to live by.
And it becomes something else. Mike does find Nick, days before the fall of Saigon, hooked on heroin, making a fortune for some shady backstreet impresario staging profession Russian Roulette contests in backrooms and warehouses as the city falls. “One shot” already got turned on its head when Mike and Nick where held prisoner, both made to play Russian Roulette in the prison camp, with Nick nearly cracking and Mike using the concept to kill their captors and helping all three to escape.
I keep saying “the first half of The Deer Hunter” in reference to movie, but there are really three parts: the innocent beginning in Pennsylvania, the horrifying war story in Vietnam, and the aftermath of war upon returning to Pennsylvania. I find myself just as intensely interested with the last third of the movie now as I have for years with the first, as it captures something of how life goes on after it’s kicked your ass a few times.
Life doesn’t break most people. Or at least that hasn’t been my experience. But I’ve learned, you hang around long enough, you go through experiences that have virtually nothing to do with youth and innocence, and in fact are introductions to the hardness of life, which become more commonplace over time. Most of us are lucky enough not to deal with war. But we’ll get disease, death, betrayal, misunderstanding, victimization of various sorts, failing health, etc. The bad stuff. The net effect is to make us harder, sometimes crazy. We don’t stay as pure as the driven snow, or the hang-loose, fun people we were as kids or teenagers. Shit happens. The challenge becomes to hold on to your humanity, your humor, your sanity, your empathy.
And that’s where The Deer Hunter goes in Act III, what makes it a truly great movie. Mike does find Nick in the slums of Saigon: vacant, lost, stoned, another person, a seemingly impenetrable being who appears to have no recall or memory as to the person he was before. This is on the way into one of Nick’s Russian Roulette appearances, in his white shirt and red headband, the uniform men wear to play the game.
Mike bribes his way into a game of Russian Roulette with Nick, the crowd cheering over two Americans playing the game, and they revisit the concept of “one shot.” It’s how Mike gets through to Nick: you can see it in Nick’s face. He remembers. Being from Pennsylvania. Mike, his tough, smart, older brother in so many ways. His girl back home, waiting to marry him when he gets back. And in his mind, he decides, there’s no going back to that place, he’s too far gone, too damaged, something’s broken inside of him, and “one shot” goes another way.
Mike kept his promise. The movie ends back home in Pennsylvania, a funeral ceremony replacing the wedding that began the movie, in the same bar, the same people, but in a much different place. It makes sense to me, and I’ve felt my life grow into this movie, never quite grasping the Vietnam sequence (although appreciating it, surely), but now fully understanding the “one shot” concept taking on two different meanings, based on nothing more than personal experience.
In a far less dramatic and destructive way, anyone who’s left a small town to live in a big city relates to Nick’s character in The Deer Hunter. After decades of doing this, of being around people always angling for something, always hustling, always pushing their agenda … it can’t help but rub off! Oddly enough, I don’t think living here has made me that much harder, just more suspect of people, more aware of their motives, for better and worse. If you live here long enough, and you’re smart, you learn how to read people, if only by the way they walk or hold their bodies. Actions become much more honest than words. What’s made me harder? Watching both my parents pass on, pure and simple, same as it’s always been, no matter where you choose to live. Very few things in life are that much harder to grasp and then live with.
But there surely are! And they're headed our way. Ironically, while The Deer Hunter plays up the American angle of Vietnam, there are countless stories Vietnamese people that are even more harrowing, and in some cases uplifting in ways are as profound as any story focusing on American heroes. And I guess that’s also how The Deer Hunter ends, with that awkward sense of community of people who have just had a series of very negative experiences, taking solace in each other’s company. The movie begins and ends in the same place, but everything has changed. That’s not easy to do from a writing point of view, and Cimino did it well.