One Shot

Recently I’ve had the immense pleasure of experiencing a movie all over again. Sometimes you watch a movie and you’re not fully capable of grasping its essence, so you move on, you categorize it, you label it or worse yet, you rate it on a scale from 1 to 5 or from 1 to 10 and that’s it, you’re done. Case closed. This is what almost happened to me after the first viewing of Michael Cimino’s best picture winner of 1978, The Deer Hunter. This was a movie,  which after my first time watching it I categorized under ”Good but not that great – Far too long – Overrated – Uneventful.” Well, here I am writing this down on my computer: seeing The Deer Hunter‘s beautiful restoration in 4K on the big screen at Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute might just be the single most impactful cinematic experience I’ve had so far, in all these years of movie watching. What the big screen helped me to see was the richness of the detail, the resounding echo of certain themes presented across all three acts and the emotional kick certain scenes hold, an aspect that is hard to notice once your point of view is limited to the box-like dimensions of most home screens. What The Deer Hunter shows is that when you are allowed to fully exploit the power of cinema across all sections (sound, visuals, storytelling, music, acting) you can indeed paint a canvas not only of a time and place, but of a general mindset as well, the mindset of a tribe, a village, a city and even a nation across a large fraction of time.

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”Give this man a drink!” says Michael, pointing at a war veteran.

Numerous reviews and discussions have been written and raised regarding the best picture winner that sparked a lot of controversy with its brutal scenes displaying the use of Russian roulette in the Vietnam War for the first time since the war had ended a few years prior to the making of this movie. What I want to dedicate this post to is the development of character arc in this three-hour epic, something very few films nowadays are able to achieve due to numerous reasons, but above all 1) bad writing 2) constant constraints on the studio’s part. Because in order to do something similar to what The Deer Hunter does so brilliantly, you need good writing and artistic freedom; you need to be able to push through rules and regulations and exploit the cinematic form to its fullest potential to be able to tell a story that is fleshed out, emotional and important.

First of all, a lot has been said about The Deer Hunter and a lot of times it has been labeled as a war movie. But it’s not. The Deer Hunter, similarly to  Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), another personal favorite of mine, is a film about men in war, about what happens when you place human beings (NOT KILLING MACHINES) in a war-torn environment. In order to do this, The Deer Hunter uses the three-act approach that has been used for centuries in novels, short stories and plays. The three-act structure in The Deer Hunter is as follows: The Wedding – Vietnam – The Return. This allows the film to present key characters in their own world, then shake this very same world to its core, and place the characters back into it to see what this change brought to their lives, what their next step is, what their reality has turned into. The opening wedding chapter, although disliked by many due to its length (over 55 minutes!), is the key component to this three-hour puzzle. Through it not only do we realize that most of the story will take place in rural America, where steel mining is the only career path a man can take, but that this story will concern a particular community of people, namely Russian Orthodox immigrants, a community where characters are familiar with each other, where friends are like brothers and where marriage is for life. In this community people are born, live and die together, and the relationships that are made are made because there is no escaping this harsh difficult reality; in order to survive you need your neighbor, your local pastor and your local gym teacher. Our protagonists are tied to this small world for the rest of their lives as this is the only world they know, and the only world where they truly feel like they belong. The wedding sequence, aside from the wedding itself, concerns the departure of the three friends (Michael, Nick and Stevie) to Vietnam, and how the entire community experiences this proud moment together. The possibility of death is never mentioned by the members of this community. The only instance where we are faced with the alienated reality of Vietnam and a foreshadowing of what is about to come is when the three friends encounter a veteran who just returned from service and happened to stumble into the first bar on the street. When Michael (Robert De Niro) asks the veteran; ”Well, what’s it like over there?” the only response he gets from the veteran is ”Fuck it.” ”Fuck it” without a doubt is the phrase that encapsulates the fate of the three friends and more importantly, their experience of having to point of a loaded gun to their heads for the simple amusement of their captors.

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Love it while you have it.

After having established the friendships, love interests and their aspirations in the wedding chapter, The Deer Hunter places its characters straight into hell. There is no rise and fall scenario in this film. There is simply the introduction of a traumatic event and its aftermath.  The prelude to this chapter, however, takes place high in the mountains, where the group of friends go on a deer hunting escapade. In this brief sequence, De Niro’s character, the most experienced hunter, takes pleasure in squeezing the trigger and firing the deadly weapon. The act of shooting still holds a sacred meaning to him; to shoot a deer not only does it mean you’re a good shot – it also means you’re a man, capable of respecting the beauty of the animal before you with what he describes as ”One shot. That’s it,” and continues, ”A deer has to be taken with one shot. I try to tell people that but they don’t listen.” Killing a deer is an act that must be swift, clean and professional. Yet the death that Michael and his friends will experience from up close in Vietnam is anything but all these things; it’s dirty, pointless, lacking honor or respect. It’s what it is. Fuck it.

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Squeezing the trigger soon turns into…

Here is the most surprising aspect of The Deer Hunter – the actual war is shown for the briefest of moments (actual gunfire and combat take up only 15-20 minutes of runtime) as the film is completely aware of what the focus of the story should be on – the emotional state of the characters, not their physical actions. The return is in a sense the lowest of points for each character involved – it is the culmination of trauma, the clash with the old, familiar world and the inability to shake this trauma off and embrace the old, familiar world again. Christopher Walken’s character of Nick is the one protagonist whose trauma is so strong he does not dare look back – soon enough the only reality he can embrace is the reality where his life is worth a few hundred grand, depending on whether he gets lucky enough and the chamber in the gun turns out to be empty. As in most PTSD cases, Nick is simply unfit to live a normal life. There is no balance in Russian roulette, there’s only two extremes – either you live another day, or you blow your brains out and someone makes a lot of money on your death – this is the only line Nick is able to walk. Meanwhile, De Niro’s Michael, the toughest of the bunch, is, on the other hand, the only character fit enough to be able to face his old world. Unfortunately, this world, as loud and colorful as it was during the wedding celebration, upon Michael’s return has turned silent. The friends are there, Linda (Meryl Streep) is also there, just as emotionally broken as Michael, the city and the steel mill are there, and yet it’s quiet. It is a world that has lost connection with Michael, whose traumatic encounter with the war has set him apart from the rest of the society he once was a proud member of. Michael, a young man who once enjoyed himself working hard in the mill, drinking at the bar with friends and fellow workers, dancing with girls at local ceremonies and hunting deer like a professional, is now unable to squeeze the trigger decisively – with the deer staring right at him, the action of killing this majestic animal has lost all sense; it’s barbaric, it’s empty and meaningless. Thus, The Deer Hunter becomes a three-act film about being hopeful and proud, and having this hope and pride violently taken away, and being left on your own, with an alien world as your home.

Fuck it.

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…madness.
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The Father

There’s a new movie coming out this year, which I’m particularly eager to see, entitled First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke in the role of a morally broken priest. As I sat watching the movie’s trailer I noticed a critics’ praise for it: ”A fierce film from Paul Schrader. One of the crucial creators of the modern cinema.” This positive remark left me quite surprised. Sure, I knew who Paul Schrader was; longtime friend of Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, director of one of the most important movies of the 90s, Affliction, director of the cult classic, American Gigolo, and screenwriter of Raging Bull and the Last Temptation of Christ. But as I read through his artistic credits I realized how little I had seen from him. The man’s body of work spans across four decades of fundamental shifts and changes. And that’s why I decided to dive into the man’s early body of work; to finally be able to comprehend the genius that stands behind modern cinema: Paul Schrader.

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Paul Schrader.

First of all, Schrader is in no way, shape, or form a remarkable director. Yes, that may sound odd since this post is dedicated to the artist himself. However, what I aim to focus on is the man’s voice, which comes through the attitude of his movies, rather than the form of the movies itself. Schrader has produced numerous films, especially in the last decade or so, but it is his early work that speaks volumes not only of Schrader as a man and artist, but about the society Schrader made these movies in, the chaos, confusion and turmoil that created the atmosphere that was needed for the screenwriter turned director to convey his vision to movie goers. It is this eternal state of confusion, madness and anger that makes Schrader such a crucial figure in the founding of modern cinema, because what is modern cinema? It is a hard question to answer. We all see different movies. We see what we like and it does not necessarily have to be considered modern cinema. At the time of Schrader’s rise in the mid 70s, American cinema was starting to acquire a certain power. Unlike the 60s, where experimenting with the technicalities of filmmaking such as improvisation, shooting on location or the use of handheld cameras was the main focus, the 70s focused on the attitude that was felt on the streets of American cities, mainly New York and Los Angeles, two metropolitan areas that differed enormously both in their landscape as well as their attitude. Around those years a new wave of young film directors emerged, all of them willing to change the course of cinema, willing to introduce a sort of spirit that cinema hadn’t been able to capture before. There was Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola and De Palma. The five amigoes who grabbed cinema by the throat and produced some of the most revolutionary pictures. Schrader, on the other hand, did not make the cut. Perhaps because he came from a different part of the United States (Grand Rapids, MI), or perhaps because he simply wasn’t as talented and as well-liked by the studios of the time. But one thing is certain: Schrader had the same thirst to talk about the issues that troubled him and his generation, the issues that rocked his world.

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The openness of violence in Taxi Driver.

Schrader’s thirst and need to be heard might have probably been the result of years spent working as a cab driver in Los Angeles, where he faced off with his demons on a nightly basis. His own depression, loneliness and anger translated into what we now know as Scorsese’s masterpiece – Taxi Driver.  Indeed, one of Schrader’s earliest credits is writing the tale of a lonely cab driver in New York named Travis Bickle who decides to kill the favored presidential candidate. In this case, Schrader’s credit might only be that of a writer but the overall frustration with society comes through like in no other of his own feature films. PS creates one of the most complex characters ever portrayed on screen using every single characteristic that would have been considered vulgar and X-rated ten years prior to the release of this film; a lonely, dirty, mentally disturbed war vet in search of nothing, wanting nothing, enraged with the state of things, with tendencies of self-harm and sociopathic behavior. Travis’ world is the world we now know from numerous recent crime films such as Good TimeCollateral, American Gangster and Training Day. The idea of using an anti-hero as the protagonist and placing him in the middle of a sewer such as the filthy streets of East Village, populated by pimps, murderers and prostitutes, is a clear outcry for society to wake up, for cinema to start showing the real problems, the human issues that can trouble and be relevant even among the lowest members of our social hierarchy. The concept of having the anti-hero try to save a young, underage hooker, played by Jodi Foster, was at the time an idea that made countless heads shake in disgust. Taxi Driver showed everyone how low cinema can reach in search of an important story, a vital element of today’s cinema: a unique, unsettling atmosphere of threat and discomfort that can be found in some of the most popular movies of recent years including Nightcrawler, a prime example of today’s openness toward extravagant, borderline uncomfortable storytelling.

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Travis Bickle. A character for the ages.

Finally, in 1978 and 1979 Schrader managed to get the required budget for two excellent directorial efforts, which aside from his later Mishima and Affliction, are his best work to date. The two films are Blue Collar and Hardcore. Both features come at the viewer in waves, like rapid machine gun fire, grabbing the viewer by the throat without letting go until the final second. Blue Collar, unlike Hardcore, focuses on the unit of a group, and more accurately: a group of three autoworkers and the union looming over them. It is about the force and at the same time, the powerlessness of a group that faces a clear rejection from the rest of society. The three protagonists, all behind their dues, wanted by the tax-man, committed to their families, are a representation of the underbelly of America, the common man struggling to make ends meet. Schrader tortures his characters with confrontations and challenges that can either make them or break them. There is no middle line for Schrader, it is all about the determination to succeed mixed with the awareness of the fact that the American Dream is nothing but a fairy tale for kids. The three men, played by Pryor, Keitel and Kotto are trapped from all sides; these are men whose lives have lost meaning, and yet they have to push forward, which leads us to interpret this film as a social commentary sparked by a heartbreaking character study of three imperfect individuals who belong to an imperfect society.

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Three men unable to escape their reality.

Hardcore, on the other hand, is a film solely focused on one character, Jake VanDorn, (played to perfection by George C. Scott), and this character’s individual quest to find his missing daughter. Sounds familiar, huh? Indeed, Schrader’s violent, psychologically disturbing film about a desperate midwestern businessman looking for his daughter in sex shops and titty bars can be described as an accurate precursor to the Taken series, as well as other modern-day depictions of an individual standing up to a system, even in blockbusters like John Wick. Again, it is Schrader’s ability and fierce determination to dive into the most disturbing social environments that set him apart from his contemporaries. The contrast between VanDorn’s religious background and the pornographic underbelly of LA and San Diego that he has to go through make of him the quintessential modern character; strong yet weak, stable yet capable of losing his mind very easily, innocent yet incredibly violent, religious yet lacking in true faith. This was a character that at the time was not wished to be seen or even acknowledged since it clearly pointed in the wrong direction; a direction Hollywood was not willing to take considering its strong and permanent will to remain a conventional medium, a medium of traditional, conservative characters. Schrader, known for being a blunt artist, said to hell with it! and rolled the dice, and what mattered was not the final outcome of the dice, but the sheer act of rolling it.

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The state of confusion of Jake VanDorn and his descent into madness.

The act itself, rolling the dice in a dark alley, made of Schrader a voice worth listening to, similar to the raspy voice of a disturbed individual on the street, talking to himself, preaching to the crowd of passers-by. The voice, distinct, angry, loud, made of Schrader an under-appreciated and often forgotten figure of modern cinema. He wasn’t the one setting the rules like Spielberg and Scorsese; he was simply someone who taught viewers and aspiring filmmakers to always speak in their own language, articulate their own thoughts, profess what they feel is important and be personal. Because at the end of the day, that is what modern cinema is all about; having different voices be heard, as loud, or as shy or even as vulgar as they may be. Let them be heard.

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It may be worth looking out for the next cab driver.