ICK! book II
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Sun Nov 14 20:03:42 1999
"A concrete life raft in a sea of propaganda"
Issue #2 - "Wave the Flag! Run for cover!!"
Under attack this month:
Ken Burns' The Civil War
Triumph of the Will
~Warning: Contains open discussion of the plots of Broadway musicals and/or Nazi propaganda films ~
For years I'd been curious to see the Broadway Musical "Miss Saigon", in much the same way I'd wondered if it was possible to make cheese from old milk in my refrigerator, so when a friend came up with free tickets I knew the time had come.
Here's what happens in Miss Saigon: a bunch of scantily clad young women dance around in a brothel in Saigon; American army guys sing about how great it is to be young and alive in Southeast Asia in 1975; the sleazy pimp with a heart of gold drags out Kim, a pristine 17-year-old farmgirl, for her first day on the job; a G.I. pays for his buddy Chris to spend the night with her, and Chris is horrified to find that he falls in love with her at first sight. A man of great character and virtue, Chris feels guilty that she is not the same type of sleazy whore he was looking for (I think they rhyme those two phrases at one point) when he went out with his buddies that night lookin' for poontang; and worse, he now is tortured to know the pain of requited love and mutual caring, after spending all his adult years in the soul-calming jungles of the Viet Cong. "I liked my thoughts just fine, before she came along; now all I can think of is her," he passionately sings, yearning only for the simple life he knew - the killing fields, the booby-trapped tunnels - before he fell victim this tragic young vixen's charms.
Using all his available Army leave time, our hero rents a room and shacks up with his new girlfriend for a blissful two-week vacation, mostly spent having sex and singing an insipid radio-ready love theme that mentions neither the drama of war nor the circumstances of their meeting. They also get married, sortof, in such a way as to suggest that Vietnamese husbands never take their own weddings very seriously or even know they're getting married. Obviously this is meant as a flattering and dignifying statement about the Vietnamese culture, but I'm not sure exactly how.
Three years later, our virtuous young hero is, appropriately, married to another woman and living in America, where the sex is free and the jobs are plentiful and husbands are informed of their weddings before the ceremonies take place. Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, Kim turns down a marriage proposal from her cousin Thuy and kills him in self-defense when he discovers her three-year-old Amerasian son. (Don't worry, there's a happy ending...well, no.) His ghost comes back to haunt her, suggesting she should feel guilty for defending her son from an armed attacker in a war zone; she seems to agree.
In a vivid flashback, we've learned that our hero Chris did indeed try to rescue Kim during the American evacuation from Saigon, but their reunion was tragically prevented by the terrible commotion that took place when the producers insisted on landing a full-size helicopter onstage during a Broadway musical. Broken- hearted and desperate, Kim moves with her son to Thailand, allowing the show to present onstage the sleazy sex industry of yet another economically ravaged Asian country.
After a merciful intermission, the second act begins with an impassioned plea for Americans to rescue their own unclaimed children from Southeast Asia, staged with a slide show of child refugees: "These faces are reminders of the good we've failed to do"...words sung, fittingly, by the same American G.I. who paid for the fateful sex to happen in the first five minutes of the show. Now a self- righteous volunteer reuniting American fathers with their refugee children, he announces to Chris that his child and former wife have been located in Thailand. Actually, he somehow fails to mention the kid, or the marriage, or one of those details; but Chris and his English-speaking wife agree nevertheless to travel to Thailand for a few romantic duets.
When they get there, of course, all hell breaks loose. Kim meets Chris' wife before Chris finds Kim, and it all goes straight downhill from there: Kim, now the victim of both a low self image *and* the poor vacation planning of her American visitors, kills herself with Chris' old Army pistol, just as Chris enters her room to try to explain or apologize or sing another insipid radio- ready love duet with his (oops!) first wife. All the elements of a snappy soap opera are brought together in one room: a tragic love affair, a corpse, a married couple, his other lover, his (oops!) kid, his first wife's pimp -
Oh, yeah, about the pimp: before the couple arrive in Thailand, the Pimp With The Heart Of Gold, known in the play as The Engineer, has reunited with Kim to sing his big song, "The American Dream", describing his taunting visions of life as an American. And - guess what? - IT'S A GREAT SONG!!
Lemme tell you why that's astonishing: see, most of the dialogue in this show is sung - brassy, aggressive themes for the male characters, sung with angry- football-fan swagger, and sweet, somber themes for the angel-voiced women. (A lack of talented female performers is definitely *not* this show's problem.) And yet most of the scenes require dialogue between the two sexes. And the result is a musical demolition derby, another ugly collision between conflicting rhythms and phrasings taking place every ten seconds or so. The lyrics, written originally in French and translated by the original author for English-speaking audiences, maintain a consistent subtitles-forced-to-rhyme quality...and rhyme they do, at astonishingly regular intervals, calling to mind the work not of Steven Sondheim, but of Dr. Seuss. Occasional turns of phrase are indeed wonderful, but the songs that frame them are too jumbled and comical to be either provocative or romantic...and by the end of the show, the barely-finished script fumbles through the cascading music like a crippled man dashing through a six-foot snowdrift, carrying luggage.
Yet it is this image that sums up the very character who steals the show. The Pimp performs with the childish brassiness of the soldiers, the tortured sadness of the women, the broken English of the lyricist, the sleazy selfishness of the show's producers...and captures the sublime, charming ugliness of their meeting within his performance of this one song, the fittingly titled "American Dream". It is greed and selfishness and comfort and the desperate hope of escape that he sings of, giddily kicking through a full chorus of Broadway dancers, the American marching band which he imagines will greet him in his new home. In the dizzy heat of his ecstatic longing for escape, it even makes sense when the full-sized cadillac is lowered onstage, hammering home the glaring hopelessness of his vision with exactly the same gesture it uses to hammer shut the audience's lingering curiosity as to whether the show had actually lived up to its many promises. The spectacle had fulfilled every contract it had signed, every song sung and every astonishing stunt executed smoothly...climaxing with our hero kneeling onstage to scream a horrified 'NOOOO!!!' as the curtain falls. "This can't be the end!", his tragic cry suggests. "THIS can't be the...END?!?" The baffled audience wonders. And with that it's over, another day's hope disappearing with the echo of the music that had been the whole substance of our refugee hero's crushed American dreams.
Ken Burns' THE CIVIL WAR
Devoted last weekend to renting and finally watching all twelve hours of this, the mother of all documentaries, and man! It's enough to make me order cable. It's a beautifully poetic film, calling long-deceased moments to vivid life with only the use of still pictures, spoken voices, sound effects and storytellers. And through these images it illustrates not only a knotted and crucial moment in our history, but also much of the very mystery that is America. It was repeated many times during the documentary's nine chapters: this war was our very defining moment. It defined who we would become, and it tells us who we are.
Didn't get to the final two episodes until Wednesday, though, and Wednesday, very fittingly, was a terrible terrible day. I felt sick all day, work was stressful and exhausting, dissatisfying and threatening, I missed my trains, I forgot my lunch; I was ready to return to the womb and erase my whole impossible lifetime of mistakes. The best realistic option, therefore, was to watch the final episodes of The Civil War and remind myself that instead of cuddling with my girlfriend in my spacious apartment watching TV, I might have spent this moment lying legless on a desolate battlefield, wounded by someone who lives in a place I used to go on vacation.
Much of the history in The Civil War is stuff I'd heard before, yet had never understood so clearly or experienced as such powerful drama. Much more of the story, however, was completely new to me...new characters, new facts. Most astonishingly, I learned that the American civil war did not drag on for four years because of the great conflicting passions of two equally matched nations' worth of inspired countrymen with everything in common but for a few profoundly divisive sets of beliefs. Rather, the sad and horrible conflict dragged on, year after bloody year, because one side reeeeeally wanted to enslave its entire Black population, while the other side reeeeally couldn't get its shit together and fight a winning battle despite having superior numbers, weapons, financial backing and moral rectitude.
And that explains it, the whole American experience. We are a nation of noble people, passionate and dutiful, committed and caring...caught in a seemingly eternal battle between immorality and incompetence. Our nation is defined by - nay, our nation IS - that very conflict, still seeking resolution after decades, centuries...after millenia of human struggle to find a workable resting point between these two weirdly conflicting poles.
Don't get me wrong: Immorality and Incompetence need not struggle with each other; they might do very well together, in fact. But when both prevail on a national scale, the system rapidly destroys itself; and when a narrow vision of morality combines with a ruthless competence to triumph on a national level... well, that's another set of deluded visions, another essay...and another movie.
TRIUMPH OF THE WILL
November 11th was a weird day...Manhattan was full of old war veterans parading their musty vehicles and uniforms down Fifth Avenue near my office, and after work I rushed home to meet Tim and watch Jackie Chan battle Nazis in an exploding wind tunnel underneath the Sahara desert. Tim had to leave promptly at 9 to watch Leni Reifenstahl's propaganda documentary of Hitler's governement, "Triumph of the Will", for a class, and I followed along. I only saw half of the film - too tired, had to get up early - but even my brief visit into that world was fascinating and frightening.
Triumph of the Will is a very surprising movie. As patient and beautiful as any Leni Reifenstahl film, it begins with dreamy arial shots of clouds, the view slowly gliding down to church towers and German cities, then to streets...with people visible at first only as marching dots in a parade, perfectly aligned points in a grand pattern. Before we see a single human face, the strangely joyful statement was already clear: each person we would see had been given a place in society; everyone would know his or her role in this grand and beautiful pattern. The statement was driven home by the faces of those cheering the parade: these people had been rescued; Hitler was not just a leader, but a savior. He took his place before the crowd not with proud joy, but with an unclear paternal dissatisfaction, as if he was just about to tell his children what they'd done wrong...as if to silently call from them the desire to do even more, for the motherland and for him...to finally win his approval.
The leaders spoke at the rallies, one by one...announcing how more and more of the responsibilities of government, of the blessings and powers of authority, had been given exclusively to Adolf Hitler. He was the final judge, the leader, the father; Hitler was their very country, his commanders promised the immense crowd. There were no checks or balances. None of the lessons that have more wisely designed an American government almost incapable of change.
An American couldn't make a film like this today...or so I naively suppose. Our people are too suspicious, too cynical. The boys playing on the screen are too cheerful, too joyfully and naively homoerotic, too fraternal. I don't know when such faith has ever existed in the population of a country that was not soon swallowed and destroyed by its own myopic faith in its leaders. Yet I resent our American belief that faith is a dangerous thing...even while I may fear it more than most Americans do.
A perfectly assembled grid of tens of thousands faced the stage, laborers standing as soldiers, each armed with a shovel, facing their leader. And facing much more than that...an American politician is nothing if not a salesman, convincing the crowd to follow; Hitler stood before the rows of thousands as the icon, salvation itself, all glory and honor projected earnestly upon him. It was perfectly realized theater for an audience desperate to be taken away from the misery it had suffered after World War 1 - impossible inflation, terrible unemployment and poverty, a people with its spirit broken. This man - and this movie - promised a meaningful escape. The problems were addressed directly. The blame, and the horrors of the "solution", would come later.
Hitler finally stepped up to the mic and shouted in his clear little-man voice to the masses of laborers. I've heard this kind of speech before - from George Bush, for example, trying to convince American workers that he was their benevolent uncle - but, in fact, Hitler was more convincing. He knew the scorn cast upon people with unglamorous jobs; he addressed directly the sense of worthlessness they carried along with their shovels. He was clever enough to acknowledge this and promise them, not of the value as citizens they might acheive someday, but of their worth to the cause *now*, valuable workers performing crucial tasks: "Present shovels!" the commander cried, and tens of thousands of shovels were raised in perfectly edited unison. The Third Reich - of which this film was a tool - was a national self-esteem building campaign... stealing the dignity of a strategically chosen few and distributing it, greatly multiplied, among the "pure" masses, in an invigorating poison. To watch, only sixty-five years later, a replay of the spell being cast, is to be reminded of the overwhelming danger of allowing any people to fall underneath a minimal level of dignity and priviledge. The man who can effectively promise to return it to them can win any explosive loyalty, any catastrophic revision of the rules of civilization.
Copyright 1999 Martin Azevedo