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I was tracking this beautiful buck… Slipped away.

Movie

The Deer Hunter
(1978)

 

A first-time’s-the-charm movie? There’s an undeniable visceral impact to Michael Cimino’s Best Picture Oscar winner, but unlike – say – the subsequent year’s also-Vietnam War Best Picture Oscar nominee Apocalypse Now, it’s somewhat diminished by subsequent viewings. The Deer Hunter’s an often affecting, beautifully photographed mood piece – I think I’m supposed to say “elegiac” – but there’s also a quality whereby it’s simply overly impressed with itself (you might say the same thing about Cimino’s subsequent box-office disaster). The film’s also a strange blend of maturity and pulp, macho and interrogation thereof. If you’ve read the recent biography of the director, you might be easily persuaded that the onscreen battleground is a reflection of Cimino’s own inner conflicts.

The Russian roulette sequences are a case in point. Not because they’re inauthentic, any more than Apocalypse Now’s feverish, nightmarish river trip (if you want authentic Nam, where are all the Spider Troggs?) Rather, because it’s perhaps too easy a metaphor. Too provocative, powerful and traumatic. Cimino delivers these scenes with consummate skill – there’s no denying his facility as a filmmaker – but there’s a lurking feeling that such an idea is just too cinematic in design to make a finer point. You’re left with the action, the bits everyone talks about, rather than the resonance of the quiet parts. It’s similar to Robert De Niro’s Mike flamethrowering a Viet Cong who’s just blown up a hidey hole full of women and children and then shot down a survivor with her infant: a flagrant embrace of B-movie crudity that sits uneasily with the more considered, contemplative strides The Deer Hunter seeks to make.

But there’s also a perceptive interrogation of masculinity going on, of working-class camaraderie and its contrasting, lurking fear of homosexuality in the characters (rather than the film). Which isn’t to suggest it’s a homoerotic text – any such reading was one of the few, perhaps only, takes on the film Cimino outright rejected, which may be saying a lot… – but that it depicts quite acutely a very thin line of normative interaction between these men, where anything outside (excess) drinking and shagging (or talking about it) is dubious at best. 

Stan (John Cazale) can’t get the measure of Mike, be it the seriousness with which the latter takes hunting or his disinterest in cheap women (the movie has it that he’s in love with Hollywood hermaphrodite Meryl Streep’s Linda, Nick’s – Christopher Walken – squeeze, from afar, but the process also marks him out as monk-like, aware of the limits of his friends’ cyclic world and that the only true freedom is when he’s zenning out in the mountains, on the hunt. Even that is taken away from him by his war experiences, such that he is unable to down a doleful deer that looks him in the eyes). 

Of course, the action of the movie marks Mike out as a true man, in contrast to the hopeless mess that is Stan, the overweight groper or funny guys that are Axel (Chuck Aspegren) and John (George Dzunda), or physically wanting triple amputee Steve (John Savage). Indeed, one might suggest a thematic sense here, since it is Steve whom Mike urges to be a man during the roulette sequences. It’s Steve’s failure to be that man, to manfully keep hold on the helicopter, that leaves him so terribly diminished (it’s perhaps a dramatic error of the picture that it reserves the most awful – in terms of being condemned to endure it – fate for Steve, yet we’re supposed to rally round over Nick’s “more profound” loss (of self) at the end and console ourselves with Mike’s inarticulate insights).

So there’s a fascinating push-pull in the depiction of the male here, one of which I suspect Cimino, much as he was highly insightful in terms of sculpting the group dynamic, was less versatile when applying the same to the genre trappings. He completely gets the way no one ever talks – even the women have no idea what to say. No one in this community is equipped to tackle the harsh ramifications of Nam, either emotionally or politically (and the spiritual aspect is obviously right out, as the absurd trappings of Russian Orthodoxy during the wedding illustrate. Notably, there’s a prominent masonic square, compass and lodge symbol on display during the wedding dance; all Hollywood directors are required to be freemasons).

Even Nick, whom Mike relates to most out of his circle of friends, lacks the real mettle of a man. He doesn’t go hunting to hunt but because he enjoys the mountains, and he only really takes on board Mike’s one-shot mantra – borne of respect for life and scrupulously sullied when Stan wings a deer – when it comes to ending his own existence. “I love the trees, you know”, he tells Mike. Nick doesn’t lose any limbs, but he loses his soul, his contact with the part of himself that appreciated the beauty in life, even walled in by a grim, depressed steel town. The irony is that he’s more sensitive than Mike, something Walken’s oddball, slightly effete bearing emphasises (“feminine delicacy without effeminacy” as Pauline Kael put it); when they’re down in the cages, he’s composed and restrained, holding it all in because he knows there’s something more. it’s when he loses sight of that that he’s lost. 

Mike, in contrast, lacks poetic expressivity – the best he can muster is his “This is this…”, in a rightly famous scene – but he understands acutely how to function in any environment (even with the lads he avoids when he first returns to town, he can swiftly adopt the required persona for appearances’ sake. He’ll admit to Linda he’s too sensitive to provide the solace she yearns for before going to a motel with her). To that extent, despite the movie’s more intricate gestures, Mike’s a heroic archetype, one who has to process the disappointment in all those around him who fail to make the grade.

It has to be said that it’s a role that cemented De Niro – that’s the ex-Bob De Niro now – as not a fun guy. Even when he eventually made a “success” of it in comedies, he wasn’t a fun guy. There’s no lightness to the actor, which is perfect for Cimino (Kael rued the actor occasionally calling on his “cretinous grin”, and it’s a spot-on description). As such, he’s unlikely to bowl you away here. Walken either, actually, despite his Oscar win. The Russian-roulette scenes are superbly, intensely played by all concerned, but the likes of Savage, a supremely dissolute Cazale (in his last role) and particularly Dzundza, as the poly-cheerful member of the group; much mocked in a recurring car gag, he brings everyone to sobering contemplation of Chopin on the piano and must contain his grief as he whips some eggs in the final scene. Meryl mainly registers in a “Why is anyone doting over her?” way, but that was, apparently, always part of her charm during her nascent period. That and accents (which lasted to A Cry in the Dark, or thereabouts).

Mike: I feel a lot of distance. And I feel far away. I’ll see you later.

Cimino throws in some odd references that serve to add to the picture’s sense of the mythically expansive. The sun dogs, “an old Indian thing” as an omen, is clearly an ill one, linked to the spectral solitary sergeant drinking at the wedding (“Fuck it”). One might suggest the “one shot” is too neat, too symmetrical in that regard, just as one might suggest the Stanley Myers theme is too gentle, reflective, evocatively mournful, leading us by the nose. But it works (Cavatina also worked on weekly basis in Take Heart’s Gallery). Similarly, the “blood” stains on the wedding dress nixing the luck Steve and Angela (Rutanya Alda) would have all their lives if they didn’t spill a drop. 

The God Bless America finale could only be taken literally by the devotionally obtuse; it’s a strength of Cimino’s film that it lends itself to various takes, however, since “This is this” doesn’t really apply. It’s a Vietnam film, but it isn’t really about Nam (which is why I can see his protestations that his depiction of the Vietnamese wasn’t racist does have a point, to the extent that they’re simply there to fulfil undiluted-evil archetypes). Does it need to be three hours? Does it need an hour-long wedding sequence? Probably not in either case, but it does need the contrast of the short, impactful Nam sequence with the majority of the picture set in Pennsylvania (Mike’s later trip might even be longer than the in-combat one).

Cimino’s obstinacy and frivolous attitude to the diktats of budget and schedule would see him effectively throw his career away with his hubristic follow-up. Nothing he did after Heaven’s Gate had much imprint (and in some cases, where it did, the imprint it had was simply to negate it). He’d effectively retired by the late-90s, embarking on what seems to have been a protracted experiment with his own gender identity, involving extensive plastic surgery and assuming a female pseudonym to a select few (this uncovered in Charles Elton’s Cimino). The concern with male-ness takes on a more piercing aspect with that hindsight – as does the similar theme in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – and the tall tales Cimino serially seemed to tell about his conquests, his estranged family and his life experiences (not least, to extensive dispute, his claim that he was a marine medic). There’s both a keen intent to investigate his own persona and also keep at arm’s length anyone who would pry into specifics, surely a reason Elton can only get so far in his probing of the director’s character before having to shrug and admit it’s all a mystery. 

Certainly, Cimino makes for an odd figure, even on the Hollywood spectrum. Never part of the in-crowd – or the movie brats, since he came from New York advertising, placing him in closer proximity, in a way, to the Brit pack a few years later – it was very convenient to shun him and use him as a scapegoat for death of the ‘70s New Hollywood. Not entirely unearned, perhaps, but United Artists is well documented as having brought its fate down upon itself. Reading Cimino, there’s almost a sense the director was chaperoned to greatness by hard-nosed confidante Linda Carro; if his career hadn’t gone so disastrously wrong, one might be arguing some degree of MKUltra influence, not so far from William Friedkin. As it is, one’s left a little disconcerted at how so much potential – in terms of acclaim, hype and box office – should have been so spectacularly sluiced. 

Kael called The Deer Hunter “a small-minded film with greatness in it”. It was “an astonishing piece of work” of “ambitiousness and scale”, even though it had “no more moral intelligence than Hollywood action pictures”. Caught between the profound and the puerile, it conveyed “a romantic adolescent boy’s view of friendship”, with Nam as “a test of men’s courage”. The men were chaste “American cousins of hobbits”, and Mike was “the newest version of this ‘gentleman’ of the wilderness” previously found in Last of the Mohicans’ Hawkeye, but essentially unknowable. 

She praised and critiqued the roulette scenes for similar reasons to those set out here and commented of Mike’s heroism, “he is not ennobled by them, as movie heroes used to be”. Kael suggested the film “vindicates the boys’-book values… and then rejects them”, but I’m unsure anything Cimino does in The Deer Hunter invites simplistic delineation (when she suggested Cimino probably didn’t know his characters and choices, I think this is getting to the nub of it, that he was content to embrace ambiguity, where the critic seeks definition).  She noted the “traditional isolationist message” but even there, it may be less than crystal clear (Spider Troggs notwithstanding). The picture “is not merely trying to move people by pandering to their own prejudices – it is also caught in its own obsessions”. By Kael standards, she liked it with reservations, with is verging on high praise from her. Mark Kermode considers it “a genuinely terrible film”, but then, he’s an unreconstituted skiffler.

The Deer Hunter won Best Picture Oscar, of course, and I’d argue they got it right out of the five nominees (with the caveat I haven’t seen An Unmarried Woman). It was a controversial choice, to the extent that the movie garnered critical responses ranging across the spectrum. But this was an era with a much broader appetite for nutritional content among audiences– hence the New Hollywood – and a capacity to absorb material carrying nuance and avoiding spoon-feeding. The Deer Hunter is bloated and sometimes feels a little unseemly in its appetite for the gratuitous, but it remains distinctive and affecting, and it isn’t just a self-styled three-hour epic. It does have stuff going on under the hood.

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