Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)

Movie Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)

The opening shot of screenwriter and director Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter frames an industrial center nestled into the hills of Western Pennsylvania with an underpass as light shifts against its black walls. It’s an eerie and strangely evocative image for a movie about the Vietnam War, a war which is memorialized in the nation’s capital with two slabs of granite forming long, angled and descending black walls.

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I had never seen The Deer Hunter, which won Oscar’s Best Picture for 1978. With that distinctive shot and gentle music by Stanley Myers over black-and-white opening credits, announcing that this was photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) with a story by the late Michael Cimino and three others, one of whom wrote the script, the scene is set.

Part of why the film made its mark is this unique focus on a certain place. I do not think The Deer Hunter is a great motion picture. But it depicts a company of characters that are men and women from the beleaguered American industrial middle class which, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, would never regain its status as the center of America’s culture. This is an untold story. And the epic downfall of the middle class is portrayed with grit.

But not with depth. The hot steel being poured and controlled by factory steelworkers dramatizes man molding metal for a higher purpose. This capitalist ideal comes full circle when The Deer Hunter later dramatizes at mid-point man reducing himself to the mercy of a piece of machinery for deadly risk without purpose, arguably the essence of the quagmire which was the American war in Vietnam. The Deer Hunter shows men being driven from the joyful exercise of forging the manmade to the abysmal duty of destroying human life for self-abnegation, not self-defense.

Yet even at their best, the excited and boisterous factory workers, who bound around in camaraderie with naked vitality, rarely seem more than aimless, mindless pawns. They cavort with equally mindless women before a wedding. They assemble in a cavernous church. The women are beaten by their men, who drink to excess in incessant displays of boorish profanity. The bride fusses in her wedding dress and veil with a crucifix on the wall. She never stops to think about the meaning.

Neither do the men, played here by a gaggle of young actors, including Robert De Niro (The Intern, New York, New York) and Christopher Walken (Hairspray) as best friends. Men recklessly go drag-racing between a classic car and a big rig, taunting a Green Beret and screaming and carousing while watching the Pittsburgh Steelers on TV. In the ethnic neighborhood in which they live, old women pull a wedding cake past a telephone booth and corner grocery market while bridesmaids (including one played by Meryl Streep before her role in Kramer Vs. Kramer) go gallivanting in the street.

These aren’t the best and brightest being dislodged from glorious lives and dispatched to a jungle. Their place of worship and ritual ceremony is meaningless. A banner proclaims that the young men being sent (by force of the draft) into an undeclared, unwinnable war are “serving God and country proudly.” But these young men and women are too drunk and disorderly to be proud, let alone have pride in themselves. The wedded couple drives off, tin cans and all, for a hillside jaunt of drunken driving.

They’re lushes and oafs, with De Niro’s leader running down the street in his underpants. They go deer hunting while drunk.

But their mindless lives are their own, and this is how The Deer Hunter leaves its tracks. Just as Cimino gets the audience ready for action in Vietnam’s swamps, rivers and rice paddies, with war movie cliches to match, the band quietly gathers for piano playing after their revelry. The men are dumbstruck. They bond in reflection of uncertainty to come.

Cut to the sound of a helicopter and explosions as they’re under siege somewhere in Vietnam. Some fight, some cower, some stay home. But all are changed, moved and torn. Scenes of gunplay on a river boat as Americans are held as prisoners of war by the Communists form the central theme of The Deer Hunter…that each soldier is hunted and haunted in war.

That this is unequivocal and that this is deeply, irreversibly painful and wicked comes as a matter of fact when one man returns. The deer hunting goes stale. The hills hold no hope. The emptiness of their lives can’t be ignored. The party’s over. The band of drunks are left to drink without the delusion that being alive doesn’t mean being aware of the dead or wounded.

Suicide, fatigue and the end of Saigon during its last days play out as the measure of a man brought by war to the brink comes around. A mindlessly sung version of “God Bless America” plays with neither vigor nor life and this, bookended by a drunken white wedding and a sober black funeral, captures the sad, vacant, elegiac essence of our emergent American nihilism which is the byproduct of the Vietnam War.

Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter might have filled the emptiness of these mid-American lives which might have elevated this tragic movie, a film which skillfully puts the anti-war movement offscreen. As it is, The Deer Hunter depicts a slice of empty lives, which informs and explains the deadly doubts and outcomes in chilling, frightening and grisly detail.

Movie Review: New York, New York (1977)

Movie Review: New York, New York (1977)

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New York, New York is director Martin Scorsese’s flawed and haunting story in musically-pegged pictures centering upon two artists. Robert De Niro (Little Fockers, Hugo, Last Vegas) portrays a narcissistic saxophonist who is both wild and talented and totally grating. Liza Minnelli (Cabaret, Arthur) plays a singer. They meet after World War 2 ends as newspaper headlines proclaim victory over the “Japs” and New York City erupts in celebration, tossing swastika-emblazoned flags around in mockery of the vanquished Nazis. This is prelude to the film’s sense of foreboding that postwar elation masks deeper wounds from a world at war.

The 1977 movie, released at the height of Minnelli’s and De Niro’s careers as Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Raging Bull, The Departed) was rising, is like an overlong, epic poem to the artistic spirit of youth. Minnelli had survived her mother’s maudlin end of life, had a meteoric hit in Cabaret (1972) and De Niro had registered as an up and coming ethnic actor among the new, vulgar Hollywood types—Hoffman, Nicholson, Pacino—in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and New York, New York was supposed to be huge.

It’s both easy to see why it bombed and why it might have been a hit.

The United Artists movie is grand, with a score by Cabaret and Chicago composers Kander and Ebb, cinematography by Laszlo Kovacs (Five Easy Pieces, Paper Moon, Mask) and the producer of Oscar’s Best Picture for 1976, Rocky. But it is manic, disjointed and too broad like most Scorsese pictures and the De Niro character, Jimmy Doyle, in particular, is excessive. Jimmy is the prototypical musician, a stand-in for every artist, especially the male artist. He is charming, good-looking, talented and all kinds of bad news waiting to happen. But in an instant from a stair step, Jimmy the hustler sees a beautiful couple dancing under the elevated train and catches a glimpse of the romantic and musical in life. He spots the couple in movement and light and it’s like a work of art in motion. Such a sight could heal whatever wounds he bears. In any case, he wants the life he imagines he sees.

In Francine Evans (Minnelli), he goes after it. She’s initially impervious to his dimpled, gleaming charm, so it’s clear that wide-eyed Francine is different than the other girls he sets for conquest. All Jimmy wants in life, and he tells it to Francine, is music, money and sex, pretty much in that order. Francine concurs, finally, after meeting cute in a nightclub played by an orchestra, then in a taxi cab and, spontaneously, again at an audition where the hothead sax player is prone to pop off. What propels New York, New York is its sharp capture of the dance, tension and conflict of two people—two artistic people—in love. For over two hours, it is enveloping, aching and bittersweet.

Naming the romance falls neatly to Francine, who observes that “one of the nicest things in the world is waking up knowing someone loves you.” Minnelli shines in the role. It’s really her movie.

All of this happens (when the shows aren’t on the road) in New York, amid musical bandstands and set pieces, moods and magnificence in jazz, from Harlem to the recording scene. Everyone is surrounded by paintings, songs and instruments, immersed in the hard work of making art, with writers, musicians and other attendants that make up show business. New York, New York depicts the musician’s madcap life in snowbound marriage proposals, greedy kisses in the rain and the ever competitive drive to perform and connect with bandmates, audience and material. It’s all there, tethered to whether Jimmy and Francine, like the couple in La La Land, can love each other and make a living in their art.

A drunken fight ensues and, in the De Niro character’s denouement, the reality strikes a major chord. For Minnelli’s Francine, she sees herself in her eyes for the first time to the strings of jazz guitar. The grand finale plays to Minnelli’s best Kander and Ebb songs including the megahit “New York, New York”, written for this thoughtful, stylish movie, proving what her stage and television audiences already knew about this powerhouse entertainer who refuses to fall down. In Mr. Scorsese’s story-within-a-story-within-a-storybook ending, with Liza playing a moviehouse usherette, the artist integrates with the art, this time in reality. So, while New York, New York presents a false dichotomy between the romantic and the realistic, and it is tedious in stretches, it deals in grand notions and ideals in music and pictures. Much of the movie is striking and seeing Liza Minnelli put on the show toward the end still packs a wallop as big, grand and fabulous as New York City.

Martin Scorsese’s movie about making money while making music and making love is mixed with real power and insight.