Monthly Archives: April 2006

Miss Saigon, Part Deux: Watching PLATOON and FULL METAL JACKET Back-to-Back


We had a movie-fest as part of our Miss Saigon research that involved a night of watching clips of: First Blood, Rambo: First Blood II, The Green Berets, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, The Deerhunter, Heaven and Earth, and Vietnam: A Television History. I thought it would be a fun night–there was cooking and wine and pizza and everything–but somehow, it was kind of a bummer. Imagine that.

The day after, I watched the whole of Full Metal Jacket and Platoon. I had never seen either, and somehow was surprised that the former came out after the latter–was, in fact, Kubrick’s penultimate film. It seemed like it must have been older, too big, too important to have only come out in 1987 (though that is almost 20 years ago). And it makes sense–watching Full Metal Jacket made me feel that there’s no reason to ever make another movie about American soldiers during Vietnam–if it had come out before, Platoon never would have seen the light of day.

In American theater theory, there is an established (in fact, canonical, though of course any practicioner can poke a million holes in it) divide: that which is Brechtian, and that which is Stanislavskian. This was initially applied more directly to academic deconstructions of acting theory, but has long become a more general trope. By Stanislavskian, academics generally actually mean “Strassbergian” or “Method,” and are often sloppy about making that distinction. But what does it mean?

It’s hard to be brief about this, as it has characterized much of the debate about American theater for the past decades, but I’ll try.

The latter, the “Method,” (as the trope goes…) is that which believes in acting, or theater, as being a delivery mechanism for a certain kind of emotional experience. You, as the actor, to disappear into the character, “be” the character, experience his emotions. When the audience witness this experience, witness you actually experiencing the emotions, they will have a mimetic emotional experience, feel what you’re feeling; and undergo catharsis, an emotional payoff.

Brecht thought this was very bad–for the audience to come in, sit back, and sail through a passive, delivered emotional experience. Instead, he believed in theater that made the familiar strange by putting a story in a heightened sociopolitical context. This applied to acting as well–instead of pretending to “be” the character, you instead are a sort of actor-reporter. This had a major impact on the American experimental theater of the 1960s and the performance art that followed–which promoted the awareness that you are the actor and the audience is present as the audience and you are performing for them.

This is a much larger discussion, of course, to be attacked historically, theoretically, in terms of craft. I mean, Stanislavksi’s technique and pursuits are different than Strassberg’s mistranslation of such things into “Method” with its emphasis on emotional recall. Strassberg destroyed a generation of American actors–and American theater itself, which followed a downward spiral of living room naturalism and stifled performance that stifled the magic of theater at its core.

Academics, or more likely, performance theorists, like to make Brecht=good and Stanislavksi=bad in simplistic fashion doesn’t take into account the abstraction of high melodrama or the emotionality Brecht uses or the difference between what actual performer craft requires for a flexible instrument and what said instrument is put in service of onstage. And both end up with dangerous fall-out over what it means for something to be “the real” or “the authentic.”

I bring this whole kettle of fish up only appropos of Platoon and Full Metal Jacket. Because, for all that it’s a shopworn spine of theory that must be constantly taken apart–the two movies, set side by side, prove it. They are almost perfect exemplars of the two extremes as characterized by theater academics: Platoon as Strassberg, sentimentality, emotionality, the mimetic experience; Full Metal Jacket as Brecht–cold, politically astute, narratively disjointed so that each section or scene is highlighted, violent.

As someone who associates Oliver Stone with Natural Born Killers, I was shocked to see that in the earlier part of his career, he just wanted to be Spielberg. Platoon is pure melodrama, its assiduously recreated veritĂ© compromised by a chiaschuoro set-up and subsequent unfoldings: innocent Chris (Charlie Sheen), an impossibly fresh-faced white kid, lands in a war zone, and is caught between two fathers: Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), a hopelessly bitter man whose filter against evil has disintegrated years ago, big scar on his face in case you missed the point, who wants nothing but the death of Jesus–er, I mean, Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe).

Jesus–sorry, Elias–is cool. He hangs out with the black soldiers, smoking dope and playing soul records, is the model of fairness and kindness and good management, and, per Rambo, really knows the jungle*; while Barnes plays cards with his whitey hicks listening to uptight country music and is great at killing people and dropping favors to his lackeys. Evil Barnes attempts to kill Saintly Elias, who finally dies as Jesus in a hail of enemy gunfire, and our hero, Chris, flips to the dark side (“I am your father, Luke”) by killing Barnes in a post-battle moment of revenge madness.

At the end, as Chris is being airlifted out of hell and into a hospital, his voiceover tells us he continues to fight between Barnes and Elias, between good and evil–and that battle is within himself. You don’t say.

Platoon is sentimental, deals in stereotype, and ultimately attempts to take the political and make it personal, squeeze the entire Vietnam War into the emotional experience of one man, our hero, an obvious stand-in for Stone. The infuriating “Making Of” featurette that accompanied the DVD amplified the problematics: it tells, in parallel, the story of the Vietnam War with the story of the making of Platoon, divided into sections like and “Deployment” and “Coming Home,” the actors discussing the true hardships of the intensive boot camp they underwent, as if the two experiences could be considered equivalent.

A year later, we have Full Metal Jacket, which must have blasted a hole in Stone’s head when it came out. Pauline Kael thought it an atrociously dehumanized kraftwerk that showed just how cut off Stanley Kubrick had become from any connection to people.

It is purely Brechtian. Everything, every moment is politically contextualized, heightened in its theatricality. Buffoonery and brutality are used in equal measure. The narrative is broken from plot causality (a leads to b) and into scenic events that force the audience to constantly question itself, which side it is on. The audience has to make the movie, connect the dots, work, constantly. The images are entirely uncomfortable. It’s a Vietnam “Mann Ist Mann,showing how a man can become a machine, how an elephant is an elephant.

And I agree to some extent with Kael (she’s always so spot on**), but it somehow seems so appropriate to the material (as opposed to Eyes Wide Shut, where that disconnection had become just embarrassing). Maybe I’m a sucker for his “moviemaking carried to a technical extreme to the reach for supreme control of his material,” maybe I located too much humanity in certain segments he puts forward: the camaraderie of the soldiers, the angular discomfort of the hooker about to be gang-banged, the final sequence, where the soldiers are confused and keep losing each other and making mistakes, Joker’s dry, survivalist humor.

Kael’s criticisms perhaps are apt, however, now that I think about it. Because Stanislavski vs. Brecht, Platoon vs. Full Metal Jacket aside, neither came close to watching Vietnam: A Television History–which I also viewed, not in its entirety, but quite a bit of. There, the simple reporter-like descriptions–even from the soldiers themselves describing, in completely unemotional, matter-of-fact fashion, the heightened sense of excited awareness punctuated by stretches of total boredom–were far more provocative than any of Stone’s histrionics or Kubrick’s clever constructions. They made both films seem so hollow, so artificial–so pointless, almost.

And into what category does that go? What does that say about art’s ability to ever capture or communicate experience in construction as opposed to “the real” of constructed documentary? Why do neither movie cut it next to the documentary?

*Isn’t it funny that one’s understanding of nature signifies”goodness” and “purity”? Can we put this one aside to ponder at a future date?

**HH, whereever you are, that copy of For Keeps is one of the most useful gifts I have ever received from anyone–it just keeps on giving.

Miss Saigon, Part The First: A Digression on the 1980s, Sub-Section/Pre-Note: WALL STREET

Just briefly, since I watched both these films a week after Miss Saigon closed, so they don’t necessarily apply though they will help with future context. Within a day, I watched Enron: The Smartest Guys In the Room and Oliver Stone’s Wall Street.

Both are conventional stories of a rise in the financial business marketplace, on the trading floor, in the corporate hive, based on the pure capitalist fantasy mindset, at the expense of the little people. Rises so meteoric, duh, that they seem to be rising as if only to fall.

Wall Street, one of Stone’s earlier melodramas, repeats Platoon almost exactly in its essentials: pitting the charismatic demon dad vs. the honest blue-collar angel dad, with Charlie Sheen still struggling at the center and the cartoonish New York actor John C. McGinley as his foil. Stone is absorbed with the trappings (high class hookers with big hairsprayed bangs? Gold lame splashes on the wall? Home sushi and white wine? Darryl Hannah as interior decorator in Marilyn Monroe dress and Charlie Sheen in argyle sweater? So 80s!) and predicts the junk bond scandals of a few years later.

The Enron documentary was great–better than 95% of the liberal kook documentaries floating about these days. Beautifully shot, the story very well told–of course, the source material was a rigorously researched book, and they pieced together the footage cleverly. You can’t make Skilling or Fastow or Lay sexy–they come off as what they are, entitled buffoons.

Miss Saigon, Part The First: A Digression on the 1980s, Section (b): RAMBO

You know that you’re aging when the music of your childhood re-emerges on the radio station. Not only because more often than not, it’s becoming “classic rock,” but because people your age are beginning to have the jobs making decisions about what gets played on the radio.

Our filmic research for Miss Saigon led us, unmistakably and repeatedly, to the 1980s. Of course. Enough time had passed for people to start making movies about Vietnam. So before I dig into the production itself, and what made it work and not work, what made it successful and what it has left me with in terms of my thinking about next steps and projects, permit me this digression. I will try and make it enjoyable.

I’m sure this has been written about to death by academics and fans alike, but I think that the 1980s are, more than anything else, what happened between First Blood (1982) and Rambo: First Blood II (1985). I had never seen either movie, and thought of “Rambo” as nothing more than a hypersteroided action flick with a greased up Stallone killing people. What people, I didn’t have a clue about.

Like, I didn’t know that First Blood, based on a novel by David Morrell, was about a severely PTSD Vietnam Vet who, on a visit to an old war buddy, ends up in an extended war flashback, chased down by a patrol of small-town policemen. It originally was to be directed by Mike Nichols and star Dustin Hoffman. In the novel, John Rambo commits suicide. That was cut out of the movie, but still–it features a haunted, big-eyed Stallone verses the narrow-minded cops and ends with him going to jail.

Three years pass–and we get Rambo: First Blood II. The movie starts with jailed Rambo, cutting stone in a quarry (very Howard Roark), which of course makes him all glisteny and built. Richard Crenna comes and releases him from jail for a special secret mission–to be dropped into Vietnam to confirm the report of, and perhaps save, recently located P.O.W.s in a camp. Rambo looks at him: “do we get to win this time?” he asks. Which, of course, is the key to the whole movie.

Rambo: First Blood II is a nakedly obvious fantasy of winning the Vietnam War–from the P.O.W.s who get to be released, to the Russians who show up only to lose, to the hot Vietnamese chick who wants to be airlifted out with Rambo back to the U.S.A. (and whose English gets alternately worse and better depending on the complexity of what her character at that moment has to communicate).

The bad guys are both the commies and the American namby-pamby government bureaucracy, guys who probably went to some Ivy League school and never fought and don’t care about the vets.

The climax is the most patently absurd and hilarious. Every narrative about the Vietnam War that I read described America as doomed to failure–they couldn’t contain or defeat the Viet-cong, who knew their own terrain and people too well to lose it to outsiders. The Viet-cong traversed the jungle, hid and slipped away and attacked. They couldn’t win big mechanized battles, but it didn’t matter–they won by wearing down the Americans.

So at the climax of First Blood II, Rambo, who apparently knows the jungle better than any Vietnamese, picks off the soldiers from the prison camp one by one, using all the tactics that the Vietnamese used to defeat the Americans–he jumps out of trees and hides in the mud and sets up traps and waits in spider-holes. And he saves every last P.O.W., and kills every last Vietnamese, and glistens and shines and climbs into a helicopter and things explode–all the good guys win good things, and the bad guys get bad things, it’s uncomplicated and so jingoist and racist, so revealing in its subconscious desires that it’s almost unbelievable to watch–especially given its original source text.

What happened between Rambo I and Rambo II? The 1980s. Reagan. The conservative -libertarian myth of a single man, with all his bulging muscles and self-reliance, beating hte bad guys. In as big of a spectacle as can be imagined.

Miss Saigon, Part The First: A Digression on the 1980s, Section (a): CATS

The talented and acerbic Jon Lowe, who consulted on design for {The 99-Cent} Miss Saigon was recently hired to do lights for a production of Cats at Encinal High School in Alameda.

That’s right. A high school production of Cats. Could you say no? I certainly couldn’t.

So even though I was sick as a dog (har har) with something I can only attribute to post-show physical collapse, I went on Friday night, Liz in tow.

It wasn’t as terrible as (let’s be frank) I had hoped. Sure, the set was wretched (I don’t know how Jon managed to light it as well as he did)–they had gotten it from some NYC scene shop, Oversized Urbanscape #8–there was barely room left on the stage for the cast of 50 cats. Who were in terrible costumes–old Deutoronomy looked like an orangutan in overalls. The mike kept cutting in and out on Skimbleshanks, and the chorus was weakly voiced and ahead of the music. “Memory”, shinily sung by the girl who gets cast as the lead in everything and thanks the directors for making her “a better and more talented” person, was pumped out by the band like a shopworn burlesque house grind (regulated triplets ba-da-ba ba-da-ba ba-da-ba ba-da-ba BUMP)–which of course, it is.

Then we have the musical itself. Frank Rich’s tart review from ’82 basically disemboweled everything about the show, minus some cast members and the delightful stagecraft which was, at the time, fairly new–the beginning of the bombast of ’80s musicals. Encinal High couldn’t even attempt real production values (unlike some other schools who, according to last Saturday’s Journal article about high school productions of Cats have $50,000 budgets). So it was what it was, a bit rag-tag but perfectly enjoyable. It certainly wasn’t a Fiasco, and I found myself wishing I had directed these energetic, committed kids–it would have been fun.

What I was left with, though, more than my nostalgia hearing the songs for the first time in years or the giggles at seeing a high school Cats, was a sense of bemusement related to the layers of confused historicity dusting up the production.

First, you have the text, which is more English than English could be–literally. It’s the American Eliot’s imagined street London of the Victorian age–cats embodiying old criminals and music hall actors and roustabouts and glamour pusses.

Then, the production, which is pure 1980s. Everything–the unitard costumes, of course. The music, a successful synthesis of cliches that renders Eliot’s charming poems vapid; the synth-heavy musical arrangements; the kick-ball-change choreography that emerges, unavoidably, from the music.

Who has any connection or reference to either of these things? Much less both? The fetishized Englishness that simply has no correlation to anything American kids know about–and the cheesy cheese of the 1980s (when most of the kids onstage were born in the ’90s). Cats is an artifact that will simply grow more confusing as it ages, and the reason it would ever still be produced will remain more of a mystery.

Because, ultimately, Cats will never be anything more than an artifact of its time, a conflation of historically specific theatrical innovation, musical hackery, and nostalgia. Grease is a similar artifact, except with the 1970s filtering the 50s–very disco groovy.

Except that the kids love it–I mean, the little kids just loved it, were raptly attentive from start to finish. They were written as poems for children.

And hey, Cats was running on Broadway until 2000. What was I saying about theater being a museum?

spike >hearts< nyc

Just saw Inside Man. Spike Lee with another person’s screenplay leads to his tightest, most proficient and purely delightful work in years–he’s such a brilliant director, and the restraint of directing on a Brian Glazer project allows his talents to shine.

Most endearing is seeing what it means for Lee to be getting older, or “softer”–Inside Man is a love letter to New York. It’s a movie-long sequel to the one memorable part of 25th Hour. Early in that movie (which I found pretty skippable), Monty Brogan has a big obnoxious monologue where he damns New York–fuck the Chelsea boys, fuck the Sikhs, fuck the Italians and Korean grocers. It’s tedious, but pays off in the heart-wrenching penultimate sequence of the film. Monty’s being driven to jail and finally sees New York, as if for the first time, the beauty shining from each person on the street through his window as he passes.

Inside Man has similar love. It’s complex but unalloyed–Spike gives all the characters their moments of grotesquerie, sure–but it’s balanced by humanity, kindness, even admiration. Even the Jews. I’ve never seen Spike so magnanimous. Must come from being a dad or something.