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march/april 2008

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By Marc Leepson
My worst cinematic nightmare has come true. Rambo is back. I thought the mumbling, sneering one-man Nam-vet killing machine was dead and buried in 1988 after the execrable Rambo Does Afghanistan (real title: Rambo III) left the nation’s multiplexes. But the grunting beast once again burst upon an unwitting American public in January in the fourth (and one prays last) blood-spattered horror show, simply titled Rambo.

Longtime readers of this column know that I wrote an awful lot about the Rambo phenomenon in the mid and late eighties. Like many Vietnam veterans, I found the character to be an abomination: a monosyllabic, psychotic survivor of our war who goes back to Vietnam in one film and single-handedly wipes out what appears to be an entire NVA battalion.

Showing the enemy as cartoonish duckpins smashed to bits by one angry bare-chested veteran was more than just ludicrously bad filmmaking: It was (and is) an insult to the real men and women who risked their lives fighting a very real enemy in that nasty war.

Adding to the insult: Actor, screenwriter, and director Stallone never served a day in uniform in his life. In fact, he purposely avoided the draft. Stallone very easily could have joined the rest of us who actually put our lives on the line in that war, but chose not to. Then, after the war, he plays toy soldier on the screen and winds up becoming the best-known cinematic Vietnam veteran.

And what a Vietnam veteran: an inarticulate, angry, maladjusted, violence-prone brute—in short, the personification of the media-fed walking-time-bomb Nam vet. Stallone belongs in the Vietnam veteran Hall of Shame for creating this farcical stereotype and foisting it on a gullible American public in four movies that have attracted countless millions of theater goers and (more to the point) have brought in hundreds of millions of box office and DVD dollars.

Stallone continues to perpetuate this walking-time-bomb Vietnam veteran myth in the new film. This time he drags his amazingly buff (could he be getting some chemical help?) 61-year-old body through an insipid, improbable plot in which he and a bunch of fellow mercenaries wipe out scores of very bad Burmese soldiers.

Blood spurts, heads literally roll, intestines get disemboweled, clichés abound. The dialogue, such as it is, is pabulum. The acting, especially by stone-faced Stallone, is laughably bad. The entire enterprise, in fact, is a joke. Do yourself and every other Vietnam veteran a favor when it comes out on DVD: Don’t buy or rent it and encourage everyone you know to join you in boycotting this very, very bad movie.

YEAH, YEAH, YEAH
The critics either loved or hated Across the Universe, director Julie Taymor’s fantastical sixties musical romp set to 33 Beatles tunes, when it was released last September. I loved it.

I did not get to see the movie on the big screen—it didn’t seem to last very long in the theaters. But when I saw the recently released DVD (Revolution Studios, 2 hours, 13 minutes), I was blown away by the singing, dancing, acting, and over-the-top costumes, cinematography, and special effects. The actors did their own singing, much of it live (that is, not lip-synced), which made the film come alive, as did some really cool music-video-like performances by rock stars Joe Cocker (“Come Together”), Bono (“I Am the Walrus”), and Eddie Izzard (“For the Benefit of Mr. Pike”).

The plot has a strong Vietnam War theme. Not to spoil one aspect of the plot, but the boyfriend of the main female character (the fetching Evan Rachel Wood, playing Lucy, an earnest college student) is killed in the war and her high-spirited brother Max (Joe Anderson), tunes in, drops out (of Princeton), gets drafted, sees horrific combat, and comes home emotionally unstable.

Max’s induction scene is a tour-de-force. It includes an Uncle Sam poster that comes alive with the old geezer singing “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and an Army of strange GI-Joe-like soldiers putting Max through the weirdest physical exam you’ll ever see, while giving new meaning to the Lennon-McCartney lines: “I want you/I want you so bad/It’s driving me mad.”

Across the Universe brought to mind Twyla Tharp’s amazing Movin’ Out, but, unlike Tharp’s creation, it has dialogue and pays homage to Hair, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and plenty of other elements of late sixties and early seventies pop culture. If you are a Beatles fan, you’ll love this movie. If you appreciate creative moviemaking with terrific rock music, top-notch, off-beat choreography, and accomplished young actors careening through an at-times psychedelic plot, this one’s for you, too. I only wish I’d seen it on the big screen.

BEST DOCUMENTARY
The stirring documentary, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (Docurama Films, 81 minutes, plus extras, $26.95), was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2007 Academy Awards. It deserved to win. Put together by Richard E. Robbins and Tom Yellin of ABC News, this eye-opening, unique movie tells the story of how one generation of veteran writers (ours) has encouraged the newest generation of veterans to tell their Iraq and Afghanistan war stories in prose and poetry.

The film is an amalgam of the thoughts of a handful of great writers who served in Vietnam—Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Joe Haldeman, Richard Currey, and Yusef Komunyakaa—along with the voices of new veterans, and readings of their work by some talented actors, including Robert Duval, John Krasinski, and Beau Bridges. The veterans got together in 2004 under a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which sent O’Brien, Wolff, et al. to military bases to run workshops for aspiring veteran writers.

All of the stories, memoirs, and poems effectively evoke the special kind of war being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. One message that comes through loudly and clearly from all the veterans’ testimony (including WWII veteran-writers James Salter and Paul Fussell) is that many of the issues our newest veterans faced in country and after coming home are the same as those that Vietnam veterans had to deal with four decades ago. In fact, they are the issues that those who have fought in all wars have faced.

One particularly strong insight came from Ed Hrivnak, an eloquent USAF veteran who flew countless helicopter rescue missions in the first Gulf War, in Iraq, Somalia, and Rwanda. “War is not this glorious thing” you see in movies and on TV, Hrivnak said, “When you break it down to the human level, it’s actually quite disgusting.”

KEEP ON ROCKIN’
Remember that great country-rock band New Riders of the Purple Sage? They originally were a part-time spin-off from the Grateful Dead and included Jerry Garcia on pedal steel, Phil Lesh on bass, and Mickey Hart on drums. The band went out on its own in 1971 with a new lineup and put out a dozen albums, selling some four million records in the process. Their big hit was the bouncy “Panama Red.”

NRPS is still in business and still tours all over the country. In June 2006 the band (now made up of David Nelson, Buddy Cage, Michael Falzarano, Ronnie Penque, and Johnny Markowski) took time out from its sold-out summer tour to give two benefit performances for VVA’s Owego, New York, Chapter 480 at a great venue, Turkey Trot Acres, a hunting lodge in nearby Candor, New York, that puts on country-rock concerts every summer. All proceeds from the concert (and a subsequent one in 2007) went to the chapter.

“Our friends Pete and Sherry Clare of Turkey Trot Acres have put on these concerts for our chapter at no cost to us,” Chapter President Jack Harzel told us. “They give our members a free dinner and a concert and also raise money for our charitable causes.”

The 2006 concert is now available on a combination DVD/CD, The New Riders of the Purple Sage: Wanted: Live at Turkey Trot, which is dedicated to VVA. You can order your copy at Chapter 480’s website, www.vva480.org or www.thenewriders.com A portion of the proceeds goes to Chapter 480.

A LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE
It’s not every day that something we write in this column has an impact on someone’s career. But that was the case with the artist and sculptor Ron Petitt, who experienced a welcome career change not long after a rundown on his artistic work appeared in these pages in the December 2000 issue.

Petitt, who lives in Loveland, Colorado, served with the Army Security Agency in Vietnam, where he was stationed in Nha Trang from 1971-72. In Vietnam, he contributed illustrations and cartoons to Grunt, the military humor magazine. After he came home, Petitt kept painting and drawing, but shifted to sculpture in the mid seventies. “I always did art as a sideline, not full time,” he told us. “It was always a second job—until about eight years ago.”

After we wrote that Petitt specializes in military sculpture and that his work is sold in the top military specialty catalogs, he received several commissions, including one to create a World War II airborne sculpture that was presented to the actor Tom Hanks and the director Steven Spielberg for their work on Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s A Band of Brothers. Then Petitt began receiving a ton of the commissions, mostly for monuments and other life-sized sculptures, and he was able to make the leap to full-time sculptor.

His latest commission came last September. Ron Petitt is creating a memorial to honor all veterans of all generations under the aegis of VVA Chapter 292 in Beaumont, Texas. Ironically, Beaumont is Petitt’s hometown, and he was a founder of Chapter 292 back in 1986. “The chapter found out about my work from another VVA member and friend,” Petitt said. “They contacted me without a design in mind. I went to Beaumont, met with them, and we came up with a design.”

The memorial that the chapter and Petitt came up will center on a black granite star, representing the state of Texas, topped with a nine-foot black granite column. Alongside the column will be five half-life-size bronze sculptures of male and female service members wearing different era dress uniforms, representing the five branches of the military. The memorial, which also is receiving support from the Jefferson County Commissioners Court and the Ben J. Rogers Regional Visitors Center, is scheduled to be dedicated Veterans Day.

“Chapter 292 is a great group,” Petitt told us. “You don’t run into loyalty a lot in the business I’m in, but I am really happy that they chose me, a founding member of the chapter, to do this memorial. It was meant to be.”
For more info on the Beaumont memorial, go to http://vva292.org/memorial.cfm Ron Petitt’s web site is www.ronpetitt.com

ARTS IN BRIEF
The Brooklyn Historical Society opened an exhibition of Vietnam veterans’ histories in December. “In Our Own Words: Portraits of Brooklyn Vietnam Veterans” includes portraits and personal artifacts of the eight people whose lives were touched by the war, including VVA’s own Bernie Edelman, a Brooklyn native. In conjunction with the exhibit, the Historical Society is hosting twice monthly open-houses in which interviewers are collecting peoples’ memories of the Vietnam War era for the society’s archives. To find out more, go to http://www.brooklynhistory.org/exhibitions/in_our_words.html

Oliver (Platoon, et al.) Stone, the big-time Hollywood director who once carried a rifle in the Vietnam War, is at work on a movie about President George W. Bush. “How did Bush go from an alcoholic bum to the most powerful figure in the world?” Stone rhetorically asked Variety magazine.

“It’s like Frank Capra territory on one hand, but I’ll also cover the demons in his private life, his bouts with his dad and his conversion to Christianity, which explains a lot of where he is coming from.” The movie, which will star Josh Brolin (the Nam vet in No Country for Old Men), “will contain surprises for Bush supporters and his detractors,” Stone said. It’s slated to shoot in April once Stone secures the financing.

QUERIES
The North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh has a large collection of Civil War, Spanish-American War, and World War I artifacts, but a very small Vietnam War collection. The museum will be mounting a Vietnam War photography exhibit later this year and is asking Vietnam veterans in the Tar Heel State to donate artifacts from our war. For more information, contact Ken Howard, the museum’s director, at ken.howard@ncmail.net or 919-807-7878.

Bill Streifer is the author of the Professor Conundrum series of books that teach math to young people but are disguised as mystery stories. He is writing a book that takes place during the Vietnam War and wants input from Vietnam veterans for purposes of verisimilitude. “I need someone who was close to the action to help me with information that can’t be Googled,” he told us, “like the sound of weapons, the number of soldiers on a chopper, the recognition that a soldier would get for extreme bravery, etc.”

Email Streifer at photografr7@yahoo.com or go to his website, http://www.ProfConundrum.com and tell him you read about it in these pages.

 

 

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