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NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2007

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Arts of War

BY MARC LEEPSON
The moving film Music Within at its heart is a message movie, which often does not make for an entertaining movie. Filmmakers with messages tend to be heavy handed, and their messages often destroy good plotting, rich characterization, and believable dialogue. In this film, which won a slew of awards at film festivals earlier this year and hit the multiplexes on October 26, the message, fortunately, does not get in the way of the filmmaking.

Director Steven Sawalich tells the true story of Richard Pimentel (capably played by Ron Livingston), an upwardly striving guy with a rocky home life who joins the Army in a fit of pique, goes to Vietnam, and all but loses his hearing after getting his eardrums blasted out during an enemy attack. He comes home to the same world the rest of us Vietnam veterans came home to: indifference at best to our service and hostility at worst.

Add in his disability, and Pimentel must overcome long odds to live a normal life. He does that and also becomes one of the leading national advocates for the disabled. Pimentel, in fact, was among the handful of activists who influenced Congress to pass the pioneering Americans With Disabilities Act in 1990.

Most of the time, this story plays out on film believably and compellingly. The standout in the acting department is Michael Sheen who does an astoundingly realistic job portraying the real-life Art Honneyman, a pal of Pimentel’s who suffers from cerebral palsy. Sheen is a British actor best known for playing Tony Blair in The Queen. Here you cannot hear any British accent because you can barely decipher most of what Sheen says, which takes not a whit away from this gutsy and endearing performance.

Yul Vazquez does a creditable job as Mike Stoltz, an angry Vietnam veteran fighting an uphill battle against the ravages of PTSD. Vazquez (whom you’ll recognize from many film roles and as a recurring character on Seinfeld) makes this character more than a caricature of the violence-prone, mentally unstable Vietnam veteran we’ve seen too often on film. Yes, he’s unstable, but the character is fully fleshed out and multi-dimensional.

More good news: VVA member Dale Dye, who took military technical advising to a new dimension when he pioneered the art two decades ago, does the honors on the Vietnam War in-country scenes, which were shot at Subic Bay in the Philippines. As usual (as he has done in Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Saving Private Ryan, and a bunch of other movies), Dye makes everything military look and feel just right. It’s one more first-class achievement of this fine film.

YEA, THOUGH I WALK
Tommy Lee Jones’s face is the star of the taut Iraq War-themed drama, In the Valley of Elah, which hit the nation’s multiplexes in mid-September. And what a face it is. It has more lines than a road map of the tunnels of Cu Chi. The huge bags under his 61-year-old eyes sag deeply and despondently.

In this bleak film, director and screenwriter Paul Haggis (best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay of the Clint Eastwood boxing flick Million Dollar Baby and for writing and directing Crash, which took home last year’s Best Picture Oscar) hones in relentlessly on the despondency, frustration, and anger etched in Jones’s face.
Jones, in what The New Yorker film critic David Denby called “the role of a lifetime,” has much to be unhappy about. He plays a retired Army career MP—who did a tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967— forced to perform the gut-wrenching task of helping solve the murder of his twenty-something son. The young man went missing not long after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq. Not long after that, his dismembered body turns up outside his stateside Army base, the fictional Fort Rudd in New Mexico. The scene in which Jones, after hopping in his pickup and driving all the way from his home in Tennessee, arrives in New Mexico and identifies his son’s body is all too bone-chillingly realistic.

On the surface, what plays out after the murder is a police procedural, complete with jurisdiction disputes (between the local cops and the MPs), civilian interference (from Jones), red herrings, and flashbacks to incidents in the war zone that may or may not have had a direct impact on the murder. Haggis displays many filmic strengths here, including an understated but accurate depiction of military life. He gets great performances from Jones and from dressed-down Charlize Theron as a civilian cop who is a single mom. The always-great Susan Sarandon has very little to do as Jones’s long-suffering wife.

The film quietly illustrates the unintended consequences that have a way of arising after every war—consequences related to how warriors fare emotionally after they return to “normal” everyday life. There is a blunt message here: taking part in a war is hell, and the current war is no exception to that all-too-true axiom.

This film, which is loosely based on a 2003 incident (the death outside of Fort Benning of Army Specialist Richard Davis, whose father was a career Army MP who had served in Vietnam), is not entertaining in the usual sense. When you come out of the theater, you won’t be in the mood for a festive, five-course dinner, drinks, and dancing. But you will take home the fact that wars do not end for participants when the shooting stops or after they come home.

ARTS IN BRIEF
The psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who has specialized in studying PTSD in Vietnam veterans, in September was one of 24 people selected for the 2007 John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the so-called “genius awards.” The $500,000 MacArthur grant, which you do not apply for, is paid out over five years and is designed to help grantees further their work. Dr. Shay has been working with Vietnam veterans since 1987 when he started counseling at the Vet Center in Boston. “The veterans simply kidnaped me,” he told The Boston Globe. “They saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself, and they utterly re-directed my life.”

That re-direction led Shay to look closely at the classical works of Greek epic poetry, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and to tie them to the real-life stories of Vietnam veterans. Shay wrote two pioneering books based on those subjects: Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Shay said he will use the grant to continue his study of how to improve the way the U.S. military handles PTSD.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Center, the ambitious museum and education center that is slated to be added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, took one more step toward realization on October 18 when the U.S. Commission on Fine Arts gave its conditional approval. Congress passed legislation in 2003 authorizing construction of the center on 5.2 acres across the street from The Wall, on a tract that sits just north of the Lincoln Memorial. As was the case with the Memorial, the funds for constructing the center will be privately raised.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which raised the money for The Wall, will build the center, and the National Park Service will administer it. The first design concept for the center, which was unveiled at the October 18 hearing, includes 10,000 square feet of exhibition space that is set two stories into the ground. The center will have a bookstore, a resource facility, and an elaborate, multi-level display area. The estimated cost is $75-100 million; the VVMF has raised some $14 million to date. Groundbreaking is scheduled for 2010.

Things are not looking rosy at the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago. The city of Chicago, which owns the renovated factory in the South Loop that has housed the museum since 1996, wants the building back for city offices. Adding to the woes: the one-of-a-kind museum which houses some 1,500 works of art from 125 veteran artists is in deep financial trouble. “The situation is very dire,” said Jim Holtzman, the museum’s treasurer. “At this point, we’re trying to help stem the bleeding.” Also on the horizon: opening the museum to art from veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and changing its name to reflect that situation.

The museum is working hard to raise funds to try to, as it puts it, “continue to bring in new artists and their work and to support ongoing operating costs.” For more information on that effort, go to www.nvvam.org

The NVVAM’s latest exhibit, “Memories of an Era: Reflecting Our Time,” which opened November 10, contains thirteen large oil paintings by Jeanine Hill-Soldner. The work represents the artist’s memories of her girlhood in Hawaii when her father, Army Sergeant Dan L. Hill, shipped out to Vietnam. The large paintings include images drawn from her father’s photographs in Vietnam, juxtaposed with 1965-66 era portraits of Hill-Soldner and her siblings and mother on the home front.

“I hope many people connect with this exhibit,” the artist told the suburban Chicago Courier News. “It was hard for me to paint. But there is healing in art. Before I couldn’t talk about these things without crying, but now after finishing it, I can.” The exhibit runs until next June. You can see images of some of the work on the NVVAM’s web site.

The 25-minute documentary film Gene Boy Came Home had its world premiere in August in Montreal. This National Film Board of Canada production, directed by Alanis Obomsawin, tells the story of Eugene Benedict, an Odanak Indian from Quebec, who joined the U.S. Marines, served a hellish tour in Vietnam, and came back to Canada to a rocky homecoming. Todd David Schwartz of CBS Radio called the film “a work of quiet power” and “a compelling and heart-rending look at one man’s struggle to hold on to his humanity in the aftermath of his military service.” For more info, including upcoming screenings, go to http: //www.nfb.ca/
geneboycamehome

More than 120 veterans attended the VA’s National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in St. Louis, October 22-28. The veterans, all of whom are receiving care at VA medical facilities, were selected from among other musicians, dancers, actors, and artists after a year-long competition. The week consisted of rehearsals and workshops and culminated in an art exhibit and variety stage show on Sunday, October 28.

QUERIES
John Brennan, who served as a Flight Operations coordinator in 1970-71 with the Army’s 114th Aviation Helicopter Company in Vietnam, is collecting nicknames that in-country Army helicopter crews painted on their aircraft for a future book. He has a thousand names so far and is looking for more. Brennan plans to turn the data over to the Army Aviation Museum and to the Vietnam Archive at Texas Tech University after the book is published. If you’d like to help, send an email to johnmailman@yahoo.com

Margaret Brown is putting together a book containing a glossary of terms from the Vietnam War focusing on infantryman-speak. She also is looking to add art from Vietnam veterans, especially drawings and photos, to the book, as well as poetry. For more information, email mxbrown@bellsouth.net or write to 100 Village Del Prado Way, St. Augustine, FL 32080.

Christopher DeMaio at the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum is looking for stories of Dustoff crews’ humanitarian missions in the Vietnam War. “Most of the research I have done has only scraped the surface of this with minor notations in texts that were very vague,” he tells us. So send your stories to camostriker@gmail.com or jschultze@paveteransmuseum.org and type “Dustoff Vietnam” in the subject line. Tell them you read about it in these pages.

The Viet Art Center Foundation in Garden Grove, California, is running a photographic competition for Vietnam veterans for a 2008 exhibit entitled “Memories from Viet Nam, 1959-1975.” For more information on how to submit your photos electronically by the December 8 deadline, go to http://www.vietartcenter.ne

 

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