The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
March/April 2006
ARTS OF WAR
 
 

Something's More Than Amiss
In Missing In America
 

BY MARC LEEPSON

Missing in America, an indie movie with big stars (Danny Glover, Linda Hamilton, David Strathairn, Ron Perlman), deals with homeless Vietnam veterans living in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. The comparatively low-budget feature film was in the can and ready to hit the multiplexes in 2004, but it never made it to the nation’s big screens. Missing, instead, had its premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival in May of 2005. That’s where it stood until early this year when the film was released on DVD.

Here’s what you’ll see on DVD in the comfort of your living room: The film opens with the curmudgeonly Glover more or less holding things together living in the woods in fairly comfortable style. He has a well-ordered house, a beat-up pick-up, food on the table, and gorgeous views of the woodsy mountains (the Pacific Northwest of Canada). Granted, he talks to his animals and has the occasional flashback (he was a Nam LT), but he is coping.

Glover’s solitary life soon becomes crowded when a guy who served under him in the war (Strathairn, who went on to create the role of a lifetime as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck) shows up unannounced, says he has lung cancer, and asks Glover to take care of his young half-Vietnamese daughter while he goes off for medical care. Glover tries to refuse, but Strathairn tricks him into becoming the girl’s caregiver.

Glover and the girl (whose mother has died) don’t get along. She wants to interact. He wants to be left alone. They clash. Much more serious complications arise in the form of four people-averse trip-wire vets living off the land (including a woman, a former nurse) whom Glover helps support. One of them is a disfigured, mute, violence-prone mountain man (Perlman). Dangerous, tense happenings ensue. 

First-time feature-film director Gabrielle Savage Dockterman co-produced the movie and had a hand in the screenplay, along with Nancy L. Babine and Ken Miller, a former Green Beret and Vietnam War helicopter pilot. Miller came up with the plot after contemplating the Lee Teter “Reflections” painting. He originally entitled his story “The Woodcutter.”

Missing in America aims high: to illuminate the ongoing emotional fallout of the Vietnam War among those who bore the brunt of the fighting. But that’s an extremely difficult assignment because of the danger of treating this very real problem with a broad brush and thereby creating the impression that reclusive back-to-the-bush Vietnam veterans in the film are typical of the 2.8 million who took part in the war.

No one’s asking anyone to make a movie about the true typical Vietnam veteran: the man or woman who goes to work every day, comes home, and falls asleep in front of the TV. But to dwell exclusively on these six extremely disturbed individuals without shading in background and fleshing out their characters any more than showing a few flashbacks and having them greet each other by saying “Marines, ’70,” amounts to stereotyping all Vietnam veterans as, at best, maladjusted and, at worst, as Ron- Perlman-like hulking monsters.

That’s what you get with Missing in America: a well-meaning effort with top-quality actors and gorgeous scenery that does little to illuminate the very real problems of PTSD.

TWO DECADES
This column first appeared in this newspaper twenty years ago, in the March 1986 issue. It was something of an experiment: to see if we could find enough books, movies, plays, TV shows, and other artistic endeavors dealing with the Vietnam War or its veterans to write about, to fill a page in The VVA Veteran. Not to worry. We have had plenty of artistic endeavors to review, so much so that in February 1994 we split off the book review segment of Arts of War into its own column.

In the last twenty years, we have examined hundreds and hundreds of books, movies, plays, TV shows, musicians, songs, art openings, and other artistic ventures dealing with the Vietnam War and Vietnam veterans. I would like to acknowledge the undiminished support I’ve had from all six VVA presidents (the publishers of this newspaper), countless board members and national office staffers, and especially my co-workers in the Communications and Publications Department, along with the many supportive readers who have helped shape this column. Thank-you to everyone for the help. I eagerly look forward to continuing this work.

MEMORIAL NEWS
The unveiling of the long-awaited memorial that honors Hmong and Lao soldiers who fought alongside Americans in the Vietnam War took place December 21 at the Fresno County Courthouse Park in California. The memorial features a life-sized bronze sculpture of two Hmong soldiers coming to the aid of an injured American fighter pilot. Among the dignitaries at the opening ceremonies were Gen. Vang Pao, the former Hmong military leader, and Jane Hamilton-Merritt, who is perhaps the leading American expert on the so-called “secret” war in Laos.


The privately financed, non-profit, grassroots effort to build the Pentagon Memorial, which will honor the 184 federal employees, military personnel, and civilians who perished there on September 11, 2001, has one thing in common with the early 1980s campaign to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Just as Vietnam veterans took it upon themselves to build our own memorial, the Pentagon Memorial fund is being led by family members of those who were killed when terrorists crashed an American Airlines plane into the Pentagon.

The $20 million memorial will consist of a two-acre, tree-shaded park on the Pentagon’s west lawn with 184 cantilevered benches, each dedicated to a September 11 victim. Each bench will overlook its own small, illuminated reflecting pool. The goal is to begin construction in the fall and complete it in the spring of 2008. Contributions of any amount may be made on line at www.PentagonMemorial.net, by phone at 800- 929-4911, or by check made payable to Pentagon Memorial Fund, Inc., and sent to 5185 MacArthur Boulevard, Suite 115, Washington, DC 20016.

The fund’s organizers have asked us to tell VVA members to note “Vietnam Veterans of America” on their contribution checks so the nation will know of VVA members’ support of this worthy endeavor.

THE ACADEMIC ARENA
The William Joiner Center’s Annual Writers Workshop has started taking applications for its June 19-30 sessions at its University of Massachusetts, Boston, campus. The faculty for this always-excellent program once again is filled with accomplished writers and poets who have written about the Vietnam War and Vietnam veterans. The list includes Martin Espada, Bruce Weigl, Lady Borton, Demetria Martinez, Larry Heinemann, and Fred Marchant. You can apply on-line at www.joinercenter.umb.edu
where you also can find faculty bios and course descriptions.


The Department of History at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and the John B. Conner Museum will hold a symposium on the Vietnam Experience on Tuesday, April 18, at the Kingsville campus. “The symposium is intended to address and dispel misconceptions of the Vietnam experience through speakers and panel discussions,” said the event’s organizer, Pete Wyro.

The panels include topics such as the history of the United States involvement, the legacy of service of Hispanic Vietnam veterans, and the experiences of family members and survivors of Vietnam veterans. Seating is limited for this free event. For info, email kaplw00@tamuk.edu


The Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University and the Center for the Study of Intelligence are co-hosting a conference October 20-21 in Lubbock, Texas, that will focus on intel in the Vietnam War. The conference will look at every aspect of intelligence activities in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and elsewhere and what impact it had on the war. “While the focus will remain on historical events, it is our distinct hope that appropriate historical lessons might be drawn of more immediate applications to current wars and conflicts,” the conference’s organizers say.

If you are interested in participating by making an individual presentation or taking part in a panel discussion, submit a single-page (or less) proposal by August 1 to Stephen Maxner, Deputy Director of the Vietnam Center, by e-mail, steve.maxner@ttu.edu or call 806-742-9010 for more info.

ON STAGE
On two weekends in late March and early April the Simpatico Theatre Project presented four performances of Vietnam 101: The War on Campus at the Shumbin Theater in Philadelphia. Vietnam 101, which was written by Rich Orloff, is a documentary theater piece about a college community’s experiences during the Vietnam War years. It is based on recollections of dozens of students who attended Oberlin College from 1964-72. Director Jennifer Pratt used monologues and story theater-type scenes to recreate the students’ diverse feelings about the war. For info, go to www.simpaticotheatre.org


The play, A Piece of My Heart, by Shirley Lauro, has become the nation’s most enduring theatrical production that deals with the Vietnam War. Lauro’s play, which is based on the oral history book by Keith Walker, had its debut 20 years ago off Broadway in New York. Since then, more than 800 theater companies have performed the show that follows the true stories of six women who served in the Vietnam War. Among the latest was a production by Theatre Unbound that ran for two weeks in March at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis and one at the Palmdale Playhouse in California.

ON EXHIBIT
Members of Chapter 470 in Anoka, Minnesota, have been long-time supporters of the County Historical Society, so it’s no surprise that the society’s current exhibit on the Vietnam War had its genesis in an oral history project that the chapter sponsored. “The Vietnam War exhibit would not have happened without them,” Vicki Wendel, the society’s program manager, told us. “Chapter members were the initial core of those we interviewed for the exhibit. They helped find other veterans to interview, and they have been most supportive in providing artifacts and photographs for the exhibit and our archives. They also have provided volunteers to lead scout tours and do talks on Vietnam War history for local groups and the local community college.”

The chapter provided funds for the exhibit, which opened last May. It takes visitors through a Vietnam War journey by walking a path that includes a gear-heavy GI hootch, a grass village hut, a small jungle area, an R&R display, and a back-home living room where reels of Vietnam War news footage play on a vintage TV. The final stop is a shiny black wall that contains images of the rubbings of 31 names from Anoka County that appear on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

In addition to everything else, Wendel said, chapter members donated “some special little things” for the exhibit, including “rubber snakes and leeches to use in the jungle scene.” Chapter 470 members, moreover, “built the exhibit’s punji pit, found the military truck tail gates and tires I needed, then got the tires cut in half to mount on  the wall, which was no small feat.” To take a virtual tour, go to www.ac-hs.org/VietnamExhibit.htm


Currently on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.: Japanese-American painter On Kawara’s 1965 triptych entitled “Title.” In keeping with Kawara’s conceptual art vision, the triptych consists of three large canvases upon which are the capitalized words “ONE THING,” “1965,” and “VIET-NAM,” respectively.

Celebrated works of this kind always bring to mind a piece of dialogue between the artist Charles Ryder and teen-aged Cordelia Flynt in Evelyn Waugh’s classic novel Brideshead Revisited, which takes place just after World War II. “Modern art is all bosh, isn’t it?” Cordelia, who is hoping for a positive reply, asks Charles as they stroll through a gallery exhibit. Ryder unblinkingly replies: “Great bosh.”

Afterwar: Veterans From a World in Conflict is the name of renowned photographer Lori Grinker’s recent exhibit at the Project 4 Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibit consisted of about two dozen of Grinker’s chromogenic prints that give stark evidence of the human cost of war taken in many countries around the globe during the last two decades. It ran in February and March.

DOCUMENTARY QUERY
Flight 33 Productions, the producers of the Shootout series on the History Channel, is putting together an hour-long episode on the 1968 Tet Offensive for its upcoming second season. The producers are looking for Vietnam veterans with compelling Tet ’68 stories to participate in the show.

If you’d like to be interviewed, contact Brittany Graham by e-mail, bg@flight33.tv or call 818-505-6640, ext. 138. And please mention that you read about it in The VVA Veteran.

   

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