City Paper is not for tourists
There are two straightforward reasons why Hearts and Minds is now being reissued: It’s the Vietnam War documentary’s 30th anniversary, and the movie has been expertly restored by the Academy Film Archive. But there’s another factor, one that becomes increasingly difficult to ignore as this powerful movie unspools: the current situation in a country that, as the joke has it, is “Arabic for Vietnam.”
Hearts and Minds was a polarizing event three decades ago, when Columbia Pictures refused to distribute it, Vietnam War planner (and interview subject) Walt Rostow sued to stop it, and Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra disavowed producer Bert Schneider’s speech accepting the film’s Best Documentary Oscar. It could be just as controversial today, in the age of those Swift-boat veterans who claim to want “truth.” Although the film takes cinéma vérité’s narration-free approach, it is not a disinterested account of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. It’s a skillful polemic, less about history than psychology. What director Peter Davis constructs is an essay on American imperial attitudes.
The film’s title comes from Lyndon Johnson’s assertion that the war would be won in “the hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there,” but those aren’t the hearts and minds the movie probes. Davis and cinematographer Richard Pearce did film Vietnamese villagers, observing them as they experienced both everyday life and extreme horrors. (Some famous photographs of Vietnam War brutality come to life in Pearce’s images.) While this footage humanizes the enemy, it doesn’t signal an attempt to understand the people “out there.”
That’s not because the filmmakers are as xenophobic as the U.S. commander in Vietnam, Gen. William Westmoreland, who appears in the movie to announce that “life is cheap in the Orient.” Rather, it’s because the documentary is primarily an analysis of what happened in American hearts and minds during the Vietnam War. When Davis and Daniel Ellsberg discussed the movie with me the day after its AFI Silver preview, the director called it “an inquiry into people’s motives.” Those people include truculent policymakers and detached airmen, disillusioned amputees and zealous ex-POWs, but not draft resisters and anti-war activists. Shaping more than 200 hours of footage in the editing room, the director excised everyone who hadn’t at some point supported the war. That made the film, essentially, a history of how the country changed its mind about Vietnam.
In the context of the mid-’70s, Davis’ choice makes sense. By the time Hearts and Minds was finished, so was the war; the documentary won its Oscar barely three weeks before Saigon fell. For viewers at the time, why was a lot more important than what. The movie doesn’t function primarily as record of American involvement in Vietnam, and it may frustrate those with only a cursory knowledge of how the United States came to adopt (and subsidize) a disastrous French colonial policy, only to fail itself to take control of the region.
Yet there is another kind of history on view in Hearts and Minds: the making of a new sort of documentary. Davis uses wide-ranging montage, collating events in Vietnam with clips from football games and Hollywood movies to reveal the gee-whiz spirit of American aggression: Southeast Asia must be won not for the country or the president, but for the coach and Mom. (Lt. George Coker, a B-52 pilot who spent seven years as Vietnamese POW, is shown telling a group of prim matrons that maternal discipline underlies U.S. military rigor.) This ironic, free-associative approach to documentary was enormously influential on such later filmmakers as Michael Moore, who has cited Davis’ essay as “the one film that inspired me to pick up a camera.”
Hearts and Minds includes some prominent intellectual defectors from the U.S. military establishment, notably former Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Ellsberg, who recounts a succession of lies by each U.S. president from Truman to Nixon. But perhaps the most telling remark comes from former pilot Randy Floyd, who says, “I think we were trying hard not to” learn the lessons of Vietnam. That admission provides the off-screen segue to Iraq, a war whose specious assumptions Ellsberg hopes to expose by convincing some insider to release the same sort of documents he disclosed in 1971. (Ellsberg has even established a new Web site for this undertaking: www.truthtellingproject.org.)
“All the same words are back,” notes Ellsberg, referring to such terms of art as “security” and “pacification.” Hearts and Minds does indeed show the advocates of the past war mustering much the same euphemisms, the same pretexts, and the same insolence as the current war’s architects. This suggests that Davis’ history of how the country changed its mind about Vietnam—if it really did—remains an unfinished saga.
At various moments during Dig!, a documentary that tracks the sometimes intersecting careers of the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre, the rivalry between the two bands is compared to the Beatles vs. the Stones or Blur vs. Oasis. A better analogy would be the Monkees vs. the Archies, although that duel at least yielded a No. 1 single. Of course, the Archies were cartoon characters, but in this movie so are the Dandys and the BJM: a gaggle of Jugheads (and one Betty) with nose rings, outsized egos, and drug problems.
Beginning with the groups’ 1995 meeting, writer-producer-director Ondi Timoner follows them for seven years, a period in which the Warhols get a major-label contract and become popular overseas, while BJM mastermind Anton Newcombe trashes everything he can—including a deal with mini-major TVT, whose Adam Shore is one of the film’s principal commentators. What transpires isn’t precisely a rivalry: Newcombe occasionally baits Dandys frontman Courtney Taylor and his cohorts, once sending them a box whose contents include shotgun shells and soap (to clean up their act). The singer-guitarist does a lot more damage, however, to his own bandmates, not to mention the occasional audience member who’s unfortunate enough to get within reach of one of Newcombe’s tantrums. As for Taylor, he continues to extol the BJM’s “brilliant monster” as an innovator who’s “three years ahead” of other indie rockers.
This plaudit would be more compelling if there were anything in the movie to validate it. The BJM songs in the film (and the ones I’ve heard elsewhere) are catchy, savvy rewrites of the Nuggets songbook: psychedelic garage-rock of the sort that’s been hailed as rock’s salvation for more 30 years. In fact, Newcombe’s on-screen supporters include fanzine-editor-turned-indie-label-boss Greg Shaw, one of the most influential mid-’70s exponents of a psychedelic-garage-rock revival. Newcombe is talented, prolific, and driven, but that doesn’t make him—as Shaw dubs him—a “prophet.” Dig! demonstrates only that Newcombe’s apocalyptic vision led him to the usual alt-rock wreckage of disaffected colleagues and failed record contracts.
Early in this account, Dandys guitarist Peter Holmstrom claims that both Newcombe and Taylor wanted “to be the other person.” If that’s true, Newcombe is the smarter of the two—because it’s not genius but lucidity that has kept the Dandys on track. Although the quartet has never managed to build a U.S. following to rival its European fan base, it’s kept its Capitol deal as hundreds of similar outfits have been dumped by the majors. The Dandys may not practice pure do-it-yourself punk autonomy, but their ongoing career illustrates the value of personal responsibility.
Like his music, Newcombe’s behavior is modeled on the standards of an earlier era. It is “definitely not an act,” says Shore, but that doesn’t make it any less tiresome. To her credit, Timoner spent lots of time with both the Dandys and the BJM, so she was there to document the former’s first ridiculous foray into rock-video making and the latter’s increasingly crazed experiments with drugs, hostility, and muttonchops. The result is lively and thorough, a handheld, quick-cut odyssey through drug busts, record-label spats, and onstage meltdowns. Indeed, there’s not much in the contemporary alt-rock experience that’s missing from Dig!—except a great band or two.CP