Monday, 23 June 2014

The Deer Hunter then and now

At the cottage, we are in the dark ages electronically-speaking. On our 30-year-old workhorse of a television, we can watch only VHS tapes. So we have been enjoying a lot of pre-DVD movies.  A few nights ago we watched The Deer Hunter.  Directed by Michael Cimino, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1978. I am not sure when I first saw this film, but likely after it came out in the theatres. In any event, it was probably 30 years ago or more — a whole generation.

At the time it was released, there was a lot of talk about the film’s treatment of the Viet Cong, especially in the Russian roulette scenes, about director Cimino’s overbearing personality, and about the length and cost of the film.  Aside from the length, I didn't know about any of this controversy until reading about the film a few days ago.

So when (uninformed) I saw this movie again after such a long time, what did I notice?   Well, the length for one thing. I didn't recall it as a tediously long movie, but this time around, I found the wedding scenes overly drawn out, and I got tired of the ongoing buffoonery of the young men. I also noticed the huge role the Russian Orthodox Church still played in the characters’ lives.

However, what captured my attention most was the characters’ attitude towards guns. I am not a hunter, but I could see that hunting was part of the definition of manliness for those steelworkers.  It struck me that there was an unspoken ethos around the proper use for guns.

They carried their rifles in gun cases when going hunting in the wilderness. Now maybe this was just for the movie and was not realistic, but nevertheless I was surprised at their restraint and care.

Eventually that pastime was challenged — at least by Michael , the “single-shot “deer hunter played by Robert De Niro. Having experienced the war and its aftermath, he declines to shoot a prize buck and instead shoots in the air and watches the majestic animal disappear from sight.  Is this an affirmation of his true manliness, as it seems Cimino is suggesting, or is it wimpiness?  Michael offers no explanation to his friends when they express surprise that he didn’t get a kill.

However much the possession and use of long guns were taken for granted for hunting, carrying a concealed weapon was frowned on. One of the characters is asked, “Why are you carrying that little thing?”  in reference to his hand gun.  Partly this taunt was a reference to the character’s manliness, but it struck me that there was also the feeling that there was something not right about having a gun concealed on one’s person.

What a contrast to American attitudes today:  Not only is carrying a  concealed weapon perfectly acceptable in many people’s eyes, but so is flaunting exposed AK-47s — and these are far removed from hunting rifles— in such places as retail stores. Apparently some churches give them away to attract adherents.  It is such false heroism.   

Where does this attitude come from?  The futility and brutality of the Vietnam war and later the war in Iraq and other American foreign policy disasters come to mind. Since 9/11, fear of the Other has been ratcheted up many notches —although harm from domestic terrorism seems much more likely than from external threats.

In an early scene in The Deer Hunter, an unknown serviceman comes in during the wedding and sits alone at the bar. He refuses to engage the boisterous, naive young men who want to celebrate him as a war hero. Later, Michael comes quietly home from the war with much the same attitude.  The movie-going audience has seen the trauma he experienced; the characters in the movie know little or nothing about it.

For Cimino, the chief image for the Viet Nam experience is the game of Russian roulette: gambling taken to the extreme. I think of all the associations that come to my mind around gambling in general:  a waste of time, luck of the draw, chance, unfeeling, unforgiving, amoral, winner take all …

Even though the Russian roulette scenes may not be factually correct, they act as a metaphor for the moral quagmire of that war and of the generation time that has followed it:  at times, life seems to  be a meaningless, merciless, and psychologically, if not physically,  deadening game of pure chance.   In the characters of Nicky and Steve, the film suggests the damage done to the American psyche will be both long-lasting and corrosive, although the characters that remained at home seem to want to ignore that possibility.

When God Bless America is sung at the end of the film, was it a neat and tidy way to end an overly long movie on some kind of optimistic note?  Viewed at the time, it could be seen as the characters’ moving on and leaving the war behind — a variation perhaps on the theme of American exceptionalism:  This war’s devastating aftermath will never happen here again, so don’t think about it much now that it is over. 

However, seen from the point of view of over 30 years down the road, the last scene is so sentimental, the  irony is grim. To an outsider, it seems that many Americans’ optimism has hardened and coarsened into extreme fear and mistrust.  When we viewed The Deer Hunter the first time, who would have predicted assault rifles in the grocery store or at church? 

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Gardening progresses at Tyn Y Maes

At the end of Candide, Voltaire advises his readers simply to cultivate their own gardens. Aside from this practical  advice, not a lot in that novella has remained in my memory over the years since university. Voltaire, also a gardener apparently, would be happy: over the last few weeks, I have been digging, hoeing, raking, and planting to a fare-thee-well.  I am turning part of our erstwhile hay field into a garden. 

I have approached the task in stages. I do about two hours a day and then take a day off. Today is an off-day due to the rain. I am thankful I have this excuse because a few of my muscles are crying for respite. On the plus side (sorry, Voltaire, I am engaging in optimism here), my leg muscles are growing much stronger. Building up muscle mass in preparation for my upcoming hip operation is one of my goals for over the summer.  Gardening  is so much more useful than doing strengthening exercises, as the latter are boring and don’t have any supplementary benefits.

However, gardening not only adds muscle mass to my arms and legs but, I hope, beauty to our surroundings. It’s also great to be in the fresh air and to admire one’s handiwork afterwards. It occurred to me that in the story about how the Creator looked upon his creation and pronounced it good, he may have been commenting  not only on Eden but on how great he felt having made it. It does feel good!

The first thing I had to do was to plant the perennials we brought with us. They were beginning to out-grow the car. 

By the time we left Mt Carmel, the hostas had grown about eight inches!

They had to withstand not only the shock of being planted in red soil, having grown up in black, but also a significant plunge in temperature — even to a frost one night. All is well with them now although some still appear a bit traumatized:

The hostas look a bit battle-weary. The sedum is fine, and the brown things are last year's.

Next was planting what we fondly call the Friendly Giant’s burial mound — a long, rectangular, raised bed just outside the windows along the back of the cottage (or front, if you consider the view as the front). If you are curious about the Friendly Giant, check out this link:  .

This is what it looked like last summer after the lawn was seeded: 

We are not sure what made the indentations. We suspect skunks looking for grubs.

Anyhow, back to the present, thankfully we hesitated just long enough before planting the tomatoes and missed the frosty night.

Tomatoes are to the left and strawberries to the right, but you probably saw that already.

One of the  rhubarb roots did not fare so well and got a bit touched by the frost; however, I think it will survive. It really is hard to kill rhubarb, as my many friends with a surplus can attest.

Only one leaf survived on this one.

Its mate is fine.

I have on-going misgivings about the asparagus. I did not soak the roots before planting nor did I dig a hump in the trench over which to droop the roots. I firmly believe that plants intend to grow unless you really do your best to kill them, so I wait in hope.

Some but not all the roots have sprigs growing. It can take up to three weeks from planting.

The strawberries have suffered only one fatality, which I can’t account for. Maybe the seedling just didn't like it here and died.

I ordered way too many seeds from Vesey’s and planted them  in my next round of garden work.  Most are for perennials – both flowers and herbs – and with any luck and lots of rain, sunshine and weeding, I will not have to plant them again.

The perennial bed at the other side of the cottage - with lilac bush.

Equally fascinating, with only parsley and a peony in evidence, is the herb garden.
The planters on the deck are now pregnant with nasturtiums and lettuces and up out of the way of marauding wild life. We hope.


Greg and I  planted the sugar maple tree yesterday, as it was rainy and cool then too. We put it about 40 feet from the septic system. When it reaches its full height in about 25 years, it should be far enough away that no one, least of all the two of us, will need to worry about its roots mangling the septic bed.

If it can outgrow the dandelions, the sugar maple will be fine.

Yesterday I spent an hour digging up the bed by the road. The weeds have gotten away from me, and I shall have to admit defeat and hire someone with a rototiller. I want to put pumpkins and squash out there as well as some annuals that like dry sunny conditions. The hose won’t reach that far – nor will I and the watering can!

There remains only a dawning of sunflowers to plant as well as, more prosaically, a couple of rows of beans  in front  of the forsythia.  

The forsythia will add a blast of yellow next spring. 

Mind you, I got the fall bulb catalogue in the mail yesterday, and I am only a “place order” away from even more gardening fun.