02 May, 2017


Or "I Lost a Lot of Friends in That Ape Movie"

I’ve been thinking about Vietnam lately.

Not that it’s ever far from my mind, but I’ve really been thinking about it recently. I put my iPod on shuffle and Johnny Cash’s “Drive On” came on and all of the sudden, a well-spring of memories popped back up for me. I remembered Platoon. I remembered that Ken Burns has a documentary coming out this year. I remembered the first two years of college where everything seemed to somehow point back to the 1960's (even though most of our heroes from that era seemed hell-bent on escaping their current time frame). And I remembered Kong: Skull Island. And I remembered that Kong is an opportunity to talk about war, art, and movies. In short, Johnny Cash reminded me of something that was never far beneath the surface.

It’s been a long while since a Vietnam War movie has been in the theaters. The last movie I can even remember mentioning Nam by name was No Country For Old Men and that was only in passing and ten years ago (and even then I might be confusing that with the book). We’re overdue for a Vietnam War movie. We’re also overdue to talk about the damn thing. I’m glad Skull Island came along. It’s a reason for me to talk about Nam and it’s also a reason for Nam to surface in the culture, again.
Jordan Vogt-Robers wears his movie nerd credentials on his sleeves. Mark Kermode mentions it in his review of the film. Hell, Vogt-Roberts says as much in this interview (which I highly recommend that everybody read, because, man, that boy is a nerd). Even a cursory view of the trailer and its Huey choppers choppers silhoutted by the sun summon up memories of Apocalypse Now (or at least its poster). Beyond film allusions (beyond it just being a reboot of a remake of a remake), the film directly quotes from the Vietnam War. Brie Larson's character is an amalgamation of Catherine Leroy and Dickey Chapelle. If Vogt-Roberts is willing to bring Pokemon into the text of his film, then I believe he is also willing to put the work into discussions about the actual war he's making a movie about.
The director chose Nam for a reason. He had something to say. Yes, Skull Island is a monster movie, but even the loweliest genre film can say something about our society at large (example: Godzilla, Monsters, every single really bad and really good zombie movie). It matters because it speaks to our wider culture, our wider society. 

Giant Monster Movies have always existed to speak to something larger and more important that the existential threat of giant monsters. The original Godzilla spoke to the trauma of nuclear war and the two most recent Godzilla's spoke to environmental disasters and government inaction (or both).

Skull Island is mostly about a giant ape wrecking shit, but it also isn't a coincidence that it is centered around one of the great clusterfucks in American history-- one that we still haven't learned the right lessons from. I mean, look around you. Look at the news. You think we've learned a goddamn thing about dropping bombs on places that we don't understand in the past sixty years?

It also indicates that we’re officially at the point where we can just throw giant apes and space people at this tragedy and nobody is going to cry foul. Kong goes a step further in that it isn’t Vietnam War imagery, it is literally the Vietnam War (or, you know, a film version of it. Let’s not split hairs here, Borges). More than that, as rich as the art design of Rogue One (another film that took cues from 'Nam), it doesn't quite work. There is a dissonance there. Kong: Skull Island succeeds where Rogue One misfires, because Vietnam War imagery and symbolism is succinct, meaningful, and perfectly applied to the story that it is trying to tell.
It’s not only a morally grey war (with a morally grey conclusion), it means everything. Kong does a good job reminding us of the fact that Vietnam War comes with a lot of cultural baggage above and beyond the actual war itself. It literally blares the subtext out of loudspeakers at the audience.* It blares "THIS IS A FILM ABOUT FILMS ABOUT VIETNAM. ALSO IT IS ABOUT VIETNAM. KIND OF A HEADFUCK, ISN'T IT? BUT YOU'RE JUST LISTENING TO BLACK SABBATH, SO FUCK IT."

Vietnam isn’t Vietnam. It’s The Beatles. It’s Bob Dylan. It’s Richard Nixon. It’s Hunter S. Thompson. It’s MLK. It’s RFK. It’s Indian’s Rights and Women’s Rights and Jane Fonda posing on an AA gun. It’s John McCain being captured (and coming back and running for president). It’s Donald Trump dodging the draft. It’s The Wonder Years. It’s Jimmy Carter forgiving our draft dodgers. It's the Things They Carried. It's the things they carried. It’s my alcoholic uncle that didn’t see 60 because of what he saw over there.  It's forgetting and remembering and rediscovering these things. And it's a metaphor. And it's in our bones whether we know it or not.

Vietnam is a choice and it’s a choice that is reflected in the substance Kong: Skull Island. In that film, as in Vietnam, there are very few actual good guys. There are bad guys with problems, problems that might be good guys, a bad guy that becomes a good guy (off screen), and people that have bad things happen to them. There are also natives that, thankfully, aren’t bizarre caricatures. Like Vietnam, there are no winners, only survivors.

It’s why seeing Vietnam War imagery in Rogue One struck me as being so dissonant. Star Wars has always been a tale of black and white morality, with big, clear lessons to be learned. Good Versus Evil. A fantasy. Vietnam is about nobody being the good guy. Nobody being the winner. It’s a signifier that is at odds with the foundations of Star Wars.

Kong has no such baggage. It’s a property that exists in a genre that was specifically created to serve as a metaphor. It would be more uncharacteristic to be about how awesome giant monsters are than it would be for it to be about Vietnam. Metaphors and metatext and all of that jazz are what these movies were meant to be. They’re the pill wrapped in a piece of cheese. The message is hidden in the medium, but also the medium is the message.

I saw a Marx quote from one of my good commie friends on twitter. Marx says:

And by the same token the whole principle of socialism is concerned only with one side, namely the reality of the true existence of man. We also have a concern with the other wise, i.e. with man's theoretical existence, and make his religion and science, etc, into the object of our criticism.

What Marx is saying is that when you look at society, when you try to work on what it is and how it works, it isn’t enough to just change the economy or the politics. It’s important to talk about the underlying factors. In this case, art. More specifically: Monster movies. All of these things are there. It's the movies that help us remember. They're our myths. They're what sparks old memories inside of our heads and helps us remember. Sometimes a giant ape is what it takes for us to talk about something that we haven't ever bothered putting into words.

 * With the added bonus of allowing some really good diabetic music to entertain us. Because, I don’t care if it’s cliché at this point, hearing CCR blast out of a Huey gunship is always going to get my heart pumping, and, as Bruce Dern said to me recently, “I’d call that rock n’ roll”).

James Kislingbury is a writer and a podcaster. He does a movie show called "A Quality Interruption." He does a "news" show called "World's a Mess." Both require funding, which you can help out with. He also has a series of stupid tumblrs, which are all linked on the right hand side of this page. So that's fun.