Deer Hunter [Before & After Preview]

As I wrote about earlier, I’ve given myself a writing assignment for the next four days. I’ll be writing a medium-length post after each film that I see at the Galway Film Fleadh. I’ve decided to call this series of blogs, Before & After. I’ll tell you what I’m experiencing, feeling, and thinking before and after I see each film. What happens in between (the film) will be for me to experience and for you to imagine! Last night, I went to the Irish Film Institute and saw a newly mastered screening of The Deer Hunter, a Vietnam-era war film. It was an opportunity to see a film that I wouldn’t have normally chosen to see and to test out a method for blogging about film. Below is my first experiment.

From the Door to Lights Down

John Mayer’s version of Free Fallin’ is playing over the speakers as I sit in the atrium of the Irish Film Institute. I’m sitting at a square coffee table, glancing, now and then. at my surroundings. There’s an older man with a tan coloured jacket, letter bag, round glasses, and a sharp nose sipping a glass of wine against the west wall. Underneath the skylight is a curious pair, a man in a black suit and a film studies student. The man in the suit is driving home later, but the student can get a drink if he wants to. I’m thinking about whether I left enough time to write down my observations and about whether this is going to be the right approach to writing about film. As I write, a Nelly Furtado type voice fades in and out. It’s nasally, in a way that I find pleasant but my mother doesn’t like. At 7:17 I look anxiously at the door to the theatre and wonder why there’s a sign on that says, “screening in process.” Our screening starts at 7:30, maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t know that I’m supposed to go in? While I wait I hear 7 Years by Lukas Graham, the Candle in the Wind revamp by Ed Sheeran, and a song with the word ‘electric’ in it. Just as I start to think about asking about the door, one of the staff members moves to open it. I pack up my things and think about why I’d had to enter a door code to use the bathroom.

As I enter the theatre I smile and think, “this is as nice as the TIFF theatre; I approve.” I actually said, “I approve” in my head. Who am I exactly? The chairs are red and velvety looking and I have my pick of any row. I select one about five from the back and settle in the centre, staggered just to the right of the guy in the row ahead. Falsetto voices and smooth chords drift from the speakers and a distant voice says, “Jazz 24, world class jazz.” The woman with the rat-tail who bought her tickets from the box office comes in and sits off my left shoulder. She’s ready for a film about the Vietnam-era, I can tell. I make a last minute decision, I’m not going to take notes. The lights dim, I uncap my water bottle, place it to my right, out of kicking distance, and the previews begin.

Checking In With Adam

I can feel the anticipation in my chest as the film is about to start. I’ve arrived at the theatre with a sense of nervous excitement. I’m equally nervous about committing to watching films for six days in Ireland when there are more bucklist-type things to be doing and about committing to a writing assignment. As I prepare to watch the film I’m thrilled by the possibilities and choices available in my life. For the first time in a long time I don’t feel like I’m reacting. I feel like I’m imaging things that I want to do; things I’m passionate about. I’ve just finished reading a book by a writer from Listowel, Co. Kerry, Ireland named Bryan MacMahon. The book, The Master, wasn’t the most structurally sound book that I’ve ever read, but I loved the feeling of it. It felt like one of my favourite teachers from High School, Dave Semple, had opened his notebook, with a pint next to him, and just let his thoughts on teaching roll onto the page. I can write like that too. I’m calm because I walked to the theatre, through a cool breeze, from a bench in the shade at Trinity College Dublin; I did it without Google. I didn’t see anyone that I recognized from home, but I was looking for them.

What Brought Me Here?

I’m here because the Toronto International Film Festival is as exciting as Christmas. My friend Jeremy Santucci introduced me to TIFF a few years ago and I haven’t missed it since. I immerse myself in the way that the stories on the screen look, sound, and feel. It’s as alive as I feel all year. Getting to do this in Ireland is a bonus. I wouldn’t have chosen to see this film if I’d been back home, but I’m ready for it now. I could have gone to see a film about Whitney Houston tonight, but I was drawn to this gritty looking film from forty years ago. I want to be challenged by format, time, and content. I feel like this film is going to do that, but I don’t know how. I’m here because I think that my dad would go see it. I’m not sure why, but I think that if he was on his own in Ireland, he might just choose to do this with his time.

Who Is With Me?

My dad, Bruce Fearnall, is with me in the theatre. He’s not really with me, he’s back home in London, Ontario, Canada, but he’s in my mind. On the surface he’s here because this is a film about war. My dad was a police officer and we’ve always, in small ways, talked about the military; especially his friend Pete Rentjes who taught me a lot in a few short text messages. However, deeper than that, dad’s with me because this is going to be a film about men grappling with how to exist in the world. In our way, we talk about that all the time. I think that we both feel more accountable and responsible to be perfect than we need to be and we’re both reflective and emotional about our pursuit of goodness. He’ll be sitting just over my shoulder.

[I’m Watching the Film Now…]

Lights Up to the Door

I exhale when it’s over and reluctantly stand up to leave; that’s what everyone else is doing. I’m not ready to go yet though. The John Williams score is still grinding into me, and the block white letters of the credits make me want to stay. I make a right turn, instead of a left, and dodge a couple on their way out of the theatre. I grab the last seat in the second last aisle and watch the credits until the end. They’re shorter than the ones at the end of the last Avengers movie that I saw in Scotland. I notice that the war scenes were all filmed in Thailand; that strikes me as uncomfortable. As the music comes to an end, the final logos flash on the screen and I gather myself to walk out into the night. I push through the green door and am immediately met by a little slip of paper, “$1 off drinks at the IFI Bar.” I smile, slide the paper into the little pocket in my pants, the one that didn’t have a purpose until I figured out that I could put coins there. I walk carefully across the atrium towards the outside doors of the theatre. I step out into the Dublin night, feel the cobblestones wrap around my worn sneakers and walk towards the last bus home.

Checking In With Adam

I feel light despite the density of the last three hours. I’m occupied by the bullets to the head, the anguish on a young Robert De Niro’s face as blood pours between his fingers, and the last unstable notes of God Save America, sung over toast and sausages. I grasp for fragments of dialogue, but it has been a movie of moments and scenes, not words. I remember Meryl Streep saying, “Let’s go to bed, can’t we just comfort each other?” and John Savage pleading, “Don’t take me home” that’s about it. I see the tanker hurtling down the highway, underneath a bridge, sparks flying from it’s exhaust, the crushing noise of the steel factory, the noise of the drinking, the noise of the war, the noise of men.

As I board the bus for Dublin 22, where I’m staying, I feel like I’ve experienced something. I board Dublin Bus 40, walk to the top deck, put my headphones in my ears and turn on the classic Travis album (one that I only just discovered), The Man Who, and in moments I’m deep into Writing to Reach You and Driftwood. I get off the bus just past the Clondalkin roundabout, walk across the burnt Irish grass, through the kissing gate and up to the front door of my Airbnb. All the while, I know that I’m going to text my dad. I go upstairs, get ready for bed, and send a few quick messages to my dad. He’d seen the movie, in theatres, with my mom no less, when it came out. We talk about it being a film when maybe America wasn’t so anti-self-reflective; a time when maybe it had a better sense of the importance of grappling with its identity. We’re not sure what that means yet either. It’s time to sleep.

Where It’s Taking Me

The film dislodged many thoughts and is leading me to consider…

  • The men in my life who are invested in sharing emotions and developing friendships; the ones who intentionally look into the uncomfortable
  • The representations of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people in the film
  • Whether “nation-states” can be part of the solution
  • The national identity of America, the construct of a nation, and the enduring traditions from other nations present in America
  • Will I travel in American when I go home?
  • The vulnerability of people living in small towns in America
  • How ‘accurate’ or ‘true’ do I think that films like this need to be?
  • Would I refuse to serve in an unjust war and would I know that it’s unjust?

Who I’d Like To Watch This Film With

  • Bruce Fearnall, my dad, because the challenges facing men in the film made me think about a lot of the things that we’ve discussed over the years.
  • Aaron Jankowski, my friend, because we could talk for hours about the art and for hours more, with brutal honesty, about the moments in our own lives that it makes us think about.
  • James Patterson, my drama teacher from High School, because Grade Nine drama was perhaps my favourite class ever, we had deep conversations about the world as I got older, and I feel like we could have another one after watching this movie.
  • Dave Semple, my creative writing teacher from High School, because he showed me how to embrace flaws, reminded me to be confident, and has had the courage to make his own art.

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