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The Vietnam War As Public Spectacle

Bottom-up Collective Drama or Top-Down Atrocity?

So is the film non-fiction? After all, the events recalled by a participant actually did happen; his memory could be faulty, but the origins of the memory are still real. Or is it fiction? The final edited story is constructed of narration and imagery from any number of sources. As a photographer, it was always clear to me a photograph never lied. How an image was represented was where the lie crept in. The drama this film is able to create out of snippets of history is amazing. But the use of imagery from many places to "build" a specific recounted story feels like fiction. As an assemblage of real images, the film is one thing; making these images work as components of a constructed cinematic narrative puts it in the realm of hybrid fiction. It’s all put to the service of Ken Burns’ trademark style: Keep the storytelling down in the weeds.

Jerry Lembcke, author of The Spitting Image, knows how myths can consume us:

“Ground-up views are susceptible, especially after 40 years, to the very myths they are supposed to belie. Memories that are 40 years old are too influenced by movies, novels, newspapers, and television -- or those dreaded historians -- to count for documentation. … In the hands of filmmakers, however, such accounts are too easily and too often used as a veneer to manage viewer perceptions. ... In promoting healing instead of the search for truth, The Vietnam War offers misleading comforts.”

As cultural product, the Burns/Novick film is interesting because it shares something with some famous 19th century American cultural products in which issues of popularity and success face-off against issues of truth and integrity. I use Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn to make a point. Twain was a tough, progressive-minded writer for whom popularity and monetary success were important. He wrote the first third of Huckleberry Finn and ran into writer’s block. He’d created an African slave who becomes the surrogate father for an abused child who is virtually an orphan oppressed by cloying “womenfolk.” Jim may be a “nigger” without education, but in the first third of the book he’s a man in the full sense of that word. Twain didn’t know where to go with the book, so he put it up for at least a decade, during which he established his own publishing company. He wanted to make more money on his books. When he finally took the book up again, he sent Jim down the Mississippi, instead of up the Ohio to freedom, which would have been logical. That lacked drama; plus he was not familiar with the Ohio River. Along the Mississippi, we get lots of great satire. In its final third, the book goes south, literally and figuratively. Tom Sawyer arrives and Jim is relegated to a chicken coop as a virtual Step-n-Fetchit. The book was a smash hit and, according to Hemingway, is the root of all modern American literature.

story | by Dr. Radut