WEIRDLAND: June 2021

Friday, June 25, 2021

John Newman’s "JFK and Vietnam" (Updated)

John F. Kennedy was very disappointed by the advice he got on the Bay of Pigs invasion and the use of atomic weapons against Laos. Naval Chief Arleigh Burke retired in August of 1961. Shortly after, Kennedy let it be known that the Army’s Lyman Lemnitzer would not retain his position as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. One reason for this is that Lemnitzer made it clear in the summer of 1961 that he thought America should directly intervene in Vietnam. Chief of the Vietnam MACV, Lt. General Lionel McGarr, also thought intervention would be the smart choice. At around this time, JFK decided he needed to talk to General Maxwell Taylor for the purposes of first, being his personal military advisor, and later, to replace Lemnitzer. In May of 1961, Kennedy decided to send Lyndon B. Johnson to Saigon on a goodwill tour. He made it clear that he wanted no one to suggest to Diem that American ground troops could or should enter the theater. Prior to Johnson’s arrival, the Joint Chiefs sent a message to McGarr saying that Diem should be encouraged to request troops from LBJ. And Johnson did suggest this to Diem. At this point, Diem politely declined. Instead, he asked for funding to increase the South Vietnamese army, the ARVN.

Kennedy agreed to the increased funding for the ARVN. But he refused the military request for 16,000 combat troops. Yet in October, Diem did request American combat troops. Right after this, Deputy Defense Secretary U. Alexis Johnson also suggested the insertion of combat troops. Kennedy was so upset by these requests that he planted a story in the New York Times saying the Pentagon was not advising him to send in combat troops. Clearly, Kennedy did not like this crescendo towards direct intervention. Yet that October—after Kennedy sent Taylor, Rostow, and Lansdale to Vietnam—they returned with a recommendation to insert several thousand troops under the guise of flood control. Kennedy was shocked by this request, so much so that he recalled each copy of the report. He did not want it to get into the press. When JFK got John Kenneth Galbraith’s memo, he compared it to the official report. In the meantime, certain senior White House officials—perhaps Robert Kennedy—began leaking to the press that the president was opposed to sending combat troops into Vietnam. Kennedy rejected combat troops, allowed for no mutual defense treaty, and did not provide any commitment to save Saigon from communism. He did allow for more American intelligence advisors, military trainers, and equipment. But as both Newman and Galbraith’s son Jamie have noted, the written result of this meeting, NSAM 111, marked a dividing line, one which Kennedy never crossed: Americans could not fight the war for Saigon. It also triggered the beginning of Kennedy’s plan to begin to get out of Indochina. 

Robert McNamara attended the first of what would be called “SecDef” meetings in Hawaii on December 16, 1961. What is remarkable about all this is that, even after Kennedy issued his warning about his policy, there were still requests to escalate. Air Force Chief Curtis LeMay said atomic weapons were needed. The military put together something called the Joint Strategic Survey Council, which recommended direct American intervention. Another such recommendation followed in January of 1962 by the Joint Chiefs. This one said if America did not go to war in Vietnam, the dominos could fall all the way to Australia and New Zealand. With the hawks swirling around him, Kennedy decided to use Galbraith and his report to counter them. By early in 1962, Galbraith had filed three back-channel cables to Kennedy. All of them frowning derisively on further American involvement in Indochina. Galbraith had pointedly written Kennedy that if the USA increased its support for Diem, “there is consequent danger we shall replace the French as the colonial force in the area and bleed as the French did.” 

In early April, Galbraith met with Kennedy at his retreat in Glen Ora, Virginia. Kennedy had him write still another memorandum discouraging American involvement: 'We have a growing military commitment. This could expand step-by-step into a major, long-drawn out indecisive military involvement. We should resist all steps which commit American troops to combat action and impress upon all concerned the importance of keeping American forces out of actual combat commitment.' As Newman and others have noted in discussing Galbraith’s proposal, Kennedy made a significant comment about it. He said that he wanted the State Department to be prepared to ”seize upon any favorable moment to reduce our commitment, recognizing that the moment might yet be some time away.” That comment was recorded in a memorandum of April 6, 1962. He then had Galbraith make a personal visit to McNamara. The ambassador later reported to Kennedy that he had a long discussion with the Defense Secretary and said that they ended up being in basic agreement on most matters. 

We know that McNamara got the message, because his deputy Roswell Gilpatric said, “McNamara indicated to me that this was part of a plan the President asked him to develop to unwind the whole thing." And, as we shall see, McNamara conveyed that request to Gen. Paul Harkins at the SecDef conference of May 1962. There is an important key that John Newman now sketches in. It’s important, because it fulfilled the request Kennedy made to “seize upon any favorable moment to reduce our commitment.” As the author learned from Don Blascak, in Saigon there was a deception being perpetrated. Max Taylor appointed Harkins to lead the entire Vietnam military operation, this included intelligence gathering. Harkins made Air Force Col. James Winterbottom his chief of intelligence for MACV. This allowed Winterbottom to control the intelligence coming into CINPAC—the entire Pacific command—since that was led by another Air Force officer, General Patterson. From CINPAC it went to the Joint Chiefs and McNamara. Harkins and Winterbottom did not know about the April 1962 Galbraith/McNamara meeting. Nor did they know what Kennedy had told representatives of the State Department about seizing on a moment to reduce our commitment. So, in February of 1962, at the third SecDef conference, Harkins said that things were improving in Vietnam, based upon new equipment supplied by the Pentagon. He could say this since Winterbottom was rigging the figures. The author makes clear that this deception was deliberately aimed at McNamara, since Harkins and Winterbottom thought that the illusion of progress would keep the American commitment going. But there was one agency that actually was telling the truth about how badly the war was proceeding. 

This was the US Army Pacific Command or USAR-PAC. 
In May, 1962, at the Fifth SecDef meeting, McNamara was presented with another rosy picture conjured up with phony figures. By now, Winterbottom was counting civilians as dead Viet Cong. Meanwhile, the communists were finding it easier to recruit, because of Diem’s increasingly corrupt and despotic rule. After the presentation was over, McNamara met with Harkins and a couple of his assistants behind closed doors. He now passed on Kennedy’s orders about beginning to reduce the American commitment, because the Pentagon could not actually fight the war for Diem. To show how set Kennedy was on getting out, and how unaware Harkins was he was aiding him, Newman devotes another chapter to Laos. Under the cover of the June 1962 cease fire and the July settlement, the Pathet Lao and Hanoi got what they wanted: infiltration routes into Vietnam. American advisors gradually left, but Hanoi’s did not. Harkins attempted to keep the enemy advantage a secret by recalling a report on it. But the information did get to Roger Hilsman of the State Department. At the July 23, 1962, SecDef meeting, Harkins continued his faux good news. He told McNamara that the training of and transfer to the ARVN, and the phase out of the major US operational support activities were, per the secretary’s request, on schedule. At this meeting, McNamara announced a three-year deadline for withdrawal of all American forces, which matches the 1965 termination date that Kennedy would endorse the next year. Joseph Mendenhall, a State Department advisor on Vietnam and Laos, admitted that, in reality, Saigon was losing the war. He blamed it on Diem and his brother Nhu. He said the status of the war would not improve unless there was a change in leadership. There were people in the State Department who shared this accurate view. The author concludes that, by March of 1963, Kennedy understood an intelligence charade was being enacted. One of the most important ARRB disclosures—if not the most important one—was the full record of the 8th SecDef Conference. This was held in Hawaii on May 6, 1963. Harkins was still insisting Saigon was winning. McNamara now requested the withdrawal schedules he had asked for many months prior. The secretary also said that he would ask for a thousand man withdrawal by the end of the year. It was understood this would be a part of a complete withdrawal by 1965. 

The author references a famous quote from the book Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye. In that volume, Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers describe the aftermath of a meeting that Kennedy had with Senator Mike Mansfield on Vietnam: "
After Mansfield left the office, the president said to me, “In 1965, I’ll become one of the most unpopular presidents in history. I’ll be damned everywhere as a communist appeaser. But I don’t care. If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected.” This is a revelatory comment. As Newman, Jim Douglass, and Gordon Goldstein have noted, Kennedy told several friends and acquaintances he was getting out of Vietnam. But this particular quote is important, because it delineates his conscious effort to design that withdrawal around the 1964 campaign, which is why the end date was 1965. In 1963, few could fail to see that things were not as Harkins and Winterbottom said they were. The strategic hamlet program, started by Diem and McGarr, was not working. Kennedy decided to switch ambassadors. As Jim Douglass has pointed out, Kennedy wanted to appoint his longtime friend Edmund Gullion as ambassador. Rusk objected to this and they then agreed on Henry Cabot Lodge. As Douglass points out, this was a mistake.

What I believe occurred was that Lodge and CIA officer Lucien Conein, acted in league with a cabal in the State Department—Mike Forrestal, Averill Harriman, and Roger Hilsman—in order to enable an overthrow, stop Kennedy from neutralizing it, and then the two Americans in Saigon made sure the coup plotters polished off the Nhu brothers. I also believe that Lodge and Conein moved to get rid of the CIA station chief in Saigon, John Richardson, in order to make their scheming easier to accomplish. All of this is why the president had recalled Lodge to Washington at the time of his death, in order to terminate him. While all this intrigue was going on behind the scenes, Kennedy had sent Taylor and McNamara to Saigon, not to write a report, but to present him with his report. In his book, Death of a Generation, Howard Jones writes that the Taylor/McNamara report was actually written before the plane ride over to Saigon. Newman says it was written while the mission was in progress. The chief author was Prouty’s boss General Victor Krulak who, although he is listed as a trip passenger, was really back in Washington. It was through this back channel that Kennedy meant to make the report his fulcrum for withdrawal. This is why an early sentence reads as follows: “The military campaign has made great progress and continues to progress.” What then follows is that training of the ARVN should be completed by the end of 1965 and it “should be possible to withdraw the bulk of US personnel by that time.” 

The author shows that even at this late date, the fall of 1963, there was resistance to Kennedy’s plan. William Sullivan of the State Department insisted that the ’65 withdrawal date was too optimistic, so that part was taken out. Kennedy was alerted to this upon the return from Saigon. At a private meeting with Taylor and McNamara, he ordered it put back in. Others, like the Bundy brothers and Chester Cooper of the CIA, also objected. Kennedy overrode them. There was one more tactic the opponents of withdrawal used: they began to rewrite intelligence reports from the battlefield. They now admitted Saigon was losing. In the face of all this evidence of Kennedy’s determination, it surprises me that Deb Galentine who, quite frankly I never heard of, said that Kennedy was a hard-core Cold Warrior. My eyebrows jumped up a couple of feet when I read this for the simple reason that it is pure and provable bunk. Were all these people wrong? Senator Wayne Morse, Senator Mike Mansfield, General James Gavin, Marine Corps Commander David Shoup, Journalist Charles Bartlett, Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Pearson, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Chair of the JCS Max Taylor, Assistant Press Secretary Malcolm Kilduff, State Department assistant Mike Forrestal, Congressman Tip O’Neill, Assistant Secretary of State Roger HIlsman, Assistant Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, Ambassador John Kenneth Galbraith, Journalist Larry Newman, White House assistants Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers, Commanding General of North Vietnam Vo Nguyen Giap, etc. Galentine makes no attempt at all to explain Kennedy’s 12 refusals—as explicated by Goldstein and Newman—to send in combat troops during 1961–62.

Finally, the reason that Kennedy was reluctant to make NSAM 263 public—and to include the Taylor/McNamara Report as part of it—had nothing to do with his exit strategy. It had everything to do with the 1964 election. The problem for JFK was the political impact of a Hanoi takeover before the election—in the middle of a withdrawal. Kennedy was clear about this in conversations with Mansfield, Bartlett and O’Neill. The evidence is overwhelming. The only way to reverse a withdrawal from Vietnam was by doing so over Kennedy’s dead body. It was Max Taylor who decided on the OPLAN 34 operations against North Vietnam. He approved a design for these naval provocations in September, without showing it to McNamara. So Kennedy never saw it. It was not shown to McNamara until the November 20th Honolulu meeting. Taylor had only cleared it with the Pentagon and these were not hit-and-run operations. They clearly needed much American support. Also, at this meeting, the intelligence reports had been rewritten and the true war conditions were apparent. Therefore, Taylor also tried to reduce the withdrawal plan by having it made up of individuals instead of the whole units that JFK wanted. 

When McGeorge Bundy returned from this meeting, Johnson was in the White House. His NSAM 273, written for Kennedy, was altered by the new president. Johnson’s revised version allowed expanded operations into Laos and Cambodia. The withdrawal plan was more or less neutralized and it granted the vision of OPLAN 34 that Taylor wanted: using American assets, not just Saigon’s. Therefore, coastal raids were allowed with American speedboats and some personnel, accompanied by American destroyers fitted with high tech radar and communications gear. The American aspect is what Johnson altered in these coastline operations, as the South Vietnam navy could not have performed these any time soon. These essentially American patrols/provocations led to the Tonkin Gulf incident in August, which—misrepresented by the White House—was used for a declaration of war by the USA. The author ends his book here before NSAM 288 of March 1964, which mapped out a large—over 90 target air— campaign against Hanoi. (Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War) Something Kennedy would not countenance in three years, Johnson had done in three months. LBJ used 288 as a retaliation list for what he considered an attack on Americans on the high seas at Tonkin Gulf. As Newman noted, since LBJ was getting the genuine intel reports, he understood that our side was losing. And this is what he used to confront McNamara and turn him around on the issue. These conversations occurred in February and March of 1964. In the first one, the president said he always thought it was "foolish for you to make any statements about withdrawing. I thought it was bad psychologically. But you and the president thought otherwise, and I just sat silent." He then added that he could not understand how America could withdraw from a war it was losing. (James Blight, Virtual JFK

In the March conversation, LBJ now wanted McNamara to revise his announcement of withdrawal to say that Americans were not coming home, even though the training of the ARVN was completed. What Johnson was doing was the first swipe at creating the myth that he was not breaking with Kennedy—even though he knew he was. In a later call with McNamara in 1965, Johnson reveals that what is left of the Kennedy war cabinet understands what he is up to, which is “to put the Vietnam War on Kennedy’s tomb.” LBJ’s fabrication—that there was no breakage—was then picked up by NY Times reporters David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and utilized in their best-selling books The Best and the Brightest and A Bright Shining Lie. By 1967, it was clear that McNamara was going through a severe mental crisis. (Tom Wells, The War Within) Johnson thought McNamara was going to have a nervous breakdown. According to his secretary, he would break out into rages about the uselessness of the bombing; and then he would end up crying into the curtains on his office window. Johnson retired him in late November of 1967. Newman’s relationship with McNamara eventually revealed the reasons for the secretary’s tears and, also, the motive behind his order to begin a classified study of the war called The Pentagon Papers—which he kept secret from Johnson. (Vietnam: The Early Decisions, edited by Lloyd C. Gardner and Ted Gittinger) In those debriefs, McNamara said he and Kennedy had agreed that America could train the ARVN, advise them, and give them equipment. And that was it. When the training mission was completed, America would leave, even if the South Vietnamese forces were in a losing situation: "I believed we had done all the training we could and whether the South Vietnamese were qualified or not to turn back the North Vietnamese, I was certain that if they weren’t it wasn’t for lack of our training. More training wouldn’t strengthen them; therefore we should get out. The President agreed." Source: kennedysandking.com

Thursday, June 24, 2021

David Lynch: Wisteria (Unrecorded Night) in the works, An Analysis of Blue Velvet

Rumors are swirling around a new David Lynch project in the works, and at Netflix. As observed in industry trade Production Weekly, an untitled David Lynch project with the working title “Wisteria” is set to begin production in May 2021. The publication notes longtime Lynch collaborator Sabrina S. Sutherland as a producer, and that the project will film at Calvert Studios in LA. Lynch’s last feature film project was his 2006 “Inland Empire.” From there he returned to the beloved world of “Twin Peaks” for the Showtime limited series “The Return.” The filmmaker has yet to announce any new feature films or television projects since “Twin Peaks: The Return” wrapped its run in September 2017. “Twin Peaks” star Kyle MacLachlan told IndieWire earlier this year he’d be open to reprising his role of Cooper, but had only this to tease about a return: “That is in the mind of David Lynch, where it will stay hidden.” Kyle MacLachlan, who starred in Twin Peaks, recently hinted that he’s set to be involved in Wisteria (listed on Imdb as Unrecorded Night), the reported new project from his frequent collaborator David Lynch. Source: indiewire.com

Blue Velvet (1986) is the quintessential David Lynch film, filled with quirky humor and shocking violence. It features one of the most terrifying villains in all of film: Frank Booth, brilliantly portrayed by Dennis Hopper. Blue Velvet is a “mystery” story. Sometimes it is described as neo noir. But it is a much darker shade of noir. Jeffrey’s initiation into the mysteries is a descent into the underworld: both a literal, criminal underworld as well as the “deep river” of the unconscious, including obsessive and sadomasochistic sexuality. But Lynch also hints that the unconscious is not merely human, but a portal through which essentially demonic powers enter our world. Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) conquers and controls these forces, returning to the sunlit world not only as a man but as a guardian of the social and the family order. In his journey, he has encountered the libidinal, criminal, and demonic forces that can tear society apart, and he has learned about the artifices of civilization that keep chaos at bay. Blue Velvet is about the great mysteries of life.

-Jeffrey: I’m seeing something that was always hidden. I’m involved in a mystery. And it’s all secret. -Sandy: You like mysteries that much? -Jeffrey: Yeah. You’re a mystery. I like you. Very much.

Jeffrey Beaumont has been called home from college to visit his stricken father and help run the family hardware store. On the way home from the hospital, Jeffrey discovers a severed human ear in a field. It has greenish splotches of decay on it, and it is crawling with bugs. Bugs, again, are associated with evil. As Jeffrey walks the neighborhood, we cut to a closeup of the ear in the morgue. There is a loud humming as we enter the ear, then everything fades to black. This too is a descent into mystery, into the underworld. Cut to Jeffrey knocking at the door of the Williams house. Jeffrey wants to know more about the ear, but Detective Williams can’t tell him, and asks him not to disclose anything he already knows, until the case is concluded. Detective Williams is stern but warm, a surrogate for Jeffrey’s stricken father. He tells Jeffrey that he understands his curiosity. It is what got him into police work in the first place. “It must be great,” Jeffrey volunteers. “It’s horrible too,” he replies. 

But Jeffrey seems undaunted. When Jeffrey leaves the Williams house, he hears a voice: “Are you the one that found the ear?” He looks into the darkness. Detective Williams’ daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) emerges from the night, a pink-clad blonde vision of loveliness. She is coy and mysterious, teasing Jeffrey with her knowledge of the case. As they walk together, she tells him that she overheard her father talking. The ear may somehow be connected to the case of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a singer who lives nearby. Sandy leads Jeffrey to Dorothy’s apartment building. With a slightly comic/ominous music cue, the camera pans up to the sign: Lincoln St. 

When we arrive, we see that Dorothy lives in the Deep River Apartments, a nomen that may also be an omen of Jeffrey getting in way over his head. (Naomi Watts's character Betty Elms, in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, hails from Deep River, Ontario.) Dorothy’s apartment is pure Lynch: retro, slightly dingy, with dusky pink walls and carpets, dark red draperies (shades of Twin Peaks), lavender sofas, magenta cushions, and putrid green accents in the form of pots with spiky “mother in law’s tongue” plants. The warm colors have a womblike feel, but the overall effect is seedy, not maternal. 

That evening, Jeffrey takes Sandy to dinner at The Slow Club to watch Dorothy Vallens sing. She doesn’t have much of a voice, but she still makes a captivating spectacle, with her huge retro microphone and blue-lit band against dark red draperies, more foreshadowing of Twin Peaks. Then Jeffrey and Sandy return to Dorothy’s apartment. When Sandy says goodbye, she tells him, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” Jeffrey sneaks inside. When Dorothy comes home suddenly, Jeffrey hides in the closet. Peering through the slats, he watches her undress. Dorothy hears a rustling in her closet and confronts Jeffrey with a knife, jabbing him in the cheek when he does not answer one of her questions. She thinks he is a voyeur. But instead of calling the police, she orders him to undress.

Enter Frank Booth, a middle-aged man in a leather jacket and rockabilly shirt, seething with unfocused rage. Frank and Dorothy then role-play a sexual scenario not unlike the one that has just transpired with Jeffrey, although this time Frank is in control. Frank’s constant talk of fucking, as well as merely pantomiming the act with Dorothy, suggest he is impotent. The song “In Dreams” is also about unrequited love for someone who can be possessed only in dreams, itself very close to sexual impotence or a latent homosexuality.

Frank has a fetishistic attachment to Dorothy's blue velvet bathrobe. She stuffs it in his mouth, he stuffs it in her mouth, and he even carries around a piece of it that he has cut from the hem, perhaps with the scissors he uses to threaten her. When it is all over, he blows out the candle. “Now it’s dark,” he repeats. As Jeffrey later says, “Frank is a very sick and dangerous man.” A drug dealer, he has kidnapped Dorothy’s husband Don and their small boy, Donny, holding them hostage to force Dorothy into sexual bondage. It is Don’s ear that Jeffrey found, cut off as a threat to Dorothy, perhaps with the same scissors with which he menaced her. Frank has removed Dorothy’s real baby and daddy so he can have “mommy” all to himself.

After Dorothy is taken to the hospital, Jeffrey goes to her apartment and finds evidence of Frank’s fury. Dorothy’s husband Don is dead, his brains blown out, Frank’s strip of blue velvet stuffed in his mouth. The yellow man is standing in the middle of the room in shock, a huge hole blown in the side of his head, brain matter visible. Over the yellow man’s police radio, Jeffrey hears that the raid on Frank’s apartment has commenced. Jeffrey sees Frank approaching the apartment. He rushes back inside, calls for help on the police radio, grabs the yellow man’s gun, and hides in the closet. Frank, who has heard the call on his police radio, bursts into the apartment. Yanking his swatch of blue velvet from Don’s mouth and draping it over the silencer of his pistol, then huffing his mysterious fumes, he searches for Jeffrey in the bedrooms, calling out “Here pretty,” like he is summoning a dog. Returning to the living room, he silences the TV and topples the yellow man with bullets, then realizes Jeffrey is in the closet. 

Huffing more fumes, he ecstatically closes in for the kill, but Jeffrey sees him coming through the slats and shoots him in the head. The voyeur has become an actor. The slow-motion headshot is accompanied by a terrifying simian shrieking. The bulbs in the floor lamp then surge with electricity and burn out, as if Frank’s life force is fleeing through the wiring. In the visual code established in Eraserhead this signifies the presence of the supernatural, especially the demonic. Frank is somehow both more and less than human. 

There is a strong spiritual element to Blue Velvet, as with all of Lynch’s work. Although Lynch himself is a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, the spiritual imagery of his movies tends to be Western, primarily Christian but also Gnostic. Like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet treats sex as a potential form of bondage to subhuman powers, both animal and demonic. But Blue Velvet is far less nihilistic than Eraserhead. The demonic forces are balanced out by angelic ones, represented by robins and light from above, as opposed to electric light, which for Lynch has demonic connotations.

The night after his first terrifying encounter with Frank, Jeffrey tells Sandy what he has seen. Sandy picks him up in her car, an odd role reversal putting her in the driver’s seat. She parks near a church with colorful stained-glass windows, brightly lit from inside. Organ music plays in the background. Jeffrey prefaces the story of Frank and Dorothy with the words, “It’s a strange world,” which becomes something of a Leitmotif in the film. After telling Sandy who Frank is and what he has done, Jeffrey asks “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?” His face is anguished and childlike, for he is just discovering the darkness of the adult world. Jeffrey’s question is not merely psychological. Given the backdrop of church and organ music, it is also theological. It is the problem of evil: If God is perfect in his power and goodness, why are there people like Frank? What is there so much trouble in this world?

Sandy says she doesn’t know the answer. But she does in a way. For she tells Jeffrey of the dream she had the night they met: "In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark, because there weren’t any robins. And the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was just this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free, and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So I guess it means, there is trouble till the robins come." As Sandy speaks of the blinding light of love, one realizes the organ music is not coming from the church. It is part of the score, underscoring the essentially religious nature of her dream. Love, light from above, and robins are the forces that will beat back hate, darkness, and bugs. Evil is only temporary, until the robins come. 

After Jeffrey’s first encounter with Frank and Dorothy, we see him on the sidewalk. He emerges from darkness. Then he freezes as a light comes from above. Is this the light of judgment? Then we see distorted images of Jeffrey’s father in the hospital, then Frank raving, then the guttering candle, then Dorothy saying “Hit me.” We then see Frank punch at the camera. Is he hitting Dorothy or Jeffrey at this point? Jeffrey then awakens from a nightmare. After Jeffrey kills Frank, Sandy, her father, and a legion of police and paramedics arrive on the scene. Even though Jeffrey has rescued himself, we only really breathe again when we see the flashing lights and guardians of order. 

In the middle of the bustling crime scene, Jeffrey and Sandy embrace and kiss, bathed in white light from above. There is trouble till the robins come. Near the beginning of the story, we were drawn into the mystery by entering the dead ear to ominous industrial noise. Now we are at the end of the story, the mystery solved, emerging from a pink and living ear to Julee Cruise’s ethereal “Mysteries of Love” (yet another foreshadowing of Twin Peaks).

As the camera pulls back, we see that the ear belongs to Jeffrey, sleeping in the sunshine. He opens his eyes and sees a robin perched in a tree. Sandy calls out, “Jeffrey, lunch is ready.” Mr. Beaumont is out of the hospital, up on his feet, working on something in the yard with Detective Williams. Jeffrey’s mother and Mrs. Williams are chatting together in the living room. The families have come together. It is a sign that Jeffrey and Sandy have a serious relationship. Perhaps marriage is in the future. Aunt Barbara and Sandy are preparing lunch in the kitchen when the robin appears on the windowsill with a bug squirming in its beak. 

The forces of good have quelled the forces of evil. “Maybe the robins are here,” says Jeffrey. “I don’t see how they could do that. I could never eat a bug” volunteers aunt Barbara, before stuffing something that looks vaguely bug-like in her mouth. Aunt Barbara is a robin without even knowing it. “It’s a strange world, isn’t it?” observes casually Sandy. Then we see the yellow tulips, the friendly fireman, and the red roses. But before we return to the blue sky, we see Dorothy Vallens and her little boy in a park. She picks him up and holds him, smiling, although her face then takes on a sad and haunted look. It is the happiest ending possible after such a hellish journey.

What is the political philosophy of Blue Velvet? I read Lynch as fundamentally conservative. The typical sneering Leftist take on Lynch’s opening is that the idyllic surface of Lumberton is fake and kitschy, whereas the truth about Lumberton is the bloody struggle of vermin in the dark. But Lynch’s own view is far more nuanced. Lynch knows that civilization is artificial, a construct, a triumph over nature. But Lynch is not a Leftist liberal because he does not think that nature is good. Thus he does not conclude that the conventions that constrain nature are bad. Lynch thinks that nature is profoundly dangerous, especially sex and sadism, which for him have a supernatural, demonic quality. Lynch does not believe in the “natural goodness” of man. He believes in the natural—and supernatural—badness of man. 

Which means that human nature needs to be constrained by human conventions. Frank Booth is Lynch’s portrait of what you get when the breakdown of social repressions liberates nature. The French Revolution ended with the Terror. The Sixties ethic of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll didn’t lead us back to the Garden of Eden. It gave us the Tate-LaBianca murders, the Weathermen, and Frank Booth. Frank is not just a sex maniac. He is a drug dealer. Frank uses alcohol and also his mysterious gas to break down his inhibitions and release his sadism. Moreover, Frank always has his Roy Orbison soundtrack tape handy. In Dreams seems to give briefly him a solace.

Finally, to channel F. Roger Devlin for a moment, Dorothy Vallens can also be seen as an example of the havoc created by female narcissism, masochism, and hypergamy when social conventions break down. Many viewers note that the robin at the end is clearly fake, some sort of puppet. It might simply have been the best effect that Lynch could create with the available budget. But it could very well have been intentional. The bugs represent hate and evil whereas the robins represent love and goodness. The bugs are darkness; the robins are light. If the bugs represent nature, then the robins have to represent something other than nature. In Sandy’s dream, they clearly have a supernatural aspect. But another opposite of nature is convention, in which case it makes sense to have an obviously artificial robin. The robin represents the conventions that hold the savagery of nature in check, including the guardians of public order: the police, firemen, paramedics, even the crossing guards. These conventions also include moral principles, manners, and even Aunt Barbara’s prejudices. 

As much as anything else, Blue Velvet is about identity. Jeffrey has allowed himself to take on the thrilling persona of a capable private investigator, one of the all time great protagonists of American Cinema. That makes Blue Velvet a sort of neo-noir, but that’s the closest it comes to easy categorization. About halfway through the movie, Jeffrey summarizes what might be the defining quality that drives every noir hero, from holly Martins in The Third Man to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. He says "I'm seeing something that was always hidden. I'm involved. I'm in the middle of a mystery. And it's all secret." Sandy asks Jeffrey, "And you like mysteries that much?" 

Without hesitation, he responds, "Yeah." As David Lynch said, “The mystery was the magical ingredient of Twin Peaks. The more unknowable the mystery, the more beautiful it is. Lynch has remained tight-lipped about his artistic intentions: “I don’t ever explain it. Because it’s not a word thing. It would reduce it, make it smaller. The language of film, cinema, is the language it was put into, and the English language – it’s not going to translate. It’s going to lose.”

Although Blue Velvet was Lynch’s fourth feature film, it was really the first where he had both creative control and an adequate budget. (Well, maybe not for the robin.) The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984) gave Lynch adequate funding but no creative control. Eraserhead (1977) was entirely Lynch’s baby, but he created it over a period of years on a shoestring budget. It is a measure of Lynch’s genius that the very first time he had the financial and creative freedom to fully realize his vision, he created what is arguably his greatest film. Alongside Mulholland Dr. Certainly Blue Velvet is his most Lynchian. Sources: unz.com and faroutmagazine.co.uk

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Movie Review: "Dinner in America"

English writer Osbert Sitwell, author of The Man Who Lost Himself and member of the Ghost Club, wrote: "For most of the well-to-do in the town, dinner was a shibboleth, its hour dividing mankind." Adding a thematically related quote by Ronald Reagan, "All great change in America begins at the dinner table."

Since premiering at Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 2020, Dinner in America—written and directed by Adam Rehmeier (Jonas)—has received consistent critical acclaim. This treasured indie film is now available on Arrow UK. Theatrically, Dinner in America will be next released in Japan, in September 2021. One of the film's co-producers was Ben Stiller via Red Hour Productions.

Due to the fact that Rehmeier wanted to be faithful to his vision of the early '90s punk scene (which he personally experienced while coming of age in Lincoln, Nebraska), his project took almost a decade to crystallize thoroughly. And his attention to detail has greatly paid off, so it was well worth the wait. 

Hopefully, Dinner in America gets proper distribution and online streaming soon, because many potential spectators might benefit of its uplifting message and playful sense of humor—wrapped in vibrant vibrant cinematography by Jean-Philippe Bernier—to counteract these murky post-COVID crisis days. 

Kyle Gallner (Dear White People)—who recently won the Dublin Film Critics Special Jury Prize—plays punk renegade Simon/John Q, delivering a tour de force performance that won't leave most viewers indifferent, for better or worse. 

Opposite to Gallner is Emily Skeggs (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), a young actress who proves to be the film's truly lasting pulse. Her talent is a hidden gem, giving to her character Patty a pure off-beat light contrasting to Simon's grittiness. Skegg's portrayal emanates genuine love for certain type of misfit, in particular of nerdy-looking girls from suburbia.

In the first scene, we are treated to some gruesome medical experiments that Simon undergoes courtesy of Nutritional Tech (Naltech), a government sponsored company that only compensates him with a fraction of the money they had promised. When one of the doctors asks him: "10 being the strongest of the scale, how is the nausea?", an unfazed Simon responds: "I would say 11."

Simon leaves the medical center with an oversexed patient named Beth (Hannah Marks), who invites him to a Sunday dinner at her home. At the moment Simon succumbs to the advances of Betty (Beth's mom)—played by a seductive Lea Thompson (Back to the Future)—family chaos ensues in the aftermath. 

The "meet-cute" between Simon and Patty happens at the PetZone's back alley, when Patty is taking a break from the drudgery of her job. Suddenly she learns Simon is fleeing from some policemen, eager to catch him at the behest of Beth's family, who have offered a reward on his arrest and capture. 

Rehmeier skilfully subverts the 'toerag' stereotype that afflicts the antagonistic and sexist punk culture, by displaying each stage of flirting between the insolent and brooding Simon and the sweetly awkward Patty. Gallner offers subtle hints that Simon is strangely amused—yet shocked—by Patty when she dances to his band Psy Ops' hardcore tunes in her kiddy bedroom. 

After witnessing how their bond is strengthened—through several revenge pranks on a couple of despicable jocks, and shortly after that by forcing Patty's former employer to pay her last check—we start to suspect Simon will eventually let her know the real conflicted guy behind his punk mask. Slowly Patty manages to make Simon relatable and eventually redeemable—which in turn makes her the film's wacky heroine—especially during her rendition of the iconic song Watermelon.

A momentous dinner scene involves Simon's bourgeois family, who are terribly dismissive of Simon and Patty's creative music goals.  Whereas Patty's parents are quite lovable and naïve, Simon's seem to lack the most basic empathy skills.  In this specific scene, Rehmeier highlights how hypocritical and tendentious is Simon's sister Renae, who despises her rebellious brother and belittles Patty condescendingly. 

Rehmeier's criticism is sharp and accurate throughout, unveiling the ritualized conventionalisms of the typical middle-class family from the American MidWest. It looks as if their entire lives are a mere attempt to flaunt their social status and their fake façades, while actively hating those who are capable of finding their own way.

Simon resists the temptation of going mainstream by refusing to be the opening act of faux-punk band The Alliance. Simon is a quintessential rebel in the mold of Marlon Brando's cop-hating biker Johnny Strabler (The Wild One). Unfortunately, Patty doesn't have many similar female counterparts, since her atypical screen persona is such an original creation to date. 

Rehmeier explained: "At its heart, the film is an underdog love story about two very different characters, each marginalized misfits in their own right. They find each other through music." I think his film conveys a peculiar mixture of abrasiveness ("Fuck China Hut, Fuck America") and tenderness ("You need to take it down a notch") that deftly reflects the duality of these characters.

Rehmeier's Dinner in America brings to mind widely assorted influences of indie classics like Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse, Jared Hess's Napoleon Dynamite, Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, Michael Lehmann's Heathers, Allan Moyle's Pump Up the Volume, Darren Stein's Jawbreaker, Bobcat Goldthwait's God Bless America, Jefery Levy's S.F.W., Jason Reitman's Juno, Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's American Splendor, Sam Mendes's American Beauty, and David Lynch's Blue Velvet, among others. 

"In a crisis a man learnt what was real to him and what was unreal; that he became himself, choosing what he really needed." —Alec Waugh (author of The Loom of Youth and Wheels within Wheels: A Story of the Girls)

Article published previously as Movie Review: "Dinner in America" on Blogcritics.

Friday, June 18, 2021

HEPI Sex Study, Generation X, Dinner in America

Sex and Relationships among students in the UK: Study conducted by Nick Hillman (HEPI's Director), April 2021: The Higher Education Policy Institute study shows increasing levels of sexlessness with 43% of undergraduate student reporting never having had sex. The sexually active statistics report 640,000 sexually active female students and 350,000 sexually active male students in the UK.

• Undergraduate students enter higher education with a range of prior experiences: 43% ‘had never had sex with anyone’, one-quarter (25%) had not ‘intimately kissed anyone’ and 18% were ‘in a long-distance relationship’.

• Sex is not a high priority for most new students – 58% say making friends was more important to them than finding sexual partners. Only 16% of students say ‘When first going to university, I was excited about having sex’.

• Just one-in-ten students (10%) expected to have sex during their welcome week and a similar proportion (9%) did so.

• Students’ experiences: 41% say they have had sex during their time as a student, 32% say they are ‘currently in a relationship’ and 11% say they are ‘voluntarily abstaining from sex’.

• Among those students who have had sex during their time in higher education, the majority (52%) have had just one sexual partner and a further one-quarter (26%) have had between two and three.

• A higher proportion of women (47%) than men (34%) say they have had sex during their time as a student. These men are less likely to claim they have only had one sexual partner. Source: www.hepi.ac.uk

They may call GenX "The Forgotten Generation," but they will never forget their music. They didn't need no damn blue ribbons. No one knew where they were after school until dark. There were no "parent pick-up lines..." They tried to solve their own conflicts. They made their own "technology." They hated being told what to do, but they never needed it anyway because bootstrapping was their thing. And they questioned the status quo. And most of all, they made some amazing music. Generation X is also considered the most romantically adventurous of all recent generations, having had 13.1 sexual partners so far in their lifetime. On average Baby Boomers have had 10.7 sexual partners so far in their lifetime. On average Millennials have had 11.6 sexual partners so far in their lifetime. On average Generation Z have had 5.6 sexual partners so far in their lifetime. Source: bodyandsoul.com.au

Snarling in a bomber jacket and powering down pavements like a man possessed, 90s punk Simon (Kyle Gallner, outrageously good) is seldom an ideal house or dinner guest. He’s a Rebel Without a Cause amplified to a ridiculous extreme. Ejected from a paid drug-research study, Simon hooks up with Beth (Hannah Marks), a fellow reject who invites him over for dinner, an occasion which implodes once Beth’s mom (Lea Thompson) gets frisky with the guest. Simon finds himself at the table of a second, entirely neurotic middle-class Michigan family. He arrives at this meal, reluctantly, at the behest of Patty (Emily Skeggs), a poignantly awkward 20 year old, who attracts ridicule both at home and at work. (Until, of course, she is fired.) By a mad coincidence, albeit one that sits snugly within this angular outsider romcom, Patty is an obsessive fan of Simon’s secret alter ego, John Q, the masked frontman of punk group Psy Ops. Source: Irishtimes.com

-Amber Wilkinson: It comes through in your film (Dinner in America), which feels quite singular. There's a very strong sense of personality that comes across. It's quite funny in that even though it's a very punk-spirited film, it's also a very romantic movie. I'm wondering if you are a romantic at heart.

-Adam Rehmeier: I found that out through the process that I'm actually a romantic guy at heart. This film broke me at several points, I edited it linearly and when I got to the  arcade sequence, when Patty jumped on him and pulled him down, I just broke down. I just sobbed, it was the most beautiful thing. And so I had my own kind of awakening in the process of making the film. Source: www.eyeforfilm.co.uk

Kyle Gallner found the role of Simon to be a challenging one. “I thought Simon was a really interesting challenge, because you have this guy who at the beginning of the movie is almost actively trying to be disliked, he’s so aggressive and so abrasive. And by the end of it, you realize he’s a good guy, he’s just pushing back against all the bullshit in his life very actively. And when he finds Patty, they just kind of balance each other out.” Rehmeier wanted to cast Gallner after seeing a photo of him from Sundance 2015 that Rehmeier says just captured Simon in a single photo. “It was the same reaction that when I’d seen A Rebel Without a Cause, like how James Dean is able to balance pushing things and like a bad boy kind of thing, but like sensitive and vulnerable too. This image of Kyle had it in spades.” 

Kyle Gallner says he and Emily Skeggs are “kindred spirits” and credits Rehmeier for allowing the two to spend time together for two weeks before the film started shooting. One of the film’s high points is a sweet song, titled The Watermelon Song, which is arranged and played by Simon and sung by Patty in the film’s most emotional scene. Rehmeier recorded the song with Skeggs, playing the instruments himself and Skeggs singing and describes being “shocked” by Gallner’s emotional performance in the scene while shooting. Simon spends most of the film very reserved, aggressive and almost unlikable and his raw, emotional response to Patty singing is a tender moment in a film that otherwise projects such high, punk-rock energy. “I knew this is the first time you see Simon crack. That reaction was intentional, where you see that love growing, not just for her, but for the music. He sees something special in her and it’s special for him, he loves everything that’s happening. As gnarly as Simon is, there’s an authenticity in that, he loves his music and it felt like a very important moment for him and for them in their relationship.” Source: filmhounds.co.uk 

Director Adam Rehmeier said: “Dinner in America is my love letter to the early 90s punk scene in Lincoln, Nebraska that served as the backdrop for my formative years. I grew up playing in bands and spent the better part of two decades 4-tracking in a series of basements, apartments, and lockouts. The DIY ethic instilled through those experiences has informed my creative process and approach to filmmaking. At its heart, the film is an underdog love story about two very different characters, each marginalized misfits in their own right: Patty, a socially awkward, sheltered 20-year-old escaping her banal existence through punk music; Simon, a snarling anarchist and seemingly toxic punk seeking refuge from the law. When these two cross paths, their radically different personalities make them an unlikely duo. They are thrust together, at first by circumstance and necessity, but in short order they begin to inspire one another. An organic intimacy unfolds, eventually revealing a connection of which neither is initially aware they share. They find each other through music.” Source: www.thehollywoodnews.com