Wednesday, June 07, 2006


Directed by Daniel Reeves. USA, 1978, 23mins.
Source: Smothering Dreams and Thousands Watch [VHS 684]

The film is about the director’s experiences is Viet Nam. His memories are crosscut with similar childhood games making the connection so vividly. In a natural progression from childhood to manhood, he sees how he has been trained to kill and be killed however inadvertently.

I choose thus film for my experimental film for several reasons. After watching one of the AVANT-GARDE anthologies from 1920’s and 30’s, I realized I wanted something with which I could identify. Since my father was there from 1968 – 1973, I thought SMOTHERING DREAMS might be a cathartic choice.

I think that the startling nature of an innocent child waking in bloodied water where bodies are lying is appalling. The muddling of the actual war-time killing juxtaposioned with schoolchildren learning the same exact skill in a nonlethal venue is a point very well taken,. Second, the antiwar activist music of Judy Collins as a backdrop of the director’s voice over by the director punctuated the pacifist sentiment. And finally, the director could only take twenty three minutes of these memories. It was only later when two well regarded movies, THE DEER HUNTER in 1978 and PLATOON in’86 set in Viet Nam with accolades for the actors, directors and scene play that such atrocities happened. Reeves showed a very poignant way what he saw as the wrong way to play. Every child has a war. Mine was Viet Nam.
submitted for Debbie Zukas


Christine said...

This sounds like a really interesting film about learned war, relevant then and now. It would be interesting to see how this idea would translate into current events, especially since the influence of violence in video games, music, images of war, etc. on children is still a hot topic.

Jay said...

Wow . . . after viewing this, I can definitely see why it's considered experimental. First of all, it's shot on video, making use of distinctly "video"-oriented effects. For instance, a recurring visual/editing motif is when the square of the frame, surrounded by a black void of space, recedes from view, gradually becoming microscopic to the viewer. Additonally, figures in the frame are commonly "masked," i.e., framed within a circular formation, with black void all around. Also, voice distortion is used in many places, to give certain voices a slowed-down, monstrous effect. The use of video here gives the production a bizarre, home-movie type feel that makes its images more hauntingly accessible; there is a dated feel to the technology, but that was part of the production's appeal to me.

I found it to be a rather brilliant production overall. Its basic premise is that we (especially men) are taught from the time we are children that fighting in war is noble, that killing is honorable and necessary. We practice the pantomimed art of killing from an early age, playing guns and enacting imagined warfare. Hence, one of the video's most prevalent visual motifs is that of a group of children playing war with one another. As the voiceover narration states, "We would die again and again, reborn and running minutes later to be shot repeatedly, falling with grace and dignity." Yet the filmmaker's point is that no one can fathom the true experience of killing one's fellow man. This point is driven home visually via the insertion of the child-figure, who pantomimes war, into the human wreckage of a true scene of war. The child is shown investigating the fallen, bloodied bodies of American soldiers, strewn about along a riverside in the aftermath of a Vietnam battle. He walks among the bodies, picking up one of the dead soldier's guns, and removing the helmet from a soldier whose eyes are wide open in a pose of death. There is a sense of this child figure traversing time and space, of this scene taking place on an altogether different plain.

Also integrated into the narrative is documentary footage and sound bites from the Vietnam War. The narrative as a whole is structured around the real-life testimony of a particular Vietnam vet (the filmmaker, most likely, whose young self is presumably represented by the child who is playing war), as he recounts the horrors of his experience and, most pointedly, his indoctrination from an early age into a belief that killing could be noble, necessary, and justified. A particularly intriguing narrative strand depicts reenacted fragments from the speaker's early education, under the tutelage of a nun who instructs that "When we kill, it completely obliterates the life of the soul," yet who also instructs that Communism is a godless doctrine that must be guarded against at any cost.

The interweaving of the various narrative strands, in accordance with the unorthodox editing style, defines this short film as boldly avant garde. I agree with the assessment that it speaks in ways unachievable by Vietnam War films like "Full Metal Jacket" and "Platoon." I think it does so in a sense by resisting entirely cohesive narrative. It attacks at a more subconscious level, relying on the power of its images, the integration of real-life testimony, and on its stark, abstract visual juxtapositions, fragments that bury inside the viewer's mind and leave a sense of truly unfathomable horror.

Christine said...

I finally had the chance to watch this last night.I would describe this film as an "experimental documentary" because while it resists a traditional narrative (both in storyline and visually), the splicing of Vietnam images with shots of children playing "war," the protest music, and the voice-overs( esp from the director and the mother of a soldier who was killed), also reminded me of a typical war documentary.

One of the most powerful parts was a man reciting a free-style poem on war. At one point he lists the name of childhood heroes: "Davy Crockett, Jungle Jim, John Wayne..all rolled into one silent story, loyal and shedding not a tear...falling with grace and dignity" He then lists all different types of guns. This repetition is really effective because mirrors the repetition of romanticied war heroes and images that Vietnam soldiers would have seen as children.

Another interesting part of the film was the focus of war on television in the home...but it's unclear whether this encourages or discourages glorifying war. Disturbing, but neat film!