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EMILE DE ANTONIO'S documentary "In the Year of the Pig" has done something it's getting harder and harder to do--it has made the Vietnamese War real. This is no easy task now that 1965-style moral indignation has waned and the War has become an idea. The film succeeds brilliantly because its director has exploited the possibilities of the documentary form and seen its relevance to our perception of the war as part of our lives.
The magic of the documentary is that it depends on something most films try to avoid--detachment. It sustains a tension between involvement and detachment which is very much like the normal tension of our lives. In life there are events and detached observations, actors and analyzers. The difference between talking and acting is more subtle than it seems. Comment, the willed use of the mind, demands distance--the commentator toys with his own responses and tries to isolate consciousness from living. This hurts very often because it is unnatural; you have to learn how to do it. And, by definition, it is alienating.
The genius of de Antonio is that he realizes that we see the actual War as a sort of documentary film. The same tensions between involvement and detachment that we experience looking at a film we also experience "looking" at the war or, for that matter, any contemporary historical event.
The structure of In the Year of the Pig reflects this dichotomy between life and analysis. The whole film is an interplay between analysis concocted in tranquility and life enacted in unanalyzed violence. The analysts are always there, narrating the actions of others. Sometimes we see bright and uncomfortable close-ups of their faces (usually minus the tops of their heads) as they clinically pick apart and piece together the puzzle of Vietnam. Paul Mus, Professor of Buddhism at Yale, lounges in his living room chair beside a hi-fi speaker and Oriental trinkets and dramatically recreates his contact with Ho. Meanwhile, back where everything is what it is, Ho exhorts a loving crowd to keep the faith.
THE INTENT, oracular faces are identified the first time they speak. After that they blend into a continuum of recurring voices, sometimes coupled with faces, but more often in the background, while the people who haven't learned how to talk kill each other or mastermind the killing.
Little by little the grotesque horror of the history the U.S. is making unfolds and, what's even more frightening, the way the U.S. thinks. Occasionally those who haven't learned to talk speak to us. A Colonel Patton cracks a hideous, somehow innocent grin and remarks that our boys are a pretty good bunch of killers. Soon we see the killers themselves, hefty, half-nude bodies frolicking on a Vietnamese beach. "What could this beach be missing," asks the curious newsman. "American girls!" comes the choral reply. "But there are beautiful girls all over the beach," protests the newsman. "They're gooks, you know (giggles), slanted eyes and tiny tits."
We hear the lilt of exploding bombs and the music of helicopter gunmen that so enthralled the author of Grapes of Wrath. We hear Thruston Morton pathetically suggest that the existence of a standing military-industrial complex with nothing to do but build weapons and use them might influence policy unwisely.
And, always, we hear the analyzers explaining the meaning of what we see. We hear Father Daniel Berrigan say that we are witnessing the last days of Superman. Superman, who cannot live or give life, who cannot even imagine life.
"In the Year of the Pig" is much more than a collage of poignant footage. It is a document of what is happening this very minute in our heads and someplace not so far away.
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