The Sixties, Hollywood, and One Man’s Consideration of the Curse of Vietnam

Hollywood tends to trivialize leftist and counterculture history. Its reasons are many, but like most of the rest of US culture, it does so mostly because that’s how they can sell it. Films that are not fiction but also not documentaries tend to be the epitome of this phenomenon. Actual events and history are portrayed in a manner that provides the viewer with a general understanding of the events and people portrayed, but rarely are the politics involved portrayed with any type of accuracy. If one recalls the Warren Beatty vehicle Reds, they can see what I mean. The Russian revolution was the setting, but the movie was a love story. The politics were discussed, but the context was minimized. In part this is a reflection of political ignorance of the US audience. After all, it is an audience that mostly thinks politics are those defined by the Democratic and Republican party. Actual political philosophies like communism, socialism, fascism and so on are barely understood if at all. Indeed, the discussion of communism in mainstream USA is so childishly ignorant it can barely be defined as a discussion. The same can be said of anarchism. Or fascism—much to the detriment of those affected by its upward trending in recent years.

There are exceptions to the general trend of Hollywood trivializing Sixties history, at least in terms of the cultural side of things. For example, the Woodstock movie did the opposite. It translated a rock festival into a watershed event, a cultural milepost for both the counterculture and the United States itself. When it played in movie houses around the world, the viewings became events. In Greece, which was under a military junta at the time, the film’s audiences turned their viewing into protests against the regime, provoking crackdowns by the police.

Recently, Hollywood has returned to the Sixties once again. The Chicago 7 and the murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark by the police are the topics of two recent films. Both films are fictionalized versions of the history involved. Consequently, they misrepresent certain facts and personalities. The films—titled The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Black Judas and the Messiah—are captivating in style and narrative, but tend to turn what was the genuinely radical spirit of the lives being presented into something more liberal and palatable to the American myth. Beyond the decidedly false moments and dialogue present at times in both films, the overall feeling I was left with after viewing them wavered between thinking it might have been better if the films had not been made and hopeful that the Hollywood story I was seeing might propel some of today’s youth to embrace the real history behind the fiction. Both films, especially the Chicago 7 film, have generated a fair amount of swag. That includes both reprints and current takes on the subjects. The swag doesn’t sell like t-shirts at a rock concert, but it does make some money for those profiting from the past.

Interestingly, there is one recent film about the Long Sixties which does not misrepresent or trivialize that time. Like the Woodstock film, it is also a music film. Titled The Summer of Soul, this documentary presents New York’s 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival in what can best be described as a genuine capture of a cultural moment unlike any other. Restored from long-lost film reels that documented the entire festival, Summer of Soul features some of the best soul, pop, jazz, gospel and blues artists performing their hearts out in Black America’s cultural center, Harlem. From Mavis and Pop Staples to Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone and more, there is not a single performance in this film that doesn’t jump out of history into the heart of your musical soul.

Unlike the personalities in the films and books mentioned above, Giacomo Donis’ 2020? work The Empty Shield is about someone who is neither famous or infamous. Instead, this text is a tale of a young man wrestling with how to register his opposition to the US war on Vietnam and the society which spawned that war. At times a soliloquy worthy of Prince Hamlet or J. Alfred Prufrock, Donis’ narrative utilizes the Gates of Thebes to symbolize and organize his arguments with himself and the civilization he is questioning. This inner dialogue takes place on an endless subway ride through New York’s underground rail system; the D train to the Bronx, the B to Coney Island and all points in between. He meets people real and imaginary, some whom he converses with and others whom he merely observes. His conversations are about Herman Melville and Billy Budd’s Captain Vere, the US war on Vietnam and interpretations of the tale of Oedipus and his offspring. At times a narrative seemingly unrelated to the war–in the manner of Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”–Donis always brings his stream of consciousness back to the war. While Arlo sings about garbage and the Group W bench, Donis writes about the subway and interpretations of the tragedy of Oedipus.

In Melville’s novella Billy Budd, the stuttering innocent Billy accidentally kills the brutish master-at-arms John Claggart. The ship’s captain, Captain Vere, defers his conscience and ultimately his sense of fairness to the law. That law demands Billy’s execution. Like the millions who went along with the war in Vietnam, he doesn’t make a decision as much as he allows the decision to be made for him, as if that absolves them from the horror done in their names. In a similar manner, Donis utilizes the tale of Oedipus, his sons and all those whose lives they ultimately affect as a foundation of his questions about fate. Furthermore, there is the curse cast on Oedipus that fuels those questions. For Donis and the millions of others who had to decide their response to their nation’s murderous adventure in Vietnam, it was Vietnam that was the curse.

The Empty Shield ends without a resolution, except for the knowledge that the author is writing the text in Italy, where he exiled himself as a protest against the war in Vietnam and US imperialism in general. After renouncing his US citizenship—an episode which is simultaneously humorous and pathetic because of the US embassy official’s attempts to instill shame for the decision—Donis looked back not in anger or uncertainty as to his decision, but with questions about its meaning. This is what this text is about. At times uneven, often humorous and consistently philosophical, The Empty Shield transcends the time it considers as it contemplates the human condition and its endless contradictions.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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