Monday, June 15, 2009

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Streep at 60
A Retrospective Celebration in June
and maybe some of July, too.

At the risk of cries of sacrilege I decided to try a screening experiment with The Deer Hunter for my Streep project. I have never seen the movie (I know) and I opted to only watch the Meryl Streep parts.

"Why???" I can hear purists (and other versions of myself) screaming. Well, I've become fascinated of late with the idea that audiences are consuming their movies in an entirely different way than they used to. In the age of YouTube, termite criticism, DVR, cable, home theaters and dozens of "exclusive" clips from new movies available on hundreds of sites before the movie in question ever opens, it's now quite common to experience movies not as 90-120-180 minute narratives but as a collection of acted fragments both before and after the first full screening. Sometimes the movie in question is never seen from start to finish. So this weekend I watched The Deer rather than The Deer Hunter. That's my new title for what turned out to be drama about a small town supermarket girl who doesn't know herself and is always defined by the men in her life.

We first meet Linda (Meryl Streep) as she prepares a meal for her father. She seems harried and nervous and when we meet daddy, we understand why. He's drunk and muttering nonsense and despite her good daughter care taking efforts, he beats her. She hightails it over to her boyfriend Nick's (Christopher Walken) house to ask if she can move in. This scene is partially viewed through his best friend Michael's (Robert DeNiro) eyes. The Deer is already positioning her as an object between them even though they're both leaving her for service in Vietnam.

After these brief sketches, the film moves into a long bravura wedding sequence that's teeming with characters. Not for The Deer -- or The Deer Hunter either I suppose -- a halfhearted gesture at introducing these people and their environment. The director Michael Cimino beautifully captures a huge web of small town relationships and, most importantly for our discussion of "Linda", the way the women are often commodified by the men: they are literally traded in dancing and they aren't treated particularly well in general. One woman is punched by her boyfriend when another man fondles her and since we've already seen Linda smacked around by her father, we suspect that these aren't isolated occurrences but usual if not condoned behavior.

In the bustle of activity at the wedding, Linda is a constantly fluid beauty. She moves among the large group of male friends (including Streep's then real life lover, the late actor John Cazale) with equal parts familiar small town ease and awkward romantic intimacies. DeNiro and Streep are all furtive glances and repressed desire in this lengthy scene -- they'll rework this act as adulterous lovers six years later in Falling in Love (1984) -- but it's Streep in particular as Linda who is unknowable. Michael wants her. He's holding back only due to his friendship with Nick. But Linda... what does Linda want?

She seems to want Michael but after a close brush with romantic intimacy she races back to Nick's arms and spends the rest of the wedding hanging on him, over emphatically marking him (the unMichael) as her territory. The wedding scene ends with a rather brilliant pan shot of the men exiting the wedding (for god and country!) to the left while the camera moves right to show us what they've left behind: their town, family and Linda herself. I'm not sure if the wedding sequence is the greatest act in The Deer Hunter but its undoubtedly the highlight of The Deer.

The joy of a well choreographed shot: Feel the whole movie from the naive "good luck" exit to those left behind for "god and country"... which will be referenced again in the film's final moment.

Both men initially survive the war (or so we hear, though we never see Nick again in this refashioned 47 minute movie) but only Michael returns home to Linda. He skips the welcome home festivities she's cooked up but eventually they reunite, restarting their muddled "should we be doing this?" courtship that began before the war. Linda remains entirely confused in these reunion scenes. One bizarre rush of dialogue illustrates the myriad ways in which she spins on a dime, confusing Michael and herself.
I'm so glad you're alive. I'm so happy. I really don't know what I feel.
She either does know what she feels and immediately second guesses herself or she doesn't at all, still flailing for self knowledge. She rationalizes her desire for Michael in a particularly delicate scene a little later.
Don't go. I'll make you a nice sit down dinner. Why don't we go to bed? Can't we just comfort each other?
I suspect, though I wish Streep's performance was a smidgen clearer in this regard, that Linda really does love Michael. She's just never quite admitted this for fear of losing Nick twice over. But if Linda doesn't love Michael then this is her most honest moment in the movie. They could surely use the comfort.

Watching The Deer Hunter without the war (or any of the all male sequences) proved fascinating if unfulfilling. Katharine Hepburn and Pauline Kael, among others, once dismissed Meryl's technical facilities as being too 'click click click' mechanical -- but I prefer to think of her unmistakably quick gear shifting in crucial scenes here as emotional fluidity. This is just right for Linda, a woman who continually vacillates. For all of Meryl's skill and the resulting Oscar nomination (even if she weren't so skilled, Oscar voters often favor "the girl" in male dominant dramas with supporting actress nominations), Linda proves to be a frustrating character to hang a film on. I imagine The Deer Hunter is much more fulfilling than this smaller drama of a particular girlwoman. It's not only that the film defines Linda in the abstracted space between two men but that Linda defines herself this way, too. In the hauntingly sad rendition of "God Bless America" which closes the film (it's the first of many times we'd hear Streep sing on movie screens) she seems as shell shocked as any soldier. The war, though entirely absent in her movie, is still a gaping abyss in her life, robbing her of one half of her self-defining equation. She'll forever remain undefined.

"God Bless America" one of the most aching finales in American film?
The Deer Hunter was nominated for 9 Oscars, winning 5 including Best Picture. Streep's first win was not among them. She lost to Maggie Smith, who took home her second Oscar for California Suite. But momentum is (nearly) all with Oscar and Streep, who was unmistakably the hottest "must cast!" actress in Hollywood at the time, would win her first Oscar the following year for Kramer Vs. Kramer.

Previous Article: Julia (1977)


Wayne B. said...

Perceptive article, never thought of the character this way before. Always found Linda weakly-drawn but the review makes me think the movie is worth a revisit. It has been three years since I last saw it...

"She'll forever remain undefined." Beautiful ending line. :)

Rick said...

Linda, as written in the script, was very vague ... many, including Cimino and De Niro have credited her with filling in her character.

Ann McD said...

Sacrilege! Why??
(I thought I'd indulge you)

But I think everyone is guilty of this with at least a movie or two. I'm curious to know whether you regreted doing this afterwards since its regarded so highly and you seem to admire what you saw.

David Giancarlo said...


That's how I watch A Prairie Home Companion.

cal roth said...

This is one of the greatest movies ever. Please, see the whole thing. What about that Best Picture series? I miss it.

(Streep is fine here, but Maggie Smith is beyong marvelous)

adelutza said...

This is one of the films I cherish most and not because of Meryl Streep. Not that she doesn't play well or her her character is not well defined or anything like that. And I'm not a purist either. But saying that you can talk about a film without actually seeing it kind of bothers me. So I wrote this post without actually finishing reading the post. Meryl is OK in the film but the whole thing is not about her. He's just an accessory in it. I'm very much disappointed. You could have chosen another film for this experiment.


@anne mcd thanks for indulging me ;)

um... i'm not sure i regret doing it this way per se... since I do think that's how people see movies now (piecemeal). and it's all i had time for --the movie being 3 hours long. but on the other hand i most definitely felt like I was missing the important stuff.

but i will be watching it again this year for the BPFTOI series. @cal which isn't dead so much as hibernating and it's all my fault (he declares weeping)

Doug said...

Ironically, this is how I watch California Suite, with Maggie Smith's (and sometimes Jane Fonda's) segment alone. It's the only way the film is watchable.

Kent said...

I always anticipate loving Meryl's performances even before I see the films. I wasn't too fond of this one and didn't think she deserved to be Oscar nominated.

However, she sure was preparing for her amazing work in KRAMER VS. KRAMER. Cannot wait to hear about that!

Notas Sobre Creación Cultural e Imaginarios Sociales said...

I'm among the few out there who thinks this film is awful.
It's nothing but a sentimental, trying to be tough, propagandistic account of a war that still casts a shadow over modern history.
I'm all for artists trying to cope with their eras in the best way they can, but I've never understood the appeal of this movie (especially when films like the brilliant "Apocalypse Now" and the underrated "Hi, Mom!" were being done at the same time).
I also think that "Coming Home" is in the same league...
With all that said, I think Streep owns that movie, you missed nothing else if you saw her bits Nat.

adelutza said...

How is this film propagandistic is beyond me


Jose I don't know about it's larger message (yet) though i was a little worried about the constant claims of racism thrown its way.

but I LOVE Coming Home... did you mean it's in the same league as Deer Hunter or Hi Mom! i'm confused.

Notas Sobre Creación Cultural e Imaginarios Sociales said...

I meant I didn't like "Coming Home" either, even if I think Jane Fonda is absolutely perfect in it.
'78 is one of my least favorite Oscar years in terms of Best Picture.
I think films about Vietnam strike different chords for people watching them outside the States.
Like all those recent Iraq flicks that amounted to nothing, they seem weirdly apologetic and insincere.
Which is why I repeat I love "Apocalypse Now" because it wasn't afraid to show the actual horrors that came with that war.

Kurtis O said...

The Deer Hunter is a film that never leaves you. It's one of the most haunting films I've ever seen.

tesh said...

Nat, as a comm student, I'd like to know where you first came across this idea that movies are experience in an entirely novel way (i.e. in the way you outlined in para 2)? I'd love to read the source academic or non-academic article. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

You are not alone, I too watched The Deer Hunter with only the Meryl parts, although that was not my intention. I started out watching the whole thing, allowing my finger to slip to the fast forward button a few times at first and eventually morphed it into a Streep-seeking device. I couldn't agree more with your analysis of Linda. Meryl once described the character as "the girl that waits to be asked to dance" and you can easily see that is precisely what she brought to the role. As Rick mentioned, she was the primary voice for Linda because the writers admitedly didn't know what a girl would say in this siutation.

So have no shame. Bravo! & keep up the good work :)

Tomi said...

I found it not serious or professional to write a report about a performance in a movie without having watched the picture in its entirety. I always respected you and shared lots of thoughts and tastes, but you lose me here.
Something different would have been to focus your article in Meryl's fragments once you have seen the movie as a whole. I find it even adolescent your explanation and statement before your report. Watching a movie as a complete, and collaborative, piece of work, is what makes the difference today (in times of you tube, predictability and the end of spontaneity)

adam k. said...

I find the evolution of Meryl's first few oscar-nominated roles so interesting: it goes from the man-defined Linda in Deer Hunter, to the unfortunately man-defined-but-searching-for-herself Joanna Kramer, to the austere and brazenly unknowable French Lt's Woman, to the (finally) fully realized female character in Sophie's Choice.

You can tell she's fiercely seeking out those strong woman roles and getting a bit closer, and reveling in it, each time.

cel. said...

I really liked this experiment! Definitely the relationship between filmmaker and audience has become much more two-way. You only have to browse youtube to see how creative people are being in repurposing movies for their own uses - spoofs, mashups, crossovers, whatever.

I know some people aren't loving it but if the possibility's there, why not try it? It's not as though you can't go back later and watch the whole thing. :)

StinkyLulu said...

Brazen self-promotion alert:

See my riff on Meryl/Linda HERE.

Joe Shetina said...

Exactly how I watched Ann-Margret in Carnal Knowledge. I would have watched the whole thing but I can't find it. I just searched YouTube. I can easily watch The Deer Hunter so I'll probably watch the entire thing.

Mikadzuki said...

Interesting article, but since The Deer Hunter is my favorite BP winner ever I have to agree with adelutza. There are at least three performances better than Streep's in the film, so it's a bit unfortunate that this particular film in her filmography had to be given this treatment.

Anyway, I'm greatly looking forward to the 1978 retrospective.


adelutza, tomi, mikadzuki I think you're mistaking my experiment here for me condoning this practice. I DON'T FEEL LIKE I'VE SEEN THE WHOLE MOVIE. And I don't advise watching only pieces of movies and then assuming you've seen the movie.

However, I do think it's fair to judge a performance if you watch the entire performance. The only thing missing here in terms of Meryl is the possibility that she is discussed in other scenes and sometimes in movies, lines about the character outside of their scenes might have informed or inspired the actor's performance -- usually those are only external perceptions of the character but I assume great actors use them. I doubt that's the case in this film since it doesn't seem like the men take the women all that seriously beyond their roles as girlfriend/wife so what could there be to say about Linda?

So, I actually find it disturbing (as I've noted many times) that movies are mostly judged by way of trailers of errant clips or catching it halfway through on tv. This is far more pervasive than anyone is willing to admit, I think. It's especially noticeable during Oscar season when everyone has opinion on performances based only on the Oscar clips and the trailer. (this last part isn't really the audiences fault. If a studio withholds as they so often do, I too try to get a bead on the movie only from errant clips and trailers)

adam k interesting point. I wish I could watch every movie to see that develop but I was never planning on seeing everything. That's so many movies!

tesh This idea just developed organically. I'm sure others have noticed and written about it but I can't really respond to how it sank in other than to say... I really wanted to see The Phantom Edit when people started talking about it (since I hated The Phantom Menace and I thought I reedited fan movie would be vastly superior). But the idea of films as fragments become unavoidable in the Aughts as we saw more and more of movies than ever before prior to their openinng. I think maybe it was Spider-Man 3 when I was first was audibly "Damn! What will be left for me to see in the theater, they've released so many clips???"

But judging performances out of context I've always noticed since I've been an Oscar fanatic since the 80s and I've heard people do that my whole life (and I did it myself for many years before i lived in a city that showed all the movies) based on the one clip they show at the Oscar for each nominated performance.

Terris said...

Oh thanks for this article! The Deer Hunter is one of the movies I like most. And not only for Meryl,who is my fav actress, but for the entire cast (have you seen De Niro in the motel scene? OMG!) and the story itself!
I liked your experiment Nat, and I completely agree with you when you say that this is the way in which nowadays people often use to watch movies! I also did several times... But since this is a very beautiful movie, I dare say a masterpiece, I really reccomend you to watch it all... I mean The Deer HUNTER and not only The DEER.
Your analysis about Linda is very interesting... It's a very complex character and even after watching the movie a couple of times there are things I didn't understand about her yet. But your description was really useful and now I see "her" from a different point of view.
BTW, Meryl's performance was great! I like the chemistry between her and De Niro, and I have apprecieted them also in Falling in Love, a very simple movie whose strengh is only the presence of two great actors!

mrripley said...

i do this all the time nat on dvd,video etc if a perf has some traction and im currently doing 75 -79 and nothing else did i skipto their bits.

like c/suite i only watched fonda and lada and canine and smiths bits and i think fonda desereved the supp oscar that year (watch her c/suite perf then coming home 2 diff people) with bergman winning lead.

Ryan said...


Nathaniel... my dear sweet Nathaniel... you finally put it in the DVD player... but PURPOSEFULLY skipped the best parts!?!

i now that may be blasphamy to write on a Streep post but people... come on. I love her just as much as the rest of you but surely even she'd admit that film was all about the boys... Mr. De Niro and Mr. Walken to be exact.

Those Russian rulet sequences made for some of the most intense, emotionally draining moments ever captured on film. seriously, from walken's haunted, war-revenged eyes to De Niro's banshee howl of grief upon his dearest friend's demise... uh, THIS FILM BEGS TO BE EXPERIENCED (in full. ahem). Streep, goddess that she is, was really the icing on the cake.

And, yes, this was quite wonderful coverage of her contribution. ☺


point taken. i shall watch it before the year is out (obviously will have to should we ever get the Best Pictures series going again... sigh)

Alexis said...

I stayed up one night because The Deer Hunter came on at 1AM and I couldn't sleep. Well then I REALLY couldn't sleep. This movie, I agree, is haunting. It is intense and though the build up is somewhat long, the result is the image that these people have changed and mostly for the worse.

I agree that Meryl's character is completely co-dependent upon the men in her life. I think that a lot of women in war movies or movies about small towns are dependent on the men in their lives--to a fault.

I enjoyed your article and will continue to follow! Thank you for the Streep at 60--it's a fantastic idea.

BillBill said...

Yeah, you should have watched the entire film. It shortchanges things just to see Meryl here, as she's not even the best element of the film. But her role resonates more after seeing the full film, if that makes any sense.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Is it piling on to admit that I'm not sure you can fully evaluate a performance, especially a smart performance, without seeing the whole movie? I know some movie actors cop to only reading their parts of the script, and there's something to be said for distinguishing the actor's art from the overall impact of the performance as contextualized by what the film does with the raw material of what the actor furnishes. But, since filmmakers do recontextualize actors' performances to their own ends in what cuts they select, how they edit, what level of overall stylization they go for, etc., I think an actor's performance is only fully coherent if you know what they're inserting themselves into... and lots of actors see enough of the film as it's being made to make conscious choices about how to mesh their impulses about the character with the forces of the piece as a whole (either to go along with the larger drifts of the film or to push against it a bit).

In this case, I think Meryl's understatement and her deerlike qualities in this movie are much more affecting and memorable than they otherwise would be in relation to the brazenness, hugeness, and heightened reality of the overall piece &#151 especially true of her appearance in the finale. I definitely agree that you get plenty of detail and probably the overall gist of a performance by watching in this way, but I do think you might miss key dimensions of how the performance works. (Imagine seeing Fiona Shaw without the rest of The Black Dahlia or, maybe more apropos, Kim Basinger without the rest of L.A. Confidential: her softness and directness might be kind of "blah" if she weren't setting herself off so cleverly from the bruteness, sleekness, and florid flourishes surrounding her.)

JoFo said...

Sorry to be hammering in what alot of others are saying Nathaniel but I'm afraid I have to disagree with you on your method of looking at this performance.

Even if you've technically seen the entire performance, I don't think its fair to judge it without seeing it within its proper context. It doesnt apply for this example, but a performance could be great but totally unfitting the tone and style of the rest of the film. A performance can slip in perfectly with the mood of the film, made difference under the knowledge of the scene that preceeded it.

Sorry. I think you've done yourself and Ms Streep an injustice here!