Thursday, September 23, 2010

In the Year of the Pig (1969), or why Natalie No Longer Does Scholarship

Full disclosure: I'm starting to write this at the 41 minute mark of the documentary (it's 103 minutes long). I'm not enthralled. Although Jack Kennedy just came on screen so that got my attention for a minute. Ok, Lyndon Johnson is on--back to writing and watching simultaneously.

I think this is an important film in that it presents a crucial argument and did so at a time in our history when that argument was especially unpopular. Telling Americans that we're sticking our noses in things that are none of our business and are headed for a giant clusterfuck of a no-win war and political situation is a bold move. It never goes over well. Never. And it is especially pertinent considering our recent history of sticking our noses in things that are none of our business and creating a giant clusterfuck of a no-win war and political situation--seems good 'ol W. has never seen this film. Surprise.

The film is also a carefully edited and subtle argument. This one isn't going to knock you over the head and then scream the argument at you while shoving flash cards with key points in your face. You actually have to pay a certain amount of attention not only to content but to tone. The doc. makers are obviously not endorsing many of the people who speak in the film and it's up to the audience to carefully discern irony. This is something more contemporary political doc. makers could learn from. Ahem, cough, Michael Moore, cough. Oh! Wait! Maybe W. did see the film and thought "the sooner that we hit everything we can and hurt 'em over there we gotta a better chance to win that war and that's exactly what we should do in my opinion" was super advice.

The source of my discontent with the film lies solely in my particular focus in scholarship (when I did scholarship): terrorism in 20th century American literature with 9/11 as the pivot point. So I'm thoroughly steeped in this argument because, surprise, 35-ish years after this documentary when I was writing my dissertation, artists of all sorts were making these same arguments, albeit in color. So, perhaps especially because I'm not particularly knowledgeable about Vietnam, I'm watching this film through the lens of my 9/11 research and I'm finding it too-similar a source to make use of. "There were no torpedoes fired" rings eerily similar to "there were no WMDs." But, alas, the people who promulgate these clusterfuck no-win situations are not the people who would learn from this film (especially given the French origin when we're talking about post 9/11 enlightenment--as Athelas noted "Freedom fries indeed"), or the terrorism information I'm more familiar with--hence the unfortunate repetition of history.

So, thumbs down for me but thumbs way up high for inclusion in the list.


  1. It's funny that this movie seems geared towards your research interests and the next one towards mine. Synchronicity! Perhaps we're too hard on the wheel spinny thing. I can't remember: did you watch any 9/11 docs when you were working on your diss? (Other than F9/11?) And do you see the literature and the doc making the same arguments or making them in the same way? Because if so, it seems to me that would be one way to reconcile having documentaries on this list.

  2. Yeah, although I'd rather a "men we think are hot" sort of synchronicity. Wait! We get that with the most recently added movie--Butch Cassidy!

    Did I watch any docs? Good question. Watched F9/11 with you, of course, but I can't immediately remember any others. From what I can wrench out of the depths of my moved-on brain, there weren't many sensible docs made about 9/11--and I'm still reaching for a title of any sensible ones that have been made since and can't think of any. 9/11 film, whether fictional or a doc, tends (still) to be on one end of a spectrum or another: the now over-sung hero who deserves unfettered praise or the conspiracy theorists who think Bush drove the planes himself. There isn't much common sense middle-ground--even F9/11 is a disaster really. Literature, on the other hand made that middle-ground argument and was bashed critically for it.

    Or, think of the lack of praise for Reign over Me. It didn't spout wacked out theories OR praise the firefighters gushingly so everyone thought it was making light of 9/11 or was too quiet a film. Meanwhile, United 93 is highly praised because it dealt with "heroes." Also highly overlooked is A Mighty Heart--we don't want gritty, guttural screaming from people who have lost; we want heroes who kick terrorist ass.

    Anyway, that was a digression but docs directly about 9/11 seemed to follow that general dichotomy. Now, if we broaden that to the war in general--that changes things altogether and there are more outspoken, sensible docs and fictional films on the subject. But, that is a gap in the docs about 9/11: novelists and some fictional film makers dealt with 9/11 more directly in a middle-ground way.

    I could, of course, be overlooking some docs that I'm simply not aware of or have forgotten.

  3. I'm in the Rumpus Book Club and we did a one-off for Franzen's Freedom. Part of the Rumpus deal is that we get to chat with the author every month. Franzen's chat is going on right now and he just said something inadvertently pertinent to this discussion:

    He was asked: "I appreciated that Freedom made me really consider my own participation in the politics of rage, but I'm not sure I understand how to stay fully involved and not get sucked in. How do you manage that?"

    And, Franzen replied: "In fact, it's one of literature's fundamental projects: to move beyond the rage-filled factional moment toward a more tragic/comic view of things. "

    That seems to be the core of what 9/11 docs (and airport fiction, and tv movies, and some fictional films) are missing. They haven't "move[d] beyond the rage-filled factional moment" while "high-brow" literature and some fictional films have and is dealing with the "more tragic/comic view of things."

  4. Why does Franzen always have to be so smart and pithy in everything he says? Bleh. But, to take a break from Franzenfreude, do we think that forty years later, there have been more docs that have moved beyond the rage-filled factional moment in terms of Vietnam? Pig was clearly in the thick of it, but "Fog of War" comes to mind as a doc that does transcend that. And, especially about Vietnam, is there a danger in losing some of that rage? Would keeping the rage maybe prevent the same arguments and situations from creeping in again?

  5. I've not seen a lot of anything on Vietnam--it's not a topic that interests me and war docs bore the everloving daylights out of me. But, I do think the topic of Vietnam as a whole has lost a little too much of the rage. Tragedy and comedy, I think, still require a bit of rage to contrast the sheer absurdity of it all or it simply devolves into that absurd--the "rage-filled" is as dangerous as the rage-devoid. In certain ways, Vietnam is now solely absurdist because we tend to lack a moor for it--it's just "Vietnam" floating out there. And, yeah, I think because we've lost some of the context and rage, the same arguments and situations recur--to be entirely cliche, we didn't learn from Vietnam. It's like me trying to remember anything from high school biology; I know I was taught the topic (for three years, no less) but I can't remember or use a damned thing.