Basic Training: A Film by Frederick Wiseman

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It’s 1970 in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and filmmaker Frederick Wiseman has been given access to film a new group of Army recruits, draftees and enlisted, as they go through eight weeks of basic training. One thing these young men have in common, they all look haunted by what is ahead… Vietnam.

The eight weeks of training is a dehumanizing experience filled with the young boys taught to act robotically the same for the greater good. Those who do not fit in are harassed or even worse. One young soldier, his name is Hickman, cannot march to the cadence of “Left, Left, left, right, left…” He is continually called out to get in step. Eventually, he is pulled out of the squad and “trained” by a Drill Sgt. The kid still can’t get the rhythm. Later, he tells a Pastor that he just doesn’t fit in with the others, never did. He can’t seem to do anything right and has even been threatened with a “blanket party” by his fellow soldiers. Another trainee, a young black accused of not following orders explains to a superior, “Let’s be frank with each other, now you know this is not my country.” He would rather get a dishonorable discharge than follow orders. The officer explains how a dishonorable discharge will follow him through life. He doesn’t care. Most of the boys fall in line. The gun-ho guys who are ready to fight, others to get through it all and come back home alive.

IMG_09771While it seems filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman was given free access, I tend to doubt it. The Drill Sgt.’s are tough, but they seem a little too nice. With the prospect of Vietnam ahead of them, the trainees are told by the D.I.’s and higher-ups is just do what we teach you and everything will be fine. How comforting.

My skepticism comes from my own experience. I was drafted a year earlier and went through basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. The Drill Sgt.’s were not as kind. Kind was not in their vocabulary. You had to have a good pair of lungs to be a D.I. because they screamed a lot, ridiculed, and trashed you. And as far as the “do what we teach you and everything will be fine,” well, it was more like “boy, your ass is going to ‘Nam, Charlie is waiting and you are going to die, and while you’re there, Jody and me will be making nice with your mama, your sister, and your wife.”

You watch these young soldiers, really boys, going through their training: how to crawl in the mud under barbed wire, hand to hand combat, bayonet training, weapon (M-16) training. You cannot help but wonder how many of these boys never made it back home. The strangest training segment in the film and this is something I did not experience, is a training class on how to correctly brush your teeth! Brush your teeth and win the war. We lost in Vietnam, many boys lost their lives, and many more came home disabled mentally and/or physically.

When I came home, I didn’t talk about Vietnam. Not because of any trauma or horrific experiences from the war, it had more to do with the people back home. There were two camps, those who favored the war and wanted America to bomb all of Southeast Asia out of existence and those who were part of the anti-war movement and saw you as a baby killer. I belonged to neither camp. Like the trainee, Hickman who I mentioned earlier, I just didn’t fit in anywhere, and so I didn’t talk about it. It took many years before I told people I was a Viet Vet and to this day I still don’t know where I belong.

Abel Ferrara’s New Film includes My Photograph

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Back in the 1970s and living in New York City, I did a lot of street photography. Being a movie fanatic, I went thru a period of photographing the exteriors out many of the movie theaters around the city. Most are now long gone. One of those photographs was of the Baronet/Coronet theaters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Those two theaters along with the Cinema One and Two were located on the same block, on 3rd Avenue between 59th and 60th street. Back then they most sort after theaters for filmmakers to showcase their films in the city. The Baronet/Coronet photo was taken in 1976. The film, playing in both theaters was Brian DePalma’s Obsession.

Since the age of the internet, I have posted the photograph online a few times. A couple of months back I received an email from a representative of film director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, Ms. 45, Body Snatchers) who was currently making a documentary called The Projectionist. The film follows the experience of longtime cinema owner Nicolas Nicolaou and records the changes in the city’s theatrical landscape over the years. My photograph came to the attention of Ferrara, and he was interested in using it in his film.

The-Projectionist_Courtesy-of-Faliro-House_1_SM_FBIG_LR_BG-1-1I recently was officially notified that the photograph is included in the film and I am getting a screen credit. I am also hoping to get a screener of the film to review. As you probably suspect this is a low budget film that will play the Film Festival and College circuit. It won’t be coming to a local AMC or Regal cineplex near you or me. Its world premiere is this week as part of the Tribeca Film Festival and on May 6th the film will having a showing at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).

 

Arthur Miller Writer (2017)

Miller4For years Rebecca Miller (Maggie’s Plan, The Ballad of Jack and Rose) had been researching, compiling, filming interviews and taking home movies of her father, Arthur Miller. From this wealth of material, Ms. Miller has produced a fascinating look at the life and career of one of America’s greatest playwright/writers.

Miller1Though best known for plays like Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, The Crucible and A View from The Bridge, Miller never stopped writing throughout his life. He wrote 25 plays, numerous essays, short stories, novels and an autobiography (Timebends).

Miller’s film focuses on many aspects of her father’s life; his upbringing (his mother was the artistic one), his work, the House of Un-American Activities hearings(1) and his three marriages. He and his first wife, Mary Slattery, began to grow apart after Miller met Marilyn Monroe for the first time in 1951. There was no affair at this point, but they did exchange letters. The next few years were filled with personal struggles. Monroe was never out of his mind. In 1956, on his way to work each day he would pass the giant cutout of Marilyn above the marquee of the Loew’s State on Broadway; it was advertising her latest film, The Seven Year Itch. Miller had his own continuous Itch for the actress.  His letters to Monroe became more passionate, “I should really die if I ever lost you,” he wrote. He divorced Mary in June 1956 and married Marilyn later the same month. However, for all the passion, they divorced less than five years later. Marilyn would overdose shortly after in August of 1962.

While Miller’s marriage to Marilyn is best known, his third wife, Inge Morath, a well-known photojournalist, and Rebecca’s mother, was his most successful, lasting over thirty years. They met on the set of The Misfits. During their thirty years plus marriage, she would document their life together. The couple also collaborated professionally on a few books.

Ms. Miller had the unique perspective over a twenty-year period to document and record her father doing the simple everyday things around the house, from woodwork to carving the turkey, to discussing his art and his struggles with his later works being ignored by both critics and the public. When asked at the end of the film what he would like written about him when he died he said, “Writer.” That says it all.

Footnotes:

 (1) Miller’s play, The Crucible, on the surface was about the Salem witch trials, but was really an metaphor of the rampant McCarthyism taking hold of the country at the time.