• Vietnam Story at Last

    • Posted on Sep 24, 2017
    Here's this morning's (Sun. 9-24) column on Ken Burns's documentary 'The Vietnam War" which deserves serious attention and discussion.  Our national trauma from that horror of a war continues, and the truths contained in this film may help move us toward reconciliation.   That was Burns and Novick's purpose in making it.  

    Over the years I’ve taught three Vietnam War films— “Platoon,” “Full Metal Jacket,” and “Apocalypse Now.”  All led to energetic classroom discussions about the purpose and meaning of that terrible war.   

    Yet those films, and many others I’ve viewed, were missing aspects that needed telling.   I’ve been waiting decades for a film that would get closer to the complete story. That story had to include the North Vietnamese’s version, and a clear-eyed look at America’s involvment from the beginning. In other words, ignored facts.   

    That film arrived on PBS last Sunday night.  

    “The Vietnam War,” Ken Burns/Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary is available free on PBS’ website and in segments on Iowa Public Television during the last two weeks of September.  It was my generation’s defining event, and deserves respect and discussion.   

    I watched the first four episodes last week and can’t stop thinking and feeling about them.  Like any great film, it affects you in the head, heart, and gut, often all at once. 

    For the head, there’s information that few Americans knew, and certainly none really wanted to know:  Ho Chi Minh, far from being an enemy, began his political career trying to free his country from all external powers, especially the French.  He believed our American Declaration of Independence and Constitution got it right.  

    He tried to tell both Presidents FDR and Truman, that all he wanted was independence, but got nowhere.  The U.S. supported the French, who occupied Indochina as part of their colonial empire.  Ho Chi Minh was far more a believer in his own country’s autonomy than in Russian or Chinese Communism.   

    Even more disturbing, we were lied to from the beginning, beginning with the “Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” which justified retaliation when we had been the attackers.  I had read about that phony attack in 1968 and realized then that we couldn’t trust our government.   

    Both President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara knew we couldn’t “win” as early as 1965. As LBJ tells Defense Secretary McNamara, “There’s no light at the end of that tunnel.”  Yet they knowingly went on to escalate our involvement, sending thousands more U.S. Troops to fight in what was essentially a civil war.  That knowledge hits the gut.  

    No wonder citizens were protesting, loudly and en masse, during that whole conflict.  Had our soldiers left Vietnam when leaders knew we couldn’t win, we would have been spared a decade of slaughter and destruction that haunts us still.  

    Throughout the documentary, because our war destroyed so many lives on both sides,  individual stories get told in sharp detail. Young Denton Crocker’s story gets told throughout the third and fourth episodes, and left me choked up, thanks to current interviews with his still-traumatized mother and sister.  Denton’s story stands for thousands of other young men who left broken-hearted families. 

    Ken Burns hopes “The Vietnam War” will start a national conversation about that awful war. Our leadership went horribly awry, and we need to admit that openly.   
    Reconciliation must begin with truth.  

    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Movies
    • Hot Button Issues
  • What Makes a Good Movie?

    • Posted on Feb 25, 2007


    Tonight’s Oscar extravaganza raises an old question for movie lovers and critics:  What makes a good movie?  And a related question: What might go on in the head of an academy voter when they cast their ballot?  Let me hazard a few slightly educated guesses.

    First, taste.  I like pecan pie, you like peach, and no amount of argument will make me choose peach over pecan.  I loved “Fargo,” “American Beauty,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” and have argued at various times with very intelligent people who despised one or another. 

    My taste tends toward movies which challenge, even disturb me enough to wonder about an issue.  Others prefer movies that reinforce their values, that leave them entertained and comforted.  Peach, not pecan pie.

    Second, politics.  In any award judging, a candidates’ connections, track record, and remembered behavior seems bound to influence judges.  That’s why Martin Scorcese may win for best director; he’s been nominated five times for that award, but has never won.  Voters will likely remember those near-winners, all great films.   

    Yet not all choices for good movies arise from personal preferences or politics.   If that were true, Oscars would have no validity over the long haul, since tastes and political influences change radically over the years. 

    Yet for 78 years, “Best Picture” Oscars do seem to identify (with glaring exceptions) films that deserve attention and re-viewing. 

    Which brings us to the standard critical criteria, the third means of choosing good films.  Film textbooks such as “Film Art,” by Bordwell and Thompson, make the case that judging a film’s quality hinges on four standards:

    (1)  Coherence.  All the parts have to connect.  A new character or action cannot suddenly pop up without some connection to other characters and actions, or if they do they must be thematically related.  Incoherence seldom gets rewarded by critics.

    (2)  Complexity. Simple plots with one-dimensional characters make viewers feel patronized or even ignored.  We’re grownups, and grownups prefer actions with some of the complexities we all encounter in life. 

    (3)  Intensity. Some movies seem to stay on the screen, with few memorable characters or actions. They might seem pleasant enough, like some low-end restaurant food, but three hours later you can’t remember much about it. Intensity equals memorable.  

    (4)  Originality.  Even standard crime dramas and westerns can be stretched by great directors with an original vision.  Consider Robert Evans’s “Chinatown” in 1974 and Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” in 1992, both of which won Best Picture Oscars, both highly original genre films.

    Textbooks also caution about judging a film merely by plausibility, since what’s plausible in life may or may not work in a story. 

    And rejecting a film because it seem to support immoral behavior or show immoral actions makes little sense, since moral judgments often depend on faith-based or subjective choices, both of which vary widely from viewer to viewer.  Or what appears to be immoral on the surface may support a highly moral, though unconventional, outlook.  “American Beauty” comes to mind.  

    So if one were to leave one’s taste aside and use textbook criteria you’d have some defensible basis for judging a film. Yet there’s a final criterion, and it may be the most important of all: The spirit of the times. 

    Viewers connect most readily with what’s deeply in their thoughts and feelings at voting time. That connection arises from everything that’s swirling about in the media, as well as conversations with friends, current events, politics, workplace happenings, even dreams.  Germans call it “Zeitgeist” and it’s quite real. 

    The best films and novels help viewers understand the larger issues behind the zeitgeist, the realities that affect what they’re thinking and feeling. 

    So which movie stands the best chance of winning Best Picture honors tonight?

    I’d have to go with Scorcese’s “The Departed.”  It touches on fears of corruption (much in the news), problems with deception and loyalty (ditto) and its director, Marty Scorcese, probably will also win for Best Director.  And logic dictates that the best director will direct the best picture. 

    I’ll be watching.



    Go comment!
    Posted in
    • Cedar Valley Chronicles
    • Movies
    • Reviews
Cedar Valley Chronicles Photo

“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


Contact Scott

Contact Scott Photo