“Last Days in Vietnam” and Responsibility in Documentaries

The Vietnam War continues to be fresh in Americans’ conscious as one of the last conflicts of the Cold War, and “Last Days in Vietnam” does a detailed job in preserving the war’s memory by featuring interviews with American and Vietnamese people who lived through it. The film brings history to life, but its lop-sided coverage of the war shows the dangers of documentaries engaging in political issues.

The conflict is a very sensitive matter, which the Vietnamese refer to as the American War since it was a brutal satellite war for America to forward its imperialist interest in maintaining superpower status. The documentary does not get the perspective of the opposition to American forces. All the interviewees have ties to the United States, either as members of the American armed forces or as Vietnamese refugees who escaped to our country.

This does not mean there was no value to the film. To hear the first-hand accounts of the American men who actually fought the war was gripping, especially their very human emotional struggles as they dealt with the impact the conflict had on civilians who lost their homes and lives. The archival film footage of bombings, evacuations, military exercises and the like made vivid the clear descriptions of the Vietnam War I read about in history class. The tragedy became much more comprehensible by showing the individual people and actions it takes to mount a war in the first place. But the lack of perspectives outside of the forces with America makes the documentary a simple and concise history of only the mainstream American narrative of the war. To not have this view counterbalanced with that of the Soviet-allied forces makes the loss American forces hard to understand. There is no focus on the achievements and developments on the Soviet side that led to their success. Only the work of the American forces is then appreciated.

The documentary is very good on a technical level. At the beginning, I was deceived into believing that the incredibly conventional editing of the documentary would contain an incredibly conventional story. Instead, the intricate and chaotic nature of war strategy plays out in the most visually literate manner possible. However, if the viewer does not have a nuanced education on the Vietnam War, this film could do them a disservice by only presenting one flawed view of the conflict, and even then not focusing on the Vietnamese people who were most impacted. While chronicling America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, at no point does the documentary dive into historical analysis, leaving me wanting more. I’m sure the interviewees have strong views on the war that could have been shown in a balanced way to the benefit of the viewer’s knowledge without getting mired in politics.

I don’t consider the limited scope of the documentary a fatal flaw. To include the Soviet side would be to extend the documentary far past its hour-and-a-half running time, and would expect a movie to be as authoritative as a vetted history textbook. However, the lack of self-awareness in its obvious bias is concerning. As the saying goes, history is written by the victors. Those who truly respect history must resist this vantage point.

Black Comedy and the Role of Ratings

In my experience, black comedy is edgy by nature. Since the most common theme I’ve seen explored in the genre is death, I’m not surprised what makes black comedies so unique for me is how they force me to laugh at things I wouldn’t laugh at otherwise while still being in good taste. I watched the films “Heathers” (1988) and “The Truman Show” (1998) back-to-back in order to catch up on some highlights of the genre, and found another element it experiments with to great effect: the expectations we have of a film based on the age of the main characters. I only knew the basics about the protagonists of both of these films, so the dissonance between its subject matter and its treatment of said subject blindsided me so much I had to write about it.

All I knew about “Heathers” was that it was about the most popular (and mean) girls at school. This is a a well-trodden premise, and I was worried at the beginning when the basic high school stock characters were established that the film would be a straight-forward high school drama. And yet something feels off; the characters of the movie are more cruel and crass when dealing with sensitive issues than I can ever remember seeing when I was in high school. I found it hard to believe that even in the 1980s young people could be so nasty. Then, the film hits a turning point when the least-mean popular girl Veronica (Winona Ryder, “Stranger Things”) tries to do the Heathers’ bidding by talking to the mysterious JD (Christian Slater, “Mr. Robot”), who has been watching and smiling at her from a corner of the cafeteria while the Heathers wreak havoc all of lunch. At this point I got worried. Another high school romance? But then the movie shows its true colors.

JD pulling a gun on bullies literally out of nowhere in “Heathers”. Source: Internet Movie Firearms Database

JD gets harassed and called a “fag” by jocks because one of the most popular girls in school just talked to him, a prime example of the absurd logic bullies use to target others. He in turn brandishes a gun out of nowhere and shoots them (with what we later learn are blanks). What?

This scene is a prime example of the unique power of black comedy by being subservive on two levels. For one, suburbia is known for having low crime-rates, which makes them appealing to move to in the first place. This establishes the magnitude of how dangerous JD is to this community from the very first time we see him, and it is both fricking hilarious and fricking horrifying at the same time. But on a broader level, this disrupts our expectations of what a high school movie is like. It is a good introduction of the very dark and twisted view of high school presented in “Heathers”. I had zero idea the film is rated R, but I wish I had.

I had the complete opposite emotional reaction when watching “The Truman Show”. It is unexpectedly sweet and tender at its core, following 30 year-old Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey, “Bruce Almighty”) on a quest to find his high school crush who he loved but had whisked away, as he realizes something is very off about his hometown. I did not expect such a touching driving force for a movie about a man who is the star of a crazy successful reality TV show with everyone knowing it but him.

One of the darkest aspects to the film, in my opinion, is the idea that we do not really know the intentions of other people because we do not know what we do not know. It made me sad to think that Truman, who is kind, has intimate relationships with those he considers loved ones that are actually all actors. A notable example is when his closest friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich, “The Americans”) holds back tears after Truman says he is his best friend. I felt that.

After seeing that Jim Carrey was the lead and that the film was about a 24/7 reality TV show, I was concerned that “The Truman Show” would take a turn for the grotesque regarding sexuality and violence. Yet surprisingly, there is not any sex or violence. When Truman’s sexuality is addressed, it is to show how artificial his marriage to his wife Meryl (Laura Linney, “Sully”) is. When Truman is shown to have a habit of buying ambiguous magazines “for the wife”, I assumed it was porn. But instead, the magazines are shown to be full of close-ups of women’s faces, which he uses to construct a portrait of his love interest in high school whom he still misses dearly after so many years. It is sweet and shows a pure and romantic side to Truman that makes him a very sympathetic hero.

Meryl promoting hot cocoa to the camera after her husband Truman shares he believes his world is a lie in “The Truman Show”. Source: YouTube

In contrast, his relationship with his wife Meryl is dull and full of repetition, with scenes of them together focused on mundane daily marital life like saying goodbye before going to work or uniting at the end of the day. The fact Meryl is only acting like his wife is palpable, but she never misses a beat despite her regular advertising of sponsors’ products. But the injustice that Truman faces by having everything he knows be fiction is brought to the forefront when he finally confronts Meryl that something is very fake about their city and that he must go follow his dreams of travelling. She becomes visibly panicked, no doubt well-aware of all the anti-travel messaging he received to keep him on set, and tries to dismiss his ideas. And out of nowhere she pulls out hot cocoa and offers to make him some as she advertises the specific brand. While it is funny that she would stick to the script at such an inopportune time, it is also very depressing to see how she and all the other actors on the show value their professional relationships with Truman over their personal relationships with him. This makes his genuine, albeit short-lived connection with his love interest Lauren (Natascha McElhone, “Californication”) so charming. They are able to recognize their chemistry in spite of all the obstacles between them, making the movie a lot more heart-warming and fairytale-like than I anticipated.

When I found out the film was rated PG, everything clicked into place. The 1950s-inspired clothes and decor lent a sense of authenticity to the sanitized world that is supported by sponsors and the average Joe watching. I’m glad I didn’t know that, however, so I could feel firsthand how disarming it was for Truman to take to heart the idyllic artificial life his show’s creator Christof (Ed Harris, “Mother!”) made in an effort to shield him from the real world’s horrors. I would have expected the family-friendly PG rating to detract, not enhance the movie centered on the unfiltered human experience. And yet by showing how unnatural it would be to live in a world that is monitored and approved by the masses, the plot rises from science fiction thought experiment to social commentary, with a lot of heart added to the mix.

In conclusion, I found it very refreshing to see age groups redefined in “Heathers” and “The Truman Show” through the use of comedy. The movies take the stereotypes of the teenage bad boy and the wholesome adult everyman to extremes, which lends itself perfectly to critique the societal norms that allow these figures to emerge in the first place in an original and memorable way.

“Threads” is Surprisingly Relevant 33 Years Later

Finally released on Blu-ray, the warning given in the visceral 1984 apocalyptic film “Threads” feels all the more life-threatening in the midst of our political climate after Trump negotiated the denuclearization of North Korea with the DPRK’s leader, Kim Jong Un. The film holds back no punches as it spends the first half hour depicting the normal daily life of working-class Sheffield, England. Warnings of escalating tensions between the United States and USSR over Iran are reported through the television sets and radios everyone seems to be plugged in to, but it is easy for me to ignore the over-whelming presence of danger in favor of the true drama of the film’s premise: the marriage of young couple Jimmy (Reese Dinsdale) and Ruth (Karen Meagher), who is pregnant. However, by the time the conflict has gone nuclear Sheffield has already emptied its grocery stores in an attempt to prepare for the worst, as it is a NATO center that would be a prime target for the Warsaw Pact if war ensues.

And it does, as the city is bombed. It is horrifying to see how little time passes between when we first learn of the conflict and when the absolute worst case scenario occurs. I, in spite of myself, was hoping the entire time that the escalations of the conflict between the two world superpowers would either resolve itself or spare outside nations. It was incredibly cruel and nihilistic to see how despite the citizens’ protests as the country comes closer to war, they are ultimately not listened to by the actual countries fighting. The film does an excellent job of painting the world of Sheffield by having a plot with a wide scope, focusing on Jimmy and Ruth but showing preparations of their families and emergency coordinators of the local government. It is so, so sad to see to how little regard the superpowers end up having for poor Britain despite Sheffield’s efforts to make their voice heard. It made me feel that the world would be a more peaceful place if only we would engage those we disagree with more often.

The vivid depiction of the impact a nuclear bombing would have on a city made my heart drop and my stomach hurt. It is evil, Hell on Earth, and I believe no mere human dispute could ever merit such extreme measures. It was eye-opening to see the fears of people around the world during the Cold War brought to life. As I was born after the conflict, I will never know what it was like to live wondering if my own powerhouse country would disregard any shred of humanity to use such weapons. But I worry that my generation is getting a taste of that fear with Trump’s taunts of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last August, promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen” if North Korea does not comply with the United States. I am not saying that everyone should watch “Threads”, a piece of well-made fiction, in order to inform their real-life decisions. However, I believe that a movie like “Threads” serves as a testament of the fears of a time that can allow future generations to understand better, synthesizing parts of history that define our country’s master narrative. Trump, being an adult by the time this film came out, was surely aware of the Cold War happening. I think it is impossible that he would want to invite so much destruction of humans lives to provoke a hostile nation threatening nuclear missiles. But based on his belligerent language, I bet he doubts such a threat could one day be serious. “Threads” is a strong example of how art plays an important role in forming public memory in the hopes of learning from it.

Kylie Jenner and Relating to Celebrities

If you don’t follow celebrity news, you may (fortunately) be unaware that socialite Kylie Jenner gave birth and announced it on Super Bowl Sunday with the release of a touching video to her daughter. As someone who is mystified by the continued popularity and success of the Kardashian family despite the wide-spread disdain the average Joe seems to have towards them, I want to dissect my experience of seeing people actually care about this birth.

Kylie is 20 years old, making the announcement feel more personal to me as someone who is also 20. She is not the first person my age to get pregnant, with Facebook keeping me up to date on the surprising number of engagements and childbirths that have occurred in my graduating class since we left high school. But I am fascinated by how much difference class seems to make when assessing individual success.  While I struggle to finish essays to graduate, Kylie is already the proprietor of a lip kit line despite the backlash her latest ventures in cosmetics have received. Though the material success at such a young age is impressive to me even as a privileged middle-class college student, the fact Jenner’s family was already wealthy before she came of age due to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” makes the profits made on the lip kits less a story of individual triumph than corporate strategy. Following in her sisters’ footsteps, she has used her family’s overexposure on television to make lucrative business deals. Knowing how little social mobility there is in America, I am not surprised that the rich only find ways to get richer.

This makes the warm welcome and excited buzz for Jenner conflict me. On the one hand, I am of course happy to hear of a child being born healthy to an enthusiastic mother. This is evidenced by how Jenner managed to keep her entire pregnancy a secret despite being in the media spotlight and rumors being leaked and dismissed for the last few months. The way she did not prioritize making a profit off the attention her pregnancy would have generated is an encouraging sign she wants to put her baby first. However, I deeply question if a young, unmarried mother at 20 years old would have been met with such fanfare if she had been poor or Black. The stereotype of the “welfare queen” painted young, Black single mothers as a huge drain on government aid and was a tool of rhetoric in the public discussion about welfare throughout the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan. What keeps us from calling Jenner irresponsible as opposed to some of the women most in need in our society — the money she is raking in now, or the financial stability we assume her upper-class status will guarantee her in the future?

I hope that Kylie will be a wonderful mother and has a happy future with her daughter. I hope that Travis Scott is a supportive father even after he will inevitably leave the picture, following what I’ve seen in Hollywood relationships. But what I hope more than this is more critical discussion of how we talk about the way race and class defines the way we talk about women’s agency. It’s clear that the media won’t.

Dan and Phil’s ‘TATINOF’ is the most fun you’ve ever had (in meme hell)

As I debate over whether or not I want to see my favorite YouTubers Dan and Phil again on their 2018 “Interactive Introverts” tour, I reflect on my experience seeing their first tour two years ago. For those uninitiated in Internet culture, many YouTubers are going on tour to promote their books. While most fans are happy to see them in person, there’s been debate on whether this is “selling out” when a major source of their appeal to begin with is the earnest sincerity of their home-made productions.

The sea of young fangirls that turned up at Detroit’s Fox Theater on May 10th, 2016, proved this isn’t the case with English YouTubers Dan Howell and Phil Lester, better known online as danisnotonfire (five million subscribers) and AmazingPhil (three million subscribers), respectively. They performed in Michigan on May 10th and 11th as part of the American leg of their “Amazing Tour is not on Fire” at packed venues. It is of note that the highest-priced VIP front-row tickets, which a meet-and-greet session and a large tote bag with merchandise and treats, sold out within hours of being available online. The tour is in promotion of their aptly-titled book “The Amazing Book is not on Fire,” which was a bestseller in the UK’s Sunday Times and topped the Young Adult Hardcover category of the New York Times bestsellers’s list for several weeks. The tour is a celebration of the duo’s vlogging careers in the same vein as the book it promotes.

The show’s premise is the ever-whimsical Phil put his laptop in the microwave in the hopes of getting superpowers. Instead, all of the content from both vloggers’s channels spills out onto the stage, including props emblematic of their online personas and their devoted subscribers watching their antics in real life, sitting in the audience. This sets up a night full of banter that has become their hallmark.

Audience participation makes up the majority of the spectacle. Staff from the tour search attendees waiting before the show to share their stories to be part of a live version of the regular series “Why I Was a Weird Kid” on Phil’s channel and Dan’s “Internet Support Group,” a video-medium advice column, respectively. The pair review fanart gifted to them by attendees onstage in the style of their popular “Tumblr Tag” videos. Additionally, there are moments when the two YouTubers let the audience choose what direction the show will take.

There are countless references to their videos and travel vlogs, so the show is clearly geared towards their dedicated watchers. However, there are plenty of twists to keep the audience on their toes as well. The show is unusually family-friendly considering danisnotonfire’s regular content, perhaps in foresight of the disproportionate number of younger girls in attendance, yet Howell and Lester share sides of themselves that are not explored on-camera. This makes “The Amazing Tour is not on Fire” feel like a sincere opportunity for the British vloggers to become closer to their fans, physically and mentally.

The show is a loving tribute to Dan and Phil’s achievements on the Internet throughout their ten-year careers. Everything from their modest beginnings to their gaming channel is included, with many inside jokes created by their fans referenced in-between.

Howell and Lester have been expanding the mediums they have worked with since 2013 — when YouTube saw an upsurge of popularity for YouTubers in the UK. They were hired by BBC Radio that year to present a weekly radio show titled “Dan and Phil,” later renamed “The Internet Takeover” when hosting duties began to rotate among the duo’s Internet friends to accommodate further endeavours. They also had cameos in the UK’s cut of the Disney film “Big Hero 6.”

Success stories of YouTubers like Dan and Phil crossing media platforms signals the transformation of YouTube from video depository to entertainment platform in its own right, with tours are a natural advancement in YouTube culture. The creation of YouTube conventions in 2010 like VidCon in Los Angeles and Playlist Live in Orlando has further established a unique type of celebrity status among these individuals, evidenced by long lines of devoted subscribers waiting to meet their idols reminiscent of meet-and-greets by more traditional celebrities like singers and actors. And that’s what YouTubers are becoming.

Media outlets have been tapping into YouTube to reach younger generations, from publishing houses to television channels. And theatrical cross-country tours, pioneered by Tyler Oakley and Lilly Singh (better known as iiSuperwomanii), have become the latest realm of YouTubers’ influence. It’s hard to believe that website has been able to create such a powerful form of media so quickly. The fact that London-based Dan and Phil were able to fill venues across the pond, where half of their subscriber base lives, from the comfort of their own bedrooms is testament to YouTube’s far-reaching appeal.

When Product Placement Aspires to Be Art

The Emoji Movie sucks in a depressing way I’ve never seen before. It has all the trappings of children’s animated movies, like bright colors, an annoying comedic sidekick, and a quest filled with challenges along the way, but the weight of all the product placement broke its spirit. It’s sad to see Hollywood care so little about the average moviegoer that they would put together such an original corporate cash grab.

I’ve heard people compare the Emoji Movie to Inside Out because both look at the inner workings of a teenager’s mind, the former through his cellphone and the latter through her psyche. I was reminded of Wreck-it Ralph as well because of how familiar characters from video games were an easy way to make a connection with a young audience, who may not care enough to learn about your movie but will definitely have their eye drawn if they already know and love the characters in it. Those video game characters have star power in their own right. Phone apps, on the other hand, do not.

That’s why the Emoji Movie looked so eerily similar to a Disney animated feature on the outside while not having any emotionally intelligent writing on the inside. It was all a farce to stuff as many apps into the movie’s plot as possible, and most of it was just plain boring. I don’t appreciate the fact that this movie still got made with an A-list cast and everything despite all the laughter it received when production was announced. Hollywood executives believed in it when nobody else did, and the idea that youth today are so addicted to their phones that this movie speaks to a cultural zeitgeist or something makes me sick. I learned in a class that adults were concerned by teenagers in the 1950s for using landlines 24/7 to talk to their friends, so I’m convinced that putting down young people for using technology to deepen their relationships is an age-old sign of fear of change. That doesn’t make the Emoji Movie more timely, though, or universal; just cheap. Unfortunately, I can think of other examples of entertainment that were just vehicles for advertising.

The cast of the worst animated movie I’ve ever seen. Source: The Telegraph

The notorious animated move “Foodfight!” ripped off the Toy Story franchise in 2002 with the plot of food logos coming to life at night in a supermarket. Charlie Sheen starred as a dog detective who has to save the day when a femme fatale voiced by Eva Longoria from a generic brand takes over the store with the help of fellow Nazis(!) from the same company and tries to replace brand-name food products and their logos, i.e. nearly all of the other characters. It’s gross that a movie for little kids is teaching them that cost-effective products that are just as good as the national brands are evil and killing big brands, or big business for the owners of those brands, anyway. Thankfully, the film’s animation was stolen and apparently never re-done, so what looks like its first draft went straight-to-DVD in 2012. This is a decade after the celebrities in it were in their prime, but due to the stupid plot and abundance of sexual innuendo between the canine and the evil woman I doubt many people will hear about it.

Boys can buy from Sanrio, too! Source: next-episode.net

Another example of this genre I can think of is the anime Sanrio Danshi, literally Sanrio Boys in Japanese. This show is about a group of high school boys who all love Sanrio products, like Hello Kitty and friends. The main character, Kota Hasagawa, is embarrassed to have other people know he’s a guy who likes cute stuffed animals until by happy coincidence he meets other boys who are huge fans of Sanrio, too. The show was created by Sanrio itself (who would have guessed?) and I’m bitter that a positive message like men can like delicate things, too, is being used just to market their products. I felt completely pandered to with such a cute concept, and find it interesting that this show has a different view on economics than Foodfight! by showing buying as a positive way to express what you’re like on the inside.

The Emoji Movie is more realistic in that buying only really comes up at the end when the boy who owns the phone tries to get it fixed. Still, it was a waste of my time to watch. I hope the movie industry tries to think more about originality and creativity soon, but seeing how many box-office hits are sequels in franchises, I won’t hold my breath.