Tag Archives: change

Wind: 40 Years After the Fall of Saigon

Fall of Vietnam HelicopterThe empty streets. Stunned faces. The last helicopter swings over the trees. And Saigon, for a moment, stops. A city that never stills. The Americans have gone, taking but a few Vietnamese with them. Left behind, men and women who had worked with and lived among and fought with and fought against and loved and hated the Americans. That ends, leaving a space between waves…running over sand. Drawing patterns that last but an instant.

What was that like? That stillness? The wreckage, the debris. People wandering. Stealing things they couldn’t possibly use, just to have something left. And the North Vietnamese, rumbled along the city perimeter. Not everyone was sorry to hear them. Others were beyond terrified.

April 29, 2975. Forty years ago today, and Saigon was no more. It would become Ho Chi Mihn City. The streets got new names—as did some people. Hotels and bars and restaurant took on new owners. But, in truth, Saigon never ends. You can no more snuff it out than you can Paris or Cairo. Only the Americans had gone.

In the weeks, months, years to come, America would turn away. Turn inward. Deep. It would take years before we turned back again. Oh, within a few years the films began—marvelous, harrowing films: The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Coming Home. Really though, they focused on the height of the American war, during the mid to late Sixties, and some of that was already a decade ago. But displacement, bewilderment, loss: for some time, those things would be too painful to revisit. Except for some determined to rewrite history. Sad news for them: history would not change, and new wars would not refute the old.

The helicopters. That soft whop-whop-whop. It still catches the ear. Such an indelible sound from the time. Coppola used it so evocatively in Apocalypse. So tied to the era. In a way, they wrote the final chapter, fading from the Vietnamese skies and arriving in swarms, commandeered by terrified South Vietnamese pilots, who crammed them full of their families and flew out over the ocean. Not even certain where the fleet sailed: they just flew west until the fuel ran out. Some found the ships (some certainly did not), landing where and how they could. The flight decks grew so crowded with aircraft that sailors had to shove choppers over the edge of the aircraft carriers. They would hang for second, rotors turning as through trying to catch air, before they fell, hit the water, and vanished.

I watched it. Not even knowing what I was looking at. Me and my dad—a World War II vet. He was a journalist, I was one in training. We couldn’t look away from the television, except to briefly glance at one another. I’m sure my face was stunned; my father’s was stone. My mom stayed away, working in the garden—her way of dealing with grief. I didn’t know enough to even feel the loss. To me, it was a fantastic news story. History, right in front of you. I felt something, but I didn’t know what. I think I’ve spent much of life trying to figure it out. Years later, as a writer, I dove into it—maybe too deep for my own good, at times. Some things, learned, cannot be revoked. Hell, I still don’t know anything. I read some books, talked to some vets (always a gift), and did some heavy imagining with some incredibly gifted artists, who gave me a lot more than I ever gave them. But, in context, with those who were there, it’s nothing. I haven’t even lived. Even if I had, Vietnam’s a moving target: it not only changes with each person—it changes as each person does.

Doesn’t everyone have a war story? Whether they’ve served or not. War enwraps us, becomes a touchstone: a clue as to where we are, who we are. Age divides us. Young men and women who served—or remembered—World War II looked at that war in a very different context than those who nervously watched their draft numbers—or those of their husbands, brothers, sons—during the Sixties. If you were below 30 (or thereabouts), you learned you couldn’t believe things. What you heard, saw, felt. You not only began to question the government—not a difficult stretch, after a certain point—but you began to doubt your parents, relatives, and their friends. All the people who, for so long, had been mentors, trusted advisors. Who had loved us. Now, you’re weren’t so certain they did. And the reverse was true.

Some who lived through World War II spoke movingly of the era’s camaraderie, even if they wouldn’t discuss the ghastly reasons for rearranging their lives. Those who lived through the crucible of Vietnam spoke of a different camaraderie: a dividing into tribes—for or against, served or ducked or protested, saw combat or a desk. And those were not static categories. The young man jacked for war by movies and fantasies could well come home to stand with protestors. Like that was easy.

When it was over—for America—the tribes never really came together again. There’s always been a split here between left and right, for reasons that fill thousands of books, and it might take another generation or more to as least partially repair that rupture, if indeed it can be bridged. Maybe World War II was the anomaly and division has been the actual nature of those supposedly united. For a country that worships liberty, we’ve spent a good part of our history throwing chains around one another.

Now, we’re farther away from the fall of Saigon than our fathers were from their war when the first Marines shipped off for Da Nang. Beards and ponytails have a lot of gray in them. Once overwhelming new singles, flashing with brilliant, fresh sounds and ideas—they’re oldies. Crazy books people fought over are standard fare in college. People look upon peace signs and doves as quaint artifacts, not as a button that once could get you worked beaten to hell. Wars get old too, the rough edges get sanded down, sanitized. Unless you’re in select company. Get in the right space with the right people, and the blood’s still fresh. It’ll never dry.

And in Saigon—forever Saigon—the girls in ao dais still ride their bicycles up the wide boulevards, and they smile behind their hands at old men who cock their heads and pause whenever they hear a helicopter.

 


A bad time for arts…

…a good time for entertainment.

This morning’s New York Times carried a story about a resurgence in moviegoing. With the economy so lackluster, people apparently are looking for the cheapest route to forget their problems for awhile, and a couple hours in a moviehouse eases the mind without inflicting extensive financial pain. (It didn’t break it down to this level, but my guess is there’s also an increase in matinee/discount hour attendance.)

So that’s good for folks who work in the movies (if their production companies can actually get financing with credit in the dumper), nor is it surprising: people have long turned to the movies when the world goes to hell. The Great Depression may not have been the best time for the arts, but it did give us screwball comedies, some of which are now classics. Nor is it surprising that attendance is up for lighter fare and down for serious films (or at least films tackling serious subjects). When everything seems to megasuck, it’s hard to crank yourself up for a couple hours of war, famine, plague, and over varieties of suffering. People don’t want to be reminded that they are mortal in a world rife with injustice; they want to fall in love, laugh, and, if they’re Americans, see things blow up.

But it’s further grim news for those of us who can’t forget war, famine, etc., and hence reflect it in our art. As the author of two very tough-minded plays about war (and another two in progress), it’s sobering to see them bounced on nearly a weekly basis, despite good reviews and strong production histories (re: “Waiting on Sean Flynn” and “Liberation”; “Next of Kin” is still in the rewrite stage and not yet on the market, and “Depth of Field” is mired down in a structural writer’s block, though I trust George Montgomery, my war photographer protagonist and a character I’m intensely fond of, will one day prowl the stage).

Even I’m feeling it. Though I don’t imagine I’ll ever be accused of writing fluff–it’s just not in my nature nor, honestly, my range of talents…it’s dark (but busy) in here, folks–I feel the fabulist side of my work calling. I’ve kind of bounced back and forth between gritty stuff about war and politics, and more surreal, dreamlike work, and of late, the dreamlike stuff has been drawing me. It still tends to be kind of heavy, but there’s usually a good deal of humor (attempted at least), and the goal is less about exploring the depths of human cruelty and more about playing with the underpinnings of psychology, the relationship between perception and the doings of the unconscious psyche, and the strangeness that grows from their intersection. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” I’ve also been playing with taking “genres”–such as the noir detective world–and twisting it around with magical realism. Less Michael Herr, more Phillip K. Dick.

It’s not going to make a difference for awhile, I suspect. When your subscriber base is shrinking, grants are evaporating, arts budgets are being cut, ticket sales are down, and corporate and private donations are shrinking, theatres tend toward the familiar over the new, relying on plays with established track records or, if they’re doing new plays, choosing playwrights with established names. (I guess I’m an established name at this point, but I have a very short reach.) It’s not just Portland; I’m hearing this everywhere. Right now it’s more important to keep the patient breathing than happy.

But, as recessions don’t last forever, neither do periods of contraction in the arts. Inevitably, people tire of hap-hap-happy formulas or variations on favorite themes and want something that’ll challenge them. And, as we enter–for good or ill–a time of dynamic change, I think audiences will eventually need work that helps them understand a chaotic world rather than merely assures them that the world will continue for another day. For me personally, that probably means a fallow period for productions (or productions on smaller scales), but the relationship between writing and production is cyclical as well. When you’re not getting produced, you write to make up for the bum news; so I’m actually experiencing a creative upsurge, where I have so much stuff written in notebooks that I haven’t even had time to type it up, much less revise, workshop, and submit it. Those kinds of periods don’t last forever, either: you have ride them while you can. In short, I’m doing a lot of writing. And having fun with it because I’m relatively free to write whatever the hell I want. Freedom sometimes really is a word for nothing left to lose.

To my artist friends, especially those who don’t live or die by performance, I say: work, damn it. Survive, have fun, and lose yourself in the creative process; so that when things turn up, you’ll have fresh new plays and photographs and paintings and poems and songs to introduce to a world starved for the new. And for my performer friends, I guess this is a time to work on your chops, cherish and reconnect with your friends, and find solace in small projects. It’s not fun. It’s scary. And it’s going to be hard to keep the faith. But like the good times, the bad ones don’t last forever.

They just feel like they do.


Barack, JFK, and 911

I think it’s pretty fair, given the pollsters and pundits track record this year, that no one knows how Tuesday’s mega-primary will come out–I’ve lost track of how many states are in play, but it comes out to something like half the parties’ nominating delegates. The general consensus is that McCain’s well positioned among Republicans, though I’m not sure, given the antipathy against McCain by the hardcore right, that a lot of Republicans aren’t going to just stay home.

The latest polls (see previous caveat) have Obama and Clinton running neck and neck, and since the Democratic primaries are proportional, it could be that they split the delegates, and the battle continues right up to the convention. But, after a good bit of introspection, I’ve finally decided that, when it comes down to it, I prefer Obama.

I’m of an odd age, coming in at the tail end of the Baby Boom, where I was too young to really remember JFK (I remember the funeral) or be part of the “youth movement,” and too old to be a member of Generation X (whatever that really is). I guess that means I can dig the Stones, the Clash, and Nirvana. I do remember Bobby Kennedy, however, and I can’t even listen to his voice without feeling a deep wound inside, in that he held the promise of healing a deeply divided country in 1968 and ending a disasterous war. And his death gave us Nixon, who–despite the incumbent’s qualifications–is still probably the worst president in history.

But I watched the Democrats, for years, yearn for a new JFK only to nominate, over and over, competent, non-charismatic policy wonks and be defeated by the Republicans. Bill Clinton, smartly, ran towards the center and tapped into a Kennedylike spirit of hope (in the nihilistic winter of Bush I), and gave one of the most exciting, inspiring inaugural addresses I can remember, only to get smacked down by his hubris and run the country like a moderate Republican.

And here we are in even a darker winter with a worse Bush, the pendulum is distinctly swinging towards the Democrats, and, if there was any time that I’ve truly felt this, it seems the country is hungry for unity. There was, for a brief moment following 911, a sense of the nation as one and of the world in sympathy with its customary punching bag, and I don’t need to explicate how thoroughly Bush squandered that opportunity. I think the hunger’s still there, and I think the right candidate, with charisma, intelligence, and nerve, can tap into that spirit and the hunger for optimism that characterized the early 1960s before it all went thoroughly to hell in Dallas.

McCain, assuming he gets the nomination, may have an appeal to independents, but, brass tacks, if he won, he’d be the oldest sitting president in history. He has a nasty temper, disheartens the Republican rank and file at a time when they’re demoralized to begin with, and his goofy humor and military freakishness about Iraq (read: still fighting Vietnam, that crazy steel glint in his eyes) would be a pretty damn interesting contrast with Obama’s poise and wit. Whereas running against Clinton would essentially be refighting Bill’s impeachment battle, which might invigorate the conservatives and turn off the moderates. I know a lot of hardcore Democrats want a battler in the White House, and that’s what they think they’ll get with Hillary, but you need the center to govern in this country, and I think the Republicans, who are poised to lose more seats in November, might be off their game when faced with a statesman rather than a warrior. When you fight warriors, you look tough. When you belittle statesmen, you look churlish.

An Obama nomination still seems like a long-shot. But it’s an exciting long-shot. And maybe, just maybe, one that genuinely wears the mantle of hope.


The Long Fade

The other day, I heard myself ask another theatre practitioner, “So how many dimmer packs do you guys have?” And it kind of struck me what an utterly obscure question that is to the majority of people. “Uh, you mean a dimmer switch?” Kind of. I’m not even a lighting guy. I’ve hung a few lamps, moved some barn doors around, but the whole of black cables and gel combinations remains some weird alchemy to me.

But I do love the lights. When I go to someone else’s show, after I’ve finished checking out the program, I sometimes find myself looking at the grid and counting instruments, trying to figure what’s focused where. And I think that’s because I’m hooked on the fade. It’s just so damn beautiful when it’s done right. The way the color drains and carries your emotion from one place to another. And a perfect crossfade? It’ll sometimes take me right out of a play because I’ll be thinking: my God. Go back and do that again.

It’s curious because it relates to where you are when you write a play. Are you inside the characters, looking out, or are you among the audience, looking in? That shifts around for me. But when I write fade in the stage directions, I am most definitely in the audience, and I can feel those lights moving me.

A number of years ago, I saw a one-man show that had, at the end, the longest, most achingly beautiful fade I had ever seen. I mean, staging a fade that long was sheer nerve, somewhere between utter arrogance and genius. Here’s why: the piece was about a character with all these different opposing facets to his personality, and, as the light so slowly drained, the effect tired the viewer’s eye so it seemed that the actor’s face itself was shifting, rearranging itself, over and over. Forever changing without resolution, which was the point of the piece. What else so reflects the human condition but unstoppable change? Yet the act itself, essentially just slowly turning off a light, was so simple.

That image is still in my mind’s eye. It’s still changing. And so am I.