Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Talking Out of Turn #16: Robert Stone (1984)

From 1981 to 1989, I was assistant producer and co-host of the radio show, On the Arts, at CJRT-FM in Toronto. With the late Tom Fulton, who was the show's prime host and producer, we did a half-hour interview program where we talked to artists from all fields. In 1994, after I had gone to CBC, I had an idea to collate an interview anthology from some of the more interesting discussions I'd had with guests from that period. Since they all took place during the eighties, I thought I could edit the collection into an oral history of the decade from some of its most outspoken participants. The book was assembled from interview transcripts and organized thematically. I titled it Talking Out of Turn: Revisiting the '80s. With financial help from the Canada Council, I shaped the individual pieces into a number of pertinent themes relevant to the decade. By the time I began to contact publishers, though, the industry was starting to change. At one time, editorial controlled marketing. Now the reverse was taking place. Acquisition editors, who once responded to an interesting idea for a book, were soon following marketing divisions concerned with whether the person doing it was hot enough to sell it.

For a few years, I flogged the proposal to various publishers but many were worried that there were too many people from different backgrounds (i.e. Margaret Atwood sitting alongside Oliver Stone). Another publisher curiously chose to reject it because, to them, it appeared to be a book about me promoting my interviews (as if I was trying to be a low-rent Larry King) rather than seeing it as a commentary on the decade through the eyes of the guests. All told, the book soon faded away and I turned to other projects. However, when recently uncovering the original proposal and sample interviews, I felt that maybe some of them could find a new life on Critics at Large.

author Robert Stone
While the final American evacuation of Vietnam took place in 1975, the fallout from that war continued in the eighties. The obsession with Latin America during the Reagan years appeared (in many ways) to be a playing out of the lost cause of Vietnam. Because of this, I included a chapter in Talking Out of Turn called The Ghosts of Vietnam. In this section, were featured interviews with director Oliver Stone (Salvador, Platoon), who served during the conflict, French director Louis Malle (Alamo Bay), whose country had once occupied Vietnam, Robert Altman (Streamers), Canadian author and poet Brian Fawcett (Cambodia) and American author Robert Stone (Dog Soldiers, A Flag For Sunrise). 

Stone had been writing political novels since 1967 when he published A Hall of Mirrors, a book about right-wing paranoia, that was badly adapted into the terrible movie WUSA (1970) with Paul Newman. In 1971, he went to Vietnam as a correspondent for a British publication and his time there inspired his second novel, Dog Soldiers (1974), which centered on a journalist who smuggled heroin from Vietnam. This story about the drug culture and loyalty borne out of the war inspired a rather good movie, Who'll Stop the Rain (1978), with Nick Nolte, Tuesday Weld and Michael Moriarty.

When we spoke, his most recent novel was A Flag For Sunrise (1981) which examined a number of political and social issues in Latin America. Although it was a work of fiction, the realism of American supported dictators and corrupt Marxist revolutionaries also echoed themes dating back to U.S. involvement in Vietnam which is where we began our discussion.

kc: When you look at most movies, or even books, that deal with Vietnam, you get the sense that this was a psychedelic war. They often avoid the politics and make the war look like a bad drug experience. You speak about Vietnam in a different way.

President Ronald Reagan
rs: When I went to Vietnam, which was for only four months, I went with a lot of received information and conventional pieties. By the time I left, however, my attitudes were much more complicated. It didn't turn me into a supporter of the war. It seemed to me to be one of history's great tragedies. The Vietnamese lost, the Americans lost, everybody lost. That's the way all wars are when you get right down to it, right?

kc: But these days, who wants to face the idea of loss? Look at the mood of the United States currently under Reagan. Don't you think this swing towards "feeling good" is a way of burying those unresolved wounds about the Vietnam War?

rs: I think what you say is true because the United States sees itself as about something. It's not a nation of blood, or ethnic entities, it has this wonderful constitutional document behind it. And we have to live up to it. That war changed America very much and not only for the worst. But the cost was great. The appeal of Reagan in the face of all this is still puzzling to me. Reagan is a guy who is as close to not existing as you can be and still occupy space. His life revolves around things like brunch. Maybe, at this time, there is something reassuring in that blandness. People might agree with the policies of democrat Walter Mondale, but I tell you, they'll vote for Reagan because it is reassuring.

kc: Are you finding that people are feeling so hopeless today that they'll vote for the reassurance of order?

rs: I think that there is a terrible craving for order today. It's as though, since the Kennedy assassination in 1963, things went absolutely haywire. This was a country like any other until that murder. There has been nothing but crazy stuff happening since. I think it has undermined our sense of self. It's behind our craving for religion of the fundamentalist kind. People are looking for stability. Should it be any surprise that a vulgarizer like Jerry Falwell should have appeal right now? After the assassinations and Vietnam, people want stability and order.

kc: Since we have experienced the purple haze aspect of Vietnam, what were the actual politics of the war?

rs: I have arrived at the opinion that the American government never believed it could win in Vietnam. Its purpose was simply to inflict a casualty rate on enemy forces that would be acceptable. There was no way, without risking the involvement of China, for the United States to win a war like that. Lyndon Johnson was looking for a deal since he believed that every man had his price. But Ho Chi Minh was an extraordinary and ruthless individual. The Vietnamese ended up accepting a casualty rate that was in excess of the casualty rate suffered by the Japanese in the Second World War. They also knew that just as the French would refuse to tolerate the war, the Americans would and did. We didn't have to be defeated on the battlefield like the French were at Dienbienphu. If there was a military engagement where the American troops were defeated by a larger in-company strength, I am unaware of it. But we experienced it as a loss. Who lost it for us? The press? In some ways, we are like the Germans at the end of World War One. We felt sold down the river by our government while we raised our flag of nationalism. All of this is ironic because most of the younger generation in college doesn't even remember the war.

Ho Chi Minh and LBJ
kc: ...or didn't wish to.

rs: ...No, I mean they literally don't remember it because it was a long time ago and they are too young. To people who wake up every morning dreaming about Vietnam, it was like yesterday. It doesn't matter that it ended in 1974 which is now ten years ago. The twenty-year-olds of today were only ten at the time it was winding down. They are not repressing it; they literally don't remember it.

kc: Do you see a legacy of Vietnam now continuing in Central America?

rs: Sure. Reagan talks about "standing tall" in that disgusting fashion while we knock over some little country like Grenada. Where does all of this breast-beating come from? It seems that we did them a favour, but it is so shameless for the greatest military power in the world to congratulate itself for winning a battle over this tiny island. It's absurd. Yet sadly it plays to a lot of people.

kc: In your novels like Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, you don't get any of that reassuring tone that we're discussing here.

rs: I really write to raise questions. I want to demonstrate the difficulty of being alive and human and decent. I think it's much harder than most people realize. People find out what they are about in conditions of extremity. They find out things about themselves that sometimes they don't want to know. That's the purpose of my writing. I don't have answers. I have questions. Andre Malraux once asked an old priest about what his views on human nature were after many years of hearing confessions. The priest told him that, first of all, people were generally not as happy as you might think. Secondly, there was no such thing as a grown-up. (chuckles) I rather agree with that. 

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) in April at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. His four-part lecture series, Film Music: A Neglected Art,  continues at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesday, March 30, from 1pm-3pm.

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