Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Playing war


Scene from filmmakers Mike Attie and Meghan O'Hara's In Country. Photo: Courtesy SF DocFest
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In Country is a sad film. Or maybe I'm the sad one, and the emotions I experienced while writhing in my seat are like the stories one tells oneself staring at clouds or Rorschach tests. In the absence of stimulation, as in "The Sleep of Reason" if you remember your Goya etchings, the mind gives birth to monsters. So it was I found myself besieged by dim memories and terrors from childhood while I watched uneventful footage of sorry-ass guys scrambling through tall grass and peering through thickets, heavily laden with vintage U.S. Army surplus, re-enacting the Vietnam war. This evocative documentary plays the SF DocFest at the Roxie Theater (6/5) and the Vogue Theater (6/11).

Early in the film, the guy who organizes the re-enactment weekend opens a small plastic bottle of bug repellent, takes a whiff, rolls his eyes, and, laughing, marvels that the smell instantly sends Vietnam vets back in time to that beautiful country off the South China Sea they once shipped over to make war in. I guess he never heard of Marcel Proust and the madeleine that sparked the predominant literary sensibility of the 20th century. That would be way too pansy for him. Nonetheless, "playing war" works on the hearts and minds of these little boys in grown men's bodies, vets and wannabes alike, and In Country works on unsuspecting viewers in a similar way.

In Country is tedious, like military life, and tedium pursued for its own sake sometimes turns into enlightenment. That's the secret of Zen. The film's 80 minutes creep along at a snail's pace, the editing seems haphazard, re-enactors' personal stories are mixed with disorienting shots of Vietnam, which morph into the grisly nightmare of Iraq. You don't know where you are, what you're watching, exactly. It's kinda like what it feels like to be an American now, having a not-so-funhouse mirror held up to our collective lack of historical perspective or fact-based political analysis, or awareness of "why they hate us," or any kind of idea of how the hell we stop the great global war machine we as citizens are complicit with.

This is not a movie I would have sought out to watch had not my dear friend from childhood, Christopher Gaynor, alerted me a few years ago to the project's existence. His photographs of his deployment, 1966-68, which have recently been an exhibit, a book, and landed him Time magazine and BBC radio interviews, qualified him to serve as post-production consultant for In Country producer-directors Mike Attie and Meghan O'Hara, and editor Lindsay Utz. As a young girl, I had a huge crush on Chris, who was tall, blond, handsome, had a bristling mustache, and played exquisite classical guitar. As my brothers and their friends evaded the draft as best they could, Chris went, head held high. Only later did I learn that he, like me, is queer.

Sigmund Freud, the bearded genius of Vienna, discovered that the compulsion to repeat experience trumps what he called the pleasure principle. Rather than try the new thing that beckons, we keep doing the thing we're used to. This explains why I'm still writing for the Bay Area Reporter after 20 years. Perhaps the same can be said of the U.S. and its war machine. The power brokers and armament-makers, even the corrupt Congress, are only doing what they know. Boots on the ground similarly yearn only to play boots on the ground, again and again and again.

In Country is a stealth film, artfully artless, that creeps up on you, gets under your skin, on your nerves, and into your heart. I now have a visceral sense of Gaynor's battlefield experience from watching a pathetic band of re-enactors schlep themselves through the Oregon woods, pretending to kill evil Communist Viet Cong. To write this review I have had to let go of my own repetitive anti-war diatribe, which, I realize, is merely the echo of my mother's voice from 40 years ago, a voice Gaynor knew well. There's a lot of confusion in U.S. minds right now. We negotiate a fog-of-war propaganda dispersed by a corrupt media. It's not easy to distinguish film from reality, one war from the last or the next, friend from foe, us from them, terror from security. In Country might help you make up your own mind.


A Soldier Boy Hears the Distant Guns by Christopher Gaynor, ($39.99,


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