Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Erika vs Good Morning Vietnam in: The Mysterious Case of the Missing Plot

(Content: misogyny, racism, and their fusion dance super form, racialised misogyny.)

You know those movies that are classics and you always hear about in such hushed tones, but when you sit down and finally watch them think "That's it?" If I had known anything about Good Morning Vietnam besides "It's a movie that is fairly well liked and also has Robin Williams in it", that is how I would have felt. However, I had heard next to nothing about it in any specific way and still managed to be completely underwhelmed. Which was impressive, but not enough to overcome how boring this movie got at times.

So, for those of you who, like me, managed to not actually know anything about this movie, a quick run down: Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) is an air force somethingorother transferred from Greece to Vietnam in 1965 (before people were calling it a war) to work as the base's radio DJ.

A solid hook, but that's kind of where any semblance of a coherent plot ends. He goes there and then things happen and Adrian doesn't really grow or change. He gets out of a slump at one point? So strap in while I tell you about the series of events that are trying to be a plot. Or at least the parts of it that are relevant to what I want to write about.

We are introduced to Adrian's two immediate bosses, and we know they are Bad People who should be shunned and mocked. Why? Because they don't think Adrian is a perfect little hilarious person whose best friend you want to be. That is consistently a metric for how we should view characters. Do they like Adrian: Yes/No?  If no, they are The Worst. Because as we all know those guys who are smart and funny and think they're too good in their cleverness for authority or rules of any semblance are charming, and not arrogant and tedious when dealing with them in real life.

Like many of those other "I'm so funny and smart I don't need rules" types of characters/people, Adrian Cronauer is also impressively sexist and racist. This is also a fact made very clear to us very early. 'One of the first scenes of the movie' early.
Adrian: Mayday! Mayday! Dragon lady with incredible figure at eleven o'clock! Stop the car.
Garlick: I can't do that, sir.
Adrian: Oh, Edward, Edward, you don't understand. I've been on a small Greek island with a lot of women who look like Zorba. I never thought I'd find women attractive ever again. And now that I do, you won't even turn the car around? Thanks a lot.
Garlick: You have a very important meeting with the top brass.
Adrian: Oh! There she is again! How'd she get ahead of us?
Garlick: That's another person, sir.
Adrian: Ah, she's beautiful and quick. Speed up. Check her stamina. This is incredible! Oh, my God! They're quick, they're fast and small.
To further drive the "all Vietnamese women look alike" gag home, when he sees another pretty Vietnamese woman wearing white he insists it's the same woman, and approaches her. She turns him down in incoherent English (HA FOREIGNERS CAN'T SPEAK ENGLISH--except, you know, Adrian hasn't tried to learn a word of Vietnamese).  His completely reasonable and charming response is to stalk her to her English class, pay the teacher to let him take over said English class to try to get her number, and when her brother Tuan (who speaks English fairly well) tells him to back off, Adrian decides "Nah, gonna befriend this kid so I can try to bone his sister".

Tuan makes it very clear he knows exactly what he's doing, but says sure, you can buy me lunch. Kid knows free food is good food and strangers have the best candy. He calls out Adrian for how a lot of foreigners treat Vietnamese women as objects to be bought and boned, and how sex is much less free flowing here and has meaning here, and he's as skeevy as the rest of them for it. He doesn't even know Adrian has been trying to requisition a gingerbread house to try to lure children to base to make stew with them at this point. Adrian doesn't get what Tuan is saying. Why would there ever under any circumstance be something wrong with trying to sleep with a woman? I mean, we're talking about buying her dinner first here, that's like, as classy as you can get! He was even going to wear pants, okay? Adrian's no pig, he wasn't planning to open with showing her his collection of vintage pictures of fresh produce with small birds! That's like, third date the earliest. After lunch he takes Tuan (who is I think about 16) to the local army bar (see? totally classy and responsible), where Adrian's army buddies are trying to figure out how to approach a pack of women. Adrian's answer? Hold up a wad of cash and call them over as if they were dogs.

No, I'm not exaggerating. I wish I were.

It works.

For the second time I nearly stopped watching the movie at this point.

The men who were talking to these women come over and take issue with Adrian having brought a local in (or, as they so charmingly put it, g**k). This isn't actually because of Tuan, but because they perceive Adrian as having stolen their women (because they were talking to them, therefore they were their property and owning people is legal and not at all morally questionable at all) for his own group. Adrian is shown to be a "good guy" because he calls these skin sacks out on being ignorant racists and starts a fight with them (HEADBUTT OF JUSTICE! Only works the first time).  The owner in the background says "it's ok" about how much the slur is being used. The military naturally is UNHAPPY with Adrian for getting in a fight in a civilian owned bar and he faces SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES despite how beloved he is. Hah, just kidding, that's not how the world works for guys like Adrian. He gets yelled at a bit and told not to do it again or else they're taking away his collection of pictures of fresh produce.

Jumping ahead, we have Adrian being shown as being a Good Guy because as he takes over the English class he is warm, friendly, and affectionate to his students, and respectful of the culture. You know, while the source of humor in these scenes is people who are still learning English speaking it poorly and being taught how to swear. Because that's not fucked up at all. Not like these people are paying for a class to try to learn the language of the people occupying their country, instead being told to flip people off. That couldn't possibly endanger them when dealing with hot headed army men.

This is kind of where the movie loses what semblance of the plot it did have. Adrian still goes after Tuan's sister (who was such a non-entity I can't even recall her name) and Tuan, after seeing Adrian treat a group of local women like literal dogs and flashing a wad of cash at them, doubles down and says "Stay the ever living fuck away from my sister or so help me God I might only be like 16 but I will develop laser eyes and set you ablaze with them". HAH JUST KIDDING THAT WAS JUST GUYS BEING DUDES! Besides, he defended him against slur-using skin sacks! So he's cool, plus, he's funny! Tuan: confirmed for likeable. So likeable he and Adrian become besties. We never get shown their friendship bracelets, but you can't convince me they don't have them. Tuan even helps Adrian get close to his sister! Although, to be fair to Tuan, his goal is to show Adrian how hopeless this is. Which he does by setting up a date between the two. With about a dozen odd relatives going as escorts. Adrian, to his credit, rolls with it and takes the whole lot of them to go see a movie, which will later lead to one of the few moments I have zero problems with.

Tuan convinces him to come back home with him (where his sister is) to come hang out later on. It is at this time she tells him "No, we can't date. We're too different" and Adrian very simply says "Listen, I know this can't work, but can't we just enjoy it for awhile? Have a few laughs? I like being around you, I'll take what ever you're willing to give. If that's just being friends that's fine." And when she insists no, this isn't something that will happen? He gives her space and keeps being friends with her brother. Adrien Cronauer: 1, Christian Grey: negative lots. This is one of very few scenes in the movie that makes me think Adrian might be a decent dude. I mean, he's not, but they tricked me for a second there.

Now that we've covered how the movie handles women, let's consider how it handles POC! I will take a moment to give a little credit here, there are two or three minor characters that are meant to be likeable besides Adrian who are white. None of the antagonists are POC. Every other sympathetic character is either Vietnamese or black (not that it's tons, but it's something) but the other two characters who we're supposed to both like and get to know at all are Garlick and Tuan.

I really like both of these characters, but let's start with Edward Garlick because I have less to say about him.

Look at that smile. He looks like a 6'02 teddy bear. This was the only decent image I could find of him not flanked by other characters, so enjoy the time gap image of Forrest Whitaker. So, Garlick is a massive black man. He is also gentle, soft spoken, kind, and well humored. He is nowhere near the "angry black man" or "zany comedic sidekick" tropes which I greatly appreciate. When he gets to be funny, he's clever, not sassy. He occasionally gets to affect the plot, but only in relation to Adrian (dragging him out of a slump, taking over as DJ at the end of the movie, playing Adrian's goodbye tape even though he could get in huge trouble for it). I would not be surprised if he had a small garden of fresh herbs he tried to grow, but wasn't great at it, but kept at it because he likes seeing them grow from seeds so much.

Then there's Tuan. Tuan becomes Adrian's best friend and guide into the world of locals. He's snarky, clever, assertive, and often far nicer to Adrian than I would be. He saves Adrian's life twice, both times from the VC, which we find out in the climax is because he is one. Upon discovering this Adrian looses his shit, and freaks out and screams at Tuan for betraying him. I'll post the excerpt of the script.
Adrian: You used me to kill two people. Two people died in that fuckin' bar.
Tuan: Big fucking deal! My mother is dead. And my older brother, who be 29 years old, he dead. Shot by Americans. My neighbour, dead. His wife, dead. Why? Because we're not human to them. We're only little Vietnamese. And I'm stupid enough to save your bullshit life at An Lac. [Tuan runs away.]
Adrian: Wait. (Yelling after him) We're here to help this country. Where the fuck you goin'? It's unbelievable. Five months in Saigon... and my best friend turns out to be a VC. This will not look good on a résumé!
Not pictured: Adrian sadly taking their BEST FRIENDS FOREVER bracelet off and dropping it in the street as he walks away sadly.

Tuan is trying to fight back against people who have come into his country and been slaughtering his people. Adrian still thinks that he is on the side of the good guys, that they're helping, that they're right, and circles it all back around to himself. He is betrayed. This is going to make him look bad. And this moment is a big part of the reason why I struggle to think Adrian is a good guy, despite the movie constantly telling me so. He doesn't even consider what Tuan just said. The hurt that has been caused to the locals. The dehumanization. He thinks "Well, I'm nice to them" and therefore doesn't think he is complicit in the damage or harm being done. That's basically the movie.  Adrian, since he is friends with a VC, is sent back to the US with an honorable discharge. Before this happens the movie tries very hard to make sure we know that Adrian is in fact a good guy. Don't let his brushing off of Tuan fool you! He goes, plays baseball with his English class (something that had been alluded to earlier in the movie) and Tuan's sister literally comes over to apologize for not being able to touch her genitals to his genitals, because he's such a good person.

One of the last scenes of the movie, on the tail of the first time someone criticize the US for being in Vietnam, is a Vietnamese woman (the sister of the character to do the calling out) reassuring Adrian and the audience that he is still a good man. The movie wanted to say something. That was obvious. But it doesn't. It refuses to. Adrian staunchly keeps supporting the army (his farewell being one last attempt to try and keep morale up) while trying to befriend the local populace.  The movie asks me to see someone being benevolent, but all I see is someone who refuses to have any actual convictions or be critical of their own actions.

Adrien is, after all, Not Like Other Soldiers, (I mean he's air force!) and since he is different and special, he is above judgement for the actions of the group he is a member of and supports. Which invites the viewers, all of which presumably found Adrian charming and are therefore Good People to think they, too, are absolved of judgement for their actions, direct or indirect. After all, they get it! And for people who disagree? Well, that makes us like his evil and unlikeable bosses, and you don't want to be one of those wet blankets, do you? This movie while trying to say something about Vietnam (war sucks, but hey, we were trying to help) is really saying that people being too critical don't get it. It's an approach and mindset that is dangerous and prevalent to this day. The whole message of the movie feels a lot like all of those guys like Adrian, charming and funny and thinking they're smarter than anyone with authority over them, sitting me down and with a warm smile patting me on the knee (with no regard for how unwelcome that contact is) and saying "Sweetheart, it's not that bad. Relax. Learn to take a joke!"  I'm sick of being told to lighten up when protesting a point on the grounds that it literally gets people killed, and I especially don't want to hear that from someone who has a collection of vintage photos of produce with small birds.

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