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The Killing Joke: War Comedy In 'Da 5 Bloods' And 'Apocalypse Now'
Soma Ghosh , July 3rd, 2020 08:28

Spike Lee's new film Da 5 Bloods, on Netflix now, grapples with the irony of war and eulogises male togetherness as a moral good. Soma Ghosh explains how its comedy capsizes under pedantry

In MAS*H, Robert Altman’s 1970 goofy Vietnam war satire, Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan protests, “That man is a prisoner of war, Doctor!”

“So are you, sweetheart,” Dr. Trapper replies, “but you don’t know it.”

In Spike Lee’s new film, Da 5 Bloods, this irony of war is danced out in a Saigon nightclub, in one of Lee’s signature moves: the in-film video. In a scene lit like a Mai Tai cocktail, old comrades Paul, Mel, Eddie and Otis strut – a Soul Train Veterans’ Parade. This real-life club, Apocalypse Now, must have been a gift location to a director who likes to show how the world is in thrall to the fictions of a white majority; specifically, here, film buffs who adore Coppola’s masterwork.

The Bloods have returned to claim a secret stash of gold and the remains of their beloved fifth Blood, Stormin’ Norm. Paul, particularly, is haunted by Norm, an impossibly saintly hybrid of a Black Power activist and the Messiah. Paul’s son David, fearing for his father’s sanity, forcibly joins the party. The second time the Bloods do the disco swagger, these five are heading into the jungle, singing to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, the album that presides over the film.

With his mash-up of genres, Lee invokes the revolutionary populism of What’s Going On. But while Gaye’s album was a masterclass in tonal fusion, Lee’s film is not. Gaye, in defiance of Motown patriarch Berry Gordy, pulled off a dream of disco-soul, both piteous and feel-good. His neighbourhood voices, intoxicated bass and eerie gospel, build a bloc party from collective torment. But Lee, constantly intercutting action with documentary montages of Black Power heroes and Vietnam veterans, dreams too little and tells too much, his fun sledgehammered by polemic.

Lightheartedness can liberate us to admit the vile systems we perpetuate. Comedy can be a counter-destruction of ‘manliness’, that macho myth used to perpetuate wars. Donald Glover’s/Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’, currently topping Black Lives Matter streams, along with Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’, slashes that myth with bilious hilarity. And Glover’s TV series Atlanta comically navigates today’s urgent choice between violence and amelioration of racial abuse. In his iconic pop video, ‘Fight The Power’ and film Malcolm X, Lee has appeared militant. But Da 5 Bloods eulogises male togetherness as a moral good. This is the well-meaning arm on our shoulder that kills the joke.

In Shirley Clarke’s lightly poetic yet grim portrait of young Harlem gangs, Cool World, (1960), her protagonist Duke says he has to “get rid of blood and be the biggest man on the street.” Apocalypse Now similarly suggests the only way to end war is through war, into its blazing heart. But Lee’s heart is not dark. The dying word, in Apocalypse Now, is “horror”. Here, it’s “bloods”. Celebrating love between soldiers, this film can’t attack war. It pokes gently at cultural one-upmanship between American, Vietnamese and French characters, but comedy capsizes under pedantry. Take this exchange between Otis and Vinh, the Bloods’ Vietnamese guide:

“ ‘Nothing is more precious than independence and liberty’ – said by Uncle Ho Chi Minh.” “Now he’s your Uncle? Our ‘Uncle’ George Washington owned 150 slaves.” “In the language of our colonists, touché.”

Now more than ever, it’s vital we acknowledge how many African American soldiers were drafted disproportionately, given the dirtiest jobs, pushed to the frontlines and, I’d add, provoked by self-segregating white soldiers who lit burning crosses to celebrate the murder of Martin Luther King. But Lee’s characters orate these facts at life-risking moments, taking the whizz out of any possible bang. In downtime, they talk in cliché: “As Aretha says, you better ‘think’.” History may repeat, but dialogue need not.

Visually, too, the film is bombastic. Photographs of heroes slap the screen with preposterous timing. I pitied the actors – for example, one character, forced to deliver a history lecture while trying not to be blown up. One might argue that a war film should be incontinent, like war. But Da 5 Bloods has all the conventions, with no form. It’s a ghost story, a history lesson, a fist-bumping friendship quest. It’s a thriller; with grainy period hues and verité camcorder shots taken by Eddie. There’s even a Miss Saigon-style side plot (cue wistful Eastern opera strings). Lee’s most coherent motif is his joking about Apocalypse Now, playing ‘The Ride of The Valkyries’, that whitest of scary songs, as our elderly Bloods pootle upriver in a tourist boat.

Apocalypse Now is a journey into our shared heart of darkness, but Lee’s film has only one troubled Blood. Paul (Delroy Lindo) is Lee’s Lear and his clown, an immigrant-loathing Trump voter whose red nose is his Make America Great Again cap. Paul’s repeated motto, voicing the losses of impoverished blacks, is “I ain’t getting fucked again.” Tragi-comedy can laugh us into understanding others’ points of view. But Paul’s red cap undermines his literally venomous, snake-bitten soliloquy to camera.

The presence of laughter in brutality is a delicate operation, easily botched. This year’s sugary Resistance, the true story of how mime clown Marcel Marceau saved thousands of orphans from the Nazis, melts like candy floss. 2019’s more interesting, zany Jojo Rabbit, with a clownish Hitler as a boy’s imaginary friend, resorts, ultimately, to the customary scheme of good and evil. The blasé kerfuffle of MAS*H, by contrast, exposes the real insanity of war. The pranks and martini-making rituals of its chauvinistic heroes offer a fast-paced, schoolboy critique: since war is a game, don’t be fooled.

Apocalypse Now is a haunted film that has haunted itself in three versions. Coppola called 2019’s Final Cut “more balanced”. Among other changes, he cut the Playboy bunny sex scenes which may feel insensitive in the post-#MeToo era. But of the three, I prefer the weirder 2001 Redux, which Walter Murch, Coppola’s legendary editor, considered the “funny, sexy, political” cut.

It’s the version where black comedy most skews another journey of five men upriver. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is an addict and special agent. Like the Bloods, he’s on a secret mission. Like Norm and Paul, Willard’s assassination target, Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), stalks Willard’s mind unseen, until almost the final quarter.

Willard’s boat is captained by Chief, a stickler who sniffs out Willard’s taste for doom (Albert Hall, who co-starred in Lee’s Malcolm X). Of his stoned crew members, the youngest and best-loved, Mr. Clean, (Laurence Fishburne) embodies hopeful Black America, living for rock. Fishburne’s long-jawed resemblance to Jimi Hendrix hints at another ghost. Coppola couldn’t afford Hendrix’s music so hired his foremost imitator, Randy Hansen. Stoned on Philippine weed, the two created a spectre of not-quite-Hendrix, a mind-bending guitar that snakes from the Black Power-postered trenches of besieged black soldiers. The waste of Jimi’s life is twinned to his dope-addled, crack-shot brothers. Meanwhile, Californian surf legend Lance, one of Willard’s two white crew members, lets off a Purple Haze flare, with fatal results. Lastly, there’s Chef, a white coward who lives for Playboy and mangoes.

It’s well-documented that a third to a half of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were fuelled by speed, weed, coke, heroin and psychedelics. Like in MAS*H, however, Coppola suggests their vision was less impaired than their government’s. Willard, through his fog, scorns his superiors’ displays of compassion for the Vietnamese: “We’d cut’em in half with a machine gun and give ‘em a Band Aid. It was a lie.”

Through Otis, who uses Oxycontin for an agonising hip, Lee touches on the destruction of Black people by America’s opioid epidemic. His Bloods abhor “junkies” – Lee presents masculine respect as a potentially life-saving positive of gang-mentality. Coppola’s film rejects the Band Aid of solidarity and absorbs its subjects’ drug-addled point of view, spooling into horrendous gorgeousness. Starry camp lights twinkle, sapphire waters ripple, corpses festoon ancient temples. When Willard and Chef encounter a tiger, picking their way like toy soldiers among gigantic banyan trees, the film appears to have absorbed their vision.

On Willard’s journey upriver, he’s assisted by spruce, square-shouldered Kilgore, who medicates his men with an American dream: T-bones, guitar sing-alongs and surfing. Blaring the Ride of the Valkyries, he flies them into enemy territory, in pursuit of a six-foot peak.

“But Sir,” quails a soldier, “That’s Charlie’s point.” “Charlie don’t surf!”

Kilgore whips off his shirt, unflinching, beside an exploding missile. Such comedy is interlaced with glimpses into army life, sometimes piped over the radio, as when GIs in Saigon are requested to dry laundry indoors (“Keep Saigon beautiful!”). We see Lance water ski-ing while Mr. Clean dances to ‘Satisfaction’: war kids, even soldiers, need larks.

The bristled, sweating, baby face of Willard stares round, nauseated, at this human carnival. Through his eyes, Coppola reveals the fake notion of ‘evil’. One guy gets disembowelled while another eats shrimp, or drinks the last claret. Prisoners of our own system, we see its indifference when it’s too late.

The now excised scene with the bunnies, exploited to exchange sex for fuel, is one of the film’s funniest and saddest. The coked-up Playmate Of the Year weeps in Lance’s arms. “I wish,” she blubbs, as he takes advantage, “I could find one person that would share my point of view.” Miss May’s biggest fan, Chef, gets to bone his dream girl, in a helicopter with her pet birds, while she gurns over her creatures. “I love birds!” cries Chef, “Fuck me like a bird!”

Norm, ultimately, redeems Paul with love. In Apocalypse Now, Kurtz saves Willard by teaching him to butcher him like a ceremonial bull. Once we embrace our brutality, we go beyond hypocrisy. “Horror and moral terror,” Kurtz teaches Willard, “are your friends.”

At a time when we’re rushing to tell the untold story, the failure of Lee’s film serves an important warning. White racism has plundered our humanity. Caught between rage and amelioration, we must not allow it to kill our art, by which we reclaim our unbounded, ambiguous reality.