Thursday, March 9, 2017

Better In Your Head?--JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN

Dalton Trumbo

This is a war and war is hell and what the hell and to hell with it.

SPOILER ALERT, absolutely nothin'. Absolutely nothin'.

Joe Bonham did not spend his days and nights in small-town Colorado wishing to be a quadruple amputee when he grew up. He didn't want to go off to fight in a war, either, much less the one to end them all, but he had very little choice in the matter. To die for one's country is presumably a great thing, but what of Joe's fate? Is it almost-great?

See, Joe didn't just lose his arms and legs. His eyes, ears, nose, mouth--also gone. His mind is seemingly the only thing Joe hasn't lost. Not yet.

Joe is no longer a man; he once was, and what he now is, is too much to bear. Joe is a prisoner of (what remains of) his body. With the gradual realization of his unfathomable condition, Joe seeks salvation. Thoughts race around inside his head, each one an attempt to recapture the past and mollify the present. Joe has lost so much, but he has more time than he knows what to do with. What drives a man more than time? What time is it, how much time do I have, how much time is left?

The storm of activity in his brain ranges in intensity, from Rockwellesque to Cronbergian, peaking with an appearance from Jesus Christ, who turns out to be a sort of pied piper for the U.S. government.

After several years of isolation, Joe attempts communication via Morse code. He uses his head to tap out dots and dashes against the pillow, stopping only when exhausted. He didn't come across the potential solution overnight, and doesn't  expect instant results. Finally, finally, a nurse able to feel something other than facile sympathy realizes Joe's intentions and rushes to alert some Very Important Men, who have just one question for the living dead man.

What  does he want?

He wants to serve the good ol' US of A in a way no man ever has before: as a traveling freak show. A patriot in a glass display case, a new way to see warfare. Forget the highfalutin' anthems, the creaseless uniforms, the shiny medals…let every man woman and child come and face the truth, with the help of a poor kid who has no face but plenty of truth.

Joe's breakthrough was in vain. The military can't afford public exposure to this young man-turned-medical curiosity. Joe Bonham will continue floating in limbo, until someone somewhere decides to show him mercy.

From 1935-1939, the National Book Awards honored the "Most Original Book" (fiction or non-fiction). Johnny Got His Gun was the last winner, and as the only one I've read it was clearly the cream of a scant crop. The story of a twenty-year-old who is as close to dead as the living are allowed is pretty damn novel…then consider the absence of quotation marks and commas, and no italics to indicate transitions between flashbacks/present, waking/sleeping.

But forget the textual oddities; Johnny Got His Gun is an emotionally devastating read. My first attempt (nearly three decades ago!) went unwell. My second shot, I finished it in less than forty-eight hours.

Set during World War I, released in time for the sequel, this is the sort of "required read" that changes lives. Just be prepared. This is a novel so stark that the "s" lacks sibilance and the crack of the "k" echoes. It's short of a masterpiece; parts are overwritten, and not in the sense of florid prose run amok, oh Lord no. Simply, Trumbo wrote too many words. It's one thing to ensnare readers in the hell-pit with the alleged hero, but editing is a thing, an important thing. I had the same goddamn complaint about Catch-22. Make the point. Make the point over. Do not make the point over and over.

Director-Dalton Trumbo
Writer-Dalton Trumbo

What if, what if. What if financing hadn't fallen through, and surrealist genius Luis Buñuel directed the film version of Dalton Trumbo's brutal antiwar classic. Hell, what if Dalton Trumbo had sought out another director, one with actual experience, instead of choosing to make to make his directorial debut at the age of 66?

The "what if" game…I ain't seen a person win it yet.

Set during World War I, released during the Vietnam War, Johnny Got His Gun kicks off with footage of the "masters of men," those leaders who declare war, who determine when and where it shall be fought, and who will be doing the fighting (spoiler: not them). Perfect. Don't let those grim reapers off the hook.

But maybe hire someone with film experience for the lead role? Oh, Timothy Bottoms ain't bad; he's got one of those faces, like a Ryan O'Neal you don't want to punch, and his very next role was in the vastly superior The Last Picture Show. The fault lies mainly with Dalton Trumbo's trepidation to take his source material to a level beyond, to test the limits of the visual medium. The addition of voice-over is a no-brainer; would that Bottoms's line readings were uniformly naturalistic. Likewise the other nurses and high-ranking Army officers who stop by to gawk and press. Some are stoic, some are shaken, but none of them inspire any significant reaction. Even the nurse who fancies herself Joe's angel of mercy is bland as a baby's diet. Likewise the scenes between Joe and Kareen--ideally, touching and tender. Realistically, one slice of white bread professing its love for another slice of white bread. (Not to mention, Kareen's bedroom has obviously been decorated with the express purpose of pulverizing sexual urges.)

Dalton Trumbo as a director was well-meaning and ill-equipped. Could Luis Buñuel have crafted a masterpiece worthy of keeping company with the other timeless films of the decade? Maybe. Hell, forget a legendary director, one with some actual experience would have done a tighter turn.

All that said, how in the hopping hell did Johnny Got His Gun receive the Grand Prix Spécial du Jury at Cannes? French mania at the sight and sound of America owning up to faulty machinery? Residual sympathy for one of the "Hollywood Ten"?

No suspense here. The book is a minor classic. The movie? Minor miracle I made it to the end. I bitched about the novel's occasional bloat and well, the big-screen adaptation is similarly, and more frequently, afflicted.

The film tries to condense Joe Bonham's mental frenzy into a "greatest hits" package; single disc, at that. The breaks between present and past are blatant, which is great for a movie, generally. Not so here; the book set my imagination whizzing and popping with the introduction of each new memory, each new image, and I thought to myself, what else can this unfortunate bastard to besides submit to the rush? Good experiences, bad experiences, neutral experiences, inside/outside, friends and family, birthdays and holidays, sex and love, seeking and growing, yes, gimme the mash-up of sentiments and sentences, I can still feel I want to keep feeling. I would spend several minutes lingering on a single page, paralyzed momentarily by reveries of my own childhood spent alongside a mother who rarely left the kitchen. Jars of fruit, tins of cookies, pans of breaded chicken, pots of boiling pasta, suffocating my senses…suddenly, a syllogism took my seat at the table:


And if that sounds simplistic or heavy-handed, I guess the dream sequences in the film version of Johnny Got His Gun corrupted me. The sole success stories are Joe's fantastical discussions with Jesus Christ (played by the awesome Donald Sutherland). Trumbo smartly uses their conversations to cover a few of the dilemmas Joe struggled with in the beginning, such as distinguishing reality from dreams. These sequences are touching, even eloquent. The agonized scream of Jesus as the train of young men accelerates towards the terminus ("the high thin music of death," per the novel) is the Christian counterpart of "diabolus in musica."

The rest are clumsy attempts at surrealist cinema which don't begin to compensate for the film's greatest failing: treating Joe Bonham as nothing more than a metaphor, a stand-in for the working class puppets of America. We don't get to know him as intimately in the movie, and therefore it's difficult to take much more away at the end of two hours other than: wow, that was creepy. The book does not allow the reader to forget his humanity. Indeed, it is the linchpin of the whole tragic story. He is defenseless. He is bereft of hope. Forget walking or talking…Joe Bonham will never sit or stand again, and he's only breathing thanks to a machine, but he is not a robot, not a piece of meat. He is a human being.

The book features Jose, the world's most honorable bakery employee. The movie doesn't. The book concludes in a storm of anger and defiance. The movie fades out along with Joe, pleading.

Like millions born after 1975, my first exposure to the film version of Johnny Got His Gun came via the video for Metallica's late Eighties classic, "One." Given that singer/guitarist James Hetfield took his inspiration from the novel, it only made sense to edit in clips and audio from the movie around footage of the band performing in a suitably drab room. Of course that piqued my interest in the movie, but finding the book proved easier. I didn't finish it though, as I was barely twelve years old and really put off by the lack of quotes.

No hyperbole zone, just watch the Metallica vid. You get the best parts of a mediocre movie and a crusher tune.

The story of Joe Bonham is just so damn unfair. All Joe wanted was to be alive, free, independent, not buggin' nobody nor a body buggin' him, maybe settle down and raise a family, be an admirable man just like the one what raised him, and instead? Another casualty of war.

War--an excuse for safe men to speak dangerous words and have thousands of other men back them up on his behalf. Should the fight be taken up only by those who want to fight, who believe that dying for democracy is the noblest sacrifice? Is Joe--and by extension, people who share Joe's beliefs--the epitome of selfishness, unable to care about a future they will have no active part in?

Trumbo wrote the novel after reading a newspaper article on a Canadian soldier in the First World War who returned home a quad amputee. That soldier, most likely, was Ethelbert Christie

Although he didn't get to direct, Luis Buñuel apparently wrote the scenes with Jesus Christ. Explains the high quality.

Would you rather be a human vegetable or a slab of meat with a brain?

Hearkening back to simpler times is common; no matter the depth of our longing, we still have new memories to anticipate. A thirty-year-old wistfully remembering themselves at the age of ten will one day be a sixty-year-old recalling their thirties. Joe was twenty, remembering his childhood as the time when he could breathe in the world, feel the sun and enjoy companionship. When Joe is thirty, what will he remember? Ten years ago, when his naive ass boarded a train to board a plane to fight for men and women who really didn't care what happened to him personally so long as America could cry "Victory!" at the end?

The night before Joe shuffles off to war, he spends some quality time with his girlfriend Kareen at her place. Her dad walks in and berates them--for wasting time with foreplay on the couch. He encourages them to take the action to the bedroom. The next morning, he even brings them breakfast in bed! "Y'all must be plum wore out after a night of plowin'. Here, I brung ya some biscuits."*

While reading the novel, I couldn't keep from wondering--does his mother know? His younger sisters? But how could they, the hospital staff, the military men who visit to observe, they don't even know who he is! Besides a gross clump of flesh. Christ, his family will think he died, and they'll only be three-fourths right!

Thanks to the novel, Joe's dream of being an "educational exhibit" came true, after all. Ooh what a lucky man.

*not actual dialogue from the book, more's the pity.

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