The ghosts of the Vietnam War now outrank the survivors. After fifty years, it may as well be ancient history, with Ken Burns’ recent documentary, The Vietnam War, solidifying its place as a research project not unlike his Civil War. Kissinger’s still around, of course, and every once in a while, one may spot the golden “VIETNAM VETERAN” adorning a black hat, but the war’s individual moments have been long subsumed into a mythic tale about the limits of American hubris. But, the children of those veterans still carry the residual traumas of those moments, and in them, the ghosts find their vessels.
Travis Wilkerson, director of radical political documentaries such as the magnificent An Injury to One, was one such child. His last few projects have been increasingly personal, focusing mostly on the sins and stories of his own family to illustrate larger political issues. His latest, The Fuckee’s Hymn, continues the pattern by amending his 2011 Distinguished Flying Cross with more stories about Wilkerson’s late father and his role in the Vietnam War. Here, Wilkerson takes a more philosophical approach by questioning the role of stories in the war, as well as how those stories directly affected his father. “Can a story kill you?” Wilkerson teases. You probably know the answer.
Dense forest growth in high contrast black-and-white dominates the frame for most of The Fuckee’s Hymn’s running time. Wilkerson’s movies usually play like a visual radio show, so the slow series of landscape shots merely serve as context for the wider story. Here, the forest and surrounding flora are eventually revealed to be the land around his parents’ house, with the house itself briefly making a cameo (though only its darkest recesses are shown with a sliver of light to mark a bathroom in a long hallway). Meanwhile, Wilkerson narrates his story with the circuitous rhythms of a Faulkner character, often interrupting himself, starting the story again, or allowing the strength of a tangential story take over. With his commentary on the deadly alchemy of storytelling, the curse of family memory, and the ghosts that live in the margins of his father’s legacy, Wilkerson has forged a true Vietnam Gothic.
After meditating on the power of stories and myths “that can turn killers into heroes,” we learn the specifics of the elder Wilkerson’s Vietnam career. He joins the army as it provides the only way for a blue-collar kid to learn how to fly, he becomes the youngest pilot to graduate from his base in Alabama, he’s awarded one of the most prestigious medals a pilot can achieve, he’s considered a hero, and he regrets all of it. Travis then supplies his own memories of his father as he knew him: an esteemed trauma doctor and professor who saved lives, only to succumb to a form of cancer that only agent orange can induce. Even if he tried to live through acts of service to exorcize the ghosts of Vietnam, the ghosts can still occupy the body.
Wilkerson repeatedly teases a story that simultaneously put his father in Vietnam, made his father regret Vietnam, and ultimately killed his father; but a secondary story haunts both Wilkerson and the film itself. Flashes of red interrupt the serene forest imagery, a face appears in the shadows. Eventually, Wilkerson
recounts the spiritual horror of watching Hong Sen Nguyen’s The Abandoned Field, a film that depicts American pilots as unrelenting monsters to a small Vietnamese village and ends with both Vietnamese and American boys fatherless. Clips of the film dissolve into the American woods during the breaks in Wilkerson’s monologue, providing the only war imagery and the only faces visible in the film. They, too, haunt.
Films like The Fuckee’s Hymn, such as James N. Kienetz Wilkins’ Indefinite Pitch, remain interesting so long as the radio play format holds your attention. Thankfully, Wilkerson pauses, enunciates, grumbles, and teases enough to make his subject, as personal a subject as one can get, the centerpiece of our collective fears, guilt, and doubt about the war. Storytelling, that ancient art, belongs to the characters of the Gothic like the neighbors of Absalom, Absalom! who corner the novel’s Quentin and ramble lies about half-forgotten pasts, then begin again as if telling the story in the right way will hex the ghosts back into history. Wilkerson’s story is also one of half-remembrances and stories that earn a warning: “even if they’re not real, they’re true.” But, he doesn’t tell his story again. Stories can kill you.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.