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Movie Review: Vivian Wong: Dear Lori & Kill John Wayne

By Mike Everleth ⋅ July 24, 2008

Female soldier in front of American flag and John Wayne

Vivian Wong is a young new filmmaker who has just recently graduated from NYC’s Cooper Union School of Art. On her website, visitors can watch several of her short films in full where they’ll discover a strongly confident new voice in the underground / avant-garde scene, with an extremely accomplished portfolio of work belying her young age. (She’s 22.)

Wong’s films are primarily concerned with notions of war, violence and sexuality. Her two most recent pieces, Dear Lori and Kill John Wayne, seek to deconstruct two myth-making war icons. One is a classical figure who projects a pure, idealizied vision of wartime heroics, while the other stands at a controversial point where the dualities of heroism and propaganda intersect.

Dear Lori was completed in 2008 and its a mixed-media meditation on the story of Iraq War veteran Jessica Lynch. Framed as a letter to Lynch’s deceased best friend, Lori Piestewa, the film is constructed not unlike the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor. There are three Lynch’s in Wong’s film: The real Jessica Lynch who appears in photographs and in audio testimony to Congress; plus, Canadian actress Laura Regan who portrayed Lynch in the NBC TV-movie Saving Jessica Lynch; and actress Kay Copeland who Wong directs in re-enactments and who narrates the letter to Lori.

The actual letter being read is fictional, but based on real statements by Lynch and it also recounts the true events of the infamous incident in which her convoy was attacked and her subsequent rescue from an Iraqi hospital by American troops. Although, the whole concept of what “truely” happened are explored here, mostly in the form of Lynch’s rebuttal to her claims of being used as a propaganda tool by the military. Lynch, of course, famously rebuffed the official story, particularly rebuking claims that she fired at the enemy before being captured. Also according to Lynch, Piestewa never fired her gun either, which would have betrayed her peaceful Hopi upbringing.

One of the more interesting parts of the film — and the one Wong quite possibly takes the most liberties with — is the fictional Lynch’s musings on the Abu Ghraib scandal and Lynndie England’s part in it. England and Lynch have a lot in common: Both were raised in West Virginia and joined the military to earn money to go to college. In Wong’s film, the fictional Lynch says she initially thought England was a man in those famous torture pictures, only to realize she was a woman trying to look like one of the boys. What I personally found fascinating is that later on in the film, we see actress Copeland as Lynch supposedly putting on her army uniform for the first time, an outfit that completely buries her own sexuality. That fact goes unremarked upon in the narration, which allows the film to slide into more complicated territory on the theme of self-perception. Lynch is stuck in a place where she must center her identity in a world where she has strongly clashing private and public personas.

Next, as one can infer from the title, Kill John Wayne isn’t a flattering portrayal of “The Duke.” This is an animated collage film and kind of reminded me of the work of Martha Colburn. Wong takes cutouts of Wayne from the misguided Vietnam War film The Green Berets and literally makes war give him a boner. “War” takes on the figure of a sexy woman who ultimately, what I would call, reverse castrates him; i.e. separates Wayne’s body from his penis. This is a wildly inventive little animation that would make a nice companion piece to J. Hoberman‘s analysis of ’60s cinema and politics The Dream Life, in which Wayne plays a significant part. Actually, given that Hoberman is a professor at the Cooper Union, perhaps Wong had him for a class or two.

These two films, as well as a whole bunch more, are not available for embedding, but I highly recommend visiting Wong’s site and downloading them. (Dear Lori runs 23 mins. and Kill John Wayne is a little over 6 mins.) I also took a peek at Goodbye Horses, which I liked a whole lot, too. You can read a little more on the films and watch clips from them here.