". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Monday, December 8, 2014

China Beach, Season 1 (1988) ABC

China Beach had four seasons. Only season one (1988), composed only of six episodes including the pilot, seems available from netflix.*  

It stars Dana Delany.

The location of the series is the Da Nang evacuation hospital and R&R center, at My Khe, nicknamed by the occupying forces, "China Beach." However, the locations for the video shoots were in California and Hawaii.

Inevitably, China Beach got associated with with the eternally beloved series, Mash (1972 - 1983)  -- which was transferred for television from the original setting Altman's 1970 Mash, which was intended to be read by all as Vietnam, not Korea.  It was savage, and most savage of all to women.

China Beach is dark, less satirical, very cynical and, while sharp and witty, unlike Mash, this series is not a comedy. Nor is it a "war" series.  The fighting, the consequences of which the hospital and the shipment center of dead bodies deal with most days and nights happens off screen.

Most of the focus is on the women at the hospital base, who are there to clean up the messes made by and of men, whether of their bodies, their lives, their quarters, and war – while also providing all emotional support, nurture and healing -- and of course, entertainment and recreation. Who thinks of doing any of this for them?  Generally speaking, tentatively and experimentally, only each other.

These experiences of the women who worked the bases as nurses, administrators, services personnel, such as the young Vietnamese woman at the community center which the Red Cross My Khe director, Lila, is attempting to build, are based on the book Home Before Morning (1983) written by former U.S. Army Nurse Lynda Van Devante.  They too have PTSD.   Lynda Van Devante died in 2002.

While anti-war in Vietnam protest is full blown, and both protest and the war are highly criticized at the hospital, on the base, and among the men as irrational, useless and terrible waste, feminism has not yet raised its terrible head in the military.

This dark cynicism about war and the top-bottom military organization  made this series, while popular with critics, unpopular with viewers ....

The episodes are written with the multiple characters in the traditional manner of network television, following each character's various fracas, conflicts and problems, as well as their shifting relationships with each other. However, there is arc in the telling over the season, as well as nuance and dimension in the conflicts that weren't as expected from a television series then. So, like Homicide, Xena and Babylon-5, China Beach too, might be one of the early indicators that a new golden age of television was dawning. 

The penultimate episode of China Beach is titled "Brothers."  It principally creates a denoument of two of the characters' through-lines of the season.

Michael Boatman plays Beckett on China Beach
Beckett is the African American grunt in charge of the base's GRU -- Graves Registration Unit. His job, dealing hands on with the dead, makes him a pariah among those who go in country.  Even his shadow falling on them might put them next in the body bag shipment home. Isolated mostly by the other soldiers, he has come to commune with "my men," the dead. The other principal arc is that of Cherry, the wide-eyed, blonde from Iowa, a Red Cross volunteer, who serves doughnuts in the canteen and talks to the men back from in country -- the young women who have volunteered for such jobs are called "Dolly Girls."  She came to Vietnam to find her missing older brother, whom she has hero-worshipped all her life.

Through Beckett we can figure out how humanity gets religion from death and the dead, transmitted from those who live with them, who take on the dead's terror and taboo. Beckett walks through worlds. When some of his "brothers" attempt to recruit his dead as transport for heroin, he won't do it, no matter how much he's appealed to in the name of brotherhood. "My men don't want this." They aren't going to participate in the killing of other brothers, in the burned over ghettos of back home.

Cherry's wide innocent eyes see the the truth, faces it with courage, that her beloved brother has become a criminal, preying on everyone, via violence and his enterprise of guns, drugs and whores. The episode is powerful, not sy sll sentimental. There's not closure. Nor is there redemption for dealers or for Cherry's brother.  There's no punishment either, other than the hell of their own heads. Both of these men, who don't know each other, have made by the corrupt enterprise that this war is, but they also made their choices to wallow in the filth, as much as Beckett and Cherry have made their other kinds of choices..

The vast amount of the series’s budget spent on music permissions.

Worth it though, particularly for the title cut – “Reflections,”  the first single released as Diana Ross and the Supremes, in the Summer of Love, July 24th, 1967. "Reflections" is also notable for being the first time Motown incorporated a bit of the psychedelic touch, as heard in the opening bars. Highly effective – every time the opener comes on my screen, I get a lump in my throat.  But the series, like the song, never ever overdoes psychedelia, slang or any of the 60's, or uses them in a cliched manner.  The reality everyone is in, there in one of the armpits of the world, is already sufficiently irrational.

The audio values of the China Beach production are brilliant -- loudness of the insect and amphibian life after dark, the churn and thud of choppers, screech, wail and thunder of various weaponry, the constant thump of fans, dehumidifiers, generators, and if, a character is lucky, a whistle of an air conditioner, are as omnipresent source audio as are the hit songs of the day spontaneously sung acapela, out of radios, on tapes, by cover entertainers, and, when the troops are lucky, the actual performers, such as Nancy Sinatra.

This season one of 6 episodes, including the pilot, make for a coherent and satisfying arc themselves, and are more than worth watching.  I sure wish I could see the rest of the other seasons.


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