Dear America

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What have you learnt about “The Institution and Individual Experience” from your study of the text, Dear America?

An institution is defined as either an organisation for the advancement of a particular purpose, or as any established law or custom in a particular culture. The texts, Dear America, composed by Bill Coutrie, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, and Pink Floyd’s song, “The Wall”, expose many things about the individual’s experience with “the institution”, from the positive effects of some institutions, to the overwhelmingly negative effects of the majority of institutions and institutional practice.

Based on a book of the same name, Dear America was commissioned by the New York Veterans Memorial Commission. This fact informs the purpose and influences the perspective of the text Dear America decries the effect of institutional policy and power, with the individual portrayed very much as a victim of the institution. It is clearly a text that communicates its information, ideas, attitudes and belief systems in a way very specific to a particular area of society- it clearly adopts a sympathetic attitude towards American soldiers in Vietnam.

Dear America is a compilation of the letters of certain American soldiers who fought in Vietnam, together with images including photographs of soldiers who died after writing their letters home, footage, newsreel footage from war correspondents, newspaper headlines and excerpts from television coverage of politicians and protestors at home. The film documents the experiences of American soldiers at war, at the same time portraying the change in public opinion towards American involvement in the war, with anti-war sentiment growing as the war progressed.

Cheap University Papers on Dear America

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The film claims to be a documentary the opening sequence of the film features a split screen divided between a photograph of a young man in uniform and a slow-rolling textual accompaniment which reads “Every scene, every shot in the film is real. Nothing has been re-enacted”. Coutrie makes a claim for total truthfulness, reinforced by the honour-roll of actors who are thanked by the producers not for acting, but for “bringing these letters to life”. The audience is positioned to sympathise with the American soldiers by matching actor’s voices (reading real letters) with actual footage of American soldiers throughout the film. The addition of actors’ voices to the photographs or footage causes the letter-writers to become almost “characters” in the film.

The happiness and sense of purpose of the young American soldiers filmed playing on a beach in Vietnam in the following sequences of the film is reflected in the voice-over and music- “Under the Boardwalk”. The war seems to be a rightful war. This initial euphoria- the idealised, positive images of Vietnam which may have existed at the beginning of the war- is contrasted with the wartime reality of ever-imminent death which is exposed as the film progresses.

As the film unfolds, the human cost is measured in statistics to each year’s end, and the initial euphoria and excitement changes to disillusionment. The scene cuts directly to graphic images of “soldiers at work”, manning machine guns as helicopters strafe the jungle below. The soundtrack changes to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” which decries the cost of patriotism Some folks are born to wave the flag/Ooh they’re red, white and blue/ And when the band plays “hail to the chief”/ Ooh they point the canon at you”. This lyric highlights the idea that the cost of patriotism in war is not paid by “senator’s sons” but by ordinary folk. The visuals focus on images of injured and dead soldiers being saved or retrieved by their comrades. The scene then cuts to a well-groomed news reporter, representative of institutional power, who clinically, and in well-modulated tones, details the extent of American casualties. Those who have died are statistics. The sympathies of the responders are directed towards the soldiers against the faceless institutional powers who determine their fates. The film continues in this way using carefully constructed montages, interspersing “real” soundtrack (bullets, helicopters, etc.) with the music of the era overlain by “acted” readings of letters and mixing in actual footage of GIs with newsreel footage and commentary, to manipulate the audience’s response. The responder becomes aware of the profoundly negative effect of institutional policies on the individual.

The film further presents itself as an accurate historical narrative with the use of subtitles which appear at the bottom of the screen at regular intervals. The viewer is informed of the historical progress of the war. The most consistent means of doing this is the regular “head count” which rises dramatically as the film unfolds. These subtitles are carefully juxtaposed with the letter-readings and footage which chart the emotional or personal progress of the war.

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