Saturday, June 25, 2016

R.I.P. Michael Herr: 1940-2016

Michael Herr
On June 23, 2016, writer Michael Herr died in New York at the age of 76. To film goers, he is likely best remembered as the writer of director Stanley Kubrick's war film Full Metal Jacket. However, it wasn't his only exposure to war themed media. Along with partial credit on writing Apocalypse Now, he also wrote the critically acclaimed book "Dispatches," which served as a quintessential piece of the New Journalism Movement and received rave reviews for its ability to turn his observations about the Vietnam War into a legitimate narrative. Even if his work in the decades to follow are as few as the details about his life, he remains a big influence on those seeking to make journalism and cinema in more visceral and personal ways. He may not have the most extensive resume, but he definitely had a lost of talent at what he did achieve.

Herr was born on April 13, 1940 in Lexington, Kentucky before moving to Syracuse, New York. During his youth, he was part of the New Journalism movement alongside Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer. He helped to turn journalism into a narrative worthy of reading, with the New York Times calling his book "Dispatches" as being:
"It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war, stoned murder.”
During the rest of his early career, he took on many freelance jobs. This included a gig at Esquire that allowed him to report from the ongoing Vietnam War where he wrote a monthly column. Following this time between 1971 and 1975, he published nothing. It wasn't until 1977 when Crawdaddy Magazine published a story he wrote about touring with rock star Ted Nugent that his career began to take off again. He may have not published too many books, but 1979 saw the release of "Dispatches," which remains his most iconic piece of writing.

1979 also saw the year that he collaborated with director Francis Ford Coppola on what would be Herr's first movie gig. While Apocalypse Now is more notorious for its disastrous shooting schedule, it does feature some of the best use of narration and voice-over. This was largely what Herr's contribution would end up being. While not a substantial amount, it did lead Herr to work with Coppola again in 1997 on the John Grisham adaptation of The Rainmaker. Again, he is credited with solely writing narration.

However, his biggest collaboration came with Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket in 1987. Based on Gustav Hasford's novel, Herr cowrote the script with Hasford and Kubrick. It makes sense considering Herr's firsthand account of the war, which produced visceral results with some of the most scathing and uncomfortable war scenes in history. It remained divisive upon release, but it ended up becoming a favorite among Kubrick fans and would lead to a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for the three writers. It would lose the category to The Last Emperor. Herr would write additional articles about Kubrick in subsequent years - two of which would appear in the director's personal biography. However, their collaboration wasn't as fruitful as Herr rejected taking an editing pass on the director's final film Eyes Wide Shut.

Despite having a strong impact in the writing community as a writer, his personal life remains largely unknown. He was with his family at the time of his death, and his career has remained largely unproductive in the years leading up to it. Still, Herr's work in adding depth and reality to the Vietnam War is a feat that remains influential and unsurpassed by many. What he leaves behind is his words and a unique and powerful depiction of war and cinema. It may not be the largest output, but the work that he ended up doing did leave an impact, and that's really all that one could hope for.

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