A look back at this day in film history
December 08
December 8, 1978
The Deer Hunter released

In 1978, two very different Hollywood films for tackled the previously taboo subject of Vietnam: Hal Ashby's Coming Home (released in February '78) and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, which debuted on December 8, 1978. Both were set in 1968, but while Coming Home was a measured (though passionate) look at the ramifications of war on the home front, The Deer Hunter was a brutal and provocative portrait of the war itself. The movie centered on a trio of Russian American steel workers from Western Pennsylvania - played by Robert De Niro, John Savage and Christopher Walken - who go to fight in Vietnam, and for whom the brutality of war does not stop after they are away from combat. At the Oscars that year, the two Vietnam-themed films dominated: while Coming Home won Best Actor and Actress, Cimino claimed Best Director and Best Picture, with Walken taking home Best Supporting Actor. The Best Picture award was presented by John Wayne, in his last public appearance before his death, a somewhat fitting gesture given that the Duke had appeared in Hollywood's only other Vietnam flick, the jingostic The Green Berets (1968). The Deer Hunter too was seen by some as hawkish and racist in its portrayal of the Vietnamese, so much so that when it was programmed at the Berlin Film Festival in early 1979, the Russian delegation protested its inclusion and, when it was not withdrawn, pulled their films from the festival. The other socialist states (Cuba, East Germany, Bulgaria, Poland and Czechoslovakia) followed suit, issuing a statement that The Deer Hunter had no place playing at the Berlinale, as it did not foster an “improvement of mutual understanding between the peoples of the world.”

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December 8, 1861
Georges Melies Born

Born in the middle of the 19th century, Georges Méliès helped define film as the most important artform of the 20th century. The son of a shoe manufacturer, Méliès was fascinated more in stagecraft and puppetry than heels and soles. And while he eventually took over his father’s factory, he did so only to make enough money to buy the Theatre Robert Houdin in 1888. Soon he became a master showman, creating elaborate stage fantasies with magic and special effects. His life changed completely on December 28 1895, after he attended the Lumière brothers’ exhibition of their Cinématographe. From then on, he strove to marry the magic of theater with the magic of film. In 1896, a production gone wrong showed him the way. After a camera jammed, Méliès saw things wondrously disappear, then pop back in frame, as if by directed by a master magician. He started developing other special effects—a double exposure, a split screen, and a dissolve––to enhance film’s trickery. In 1902, his A Trip to The Moon became an instant classic, turning Méliès into one of film’s foremost artists. His success however could not be maintained. By 1913 his famous film company was sold off, leaving Méliès nearly penniless. Indeed the boy who turned to the arts to avoid making shoes watched as the celluloid from his films was used to patch soldiers shoes during World War I. Nearly lost to obscurity, Méliès was rediscovered in the 20s and awarded the French Legion of Honour in 1931. Now heralded as one the grandfathers of cinema, only 200 of his over 500 films remain.

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