Review of “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision”

This post originally appeared here on November 9, 2010. I’m reposting it today in observance of the 40th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Washington, D.C. 

Tonight [Nov 9, 2010] I joined forty others at the Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union headquarters at 1 Tremont Place for the screening of the Academy Award winning documentary, “Maya Lin: A strong clear vision” by the Lowell Film Collaborative in cooperation with the Arts League of Lowell in honor of Veterans Day. Suzz Cromwell who, along with her husband Brett, is a co-founder of the Lowell Film Collaborative, explained that while the absence of a dedicated theater in the city was in some ways an obstacle, it also presented an opportunity since the film collaborative, to find venues for its films, is forced to find partnerships with other institutions such as Jeanne D’Arc. It’s a formula that works marvelously and has proven to be a great asset to the city.

Tonight’s film was amazing. In 1979, a small group of Vietnam veterans spontaneously launched a movement to memorialize their fallen comrades. They gained much political support and were granted a three acre site on the National Mall. To select a monument, they convened a blind competition to be judged by a blue ribbon panel of architects and artists. From the 1441 submissions they chose one that had been designed, it turned out, by a 21-year old senior at Yale University named Maya Lin.

In the film, Lin explained that her intent was to allow each visitor to experience the pain of the loss of so many service members because “you have to accept the pain for it to be cathartic.” When she first saw the site, she envisioned taking a giant knife and cutting a slash into the earth and that visitors would descend into this physical depression to confront the pain of loss and only after that was done would they ascend back up into the light above ground. One thing I did not know was that listing the names of all who died was a requirement imposed by the organizers on all who entered the competition. Also, the idea of listing the names chronologically was controversial with some preferring an alphabetical listing. It was only after Lin did a mock-up showing the many hundreds of decedents named Smith that the organizers realized that alphabetical ordering would cause individual names to be lost in a sea of like names and the chronological approach worked.

The most powerful part of the movie was its account of the controversy that erupted over the design when it was first introduced in 1982. By then I was living on the other side of the world in Germany as a member of the US Army and even I was fully aware of the fight over the design. Secretary of the Interior James Watt, who had final control over the site, threatened to kill the entire project unless a “more appropriate” monument was included. Hence the “three soldiers” sculpture and a flagpole were added to the site but at an unobtrusive “entrance” area and not in the midst of the Wall as the critics had preferred.

Recalling the controversy from 28 years ago and having my memory refreshed by seeing the film, I can’t help but think that if Fox News and today’s type of talk radio existed back in 1982, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that we all know, respect and admire would never have been built. There’s something in our culture that causes us to resist change mightily, be that change an innovative monument design or a civil rights measure such as same sex marriage. When first revealed, we react to change as if it will cause the downfall of civilization, yet within a relatively short period of time we embrace the change and wonder what all the fuss was about. Life would be easier if we were all more open-minded from the start.