As presented by filmmaker Peter McDowell in his poignant documentary, Jimmy in Saigon, his older brother Jimmy grew up like any ordinary boy in Champaign-Urbana, IL in the 1960s: middle-class Catholic family of seven, spotty grades, Cubs fan, smoked a little dope, dropped out of college, got drafted into the army in 1970 and was sent to fight in Vietnam.
Vietnam was where Jimmy changed. He discovered pills, acid, cocaine, opium and presumably the other soldierly recreations, but also something he didn’t talk much about. After his tour, he decided to stay on in Saigon, learn the language, maybe go to school. Why? His puzzled family could only guess. Jimmy’s manner was restrained, but inwardly he was excited. In his letters, he wrote of the fantastic sex, drugs, food and music he had found, but with an added new contempt. “I can’t stand the United States,” he wrote. “Stupid, fat, boorish people and their materialism.”
At this point in Jimmy’s story, we reflexively draw a parallel from his dissatisfied life to other narratives about seekers visiting “exotic” lands—Southeast Asia and elsewhere—who got lost on the way to their destinations: Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness, The Deer Hunter, City of Ghosts, etc. We’re reminded of Arthur Rimbaud, and of the late Edward W. Said’s lit-crit warnings about Orientalism, and the romanticized and damaging socio-cultural assumptions associated with Western imperialism.
Jimmy McDowell could eventually have become the unwitting poster boy for that disgraced colonial line of thought, if he hadn’t died in Saigon in 1972 at the age of 24. His embarrassed family, already shocked by Jimmy’s rejection of his roots, alternately maintained he died in combat, or from some tropical disease. The official report cited septicemia and heroin abuse as causes of death. His mother wept, most of his siblings sadly shook their heads and clammed up, but Jimmy’s youngest brother Peter, five years old at the time, remained skeptical.
Was anything left out of the death report? And who really was this younger man pictured in photos with Jimmy on the beach at Vũng Tàu, the friend Jimmy referred to in his letters home? As the years went on and Peter came out as gay, he largely devoted his career as a filmmaker (previous work includes I Dream of Dorothy) to digging up the missing details of his brother’s last days.
The younger McDowell’s cinematic quest, which takes us not only to out-of-the-way spots in Vietnam but to Paris; the Parisian suburb of Cergy; Los Angeles; Champaign; Eugene, OR; and Des Moines, IA, assumes the form of a wistful detective yarn without the clichéd cast of seedy characters. Everyone Peter questions displays a dignified, war-weary respect for the memory of Jimmy, as well as for his American family. Says one Vietnamese former acquaintance: “He was so fragile. He was so lost in this world, a very brutal world.” The period footage and Peter’s color shots of contemporary Hồ Chí Minh City street scenes are wonderfully ethnographic. And as we already suspected, Dõng Vũng Táu (now deceased), the kid always pictured with Jimmy, was indeed his lover and best friend.
Peter McDowell’s 50-years-late tribute to his brother’s tragic wartime romance makes it clear that Jimmy hid his relationship from his family because he feared their condemnation—when it was suggested to his mother that he might be gay, she refused to hear it. Jimmy wasn’t a Symbolist poet like Arthur Rimbaud, and he never played Russian roulette for money. He is remembered not for any heroic exploits, but for having found a love that he had to keep hidden. The story is simultaneously sad and predictable, yet tender and tentative. It’s Jimmy’s secret garden, devotedly tended by his brother for all to see.
‘Jimmy in Saigon’ plays theatrically one night only, June 19 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, and streams June 24-30, as part of Frameline46’s annual festival of LGBTQ+ film. Frameline.org