If I Ever Get to Heaven
You might describe Lance Larson as a believer. He believes in a better tomorrow, he believes in himself and in his occasional invention (for instance, a lawn ornament he calls the Solar Santa). “If you can sell a car, you can do anything,” he declares, proud enough of his day job. Lance also believes that someday, his avocation will pay off. A treasure hunter who has travelled far and wide looking for long-lost fortunes, Lance’s questing serves as point of departure for Darius Marder’s beguiling documentary, Loot.
A mostly careful researcher with years of experience, Lance regularly susses out truth from fiction, only taking on credible hunts. In Loot, he has two adventures in motion, both based on leads from World War II veterans. Darrel says he stole 20 pounds of jewels in Austria, where he hid them in a farmhouse at the end of the war. Andy pilfered jewels and Samurai swords, then left them behind in the Philippines when he went home to Arizona. Some 60 years after their exploits, both vets are now in failing health and hoping to recover their illicit assets and recapture their youthful dreams.
So far, so okay. But Loot sneaks up on you, much as the men’s own histories sneak up on them. It is most obviously a movie about enduring desires and quashed hopes, the sorts of themes you’d expect in a movie about treasure hunting. But it’s also about how those desires are shaped by conditions, the loss of ideals and the dangers posed by memories that won’t go away. As the veterans dig through the past, each recalls something he’s done that he’s tried hard to forget. Its not the pay off they—or Lance—have imagined. But it is a perversely galvanizing process, in which each man finds himself anew.
Now living in Provo, Utah and blind, Mormon bishop Darrel recounts his story for Lance, in particular that he and his buddy left the jewelry in an attic, in a house with a pitched roof. He has a vague sense of the neighborhood that was, but, Lance has to admit, “Trying to draw a map with a blind person telling you what to do, it’s a very difficult way to find a house somewhere in Austria.” The problem is an apt metaphor and summary for what treasure hunting tends to involve. Despite popular images of Matthew McConaughey and Kate Hudson romping over sunny beaches and picturesque mountains, most searches feature faulty leads and dead ends. Lance is well aware of this, but he remains determined to believe: it only takes one time, he reasons, and all the effort will be worth it.
Though the soft-spoken Darrel worries that Lance will be disappointed (“I think he had the feeling he’d make a few bucks off it”), they set for with help from the Steyr Historical Society and another, German veteran. Walking and talking near where they may have been so many years ago, the men confront as well the ordeal of the war, the arbitrariness of their long-past enmity and the tragedies they witnessed and enacted. The camera watches from a distance as Darrel literally collapses, mournful and forlorn, embraced and consoled by his new German friend.
While Lance maintains something like his own respectful distance from Darrel, he develops a different rhythm with Andy. Voluble and energetic, Andy spends long afternoons and evenings with Lance over their three years together. Seated in his trailer crowded with a lifetime’s worth of junk or in a restaurant booth (“Denny’s is a good place,” Andy submits, the camera looking over multiple booths to where they sit in the back), he remembers his wartime exploits in response to questions about how he came by samurai swords. “I shot a few Japanese,” he admits, “But they shot us too.” Lance nods, “It’s okay to shoot a bunch of Japs protecting your buddies.”
Yes, but. Andy begins to dig up some traumatic experiences, as when U.S. soldiers threw Japanese prisoners off a ship meant to transport them (here the film illustrates with archival footage of prisoners at gunpoint or under plain duress). Andy reasons, “When I see what those Japanese did, I formed a prejudice against any of ‘em.” His most acute recollections involve “that Japanese prisoner” Andy initially says gave him the sword, then recalls his own torture of the man. “He was my friend, but I didn’t trust him neither, because I never knew whether I’d turn my back and I’d find a dagger in it or have my throat cut. I don’t know what does this why the mind goes back and relives that stuff why can’t it just wipe it out completely? It just don’t do it.”
As he speaks, it becomes clearer that the “loot” eventually found in Loot is more profound than treasure. It is instead the context that makes material valuable, the causes of violence and fear, bigotry and distrust. Driving away from Andy’s home one night, Lance ponders the ravages of memory. In Hollywood, he says, “World War II vets have this really squeaky clean image, where Vietnam has the, uh, real ugly twisted kind of thing, you know.” But the horrors Andy describes are “ugly, dude, and you never hear about that anywhere. The Americans were the good guys, they’re the ones that could do no harm. I’m sure there was some good out there, but there was a lot of bad stuff too.”
Good and bad can be found as well in the men’s other stories, their lives at home, away from battlegrounds. As it happens, both Andy and Darrel lost their 19-year-old sons, just as it so happens Lance is increasingly concerned about his own son, Michael, currently struggling with heroin (“Some people do fine with drugs,” Lance observes, “He’s not one of ‘em”). As much as Lance tries to engage Michael in his travels, the teenager remains remote, and his father compares his unease to that of his new friends. “I look at Darrel and Andy,” he tells the camera, “And I think they lost touch with their kids somehow.” As he looks at Michael, he adds, “Truth be known, there’s not a day that goes by I don’t feel something’s gonna happen to him, but right now I want to ignore him.”
Seeing this in himself becomes Lance’s most poignant, most important discovery. That he reaches it by listening to horror stories of war and loss, and in watching the effects of trauma on men he might have used or might have admired, Lance embodies Loot‘s most valuable insights. In fact, he doesn’t say much about it, but that’s exactly the point.