HBO recently aired a documentary called Loot. I don’t normally watch documentaries, and if this hadn’t been recommended to me, I probably would never have known it existed. But the subjects of this film are from my dad’s generation, a generation of men who knew war and who knew how to keep secrets. My dad was not in the thick of things in WWII; he was stationed in South America somewhere. Why there, I don’t know. My grasp of history is not good, and I’m not sure what they thought might happen there. Still, for whatever reason, he never talks of his time in the service. Much of his life is hidden, or rewritten to be more presentable. We all do this to some extent, but for men like my dad, there was such a stigma attached to showing weakness, emotion, lack of control or authority. They carry an unacknowledged darkness inside.
Loot follows two WWII vets who are attempting to find treasure they buried at the end of the war, one in Austria and the other in the Philippines. They are assisted by a man named Lance, a used car salesman who seems to have tried his hand at many things, including hunting treasure. I assume he is in this at least partly for a cut in the findings, but he never hectors or shows much frustration at the slow pace of the proceedings.
The first gentleman, Darrel, hid stolen jewels in a house in Austria, in the last days of the war. Lance accompanies Darrel to Austria on what seems like a fruitless search for the house with only the barest guidelines for figuring out the location. To complicate matters, Darrel is nearly blind, so he can’t orient himself with a map, and the Austrians who try to help him are at something of a loss. He seems a sweet man, well loved by a large family, easy to like.
The other man, Andy, is more disconcerting. He acquired and buried a set of samurai swords used in beheading American airmen. He lives in a house crammed full of stuff – Elvis plates, old bottles, stacked plastic cups, pornographic magazines. Nothing is ever thrown out. He says he has a map, but he doesn’t know where it is. He seems to have accumulated all this junk solely for the purpose of obscuring the map’s location. He is ambivalent. He has a safe but can’t remember the combination. When they finally get it open, there are thousands of dollars inside that he seems to have forgotten about entirely, and he seems oddly unconcerned at its rediscovery. The more we learn about his experiences in the Philippines, the more we see of the way he lives, the more uneasy we become.
It’s clear that there’s a lot more than treasure buried, and the hunt becomes secondary to more pressing, less conscious needs. These men are searching for closure, memory, redemption, forgiveness. One finds it; the other, as far as we know, does not.
I wonder what Lance took away from his involvement in the film, or how he feels about spending so much time on a project that for him had very little payoff. He simply keeps going, methodically, until there is nowhere else to go. We learn that his son is coming off drugs, and that both Darrel and Andy themselves lost sons to drug overdoses. In fact, Darrel even spoke with Lance’s son, which Lance mentions may have saved his life. We leave Lance with his son, immersed in a hot spring in an unspecified location, perhaps a baptism of renewal for them both.