Nixon (1995)

After Henry Kissinger (finally) died at the age of 100, I noticed that I had a copy of the director’s cut of Oliver Stone’s Nixon that I’d been putting off watching, mainly because it’s three and a half hours long. Reading people on social media discussing Paul Sorvino’s legendary portrayal of the German born foreign policy intellectual is what finally pushed me into making the commitment. Sadly, Sorvino doesn’t get much screen time, and Stone’s final verdict on Kissinger is that he was a slippery yes man who may, or may not have been leaking White House secrets to the press. Nixon certainly thought so, but the issue isn’t explored any further. Stone also depicted Kissinger as making his famous quote about power being the ultimate aphrodisiac to either Mao or Brezhnev. I can’t quite remember which, but it was to one of the two leaders of one of the two communist superpowers. I’m pretty sure it was Mao.

In any event, the sleazy little German American Secretary of State joking with the leader of communist China about how such a short ugly little man can date so many beautiful women actually says a lot about Richard Nixon himself. Unlike Kissinger, Nixon, as a scene where Larry Hagman playing a Texas oilman unsuccessfully tempts him with prostitutes demonstrates, wasn’t particularly interested in developing a reputation as a ladies man. Nixon genuinely loved his wife, his one good quality, and had no urge to cheat on her with some bought and paid for Texas bimbo, but he was an amoral, self-interested, ambitious man who built his career around the McCarthyite witch hunts, but had no qualms about socializing with Mao or Brezhnev if it fed his his lust for power and influence. Nixon could slander idealistic American progressives like Helen Gahagan Douglas as traitors and secret reds, but he could also sit around with table with the leader of the Chinese Communist Party and laugh while his Secret of State made sexist quips about women being attracted to powerful men, even if they were ugly war criminals like himself. In the end, Richard Nixon was no dogmatic anti-communist. He wasn’t even particularly to capitalism. Richard Nixon was mainly devoted to Richard Nixon.

Needless to say I doubt Millennial and Gen-Z women find Henry Kissinger as sexy as Boomer women did in the 1970s. His death was met with great rejoicing on social media, especially from people far too young to remember Cambodia or the fascist coup in Chile. Over the last few decades Kissinger, like Margaret Thatcher, has become an outsized symbol of evil, two faces on the Mt. Rushmore of the neoliberal counterrevolution against the 1960s. Nixon himself, unlike the more charismatic Reagan, would probably join them alongside the ghoulish Pinochet and the buffoonish Donald Trump, who will probably eliminate what’s left of American democracy if he’s reelected in 2024. But it all begs the question. As a young antiwar protester tells Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins, in his bizarre visit to an Occupy style campout at the Lincoln Memorial, the issue isn’t the man in the White House but the system, capitalist state power itself. Nixon couldn’t stop the war in Vietnam, or resist escalating it to Cambodia, even if he wanted to. Power is a wild beast only the most ambitious and amoral men even attempt to tame.

So what purpose do cartoonish evil reactionaries like Nixon or Kissinger, Trump, George W. Bush or Margaret Thatcher really serve other than to be scapegoats, to convince us all that capitalism would be working just fine if it weren’t for “a few bad apples?” Why aren’t Zbigniew Brzezinski, who bragged about creating the Taliban, Madeleine Albright, who confessed on national TV to genocide against Iraqi children, Bill Clinton, who institutionalized most of Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal policies, or Barack Obama, who squandered the great progressive backlash against George W. Bush, as hated by younger leftists and liberals as Kissinger or Nixon? Unlike the overrated 1970s film All the Presidents Men, which depicts two idealistic young Washington Post reporters against a sinister government conspiracy without ever once addressing the idea that the Washington Post is as much a part of the system as the White House, Oliver Stone’s Nixon succeeds in dramatizing the contradictions of power. Somehow Stone pulls of the difficult feat of portraying Richard Nixon as the genuinely evil man he was without once forgetting that he was still human, a vain ambitious man in over his head watching the uncontrollable forces of history transforming him into a monster.

Even worse than being a President caught in the uncontrollable forces of history and institutionalized power (the “deep state”) is being one of “all the President’s men being tied to an out of control President going down for the count. Here Stone assembles an excellent support cast of actors, including James Woods as H.R. Haldeman, David Hyde-Pierce as John Dean, Ed Harris as E. Howard Hunt, Madeline Kahn as Martha Mitchell, E.G. Marshall as John Mitchell, and Joan Allen as Pat Nixon, who slowly but inevitably begin to realize that you don’t get to be President unless you’re willing to walk over a pile of bodies along the way, and that one by one Nixon is going to throw all of them to the wolves to save his own skin. One of the film’s best scenes involves a meeting between the young John Dean, who later turns coat to avoid being prosecuted, and the older, jaded Howard Hunt, who may or may not have been involved in the Kennedy assassination. Dean, who delivers a bag of money to Hunt indignantly asks him how he has the temerity to blackmail the President. Hunt, who’s seen it all before, explains to Dean exactly what’s going to happen to him. “Your graves already been dug John,” he says between puffs on his pipe.

I suppose that’s what makes Kissinger so fascinating, and hated. He was by far the most evil member of Nixon’s cabinet, and yet unlike Haldeman, Ehrlichman or even Dean, he came out of the whole Watergate affair completely unscathed, even becoming a cuddly sex symbol in the 1970s for the media elite. I guess it’s tempting to think that Kissinger was some sort of evil genius, the “darkness” who Nixon was reaching out to, but there’s a much simpler explanation. Haldeman and Ehrlichman committed crimes against people with power, the Democratic National Committee. Even today if you steal from the rich like Bernie Madoff or Sam Bankman-Fried did you will probably go to jail. But you can steal from the poor all you like. There will inevitably be a Barack Obama who will come along to protect you. Similarly Kissinger didn’t commit crimes against Democrats. He committed crimes against poor people and working class people, Cambodians, Chileans, Vietnamese, people “the system” treats as disposable. The same powerful Democrats who took it personally when Nixon bugged the DNC will barely notice if a Republican, or Democratic, President carpet bombs people in the third world. And that’s why Henry Kissinger died comfortably in his bed at the age of 100, hated by young radicals but popular among establishment politicians like Hillary Clinton.


Simonida was a Byzantine Princess in the 14th Century married to Stefan Milutin, the King of Serbia. There is a famous fresco of her in the Gračanica Monastery, in the disputed region of North Kosovo. At some point the fresco was vandalized. Her eyes were gouged out, probably by Ottoman soldiers. An early 20th Century Serbian, poet Milan Rakić, wrote a poem about the fresco where he uses the image of light from a long dead star. A long time ago, I wrote a story called Light from a Dead Star. I thought I had invented the image. I was wrong. Even though the Gračanica Monastery is a UNESCO Heritage Site, it’s still in danger and could be destroyed in the ongoing conflict between Serbs and Albanians over North Kosovo.


Your eyes were gouged out, oh beautiful image,

On a pilaster at approach of night,

Knowing that no one would witness the pillage

An Albanian’s knife robbed you of your sight.

But neither your mouth, nor your noble face

To desecrate with his hand did he dare,

Or touch your golden crown, or queenly lace

Beneath which lay your luxuriant hair.

Now in the church upon the stone pilaster

Serenely bearing your tormented plight

Dressed in the robes of mosaic and luster

I see you sad, and dignified, and white.

Like stars extinguished in the distant past,

Which yet transmit to men the far-off glow

So that men see the light, the hue, the cast

Of stars lost to sight a long time ago,

Today upon me from your royal height,

From that antique stone covered all in grime,

Oh, sad Simonida, shines down the light

Of eyes gouged sightless in another time.

(Milan Rakić, translated by Kosara Gavrilović)

Barbie (2023)

Barbie, the controversial smash hit of the Summer of 2023, is an entertaining, but ultimately empty film about the emptiness of perfection. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, the film asks us to imagine what life would be like if our identity under capitalism as consumers was taken to its logical conclusion. What if we could become what we buy?

Barbie opens with a parody of the opening scene from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Since the beginning of time,” the voiceover, read by Helen Mirren, says, “as long as there have been little girls, there have been dolls.” Until recently, however, little girls have only played with baby dolls, limiting their the scope of their ambitions to motherhood, the voiceover continues. We then look up to see a giant adult female, Margot Robbie as Barbie, the very sight of whom inspires the girls to smash dolls on the rocks, freeing their minds and allowing them to imagine themselves in any career they want.

Or does she?

A little girl who plays with a baby doll to prepare herself for her future life as a mother still has a future, however limited and sexist that future may be. Some day the doll will be a real child. She never imagines herself as the doll, or even as the doll’s mother, but as the mother of her own future son or daughter. That same girl who plays with a Barbie, even before the innovations in the 1970s that allowed Barbie to have a real career as a doctor or a lawyer, imagines herself as the doll, as a piece of plastic formed into the shape of an adult woman. She commodifies herself, trades reality for perfection, a body that will grow old and die for a body made out of  polyvinyl chloride.

The feminist utopia in Barbie that angered so many social media conservatives is, at very best, a stage, an artificial world where talented performers like Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Simu Liu, and Dua Lipa in the very briefest of cameos, can sing and dance in a never ending chorus line. No performer, however, except maybe Bruce Springsteen, wants to spend his whole life on stage, especially if he’s cast in a supporting role. Ken, played by the 43-year-old Ryan Gosling who looks as if he spends at least 6 hours a day in the gym, resents being cast as the boyfriend to Margot Robbie’s Barbie, as a member of the chorus line, one of many Kens even if he’s the lead Ken, instead of as the star in his own production. He doesn’t even get to be a real boyfriend anyway. Neither of them have genitals.

Barbie, in turn, the still gorgeous but 33-year-old Margot Robbie, is beginning to feel the anxiety most women feel in their mid-30s. Is she starting to get fat? Is she crying for no reason and making her makeup run? Is she going to die some day? Barbie’s, or to be more specific “stereotypical Barbie’s, anxiety gets so bad that after consulting “Weird Barbie,” Kate McKinnon as some kind of frumpy thirty something goth girl, she decides to make a trip to the real world, more specifically Los Angeles, to seek out the little girl who has been playing with her in a way that’s made it impossible to revel in her plastic fantastic perfection. What she finds is essentially, another Greta Gerwig movie, or, to be specific, Ladybird, a teenage girl and her mother in a contentious relationship. Sasha, the girl, is an angry “woke” tween played by Ariana Greenblatt. Gloria, her mother, played by the 39-year-old America Ferrera, is beginning to feel the same anxiety as “stereotypical Barbie.” Is her life going anywhere? Is she getting old? Is she going to die some day?

Where Barbie sees Los Angeles in all of its imperfection, for Ken the real world looks like utopia. He no longer has to hide his belief that he’s “entitled” to an important job simply by virtue of being a man. He looks like all of the white men on the dollar, five dollar, and ten dollar bills. For Barbie, getting cat called is ugly and strange. For Ken, it’s flattery. A strange woman even asks him for the time of day, which, of course, he doesn’t have, but is still pleased by the idea she thought he had something to teach her. Eventually Ken realizes he’s no more qualified for an important position in the real world than he was in Barbie Land. Male privilege in the real world is a cruel illusion. Far for being discouraged, however, he simply decides the men in the real world are “doing patriarchy wrong.” So he heads back to Barbie Land, and in Barbie’s absence, stages a rebellion that overthrows the matriarchy, and replaces the pink, female dominated hell world with the perfect fraternity, the ideal man cave, his Mojo Dojo Casa House.

Initially, brainwashed by Ken, the Barbies all seem to enjoy the new male dominated world. Stereotypical Barbie, however, disabuses them of their false consciousness, and decolonizes their minds. She organizes a counterrevolution that exploits the innate weakness of the male sex, pitting Ken against Ken, and provoking a civil war that gives the Barbies a supermajority in the Barbie Land capital that allows them to enshrine the matriarchy in power for eternity.

But having freed her sister Barbies from Ken’s reign of patriarchal terror, stereotypical Barbie is no longer happy with perfection, and escapes to the real world. She explains to Ken that he no long needs her, that he should live for himself instead. She rejoins Sasha and Gloria in Los Angeles. In the last scene, as a visit to a gynecologist confirms, she has become fully human, ready to begin her life as a doctor, lawyer, filmmaker, or even wife and mother, should that be what she eventually chooses. Like the Angel in Wim Wenders Wings of Desire, who chose love over immortality, Barbie has chosen reality over perfection, cellulite, aging and eventual death over her plastic utopia.

The problem is that by this point Barbie Land is more appealing than reality, the hilarious Ken more likeable than the glum Sasha and Gloria. Perhaps the pink matriarchal hell world isn’t so bad after all. Indeed, the ending of Barbie feels like Greta Gerwig has left the big budget fantasy of a never ending Busby Berkeley musicals of her greatest hit for the mumblecore of her youth.

Oppenheimer (2023)

In every generation there is a movie. He was a man, but he was more than a man. While other kids were playing with toys, he was contemplating Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. While his classmates at middle-school were listening to the Backstreet Boys, he was writing grand operas for La Scala. By the time he was barely old enough to vote, he was already marked off as a man of destiny. Women desired him, but couldn’t understand him. Men tried to use him, but never really controlled him. In the end he was dragged down, not only by his personal demons, but by the vengeful mediocrities he barely deigned to notice, until they destroyed him. He is the sexy, misunderstood genius.

For late Boomers and early Gen Xers, he is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the raucous, fun-loving innocent of Milos Foreman’s 1984 movie Amadeus, the gifted composer driven to madness by his rival Antonio Salieri, who had no musical inspiration, but did possess a genius for evil. For late Gen Xers he is Will Hunting, a young working-class man from South Boston, who could solve complex mathematical equations beyond the ability of tenured MIT professors, but who not even Robin Williams could save from being a belligerent asshole. Early Millennials got the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a whole stable full of mutants and superheroes, Batman, Ironman and Captain America. Finally, in 2023, late millennials have gotten their own sexy, misunderstood genius, the man who made it possible for humanity to destroy itself, J. Robert Oppenheimer himself, the Prometheus who gave the secret of atomic fire to the American ruling class, but who in the end was done in by Tony Stark disguised as a Jewish shoe salesman turned politician.

Far be it from me as an unintelligent Polish American — hell I can’t even screw in a lightbulb by myself — to pass judgement on history’s greatest minds, but if I had to choose one of the three, Mozart, Will Hunting, or Oppenheimer, I would of course chose Mozart. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart genuinely enriched humanity. By driving him to an early death the demonic Salieri deprived us of decades of opera, symphonies, string quartets and clarinet solos. Will Hunting of course is a fictional working-class Bostonian who does manage to humiliate an arrogant preppy in a “Hahvad Bah” and confidently informs his psychotherapist that he has “the wrong fucking books,” but in general shows few signs of being a world historical genius unless we take the movie’s word for it. Will Hunting does, however, have one moment of unimpeachable integrity. When a bureaucrat from the National Security Agency (NSA) temps him to prostitute himself to the government in exchange for a steady high paying job and access to cutting edge technology, Will tells him in no uncertain terms to go straight to hell.

Christopher’s Nolan’s Oppenheimer, played to gaunt perfection by Cillian Murphy — the man actually looks like a genius — has no such working-class mistrust and contempt for the system. Why would he? He’s from a wealthy New York German Jewish family. His father was an art collector who decorated their palatial Riverside Drive apartment with original paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso. He’s gotten the best education money can buy, private schools in Manhattan, Harvard and Cambridge, a PHD from the University of Gottingen. But he’s no East Coast city slicker deprived of nature’s wonders. His family wealth has allowed him to spend extended periods of time hiking in the remote Southwest near a place called Los Alamos. True, he’s indulged in the fashionable left-wing politics of the 1930s. He sends money to Spanish refugees and passionately supports the republican side of the Spanish Civil War. But the Roosevelt administration doesn’t even have to ask him to sign onto the Manhattan Project. Quite the contrary, he never doubts the idea that the United States has to build its own atomic bomb to counter Hitler’s. Oppenheimer becomes the father of the nuclear arms race, not in spite of his left-wing politics, but because of them.

The ethical conflicts in Oppenheimer don’t present themselves in big dramatic moments. Instead they consist of little compromises made along the way so as not to derail the all important, ongoing project taking place at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer may not be a communist or even a socialist, but he is a good progressive liberal unwilling to enforce military discipline on scientists and their families. Even after he’s given clear instructions by his superiors, he won’t flat out order his subordinates not to organize unions sponsored by the Communist Party or hold cross departmental discussion groups that turn out to be a threat to the project’s security. Oppenheimer won’t join the Communist Party, even during the short lived American/Soviet alliance, but he has no problem socializing with communists, or even marrying them. It’s only later that those compromises, which in 1944 and 1945 feel like the acts of a good supervisor protecting his employees from meddling bureaucrats but a decade later during the McCarthy era look like treason, that his inability to confront trivial every day issues comes back to bite him. Ernest Lawrence, played by Josh Hartnett, is the voice of reason, and even a stand in for Christopher Nolan himself. “Tell your subordinates to keep their politics out of the workplace,” he implores his friend. “Why do college graduates need unions?” he adds speaking for every Silicon Valley tech CEO in despair over the idea that the employees at his latest startup have picked up one too many “woke” ideas from social media.

The social media controversy over the Irish Catholic Murphy playing a Jewish character was silly. Murphy nails Oppenheimer’s physical appearance so well I half want him to play every Jewish genius from 20th Century history. Someone cast him as Franz Kafka. He already looks the part. On the other hand, Nolan does not do full justice to the real moral conflict at the center of the film. The origin of the Manhattan Project was ultimately the 1939 letter Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard sent to Franklin Roosevelt warning him that Hitler was working on a German atomic bomb. The bomb detonated at Los Alamos was meant to be used as a defensive measure against a genocidal Nazi Germany, not as a genocidal act against the Japanese meant to intimidate the Soviet Union. Indeed, had Hitler gotten an atomic bomb before the Nazi regime fell he would have been far more likely to have used it at Stalingrad or Moscow than against Paris or London. The use of the bomb against Japanese civilians, and the later McCarthyite hysteria about communists in the American government was just the kind of fascist turn in the United States Oppenheimer wanted to prevent.

Nolan’s use of Lewis Strauss, therefore, an ambitious self-hating Jewish mediocrity, as the film’s main villain, therefore, distorts the real history of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s downfall. In the 1940s and 1950s history was moving at warp speed. It must have been indeed dismaying for progressive intellectuals like Oppenheimer to see the crowning achievement of his life’s work used by the American ruling class to intimidate China in North Korea or to develop a monopoly of destructive power over the global south. Indeed, Richard Nixon and John Foster Dulles lobbied Eisenhower to offer the French use of three small tactical nukes at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, but Eisenhower, who had felt the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unnecessary, wisely refused.  “You boys must be crazy,” Eisenhower told them. “We can’t use those awful things against Asians for a second time in less than ten years. My God!” When even a conservative, and racist, Republican President is reluctant to commit atomic war crimes against a non-European people, it must have been galling for Oppenheimer.

That Harry Truman, played by Gary Oldman, had no such scruples about ordering the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, lays the basis for one of the film’s best scenes. As good as Robert Downy Jr.’s performance as Lewis Strauss may be, he’s no Antonio Salieri. We know exactly why Salieri wants to destroy Mozart. The pain the Italian mediocrity feels over Mozart’s ability to create beauty that he can understand but will never compose himself is real. We understand why he’s a damned soul. Strauss’s hatred for Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is ultimately based on one interaction at the Institute for Advanced Research at Princeton where he incorrectly believes Oppenheimer is responsible for a snub by Albert Einstein. It feels forced. Truman’s crude brutality — he offers Oppenheimer a tissue when Oppenheimer expresses his guilt over Hiroshima and Nagasaki — feels very real.

It also aligns perfectly with the right wing Nolan’s elitism. Nolan presents Oppenheimer as a hero, in spite of the scientist’s New Deal liberalism, because he sees him as a superior man, a superior man who was sadly too sympathetic to the left wing politics of his inferiors. He should have been more like Truman, Nolan seems to imply, or at least recognized the presence of a fellow superman above good and evil. His sincere confession that he “has blood on his hands” to such an crudely brutal and amoral politician feels degrading, weak. Similarly a tech CEO like Elon Musk, should feel no hesitation about breaking unions and letting his employees know who’s boss. Ultimately Oppenheimer is the tragedy of a superior man brought down by a misguided sympathy for democracy. J. Robert Oppenheimer, to paraphrase Will Hunting, has read “the wrong fucking books.” It should have been less Marx and more Nietzsche.

Munich (2005)

Like his 1997 film Amistad or his 2012 film Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s Munich, released at the height of the war on terror, is a long-winded slog with sophisticated, nuanced politics and excellent performances that works in parts, but gets bogged down at the end. Set in the aftermath of the Black September attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, it follows a team of Mossad agents through Europe as they assassinate Palestinian militants and intellectuals who may, or may not have been involved in the attack on the Olympic Village. The message of Tony Kushner’s screenplay is clear. Don’t act like George W. Bush. If Osama Bin Laden blew up the World Trade Center, don’t go after Saddam Hussein.

Of course that’s a story a skilled auteur like Steve Spielberg could have told in 90 minutes. Munich is almost 3 hours. What makes the film simultaneously fascinating and infuriating is the way it wraps Kushner’s cautionary tale of the war on terror in Spielberg’s larger philosophical exploration of how he, an upper-class Jewish Boomer and an American pop cultural icon, relates to “old Europe” and European high culture. The murder of Jewish athletes in Munich 1972 was closer in time to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 than we are to the Cold War Olympics of 1984 in 2023. Was Germany a western democracy or was it the shadow of the Third Reich, a place where the Baader–Meinhof Gang allied itself to Palestinian militants, and the response of the West German police to Black September’s hostage taking was a bit too inept to be entirely an accident. Would the jaded, sophisticated French ever accept an American Jew as “family?” Or would they simply exploit him as an ATM machine with a bottomless safe deposit box of money? Will Eastern and Central European Jews ever really fit into the Mediterranean world as easily as the Palestinians, or will they always be outsiders and colonizers hiding behind American military power?

The casting of Munich’s team of Mossad assassins reflects Spielberg’s conflicted attitude towards Zionism and Israeli patriotism. There’s Steve, played by the blond, blue-eyed English actor Daniel Craig, a Jewish supremacist who declares that “only Jewish blood matters,” and yet who seems to have entirely transcended his own Semitic nature to become a full-fledged Aryan. There’s Robert, played by French filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz, a reluctant demolitions expert who would rather defuse bombs then rig them, a man who’s deeply conflicted about the dirty job of murdering the leaders of a dispossessed and defeated people. Finally there’s the team leader Avner, played by Australian actor Eric Bana, real name Eric Banadinović, who looks like a young Daniel Day Lewis. Why he was even chosen for the mission in the first place is confusing. He’s a happily married man with a baby on the way who isn’t even a particularly good killer. Just about the only thing that brings him to Prime Minister Golda Meir’s attention is his father’s past as a hero of Zionism. He is, in effect, a patriotic symbol, the Pat Tillman of 1972.

Whether or not the Israeli government is cynical enough to dispose of Avner the way the CIA disposed of Lee Harvey Oswald is the great unanswered question that runs through Munich and which, in the end, drives Avner to the brink of paranoid insanity. Avner is no fool, but he’s no master spy. He’s more of a bag man who brings loads of cash to a shady left-wing Frenchman named Louis, a shady left-wing Frenchman who seems to know everything, and in exchange gets a list of targets to be eliminated. Louis father, played by the Anglo French actor Michael Lonsdale is not only Old Europe personified, he’s the disillusioned French intellectual turned opportunist, Casablanca’s Captain  Renault who’s gone in the opposite direction. Having served in the French Resistance, he’s so disgusted by his country’s putting the conservative De Gaulle on a pedestal that he’s become the perfect anarcho-capitalist. He refuses to work directly with governments but will take their money as long as he has plausible deniability. He’s the final outcomes of the cynical post-1968 radical, willing to sell himself to the highest bidder.

Avner in turn, badly wants the approval of Louis and Papa. He is in fact so oblivious to the idea that the seemingly omniscience French are simply master manipulators working for the Mossad and CIA themselves that he refuses to consider the possibility that when members of his team start ending up dead, it might just be his own government “tying up loose ends.” Who exactly sent that sexy Dutch assassin? It is in fact only when he joins his wife in exile in Brooklyn that he finally comes to his senses and realizes that he might in fact be next. Avner who was a very stupid man in Old Europe has suddenly gotten a clue. A true patriot, of course, is willing to die for his country in total obscurity. Jean Moulin died after weeks of torture in the hands of the Gestapo, who couldn’t break him even after reminding that not a soul in the world would ever realize what happened to him. But Avner is not that man. In the end all he really wants is to be home, a concept he ironically learned about from a Palestinian enemy. But that home isn’t Israel, France, or even New York. It’s his family. His desire to live has in fact made him an enemy of the Mossad, who refuse to “break bread” with his family and bury the hatchet however imploringly he pleads.

Long Live Bruce Dern

Upon browsing the archives of Writers Without Money, I came across my (not particularly good) review of the 2013 movie Nebraska, which starred Bruce Dern as a very old and very senile man.

Six years in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood later he played an even older and even more senile man being “cared for” at the Spahn Ranch by members of the Manson family. Burt Reynolds (RIP), who Tarantino originally wanted for the role, had died the year before.

It just occurred to me that Dern is not only still alive but, at the age of 87, is still acting in film and TV, not bit parts but ongoing roles. All I can say is “long live Bruce Dern,” the man who killed John Wayne.

Waltz with Bashir (2008)

Some things never change.

Israelis have been killing Palestinians for most of my life (although to be honest not much longer).

Back in 1982 when I was in high school, the Israeli Army under Defense Minister Ariel Sharon invaded Lebanon. In 1982 Lebanon was not yet dominated by Shiite Muslims and Hezbollah. It had a powerful Christian fascist movement called the Phalangists led the charismatic Bachir Gemayel. Lebanon was also the military headquarters of the PLO (the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the secular Hamas of its day) that Gemayel the Christian fascist and his Ariel Sharon the Jewish fascist wanted to get rid of. Not surprisingly the Israeli Army and their Phalangists allies easily defeated any military resistance and quickly occupied Beirut.

Then horror.

On 14 September 1982, Gemayel, who had long been enemies with Lebanon’s Muslims, was assassinated along with 26 other Phalangist leaders by a by gigantic explosion in the Phalangist stronghold of Achrafieh. Phalangist soldiers, who looked up to Gemayel as a rock star, naturally wanted blood. At Sabra and Shatilah, a place that like Srebrenica or Wounded Knee will forever live in infamy, they got their blood. First the Israeli Army moved into West Beirut trapping thousands of Palestinian refugees –at this point mostly women and children — in a killing zone. Then Ariel Sharon decided to look the other way as their vengeful Christian allies moved in and started slaughtering everybody in sight. When it was all over 3500 Palestinians were dead and the PLO’s presence in Lebanon effectively over. It was a great military victory for the Israelis and, having removed the threat from the north, opened the West Bank to Jewish settlers from Kiev, Brooklyn and New Jersey.

Genocide works.

I’m always surprised at the poverty of Israeli cinema. American Jews of East European descent along with Southern Italians dominate American cinema. Quick. Name a great WASP American auteur who isn’t Howard Hawkes or D.W. Griffiths. You can’t. John Ford. He’s an Irish Catholic. Robert Altmann? German American. Close but no cigar. Part Irish and raised Catholic. Yeah yeah. Orson Welles before he got fat.

Even idealized Hollywood WASPs like Ashley Wilkes are often played by Jewish actors. You really thought Leslie Howard was an Anglican didn’t you? He looks far more Anglo Saxon than Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart, two Mayflower descendants. Needless to say there are so many great Jewish American directors it would be impossible to list them all. East European Jews and African Americans have contributed more to American culture than any other two ethnic groups. In 500 years, when historians want to talk about that great American civilization that collapsed in the 2020s and 2030s they’ll talk about Jazz and Hollywood.

So why does Israeli cinema barely seem to exist? The answer is actually pretty easy. The American Jews who created pre-Code and classic Code Hollywood were socialists. What do you think the McCarthyite purges were about. Israel is essentially a fascist culture. No introspection is allowed. And there’s nothing specific to Israel about it. Back in the 1970s and 1980s when the United States retained a few traces of New Deal liberalism, we got Apocalypse Now and the Godfather. In the 2000s and 2010s, in the post 9/11 era, we get the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Waltz with Bashir by Israeli director Ari Folman is an exception to the rule. Similar to classic Vietnam era movies like Platoon or The Deer Hunter it examines the destructive effect on a psyche soldier who serves a genocidal war machine. Yeah. Yeah. The Palestinian victims barely exist but how many speaking lines do the Vietnamese get in Apocalypse Now? It’s a “shoot and cry movie” but a good one. Folman, who as a 19-year-old private took part in the invasion of Lebanon, is the lead character. We first meet him chatting with his old friend Boaz Rein-Buskila, a fellow soldier who has been suffering from nightmares of a pack of 26 wild dogs ramping through Tel Aviv killing random people. As it turns out, Boaz, who was a bad soldier unable to kill his fellow humans, had been assigned to shoot the guard dogs every time their company advanced into a town, and he had killed exactly 26.

Folman himself doesn’t even have nightmares. Quite the contrary, he can’t even remember if he was in Lebanon or not. In Israel, I suppose, there’s none of the “I killed babies in ‘Nam” extroversion. IDF vets who enabled the Phalangist killers at Sabra and Shatilah simply don’t talk about it. They don’t even think about it. Folman’s amnesia is part of what gives Waltz with Bashir’s animated cinematography, which at first seems crude, it’s astonishing power. Yoni Goodman’s Adobe flash animations perfectly express the world of a man who sees the past “through a glass darkly,” who imagines the truth, but can’t imagine it with the clarity of 35mm film or 4K video. The demonic wild dogs that open the movie are more than just dogs. They are the souls of the Palestinian victims Folman refuses even to remember.

Waltz with Bashir has the same narrative structure as Citizen Kane. When Folman finally realizes he can no longer deny the atrocities he was a part of, he embarks on a quest to interview everybody he still knows who served in the IDF in Lebanon. As he gets closer and closer to the horrible truth, we learn something that I, as an American brought up to think the IDF was not only the most moral army in the world but one of the most formidable, have never quite realized. It’s all propaganda. The Israeli soldiers who invaded Lebanon weren’t supermen, they were cowards and lazy hedonists. They never stopped to think why they were in Lebanon in the first place. Not only were they “just following orders” they barely even try to aim their weapons. They just slaughter everything in sight, firing randomly out of a compulsion that if they stop, they’ll get killed by terrorists. They are tiny cogs in an amoral death machine.

And well, they’re in Gaza as we speak….

Cadillacs, Yugos and Van Moofs

Being a member of Generation X, I’m old enough to remember the 1980s and the Sarajevo Olympics.

“Where is Sarajevo?” I asked my father.

(I knew perfectly well where Sarajevo was. I just wanted to hear my father explain it.)

“It’s in Yugoslavia,” he answered.

“Yugoslavia?” I said.

“It’s kind of like Switzerland,” he said, “only with Polacks, Turks and Greeks instead of Frogs, Germans and Italians.”

To translate from my father to English, “Polacks” meant “Slavs,” all Slavs. “Turks” meant “Muslims” and “Greeks” meant “Orthodox Christians.” So he was basically accurate. Yugoslavia was a multicultural Slavic state full of Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

“How is it like Switzerland?” I asked.

“It’s got mountains,” he said, “and it’s neutral.”

“Neutral?” I said. “Isn’t it communist?”

“Yes,” he said. “But they’re neutral commies, not like the Russians. That’s why we let them have the Olympics and didn’t boycott them. Unlike the East Germans or Polacks, they can also travel. That’s why there are so many of them here.”

In addition to being an expert on Yugoslavia and Southeastern Europe, my father was also a devotee of big American cars. In fact, he didn’t consider anything else a real car, just a toy. For years, our primary vehicle was a gigantic 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. While comfortable on long trips, the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood wasn’t particularly fuel efficient. Like like a Leopard II or Abrams Tank, you measured fuel consumption in gallons per mile, not miles per gallon.

In other words, the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood was capitalism before neoliberalism and neoliberal austerity, capitalism at the height of its power, capitalism before the gas lines and the 1973 recession. That a member of the lower-middle-class (well upper-lower-middle-class) like my father could buy and maintain one was a testament to New Deal America, to the enfranchisement of the working class, to freedom and democracy. Who needed communism when anybody in America could afford to keep a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood? Franklin Roosevelt had already won the Cold War. Marx and Stalin weren’t evil. They were just besides the point.

But what about Joseph Broz Tito? While long dead by 1984, Joseph Broz Tito was the guiding spirit behind the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Long before the bloody civil wars of the 1990s, or the Clinton Administration’s and the ghoulish Madeleine Albright’s use of Al Qaeda and the Kosovo Liberation Army to break up greater Serbia, Sarajevo was the secular capital of a Muslim country, a exotically beautiful “Oriental” city in a communist country which had good relations with the west, a place where people who looked like white Americans bowed towards Mecca five times a day. Not far away was Mostar, home of the famous Ottoman Bridge, that also, according to the nostalgic memories of the Bosnian Serb filmmaker Emir Kusturica, made supersonic jets and Yugoslavia a major power. Yugoslavia might not have been as wealthy as Switzerland. But it was a far more interesting place.

Nobody, however, would confuse the Yugo, the sub-compact communist clunker Yugoslavia attempted to export to the United States with a 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood. The Yugoslavian government’s logic was perfectly sound. By 1984, New Deal American capitalism had given way to neoliberal American capitalism and neoliberal austerity. Gas was now prohibitively expensive. No longer could lower-middle-class (or even upper-lower-middle-class) Americans afford to buy Cadillacs. So the idea of exporting a tiny sub-compact that only cost $3000 was not as ridiculous as a lot of people thought it was at the time. People also forget just how bad the compact cars (that cost at least 3 times as much) coming out of Detroit (incompetently made knockoffs of Japanese made cars) were.

It’s too bad the Simpsons never had the insight to make fun of the 1990 Ford Aspire, which started out at $9860 dollars.

Does anybody in the United States even remember, let along remember fondly, the 1990 Ford Aspire? Unlike the Ford Aspire, the Yugo is in fact remembered fondly by some people, including a Dutch guy named “Ralph” who founded a company dedicated to giving people tours of the monuments of the former Yugoslavia in its most famous, or infamous, export.

YUGO TOUR is a car ride in a vintage Yugoslav Zastava car that gives you a taste of everyday life in Yugoslavia. By driving through the remains of the Yugoslav urban space in Belgrade and Sarajevo, we try to keep everything as authentic as possible and help you experience a day in the life of a typical Yugoslav person. We will play the music from that period, drink “Yugoslav Coca Cola” and tell you about the ideals, architecture, and history of a nation that no longer exists. There is no better way to learn the history of one country than to immerse yourself in it on one of our tours. Experience Belgrade as the booming capital of Yugoslavia in a ride along impressive brutalist architecture, bombed buildings, a concentration camp and Tito’s grave. Or return to the days that Sarajevo was the beating heart of Yugoslav rock music and the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Dear comrade, don’t hesitate; book a YUGO TOUR before it’s too late!

Note: According to a Serbian acquaintance of vast knowledge of the history of Yugoslavia, Yugotours is a silly concept ridiculed with historical inaccuracies.

The interesting thing about the Dutch is that they’re not only the best looking people in the world. They’re the tallest. It’s a land of literal giants. Indeed, the Netherlands is just about the only place where I, being about 6 feet tall, or 183cm, would feel short. The idea of the Dutch driving around in subcompact seems just as hilarious as the idea of Kevin McHale and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar flying coach, and NBA teams did indeed fly commercial until 1990. In fact, just about the only other place in the world, where the average height is more or less the same as the Dutch is the former Yugoslavia, where people in Bosnia and Montenegro clock in at an average height of 184cm, just a hair below the Dutch average of 185cm. A Yugo, while perfectly adequate for an American, average height 5’9″ or 175cm, was probably ridiculously small for the descendants of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš.

In addition to being good-looking giants, the Dutch are also avid cyclists. Indeed, Amsterdam is probably the most bike friendly city in the world.

Nowadays the Netherlands boasts 22,000 miles of cycle paths. More than a quarter of all trips are made by bicycle, compared with 2% in the UK – and this rises to 38% in Amsterdam and 59% in the university city of Groningen. All major Dutch cities have designated “bicycle civil servants”, tasked to maintain and improve the network. And the popularity of the bike is still growing, thanks partly to the development of electric bicycles.The Cyclists’ Union has long ceased to be a group of random activists; it is now a respectable organisation with 34,000 paying members whose expertise is in worldwide demand.

Dutch bicycles are famous for being cheap, simple durable, and easy to repair. It was with great dismay, therefore, that I found out about how the Dutch, those giants with bicycles, have not only fallen for the E-bike craze. They’ve purchased large numbers of Van Moofs, a high-end E-bike starting at $2000 but averaging closer to $3000, about the same price as a Yugo, not accounting for inflation. Sadly for the Dutch, the company has gone bankrupt. Good luck getting your $3000 luxury E-bike repaired if it breaks down, or even starting it.

If the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood represented American capitalism at its height, it’s most egalitarian and prosperous and if the Yugo represented old-school East European communism, then surely the Van Moof represents neoliberal capitalism. I’m of course an old school cyclist who can go over 500 miles on a cheap aluminum road bike. Something about the very concept of an E-bike offends me. But in general it’s not a bad idea for weaker riders. Put a motor powered by a battery on the front wheel and it will help you get up the hill that you can’t quite handle on your own.

But the Van Moof was more than just a bicycle with a motor assist. It was a status symbol for tech bros, a cheap hybrid that you needed an app to start. Like those ubiquitous pepper grinders you find on yuppie tables in Park Slope it was a simple concept with a lot of extra crap added on that did absolutely nothing worth the trouble of the improvement. The Van Moof was above all about making money from suckers who have too much money. It was the essence of neoliberalism. Steal from the poor to give to the rich so you could then steal from the rich.

VanMoof, the Dutch e-bike maker that gained a zealous following, tripled its sales in the pandemic and raised more than $180 million in funding, declared bankruptcy last month, leaving riders in limbo. That’s because the eye-catching e-bikes, which start around $2,000, are built from proprietary parts that only the company makes, available mostly at company-run service centers. And many of the bikes’ functions are linked to VanMoof’s smartphone app.“If I break it, or something else happens, I don’t know where to go,” said Gideon Sutaman, 28, who lives in Amsterdam and has been riding his VanMoof e-bike since December.

At least the 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood gave you something for your extravagance.