Monthly Archives: January 2014

La Haine (1995)

haine

La Haine is such a well-known film in Mathieu Kassovitz’s native Paris that if I were to write this review in French, it would be a bit like writing a review of Reservoir Dogs in English. Oh my God, did anybody see the part where Mr. Blonde cut off the cop’s ear? But, even though it’s one of the best films of the 1990s, La Haine has never really entered the popular consciousness here in the United States the way the smug, tedious Trainspotting, or the quotable, but ultimately hollow Fight Club have. It might just be the language barrier. It might also have something to do with how the United States has a “path to citizenship” for even the most discriminated against immigrant groups. For many Americans, the film needs more than subtitles. It needs extensive notes providing the right historical context.

La Haine is set in one of the notorious immigrant housing projects, or banlieues, that surround Paris. Think Co-op City filled entirely with the children of first and second generation immigrants from the third world, people with no chance of ever getting a good job, or assimilating into the mainstream. As the opening credits roll, we’re shown footage of “riot porn.” We learn that a young man, Abdel Ichaha, was so severely beaten up by the police that it put him into a coma. We also learn that, during the riots, a police officer had lost his 357 Magnum revolver. Three friends, Vinz, a blond, blue-eyed Jew, Hubert, a tall, muscular African boxer and small-time drug-dealer, and Said, an Algerian, three young men in their early 20s who usually spend their days aimlessly “hanging out,” are still aimlessly “hanging out,” but now they’re also fuming and plotting revenge.

Mathieu Kassovitz’s pacing and cinematography feel like the most remarkably “realistic” look at an inner-city “ghetto” that I’ve ever seen put to film. La Haine makes Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing look cartoonish and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep seem dreary and uninteresting. Vinz, Hubert, and Said are filled with the nervous energy of vital young men. They’re also subjected to police intimidation and harassment that will immediately remind an American of the “Stop and Frisk” policy in Ray Kelly’s and William Bratton’s New York. That harassment and intimidation have been stepped up in the aftermath of the riots. A rooftop that’s always served as an unofficial youth center is shut down. The corporate media cruises the banlieue doing “interviews,” hoping to catch some non-white, non-French immigrant making an inflammatory statement. La Haine has the clear-eyed cynicism about the “news” some Americans only managed to acquire in the wake of the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis and the brutal suppression of the Occupy movement, and most wouldn’t comprehend at all. We learn that Vinz has the policeman’s lost revolver.

The quote that opens La Haine telegraph’s the film’s intentions right from the beginning.

“Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good… so far so good… so far so good. How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land.”

There are no spoilers. There will be no happy endings. Vinz, Hubert and Said are doomed. Like Michel Poiccard from Godard’s Breathless, they are not only obsessed with American culture — Vinz poses in front of the mirror like Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. Hubert has posters of Muhummad Ali on the walls of his bedroom. — they are living in the final hours of their lives.  What’s remarkable about La Haine is that even though Mathieu Kassovitz tells us exactly what’s going to happen in the first few minutes of the film, he still manages to seduce us into seeing the world from the point of view of the three young men falling off the skyscraper. The fall is not only exhilarating, but inevitable.

Hubert, the boxer, is the the least violent of the three. Hate, he tells Vinz, only leads to hate. Said is younger and more vulnerable, but still volatile. Vinz is a hothead with a 357 Magnum. Each time Vinz or Said drags him into useless, stupid irrational confrontation, we can see things with Hubert’s rational intelligence. Why bother? Why not just walk away? But the only rational choice, for three young men in the banlieues, is to hang their heads and “submit.” The “irrational” choices they wind up making will preserve their self-respect and manhood, and we can see why they act stupidly each time they act stupidly. They go into central Paris to collect on a debt from another drug dealer. Hubert and Said are briefly detained, and tortured, by the police. They miss their train back to the Banlieu and spend all night roaming the street. They trash an art gallery. They hotwire a car before suddenly realizing none of them knows how to drive a manual shift. They get into a fight with a group of racist skinheads. Finally, they go back to the banlieue, and Vinz is killed. The only regret we have is that Vinz didn’t manage to take a skinhead or a cop with him before he meets his violent end.

So why should you watch this grim French, “ghetto” movie?  There’s the technical brilliance, the dynamic camera movements, the way you’re pulled into the exhilirating energy of young manhood. But I think there’s a deeper, and more sobering reason. The United States of 2014 is not the United States of 1995. Back in 1995, the American people still had the illusion that their country belonged to them. Now, who can believe anything so naive? It sometimes feels as if we’re living on the private property of the plutocrats on Wall Street and the military, industrial surveillance state in Washington, as though it were someone else’s country, as if the bankers and government bureaucrats are the French and the rest of us are all Algerians. I’m a middle-aged man with a college degree and I feel like a Parisian street kid. Maybe I’m not alone. Perhaps, in 2014, we’re all just like Vinz, Hubert and Said were back in 1995.

Perhaps the only question that remains is how much we’ll all enjoy the fall before we hit the concrete.

An Introduction to the Works of Mark Rappaport

I should mention that I’m friends with Rappaport. I helped him with his fight with Ray Carney and gave the push for him to publish his absolutely delightful book of fiction and essays The Moviegoer Who Knew Too Much in the native English it was written in. I sought out his acquaintance because of the admiration for his work I express in this essay, and therefore I don’t feel there’s a conflict of interest. However, such connections should be noted.)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

Mark Rappaport, though retired from making films, is still busy at work recombining images and impressions of films past in his photo collage work. Despite this, he is the very short list still for the greatest living American filmmaker because of the absolutely essential work he did, first in his early fictional narratives from 1974’s Casual Relations up through 1985’s Chain Letters, then in a second phase of fictional autobiographies of movie stars that have an utter lack of use for the tenets of realism that’s inspiring, especially seeing how they were made parallel to the dire trend in more commercial US cinema of “realist” (re: swearing and torture scenes) genre films that proliferated in the early 1990s.

Rappaport’s stance on the narrative and “psychological” shibboleths that loiter, tired but possessed with insidious powers of seduction, in the dire waiting room of the vast majority of American and world cinema collecting gilded dildos and money in a manner that inclines one to agree with the psychoanalytic tendency to trace the origins of such tendencies to the infant’s urge to play with feces, is revolutionary because it doesn’t violently reject such things in search of the real, but deflates them so they’re no longer gods to be venerated or scorned but half-remembered scraps in the junk pile ghost story of consciousness. While often screamingly funny, they’re just as often uncomfortable as listening to a recording of one’s own voice. Frequently in the same segment.

While his early shorts are amusing, especially Blue Movie, the best place to come to an appreciation of Rappaport’s distinctive style is his first feature Casual Relations, a collection of around 12 shorter meditations on the place of boredom, apathy, and in-between moments. It doesn’t have quite the same Jamesian complexity of his later narratives but is, as these sorts of things go, straightforward, hilarious, and more digestible. Casual Relations establishes Rappaport as perhaps the only American filmmaker to understand the artistic potentials and the specific textures of what’s been crudely dubbed “the postmodern condition”-he’ll use outdated stylistics for his own purposes and switch them out frequently and without concern for reveling in or directly and narrowly commenting on them-they’re language, and language is a tool that he’s free to use however he sees fit and established style something he can pick up or discard at whatever tempo he chooses. An especially memorable sequence superficially resembling Rashomon perhaps best sums up this peculiar film whose greatest asset is its lack of a center. A stabbing or shooting occurs, and we see it in various states of revision until it comes up against the void of meaninglessness and becomes more and more absurd. Pluralism isn’t the keyword but rather the emergence of something more sinister, more given to dangerous laughter, something more all-encompassing, a trap perhaps…it’s no accident the film ends with Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run” playing over a blank screen and then credits…

The later films tie their strands together in more complex ways than simply a shared theme make them more complex. It took me three failed runs through his later Local Color before I could allow myself to be ensnared in it’s internal logic, but on the third time it was sheer delight, dread and awe that the movies could do such things. The film, his third (I’ve yet to track down a copy of Mozart in Love though it’s now available on Fandor and I hope to review it here soon) is his masterpiece, though in a body of work this good that means it’s a split second finish. A story of incredible complexity and one of the only, maybe the only, besides Rappaport’s own The Scenic Route, film to take the innovations of the greatest post-war writers in prose, the Pynchons and Barthelmes and Gaddises, and employ them to film on the same level to and sometimes even surpass them. To recount the plot here would be to miss the point; the plot is so byzantine and winding that it seems so on purpose so as to force the viewer in being overwhelmed to let go and stop reading it the way they’ve always read films; as things with characters who have goals and represent eternal melodramatic forces. Nothing is so cut and dried here. Character isn’t a matter of surface level coherence but of self-contradiction, petty urges with unknown origins, layers of masks draped one over the other like thatch over a pit. Attempts have been made to imitate the power and unusual tone of this film in later films to such dire effect it would be insulting to Local Color to mention them here. Some of these attempts were by filmmakers I’m not even sure saw Local Color, maybe the impetus came to them half-digested in dreams. Such things happen…

This is getting long, so I’m going to split it up into two articles. In the second installment I hope to go over his later shorts and fictional documentaries/autobiographies.

Her (2013): Dan’s Review

The thing that immediately came to mind after I finished watching this film was that it’s the flipside of the Black Mirror episode “Be Right Back”.* In the episode a woman’s husband is killed unexpectedly in a car accident. She finds out there’s a service where she can get a nearly exact replica of him, composite based on a complex analysis of all his online activity. She eventually becomes frustrated with the ways in which this replica isn’t like her dead husband and he ironically simply becomes a reminder she can never actually get her husband back. After some screaming and crying she leaves the replica in the attic most of the time the way I imagine most people discarded their Furbies.

In Her, director Spike Jonze has a much warmer though perhaps even more sinister vision of technology as a form of/replacement for social engagement. Charlie Brooker’s vision in “Be Right Back” is dystopic; the product fails to function and can’t fulfill it’s promise, the dark underbelly of what Morozov calls “solutionism”. Jonze poses the opposite question-what if the technology actually worked? What if AI could produce the woman of your dreams, perfect in every way except that she doesn’t have a body? What if the lack of a body was the appeal?

As in every science fiction film dealing with technological reproductions of people, issues of what defines humanity and of transmigration come up; while the film seems to be about technology it’s wary of giving the same warnings endemic to most parables regarding the emotional attachment to and pshychological or physical anthropomorphizing of one’s toys, and what comes out instead is something oddly tender and as such even more intensely disturbing than the sort of heavy handed moralizing usually employed by such works. Jonze learned the negative lesson of his colleague Charlie Kaufman’s work and it shows in his script for this, correcting many of the problems that mar Kaufman’s work before Synechdoche NY. While the ephemeral details of the world are uniformly clever they aren’t made clever simply to produce a sense of disorientation. The film settles on only taking on the subjectivity of Joaquin Phoenix’s character directly (granting him flashbacks and especially when he goes on the blind date and the behavior/tone of his date changes so rapidly and unexpectedly). Jonze understands images should contribute toward the development of themes even if he has no responsibility as the artist to resolve these themes.

The use of flashbacks in the film are a revelation; they aren’t systematized or dramatized in the way such things were in utter drek like Inception or misguided experiments like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

A veritable postmodernist’s picnic, we’re surrounded at every turn in Her by surrogates, supplements, surrogates of surrogates, supplements of supplements, the only consistent reality the possibility of abandonment, the abandonment effective even when the thing or person doing the abandoning might be questionably so. Phoenix’s collection of love letters written for strangers is the film wryly commenting on itself; it’s accepted to accolades as capturing the sense of a feeling even if the circumstances are false.

The best film of 2013 I’ve seen so far.

*Black Mirror is probably the best thing currently on television and I plan on doing episode by episode reviews here at some point in the near future.

The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982)

In 1948, four folk singers, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger came together to form a group called The Weavers, the name taken from Gehart Hauptmann play about the uprising of the Silesian weavers in 1844. Seeger and Hays had previously worked together in the anti-war, Communist Party affiliated Almanac Singers, which disbanded after the United States entered the war on the side of the Soviet Union, but, for the first two years, Seeger, Hellerman, Hays, and Gilbert considered themselves to be dilettantes and amateurs, not professional musicians.  In 1951, however, they released a cover of Leadbelly’s song Goodnight Irene, which became a number one hit, and stayed there for a remarkable 13 weeks.

The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! is a wispy little documentary about their reunion in 1980 at Carnegie Hall, which was itself a nostalgic sequel to another concert they did at Carnegie Hall they did in the middle of the Red Scare in 1955. It’s deceptively simple, showing the now elderly Seeger, Hellerman, Hays, and Gilbert discussing how they got together after 25 years to play a sold out show. Seeger had left The Weavers in 1958 after a dispute about letting a cigarette company license their music. They disbanded in 1964. We see Lee Hay’s struggle with diabetes. He had both his legs amputated in the1970s and died in 1981. There are interviews with Don McLean and a young Holly Near, who talks about how Ronnie Gilbert had been her inspiration to become a professional musician. They spend a lot of time playing their instruments, chatting amiably, and reminiscing about the past. They talk about the Red Scare and Seeger’s testimony in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

I remember seeing advertisements for The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! on PBS when I was back in high-school. The impression I have now is just how old they all looked. Who would have imagined that Pete Seeger would have lived for another 32 years? He was already middle-aged before I was born. The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! and the 1980 concert at Carnegie Hall were supposed to be valedictions, a farewell to music. Yet, for Seeger, the documentary seems like a pause in mid-career, a brief, nostalgic look back at his youth before he began the final third of his long life as a musician and a political activist.

The day after Pete Seeger died, the Internet and the social media exploded with articles and postings about his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.

http://www.peteseeger.net/HUAC.htm

The transcript of Seeger’s testimony is not only a master-class in how to face down school-yard bullies armed with state power, but also evidence of a kind of manliness that speaks with in a civil manner and with a soft, polite voice. These days we’re taught to admire jerks like Chris Christie and Donald Trump. It’s almost a truism that “nice guys don’t get the girls.” Yet Seeger faces a Congressional Committee that had not only destroyed the careers of men and women far better known than he was, but also had the power to lock him up in a cage, and never loses his civility or good humored contempt. Again and again the inquisitors badger him. Again and again, he stands his ground, and even laughs at the thugs trying to break him on the witness stand.

“I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature,” he says, ”and I resent very much and very deeply the implication of being called before this Committee that in some way because my opinions may be different from yours, or yours, Mr. Willis, or yours, Mr. Scherer, that I am any less of an American than anybody else. I love my country very deeply, sir.”

Unlike Lee Hays and unlike most of the leftist political and cultural figures called before HUAC, Seeger not only refused to “name names,” but even to invoke the Fifth Amendment, maintaining that the committee had no legitimacy or authority even to question him, genuine “contempt of Congress,” for which he was sentenced to a year in prison. That conviction wound up being overturned on appeal in 1962, but during the 7-year time-span he was essentially on probation. He had to register his comings and goings with the government. His career was profoundly damaged. He finally made it back on TV in 1967, but had to make his living as a music teacher in schools and summer camps and performing on the college campus circuit.

In these days of recession, NSA spying, and police repression, perhaps Seeger’s later years can teach us how he was able to weather those 7 years during which the state was trying everything in its power to destroy him, and come out almost unscathed. Folk music, unlike film or theater, is a very simple, bare bones form of expression with a low barrier to entry. You can blacklist a Hollywood film director. You can’t really blacklist a folk singer. Seeger lived a harsh, simple life, dwelling for years in Beacon New York in an unheated log cabin built with his own hands. He was preoccupied with saving the Hudson River from pollution, not with material possessions or with mingling with the rich and powerful. He was, to put it as briefly as possible, the anti-Bono. There’s very little that can touch a man who lives his life like Henry David Thoreau, who doesn’t get into debt, hooked on drugs, addicted to fame and adulation, who stays close to the land and who takes care of his already rugged body in a way that allowed him to reach his 90s without needing extensive medical care.

In the end, the only thing that took him down was the death a few months before of his wife Toshi, with whom he had lived for 70 years. He had remarked, in 1943, that she had made the rest of his life possible. After Toshi Seeger died, Pete Seeger didn’t so much expire as decide that he had lived long enough, that it was time to turn out the lights, and go to sleep.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013)

To review a documentary is always more difficult than to review a drama or a comedy. A work of fiction is a self-contained world. It stands or falls on its own. The purpose of a documentary, on the other hand, is to convey information that exists outside of the film. What’s more, We Steal Secrets is a documentary about a contentious, ongoing debate. Julian Assange and Wikileaks consider it to be so much of an unethical “hit piece” that they’ve published an annotated transcripts of the film correcting what they claim to be errors, selective editing, and outright fabrications. You can find it here.

http://wikileaks.org/IMG/html/gibney-transcript.html

If the purpose of a documentary is to boil a complex story down into a clear and coherent narrative, I think We Steal Secrets fails. After watching it twice, I find myself more confused them ever. I think this is partly the result of my own shortcomings. I’m not a Wikileaks junkie. I didn’t follow the Bradley Manning trial. But I think the director, Alex Gibney, has to share some of the blame. He’s very careless about identifying his talking heads. Had it not been for the annotated transcript of the film on the Wikileaks site, I don’t think I would have been able to tell who was who. Gibney adds to the confusion by piling minor details onto important milestones and important milestones onto minor details. The transitions are handled poorly. There is no consistent attempt to make distinctions between the opinions of the filmmaker himself and the subjects he interviews. In other words, We Steal Secrets is a mess.

But is it a hit piece?

Alex Gibney is not a right wing hack. In 2007, he made the excellent Taxi to the Dark Side about the murder of an Afghan taxi driver at the hands of United States troops at Bagram Airfield. That film took a clear position against torture. It was a clear, focused, passionate indictment of the United States occupation of Afghanistan. So what went wrong here? How did Alex Gibney manage to direct a film that Chris Hedges has labeled “agitprop for the security and surveillance state?”

The problems with We Steal Secrets begin right at the beginning, with the title. Julian Assange never said “we steal secrets.” The quote is from Michael Hayden, direct of the NSA, who told Gibney that the US government was in the business of ‘stealing secrets’ from other countries, something you can pick up if you watch the documentary closely. Gibney is too clever and a half. He wants to have it both ways. On one hand, he can mislead the public into believing that Julian Assange is an admitted thief. On the other hand, he can point out how he cleverly slipped an indictment of the NSA into the very title of the film itself. It doesn’t work. All it does it demonstrate the film maker’s unwillingness to take a clear stand on the story he claims to be telling us.

But I don’t think Gibney set out to write a hit piece. Rather, I think he set out to make a “serious documentary,” and got caught up in the form that “serious documentaries” so often take, a morality play. A better title for We Steal Secrets might have been “The Rise and Fall of Julian Assange.” Gibney is more in love with the idea of showing us messy, flawed human beings caught up in a grand historical drama than he is with the idea of throwing light on the story of Wikileaks and on American war crimes. Assange is the rags to riches story, the clever young man from Melbourne who parlayed his skills in hacking and agitprop into worldwide fame, then was brought down by his own hubris. Manning is the sexually confused teenager who rebels against authority because he lacks a clear identity, and, tragically, like Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause, winds up driving himself off a cliff.

The film begins in 1989, at the dawn of the Internet age, at the launch of the space shuttle Galileo, and with an attack on NASA’s computers that Gibney strongly implies, but never comes out and says involved Julian Assange. Assange, in fact, has denied having anything to do with the “Wank Worm.” Fast forward 20 years to the American occupation of Iraq and a young Army intelligence specialist, Chelsea, then named Bradley Manning. We meet a woman named Jihrleah Showman, Manning’s supervising NCO in Iraq. On the surface, Showman comes off as sympathetic, but she’s a hostile witness. Manning was later disciplined for assaulting her.

It’s here that the film wanders perilously close to “hit piece” territory. While we’re shown an unflattering photo of Manning clearly intended to make him appear to be emotionally unstable, Showman talks about his sexual confusion, his addiction to soda, his odd sleeping hours, and his lack of self-control. The strapping Showman — she brags about her 15 inch biceps — then tells us how the diminutive Manning punched her in the face, and how she got him in a headlock. What’s more, as the annotated transcript at the Wikileaks site points out, the documentary narrates the sequence of events in reverse. By the time he got into his fight with Showman, Manning had already leaked most of his information to Wikileaks. But here it’s made to look as if he was acting out of humiliation and revenge over having had his ass kicked by a girl.

Manning’s information leaked, we switch to the Julian Assange portion of the story. We’re shown a Guardian reporter, a former Wikileaks associate, a documentary film maker, an Australian professor, all relevant to the story, perhaps even ultimately sympathetic, but all presented in a way that conforms to the documentary’s overarching morality play. One after another tells us how impressed he was with Assange when they met, but then goes onto to express reservations about his eccentricity and, finally, regret over how his ego and paranoia destroyed Wikileaks and ultimately left him entombed inside the Ecuadorean embassy. There are long interviews with the two women Assange is accused of having sexually assaulted that tell us little about his guilt or innocence. There’s a lot of speculation about how how he might have intentionally broke condoms so he could leave his seed in as many places as possible. It’s strongly implied that he could be HIV positive, but we’re never told whether or not he is, or even if he’s been tested during the time he’s been under house arrest. We come away no more enlightened than we went in.

In fact, that’s just about the only good thing I’ll say about We Steal Secrets. It alerted me about my own ignorance. I went in confused, and I came out confused. I guess I have to go educate myself.

Born In Flames (1983)

I saw Born in Flames, an ultra-low budget film made by the radical feminist Lizzie Borden — her real name — all the way back in the late 1980s on PBS. I liked a few of the performances, especially the charismatic turn by the rock musician Adele Bertei as a militant DJ named Isabel. But I couldn’t quite get by the premise, a feminist rebellion against an already existing social democratic state in New York City. Socialism in the late 1980s? We had just lived through eight years of Ronald Reagan.

Nevertheless, the film’s rough, ultra-low budget aesthetic had made such an impression on me that when I saw it on YouTube, I decided to check it out again. This time it made more sense. It was a dramatization of the rebellion of second wave feminism against the new left. The main flaw I noticed back in the 1980s — it blew a conflict more suited to a small activist group or to a graduate seminar up into a nationwide rebellion — became its main selling point. Born in Flames overreaches so much and fails hard that it will remind you of a great punk band made up of musicians who, while they can’t quite play their instruments, sing with so much passion and commitment that you wind up loving them anyway.

The “socialist” New York City portrayed by Born in Flames, set 10 years after the “war of liberation,” looks suspiciously like the plain old liberal Democratic New York City of the late 1970s and 1980s. That Manhattan and Brooklyn are now gated communities for rich, that nobody under 40 can quite remember the United States before 2001 when it did have traces of liberalism left over from the New deal, gives Born in Flames the look of a grungy, alternative universe. Compared to the New York City of Michael Bloomberg, the New York City of Ed Koch might just as well have been socialist. Thank God Lizzie Borden didn’t have the money to build sets. There it is, on film, the dirty old, pre-Giuliani New York in all its glory. Astor Place didn’t even have a Starbucks. TV news hadn’t yet become cable TV news. Koch had gotten rid of the graffiti on the subways, but they’re still dirty and run down.

If the governments of New York and the United States in Born in Flames are liberal, social democratic monoliths, the rebels look strangely like Occupy anarchists. We’re introduced to four groups of radical feminists. Two are centered on radio stations, “Radio Ragazza,” run by the above-mentioned Isabel, a little bit of Patti Smith’s fiery personality in the body of a young, gamin-like Cat Power, and “Radio Phoenix,” led by an earthy black woman named “Honey.” Think Tracy Chapman. There’s an anarchist society — I won’t say organization — led by the real life radical feminist Florence Kennedy and her young protégé Adelaide Norris, played by an excellent young actress named Jean Satterfield, who seems to have dropped off the face of the earth. Finally, there’s the “Socialist Woman’s Youth Review” — think “Jacobin” — run by three grad-student types, two played by unknowns, and a third by a young Kathryn Bigelow in her very first and only role as an actress. She’s a terrible actress. It’s easy to see why she found her success behind the camera.

It’s not necessarily the plot that makes the film work, the acting — which ranges from quite good to laughably bad — or the cinematography. Any 20 year old kid on Youtube could do better. What makes Born in Flames compelling in spite of its obvious flaws is how Lizzie Borden chooses the subject of an anarcho-feminist rebellion against a socialist government and takes it through to it’s logical conclusion. That conclusion looks pretty much like a radical feminist version of of Occupy without Zuccotti Park and Anonymous without any men.

After Adelaide Norris is fired from her job as a construction worker and transforms herself into a full-time organizer, she becomes so successful, her principles of “mutual aid” and grass-roots vigilantism such a viable alternative to the social democratic bureaucracy, that the government decides to get rid of her. The FBI kidnaps her in Penn Station. She’s sent to The Tombs. The police murder her, and it’s all made to look like a suicide. This brings Radio Ragazza together with Radio Phoenix, and unites the theretofore pro-government Socialist Woman’s Youth Review with the anarchist Woman’s Army of Liberation. They come together, get weapons training, and steal a shipment of M-16s. Then they take over a TV station, interrupt the President’s State of the Union Address, and broadcast to the world that Adelaide Norris had been murdered.

If that all resembles the Anonymous hack of MIT’s web page on the first year’s anniversary of Aaron Schwartz’s suicide then perhaps it’s because Anonymous has partly been influenced by Act Up’s famous takeover of CBS’s Evening News. During Operation Desert Storm, they briefly cut into Dan Rather’s broadcast and chanted “Fight AIDS, not Arabs!” There were “hacks” before they invented the Internet. But Borden stages more than just an Anonymous hack. I loved the final 5 minutes of this film. Some other people who were in New York on 9/11 may hate it. Isabel, in the now mobile Radio Ragazza — they started broadcasting out of a van after the government burned down their studio — reads a free verse poem. The poem isn’t a earthy shatteringly great work of art, but it hasn’t aged very much, and Adele Bertei is a gifted enough reader to make it work. The choice lies ahead of us. Do we chose Eros or do we chose Thanatos? Do we save the environment or destroy it? Do we chose freedom or hierarchy? While Isabel is reading, we flash to a mainstream, corporate reporter standing in front of the old World Trade Center. As he blathers on in the style of a Tom Friedman or a David Brooks or a George Will or a David Broder or a (insert your corporate hack here) the camera draws our attention to the radio antenna above Building Number 1. What happens next? Let’s just say that if Condoleeza Rice saw Born in Flames — and there’s no reason to think she did — she would have had no excuse. Nobody could have predicted? Someone did.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973)

In 1969, an ex United States Information Agency and Foreign Service officer named Sam Greenlee published a novel called The Spook Who Sat By The Door. The story of a fictional black CIA agent who turns around and uses his training in guerrilla warfare techniques, weaponry, communications and subversion to organize a black nationalist insurrection in his home town of Chicago. The Spook Who Sat By The Door became an underground classic, popular reading in the Black Panthers and other radical organizations. Ivan Dixon directed the film version, which was released in 1973.

Dixon’s film, also called The Spook Who Sat By The Door — the title referring to a practice in the early days of affirmative action, when the first Black person hired by a company or agency would usually be seated close to the office entrance — was immediately recognized by critics as an important, if imperfect movie about black liberation. In his review in the New York Times, Vincent Canby noted that “The Spook Who Sat by the Door is a difficult work to judge coherently. It is such a mixture of passion, humor, hindsight, prophecy, prejudice and reaction that the fact that it’s not a very well-made movie, and is seldom convincing as melodrama, is almost beside the point.”

It should have been a hit. But then it vanished. Nobody’s quite sure why, but, as Sam Greenlee has pointed out, there were rumors that the FBI paid a series of visits to theater owners pressuring them to shut it down. The IRS threatened to audit its distributor United Artists, who responded by destroying most of the negatives. For thirty years, The Spook Who Sat By the Door survived only in poor quality bootlegs made by theater goers who brought video cameras to the original showings. In 2004, however, a surviving copy of the film was found, having been filed away under a false name, and a DVD was released by Monarch Home Video.

Vincent Canby underestimated The Spook Who Sat By the Door. It’s one of the few genuinely radical films in the history of American cinema, and should be in the canon along with classic revolutionary agitprop like Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin or Pontecorvo’s The Battle Of Algiers. But it’s more than agitprop. While Battleship Potemkin stages the melodramatic “Odessa Steps” sequence, the goal being to so outrage the viewer that he decides to support the Russian Revolution, The Spook Who Sat By the Door doesn’t even bother. Since it’s aimed primarily at blacks, it simply assumes that its audience is already angry at the system, that it already wants to overthrow white supremacy. That’s why Dixon stages the book as a manual, as a “how to” for urban insurrection. It doesn’t need our hearts. It needs our minds. Canby was looking for nuance and ambiguity, for character development and Oscar worthy performances. But would he have looked for those things in Thomas Paine’s Common Sense?

We first meet the hero, Dan Freeman, an intense Lawrence Cook, when he’s one of a group of black Americans who have been chosen to try out for the Central Intelligence Agency. Earlier, a white liberal Senator up for re-election had decided to pander to black voters by accusing the CIA of discriminatory hiring practices. Freeman, who has as his literary forebears Babo from Melville’s Benito Cereno and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, makes it through the training because he knows how to suppress his emotions, to lay low, to avoid calling attention to himself. He’s the perfect spy. Unlike his fellow recruits, he understands that the white CIA officers conducting their training are racists who are looking for an excuse to flunk them all out, that everybody is spying on everybody. That also puts him two steps ahead of the racists at the CIA, who never quite understand that he’s spying on them.

Once he completes his training, Freeman moves into an apartment in Washington, where he commutes to the CIA in Langley to work as a Top Secret Reproduction Center Sections Chief (which means he has a low level office job where he gives tours to politicians and makes Xerox copies). He gets dumped by his upper-middle-class girlfriend (who will later turn him in) and hooks up with a prostitute he names Dahomey Queen (who will later become an important ally). After 5 years, he leaves the Central Intelligence Agency and goes to work for a non-profit in Chicago as a community organizer.

But Freeman is no community organizer. He’s exactly like Marlon Brando’s William Walker in Pontecorvo’s Burn. He’s a military adviser, a professional revolutionary who’s observed the world from inside the belly of the ruling class beast and knows all their tricks. What he does next can best be described as a series of steps demonstrating “what is to be done.” He confronts a local drug dealer, trying to persuade him to give up colluding with the white man to keep the black community doped out and passive. He picks a fight with the toughest street gang in Chicago, The King Cobras, then recruits them as his shock troops, transforming them from a band of criminals into disciplined revolutionary cadre. He teaches them how to steal. So far, he argues, they’ve only stolen from the black poor. The trick is to steal from the white ruling class. They rob a bank, start a ministry of propaganda, then raid a National Guard Armory. They form cells in other cities across the United States.

“We’re going to give the white man a choice,” Freeman says. “He can keep control overseas, or he can keep control at home. He can’t do both.”

When Shorty, the same drug dealer Freeman had tried to talk out of selling drugs, is killed by the Chicago Police, and it causes a riot, Freeman signals that it’s time for the insurrection to begin. What follows can best be described as a better led version of the uprisings in Newark and Detroit, or the later rebellion in Los Angeles. Freeman’s troops take over a local radio station. They blow up the mayor’s office. They maintain disciplined sniper fire from the rooftops against the National Guard. They kidnap a Colonel “Bull” Evans, smear his face with black paint, force him to drink acid, and send him out into the streets. Then, finally, Freeman is betrayed.

No white man, or woman exposes Dan Freeman as “Uncle Tom,” the code name for the leader of the insurrection. Indeed, the rebellion in The Spook Who Sat By the Door is so skillfully put together that the white political and military leaders trying to put it down can never quite believe that a black man is behind it. As Dahomey Queen, Freeman’s prostitute lover — who’s also sleeping with a senior CIA official — reports back, they think it’s the Russians. Freeman’s old fiancée, who had dumped him to pursue a more bourgeois lifestyle, goes to his best friend from college, Dawson, a senior Chicago police official, and voices her suspicions. Dawson, who Freeman had been trying to recruit as a double agent, eventually puts two and two together, and figures out that his old team mate from the Michigan State football team was the mastermind all along, that the cool, apolitical exterior was just a clever front for a secret black nationalist.

I won’t “spoil” the ending, but if you’ve seen Ken Loach’s equally radical film The Wind That Shakes The Barley, you can probably figure out what happens. Dan Freeman has to make a choice. It’s easy to kill the white occupier, but how about upwardly mobile black traitor? Let’s just say he “does the right thing.” It’s also worth noting that the novel’s author Sam Greenlee had initially tried to get Jesse Jackson to help him fund The Spook Who Sat By The Door. Jackson not only rebuffed him but took an active role in the film’s suppression, having immediately recognized the novel’s subversive content. United Artists, on the other hand, thought it was just another blacksploitation film. So they, unlike Jackson, helped make it possible.

The Spook Who Sat By The Door is on YouTube in its entirety. Sam Greenlee is now an old man who, by his own account, is living on food stamps and welfare, but he seems to have little trouble with his work being pirated. Indeed, he has noted in an interview that had it not been for the original bootleg copies, the film never would have gained its underground reputation or its eventual release on DVD. You don’t really have to be black to appreciate The Spook Who Sat By The Door, just someone who wants to see an important, suppressed piece of American culture given the full debate it deserved back in the 1970s.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

This is the best film the Coens have made, mostly because of their choice of source material. Cormac McCarthy’s prose, with its starkly pared-down language and sharp reduction of scenes down to their components as philosophic juxtapositions, forces the Coens to focus themselves more than they have in their comedies. It lacks the usual dark humor and while watching one hardly misses it. They deal here with eternal forces, not broad satirical targets, and the result while far from perfect is refreshing.

In embracing their tendency to draw two dimensional archetypes instead of awkwardly trying to distract the viewers with jokes the Coens do away with much of the gratingly adolescent malaise and obsessive castration anxiety that mars so much of their other work. The performances are all excellent within the context of the film.  Javier Bardem comes across like a broad villain, but that’s because that’s what the script seems to call for. There is very little behavior in the film and lots of clipped allegorical dialogue; to give a performance in a realist mode would be to betray the forward thrust of the film, the question of free will.

The weaknesses and failures of the film bizarrely enough seem to stem back to McCarthy. McCarthy in an interview once said he only deals with “questions of life and death” and because of this had no understanding of writers like Henry James. This quality comes through very clearly in No Country; the possibility of truth or insight only seems possible when a character faces the inevitability of death in the most stark terms imaginable. As a dramatic conceit this is effective; it ratchets up tension and emotionally draws the audience in. As an epistemology that supposedly draws out “truth” from characters it’s sophmoric, overly hard-boiled, and creates all sorts of logistical problems. If the arrival of death actually brings out someone’s true philosophy, we then need to accept that Charles Darwin didn’t believe in evolution and that Guantanamo Bay is probably the most productive philosophical investigation going right now. These are both, of course, absurd propositions.

Chigurh as the embodiment of death is interesting mostly insofar as his pretense to randomness and chance is theatrical posturing.

Running On Empty (1988)

Looking back on Sydney Lumet’s forgotten masterpiece of the late 1980s, Running on Empty, the first thing I notice is that I’m now closer in age to the parents played by Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti than I am to the two high school seniors played by River Phoenix and Martha Plimpton. I also realize that while I don’t feel middle-aged, it’s not a good thing, that those of us who were born in the 1960s and the 1970s have been sentenced to a perpetual cultural adolescence. We never developed our own style. Grunge was just the marriage of punk and heavy metal, which, in turn, was part of the tail end of the hippie culture of the 1960s. We debate the same political issues people did around Watergate. We live in a stagnant, paralyzed culture. Even though the new left and the anti-Vietnam-War movements were partly successful, they never realized their more radical potential. The “silent majority,” the extended backlash against the Civil Rights movement is now the darling of the media and the politicians, so much so that even liberals sympathetic to Occupy Wall Street — the millennial generation’s new new left — will often say “oh why can’t you be more like the Tea Party.”

Running on Empty is set precisely at the moment, in the milieu, when all of that was set in stone. Arthur and Annie Pope, two middle-aged 1960s radicals, are still living underground. Back during the Vietnam War they bombed a napalm laboratory and maimed a janitor who, unexpectedly, had been working late. Their elder son, Danny Pope, Phoenix, is a talented musician and a sensitive poetic soul who has become even more introverted because his parents have cut him off from the rest of the world. One step ahead of the FBI, they move every few months That means a new alias, a new high-school, and a new set of friends. Even though he has a rich inner-life, brilliantly expressed by the way he can sit down at a piano and play the slow movement from Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata out of nowhere, Danny comes off as hostile, distant, even, perhaps, as someone suffering from some form of high-functioning autism.

When the Popes settle down in the fictional New Jersey town of Waterford, however, Danny’s musical talent attracts the attention of his music teacher, Mr. Phillips. His good looks, in turn, attract the attention of Mr. Phillip’s daughter, Lorna, played by a luminous young Martha Plimpton. They draw him out of his shell. They invite him to concerts. They encourage him to apply to Juilliard. Arthur and Annie Pope, who are genuinely good people, the kind of parents who would normally be thrilled to see their introverted son make friends — and they both get along with Lorna — also recognize the danger. The more Danny stands out, the more people begin to like him, the greater the danger of their being exposed. If Danny applies to Juilliard, he will need transcripts from his old high-school that don’t exist. If he gets accepted, that means he’ll have to cut himself off from his parents. In other words, it’s in the entirely selfish interests of Arthur and Annie Pope to keep their son socially stunted and isolated. “Classical music is bourgeois white privilege,” Arthur scoffs at his son’s plans to apply to Juilliard. “It’s not rock and roll.”

In the end, Arthur and Annie Pope make the right decision. They let their son go. After they arrange a meeting with Annie’s parents, who agree to board Danny until he comes of age, Danny gets to attend Juilliard and stay with Lorna, to whom he had finally risked confessing the truth about himself. Arthur and Annie go on to continue their life underground. Sydney Lumet shows us what the Baby Boomers should have done, but refused, admitted that their youth was gone, and let their kids grow up and establish their own identity. They never did. What’s more, some of the most talented cultural icons born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Phoenix himself and Kurt Cobain, would be dead within a few years anyway. By contrast, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorhn, the two real life 60s radicals on whom Annie and Arthur Pope are based, still weigh heavily on the American political imagination, the big time corporate media even giving serious airplay to conspiracy theorists who believe they’re Barack Obama’s puppet masters.

But Sydney Lumet —and the screenwriter Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal — still have their limitations.

Now that I’m older and more radical, I notice a conservatism and snobbery in Running on Empty that I missed the first time around. Sydney Lumet, the son of Jewish immigrants, and Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal, a Jewish baby boomer, can’t quite get past the idea of a happy ending as “acceptance by upper-middle-class WASP America.” I see a class and ethnic resentment in Arthur Pope, a Jew, against his wife Annie Pope, a WASP, that’s never quite resolved. Letting Danny go means letting him live with Annie’s conservative Republican parents, go to Juilliard, play classical piano, and cut himself off from the unfinished revolution of the 1960s. I was struck by how Annie tells her father that the revolution is over, that radicalism became obsolete when they ended the war in Vietnam and the draft.

What really saves Running on Empty from becoming just another Big Chill with a better soundtrack and more likeable characters are Phoenix and Plimpton. Christine Lahti gives a good performance as a women holding her family together in spite of all the obstacles. Judd Hirsch is competent, if sometimes a bit irritating. You realize that his verbal and physical ticks remind you of Alan Alda’s insufferably smug Hawkeye Pierce from the old TV show MASH. But Phoenix and Plimpton are a revelation, especially after all the 30-year-old teenagers that marched through the endless parade of slasher and frat boy films cluttering up the cultural landscape the 1980s. They radiate youth and vulnerability, of the possibilities that my generation had but never quite realized. Indeed, it’s heartbreaking to realize how much talent River Phoenix had, how much more of a natural actor he was than the vaguely phony Leonardo DiCaprio or the needlessly quirky Johnny Depp. Phoenix’s overdose, of course, had nothing to do with the cultural paralysis that we find ourselves in these days, but, watching his performance in Running on Empty, it’s almost possible to believe that it did.

Kanal (1956)

On August 1st of 1944, as the Soviet Army approached the outskirts of Warsaw, the Polish resistance rose up against the German occupation. Since the Germans had recently been dealt a crushing defeat by Marshall Zhukov’s troops in Belorussia, Operation Tempest — the plan by which the London based Polish Home Army would seize control of large parts of the country before the Soviet Union could install a communist puppet state — met with initial success. The Polish resistance expelled the German garrison from large parts of Warsaw, captured the Gęsiówka concentration camp built on the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto and liberated 300 Jewish prisoners, and attempted to recreate the normal, day-to-day life that existed before the Nazi invasion.

Even though it is relatively unknown in the United States, the Warsaw Uprising is one of the largest urban insurrections in history, far surpassing the French student uprising of May 1968, dwarfing the Newark and Detroit riots, and equaled only by the Paris Commune and the Tet Offensive. When it was over, 10,000 Polish Resistance fighter and an equal number of German soldiers were dead. Yet it meant destruction, not liberation for the people of Warsaw. The Soviet Army, after having annihilated the Germany Army Group Center in Belorussia only weeks before, paused on the banks of the Vistula.

Whether it a stab in the back, or simply an issue of logistics — the Soviet Army outrunning its supply lines — is the subject of an ongoing historical debate. But there’s no debate about what happened next. The German government took advantage of the rebellion to carry out a pre-existing plan to destroy Warsaw. They massacred 250,000 people outright, expelled another 700,000. According to Wikipedia, “the destruction of the city was so severe that in order to rebuild much of Warsaw, a detailed 18th century landscape of the city painted by the Italian artists Marcello Bacciarelli and Bernardo Bellotto, who had been commissioned by the government before the Partitions of Poland, had to be used as a model to recreate most of the buildings.”

After the Soviet Army finally moved into Warsaw in January of 1945, a Stalinist puppet government ruled Poland until 1956, when it was replaced by a less authoritarian variety of communism under Władysław Gomułka. Full public recognition of the history of the Warsaw Uprising, however, did not come until the 1990s. According to Wikipedia, “until late 1960s, the very name of the Home Army was censored and most films and novels covering the 1944 Uprising were either banned or modified so that the name of the Home Army did not appear there. Also, the official propaganda of both Poland and the USSR suggested that the Home Army was some sort of a group of right-wing collaborators with Nazi Germany. From 1956 on, the image of Warsaw Uprising in Polish propaganda was changed a little bit to underline that the soldiers were indeed brave, while the officers were treacherous and that the commanders were characterized by disregard of the losses. The first serious publications on the topic were not issued until late 1980s. In Warsaw, no monument to the Home Army could be built until 1989. Instead, efforts of Soviet-backed Armia Ludowa were glorified and exaggerated.”

Andrej Wajda, who’s sometimes considered to be the Polish Jean Luc Godard, took advantage of Władysław Gomułka’s reforms in 1956 to create what’s probably still the greatest film about the Warsaw Uprising. Unlike The Battle of Algiers or Le Petit Soldat, both of which were banned for several years in democratic France due to their treatment of the Algerian Revolution, Kanal, which tells the story of a group of Polish Resistance fighters to escape from the Old Town to the City Center through the sewers at the very end of the Warsaw Uprising, was shown commercially in Poland. Described by the communist press in Poland as a film that “showed the tragic fate of those who followed the wrong orders,” it also won a Special Jury Prize at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival. Wajda, in other words, was so talented that even in communist Poland he was still able to make himself heard.

If ever a film embodied the word “doom” it’s Kanal. Compared to this early masterpiece of the Polish New Wave, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan can almost look sunny and optimistic. We are introduced to Lieutenant Zadra, their leader, Jacek Korab, a young soldier who’s wounded halfway through the film disabling a Nazi tank, his lover Daisy, a courier and sewer runner who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Gena Rowlands, Halinka, an innocent young woman who’s seduced by a married, older man, and “Michal the Composer,” a classic pianist who loses his mind later in the film. Wajda shows us not only a cross section of the doomed city, but a group of resistance fighters who are more than just a professional army, but a people rising up against an occupier. “Watch them closely,” a narrator announces, “for these are the last hours of their lives.”

I decided to watch Kanal again — I saw it a few years ago — after watching the new American war film “Lone Survivor,” a dark, brutal account of four Navy Seals pinned down in Afghanistan after a failed assassination of a the leader of an Islamic militia. The differences between the two films are striking. Kanal has strong female characters who fight alongside the men, especially Daisy, who’s both a sexy blond bombshell and a believably tough resistance fighter at the same time. The Americans in Lone Survivor are all professional soldiers. There’s also the difference in the way Peter Berg, who directed Lone Survivor, and Wajda dramatize the horror of war. Berg, who realizes his film will be seen mainly by Americans, people who have little or no direct experience with war, tries to overwhelm our senses. Lone Survivor is loud. Berg gives us plenty of fake blood and broken bones. Wajda doesn’t have to. Every Pole in 1956 knew what war was like, the Warsaw Uprising being a far more terrible and destructive battle than the American occupation of Afghanistan.

By assuming his audience knows what gunshots sound like and how it feels to look out over a trench and see German Panzers coming in your direction, Wajda is able to see war not simply as a fire fight but as the destruction of sympathetic individuals within the context of the destruction of a whole nation. The Navy Seals in Lone Survivor are likeable individuals, but nothing that happens in the film affects their souls. They start out as wholesome, all American heroes. They die, or they escape as wholesome, all American heroes. Wajda’s resistance fighters, however, are flawed, three dimensional citizens. They resist the German occupiers until it’s hopeless, but, after they descend into the sewer to make their escape to the center city, they lose their minds. Most who get out of the dark, stinking hell are executed by the Germans when they reach the surface. Daisy chooses to stay in the tunnel rather than leave her wounded lover. Zadra, the lone survivor, commits a crazy, morally reprehensible act the moment he realizes he’s safe. If Peter Berg shows us the destruction of the body, Wadja shows us the destruction of the body and the soul.

The hopeless ending is, perhaps, the reason Wajda was able to get the film through the censors. “Following the wrong orders” leads to madness or death. What’s more, if the Warsaw Uprising was censored by the Soviet Union and largely ignored in the west — except in Britain, the British being the only people who attempted to send aid — it was never far from the minds of people in the reconstructed Warsaw, raised again in a heroic effort in the 1950s and 1960s. Perhaps the censors saw the dark, horrifying film as a necessary “escape valve” for nationalist sentiments. But that’s not the way I saw it. The Poles in 1944 rose up against hopeless odds, and, by doing so, saved their national identity. Poland was not incorporated into the Soviet empire. The memory of the Warsaw Uprising survived right through the 1980s. The damned souls of Kanal demonstrate that when a people rebel, they can’t be stamped out as a people. Poland never became East Germany, even under a Stalinist puppet state, proof that even the most futile “lost cause” is never really lost. Perhaps we Americans should take that to heart as the corprotocracy continues to break up the fabric of our nation and subjugate our souls to neoliberalism, an ideology as insidious in its own way as Nazism or Stalinism.