Monthly Archives: February 2014

Monuments Men (2014)

I have, in my life, in circumstances voluntary and involuntary, seen in its entirety, the film You Got Served three times.

Monuments Men is the worst film I have ever seen in my life.

In the dark theater I took out the Elvis biography I had in my bag and wrote a list in the blank endpapers of medical procedures I remembered as being more compelling and enjoyable than Monuments Men. The list included but was not limited to:

-Wisdom tooth removal

-Cavity drilling

-Wart removal

In an earlier draft of this essay I called Monuments Men “sad old man porn” but reconsidered this on remembering that pornography has on occasion been competently framed and effective in its aims. Monuments Men is a film about men who risked their lives to save stolen art in WWII. I’d like to apologize here to the honorable men and women who make great bodily sacrifices to bring us pornography.

Some might complain this review lacks specific details about the film. But when someone tells them “I just got herpes” do they ask for specific details and analysis? No. This film is herpes. These readers are hypocrites.

George Clooney should not have a body. His voice should be computer generated and only employed in car commercials. But we do not live in a fair and equitable world.

Did I ever think one of my most deeply seated regrets in this life would be triggered by the question “Why didn’t I see The Lego Movie instead?” No. No one ever expects tragedy to happened to them. But it happened. As Beckett said: I can’t go on. I must go on.

Later that evening I ate a chicken burrito that was better than the film Monuments Men.


After being put under much pressure to actually engage with the film, though it is herpes and if I engage with it I risk some of that rubbing off on me, I suppose I’ll take the risk just to shut you up. I love you all that much, dear readers. Why did Monuments Men suck so much? Let me count the ways…

1) Dialogue that was schmaltzy in the extreme and repeated itself in the manner of a dog circling its own vomit (a metaphor I stole from a professor whose name I can’t remember. I think he’d call this is a justified use.)
2) Framing that was incompetent to exactly the degree where no joy could even be derived from the incompetence.
3) George Clooney.
4) George Clooney.
5) Cate Blanchett’s accent I would describe as laughable but then I remember I didn’t laugh. I was just thoroughly unimpressed by it.
6) Plentiful montages assembled with the same finesse and deep consideration one employs when arranging the rotted months old left overs cluttering the back of their refrigerator in a trash bag.

Philomena (2013)

Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.

You can find him here.

The Magdalene laundries have been covered in a previous film though this one, based on The Lost Child of Philomena Lee goes into details not covered in the previous film, and besides that only uses the history of the Catholic church’s enforced servitude of young as the backdrop for, despite some touching sequences, what is essentially a road trip buddy film. A journalist played by Steve Coogan, who also wrote the script, finds himself staying with the titular Philomena, an elderly woman whose son was taken from her by the church when he was four years old. Coogan is a person used to the ritzy life of an international government correspondent; Philomena is working class and given to entertainments including a sort of British novel so junky I haven’t even encountered one in my more than two years of buying and selling used books-I suppose the closest US analogue from what could be discerned by Philomena’s endless descriptions in the film would be Harlequin romance novels.

Coogan, who also wrote the script, derives a lot of humor from the high-low class pairing. That this humor doesn’t seem to come at Philomena’s expense as much as at the expense of Coogan’s journalist and his silly pretenses is an admirable achievement. His depiction of the process of journalism gets across much of the awkwardness of it that doesn’t usually come across in most other journalism films. The most awkward part of the work is having seen a lot of things, having a necessary edginess, but having to deal in long stretches with members of the public you never would interact with socially. Maybe some sort of film could be made about a journalist covering Occupy coming to a similar sort of odd couple friendship. Seeing Coogan’s initial revulsion at Philomena’s way of life most prominently reminded me of the early NY Times articles on OWS. Of course it would be a fairy tale. This film is in many ways a fairy tale. Most narrative films are.

The direction by Stephen Frears is in some respects well done but in many others cluelessly inept. As with most films involving journalism the action largely consists of people sitting and talking. This poses a certain problem for the director in finding some sort of way to make this visually interesting. Frears gets right that a scene of talking lives or dies with the actors, and lets Coogan and Dench do what they need to do with little noticeable interference, perhaps too little interference as he sometimes allows, nay, indulgences in the more cliched and sentimental elements of Dench’s “feisty old lady” performance, and on more than one occasion, especially noticeable for myself having seen this in a theater, we’re treated to a 20 foot tall extreme close-up of Judi Dench making her best archetypal “old lady about to cry” face that most closely resembles a clown mask.

In avoiding the shot-reverse shot death trap Frears falls into another problem, the problem of weird shifting tilting but smooth shots of the principles talking, the cumulative rhythm eventually giving the sense of staring at the ocean with the attached dangers of seasickness.

Whoever played Philomena’s dead son in the footage is brilliant. His performance is one-note in the way that people in home videos actually are. He sacrifices depth for a shocking neglected aspect of realism.

Jud Süß (1940)

Jud Süß, the infamous anti-Semitic propaganda commissioned by Joseph Goebbels in 1940, is a bit like D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. Birth of a Nation was the inspiration for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Heinrich Himmler ordered Jud Süß to be shown to SS units about to be sent against Jews, to non-Jewish populations of areas where Jews were about to be deported, and to concentration camp guards. It’s not only a hateful film. It’s flat out incitement to murder.

So it was with some trepidation that I watched it, and it’s with even more trepidation that I write about it. Birth of a Nation, an old silent film, can be viewed as a museum piece, a tutorial in the development of the early cinema. Its portrayal of black Americans is so crude and so over the top it’s not likely to inspire very many people to join the Ku Klux Klan in 2014. Jud Süß is propaganda of a different order. In keeping with his theory that the most effective propaganda was subtle and indirect, that it should, according to historian Stephen Lee, “convey its message within the context of a story with which the audience could identify,” Joseph Goebbels commissioned the talented filmmaker Veit Harlan, and a cast of A-list German actors, including the Swedish born film start Kristina Söderbaum.

Unlike Birth of a Nation, Jud Süß personifies the racial other as a compelling anti-hero that an audience might possibilty identify with. Halfway through, you realize, to your horror, that it’s actually a well-made, well-acted, well-written film. It’s effective propaganda. What’s more, Jud Süß is not an obviously right-wing, authoritarian film like Triumph of the Will. On the contrary, at first glance it almost feels like that left-wing, “socialist” Nazism your crazy teabagger uncle is always warning you about.

Looked at more closely, it’s actually a right-wing populist, anti-government melodrama driven by conspiracy theory, much closer to Alex Jones and David Icke than it is to The Communist Manifesto. Charles Alexander, the Duke of Württemberg is a fat, lazy, dissolute politician with a taste for high living and underage women. Without the money for a coronation gift for the duchess, he arranges to borrow money from Joseph Süß Oppenheimer, a Jewish moneylender. Oppenheimer insists that he come to to the city, from which Jews had been banned for centuries, to present an expensive set of jewerly in person. The Duke of Württemberg agrees, giving Oppenheimer, who shaves his beard and cuts his hair in order to disguise himself as a gentile, a set of forged papers.

On the way to the city, Oppenheimer runs his carriage off the road. He’s picked up and driven the rest of the way by Dorothea Sturm, Kristina Söderbaum, a “pure” Aryan maiden who incites all of lustful desire for revenge against the gentile oppressor via miscegenation. But Joseph Oppenheimer is no out of control freedman from Birth of a Nation. He’s a sly, clever man who knows how to bide his time before he makes his move. Like a good drug dealer, he knows how to give the first few hits at a discounted price in order to get his mark hooked. The Duke of Württemberg, a big government “tax and spend liberal” — “liberal” by the definition of Fox News — also wants to start an ambitious program of modernizing the city. He wants an opera house, a bodyguard, and a ballet company. Oppenheimer agrees to finance these a well, wanting only the authority to maintain the roads and bridges of the dukedom for 10 years, as well as the right to levy tolls for their use and upkeep. Soon he has the Duke wrapped around his finger, letting him skim a percentage of the profits off the top as a further incentive.

So what does Oppenheimer want (apart from bedding Dorothea Sturm)? He wants the Duke to lift the ban of Jews from living in Württemberg. In the eyes of an anti-Semite of course this makes him a villain, but what about the rest of us? Isn’t Oppenheimer just a good politician? Indeed, you can almost see Joseph Goebbels nervously reviewing the script in order to make sure that Oppenheimer does not come across as a sympathetic anti-hero.

Whether or not Oppenheimer is just a good Machiavellian using trying to liberate his people “by any means necessary,” however, is beside the point. The horde of dirty, disreputable, lower class Jews — eastern Jews as opposed to Oppenheimer’s assimilated western Jew — clearly don’t deserve to be liberated. What’s more, Joseph Oppenheimer is more interested in revenge against the gentile than he is with liberating the Jews. Soon Württemberg has become the nightmare big government “liberal” state libertarians have always warned us against. Prices go up. Oppenheimer secures the right to collect taxes on beer, wine, and wheat. He brings in prostitutes. He seduces the aristocracy with the promise of sex with under age girls. He invokes eminent domain to deprive a hard working blacksmith of half his house, than manipulates the Duke into having him hanged when he objects.

In short, an Aryan Bedford Falls becomes a Jewish Pottersville.

The rest of the film is just crude melodrama. The people start getting restless. They break out the pitchforks and torches and organize their own tea parties. Oppenheimer convinces the Duke to suspend the Constitution and set himself up as a dictator with absolute power. They travel to Ludwigsburg to hire mercenaries (funded by the city’s Jewish population of course) to put down any potential rebellion. Oppenheimer has Dorothea’s fiancée Faber, the film’s most fervid anti-Semite, tortured, while he rapes her across the street from the dungeon to the sound of her virtuous Aryan lover’s screams. Dorothea commits suicide, becoming a martyr, and inspiring the overthrow of the Duke. The Constitution is restored. Oppenheimer is hanged, and Jews are once again banished from Württemberg.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. Astonishingly, in 1940, on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union, Joseph Goebbels made an anti-government melodrama. Let me repeat that. Jud Süß is an anti-government film. The Nazis made an anti-government film. Was that clear? Jud Süß attempts to channel any potential anger that the German people might have had over living under a dictatorship against the same Jews that very Nazi dictatorship was persecuting. We don’t have to ask if it worked or not. Roger Ailes learned the lessons of Nazi propaganda well. By deflecting the anger of the American people over George Bush’s surveillance and torture state and Obama’s bailout of Wall Street against the working class and against blacks, Fox News does on a daily basis what Jud Süß did all the way back in 1940, makes the victims the oppressors and the oppressors the victims. Jud Süß is authoritarian propaganda that knows it has to pose as anti-authoritarian. If Triumph of the Will was George W. Bush landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier and declaring “mission accomplished,” Jud Süß is the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Alex Jones. Right-wing populism never seems to go away.

October (1928)

One of most celebrated scenes from Eisenstein’s October.

The career of Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein, who lived from 1898 to 1948, can roughly be divided into three phases. In his mid-20s, he made Strike, October, and the iconic Battleship Potemkin. He spent most of his 30s in the wilderness, first in Hollywood, and then in Mexico, where most of his work ended up either incomplete or destroyed. He ended his life as the court film maker for Joseph Stalin’s peculiar amalgam of communism and Russian nationalism, giving us Alexander Nevsky in 1938, Ivan the Terrible: Part I in 1944, and Ivan the Terrible Part II in 1947, which, although suppressed during his lifetime, is arguably is greatest film.

October, sometimes known as Ten Days That Shook the World and made for the 10th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, is an ambitious yet ultimately unsatisfying film. The Soviet government gave Eisenstein thousands of extras, a huge budget, and full run of the Winter Palace. He gave them more than their money’s worth, turning out a visual recreation of the events of July and October of 1917 so vivid and yet so realistic that it’s often shown in history classes as if it were documentary footage.

What makes October effective propaganda is how Eisenstein re-imagines Lenin’s relentless yet gradual takeover of the Russian state in 1917 as a single dramatic event. Yes, the storming of the Winter Palace did happen in 1917. In reality it was more of a walk into the Winter Palace than a storming of the Winter Palace. Nevertheless, we subconsciously conflate history and myth. It becomes, in effect, not the final stage of a coup, but the second coming of the fall of the Bastille. Indeed, while in our minds, we know that Lenin overthrew the shell of a liberal and social democratic provisional government, setting the final scene at the Winter Palace tricks our emotions into believing he overthrew the monarchy itself. Eisenstein took Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli’s monumental structure, and flipped the script on it. Where Catherine the Great intended The Winter Palace to showcase the eternal power of Imperial Russia, Eisenstein uses it to put the final nail in the Romanov coffin.

Then why did I find myself falling asleep during the last half hour?

October is basically two films, triumphalist state propaganda coexisting with revolutionary agitprop. Strike and Battleship Potemkin are two of the greatest pieces of revolutionary agitprop. Their intention is not to prop up a state, but to condemn one, not to celebrate the Bolshevik victory in 1917, but to protest Czarist and, more importantly, capitalist oppression. Strike ends in a massacre. Battleship Potemkin ends with a call for ongoing struggle, but is mainly known for the massacre on the Odessa Steps. Eisenstein’s intention, in both films, is to fill us with rage against the oppressor, to call us to arms, and, ultimately, revolution. Sergei Eisenstein, like all great poets, was most comfortable when he was in the opposition.

Yet how could he have made a film on the scale of October had the Bolsheviks not already won, had he not had the backing of the state in addition to his genius?  He did go through a period of exile in the late 1920s and 1930s where he made a great but unfinished film in Mexico. But that was all in the future. In 1927, at the tender age of 28, he was commissioned by the Soviet government, which he believed in passionately, to do a film about the storming of the Winter Palace. In the late 1920s, Eisenstein was, essentially, the Bolshevik court filmmaker. Yet unlike Leni Riefenstahl, he wasn’t a fascist. Ivan the Terrible Part II, his final film, which he had intended partly to flatter Joseph Stalin, was suppressed. The intention was to glorify the dictator. The result was a honest, complex film that pissed the dictator off.

October is the dramatic recreation of two events that took place in 1917, the Storming of the Winter Palace and the — much less known outside of Russia — July Days. During the first half of October Eisenstein shows us how the Czar, who had led Russia into the holocaust of World War I, was overthrown in February of 1917 by a spontaneous uprising of workers and mutinous soldiers. St. Petersburg was left with a situation of dual power. There was the liberal, yet ruling class “provisional government,” which was determined to maintain the existing property relations and continue the war with Germany, and the soldiers and workers councils, “the Soviets,” dominated but not exclusively run by the Bolsheviks.

In July of 1917, against the wishes of the Bolshevik leadership, a mass rally was staged to protest the continued involvement of Russia in the war. It’s here where October really shines. The surging masses will remind you of the Battle of Algiers. You’ll gasp when government troops machine gun a group of marchers. It’s here you’ll find the film’s most famous scene, a white horse hanging from a drawbridge raised high over the Neva River. Eisenstein is the poet of industrial civilization. Only he could have combined the image of flesh and metal, both idealized, the beautiful white horse stopped dead in its tracks, the power of engines lifting the mighty span into the air. For anybody who’s tempted to condemn Eisenstein for making a film for the Soviet government, it’s important to remember that the provisional government under Kerensky government did actually kill over 700 people in July of 1917. They were determined to continue feeding Russian peasants and workers into the meat grinder in the west. The Bolsheviks did have popular support. But that popular support, in the end, is what makes the second half of the film so much less vivid than the first. Kerensky fled to the United States. The attempted coup by General Kornilov had been beaten back by red guards, and the Winter Palace was guarded only by a poorly armed and trained group of women soldiers, who quickly surrendered after the Bolsheviks had the palace surrounded. By mid October, the Bolsheviks had already effective seized power. The rest was anti-climax.

Indeed, never was there a more thrilling, heart pounding defeat or a duller more soporific victory than the two halves of October. Eisenstein was working for the Soviet Union, but, to loosely paraphrase William Blake, he was the true poet. He was always on the side of the oppressed and the defeated. Making a film about his own side winning was never easy.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

In 1905, Russia fought a war with with Japan and lost. The Japanese victory — which sent most of the Russian navy to the bottom of the Tsushima Strait — weakened the prestige of Czar Nicholas II’s autocratic government. In response, the Russian people rose up and forced the Romanovs to establish a limited, and very shortly-lived constitutional monarchy.

Even though it was brutally suppressed, the Russian Revolution of 1905 is usually considered the dress rehearsal for the great Russian Revolution of 1917. One of its most famous incidents took place on a clunky, Pre-Dreadnought battleship in the Black Sea Fleet, the Kniaz Potemkin Tavricheskiy, or, as it is better known, the Battleship Potemkin. With the majority of Russia’s experienced crews having sailed to Japan with Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky, the Potemkin was staffed mainly by raw recruits and bottom of the barrel officers. At the same time, the Social Democratic Organization of the Black Sea Fleet was preparing for a general uprising.

On June 27, as the ship was at gunnery practice near Tendra Island off the Ukrainian coast, many of its crew refused to eat Borscht made with meat that had been infested with maggots. To say that Ippolit Gilliarvosky, the Potemkin’s second in command, overreacted would be an understatement. He ordered a group of the rebellious sailors wrapped in a tarp, so that they could be shot without staining the deck with blood, and summoned a firing squad. At this point, Gregory Vakulinchuk, a radical sailor of indeterminate politics, decided that the time for the planned uprising had come, and started the a mutiny that saved the men about to be summarily executed. Ippolit Giliarovsky — who is described on his Wikipedia page as a “a tall, thin, autocratic officer who fantasized about killing anti-war liberals” — then murdered Vakulinchuk, and was, in turn, killed by the mutinous crew. They killed seven more of the ships eighteen officers, and sailed into the port of Odessa flying a red flag.

Afanasi Matushenko, a Sociel Democrat, now leading the uprising, brought Vakulinchuk’s body on shore, where the political uproar around his funeral became part of the general strike that had already been under way. There was no massacre on the Odessa Steps as depicted in the film, but the Potemkin did shell the theatre where a number of high ranking military officers were meeting in retaliation for the attempts by the police to kidnap sailors who came ashore to view Vakulinchuk’s body. The Social Democrats had also begun to make progress organizing in the rest of the Black Sea Fleet since 5 more battleships sent by the czarist authorities to sink the Potemkin refused to fire on the mutinous vessel, which was then able to slip out of Russian waters and scuttle itself just off the Romanian port of Costanta. Afanasi Matushenko was captured by police and executed after he returned to Russia in 1907 under a false name.

It’s undoubtedly a testament to the ability of capitalism to coopt and neuter subversive culture that Battleship Potemkin is better known in the United States for being taught in film classes than it is for its politics. But it goes beyond transforming a consummate piece of communist agitprop into a tutorial on the “5 types of montage.” Indeed, one of the best known films influenced by Battleship Potemkin is Brian DePalma’s Untouchables, as much an ode to the FBI and the Chicago police as Eisenstein’s film was to the revolutionary sailors of the Revolution of 1905. The most vivid and most justly celebrated scene in Battleship Potemkin — the purely fictional Odessa Steps sequence — shows a group of women murdered by the relentless, almost robotic march of cossacks repressing a political demonstration. Untouchables takes the same sequence, and reconfigures it to celebrate the heroism of FBI agent Elliott Ness, who manages to save the baby killed in Battleship Potemkin even as he shoots it out with the bad guys. Eisenstein shows us female heroism mowed down by the autocratic state. DePalma celebrates the authoritarian state in the form of macho, gun toting cops.

The Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin is a fictionalized event within a very real, very historical Revolution of 1905. I experienced a much less dire, but similar event in the Fall of 2011, the suppression of Occupy Wall Street and its satellite occupations by militarized big city police departments. Eisenstein got everything right. You don’t even have to watch the whole movie, just the clip of the attack on the demonstrators on the Odessa Steps. After the brutal eviction of Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park on November 15, one of the things that kept me sane was watching Battleship Potemkin. Had it not been for Eisenstein’s classic film I might have been overwhelmed by the corporate media’s attempt to demonize Occupy’s protesters as dirty hippies who just needed to get jobs. Eisenstein brought me back into history, the 2 months of Occupy Wall Street in New York boiled down into the 7 brutal minutes of the Odessa Steps.

As the famous sequence opens, you can see the joy in peoples faces, the sense of possibility that they never had before. It was the same in Zuccotti Park. For a few brief weeks, people seemed to think that real change was possible, that maybe, just maybe, the United States would become a democracy again. But then we started to see the coordinated evictions on television and on the Internet, a series of attacks on peaceful demonstrators that culminated in the eviction of Occupy Oakland, and the near death of Scott Olsen after he was shot in the head by a tear gas canister. Eisenstein makes the transition in a few seconds. “Suddenly,” the title card announces before the crowd takes off in panic. We see why, a group of soldiers marching with their guns raised. As the horror unfolds, we see that these soldiers are not really men, not really human. Rather, they are the embodiment of the cold brutality of the authoritarian state, machinelike, relentless, unstoppable, “just following orders.” I remember a similar quality to the NYPD who regularly surrounded Zuccotti Park. You couldn’t talk to them. You couldn’t reason with them. They had no emotions. They were Wall Street’s muscle, capitalist tools, not individuals. When the order to evict came, they destroyed everything in their way. In The Battleship Potemkin, the Cossacks kill a mother and child. During the eviction of Zuccotti Park, the NYPD destroyed thousands of books in the “People’s Library.” I’d rather lose 5000 books than a mother and child, but it’s still a matter of degree, not kind.

In other words, after almost 100 years, Battleship Potemkin is still living history, not a dry tutorial about “5 types of montage.” Eisenstein’s second and most celebrated feature length movie is of course the technical, cinematic revolution people say it is. But for me it’s something more, something that healed my soul after watching my government attack its own people, something that was still shocking to me, even though I was in my 40s when I saw it. Maybe some day, after living through a small scale version of the Russian Revolution of 1905, I’ll get to see the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Strike (1925)

Strike, Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature length film, which he made right before Battleship Potemkin in 1925, holds up so well that I have a hard time thinking of another film about the labor struggle that surpasses it. Set in 1903 in an unnamed city in pre-revolutionary Russia, Strike dramatizes a strike, then a mass uprising, then a brutal crackdown. It spells out the collusion between big government and big business so clearly that the whole film feels almost like some kind of Ur-Narrative that lurks underneath the surface of capitalism.

“The strength of the working class is organization,” we read at the end of the opening credits, a quote by Lenin. “Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing. Organized it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, unity of practical activity.”

Strike is not set in the Russia of serfs and masters, orthodox churches or grand inquistors. It’s not the Russia of Tolstoy, Gorky, or even Dostoevsky. This is a westernized, 20th-century Russia. We could just as easily be in London or Chicago. Inside the factory, the workers organize for the strike they know is inevitable. The factory owners know it too. A government minister looks over photos of spies and provocateurs he’s placed inside the plant. After one of the spies steals a micrometer worth 25 rubles, three weeks pay, one worker, Yakov Strongem, is falsely accused of the theft, and then fired. He hangs himself inside the factory, and the strike is on.

At first it all goes well. The workers at the factory are indeed organized. They have a unity of action and practical activity. The men take over the plant, and conduct what would later be known as a sit down strike. The factory owners, by contrast, are frustrated. Orders pour in they can’t fill. Their scowling faces and debauched luxury testify to their guilt as a class. The proletarian quarter of the unnamed city, by contrast, has become a little utopia. In addition to unity of action and practical activity, the workers now have free time. Children play. Families go on picnics. Husbands get to know their wives.

But if the quotation that opens up the film is by Vladimir Lenin, then the film has a Leninist message. It’s not enough to strike. The workers must take political power, or, like the anarchist communards in Paris in 1870, get crushed when the ruling class and the government recover from the initial shock and organize a counter attack. A set of demands, an 8 hour day, higher wages, limitations of child labor, is not enough. The bosses close the company stores. Children go hungry. People began to sell their property at pawn shops. Married couples squabble.

Then the government and the police make their move.

Here in the United States, we tend to be naïve about police use of agents provocateurs. Even 40 years after the cointelpro papers were stolen from FBI headquarters in Media, Pennsylvania, I still had a difficult time convincing myself that Jim Dwyer’s story in the New York Times was true, that during the Republican National Convention in 2004, NYPD provocateurs really did start a bonfire near the front of the main demonstration against George W. Bush to justify locking up 2000 people without charges. It’s so commonly known that the police sent homeless people, drug addicts and rapists into Zuccotti Park in the fall of 2011, that if you say “take it to Zuccotti” to a veteran of Occupy Wall Street, he immediately gets the joke.

Eisenstein has no illusions. That agents provocateurs are part of the crackdown is something he just takes for granted. Everything unfolds like a TV show you’ve seen 100 times before. Police spies photograph the leaders of the uprising. They’re rounded up, jailed, and tortured. The police then go into the underclass, what Marx would have called the lumpen proletariat, and recruit a team of homeless derelicts as arsonists, who burn down a liquor store and blame it on the strikers. The strikers are onto the plan but it doesn’t matter. They call the fire department, but the firemen, instead of putting out the fire, turn their hoses on the workers and prevent them from clearing the streets.

What’s remarkable about Strike is not that Eisenstein stages a crackdown, but how he stages the crackdown. It’s 1925, only a few years after Mussolini and his black shirts marched on Rome, but Eisenstein knows exactly what’s coming. Indeed, Strike could have just as easily been called The Birth of Fascism in a Russian Factory Town. Eisenstein may have come to adulthood after the Russian Revolution, but he understands Czarist repression in his bones.

After the cops, after the fire department, we get the army. The government in the service of the capitalists does more than just shoot a few strikers and let the rest flee in panic then come back to work the next day. They stage a full scale, almost genocidal campaign against the workers commune that had been founded during the uprising. The final scene, where soldiers shoot down hundreds of strikers while the camera cuts back to a montage of cows being chopped up in a slaughterhouse has been extensively discussed as a good example of the directors “montage” technique.

But it was the last frame, a still, that made me blood run cold. It looks like the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, not one, not ten, not dozens, but hundreds of bodies, a little holocaust in what once had been a center of rebellion. The film actually ends with a sense of optimism. Eisenstein sees the murdered strikers as heroes who gave their blood to make the Russian Revolution possible. But not even he could see what was coming in the 1930s and 1940s.

Ivan the Terrible Part I (1944) and Ivan the Terrible Part II (1958)

While many people in the United States have heard of Ivan IV of Russia, most of us know little more than his nickname. There isn’t much more you can add to a sobriquet like “the terrible.” Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, sometimes a name says it all. A few of us might remember from our high school history classes that the nickname “the terrible” is better translated as “Ivan the Badass” or “Ivan the One Who Shouldn’t Be Fucked With” than “Ivan the Evil.” We might recall how he drove the remaining Mongols out of Russia, humbled the Russian nobility, known as the boyars, and became the first Czar of a united Russia, that he’s widely considered to be the father of his country.

Film enthusiasts will immediately tell you that Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet film director, made two films about Ivan the Terrible. The will point out that Ivan the Terrible Part I was made in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic while Hitler’s troops were at the gates of Moscow, and that it was released to great acclaim and to Stalin’s approval in 1944. They will talk about how Ivan the Terrible Part II didn’t pass the censors in 1947, and had to wait until 1958 for its first theatrical run. They will probably rave about its cinematic brilliance, but complain about the plot, praise Eisenstein for his technical wizardry, but speculate about whether or not his relationship with Stalin kept him from writing a better screenplay.

Ivan the Terrible is probably best thought of as a visual symphony of oriental despotism. Eisenstein’s use of shadows, framing, the film’s rich black and white tonality, all of it conjures up not only the terror and majesty of the state, but the flat out weirdness of any autocratic leader. It’s easy to see why Stalin raved over the Part I and rejected Part II. It could have just as easily been the other way around. Ivan IV of Russia, played by Nikolay Cherkasov — the same actor who played Alexander Nevsky — manages to be commanding and sympathetic one moment, a monstrous, paranoid tyrant the next. You can almost feel Eisenstein’s terror in the presence of Joseph Stalin, a man he had to do his best to satisfy or see damage to his career, or worse. Eisenstein spins that terror and confusion into a kind of visual inventiveness that has to rank with the greatest cinematographers and still photographers. I’ve taken tens of thousands of photos over the years. I thought myself long past being easily surprised, but not here. Indeed, I spent half the movie just marveling at what seemed at times to be an El Greco, at other times a Diego Velázquez, and at yet other times a grotesque Rembrandt coming to life before my very eyes.

The plot is much simpler and less inventive than the cinematography, but still a nuanced, psychologically astute portrait of a tyrant made right under the nose of a tyrant. If you want to compare it to a western film, take Anthony Mann’s film from 1961, El Cid. A great, larger than life hero tries to rouse a nation against a looming foreign threat while spoiled, lazy, egoistical and dishonest aristocrats around him scheme and plot for their petty self-interest. Where Charlton Heston’s Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar is dashing and romantic, Nikolay Cherkasov’s Ivan is hard, calculating and ruthless. Where Anthony Mann’s landscapes are vast, open spaces, grand citadels and a broad sky, a medieval Europe that, perhaps, never existed, Eisenstein’s palaces and orthodox churches are cramped and ornate. With their thick walls and low hanging ceilings, they capture the brutalist copies of the Byzantine architecture the Russians learned in Constantinople. Where The Cid is straightforward, noble and chivalric, Ivan is guarded and Machiavellian. The Cid is an idealized knight in shining armor. Ivan IV is a complex, twisted despot, but the narrative is the same, nationalism against the aristocracy, a charismatic leader of the people versus a self-interested and selfish, a scheming and unpatriotic ruling class.

Ivan the Terrible is also a film about Sergei Eisenstein’s demons, more specifically, his fear of homosexuality and domination by woman. Ivan’s main antagonist — a fantastically over the top villain played by Serafima Birman — is his aunt Efrosinia Staritska. Efronsinaia, the leader of the boyar class, has one goal through both parts of Ivan the Terrible, kill or depose Ivan to put her mentally handicapped son, Vladimir Staritska, in his place. Vladimir, a grotesquely effeminate kabuki mask of a man, has no color to his face. He wears lipstick on this thick, blubbery lips. He falls into his mother’s arms when he’s afraid. More idiot child than man, his brain and his will have been turned to mush by the domineering Efronsinaia. This is what happens, Eisenstein is telling us, when a man never becomes a man, when he fails to break away from his mother, or establish himself as an adult. He remains a grotesque, a powerful symbol of the fear of female domination as well as a representative of an idiot, decadent aristocracy.

In the end, Ivan skilfully vanquishes his enemies and saves Russia from the Poles and the Mongols. So why did Stalin have it buried? Perhaps it hit too close to home? There is so much palace intrigue, so many poisonings that it might have brought up in his mind the (probably fictitious) “Doctors Plot” that terrified him during the end of his life. We meet an early predecessor to the KGB, the Oprichnina, an organization recruited from the common people and lower gentry that ruthlessly carry out Ivan’s commands against the boyars. Even more so, the characterization of Ivan himself probably scandalized a dictator who was used to flattery. Ivan shares in Eisenstein’s paranoia over his homosexuality. Now forthright and masculine, now lurking in the shadows, Ivan is half Alexander Nevsky, half vampire king. In spite of the fact that he was writing the film for a dictator, Eisenstein nailed the personality of a dictator so well he was probably lucky he escaped with his life.

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

The Sochi Olympics and the protests in Kiev have forced people in the United States to think about Eastern European fascism and the Russian history of charismatic strong men at the head of their government. So I finally got around to watching Alexander Nevsky, Sergei Eisenstein’s film about the Russian victory over the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Lake Peipus in 1242. That it’s an important film is obvious by the number of western “epic” films, Lord of the Rings, Conan the Barbarian, that have plagiarized, or “sampled” long sequences from the famous “battle of the ice.” But Alexander Nevsky also raises an important question. Was the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany during the Second World War a victory of socialism over fascism, or a victory of Russian nationalism over German nationalism?

Alexander Nevsky is clearly anti-Nazi propaganda. The Teutonic knights, called “the Germans” even though historically most of the Catholic forces at the Battle of Lake Peipus were ethnic Estonians, are the blackest of villains. They murder prisoners in cold blood. They throw toddlers into a raging bonfire. They suborn traitors and collaborators among the Slavic people they intend eventually to exterminate. It’s also anti-Catholic — though not necessarily pro-Russian-Orthodox — propaganda. There is a high-ranking monk who looks like the Emperor Palpitine from Star Wars and a church organist who looks like Igor from Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein.

Incidentally, the most obvious example of western “sampling” of Alexander Nevsky— the ride of the Rohirrim from Return of the King — re imagines the Teutonic Knights as the good guys.

The plot — often considered the weak spot compared to the film’s technical mastery — is simple enough. Alexander Nevsky, the “prince” of Novgorod makes peace with the Mongol Horde in order to focus on the more urgent threat from the west, the Teutonic Knights. “Prince,” of course is a problematic title in a communist film and, indeed, Nevsky, played by the charismatic 6’5” actor Nikolay Cherkasov is more of a “temporary dictator” or “appointed general in chief” than a hereditary aristocrat. If he’s a “king” he’s a king in the Spartan, not the Louis XIV manner. If he’s a superman, he also mends fishing nets with “the people.” In other words, Nevsky is a populist strongman, Stalin, Castro, shirtless Vladimir Putin, or, perhaps, even Lincoln, the rail splitting superman who also became the democratic leader of the United States.

After the Teutonic Knights destroy the city of Pskov, they set their sights on Novgorod. The rich, the ruling class, the fat bourgeoisie, want to make peace. But the “people”want to appoint Nevsky supreme commander. We meet the comic relief, Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich, two friends and rivals — think Legalos and Gimli from Lord of the Rings — who crack jokes and compete for the attention of a Russian maiden, named, appropriately enough, “Olga.” If in Lord of the Rings, it’s mainly the ruling class who get all the romantic subplots, in Alexander Nevsky it’s the common people. Even in the right-wing populist Braveheart, it’s still the hero who gets the woman, but here Nevsky is austere, above such petty concerns. Eisenstein, unlike a Hollywood film maker, has no need to give his leading man a love interest. But he gives Vasili Buslai and Gavrilo Oleksich two, the second being the daughter of a Russian boyer who was murdered by the knights in Pskov and who, like Eowyn from Return of the King, disguises herself as a man to ride into battle.

We also meet a pair of collaborators, depicted not as Trotsky or Bukharin, but simply as prosperous merchants who spout American style neoliberalism. There is no society, one of the collaborators says, only individuals and families. “Every man for himself. Home is where the hearth is.”

What’s striking about Alexander Nevsky compared to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings is its rationalism, its focus on class, not mysticism. There is no magical thinking. Nevsky beats the Teutonic Knights not because, like Aragorn, he can summon the dead or wield a magical sword, but because he’s willing to call on the people to rise up en masse against the invader. Alexander Nevsky may vilify the Catholic Church, but the Russian people don’t beat the Germans because of the superiority of the Orthodox religion. The film is not anti-religion. But, unlike Vladimir Putin, Nevsky neither makes an alliance with nor receives a blessing from the Orthodox church. There’s no hero priest fighting with the Russians against the Germans. Nevsky doesn’t pray. The film has an Aragorn but no Gandolf. What’s more, even the Battle of the Ice, while it does have Nevsky engaging in single combat against the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights, features stolid Russian peasants with axes, taking down European chivalry in a workmanlike manner. It’s a proletarian, not an aristocratic victory.

So, while Alexander Nevsky may indeed, be as much of a film about Russian nationalism as it is about communist revolution, it’s more in line with the American nationalism of a World War II movie from the age of the liberal New Deal than it is in line with the aristocratic mysticism of a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings. I’m not sure what Putin would make of Alexander Nevsky. Stalin, apparently, got to review it pre-release, and made only one cut, a scene where the Russian army gets drunk. It’s easy to see why he liked it. Nikolay Cherkasov is far and away a more charismatic figure than Viggo Mortenson. This is the guy who showed have played Aragorn, or, at least, someone like him. Nevsky embodies cool, collected authority, something Stalin, a notorious paranoid, probably aspired to. The traitors and collaborators are unable to demoralize him him, not because of his personal superiority, but because he trusts his subordinates. “Buslai would never surrender,” he says to one of the villains as he contemptuously tosses him aside.

Indeed, however much it’s aged, however badly Mosfilm may have bungled the audio, Alexander Nevsky still makes me long for an American epic, rooted not in mysticism and imaginary creatures designed to be made into toys and marketed to children, but in American history.

1776 (1972)

Back in middle-school, during the Cold War, my fifth grade “social studies” teacher, a liberal but a still patriotic liberal, was always fond of telling us that the United States, whatever its faults, was still better than the Soviet Union. That Spring we went to see the film version of 1776, which a local theater ran every May. On the walk back to school, the teacher explained to us how 1776 demonstrated why democracy would triumph over communism. Communism was top down, stultified. Democracy was messy, improvisational. Communism needed censorship. Democracy needed free speech.

Little did I know that the version of 1776 my patriotic 7th grade teacher had taken us on that pleasant Spring walk to go see had been censored and abridged by none other than Richard Nixon himself. The politics of 1776, which had been written by a staff writer at the Brill Building named Sherman Edwards and a Hollywood screenwriter named Peter Stone, can best be described at Gordon Wood meets Thomas Carlyle. John Adams, the liberal great man, towers over the rest of the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin are reduced to sidekicks. But it wasn’t Adams that Nixon objected to. It was his antagonist, John Dickinson, a sneering, reactionary who threatened to strangle the United States in its cradle. An Independent United States, Edwards and Stone are telling us, threatened to overthrow the “men of property” that John Dickinson represented. In one song, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” he makes it explicit.

“Don’t forget that most men without property would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich,” he says, “than face the reality of being poor.”

While Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone were liberals, Jack Warner, the film’s distributor, was not. A conservative Republican who took out a full page ad in the New York Times in 1960 to support Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy, he showed a preview of 1776 to Nixon, now occupying the White House, before it’s release. Nixon objected to “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” and Jack Warner not only had it removed, but ordered the entire segment burned. Not surprisingly, the butchered film, not really very good in the first place, tanked at the box office. For years, the segment was considered lost, but, in the late 1990s, someone found a copy filed away in the studio archive under a different name, and it was restored for a new “Directors Cut” DVD in 2002. To be honest, the lack of “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” is not the reason 1776 tanked at the box office.

Viewing all three hours of 1776 again after all these years, I understand now just what an odd film it really was. I saw 1776 it in the late 1970s, after Nixon’s resignation and the massive Bicentennial celebration in 1976 had restored the idea that patriotism was a good thing. But it’s important to remember that the original Broadway musical had come out in 1968. In the late 1960s, the Cold War liberal jingoism my social studies teacher believed in so passionately had fallen out of fashion almost as much as conservatism. Remember, it was the liberal John F. Kennedy who committed troops to Vietnam and the very liberal Lyndon Johnson who kept them there. Black nationalism, Maoism, the Yippies and the new left had allowed the generation before mine to question not only the Vietnam War but the idea of American nationalism itself. The United States flag was no longer a progressive symbol of democracy. It was napalm and Rolling Thunder, Cointelpro and the Ku Klux Klan. So if you were on the right, you hated 1776 for its liberalism. If you were on the left, you hated it for its patriotism. Nixon’s heavy handed censorship turned out to be unnecessary, just another example of his paranoia.

10 years later, however, it was a highly effective piece of propaganda. At least it worked on me. Whatever its faults, 1776 did manage to distil the entire American Revolution into a three hour musical. The sneering reactionary John Dickinson in the film, nothing like the principled conservative he was in real life — Dickinson was the only member of the Continental Congress who freed all of his slaves outright — becomes the stand in for King George and the loyalists. The sniveling James Wilson, firmly under Dickinson’s thumb until the very end — when Ben Franklin sets him free — represents those Americans who sat on the fence, unsure of whether to support the revolution or the King. John Adams, a straight edged middle-aged liberal from Massachusetts becomes not only the father of his country, but also evokes those progressive Democrats who questioned Johnson and Vietnam, Eugene McCarthy, Benjamin Spock, Frank Church, and George McGovern. Jefferson, a lazy slacker who has to grow a five o’clock shadow and get laid before Adams can goad him into writing the Declaration of Independence, is the New Left, the younger generation of intellectuals that finally comes around to realizing their country isn’t so bad after all. There is also a colorful collection of dirty hippies, surly proletarians, and and a feminist Abigail Adams.

1776 is still not a very good film. It hits its nadir during a long, tedious, and appallingly sexist interlude between Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Martha Jefferson, played by a young Blythe Danner. Adams brings her from Virginia only so that she can fuck her husband and free him from his writer’s block. Even as a 12-year-old it made me groan. But 1776 still addresses an issue the American left hasn’t fully dealt with. What about American nationalism?

Indeed, as reactionary as it turned out to be in the late 1970s, in the corporatist United States of Barack Obama, 1776 once again feels progressive. This is not the American Revolution of the Tea Party. Thomas McKean of Delaware, a gun-toting Scotsman played by Ray Middleton, is played for laughs, as is a segment where Adams takes Samuel Chase of Maryland to observe the sharpshooting skills of the Continental Army in New Jersey. The Reverend John Witherspoon, in reality a giant of the Scots Diaspora, is a minor character. The Continental Congress of 1776 is a decidedly secular place. Religion is absent, except as the opportunity for an occasional witty remark. The south, slavery, and states rights are seen as an obstacle to the birth of the United States of America. Adams, the hero and moral center is not only a passive abolitionist, as he was in real life, but a fire breathing anti-slavery crusader who would make Thaddeus Stevens proud.

What’s more, there is an implicit critique of the reactionary side of the United States Constitution that, whether intended or not, runs through the whole film. John Dickinson, the villain, insists that any vote for the resolution of independence has to be unanimous, recalling not only the constant Tea Party filibusters in Congress under Barack Obama, but also the idea that government should exist to protect a minority of property owners against the people. Edward Rutledge, the grandee from South Carolina who has a memorable exchange with John Adams over state’s rights, threatens to tank the whole country to protect slavery. Anybody who saw this film in 1972 realized that it would take another 600,000 dead Americans, a total that dwarfed the casuality rate of the War of Independence, to finally do away with slavery for good. John Adams the abolitionist, even though he gave in in the face of an inevitable rejection of the proposal for independence, was right after all.

In other words, 1776, for all its man faults, brings back the idea that the Declaration of Independence represented an idea of American nationalism far more progressive than the United States Constitution. Would I recommend seeing it? Probably not. Read the Lincoln-Douglas Debates instead. But it remains a historical curiosity, an odd little example of how during a time of revolutionary upsurge like the late 1960s, even people who wrote creaky Broadway musicals had to adapt.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

There is a fundamental contradiction in making a film, or any work of art about slavery. The artist, whatever his economic status, is engaged in unalienated, disciplined creation. The slave, on the other hand, not only has the entire product of his labor stolen, but lives under the whims of an arbitrary power. Speak, and you are no longer a slave.

12 Years a Slave bridges the gap by dramatizing the descent of a literate, middle-class, free black man into the hell of involuntary servitude. Solomon Northup, an artist, a musician, lives a pleasant life far above the Mason Dixon Line in Saratoga Springs, New York. After a successful performance at a dance, he’s approached by two men, Hamilton and Brown, who offer him a lucrative job in Washington DC playing the violin for a travelling circus. While it’s not entirely clear why Northup would venture so perilously close to the south with two such obviously shady characters — apparently in the memoir he’s less prosperous than he is in the film and simply needs the money — he ends up drugged, kidnapped, then sold “down the river” to a plantation in Louisiana.

The morning of the abduction is staged with a claustrophobic power. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, after having spent most of the night believing himself sick from alcohol poisoning, wakes up in chains. As he struggles against the wrist and leg irons, and as he looks around him at the dank, windowless dungeon, the horrifying realization sets in. He’s no longer a free man. Everything he was, his ability to read, his self-respect, his pride and manhood are gone. They are not only a cruel reminder of the family that he thinks he’s lost forever, but a threat to his ability to survive. We feel the horror Solomon Northup feels. We see things through his captive eyes. The camera pans up to reveal Capitol Building, 20 years before the Civil War.

Years later, Northup is standing in a circle of his fellow slaves on the plantation of Edwin Epps, a hard, cruel, mentally unbalanced man who has owned him through most of his time in captivity. Someone starts singing the spiritual Roll Jordan Roll. Northup, who has long resisted identifying with his fellow blacks, initially resists singing. He’s not a “nigger.” The language he has adopted to survive, the “yes sirs” and the “no sirs,” still feels bitter on his tongue. He is not “Platt,” the runaway Georgia slave he’s been mistaken for. He’s Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York. Over the years, white men have used singing and dancing as a form of social control. Making the “darkies” clap their hands and sing is a way of training them to be happy, compliant slaves. But now Northup realizes that something is different. Roll Jordan Roll is not the white man’s song. It’s a song of endurance and resistance. He let’s himself sing. For a brief moment, he’s found a new voice as part of a collective. He speaks, not as a  bourgeois but as one of the people.

Sadly, it’s only a very brief moment. 12 Years a Slave is a not a revolutionary film about a slave revolt, but a film about about one middle-class black man’s struggle to hold on to his middle-class identity. It might have been a better movie had Northup killed Edwin Epps and led his fellow slaves into the woods to form a maroon community, but it wouldn’t have been faithful to the real Solomon Northup’s memoir.

Freedom from chattel slavery in 12 Years a Slave is not only about the freedom from involuntary servitude. It’s about the freedom from your baser instincts that comes through self-mastery. If 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith’s’ film Birth of a Nation gave us subhuman animalistic blacks consumed by their desire for white women, 12 Years a Slave neatly flips the script. Edwin Epps, played by an understated but terrifying Michael Fassbender, isn’t just the villain of 12 Years a Slave, he’s Solomon Northup’s mirror imagine. If Northrup manages to keep his sense of chivalry and self-control in the most difficult circumstances, then Epps yields to his baser instinct. A superstitious drunk and rapist married to an ugly jealous witch of a woman played by Sarah Paulson — no Lilian Gish she — Epps singles out and torments his hardest working slave, a young woman named Patsey. As Patsey goes from a beautiful, vibrant woman to a raped and bloodied shell, Northup looks on in horror. There’s nothing he, a fellow slave, can do. Indeed, he risks his life even by whispering into her ear that she should quickly proceed into her cabin to avoid her drunken, and lustful master.

There is no way Solomon Northup can defeat Edwin Epps. When Epps realizes Northup feels protective of Patsey, he forces Northup to whip her until her skin breaks. If the role of Brad Pitt as a travelling abolitionist, a deus-ex-machina who allows Northup to leave the plantation and resume his life as a free, black northerner has been harshly criticized, there really was no other possible ending. Northup is given the choice between harming a fellow slave or dying. He chooses to live. Epps’s victory is complete. He has bent Northrop to his will, made him acknowledge his power, compelled him to betray his own soul. Northup’s body will escape the south. Part of his spirit will not. As he gets into the horse drawn cart that will take him back to Saratoga Springs, Northup looks back at Patsey. “Solomon,” one of his rescuers insists, “we must make haste,” and, indeed, they do, leaving her at the mercy her cruel master and even more cruel mistress. It is 1853, nine years before Union troops under Benjamin Butler would occupy Louisiana. Solomon is no Moses. He will see the promised land. But his people will not.