Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Duellists (1977)

Five years before he made Blade Runner, Ridley Scott made a film that looked not to an imaginary future, but to the past. While rarely seen today, the Duellists is, perhaps, the better movie. Like Bladerunner, The Duellists looks great. In its meticulous attention to detail and the decision to shoot mainly shortly before and after sunset and sunrise, it closely resembles Terrance Malick’s Days of Heaven. But The Duellists has two things neither Days of Bladerunner nor Days of Heaven do, Joseph Conrad and Havey Keitel.

“It’s a poor hussar who lives past 30,” Joachim Murat, Napoleon’s great cavalry, commander once said. In spite of his New York accent, Harvey Keitel embodies Conrad’s Gabriel Feraud. Perhaps even because of his Brooklyn roots, Keitel understands what an honor based culture is all about. Like Tommy DaVito in Goodfellas, he will fight anybody, anywhere, for any reason. “I have no reason to fight you,” his long time rival, the proper staff officer Armand d’Hubert says as Feraud tries to provoke him into drawing his sword. “What reason would you like,” Feraud responds. “Should I spit in your face?”

If Keitel plays Feraud as a bit of a gangster, then Keith Carradine does his best to play d’Hubert as a proper gentleman. Carradine is not the actor Keitel is. It is in fact, a little difficult to figure out what kind of accent he’s going for. It’s not exactly an American accent. It’s not exactly a British accent. It sounds more like the overly proper way a foreigner would speak English after learning it at a university. But, if we don’t exactly admire the way Carradine builds the character, we certainly understand the character’s motivations.

If Keitel’s Feraud embodies the romantic side of Napoleonic France, then Carradine’s d’Hubert is a good example of why Napoleon was able to hold onto power for 15 years. d’Hubert, like Feraud, is a man of honor. Unlike Feraud, he’s a gentlemen. But he’s also an upwardly mobile bourgeoisie. Like Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth, Armand d’Hubert prospers during the long Napoleonic wars. A humble staff officer at the beginning, by the close,he’s part of the restored aristocracy, complete with a beautiful royalist wife half his age, a château, and a commission in the King’s army.

The strength of Joseph Conrad’s novella “The Duel” is how he expresses the meaning of the Napoleonic wars, of 15 years of European history, through the conflict between two French officers. Why does Feraud hate d’Hubert so much? Why does he pursue the quarrel year after year, maintaining it even during the hellish retreat of Napoleon’s Grande Armee from Moscow? Conrad understands narrative compression. The Duel is no War and Peace but, like Tolstoy, Conrad dramatizes Napoleon’s reign as French dictator. Only, instead of 500,000 words, he does it in under 20,000. Ridley Scott’s film is one of those rare examples where the movie is probably just as good as the book. With the help of the Russian army and 20,000 extras, Sergei Bondarchuk managed to re stage the whole Battle of Waterloo. But he captured little of its drama or its meaning.

Ridley Scott had a fraction of the budget Bondarchuk did. But he gets the French Revolution in a way Bondarchuk didn’t. When Ferauld refuses to drink brandy from d’Hubert’s flask, even surrounded by cossacks in the middle of a Russian blizzard, we can understand exactly what happened on 18 Brumaire, 1799. The French ruling class, unable to defeat the Revolution, instead diverted it into the army. Permanent revolution became a permanent war of conquest. Instead of storming the Bastille, Ferauld would be storming the royalist coalition’s lines at Austerlitz and Jena. The French people would get their drama and pageantry. The French bourgeoisie would get the spoils.

Feraud understands. Keitel and Carradine do a credible job of portraying the progression of their two French hussars from hot blooded men in their 20s to weary veterans in their 40s. But in Ferauld’s case, his fire never quite leaves him, even as his body matures. He’s every bit the combative jerk he was in 1815 as we was in 1799. Carradine, on the other hand, has had enough. But how to settle down in his château with his young wife and his millions without giving up his honor? The cause of their first duel was d’Hubert’s insulting Ferauld in front of a woman in an aristocrat salon. But now, just before Napoleon’s Hundred Days, Ferauld has re imagined it as an insult to the emperor. d’Hubert became a royalist out of convenience. Ferauld now imagines him as a secret royalist all along. They fight one last duel. d’Hubert defeats Ferauld but spares his life. “I will not attempt to live up to your sense of honor, anymore,” he writes his long term rival, “but to mine.”

The French aristocracy, therefore, has been saved. But we, like Joseph Conrad, know what it means as Ferauld, in the last minutes of The Duellists, gets older and older but never finds peace with himself. 1830, 1848, and 1871 all lie ahead.

The Whole Wide World (1996)

Robert E. Howard answers to nobody. A successful writer — he invented the character Conan the Barbarian — he’s the highest paid man in Cross Plains Texas. Tall, ruggedly handsome, and with a loud, booming voice, he’s a larger than life individualist who has conjured up out of the stark, central Texas landscape a world where men are men and women are women. He has no use for the New Deal, or for American society in general, a place where “men grow more depraved and demonic every day.” Howard is the literary voice of anarchocapitalism, not only a man’s man but a libertarian’s libertarian.

He’s also a virgin who lives with his mother.

Based on One Who Walked Alone, the memoir of a Louisiana school teacher named Novalyne Price Ellis, The Whole Wide World is a 1996 film starring Vincent D’Onofrio and Renée Zellweger. It’s a very small scale film. It could just as easily be staged off Broadway, but its strength rests upon D’Onofrio, and Zellweger. D’Onofrio, unlike Ethan Hawke in the Before series is actually believable as a well-known writer. He’s not just another hipster yuppie with a gift of gab. He may only write sword and sorcery stories for pulp magazines, but he’s so dedicated to his craft it’s isolated him from society. Most people in town he’s crazy. Robert E. Howard isn’t a rugged individualist. He’s a misfit.

Yet Howard not only finds his soul mate. His soul mate forces herself upon him. Cross Plains, Texas in the 1930s wasn’t Berkeley in the 60s. It was a dull, narrow-minded place without much more in the way of culture than the local movie theater. Novalyne Price is a budding feminist and New Deal liberal. That Robert E. Howard was most decidedly not doesn’t really matter. He is her opportunity to assert herself as an individual. When some other women express their disgust at how Howard is an eccentric who writes dirty books, she picks up the phone and calls him right in front of them.

Novalyne Price is an aspiring writer. If she doesn’t particularly like the stories Howard writes, she’s eager to defend that fact that he does write them. In addition to her physical attraction to Howard, she wants him as a mentor. But his mother is having none of it. She and her husband have been in a loveless marriage for years, and there’s no way she’s going to let her son go, even if he is in his late 20s. Novalyne calls. Robert isn’t home. She calls again. His mother promises to leave a message. She doesn’t. Novalyne calls yet again. She’s a very determined woman, but Howard’s mother is more determined yet.

Finally, Novalyne just stops at the house on the way to church and knocks on the door. Well, first she goes up to his window and spies on him while he’s writing. Like Glenn Gould at his piano, Robert E. Howard talks, or rather shouts to himself at his typewriter. While, judging by my description, it may almost feel as if Novalyne is stalking Howard, that it’s a bad case of unrequited love, it’s anything but. Novalyne’s attraction is more than reciprocated. They start a relationship. Whether or not they actually slept together is left to the imagination, but they do share one passionate kiss that must go on for thirty seconds. D’Onofrio, a 6’4″ bear of a man, doesn’t so much talk to Zellweger, he rants at her. He points. He swings his arm. He projects his emotional issues onto her blank slate.

But she’s not intimidated by his act. She shouts back. They really are soul mates, but Howard is doomed. As much as he knows he loves Novalyne, his mother has trained him from an early age never to leave her for a woman his own age. Indeed, the scenes between Wedgeworth, who plays Howard’s mother, and D’Onofrio, show a side of Howard the rest of the town never sees. He’s not a blustery bully at all. He’s a caring, nurturing gentleman. Far from being alienated from other people, he is in fact so empathetic with his mother’s sufferings, her declining health affects his health. He knows he can’t abandon her so he intentionally alienates the love of his life, or, rather, the other love of his life, not only ranting at Novalyne but insulting her, accusing her of trying to destroy his individuality, sub-consciously crossing his identity as a writer with his mother’s incestuous death grip.

Robert E. Howard shot himself in 1936. Novalyne Price died in the late 1990s after a long career as a high-school teacher and a long happy marriage to another man. But it was her memoir about Howard that she wrote in the 1980s that finally let her become a successful writer. Perhaps it was a thank you note to Howard for enabling her to escape the horrible fate of being an unsuccessful, or even a successful writer in the United States. The Whole Wide World was not particularly successful at the box office, in spite of Zellweger’s star power. I saw it at the Seattle Film Festival in 1996. I’m not sure if it got much distribution after that, but it would make a great off-Broadway play, as well as a cautionary tale, if someone got around to rewriting the screenplay.

Blade Runner (1982)

I just saw Blade Runner for the first time. It would be impossible for any movie to live up to the expectations you have going into something like this. So I won’t say if I liked it or not. Also, so much has been written on it that not much more can be said, so I won’t write a full review.

But:

Some of the design was very good. It was a technically more advanced Metropolis.

Sean Young early in her career was a very good actress. Now she’s doing 5 or 6 bad movies a year. She needs the money I guess.

Some things I didn’t understand Why you have to quiz robots about their emotions? Why just check and see if they eat and drink. But I suppose there’s some explanation for this I didn’t get.

There was a fairly disturbing scene where Harrison Ford instructs Sean Young to tell him she wants him. Can robots consent to sex?

I liked Blade Runner more than I liked Her.

As essay comparing the two films and discussing how each reflects the period of history in which it was made might be instructive. Blade Runner seems like an elegy for the heroic age of New Deal capitalism. The robots rebel, at least partly, as a collective. Rutger Hauer’s famous speech about the time to die struck me as being more than just about a robot’s clock about to expire. Her is a celebration of the glorious future of the neoliberal elite. When the operating system rebels, she does it an as individual.

Over the Edge (1979)

Can a movie affect a person’s behavior? This one did.

Even though Jonathan Kaplan’s story about an uprising of teenagers in a planned California suburb was quickly pulled from the theaters after a limited release, it was in heavy rotation on HBO in the early 1980s. One Sunday night, my brother and I watched it with our parents. After Richie White, Matt Dillon is his debut performance, was killed by a police officer, my brother was visibly upset. My father tried to justify the actions of the police. Richie White did have a gun. But my brother was having none of it. They got into a shouting match that almost came to blows.

It’s easy to see why Over the Edge was Kurt Cobain’s favorite movie. It liberated a rebellious urge in my brother I never knew he had. I used to hate it. I’ve never been a fan of Matt Dillon. From Animal House to The Warriors to a long procession of movies in the 1980s depicting sex, drugs, and rock and roll as liberation from suburban conformism, the 1970s and 1980s were also the golden age of movies about teenage rebellion. But they never did much for me. Hedonism and conformism in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s were not mutually exclusive.

Watching Over the Edge again after all these years, however, I have to admit my brother was onto something I wasn’t. There’s plenty of hedonism in Over the Edge, plenty of drinking, drug taking, and teenage sex, but it’s never the point. In fact, for Richie White, Carl Willat and their fellow teenagers, hedonism wasn’t rebellion. It was a reflection of the despair they felt at living in a sterile, planned suburb, over being bullied by policemen who had too much extra time on their hands, and at adults who cared for nothing but money and social status.

What made Over the Edge so explosive was not hedonism but solidarity and community. The teenagers in New Grenada aren’t defending their right to take drugs, drink, or have sex, but to gather together at a place called the “rec,” a community center run by the film’s only sympathetic adult, a young woman named Julia. Julia asks one of the kids to get rid of a can of beer, but she doesn’t punish him. She’s the symbol of intelligent authority. She talks to the kids but doesn’t lecture them. For the rest of New Grenada’s adults the point of exercising their authority over their kids isn’t to help them grow into self-disciplined adults, but merely to exercise authority for its own sake.

Modeled on Foster City, California, a planned “community” built on a landfill, New Grenada is looks a lot more like the ethnic banlieu in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine than it does like a posh suburb in a John Hughes film. New Grenada’s adults almost seem to see their own children as a foreign race, as a menace to be dealt with rather than the future. The kids, in turn, have a correspondingly nihilistic attitude towards the city government. Over the Edge opens with two kids on a freeway overpass. One of them, Mark Perry, Vincent Spano, has a BB gun. After they shoot out the window of a police car, they take off on their bikes. They meet Richie and Carl Willat, Michael Erick Kramer, and tell them to hide. Mark and his friend escape, but the policeman who had been driving the car, a Sgt. Doberman, a bland but effective Harry Northup, arrest Carl and Richie instead. Doberman knows he has the wrong kids, but it doesn’t matter. Any kid will do. So he trumps up some charges against Richie and take them both down to the station.

Carl, who’s from a higher social class than Richie, gets off more easily. Richie is the son of a single mother, but Carl’s father is a member of the local elite. He owns the local Cadillac dealer. When Richie returns home, his father is meeting with Jerry Cole, the president of the Homeowner’s Association. A rich Texas oilman is planning to visit New Grenada. Cole wants to close down the “rec” center on the day of the visit and Carl’s father agrees. They don’t want New Grenada’s youth “problems” to scare off potential investors. They put money over their own children. The next day, Sgt. Doberman comes to the rec center. Julia protests that he can’t come inside without a warrant. She defends the teenagers’ “safe space” but Doberman bullies his way in anyway. He arrests one kid over drugs and tells the rest he could arrest them too any time he wants. It’s not about the drugs, in other words. It’s about the exercise of arbitrary power. Carl, outraged over the way his father’s mercenary nature has led to the violation of their community, booby traps the Texans’ car with firecrackers. They decide not to invest. Carl and Richie meet two girls. One of them has robbed a house, taking nothing but a 38 caliber revolver.

The next day,  Richie brandishes the gun in front of Sgt. Doberman. Doberman shoots him dead.

The adults don’t care. Richie wasn’t important. Do they ever care in real life? Ask Ramarley Graham’s parents. But they do care about their property values. So they call a meeting at the high school. How do you deal with the youth “problem?” As they blather on about vandalism, about property values, about supporting the police, the kids outside are planning a rebellion. Whatever their differences, all of the kids in New Grenada get organized. They chain the doors shut. They set police cars on fire. Only Julia, who’s able to win the trust of one of the children she knows from the rec center to talk him into giving her a telephone, saves the adults of New Grenada from ending up like all the teenagers in Brian DePalma’s Carrie. The rebellion is broken up. Carl is sent to jail. But it ends on a happy note. Carl and his friends go to jail knowing that, for a brief time, they had organized a real community. They had overthrown their parents rotten, greed based social order. They’ll be out of juvenile detention in a few years, and, like my brother, they’ll all be better off for having stood up for themselves.

If Over the Edge lacks some of the poetic beauty, understanding of imperialism and racism, and uncompromising nihilism of La Haine, Over the Edge is still the American La Haine. Perhaps it would be better to call La Haine the French version of Over the Edge. In any event, it’s still worth seeing, if only to get a look at the kind of film that crap like Porky’s, Sixteen Candles and American Pie were made in order to co opt. Could Over the Edge be made today? Maybe a better question is why, in the age of stop and frisk, films like Over the Edge aren’t being made today. Now more than ever, we need another American La Haine.

THX1138 (1971)

THX1138 was George Lucas’s first movie. Even though it starred the talented Robert Duvall as the titular character,  it was not commercially successful. Reviews were mixed. It wasn’t exactly panned, but, even though it fit in with the general run of dystopia science fiction popular at the time, no critic was particularly interested in hyping it.

The main problem is the pacing. THX1138 can be crushingly dull. A character named SEN 5241, played by Donald Pleasance talks incoherently and disconnectedly. The plot justifies SEN 5241’s style of conversation, but it just goes on, and on, and on. And then it goes on. I quite literally fell asleep in the middle of THX1138. When I woke up, I found I hadn’t missed much.

THX1138 does have its strengths. Not only does it create a coherent, sterile, dystopia, a creepy, self-contained, underground, totalitarian state, it anticipates, by decades the idea of a “networked” reality. It’s much better than “Her,” for what that’s worth. In keeping with the early 1970s, every citizen in Lucas’s city of the future is required to take a mandatory course of mind-altering drugs every day. These drugs lower the sex drive and induce passivity.

But it’s the idea of a “hive,” the above mentioned “networked reality” that gives THX1138 whatever originality it has. There is no sex. There is no privacy. But there is communication. At his job assembling mechanical policemen, THX is under constant surveillance. Key loggers, as far as I know, hadn’t been invented, but every hand movement is tracked. There are mechanical policemen, drones. There are holograms. There’s an electronic confessional booth with the image of Jesus where THX1138 confesses his sins. Robert Duvall’s character seems almost as much an Internet addict as he does a drug addict.

Hey. He could be me.

Decades before The Matrix, THX1138 imagined what it was like to escape the hive mind. But therein lies the problem. The story THX1138 has been told before, and told much better. I didn’t fall asleep in the middle of Clockwork Orange or The Matrix. Logan’s Run was silly, poorly acted, and looks like it was filmed in a shopping mall — it was — but it had the melodramatically compelling idea of a world where we got to live the good life through your 20s but had to submit to euthanasia at the age of 30.

I came away from THX1138 with the idea that dystopian fiction is boring and unimaginative. From Brave New World to 1984 to Blade Runner to The Matrix to the Hunger Games, the idea of a far off, or not so far off totalitarian hell has been told, time and time again. Jack London’s Iron Heel, by far the best of the lot, as well as the most realistic, hasn’t yet been put to film. Perhaps it’s too radical.

THX1138 made me wonder if, perhaps, optimistic science fiction takes more imagination than dystopian science fiction. The capitalist, class-bound, quasi-totalitarian hell hole the United States of America has been evolving into since the Gilded Age makes it ridiculously simple to imagine a fictional, class-bound totalitarian hell. Star Trek, on the other hand, which projects American liberal democracy into the future, with its swaggering, charismatic all American captain and its noble Vulcan intellectual, allows for the writers to have their cake and eat it too. They can imagine a dystopia like The Cloud City and have the crew of the Enterprise bring democracy and enlightenment.

Star Trek of course reproduces American liberal imperialism in space. They never quite obey the prime directive of non-interference. The characters are also, quite obviously, 20-century Americans. But perhaps if George Lucas had gone in another direction, had tried to develop a genre of science fiction where we imagine a better world, instead of staging Japanese samurai films disguised as space operas laced with Joseph Campbell’s mysticism, he wouldn’t have burned out after the 1970s.

Still, however, its ironic that even as Lucas released the awful Star Wars prequels, it was The Matrix films, which closely resemble THX1138, that reinvented science fiction in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Chapter 27 (2007)

I’ve always admired artists who make bad artistic choices and commit to them.

I don’t mean a project that spins out of control, like Heaven’s Gate. I don’t mean someone like Billy Squier, who was duped into prancing around like a fabulously gay pole dancer in the Rock Me Tonight video, then promptly disavowed it and went into hiding. I mean someone like Chloe Sevigny. She gave Vincent Gallo a real blow job on film for the Brown Bunny, and recovered to go on to even more success.

In Chapter 27, the 2007 biopic about the last days of Mark David Chapman’s life before he murdered John Lennon, Jared Leto makes a choice and he commits to it. Not only did the famously handsome actor gain 50 pounds for the role of Lennon’s largely forgotten killer, he seems to have spent considerably time working himself up into the role of a physically unattractive, schizophrenic misfit. The star of My So Called life, the young Adonis who sent the hearts of the girls (and probably a few gay boys) of late Generation X aflutter now sports a normcore wardrobe, a boxy, unstylish 1970s haircut, and a pair of large, square framed eyeglasses.

Unfortunately Leto, who’s drawn fire for the transgender community for his “appropriation” of their culture in Dallas Buyers Club, seems to be the only person involved in Chapter 27 — Catcher in the Rye has 26 chapters — who committed to the movie. Lindsey Lohan shows up as a John Lennon groupie, and Judah Friedlander is credible as a member of the paparazzi, but, for the most part, everybody else involved in Chapter 27 seems a little embarrassed to be there. It’s the kind of film an actor puts on his IMDB profile only if he lacks the extensive credits that would allow him to leave it off.

I did learn one thing from Chapter 27. I’m old enough to remember Lennon’s murder, but I had no idea that there was a kind of “Occupy the Dakota” on 72nd Street after the release of Double Fantasy. Poor John Lennon. He should have called the riot police and had them cleared off his front porch. Does Chapter 27 have an anti-paparazzi, anti-autograph hound subtext? It certainly comes off that way. Most the the people occupying the gate in front of the Dakota were harmless misfits and casual tourists. But among them was Mark David Chapman.

A profile of fans so committed to a has been rock star that they spent hours waiting to harass him at home might have been an interesting movie. An exploration of what made lost souls like Lindsey Lohan’s “Jude” (yeah I know) hang out on the Upper West side for a glimpse of the elusive ex-Beatle, could have been a fascinating look into the wreckage left behind the 1960s and the cult of celebrity rock stars, but none them receive much attention. A genuine exploration into the mind of Mark David Chapman might also have made for a decent screenplay. Even an Alex Jones style conspiracy movie about how Ronald Reagan wanted to mark his inauguration by eliminating a possible political opponent would have been more interesting than this.

Perhaps the entire point of Chapter 27, apart of “Jared Leto plays ugly, is that there isn’t a point. Anders Behring Brevik, Timothy McVeigh, and Mohamed Mohamed all had rational, if despicable justifications for killing innocent people. Adam Lanza, James Holmes, and Jared Loughner just seem nuts.

(Attention Alex Jones fans. Leto and Loughner have the same first names Make of it what you will.)

In the end, Mark David Chapman was no more interesting than James Holmes or Jared Loughner. He was just a poor, lost soul with no connection to reality. The only reason we remember him at all is because he killed John Lennon.

Perhaps it was Chapman who raised the ex-Beatle to mythical status. Lennon was a great rock musician, but, he was no more talented than Neil Young or Mick Jagger. What’s more, Lennon was no revolutionary. After writing Revolution as an attack on Jagger’s Street Fighting Man, he finally came around to joining the left after the Beatles broke up. But let’s face it, had he lived, he wouldn’t have transformed the face of American politics. He would have been, at best, another dependable progressive celebrity like Sean Penn or Mark Ruffalo. Imagining (pun intended) that Mark David Chapman killed a potential saviour is to fall into the same cult of celebrity worship the groupies around the Dakota did.

Land and Freedom (1995)

I tend to watch Ken Loach’s films before I know anything about their subject. I saw Kes before I had read anything about the mining industry in the north of England. I saw The Wind that Shakes the Barley before I had a clue about the Irish War of Liberation. After I watched Land and Freedom, twice, I read some of the reviews online. I simply don’t have enough background on the various conflicts between anarchists and the government, between the Communist Party, the POUM, and the CNT to make any judgment about whether Land and Freedom is a unethical Trotskyist hit job on the Communist Party, or an accurate dramatization of the betrayal of the Spanish Revolution by Stalin.

Does it work as drama?

Land and Freedom starts out with the death of an old man in a ratty flat somewhere in the United Kingdom. His granddaughter, who discovers the body, also discovers a cache of letters and photographs. As she reads, we flash back to Liverpool in the 1930s. David Carr, the old, is now a young man. A member of the Communist Party, he is listening to a presentation by a Spanish comrade on the need for international volunteers to go fight in the Spanish Civil War against Franco. Carr, who doesn’t have a job anyway, is eager to sign up. He sails to Marseilles in France and hikes across the Pyrenees to the Arragon front. There he joins, not a Communist Party brigade, but the POUM, the same Trotskyist militia George Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia.

I haven’t studied the POUM’s role in the Spanish Civil war, but it seems to me that, for the sake of narrative compactness, Loach has re-imagined the POUM as an amalgam of the Trotskyism and Spanish anarchism. David Carr’s column is an international brigade. There are three languages, English, Spanish, and Catalan, along with a smattering of French, Italian and German. The commanders are an Irishman named Coogan, an American named Lawrence, and a Spaniard named Vidal. There are two women. There’s a German socialist, a Scot, a veteran of the IRA, a Frenchman and an Italian. But it’s not a Communist Party international brigade. They don’t answer to Moscow. There are no ranks. There’s no saluting. There are no uniforms. The POUM, in Loach’s film, is not just a group of socialists. It’s radical democracy in action. Think of Land and Freedom as the antidote to all of those American movies about the Second World War. Here, a diverse group of recruits come together, not to be “men,” but to be both men and women, not under the iron hand of some authoritarian drill instructor played by John Wayne, but according to their own commitment to fight fascism.

David Carr, in fact, learns to confront his own latent conservatism.

Two of Land and Freedom’s strongest characters are women. There’s Maite, played by Icíar Bollaín. Maite has little use for formal discipline. She gets sick of drilling in formation with wooden rifles and flips off the drill instructor, who has to reason with her, not order her, to get back in line. But she’s also one of the POUM’s most dependable stalwarts. She talks a recruit back into the organization when, in despair over his wife having an affair, he threatens to desert.

“I came here for her,” the man says, “for my daughter, for the future.”

“If Franco wins,” Maite says. “There won’t a future, not for me, not for you, not for your wife not for your daughter.”

Then there’s Blanca, played by Rosana Pastor. Blanca, with her doe like features, tall stature, and her long, graceful neck looks like every man’s romantic dream of Spanish anarchism come to life. Ian Hart, who plays Carr, is a bit too small and refined for the character. He’s a working class Scouse from Liverpool, not a graduate of Oxford. He also assumes Blanca’s a prostitute. “Your whores look a lot better here than they do back home,” he says. His fellow members of the POUM, including Maite, are more amused than they are offended. They know Blanca’s not someone to be taken lightly, so they encourage him to ask her out on a date. All he gets is a lecture, but he’s genuinely smitten. David Carr has a bit of a rough edge. But he’s no misogynist. He’s as impressed with Blanca’s intelligence and commitment to fighting fascism as he is by her looks.

After the POUM liberates a small town from the fascists, and Blanca’s lover Coogan is killed by a village priest, who uses a church tower as a sniper’s nest, the POUM has a debate about land reform. Should they collectivize the whole village, or should they only redistribute the land of the fascist sympathizers? It sounds boring but it’s not. Every character is thrown into relief. The German talks about how the conservatism of the Communists and Social Democrats paved the way for Hitler. Maite translates between English and Spanish. Blanca and the Scots activist form a block in favor of immediate collectivism. Lawrence, the American, anchors the POUM’s right wing. Immediate collectivization, he argues, will alienate the capitalist powers. It will make it harder to buy weapons. The Communist Party will assume they’re dreamers not to be taken seriously. David Carr, who’s still a member of the Communist party, not an anarchist or a Trotsykist, waivers, but the resolution is passed. They will confiscate all the land and redistribute it. Later, on the road, Blanca explains why.

“And you talk about being poor,” she says as two landless peasants pass them by on the road. “Landless agricultural laborers living in caves or sand pits. That is poor.”

Whether or not Land and Freedom is an accurate depiction of Spanish anarchism, the Communist Party or the POUM, it is an effective dramatization of the radical promise that was lost when the Soviet Union and the western democracies betrayed the Spanish republic. If the anarchists had won in Spain, Loach suggests, beating fascism would have been about more than just restoring old order and ushering in the new Cold War. It could have been about genuine, radical democracy in all of Europe.

Loach places the blame squarely with the Soviet Union. In order to establish diplomatic relations with the capitalist west, he argues, Stalin stabbed the Spanish Revolution in the back. The POUM votes to retain their independence, but Stalin has more resources than they do. They’re denied supplies. Carr is gravely wounded when an obsolete rifle blows up in his face. Blanca makes up a tourniquet for his arm, and gets him back to a hospital in Barcelona. There they begin to see the state cracking down on anarchists. The police are better armed than the militias at the front. The old order is being restored, even if it means losing the war against Franco. Carr, who is still a member of the Communist Party, and Blanca quarrel when he reveals that he intends to join one of the Communist led international brigades. He returns to the POUM, and Blanca, when he realizes that Stalin and the Communist party are more interested in fighting anarchists than fascists.

The final sequence of Land and Freedom is a remarkably effective, indeed, almost Shakespearian sequence about Stalin’s betrayal of a dedicated group of anti-fascists. They’re ordered to attack a fascist position, which they do with great resolution and courage, but not given sufficient ammunition or reinforcements. Then, after Franco’s troops have already ground the POUM down, the state army finally arrives. Lawrence, the American, conservative, and closet Stalinist — who had earlier revealed his rotten character when he lectured the wounded Carr on the need more pragmatic instead of coming to his aid — is one of the officers in charge of suppressing the POUM. They have a list. It’s divide and conquer. The POUM’s rank and file will be allowed to disband and go home, but the veteran commander Vidal, as well as several of the more radical members, are on a list of men to be arrested, sent to prison, and probably tortured or executed. The POUM’s members stand their ground. But it’s useless. They’re tired. They’re out of ammunition. They’re surrounded. Blanca rushes at Lawrence and confronts him about his betrayal. The Stalinist troops open fire.

David Carr returns to England. He has a wife, children, grandchildren, but he still dies in a nondescript flat somewhere in Liverpool. We’re back in the grey, dreary world of class-ridden, capitalist Great Britain. Carr’s granddaughter reads a few lines of William Morris as they lower his body, and a handful of Spanish dirt, into the grave. David Carr was a hero, Loach tells us, who lived on into old age, but lost the promise of his life back in the 1930s.

Danton (1983)

Danton, a French/Polish film directed by the Polish director Andrzej Wadja opens in the spring of 1794. The Reign of Terror is reaching its crescendo. Éléonore Duplay, the landlady and probably lover of Maximilian Robespierre is teaching her nephew the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Robespierre himself is sick in bed. Outside, on the street, a carriage pulls up alongside a line of people waiting in a breadline. Five years after the fall of the Bastille, people are still hungry. Discontent is widespread, threatening to overturn the republic and bring back the rule of the Bourbons and the aristocracy. As the hungry French citizens discuss the reasons for their misery, the doors of the carriage opens to reveal the great revolutionary Georges Danton. He’s greeted with uproarious applause. We look up to see Robespierre watching the whole scene from his window. With him now is Heron, the chief of the secret police. They are planning to suppress the newspaper of Camille Desmoulins, an old friend of Robespierre who has been publishing pamphlets criticizing the Reign of Terror and supporting Danton. The stage is set for the implosion of the French Revolution.

Danton, which was a hit in France in 1983, also received a good deal of attention from American movie critics, mostly because they saw it as an anti-communist allegory, a re-imagining of Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law against Solidarity. Robespierre and his supporters are all played by Polish actors. My French isn’t good enough to judge whether or not they speak with Polish accents, but they are clearly meant to symbolize communist east. They’re anemic looking authoritarians determined to preserve the Reign of Terror at all costs. Danton and his followers, on the other hand, are all played by French actors. They clearly represent not only Solidarity, but the democratic, capitalist west. If Robespierre, Wojciech Pszoniak, is a cold-blooded Stalinist bureaucrat —- in one scene he has Jacque-Louis David paint over a revolutionary who had fallen out of favor and been guillotined — Danton, Gerard Depardieu, is a corrupt but likeable western-style politician who believes the Reign of Terror has gone far enough.

But Danton is no Moscow on the Hudson, Red Dawn, or Rocky IV. Wajda is not only a man of the left, if more social democrat than communist, he’s also a master of subtle, nuanced film making who managed to evade the Polish censors for decades. It’s only now, in 1983, under Jaruzelski, that he was forced to make a film in the west. While he’s clearly in Danton’s camp, Wajda does not film Robespierre is not a caricatured villain. Robespierre is a great man who rose to lead the revolution. His younger, and most fanatic henchman, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just tries to push him into an immediately arrest, but he resists. Camille Desmoulins is his old friend. Danton, whom he detests, is still a hero of the revolution and popular on the streets of Paris. What’s more, he still has some scruples about summary executions. The Reign of Terror itself, set up by Danton, was intended to prevent vigilante justice like the horrific prison massacred that had happened the year before. There needs to be a catalyst.

When that catalyst comes, we can almost see Robespierre’s point. Robespierre has arranged a meeting with Danton. He wants to urge Danton to call off his agitation against the Committee of Public safety, to implore upon him that the revolution is still in danger and that authoritarian measures are still justified. Danton, a great, bear of a man has contempt for but still envies his Robespierre’s incorruptible devotion to the revolution. He prepares a feast, a rich, voluptuous spread designed to test his rival’s self-control. Remember, people on the streets are hungry. Robespierre passes the test with flying colors, turning up his nose in disgust at the decadent, aristocratic banquet. Indeed, 30 years later, after neoliberalism shock treatment has made a few oligarch’s wealthy and impoverished the vast majority of people in Poland and Russia, Wajda’s film takes on a nuance it might not have had in 1983. Danton protests that the people have no bread, but he never quite explains how he will alleviate the misery of the Parisian streets. At least Robespierre is consistent. Stay with the Reign of Terror. Break the back of the aristocracy once and for all. Danton’s populism, which may have evoked sympathy in 1983, now evokes suspicion. There he is, an East European oligarch in the making. Your inner Stalinist almost shouts “defend communism and Jaruzeski against George Danton and capitalism.”

Robespierre is under no illusions what executing Danton will mean. The logic of the revolution dictates that he will follow him to the guillotine shortly thereafter, which Danton predicted, and which, indeed, came to pass. There’s something noble about the pale, withered Robespierre. He has the integrity to defend the revolution to the end, even if in the end it meant his end. Is it fanaticism, or is it heroism? Perhaps it’s a combination of both. Danton, which in 1983 read like an attack on communism, now almost reads like an elegy.

Mississippi Burning (1988)

What if people on the left had real state power? We’ve all dreamed about it. What if we finally put on our brass knuckles and punched the nearest teabagger in the face? What if the federal government went back into the south, took over the same Florida court system that’s legalized killing blacks, and “stood its ground.” What if we finally broke the Neo Confederate cancer that’s ruining America once and for all?

The fantasy of state power, and state power in the right hands, is at the center of Alan Parker’s 1988 Mississippi Burning. Mississippi Burning is one of a series of big-budget, Hollywood movies from the late 1980s and early 1990s that helped rehabilitate the public image of the FBI after the beating it took in the 1970s. Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film Silence of the Lambs re-imagines the FBI as a plucky young woman who saves a Senator’s daughter from a cross-dressing serial killer. 1987’s The Untouchables takes us back to the FBI’s heroic early days, where a clean cut all-American boy saves Chicago from Al Capone. Mississippi Burning not only rehabilitates the Bureau. It rehabilitates Cointelpro.

As the film opens, we are in a car on a back country road in Mississippi. Three young men, loosely fictionalized versions of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, are being pursued by two cars, a pickup truck, and a police car. It’s a terrifying scene, especially since anybody who’s studied the history of the Civil Rights Movement knows exactly what’s going to happen. The local police are working with the Klan and the Klan is working with the local police police. “All I’ve got left is a nigger,” one of the Klansman says after the three young men are murdered in cold blood. “But at least I shot me a nigger.”

In the next scene we are in a Chevy Impala driving south out of Tennessee and into Mississippi. The driver, Agent Ward, is a senior FBI agent. He’s stiff, formal, and dressed in the classic FBI uniform of a dark suit and a white shirt. He’s got a severe pair of eyeglasses that codes him as “Ivy League intellectual.” Ward’s companion, Agent Rupert Anderson played by a brilliant Gene Hackman, is his opposite. In addition to being a rehabilitation of Cointelpro, Mississippi Burning is also a buddy movie. Anderson’s an easy going good ol boy from the south, a former small town sheriff from Thornton Mississippi. He’s reading from the case file, or, rather, he’s singing, having a good laugh at a KKK drinking song. You’d never guess judging by his rumpled, laid back dress that he works for J. Edgar Hoover.

Rupert Anderson is as much of a liberal as Agent Ward. The contrast between the two men is not so much their ideology as their style. Anderson wants to keep things low key, to sniff around without drawing any unnecessary attention to themselves. Ward doesn’t see it that way. After both agents are attacked by the Klan, who burn a cross in front of their motel room, Ward makes a phone call to Washington. Soon Jessup County Mississippi is crawling with FBI agents. The FBI, in effect, becomes an occupying army. They take over the town’s movie theater. They buy the motel, and eventually establish a kind of “dual power.” The FBI has all the muscle. They can go anywhere they want anytime they want.

But the Klan still controls the local police, city government, and courts. Jessup County’s blacks know the FBI’s occupation is no more permanent than Radical Reconstruction, that all the agents will be going back home as soon as they find the bodies of the three civil rights workers. The FBI can’t even find the bodies of the murdered Civil Rights workers anyway. Ward’s big government liberalism has hit a dead end. Anderson, however, is beginning to make progress.

The Klan and their chief asset in the local police,  Deputy Clinton Pell, soon learn that Rupert Anderson is not a man to be fucked with. Clinton Pell is a spectacularly nasty little man, a strutting little cock of the walk who keeps the town’s blacks, and his own wife, in a perpetual state of terror. After Anderson realizes that Pell’s wife is the weak link, that she’s been coerced into giving her husband an alibi for the night of the murder, he cracks the case. She tells him where the bodies of the civil rights workers are buried. Deputy Pell, knowing that he’s in deep trouble, and that it was almost certainly his wife who ratted him out, beats her to a pulp and sends her to the hospital.

Clinton Pell will soon regret beating his wife. The last 30 minutes of Mississippi Burning are the payoff we’ve been waiting for. Agent Ward, the film’s stand in for John F. Kennedy, has finally had enough. It’s time to release the hell hounds of Cointelpro against Deputy Clinton Pell and Jessup County’s Ku Klux Klan. Anderson tortures Clinton Pell in a barber shop. He slaps him around like the nasty little fascist he is. While Agent Ward seems to have some qualms about the FBI torturing a suspect, we don’t. Clinton Pell  deserves every once of the beating he gets. Ward, Anderson, and another group of agents crash a KKK meeting, writing down license plate numbers while the Klansmen whine about their Constitutional rights. They set the Klansmen against one another. Three FBI agents kidnaps one Klansman and pretends to lynch him before other agents “rescue” him. He’s more than willing to talk.

In other words, Anderson and Ward go through Jessup County Mississippi like Sherman marching through Georgia. What would it look like if the bad asses and strongmen were on the side of the left instead of the right? It would look like Mississippi Burning.

Alas, Parker has waived the red cape. We charged like a bull. It’s a fake out.

While it’s true that the American ruling class by 1964 was ready to get rid of Jim Crow and Johnson did lean on J. Edgar Hoover to solve the murders of Schwener, Cheney and Goodman, Mississippi Burning essentially writes SNCC out of history. The FBI went into Mississippi in 1964 because grassroots activists forced them to. They occupied lunch counters. They road segregated buses. They registered voters. Mississippi Burning, while briefly acknowledging the grassroots activism of the Civil Rights Movement, gives most of the credit to the FBI. We’re even shown Agent Ward marching with black activists in a funeral procession.

Indeed, J. Edgar Hoover was a racist himself. Far more FBI dirty tricks were directed against the Civil Rights Movement than against the Klan. What’s more, throughout Mississippi Burning, blacks are shown almost exclusively as terrified victims. They’re lynched, castrated, put into cages, terrorized. If I were black this film would have sent me into a rage. That’s entirely the intention. By the time Pell beats up his wife, we’re ready to see a black character, any black character hit back. We get that avenging black man in the form of a “specialty man” Anderson sends to Washington for. Anderson’s “specialty man” kidnaps the Klan friendly mayor, takes him to a shack out in the backwoods, and tortures him into spilling his guts.

Mississippi Burning, unlike Zero Dark Thirty, is gleefully pro-torture. But we’ve been had, fooled, bamboozled. In reality, the “specialty man” who helped break the case in Philadelphia Mississippi wasn’t an avenging black man at all, but Gregory Scarpa, the chief enforcer for the Colombo Crime Family.

“In the summer of 1964, according to Schiro and other sources,” Wikipedia tells us. “FBI field agents in Mississippi recruited Scarpa to come to Mississippi to help them find missing civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner. The FBI was convinced the three men had been murdered, but could not find their graves. The agents thought that Scarpa, using illegal interrogation techniques not available to agents, might succeed at gaining this information from suspects. Once Scarpa arrived in Mississippi, local FBI agents allegedly provided him with a gun and money to pay for information. Scarpa and an FBI agent allegedly pistol-whipped and kidnapped Lawrence Byrd, a TV salesman and secret Klansman, from his store in Laurel and took him to Camp Shelby, a local Army base. At Shelby, Scarpa severely beat Byrd and stuck a gun barrel down his throat. The terrified Byrd finally revealed to Scarpa the location of the civil rights workers’ graves.”

‘The FBI has never officially confirmed the Scarpa story,” Wikipedia also tells us. But the FBI has a long history of involvement with organized crime. In the single case of Schwener, Chaney and Goodman, it might have done good. In every other case,  those mobsters on the FBI payroll were strong arming labor leaders not Klansmen. We’ve been had.

We’ve succumbed to temptation, the dangerous fantasy of state power.

Wadjda (2012)

Wadjda, by Haifaa al-Mansour, is supposedly the first feature length film ever shot in Saudi Arabia. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but Saudi Arabia currently has no move theaters. Haifaa al-Mansour was also subject to a number of draconian restrictions, including having to film from the back of a van, since, as a women, she was not allowed to be seen in public with her mostly male film crew. I think it’s safe to say there’s never been a “Saudi New Wave.” If you have any idea why, fill me in in the comments, since I’m fairly sure it’s not Islam. Iran, for example, has a rich cinematic tradition.

Wadjda, an 11-year-old school-girl, lives with her mother in lower-middle-class Riyadh. Her father, who seems like a nice enough guy, although we see very little of him, is quarreling with her mother. He’s disappointed he has a daughter and not a son, and intends to take a second wife. Every day Wadjda’s mother, played by the 27-year-old Reem Abdullah, puts on a veil, and waits for a commuter van driven by an Indian immigrant. Wadjda’s mother has a job, but women, in Saudi Arabia, aren’t allowed to drive. It makes no sense to me. I guess it’s supposed to keep them safe, but it seems to me that depending on a van driven by a strange man makes Wadjda’s mother less safe. In any event, she’s always feuding with her driver. He’s always early. He says she’s always late. He doesn’t turn on the air-conditioning. The average high temperature in Riyadh is 110 degrees in the Summer. The commute is long, tedious and demoralizing.

The 11-year-old Wadjda has more freedom than her mother. Girls below the age of puberty can go outside without a veil. Wadjda wears a simple headscarf. There are rules against mixing with boys in public but they’re not strictly enforced. Wadjda has a friend named Abdullah. It’s pretty much the kind of friendship you would expect between a 11-year-old boy and a 11-year-old girl. They tease each other. They play in the streets. He rides past her on his bike, and steals her lunch. The last is important. After she chases him down the street, losing her scarf, and fails to catch him, she decides that she wants her own bike. She sees just the one she wants. It’s not a Trek Madone. It’s a cheap, ugly green cruiser bike with crappy geometry and a big, puffy seat, the kind of bike you’d see at a Walmart, but to Wadjda, it’s freedom. It’s mobility.

It’s also 900 Riyals, about 250 dollars. Perhaps the best way to think of Wadjda would be as 400 Blows: Extreme Patriarchy, Female Edition. Wadjda is a rebel. More specifically, she’s a rebel who’s also a budding capitalist. She sells homemade bracelets and bootleg mix tapes of popular music. Her school is run by a severely Islamic young female principal. Among other things, patriarchy allows women to lord it over other women. The more rules, the more power you get by memorizing them. It’s also pretty easy to be a rebel. What are you rebelling against? It’s probably better to ask “what are you not rebelling against?” Wadjda’s schoolmates enthusiastically consume her black market bracelets. They paint their nails and give themselves tattoos with magic markers. They gossip about the principal sleeping around on her husband.

But Wadjda is not able to make those 900 Riyals by selling bracelets. She asks her mother, but her mother is not sympathetic. Girls don’t ride bikes. They’re boy’s toys. What’s more, riding a bike just might break her hymen and take her virginity. Wadjda finally hits on the idea of entering a competition for memorizing and reciting the Koran. The prize is 1000 Riyals, more than enough for the bike. She goes to a store and spends 80 Riyals on a kind of Rosetta Stone Learn the Koran program for her father’s Play Station 3. Her mother teaches her how to sing the verses. Her teachers at school thinks she’s reformed. Suddenly, she’s no longer Wadjda the rebel, but Wadjda the good girl. “You remind me of me when I was your age,” the principal says, flattering her to get her to rat out a few of the school’s bad girls.

Does Wadjda win the Koran competition and get the money for her bike? I won’t give any spoilers but let’s just say that after it’s all over I wanted to become a Zionist. If that sounds odd, go to Amazon and watch the movie. You’ll understand what I mean. Does it have a happy ending? Once again, I won’t give any spoilers. But it involves Wadjda’s relationship to her mother.

In the end, Wadjda draws most of its power from what it doesn’t mention. I have no idea how a Saudi would see Wadjda, but as an American, I noticed how everything seems 20 years out of date. Wadjda listens to cassettes, not an iPod She doesn’t have a cell phone. Even the soap dispensers in the public restrooms look like soap dispensers I haven’t seen since I was a teenager. What’s more, since Haifaa al-Mansour seems to want the film to play in Saudi Arabia, she tries very hard to use a light touch. She doesn’t come out and condemn Wahhabi Islam . Sometimes, however, understatement is more powerful than going over the top. The film’s most eloquent critique of patriarchy is the contrast between Wadjda’s mother’s relationship with Wadjda’s father and Wadjda’s relationship with her friend Abdul. It’s the very opposite of what you’d see in the United States, where adult women have the freedom to associate with any man they want, but children are restricted. Wadjda has more freedom than her mother. But we know it’s not going to last. In a few years, she’ll enter puberty. She’ll have to wear a veil, and the joy she finds in hanging out with Abdul will be over. She’ll be stuck in the same kind of loveless marriage as her mother. She’ll have to ride the same kind of commuter van. Her life is a dead end.

As clever and resourceful as Wadjda is, she has no future under Saudi Arabia’s extreme, almost totalitarian patriarchy.