Monthly Archives: April 2014

Last Chants For a Slow Dance (1977)

During the Presidential election of 2004, the cable news networks were circulating a push poll designed to help George W. Bush get back into the White House. You might remember it. One of the questions was about who you’d rather have a beer with. Even I got that one right. Who would want to have a beer with John Kerry? Another one of the poll’s questions, however, made me shudder. If your car is broken down on the side of the road, who would be more likely to stop and help you change a tire, Bush or Kerry? It would of course be Bush. John Kerry help you change a tire? He probably wouldn’t even let you use his cell phone. But the question also left out one important detail. Would you really want to be stranded on the side of the highway with a psychopathic murderer like George W. Bush?

Anybody who’s seen the ending of the independent filmmaker Jon Jost’s ultra-low-budget film from 1977, Last Chants for a Slow Dance, will probably share my anxiety.

Tom Blair is an unemployed man who lives in and around Butte Montana. He’s also an asshole. The film opens with an extended shot of asphalt, a camera focused on the highway while mounted on a speeding pickup truck. We hear the beginning of a monologue, Blair subjecting a hitch hiker, a younger man with long hair, to his ideas about life, the universe, and, more specifically, about why he can’t get a job. The system is rigged. You can’t get ahead. Blair is obnoxious, but not completely unsympathetic. It’s not exactly an unheard of complaint under capitalism. The man listens patiently. It’s the price you pay for being a hitch hiker.

But then something goes off the rails. On the surface it’s just misogyny and homophobia. Blair talks about his wife and two kids, then segues into a half bragging, half frustrated rant about how easy it is to meet women. “Do you smell that?” she said. “I can smell it. It’s pussy.” The hitch hiker waves him off. He’s not in the mood for macho, locker room talk. “I have a girl but I don’t think of her that way,” he says. Blair calls him a fag, a “funny,” but it’s more than just violent disagreement. Blair has now slotted the hitch hiker into a category nobody wants to be in. The hitch hiker is no longer full human. Blair is no longer interested in “enlightening” him. “You’re not only a funny,” he says. “You’re crazy.” Finally, Blair kicks him out of the truck, and continues on his way.

By the end of Last Chants for a Slow Dance we see how lucky that young man was.

Anybody observant enough to notice how the cord connecting Blair to the rest of humanity snapped, if ever so briefly, has already realized that Tom Blair is not just an asshole, a misogynist, or a homophobe, but a psychopathic killer.

Jon Jost made Last Chants for a Slow Dance for $2000. His actors, especially Tom Blair, are remarkably good for such a low budget film. Unlike Kelly Reichardt, he never managed to find an actor like the brilliant Michelle Williams, but it really doesn’t matter. As Last Chants for a Slow Dance proceeds, we observe Blair’s inner world, the sterile, desolate landscape of a country founded on slavery and genocide, the “dead end” of both a culture and a particularly good represenative of the kind of depraved individual that culture spawns. The actress who plays his wife is no Michelle Williams, but her shrill hectoring works. This is the way people really talk. Blair’s aggressive, self-pitying whining is perfectly natural. That’s the way I talk.

Tom Blair is isolated morally if not socially. Unlike Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy, he can chat people up in public, pick women up in bars. He might just make a good salesman. But Jost’s Montana landscape is not New York. It’s not a rich, complex, metropolis with hundreds of paths to go down. It’s empty space, mile after mile of nothingness punctuated by an occasional locked door or, at best, a poor kept storefront or garage. Every road leads nowhere. Every human connection is a brief collision or a possible trap. Eventually, even the barren landscape gives way to a series of images reflecting Blair’s diseased mind, grotesque post cards that depict illusions — made before Photoshop — showing nature to be monstrous, the slaughter of a rabbit, a scene that makes the squirrel skinning sequence in Winter’s Bone look tame by comparison, a series of FBI “most wanted” advertisements.

Blair’s final, despicable act — he murders a man for a few dollars — feels as inevitable as another aggressive, self-pitying rant.

The final 5 minutes of Last Chants for a Slow Dance are as terrifying as anything I’ve seen on film. There’s no need for spinning heads, projectile vomit, or tentacles that burst from a man’s stomach. Jost puts us into the mind of the murder victim. Tom Blair’s monologue, the way he talks himself into killing another human being, is so scary because it makes so much sense. His logic is impeccable. Why not kill? If a man is desperate enough, right and wrong no longer apply. Tom knows what he’s doing is wrong. He doesn’t care. I’ve read where the one call that genuinely frightens police officers is “suicide by cop.” There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing to lose. Tom Blair has nothing to lose.

If there’s one criticism I would make of Last Chants for a Slow Dance it’s how Jost’s moralism and individualism aren’t sufficiently distinguished from Tom Blair’s. Kelly Reichardt, in Wendy and Lucy, puts Wendy’s economic desperation in a social context. Wendy can’t connect because society has shut her out. She’s too passive to batter down the right doors. The economy is failing.

Tom Blair isn’t passive. I have no idea what the economy around Butte was like back in the 1970s. Jost, quite persuasively, implies that Blair is desperate only because he wants to be desperate. But there’s always some doubt, especially in the days of the Great Recession of 2008. Jost’s Montana is so grim, so run down, that we wonder if maybe the reason Blair can’t find a job is a bad economy just like he says it is. As Blair drives past the mines in Butte, we remember how he told his wife that he used to work as a truck driver down in the pits. Perhaps Tom Blair isn’t a sociopath at all, just a man with limited options who’s sick of what he’s been doing. Even if jobs were available, who would really want to work down in the Butte mines? Isn’t it just a quick road to an early death from lung disease? Where else would he work? Is a man in his 30s going to get a job at the counter of a McDonald’s?

That carping aside, Last Chants for a Slow Dance doesn’t take much suspension of disbelief. Tom Blair is the very last man I’d want to have stop and help me change a tire in the middle of nowhere. Even George W. Bush would probably be an improvement.

Dream of Life (2008)

If you go into Steven Sebring’s 2008 film about the life of Patti Smith expecting a conventional documentary, you will almost certainly be disappointed. Dream of Life doesn’t tell us very much about Smith’s relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe or Sam Wagstaff. It doesn’t examine each individual album and tell us how it was made. We don’t really learn much more about Patti Smith than we already know. Instead we get a selection of the footage Sebring made during the eleven year collaboration that began in 1997, and ended with the film’s release.

Whether or not you enjoy Dream of Life probably depends on three things. If you’re a hardcore Patti Smith fan you’ve probably already seen it. There’s also the black and white photography. Steven Sebring is no Robert Mapplethorpe, but he’s captured at least some of the aesthetic that once made Smith an icon among the kinds of people who know the difference between Tri-X Pan and T-Max 100. The key to appreciating Dream of Life, however, is to notice the common thread that runs through the seemingly disconnected series of interviews, performances, poetry readings, and biographical reminiscences.

If you’re not some kind of artist you probably won’t.

It’s probably best to think of Dream of Life a a secular sermon for failed artists. Patti Smith might just be the best example of a popular artist motivated by the religious impulse currently working in the United States. Smith is of Irish descent, but a Protestant, not a Catholic. Her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. She’s not a particularly good poet or singer. She’s not an accomplished musician. She is a great preacher. Even though she very famously opened her cover of the Van Morrison song Gloria with the iconic phrase “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” watching Patti Smith will often summon up the ghosts of George Whitefield and the First Great Awakening. From Piss Factory, her first recorded song, to the album Wave, which would mark the end of the first phase of her career, Patti Smith broke all the rules governing even the most radical side of classic rock and roll. Her lyrics are less about puppy love, sex, or even politics than they are about spirituality, not the tame, fenced in spirituality of Christian rock or country and western, but the wild, fantastical eruptions of a New Light revival, of speaking in tongues, of the chaotic world of the fallen soul. Smith’s band, while not quite so experimental as Sonic Youth or the Pixies, still manages to provide a framework for her rhapsodic verses, the loud, jangly garage rock sometimes echoing, sometimes following, sometimes indicating the breakup of conscious, logical thought, but never quite getting in the way.

Patti Smith’s later career, from her only hit in the 1980s, People Have the Power, through Gone Again in 1996, to her series of albums during early 2000s, is more conventional, her songs more openly leftist and political, more Phil Ochs than Rimbaud. Dream of Life, which contains interviews and photographs from the 1970s, but which was filmed from the late 1990s through 2008, recaptures the more anarchic aesthetic of Horses and Radio Ethiopia. There’s a wonderful sequence where Smith reads out an indictment of the presidency of George W. Bush, opening with the Declaration of Independence, but eventually swelling like a flood tide into a list of his crimes, Iraq Katrina, torture, the unitary executive. The longings of her youth take over in late middle-age, the low church, New Light spirituality breaking through the protest songs, anti-war rallies, and the distinguished lecture series of the punk princess emeritus.

Art, for Patti Smith, is not about form. It’s not about words, notes, images or narratives. It’s about all of those things and one more, freedom. The democratic project is now more aesthetic than it is political. Living the life of the creative artist becomes identical to living the life of the democratic, free man or woman in the age of the plutocracy. The outsider poet becomes the revolutionary, the rock and roll singer the conduit through which William Blake and Arthur Rimbaud are channeled into the mass media. Perhaps the most vivid, memorable sequence in Dream of Life involves Smith’s discussion of Blake, the brilliant working class poet and engraver who worked in total obscurity, yet as she points out, worked joyously in total obscurity.

“If you want to live outside of society,” she says, joyously, “you’d better be willing to take responsibility for it, because a lot of shit is going to come your way.”

Sixteen Candles (1984) Pretty in Pink (1986)

Ted the Geek: Hey Dong, what’s wrong?

Long Duk Dong: Do you remember that old movie we were both in?

Ted the Geek: Sixteen Candles?

Long Duk Dong: It’s got me down.

Ted the Geek: Why Dong? That’s where we met. That’s where we decided to go into business together. Now we run a successful software company. We both millionaires. I’m CEO. You’re my Vice President.

(Long Duck Dong throws his chair to the floor)

Long Duk Dong: Look you white motherfucker. I may be your Vice President, but I am not your Asian sidekick.

Ted the Geek: You’ve been reading Twitter again, haven’t you Dong?

(Long Duk Dong picks up his chair and sits down)

Long Duk Dong: Yes. I’ve been reading Twitter again. It’s good to keep in touch with the younger generation. You, me, Steven Colbert, everybody who grew up in the 1980s, do you know how young people see us? Do you know how many young Asian men and women in their 20s grew up hating themselves because of me? It’s a good question. Maybe we should ask it more often.

Ted the Geek: I think you’re taking Sixteen Candles a little too seriously Dong. It’s just a 1980s teen comedy. You’re meant to laugh at it, not obsess over it when you’re in your 40s.

Long Duk Dong: Asexual Asian men, Asian dragon ladies, how is any of that funny?

Ted the Geek: You were hardly asexual Dong. You got laid.

Long Duk Dong: But don’t you see Ted? That’s the joke. Asian men in Hollywood movies have traditionally been presented as completely asexual. So a horny Asian kid, unlike a horny white kid, is in and of itself funny.

Ted the Geek: I was a horny white kid Dong, and I was funny.

Long Duck Dong: But you weren’t funny because of the color of your skin. Even my name, Long Duk Dong. It’s like I wasn’t even supposed to be an individual, just this big Chinese dildo.

Ted the Geek: You are a big Chinese dildo Dong. That’s why everyone loves you. That’s why you get the girls. All you have to to is recycle that “hey sexy girlfriend” line and they’re putty in your hands. You’re a funny guy Dong. Women love guys who can make them laugh.

Long Duk Dong: I get the white girls Ted. Asian girls, black girls, Mexican girls, they all remember that movie and think I’m still the same self-hating little turd I seemed like back then. They don’t realize John Hughes pulled a fast one me. I’m not politically correct. I have nothing against slapstick ethnic humor. That’s why I hammed it up. I was supposed to be this goofy, funny awkward kid, like we all are as teenagers. But this movie wasn’t just about goofy, funny awkward kids. It has a larger ruling class, white supremacist agenda that it manages to slip in under the cover of the idea that you’re not supposed to take it seriously. First of all, it’s not only racist against Asians.

Ted the Geek: Who else is it racist against?

Long Duk Dong: Do you remember when Molly Ringwald and her friend Randy are in the hallway talking about the perfect birthday present? Molly Ringwald says she wants a hot guy in a black Trans Am. Randy’s like “oh my God, a black guy” and then sighs with relief when she realizes her friend meant a black car, not a black guy. Well, what if Sam did want to date a black guy? Michael Jackson was big in the 1980s. So was Prince. What’s wrong with it?

Ted the Geek: Nothing Dong It was a joke. You’re taking it too seriously.

Long Duk Dong: Sixteen Candles is also racist against white people.

Ted the Geek: You mean the Ryszczyks, the way it’s supposed to be funny that Sam’s father keeps mispronouncing the name? That’s not racist. I can’t spell Ryszczyk either. The jokes on Sam’s father. He’s a narrow minded, Midwestern white guy who can’t change with the times.

Long Duk Dong: It’s not only Sam’s father. It’s Sam. Sam’s sister Ginny is supposed to be a bimbo, so she doesn’t know how to chose the right WASP guy. Dad says Rudy’s a greasy bohunk. Remember when Ginny says that to Sam? And how does Sam answer? She says “well is he?”

Ted the Geek: What’s bohunk anyway?

Long Duk Dong: It’s a derogatory word for American of Eastern European descent, Bohemian Hungarian.

Ted the Geek: I thought they were Italians.

Long Duk Dong: That’s another thing. John Hughes does play the Ryszczyks as if they were Italians. They’re like the family in Married to the Mob. Now how can you make a film in Chicago and not know the difference between a Polish American and an Italian American? How stupid did John Hughes think we were. And how stupid was John Hughes? Why would you want to alienate two ethnic groups for the price of one?

Ted the Geek: Lighten up Dong. Italians and Pollacks don’t get pissed when you make fun of them. They love ethnic jokes.

Long Duk Dong: I used to think Polish jokes were funny too. Then I found out it was it was the Nazis who invented them.

Ted the Geek: What do you care about the Nazis Dong? You’re Chinese.

Long Duk Dong: You should have told that to John Hughes. He has me yell Banzai. That’s Japanese not Chinese and that’s racist. Would he have a German speaking French? An Englishman speaking Russian? Of course not. But Japanese, Chinese, what’s the difference? It’s like we’re not real people or anything.

Ted the Geek: Oh come on Dong.

Long Duk Dong: And do you know what’s even worse than the racism?

Ted the Geek: What?

Long Duk Dong: The rape culture.

Ted the Geek: The what culture?

Long Duk Dong: The rape culture. You don’t see it because you’re a fucked up middle-aged man just like me. But those kids on Twitter know, and I’ve been educating myself. Sixteen Candles may not be the most racist movie ever made. But it’s certainly the most pro-rape movie ever made.

Ted the Geek: The most?

Long Duk Dong:  It’s pretty bad. You play a rapist yourself.

Ted the Geek: A rapist? Where do I pull a woman into an ally and fuck her against her will?

Long Duk Dong: You don’t remember how you fucked Caroline Mulford when she was drunk?

Ted the Geek: That was totally consensual sex. She enjoyed it.

Long Duk Dong: Enjoyed it? She was too drunk too enjoy anything.

Ted the Geek: It’s comedy. She’s this upper class senior bitch who’s like the last girl you’d expect to sleep with a guy like me. That’s what makes it funny. Jake Ryan is so smitten with Sam he gives Caroline to the geek, me. That’s why Jake was a good guy. He didn’t horde all the talent for himself.

Long Duk Dong: Do you remember what Jake says?

(Ted starts laughing)

Ted the Geek: He says she was passed out in the bedroom so drunk he could violate her ten ways to Sunday and she wouldn’t know what happened.

Long Duk Dong: You think it’s funny to rape a drunken 17 year old girl?

(Ted continues laughing)

Ted the Geek: That’s the joke. The actress was like 25. I was 15. The only rape going on was statutory rape, by her.

(Ted is now laughing so hard he’s snorting)

Long Duk Dong: You’re missing the point. They filmed it. It was like Steubenville. And don’t you think there was something just a little creepy about casting adults as the cool kids and 15 year olds as the geeks? The guy who played Jake Ryan was 24 years old. Molly Ringwold was 16. That’s the perfect dreamboat hunk? He puts his drunken girlfriend in his father’s car with a 15-year-old kid who can’t drive, then goes off and seduces a 16 year old girl. That’s not only sick. That’s criminal. What if Jake Ryan had been the football coach and not another high-school kid? A grown man handing off a drunk girl off to a 15-year-old kid so he can fuck her while she’s passed out, that’s funny to you?

Ted the Geek: It’s funny because Jake Ryan’s father’s so rich he can afford to let his son trash a Rolls Royce. But let’s just agree to disagree on Sixteen Candles.

Long Duk Dong: John Hughes was a racist and a rape apologist. I’m glad he’s dead. I hope he suffered.

Ted the Geek: What about Pretty in Pink?

Long Duk Dong: What about it?

Ted the Geek: There’s no racism in Pretty in Pink. And it doesn’t apologize for rape. Just the opposite, it’s feminist. Ducky’s in love with Andie.

Long Duk Dong: To be honest, I’ve always thought Ducky was gay.

Ted the Geek: He is. Have you seen his Grindr profile? But back then he was in love with Andie Walsh. Andie’s in love with Blane.

Long Duk Dong: It’s feminist that she’s in love with some rich preppy?

Ted the Geek: Pretty in Pink is about how Ducky has to learn how to get over his sense of entitlement. Then the girl he’s in love with so she can go off and marry the rich guy she really wants. Do you know how progressive that was for the time? Hollywood was always telling every geek, every unattractive guy, every working class loser that he deserves a beautiful girl. Pretty in Pink is saying no. You don’t. You see Dong? I read Twitter too.

Long Duk Dong: I guess so. But Ducky’s a more interesting character. The film is saying one thing and showing another. It’s saying Ducky has to give up his sense of entitlement. But it’s showing the opposite. Most people who watched it thought Andie chose the wrong guy.

Ted the Geek: Pay closer attention Dong. Why did Andie chose Blane over Ducky? It’s not that Ducky’s a geek. It’s that he’s a loser who reminds her of her father. Remember when they go to the rich neighborhood. Andie looks at the houses and says “my god these houses are beautiful.”  She’s checking out Ducky as potential husband material. When he’s not interested in the big houses that means he has no ambition,that he’d be just fine if he worked in a record store for the rest of his life. That reminds her of her father, Harry Dean Stanton, another loser who can’t hold down a job. That’s why his wife walked out on him. If Andie chose Ducky it would mean starting the whole cycle all over again. She’d walk out on Ducky just like her mother walked out on her father. So she’s choosing to end the cycle by going to the prom with Blane.

Long Duk Dong; Yeah. I guess so.

Ted the Geek: You see. So you admit Pretty in Pink’s not pro-rape.

Long Duk Dong: Yeah. It’s not pro-rape.

Ted the Geek: Is it racist?

Long Duk Dong: I guess not.

Ted the Geek: So what’s wrong with it?

Long Duk Dong: It’s boring.

Ted the Geek: Dong. You’re 45 years old. You’re supposed to find a teen comedy boring. You want to watch a film? Jean-Luc Godard’s great. So’s Pierre Melville. So’s Martin Scorsese.

Long Duk Dong: Something just bother’s me about Pretty in Pink. It’s Blane. He’s awful.

Ted the Geek: That doesn’t matter Dong. He’s Andie’s choice. You have no right to question a girl’s choice of mates for any reason. It’s rape culture if you do.

Long Duk Dong: You know what really bothers me. It’s like these rich white motherfuckers like Jake Ryan and Blane McDonough always get the girls.

Ted the Geek: Don’t go hating on white people Dong.

Long Duk Dong: I don’t hate white people. I feel sorry for them. These John Hughes films are all about training middle class white girls to find the right upwardly mobile husband. They wind up choosing Wall Street dipshits like Jake Ryan and Blane McDonough.

Ted the Geek: You don’t know they’re going to Wall Street Dong. Jake or Blane could have just as easily dropped out of society to write poetry, or to protest the war in Central America. Maybe they wound up sitting in redwood trees or shutting down the WTO in Seattle.

(Dong looks at Ted)

Ted the Geek: OK. Yeah. They probably went to Wall Street. But they were Sam and Andie’s choice and you have no right to question a girl’s choice for anything. That’s rape culture.

Long Duk Dong: I’m not questioning Sam or Andie’s choice. They can marry anyone they want. Molly Ringwold wasn’t even that hot anyway. What I’m questioning is the way they put these Wall Street dirtbags up on a pedestal. Blane McDonough? Jake Ryan? The perfect 1980s husband was the kind of guy who ruined the economy in 2008. Those Wall Street jerks ruined your country and you still love then for it.

Ted the Geek: Dong. Don’t hate. That’s what Andie said to Ducky. Hating guys like that because they’re rich is as bad as hating people because they’re poor.

Long Duk Dong: Jesus you white people are hopeless. At least in China they line an occasional banker up against the wall and shoot him. Here, these guys destroy your standard of living and you give them 7 figure bonuses. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome or something.

Ted the Geek: You want to line Jake Ryan and Blane up against the wall and shoot them?

Long Duk Dong: Well I’d prefer a guillotine, but a firing squad will do.

Ted the Geek: You’re just a hater Dong.

Long Duk Dong: I’m thinking about the working class. What about Andie’s father? What about Iona? What about Ducky? Is life really all about putting the working class people in your past who love you behind you so you can move to the upper-east side and send your kids to Harvard? Why exactly do we assume Ducky is going to end up as a loser. He has good qualities. He fights for Andie. You can feel the working-class rage smoldering underneath the goofy exterior. Why are bland, boring, white bread Jake Ryan and Blane McDonough sexy and Ducky not sexy? Why do we automatically assume Ducky would make a lousy husband? I for one think he’s the better man.

Ted the Geek: Ducky says he’s available on his Grindr profile. Go for it.

Long Duk Dong: That’s not what I mean. Pretty in Pink may be a bit more liberal than Sixteen Candles. But it gives Andie only two choices: Wall Street dirtbag or goofy loser. Isn’t the world a much bigger place than that? Aren’t there far more than two kinds of potential husbands in the world? Isn’t there an entire spectrum of men in between?

Ted the Geek: That’s the Breakfast Club.

Long Duk Dong: Really? I haven’t seen it.

Ted the Geek: Check it out. I think you’ll like it. And stay off Twitter.

M (Fritz Lang, 1931)

M is a pitiless film except regarding the mother of one of the victims, who waits for her child to come home for dinner, and the hunted man, whose sickness draws Lang’s full measure of pity. Even children are casually monstrous.

Dennis Grunes

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from Germany, Scandinavia, Finland & Austria list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Giving birth to the police procedural, Fritz Lang’s M, though talky, retains a grim fascination. It is about two city-wide hunts for the same man—one by the police, the other by the underworld, which hopes to put a stop to the police search of which their criminal business is running afoul. The hunted man is a pedophile and serial killer of little girls. When they wrongly suspect someone on the street of being the killer, people become an enraged mob and assault him, taking the law into their own hands, just as the criminals are doing. Moreover, they reflect something of the compulsive killer’s own inability to control himself. Primarily, the film identifies…

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M (1931)

M is the greatest movie ever made about 9/11 and the “war on terror.”

M, which made German actor Peter Lorre into a major film star, and which director Fritz Lang considered his masterpiece, says just about everything there is to say about a corrupt society’s response to an unspeakable atrocity. The Sandy Hook Massacre, the Boston Marathon bombing, Roman Polanski and Wood Allen, our media treats each new crime wave, each new shocking act of violence, each new opportunity for the authoritarian state to increase its hold over the people, as a break with history, as a loss of American innocence. Yet, as Lang demonstrated all the way back in 1931, it is a pattern is probably an intrinsic part of the capitalist metropolis (pun certainly intended).

M opens in a courtyard in Berlin. We look down from the balcony onto a group of children, who are playing a game called “elimination.” They are singing a song about the bogeyman, a child murderer based on Peter Kürten, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf.” A woman comes by to tell them to “stop singing that horrible song.” Unlike these innocent children, she knows that there’s a real child murderer on the prowl in Berlin. Her neighbor, Frau Beckmann, tells her not to be uptight. Let the children sing. They’re not bothering anybody.

Frau Beckmann’s daughter Elsie becomes the serial killer’s next victim.

The American film industry has produced hundreds of films about monsters of all kinds. We should be completely desensitized by now, but the opening of M is still chilling. Elsie, a little girl with tangled golden hair, dashes out of the school yard into the street. She comes close to getting hit by a car, but an alert police officer pulls her back. Then she looks at a poster on a kiosk. She reads. A child murderer is on the loose. A shadow looms over Elsie on the kiosk.

Hans Beckert, Peter Lorre, who’s probably best remembered for his cameo as a terrified little man on the run from the Nazis in Casablanca, is a short, pudgy, round face little man with greasy hair and a pale, nervous stare. He’s the kind of nonentity most of us would brush by on the subway without a second thought. Elsie is no more afraid of him than we would be. He buys her a balloon from a blind beggar (a man who will later be a key figure in the plot’s resolution). He whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg. They walk off together. We know Elsie is doomed. We flash back to her mother. Elsie hasn’t come home with her friends. At first she thinks nothing of it. Then she begins to worry. Then she descends into a white knuckled panic. The next day the balloon has floated away and gotten itself caught in a cluster of power lines. What happened to Elsie? Newspaper hawkers pour out into the streets with the horrible news. There’s been another child murder. The victim’s name was Elsie Beckmann.

What happens next will surprise nobody who was tuned into American television during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. The Berlin police lock down the whole city. Uniformed gendarmes pile into trucks and spread out, neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block. The problem is they have no idea who they’re looking for. The child murderer isn’t a pimp or a safe cracker, a burglar or a stickup man. He doesn’t have to fence stolen goods. He doesn’t have to maintain a presence in the city’s red light district.  He finds his victims purely by chance, dumps the body, then disappears back into the shadows. He could be anybody.

There’s another group of people who are under even more pressure than the police, or even the city’s parents, to bring the monster to justice, criminals. The social order of Berlin, like any big capitalist city in the 1930s, depended on an unspoken but well-understood balance of power. Capitalism produces inequality. Inequality means crime. Criminals eventually organize themselves. In the 1930s, in Chicago, in Southern Italy, in Berlin, organized crime developed a hierarchy that became, in effect, the mirror image of the state. Criminals understand the police. The police understand criminals. The child murderer, however, becomes a wild card, the “joker,” to use a contemporary American example, a source of chaos that threatens to undermine the social order altogether. Suddenly, hookers can’t find clients. Saloons lose money. Pickpockets find themselves waiting in line to show their, non-existent, papers, and getting carted off to jail when they can’t. The city’s crime bosses come together to discuss a solution to the problem. Their meetings in a dark, smoke filled room look so much like the simultaneous and parallel meetings of their counterparts in the homicide bureau that there’s no possible way a master filmmaker like Fritz Lang could not have meant it intentionally. The police and criminals are two sides of the same coin, codependent power brokers who depend on each other for their existence.

The criminals are also much better at detective work than the police. They organize the homeless, who fan out over the city and shadow any grown man they notice with a child. False accusations are made, bogus leads pursued, but, eventually, Hans Beckert slithers back onto the scene to hunt for his next victim. What proves to be Beckert’s undoing is his chosen method of bribing children with balloons. He holds hands with a little girl. He whistles his trademark tune from In the Hall of the Mountain King. It’s the same balloon vendor who unknowingly witnessed him abduct Elsie Beckmann. This time the blind man notices. As the dragnet is woven around the monster, the rope strung around his neck, Becket more and more begins to resemble, not a man, but a hunted animal. Finally, he’s caught.

Why did Adam Lanza slaughter 25 grade school kids? Why do pedophiles molest children? What is the source of evil? Is it original sin? Is it social inequality? After Hans Beckert is hauled up in front of a kangaroo court full of petty thieves, prostitutes and crime bosses, he confesses his crimes. He’s the child murderer. He did it. Why? He doesn’t know. It’s an urge he can’t control, an urge so powerful he blacks out and forgets what he’s doing even as he’s committing his monstrous crimes. Is it the desire for oblivion? Certainly not. Beckert is not defiant. He clings to his existence with the desperation of a cornered animal. He doesn’t want to die. When the police raid the underworld court and drag him off to a real jail, he whimpers pathetically. He’s relieved, grateful. He’ll get a few more weeks of life before the state sentences him to death.

If M had difficulty getting a distributor in Nazi Germany its easy to see why. There’s no direct allusion to fascism in M, but Fritz Lang is raising questions that get to the bottom of how the social order should be maintained. Pests like Hans Beckert exist. They need to be snuffed out or isolated from the rest of humanity. But who gets to judge who lives or dies? Lang is extraordinarily and, as it turns out, prophetically dour and pessimistic about the administration of justice. If there’s very little difference in M between the criminals and the police, between polite society and the underworld, any distinction that existed at all would collapse in Germany only a year later. Pests like Becket would soon hold state power. The nihilist urge that compelled him to kill children would soon engulf all of Europe.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

Rebel Without a Cause is a wildly uneven story saved by James Dean’s virtuoso performance.

Make no mistake. If Nicholas Ray’s screenplay has its shortcomings, James Dean’s acting not only lives up to the legend. It actually surpasses it. The surprising thing is not that Dean, at 23, seems too old to play a teenager. It’s that he doesn’t.  Dean puts on a master class on how to create the inner life of an angry, suburban teenager. It’s not enough just to look young. A 23-year-old adult’s mind works very differently from a 17-year-old’s. He has a sense of identity, a confidence, a way of looking at people, and a way of speaking that a teenager has yet to develop. Natalie Wood, at 17, doesn’t seem much younger. Sal Mineo, at 16, whose youth is more a product of his actual youth than his craft as an actor, died at the age of 37 after failing to make the transition to adult roles in his 20s and 30s. Dean’s portrayal of Jim Stark, the tentative speech, the inability to look adults in the eye, the wild mood swings, the sullen passivity alternating with often poorly timed outbursts of aggression, show just how well he understands the adolescent mind.

Stewart Stern’s screenplay is revealing in spite of, or perhaps because of its many flaws. The problems begin with the title. Jim Stark isn’t a “rebel.” He’s a conservative. His problem isn’t the established, patriarchal order. It’s the lack of an established, patriarchal order. The Stark family is out of joint. Frank Stark, Jim Backus is a passive, insecure man who’s dominated by his wife, Carol Stark played by Ann Doran. All Jim wants is for his father to act like a man and take his place as the king of his castle.

“Maybe if you just punched her in the face she’d get all happy and stop picking on you.”

Wife beating isn’t politically correct by the standards of 2014, and maybe not even by the standards of 1955, but Jim Stark is an angry teenager, not a feminist college professor. Carol Stark is an underwritten character anyway, more of a minor annoyance than a villain.

What’s driving Jim crazy, “tearing him apart,” is how his father’s apparent indecisiveness masks the cold, emotionally withholding reality underneath. Frank Stark isn’t a wuss. He doesn’t care. Jim Stark can’t quite put his finger on it, but we can. Jim asks, even pleads with his father to tell him no. He’s not allowed to play “chicken” — a game where two kids race stolen cars towards the edge of a cliff and the first one who jumps out is designated the “chicken” — in the hills near the Griffith Observatory. Frank turns him down, his inability even to give his son a straight answer revealing the frigid heart underneath the buddy buddy exterior. Later, after Jim’s opponent is killed when his sleeve gets hooked on a door handle and he can’t jump, Jim confesses what happened to both his father and mother. Their unconcern is chilling. They’re two very typical suburban, WASP parents who are worried about nothing more than their public face. Did anybody see it? Did anybody get your license plate number. Don’t tell anybody.

“Mom, dad,” Jim pleads, taking personal responsibility for his actions in a way his parents can’t, “a boy. A kid was killed tonight.”

Jim Stark is given a heterosexual love interest named “Judy,” a girl with father issues of her own played by Natalie Wood, but she’s really not very interesting. At heart, Rebel Without a Cause is a story about the unrequited gay crush of one teenage boy for another. If the writing in Rebel Without a Cause is confused, and often frustrating, and yet somehow never distracts us from the riveting melodrama — Rebel Without a Cause is very rightly a classic of American cinema — it has a lot to do with how Nicholas Ray manages to address issues of class, race and sexuality identity without alluding to them directly. Indeed, you might say that Rebel Without a Cause is badly written in a way that let’s its underlying message slip past the censors of Eisenhower era morality without being marginalized.

Jim Stark, Plato, Judy, and the crowd of high school students who meet near the Griffiths Observatory to Play “chicken” may all look white and middle-class, but looks can be deceptive. Underneath the clean, well lit place that is 1950s Los Angeles — Can this really only be 15 years after John Ford filmed Grapes of Wrath? — is the larger, multiracial urban reality you never saw on television but which everybody knew existed. The Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s, the gangster and depression era films, are still present in Rebel, but you have to pay attention. Post-war suburbia in 1955 was only 10 years old.

How exactly do Frank and Carol Stark manage to pull up stakes and relocate every time their son gets into trouble? How do they stay inside the upper-middle-class? That’s not the way it worked back in the 1950s. You got a job. You stayed there for 20 years. White, middle-class teenagers probably did, and probably still do get into violent confrontations on class trips to the Griffiths Observatory, but when Jim Stark and his rival fight with switch blades it also makes us think of the inner city, as does Jim’s frenzied reaction every time he’s called “chicken.” An urban, honor bound culture, not necessarily suburbia, requires you to fight every time you’re dissed. Letting himself be called “chicken” —faggot?— risks not only his standing at school, but his physical safety as well.

Plato may be played by a white, Italian American actor named Sal Mineo, but, if you pay attention to the film’s subtext, John “Plato” Crawford is black, and he’s gay. Supposedly his father ran out on him. Plato’s the only character in Rebel Without a Cause without daddy issues, and we never see his biological mother, but Plato has a mother, the family maid played by Marietta Canty. The maid, who’s black, is in fact the only parent in Rebel Without a Cause, who takes an active interest in her son’s welfare. That Plato dies, but Jim and Judy live, might give you some hint about Nicholas Ray’s intentions. In spite of their horrible behavior and distant parents, the police treat Jim and Judy with kindness, even deference. Detective Ray Fremick, Edward Platt from Get Smart, is a lot more like Judd Hirsch’s Doctor Berger from Ordinary People than he is like Officer Krupke from West Side Story. He’s an understanding therapist, not a cop. “Drop by and talk,” he says to Jim, “anytime you want.”

Plato, on the other hand, gets treated much differently. The cops gun him down. While yes, it’s true. He does have a gun he stole from his parents’ house. He does shoot a member of the gang that’s hunting Jim Stark — they think he “snitched” about the game of chicken — and while the cops do mention at the beginning of the film that he shot puppies for kicks, nothing about him seems very dangerous. Quite the contrary. Plato is a martyr to his unrequited love for Jim. Jim, in turn, while straight, treats Plato with a kindness nobody else at school does. Even at the beginning of the movie, in the police station, when Jim is too drunk to know much of what’s going on, he still offers a shivering Plato his coat. Plato’s mother, the maid, cares about her son, but she can’t save him. Neither can Jim.

James Dean’s image was airbrushed after he died. He became a heterosexual sex symbol, a cinematic version of Elvis, an icon of “cool.” His emotionally rich creation of Jim Stark as unhappy misfit devolved into caricature. “You’re tearing me apart” became a punchline. Even the term “rebel,” which in Rebel Without a Cause has an ambiguous, psychologically nuanced meaning, now means nothing much more than “domineering bad boy all the good girls want to fuck.” It is, nevertheless, worth going back and remembering what a genius James Dean was, and how much American cinema lost when he died at 23. He would have still been in his 40s at the beginning of the Reagan Administration. He would have made his presence felt all through the 1960s and 1970s. Instead of Dean’s imitators we would have had Dean himself. Instead of the silly, pop culture phenomenon we would have had dozens of characters with the same kind of richly developed inner life Jim Stark has. But it was not to be.

Przesłuchanie (1982)

Przesłuchanie is Polish film about a woman who stands up to her Stalinist torturers to protect a man she doesn’t love, and who, as she later finds out, was dead before they arrested her.

Filmed in 1982 during the brief period of cultural liberalization before the declaration of martial law, Przesłuchanie, or, The Interrogation, was banned in Poland for most of the 1980s. Nevertheless, director Ryszard Bugajski encouraged the circulation of illegal copies on VHS, and it became an underground classic before being shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1990. Little seen today, at least partly because the Cold War ended and Poland is no longer communist, it’s as relevant in the age of Barack Obama, Gitmo, and the Bush torture/surveillance state as it was in the days of Wojciech Jaruzelski

Krystyna Janda, who won the Palme d’Or for Best Actress, stars as Antonina ‘Tonia’ Dziwisz, a nightclub singer. One night, during a raucous performance in front of a joyous crowd of largely working class people, she looks down off the stage to see her husband flirting with another woman. She gets drunk, then goes off with two young men, hoping to forget about her misery in the adulation of two of her fans. But they’re not her fans. They’re secret police officers.

The next morning Antonia wakes up in jail. Her two year journey through Stalin’s prison industrial complex — Antonia is arrested in 1951 and gets out of jail in 1953 — has begun. At first Antonia thinks she’s just another drunk who got picked up for disorderly conduct, that she’ll be out in a few days. After they take her to Lieutenant Morawski to be interrogated, she realizes that she’s facing something far more serious. The only problem is she that quite sincerely has no idea why they arrested her. Antonia is no saint. But she’s completely apolitical. Why would the secret police be interested in her?

Every day Antonia goes to Lieutenant Morawski to be interrogated. Every night she goes back to her cell, where she lives a half-dozen other women, almost all of whom have been detained for reasons as mysterious as her own. There’s also Witkowska, played by the well-known Polish film director Agnieszka Holland. Witkowska the Communist no more belongs in a secret police jail than Antonia, but, unlike Antonia, she has no “bourgeois” illusions about guilt or innocence. Subjectively, she explains, she’s innocent. Objectively she’s guilty, having once been assigned to give a tour of government facilities to an American communist who turned out not to be a communist at all, but, a western intelligence agent. The best thing Antonia can do, she says, is to confess to some crime, any crime, lest the secret police believe she’s guilty of something even worse.

Lieutenant Morawski and his even more thuggish colleague, Major Zawada Kapielowy, certainly want Antonia to confess to a crime, but they’re even more interested in her sex life. “Are you going to ask me about the first time in grade school I ever kissed a boy?” she asks Kapielowy. “Yes,” he says, not joking. He and Morawski are, in fact, mainly  interested in her sex life. A man she had once had a casual hookup with had been a member of the “Home Army” (the anti-communist resistance during the German occupation), or, maybe, he hadn’t. We never really find out out much about Antonia’s one night stand. He’s mainly an excuse for Kapielowy and Morawski to break her rebellious spirit, to cow her into becoming a good Stalinist just like Witkowska the Communist. Eventually he becomes an excuse for Antonia to assert herself against the tyrannical state.

“The obedient and well behaved don’t always get rewarded,” she says to Morawksi, who asks her what ideal she has that keeps her so defiant. “That’s really the only thing I believe.”

Call it totalitarianism as slut shaming, and slut shaming as totalitarianism. Krystyna Janda’s performance as Antonia is as good, or even better than Michael Fassbender’s performance in the very similar Hunger or Daniel Day Lewis’ as Gerry Conlon in In The Name of the Father. Poland may be a conservative Catholic country, but Polish cinema often produces female heroes far and away more three dimensional and vivid than American cinema does. All you have to do is watch The Interrogation through and try to imagine how ridiculous Angelina Jolie would have been in the same role to realize what a talented an actor Janda really is. Antonia runs the entire gamut of emotions, from utter despair to defiance without a missing a beat. Janda, who was in her late 20s when they filmed The Interrogation, very credibly ages from a vital young woman when arrested to a tired, demoralized middle-aged woman when she’s released shortly after Stalin’s death. Above all, she manages to convey the bewilderment, then despair, and ultimately the defiance of an innocent woman targeted by the state. When she finally just laughs at her torturers, we want to stand up and applaud.

Przesłuchanie is set during the early 1950s, but it’s clear that its target is Wojciech Jaruzelski as much as Stalin. Przesłuchanie is not a work of history but an act of defiance. Ryszard Bugajski and all of the actors knew that the Communist Party would eventually crack down on Solidarity and reassert their authoritarian control. This is no subtle dig full of ambiguity like Wadja’s Man of Iron. It’s a slap in the face of people who would, ultimately, prevent it from being distributed in Poland and greatly impede its success in the west. Indeed, while western critics did promote anti-Communist films like Wadja’s Danton, they seemed to shy away from this one. Why? Maybe it hits too close to home. Antonia’s imprisonment and torture isn’t peculiar to Communist Poland. Far from it. What American filmmaker would dare make a similar film about Gitmo?

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

How much violence does it take to maintain the status quo, any status quo?

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is a revolutionary film on the most intimate scale possible. Running for almost three and a half hours, Chantal Akerman’s feminist classic from the 1970s is about as long as a film can get and still have a wide theatrical release. But it was made for just over 100,000 dollars. It has two main characters and a few extras. It’s set almost entirely in a small apartment in a drab, working-class neighborhood in Brussels.

Jeanne Dielman, Delphine Seyrig, lives with her son Sylvain.  Sylvain, played by Jan Decorte, appears to be about 18 or 19. He’s a sullen bookworm. There’s no sign of a husband or father. We find out later that he died years earlier. Jeanne is an attractive, well-dressed woman in her early forties who sleeps with exactly one man every day, entertaining her client from 4:30 to 5:00 in the bedroom while dinner is cooking in the kitchen. We get an idea of Jeanne’s character after she pockets the money from a John, and puts it in a glass teapot she keeps on the table in the dining room. She goes into the bathroom, pours herself a bath, and cleans up. Then she disinfects the tub, scrubbing out any reminder of how she earns her keep and supports her son.

Jeanne Dielman is an obsessive compulsive. Everything about her life is so well-ordered, so circumscribed by repetitive behavior that the film, which takes place over three almost identical days, becomes a map of her soul. Tiny details of her behavior, insignificant variations in how she acts from day to day bring us inside of her troubled mind as surely as if we were a trusted confessor. On the first day everything is perfect. Jeanne sleeps with her John, washes up, and cooks dinner for her son. But even on the first day some things seem out of joint. Jeanne serves herself exactly the right portion of meat, vegetables, and potatoes, but gives her son twice as much as he can eat. We know immediately that they have an unequal relationship, that she desires his approval. We also realize that Sylvain, while he may be a sullen, unpleasant little killjoy also feels smothered by his mother’s attention. He’s probably close to 20-years-old yet she still buttons his coat before he leaves for school in the morning.

“You missed a button,” he says.

With one brushstroke, therefore, Chantal Akerman has painted a picture of a mother and son in a dysfunctional relationship. He’s both dominated and dominating. She’s both controlling and self-sacrificing.

On the second day, things begin to unravel. Jeanne burns the potatoes. She drops a spoon. She watches a screaming baby for her neighbor. Sound becomes as important as repetitive behavior. A dropped kitchen utensil, a loud child, a door slamming, Akerman so effectively mixes the audio levels that we, the audience, take on Dielman’s hypersensitivity to stray noises. We become unhappy. We wonder why her son doesn’t show her more attention. We begin to feel her weary dread at having to sleep with yet another man to earn her keep. How long can a woman her age go on as a prostitute? Does she have a backup plan. Did her husband leave her a pension. How exactly did her husband die anyway? We don’t learn much more than that he was a Canadian who served with the army in World War II.

“Getting married was just something everybody did,” she tells Sylvain.

On the third day, we wonder if Jeanne Dielman has ever done anything on her own initiative. Then we realize that she does everything on he own initiative. Like a great artist, she has isolated herself from the rest of humanity to work on her creation. That creation is a prison, for herself. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute she has hammered out the bars of her psychological cage, walling herself off, not only from the emotional fallout of her husband’s death, her unfulfilled life, the fact that she sleeps with a new, and almost always unappealing man every day, but from the very possibility of happiness or change. We also learn what she was so afraid of, the violence inside herself.

Back in 2011, when I was involved with Occupy Wall Street, I began to understand why a system as unjust as American capitalism doesn’t collapse under its own weight. The American ruling class has hundreds of thousands of militarized police, the biggest military the world has ever seen, and a well-developed system of propaganda and spying, but none of that would matter if working class Americans didn’t repress themselves. I decided that the only thing Americans value is their routine. It’s neither right nor left, but it does have political consequences. Opponents of gay marriage, for example, failed because people who supported gay marriage were able to paint them as troublemakers who wanted to get into other peoples’ private business. Occupy Wall Street failed because it threatened to make Americans think about class and revolution, to make them face up to how their 9 to 5 lives are never going to get their kids seven figure jobs on Wall Street. Indeed, the most damning accusation the media could make about Occupy Wall Street was not that it was a movement of socialists, but that it disrupted routine, that rat race people run with such dedicated tunnel vision.  Like Jeanne Dielman, Americans have built a cage of misery they will defend to the death against anybody who tries to liberate them.

On the evening of the third day of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Jean Dielman, the kind of nice, unprepossessing middle-aged woman you would trust without a moment’s hesitation, commits an act of violence so sudden, so shocking, and so arbitrary it upends everything that came in the first three hours of the movie. We realize that Chantal Akerman has played a trick on us. By staging her tragic drama inside a drab apartment in working class Brussells, by focusing on so many insignificant details of a seemingly ordinary mother and son, she has somehow made us watch 3 hours of a horror movie without realizing we were watching a horror movie at all. The first three hours of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles have so much authority, paint the inside of Jeanne’s mind in such deceptively mundane realism, we have been fooled into thinking we were watching our lives, which, in a sense, we were. Jeanne’s victim, and liberator, her final trick, may not deserve his fate, but that’s what revolutions are like, messy, violent, arbitrary. Jeanne, not quite ready for her freedom, acts in the most unexpected way we can imagine, exactly the way we would have expected her to act.

The final ten minutes of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles feel more like 10 hours. Jeanne is doomed. But if you sit patiently through the three and a half hours of her movie, Chantal Akerman will so completely fuck your sense of time that, in some odd way, she gives you the keys to open the door of your own cage. Whether or not you decide to walk out is entirely up to you.

Brazil (1985)

Brazil is a Thatcherite attack on public sector unions and a send up of Thatcherism. It is a look backward at the cumbersome bureaucracy of the British welfare state and an astonishingly accurate prediction of the war on terror. It is a very good movie and a very bad one, Blade Runner with a higher IQ, Nineteen Eighty Four with a sense of humor, and a Monty Python skit that goes on far, far too long. Above all it is a portrait of a despair and passivity, a wildly baroque series of images that give a concrete visual reality to the diseased imagination of an ordinary man stuck inside a totalitarian hell so troublingly familiar it barely seems like fiction.

I suppose the first thing to get out of the way is that Brazil is not set in Brazil, or anything resembling it. It might not be the United Kingdom, but it certainly doesn’t look like any place in South America. Sam Lowry, Jonathan Pryce, works in the records department of the Ministry of Information. Brazil was filmed in 1985, but, while their computers look like crude hack ups of television sets and old-fashioned manual typewriters, they already have the Interent. Whatever his official job description, Lowry is a low-level tech support grunt, the kind of anonymous drone who fixes printers, cleans porn off the senior accountant’s hard drive, and does little favors for the less than computer savvy CEO. The plot is set into motion when a bug, a literal bug, and, by the way, the original meaning of the term “bug,” falls into a printer and changes the name “Tuttle” to “Buttle.” The ministry’s stormtroopers, who look exactly like a modern SWAT team executing a “no knock warrant,” break into the home of the mild-mannered Mr. Buttle, and drag him away as a suspected terrorist. The problem is that the ministry forwarded the  medical records of Mr. Tuttle, not Mr. Buttle. Mr. Buttle has a heart condition. Sam’s friend Jack Lint, Michael Palin, doesn’t calibrate the torture correctly, and he dies under interrogation.

While the death of someone like Mr. Buttle normally wouldn’t bother anybody at the Ministry of Information any more than the death of a Pakistani child in a drone attack would bother most Americans, Mr. Buttle was incorrectly charged for his torture. Regulations require that his family get a refund, but, much to the frustration of Mr. Kurzman, Lowry’s supervisor in the Records Department, the Buttles don’t have a bank account. Kurzman sends for Sam Lowry, a lackey so trustworthy that he’s promised not to accept the standard promotion to Information Retrieval, and asks him to resolve the problem.

If Sam Lowry is a lackey working at a low level tech support job, he’s also a lackey with connections. He has in fact already been offered a promotion to Information Retrieval, partly because of his influential mother. While Ida Lowry, played by Katherine Helmond, is concerned mostly with plastic surgery and with keeping herself young, she’s probably a stand in for Margaret Thatcher. Sam Lowry is the classic, upper-class Anglo Saxon mommy’s boy, George W. Bush to Ida’s Barbara Bush, a man whose lack of ambition reflects his lack of masculine role models and his subjugation to the smothering feminine. Some of the most brilliant images in Brazil reflect a passive little man’s fear of the human body, and, more importantly, his fear of the feminine body. The tiny spot of blood at the threshold of Jack Lint’s office, an obsessive compulsive’s nightmare, the tubes and vents of his central air-conditioning that, after a disastrous visit by two hostile, incompetent repairmen from “Central Services” resemble nothing so much as a mass of swishy intestines, the grotesque faces of the middle-aged women at the fancy restaurant where Sam lunches with his mother, plastic surgery victims with decaying bodies, all of it testifies to a 40-year-old virgin’s fear of the womb.

Sam Lowry, like any passive man who’s afraid of the womb, also wants to go back to the womb. Unable to take control of his life, he lives in an adolescent fantasy world where he repeatedly attempts to rescue a damsel in distress, a young blond with long, natural flowing hair, and a billowing, white gown. On the surface, Sam’s fantasy is 180 degrees the opposite of his mother, but, after he goes to the Buttle’s apartment to deliver the refund check, he meets Jill Layton, Kim Greist. While Greist may somehow, oddly, have exactly the same face as the damsel in distress from his dreams, she’s no more soft, feminine, and passive then his mother. A short-haired, butch truck driver with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, Jill Layton has also witnessed the kidnapping of Mr. Buttle by the Ministry’s storm troopers. She has no wish to meet a representative from the government, even a middle-mannered lackey with a refund cheque. She takes off in her cab. Lowry is distraught. He’s met the literal woman of his dreams only to lose her.

“Wait,” you say, “he has her address? Why doesn’t he just drop by the next day?”

It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but nothing in Brazil works logically. We’re not in the real world, but in Sam Lowry’s unhinged mind. The chain smoking, short haired, truck driving Jill Layton is as much a dream girl as the dream girl from his actual dreams. If Brazil is often a frustrating, uncomfortable movie to watch, that’s really the point. It’s best read as the waking dream of Sam Lowry, as Sam’s nightmare, a place where you run, but your legs feel heavy, where you find a person you’ve long searched for only to lose her in a flash. Sam goes back to his mother and asks her to put through the promotion he turned down. If he works at Information Retreival he has access to that part of Brazil’s Internet that allows him to cybertalk Jill Layton in a way he wouldn’t be able to working at records. The fact that I took breaks during the movie, which I was watching on my computer, to cyberstalk people on Facebook testifies to just how prophetic Brazil is.

Once at Information Retrieval, Sam Lowry finds out that, like the real Tuttle, a rogue heating engineer who’s wanted as a terrorist but who seems to do nothing more than make unauthorized repairs that the government, and surely unionized, repairmen from Central Services are too busy to finish, Jill Layton is set to be arrested. Here’s his chance to be her knight in shining armor after all, just like in his dreams. He doesn’t even have to track her down. She comes to Information Retrieval herself to resolve the problem with Buttle’s wife her neighbor. But the elevator is broke and he misses her. He chases her down in the street. She still has no great urge to meet him, but he manages to tag along with her in her truck. The dreamer, then cyberstalker is now a genuine stalker. But, as Sam Lowry attaches himself to Jill Layton, the government is stalking them both. The ongoing terrorist campaign against the state, which may or may not be a false flag campaign by the government itself, has continued.

There’s a brief moment of bliss. Sam and Jill hide out in his mother’s apartment, where Sam finally gets what he wants. His dreams come true, quite literally, but it’s also his nightmare, even if he doesn’t quite realize it. When she puts on his mother’s blond wig, and wraps herself up in his mother’s sheets, she looks exactly like the girl in his dreams. But it’s his mother’s apartment, his mother’s wig, and his mother’s sheets. Is Sam really sharing a romantic evening with the girl of his dreams? Or is he simply masturbating in his mother’s apartment while she’s away on vacation?

Does it matter? Sam and Jill both get arrested as terrorists. Jill is “shot while resisting arrest,” and Sam is tortured by his old friend Jack Lint. Paradoxically, it’s a happy ending. The torture destroys Sam’s mind. The films ends with him smiling. At long last, he gets to live in his dreams. Be careful what you wish for, the film warns us. You might just get it. Indeed, the joke’s on us. What have we been watching for the past two and a half hours but Terry Gilliam’s dream? If Brazil is such a frustrating film to watch, if, after 150 minutes of a narrative that constantly breaks up and loops back on itself, grotesque imagery, sexual frustration, torture, long monologues that break the rhythm of the stories, characters that come out of nowhere and make no sense, and the sheer inability of people to connect, we feel as if we’ve been tortured right along with Lowry, that’s the point. That’s exactly what Gilliam is trying to say.

Get out of your head, go outside, and experience life for real.

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

Last month, President Barack Obama went to Flanders and gave a speech about the First World War. As is typical for him, his words were phrased so carefully that they aspire to an ambiguity that, if achieved, would render them almost meaningless. “And so this visit, this hallowed ground, reminds us that we must never, ever take our progress for granted,” he said, laying a wreath on the graves of three American soldiers. “We must commit perennially to peace, which binds us across oceans.”

Does this man ever take a clear, principled stand on anything?

“Here, we also see that no soldier — and no nation — sacrificed alone,” he continued, honoring Brave Little Belgium. “I’m told that this is one of more than 100 cemeteries tucked into the quiet corners of this beautiful countryside. It’s estimated that beneath about 50 square miles there rest hundreds of thousands of men — Belgian and American, French and Canadian, British and Australian, and so many others.”

The First World War, which, until 1945, was usually known as “The Great War,” is one of the most written about, yet, at least in the United States, one of the least understood events of the 20th Century. President Obama hints at some of the scale of the conflict, but he deprives it of its meaning by depriving it of its meaninglessness. To argue that the French and Belgium ruling classes made a brave stand for democracy and civilization by sacrificing a generation of their young men against the German ruling class may work as a veiled threat against the Russians in Ukraine, but it does nothing to increase our understanding of the Holocaust that took place in Western Europe between 1914-1918.

All Quiet On the Western Front has such a distant, luminous aura that it seems as much a part of the history of The Great War as it does a film about The Great War. Based on the novel of the same name by the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On the Western Front is the first Hollywood movie to win simultaneous Best Picture and Best Director awards. Even though, or perhaps because it shows the Great War from the point of view of the front line German soldier, Joseph Goebbels organized an attack on its premier in Germany, setting off stink bombs and releasing white mice in the theater. Eventually, Carl Laemmle, Sr., the head of Universal, agreed to edit out so many of the passages attacking German militarism, most of the film was left on the cutting room floor.

Does All Quiet on the Western Front live up to its legend?

I suppose the answer would be “yes and no.” The technology seems crude by today’s standards, the acting almost wooden. As a piece of cinema, as drama, it falls far short of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. All Quiet on the Western Front is overly long, and perhaps just a bit boring. It has no character as vividly drawn as Renoir’s sublime Captain de Boeldieu, an aristocratic French pilot who puts on a pair of white gloves, and sacrifices his life to help two comrades escape as casually as if he were ordering a bottle of wine at Maxim’s.

But perhaps that’s the point. Where The Grand Illusion showed us the Great War from the point of view of the elite, All Quiet on The Western Front tells us the story of the rank and file German soldier. We begin in a high school class in an unnamed German city. If it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is an American film, it’s little details like this remind us the film was produced in Hollywood, not Berlin. There were of course, no general public high schools in imperial Germany. There were Gymnasiums, schools for the university bound elite. There were realschules, oriented towards a more technical, practical curriculum. There were apprenticeships and less prestigious institutions for the working class. Kantorek, the “high school” teacher who gives the speech that opens All Quiet on the Western Front stands in front of a blackboard where we can see several foreign languages, one of them Latin, so it’s probably a gymnasium, but the class he exhorts to enlist and serve the fatherland resembles a classic American World War II infantry platoon in its diversity.

There’s Joseph Behm, a quiet, nervous young man who’s less enthusiastic than the rest of the class, and who would later be the first of their group to be killed. There’s Peter Leer, a ladies man and talented mathematician. There’s Fredrich Müller, a quiet bookworm who brings his own pair of boots to the front, boots of such high quality that the rest of his platoon covet them after his death. There’s Paul Baumer, the book’s hero, an aspiring writer, and clearly a stand in for Remaque himself. The novel, and the movie, ends with Baumer’s death, and, for the most part, sees the war through his eyes. Baumer is a familiar character in American war movies. He’s Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor from Platoon. He’s Mathew Modine’s James T. “Joker” Davis from Full Metal Jacket. He’s Lieutenant Henry from A Farewell to Arms. He’s the representative young man for whom the war is his coming of age, the sensitive, intelligent every man who represents the nation as a whole.

Unlike The Grand Illusion, there are no senior officers or members of the elite. All Quiet on the Western Front is a savage indictment of German militarism, but we don’t get to see the Prussian general staff. There are no millionaire arms manufacturers. There’s one junior officer, Lieutenant Bertinck, an intelligent company commander who’s largely respected by the rank and file soldiers under his command, but, for the most part, the only authority figures we see are the same authority figures we all see. There’s Kantorek, the stupid elderly high school teacher who foolishly brainwashes Paul and his class into signing up at the beginning of the war in 1914, then, just as foolishly, keeps giving the same speech 4 years later, even after millions of corpses have piled up. There’s Corporal Himmelstoss, a postman in civilian life. Himmelstoss represents everything that’s rotten about imperial Germany. A strutting little martinet, he abuses his men during their basic training. He cheats them of their leave, pulls rank instead of earning their respect, and later, when he goes the front, proves himself to be first a coward, then a fool.

Above all there’s Stanislaus Katczinsky. Katczinsky, or “Kat,” is a 40-year-old veteran who serves as a mentor and father figure to the 18 and 19-year-old recruits. He’s a rough looking man who worked as a cobbler in civilian life, but who’s a natural leader, and model of the kind of NCO soldiers in every army genuinely respect. He doesn’t pull rank. He doesn’t bully. He never gives speeches about the fatherland. Kat is only concerned with what the soldiers are concerned with, staying alive, and getting enough to eat. The food in the Imperial German Army, like the food in any big, industrial institution, isn’t of the highest quality. What’s more, Germany, in 1914, was subject to a British naval blockade that made food even more scarce than it would have been.

All Quiet on the Western Front was released in August of 1930, which was almost a year after the stock market crash in 1929. I’m not exactly sure when it was filmed, or exactly how much of a role the struggle for food plays in the book, but clearly the images of soldiers trying to make a coveted loaf of bread last, or Kat stealing a whole pig from a supply truck, would take on greater significance as the United States, and Europe, slipped further and further into the Great Depression. Kat would become, not only the veteran soldier. He might also be the veteran hobo who knew how to avoid the police, or the resourceful father figure who knows how to keep his children alive in spite of all the poverty and despair.

All Quiet On The Western Front — I’m talking only about the film. I haven’t read the book — may not have an explicitly leftist agenda, but, clearly, Stanislaus Katczinsky represents the organized working class, and Corporal Himmelstoss the proto-fascist petty-bourgeoisie.

All Quiet On The Western Front would also set the template for dozens of American films about the “futility of war.” Baumer, the aspiring writer, is confronted by nothing but absurdity. There’s young man with the fine, imported leather boots who has his leg amputated. There’s the petty, tyrannical cook who refuses to serve dinner because he cooked for 150 and half the company had been killed during a ferocious battle. He can’t dish out any more than he’s allowed to by regulations but he can’t throw the extra food out either because that’s also against regulations. There are the men themselves, as thankful for the extra food as they are sorry about the 75 dead comrades. There’s the incessant war with the French for a blasted landscape nobody wants anyway. There’s the French soldier who takes forever to die. There’s the shelling of the graveyard that digs up long dead corpses and sends splinters of wooden coffins flying through the air. There’s Baumer’s futile attempt to carry Kat to a hospital for a broken shin. Kat gets hit in the head by shrapnel while Baumer has him slung over his shoulder. There’s Baumer’s absurd death only a few hours before the war’s end. Nothing in All Quiet On The Western Front is glorious or heroic. There aren’t any gallant individual gestures as in Grand Illusion. Everything about the Great War is dirty, rotten, meaningless. There are no heroes and cowards, as Baumer tries to make clear to his old high school teacher and new students while he’s home on leave. There are only living men and dead men. The only goal is to stay alive. Since the war is so absurd, it’s not even easy to want that.

If the Great War is not well-understood in the United States, and if President Obama’s speech about “Brave Little Belgium” seemed to characteristically fatuous and glib, it’s entirely due to the absurd nature of the Great War. Unlike the United States Civil War, which was about ending slavery, or the wars of the French Revolution, which were about bringing democracy, or the Second World War, which was destroying fascism, or the Spanish Civil War, which was about destroying fascism and bringing democracy, the Great War of 1914 was about absolutely nothing. The French, German, and British ruling classes were equally rotten, the Russian and American ruling classes probably worse. All Quiet On The Western Front would eventually be overshadowed by a flood of movies about World War II. The idea that war is hell and only hell never quite made sense when you were fighting Hitler. The template would finally come to fruition after the United States War in Vietnam. The real successors to All Quiet On The Western Front are films like the unjustly neglected Boys in Company C, not the hyper stylized Full Metal Jacket. But even the War in Vietnam had good guys, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, and bad guys, the United States. For sheer amoral, politically neutral absurdity, nothing ever quite matched The Great War.

All Quiet On The Western Front may drag, may not be an enjoyable film to watch, but unlike Barack Obama, it gets everything right.