The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

What language does God speak? An omnipotent God speaks them all, from the tiniest Native American dialect all the way up to English, Spanish, and Mandarin. Yet for nationalists of all stripes, God usually has a soft spot in his heart for their own. The Protestant Reformation, a Northern European rebellion against the Vatican, gave us Luther’s translation of the Bible into German. Every member of Cromwell’s New Model Army had his copy of The Soldier’s Pocket Bible,” the Little Red Book of the English Puritans.

In Robert Bresson’s film “The Trial of Joan of Arc,” Joan, played by the young Florence Delay — who would later go on to publish more than 30 novels — tells us he speaks French. “I trust God,” she says. “The voice is soft, and speaks the language of France.” It’s a defiant statement. The French Quislings and English occupiers who have her on trial are high-ranking Catholic priests and bishops who would assume he speaks Latin. If he speaks French, that means any simple peasant girl can speak directly to God without their mediation. Joan is not only a French nationalist. She’s an early Protestant.

Robert Bresson, who spent time in a German prisoner of war camp, probably shares Joan’s belief that while she doesn’t know if God hates the English or not, she does believe that if they refuse to leave France they need to die. Just replace “the English” with “the Germans.” But Joan’s statement is also about the language of cinema. The Trial of Joan of Arc is a response to The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a Dane whose great silent film “occupied” the story of a heroine of French nationalism. Dreyer’s film, usually thought of as one of the greatest films in cinematic history, is almost certainly the greatest silent film. Bresson, who was nothing if not an intellectual, understands that the transition from silent film to sound involves more than adding spoken dialog. It means rewriting the language of cinema altogether, putting the aural on the same level as the visual.

As the American film critic Dennis Grunes argues in his review of Lancelot du Lac, “one always hears a Bresson film as much as sees it.”

Florence Delay’s voice isn’t strikingly beautiful or melodic, and her Joan, as Pauline Kael points out, is more graduate student than romantic poet. But the villain of The Trial of Joan of Arc is clear, the English language. Bresson’s French Quislings are a mixed lot. But the English are manipulating the trial from behind the scenes. Their English is curt, ugly, alienating. They speak hisses and whispers, part men, part snake. After they decide that Joan’s strength comes from her virginity, they send men to rape her. We’re never told explicitly whether or not they succeeded. Later in the movie she complains about how English soldiers tried to molest her, but that’s not what makes them irredeemably evil in our eyes.

It’s how they sound.

We know what the verdict will be from the very beginning. There’s no chance Joan will be acquitted, and she knows it. The film could just as easily be titled A Kangaroo Court for Joan of Arc. It’s only at the end of the film that we realize why she defended herself so long and hard against her interrogators. Just before she’s burned at the stake, the English make it clear they want everything burned, every last hair, every last article of clothing. They don’t want the French turning a lock of hair or a piece of cloth into a relic. The trial minutes, on the the other hand, were written down in vast detail.

Ironically, it was the kangaroo court that give Joan her place in history.

Lancelot du Lac (1974)

Lancelot du Lac, a late work by Robert Bresson, is the ugliest, most boring film ever made about the age of chivalry.

So why should you watch it?

I suppose that the main reason is because it’s by Robert Bresson. If Joe Kowalski from Bayonne New Jersey made Lancelot du Lac, we’d just assume it was a bad film, and turn it off after 20 minutes. But because it’s Bresson, you have to ask yourself the obvious question. What exactly is he trying to do? He knows how to make good movies. Why did he make a bad one?

Chivalry is ugly. It’s based on a hierarchical economy, serfdom, violence against women, religious totalitarianism. But you’d never know that by looking at most Hollywood movies. From the grand romanticism of Michael Mann’s El Cid, to the infantile white nationalism of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, big budget, Hollywood films often assume that the age of chivalry was, if not exactly a kinder gentler era, then at least an age with more wonder and enchantment. That ugly, reactionary, films like Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind have, as their underlying message, the assumption that the slave power of the antebellum South was the rightful heir of the idealized Middle Ages as imagined by Walter Scott, often goes unexamined.

Perhaps the most famous deconstruction of the “days of old when knights were bold” is Mark Twain’s novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Twain, who loathed Walter Scott, half blamed him for the United States Civil War. Connecticut Yankee ends, like so many other novels, with a climactic battle, but here it looks like the Siege of Petersburg and the Battle of Cold Harbor, murder, not war.

Monty Python’s film “Monty Python And The Holy Grail” attacks the idea of chivalry from another angle, laughs. Peasants who burn witches are dense idiots. Smarter peasants mock the idea that the Lady of the Lake could have made Arthur King. Flying bunnies sail through the air, and murder the best knights of Camelot. The French mock the English for looking for the Holy Grail. Sir Lancelot murders half the guests at a wedding party to rescue a “lady,” who turns out to be a gay man.

Monty Python And The Holy Grail is fun. It’s the kind of film you can watch over and over again. Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, which was filmed a year earlier and which seems to have had some influence on the comic British masterpiece, is not. Unlike the Pythons, Bresson doesn’t sugarcoat his attack on chivalry with comedy. Instead, he imagines King Arthur’s court at Camelot as the endgame of western civilization, as the final collapse of the imperialist world order into entropy and blood.

It’s aversion therapy for film goers addicted to chivalry and romance.

Lancelot himself is a non-descript looking 40ish man who looks more like a college professor than a great warrior. Guinevere has the pale, dreamy beauty of so many of Bresson’s actresses, but she’s controlling, then indecisive, then controlling. King Arthur is a bore. Sir Gawain is a good looking young hunk, but he dies in the most ignominious way imaginable, accidentally at the hands of his best friend. Mordred looks like a counter man at a pizza place. Most importantly, all of Lancelot du Lac’s actors are wooden, without affect, blank. George Romero once said that “every film Bresson ever made is a zombie film.” That fits Lancelot du Lac perfectly. This is a zombie film.

But it’s more. Zombie films are often entertaining. Bad actors alone don’t make Lancelot du Lac the aversion therapy it most assuredly is. For that, Bresson uses alienation and repetition.

Lancelot du Lac, like so many other films about the legend of King Arthur is full of anachronisms. Like the silly (and “silly” does not mean it’s a bad movie) John Borman film Excalibur, Lancelot du Lac’s ancient, 5th Century Celtic warriors wear ceremonial armor from the 16th and 17th centuries, polished, gleaming suits of metal. Yet here the difference ends. There’s no Wagnerian score in Lancelot du Lac, no grand apocalyptic battle, no magic, and certainly no young Helen Mirren. There’s a bunch of boring, non-descript men walking around like high school kids, coming up with plot after plot, none of which ever seem to get carried out. Even when it seems most inappropriate, they wear their armor. You wonder if they shower in it. There’s no drama or pageantry, just a chivalric metaphor for the alienation of people from their bodies, and one another.

Then there’s the repetition. And take my word for it. Lancelot du Lac is dull. One scene in particular stands out. Lancelot goes to a jousting tournament in disguise. We’re never told why. It’s certainly nothing like the way Errol Flynn wears a cloak in the classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, then reveals himself at the last moment before fighting his way out of the castle. Lancelot just goes to the tournament in disguise. He defeats one opponent. It’s more than dull. We don’t even see it. Bresson, like an incompetent photographer, films his actors from the neck down. We hear it. We see some legs. We see the bottom of a horse. Then it happens again, and again, and again. Finally, after unhorsing 20 opponents, Lancelot rides off into the woods, and collapses. Blood pours out of his shorts, some kind of groin injury.

Does he die? No. He gets better. Bresson isn’t finished with us yet. We need more aversion therapy and more repetition. There’s more plotting. Lancelot gets back with Guinevere, then disavows her, then saves her. Finally, he rides into a climatic battle against Mordred. Both sides have 4 or 5 knights. They all die. A horse rides in a circle. Camelot has fallen. We don’t care.

And that’s just the way Robert Bresson wants it.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Physical pain, or a loss of faith, which is the more terrifying possibility?

A torture victim faces both. For a Muslim at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, it’s not only about water boarding or the isolation cell. It’s about American soldiers desecrating the Koran or trying to make you look at porn.

The American torturers at Guantanamo Bay have no ecclesiastical authority over their victims. The heroine of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, usually considered one of the greatest films ever made, is in a much more desperate straight. Played by the 35 year old Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Joan is the pious 19-year-old who helped lead a French nationalist uprising against the English occupation. Abandoned by Charles VII, the man she helped crown king, she is now under the power of the pro-English bishop Pierre Cauchon.

Let’s put aside for the moment the idea that nationalism was an anachronism in the 15th Century, that the cult of  Joan of Arc was created by royalists in the aftermath of the French Revolution to give the French a sense of national identity that did not come from Napoleon or the Jacobins. There is no debate about whether or not Joan was a pious Catholic. Even a Quisling Bishop like Cauchon would have had a tremendous authority in the eyes of a young French peasant girl, the power not only to torture her, but to deny her mass or confession, to excommunicate her, to cast her out of the Catholic Church. To look at Falconetti’s expressive features as she undergoes interrogation, is shown the instruments of her torture, and, finally, taken to be burned at the stake, is to ask a question.

What is she more afraid of?  Burning at the stake? Or hell?  What lies at the end of all that pain? Eternal life? Or eternal damnation?

For Carl Theodor Dreyer, the answer is clear. Joan is a saint, not a heretic. The last 15 minutes of The Passion of Joan of Arc are both excruciating and inspiring. Joan is tied to the state and burned. But, before she loses consciousness, she looks up at the sky to see a flock of white birds, her soul ascending to heaven. As her body is consumed by the flames, the people riot. They are repressed by soldiers, who wield maces like the Chicago Police wielded billy clubs in 1968. Dreyer’s camera angles are dramatic and innovative. We see the event from above, then the scene is flipped, and we experience a sense of vertigo, a sense of chaos. The world is becoming undone. The apocalypse is here. The bishop and the ecclesiastical authorities, grotesque, leering old men, are revealed to have been agents of Satan. Had Joan been answering the call of God? Yes. A thousand times yes. Joan dies in anguish, unsure of whether or not she was in a state of grace. She was.

The flames protected her soul as it ascended to heaven, the final title card tells us. That night she would be with Christ in Paradise. Eli Eli lama sabachthani? God had not forsaken her.

God would forsake Renée Jeanne Falconetti. The French stage actress, who had suffered from mental illness for most of her life, finally surrendered to her demons, and committed suicide in 1946. She was 54. There are some biographers who argue that the desperate emotions she manged to express during the 88 minutes of the Passion of Joan of Arc came from abuse, that Dryer drove her so hard she came close to a nervous breakdown. But, after watching the film, I would disagree. Like Bergmann’s Persona, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film that stands or falls on the strength of one woman’s face. Falconetti expresses despair, but it doesn’t stop there. There’s a depth, a sanity in her eyes, a range of human experience that sets her apart from her inquisitors, who are mostly one note caricatures of grotesque vanity, of the love of power. She is fully human. They are representative of types. Renée Jeanne Falconetti lost the battle with mental illness. But in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, she wins the war against a cruel, unjust ecclesiastical authority, against lawyers, priests and bishops who serve their lust for power, not God.

The Devil Probably (1977)

We all know how this will end. Hurricane Sandy hit the richest parts of the Northeast, and the word “global warming” rarely, if ever, came up. Americans will continue to drive their SUVs, even if they have to walk knee deep in flood water through their driveways to get behind the wheel. If given the choice between a socialist economy that provides for us all even as it saves the planet or a small chance to get our kids into Harvard and onto Wall Street, most of us would pick the latter. We will go down fighting for the meritocracy, for upward mobility, for capitalism, even when it’s clear it will destroy us all. So what’s driving us? What compulsion is pushing us towards our extinction event?

The Devil Probably.

The Devil Probably, which might best be described as Larry Clark’s Kids meets Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth,  is set in Paris in the aftermath of the failed revolution of May 1968. Charles, Alberte, Edwige, and Michel are four young men and women in their early 20s, recent university students who form a small intellectual community. Charles, who we learn at the very beginning, was found shot dead in the Père Lachaise Cemetery — one newspaper says he committed suicide, the other that he was murdered —- is the dominant member of the clique, the son of a wealthy real estate developer, and, we are told, the most brilliant student. Albert and Edgwige are two young women competing for his attention. Michel, his friend, who’s less beautiful and more traditionally masculine, is an environmental activist and published writer. It’s through Michel’s work that Bresson introduces us to the idea of sin as environmental destruction.

While the Devil Probably was released in 1977, the series of images that Bresson films, clear cutting, baby seals being clubbed, toxic sludge being poured into the ocean, nuclear testing, are startlingly familiar. Add a polar bear stranded on broken piece of the Arctic ice cap and they could have been released yesterday. Have we really let this go on for upwards of 35 years without doing anything to stop it?

Charles, in addition to being the clique’s leader, is also the one most filled with despair.

While Michel says that even if the world is going to hell he’d still want to live, Charles wants no part of society at all. To act politically, to do anything to help, to do anything at all, is to become part of a society he despises. We begin to see the reason for the film’s opening images. Charles will commit suicide. In a clever bit of societal juxtaposition, Bresson gives Charles two enablers, a psychotherapist and a heroin addict. Both are essential for the film’s resolution. After Alberte, Edgwige, and Michel realize that he is suicidal, they direct him to Dr. Mime, who quickly reveals himself to be a fool more interested in money, and an incompetent. Charles confesses that he is, indeed, suicidal, but that he’s being held back by the idea that he’ll hesitate at the last moment. That’s why ancient Romans had a loyal servant do it for them, Dr. Mime tells him, putting the final piece of the puzzle in place. That loyal servant is Valentin, a junkie Edgwige and Alberte have been putting up at their apartment. Valentin, like society as a whole, acts only under compulsion, in his case, an addiction to drugs. Charles offers to pay him in exchange for shooting him dead, a task he quickly accepts and carries out with surprising efficiency. In the very last scene, they travel to Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where Valentin shoots Charles twice in the head, takes the promised money, places the gun in Charles’ hand, and runs off. The mystery, thus, has been solved. It’s both a suicide and a murder.

“Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending,
‘Twas best to take it to the grave.”

History has vindicated not only Bresson’s insight into the process by which capitalism destroys the environment. It’s vindicated Charles’ decision to kill himself. Little has changed for the better since 1977, and most things for the worst. By checking out at such an early age, Charles has stepped outside of a world run by the devil, his choice to destroy himself the perfect act of rebellion, his victory over the powers of darkness. The Devil Probably is, perhaps, the most open, unapologetic case for suicide since A.E. Houseman.

Blowup (1966)

Blowup, an English language film by Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, is too cool to have a plot. Its fashion photographer hero, if in fact he can be called the hero, is the type of artist who no longer exists, if he ever existed. It’s a dull movie about thoroughly unlikeable people and a mystery that’s dangled in front of us and never solved. So why do I actually want to watch it again?

I suppose because I’m a photographer and this is a photographer’s movie, not just a movie about a photographer. Thomas, David Hemmings, lives in a sparse, yet elegant loft near Maryon Park in London. He has a collection of Nikon F bodies and lenses that, while you could probably pick up the whole lot of them on Ebay these days for a few hundred dollars, might remind a few people of Jay Gatsby’s collection of dress shirts. He has a Hasselblad 500C. He has a 4 x 5 In other words, he has just about every piece of photo equipment that, in 1966, it was possible to own.

Thomas also has something better, something to photograph. In some ways I suppose Blowup is a little dated. It’s hard to listen to him yelling out “work it baby work it oh yeah” while photographing the model Veruschka without thinking of Austin Powers. We don’t really see any examples of his work, but, after watching two young models played by Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills sit through two days of him being an asshole just to get photographed, we assume he’s a master of his craft. He complains about money, yet drives around in a Rolls Royce. He gets invited to the best parties. He comes and goes when he wants.

Who wouldn’t want to be Thomas in Blowup?

The answer would be “Thomas.” Thomas has photographed so many beautiful women that he’s sick of seeing them. He dabbles in socially conscious photojournalism, spending the night in a flop house taking pictures of homeless men. He takes landscapes. While it may seem a bit odd these days that a glamorous fashion photographer would blow off Jane Birkin to take photos in Maryon Park, that’s precisely what Thomas does. It’s hard to exaggerate how beautiful the lighting is, how calm the setting. Maryon Park feels a bit like a mod Garden of Eden transplanted to Swinging London in the 1960s.

Then it gets more interesting. Thomas sees a pair of lovers, an older man and a young Vanessa Redgrave. He takes their photo. The man disappears. Redgrave follows him, outraged that he took her photo without her consent. It’s a situation almost every street photographer has found himself in at one time or another, but her vehemence — she bites his hand to try to get his camera — suggests there’s something more at work then her annoyance at becoming part of some tourist’s snapshot. What is it? Is the relationship Thomas witnessed adulterous? Is she afraid of being betrayed to her husband? Or is she just crazy? Later, when Thomas goes to his darkroom, we discover another reason. Thomas thinks he’s accidentally photographed a dead body.

Did Vanessa Redgrave commit murder? Thomas blows up the photo, thus the title. He goes back to the park and finds a body. He does nothing. Is it to protect Vanessa Redgrave? She had dropped by his apartment earlier in another attempt to get the film and they, possibly, had a sexual encounter of some sort. Or is Thomas just so jaded that, once he discovers the body, he no longer cares? He goes to a party. Everybody looks dead, beautiful, but dead. He goes back to the park, but the body is gone, and we begin to understand what the film is all about. Thomas is living in one of his photographs, in a beautiful, empty dream world full of mannequins and perfect light. It may look like heaven, but it’s essentially hell.

For us, the viewer, it doesn’t matter. Blowup may be boring as drama, but as a visual document of countercultural London it’s a superb film, so richly evocative of the 1960s that memories of my early childhood came flooding into my conscious mind, of Beatles album covers, TV shows, my parents’ old furniture, the new car they bought the year I was born, of a world I barely remember, but which seems more real than the world I’m living in now.

A Dry White Season (1989)

Anybody who’s seen Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel is familiar with the cinematic technique.

A black man is being tortured by two white policemen, but we see him only from behind. We hear his screams. The police taunt him in a bored, indifferent way. We know he’s been water boarded, and, perhaps, beaten, but there’s not very much we can see by looking at the back of his head. The door opens. It’s a black messenger. The two policemen scream at him never to come in without knocking. The horrified expression on the messenger’s face tells us this isn’t the kinder, gentler torture we saw in Zero Dark Thirty. This is hard core Gestapo stuff. Later in the film we see what went on before the camera pulled away. The movie flashes back to the torture we had witnessed earlier, only, this time, we see it from the messenger’s point of view, from the front. The torture victim has had most of his face caved in. His eyeball has fallen out. It’s hanging down onto his cheek. His hands are broken. His body has been contorted so violently that even if he’s released — and we know he won’t be — he’ll spend the rest of his life in a wheel chair. He’s a dead man, moments away from the end.

A Dry White Season by Euzhan Palcy, the first black woman to direct a film for a major Hollywood studio, and the only woman ever to have directed Marlon Brando, is such a vivid depiction of apartheid South Africa that I’m surprised it’s not better known. Rarely have I seen a film that so perfectly captures the viciousness of a police state. Then again, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Nelson Mandela’s funeral notwithstanding, we don’t talk much these days about the struggle against apartheid. The film itself, which is about the ways people avoid confronting reality, about the ways we manage to ignore the state violence that’s necessary for our wealth and privilege in a racist, colonial settler economy, is probably the best explanation about why it’s not better known.

The time is 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising. Donald Sutherland is Ben du Toit, a former rugby star with Suzette, a college age daughter, and Johan, a younger son. He teaches history at an exclusive, and, naturally, all white private school. Du Toit is a decent man with a good heart, but, like all white South Africans, he’s learned not to see what’s right in front of his nose. Du Toit’s world is placid, idyllic, sheltered. Soon, reality hits, and hits hard. Du Toit employs a gardener named Gordon Ngubene. Ngubene, in turn, has a son Johan’s age. The two boys are good friends. Ngubene doesn’t want his son getting involved in politics. But in the South Africa of the 1970s that’s easier said than done. Black men and boys don’t have the luxury of being apolitical. Jonathan, Ngubene’s son attends a segregated school. Du Toit is generous enough to pay his tuition, but the curriculum is Afrikaans, not English, an intentional policy that effectively isolates blacks from the larger world, and Jonathan wants none of it. He joins a protest. He’s caned. Gordon comes to du Toit for help, but du Toit doesn’t take him seriously. He doesn’t take the word of a black man seriously. He also knows, keep down inside, that once he sides with the black majority, his whole life will be turned upside down. Let it go, he advises. He doesn’t quite understand that Gordon can’t just let it go. Jonathan participates in the famous protest march that led to the Soweto massacre. The police pick him up. He’s sent to prison, where he dies under torture. Gordon comes back to Du Toit, who agrees to investigate.

The biggest strength of A Dry White Season is how well Euzhan Palcy communicates to us what a momentous event the Soweto protests were. The black majority is viciously repressed. But the white minority is terrified of the inevitable end of the apartheid regime. They close ranks. Du Toit’s white privilege has its limits. He’s warned, subtly at first, then not so subtly, that there’s a line he shouldn’t cross, that, once he does, he puts himself in danger. Du Toit knows this, but, to his credit, he presses on, helping Gordon find his son, and then, after Gordon himself is murdered, trying to get justice. He hires a famous anti-Apartheid lawyer named Ian McKenzie, Marlon Brando in a brilliant, almost forgotten performance. McKenzie, a flamboyant, William Kunstler style radical knows the “justice” system in South Africa is a sham. “Every time I win a case,” he warns Du Toit, “they just change the rules. Nevertheless, he decides to take the case, more for Du Toit’s education than out of any belief he’ll get justice for Gordon. What follows is the film’s best scene, one of the great courtroom scenes in all of cinema. Again and again, McKenzie demolishes the state’s witnesses. Again and again, the judge simply overrules him. Brando is just magnificent. Every once of his then considerable bulk expresses the absurdity of being a lawyer inside a corrupt legal system. His words and his manner have a revolutionary fire you never quite saw in Burn or in Viva Zapata, his 10 minutes on screen such a dominating presence you remember him long after he walks off stage.

But there will be no justice for Gordon. Nothing else in A Dry White Season quite matches Brando’s performance, but Donald Sutherland still manages to convey what it’s like for a man who’s taken the first step out of his gated, all white community, a first step that’s, in effect, a final step. There’s no going back. There’s no fence straddling. You can’t be a liberal in apartheid South Africa. You either stand for justice, and get crushed beneath the full weight of the police state, or you stand with the fascists. Du Toit stands for justice. His young son comes along. His wife and daughter side with the status quo. They just want things to go back to the way they were before the murder of Gordon’s son rudely intrudes on their sheltered existence. Suzette, Du Toit’s daughter, is a reprehensible human being who betrays her own father to the secret police, but, while we don’t understand the way she feels inside, we understand her motives. She wants the impossible, moral innocence in an unjust world. A Dry White Season demonstrates how, by her reluctance to get involved, she becomes one with the torturers, the murderers, and the police.

The Godfather I (1972) The Godfather II (1974) The Godfather III (1990)

Along the James River in Virginia, you can find dozens of colonial era plantation houses, a legacy of the British aristocracy transplanted to North America. Dutch patricians founded a very similar type of social order in New York. Newport, Rhode Island was built by Gilded Age money. An estate in the Hamptons recently sold for 145 million dollars. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has pointed out that the Walton family is worth more money than the bottom 42 percent of Americans combined.

For Margaret Thatcher, perhaps the most important politician of the second half of the 20th Century, this is exactly how it should be. “There is no such thing as society,” Thatcher said. “There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.” On the other end of the political spectrum, progressive historians like Vernon Louis Parrington and Howard Zinn have argued that the history of the United States can be defined as the struggle for democracy against conservatism. Both rooted for democracy against conservatism, for “society” against the “superior individual,” for the collective effort of slaves and proletarians against their masters.

The first two installments of the Godfather saga came out in 1972, and 1974. After the anti-Vietnam-War movement, the Civil Rights movement, black nationalism, and feminism, most Americans in the early 1970s probably thought that democracy had finally triumphed, that it was only a matter of time before the United States realized its egalitarian potential. But the ruling class had other plans. The coup in Chile, the Powell Memo, the beginning of lavishly funded right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the early 1970s was also the time when the American ruling class began to feel so uneasy about the upsurge of democracy in the 1960s that they decided to crush it for good.

They largely succeeded. Bushes, Clintons, Kochs, Waltons, the DeVos family, Mike Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Margaret Thatcher’s wildest dreams have come true. The United States is no longer governed by democratic, or even democratic republican institutions, but by a network of great families, corporations, and wealthy invidivduals. While Francis Ford Coppola’s motivations for putting Mario Puzo’s novel on film were, perhaps, aesthetic and moral, not historical or political, he has, nevertheless, created the great epic about the feudal reality that underlies the illusion of American democracy.

The Godfather is not just a gangster film or a film about Italian immigrants. For that go to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas or The Public Enemy by William A. Wellman. The Corleones are, of course, Italian immigrants and mobsters, but they’re a lot more. Like the Waltons, the DeVoses, the Clintons, or the Bushes, they are one of the great aristocratic families who manage the United States from behind the scenes. They are above the law. They can kill with little or no fear of jail. They are wealthy beyond the comprehension of ordinary Americans. But they are also under a constant threat from other great, aristocratic families. Coppola’s gangsters are feudal princes, but this is not Louis XIV’s Versailles. It’s the War of the Roses transplanted to New York, Sicily, Havana, Las Vegas, and Lake Tahoe.

There are two recurring social movements in The Godfather and The Godfather II, the aristocratic court, and the coup. While the film takes place mainly in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, there are no democratic institutions to be seen. There are no public schools. People don’t vote. The mob controls unions, but we never see union organizers. We never see a strike. There are no town meetings or veterans organizations. The world of The Godfather is the old feudal, European world transplanted to the United States, and capitalism, we learn, is better managed by a benevolent King than it is by elected representatives.

The Godfather opens at the wedding of Vito Corleone’s daughter Connie, or, to be more accurate, at Vito Corleone’s court. It’s a day that the Don, the Godfather, cannot refuse a request from a supplicant. The first supplicant is Amerigo Bonasera. He has come to the king because the democratic state has failed him. His daughter was beaten and raped by three men,who, subsequently, beat the rap in court. Don Corleone is impatient with Bonasera’s court etiquette, but agrees to have one of his soldiers take revenge.  Corleone, played by Marlon Brando, is not a Goodfellas style thug. Everything about him says “courtly, old world, aristocratic.”

The next movement is a coup. Social change in the Godfather doesn’t come about through elections or collective, social movements, but through violent, elite conspiracies. Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo, a narcotic trafficker needs political support, those politicians that the Don keeps in his pocket “like so many nickles and dimes.” Unlike Amerigo Bonasera, Sollozo knows proper court etiquette. But he’s no humble supplicant. Sollozo’s offer is also a threat. If Corleone turns him down, he will make an alliance with one of the other great aristocratic families. Corleone is a violent mobster, but, like any benevolent prince, he only uses violence to maintain a rough social order, the justice that the state can’t or won’t maintain itself. He has no stomach for narcotics. What’s more, far from keeping politicians in his pocket like so many nickles and dimes, Don Corleone knows that if he steps over a certain line, he will lose his political support. So he rejects Sollozo. Sollozo, in turn, attempts to mount a coup. He lines up his own political support, a corrupt police captain. He makes an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Corleone in the hope that he can make an alliance with his son, Sonny, or, if that fails, join up with the other crime families to push the Corleones out of their dominant position.

Enter Michael Corleone. While Vito Corleone represents New Deal Capitalism tempered by old world values, Michael Corleone represents neoliberalism. The assassination attempt on Vito Corleone almost succeeded because Vito assumed there was a set of conventions, a line you didn’t cross, a respect for the private world outside of business. Michael Corleone knows that things have changed, that “there is no society, only individuals and families.” If you can get away with it, it’s moral. There are no duties, and there is no court etiquette, only treachery and violence. The Godfather I ends with Michael Corleone staging his own coup, taking out the families who supported Sollozo and solidifying the position of his own family. It also ends with his increasing his power over the Corleone family itself. Loyal consigliere Tom Hagen is demoted. Disloyal family members aren’t banished or demoted. They’re killed. Similar to the way Richard Nixon undercut the State Department by increasing the power of the National Security Adviser, Michael Corleone has ripped apart the traditional social conventions of the Corleone family and made himself dictator.

The Godfather II further expands on the differences between Vito Corleone and Don Corleone. Vito Corleone, like many oligarchs, comes from a humble background, a family in Sicily that had been almost entirely annihilated by a tyrannical crime lord. Coppola’s depictions of Sicily at the turn of the 20th Century are remarkable. The island is almost entirely militarized. Men walk around with rifles and bandoliers. Houses have walls and guard towers. Business is carried out at the point of a gun. On the surface, nothing could be more different from the town of Corleone in Sicily than the New York of the 1920s. But appearances are deceiving. Underneath the swirling, teeming streets of Little Italy, the old order has already established itself. Don Fanucci, a local princeling, rules over the local population by terror and blackmail. Merchants who don’t pay him a percentage of their profits have their lives ruined. Vito Corleone is fired from his job at a grocery store to make way for one of Fanucci’s relatives. Finally Vito, who’s offended at the idea that Fanucci exploits other Italians, organizes yet another coup. He assassinates Don Fanucci and takes his place, replacing Fanucci’s coarse exploitation with a benevolent paternalism that reflects New Deal Capitalism. In one scene, for example, he acts more like a democratic ward boss than a vicious killer, helping a woman save her apartment when a greedy landlord tries to have her thrown out into the street. We begin to see the origins of the benevolent monarch who we met at the beginning of the first film.

At the same time, in a parallel narrative, we see the career of Vito’s son Michael. If Vito Corleone represented the capitalism of the New Deal then Michael Corleone, while not quite practicing the Ayn Rand style of “fuck the poor capitalism,” is a lot closer. He joins a cabal of American oligarchs to set up under a business friendly, and, thus, libertarian government in Cuba. He dodges the Kefauver Committee. We also learn that the Kefauver Committee is just a front for a rival mobster. That’s how deep the corruption goes. He continues to subjugate his own family, attempting to control his grown, and widowed sister Connie’s choice of romantic partners, building a new compound at Lake Tahoe, and, finally, having his brother —who turns out to be a traitor — murdered. Michael Corleone has no interest in maintaining a benevolent, if top down and aristocratic social order like his father’s. He cares for only one thing, his dynasty, his image of himself in his children, in the absolute and eternal rule of the Corleone family. He fails, of course. He’s overthrown, not from the outside or by a revolution from below, but, like any oligarch, from within his own court. His wife Kay, morally outraged over her husband’s murderous career, aborts their unborn child — destroys the oligarch’s DNA — and walks out. The final scene of The Godfather II show Michael Corleone, triumphant over his enemies, but defeated, knowing he has failed to establish a lasting dynasty, that, like Richard III, he and his family, the Yorks, will be overthrown by the first available family of Tudors.

The Godfather III is, by a very wide critical consensus, not in the same league as The Godfather I or the Godfather II. But the reasons are quite revealing. The Godfather II ended in 1955. 25 years later, at the dawn of the Reagan era, neoliberalism is triumphant. Michael Corleone is wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. His daughter, like so many children of oligarchs, is appointed to run a “non-profit,” the Michael Corleone foundation. The Corleones are now so powerful, that, in addition to the humble immigrants and small businessmen of the fist two movies, their supplicants now include archbishops and real estate magnets. But, while history seems to have born out Coppola’s speculations about the assassination of Pope John Paul I, The Godfather III as a whole is just silly. While Coppola dramatized the birth of the neoliberal, oligarchic world order in the first two films, he doesn’t have the tools or the imagination to depict the ongoing neoliberal world order. Instead of finely wrought family drama, we have over the top, cartoonish violence, run away conspiracy theories, dialog that explains instead of dramatizes, and juxtapositions too obvious to convince.

The Godfather III is a mess, but, to its credit, at least it tries. Filmmakers, from Brian DePalma in Scarface to Scorsese in Goodfelllas, to Vince Gilligan in Breaking Bad, have been far more limited in their ambitions. There are good movies dramatizing street level criminals, bad movies dramatizing criminals as oligarchs, and TV shows like Breaking Bad that are combinations of both. What is Game of Thrones but the Godfather with the perversity and violence ratcheted up? But nobody has quite managed to make a film that, like The Godfather II, combines effective drama with the sweep of history and a subtle understand of American politics. Perhaps the very neoliberalism that triumphed in the 1970s has made that impossible.

Rocky (1976) Rocky II (1979)

I think most people have seen Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. At the very least, we’re all familiar with his iconic Philadelphia boxer, but most of us have never bothered to ask the question of why such a technically mediocre and at times crushingly dull film made $200 million dollars and went on to win Best Picture. We forget the social and political context of the 1970s, the busing riots in South Boston, the uprisings in Newark and Detroit, and the backlash in the form of Italian and Irish American vigilante groups, George Wallace’s attempts to win over the white working class in the Northeast and in the Midwest.

By 1976, most Southern and Eastern European immigrants had long been assimilated into the American mainstream. The New Deal, the Second World War, the GI Bill, and the growth of working-class suburbs in the 1950s and the 1960s had uprooted traditionally urban, immigrant neighborhoods and scattered them into a true melting pot. Television had broken down regional and ethnic identities and created a national, mass, corporate culture. The counterculture of the 1960s, and its ensuring popularization through rock music had loosened traditional morality. The Civil Rights movement had began to desegregate formerly all white neighborhoods in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

At the same time, the ruling class was ready to give up on New Deal liberalism. The Nixon administration had participated in the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. Lewis Powell had written his famous memo on how to launch a counterattack against organized labor. Right wing academics like Samuel Huntington were talking about the “crisis” (crisis meaning too much) of democracy. The war on drugs and the massive construction of prisons were beginning to take shape. It must have been a worrisome time for the American ruling class. What if blacks and the white working class managed to get together and fight for their common interests before most of the new, repressive institutions could be put in place? The Vietnam War had shaken faith in the military. Patriotism wouldn’t become genuinely fashionable again until 9/11.

One stopgap measure was the Bicentennial Celebration. A nationwide festival designed to prop up support for American nationalism after Watergate, it forms the backdrop for the first Rocky movie. Who represents the “spirit of America,” the slick, establishment African American Apollo Creed? Or the coarse white ethnic Rocky Balboa?

Muhammad Ali was not only the greatest fighter of his generation. He was a draft resister and black nationalist. White conservatives couldn’t beat him in the boxing ring. They couldn’t make him back down politically. But they could beat him in a Hollywood movie. Apollo Creed, who is very clearly modeled on Ali, has a similar style as a fighter. He’s quick, graceful, arrogant. He’s a fast talker and a quick thinker. But the resemblance between the two men stops there. Creed is not a rebel. He’s a capitalist. While you can see him palling around with Donald Trump, you’d have a hard time imagining him resisting the draft or saying anything like “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Creed is also, if not a patriot, then at least willing to use the imagery of American patriotism to sell his act, half minstrel show, half Fourth of July celebration. Apollo Creed is not only a fighter. He’s a media entrepreneur. His latest fight, which is going to take place in Philadelphia, is part of the Bicentennial Celebration. When Macklee Green, a ranked contender, shatters a bone in his hand, Creed also becomes the boxing world’s Simon Cowell, the producer of one of the first reality shows.

Apollo Creed chooses Rocky Balboa not because he thinks he’ll be a worthy opponent in the ring, but because he likes his nickname, The Italian Stallion. Cocky black man vs. Italian, what better way to celebrate the Bicentennial? What’s more, by giving a local, unskilled fighter a shot at the title, he not only gets an easy fight, he gets to further burnish his credentials as an entrepreneur and media impresario. Rocky Balboa’s nickname might be “The Italian Stallion” but there’s really nothing very Italian about him. We don’t know who his parents are. He’s not interested in Italian cinema or literature. He doesn’t even have a photo of Frank Sinatra. He has two father figures, a loan shark who seems no more Italian than he is, and a boxing manager, who we later learn is Jewish. There’s a long, boring romance that takes that takes over a half hour out of the middle of the film, but he and Adrian don’t go to an Italian restaurant. They don’t shop at an Italian grocery store. They don’t even visit family. After Adrian’s brother Pauli throws them out of the house, they go to an ice skating ring. Unlike the mobsters in Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Rocky doesn’t care about food. The only thing we see him eat is a cup full of raw eggs, a dish even a WASP could cook without screwing up.

In other words, Rocky and Adrian aren’t Italians, or even Italian Americans. They’re working class. Adrian is 29 and she’s still a virgin. She doesn’t know how to dress. She’s under her brother’s thumb. She works at a low wage job in a pet store. Her life has been about deprivation, repression, and a lack of opportunity. Rocky is 30. It’s 1976. That would have made him 20 in 1966. He’s spent his young manhood at the very height of the counter culture. But don’t look for any Beatles records in his apartment, any Bob Dylan posters. Don’t expect him to offer Adrian half a joint. In fact, Stallone’s script does the full Stalinist number on the history of the United States between the Kennedy assassination and the Bicentennial. He simply takes it out of the picture. It never existed. Rocky’s opponent is a thinly fictionalized version of probably the era’s most famous draft resister. Yet Apollo Creed enters the ring waiving an American flag to the sound of the Marine Corps hymn.

The neat Orwellian trick the American ruling class did in the 1970s was to create a class of “white ethnics.” Italian Americans like Rocky and Adrian weren’t “ethnic” because they had any more connection to Europe than the typical elite WASP, but because they had less. I don’t become more of a Polish American when I write about a Krzysztof Kieślowski film. I become less of one. When black men like Apollo Creed and Muhammad Ali pushed to join the American mainstream, demanded they have the same access to the same schools and housing as the Irish and Italians, that created a problem for the ruling class. What if blacks, Irish, and Italian Americans got together? What if the working classes became, not a segmented stew of races and ethnicities, but a single, class conscious proletariat? What if Italian Americans like Rocky Balboa realized that they were, in fact, the excess population driven out of Europe to serve as the cheap labor for Gilded Age American capitalism? What if they began to understand that they had been deprived of their culture, ripped out of the centuries old agricultural communities in Southern and Eastern Europe, and flushed down into the hell of the Anthracite coal mines in Northeastern Pennsylvania and the slaughter houses in Chicago?

For people living culturally and economically deprived lives like Rocky and Adrian, there’s no working-class reality left, only the “the American Dream.” They call it the American Dream, George Carlin tells us, because you have to be alseep to believe it. Rocky understands that he’s not in the same league as Apollo Creed. But nobody else does. They don’t care. Rocky Balboa vs. Apollo Creed is a reality show. Rocky’s fellow “Italians” in South Philly no more care that Rocky has no talent than people who watched Jersey Shore cared if Snooki and the Situation had any talent. Apollo Creed knows the difference between the minstrel show and the sport of boxing. This is just a game for him. Boxing has become too easy for him. He doesn’t take it seriously anymore. He’s like Alexander the Great lamenting he has no more worlds to conquer or like Michael Jordan after the 6th championship. What’s left? Creed’s rage at the beginning of Rocky II comes from the way his own joke backfired. After Rocky takes the fight seriously, trains hard, and goes the distance, Creed is exposed as a fraud. He’s no longer the great athlete who showed up at a reality show to clown around. He’s just another clown in the reality show. He needs to get Rocky back in the ring and demonstrate that the first fight was just a fluke.

But, while Creed may feel humiliated, the joke’s really on Rocky and Adrian, and, more importantly, on the white working class they represent. Rocky, unlike Apollo Creed, is not an educated man. He can barely read. His extended effort to make a living outside of boxing, outside of the reality show, comes to nothing. He has no skills. What’s more more important, in the 1970s, the white working class was under attack. There would be no high paying unionized job for Rocky to go back to once he’s retired from the ring. For Rocky and Adrian, that means he either has to make it in “show business,” in the Apollo Creed reality show, or they both lose their house and sink into dire poverty. Rocky makes it, but at what cost? The very last scene of Rocky II shows Rocky and Apollo Creed trading blows, the “white ethnic” and the African American, pummeling each other into semi-consciousness. Rocky, the white ethnic, wins, but barely. A real victory would have meant a victory for both of them. They would have walked away from the rigged game altogether. Stallone, the right wing populist, doesn’t give us that option. But it was there from the beginning. It’s what films like Rocky, and cultural extravaganzas like the Bicentennial Celebration, were designed to suppress. Sadly, they achieved their goal.

We live in an America where you’re either a big star, or you’re nothing at all.

United 93 (2006)

Putting aside racist, neoconservative propaganda about “radical Islam,” most of us have tried to understand what happened on 9/11 in one of two ways. There’s fiction, any one of 100 conspiracy theories that get most of the facts wrong, but get the overall narrative right. The system is rigged. There’s non-fiction, the 9/11 Commission Report, a serious investigation that drowns the truth in an avalanche of detail.

United 93 falls squarely into the second category. Director Paul Greengrass, who got his start in TV news, understands the difference between the raw, unsorted information that floods the airwaves during a crisis, and the kind of polished narrative that makes it into a big budget Hollywood film. He also knows how to conflate the two, to hide a polished, controlled narrative behind the appearance of the kind of raw, unsorted information that floods the airwaves during a crisis.

United 93, is, in fact, such an artful depiction of sense of chaos and helplessness we all felt on the day of September 11th, 2001 that it’s easy to forget we’re watching a movie made two years after the release of the 9/11 Commission Report. If you pay attention, however, you see how closely it hues to the, sometimes dubious, “official narrative.” While Norad may have been conducting an exercise on 9/11, they dropped everything and turned their attention to the real world as soon as they learned that Flight 11 was a possible hijack. They simply didn’t have the resources, time, or proper authorization to do anything. The FAA and the air traffic controllers in Boston, Newark and Cleveland are all conscientious, quick thinking men who responded to the unprecedented terrorist attack with the right instincts. The head of the FAA is a decisive man who risks his career to make the right decision, to stop all air traffic over North America, until further notices. Nobody at the gates at any of the major airports makes any mistakes. None of the terrorists look very suspicious.

This is, of course, all true. Norad couldn’t have done very much on 9/11. The head of the FAA did make a brave decision that saved lives. It’s highly unlike that either of the planes that hit both towers of the world Trade Center could have been shot down. It’s only in the second half of United 93, when Greengrass turns to United 93 itself, that fiction, or at least, speculation, comes into play. Nobody on Flight 93 survived. We have a few phones calls relaying some of the information. We know the plane crashed before it reached it’s target. We know the passengers staged a rebellion against their terrorist captors. That’s about it.

We don’t know how the individual terrorists acted. We don’t know if the flight attendants stole weapons out from under their noses. We don’t know much about the debate that took place before Todd Beamer led the attempt to take back control of the plane. Above all, we don’t know if the plane was shot down or not. United 93 takes the firm stance that it was not, that the terrorists crashed it near Shanksville Pennsylvania during a struggle with the passengers, who, by that point, were agonizingly close to seizing the wheel. It would, of course, be too painful to think about the possibility that they might, in fact, have had it under control before Cheney ordered it blown out of the sky. So Greengrass doesn’t.

United 93, is, in the end, a very well-done painting of our emotional state that day. But it tells us little we didn’t already know. We don’t even get to know very much about the passengers who saved the Capitol Building from meeting the same fate as World Trade Center 1 and World Trade Center 2. In the end, Greengrass decides to play it safe. The whole film is a beautiful cop out masked by the false appearance of uncut reality.