The Dust Bowl (2012)

This will be a very short review of a very long documentary.

Pare Lorentz in his 1936 classic “The Plow That Broke The Plains” manages to say more in 25 minutes then Ken Burns says in the almost 4 hours of his 2012 documentary “The Dust Bowl.”

How can this be?

It’s not that Ken Burns is a bad documentary film maker. On the contrary, he’s a very good one. But his method, long interviews with the survivors of the greatest man-made ecological disaster in American history, is inherently flawed. What made his classic documentary on the Civil War work so well is exactly what weighs The Dust Bowl down.

There are no living witnesses to the United States Civil War. There are living witnesses to the Dust Bowl. Therein, for Burns, was the temptation. When he had his actors read off the letters and diaries of Union and Confederate soldiers, Lincoln or Jefferson Davis, he realized that the people who wrote the originals were long dead. So he had to put the words into a larger historical, and theoretical context. But when he interviews witnesses to the Dust Bowl, all we get are people who don’t fully understand what they saw with their own eyes. Instead of environmental science, we get nostalgia. Instead of thoughtful reflection about settler colonialism –- and Burns doesn’t interview a single Native American –- we get a reaffirmation of American patriotism. How many times can you sit through another white octogenarian talking about what a great work ethnic his parents had?

Burns should have gone back to the 1880s and 1890s and examined people who set the conditions for the Dust Bowl, not its ultimate victims. The Dust Bowl is not without its value. If you’re a high-school teacher by all means show it to your students. But don’t watch it immediately after you see The Plow That Broke The Plains.

It’s like following Dante with Game of Thrones.

The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) The Wizard of Oz (1939) The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The Dust Bowl is a well-known, man-made environmental catastrophe.

In the 1930s a severe drought struck the Great Plains. Topsoil, which had become more vulnerable to wind erosion by the failure to apply dry land farming methods, was lifted into the air, and scattered for hundreds of miles. The “Black Sunday” dust storm that took place on April 14th, 1935, for example, displaced over 300,000 tons of dirt, and was seen as far off as New York City and Washington DC. Between 1930 and 1940, over 3 million people left the Great Plains, perhaps the biggest refugee crisis in American history. The Roosevelt Administration did address the problem. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted more than 200 million trees from Canada to Abilene, Texas to break the wind, hold water in the soil, and hold the soil itself in place. But the economic effects of the Dust Bowl persisted right through the 1950s.

In 1935, the United States Resettlement Administration, a New Deal era federal agency, commissioned a writer and film critic from Clarksburg, West Virginia to make a documentary about the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.  His name was Pare Lorentz. They gave him $6,000. They got their money’s worth. The Plow That Broke The Plains is one of the most extraordinary documentaries ever made. In only 25 minutes, narrative compression that’s rarely been equaled, Lorentz sums up the history of the agricultural holocaust that took place during the height of the Great Depression.

In the 1880s, as Lorentz demonstrates, cattle ranching gave way to wheat farming. The Homestead Act, and the illusion that “rain follows the plow,” transformed the Plains into an over-exploited resource headed for a disaster that was put off only by the uncharacteristically wet years of the early 1900s. World War I and the Russian Revolution increased the demand for wheat. The real estate interests who marketed farmland to returning soldiers made things worse. By the end of the 1920s, what had formerly been known as “The Great American Desert” was a pile of gunpowder waiting only for the match that came in the form of the extended drought.

Everything about The Plow That Broke the Plains comes together in a harmonious combination of images, music, and words. From the powerful score by Virgil Thomson, to the dramatic baritone of the narrator Thomas Hardie Chambers, to the parallel images of tanks on the Western Front in 1917 and tractors on the Great Plains, Lorentz hammers his message home. The Dust Bowl was man made. It could have been prevented. It was part of the destructive, runaway, capitalist exploitation that came to it’s shattering climax in 1914. It was the moral equivalent of war. The late film critic Dennis Grunes, who put it on his 100 Greatest Films in English list, also sees it as a metaphor for the Great Depression as a whole. “It is a piece of poetry,” he said, “finding in the topic of land erosion an implicit metaphor for America’s torn, beaten, eroded spirit.”

That’s quite a bit to accomplish in only 25 minutes. The Plow That Broke The Plains is on Youtube in full. I recommend watching it, now. Follow it up with John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath. If The Plow That Broke The Plains is the greatest American documentary — and it just might be — then surely The Grapes Of Wrath is the greatest leftist film ever to come out of Hollywood. That might seem odd. John Ford was either a conservative or a liberal nationalist, but he was certainly no Marxist. It makes more sense when you realize that, whatever his politics, Ford was above all a master craftsman, not a propagandist. When American nationalism briefly came together with the left during the New Deal, and he decided to make a film from the socialist point of view, he made a great one.

Give The Plow that Broke the Plains a second viewing after The Grapes of Wrath. Notice the contrast. Lorentz shows us the aftermath of the Dust Bowl in all its brutal reality. How can people live in such a place. Is it the surface of Mars? John Ford, on the other hand, is a natural poet. Anything he touches turns lyrical. In the first half hour of The Grapes Of Wrath, he’s nostalgic then gothic then apocalyptic all in turn, humanizing the landscape that Lorentz visualizes as man made hellscape. The Plow that Broke the Plains is reality. The Grapes of Wrath is reality re imagined as poetry.

Tom Joad, Henry Fonda, is hitchhiking back to his parents’ house after a 4 year sentence for manslaughter. He killed a man in a bar fight. The rich grey scales, the dreamy golden hour photography along the sparse, almost gentle highway picture Dust Bowl Oklahoma, not realistically, but as Joad’s subconscious longing for the security of his boyhood. Those longings are cruelly disappointed when he arrives “home,” and realizes it’s not home anymore, and, truth be told, has never been “home” at all. The Joads, and their neighbors, poor share croppers, have all been evicted to make way for industrial agriculture. The mood turns gothic. Muley Graves, a former neighbor and one of the few tenant farmers who would resist the order of eviction, is squatting in Joad’s childhood home. “I’m just a poor barnyard ghost,” he says as the wind blows up, the dust storms hover just over the horizon, and the almost idyllic scenes are revealed to be nothing more than images of a dead land, a once great agricultural region that has been depopulated and reduced to sterility.

The Joad family heads west, not as pioneers, but refugees. When Tom Joad’s grandfather dies — uprooting him kills him — Joad writes out a short, ungrammatical, but powerful note on a slip of paper, the old man’s only testimonial a brief explanation that he hadn’t been murdered but had died of a stroke. Sometimes the only thing standing between us and an anonymous burial in a mass grave are a few words. Tom’s simple, uneducated father knows in his bones what capitalism requires of proletarians who have lost their economic usefulness, that they die. His overwhelming drive to take on even the most demeaning job testifies to how well he understands what America demands of him in exchange for a few more years of life. Everything conspires to destroy the Joad family. A series of migrant labor camps progressively resemble concentration camps, a more subtle, but still insidious reflection of the Soviet Gulag or Nazi system of forced labor. Only by proving themselves “worthy” of exploitation do they prove themselves “worthy” to continue eating.

This is no melodramatic contrivance on my part. The Great Plains are, above all, a landscape of genocide. Indeed, the only fault I can find with Pare Lorentz and John Ford is that they fail to ground their narratives in the history of the extermination of the Plains Indians. Lorentz, to his credit, includes a brief mention of how the plains have been “cleared,” but makes no attempt to contrast the destructive agricultural techniques of white Americans with the sustainable hunter-gatherer societies of the Lakota and Apaches. Ford, to his credit, finds his great subject in the exploited “Okie” tenant farmers, but he, in turn, fails to point out how many were, in fact, at least part Native American. Indeed, a more historical Grapes of Wrath might have envisioned Tom Joad as Cherokee, not as the WASP Henry Fonda.

If The Grapes of Wrath is a socialist film, then it’s a socialist film imagined along the lines of John Ford’s own personal combination of Irish Catholic spirituality and Progressive Republican American patriotism. If Jim Casy, a “reformed preacher” played by John Carradine, is Ford’s Lenin, then the unnamed director of a Bureau of Agriculture migrant labor camp is his Franklin Roosevelt. Jim Casy, like Jesus, is the perfect mixture of homeless proletarian and aristocratic nonchalance. His blessing at the funeral of Grandpa Joad is beautiful in its halting simplicity. Casy, who claims to have lost his faith, finds it again briefly out of necessity. His explanation of why the Keene Ranch is using the Joad family as “scabs” just before he’s clubbed to his death shows us that his new faith, socialism, is Christianity by another name, yet more grounded in reality, in history. The government migrant camp is a practical utopia, its director, Grant Mitchell, a striking vision of benevolent and progressive authority. When the Joad children come upon the modest, yet clean, and well-maintained camp bathrooms, you can almost imagine what life would be like after the revolution, the ideal society made concrete in the most understated way possible.

The real life Joads would have a happy ending. The children of those impoverished Oakies who made it to California would get to listen to the Beach Boys on the drive to Big Sur, or to the then tuition free University of California. The whole American working class would also have a happy ending, enjoying the highest standard of living the world had ever seen in the coming decades. But it’s not quite accurate to say that “they endured.” A better way to phrase it might be “they got lucky.” The United States would belatedly enter World War II, and stick around to pick up the pieces after European civilization all but committed suicide. It would become the greatest empire the world had ever seen, and the American working class, at least until the 1970s, got to come along for the ride.

The Wizard of Oz,a far weaker re-imagining of the Dust Bowl than The Plow That Broke The Plain or The Grapes Of Wrath, therefore, just might be more true to life. Filmed a year before The Grapes of Wrath, the Wizard of Oz is also set in a dust bowl state, Kansas to Ford’s and Lorentz’s Oklahoma. It’s barely necessary to summarize the plot. Dorothy, Judy Garland, lives on a Kansas farm with her Aunty Em and little dog Toto. Like an American worker in the 1930s, she finds herself the victim of unjust authority. A local bigwig, Alvira Gulch, will use her clout to have her dog put to sleep, claiming that the little Scotch terrier bit her. The Sheriff issues the kill order. Dorothy runs away. A travelling fortune teller, the model for The Great Oz, talks her into going back home. Then her world breaks down. There’s a gigantic storm. She can’t get down into the shelter with the rest of her family. A tornado pulls her aunt’s house up out of the ground off the ground as if it were so much topsoil on Black Sunday. She gets a bump on the head, loses consciousness, and has a dream where her house gets lifted up and carried away to Oz, a magical land “over the rainbow.”

If John Ford’s utopia is a social democratic California, then for Victor Fleming — the director of The Wizard of Oz —the perfect society as an elaborate musical number in an Art Deco Manhattan, Busby Berkeley in Metropolis. Dorothy travels to Emerald City. New York? LA? She vanquishes the Wicked Witch of the West. She demonstrates that the Great Oz is a fraud. Glinda the Good Witch of the North, who she had met earlier, returns to tell her she’s been home all along and is free to go back to her happy family on the plains any time she wants. She does. It’s a miracle. Everything is back to normal. There was no Great Depression. Alvira Gulch no longer threatens Toto. The tornado didn’t destroy the family homestead. The Dust Bowl never happened. It’s all one big narrative cop out, but it’s true to life. The Plow That Broke the Plains is forgotten history. The labor struggles of the 1930s are long gone. But the Depression-era generation had their world turned upside down then landed on their feet in front of a TV set and a booming economy. The American working class got so lucky in the 1950s and 1960s that it almost seemed as if all they had to do was click their ruby slippers together and say “there’s no place like home.”

But if The Wizard of Oz fit the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, surely The Plow that Broke the Plains and the Grapes of Wrath are once again relevant. Global warming, the sub-prime crash, 9/11, the security/surveillance state, the return of massive, long-term unemployment, Dorothy and the Emerald City have had their day. Once again, we’re in the world of company goons, migrant labor camps, environmental catastrophe, Tom Joad, Jim Casy, a loss of national identity and a loss of faith. We probably won’t get lucky again. Will we, like Ma Joad’s “people,” endure? We will end up like Muley’s “old barnyard ghost,” a passive wraith blown whichever way the wind carries it? Or will we be like Tom Joad’s spectral every man, a collective spirit that, inspired by the Christlike sacrifice of his friend Casy, hovers over the downtrodden and dispossessed like a guardian angel?

The Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850)

If Dostoevsky would later mock Ivan Turgenev as a vain westernizer and sycophant, then part of it might have to do with a feeling of guilt over a literary debt.

Take The Diary of a Superfluous Man, a model for Notes From The Underground, which was published 14 years later in 1864. For me, a Twenty First Century American, Turgenev’s short novel feels contemporary, not in spite what his younger contemporary would have labeled its shortcomings, but almost because of them. Tchulkaturin, a relatively young man, only 31, is dying of unspecified natural causes. We never quite learn what’s killing him, but, since it’s the 19th Century, I suppose tuberculosis would do just as well as anything. Tchulkaturin is not only dying young. He’s dying without ever quite having lived. The “superfluous” man of the title, he’s a petty government official who has fallen out of the upper-middle-class. Decades before, his proper but emotionally withholding mother, and weak, dissolute father had been unable to hold onto the family fortune. All he has left is a modest little house and a few scraps of clothing. His only companion is his elderly, well over 80, nurse.

Tchulkaturin decides to use the time he has left to write a diary. In spite of his self-deprecatory tone, he’s clearly a gifted writer. He not only displays a flair for melodrama. “Death looked me in the face that day and took note of me,” he remarks in a brief description of his father’s funeral. His descriptions of his icy, soul-killing mother are powerful in their restrained malice.

“She was crushed beneath the weight of her own virtues, and was a source of misery to every one, from herself upwards. In all the fifty years of her life, she never once took rest, or sat with her hands in her lap; she was for ever fussing and bustling about like an ant, and to absolutely no good purpose, which cannot be said of the ant. The worm of restlessness fretted her night and day. Only once I saw her perfectly tranquil, and that was the day after her death, in her coffin. Looking at her, it positively seemed to me that her face wore an expression of subdued amazement; with the half-open lips, the sunken cheeks, and meekly-staring eyes, it seemed expressing, all over, the words, ‘How good to be at rest!'”

Tchulkaturin has a way with words, but what does he have to write about? There’s nothing about him that would distinguish from 1000 other men of his class. “My life has not been different in any respect from the lives of numbers of other people,” he says. “The parental home, the university, the government service in the lower grades, retirement, a little circle of friends, decent poverty, modest pleasures, unambitious pursuits, moderate desires–kindly tell me, is that new to any one?” He decides to talk about how he suffered a case of unrequited love back in his early 20s.

Kirilla Matveitch Ozhogin is the biggest landowner and most important citizen in the provincial town of O. He owns 400 serfs. He has the best house. His family is the center of attention for the local gentry. He also has a 17 year old daughter named Elizaveta Kirillovna. Tchulkaturin, in town on government business, of course, falls in love with her. We never really learn whether Elizaveta Kirillovna is worth falling in love with. Tchulkaturin has a way with words, but only when he talks about himself. His descriptions of other people are generic, superficial. Elizaveta Kirillovna, we can imagine, is pretty and sociable. That’s about it. It’s clear that Tchulkaturin has fallen in love with the distant memory of his mother in the body of a younger women. Feminists be at ease. Tchulkaturin isn’t “friend zoned.” He doesn’t even get there. Elizaveta Kirillovna doesn’t manipulate him. She barely even knows he exists. What’s more, she is an unrequited lover in her own right, becoming infatuated with a “Prince N,” a pleasant, charming aristocrat who casually pulls her into his orbit, then just as casually abandons her. Tchulkaturin fights a dual with Prince N, and wins, but the Prince, who only gets a minor cut on his head, is so skilled socially, and so fawned on by the local snobs, that he’s able to manipulate Tchulkaturin’s victory to his own advantage. Even after he dumps her, Elizaveta Kirillovna still loves him. Tchulkaturin’s victory in his dual with Prince N also turns Elizaveta Kirillovna’s feelings towards him from indifference to outright hatred. Just to spite him, she marries Bizmyonkov, another member of the petty gentry who’s been hanging about in the actual friend zone waiting for his chance. Sorry feminists, you can’t win it all. Kirilla Matveitch Ozhogin is glad to get a husband for his daughter, now clearly “damaged goods.” Tchulkaturin leaves town,and that’s pretty much that. There’s nothing about his mid 20s or his late 20s worth talking about. The only thing left for him is to die. He never even mentions what eventually became of Elizaveta Kirillovna. He really doesn’t care.

So what is Turgenev trying to do here?

On the surface, a story about unrequited love is the most cliched of all literary tropes. But Turgenev is no fool. Tchulkaturin tries to convince himself that his romantic failure the decade before was the most momentous incident in his life, but he’s too intelligent to believe it. The story about unrequited love — call it Werther without Ossian and without suicide — is so uninteresting that it becomes eloquent in its very banality. If this is the event an intelligent, clear-thinking man like Tchulkaturin has decided to focus on in the final weeks of his life, what does it say about the rest of his life?

Turgenev, I suspect, knows that romanticism has played itself out. The language of Byron, Pushkin, young Goethe, Walter Scott, none of it is adequate to express the reality of the nation under the reactionary Czar Nicholas I. Russia’s educated, enlightened “intelligentsia” has no purpose in life. They’re “superfluous.” The Russian Revolution, that titanic event where these same educated, alienated young Russians would shake the whole world, is far off in the future. Young men in Russia can perform a colorful role on stage, fight duels, fall in love, talk in high-flown, romantic language, “cut a dashing figure” like Prince N, but, in the end, the only reality is the one Tchulkaturin sees so clearly, their own uselessness, their own “superfluousness.” For Dostoevsky the purpose in life would be to “suffer.” For Lenin, it would be to overthrow capitalism. For Turgenev? The only honorable thing to strive for is a clear eyed consciousness of your own irrelevance. To will yourself into oblivion at the age of 31? It’s as good a fate as any.

The Rules Of The Game (1939) The Exterminating Angel (1962)

Even though Jean Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game is thought to be one of the two or three greatest films ever made, I was initially quite underwhelmed, even bored. I recognized that the camera work was masterful, the deep focus a model for Citizen Kane. But what kind of story was Renoir, this Prospero at 24 frames per second, trying to tell? Aristocrats and their servants behaving badly is one of the oldest clichés in film. From Upstairs Downstairs to Downtown Abby, you don’t even have to bother with subtitles. You can get the same story in English.

The Exterminating Angel by Luis Buñuel, on the other hand, had me hooked right from the start. The story is very similar, the breakdown of western civilization as represented by a group of upper-class house guests at a grand estate in an unnamed Spanish speaking city. But Buñuel tells the story in such a novel way, and lets loose so much leftist rage against his doomed bourgeoisie that my angry American populist side just wanted to lie back and have a cigarette. Seeing a group of rich assholes not only tortured, but tortured by themselves? What could be better than that?

I suppose the problem is that I’m too hateful and too immature for Jean Renoir’s transcendent humanism. I need blood, not understanding, guillotines, not a subtle, nuanced exploration of the different ways in which the working classes imitate the bad behavior of the aristocracy. Yes, Renoir is right. Workers, domestic servants, and slaves are often loyal to their masters. The Rules of the Game’s Lisette is a perfectly truthful representation of a maid who works as a personal servant to a great lady. She’ll abandon her surly, tyrannical gamekeeper of a husband to go off with “Madame” without thinking twice about it. But give me the opening of The Exterminating Angel instead. The cooks, waiters, and coat check boys sense that something evil is about to go down in the grand manor house of Señor Edmundo Nobile and his wife, Lucia. One by one they leave, even at the cost of getting fired. It’s better to lose your job then to hang out and watch the Red Masque of Death, to wait around for the “exterminating angel” to hover over the ornate dining room that will soon host the gathering of the damned.

Once Buñuel lets the innocent working class leave –- Except for the butler. “Every butler wants to be bourgeois” we’re told. –- he can put the cap back on the jar, now full of his aristocratic cockroaches, and, like a malicious schoolboy, watch them devour one another. What makes The Exterminating Angel even more satisfying is that he doesn’t even need to put a cap on the jar. Señor Edmundo Nobile and his guests are trapped, not by any outside, coercive power, but by their own intellectual and emotional paralysis. Try as they might, they can’t leave the dining room, and I mean literally. Every person who makes for the door after the dinner party is over suddenly gets tired and falls asleep. When they wake up the next morning, they still can’t get out. They get distracted by conversation. They quarrel. They forget. They want breakfast. They get lost in conversation. Even after their intelligentsia, a doctor and two of his friends, figure out nobody can leave the room, they’re still trapped. Why doesn’t someone just walk out? Nobody knows. Almost as if we were in a Twilight Zone or Star Trek episode, the door seems to have some kind of force field, that force field, of course, being their own ruling class mindset. Franco won, Buñuel is telling us. The ruling class, the “job creators,” got what they wanted. Democracy is gone. There is no society, as Margaret Thatcher would say two decades later, only individuals and families. But far from being a blessing, it’s a curse. Every aristocrat is trapped inside a tiny world of his own making, with nothing left to do but to worship his own household gods, which, as it turns out, are also his “exterminating angels.”

France, on the other hand, in spite of Marshall Petain and Vichy, would never quite go fascist the way Spain did. Renoir, filming in 1939, like Buñuel’s cooks, waiters and coat check boys, knows something bad is on the horizon. He knows France is morally weak, that the French people lack the will to maintain their republic, and he stages the country’s breakdown in miniature, but he doesn’t quite have the sadistic glee of the loser with no hope the way Buñuel does.

The Rules of the Game opens with a quote from Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro — “If Cupid was not meant to flitter, why was he given wings?” We then find ourselves at Le Bourget Airfield just outside Paris, the very same airfield Lindbergh landed at in 1927, to witness André Jurieux, a wannabe French Lindbergh, complete a solo flight across the Atlantic. True, it’s 12 years after Lindbergh, but since André Jurieux makes it in 22 hours to Lindbergh’s 32, I suppose it means something. The press is there. There’s a crowd of people. A government minister sends his press secretary. But the one person Jurieux cares about, the aristocratic Christine de la Chesnaye, is not. Jurieux has an emotional breakdown on the radio.

“I did it for you Christine,” he says. “now it means nothing.”

Looking back at The Rules of the Game with the hindsight of knowing that France would surrender just a year later, we can’t help but note that Jurieux, a young man, an aviator, just the kind of “hero” who should have been preparing for war against the Germans is a weak willed ninny pining over a woman. To be honest — and maybe I’m just a misogynist — part of the reason The Rules of the Game doesn’t engage me is that I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about Christine de la Chesnaye, Nora Gregor. She looks OK for a 40-year-old woman, but from my crudely American point of view she’s just a snobbish rich bitch who can’t make up her mind, and, as a result, winds up destroying all three men who love her. Why don’t these frogs, these cheese eating surrender Monkeys, these civilized Frenchman tell her to go to hell, and walk away?Jurieux is bad enough, but there’s Robert de la Chesnaye, Marcel Dialo, Rosenthal from The Grand Illusion, who, it’s true, cheats on her, but in the end can’t quite leave. There’s also Octave, Jean Renoir himself, a sly, rotund intellectual who loves Christine as much as Jurieux does, even though he’s better at hiding it. And if that weren’t enough, there’s Lisette, who, quite understandably, cheats on her swaggering bully of a husband with Octave, with Marceau, a poacher “given the opportunity to improve himself by being a servant,” and with just about any other man who catches her fantasy, but who, in the end is every bit as devoted to the great lady as André Jurieux, the “cupid with wings” who, at the end, gets shot down by brutish masculine jealousy.

If aristocrats often worship the household gods they see in the mirror, then in The Rules of the Game, the only household god around is Christine de la Chesnaye

But I suppose that’s not totally accurate. Christine de la Chesnaye, the daughter of a famous Viennese classical music conductor, represents the “western civilization” that the French, being the most civilized people in Europe, all worship. But Robert de la Chesnaye, who’s a bit less devoted to Christine than Octave or André Jurieux, worships another household god, technology. Robert has a seemingly endless collection of toys, clocks, wind up dolls, a gigantic Wurlitzer that breaks down at the film’s climax, that he seems more devoted to than either his wife Christie or his mistress Geneviève de Marras. This, of course,  is not the kind of technology that will beat Hitler. Robert is a liberal, broad minded, civilized man, that very American stereotype of the Frenchman who doesn’t care if his wife cheats on him or if the servants have some fun on the job. But he’s also a weakling who can’t keep control of his own estate, or provide for the safety of his guests, including, of course, André Jurieux, who’s accidentally murdered by the maid Lisette’s jealous husband Schumacher. What good is a liberal aristocrat if there’s no democracy? What happens when the French elite grows soft and decadent, even while they remain the elite? Well, we all know what happens. A crude, brutish conqueror comes to take their place. Fascism replaces degenerate liberalism. Robert and Christine’s country estate, La Colinière, gives way to Vichy.

Did Renoir know what was coming? Probably not. He no more had a crystal ball then Kafka. But if Kafka caught the essence of the concentration camps in the aesthetics of his novel The Metamorphosis, then Renoir probably had some inkling that France was no longer the France of  1793 or 1914, that it wouldn’t fight in 1940 simply because it didn’t think it had anything to fight for. The problem is that when I watched The Rules of the Game I didn’t think I had anything to root for. So it bored me. Who cares if André Jurieux gets shot? He’s a baby who probably deserved it. It was only when Luis Buñuel released my inner proletarian hater and let me watch these same people tortured, put into a jar like bugs and roasted alive in the sun, that I was glued to the screen. Give me an angry, defeated Spanish anarchist over a civilized, liberal Frenchman any day. The Rules of the Game might be a better movie than The Exterminating Angel, but The Exterminating Angel is 100 times more enjoyable.

Los Olvidados (1950)


In Los Olvidados, a film about a doomed boy living in a Mexico City slum, Luis Buñuel goes where Charles Dickens won’t. Buñuel, a Spanish exile from Franco Spain who lived in Mexico through the 1940s and 1950s, dispenses with middle-class Victorian sentiment. Like Dickens, he shows us the abyss that lies at the heart of a great capitalist city. Unlike Dickens, who always pulls back at the last possible moment, he sends us right over the edge into the gaping maw of despair and poverty.

13 year old Pedro lives with his young mother — he has no father — and an indeterminate number of siblings. He, his neighbor Meche, El Jaibo, Julian, and a boy named “Ojitos” or “little eyes” are not proletarians. Rather, all of these lost children are part of capitalism’s “reserve army,” the unemployed and marginalized raw material who wait for their lucky chance to be exploited, and who are discarded like trash when they’re not.

El Jaibo, the film’s villain, who’s about 17 or 18, has no illusions about his place in Mexican society. He doesn’t want a job. He sleeps where he can, gets by on what he can hustle. He did a stint in juvenile detention, but escaped at the first opportunity, and seems gifted at dodging the police. He’s a natural leader, the dominant member of the local gang that includes Pedro. But El Jaibo is no revolutionary. In fact, he’s probably worse than a simple predator, who would just take what he needs to survive. El Jaibo is a cancer, the rotten, malicious heart of capitalism embodied in one late adolescent boy. First he kills Julian, the boy he believes to have ratted him out to the police — it’s never really clear if he did or not — then he sets his sights on Pedro.

We don’t really need to figure out why El Jaibo wants to destroy Pedro. It’s just in his nature. But if there’s a reason, or an excuse, it might have something to do with how he’s never had parents. He has a vague memory of a mother he lost when he was just a baby, but, even since then, he’s been a feral animal of the Mexico City underworld. If it takes a village to raise a child. It takes a great city to raise El Jaibo. Pedro, a naive and an innocent, Oliver Twist without protectors, and without the inherited money that will save the day in the end, is vulnerable because his mother hates him.

Pedro’s mother, who works scrubbing floors, sees her children not as a blessing, but as burdens, her love contingent on behavior. Pedro, who hangs out with El Jaibo and the local gang, and spends nights sleeping in the streets, does not win her approval. There’s a heartbreaking scene in the beginning of the film where, even after he begs, she still denies her son food. He finally steals a piece of bread and runs off. But it would be hard to call Pedro’s mother a villain. She’s just another beaten down lumpenprole, so caught up in the Mexican class system she can’t envision a a way out, or even figure out where she is.

Pedro, like most little boys, is determined to win his mother’s approval. He gets a job at a blacksmith’s shop, and seems to thrive until El Jaibo shows up an steals an expensive knife. His mother never doubts his guilt, and she signs away her son’s freedom in the blink of an eye. The family court judge is, in fact, a little shocked at her callousness. Take him away, she says. I think we should prosecute the parents, he responds. The reform school, or “farm school” Pedro is sent to is an enlightened institution with a kindhearted director who wants to teach Pedro how to read and set him up in a trade. To show the unhappy little boy that he trusts him, he gives him 50 pesos and tells him to run an errand. But El Jaibo, like Pedro’s malevolent double, is waiting outside. He steals the 50 pesos, and runs off. Pedro goes back to his mother.

Buñuel, unlike Dickens is a cruel artistic god. There is no salvation. He puts Pedro in a glass jar like a bug, and shows us his inevitable fate. Pedro denounces El Jaibo to the neighborhood. El Jaibo kills Pedro. Meche, a girl of 14 or 15, who, unlike Pedro’s mother, seems kindly and sympathetic, finds the body. She knows El Jaibo did it, and wants to turn him over to the police. But her grandfather is afraid they’ll both get accused of being accomplices. “Let’s dump him somewhere,” he says. To our disgust, but not surprise, they put Pedro’s body in a cart, cover him up with a blanket, cart him right past his mother, who’s had a change of heart and is frantically looking for the little boy she abandoned, take him out to the city dump, and throw him on a pile of trash. Neither displays much emotion. El Jaibo, in turn, finally gets just what he deserves The police who, thanks to Pedro’s denunciation, now know he killed Julian, chase him down, and, when he refuses to surrender, shoot him dead.

Los Olvidados is truly a vision of hell.

Patton (1970)

It’s not hard to imagine what the opening of Patton must have looked like in 1970.

The war in Vietnam War is lost. The army is falling apart. Officers get “fragged.” Racial tension is at an all time high. Military discipline is at an all time low. Drug use is rampant. You’re sitting in your seat at the movie theater. It’s General Buck Turgidson from Dr. Strangelove. Behind him is an enormous American flag. The speech is an unabashed ode to militarism and American exceptionalism. Surely, you think, this is satire, the kind of thing that, if you jumped into your time machine, you might see on the Steven Colbert show. But no. The three hour movie that follows treats the fascist creep George S. Patton like a hero, a problematic hero to be sure, but a hero nonetheless. This isn’t a B-movie like the hilariously inept Green Berets by John Wayne. It’s a big budget, mainstream, well-acted film based on a script by Francis Ford Coppola. What the hell is going on?

A lot of people in 1970 saw Patton as a slap in the face to the anti-war movement, as the voice of the silent majority. Richard Nixon is reported to have had frequent screenings in the White House, often to psych himself up before another bombing. Others saw George C. Scott’s portrayal of Patton is deep, complex satire, as a portrait of a man so out of touch with modernity that it drove him crazy. Robert Duvall would reprise Scott’s performance 8 years later in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” he would say to the cheers of conservatives and to the horrified appreciation of liberals. Both movies are complex, and often contradictory mixtures of liberalism and militarism. If Apocalypse Now has Colonel Kilgore and the even more unbalanced Colonel Kurtz, it also has Captain Willard, a complex man struggling to remain sane in the Vietnamese madhouse. Patton, in turn, has Karl Malden’s Omar Bradley, the “soldier’s general,” a humble man who seems to embody the values of the New Deal. The United States high command sends Willard to kill Kurtz when he went too far. In Patton, the solution is a bit less extreme. He’s rigidly monitored, kept on a short leash by the adults in Washington and London, by Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and Harold Alexander. He was a capable tank commander, the film seems to say, one who never had any political influence.

Patton is neither pro nor anti-war, liberal nor conservative. It’s neither patriotic nor a send up of American exceptionalism. It is, rather, a portrait of the military man as a neoliberal corporate executive, as a “job creator,’ as a maverick who blows into a stodgy old company full of stuffed suits and makes it profitable, as Donald Trump with 3 stars and a pearl handled revolver. Patton opens in North Africa in the immediate aftermath of the German victory at Kasserine Pass. The United States Army, which in in North Africa to lock down France’s old colonies before the “natives” get any ideas about declaring their independence, is in bad shape. Discipline is lax. Moral is low. It is, in short, the same United States army that, in 1970, was falling apart in Vietnam. Patton, like a good corporate “efficiency expert,” blows in like a cyclone, not only restoring traditional military discipline, but subjecting the troops to a series of rigid, yet arbitrary rules designed to make them feel insecure enough to work as hard as they would if they were in the private sector. He even dismisses a brigade commander on the spot and replaces him with his second in command. Think Donald Trump in The Apprentice. “You’re fired.”

Throughout the film, George S. Patton is an anti-communist and a Russophobe, a quality that constantly gets him into trouble with the Allied High Command. The Russians, after all, are the ones doing most of the heavy lifting to beat Hitler. Piss them off too much, and they might just negotiate a separate peace with the Germans. But Patton’s real nemesis is not Russian. He’s British Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, the hero of the Battle of El Alamein. Patton is Coke. Montgomery is Pepsi. Patton is General Motors. Montgomery is Ford. If the Englishman and the American aren’t allies, they’re not exactly enemies either. Rather, they’re two corporate CEOs, two “job creators” whose rivalry pushes both their armies onto achievements they wouldn’t have achieved under a man like Beddell Smith or Omar Bradley. It wasn’t democracy that beat Hitler, the film tells us. It was capitalism.On the surface, Patton is liberal, if liberal, as Arthur Schlesinger defines it, means “the bureaucratic state putting limits on capitalism.” Patton is a skillful tank commander, but he, like corporate America in general, is given to excess. He slaps a soldier suffering from “shell shock.” The stuffed suits in Washington and London put him on probation. We agree with General Eisenhower, who wrote Patton and labeled his action as “despicable,” but we also understand why the Germans are so confused that the American government would relieve one of its best generals of his command for slapping a nobody. Wasn’t Steve Jobs more important than any one of the low level Apple employees his subjected to his abuse? Proles are proles, after all, and job creators are job creators. It’s a trade off, the movie tells us, between a brilliant, if abusive and eccentric man, and the company (the nation) as a whole. Thank God, it concludes, the United States government back then knew how to strike the right balance.

But like all good propaganda, the devil is in the details. More importantly, it’s in what’s not mentioned at all. Karl Malden portrays Omar Bradley as a good democrat who cares about his rank and file troops and resents Patton’s showboating. The real Omar Bradley was nothing of the sort. While it’s true that his style was more self-effacing than Patton’s, he was also one of the most powerful military men in American history, a master at bureaucratic infighting who was deeply involved in some of the dirtiest covert operations of the Cold War. He would have undoubtedly laughed at, yet appreciated Malden’s “aw shucks” caricature. Then there’s the Russians, or, to be more accurate, the Soviet Union. On the surface, the film appears to tackle the issue head on. Patton is a reactionary and a Russophobe. He’s rebuked by the Allied high command. But it’s a clever slight of hand. The film portrays the landing at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge as key events rather than the sideshow they really were. “We can still lose this war,” Patton observes when the Germans make their last great counteroffensive in the Ardennes. He forgets to mention who they’d lose it to, not to Hitler, but to Stalin. The Soviet Union had won the war in 1943.

The Russians make a brief, and comical appearance at the end of Patton. In reality, the invasion of Normandy was a small time affair compared to the Battle of Stalingrad, and, compared to the Battle of Kursk, the Battle of the Bulge was a mere skirmish. The United States wasn’t in the war to beat Hitler. They were in the war to keep Stalin from marching all the way to the English Channel and to keep Algeria from declaring its independence. But it really doesn’t matter. As Patton, correctly, observes, the traditional all out war is a thing of the past. The Soviet Union would lose the Cold War, not to Patton the tank commander but to Patton the neoliberal corporate executive, the very thing he seems so afraid of becoming. Coppola’s script purports to be a fictionalized biography of a colorful misfit, of a man profoundly out of touch with the march of history. He was anything but. Just like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, George C. Scott’s George S. Patton was the future, and, just like that shell shocked soldier in Sicily, we were all about to get slapped.