Lucy (2014)

I suppose the best way to write about my having seen Lucy would be as a warning about the dangers of conformism, my own.

I’m riding my bike home from the park. At home, on my desk, are Cheyenne Autumn by John Ford, Ludwig, by Luchino Visconti, and Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet. I have a Spanish translation of Romeo and Juliet and an English translation of The Open Veins of Latin America. But nobody in the United States goes to see good movies, or reads good books anymore. All the cool, smart, successful people on the Internet are talking about the latest HBO mini series, or writing long, earnest critical analysis of whether or not Ben Affleck’s going to make a decent Batman. To follow your mind where it leads down the convoluted maze of western high culture is to invite social isolation, to make yourself unfit to live in company of decent, middle-class people. So when I road past a local movie theater showing “Lucy” I locked my bike up to a heavy iron garbage can, bought a ticket, and went inside to make an offering to the popular taste.

Cut to an unnamed Asian city. Lucy, Scarlett Johannson, the A-list Hollywood movie star with puffed up lips and a deep, husky voice — call her the Angelina Jolie of her generation — is talking to some random dirt bag, her boyfriend. Oh why don’t girls go for nice guys anymore? He wants her to deliver a suitcase to a drug lord named Mr. Jang. She doesn’t want to. He says yes. She says no. Finally, he reaches out and handcuffs the suitcase to her wrist and tells her that only Mr. Jang has the combination. So she agrees to do it. I personally would have run to the nearest hardware store and bought a hacksaw, but that’s only me. I use more than 10% of my brain. Lucy, apparently, doesn’t, at least not yet. She walks into the hotel lobby — her boyfriend is gunned down outside on the sidewalk for some reason I couldn’t quite figure out — and goes up to Jang’s hotel room to deliver the suitcase to a menacing group of Asian men, all of whom wear Armani, none of whom speak English.

We cut to the United States. Morgan Freeman is delivering some kind of TED Talk about how we don’t experience life to the fullest because we only use 10% of our brains. If we could use more of our brains, he tells the rapt audience of the best and the brightest, we would not only have better memories and better skills at math, we might possibly develop the ability to manipulate matter telepathically and absorb information through osmosis. Freeman’s TED talk made me wonder who the target audience for Lucy is? After all, the idea of intellectual superiority is used to justify all kinds of atrocities these days. Wall Street had the right to steal a 800 billion dollars from the American taxpayers because they’re all Harvard grads who are good at math. The Israelis have the right to murder Palestinians in Gaza because they’ve won more Nobel Prizes.  Google’s techies have the right to displace people from their homes in San Francisco because they’re smarter and more deserving. I for one don’t want to see people get smarter. I want to see them get more compassionate. But who am I to argue with Morgan Freeman?

Scarlett Johannson, as most of the critics have pointed out, is a good actress, and a charismatic presence, and she does the most with the lines she’s given to read, but there’s really not much to work with. The suitcase — and sadly there are no jokes about it having been the suitcase in Pulp Fiction — contains packets of a drug called CPH4 that can increase the user’s brain function capacity. Drugs making you smarter? Perhaps Luc Besson wrote the film for hippies, not Wall Streeters. In any event, the gangsters have the drugs sewn into Lucy’s stomach — the better to smuggle them into the United States and Europe I suppose — and one of their security goons kicks her in the side. She absorbs the CPH4 and quickly develops the superpowers Morgan Freeman had predicted.  She manipulates matter telepathically. She remembers random events from her childhood. She now has total control of her subconscious. Besson restages the opening of 2001, and allows Lucy to go back in time and check out the beginnings of human life on earth. She even has access to the collective subconscious of the planet.

Lucy cost 41 million dollars to make, but I’m not sure what Besson spent the money on. I suppose Scarlett Johannson and Morgan Freeman command hefty salaries, but there’s nothing particular innovative about the film’s imagery, plot, or set pieces that seem very pricy. There are some animal images. There aren’t a lot of location shots. Most of it was filmed in a studio in Paris. There’s a lot of fairly competent if not exactly ground breaking CGI. It’s all very dull and very derivative. At least the mediocre Her, also starring Scarlett Johannson, had a few creative set designs and some imaginative city scapes. We’ve seen it all before. Scarlett Johansson is Darth Vader, or Yoda. She’s Carrie. She can move objects around with her mind. She’s any one of any number of characters in any one of the Star Trek franchises. She’s Fred/Illyeria — played by Amy Acker, a much better actress than Johansson — from the fifth season of Angel. The only thing that’s new about he character is that the more the drugs work, the closer she becomes to a god. 20%, 30%, 40%, as her mental powers increase and her body threatens to decompose, Morgan Freeman convinces her to use her superhuman intellect for the good of mankind. She creates a new model of supercomputer with her mind, uploads what she’s learned, and copies it to a flash drive. Thankfully the new model of supercomputer had a USB port. She disappears and leaves a note. “I’m everywhere,” it says.

I suppose, in the end, Luc Besson wrote Lucy as attempt to get the superhuman “job creators” and “masters of the universe” to use their super brains for good. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Larry Summers, they’ve all got money and intelligence that mere mortals like the rest of us can only dream of. Maybe Luc Besson is asking them to be more like Lucy, to become super philanthropists, and share their enlightenment with the 99 percent. Perhaps Besson is just a French version of Ralph Nader, who once published a novel called “Only The Super Rich Can Save Us.” Being French, unlike the prissy little celibate Ralph Nader, Monsieur Besson has an especially keen appreciation for a deep, husky voice, puffed up duck lips, and a superior female body that looks good in a pair of heels. La Femme Nikita? The Fifth Element? And now Lucy? Only the super hot can save us? Scarlett Johansson, in between doing commercials for Soda Stream, is as good a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as anyone.

As for me, I’ve had enough. Never again will I see a film that only requires me to use 5% of my brain. I’ve learned my lesson. And I’m sticking to it. I’m not going to condemn professional cultural critics for writing about Game of Thrones, Batman, or Miley Cyrus twerking. They have to pay the rent, after all. But I don’t have to. Bresson, not Besson, I’m going back to good movies most Americans have never heard of, the more obscure, the better.

Sergeant Rutledge (1960)

That Sergeant Rutledge somehow manages to be both anti-racist and pro-genocide testifies not only to John Ford’s myopia about the Plains Indians, but to his genius. Even in his old age, he still had his finger on the pulse of the American people. There was no American Indian Movement in 1960. The occupation of Alcatraz and the siege at Wounded Knee, Russell Means, Dennis Banks, and Leonard Peltier would not hit the papers until over a decade later. But the Civil Rights Movement was already a burning issue. Martin Luther King had led the Montgomery Bus Boycott five years before in 1955. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference had been founded in 1957. Eisenhower had already sent the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to desegregate Central High School. Sergeant Rutledge was John Ford’s declaration that he was on the side of racial equality. What he missed, and why he missed it, tells us as much about American imperialism as it does John Ford.

Woody Strode, who plays Braxton Rutledge, was a UCLA basketball player, football player, track star, professional wrestler, and an actor who could be a domineering presence even in bit parts. It’s hard to forget his three minute star turn in Spartacus as the gladiator who strikes the first blow of the rebellion. At 6’4″ he looked every inch the black superman, the “Captain Buffalo” of the song that opens the film.

“Have you heard about a soldier in the U.S. Cavalry
Who is built like Lookout Mountain taller than a redwood tree?
With his iron fist he’ll drop an ox with just one mighty blow
John Henry was a weakling next to Captain Buffalo.”

Braxton Rutledge, the “top soldier” of the 9th Cavalry, the “Buffalo Soldiers,” is on trial for the murder of a teenage white girl, and her father, his commanding officer. John Ford’s narrative genius, even in this very late film, is fully on display. He knows all about how to set up a problem, how to introduce a character in two or three frames, how to misdirect the audience then clear things up when he wants to, how to use comic relief to slip his assumptions past criticism even before we know he’s made them. We know from the very beginning of the film that Rutledge is innocent, that he’s incapable of the horrible crime he’s accused of. What we don’t know is why he deserted his post, and why he seems in no great hurry to clear his name. Braxton Rutledge seems ready to hang for a crime he didn’t commit. We want to know why? Is he covering for another Buffalo Soldier? Is he covering for a white officer? Is he ready to take the fall because the victims have a secret he’d rather die than see exposed?

John Ford is the master at dangling something right in front of our eyes and making us look away. He knows how Americans see race. When Mary Beecher, the tall, blonde Constance Towers, returns to Arizona from the East only to get caught in an Apache raid on the local railway depot, she discovers the dead telegraph operator slumped down over his desk. She’s about to scream. Sergeant Rutledge, who was hiding out in the railway depot after leaving his post, comes up behind her and covers her mouth. We know he’s only doing what he has to do to keep her from alerting the Indians to their presence. But in 1960,  a 6’4″ black man coming up behind a white woman and covering her mouth was a stick of dynamite thrown onto a pile of gunpowder, guaranteed to make any racist’s head explode.  Ford flatters us, lets us feel superior to the racists who would be as titillated as they’d be outraged. But, above all, he puts us inside Braxton’s head. Why did he desert after he discovers the body of his commanding officer’s daughter? Now we know. He doesn’t think any white man (or women) will ever believe he’s innocent. As a black man, even on an army base where he’s well-known and respected, simply being accused of raping a white girl means he’s already been tried, sentenced and hanged.

But John Ford, no conservative but certainly a nationalist, now demonstrates that Rutledge’s paranoia about white Americans is misplaced. Constance Towers is as determined an anti-racist in Sergeant Rutledge as she was a Confederate patriot in The Horse Soldiers. Rutledge gets an equally determined lawyer, Jeffrey Hunter, who also starred in The Searchers with John Wayne. Above all, he gets a fair trial. It’s easy to get distracted by Ford’s gift for comic relief, by the hilarious squabbling between Lt. Col. Otis Fosgate, the president of the court martial, and his wife Cordelia. Otis and Cordelia Fosgate? Even the names can make you smile. But look more closely. Cordelia and Otis are Colonel Marlowe and Hannah Hunter from The Horse Soldiers in their golden years, a Yankee Radical Republican and a southern belle. In the midst of their squabbling we learn that Fosgate served with Sherman in Georgia, that he looted a plantation house in Atlanta, and marched to the sea in the Fall of 1864. Black men, Ford is telling us, should remember how white men fought slavery. Justice not only will be served. One of Sherman’s bummers as the judge? Justice already has been served. All Rutledge has to do is get over his guarded, secretive, black man’s mistrust of the United States of America, and he will inevitably be able to clear his name. He can resume his distinguished military career as “top soldier” of the 9th Cavalry.

Let’s just say that John Ford learned something from the way Jackie Robinson had been offered up to the American public as the conservative alternative to Paul Robeson. Martin Luther King is already a national figure in 1960. The Civil Rights movement would crest three years later with the March on Washington, but let’s not forget that Eisenhower had already committed American troops to protect the remnants of the French Empire in Vietnam. The United States Army in Vietnam would not fight for a noble cause, but it’s easy to forget that it was the first genuinely multiracial army in American history. Blacks wouldn’t serve in segregated, Jim Crow units like the 9th Cavalry — which, let’s face it, was what the Buffalo Soldiers were — but as the equals of whites in every division of the army. It wasn’t, of course, all that easy. There was racism, and racial conflict, all over the United States military. Black soldiers fought with white soldiers, fragged their officers, joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But, in the army, in 1960, Jim Crow was already a thing of the past.

Sergeant Rutledge, like black American soldiers in Vietnam, fights for an bad cause. The Apache, Ford tells us, have already been defeated and herded into reservations. The raid that kills the telegraph operator and Mary Beecher’s father, and threatens to overwhelm the detachment of the 9th Cavalry Jeffrey Hunter’s Tom Cantrell leads to bring Rutledge back for trial is a “large group that broke out of the reservation.” They’re refugees from a concentration camp. Rutledge and his Buffalo Soldiers are fighting for an equal place in American society, but the herds of buffalo they were named after are mostly gone. Let’s be blunt. Rutledge and the 9th Cavalry are imperial auxiliaries, Gurkhas, Sepoys, black men hired by white men to kill red men. Braxton Rutledge is 6’4″ and a “top soldier,” but, in essence, he’s Gunga Din. He maybe be a better man than Tom Cantrell or Otis Fosgate, but he’s also helping to prosecute a genocide against people of color in the interests of the white man. Black nationalism wouldn’t really explode into the public consciousness until the mid and late 1960s. But Malcolm X was already a prominent figure in the African American community. John Ford, as an old school Eisenhower Republican, wants Braxton Rutledge as a loyal, patriotic American, but not as an anti-imperialist. He’s willing to accept him as an equal so he doesn’t become a revolutionary.

Ford’s masterful screenwriting deftly raises, then dismisses the obvious question. What if Braxton Rutledge had simply given up on white America altogether? What if he had joined Crazy Horse and the Apaches? “No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” Muhammad Ali would later say. “No Apache ever falsely accused me of rape and murder,” we can imagine a more cynical, more radical, less stereotypical “heroic” Rutledge saying. But he gives up on his chance to escape when the Apaches attack Tom Cantrall and the 9th Cavalry. Rutledge, as loyal as ever, never even thinks of joining the Indians in the attack. It’s certainly what I would have done. Rutledge is Jackie Robinson, not Paul Robeson or Malcolm X. He doesn’t care about joining the Indians or rejecting white America. He cares about the honor of the regiment, about proving that the black man is as loyal to the United States as any white man.

By the time we get back to the courtroom, the film feels anti-climatic. The mystery of who killed Major Davy and his daughter is very deftly resolved. It was a middle-aged white pervert, the father of one of the girl’s suitors, a sexually obsessed man who “just had to have her.” It’s a little bit of To Kill a Mockingbird in a John Ford western, with Tom Cantrell as Atticus Finch, Braxton Rutledge as Tom Robinson, and Bob Ewell getting his just deserts, not at the hands of a Boo Radley, but in a duly constituted military court of justice.  “It was all right for Mr. Lincoln to say we were free but that ain’t so,” Rutledge says before he’s vindicated, “but not yet. Maybe some day, but not yet.” For John Ford, an Irish American, 1960 is that “some day” Rutledge dreams of. John F. Kennedy’s in the White House, and all is right with the world. Jim Crow is a stain on the American landscape, but it won’t be around for long. In the film’s last scene,  Tom Cantrell and Mary Beecher walk off arm in arm, engaged, their coming marriage the capstone to their successful effort to save the life of an innocent black soldier. Sergeant Rutledge and the Buffalo soldiers look on and salute. It’s a happy ending for everybody but the Apache. They’ve been marked for destruction, something that John Ford, for all his liberalism, refuses to confront, even approves of.

The Blue Max (1966)

The Blue Max is a big budget war movie with sub-par acting, gorgeous cinematography, magnificent stunt flying, and a bloated, B-movie script that ultimately works as a left-wing critique of neoliberalism. I can understand why it was panned by the critics when it first came out in 1966. With so many British actors speaking in fake German accents, a running time of over two and a half hours, and George Peppard’s wooden performance, it can be a little tough to sit through if you’re not nostalgic for the history of early military aviation. But in spite of its flaws, The Blue Max might just be one of the best war movies of the 1960s.

The Blue Max opens in 1917. Corporal Bruno Stachel, George Peppard, is a front line soldier of the imperial German army in France. He looks up to see a pair of biplanes looping through the clouds. Surely this is a better way to fight the war than spending it in the trenches with the rats, mud, and piles of rotten corpses, the look in his eyes says. We flash ahead to 1918. Corporal Stachel is now Lieutenant Stachel, having been given a battlefield commission after graduating from flight school. But he’s still conscious of having been a front line soldier. On he way to join his squadron, a group of soldiers, grizzled tired looking veterans, look on in envy as he drinks a bottle of Schnapps. He tosses them the bottle and continues on his way.

It’s a neat little narrative trick in an otherwise bloated movie, demonstrating that, in spite of all his desire to succeed, Stachel still identifies with his fellow blue collar grunts. Stachel’s new commanding officer, Hauptmann Otto Heidemann, an old school Prussian aristocrat, interrogates Stachel about his class background. “My father ran a small hotel,” Stachel finally says, reluctantly. “It had 5 employees.” That, in turn, provokes the observation from the squadron’s ace, a Lieutenant Willi von Klugermann, Jeremy Kemp with a fake German accent, that “he was probably a waiter.” The war, in other words, is also a class war. The carnage on the western front has killed so many German officers it got Bruno Stachel a commission. For the “gentlemen” in Hauptmann’s squadron this is a reminder that, before 1914, Germany had the largest socialist party in Europe. The rest of Western Europe is democratic. Even if Germany manages to beat France and England before the United States can send troops in significant numbers, things may never go back to normal. Stachel, the self-made man from a lower-class background, is as much a threat to their way of life as the French or the English. But Bruno Stachel is no leftist. On the contrary, he’s the prototypical neoliberal capitalist. For Hauptmann Otto Heidemann, French and English pilots are his fellow gentleman, worthy adversaries, fellow knights in shining armor who are to be battled against according to the rules of chivalry. For Stachel, the French and English are simply raw material, the opportunity to make “kills” and push his way up through the ranks of the German air corps. He couldn’t care less about chivalry or about the “Fatherland.” He cares about his ambition, to score 20 “kills” and be awarded the “Blue Max,” the Pour le Mérite order founded by Frederick the Great. It’s only a medal, to be sure, but it’s also a sign that he’s arrived.

Stachel, in addition to being ambitious, is a very good combat pilot. Perhaps it takes some suspension of disbelief to believe he’s as good as he is, perhaps not. After all, a man who rises through the ranks into a squadron of “gentlemen” who can’t stand him would have to be good to survive for any length of time. Stachel’s first “kill” is unconfirmed, and Haumptmann is in no hurry to go out of his way to investigate it. For his second “kill” Stachel maneuvers an English fighter plane right over the squadron’s runway and blows it out of the sky.  It’s a dazzling piece of flying that attracts the attention of General Count von Klugermann, played by James Mason with a fake German accent. Germany has finally knocked the rotten old Czarist empire out of the war, but the General Staff still know that American troops means they’ll eventually lose. As General Ludendorff’s great Spring Offensive of 1918 goes ahead, and the Germans desperately try to take Paris before the United States swings the balance of power in favor of the French and English, Stachel and Willi von Klugermann, the general’s nephew, conduct their home run derby, racking up kills like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa hit home runs.

Stachel and Willi von Klugermann also compete for the attention of Countess Kaeti von Klugermann, the general’s trophy bride, played by Ursula Andress. I didn’t like her when I saw the film on television as a teenager. I thought the “romance” between her and Stachel cold and self-serving, but that, indeed, is entirely the point. For Stachel, Kaeti von Klugermann is a prize just like the Blue Max, a trophy that will let him feel superior to the “gentlemen” who despise him. For Kaeti, Stachel is just another war hero, another conquest, something to occupy the young wife of a dried up old man. It’s sex as neoliberalism and neoliberalism as sex. General von Klugermann, in turn, knows his wife is sleeping with Stachel and Willi, but he doesn’t care. He’s more concerned with Stachel’s value as a poster boy for the German air force than with his wife’s infidelity. As the Spring Offensive grinds to a halt under the weight of American reinforcements, and as the German General Staff loses touch with reality, Stachel finds that his value as propaganda only increases. Willi is killed in the film’s most famous sequence, an extended game of stunt of stunt flying. Not incidentally, Willi also shoots down two English planes, two “kills” his death lets Stachel steal for himself, surpass 20, and finally get his Blue Max.

Hauptmann informs von Klugermann that he believes Stachel falsely claimed two of Willis kills and suggests he be court martialed. But von Klugermann cares no more for Stachel’s dishonesty than he cares for his wife’s infidelity. Klugermann, delusional, believes that a new weapon, a sleek monoplane, will turn the tide of the war. He wants Germany’s remaining star ace to publicly test fly it. But he doesn’t count on his wife. After Stachel confesses to Kaeti von Klugermann that he lied about the “kills,” she realizes she now has him where she wants him, wrapped around her thumb. Stachel, who sees Kaeti as a prize doesn’t quite realize that Kaeti in fact sees him as her prize, that he defies her will at his peril. She tells him she knows Germany’s losing the war, his status as a hero will be meaningless in a few years, and that he should run away with her to Switzerland. He turns her down.

In the end, Stachel is tripped up by that old cliche, a “woman scorned.” She turns him into the German General staff. Hauptmann was right. He should have been court martialed. But it’s too late. General von Klugermann has already built the test flight up as a major event. What to do? If he pulls the flight, the entire campaign to turn Stachel into a hero will backfire. If he let’s the flight go ahead, then it will be even worse when the truth comes out. He stalls. He sends Hauptmann up first. Hauptmann does a few careful turns around the airfield, reporting to von Klugermann when he finally, with difficulty, manages to land, that the plane is unstable, a “death trap.” It will come apart at the seams if a pilot puts any real stress on its wings. A light goes off in von Klugermann’s head. He has his way out. He signals to Stachel that the flight can go on. “And let’s see some real flying,” he says, sealing Stachel’s doom by appealing to his vanity. Kaeti and Hauptmann are initially horrified but they go along anyway. They both have their own reasons for wanting Stachel dead. Stachel’s flying doesn’t disappoint and, in the climatic, and most brilliantly filmed aerial scene he takes off into the clouds, putting on a glorious display of stunt flying until the stress is too much. The plane comes apart and Stachel crashes to the ground in a spectacular inferno. General von Klugermann, now satisfied, stamps the young lieutenant’s death certificate. Bruno Stachel dies a hero, but to what end? The war is lost.

The imperial German Army in The Blue Max is, of course,  the Imperial Germany Army. But it’s also the American army just about to embark on its own futile war in Vietnam. George Peppard plays the ambitious Bruno Stachel as an American, not a German. He doesn’t even try to imitate the accent, the spit and polish, the mannerisms of a Prussian aristocrat. He’s a 1960s American anti-hero down to the bone. James Mason is sufficiently Teutonic as General von Klugermann. But General von Klugermann himself is also, at heart, an American public relations specialist, a man who promotes a working-class soldier as a hero in a last ditch effort to keep the common people of Germany in the war.  The Blue Max, by relocating the American military industrial complex in a conflict that had ended 50 years before and in a long gone army the United States had fought against, slipped its left-wing, anti-war message by the critics. The cinematography and magnificent aerial sequences only make it go down easier. Had people really paid attention to a seemingly mediocre B-movie script, they would have seen a blunt critique of neoliberalism at war.

Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

Rocco and his Brothers is a sociological examination of what happens to a rural, southern Italian family when they move to the industrial north that ultimately rejects sociological and economic explanations for human behavior in favor of the idea that character is destiny. In what’s widely considered to be one of cinema’s greatest films, Luchino Visconti — who is widely credited with having invented the Italian neorealism with Ossessione in 1943 — looks forward to the operatic melodrama of his “German Trilogy.” He also lays the groundwork for American films like The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, and Scarface.

Italy, like the United States, has a rich, industrial north, and a poor agrarian south. Similar to how blacks came north in the 1940s and 1950s to work in the auto-industry in Detroit, the postwar economic boom in Milan attracted poor farmers from Sicily, Calabria, Abruzzo, and in the case of Rocco Parondi and his brothers, from Basilicata, the arch of the Italian boot. Rocco and His Brothers opens in “Stazione Centrale,” a grand edifice similar to Grand Central or old Penn Station in New York. We meet Rosaria Parondi, the family matriarch, Rocco, Simone, and their younger brothers Cira and Luca. They are going to meet Vincenzo, the eldest, who has come to Milan ahead of them. As the great metropolis unfolds around them, as they stare out of the windows of the bus as it makes its way through the brightly lit city center, we realize they have never seen this kind of traffic, wealth, or bright, artificial light. “It’s like daytime at night,” Simone will say later.

A more careful observer will also realize that Visconti has pulled a fast one. These aren’t the kind of non-actors usually cast in neorealist films, but movie stars. Except for Katina Paxinou, who plays Rosaria and who looks very much like an authentic southern European peasant, the Parondis look like a family of male models. Rocco, a very young Alain Delon, is ethereal and angelic, a vision of boyish innocence. Simone, Renato Salvatori, is forceful and masculine, a Mediterranean Brando. When they finally get to Vincenzo’s apartment, they find Vincenzo celebrating his engagement to Ginetta, played by a very young Claudia Cardinale. By drawing up a standard neorealist frame, poor family from the country cracks up in a big city in the industrial north, Visconti sets up the expectation that the key to the plot’s resolution will depend on economic and historical forces beyond the control of the individual. But by casting good looking professional actors as poor southern Italians, he blows up the neorealist conventions from the inside. It’s not poverty that destroys Simone and leaves Rocco trapped in a career that he hates, Visconti says. On the contrary, the freedom and relative prosperity in Milan allows allows the two men to become themselves in a way that could not have happened back in Basilicata. Simone becomes a rapist and a murderer because, deep down inside, he’s genuinely rotten. Rocco becomes, in essence, an indentured servant to a corrupt boxing promoter because he never wanted to be free in the first place.

But it’s Annie Girardot, a their neighbor, a prostitute who becomes involved with, first, Simone, then Rocco who gives Rocco and His Brothers its heart and soul. Giradot, who 40 years later would play Isabelle Huppert’s domineering mother in The Piano Teacher, turns in one of the great performances in cinematic history. From her pursuit of Rocco, to her terror when she’s raped and later murdered by Simone, from her desire for upward mobility to her essential honesty, from her emotional warmth and vulnerability to the hatred and rage she expresses over Simone’s brutality and Rocco’s passive aggressive betrayal, she expresses just about every emotion a woman seems capable of expressing. She’s also almost certainly the stand in for Visconti himself, her sexual obsession with Alain Delon the conduit through which a gay man in 1960 could channel his lust for a young Adonis. Not far behind her performance is Renato Salvatori as Simone. Even though Simone is an irredeemably loathsome cancer who snuffs out the life of a beautiful, vital young woman and sets his mother and brothers on the road to their eventual destruction, we can’t help but pity him. If Visconti is telling us that character is destiny, Simone’s destiny is the way he has no character, no self, no will, no morals, no individuality. He is a passive receptacle who becomes, in effect, the embodiment of the malevolent forces of industrial capitalism, the lumpenprole who falls out of the working class and preys on the working class. While I can imagine Marlon Brando in his Streetcar days playing Simone Parondi, I cannot imagine him so effectively expressing the emptiness of his character, the hollow, gaping hole that opens up inside a man too weak to hold himself together when given the freedom to live up, or down to his true self.

Rocco and His Brothers is occasionally compared to John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, but all the comparison really does is highlight Ford’s essential optimism. Rosario Parondi is no Ma Joad. She doesn’t keep her family together so much as keep herself together as it falls apart around her. If Ma Joad was open minded and expansive, Rosario Parondi is small minded and rigid, too wrapped up inside the protective shell of her southern conservatism ever to be of much use to anybody. But if Rocco and His Brother is not The Grapes of Wrath it’s not Visconti’s later film The Damned either The Damned was an enjoyable movie, but only because we didn’t care about any of them characters. We hate Visconti’s ruling class family of Nazis every bit as much as he does and enjoy every moment of their destruction. The more creatively sadistic he gets, the more we cheer him on. Rocco and His Brothers is gut wrenching. We care about the people we see tortured on screen. We identify with them. We feel their defeat. I genuinely wanted to see Alain Delon’s Rocco and Annie Giroud’s Nadia get married and live happily ever after. That their defeat is due partly to their character, to their own lack of will, is a much more eloquent protest against capitalism than it would have been had it been simple poverty. “We come from the land of the olive tree, the moon, and the rainbow,” Rocco says, dreaming of his hometown in the south. None of them will ever see it again. It’s the empty fantasy of beaten, uprooted people.

The Damned (1969): The German Ruling Class Goes to Hell

As the credits open Luchino Visconti’s anti-fascist classic The Damned, we are told that “no resemblance to actual events is intended.” Whether Visconti was afraid of lawsuits or he intended the disclaimer as a joke, it’s nonsense. The von Essenbecks are the Krupps, the notorious family of Rhineland industrialists and arms merchants who made an alliance with Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s, and survived the war with their property largely intact. The Damned is one of the most savage attacks on a prominent ruling class family ever made. Visconti’s hate is pure. It’s magnificent.

The Damned opens on February 27, 1933 at the birthday celebration of Joachim von Essenbeck, the family patriarch. One by one we meet the Essenbecks, their friends, family, and their contacts in the Nazi Party. There’s Joachim. He has no love for Hitler, but supports him anyway. He hates democracy even more. There’s Herbert Thallmann, the family firm’s vice president, an anti-fascist liberal, but isolated and ineffectual. There’s Konstantin von Essenbeck, a gruff, vulgar man played by Reinhard Kolldehoff, a German actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to George C. Scott. A young, vulnerable looking Charlotte Rampling plays Elizabeth, Herbert’s wife. A statuesque, blond Ingrid Thulin, the very model of  Aryan perfection, plays Sophie von Essenbeck, the widow of Joachim’s eldest son, a fighter ace who was killed in the First World War. Dirk Bogarde, who Visconti will cast as Gustav von Aschenbach 2 years later in his film version of Death in Venice, plays Friedrich Bruckmann, Sophie’s lover, an opportunistic Essenbeck Vice President from a middle-class family. Helmut Griem plays Aschenbach, a 30-something SS officer, the handler Hitler has assigned to manage the von Essenbeck family, and a clear stand in for Satan. Above all there’s Martin von Essenbeck, played by Visconti’s Austrian lover Helmut Berger, a flamboyantly androgynous young man in his 20s, that “rough beast,” who, to quote Yeats, “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

February 27,1933 is Joachim’s last birthday celebration. It’s also, not incidentally, the night of the Reichstag fire. “Why can’t they chose a better night to burn the Reichstag?” Martin sighs after Konstantin interrupts his drag show — an iconic re-staging of Marlene Dietrich’s performance in The Blue Angel— with the news. The Essenbecks are not passive observers of German history. They are a stand in for the German ruling class as a whole. There’s been a coup in Berlin. Earlier, on the drive up from the factory, Aschenbach the SS officer had told Friedrich Bruckmann that there would be another coup inside the Essenbeck mansion itself, that he would soon have the opportunity to take Herbert’s place as Vice President. Later on, after Joachim has gone to bed, and the family settles in for the evening, we hear a scream. Even though an observant filmgoer has already figured out that Friedrich Bruckmann will kill Joachim and Aschenbach will frame Hebert, we are initially confused. Joachim also hears the scream. He’s in bed, still alive. It’s a testament to Visconti’s genius and artistic daring that when we put two and two together we realize that the scream had come from a servant who caught Martin molesting his 11 year old cousin. Earlier we had seen him get out of drag, take the little girl under a table, and begin to undress her. Yes, the evil in Germany is so thick you can cut it with a knife. After the brief interruption, and Joachim is finally sent on his way to hell — Frederick pumps him full of bullets from Hebert’s gun then puts the gun back in Herber’s bedroom— the SS storm the Essenbeck Mansion. Herbert escapes. But before he climbs out the window on his way across the border to France, he gives the gun back to Friedrich. Friedrich, as per Aschenbach’s instructions, then dutifully hands it over to the SS. Herbert, thus, has “proven” himself the murderer and middle-class Friedrich Bruckmann is now in full control of the Essenbeck arms factories. Vast wealth awaits him in the coming arms buildup if he plays his cards right.

If the murder of Joachim on the night of the Reichstag Fire was a coup against Hebert and German democracy, it also sets the stage for Hitler’s next move, the Night of the Long Knives. Konstantin von Essenbeck, a senior member of the SA and a clear stand in for Ernest Rohm, knows that if he doesn’t move quickly, his days are numbered. Let’s not overlook what Visconti is doing here. Visconti, a gay Marxist who joined the Communist Party during Mussolini’s dictatorship, is telling us that the theory lately so beloved of the American corporate propagandists at Fox News — that Nazism is socialism — is bogus. Ernst Rohm was a rough, gay, proletarian street brawler but the SA was never a “socialist” faction within the Nazi Party. Konstantin von Essenbeck is one capitalist jockeying for position with  Frederick, and then Martin, two more right-wing “masters of war.” The Night of the Long Knives was not about the SA and national “socialism” being replaced by the SS and national capitalism. It’s an evolution from one stage of fascism to another. Konstantin, his real life counterpart Rohm, and the proletarian street brawlers had served their purpose. They had violently suppressed the communists and Social Democrats. Now, like Hegel’s “delicate flower of history,” they had to be run down by the German state, utterly crushed, and eliminated from the politics of the Third Reich. Konstantin does manage to divert a shipment of machine guns from the Essenbeck Factory to an SA compound along the Rhine, but he’s doomed. Aschenbach and Frederick have the upper-hand. Konstantin and the SA, stupidly, hold a drunken, gay orgy when they should be preparing for battle. At dawn, in a gorgeous scene that Visconti would later replicate for the opening of Death in Venice, black clad SS men armed with the latest sub-machine guns manufactured at the Essenbeck factory come out of the mist in river boats, storm Konstantin’s compound, and, in an orgy of violence that’s nothing more than a continuation of the orgy of debauched gay sex that had gone on the night before, leave a bloody pile of Teutonic man flesh that would make Francisco Goya proud. Konstantin and the SA have been eliminated. Frederick, who Aschenbach convinces to come along on the raid, now reigns supreme.

But does he?

Sadly for Frederick Bruckmann and his wife Sophie, Aschenbach and the SS is thinking two steps ahead of him. Nationalism Socialism is not “socialism,” but it’s not capitalism either. The Essenbecks, the old German ruling class, are too weak, too perverse, too debauched to resist the German state. Friedrich’s Teutonic version of the American dream won’t last long. His days, like Konstantin’s, are already numbered. As Visconti shifts from the rivalry between Frederick and Herbert, then Frederick and Konstantin, he shifts from politics to family politics, or, to be more accurate, dramatizes Germany’s next step down into utter depravity and evil through the destruction of the Essenbecks themselves. Martin, who’s long been under his mother Sophie’s thumb, is Aschenbach’s instrument of choice. Even though flamboyantly androgynous, Martin isn’t gay, but a heterosexual pedophile. Not only is he molesting his 11-year-old cousin, he’s also molesting the 11-year-old daughter of his Jewish mistress, a young girl who hangs herself as Martin, by his own account, looks on and does nothing. Achenbach, who’s quite open with Martin about how there’s no danger of his going to prison for the death of a Jewish girl — it’s not even a crime in the Third Reich — nevertheless has Martin’s number. Martin is weak, hateful, amoral, terrified of his mother, the very embodiment of a ruling class ripe for takeover by the fascist state. He, not the upstart class climber Frederick Bruckmann will rule the Essenbeck corporation. Martin does not disappoint. When we next see him, he’s already decked out in the uniform of an SS officer. First he pushes out Bruckmann. But that’s not enough. The Essenbecks, and Germany, will implode under the weight of their own evil. In the film’s most notorious sequence, Martin rapes Sophie, his own mother, and leaves her a broken shell of her former self. The last scene of The Damned is chilling. Martin arranges for Frederick and Sophie to get married. Frederick is a beaten man, Bogarde’s slump shouldered body language effectively embodying the moral flaccidity that made him Achenbach’s tool, then his victim. Sophie is worse. A catatonic zombie with a white powdered face and bright red lips — an image Visconti will use two years later in Death in Venice to symbolize death and spiritual corruption — she’s already gone. The marriage is concluded. Martin hands them poison. The Essenbecks are no more.

Historical note: The real life Essenbecks, the Krupps, would survive. Although Alfred Krupp, the family patriarch, was tried and sentenced to 12 years in prison for his use of slave labor, he was later pardoned by the American High Commissioner in Germany John J. McCloy. McCloy also fully restored the Krupp family’s property. Sadly, the occupation of postwar Germany was managed, not by radical Italian filmmakers, but by Wall Street lawyers.

Death In Venice (1971): Homosexuality and the Artifice of Eternity

Luchino Visconti’s film version of Thomas Mann’s novella has been criticized for taking too many liberties with the original. But I think the film is underrated. Visconti, an out gay man, made a strong artistic choice — to play up the story’s homoerotic subtext at the expense of its classical, aesthetic subtext — and stuck with it. What he came away with is a powerful, if ultimately frustrating, meditation on the relationship between homosexuality and artistic failure.

In Mann’s novel, Gustav von Aschenbach, a famous writer in his early 50s, goes to Venice to overcome his writer’s block. There he becomes fascinated by Tadzio, a preternaturally beautiful teenage boy, a blond, Polish aristocrat based on the real life Baron Władysław Moes. In Visconti’s film, Aschenbach becomes a composer — a not unreasonable transformation since the character was partly inspired by Gustav Mahler — but the outlines of the plot remain the same. Aschenbach stalks Tadzio through the Grand Hotel des Bains on The Lido, pining for the boy’s unattainable beauty until he dies of a cholera epidemic ravaging the city.

For Thomas Mann, as the critics have noted, Tadzio is a classical and aesthetic idea, not an object of lust. Visconti’s daring choice is to make it clear that Aschenbach wants Tadzio as more than just his muse. He wants to fuck him. Were Visconti a heterosexual, this would be a profoundly homophobic narrative. As it is, it’s probably a reflection of Visconti’s self-hatred, but it doesn’t matter. Whether or not Visconti hated himself for being gay is beside the point. That he’s able to use his internalized homophobia to get at the heart of artistic, and ultimately masculine failure and despair is what makes Death in Venice a great film.

Was Thomas Mann gay? We really don’t know. He was married and had children. “Gay curious” might be more accurate. Gustav von Aschenbach, in turn, is not gay, not in the book, not in the film. But, if he’s not gay, then he also fails as a heterosexual. His child dies. His wife dies. His prim, artistic discipline entombs him inside a sterile formalism. If Death in Venice is a frustrating film to watch, then it’s partly because Dirk Bogarde, Visconti’s Aschenbach, is so good at building a character who’s uncomfortable in his own skin. A disciplined artist in his 20s or 30s is one thing. The vitality of his youth helps keep the rigid habits necessary to write either novels or symphonies in balance. But a man in his 50s who’s maintained that kind of discipline since his early 20s is in danger of smothering the wellsprings of his art, of crushing the urge to create by the process of creation. For Ernest Hemingway, the most disciplined of all American writers, the answer was alcohol. For Thomas Mann, it’s an unconsummated homosexual passion.

If Björn Andrésen, Visconti’s Tadzio looks a bit too much like a singer in a boy band, Lief Garrett meets one of the Hanson brothers, an androgynous fantasy for teenage girls, then Dirk Bogarde is genuinely repellent. Bogarde is a handsome, if nondescript looking actor, but here he, quite intentionally, makes himself ugly. It’s not a flamboyant, colorful ugliness a la Christian Bale in American Hustle, but a gray, quiet, lifeless ugliness. Aschenbach is a fussy little man who’s not only aging, but lacks masculine force to begin with. As he pursues Tadzio, as the cholera epidemic that will take his life closes in on Venice, we learn, in a series of flashbacks that show his life’s work being methodically shot down by fate, crushed by a world that doesn’t understand him, or strangled by his own personal failings, what brought him to his dead end in the famously beautiful city of canals. He has a wife — the beautiful Marissa Berenson — and a child. They both die. He goes to a brothel. He’s impotent. Above all, while an acclaimed composer, the sources of his inspiration have dried up. He argues with Alfred, a hyper-aggressive friend and artistic collaborator played by an obnoxiously over the top Mark Burns. Alfred screams at him that art is about the senses. Aschenbach protests that, on the contrary, art is about cutting yourself off from your senses, that it’s about seeking the Platonic ideal through discipline and form.

If gay men from da Vinci to Whitman and Oscar Wilde have always made a mark well beyond their numbers in the creative arts, then it’s partly because gay men don’t have children. Since they cannot connect to eternity by pushing their DNA into the next generation, the only connection they have to the next generation is what they can create during their time on earth. Aschenbach is not a gay man. He’s a straight man. So why does he ultimately succumb to a doomed homosexuality passion for a teenage boy? Luchino Visconti is one of cinema’s great artists. But in some respects he considered himself a failure. His greatest film, The Leopard, was butchered upon its release in the United States and wasn’t widely available until the 1980s. What’s more, a Visconti film takes work. None of them are very enjoyable to watch. The Damned is a 150 minute torture session. The Leopard is beautiful, but heavy and slow moving. Death in Venice is over 2 hours of physical discomfort and decay. Visconti, like Mann’s Aschenbach, was a disciplined, fanatical artist. But somewhere, deep inside, he must have felt, like Aschenbach, that that “artists are rather like hunters aiming in the dark. They don’t know what their target is, and they don’t know if they’ve hit it.”

The city of Venice is one of the glories of western civilization, a work of art as well as a city. But in Mann’s novel and Visconti’s film, it’s as corrupt as it is beautiful. Not only is it being stalked by cholera, its residents are decaying physically at a rate faster than Aschenbach. Upon his arrival, a red faced, clownish old man horrifies him. A red headed street musician, a man in his 30s or 40s with no teeth, serenades him against his will. Waiters, gondoliers, hotel owners, city officials are devious, secretive profiteers who fail to warn visitors of the coming plague so as not to lose the tourist dollars. Only Tadzio, the beautiful unattainable teenage boy, a Pole, a foreigner, is as beautiful as the city itself.  The film’s climax comes when Aschenbach witnesses Tadizio in the lobby of the Grand Hotel des Bains sit down at the piano and slowly plays Beethoven’s Fur Elise. Tadzio is a clumsy, indifferent pianist, but the purity of his physical beauty matches the purity of Beethoven’s music. Tadzio embodies the spirit, if not the form of Beethoven’s romanticism. He  succeeds where Aschenbach — and by implication Mahler —- fails.  Later, we see Aschenbach — and by implication Mahler —  conduct his latest work. lt’s not only a failure. The audience boos so loudly he is almost afraid they’re going to rush the stage and rend him in pieces. He wants to get away from the people he should have been trying to connect with. He escapes, into seclusion, then illness, then ultimately to Venice.

In the poem Sailing to Byzantium, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats speculates on how art can rescue a mortal from death.  “An Aged man is but a paltry thing,” he says, “a tattered coat upon a stick unless soul clap its hands and sing and louder sing with every tatter in its mortal dress.” Aschenbach is that coat upon a stick. But his soul doesn’t clap its hands or sing. Yeats, like Aschenbach, knows that he’s “sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal.” His only hope to live on is art form, disciplined creation. “Gather me up into the artifice of eternity,” he says, a famous line that could be Aschenbach’s personal motto as well as the hope of every childless, gay artist. But Aschenbach, unlike Yeats, will never clap his hands and sing and louder sing for every tatter in his mortal dress. He will die, a tattered coat upon a stick.

Yeat’s ends his triumphal poem by saying that “Once out of nature I shall never take my bodily form from any natural thing, but such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enamelling.” Aschenbach, unlike Yeats, will never be gathered into the artifice of eternity. Tadzio is no longer an aesthetic form. He’s an object of lust, not healthy lust, but sick, twisted, defeated lust. Visconti, the out gay man, portrays Gustav Aschenbach, the heterosexual, as a pedophile stalker who surrenders to homosexual desire as a direct result of his failure as an artist. If American critics have been so uncomfortable with such a politically incorrect message, Luchino Visconti, the Southern European aesthete, is no politically correct American Puritan. He looks down into the hell of Aschenbach’s artistic and spiritual defeat without wincing.

In Visconti’s film, Yeat’s Grecian goldsmith becomes a Venetian hairdresser. “You’re too important a man to let slavish devotion to naturalism limit you,” the hairdresser, surely the most intellectual hairstylist in cinematic history, says. “I’ll give you back what was yours. Then you can fall in love.” By trying to defeat the aging process, Aschenbach becomes, not a form “to set upon a golden bough to sing to lords and ladies of Byzantium,” but a monster, a Teutonic Michael Jackson in an ancient Italian city.  The intellectual, even Satanic Venetian hairstylist dies the graying German’s hair black. He paints his face white. He smears lipstick on his lips. Gustav Aschenbach, the severe Northern European professor, is now a painted Venetian clown, his face a kabuki mask, red lips like The Joker, a face powdered white, dyed black hair that drips hair dye in black down his cheeks like blood. He has become one of those physically decayed, spiritually corrupt Venetian street people and hustlers that, up until now, have so horrified his prim, bourgeois sensibilities.

“There is no impurity,” the dying Aschenbach recalls Alfred saying as he watches Tadzio play on the beach, “so impure as old age.”

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Jim Jarmusch’s seventh feature length film, an homage to Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Le Samouraï, is a beautifully filmed meditation on race and social isolation. Quiet, nuanced, aesthetically rich, it’s a work of art that demands to be seen multiple times, an object to be contemplated from a variety of different angles as though it were a painting or a piece of sculpture. A critique after only one viewing will be limited, but a comparison to Melville’s great original is probably the best place to start.

Forest Whitaker, who takes over for Alain Delon, plays “Ghost Dog,” who takes over for Jeff Costello as the contract killer who follows the Code of Bushido. Where Delon is slim, elegant, ghostlike, Whitaker is thick, stocky, and substantial. But their characters have two things in common, a quiet, self-possessed intelligence, and a love of birds. Costello lives in a spare, white, minimalist apartment in Paris with a single bird in a cage, and a case full of mineral water. Ghost Dog lives on a roof in Jersey City with dozens of pigeons, a hidden tool box full of guns, and a collection of books. They seem too noble for their chosen work, murder for hire for a local crime boss, but they both carry their assignments with a dedicated professionalism so intently focused on the details of the process that it almost transcends the finished product. Is it possible to admire a professional killer because he looks so good while he’s doing the job?

Among the maxims on Lord Naoshige’s wall, there was this one,” Ghost Dog says, quoting a Master Ittei. “Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”

Jeff Costello and Ghost Dog both meet their end when a small, seemingly insignificant detail in a carefully planned assassination goes wrong. For Jeff Costello, it’s Valérie, a black singer and piano player who witnesses him shoot a night club owner, her boss. For Ghost Dog, it’s Louise Vargo, the daughter of a mob boss. While we don’t know why Jeff Costello had been assigned to kill Valérie’s boss, we do know why Ghost Dog is assigned to kill Handsome Frank, a “made man” who’s sleeping with Louise. Ray Vargo, her father, objects to their relationship. He contacts Louie, a local mobster Ghost Dog considers his benefactor — Louie had saved Ghost Dog’s life years before — who, in turn, contacts Ghost Dog. Their method is as ingenious as it is low tech, notes tied to the legs of one of Ghost Dog’s many carrier pigeons, difficult to trace and foolproof. But then something goes wrong. Louise, who was supposed to have been out of town, is in the room when Ghost Dog comes through the door and kills Handsome Frank with one clean shot to the head. Vargo, her father, now decides that killing a made man was so dangerous that they have to eliminate his paid assassin, and orders Louie, on pain of his own assassination, to hunt down Ghost dog and have him killed.

Probably the biggest different between Le Samouraï and Ghost Dog is the nature of the hero’s antagonist. Jeff Costello faces a genuine menace, a sophisticated police dragnet as methodical and professional as he is. Ghost Dog, on the other hand, is never in any real danger. Vargo, Louie, and their fellow mobsters are really just buffoons. Jeff Costello escapes the police chase only because Valerie, who he’s later told to murder to eliminate he as a potential witness, covers for him. Le Samourai poses an almost unbearable moral dilemma. Does Jeff Costello shoot his benefactor and live? Or does he stay true to his code of chivalry and die? Melville resolves Le Samourai’s plot with such a clean elegance that, while the film justifies repeated viewings, we leave satisfied we know what was in Costello’s mind. We never see it coming. Yet after it’s all over, we realize nothing could have possibly been any different.

Jim Jarmusch has another agenda altogether. Ghost Dog’s benefactor is not a beautiful young black woman who’s willing to risk her life to see him go free. On the contrary, Louie is an ugly, sleazy middle-aged crime boss who’s mainly out for himself. Why is Ghost Dog so loyal? We never get a satisfactory answer. Jarmusch does not set up a narrative that gives him a choice between his life or honor. After he kills a group of men who threaten Louie, he could easily escape, but he chooses not to. He not only allows Louie to kill him. He traps him into it. Is Ghost Dog, like Jarmusch’s earlier hero William Blake, already dead, a ghost lingering between life and death while his consciousness catches up to what happened to his body? Or does he simply have a death wish?

Louise Vargo witnesses the death of her lover Handsome Frank with such a lack of affect that she initially seems either catatonic or just retarded. But the book she’s reading, Rashamon, the title, the basis for Akira Kurosawa’s famous film about how individual perception skews narrative, gives us a possible hint. Why does a clearly superior black “samurai” continue to serve a clearly inferior white mobster? Ghost Dog believes he owes Louie his continued loyalty because he also believes Louie saved him as a child. In a flashback, Ghost Dog is being kicked to death by a gang of thugs. Louie comes along, shoots their leader, and saves Ghost Dog’s life. In Louie’s flashback, however, he only shot the man beating Ghost Dog to save his own life. Ghost Dog’s attacker pulled a gun and he beat him to the draw.

This, it seems, is Jim Jarmuch’s statement on race. Why do black men give their loyalty to white men when they don’t really owe them anything? Indeed, while both Jeff Costello and Ghost Dog are loners, Ghost Dog has one friend, a Haitian ice cream truck driver who speaks no English. Ghost Dog speaks no French, and yet both men share a wordless fellowship, a silent understanding that comes from their both being black men in the United States, a bond that transcends language.

After Ghost Dog makes a second friend, a nine year old black girl who loves to read, he gives her Louise Vargo’s copy of Rashamon. Read it and tell me what you think, he says, first to the little girl and then, just before he dies, to Louie. Clearly Jarmusch considers Rashamon key to understanding Ghost Dog.

While the story, which Jarmusch is quite obviously telling us to read, is not identical to the film, and while a reading would probably deepen Ghost Dog even more, I keep coming back to Kurosawa’s famous meditation on the unreliable narrator. How does individual perception affect our understanding of an experience recollected? The 1990s, after all, gave us the OJ Trial, the split screen that showed blacks celebrating and whites disconsolate after OJ was declared “not guilty.” I watched Ghost Dog from the point of view of a white man, a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville, and the larger oeuvre of Jim Jarmusch himself. How would a black movie goer see the same film?

Jim Jarmusch is not a mainstream Hollywood director. On the contrary, he started off as a working musician, immersed in the world of Jazz and alternative music, an environment far and away more multicultural and multiracial than lily white Hollywood. From the Screaming Jay Hawkins song that almost becomes a leading character in Stranger than Paradise to Screaming Jay Hawkins himself in Mystery Train to Tilda Swinton’s eerie resemblance to David Bowie’s Thin White Duke in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch has always been obsessed with race, and the ability, or lack of ability of blacks and whites to understand one another. Anybody, black or white, knows why Jeff Costello dies in Le Samouraï. But why does Ghost Dog let Louie kill him? Am I, like Dead Man’s Nobody, who makes a brief cameo in Ghost Dog, says: “a stupid white man?” Would it make more sense to a black film goer than to me? Or does Ghost Dog take the mystery to his grave? Or does it really matter? Perhaps I’m trying to impose Jean-Pierre Melville’s literary sensibility onto Jim Jarmusch’s visual and aural sensibility. Why even try to make sense of a movie that, like a painting, invites contemplation more than it does explanation?

Indeed, how Jim Jarmusch managed to transform the industrial neighborhood around Journal Square into something as beautiful as the Tangiers of Only Lovers Left Alive remains another mystery.

We Were Soldiers (2002): The Neoconservative Right Does Vietnam

If I avoided seeing We Were Soldiers for years, I think it had something to do with how I used to see posters for the film when I photographed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth rallies in Washington DC in 2004. While I enjoyed Braveheart, I could never quite bring myself to go see a movie that seemed like such obvious propaganda for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Even though Joe Galloway, who wrote the book We Were Soldiers Once And Young,  was a respected journalist, even among liberals, something about Mel Gibson’s square-jawed, bulldog middle-aged face, Bill Mauldin meets William Wallace, reminded me of old Hollywood films about the Second World War. Saddam as Hitler? Vietnam as a “noble cause?” And evangelical Christian icon Mel Gibson shoveling the propaganda? No thanks.

Having finally seen We Were Soldiers, I suppose my verdict is “much better than I thought it would be.” Mel Gibson, like Andy Garcia, is a Roman Catholic probably even more conservative than the Vatican, more Catholic than the Pope. But, unlike Garcia’s For Greater Glory, a big-budget snooze-fest, We Were Soldiers is not only effective right-wing propaganda. It’s consistently dramatic and engaging. What’s more, in one or two very important ways, We Were Soldiers might be less racist, and more “progressive” than “liberal” films like Apocalypse Now or Platoon. This doesn’t mean that We Were Soldiers isn’t a right-wing, pro-war commercial for George W. Bush. It certainly is. But it does mean that Gibson is a very talented propagandist. It’s worth figuring out why.

Unlike Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, or Platoon, We Were Soldiers let’s the Vietnamese speak. No, it’s not an anti-imperialist film. No, We Were Soldiers is not the second coming of Braveheart, something that would have made sense since the Vietnamese, like William Wallace’s Scots, were a colonized people fighting off an invader. But unlike Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino, Stanley Kubrick or Oliver Stone, director and screenwriter Randall Wallace does not see the Vietnamese as exotic sex objects, primitive savages, or as symbols of the American moral conflict in the jungle. He sees them as subjects, not objects, worthy, if brutal adversaries. Let’s not get carried away. You could probably make the argument that the North Vietnamese soldiers shoot like storm troopers and die like orcs, that the film is, in fact, a lot more racist than I’m letting on here. But Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Hữu An is not a villain or a torturer. He’s basically Hal Moore’s mirror image, a smart, if ruthless battlefield commander who knows how to order men to die.

We Were Soldiers main set piece, a dramatization of the Battle of la Drang filmed at Fort Benning in Georgia, rivals the opening of Saving Private Ryan for its vivid depiction of battlefield carnage. Admittedly, the whole film is PR for the United States Army on the eve of its invading Iraq, a war game at an American military base with a few good actors, but, once again, Russell Wallace throws some interesting twists into the red, white and blue mix. The battle, to be sure, is a classic example of the “besieged imperial invaders” narrative. White people go to the west, circle the wagon trains,and fight off wave after wave of Indians. But Wallace is smart enough to let us know he knows it. “That’s Custer’s Division,” Moore says to his commanding officer after he learns that his regiment has been re designated as the First Brigade, Seventh Cavalry. “Custer was a pussy,” Sergeant Plumley, Moore’s top NCO played to over the top macho perfection by Sam Elliot says. “You’re not.”

Unlike Custer at The Little Bighorn, however, Hal Moore had an air force at the Battle of la Drang. It’s less of a massacre than a brutal stalemate, a Pyrrhic Victory for the United States that convinced Ho Chi Minh that he could win the war. The Americans use helicopters, napalm, and sophisticated artillery barrages with deadly efficiency. Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Hữu pushes his field commanders to get inside Hal Moore’s lines. “Grab the Americans by their belt buckle,” he says. It works. First one platoon, then the entire brigade is overrun by North Vietnamese soldiers. Moore calls in an airstrike so close to the First Cavalry lines that he accidentally napalms his own men. American soldiers die in agony. A medic tries to cut a piece of napalmed skin off a man’s cheek before it burns through to his brain. The flesh of another soldier’s legs comes off in Joe Galloway’s hands when he tries to carry him to a helicopter to be evacuated. It’s an astonishingly anti-war image from militarist film by a right wing director starring a famous reactionary and anti-Semite, a vivid depiction of what the Vietnamese went through when they were bombed by the United States air force, instant empathy for an American audience for the victims of American war crimes simply because those war crimes are accidentally committed against Americans.

And yet, We Were Soldiers remains shamelessly pro-war agitprop.

If We Were Soldiers shows the Vietnamese in a better light than Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter, then it’s mainly because its pro-war agenda requires it. Films from “the left” like Apocalypse Now or Platoon (and I think Oliver Stone can be safely called a leftist even if Francis Ford Coppola can’t) show the Vietnamese as either primitives, or as helpless victims. But that’s mainly because they dramatize the American involvement in Vietnam not as a “war” but as an “occupation.” The United States Army in Vietnam is not the United States Army at Gettysburg or on the beaches of Normandy. It’s a glorified police force. At best it’s a gang of bumbling fools. At worst, as in Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, it’s a blood soaked, sadistic American Gestapo. The less formidable the Vietnamese seem, therefore, the more of an anti-war punch the movie packs. Short of a film that openly embraces Ho Chi Minh Võ Nguyên Giáp and the anti-imperialist cause (the kind of film that would never get funding in Hollywood), it is perhaps the most accurate way to dramatize the United States invasion.

Noam Chomsky has often remarked that one of the central misconceptions of the United States invasion of Vietnam is that it was an attack on North Vietnam. On the contrary, he argues, the war was mainly an attack on South Vietnam. Oliver Stone, in his depiction of the senseless destruction of a Vietnamese village, gets it dead right. The goal was to displace the Vietnamese people, to dry up support for the Vietcong by herding a mainly agrarian population into concentration camps, or “strategic hamlets,” to use the euphemism the United States government used at the time. By depicting the Vietnam War as a “war” and not an occupation, as a conflict with “NVA Regulars” and not an attack on farmers, old men, women and children, We Were Soldiers tries to breath life back into the propaganda films like Platoon and Casualties of War, for all their faults, had already debunked. The more Russell Wallace and Mel Gibson build the North Vietnamese up as worthy opponents, the more they transform the criminal and genocidal destruction of South Vietnam into a “noble cause,” the nobility residing not in the political agenda of the Johnson or Nixon administrations, but in the soldiers themselves.

Indeed, while it had been released before the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, We Were Soldiers feels as if it had been filmed with the invasion of Iraq in mind. Since it’s early in the war, and Hal Moore’s soldiers are mostly a small elite, they feel a lot more like the all volunteer army of professional soldiers in Iraq than they do like the army of draftees in Vietnam. The soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry fight not for any kind of political cause, but for the guy next to them, for the honor of the regiment, not for the President back in Washington. If the Bush administration eventually stopped making up excuses for the invasion of Iraq, and finally just said “it’s about supporting the troops,” Joe Galloway beat him to it by 30 years. By narrowing the focus from the war as a whole to a single bloody battle, from the Vietnamese struggle against American imperialism to the troops themselves, Galloway artfully ducks the charges that he was writing propaganda. “I don’t care about politics,” one can imagine him saying. “I’m just trying to tell the story of those boys on the front lines.”

We Were Soldiers ends with Moore paying a visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. It’s a fitting ending since the film mirrors the kind of propaganda the Vietnam Memorial itself embodies so perfectly. There are 58,195 names on the Vietnam Memorial, but that’s only a tiny fraction of the number of people who died in Southeast Asia. Even in the most conservative estimates, the total number of casualties was over 2 million. It makes sense that the Vietnam Memorial, which was once considered anti-war, even radical, has become a focal point for reactionary, even neo-fascist MIA organizations, Rolling Thunder motorcycle rides, and Swift Boat Vets For Truth style neoconservative front groups. Many Americans reacted with outrage when Pat Buchanan tried to engineer a Reagan visit to an SS cemetery at Bitburg. But they never even ask themselves why rank and file American soldiers prosecuting a genocidal in Southeast Asia deserve to be honored any more than rank and file German soldiers prosecuting a genocidal war in Eastern Europe. Perhaps, someday, when I’m dictator of the proletariat, I’ll have the Vietnam War Memorial torn down and replaced by a Southeast Asian Holocaust Memorial or a monument to Ho Chi Minh and General Võ Nguyên Giáp. But I’ll still keep We Were Soldiers as a museum piece, an artfully made, vivid and entertaining lie representative of the ideology of the late American empire.

Aguirre The Wrath Of God (1972)

While it’s tempting to call Aguirre The Wrath Of God a great film about the Vietnam War that never mentions Vietnam, it’s probably safer just to say that it’s a deeper, more original adaptation of Heart of Darkness than Apocalypse Now. For 1/100th the price — $300,000 to Apocalypse Now’s $30,000,000 —- Werner Herzog’s masterpiece about the mad Spanish conquistador gets closer to the meaning of Joseph Conrad’s famous novella than Francis Ford Coppola does in all three hours of his ponderous epic. Lope de Aguirre’s last words may not be “the horror, the horror.” But they’re certainly ours.

Horror, like the opening of Aguirre, can be beautiful. A long, slow procession of Spaniards and their Indian slaves descends from the Andes into the Peruvian rainforest. The expedition, led by Gonzalo Pizarro, the brother of Francisco Pizarro, has set out from the recently conquered empire of the Incas to search for the mythical city of “El Dorado.” We meet Brother Gaspar de Carvajal, the narrator, Don Pedro de Ursúa and his mistress Doña Inéz, representatives of the Spanish crown, Don Fernando de Guzmán, a fat, sloppy Spanish aristocrat, Aguirre and his teenage daughter, and Perucho, Aguirre’s strange, brutal enforcer. Except for Doña Inéz, who will later reveal herself to be the film’s most sympathetic character, these are mostly petty, mean-spirited little people who are simultaneously ravenous and helpless in the face of tyranny. Yet they are surrounded by a majestic landscape worthy of Ansel Adams or John Muir. These white Europeans, oblivious to nature’s beauty, are the scum of the earth. The vanguard of empire, they’ve come to kill, to extract precious metals, to convert the natives to Christianity, to despoil the Garden of Eden.

Joseph Conrad opens Nostromo, perhaps his greatest novel, with a similarly doomed hunt for precious metals. Two white sailors, probably Americans, “but gringos of some sort for certain,” are looking for a pile of gold buried somewhere, deep in the wilderness of an the imaginary South American country of Costaguana. With them is “a gambling, good-for-nothing mozo,” a mestizo. Together, the three steal a donkey, and with their revolvers in their belts, hack their way into the jungle with machetes and never come out. “As to the mozo,” Conrad says us, “his wife paid for some masses, and he had been probably permitted to die.”

“But the two gringos,” he continues, “spectral and alive, are believed to be dwelling to this day amongst the rocks, under the fatal spell of their success. Their souls cannot tear themselves away from their bodies mounting guard over the discovered treasure. They are now rich and hungry and thirsty—a strange theory of tenacious gringo ghosts suffering in their starved and parched flesh of defiant heretics, where a Christian would have renounced and been released.”

1560, year that Lope de Aguirre perished in the Amazon rainforest, was the age of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. Feudalism, traditional, limited authority gave way to capitalism. The individual could now go as far as his imagination would carry him. That could lead to Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel, or it could lead straight down into hell. After several days slogging through the mud and swamps, Gonzalo Pizarro decides, like Conrad’s good Christian, to renounce his quest for Eldorado. The main body of the expedition will stop, camp, and send 40 men (and women) ahead on rafts to make a brief reconnaissance. If the advance party doesn’t find Eldorado in three days, they are to return to the base camp. The expedition will be deemed a failure, and they will all march back up over the Andes, back to civilization. He puts Don Pedro de Ursúa in charge of the scouting expedition, and nominates Aguirre to be his executive officer. Against his better judgment, he also allows Aguirre’s 15-year-old daughter and Doña Inéz to go along with the men.

The advance party quickly proves to be a disaster. One raft gets caught in an eddy, and its crew is massacred by Indians. El Dorado is nowhere to be seen. The jungle is deep, merciless, inhuman. Don Pedro de Ursúa decides to turn back. But Aguirre is having none of it.

While I’ve never been a fan of Klaus Kinski, he is cast well as Aguirre. Ruy Guerra, the actor who plays Don Pedro de Ursúa, is dark, bearded, Southern European, a sleek, pampered Spanish aristocrat. Helena Rojo, the Mexican model and actress who plays Doña Inéz is regal, haughty. Dressed in green, with her hair tightly pinned to her head, she’s the very model of a representative of the Spanish crown. Kinski is different, not only blond, blue eyed, Northern European, but wild, manic, borderline psychotic. If Don Pedro de Ursúa and Doña Inéz physically embody feudalism, then Aguirre is the face of capitalism and imperialism, Kinski’s enormous, Mick Jagger like lips and wild bugged out eyes the very image of amoral, obsessive greed.

It is precisely when Aguirre leads his rebellion against Don Pedro de Ursúa that we see what the hunt for El Dorado is really all about. Yes, it’s about gold. 16th Century Spain was obsessed with gold. But even more than gold, it’s about competition. Aguirre is a younger contemporary of Hernan Cortez and Francisco Pizarro, both of whom have conquered empires and become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Will he become a great man like Cortez and Pizarro, or will he end up a footnote in history, a man born too late for Spain’s heroic age? The window of opportunity is closing. He intends to force his way through before it’s too late. He fails. Even more so, he goes mad, and succeeds, not in becoming a great conqueror, but only a deluded petty tyrant.

Apocalypse Now, as great a film as it is, has always had one glaring fault. Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe went into Central Africa at the height of European imperialism. In the 1890s, white Europeans did, for a brief time, make themselves gods, or, like King Leopold of Belgium, devils. But Apocalypse Now was released during the word-wide movement against colonialism that followed the Second World War. Since the Vietnamese had already defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, they were not going to put a strange white renegade like Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz up on a throne, and proclaim him emperor. The temptation to rule was never there, only the temptation to destroy. Werner Herzog dispenses with the problem altogether. While Don Pedro de Ursúa and Lope de Aguirre have Indian slaves, their authority depends on brute force. It has none of the authority of a legitimate monarchy. Indeed, one of Aguirre’s slaves, a former Inca Prince, not only sees through the Europeans and their pretensions of civilization. He knows they’re doomed. “I pity you,” he says to Doña Inéz. “Nobody gets out of this jungle alive.

Doña Inéz, probably the film’s only sympathetic character, is not along to hunt for gold, but out of loyalty to her lover Don Pedro de Ursúa. While she, like Aguirre’s Indian slaves, is helpless in the face of Aguirre’s brute force, she reads his intentions like a book. If you kill Don Pedro de Ursúa, she hisses at Aguirre. God will punish you. When Aguirre does indeed have Don Pedro murdered, she simply wanders off into the jungle, never to be seen again. But Doña Inéz is the only member of the expedition capable of standing up to the jungle tyrant. The others are either too brainwashed, terrified, or simply paralyzed with confusion and fear to do anything but go along. The Indians, like the Viet Cong, an invisible, quickly moving, merciless army of ghostly avengers, pick the European invaders off one by one. Eventually Aguirre is the only member of the expedition left alive. In the final scene, Klaus Kinski is alone, floating down the river on a raft full of corpses everybody, even his daughter, already dead, his only companions a horde of monkeys that has appeared out of nowhere. It is the final resting place of fascism, the terminal state of an absolute ruler, to have as his subjects, not men and women, but a lower form of primate. Aguirre, the Jungle Fuhrer, has turned the vanguard of western civilization into a pack of screaming monkeys and rotting corpses.

It would be tempting to read this as an anti-imperialist fable and argue that the Indians have cleansed the earth of the Spanish conquerors, liberated the jungle from its would be conqueror, but this is not Herzog’s intention. As Aguirre’s expedition sails up the Amazon rainforest to its doom, we realize that the malevolent force is not the Indians, or European imperialism, but nature itself. Indeed, the most startling images in Aguirre The Wrath Of God dramatize civilized man being conquered by nature, turning into unthinking animals. Aguirre’s men come upon an abandoned village once occupied by cannibals. Ravenous with hunger, they fall upon a stalk of un-ripe bananas, not even noticing the mummified remains of the cannibal tribe’s victims. Further up the river, two men discover a pile of salt. They are white men in the jungle, Europeans unused to the the heat and humidity of the Amazon rainforest. They haven’t had salt in weeks. They’re dehydrated. They lap up the pile of salt as if they had finally come upon Eldorado, as if they were vampires sucking blood, civilized Europeans reduced to their basest, animal instincts. What’s more, Herzog’s view of nature is not Rousseau’s. The Amazon rainforest in the end is not the Garden of Eden before the fall, but nature red in tooth and claw, after the fall. There’s a horrifying image of a mouse devouring her children. The raft floats past another cannibal village. There’s meat floating by, one of Aguirre’s slaves translates the voices that drift across the river as saying. Capitalism is not the conquest of nature, but the destruction of civilization and a descent into a Darwinian pit of hell, people as meat, the jungle, the war of all against all. It is Joseph Conrad’s conservative vision of humanity, a thin crust of civilization over a volcano, put down on screen once and for all.