Monthly Archives: January 2015

Culloden (1964)

Americans who don’t understand the difference between “English” and “British” could do worse than to watch Culloden, the classic 1964 docudrama by the British (and English) filmmaker Peter Watkins, a low-budget yet brutally realistic film that dramatizes the last major battle fought on British soil.

The Scots Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, the heavily romanticized and largely misunderstood attempt by the Stuart dynasty to regain the English and Scots (although not British) crown was the last major conflict in an economic, ideological, religious, and ethnic struggle that went back to the 16th Century. Although the English Civil War largely decided that the British Isles would be Protestant and capitalist, not Catholic and feudal, the Celtic periphery in Ireland and the Scots Highlands clung stubbornly to the past. In 1745, their hopes settled on Charles Eduard Stuart, “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” the grandson of King James II of England, the Stuart monarch ousted by the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688.

Bonnie Prince Charlie, who by all accounts was the very last person you would expect to topple the British crown, actually came close. In 1745, he landed at Glenfinnan in the Scottish Highlands, quickly raised an army of Scots Highlanders, and marched south. He defeated a royal army at Prestonpans near Edinburgh, crossed the border into England, captured Carlisle and Manchester, and got as far as Derby before the presence of three more English armies forced him to retreat back across the border to Scotland. Having failed to provoke an uprising of English Jacobites, Stuart’s army had reached its “high water mark.” It began to disintegrate. On 16 April 1746, in one of the most lopsided battles in history, the badly led, badly provisioned, and demoralized Jacobite army was crushed by a royalist army on Culloden Moor just outside of the Scots Highland town of Inverness.

Peter Watkins takes the ax to the romantic legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause, even as he condemns the brutality of English capitalism and the genocide of the Scots Highlanders. Culloden depicts Bonnie Prince Charlie as a rank incompetent. He fails to move his supply train out of Inverness to feed his men. Culloden Moor, his choice of battlefields, gives the already vastly superior royal army an even greater advantage. He neglects to tear down fortifications before they’re seized by the English. He fails to listen to the advice of Lord George Murray, his best general.

What happened at Culloden Moor in 1746 was murder, not war. Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops were not the French republican army of 1793, or the American army at the Battle of Trenton. They were a disorganized mass of Scots peasants press ganged into service by their clan chieftains. But it wasn’t the rank and file soldiers to blame for the crushing defeat. They fought as bravely as could be expected, under the circumstances. Rather, Watkins contends, it was the doomed class system of the Scots Highlands. With the exception of Lord George Murray, the officers of the Jacobite army were worse than incompetent. They were butchers who regarded their men as human cattle worthy of little more than to be led to the slaughter. Culloden Moor and its aftermath weren’t the genocide of the Scots Highlands so much as they were the suicide of the Scots Highlands.

William, the Duke of Cumberland, on the other hand, was a cold, brutal, almost inhuman master of counterinsurgency. After his modern, capitalist, well-provisioned army of English and Scots Lowlanders so easily routed the Jacobites, he decided not to follow the conventional rules of warfare. On the contrary, he mounted a vile campaign of propaganda that will be familiar to anybody who’s studied the Nazis in Eastern Europe or the genocide of the Native Americans. The Scots Highlanders, Cumberland maintained, were a subhuman race of brutes who, if they had prevailed, would have slaughtered the English and Scots Lowlanders without mercy. His troops are as brainwashed as any Fox News watching American who goes to see American Sniper. Those people aren’t like us. They have no regard for human life. So let’s slaughter them down to the last woman and child.

François Truffaut famously contended that a genuinely anti-war movie is impossible. In Culloden, Peter Watkins crushes his argument as easily as the Duke of Cumberland crushed Bonnie Prince Charlie. Culloden is a catalog of human misery. If the English soldiers haven’t bathed for some time, the Scots Highlanders haven’t eaten in almost as long. There is no food, no medical care, no shelter. You can feel the cold, smell the loose bowel movements, experience the disease, the dental pain, the listlessness that comes from hunger. You feel the agony of a 13-year-old Jacobite child soldier when an English canon ball severs his leg below the knee. Stuart’s miserable Scots peasants don’t fight. They wait obediently to be murdered. That they do it so bravely and so patiently is not so much a testament to their courage, but to the ox-like obedience that the feudal system demands of them. These poor men are quite literally sheep.

I suppose it’s fitting, therefore that they were replaced by sheep. I’ve never been to Scotland, but from what I’ve read, the Duke of Cumberland’s genocide in the Scots Highlands is still in evidence today. Land that was heavily populated in 1745, is now a dark, gloomy wilderness. The people who once lived there have gone abroad, to Appalachia in the United States, to Canada, to the Scots Lowlands and to England. In an ironic twist of history, the ethnically cleansed Scots Highlanders became the rank and file stormtroopers of the British Empire, slaughtering Indians on the American frontier as surely as their ancestors had been slaughtered by the English.

Boyhood (2014)

Richard Linklater and I have one thing in common. We’re both from the most boring as fuck generation in American history. Late Boomers and early Gen Xers, we grew up in the shadow of the 1960s. By the time we reached young adulthood, the sexual revolution was over. The counter culture was gone. Yet the the huge Boomer generation, as self-obsessed and narcissistic as ever as they entered their 30s and 40s, weighed down on all of us. They were disillusioned. They wanted all of us to be the same. Most of us complied. We were dull, unsexy, unimaginative, and apolitical. Dazed and Confused, Linklater’s third film, captures it all. The tedious jock culture, the even more tedious stoner culture, the casual acceptance of bullying and sexual hierarchy, the lack of any real hopes or ideals, it was a rotten time to grow up.

I retreated into classic music and high culture, into Beethoven and A.E. Houseman. Richard Linklater, on the other hand, refashioned himself into Ethan Hawke, flew to Europe, and got on a train to Vienna from Budapest. There met Celine, an upper-middle-class French woman played by Julie Delpy. Before Sunrise Linklater’s best movie, isn’t really set in Europe. It’s set in the world that Linklater built inside his imagination, the utopian alternative to the prison-like Texas high-school of Dazed and Confused. Where the typical American girl, as exemplified by Parker Posey’s Darla Marks, is the jock culture’s social enforcer, the ugly American in a cheerleader’s skirt, Julie Delpy’s Celine is an alienated American intellectual’s dream come true, European high culture as personified in a beautiful woman.

Before Sunrise was so good that Linklater collaborated with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke on two sequels. In 2004 came Before Sunset. Jesse is now a successful novelist, and Celine the director of a French NGO. They meet after a decade, and begin the relationship that, up until then, existed only in their nostalgic imaginations. In 2014, Linklater, Delpy and Hawke released Before Midnight. Jesse and Celine have been married for 10 years. He’s begun to worry that his success was just a fluke. She’s starting to obsess about getting old and losing her good looks. Before Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight were not only a successful trilogy of films, they represented the passing of time from the Clinton years, through the Bush years, to the Obama years in two individuals.

So why repeat the same formula in Boyhood?

I think Richard Linklater realized that you don’t necessarily express the passing of time simply by observing how your actors age over the years. Over the course of their 9-year run, for example, the cast of Seinfeld went from their mid-30s to their mid-40s, but the show said almost nothing about how American society changed during the 1990s. What’s more, by the time you get to your mid-20s, like Jesse and Celine in Before Sunrise, your personality is already formed. You may get older, uglier, and more cynical in your 30s and 40s, but you’re still pretty much the same person, even after your breasts begin to sag and your hair falls out. Jesse’s anxiety over whether or not he’s a genuinely great novelist and Celine’s concern that she’s not as hot as she was in 1994 might best be classified as “white peoples problems.” But the biggest issue with Before Sunset and Before Midnight is that Ethan Hawke just isn’t convincing as a famous writer. That he could defy the odds and not only make a living writing novels, but be able to afford to jet back and forth between New York and Chicago, seems more like a fantasy than a representative American Story.

In “Boyhood,” Linklater brings us back down to the lower-middle-class American reality. Jesse and Celine have become Mason and Olivia Evans, the divorced mother and father of two children, six-year-old Mason Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane, and his older sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei. Boyhood, which Linklater filmed over the course of 12 years, therefore, allows us to watch the growth of two children into adults, a transformation far more dramatic than that of two twentysomethings eventually reaching early middle-age. Mason Evans, also played by Ethan Hawke is Jesse, but he’s a real life Jesse, not the Jesse that won the lottery. A would-be-musician, he spends most of his time working at marginal jobs, never quite growing up or settling down. Olivia, Patricia Arquette, does more than just fret about growing old. She grows old right before our eyes. If Jesse and Celine talk about separating in Before Midnight, Mason and Olivia have already done it. But there’s no fairy tale ending for Olivia. The men she moves onto from Jesse, a brutal, authoritarian, alcoholic college professor, and an ex-soldier with PTSD, are much worse, not only inadequate boy men who can’t quite grow up, but verbal abusers and wife beaters. Nevertheless, Olivia perseveres. She goes back to school, and eventually becomes a full-time college professor with enough money to send her two kids to four year colleges. She and Mason, who remarries, stay on good terms.

The first half of Boyhood is excellent. But “Boyhood” should actually be called “Motherhood.” Once the film loses its focus on Olivia and starts to follow Mason Jr., it begins to drag. Samantha, who might be the more assertive and intelligent of the two siblings, is pushed to the margins of the script. Mason Jr. is just not that interesting. In fact, he reminds me a little of Randall “Pink” Floyd from Dazed and Confused, a vapid stoner kid who talks about himself as a non-conformist, but who, unlike his mother, just seems to follow a script. Indeed, Mason Jr. doesn’t seem like a millennial generation kid at all. He comes off more like just another Gen Xer. Neither he nor Samantha seem to be worried about paying for college, which, for the two children of a divorced community college professor, would be a lot more daunting in the 2010s than it would have been in the 1980s. Mason Jr. is interested in (film) photography, but neither he nor his sister seem to have developed musical tastes or other cultural interests that would mark them off as distinct from their father. Couldn’t we at least have seen Mason Jr., just once, for example, try to explain hip hop to Mason Sr.? Isn’t there at least something, beside wear nail polish, he does that a teenage boy in the 1970s or 1980s wouldn’t have?

In other words, Mason Jr., for all of the artful illusion that he’s a millennial kid, and in spite of the fact that we watch Ellar Coltrane grow up right in front of our eyes, is no less a fantasy than Jesse from Before Sunrise. If Jesse was Richard Linklater’s alter ego in Europe, than Mason Jr. is Linklater living his childhood and youth over again in the Bush and Obama years. Linklater doesn’t manage the passage of time very well, something that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese do almost effortlessly. Early on in the movie, Samantha hums a Brittany Spears song, and, at the end, we hear a selection from “Somebody that I Used to Know” by Goyte, but neither Mason Jr. nor Samantha seems particularly interested in either. Mason Jr. goes from 6 to 18, but his style doesn’t seem to evolve along with his body. On the contrary, the older he gets, the more he starts to look like his father. That certainly happens in real life. But it does nothing to illustrate the passing of 12 years. The pretense of unvarnished, unscripted reality has become more oppressive than liberating.

Boyhood ends with Olivia shipping Mason Jr. off to Sul Ross State University, a rather dreary looking state college in southwest Texas. He meets his roommate. He meets Nicole, a young woman who will almost certainly become his next girlfriend. They go out into the desert to do mushrooms. “Aren’t we really all just living in the moment?” he tell her. No, we think, you’re not. You’re being dragged back down into the 1970s and 1980s. Rebel while you can.

Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

I first became aware of Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes in 1993 when Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List made him a star in the United States. Fiennes has always specialized in a certain type of character. Whether as Nazi concentration camp commandant Amon Göth or Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort, he is the dark, rancid heart of fascism beating underneath a veneer of European high-culture. In Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson’s latest film, he is redeemed.

It would be hard to imagine a more chilling moment in any movie than the “interview” scene from Schindler’s List. Amon Göth is walking up and down a line of female Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz, looking for a maid for his “villa.” Helen Hirsch, Embeth Davidtz, Göth’s eventually choice, has no desire to be his personal sex slave, to be raped every day in exchange for a little extra food and shelter. But that’s precisely why Göth chooses her. Smelling fear like a trained bloodhound, he zeros in on the terrified young woman, pulling back her coat to reveal her hands shaking violently. “She’s the one,” he indicates.

In Grand Budapest Hotel, Fiennes conducts a very different kind of job interview. Here he plays Monsieur Gustave H., the “concierge” at one of the finest hotels in Europe. Monsieur Gustave H. has a bit of a sleaze factor, but that only adds to his likeability. A gigolo who specializes in older women, he wears a bit too much cologne and pontificates a bit too much to his employees, a captive audience, at dinner, but he’s a petty tyrant with a heart of gold. Young Zero Moustafa, a Middle Eastern refugee who’s been hired on at the Grand Budapest as a probationary lobby boy, is being given a “proper interview.” He has no experience or education that Monsieur Gustav H. thinks is worthy of the Grand Budapest, and everything seems to be going badly until the last question.

“Why do you want to be a lobby boy?” Monsieur Gustav H. asks Zero.

“Well, who wouldn’t ?” Zero responds, “at the Grand Budapest, sir. It’s an institution.”

Young Zero Moustafa is hired. Mr. Gustav isn’t interested in fear, or even education or experience. What he wants is wide eyed innocence and enthusiasm. For Young Zero Moustafa the Grand Budapest is Europe, high culture, the chance to succeed. This is the American Dream in the mythical Central European country of Zubrowska. Monsieur Gustave H. is the mentor he’s always dreamed of. Young Zero Moustafa, in turn, is the sidekick and right hand man Monsieur Gustav H. has always dreamed of. What follows is the most unlikely buddy movie. The middle-aged Fiennes and the 18-year-old Tony Revolori become a pair of “culture warriors,” culture warriors in the best sense, two men determined to preserve the light of civilization against the coming darkness of a Nazi like occupation.

“There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity,” the elderly Moustafa recounts to the story’s narrator at the end of the film. “He was one of them. What more is there to say?”

Monsieur Gustav sees every human being is a rose still in the bud form, waiting to be liberated. “Rudeness is merely an expression of fear,” he says. “People fear they won’t get what they want. The most dreadful and unattractive person only needs to be loved, and they will open up like a flower.” He sees beauty in old, even dead woman. “You’re looking so well, darling,” he says to his late mistress, “you really are. They’ve done a marvelous job. I don’t know what sort of cream they’ve put on you down at the morgue, but I want some.” He sees beauty in young women. “I must say, I find that girl utterly delightful,” he remarks to Moustafa about Agatha, his fiancée, “flat as a board, enormous birthmark the shape of Mexico over half her face, sweating for hours on end in that sweltering kitchen, while Mendl, genius though he is, looms over her like a hulking gorilla. Yet without question, without fail, always and invariably, she’s exceedingly lovely.”

The elaborate, baroque, highly stylized world of the Grand Budapest Hotel is a reflection of Monsieur Gustav H.’s character. Wes Anderson is a master at filming snowy, enchanted cityscapes, and sublime, romantic, Alpine landscapes. While Anderson may indeed by a meticulous craftsman, and while the world he creates may have the outward appearance of structure and hierarchy, just underneath the surface is a wonderland of contradictions, anachronisms, and flat out weirdness. Like Mr. Gustav H., Wes Anderson creates an elaborate world of ugliness out of beauty, only to find beauty in the ugliness he’s created. Nobody would find the actress Saoirse Ronan, who plays Agatha, anything but beautiful in the most traditional sense. But Anderson prefers the sublime to well-ordered beauty. He prefers a beautiful girl with a huge birthmark to a beautiful girl with perfect skin. So he builds an intricate wedding cake of a movie, creates The Grand Budapest Hotel, his symbol of European high-culture, only to write dialogue full of anachronism and vulgarity. Then he turns around and finds nobility in the vulgarity he’s just created.

Whether or you not you love The Grand Budapest Hotel or find it a tedious display of cinematic excess will depend on just how much you enjoy looking for a set of tools hidden in one of Mendl’s wedding cakes.

The Education of Sonny Carson (1974)

The Education of Sonny Carson, which was made on a shoe-string budget, has several obvious flaws. The camera-work is amateurish. The script is sloppily edited. The performances are melodramatic and over the top. Yet in spite of its flaws, it often rises to greatness.

The real Sonny Carson was no angel.

http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/23/nyregion/sonny-carson-66-figure-in-60-s-battle-for-schools-dies.html

“His autobiography, ”The Education of Sonny Carson,” was made into a movie in 1974. The film chronicled Mr. Carson’s early life in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he joined a gang called the Bishops. In the book, the climax of his early life of street crime, which he described with brutal candor, came when he robbed a Western Union messenger, who was black. He spent the money on clothes and a girlfriend, then was arrested and sent to a juvenile-detention institution for the crime.”

I’m old enough to remember Sonny Carson’s later career in the 1980s. He participated in anti-police brutality marches. He founded the Black Men’s Movement Against Crack. More controversially, he led a boycott of a Korean-owned supermarket called “Red Apple,” a boycott which led to his being investigated by the FBI for “violating the civil rights of Korean Americans.”

He got horrible press.

The NY Post, the Daily News, and the local TV stations loathed Carson. He was ritualistically denounced as an “anti-Semite,” a charge he answered by saying “that’s ridiculous. I’m against all white people.” NYC Mayor David Dinkins was pressured into disavowing him when rumors surfaced that he had been the recipient of Democratic Party campaign funds.

It’s important to remember, however, that this is the same NYC press that helped the NYPD frame the Central Park 5 for the rape and attempted murder of the Central Park jogger. It’s the same NYC press that tried to tie the Occupy Movement to a 5-year-old murder. It’s the same NYC press that regularly carries water for the white, racist, NYC ruling class. Anything they say about any black nationalist militant needs to be taken with a massive grain of salt.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that The Education of Sonny Carson, which covers Sonny Carson’s life from junior high-school to young manhood, rises to greatness, not in spite of its faults, but because of its faults.

Rony Clanton, who plays Carson, is an often powerful on-screen presence, but he’s not a subtle actor. He doesn’t draw out the complexities of Carson’s personality. He plays him as a straight up African American Christ. The Education of Sonny Carson might just as well have been called The Passion of Sonny Carson. Yet this is a strength, not a weakness. The Education of Sonny Carson doesn’t get bogged down in the real Sonny Carson’s moral failings. Carson, in Michael Campus’s film is a flawed man, but he’s also a representative man. When Carson is tortured by the NYPD for robbing 100 dollars from a messenger boy, we’ve already witnessed the crime. We know he’s guilty. But once two white detectives tie him to a pipe and beat him until he spits up blood, he rises above his crime. He becomes every black man subjected to police brutality, every slave brought over from Africa, every victim of every oppressive system of government. When he survives three years in prison with his defiant spirit intact, he cheer him on in spite of his flaws. Carson becomes subsumed by, and representative of the black struggle in America.

Similarly, the poor editing is a blessing in disguise. Had The Education of Sonny Carson been been better written, had kept its focus, we wouldn’t have gotten so many glorious shots of 1960s and 1970s Brooklyn. Campus lingers on a parade in Bedford–Stuyvesant far too long. It gets tedious. It kills the momentum of the narrative. As history, however, it’s enlightening. Brooklyn was a very different place in 1974 than it is now. There were no white hipsters with trust funds, but there was a dynamic, rambunctious, often violent street culture. There was crime, murder, betrayal, but there was also a community of people who were excluded from, and often stood against the American mainstream. If only they could get together and stop fighting one another, we think, they could start a revolution. The Education of Sonny Carson would become The Battle of Algiers.

But, alas, that was not to be. The Education of Sonny Carson gets the next few decades just about right. Carson is able to keep his defiant spirit alive in prison, but that can’t be said for his friends, gang members, and his old girlfriend. Carson comes home to a Bedford–Stuyvesant ravaged by drugs, to a neighborhood of the walking dead. He’s a living man in a community full of zombies. He looks out at the street. He imagines the parade we saw earlier in the film. But it’s not there. Where there were marching bands, cheering crowds, street gangs, colorful, dynamic expressions of African American Brooklyn, there’s nothing but dead concrete. Sonny Carson’s Bedford–Stuyvesant has been hollowed out by poverty, a lack of educational opportunity, police repression, and by the moral failings of its community. It’s ripe for gentrification. Bring on those hipsters.

A final note: The Education of Sonny Carson was an obvious influence on two later films, Walter Hill’s The Warriors and American Me by Edward James Olmos. If you liked either of these two films, you’ll love their rough draft.

Big Eyes (2015)

Whether or not Margaret Keane’s paintings of children with enormous, saucer-like eyes are any good as art can be debated. What can’t be debated is this. Keane, who was born in 1927 in Kentucky as Peggy Doris Hawkins, should have been an American success story.

In the mid-1950s Keane left her first husband and moved to San Francisco to establish herself as an artist. She started off as a single mother without a penny to her name in an art world that barely acknowledged female painters even existed. By 1964, she had sold thousands, probably tens of thousands of images worth millions of dollars. But Margaret Keane never got to enjoy her celebrity. Instead, her second husband Walter, who marketed her paintings as his own, got fêted, wined, dined, written about, and ultimately very rich off of his wife’s work.

Big Eyes, starring Amy Adams, as Margaret and Christopher Waltz (the Nazi from Inglorious Basterds) and directed by Tim Burton asks why. Why did Margaret Keane not only allow an obvious fraud to take credit for her art, but kept producing it? Why did she lie to her daughter, and ultimately to herself? The most obvious explanation, sexism, is true, but it’s not enough.

In fact, to attribute what happened to Margaret Keane exclusive to sexism is to become Walter Keane.

As a single mother trying to sell her artwork in the misogynistic art world of 1950s, Margaret Keane would have faced discrimination. But why didn’t Walter, a gifted salesman and bullshit artist, encourage her, push her to overcome her obstacles? In fact, the appeal of Margaret Keane’s “big eye” images might have come from the very sexism that kept her out of the art world in the first place. The San Francisco art world of the 1950s and 1960s, as Burton makes clear, was a dull, insufferable place, a bastion of male “privilege” where derivative, uninspired abstract art was elevated above anything that could have had real popular appeal. There was a hunger for paintings that expressed a woman’s perspective, and Keane, an attractive female artist, might have become a big star. It was in Walter’s selfish interest to convince Margaret that, as a woman, she didn’t stand a chance when, in fact, she might have.

But there’s another, more baffling question. If Margaret Keane allowed her husband to bully her into letting him take credit for her paintings, why did Walter want people to think he created the “big eye” images in the first place? Keane’s paintings are obviously from the female perspective. A grown man painting big eyed child after big eyed child looks more like a creepy pedophile than a great artist. Walter Keane was more than a Llewyn Davis. He’s not an untalented mediocrity producing derivative work that, however derivative, at least expresses something about himself. He’s an utter fraud. In fact, he not only robs Margaret, he robs himself. Walter is a gifted salesman. He could have easily established himself as Margaret’s agent and business manager, revelled in his own gift to market an unconventional form of art over the heads of stuffy art critics to the people. Americans admire great salesmen over great artists anyway.

I think Burton is getting at something deeper than a film about sexism. He’s exploring the differences between the idea of creating art and marketing art. Anybody who’s written a novel or a piece of music, created a painting or a piece of sculpture knows that expressing yourself and selling the way you’ve expressed yourself are different, often contradictory skills. To create a work of art you have to be ruthlessly self-critical, to consider its failures your failures, to dig deeper and deeper into yourself until you collapse in front of what you consider an unfinished work. To market your creation, you have to throw the car into reverse, forget about your failings. You have to bullshit yourself into thinking you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. You not only have to lie to other people. You have to lie to yourself. Margaret, as an artist, couldn’t sell what she painted. Walter, as a salesman, couldn’t paint what he sold. Together they become a marketing juggernaut, but destroyed each other in the process.

Amy Adams and Christopher Waltz are perfect as Margaret and Walter Keane.

Adams, a naturalistic actor, can express emotion without saying a word. She manages to build the character of Margaret Keane as a a complex, three-dimensional woman. Margaret Keane is both supremely confident and yet utterly lost. She can churn out painting after painting and still delude herself into thinking she couldn’t possibly take credit for them herself. Her very emotional sincerity allows her to lie to her daughter, to undermine the little girl’s sense of reality, the worst possible form of child abuse.

Christopher Waltz is a German actor playing that most American of American roles, the bullshit artist. The fact that he’s not a native English speaker, that his American accent is fake, a mask he put on for the movie, not only let’s him build the character of Walter Keane. It makes him Walter Keane. Waltz, as an American, is a fraud. He’s a German who’s not only pretending to be an American. He’s a German who becomes an American by the very act of pretending to be an American. We sense the depths underneath his bland, WASPY good looks, the demon lying in wait behind the glib talk, the friendly handshake and the easy smile. When he tries to burn Margaret (and her daughter) out of her studio, it’s terrifying. When he tries to represent himself in front of a clearly sceptical judge, it’s hilarious, and pathetic. Walter not only has a fool for a client. He has a fool for a lawyer.

Final Note: Although Margaret won her suit against Walter in court, the award of 4 million dollars was later revoked.

On Phil Ochs, Malcolm X, and Je Suis Charlie

A guest post by Carol Lipton:

Phil Ochs penned the famous lyrics to “Love Me I’m a Liberal” about Malcolm X:

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers

Tears ran down my spine

I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy

As though I’d lost a father of mine

But Malcolm X got what was coming

He got what he asked for this time

So love me, love me Love me, I’m a liberal

He wrote those lyrics to contrast the assassinations of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X. Medgar Evers, in the eyes of white journalists, was the “good Negro” who died a martyr, having marched for civil rights, while Malcolm X was the dangerous black man, the heretic who dared to expose the nature of American capitalism, and the collective delusion that we were a democracy for anyone other than white people.

The comment which most inspired the tidal wave of wrath in the media was his statement after JFK’s assassination that “the chickens have come home to roost”. Those words referred to what happened in Vietnam just three weeks before before President Kennedy’s assassination, which the world has now largely forgotten.

That was the November 3, 1963 assassination of No Dinh Nu, younger brother and chief political advisor of South Vietnam’s first president, Ngô Đình Diệm, and Diem himself, who were installed largely as the result of support by the US.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arrest_and_assassination_of_Ngo_Dinh_Diem

The coup was the culmination of nine years of autocratic and nepotistic family rule in South Vietnam. There was even a meme I recall seeing in newspapers: “no Nus is good news”. Numerous coup plans had been explored by the army before, but the plotters intensified their activities with increased confidence after the Kennedy administration authorized the U.S. embassy to explore the possibility of a leadership change.

The generals initially attempted to cover up the execution by suggesting that the brothers had committed suicide, but this was contradicted when photos of the Ngôs’ corpses surfaced in the media.

When Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963 , Malcolm X quickly made the connection between US foreign policy and the potential inherent in that policy for a coup d’etat in our own country. It was a perspective that took into account the long and bloody history of CIA coups, from Greece in 1948, to the mass assassinations and coup that deposed Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961.

His statement that “the chickens have come home to roost” was no less in bad taste, or any more incendiary, than the hundreds of political cartoons penned by Charlie Hebdo. But as we approach the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s own assassination in February, 1965, nowhere do liberal pundits celebrate Malcolm X’s right to free speech, or his value to our society.

There was never was a je suis Malcolm, and there never will be. Phil Ochs was right.

CAROL LIPTON was born and raised in the Pelham Parkway housing projects, where she learned how to sleep pressed up against the wall in the summer. She was admitted to Music and Art High School on Art and Bronx H.S. of Science, and went to Science, a decision she had no control over. Largely self-taught in art, she began exhibiting and selling her watercolor paintings at age 14. Her favorite sports were punch ball, dodge ball, stickball, kickball, cycling, and Ringaleevio. She invented the first aerodynamic skully cap. Carol began playing piano at age 4 ½, and studied piano and music theory for 11 years. She was a professional musician and composer, playing the restaurant, bar and college circuit in D.C.

She went to NYU on an IBEW and Regents scholarship, where she graduated with Honors in philosophy and Political Science. She was co-editor of the poetry journal, and was a student strike coordinator in the aftermath of Kent State. After graduation, she led a cross-country 450-mile cycling trip through Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.  She graduated from the Catholic University School of Law. She was a grants administrator for the Expansion Arts program at NEA, responsible for making decisions that gave money to community arts programs.

As a legal services fellow in Kentucky, Carol became an anti-nuclear activist, and co-produced a special for NBC on the Maxey Flats nuclear waste site. She has co-produced specials for ABC’s 20/20 on the militia/tax protest movement, and for NBC, on a Guatemalan political asylum claimant she represented through Human Rights First, where she trained under the late Arthur Helton. She consulted to the Haitian Refugee Center, where she handled an immigration appeal.

She has worked in public interest law, for Legal Services, and in private practice, specializing in consumer fraud, employment discrimination, bankruptcy, housing, and appellate litigation in family law. She has been a member of the Appellate Division’s Assigned Counsel panel for 23 years, and is a member of the National Lawyers Guild.

The Crossing (2000)

The Battle of Trenton, where George Washington crossed the Delaware River on Christmas of 1776, then surprised and captured a Hessian garrison on the morning of December 26th, was one of history’s most decisive battles. The death toll was surprisingly low, even for the late 18th Century. Only 2 Americans and 22 Hessians were killed. Yet Washington’s dramatic move effectively liberated New Jersey, and most of the Northeast, from British rule.

If you’ve read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The American Crisis you know why. As large and well-provided as it was, the British Army in 1776 was trying to hold onto a territory that was far too large to be ruled by mere brute force. Unless the British had the support of a decisive majority of people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Washington could maintain his small army indefinitely. That left British General Howe had two equally problematic choices. He could concentrate his army in large garrisons like Rall’s Hessians in Trenton. But that would not only leave them with vulnerable supply lines, and it would make it clear that the English in North America were little more than an occupying army. He could break his army down into smaller formations designed to protect Americans loyal to the British crown. But that, in turn, would require his troops to commandeer supplies from the local farmers. At some point, they would cause so much resentment that they could be defeated by local militias. Washington’s decisive victories at Trenton and Princeton demonstrated that he could a defeat well-trained European army. He didn’t have to win every time — Washington lost the majority of battles he fought against the British — but if he managed to keep his army in the field, the American victory was inevitable.

The Crossing, an A&E film made in 2000 and starring Jeff Daniels, dramatizes the crossing of the Delaware and the victory at Trenton. Is it any good? As cinema, probably not. It’s a low-budget TV movie. Daniels captures little of the authority George Washington could project by his very presence, his skill as a horseman, or his physical courage. He comes off like a put upon corporate executive dealing with cranky subordinates, not one of history’s great military commanders. Based on the novel by Howard Fast, The Crossing also contains a number of historical inaccuracies, and misconceptions. The Hessians at Trenton were not an elite force of “mercenaries.” They were mostly poor German peasants, kidnapped by the Landgrave Frederick II of Hesse-Kassel, and sold as slaves to his friends among the crowned heads of Europe, including King George III. There’s no proof that Horatio Gates, who disapproved of attack, was led out of the camp under guard. As far as I know, he simply feigned illness and joined the Continental Congress in Baltimore. Alexander Hamilton did take part in the Battle of Trenton, but he hadn’t yet become a member of Washington’s general staff. Most importantly of all, where’s the blizzard? Washington crossed the Delaware and marched up to Trenton in the middle of a nor’easter. The only two deaths in the Continental Army at Trenton were due to exposure, not he Hessians. If you’re going to make a patriotic film about the most decisive battle of the American Revolution, why leave out the biggest obstacle Washington’s troops faced?

But I suppose that a low-budget TV movie didn’t have the technical resources to stage a nor’easter. What’s more, a big budget film would have meant big stars, investors, publicity campaigns. The story of the Battle of Trenton might have gotten swallowed up in the special effects. The Crossing, for all it’s flaws, does manage to convey why the Battle of Trenton took place, what it meant, and how Washington pulled it off. While it may contain some poetic license, the dialogue between Washington and his subordinate Colonel John Glover, for example, masterfully stages the tensions between the Virginia plantation owner and his cranky, democratic soldiers from Philadelphia and New England. Did Glover actually insult a host at a dinner party? Who knows, but the real Glover certainly could have made the speech rejecting aristocrat privilege and the Anglican church. When Washington orders Glover to commandeer the Durham boats he would later use to make the crossing, the movie makes it crystal clear that he considers it an option of last resort. Glover demurs. Washington takes responsibility, even though he knows that if the Continental Army makes it a habit of strong arming supplies from local farmers and business owners that the British would eventually win the war.

For the Battle of Trenton itself, director Robert Harmon does a lot on a shoestring budget. Unlike Ted Turner’s Gettysburg, which also starred Jeff Daniels, we don’t really get the sense we’re watching middle-aged reenactors. Perhaps the small scale of The Battle of Trenton made it easy to stage, but the clumsy staged explosions and flying bodies notwithstanding, The Crossing does capture the terror the Hessian soldiers must have felt when they realized they had been outflanked and surprised by Washington’s troops. Whether or not the scene where Alexander Hamilton leads an attack on a Hessian blockhouse is perfectly true to history isn’t important. It captures the brutal quality of close combat, of “going in with cold steel.” The exhilaration Washington must have felt when he realized he had captured Trenton with no deaths — the only two Continental soldiers who died during the attack died of exposure — comes across loud and clear.

Johann Rall is portrayed as a bit of a dandy, a man who takes the time to get dressed and groom himself, even after he’s informed that his camp at Trenton is under attack. There’s really no way of knowing what Rall did in those final hours before he was killed, but the film does convey just how much he was taken by surprise. Contrary to popular mythology, the Hessian soldiers weren’t sleeping off a hangover on the morning of December 26th, 17776, but Rall certainly wasn’t expecting Washington to move against him in force. He hadn’t put out flankers or advanced patrols. Perhaps he had been watching weather reports circa 2014, where every little snowstorm is built up into the monster blizzard that never comes. Maybe he thought the Americans were all out at the supermarket stocking up on bread, toilet paper, and snow shovels?

Final historical note: Colonel John Glover had black soldiers under his command in The Marblehead Mariners. As Princeton historical David Hackett Fischer makes clear in his book Washington’s Crossing, they also staged riots against white racist troops from Virginia. There’s a black soldier in Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s classic painting. But Glover’s black soldiers aren’t portrayed in The Crossing.

Nothing But A Man (1964)

Nothing But A Man, widely recognized as one of the great films of the Civil Rights Era, but little seen today, looks back to Italian Neorealism, and forward to the 1970s, and Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep.

Directed by German Jewish exile Michael Roemer and starring Ivan Dixon, who would later go onto direct the seminal black nationalist film The Spook Who Sat By The Door, Nothing But A Man was shot on a shoestring budget in a severe, minimalist, black and white style. Roemer and his cinematographer Robert M. Young waste nothing. Every frame looks like a Gordon Parks photograph. Duff Anderson, Dixon, is a Korean War veteran living in Jim Crow Alabama. He’s stuck in a menial job driving railroad spikes with a segregated labor gang, living with a small group of single men, traveling through the south, following the labor market where it leads.

Then he meets Josie Dawson, the daughter of a local preacher, played by jazz singer Abbey Lincoln. It’s love at first sight, for both. Joise Dawson is everything Anderson’s always dreamed of, an educated woman who works as a schoolteacher, the middle-class partner he’s always desired. Joisie, in turn, admires Anderson’s assertive personality, his unwillingness to live under Jim Crow, the way he seems to anticipate the Civil Rights movement and the Black Panthers. Not only does she agree to marry him, but when she finds out he has a son by another woman, she offers to help raise him as her own.

Even though Nothing But A Man ends on a hopeful note, it hows us exactly what Duff Anderson is up against. Duff’s father Will, played by Julius Harris, who was only 10 years older than Ivan Dixon and at times seems more like an older brother than a father, is an alcoholic on a downward spiral. He has an attractive live in girlfriend. He abandoned Duff exactly the way Duff abandoned his own son. The message is clear. Every time Duff sees his father, he sees himself, not in a few decades, not in a few years, but in a few weeks, or even a few days. Will Anderson is Duff’s mirror image, the ever present possibility of his own failure.

Can men like Duff Anderson break the circle?” the film asks us. “Can he get out of the permanent underclass that’s consumed his father?”

For most men, it’s their bad qualities that keep them down. For Duff Anderson, it’s the reverse. Duff is forceful, intelligent, masculine. He has a sense of self-respect. That’s dangerous for a black man in the Jim Crow south. Unwilling to put on a show of deference for the local whites, he’s fired from a succession of jobs, each one worse than the one that came before it. The same qualities that made Duff attractive to Joise threaten to tear apart their marriage. The more the need to make a living tears down his manhood, the surlier and the more abusive he becomes to his wife. Finally he crosses the line and get violent, shoving Joisie to the ground in a moment of rage. He packs his bags and goes back to the city to visit his father.

But Will Anderson is on his last legs. Now so drunk that he can barely sit up straight, he dies on the way to the hospital. As he makes the arrangements for the funeral, Duff realizes he has no idea where his father was born, or how old he is. He inherits nothing. He realizes that however hard life is going to get, he needs to break the cycle of poverty and despair, by any means necessary. “I can always go back and chop cotton if I have to,” he tells his stepmother. He brings the boy home to Joisie, who agrees to forgive him, and take him back. “Everything is gonna be all right,” she tells him.

Will it? We don’t really know. But Nothing But A Man is a triumph. It tells the story, not only of the black working-class in the Jim Crow South, but of the American working class as a whole. It should have laid the groundwork for an entire school of American, socialist neorealism. Instead it’s been forgotten.