From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995)

Most film lovers are familiar with Jean Seberg. Her iconic look in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless has been imitated so many times that even people who have never heard her name are familiar with her work. But Seberg was more than just a blond pixie cut and a bad French accent. She was a progressive, even a revolutionary political activist. She was also the victim of one of the most vicious FBI smear campaigns in the history of Cointelpro.

Daniel Levine — the director of the new film American Plain Songs — briefly introduced us to the work of Mark Rapport last year. Rappaport, who’s almost completely unknown to the general public, but highly regarded among film critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and the late Roger Ebert, has made what might be the only documentary that does Jean Seberg justice as a political activist and feminist. His approach, an imaginary, “found” autobiography read by an actress who looks almost, but not quite like Jean Seberg, he not only rescues her from the movies. It rescues her from herself.

Mary Beth Hurt, like Jean Seberg, is a blond American “girl next door” with a pixie cut, and a flat, Midwestern accent. But, 50 years old in 1995, she lacks Seberg’s movie star glamor. Rappaport could have easily cast a more beautiful actress in the role. Chloe Sevigny in her Kids/Trees Lounge days looked remarkably like a rougher version of the young Jean Seberg. But Seberg as a plain, middle-aged woman – someone who looks like your English professor – is entirely Mark Rappaport’s point. Mary Beth Hurt is the real Jean Seberg, not the glamorized icon of the French New Wave. In Rappaport’s imagination, she becomes the woman she might have become had she not been destroyed by J. Edgar Hoover, and a series of abusive husbands.

In Mark Rappaport’s “found” diary, not quite history, yet not quite fiction, Seberg becomes a lost voice of the 1960s counter culture. She starts at age 17, when she was chosen by Otto Preminger to star in his film Saint Joan, not in spite of, but because of her lack of acting experience. Preminger wanted to cast an actress the same age as the real Joan of Arc, but what worked for Franco Zeffirelli in Romeo and Juliet fell flat for Otto Preminger. Seberg was terribly miscast as Joan. What’s more, as Seberg/Rappaport/Hurt make clear, realism isn’t always “realistic.” Sometimes it’s just distracting. The fact that Seberg was actually burned by the real fire Preminger set to consume the fictional Joan of Arc adds nothing to the story’s dramatic impact, as Rappaport makes clear when he juxtaposes images from Preminger’s clumsy film to Dreyer’s masterpiece, The Passion of John of Arc.

Even worse, Seberg’s relationship with Preminger, who liked to bully young actresses, probably set the template for her marriage to Romain Gary, an abusive relationship that made her all the more vulnerable to the attacks by the FBI’s Cointelpro program. If Seberg was miscast, as Saint Joan, Seberg maintains, then it was because Joan, unlike Juliet, an ordinary teenage girl, was a woman of heroic stature. When she mentions Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave as two actresses who would have probably done better in the role, it’s more than just an offhanded suggestion. Instead, in a remarkable sequence, Mark Rappaport weaves the lives of Seberg, Redgrave, Fonda, three women dedicated to radical politics as well as film, into a single thread, making a familiar side of the 1960s even more familiar by re-imagining it from a novel perspective.

Indeed, instead of going into a detailed history of how J. Edgar Hoover became obsessed with Seberg after she became a supporter of the Black Panthers, Rappaport shows us that she was part of a larger trend. Redgrave was widely vilified in the 1970s for her support of Palestinian nationalism. Seberg herself was subjected to a Cointelpro campaign in a large part of the corporate press, especially those newspapers loyal to the FBI. When she bore a stillborn baby to Romain Gary, she actually displayed it in a glass coffin to prove that the father had been white, and not a member of the Black Panthers, as Hoover had convinced so many newspaper reporters.

But it was Jane Fonda who became the focus of the venom of the American right, a hatred that lasted right through the Bush administration, and probably still exists today. Rappaport’s parallel lives of Fonda and Seberg are richly detailed, uncovering connections between the two women we never quite realized existed. Fonda’s failed audition in the film Klute, for example, has her reading lines from Preminger’s Saint Joan. Had she read for the part? Fonda’s early role in Barbarella as an insatiable sex kitten was later echoed in a Romain Gary film starring Seberg, where Seberg’s character, unlike Barbarella, is a nymphomaniac who can’t achieve an orgasm. If Jane Fonda survived Cointelpro and the right-wing smear campaign, Jean, or rather Mark Rappaport, maintains, then it was largely because of her wealthy family and privileged upbringing. She had resources she could draw on that a middle-class girl from the Midwest didn’t.

Nevertheless, while she didn’t die at the age of 40, racked by the drug and alcohol addiction that came from J. Edgar Hoover’s vendetta, Jane Fonda, in the end, backed down. Filming On Golden Pond with her father Henry Fonda, she issued an apology for her trip to North Vietnam. “Why?” Rappaport asks us, did Fonda apologize for her heroic opposition to the Vietnam War, and not for her role as a “bimbo” in Barbarella? The answer is obvious. We live in a culture that accepts women as bimbos, but not political activists. The FBI destroyed Jean Seberg because she stepped out of the role American conservatism demanded she play. They could handle her as a blond movie goddess. They couldn’t handle a woman who had supported racial justice in her teenage years – when she volunteered for the NAACP – and continued to support racial justice, and black nationalism, even after she became rich and famous.

Like the recent The Internet’s Own Boy, From the Journals of Jean Seberg is a powerful statement about how the United States destroys it’s best and brightest.

Kill the Messenger (2014)

Kill the Messenger, the story of the personal destruction of San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb, is a grim little film that will leave you feeling almost hopeless about the prospect of successfully challenging a corrupt government and a thoroughly complicit corporate media. Nevertheless, I think it’s a film that everybody needs to see. Rent it on Amazon, find a theater showing it, borrow it from a friend, buy the DVD, but find a copy and watch it, preferably twice. It’s far from the best film of 2014 — That would be Only Lovers Left Alive by Jim Jarmusch – but it might be the most important.

In 1995, a 40-year-old staff-writer for the San Jose Mercury News stumbled upon what every journalist dreams of finding, the chance to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. While the outlines of the CIA’s history with Freeway Ricky Ross had already been alluded to by Senator John Kerry and the Iran Contra hearings, Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance, one of the first major news stories to be published simultaneously on the web and in the print media, filled in all the gaps. Webb was a veteran reporter with an excellent reputation, and a willingness to challenge corrupt power, but nothing prepared him for the campaign of personal destruction that followed his exposure of the CIA’s use of drug money to fund the Reagan Administration’s Contra War against the government of Nicaragua.

Kill the Messenger opens with Gary Webb, Jeremey Renner, working on a story about government seizure of the assets of accused, but not yet convicted drug dealers. His editor, the real life Dawn Garcia fictionalized as “Anna Simons” and played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, is reluctant to publish the whole piece, a tentativeness in the face of government power that will later become devastating to Webb’s career, but he manages to convince her. The story is a success, so much so that Coral Baca, the wife of an accused drug trafficker, decides that she can use him to save her husband from going to prison. She gives him a leaked transcript from a grand jury showing that Danilo Blandon, an ex-official for the ousted Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, and another accused drug trafficker, was an informant for the federal government. Webb takes the information to Alan Fenster, the defense attorney for crack kingpin “Freeway Ricky Ross,” who Blandon is planning to testify against. He then manages to tie both Blandon and Freeway Ricky Ross to Norwin Meneses and the Nicaraguan Contras, the right wing counter-revolutionaries Ronald Reagan had labeled the “moral equivalent of the founding fathers,“ and the story is complete.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan had waged a terrorist war against the leftist government of Nicaragua. Blocked by Congress – Remember when the checks and balances in the Constitution actually used to work once in awhile? – he went underground. His administration traded weapons to Iran. The CIA went even further, protecting men like Danilo Blandon and Freeway Ricky Ross in exchange for money to fund the anti-communist counter-revolution in Central America. The crack cocaine epidemic that followed devastated the black community, but to the CIA and the Reagan Administration, black people were simply “collateral damage.” Dark Alliance not only completed the argument for impeaching Ronald Reagan, it exposed the “war on drugs” as a complete fraud.

The political environment of 1996 was quite a bit different than it is today. There was no “social media.” The web was in its infancy. The print media and the broadcast news networks, both of which had and have extensive ties to both the CIA and the FBI, controlled the flow of information. You couldn’t self-publish a book at Amazon, make money online, put up a Kickstarter, or organize a Twitter mob to promote your ideas. For newspaperman like Gary Webb, not being able to write for a mainstream newspaper meant the end of his career. Webb knew this. His editors at the San Jose Mercury News knew it.

Most importantly of all, the CIA knew it. They knew that while journalism will occasionally produce a Hunter S. Thompson, an Alexander Cockburn, a Raymond Bonner, or a Chris Hedges, writers from moneyed backgrounds who work for elite publications, or gifted self-promoters who can make a living outside of any established institution, most newspaper reporters are people like Gary Webb, middle-class family men with mortgages and kids in college. What’s more, their editors rarely have much in common with Ben Bradlee of the Watergate-era Washington Post. Jerry Ceppos and Dawn Garcia/Anna Simons initially backed the story because it was a good story. It sold newspapers. It put them in line to win the Pulitzer. But they weren’t about to lose money, and they certainly weren’t going to face down the CIA, who immediately began to push back against Dark Alliance, or more established papers like the LA Times or New York Times, who were resentful over having been scooped.

Dark Alliance is at its most powerful, and most grim, in its second half, when a dark alliance of government officials and corporate media “journalists” go to work to shift the story from the CIA’s connection to the drug trade to Gary Webb himself. Webb probably thought that once he broke the story other newspapers and TV stations would take up where he left off, that they would send their own teams of investigative journalists to look for the truth. Instead, the government and the corporate media decided to “investigate” Gary Webb, nitpicking away at his leads, bullying his sources into recanting, going over his personal life with a fine tooth comb. Only a Ralph Nader – an ascetic who weathered a similar smear campaign in the 1960s – can come away from that kind of “investigation” with his reputation intact. Gary Webb, who had a damaging extramarital affair in the 1980s, was no ascetic. Soon, his marriage began to unravel. He was transferred to the San Jose Mercury News branch office in Cupertino, a backwater similar to a publication like the Westfield, New Jersey Patch.

After the CIA and the corporate media killed Gary Webb’s story, wrecked his family, and destroyed his career, it was only a matter of time before Webb killed himself. He committed suicide in 2004. Kill the Messenger is very effective at dramatizing his emotional disintegration. Jeremy Renner and Mary Elizabeth Winstead are excellent actors, especially Winstead, who’s mastered a facial expression that says “sure it’s wrong to stab my reporter in the back but hey I’m upset about it so that makes it all OK.” But Kill the Messenger’s grim second half is also its biggest weakness. Unlike the very similar film The Insider (1999), Kill the Messenger does not end on a redemptive note. Challenge “the system,” it says, and you will be destroyed. The overwhelming tone is one of hopelessness, despair. Gary Webb is largely forgotten. Kill the Messenger has not been a hit, and the very men who brought us Freeway Ricky Ross and Iran Contra will probably get one more term in power when Jeb Bush becomes President in 2016. Movies as downbeat as Kill the Messenger rarely become hits. And that’s too bad.

People who will see Kill the Messenger already know the story of Gary Webb and Dark Alliance. But the people who need to see it, the hordes of “patriotic” film-goers lining up to see America Sniper, probably won’t.  How can we get Chris Kyle fans to become Gary Webb fans? That is the question. Sadly, it’s one I can’t answer.

What Happens when you get caught enjoying music just a little too much?

Eva from Stranger than Paradise

Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Throne of Blood (1957)

throneRudyard Kipling famously wrote that “east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet, till earth and sky stand presently at god’s great judgement seat.” He might have added “or until Akira Kurosawa adapts Macbeth for his 1957 masterpiece Throne of Blood.” Throne of Blood, also known as Kumonosu-jō or Spider Web Castle, strips Shakespeare’s tragedy down to its essentials, not only simplifying the plot, but translating Elizabethan blank verse into a cinematic version of traditional Japanese Noh drama. The result is to set Macbeth free and let it loose on film.

Throne of Blood opens at the ruin of Spider Web Castle, a forbidding edifice at the base of Mount Fuji. We hear a solemn chant over the volcanic landscape. We’re about to watch a Buddhist morality tale.

“Look upon the ruins of the castle of delusion, haunted only now by the spirits of those who perished, a scene of carnage, born of consuming desire, never changing, now and throughout eternity. Here stood Spider Web’s Castle.”

We go back in time to the court of Kuniharu Tsuzuki, the Great Lord of Spider Web Castle, Kurosawa’s Duncan. A messenger arrives, then another. The first messenger brings grim news. Lord Fujimaki’s rebellion in the north threatens to break through Tsuzuki’s defenses and put Spider Web Castle under siege. But the fortunes of war can turn on a dime. The second messenger informs the Great Lord that Taketoki Washizu, Macbeth, and Yoshiaki Miki, Banquo, have all but smashed Fujimaki’s army. Spider Web Castle is safe.

Throne of Blood then cuts to Wazhizu, played by Toshiro Mifune, and Miki, played by Minoru Chiaki. If you were wondering whether or not Kurosawa decided to keep the three witches, he’s about to answer your question. Wazhizu and Miki are lost in Spider Web Forest, traveling in circles through a landscape that should be perfectly familiar, but which has temporarily bewitched them. Just at the point where we start to wonder if we somehow wandered into Blair Witch Japan, the two generals meet the Forest Spirit. Washizu will be named master of the North Fortress, today, she tells them, and Miki will command Fort One. Later Washizu will become the Great Lord himself, but since his wife is barren and unable to produce an heir, the throne will pass to Miki’s son. Like Macbeth, Washizu will become king, but, like Macbeth, he will not start a dynasty.

We now get to meet Kurosawa’s Lady Macbeth. The park like serenity of the Northern Fortress, such a contrast to the grim, volcanic setting of Spider Web Castle, is a master stroke of story telling. Three soldiers lounge about the courtyard in the peaceful early morning air. What healthy soul would chose to reign at Spider Web Castle over the Northern Fortress? Washizu’s aggressive, nervous movements soon reveal that, unlike the three soldiers, he’s not a contented man. Asaji Washizu, Lady Macbeth, a terrifying Isuzu Yamada, a pale, spectral, almost puppet like figure, becomes the embodiment of her husband’s fears and ambitions. While Throne of Blood looks back to the feudal Japan of the 15th century, Lady Asaji’s exhortations to her husband are strikingly modern. The Great Lord Kuniharu Tsuzuki is no saintly King Duncan. He’s a man who took the crown for himself by murdering his predecessor. The world of Spider Web Castle is capitalist, Darwinian. If Washizu doesn’t continue to grow more powerful, his wife insists, if he doesn’t take Spider Web Castle for himself, the Great Lord will eventually see him as a rival and have him killed.

Washizu’s aggressive protests of loyalty to the Great Lord are shown to be hollow when Tsuzuki pays a visit to the Northern Fortress with 300 soldiers. Washizu is terrified. His wife’s predictions seem to be coming true. Has the Great Lord come to murder him? No, he has not. It’s a hunting expedition, but a hunting expedition in great force. Tsuzuki plans to use the Northern Fortress to complete his suppression of the rebellion that opened the film, a sign of his trust in Washizu, not his intention to murder him. But Washizu is helpless against his wife’s, really his own ambition’s, constant pressure to become the Great Lord of Spider Web Castle. As Macbeth murdered King Duncan, Washizu murders Kuniharu Tsuzuki, killing him in his sleep, then framing and murdering his guards, who Lady Asaji had earlier given Saki laced with a sleeping potion.

Noriyasu Odagura, Macduff, and Kunimaru, Malcolm, correctly surmising that they’re about to be killed next, flee the Northern Fortress and attempt to take shelter under Miki’s wing at Spider Web Castle. Washizu takes off in pursuit. The chase is terrifying, far more realistic than Shakespeare’s play, where Malcolm and Macduff slip away quietly in the commotion of the murder’s aftermath. Even though Miki denies Noriyasu and Kunimaru entrance, his soldiers raining a hail of arrows down onto the desperate pair of men off the Spider Web Castle’s battlements, Washizu is not only half-mad with ambition, he’s fully mad with jealousy of a position he does not yet even occupy. He has no children. Miki’s son will take his place, and, in a master stroke of psychological manipulation, Lady Asaji announces that she’s pregnant. We never find out whether or not she’s lying, but it doesn’t matter. Washizu hires a murderer to kill Miki and his son Yoshiteru, Throne of Blood’s Fleance. Like Shakespeare’s best o’ the cut-throats, the hired killer manages to get the father, but not the son. Like Banquo, the ghost of Miki haunts Washizu until he’s driven half mad with fear, revealing his guilt to anybody not trying to deny what they see with their own eyes.

The final act of Throne of Blood dispenses with all the sound and fury of Shakespeare’s poetry, but we barely miss it. Kurosawa’s spare narrative elegance and cool dramatic irony more than compensate until the shocking, violent, over the top denouement. We are spared all the details of the deaths of Macduff’s children, a part of the play that Roman Polanski, for obvious reasons of his own, makes the very center of his film. Washizu will die not at the hands of a grieving father and husband. He will be killed by his own soldiers, and it’s here where cinema allows Kurosawa to do things that Shakespeare couldn’t.

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France?” Shakespeare asked in the prologue to Henry V. The answer would probably be no. When the witches told Macbeth that he need not fear death “till Birnam forest come to Dunsinane,” and when Macduff’s and Malcolm’s troops camouflage themselves with boughs and leaves, it’s an entirely different thing to imagine it than it is to actually see. Kurosawa’s images of Noriyasu’s and Kunimaru’s troops marching on Spider Web Castle as though they were nature itself rebelling against the tyrant Washizu took more than technical skill. The clumsy final act of Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers, where the Ents march on Isengard, demonstrates that you can have all the technical mastery in the world, and still end up with cartoon silliness. It takes the skill of a poet, something Kurosawa has, maybe even on the same level as Shakespeare. You probably won’t forget the images of Spider Web Forest marching on Spider Web Castle. You certainly won’t forget the moment when Washizu’s troops turn on their general. Washizu, who had told his troops of the wood spirit’s prophecy, has doomed himself with his own arrogance. His troops, observing the trees creeping closer and closer to the fortress, let fly a hail of arrows, impaling Washizu again, then again, then again. Kurosawa has decided to set aside the lucid restraint he’s used up until now and indulge himself in a moment of Shakespearean blood and thunder.

East is still east and west is still west but they meet here as Washizu stands presently at God’s judgement seat, and is damned to hell.

Unanswered Questions in the NYPD Killings

brooklynA guest post by Carol Lipton: As of November 2014, national and international protests over the police killings of unarmed black men, particularly Eric Garner and Michael Brown, were reaching critical mass, as thousands of people across the United States, following in the footsteps of Ferguson residents, engaged in spectacular mass demonstrations, civil disobedience and street theater actions in over 175 cities, replicating the wildfire spread of the Occupy Wall Street encampments during the fall of 2011.

The #blacklivesmatter movement gained tremendous momentum on November 25, following the decision by a Staten Island grand jury not to indict Office Daniel Pantaleo for the murder of Eric Garner, who died as the result of an illegal chokehold by Pantaleo.

The chokehold killing of Garner, a tall man who weighed over 300 pounds and suffered from diabetes and heart disease, was potent in its impact because of the utter pathos of it, captured entirely on video. It showed Pantaleo approaching Garner, and with no provocation from Garner and no apparent grounds, attempting to arrest him. After Garner verbally asked Pantaleo to leave him alone and to stop harassing him, Pantaleo crooked his arm tightly around Garner’s neck, holding him with all his strength.

The officers then brutally knocked Garner to the ground, pinning him down as he cried out 11 times, “I can’t breathe”. Then there was silence, as he lost consciousness and then died. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, yet no charges were brought against Pantaleo.

Garner’s death was amplified by the deaths of other unarmed black men and women shot by police and racist vigilantes, notably John Crawford, shot in a WalMart while talking on his cell phone and holding a gun for sale in the store; Akai Gurley, shot in the stairwell of the Brooklyn housing project where he lived; and 12 year old Tamir Rice, shot by Ohio police while carrying a toy gun.

Emboldened by politically astute young black leadership that forged the #blacklivesmatter movement, the demonstrations were creative in ways that equaled or even exceeded those of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, and seemed to be benefitting from what I’ve named “the Occupy Effect”. There were actions never before seen in the history of modern protest, such as the New York City Council members who walked off their jobs, and held a die-in stopping traffic on lower Broadway, or members of the Congressional Black Caucus and staffers walking out en masse onto the steps of the nation’s capital. Medical schools, law schools, and colleges held huge die-ins. Even junior high school students in Denver took to the street. Athletes protested at games, wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts.

With Christmas approaching, demonstrations increased in frequency and intensity, with even more tactics added: marches into Saks Fifth Avenue, Toys ‘R’ Us and the 5th Avenue Apple store; the reading of the names ceremonies in Grand Central Station; marches onto the FDR Drive, West Side Highway; and almost daily shutdowns of the Holland and Lincoln tunnels. A sea of protesters took to the streets on December 5 and 6, shutting down most of midtown Manhattan, disrupting the tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center, and marching into Macy’s, striking at the very heart of Thanksgiving in America. There were also massive demonstrations throughout Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island. This culminated in the December 13, 2014 march down Broadway, in which an estimated 60,000 people assembled in front of Macy’s, marched to Foley Square, and held an enormous rally. Protestors then crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, marching almost 10 miles into Crown Heights to the housing project where Akai Gurley was killed, while others shut down the Manhattan Bridge.

On December 19, a bitterly cold night, at least 2,000 demonstrators marched in lower Manhattan, confronting a pro-police rally.

NYPD and Mayor DiBlasio seemed powerless to stanch the tide of protest. In response to the initially hands-off and conciliatory approach taken by Mayor DiBlasio, who in a press conference had shared his concerns about his biracial son, Dante, NYPD escalated its hostility, eager to return to the brutality against demonstrators that was endemic during the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations.

The next day, December 20, before several large protests planned for Christmas, an event occurred that could not have been more advantageous to the NYPD’s desire to turn the tide of public opinion against the protesters and stop the movement dead in its tracks, had they designed it themselves.

At approximately 2:47 p.m., in broad daylight, a Brooklyn-born Baltimore man, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, 28, ambushed and killed two NYPD officers, 40-year-old Rafael Ramos and 32-year-old Wenjian Liu, as they sat in their patrol car while stationed outside a housing project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

Brinsley’s background: Brinsely’s background is obscure. He had reportedly been dating Shaneka Thompson for under a year. He was reportedly not from Maryland, and his current address was unknown [CBS News]. However, other sources report that he had fathered two children in Brooklyn, and that his last known address was on Eastern Parkway [N.Y. Daily News].

He had lived with various relatives as a child, but dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. His family reported a history of mental illness. At an August 2011 court hearing, when asked if he’d ever been a patient in a mental institution, he reportedly said “yes”.

According to his mother, he tried to hang himself a year ago and was estranged from his family, who were afraid of him. Nawaal Brinsley, a sister who lives in Atlanta, said she hadn’t seen him in two years. [N.Y. Times].

Brinsley reportedly had 15 prior arrests in Georgia for various offenses, including assault, shoplifting, grand larceny and gun possession, and 4 arrrests in Ohio for robbery and misdemeanor threat. He served two years in prison in Georgia for criminal possession of a weapon [CBS News]. He also had an arrest record in Brooklyn [CBS News].

However, the Baltimore Sun, citing online records from Georgia’s Fulton County sheriff’s office, reported that Brinsley had been arrested only 9 times since 2004. [Baltimore Sun, December 20, 2014, 11:39 p.m.]

Investigators say Brinsley was at a protest in Union Square on December 1, before a grand jury decided against charging Officer Pantaleo, and recorded part of the protest on his phone. [ABC Eyewitness News December 23].

Brinsley’s First Shooting Victim, Shaneka Thompson: Shaneka Thompson grew up in Winnsboro, SC, and attended Francis Marion University in Florence, SC. [Post Wires].

She had been a health service manager at Pope Army Airfield in Fayetteville, NC before transferring to the Veterans Administration in Baltimore, where she worked as a health insurance specialist [The Daily Mail]. However, the NY Times reported that she was currently employed by the Maryland Department of Welfare.

AP reported that Thompson’s grandfather, James Delly, told AP that Thompson had worked in banking and moved to Maryland from Fayetteville, NC six months ago for work, and had been seeing Brinsley for less than a year [Wall Street Journal] [NY Times]

Time line of the events of December 20, 2014:

5:30 a.m. Brinsley arrives at the upscale apartment of Shaneka Thompson, 28, in the Greenwich Place Development located at 10090 Mill Run Circle in Owings Mills, Maryland, just northwest of Baltimore [Daily Mail UK Dec. 21, 2014].

The apartment complex overlooks the Owings Mill AMC Cinema Parking lot in the Owings Mills Mall [Daily Mail]. Here’s a map of the Owings Mills Mall and Greenwich Place:,-76.785291,15z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x3cedca76bc41f049

Contrary to unofficial reports, Brinsley, who did not have a key to Thompson’s apartment, gains entry to the lobby of the secured building and knocks on her door, which she opens [ABC Eyewitness News December 23].

5:35 a.m. Thompson calls her mother, complaining about Brinsley being there. Her mother overhears the two arguing, and stays on the line with Thompson, until her phone goes dead. According to Thompson, Brinsley had not mentioned any plans to commit violence against police during their argument or even mentioned police [CBS News, WBALTV].

Brinsley then puts the gun to his own head, but Thompson talks him out of pulling the trigger {ABC Eyewitness News, New York Daily News].

The dispute continues, ending in gunshots, and her phone goes dead [ABC Eyewitness News, December 23] [NY Times]

5:45 a.m. A neighbor reportedly hears a woman scream ‘You shot me, you shot me!”, and hears him run out the door. [NY Times] Thompson bangs on neighbor Yvette Seay’s door yelling, “I can’t die like this! Please help me!”. Seay sees the bloodied victim through her peephole and calls 911. [Post Wires] Thompson, an Air Force reservist, is rushed to the University of Maryland Medical Center where she is listed in critical condition. She had served in the 440th Medical Squadron, based at Pope Field in Ft. Bragg, N.C. [The Baltimore Sun]

5:48 a.m. Baltimore County police are dispatched to Thompson’s apartment [ABC] 5:50 a.m.

Yvette Seay’s sister leaves the apartment at approximately 5:50 a.m. to go to work and sees a man running across the parking lot. After watching news reports about the New York shooting and seeing the suspect’s photo, she realized that this was the man who had shot her next door neighbor [Maryland Associated Press, December 22, 2014].

Google maps give us a clear picture of the route that Brinsley would have had to take to get to the Owings Mills stop. The parking lot of the Greenwich Place Houses is located behind the apartment complex, towards Messina Way.,76.786013,17z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!3m1!1s0x89c817983c5ece01:0x311dd5e580d5161e

Google maps show that in order to get from the Greenwich Place apartments to the Baltimore Bolt Bus, the closest Metro station is Owings Mills. But if Brinsley was headed to the Owings Mills station, he would have had to run in the opposite direction from the parking lot, towards Grand Central Avenue, then go left on Grand Junction Lane, a 7-minute walk. If Brinsley was running across the parking lot, it seems that he was running towards his car, not to the Metro station.

5:51 a.m. Baltimore police arrive and find Thompson on the third floor of the apartment building, with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. She is conscious, and tells them her boyfriend shot her and fled with her cellphone, leaving his behind [Rachel Maddow, WBALTV]. Thompson gives Baltimore County police his name and description, and they immediately broadcast information about Brinsley to local law enforcement. [WBALTV]. It would have been routine protocol for police to ascertain who was Thompson’s next of kin, and contacted her mother.

6:05 a.m. According to the N.Y. Daily News, one of the first newspapers to break the story, “After shooting his ex-girlfriend in Maryland, NYPD said Brinsley drove to Brooklyn, where he ambushed Officers Ramos and Liu” [N.Y. Daily News, December 21, 2014, 12:01 p.m.].

The Daily News maintains its narrative that Brinsley drove to NYC in his own car, as shown in its updated story on the evening news [N.Y. Daily News, December 21, 2014, 7:49 p.m.]

The Daily News also reported, citing NYPD sources, that Brinsley’s car, with Maryland plates, was later discovered at the corner of Myrtle and Nostrand Avenues [N.Y. Daily News, December 21, 2014].

The only way that NYPD could have concluded that the car belonged to Brinsley would be if they ran the plates through Maryland DMV and confirmed the vehicle was registered to Brinsley. According to NYPD Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce, Brinsley calls Thompson’s mother, saying that he shot her daughter by accident, and hopes she will survive [NY Times, Rachel Maddow].

Brinsley discloses enough information to Thompson’s mother that she knows where he is headed.

After receiving Brinsley’s 6:05 a.m. call, Thompson’s mother calls Baltimore police [NBC, Owings Mills-Reisterstown Patch]. However, according to the New York Times, at 6:05 a.m., Brinsley was “making his way” to the bus station, which one news source identifies as the Bolt Bus station [Rachel Maddow].

The Baltimore Bolt Bus depot is located at 1610 St. Paul Street. The only other Bolt depot is farther away, in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The distance from Thompson’s apartment to 1610 St. Paul Street is approximately 19 miles. Traveling on I-95, it would have taken Brinsley 23 minutes in light traffic to get there by car. But it does not make sense that he would have driven to the bus depot and abandoned his car to take the bus, when he could have driven all the way to New York City.

If Brinsley had taken public transportation, he would have arrived at the Bolt Bus station at 8:00 a.m.

6:32 a.m. – Baltimore police begin tracking the activity on Thompson’s cell phone [Maddow, ABC Eyewitness News. WBALTV]

6:35 a.m.– Brinsley boards a Bolt Bus in Baltimore that is bound for NYC [N.Y. Times via AP, December 21, 2014 1:40 p.m.] While Baltimore Police could have readily ascertained the destination of the 6:35 a.m. Bolt Bus that Brinsley boarded by contacting the dispatcher, news reports all give the source of information regarding Brinsley’s movements as the “pinging” on Thompson’s cell phone.

7:46 a.m. –Baltimore police get a signal from Brinsley’s phone showing he’s left Baltimore, and is headed north on I-95. [Maddow] Signals from the phone show a general location along Interstate 95, near the Susquehanna River. Baltimore County police notify the JFK barracks of the Maryland State Police [iWatch, Official Baltimore County Police & Fire’s Facebook Wall] The bus, like all NYC bound vehicles on I-95, has to go through a number of major tollbooths and bridges on I-95, all of which have cameras. Additionally, it is customary for buses traveling on the I-95 corridor to pull over at a rest stop on the NJ Turnpike.

8:30 – 10:30 a.m. – Brinsley is tracked on Thompson’s cell phone north through New Jersey. [Maddow,] He is constantly on his cell phone during this time period, and calls Thompson’s mother several times to find out her condition [NY Times] During this time, police in Baltimore notice Brinsley posting to Thompson’s Instagram account about a threat to New York officers as they track his movements [CBS New York, December 21, 11:56 p.m.]. This would signify that police did not need to obtain this information from another source, i.e., Brinsley’s family members.

10:24 a.m. – Brinsley enters the Lincoln Tunnel [Maddow] 10:49 a.m. Brinsley disembarks from the bus, as shown by his phone signal near 43rd Street and 8th Avenue. A video camera captures him getting on a Brooklyn-bound N train [NY Times, ABC, NBC, CBS]

11:00 a.m. – Baltimore police reportedly track Brinsley’s movements on a Brooklyn-bound subway from the Times Square subway stop, which is connected to the Port Authority 8th Avenue subway line via a long underground passage, where the 2, 3, N, and R trains run [Maddow] Police next track him as he emerges in the Barclay Center in Brooklyn.

11:00 – 12:00 a.m. – Once in Brooklyn, Brinsley uses Thompson’s phone to make posts to Instagram. One shows a leg of his camouflage pants and his bluish shoe, spattered in blood. The other showed his pistol. “I’m Putting Wings on Pigs Today They take 1 of Ours …Let’s Take 2 of Theirs #ShootThePolice,” he wrote [NY Times]

According to the Washington Post, and several blogs, Brinsley was tracking NYPD using the Police Alert App, WAZE, a navigation app that allows millions of users to help each other track traffic, road hazards, construction zones, and the whereabouts of police officers in speed traps, among other things. It’s enormously popular with people who spend a lot of time on interstates.

Brinsley posted a screen shot from WAZE, and a conversation he had about police in the Staten Island area with a friend “Nita Boo”.

11:47 a.m. Brinsley starts posting threats to kill NY police officers on Instagram [NY Post]

“I’m Putting Wings on Pigs Today:” “They Take 1 Of Ours . . . Let’s Take 2 of Theirs,” the post continued, ending with, “This May Be My Final Post.” [Associated Press, NY Post, NY1].

He posts several photos as well, of him alone and with male friends, and videos of him playing music, at a club, and discussing his dreams of having a line of clothing.

The Instagram pages include the photo of a silver automatic handgun with a wooden handle, which according to NYPD, matched the Taurus 9 mm semi-automatic recovered from Brinsley [NY Post].According to Special Agent in Charge Aladino Ortiz of the Atlanta BATF, Brinsley’s gun was purchased in 1996 at a local pawnshop by a man who worked at a local auto dealership.

That man sold the weapon to a co-worker at the dealership in 1998 — when Brinsley was about 12 years old. “At this point, the individual doesn’t remember who he sold the gun to,” Ortiz said. “We are continuing to follow the leads, but the trail is a little cold at this point. … We may never know how Mr. Brinsley got it into his hands.” [Baltimore Sun, December 23, 2014].

According to Rachel Maddow, Thompson’s family starts contacting the Baltimore news media, informing them about Brinsley’s posts [Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, December 22, 2014]

12:07 p.m. – Brinsley arrives at the Atlantic Mall and disappears after being captured on several security cameras carrying a large Styrofoam food container, which police now believe contained his gun. The phone keeps pinging, and the Baltimore County police contact NYPD in Brooklyn [NY Times].

Surveillance videos from the Atlantic Terminal Mall show Brinsley chatting on a cellphone while casually walking around while carrying a white plastic bag, which appears to be covering a container, that he is attempting to hold upright and steady [Daily Mail UK].

Brinsley reportedly discards Thompson’s cell phone, hiding it behind a radiator in a small shopping mall across from the Barclays Center, where NYPD later find it [CBS News, December 22, 2014 5:35 p.m.].

For the next 2 hours, Brinsley’s whereabouts are unknown. Although the NYPD’s top detective has asked the public to help them trace what Brinsley was doing for those two hours between his last Instagram picture and the shooting, no further information has emerged.

12:00 -2:00 p.m. Friends and family of Thompson come forward and tell Baltimore police that Brinsley was posting “all over the internet, all day”, including photos on Instagram, that he had shot his girlfriend.

1:30 p.m. – In contradiction to coverage by the NY Post and NY1, ABC News and Rachel Maddow claim that this is the time that police in Baltimore discover Brinsley has made posts from his Instagram account that threaten to kill officers, and determine the posts are being made from Brooklyn [ABC News, Maddow]

1:45 p.m. –Baltimore police finish composing a Wanted flyer, stating that Brinsley plans to kill police officers in NYC that day [Maddow]. According to Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, Baltimore authorities had send a Wanted flier between 1:30 and 2 p.m. to NYPD and other agencies warning them of Brinsley. [CBS News]

Bratton states that flier is sent out by NYPD to local police precincts at essentially the same time the officers were being ambushed by the suspect, a 2:48 [CBS News].

2:10 p.m.  – In the version reported on MSNBC, Baltimore County police call the 70th precinct, near where the signal on the discarded cell phone had been detected, advising NYPD that the phone of a suspect in the Owings Mills shooting is pinging in Brooklyn, [Maddow].

According to ABC News, at 2:10 p.m., a detective from the Baltimore Violent Crimes Unit telephones NYPD’s 60th Precinct in Brooklyn to advise that a suspect wanted for a shooting that morning might be in New York and has posted threats against police.

The Baltimore detective is directed to another Brooklyn precinct, the 70th Precinct, because the phone most recently had been tracked to that precinct. [ABC Eyewitness News].

According to some stories, the Baltimore detective speaks with an NYPD officer for about 30 minutes, providing all known details about the situation. During the phone call, the NYPD officer views the Instagram posts, which include photos of Brinsley [ABC Eyewitness News].

In this version of events, the two police departments first discuss the Instagram posts, and Baltimore police fax a wanted poster of Brinsley to NYPD, along with information about Brinsley [ABC News, NY Times].

At this time, NYPD knows everything that it needs to know to send out an All Points Bulletin to officers on the street in Brooklyn, warning them that an armed, dangerous fugitive is in Brooklyn, planning to kill police officers. Yet, NYPD does not do any of this. According to the NY Times, “It was not clear if the fax was received. Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said on Saturday that it did not show up until about 2:45 pm.” [NY Times]

2:45 p.m. – Brinsley walks up to two people on the street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and asked them what gang they belonged to. He urges them to follow him on Instagram, and tells them, “Watch what I’m going to do.” [NY Times, ABC, Maddow]

2:46 p.m. At the conclusion of their 30-minute conversation with NYPD, Baltimore police fax the Wanted poster they had prepared an hour earlier, at 1:45 pm., but it is too late [Maddow, ABC Eyewitness News].

2:47 p.m. – Brinsley walks past the patrol car where Officers Wenjian Liu, 32, and Rafael Ramos, 40 are sitting, near the corner of Myrtle and Thompkins Avenue, a busy intersection in Brooklyn near the Tompkins Houses. [NY Times, NY1, Maddow]. Officer Ramos is sitting in the driver’s seat, and officer Liu was sitting in the passenger seat [CNN Wire, December 20, 2014, 4:57 p.m., CBS TV News].

According to some reports, they were stationed there because they were working overtime as part of an anti-terrorism drill [NBC]. However, the Boston Globe quoted Police Commissioner Bratton as saying that the two officers were stationed in front of the Thompkins housing project “in response to an uptick in violence there this year”, which is reported by some NYC papers as well [Boston Globe December 20, 2014].

According to Brooklyn Council member Robert Cornegy, both officers are eating lunch at the time they are shot [WPIX December 20].

However, Commissioner Bratton’s press statement on January 12, 2015, urges that police officers to be “more vigilant” than ever, staying alert during their patrols, and not “texting away”. “So if both of them are sitting in the car and they’re busy texting away or not paying attention of the surrounding area, they’re much more vulnerable to attack” [CBS-TV, January 12, 2015].

2:48 p.m. According to Bratton, Brinsley emerges from the Thompkins housing projects, crosses the street and approaches the officers’ car from behind, walks to the passenger window, assumes a shooting stance, and fires four shots through the front passenger window, killing both men [NY Times, NY Post].

Commissioner Bratton states that Brinsley shot “multiple rounds” into the head and upper bodies of the officers, who never drew their weapons [NY Times].

The only known eyewitness to the shootings, Charlie Hu, the manager of a liquor store at the corner, claims to have seen the two police officers slouched over in the front of their patrol car. Both appeared to have been shot in the head, and one had blood spilling out of his face [NY Times].

However, a witness named Courtney Felix, 23, who was at a friend’s apartment nearby, hearing the shots from a window, sees the cop on the drivers’ side [Officer Ramos] who “was clutching his neck, catching himself and fading out” as he fell to the ground. He states that both officers opened the doors to the police car. “They were trying to get cognizance of where they were hit”. The other cop was clutching his collarbone as he stumbled, Felix added.” [New York Daily News, December 20, 2014, 3:26 p.m., WPIX December 21, 2014, New York Newsday, December 20, 2014 11:59 p.m.].

This story, which contained interviews with witnesses at the scene, has since been removed. However, the story was picked up by WPIX-11 and the Pan-African Newswire, which printed it in its entirety. It is the only story that contains statements by eyewitnesses.

A witness who asked to remain anonymous said, “I saw it. One was shot in the face. There was blood coming out of his face.” [WPIX December 21, 2014].

Despite the statement by Charlie Hu, none of the crime scene photos or videos taken immediately after show any blood on the exterior of the door or on the sidewalk where the officers had lain in their final seconds alive. The NY Post online was the only major news source to publish a video of the immediate aftermath of the shootings.

2:49 p.m. – Brinsley takes off running to the nearest subway stop, the Myrtle-Willoughby subway station, an avenue block away, to the westbound subway platform [, 7:20 a.m., December 21, 2014]

According to the N.Y. Post, Con Ed workers see Brinsley fleeing and follow him in their truck as he ambles away from the carnage, still holding his silver Taurus semi-automatic. When they confront Brinsley on the street, attempting to stop him, he levels the gun at the them, asking them, ‘You want some of this?’ The two back off, and Brinsley ducks into the nearby G-train station. The Con Ed workers then call police to say he went into the station [Rachel Maddow, MSBC, December 22, Gothamist, December 21, 2014].

However, there is another version of what happened, that a worker in a deli store on the street sees Brinsley running and alerts police on the scene, who chase him into the subway. [NY Times, ABC].

Brinsley heads to the westbound platform of the Myrtle Avenue G station. Carmen Jimenez, 32, a social worker from Bed-Stuy, is on the subway platform when Brinsley runs in. “It looked like two cops came in. There was lots of yelling and they said, ‘Everybody get down.’ People were screaming. People were trying to run. I threw myself on the floor. I was afraid for my life and afraid for my baby.” [New York Post, December 20, 2014, 4:07 p.m.].

The video was filmed from an apartment several stories over the scene, and gives an unobstructed view of the driver’s side of the car. Both officers are visible on the ground, with policemen surrounding them, administering CPR and then loading them onto stretchers. In viewing the video several times without any enhancement, there does not appear to be any blood stains or trail of blood that one would expect from a person who was bleeding profusely from two gunshot wounds to the head. Looking at the passenger side of the car, you can see Officer Liu lying on the ground with three policemen hovering over him, administering CPR. After Liu is loaded onto a stretcher, there is no sign of blood on the ground. With the cops pursuing him, Brinsley then turns the gun on himself [Gothamist, December 21, 2014]. Brinsley and the two police officers are taken to Woodhull Hospital, and all are pronounced dead on arrival.

Unanswered questions:

The highly inconsistent narrative of the killing of Officer Ramos and Officer Liu raise serious questions as to NYPD’s competence. There is no doubt that NYPD, with its vast technological and communications resources, had the ability to capture Brinsley and prevent this tragedy from occurring. There is also the more disturbing possibility, that NYPD allowed these killings to happen, in order to advance their political agenda, which was unabashedly to stop the protests, and change the focus of public and media attention.

NYPD had every possible advantage in this case. Brinsley, unlike killers such as the infamous Zodiac, gave police all of the information they needed: dozens of photos posted to the internet, a cell phone pinging that allowed police to track his movements, and a shooting victim who was still conscious and alive, and able along with her mother, to give police information on his background and criminal record.

A case riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies:

• BPD knew, at the time they arrived on the scene, that Brinsley had a gun and had fled the scene. Why didn’t BPD, who were informed by Thompson that Brinsley had taken her cell phone, not have put up immediate roadblocks at all points of departure from Baltimore?

• A major unanswered question is did Brinsley drive his car to NYC or take the Bolt Bus? The evidence seems to strongly point to him driving to New York. That would make his arrival time in Manhattan at least an hour earlier than the Bolt Bus, putting him in NYC by 10:00 a.m.

• If Brinsley did indeed take the 6:35 a.m. Bolt Bus, why didn’t BPD or NYPD, which sent an entire team of detectives down to Baltimore, interview the dispatcher or the driver, which would have known its destination? Wouldn’t they have been concerned for the safety of the public that an armed fugitive was aboard the bus?

• How was it possible for Brinsley to travel by public transportation from Thompson’s apartment to the Baltimore Bolt bus stop in under 45 minutes, when the trip takes close to 2 hours?

• Why didn’t the BPD, who were tracking Brinsley for 4 ½ hours, alerted all tollbooth operators on the Maryland and Delaware bridges, as well as the New Jersey Turnpike, and set up roadblocks on I-95 North

• Once the bus entered the Lincoln Tunnel, why didn’t BPD alert NYPD to be waiting for him on the platform?

• According to CBS, BPD knew that Brinsley was posting threats to Thompson’s Instagram account, because they were tracking her cell phone, by 10:30 a.m. According to the New York Post, Brinsley began posting threats to kill NYPD officers at 11:47 a.m. BPD and NYPD had 3 hours to act to stop Brinsley.

• While the New York Post and NY1 reported that BPD were aware of Brinsley’s photos and threats on Instagram at 11:47 a.m., Rachel Maddow and ABC News put the time of NYPD’s awareness at 1:30 pm.

• Even if this is true, NYPD would have had all the relevant information it needed by 1:30 p.m., in order to issue an APB that Brinsley was coming to Brooklyn armed with a semiautomatic weapon, and planning to kill police officers. That was approximately 1 hour 18 minutes before the shootings, sufficient time for NYPD to email a notice to all of the precincts, as well as to radio officers stationed on the street.

• ABC Eyewitness News reported that a BPD detective discussed Brinsley with an NYPD officer in Brooklyn for 30 minutes, providing all known details about the situation, and the NYPD officer viewed all of the Instagram posts. Yet, rather than take immediate action between 2:10 p.m. and 2:40 p.m., NYPD allegedly requests that BPD fax them a Wanted poster.

• Why would BPD and NYPD have required 30 minutes, starting at 2:10 p.m., to have a conversation about Brinsley? I can’t imagine how the basic facts and Instagram links could have been sent in a matter of minutes, with NYPD taking immediate action. NYPD claimed in December 2014 that it was conducting a full investigation into the matter, and sent a team of detectives down to Baltimore. So far, there has been no word, and the story has gone cold.

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 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. 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 Bad Sleep Well (1960)

Two years after he made the comic adventure story The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa came out, a much darker film. The first movie that was released by the Kurosawa Production Company, The Bad Sleep Well is such a brutal attack on the Japanese corporate elite that it makes Oliver Stone’s Wall Street look like CNN’s Money Matters. Not surprisingly, it’s had less influence on American cinema than Kurosawa’s samurai films. While the Japanese corporate elite was still vulnerable to criticism 15 years after losing the war, a remake in the United States with the same anti-capitalist bite would get shut down in a week.

Like The Godfather, The Bad Sleep Well opens with a wedding, but where Francis Ford Coppola romanticizes his gangster capitalists, Kurosawa goes right for the jugular. Vice President Iwabuchi is no courtly Vito Corleone. The family is not outside of the corporation. Quite the contrary, little does the bride Yoshiko Iwabuchi know, but the sins of her father have already been visited upon her in the form of Kōichi Nishi, her father’s secretary and husband to be played by Toshiro Mifune.

We also notice a difference between Japanese crony capitalism circa 1960 and American crony capitalism circa 2015. Where American newspapermen are part of the Ivy League upper-middle-class and, therefore, tend to protect and identity with corporate America, the journalists covering the wedding at the beginning of The Bad Sleep Well are blue collar cynics. They have no illusions that the people they’re writing about are evil, that vast amounts of taxpayer money are being funneled through the “Public Corporation” (think Halliburton) into the pockets of its senior executives. The journalists and paparazzi act as a sort of Greek chorus, filling us in on the characters and the plot. Five years earlier, the corporation’s three senior executives, Vice President Iwabuchi, Administrative Officer Moriyama, and Contract Officer Shirai had left another construction company after a bribery scandal. For awhile it looked bad, but, at the crucial moment, a mid-level executive, Assistant Chief Furuya, had jumped out of a 7th floor window, burying most of the evidence with his own death.

In other words, if Japanese crony capitalism doesn’t need an American style lapdog press, then it’s at least partly because Japanese corporate executives will commit suicide to cover up for their superiors. The Code of Bushido has been enlisted into the service of crony capitalism, graft, and the theft of public money. What’s more, as we learn later on in the movie, Kōichi Nishi is the illegitimate son of Assistant Chief Furuya. He’s married the physically handicapped Yoshiko Iwabuchi to get close to her father. Not only is Japanese capitalism deeply corrupt, the man who would bring it all down has begun his career as a revolutionary by seducing, and lying to, an emotionally vulnerable and innocent young woman. Not only is something rotten in the state of Japan. Everything’s rotten.

But Kōichi Nishi quickly gets to work. At the wedding, the police had actually gone in and arrested two men, Miura, an accountant, and Wada, a public corporation Vice President. Miura jumps in front of a truck before the police can get any real information, but Nishi rescues Wada, who had intended to kill himself by jumping into a live volcano. The corporate class of Japan in 1960s, not being samurai, but timid little men who do as they’re told, Iwabuchi, Moriyama, and Shirai all think that Wada had obeyed their orders and jumped to his death. This is exactly what Nishi needs. After the papers publish stories on Wada’s suicide, Nishi takes Wada to his own funeral. The sight of the elaborate ritual, along with a recording of Iwabuchi, Moriyama, and Shirai laughing about his death convinces Wada — who knows where all the bodies are buried —to go along with his Nishi’s plans to bring the company down.

At first it all goes according to plan. Wada, like the ghost in Hamlet, appears at strategic moments to drive Contract Officer Shirai out of his mind. Nishi, and his childhood friend, Yoshiko Nishi, from who he’s borrowed the name “Nishi” as cover, take Shirai to a bombed-out munitions factory where the two men had worked as teenagers during the war. They start to gather evidence. Then they kidnap Administrative Officer Moriyama and take him to the same bombed out factory. They lock him in a cell and refuse to feed him until he tells them where he’s hidden all the money he’s stolen from the taxpayers.

But then a terrible thing happens. Kōichi Nishi remembers he has a conscience. Kidnapping, torture, attempted murder, lying to an innocent woman, he begins to realize that he’s no better than the men he’s trying to bring down. What’s more, Vice President Iwabuchi is evil in every way but one. He loves his daughter. Nishi is not ruthless enough to bring down the Public Corporation. He makes a fatal mistake. He forgets to kill Wada, or at least guard him closely, after he’s gotten the information he needs. Wada, who has also been having attacks of conscience, can’t bear to see Yoshiko Iwabuchi lied to. So he tells her the whereabouts of her husband, and it’s the innocent young woman who betrays her husband’s whereabouts to her father. It’s as dark, and realistic, and ending as you can imagine. Corrupt, crony capitalism has proven invincible. The vast herd of innocent sheep, as embodied in Yoshiko Iwabuchi, have propped it up in the end. We don’t even get the satisfaction of seeing Vice President Iwabuchi, like King Claudius from Hamlet, a clear influence on The Bad Sleep Well, drink his own poison. The film ends with Yoshiko Nishi, the film’s Horatio, giving the angriest “goodnight sweet prince” speech ever made.

A final note: The Bad Sleep Well is a very long film with many characters and an intricate, convoluted plot. You will probably have to watch it twice. Watch it twice. Like a good novel, it takes work to get into, but, once you do, the rewards are substantial. What’s more, it’s also a master-class in black and white photography, framing, composition, and lighting. Almost every shot from The Bad Sleeps Well could be enlarged and hung up in a museum. I can’t even imagine critiquing the film’s cinematography. It’s fully the equal of anything John Ford’s ever done. And it’s not only about how the film looks. The clean, elegant, black and white setting expresses the seductive appeal of a stable, disciplined, authoritarian social order. If the plot blows the lid off corrupt, crony capitalism, then the film’s aesthetics show us exactly why the sheeple, both in Japan and the USA, will defend it so tenaciously.

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

A general without an army, a princess without a kingdom, a hidden fortress in the mountains, a defeated people, The Hidden Fortress is probably best known in the United States as the template for the original Star Wars. Akira Kurosawa’s influence on George Lucas is undeniable. Yet the differences between the two films are as illuminating as their similarities. Star Wars becomes clumsier, more infantile, and yet more intriguing. The Hidden Fortress, which looks back to John Ford, and even to Mark Twain, is revealed to be not only a work of a cinematic genius, but a cool-headed, satiric take on Japan’s effort to rebuild after World War II.

The Hidden Fortress opens with Tahei and Matashichi, the original R2-D2 and C-3PO, returning from a war between the defeated Akizuki clan and the victorious Yamana clan. Unlike R2-D2 and C-3PO, however, the two ragged peasants are not selfless, noble innocents. Quite the contrary, they had originally tried to enlist on the side of the Yamana clan as mercenaries, but got to the war so late that they wound up working as grave diggers. We never quite learn whether they belong to the Akizukis or the Yamanas but it doesn’t really matter. Tahei is loyal to Tahei and Matashichi is loyal to Matashichi. They would sell each other out for a bowl of rice. It is only when they’re driven mad with fear, which is, admittedly, quite often, that they remember how they’re suppose to be friends.

The plot, which is often disjointed and episodic, begins to come together after Tahei and Matashichi escape being press ganged by the Yamana into forced labor. They’re cooking a pot of stolen rice. The rice won’t cook. The wood won’t burn. Then they discover why. The branches they’ve been gathering have all been hollowed out and packed with gold. They’re rich men, or so they think, but not so fast. That gold won’t be so easy just to cart off. They’re being watched.

General Rokurota Makabe is Obi Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker all rolled up into one. But he’s even more. Played by the great Toshiro Mifune, he’s a Japanese John Wayne, a swaggering hero, a legendary samurai, a famous military leader. But like Admiral Yamamoto, who Mifune will later go onto play in the American film Midway, he fought on the losing side. Had Yamamoto not been shot down by the US navy halfway through the Second World War, he might have ended up a bit like Rokurota Makabe, a conquered conqueror, a commander with nothing to command, a general with no army.

The gold belongs to Rokurota Makabe, or, to be more accurate, it belongs to the Akizuki clan. Tahei and Matashichi don’t know how lucky they are. Makabe had intended to kill them. But then he decided, after listening to the two men plotting how to get over the border back to Akizuki, that they might turn out to be useful. The great, defeated commander now has an army of two greedy, cowardly, treacherous peasants, but like any great general, he knows how to wage war with the troops he has, not with the troops he wants. In spite of their bad qualities, or, perhaps, because of them, Tahei and Matashichi might not only be the army Makabe wants. They might be the army he needs.

The gold, as it turns out, is a misdirection. Rokurota Makabe is guarding Princess Yuki, something more precious than gold. Princess Yuki is not only the Princess Leia of The Hidden Fortress. She’s the ruler and the very embodiment of the Akizuki clan. If Princess Yuki doesn’t make it out of the Yamana territories alive, the Akizuki clan, much like the Japanese without their royal family, would cease to exist as a people. Rokurota Makabe is in fact so determined to save Princess Yuki that he allowed his own sister to be executed in her place as a double.

Makabe brings his new army to the “hidden fortress,” the shelter in the mountains where the princess is hiding. This, Kurosawa suggests, is the kind of base the Japanese might have established had they fought a guerrilla war against the Americans instead of surrendering after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Then they all set out for Akizuki.

The parallels with Star Wars are intriguing. If the Akizuki are the Japanese, and the Yamana the Americans, doesn’t that mean the defeated Jedi Knights are both the Akizuki and the Japanese, and Darth Vader and the Death Star are the Americans? For Makabe, losing Princess Yuki would be something like Princess Leia seeing Calderon blown to bits by the Death Star. Star Wars, as silly, racist, and reactionary as it may be, is also offering a critique of the American decision to use the atomic bomb. Saving the princess, and the gold, for Kurosawa, becomes like the Japanese saving their royal family. If everything is to stay the same, then everything has to change. Japan, once a great military power, has to disarm. By disarming, however, it can become a great economic power. Tahei and Matashichi are greedy, treacherous cowards, but they’re industrious, greedy, treacherous cowards. The code of Bushido must be pushed aside for Sony.

But it doesn’t mean that the values of the Samurai are dead. Quite the contrary. Along the way to Akizuki, Makabe, meets General Hyoe Tadokoro, an old rival. Rokurota Makabe is surrounded by dozens of Yamana soldiers. They’re terrified of the great warrior as surely as a few dozen mere stormtroopers would be terrified of a Jedi. But surely they can still overpower him the force of their numbers. Makabe is doomed, but no. He challenges Hyoe Tadokoro to single combat. Tadokoro orders his men to stand down. He’s “got this.” If he can’t kill Makabe by himself, he’s not going to be a coward. He’s not going to let a noble samurai meet his end at the hands of a gang of mercenaries.

Makabe defeats Tadokoro in single combat and Tadokoro lets him go.

Later we learn that Tadokoro had expected Makabe to kill him. Showing him mercy was a form of cruelty. Tadokoro has “lost face,” quite literally, since his punishment is to have his brow disfigured. But General Hyoe Tadokoro is now in Makabe’s debt. At a crucial moment, Tadokoro not only helps Princess Yuki and General Rokurota Makabe cross the border into Akizuki, he obeys the princess when she tells him “not to die in vain.” He joins the Akizuki clan, the representatives of the defeated Japan, and helps them rebuild their shattered nation. Even Tahei and Matashichi turn out OK. Princess Yuki gives them both a single single ryō of gold. But they don’t fight over it. Tahei gives it to Matashichi to protect, but Matashichi allows Tahei to keep it. The nation, now united, has been saved.

I think most Americans would probably choose the original Star Wars over The Hidden Fortress. Star Wars is more accessible. Its technological wizardry, the way it overlays a simplistic, Christian, good vs. evil narrative over Kurosawa’s sophisticated tale of Japanese feudalism, are all more appealing to the popular imagination. And yet, with its glorious black and white photography — Kurosawa learned a lot from John Ford’s My Darling Clementine — and the masterful acting, not only of Toshiro Mifune, but of Misa Uehara and Susumu Fujita, the hidden fortress can be a “new hope” for Star Wars fans who have triple digit IQs and who are old enough to vote. There is nothing in any of the light saber duals George Lucas stages quite like the dual between Makabe and Tadokoro. Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader talk at each other. Toshiro Mifune and Susumu Fujita look like two men who are trying, not only to kill each other, but to do it with honor and style.

Star Wars is an intriguing children’s film. The Hidden Fortress is like watching a feudal society evolve into a capitalist society in a little over 2 hours, at 24 frames per second. John Ford was the cinematic poet of Manifest Destiny. Kurosawa is the John Ford of the Japanese phoenix.

Holy Motors (2012)

Leos Carax’s latest film will never get an audience in the United States. That’s a shame. Holy Motors is the best zombie film of the past, or perhaps of any decade.

Holy Motors ends with a dedication. “For you Katya,” we read next to a photograph of Carax’s girlfriend. Yekaterina Golubeva, who committed suicide in 2011 after a long battle with depression, and Leos Carax were not married. Carax did, however, adopt her third child, Nastya Golubeva Carax, who was born in 2005 and who also appears in Holy Motors, the importance of which will become clear later in the film.

The film opens in a theater. The audience is watching a movie we can’t see. They’re bored, on the verge of falling asleep. We switch to what appears to be a hotel room. A man wakes up. It’s Leos Carax. He’s alone. The mood is one of loneliness, sadness. He walks slowly across the hotel room towards a door, and exits into what we think is the backyard of a house along the coast. We hear the sound of gulls, waves crashing on the beach, a ship’s foghorn. It feels peaceful, refreshing. Carax has left a sparse room furnished only his own depression, we think, in order to reconnect with nature, and to heal. Soon, however, we realize we’re not at the beach. We’re in a movie theater, the very same movie theater we saw in the first frame. Carax has reconnected, not with nature, but with a bored public who doesn’t understand his films. What’s more, we also realize that even if Carax had walked out onto the beach, we would still be in a movie. We’d still be watching a film of the ocean, not the ocean itself. Seeing the ocean wouldn’t be any more “real” than hearing it, and we’ve already heard it. In other words, Leos Carax has broken down the wall between his film and its creator, rolled us up into his own grieving mind, into the closed circle of his under appreciated genius. If we see the world through his eyes, he insists, we must also feel his pain.

The star of Holy Motors is Dennis Lavant, the great French actor who has long been Carax’s muse, and his alter ego. Most Americans have never heard of this guy. Trust me on this. He’s as good as Daniel Day Lewis, maybe as good as Brando, one of the greatest pure physical actors of his (my) generation. If you have seen him, but haven’t seen him since “Lovers on the Bridge” in the early 90s, you probably won’t recognize him in the opening scene (don’t worry you will soon enough).

We shift from the movie theater to a palatial, and gloriously modernist, house out in the exurbs (or whatever passes for exurbs in France). Dennis Lavant is Mr. Oscar. At first glance, Mr. Oscar is a banker, a stock broker, a politician, or any aging member of the French ruling class. He says goodbye to his daughter. He gets into his stretch limousine. He picks up his cell phone. We quickly realize something is not right. The elderly white haired female chauffeur looks familiar. It’s Édith Scob, an actress who, 50 years ago, starred in the classic French horror film “Eyes Without a Face.” The space is too large to be the inside of a limo, even a stretch limo. It feels more like a tour bus, or a dressing room in a film studio.

Then it hits us. If Carax took our sense of space away from us when he hypnotized us into thinking we were only the beach only to be ushered into a movie theater. Now he’s giving it to us back. What’s more, Mr. Oscar isn’t a banker. He’s an actor, a freelancer, a man with 9 assignments, characters, to play from sunup to sundown, and he has to learn his parts in the limo, something only a man who lives, eats, sleeps, and breaths cinema can really do. Mr. Oscar will drop into various scenes in Paris, which may be real, or which may be film sets – we’re never quite sure – and play roles that range from homeless beggar, to cyborg, to flesh eating monster, to suburban “dad,” to gangster, to, at long last, Leos Carax himself. We also realize that Leos Carax has pulled a fast one on any pseudo-intellectual, cinophile who might be pontificating about how the film is about “difficulty” or that it “resists interpretation.” The jokes on them. Anybody who actually enjoys movies, and storytelling, also realizes that Mr. Oscar isn’t only an actor. He’s a zombie. Leos Carax, Dennis Lavant the French actor, and Mr. Oscar, the fictional actor in Holy Motors, are all Leos Carax. And they’re all zombies. Carax, after his girlfriend’s suicide, has not only become a zombie, he’s cast himself as the star of his own zombie film.

As we share the day with Mr. Oscar the actor, we realize that he doesn’t exist. He lives only when he’s in character. Acting, for Mr. Oscar, like cinema for Leos Carax, is the process by which he wakes himself up from the dead. Holy Motors is not “holy” at all. It’s 9 separate satanic births. Each time the great Dennis Lavant breaks out of his coffin and digs himself out of his grave. In his first role, he’s cast as a miserable old beggar woman on a bridge, a sequence drenched in aching nostalgia. We remember Lovers on the Bridge, and Juliette Binoche, the most beautiful homeless girl who ever lived. We remember Dennis Lavant as a young man, so madly in love that all of Paris becomes one big fireworks show, so obsessively in love that he’s willing to keep the object of his desire from surgery that will save her sight (so she doesn’t see how physically ugly he is). Now that’s all gone. All we have left is a miserable old beggar women.

In Mr. Oscar’s second role, we hark back to Carax’s second movie, Mauvais Sang. Many Americans are familiar with the scene in Noah Baumbach’s film Frances Ha, where Greta Gerwig runs through the streets of Chinatown in Manhattan to the sound of David Bowie’s Modern Love. A few of us remember the original, maybe the best “love at first sight” sequence in the history of cinema, Dennis Lavant, after meeting the young Juliette Binoche, running through the streets of Paris, leaping, dancing, doing back flips, all to the sound of the same song. Now he’s a middle aged man playing a cyborg in a science fiction movie, tramping along on a treadmill, machine gun in hand, the only thing remaining from the famous sequence from Mauvais Sang the pattern on the wall. Where in Mauvais Sang, Lavant fell in love with, but didn’t have sex with Juliette Binoche, here we see him engaging in dreary, emotion free, alienating cyber sex with some nameless six foot tall Russian contortionist.

The digital age, Carax is telling us, has killed the passion of cinema, an idea that’s only reinforced by the next scene, a photo shoot in Père Lachaise, where the names on all the tombstones have been replaced by links to websites. Mr. Oscar has now become Monsieur Merde (Mr. Shit) and he smells like it. If you doubt that Holy Motors is a zombie film, this scene will clear up any doubt in your mind. Monsieur Merde looks, and smells, as if he were already dead. As he traipses through Pere Lachaise, people scream, run. He attacks random passers by, causing terror and chaos until he comes to a creature even more dead than a zombie, a high-fashion model, Eva Mendes, decked out in exotic garb and a blank expression. The photographer, an over the top geek named Harry, who quickly shifts his attention from the beautiful, but vapid Mendes, to the ugly, yet gloriously weird Monsieur Merde. “Hasselblad,”he says to his pretty blond assistant (Annabelle Dexter Jones, the daughter of Mick Jones, lead singer of the 1970s rock band Foreigner), giving her his Canon 5d, switching from digital to analogue, bits and bytes to film as he shifts from the beautiful and empty model to the ugly and fascinatingly alive monster. Monsieur Merde winds up biting off the fingers of the photographers assistant and dragging the model back to her cave, where he wraps her in a burqa, and where she continues to display no emotions at all.

Next we see Mr. Oscar as a “dad” picking up his unhappy daughter from a party. The girl is played by Carax’s real life step daughter Nastya Golubeva Carax. She’s upset, insecure. Mr. Oscar can’t give her any good “fatherly” advice. And where’s her mother? It’s a minor scene if you don’t know the back story, achingly sad if you do. The girl’s mother had committed suicide only the year before. Carax is wondering why he couldn’t save her, why he couldn’t say anything that would have lifted her out of her depression. In role number 4 Carax lifts us out of our depression. Dennis Lavant manages to pull off something almost as good as the “Modern Love” scene from Mauvais Sang, a gloriously loud, raucous cover of “Let My Baby Ride” by a band full of accordion players, a 2 minute piece of music that could wake the dead.

This is the film’s high point. And we don’t want it to end. Sadly it does. Mr. Oscar then plays the role of an assassin, a dying old man, and another cyborg who kills a businessman at an outdoor cafe, a man who looks strangely like Dennis Lavant did in the very first scene of the film. That the film is winding down doesn’t hurt the story, however, because Mr. Oscar is also winding down. He’s getting tired. Eat, the chauffeur tells him, but he can’t. Finally, at long last, the wall between Dennis Lavant and Leos Carax collapses. His chauffeur runs into another limo. Inside is another woman, played by Kylie Minogue, the Australian pop singer. Like Yekaterina Golubeva, she married to another man. Like Yekaterina Golubeva, she has children by another man. Like Yekaterina Golubeva, she’s suicidal. She sings Mr. Oscar a song about the past. Her husband returns. Mr. Oscar leaves. She climbs up on the roof of her building. We see the Pont-Neuf bridge, the setting for Carax’s most famous film. We know what’s going to happen. But it’s stretched out. She tries to get her footing. We feel the height she’s about to drop. We sense her fear yet her determination to go through with it. She jumps.

The illusion is over. Carax, through sheer willpower, has broken open the coffin of his depression and scratched his way out of his grave. But now it’s time to go home, to go to sleep, to experience the death any creative artist feels when he must separate himself from the creative process. Leos Carax, a sad, middle-aged man, has given us two hours of cinema. The only way he can live on is if he gets an audience. Why not see Holy Motors instead of vegging out like a zombie in front of Walking Dead?