Montage of Heck (2015)

Twenty-one years after he committed suicide, Kurt Cobain remains an enigma. Why did he kill himself at the age of 27? Was it the heroin addiction? The stomach pains? Was it undiagnosed clinical depression? Did Courtney Love have him murdered? If Montage of Heck, the first documentary about Nirvana made the with the full cooperation of Cobain’s family, provides no answers, it does let us watch his self-destruction, almost in real time.

In the early 1990s, Cobain, a talented if unpolished songwriter, burst out of nowhere to become the “voice of his generation.”

That’s the popular narrative anyway. The reality is a bit more complex. All through the 1980s, an “alternative” musical culture existed alongside MTV and the mainstream. There were zines, college radio stations, and well known “underground” bands like Sonic Youth and REM. There were “independent” record companies. In the early late 80s, MTV’s standard rotation — Madonna, Michael Jackson, elaborately produced music videos, and British New Wave bands with elaborately produced hairstyles– had grown stale. It was time for the corporate music industry to raid the world of alternative rock in a big way. The prize catch turned out to be Nirvana, who had previously recorded the promising, if hardly earth-shattering, “Bleach” on Sub Pop, the Seattle-based independent record label, in 1989. Nevermind, perhaps the last great hard rock album ever recorded, was released in 1991. Almost overnight, sensitive young men in torn flannel shirts were all the rage. Seattle, the hipster Brooklyn of the 1990s, became the epicenter of punk rock. Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden replaced Motley Crue, Poison, and Ratt. Hollywood films like Reality Bites and Singles awkwardly tried to capture the “grunge” aesthetic.

Tucker Max says that “the devil doesn’t come dressed in a red cape and pointy horns. He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for.” For Kurt Cobain, jumping from Sub Pop to Geffen Records brought fame, fortune, a big Victorian house along Lake Washington, and the last laugh at everyone who bullied him in high-school. But it didn’t make him happy. Indeed, one of the strongest points of Montage of Heck is the way it shows how Kurt Cobain genuinely didn’t care about money. He wasn’t a poser, a wealthy rock star who ranted against materialism and conformism before getting into his BMW, and driving off to his mansion in the Hollywood hills. On the contrary, at the very height of his popularity, he stopped touring for 6 months. “All he wanted to do was stay at home, do heroin and paint,” his wife Courtney Love remarks. All of the hype around Nirvana, the ridiculous idea that he was “the voice of his generation,” clearly bothered him. Montage of Heck makes a good case that the money that came from signing with Geffen Records ripped Cobain out of the isolation he needed to create, and would have probably stunted him as an artist had he not died so young.

If Montage of Heck is a difficult movie to get through – it’s well over 2 hours – I think that’s part of the point. Twenty-seven is a terribly young age to die, but Kurt Cobain felt every one of those years like a crushing weight on his back. We meet his mother, Wendy O’Connor. We’re introduced to Aberdeen, the small, coastal town in Washington State where Cobain, a gifted, unhappy, teenager grew up. Kurt Cobain was an early “male feminist,” and Montage of Heck was made with the cooperation of Wendy O’Connor and Courtney Love, but the women in his life come off badly. Wendy O’Connor, an intelligent, but still bitter, angry woman, obviously despises her ineffectual, working-class husband, Don Cobain, and can’t hide how she took it out on her son. Courtney Love, now 50 years old, and a victim of too much plastic surgery, could easily be O’Connor’s twin sister. You can’t watch Montage of Heck without coming away with the impression that Kurt Cobain married his mother, that he never quite established himself as an adult, that once the money from Nevermind and In Utero made it possible for him to get all the heroin he wanted it was only a matter of time before he either overdosed or blew his brains out. The last hour of Montage of Heck is so harrowing – mostly home movies of Cobain and Love, clearly unfit parents, wasted out of their minds in front of their infant daughter – that you wonder how Nirvana ever became as good as it was. Cobain comes off like an undisciplined, childish, boring jerk, Love much worse.

Tracy Marander, Cobain’s first girlfriend, gives us a hint about what he was like as a creative artist. He would sit for hours doing nothing, she explains, then knock off a painting or write a song all at once. Cobain was limited as a songwriter, but what he did, he did well, give a voice to the anguish and rage of an abused child, he did with genuine originality, even genius. What made him so vulnerable to drug addiction and mental illness also made it possible for him to write his music. As long as he was a child, dependent on parents, step-parents, and adults who neglected him, and shuffled him around like an unwanted burden, he had to create to survive, to build a room in his imagination where he could shut the door behind him. Cobain’s journals, and artwork, are rough, unpolished, yet refreshingly honest and straightforward. The memories of an abortive attempt to lose his virginity with a mentally challenged woman he and his friends stole beer from, and the guilt that led to his first suicide attempt, come together like a first rate short story. Cobain, even as a teenager, expresses himself so clearly and so directly that his band mate Krist Novoselic seems baffled about how he could have missed all of the obvious warning signs.

Just about the only thing I wanted to see more of in Montage of Heck was an explanation of how Cobain managed to pull himself together to stage his remarkable performance on MTV’s “Live Unplugged.” Somehow the young man who, in his wife’s home movies seems too sick and weak even to sit up straight, not only performed Nirvana’s greatest hits, but made Ledbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night and David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World his own. David Grohl, Nirvana’s drummer, is very conspicuously absent from the whole movie. Apparently, he and Courtney Love still hate each other. Montage of Heck could have used his input, as well as input from Danny Goldberg, Steve Albini, and Butch Vig. I wanted to see Cobain, Novoselic, and Grohl at rehearsal, in the studio, arguing about how they would stage the concert. I wanted to see their creative process in action, to see Cobain make one final effort to pull himself together before he snuffed out his own life for good. It might have provided some additional insight as to why, in April of 1994, he put a shotgun in his mouth and blew his brains out. Sadly, as good as Montage of Heck can be, Cobain’s suicide remains as much of an enigma as it’s always been.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mad Max: Fury Road is not only an homage to the original series, it’s also a clever feminist deconstruction of one of the most reactionary films of the 1980s, the openly fascist Conan the Barbarian.

If John Milius imagines Conan as the white muscle man Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Aryan avenger who restores a proper racial order by killing the black cult leader Thulsa Doom, then George Miller flips the script. The Temple of Set has become the Handmaiden’s Tale. Thulsa Doom has become Immortan Joe, a strange man who looks like he belongs on the cover of an Iron Maiden album. Thulsa Doom had a gaggle of brainwashed, white teenage girls. He occasionally orders one of them to kill herself just for kicks. Immortan Joe keeps a multi-racial harem of underwear models imprisoned under a skull symbol, a clear reference to the horrible American Sniper, but he uses them as brood mares. Surely it’s not much of a stretch to see him as a symbol of the anti-abortion movement. He also hordes all the water and the food. He’s a neoliberal tyrant for a neoliberal wasteland. His army resembles a group of Neo Nazi skinheads. Their promised reward? A one way trip to Valhala.

Conan the Barbarian did feature a strong woman, Valerien, played by Sandahl Bergman, who does save the hero’s life, but she’s a sidekick, not the heroine. What’s more, Conan does attempt to inspire an uprising of Thulsa Doom’s white concunbines. The kidnapped princess is tied to a stake, brainwashed, and plays no part in her own rescue. In Mad Max: Fury Road, on the other hand, Max Rockatansky, and Imperator Furiosa not only work as a team — Charlize Theron resting her sniper rifles on Tom Hardy’s shoulder is indeed a striking image — they lead a group of rebels on a long march to a promised land. After the “Green Place” proves to be as much of a barren wasteland as the rest of their world, they return to Immortan Joe’s citidal, and, with the help of a ferocious group of old women called the Vulvalini, kill him Joe and liberate his slaves. Max helps restore the badly wounded Furiosa with his own blood. Mad Max: Fury Road, in other words, is a socialist feminist movie with a radical left-wing agenda that deserves all the praise it’s getting on soical media.

So why didn’t I like it?

Alas, as well-acted as Mad Max: Fury Road is, as much as I liked its politics, the film’s pacing is terrible. Fascist asshole though he was, John Milius at least knew how to stage an entertaining spectacle. After an illustrious career that included the original Mad Max, George Miller seems to have forgotten. The whole film is really just a long car chase with little or no dialogue or character development. What’s more, from the very first frame, Mad Max: Fury Road turns the volume up to eleven. Try to imagine the 1812 Overture cut down to the last 5 minutes, then repeated 20 times over the next two hours, or the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan bulked up into the whole movie. There can be too much of a good thing. After awhile, it just gets boring. I fell asleep twice before the whole thing was finally over. I did root for Max and Furiosa to escape, kill Immortan Joe, and restore the world’s balance, but it was my brain, not my heart that cheered them on. I wanted them to win, not because I liked them, or identified with them, but because I had read enough rave reviews on social media to know what they were supposed to represent.

It is possible, even likely, that as a 50-year-old man who prefers Mozart to heavy metal and Preston Sturges to video games, I’m simply not among the film’s targeted demographic. For people who grew up with iPhones and Grand Theft Auto, comic books, graphic novels, books, and a constant barrage of super hero movies, the pacing and the plot probably work just fine. I might be an old man who just doesn’t get it. I suppose I’ll run a test and watch it a second time, just to see if my expectations of a more traditional plot that never materialized short circuited my enjoyment of the film’s action, but, to be honest, if it weren’t for all the astroturfed publicity on social media, I’d probably just forget about it. I suspect that when all the hype dies down, Mad Max: Fury Road will be revealed as a good idea ruined by lousy execution.

“Mad Men”, the 60s, and the Triumph of Neoliberalism: Carol Lipton’s Review

Last Wednesday, I took a walk that I had not taken for many years: I went from 38th Street and Second Avenue to 59th and Lexington, revisiting much of the scenery and streets I used to pass by every day as a summer letter carrier in Grand Central Station in 1970. It was the height of the Vietnam War. Kent State and the war were raw, open sores on the nation’s psyche. I passed 57th Street, and was struck by something I hadn’t noticed in many years: the Juan Valdez coffee room, where I used to go at the end of my morning route for a free cup of Columbian coffee. I cringed, thinking how to my college self, getting a free cup of espresso in midtown Manhattan from a giant corporation that was exploiting workers in Latin America, was an incredibly exciting event.

I thought back to the endless sun-drenched afternoons walking up Park Avenue, a 20, sometimes 34-pound load of mail on my back, sporting my third change of work shirt, off to the afternoon Special Delivery runs that would terminate at UN Plaza, Beekman Place and Tudor City, and how a small treat like a free cup of coffee would make my day.

I thought of how embarrassingly neocolonialist its “El Exigente” ad campaign was, and the yawning chasm between the sanitized advertising image of the friendly coffee grower and the brutal realities of coffee plantations and assassination of labor leaders in South America.  I realized how the loss of any remaining illusions about the corporate machinations taking place in the canyons of midtown obliterated any traces of youthful excitement about being on those streets. What I felt was the opposite of the many tributes to the glories of Midtown, whether Sinatra’s or JZ’s. For me, there was neither hope nor charm.

Midtown in 2015 was vastly different terrain from midtown in the 70s. Gone were the low-level apartment buildings, the dozens of small cafes and restaurants, coffee houses, working class bars, and boutiques.  In their place were glass and concrete cenotaphs, interspersed with the monotonous neon frontage of chain stores and banks.

My walk served as the perfect prelude for the final episode of “Mad Men”. The “Mad Men” finale was, whether intentional or not, a stark commentary on the triumph of globalization and return to normalcy after the tumultuous and disorienting cultural upheaval that was the 1960s. The ending of “Mad Men” was a master stroke. With a modicum of imagery, Matthew Weiner brilliantly portrayed the co-optation of the counterculture.

The ending, a replay of the most iconic TV ad of the 70s, the 1971 Coke commercial, was in effect a bookend to a scene at the beginning of the series, when the War in Vietnam had begun to escalate.  Don Draper was at a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, intently watching as a folk singer on acoustic guitar sang the mournful and elegiac “By The Waters of Babylon”.  The singer, a humble young man in nondescript clothing, is the opposite of Draper, the Brill Cream Adonis. The song is sung in round robin style reminiscent of a Greek chorus.  Its emotional refrain, “We lay down and wept, and wept, for these our young” stands in plaintive contrast to Draper’s polished, impervious facade.

The series returns to the War in Vietnam in its final episodes, as Sally’s childhood friend enlists in the army, and she angrily denounces him. She becomes the moral center of “Mad Men”. Don, who had been slowly losing the ability to manage his game of 12-dimensional profligacy, finally hits rock bottom. He’s forced to confront the flotsam and jetsam of his life: the fake identity, the betrayal of his children’s trust, his many secret affairs, the lingering shame of his upbringing in poverty.  In the final scenes, Don’s emotions surface, and he finally seems to allow himself to feel genuine feelings.

In one of the most touching scenes in the series, he bids farewell by phone to Betty, who is dying of lung cancer brought on by years of heavy smoking, made more tragic by the irony of his trade. For Don Draper is no ordinary man losing his ex-wife to cancer. He’s one of advertising’s reigning geniuses, whose daring, innovative ad copy plumbs the depths of the American psyche. His ads created indelible imagery designed to  manipulate the deepest desires of Americans, so they would crave his clients’ products. It was Don who, at a meeting with Lucky Strike, announced that after Reader’s Digest had made it impossible to discuss cigarettes and health in the same sentence, created a new brand identity as the “toasted” cigarette.

Has the tragic specter of the Grace Kelly-like Betty stoically facing an agonizing death resulted in Don finally acknowledging his role as America’s uber-pusher? Matthew Weiner, like Jules Pfeiffer’s Dancer, answers both “yes” and “no”, and seeks to perfect both answers.

Like a scorpion stung by its own stinger, none of the employees of Sterling Cooper will be immune to the potency of advertising’s subliminal payload. While Betty will be the first to die of cancer, we can easily imagine the rest of Sterling Cooper’s staff, who not only smoke but drink like there’s no tomorrow, following suit.

Weiner strongly hints at Roger’s inevitable death from smoking, as he continues his multi-pack habit following a near-fatal heart attack. In one of the last episodes, he visits Joan to tell her he’s left the bulk of his fortune to their out-of-wedlock son.

The escalation of our national penchant for addiction parallels the increasing desperation driving the global search for raw materials and resources that stokes the engine of capitalism. Forty-five years after Mad Men’s ending, multinationals have virtually cannibalized the earth, laying waste to its mountains, trees, and oceans. Like a mainlining junkie, cranes drill into its veins and arteries, extracting minerals, oil, and natural gas, looking for that angry fix.  From 1970 until the present, most of the Amazon rainforest has vanished. The men who rule America’s corporations have not only caused millions of death from lung disease, they’ve also destroyed the lungs of the planet.

In 1970, the year “Mad Men” ends, the paroxysms of outrage over the assassinations of MLK, RFK, Malcolm X, and Kent State were reaching a crescendo. The massive social protests that produced the hippie counterculture as an alternative model to mass consumption had become a force to be reckoned with.  Its values represented a threat to corporate culture simply by their refusal to participate in conventional dress or grooming.

Millions of American youth stopped consuming the products that Madison Avenue wanted to sell. Rock ‘n’ roll anthems like “Satisfaction” and dozens of other records derided advertising, and its “useless information supposed to fire our imagination”. The Who released “The Who Sell Out”, with fun-house style cover photos mocking deodorant ads and Roger Daltrey bathing in a tub full of Heinz beans. 1970 saw the first Women’s Liberation march, and women abandoning the use of grooming products, high heels, and perfume.

Don Draper finds himself in California at the end of a cross-country journey in search of his identity.  He’s surrounded by hippie women who wear no makeup, braid their hair and tie it with ribbons. He wants to abandon it all. He goes to find himself in Big Sur and Esalen. Peggy pleads with him to return to the office, reminding him that the Coke account is waiting, promising that he can always come back.

In the final scene, Don is at Esalen, his belongings already looted from his East Side penthouse by his French Canadian mother-in-law, his car abandoned.  Amazingly, he has given up smoking. We see him in the lotus position in an al fresco yoga class, deeply inhaling the California mountain air, smiling and seemingly at peace, the Bodhisattva of Madison Avenue.

This cuts, without explanation, to the show’s final scene, of the iconic 1971 Coke commercial. But Weiner provides us with an irrefutable clue to the meaning of this scene: one of the women wears her hair with the identical braids tied in red ribbons as the Big Sur receptionist. It’s clear that Don designed the ad campaign. The commercial  shows about 100 people from different countries singing the refrain “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”, and finishes with “Coke. It’s the Real Thing”. It employs every hippie, peace and love trope and a catchy, sing-along song, to sell Coca Cola.

Here are gentle, fresh-faced, idealistic youth, seemingly from every nation on the planet, all joining together to have a Coke. Just as Coca Cola has cannibalized the land and culture of indigenous peoples, it now engulfs and merges with hippie iconography and language to create a potent image. It is an image designed to expand Coca Cola’s global market to include the counterculture and the Third World. It promises to deliver the world to peace, harmony, and greater understanding, just as Africa is poised to plunge into mass starvation, drought, and the AIDS pandemic. The 1971 Coke ad can now be seen for what it was: the watershed moment that signaled the reification of countercultural values and the sanitized culture of the 70s.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it’s obvious that Don mined his deepest experiences to create the ad, an apt metaphor for the remarkable tenacity and mutability of capital. This Coke campaign’s multiracial cast and veneer of peace and harmony would become the template for every non-profit emergency relief campaign thereafter, most notably “We Are The World”. At the center of the photo is the blonde hippie manqué, wearing the same braids in red ribbons as the Esalen receptionist. She’s wearing a red and white dress and stands resplendent against an expanse of blue sky, a living, breathing Star Spangled Banner.

Many people in the past week have discussed how May 4, 1970 and Kent State sounded the death knell for the 60s. I think that the final bell tolled on September 11, 1973, with the coup in Chile. It was the death of hope, the killing of a government that had dared to nationalize American corporate assets in a valiant attempt to wrest control over its own resources from the talons of global capital. Vance Packard, in his classic work on advertising, “The Hidden Persuaders”, warned Americans that we were being manipulated and tracked into consumption categories from cradle to grave, and that advertising was robbing us of the ability to think critically. The legacy of the 1971 Coke campaign is very much alive. It is the triumph of image over reality, of illusion over substance, of slogans over critical thought, that are the hallmarks of late-stage capitalism, where we pledge allegiance to our own destruction.

Panther (1995)

Mario Van Peebles’ semi-fictional account of the birth of the Black Panther Party has its problems. It bogs down at the end. It’s difficult to keep track of some of the characters. Nevertheless, it’s a vivid, dramatic recreation of the radical movement that led the struggle against police brutality in Oakland in the 1960s. It has a harshly critical view of black separatism and “identity politics,” quite fitting for the revolutionary Marxist group the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was. The most comically evil character in Panther is not a white man, but a black, bourgeois FBI agent who likes to preach about bootstraps, capitalism and “democracy.”  One or two early scenes are better than anything in the highly acclaimed Selma. I’m not exactly sure why this film is so hard to get. There no DVD version, and used VHS copies can go for over 100 dollars. But there’s a low-res version current available on YouTube, and I’d highly recommend seeing it before it gets taken down.

Panther is told from the point of view of a semi-fictional fictional character who joined the Black Panthers when he was 16. It begins on a light note. People are hanging out on the street corners. We hear music. A little boy, riding his bike to school, precociously flirts with a woman waiting for a bus. But there’s a foreboding undercurrent. A policeman uses his hand to mimic the shape of a gun and “shoots.” Then tragedy strikes. The little boy rides out onto the street, where he’s hit by a car and killed instantly. Van Peebles lingers on the puddle of blood that forms next to his body. It’s a violent, striking image of death of innocence.

The boy’s death becomes a catalyst. A local clergyman played by Dick Gregory organizes a non-violent protest march on city hall to demand a traffic light. But the young men of the neighborhood are growing more and more impatient with the non-violent tactics of Martin Luther King. Two of them, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, suggest they do more. The police will harass the march, and they want volunteers to take down badge numbers. The neighborhood cop watch program that will become the Black Panther Party for self-defense is born. The next day, a group of Panthers occupy the street corner and direct traffic. They clamp down on drug dealing and cat calling. They call out an undercover policeman. They begin to organize their neighborhood.

They are in the right place at the right time. Oakland is ready for a militant black revolutionary party. Seale and Newton brush aside a local black separatist as a middle-class collaborationist looking for an excuse not to tangle with the police. Then they get their first big break, the opportunity to work security for Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X.  They also need guns. Seale suggests they raise the money by selling a stock of Mao’s Little Red Book he bought in Chinatown. They recruit a Vietnam vet and Berkeley student named “Judge,” a man who will become both a key member of their organization, and its weakest link.

The semi-fictional Judge has the military experience they need to keep from getting cheated by crooked firearms dealers. But he’s also a marked man. The police threaten to charge his mother with assault unless he agrees to snitch. What Van Peebles demonstrates is that the police, then the FBI, know how to work a snitch. At first they use him as an observer, not a provocateur. As they cultivate him as their man inside the Black Panthers, they allow him to believe that he can play them even as they’re playing him. Judge even tells Seale and Newton the police have approached him.

The charismatic Huey Newton quickly becomes the star of the movement. They gain support within the black community, then support outside of the black community. They organize a free breakfast program. They stage their famous armed march on the capitol building in Sacramento. But it’s only a matter of time. The police lean hard and harder on Judge, forcing him to become a provocateur as well as a snitch. They cultivate a local drug dealer, named Sabu — Did the FBI snitch who sold out “anonymous” see Panther? — who resents the Panthers for interfering with his business. “The only color I have solidarity with is green,” he says. The FBI leans on the police to step up their game. They bring in the mafia and flood the neighborhood with drugs. Then they declare outright war, murdering Fred Hampton in his sleep, shooting up the Panther headquarters in Los Angeles, pitting one faction against another, arresting Seale, then Newton on trumped up charges. It’s only a matter of time, Judge’s police handler says. The Panthers are dead. And he’s right.

Nevertheless, if the Panthers are doomed, they make their mark. What Van Peebles demonstrates so effectively in the film is just how hungry the black community was for a group that would help liberate them from the police, who Seale explains are an occupying army inside the United States. Huey Newton, an ex law student, gains most of his success simply because he knows the law and the police don’t. Most police officers are highly limited in their intelligence. They follow orders. They don’t think independently. The sheer audacity of Newton and Seale picking up rifles and barking out quotes from the law books catches them off guard. Their methods, of course, are no longer possible since they’d no longer be very surprising. What’s more, Ronald Reagan rammed gun control through the California State Legislature. In the post-9/11 world, most big city police departments have been militarized. Even in an open carry state, they’re unlikely to allow black open carry marches the way they allow white, conservative open carry marches. But the idea of a revolutionary struggle organized around police brutality lives on. Panther was made 20 years ago, but it could have been made last year in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. The repressive government that destroyed the radical movements of the 1960s makes the disciplined organization of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense more relevant than ever.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

While best known for Spencer Tracy’s use of a karate chop against a hulking young Ernest Borgnine, Bad Day at Black Rock is not a martial arts film. A stark examination of the American class system, it addresses two important political issues. To what degree are Americans complicit in their own oppression? If the United States went to war to fight the Nazis, then why did it build concentration camps for Japanese Americans?

As the film opens, World War II veteran John J. Macreedy, Spencer Tracy, gets off the “Streamliner,” a luxury passenger train, at the tiny California desert town of Black Rock. The station master and telegraph operator is astonished. Black Rock is a desolate little strip on a cul de sac deep inside Sam Shepherd country. The Streamliner hasn’t stopped there in four years. When Macreedy asks about where he can get a taxi cab to a place called Yucca Flats, astonishment turns into hostility, bad hostility, the same kind of hostility that would greet civil rights workers who went to the deep south in 1964 to register black voters.

Macreedy, who has come to Black Rock to deliver a medal the father of a Japanese American soldier he served with in the Italian campaign, soon realizes that his life is in danger. While he was in the army fighting fascism in Italy, the local elite in Black Rock used a racist murder to stage what was, in effect, a fascist coup. Komoko, the father of Macreedy’s friend, is dead, murdered by a drunken mob on the day after Pearl Harbor. In order to cover up his crime, the leader of the mob, a local bigwig named Reno Smith, has established a dictatorship over the little desert town. Nobody speaks without his permission. He hires and fires sheriffs at will. He keeps two hulking thugs on the payroll just in case anybody gets out of line. Reno Smith is the Mussolini of Black Rock, a big fish in a tiny little pond.

John J. Macreedy is no Dirty Harry. He’s a mild-mannered old man who lets himself get bullied rather than fight back. But once he finds Komoko’s grave at Yucca Flats, he has no choice. Since the Streamliner won’t make another stop until the next morning, he has to find someone who can drive him out of town before Reno Smith has him killed.

After Macreedy realizes that there are people in Black Rock, an old undertaker played by Walter Brennan, the Sheriff played by Dean Jagger, and possibly a young hotel clerk and his sister who are weak rather than evil, Bad Day at Black Rock becomes a film about the idea of democracy vs. fascism. If Macreedy can spark a revolution inside the desolate little strip, he will live. If he fails, he dies. It’s just that simple. Unless the people of Black Rock liberate themselves from Reno Smith’s iron hand, he ends up in a grave at Yucca Flats right next to Komoko.

The climatic scene of Bad Day at Black Rock might have the quickest, and most subtle transition from day to night that I’ve ever seen in a film. Liz Worth, the young sister of the hotel clerk has agreed to drive Macreedy to the state police in the next town, 30 miles away. Throughout the movie, she has been alternately sympathetic and hostile. Macreedy thinks he has finally won her over. But he hasn’t. She’s setting him up for the kill. Her lover, Reno Smith is waiting in the darkness. John Sturges, Bad Day at Black Rock’s director, knows pacing and character. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for. The mild mannered veteran turns into an action hero. Macreedy survives with the help of an improvised Molotov Cocktail. Liz Wirth isn’t so lucky. Treacherous loyalty to a fascist regime inevitably means physical as well as spiritual death. The film ends with Macreedy getting on the Streamliner back to civilization, Reno Smith on his way to jail, and Liz Wirth on the slab at the morgue.

What makes Bad Day at Black Rock all the more remarkable is that it was filmed in 1955, at the height of the red scare, long before Ronald Reagan signed the apology to Japanese Americans for Executive Order 9066. It looks into the dark heart of American evil as directly as any film since William J. Wellman’s The Ox Bow Incident. Why can’t courageous, politically radical films like this get made today?

Lonely are the Brave (1962)

Early in Lonely are the Brave, a cowboy named Jack Burns, Kirk Douglas, is riding back to civilization. Even though Burns and his horse “Whiskey” have been “out on the range” for weeks, this is not the old west. It’s the late 1950s. He looks up in the sky at a airliner, shimmering in the bright sun, leaving a trail of condensation, heading for Los Angeles. In the distance he sees, not a small town with a hitching post and a saloon, but a large patch of suburban sprawl along the highway. When he tries to cross the highway, Whiskey panics. Burns is stranded in the middle of the road, cars rushing by him on either side, an anachronistic symbol of an American frontier that never was.

I have not read The Brave Cowboy, the Edward Abbey novel that the blacklisted communist screen writer Dalton Trumbo adapted for the movie. But Trumbo is far too smart to buy into the myth of the rugged American individualist. Burns looks just like a Hollywood cowboy, the Marlboro Man come to life, but he’s not so much a cowboy as he is a homeless, casual ranch hand and farm laborer. He owns no property, just a horse and a rifle. He carries no identification. He’s a Korean War veteran with a history of getting thrown into the stockade for insubordination. Jack Burns is the kind of man the American ruling class used to steal the land from the Indians, to slaughter the buffalo, to herd cattle, to transform the wild North American continent into private property. He’s useless and he knows it.

That’s what makes his rebellion so inspiring.

After Burns coaxes Whiskey off the highway, he goes to the house of his friend Jerry Bondi, a young Gena Rowlands. Bondi isn’t Burns’ lover. On the contrary, she’s married to his best friend, Paul Bondi,who’s serving a two year prison sentence for aiding and abetting “illegal immigrants.” Unstated, but surely hanging over Lonely are the Brave, is Eisenhower’s mass deportation of Mexican immigrants in the 1950s, the “Operation Wetback” that began in 1954 shortly after the fall of Joseph McCarthy. Hollywood may have caught a break after Joseph Welch humiliated the Senator from Wisconsin at the Army McCarthy Hearings, but for Mexicans the horror story was only beginning. Edward Abbey was occasionally criticized in the 1980s for having problematic (even openly fascist) views on immigration. None of that is in evidence here. Burns, and Trumbo, see the United States, Mexican border as one more fence, and fences, Burns maintained, have ruined the old west. When Jerry Bondi expresses her disapproval of her husband going to jail, he accuses her of being jealous of his confinement exactly the way she’d be jealous of another woman. Helping Mexican immigrants evade the law, Abbey and Trumbo suggest, is a labor of love.

Burns decides on a plan. He will go to a local bar, get drunk, and get into a fight. The police will put him in jail with Paul Bondi, and they can both escape together. Burns succeeds in picking a fight with a one armed World War II veteran. To be more accurate, he tries his best to avoid a fight with a man who’s so bitter, so mean, so violent that the police decide to let him go with a warning. He then assaults a police office. It means a year in jail, but he doesn’t care. Obeying the law and staying out of prison isn’t freedom. On the contrary, breaking the law, then demonstrating that no jail can hold you is freedom. Paul Bondi isn’t interested in escape. He just wants to do his two years, then go back to his wife. So Burns escapes by himself. Burns, the film implies, is the last free man in the west, a true rugged individualist who’s all the more doomed because he has to take on the system all by himself.

The chase through the Sandia Mountains that closes Lonely are the Brave makes for both a great western and a great deconstruction of the western as a genre. It’s Jack Burns against not only the local police, but the national guard. He becomes, in effect, an Indian on the run from the cowboys, no longer a white settler, but a fugitive trying to make one last stand against the industrial civilization that will eventually kill him. The police have jeeps, radios, and a helicopter. All Jack Burns has is his rifle and his horse Whiskey.

It’s almost enough. Burns almost makes it across the ridge of the Sandia Mountains and almost makes it to the Mexican border. He disables the national guard’s helicopter, and beats up the police officer who tortured him in prison. While the police are blasting away behind him, he manages to ride into the thick forest with only a minor gunshot wound to his ankle. But to what end? Even if he gets out of the country, all he’s going to the same, corrupt civilization that he wants to escape in the United States in Mexico. He rides out onto the highway. Whiskey, as we have seen, panics in traffic and freezes up. Jack Burns has come to the end of the road. But at least he goes down swinging.

Final note: Jack Burns’ death takes on an added layer of irony when we realize that the man who accidentally runs him down is played by a young Carol O’Connor, Archie Bunker himself. Trumbo, great writer though he was, couldn’t have written an ending like that if he tried. He did it by accident.

The Big Clock (1948)

If the “big clock,” the center piece of John Farrow’s 1948 film about the fall of a tyrannical publishing tycoon named Earl Janoth, seems to play only a peripheral role in the resolution of the plot, it might have something to do with how it’s more than just a clock. “Built at the cost of $600,000, it’s the most accurate and unique privately-owned clock in the world, set so you can tell the time anywhere on the Earth. It also synchronizes the clocks in Janoth corporate headquarters with those in the secondary printing plants in Kansas City and San Francisco and in the 43 foreign bureaus of the Janoth organization.” The “big clock,” in other words is capitalism itself, the pistons and crankshaft of a major corporation, what the social critic Lewis Mumford called “the mega-machine.”

Stuck inside Earl Janoth’s mega-machine is George Stroud, Ray Milland. Stroud, a one time West Virginia newspaper man, is the editor-in-chief of “Crimeways Magazine.” He’s Janoth’s most valuable employee. He’s also Janoth’s slave. As the film opens, he’s faced with a decision. He can take the two weeks vacation he promised his wife and son, or he can keep his job. Georgette Stroud wants no part of life in the big city. She, rightfully, sees her husband’s “success” as a burden that keeps him from spending time with his family. So when Janoth gives her husband an ultimatum — he can cancel his vacation to work on the latest issue of Crimeways or get fired and blacklisted — she’d just as soon see him quit the big time and go back to being a small-town newspaper reporter.

What follows is far too convoluted and full of unexpected twists to summarize in a quick review. What’s more, I wouldn’t want to give any spoilers for a movie that, even though it was made in 1948, still deserves a fresh viewing. The Big Clock is such an incisive look at corporate capitalism, and so rarely seen these days, that I hope that anybody reading this will go out and watch it as soon as he can find a copy. But, even though the twists and turns of the plot are an intricate crime story, the film’s overarching them is simple, to the point, and revolutionary.

George Stroud realizes that, even though he’s a valuable, highly paid employee, he’s still an employee. Unlike the typical member of today’s upper-middle-class, he knows there’s no such thing as a meritocracy, that he’s not special, that he serves at the pleasure of Mr. Janoth. Janoth, Charles Laughton, is in fact, as much of a king as an employer. He not only rules over a publishing empire, he rules over time itself. The “big clock” in the lobby of Janoth Corporate headquarters may have been a set piece in a movie released in 1948, but it could just as easily be part of the digital world of 2015. Today’s Mr. Janoths track their employees with key loggers, scheduling software, biometrics. In the event they can’t manage their workers on their own, they have a highly sophisticated security/surveillance state at their disposal, and a corporatist neoliberal government to clamp down on dissent. Mr. Janoth has his big clock, his bought and paid for enforcers, and his intelligent, obsessive personality, but the concept is the same. Corporate capitalism controls every part of a worker’s life.

George Stroud, unlike his wife, is still ambitious. It would be easy enough to go back to West Virginia and write about local news. He goes back into the machine anyway. After having his consciousness raised by his initial, although largely ineffectual gesture of rebellion, however, he’s fully aware of how Earl Janoth is not only his employer but his deadly enemy. For most of the film, he looks like a doomed man, a patsy who will go to prison for the rest of his life for a murder his employer committed. Georgette Stroud turns out to be of little practical help. She’s a drop out, not a revolutionary.She simply wants to go back to West Virginia.  Stroud is a revolutionary not a drop out. He goes back to the machine to destroy the machine. “What if the clock stops working?” a tourist asks him at the beginning of the film. “Oh Mr. Janoth would never allow that,” he responds, and he’s right. But the tourist never asks one possible follow up question. “What if Mr. Janoth stops working?”

By the end of The Big Clock, George Stroud is quite literally trapped inside Janoth corporate headquarters. On the surface, he’s a fugitive on the run from the law. In a deeper sense, he’s an ambitious man who has allowed himself to become a literal cog in the corporate mega-machine. But Stroud, who is familiar with the city’s night life, has a network he can call on for help, an eccentric painter, an Irish bartender, a would be actor a counter culture twenty years before anybody even used the term “counter culture.” That the overthrow of Earl Janoth takes trust, cooperation, and a network of supporters, means that it’s more than a corporate coup. It is the victory of bohemian New York over corporate New York. If you’re sick of the right-wing Madmen, and its not so hidden assumption that there is no alternative to the corporatist, neoliberal world order, this is the film for you.

Silence of the Lambs (1991) Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

A decade after having its reputation damaged by the Church Committee and revelations about Cointelpro, the FBI turned to turned to Hollywood. In films like The Untouchables (1987), Mississippi Burning (1988), and The Fugitive (1993), federal agents no longer spy on anti-war-activists or put microphones under Martin Luther King’s bed. On the contrary, they liberate Chicago from the mob, smash the Ku Klux Klan, and help an innocent man clear his name.

Directed by the gifted Johnathan Demme, Silence of the Lambs (1991) is probably the best of the pro-FBI films that came out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Jodie Foster, who stars as the plucky young Clarice Starling, puts a feminist face on a government agency better known for conservative white men in conservative dark suits. She not only rescues the daughter of a United States Senator from a perverse, wannabee transgender serial killer, she transcends her own working class background, confronts her childhood demons, and lets all the sexist jerks in the J. Edgar Hoover Building know that a new order has come to Washington.

Unfortunately for the 3000 people who died n 9/11, a new order had not come to the FBI. In the 1990s, under the incompetent Louis Freeh, the bureau acted like the same old FBI. They bungled the siege at Waco, managed to turn the Neo-Nazis at Ruby Ridge into sympathetic victims, leaked Richard Jewell’s name to the media after he had been falsely accused of the Olympic Park bombing, and failed to arrest the hijackers who would eventually destroy the World Trade Center.

In Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow tries to do for the CIA what Johnathan Demme did for the FBI in Silence of the Lambs. Bigelow, who had made her own pro-FBI film in 1991, the excellent Point Break, only partly succeeds. Jessica Chastain is an attractive actress, but she’s no Jodie Foster. Where Silence of the Lambs is tightly written and skillfully paced, Zero Dark Thirty is dull, bloated, confusing, frustrating, and overly long. Silence of the Lambs, had not one, but two utterly terrifying villains. With the purely fictional Hannibal Lecter and Jame Gumb, Demme gets to lay it on as thick as he wants, to depict evil in such a broad, vivid, over the top manner that the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe is turning in his grave, not out of frustration, but out of jealousy.

Bigelow, on the other hand, who, apparently, was fed leads by sources within the CIA itself, is writing in chains. Anything she does to play up Osama Bin Laden as an evil mastermind is likely to pale before the real life images of the World Trade Center collapsing onto itself. Any attempt to give us an Arab terrorist as terrifying as the Anglo Saxon Jame Gumb would bring accusations of racism. Compared to Jodie Foster’s interviews with Hannibal Lecter, where she overcomes her fears of white, male domination, Jessica Chastain’s participation in the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” (that’s “torture” for people not in the government or the corporate media) is just dull. Hannibal Lecter is locked up in a glass cage, but his overpowering presence is more than enough to convince us that the word is a dangerous place. When Maya watches a hunky, bearded male CIA operative waterboard a suspected Al Qaeda operative, or lock him up in a box, she’s a mere spectator in a process that looks like simple cruelty, and turns out to be useless anyway. Maya, like Clarice Starling, breaks the case while bonding with a female friend, but after Bin Laden’s location is found, she’s out of the picture. Clarice Starling shoots Jame Gumb herself. Maya watches the Bin Laden raid on TV.

What’s more, in light of Seymour Hersh’s new article in The London Review of Books, we now know that the official narrative about the Bin Laden assassination is every bit as contrived as the official narrative of the Jessica Lynch rescue in 2003. The CIA did not find Osama Bin Laden because a plucky young feminist bulled her way through a sexist male bureaucracy to get to the truth, but because a turncoat Pakistani walked into CIA headquarters to collect a 25 million dollar reward. Back in 2012, Zero Dark Thirty was widely debated over whether or not it was apologizing for torture, but the torture scenes were CIA misdirection. That the CIA used torture was already widely known.

The reason for the misdirection is that Barack Obama’s accounts of Bin Laden’s death were mostly lies. The Bin Laden assassination did not take place under the nose of Pakistani intelligence, but with their reluctant cooperation. What’s more, Obama disregarded the carefully worked-out cover story that would have allowed the Pakistanis to save face. Instead of letting the military take Bin Laden’s cadaver up to the tribal area of Northern Pakistan, where he could have been “discovered” after being killed by a drone, Obama went public with the assassination the day after it happened. Bin Laden probably wasn’t buried at sea, and he certainly didn’t die in a dramatic fire fight while using his wife as a human shield. There was no cache of documents that revealed an ongoing terrorist operation against the United States. By 2011, Bin Laden, whether a prisoner of the Pakistanis or effectively immobilized in his elaborate hideout, was largely out of the loop.

While Zero Dark Thirty does not show Bin Laden grabbing an AK-47 and using his wife as a human shield — the Navy Seals find it still hanging from a wall — it doesn’t show much of anything. Like Clarice Starling’s final confrontation with Jame Gumb, the raid on Bin Laden’s compound takes place in the murky darkness. But it’s crushingly dull. At some point, the viewer wants to say “just kill Bin Laden and get it over with already.” Just about the only thing Bigelow does manage to convey effectively is the now debunked claim of the treasure trove of documents. While the Navy Seals rush to pack up the hard drives, filing cabinets, and VHS cassettes in plastic bags, we’re told that the Pakistanis have scrambled their F16s. It’s probably fiction, but it does not only succeed in building tension, but in convincing us that the Seals found so much information in Abbottabad that they couldn’t get it all out in time.

But if Zero Dark Thirty is a failure as a movie, it does succeed as a bridge between the pro-FBI but liberal and feminist Silence of the Lambs and purely reactionary Lone Survivor and American Sniper. If the SWAT team in Silence of the Lambs is vaguely ridiculous, then the Navy Seals in Zero Dark Thirty are skilled professionals. They will reappear in the mountains of Afghanistan, fighting to survive after a botched raid on a Taliban compound, and then again in the form of the bearded, newly bulked up Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. If Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling appears at the end of Silence of the Lambs, no longer a trainee but a full-fledged “Special Agent,” then Jessica Chastain’s Maya simply gets on a plane to be flown to a destination of her choice, but one she has not yet decided. The plucky young female FBI agent has established a new order. The plucky young female CIA “targeter” may have found Osama Bin Laden, but there’s no graduation party, no triumph, no final call from Hannibal Lecter indicating more adventures to come. It’s time for her to step aside and let the men take over.