Monthly Archives: January 2020

1917 (2019)

wood

In 2020, when all you have to do to make up a new insult is to attach “bro” to the end of any word, 1917 has a rather unusual message. “Young men are good.” Indeed, not only do Lance Corporal William Schofield and Lance Corporal Tom Blake manage to keep their humanity in the middle of the apocalyptic hellscape that was northern France in 1917, they’re positively noble, two heroes right out of a recruiting poster. 1917 is a love letter written by Sam Mendes to his grandfather, the writer Alfred Mendes who served as a messenger in the British Army during the First World War and died in the early 1990s at the age of 94. It’s also a throwback to the shallow romantic nationalism that allowed Europe to blunder into a war so catastrophic that it essentially destroyed European civilization.

In The Great War and Modern Memory, the classic study of the literature of the First World War, Paul Fussell argued that in 1917 British poets and fiction writers did not possess the aesthetic tools necessary to describe the hell in Northern France that had swallowed up an entire generation of young men. While decades before Mark Twain had savagely mocked the romanticism of Walter Scott and the “Lost Cause,” the ideology that had blinded so many Americans to the reality of the killing fields of Gettysburg and Chickamauga, British poets like Rupert Brooke were still writing about the industrial slaughter of the Western front in terms of traditional chivalry, of knights in shining armor dying a glorious death for king and country. For Brooke, even the thought of being transformed into actual dirt was lyrical and romantic.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

https://www.thoughtco.com/the-soldier-by-rupert-brooke-1221215

It was only decades later, Fussell argued, after the Second World War, with the emergence of post-modern writers like Thomas Pynchon, that the English language found the words it needed to express what it felt like to have been a British soldier on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, where over 17,000 young men were slaughtered in a few hours. In such a world there could be no chivalry, romanticism, or comradeship. There was no basic human decency or even for that matter any kind of fundamental human consciousness. To be a soldier in the trenches of the Somme, Verdun or Passchendaele was to be a piece of meat shortly to be devoured by giant rats. It was to be a a lump of shit or a piece of scrap metal. Theodore Adorno once speculated about whether or not you could have poetry after Auschwitz. You could in fact have poetry after the First Battle of the Marne, but it would never again be the same.

Before the war, as he reminds us, “[t]here was no Waste Land, with its rats’ alleys, dull canals, and dead men who have lost their bones: it would take four years of trench warfare to bring these to consciousness. [. . .] There was no ‘Valley of Ashes’ in The Great Gatsby. One read Hardy and Kipling and Conrad and frequented worlds of traditional moral action delineated in traditional moral language”

http://www.jaas.gr.jp/jjas/PDF/2013/10Ishiwari.pdf

Sam Mendez gets to have it both ways. In 1917, he puts his two noble young heroes on stage in the middle of the apocalypse, and yet their spirit isn’t consumed. The First World War was so senseless that we still don’t understand its causes. In 1914, for some reason, millions of western Europeans gathered together in northern France and started to kill one another. It probably had something to do with imperialism and capitalism but honestly your guess is as good as mine. Blake and Schofield, however, two enlisted men in the British army, fight for the reasons most soldiers fight, for their fellow soldiers. As the film opens, both of them are called into a meeting with their commanding general, and given a mission. In the aftermath of a German retreat, he has sent two brigades across No Man’s Land into an advance position, in anticipation of the final “big push” that will win the war. But the German’s have not retreated. As confirmed by aerial reconnaissance, they have set a trap, and established a more defensible position. If the forward British troops proceed with the attack, they will be slaughtered, probably to the man. Worse yet, the Germans have cut the phone lines, making it impossible to notify their commanding officer of new intelligence.

Blake, idealistic patriot though he is, has good reason to accept what will almost certainly be the most dangerous mission of the war. If the attack goes ahead, his older brother, a junior officer in one of the advance brigades, will probably die. Schofield, on the other hand, who’s older, cynical, and most experienced, gets dragged along, largely against his will. Nevertheless, paradoxically, as they descend into the hell of no man’s land, he becomes, not more cynical, but more determined to finish the mission he had reluctantly agreed to accept. The depiction of the trenches, which are littered with dead bodies, gigantic rats, dangerous, abandoned scrap metal, German booby traps and German stragglers, toxic water and mud left me feeling palpably uncomfortable. Of course course it wasn’t the same as actually being in the trenches, but at times it felt so dirty and so unbearable I just wanted to walk out and take a shower. Yet Schofield and Blake forge ahead, working together better and better as a team and drawing closer to each other emotionally the closer they get to death. They are sleep deprived, hungry, dirty, and miserable, yet they both know what the stakes are. If they fail, thousands of their fellow soldiers will die needlessly.

Eventually, Schofield finds himself alone, as determined as Blake had been reach the advanced brigades, and deliver the commanding general’s message to stand down. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, he finds a young French woman living in the heap of mud, dead bodies and scrap metal that had once been her hometown, caring for an orphan baby she had found in the wreckage. When Schofield asks the baby’s name she says that it’s “Je ne sais pas.” I don’ know. In war there are few things more dangerous for a young woman alone than a soldier she doesn’t know but the young French woman has nothing to worry about from Schofield. She attempts to patch up a bruise on his head. He offers her all the food he has, including a canteen full of milk he had taken from the abandoned German trenches, and then proceeds on his way. What makes this scene so powerful is not only the compassion Schofield feels for the woman and the helpless baby, but the realization that while the young woman will probably survive, the baby probably won’t. The apocalyptic hell that consumes the bodies of strong young men probably won’t spare an abandoned newborn.

In the end, however, I don’t think I like the politics of 1917. In the age of Brexit and the ongoing surge of right wing nationalism in Europe, the way Mendes uses the technology of cinema to have it both ways, to have his antiwar message and yet eat his patriotic cake too, to depict the horrors of war while giving the soldiers of the British Empire back their innocence and nobility, seems regressive. While the Germans of 1917 live in the reality a Thomas Pynchon, becoming as much a part of apocalyptic hellscape as the mud, rats, and scrap iron, the British live in the world of Rupert Brooke. Blake is doomed by his compassion for a German soldier, by his refusal to commit a war crime.  This is not to say that 1917 is anti-German or even pro-war, but does, in a sense, erase the memory of what the trenches did, not only to the bodies of a generation of young Englishman, but to their souls. As powerful an evocation of history as the film is, it is also, paradoxically, a denial of history.

Raymond Bonner is Decisively Vindicated

mozote-1

Back in the 1980s, when Elizabeth Warren was still a Republican and Reagan Administration officials were making AIDS jokes at press conferences, the United States government was fighting a dirty war against leftists in Central America. While the history of CIA death squads in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador still profoundly affects American politics — most of the Central American refugees at the southern border are fleeing the violent society that was the inevitable result of the Cold War — I doubt one American in a hundred would recognize the name “Raymond Bonner.” For all of the talk on social media about “privilege” I can’t think of a better example than this. Not only do people in the United States get to forget atrocities carried out by allies of the American government. We don’t even have to. Most of us never hear about them in the first place.

Early in January of 1982, a Marine Corps veteran and New York Times staff writer named Raymond Bonner was invited by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front to visit the village of El Mozote in the Morazán Department or Northeastern El Salvador. While Bonner would later be smeared by the Reagan Administration for traveling with the leftist rebels, it’s clear that the FMLN had nothing to hide. Quite the contrary, they wanted the New York Times, and the entire western media, to understand what had happened the previous month,  an atrocity at least twice the size of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam.

On December 10, 1981, units of the Atlacatl Battalion, led by officers trained in the United States at Fort Benning, Georgia, entered the village of El Mozote looking for suspected leftist rebels. In the kind of counterinsurgency campaign that very few people in the United States have experienced, or have even tried to imagine, the soldiers began rounding up in the villagers in the town square. They separated the men, women, and children, and preceded to get to work torturing the men, raping the women and girls, and, and conducting summary executions. Over the next two days, over 1000 people were dead. To give some sense of perspective, in 1943, after the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazis killed 340 people in Lidice, a small town in Czechoslovakia most of us are probably (well hopefully) familiar with from high school history.

After Raymond Bonner filed his story about the massacre on January 27, 1982 with the New York Times, he was subjected to a ferocious right-wing backlash led by none other than Elliot Abrams, an Assistant Secretary of State in the Reagan Administration and currently Donald Trump’s “Special Representative for Venezuela.” Bonner was not only labeled an “activist journalist,” he was accused of collaborating with the rebels to inflate the casualty list. The United States embassy in San Salvador argued, for example, that “no more than 300 people lived in El Mozote.” William A. Henry III of Time Magazine revived an old Vietnam-era talking point. “An even more crucial if common oversight,” he wrote, “is the fact that women and children, generally presumed to be civilians, can be active participants in guerrilla war.” Eventually pressure from the Reagan Administration pushed the New York Times to reassign Bonner to the financial desk in New York City. As New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis later wrote, the New York Times and other major newspapers got the message, and immediately toned down their criticism of Reagan’s counterinsurgency campaign in Central America.

Over the next few decades, after it was too late to matter, the press began a detailed investigation into what happened at El Mozote, eventually proving that Raymond Bonner had been right all along. In the early 1990s, a United Nations Truth Commission traveled to the site and dug up hundreds of skeletons, the size of many of which indicated they had belonged to small children. A detailed article in the New Yorker by Mark Danner described the efforts of 4 forensic scientists from Argentina, who also confirmed the original reporting by Raymond Bonner. The New York Times, denying that pressure from the Reagan Administration had ever had any affect on their coverage of the Civil War in El Salvador, declared Bonner “completely vindicated.” In 2011, the Salvadoran government issued a formal apology.

Finally, three days ago, the Salvadoran general to whom most of the officers commanding the Atlacatl Battalion reported, at long last came out and admitted it. “Yeah. We did it.”

According to a United Nations report, soldiers tortured and executed nearly 1,000 residents of El Mozote and surrounding hamlets in the Morazan department, 180 kilometres (112 miles) northeast of San Salvador, as they searched for rebel fighters in December 1981.

At a court hearing in the eastern town of San Francisco Gotera in Morazan, Bustillo testified he had had no part in the operation which he said was conducted at the behest of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, commander of the feared Atlacatl Battalion.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/el-salvador-general-admits-army-carried-el-mozote-massacre-200125155053149.html

Elliot Abrams, of course, faced no consequences for his attacks on Raymond Bonner and remains a part of the Trump Administration.

Ford v Ferrari

fvf

Ford v Ferrari is such a well-made, entertaining movie it made me do what I thought I’d never do, root for corporate America. More specifically, it made me root for the Ford Motor Company, a giant multinational corporation founded by a union-busting Nazi, against Ferrari, a posh Italian microbrand. It did so in two ways. First of all, director James Mangold had an enormous budget, $97.6 million dollars if Wikipedia is to believed. Second, Ford v Ferrari revives the tried and true 1980s narrative of the idea of a conflict between the all American “maverick” against the stodgy corporate douchebag. It allows us to have our cake and eat it too, to be a “rebel” while remaining inside corporate America, to stick it to the man, even as we’re cashing the man’s fat, corporate paychecks.

Ford v Ferrari is in fact so good, I’d like to see a whole series of movies where all American corporate mavericks crush snooty Eurotrash. How about Budweiser v Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier? Microsoft v openSuse? Boeing v Airbus? The Marvel Cinematic Universe v Jean Luc Godard? The only problem is nothing is made in the United States anymore. The heroes would all have to be Chinese, and the villains Armani clad American douchebros with lofts in Tribeca. Indeed, part of the reason Ford v Ferrari has so much appeal is the way it plays on our nostalgia for the days when the United States produced anything beyond weapons, propaganda and “crippling sanctions” on countries with governments we don’t like. When Henry Ford II directs Matt Damon’s Carroll Shelby to look out of the window at the Willow Run Manufacturing Complex in the not yet deindustrialized Detroit and proudly states that “Roosevelt didn’t beat Hitler, my father did,” it made me so wistfully nostalgic for the America I never really got to see that it almost let me forget that Henry Ford Sr. was an actual Nazi.

If the Marvel Cinematic Universe is propaganda for Washington DC and the American military industrial complex then Ford v Ferrari is propaganda for an America that actually had a private sector. The best scenes in Ford v Ferrari are the racing scenes, which, as far as I can tell, didn’t use any CGI. $97.6 million dollars can buy a lot of cars, sets, and space for on location shoots. Having recently binge watched all of the Chris Evans Captain America movies, I can say without any hesitation that real stunt drivers who know what they’re doing and natural lighting are always more entertaining  than a bank of computer nerds in a loft somewhere in downtown LA running Autodesk Maya, Pixar Renderman for Maya. Autodesk SoftImage XSI. Unlike the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the heroes of Ford v Ferrari are regular 40-year-old dude bros who not only have high blood pressure but could actually die. The opening of the final sequence at 24 Hours of Le Mans, with drivers at the starting line rushing for their cars then getting into an apocalyptic multi-car accident before the race has hardly even begun, is so good it made me wonder why Hollywood doesn’t stage live-action NASCAR more often.

In other words, the real Captain America is not Steve Rogers, but Ken Miles, and he’s not even American. He’s British, a 45-year-old World War II hero from Birmingham with a Brummie accent and a 40-year-old but still hot wife played by the Irish ex-supermodel Caitriona Balfe. Miles, played by Christian Bale, who I first saw in the late 1980s movie Empire of the Sun shouting “Cadillac of the skies horsepower” at two P-51s strafing Japanese positions in Shanghai, is, like most Americans, at least in our imagination, an individualist. When a Ford Motor Company, corporate douchebag played by Josh Lucas tells his son not to touch a car, Miles tells the corporate douchebag that the car is a piece of shit anyway. Hell, do fathers in real life actually stand up for their kids against their boss? Well, I’ve never seen it, but it’s a fantasy worth exploring. Of course the reason it’s a fantasy is that while Miles is a rugged individualist, he’s also a rugged individualist who likes to play with expensive toys, in this case race cars. How much ass kissing he’ll have to do is one of the themes the story explores.

But it’s Miles’s more rational and American alter-ego, the famous designer of American muscle cars Carroll Shelby played by Matt Damon, who does most of the ass-kissing anyway. Ford v Ferrari opens with Lee Iacocca, the Ford executive who would later go on in the 1980s to lead Chrysler and secure a massive corporate bailout from the Reagan Administration — do you think Obama invented corporate bailouts? — talking to his boss Henry Ford II about a new marketing strategy. It’s 1962 and the oldest Baby Boomers, born in 1945, are now starting to get drivers licenses. Sadly, he argues, Ford has lost its “cool.” Teenage and twentysomething dude bros don’t want to drive stodgy old cars designed for middle-age suburban dads. They want fast cars that will let them outrun the cops and get the chicks. Iacocca suggests that Ford buy out the posh Italian microbrand Ferrari — Enzo Ferrari has built the perfect car but his company is broke — and sponsor a driver in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France.

So Iacocca goes to Italy and attempts to close the deal, and yeah, I was rooting for a Ford Motor Company corporate douchebag attempting a hostile takeover of a classic, failing brand. Enzo Ferrari, however, is too smart for Lee Iacocca. While he pretends to consider Iacocca’s offer, he’s actually using Ford to court Fiat. Fiat gives Ferrari a better deal, Enzo insults Ford and his manhood. Ford insults Enzo and his ethnicity — and hilariously none of the film reviewers on YouTube can use the word “wop” without being demonetized — and the race is on. The drama then shifts over to Carroll Shelby’s dilemma. Of course a giant corporation like Ford has the money and resources to compete with a post Italian microbrand like Ferrari, but winning a race is more than just having a fast car. It’s about having the right driver, a man who knows how to push a machine to its limits without breaking it. That man, Shelby rightfully argues, is Ken Miles. Unfortunately for Shelby, however, Miles is too much of a maverick to be the star of a Ford Motor Company marketing campaign. They want him fired. Shelby knows that he’s vital to beating Ferrari but doesn’t know how to convince the corporate douchebags in the marketing department.

In the end, well there are two endings. In the first ending,  all American mavericks Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles beat Ferrari, but they don’t beat the corporate douchebags at Ford. Let’s just say the ending reminds me a bit of the New York Times refusing to endorse Bernie Sanders and instead endorsing multiple female candidates for woke points. The best man wins, but he doesn’t get the credit.  The second ending reminds me of a Springsteen song.

He rides headfirst into a hurricane and disappears into a point
And there’s nothin’ left but some blood where the body fell
That is, nothin’ left that you could sell
Just junk all across the horizon, a real highwayman’s farewell

It’s a bummer but a natural ending for a man who’s too much of a man to fit into this corporate hellhole we call the United States of America.

Getting Mad and Giving Money on the Internet

While it is still too early to determine whether or not Elizabeth Warren’s well-organized campaign to paint Bernie Sanders as a sexist has diminished his chances of winning the Democratic nomination for President, we can already be certain of one thing. It has significantly enhanced his brand. After watching their candidate repeatedly attacked at by CNN’s moderators during the January 14th debate, his supporters on the Internet got mad. Then they got out their credit cards.

Even by the standards of Bernie Sanders’ fundraising juggernaut, Tuesday was a big day: He raised $1.7 million from more than 100,000 small-dollar donors, his biggest debate-day haul of the 2020 campaign.

https://www.politico.com/news/2020/01/15/warren-sanders-dispute-2020-099467

Neoliberal economists like Frederick Von Hayek and Milton Friedman have argued that while the state is inherently oppressive, the market is open and democratic. Business models for Silicon Valley companies like Uber extend the libertarian ideal into the market itself, aiming to “disrupt” older, more traditional corporations by the use of the Internet, mobile and digital technology. Similarly, privately owned charter schools target top heavy public schools and teachers unions.

As odd as it my sound, it is the self-proclaimed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders who mostly closely embodies the libertarian ideal. While Sanders eventually hopes to roll back the neoliberalism of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and restore the social democratic ideals of the New Deal, it is unlikely that he will get anywhere near the White House. The Democratic Party establishment, the corporate media, and big, top town unions like SEIU have placed formidable obstacles in his path. The sheer number of candidates remaining in the race and Joe Biden’s dominant position among older, southern, African American voters make it unlikely that Sanders will get the nomination on the first ballot, which will kick the decision up to the super delegates on the second ballot. 2020 is likely to be the most traditional Democratic National Convention since 1968, where fat ward healers in smoke filled rooms grabbed the nomination away from the young anti-war activists galvanized into politics by the recently murdered Robert Kennedy.

Like Robert Kennedy and George McGovern, Bernie Sanders has galvanized the next generation of progressives into electoral politics. He has met with some hostility on the far left, who accuse him of “sheepdogging” people into the hide bound Democratic Party, but it is in the Democratic Party itself where he has met with the most hostility. Older, more affluent Democratic Party activists, feminists, union leaders, and the African American elite led by figures like John Lewis don’t quite know what to make of Sanders himself, with whom they often agree on the issues. But they are unanimous in their dislike of his followers, who they label “Bernie Bros” or “social media bullies.” Like a middle-aged divorcee who spent his youth going to fraternity parties and suddenly finds himself face to face with Tinder, older liberal Democrats are experiencing culture shock. Suddenly they feel irrelevant, shunted aside by a horde of aggressive, new activists in their 20s. Unwilling to give up their institutional power, they have waged a scorched earth campaign against Sanders and his movement, determined to drive the Senator from Vermont, and millions of new voters away from the political party they see as their birthright, desperately hoping we will all “give up purity politics” and “vote blue no matter who” in spite of their obvious hostility.

The results are likely to be disastrous. Unlike younger left and liberal activists in Chicago in 1968, Sander’s followers are unlikely to riot when the corrupt old Democratic establishment steals the nomination from their man for Joe Biden. The Millennials of 2020 are not the hippies of 1968. The typical Bernie Bro is far more comfortable with an iPad or a cell phone than he is with a Molotov Cocktail. They will however continue to undermine the Democratic Party institutions they rightfully see as blocking their path to political power, and progressive reform. What’s more, the rank and file of the Sanders movement, like the rank and file of Occupy Wall Street, is likely to fade away in pessimism and disillusionment. Bernie Sanders is a 78 year old New Deal Democrat, an old fashioned big government liberal who has survived into the age of neoliberalism. The leadership of his movement however, the organizers and social media gurus who have built his campaign into a fundraising juggernaut will, like George McGovern’s supporters in 1972 — among who were Gary Hart and Bill Clinton — are going onto lucrative careers in politics. Will they hang onto the social democratic politics of their candidate once he retires? In spite of younger, prominent social democratic politics like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it does not seem very probable. More likely, they will adopt the neoliberal identity politics of Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren, and simply replace the Baby Boomers among Democratic Party power brokers.

Who will be the Gary Hart and Bill Clinton of the Bernie Bro Generation? The only thing that’s certain is that there will be a fight about the color, gender and ethnicity of the new elite, about who gets to control all the money raised by the Sanders campaign from people who got mad on the Internet. Political opinions will be expressed more and more online, and with a credit card, and less and less in the voting booth and in the streets. Raising money for healthcare will continue to be about Go Fund Me accounts, and not about Medicare for All. Conservative dominance in the political arena is likely to continue through my lifetime. The market, however, will be up for grabs.

The Stranger (1946)

Early in The Stranger, perhaps the first mainstream American film about the Holocaust, Charles Rankin, a Connecticut prep school teacher played by Orson Welles, his fiancee Mary, her father, a Supreme Court Justice, her younger brother Noah, and Mr. Wilson, a federal government agent, are talking about the recent war with Germany. Rankin does not mince his words. He believes that the German people are by their very nature incapable of democracy. Unlike Americans, who believe that “all men are created equal,” or the French, who believe in “liberty, equality and fraternity,” there is no word for “freedom” in the German language. The solution, Rankin argues, isn’t the United Nations or the Marshall Plan. It’s genocide. Just destroy Germany as a nation.

At first nobody thinks much of it. After all, in 1946, nobody in the United States had a good opinion of the German people. Just the year before, the American and Soviet armies had discovered the Nazi extermination camps. Of course nobody agrees with him. Mary argues that a “Carthaginian Peace” never works.  Noah suggests that when Karl Marx wrote “workers of the world unite” he was arguing that Germany needed a democratic revolution like France or the United States. Even Mr. Wilson, who’s an investigator for the Allied Commission on War Crimes, and presumably opposed in principle to the utter destruction of a major European nation state, gives Rankin a pass. But Rankin isn’t finished. “So a Carthaginian Peace never works,” he says to Mary. “How much trouble did Carthage make after Rome put them to the sword?” Then he turns to Noah. “Oh the Communist Manifesto proves nothing,” he says. “Karl Marx wasn’t a German. He was a Jew.”

Suddenly a light bulb goes off over Mr. Wilson’s head. Wilson, who has come to Harper, Connecticut in pursuit of a shadowy German War Criminal who managed to escape Germany after the fall of the Third Reich, has found his man. Charles Rankin, who to all appearances is a red white and blue American patriot, is no American. He’s Franz Kindler, one of the major architects of the Holocaust. “Who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was German?” he thinks. The only problem is that Kindler’s antisemitism is hardly proof that he’s a war criminal. Indeed, unlike Himmler or Goebbels, Franz Kindler was so guarded and so secretive that he not only managed to destroy all the evidence connecting him to the Nazi extermination camps, nobody even knows what he looks like. Months of investigation have yielded only one possible clue about Kindler’s identity. In Germany, Kindler was obsessed with horology, the study of time. Not only did he murder hundreds of thousands of Jews, he made sure it was all done according to a precise schedule. As far as Kindler was concerned, a Jew gassed 5 minutes minutes late was a Jew who was never gassed at all.

The Stranger is perhaps most accessible movie Orson Welles directed. For anybody bored by Citizen Kane, baffled by The Lady of Shanghai, or completely unaware of The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger is an excellent introduction to Welles’s fundamental aesthetic, which is about as dark as it gets in American cinema. Now largely forgotten, but his only commercial success, The Stranger taps into the American urge to displace its own dark history onto Germany, to forget about slavery and native American genocide, and set Hitler and the Nazis up into a secular version of Satan. Wells is not only convincing as a Nazi war criminal. He’s convincing as a Nazi war criminal with an American accent, the history of two genocidal cultures, German and American, blending together in his intimidating body language and formidable persona.

Harper Connecticut, loosely based on one of those ruling class suburban towns that dot the coast along Long Island Sound, the Greenwiches, New Canaans, and Dariens that allow so many federal judges and Wall Street lawyers to go home to get on the Metro North and go home to their quaint, neocolonials and “good” all white school systems, also has a tall, beautiful Presbyterian Church with an ornate, 17th Century German clock tower that was brought to America by his upper-class wife’s ancestors, but which hasn’t worked for years. Kindler, the German horologist, spends most of his spare time in the church tower attempting to repair its complex machinery, the bells that used to chime every hour, the metal angels and demons that go through a complex dance hundreds of feet overhead. It’s impossible to express just how subtle and yet simultaneously brilliant the image is. A tall, whitewashed Presbyterian Church is a familiar sight to anybody who lives in the suburban northeast. Nobody in a wealthy Connecticut, Wall Street bedroom community would think twice about someone buying antiques from Europe and carting them back to the United States, but in one visual stroke, Welles has brought the gothic nightmare of old Europe back home.

Wilson has only one way to tie Rankin/Kindler to the death camps. At the opening of the film, he had released from prison one of Kinder’s henchmen, a certain Konrad Meinike, who has since converted to evangelical Christianity and repented of his crimes. Since Wilson knows that Meinike will attempt to contact Kindler so he can convince him to accept Jesus as his personal savior and save his soul, he has him discretely followed, first by a mysterious Latin woman, and then by himself. After Meinike arrives in Harper and briefly gives Wilson the slip, he attempts to contact Rankin at home, only to find Mary, who has come to redecorate the house for the coming marriage. Eventually Meinike finds Rankin/Kindler and attempts to preach the Gospels to his old partner in war crimes, but the hulking man strangles him and buries him in the woods. Orson Welles, who was 6’2″ and well built, exudes menace.

The only problem is that Mary, horrified by the idea that she’s married to a war criminal as bad as Richard Heydrich or Adolf Eichmann, immediately goes into denial. Even after Kindler confesses to having murdered Meinike — he cooks up a phony story that the little man had tried to blackmail him over the suspicious death of his fiancee in Europe — she is determined to protect him from Wilson’s investigation. Since Mary is now the only person who can tie the two men together, the question becomes whether or not she will turn him into Wilson and the police before he murders her the way he murdered Meinike and then her pet Irish Setter Red, who had discovered the body in the woods and tried to dig it up. Eventually Kindler decides his wife will inevitably crack, and plans the perfect crime, booby trapping the clock tower, which he knows she will visit, and showing himself around town to establish an alibi, timing the entire operation down to the minute.

Orson Welles had initially wanted to cast Agnes Morehead as the Nazi hunter — he wanted an old spinster on the tail of the hulking, menacing war criminal — but the studio demanded that he give the part to Edward G. Robinson, who was, at the time, a bankable star, instead. Nevertheless, Welles has a woman save the day anyway, Mary’s housekeeper Sara, who under instructions from Wilson not to let her employer out of her sight, feigns a heart attack and keeps her at home. When Noah and Wilson climb the booby trapped ladder to investigate, both are almost killed but Noah, being young, strong and athletic, manages to grab onto Wilson and get them both safely to the ground. Mary, now who believes she’s responsible for her brothers death, finally turns on her husband and agrees to testify that she knew Meinike had come to Harper to find his old commandant.

The final confrontation in the Church tower, where the bell finally tolls for Franz Kindler, who’s stabbed by one of the very mechanical demons he helped repair, is a gothic masterpiece.

Little Women (2019)

Last December when the marketing campaign for Little Women began — see it bros or you’re sexist — I tried to buy a ticket on Christmas Day, not so much to prove my “woke,” male feminist credentials, but simply because it was the least objectionable movie playing in the newly restored Cranford Theater down the street from my house. I have no intention of seeing The Rise of Skywalker. The good news for feminists and Elizabeth Warren supporters everywhere is that it was sold out, not in hipster Brooklyn, but in the deep, dark cultural waste land that is suburban New Jersey.

While Little Women may not appeal to the white Boomer out in Trumplandia with a “Make America Great” bumper sticker on his Ford-150, or to working class black women in Newark and West Philadelphia, it’s actually a pretty good movie. Directed by Greta Gerwig, who also directed 2017’s Ladybird and starred in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Little Women is beautifully photographed. The cast, is almost uniformly excellent, even Timothée Chalamet, who in spite of occasionally looking a bit like a member of a boy band who accidentally wandered onto the set, makes the most of his underwritten part. The non-linear timeline, while occasionally confusing to someone who hasn’t read the book, doesn’t break new cinematic ground, but it is essential to the issues Gerwig’s interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is trying to explore.

I’m not sure exactly why I’ve never read Little Women — it was sitting on my bookshelf for decades but if I had to guess, I’d say it subconsciously triggered in my mind an association with the 1970s TV show Little House on the Prairie, which was dreary Koch Brothers libertarian propaganda wrapped up in hazy nostalgia for our hardscrabble existence on the American frontier. Louisa May Alcott, however, was no Laura Ingalls Wilder, a vicious racist who celebrated the white man’s colonization of land recently stolen from the ethnically cleansed Lakota Sioux. On the contrary, Alcott’s father Bronson Alcott was not only an important figure in the New England Renaissance, a friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, he was a militant abolitionist who helped lead riots against the Fugitive Slave Act. Unfortunately for his children, however, he was also a working-class intellectual with no inherited money, and very little inclination to work his way into a more practical career. Consequently, while very much a part of the educated elite, Louisa May Alcott grew up in poverty, genuine poverty where she and her sisters rarely had good clothes or enough to eat.

While poverty is an issue in Gerwig’s Little Women, it’s not the kind of poverty Louisa May Alcott experienced growing up in 19th Century Concord. Rather, it’s the kind of poverty a middle-class white girl would face in hipster Brooklyn. The rent is too damned high. You never have quite enough money. You can never buy the things you really want. You look at your rich neighbors — especially that cute boy with the big trust fund —with a mixture of admiration and envy. You constantly wonder what you really want to do with your life. If Ladybird was Frances Ha the Teen Years, then Little Women is Ladybird on the Prairie, well not exactly the prairie, but you get the idea. Louisa May Alcott’s “little women,” who were all teenage girls from age 11 to age 16, have all become woman well into their 20s. The United States Civil War, an important part of the novel, has largely been written out of the story. Two of the sisters, Jo March, the book’s narrator played by the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, and Amy March, the youngest played by the English actress Florence Pugh, dominate the movie, although the oldest sister Meg, played by the English actress Emma Watson, is a quiet presence in the background with a compelling, realistic story.

(If I’m pointing out the fact that none of the March sisters is played by an American actress it’s partly to praise their acting. Saoirse Ronan, who annoys me in her native Irish brogue, is far more attractive as an American. When the March sisters put on one of Jo’s plays, and pretend to be British, they sound like Americans clumsily pretending to be British, not like British, Irish and Australian actors letting themselves slip back into their native speech patterns.)

America in 2019, while different, is still the same civilization as America in 1868. If you put Jo March or Louisa May Alcott in a time machine and dropped either of them off in modern day Brooklyn, or Concord Massachusetts, they’d certainly appreciate the vastly expanded opportunities for young, single women, but I doubt either of them would experience significant culture shock. Greta Gerwig was actually raised as a Unitarian Universalist, the church Bronson Alcott helped found. Gerwig’s decision, therefore, to frame the issue of marriage in terms of the 2010s — as a liberated woman’s anxiety over whether or not she should marry the cute boy with the big trust fund or live up to the promise she made to herself as a teenager to live her life independent of men — instead of in terms of the 1860s —- marry the first man you can find with a decent manners and a respectable career or end up as a miserable spinster — makes sense dramatically. Florence Pugh’s Amy’s passionate declaration to Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie — the cute boy with the big trust fund — that marriage is indeed an economic and not a romantic dilemma still holds true in the United States of 2020, but certainly not to the same extent as it did in 1868. The difference between the two is part of what the film is trying to make us think about, and I think it largely succeeds.

Little Women opens in 1868 in a publisher’s office in New York City. Jo March, now in her mid-20s, is sitting in a chair opposite a severe, elderly man, who’s flipping through a short story she submitted for publication. He laughs, makes a few corrections, offers her twenty dollars, a significant bit of money for 1868, and asks her what name she’d like it published under. When she tells him she doesn’t care, that she’s writing to make money, not to make her name artistically, we realize that the difference in the social position of the write in 1868 from the social position of the writer in 2019 is probably much bigger than the difference in the status of young, single women. Indeed, the old man who accepts Jo’s story isn’t looking for high art. He wants trashy, sensationalist fiction, albeit with a happy ending, that he can sell as popular entertainment. In 2019, Jo probably has fewer opportunities as an artist than she did in 1868. These days, without a degree from the right Ivy League school, the right unpaid internships, and the right circle of friends in Brooklyn or LA, nobody’s going publish your novel. Four major corporations, including Sony and Disney, control almost all of the cultural output Americans are willing to pay for. Back in New York City in 1868, almost anybody could start a newspaper or a literary magazine. There were quite literally thousands of ways you could break into print.

(Note: Gerwig’s Little Women was distributed by Sony.)

After dashing back to her boarding house, running wildly through the streets in a clear homage to the Modern Love scene in Gerwig’s earlier movie Frances Ha, which in turn was an homage to the French director’s Leos Carax’s film Mauvais Sang, Jo returns to a letter from her mother. Beth, the youngest March sister, who has long struggled with a weak respiratory system brought on by a childhood bout of Scarlett Fever, is now on her deathbed.  Jo’s post-collegiate life in hipster Brooklyn, including a budding romance with a handsome but pompous young French intellectual — Is there any other kind? — played by Louis Garrel from Bertolucci’s film The Dreamers, will have to be put on hold. Like her older sister Jo, Amy March, played by the Australian actress Eliza Scanlen, is an aspiring artist, in her case a musician. In fact, all but one of the March sisters are all artists. Jo is a writer. Beth is a pianist, Amy is an aspiring painter. Jo wants Meg, the oldest, and supposedly the prettiest, to become an actress, but Meg is also the most traditional. She wants to be a wife and a mother.

Beth’s dramatic arc, while overshadowed by Jo’s and Amy’s, is also the most revealing. Back in 1861, while their father was away serving as a chaplain in Mr. Lincoln’s army, the March sisters were about to celebrate Christmas with a large, Christmas breakfast. Their mother “Marmee,” however, played by Laura Dern, one of the most versatile actresses from my own “Boomer X” generation, returns home to offer them what amounts to both a moral challenge and a moral obligation. Would they donate the rich Christmas feast to a family of poor German immigrants, including six children, who live nearby in a miserable little shack? Of course they do. How could they say no? The scene is quite revealing, and not particularly flattering, about Greta Gerwig’s views on class. The poor immigrants, while grateful for the food, do not speak. While Louisa May Alcott may have written the scene as an attempt to cover up her family’s own desperate poverty — if you have food to give away you’re not on the bottom of society — for Greta Gerwig, the impoverished German immigrants are not only a mute “other,” they are a death sentence for the saintly Beth, who throughout her teenage years continues to bring the children food, and eventually contracts the disease that will eventually kill her.

The portrayal of the desperately poor immigrants is in fact an example of how the film’s fractured timeline and setting in the 19th Century allows Gerwig, probably subconsciously,  to smuggle a reactionary narrative arc into an otherwise progressive film. Back in the 1860s, the immigrant “other” was German and Irish, exactly like Gerwig herself, but in 2020 nobody’s going to see fair skinned northern Europeans as the “other.” Try to imagine, however, if Gerwig had set her Little Women in the 2010s and Beth contracted a disease, not from German but from Central American immigrants. Woke Twitter would immediately call for her cancellation. Janet Maslin would call for a boycott. “Ladies. Don’t let your boyfriends see this racist film.” Donald Trump would declare it a masterpiece, and all over the rust belt and the south dudes with Ford F150s and women in red, Make America Great hats would flood the theaters shouting “build that wall.”

I’m not saying, of course, that Greta Gerwig is a racist. Quite the contrary, she is exploring the relationship between poverty and the artistic imagination. One of the film’s most clever images is the proximity between the grand mansion of the wealthy Laurence family to the middle-class house of the March family, who live in the ragged edge of the middle class, and the miserable little shack of the diseased immigrants. Beth is not only an aspiring pianist, she’s an incredibly talented one. Laurie’s wealthy but kindly old grandfather, Mr. Laurence played by Chris Cooper, had earlier in his life lost his own daughter to a similar illness. When he offers Beth the opportunity to use his late daughter’s piano, and she sits down and plays a difficult etude by Chopin, she’s clearly no aspiring musician, but a full fledged concert pianist. She’s only 13 years old and the March family doesn’t own a piano? Where did she learn how to play so well? We don’t ask. Neither does Mr. Laurence. The scene is magical, almost as if the ghost of Mr. Laurence’s late daughter had never died, but had instead graduated from some sort of heavenly Julliard, and returned to haunt him in the form Beth March. Sadly, Mr. Laurence’s joy is short lived for almost as soon as he decides to give her the piano outright, he notices that she is “burning up,” already suffering from the Scarlett Fever that will eventually kill her. Indeed, while the idea that you can become a great pianist without any practice at all seems reactionary — you either have talent or you don’t — Beth’s career as a musician is taken away by poverty almost as soon as it becomes possible. Nobody comes out and says “damn those poor immigrants and those poor immigrant diseases that deprived us of a great concert pianist.” The film, however, expresses a fairly universal truth. Poverty kills the artistic imagination.

Amy March, the toughest and probably the smartest of the March sisters, also has the most realistic character arc. An aspiring painter, she travels to Europe as a companion to their Aunt March, Meryl Streep, and studies painting in Rome and Paris. Amy, however, realizes that while may have some basic proficiency in drawing and painting, she will never have genius, never be able to express what she really wants. She briefly considers a loveless marriage with some handsome rich guy, who we never really meet, but long time family friend Laurie — the cute boy with the huge trust fund played by Timothée Chalamet who had earlier proposed to and been rejected by Jo — passionately urges her to marry him instead. Amy initially says no. She’s sick of playing second fiddle to Jo, especially when she’s loved Laurie since her childhood, but their eventual marriage is inevitable and logical. Indeed, after Amy explains to Laurie how marriage is an economic, not a romantic institution, it’s difficult to see why she would continue to reject him. If, as she says, a woman has no options other than marriage, and if she doesn’t want to pursue a life as an artist, why indeed would she reject the cute boy with the kindly, generous grandfather and the huge trust fund she’s loved every since they were children? Of course they get married. Not to would be like cutting off your nose to spite your face and Amy is much too smart for that. She gets to have her cake and eat it too, to live happily ever after with her childhood friend, the cute boy with the huge trust fund. Yes, he drinks a little too much and doesn’t seem to be serious about his career, but clearly these aren’t insurmountable obstacles. It’s impossible to believe that the angelically handsome Timothée Chalamet drinks too much anyway. Just take the happy ending Amy. Then go on to act in Marvel comic book super hero movies and make the big bucks. Don’t feel too guilty about stealing your sister’s boyfriend. You already torched her first novel then fell through the ice to make her feel guilty. What more can you do?

Jo, in spite of herself, also has a happy ending. It’s not that she actually wants one. Jo would prefer to martyr herself to a life of artistic struggle, but alas she gets lucky. Aunt March leaves Jo her grand mansion, which is probably worth a pretty penny these days in suburban Boston, and she writes the novel Little Women in a burst of inspiration. The severe, elderly publisher, initially unwilling to publish it, asks for more trashy short stories, but his three daughters will have none of it. Buy that book, they demand, “we want to know what happens to the little women.” Jo returns home to open a progressive, coeducational school in the grand house — Bronson Alcott wrote extensively on the idea of a school system with no corporal punishment or any kind of punitive discipline — and then finds its first faculty member. It’s the handsome, but pompous French intellectual from Act I, who had handsomely and pompously told her to stop writing trashy short stories and find herself as an artist, and had  been heartbroken over her sudden disappearance from their boarding house in New York City. Now he’s come up to Massachusetts to track her down. Jo is initially cold and distant, and he initially intends to head to California, “where they don’t hate immigrants so much,” and Jo really wants to live up to her youthful ideal of living her life without a man, but just about everybody, her sisters, her other, Mr. Laurence and Laurie, even her publisher, persuade her to run after him and declare her love. She does. They’re a perfect couple.

(Note: In the novel the handsome young Frenchman is a bumbling middle-aged German but screw that. A viral young Justin Trudeau lookalike with a sexy five o’clock shadow and a mass of curly black hair makes for a much better happy ending than some doddery old Kraut.)

In the end Jo March is forced by everybody she loves into a anti-feminist happy ending.

War is Terrorism Terrorism is War

Even though I was only a few blocks away from the World Trade Center on 9/11, I learned about the attack the way almost everybody else in the United States did, through the media. Mainly I was worried about food. Let me explain. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I worked for a long series of Silicon Alley startups, all of which paid well, but none of which managed to stay in business for very long. By the time 2001 rolled around I was living check to check, worried not only about how I would pay rent, but how I would eat. On 9/11 I was working for a small, failing DSL reseller a few blocks downtown from the World Trade Center. Layoffs were coming, and I was doing a lot of hard core ass kissing, bowing and scraping, trying to make myself indispensable so when the bad news came that Fall, I would still be there the next day. Since nobody wanted the early morning shift, I was already in the office by 5 A.M.

By the time Mohammad Atta appeared above the skies of lower Manhattan, death, destruction, and a martyr’s paradise his goal, I was thinking about lunch. The only problem was I didn’t have any money. Then it hit me. Two floors down, a new startup was throwing a launch party. There would be bagels, sandwiches and an endless supply of Diet Coke, enough to last me a few days until I got paid. When I got there, the room was full of people — at 10:00 AM? — but thank God, there was still plenty of food. That’s when I realized something was very, very wrong. Everybody else seemed terrified. I recognized a coworker. She was sitting on one of the tables, her face in her hands, sobbing hysterically. I noticed TV sets everywhere, all turned to the news. On NBC, Tom Brokaw was sitting at his desk with a grim look of determination on his face. When he made the big announcement I almost thought he was talking to me personally.

“We are at war.”

Who exactly “we” were at war with wasn’t entirely obvious. It didn’t take a genius to figure out who destroyed the World Trade Center. Ever since the late 1970s, the United States government had been arming, training and giving vast amounts of money to the people who would eventually become Al Qaeda. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the destruction of the Soviet Union, George H.W. Bush made his move against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, stationing American troops near Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and making an enemy of Osama Bin Laden who, up until then, saw the United States as an ally against godless communism. All through the 1990s, the same Islamic fundamentalists who fought the Soviet Army in Afghanistan staged a series of terrorist attacks against American allies and assets abroad, the Kenyan Embassy, the USS Cole, the hotel bombings in Aden, Yemen. Finally, in 2001, they hit the United States at home, staging a brilliantly executed military operation against the financial district in lower Manhattan. Just about the only people it surprised were Condoleeza Rice and George W. Bush.

The only problem with Tom Brokaw’s declaration of war was that Al Qaeda may have been an army, but it was an army without a country. What’s more, Osama Bin Laden had two state sponsors, the United States and Saudi Arabia, neither of which is ever going to be put on a terrorist watch list, at least one made up by the United States government.  Soon however, it became obvious who “we” were going to war with. When the media attempted to tie the anthrax attacks that September to Saddam Hussein, it became obvious they were a false flag operation that had already been planned to justify the invasion of Iraq. If they went down the memory hole almost as quickly as they happened it was mainly because the Bush administration no longer needed them. After the destruction of the World Trade Center, George W. Bush could have attacked any Muslim country and the vast majority of the American people, as well as most of the Democratic Party, would have still gone along. “We” were at war. Anybody who disagreed was a traitor. There were, of course, foreign policy experts who pointed out that the word “terrorism” had a distinct historical meaning — an attack on civilians designed to instigate government repression and polarize the population against that government– and that the the proper response to 9/11 would have been to arrest the leaders of Al Qaeda and put them on trial, but George W. Bush had already declared himself a long running “war on terror” and Saddam Hussein an existential threat to the United States. Few people in the media dared question him.

We were at war.

Ever since 1979, when a mob stormed the headquarters of the CIA in Tehran, otherwise known as the United States Embassy, the United States government has been at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran. A “boots” on the ground invasion of Iran, a country of 80 million people with a well-trained military and access to Russian and Chinese arms not being practical, the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama and now Trump administrations have attempted to overthrow the Islamic Republic by a combination of economic sanctions designed to destroy Iran’s economy, CIA training of anti-government protests, support for terrorist movements like the MEK, social media — Twitter first came to prominence in 2007 when the American media declared it central to “establishing democracy in Iran” — and a destructive regional war designed to break up the secular, but pro-Iranian, and pro-Russian, government of Syria and replace it with our old friends Al Qaeda. American foreign policy had come full circle. Where “we” had been at war with terrorism, the terrorists are once again our allies. We have returned to the days of the Carter and Reagan Administration. Any journalist like Max Blumenthal or Rania Khalek who questions the wisdom of going back to the same misguided policy that had gotten 3000 Americans killed back in 2001 is quickly labeled as a “pro-Assad genocide denier” and banished from respectable society.

We have been at war with Iran ever since I was a child.

The United States government has always blurred the distinction between war, revolution and terrorism for its own political agenda. During the United States Civil War, for example, no major government recognized the Confederate States of America, even though it was clearly a nation state, not an insurrection. The Lincoln Administration had a small army of lawyers trying to find the right language that would compel the British and French to respect the Union blockade of Southern ports without admitting that the United States navy was maintaining a blockade against another country. They largely succeeded, and just as quickly contradicted themselves when they accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. The terms that Ulysses Grant brought to the Lee and his generals made it clear that while Lincoln did not consider the Confederacy to be a legitimate nation state, it did consider the Army of Northern Virginia to be a legitimate army, not a band of insurrectionists. Lee’s soldiers, therefore, were allowed to keep their horses and their arms and return home. Contrast Lincoln’s treatment of the Army of Northern Virginia to his treatment of the Native American leaders of the Dakota War of 1862 in Minnesota. 38 Sioux leaders were executed. Little Six and Medicine Bottle were arrested and treated as common criminals, briefly escaping to Canada before being brought back home and hanged. After the execution of Little Crow in 1868, the Minnesota Historical Society acquired his scalp, his skull and his bones and put them on public display for decades. Try to imagine Robert E. Lee’s skull being put on display in the Smithsonian. That the very idea seems ludicrous is part of what defines “white privilege.”

The current neoliberal world order maintained by the United States and its allies makes use of the same distinction between war, terrorism, and insurrection that allowed Robert E. Lee an honorable surrender with full military honors and treated the leaders of the Lakota Sioux like common criminals. Rich countries in Western Europe and North America are granted full, unconditional status as legitimate nation states. In 2003, the clownish right wing media may have demonized the French for refusing to support the invasion of Iraq — they even called for a boycott of French wine — but the United States government was not going to impose crippling sanctions designed to destroy the French economy or assassinate French politicians. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, there was an all out campaign to demonize Jeremy Corbyn as an antisemite who supported the IRA and other terrorist groups, but they couldn’t come right out and shoot him. For countries in Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, Africa and the Middle East, on the other hand, membership in the club of respectable nation states is conditional. Israel can maintain a long time, illegal occupation of the West Bank and institute a policy of apartheid against the Palestinians. Saudi Arabia can govern itself as a totalitarian religious monarchy, and even hack one of their own journalists to death in their embassy in Istanbul, but since both Israel and Saudi Arabia and key pillars of the neoliberal world order, they never face economic sanctions or condemnations from the United States government for human rights violations. China and Russia, in turn, even though both countries are many times as old as the United States and have cultural and religious traditions that go back before the Middle Ages, are demonized as rogue states.

war

Unlike in 2001, the new line coming out of Washington is that there is no war, and can be no war with Iran. Donald Trump’s assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani is not an act of war. It’s not even part of the “war on terror.” It was a police action against a common criminal. To enforce their new official position the United States Military and the American “intelligence community,” which once tried to create a “Cuban Twitter” designed to mobilize the Cuban people against Fidel Castro, has released a sophisticated army of bots and trolls on social media designed to undermine protest. There is no war, they say. You can’t protest the war with Iran because there is no war with Iran. Protest you say? You fool. There is no war. Where George W. Bush declared himself to be a “war President,” Donald Trump, even though he ordered the assassination of one of Iran’s top generals, is determined that nobody questions his status as a “peace President.” There is no war you traitor and if you don’t agree you can move to Venezuela or something. Did I tell you? There is no war.

Tom Brokaw, as far as I know, has made no comment.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

condor

In many ways I agree with the late Dennis Grunes. Three Days of the Condor is a bad movie. The plot is slow and convoluted. The cinematography is dreary and uninspired. Robert Redford is wooden and unconvincing as an intelligence analyst who stumbles upon a rogue agency within the CIA. There’s a gratuitous, cringe worthy sex scene in the middle of the film that brings the action to a grinding halt. Nevertheless, Sydney Pollock’s classic, anti-government, paranoid thriller is such rich dramatization of post-Watergate America that it’s still worth watching, in spite of its many faults.

Robert Redford, the Boomer Brad Pitt, is Joseph Turner, a low-level intelligence analyst who works at the Literary Historical Society, at a CIA front group on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. While the Literary Historical Society is quite obviously a fictional dramatization of the Paris Review, Encounter, or any one of many high-brow literary journals founded by the CIA in the 1950s, it’s also something a lot more interesting. The offices of the Literary Historical Society are not only full of computers, Turner’s job is to read books and enter a summary of their plot into what can only be described as an early, albeit fictional prototype of Google. He had been born a few decades later, Turner, code named “Condor,” is exactly the kind of person who would have wound up in Silicon Valley. After serving in the United States Army Signal Corps as a phone maintenance specialist, he graduated from the City College of New York before going onto Bell Labs and the CIA. He’s a computer geek, a voracious speed reader, and an eccentric hipster who rides a hacked up motorized bicycle instead of taking the subway.

As Three Days of the Condor opens, Turner has already stumbled over a government plot that will eventually get everybody at the Literary Historical Society killed. After reading a poorly written, and poorly selling spy novel, he is intrigued by the way it has been translated into Spanish, Dutch and various languages native to Indonesia. He enters the information into the CIA’s computers and thinks no more about it. The next day, he’s tapped by his coworkers to pick up a lunch order at a local diner. Taking a backdoor and a long, circuitous route through the basement, he slips out of the office unnoticed by the CIA death squad in the van parked out on the street in front of the magazine’s brownstone. When he comes back, everybody’s dead. Quickly realizing that the same people who killed his colleagues at the Literary Historical Review had also meant to kill him, he grabs a 45 automatic pistol the, justifiably, paranoid receptionist kept in her desk, rushes to a pay phone on the next block, and calls his superiors at the CIA field office in New York City.

After a difficult phone call with a clueless low-level CIA bureaucrat, it begins to dawn on Turner that he knows little or nothing about the government agency where he’s worked for the last few years. When an attempted rendezvous with a superior and an old friend from the Army who joined Turner at the CIA turns into a shootout, Turner realizes, to his horror, that it might have been the CIA itself that carried out the hit at the Historical Literary Review. Like a character from a Phillip K. Dick novel who suddenly finds that his credit cards don’t work and that his ID is now invalid, or, to use a more recent example, like Michael Weston from the USA Networks Burn Notice, Turner is in a desperate situation. He can’t go home. The death squad that killed his colleagues will surely be waiting for him. He can’t go to friends or relatives. It will put them in mortal danger. He can’t even sleep. He has no place to sleep, and yet somehow he needs to find a safe house where he can clear his head and figure out who’s trying to kill him. Turner knows that he knows something that makes him dangerous to somebody, but he has no idea what that or who they are.

To say that Three Days of the Condor is “politically incorrect” would be an understatement. In the age of the “me too” movement it simply couldn’t be made.Even I find the movie’s second act, where Turner grabs a random women named Kathy Hale, played by Faye Dunaway, and holds her hostage, forcing her at gunpoint to let him use her apartment as a safe house while he figures out what to do next, baffling. It’s not so much that Turner takes Hale hostage that would make the film impossible to release today. It’s the fact that she falls in love with him. Indeed, the long, cringe worthy sex scene that follows is the most badly dated sequence of Three Days of the Condor. I suppose it has something to do with what Joubert, the leader of the death squad that carried out the massacre at the Historical Literary Review, a very intimidating Max Von Sydow, explains will make it so hard to capture and kill Turner. He’s an amateur, undisciplined, unpredictable. No professional spy would take a random woman hostage, and manage to seduce her with a long analysis of her fine arts photography, but Turner is no professional spy. He’s an every man who discovers that he can also be a man of action, a man who can beat a hired assassin, one of Joubert’s underlings, in a desperate, and well choreographed fight to the death.

But it’s not Turner’s ability to handle himself in a fist fight that eventually saves Turner’s life. It’s his years in the Army Signal Corps and his years working at Bell Labs, the legendary research institute in lower Manhattan and Murray Hill New Jersey where the foundations of modern computer science were laid in the 1950s and 1960s. Three Days of the Condor is one of the first American movies ever made about hacking, the fifth, according to Cybercrime Magazine. After he steals a kit of tools from a New York Bell repair team, and taps into the switchboard of a Holiday Inn, Turner baffles his superiors at the CIA with a series of messages impossible to trace back to their source because he’s set up a relay system that might be described as an early preview of Tor. Eventually, after spoofing his way into the agency’s central computer system, Turner puts all of the pieces together, discovering that the CIA hit squad that murdered his colleagues at the Historical Literary Review was in fact a rogue agency within the CIA trying to trick the United States government into a war in the Middle East. “So it was all about oil,” he says as he holds the leader of the rogue faction at gunpoint in his palatial mansion in suburban Washington. “It was all about oil.”

Part of the reason, I think, the plot of Three Days of the Condor can be so confusing is Sydney Pollock’s ambivalent attitude about the CIA. One one hand, the film was released shortly after Watergate and shortly before the Church Commission uncovered COINTELPRO, a conspiracy by the “intelligence community” against the American people. On the other hand, the idea of a fanatically pro-war, rogue faction inside the military industrial complex was not only plausible, in 1975 it was a historical reality. Team B, which was made up of familiar figures like Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, was already trying to undermine detente between the USA and the Soviet Union. They were not a “CIA within the CIA.” They were unelected government officials actively conspiring to provoke a renewed arms race.  But I also think that even after the Church Commission, nobody knew the full extent of the CIA’s depravity, and more importantly, their full penetration into almost every nook and cranny of American society.

After Turner exposes Leonard Atwood, the leader of the rogue faction, his superiors at the CIA call off Joubert and his death squad. There’s a bullet for Atwood, not Turner. What strains credibility is the idea that the agency would have left Turner alive after he found where all the bodies had been buried. True, Joubert is a “freelancer” and not a “company man” who’s gained a genuine respect for Turner’s ability to elude capture and make his way to the center of Atwood’s conspiracy, but there’s no reason that the agency wouldn’t have sent another hit team to clean up Joubert’s mess before sending yet another hit team to kill Joubert himself. Then again, they probably knew something the film didn’t know the knew. The final scene of Three Days of the Condor takes place in front of the old New York Times building at Times Square. Turner has arranged a meeting with another one of his superiors, a shady bureaucrat named Higgins, to confront him with what he’s learned about the people they work for. Turner is passionate and moralistic but Higgins remains unmoved, suggesting that even if the American people found out what the CIA was doing to protect the supply of oil, the murders, the wars, the disinformation campaigns, they’d approve anyway. It’s too bad that the actor Cliff Robertson, the actor who plays Higgins, gives the film’s weakest performance because he’s essentially right. He’s not angry because Turner uncovered the agency’s crimes. He’s angry because Turner had leaked the information to the New York Times, angry but not particularly worried.

“How do you know they’ll print it?” he asks Turner.

“They’ll print it,” Turner responds, probably unaware of the number of CIA assets at the New York Times. “They’ll print it.”

My guess is Higgins was right. Back in 1976 there was no Wikileaks and no Intercept, and as every antiwar activist learned in 2003 and everybody at Occupy Wall Street learned in 2011, if you were talking to the corporate media, it was best just to assume you were talking to the police. To take incriminating material about the CIA to the New York Times essentially meant that you were taking incriminating material about the CIA to the CIA.

A Tale of Two Assassinations

For Zionists and neoconservatives, it’s been a miraculous few weeks. No sooner did the corporate media assassinate the political career of Jeremy Corbyn, probably the only chance in my lifetime that we’ll ever see an anti-imperialist head of state in a major western power, then Donald Trump literally assassinates Qassem Soleimani, the most formidable opponent of the American, Israeli, Saudi axis of power in the Middle East. Suddenly Trump, who’s under impeachment, and Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s under indictment, can breath a sigh of relief. After a brief pause, the American empire is once again on the offensive.

The New York Times tells me that “Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” has “promised retaliation against those who killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani in Baghdad.” I suppose the Iranians do have a few options. They can attempt to create an oil shock and a recession in the United States by blocking the Straights of Hormuz. There’s been some speculation among online military experts, and take them for what they’re worth, that Iran has the capability of sinking a Nimitz Class super carrier. The Iranian government can sponsor terrorist attacks in the United States, something I’m sure the American ruling class would welcome as an opportunity to revive the flagging “war on terror.” Nothing says “the reelection of Donald Trump” like bringing back Orange Alerts. The Iranians can continue to counter punch against America’s low-intensity dirty war in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.

If I had to guess, I’d bet that Khamenei bides his time. Surely part of the reason the United States assassinated Qassem Soleimani was to provoke Iran into an all out war, one Iran would surely lose. Then there’s the old cliche about how “Iranian hardliners benefit from increased tensions with the west.” I’m no expert on Iran. I’m not even a well-informed amateur. I couldn’t name you 5 people in the Iranian government. Until yesterday, I had barely even heard of General Qassim Suleimani, but I doubt that the “rally around the flag” principle works much different in Iran than it does in the United States. Over the past few months there have been large scale protests in Iran, many of which have expressed a growing discontent over militarism and economic inequality. With Iran under renewed attack by the United States, pro-government counter protesters will almost surely gain the upper hand.

As far as the English speaking world goes, the British people have made their intentions clear, imperial nostalgia and withdrawal from the European Union. The United Kingdom  has one operational super carrier and is building a second, both of which will almost certainly be available to contribute to any future “no fly zone” over Iraq, Syria and Iran.  In the United States, short of an all out invasion of Iran, and probably even in the event of an all out invasion of Iran, most Americans will either “rally around the flag” or simply ignore what their government is doing in the Middle East. After all, “talking about politics is rude.” Indeed, the gigantic anti-war protests of 2002 and 2003 seem like a thing of the very distant past. I haven’t ready any studies about why the anti-war movement in the United States simply disappeared — most people on the left simply blame it on Obama — but perhaps it would be better to approach the question from another angle. Antiwar protests in an imperialist country like the United States are the exception, not the rule. It’s trivial for the corporate media to convince Americans to hate whoever their ruling class wants them to hate. The anti-war protests of 2002 and 2003 came out of a perfect storm, the disputed Presidential election of 2000, the coming to maturity of a generation of organizers who cut their teeth at the WTO in Seattle, the backash to George W. Bush’s gas lighting of the American people after 9/11 to push for the invasion of Iraq. We’re not likely to large scale protests like that again.

So I don’t expect my fellow Americans to protest their government. I would, however, like to see my fellow leftists and liberals just shut the fuck up about how much Trump’s bellicose policy in the Middle East scares them. Americans are unlikely to face much violence as a result of the assassination of Qassim Suleimani. We don’t have a draft and we’re unlikely to get one. The death toll from any terrorist attacks the Iranians could stage in the United States is likely to be insignificant compared to the death toll we experience every month from American gun nuts going on mass shootings. The people who are going to suffer live in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and above all in Yemen, not New Jersey or California. So stop being narcissistic little crybabies and think about the real victims for a change. And if you support what Trump’s doing, if you’re the type of person who plans to put a bumper sticker on your car saying something like “Freedom isn’t Free” or “Nuke Mecca,” well I guess there’s not much I can do about it. So have fun. I’m sure your fearless leader will do more than enough to satisfy your blood lust in the coming few months.

Low Cost Higher Education Has Always Been an American Tradition

Until recently I had thought that free tuition at the University of California and City College in New York had been a part of the Cold War, that the American ruling class decided to fund higher education in order to compete with the Soviets.But then I read this passage from John Muir’s autobiography about just how easy it was to attend the University of Wisconsin back in the 1860s and 1870s. It’s not free college that’s the exception to American history. The current neoliberal system of extortionate tuition and massive student debt is quite simply “Un-American.”

One day I chanced to meet a student who had noticed my inventions at the Fair and now recognized me. And when I said, “You are fortunate fellows to be allowed to study in this beautiful place. I wish I could join you.” “Well, why don’t you?” he asked. “I have n’t money enough,” I said. “Oh, as to money,” he reassuringly explained, “very little is required. I presume you’re able to enter the Freshman class, and you can board yourself as quite a number of us do at a cost of about a dollar a week. The baker and milkman come every day. you can live on bread and milk.” Well, I thought, maybe I have money enough for at least one beginning term. Anyhow I could n’t help trying.

With fear and trembling, overladen with ignorance, I called on Professor Stirling, the Dean of the Faculty, who was then Acting President, presented my case, and told him how far I had got on with my studies at home, and that I had n’t been to school since leaving Scotland at the age of eleven years, excepting one short term of a couple of months at a district school, because I could not be spared from the farm work. After hearing my story, the kind professor welcomed me to the glorious University–next, it seemed to me, to the Kingdom of Heaven. After a few weeks in the preparatory department I entered the Freshman class. In Latin I found that one of the books in use I had already studied in Scotland. So, after an interruption of a dozen years, I began my Latin over again where I had left off; and, strange to say, most of it came back to me, especially the grammar which I had committed to memory at the Dunbar Grammar School.

During the four years that I was in the University, I earned enough in the harvest-fields during the long summer vacations to carry me through the balance of each year, working very hard, cutting with a cradle four acres of wheat a day, and helping to put it in the shock. But, having to buy books and paying, I think, thirty-two dollars a year for instruction, and occasionally buying acids and retorts, glass tubing, bell-glasses, flasks, etc., I had to cut down expenses for board now and then to half a dollar a week.

https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/the_story_of_my_boyhood_and_youth/chapter_8.aspx