Category Archives: Film

My Ideal of a Film Reviewer

I used to review films, but I’ve largely given it up. Why? Nobody reads film reviews and it’s a waste of time to write them. I was also a pretty shitty film reviewer. Once in awhile (usually about a film that traumatized me as a child) I’d write a decent review. For the most part, I was only going through the motions.

This woman is one of the best film reviewers I’ve seen online. She’s been at it for about ten years. There’s nothing fancy or elaborately produced about her reviews. She doesn’t even show clips. All she does is sit on the floor next to her book shelf and talk for 10-15 minutes. In this video she absolutely nails the aesthetic of Brian De Palma. We need more film reviewers like this and fewer blockheads like Roger Ebert or shallow talking heads like Mark Kermode. By all means if you have the money buy her art or donate to her patreon.

Maybe the most independent and original film critic online.

Forced Sterilization at Immigrant Detention Centers?

A story has come out that doctors at immigration detention centers have performed hysterectomies on detainees without their explicit consent. ICE is denying the charges and Trump supporters are (of course) labeling it “fake news.” Right now there’s not enough evidence to make a conclusion either way, but if the story is eventually proven true it won’t be the first time in American history that it has happened.

Back in 2015 I wrote a review of Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film Judgement at Nuremberg. Natural hipster that I am I was calling Trump a Nazi before it was cool. At the time I was being deliberately provocative. I don’t think I really believed what I was saying. I was simply using the film, and Trump, as an excuse to express just how much I disliked my fellow Americans.

In Donald Trump, I fear, we may have found our Hitler. I know how Germans like Thomas Mann must have felt when the Nazis used Goethe and Beethoven, Mozart, and Luther to justify the mass extermination of “inferior races” in the name of Aryan supremacy. The front runner for the Presidential nomination of the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, Grant, Frederick Douglass, Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, is now a man who calls for the ethnic cleansing of 11 million Mexicans from the United States, and who stands by and says nothing when a supporter calls for the extermination of American Muslims. In and of himself, Donald Trump is nothing. Anybody paying attention has long known he was a racist clown, at least since he called for the execution of 5 innocent black teenagers during the Central Park jogger hysteria back in 1989. What’s troubling is the way Americans now seem ready to anoint him as their leader.

https://writerswithoutmoney.com/2015/09/21/judgment-at-nuremberg-1961-end-game-of-a-trump-presidency/

Probably the best scene in Judgement at Nuremberg involves an exchange between a mentally handicapped man played by Montgomery Clift and a brilliant defense attorney played by Maximilian Schell.

It’s a masterclass in acting. A man with an IQ of 150 or 160 goes up against a man with an IQ of 85 or 90, and loses. It made me think about the kind of American, usually a “conservative” who likes to argue that human beings can be “legal” or “illegal.” Schell’s character wins the legal argument. He proves that while his client did order the forced sterilization of a mentally handicapped man he doesn’t deserve to go to jail. He was simply carrying out the established laws of his country. But when Cliff’s character holds up a photo of his mother and pleads that even though she was only a simple working class woman her life did have value, he wins the moral argument. In every society, there are always slick, well-educated monsters who can twist words into elaborate logical pretzels to justify treating society’s most vulnerable people with contempt. There are also plenty of lower-class men and women whose lives are actually worth more than their elite tormentors, people who Montgomery Cliff, a genuine artist who gives voice to the voiceless, speaks for so very well.

So here we at, forced sterilizations, the endgame of the Trump Presidency. I have no confidence that very much will change under Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. In fact, once the embarrassing Trump Administration is gone, there will be plenty of brilliant, upper-middle-class liberals willing to argue, like Maximillian Schell in Judgement at Nuremberg, that there are some people in the world who’s lives simply have no value. 

RIP Linda Manz

Linda Manz, who is not well-known by the general public but who is a household name among cinephiles, has died at age 58.

Linda Manz, known for her performances in films like Days of Heaven and Out of the Blue has died. She was 58.

The actress died on Friday after a battle with lung cancer and pneumonia, her family said on a GoFundMe page established by her son Michael Guthrie.

https://people.com/movies/actress-linda-manz-dead-at-58/

I suppose she’s best known for her role in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven but I’ll always associate her with Phillip Kaufman’s criminally neglected masterpiece The Wanderers, a movie I must have watched 100 times on HBO as a kid. She played “Pee Wee,” the President of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Bronx gang The Fordham Baldies (a gang these days that would probably have me as a member).

I can watch this scene over and over again and never stop laughing or admiring the way Kaufman deftly films a chase scene that walks the razors edge between comedy and the childhood fear of being pursued by a gang of bullies. Manz only has a few lines but the arrogant way she delivers them just defines how it feels to have the toughest guy on the block as your insurance policy. “You better watch your mouth kid.”

Just Following Orders

So riot cops in Buffalo shove an old man. He falls down, hits his head, and ends up bleeding out of his ears. The cops here aren’t necessarily evil. It’s clear that they want to stop and help the old man, but they have their “orders of the day,” and keep marching. The urge to obey has defeated their humanity.

Classic American cinema gives us two possible solutions to the problem of blindly obedient, robotic police officers. The first comes from Ernst Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-fascist comedy “To Be or Not to Be.” The hero of To Be or not to Be, a film later remade by Mel Brooks, is a mediocre Polish actor named Joseph Tura. A failure as Hamlet, he later finds more success at impersonating a familiar German villain, Adolf Hitler himself. After the Polish resistance successfully hijacks a Luftwaffe aircraft, there remains the problem of the two Nazi pilots. Tura provides a convenient solution.

A very similar thing happens in the 1970s frat boy comedy Animal House. After the Deltas are expelled from campus by the fascist, Richard Nixon like Dean Wormer, they decide to create havoc at the homecoming parade. The lock step conformism of marching band geeks makes is almost as easy as the blind obedience of the Nazi pilots in To Be or Not to Be.

Seriously though, most cops are just brainless suburban idiots terrified of getting fired. They do what they’re told. How can the left possibly lose to these people? But perhaps a better question is this. Why does the American ruling class deploy heavily armed soldiers against their own citizens? These aren’t city cops. They’re occupying armies. What’s more, from the looks of that scene in Buffalo, there was no threat, or even anything remotely resembling a threat, just a few people with signs. Yet the machine in blue rolled on exactly as it would have in the middle of a firefight in the middle of a war. Were the riot cops seeing antifa super soldiers in their imaginations? Were they on drugs? Are they part of some MK-ULTRA experiment to turn men (and women) into cyborgs? God only knows.

Black Irish

A black family in Midland Texas is held at gunpoint by an army of local police. According to “Redfish” the young man’s crime was running a stop sign.

 

I’m struck by just how much the behavior of the police in Midland resembles a scene from the underrated 2018 film about the Irish potato famine Black47.

 

In a society based on the oppression of a racial, ethnic or religious underclass, the local police always seem eager for an excuse to shoot someone.

Duck and Cover (1951)

When I was a child in the late 1970s, the Cold War was beginning to heat up again. The Cuban Missile Crisis was well before my time, and I was too young to remember the way the United States and the Soviet Union both went on high alert during the Yom Kippur War, but I vividly remember the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In fact, I was so utterly certain that there was going to be a nuclear war that I refused to do my homework for weeks. Why bother? As Barry McGuire said in his classic song Eve of Destruction, “if the button is pushed there’s no running away. There will be no-one to save with the world in a grave.”

In 1951, the Federal Civil Defense Administration, commissioned a short movie called “Duck and Cover,” which was written and narrated by Robert Middleton, directed by a man name Anthony Rizzo, and made with the cooperation of the New York City school system. I have no idea how widely it was shown back in the 1950s, but it’s a hilariously stupid piece of security theater designed, not to save lives, but to scare the ever living hell of the American people. While the end of the United States nuclear monopoly in 1949 hovers menacingly in the background, Middleton never mentions the Soviet Union. On the contrary, nuclear war is presented as a vague, ill-defined existential threat, the omnipresent specter of death that could emerge over the horizon at any moment, far more terrifying than an attack by a rival power like the Russians. The world of Duck and Cover is menaced, not by communists, but by a dark, capricious God, the kind of perverse deity dramatized so well by Ingmar Bergman in The Seventh Seal.

Duck and Cover is a perfect encapsulation of our government’s use of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like the weaponization of nuclear energy in the service of mass murder, Covid-19 is not entirely an accident. While of course it wasn’t designed by the Chinese or the American government, it is the natural, organic emanation of neoliberalism capitalism, the inevitable result of the destruction of the environment in China, and the financialization and de-industrialization of the American economy. The Chinese ruling class raped their own land in order to profit off of their abundant supply of cheap labor. The American ruling class established “just in time” supply chains all over the third world because they didn’t want to pay Americans a living wage, or, God forbid, that capitalism is prone to periodic recessions that need to be mitigated by government action. So the virus migrated from Wuhan to northern Italy, where it was brought to the United States by rich New Yorkers jet setting between the Upper-East Side and Milan, and carelessly released into the nursing homes by Andrew Cuomo.

While the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis didn’t mean the end of the world it doesn’t mean that that Cold War didn’t kill anybody. The Cold War killed a lot of people, millions of Vietnamese, hundreds of thousands of Indonesians, Congolese and Cambodians, tens of thousands of Chileans, Argentinians, and working class American draftees. The Cold War was the best thing ever to happen to ruling class, and even upper-middle-class Americans. They made a fortune in defense contracts. They got to kill socialism for good. Even today, in the middle of a pandemic, we’re told that we can’t have universal healthcare because Bernie Sanders said some nice thing about Cuba’s literacy program. But, as Martin Luther Kind said in his speech at the Riverside Cathedral, the speech the military industrial complex killed him for, “we were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

Covid-19 will end the way the Cold War did. It won’t. It will also disproportionately affect the working class, and the poor. We could end the pandemic if we chose to, if we established some sort of Universal Basic Income that would allow people to stay home, if we put our healthcare system on a war footing, and took it out of the hands of the insurance companies, if we nationalized all of the vacant housing in New York City, and used it to isolate and quarantine people already infected (instead of sending them into the nursing homes). But we won’t, and by “we” I mean “those rich motherfuckers who rule over people like you and me with an increasingly more blatant disregard, even for capitalist democracy.” Their “solutions” will be just as useless as the idea that you could protect yourself from a nuclear attack by ducking under your desk at school, and they will be permanent. Indeed, mask shaming, social isolation, restrictions on the right of assembly, heavily manipulated, compressed telephoto shots of stupid people at the beach, fulsome praise for “essential workers” they have every intention continuing to shovel into low-paid, deadly “front line” jobs,  and universal, high tech surveillance are all part of a society that was beginning to emerge, even before the pandemic hit.

Yet, the people responsible for the filthy disease currently ripping apart the last of our civil society, the people who made its worldwide spread inevitable,  have names and address.  Their castles in the Hamptons and penthouses on Central Park West are hard to miss. We know where Andrew Cuomo and Donald Trump live. Dare I hope that in the very near future we might all meet up — with or without masks — and drag our rulers out of their towers on Wall Street down to the public square to the guillotine? Or will we just continue to tell our children to “duck and cover?”

Suddenly I have the urge to violate Godwin’s Law

Godwin’s law (or Godwin’s rule of Hitler analogies) is an Internet adage asserting that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. That is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or his deeds, the point at which effectively the discussion or thread often ends. Promulgated by the American attorney and author Mike Godwin in 1990, Godwin’s law originally referred specifically to Usenet newsgroup discussions. It is now applied to any threaded online discussion, such as Internet forums, chat rooms, and comment threads, as well as to speeches, articles, and other rhetoric where reductio ad Hitlerum occurs.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law

Basically you’re not supposed to compare your political opponents to Nazis. It’s almost always melodramatic, ahistorical, and usually wrong. But hey, why not? Drinking is bad for you too, but an occasional six-pack of Pabst never killed anybody. So let’s get started.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Schindler’s List. Spielberg is obviously a great director and the film was well made, but I felt that setting up the “good” capitalist as the hero was, as the millennial kiddies say on social media, “problematic.”

Oddly enough, however, reading about what’s happening to frail and elderly people in nursing homes during the current Coronavirus Pandemic is giving me new appreciation for the 1994 Best Picture winner. The more I think about it, the more I realize that Spielberg made a film about a “good” capitalist who spoke to the Nazis on their own, very capitalist, terms. He saved thousands of Jews by declaring them “essential workers.” Ben Shapiro, a far right wing ideologue and darling of the American ruling class, says the quiet part out loud. Under capitalism, frail elderly people are not “essential workers.” They can’t make us money, so let them die.

OK. I (a Protestant) have violated Godwin’s Law by calling Ben Shapiro, a Jew, a Nazi. Perhaps there’s a better comparison. After all, we Americans have committed plenty of atrocities of our own. We don’t really need the Germans to say “that’s really evil.” So let’s talk about “Manifest Destiny.”  Atun-Shei Films, a former tour guide at Gettysburg, runs one of the best history channels on YouTube. He talks a lot about the relationship between cannibalism in the old west and it’s relationship to Manifesto Destiny.

As ravenous Puritans and Anglo Saxons moved west and committed genocide against the Indians, they ate, consumed the land as surely as members of the Donner Party consumed one another. Cannabilism, and the cannibalistic nature of capitalism, is as American as apple, or perhaps some other kind of pie. And the idea is making a comeback. If the economy goes to hell, and we can’t quite work up the nerve to eat the rich, we may have to eat one another. I leave this here without comment. No, it’s not The Onion.

jones

Is Conan the Barbarian a Superior Reboot of Apocalypse Now?

We find ourselves in a small village out in the countryside. Tomorrow it will not exist. An army approaches, an invincible juggernaut bearing down on a tiny community of people who have no idea that their way of life is about to come to an end. The villagers are not pacifists. Indeed, they are a martial race with warrior gods, a nation of people who are skilled in the use of arms, a civilization that has survived for hundreds of years, perhaps since the beginning of recorded history, and they put up a brave resistance, but they have no chance. The invading army has not only has caught them off guard, they attack with a ruthless efficiency that makes the outcome all but inevitable, the slaughter merely a formality. At the end of it all, we meet the invading army’s commanding general, a cruel sociopathic man with no mercy or compassion, a would be god who sees the defeated villagers as an inferior species of animal put on earth for his sadistic pleasure. Genocide is just another day at the beach.

Which scene from which movie am I talking about?

a.) The helicopter attack from Apocalypse Now?

b.) The opening of Conan the Barbarian?

In 1975, a 30 year old director and screenwriter named John Milius, a far right wing California surfer dude who had, quite predictably, avoided military service in Vietnam, and just as predictably developed a deep admiration for the United States Marine Corps, broke into Hollywood with The Wind and the Lion, a deeply confused movie about Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, a Berber Chieftain in Morocco, played by Sean Connery, who kidnaps an American woman played by Candace Bergen, and holds her and her children hostage for reasons that we can never quite figure out. The historical Raisuli kidnapped an American businessman and held him hostage until a very specific list of demands was met. In The Wind and the Lion, which opens up with a cavalry raid very much like the one that opens Conan, Milius seems more interested in the romance of the North African way of life, and its reflection in Teddy Roosevelt, America’s “rough rider” President, than in any kind of political agenda. Milius would later go onto direct the paranoid, right wing cult classic Red Dawn, which, and I hope your starting to see the pattern, opens with a surprise attack on a small town in Colorado by a ruthless, genocidal host (this time Russians).

While John Milius is listed along with Francis Ford Coppola is the co-writer of Apocalypse Now, it is unclear which man was the driving force behind the iconic helicopter attack. What’s not unclear is that it’s by far the best sequence in what is in many ways an overblown, confused mess. I think most people would agree that after Robert Duvall exits stage right after declaring that “Charlie don’t surf” the film dearly misses his presence. Loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s short novel Heart of Darkness, which re-imagined King Leopold’s genocide as a journey into the heart of European arrogance and hypocrisy, Apocalypse Now has two big problems. The first is that the motivations of Captain Williard, the lead character played by a rather glum Martin Sheen — who had a heart attack during the film’s production — are never entirely clear. Unlike Conrad’s alter ego Marlowe, Williard, a CIA operative charged with assassination a rogue counterinsurgency officer played by Marlon Brando, has no consistent point of view. He accepts the mission out of some deep need to be a part of a CIA black op, but unlike Colonel Kilgore, the wonderfully insane “Air Cavalry” commander played by Duvall, he doesn’t seem to enjoy death and destruction for its own sake. He has no real axe to grind with Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, the rogue Green Beret played by Marlon Brando who established himself along the Cambodian border and set himself up as a demigod over a cult of native admirers. Indeed, he even wonders why the army even wants Kurtz dead.

The second problem is Marlon Brando himself, who phones in a performance so lazy and uninspired he seems to be making fun of us. At least when Orson Welles did wine commercials because he needed the money he put in a halfway credible day’s work.

My guess is that both the liberal Coppola and the reactionary Milius would have liked to have made Apocalypse Now from the point of view of the Vietnamese communists, those incredibly brave warriors who defeated both the French and the American empire in less than two decades. Both men, however, liked to play with big budgets and expensive military hardware. The helicopter attack was only possible because Ferdinand Marcos, the anti-communist dictator of the Philippines donated the helicopters and the pilots. Had Brando not been such a fat, lazy cunt and actually decided to act instead of just mumble, his portrayal of Kurtz might have emerged as a loosely fictionalized dramatization of Pol Pot, the genocidal, and by the way American supported, dictator in Cambodia who transformed an ancient civilization into a death cult that put Jim Jones to shame. Instead we are left with a film that is brilliant in many of its individual scenes, the USO show that turns into a riot, the emergence of Williard as a war criminal willing to shoot a teenage girl through the head rather than risk a mission he doesn’t really believe in, the lurid night combat along the Cambodian border, but a story that never quite comes together as a whole, 3 hours sailing up a far off river, not into the heart of the American darkness to confront an evil, but charismatic cult leader, but into one of the worst performances a great actor ever gave in his career.

Conan the Barbarian, over which John Milius had complete control after cutting out Oliver Stone from the film’s production, presents no such problems. While nobody would rank Milius on the same level as Francis Ford Coppola, there’s no question that the man knows how to make an engaging movie. What’s more, by recasting the Vietnamese as a fictionalized tribe of northern Europeans, and Captain Williard as Conan, an Aryan superman played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Milius removes all of the irritatingly self-indulgent ambiguity from the plot. The helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now ends with a picnic on a Vietnamese beach while an insane American army officer enjoys “the smell of napalm in the morning.” The raid that closes the opening scene in Conan the Barbarian ends with Thulsa Doom, played by an inspired James Earl Jones, decapitating Conan’s mother right in front of his eyes. From that moment on we know that Conan will eventually seek his revenge and if lucky kill the man who destroyed his people and murdered his mother out of no real motivation other than the urge to play God. What’s more, while Apocalypse Now tells us that Brando’s Kurtz managed to found a suicidal death cult in the jungles of Cambodia, we never really get to see much. In fact that idea is vaguely racist. Brando shows no real charisma or even desire to establish his rule. We’re simply expected to assume that any moderately talented white man can simply wander into a country that beat both the French and American empires and trick the people into worshiping him as a God.

No such problem exists with James Earl Jones, who I might venture to say is a better actor than the overrated Brando and who was at the height of his powers in the early 1980s. Thulsa Doom, a black man who rules over an adoring cult of dumb, white suicidal hippies, a cult that recalls both Manson and Jim Jones, enjoys every moment of his godlike power, and Jones clearly relishes the part. When Jones can’t help by laugh at Schwarzenegger’s thick German accent, he somehow manages to transform the gaff into such a vivid depiction of evil enjoying itself for being evil, that Milius simply kept it in the film’s theatrical release. When Schwarzenegger finally beheads Thulsa Doom in front of a crowd of Doom’s adoring slaves, he not only liberates all of those dumb fuck white hippies from their fate as air-headed human sacrifice, he avenges his beautiful young mother, played by the long forgotten German actress Nadiuska, who makes such a vivid impression as a courageous woman defending her child against pure evil in only a few minutes of screen time it’s hard to imagine why she never had a more extensive career.

In Conan the Barbarian, not only does the Aryan superman Arnold Schwarzenegger become the avenging angel of a small nation ravaged by a genocidal dictator, the heroic Vietnamese communist who defeats the American Empire, the black man James Earl Jones becomes the face, and above all the voice, of European colonialism, and ultimately civilization. In an interview with Dick Cavett back in the 1970s, Jones once expressed a desire to play Ludwig Van Beethoven. Cavett’s, genteel racist audience laughed uncomfortably at the idea, but in retrospect, James Earl Jones in his 30s or 40s would have made an ideal Beethoven, an actor truly able to express the massive, revolutionary passion Beethoven managed to channel into his music. Who cares about his race? Beethoven doesn’t belong to Germany, or to Europe, he belongs to the world. Jones would, of course, go onto play one of the most iconic villains in American cinematic history, the only reason, along with Alec Guinness, for anybody over the age of 25 to see Star Wars. While our culture would probably be better off had the entire Star Wars franchise never existed, Jones’s portrayal of the “Jedi Knight” turned to the dark side of the force is a better dramatization of the central idea of Heart of Darkness, the man of superior culture and technology setting himself up as a genocidal god, than Apocalypse Now. It’s just too bad Jones never got a chance to play the liberating impulses of western civilization embodied by Beethoven as well as he got to play an evil space wizard in a silly children’s movie.

Religious Coercion in the Time of Plague and Famine

Apparently some things never change.

Evangelicals in 1847

BLACK ’47 – Soup Tent from Sheila Moylette on Vimeo.

Evangelicals in 2020

On Tuesday morning, a makeshift tent hospital in Central Park will begin treating overflow patients from Mount Sinai, as the spread of COVID-19 begins to overwhelm local hospitals. Announcing the 68-bed respiratory unit this weekend, Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the relief organization, Samaritan’s Purse, responsible for funding and erecting the facility.

The mayor did not mention that the group is led by Franklin Graham, a notorious anti-LGBTQ and Islamophobic preacher with a track record of using humanitarian missions to proselytize an evangelical agenda.

Graham, the son of prominent minister Billy Graham, has specifically sought to recruit Christian medical staff to the Central Park facility. According to the group’s website, all volunteers, including health care workers, should read and adhere to a statement of faith, in which marriage is defined as “exclusively the union of one genetic male and one genetic female” and the unrighteous are sentenced to “everlasting punishment in hell.”

https://gothamist.com/news/samaritans-purse-franklin-graham-anti-gay-evangelical-central-park?fbclid=IwAR1f4Xqi-dUCSoB1T0ETsAQuaGVkLJYzdN3iouVZwUPfdzlr9YZhddhjaUg

The Founder (2016)

macfounder

I do not come from a religious family. My father was brought up Catholic, and even attended a Marist Brothers high school, but after a nun locked him in a closet and left him there overnight in order to punish him for asking an inappropriate question, he lost his faith in God, and never again voluntarily entered a place of Christian worship. My mother was no more religious than my father, but she did have an ironclad rule that “you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion,” a belief that in all questions ideological one should maintain perfect neutrality. Not sending me to church, therefore, would have been to make a statement about her belief in God. It would have in effect been “talking about politics and religion.” I was, therefore, baptized into the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, and spent many Sunday mornings listening to sermons I don’t remember delivered by a kindly old Swedish American pastor with a puffy red face, and a flat Midwestern accent. After I was confirmed, I “took communion,” went up to the altar to eat a sacramental wafer that always reminded me of a guitar pick, and take a sip of wine far too inconsequential to get me drunk.

I can tell you all about the differences between the Catholic concept of transubstantiation and the Protestant concept of consubstantiation. For Catholics, the bread and wine turn into the body and blood of Christ whether you want them to or not. For Lutherans, the flour guitar pick and sip of Manischewitz or Boone’s Farm or whatever kind of cheap wine my church chose to turn into the type o negative that once ran through the veins of our Lord and Savior wouldn’t make the transformation unless, to quote Saint Paul, you had “faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” But for me neither Catholic nor Lutheran services offered access to the body and blood of Christ. While I did enjoy listening to I Know that my Redeemer Lives on the church organ early on Sunday morning as we all took our places before the alter, it wasn’t until the sermon ended and we all filed out of the building to Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by Johann Sebastian Bach that I really started to think about how much Jesus loves me. Every Sunday my parents would take me and my brother out to eat at the McDonald’s on Route 22 down the street from the drive in movie theater in Union, New Jersey. It was there where I would partake in the real Holy Communion. If I had enough faith, I knew that according to the doctrine of transubstantiation that a Big Mac, a larger order of fries covered in 5 packages of catsup and a large coke would turn into the body and blood of than man who had been crucified for my sins 2000 years ago in Palestine.

Ray Kroc is one of history’s greatest villains, right up there with Hitler, Stalin, King Leopold, the board of directors at Phillip Morris, and whoever decided to play “Closer” by the Chain Smokers at Starbucks and my local gym. A first generation Czech American from Oak Park, Illinois, Kroc led an uneventful life as a traveling salesman until 1954 when he walked into a booming hamburger stand in San Bernardino, California run by Richard and Maurice McDonald, two New Englanders who had moved to Hollywood during the Great Depression to look for work. Kroc was immediately smitten, not only by the name, “McDonald,” which represented the true blue WASP American identity that he aspired to, but by the way the McDonald brothers had successfully applied the Taylorist principles of Henry Ford to the food service industry. Where in the typical drive in hamburger stand of the time, your food could take upwards of 30 minutes to arrive, if in fact the car hop got your order right, the McDonald brothers had streamlined the menu, serving only three items, hamburgers, fries, and soft drinks, and had broken the process of cooking a meal down to a series of discrete steps that could be quickly and efficiently carried out by a well-trained crew. More importantly, it made it easy for the McDonald brothers to monitor quality control. For the McDonald brothers, their hamburger stand was a labor of love, not the multinational corporation that robs working class Africans who live in food deserts of their hard earned wages, and contributes to global warming and the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests. The food you got at the original McDonald’s in San Bernardino was not the overpriced trash, the pink slime filled meat byproducts, cardboard lettuce, and under cooked french fries covered in so much salt just looking at them can raise your blood pressure, McDonald’s serves today. It was a cheap, quality meal made according to a simple, elegant, minimalist process.

The best thing about The Founder, the thinly fictionalized docudrama directed by John Lee Hancock and starring Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, is how it evokes the lost America of the 1940s and 1950s, that one brief shining moment between the end of the Great Depression and the Vietnam War. Hancock not only has a feel for the sleek, well-oiled, neon lit car culture that Henry Ford had made inevitable, he somehow manages to recreate the world of cheap gas, tail fin Cadillacs and wide open highways. At the age of 52, Ray Kroc is a loser, a traveling salesman hawking milk shake mixers to uninterested restaurant owners, but he still lives in a neat little suburban house with his bored but patient wife Ethel, played by Laura Dern, and he can still afford a membership at the local country club. It’s a world where anybody has a chance of getting into the middle class, a world before my time, but which I vaguely remember disapperaing into the rear view mirror of my early childhood, a world millennials can’t even imagine. It’s easy to see how Kroc mistook American capitalism at its height for the kingdom of heaven, an endless series of neat little towns along the highway, each with a church and a cross, and a courthouse and a flag. Kroc, who listens to self-help records on the road, does not want to recreate the the America of the 1950s. He simply wants to belong, to become a successful business, to worship in the church of American capitalism while delivering hamburgers and french fries to the masses.

The tragedy of Ray Kroc is that he did change America, massively. In 1902, when Kroc was born, the United States was a nation of farmers and mechanics, immigrants and native WASPs, already the breadbasket of the world. Food took time and effort, but it was rich, nutritious, free of chemicals and non-GMO. It was the kind of food rich people in Brooklyn and  San Francisco pay big money for today. It was the kind of food people become media stars writing books about, and for a brief moment in the 1940s and 1950s you could get it dirt cheap along the highway. As The Founder moves forward, as Ray Kroc becomes wealthy, successful, and popular beyond his wildest dreams, the aesthetic of the film subtle shifts from Route 66 to the inside of a corporate boardroom. Keaton is much older than Kroc was in 1954, but the film makes no attempts to age him. It doesn’t have to. It dramatizes the movement of history, and the transformation of New Deal America into neoliberal America by documenting his career from the inside. Ray Kroc doesn’t realize he’s cheapening American life even as he’s cheapening the American diet. He’s simply worshiping at the high church of the profit motive, doing what he has to do to make money. First comes his suggestion that the McDonald brothers franchise their hamburger stand. When they protest that they’ve already tried, that it made “quality control” impossible, Kroc has no answer, and indeed he never does. Instead he seduces the brothers with the idea that the have a patriotic duty to put a McDonald’s in every town, right next to the church and the cross, the courthouse and the flag. His faith is so pure. His belief in their “speedy system” so strong that against their better judgement he wins them over. From San Bernardino to Des Plaines, Illinois, then onto Minneapolis and Chicago, and finally New York and the rest of the world, Kroc gets what he wants. Fast food becomes a symbol of the United States, french fries as American as apple pie. Eventually, and I remember this well, the opening of a McDonalds in the Soviet Union becomes synonymous with the birth of democracy. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times points out that no two countries with a McDonalds have ever fought a war.

It can’t last. The reason Ray Kroc and McDonald’s become so successful has nothing to do with the “speedy system” or the quality of their food. It’s all about cutting corners and reducing expectations. The first blow comes when Kroc realizes that as many McDonald’s as he’s opened, he’s still not making any money, that refrigeration costs are erasing his share of the profits. Jean Smith, a younger woman for whom he eventually leaves Ethel, comes up with a brilliant suggestion. Instead of serving real milk shakes, they can serve powdered milk shakes. When Jean, played by Linda Cardanelli from Freaks and Geeks in a blond dye job, serves him his first synthetic milk shake it’s like sex, the grizzled 54-year-old Kroc going weak in the knees at the thought of a better profit motive like a smitten teenager. It’s not enough. When the McDonald brothers refuse, Kroc, who had to take out a second mortgage on his house to fund the first franchise in Des Plaines, is in danger of losing it all. A chance meeting with Harry J. Sonneborn, a former Vice President at Tastee-Freez, provides the solution. Kroc will never be able to turn a profit selling hamburgers, but if he shifts gears and transforms McDonalds from a restaurant company into a real estate holding company, he will be able to generate the capital he needs to buy the McDonald brothers out. The danger, we realize, is not McDonalds losing the original, minimalist concept and adding more items to the menu — a process that for example ruined Starbucks — but of losing the idea that you should care about selling food at all. When the biggest restaurant chain in the world is not in the business of making food but of buying real estate, then one company has effectively removed food from food, has occupied the commercial space where you could once make money actually manufacturing a product and replaced it with paper. It’s really only a matter of time before the United States outsources its manufacturing base to China and replaces Ford and GM with the financial services industry, before Barnes and Nobles becomes more about selling memberships than about selling books, before Best Buy becomes more interested in selling expensive warranties than in selling computers, before Sears stops making tools and starts signing people up for high interest credit cards.

Eventually Ray Kroc, the crafty son of Eastern European immigrants, the cynical outsider who wants to be a part of an America he can never really understand, cheats the innocent McDonald brothers, not only out of their business, but out of their name, that red, white and blue all American WASP heritage that they don’t even know they have, and never realized someone else wanted. They just wanted to run a hamburger stand. Ray Kroc only wanted to run that same hamburger stand in every town in America. He never really wanted to rule the world, but that in the end is what he wound up doing, and that in the end is the tragedy of The Founder. Indeed, after I saw the Founder — it’s available online free — I thought about riding my bike back to Route 22 to the McDonald’s my parents used to take me and my brother to every Sunday after church. The drive in is gone. Route 22 no longer has much neon. The cars are all plastic and made in Japan, not Detroit, and McDonald’s has long since replaced their art deco franchises and their golden arches with a boxy, generic, red and puke colored cement design, but still I wanted to sit and consume the body and blood of Christ one more time, even if it was only in the form of a meat like substance full of pink slime and under cooked french fries smothered in too much salt and dirty grease but I couldn’t. It was closed. The United States, now a failed state, is in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, and most public spaces are off limits. So I road back home and ate some nutritious rice, beans and vegetables instead.