Category Archives: Male Film Directors

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. 

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.

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

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.

Bombshell (2019) versus The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

rey

In Jay Roach’s excellent film Bombshell, Kayla Pospisil, a young evangelical Christian who has just started a job as an intern at Fox News, manages to arrange a private meeting with Fox Chairman and CEO Rogers Ailes. Pospisil, who’s played by the tall, beautiful Margot Robbie, not only knows she has the right “look” to get on the air, she understands that your shelf life as a blond “bombshell” at Fox News doesn’t last very long past your thirtieth birthday. Rogers Ailes, played by veteran character actor John Lithgow, is old, fat, and uses a walker to get around. Yet, as Pospisil learns, that doesn’t mean he’s not perpetually horny for leggy blonds. The interview starts off well. Then Aisles orders Pospisil to lift up her skirt. A sheltered Christian girl, she’s mortified by his request, and yet, an as ambitious wannabe news anchor, she also realizes that her job requires her to be an actor as well as a journalist. Lifting your skirt up an inch or two, is it really that much different from sending head shots before an audition? Ailes, however, a sick, evil old man, is more interested in power and domination than sex. “Higher,” he says. “Come on, higher,” he adds, continuing to goad her until he finally gets what he wants and she lifts her skirt up so high she reveals the outlines of her vagina under her panties.

While you’ll probably never see anybody as ridiculously hot as Margot Robbie in the sexually repressed Star Wars franchise, The Rise of Skywalker does feature a very similar confrontation between an innocent young woman and a sick, evil old man. Rey, the female Luke Skywalker played by the British actress Daisy Ridley, has traveled to the planet Exegol, the legendary headquarters of the Sith, where she meets the Emperor Palpatine, the Hitler of the original series and the early 2000s prequels. Palpatine, a man we thought was long dead, has not only resurrected himself, he reveals himself to be Rey’s grandfather. The scene, which is obviously meant to recall the iconic scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke Skywalker felt upon learning that Darth Vader was his father, should be horrifying. Palpatine wants a lot more than to get his dick sucked by a hot young blond. He wants to inhabit Rey’s body, to take over her mortal coil before he goes on reign terror on the universe the likes of which Darth Vader himself never imagined. Yet the scene falls flat. Rey has little of the vulnerability of the young Luke Skywalker. What’s more, it makes no sense. If Palpatine could not only create the entire First Order from scratch but resurrect himself from the dead, why does he even need Rey? Why wouldn’t he simply recreate himself as a buff 23-year-old, grab the nearest light saber, jump into a space ship and precede to conduct the “Palpatine’s Back”  tour of mass destruction? It’s not that Palpatine, like Tennyson’s St. Simeon Stylites, asked the gods for eternal life but forgot to ask them for eternal youth. He is a god.

Back in 1977, when I was eleven years old, and Roger Ailes was still a thirty-seven-year-old Republican Party operative, the United States of America found itself in a difficult situation. Long accustomed to thinking of themselves as the “good guys,” Americans were reluctantly trying to face up to the fact that their government had just conducted a genocidal war against the people of Vietnam. As large and militant as the anti-war movement had been, it had been more about the draft than about any serious attempt to dismantle the American Empire. The United States military had lost its discipline in Vietnam. There had been a mutiny about the USS Kitty Hawk, the biggest and most powerful capital ship in the United States Navy, and despite success in Chile, the CIA had been unable to remove the communist government in Cuba. Yet there was never any real possibility that the Soviet Union would overtake the United States as the most powerful nation on earth. Indeed, the communist block was split. China had already taken the first steps back to restoring capitalism. The world had become much more complex than the “good versus evil,” narrative taught to the Baby Boomers in public schools and on TV. It was no longer the USA vs. Hitler. While the communists may have been the bad guys, it was really difficult to imagine Americans as the good guys. This cultural ambiguity was reflected by the cinema of the day, where the American Dream was coded as the rise of a mob family in the Godfather, and the typical American looked a lot more like Travis Bickle than the square-jawed heroes that stormed the Beaches at Normandy.

Into the cultural ambiguity of the middle-1970s stepped George Lukas and Star Wars. With Hitler long dead in his bunker and the scrappy underdog communists having defeated the evil American Empire in Vietnam, the original Star Wars movie took us out of history into outer space, where the simple-minded narrative of good vs. evil could be restored in the form of the rebellion vs. the Empire, and Luke Skywalker, a typical 20-year-old all American farm boy vs. Darth Vader, a terrifying mechanical space wizard dressed up in a black S&M outfit that looked like something out of a photo shoot by Robert Mapplethorpe. Even though the rebels had American accents and the general staff of the empire sounded like sophisticated Eurofags, arguing about who the resistance and who the empire really signify would be a waste of time. As in any multi million dollar Hollywood blockbuster, they represent whoever you want them to be. For conservatives like Ronald Reagan, the “evil empire” were the commies and the resistance the USA USA USA. For liberals, the Empire were the Nazis, and the resistance was the Anglo American Alliance that hit the beaches at Normandy. For leftist radicals, the Empire was the United States, the Resistance the Vietnamese, and the destruction of Alderaan was not the Holocaust, but genocidal American war against the people of Southeast Asia.

One of the reasons for the success of the original Star Wars trilogy, in other words, is that it allowed Americans to turn away from the painful task of confronting their own history, and to live in the fantasy world of their choice. The second reboot of the Star Wars franchise, which begin in 2015 with the J.J. Abrams directed The Force Awakens, coincided with the triumph of identity politics within the American left, what Matthew Yglesias has termed “The Great Awokening.” Over the preceding three decades, where Roger Aisles had built up Fox News into a state of the art Death Star of Neoconservative Propaganda that enabled George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to stage yet another genocidal Vietnam War in Iraq, the American ruling class had decisively smashed any sign of “resistance” on the American left. Yet all through the 2000s and into the early 2010s, there had been “a new hope” in the form of the protest movement against the invasion of Iraq, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter. The financial crash of 2008 had largely de-legitimized Wall Street, and the moral legitimacy of the ruling class that had won such a decisive victory. What’s more, American culture seemed to have run out of steam.

The stage was set, therefore, for the Disney reboot of the original Star Wars franchise, which, unlike the prequels of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which came off as little except vanity projects, would recapture some of the escapist magic of the originals. The would remake the original story where a scrappy group of rebels defeats the diabolical plans of an “evil empire,” only this time, they wouldn’t “center white men.” Even though the original Star Wars trilogy had a perfectly serviceable Jewish heroine in Princess Leia and a perfectly serviceable African American hero in Lando Calrissian, the narrative was still centered on the WASP farm boy played by Mark Hamill. This time it would be different. The hero would be a woman. The cast would be multicultural, diverse and “intersectional.”  It would be a veritable United Nations in outer space.

The problem for “woke” Star Wars, however, was the reactionary cultural thrust of the original. How exactly can you build an “intersectional” house on a foundation made up nostalgia for the good old days and the denial of the American genocide in Vietnam. The battle was fought out on social media. Zoomers, Millennials and late Gen Xers who, unlike those of us born in the 1960s, didn’t get to experience the magic of the original as children, wanted something they couldn’t have, the birth of the simple-minded 1970s blockbuster in the woke 2010s. Cultural radicals, as happy as they were that the new Star Wars featured a female Luke Skywalker, a black hero in the form of Finn and a Hispanic hero in the form of Poe Dameron, didn’t think the reboots were intersectional enough. The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, therefore, added a new character in the form of the Asian Rose Tico and presented us with a now sixty-something Luke Skywalker, still played by Mark Hamill, as a cranky old hipster who wanted nothing more than to give up his white privilege and any pretense of wanting the force to be with him. The result was an incoherent mess, an expensive and badly written trilogy that pleased no-one. Even neoliberal “resistance” liberals and feminists got in on the act, arguing that the backlash against The Last Jedi was coming from none other than the Emperor Palpatine himself, Vladimir Putin.

Specifically, this study examines a collection of tweets relating to a much-publicized fan dispute over the Star Wars franchise film Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The study finds evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments. The likely objective of these measures is increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict, thereby adding to and further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society. Persuading voters of this narrative remains a strategic goal for the U.S. alt-right movement, as well as the Russian Federation.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328006677_Weaponizing_the_haters_The_Last_Jedi_and_the_strategic_politicization_of_pop_culture_through_social_media_manipulation

Bombshell is a highly effective, tightly written account of a real life resistance movement in the form of a trio of feminist heroines, Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and the fictional Kayla Pospisil, bringing down a real life Palpatine, Roger Ailes, and a real life Darth Vader, Bill O’Reilly. Firmly rooted in historical reality it is both entertaining and revealing. Fox News and the American corporate media is terrifying, weird, and weirdly terrifying in a way George Lukas’s evil empire can never be. It contains a realistic and conflicted character in the form of Jess Carr, a lesbian played by Kate McKinnon, who hates Fox and what it stands for, but still wants to keep her job. Where Adam McKay couldn’t lay a glove on Dick Cheney in the 2018 film Vice, Bombshell throws Roger Aisle down the same reactor shaft where Darth Vader tossed the Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. You come out of Bombshell feeling exhilarated and enlightened, reveling in the way Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly humbled Roger Aisles and suddenly aware of the Death Star that had fried the brains of your elderly relatives during the run up to the invasion of Iraq. Bombshell won’t bring back the lives of all the Iraqis killed by George W. Bush. But it does educate us on incestuous relationship between the American far-right and the American corporate media. In spite of the fact that its hero is the awful Megyn Kelly, it’s still a progressive film.

The Rise of Skywalker, on the other hand, might just as well be called “50 Shades of Kylo Ren.” If the Emperor Palpatine resurrected himself as a sick old man instead of a viral 20-something, Rey Skywalker will never have to deal with the painful reality of sucking the bloated old corpse’s dick. Palpatine does in fact have a young, viral alter-ego. Indeed, the Rise of Skywalker gives us a heroine who’s more like Twilight’s Bella Swan than the original Luke Skywalker. If Mark Hamill’s hero’s journey ended with him overcoming the dark father figure, Daisy Ridley’s hero’s journey centers on the eternal American female obsession with the sexy bad boy, with Adam Driver standing in for Twilight’s Robert Pattison. Indeed, I lost count of how many times we had to look at Adam Driver, wearing a padded suit to make himself look taller and more intimidating, walking out of the mists towards Rey carrying a flaming sword. Rey defeats the evil old Emperor Palpatine, but unlike in Bombshell, it’s not as part of a feminist “resistance,” but as the handmaiden of the sexy bad boy who had originally been tasked with killing her. Bombshell went for the jugular, partly because Roger Aisles died in 2017, and unlike Harvey Weinstein, isn’t part of an ongoing criminal trial. Nevertheless, the women who brought Aisles down were anything but leftist radicals. Rather, they were bourgeois white feminists who have no intention of questioning American capitalism or American imperialism. They simply want their own fair share. Kayla Pospisil knows she wants to be on TV. If the Rise of Skywalker is so muddled and so confused it’s because it tries to bury the same reality underneath a layer of escapism. After all, what does Rey really want? The film never really shows how she may have been genuinely tempted by the idea of ruling the universe and diverts the thrust of the narrative into the banal question of “will she fuck the sexy bad boy or won’t she.” But escapism simply isn’t as much fun as it was in the 1970s. It’s forced, focus group tested, and ultimately dull and confusing. The Rise of Skywalker tries to duplicate the original trilogy’s feat of being everything to everybody. It winds up being pretty much nothing to nobody.

It doesn’t mean, however, that the Star Wars franchise is going anywhere. As long as Americans, and other people, refuse to confront historical reality, Disney will continue to make Star War movies and these movies will continue to make money. God help us all.

Richard Jewell (2019)

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If the liberal elite has a bogeyman, he probably looks a bit like Richard Jewell. A 33-year-old wannabe police officer, Jewell lives with his mother in Atlanta Georgia. Obese, not particularly bright, and probably a virgin, his patriotism and respect for law enforcement border on parody. In another timeline, he might have been George Zimmerman, a racist gun nut so carried by a mania for fighting “the bad guys” that he might have killed an innocent kid just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. On July 27, 1996, Jewell was working as a temporary security guard at Centennial Olympic Park. After hassling a group of teenage boys for underage drinking, he noticed a suspicious backpack someone had left underneath a bench. He saw something, and he said something, immediately alerting the police, and trying to clear as many people away from the area as he could. After a massive pipe bomb exploded, killing one person and severely injuring dozens more, it was immediately clear that the fat, ridiculous mamma’s boy had saved hundreds of lives. Richard Jewell was a legitimate hero.

If Donald Trump gets one thing right, it’s that the corporate media is the enemy of the American people. Listen up deplorables. Stop hating on communism. Under a dictatorship of the proletariat led by me, Stanley Rogouski, Chris Matthews’s worst nightmares would come true. Anybody currently employed by the corporate media, with the exception of maybe Phil Donahue and Amy Goodman, and oh yeah, Raymond Bonner, would immediately be marched out into the middle of Central Park, and guillotined. As Clint Eastwood makes clear, the same corporate media that put the incompetent Rudy Giuliani and the future war criminal George W. Bush up on a pedestal after 9/11, basically lynched Richard Jewell after the Olympic Park bombing in 1996. Initially hailed by the media as the hero he was, Jewell came under investigation by the FBI after his “profile” checked off one too many boxes, and they began to suspect that he had planted the bomb himself. Kathy Scruggs, an Atlanta-Journal Constitution reporter, who’s played by Olivia Wilde as an ambitious, unscrupulous cunt who will do anything for a story, including seducing a lead out of Tom Shaw, an incompetent, pompous FBI special agent played by Madman’s Jon Hamm, “breaks the story” that the Olympic Park Bomber is none other than the Richard Jewell, the strange man currently basking in public adulation and mouthing platitudes like “well no ma’am, no sir, I wasn’t a hero. I was just doing my job.”

If Jewell annoys the ever living hell out of me it’s because Eastwood realizes that most American liberals and leftists like me are not too far removed from deplorables ourselves. Yeah, we may graduate from college and move to New York, San Francisco, LA, Seattle or Boston, but we’ll never really hide the fact that we’re originally “from” dull suburbs in New Jersey or on Long Island, burned out towns in the rust belt, or, God forbid, somewhere in the south.  When Jewell, played by Kobra Kai’s Paul Walter Hauser and his mother Barbara, played by Kathy Bates, first realize that he’s not only the prime suspect, but on the cover of every newspaper in America as the new Timothy McVeigh, they act like two deer caught in the headlights. Neither of them have enough cynicism about the corporate media or the federal government to understand what’s happening, that Tom Shaw, who was responsible for the security at Centennial Park, is covering his ass, and that Kathy Scruggs is trying to ride the media lynching of an unsophisticated working class man to fame and fortune. Indeed, as Watson Bryant, Jewell’s lawyer played by the excellent Sam Rockwell, quickly realizes, unless he can somehow break the spell that the American conservative worship of the police has cast over him, Richard Jewell is probably going to the electric chair. “How could Tom Brokaw say that about you,” his mother exclaims in disbelief when she sees the news anchor she had previously gushed over as “too handsome” is demonizing her son on national TV. Jewell himself repeatedly gets into trouble by his still lingering urge to help the police, a weakness Tom Shaw picks up on and plays for everything it’s worth.

It’s probably not entirely accurate to say that Richard Jewell “got lucky.” There was no case, or even the slightest shred of evidence that he had planted the bomb. Similar to the Central Park 5 affair seven years earlier in New York City,  where Donald Trump jump started his political career by calling for the execution of 5 innocent black teenagers, the media and the FBI had temporarily gone mad, building a house of cards around an easily demonized child man, and then simply dropping the investigation after they came to their senses. Like the Central Park 5, Richard Jewell never recovered from being tried in the court of public opinion. As Eastwood effectively dramatizes in the film’s penultimate scene, Jewell does overcome his inability to criticize the police, and would eventually bring defamation lawsuits against most of the people responsible for the false accusations, but in 2007 he would die at the age of 44 from complications brought on by diabetes and obesity, and indirectly from the emotional suffering brought on by what had happened in the Summer of 1996. Jewell was in fact, the last casualty of the Olympic Park Bombings, outliving Kathy Scruggs, who died of a drug overdose in 2001 by six years.

Whatever your politics, if you’re like me, a generation or two from being a “deplorable,” a naive, unsophisticated middle-American at heart, the kind of person who will recognize him or herself in Richard and Kathy Jewell, you will love this movie. On the other hand, if you’re  a woke intersectional identitarian with an Ivy League degree and a loft in downtown Brooklyn or Tribeca, the kind of person who tacks “bro” onto the ending of any word to make up a new insult, you will utterly loath Richard Jewell, both the man and movie, and pray that Clint Eastwood follow Jewell and Kathy Scruggs to the grave as soon as possible. You will stomp your feet and exclaim “oh boo hoo, one white man gets railroaded by the police and he gets his own movie.” Of course, Eastwood’s portrayal of Kathy Scruggs has, and probably accurately, been accused of being as defamatory as Scrugg’s portrayal of Jewell himself. Worse, unlike Jewell, she’s no longer alive to fight against the damage to her reputation. All I have to say to that is “oh boo hoo. So one corporate hack journalist gets her reputation posthumously destroyed. Cry me a river. Let’s talk about all the innocent people the corporate media destroys every day.”

Richard Jewell is a polarizing movie, and it’s meant to be.

Final Note: In another dig at elite liberals, the real hero of Richard Jewell just might be Nadya, Watson Bryant’s Russian girlfriend, whose as cynical about the police and the media as the Jewells are trusting and naive.

Wormwood (2017)

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Early in the morning on November 28, 1953, an American war criminal named Frank Olson went flying out of a 10th floor window of the Statler Hotel in New York City to his death on the sidewalk below. Olson, a bacteriologist who had developed biological weapons used in the Korean war, had become too much of a risk. Like Edward Snowden, he had threatened to “blow the whistle” on government secrets. Unlike Edward Snowden, who knew better than to trust his colleagues in the CIA, he confessed to his superiors that he was feeling remorse over the deadly germs he had helped develop. What’s more, in the early 1950s, the CIA had developed a “truth serum,” LSD, a drug that would eventually play a deceptive role in the investigation into Frank Olson’s death. Whether he had taken LSD voluntarily or if it had been slipped into his drink behind his back, by the time his superiors set him up for the kill, Olson was far too delusional and paranoid to defend himself.

When I first found out that Errol Morris, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, had made a six part, partly fictionalized documentary for Netflix about Frank Olson, I was skeptical. After all, it was 2017. Barack Obama had become heavily involved with Netflix, and after the election of Donald Trump as President, the CIA had “come out of the shadows,” and had gotten directly involved in electoral politics. In the 1970s, most people on the left saw the CIA a secretive, vaguely sinister, unelected government institution that was probably up to no good. In 2017, Democratic Party loyalists had elevated the CIA to the status of the heroic savior that would deliver us from the evil that is Donald Trump. So how much could a mainstream documentary really tell us? Surely Wormwood would be a “limited hangout,” an account that would effectively obscure more about the Olson murder than it revealed. But it turns out that Wormwood is not in fact a “limited hangout, but a meditation on the concept of the “limited hangout.”

According to  former CIA operative Victor Marchetti a “limited hangout” is defined as “spy jargon for a favorite and frequently used gimmick of the clandestine professionals. When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting—sometimes even volunteering—some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further.” In 1975, when the Church Committee hearings and the Rockefeller Commission opened up investigations into Cointelpro and CIA covert action, Frank Olson’s son Eric, now a graduate student at Harvard, had an opportunity to discover what really happened to his father at the Statler Hotel in 1953. For decades, his family had been in such denial that when journalist Seymour Hirsch contacted them for an interview, the man who broke the story of the My Lai Massacre immediately expressed his disgust. “You people must be the most incurious family on earth.”

The Ford Administration, however, especially national security advisors Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, knew that if Eric Olson pressed his case the CIA would be in trouble. The Olson family had already filed suit, and the discovery process would mean that their lawyers would get to demand evidence that the agency simply wasn’t prepared to give. So the President himself invited Eric, his mother, his brother and sister into the White House. It was only later that the younger Olson realized that it had all been a trap, that in one moment he had not only given up the opportunity to find out what had really happened to his father, but had essentially ruined his life. After throwing on the charm, Gerald Ford laid his offer on the table.  If the Olson family agreed to drop the lawsuit, and sign a non-disclosure agreement, they would get a court settlement in the amount of 1.2 million dollars and an official apology from the President of the United States. The Olson family accepted the offer and that was that. Eric Olson would spend the rest of his life regretting his decision. The Olson family had had the Ford Administration over a barrel. They let them escape.

Along with the Ford Administration’s apology, the CIA agreed to release an official explanation of among other things what had happened to Frank Olson, the “limited’ hangout that would reveal part of the truth, but obscure the fact that the CIA and the Army had been manufacturing biological weapons at Fort Detrick. Instead of admitting that the North Korean and Chinese governments had been right all along, that the United States had used biological weapons during the Korean War, the CIA misdirected the attention of the American people to “MK-Ultra,” a lurid series of experiments in mind control, hallucinogenic drugs, and torture that certainly did happen, but which also made for such compelling tabloid fodder that the war crimes committed against the Korean people were completely forgotten. Even today, if you listen to leftist radio programs like Democracy Now or even if you read some of the more extreme “conspiracy theory” sites on the Internet, very few people talk about Frank Olson as the victim of what had essentially been a mafia hit by the United States government. Having trained killers eliminate a potentially damaging witness is good cable TV episode about the WASP Sopranos in Langley, but compared to the idea that a paranoid, drugged up Frank Olson leapt through a plate glass window on his own volition twelve stories to his death, it’s boring. After all, MK-Ultra can be used to explain everything from the Kennedy Assassination to the Manson murders. It’s the gift to conspiracy theorists that keeps on giving.

If Wormwood managed to get distributed by Netflix in 2017, at the height of the CIA’s popularity among American liberals, then it’s partly because in the end it reads like a cautionary tale against asking too many questions for too long. Eric Olson had his chance in 1975. He blew it. He should have let it go. Instead, he continued, quite literally, to dig up more information about his father’s murder, exhuming Frank Olson’s body and having a medical examiner declare that the death was not a suicide but rather “of unknown causes.” He filed a second suit against the CIA, which was eventually dropped. He managed to push Seymour Hersch into another investigation, which eventually revealed that the US government has a “hit list” of political dissidents to eliminate in the event they become too dangerous, but couldn’t convince him to publish an article or burn his source. Eric Olson managed to build a compelling circumstantial case that his father was in fact murdered, one that would probably hold up in court, if any court were willing to take the case, and if the men responsible for Frank Olson’s murder were still alive.

While a fascinating docudrama, Wormwood is unlikely to convince any “resistance” liberals, let alone conservatives, that the CIA needs to be dismantled. Yes, they’ll argue, in the past, the CIA committed crimes, even against their own operatives, but that was in the past. You radicals, like Eric Olson should just “let it go” and get on with your lives. Needless to say, neither Frank Olson nor Errol Morris is particularly interested in what the Korean people have to say about a dead American war criminal. For them, Frank Olson seems to have been the only victim of the CIA’s biological warfare against North Korea. Another filmmaker might have portrayed Eric Olson the way they’d portray the son of a Nazi war criminal. Would anybody really care if Herman Goering threw Albert Speer out a window in Berlin? Morris, quite intentionally, doesn’t go there.  But Wormwood, to use that old cliche, does “make you think.” Can a documentary about a limited hangout also be a limited hangout? It’s the question Errol Morris forces us to ask.

Parasite (2019)

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Back in 1982, a young Jeremy Irons starred in Moonlighting, a film about four Polish construction workers building a townhouse in London for their employer back in Warsaw. While the film was effusively praised by American critics, not only for Irons’s performance, but also for what they perceived as an anti-communist message, its director Jerzy Skolimowski saw Communist Poland and Thatcherite Britain as part of the same rotten system. He  understood that workers are never more oppressed by capitalism than when they think they’re pulling off a good scam. When Novak, the immigrant electrician played by Irons, realizes that his boss didn’t give them enough money to buy food, he shoplifts, subsidizing the construction of his employer’s cheap London townhouse with ever more elaborate heists from a nearby supermarket.

Parasite is the Korean Moonlighting. While nominated for Best Picture and effusively praised by American critics, including Barack Obama, Parasite is a profoundly subversive, anti-capitalist film. Whether intentionally or not, director Bong Joon-ho has managed to slip a film with an underlying Marxist ideology past the American critical establishment. What’s more, unlike Moonlighting, which was a dour, low-budget art house film that never played outside of New York, LA, and maybe Ann Arbor and Cambridge, Parasite is an over the top black comedy in the tradition of Fargo and the Big Lebowski, a hilarious farce that will entertain even people who don’t agree with the director’s politics. Simply put, it’s a great piece of film making. It’s by far the best movie of 2019, so much better than 1917, Ford vs Ferrari, Little Women, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, or Joker it’s difficult to express.

Parasite opens in the “semi-basement” apartment of the working-class Kim family, a man and a woman, both in their forties, and their two kids, a teenage boy and girl, trying to pick up a free wireless signal from a local restaurant. Barely scraping by on a series of low wage, gig economy jobs, they can’t afford to pay their cell phone bills. Every time another host password protects their WiFi it means they get cut off from the outside world. Their fortunes take a turn for what initially seems to take a turn for the better when Min-hyuk, a friend of the family, gets Ki-woo, the son, a job tutoring Da-hye, the teenage daughter of the wealthy Park family, in English. While Ki-woo doesn’t have a college degree or any real qualifications for the job, we soon realize that faking the right credentials is part of the fun. Ki-jeong, the daughter, is not only a skilled forger, she and her brother manage to convince the Park family to hire her on as an “art therapist” for Da-song, the spoiled younger brother of Da-hye. Da-song, who a few years earlier had “seen a ghost,” is arrogant and domineering, and yet is also suffering from some kind of mysterious trauma, and Yeon-gyo, his mother, is willing to spend any amount of money to help him get better.

If Barack Obama and so many other ruling class American liberals are effusive in their praise of Parasite, it’s largely because rich American liberals, while benefiting from capitalism, really don’t understand class. While American conservatives rightfully see money and class privilege as violence, something you take by force, something you have to stockpile military grade weapons to preserve, American liberals are Calvinists. As though they were living in 17th Century Geneva, ruling class American liberals see money and power as a “manifestation of the grace of God,” as a reward for good morality. Thus, “good” people in the United States get to live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and send their kids to Harvard. “Bad” people are white trash, racists, homephobes and transphobes who probably live in some decaying hellhole of coal town in Appalachia and will, rightfully, die a premature death by opium addiction or a heart attack brought on by eating too much processed food. In Parasite, the wealthy Park family, Yeon-gyo the mother and Dong-ik, the father, aren’t evil so much as they are clueless, naive, and “privileged.” They benefit from an exploitive system they don’t entirely understand, or really want to understand. Rich American liberals, therefore, see themselves in Yeon-gyo and Park Dong-ik, as “good” people who are part of a system that while might be in need of some reform — like replacing Trump with Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren — isn’t necessarily destructive or evil

Bong Joon-ho has left the title of the film, Parasite, deliberately ambiguous. Who are the parasites in Parasite? The rich or the working class? The first half of Parasite almost lends itself to a libertarian, Ayn Randian analysis. The treacherous working class seem to be taking advantage of the innocent, naive rich. No sooner do Kim Ki-woo and Kim Ki-jeong establish comfortably establish themselves in the Park family’s magnificent suburban palace, a gorgeous, modernist house that looks as if it could have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, then they conspire to get the chauffeur and the long serving, long suffering maid, fired. Soon the entire Kim family is working at the Park family home, keeping their relationship to each other from their employers, helping themselves to free food and free booze, dreaming about the day when they’ll move in for good. Indeed, until the “shocking twist” halfway through the film, I kept comparing Parasite to The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, the 1992 American movie that expresses, and largely justifies, the dread that wealthy Americans have of their servants.

Shocking twist or no shocking twist, however, we eventually notice that while Yeon-gyo and Park Dong-ik might be clueless and naive, under capitalism, they can’t really lose. They are clueless and naive because they get to be clueless and naive. It is in fact a form of privilege. Soon the Kim family realize that the jobs they so cleverly scammed their way into are a trap after all. Boundaries get erased. They are expected to come in on their days off. Duties are poorly defined, and thus open to being extended. Kim Ki-taek was hired on as a driver, but he’s also expected to help Yeon-gyo with the shopping. Chung-sook was hired as a housekeeper but she’s also expected to whip up elaborate gourmet meals on short notice. When Kim Ki-woo first realizes he can sleep with Da-hye, he initially feels like a stud, but then he realizes that being the rich girl’s plaything is as much a part of his job as being her tutor.  Only Ki-jeong seems immune from being openly subjugated, and demeaned as little more than a slave, but that’s mainly because she managed to fake a college degree from a university in the United States.

What becomes clear, even before the twist, which I won’t describe to avoid spoiling the movie, is that the Park family have gotten the upper hand over the Kim family mainly because the Kim family have been brainwashed. The Kim family, like so many other working class people in Korea and in the United States, don’t see themselves as proletarians, but in the words of John Steinbeck, as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The Kim family don’t want to overthrow the system that has given the Park family great wealth and power at the cost of the misery of the Korean working class, they want to take their place. Even after a shockingly violent spasm of open class war, nothing really changes. Kim Ki-woo loses everything he has but his dreams. As the credits roll, he still wants to own the house. Only Kim Ki-taek, the father, really seems to learn anything. If you make plans, he tells his son, you lose. If you don’t make plans, nothing can go wrong. Ki-taek never really defines the important difference between “making plans” to scam your way into a the illusion of “success” under capitalism and “making plans” to destroy capitalism itself, but there’s no reason he should be expected to. He’s not Karl Marx, just an ordinary working class guy who’s realized the futility of it all.

Final Note: Parasite is also the first movie I’ve ever seen that expresses how cell phones and social media are used as weapons, not by the working class against the ruling class, but by workers against other workers.

1917 (2019)

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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.