Category Archives: Male Film Directors

The Founder (2016)

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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.

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.

Ford v Ferrari

fvf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Stranger (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

condor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Officer and a Gentleman (1982)

“Way to Go Paula”

The Shiite mob that stormed the United States Embassy in Iraq chanting “Death to America” the day before New Years Eve left me feeling no strong emotions one way or the other. It’s not going to change anything. While the Taliban and all of Shiite and Sunni militias in Iraq are strong enough to mount attacks on United States troops, they are not strong enough to expel the United States from Iraq or Afghanistan. While the United States is not strong enough to create a pro-Israel “democracy” in either country, it is strong enough to maintain bases in both countries for the foreseeable future. Those bases, near Iran and Russian, aren’t the means to a end. They are the end. Short of a militant anti-war movement in the United States capable, not only of mounting protests, but of disrupting American society — which at this point looks unlikely — the American ruling class is perfectly content with the current stalemate.

Pro-Iranian militias storming United States Embassies did, however, leave me feeling a bit nostalgic for my long lost youth. I’m a member of what I like to call the Boomer X Generation, people born between 1960 and 1968. We’re not Boomers. We’re not true Gen Xers. We’re somewhere in between. We have two foundational political memories, one conscious, one subconscious. The first you’ve probably guessed already. On November 4, 1979, a Shiite mob stormed the headquarters of the CIA in Tehran, otherwise known as the United States Embassy, holding 52 American “diplomats” hostage for 444 days, guaranteeing the election of Ronald Reagan, who opened up a back channel to the Iranian government in order to persuade them not to release the hostages until after his inauguration. The second is the bitter recession deliberately provoked by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who jacked up interest rates in order to discipline the American working class, which had grown increasingly militant and powerful in the 1970s. By 1982, when An Officer and a Gentleman was released, both the anti-Vietnam-War movement and the Labor movement had been decisively defeated. The age of neoliberalism had begun.

The most interesting thing about Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman isn’t the fine performance by Louis Gossett Jr., the tough Marine Corps drill sergeant who makes a man out of the loner and “rebel” Zach Mayo, played by the 33-year-old Richard Gere, a bit too old to be a naval flight school recruit, but still quite viral and handsome, or the ridiculously beautiful Deborah Winger, but the fact that the most puritanical, sex-negative movie you can possibly imagine was successfully marketed as a romance. Like the earlier Saturday Night Fever, which was sold as a fun movie about dancing, but which was in reality a dark film about rape culture among working class Italian men in 1970s Brooklyn, An Officer and a Gentleman effectively masks its true political agenda. Even though it features some local hoodlums spitting on clean cut Naval recruits and calling them “warmongers,” it’s primary message is not even about patriotism or militarism. On the contrary, An Officer and a Gentleman sidesteps both in favor of something much more subtle, the idea of the military, and by extension the military industrial complex, not only as a way to get out of the working class, but as the only way.

While Gere’s Zack Mayo repeatedly declaims that “I want to fly jets,” An Officer and a Gentleman is not, like Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, or Phillip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, about the romance of being a pilot. There are in fact, in spite of the way it was filmed in and around Seattle, the home of Boeing, no planes at all in an Officer and a Gentleman. An establishing scene early in the film shot across the Puget Sound near the naval base at Bremerton shows, not an aircraft carrier or a Northrop T-38 Talon training jet, but a pair of Iowa class battleships. While Mayo owns a Triumph motorcycle, we never see him riding fast, or looking up at an aircraft flying overhead, or anything that would express a desire for speed and elevation. Just about the only time we hear any discussion at all about aviation is one brief scene in an aerodynamics class, and in the famous scene where Mayo and his fellow recruits are made to ride brutal crash simulator that teaches them how to recover in the event they have to ditch their planes over water.

What Zack Mayo really wants is a father. Brought up near the huge American naval base of Subic Bay in the Philippines by an abusive father, an enlisted man in the United States Navy, Zach is a casualty of the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Brian Mayo, a sneering womanizer played by Robert Loggia, not only abandoned Zach’s mother, and let his son know he wasn’t wanted, but regularly brought home prostitutes. When the film opens, Zach is now a young adult, a recent college graduate, but his father has shown no signs of changing his ways. He’s still interested in only two things, getting drunk and banging whores. The elder Mayo has no interest in his son’s plans to join the Navy and become a naval aviator. In fact, he openly sneers at the idea. Brian Mayo may wear the uniform of a Chief Petty Officer, but he’s the 1960s counterculture personified, a cynical hedonist concerned only about himself. The American working class, the film is saying, is corrupt and amoral.

Zack Mayo finds his real father in Gunnery Sergeant Axel Foley, a tough as nails Marine Corps drill instructor with a heart of gold who is eventually revealed to everything Brian Mayo is not. “Where have you been all your lives,” he says when he first meets Zach and his fellow recruits, “at an orgy? Listening to Mick Jagger music and bad-mouthing your country.” Foley also warns Zach and his fellow recruits to stay away from “Puget Sound Debs,” as he derisively refers to the working class women from not yet gentrified Seattle metropolitan area. In Saturday Night Fever, young, working class Italian American men who are rapists and sexual predators. In An Officer and a Gentleman, young, working-class women are hard, cynical, and have a purely transactional view of romance, sex in exchange for a chance at getting into the middle-class. They’ll put out, not because they enjoy it, but for a chance at trapping a naval aviator into marriage.

While Zach Mayo is savvy and sophisticated, Sid Worley, his middle-class friend, played by a young David Keith, is trusting and naive. When they hook up with two local women, however, Mayo gets the virgin, Paula Pokrifki, played by Winger, and Worley gets the whore, Lynette Pomeroy, played by the late Lisa Blount. Both young women work at a local paper mill. Both want to escape. Paula is sophisticated and worldly wise — like Mayo she’s from a broken family — yet charming and innocent. Lynette is hard, vulgar, and like Mayo’s father, in spite of all the sex she seems to get, joyless and cynical. If Paula is attracted to Zach’s wit and intelligence, then Lynette picks Worley because she sees him as an easy mark. Both women actually have a right to be calculating and manipulative. Zach and Sid see them as being little more than easy fucks to be abandoned the day the finish their basic training and move onto flight school. Paul and especially Lynette may have a predatory view of sex and romance, but what other options do the two young women have? Paula’s father almost makes Zach’s father look like a fun guy in comparison. Lynette lives in a shack.

Zack Mayo and Sid Worley while more superficially “privileged” then Paula and Lynette — they’re both college graduates at least — also face a stark choice. Either they get through flight school and make it into a upwardly mobile elite with access to cutting edge technology, or they go back down into the overly sexed, drug and booze addled proletariat. Axel Foley knows it and plays it for all its worth. He’s the gate keeper to the meritocracy, to the only chance many young men in 1982 had for a meaningful career, and while he’s not a sadist who enjoys the power he has over his young recruits for its own sake, he is responsible for making sure that anybody who gets behind the controls of a state of the art jet fighter is willing to do what it takes to make himself valuable to the American empire, up to and including war crimes.

“I know why most of you are here. We weren’t born yesterday. Before you get to join United Airlines and sell them what we teach, you gotta give the Navy six years of your life! Lots of things can happen in six years, including another war. And if any of you are too peace-loving to dump napalm on an enemy village where there MIGHT be women and children, that’s what I’m here to discover…! I expect to lose at least half of you before I’m finished. I will use every means necessary, fair and unfair, to trip you up – that is, to expose your weaknesses… both as a potential aviator, and as a human being. The prize at the other end is a flight education worth $1 million! But first, you gotta get past ME.”

In other words, the film is telling us, the 1960s are over. When Paul Volcker slammed the breaks on the American economy in the late 1970s, it effectively killed the possibility that any American can just drop in and out of the middle-class at will. It’s 1982 and you’ve got one chance at upward mobility, and if you blow it, it’s a dead end job at the paper mill. If Zack Mayo makes it and Sid Worley doesn’t, it’s because Mayo knows the stakes and Worley does not. While Zack is presented, in typical 1980s fashion, as a “rebel,” he’s actually a calculating, upwardly mobile striver, keeping a supply of spare gear in a hidden space over his bunk that he’s willing to sell to his fellow trainees for a profit. Foley is determined to break Mayo down, not to erase him as an individual, but to teach him loyalty to the class he wants to enter. At times, Foley’s treatment of Zack Mayo feels a little bit like a fraternity hazing, but like a fraternity hazing, it has a purpose, to implant in Mayo’s brain the difference between an in group, his fellow naval aviators, including the lone woman, and an out group, the morally corrupt world of the Puget Sound Debs and their families. Important is the idea that outside of the in group, life is meaningless. “I’ve got nowhere else to go,” Mayo pleads, finally gaining Foley’s approval. “I got nothing else.”

Sid Worley, on the other hand, is destroyed precisely because he does in fact think he has somewhere else to go, because he doesn’t understand that outside of the United States military there is only economic and social death. While Sid is the son of a United States naval officer and the younger brother of another United States naval officer killed in Vietnam, he foolishly decides to give it all up for what he believes is true love. After Lynette lies and tells him she’s pregnant, he initially tells her he’ll pay for an abortion, but eventually decides to give up the opportunity to be a naval aviator and propose marriage. “I’ll get my old job at JC Penny,” he says. “It might be a little tough at first and we might have to live with my folks but we’ll make it. In a few years, I’ll be an assistant manager.” After he announces his plans, Lynette looks at him like he’s retarded. She doesn’t want to marry a man from the working class. She’s incapable of romance. She wants to be the wife of a high flying baby killer in the United States Navy, not some idiot flower child who wants to give it all up for love. To be honest, it’s hard to blame her. While she may only be 19 or 20 years old — Paula tells Zack that her mother is 39 — she already knows what Sid doesn’t. Being stuck in the working class means death. Sid has already committed suicide, even before he checks into a hotel and strings himself up with his belt.

Paula and Zack, by contrast, get to have it both ways. There is no conflict, the film is telling us, between true love and bombing villages with women and children. In the final, iconic scene, Zack strides into Paula’s factory dressed in his dress uniform, an angel in white who’s arrived to lift her out of the working class back “up where they belong.” Even Lynette approves. Her best friend has made it. “Way to go Paula,” she says, as all of their coworkers applaud. I suppose that after Zach did his 6 years in the Navy, which would have been a fairly easy six years since he would have been out before the first Gulf War, he was probably a bit too smart to end up as a pilot for United Airlines. After all, neoliberalism eventually proletarianized airline pilots as surely as Ronald Reagan proletarianized the air traffic controllers. I doubt Zack Mayo ended up pulling double shifts in a 737 for a middle class salary. Maybe he founded a software company and wound up as a multimillionaire or became a high price consultant on MSNBC telling us all about how Russia stole the election. Lynette, by contrast, is probably still working at the paper mill, if indeed she got lucky and it didn’t close down.

Now back to the US Embassy and your local Shiite mob.

Day of Wrath (1943)

If looks could kill
You’d be lying on the floor
You’d be begging me, please, please
Baby don’t hurt me no more

In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul wrote that without the capability to love, a believer, even one martyred for the faith, cannot be a real Christian. “If I give away all I have,” he wrote, “and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” In his 1943 film Day of Wrath, which was made during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Carl Theodore Dreyer dramatizes Paul’s arguments, demonstrates what happens to Christians who have given up on the idea of love for the idea of control.

Set in the early 17th Century, Day of Wrath is divided into two parts. In the first half, an old woman named Herlof’s Marte is accused of witchcraft, tortured into a confession, and found guilty by a tribunal led by an elderly Pastor named Absalon Pederssøn. In a last ditch effort to save her life, Marte threatens to denounce Pederssøn’s much younger wife Anna, a woman in her 20s played by Lisbeth Movin. Several years before, Pederssøn had intervened in the trial of Anna’s mother, who had also been accused of witchcraft, because he wanted to possess her beautiful young daughter.

Pederssøn, who lives with Anna and Merete, his domineering mother, is probably in his 40s or his 50s, but he appears much older. Indeed, Thorkild Roose, who plays Pederssøn, and Sigrid Neiiendam, who plays Merete, are both in their 70s. His marriage to Anna, which was founded on coercion, not love, has always been barren. They have no children. Anna is timid, glum, takes no joy in her young life. Pederssøn, a well-respected senior clergyman, lacks self-awareness, seems to enjoy nothing more than the power he has, not only over his wife, but their fanatically religious small town. Herlof’s Marte knows he could save her if he wants. He chooses not to.

On the day Herlof’s Marte is burned alive, Pederssøn’s son from an earlier marriage, a handsome young man in his 20s named Martin, returns home to his estranged father. For Anna, who has apparently been immune to all of the other young men in the village, it’s love at first sight. Martin, in a sense, completes his father, rolls back the clock to the days when the old Pastor had the kind of youth and vitality that could have given Anna a happy marriage. In a long monologue Anna speculates about what could have been, a dream of a happy ending that conjures up the image of her as Mary, Martin as Joseph, and the child her elderly husband has been unable to give her.

Dreyer has always denied that Day of Wrath is a political allegory about the persecution of the Jews, but it’s impossible not to see Anna as the kind of person who’s dangerous to a totalitarian government. Anna loves Martin so completely and so passionately that she would have probably become the center of attention at Woodstock, or in San Francisco during The Summer of Love, let alone in the stark, black and white world of Protestant Scandinavia in the 1620s. Yet Dreyer, who was not a religious man himself, takes religion seriously. Anna is not so much a heroine as she a heretic, a young woman who reduces the idea of “love” to the idea of “sex.”

Before she died, Herlof’s Marte had remarked that Anna’s mother had the ability to call up Satan at will and kill a man by wishing him dead. Denying any consolation of religion — she lost her faith and any belief in the afterlife years ago — she reminds Pederssøn that, since Anna has inherited the same ability, he will die a painful death, not at the hands, but at the thoughts of his young wife. She will wish him dead, and he will die, painfully. On the night of a violent storm, while Pederssøn is out administering the last rights to a dying man, Anna begs Martin to swear that if she’s ever accused of witchcraft, he will stand by her side and deny it. Marete, well aware that the two young people have fallen madly in love, hovers over them like the Gestapo, hoping to catch them in an unguarded moment. While Day of Wrath may not be a political oligarchy, it is certainly a powerful dramatization of what it’s like to live in a police state, a social order that transforms youthful sexuality into a death sentence.

Authoritarian governments rarely fall when they’re young and vital, able to stomp out any sign of dissent quickly and efficiently. Like Polish communism in 1980, or Portuguese clerical fascism in the 1970s, they tend to give up the ghost when they grow old and soft, whey they allow the people space to protest and express themselves, when they admit mistakes. When Absolon Pederssøn returns home to his young wife, he is still shaken, not only from having administered the last rights to a dying man before walking home in a violent storm, but because he senses his wife’s hatred, feels his imminent demise. So he apologizes, confesses that he’s never loved her and that he took her youth, not out of any dirty old man’s lust, but out of a desire to repress and control.

For anyone who’s ever felt the kind of uncontrollable rage you feel when your oppressor finally apologizes far too late to make any difference in your life, Anna’s violent reaction will seem all too familiar. The beautiful young Lisbeth Tovin turns into Satan himself, if in fact you could imagine Satan before he rebelled, when he was Lucifer, the bringer of light, the most beautiful angel in heaven. Her answer to her elderly husband, who asks her if she had ever wished him dead, becomes a blasphemous prayer, a rhetorically perfect incantation of hatred pulled out of a dark, Satanic hymnal. Yes, she says, I’ve wished you dead, hundreds of times. I’ve wished you dead when you were away. I’ve wished you dead because you couldn’t even give me a child to hold in my arms. I’ve wished you dead when you were at my side. But never have I wished you dead more than when I realized you denied me the life I could have had with your son. I wish you dead now.

Absalon Pederssøn, who had expected the confession of a guilty woman, not a passionate call to rebellion by an avenging angel, promptly does exactly what she wants, takes one step upstairs to go to bed and tumbles back down, dead of shock. Anna, who knows perfectly well that Merete will denounce her as a witch and that she is going to be burned at the stake, doesn’t care. As long as Martin stands by her side, she will go to a martyr’s death, perishing in the flames as happily as the early Christians, who sang as the Roman lions tore them limb from limb. Alas poor Anna. While she understands bitter, sexless old men, she does not understand young, vital, handsome, but mentally and spiritually weak young men. Martin, not surprisingly, denounces her at her trial. For Anna, her execution will be no different from Herlof’s Marte. She will go to her death only after she’s lost her faith in God, the Love so eloquently evoked by St. Paul in his epistles, but which in her narrow minded point of view, she had heretically reduced to the promise of a good fuck.

I’m not exactly sure how Scandinavians, the most secular people on earth, manage to explore the religious impulse so well in their art, but Day of Wrath is a masterpiece on the level of The Seventh Seal.