My New Website

Writers Without Money started out as a film site. Film is a broad enough category and of itself. But the site expanded even beyond that overly wide scope. There’s nothing wrong with an “everything and nothing” blog (as these things used to be called in the early 2000s) but I’ve been curious about what a more narrowly defined film site would look like.

French, Japanese, American, Soviet, Italian, Indian, even Polish film are huge subjects it would take a lifetime of study to master. There are on the other hand more compact cinematic traditions. One of the most interesting parts of Eastern Europe is the Balkans. Unlike Poland or the Baltics, which are virulently Russophobic, or Russia itself, which at the present time, sadly, finds itself in an undeclared war with the United States, the nation states that make up the former Yugoslavia lean towards neutrality. They’re small, and relatively poor countries, and they’re often manipulated by the European Union into taking a more pro-western stance but in general, at least these days, Belgrade has more freedom of the press, at least when it comes to the Russo Ukraine American War, than London or New York.

Serbia, of course, is not the Balkans and the Balkans aren’t Serbia, as everybody in the 1990s found out so painfully, but it is the large, most diverse, most culturally rich part of the former Yugoslavia and has an astonishingly brilliant cinematic tradition. It’s not just Emir Kusturica and Underground. So why don’t I just call the site “The Cinema of Serbia.” There’s a fairly silly reason. I wanted the site to be graphically intensive and since I don’t have my own stock of photographs, I’m dependent on finding open source photos on line. By far the richest trove of Balkan photos online under the Creative Commons and Unsplash licenses have been taken in Bosnia. That of course makes sense. Bosnia is a dramatically beautiful place with iconic monuments like the Mostar Bridge and the village of Višegrad, the setting of Ivo Andric’s Nobel Prize winning novel The Bridge on the Drina.

In any event, we all know that Serbians make great basketball and tennis players. They also make great movies. Hopefully I can share some of my appreciation for them in my new website.

I’ll start with my most recent review, a subtle, complex Serbian homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

What do you get when you cross Strangers on a Train with John Q and translate into post-Milosovic Belgrade. You get Klopka by Srdan Golubović .

R.I.P. Daniel Ellsberg

There’s a lot I don’t understand about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Even though I’m old as dirt, Vietnam was still a bit before my time. So I’m not really sure exactly what impact the Pentagon Papers had on the general public when they were first released.

My guess would be that when it comes to the working class “not much.” Working class opposition to the Vietnam War was mostly about the draft. Why do the children of the elite stay home, smoking pot and getting laid when our kids have to go to Vietnam?

On the other hand, when it comes to the elites, I’d probably guess “a lot.” Even though the elites had already turned against the war in Vietnam, the Pentagon papers were a good excuse to finally go public about it. “

“Johnson lied. People died.”

Interestingly enough Daniel Ellsberg was a speaker at the first, and still perhaps the best, antiwar protest I ever went to. It pretty much shut down the Pentagon for most of the day and it’s still the reason why no protest since 1988 has ever been allowed to get that close again.

You can see me very briefly up in the right hand corner at minute 13:58 as a very, very young man. Ellsberg speaks at minute 25:30. I had absolutely no idea who he was and when I asked mostly got the response “you’re kidding right? That’s Daniel Ellsberg.” Sadly “OK Boomer” hadn’t been invented at the time so I just felt stupid.

Strangers on a Train (1951)

It is 1951. The American empire is at its height. Your name is Guy Haines. You are tall, dark, ridiculously handsome, and a famous athlete. You are set to be married to the beautiful, sophisticated daughter of a United States Senator, who fully intends to take you under his wing and guide your way into the American political elite. In other words, everything is going your way.

There’s only one little problem. Isn’t there always? You’re already married to a vulgar promiscuous little hussy from your hometown who had until very recently intended to grant you a divorce until she realized just how far your were going and decided that she wanted to hitch along for the ride. That baby that may or may not be yours — they didn’t have DNA tests until 1983 — just might be the boat anchor that keeps your ship from sailing.

The United States, at least through the eyes of Alfred Hitchcock was beautiful back then. Small towns had their own amusement parks. There’s so little evidence of poverty that it’s hard to believe that the Great Depression had only ended a few years before. You could have a real dinner on a train going from Washington DC to New York. Not only does Union Station in Washington look great in classic black and white, Penn Station in New York, the real Penn Station, not that abomination that took its place, was still standing at 34th Street and 8th Avenue.

At Union Station, on the way back to his hometown — it’s supposed to be somewhere in Maryland but it’s really Danbury Connecticut — another man gets on the train with Guy Haines. Bruno Antony, unlike Guy, is from a wealthy family. He’ll never have to work a day in his life if he doesn’t want to. In fact he has so much time on his hands that when he recognizes Guy on the train, and barges his way into his space, he has already read everything there is to know about him. His full time profession, it seems, is to read the sports and gossip pages.

“Aren’t you Guy Haines?” Bruno asks, clearly already knowing the answer to the question. Guy, who is noticeably uncomfortable, tries to get away, but Bruno insists so relentlessly, and Guy is so well-mannered, that he reluctantly agrees to have a drink in Bruno’s private cabin. Unbeknownst to himself, Guy has ventured into the sight of a dangerous predator. Critics have speculated that Bruno Antony, played by the brilliant Robert Walker, who sadly died at the age of 31, is driven by a homosexual attraction to Guy Haines. That certainly comes through. In spite of being over 6 feet tall, and traditionally masculine, there’s something just a little too foppish and a bit feminine about Bruno Antony. The very first image from the movie contrasts Guy’s sensible dark brown shoes with Bruno’s flashy two toned wingtips. Other critics have speculated that it’s really Guy Haines who represents the closeted 1950s homosexual and Bruno Antony the McCarthyite inquisitor hunting down the “lavender menace.”

In any event, whether or not either Bruno or Guy, neither or both, are closeted gay men is not really central to the plot. Being a McCarthyite inquisitor and a closeted gay man are not mutually exclusive anyway. See also, Roy Cohn What’s important is that Bruno knows all about Guy’s little problem with his first wife, and his plans to marry the Senator’s daughter. He makes a proposition. Bruno, hates his father — who wants him to get a job — and seems abnormally close to his mother. He proposes that he Guy’s wife if Guy agrees to kill the elder Mr. Antony. Guy is shocked, or so it would appear. But Bruno’s proposal is also so outrageous and so out of the blue who could take it seriously? In fact, Guy does. In reality, even though Guy tries to laugh it off as a big joke, he also seems just a little too interested. Perhaps Bruno Antony is not only his stalker but his id. Even though Guy is so flustered that he forgets his engraved cigarette lighter — quickly pocketed by Bruno — at some point they almost appear to be doubles, as if Bruno is Mr. Hyde to Guy’s Dr. Jekyll, as if Guy subconsciously left the cigarette lighter in Bruno’s private cabin to establish a connection he doesn’t fully understand he wants.

After Miriam, Guy’s wife, brutally rejects Guy’s final plea for a divorce, the mild-mannered pretty boy displays an uncharacteristically murderous rage, shouting at the top of his lungs at Miriam that he could kill her, and even telling Anne, the Senator’s daughter and his perspective bride, that he wants to strangle the woman standing in the way of their marriage. Normally that would be a “red flag” but this is the 1950s so it takes Anne a bit longer to become suspicious. As he boards the train back to Washington, dejected, feeling that his glorious future is becoming less and less realistic, Bruno is in the process of keeping his end of the “bargain,” stalking Miriam through the fictional Metcalf Maryland, and demonstrating his theory that “switching” murders would enable two people to commit the perfect crime, since nobody would suspect a random stranger without a motive. Indeed, as Miriam goes out for a night at the local amusement park with two gentleman “friends” — she may be pregnant but that’s not keeping her from having a good time — Bruno easily follows the three young people without attracting the slightest notice. He even manages to attract Miriam’s flirtatious attention after he rings the bell at the amusement park in a “test your strength” game, proving how much powerfully built he is than her two dates, who fail miserably.

Miriam’s murder is considered a classic set piece in world cinema. As Bruno wraps his powerful hands around her neck, preventing her from screaming, her glasses fall to the ground and we see her death in their reflection. Personally I doubt strangling someone is that effortless, especially if she has two friends in the immediate vicinity, but Hitchcock is making a trenchant sociological observation. In modern, urban America, people are so alienated from one another, such atomized individuals, that there’s really nothing keeping a random stranger with the means and opportunity from murdering another random stranger on a whim. “Why don’t people do this more often?” Hitchcock seems to be asking, as Bruno slips out of the amusement park. Even though he attracts the attention of one middle-aged man has a “gut feeling” there is something a little off about him, he has in fact committed the perfect crime.

Alfred Hitchcock is far too intelligent a filmmaker to have any part of his plot depend on the police being morons. The detectives assigned to tail Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train understand perfectly well that when a random working class women, who couldn’t have possibly had any real enemies, suddenly ends up dead, it’s probably the boyfriend or the husband. Nevertheless, Bruno Antony was right. Other than the obvious motive, there’s nothing tying Guy Haines to the murder of his wife. He was nowhere near the scene of the crime when it happened, and even if his “alibi” falls apart the police still don’t have enough evidence to make an arrest, even though they clearly want to, if only because as the pampered favorite of a United States Senator and a world class athlete, it would be a prize arrest that would immediately make anybody who solved the crime famous. Innocent working class girl murdered by her ambitious husband? Theodore Dreiser even wrote a famous novel about it. But while there’s nothing decisively tying Guy to the murder, the murder has tied Guy to Bruno, exactly what Bruno wants.

Bruno soon begins to stalk not only Guy, but pretty much everybody in his social circle, including his prospective wife’s younger sister — played by Alfred Hitchcock’s daughter Pat Hitchcock — who bears a striking resemblance to Miriam herself and who immediately suspects that she might be next. After awhile we begin to suspect that Bruno doesn’t really care whether or not Guy kills his father, or that he even wanted the old man dead in the first place. What he wants his control of Guy. More accurately, he wants to break through Guy’s sanctimonious mask and reveal the monster underneath and indeed for a man who just lost his wife — he must have loved her at some point even if the marriage did end badly — he doesn’t seem terribly upset. In fact, he comes off more like an out and out sociopath concerned only with how the murder will affect his future and never once expressing even the slightest remorse or sadness that Miriam died so young.

Strangers on a Train of course has a happy ending. Bruno is revealed to be the murderer, and Guy gets off scot free, presumably to marry Anne and live happily ever after as he makes his way into the Washington elite. But one image sticks in my mind. Guy and his police “escort” are walking past the Jefferson Memorial, chatting amiably about, what else, Guy’s future prospects. Just then we look up to see Bruno on the steps of the monument, a lone, terrifying individual, almost a ghost, almost a image of the kind of sociopathic ruthlessness that it takes to become a United States Senator, the goal Guy clearly has in mind. In the end, Guy Haines is looking not so much at his stalker, but at his reflection. He will undoubtedly go onto a great career, already aided by his future wife’s and father in law’s willingness to overlook just how much he benefited from the murder of his unlikeable, but in the end innocent, first wife. Washington, Hitchcock seems to be saying, is fully of sordid stories just like this.

Did American Sterility and Conformity Warp Ted Kaczynski’s Anarchist Slavic Soul?

Young Ted Kaczynski on the left David Kaczynski on the right. Looking at Ted as a teenager, he doesn’t seem destined to become a terrorist and an incel. David on the other hand has already developed into a Park Slope soy boy.

A young manly looking Ted Kaczynski in the hell of American suburbia, those “little boxes made of ticky tacky” Pete Segar sung about. He looks destined to become another Jack Kerouac.

Too bad he never met Neal Cassady and William Boroughs.

The Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica, who by any account has led an exceptionally fulfilling life. What if Ted Kaczynski had grown up in Sarajevo and not Chicago? What if he had spent his youth drinking Rakija, hanging out with gypsies, listening to brass brands, and getting laid instead of cramming for Calculus exams and working as an assistant professor at Berkeley?

A Shaggy, unkempt Kaczynski in police custody.

A shaggy unkempt Leo Tolstoy not in police custody.

A shaggy unkempt Emir Kusturica hanging out with the man himself.

Slavs age gracefully into shaggy anarchists. Frenchmen become fat. But whatever you want to say about Monsieur Depardieu, his heart is in the right place. You’d never see him hug President Biden.

And as we all know, Putin kept Emmanuel Macron and his neoliberal cooties at a safe distance.

I guess Wajda’s Danton works just as well dubbed into Italian. They dubbed Wojciech Pszoniak into French anyway.

Andrej Wadja got it wrong when he cast a Pole as rigid uptight totalitarian Robespierre and a Frenchman as the fun loving corrupt hedonistic Danton. It’s actually the opposite. Westerners are naturally uptight, rigid authoritarians. Slavs occasionally become tyrants but they always at least have fun doing it. A Slavic Robespierre is kind of an absurd contradiction.

In the end, they cleaned him up and put him in federal prison for the rest of his life (where of course he belonged). He actually looks more respectable in jail than outside of jail. That should tell you something about the world we live in.

In fact, Ted looks happy in prison, almost as if he knows that unlike most fake American rebels, he struck his blow against the system and now he can relax for decades in protective custody. It’s not like social isolation was much of a threat. I’m sure he thrived in solitary confinement. In the end it’s a much healthier way of getting away from the hell of other people than heroin.

Akira (1982-1990): Reconciling the Atomic Bomb

There has been much written on the 1988 film version of Akira but very little written in or translated into English that I can find on the ~2200 page comic book version. This is a shame because the comic book is the superior work-wider in scope, more brilliantly realized in the drawing, with dozens of memorable and three dimensional characters. The plot is byzantine and intricate in ways that can’t be stuffed into a 2 hour movie. The manga also reads much more fluently. The film is a collection of exceptional images. The manga is a fully realized and developed piece of art. It doesn’t feel long because you want there to be more. It has the gritty, street level qualities of violent pulp or West Side Story and the operatic scale and reach of Tolstoy or Wagner. It reads as fluidly as any comic ever made. A person with some experience reading comics could finish this in 2-3 days, I’ve finished it in a single day more than once. Don’t let the big page count scare you.

It takes place in 2019. Which we all survived. Well sorta. Thankfully no one that I heard about developed telekinesis, but a lot of other things went poorly. We did a lot better than the people of 2019 in this book is what I’m saying.

What does it all mean?

(as you might imagine, there are spoilers ahead. If you’ve never read Akira, do some googling, get to reading, and come back.)

Akira is a story about the relationship between children and adults, the catastrophic end-times-y quality of the post-nuclear era, the trauma of the bomb, the scarily exciting parts of apocalyptic daydreams.

The comic and movie both begin and end with a single explosion destroying most of Tokyo. In the comic variations on this event happen several times. Neither one makes any direct written references to WWII but we can guess that Hiroshima and Nagasaki also happened in this universe because of the fact so much promotional material used the tagline “30 Years After WWIII” and the Americans are shown as having developed nuclear weapons towards the end of the series. Post-apocalyptic fiction wasn’t new at the time, but nothing before Akira painted the post-apocalyptic world order quite so vividly.

While it would be quite a stretch to call the series realistic, the overarching view of the world shown in the text doesn’t vary that wildly from what we’re seeing politically now. Neo-Tokyo is shown the catastrophic impacts that messing with natural order of things can cause. 30 years later and rebuilt, the society is shown to have learned little to nothing-the telekinetic power of Akira, the power that destroyed Tokyo and later destroys Neo-Tokyo, is treated as a political means to an end or without much concern whether it destroys the world or not. If you substitute “telekinetic power” with “climate change”…

What 15 years ago when I first read this looked like kinetically paced science fiction seems closer and closer to the present. There is a lot of random gun violence in the street. Motorcycles didn’t make quite the comeback that Katsuhiro Otomo imagined, but the sense of warring extremist political factions doing their thing in front of a looming catastrophe resonates pretty hard in the US right now.

The central metaphor of the series is “the power”-the psychic abilities emerging in random individuals, parceled out in wildly varying levels. The power doesn’t seem to have a type except that it doesn’t emerge later than the age of 20. The physical development of the person with the power halts once they manifest the power, but they continue to age and wrinkle. The power is something latent in people that was then magnified/accelerated by government testing. The test subjects that didn’t die or become vegetables became powerful psychics who could do everything from destroying buildings to teleporting to seeing the future. Although it’s played very differently here, it isn’t that different from something like X-Men with the mutant powers. In some ways this could be read as one of the darkest superhero narratives ever done (with the acknowledgement that that probably wasn’t Otomo’s intention.)

There’s no guarantee that person’s gifted with awesome powers will use them for the public good and in practice most don’t. It doesn’t take a lot of bad apples to make for serious problems in this case.

There are some interesting omissions in this book-we never see anyone’s parents or hear about any parents besides a throwaway line Kei says to Kaneda early in the book when he comes onto her-“I could never look my dear mother in the eye again if I did.” The only two people in the book who are actually related are Kay and her aunt Chiyoko. In all 2000+ pages, we get maybe 10 total pages of flashbacks; while the teenagers in the story have no parents, they have inherited the problems created by their elders; they nonetheless always look forwards. They default to praxis. There is very little overt discussion of ideology. The famous motorcycles (which in the manga only show up in 2/6ths of the story) were meant to evoke images of the Japanese youth protest movement that emerged after WWII, the same movement portrayed in Nagisa Oshima’s Night And Fog In Japan. That’s about as close to an explicit political parallel or source in the text beyond the clear evocation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the two page spreads of enormous dome shaped explosions at multiple points in the text.

What we get instead of the verbose philosophizing of a Ghost In The Shell is an ideology described in the terms of the actions of the characters; they see situations and respond to them according to their loose prerogatives or because it’s a vision they think is their destiny. This collection of motives makes them more fluid-they feel fleshed out because every element of their visual presence from their body language to their clothing to their surroundings are carefully considered and realized. His designs are striking. He lets those do a lot of the heavy lifting-compared to US comics, there are effectively no strictly narrative captions, few captions period, and exposition is kept to a bare minimum in favor of fast paced relentless forward motion.

The world of Akira is what I would call the hyper-Anthropocene. The only nature we see is the water surrounding the island of Tokyo. There are no trees or flowers or really…plants at all in this book. The only food specifically named is “synthetic fish”. We are often shown skyscrapers either lit up or contorted into rubble; people who like photos of liminal spaces should find plenty to love in Akira. This ensures that the technological destruction that riddles this text happens in the face of a man-made and man-destroyed environment. In some sense Tetsuo’s god-like powers to mold and destroy his environment with no real boundaries until his power to do so ultimately consumes him is humanity in the Anthropocene.

Since I put the spoiler warning, let’s go really hard on that and go directly to the end. This is a book that, while it’s rarely discussed, has 2 endings. To explain this, let’s go into the publication history of Akira. Akira first showed up in Young Magazine #24, released in 1983. The very first release of the manga was put out in chapters around 20 pages in length in Young Magazine in another 119 issues, making for 120 episodes total in the original publication. The serial ended in 1990. From 1989-1996 it was flipped, translated, and digitally colored by Steve Oliff for release in the US by Marvel, split over 38 issues instead the 120 of Young or the 6 volume split used in all subsequent releases. It is still being reissued in multiple languages up to the present day.

The ending in most collected forms of Akira is a 20 page epilogue following Akira’s absorbing Tetsuo inside of himself. In the Marvel version, this is issue 38. Foreign governments show up to Neo-Tokyo to render aid and the surviving members of the cast tell them off, and falsely imply Akira is still alive in order to maintain their sovereignty. The last page is a 2 page spread of giant buildings and the survivors riding motorcycles into the distance. It’s not a terrible ending, but in my mind I feel like the original ending is a more effective point to leave off. The 120th and final installment that was published in Young Magazine is usually collected as the 2nd to last chapter, issue 37 in the Marvel version. This ending leaves us on a splash page with no dialogue. Here are the original last two pages that were printed in Young Magazine (not scanned from a Young Magazine because I am not rich):

And here’s the actual last page in the Dark Horse edition:

I much prefer the first image. It leaves the future in the literal foreground; suddenly, finally freed of the threat of the psychokinetic children, Kei and Kaneda survey the ruins. It should also be noted that most of the series takes place at night or in dark indoor spaces-the colorized version’s one weakness is that sometimes the coloring is too dark and it obscures Otomo’s line work. The sun coming out finally and seeing the wreckage we’ve seen so often in darkness in the light of a beautiful day gets the point across succinctly and beautifully-the future is for the youth and theirs, if they should be so lucky as to snatch it from the hands of the mistakes of their elders. The epilogue chapter does a somewhat sloppy job of underlining that point. We don’t need to see the buildings reconstructed, or Tetsuo and Yamagata’s ghost heads above them as they ride off on motorcycles. In the original ending, their destiny is entirely, or at least as much as it ever has been, in their hands, not even influenced by the machinations of the author.

So the surviving Neo Tokyo residents, mostly the younger ones, get to write their own version of their environment, if only in the limited area of Neo-Tokyo, now renamed “The Great Akira Empire”. They reenact the Anthropocene in their own image. We are asked to hope that this society will turn out better.

My Second Twitter Ban

It was of course inevitable. Getting banned from Twitter is one of the few certainties in life. But this time it was for attacking the followers of George W. Bush.

My guess as to what happened.

A short time before my account was suspended Glenn Greenwald retweeted one of my tweets criticizing the hypocrisy of the media for asking Russian athletes to condemn Vladimir Putin when there were no such requirement in the 2000s to condemn George W. Bush after the invasion of Iraq.

Basically I was collateral damage.

My account was suddenly high profile and I was mass reported by Greenwald’s haters and banned for two weeks for a sarcastic comment I made about Bush supporters using the absurd cliché “freedom isn’t free.” So essentially I was banned for hate speech against Iraqis for attacking George W. Bush.

Since there was no guarantee my account would ever be restored I just deleted it so as not to have so much stray content floating around.