Category Archives: Journalism

Home to roost: I Am Not Your Negro ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 4, 2017)

https://i2.wp.com/queerty-prodweb.s3.amazonaws.com/content/docs/2016/12/05155255/57bf01c7170000aa0fc7566d.jpg?w=474

Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.

– James Baldwin, from The Fire Next Time (1963)

Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the — and we have some good ones. […]I am very proud now that we have a museum on the National Mall where people can learn about Reverend King, so many other things. Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed.

– President Trump, from his Black History Month speech, 2017

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed

– Frederick Douglass (born ca. 1818, died 1895)

While he hasn’t been dead as long as Frederick Douglass has, I have a feeling that the late James Baldwin, who is the subject of Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro will also be “recognized more and more” (you’ll notice). Specifically, anyone with half a brain who watches the film will recognize not only the beauty of Baldwin’s prose, but the prescience of his thoughts.

Both are on full display throughout Peck’s timely treatise on race relations in America, in which he mixes archival news footage involving the Civil Rights Movement, movie clips, and excerpts from Baldwin’s TV appearances with voice-over narration by an uncharacteristically subdued Samuel L. Jackson, who reads excerpts from Baldwin’s unfinished book, Remember This House.

Baldwin’s book (which he began working on in 1979) was to be a statement on the black experience, parsed through the lives (and untimely deaths) of Civil Rights icons Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Given Baldwin’s literary chops, and the fact he was personal friends with all three, and that each of these extraordinary individuals was working toward the same end but through different means, one can envision a classic in the making.

But alas, it was not to be. By the time of his death in 1987, Baldwin had completed only 30 pages. So the director has essentially set out to “complete” Remember This House (or at construct a viable facsimile), filling in the cracks with Baldwin’s own voice (via the TV interviews).

While occasionally arrhythmic to the film’s flow, Peck is largely on the money whenever he interjects contemporary images that connect the dots with the Black Lives Matter movement. Baldwin’s sharp sociopolitical observances have no expiration date, and speak for themselves. This is particularly evident in the television clips, where Baldwin (whose persona is an amalgam of Mark Twain and Lenny Bruce) always seems light years ahead of the hosts and fellow guests.

Peck also gets a lot of mileage (and truckloads of irony) from a wealth of TV and print advertising images that speak volumes as to how African-Americans have been viewed by our society over the decades. In this respect, Peck’s documentary recalls The Atomic Café; particularly when he digs up a 1950s corporate film with a rather unfortunate title (“Selling the Negro”) that offers up handy tips to marketers who want to reach African-American consumers.

Most fascinating to me are Baldwin’s deconstructions on traditionally lauded race-relation themed films like The Defiant Ones (1958) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He posits that, no matter how well-meant these and similar films were, at the end of the day they were produced by white liberals, to be exclusively consumed by other white liberals, who could then pat themselves on the back for buying a ticket (unless I was reading him wrong). Even more provocatively, he sees little difference between them and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927).

Now that I think about it, Baldwin himself remains a bit of a cypher as credits roll, so it may have been unintentional misdirection to state at the top of my review that the author himself is the “subject”, particularly if you’re expecting a straight-ahead biography. Neither is it another retread “about” the Civil Rights Movement, although its history is woven throughout. It’s worth noting that Baldwin was not an active participant in the literal sense (which he admits in some excerpts), yet he was wholly present as an observer, chronicler and deeply insightful social commentator.

And indeed it is these insights and observations that stay with you after the lights come up. In a way it makes me sad that so many of Baldwin’s statements remain applicable to our current political climate, because it serves to remind that while we have made “some” progress in healing the racial divide since the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., the all-too-easy and all-too-recent triumph of Trumpism indicates that the fear and ignorance that fed the ugliness of “those days” never really went away. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Any news that fits: Criterion reissues The Front Page *** & His Girl Friday ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo January 28, 2017)

https://i1.wp.com/static1.squarespace.com/static/4fd35f74e4b0ad380c071b90/t/500a1ecee4b016a023c0433d/1342840531117/his_girl_friday_3.png?w=474&ssl=1

Travel back with me now to the halcyon days of the chain-smoking star reporter…a time when men were men (and cracked wise) women were women (and cracked wiser), and fake news was but a colorfully enhanced version of the truth (as opposed to “alternative facts”). Actually, this particular version of “reality” existed largely within the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters

https://i0.wp.com/images.popmatters.com/misc_art/f/front-page-650.jpg?w=474

The granddaddy of the genre is Lewis Milestone’s 1931 screen adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 Broadway hit, The Front Page. As Michael Sragow notes in his essay, included with Criterion’s Blu-ray reissue of the film and its 1940 remake, His Girl Friday:

[The Front Page] became famous, sometimes infamous, for its frankness about sleazy backroom politics and reckless, sensationalistic newspapers, and for its suggestive patter and profanity. It brought a crackling comic awareness of American corruption into popular culture, and it made rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue fashionable…

What did he say? “Profanity” in an American film from 1931? Well, this was “pre-Code” Hollywood, which is demarcated by the implementation of the 1930 Hays Code. Not strictly enforced by the major production studios until 1934, the Code set fairly strict guidelines on “morality” and message in films until it finally fizzed in 1968 (don’t laugh…could happen again).

That said, The Front Page feels a bit creaky and tame by today’s standards, and its “rapid fire” dialog is like slow-motion compared to the machine-gun patter of the 1940 revamp (more on that in a moment). Still, its historical value is inarguable, making it a most welcome “bonus” feature.

Bartlett Cormack adapted the screenplay from Hecht and MacArthur’s play, with “additional dialogue” by Charles Lederer (who was later re-deployed to adapt the same source material into His Girl Friday). Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, and Edward Everett Horton lead the fine cast.

O’Brien plays veteran reporter Hildy Johnson, on his last day at a Chicago tabloid. Much to the chagrin of his boss (and long-time friend) Walter Burns (Menjou), he has given notice and is about to head off to marry his sweetheart Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) and start a new career as a New York ad man. However, fate and circumstance intervene when an irresistible “exclusive” falls into Hildy’s lap regarding the imminent jailhouse execution of an anarchist, whose sentencing may not have been determined so much in the interest of jurisprudence as it was to benefit city officials up for re-election (political corruption in Chicago-how’d they get that idea?).

Criterion touts this particular restoration of The Front Page to be the closest approximation to date of the director’s “optimum cut”. It turns out that the version we’ve been seeing on TV, home video and at revivals all these years (along with the copy stored at the Library of Congress) was the so-called “foreign” version. In the early 30s, it apparently was not uncommon to shoot three different negatives; one destined for domestic audiences, and one each for British and “general foreign” distribution (I’ll admit I was previously unaware of this practice). As Sragow elaborates:

Cast and crew invariably saved their best efforts for the American version: the freshest, bounciest performances, the sharpest or most fluid camera work and staging, the keenest beats and cadences. For the other versions, filmmakers often rewrote scenes, substituting language and references that would be easier to grasp in other parts of the world. […] In 2014, the Academy set out to restore The Front Page from a 35 mm print that had been part of the Howard Hughes film collection at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. […] What’s most elating about Milestone’s preferred cut is not merely the restitution of more authentic language but the reclamation of more vibrant rhythms and images.

What he said-although again, I find the film a tad creaky. Still, kudos to Criterion for including it.

https://i2.wp.com/www.rozrussell.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/His-Girl-Friday.jpg?w=474

There’s nothing “creaky” about Howard Hawks’ perennially fresh and funny newsroom comedy His Girl Friday, which is of course the “main feature” of this Criterion Blu-ray reissue package. Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht (uncredited) adapted the screenplay from the same Hecht and MacArthur stage version of The Front Page, but added some significant twists: pulling a gender switch on two of the primary characters, and modifying the backstory of a personal relationship.

Hildy remains a veteran reporter, but here is a female character (Rosalind Russell) who quits her job at a New York City paper, disappears for several months, then pops by the newsroom one day with a hot tip for ex-boss/ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant)-she’s off to Albany to marry and settle down with her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). As in The Front Page, Walter hates the idea of losing his star reporter (in this case for personal, as well as professional reasons).

In his heart of hearts, Walter (who freely admits that he wasn’t the best of husbands) doesn’t quite buy the idea that Hildy, a highly competitive, hard-boiled adrenaline junkie who enjoys nothing more than the challenge of getting the scoop on a hot story, has suddenly decided that settling down in Albany with a milquetoast insurance salesman is the life that she would prefer to lead. And so he sets about scheming to win her back. At this point, the narrative converges with The Front Page, vis a vis the subplot involving the condemned anarchist and the corrupt politicians.

What ensues is one of the most wonderfully played and rapidly-paced mashups of screwball comedy, romantic comedy, crime drama and social satire ever concocted this side of The Thin Man. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that director Howard Hawks already had two bonafide classic screwball comedies (Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby) under his belt.

Something to observe in repeat viewings is how Hawks masterfully frames all his shots; specifically how he choreographs the background action. The natural tendency is to focus on the overlapping repartee (delivered with such deftness and tight, precise pentameter that you could sync a metronome to it), but keep an eye out for sly sight gags that are easy to miss if you blink.

Something interesting that stood out upon my most recent viewing was the nascent feminism of the piece. For a film of its time, it is unusual enough to see such a strong and self-assured female character, much less one so matter-of-factually presented as being on equal footing with her male peers as Hildy. Her fellow reporters look up to her because they all acknowledge her as their best and brightest. That she happens to be a woman, is merely incidental. In this respect, I think of Russell’s inspired portrayal of Hildy as the prototype for future TV characters Mary Richards and Murphy Brown; I also see a lot of “her” in Holly Hunter’s memorable turn in Broadcast News.

Criterion’s hi-def transfer is stunning; I’ve never seen this film looking so good. The audio track (crucial in such a dialog-driven piece) is clean and crystal-clear (ditto for The Front Page, which was treated to a 4k transfer, in addition to its new restoration). Extras include an insightful new interview with film scholar David Bordwell about His Girl Friday, archival interviews with Howard Hawks, a new piece about writer Ben Hecht, radio adaptations of both films, and written essays about each film, presented as a faux-newspaper (a la Thick as a Brick…little reference for you Jethro Tull fans). The year is still young, but this is the best reissue of 2017 at this juncture.

Mr. Robot goes to Washington: Snowden ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 25, 2016)

https://i1.wp.com/pbs.twimg.com/media/CsQfqYzWcAEu3SE.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”  

       -from “1984”, by George Orwell

Reality can be a tough act to follow. As I noted in my 2008 review of the biopic, W:

No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once audiences view his highly anticipated film concerning the life and times of George W. Bush, I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish.

If the Bush administration had never really happened, and this was a completely fictional creation, I would be describing Stone’s film by throwing out one-sheet ready superlatives […] But you see, when it comes to the life and legacy of one George W. Bush and the Strangelovian nightmare that he and his cohorts have plunged this once great nation into for the last eight years, all you have to do is tell the truth…and pass the popcorn.

Such is the conundrum for Snowden, writer-director Oliver Stone’s new biopic about Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency subcontractor who ignited an international political firestorm (and became a wanted fugitive) when he leaked top secret information to The Guardian back in 2013 regarding certain NSA surveillance practices.

The “tough act of follow” is Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning 2014 documentary, Citizenfour. In 2013, Snowden invited Poitras, along with Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, for a meet at the Hong Kong hotel he was holed up in. This was the culmination of months of email exchanges between Snowden (sending encrypted text under the pseudonym of “Citizenfour”) and Poitras. Poitras found herself in the unique position of being a (circumstantial) “co-conspirator” in the story she was filming. The result was a gripping documentary that played like a paranoia-fueled thriller.

Now we have Oliver Stone, a filmmaker often accused by detractors of infusing his own politically charged, paranoia-fueled conspiracy theories into historical dramas like JFK and Nixon, diving head first into one of the most polarizing public debates of recent years: is Edward Snowden a hero…or a traitor? It seems to be a marriage made in heaven. Surely, this should be a perfect impetus for the return of that fearless, rabble-rousing Oliver Stone of old…speaking truth to power through his art, consequences be damned.

This is actually a surprisingly restrained dramatization by Stone, which is not to say it is a weak one. In fact, quite the contrary-this time out, Stone had no need to take a magical trip to the wrong side of the wardrobe. That’s because the Orwellian machinations (casually conducted on a daily basis by our government) that came to light after Snowden lifted up the rock are beyond even the most feverish imaginings of the tin foil hat society.

In other words, you couldn’t make this shit up, either.

After opening with a cloak-and-dagger vignette set in 2013 on the streets of Hong Kong, Stone flashes back to 2004, where we see a younger, gung-ho Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) humping it through a grueling Special Forces training course. His Army reservist career is cut short after he breaks both legs in an accident. A few years later, still determined to serve his country, he finds a more ideal fit working at the CIA, where his (apparently) sharp computer hacking skills land him a position as an info tech. Stone follows Snowden’s various job relocations, from D.C. to Japan; eventually ending up at the NSA subcontracting firm Booz Allen in Hawaii (where he famously “did the deed”).

Stone alternates between the personal bio, which includes Snowden’s longtime relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and the increasingly furtive interview sessions with Snowden in the Hong Kong hotel room in 2013 by Guardian journalists Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), while Poitras (Melissa Leo) dutifully continues filming. Gordon-Levitt uncannily captures Snowden’s vibe; although by the time credits roll, he remains a cypher. Then again, Snowden has said, “This really isn’t about me […] It’s about our right to dissent.”

Stylistically, the film felt to me like a throwback to cerebral cold war thrillers from the 1960s like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Defector, Funeral in Berlin, and The Deadly Affair. This may not be by accident; because one of the core themes of the screenplay (adapted by Stone with Kieran Fitzgerald from Luke Harding’s The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, and Anatoly Kucherena’s Time of the Octopus) is that we are, in fact, in the midst of a new “cold war”…in cyberspace.

As Snowden’s (fictional) mentor “Corbin O’Brien” (one of the more interesting creations in the film, especially as played by a scene-stealing Rhys Ifans) tells him, “The new battlefield is everywhere.” True that. It’s happening every day, all around us. It used to be a novelty, but it seems like my bank is issuing me a new credit card about every 6 months anymore, due to some nebulous “security breach”. Or how about the “DC Leaks” story…hacktivists with alleged Russian ties breaking into White House accounts at will?

But the question becomes, of course, how much of our privacy should we, as tax-paying citizens, be willing to sacrifice in the name of national security? As Greg Lake once sang:

Knowledge is a deadly friend, if no one sets the  rules                                      The fate of all mankind, I see, is in the hands of fools 

Luckily, we have filmmakers like Stone and Poitras, journalists like Greenwald and MacAskill, and whistle blowers like Edward Snowden, who do not suffer such fools gladly. Big Brother is watching us, but now we feel emboldened to ask: What are you lookin’ at?

SIFF 2016: If There’s A Hell Below **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

https://i2.wp.com/3.bp.blogspot.com/-Dag-VgnH2d0/VzeKBhH45zI/AAAAAAAAiDY/QwxZ6AaHi7oyoPgFUyqQmiTcZIPce43zACLcB/s1600/unnamed.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

For the first two thirds of this conspiracy thriller, which concerns a clandestine meeting between a journalist and a government whistle-blower, writer-director Nathan Williams masterfully utilizes the desolate moonscape of Eastern Washington to create an almost unbearable sense of tension and dread (a la Spielberg’s Duel, or the crop dusting sequence in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest). Unfortunately, he jinxes his streak with a lazily constructed third act. Still, it’s an audacious debut that portends considerable promise for any future endeavors…which I am looking forward to.

This country is going to pot: Rolling Papers **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on  February 20, 2016)

https://i2.wp.com/www.thecannabist.co/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Jake-Browne1-800x450.jpg?resize=474%2C267

It must have looked great on paper. A timely documentary about the legal pot boom in Colorado, parsed via a cinema verite “ride along” with Ricardo Baca, the country’s first journalist to be hired by a major media outlet (The Denver Post) as a “marijuana editor” (with a nod, one hopes, to the stalwart pioneers at High Times). The filmmakers saw an opportunity to not only see how this burgeoning industry is shaping up, but to get an insider’s view of the alarmingly ever-shrinking universe of traditional print journalism.

Unfortunately, however, Mitch Dickman’s Rolling Papers falls somewhat flat on both fronts. The day-to-day workings of a daily rag have been done to death, and we get little more here than the standard by-the-numbers travails; deadlines, staff meetings, etc. While Baca has a unique gig, and appears to be a dedicated professional, as a film subject he lacks the charisma of say, (for the sake of argument) a David Carr, whose colorful personality helped bolster the 2011 documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times.

 The film manages to generate a tad more interest on the weed milieu (if not necessarily offering anything new and/or revelatory; especially to anyone who has already cared enough to follow the issue over the years). It’s kind of fun (at first) following a couple of Baca’s “reviewers at large” around as they visit shops, sample the wares and then make valiant attempts to attack the keyboard while still under the influence (it quickly becomes apparent as to why Baca himself does not partake…someone has to stay straight and be the managing editor, if you know what I’m saying). It was a nice try, but only half-baked.

The Death Hour: How Hollywood tried to warn us

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 29, 2015)

https://i2.wp.com/reflectionsonfilm.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/3140487991_f773617b1a.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

I love it. Suicides, assassinations, mad bombers, Mafia hitmen, automobile smash-ups: “The Death Hour”. A great Sunday night show for the whole family.

-from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

There is an oft-repeated lament that Hollywood and/or television has “run out of original ideas”. Which is (mostly) true, but not necessarily indicative of a dearth of talent or creativity in the business. The blame for this particular writer’s block, I believe, can be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of…Reality. Short of plundering Middle Earth or the comic book universe for ideas, it’s getting harder to dream up a scenario as “outlandish” as, say, having to undergo a security check before taking your seat at a movie theater, or as “unthinkable” as switching on the local TV news and witnessing the horror of what happened to the 2 WDBJ reporters and the interviewee while live on air last Wednesday.

You’re television incarnate, Diana. Indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer.

-from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

While just as horrified and empathetic as anyone in their right mind should be when the WDBY story broke, I’m sad to report that I wasn’t necessarily surprised. It was only a matter of time. The on-camera assassination of two TV reporters filing an innocuous story about a mall seemed a relatively tiny jump from the random murders of two theater patrons in Lafayette earlier this month…who likely assumed they weren’t risking violent death by seeking out 2 hours of escapism at the matinee showing of a romantic comedy.

The common denominator of both incidents was all-too-familiar: An extremely disturbed individual with a legally purchased firearm, which they never should have been permitted to own in the first place. But who am I to judge, because, you know…Freedom. And Tyranny. And The Constitution. Never mind that in early August, Amy Schumer (star of the film that the Lafayette victims went to see) and now this week, Andy Parker (father of slain TV reporter Alison Parker) have both made public vows to crusade for stricter gun control. As Mr. Parker was quoted, from an article in the August 27 New York Times:

“I’m for the Second Amendment,” he said on CNN Thursday morning, “but there has to be a way to force politicians who are cowards in the pockets of the N.R.A. to make sure crazy people can’t get guns.” Citing previous killings by people with mental illnesses, Mr. Parker asked, “How many Alisons will it take?”

https://i2.wp.com/images.popmatters.com/film_art/m/macfarlane-p2-splsh.jpg?w=474

What is uncommon about this latest tragedy, is that the alleged perpetrator himself was a former TV reporter, adding a chilling layer of irony to the already complex pathology in this case (note all the networks have taken pains to run that file clip of him reporting from a gun shop). This brings to mind a scene from Billy Wilder’s 1951 noir, Ace in the Hole:

 

Charles Tatum: What’s that big story to get me outta here? […] I’m stuck here, fans. Stuck for good. Unless you, Miss Deverich, instead of writing household hints about how to remove chili stains from blue jeans, get yourself involved in a trunk murder. How about it, Miss Deverich? I could do wonders with your dismembered body.

Miss Deverich: Oh, Mr. Tatum. Really!

Charles Tatum: Or you, Mr. Wendell-if you’d only toss that cigar out the window. Real far…all the way to Los Alamos. And BOOM! (He chuckles) Now there would be a story.

 

Tatum (played to the hilt by Kirk Douglas) is a cynical big city newspaper reporter who drifts into a small New Mexico burg after burning one too many bridges with his former employers at a New York City daily. Determined to weasel his way back to the top (by any means necessary, as it turns out), he bullies his way into a gig with a local rag, where he impatiently awaits The Big Story that will rocket him back to the metropolitan beat. Of course, he’s being sarcastic when he exhorts his co-workers in the sleepy hick town newsroom to get out there and make some news for him to capitalize on. But the ultimate irony in Wilder’s screenplay (co-written by Lesser Samuels and Walter Newman) is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy for Tatum; in his Machiavellian attempt to purloin and manipulate the scenario of a man trapped in a cave-in into a star-making “exclusive” for himself, it’s Tatum who becomes The Big Story (and not in the manner he intended).

Could it be that the Virginia shooter was using a similar kind of pretzel logic? Was he surmising that if he couldn’t achieve the notoriety he craved as someone who reports the news, perhaps he’d have better luck by simply grabbing a gun and creating some headlines himself? Was he really that hungry for attention? The fact that his refrigerator door was papered with photos of himself could be a clue that at the very least, we are dealing with a case of narcissistic personality disorder. It’s only a theory, but there’s a film that eerily presages that scenario, Gus Van Sant’s 1995 mockumentary, To Die For.

The film centers on an ambitious young woman (Nicole Kidman, in one of her best performances) who aspires to elevate herself from “weather girl” at a small market TV station in New England to star news anchor, posthaste. A calculating sociopath from the word go, she marries into a wealthy family, but decides to discard her husband (Matt Dillon) the nanosecond he asks her to consider putting her career on hold so they can start a family (discard…with extreme prejudice). Buck Henry based his screenplay on Joyce Maynard’s true crime book about the Pamela Smart case (the most obvious difference being that Smart was a teacher and not an aspiring media star, although it could be argued that during the course of her highly publicized murder trial, she did in fact become one).

There is an even darker, uber-macabre element about the Virginia shooter’s twisted act that, while it boggles the imagination, also has precedent in narrative films. Apparently not satisfied with orchestrating the murder of his victims to full effect in front of a live TV camera, he filmed his own POV version of what the viewers at home saw (it’s almost like he was directing a film, envisioning the different camera angles of the same event). It gets worse. He then proudly posted said video on his Facebook page for the world to see.

That was once only the stuff of horror movies, like Michael Powell’s 1960 thriller, Peeping Tom. The story profiles an insular, socially awkward member of a film crew (Carl Boehm) who works as a technician at a movie studio by day, and moonlights as a soft-core pin-up photographer. He’s also surreptitiously working on his own independent film, which goes hand-in-glove with another hobby: he’s a serial killer who gets his jollies capturing POV footage of his victim’s final agonizing moments. It’s truly creepy; a Freudian nightmare. Powell, one-half of the revered British film making team known as The Archers (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) nearly destroyed his career with this one, which, due to its “shocking” nature, was largely shunned by audiences and critics at the time (thanks to Martin Scorsese, the film enjoyed a revival decades later and is now considered to be a genre classic on a par with Psycho).

Several subsequent films can be viewed as direct descendants of Peeping Tom; most notably Manhunter (1986), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), and perhaps more tangentially, Man Bites Dog (1992) and Natural Born Killers (1994). Like the main character in Peeping Tom, the psycho killer in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (Tom Noonan) also has a day job that involves film; in this case he works in a film processing lab, which gives him access to the private home movies from which he chooses his victims. John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer follows the killing spree of the eponymous character (Michael Rooker) and his partner (Tom Towles). In a particularly chilling scene, McNaughton switches to shaky handheld POV shots of a video gleefully shot by Henry’s partner as they torture and murder their hapless victims.

I feel like I need a shower. If you want a 7th inning stretch…here’s a nice soothing image:

https://i1.wp.com/s1.favim.com/orig/15/beauty-meditation-nature-water-waterfall-Favim.com-185652.jpg?w=474

(Deep breath) Both Belgian directing trio Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde’s Man Bites Dog and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers are sly send ups of the Spree Killer as Media Celebrity conflation. While I wouldn’t consider either film a “ha-ha funny” comedy, they both harbor a chewy nougat center of dark satire beneath a candy coating of Grand Guignol. Man Bites Dog (arguably the most upsetting viewing experience of all the films discussed in this essay) takes the mockumentary approach, with a film crew “documenting” the murderous exploits of the protagonist (played by co-director/writer Poelvoorde). Initially, the film crew is objective, but cross the line into becoming criminal accessories. Stone’s film, weirdly enough, actually features a “live on camera” killing of a journalist who has been tagging along with the murderous tag team (like Tatum in Ace in the Hole, he will use any means necessary to snag an “exclusive”).

There are several more satirical films of note containing over-the-top scenarios that reality has sadly caught up with, beginning with Woody Allen’s 1971 comedy Bananas. The specific scene that comes to mind in the wake of the Virginia incident involves Howard Cosell (playing himself) doing live TV coverage of a political assassination, as if it were a sporting event. Then there is Paul Bartel’s 1975 cult classic, Death Race 2000, depicting a dystopian America where public murder literally has become a popular televised sporting event, in which competing race drivers earn points for each luckless pedestrian they can run over and kill.

The most recent film in this vein is from an artist who specializes in pushing people’s buttons, so be warned that many viewers will undoubtedly find stand-up comic-turned auteur Bob Goldthwait’s 2012 tragicomedy God Bless America incredibly offensive. His disenfranchised antihero Frank (Joel Murray) is like Ignatius J. Reilly, railing against all who offend his sense of taste and decency (but armed with an AK-47). Already stewing over his ex-wife’s impending marriage, his little daughter’s detachment, his inconsiderate neighbors and his observation that most of his co-workers are obsessed with reality TV, Frank is pushed over the edge when he loses his job and is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Frank’s first target is an obnoxious reality TV star, but his hit list expands to include wing nut pundits, Teabaggers, and the worst of the worst: people who yak on their cell phones in theaters and Yuppies who deliberately take up two parking spaces. On one level, it’s all quite appalling, but in light of recent events, it merely reflects our society.

This now brings us full circle to the most prescient film of them all, Sidney Lumet’s Network. In Lumet’s 1976 satire, written by the late great Paddy Chayefsky, respected news anchor Howard Beale has a complete mental meltdown on air, announcing his plan to commit public suicide, on camera, in an upcoming newscast. When the following evening’s newscast attracts an unprecedented number of viewers, some of the more unscrupulous programmers and marketers at the network smell a potential cash cow, and decide to let Beale rant away in front of the cameras to his heart’s content, reinventing him as a “mad prophet of the airwaves” and giving him a nightly prime time slot. Eventually, some of the “truthiness” in his nightly “news sermons” hits a little too close to home regarding some secret business dealings that the network has with some Arab investors, and it is decided that his program needs to be cancelled (with extreme prejudice). And besides, his ratings are slipping. So the network hires a team of hit men to assassinate him, “live” on the air.

Unfortunately, as has dogged me in previous such exercises, I come to the end of this study with no solid conclusion, no pat answers. Perhaps senseless is as senseless does. Some people are just bad machines. If we could just keep them away from the guns…that would be a good start. Otherwise, I’ve got nuthin’…except an urge to echo Andy Parker:

How many Alisons will it take?

SIFF 2015: Challat of Tunis ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

https://i0.wp.com/pmcvariety.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/challat.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

While this qualifies as a “mockumentary”, there’s nothing “ha-ha” funny about it. That is, unless you consider sexual violence an amusing subject… which it decidedly is not, although (sadly) it is a global scourge that knows no borders. This is precisely the point that writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania is (bravely) making in her film, which is a scathing feminist sendup of the systemic sexism that permeates not only her native Tunisia, but Arab culture (and the Earth). The “Challat” refers to a motorbike-borne, self-anointed crusader who slashes the buttocks of women who dress “immodestly”. As the film opens, a decade has passed since this twisted customer has victimized anyone. An investigative journalist (played by the director) is trying to track him down, so she can get inside his head to see what makes such an odious individual tick. A young man comes forth, who may or may not be the elusive “Challat”. She calls his bluff, and things get interesting. Thought-provoking, yet also disheartening when you contemplate the distressing universality of the misogynist credo: “She was asking for it.”

SIFF 2015: Cartoonists: Foot Soldiers of Democracy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 23, 2015)

https://i2.wp.com/www.siff.net/assets/Images/festival/2015/films/C/CartoonistsFootSoldiersofDemocracy.jpg?w=474

French filmmaker Stephanie Valloatto’s globetrotting documentary profiles a dozen men and women who make their living drawing funny pictures about current events. I know what you’re thinking…beats digging ditches, right? Well, that depends. Some of these political cartoonists ply their trade under regimes that could be digging a “special” ditch, reserved just for them (if you know what I’m saying). The film can be confusing; in her attempt to give all 12 subjects equal face time, Valloatto’s frequent cross-cutting can make you lose track of which country you’re in (it’s mostly interior shots). That aside, she gets to the heart of what democracy is all about: speaking truth to power. It’s also timely; in one scene, an interviewee says, “Like a schoolchild, I told myself: I shouldn’t draw Muhammad.” Then, holding up a sketch of you-know-who, he concludes: “Drawing is the correct answer to the forbidden.”

Capitol offense: Kill the Messenger ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 11, 2014)

https://i1.wp.com/iwatchstuff.com/2014/05/29/kill-the-messenger-trailer.jpg?w=474

‘Member back in the ’80s, when the CIA was in league with the crack cocaine trade, and they were all like, funneling the drug profit to the Nicaraguan Contras?

(*sigh*) Ah, the Reagan era. Morning in America…mourning in Central America.

Good times.

All you have to do is tell the truth, and nobody will believe you. That’s what happened to San Jose Mercury investigative journalist Gary Webb, who published a series of articles in 1996 that blew the lid off of this “dark alliance”. I’m ashamed to admit that while I remember hearing something about it, I somehow got the impression (at the time) that it was an urban legend; the kind of thing that the SNL sketch character “Drunk Uncle” might blurt out at the dinner table while everyone snickers or hides their head in embarrassment. “Hey everybody…I heard that the CIA was responsible for the crack cocaine epidemic in the African-American community!”  Right, uncle.

Here’s the thing. The CIA actually did (sort of) cop to it, a few years after Webb’s newspaper expose. Normally, that would (should) have become a fairly major news story in and of itself. Unfortunately, the MSM was a little preoccupied at the time with a shinier object…the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Also by this time, Webb had lost his credibility, thanks to a concerted campaign by same aforementioned MSM to make Webb look like some nut yelling at traffic. Tragically, it “worked” too well; he became a pariah and ended up killing himself.

This largely forgotten debacle has been dramatized in a new film from Michael Cuesta called Kill the Messenger. Jeremy Renner delivers a terrific performance as the tenacious and impassioned Webb. We follow him on a journey that begins with a relatively innocuous tip from a player in the local drug trade, which leads to a perilous face-to-face meet with an imprisoned kingpin in Nicaragua (a great cameo from Andy Garcia) and eventually to the belly of the beast in D.C., where he’s implicitly advised by government spooks to cool his heels…or else. Naturally, this only makes him want to dig deeper. He hits pay dirt, and the exclusive story is published. His editors appear to have his back; that is, until the backlash begins.

The story about how Webb got “the story” is relegated to the first act; this was a wise choice by screenwriter Peter Landesman (who adapted from Nick Shou’s eponymous book and Webb’s Dark Alliance). While most of this political thriller’s “thrills” (and the snippets in the trailers) are derived from this first third of the film, that’s not the most crucial takeaway from Webb’s story. Granted, the actions of the CIA were bilious enough, but even more distressing is how eager the MSM was to sink their talons into a fellow journalist.

In this respect, Kill the Messenger parallels Oliver Stone’s JFK, in that both center on idealistic truth seekers (Jim Garrison and Gary Webb) who got crucified for their troubles…by the very parties who should be championing and joining them on their quest (now that I think about it, that’s human history in a nutshell). It’s interesting, I was listening to Democracy Now the other day while driving in to work, and Amy Goodman did a segment about Webb and his legacy. She was talking to investigative journalist Robert Parry, who observed:

“…there’s no question that this was one of the most important stories of the 1980s and really the 1990s, when you get to the end of this and the CIA confessing. But it’s also a story about the failure of the mainstream press that extends to the present, goes through the Iraq War, the failure to be skeptical there, and goes right on to the present day. So it’s not an old story; it’s very much a current story.”

All I can say is thank the gods for the likes of Amy Goodman, Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Vice News and others following in Webb’s footsteps. And for this movie, which is one of the first fall season releases that have any true substance.

SIFF 2014: Lucky Them ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 31, 2014)

https://i1.wp.com/2.bp.blogspot.com/-t6Rlm0r-VFo/U4pgKij03ZI/AAAAAAAAAkY/6nyD_dCuNAQ/s1600/lucky-them.jpg?w=474

This wry, bittersweet road movie/romantic comedy from Seattle-based director Megan Griffiths benefits greatly from the pairing of Toni Collette and Thomas Haden Church, playing a rock journalist and first-time documentarian (respectively). They team up to search for a celebrated local singer-songwriter who mysteriously disappeared. What they find may not be what they were initially seeking. It reminded me of the 1998 UK rock ‘n’ roll comedy Still Crazy. And for dessert, there’s a surprise cameo!