Category Archives: War

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 5, 2017)

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“The atomic bomb made the prospect of future war unendurable. It has led us up those last few steps to the mountain pass; and beyond there is a different country.”

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

Sunday marks the 72nd anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”.  So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al) Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free.

Yes, one can always hope. Yet…this happened earlier this week:

There will be war between the United States and North Korea over the rogue nation’s missile program if it continues to aim intercontinental ballistic missiles at America, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said President Donald Trump has told him.

“He has told me that. I believe him,” the lawmaker said Tuesday on TODAY. “If I were China, I would believe him, too, and do something about it.”

Graham said that Trump won’t allow the regime of Kim Jong Un to have an ICBM with a nuclear weapon capability to “hit America.”

“If there’s going to be a war to stop [Kim Jong Un], it will be over there. If thousands die, they’re going to die over there. They’re not going to die here. And He has told me that to my face,” Graham said. […]

Graham said military experts are “wrong” that no good options exist.

“There is a military option to destroy North Korea’s program and North Korea itself,” he added.

The senator’s not saying we won’t get our hair mussed, but hey…I feel safe. You?

Every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock (with midnight representing Armageddon). This past January, they moved the hands 30 seconds closer:

This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a US presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons. […]

It is [now] two and a half minutes to midnight. The board’s decision to move the clock less than a full minute—something it has never before done—reflects a simple reality: As this statement is issued, Donald Trump has been the US president only a matter of days.

I needn’t remind you that 6 months on, Donald J. Trump continues to be President of the United States. Like the scientists said: The clock ticks. Global danger looms. And the Master of 3am Tweets has those nuclear codes. With that happy thought in mind, here are my picks for the top 15 cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go).

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The Atomic Café- Whoopee, we’re all gonna die! But along the way, we might as well have a few laughs. That seems to be the impetus behind this 1982 collection of cleverly reassembled footage culled from U.S. government propaganda shorts from the Cold War era (Mk 1), originally designed to educate the public about how to “survive” a nuclear attack (all you need to do is get under a desk…everyone knows that!).

In addition to the Civil Defense campaigns (which include the classic “duck and cover” tutorials) the filmmakers have also drawn from a rich vein of military training films, which reduce the possible effects of a nuclear strike to something akin to a barrage from, oh I don’t know- a really big field howitzer. Harrowing, yet perversely entertaining. Written and directed by Jayne Loader, Pierce Rafferty and Kevin Rafferty (Kevin went on to co-direct the similarly constructed 1999 doc, The Last Cigarette, a take down of the tobacco industry).

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Others deal directly with survivors (known in Japan as hibakusha films).

One of the top hibakusha films is this overlooked 1989 drama from Shomei Imamura, a relatively simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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The Day after Trinity– This absorbing film about the Manhattan Project and its subsequent fallout (historical, political and existential) is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. At its center, it is a profile of project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer, whose moment of professional triumph (the successful test of the world’s first atomic bomb, three weeks before Hiroshima) also brought him an unnerving precognition about the horror that he and his fellow physicists had enabled the military machine to unleash.

Oppenheimer’s journey from “father of the atomic bomb” to anti-nuke activist (and having his life destroyed by the post-war Red hysteria) is a tragic tale of Shakespearean proportion. Two recommended companion pieces: Roland Joffe’s 1989 drama Fat Man and Little Boy, about the working relationship between Oppenheimer (Dwight Schultz) and military director of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves (Paul Newman); and an outstanding 1980 BBC miniseries called Oppenheimer (starring Sam Waterston).

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Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb- “Mein fuehrer! I can walk!” Although we have yet to experience the global thermonuclear annihilation that ensues following the wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove’s joyous (if short-lived) epiphany, so many other depictions in Stanley Kubrick’s seriocomic masterpiece about the tendency for those in power to eventually rise to their own level of incompetence have since come to pass, that you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered to make it all up.

It’s the one about an American military base commander who goes a little funny in the head (you know…”funny”) and sort of launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Hilarity and oblivion ensues. And what a cast: Peter Sellers (as three characters), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, James Earl Jones and Peter Bull. There are so many great quotes, that you might as well bracket the entire screenplay (by Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George) with quotation marks.

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Fail-SafeDr. Strangelove…without the laughs. This no-nonsense 1964 thriller from the late great director Sidney Lumet takes a more clinical look at how a wild card scenario (in this case, a simple hardware malfunction) could ultimately trigger a nuclear showdown between the Americans and the Russians.

Talky and a bit stagey; but riveting nonetheless thanks to Lumet’s skillful  knack for bringing out the best in his actors. Walter Bernstein’s intelligent screenplay (with uncredited assistance from Peter George, who also co-scripted Dr. Strangelove) and a superb cast that includes Henry Fonda (a commanding performance, literally and figuratively), Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, and Larry Hagman.

There’s no fighting in this war room (aside from one minor scuffle), but lots of suspense. The final scene is chilling and unforgettable.

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I Live in Fear-This 1955 Akira Kurosawa film is one of the great director’s most overlooked efforts. It’s a melodrama concerning an aging foundry owner (Toshiro Mifune, unrecognizable in Coke-bottle glasses and silver-frosted pomade) who literally “lives in fear” of the H-bomb. Convinced that South America would be the “safest” place on Earth from radioactive fallout, he tries to sway his wife and grown children to pull up stakes and resettle on a farm in Brazil.

His children, who have families of their own and rely on their father’s factory for income, are not so hot on that idea. In fact, they take him to family court and have him declared incompetent. This sends Mifune’s character spiraling into madness. Or are his fears really so “crazy”? It is one of Mifune’s most powerful and moving performances. Kurosawa instills shades of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” into the narrative (a well he drew from again 30 years later, in his 1985 film Ran).

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I only recently caught this 1963 sleeper for the first time, when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere airing several weeks ago (to my knowledge, it has never been available in a home video format), and it really knocked my socks off.  The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

Based on an incident that occurred during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, the story centers on how students and staff of a rural school react to a Civil Defense alert indicating an imminent nuclear strike. While there are indications that it could be a false alarm, the principal sends the children home early. As teachers and students stroll through the relatively peaceful countryside, fears and anxieties come to the fore. Naturalistic performances bring the film’s cautionary message all too close to home.

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Miracle Mile- Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a fairly reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way.

The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted, 90-minute sleeper offers more heart-pounding excitement (and much more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this 1988 gem (his only other feature was Cherry 2000).

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One Night Stand – An early effort from director John Duigan (Winter of Our Dreams, The Year My Voice Broke, Flirting, Sirens, etc.). This 1984 sleeper is a worthwhile entry amidst the flurry of nuclear paranoia-themed movies that proliferated throughout the Reagan era.

Four young people (three Australians and an American sailor who has jumped ship) get holed up in an otherwise empty Sydney Opera House on the eve of escalating nuclear tension between the superpowers in Eastern Europe. In a concerted effort to deflect their collective anxiety over increasingly ominous news bulletins droning on from the radio, they find creative ways to keep their spirits up.

The film is uneven at times, but for the most part Duigan capably juggles the busy mashup of romantic comedy, apocalyptic thriller and anti-war statement. There are several striking set pieces; particularly an eerily affecting scene where the quartet watch Fritz Langs’s Metropolis as the Easybeats hit “Friday on My Mind” is juxtaposed over its orchestral score. Midnight Oil performs in a scene where the two women attend a concert. The bittersweet denouement (in an underground tube station) is quite powerful.

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be lambasted by some readers for not including the former on this list, but I find it overly melodramatic and vastly overrated). Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), the drama is framed like an actual “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

A domestic terrorist group has seized a docked tugboat in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. A reporter relays their demand: If every nuclear triggering device stored at the nearby U.S. Naval base isn’t delivered to them by a specified time, they will detonate their own homemade nuclear device (equal in power to the bomb dropped on Nagasaki). The original airing apparently created a panic for some viewers in Charleston (a la Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938). Riveting and chilling. Nominated for 6 Emmys, it took home 4.

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theatres and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberate approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; this is a wise decision, as it puts the focus on the humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amidst such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it very difficult to shake off.

As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film… “Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

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Thirteen Days– I had a block against seeing this 2000 release about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, for several reasons. For one, director Roger Donaldson’s uneven output (for every Smash Palace or No Way Out, he’s got a Species or a Cocktail). I also couldn’t get past “Kevin Costner? In another movie about JFK?” Also, I felt the outstanding 1974 TV film, The Missiles of October would be hard to top. But I was pleasantly surprised to find it to be one of Donaldson’s better films.

Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp make a very credible JFK and RFK, respectively. The film works as a political thriller, yet it is also intimate and moving at times (especially in the scenes between JFK and RFK). Costner provides the “fly on the wall” perspective as Kennedy insider Kenny O’Donnell. Costner gives a compassionate performance; on the downside he has a tin ear for dialects (that Hahvad Yahd brogue comes and goes of its own free will).

According to the Internet Movie Database, this was the first film screened at the White House by George and Laura Bush in 2001. Knowing this now…I don’t know whether to laugh or cry myself to sleep.

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The War Game / Threads– Out of all of the selections on this list, these two British TV productions are the grimmest and most sobering “nuclear nightmare” films of them all.

Writer-director Peter Watkins’ 1965 docudrama, The War Game was initially produced for television, but was deemed too shocking and disconcerting for the small screen by the BBC. It was mothballed until picked up for theatrical distribution, which snagged it an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967. Watkins envisions the aftermath of a nuke attack on London, and pulls no punches. Very ahead of its time, and it still packs quite a wallop.

The similar Threads debuted on the BBC in 1984, later airing in the U.S. on TBS. Mick Jackson directs with an uncompromising realism that makes The Day After (the U.S. TV film from the previous year) look like a Teletubbies episode. The story takes a medium sized city (Sheffield) and depicts what would happen to its populace during and after a nuclear strike, in graphic detail. It’s stark and affecting.

Both  productions make it clear that, while they are dramatizations, the intent is not to “entertain” you in any sense of the word. The message is simple and direct-nothing good comes out of a nuclear conflict. It’s a living, breathing Hell for all concerned-and anyone “lucky” enough to survive will soon wish they were fucking dead.

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives. Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

SIFF 2017: God of War ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Hong Kong action maestro Gordon Chan’s war epic stars Sammo Hung as a general with an under-trained “people’s army” desperately trying to get the upper hand on a sizable coterie of seasoned Japanese pirates who have been wreaking havoc up and down the coast. Chan has his Japanese cast members speak in-language; it’s unique for a Chinese film, and enhances the verisimilitude. Sections of the story line get murky and confusing, but colorful, rousing (and frequent) battle scenes make up for occasional lulls.

SIFF 2017: Finding Kukan ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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The first documentary to win an Oscar was the 1941 film Kukan: The Battle Cry of China. There are two unfortunate footnotes. 1.) The film, a unique and historically important “front line” document of Japan’s 1937 invasion of China, has since all but vanished from the public eye. 2.) The female producer, Ling-Ai Li, was not credited. With two tantalizing mysteries to solve, film maker Robin Lung had her work cut out for her. The director’s 7-year quest yields two separate yet convergent narratives: a world-wide search for prints of Kukan for possible restoration, and the fascinating life of a previously unsung female film making pioneer. Lung nicely ties the threads together.

Child’s guide to war: A film troika

By Dennis Hartley

(I originally posted this over at Hullabaloo on September 14, 2013. I’m re-posting it with no revisions, because sadly, it’s relevant once more.)

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Have you heard the reasons why?

(Yeah, we’ve heard it all before)

But have you seen the nation cry?

(Yeah, we’ve seen it all before)

-From “War Weary World” by The Call

 (*sigh*) So the boys are rattling their sabers yet again, and America girds its collective loins for possible involvement in Syraqistan or wherever (different day, same old shit). So far, it’s a war of words, and I sincerely hope it stays that way (sticks and stones, and all that). Most disturbing to me about this whole affair is how that endlessly-looped footage of gassed children is being used as a war mongering tool by our own government and an ever-compliant MSM. Yes, it’s horrible beyond words and a reprehensible act by any standards, but I seem to recall a brief and shining moment in this country when such imagery was processed as deterrence to conflict and a call for diplomacy, rather than a base and puerile incitement for vengeance (are American bombs any more discriminate?).

But perhaps I’m the one being childish, what with my naive pacifist wishes and hippy-dippy poster dreams. It’s a complicated world, and I’m just a simple farmer. A person of the land. The common clay of the American West. You know…a moron. That’s why I’m just the movie guy around these parts. That being said, I believe there’s something that the following movies, or more specifically their young protagonists can teach us about such matters. And so I’m spotlighting three essential films that offer an immediate ground-level view of the effects of war, filtered through the eyes of innocents, uncluttered by any political machinations or jingoist agendas. Hey, feel free to invite your favorite war hawk over for dinner and a movie. Just make sure that they are taking notes:

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Grave of the Fireflies– For many years, the term ‘anime’ conjured up visions of saucer-eyed cartoon characters in colorful, action-packed fantasy-adventures (generally targeting younger audiences). However, sometime around the mid-80s, the paradigm shifted when Japanese production houses like Studio Ghibli began to find international success with more eclectic, character-driven fare. One particularly transcendent example is writer-director Isao Takahata’s 1988 drama, Grave of the Fireflies.

While it is animated, and its protagonists are children, it is not necessarily a children’s film; its unflinching approach and anti-war subtext puts it in a league with Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. The story (based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s novel) takes place in Kobe in 1945, and concerns the travails of a teenage boy named Seita (voiced by Tsutomo Tatsumi) and his little sister Setsuko (voiced by Ayano Shiraishi), who are orphaned when their mother perishes during an Allied firebombing raid.

After brief lodgings with a less-than-hospitable aunt, the siblings have to fend for themselves. Do not expect a Hollywood ending (I wouldn’t recommend  it for children under 12). One commonality between Grave of the Fireflies and the aforementioned Rossellini film worth consideration is that Japan and Germany were the aggressor nations in WW2. An obvious commonality, but precisely my point: The pain and suffering of innocents caught in the crossfire doesn’t know from borders or ideology.

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Son of Babylon– This heartbreaking Iraqi drama is set in 2003, just weeks after the fall of Saddam. It follows the arduous journey of a Kurdish boy named Ahmed (Yasser Talib) and his grandmother (Shazda Hussein) as they head for the last known location of Ahmed’s father, who disappeared during the first Gulf War. As they traverse the bleak, post-apocalyptic landscapes of Iraq’s bomb-cratered desert, a portrait emerges of a people struggling to keep mind and soul together, and to make sense of the horror and suffering precipitated by two wars and a harsh dictatorship.

Director Mohamed Al Daradji and co-screenwriter Jennifer Norridge deliver something conspicuously absent in the Iraq War(s) movies from Western directors in recent years-an honest and humanistic evaluation of the everyday people who inevitably get caught in the middle of such armed conflicts-not just in Iraq, but in any war, anywhere. While the film alludes to the regional and international politics involved, the narrative is constructed in such a way that at the end of day, whether Ahmed’s father was killed by American bomb sorties or Saddam gassing his own people is moot.

That message is distilled in a small, compassionate gesture and a single line of dialogue. An Arabic-speaking woman, also searching for a missing loved one at a mass grave site sets her own suffering aside to lay a comforting hand on the lamenting grandmother’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Kurdish,” she says, “…but I can feel this woman’s pain and sadness.” One thing I can say (aside that this emotionally shattering film should be required viewing for heads of state, commanders-in-chief, generals, or anyone else wielding the power to wage war)…I don’t speak Kurdish, either.

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Testament– Originally a PBS American Playhouse presentation, this film was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander (she lost to Shirley MacLaine). Director Lynne Littman takes a low key, deliberately paced approach, but pulls no punches. Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where the afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that a number of nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a whole different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

There is no exposition on the political climate that precipitates the attacks; a wise decision by the filmmakers because it helps us zero in on the essential humanistic message of the film. All of the post-nuke horrors ensue, but they are presented sans the histrionics and melodrama that informs many entries in the genre. The fact that the nightmarish scenario unfolds so deliberately, and amid such everyday suburban banality, is what makes it all so frighteningly believable and difficult to shake off. As the children (and adults) of Hamlin succumb to the inevitable scourge of radiation sickness and steadily “disappear”, like the children of the ‘fairy tale’ Hamlin, you are left haunted by the final line of the school production of “The Pied Piper” glimpsed earlier in the film…“Your children are not dead. They will return when the world deserves them.”

SJFF 2017: The Last Laugh ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one. How many Jews can you fit in a VW? No, seriously…you should stop me, even if you haven’t heard it. Because if you do know the punch line, and you think it’s funny, shame on you. Of course, if you’ve never heard it, and now you’re dying to know the punchline, then, shame on me for propagating this horribly tasteless joke, even in this strictly academic context. Because now you’re going to Google it anyway, and if you do, and think it’s funny, then, shame on both of us.

I’ve had people tell me that sophomoric joke over the years, having no idea that I’m Jewish. And every time, I am so tempted to completely destroy them with one simple sentence: “You know, I have relatives on my mother’s side of the family who died at Auschwitz.”  But I don’t. I take the high road; I give a perfunctory chuckle, glance at my watch and mumble something about being late for this thing I have to get to right away.

I think that’s the gist of this documentary, which is built around this rhetorical question: Can the Holocaust be funny? Now, I am by no means a prude, or a P.C. scold. As a former stand-up comic, I firmly believe that when it comes to comedy, no subject is taboo, including the Holocaust. That doesn’t mean that I find anything intrinsically funny about the Holocaust…because I don’t. I think it’s possible to cogently stick to my comedy credo as well my opinion that only a sociopath would find the Holocaust “ha-ha” funny.

But, “Tragedy + Time = Comedy”, right? Anyone? Bueller?

Even Mel Brooks, who is one of the professional funny people on hand to opine on the topic, won’t “go there”. Remember, this is the guy who gave us “Springtime for Hitler”. However, as he astutely reminds us, he may have made fun of Hitler, the Nazis, and the very idea of the Third Reich in his classic film The Producers…but he wasn’t “making fun” of the Holocaust, or milking laughs from it in and of itself in any way shape or form.

And that’s the general consensus from nearly all the comedy luminaries who appear in the film, like Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, Rob Reiner, Judy Gold, Carl Reiner, Susie Essman, Larry Charles, Jeffrey Ross and Harry Shearer; that nothing is off limits in comedy, but everyone still reserves the right to draw their own line, and not ever cross it.

But what about those who actually lived through the Holocaust? That’s where the film gets particularly fascinating; when director Ferne Pearlstein invites survivors to weigh in. It is through their stories that the film ultimately finds not only its heart and soul, but critical historical context concerning a people who have developed a deep-seated cultural fatalism and sense of gallows humor purely as a survival mechanism to get through all the shit that’s been dumped on them for 5,000 years. Hey, quit laughing-that’s not funny.

(For more info, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Forward, into the past: A timely reissue of Peter Watkins’ Culloden ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 26, 2016)

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“For some time, [United Kingdom] constitutional nerds such as myself used to float this kind of nightmare scenario, in which one or more parts of the U.K such as Northern Ireland or Scotland [votes to stay in the E.U.], while England, being the largest group [votes to leave the E.U.]…basically those other parts of the U.K. are out-voted. […] Now this has actually happened; this isn’t a nightmare scenario any longer, it’s the reality.”

– Andrew Blick, lecturer in politics and contemporary history (from an interview on CNN, June 24, 2016).

There’s been a substantial amount of speculation among the chattering class over the last 36 hours regarding a possible “contagion effect” on the nations who remain allegiant to the European Union, following the U.K.’s voter-mandated breakaway this past Thursday.

While no one with a modicum of sense and/or logic is expecting World War III to break out next week as a result of the “Brexit” referendum decision, there remain a number of compelling historical reasons why the possibility of profound political and socioeconomic instability in Europe down the road is concerning to those who keep track of such things.

For a continent that encompasses a relatively modest 3,930,000 square miles altogether (for perspective, the United States by itself is 3,806,000 square miles in size), Europe has a densely complex history of political volatility, avarice-driven disputes, willful military aggression and generations-spanning (ruling) family squabbles that boggles the mind.

I’m not saying we haven’t gotten our own hair mussed once or twice here in the good ‘ol U.S. of A; after all, 620,000 people died in the Civil War. That said, 17 million people died in World War I, and an estimated 60 million souls slipped the surly bonds of Earth in the course of World War II. Yes, those were “world” wars, but volatility in Europe was the primary impetus. I guess what I’m saying is, the fact that we have known the existence of a unified Europe in our lifetimes is a blessing that we have taken for granted.

However, as implied by the quote at the top of the post, what makes the Brexit decision even more fascinating to me is the possibility of the U.K. itself splintering apart eventually as a result. Which in effect would be history repeating itself, particularly in the case of Scotland, which voted almost overwhelmingly in favor of remaining in the E.U. In fact, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon has already announced a plan to keep Scotland in the E.U., as well as noting that drafts are in the works for legislation proposing another vote on Scottish independence from the U.K. (there was one in 2014).

To say that the history between England and Scotland is a “bloody” one would not be overstatement. Consider a particularly nasty bit of business generally referred to as the “Jacobite Uprising” or “The Forty-five Rebellion” (1745-1746). Depending on which historian you’re reading, the conflict was either a clan war betwixt Scottish lowlanders and highlanders, a religious civil war, or a Scottish war of independence against England. For the sake of expediency, I’m going to split the difference and call it “all of the above”.

The culmination of the conflict occurred on April 16, 1745 with the Battle of Culloden:

(from The National Trust for Scotland website)

Towards one o’clock, the Jacobite artillery opened fire on government soldiers. The government responded with their own cannon, and the Battle of Culloden began.

Bombarded by cannon shot and mortar bombs, the Jacobite clans held back, waiting for the order to attack. At last they moved forwards, through hail, smoke, murderous gunfire and grapeshot. Around eighty paces from their enemy they started to fire their muskets and charged. Some fought ferociously. Others never reached their goal. The government troops had finally worked out bayonet tactics to challenge the dreaded Highland charge and broadsword. The Jacobites lost momentum, wavered, then fled.

Hardly an hour had passed between the first shots and the final flight of the Prince’s army. Although a short battle by European standards, it was an exceptionally bloody one.

Culloden was not only “an exceptionally bloody” battle, but holds distinction as the last such pitched battle to be fought on British soil. Although the slaughter did not stop there:

(from The New World Encyclopedia website)

After their victory, Cumberland ordered his men to execute all the Jacobite wounded and prisoners, an act by which he was known afterwards as “the Butcher.” Certain higher-ranking prisoners did survive to be tried and executed later in Inverness. […]

Immediately after the battle, Cumberland rode into Inverness, his drawn sword still covered in blood, a symbolic and menacing gesture. The following day, the slaughter continued, when patrols were sent back to the battlefield to kill any survivors; contemporary sources indicate that about 70 more Jacobites were killed as a result…

[…] 3,470 Jacobites, supporters, and others were taken prisoner in the aftermath of Culloden, with 120 of them being executed and 88 dying in prison; 936 transported to the colonies, and 222 more “banished.” While many were eventually released, the fate of nearly 700 is unknown.

The Rebellion left a profound cultural impact on Scotland as well. From the same article:

[The ’45 Rebellion] had enormous psychological impact upon the Highland Scots, and severe civil penalties thereafter (for example, it became a criminal offense to wear tartan plaid). What followed can be described as cultural vandalism, with the destruction of a way of life that many had found meaningful, giving them a sense of identity and kinship.

So how does this all tie in with the Brexit vote? In a well-written 2011 Daily Kos piece inspired by the (then) 265th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, OP OllieGarky notes:

Cameron and Thatcher’s recent ruthlessness towards Scottish public institutions is nothing new. It is a pale relic of previous attempts to rebuild Scotland into a properly British province, according to whatever fashion the current leaders took. […]

Culloden and its aftermath is an emotional issue for the Scottish Diaspora. Depending on your definition, how you include or exclude individuals from the Diaspora, the Diaspora outnumbers the population of Scotland by no less than 12 to one. This loss of people has been disastrous for Scotland in recent years, leading to the rise of the Scottish National Party. […]

The Scottish Nationalists are Nationalists in name only. They don’t espouse any of the ethnocentric bile typical of traditional Nationalist groups like the BNP, or White Nationalists in the US. Indeed, the music of Scottish Nationalism is disgusted with the ethnocentric ideas that are themselves an integral part of the BNP’s British Nationalism, or its predecessor the National Front’s English Nationalism.

It’s no secret that there was an undercurrent of anti-immigrant nativism streaking through rhetoric spouted by some of the high profile spokespersons in the “leave the E.U.” camp.

Which (finally) brings us to writer-director Peter Watkins’ largely forgotten, yet somewhat groundbreaking made-for BBC-TV docudrama from 1964 entitled Culloden. The film has been newly remastered for a beautifully-transferred “two-fer” (Region “B” only) Blu-ray release from BFI that also includes Watkins’ more well-known (and controversial) 1965 BBC docudrama The War Game (****), which is an unblinking, startlingly realistic envisioning of the after-effects of a nuclear attack on the city of Kent.

Truth be told, the primary reason I ordered the set was to snag a copy of The War Game; I was previously unaware of Culloden (it never aired outside of the U.K., unlike The War Game, which gained its higher profile from international cinematic distribution in 1966, subsequently earning it an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature back in 1967).

It is by pure kismet that I just happened to view Culloden for the first time about 2 weeks ago, so it’s fresh in my mind; otherwise I likely never would have connected this relatively obscure battle that took place 270 years ago with the results of the Brexit referendum just this past Thursday. At any rate, I was happy to discover this gem, which is very much in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. While he shares Kubrick’s eye for detail and neorealist capture of the horror of battle, Watkins does him one better:

(From David Archibald’s essay, written for the companion booklet to the BFI Blu-ray)

“Culloden” emerged at the high point in British television. In 1956 Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble toured Britain for the first time, and the company’s non-Aristotelian, distanciation techniques, which attempted to highlight theater’s constructed nature and, in turn, politicize the spectator, were becoming increasingly popular among leftist theater-makers […]

The experimental and constructed nature of [“Culloden”] is all-too apparent: on-location shooting; fourth-wall breaking direct address to the camera; repeated, shaky camera work; tight close-ups on the protagonists’ faces and the presence of a narrator who describes events as if reporting on the daily news.

The anachronistic conceit that Watkins employs cannily presages the advent of the “mockumentary” (although you will discover nothing “funny” is going on in the course of the film’s 69 minutes). Yet there is nothing “gimmicky” about it, in fact, the overall effect is quite powerful and involving. As Archibald goes on to conclude in his essay:

Yet this is not simply an adaptation of [John Prebbles’ eponymous 1962 book] but stands in its own right as a legitimate historical representation of an important chapter in Scottish and British history. […]

[Peter Watkins] never returned to television [following “The War Game” in 1965], but he leaves behind a brace of innovative yet accessible, provocative yet popular documentaries, which remain strikingly fresh and politically potent.

Here are 2 things I know to be true: Culloden is strikingly fresh. And history is cyclical.

 

(BFI’s Blu-ray is Region “B”; it requires a region-free player for viewing!)

Blu-ray reissue: Breaker Morant ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Breaker Morant– The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Few films have more succinctly conveyed the madness of war than Bruce Bereford’s moving 1980 drama. Based on a true story, it recounts the courts martial (i.e., scapegoating) of three Australian officers (Edward Woodard, Bryan Brown and Lewis Fitz-gerald) by their British higher-ups during the Boer War (the three were accused of shooting enemy prisoners, even though they did so under orders from superior officers). They are hastily assigned a military lawyer (a fellow Australian) with no previous experience in criminal defense (Jack Thompson, in a star-making performance), who surprises even himself with his passion and resourcefulness in the face of such stacked odds. Very similar in theme and tone to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Tightly directed, intelligently written (by Beresford, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, adapting Kenneth G. Ross’ play) and marvelously acted, it’s a perfect film in every way. Criterion’s Blu-ray sports a sharp transfer and extras that lend deeper historical context.

SIFF 2015: The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

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

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If you’ve seen Roland Joffe’s 1984 war drama The Killing Fields, you’ll likely never forget the extraordinarily moving Oscar-winning performance by “non-actor” Dr. Haing S. Ngor. Ngor didn’t need to call on any Actor’s Studio “sense memory” tricks to deliver his utterly convincing turn as a man who somehow survived and escaped from captivity during Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s unspeakably bloody purge of his own people…he had lived the experience himself. Arthur Dong’s documentary fills us in on what led up to Ngor’s surreal moment in the Hollywood spotlight, and his subsequent second life as a political activist. Unfortunately, despite the late Dr. Ngor’s admirable achievements and Dong’s noble intentions, the workmanlike construct of the film makes it a bit of a slog; it loses focus and runs out of steam about halfway through. Still worth seeing for the simple fact that (Joffe’s film aside), few have expended time and energy to document the worst holocaust since WW2.

SIFF 2015: Beti and Amare ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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It’s an old story: In the midst of the Italo-Abyssinian War, teenage Ethiopian girl meets mute alien boy, who has hatched from an egg that has appeared out of nowhere next to a desert well. Girl brings boy to her uncle’s isolated home, where she is hiding out from Mussolini’s invading forces and marauding members of the local militia while her uncle is traveling. Romance ensues (how many times have we seen that tale on the silver screen?). German writer-director-DP-editor-producer Andy Siege has crafted a fairly impressive debut feature that is equal parts harrowing war drama, psychological thriller and sci-fi fantasy. I don’t know if these were conscious influences, but Siege’s film strongly recalls Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychodrama Repulsion, and 1970s-era Nicolas Roeg (more specifically, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Walkabout).