Category Archives: War

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i0.wp.com/www.highdefdigest.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/last-laugh-425x225.jpg?resize=425%2C225

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.

(Plays Sunday, March 26 at the Seattle Jewish Film Festival)

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

https://i1.wp.com/www.historians.org/Images/Perspectives/December%202013/Armitage-Culloden-Optional.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

“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)

https://i2.wp.com/pbs.twimg.com/media/CYQt5feUEAAd3nB.jpg?w=474&ssl=1

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)

https://i1.wp.com/www.calhum.org/images/uploads/blog_marquee/The_Killing_Fields_of_Dr_Haing_S_Ngor_BlogImage.jpg?w=474

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)

https://i2.wp.com/3.bp.blogspot.com/-dpiUsGGVl2w/VV_9BUE9FKI/AAAAAAAAAmk/-Xjwa6hG3Yc/s1600/beti-and-amare-001.jpg?w=474

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).

SIFF 2015: Beats of the Anatov ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 16, 2015)

http://static.melkweg.nl/uploads/images/scaled/event_header/14190

In the harrowing opening sequence of Sudanese war journalist Hajooj Kuka’s documentary, members of a refugee camp frenetically scatter for cover as one of them exclaims “The plane is coming! The Antonov! It’s here!” The obviously unnerved cameraman swerves his lens skyward, where a solitary, seemingly benign prop plane lazes overhead. Then suddenly, a massive explosion…followed by shocked silence for a few seconds as the camera surveys the damage; several huts engulfed in flame. Then, as the smoke clears, a most extraordinary sound; the last thing you would expect to hear: the laughter of children. “The laughter is always there,” a resident explains, “People laugh despite the catastrophe because they realize they are not hurt…laughter is like a new birth.” This pragmatism has become a crucial coping mechanism for the people of the Blue Nile and Nuba mountain regions of Sudan, an African nation that has been in a perpetual civil war since 1956. Kuka  illustrates how it’s not just laughter, but non-stop communal singing and dancing that keeps spirits (and culture) alive. Most interestingly, there is zero demarcation between the “performer” and the “audience”. Anyone can play along or improvise a verse; it’s Democracy at its purest.

Yet another fruitless war: Tangerines ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2015)

https://i1.wp.com/movieboozer.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/mandariinid_tangerines-main-review.jpg?resize=474%2C267

So there was this card-carrying commie banjo player named Pete Seeger, who used to perform an antiwar singalong called “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” The lyrics are essentially a set of rhetorical questions, ending with a haunting refrain “…when will we ever learn?” Apparently, the answer to that last question is: “Never?” At least, judging from the fact that 60 years after that song was written, wars continue to rage all over the world. Yet people keep singing that silly tune, in the vain hope that those who hold the power to wage them will listen, and that its message will finally sink in: Wars are dumb.

Card-carrying dumb.

Pete Seeger based his lyrics on a passage from a traditional Cossack folk song lamenting the fruitlessness of war. I only mention this because it so happens the latest antiwar film to inquire as to the whereabouts of the flowers also originates from the steppes of Russia.

Tangerines is an Estonian-Georgian production written and directed by Zaza Urushadze. Urushadze sets his drama in Georgia, against the backdrop of the somewhat politically byzantine Abkhazian War of the early 1990s. Although this bloody civil war is raging quite literally on the doorstep of their sleepy little hamlet, two crusty Estonian men with adjoining properties, woodworker Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and farmer Margus (Elmo Nuganen) are more concerned with harvesting Margus’ small tangerine crop and getting it to market before the fruit rots (or before the orchard itself becomes collateral damage).

However, faster than you can say “acceptable losses”, a sudden, violent skirmish erupts one evening, mere steps away from Ivo’s modest cottage. Ivo and Margus cautiously investigate the resultant carnage, and discover that there are two survivors: a Chechen mercenary, who is fighting for the separatists (Giorgi Nakashidze), and a Georgian government soldier (Mikheil Meskhi). Ivo takes both soldiers under his roof and begins to nurse them back to health. As these wounded men are sworn enemies of each other, you may already have an idea where this story is going. Or maybe you only think you do.

While there are obvious touchstones like All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion and Hell in the Pacific, Urushadze’s film sneaks up on you as a work of true compassion. As the characters slowly come to recognize their shared humanity, so do we (after all, everyone bleeds the same color).

As the characters come to recognize their shared humanity; so do we. Beautifully written, directed and acted as the film is, I hope there comes a day in this fucked-up slaughterhouse of a world when no one feels the need to make another like it.  As a great 20th Century English poet once wrote: You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one.

Start the revolution without me: The Liberator **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2014)

https://i1.wp.com/ww3.hdnux.com/photos/32/36/54/6941470/3/920x920.jpg?w=474

The stats on democratic revolutionary Simon Bolivar are pretty impressive. By the time he died at age 47 in 1830, he had waged over 100 battles against the Spanish throughout Central and South America, liberating and establishing the united territory of Gran Columbia (an area stretching south from the modern nations of Panama at one end and Peru at the other). He’s highly revered in Latin America to this day (hell, they even named Bolivia after him).

I wish I could say the same about Alberto Arvelo’s slickly produced yet cloyingly idealized biopic, The Liberator. It’s too bad, because charismatic leading man Edgar Ramirez gives it his best shot (and looks convincingly dashing wearing a waistcoat and wielding a saber), but Timothy J. Sexton’s script takes a Cliff’s Notes approach that skimps on Bolivar’s motivations.

What made him decide to give up his life as a wealthy country gentleman (who grew up on a family plantation maintained by slave labor, no less) and transform into “El Libertador“, freeing South America from the Spanish Empire? The epiphany is implied, but never fully explained; from watching the film, he may as well be Bruce Wayne donning a cape and transforming into Batman every night…and that’s all we need to know. Rousing battle scenes and lush period details are fine and dandy, but an historical epic ultimately requires some innate sense of history.

Goodnight, Saigon: The Last Days of Vietnam ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 4, 2014)

https://i2.wp.com/thevalleystar.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Vietnam-chopper-on-roof-658x470.jpg?resize=474%2C339

Call this an intervention, but someone has to say it. America has an ongoing co-dependent relationship with the Vietnam war. Oh, I know, it’s been nearly 40 years since we were “involved”. And to be sure, as soon as the last Marine split, we wasted no time giving the war its ring back. We put our fingers in our ears, started chanting “la-la-la-la can’t hear you” and moved on with our lives, pretending like the whole tragic misfire never happened. But here’s the funny thing. Every time we find ourselves teetering on the edge of another quagmire, we stack it up against our old flame. We can’t help ourselves. “We don’t want another Vietnam,” we worry, or “Well…at least this doesn’t seem likely to turn into another Vietnam,” we fib to ourselves as we get all dressed up for our third date.

But do all who use that meme truly understand why it’s so important that we don’t have another Vietnam? For many (particularly those too young to have grown up watching it go sideways on Walter Cronkite), the passage of time has rendered the war little more than an abstract reference. It’s too easy to forget the human factor. Even for many old enough to remember, dredging up the human factor reopens old wounds (personal or political). But you know what “they” say…those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Which is why I would encourage you to catch Rory Kennedy’s documentary, The Last Days of Vietnam, precisely because she dares to dredge up the “human factor”.

Kennedy focuses on a specific period of time; literally the “last days” of American involvement in Vietnam, detailing the drama that unfolded at the U.S. Embassy compound in Saigon in April of 1975, as North Vietnamese forces closed in on the city. The city defenses were virtually nil; U.S. troops had withdrawn (save a small contingent of Marines assigned to protecting the embassy grounds). The South Vietnamese soldiers who remained were sorely under-equipped and in disarray. No word had arrived from Washington as to any official contingency plans for evacuating any of the South Vietnamese from the city (Congress was gridlocked on the subject…imagine that). It began to dawn on some of the embassy workers that time was running out for their South Vietnamese co-workers and friends. With no time to lose, they decided to go a bit…rogue.

Blending archival footage with recollections by participants (American and Vietnamese), Kennedy reconstructs the extraordinary events of those final days and hours that ultimately resulted in the successful extraction of 77,000 men, women and children (which is about, oh, 77,000 more than would have been able to escape had everyone just sat around and waited for an act of Congress…sometimes, you’ve got to break a few protocols in the name of basic human decency). And as you watch the film you realize what a tremendous act of courage and compassion this was on the part of those who spearheaded this makeshift exodus (it’s reminiscent of Dunkirk). For some participants, who refuse to accept any laurels, memories remain bittersweet at best; obviously they did not have the time or the resources to get everyone out, and that hits them hard to this day.

Of course, there’s that big question that remains: Why were we there in the first place? “The end of April 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in a microcosm,” one of the interviewees quietly observes as he wells up with emotion, “Promises made in good faith, promises broken. People being hurt, because we didn’t get our act together. The whole Vietnam war is a story that kind of sounds like that.” Sadly, as we now find ourselves chasing ISIS down the rabbit hole, this is starting to sound like a story without an ending.