Tag Archives: Essays

The last picture show

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 17, 2017)

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6/11/17: Miyazaki sky courtesy of my chintzy Android

 This is the song at the end of the movie
When the house lights go on
The people go home
The plot’s been resolved
It’s all over

 – Joan Baez

“How tall was King Kong?” asks Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), the larger-than-life director of the film-within-the-film in Richard Rush’s 1980 black comedy, The Stunt Man. Once you discover that King Kong was but “three foot, six inches tall”, it’s clear Cross’s query is code for a bigger question: “What is reality?” Or perhaps he’s asking “What is film?” Is film a “ribbon of dreams” as Orson Welles once said? Those are questions to ponder as you take Rush’s wild ride through the Dream Factory. Because from the moment that its protagonist, a fugitive on the run from the cops (Steve Railsback) tumbles ass over teakettle onto Mr. Cross’s set, where he is filming an art-house World War I drama, his (and our) concept of what is real and what isn’t becomes diffuse.

Despite lukewarm critical reception, it is now considered a classic. A 43-week run at the Guild 45th Theater in Seattle (booked by Rush himself, out of his frustration with the releasing studio’s lackluster support) is credited for building word of mouth and assuring the film’s cult status. There is symbiosis in that story (recounted in Rush’s 2000 documentary, The Sinister Saga of Making the Stunt Man); for as surely as The Stunt Man is a movie for people who love movies, the Guild is the type of “neighborhood theater” that people who love movies fall in love with.

The Guild’s buff-friendly vibe stems from the ethos established by former owner-operator Randy Finley. As Matthew Halverson writes in his 2009 Seattle Met article, “The Movie Seattle Saved”:

Randy Finley didn’t like to take chances when booking movies for the Guild 45th Theatre. He took it so seriously that during his 18 years as owner of Seattle’s Seven Gables Theatres chain, he recruited a small cadre of film-buff confidantes who would join him at screenings and then debate whether what they’d seen met Seven Gables’ standards: Could it generate compelling word of mouth? Would it get great critical support? Did they like the people behind the picture? He took a lot of pride in having run movies like “The Black Stallion” and “Harold and Maude” in his theaters when others wouldn’t. And he took even more pride in turning them into art house hits. “If you went to the Guild 45th when I was booking it,” Finley says, “you would walk out thinking you’d just seen one of the best pictures of the year—if not the best.”

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The Guild originally opened circa 1920; it was called The Paramount until the Seattle Theater (downtown) adapted the name in 1930. It went through several ownership changes (Finley purchased it in 1975, adding the venue to his local Seven Gables chain). In 1983, Finley added a smaller auditorium two doors down (The Guild II). In 1989, both theaters (along with the rest of the Seven Gables properties) were sold to Landmark, who have run them ever since.

That is…until this happened:

[From The Stranger Slog]

On Monday afternoon, Griffin Barchek, a rising junior at UW, headed to Wallingford to work a shift at the Guild 45th, as he had been doing roughly 30 hours a week for the past year-and-a-half. He heard the bad news before he even stepped inside. “I was the second person to get there,” Barchek said. “I was told immediately by a disgruntled co-worker outside. Then there was a sign on the counter that said ‘We’re closed for renovations.’”

Though he had no hard evidence to support the hypothesis, he believes the sign is a pipe dream. “Renovations are very unlikely,” he speculated. “It’s probably just closed for good.”

Once inside, Barchek said a representative from Landmark’s corporate office was on hand to inform him and his co-workers that both the Guild and the Seven Gables would be closed indefinitely (“for renovations”), that their services were no longer required, and that they’d all be receiving three weeks’ severance. Barchek said he earned the $15/hr minimum wage for his work as an usher, in the box office, and behind the concessions counter.

“She just kept saying ‘I’m sorry’ and kind of making a duck face,” he said of the Landmark representative. (As has been the case with all press inquiries regarding the sudden closure of these theaters, Landmark has refused to comment beyond saying they are closed for renovations.)

I was blindsided by this myself. Last Sunday, I was checking the listings, looking for something to cover for tonight’s weekly film review (preferably something/anything that didn’t involve aliens, comic book characters, or pirates), and was intrigued by Sofia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled. Being a lazy bastard, I was happy to discover that the exclusive Seattle booking was at my neighborhood theater (the Guild 45th!), which is only a three-block walk from my apartment.

Imagine my surprise when I went to their website for show times and was greeted by this message: “The Seven Gables and Guild 45th Theaters have closed. Please stay tuned for further details on our renovation plans for each location. During the down time, we look forward to serving you at the Crest Cinema Center.” The Crest (now Landmark’s sole local venue open for business) is another great neighborhood theater, programmed with first-run films on their final stop before leaving Seattle (and at $4 for all shows, a hell of a deal). But for how long, I wonder?

It’s weird, because I drive past the Guild daily, on my way to work; and I had noticed that the marquees were blank one morning last week. I didn’t attach much significance to it at the time; while it seemed a bit odd, I just assumed that they were in the process of putting up new film titles. Also, I’ve been receiving weekly updates from the Landmark Theaters Seattle publicist for years; last week’s email indicated business as usual (advising me on upcoming bookings, available press screeners, etc.), and there was absolutely no hint that this bomb was about to drop.

Where was the “ka-boom”?! There was supposed to be an Earth-shattering “ka-boom”. Oh, well.

It would appear that the very concept of a “neighborhood theater” is quickly becoming an anachronism, and that makes me feel sad, somehow. Granted, not unlike many such “vintage” venues, the Guild had seen better days from an aesthetic viewpoint; the floors were sticky, the seats less than comfortable, and the auditorium smelled like 1953…but goddammit, it was “my” neighborhood theater, it’s ours because we found it, and now we wants it back (it’s my Precious).

My gut tells me the Guild isn’t being “renovated”, but rather headed for the fires of Mount Doom; and I suspect the culprit isn’t so much Netflix, as it is Google and Amazon. You may be shocked, shocked to learn that Seattle is experiencing a huge tech boom. Consequently, the housing market (including rentals) is tighter than I’ve ever seen it in the 25 years I’ve lived here.

The creeping signs of over-gentrification (which I first started noticing in 2015) are now reaching critical mass. Seattle’s once-distinctive neighborhoods are quickly losing their character, and mine (Wallingford) is the latest target on the urban village “up-zoning” hit list. Anti-density groups are rallying, but I see the closure of our 100 year-old theater as a harbinger of ticky-tacky big boxes.

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Some of my fondest memories of the movie-going experience involve neighborhood theaters; particularly during a 2 ½ year period of my life (1979-1981) when I was living in San Francisco. But I need to back up for a moment. I had moved to the Bay Area from Fairbanks, Alaska, which was not the ideal environment for a movie buff. At the time I moved from Fairbanks, there were only two single-screen movie theaters in town. To add insult to injury, we were usually several months behind the Lower 48 on first-run features (it took us nearly a year to even get Star Wars).

Keep in mind, there was no cable service in the market, and VCRs were a still a few years down the road. There were occasional midnight movie screenings at the University of Alaska, and the odd B-movie gem on late night TV (which we had to watch in real time, with 500 commercials to suffer through)…but that was it. Sometimes, I’d gather up a coterie of my culture vulture pals for the 260 mile drive to Anchorage, where there were more theaters for us to dip our beaks into.

Consequently, due to the lack of venues, I was reading more about movies, than actually watching them. I remember poring over back issues of The New Yorker at the public library, soaking up Penelope Gilliat and Pauline Kael; but it seemed requisite to  live in NYC (or L.A.) to catch all of these cool art-house and foreign movies they were raving about  (most of those films just didn’t make it out up to the frozen tundra). And so it was that I “missed” a lot of 70s cinema.

Needless to say, when I moved to San Francisco, which had a plethora of fabulous neighborhood theaters in 1979, I quickly set about making up the deficit. While I had a lot of favorite haunts (The Surf, The Balboa, The Castro, and the Red Victorian loom large in my memory), there were two venues in particular where I spent an unhealthy amount of time: The Roxie and The Strand.

That’s because they were “repertory” houses; meaning they played older films (frequently double and triple bills, usually curated by some kind of theme). That 2 ½ years I spent in the dark was my film school; that’s how I got caught up with Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Peter Bogdanovich, Werner Herzog, Ken Russell, Lindsay Anderson, Wim Wenders, Michael Ritchie, Brian De Palma, etc.

Of course, in 2017 any dweeb with an internet connection can catch up on the history of world cinema without leaving the house…which explains (in part) why these smaller movie houses are dying. But they will never know the sights, the sounds (the smells) of a cozy neighborhood dream palace; nor, for that matter, will they ever experience the awesomeness of seeing the classic films as they were originally intended to be seen-on the big screen.  Everybody should experience the magic at least once. C’mon-I’ll save you the aisle seat.

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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.”

Michael and me in Trumpland

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 17, 2016)

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Growing up as a military brat is not easy. It’s a nomadic life; not so much by choice as by assignment. In the military, you follow orders, and if you have a family, they follow you. To this day, no matter where I’m living, or how long I have lived there, I feel like a perennial “outsider”.

And so it was, back in the summer of 1968, that my dad received a reassignment from Ft. Wainwright, Alaska (where we had been stationed for 4 ½ years) to Clinton County Air Force Base, Ohio (yes, he was in the Army, but certain Army units were attached there…I could explain why, but if I did, I would then unfortunately have to kill you, and I am a man of peace). Now, understand that Fort Wainwright was a sizable installation; and my family lived on-base. Living in the “family quarters” of a large army base is analogous to living in a dense metropolitan environment. Nobody is “from” the locality where you all happen to be thrown together; consequently there’s a rich diversity in a concentrated area…social, racial, religious, and cultural.

Not so much in the sleepy hamlet of Sabina (also known as “The Eden of Ohio”), which is where my family ended up living “off-base” from 1968-1969. The 2010 census counted 2,564 souls, of which 97.0% were white, 0.9% African American, 0.3% Native American, 0.43% Asian, 0.07% from other races, and 1.12% from one or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.15% of the population. I don’t have the town’s ethnic breakdown for 1968, but between my memories and my suspicions, those ratios likely have not deviated much since Sabina was founded in 1830.

You’re probably getting the picture here that Sabina’s populace is the opposite of “diversity”. There is also a tendency (I have found) in your smaller burgs, in your more rural areas, for the locals to be less than welcoming to “outsiders” and somewhat clannish (and since we are talking about Ohio, you could spell that with a “k” and not be historically inaccurate). Now, before y’all get riled up and start to accuse yours truly of “flyover state” stereotyping, or painting with broad strokes (sins of the fathers, and all that), let me say that I am sure 99.9% of the folks currently living in beautiful Sabina, Ohio are good-hearted people…and fine, upstanding citizens.

However, my own personal interactions with some Sabina locals, specifically from autumn of 1968 through late summer of 1969, do not exactly make for pleasant memories. In fact, my 7th grade year was a living fucking hell. Now, I realize that nearly anybody you would care to ask has an anecdote or two about getting “picked on” at school while they were growing up; the law of averages guarantees that you will be bullied at some point in your 12 years of public schooling.

But what I’m talking about here isn’t an isolated incident or two. What I’m talking about is unrelenting harassment, verbal and physical. What I’m talking about is being informed that “we’re going to be waiting for you after school to kick your ass” on a daily basis. I’d been bullied before, but there was an added element to the intimidation unique to my Sabina experience. This was the first (but unfortunately, not the last) time someone ever called me a “kike” while pushing me around. I managed to keep most of this from my folks, until the day one of these bushwhacking yahoos sat behind me on the bus and boxed my ears so hard I had to see a doctor.

Good times.

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So what does my personal memoir of woe have to do with this week’s film review?  Well, as fate would have it, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, filmmaker Michael Moore has intuited the Clinton County seat of Wilmington as the perfect microcosm of what he calls “Trumpland” (Wilmington is only about ten miles from my old “stomping” grounds in Sabina).

Michael Moore in Trumpland (***) was an “October surprise” of sorts; sprung by Moore on an unsuspecting public with no advance hype. The high-concept title of this 73-minute film, (documenting a “one night only” performance piece by Moore) says it all…whether you are a fan or a hater-you know this is going to be a “fish-out-of-water” narrative, layered with irony. First, there’s the venue, the historic Murphy Theater. It’s prime benefactor? Glenn Beck (it burns!). And Moore takes pains to point out he’s in Clinton County, which is antipodal to Clinton country.

Aside from an opening montage featuring locals parroting Breitbart memes and reinforcing the more cartoonish stereotypes of the “typical” Trump voter, Moore suppresses any further urges to shoot fish in a barrel. In fact, Moore telegraphed his good intentions not only by making his show admission-free, but requested that “Trump Voters Welcome” be added to the theater’s marquee.

After taking a “show of hands” census to establish how many in the audience support Hillary, how many support Trump, and who is undecided or supporting independent candidates, it appears that he is dealing with a fairly balanced mix. Employing his trademark mix of entertaining shtick and genuine empathy, Moore attempts to build rapport with the Trump supporters, and really seems to get inside their heads. At least for the first 30 minutes…then, he pulls a bait-and-switch.

It’s subtle. After disarmingly confiding he’s never voted for either Clinton, he mentions the chapter “My Forbidden Love for Hillary” from “Downsize This!” to segue into…his forbidden love for Hillary. By the time he’s finished with what morphs into an impassioned summation of the humanity that’s always driven her dedication to public service, obscured and weather-beaten as it may be from enduring years of anti-Hillary vitriol and character assassination, there’s nary a dry eye in the house…Trump supporters included. It is a master class in rhetorical showmanship.

While my description of that rhapsodic interlude could indicate otherwise, the film is not a Hillary hagiography. For example, Moore makes no bones about his disappointment regarding some of Hillary’s voting decisions while she was serving in the Senate; and he promises to hold her feet to the fire on her campaign promises if she wins. But he also waxes hopeful; launching into a speculative Utopian reverie on how things will be once Hillary becomes POTUS (*sigh*).

It was clearly Moore’s intention that Trumpland (filmed October 7 and released a scant 2 weeks afterwards) would ideally be seen by as many people as possible before November 8. However, he was careful to cover all his bases. If there is one consistency about Michael Moore’s films, it is that they are prescient…and already, I can identify at least one nail he hit squarely on the head.

This comes in the form of another speculative scenario Moore lays out, this one for Trump supporters to envision, should the election go their way. Moore assures them that he feels their pain; as a fellow Midwesterner from a manufacturing town in neighboring Michigan, he “gets” the frustrations that have been building up within the ranks of a certain white, working-class demographic, why they are feeling squeezed out, and why Trump might appear to be their savior.

Suddenly, in a wonderfully theatrical flourish, Moore seems to shapeshift into a Trump voter. He talks about how they are going to feel on Election Day, how incredibly empowering it will be to put that “x” in the Trump box on their ballot card. It’s going to be the “…biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history” when their boy takes the White House. “It’s going to feel REAL good,” Moore assures them, “for about…a week.” Uh-oh. “A week?” What’s he mean by that?

It will kind of be like Brexit, Moore explains after a suitable dramatic pause to let things soak in. Remember how eager the Brexit supporters were to shake things up in their country, and give a big “fuck you” to Europe? Sure, they “won”. But then, buyer’s regret set in. There was even a desperate stab to petition for a re-vote, spearheaded by many of the very people who supported it!

OK, so maybe Trump voters haven’t quite reached that stage yet, but they will. Their soon-to-be Fearless Leader is sending up oodles of red flags with kleptocratic cabinet appointment after kleptocratic cabinet appointment. Now, that seems to be in direct contradiction to his campaign stance as champion of the working class…d’ya think? So…just give them time (and pitchforks).

That’s what I say about Moore’s film…give it time. And here’s a stock tip: go long on pitchforks.

#  #  #

BTW here’s a great government website that might not be here after January 20. Better cache it.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees announced: My 5 picks for the 2016 inductees

By Dennis Hartley

While I abhor the concept of tossing creative artists into the gladiatorial pit (art, prose, poetry, music and film are not competitive sports), my sworn duties as a pop culture critic occasionally require me to add my two cents worth of bread,  in regard to such circuses.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced their 15 nominees: The Cars, Chic, Chicago, Cheap Trick, Deep Purple, Janet Jackson, The J.B.s,  Chaka Khan,  Los Lobos, Steve Miller, Nine Inch Nails, N.W.A., The Smiths, The Spinners,  and Yes. Worthy artists all, but (this is what I hate about “contests”) how do I justify my 5 picks (the Hall’s yearly limit for new inductees) without seeming to denigrate the rest? By doing my job and plowing forward (alphabetically):

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  1.  Cheap Trick– The “newest” artists on my list stormed out of  the gate in 1977 taking names and kicking ass as the missing link between the Beatles and punk. While they could be seen as direct descendants of melodic power pop pioneers like Big Star and The Move,  they weren’t afraid to turn the Marshalls up to “11” and rage like balls-to-the-wall rockers . I think that’s why they’re one of those rare bands (like AC/DC and The Ramones) that metal, punk, new-wave,  alternative and pop fans can all get together on. And if you ever get a chance to see them live…do not pass it up!

Best 3 albums: Cheap Trick, In Color, Heaven Tonight

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2.  Chicago– While I’m not fond of their schmaltzy  (if chart-topping) descent into “adult contemporary” territory from the 80s onward, there is no denying the groundbreaking nature of those incredible first three double albums Chicago Transit Authority (1969), Chicago II and Chicago III (what I call their “Roman Numeral Period”). Those early albums were (for the time) a bold fusion of hard rock, blues, soul, jazz, and Latin styles, fueled by the late great Terry Kath’s fiery guitar and accentuated by a tight horn section. Not to mention an impressive catalog of radio hits over the years. Let ’em in, already!

Best 3 albums: Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago II, Chicago III

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3. Deep Purple– It’s criminal that this seminal hard rock outfit hasn’t been ushered into the pantheon yet. They’ve been around since the late 60s, and had a major influence on the genre. There were many lineup changes over the decades (chiefly involving lead vocalists and lead guitarists), but the quality and power of their music never faltered. The most well-known lineup featured one of rock’s great screamers, Ian Gillian on lead vocal, and maestro of the whammy bar Ritchie Blackmore on guitar. Ian Paice (drums), Roger Glover (bass) and Jon Lord (keyboards) completed the classic team.  I must mention the worthy contribution of the  excellent (if less-heralded)  1975 Purple lineup that produced Come Taste the Band, featuring the late great Tommy Bolin (guitar), Glenn Hughes (vocals and bass), and future Whitesnake front man David Coverdale (lead vocals).

Best 3 albums: In Rock , Machine Head, Come Taste the Band

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4. The Spinners– I was also a bit gobsmacked to learn that these guys have not already been inducted. For god’s sake, they’ve been around for nearly 50 years, and should be considered (at the very least) as the godfathers of “smooth groove”. Their classic period was the 70s, when they became the ambassadors for the “Philadelphia Sound” through their fruitful collaboration with songwriter-producer Thom Bell. If “I’ll Be Around”, “Could it Be I’m Falling in Love”, “Games People Play”, or “The Rubberband Man” comes on the radio while I’m in my car, I’ll still crank it up without hesitation and sing along at the top of my lungs (with my windows rolled up…as a public service).

Best 3 albums: Spinners, Mighty Love, Pick of the Litter

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5. Yes– Long before MTV (or YouTube), my teenage self would while away many hours listening to Yes with a good set of cans, staring at Roger Dean’s art, envisioning my own music videos (special effects courtesy of the joint that I rolled on the inside of the convenient gatefold sleeve). Good times (OP sighs, takes moment of silence to reflect on a life tragically misspent). Anyway, why this band hasn’t been inducted yet is beyond me. Complex compositions informed by deeply layered textures, impeccable musicianship, heavenly harmonies, topped off by Jon Anderson’s ethereal vocals; an embodiment of all that is good about progressive rock (I know the genre has its detractors, to whom  I say…”You weren’t there, man!”). R.I.P.  bassist/vocalist Chris Squire, who we sadly lost this year.

Best 3 albums: The Yes Album, Fragile, Close to the Edge

The Death Hour: How Hollywood tried to warn us

By Dennis Hartley

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

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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?”

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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:

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(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?

I saw Fear in the People’s Temple: The Decline Trilogy arrives on Blu-ray

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 8, 2015)

I saw Fear in the People’s Temple. Sounds poetic, but I’m being quite literal. In 1980, I saw Fear (the L.A. punk band) perform in the People’s Temple (1839 Geary Boulevard, San Francisco). And yes, this was the People’s Temple, as in the former home ministry for Jim Jones and his congregation. For a brief period from 1979 to 1980, the church was leased as a performance space for punk bands (unsettling in retrospect, but par for the course in the heady days of California’s early 80s punk scene). I don’t remember much about the 4 or 5 acts who preceded them, but Fear certainly left an impression, opening with their signature “hello” song, “I Don’t Care About You”.

I’ve seen an old man                                                                                                         Have a heart attack in Manhattan                                                                            Well, he died while we just stood there lookin’ at him                                        Ain’t he cute?

I don’t care about you                                                                                                     Fuck you!                                                                                                                                      I don’t care about you

So much for all that “We hope that you’ll enjoy the show” Sgt. Pepper peace’ n’ love shit!

It was also a brief set, as I recall. As if the opening tune wasn’t alienating enough, lead singer Lee Ving continued baiting the punters with a barrage of insults (witnessing the crowd’s reaction, I soon grokked why the beer was served up in plastic cups). After 4 or 5 2-minute songs, Ving haughtily announced that the show was over, citing the audience’s hostility. It was obviously ironic shtick; half the audience got it (like me, they were laughing their asses off) the other half truly did look like they were ready to murder the band. I suspect Fear’s influences were more Andy Kaufman than Ramones.

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Things seem so much different now, the scene has died away                            I haven’t got a steady job, and I’ve got no place to stay                                    Well it’s a futuristic modern world, but things aren’t what they seem       Someday you’d better wake up, from this stupid fantasy  

 -from “Bloodstains”, by Agent Orange (1980)

As we entered the 1980s, music was in a weird space. The first surge of punk had died away, and was already being homogenized by the marketing boys into a more commercially palatable genre tagged “New Wave”. The remnants of disco and funk had loosened a tenacious grip on the pop charts, yet had not yet acquiesced to the burgeoning hip hop/rap scene as the club music du jour. What would soon become known as Hair Metal was still in its infancy; and the inevitable merger of “headphone” prog and bloated stadium rock sealed the deal with Pink Floyd’s cynical yet mega-successful 2-LP “fuck you” to the music business, The Wall (the hit single, “Another Brick in the Wall”, was the #2 song on Billboard’s chart for 1980, sandwiched between Blondie’s “Call Me” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”). Clearly, the conditions were ripe for a new paradigm.

Hot funk, cool punk, even if it’s old junk                                                                      It’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me.

 -from “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me”, by Billy Joel (1980)

In 1981 (the year MTV signed on), The Decline of Western Civilization was released. Filmed in 1979, Penelope Spheeris’ documentary was a “lightning in a bottle” capture of the L.A. punk scene, (to quote Hunter S. Thompson) right at that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. That “new paradigm” may in fact have already arrived on the cusp of the decade, as a scenester named Eugene explains in the film’s opening: “Well, I like that (punk) is something new, and it’s just reviving, like the old rock ’n’ roll. It’s raw again, it’s for real, and it’s fun. It’s not bullshit…there’s no rock stars, man.”

Spheeris mixes fan and musician interviews with well-shot performance footage of some of the seminal L.A. punk bands of that era, like Black Flag, X, The Germs, The Circle Jerks and Fear. While every bit as arch and unconventional as its subject, you’ll notice touches (like providing subtitles for the song lyrics) that subtly position the film as more anthropological study than rockumentary. And indeed, this once “shocking” film has since gained much cachet as a serious historical document; it is now shown in museums.

The film has been tough to track down for a number of years, as the only previous home video version was a long-out-of-print VHS release. Spheeris (who reached a commercial pinnacle with Wayne’s World) has been promising a restored print on DVD to her clamoring (and frustrated) fans for some time; apparently she kept getting sidetracked (or something). The wait ended June 30 with Shout! Factory’s DVD/Blu-ray releases of the film and its two sequels, packaged as The Decline of Western Civilization Collection set.

For her 1988 sequel, The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years Spheeris once again parsed her subject through a socio-cultural lens; fans are given equal face time with the musicians to paint a full picture of L.A.’s late 80s metal scene. What a difference a decade makes; while the concept of a “rock star” was anathema in the first film, it’s catnip for this crowd. It seems that everybody in II (whether musician, fan, or passer-by) wants to be (to quote Dirk Diggler) a big, bright, shining star. Well, almost everybody.

The film’s most famous (and disturbing) scene, wherein W.A.S.P. guitarist Chris Holmes is interviewed floating in a pool (clothed) and downing what looks to be a lethal amount of vodka while Mom looks on in bemusement, is like a lost reel from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (he must have got treatment…I just Googled him and he’s still alive).

While it’s certainly a thrill to finally have pristine prints of I and II on the home shelf, the real revelation is the inclusion of The Decline of Western Civilization III, which I had never had a chance to see until now (it played at several film festivals in 1998, but never got picked up for wide distribution). The film departs from its two predecessors, in that it feels more like an act of real social compassion, rather than mere historical preservation.

The setting remains Los Angeles. It is actually a more direct “sequel” to the first film, because “punk” is invoked once again. This time, it’s not so much “punk” in the sense of a music genre, or scene, but as the ethos of a specific lifestyle; in this case a subculture of street kids dubbed as “gutter punks”. Music is still an element, and several bands are profiled, but it’s the gutter punks who tell the real story here.

Sadly, it’s an ongoing story, which is the story of America’s homeless. It’s all the more heartbreaking when you realize that these really are only kids, who due to fate and/or deeply dysfunctional upbringings, feel compelled to reject “normal” society and take their chances tenuously living by their wits. The film reminded me of the 1984 documentary Streetwise (strongly recommended, if you have never seen it), which profiled a group of Seattle street kids.

The box set includes a bonus disc, chockablock with extras. Taken as a triptych, this collection rates as essential viewing, and gets my vote for best reissue of 2015 (so far).

SCOTUS Night at the Movies: Stonewall Uprising & SIcko revisited

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 27, 2015)

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Stonewall rioters on the night on June 28, 1969

The White House on the night of June 26, 2015

What an extraordinary week it has been for tangible progressive change. The Confederate flag came down, and the Rainbow flag went up. 6 million Americans let out a collective sigh of relief when they learned they weren’t going to lose their AHCA coverage after all. All I can say is, the nine men and women of the Supreme Court certainly earned their $4700 paychecks for this week…and a drink on me (well, some of them get a drink on me). Fuck it, I feel magnanimous. Give my man Scalia a shot of pure applesauce. On me.

However, before we get wrapped up in patting ourselves on the back for this “overnight” paradigm shift toward the light, let us not forget that such things don’t just spontaneously occur without somebody having made a sacrifice, or at the very least, raised a little fuss:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway

It isn’t nice to go to jail

There are nicer ways to do it

But the nice ways always fail

-Malvina Reynolds

In the wee hours of June 28, 1969 the NYPD raided a Mafia-owned Greenwich Village dive called the Stonewall Inn, a popular gay bar on Christopher Street. As one of those policemen recalls in the documentary, Stonewall Uprising, the officers were given “…no instructions except-put them out of business.”

Hard as it might be for younger readers to fathom, despite the relative headway that had occurred in the civil rights movement for other American minorities by that time, the systemic persecution of sexual minorities was still par for the course as the 60s drew to a close. There were more laws against homosexuality than you could count. The LGBT community was well-accustomed to this type of roust; the police had no reason to believe that this wouldn’t be another ho-hum roundup of law-breaking sexual deviants. This night, however, was to be different. As the policeman continues, “This time they said: We’re not going, and that’s that.”

Exactly how this spontaneous act of civil disobedience transmogrified into a game-changer in the struggle for gay rights makes for a fascinating history lesson and an absorbing film. Filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner take an Errol Morris approach to their subject. Participants give an intimate recount of the event and how it changed their lives, while the several nights of rioting (from initial spark to escalation and immediate aftermath) are effectively recreated using a mixture of extant film footage and photographs (of which, unfortunately, very little exists) with dramatic reenactments.

Davis and Heilbroner also take a look back at how life was for the “homophile” community (as they were referred to by the media at the time). It was, shall we say, less than idyllic. In the pre-Stonewall days, gays and lesbians were, as one interviewee says, the “twilight” people; forced into the shadows by societal disdain and authoritarian persecution. As I watched the film, I had to pinch myself as a reminder that this was happening in America, in my lifetime (you, know, that whole land of the “free” thingie).

Perhaps not so surprising are the recollections that the media wrote off the incident as an aberration; little more than a spirited melee between “Greenwich Village youths” and the cops (“Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad”, the N.Y. Sunday News headline chuckled the following day). I think this film is an important reminder that when it comes to civil rights, America is not out of the woods. Not just for the LGBT community; the incident in Charleston is a grim reminder that we’ve got lots of work to do. Stonewall might seem like ancient history, but its lessons are on today’s fresh sheet.

 

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 Back in July of 2007, when Obamacare (or even an Obama administration) was still but a gluten-free, tree-huggin’ lib’rul socialist wish fantasy, Digby and I put up a double post on Michael Moore’s documentary, Sicko. 2007 wasn’t that long ago, but when you consider all of the jiggery pokery that “our friends across the aisle” have spewed forth to obstruct the Affordable Health Care Act, it feels like eons. And I don’t think I have to remind you how bleak and hopeless it all seemed at the time. As I wrote in my review:

 

Our favorite cuddly corn-fed agitprop filmmaker is back to stir up some doo-doo, spark national debate and make pinko-hatin’ ‘murcan “patriots” twitch and shout…you have likely gleaned that I am referring to documentary maestro Michael Moore’s meditation on the current state of the U.S. health care system, Sicko.

[…] The film proceeds to delve into other complexities contributing to the overall ill health of our current system; such as the monopolistic power and greed of the pharmaceutical companies, the lobbyist graft, and (perhaps most depressing of all) the compassionless bureaucracy of a privatized health “coverage” system that focuses first and foremost on profit, rather than on actual individual need.

[…] Moore makes his point quite succinctly-the need for health care is a basic human need. It should never hinge on economic, political or ideological factors. As one of his astute interviewees observes, it is a right, not a privilege.

 Here was some of Digby’s take; as usual, she nails it on the sociopolitical angle:

sicko is a surprisingly affecting movie, with its cast of people who you cannot look at and say they are dirty hippies, or losers or people who should have known better. They are regular Americans- hard working people who had the bad luck to get sick. And the amazing thing is that they were almost all insured. (The stories of the uninsured are so horrific that you almost have to laugh at the idea that our system could be considered superior to the worst third world country by anyone)

This movie is perhaps the opening salvo in a new movement for guaranteed national health care. I hope so. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. There are a variety of health care systems out there that work better than ours does for less money. All we have to do is be willing to set aside our misplaced pride and admit that this isn’t working and we need to do something about it. There are experiments all over the globe with universal care — we can pick among them and find something that’s right for us. Even business is getting ready to jump on board because these costs are starting to kill them too.

Absolutely goddam right…we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel, yet we got it rolling (well, at least Obamacare is a start in the right direction). And hopefully, the SCOTUS decision will force the obstructionists to pack up their tire spikes and go home for good.

A sad sequel: The American Assassin on Film II

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 20, 2015)

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“When Mexico sends its people (to America), they are not sending their best… (Mexican immigrants) are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime, and they’re rapists.”

 -from Donald Trump’s speech announcing his presidential bid, June 16, 2015

“(African-Americans) rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

-Charleston shooter’s statement to his victims before opening fire, June 17, 2015

 We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.”

-from President Obama’s speech on the Charleston Church shooting, June 18, 2015

“I’m just saying…”

-the author of this post, just now.

Back in January of 2011, in my armchair psychologist’s attempt to answer “Why?” regarding yet another mass shooting, I explored the pathology of the perversely “All-American” phenomenon known as the “lone gunman” via what morphed into a rather comprehensive (wordy?) genre study I dubbed “The American Assassin on Film”.

In the piece, I posed some questions. What is the motivation? Madness? Political beef? A cry for attention? What (beside the perp) is to blame? Systemic racism? Society? Demagoguery? Legislative torpor? The internet? At any rate, in the wake of the latest in this never-ending series of horrific incidents, I feel compelled (sfx *world-weary sigh*) to republish that essay (with a few revisions and additions), just for the sake of my own sanity…and possibly yours.

(The original version of the following essay was posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo January 15, 2011, in reaction to the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords on January 8, 2011)

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I need some attention;  I shoot into the light  

 –from “Family Snapshot” by Peter Gabriel

 Although the senseless massacre in Tucson last Saturday that snuffed out six lives and left a congresswoman gravely wounded is still too recent to fully process, I think that it is safe to say that a Pandora’s Box full of peculiarly “American” issues have tumbled out in its wake: the politics of hate, the worship of guns, and the susceptibility of mentally unstable and/or socially isolated individuals to become even more so as the culture steers more toward being “plugged-in”, rather than cultivating meaningful, face-to-face human contact.

The irony of this situation, of course, is that by all accounts, Representative Giffords is a dedicated public servant who thrives on cultivating meaningful, face-to-face human contact with constituents; her would-be assassin, on the other hand, is a person who had become withdrawn from friends and family, living in an increasingly myopic universe of odd obsessions and posting incoherent ramblings on his personal web pages. While many of us in the blogosphere (including this writer) admittedly could easily be accused of living in a myopic universe of odd obsessions and authoring incoherent posts-I think there is an infinitesimally microscopic possibility that I would ever go on a shooting rampage (I don’t own any weapons, nor have I ever felt the urge to pick one up).

This prompts a question-what is it, exactly that possesses a person to commit such an act-specifically upon a politician or similarly high-profile public figure? Political extremism? Narcissism? Insanity? One from column “a” and one from column “b”? And even more specifically, why have a disproportionate number of these acts over the last 150 years or so appear to have taken place right here in the good old United States of America, home of the free, land of the brave? Digby blogged earlier this week about Anderson Cooper’s interview with Bill Maher on his AC360 news magazine. Maher made this observation:

“This is the only country in the world that shoots its leaders at the rate that we do. The last time I think a leader was shot in Britain was 1812. Canada has had 15 or 16 prime ministers. How many have been shot? Zero. (America is) a very well-armed country…with a lot of nutty people. And that’s a very bad combination.”

An astute observation, I might add. But Maher’s statement can also be read as an oversimplification, which leaves a fair amount of unanswered questions hanging in the air. I don’t pretend to be an expert on such issues-that’s why I’m just the movie guy around here, and not one of the highly respected political pundits who 99.999% of the visitors to this site are here to read and engage in intelligent discourse with.

That being said, I will level with you and admit that it’s been very difficult for me to take my “job” as the resident movie critic very seriously since last weekend. I have found this event to be profoundly disturbing, and it gives me a very bad feeling about where this country is headed. Is this the beginning of the end of the American political system as we know it, or, or we are smart enough to use this as a teachable moment, a catalyst for a new age of enlightenment? It’s up to us. And if that particular concern trumps me pretending to care about how faithful the new Green Hornet film is to the ethos of the old TV show, so be it.

There’s an old adage says, “Write about what you know.” So I’ll climb off the soapbox now and go to my “safe place”, which is where I am most comfortable. Since I truly am struggling to make sense of this whole thing, or to at least come to an understanding of how “we” have reached this point, I thought I would use a touchstone I can easily relate to-movies. That is because when you focus on films within a specific genre, released over your lifetime (in my case, fifty-odd years) hopefully you can get a picture of where we used to be, in relation to where we are now, and maybe even figure out how we got there.

With the exception of The Conspirator (my review) I can’t recall any films that offer significant character studies of the assassins responsible for the deaths of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield or McKinley.

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So for the purpose of this study, I will start with a relatively obscure low-budget noir from 1954 called Suddenly, directed by Lewis Allen. Frank Sinatra is surprisingly effective as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the president during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords them a clear shot. The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. Here, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages).

Some aspects of the story are eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of European-make (there have been a few unsubstantiated claims over the years in various JFK conspiracy books that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest). Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

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There’s certainly more than just a perfunctory nod to Red hysteria in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 cold war paranoia fest, The Manchurian Candidate, which was the last assassination thriller of note released prior to the zeitgeist-shattering horror of President Kennedy’s murder. Oddly enough, Sinatra was involved in this project as well.

Sinatra plays a Korean War veteran who reaches out to help an old Army buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring nightmares about his war experiences. Sinatra’s character has been suffering the same malady (which today would be readily identified as PTSD), although not quite as intensely (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they may have been brainwashed during captivity for very sinister purposes all hell breaks loose. In this narrative (based on novelist Richard Condon’s thriller) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command.

After the events of November 22, 1963, Hollywood took a decade-long hiatus from the genre; it seemed nobody wanted to “go there”. But after Americans had mulled a few years in the sociopolitical turbulence of the mid-to-late 1960s (including the double whammy of losing Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King to bullets in 1968), a new cycle of more cynical and byzantine conspiracy thrillers began to crop up (surely exacerbated even further by Watergate).

The most significant shift in the meme was to move away from the concept of the assassin as a dupe or an operative of a “foreign” (i.e., “anti-American”) ideology; some films postulated that shadowy cabals of businessmen and/or members of the government were capable of such machinations. The rise of the JFK conspiracy cult (and the cottage industry it created) was probably a factor as well.

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One of the earliest examples of this new sub-genre was the 1973 film, Executive Action, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane. The narrative behind this speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, which offers a possible scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible, is more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and very talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic.

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1974 was the banner year, with two outstanding offerings from two significant directors-The Conversation, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and The Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula and adapted by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and Robert Towne from Loren Singer’s novel. The Conversation does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here (it was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out, in which a movie sound man inadvertently captures a recording of a car “accident” that may have actually been a political assassination).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects. Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

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The Parallax View, on the other hand, takes the concept of the dark corporate cabal one step further, positing political assassination as a viable and sustainable capitalist venture, provided that you can perfect a discreet and reliable algorithm for screening and recruiting the right “employees” (and what could be more “American” than that?).

Warren Beatty stars as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a shadowy organization called the Parallax Corporation. There are allusions to the JFK assassination; it uses the “assassin as patsy” scenario, closing with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

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There are two more significant films in this cycle worth a mention-Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979). Pollack’s film, which was adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, puts a unique twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination; here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (there’s no honor among conspirators, apparently). Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow head an excellent cast. The film conveys the same dark atmosphere of dread that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View.

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Winter Kills is arguably the most oddball entry in the cycle; Richert adapted his screenplay from Richard Condon’s book (remember that Condon also wrote the source novel for The Manchurian Candidate).

Jeff Bridges stars as the half-brother of an assassinated president. After bearing witness to the deathbed confession of a man claiming to be a heretofore unknown “second gunman”, he reluctantly becomes involved in reopening the investigation years after the matter was supposedly put to rest.

The film is an uneven affair (it can’t settle on whether it is a genuine conspiracy thriller, or a self-conscious parody of byzantine conspiracy thrillers) but is eminently watchable, mostly thanks to the interestingly diverse cast. John Huston chews major scenery as Bridges’ father (a Joseph Kennedy Sr. type). Also on hand are Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

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The obvious bookend to this particular cycle is Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 thriller, JFK, in which Gary Oldman gives a suitably twitchy performance as Lee Harvey Oswald. However, within the context of Stone’s film, to say that we have a definitive portrait of JFK’s assassin is difficult, because, not unlike Agatha Christie’s fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Stone suspects no one…and everyone.

The most misunderstood aspect of the film, I think, is that Stone is not favoring any particular prevalent narrative. Those who have criticized the approach seem to have missed the fact that Stone himself stated from the get-go that his goal was to provide a “counter myth” to the “official” conclusion of the Warren Commission, which has become known as the “lone gunman” theory.

It is a testament to Stone’s skills as a consummate filmmaker that the narrative he presents appears so seamless and dynamic, when in fact he is simultaneously mashing up at least a dozen possible scenarios. The message is right there in the script, when Donald Sutherland’s “Mr. X” advises Kevin Costner (as New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison) “Oh, don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

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There was a mini-“revival” of the cycle during the 2000s, in the form of Niels Mueller’s 2004 true crime drama, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, and Gabriel Range’s 2006 “speculative thriller”, Death of a President (my review).

The Assassination of Richard Nixon, based on thwarted assassin Samuel Byck’s bizarre scheme to kill President Nixon in 1974, is the superior of the two films; but their respective “lone gunmen” share a similar pathology. Nixon’s would-be assassin Byck (Sean Penn) is the classic angry white male; a loser in marriage and career who cracks up and holds the President responsible for his own failures.

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*SPOILER AHEAD* In Death of a President, the (fictional) assassin of President George W. Bush (a troubled 1991 Gulf War vet who lost his son in the second Iraq war) also holds the POTUS responsible for his personal problems (interestingly, this character is African-American; an anomaly within the typical American political assassin profile).

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Even though it doesn’t fit quite so neatly into the “political assassination” category, no examination of the genre would be complete without a mention of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). In my review of the 2008 film, The Killing of John Lennon, I wrote:

There is a particularly creepy and chilling moment of “art-imitating-life-imitating-art-imitating life” in writer-director Andrew Piddington’s film, The Killing of John Lennon, where the actor portraying the ex-Beatles’ stalker-murderer deadpans in the voice over:

“I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.”

 Anyone who has seen Scorsese and Shrader’s Taxi Driver will instantly attribute that line to the fictional Travis Bickle, an alienated, psychotic loner and would be assassin who stalks a political candidate around New York City. Bickle’s ramblings in that film were based on the diary of Arthur Bremer, the real-life nutball who grievously wounded presidential candidate George Wallace in a 1972 assassination attempt. Although Mark David Chapman’s fellow loon-in-arms John Hinckley would extrapolate even further on the Taxi Driver obsession in his attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, it’s still an unnerving epiphany in Piddington’s film, an eerie and compelling portrait of Chapman’s descent into alienation, madness and the inexplicable murder of a beloved music icon.

So what is it that (the fictional) Travis Bickle, and real-life stalkers Arthur Bremer, Mark David Chapman, John Hinckley (and possibly, the Tucson shooter) all have in common? They represent a “new” breed of American assassin. They aren’t rogue members of the government’s clandestine community, “patsies” for some deeper conspiracy, or operatives acting at the behest of dark corporate cabals. And although their targets are in most cases political figures, their motives don’t necessarily appear to be 100% political in nature.

More often than not, they are disenfranchised “loners”, either by choice or precipitated by some kind of mental disturbance. Many of them fit the quintessential “angry white male” profile; impotent with rage at some perceived persecution (or betrayal) by specific people, ethnic groups, or society in general. One thing we do know for sure, and the one thing they all share as U.S. citizens, is that they had no problem getting their hands on a firearm. I know-“Guns don’t kill people. People do.” So what about that other issue that has come up-the possibility that inflammatory vitriol from high-profile demagogues can trigger homicidal rage from someone who is already starting to crack?

There are at least two films that have breached this scenario, if perhaps only tangentially-Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) and Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (1988).

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*SPOILERS AHEAD*   In Network, 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, anyway. So the network hires a team of hit men to assassinate him on air. Obviously, this film is satirical in nature, through and through, but the idea of a media demagogue precipitating his own demise by hammering away with inflammatory on-air rants night after night is, in a fashion, oddly prescient of our current political climate.

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Talk Radio, on the other hand, does have some grounding in reality, because its screenplay (by Stone and Eric Bogosian) is based on a play (co-written by Bogosian and Tad Savinar), which itself was based on a non-fiction book (by Stephan Singular) about Denver talk show host Alan Berg, who was ambushed and shot to death in his driveway by members of a white nationalist fringe group in 1984. Berg was an outspoken liberal, who frequently targeted neo-Nazis and white supremacists in his on-air rants. Bogosian reprises his stage role as “shock jock” Barry Champlain, who meets with the same fate.

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Finally, there is one more film that sort of squeaks into this category-Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991). Jeff Bridges plays a successful late night radio talk show host whose career literally crashes overnight after a disturbed fan goes on a murderous shooting spree at an upscale restaurant after he hears the DJ exclaim, “They must be stopped before it’s too late…it’s us or them!” as part of a (tongue-in-cheek) anti-yuppie diatribe on his show. One can’t help but be reminded of the Limbaugh apologists who always attempt to douse any criticism of his vile hate rhetoric with the tired old “He’s just an entertainer!” meme.

So what can we learn about last Saturday’s shooting by analyzing these particular films, if anything? Frankly, I don’t feel any more enlightened about the “whys” behind this senseless violence than I did when I started this exercise. Perhaps Bill Maher was not “oversimplifying”, after all, as I postulated earlier. Maybe the equation really is as simple as “A well armed country + A lot of nutty people = A bad combination”. Is change even possible? Maybe we’re already on the right path by continuing to engage in the dialogue we’re engaged in and asking the questions we’re asking. Then again…like the man said: “Don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

Thoughts on a Beatles anniversary & a new (-ish) documentary (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 9, 2014)

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Digby has invited me to share my memories and thoughts about the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago today (CBS is airing a 2 hour tribute special tonight-Paul and Ringo are doing a couple numbers!). Truth be told, that “memory” is a little fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was all of 7 years old; a tad on the young side to fully grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad would come to define any rock’n’roll he might overhear wafting from my room throughout my formative years). Also, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time, none of the local TV stations were equipped to carry live network feeds. We would get Walter Cronkite a day late (the tapes had to be shipped from Seattle via commercial jet flights). And weekly programs like Sullivan were, well, one week late. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles 50 years ago… next Sunday.

My true “discovery” of the Beatles occurred soon after I turned 11, during the summer of 1967, when my best pal George (who was 2 years my senior) practically browbeat me into blowing a month’s worth of allowance to pick up a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s, assuring me that it would change my life. He was right. Sgt. Pepper turned out to be my gateway drug to all the music (from psychedelic and garage to metal and prog and punk and new wave and everything in between) that has become a crucial element of my life to this day.

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I’ve done a few posts in the past about the Beatles on film, and figured I had covered most angles. But the funny thing about Beatles-related movies and documentaries is that, like the band’s legacy itself, it’s a gift that seems to keep on giving. Just when you think you’ve learned everything there is to know, there’s Something New (hey…that would make a cool album title). A few weeks ago, I was perusing the bins of a music and video store here in Seattle, and stumbled upon a straight-to-DVD documentary from the UK with an intriguing (if unwieldy) title called Going Underground: Paul McCartney, The Beatles and the UK counter-culture. Focusing on a specific period of London’s underground scene, it connects the dots between the American Beats (Ginsberg, Kerouac & co.), the social, sexual and aesthetic sea change in the UK during the early to mid-60s, and analyzes its subsequent influence on the Beatles (one word: acid). As one interviewee observes, “They were probably the most avant-garde group in Britain, but also the most commercial.” Actually the Beatles don’t enter the narrative until about halfway through, but it’s still an absorbing watch. Recommended!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Beatle songs/clips (and a perfect example of that avant-garde/commercial dichotomy). BTW this is also the song I always play for those wizards who claim that Ringo was only a so-so drummer…listen to that mother go!

Blame it on the boogie: The Secret Disco Revolution **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 29, 2013)

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Remember the disco era? I try not to. Yeah, I was one of those long-haired rocker dudes walking around brandishing a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt and turning his nose up at anything that smelled of Bee Gee or polyester back in the day. What can I say? I was going through my tribal phase (I think it’s commonly referred to as “being in your early 20s”). Now, that being said, I sure loved me some hard funk back in the mid 70s. A bit of the Isley Brothers, War, Mandrill, Funkadelic, etc. oeuvre managed to infiltrate my record collection at the time (in betwixt the King Crimson, Bowie, Who and Budgie).

But I had to draw the battle lines somewhere around the release (and non-stop radio airplay) of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (ironically, I love the film itself). In retrospect, I think what offended my (oh so rarified) sense of music aesthetic was that while “disco” plundered R&B, funk, soul (and even elements of rock’n’roll) it somehow managed to expunge everything that was righteous and organic about those genres; codifying them into a robotic, repetitive, and formulaic wash. But hey, the kids could dance to it, right?

Now, I am extrapolating here about disco music itself, as one would reference “blues” or “jazz”; not “disco” as a cultural phenomenon or political movement. What did he say? “Political movement”?! Actually, I didn’t say. Director Jamie Kastner is the person who puts forth this proposition in his sketchy yet mildly engaging documentary (mockumentary?) The Secret Disco Revolution. I think he’s being serious when he posits that the disco phenomenon was not (as the conventional wisdom holds) simply an excuse for the Me Generation to boogie, snort and fuck themselves silly thru the latter half of the 70s, but a significant political milestone for women’s lib, gay lib and African American culture. He carries the revisionism a step further, suggesting that the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” riot (ignited by Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl’s 1979 publicity stunt, in which a crate of disco LPs was blown up at Comiskey Park in front of 50,000 cheering fans) was nothing less than a raging mob of racists, homophobes and misogynists. Hmm.

Kastner uses the aforementioned 1979 incident as the bookend to disco’s golden era (kind of like how writers and filmmakers have used Altamont as a metaphor for the death of 1960s hippie idealism). For the other end of his historic timeline, he (correctly) traces disco’s roots back to early 1970s gay club culture. How disco morphed from a relatively ghettoized urban hipster scene to arrhythmic middle-American suburbanites striking their best Travolta pose is actually the most fascinating aspect of the documentary; although I wish he’d gone a little more in depth on the history rather than digging so furiously for a sociopolitical subtext in a place where one barely ever existed.

Kastner mixes archival footage with present day ruminations from some of the key artists, producers and club owners who flourished during the era. The “mockumentary” aspect I mentioned earlier is in the form of three actors (suspiciously resembling the Mod Squad) who represent shadowy puppet masters who may have orchestrated this “revolution” (it’s clearly designed to be humorous but it’s a distracting device that quickly wears out its welcome).

So was disco a political statement? When Kastner poses the question to genre superstars like Thelma Houston, Gloria Gaynor and Evelyn King, they look at him like he just took a shit in the punch bowl. Hell, he can’t even get any of the guys from the Village People to acknowledge that their wild success represented a subversive incursion of gay culture into the mainstream (they’re likely toying with him because he’s belaboring the obvious…”The Village People were camp?! I’m shocked! Stop the presses!”).

Well, here’s how I look at it. Dion singing “Abraham, Martin and John”? That’s a political statement. James Brown singing “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud”? That’s a political statement. Helen Reddy singing “I Am Woman”? Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be Gay”? Those are political statements. KC and the Sunshine Band singing “Get Down Tonight”? Not so much. And as for Kastner’s assertion that anyone who wore a “Disco Sucks” T-shirt back in the day (ahem) was obviously racist, homophobic and misogynistic, I would say this: I have never particularly cared for country music, either…so what does that make me in your book, Mr. Smarty Pants?