Category Archives: Journalism

This country is going to pot: Rolling Papers **

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

The Death Hour: How Hollywood tried to warn us

By Dennis Hartley

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

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?”

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.

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 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.

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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, 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.

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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).

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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.

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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:

(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.

Image result for man bites dog (1992)

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.

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Natural Born Killers, 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”).

Image result for bananas 1971 howard cossell

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.

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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 simply reflects our contemporary society.

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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 too close to home with network brass when he outs a pending business deal the network has made with shadowy Arab investors, and it is decided that his show needs to be cancelled (with extreme prejudice). Besides, his ratings are slipping. The network hires a team of hit men to assassinate him, “live” on the air.

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

How many Alisons will it take?

SIFF 2015: Challat of Tunis ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

While this qualifies as a “mockumentary”, there’s nothing “ha-ha” funny about it. That is, unless you consider sexual violence an amusing subject… which it decidedly is not, although (sadly) it is a global scourge that knows no borders.

This is precisely the point that writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania is (bravely) making in her film, which is a scathing feminist send-up of the systemic sexism that permeates not only her native Tunisia, but Arab culture (and the Earth).

The “Challat” refers to a motorbike-borne, self-anointed crusader who slashes the buttocks of women who dress “immodestly”. As the film opens, a decade has passed since this twisted customer has victimized anyone. An investigative journalist (played by the director) is trying to track him down, so she can get inside his head to see what makes such an odious individual tick. A young man comes forth, who may or may not be the elusive “Challat”. She calls his bluff, and things get interesting.

Thought-provoking, yet also disheartening when you contemplate the distressing universality of the misogynist credo: “She was asking for it.”

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

French filmmaker Stephanie Valloatto’s globetrotting documentary profiles a dozen men and women who make their living drawing funny pictures about current events. I know what you’re thinking…beats digging ditches, right? Well, that depends. Some of these political cartoonists ply their trade under regimes that could be digging a “special” ditch, reserved just for them (if you know what I’m saying).

The film can be confusing; in her attempt to give all 12 subjects equal face time, Valloatto’s frequent cross-cutting can make you lose track of which country you’re in (it’s mostly interior shots). That aside, she gets to the heart of what democracy is all about: speaking truth to power. It’s also timely; in one scene, an interviewee says, “Like a schoolchild, I told myself: I shouldn’t draw Muhammad.” Then, holding up a sketch of you-know-who, he concludes: “Drawing is the correct answer to the forbidden.”

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

Good times.

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

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

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

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

In this respect, Kill the Messenger parallels Oliver Stone’s JFK, in that both center on idealistic truth seekers (Jim Garrison and Gary Webb) who got crucified for their troubles…by the very parties who should be championing and joining them on their quest (now that I think about it, that’s pretty much human history-in a nutshell).

In a bit of kismet,  I was listening to Democracy Now the other day while driving to work, and Amy Goodman did a segment about Webb and his legacy. She was talking to investigative journalist Robert Parry, who observed:

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

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

SIFF 2014: Lucky Them ***

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

SIFF 2014: 1,000 Times Goodnight ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 24, 2014)

Juliette Binoche is magnificent (as she always is) as a fearless photojournalist torn between her addiction to the adrenaline-pumping unpredictability of her work and the grounding reassurance of home life with her family. After she’s nearly blown to bits while embedded in Afghanistan with a group of female suicide bombers, her husband (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and daughters give her an ultimatum. Erik Poppe’s film is a compassionate, sensitively-acted melodrama in the tradition of Shoot the Moon.

SIFF 2014: #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

Not long ago, the MSM relegated social media to kickers about flash mobs, or grandpa’s first tweet. Then, the Arab Spring happened, precipitating the rise of the citizen journalist. Case in point: 19 year-old Ala’a Basatneh, subject of Joe Piscatella’s doc. The Damascus-born Chicagoan is a key player in the Syrian revolution, as in “key stroke”. It’s not just about Ala’a, but her compatriots in Syria, some who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice. Timely and moving.

SIFF 2014: Regarding Susan Sontag ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 17, 2014)

There’s much to regard in Nancy Kate’s enlightening documentary about the complex private and public life of the iconic intellectual polymath. Kate is deft at deconstructing, then reassembling all of the “Susan Sontags” (cultural critic, activist, feminist pioneer, provocateur) into a rich portrait. Great archival footage; in my favorite clip Sontag cleans the floor with some wingnut who questions her “patriotism” for her pragmatic essay about the 9/11 attacks (we could sure use her now).


Blu-ray reissue: The Day the Earth Caught Fire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 6, 2014)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire – BFI Blu-ray (Region “B” )

Written and directed by Val Guest, this cerebral mix of conspiracy a-go-go and sci-fi (from 1961) has always been a personal favorite of mine. Simultaneous nuclear testing by the U.S. and Soviets triggers an alarmingly rapid shift in the Earth’s climate. As London’s weather turns more tropical by the hour, a Daily Express reporter (Peter Stenning) begins to suspect that the British government is not being 100% forthcoming on the possible fate of the world. Along the way, Stenning has some steamy scenes with his love interest (sexy Janet Munro). The film is more noteworthy for its smart, snappy patter than its run-of-the-mill f/x, but still delivers a compelling narrative. Co-starring the great Leo McKern (who steals every scene he’s in).

The releasing studio is BFI, a UK-based reissue outfit that employs the same grade of high standards that Criterion has become known for here in the U.S., with meticulously restored prints and extras geared toward the film buff. Please note that this review is based on the region “B” release, so it requires a region-free Blu-ray player.