Category Archives: On Politics

Rescue me: Desert One (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 22, 2020)

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I recall my excitement when I was finally eligible to vote in a Presidential election. I was all of 20 and cast my ballot for Jimmy Carter. I confess I was not the political junkie I am now. Entering young adulthood in the Watergate era, I had reflexively teetered Left, and for reasons I could not articulate at the time, identified as a Democrat. I was savvy enough to glean the incumbent candidate’s pardon of Nixon smelled funny and I could not look at Ford without thinking of Chevy Chase’s SNL parodies. My horse won, and I was happy (beginner’s luck-as I have since learned “results may vary”).

Despite shifting appraisals as to whether Carter was a “good”, “bad” or “meh” President, I feel that I backed the right horse in 1976. In hindsight, whoever ended up occupying the Oval Office at that point in time was destined to face formidable challenges: “stagflation” of the American economy, a looming energy crisis, the Cold War…that’s just for starters.

However, the most defining crisis of Carter’s presidency began on November 4, 1979:

[From a 2006 Atlantic article]

In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back fifty-three American citizens held hostage in Iran. Everything went wrong. The fireball in the Iranian desert took the Carter presidency with it.

Washington, D.C., April 11, 1980, Noon

The meeting began with Jimmy Carter’s announcement: “Gentlemen, I want you to know that I am seriously considering an attempt to rescue the hostages.”

Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff, knew immediately that the president had made a decision. Planning and practice for a rescue mission had been going on in secret for five months, but it had always been regarded as the last resort, and ever since the November 4 embassy takeover, the White House had made every effort to avoid it. As the president launched into a list of detailed questions about how it was to be done, his aides knew he had mentally crossed a line.

Carter had met the takeover in Iran with tremendous restraint, equating the national interest with the well-being of the fifty-three hostages, and his measured response had elicited a great deal of admiration, both at home and abroad. His approval ratings had doubled in the first month of the crisis. But in the following months, restraint had begun to smell like weakness and indecision. Three times in the past five months, carefully negotiated secret settlements had been ditched by the inscrutable Iranian mullahs, and the administration had been made to look more foolish each time. Approval ratings had nose-dived, and even stalwart friends of the administration were demanding action. Jimmy Carter’s formidable patience was badly strained.

And the mission that had originally seemed so preposterous had gradually come to seem feasible. It was a two-day affair with a great many moving parts and very little room for error—one of the most daring thrusts in U.S. military history. It called for a nighttime rendezvous of helicopters and planes at a landing strip in the desert south of Tehran, where the choppers would refuel before carrying the raiding party to hiding places just outside the city. The whole force would then wait through the following day and assault the embassy compound on the second night, spiriting the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium from which the helicopters could take them to a seized airstrip outside the city, to the transport planes that would carry them to safety and freedom. With spring coming on, the hours of darkness, needed to get the first part of this done, were shrinking fast.

Sounds like a Hollywood pitch, but it was a very real plan, and the stakes were high. What could possibly go wrong? Sadly, as painstakingly detailed in Barbara Kopple’s new documentary Desert One everything that could go wrong went horribly wrong.

Using previously inaccessible archival sources (including White House recordings) two-time Academy Award winner Kopple (Harlan County USA, American Dream, Shut Up and Sing) offers a fresh historical perspective, and (most affectingly) an intimate glimpse at the human consequences stemming from what transpired. She achieves the latter with riveting witness testimony by hostages, mission personnel, Iranians, and former President Jimmy Carter.

There are nearly as many moving parts in Kopple’s film as in the original mission plan and she assembles it all beautifully, like a tightly scripted thriller. She also captures the emotional trauma that still haunts many participants some 40 years on.

Kopple maintains a neutral political tone and injects some Rashomon-worthy moments (e.g. hostage and hostage-taker accounts of some events do not reconcile). Still, like any good documentary filmmaker she does not judge but leaves it up to the viewer to parse.

You could say Kopple had her work cut out for her. There is an oft-repeated cliché that “history is written by the winners”. That may be true in many cases, but there do not appear to be any clear “winners” in this instance. At the very least, it begs questions.

Yes, the hostages were eventually freed, and President Reagan certainly did not pass up a politically advantageous opportunity to position it as a “victory” for his new administration. But when you consider the Iranians purposely held off initializing the transfer until literally moments after Reagan was sworn into office, expressly so they could taunt departing President Carter…was it really a “victory” for Reagan?

Likewise, the Iranians have preserved the location of the failed 1980 mission to commemorate what they annually celebrate as their “victory” against a U.S. “invasion”. But considering there was no military engagement nor any awareness of the incursion until after the Americans had skedaddled, and the fact that Delta Force suffered its “defeat” due to bad luck and weather-can Iran claim it as a true “victory”?

It is way above my pay rate to answer such questions; you will have to watch this excellent, thought-provoking documentary and decide for yourself.

“Desert One” is now playing via SIFF’s Virtual Cinema platform.

Reelin’ in the years: A mixtape (and a tribute)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 25, 2020)

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In my 2009 review of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, I wrote:

“If you can remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there”. Don’t you hate it when some lazy-ass critic/wannabe sociopolitical commentator trots out that  old chestnut to preface some pompous “think piece” about the Woodstock Generation?

God, I hate that.

But I think it was Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane who once said: “If you remember anything about the sixties, you weren’t really there.” Or it could have been Robin Williams, or Timothy Leary. Of course, the irony is that whoever did say it originally, probably can’t really remember if they were in fact the person who said it first.

You see, memory is a funny thing. Let’s take the summer of 1969, for example. Here’s how Bryan Adams remembers it:

 That summer seemed to last forever
and if I had the choice
Yeah – I’d always wanna be there
Those were the best days of my life

Best days of his life. OK, cool. Of course, he wrote that song in 1984. He’d had a little time to sentimentalize events. Now, here’s how Iggy Stooge describes that magic time:

 Well it’s 1969 okay.
We’ve got a war across the USA.
There’s nothing here for me and you.
We’re just sitting here with nothing to do.

Iggy actually wrote and released that song in the year 1969. So which of these two gentlemen were really there, so to speak?

“Well Dennis,” you may be thinking (while glancing at your watch) “…that’s all fine and dandy, but doesn’t the title of this review indicate that the subject at hand is Ang Lee’s new film, Taking Woodstock? Shouldn’t you be quoting Joni Mitchell instead ?”

Patience, Grasshopper. Here’s how Joni Mitchell “remembers” Woodstock:

 By the time we got to Woodstock
We were half a million strong
And everywhere there was song and celebration

She wrote that in 1969. But here’s the rub: she wasn’t really there.

There was a point in there, somewhere. Somehow it made sense when I was peaking on the ‘shrooms about an hour ago. Oh, I’m supposed to be writing a movie review. Far out, man.

2020 has been quite a year; the kind of year that gets memorialized in song. Actually, with five months still to go (survive?), somebody already has memorialized 2020 in song:

New Year’s Eve, don’t it seem
Like decades ago?
Back in 2019
Back when life was slow

Now it’s June, we’re just halfway done
2020, hey are we having fun?
How many years will we try
To cram into one?

You thought we’d be living 1918 again
But we messed that up so bad
God had to toss 1930 in

As the sun rose on 1968 this morning
A tweet from the john
Please let’s not add the Civil War
How many years will we cram into one?

Oh boy
How much more will she take?
Boys, hope you enjoy
Your beautiful tax bre
ak

We’re not repeating history, just the parts that sucked
2020, what the actual fuck?
Pray we get through, but hey don’t hold your breath
‘Cause there’s plenty left to wreck
We got six months left

How many years
How many years will we try
How many years will we try
To cram into one?

— Ben Folds, “2020”

Do you see what he did there? Since we are still ensconced in “2020” (and all it implies) I think it’s safe to confirm Ben Folds is really there, in 2020-right along with the rest of us. And if I may add…I think Mr. Folds has written the best pop elegy for 2020 (in ¾ time!). Since first hearing it last Thursday on The Late Show, I must have watched this 25 times:

It got me thinking (which is always dangerous) about other songs I love with a year as the title…or in the title. So here are my top 10 picks, presented chronologically (how else?!).

“Hilly Fields (1892)” – I was hooked on this haunting, enigmatic song from the first time I heard it on a Bay area alt-rock station in 1982 (it was either KTIM-FM or KUSF-FM; I used to listen to both stations religiously when I lived in San Francisco in the early 80s). It sounded like the Beatles’ Revolver album, compressed into three and a half minutes. The artist was Nick Nicely, an English singer-songwriter who released this and one other song, then mysteriously vanished in the mists of time until reemerging with a full album in 2004 (which was basically a compilation of material he had accumulated over the previous 25 years). He’s since put out several albums of new material, which I have been happily snapping up.

“Paris 1919” – This lovely chamber-pop piece by Velvet Underground alum John Cale is from his eponymous 1973 album, which I think is his finest song cycle. Obviously I wasn’t alive in 1919, but when I close my eyes and listen, Cale’s evocative lyrics make me feel like I’m sitting in a sidewalk cafe somewhere in Europe between the wars:

The Continent’s just fallen in disgrace
William William William Rogers put it in its place
Blood and tears from old Japan
Caravans and lots of jam and maids of honor
Singing crying singing tediousl
y

Efficiency efficiency they say
Get to know the date and tell the time of day
As the crowds begin complaining
How the Beaujolais is raining
Down on darkened meetings on Champs Elysee

“1921”Got a feeling ’21 is gonna be a good year… Great track from the The Who’s classic 1969 double-LP rock opera Tommy, with nice vocals from Pete Townshend.

“1969” – From The Stooges’ debut album…

Last year I was 21
I didn’t have a lot of fun
And now I’m gonna be 22
I say oh my and a boo hoo

I get a sense that 1969 was not Iggy’s happiest year.

“1979” – The Smashing Pumpkins’ 1996 single was a sizeable hit for the band. It’s an autobiographical song written by front man Billy Corgan about coming of age in the ‘burbs (he was 12 in 1979). Sense memories of hanging with his buds; the restlessness of budding adolescence. I see it as an update of Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s “Pleasant Valley Sunday”.

Creature comfort goals, they only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see
Ah, thoughts all seem to stray to places far away
I need a change of scenery

— from “Pleasant Valley Sunday”

That we don’t even care, as restless as we are
We feel the pull in the land of a thousand guilts
And poured cement, lamented and assured
To the lights and towns below
Faster than the speed of sound
Faster than we thought we’d go, beneath the sound of hope

— from “1979”

“1983 (A Merman I Should Turn to Be)” – I’d love to post the 1968 Electric Ladyland version by Jimi Hendrix, but it is not currently available on YouTube. However, this dynamic cover by The Allman Brothers (performed live in 2013) is the next best thing.

“1984” – Spirit’s ominous song, like its literary inspiration by George Orwell, never seems to lose its relevancy. In fact, in light of very recent events, you could easily rename it “2020”:

Those classic plastic coppers, they are your special friends
They see you every night
Well they call themselves protection but they know it’s no game
You’re never out of their sight

1984
Knockin’ on your door
Will you let it come?
Will you let it run?

“Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five” – It’s tough to pick a favorite from Wings’ finest album (it’s a strong set) but I’ve always had a soft spot for this one. I wouldn’t call it Sir Paul’s finest lyrical moment (I just can’t get enough of that sweet stuff my little lady gets behind) but McCartney has such a genius for melody and arrangement that I am prepared to forgive him.

“1999”Mommy…why does everybody have a bomb? Good question; I yearn for the day it no longer needs to be asked. In the meantime, this Prince classic IS the bomb. I’ll never tire of it.

“In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)” – Look in the dictionary under “one-hit-wonder”, and you will see a picture of Zager & Evans. Love it or hate it, if man is still alive, if can woman can survive– I bet this song will still be playing somewhere in the year 9595. In case you’re wondering, Evans passed away in 2018, and Zager now builds custom guitars.

(One more thing) RIP Peter Green

 

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I was dismayed to learn this morning about the passing of English musician Peter Green, one of my guitar heroes. Most obits are noting that he wrote “Black Magic Woman”…but that is just a minor part of his significance in the rock ‘n’ roll pantheon.

An expressive player and distinctive vocalist, the original Fleetwood Mac co-founder was also a master at creating memorable riffs:

While he could obviously rock out with the best of them, he also crafted music of incredible beauty and subtlety; perhaps none more so than the classic Mac instrumental, “Albatross” (which was acknowledged by the Beatles as inspiration for the Abbey Road track “Sun King”).

If pressed for a favorite Green track, I usually cite “Before the Beginning”, a heartrending slow blues number from Fleetwood Mac’s excellent 1969 album Then Play On:

Sadly, Green struggled with drug dependency and mental health issues for most of his life, but his influence and musical legacy is assured…as evidenced by tributes from his peers:

(from “Before the Beginning”)

But how many times
Must I be the fool
Before I can make it
Oh make it on home
I’ve got to find a place to sing my words
Is there nobody listening to my song?

Rest assured, Mr. Green…I will be listening always. RIP.

 

Now We See the Light: A Mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2020)

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Hey you know something people
I’m not black
But there’s a whole lots a times
I wish I could say I’m not white

— Frank Zappa, “Trouble Every Day”

It has been an interesting week here in Mayberry (the one with the Space Needle).

As the Seattle Police Department works to broker a deal with protesters occupying an autonomous zone in the heart of Capitol Hill, a Seattle City Council member said the area known as “CHAZ” should remain in community control permanently.

The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, known as “CHAZ,” has been in community control since Tuesday when Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best decreased the officers’ presence in the East Precinct to allow for peaceful protests.

Seattle Councilwoman Kshama Sawant called the “CHAZ” movement a major victory. She said the area should be turned over permanently into community control, instead of back in the hands of the Seattle Police Department.

Sawant said she plans to create legislation to turn the East Precinct into a community center for restorative justice. The councilwoman wants to discuss the legislation with people involved in CHAZ, black community organizations, restorative justice, faith, anti-racist, renter organizations, land trusts, groups, labor unions that have a proven record of fighting racism.

Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
(Get it) let’s get this party started right
Right on, c’mon
What we got to say (yeah)
Power to the people no delay
Make everybody see
In order to fight the powers that be

— Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”

Yes, I live in a blue city chock full of Marxists and dirty Hippies. Few cities are “bluer” than Seattle. We have have a weed shop on every corner. We have public statues of Jimi Hendrix and V.I. Lenin. We have a progressive, openly gay female mayor. We have a female African American police chief. We have a high-profile female city council member who is a Socialist Alternative. As Merlin once foretold-a dream for some…a nightmare for others:

Oh, dear. Let’s take a peek at the terrorist-fueled burning and pillaging that has been raging in Seattle’s Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone for the past week (sensitive viewers be warned):

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The humanity. Not quite as harrowing as a Burning Man festival…but in the ballpark.

My insufferable facetiousness aside, there is in fact a “revolution” happening in Seattle right now; and on streets all over America. “Revolution” doesn’t always equate “burning and pillaging”. Granted, some of that did occur when the protests started two weeks ago.

There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware
I think it’s time we stop, children, what’s that sound
Everybody look what’s going down

— The Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”

But there is something happening here; something percolating worldwide that goes deeper than that initial visceral expression of outrage over the injustice of George Floyd’s senseless death; it feels like change may be in the offing. It will still take some…nudging. And I fear some feathers may get ruffled.

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, “It Isn’t Nice”

So it is in that spirit that I say come gather ’round, people-wherever you roam, and give a listen to my mixtape of 15 protest songs…some old, some newer, but all as timely as ever.

Alphabetically…

Green Day – “American Idiot”

The Temptations – “Ball of Confusion”

Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”

The Buffalo Springfield  – “For What It’s Worth”

The Wailers – “Get Up, Stand Up”

The Specials – “Ghost Town”

Malvina Reynolds – “It Isn’t Nice”

Stevie Wonder – “Living For the City”

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – “Ohio”

The Beatles – “Revolution”

Gil Scott-Heron – “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

Bob Dylan – “The Times They Are A-Changin’”

Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention – “Trouble Every Day”

Marvin Gaye – “What’s Goin’ On”

The Clash – “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais

Notes from Ground Zero…and The Twilight Zone

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 7, 2020)

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The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices…to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill…and suspicion can destroy…and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.

– Narrator’s epilogue from “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” (1960 episode of The Twilight Zone) original teleplay by Rod Serling

A few days ago, this Tweet by NBC news journalist Richard Engel caught my attention:

Now here was an angle on the Coronavirus crisis that I hadn’t given much thought to. Engel makes a very salient point about “social” side effects of pandemic panic. Many people are prone to allergies or suffer from non-viral chronic respiratory conditions who will be (or already are) getting dirty looks when they’re out and about. I’ve been worried about this myself for several days; the apple and cherry trees have begun to blossom, and (right on schedule) so has my usual reaction: sneezing fits, runny nose and dry coughing.

I currently live in fear of mob retribution should I fail to suppress a sneeze in an elevator.

On the flip side, I must come clean and plead guilty to feeding the monster myself. Earlier this week I was waiting in line at the drug store. Standing in front of me was a man and his young daughter (I’d guess she was around 7 or 8 years old). She was doing the fidget dance. Just as she twirled around to face in my direction, she emitted a fusillade of open-mouthed coughs. I jumped back like James Brown, nearly colliding with the person standing behind me (we’re all a tad “jumpy” in Seattle just now). For a few seconds, I was seeing red and nearly said something to her dad, who was too busy futzing around with his cell phone to notice his Little Typhoid Mary’s St. Vitus Dance of Death.

Thankfully, my logical brain quickly wrested the wheel from my lizard brain, and I thought better of making a scene. After all she was just a little girl, bored waiting in line.

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A lot of sociopolitical fallout from pandemic panic has been on display in recent weeks: fear of the “other” (ranging from unconscious racial profiling to outright xenophobia), disinformation, fear mongering, and the good old reliable standbys anxiety and paranoia.

This got me thinking about one my favorite episodes of the original Twilight Zone, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”. Scripted by series creator Rod Serling, the episode premiered in 1960. I re-watched it today and was struck by how tight Serling’s teleplay is; any aspiring dramatist would do well to study it as a masterclass in depth and brevity.

**** SPOILERS AHEAD ****

The story opens under blue suburban skies of Maple Street, U.S.A. in a neighborhood straight outta Leave it to Beaver where the residents are momentarily distracted from their lawn mowing and such by the overhead rumble and flash of what appears to be a meteor streaking though the sky. However, this brief anomaly is only the prelude to a more concerning turn of events: a sudden power outage coupled with an inexplicable shutdown of anything gas-powered, from lawn mowers to automobiles. Concern builds.

This precipitates an impromptu community meeting in the middle of the block, as residents start to speculate as to what (or who) could be to blame for these odd events. A young boy takes center stage. An avid sci-fi comic book fan, he regales the adults with a tale he read recently about an alien invasion. In the story, the invaders infiltrate towns by embedding a family in each neighborhood, until the time is right to “take over” en masse.

The seed has been planted; fear, distrust and paranoia spreads through the block like wildfire, becoming increasingly more palpable with the diminishing daylight. By nightfall, anarchy reigns, and once-friendly neighbors have turned into a murderous mob.

The camera pulls away further and further from the shocking mayhem occurring on Maple Street to a “God’s-eye” view, where we become aware of two shadowy observers (who are obviously the alien invaders). After absorbing the ongoing scenario, one asks the other “And this pattern is always the same?” “With a few variations,” his companion intones with a clinical detachment, adding “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.” Cue Mr. Serling’s equally omniscient epilogue (top of post).

Obviously, when Serling wrote the piece he was referring at the time to the Red Scare; America and Russia were at the height of the Cold War and nuclear paranoia was rampant among the general populace (in the episode, a character sarcastically refers to himself as a “Fifth Columnist” when accused of being an alien invader by his neighbors).

That said, Serling’s script (like much of his work) is “evergreen”. With its underlying themes about mob psychology, scapegoating, and humanity’s curious predilection to eschew logic and pragmatism for fear and loathing, the “message” is just as relevant now.

Keep your head, be a good neighbor, and don’t forget to wash your hands for 20 seconds.

 

A special guest post: On people …and light

By Kermet Apio

Note: Kermet Apio is a Seattle-based comedian with whom I had the pleasure of working with in my stand-up days.  Not unlike foreign correspondents, road comics get a firsthand take as to what’s happening “on the ground” anywhere their job takes them. Kermet shared some thoughts regarding the current situation between the U.S. and Iran in a Facebook post today. With his permission, I am re-publishing it here. -Dennis Hartley

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I have been incredibly lucky to have performed in the Middle East twice in the last few years. Travel cuts through all the media sound bites. When you spend time with people and learn about their culture, their history, their foods, and their joys, THEY become your definition of that country. You shake your head at the propaganda because you saw with your own eyes human beings who were kind, funny, welcoming, and love their families and friends.

Bombs don’t fall on a map. They fall on people. For one brief moment I ask you to look beyond the justifications and the talking points. Think about those that will lose their lives and those that will survive with the pain of loss.

I relate more to the everyday people I’ve met around the world than the people running my country right now. The war mongers and profiteers don’t want you to see people, they want you to see darkness. I am hoping we see people and light because that is what’s really there.

It can’t happen here: The Edge of Democracy (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 16, 2019)

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“That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth.”

 – President Obama in 2009, upon meeting then-Brazilian president Lula da Silva

“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America…Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

– President Trump in 2019, commenting on current Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro

Politics ain’t beanbag (as the saying goes). It can be a nasty business. Latin American politics have a particular rep for volatility; historically an ever-simmering cauldron of violent coups, brutal dictatorships, revolving door regimes and social unrest. In my 2012 review of Lula: Son of Brazil, Fabio Barreto and Marcelo Santiago’s stirring yet frustrating biopic about the former president of Brazil Luis Inacio Lula da Silva I wrote:

[…] Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s life journey from dirt-poor shoeshine boy to benevolent world leader (he served as president from 2003-2010) seems tailor-made for the screen, with the major players in his life plucked straight out of Central Casting […] You have the Strong Saintly Mother (Gloria Pires), the Drunken Abusive Father (Milhem Cortaz), and the Childhood Sweetheart (Clio Pires, pulling double duty as The Young Wife Who Dies Tragically). […]

 We watch Lula (played as an adult by Rui Ricardo Diaz) come of age; he graduates from a technical school, gets a factory job, loses a finger in a lathe mishap, and marries his childhood sweetheart. His first marriage ends tragically, after which he begins (at the encouragement of his brother and to the chagrin of his mother) to gravitate toward leftist politics. […]

 By the time he becomes a union official in the late 70s, he finds himself at loggerheads with the military-controlled government of the time. After officials identify him as one of the prime movers behind a series of major work strikes, he is arrested and jailed. After prison, the increasingly politicized Lula helps create Brazil’s progressive Worker’s Party in the early 80s, and then…and then…the film ends.

 Ay, there’s the rub, and the main reason why political junkies may find this slick, well-acted production inspiring on one hand, yet curiously unsatisfying on the other. […]

 I found myself  wondering “what happened next?!”, and asking questions like: What did he do to earn declaration as Brazil’s most beloved president, with an approval rating of 80.5% during the final months of his tenure? What inspired President Obama to greet him at the G20 summit with “That’s my man right there…love this guy…the most popular politician on Earth”? […]

The film left me hanging like a chad on a Florida ballot. But, as Fate would have it I was listening to Democracy Now while driving to work the other day (as progressive pinko NPR-listening Lefties often do) and lo and behold –I found out “what happened next”:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in Brazil, where former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was freed from prison Friday after 580 days behind bars. Lula’s surprise release came after the Brazilian Supreme Court ruled to end the mandatory imprisonment of people convicted of crimes who are still appealing their cases. Lula has vowed to challenge Brazil’s right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections. During a rally on Friday soon after his release, Lula warned about Bolsonaro’s ties to violent militias.

 LUIZ INÁCIO LULA DA SILVA: [translated] “Bolsonaro was democratically elected. We accept the result of the election. This guy has a mandate for four years. Now, he was elected to govern the Brazilian people, and not to govern the militia in Rio de Janeiro. … I want to build this country with the same happiness that we built it when we governed this country. My dream isn’t to solve my problems. Today I’m a guy that doesn’t have a job, a president without a pension, not even a television in my apartment. My life is totally blocked. The only thing I’m certain of is that I have more courage to fight than ever before.”

 AMY GOODMAN: Lula was serving a 12-year sentence over a disputed corruption and money laundering conviction handed down by conservative Judge Sérgio Moro, an ally of current far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. After that, he became the justice minister. Lula has long maintained his innocence. Earlier this year, The Intercept revealed Moro aided prosecutors in their sweeping corruption investigation, known as Operation Car Wash, in an attempt to prevent Lula from running in 2018 election. This cleared the path for Bolsonaro’s victory. At the time of his imprisonment in April 2018, Lula was leading the presidential polls.

 Wow. If Lula pulls it off in 2022, it would be the political comeback story of the century. But that chapter is yet to be written. The current political reality in Brazil is somewhat tenuous, precipitated in part by the ascension of the aforementioned President Bolsonaro.

President …who? Here’s a refresher from the New York Times, dated March 19, 2019:

President Trump hosted Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president, at the White House on Tuesday, and it was something like looking in the mirror.

 Like other authoritarian leaders Mr. Trump has embraced since taking office, Mr. Bolsonaro is an echo of the American president: a brash nationalist whose populist appeal comes partly from his use of Twitter and his history of making crude statements about women, gay people and indigenous groups.

 “They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America,” Mr. Trump marveled during a speech to the Farm Bureau in January, noting that Mr. Bolsonaro had been called the “Trump of the tropics” since taking office this year. “Do you believe that? And he’s happy with that. If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t like the country so much. But I like him.”

“Something” changed in Brazil’s sociopolitical sphere in the 8 years that elapsed between 2010, when the progressive populist Lula left the presidency with an unprecedented 80.5% approval rating, and 2018, when far-right candidate Bolsonaro won the election.

In her extraordinarily intimate documentary, The Edge of Democracy (now available on Netflix) Brazilian actress and filmmaker Petra Costa suggests there is something much more insidious at play in her country than a cyclical left-to-right shift. Costa’s film delves into the circumstances that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff (Lula’s hand-picked successor) and Lula’s imprisonment (which began in April of 2018).

Costa begins with a recap of the military dictatorship in Brazil that began with a 1964 coup and effectively ended in 1989 with the first election of a president via popular vote in 29 years, then moves on to cover Lula’s 8-year tenure (2003-2010), which brought a great deal of positive social change in the country through various progressive programs.

However, the honeymoon began to sour during the presidency of Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff. Elected in 2011, Rousseff (a former member of a leftist guerilla group that fought against the military dictatorship-which led to a 2-year imprisonment from 1970-1972 during which she endured torture) largely upheld the ideals of her predecessor, but was impeached and removed from office in 2016 as a result of the “Car Wash” scandal.

What separates this film from an informative but dry episode of Frontline is Costa’s deeply personal perspective. The 36-year-old director points out that she is approximately the same age as Brazil’s hard-won democracy, and makes no bones about the fact that her parents were passionate left-wing activists who openly railed against the dictatorship.

But the real coup for Costa (no pun intended) is the amazing accessibility she was given to President Rousseff and ex-President Lula during times of particularly high drama in their lives. This lends urgency and adds a “fly on the wall” element to the palace intrigue.

There is something Shakespearean about the rise and fall of the two leaders, which gives the film the feel of a byzantine political thriller. There is also a Kafkaesque element. In one scene, a visibly scandal-weary Rousseff candidly alludes to the protagonist in “The Trial” with a heavy sigh. “Do you really feel like ‘Josef K’?” someone asks. “Yes,” she replies with a sardonic chuckle, “I feel just like Josef K…but Josef K with an attorney.”

The film’s most dramatic moments derive from the footage Costa was able to get while she was essentially holed up for 3 days with Lula at a trade union hall while he vacillated over turning himself in. When Lula announces he is ready to face the music, a crowd of his supporters tries to stop him from doing so, forming a human blockade between him and the police outside the hall waiting to arrest him.

As you watch Lula give an impassioned speech to his supporters (many of them in tears) to explain his decision and reassure them everything will be fine, you understand why people are so drawn to him.

This is the most powerful documentary about South American politics since Patricio Guzman’s The Battle of Chile. It is also a cautionary tale; we have more in common with Brazil than you might think. As Costa observed in an interview on Democracy Now:

“…Brazil has the third-largest incarcerated population in the world. It’s a huge crisis, similar to the United States. And we need an urgent judiciary — like, prison reform and judiciary reform that will make our judiciary system more efficient. I think the mistake that many people fall into is thinking that constitutional rights can be abused to have a more efficient system. The danger with that is that today Lula’s constitutional rights can be abused, tomorrow mine, tomorrow yours. And where do we stand as a democracy?”

Where do WE stand as a democracy? As politicians say, “that’s an excellent question…”

On mad kings, Mueller’s report, and Altman’s Secret Honor

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 20, 2019)

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It’s been déjà vu all over again this week. In my 2008 review of Frost/Nixon, I wrote:

There’s an old theatrical performer’s axiom that goes “Always leave ‘em wanting more.” In August of 1974, President Richard Nixon made his Watergate-weary exit from the American political stage with a nationally televised resignation soliloquy and left ‘em wanting more…answers. Any immediate hopes for an expository epilogue to this 5-year long usurpation of the Constitution and Shakespearean tragedy were abruptly dashed one month later when President Gerald Ford granted him a full pardon. Like King Lear, the mad leader slunk back to his castle by the sea and out of public view. […]

[Actor Frank Langella] uncannily captures the essence of Nixon’s contradictions and complexities; the supreme intelligence, the grandiose pomposity and the congenital craftiness, all corroded by the insidious paranoia that eventually consumed his soul, and by turn, the soul of the nation.

Speaking of the devil, on Sunday CNN premiered the concluding episode of Tricky Dick, a 4-part docuseries about Nixon’s life and political career (recommended-CNN always repeats broadcasts, so don’t despair if you missed it first time around).

It was followed by an hour-long panel discussion about the lessons learned, hosted by Anderson Cooper and featuring journalist Carl Bernstein (who famously broke the Watergate story for the Washington Post with Bob Woodward), former Nixon White House lawyer John Dean, presidential historian Timothy Naftali and former Watergate Special Prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste. When Cooper asked him about the legacy of Watergate, Ben-Veniste said:

“As I said in my book, written shortly after I left the office [as Special Prosecutor] …For the future, the lessons of Watergate are wonderful, in that the system worked–in this circumstance…but they almost didn’t work. For the future, does it take something more than what we have experienced in Watergate [regarding] the type of evidence: demonstrative, incredibly powerful evidence of criminal wrongdoing for a President of the United States to be put in a position of either resigning, or certainly [being] impeached and convicted?”

That was a loaded question, coming as it did 4 days prior to the official (belated) release of the (almost) full Mueller report to the United States Congress and the American people. Of course, everyone on that panel was fully aware that the exhaustive 2-year investigation looking into possible foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, possible collusion with the Trump campaign, and possible obstruction of justice by Trump and/or members of his administration after the fact was about to come to a head.

Carl Bernstein was more succinct, offering this take:

“The system worked in Watergate. But it worked ultimately because there was a ‘smoking gun tape’. It’s very questionable whether the system would have worked without that gun.”

Bernstein was referring to Nixon’s self-incriminating statements regarding a coverup and obstruction of justice…captured for posterity via a secret recording system the President himself had arranged to be set up in order to document all his Oval Office conversations.

And so here we are, 45 years after Nixon resigned, and the media, members of Congress and concerned citizens find themselves poring over the 400 pages of the Mueller Report (replete with “limited” redactions) as they ask themselves the other $64,000 question:

Is there a “smoking gun” buried somewhere in here…or a reasonable facsimile thereof?

At least one Congressperson has stepped up to the plate and said (in so many words) “Smoking gun?! Try a field howitzer!” Taking an extraordinarily fearless and principled stance amid the disappointing backpedaling and hand-wringing angst emanating from many of her colleagues, senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren was interviewed Friday night by Rachael Maddow on MSNBC, and did not mince any words:

 “This is about point of principle […] This isn’t about politics. This isn’t even specifically about Donald Trump himself. It is about what a President of the United States should be able to do and about the role of Congress is in saying: ‘No. A president does not get to come in and stop an investigation about a foreign power that attacked this country, or an investigation about his own wrongdoing.’ Equal justice under law, no one is above the law; and that includes the President of the United States. It is the constitutional responsibility of Congress to follow through on that. […]

Because it matters, not just for this president, it matters for the next president, and the next president after that, and the next president after that. I get it…in dictatorships, the government coalesces around one person in the middle and does everything to protect that one person. But that’s not where we live. We live in a democracy, and it is controlled by a constitution. And the way we make that democracy work is with checks and balances. And a president who says, “I don’t have to follow the law, and nobody can touch me on criminal acts” -that’s not right.

The Constitution says that the House and the Senate can do this. […] And every member of the House, and every member of the Senate should be called on to vote: Do you believe that constitutes an impeachable offense? I do believe that the evidence is just overwhelming that Donald Trump has committed these offenses, and that means that we should open proceedings in the House. And then the House can take a vote.”

Nixon famously stated in the David Frost interviews, “I’m saying that when the president does it…it’s not illegal.” Mind you, he made that statement several years after he had resigned from the office of the president in shame, ending a decades-long political career in the most humiliating manner imaginable. Yet he never publicly apologized for any of the questionable actions he engaged in while serving as the President of the United States.

If that pathology reminds you of somebody else…perhaps a specific “somebody” currently occupying the White House, you will not be surprised to learn that there is a disturbingly prescient link between Richard M. Nixon and Donald J. Trump, in the form of this letter:

 

December 21, 1987

Dear Donald,

I did not see the program, but Mrs. Nixon told me you were great on the Donahue show.

As you can imagine, she is an expert in politics, and she predicts that whenever you decide to run for office you will be a winner!

With warm regards,

Sincerely,

(signed) Richard M. Nixon

 

Nightmare fuel.

How ironic that Nixon, the man who many historians posit lost his 1960 presidential bid because he was not as telegenic as JFK and never did get the hang of the medium (even once he eventually became the leader of the free world) was nonetheless canny enough to recognize a master manipulator of the idiot box when his wife saw Trump on a TV show.

Howard Beale: “Why me?”

Arthur Jensen: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

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Which brings me to why I felt this was the perfect week to pull out my dusty DVD of Robert Altman’s brilliant (and underappreciated) 1984 film adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s one-man play Secret Honor (****) to take it for a spin on current events.

Originally titled as “Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon” when it opened in 1983 at Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, the film is a fictional monologue by Nixon, set in his post-presidential New Jersey office. Part confessional, part autobiographical, and (large) part batshit-crazy postcards from the edge rant, it’s an astonishing piece of writing; a pitch-perfect 90-minute distillation of Nixon’s dichotomy.

Philip Baker Hall (most recognizable from the Paul Thomas Anderson films Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) pulls out all the stops in a tour-de-force turn reprising his stage role.

His Nixon is at once darkly brooding and explosively feral, pacing his claustrophobic office like a caged animal, swigging Chivas Regal and alternately pleading his “case” before an unseen Court of Public Opinion and howling at the moon (not dissimilar to how late night TV satirists envision Donald Trump pacing the Oval Office, wolfing cheeseburgers and unleashing Tweet storms from the Id).

Nixon, who is taping his monologue on a cassette recorder (in a blackly comic reference to his purported technical ineptitude, he spends the first several minutes of the film fumbling and cursing while trying to figure out how to work it) largely speaks in the first person, but oddly switches to the third at times, referring to his “client” whenever he addresses “your honor” (it’s no secret Trump often refers to himself in the third person).

The word salad soliloquies Nixon utters as he prowls the long dark night of his soul in arctic desolation share spooky parallels with the word salad soliloquies that Trump bellows as he prowls podiums in the full light of day at his public rallies.

Nixon frequently rants at his “enemies”. He is particularly obsessed with “those goddam Kennedys”. This is one of the more revealing insights into Nixon’s psychology contained in Freed and Stone’s screenplay; Nixon, ever self-conscious about his modest Quaker roots, is obviously both resentful and envious of the Kennedys’ privileged patrician upbringing, Ivy League education, movie-star charisma, and physical attractiveness.

He also lights into the other usual suspects in his orbit: Henry Kissinger, President Eisenhower, liberals, “East coast shits”, Jews, the FBI, and the media (you know…the “deep state” and “fake news”).

In rare moments of lucidity, he sadly recalls the untimely deaths of his brothers (Arthur, who died in 1925 at age 7, and Harold, who died in 1933 at age 23, both from TB) and speaks tenderly to the portrait of his late mother (although it gets weird when he refers to himself as her “loving dog”…and promptly begins to bark).

Hall is mesmerizing; while he doesn’t physically resemble Nixon, he so expertly captures his essence that by the end of the piece, he is virtually indistinguishable from the real item. It takes substantial acting chops to carry an entire film; Hall has got them in spades.

Film adaptations of stage plays can be problematic, especially in a chamber piece. But since this is, after all, Robert Altman…not to worry. He cleverly utilizes the limited props to his full advantage; for example, the four CCTV monitors in the office pull double duty as both a metaphor for Nixon’s paranoia and a hall of mirrors representing his multiple personalities (shades of the symbology in Pete Townshend’s rock opera Quadrophenia).

It also helps that Hall’s performance is anything but static; he moves relentlessly about the set (in a supplemental interview on the Criterion DVD, Hall recalls the original running time of the play as 2 ½ hours…I can’t begin to imagine the mental and physical stamina required to deliver a performance of that intensity night after night). DP Pierre Mignot deserves major kudos for his fluid tracking shots.

Watching the film again in context of all the drama and angst surrounding the release of the Mueller report, I was struck by both its timelessness as a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power and corruption, and its timeliness as a reminder of what democracy looks like at its lowest ebb-which is where we may be now. Time to wake up.

As Oliver Stone reminded us in the closing credits of JFK: What is past is prologue.

Making ends meet: A top 10 mixtape

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 12, 2019)

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As we enter the 3rd week of the “partial” government shutdown, we’re hearing more and more stories of how it’s affecting thousands of federal employees and contractors who are either on forced furloughs, or who are being asked to continue working…without pay. 

This has not only thrown a spotlight on how many of the folks who help keep the country running smoothly are barely scraping by as it is, but it has opened a broader dialogue on how many Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck, period. The stats are not too rosy:

[from US News & World Report]

In fact, living paycheck to paycheck – meaning there’s not a cash cushion to cover the bills if the income stops for a while – is a common condition in America. In the 12th richest nation in the world by per capita GDP, nearly 8 in 10 U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck, according to a 2017 study  by CareerBuilder, a human capital management firm. And the trend crosses over income groups: more than half of minimum wage workers said they needed to hold down two jobs to make ends meet, while one in 10 workers earning $100,000 or more yearly say they live paycheck to paycheck.

And if there’s an emergency? A large number of Americans don’t have an accessible stash of money to cover a substantial health care expense or car repair, studies show. The Federal Reserve Board in 2017 found that 44 percent of American households surveyed could not cover a $400 emergency expense.

Oy vay.

With that cheery thought in mind (and in consideration of the adage “misery loves company”) I’ve curated a playlist of songs that appropriately…commiserate. Erm, enjoy?

 (In alphabetical order…)

“Blue Collar” – Bachman-Turner Overdrive

“Five O’clock World” – The Vogues

“Hole to Hide In” – Foghat

Manic Monday” – The Bangles

“9 to 5” – Dolly Parton

 “Pieces of a Man” – Gil Scott-Heron

“She Works Hard for the Money” – Donna Summer

“Wichita Lineman” – Glen Campbell

“Working Class Hero” – John Lennon 

“Work to Do” – The Isley Brothers 

Who is America? – BlacKkKlansman (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 18, 2018)

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“I-I am going to be a storm-a flame-
I need to fight whole armies alone;
I have ten hearts; I have a hundred arms;
I feel too strong to war with mortals-
BRING ME GIANTS!”

-Edmond Rostand, from Cyrano de Bergerac

[To two members of the KKK, while pretending to capture Bart]

Jim: Oh, boys! Lookee what I got heyuh.

Bart: Hey, where are the white women at?

-from Blazing Saddles; screenplay by Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, and Alan Uger

To bring in something, such as a fish, by winding up the line on a reel.

-from The Free Dictionary definition of the phrase “reel something in”

So what do you get if you cross Cyrano de Bergerac with Blazing Saddles? You might get Spike Lee’s new joint, Black KkKlansman. That is not to say that Lee’s film is a knee-slapping comedy; far from it. It does contain laughs, but there is nothing funny about some of the reaction it has sparked after only a week. From an Indie Wire article:

[Actor] Topher Grace contacted police after receiving a threatening phone call reacting to his role as former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke in Spike Lee’s “Black KkKlansman”. According to reports (via TMZ) Grace told police that someone called him over the phone and referred to him using a gay slur. The mystery caller also warned Grace that his role as Duke would “ruin race relations in America.” […] Grace reportedly described the caller as “aggressive” and “angry.”

Speaking of “race relations in America”, here’s something even less amusing. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are 917 hate groups currently operating in the U.S. And (to paraphrase Gimli the dwarf) it gets even better! If you go to the SPLC website and click the “100 Days in Trump’s America” report, there’s lots of fun facts:

As he spoke to the nation on Jan.20 [2016], President Donald Trump reminded white nationalists why they had invested so much hope in him as their champion and redeemer. He painted a bleak picture of America: a nation of crumbling, third-world infrastructure, “rusted-out factories,” leaky borders, inner cities wallowing in poverty, a depleted military and a feckless political class that prospered as the country fell into ruin. He promised an “America First” policy that would turn it all around. […]

Despite his failure to achieve any major legislative victories, Trump has not disappointed his alt-right followers. His actions suggest that – unlike the economic populism of his campaign – Trump’s appeals to the radical right did indeed presage his White House agenda. On Jan. 31 [2016], former Klan leader David Duke tweeted: “everything I’ve been talking about for decades is coming true and the ideas I’ve fought for have won.”

Well fuck me. There’s that fine fellow David Duke popping up again! When Mr. Wizard Tweeted he’d been “talking about” certain ideas “for decades” …he wasn’t exaggerating. The “David Duke” depicted in Lee’s film is the David Duke of the 1970s, right around the time he became the public face of the “National Association for the Advancement of White People”. This was also when he dropped the hood and robes for a suit-and-tie look.

True story. This window-dressing may have fooled some people, but it didn’t wash with Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington), an African-American undercover cop who managed to infiltrate…and become a card-carrying member (!) of the KKK in Colorado in the early 70s. To address the obvious question, he didn’t crash a Klan rally and ask where all the white women were at, because 1) that would’ve gone over like a lead balloon with the goys in the hoods, and 2) again, Lee’s film is not a comedy (per se).

Stallworth ingratiated himself with the organization Cyrano style. He made them fall in love with him by proxy. The “Ron Stallworth” who wooed his local Klan by whispering sweet racist nothings over the phone was not the same “Ron Stallworth” who attended the meetings. That was Stallworth’s white surrogate, his Jewish undercover partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver). In other words, this was old school “catfishing”-if you will.

What ensues is the kind of story that frankly strains credulity…if it weren’t for the fact that this really happened (allowing for some creative license, naturally). Even Lee was skeptical at first, admitting in an interview that he did with Seth Meyers earlier this week:

“…when [co-producer] Jordan Peele pitched it to me, it was one of those very high-concept pitches. Six words: ‘Black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.’ […] I thought of [comedy sketches done by] Dave Chappelle, but [Peele] said ‘no’ and he sent me the book. I was very intrigued by it…it was in my wheelhouse.”

I think this is Lee’s most affecting and hard-hitting film since Do the Right Thing (1989). The screenplay (adapted by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott and Lee from Stallworth’s eponymous memoir) is equal parts biopic, docudrama, police procedural and social commentary, finding a nice balance of drama, humor and suspense. The cast is uniformly excellent. Washington (son of Denzel) and Driver have great chemistry, and Grace captures Duke’s smarminess to a tee. Other standouts include Robert Lee Burke, Laura Harrier, Ryan Eggold and a genuinely scary Jasper Paakkonen.

Lee is aware he’s preaching to the choir and will never reach a certain percentage of the “fine people” in America…sadly, the very ones who would benefit most from his counsel. And if someone were to call Lee’s approach heavy-handed, I wouldn’t disagree.

He opens with the iconic crane shot from Gone with the Wind that pans over hundreds of dead and wounded Confederate soldiers and resolves with the tattered stars and bars. He cross-cuts a solemn Klan initiation rite with a monologue by revered civil rights icon Harry Belafonte, playing a man sharing a horrifying eyewitness account of a particularly gruesome 1916 lynching. In case you’re still unable to connect the dots between the Stallworth story with Black Lives Matter and Charlottesville, he tacks on a timely denouement that jams to a screeching halt just inches away from slamming into “ta-da!”.

Yes, he ladles in on with a trowel. But you know what? The voices of reason in America are drowned out daily by the relentless clatter and din of Trump-fueled polarization and misdirection. He who shouts loudest wins (apparently). The hoods are off? Fine. I say more power to artists like Lee with something substantive to add to the conversation who feel they must (figuratively) bonk you over the head first to get your undivided attention.

Subtlety is prologue. Resist. Or get riled by seeing this film, immediately. Bring a friend.

SIFF 2018: A Good Day for Democracy ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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I don’t need to tell you that democracy is a messy business. But when working correctly, it’s a good kind of mess (Mussolini made the trains run on time, but at what price?). Cecilia Bjork’s purely observational peek at “Almedalen Week”, an annual event held on Sweden’s isle of Gotland that corrals politicians, lobbyists, and everyday citizens into a no holds-barred, all-access setting serves as a perfect (albeit messy) microcosm of true democracy in action.