Category Archives: Politics

Tears of a clown: Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11 (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 11, 2021)

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Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirize it. Which is rather ridiculous, when you think about it.

― Lenny Bruce

Like many people of “a certain age”, I can remember where I was and what I was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. I was attending school (2nd grade) in Columbus, Ohio. There was a school assembly. The principal made some remarks, we put our hands over our hearts, recited the Pledge of Allegiance and were dismissed.

I was not mature enough to grasp the historical significance of what had just happened, nor parse the sociopolitical fallout that ensued in the wake of this great national tragedy. All I got from the principal’s remarks that afternoon was “blah blah blah” and something about a magic ring and the end of the world. My main takeaway was that I got to go home early.

In May of 1963, a musician named Vaughn Meader picked up a Grammy award for Album of the Year…but he didn’t play a note on it. Meader was the star of an ensemble of voice actors who were recruited by writers Bob Booker and Earle Dowd to impersonate then-President John F. Kennedy and his family for a comedy album entitled The First Family.

It’s one of the first comedy albums I remember listening to when I was a kid, because my parents owned a copy (filed next to The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in the built-in storage cabinet of their stereo console). Meader had been doing his JFK impression on stage, but it wasn’t until the surprise success of the gently satirical 1962 LP (7.5 million copies sold-impressive even now for a comedy album) that his career really skyrocketed.

This was, of course, decades before social media existed. Consequently, it would take nothing short of an Act of God to “cancel” an entertainer’s career overnight. Unfortunately for Meader, whatever career boost God gave him with one hand, he took away with the other on November 22, 1963.

As a (possibly apocryphal) story goes, Lenny Bruce was booked for a gig on the night of November 22, 1963. Undeterred by the shocking murder of the President earlier that day, he went on with the show. Reportedly, Bruce went onstage, but said nothing for several minutes, finally breaking his silence with “Boy …is Vaughn Meader fucked.”

Which begs a question: Too soon? Regardless, as Bruce predicted, Meader’s comedy career effectively ended that day. As Oliver Stone said in JFK, “The past is prologue.”

“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.”

― George Carlin

Fast-forward to the night of September 29, 2001. The nation was still reeling from the horror of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that took the lives of over 3,000 people. The New York Friar’s Club was roasting Hugh Hefner. It was the first significant gathering of comedy heavyweights since the attacks.

The mood in the room that night was tentative. These were professional funny people, but like all Americans they were not in a jovial frame of mind. Nonetheless, the show went on. When Gilbert Gottfried took to the podium, his opener was a real doozy:

I had to catch a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight…they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”

You could have heard a pin drop. Then someone yelled “TOO SOON!

Gottfried’s story does have a happy ending. Reading the room (correctly), he immediately switched gears and launched into a venerable joke that comedians have amused each other with offstage for decades. It’s known as “The Aristocrats!”  because…well, the punch line is: “The Aristocrats!”

It’s more of an improvisational exercise (or gross-out contest) than a “joke”, as whoever is telling it must embellish the setup, while assuring the premise and punchline remain intact. Long story short, Gottfried not only won back the crowd, but he also had fellow comics in tears as they all enjoyed a much-needed yuk.

Unlike the Lenny Bruce anecdote, this is not apocryphal…it’s on film. The footage originally popped up in the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats but serves as an apt opener for Nick Fituri Scown and Julie Seabaugh’s documentary Too Soon: Comedy After 9/11, which premiered on VICE-TV this week (there is a commemorative showing at L.A.’s Chinese Theater September 11).

The directors enlist comics, Broadway players, late-night TV hosts, SNL cast members, and writers for The Onion to share how they reconciled with a newly sensitized sociopolitical landscape to eventually find a way back to just being, you know – “funny”.

For some, it wasn’t simply struggling with writer’s block or facing glum-faced audiences. Muslim-American performers like Ahmed Ahmed, Negin Farsad, Maz Jobrani, Hari Kondabolu, and Aasif Mandvi recall the Islamophobia they encountered, ranging from having racist epithets hurled their way to outright death threats.

Another phenomenon that arose in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was a pernicious purity test that entertainers (or anyone with a public platform) had to pass with flying stars and stripes, under penalty of becoming persona non grata.

The most well-known example (as recalled in the film) was what happened to comic Bill Maher. Just 6 days following the attacks, Maher was hosting his weekly ABC panel show Politically Incorrect. His guest was outspoken conservative Dinesh D’Souza.

D’Souza was commenting on President Bush’s characterization of the terrorists as cowards. ”Not true,” D’Souza said. ”Look at what they did. You have a whole bunch of guys who were willing to give their life; none of them backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete. These are warriors.” Maher replied: ”We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

While others in the media (including print journalists, like Susan Sontag) made similar observations, Maher took the most public flak. This prompted him to embark on something akin to an apology tour, appearing on a number of other talk shows to clarify his remarks.

In the meantime Politically Incorrect began to lose sponsors hand over fist, and in June of 2002 ABC pulled it, citing slipping ratings. Maher has contended he was essentially fired for the comments he made about the hijackers in September 2001.

Good times.

On the flip-side of that coin, what could be more “patriotic” than laughing in the face of adversity? What could be more “American” than pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, dusting yourself off, and (in the immortal words of the late, great Chuckles the Clown), giving them “…a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants”?

The filmmakers include three key clips that encapsulate this spirit and the healing power of laughter: excerpts from David Letterman’s emotionally raw yet inspiring monologue for his first show following the attacks (September 17th, 2001), John Stewart’s equally heartfelt opener for his first post 9/11 episode of The Daily Show (September 20th, 2001), and the defiant, rousing return of Saturday Night Live on September 29th, 2001.

I remember watching all three of those programs when they originally aired and being reminded of them again in the documentary was an unexpectedly moving experience. Speaking for myself there is now an added layer of weltschmerz in recalling these moments of national unity and shared compassion, because if there are two things we’ve lost over these past 20 years in America, it’s a sense of national unity and shared compassion.

Just pray we never lose our sense of humor. Because if we do…boy, are we fucked.

 

War(s) on Terror: 20 years and 10 films later

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 21, 2021)

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Now a note to the President, and the Government, and the judges of this place
We’re still waitin’ for you to bring our troops home, clean up that mess you made
‘Cause it smells of blood and money across the Iraqi land
But its so easy here to blind us with your united we stand

– from “Crash This Train”, by Joshua James

With the 20th anniversary of September 11th looming amid the political fireworks surrounding America’s ongoing “final” troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, there has been more than enough analyses (scholarly or otherwise) regarding the whys and wherefores of America’s wars on terror to go around lately, so I won’t add to the din. Besides-that’s above my pay grade. I’m just “the movie guy” around these parts.

I was perusing my 15 years of reviews and was surprised at the number of documentaries and feature films related to our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan that I have covered. Collectively, these films not only paint a broad canvas of these endless wars themselves, but put the full spectrum of humanity on display, from “the better angels of our nature” to the absolute worst (mostly the worst).

So in lieu of a 3,000-word dissertation, I’ve culled 9 films from my archives that perhaps best represent what’s gone down “over there” (and on the home front) over the last 20 years since the World Trade Center towers fell, and one film that serves as a preface. It doesn’t feel appropriate to call this a “top 10” list, so let’s just call it, “food for thought”.

Pray for peace.

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Charlie Wilson’s War – Aaron Sorkin, you silver-tongued devil, you had me at: “Ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community…”

That line is from the opening scene of Charlie Wilson’s War, in which the titular character, a Texas congressman (Tom Hanks) is receiving an Honored Colleague award from the er-ladies and gentlemen of the clandestine community (you know, that same group of merry pranksters who orchestrated such wild and woolly hi-jinx as the Bay of Pigs invasion.)

Sorkin provides the snappy dialog for director Mike Nichols’ political satire. In actuality, Nichols and Sorkin may have viewed their screen adaptation of Wilson’s real-life story as a cakewalk, because it falls into the “you couldn’t make this shit up” category.

Wilson, known to Beltway insiders as “good-time Charlie” during his congressional tenure, is an unlikely American hero. He drank like a fish and loved to party but could readily charm key movers and shakers into supporting his pet causes and any attractive young lady within range into the sack. So how did this whiskey quaffing Romeo circumvent the official U.S. foreign policy of the time (1980s) and help the Mujahedin rebels drive the Russians out of Afghanistan, ostensibly paving the way for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War? While a (mostly) true story, it plays like a fairy tale now; although in view of recent events we know the Afghan people didn’t necessarily live happily ever after. (Full review)

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Fair Game – Doug Liman’s slightly uneven 2010 dramatization of the “Plame affair” and the part it played in the Bush administration’s “weapons of mass destruction” fiasco may hold more relevance now, with the benefit of hindsight. Jez and John-Henry Butterworth based their screenplay on two memoirs, The Politics of Truth by Joe Wilson, and Fair Game by Valerie Plame.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts bring their star power to the table as the Wilsons, portraying them as a loving couple who were living relatively low key lives (she more as a necessity of her profession) until they got pushed into a boiling cauldron of nasty political intrigue that falls somewhere in between All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor.

Viewers unfamiliar with the back story could be misled by the opening scenes, which give the impression you may be in for a Bourne-style action thriller. The conundrum is that the part of the story concerning Valerie Plame’s CIA exploits can at best be speculative in nature. Due to the sensitivity of those matters, Plame has only gone on record concerning that part of her life in vague, generalized terms, so what you end up with is something along the lines of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

However, the most important part of the couple’s story was the political fallout that transpired once Valerie was “outed” by conservative journalist Robert Novak. Liman wisely shifts the focus to depicting how Wilson and Plame weathered this storm together, and ultimately stood up to the Bush-Cheney juggernaut of “alternative facts” that helped sell the American public on Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Full review)

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The Kill Team – In an ideal world, no one should ever have to “go to war”. But it’s not an ideal world. For as long as humans have existed, there has been conflict. And always with the hitting, and the stoning, and the clubbing, and then later with the skewering and the slicing and stabbing…then eventually with the shooting and the bombing and the vaporizing.

So if we absolutely have to have a military, one would hope that the majority of the men and women who serve in our armed forces at least “go to war” as fearless, disciplined, trained professionals, instilled with a sense of honor and integrity. In an ideal world. Which again, this is not.

In 2011, five soldiers from the Fifth Stryker Brigade, Second Infantry Division (stationed near Kandahar) were officially accused of murdering three innocent Afghan civilians. Led by an apparently psychopathic squad leader, a Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the men were all members of the 3rd Platoon, which became known as “The Kill Team”.

Artfully blending intimate interviews with moody composition (strongly recalling the films of Errol Morris), director Dan Krauss coaxes extraordinary confessionals from several key participants and witnesses involved in a series of 2010 Afghanistan War incidents usually referred to as the “Maywand District murders“.

This is really quite a story (sadly, an old one), and because it can be analyzed in many contexts (first person, historical, political, sociological, and psychological), some may find Krauss’ film frustrating, incomplete, or even slanted. But judging purely on the context he has chosen to use (first person) I think it works quite well. (Full review)

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The Messenger – I think this is the film that comes closest to getting the harrowing national nightmare of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “right”. Infused with sharp writing, smart direction and compelling performances, The Messenger is one of those insightful observations of the human condition that sneaks up and really gets inside you, haunting you long after the credits roll.

First-time director Owen Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon not only bring the war(s) home but proceed to march up your driveway and deposit in on your doorstep. Ben Foster, Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson are outstanding. I think this film is to the Iraq/Afghanistan quagmire what The Deer Hunter was to Vietnam. It’s that good…and just as devastating. (Full review)

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Son of Babylon – This heartbreaking Iraqi drama from 2010 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. (Full review)

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Standard Operating Procedure – I once saw a fascinating TV documentary called Nazi Scrapbooks from Hell. It was the most harrowing depiction of the Holocaust I’ve seen, but it offered nary a glimpse of the oft-shown photographs of the atrocities themselves. Rather, it focused on photos from a scrapbook (discovered decades after the war) that belonged to an SS officer assigned to Auschwitz.

Essentially an organized, affably annotated gallery of the “after hours” lifestyle of a “workaday” concentration camp staff, it shows cheerful participants enjoying a little outdoor nosh, catching some sun, and even the odd sing-along, all in the shadow of the notorious death factory where they “worked”.

If it weren’t for the Nazi uniforms, you might think it was just a bunch of guys from the office, hamming it up for the camera at a company picnic. As the filmmakers point out, it is the everyday banality of this evil that makes it so chilling. The most amazing fact is that these pictures were taken in the first place.

What were they thinking?

This is the same rhetorical question posed by one of the interviewees in this documentary about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal from renowned filmmaker Errol Morris. The gentleman is a military C.I.D. investigator who had the unenviable task of sifting through the hundreds of damning photos taken by several of the perpetrators.

Morris makes an interesting choice here. He aims his spotlight not on the obvious inhumanity on display in those sickening photos, but rather on our perception of them (echoes of Antonioni’s Blow-Up).

So just who are these people that took them? What was the actual intent behind the self-documentation? Can we conclusively pass judgment on the actions of the people involved, based solely on what we “think” these photographs show us? A disturbing, yet compelling treatise on the fine line between “the fog of war” and state-sanctioned cruelty. (Full review)

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Stop/Loss – This powerful and heartfelt 2008 drama is from Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce. Co-written by the director along with Mark Richard, it was one of the first substantive films to address the plight of Iraq war vets.

As the film opens, we meet Sgt. Brandon King (Ryan Phillippe), an infantry squad leader leading his men in hot pursuit of a carload of heavily armed insurgents through the streets of Tikrit. The chase ends in a harrowing ambush, with the squad suffering heavy casualties.

Brandon is wounded in the skirmish, as are two of his lifelong buddies, Steve (Channing Tatum) and Tommy (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). They return to their small Texas hometown to receive Purple Hearts and a hero’s welcome, infusing the battle-weary vets with a brief euphoria that inevitably gives way to varying degrees of PTSD for the trio.

A road trip that drives the film’s third act becomes a metaphorical journey through the zeitgeist of the modern-day American veteran. Peirce and her co-writer (largely) avoid clichés and remain low-key on political subtext; this is ultimately a soldier’s story. Regardless of your political stance on the Iraq War(s), anyone with an ounce of compassion will find this film both heart wrenching and moving. (Full review)

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W – No one has ever accused Oliver Stone of being subtle. However, once you watch his 2008 take on the life and times of George W. Bush (uncannily played by Josh Brolin), I think the popular perception about the director, which is that he is a rabid conspiracy theorist who rewrites history via Grand Guignol-fueled cinematic polemics, could begin to diminish. I’m even going to go out on a limb and call W a fairly straightforward biopic.

Stone intersperses highlights of Bush’s White House years with episodic flashbacks and flash forwards, beginning in the late 60s (when Junior was attending Yale) and taking us up to the end of his second term.

I’m not saying that Stone doesn’t take a point of view; he wouldn’t be Oliver Stone if he didn’t. He caught some flak for dwelling on Bush’s battle with the bottle (the manufacturers of Jack Daniels must have laid out serious bucks for the ubiquitous product placement). Bush’s history of boozing is a matter of record.

Some took umbrage at another one of the underlying themes in Stanley Weisner’s screenplay, which is that Bush’s angst (and the drive to succeed at all costs) is propelled by an unrequited desire to please a perennially disapproving George Senior. I’m no psychologist, but that sounds reasonable to me. (Full review)

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A War – This powerful 2015 Oscar-nominated drama is from writer-director Tobias Lindholm. Pilou Aesbaek stars as a Danish military company commander serving in the Afghanistan War. After one of his units is demoralized by the loss of a man to a Taliban sniper while on recon, the commander bolsters morale by personally leading a patrol, which becomes hopelessly pinned down during an intense firefight. Faced with a split-second decision, the commander requests air support, resulting in a “fog of war” misstep. The commander is ordered back home, facing charges of murdering civilians.

For the first two-thirds of the film Lindholm intersperses the commander’s front line travails with those of his family back home, as his wife (Yuva Novotny) struggles to keep life and soul together while maintaining as much of a sense of “normalcy” as she can muster for the sake their three kids. The home front and the war front are both played “for real” (aside from the obvious fact that it’s a Danish production, this is a refreshingly “un-Hollywoodized” war movie).

Some may be dismayed by the moral and ethical ambivalence of the denouement. Then again, there are few tidy endings in life…particularly in war, which (to quote Bertrand Russell) never determines who is “right”, but who is left. Is that a tired trope? Perhaps; but it’s one that bears repeating…until that very last bullet on Earth gets fired in anger. (Full review)

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Zero Dark Thirty – “Whadaya think…this is like the Army, where you can shoot ‘em from a mile away?! No, you gotta get up like this, and budda-bing, you blow their brains all over your nice Ivy League suit.”

–from The Godfather, screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola

If CIA operative Maya (Jessica Chastain), the partially fictionalized protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty had her druthers, she would “drop a bomb” on Osama Bin Laden’s compound, as opposed to dispatching a Navy SEAL team with all their “…Velcro and gear.” Therein lays the crux of my dilemma regarding Kathryn Bigelow’s film recounting the 10-year hunt for the 9-11 mastermind and events surrounding his take down; I can’t decide if it’s “like the Army” or a glorified mob movie.

But that’s just me. Perhaps the film is intended as a litmus test for its viewers (the cries of “Foul!” that emitted from both poles of the political spectrum, even before its wide release back in 2013 would seem to bear this out). And indeed, Bigelow has nearly succeeded in making an objective, apolitical docudrama.

Notice I said “nearly”. But if you can get past the fact that Bigelow or screenwriter Mark Boal are not ones to necessarily allow the truth to get in the way of a good story (and that The Battle of Algiers or The Day of the Jackal…this definitely ain’t), in terms of pure film making, there is an impressive amount of (if I may appropriate an oft-used phrase from the movie) cinematic “trade craft” on display.

While lukewarm as a political thriller, it does make a terrific detective story, and the recreation of the SEAL mission, while up for debate as to accuracy (only those who were there could say for sure, and keeping mum on such escapades is kind of a major part of their job description) is quite taut and exciting. The best I can do is arm you with those caveats; so you will have to judge for yourself. (Full review)

…and one more thing

2 weeks ago I posted a review of Mariam Ghani’s new documentary What We Left Unfinished, which takes a rare look at the Afghan film industry, and how a group of filmmakers kept it flourishing during Afghanistan’s Communist era (1978 to 1991). Earlier this week, it was announced that tickets purchased via Dekanalog Eventive will go to the Emergency Funds For Afghan Artists Go Fund Me organized by the Afghan American Artists and Writers Association. You will find more detailed information and latest updates here.

Life through a lens: What We Left Unfinished (**½) & Whirlybird (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 7, 2021)

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Considering recent developments in Afghanistan, the release of Mariam Ghani’s documentary What We Left Unfinished may prove to be timelier than the director intended. Her film offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Kabul-based Afghan film industry, and how it fared during the multi-regime Communist era (from 1978 to 1991).

While it may seem counter-intuitive to consider a 13 year-long period of Communist rule as “the good old days”, the filmmakers who are profiled here view it as a golden age (of sorts)…especially relative to the subsequent years of Taliban rule from 1992 to 2001.

If there was an “up” side to the implementation of the Soviet model during that period, it was state funding of movies. Of course there was a substantial “down” side for filmmakers, in that they did not get final cut…every master print was subject to approval (read: butchering) by government censors before distribution.  Those willing to put up with caveats found they had an otherwise surprising amount of resources at their disposal.

Ghani uses restored footage from five unfinished projects to give a sampling of the types of films that were produced during that period. For the most part, they are standard melodramas; and while they contain elements reflecting Afghanistan’s historical turbulence and nods to Communist doctrine, none of them struck me as overtly political.

Ghani enlists writers, actors, producers and directors to reflect on how they finagled to keep the film industry alive during this period, despite the frequent regime changes (sometimes governmental shifts would occur mid-production, which could get awkward).

Some of the filmmakers’ stories are pretty wild. One recalls staging a battle scene in the desert wherein they had to use real bullets (the army provided them with weapons for the film, but didn’t have any blanks). When he called “cut”, he heard additional gunfire and quickly realized that actors and crew were being shot at by a small band of mujahedin, who had been drawn by the sound of their gunfire. They were eventually able to escape.

If you’re looking for the big picture-at 70 minutes Ghani’s film cannot convey the full complexity of Afghan art and politics; but as film preservation it has historical value. It’s not for all tastes, but I think diehard fans of international cinema should find it intriguing.

WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is in select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide.

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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

Talk about helicopter parenting. Matt Yoda’s documentary Whirlybird is one of those “only in L.A.” stories; specifically the story of the Tur family…broadcast reporter Zoe (formerly Bob), her ex-wife/long-time professional colleague Marika Gerrard, and their two children James and Katy.

It’s tough to pigeonhole a film that runs the gamut from shocking footage of the 1992 L.A. riots and the infamous O.J. Simpson Bronco chase to home movies of a happy mom-to-be carrying future NBC News correspondent Katy Tur. The best I can do for you is “Keeping up with the Kardashians meets Broadcast News.”

Although the “action news” format was established in the 70s, one can credit (or blame) news stringer/helicopter pilot Bob Tur (who transitioned to Zoe in 2014) and then-wife and camera operator Marika Gerrard with popularizing the sensationalist, God’s-eye iteration of “breaking news”…reporting from high aloft the murder and mayhem below.

Tur founded the independent Los Angeles News Service in the 80s, initially running his own camera in addition to doing the reporting. As Marika recalls, it wasn’t too long after she and Tur began courting that he encouraged her to learn how to shoot news footage. More often than not, “date nights” ended up with her tagging along with him to a crime scene, fire, or a car crash anyway, so Marika figured out early on that if she wanted time with Bob, her best bet was to take him up on his offer to be a professional partner as well.

Even once the couple began to build their family, the police scanner remained the soundtrack of their lives. Zoe recalls “driving 110 miles an hour” to get the jump on a breaking story…with her wife and kids in the car.

If that sounds like reckless behavior, Zoe would agree with you. While sheepish about speaking of herself in the third person, she now realizes “Bob” had an overabundance of testosterone. Bob also had anger management issues, as evidenced in outtakes of him berating both Marika and helicopter pilot Lawrence Welk III (I was reminded of the 2010 documentary Winnebago Man).

Nonetheless, the reportage that Tur and Gerrard did over the years adds up to an extraordinary documentation of key historical events in Los Angeles from the late 1980s through the late 1990s “as they happened” (e.g. that is Bob Tur’s voice you hear accompanying that horrific, now-iconic footage of truck driver Reginald Denny being beaten nearly to his death on live television).

The director was given access to the couple’s archive of several thousand Beta tapes. As he plowed through the library, Yoda noticed that there was quite a bit of family footage mixed in among the plane crashes, riots, and police pursuits (Bob and Marika used the work camera for their home movies).

The couple’s marriage ended in 2003; Yoda interweaves family footage with career highlights to create a dual chronology of a city descending into chaos and a relationship becoming increasingly untenable. It’s not necessarily “a great Sunday night show for the whole family”…but it’s an absorbing watch and one of the top docs I have seen this year.

WHIRLYBIRD is streaming on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and other platforms.

Happy end of the world: Top 15 Anti-Nuke Films

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 31, 2021)

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

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

This coming Friday marks the 76th anniversary of mankind’s entry into that “different country”.  So what have we learned since 8:15am, August 6, 1945-if anything? Well, we’ve tried to harness the power of the atom for “good”, however, as has been demonstrated repeatedly, that’s not working out so well (Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, et al).

Also, there are enough stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to knock Planet Earth off its axis, and we have no guarantees that some nut job, whether enabled by the powers vested in him by the state, or the voices in his head (doesn’t really matter-end result’s the same) won’t be in a position at some point in the future to let one or two or a hundred rip. Hopefully, cool heads and diplomacy will continue to keep us above ground and rad-free.

What with the rapidly-mutating COVID-19 virus, record heat waves in the U.S., and flooding in Europe I’d all but forgotten that every January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gives the human race its annual physical, to determine the official time on the Doomsday Clock. In January of 2020, they determined that it was “100 seconds to Midnight” (those seem like such carefree and happy days now…when our only worry was complete nuclear annihilation).

So how are we doing now?

Humanity continues to suffer as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads around the world. In 2020 alone, this novel disease killed 1.7 million people and sickened at least 70 million more. The pandemic revealed just how unprepared and unwilling countries and the international system are to handle global emergencies properly. In this time of genuine crisis, governments too often abdicated responsibility, ignored scientific advice, did not cooperate or communicate effectively, and consequently failed to protect the health and welfare of their citizens.

As a result, many hundreds of thousands of human beings died needlessly.

Though lethal on a massive scale, this particular pandemic is not an existential threat. Its consequences are grave and will be lasting. But COVID-19 will not obliterate civilization, and we expect the disease to recede eventually. Still, the pandemic serves as a historic wake-up call, a vivid illustration that national governments and international organizations are unprepared to manage nuclear weapons and climate change, which currently pose existential threats to humanity, or the other dangers—including more virulent pandemics and next-generation warfare—that could threaten civilization in the near future. […]

As we noted in our last Doomsday Clock statement, the existential threats of nuclear weapons and climate change have intensified in recent years because of a threat multiplier: the continuing corruption of the information ecosphere on which democracy and public decision-making depend. Here, again, the COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call. False and misleading information disseminated over the internet—including misrepresentation of COVID-19’s seriousness, promotion of false cures, and politicization of low-cost protective measures such as face masks—created social chaos in many countries and led to unnecessary death. This wanton disregard for science and the large-scale embrace of conspiratorial nonsense—often driven by political figures and partisan media—undermined the ability of responsible national and global leaders to protect the security of their citizens. […]

C’mon guys…can you at least throw us a bone, here…?

Considered by themselves, these negative events in the nuclear, climate change, and disinformation arenas might justify moving the clock closer to midnight. But amid the gloom, we see some positive developments. The election of a US president who acknowledges climate change as a profound threat and supports international cooperation and science-based policy puts the world on a better footing to address global problems. For example, the United States has already announced it is rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Biden administration has offered to extend the New START arms control agreement with Russia for five years. In the context of a post-pandemic return to relative stability, more such demonstrations of renewed interest in and respect for science and multilateral cooperation could create the basis for a safer and saner world.

Because these developments have not yet yielded substantive progress toward a safer world, they are not sufficient to move the Clock away from midnight. But they are positive and do weigh against the profound dangers of institutional decay, science denialism, aggressive nuclear postures, and disinformation campaigns discussed in our 2020 statement. The members of the Science and Security Board therefore set the Doomsday Clock at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse and the same time we set in 2020. It is deeply unfortunate that the global response to the pandemic over the past year has explicitly validated many of the concerns we have voiced for decades.

OK. Some cautious optimism. But nuclear proliferation itself is so last century…right?

In the past year, countries with nuclear weapons continued to spend vast sums on nuclear modernization programs, even as they allowed proven risk-reduction achievements in arms control and diplomacy to wither or die. Nuclear weapons and weapons-delivery platforms capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads continued to proliferate, while destabilizing “advances” in the space and cyber realms, in hypersonic missiles, and in missile defenses continued. Governments in the United States, Russia, and other countries appear to consider nuclear weapons more-and-more usable, increasing the risks of their actual use. There continues to be an extraordinary disregard for the potential of an accidental nuclear war, even as well-documented examples of frighteningly close calls have emerged.

Oh, crap. Anyway…with those happy thoughts in mind, here are my picks for the top 15 (still) cautionary films to watch before we all go together (when we go). Uh…enjoy?

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

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

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Black Rain– For obvious reasons, there have been a fair amount of postwar Japanese films dealing with the subject of nuclear destruction and its aftermath. Some take an oblique approach, like Gojira or I Live in Fear. Other films, like the documentary Children of Hiroshima and the anime Barefoot Gen deal directly with survivors (who are referred to in Japan as the hibakusha).

One of the most affecting hibakusha films I’ve seen is Shomei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain (not to be confused with the 1989 Hollywood crime thriller of the same title that is also set in Japan). It’s a simple tale of three Hiroshima survivors: an elderly couple and their niece, whose scars run much deeper than physical. The narrative is sparse, yet contains more layers than an onion (especially considering the complexities of Japanese society). Interestingly, Imamura injects a polemic which points an accusatory finger in an unexpected direction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ladybug, Ladybug– I didn’t have an opportunity to see this chilling 1963 drama until 2017, which is when Turner Classic Movies presented their premiere showing (to my knowledge, it has never been available in a home video format). The film marked the second collaboration between husband-and-wife creative team of writer Eleanor Perry and director Frank Perry (The Swimmer, Last Summer, Diary of a Mad Housewife).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special Bulletin– This outstanding 1983 made-for-TV movie has been overshadowed by the nuclear nightmare-themed TV movie The Day After, which aired the same year (I’m sure I will be raked over the coals by some readers for not including the aforementioned on this list, but frankly I always thought it was too melodramatic and vastly over-praised).

Directed by Edward Zwick and written by Marshall Herskovitz (the same creative team behind thirtysomething), Special Bulletin is framed as a “live” television broadcast, with local news anchors and reporters interrupting regular programming to cover a breaking story.

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

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Testament- Originally an American Playhouse presentation, this film (with a screenplay adapted by John Sacred Young from a story by Carol Amen) was released to theaters and garnered a well-deserved Best Actress nomination for Jane Alexander. Director Lynne Littman takes a low key approach, but pulls no punches; I think this is what gives her film’s anti-nuke message more teeth and makes its scenario more relatable than Stanley Kramer’s similarly-framed but more sanitized and preachy 1959 drama On the Beach.

Alexander, her husband (William DeVane) and three kids live in sleepy Hamlin, California, where afternoon cartoons are interrupted by a news flash that nuclear explosions have occurred in New York. Then there is a flash of a different kind when nearby San Francisco (where DeVane has gone on a business trip) receives a direct strike.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When the Wind Blows– This animated 1986 U.K. film was adapted by director Jimmy Murakami from Raymond Brigg’s eponymous graphic novel. It is a simple yet affecting story about an aging couple (wonderfully voiced by venerable British thespians Sir John Mills and Dame Peggy Ashcroft) who live in a cozy cottage nestled in the bucolic English countryside. Unfortunately, an escalating conflict in another part of the world is about to go global and shatter their quiet lives.

Very similar in tone to Testament (another film on this list), in its sense of intimacy amidst slowly unfolding mass horror. Haunting, moving, and beautifully animated, with a combination of traditional cell and stop-motion techniques. The soundtrack features music by David Bowie, Roger Waters, and Squeeze.

Blu-ray reissue: The Parallax View (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 10, 2021)

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The Parallax View (The Criterion Collection)

Alan J. Pakula’s 1974 “conspiracy a-go-go” thriller stars Warren Beatty, who delivers an excellent performance 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 the Space Needle. This puts him on a trail that leads to an enigmatic agency called the Parallax Corporation.

The supporting cast includes Hume Cronyn, William Daniels and Paula Prentiss. Nice work by cinematographer Gordon Willis (aka “the prince of darkness”), who sustains the foreboding, claustrophobic mood of the piece with his masterful use of light and shadow.

The screenplay is by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, with a non-credited rewrite by Robert Towne). The narrative contains obvious allusions to the JFK assassination, and (in retrospect) reflects the political paranoia of the Nixon era (perhaps this was serendipity, as the full implications of the Watergate scandal were not yet in the rear view mirror while the film was in production).

The new, restored 4K digital transfer is a revelation. The audio track retains the original mono mix, but is also a substantial upgrade from the 1999 Paramount DVD (which I think I’ve nearly worn out…if that’s possible with digital media). Extras include archival interviews from 1974 and 1995 with Pakula, a new program on DP Willis, and a new introduction by filmmaker Alex Cox. I’m awarding this package my highest rating: 4 tin foil hats!

Tribeca 2021: Larry Flynt for President (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19. 2021)

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Director Nadia Szold’s wild documentary about the Hustler magazine publisher’s infamous 1983 bid for the White House makes Milos Forman’s 1996 biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt look like a Saturday morning cartoon.

An ever-polarizing public figure, Flynt (who died earlier this year) was paralyzed from the waist down after a would-be assassin shot him in 1978. After several years of painful recovery, Flynt began to incorporate more sociopolitical satire into Hustler, which led to his presidential campaign. He ran as a Republican (with a rather progressive agenda and a healthy sense of irony).

Szold had access to a trove of previously unreleased footage by a film crew that followed Flynt around on his campaign trail. She also documents his high-profile First Amendment court battle with religious Right demagogue Jerry Falwell. At turns hilarious and harrowing (harrowing in the sense of how Flynt’s purely performative flirtation with politics presaged Donald Trump and the MAGA cult).

Tribeca 2021: The Price of Freedom (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 19. 2021)

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From a 2016 piece I wrote in the wake of the Orlando nightclub mass shooting:

You know what “they” say-we all have a breaking point. When it comes to this particular topic, I have to say, I think that I may have finally reached mine. I’ve written about this so many times, in the wake of so many horrible mass shootings, that I’ve lost count. I’m out of words. There are no Scrabble tiles left in the bag, and I’m stuck with a “Q” and a “Z”. Game over.

I wrote that five years ago; if anything, it seems gun violence in America has increased. Let’s put it this way…it’s an ongoing and complex issue. This timely documentary from Judd Ehrlich focuses on the political angle, more specifically the political influence of the NRA. How did the gun lobby become so powerful?

Taking an evenhanded approach, Ehrlich has politicians, victims of gun violence, and NRA representatives all weighing in. He also offers an absorbing history of the NRA, pinpointing how the organization transitioned from hobbyists to lobbyists. There are no easy solutions; but as Ehrlich reminds us, there is a generation of young people like Parkland school-shooting survivor-turned activist Emma Gonzalez who are out there providing light at the end of the tunnel.

Tribeca 2021: Not Going Quietly (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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You may not recognize Ady Barkan by name, but you may remember a chance encounter he had on a plane with then U.S. Senator Jeff Flake in 2017 that went viral. Barkan (diagnosed with ALS in 2016 at age 32) confronted Flake on an impending Congressional vote on a tax cut that would have negative residual effects on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs that people with disabilities rely upon for health care assistance.

Nicholas Bruckman’s “warts and all” documentary charts how Barkin continues to use his skills as a longtime activist to spearhead a national campaign for healthcare reform, despite the progression of his disease. Don’t pity him-he doesn’t want it. You’ll pity yourself for not being out there making a difference like this amazing person.

Tribeca 2021: 9/11: One Day in America (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 12, 2021)

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Tribeca is premiering this 72-minute pilot episode of an upcoming 6-part National Geographic Channel series. There have been quite a few documentaries recounting the horrors and heroics of that day, but I think this is the most affecting one I’ve seen to date. Much of the footage may be all-too-familiar, but director Daniel Bogado’s compelling, minute-by-minute network narrative-style reconstruction gives equal import to intimate testimonies of survivors and the broader historical context.

Who needs the Peace Corps: Zappa (****) & White Riot (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 2, 2021)

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“A lot of what [The Mothers of Invention] do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it. As long as they don’t feel their environment – they don’t worry about it – they’re not going to do anything to change it and something’s gotta be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.”

– Zappa, on Zappa…from Zappa

Directed by actor Alex Winter (yes…”Bill” as in “Bill & Ted”), Zappa (****) is the best film portrait of composer-musician-producer-actor-satirist-provocateur Frank Zappa I’ve seen to date (and I’ve seen a lot of ’em). Intimate and moving, it covers all aspects of his career, but it’s the first doc to (rightfully) position him as one of our greatest modern composers (not just a “rock star”).

While there are brief performance clips, this is not a Zappa performance film (there are plenty of those already) but rather a unique attempt to get inside his head; to understand what inspired him, what pissed him off, but mostly what drove a Picasso-like need to create up until the end (which came much too soon when he died of prostate cancer in 1993, just weeks before his 53rd birthday).

In a recent IndieWire interview, Winter expounded on his decision to take an intimate approach:

“I came up in the entertainment industry, where you’re surrounded with mythologizing and so much bullshit. It’s so hard to tear those things down and find human beings there or retain your own humanity. So I think there was an aspect of my own interest in Zappa, how he retained his humanity and the consequences he faced for living the life that he did that compelled me all the way through.”

Winter was given unprecedented access to the family archives, so he had his work cut out for him:

“For me, the gold in his vault was hours and hours and hours of him shooting the shit. The stuff that we made narration out of was literally him on his easy chair in the basement talking to Matt Groening or talking to a musician or a pundit. We just cut all the other people out and made a narrative. Then we chopped the narrative up, so he would start his prison story in ’68, he would keep it going in ’85, and he would end it in ’92. We’d use all of that in one sentence. So, we were very aware of the idea of trying to demystify yourself while you re-mythologize yourself which was something Zappa did himself.”

One prevalent theme in Winter’s portrait is that Zappa was an artist with intense creative focus (the one time I got to see him perform in Troy, New York in 1976 I remember marveling how he was able to sing, play and conduct the band…all while chain-smoking through the entire set). His perfectionism and 3-dimensional chess mindset (as Winter appears to be implying) could have contributed to Zappa’s reputation as a brusque and manipulative “boss” with some of his players.

That said, there is also a well-chosen roster of former band members (Ruth Underwood, Howard Kaylan, Mark Volman, Steve Vai, et.al.) and creative collaborators on hand to parse his strengths and weaknesses from a first-hand view, and offer illuminating insight into the blood, sweat, and toil that went into producing such an impressive body of work (over 60 albums released in Zappa’s lifetime, plus uncounted hours of live and studio tapes spanning 30 years that languish in the family vaults). Some of them do acknowledge that Zappa could be cold and dismissive…well, an asshole.

But as The Burning Sensations sang: Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole. Winter’s main thrust isn’t about the traumas and psychodramas. It is about the creative process of an iconoclast who (by his own admission), worked day and night composing the music that he wanted to listen to, simply because no one else was. And if other people happened to like it…he was cool with that.

“Zappa” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms

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As a musician, Eric Clapton has rarely played off-key…but he really hit a sour note with music fans attending a 1976 concert in Birmingham, England. During the performance, Clapton launched into a shocking, racial epithet-laden anti-immigrant harangue, essentially parroting the tenets of the fascistic, far-right National Front organization that was gaining substantial political power and declaring his glowing admiration for former Conservative MP-turned demagogue Enoch Powell.

Clapton wasn’t the only U.K. rock luminary at the time who sounded like he was ready for the white room with no windows or distractions. David Bowie infamously stated in one interview “I think Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism… I believe very strongly in fascism, people have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership.”  (Bowie would later blame it on the drugs, laughing off the comments as “theatrical observations”). Rod Stewart made the unfortunate comment “…immigrants should be sent home.”

Something else was trending in the U.K. music scene circa 1976-the burgeoning punk movement. In addition to its prime directive to shake up the rock establishment that included the likes of Messrs. Clapton, Bowie and Stewart, there was an anti-fascist political ethos streaking through the punk ranks.

Granted, there was a certain segment of the “skinhead” subculture that became synonymous with National Front rhetoric…but not all skinheads were NF sympathizers. In short, it wasn’t simply Mods vs. Rockers anymore. The U.K. music scene had become …complicated.

In her documentary White Riot (***), Rubika Shaw takes a valiant stab at sorting all that out in 80 minutes; specifically through the lens of the “Rock Against Racism” movement that was ignited (in part) by Clapton’s ill-advised foray into spoken word performance in 1976, and culminated in a game-changing 1978 rally/music festival in London’s Victoria Park headlined by The Clash, Steel Pulse, and The Tom Robinson Band that was attended by an estimated 100,000.

Shaw mixes archival clips and interviews with present day ruminations from some of RAR’s movers and shakers, primarily represented by photographer/political activist David “Red” Saunders. Sanders, whose background ran the gamut from underground theater player and war photojournalist to doing professional photography for ad agencies, periodicals, and album covers, was the co-founder of Temporary Hoarding, the punk fanzine that became the “voice” of RAR.

In the film, Saunders recalls how he kick-started RAR with this letter to the U.K. music press:

When I read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, I nearly puked. What’s going on, Eric? You’ve got a touch of brain damage. So you’re going to stand for MP and you think we’re being colonised by black people. Come on… you’ve been taking too much of that Daily Express stuff, you know you can’t handle it. Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist. You’re a good musician but where would you be without the blues and R&B? You’ve got to fight the racist poison, otherwise you degenerate into the sewer with the rats and all the money men who ripped off rock culture with their chequebooks and plastic crap. Rock was and still can be a real progressive culture, not a package mail-order stick-on nightmare of mediocre garbage. We want to organise a rank-and-file movement against the racist poison in rock music – we urge support – all those interested please write to:

ROCK AGAINST RACISM,

Box M, 8 Cotton Gardens, London E2 8DN

P. S. ‘Who shot the Sheriff’, Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

[Signed] Peter Bruno, Angela Follett, Red Saunders, Jo Wreford, Dave Courts, Roger Huddle, Mike Stadler, etc.

Now there is a mission statement that says: “Let’s kill it before it grows.”

And it was growing; “it” being the influence of the National Front. Initially flitting about the fringes of British politics as a coalition of radical right-wing groups in the 60s, the organization had a more centralized platform by the end of the decade. They had found a “champion” of sorts in Enoch Powell, a Conservative Party politician who gave an inflammatory address in 1968 dubbed the “Rivers of Blood speech”.

The speech was a populist appeal against non-white immigration into Britain, advocating (among other things) a repatriation program. While not as radical as the NF’s stand on immigrants (basically “round ’em up and send ’em all back”) it gave them a sense of empowerment to have a high-profile government official as an ideological ally (sound familiar?).

Stand back and stand by…there’s more.

There are a number of items that “sound familiar” in Shaw’s film, particularly in the recounting of an August 1977 clash in the streets between members of the National Front (who had organized an anti-immigrant march) and counter demonstrators. There was a strong police presence; the day would come to mark the first time they used riot shields on mainland Britain.

A number of the Bobbies also let their white slips show by demonstrating a marked preference for using strong arm tactics against the counter-demonstrators (many of whom were people of color), while coddling the NF marchers (August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin…anyone?).

Modern parallels resonate well outside the Colonies. From an April 2020 Guardian article:

Contemporary Britain is battling far-right rhetoric similar to that which divided the country in the 1970s, with the Brexit debate revealing how politicians continue to stoke racial tension, according to the director of a film about the formation of Rock Against Racism (RAR).

Rubika Shah, the director of a new documentary about the lead up to RAR’s march and concert in east London’s on 30 April 1978, says the UK is still struggling to counter the far-right populism that made the National Front a force in the 1970s.

“There are so many similarities,” Shah said. “I hope people look at some of the stuff that was happening in the late 70s and think: ‘Wow, this is actually happening now.’” […]

Shah said she deliberately included National Front slogans such as “It’s our country, let’s win it back” to show their echoes in modern campaigning, such as Dominic Cummings’ “Take back control” mantra that was used during the Brexit referendum. “It’s scary how that language creeps back in,” she said.

The director said she was shocked to hear Boris Johnson use the term “invisible mugger” to describe the Coronavirus, as “mugger” was a word used by the National Front and right-wing media to describe black people in the 1970s.

Make America Great Again!

Shaw’s film is engaging, fast-paced, and infused with a cheeky “D.I.Y.” attitude. Considering all the angles she covers, it may be a little too fast-paced; political junkies might find themselves craving a deeper dive into backstory and context. Music fans may be disappointed that despite the film’s title (taken from the eponymous Clash song), the film is not exclusively “about” the punk scene (tiny snippets of performance footage is the best you’ll get).

Still, it’s a fascinating bit of sociopolitical history, and an uplifting reminder that even in the darkest of times, a righteous confluence of art and politics can affect real and positive change.

“White Riot” is currently streaming on various VOD platforms