Tag Archives: Essays

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As we entered the 1980s, music was in a weird space. The first surge of punk had died away, and was already being homogenized by the marketing boys into a more commercially palatable genre tagged “New Wave”. The remnants of disco and funk had loosened a tenacious grip on the pop charts, yet had not yet acquiesced to the burgeoning hip hop/rap scene as the club music du jour.

What would soon become known as Hair Metal was still in its infancy; and the inevitable merger of “headphone” prog and bloated stadium rock sealed the deal with Pink Floyd’s cynical yet mega-successful 2-LP “fuck you” to the music business, The Wall (the hit single, “Another Brick in the Wall”, was the #2 song on Billboard’s chart for 1980, sandwiched between Blondie’s “Call Me” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic”). Clearly, the conditions were ripe for a new paradigm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTUS Night at the Movies: Stonewall Uprising & SIcko revisited

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Stonewall rioters on the night on June 28, 1969

The White House on the night of June 26, 2015

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

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

It isn’t nice to block the doorway

It isn’t nice to go to jail

There are nicer ways to do it

But the nice ways always fail

-Malvina Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sad sequel: The American Assassin on Film II

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m just saying…”

-the author of this post, just now.

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

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

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

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I need some attention;  I shoot into the light  

 –from “Family Snapshot” by Peter Gabriel

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

The irony of this situation, of course, is that by all accounts, Representative Giffords is a dedicated public servant who thrives on cultivating meaningful, face-to-face human contact with constituents; her would-be assassin, on the other hand, is a person who had become withdrawn from friends and family, living in an increasingly myopic universe of odd obsessions and posting incoherent ramblings on his personal web pages.

While many of us in the blogosphere (including this writer) admittedly could easily be accused of living in a myopic universe of odd obsessions and authoring incoherent posts-I think there is an infinitesimally microscopic possibility that I would ever go on a shooting rampage (I don’t own any weapons, nor have I ever felt the urge to pick one up).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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So for the purpose of this study, I will start with a relatively obscure low-budget noir from 1954 called Suddenly, directed by Lewis Allen. Frank Sinatra is surprisingly effective as the cold-blooded leader of a three-man hit team who are hired to assassinate the president during a scheduled whistle-stop at a sleepy California town. They commandeer a family’s home that affords them a clear shot.

The film is primarily played as a hostage drama. Here, the shooter’s motives are financial, not political (“Don’t hand me that politics jazz-that’s not my bag!” Sinatra snarls after he’s accused of being “an enemy agent” by one of his hostages).

Some aspects of the story are eerily prescient of President Kennedy’s assassination 9 years later; Sinatra’s character is an ex-military sharpshooter, zeroes down on his target from a high window, and utilizes a rifle of European-make (there have been a few unsubstantiated claims over the years in various JFK conspiracy books that Lee Harvey Oswald had watched this film with a keen interest).

Richard Sale’s script also drops in a perfunctory nod or two to the then-contemporaneous McCarthy era (one hostage speculates that the hit men are “commies”).

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

Sinatra plays a Korean War veteran who reaches out to help an old Army buddy he served with (Laurence Harvey). Harvey is on the verge of a meltdown, triggered by recurring nightmares about his war experiences. Sinatra’s character has been suffering the same malady (which today would be readily identified as PTSD), although not quite as intensely (both men had been held as POWs by the North Koreans). Once it dawns on Sinatra that they may have been brainwashed during captivity for very sinister purposes all hell breaks loose.

In this narrative (based on novelist Richard Condon’s thriller) the assassin is posited as an unwitting dupe of a decidedly “un-American” political ideology; a domestic terrorist programmed by his Communist puppet masters to kill on command.

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

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

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One of the earliest examples of this new sub-genre was the 1973 film, Executive Action, directed by David Miller, and starring Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan. Dalton Trumbo (famously blacklisted back in the 50s) adapted the screenplay from a story by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

The narrative behind this speculative thriller about the JFK assassination, which offers a possible scenario that a consortium comprised of hard right pols, powerful businessmen and disgruntled members of the clandestine community were responsible, is more intriguing than the film itself (which is flat and very talky), but the filmmakers at least deserve credit for being the first ones to “go there”. The film was a flop at the time, but has become a cult item; as such, it is more of a curio than a classic.

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1974 was the banner year, with two outstanding offerings from two significant directors-The Conversation, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and The Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula and adapted by David Giler, Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and Robert Towne from Loren Singer’s novel.

The Conversation does not involve a “political” assassination, but does share crucial themes with other films here (it was also an obvious influence on Brian De Palma’s 1981 thriller, Blow Out, in which a movie sound man inadvertently captures a recording of a car “accident” that may have actually been a political assassination).

Gene Hackman leads a fine cast as a free-lance surveillance expert who begins to obsess that a conversation he captured between a man and a woman in San Francisco’s Union Square for one of his clients is going to directly lead to the untimely deaths of his subjects.

Although the story is essentially an intimate character study, set against a backdrop of corporate intrigue, the dark atmosphere of paranoia, mistrust and betrayal that permeates the film mirrors the political climate of the era (particularly in regards to its timely proximity to the breaking of the Watergate scandal).

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

Warren Beatty stars as a maverick print journalist investigating a suspicious string of untimely demises that befall witnesses to a U.S. senator’s assassination in a restaurant atop Seattle’s Space Needle. The trail leads him to a shadowy organization called the Parallax Corporation.

There are allusions to the JFK assassination; it uses the “assassin as patsy” scenario, closing with a slow, ominous zoom out on a panel of men bearing a striking resemblance to the Warren Commission, sitting in a dark chamber solemnly reciting their “conclusive” findings on what has transpired (although we know better).

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There are two more significant films in this cycle worth a mention-Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975) and William Richert’s Winter Kills (1979).

Pollack’s film, which was adapted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr. and David Rayfiel from James Grady’s novel “Six Days of the Condor”, puts a unique twist on the idea of a government-sanctioned assassination; here, you have members of the U.S. clandestine community burning up your tax dollars to scheme against other members of the U.S. clandestine community (there’s no honor among conspirators, apparently).

Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max von Sydow head an excellent cast. The film conveys the same dark atmosphere of dread that infuses The Conversation and The Parallax View.

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

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

The film is an uneven affair (it can’t settle on whether it is a genuine conspiracy thriller, or a self-conscious parody of byzantine conspiracy thrillers) but is eminently watchable, mostly thanks to the interestingly diverse cast.

John Huston chews scenery as Bridges’ father (a Joseph Kennedy Sr. type). Also on hand are Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, and Elizabeth Taylor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Anyone who has seen Scorsese and Shrader’s Taxi Driver will instantly attribute that line to the fictional Travis Bickle, an alienated, psychotic loner and would be assassin who stalks a political candidate around New York City. Bickle’s ramblings in that film were based on the diary of Arthur Bremer, the real-life nutball who grievously wounded presidential candidate George Wallace in a 1972 assassination attempt.

Although Mark David Chapman’s fellow loon-in-arms John Hinckley would extrapolate even further on the Taxi Driver obsession in his attempt on President Reagan’s life in 1981, it’s still an unnerving epiphany in Piddington’s film, an eerie and compelling portrait of Chapman’s descent into alienation, madness and the inexplicable murder of a beloved music icon.

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

More often than not, they are disenfranchised “loners”, either by choice or precipitated by some kind of mental disturbance. Many of them fit the quintessential “angry white male” profile; impotent with rage at some perceived persecution (or betrayal) by specific people, ethnic groups, or society in general.

One thing we do know for sure, and the one thing they all share as U.S. citizens, is that they had no problem getting their hands on a firearm. I know-“Guns don’t kill people. People do.”  But still.

So what about that other issue that has come up-the possibility that inflammatory vitriol from high-profile demagogues can trigger homicidal rage from someone who is already starting to crack?

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

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*SPOILERS AHEAD*   In Network, written by the late great Paddy Chayefsky, respected news anchor Howard Beale has a complete mental meltdown on air, announcing his plan to commit public suicide, on camera, in an upcoming newscast. When the following evening’s newscast attracts an unprecedented number of viewers, some of the more unscrupulous programmers and marketers at the network smell a potential cash cow, and decide to let Beale rant away in front of the cameras to his heart’s content, reinventing him as a “mad prophet of the airwaves” and giving him a nightly prime time slot.

Eventually, some of the truthiness in his nightly “news sermons” hits a little too close to home regarding some secret business dealings that the network has with some Arab investors, and it is decided that his program needs to be cancelled (with extreme prejudice). And besides, his ratings are slipping, anyway. So the network hires a team of hit men to assassinate him on air.

Obviously, this film is satirical in nature, through and through, but the idea of a media demagogue precipitating his own demise by hammering away with inflammatory on-air rants night after night is, in a fashion, oddly prescient of our current political climate.

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

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Finally, there is one more film that sort of squeaks into this category-Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991). Jeff Bridges plays a successful late night radio talk show host whose career literally crashes overnight after a disturbed fan goes on a murderous shooting spree at an upscale restaurant after he hears the DJ exclaim, “They must be stopped before it’s too late…it’s us or them!” as part of a (tongue-in-cheek) anti-yuppie diatribe on his show.

One can’t help but be reminded of the Rush Limbaugh apologists who always attempt to douse any criticism of his vile hate rhetoric with the tired old “He’s just an entertainer!” meme.

So what can we learn about last Saturday’s shooting by analyzing these particular films, if anything? Frankly, I don’t feel any more enlightened about the “whys” behind this senseless violence than I did when I started this exercise. Perhaps Bill Maher was not “oversimplifying”, after all, as I postulated earlier. Maybe the equation really is as simple as “A well armed country + A lot of nutty people = A bad combination”.

Is change even possible? Maybe we’re already on the right path by continuing to engage in the dialogue we’re engaged in and asking the questions we’re asking. Then again…like the man said: “Don’t take my word for it. Don’t believe me. Do your own work…your own thinking.”

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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Digby has invited me to share my memories and thoughts about the Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago today (CBS is airing a 2 hour tribute special tonight-Paul and Ringo are doing a couple numbers!). Truth be told, that “memory” is a little fuzzy, for a couple of reasons. On February 9, 1964, I was all of 7 years old; a tad on the young side to fully grok the hormonal/cultural impact of this “screaming ‘yeah-yeah’ music” (as my dad would come to define any rock’n’roll he might overhear wafting from my room throughout my formative years).

Also, I was living in Fairbanks, Alaska. At the time, none of the local TV stations were equipped to carry live network feeds. We would get Walter Cronkite a day late (the tapes had to be shipped from Seattle via commercial jet flights). And weekly programs like Sullivan were, well, one week late. So technically I “remember” watching the Beatles 50 years ago… next Sunday.

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

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I’ve done a few posts in the past about the Beatles on film, and figured I had covered most angles. But the funny thing about Beatles-related movies and documentaries is that, like the band’s legacy itself, it’s a gift that seems to keep on giving. Just when you think you’ve learned everything there is to know, there’s Something New (hey…that would make a cool album title). A few weeks ago, I was perusing the bins of a music and video store here in Seattle, and stumbled upon a straight-to-DVD documentary from the UK with an intriguing (if unwieldy) title called Going Underground: Paul McCartney, The Beatles and the UK counter-culture.

Focusing on a specific period of London’s underground scene, it connects the dots between the American Beats (Ginsberg, Kerouac & co.), the social, sexual and aesthetic sea change in the UK during the early to mid-60s, and analyzes its subsequent influence on the Beatles (one word: acid). As one interviewee observes, “They were probably the most avant-garde group in Britain, but also the most commercial.” Actually the Beatles don’t enter the narrative until about halfway through, but it’s still an absorbing watch.

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

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

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

Now, I am extrapolating here about disco music itself, as one would reference “blues” or “jazz”; not “disco” as a cultural phenomenon or political movement. What did he say? “Political movement”?! Actually, I didn’t say. Director Jamie Kastner is the person who puts forth this proposition in his sketchy yet mildly engaging documentary (mockumentary?) The Secret Disco Revolution. I think he’s being serious when he posits that the disco phenomenon was not (as the conventional wisdom holds) simply an excuse for the Me Generation to boogie, snort and fuck themselves silly thru the latter half of the 70s, but a significant political milestone for women’s lib, gay lib and African American culture.

He carries the revisionism a step further, suggesting that the infamous “Disco Demolition Night” riot (ignited by Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl’s 1979 publicity stunt, in which a crate of disco LPs was blown up at Comiskey Park in front of 50,000 cheering fans) was nothing less than a raging mob of racists, homophobes and misogynists. Hmm.

Kastner uses the aforementioned 1979 incident as the bookend to disco’s golden era (kind of like how writers and filmmakers have used Altamont as a metaphor for the death of 1960s hippie idealism). For the other end of his historic timeline, he (correctly) traces disco’s roots back to early 1970s gay club culture.

How disco morphed from a relatively ghettoized urban hipster scene to arrhythmic middle-American suburbanites striking their best Travolta pose is actually the most fascinating aspect of the documentary; although I wish he’d gone a little more in depth on the history rather than digging so furiously for a sociopolitical subtext in a place where one barely ever existed.

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

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

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

DVD reissue: I, Claudius ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 31, 2012)

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She preys like a Roman with her eyes on fire:  Sian Phillips as Livia

I Claudius 35th Anniversary Edition – Acorn Media DVD set

Political questions, if you go back thousands of years, are ephemeral, not important. History is the same thing over and over again.”

 -Woody Allen

35 years ago (best to my hazy recollection), I was living in a house in Fairbanks, Alaska with 4 or 5 (or was it 6 or 7?) of my friends. Being 20-something males, ragingly hormonal and easily sidetracked by shiny objects, it was a rare occasion when all the housemates would be congregated in one room for any period of time. But there was one thing that consistently brought us together. For about a three month period in the fall of 1977, every Sunday at 9pm, we would abruptly drop whatever we were doing (sfx: guitars, bongs, Frisbees, empty Heineken bottles and dog-eared Hunter Thompson paperbacks hitting the floor) and gather round a 13-inch color TV (replete with Reynolds Wrap-reinforced rabbit ears) to rapturously watch I, Claudius on Masterpiece Theatre.

While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a snooze-inducing history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’ 1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding U.S. viewers in thrall for its 12-week run. While it is quite possible that at the time, my friends and I were slightly more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of Jac Pulman’s writing, the wonder of the performances and historical complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to realize that I think I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius.

It’s all there…the systemic greed and corruption of the ruling plutocracy, the raging hypocrisy, the grandstanding, glad-handing and the back-stabbing (in this case, both figurative and literal). Seriously, over the last 2000 years, not much has changed in the political arena (this election year in particular finds us tunic-deep in bread and circuses; by Jove, what a clown show). Although it’s merely a happy coincidence that a newly minted 35th anniversary edition of the series was released on DVD this week by Acorn Media, the timing couldn’t be more apt. I’ve been finding it particularly amusing the past few days to zip through the nightly network newscasts on the DVR, then immediately follow it up with an episode of I, Claudius so I can chuckle (or weep) over the parallels.

Kawkinkydinks with the ongoing decline of the American empire notwithstanding, the series holds up remarkably well. In fact, it still kicks major gluteus maximus on most contemporary TV fare (including HBO and Showtime). What’s most impressive is what they were able to achieve with such austere production values; the writing and the acting is so strong that you barely notice that there are only several simple sets used throughout (compare with Starz’s visually striking but otherwise chuckle-headed Spartacus series).

It’s hard to believe that Derek Jacobi was in his mid-30s when he took on the lead role; not only does he convincingly “age” from 20s to 60s, but subtly unveils the grace and intelligence that lies behind Claudius’s outwardly afflicted speech and physicality. Another standout in this marvelous cast is Sian Phillips, with her deliciously wicked performance as Livia (wife of Augustus) who will stoop to anything in order to achieve her political goals (Machiavelli’s subsequent work was doo-doo, by comparison). George Baker excels as her long-suffering son, Tiberius, as does Brian Blessed, playing Augustus. And John Hurt’s take on the mad Caligula is definitive, in my book. The new transfer on the Acorn release is excellent, making this DVD set well worth your denarius.

Hear no evil, see no evil: Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 19, 2011)

These men saw no evil, spoke none, and none was uttered in their presence. This claim might sound very plausible if made by one defendant. But when we put all their stories together, the impression which emerges of the Third Reich, which was to last a thousand years, is ludicrous.

 –Justice Robert Jackson (chief counsel for the U.S. at the first Nuremberg trial in 1946)

Herman Goring. Rudolf Hess. Hans Frank. Wilhelm Frick. Joachim von Ribbentrop. Alfred Rosenberg. Julius Streicher. Any one of those names alone should send a chill down the spine of anyone with even a passing knowledge of 20th Century history. Picture if you will, all of those co-architects of the horror known as the Third Reich sitting together in one room (along with a dozen or so of their closest friends). This egregious assemblage really did occur, during the first of the Nuremberg trials (November 1945 to October 1946).

Through the course of the grueling 11-month long proceedings, a panel of judges and prosecutors representing the USA, the Soviet Union, England and France built a damning case, thanks in large part to the Nazis themselves, who had a curious habit of meticulously documenting their own crimes. The thousands of confiscated documents-neatly typed, well-annotated and (most significantly) signed and dated by some of the defendants, along with the gruesome films the Nazis took of their own atrocities, helped build one of the most compelling cases of all time.

By the time it was over, out of the 24 defendants (several of whom were tried in absentia for various reasons), 12 received a sentence of death by hanging, 7 were given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life, and the remainder were either acquitted or not charged. One of the biggest fish, Herman Goring, ended up “cheating the hangman” by committing suicide in his cell (Martin Bormann, one of the condemned tried in absentia, had already beat him to the punch-although his 1945 suicide in Berlin was not confirmed until his remains were identified in a 1972 re-investigation).

Hollywood would be hard pressed to cook up a courtroom drama of such epic proportions; much less a narrative that presented a more clearly delineated battle of Good vs. Evil. Granted, in the fog of war, the Allies undoubtedly put the blinders on every now and then when it came to following the Geneva Convention right down to the letter-but when it comes to the short list of parties throughout all of history who have willfully committed the most heinous crimes against humanity, there seems to be a general consensus among civilized people that the Nazis are the Worst.Bad.Guys.Ever…right?

At any rate, this is why a newly-restored U.S. War Department documentary, produced over 60 years ago and never officially released for distribution in America (until now) may well turn out to be the most riveting courtroom drama that will hit theaters this year.

Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today (made in 1948) was written and directed by Stuart Schulberg, who had worked with John Ford’s OSS field photography unit, which was assigned by the government to track down incriminating Nazi film footage to be parsed by the Nuremberg prosecution team and help build their case.

Schulberg’s brother Budd (who later became better known in Hollywood as the screenwriter for On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd) was a senior officer on the OSS film team; he supervised the compilation of two films for the U.S. prosecutors; one a sort of macabre Whitman’s Sampler of Nazi atrocities, from the Third Reich’s own archives, and the other assembled from that ever-shocking footage taken by Allied photographers as the concentration camps were being discovered and liberated by advancing troops in early 1945.

Stuart Schulberg, in turn, mixed excerpts from those two films with the official documentation footage from the trial to help illustrate the prosecution’s strategy to address the four indictments (conspiring to commit a crime against peace; planning, initiating and committing wars of aggression; perpetrating war crimes; and crimes against humanity).

So why had Schulberg’s film (commissioned, after all, by the U.S. government to document a very well-known, historically significant and profound event in the annals of world justice) never been permitted open distribution to domestic audiences by same said government? After being shown around Germany in 1948 and 1949 as part of the de-Nazification program, extant prints of the film appeared to have vanished somewhere in the mists of time, with no documented attempts by the U.S. government to even archive a copy.

Even the man who had originally commissioned the film, Pare Lorentz (who at the time of the film’s production was head of Film, Theatre and Music at the U.S. War Department’s Civil Affairs Division) was given the brush off by Pentagon brass when he later petitioned to buy it and distribute it himself.

A 1949 Washington Post story offered an interesting take on why Lorentz had been stonewalled, saying that “…there are those in authority in the United States who feel that Americans are so simple that they can only hate one enemy at a time. Forget the Nazis, they advise, and concentrate on the Reds.” (there are several layers of delicious, prescient irony in that quote…so I won’t belabor it).

Stuart Schulberg’s daughter Sandra, along with Josh Waletzky, embarked on a five-year mission  in 2004 to restore this important documentary. I should note that the term “restore”, in this particular case, does not necessarily refer to crystalline image quality; though they have done the best they can with what is purported to be the best existing print (stored at the German Film Archive).

They did have better luck with the soundtrack; they found what sounds to my ears to be fairly decent audio from the original trial recordings, which they painstakingly matched up as best they could to reconstruct the long-lost sound elements from the original. Voice-over narration has been re-recorded by Liev Schreiber, who is a bit on the dry side, but adequate .

It is chilling to hear the voices of these defendants; even if it is at times merely  “jawohl” or “nein”- one hopes it is enough to give even the most stalwart of Holocaust deniers cause for consternation.

So what is the “lesson for today” that we can glean from this straightforward and relatively non-didactic historical document? Unfortunately, humanity in general hasn’t learned too awful much; the semantics may have changed, but the behavior, sadly, remains the same (they call it “ethnic cleansing” now).

“Crimes against humanity” are still perpetrated every day-so why haven’t we had any more Nurembergs? If it can’t be caught via cell phone camera and posted five minutes later on YouTube like Saddam Hussein’s execution, so we can take a quick peek, go “Yay! Justice is served!” and then get back to our busy schedule of eating stuffed-crust pizza and watching the Superbowl, I guess we just can’t be bothered. Besides, who wants to follow some boring 11-month long trial, anyway (unless, of course, an ex-football player is involved).

Or maybe it’s just that the perpetrators have become savvier since 1945; many of those who commit crimes against humanity these days wear nice suits and have corporate expense accounts, nu? Or maybe it’s too hard to tell who the (figurative) Nazis are today, because in the current political climate, everyone and anyone, at some point, is destined to be compared to one. Maybe we all need to watch this film together and get a reality check.

Swede sweetback’s baadassss song: The Black Power Mixtape ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 1, 2011)

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Diana: Hi, I’m Diana Christensen, a racist lackey of the imperialist ruling circles.

Laureen: I’m Laureen Hobbs, a badass commie nigger.

Diana: Sounds like the basis of a firm friendship.

 –from Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky

The slyly subversive sociopolitical subtext of that memorable exchange between Faye Dunaway and Marlene Warfield in Sidney Lumet’s classic 1976 satire could be lost on anyone not old enough to recall the radical politics and revolutionary rhetoric of the era, but for those of us who are (and who do), the character of “Laureen Hobbs” was clearly inspired by Angela Davis, the UCLA professor-turned activist whose name became synonymous with the Black Power movement of the late 60s to mid 70s.

Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s distillation of the two characters into winking cultural stereotypes, while wryly satirical, was not  far off the mark as to how the MSM spun the image of Davis and other prominent figures like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale. As I recall, the media tended to focus on the more extreme, sensationalist facets. Police shootouts with Black Panthers, prison riots and U.S. athletes giving the Black Power salute at the Olympic Games made for good copy, but didn’t paint the entire picture of the Black Experience in America.

With the alternative press (and most likely the FBI) excepted, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of investigative parsing going on at the time to unearth the root cause and/or ideology behind the images of violence and civil unrest that the MSM played on a continuous loop. After all, this was, at its core, a legitimate and historically significant American political movement (if not a revolution), and no one seemed to be taking the pains to document it. At least, no one in this country. Sweden, on the other hand? They had it covered.

I know…Sweden. Go figure. At any rate, a treasure trove of vintage 16mm footage, representing nearly a decade of candid interviews with movement leaders and meticulous documentation of Black Panther Party activities and African-American inner city life was recently discovered tucked away in the basement of Swedish Television. Director Goran Olsson has cherry-picked fascinating clips and assembled them in a chronological historical order for his documentary, The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975

Olsson leaves the contextualization to present-day retrospection from surviving participants (Angela Davis, Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver and Harry Belafonte), as well as reflections by contemporary African-American academics, writers, poets and musicians. The director restricts modern commentators to voice-over, thereby devoting maximum screen time to the pristine archive footage. And if you’re expecting bandolier-wearing, pistol-waving bad-ass commie, uh, interviewees spouting fiery Marxist-tinged rhetoric, dispense with that hoary stereotype now.

What you will see is a relaxed and soft-spoken Stokely Carmichael, surprising his interviewers by borrowing the mike to ask his own mother questions about her life experience as an African-American woman in America. There are interviews with a jailed Angela Davis, an exiled Eldridge Cleaver (in Algiers), Bobby Seale, Huey P. Newton and others; and what really comes through is the humanity behind the rhetoric. Whether one agrees or disagrees with all the means and methods they utilized to get their views across to the powers-that-be, the underlying message is self-empowerment, and a forward-thinking commitment to changing the world for the better.

Speaking of the “powers-that-be”, there are interesting segments on the state response to the movement at the time (infiltration and entrapment, turning a blind eye to civil liberties, etc.) that beg comparisons to our post 9-11 environment (plus ca change…). In fact, the subject of Olsson’s film feels trapped by its 100 minute time constraint; there’s more than enough angles to this largely neglected part of 20th-century American history to provide ample material for a Ken Burns-length miniseries. Olsson weaves social context into the mix by using clips from a 1973 Swedish TV cinema-verite documentary called Harlem: Voices, Faces, a time capsule that lends a sense of poetry to an otherwise straightforward collage

The film is not without flaws; some of the contemporary commentators don’t necessarily lend new insight. Also, Olssons’s commitment to offering viewers a “mix, not a remix” feels unfocused at times (“subjective” doesn’t have to mean “dry”). Still, a film like this is important, because the time is ripe to re-examine the story of the Black Power movement, which despite its failures and flaws, still emerges as one of the last truly progressive grass roots political awakenings that we’ve had in this country (no, the Tea Party shares no parallels, by any stretch of the imagination).

Watching the film made me a little sad. Where is the real passion (and social compassion) in American politics anymore? It’s become all about petty partisanship and myopic self-interest and next to nothing about empowering citizens and maintaining a truly free and equal society. However (to end on an up note), I came across this rousing speech, recently delivered on the  40th anniversary of the Attica prison riot. It gave me hope that the legacy is alive:

Amen, brother.

The punk and the godfather: Brighton Rock (2010) **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 10, 2011)

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It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? Couldn’t we have committed our first major sin at seven, have ruined ourselves for love or hate at ten, have clutched at redemption on a fifteen-year-old deathbed?

 -Graham Greene, from The Heart of the Matter

 Did you ever get on a kick with a writer? It can be quite a passionate love affair. When I was in my early 20s, a friend loaned me a dog-eared paperback copy of The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene. The diamond-cut prose, compelling narrative, and thematic depth left me gob smacked. “Ah,” I thought, “so this must be that ‘literature’ of which they speak.” It was time to put Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean behind me and kick it up a notch (when I was a child, I thought as a child, etc.). I had to have more of this.

And so it was that I got on a Graham Greene kick, voraciously devouring virtually every word that he ever fought from his pen. As I plowed through the oeuvre, I began to notice prevalent themes emerging; most notably that whole Catholic thing (for someone like me, with a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, it was theologically fascinating). There was much ado about guilt, mortal sin, clutching at redemption, moral failure, lapsed faith…and more guilt. But you could still “dance to it” (in a literary sense).

The rich complexity and narrative appeal of Greene’s “theological thrillers” certainly has not been lost on filmmakers over the years; nearly all of his novels have been adapted for the screen (with mixed results).

Most have been dramas and film noirs, like The Fallen Idol, This Gun for Hire (based on A Gun for Sale), The Ministry of Fear, The Fugitive (based on The Power and the Glory), The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair (with a 1955 and 1999 version), The Quiet American (twice-made, in 1958 and 2002) and two uncharacteristically lighthearted entries-Our Man in Havana and Travels with my Aunt.

All the aforementioned are worthwhile, but if pressed to pick my personal favorite Greene-to-screen, it would be John Boulting’s 1947 noir thriller, Brighton Rock.

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That film was memorable on several counts. It was stylishly directed (Boulting later helmed one of the early nuclear paranoia thrillers, Seven Days to Noon and the classic comedy I’m All Right, Jack), well-scripted (by Greene himself, along with Terence Rattigan) and topped off by then 24 year-old Richard Attenborough’s indelible portrayal of the central character, a ruthless and ambitious hood named Pinkie Brown.

In fact, Attenborough so thoroughly inhabits the character that you find it difficult to connect the actor who plays this creepy sociopath with the future Oscar-winning director of Gandhi (by then addressed as ‘Sir’ Richard). It’s a tough act to follow, for anyone attempting to do a remake. And guess what-someone has.

For the new BBC Films production of Brighton Rock writer-director Rowan Joffe has, for the most part, kept original characters, chief plot points and thematic subtexts intact, but moved the time period to the 1960s. The story is set in 1964 Brighton; on the eve of the infamous Mods vs. Rockers youth riots which took place at the popular English seaside resort that year (shades of Quadrophenia). Sam Riley tackles the Pinkie Brown role. Pinkie is a low-rung mobster who has been scheming for dominance of his gang.

When his mentor (Geoff Bell) is killed by a rival outfit that is attempting to monopolize the local gambling racket, Pinkie sees an opportunity to upgrade his own status by proactively seeking vengeance on his friend’s killer (Sean Harris).

In their haste to grab the intended victim, Pinkie and his cohorts get sloppy and involve an innocent ‘civilian’, a naïve young waitress named Rose (Andrea Riseborough). A ‘pavement photographer’, intending to take a picture of Rose, inadvertently gets an incriminating shot of the soon-to-be murder victim and his abductors. When Pinkie learns that Rose has a claim ticket for the photo, he ingratiates himself into her life, pretending to be romantically interested.

Joffe’s film left me feeling a little ambivalent. While it is kind of refreshing to see a British mobster flick that isn’t attempting to out-Guy Ritchie Guy Ritchie, this version of Brighton Rock may be a little too somber and weighty for its own good. Moving the time setting to 1964 doesn’t detract from the original, but it doesn’t necessarily improve on it, either (and did it really need ‘improving’?).

In fact, large chunks of the film are essentially a shot-by-shot remake of the 1947 version. Joffe’s version exudes more of a Hitchcockian vibe; it is particularly reminiscent of Suspicion. While Riley’s portrayal of Pinky has a brooding intensity,  he lacks  a certain subtlety that Attenborough brought to the character in the original.

In Greene’s original novel, Pinkie is described by Rose as someone who, despite his youth, seems to “know” he is “damned”, and all of his actions are predicated on this feeling of quasi-religious predestination. Attenborough, I think, embodies that perfectly, while Riley simply comes off as preternaturally evil, like a boogeyman.

Dame Helen Mirren feels wasted as Rose’s employer Ida, who is suspicious of Pinkie and becomes a thorn in his side; oddly, her character (crucial in the book and the 1947 film) seems to have been downgraded. The usually wonderful John Hurt barely registers; not really his fault as his character is underwritten.

Andy Serkis chews the scenery in his relatively small role as the rival mob’s boss, and there is a standout supporting performance from Philip Davis (whose presence also brings a sort of symmetry to the Quadrophenia connection; he played ‘Chalky’, one of the teenage Mods  in Franc Roddam’s eponymous 1979 film). There are worse sins than watching Joffe’s film, but if you prefer to clutch at redemption, rent the original.

A (not so) clear-cut case: If a Tree Falls ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 23, 2011)

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In the mid-90s, I worked at a Honeybaked Ham store in the Seattle area (don’t ask). Normally, I wouldn’t bring that up, but…funny story. Well, not “ha-ha” funny, but it does tie in with this week’s review.

Because you see, that was when I had my personal brush with “eco-terrorism”. I came to work one day, and espied a couple of Redmond’s finest standing outside the store, talking to the manager. Then I noticed  interesting new artwork adorning the windows, writ large in dried ketchup and barbecue sauce: MEAT IS MURDER! It was signed “E.L.F.”.  Apparently, several other restaurants down the street had also been hit (McDonald’s had had their locks glued shut).

So, as I was scrubbing to remove the graffiti, I wondered “Who is this ‘ELF’ …a disgruntled Keebler employee?” I had never heard of the Earth Liberation Front. I remember the manager saying “How much you want to bet this guy fled the scene in  leather Nikes?” “Yeah,” I snickered, whilst contemplating the dried globs of Heinz 57 on my sponge “these suburban anarchists aren’t exactly the Baader-Meinhof Gang, are they?” (I can’t say that I felt “terrorized”).

Flash forward to 2001. I turned on the local news one night, and saw the UW Center for Urban Horticulture engulfed in flames ($7 million in damage). The arson was attributed to the E.L.F. “Hmm,” I pondered, “maybe they are sort of like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ”

Or are they? According to the FBI, “Eco-terrorism” is defined as:

The use (or threatened use) of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, sub-national group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.

That certainly covers a lot of ground. One could argue that Johnny Appleseed was an Eco-terrorist. Sure, he’s a legendary conservationist and agrarian icon. However, he was against grafting, which resulted in a fruit more suitable for hard cider than for eating. Hence, the “environmentally-oriented”  Appleseed was “responsible” for introducing alcohol to the frontier. And it’s inarguable that much “violence of a criminal nature against people or property” is committed under the influence. OK, that’s a stretch .

Then again, there are a number of “environmentally-oriented” types doing a “a stretch” in the federal pen right now for non-lethal actions that the government considers terrorism, and that others consider heroic. This is not a black and white issue; a point not lost on the directors of If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

So what type of circumstance can change a nature lover into a freedom fighter? Anyone can make a statement by holding up a sign or throwing on a “Save the Rainforest” t-shirt, but what motivates someone who decides to take it to the next level-throwing on a Ninja outfit and torching a lumber mill in the middle of the night? And what would they hope to achieve? Wouldn’t that just encourage corporations to cut down even more trees to replace lost inventory?

In order to convey a sense of the humanity behind the mug shots, co-directors Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman focus primarily on Earth Liberation Front member Daniel McGowan, who at the time of filming was facing a possible life sentence for his direct involvement in several high-profile “actions” (including the arson of an Oregon lumber mill) that resulted in millions of dollars in property damage. Holed up in his sister’s NYC apartment (and sporting a house arrest anklet for the first third of the film), McGowan candidly opens up about his life and what led him to change his own M.O. for making a statement from “environmental activism” to “domestic terrorism”.

The filmmakers parallel the timeline and details of McGowan’s personal journey with a study about the development of the E.L.F., adding present day interviews with  his cohorts and archival footage of some of the group’s early “actions” (which were more in the realm of civil disobedience and passive resistance-like sitting in the path of bulldozers and camping out in old-growth trees marked for cutting). McGowan initially became involved with the environmental movement through “mainstream” activities, like “writing hundreds of letters” of protest and participating in peaceful demonstrations.

McGowan became frustrated with what he perceived to be the ineffectiveness of such actions. He sums it up with a rhetorical question: “When you’re screaming at the top of your lungs, and nobody hears you, what are you supposed to do?”

The tipping point for McGowan came in 1999, when he participated in the WTO protests in Seattle. There, through some of the more radicalized E.L.F. members, he became embedded with the relatively small band of black-clad “anarchists” who were disproportionately responsible for most of the property damage that occurred during the demonstrations (the majority of participants made a point after the fact to disassociate themselves from the anarchists).

From there, it was a relatively small jump to the more extreme acts that would lead to his eventual arrest and prosecution (he agreed to a “non-cooperation” plea deal that saved him from life in prison but still saddled him with 7 years and a “terrorism enhancement”).

The filmmakers give equal screen time to some of the law enforcement officials and prosecutors who made the case against McGowan and his associates. Although no one was ever injured or killed as a result of E.L.F. activity (astounding considering that there were approximately 1,200 “actions” perpetrated by the group during their heyday), there are still victims; and some of them appear on camera as well to offer their perspective.

Were these people “terrorists”? You almost have to get back to defining “what is a terrorist?” Or in this case, who are the real terrorists? One interviewee offers this: “95% of the native American forests have been cut down. Trying to save the remaining 5% is ‘radical’?” That’s a valid question. McGowan himself seems to be arguing (in so many words) that in a post 9-11 world, people have a tendency to make a “rush to judgment” without considering the alternate point of view (he suggests that the word “terrorist” has supplanted “Communist” as the demagogue’s dog whistle of choice).

I wonder if the filmmakers intend McGowan’s story to be a litmus test for the viewer (how far out on the limb would you be willing to go for your personal convictions?) If so, that’s a tough one. Part of me identifies with Daniel McGowan the environmentally-conscious idealist; but I don’t think I can quite get behind Daniel McGowan the criminal arsonist. For now, I’m just content to keep recycling and doing my part to think “glocal”. And in case you’re wondering…I haven’t stepped foot inside a Honeybaked Ham store since I quit working there 14 years ago. Those murderous bastards.