Tag Archives: On Politics

Dare to struggle: Judas and the Black Messiah (***)

by Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 27. 2021)

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Kay: You know how naïve you sound? Presidents and Senators don’t have men killed.

Michael: Oh. Who’s being naïve, Kay?

— from The Godfather

While it is based on a true story and billed as a “biopic”, Shaka King’s new film Judas and the Black Messiah feels more akin to fictional early 70s conspiracy thrillers like The Conversation, The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor. Those three films (released in proximity of the Watergate break-in scandal and President Richard Nixon’s consequent resignation) are permeated by an atmosphere of paranoia, distrust and betrayal that mirrors the climate of the Nixon era. That is not to imply Judas and the Black Messiah is made up from whole cloth. From a recent Democracy Now broadcast:

[Host Amy Goodman] Newly unearthed documents have shed new light on the FBI’s role in the murder of the 21-year-old Black Panther leader Fred Hampton on December 4, 1969, when Chicago police raided Hampton’s apartment and shot and killed him in his bed, along with fellow Black Panther leader Mark Clark. Authorities initially claimed the Panthers had opened fire on the police who were there to serve a search warrant for weapons, but evidence later emerged that told a very different story: The FBI, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago police had conspired to assassinate Fred Hampton. FBI memos and reports obtained by historian and writer Aaron Leonard now show that senior FBI officials played key roles in planning the raid and the subsequent cover-up. “It was approved at the highest level,” says attorney Jeff Haas.

Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies conspiring to assassinate an American citizen as he slept in his apartment? It happened. Haas, a founding member of the People’s Law Office in Chicago and one of the lead lawyers in the (posthumous) Fred Hampton civil rights case elaborated to host Amy Goodman (from the same broadcast):

But what [documents] showed was that [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover, [director of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division William] Sullivan and [head of the Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division George] Moore were following Roy Mitchell, a special agent in charge, very closely with regard to [FBI informant Bill] O’Neal. And they were complimenting him and rewarding him from the moment he gave the information and the floor plan [for Fred Hampton’s apartment] to special agent Mitchell. They were congratulating Mitchell on what a wonderful job he did with this informant. Of course, Mitchell got the floor plan, gave it to Hanrahan’s [Chicago] police, and that’s what led to the raid. The floor plan even showed the bed where Hampton and Johnson would be sleeping.

So, we knew much of this. We knew O’Neal had gotten a bonus. We never knew Mitchell got a bonus. And we never knew that Hoover and Sullivan and Moore were starting to watch this in November, 10 days before it happened. They were monitoring exactly what went on. And so it was approved at the highest level. And during the trial, we had sought to go up to Sullivan and Moore and Hoover, but the judge wouldn’t allow us. And we thought perhaps even John Mitchell and Richard Nixon were involved. We didn’t have these documents, so we couldn’t uncover that. This also shows that after the raid, the head of the FBI in Chicago met with and congratulated the informant, O’Neal, thanked him for his information, which led to the success of the raid.

Possible direct involvement by the White House certainly qualifies as the “highest level”. It is also interesting that an “Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division” existed in 1969 to keep close watch on the Panthers and other organizations that shared what present-day Fox prime time hosts might sneeringly refer to as “radical extremist socialist agendas” (BTW if such a special section still exists…where was their vigilance this past January 6th?).

That is a lot to unpack; much less in a 2-hour film. Perhaps wisely, writer-director King and co-writers Will Berson, Kenneth Lucas and Keith Lucas focus less on the complex political machinations and more on the personal aspects of the story.

More specifically, the filmmakers construct a dual narrative that shows how the life paths of charismatic Marxist revolutionary Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) and the man who would ultimately play “Judas” to his “black messiah”, Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) converged.

There isn’t much backstory offered explaining Hampton’s rapid transformation from aspiring law student who joined the NAACP in the mid-60s to founder of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers in 1968; but then again, considering that he was dead and gone by age 21, his historical impact seems all the more remarkable.

On the other hand, O’Neal (who was one year younger than Hampton) is a man with less lofty ideals and negligible passion for politics. He is a career criminal whose luck runs out when he gets nailed for a felony beef after driving a stolen car across state lines. The arresting officer is FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) who offers O’Neal a way out: infiltrate the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, become an FBI informant, and win fabulous prizes (like having his felony charges disappear). O’Neal accepts the deal.

O’Neal ingratiates himself with Hampton, to the point where he becomes a member of the Chairman’s trusted inner circle. Along the way, the filmmakers offer a Cliff’s Notes summary of Hampton’s brief but productive tenure as head of the Chicago Panthers; his implementation of a program providing free breakfasts for schoolchildren, establishment of a free clinic, and (most impressively) mediating a peace treaty between long-time rival Chicago street gangs (ultimately leading to formation of the original multiracial “Rainbow Coalition”).

Ironically, it’s not so much what Hampton “does” that matters one way or the other to FBI director Hoover (Martin Sheen) and the rest of the posse out to “neutralize” the threat (perceived or otherwise) Hampton represents to the status quo, but rather what he says…which is at times incendiary and what some might even call seditious (Hoover is on record declaring the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”).

Just months before his death Hampton is arrested for (of all things) stealing $70 worth of candy. He is convicted, but the charges are overturned. There were several police raids on the Black Panthers’ HQ the same year, although the filmmakers distill them into one shootout incident. Clearly, the authorities were circling their prey, culminating in the fateful late-night raid in December of 1969 that left Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clarke dead and several people wounded. The reenactment of the incident is harrowing and affecting.

Ballistic evidence revealed one shot fired by the Panthers…and 100 (one hundred) shots fired by the police. Maybe it’s just me, but that sounds more like a police “assault” than a police “raid”. One of the people in the apartment that night was Hampton’s eight-month pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (wonderfully played in the film by Dominique Fishback, who was a standout in the HBO series The Deuce). No matter how you may view Hampton’s place in history (hero or villain) the circumstances of his demise should dismay anyone familiar with the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which says (among other things)

No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Judas and the Black Messiah is not a definitive biopic but does convey that what happened to Fred Hampton was an American tragedy…sadly, one that continues to occur to this day.

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

Mockery of a sham: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 24, 2020)

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Don’t say I didn’t warn you. From my 2008 review of The Trial of the Chicago 10:

I understand that Steven Spielberg is currently in pre-production on a dramatized version of the story, written by Aaron Sorkin and tentatively titled The Trial of the Chicago 7. Rumor has it Sacha Baron Cohen will play Abbie Hoffman, which is a perfect match on many levels (if someone can prove to me that his alter-egos “Ali G” and “Borat” don’t have deep roots in the political guerilla theater of the 60s, I’ll eat my Che cap). With the obvious historical parallels abounding vis a vis the current government’s foreign policy and overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country, I say the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.

Flash-forward 12 years. I’d venture to say that the “historical parallels” between the Nixon and Trump administrations are even more pronounced in 2020 than between the Nixon and Bush Jr. administrations in 2008, not to mention the “overall climate of disenfranchisement in this country” (which is widely considered to be at an all-time low). And I still say “…the more films about the Chicago 7 trial that are out there, the merrier.”

Spielberg saw something shinier, but The Trial of the Chicago 7 has emerged from the other side of Development Hell largely unscathed, with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin now in the director’s chair and Sacha Baron Cohen sporting Abbie Hoffman hair (funnily enough, Cohen has also unleashed his new Borat film-in time for the upcoming election).

For you young’uns, here is the back story: In September 1969, Abbie Hoffman and fellow political activists Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner were hauled into court along with Black Panther Bobby Seale on a grand jury indictment for allegedly conspiring to incite the anti-Vietnam war protests and resulting mayhem that transpired during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What resulted is arguably the most overtly political “show trial” in U.S. history.

No, your calculations are correct…there were originally “8” defendants, but Bobby Seale was (for all intents and purposes) “banished” from court early in the proceedings after heated verbal exchanges with presiding judge Julius Hoffman. After draconian physical restraint methods failed to silence him (Seale was literally bound, gagged and chained to his chair at one point), Judge Hoffman had him tossed out of the proceedings altogether.

His crime? Demanding his constitutional right to an attorney of his choice, for which he eventually served a 4 year sentence for contempt. The remaining seven defendants’ outspoken defense attorneys, William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass, also rubbed the judge the wrong way and were cited for contempt (although they never served any time).

The trial dragged on for months, resulting in each of the seven being acquitted of conspiracy. Two defendants were acquitted completely; and the remaining five were convicted of “crossing state lines with the intent to incite a riot”. However, all the convictions were reversed by a U.S. appeals court in 1972 (the Justice Department wisely decided to let it go at that point). None of the seven served time for the contempt charges.

Contextually, there was a lot going on with that trial; from a dramatist’s point of view there are any number of angles to riff on. On the most superficial level, there is the political theater aspect of the proceeding…an opportunity that wasn’t lost on a couple of the more flamboyant defendants (i.e., self-proclaimed “Yippees” Hoffman and Rubin) who took the ball and ran with it (much to the chagrin of exasperated Judge Hoffman, who was dispensing “contempt of court” charges like Halloween candy by the trial’s end).

But there was also something broader in scope and more insidious at play here; namely, the “war” that President Richard M. Nixon had all but declared on America’s counterculture, which he perceived to be his greatest nemesis (his “enemies list” is legend). More specifically, Nixon was wielding the Justice Department as a truncheon to beat down and suppress the antiwar movement (or “radical Left protesters”…if you will).

If certain elements sound depressingly similar to 2020, that is an opportunity that wasn’t lost on Aaron Sorkin. I am aware of detractors who feel Sorkin wields his prose like a truncheon in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Negative reviews I’ve read tend to whinge on about how he belabors those historical parallels…but that is precisely what I like about it.

A great cast helps. As I noted earlier, Cohen is an inspired choice to play Abbie Hoffman. In the guise of his alter-egos Ali ‘G’ and Borat, Cohen has used elements of political guerilla theater rooted in the ethos of 1960s activist street performers like The Diggers and the San Francisco Mime troupe. Likewise, Hoffman himself frequently staged rallies using guerilla theater techniques, most notably in 1967 when he and fellow activist Allen Ginsberg joined thousands of anti-war protesters in an attempt to “levitate” the Pentagon.

Jeremy Strong (so good as the coke-addled heir in HBO’s Succession) is excellent as Hoffman’s main partner-in-disruption Jerry Rubin. Frank Langella makes a convincingly cantankerous Judge Julius Hoffman. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on hand as Federal prosecutor Dick Schultz (who has taken issue with the film’s portrayal of himself and elements of the trial) and Michael Keaton plays it straight in his cameo as Ramsay Clark. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (featured in HBO’s Watchmen) is a standout as Bobby Seale.

In addition to Cohen, the impressive UK contingent of the cast includes Mark Rylance as defense attorney Kunstler and Eddie Redmayne as activist Tom Hayden. Interestingly, Sorkin focuses on a yin-yang clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. In my 2009 review of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, I observed:

It is this part of the story that I found most fascinating. It demonstrates how (although doesn’t go to any length to explore why) such radical groups inevitably self-destruct by becoming a microcosm of the very thing they were railing against in the first place; in this case, disintegrating into a sort of self-imposed fascistic state that became more and more about internal power plays and individual egos instead of focusing on their original collective idealism.

This aspect of the story strongly recalls the late German filmmaker Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s 1979 political satire, cheekily entitled The Third Generation, in which he carries the idea of an ongoing disconnect between the R.A.F.’s core ideals and what he portrays as little more than a group of increasingly clueless, bumbling middle-class dilettantes who bear scant resemblance to the original group of hardcore revolutionaries, to ridiculous extremes.

While the trial has been covered in  previous documentaries and feature films (like The Trial of the Chicago 8) writer-director Aaron Sorkin takes a unique angle – focusing on a clash of methodology between Hayden and Hoffman throughout the trial. He reminds us how messy “revolutions” can be; in this case as demonstrated by the disparity of approaches taken by the (originally) 8 defendants.

While all shared a common idealism and united cause, several of them had never even been in the same room before they were all  indicted together and prosecuted en masse as “conspirators”. Dystopian nightmare fuel…but the good news is our justice system worked, and the convictions were reversed.

Then again, as many have said—American Democracy (borne of revolution, mind you) is “messy”. So far, our checks and balances have kept it from collapsing. But we have come “this close” many times. At least twice in my lifetime…during the aforementioned Nixon administration (which ended in his resignation as a result of the Watergate debacle) and right here and now. But there is a time-proven way to keep it shored up:

Get out the vote.

 

(“The Trial of the Chicago 7” is currently playing on Netflix)

West coast aflame, film at 11: Top 10 Eco-Flicks

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 19, 2020)

https://i2.wp.com/media1.s-nbcnews.com/j/newscms/2013_52/82561/131223-coslog-earthrise-315p_83176938acace7f325e5db62cde1aa61.fit-760w.jpg?resize=635%2C503&ssl=1View of the Earth from the Moon, December 1968

               View of the Sun from my Seattle office, September 2020 (no filters or enhancements)

Look at the powerful people
Stealing the sun from the day
Wish I could do something about it
When all I can do is pray

– from “Powerful People” by Gino Vannelli

If we dig precious things from the land, we will invite disaster.

Near the Day of Purification, there will be cobwebs spun back and forth in the sky.

A container of ashes might one day be thrown from the sky, which could burn the land and boil the oceans

– Hopi Prophecies sung in the soundtrack of the film Koyannasqatsi

The photo at the top of my post was taken December 24, 1968 by Apollo 8 crew member Major William A. Anders. The story behind that now iconic photo is on NASA’s website:

Anders said their job was not to look at the Earth, but to simulate a lunar mission. It was not until things had calmed down and they were on their way to the moon that they actually got to look back and take a picture of the Earth as they had left it.

“That’s when I was thinking ‘that’s a pretty place down there,’” Anders said. “It hadn’t quite sunk in like the Earthrise picture did, because the Earthrise had the Earth contrasted with this ugly lunar surface.”

Anders described the view of Earth before Earthrise “kind of like the classroom globe sitting on a teacher’s desk, but no country divisions. It was about 25,000 miles away where you could still recognize continents.”

Yes, that is a “pretty place down there.” Be a shame if anything happened to it:

Smoke from the wildfires ravaging much of the US West Coast has spread to the east of the country, casting a haze over New York and Washington DC.

The blazes have burned vast areas of land and killed at least 36 people since early August. […]

Dozens of wildfires have burned across vast swathes of land on the West Coast since the start of August. Strong winds and low humidity have been hampering efforts to keep the blazes under control.

The states of Oregon, Washington and California are experiencing some of the most unhealthy air on the planet, according to global air quality rankings.

The poor air quality has forced some businesses to close, grounded flights and suspended services like rubbish collection in some communities.

“Everything is covered in ashes,” California resident Twana James told the Associated Press news agency. “It’s hard to breathe.” […]

US President Donald Trump has blamed poor forest management for the fires.

California Governor Gavin Newsom this week said the deadly wildfires showed that the debate around climate change is “over”.

But on a visit to the state, Mr. Trump dismissed concerns about climate change, saying “it’ll start getting cooler, you just watch.”

https://i.insider.com/5f5d17e7e6ff30001d4e87e5?width=750&format=jpeg&auto=webpSmoke from the current West Coast forest fires as it appears from space

Not such a “pretty place down there”, these days. Incidentally, this is not the first time the current President has “dismissed concerns about climate change”.  In fact, he and his administration have displayed a pattern not only of denial regarding climate change and global warming, but of a systematic dismantling of legislated environmental safeguards:

The Trump Administration’s tumultuous presidency has brought a flurry of changes—both realized and anticipated—to U.S. environmental policy. Many of the actions roll back Obama-era policies that aimed to curb climate change and limit environmental pollution, while others threaten to limit federal funding for science and the environment.

It’s a lot to keep track of, so National Geographic will be maintaining an abbreviated timeline of the Trump Administration’s environmental actions and policy changes, as well as reactions to them. We will update this article as news develops.

You are likely aware that many “updates” have followed since. In fact, we may be less than 50 days away from the election, but… that doesn’t mean they are done poisoning the well:

David Legates, a University of Delaware professor of climatology who has spent much of his career questioning basic tenets of climate science, has been hired for a top position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Legates confirmed to NPR that he was recently hired as NOAA’s deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction. The position suggests that he reports directly to Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the agency that is in charge of the federal government’s sprawling weather and climate prediction work.

Neither Legates nor NOAA representatives responded to questions about Legates’ specific responsibilities or why he was hired. The White House also declined to comment.

Legates has a long history of using his position as an academic scientist to publicly cast doubt on climate science. His appointment to NOAA comes as Americans face profound threats stoked by climate change, from the vast, deadly wildfires in the West to an unusually active hurricane season in the South and East. […]

Legates is a professor in the Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences at the University of Delaware. He is also affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a think tank that has poured money into convincing Americans that climate change is not happening and that the scientific evidence — including evidence published by the agency that now employs Legates — is uncertain or untrustworthy.

Advocates who reject mainstream climate science, such as those at Heartland, have had a leading role in shaping the Trump administration’s response to global warming, including the decision to exit the Paris climate accord. […]

Michael Mann, professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, says in an email to NPR that Legates has, throughout his career, “misrepresented the science of climate change, serving as an advocate for polluting interests as he dismisses and downplays the impacts of climate change.”

Mann adds: “At a time when those impacts are playing out before our very eyes in the form of unprecedented wildfires out West and super-storms back East, I cannot imagine a more misguided decision than to appoint someone like Legates to a position of leadership at an agency that is tasked with assessing the risks we face from extreme weather events.”

Please make it stop. Considering the west coast is on fire and I’m holed up in my Seattle apartment suffering from low grade smoke inhalation symptoms despite having my windows shut tight, I thought I might share my picks for the Top 10 eco-flicks. Erm…enjoy?

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Chasing Ice– Jeff Orlowski’s film is glacially paced. That is, “glacial pacing” ain’t what it used to be. Glaciers are moving along (“retreating”, technically) at a pretty good clip. This does not portend well. To be less flowery: we’re fucked. According to nature photographer (and subject of Orlowski’s film) James Balog, “The story…is in the ice.”

Balog’s journey began in 2005, while on assignment in the Arctic for National Geographic to document the effect of climate change. Up until that trip, he candidly admits he “…didn’t think humans were capable” of influencing weather patterns so profoundly. His epiphany gave birth to a multi-year project utilizing modified time-lapse cameras to capture alarming empirical evidence of the effects of global warming.

The images are beautiful, yet troubling. Orlowski’s film mirrors the dichotomy, equal parts cautionary eco-doc and art installation. The images trump the montage of inane squawking by climate deniers in the opening, proving that a picture is worth 1,000 words.

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The Emerald Forest– Although it may initially seem a heavy-handed (if well-meaning) “save the rain forest” polemic, John Boorman’s underrated 1985 adventure (a cross between The Searchers and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan) goes much deeper.

Powers Boothe plays an American construction engineer working on a dam project in Brazil. One day, while his wife and young son are visiting the job site on the edge of the rain forest, the boy is abducted and adopted by an indigenous tribe who call themselves “The Invisible People”, touching off an obsessive decade-long search by the father. By the time he is finally reunited with his now-teenage son (Charley Boorman), the challenge becomes a matter of how he and his wife (Meg Foster) are going to coax the young man back into “civilization”.

Tautly directed, lushly photographed (by Philippe Rousselot) and well-acted. Rosco Pallenberg scripted (he also adapted the screenplay for Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur).

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Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster– I know what you’re thinking: there’s no accounting for some people’s tastes. But who ever said an environmental “message” movie couldn’t also provide mindless, guilty fun? Let’s have a little action. Knock over a few buildings. Wreak havoc. Crash a wild party on the rim of a volcano with some Japanese flower children. Besides, Godzilla is on our side for a change. Watch him valiantly battle Hedora, a sludge-oozing toxic avenger out to make mankind collectively suck on his grody tailpipe. And you haven’t lived until you’ve heard “Save the Earth”-my vote for “best worst” song ever from a film (much less a monster movie).

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An Inconvenient Truth– I re-watched this recently; I hadn’t seen it since it opened in 2006, and it struck me how it now plays less like a warning bell and more like the nightly news.  It’s the end of the world as we know it. Apocalyptic sci-fi is now scientific fact. Former VP/Nobel winner Al Gore is a Power Point-packing Rod Serling, submitting a gallery of nightmare nature scenarios for our disapproval. I’m tempted to say that Gore and director Davis Guggenheim’s chilling look at the results of unchecked global warming only reveals the tip of the iceberg…but it’s melting too fast.

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Koyannisqatsi– In 1982 this genre-defying film quietly made its way around the art houses; it’s now a cult favorite. Directed by activist/ex-Christian monk Godfrey Reggio, with beautiful cinematography by Ron Fricke (who later directed Chronos, Baraka, and Samsara) and music by Philip Glass (who also scored Reggio’s sequels), it was considered a transcendent experience by some; New Age hokum by others (count me as a fan).

The title (from ancient Hopi) translates as “life out of balance” The narrative-free imagery, running the gamut from natural vistas to scenes of First World urban decay, is open for interpretation. Reggio followed up in 1988 with Powaqqatsi (“parasitic way of life”), focusing on the First World’s drain on Third World resources, then book-ended his trilogy with Naqoyqatsi (“life as war”).

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Manufactured Landscapes– A unique eco-documentary from Jennifer Baichwal about photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is an “earth diarist” of sorts. While his photographs are striking, they don’t paint a pretty picture of our fragile planet. Burtynsky’s eye discerns a terrible beauty in the wake of the profound and irreversible human imprint incurred by accelerated modernization. As captured by Burtynsky’s camera, strip-mined vistas recall the stark desolation of NASA photos sent from the Martian surface; mountains of “e-waste” dumped in a vast Chinese landfill take on an almost gothic, cyber-punk dreamscape. The photographs play like a scroll through Google Earth images, as reinterpreted by Jackson Pollock. An eye-opener.

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Princess Mononoke– Anime master Hayao Miyazaki and his cohorts at Studio Ghibli have raised the bar on the art form over the past several decades. This 1997 Ghibli production is one of their most visually resplendent. Perhaps not as “kid-friendly” as per usual, but many of the usual Miyazaki themes are present: humanism, white magic, beneficent forest gods, female empowerment, and pacifist angst in a violent world. The lovely score is by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. For another great Miyazaki film with an environmental message, check out Nausicaa Valley of the Wind.

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Queen of the Sun- I never thought that a documentary about honeybees would make me laugh and cry-but Taggart Siegel’s 2010 film did just that. Appearing at first to be a distressing examination of Colony Collapse Syndrome, a phenomenon that has puzzled and dismayed beekeepers and scientists alike with its increasing frequency over the past few decades, the film becomes a sometimes joyous, sometimes humbling meditation on how essential these tiny yet complex social creatures are to the planet’s life cycle. Humans may harbor a pretty high opinion of our own place on the evolutionary ladder, but Siegel lays out a convincing case which proves that these busy little creatures are, in fact, the boss of us.

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Silent Running– In space, no one can hear you trimming the verge! Bruce Dern is an agrarian antihero in this 1972 sci-fi adventure, directed by legendary special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull. Produced around the time “ecology” was a buzzword, its message may seem a little heavy-handed today, but the film remains a cult favorite.

Dern plays the gardener on a commercial space freighter that houses several bio-domes, each dedicated to preserving a species of vegetation (in this bleak future, the Earth is barren of organic growth).

While it’s a 9 to 5 drudge gig to his blue-collar shipmates, Dern sees his cultivating duties as a sacred mission. When the interests of commerce demand the crew jettison the domes to make room for more lucrative cargo, Dern goes off his nut, eventually ending up alone with two salvaged bio-domes and a trio of droids (Huey, Dewey and Louie) who play Man Friday to his Robinson Crusoe. Joan Baez contributes two songs on the soundtrack.

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Soylent Green– Based on a Harry Harrison novel, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 film is set in 2022, when traditional culinary fare is but a dim memory, due to overpopulation and environmental depletion. Only the wealthy can afford the odd tomato or stalk of celery; most of the U.S. population lives on processed “Soylent Corporation” product. The government encourages the sick and the elderly to politely move out of the way by providing handy suicide assistance centers (considering current threats to our Social Security system, that doesn’t seem much of a stretch anymore).

Oh-there is some ham served up onscreen, courtesy of Charlton Heston’s scenery-chewing turn as a NYC cop who is investigating the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive. Edward G. Robinson’s moving death scene has added poignancy; as it preceded his passing by less than two weeks after the production wrapped.

One more thing…

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m not the only bee in your bonnet:

Rescue me: Desert One (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

[From a 2006 Atlantic article]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same as it ever was: Capital in the Twenty-First Century (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 9, 2020)

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“There is no America. There is no democracy. There is only IBM, and ITT, and AT&T, and DuPont, Dow, Union Carbide, and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today. What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state, Karl Marx? They get out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories, Minimax solutions, and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments, just like we do. We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies, Mr. Beale. The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business. The world is a business, Mr. Beale. It has been since man crawled out of the slime.”

― from Network, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

And thus spoke “Arthur Jensen”, CEO of fictional media conglomerate “CCA” in what is for me the most defining scene in director Sidney Lumet’s prescient 1976 satire. Jensen (wonderfully played by Ned Beatty) is calling “mad prophet of the airwaves” Howard Beale (Peter Finch) on the carpet for publicly exposing a potential buyout of CCA by shadowy Arab investors. Cognizant that Beale is crazy as a loon, yet a cash cow for the network, Jensen hands him a new set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). It is screenwriter Chayefsky’s finest monologue.

Recently, we’ve witnessed a President of the United States who is Tweeting and making public statements in TV interviews and press conferences (in a very “mad prophet of the airwaves” manner) that suggest he feels it’s more important right now in the midst of a still-raging pandemic to get everyone back to work than to save their lives. Because the economy. And per usual, Wall Street watches, waits and yawns while it gets a manicure.

You would almost think “someone” has handed the President a set of stone tablets from which he is to preach (akin to the corporate cosmology of Arthur Jensen). Or, at the very least-he opines from the perspective of someone borne of privilege and inherited wealth?

So how did the world become “…a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable bylaws of business”? And come hell, high water, or killer virus, why is it that “Thou shalt rally the unwashed masses to selflessly do their part to protect the interests of the Too Big to Fail” (whether it’s corporations, the dynastic heirs of the 1% or the wealth management industry that feeds off of them) remains the most “immutable bylaw” of all?

It’s not like “the people” haven’t tried through history to level the playing field between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Take, for example the French Revolution, which ultimately did not change the status quo, despite the initial “victory” of the citizenry over the power-hoarding aristocracy. As pointed out in Justin Pemberton’s documentary Capital in the Twenty-First Century, while there was initial optimism in the wake of the revolution that French society would default to an egalitarian model, it never really took.

Why? Because the architects of the revolution overlooked what is really needed to establish and maintain true equality: strong political institutions, an education system, health care (*sigh*), a transport system, and a tax system that targets the highest incomes.

Same as it ever was.

That, and financial inequality in general are the central themes in Pemberton’s ever-so-timely film, which is based on the eponymous best-seller by economist Thomas Piketty.

Cleverly interweaving pop culture references with insightful observations by Piketty and other economic experts, the film illustrates (in easy-to-digest terms) the cyclical nature of feudalism throughout history. Focusing mostly on the last 200 years or so, it connects the dots between significant events like the aforementioned French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution (which greatly expanded the boundaries of “capital” while driving an even deeper wedge between workers and factory owners), New World expansion (which spawned the slave trade), and the labor movements of the late 19th-to-early 20th Centuries.

While a lot of the historical review is disheartening, it is not all gloom and doom and “the system is rigged”. The film reminds us that there have been periods where egalitarian ideals have taken hold (the Roaring Twenties, FDR’s New Deal, the post-war rise of the middle-class). That said-1% of the world’s population still owns 70% of the land in 2020.

Will there ever come a time when economic equality “takes” for good? Maybe when an asteroid strikes the Earth and puts us all back on equal footing? My personal cynicism aside, Piketty and his fellow commentators do toss out possible scenarios that give you some hope; but frankly they all seem to be predicated on a wee bit of magical thinking.

Naturally, I was being facetious in the previous paragraph when I mentioned an asteroid striking the Earth. But history does indicate it takes some form of Great Equalizer to precipitate a shakeup in the status quo. As pointed out in the film, war is one example (WW 1 begat the Roaring Twenties, WW 2 begat the rise of the middle class, etc.). What about this pandemic? A killer virus doesn’t care whether you’re wearing a Bud-stained T-shirt or a Brioni suit; it’s just looking for the nearest warm body to attach itself to.

As the film was produced before Covid-19 shut down much of the world’s economy, it does not delve into the possibilities of a post-pandemic restructuring. As luck would have it though, a fitting postscript for my review presented itself the day after I screened the film when Thomas Piketty popped up as a guest on The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah. Curiously, he was not there to promote the documentary, but did share some interesting thoughts on possible post-pandemic shifts in current economic models:

[Piketty] I think this is one of these crises we see that can really change people’s views about the world and how we should organize the economy. What we see at this stage is a big increase in inequality. […]

With this crisis right now, I think people are going to be asking for proof that we can also use this power of money creation and the Federal Reserve in order to invest in people; investing in hospitals, in public infrastructure, increasing wages for unskilled workers…all the low-wage and middle-wage people which we see today are necessary for our existence and our society.

In the longer run, of course we cannot just pay for everything with public debt and money creation…so we have to re-balance our tax system. […]

In the past three decades in America, we’ve seen a lot more billionaires; but we’ve seen a lot less growth. So in the end, the idea that you get prosperity out of inequality just didn’t work out. […]

[Noah] What do you think about the “worst case scenario”, then…if you live in a world where the inequality just keeps growing; the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, what do we inevitably get to?

[Piketty] Well to me the worst scenario is that some skilled politicians like Donald Trump, or [President of the National Front Party] Marie Le Pen in my country in France will use the frustration coming from wage and income stagnation and rising inequality in order to point out some foreign workers or “some people” [are] to blame. […] And this is what really worries me-that if we don’t change our discourses, if we don’t come up with another economic model that is more equitable, more sustainable…then, in effect we re-open the door for all this nationalist discourse.

Trevor had to go there with the “worst case scenario”. But that does not mean that is where we must end up. I am not an economic expert, nor pretend to have the answers to such questions. However, one quote from the film stuck with me: “This logic of one dollar, one vote is completely opposed to the democratic logic of one person, one vote.” I am not taking that one to the bank; I’ll be taking that one to the polls with me on November 3rd-with fingers crossed.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is streaming through May 14 via Seattle’s Grand Illusion Cinema website . Proceeds are split to help support the theater during its current closure.

 

Notes from Ground Zero…and The Twilight Zone

By Dennis Hartley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**** SPOILERS AHEAD ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Breaking Point: After Parkland (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 8, 2020)

https://i0.wp.com/images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/51b89491e4b03168d3436df5/1560270420964-VLR7KWY5WZMCL7KO3NXM/ke17ZwdGBToddI8pDm48kFTEgwhRQcX9r3XtU0e50sUUqsxRUqqbr1mOJYKfIPR7LoDQ9mXPOjoJoqy81S2I8N_N4V1vUb5AoIIIbLZhVYxCRW4BPu10St3TBAUQYVKcW7uEhC96WQdj-SwE5EpM0lAopPba9ZX3O0oeNTVSRxdHAmtcci_6bmVLoSDQq_pb/after+parkland+1.jpg?w=474&ssl=1The above Tweets were posted in the wake of President Trump’s State of the Union address last Tuesday. The gentleman who posted them was Fred Guttenberg, who was commenting on the incident that got him handcuffed and escorted out of the chamber.

Mr. Guttenberg is an outspoken gun reform activist. His daughter Jamie was one of the students who was killed in a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida in 2018.

From The Washington Post:

Clad in his trademark orange tie and ribbon, the guest of honor had reached his breaking point.

Fred Guttenberg, the father of slain Parkland student Jaime Guttenberg, simmered with anger during President Trump’s State of the Union address on Tuesday. Trump discussed immigrants who committed crimes and declared that “human life is a sacred gift from God.”

Guttenberg thought something was missing. What about people killed by gun violence like his daughter, killed in a massacre at her high school in Florida? He leaned over to a fellow guest of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and said he was on the verge of losing it.

And when Trump said gun rights were “under siege all across our country,” Guttenberg did lose it, he said, and shouted about victims like Jamie.

“My emotions were stewing,” Guttenberg, 54, told The Washington Post on Wednesday, hours after he says he was handcuffed and detained by Capitol Police. “I was so upset.”

He roared at the tail end of an applause line from Trump, who said, “So long as I am president, I will always protect your Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.”

In a 2018 post that I wrote in the wake of the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, I opened with this excerpt from a previous 2016 post that I had written in the wake of the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida:

But there is something about [Orlando] that screams “Last call for sane discourse and positive action!” on multiple fronts. This incident is akin to a perfect Hollywood pitch, writ large by fate and circumstance; incorporating nearly every sociopolitical causality that has been quantified and/or debated over by criminologists, psychologists, legal analysts, legislators, anti-gun activists, pro-gun activists, left-wingers, right-wingers, centrists, clerics, journalists and pundits in the wake of every such incident since Charles Whitman perched atop the clock tower at the University of Texas and picked off nearly 50 victims (14 dead and 32 wounded) over a 90-minute period. That incident occurred in 1966; 50 years ago, this August. Not an auspicious golden anniversary for our country. 50 years of this madness. And it’s still not the appropriate time to discuss? What…too soon?

All I can say is, if this “worst mass shooting in U.S. history” (which is saying a lot) isn’t the perfect catalyst for prompting meaningful public dialogue and positive action steps once and for all regarding homophobia, Islamophobia, domestic violence, the proliferation of hate crimes, legal assault weapons, universal background checks, mental health care (did I leave anything out?), then WTF will it take?

It was déjà vu all over again. Further down in the piece, I wrote:

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. Oh waiter-check, please. The end. Finis. I have no mouth, and I must scream.

So where are we at today, in the two years since a gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at Stoneman Douglas High, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others in just 6 minutes? According to a 2019 AP story, a report issued in February of last year by a student journalism project “…concluded that  1,149 children and teenagers died from a shooting in the year since the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School,” citing that the stats cover “school shootings, domestic violence cases, drug homicides and by stray bullets”. Mind you, nearly another year has passed since that report was released.

And that’s just children and teenagers. The mass shootings and other incidents involving gun violence occur with such frequency in the U.S. that it’s no wonder the “adults” who make the laws and run the country can’t seem to block out the time to actually “do” anything about it, what with all the “thoughts and prayers” that must be attended to first.

Perhaps that explains why it’s “the children” (for whom legislators always claim they’re “doing this for”) who have taken the lead, like Parkland survivors-turned activists Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg. Hogg and fellow survivor-activist Samuel Zeif are among those profiled in the new documentary After Parkland (on Hulu beginning February 19).

Directed by Emily Taguchi and Jake Lefferman, the film also spotlights activist parents of Parkland victims, like Manuel Oliver (who lost his son Joaquin) and Andrew Pollack (who lost his daughter Meadow). The parents may not be in lockstep on legislative priorities (e.g. Pollack has become a “go-to” guest on Fox due to his more reactionary take on the mass shooting epidemic) but share an anguish no parent should have to suffer.

Politics take a back seat; this could be a deal-breaker for some on either “side” who may go in with expectations of polemical reinforcement. Instead, Taguchi and Lefferman (who filmed in the spring, summer and fall of 2018) have aimed for a candid yet still mindfully respectful portrait of how each family navigates all the inevitable stages of grief, culminating in the impassioned activism that we’ve all seen in the media coverage.

While After Parkland succeeds in conveying the emotional fallout left in the aftermath of tragedy, it becomes a bit repetitious; I think the directors’ decision to remain apolitical ultimately neuters the impact.

The most powerful moments are in the beginning, which contains a collage of real-time cell phone audio of the Parkland incident. The chilling sounds of automatic gunfire and students screaming in pain and terror made me think of the Martin Luther King quote ” Wait has always meant Never ”. If every lawmaker was locked in chambers and forced to listen to that audio on a continuous loop until they passed sensible gun reform, perhaps they would all finally reach their breaking point.

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Special note: On February 12th, there will be hosted screenings of “After Parkland” in over 100 cities in the U.S. to commemorate the 2nd anniversary of the Parkland shootings. The screenings are part of a nationwide “Day of Conversation” about gun reform, sponsored by organizations like March for Our Lives, Moms Demand Action, and The League of Women Voters. To locate a February 12th screening near you, or to learn more about the Demand Film project and how you can organize screenings in your city, click here. DH

 

Wild, Wild East: Citizen K (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 18, 2020)

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“In Russia, laws are kind of an iffy question. The strictness of Russian laws is compensated for the lack of obligation to follow them.”

 – Mikhail Khodorkovsky in Citizen K

Early on in Citizen K, Alex Gibney’s documentary about the rise, fall and (questionable) redemption of exiled Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an associate of his observes “He had already decided for himself that he wouldn’t be going anywhere, and if he were arrested, he’d do his time. He’s strange that way.” If the film is any indication, Khodorkovsky is “strange” in more ways than one …at the very least, a hard nut to crack.

Khodorkovsky, the first (only?) of the “Big 7” Russian oligarchs to ever publicly bring into question the ways and means of President Vladimir Putin’s consolidation of absolute power, did in fact end up doing “his time”. Arrested in 2003 and accused of fraud and tax evasion, Khodorkovsky was convicted and spent 10 years in a Siberian prison (when you consider the fate of many of Putin’s critics, Khodorkovsky is one of the “luckier” ones).

Not that Khodorkovsky was a social justice warrior-or anything of the sort. In an archival Russian television interview from the 1990s, he is asked if he is “a greedy person”. Wearing a bit of a smirk, Khodorkovsky replies “Definitely, definitely, definitely. I used to be less greedy, now I’m greedier. It’s a professional trait.” This “professional trait” was shared by a number of successful practitioners of the “gangster capitalism” that flourished in the wake of the collapse of the former Soviet Union during the “Wild 90s”.

The newly democratic country’s shaky plunge into capitalism created a “free for all” market, making it a textbook study in chaos theory through the Boris Yeltsin years (he was President from 1991 to 1999). This is the most engrossing portion of Gibney’s film, which is a recap of how the “Big 7” oligarchs ended up controlling 50% of the economy.

It was during the aforementioned period that Khodorkovsky amassed his wealth, initially seeding it with financial schemes and culminating with his highly profitable oil company, Yukos. As the present-day Khodorkovsky recounts with false modesty, “I found a book: ‘Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries’ […] I said, ‘Hey, I like this!’” See? Simple!

Khodorkovsky’s fortunes began to turn, however once Vladimir Putin became President in 2000. It’s no secret that Putin owed much of his initial political success to strong backing by the oligarchs, who as one interviewee in the film observes “…were looking for a successor [to Yeltsin] who would guarantee their safety and guarantee their wealth.”

That said, Putin cannily gleaned that if he wanted to consolidate his power, this beautiful friendship could only continue to flourish if one strict caveat was adhered to: the oligarchs must stay in their lane and leave all the politics to him. In other words, feel free to party on in your luxury yachts, but don’t rock the boat. Khodorkovsky rocked the boat.

While the other oligarchs toed the line, Khodorkovsky and Putin were at loggerheads from day one. When he took office, Putin felt threatened by reports that Khodorkovsky had half of the state Duma (the Russian assembly) in his pocket to protect his oil interests. “Did this require MPs?” Khodorkovsky cagily responds to Gibney when he asks if this was true, adding, “It was exactly as it happens in the United States Congress; ‘Will you support our campaign in the next election?’” Khodorkovsky does have a point.

Mixing excised footage from a nationally broadcast pre-taped TV special that featured President Putin, Khodorkovsky and other prominent businessmen discussing the state of the Russian economy with present-day play-by-play commentary by Khodorkovsky, Gibney cleverly reconstructs the precise “last straw” moment for a visibly angry Putin, after Khodorkovsky openly (and very boldly…considering) calls Putin out on his bullshit.

Next stop? Siberia. Well, prefacing Siberia was a series of show trials; Gibney also covers Khodorkovsky’s 10-year imprisonment and eventual 2013 pardon by Putin (prompted by public sentiment turning to Khodorkovsky’s favor) The final third of the film deals with Khodorkovsky’s current exile in London, where he has re-invented himself as a political dissident and outspoken Putin critic. This is where it gets a bit gray.

“I am far from an ideal person, but I’m a person who has ideals,” Khodorkovsky offers, undoubtedly self-aware of some healthy skepticism regarding an oligarch-turned-champion of the people. Gibney himself seems uncertain how to position the enigmatic Khodorkovsky-is he a sinner, or saint? Or is Khodorkovsky playing Gibney like a violin?

To his credit Gibney does ask him directly about one of those “gray areas”, which involves Khodorkovsky’s alleged involvement (never proven) in the 1998 assassination of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk (in 2015 a Russian court issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, officially charging him with ordering the hit). Nefteyugansk was the Siberian town where Khodorkovsky’s oil company was headquartered at the time. Khodorkovsky has yet to respond to the summons. However he is aware that living in London doesn’t guarantee he is out of Putin’s reach; a number of exiled Putin critics have suffered untimely and rather suspicious deaths in recent years.

While Khodorkovsky remains a shadowy figure, Gibney’s film does succeed in shedding light on how the “interesting” relationship between Putin and the oligarchy developed and how it continues to inform Russia’s ongoing experiment with “democracy”. And considering the “interesting” relationship that has developed between Putin and Trump, Citizen K may very well prove to be less of a cautionary tale …and more of a bellwether.

A special guest post: On people …and light

By Kermet Apio

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

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

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

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