Snowpiercer: Revolution in Microcosm

At the time of this writing, the Palestinian people in the open-air prison of Gaza are under brutal assault from their Israeli occupiers. Thousands of desperately impoverished innocent civilians are being deliberately targeted and killed, even as they seek shelter in designated United Nations schools and hospitals, and hundreds of thousands have been wounded or displaced from their homes by the actions of the well-funded and heavily armed Israeli state. Israel has sealed off Gaza, bombed its power plant, and made it virtually impossible for Gazans to get clean water and food, and any attempt by the people of Gaza to resist this brutal oppression is answered with even harsher military action on a totally disproportionate and inhumane scale.

The conflict in Gaza is a real-life example of the horror of capitalist-imperialism, infused with religion, and it illustrates the dire need for a revolution to rid the world of this genocidal system; a system which murders and exploits the poorest and weakest people with impunity, and then blames those victims for their own oppression. It’s time for this horrific injustice to come to an end, not only in Israel, but everywhere.snowpiercer-train4

Snowpiercer, a recent film by South Korean director Bong Joon Ho, takes place in a fictional situation that reflects the truth of what is happening in Gaza. Set in the not-too-distant future, Snowpiercer, based on the graphic novel by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, takes place following an attempt by mankind to save the world from climate change by spraying a chemical designed to cool the planet. But the plan has disastrous effects, causing a global ice age which kills almost all of humanity. Mankind’s last survivors board a train owned by a man named Wilford, who has constructed a continuous track which spans the entire globe. The train has to keep moving, taking a year to complete each circuit, to produce energy enough to sustain the lives of the survivor’s on board.

The train is divided into strictly enforced class zones. The poorest people, referred to as “freeloaders”, are kept locked away in the tail section, and forced to live in a dark, dirty, over-crowded environment, with only “protein bars” to eat, the ingredients of which are a mystery.

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The upper classes are allowed to live in luxurious cars in the front section of the train, where there is plenty of space and natural light, as well as quality food and a classroom for the children. The front has a spa car, a garden car, a dance club car, and even an aquarium. And, most importantly, the front section employs a large security force to maintain control over the passengers in the tail. Order is imposed with a brutal disciplinary system.

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While there is obviously a certain element of fantasy involved, and a certain suspension of disbelief required to buy into the scenario of the last humans trying to survive on a train during an ice age, what’s important to keep in mind is that Snowpiercer is clearly meant to be a metaphor. “The train is the world,” the film makes clear; a microcosm of civilization under the system of capitalist-imperialism. Those who could afford it were granted access to the front section, and those who couldn’t were forced to the back, where they were then oppressed and exploited.

There is no doubt that Snowpiercer is a highly entertaining film. It’s well paced, exciting, and an ensemble cast of major actors provide a certain gravitas to the material. Three Academy award winners, Ed Harris, Octavia Spencer, and Tilda Swinton, have supporting roles on a cast which also includes Hollywood stars Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, and John Hurt. Song Kang Ho and Ko Asung also turn in strong performances, both of whom were in Bong’s 2006 Korean film The Host. Snowpiercer also has a definite visual style that is both aesthetically pleasing and keeps the audience engaged.

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But while Snowpiercer is technically sound and entertaining on a surface level, what’s really important about this film is the way it depicts a genuine revolution of the people to overthrow an unjust class system. No fictional film could ever be a replacement for all the study required to fully understand this issue on a scientific level, but that being said, Snowpiercer’s understanding of the terms involved in people’s revolution is at an extremely high level, and the film illuminates several very important points.

Snowpiercer accurately depicts the way the ruling class systematically oppresses and exploits the lower classes for its own benefit. The poor people in the back of the train aren’t only prisoners, their labor is often exploited for the benefit of people in the front, as well as for performing functions vital to the train’s continued operation. Even children are not spared this, and one man is forced to spend years in a single room making the protein bars for the rest of the passengers in the tail. Without this forced labor, the train would not be able to operate, and the people in the front section would not be able to enjoy their lives in comfort and luxury.

The film also shows how the ruling class perpetuates the false idea that the class hierarchy is somehow the “natural order” of things, and that the passengers’ positions on the train were “preordained.” In real life, the elite also use this line to justify their exploitation of the masses, and to make people think that the only way to improve their circumstances is to play by the rules they set up. The elite “earned” their place at the top, they say, and those at the bottom of society “deserve” to live in poverty. This is of course completely false, but it’s an ideology that they infect society with in order to keep things running in a way that maintains their way of life.

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Snowpiercer also gets many specific details of people’s revolution correct. First, there must be clear leadership to organize and prepare the masses for revolution. This is a point that is currently very controversial among those on the radical left, as there are many who believe revolution must be “leaderless.” But a people’s uprising without leadership is doomed to failure, and those who argue for a leaderless revolution are in essence ensuring that the current order will never be overthrown. The people in the tail section are reluctantly led by Curtis (Evans). He doesn’t want to lead, he’d rather Gilliam (Hurt) have that responsibility, but he is the unanimous choice of the people to lead them.

Part of why leadership is so important to a revolution’s success is so it can be determined when conditions are right for the uprising to begin. It has to be carefully planned and coordinated, and therefore can’t be done haphazardly. Throughout the opening minutes of the film people ask Curtis, “Is it time?” “Not yet. Soon,” he always replies. Curtis is forming a plan of action, gathering resources, organizing the people, and waiting for the right moment to make the big move. Even when a great injustice is being done to one of the tail section passengers as a public form of punishment, Curtis still makes sure the uprising doesn’t begin prematurely. “Are we just going to sit here and let this happen?” Edgar asks Curtis. While it’s difficult and painful to stand by and watch the unjust punishment be done, Curtis knows it’s not the right moment, and he keeps the larger goal of taking control of the engine in mind.

And Curtis knows that when the time is right, you can’t hesitate. When the moment comes, you’ve got to go for it all the way with steadfast commitment, even at the risk of your own life and the lives of those you’re fighting with. The scene in Snowpiercer when the uprising begins is brilliantly executed on screen, as everyone in the tail section works together to fight past the guards and jam the doors open, including women. Snowpiercer shows women fighting right alongside men as equals. Octavia Spencer might not be a typical action star, but her performance as a warrior is inspiring and illuminating. This is among the many things the film gets right, along with the general resourcefulness required of the masses required to succeed.

Because, of course, no matter how well your revolution is planned, things will go wrong, and unforeseen obstacles will present themselves, especially as the ruling order becomes more desperate to put down the revolt, further underscoring the importance of leadership to intelligently utilize the available resources in ways a leaderless revolution never could. There is one such moment where the lights are turned off and Curtis calls back to the rear to have torches made from recently discovered matches.

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There is also a pivotal moment in the battle where one of Curtis’ friends is being held hostage behind him by an enemy soldier. It’s clear that he will be killed if Curtis doesn’t turn around and stop fighting. But ahead of him is a valuable target from the front section the resistance needs to capture in order to be successful. Conventional wisdom is to cut your losses, give up, save your friend, and live to fight another day if you’re lucky. But Curtis knows that if the revolution is to be successful, he has to go forward and achieve the objective at hand, even if it costs his friend’s life. You can’t give away the entire revolution to save one person, and this is something that Snowpiercer gets exactly right in a very bold way.

And finally, Bong realized something of critical importance. He incorporated into Snowpiercer the idea that it’s not enough to rise up and simply replace the existing order while maintaining the established structure of society. Curtis’ plan was essentially, “When we take the engine, we control the world.” He says, “It will be different when we get there [to the front].” But as well intentioned as this plan is, that ideology isn’t enough. There is no point in attempting a revolution if your only goal is to change out the leadership, maintaining the basic conditions that oppress the masses. The goal must be to completely smash the unjust system, and then build an entirely new system from the ground up, fundamentally changing the terms of human social relations.

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The revolution Curtis led, as just and righteous as it was, didn’t go far enough on an ideological level, and was too limited in scope. But Bong, to his credit, developed another character who understood how Curtis’ plan, as bold and well executed as it was, was ultimately short-sighted. Namgoong Minsoo (Song) realized that they would never be free as long as they remained trapped on the train and argued an even more radical line than Curtis: they have to get outside and stop the train entirely. It’s the system that’s fundamentally wrong, after all, not just Wilford’s control over that system. If Curtis simply replaced Wilford, the train keeps going, and the only changes would be minor reforms while the system remains in place. This is not good enough, and so Minsoo takes radical action to destroy the system once and for all. The future of humanity must be outside the train, because even though it might have seemed like it to the trapped passengers, the train isn’t actually the world, and therefore truly revolutionary thinking must go beyond its boundaries.

The science of revolution is very complex, and it’s quite remarkable that Snowpiercer demonstrated a well-developed understanding of these issues throughout the film. Like Avatar before it, Snowpiercer not only shows a people’s war in a positive light, but it shows that struggle being ultimately successful, to one degree or another, and it deserves great praise for this. Given what’s at stake, and given the odds against progressive films in the current reactionary climate, Snowpiercer has achieved something truly remarkable. It should be noted that Harvey Weinstein, who owns the US rights to the film, requested that 20 minutes be cut from the film, and Bong refused to comply. The American distribution suffered as a result, but the film remained intact and its message uncompromised.

Snowpiercer was able to distill several important lessons about revolution down to their essence, and then portray them within the context of a highly entertaining, commercial film, which is no small feat. Given the state of the world we live in, a world where the ruling class is enabled through a system of exploitation to brutally oppress others for their own benefit, a world where the atrocities currently being carried out in Gaza are not only possible but common, a film like Snowpiercer is a much needed breath of fresh air. Humanity needs revolution, nothing less, and Snowpiercer reflects that urgency in a highly developed way.

For those interested in learning more about revolution, please visit: revcom.us

Godzilla and Reckless Arrogance in the Nuclear Age

:::SPOILER ALERT FOR GODZILLA (2014):::

The original Godzilla (a.k.a. Gojira) was released in Japan less than a decade after the end of World War II. In 1954, the reality of nuclear annihilation was still fresh in Japanese consciousness after the United States dropped two atom bombs on the already devastated and defeated nation. Gojira (1954), inspired by a real nuclear “accident” in which a ship of Japanese fishermen was irradiated by an American hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific, was a powerful anti-American* film that warned against the rush to use science as a weapon and condemned the arrogance of those who thought they could keep such destructive forces under control. The monster set loose by nuclear testing in Gojira is essentially a living atom bomb.

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Over the years, nearly 30 Japanese Godzilla sequels have been produced, as well as 2 Hollywood remakes, making the franchise one of the most enduring and prolific in film history. While many of the sequels don’t take themselves very seriously, descending into camp with outlandish, silly creatures and bizarre scenarios, there can be no denying the impact the original film has had on society. It was a terrifying but highly entertaining film whose politics were integral to the plot, and its pointedly anti-nuclear stance obviously resonated with millions of people around the world.

When Roland Emmerich directed the first Hollywood remake he openly admitted to not being a fan of the original film, and, not surprisingly, Godzilla (1998) de-emphasized the anti-nuclear theme. While the monster in Emmerich’s film was the result of French nuclear testing (not American), beyond that the morality and politics of nuclear power plays virtually no role in the film. Dr. Tatopoulos, a scientist studying the effects of nuclear radiation (Matthew Broderick) seems to have no qualms with hunting down and eliminating the monster, in direct contrast with the scientific minded characters in Gojira who caution against violent reaction and stress the importance of knowledge and patience.

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For Emmerich, nukes are just a convenient plot device to set the story in motion. Ishiro Honda, on the other hand, used nuclear terror to craft a metaphor of essential importance to the original film. Honda’s Gojira is a walking lesson in the destructive consequences of arrogance and imperialistic greed, and retaliation against the monster only makes him more angry and destructive, while Emmerich’s Godzilla is just an overgrown animal who happens to be inconvenient for mankind’s modern civilization, and therefore must be destroyed without question.

Emmerich’s take on Godzilla was met with harsh criticism from fans and professional critics alike. Many pointed out that the film lacked the “spirit” of a genuine Godzilla film. The heart of this criticism, whether the film’s detractors realized it consciously or not, is that the missing spirit was political in nature. Fans also didn’t like how the monster looked and behaved, but ultimately Godzilla (1998) simply had nothing of value to say. When Emmerich cut out the progressive core of the story there just wasn’t much left. What remained was a sarcastic, militaristic, reactionary mess.

The next Hollywood take on Godzilla was just released on May 16. While Roland Emmerich’s version was perhaps deliberately belligerent to fans of the original franchise, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is clearly trying to be a crowd-pleaser. It pays homage to the Japanese films by bringing back Godzilla’s “atomic breath” and by incorporating other monsters for Godzilla to battle into the plot. Edwards’ version also restores the iconic monster to his lumbering, powerful, and self-aware roots. Here Godzilla appears capable of complex thought and operates on more than just base instincts, which is much more in line with the original conception of the monster.

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Edwards also brings the nuclear issue back to the forefront. Gojira (1954) was inspired by a real life nuclear incident, and it appears that Godzilla (2014) was similarly inspired by the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster of 2011. The film begins with the meltdown and destruction of a nuclear plant and a government cover-up to conceal the true cause of the disaster. But while Godzilla (2014) dedicates a lot of screen time to the topic of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the film doesn’t take nearly as strong an anti-nuclear stance as the original film, even if on the surface Edwards wants you to think it does.

The central protagonist, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a military explosive ordnance disposal officer. At one point when asked how the “bomb business is going” he says it’s his job to get rid of bombs, not to set them off. However, despite his claim, he demands to be assigned to the team ordered to set off a nuclear bomb in the ocean as a trap for the monsters. Never once does he say that it’s a reckless idea and that exploding nukes so close to the coast should be avoided at all costs.

That stance is left to Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), the man, apparently named after the scientist in the original film, who had been overseeing the study of the newly discovered MUTO monster who had caused the destruction of the power plant. His is the only voice of dissent against the unwise and obviously dangerous plan to detonate nuclear weapons as the first course of action. He proposes that the military should allow Godzilla to battle these new monsters that feed off nuclear energy, thus letting nature take its proper course. Though his view is eventually vindicated, his protests against the official plan are pretty timid, especially for someone whose grandfather was killed in Hiroshima. Of course the military is completely unmoved by his argument until circumstances prove him correct.

It could be argued the film is making a statement against nuclear energy through the MUTO monsters in the same way Gojira (1954) did, by metaphorically making the monsters living nuclear power plants, just as Godzilla was envisioned as a living atom bomb. The MUTOs feed off nuclear energy and then harness that power to create massive electromagnetic pulses (EMP) that cripple society. But while it could be argued the film is creating that metaphor, the association is weak at best, and the point is never driven home with clear intention the way it was in 1954. The difference is a question of priority.

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With Gojira is was obvious that the film makers made the film in order to send a message. “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind,” said Gojira‘s producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. The resulting film was raw, powerful, aware of its politics and direct about its intentions. With Godzilla (2014) the priority seemed to be making an entertaining movie that just so happens to include monsters that feed off nuclear energy. They have to eat something, right?

In the end, the strongest case the film makes against nuclear weapons is the way the military rushes to justify their use, and the cavalier way the weapons themselves are handled, easily falling out of their control in a situation they didn’t fully understand. However, the film misses its biggest opportunity drive home this message. While the “nature” plan proposed by Dr. Serizawa is ultimately successful and nuclear weapons ultimately revealed to be unnecessary, or indeed counterproductive, when the bomb does inevitably explode, it’s somehow, inexplicably, harmless.

In Gojira (1954), the monster is defeated with an experimental new technology called an Oxygen Destroyer. However, the scientist responsible for developing the technology, Dr. Serizawa, does not want to use it. He says it needs more research and that if they use it as a weapon that’s all it could ever be, just another weapon for people to kill each other with, as opposed to discovering more beneficial uses after further study. He believes this so firmly that before agreeing to use the technology to defeat the monster he burns all of his research, and then allows himself to be killed along with Gojira, ensuring the knowledge in his head could never fall into the wrong hands.

There’s a similar moment of potential self-sacrifice in the new film, but it doesn’t come to fruition, and somehow in only 5 minutes they are able to escort a nuke from the middle of the San Francisco Bay far enough into the ocean to detonate safely. No mention of damage, fallout, or any ill effects whatsoever. It’s all too convenient and easy, and the film makers passed on an opportunity to end the film with a brutal, powerful lesson in the arrogance, recklessness, and inhumanity of using nuclear weapons. Why not let the bomb explode in the middle of San Francisco after it’s already been established they were never needed in the first place? Imagine the irony of an ending where nature takes care of itself but mankind destroys itself trying to control it. The film wouldn’t have had a comfortable, feel-good ending, but then again, neither did Gojira, which, even in victory, ends on a somber note that forces the audience to reflect on the realities of the nuclear age.

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Godzilla (2014) isn’t a bad film. It’s extremely well made technically, has a plot based on solid character development, and it takes itself seriously enough to provide a sense of realism to the drama. It’s a vast improvement over the terrible 1998 version in every conceivable way, and it was a genuine, visceral cinematic experience, especially in IMAX 3D. But, ultimately, it’s still only a pale reflection of the original’s power and influence, even if it had some good intentions. As fun as it was to watch in parts, its inability to follow through with a cohesive anti-nuclear message and its missed opportunities will always outweigh the positives.

* It should be noted that the original Japanese version, Gojira (1954), was so threatening to U.S. interests that for the the American release of the film a significant amount of footage was cut from the original and new footage starring Raymond Burr was shot and added to the film. This version was called Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) and it largely eliminated the judgments the original film made on the U.S. and its use of nuclear weapons. It is, unfortunately, the version most people outside of Japan are most familiar with, but it should by no means be considered “the original” film, even though it was more widely distributed and popularized than the true original.

The Good Guys Won the Oscars (This Time)

rs_634x1024-140108134218-634.Ellen-Degeneres-Oscar-Promo.jl.010814This year’s Academy Awards were special and historic, and they stood in stark contrast to last year’s ceremony, and to the Oscar’s long history of stealing victory away from deserving progressive films. The tone of the broadcast was radically different than last year, including the way the show was hosted. A year ago we were subjected to Seth MacFarlane’s misogynistic, mean spirited, and offensive “humor” during a ceremony that culminated with Michelle Obama awarding the reactionary film Argo the top prize while surrounded by military personnel.

This year, a strong progressive wind blew through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If last year’s Oscars were a reactionary celebration of “guy culture” this year was a progressive tribute to the oppressed minorities of society, including women, the LGBT community, and black people. Ellen DeGeneres, an openly gay woman, hosted the ceremony for the second time. Her jokes were funny without the need to be offensive simply for the sake of shock value, and her best line of the night was when she alluded to the ceremony’s racist history. “Possibility #1: 12 Years a Slave wins Best Picture. Possibility #2: you’re all racists.” It was a joke, but it definitely contained an element of truth.

Ellen also made several genuine attempts to connect to the audience in a personal, fun way. At one point she ordered pizza for the audience, and then got the celebrities to cough up money for it later on. She also took a hilarious selfie with several actors crammed into the frame, and then posted it on Twitter, involving the audience around the globe. As of now that image has over 3 million retweets, breaking the previous record set by Obama’s tweet announcing his reelection campaign. The ceremony also included a tribute to The Wizard of Oz in which the singer Pink sang a beautiful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which reinforced the progressive theme of the evening, celebrating women in film and supporting oppressed minorities. Overall, it was a refreshing and much needed alternative to the open celebration of reactionary values from a year ago.

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Most importantly, and perhaps amazingly, virtually all the major awards went to progressive films, capped off by the historic victory of 12 Years a Slave, now the first film principally about the oppression of black people to win Best Picture. Director Steve McQueen became the first black person in the history of the Academy to win a Best Picture Oscar. Lupita Nyong’o won the statue for Best Supporting Actress, marking just the 15th time a black actor has taken home an Oscar, and John Ridley won for 12 Years‘ Adapted Screenplay, which is only the 2nd time a black person has won an Oscar for writing.

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Dallas Buyers Club, a film that powerfully skewers the corporate health care industry while embracing the humanity of the oppressed LGBT community and those suffering from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, also won three Oscars. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto received both of the male acting awards for their transformative performances, and the film also won for Makeup.

The most prolific winner of the night was Gravity, which won seven total Oscars, including almost all of the technical awards as well as Best Cinematography for Emmanuel Lubezki and Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron. Given that female actors are still paid significantly less than their male counterparts and most major blockbusters are male driven films, Gravity proved that original, female driven films can be both highly entertaining and financially successful, and hopefully Hollywood is getting the message.

Best Actress went to Cate Blanchett for her brilliant role in Woody Allen’s film Blue Jasmine. Despite the controversy surrounding the director, Blanchett didn’t hesitate to praise Allen in her acceptance speech, which was brave considering it would have been all too easy to simply avoid the issue. Piggy-backing on Gravity‘s success, she spoke about the importance of making female-centered films and argued that they can connect with audiences, while celebrating Allen’s contribution to women in film.

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While it’s important to focus on the progressive winners, it’s also worth noting what didn’t win. The film that glorifies Wall Street hedonism, The Wolf of Wall Street, went home empty handed, despite heavy campaigning by Leonardo DiCaprio. In a delightful irony, DiCaprio’s other film, the one he didn’t go to the mat for, The Great Gatsby, won two Academy Awards (Production Design and Costume Design). American Hustle, the drastically over-hyped snooze-fest, also went home with zero Oscars, and the deeply pessimistic film with the most publicized Oscar campaign of the year, Inside Llewyn Davis, received only a single nomination and also went home with its tail between its legs.

The only potential missteps during yesterday’s Academy Awards were in the Documentary Feature and Foreign Feature categories. While 20 Feet From Stardom is certainly a progressive documentary about important issues, considering the gravity of alternatives like Dirty WarsThe Square, and The Act of Killing, it was perhaps a missed opportunity for the Academy to make a major statement on some very serious and controversial issues.

It’s also a shame that The Broken Circle Breakdown, a brilliant Belgian film about a couple in a folk band suffering through a religious conflict during a personal tragedy, lost out on the Foreign Feature award. The Academy had the opportunity to make a significant progressive statement and they passed on the chance.

Though, it’s worth mentioning that this year’s Academy Awards closely mirrored the traditionally more progressive Independent Spirit Awards. All the same actors won in both ceremonies, as well as 12 Years a Slave for Best Film, and John Ridley for Best Screenplay. The Independent Spirit Awards also honored 12 Years‘ director Steve McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Gravity, which wasn’t eligible for the Spirit Awards, won those two awards at the Oscars.

You might be asking, who cares? What’s the point? Why does it matter who wins Oscars and who doesn’t? The Academy Awards have always been political, and these days the studios spend a lot of money to lobby for Oscar wins. Given that all films serve one sort of politics or another, and represent the worldview of the film makers in some way, the awards handed out by the Academy carry political weight and can be interpreted as approval for what a film stands for. An Oscar gives prestige to a film and guarantees that people will seek out those winners for years to come. So, when the Academy honors reactionary films, or chooses not to honor quality progressive work, it does actual harm to society.

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This year however, progressive politics held sway at the Academy Awards in a way they never have before. In past years when powerful progressive films were up for major awards, such as Reds in 1981, Brokeback Mountain in 2005, Avatar in 2009, or even Django Unchained last year, invariably those films aren’t allowed to win, and often films with reactionary politics are upheld instead (The Hurt Locker, Argo). And given the history of progressive films being denied on Oscar night, that just makes this year’s progressive sweep all the more powerful and important.

Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave strikes directly at America’s ugly, racist history, and forces the audience to confront the true nature of this society. Its victory at the Oscars reinforces and amplifies this powerful progressive message against slavery and ongoing racial oppression, and guarantees that it will be seen for decades to come, rather than being swept conveniently under the rug.

Last night, for once, the good guys won decisively, overcoming the reactionary forces that often influence the Oscars’ outcome. Though you can bet that next year a strong campaign will be mounted on behalf of a reactionary film in retaliation for this year’s defeat at the hands of progressives, for now, we can celebrate the victories of Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, The Great Gatsby, Blue Jasmine, and especially 12 Years a Slave.

The Top 10 Films of 2013

Film is an amazing medium that combines a huge variety of artistic pursuits, and 2013 was a year that saw a great diversity of quality films. The goal of this list is to highlight the best and most socially important films, some of which were widely seen, and others that deserve a much wider audience than they received. Each in its own way, they speak to what it means to be human and they have important things to say about the world we live in and the societies we’ve created. I definitely encourage everyone to seek out these special films, and to embrace the genuine art that finds a way to succeed under conditions that often discourage creativity.

Enjoy this list, and please feel free to comment with your own favorite films and top 10 lists.

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1. 12 Years a Slave

One of the most powerful films in decades, 12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Steve McQueen directs this beautiful film that thrusts the audience directly into America’s ugly history. As Northup awakens to the terrible shock of having his freedom suddenly wrenched away, the audience is forced to confront the brutal horror of an institution upon which a nation was built right along with the central character. People may think they understand what slavery looked and felt like, but depicting the entire process from the beginning, showing the dehumanizing impact on a man who was once free, forces the audience to acknowledge slavery with new eyes.

12 Years a Slave is a film that comfortably explores duality. It is both subtle and direct, nuanced and bold. It’s a powerful examination of the human condition, illuminating both the best and the worst in mankind; the will to persevere against all odds, and the forces of oppression bent on achieving total domination over others. A devastating contrast, for example, is made between a “good” slave owner and a “bad” slave owner, and of course, both scenarios are equally awful experiences for Northup, damning slavery from every angle, and refusing to give apologists an inch. Its ending, just like the rest of the film, brilliantly inspires conflicting emotions; the joy of freedom paired with the bitter pain of ongoing institutionalized racism.

Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a commanding and heartbreaking performance as Northup, who struggles throughout the film to maintain his human dignity and hold onto hope in the face of incalculable hardship. Hans Zimmer provides a haunting musical score that perfectly accentuates the emotion of the film, especially the sinister tones that accompany Northup’s trafficking into the South, and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is breathtaking, contrasting the beauty of the natural world with the ugliness of slavery.

Steve McQueen has crafted a near perfect film, a masterpiece that cries out to be seen, because by illuminating the past we can better understand the root causes of the ongoing horrors of the present. 12 Years a Slave is the best and most important film of the decade.

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2. Prisoners

Prisoners is a mesmerizing crime story about two families whose daughters are kidnapped in broad daylight on Thanksgiving in suburban Pennsylvania and the desperate search to find them. The film is a slow, agonizing burn, gradually building tension as the investigation stretches on over the course of several days, testing the moral strength of both sets of parents, and the skill of the lead detective on the case.

Hugh Jackman’s intense performance as Keller, a desperate father who takes the law into his own hands, is one of the best of his career, and Jake Gyllenhaal also crackles as an edgy, arrogant detective who has to meticulously comb through the clues and evidence while also keeping an eye on the suspicious activity of the missing girls’ families.

Prisoners takes a story that could have easily been dumbed down to the level of a “Law and Order” episode and elevates it to high art. Not only is the film exquisitely made on a technical level, due in large part to Roger Deakins’ masterful cinematography, it also incorporates heavy moral, philosophical, and religious themes on top of the narrative’s mystery.

The title of the film refers not only to the kidnapped girls, but also to the person Keller believes holds the key to his daughter’s location, as well as those who are trapped under the spell of religious fanaticism. The film, featuring strong supporting roles by Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, and Melissa Leo, is a searing and emotional exploration of the limits and hypocrisy of religious morality.

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3. Before Midnight

The third film in Richard Linklater’s fantastic ‘Before‘ series might be the best yet, which is extremely high praise. Midnight arrived right on cue, nine years after Before Sunset (2004), which came nine years after the original, Before Sunrise (1995). The latest installment in this cinematic dissertation on love follows the star-crossed relationship of Jesse and Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who also co-write the films along with Linklater. They know their roles inside out and they embody their characters so deeply that they don’t appear to be acting at all, allowing Linklater to shoot very long, naturalistic takes. This technique pulls the audience into the film as if it were an extension of real life, making the exploration of contemporary love all the more compelling.

In Midnight, we step into Jesse and Celine’s lives while they’re on vacation in Greece after they’ve been a couple for several years. The film sets up a scenario where there are couples from several different generations gathered together, and they have the opportunity to discuss the dynamics of romantic love at various stages of life. Jesse and Celine fall somewhere in the middle, and this moment allows them to evaluate their relationship and examine what they’ve each sacrificed to be together. While Before Sunrise is about the thrill of new possibilities, and Before Sunset is about the regret of missed opportunities, Before Midnight is about the consequences of actually getting what you want. It strips away the fantasy and idealism of the first two films and dives right into the everyday reality and struggle of sustaining a long-term relationship.

Given the empty, formulaic romantic comedies that Hollywood has churned out for decades, Linklater’s Before series is a breath of fresh air. All three films are both humorous and serious, and they provide a huge number of topics and themes to ponder long after the credits role. Hopefully Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy revisit this brilliant romantic series in 2022. Before Twilight, perhaps?

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4. Big Sur

Based on the novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac, the film picks up the story of the legendary author’s life as he struggles with the success of his classic On the Road. After helping to define the Beat Generation, Kerouac feels a great burden on his shoulders. People expect him to be Sal Paradise, his alter ego from Road in his mid twenties, but the real Jack Kerouac is approaching middle age, and the world is changing around him. The film follows Kerouac as he seeks refuge and solitude in the Big Sur region on the central coast of California.

Michael Polish’s film is exceptionally beautiful, and not just because of the natural scenery on location. His camera captures the magnificence of the surroundings- the forest, the sky, the waves on the beach, and the dramatic rock formations jutting upward from the ocean- in a way that appears effortless, but is the result of a perfect union of subject and artist. Polish conjures a true character from the environment surrounding the cabin that Kerouac inhabits as he undergoes an existential crisis. A last gasp, of sorts, as his restless soul continues to struggle for meaning in life.

Big Sur integrates Kerouac’s words into the film through a beautiful use of voice-over, which, in combination with the breathtaking scenic elements, is almost Terrence Malick-esque. The film also has a fantastic musical score by composer Kubilay Uner and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National. All the performances in the film are very high caliber. Jean-Marc Barr plays the aging Kerouac with great depth. It’s not easy to carry a film as an actor, but Barr does so with a nuanced performance that owns the screen without overshadowing the supporting actors. Josh Lucas plays Neal Cassady, who even as he approaches middle age, shows shades of what made him such a charismatic and inspirational figure in Kerouac’s life. Rhada Mitchell plays Cassady’s wife, and a strikingly beautiful Kate Bosworth plays his mistress. Big Sur is a magnificent film; a genuine work of art in all aspects of the medium.

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5. Gravity

In a Hollywood that pumps out sequels and comic book films at an alarming rate, Gravity was perhaps the most refreshing big-budget film of the year. It centers around astronaut Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, who after an accident in outer space must survive a series of obstacles in the harshest of environments. Alfonso Cuaron’s exciting film follows Stone on a metaphorical life cycle from fetal state to birth as she struggles to rediscover her will to live while up against seemingly impossible odds, and by the end she must either “evolve” or die.

Gravity is a technical and artistic marvel, blending life-like digital effects with human performances in perfect harmony. Emmanuel Lubezki, arguably the greatest cinematographer working today, composed several long shots that develop character while moving the narrative forward, maintaining a sense of motion and a heightened state of suspense throughout much of the film. In perhaps the best use of 3D technology yet, the screen seems to melt away, enveloping the audience in the action.

Though the film suffers from some weak dialogue that feels a bit forced and at times unnecessary, Gravity is one of those rare gems that thrills through the sheer force of its unique concept while simultaneously allowing the audience to connect to the human drama.

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6. Fruitvale Station

Oscar Grant, a 22 year old black man, was murdered on New Years day in 2009 by a white police officer at the Fruitvale BART station in San Francisco. Fruitvale Station follows Oscar on the last day of his life, painting a vivid portrait of a man, flaws and all, attempting to change the direction of his life during difficult circumstances, before it was unjustly cut short.

The film cuts through stereotypes, allowing the audience to get to know Oscar both as a fully developed character, and as a human being, which amplifies the tragedy of his death. During the course of a single day we meet Oscar’s girlfriend, daughter, mother, grandmother, and several friends, as well as a couple new acquaintances. We witness the struggle of his everyday life. He just lost his job but doesn’t want to fall back into a life as a drug dealer. Unsure of how he will make ends meet in the future he decides to have a fun night out with friends to celebrate the new year. His spontaneity, his kindness and compassion, his positive outlook, and his desire to do the right thing are all illustrated through several episodes that all lead up to his murder at the hands of the police who don’t see him as a nuanced human being. To them, he’s entirely defined by his race, and all his human complexity is ignored.

Fruitvale Station is the first feature film by director Ryan Coogler, a Bay Area native who felt compelled to make a film about an event that rocked his community in the hope of showing people the humanity of a person who became a symbol to rally around. And in his first leading role, Michael B. Jordan brings Oscar’s story to life in haunting fashion. Octavia Spencer, fresh from her Academy Award winning role in The Help provides a powerful cornerstone for the film. Fruitvale Station is an important film. By telling this story, hopefully people will understand that it’s important to see each other as human beings, to not be so quick to leap to conclusions, and also to understand the real role that police play in this oppressive society.

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7. The Great Gatsby

Others have tried to adapt Fitzgerald’s classic novel to the big screen and achieved nothing but lifeless tedium, which makes Baz Luhrmann’s successful attempt at The Great Gatsby all the more impressive. Luhrmann is definitely a true artist, and his film is alive, colorful, and exciting. While other film makers have struggled with a way to translate the internal monologue of the novel to the screen, Luhrmann solves that problem in the boldest ways possible. He puts Fitzgerald’s words directly on the screen and places the narration front and center, which allows the prose to drive the narrative, just as it does in the novel, while utilizing a visceral and inventive visual style to establish the setting.

The Great Gatsby is a film that simply must be surrendered to. It has flaws, some of which are inherited from the source material, but the film is a force of nature. While perhaps not exactly the anti-Wolf of Wall Street, Gatsby is a loud, bold look into American style capitalism that succeeds while Leonardo DiCaprio’s other major film on the same subject fails. Though Gatsby does maintain a certain level of admiration for the pursuit of wealth, it does so with great disdain for the outlook of the elite, personified by Tom Buchanan’s paranoid racism, greed, and misogyny, as well as Jay Gatsby’s own corruption, and the story clearly articulates the consequences of giving material wealth greater value than human life.

Luhrmann’s style has always been divisive because of his willingness to take artistic risks, but here it pays off in extremely entertaining fashion, as long as you give yourself over to the unconventional experience and enjoy the ride.

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8. Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, Don Jon, in which he also stars, is a surprisingly layered and intelligent film about relationships in the age of internet pornography. The title character, Jon, is obsessed with porn and masturbates compulsively and almost ritualistically. He lives a highly structured and routine oriented lifestyle, keeping to his weekly schedule of working, cleaning his apartment, going to church with his family, working out at the gym, and going to the club with his friends to pick up women. There’s nothing out of place and nothing to disrupt his pattern until he encounters Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) at the club.

Jon and his friends always stand in the center of the club to look for women to potentially take home, sizing them up from a distance, instantly rating them on a scale of 1 to 10. Barbara is “the most beautiful thing” Jon has ever seen, and he becomes determined to make her his ultimate sexual conquest. This is the point where Don Jon could have easily descended into formulaic drivel typical of romantic comedies, but it masterfully avoids going down that road and instead takes on a wonderful complexity.

Don Jon becomes a major statement against a culture that celebrates pornography as a form of women’s liberation. Having developed totally unrealistic expectations from his pornography obsession, Jon is unsatisfied by the real women he objectifies, and he must be jolted out of his old habits. Barbara starts him on the right path, but the brilliance of the film is that it isn’t black and white and it criticizes her controlling perspective, too, ultimately arriving at a highly enlightened view of romantic relationships.

Gordon-Levitt’s film is what great art is all about. It’s entertaining in a way that’s very accessible, but it packs an extremely relevant and important message. It suggests that we might all be better off by breaking with some debilitating habits that we’re convinced are normal, altering our rigid routines that isolate us from the world, and learning to truly connect with other people as equals.

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9. Dallas Buyers Club

Set in the mid-1980s, Dallas Buyers Club is about Ron Woodroof, a hard living racist and homophobic man who is diagnosed with AIDS and told he only has one month to live. After overcoming the denial that he has a “faggot” disease, he seeks help through a drug trial for the experimental treatment AZT. However, he soon realizes that the drugs he’s been given are doing more harm than good, and, unwilling to give up, he searches for ways to circumvent the medical establishment. Along the way he has to become allies with people he previously despised in order to combat the powerful forces of the for-profit medical establishment and the government.

Woodroof is played by Matthew McConaughey who lost a significant percentage of his body weight for this incredible, career defining role. He’s supported by by Jared Leto, who turns in an iconic performances as Rayon, a transsexual Woodroof meets in the hospital who forces him to put his bigotry aside for mutual benefit.

Dallas Buyers Club is no technical marvel. It’s a sparse film that used almost no artificial lighting and put little effort into visual style. It also suffers from several noticeable background props out of place in the 80s. But these problems become virtually insignificant next to the overpowering substance of the narrative. What makes this film great is the way it exposes the collusion between the government, pharmaceutical companies, and health care practitioners to make a profit at the expense of patient’s health, and the lengths ordinary people must go in order to get the care they need.

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10. Lore

Germany is losing World War II, and as the Allied forces push into the country, the rank and file Nazis scramble to avoid justice. Hannelore (Lore for short) is the eldest daughter of a Nazi officer. After being abandoned by her parents she is forced to care for her siblings as they flee to the countryside.

Having been poisoned by Nazi ideology throughout her life, Lore harbors a deep hatred of Jewish people while blind to the true horror of Hitler’s genocide. So, when she and her young family encounter a Jewish refugee on their journey she has to confront the beliefs her parents and Nazi society instilled in her head on.

Lore is a fresh look at an era that has been documented extensively in film, showing the collapse of Nazi Germany from the perspective of children and adolescents. It’s a coming of age story set in the upheaval of a crumbling society; a loss of innocence as the central character comes to understand the true horror of the Holocaust, and that everything she thought she knew is a lie.

Lore is a beautiful film that flows through its narrative arc with a dream-like quality, as if being recalled from a deeply repressed memory. Indeed, the film drew inspiration from director Cate Shortland’s husband’s family history. Saskia Rosendah leaps off the screen as Lore in her first major role, and Kai Malina turned in a haunting performance as Thomas in which he refused to say most of his scripted dialogue, allowing the pain behind his eyes to speak louder than words. And the film’s ending is a powerful break from the poisonous ideology of Fascism as Lore rejects the temptation to turn a blind eye to genocide.

 

10 More 2013 Films I Highly Recommend

The Broken Circle Breakdown
Her
Frances Ha
As I Lay Dying
Blue Jasmine
August: Osage County
The Place Beyond the Pines
Something in the Air
Upstream Color
Spring Breakers

The Worst Films I Saw in 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street
42
Man of Steel
Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis: Think Twice (It’s Not All Right)

by Miller Francis

I sat in the theater as Inside Llewyn Davis began, feeling that familiar ecstasy of great film anticipation, assuming I would soon take my place among those singing the praises for Joel and Ethan Coen’s “love letter to the Greenwich Village folksong music scene”. As a contemporary of that era, I lived through those times, and like so many was inspired by those who began to break with 1950s Eisenhower-era conformity, its Mad Men values based on cut-throat competition, by the musicians and audiences who searched for authenticity, integrity and community in immortal songs drawn from the lives of the dispossessed.

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I had been transformed by the music, buying most of the major albums of the period, and seeking out documentaries that have kept that music alive right up to the present day. I had read many of the memoirs and autobiographies of key artists of that time, most especially Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Suzie Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time and David Hadju’s Positively Fourth Street. I made an effort to go back and pick up on artists and events I missed at the time, going far beyond nostalgia to discover another, darker dimension to the folk scene in Bob Coltman’s amazing bio, Paul Clayton and the Folksong Revival. To my shock, I also found that the best, most compelling singer of all, next to Bob Dylan himself, had been completely unknown to me–the awesome and tragic Karen Dalton.

As for the Coen brothers’ body of work, I consider several of their films among my favorites (The Big Lebowski to name just one). I’ll never forget how my jaw dropped when those goofy fugitives in O Brother Where Art Thou entered a radio station and began to perform “Man of Constant Sorrow”, setting a new standard for a film’s use of, and respect for, what is often referred to as roots music or Americana. T-Bone Burnett had been unleashed to work all his magic, and O Brother –film, soundtrack and concerts–deserved all its accolades and popular success.

Oh, and I’m a lifelong cat person.

Little did I know that all my background, experience and love for cats would merely set me up for one colossal bummer when I finally saw Inside Llewyn Davis. Rather than a fond love letter, what I saw unfold on the screen was more like a cruel letter of foreclosure, written with a pen dipped in poison.

Generally, the film did look something like films and photographs I’d seen of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Bruno Delmonel’s cinematography was impressive, and the production design paid a lot of attention to key details. At first, it looked right, but something was off. All the color was drained out, leaving mainly somber grays and browns. I was familiar with the Coen brothers’ claim that the look of their film came from the iconic photograph of Bob Dylan and Suzie Rotolo on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a photo that had been deeply embedded in my mind since the day a friend put Dylan’s newly released record on the turntable, eager to see my reaction. But what that photo expressed at the time was the spirit of hope, joy and human resilience, blooming out of the deepest winter.

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My friend Dave Zeiger, who was known to pick up a guitar and sing before he became a filmmaker, wrote me, “I personally have spent hours in my life gazing at that photo, drinking in the sense of youth, abandon, and the promise of adventure embodied in Dylan and Rotolo. Let New York be as cold and dank as it wants, WE’RE here, and the world had better watch out.” The only thing the Coen Brothers used was the frozen snow and bitter temperature. In a L.A. Times interview, Ethan was challenged about his use of the word “oppressive” re this photo. “There is something romantic about it,” he replied, “but it’s also hard New York. They’re not walking down the beach in Maui. They look cold.”

Same with the characters. Even those who demonstrated acts of kindness were mocked and ridiculed, particularly for their kindness. Most of the people who inhabited Llewyn Davis’ world seemed cold and mean-spirited, crude caricatures and composites of real people. As for Llewyn Davis, he was, to put it mildly, a total asshole, expressing contempt for every aspect of the very folk scene in which he aspired to achieve success.

First and most important, while Llewyn Davis was, you could say, having a bad week, I never felt that he was particularly “unlucky” or that his bad run of events were exclusive to him. I learned that his singing partner, with whom he had recorded an album, had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, but Davis’ reaction  to that event seemed curiously flat. I reacted strongly to the film’s misrepresentation that Davis was the only down-and-out musician in the scene who had to struggle to survive. I knew enough to know that life wasn’t a bed of roses even for those who managed to achieve some measure of success. Even musicians like Paul Clayton whose albums did sell fairly well, was pretty much on a level not that far above poverty, but they were part of a supportive community united by their love of their music. But in the film, it’s only Davis, the only non-phony, who is kicked out of this Garden of Eden of aspiring, comfortably well off “whitebread” folksingers. Despite how Davis treats those in his circle, they are amazingly tolerant and forgiving. They provide him with places to stay, food to eat, and gigs to play. He, on the other hand, treats each of them with contempt, and so does the film.

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Women in particular come in for major abuse. Jean (Carey Mulligan) is portrayed as adorable on stage but a foul-mouthed “bitch” to Davis, demanding that he pay for an abortion. She can’t stand the possibility that he may be the father of her child, rather than her official lover Jim (Justin Timberlake). Late in the film, when a club owner claims to have “fucked” Jean, we learn along with Llewyn Davis, that the odds of his paternity have just shrunk by a third. He has been used once again. I didn’t believe for one minute the epithet-laced diatribe that Jean throws at Davis. Like so much in this film, it came across as part of a manipulative set-up to demonize her and contribute to a false picture of Llewyn Davis’ victimization by others. Similar criticisms apply to Davis’ hypocritical interaction with his sister, and his reaction when the Gorfeins, folk music enthusiasts who have allowed him to crash in their apartment, ask him to sing for their friends. “I’m not a trained poodle,” he snarls. Lillian Gorfein (Robin Bartlett) replies, “I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul.” The film wants us to see her and her sentiment as ridiculous. Later, he cruelly berates her for singing his dead partner’s harmony part.

Two scenes almost caused me to walk out of the theater. In the first, Davis sings a song for his senile father in a nursing home. Some have described this scene as “moving” and “emotional”. Did they ignore how it concludes? With a cruel joke at the father’s expense, reducing his invalid condition to yet another “unlucky” inconvenience for his son. It is only in the world of Inside Llewyn Davis that a jerk like Davis could be considered the “victim” in such a situation.

The second scene was even harder to take. After yet another misogynist joke about the club owner’s requirement of sexual favors by women who perform on his stage, Davis launches into a truly vicious, mid-performance tirade at Elizabeth Hobby (Nancy Blake) modeled apparently on Appalachian mountain singer Jean Ritchie, complete with autoharp. Davis disrupts her performance, loudly curses, calls Hobby “Betty”, declares “I hate fucking folk music!” and continues to verbally abuse Hobby (as well as an Irish singing group modeled on the Clancy Brothers) to a line of fans waiting to get inside the club. How do those who see Davis as an apostle of folk music authenticity, punished for his musical integrity and refusal to “compromise” tradition in the face of rampant commercialism, view this scene? The Elizabeth Hobby/Jean Ritchie character is the antithesis of other film targets like Peter, Paul and Mary, Jim and Jean, etc. She is about as authentic and genuinely traditional as a folksinger can get. So why is her performance the event that finally unleashes the full venom of Llewyn Davis?

Throughout the film I looked in vain for some clue, some backstory to the Llewyn Davis character. What are his motivations? If, as the Coen brothers argue, Davis is incurably “self-destructive”, why is that? To put it simply, why is he such an asshole? He does what he does simply because that’s what’s written in the script. He’s not so much a complex, multi-dimensional character, just someone who appears in each of the film’s episodes. This is no Odyssey.

After I saw the film, I trolled through countless reviews, all of them expressing almost unlimited praise for Inside Llewyn Davis. Most saw it through the stereotypical filter of Authenticity/Integrity vs Commercialism, painting Llewyn Davis as a suffering, “uncompromising” proponent of genuine folk music crushed by a wave of commercialized whitebread Folk Lite represented by the other musicians depicted–Jim and Jean), along with a silly cartoon of Tom Paxton called Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), and an absurd parody of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Al Cody (Adam Driver). Most reviewers saw the somewhat bland, if technically well performed songs sung by Oscar Isaac as amazingly different from the equally well performed songs by other characters. They seemed to share the befuddled look on Llewyn Davis’ face as he checks out the audience in a folk club, astonished by the wave of affection unleashed by a frankly beautiful performance of “500  Miles” by his friends.

I soon had to conclude that the writers of these reviews had seen a completely different film, and began to wonder if they had possibly projected a film they wanted (needed?) to see onto actual images that in fact depicted the exact opposite. I read descriptions of scenes that were nowhere in the film, or interpretations of scenes and characters that had no basis whatsoever in the assembled images. One of the most desperate attempts to read some motivation into that script came from a few critics who swear up and down that Davis is suffering from prolonged mourning for his suicidal singing partner. I defy anyone to find one scene, or frame, in this film that supports that view. What’s actually on the screen rather suggests his partner’s suicide derived from being treated like shit by Llewyn Davis.

As Inside Llewyn Davis opened in more theaters, a slight awareness of the film’s problems began to surface. A Time magazine review used the provocative title “Folk You”. The New Yorker pointed out some obvious fault lines. Here and there questions were raised about the sour tone of the film, embodied mainly in its protagonist but also permeating the entire film. As more audiences began to take a closer look at the character of Llewyn Davis, the word “asshole” started popping up as the word of choice. Interestingly enough, new articles and promotion stressed how sympathetic the Davis character remains, despite his repellent behavior. This first wave of partially critical reviews focused mainly on the realization that Llewyn Davis was decidedly NOT Dave Van Ronk, noting the discrepancy between details from the world brought to life in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and the world depicted in Inside Llewyn Davis. Interestingly enough, the Coen Brothers were quoted as being amused, almost contemptuous at anyone who could possibly get the idea that their film was about Dave Van Ronk.

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Let’s get this straight. The filmmakers declare from the git that their inspiration was The Mayor of MacDougal Street. All the events in their main character’s life are drawn from Van Ronk’s life. Llewyn Davis’ album cover is a direct copy of Inside Dave Van Ronk, from which comes the very title of the film. They have Davis sing songs made famous by Van Ronk. Then, they ask smugly, how could anyone possibly think our film is about Dave Van Ronk?

The key discrepancy, which became clear when I finally sat down to read The Mayor of MacDougal Street for myself, was the fact that Llewyn Davis is in fact the anti-Dave Van Ronk, a bitter opponent of everything Van Ronk stood for throughout his artistic life–his values, the example he set for young musicians, his art as a singer/guitarist, his role in the real-life folk song revival in the 1960s. And it wasn’t just a contrast with the memoir edited and assembled by Elijah Wald. It was the other books and memoirs, most important, Bob Dylan’s own Chronicles, absolutely free of revenge, vitriol and gossip, and this from the man who wrote “Positively Fourth Street” (probably with good reason!). I should have smelled a rat from a frequent comment by the Coen brothers, different versions of which popped up in interviews: (Ethan) “Joel just suggested in the office one day. It was a long time ago, before the Van Ronk book came out. We were sitting around the office, and he just suggested, ‘OK, a movie starts with Dave Van Ronk getting beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City in 1961.’” (Dec. 6 interview with Steve Pond)

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Still, the critical pedestal on which Inside Llewyn Davis had initially been placed remained solid. To put it mildly, critics seemed mesmerized by what the Cohen brothers had accomplished. A. O. Scott, who went on to declare Inside Llewyn Davis the best film of 2013, declined to speculate fully on what the film might mean, warning against “easy distinctions between sincerity and cynicism, the authentic and the artificial”. Then he shared with his readers this extraordinary conclusion: “But at least one of its lessons seems to me, after several viewings, as clear and bright as a G major chord. We are, as a species, ridiculous: vain, ugly, selfish and self-deluding. But somehow, some of our attempts to take stock of this condition — our songs and stories and moving pictures, old and new — manage to be beautiful, even sublime.” With this sleight of hand, the central contradiction of Inside Llewyn Davis–its misanthropic “cosmic joke” point of view vs. the life-affirming music and culture of its setting–was transformed from the film’s major flaw into its greatest achievement. And more than that, a “lesson” to be taught.

While up to this point Inside Llewyn Davis seemed like a sure thing, its brilliance unquestioned, with numerous awards to follow, a stubborn vein of discomfort with the film throbbed uncomfortably below the surface. One New York Times reader commenting on A. O. Scott’s review, expressed the dilemma faced by dissenters from the film’s acclaim: “Was I missing something? So, after taking a brief, unscientific poll of top critics, I noticed that, according to them, the brilliance of Inside Llewyn Davis is rooted in all the subtext, hidden meanings, metaphor and allegory that are sprinkled throughout the film—all you have to do is properly seek them out and intelligently interpret them. Well, there you go. I made the mistake of just watching the movie.”

Then something happened that changed everything. Terri Thal, Dave Van Ronk’s ex-wife, put her reactions to the film into an article printed in The Village Voice. She was remarkably candid, while at the same time quite diplomatic and generous.

After making it clear that she was not involved in the film’s production and had had no contact with the filmmakers, she said what I and so many others were thinking: “I knew it wasn’t supposed to be about David but used some of his memoir as background and his music as a theme. But I didn’t expect it to be almost unrecognizable as the folk-music world of the early 1960s. . . the movie doesn’t show those days, those people, that world.” She finds a few things to praise, but is not shy in detailing numerous examples of the film’s misfires and outright fabrications, including the film’s cavalier treatment of abortion, which at the time of the film was illegal.

But it’s her criticism of the way the film depicts the folk scene of that era that hits the mark: “In the 1950s and ’60s, there were other folk-music scenes. The old-timey musicians; the bluegrass people; the people around Alan Block’s sandal shop; the people the real Jim and Jean hung out with. There was some interaction, but even if the people in those groups didn’t see each other daily or weekly, there was goodwill. No one would know that from Inside Llewyn Davis. . . In the movie, no one is nice. There are hints of friendliness in the Tom Paxton character and in Jim, who gets Davis some studio backup work (which didn’t exist for folk musicians at that time). Everyone is somewhat dumb and somewhat mean. There’s no suggestion that these people love the music they play, none that they play music for fun or have jam sessions, not a smidgen of the collegiality that marked that period. . . Musicians supported each other. David and I had hordes of people in our apartment several times a week, many of them folksingers, many of them uninvited drop-ins who always were welcomed. I cooked; we talked politics; the musicians played. They introduced new songs and arrangements and often jammed. We had fun.”

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Perhaps Thal’s sharpest criticism concerns the character of Llewyn Davis and his talent as a singer/guitarist: “The inept Llewyn Davis arranged some of those songs? Sang them as well as Oscar Isaacs does? I don’t believe it. That schmuck couldn’t make that music.” Reading this, I wondered if my own critique of the film had not gone far enough.

In words that now sound prophetic, Dave Van Ronk himself criticized recent depictions of the folksong revival that had begun to appear:

“Most of the books that have been written about this period do not really capture the feel of it, at least in part because many of the people who were involved are not able to talk about it honestly.  A lot of them are bitter because they have not done as well as they hoped to do, for one reason or another, and they they look back at the people who did better and think, ‘That should have been my success. I was robbed, I was cheated.’ So they talk about how much was stolen from them, how they were screwed, how all their friends fucked them and turned their backs on them. But all of that is after the fact. Nobody except a handful of real paranoids felt that way at the time.

“Back then, we weren’t all clawing over each other’s bodies, trying to fight our way to the top. Mostly we were having the time of our lives. We were hanging out with our friends, playing music, and sitting around at all-night poker sessions upstairs from the Gaslight. Win, lose or draw, there was something absolutely ridiculous happening, and we were laughing all the time–when we weren’t fighting or brooding drunkenly. It was very mercurial.”

With Thal’s reactions to the film out there in the mix, I felt certain that the genie was out of the bottle. Since Thal’s clear-minded dissent appeared, more viewers, including musicians who are concerned to one degree or another by Inside Llewyn Davis‘ dark vision, began to speak up. A New York Times article by Melena Ryzik quoted Suzanne Vega: “If the scene had been as brown and sad as all that, why would anybody be drawn to it? Dylan would have gone somewhere else. We all would have. Someplace with some energy.” Singer-songwriter Christine Lavin spoke for a growing minority when she eloquently declared “I HATE THIS FILM” (her caps).

Inside Llewyn Davis uses Bob Dylan as a mostly unseen presence who only appears at the very end of the film, singing inside the club while Davis gets his comeuppance from Elizabeth Hobby’s husband in the alley out back. This, we are to believe, is the ultimate “unlucky” coincidence for Llewyn Davis.

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But this reduces Dylan’s transformative impact on the music scene to the narrow aspect of “success”. In fact, Dylan would not only soak up everything he could from the musical traditions of the past but go on to transform all he had absorbed into the creation of new music for a new era. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made of the scene he walked into and eventually bid farewell, most notably its purist insistence on acoustic instruments and topical songs. At some point, preservation must give way to creation and transformation. But just as the Coen brothers’ film doesn’t deal with the political context of the folksong scene, it doesn’t (can’t) deal with even part of its at times sharp musical contradictions.

I suspect that the original conception for the film was based on a character who sang in an unorthodox, less popular style, just as Dave Van Ronk did, with a voice more rough and challenging than some of the smoother instruments of the other young traditionalists. The music that T-Bone Burnett gave Oscar Isaac to listen to in preparation for his role was that of Tom Waits. But Isaac doesn’t have a Tom Waits/Dave Van Ronk-type voice. The Coen brothers apparently decided to go with what they had, without altering their script, a possible fatal undercutting of what they originally set out to do. It’s interesting that when you listen to the soundtrack curated by T-Bone Burnett and Mark Mumford, which has been central to the robust promotion of the film, most of what you hear, while beautifully performed, is still somewhat bland, especially to those expecting another O Brother Where Art Thou. What really jumps out at you, apart from Dylan’s rough hewn “Farewell”, is the single song included by the real Dave Van Ronk, “Green Green Rocky Road.” It positively leaps out of the speakers with its power.

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Some might argue that whatever the merits of the film, at least Inside Llewyn Davis will draw more people to the scene it depicts, spreading the music to a wider audience. That’s certainly true, especially where Dave Van Ronk is concerned. But it’s a mixed blessing. There are some pretty unfortunate strings attached. Terri Thal writes, “The Coens say they hope to create a revival of the music through the movie. A revival of traditional music is already under way. But I can’t see the depressing world shown in this movie attracting people to it.”

After a major publicity campaign for Inside Llewyn Davis centered on its music and beating a very loud drum for its widespread critical acclaim, judging from its surprising, almost complete shutout from awards by both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, it appears that the wheels might have come off this misbegotten project. When all is said and done, Joel and Ethan Cohen made the film they wanted to make, a nasty “cosmic joke” set in Greenwich Village in 1961. Clearly there is an audience that finds some kind of pleasure in their reverse Disneyland of misanthropy and random misfortune. But to many of its viewers, Inside Llewyn Davis is a tale told by “King Midas’ idiot brothers” (to borrow their own words), full of music, yes, but also cruelty and falsehood, signifying nothing.

 

Guest writer Miller Francis wrote music and film articles in the 1960s/70s for the Atlanta underground newspaper The Great Speckled Bird. From 1982-1996 he hosted a radio show, “Revolution Rock: By All Music Necessary” on WRFG Atlanta. His novel, If Heaven’s Not My Home, is now under consideration by a publisher. He can be reached via e-mail: millerfrancis44@gmail.com

The Wolf of Wall Street “Missed the Boat Entirely”

TheWolfofWallStreet_iTunesPre-sale_1400x2100There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s new film The Wolf of Wall Street where a Forbes magazine article is published about the story’s central protagonist, Wall Street con-artist Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Belfort is enraged by the “hatchet job” that calls him out for his deceptive practice of selling practically worthless penny stocks for huge commissions by misleading faceless victims on the other end of a phone. He thinks the article will ruin him, but his wife calms him down by saying that all publicity is good publicity. She turns out to be right. Following the article’s publication Belfort’s firm, Stratton Oakmont, is swarmed by people looking for jobs, and his business grows exponentially.

That Forbes article was intended to be a damaging exposé, but it backfired, just as Scorsese and DiCaprio’s film itself is backfiring now. If the tandem, now on their 5th collaboration, are to be believed, they set out to make a film that shines a light on Wall Street corruption and greed. But that’s not the film they actually made. Not by a long shot. And The Wolf of Wall Street, like the Forbes article in the film, appears much more likely to inspire, rather than discourage, another generation of materialistic greed and exploitation.

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In 1987, Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street put the phrase “greed is good” into the cultural lexicon while attempting to skewer the financial sector. Gordon Gekko was the film’s villain, meant to personify everything wrong with 80s-era excess, but to a generation of people looking to get rich quick, Gekko’s catchphrase became a powerful mantra. Jordan Belfort himself was among that wave of young people who flocked to Wall Street in those days. While Belfort never utters the phrase “greed is good” directly, he fully embodies that mentality, openly instructing his subordinates to take money from their investor’s pockets and put it in their own without any regard for the client’s well being, all while indulging in the most hedonistic lifestyle possible.

Belfort innovated a method of selling cheap stocks to unwitting investors, retaining a 50% commission on the trade, manipulating the stock price, and then leaving the investor holding the bag when the bottom falls out of the stock. The brokers cash in while the investor’s go into debt. Belfort champions a ruthless approach of hard selling and pumps up his team with daily profanity laced inspirational tirades before the market’s opening bell.

the_wolf_of_wall_street_trailer_tWatching The Wolf of Wall Street is comparable to being run over by a freight train, in all the worst ways possible. Everything about the film is long, loud, and obnoxious. There is no subtlety or nuance, every performance is paper thin, and virtually every scene is longer than it needs to be. The Wolf clocks in at just under 3 hours of headache inducing parties, sex, drug use, and yelling. Lots of yelling.

What’s important to understand about this is that simply depicting certain behaviors isn’t necessarily the same thing as condemning them. In order to condemn what’s being depicted an artist needs to provide the proper context, and The Wolf of Wall Street is totally lacking the necessary context to condemn the activities of Jordan Belfort and his band of cronies. According to DiCaprio and Scorsese, who are now on the defensive about the intended message of the film, the audience is supposed to witness the reckless greed, misogyny, and debauchery on screen and come away with the idea that those things are wrong, but they never give any context to guide the audience to that view.

Without proper context, showing drug-fueled orgies with prostitutes set to music is a glorification of that behavior. Without proper context, showing ruthless stock market manipulation and fraud for personal gain at the expense of others, which allows for extravagant lifestyles complete with enormous yachts, beautiful women, all driven by a “fuck everyone” mentality, is glorification, not condemnation.

As a side point it should be mentioned that the film puts a huge number of nude women on display, but the only glimpse of a male sexual organ is a half-second shot of Jonah Hill masturbating in public, and the anatomy shown is almost certainly a prosthetic. It says a lot that the film is willing to objectify women so blatantly on screen while preserving the men’s dignity, even as they engage in very public sex acts. Besides looking totally unrealistic, it demonstrates the ongoing double-standard women face in society.

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DiCaprio, who was recently quoted in an interview by Hitfix, said that those who accuse the film of glorifying Belfort’s activities and lifestyle have, “missed the boat entirely.” He goes on to say, “I mean ultimately I think if anyone watches this movie, at the end of Wolf of Wall Street, they’re going to see that we’re not at all condoning this behavior.” But this is not the case, and it’s actually DiCaprio and Scorsese who have missed the boat.

Ironically, in the same Hitfix interview, he explains exactly why Scorsese made a film that lacks the context needed to give the story the meaning he claims was intended. “The unique thing about Marty,” DiCaprio says, “is that he doesn’t judge his characters. And that was something that you don’t quite understand while you’re making the movie, but he allows the freedom of this almost hypnotic, drug-infused, wild ride that these characters go on. And he allows you, as an audience — guilty or not — to enjoy in that ride without judging who these people are.”

What is difficult to understand here is how Scorsese and DiCaprio thought they could make a film that condemns the financial activities and hedonistic lifestyle Jordan Belfort exhibits without personally judging him in any way. By making a film free of moral judgement, told exclusively from Belfort’s point of view, which entirely ignores the suffering of his penny stock scam’s victims as well as the larger context of Wall Street corruption, we’re left with a movie that effectively glamorizes everything it shows. The closest thing to a victim shown in the film is the secretary who is paid $10,000 to shave her hair off for the entertainment of the whole office, and even that is within the office’s walls, oblivious or indifferent to the suffering they’re causing outside.

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Granted, a lot of things eventually go wrong in Belfort’s life. He gets divorced twice, he sinks a yacht, almost watches his friend suffocate while high on drugs, loses millions of dollars in a Swiss bank account, and ultimately spends a short time in a country club prison. But no true tragedy befalls him. No real lesson is learned. At the end of the film Belfort isn’t remorseful about the damage he’s done or the lives he’s ruined, and he even starts a lecture series teaching others how to get rich. This positive ending is shown in the film without any irony or judgement, and as the film comes to a close it becomes obvious that The Wolf of Wall Street is a 3 hour love letter to Jordan Belfort. What else could it be without the moral judgement of the film maker and the proper context to show the audience the real damage people like Belfort do to the world?

The saddest part about all this is that as wild and reckless as Stratton Oakmont is shown to be, Scorsese never clearly illustrates that Belfort and his buddies are just small potatoes. Why even bother to tell this particular story without making the point that it’s just a tiny microcosm of a much larger systemic problem? Unless, of course, the real intention is to glamorize and glorify Belfort and people like him.

The fact that he’s not Goldman Sachs and that he has a “fuck you” attitude toward the larger Wall Street firms seems to be something that Scorsese admires, as if Belfort is some sort of noble renegade outsider fighting against the system. It’s easy to get the sense from the film that Scorsese empathizes with the “anti-establishment” mentality and the creative cut-throat business practices Belfort employs. But even if the director doesn’t personally condone Wall Street greed and corruption, there would be no way to know based on his self-admittedly judgement free film that refuses to show the real fallout of Belfort’s actions and the true context of the story.

The audience gets 2 hours and 45 minutes of wild partying, sex, and drug use, 15 minutes of Belfort’s mostly consequence-free “downfall,” and 0 minutes spent on the proper context that would give the story a more meaningful point about the nature of the system, or on the damage Wall Street greed does to other people. All the audience sees is how Belfort is effected, and he comes out pretty well in the end.

Scorsese and DiCaprio created a film which allows everyone to superimpose their own morality to the subject matter and render their own verdict. If you’re someone who thinks Wall Street greed is ugly and wrong, you might imagine you’ve just seen a film that agrees with you, because it depicted all the behavior you already oppose. On the contrary, if you’re someone who thinks it’s okay to make a profit for yourself and live a life of luxury and excess, everyone else be damned, this film is also for you, because it shows just how glamorous that life can be, without judgement.

It’s obvious that Scorsese and DiCaprio wanted to make a big film. It does take some artistic risks, but in most cases they fail, mostly because the film has no positive moral position to reinforce. So the party rages on, and after a while, the bloated, obnoxious film feels like a hammer crushing your skull. It’s not pleasant, and given that The Wolf of Wall Street totally missed an opportunity to say something important about the times we live in, it’s not worth the pain.

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Unlike the Forbes “hatchet job” that angered Belfort before it helped him grow his business by leaps and bounds, The Wolf of Wall Street is based on the book written by the wolf himself. Belfort’s account might have been honest about his wild behavior and his willingness to scam people to enrich himself, but it’s definitely not a hatchet job of any sort. This film is designed to ultimately make Belfort look pretty good, and it will likely help to enrich him even more by promoting his lecture series. All publicity is good publicity, after all. DiCaprio even went out of his way to shoot a promo for Belfort’s real life speaking engagements in which he lavishes the man with praise, even though he still owes restitution to many of his victims.

Given what The Wolf of Wall Street is, as well as what it isn’t, and the fact that DiCaprio supports and promotes Jordan Belfort in real life, it’s safe to assume that when Scorsese and DiCaprio try to make the case that their film is meant to condemn the behavior it depicts, rather than glorifying it, that they’re lying. It is uplifting to note that critics as well as the general public are calling them out for their dishonesty and putting them on the defensive. Those people, like the daughter of one of Belfort’s co-conspirators who wrote an open letter opposing the film, are not the ones who missed the boat entirely. Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese did, and it’s a good sign that a lot of people aren’t buying what The Wolf is selling.

The Myth of Innocence in Two Seminal Films About the Vietnam War

by David Zeiger

In the ten years following the defeat of the United States and its allies in Vietnam, no fewer than 200 films were produced in Hollywood about that seminal event in U.S. and, indeed, world history–the first and to date only decisive defeat of the United States military. The subjects ranged from revenge fantasies like First Blood (the opening film in the Rambo franchise), to agonized explorations of the trauma of American veterans like Coming Home. While their points of view varied wildly, what all of these films shared was an underlying unease with the war and its aftermath. World War II netted scores of films celebrating and mythologizing the “American Fighting Man,” but even the most patriotic Vietnam War films had to confront not only the defeat of American forces by a peasant army, but the widespread rejection of and anger at that war from our own shores.

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In the midst of that crowded field, two films stand out. Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) are today considered classics and prominent representatives of the 1970s golden age of American cinema when sixties rebels ruled the day. Coming out almost simultaneously, both won numerous Academy Awards (Best Picture for The Deer Hunter, Best Director for Apocalypse Now), and were hailed as brave explorations of both the horrors of the Vietnam War and the emotional damage wrought on American veterans. Products of a liberal perspective, they were widely considered to be condemnations of the war itself.

The stories of the two films are quite different, but they share the same central theme: the immense and poisonous savagery of the war. As such, they are seemingly in line with the opposition that, by the early seventies, had spread to the majority of Americans. But it’s in examining the source of that savagery as depicted in both films that their essentially reactionary and revisionist nature becomes apparent. Most importantly, they are deeply rooted in the myth of American innocence and the supposed tragedy of its loss.

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Apocalypse Now, an adaptation to the Vietnam War of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, tells the story of the boyish Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who has received the seemingly incomprehensible order to track down and “…eliminate with extreme prejudice” Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a renegade officer who is hiding out in Cambodia with his band of American and Vietnamese deserters. As Willard ventures further into the deep recesses of Southeast Asia he encounters scene after scene of the “absurdity” of the American war–a colonel (Robert Duvall) who orders the strafing of a coastal village so that his troops can surf, a USO show featuring Playboy Bunnies in the middle of constant fighting, and the trigger-happy crew members of the boat ferrying him to his destination.

But it is when he encounters Kurtz that the heart of this film is revealed. As Willard has learned from the documents given him for his mission, Kurtz has been engaging in wantonly brutal attacks on soldiers and civilians alike. What Willard is completely unprepared for is the “primitive” nature of Kurtz’s encampment–a nightmare vision sprung from every colonialist’s fever dream of an African and Native American village, replete with naked bodies hanging by ropes and human skulls prominently displayed on stakes.

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In the film’s penultimate moment, Kurtz reveals to Willard his philosophy that it is only by learning to kill without emotion, to allow oneself the ultimate brutality, that the war can be won. And where did he learn this? From the “enemy,” of course. His awakening came, he recounts, when he saw Viet Cong (National Liberation Front, or NLF) troops enter a village and chop off the arms of children the Green Berets had just inoculated against malaria. To his amazement, they carried out their brutal slaughter with no visible signs of emotion. “These were not monsters, they were men,” he tells Willard, “but they had the strength to kill without feeling, without emotion, without judgment.” And it was “judgment,” the product of civilization, Kurtz muses, that would lead to America’s failure in Vietnam. Kurtz had, in essence, “gone native.”

In The Deer Hunter, a trio of steel workers from a small Pennsylvania town (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) enlist in the wake of one of their member’s wedding. The ultimate “innocents” (all of them, not coincidentally, white), they are immediately thrust into the unremitting brutality of the war. After witnessing an NLF soldier wantonly massacre dozens of villagers, they are captured and imprisoned in tiger cages (bamboo cells too small to stand up in). In the film’s central metaphor, their drunken captors force them to play a deadly game of Russian Roulette. The result of their torture is that only one, De Niro, returns home with any semblance of sanity. Savage, now a paraplegic, is hiding in a mental institution. And Walken, who has deserted and disappeared in Saigon, has become a “professional” Russian Roulette player in underground gambling clubs–and ultimately kills himself. With their youth and innocence shattered, the remaining characters end the film sitting around a kitchen table singing “God Bless America.”

thedeerhunter2In interviews, Cimino related that his inspiration for the Russian Roulette metaphor was Eddie Adams’ famous photograph of a South Vietnamese general summarily executing an NLF soldier by shooting him in the head. That photo, with the cringing, horrified soldier about to die and his stone-faced executioner calmly, emotionlessly placing his gun against his victim’s head, had become an iconic symbol of the war–not its generalized brutality, and certainly not that of the “enemy,” but very specifically the calculated, inhuman brutality of the United States and its South Vietnamese allies.

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The image said, simply, that it was the United States and South Vietnamese government that held a gun to the head of the Vietnamese people. Yet now, only three years after the end of the war, Cimino not only appropriated the image but completely reversed its meaning (Adams even looked into suing Cimino and the studio for this blatant falsification of the meaning of his photograph). In fact, every scene in both The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now purportedly depicting the inhuman brutality of the NLF was a mirror image of the policies and actions of the United States in the Vietnam War: civilian massacres were, as occurred in the hamlet of My Lai, commonplace (recently declassified DOD documents reveal that the military knew of and covered up over 200 massacres equivalent to or worse than My Lai); the infamous Tiger Cages were an invention of the South Vietnamese government, which imprisoned and tortured thousands of people in them; and, in actual reality, there were never any incidents, or even claims, or American POWs being forced to play Russian Roulette or NLF soldiers chopping off the arms of children in retaliation for accepting American aid (Yes, they were metaphors, but metaphors impart a view of reality, in this case a false and politically directed one). These things were widely known, and yet Coppola and Cimino’s slight of hand was praised and feted in liberal Hollywood, and to this day Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter are celebrated as masterpieces of antiwar cinema.

How can this be? How, after ten years of growing outrage of millions at the relentless carpet bombings of North Vietnam and the use of Agent Orange and Napalm–chemical weapons dropped on South Vietnam to destroy foliage and burn villages and their inhabitants, all leading to the deaths of three million civilians–could amnesia have set in so quickly and ubiquitously? There are, of course, the financial and political constraints of producing big budget Hollywood films, but the deeper answer lies in the cherished myth of American Innocence. Despite its flaws, the myth goes, America is at its core and in its heart a “good” country–always striving toward more freedom and more democracy, even if it sometimes uses distasteful methods. Yes, there are bumps along the road (two hundred years of slavery, just to mention one), and the Vietnam War certainly qualifies as one of those bumps (“A mistake,” in the words of John Kerry). But somewhere, somehow, the motives must be pure–if not in the hearts of the politicians, then at least in those of the soldiers, the true innocents.

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But there’s still that problem of the unfettered, near genocidal slaughter that was unleashed on the Vietnamese people for over ten years. How does that fit within the comfortable confines of American Innocence? To keep the cocoon intact, the answer can only lie in the Vietnamese people themselves. “They made us do it,” became, in essence, the rational for anything and everything done in the course of the war.

In 1974, General William Westmorland, commander of American forces in Vietnam during the Johnson Administration, famously told an interviewer in the film Hearts and Minds, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner…We value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.” That statement enshrined for millions the racism and imperial arrogance of the American venture in Vietnam. But ironically–and disturbingly–just four years later it was the antiwar liberals Francis Coppola and Michael Cimino who, in essence, said the very same thing in their films–and won accolades for their insights.

 

David Zeiger, a Guggenheim Fellow, has been making documentary films for twenty years. His 1999/2000 series, Senior Year, following the senior class at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, was a landmark PBS broadcast in 2002. His 2006 film, Sir! No Sir!, telling the long-suppressed story of the GI Movement against the Vietnam War, was seen on television in over 75 countries worldwide. This piece will be appearing in the 2014 anthology, Innocence and Loss: Representations of War and National Identity in the United States.

James Franco’s As I Lay Dying: Produced and Abandoned?

by Miller Francis

I’m not Pauline Kael, and James Franco’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is not Bonnie and Clyde. But after reading countless smug naysayer reviews, or at best “damn with faint praise” critiques, I knew how Kael must have felt upon seeing the initial attacks on what is now universally upheld as a major work of film art. Especially on the web, As I Lay Dying was nitpicked to death by critics with the most narrow perspectives imaginable, dismissed as a “vanity project,” “college dissertation” or “Cliff notes” production. Franco, not surprisingly, was slammed for being out of his depth, apparently deserving of special contempt because of his celebrity status. What probably rubs these small-minded arbiters of taste the wrong way is more likely Franco’s stubborn insistence that he has the right to act, direct, write and produce whatever he wants, critics be damned.

as-i-lay-dying-poster-610x904I would have followed Kael’s lead and set out to write the definitive defense and affirmation of As I Lay Dying, had that feat not already been accomplished by Joseph Entin in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Entin even sheds light on the largely unnoticed political dimensions of Faulkner’s novel, and how Franco draws on its strong resonance for our own times. And while Time, Newsweek and The New York Times threw their weight behind the first clueless put-downs of Arthur Penn’s masterwork, a few major critics actually did show appreciation for Franco’s adaptation (see A.O. Scott’s thoughtful piece.)

Then comes the coup de grace: The distributor Millennium Films announced its decision to skip theaters altogether and release As I Lay Dying on iTunes, VOD/iVOD and DVD. Why? Because Franco’s adaptation “is very much in the same vein as the original work,” and might prove a “difficult sell to a general audience rather than the art house crowd.” Let’s get this straight: Some of the same forces who helped bring the film to life then choose to restrict its chances to find an audience. What gives? They knew the original source when they agreed to back the film. So why is the completed work’s fidelity to the novel an insurmountable marketing problem? What were they expecting? A comedy romp? A Yoknapatawpha musical?

Over two decades ago, during the VHS era, Michael Scragow pulled together reviews from several New York film critics for a book project he called Produced and Abandoned. His focus was on a wide variety of films that had been released into theaters, but had somehow been “abandoned by the studios and the mass audience.” It’s interesting to scan the list of films championed in that book, many of which have since gathered tremendous followings. In our DVD/blu-ray era, some have gone on to be considered film classics, with impressive Criterion special editions.

I’ve been reading that book lately and find it illuminating. Today, things are in many ways so much worse. It’s true that small, independent films, or those from other countries, and even big budget, highly complex films like Cloud Atlas, can fail or be only moderately successful in theaters–by today’s weekend blockbuster-or-oblivion standards–and still manage to create a buzz on the internet and find an audience through TV showings, DVD and blu-ray releases. Some have poor domestic box office but find more appreciative audiences in theaters overseas. But what does it say about the state of the industry when As I Lay Dying, one of the best films of 2013–Michael Polish’s adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur is another–never got a fighting chance in theaters? There is, still, in this country, a (relatively) small movie-going audience that seeks out the new, the original, the odd, unusual or even strange, the provocative, controversial and experimental films that get lost in the tsunami of sci-fi blockbusters and sequels (a few of which, of course, are admittedly good or even great films in their own right).

So what is it about Franco’s As I Lay Dying that possibly contributed to the decision by Millennium to cancel its run in theaters?

First, there is the setting and characters–depression-era poor whites in Mississippi. Not exactly hip subject matter. These characters are just not cool, as far as current day filmgoers are concerned, at least not the highly sought after big bucks demographic. But the real elephant in the room is Franco’s decision to employ film techniques we don’t see very often in modern films: the split-screen and monologues. I would argue that these aesthetic decisions were brilliant choices, and obviously drove both how the film was shot and subsequently “built.” In Merve Enre’s illuminating interview with Franco and co-screenwriter Matt Rager, the director explained: “The thing about the split screen is it makes everything strange. It captures the layers that are in the book. If Faulkner wrote this book as a straight narrative without any of his modernist techniques, we wouldn’t still be reading it today. The story is simple. We needed to make the film as strange and as complex as the book, while still considering the expectations of the film medium as opposed to the book form. We didn’t want to lose our audience, but if we didn’t capture something of the style of the book then we wouldn’t have been adapting Faulkner.”

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As for the device of letting characters speak directly to the camera, “In the book the interior monologues are so dense and complex; they use diction that these characters wouldn’t realistically use. It’s as if Faulkner is speaking for these characters. He is giving voice to their deep feelings, to their souls. So, we wanted to capture some of that language, but we couldn’t just do it with normal voice-over; we needed to make it strange. There is something very intimate about the interior monologues, so I thought talking directly to the camera would give a sense of this intimacy.”

Does use of the split-screen in As I Lay Dying ask more from an audience than conventionally shot and edited films? Yes it does. The first 15 minutes or so can be frustrating, even difficult. But if you persevere, your vision gets re-trained to receive the story from the fractured perspectives of the people who inhabit Yoknapatawpha County. Midway you’re coasting along, and by the end of the film, you may not even notice the split-screen technique at all, leading some to say that Franco dispenses with it half-way through (not true). If the use of split-screen makes audiences work a little harder, so what? It was clearly not an arbitrary choice by the filmmakers to indulge some deep desire to alienate the viewer.

Produced and Abandoned contains a section entitled “Page to Screen” devoted to the particular art of adaptation. And by the standards set by these critics, any serious consideration of As I Lay Dying would have to conclude that it is a major success, a significant work of film art, and in fact, now part of the small but significant pantheon of brilliant films made from literary works such as John Huston’s adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. “In movies like these,” Scragow writes, “adaptation is more than an act of simple transference from one medium to another. It’s an act of emphatic creativity.”

In Franco’s defense of another of this year’s successful adaptations, The Great Gatsby, Franco wrote: “Luhrmann’s film is his reading and adaptation of a text—his critique, if you will. . . When adapting Gatsby to the big screen, the main questions Baz Luhrmann faced were: ‘What will work?’ and, like Romeo + Juliet before, ‘How do I make this older material live in a new medium for a modern audience?’ And somehow Luhrmann managed to be loyal to both the original text and to his contemporary audience.”

I have no doubt that Franco’s As I Lay Dying will become mandatory viewing for students studying Faulkner’s novel. Nothing wrong with that. That the film exists in DVD form (no blu-ray except from Germany) and can be downloaded or streamed from various sources means audiences do have access. One can only hope that a Region 1 blu-ray appears in the future, and that it contains some of the footage shot but not used in the final version.

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Any serious filmgoer who misses out on this extraordinary film experience will miss one of the best films of the year, and one of the best adaptations ever. I don’t know if As I Lay Dying‘s distribution qualifies it for the Academy Awards, but there’s no justice in the film world if Tim Blake Nelson, to name only one, is not up for an acting Oscar. Christina Voros’ mostly hand-held cinematography is breathtaking throughout, and Tim O’Keefe’s highly original soundtrack accomplishes yet another translation, from words and film to music and sound.

On a personal note, my own truth-in-advertising, I have been a Faulkner nut since my teenage years. My very idiosyncratic standard for the success or failure of Franco’s adaptation was how well he depicted the barn-burning speech of 5-year-old Vardaman, what I call “the not-abouts.” Franco nailed it.

How amazing, and unexpected: a filmmaker who loves literature, and adapts the written word to film for fun. In 2013, that’s something we should treasure. “There are about five million books I want to adapt,” Franco declares. “There is nothing I enjoy more than this: adapting books I love into films and collaborating with the people I love. It’s the absolute best job in the world.”

My hopes are high for Franco’s film interpretation of The Sound and the Fury.

Miller Francis can be reached via e-mail: millerfrancis44@gmail.com

Kate Bosworth, Josh Lucas, Michael Polish, & Kubilay Uner Tweet FedRev ‘Big Sur’ Review

‘Big Sur’ and the Revival of the Beat Generation

Big Sur, a film that very few are likely to see this year, is one of 2013′s very best. Based on the novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac, the film picks up the story of the legendary author’s life as he struggles with the success of his classic On the Road. After helping to define the Beat Generation, Kerouac feels a great burden on his shoulders. People expect him to be Sal Paradise, his alter ego from Road in his mid twenties, but the real Jack Kerouac is approaching middle age, and the world is changing around him. The film follows Kerouac as he seeks refuge and solitude in the Big Sur region on the central coast of California.

Michael Polish’s film is exceptionally beautiful, and not just because of the natural scenery on location. His camera captures the magnificence of the surroundings- the forest, the sky, the waves on the beach, and the dramatic rock formations jutting upward from the ocean- in a way that appears effortless, but is the result of a perfect union of subject and artist. Polish conjures a true character from the environment surrounding the cabin that Kerouac inhabits as he undergoes an existential crisis. A last gasp, of sorts, as his restless soul continues to struggle for meaning in life.

After some time in isolation, Kerouac craves some human company, so he attempts to hitchhike to town, where he meets several old friends. On the way, he’s unable to get a ride and is forced to walk as he bemoans the changing attitude of the country. In his mind it’s more evidence that who he really is does not match his reputation, and confirms that this is the beginning of the end of his generation.

Death is a major theme throughout the film. Near the beginning Jack learns that his beloved cat has died, and his grief paints the rest of the film. He sees a dead otter floating in the ocean, and later a dead rat outside the cabin. He even struggles to take a bite of a fish prepared by his friend Lew because all he can think about is the dead fish. Kerouac seems to be consumed by death, and he attempts to cover his mortal terror with alcohol. Ironically, it was Jack Kerouac’s alcohol abuse that greatly contributed to his early death less than a decade after the events depicted in Big Sur, at the age of 47.

Big Sur integrates Kerouac’s words into the film through a beautiful use of voice-over, which, in combination with the breathtaking scenic elements, is almost Terrence Malick-esque, though here the narration literally drives the narrative, rather than being more abstract and thematic in nature. This is pulled off in perfect concert with both the dialogue and the fantastic musical score created by the collaboration between composer Kubilay Uner and brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the rock band The National. The music is haunting and subtly underscores the foreboding, desperate tone of the film.

All the performances in the film are very high caliber. Jean-Marc Barr plays the aging Kerouac with great depth. It’s not easy to carry a film as an actor, but Barr does so with a nuanced performance that owns the screen without overshadowing the supporting actors. Josh Lucas plays Neal Cassady, who even as he approaches middle age, shows shades of what made him such a charismatic and inspirational figure in Kerouac’s life. Rhada Mitchell plays Cassady’s wife, and a strikingly beautiful Kate Bosworth plays his mistress. Through both performances the audience feels the burden put upon women. Carolyn Cassady struggles quietly with her husband’s infidelity, and Billie, a single mother, is desperate for affection, companionship, and stability after growing tired of being treated like an object that makes men feel better about themselves.

Unfortunately, the masterpiece Big Sur, after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival, has barely gotten any theatrical distribution whatsoever. It is temporarily available through on-demand cable services as a “same day as theaters” release, which is almost funny considering it has only been seen on a handful of screens. It is scheduled for a DVD release in January, but not blu-ray, which is the format this magnificent and beautiful film cries out for.

It’s interesting that so many films about the Beats are coming out now. Big Sur was preceded by an adaptation of On the Road just last year, as well as Howl, a 2010 film about Allen Ginsberg. Kill Your Darlings, another film about the Beat poets, has been making the rounds at film festivals around the world over the last year. Is this sudden wave of films on the Beat Generation just a spontaneous feeling of nostalgia for this moment in time, or is it something more?

The Beats came to prominence in the mid-1950s. Their rejection of many established social norms and materialism, their acceptance of alternative sexuality, their willingness to embrace mind altering drugs and their general instinct for freedom, helped to pave the way for the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s. Perhaps now we’re nearing another historic and pivotal moment of turmoil, where the establishment will be rocked to its core, and maybe looking back at the Beatniks’ contribution to a major social movement, even if only subconsciously, is a way for us to prepare for a genuine revolution.

Regardless, Big Sur is a magnificent film; a genuine work of art in all aspects of the medium. Considering its quality and how much care and skill went into its production, hopefully it will find an audience as time goes on.