Archive for August, 2011

The Libyan Revolution

August 26, 2011

Some on the left (Glen Ford, for example) have taken the view that the Libyan revolution is nothing more than a NATO-driven coup d’etat. I cannot share this view. Clearly, the rebels could not have succeeded without support from a substantial portion of the Libyan population. One thing we learned from the Afghanistan war is that dropping a lot of bombs and sending in special operations forces do not guarantee a victory. Civilian support – which the U.S. clearly lacks in Afghanistan – is an important factor.

No doubt the Western governments will try to profit as much as they can from the current situation in Libya. Some members of the ruling class are openly calling for a U.S. occupation of Libya. Richard Haas has written in the Financial Times:

    Nato’s airplanes helped bring about the rebel victory. The “humanitarian” intervention introduced to save lives believed to be threatened was in fact a political intervention introduced to bring about regime change. Now Nato has to deal with its own success. Some sort of international assistance, and most likely an international force, is likely to be needed for some time to restore and maintain order. Looting must be prevented. Die-hard regime supporters will have to be defeated. Tribal war must be averted. Justice and not revenge need to be the order of the day if Libya is not to come to resemble the civil war of post-Saddam Iraq in the first instance, or the chaos (and terrorism) of Somalia and Yemen down the road.

Haas, a diplomat, apparently did not notice that the U.S. military completely failed to stop the sectarian civil war in Iraq. I suspect Haas’s real concern is guaranteeing for the U.S. easy access to Libyan oil. Despite his knowing use of quotation marks, it is clear that Haas is actually making a more sophisticated version of the “humanitarian intervention” argument. I doubt, however, that Obama will take Haas’s advice. Among other things, the current political mood in the country is not favorable for such a move.

Is the revolution an unqualified victory for the U.S.? Bear in mind that the U.S. did not get everything it wanted in Iraq, and it certainly did not get what it wanted in Afghanistan. The U.S. may find Libya also hard to control.

In a Better World

August 21, 2011

The Danish film, In a Better World, directed by Suzanne Bier, was awarded this year’s Oscar for best foreign language film. However, in all honesty I must say that I was not all that impressed by it. (I thought Biutiful was a better film.) Although I liked some of the early scenes, I ultimately found it disappointing.

Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) is a Swedish doctor who does volunteer work in a Sudanese refugee camp. He is estranged from his Danish wife, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm). She lives with their son, Elias (Markus Rygaard), in a small village in Denmark. Elias is bullied by some of his classmates. A new student, Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen) arrives, and he immediately takes sides with Elias. He severely beats one of the bullies and threatens him with a knife. The bullying then stops. This convinces Christian that the way to deal with conflicts is to use force. He and Elias later see Anton get into an argument with Lars (Kim Bodnia). When Lars slaps Anton, the latter refuses to hit back, because he is a pacifist. Christian then decides to build a bomb and blow up Lars’s van, to teach him a lesson. He persuades Elias to help him. However, Elias is injured in the blast.

This film’s central conflicts are resolved in a manner that struck me as too familiar and contrived. I actually began to feel as though I were watching one of those After School Specials that they used to show on TV when I was growing up. It ends up being just another story about mixed-up adolescents. This was a comedown, because the early scenes seem to promise something more than this.

This film has a subplot that takes place in Africa. The refugees are terrorized by a local warlord, who commits shocking crimes. One day, he shows up in the camp and demands that Anton treat his wounded leg. This could have been an interesting dramatic situation. Unfortunately, the warlord is such a cartoonish character that he simply isn’t convincing. These African scenes are apparently meant to serve as a dramatic counterpoint to the scenes in Denmark, but they end up being merely a distraction.

All in all, a disappointing film.

X-Men: First Class

August 13, 2011

After watching such highbrow fare as The Tree of Life and Hobo with a Shotgun, I felt the need for something light, so I went to see X-Men: First Class. I have to admit that I was never really into the whole X-Men thing. I belong to a generation for whom Spiderman and the Fantastic Four were the really cool superheroes. So I probably didn’t get all the in-jokes, although I noticed some moments that clearly had that in-joke feel to them. Personally, I don’t like it when they put in-jokes in movies, but they seem to be a requirement with these genre films.

X-Men: First Class gets off to a slow start. The problem is that it spends too much time establishing the origins of the main characters. About twenty minutes in, however, it starts to take off, and soon it’s like a roller coaster ride. I won’t go into too much detail about the story. Basically it takes place in the early 1960’s, and it’s about a group of evil mutants who try to start a nuclear war between the United States and Russia. They want to destroy non-mutants so that they and other mutants can rule the world. They are opposed by a group of good mutants, who at the end become the “X-Men”. As you may have guessed by now, the words “mutants” and “mutations” get tossed around a lot in this film. I guess this is supposed to sound scientific, although I’m not aware that it’s possible for a mutation to allow one to violate the laws of physics, as the characters in this film frequently do.

One of the things I liked about this film is that some of the characters are remarkably complex for an action movie. Indeed, the characters in this film have more depth than the characters in some supposedly “adult” movies such as Horrible Bosses. Even though they have super powers, they can't help feeling like misfits who aren't wanted. I suspect this is the secret to the comic books' success: they appeal to adolescents who feel they aren't appreciated for their talents.

This film mixes historical events with fictional ones in a manner that I did not find objectionable. Indeed, I was struck by the fact that the movie makes it clear that it was the U.S.'s decision to place Jupiter missiles in Turkey that led to the Cuban missile crisis. When I was young, if you had pointed that out to someone, he might very well have called you a "traitor". It's funny how things have changed since the end of the Cold War.

More Thoughts about Obama’s Budget Deal

August 7, 2011

The raucous debates that preceded the budget deal have led some to the conclusion that the U.S. ruling class is in a state of crisis. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have not gone they way they hoped. The recovery from the last recession has been extremely weak. They are desperately trying to find a way to increase profits while maintaining the empire, but they are divided on how to do it. Some, like the Koch Brothers (the driving force behind the Tea Party), want to simply destroy whatever is left of workers’ living standards, effectively making the U.S. into a “Third World” country. Others favor less drastic measures. The people at Standard & Poor’s are trying to impose their own ideas on the government by downgrading their credit rating. None of these people seem to see unemployment as a problem, even though the more intelligent members of the ruling class must realize that chronic unemployment will eventually lead to social unrest. (The Wisconsin uprising may be a foreshadowing of this.) Yet they are unwilling to accept any New Deal-type reforms that might assuage public anger.

Again, what we need is a movement of unemployed people.

Hobo with a Shotgun

August 5, 2011

Years ago, I had a group of friends who liked to watch bad movies. No, I don’t mean “so bad it’s good” movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Robot Monster. I mean movies that are just bad. I’m talking about low budget exploitation films that make you feel unclean while you’re watching them. The idea seems to have been that these guys would get together and share a common feeling of smug superiority towards the people who made these films, sneering at the bad acting and the inept camera work. Try as hard as I could, I was never able to buy into this aesthetic. I would sit squirming in my chair, wanting to say, “ Wouldn’t it be more fun to watch a good movie?”

Hobo with a Shotgun seems to belong to a similar aesthetic, although the attitude here seems to be one of morbid fascination rather than smug superiority. The main reason I went to see this film is because I thought the trailer was funny. Considering that even the trailers for Hollywood “comedies” aren’t funny, I thought this had to be a promising sign. I have since learned that it originally was one of a series of joke trailers that were made for the Robert Rodriguez-Quentin Tarantino concoction, Grindhouse, which I haven’t seen. I have, however, seen Rodriguez’s Machete, which also started out as one of these joke trailers. Although I liked that this film takes the side of immigrants, I must admit that I didn’t think it was very good. The characters were too cartoonish to be interesting, and the action sequences weren’t well done. (Well-done action sequences, in my opinion, are the bare minimum requirement for a good action film.) I suppose some would argue that this film’s badness is the whole joke, although, in my opinion, it is a joke that wears thin pretty quickly.

Hobo with a Shotgun, directed by Jason Eisener and written by John Davies, is the second of these Grindhouse spin-offs. The film has a 1970’s look and feel to it. (I take it the seventies were a sort of Golden Age of exploitation films.) The basic plot is an example of a peculiarly American genre. It’s that type of story in which a stranger arrives in a corrupt city or town and, using ruthless methods, proceeds to clean the place up. (The best example of this type of story is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.) One morning, a hobo (Rutger Hauer) arrives in Hope Town, which is known by its residents as either “Scum Town” or “Fuck Town”. (In keeping with the rules of the genre, we are never told the hobo’s name, just as we are never told the name of Hammett’s Continental Op.) The hobo finds that there is rampant crime in the city. The place is run by The Drake (Brian Downey), who is a combination gangster, preacher and carnival barker. The Drake holds public executions of people who displease him, including his own brother. The police are completely under The Drake’s control. The hobo befriends a prostitute, Abby (Molly Dunsworth), who is far and away the most sympathetic character in the film. When he sees a robber threatening to kill a baby, the hobo snaps. He gets a shotgun, and soon the bodies start to pile up.

Hobo with a Shotgun is the most violent film I have ever seen. Eisener and Davies cram as much gratuitous violence as they can into each scene. There are depictions of torture, disembowelment, mutilation and people being burned alive. Yet the film has a Grand Guignol feel to it that makes it hard to take seriously. Everything is so ridiculously overdone that I couldn’t help laughing at times. Other people in the audience reacted the same way. However, several people got up and left.

I have deeply mixed feelings about this film. I can’t say that I didn’t find it entertaining, yet I can’t really recommend it. It has no redeeming value, even though Eisener and Davies try to inject some social consciousness into it. In one scene, for example, Abby makes a speech defending homeless people. The problem is that when you present an argument like that in the cynical context of an exploitation film, it rings hollow.

I have a suggestion for Rodriguez, Eisener and Davies: wouldn’t it be more fun to make good movies?

Obama’s Budget Deal

August 4, 2011

Readers of my blog know that I have never been keen on conspiracist thinking, but I’m starting to get a bit paranoid after these recent budget negotiations. Watching them was like watching that old magician’s trick, in which the audience is made to look in one direction while the important thing that’s happening is in the other direction. For weeks we listened to one Tea Party Republican after another talk about how they must wreak the economy just to spite Obama. Meanwhile, few noticed that Obama actually proposed making cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Think about it, and the conspiracy makes sense. First, find the stupidest members of the white middle class. Tell them that Obama is a socialist and a fascist and a Muslim. Then organize them into demonstrations and let them make fools out of themselves. So the rest of the country gawks at these people and no one pays attention to what Obama is doing. They don’t realize just how conservative Obama is, and how he is waging war on the working class and the poor.

It is becoming clear that the ruling class have decided that they can live with a permanent state of high unemployment. Indeed, they may even view that as preferable. And if it is fine with them, it is fine with Obama.

What we need in this country is a movement of unemployed people.