Archive for December, 2012

The Baader Meinhof Complex

December 31, 2012


The 2008 German film, The Baader Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel from a screenplay by Bernd Eichinger, tells the story of the Red Army Faction, better known as the Baader Meinhof Group, a terrorist group active in Germany from the 1970’s through the 1990’s. The group had broad support in its early years. It appealed to young people disillusioned with post-war German society. They were particularly opposed to the Vietnam War and the West German government’s passive support for it, which they viewed as being analogous to Germans who had allowed the Holocaust to happen. The death of Che Guevara had also inspired many of these people.

The film begins with a demonstration against the Shah of Iran during his visit to Berlin in 1967. The police attack a crowd of student demonstrators, resulting in the death of Benno Ohnesorg. Shortly afterwards, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) fire bomb a department store, protesting the political complacency of German society. Baader is eventually arrested by the police. A journalist, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), interviews him in prison. Meinhof is frustrated by what she sees as the inability of her journalism to bring about any change. Meinhof agrees to help Baader to escape from prison, which she does. She then joins Baader’s gang, which he has christened as the Red Army Faction (RAF).

The rest of the film starts out as farce and ends as tragedy. The RAF leaders flee Germany to a Fatah camp in Jordan, to be trained in guerilla warfare. The RAF consider themselves to be in support of “Third World” liberation struggles. Once in the camp, however, they begin behaving like a bunch of spoiled teenagers. (This is the best way I can describe it.) They quarrel with the Fatah leaders, and they violate Palestinian social norms by, among other things, doing nude sunbathing in the middle of the camp. They return to Germany, where they carry out a series of daring bank robberies and bombings. However, the police capture or kill members of the RAF one by one. They eventually capture Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin. However, a “second generation” of RAF members springs up. They use terror methods to try get their leaders released, culminating in the highjacking of an airliner in 1977. When army troops succeed in freeing the hostages, Baader and the others despair of ever getting out of prison, so they kill themselves.

Edel and Eichinger try to compress a complex series of historical events into a two-and-a-half hour film with predictably uneven results. New RAF members suddenly appear out of nowhere, and at times it’s hard to tell who is doing what. The film touches upon some complex issues without addressing them in satisfying ways. For example, some people have raised reasonable doubts as to whether the RAF leaders actually killed themselves, suggesting that they might have been murdered. (According to Wikipedia: “… Baader was supposed to have shot himself in the base of the neck so that the bullet exited through his forehead; repeated tests indicated that it was virtually impossible for a person to hold and fire a gun in such a way. In addition, three bullet holes were found in his cell: one lodged in the wall, one in the mattress, and the fatal bullet itself lodged in the floor, suggesting that Baader had fired twice before killing himself. Finally, Baader had powder burns on his right hand, but he was left-handed.”) While the film mentions that there were doubts about the suicides, it doesn’t really discuss this matter. Also, the film ends with the RAF’s killing of the industrialist, Hans Martin Schleyer in 1978, although the RAF remained active well into the 1990’s.

This film is a grim reminder that terrorism doesn’t work. Germany is not a better place today because of the Baader Meinhof group. The 9/11 attacks resulted in the expansion of U.S. imperialism. Terrorism actually strengthens the state by providing it with an external enemy. (“War is the health of the state”, as Randolph Bourne once put it.) Only mass movements have ever brought about any progress.


December 24, 2012


Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, Reds, tells the story of John Reed and Louise Bryant, two American journalists who were witnesses to the Russian Revolution. Beatty wrote the screenplay with Trevor Griffiths. Watching this film, one is impressed by the personal courageousness of Reed and Bryant, as well as by their commitment to social justice. They were interesting and inspiring people, so I wish I could give this film an unqualified endorsement, but unfortunately it has a number of problems with it.

At nearly three hours, Reds is too long, mainly because the first half largely consists of scenes of Reed (Warren Beatty) and Bryant (Diane Keaton), who were married, bickering with each other, as well as scenes of Bryant having an affair with Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson). The film doesn’t get interesting until about halfway through when Reed and Bryant go to Russia. Beatty and Griffiths seemed to have had trouble making convincing characters out of historical figures. O’Neil, for example, mostly just drinks a lot and glowers at people. It’s hard to see why Bryant is attracted to him.

Lenin and Trotsky appear only briefly. Zinoviev (Jery Kosinski) and Radek (Jan Triska) are the only Bolshevik leaders depicted in any detail. Reed’s feud with Zinoviev provides much of the drama in the second half of the film. Zinoviev comes across as a bit of a bully and somewhat dishonest, although personally brave. Reed, on the other hand, comes across as a bit ultra-left. He opposes the idea of communists trying to work within the American Federation of Labor, for example. Unfortunately for the film, their conflict is left unresolved because of Reed’s untimely death.

Reds does not romanticize the Russian Revolution. There are discussions about the collapse of the Russian economy and the high-handed methods of the Bolsheviks. Yet the film also points out that sixteen foreign armies (including the U.S. army) invaded Russia. This is a point that often gets conveniently ignored in discussions about the Russian Revolution.

Beatty does possess skill as a director. The scene in which Bryant’s home is raided by government agents, for example, is effectively done, as is the scene in which White Army soldiers attack a train on which Reed is traveling.

The film includes interviews with “witnesses”, people who knew Reed and Bryant. Most of their comments are unilluminating, and some are downright inane. (George Jessel is inexplicably allowed to sing.) They mostly serve as a distraction from the story. I think the film would actually have been better if these had been left out.

While we are on the topic of historical portrayals, I must say I always thought Patrick Stewart would make a good Lenin. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned that Stewart actually did play Lenin in a BBC TV-series in the early 1970’s entitled The Fall of Eagles. Here is a clip from the series that depicts Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917:

Full Metal Jacket

December 20, 2012


Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is an examination of the meaninglessness and amorality of war. It is also a critique of the military and its values. This film is based on the writings of two Vietnam war veterans, Gustav Hasford and Michael Herr.

The film tells two stories that subtly mirror each other. The first half of the film depicts the basic training experience of James T. “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine) at the Marine Corps base on Parris Island during the Vietnam War. He and a group of other recruits are under the command of a drill instructor, Sgt. Hartman (R. Lee Ermey, who was a Marine D.I. before he became an actor). Hartman aims most of his insults at Pvt. Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), a hapless recruit who can never seem to do anything right. Hartman gives him the nickname “Gomer Pyle” and proceeds to make his life miserable. His taunting of Lawrence has tragic results for both of them.

There were several things that struck me about this half of the film. The first is that on several occasions Hartman either slaps or punches people. In one scene, he chokes Lawrence. I was always under the impression that officers and N.C.O.’s are not allowed to hit soldiers. (Didn’t Gen. Patton almost get fired for doing that?) I have since learned from various sources that D.I.’s sometimes get away with hitting recruits, even though technically they are not supposed to do it. Another thing that struck was religious indoctrination. Hartman sometimes talks about religion to the recruits. In one scene, Hartman asks Davis if he believes in the Virgin Mary. When Davis says no, Harman punches him in the stomach. Among other things, Hartman merely asking that question violates the First Amendment. People in the military take an oath swearing to defend the Constitution. The issue of religious indoctrination in the military is one that crops up in the news every now and then. There have been attempts at the United States Air Force Academy to convert people to fundamentalist Christianity. I guess a belief in Biblical literalism helps one to drop bombs on people.

This film also depicts how misogyny and homophobia are instilled in recruits during basic training.

The second half depicts Davis’s experiences during the Battle of Hue. Full Metal Jacket manages to avoid the clich├ęs of war movies. It leads to a harrowing climax in which the members of Davis’s platoon are picked off one by one by a sniper. For all their savage training, the soldiers turn out to be just frightened men dealing with a terrifying situation. The lone sniper turns out to be a woman. When Davis kills her, we are reminded of Lawrence killing Sgt. Harman. Full Metal Jacket ends with a scene of Marines marching through the ruins of Hue while singing the theme song of The Mickey Mouse Club. There is perhaps no better metaphor for U.S. imperialism.

More Thoughts on the Connecticut Shootings

December 17, 2012

It’s interesting the ways that people will try to avoid the arguments for gun control. One argument that’s been circulating tries to blame the media for mass shootings. It argues that shooters do what they do in order to become famous. Because the media devote so much attention to these shootings, it makes other people want to become shooters themselves. (This argument is made in a quote circulating on the Internet that has been falsely attributed to Morgan Freeman.) With regard to Adam Lanza, this idea is pure speculation. We simply don’t know what he was thinking when he went to that school or even when he shot his mother. He left no notes (or none that have been found so far). He didn’t say anything to anyone. All we know for certain is that Nancy Lanza purchased semiautomatic weapons that her son later used to kill people. It was the availability of weapons that made the shootings possible. That is all we know so far.

The Connecticut Shootings

December 15, 2012

The school shooting in Newtown, CT is one of 61 mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. since 1999. The U.S. is not the only country that has had this type of shooting, but it has them more often than any other country. (The Washington Post offers some interesting statistics on this. You can find them here. This reasons for this are probably complex, but it is not unreasonable to suppose that the U.S.’s shredded social safety net and lax gun control are factors in this. We live in a country where a man who was obviously schizophrenic, Jared Loughner, was able to purchase a Glock 19 without any trouble.

I come out of a political tradition that opposes gun control on the grounds that it disarms the working class. This argument might have some traction if there were workers’ militias in this country, but there aren’t. (The militias that do exist all have reactionary politics.) It was the George W. Bush Administration that allowed the ban on assault rifles to expire. You know that they didn’t do this so that oppressed minorities could fight the police. I think it significant that the people who most strongly oppose gun control laws also support “Stand Your Ground” laws, which are effectively an invitation to vigilantism. The Right wants people to live in an atmosphere of fear and violence. In such a society, people are more easily manipulated, and they are more deferential to authority.

Marmoulak (Lizard)

December 14, 2012


Marmalouk is a 2004 Iranian film directed by Kamal Tabrizi. The Iranian government banned it after a two-week run. Nevertheless, it is the successful Iranian film ever.

Reza (Parviz Parastui) is a thief who has the nickname, Marmoulak (Lizard), because of his uncanny ability to climb walls. He is caught, and he spends some time in prison, but he manages to escape by disguising himself as a mullah. He goes in search of a man who will help him escape across the border. On the way, he stops in a village where the people mistake him for the new mullah for their mosque. Reza pretends to be their mullah during the day, but at night he goes looking for the man who is supposed to help him cross the border. The villagers notice his night-time excursions, and they mistakenly believe that he is doing charitable works. Reza acquires a reputation as a saint, and people begin flocking to his sermons.

The film is implicitly critical of the Iranian clergy. It seems to suggest that they are out of touch of the people. The clergy apparently decided to prove this popular film’s point by banning it. Yet Marmoulak is not an attack on religion. Quite the contrary, it is actually very respectful towards Islam. It ends on a highly spiritual note. It is also quite funny. The characters are interesting, and it gives us a glimpse into Iranian society. It can be found on Youtube.

Libertarianism: A Trojan Horse

December 11, 2012

Timothy P. Carney recetnly wrote in the Washington Examiner regarding the retiring senator, Jim DeMint:

    For libertarians, Christian conservative pro-lifer Jim DeMint was the best thing to come through the Senate in decades. DeMint, quitting early to run the conservative Heritage Foundation, embodied an underappreciated fact of life in Washington: The politicians who most consistently defend economic liberty are the cultural conservatives.

This is further proof of what I’ve always argued: that libertarianism is a Trojan Horse for the far right. Naive young people are attracted to libertarianism because of its position on decriminalizing drugs as well as its opposition to foreign wars. Yet when election time rolls around, libertarians start arguing to support socially conservative, pro-war Republicans. DeMint supported the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Honduras. He wants mandatory prayer in public schools, and he wants to outlaw abortion, including in cases of rape and incest. Yet Carney admires him for his support for “economic liberty”, meaning the right of corporations to screw us over.

Some on the left have been lulled by Ron Paul because of his criticism of U.S. foreign policy, ignoring his history of making racist statements. In his farewell speech to Congress, Paul denounced “pure democracy”, saying that it results in people demanding things from the government. An argument that echoes the racist comments made by Bill O’Reilly after Obama’s re-election.

The pupose of libertarianism is to steer people into the Republican Party. We should have no illusions about this.

Griffith Park

December 8, 2012

I don’t have much to say right now, so I decided to post some pictures I took during a recent walk through L.A.’s Griffith Park, my favorite park.

A stature of Griffith J. Griffith, who donated the land that became the park. Griffith was a Welsh immigrant. (Only a Welshman would have the same first and last name.) Griffith served as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War. Although Griffith was a generous philanthropist, he was not a good person. He once shot his wife, severely injuring her.

A miniature railway line. I remember riding on this when I was a kid.

The engineer (standing to the right) was a very nice person. He waited for me while I went to get a ticket. (It was the last ride of the day.) I wonder how you get a job like this.

Many old Westerns and science fiction B-movies were shot in Griffith Park, which perhaps explains why I always get a feeling of deja vu when I come here.




The Verdugo Mountains

Which way did they go?












Downtown Los Angeles at sunset.



From the top of Mount Hollywood looking towards the Sand Fernando Vally.

Starting back down from the top.

On the way down, I saw a coyote. (Alas, it was too dark to photograph him.) He and I looked at each other for about thiry seconds, then he trotted away.

I came out of the park a few miles from where I entered. I had a long walk home, but it was worth it.