Archive for June, 2013

Ace in the Hole

June 30, 2013


Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is an ethically challenged reporter who has been fired from several big city newspapers. He has wound up broke in Alberquerqe, New Mexico, where he persuades a local newspaper to hire him. Tatum is looking for that one big story that will get him hired by a major newspaper. While on an assignment, he stops to get gas at a diner/souvenir store, where he learns that the owner, Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict), has just been trapped in a rock fall while exploring the nearby ruins of an Indian cave dwelling. Sensing that this could be a big story, Tatum inserts himself into the situation, becoming the one who brings food and water to the unfortunate Leo. Tatum writes a melodramatic account of this incident for his paper. He then teams up with the corrupt local sheriff, Kretzer (Ray Teal), who believes he can use this to guarantee his re-election, as well as with Leo’s callous wife, Lorraine (Jan Sterling), who sees the publicity as a way to improve business. Tatum persuades Kretzer to pressure the rescuers into trying to reach Leo by drilling through the mountain, rather than going through the tunnel, which would take much less time. Tatum reasons that the longer the rescue takes, the more drama he can put into this news reports, thus making it into a bigger story. As the days go by, curiosity seekers begin showing up. Eventually a carnival arrives and sets up rides outside where Leo is trapped.

Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was not well received by critics when it came out in 1951. They apparently thought that it was excessively cynical. The Hollywood Reporter, for example, called it “… nothing more than a brazen, uncalled-for slap in the face of two respected and frequently effective American institutions – democratic government and the free press.” In recent years, however, critics have taken a much kinder view of the film. I think one reason for that is that in the age of CNN and Fox News, it’s hard for people to take the noble view of the “free press” that the Hollywood Reporter‘s critic took.

Bosley Crowther, however, did make a valid point when he wrote: “There isn’t any denying that there are vicious newspaper men and that one might conceivably take advantage of a disaster for his own private gain. But to reckon that one could so tie up and maneuver a story of any size, while other reporters chew their fingers, is simply incredible.” It is highly improbable that a single reporter could completely control events the way Chuck Tatum does in this film. However, a group of reporters can control the way people perceive a story. Consider, for example, how some reporters have turned the recent revelations about the N.S.A. from a story about government spying to a story about Edward Snowden’s “narcissism”.

In Ace in the Hole, we see people enjoying carnival rides, while only a few hundred yards away, Leo is suffering, his legs trapped under rocks. This film is also about our society’s tendency to turn events into spectacles. The public’s reaction to the recent Boston Marathon bombings (“Boston Strong!”) was a good example of that, but the classic case in my opinion was the O.J. Simpson trial. Remember the “Ito Dancers”? Is Wilder’s film really much of an exaggeration of how people behave?

Ace in the Hole has Wilder’s usual biting dialogue, and the underrated Kirk Douglas gives a powerful performance as Tatum.



June 25, 2013


Downfall is a 2004 German film about the final days of the Third Reich. It was directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel from a screenplay by Bernd Eichinger (who also wrote the screenplay for The Baader-Meinhof Complex). The film mostly takes place in the bunker where Hitler(Bruno Ganz) and other members of this government are hiding out as the Soviet army surrounds Berlin.

Ganz’s performance in this film caused some controversy. Some people objected to the idea of portraying Hitler as human. This argument doesn’t make sense to me. Hitler was human. Does it make sense to portray him as a supernatural monster? Would that help us to understand what happened? Obviously not.

One thing that struck me as I watched this film was how out-of-touch with reality the German leaders seem. (Himmler (Ulrich Noethen) talks about negotiating a ceasefire with Eisenhower. He wonders whether he should give him the Nazi salute or shake his hand.) The generals talk about “loyalty to the Fuehrer”, even after he accuses them of betraying them. At the end of the film, reality finally asserts itself in the form of Russian soldiers swarming over the city.

More than any other film I’ve seen, Downfall brings home the sheer lunacy of Nazism. Children and old men are sent into battle. Civilians are shot or hanged as “traitors”. We see Magda Goebbels (Corinna Harfouch) methodically murder her own children, because, she says, “life is not worth living without National Socialism”. Some of the scenes in this film have a surreal quality to them. We see drunken officers laughing and playing cards outside Hitler’s private quarters, while their Fuehrer is planning his suicide. And we see a drunken orgy in a hotel lobby while the Russians are closing in on the city. The scene is almost like something out of Bosch.

Downfall is a great film, and arguably the best film about World War II. Watching this film, however, I kept thinking “How did people like this come to rule an entire country?” It would be interesting if someone were to make a film about how Hitler became the Fuehrer.

M.I.A Knew about N.S.A. Spying Three Years Before News Media Did

June 23, 2013


In 2010, the British pop singer, M.I.A., released a song called “The Message”, which contains the line: “Your headphones connected to your iPhone / Your iPhone’s connected to the Internet / The Internet’s connected to the Google / The Google’s connected to the Government.” Which is an accurate description of what’s been going on.

The Justice Department has just announced its plans to charge Edward Snowden with espionage. It seems that the government and its supporters in the news media are outraged that an N.S.A. employee dared to tell the American people what any intelligent person could have guessed.


A Global Revolution?

June 19, 2013

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The recent protests in Turkey and in Brazil have brought some renewed optimism to this country’s perpetually gloomy Left. In The Daily Kos, Ray Pensador writes:

    We’re here folks. This is the real thing. The global revolution has started. What’s happening in Turkey, and Brazil, as a write this, are not unrelated events. The revelations about how corparatist cartels are using government institutions to cast a wide net of surveillance over the entire population (NSA spying) with the intent of using it as a tool to control, manipulate and exploit the citizenry, is part of the collusion.

I don’t want to sound like Mr. Downer, but I’ve heard this kind of talk before. I heard it after the “Battle in Seattle” in 1999. (I remember Alex Callinicos saying that Seattle was “a fork in the road”. It was more like a speed bump for neoliberalism.) I also heard this talk in the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011. Yet at some point the increasing corruption and criminality of our global economic system is going to produce some kind of sustained fightback. If not now, some time in the near future. Something has got to give.


What Were They Thinking?

June 12, 2013

Edward Snowden

To me, the most astonishing thing about the most recent scandal plaguing the government is that the Obama Administration actually believed that it could keep such an immense operation a secret. I remember that when I would argue with 9/11 conspiracy theorists, one of the points I would make was that the conspiracy they were describing would have involved so many participants that it would have been impossible to keep it a secret. (This argument is even more powerful when applied to the “moon landing was a hoax” conspiracy theory.) It now appears that those supposedly hard-nosed realists who control our national security apparatus are every bit as naïve as those 9/11 Truthers. A sobering revelation.

If Edward Snowden hadn’t spilled the beans about this, somebody else would have eventually done so. It was only a matter of time. This hasn’t prevented the punditocracy from vilifying Snowden, calling him, among other things, a “narcissist”, as if these people weren’t obvious narcissists themselves. It shows you how much the War on Terror has corrupted our society that many of our journalists don’t even pretend to care about civil liberties and government transparency any more.

One must also question the intelligence of the corporate executives who went along with this insane scheme. At least one person has pointed out that this scandal threatens the future of the whole U.S. Internet industry. I guess maybe these guys aren’t so smart after all.

It’s always good to see the one percent make fools out of themselves.



June 11, 2013


Spartacus is a 1960 film that stars Kirk Douglas as the leader of the ancient Roman slave rebellion. It was directed by Stanley Kubrick, from a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, which was based on a novel by Howard Fast. Trumbo had been blacklisted during the early fifties. (Trumbo and Fast were both former members of the Communist Party.) At Douglas’s insistence, Trumbo was given an on-screen credit, in violation of the black-list. Spartacus is widely credited with helping to end the black-list in Hollywood.

Because Trumbo was black-listed, many people tend to interpret Spartacus as being about the Red Scare. (I have a deep reluctance to use the liberal term, “McCarthyism”. I will have to discuss that at some other time.) This does seem to apply to the famous “I am Spartacus” scene. There is, however, another way of looking at this film, that is more relevant to our current situation. A large part of the story details how the Roman general, Crassus (Laurence Olivier), uses the uprising to persuade the Roman Senate to give him dictatorial powers, in much the same way the Bush and Obama have used the threat of Al Qaida to persuade Congress to give them virtually dictatorial powers. Some things never change.

Spartacus has some powerful moments. The battle scenes are well done. The final battle between Spartacus’s army and Crassus’s is impressive to watch. And it’s fun to watch Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov as a couple of scheming Roman politicians. I can’t, however, call Spartacus a great movie. It drags in some places and it is sentimental in others. A fight scene between Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis towards the end of the film is contrived and unconvincing. And Alex North’s music score is repetitive and sentimental in places. Kubrick did not have complete artistic control over this film, which seems a shame to me. This could have been a truly great film.


Big Brother

June 7, 2013


The recent revelations about massive government spying on the American people should come as no surprise. Indeed, they merely confirm what many of us have suspected for quite some time now. It’s worth noting here that all this obsessive information gathering did not prevent the Boston Marathon bombings from happening. The reason for this should be obvious: no terrorist with half a brain is going to discuss his plans over a cell phone or over the Internet. Even the Tsarnaev brothers, who weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs, knew better than that.

So, how concerned should we be about this? As long as you aren’t doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t be too concerned. The government, however, keeps expanding the boundaries of what is illegal. (In New York state, for example, it is now a felony to annoy a police officer. During the time I lived in New York, I got the impression that the cops there were a bit touchy. I imagine it can’t be that hard to annoy them.)

The Internet is a useful organizing tool, but it clearly has its limits and it should be used with caution. Those who have argued that the Internet is the solution to all the Left’s problems should reconsider their position. It’s clear that the Left can’t rely solely upon the Internet.


Edward Abbey

June 3, 2013


The latest issue of CounterPunch contains an article by Jeffrey St. Clair, in which he expresses his deep indignation that some people have actually dared to criticize something that appeared on his poorly edited and politically confused website. The article is mostly not very interesting, but my curiosity was piqued by the following passage in which St. Clair recounts a conversation he allegedly had with Joshua Frank:

    “Right, right. Are we Trots?”
    “Not that I know of.”
    “Doug Henwood just wrote that we were Edward Abbeyists.”
    “Sounds good to me.”
    “He didn’t mean it as a compliment.”
    “What does he know? He hasn’t left his apartment in the last 12 years.”

I have never met Doug Henwood, but I feel reasonably certain that he does leave his apartment sometimes, if only to buy groceries at the very least. That’s not what concerns me here, however. What interests me is that St. Clair and Frank apparently see themselves as “Edward Abbeyists”. (The correct term is “Abbeyists”. I know, I’m nitpicking.)

Edward Abbey was an American writer and environmentalist. I remember that his writings were very popular during the 1980’s. They influenced the radical environmentalist movement of that period, as well as some anarchists. However, I don’t hear his name mentioned often nowadays. When I lived in Oregon, the anarchists I met there mostly talked about Kropotkin and Bakunin. There may be any number of reasons for this, but I suspect that one of them may be that Abbey sometimes wrote things like this:

    This being so, it occurs to some of us that perhaps evercontinuing [sic] industrial and population growth is not the true road to human happiness, that simple gross quantitative increase of this kind creates only more pain, dislocation, confusion, and misery. In which case it might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people. At least until we have brought our own affairs into order. Especially when these uninvited millions bring with them an alien mode of life which – let us be honest about this – is not appealing to the majority of Americans. Why not? Because we prefer democratic government, for one thing; because we still hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful–yes, beautiful!–society, for another. The alternative, in [sic] the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see. [Emphasis added.]

This is from an article that Abbey wrote for The New York Times. The Times, which has never been a huge defender of immigrants, refused to publish it.

How did Abbey propose to keep out these “culturally-morally-genetically impoverished” people? He tells us:

    Therefore-let us close our national borders to any further mass immigration, legal or illegal, from any source, as does every other nation on earth. The means are available, it’s a simple technical-military problem. Even our Pentagon should be able to handle it. We’ve got an army somewhere on this planet, let’s bring our soldiers home and station them where they can be of some actual and immediate benefit to the taxpayers who support them.

So, Abbey wanted to militarize the U.S.-Mexican border. Some environmentalist. Few things are more environmentally destructive than an army.

Elsewhere, Abbey wrote:

    Am I a racist? I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals. Look at Africa, at Mexico, at Asia.

One sympathetic article in The New York Times described him as as a “a melancholic naturalist who loved the land but did not care much for Indians, Hispanics or blacks.”

This melancholic naturalist is the man with whom the editors of CounterPunch politically identify.