Archive for the ‘1960’s’ Category

Bridge of Spies

November 3, 2015

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Bridge of Spies, directed by Steven Spielberg, is a loosely fictionalized account of an actual incident that took place during the Cold War. In 1957, the FBI arrests Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet spy living in the United States. James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is the lawyer who takes his case. While Abel’s case is wending its way through the courts, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a U-2 pilot, is shot down over the Soviet Union. The government asks Donovan to negotiate a prisoner exchange of Abel for Powers.

I found this film entertaining, even though there were some things in it that I found hard to believe. Spielberg shows his characteristic tendency towards hamminess. For example, when the FBI agents show up to arrest Abel, they arrive in several cars that all come to a screeching halt in the middle of the street. The agents then burst through Abel’s hotel room door. Does anyone really believe that this is how the FBI arrests a suspected spy? (According to Wikipedia, two FBI agents knocked on Abel’s door.) In another scene, someone fires gunshots through the window of Donovan’s house. This never happened. Is it really too much to ask that I be allowed to sit through a film without having my intelligence insulted? Spielberg seems to have no compunction about doing this, which is why I have never been one of his great admirers.

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Best of Enemies

September 14, 2015

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Best of Enemies is a documentary about the series of “debates” that took place between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions. Written and directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. It’s an odd film, since it typifies the very phenomenon that it seeks to criticize. The film alleges that these debates were the beginning of the “talking heads” approach to news programming, and it alleges that political discourse is the poorer in this country because of this. Yet in its own narrow focus on the personalities of the two men, the film merely becomes an example of this same approach. There is little discussion of the issues that the two men debated – quite important issues the included the Vietnam War, poverty, and the right to protest.

This film is more-or-less even-handed in its depiction of the two men, with interviews with friends and admirers of both of them. It probably won’t change anyone’s opinion of either one of them. There are some amusing moments, but because of its shallowness, it never really rises above the level of fluff.

The Fog of War

January 6, 2013

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I just got around to watching Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary, The Fog of War. I didn’t see this film when it first came out, probably because 2003 was a busy year for me. I found it somewhat disappointing. Much of it consists of McNamara trying to justify his actions. I should have expected that, but the reviews I read led me to believe it would be much more than that. Still, the film does have some interesting moments, and it gives some insight into the way one member of the ruling class thinks. I don’t think this is a minor thing. I think that perhaps the reason so many people on the Left are suckers for crackpot conspiracy theories is that they don’t have much understanding of how the ruling class thinks.

The film begins with McNamara, who is shown in tight close-ups most of the time, discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis. McNamara repeatedly points out the U.S. and the Soviet Union came extremely close to a nuclear war. McNamara uses his account of the crisis to illustrate one of the “eleven lessons” he talks about in the course of The Fog of War; in this case, “empathize with your enemy”. McNamara tells how a diplomat named Tommy Thompson, who knew Krushchev well, persuaded a skeptical Kennedy that the Soviet premier would be willing to cut a deal over Cuba, which turned out to be the case. This raises the question of why there was a crisis at all, though, unfortunately, Morris doesn’t ask this question. McNamara also uses this incident to illustrate another one of his “lessons”: “rationality will not save us”. McNamara insists that the governments of the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Cuba all behaved in a “rational” manner, even though they brought their countries to the brink of nuclear annihilation. So, if this is rationality, then what is irrationality? And if rationality will not save us, then what will? Morris doesn’t ask, and McNamara doesn’t say.

The Fog of War then goes into a discussion of McNamara’s early years. During the Second World War, he served as an analyst for the Army Air Corps. Under the command of Gen. Curtis LeMay, McNamara helped plan the fire bombing of Tokyo, which killed 100,000 people. This leads to the film’s most startling moment: McNamara frankly states that he and Gen. LeMay were war criminals. Still, he expresses no regrets about what he did.

The largest section of the film is devoted to the Vietnam War. McNamara doesn’t say much about the strategic justification for the U.S.’s intervention in Vietnam; he seems to consider this to be self-evident. McNamara admits that there was some confusion over what actually happened in the Gulf of Tonkin Incident; nevertheless, he and President Johnson used it as justification to launch an intensive bombing campaign in North Vietnam. McNamara also gives a discussion in which he tries to distance himself from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. To illustrate his “lesson” of “empathize with your enemy”, McNamara talks about how years after the war he met the former foreign minister of North Vietnam. McNamara says he was surprised to learn from this man that his government viewed the U.S. as a foreign colonial power trying to take control of their country. Reall? It never occurred to McNamara that the Vietnamese might view the U.S. in this way? If McNamara was being honest here, then he was every bit as self-deluded as the people who led us into the Iraq War. (It so happens that this film was released the same year as the U.S. invasion of Iraq.)

McNamara casually discusses the deaths of millions of people, yet he gets choked up when he recounts how he helped pick out the grave-site for John F. Kennedy. One is reminded here of Stalin’s dictum: “One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” I don’t think it is a stretch for me to say that McNamara had some of Stalin’s bureaucratic mind-set.

Another of McNamara’s “lessons” is “in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil”. One wonders if McNamara ever questioned whether what he was trying to do was actually good.

Full Metal Jacket

December 20, 2012

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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 clichés 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.

Even Dwarfs Started Small

November 19, 2012

    I believe the common denominator of the universe is not harmony; but chaos, hostility and murder.
    – Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog’s 1970 film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen). This film was shot with a cast consisting entirely of dwarfs. According to Herzog, he did this to show that “the world is created in a way that is not theirs”. The objects around them are designed for full-sized people. In one scene, for example, Hombre (Helmut Döring) tries unsuccessfully to climb onto a bed. “The dwarves in the film are not freaks,” Herzog says; rather, “[they are] well proportioned, charming, and beautiful people.” It is the world around them that is freakish. The film is a critique of our consumer culture. The characters are surrounded by over-sized chairs, motorcycles, cars, and other objects that they can’t really use. When this film was released, it was banned in Germany for being “anarchistic and blasphemous”. Some claimed the film was meant to ridicule the student movement of that time. Herzog certainly was not sympathetic to the movement. He once said:

    Contrary to most of my peers, I had already been much further out into the world. I had traveled, I had made films, I had already taken on responsibilities that very few people my age had. For me, this very rudimentary analysis that Germany was a fascist and repressive prison state, which had to be overpowered by a socialist utopian revolution, seemed quite wrong. I knew the revolution would not succeed because it was rooted in such an inadequate analysis of what was really going on, so I did not participate.

The characters in this film certainly don’t have any analysis of their situation. They seem to act purely on impulse, which eventually becomes a form of nihilism.

The film is set in an institution whose purpose is never made clear. One day the inmates rise up and take over the place. The director (Paul Glauer) is holed up in his office. He has taken one of the inmates, Pepe (Gerd Gickel), hostage. The inmates amuse themselves by playing games, which are fairly innocent at first, but which gradually become destructive. They kill a pig, pull down a palm tree and set fire to flowers. They torment two blind inmates. In a scene that is clearly meant to be sacrilegious, they “crucify” a monkey by tying him to a cross, which they then parade around the yard. (No doubt it was this scene that got the film banned in Germany.) The director eventually goes mad and runs away. In the last scene, we see Hombre laughing stupidly while a camel kneels in front of him and defecates.

This film is disturbing to watch, yet there are moments that are actually funny in a dark sort of way. Herzog has alternately called this film “darkest of comedies you can imagine” and “a very profound…collective nightmare”. In Herzog’s comedy and horror are never far apart. There are even funny moments in Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Violence and megalomania are appalling and yet grotesquely humorous.

During the filming of Even Dwarfs Started Small, one of the actors suffered a mild injury. Herzog promised the cast that if they made it through the rest of the filming without any more injuries, he would jump into a large cactus plant. He later kept his promise. Incidents such as this have made Herzog an almost mythical figure in contemporary cinema. The 2004 mockumentary, Incident at Loch Ness seeks to exploit this. It is purportedly a documentary about Herzog making a documentary about the Loch Ness monster. Although it has amusing moments, it feels a bit familiar. It’s only been twenty-eight years since the making of This is Spinal Tap, yet already the mockumentary is becoming cliché. How about a mockumentary about the making of a mockumentary?

Good Vibrations

September 27, 2012


Good, clean, wholesome fun. Plus backstabbing.

Just when you thought that the long, tortured saga of the Beach Boys couldn’t possibly get any more surreal, they are back in the news. That’s right, everyone’s favorite dysfunctional California family is at it again. Just recently, Mike Love, who owns the rights to the band’s name, fired fellow band members, Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and David Marks. The reasons are pecuniary. You see, the Beach Boys have planned an upcoming reunion tour. Love explains:

    You’ve got to be careful not to get overexposed. There are promoters who are interested [in more shows by the reunited line-up], but they’ve said, ‘Give it a rest for a year’. The Eagles found out the hard way when they went out for a second year and wound up selling tickets for $5.”

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t even pay five dollars to see the Eagles. Lyin’ Eyes was the most overplayed song of the 1970’s. Seriously, if I ever hear that song again, it’s possible that I might get violent. Anyway, you would think that Love would imagine the Beach Boys to be more popular than the Eagles. I guess he must be a self-effacing guy. He is still planning on having the reunion tour, although he will be the only original member of the band. That’s right, Love will be having a reunion with himself. Several years ago, I saw a reunion of Jefferson Airplane. It had two original members of the band, so I guess it qualified as a reunion of sorts. What Love is doing, however, strikes me as being the musical equivalent of one hand clapping.

Not surprisingly, there has been some sour grapes about all this. Brian Wilson said:

    I’m disappointed and can’t understand why he doesn’t want to tour with Al, David, and me… We are out here having so much fun. After all, we are the real Beach Boys.

So, all Brian Wilson wants to do is have fun, whereas his cousin, Mike Love, wants to make money. Clearly, Love is the more serious person. I suspect that Wilson belongs to that 47% of the population that Mitt Romney says is sponging off the other fifty-three percent. (It’s perhaps worth noting here that Love is a Republican.) You can’t stop progress, Brian Wilson. If you don’t like it, start your own band.

Oh, wait…

(The author is currently working on a biography of the Beach Boys titled, Those Wacky Wilsons. Look for it at a finer bookstore near you.)

Beasts of the Southern Wild

August 7, 2012

Beasts of the Southern World tells the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), who lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in a bayou community called Bathtub on the Gulf Coast. Wink, who has a terminal blood disease, is a stern father who wants Hushpuppy to be able to live on her own after he dies. A hurricane comes, and their home is engulfed by water. They and other residents of Bathtub then live in a house built on high stilts. They eventually succeed in blowing up a levee that is keeping the flood waters from draining away. Emergency personnel then show up and take them to a shelter. They eventually escape and return to Bathtub. Wink’s illness gets worse, and he appears to be dying. Hushpuppy and some friends then swim towards a light over the ocean, which Hushpuppy believes is where her mother is at.

The performances of Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry are what carry this film. They are so strong and so interesting to watch that you can almost overlook the coyness of the story. Of the various fantasy elements in this film, the one I found most annoying was some business about antarctic ice melting and releasing aurochses that then chase Hushpuppy. (The aurochses are depicted as looking like gigantic wild boars. They were actually the ancestors of modern cattle.) This struck me as nothing more than a destraction from the main story.

In an interview with Film Comment, the director, Benh Zeitlin, explains what he was trying to do with this film:

    When I first came here [Louisiana] a year after the storm, it was a totally surreal place,” says Zeitlin, who credits the phantasmagoric films of Emir Kusturica with inspiring him to become a filmmaker. “It seemed just like Biblical apocalypse, and whether or not that was every individual experience, it was important to me to kind of elevate the story, as I did with Glory, to the level of a myth or a folktale. Look, the politics of any event is always incredibly divisive: ‘It was all Bush’s fault.’ Or: ‘It was the local government.’ Black people. White people. None of which actually gets at the real tragedy or the real emotion of the event. To me, that’s sort of the purpose of myth and folklore, to be able to talk as an entire culture about something. So we have the story of the West, and there’s this cowboy, and we can revise the story of the cowboy depending on how we want to interpret our culture.

I’m not keen on this whole idea of creating “myths”. First of all, it shows a misunderstanding of the function that myths serve in primitive societies. Myths are a way for people to try to understand the world. Beasts of the Southern Wild is amusing to watch, but it doesn’t in any way help us to understand Hurricane Katrina. What’s more, this idea of “myths” seems to me to be a way of avoiding dealing with complex and possibly unpleasant topics. Moreover, I don’t understand Zeitlin’s aversion to the idea of assigning blame for the destruction of New Orleans. His argument smacks of that hippy-dippy-feel-good-kumbaya philosophy that forbids the idea of judging other people, which is the most pernicious legacy of the 1960’s counterculture.

Zeitlin shows talent as a director. I just wish he would drop this “myth” nonsense.

Norwegian Wood

May 29, 2012

Norwegian Wood is a film by Tran Anh Hung, a Frenchman born in Vietnam, based upon the novel of the same name by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been told that this was the biggest selling novel in Japan during the twentieth century.

The film is set in Tokyo in the 1960’s. Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a high school student, is friends with Kizuki (Kengo Kora) and with Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). One day, Kizuki kills himself without any explanation. Watanabe and Naoko are shocked by his death. Watanabe goes to a university and tries to forget his grief by burying himself in his studies. The school he is attending is being wracked by student demonstrations, but Watanabe refuses to get involved. One day he runs into Naoko. They begin seeing each other. On Naoko’s twentieth birthday, they make love. After that, however, Naoko disappears. Watanabe looks for her. He eventually learns that she has had a mental breakdown. She is now living in a sanitarium in a remote area. He goes to visit her, and he meets her roommate, Reiko (Reika Kirishima), a freindly but somewhat strange woman.

Naoko clearly has conflicted feelings towards Watanabe. At times, she is welcoming towards him, but at other times she tells him to go away. Her favorite song is the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, which is about a one-night stand that ends badly. The song speaks to her fear of emotional commitment. Clearly, she is still traumatized by the death of Kizuki. Watanabe can’t forget Kizuki either. He insists on asking Naoko intimate questions about her relationship with him.

Back in Tokyo, Watanabe becomes involved with Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), a brash, outspoken woman who is in many ways Watanabe’s opposite. He also becomes friends with the womanizing Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama) and with his long-suffering girlfriend, Hatsumi (Eriko Hatsune). Midori wants Watanabe to commit himself to her, but he can’t bring himself to let go of Naoko.

The student demonstrations figure prominently in some of the early scenes. This led me to believe that they would play an important role in the story, but they don’t. I haven’t read the Murakami novel on which this film is based, but the friend that I saw it with has. She told that in the book the demonstrators are portrayed in a highly critical manner. She also told me that some of the minor characters are more fleshed out in the novel than in the movie. I can only guess that Tran wanted to focus on Watanabe’s relationships with Naoko and with Midori. I think the film might have been more interesting if it showed the story’s political context. Surely, that must have been important to Murakami if he included it in the novel.

Even so, Norwegian Wood is a beautifully made and subtly erotic film. The music editor, Jonny Greenwood, has put together a soundtrack that perfectly complements the film and skillfully sets the mood for each scene.

Peter Bergman (1939-2012)

March 19, 2012

I know this is a bit late, but I feel obligated to write about the recent death of Peter Bergman. He was one of the four members of the Firesign Theatre. (The others were Philip Proctor, Phil Austin, and David Ossman.) I listened to their records when I was in high school. They had a strong influence on my sense of humor and, in a way I find hard to explain, on my world-view as well. Their records employed a multi-layered, non-linear style of storytelling that was unlike anything I had ever heard before, or since for that matter. It was sometimes said of them that they made the long-playing album into a narrative art from. (They advertised themselves as “the rock band that doesn’t need instruments”.) They also peppered their work with all sorts of allusions to literature, philosophy and popular culture. I honestly believe that the Firesign Theatre made The Simpsons possible.

The Firesign Theatre’s humor was strongly rooted in the 1960’s. They didn’t seem quite as funny in later years. I saw them perform in Boston once, and I found the show a bit disappointing. They mostly did old material, and they didn’t use the stage very well. (Their medium was radio, after all.) I did get to shake hands with David Ossman, however, which was cool.

Still, they made a unique and lasting contribution to comedy. Bergman will be remembered as an innovator.

Paul Goodman Changed My Life

December 12, 2011

One rarely hears Paul Goodman’s name any more. You have to be of a certain age to have likely heard of him. Back in the 1960’s, he was, with the possible exception of Marshall McLuhan, the most famous intellectual in the United States. (The only comparable present-day figure is Noam Chomsky.) His Growing Up Absurd was a national bestseller. The book is a merciless critique of social institutions, exposing their inadequacy and arguing that people were becoming increasingly alienated from them. It helped inspire the counterculture movement of the 1960’s. It has long been out of print, but it is soon to be released on Kindle.

Goodman was a sort of thinker that we never see nowadays. He wrote on politics, sociology, psychology and urban design. He also wrote novels, short stories, poetry and plays. Jonathan Lee’s documentary tries to do justice to all these aspects of Goodman’s prolific writings, with uneven results.

Goodman came of age during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. He became an anarchist after reading Kropotkin, and this remained his basic philosophy for the rest of his life. He was a pacifist during World War II, a difficult time in which to be a pacifist. I would have liked it if the film had discussed this chapter in his life in more detail, but instead it moves on to Gestalt therapy, which Goodman developed with Fritz and Laura Perls. To give us some idea of what this is about, Lee shows us a clip from a film of Fritz Perls conducting a session. He invites a woman into his office and tells her to sit down. She lights a cigarette, smiles nervously, and tells him she feels “scared”. Perls tells her that because she smiled when she said she was “scared”, she was a “phony”. Not surprisingly, the woman takes offense at this. They go back and forth about this for a while, then Perls says, “So, now we are getting somewhere”. In all honesty, I couldn’t see the point of all this.

Fortunately, Goodman devoted his attention to other matters as well. Goodman had very strong views on education. He advocated creating small schools with no more than 25 or 30 students in each. (There is some logic in this idea. Any teacher will tell you that students tend to do better in small classes, because they receive more personal attention.) Goodman became an outspoken and eloquent opponent of the Vietnam War and of the nuclear arms race. He frequently spoke at college campuses during the sixties. However, Goodman’s traditional anarchism eventually brought him into conflict with the New Left of that period. He abhorred the ultra-leftism of the S.D.S., and he disapproved of the drug culture. By the time of his death in 1972, his influence on the left had begun to dwindle.

A large chunk of this film is devoted to Goodman’s sex life. There is reason for this, since Goodman was openly bisexual at a time when gays were often subject to legal harassment. However, this film told me more about this topic than I really wanted to know. Goodman was married and had three children, yet he spent a good deal of time having brief, meaningless affairs with men he met in bars, at the beach, and on airplanes. Just as you would expect, this behavior sometimes created strains between Goodman and his family. This is interesting – up to a point. I would have liked to learn more about Goodman’s anarchist and pacifist ideas, as well as about his troubled relationship with the New Left. Lee clearly wants to get people to read Goodman’s writings, but I don’t see how dwelling on the sordid details of his personal life is supposed to do this.