Three Liberal Movies From 2006

James Fillmore is a regular reader and a prolific commenter around here. I am pleased to present his first guest post. He lives in Minnesota. Despite an exhausting job, he somehow manages to write so that the rest of us may benefit. He told me he “enjoys writing reviews of movies/books on occasion” and while his “minuscule audience tires of reading him, they secretly know he is always right.” Such arrogant self-deprecation makes him a perfect fit at Frankly Curious! —FM [Update: James e-mailed me regarding this introduction, “The intro was fine, though I’d lose the noble-sounding-job shit. You’ve taught; you know as well as I do that people do difficult, useful jobs because people find them challenging and interesting. We ain’t ‘heroes.’ We just deserve a living wage and financial speculators deserve, well, I’ll halt myself at ‘severe chastisement.'” So James isn’t a hero. In case you were thinking that he is, cut it out! -FM]

V for VendettaIn 2006, three movies were released that had very noticeable leftist leanings; that made 2006 a fun year to watch movies. Hollywood, no matter what the imposing Bill-O or your local AM radio lunatics say, isn’t generally leftist, except on social issues. Movie executives want to live in a world where their children are free from prejudice based on race, religion, or sexual orientation; they tend not to mind a world where they make gazoodles of money and their Mexican housemaids are paid quite a lot less.

So movies which suggest society is broken and could stand a serious upgrade are fairly rare. This is distinct from the more customary “society could use some tolerant enlightenment by those of us who make movies for lots of money” variety. Yes, John Sayles and Spike Lee are still alive, but they don’t count; they make their politically significant movies with duct tape and lemonade-stand funding. I’m talking about three movies with wide national releases (or two, and one that had wide release in Minnesota, a cold place you wouldn’t like) that had, as their point, “Yer cuntry iz boned! Press ‘restore.'”

In March came V For Vendetta, which is the most entertaining “Zorro blows up Parliament” film ever made. It was produced by Joel Silver (of the Lethal Weapon series, in which Mel Gibson and Danny Glover take on apartheid and exploding toilets), written by The Matrix creators the Wachowskis. The Matrix movies, at least until they stopped making any sense whatsoever, had a political undercurrent about “waking up” to tyranny. The first movie features a song by super-liberal Tom Morello called, literally, “Wake Up.” And when Joe Pantoliano’s character makes a deal with mean robots to betray humankind in return for getting his happy brainwashed state back—saying “ignorance is bliss”—the mean robot makes a point of calling him “Mr Reagan.”

In V for Vendetta, the undercurrent is made explicit. It’s 1984, or close enough with John Hurt—who was Winston Smith in the unseen movie version, playing Big Brother here—and everyone’s in a miserable daze. Enter V and humanity presumably lives happily ever after. It’s a damnably enjoyable piece of anti-Bush propaganda, with terrific performances by Hugo Weaving (the mean robot of The Matrix turned hero/savior here), Natalie Portman, Stephen Rea, and Stephen Fry (maybe Fry’s best film work), alongside others less famous and just as good. (Roger Allam, playing a Fox News-type, looks so much like Christopher Hitchens it’s spooky.) You want your demonization of “terror” as a means to enact sweeping social controls? You got it. You want an anthrax scare? You got it. The tyrants also oppress gays (the most powerful subplot in the film, for me, the Wachowskis, and Karl Rove’s 2004 election strategy—if you’re keeping score)? You got it!

The movie has affected a lot of people. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask and FedExes copies to everyone everywhere, inspiring revolution. There are a lot of protesters who wear these masks in real life today. Personally, I find the “if people wake up, they’ll riot in the streets and solve all our woes” message simplistic. Rioting in the streets makes for good television but doesn’t really get you anyplace; you need to educate and organize citizens in the old, tedious, door-to-door way. That’s what the civil-rights movement did, and it took decades of buildup before it was able to make effective large-scale demonstrations. When I saw protesters outside my front door wearing those Guy Fawkes masks during the 2008 Republican convention, I wanted to slap the kids; get out of the movies and go sign up some poor people already. But their hearts were in the right place, and that’s something.

Alan Moore, who wrote the V For Vendetta graphic novel (which I have not read), didn’t like the film. In an AV Club interview, he said that he regards both capitalism and socialism as ways to organize industrial societies which probably won’t be around much longer. On the “not much longer” front he may be right. A segue to:

In September you had Children Of Men, based on a novel by PD James, and directed by visual maestro Alfonso Cuaron. (You may have puked in your space helmet seeing his Gravity.) The novel, as far as I could tell, was about the sterility of academic leftism in the face of real-world issues; the movie is about sterility as a metaphor for all the horrible stuff each of us feels powerless to fix, like global warming or the humanitarian disasters in Iraq or Gaza or wherever the next one is.

It’s a stunningly effective exercise in visualizing, “Oh God we’re doomed!”—featuring some long takes (like the opening one in Gravity) that would make Orson Welles proud. (His line about movies being the “biggest toy-train set any boy ever had” applies to Cuaron, who digs the technical challenges of filmmaking.) Watching it, I was alternately depressed into a coma and blown away by the sheer virtuosity of the thing.

Children of MenPolitically, the movie isn’t a rouser like V; there are no easy solutions offered. There are no solutions offered, period; the best efforts of well-meaning people break down into factional leftist squabbling, which anyone who’s read an internet BDS debate (or anyone who’s seen Life Of Brian) will recognize. Clive Owen is a cynical public employee who drinks to numb his disillusionment. Michael Caine, in maybe his finest performance (Like Fry! It’s a trend!), plays an ex-activist living in the British equivalent of Northern California who is focused on growing killer strains of weed. The always magnetic, always unpronounceable Chiwetel Ejiofor makes a crazy factional leftist terrifying and sympathetic. And the great Julianne Moore gets the Janet Leigh part, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

If you watch the film (few did), many things stick in your memory, but one remains with me especially. Warring soldiers see a baby, the first baby anyone’s seen in 20 years, and the fighting halts; basic humanity overcomes hatred and ideology, for a moment. Then somebody shoots at somebody and everyone goes back to murderous mayhem. Yeah, that’s just about right.

The DVD of Children Of Men has an hour-long Cuaron documentary featuring the likes of Naomi Klein, James Lovelock, and Slavoj Zizek talking about the end of the world, and it’s well worth watching. Zizek in particular charms me; he has a goofy accent that makes his incredibly overbearing, pretentious use of the English language seem quirky rather than domineering—like Werner Herzog, but in a better mood. And, finally, speaking of barely decipherable Euro accents…

In December, you had Sweet Land. I can’t write about the film without tearing up; it might have been the most intense experience I’ve had at a movie theater in my adult life.

The film takes place in post-WWI Minnesota. The Swedes and Norwegians loathe each other but are attempting to put these petty differences aside to unite for a nobler cause: loathing the Germans. A Norwegian farmer (Or a Swede; I get them confused.) brings over essentially a mail-order bride from Germany, and all hell breaks loose. All heck, actually; it is Minnesota.

Sweet LandSweet Land is a very difficult film to watch for the first 30 minutes or so. It seems like nobody is speaking the same language and it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on. That’s because the movie is about the immigrant experience, where nobody speaks the same language and it’s impossible to figure out what’s going on. Gradually, you get a sense of the story, and you realize the confusion was intentional; it’s meant to give you a sense of what being an immigrant in these isolated farming communities might have felt like. The movie’s very effective at bringing an isolated farm community to life. You will never take heated indoor plumbing for granted again.

The only actors you’ll recognize are Ned Beatty, as a town burgomaster, and Alan Cumming (the guy who hosts Masterpiece Mystery) as a farmer who just can’t stop screwing his wife and so has a zillion kids he can’t feed. Neither actor has had too many opportunities to really take a part and run with it in films (Beatty getting raped in Deliverance doesn’t count, as good as he was in that). So both have one of their best-ever scenes (Trend!) in a dinner sequence, where Beatty gives a bored speech obviously aimed at Cumming about the Virtues Of Thrift And Temperance or some such. Beatty’s character is insulting Cumming’s without coming out and saying it (that’s sometimes called, in these parts, “ScandiLutheran passive-aggressiveness.”) The point isn’t to dispense helpful wisdom; the point is for the powerful to demean the weak and seem noble in doing so. It’s a great scene, played beautifully by both.

Eventually the Norwegian farmer and his German mail-order bride come to the aid of Cumming, because in a tiny farming community, you’ve got to knuckle under to the burgomaster or stick with your neighbors; they choose to stick with the neighbors out of what appears to be more “American Gothic” sheer stubbornness than any political drive. (Socialism is mentioned in the movie, but the characters have more pressing concerns than dreamy ideology. Knowing your Marx won’t pay off the landlord.)

The writer/director, Ali Selim, has a German-heritage parent from Minnesota and a Muslim-heritage parent from Egypt. So the themes obviously meant a lot to him; he battled for 15 years to get Sweet Land made. He hasn’t made a feature film since, but he works a lot in TV.

When I saw Sweet Land, in a small independent theater in Saint Paul, we were a bit early and the previous showing was just ending. In the lobby, a young couple walked out, complaining that the movie was slow and boring. I assumed they were possibly right, and that’s why they were the only attendees. Then, a few minutes later, the rest of the audience came out—all older, and all wiping their faces. If you see the film, you’ll understand why: the final shot knocks you into an Old Yeller-level of absolute helpless bawling. But they are happy-sad tears.

So That’s The Year In Lefty Movies, 2006. V for Venddeta was about riots fixing stuff, Children of Men was about stuff being unfixable, and the one nobody outside Minnesota has ever seen, Sweet Land, was about how fixing stuff actually happens, by resisting one burgomaster at a time. You can watch them on the standard pay services, or get them for free from your local library. You already pay taxes to get movies from your library for free, and unless you are a colossal jerkhead you don’t mind paying these taxes, so why not actually use your local library to watch a few DVDs? Honestly, you can do this; and it’s pretty awesome.

Why Reed Richardson Needs His Own Blog at The Nation

Reed RichardsonThis morning, I finally got around to reading Reed Richardson’s newest column, If It’s Sunday, It’s Meet the (1%) Press. And I realized something: my sidebar had an error. You see, Richardson writes a column most weeks, and it is posted on Altercation, Eric Alterman’s blog at The Nation. I’m not quite sure why that is. I think Richardson may have been an intern at the nation under Alterman or they are friends or both. Regardless, at the end of Alterman’s commentary is the obligatory, “Now here’s Reed” (or something very similar), followed by Richardson’s column.

I’ve been reading Alterman for years. He is one of those writers who I’ve read so much that I don’t even think about him; much of his view of American media have simply become a part of my thinking. As a result, over the past couple of years, I’ve come to look forward more to reading Richardson than Alterman. But that’s especially true recently when all the older master does are his Alter-reviews.

Eric Alterman has fine taste is music and narrative art and he is well worth reading. For example, he prefers Shaw to Shakespeare and Mozart to Beethoven. My kind of guy! But some time ago, I began thinking that Alter-reviews were written each week to remind me that Eric Alterman has a better life than I do! So I tend to forgo his insights about plays and concerts I will never attend.

But even though I was going over to Altercation each week primarily to read (!) Richardson, my sidebar referred to “Eric Alterman.” So this morning I changed the link to “Altercation.” I figured that that was a good compromise because (1) that is its name and (2) Alterman still writes for it—even if the politics are sporadic these days.

The real question is why I even have to do this. Would it really be such a big deal for The Nation to provide Richardson with his own blog? He has, after all, written at least one cover story for the magazine, The GOP-Fox Circus Act. Not that I’m saying The Nation should just do things for my ease. They did, after all, add the #nowheresreed anchor name to <i>Altercation</i> at my urging. (Such is the juice I have with the liberal media establishment!) How could I ask for more?

As for this week’s column, it’s about how Meet the Press is pushing David Gregory out, only to be replaced by David Gregory, I mean, Chuck Todd. I make it a point never to watch the Sunday political shows unless I can watch Mary Matalin get upset when Paul Krugman brings up “science” and other distasteful things like “facts.” Otherwise, Richardson nailed the reason why these shows have always sucked and will always suck:

As a result, most Sunday news show hosts serve as purveyors of the Washington conventional wisdom as much as, if not more than, the officeholders they’re purportedly covering. Meet the Press, and with it the whole Sunday morning news show genre, has devolved into a kind of cloistered, clubby, faux-accountability chinwag, one where a rich and powerful host mostly asks gentle questions of rich and powerful politicians about things that mostly only matter to rich and powerful viewers. (Or, even worse, rich and powerful journalists and pundits simply talk amongst themselves.) Voices and issues considered outside the mainstream—or in DC parlance, “not serious”—end up either marginalized or completely disappeared from the discourse. Need more proof? Look no further than the Sunday news show advertisers, a list of which is routinely populated by multinational conglomerates and defense contractors. (Boeing exclusively sponsors the Meet the Press news app.) These companies know that the “programming” they’re selling adjacent to on Sunday morning isn’t about to question the status quo.

There was never any hope that NBC was going to replace Gregory with Glenn Greenwald. As it was, the network (as MSNBC) fired Phil Donahue back during the Iraq War because they were afraid to have even one voice to push back against the administration. So of course the mainstream media are going to be the fearful lapdogs of the power elite.

This the main reason we need people like Eric Alterman and Reed Richardson. And it may seem that Richardson gets more attention under the Alterman umbrella. But I think it is time to decouple the two. Or at least to start the process with cross-posting. Plus, I could really use another “Weekly” link.

Cornel West on Obama’s Counterfeit Presidency

Cornel West[Obama] posed as a progressive and turned out to be counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency. The torturers go free. The Wall Street executives go free. The war crimes in the Middle East, especially now in Gaza, the war criminals go free. And yet, you know, he acted as if he was both a progressive and as if he was concerned about the issues of serious injustice and inequality and it turned out that he’s just another neoliberal centrist with a smile and with a nice rhetorical flair. And that’s a very sad moment in the history of the nation because we are—we’re an empire in decline. Our culture is in increasing decay. Our school systems are in deep trouble. Our political system is dysfunctional. Our leaders are more and more bought off with legalized bribery and normalized corruption in Congress and too much of our civil life. You would think that we needed somebody—a Lincoln-like figure who could revive some democratic spirit and democratic possibility.

—Cornel West
Interview with Thomas Frank

Liberal Education Reform Push Conservative Ends

No Child Left Behind - Mike Keefe

The North Carolina News Observer reported that the state school voucher program was found to be unconstitutional by Judge Robert Hobgood. It’s rare to see such a powerful decision. It is clear what the law was meant to do: gut the public education system. This is always what conservative education “reform” is about.

According to the article, of those requesting vouchers, the majority were for religious schools. “Also, private schools do not have to give state exams or meet public school regulations.” So in addition to harming the public schools, the law was also a gift to the Christian conservatives who are afraid that their children might be taught real science or real history. I’m sure even Jonathan Chait would see the mendacity behind this kind of reform.

According to qnotes, “Hobgood also ruled that the new scholarship program pushed public money to schools that can discriminate in admissions and are not required to maintain curriculum or teacher certification standards.” This goes along with the hypocrisy that Digby noted among conservative education reformers. They are obsessed with the effectiveness of unionized teachers, but they don’t give a thought to just how horrible parent teachers or, in this case, religious educators might be.

Note that this isn’t just about conservative education reform. This says something very important about the education reform movement generally. Like a lot of liberals and moderates, those in the education reform movement take their cues from the conservatives. Now they wouldn’t be in favor of anything as egregious as this North Carolina law. But their focus on “ineffective teachers” and destroying due process employment rights for teachers (“tenure”), is not a focus they came to all by themselves. The big money and the conservative base was pushing it and the liberals went right along with it.

What I see happening is that in the end, teachers unions will be neutered. Teachers will have much less independence and job security. But at best children won’t get any better an education. So a huge effort on the part of liberals will not accomplish their goals, but will accomplish the goals of disingenuous conservatives. It seems to me that there is another educational problem in this country that is getting in the way of improving the education of our children: liberals are being educated by conservatives. I’m sure smart conservatives are tickled that so many liberals are helping them do their dirty work. But this wouldn’t be the first time that large segments of the Democratic Party acted as useful fools for the Republicans.

Stephen Fry

Stephen FryToday is the 57th birthday of the brilliant comedian Stephen Fry. I celebrated his birthday last year in the birthday post. But I didn’t talk about him much. (That was the way with birthday posts at that time.) So he deserves a real birthday.

At 17, he stole the credit card of a family friend. If you believe Wikipedia, this was a mistake. Listening to Fry talk about on a fairly dreadful documentary, I didn’t get the impression that it was such a naive act. But it could be that Fry has an incentive to make it sound worse than it was—like reformed Christians who claim to have been Satanists before they found God. Regardless, he spent three months in jail for the crime.

But unlike, say, a young black man in the United States, Fry was given another chance. Plus, he’s incredibly smart. So after a bit of time at City College Norwich, he got a scholarship to Queens’ College, Cambridge. That was where he met Hugh Laurie, who doesn’t have nearly as interesting a back story (his father has five names). The rest, as I say all the time, is history.

Here is a sketch from A Bit of Fry and Laurie, “Welcome to the Private Police Force.” It is making fun of the privatization of services and the Americanization of Britain. It’s very funny and brilliant satire:

Happy birthday Stephen Fry!