Category Archives: Film Review

Don’t Miss Joker

I seldom go to the movies anymore as I nearly always leave underwhelmed. There have been exceptions in recent years—The Martian, Birdman—but in general the most hallowed films out of Hollywood (modern ones, anyway) don’t resonate with me at all. They’re more confusing and alienating than anything else. How is it that so many people found so much to like about Moonlight, for example? or Green Book? To that list I’ll add Carol, The Hateful Eight and, last and certainly least, The Big Short. Nor was I particularly grabbed by Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I don’t know why I keep giving Tarantino more chances to impress me; I suppose it’s because Pulp Fiction really is that good. Anyway, Once Upon a Time … was the first and, until the other night, I think only film I ventured out to the cinema to go and see this year.

The second was Joker, about which I first heard a week or two ago. My initial reaction was dismissal and mild annoyance. Another confounded comic book movie—directed by the director of The Hangover, no less. The last time I went to see a superhero movie it was 2008, I was eighteen, and everyone around me was talking about the best thing they’d ever seen, something called The Dark Knight. So I went with a friend to a packed cinema in Niagara Falls and watched the new Batman film, and shrugged. The obsession with Heath Ledger’s performance was, again, confusing—especially given it wasn’t restricted to teenagers. He’s only playing the Joker, after all: a silly comic book creation that, until then, hadn’t ever been taken seriously. Jack Nicholson had clearly had fun with the role, understanding that he wasn’t doing anything of artistic import. While I maintain that Ledger’s performance was and is overrated, propelled to its sanctified status by his sudden death, I’ll grant now that we owe him a debt of gratitude: were it not for his hyper-committed rendering of the Joker, the best film I’ve seen in years likely would not have been made at all, or, if it was, would have been approached from a very different angle.

Martin Scorsese recently found himself the object of comic-book-fan fury after contending that Marvel movies are not real cinema, likening them to theme parks for good measure. Far be it from me, or anyone else, to impugn Marty’s take—who knows more about these things than the director of Goodfellas and Raging Bull? At any rate, his sentiment is my sentiment: superhero movies are schlock, mere distraction at the very most. We can go further and say they’re a travesty, considering how much they cost to make and that they have no cultural or aesthetic worth. Half a million Americans are sleeping on the street, and Marvel Studios is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to produce The Avengers. It’s the height of decadence in our New Gilded Age.

I mention Scorsese because it wasn’t until I heard that Joker makes reference to two of his finest films—the inimitable Taxi Driver and the overlooked (but maybe not anymore) King of Comedy—that I thought it might be worth seeing. Finally swaying me was the unfolding debate over its treatment of violence, plus the usual denunciations of its problematic racial content, mostly by white critics who seem to think they can shed themselves of the “privilege” they so hate by locating and condemning it everywhere. Clearly there was something to this Joker. The thing had to be seen.

That Joker is not a comic book or superhero movie is apparent from the opening shot, which zooms slowly in on a wretched and gaunt Joaquin Phoenix sitting in front of a mirror applying his clown makeup, crying. It was at this point, less than a minute in, that the Vietnamese in the audience (I’m writing from Saigon) lost interest, brought up as they are on the aforementioned theme park movies. It was amusing to observe their boredom. Cell phone screens lit up, trips to the bathroom were frequent, and, after twenty or thirty minutes, the walkouts commenced. Meanwhile I was engrossed by Phoenix’s portrayal of Arthur Fleck, a miserable outcast with more drug prescriptions than friends, plus a condition that causes him to laugh uncontrollably in the most inappropriate contexts. When a woman on the bus tells him to stop bothering her small child, Arthur, who was only trying to amuse the boy, bursts into a fit of horrible laughter, eventually handing the woman a card explaining his affliction. (If I were a film critic I would be obliged for some reason to tell you that this woman is black, and also that Arthur is physically attacked by a group of ethnic minorities in beginning of the film.)

I’ll keep the plot summary brief. Arthur is a failed clown and aspiring stand-up comic who lives with a woman he believes is his mother. He suffers from various mental illnesses, takes seven different medications and feels he needs more, doesn’t appear to eat, keeps a tortured diary, and demands to know why the people around him aren’t kinder to each other and to him. He also admires late night talk show host Murray Franklin, played by Robert De Niro, who played deranged, self-styled comic Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy (in that film De Niro’s character was infatuated with late night talk show host Jerry Langford, played by Jerry Lewis). Like Pupkin, Arthur fantasizes about appearing on his favorite talk show and being embraced by its host. He also fantasizes about other things, including a romance with his neighbor and, possibly, the shocking violence he eventually commits.

Bad as things are, they grow worse still when slashes in public spending make it impossible for Arthur to obtain his medicine. And he’s fired by the Ha-Ha clown agency after a gun he was given by a colleague drops from his pocket and falls to the floor during a gig at a children’s hospital (there’s a good dose of pitch-black humor in Joker). As he leaves his workplace for the last time, he bashes the time clock off the wall and strikes the words “Forget To” from a sign reading “Don’t Forget To Smile.” Prior to being fired, Arthur has a fateful altercation with a trio of obnoxious yuppies on the subway; they jump him and he clumsily shoots them dead. An eyewitness tells police the killer was dressed as a clown, and soon disaffected denizens of “Gotham” (but really New York) begin demonstrating in the streets wearing clown masks while tabloids present the killer as a vigilante hero. Arthur, for the first time in his life, realizes that he exists. “And people are starting to notice,” he tells the social worker assigned to his case.

Joker is, among other things, an allegory of contemporary American society, though set in the ‘80s. Thomas Wayne, a wealthy Wall Street type with whom Arthur’s delusional mother claims to have been intimate, and who Arthur later believes is his father, is running for mayor of Gotham. Asked by an interviewer about the clown-themed demonstrations, Wayne characterizes the protesters as a lot of losers and declares that he’s only the one who can save their souls. Wayne is less a sendup of Trump than a symbol, and indictment, of neoliberal class politics (embodied in real life by people like the Clintons, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, et al). Arthur’s murder of the yuppies on the subway, and the popular celebration of it, is likewise symbolic of a general uprising and mobilization against the prevailing state of affairs, a system that hangs people like Arthur Fleck out to dry and, ultimately, invites revolution.

There’s not much subtlety in Joker’s thesis, and that’s fine. Nothing about this film is subtle. It is, however, all true, meaning it communicates truths about humanity in general and American society in particular. Phoenix’s performance, while careful and impassioned, is experimental—Todd Phillips, whose direction is terrific, gave him a lot of latitude and he made sure to use every inch of it. Phoenix throws the reality of severe mental illness into sharp relief and forces the audience to confront it. He laughs, cries, dances, beats inanimate objects, crawls into his own refrigerator. It’s not easy to watch all this suffering. Really, it’s not until Arthur completes his metamorphosis from passive victim to confident murderer and agent of chaos (from human to something slightly more than human) that we start to feel comfortable with him and with the film. Which reflects the degree to which we have become conditioned to violence in our culture, both real and imagined. But to argue that Joker exploits this very American condition is wrongheaded. It would be more accurate to say that the film exposes it and, in so doing, asks us to contemplate it. Many critics are evidently unwilling to do that.

As to the argument that Joker is “irresponsible,” “toxic” and “dangerous,” that it could inspire real acts of violence—it’s hardly worth responding to. A perverse mind can be corrupted or incited by anything, however innocuous. Let’s not forget that after shooting John Lennon, Mark David Chapman handed the police a copy of The Catcher in the Rye and said: “This is my statement.”

The finale of Joker is an exhilarating triumph of action and style. The violence is intense and effective; the build-up to it is expertly handled. In a flash the mood and tone of the film are flipped upside down: Arthur, having transformed himself into the Joker, twirls around to “Rock & Roll Part 2.” He appears on national television and, upon railing against a sick society that permits the haves to trample upon the have-nots with impunity, launches a populist revolution by firing a bullet into his hero’s head. Now Arthur Fleck is the hero. The question of whether or not this really happens is immaterial, just as it’s immaterial to Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, both of which end on similar notes. I was also reminded of Lindsay Anderson’s If …, a work of cinematic genius that could never be made today. Ambiguity is a key device in all of the forgoing films: the answer to any mystery provoked therefrom is less interesting than the mystery itself. Joker is not Taxi Driver, true enough. But it is the most impressive new movie I’ve seen in years—and might go some way in restoring my faith in contemporary cinema. Who would’ve thought?

Modified

Parts of the documentary Modified are spent at the kitchen table. But it’s not really a tale about wonderful recipes or the preparation of food. Ultimately, it’s a story of capitalism, money and power and how our most basic rights are being eroded by unscrupulous commercial interests.

The film centres on its maker, Aube Giroux, who resides in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her interest in food and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) was inspired by her mother, Jali, who also appears throughout. Aube says that when her parents bought their first house her mother immediately got rid of the lawn and planted a huge garden where she grew all kinds of heirloom vegetables, berries, flowers, legumes and garlic.

“She wanted me and my sister to grow up knowing the story behind the food that we ate, so our backyard was basically our grocery store,” says Aube.

During the film, we are treated not only to various outdoor scenes of the Giroux’s food garden (their ‘grocery store’) but also to Aube and her mother’s passion for preparing homemade culinary delights. The ‘backyard’ is the grocery store and much of Giroux family life revolves around the kitchen and the joy of healthy, nutritious food.

When GMOs first began appearing in food, Aube says that what bothered her mother was that some of the world’s largest chemical companies were patenting these new genetically engineered seeds and controlling the seed market.

In the film, Aube explains, “Farmers who grow GMOs have to sign technology license agreements promising never to save or replant the patented seeds. My mom didn’t think it was a good idea to allow corporations to engineer and then patent the seeds that we rely on for food. She believed that seeds belong in the hands of people.”

As the GMO issue became prominent, Aube became more interested in the subject. It took her 10 years to complete the film, which is about her personal journey of discovery into the world of GMOs. The film depicts a world that is familiar to many of us; a place where agritech industry science and money talk, politicians and officials are all too eager to listen and the public interest becomes a secondary concern.

In 2001, Canada’s top scientific body, The Royal Society, released a scathing report that found major problems with the way GMOs were being regulated. The report made 53 recommendations to the government for fixing the regulatory system and bringing it in line with peer reviewed science and the precautionary principle, which says new technologies should not be approved when there is uncertainty about their long-term safety. To date, only three of these recommendations have been implemented.

Throughout the film, we see Aube making numerous phone calls, unsuccessfully trying to arrange an interview to discuss these issues with Health Canada, the department of the government of Canada that is responsible for national public health.

Meanwhile, various people are interviewed as the story unfolds. We are told about the subverting of regulatory agencies in the US when GMOs first appeared on the scene in the early 1990s: the Food and Drug Administration ignored the warnings of its own scientists, while Monsanto flexed its political muscle to compromise the agency by manoeuvring its own people into positions of influence.

One respondent says, “We’ve had a number of people from Monsanto, many from Dupont, who have actually been in top positions at the USDA and the FDA over the last 20 years, making darn sure that when those agencies did come out with any pseudo-regulation, that it was what these industries wanted. The industry will often say these are the most regulated crops in history… I’m not an expert on the law in many other countries. But I am an expert on the laws in the United States and I can tell you… they are virtually unregulated.”

Aube takes time to find out about genetic engineering and talks to molecular biologists. She is shown how the process of genetic modification in the lab works. One scientist says, “In genetics, we have a phrase called pleiotropic effects. It means that there are other effects in the plant that are unintended but are a consequence of what you’ve done. I wouldn’t be surprised if something came up somewhere along the line that we hadn’t anticipated that’s going to be a problem.”

And that’s very revealing: if you are altering the genetic core of the national (and global) food supply in a way that would not have occurred without human intervention, you had better be pretty sure about the consequences. Many illnesses can take decades to show up in a population.

This is one reason why Aube Giroux focuses on the need for the mandatory labelling of GM food in Canada. Some 64 countries have already implemented such a policy and most Canadians want GM food to be labelled too. However, across North America labelling has been fiercely resisted by the industry. As the film highlights, it’s an industry that has key politicians in its back pocket and has spent millions resisting effective labelling.

In the film, we hear from someone from the agri/biotech industry say that labelling would send out the wrong message; it would amount to fearmongering; it would confuse the public; it would raise food prices; and you can eat organic if you don’t want GMOs. To those involved in the GMO debate and the food movement, these industry talking points are all too familiar.

Signalling the presence of GMOs in food through labelling is about the public’s right to know what they are eating. But the film makes clear there are other reasons for labelling too. To ensure that these products are environmentally safe and safe for human health, you need to monitor them in the marketplace. If you have new allergic responses emerging is it a consequence of GMOs? There’s no way of telling if there is no labelling. Moreover, the industry knows many would not purchase GM food if people were given any choice on the matter. That’s why it has spent so much money and invested so much effort to prevent it.

During the film, we also hear from an Iowa farmer, who says GM is all about patented seeds and money. He says there’s incredible wealth and power to be had from gaining ownership of the plants that feed humanity. And it has become a sorry tale for those at the sharp end: farmers are now on a financially lucrative (for industry) chemical-biotech treadmill as problems with the technology and its associated chemicals mount: industry rolls out even stronger chemicals and newer GM traits to overcome the failures of previous roll outs.

But to divert attention from the fact that GM has ‘failed to yield’ and deliver on industry promises, the film notes that the industry churns out rhetoric, appealing to emotion rather than fact, about saving the world and feeding the hungry to help legitimize the need for GM seeds and associated (health- and environment-damaging) chemical inputs.

In an interview posted on the film’s website, Aube says that genetic engineering is an important technology but “should only take place if the benefits truly outweigh the risks, if rigorous adequate regulatory systems are in place and if full transparency, full disclosure and the precautionary principle are the pillars on which our food policies are based.”

Health Canada has always claimed to have had a science-based GMO regulatory system. But the Royal Society’s report showed that GMO approvals are based on industry studies that have little scientific merit since they aren’t peer reviewed.

For all her attempts, Aube failed to get an interview with Health Canada. Near the end of the film, we see her on the phone to the agency once again. She says, “Well I guess I find it extremely concerning and puzzling that Health Canada is not willing to speak with me… you guys are our public taxpayer funded agency in this country that regulates GMOs, and so you’re accountable to Canadians, and you have a responsibility to answer questions.”

Given this lack of response and the agency’s overall track record on GMOs, it is pertinent to ask just whose interests does Health Canada ultimately serve.

When Aube Giroux started this project, it was meant to be a film about food. But she notes that it gradually became a film about democracy: who gets to decide our food policies; is it the people we elect to represent us, or is it corporations and their heavily financed lobbyists?

Aube is a skilful filmmaker and storyteller. She draws the viewer into her life and introduces us to some inspiring characters, especially her mother, Jali, who passed away during the making of the film. Jali has a key part in the documentary, which had started out as a joint venture between Aube and her mother. By interweaving personal lives with broader political issues, Modified becomes a compelling documentary. On one level, it’s deeply personal. On another, it is deeply disturbing given what corporations are doing to food without our consent – and often – without our knowledge.

For those who watch the film, especially those coming to the issue for the first time, it should at the very least raise concerns about what is happening to food, why it is happening and what can be done about it. The film might be set in Canada, but the genetic engineering of our food supply by conglomerates with global reach transcends borders and affects us all.

Whether we reside in North America, Europe, India or elsewhere, the push is on to co-opt governments and subvert regulatory bodies by an industry which regards GM as a multi-billion cash cow  – regardless of the consequences.

Modified won the 2019 James Beard Foundation award for best documentary and is currently available on DVD. It is due to be released on digital streaming platforms this summer.

Once Upon a Time Never Comes Again

He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it.

— George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”, 1936

The lobby of the temple of time travel called the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington, Massachusetts was suffused with a nostalgic vibe tinged with the whiff of encroaching death when I walked in for The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story.  I had earlier asked the ticket girl if most of the tickets for the two sold-out preview shows were being purchased by old people; she told me no, that many younger people had also bought tickets. However, I didn’t see any.  All I saw were grey or white heads and beards, not with “Time Out of Mind,” as Dylan titled his 1997 album, but with time on their minds, as they shuffled into the dark to see where their time had gone and perhaps, if they were not mystified by their fetishistic worship of Dylan, to meditate on who they had become and where they and he were heading in the days to come.  I imagined most were aware that Dylan had said that he’s been singing about death since he was twelve, and that his music is haunted by images of love and time lost as bells toll for those traveling the road of life in search of forgiveness for their transgressions.

How, I wondered, would this Dylan documentary “story” fashioned by Martin Scorsese, whose own work is marked by themes of guilt and redemption, affect an audience that might never have taken the roads less traveled of their youthful dreams but “fell” into the conformist and oppressive American neo-liberal way of life?  Would this film, in Dylan’s words, get the audience wondering “if I ever became what you wanted me to be/Did I miss the mark or overstep the line/That only you could see?”  Would nostalgia for their youth be a liberating or mystifying force, now that forty plus years have transformed American society into a conservative, postmodern, shopper’s paradise where commodity capitalism has reified all aspects of life, including art objects and artists such a Dylan, imbuing them with magical powers to redeem those who buy their products, which include songs and celebrity “auras”?

I knew I was sitting among people who had fetishized Barack Obama as a savior even while he was waging endless wars and killing American citizens, bailing out his Wall St. and bank supporters, and jailing more whistleblowers than any American president in history, and that Dylan had accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from this icon of rectitude who had served to quell all thoughts of rebellion and whose war victims were not counted by those who bought his brand since God was on his side. Here in this darkened dream factory in a hyper-gentrified “liberal” town, my mind was knotted with thoughts and questions that perhaps the film would address.

The Man Who Isn’t

I knew that no one would answer my questions, but I asked myself anyway. Moreover, I knew there is no Bob Dylan.  He is a figment of the imagination – first his own and then the public’s.  Perhaps behind the character Bob Dylan there is a genuine actor, and I hoped to catch an unintended glimpse of him in the film, but I knew if he appeared it would be obliquely and through a gradual dazzling of truth, as Emily Dickinson would say.  An unconscious disclosure.  For if the real Bob Dylan took off his mask and stood up, his ardent fans would receive it as a slap in the face, and their illusions would transmogrify into delusions as the spell would be broken.  To tell the truth directly is a dangerous undertaking in a country of lies.

Dylan, the spellbinder, has, through his public personae, hypnotized his followers with his tantalizing and wonderful music.  “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” wrote D.H. Lawrence in his poem, “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through.”  This sounds like Dylan’s artistic credo. His masks (personae = to sound through) have served as his medium of exchange.  He has been faithful to his tutelary spirit (if not to living people), what the Romans called one’s genius that is gifted to one at birth and is one’s personal spirit to which one must be faithful if one wishes to be born into true and creative life. If one sacrifices to one’s genius, one will in return become a vehicle for the fertile creativity that the genius can bestow.  A person is not a genius but a transmitter of its gifts.

Like Lawrence, Dylan has served as a vehicle for his genius. His many masks, unified by Bob Zimmerman under the pseudonym Bob Dylan, have served as ciphers for the transmission of his enigmatic and arresting art.  But while the music dazzles, the “real” man behind the name can’t stand up – or is it won’t? – because, as always, he’s “invisible now” and “not there,” as his songs have so long told us.

I wondered if my theater companions understood this, or perhaps didn’t want to.  Could that be because their own reality is problematic to them?  Do generations of his fans sense a vacancy at the heart of their self-identities – non-selves – as if they have been absent from their own lives while reveling in Dylan’s kaleidoscopic cast of characters?  Do Dylan’s lyrics – “People don’t live or die people just float” – resonate with them? Lacking Dylan’s artistry, are many reluctant to ask why they are so intrigued by the legerdemain of a man who insists he is absent?  Has a whole generation gone missing?

I am only familiar with the musician who acts upon a special social stage, and I love his creations.  Because Dylan, the performer, has the poet’s touch, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic, he draws me into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truths.  He is an artist at war with his art and perhaps his true self, and therefore forces me to venture into uncharted territory and ask uncomfortable questions.  His songs demand that the listener’s mind and spirit be moving as the spirit of creative inspiration moved him. A close listening to many of them will force one to jump from verse to verse – to shoot the gulf – since there are no bridges to cross, no connecting links.

A Magic Show

From the start, The Rolling Thunder Revue, a fused compilation of film from a tour throughout New England concocted by Dylan that took place in 1975-6 as a rollicking experiment in communal music making, announces that we are going to be played with and that Dylan and Scorsese are conjurers whose prestigitations are going to dazzle us, which they do.  The film is gripping and cinematically beautiful. The opening scene is taken from a very old film in which a woman is sitting in a chair and a man throws a cloth over her.  When he pulls the cloth away, the woman has disappeared.  Call it playful magic, call it fun, call it entertainment – we can’t say we haven’t been warned – but after decades of postmodern  gibberish with the blending of fact and fiction, fake news, endless propaganda, and the fiction-of-nonfiction, one might reasonably expect something more straightforward in 2019, but these guys get a kick out of magic tricks and conning people.

I could understand it if it served some larger purpose, but as the film shows, it doesn’t.  Later in the film, Dylan says, as if he needed to pound the point home, “If someone’s wearing a mask, he’s gonna tell you the truth.  If he’s not wearing a mask, it’s highly unlikely.”  This may be true for him, but as a general prescription for living, it is bullshit.  Of course, lies are commonplace, but isn’t it best to strive for truth, and doesn’t that involve shedding masks. Then again, what does he mean by a mask?

Society trains us all from an early age to lie and deceive and to be socially adjusted persons on the social stage, and since person means mask, do we need some white face paint to obviously mask ourselves to tell the truth?  Why can’t one take off the masks and be authentic?  Why can’t Dylan?  In an interview in 1997 with the music critic Jon Parles, Dylan said while he is mortified to be on stage, it’s the only place where he’s happy.  “It’s the only place you can be who you want to be.”  These are the sad words of a man living in a cage, and only he might know why. I am reminded of Kafka’s story of the caged Hunger Artist. Yet we are left to guess why Dylan is unhappy off stage, but such guessing is the other side of the social game where gossip and pseudo-psychoanalysis sickens us all as we try to decipher the personal lives of the celebrities we worship. Maybe we should examine our own looking-glass selves.

The Mask Falls

Despite being a masked man, there are times in this fascinating film when the lion in Dylan breaks out of the cage, and while the face paint and costume remain, one can see and hear a sense of short-lived liberation in his performances.  His performance of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is so true, so passionate, so real, so intense that his true face shines through in its genuine glory.  The same for his performance of “Hurricane” and a few others.  It’s all in his face and body, his articulation and energy, his fiery eyes.  The performances refute his claim that only a masked man can speak the truth.  As Joan Baez mordantly says, “Everything is forgiven when he sings.”

There is something elegiac about the film, for many of the people in it are now dead and their film presence – that eerie afterlife that technology confers – conveys the ephemerality of fame – and life.  Allen Ginsberg and Sam Shepard are dead, and many of the others are in their twilight years.  But to see them young and frisky and bouncing around on stage and off, giving off sexuality and joy in the music and the trip they’re on, one can’t help be gripped by the passing of time and the contrast between then and now when depression and its pharmaceutical fixes has so many in its grip.  Dylan’s craggy, lined face in interviews for the film belies the young man we see perform and laugh, and though he stills performs and is addicted to being on the road so often – quite a feat for a 78 year old – the juxtapositions of the images underscores the power of Dylan’s musical messages.  “Once upon a time,” Dylan croons these days, “somehow once upon a time/never comes again.”

When one puts the then and now into historical and social perspective – which is essential since works of art are rooted in time, place, economic and political realities – one is jolted further. It’s almost as if this Rolling Thunder Revue tour was the last gasp for a dying political and artistic culture that represented some hope for change, however small, while also being a symptom of the encroaching theatricality of American life, what Neal Gabler aptly calls, Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.

The Triumph of Techno-Entertainment

Trace, if you will, the transformation of the United States from 1975-6 until today.  It’s as if the theatricality of the tour was announcing the end of straightforward dissent and the ushering in of endless postmodern gamesmanship that is still with us. Masks. Games. Generations disappearing into technological and consumer fantasies where making money, watching television, and entering the system that destroys one’s soul became the norm, as the American empire ravaged the world and Baby Boomers found life in their cell phones and on yoga mats, as Herbert Marcuse and his compatriots of the Frankfurt School warned. The culture industry absorbed dissent and spit it back out as entertainment in the service of the maintenance and consolidation of the power of the ruling class. How to transform a depraved society when the culture industry has corrupted so many people at their cores is where we’re at now.  “The carpet too is moving under you,” Dylan intoned in 1965, “It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

I looked around the movie theater before the film began and the rows were lit up by old folks staring at their little lit-up rectangular talismans.  It was enough to bring me to despair. I was reminded of being in the circus in Madison Square Garden as a child where the kids were swinging sticks with cords attached with lights at the end that lit up the place.

They say the circuses are all closing, but I think not.  “It’s not dark yet/but it’s getting there.”

In an exchange between Dylan and Sam Shepard, who was on the tour as some sort of writer, Dylan asks Sam how he writes all those plays, and Sam says he does so by “communing with the dead.”  The Rolling Thunder Revue is like that, a medium between a time when passion still lived, and today when death, dying, and nostalgia are the norm for so many whose passion has fled into things.  Capitalism has conquered consciences with commodities.

Home Before Dark?

Dylan had his fallow period after the late seventies.  To his great credit, he found new life, starting in the late 1990s with his Time Out Of Mind album and continuing through his recordings of the great American songbook of love ballads, the terrain of Sinatra and Bennett.  Listening to him sing these great songs he did not write, I find his masks have fallen away and that a sad, lonely man emerges.  A man filled with regrets and melancholia.  An old man lamenting in a movingly raspy voice lost loves and haunted by what was and what might have been.  A death-haunted man voicing raw emotion that is palpable.  An uncaged man.

So much about Bob Dylan is paradoxical, or is it contradictory?  Hypocritical?

Friedrich Nietzsche, another man of many faces, who advised us to “become who you are,” once wrote, “There are unconscious actors among them and involuntary actors; the genuine are always rare, especially genuine actors.”  I don’t know if the man behind the name Bob Dylan is a “genuine actor” (genuine being cognate with genius, both suggesting the act of giving birth, creating), for I have never met him.  I hope he has met himself. He hints that someone is missing, whether that is the fictional actor or the genuine one, is difficult to discern.  Is he becoming who he is, or is he lost out on the road “with no direction home”?  He is always on the go, leaving, moving, restless, always seeking a way back home through song, even when, or perhaps because, there are no directions.

The Rolling Thunder Revue is a nostalgic trip.  No doubt, audiences of a certain age will experience it as such.  Such an aching for home comes with a cost: the acute awareness that you can’t go home again. When the nursing and funeral home beckon, however, one can perhaps take a chance on truth by examining one’s conscience to ask if and why one may have betrayed one’s better youthful self and settled for a life of comforting conformity and resigned acceptance of the “system” one once raged against.

Younger people, if they are patient and watch the entire film, will experience a profound aesthetic shock that may give them hope.  To see through the camera’s eye the youthful Dylan’s face as he gives some of the most passionate performances of his life will thrill them so that a shiver will go down their spines and their hair will stand on end.  “And this is what poetry does,” writes Roberto Calasso in Literature and the Gods, “it makes us see what otherwise we wouldn’t have seen, through a sound that was never heard before.”  To watch just a handful of these performances makes the film worthwhile.

Become Who You Are?

At one point, today’s Dylan says that he has always been “searching for the Holy Grail.”  I suppose one could interpret that as meaning eternal youth, happiness, redemption, or some sort of immortality.  He has surely created a capitalist’s corporate empire, though that doesn’t seem to satisfy him, as it never has genuine poets.  But maybe to become very, very rich and famous has always been his goal, his immortality project, as it is for other tycoons.  One can only guess.

I prefer not to.  But without question, Dylan has the poet’s touch, a hyperbolic sense of the fantastic that draws you into his magical web in the pursuit of deeper truth.  In ways, he’s like the Latin American magical realist writers who move from fact to dream to the fantastic in a puff of wind.

He is our Emerson.  His artistic philosophy has always been about movement in space and time through song.  “An artist has got to be careful never to arrive at a place where he thinks he’s at somewhere,” he’s said.  “You always have to realize that you are constantly in a state of becoming and as long as you can stay in that realm you’ll be alright.”

Sounds like living, right?

Sounds like Emerson, also.  “Life only avails, not the having lived.  Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state, in the shooting of the gulf, in the darting to an aim.  Thus one fact the world hates, that the soul becomes.”

Like Emerson, Dylan creates a sense of restlessness in the listener that forces one to ask: Who am I?  Am I?  He has said “that a song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true.”  In a similar way, Scorsese has created a dream with this film.  It takes us back and forth in time via an hallucinatory experience.  A sort of documentary with a wink.

It is quite a story, powerful enough to induce one to ask: Who are we becoming in this American Dream?  Will we keep sleeping through the nightmares we create and support, or will we return home with Dylan and embrace the radical truth he once gifted us with and dare to “tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it/And reflect from the mountains so all souls can see it” that our country continues to kill and oppress people all around the world as it did once upon a time very long ago?

Our chance won’t come again.

Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire

Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire, written and directed by Scott Noble, continues the run of quality documentaries by Metanoia Films. The film provides the historical context that allows the viewer to understand why inequality reigns while social justice and peace lag today. The, at first blink, curious title stems from a quotation by the American labor leader August Spies, who was one of four anarchists hanged in 1887 after being found guilty in the bomb explosion that wounded and killed several policemen and civilians in what became known as the Haymarket affair.

Said Spies to the court:

But, if you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement—the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil and live in want and misery, the wage slaves, expect salvation—if this is your opinion, then hang us!

Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up.

It is a subterranean fire.

Subterranean Fire documents historically how the capitalist class have nefariously accumulated wealth and power for selfish purposes by depriving working people of dignity and rights.

Subterranean Fire details at the outset how strike actions and popular revolts were put down by corporations through their cronies, including police, private detectives, vigilantes, and even the National Guard. In the Homestead strike of 1892, after workers had defeated the Pinkerton agency’s private army, the National Guard was brought out.

According to data cited in the film, in 1929, 60 percent of the population lived well below the poverty line. Despite large increases in productivity, there was no trickle down of profits. Neither was there a social safety net.

Labor historian Peter Rachleff tells how organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army were enmeshed in the capitalist pattern, categorizing the poor into deserving and undeserving of assistance based on what their “interrogations” uncovered about one’s life style. The unemployed were often blamed for being without employment.

Violence against workers was rampant, and the government was complicit in the violence. The über-rich industrialist Henry Ford hired armed guards to crush disenchanted workers. These armed guards shot and killed hunger marchers from the River Rouge plant.

Finally in 1935, unions were legalized. There was hope. A crafts union, the AFL was formed; also formed was an industrial workers union, the CIO. These two were to merge years later into the AFL-CIO.

Subterranean Fire informs how unions sought to end prejudice — an obvious sine qua non in the battle between the moneyed power of the capitalist class and working class.

A message that is compelling and clearly conveyed is that government (and hence “democracy”) is not a force for the masses of workers. Especially prominent in pushing for the dignity of labor were communist leaders.

Communism and Social Justice

Rachleff identified the communists’ goal as developing workers as human beings.

Of particular importance to communists was the inclusion of the Black masses. The KKK, who were supported by state power, warned against Blacks attending communist meetings.

The Scottsboro Boys surrounded by Alabama National Guard, 20 March 1931

Communists played a prominent role in the scathingly egregious example of racism meted out to the Scottsboro boys. African-American Studies professor Carol Anderson lays out how nine Black teenagers were falsely accused of rape by two White prostitutes. This raised temperatures to boiling among racist Whites. In a one-day trial, eight youths were sentenced to the electric chair and the other youth to life imprisonment. Eventually one woman recanted her false testimony, but it was 17 years before the last prisoner was released for a crime never committed.

Immigrants were also targeted for exploitation.

Stoop labor, such as farm labor where the worker was often stooped over while working in the fields, was considered undesirable. This provided work opportunities for those more desperate; Mexican workers were attracted by the opportunity for work. As immigrant labor, they were without rights and often mistreated. To avoid a labor shortage during WWII, the US-Mexico had reached agreement on the Bracero program, a massive guest worker program that allowed over four million Mexican workers to migrate and work temporarily in the United States from 1942 to 1964. Scandalously, many Braceros still seek to collect unpaid wages from that time. As Justin Chacon, author of No One Is Illegal points out, this form of captive labor has continued into the present. The current backlash against immigrants supported by the Donald Trump government augurs back to the Bracero program.

Resistance in the Arts

Artists, writers, and actors were centers of unionization and resistance against exploitation of people. Such artistic expression was opposed by the capitalist class.

Subterranean Fire features an excerpt from director Tim Robbins’ movie Cradle Will Rock, where the capitalist Nelson Rockefeller is questioning the artist Diego Rivera who was commissioned by Rockefeller to produce a fresco for the Rockefeller Center in New York city. However, the pro-communist display was too much for Rockefeller to stomach; he subsequently had the fresco destroyed.

Diego Rivera, Man at the Crossroads, 1933, Rockefeller Center prior to destruction

The Importance of Solidarity

In Flint, Michigan, autoworkers occupied factories and conducted sit-down strikes. Historian Sharon Smith points out the ingenuity of such a tactic: while factory owners were readily willing to use violence against workers, they were loathe to damage their own factories.

Women of the epoch played an important role in supporting the labor rights actions of the men. Women auxiliaries sneaked food into the men; they broke windows to prevent men from being overcome by gas attacks; and they served as a distraction to police.

The strikers reached out to fellow autoworkers across the country and fostered much unity. These tactics helped workers win demands from Big Auto.

Sit-down strikes spread across the country. The film tells that in 1937 almost 5 million workers took part in sit-down strikes. It was a heady time for workers.

However, in the end, the grassroots organizing power of workers was undermined by the union leadership which sought an alliance between labor and capital. The Communist Party of America also failed the working class.

In another blow to workers, the Supreme Court ruled sit-down strikes illegal in 1939.

The demonized state of workers was epitomized in the summer of 1937 when Chicago police shot at a parade of striking steelworkers and their families. Fifty were shot and 10 died. President Franklin Roosevelt sat on the fence and blamed both sides for the violence.

Later, however, FDR appeared to have a change of heart, and in 1944 he backed a second Bill of Rights for all. Among the rights were such basics as “a right to a useful and remunerative job,” “the right of every family to a decent home,” and “the right to adequate medical care.” According the the documentary, FDR was no true friend of labor, and his expressed views were in anticipation of the United States entering WWII. Nonetheless, FDR died a year later.

Demonizing Workers and the Left

Capitalists, with media in tow, demonized communists and anarchists. The Alien Registration Act of 1940 aimed to preserve the status quo. Japanese-Americans were interred. Communists were targeted.

The FBI was involved. Edgar Hoover had leftists monitored and surveilled by tactics including wiretaps and break-ins. The anti-leftism was so extreme that a section of corporate America supported fascism. The fascists supported Nazi Germany in WWII.1

Post-WWII the top income tax rate was 91% until 1964. One-third of workers belonged to a union. From 1940 to 1967 real wages doubled. Living standards doubled.

However, the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 would attack workers, banning many types of strikes, closed union shops, union political contributions, communists and radicals in union leadership, and the compelled payment of union dues. The Supreme Court upheld Taft-Hartley, and it remains in force today.

The film also examines McCarthyism, a witch hunt against communists or communist-leaning types, as a psychological attack against Americans. No one was safe. Blacklisting was in vogue and among the first blacklisted were the so-called Hollywood 10 for either communist sympathies or refusal to aid Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee investigations into the Communist party or having fought for the rights of Blacks and workers. The list expanded much past 10. One celebrity given in-depth prominence in Subterranean Fire was singer Paul Robeson who refused to back down before Congress, stated he was for Negro and worker rights, and accused Congress of neo-fascism.

McCarthyism hit hysterical heights as exemplified by Texas proposing the death penalty for communist membership and Indiana calling for the banning of Robin Hood.

McCarthyism was foiled when it bit off more than it could chew. When McCarthyism took on the establishment, in particular the military, its impetus ground to an inglorious halt. The Alien Registration Act was ruled unconstitutional, and the First Amendment right to political beliefs was upheld.

Subterranean Fire notes that the damage to the labor movement was already done. A permanent war economy was established: overtly through the military and covertly through the CIA. Come 2001, union membership had dropped to 13.5%. Radicals were disconnected from their communities; union democracy was subverted by a top-down leadership which avoided the tactic of striking for collective bargaining; the court system was heavily backlogged with labor-management issues, which usually were ruled in favor of management.

Some outcomes noted in the film,

In the early 21st century, Americans took on the dubious distinction of working more hours than any other country….

There is no single county in America where a minimum wage earner can support a family.

The Rise

Grotesque income and wealth disparity signifies the current state of neoliberalism. Yet Subterranean Fire finds glimmers of change for working men and women.

Despite relating the historical trampling of the working class, the film concludes on a sanguine note. Union strength appears to be on the rebound with solidarity being a linchpin. Labor strikes were on the upswing in the US, with teachers leading the way. Fast-food workers are fighting for a decent wage. Labor, which has seen real wages stagnate in the age of neoliberalism, is fighting back worldwide. Autoworkers in Matamoros, Mexico are striking and colleagues in Detroit, Michigan have expressed support for their sisters and brothers. The Gilet Jaunes in France have been joined by labor. A huge general strike took place in India. The uptick of resistance was not just pro-labor but anti-global warming in Manchester, UK; Tokyo, Japan; Cape Town, South Africa; Helsinki, Finland; Genoa, Italy; and, Nelson, Aotearoa (New Zealand).

All this, however, must be considered through the lens of the current political context. A virulent anti-socialist president and his hawkish administration occupy the White House in Washington. Despite the nationwide strike actions, the right-wing BJP and prime minister Narendra Modi won a recent huge re-election in India. The purportedly centrist Liberal Party in Canada, rhetoric aside, has been, in large part, in virtual lockstep with the US administration.2

The Importance of Metanoia Films

Today, people with access to the internet have little excuse for continuing to depend on state-corporate media sources. Why would anyone willingly subject himself to disinformation and propaganda? Not too mention paying for access to such unreliable information and the soul-sapping advertisements that accompany it.

It is important that we be cognizant of the search engine manipulations of Google, the biased opinions parlayed by moneyed corporate media, and the censorship of social media data-mining sites. The corporate-state media nexus wants to limit and shape what we know. The current war on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange is proof positive of this. Assange and WikiLeaks exposed horrific war crimes. It is a no-brainer that a person should be congratulated for bringing such evil perpetrated by the state to the public awareness. Instead the establishment seeks to destroy WikiLeaks, the publisher Assange, and Chelsea Manning who is accused of providing the information to WikiLeaks.

Given the corporate-state power structure’s ideological opposition to WikiLeaks and freedom on information as well as the preponderance of disinformation that emanates from monopoly media, it seems eminently responsible that people seek out credible independent sources of information. Metanoia Films stands out as a credible source.

There are plenty of independent news and information sites that provide analysis that treat the reader/viewer with respect by substantiating information provided in reports and articles with evidence, logic, and even morality. The reader/viewer who seeks veracity has an obligation to consider the facts, sources, and reasoning offered and arrive at her own conclusions.

Metanoia documentaries lay out a historical context that helps us understand how we arrived at the state of affairs we find ourselves in today. It is an understanding that is crucial to come up with solutions for a world in which far too many languish in poverty, suffer in war zones, and are degraded by the cruelties of inequality. It is an understanding that is crucial for communicating, planning, and organizing the establishment of new societies in which all may flourish and of which all may be proud.

Independent media is meant for independent thinkers and those who aspire to a better world. Watch Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire and the first four parts in the Plutocracy series and become informed.

  1. For an in-depth history, read Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015), a book which exposes US motivations during WWII as serving corporate interests.
  2. Note Canadian prime minister Trudeau’s stand on Assad in Syria, Maduro in Venezuela, Huawei and the extradition hearings on Meng Wanzhou, antagonisms with China, and antagonism with Russia’s Putin. Also consider Canada’s poor record on effectively taking on climate change. These actions differ little from president Trump south of the border.

My Response to the PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War

The Civil War which ended in 1865, demolished slavery and emancipated four million human beings. What happened next in the South remains largely unknown to most Americans.  In a recent poll of high school graduates, only 20 percent had even heard of Reconstruction, in part because history classes about this period invariably end with the South’s surrender.

During the short Reconstruction period from 1865-1877, the Federal state was empowered to act on behalf of freed black men and poor whites.  Unprecedented changes followed, including new public hospitals, schools, aid to the poor and public programs offering a wide range of services that gave preference to the needs of those previously deprived of them.  The beginning of meaningful democracy was exemplified by new Federal courts, replacing state governments and well-attended state constitutional conventions to Black suffrage, ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, This mandate’s enforcement could rely on the full force and protection of Federal troops in five military zones.

Political power was prodigiously evident as blacks were elected to state governments (600), the U.S. Congress (14) and Senate (2), and as judges, sheriffs and countless lower offices in the former slave states. Organizations like the Union League and the Southern Farmer’s Alliance appeared across the South to encourage and advise alliances between ordinary blacks and whites that would liberate both from economic bondage.

It’s not hyperbolic to suggest that in 1865, African-Americans experienced exhilaration, pride and virtually limitless enthusiasm after two hundred and fifty years of enslavement. Paramount among these expectations was the prospect of owning one’s own land gained by the political power realized from the right to vote. If achieved, this would be the single most radical structural change in US. history.

This astonishing political revolution is effectively portrayed via commentary by dozens of  experts, interviews, documents and graphic, often heart rending visuals in the first two episodes of “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War,” a four-part series written and narrated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on PBS. It links to Gates’s book, Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy and the Rise of Jim Crow, (New York: Penguin, 2019).  The series makes for compelling even compulsory viewing.  As Eric Foner, the dean of living writers about this period, concluded in a 2015 essay, “freedom, rights, democracy” were at the apex of Reconstruction. All remain vexing issues today.

I would also be remiss not to credit parts of the program (especially episode #3) for their compelling description of the means employed to totally eviscerate Reconstruction: pseudo-scientific racism, eugenics, elaborate mythologies about plantation life,” Sambo art” representation in novels, cartoons, and advertising, rape imagery, Blackface, and the infamous, incalculably detrimental film, J.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation,” the Jim Crow system and, of course, the ubiquitous deployment of terroristic lynchings, massacres and the KKK.  It’s not cited in the series but according to the Smithsonian Magazine, some 53,000 thousand African-Americans were targeted for murder across the 11 former Confederate states.  Viewers will have to come to grips with the massacre of 250 African-American men, women and children in Opelousas, Louisiana in 1868.

Other topics receiving careful attention include: creative disenfranchisement maneuvers, the exploitation of enervating indebtedness attendant to new-slavery in the form of sharecropping (neo-slavery) and still another iteration, namely, convict-leasing. We also learn about the black resistance and its manifestation in literature, photography, music, success in higher education, self-sustaining communities, and the founding of the NAACP. I was especially taken with the courageous, indefatigable activism of Ida Tarbell and role of speaker, organizer and towering public intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois.

Critique:

In a preview to the PBS series, viewers are promised the full truth of about this “misrepresented and misunderstood” chapter of American history. In my opinion, this pledge was not entirely kept. The program’s viewers might be forgiven for gaining the impression that an “indifferent North” was a major factor in Reconstruction’s total overthrow. That Northerners — without specifying their class identity — eventually “grew tired” of the South’s seemingly intractable racial problems, withdrew Federal troops in 1877 and “tragically” allowed the South to restore white supremacy and re-subordinate the black labor force. For me, this serious glossing over what actually happened imposed limits on what lessons might be derived from Reconstruction and applied to our situation today.  If asked to suggest a fifth episode, I would add something like the following, beginning with three quotes:

Without slavery there would be cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry

— Karl Marx,1

The consolidation of capitalism in the US during the Reconstruction period required the radical curtailment of substantive popular power and democratic rights for the vast majority of producers… Put another way, the experience of Reconstruction provides yet another example of the incompatibility of substantive democratic power and capitalist class relations.

— Charlie Post,2

The American Civil War was fought over which type of slavery would exist in the United State; chattel slavery, as was practiced in the South, or wage slavery, as practiced in the North. These two economic systems were both subdivisions of Capitalist, or private ownership of the means of production. Theoretically, it is impossible for these two subsystems to coexist peacefully in an economy; so an ultimate conflict to determine the future of capitalist production was inevitable.

— Kent Allen Halliberton,3

I’ve included Marx’s quote because the program failed to devote sufficient attention to the fact that slavery and capitalism were deeply enmeshed and the former was indispensable to the nation’s economic development. Slaves produced the nation’s most valuable export and there wasn’t a close second, as Northern financiers, bankers and textile factory owners amassed fortunes from slavery.

For just one example, as historian Edward Baptist’s pioneering research demonstrated, in Lowell, Massachusetts, massive mills owned by a group called Boston Associates, “consumed 100,000 days of enslaved people’s labor every year” and this  resulted in enormous profits, investments for further expansion and lavish life styles. Further, owners of New England factories were profiting from shipping provisions like shoes, hoes, hats, nails and probably whips to South Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia.4

The North and the South were not discrete economies as commodities and capital flowed between them. As such, narratives about Reconstruction that neglect to portray slavery as a national institution and refer to it as a “Southern problem” are limited in their explanatory power.  Should we be surprised that the word “capitalism” isn’t listed in the index to Gates’s book and if memory serves, it also remained unmentioned in the series? Viewers might ponder the reason for this omission.

The inclusion of the other two quotes is a response to the oft-asked question, “What if Reconstruction had succeeded?” The point here is that the question suggests an outcome that was never an option.  In the early days of Reconstruction, the expectation of northern business interests had been that the post Reconstruction period would see chattel slavery replaced by wage slavery (euphemistically called “free labor”) to serve the rapidly growing needs of an industrializing nation. We see a paradox here in that Northern monied elites could righteously oppose slavery while retaining circumscribed notions of inequality (and racism) in a post-slavery world. Again, the parallels with today’s Democratic Party “We are all capitalists” hierarchy are transparent.

However, as historian Heather Cox Richardson explains, reactionary Southerners and liberal anti-slavery Northern elites eventually persuaded enough people that Reconstruction was in a sense, anathema to the American system. That, in fact, “an active government redistributes wealth from hardworking white people to lazy African-Americans.”5 Again, the resonance of this liberal posture with our last forty years of neoliberalism is impossible to ignore.

The Northern power elite gradually came to view Reconstruction as too ambitious, too dangerous, because it raised expectations, especially regarding land tenure and its implications for wealth redistribution. One episode in the series does mention that Union General William T. Sherman had confiscated some 400,000 acres of land to be allocated in roughly 40 acre plots. Under General Sherman’s famous special Field Order No.15 some few thousand newly emancipated black families were settled on land in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. Others are far more qualified to judge Sherman’s motives  but we can’t rule out the possibility that he only sought to temporarily pacify the recipients.  It’s a moot point because President Andrew Johnson, the southerner who succeeded Abraham Lincoln and hated African-Americans, quickly nullified the order and the land was returned to the wealthy plantation owners. Here we see the inherent constraints on a bourgeois revolution imposed from above rather than one emerging from a mass movement. In short, we see the critical difference between a political revolution and a socio-economic one, a scenario that would become all too familiar during the next century.

Union organizing and strikes in the North cast doubt on the convenient conviction that workers would be satisfied  with their new “free labor” status. What if they wanted to own the means of production? In any event, poor workers in the South could not be trusted with the vote because they were “fledging revolutionaries” and “given the chance, they would insist on wealth redistribution.” Northern elites, not Southerners, were firmly in control of national politics and their priority was to protect capital (property) from an aroused, potentially dangerous working class that was beginning to respond to worsening conditions.

The New York Tribune featured an interview with a prominent former slaveholder who opined “Only those who owned property should govern it, and men who had no property had no right to make laws for property holders.” The New York Times would echo this argument and when workers in Paris established a commune, its editors responded with disingenuous euphemisms not unknown in our day, “The great ‘middle class’ which now governs the world, will everywhere be terrified at these terrible outburst[s] and absurd[ities], they will hold a strong rein on the lower.” Even the liberal Nation magazine warned that changes in the South were making “socialism in America the dangerous deadly poison it is.”6 Note that the race card is held back.

WE.B. Du Bois knew that the “economic foundation” of the northern bourgeoisie would never allow them to follow through on Reconstruction. From that he drew the lesson that blacks and poor whites in the South must unite against the ruling class. He was to expand on this when categorizing the American worker into four sets: “The freed Negro, the Southern poor white, and the Northern skilled and common laborer” and grieved over the fact that “These groups never came to see their common interests and the financiers and capitalists easily kept the upper hand.”7 This begs the question of how far class consciousness has advanced today.

Du Bois compared black resistance to slavery as a “proletarian revolution within a bourgeois republic.” And when poor white men were successfully turned against their black brothers they “surrendered the hope of democracy in America for all men.” Even though only 7 percent of the total Southern population owned three million of the four million enslaved blacks, white workers came to accept their wage labor status because, in historian David Roediger’s felicitous phrase, they might lose everything “but not their whiteness.” These “wages of whiteness” or what Du Bois formulated as a “psychological wage” — differentiated from a material wage — set them apart from and against black workers and according to Frederick Douglas the slaveholders were then able to “divide both to conquer each” This formed part of the ideology perpetrated by the ruling class even as it reverberate in contemporary politics.

My sense is that gaining a deeper understanding of the Reconstruction period can contribute to our analysis of contemporary issues like voting rights, affirmative action, reparations, white supremacy, and the meaning of citizenship. In that vein, Naima Wandile, my friend and fellow FB rabble rouser, recently drew my attention to the fact that although the PBS series makes reference to current events it does so in a highly selective manner. She noted that the series “failed to fully (or forcefully enough) connect past history with current events. For example, policies like black codes, peonage and slave patrols are very much in effect today in the form of stop-question-frisk, bail traps, and extra-judicial executions in cities across the US and still serve the same purpose.” She adds that “These are the main reasons blacks protest, but many Americans do not fully understand these are the most effective tools in a capitalist toolbox.”

Finally, as I mentioned above, we can glean helpful insights from sources like this PBS series but only by conjoining them with an analysis of the class dynamics of the period can we use this knowledge on behalf of our quest for a just society.

  1. Karl Marx, Collected Works, Vol. 32 (New York: Progress Publishing, 1982, Pp. 101-102.
  2. Charlie Post, “Is Democracy Compatible with Capitalism,” The Brooklyn Rail, April 4, 2018.
  3. Kent Allen Halliburton, “The American Civil War, 1964-1876: A Marxist Perspective.
  4. Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), p.317.
  5. Heather Cox Richardson, “Killing Reconstruction,” Jacobin, August 19, 2015.
  6. Ibid.
  7. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2013), p. 216.  Originally published by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1935; Keenanga-Yamahtta Taylor addresses these matters in his “Review of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction” in ISR, Issue 57, January-February, 2008. Taylor’s piece is highly instructive and recommended for further exploration of this subject.

The Matrix: 20 Years Later

“Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is.  You have to see it for yourself.”

Those words were first spoken twenty years ago and sent people flocking to movie theaters to find out just what the Matrix was.  When The Matrix came out, I was going through a phase of spiritual exploration, with a particular focus on Gnosticism, so the premise that reality is a dream controlled by malevolent forces resonated with me at the time.  Although the number of essays and books written about the movie and its implications has waned over the years, the imprint left by The Matrix on pop culture remains to this day.

Despite the adoption of the term “red pill” by conservatives and various elements of conspiracy culture (proving once again that the Right continues to steal imagery from the Left), The Matrix is a very anti-capitalist movie as shown by its literal use of human resources, a theme the Wachowskis would revisit in their later movie Jupiter Ascending.

“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”

These words spoken by Morpheus could easily be spoken by any anarchist on the street today.  But to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek, The Matrix functions as a Rorschach test that allows everyone to read their own “-ism” into the movie.  This philosophical ground has been covered before by people with more letters after their names than me.

In the succeeding two decades, we may have replaced minidisks with flash drives, and those cool sliding phones with rather boring-looking smartphones, but we have constructed our own Matrix. It is not as all-encompassing or as sophisticated as the one in the movie, but it is there.

This is a world we started building long before The Matrix came out, but with the advances of technology, it seems to have accelerated.  We now have social media which engineers have admitted is designed to be addictive.  Who needs a jack in the head when one has a smartphone and an internet connection?  We have the people “inured to the system and not ready to be unplugged” as shown by studies where people cannot give up their phones for even a few hours without profound anxiety often called nomophobia.  We even have the term FOMO (fear of missing out) which is really just a fancier term for loss aversion, the fear of being disconnected in our over-connected world.  No one wants to face the Desert of the Real.

And this is one of the central themes of The Matrix: alienation.  In the movie, human beings are alienated from the (destroyed) natural world and from each other, contained in their own individual pods.  In our own world we are in a world plagued by climate destabilization and the profound social alienation of modern life.  While people are more connected than ever before, for many, close personal ties are simulated, in that they can add someone to a friends list and like their posts, but never actually meet and talk to them.

“You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”

Many people see there is something wrong with the world, but the reactions are different.  In the world of the mainstream, where Republicans and Democrats squabble with each other, but deny there is anything actually wrong at all.  They go on with their lives downloading images and thought-forms from mass media and wake up in their beds to believe whatever they want to believe.

Then there are the authoritarians and would-be fascists who acknowledge that there is something wrong, but like the character of Cypher, are only concerned with using it to leverage their own power and position within the system.

The final faction, the anarchists, dissenters, and outcasts of all types, those who were forced into the Desert of the Real for various reasons (poverty, proscribed identity, and so forth).  They all see there is something wrong with the world.  Some try to fight against it, but many are simply seeking out their own Zion, a place to be free of the controls of the system.  These are the people who cannot be assimilated to this world of perceptions.

In the sequels Reloaded and Revolutions, it is revealed that the Matrix has a failsafe, the Architect’s plan with other iterations of the One and the continued destruction and rebuilding of Zion.  Our own Matrix has its own failsafes, among them a strong emphasis on conformity, and the ability to pass off its systemic flaws as individual failings.  And it has its own Agents, that we often call the police, but is really just the power of the State.  Our surveillance systems are not as omniscient as the Matrix, they are becoming more ubiquitous and allow for the rapid deployment of Agents to quash any form of descent.

And yet the problem does not go away, for the Machines in The Matrix nor in our world.  The Machines have to continually destroy and rebuild Zion, while our world system has yet to figure out what do with all those that do not accept it.  And this is our opportunity.  For all of its dystopianism, The Matrix ends on a note of hope that still resonates to this day.

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

We still have a choice of where we want to go, it is not an easy choice and many would rather take the blue pill and check their social media feed.  But if enough of us walk away, and are willing to face the Desert of the Real, we can have that world.  A world without rules and controls, borders and boundaries.  Unlike in the movie, we cannot let the system decide.  This choice is up to us.

No More Bullshit: Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill

Growing up Irish-Catholic in the Bronx in the 1960s, I was an avid reader of the powerful columns of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill in the New York newspapers.  These guys were extraordinary wordsmiths. They would grab you by the collar and drag you into the places and faces of those they wrote about. Passion infused their reports.  They were never boring. They made you laugh and cry as they transported you into the lives of real people.  You knew they had actually gone out into the streets of the city and talked to people. All kinds of people: poor, rich, black, white, Puerto Rican, high-rollers, low-lifes, politicians, athletes, mobsters – they ran the gamut.  You could sense they loved their work, that it enlivened them as it enlivened you the reader. Their words sung and crackled and breathed across the page. They left you always wanting more, wondering sometimes how true it all was, so captivating was their storytelling abilities.  They cut through abstractions to connect individuals to major events such as the Vietnam War, the assassinations of President Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Central Park jogger case, Aids, among others.  They were spokesmen for the underdogs, the abused, the confused, and the bereft, and relentlessly attacked the abuses and hypocrisies of the powerful.

They became celebrities as a result of their writing.  Breslin ran for New York City Council President along with Norman Mailer for Mayor with the slogan  “No More Bullshit,” did beer and cereal commercials, and Hamill dated Jacqueline Kennedy and Shirley McLaine.  Coming  out of poor and struggling Irish-Catholic families in Queens and Brooklyn respectively, they became acclaimed in NYC and the country as celebrity reporters.  As a result, they were befriended by the rich and powerful with whom they hobnobbed.

HBO has recently released a fascinating documentary about the pair: Breslin and Hamill. It brings them back in all their gritty glory to the days when New York was another city, a city of newspapers and typewriters and young passion still hopeful that despite the problems and national tragedies, there were still fighters who would bang out a message of hope and defiance in the mainstream press.  It was a time before money and propaganda devoured journalism and a deadly pall descended on the country as the economic elites expanded their obscene control over people’s lives and the media.

So it is also fitting that this documentary feels like an Irish wake with two old wheelchair-bound men musing on the past and all that has been lost and what approaching death has in store for them and all they love.  While not a word is spoken about the Catholic faith of their childhoods with its death-defying consolation, it sits between them like a skeleton. We watch and listen to two men, once big in all ways, talk about the old days as they shrink before our eyes. I was reminded of the title of a novel Breslin wrote long ago: World Without End, Amen, a title taken directly from a well-known Catholic prayer. Endings, the past receding, a lost world, aching hearts, and the unspoken yearning for more life.

Hamill, especially, wrote columns that were beautifully elegiac, and his words in this documentary also sound that sense despite his efforts to remain hopeful.   The film is a nostalgic trip down memory lane.  Breslin, who has since died, tries hard to express the bravado that was his hallmark in his halcyon days, but a deep sadness and bewilderment seeps through his face, the mask of indomitability that once served him well gone in the end.

So while young people need to know about these two old-school reporters and their great work in this age of insipidity and pseudo-objectivity, this film is probably not a good introduction.  Their writing would serve this purpose better.

This documentary is appearing at an interesting time when a large group of prominent Americans, including Robert Kennedy, Jr. and his sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, are calling for new investigations into the assassinations of the 1960s, murders that Breslin and Hamill covered and wrote about.  Both men were in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel when  Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968.  They were friends of the senator, and it was Hamill who wrote to RFK and helped convince him to run.  Breslin was in the Audubon Ballroom when Malcolm X was assassinated.  He wrote an iconic and highly original article about the JFK assassination.  Hamill wrote a hard-hitting  piece about RFK’s murder, describing Sirhan Sirhan quite harshly, while presuming his guilt.  They covered and wrote about all the assassinations of that era.  Breslin also wrote a famous piece about John Lennon’s murder.  They wrote these articles quickly, in the heat of the moment, on deadline.

But they did not question the official versions of these assassinations.  Not then, nor in the fifty plus years since.  Nor in this documentary. In fact, in the film Hamill talks about five shots being fired at RFK from the front by Sirhan Sirhan who was standing there.  Breslin utters not a word. Yet it is well known that RFK was shot from the rear at point blank range and that no bullets hit him from the front. The official autopsy confirmed this. Robert Kennedy, Jr. asserts that his father was not shot by Sirhan but by a second gunmen.  It’s as though Hamill is stuck in time and his personal memories of the event; as though he were too close to things and never stepped back and studied the evidence that has emerged.  Why, only he could say.

Perhaps both men were too close to the events and the people they covered.  Yes, their words always took you to the scene and made you feel the passion of it all, the shock, the drama, the tragedy, the pain, the confusion, and all that was irretrievably lost in murders that changed this country forever, killings that haunt the present in incalculable ways.  Jimmy and Pete made us feel the deep pain and shock of being overwhelmed with grief.  They were masters of this art.

But the view from the street is not that of history.  Deadlines are one thing; analysis and research another.  Breslin and Hamill wrote for the moment, but they have lived a half century after those moments, decades during which the evidence for these crimes has accumulated to indict powerful forces in the U.S. government.  No doubt this evidence came to their attention, but they have chosen to ignore it, whatever their reasons.  Why these champions of the afflicted have disregarded this evidence is perplexing.  As one who greatly admires their work, I am disappointed by this failure.

Street journalism has its limitations.  It needs to be placed in a larger context. Our world is indeed without end and the heat of the moment needs the coolness of time.  The bird that dives to the ground to seize a crumb of bread returns to the treetop to survey the larger scene.  Breslin and Hamill stuck to the ground where the bread lay.

At one point in Breslin and Hamill, the two good friends talk about how well they were taught to write by the nuns in their Catholic grammar schools.  “Subject, verb, object, that was the story of the whole thing,” says Breslin.  Hamill replies, “Concrete nouns, active verbs.”  “It was pretty good teaching,” adds Breslin. And although neither went to college (probably a saving grace), they learned those lessons well and gifted us with so much gritty and beautiful writing and reporting.

Yet like the nuns who taught them, they had their limitations, and what was written once was not revisited and updated.  In a strange, very old-school Catholic sense, it was the eternal truth, rock solid, and not to be questioned.  Unspeakable and anathema: the real killers of the Kennedys and the others.  The attacks of September 11, 2001 as well.

When my mother was very old, she published her only piece of writing.  It was very Breslin and Hamill-like and was published in a Catholic magazine.  She wrote how, when she was a young girl and the streets of New York were filled with horse drawn wagons, the nuns in her grammar school chose her to leave school before lunch and go to a neighboring bakery to buy rolls for their lunch.  It was considered a big honor and she was happy to get out of school for the walk to the bakery she chose a few streets away.  She got the rolls and was walking back with them when some boys jostled her and all the rolls fell into the street, rolling through horse shit.  She panicked, but picked up the rolls and cleaned them off.  Shaking with fear, she then brought them to the convent and handed them to a nun.  After lunch, she was called to the front of the room by her teacher, the nun who had chosen her to buy them.  She felt like she would faint with fear.  The nun sternly looked at her.  “Where did buy those rolls?” she asked.  In a halting voice she told her the name of the bakery.  The sister said, “They were delicious.  We must always shop in that bakery.”

Of course, the magazine wouldn’t publish the words “horse shit.” The editor found a nice way to avoid the truth and eliminate horse shit.  And the nuns were happy.

Yet bullshit seems much harder to erase, despite slogans and careful editors, or perhaps because of them.  Sometimes silence is the real bullshit, and how do you eliminate that?

The Damaging Asian Male Sexuality in Crazy Rich Asians and Why It is Not Asian Black Panther

Crazy Rich Asians has already been compared by reviewers criticizing it for its exaltation of late-stage capitalism to The Great Gatsby. It is a good comparison because it is true. We know enough by now that if you throw a Gatsby-themed Jazz Age wedding, the joke’s on you—you clearly have not read the book, or, having read it, did not understand it. The same applies to the misguided celebration of Crazy Rich Asians as some triumph of representation or diversity if it is to be praised for its satirical quality. If there is any satire of wealth made in the book, all of it is lost in the film version.

Every subplot in the film is wrapped up neatly with an offering made, finally, at the altar of wealth. When the cool, graceful, unflappable Astrid, whom we are meant to sympathize with, finally leaves her unfaithful husband, Michael, we are meant to relish the moment. Finally, Astrid, released (from what?), can take out her hidden Dior shoes, reach for those 1.2 million-dollar earrings, and strut off, off-screen mechanical fan blowing in her hair to reveal the glinting jewels (which required their own security on set).

We are asked finally, not merely to kneel at the shrine of Money, but to suck its cock. For money is plainly the phallus in the world of Crazy Rich Asians.

Michael Teo, played by Pierre Png, we are meant to understand, of course, gets to marry Astrid despite not being rich, because he is hot. (That this is exaggerated and deliberate is evident to the Singaporean viewer because, being a staple on the small screen in Singapore, while a good-looking guy, Pierre Png has never really played “hunk.”) This point is driven home because more than on any other character—more than even Nick Young–, the camera drools over his body. When we are first introduced to the character, we see his body before we see his face and the camera lingers hungrily on the drops of water that roll down his smooth back, the towel he brings over his washboard abs, wrapping it just above … his… The-Thing-We-Do-Not-See—which is, in other words, the thing he does not have. For in Crazy Rich Asians, wealth is the substitute for the phallus. And, hot as Michael is, he still, unfortunately, comes up short. Astrid lays this out for the audience when she says, at the end, that it is not her family’s money that destroyed their marriage—it is his cowardice; she “cannot make him a man because he never was one.” Well let’s be clear—he never was one because he never had the money-phallus.

In the novel, Michael laments being “treated like just a piece of meat,” that “[they] were wrong for each other, but [they] both got so swept up in the moment—in, let’s face it, the sex—that” that before he realized it, they were standing before a pastor. In the novel, Michael did not actually cheat, merely staging the affair in order to get out of a marriage he could no longer bear to live out. (Surprise surprise!—it emasculates him.) The film lets this not unimportant point slide, which, importantly, allows for wealth to triumph in the end. Pointedly, what is so goading about this is that it allows the triumph of wealth to be presented as a moral triumph.

But how ridiculous that we are made by the movie to feel on the side of Astrid, who, in addition to buying a pair of earrings for 1.2 millions dollars without batting an eyelid when we are first introduced to her, also boasts of having 14 other apartment blocks so she can deign to let Michael keep the one apartment he bought. How quickly we forget that in Singapore, where this is set, we have one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world and that property prices are some of the highest in the world. How happily we forgive that Singapore’s Gini coefficient is greater than America’s and that it is a country famous for its low taxes for the rich. (Can we stop talking already about how Eduardo Saverin gave up US citizenship to move to Singapore for this reason? Is this something we are proud of? Is it something we benefit from?) How readily we pretend the noose of mortgages and home loans and rents around our neck is not tight, that most are not shackled, ball and chain, to their real estate …. when given all this display of wealth to ogle at. How… self-defeating.

In an age of ever increasing inequality, of massive tax cuts for the 0.1%, of Jeff Bezos becoming 125 million dollars richer per day while Amazon employees sleep in cars and have timed toilet breaks, do we not know that the wealth accumulated by the super rich comes at the expense of others? The distribution of wealth in so many parts of the world today is a zero sum game.

But, of course, there is no space to critique the Young family in the film especially because in Crazy Rich Asians, they are presented as near national heroes, practically deity-like —not only as having gainfully earned their riches through industry, but even by having done something patriotic because they built their wealth by literally building Singapore, furthering a nationalistic and even moral defense for their wealth. Peik Lin Goh summarizes who the Youngs are for Rachel Chu: the Young family built Singapore up from a sleepy swamp of “pig farmers” to the glittering city that we see today. This is rhetoric that to the Singaporean ear, too closely repeats the refrain the Singapore government has drilled into every Singaporean—that of Lee Kwan Yew and the PAP bringing Singapore from “Mudflats to Metropolis” in 50 years, our veritable Creators. Her storytelling, then, aligns the Young family, in rhetoric in any case, with Lee Kwan Yew. In other words, they are raised to the level of a God. Let’s not forget that Astrid, the “best” of them all, is nicknamed “The Goddess.”

Asian American

Crazy Rich Asians does mark an important moment in film history because it is the first time a big budget Hollywood film is helmed by an all-Asian cast and produced and directed by Asian people. Many of the articles coming out in the major publications arguing alternatingly for the film’s either progressive or regressive politics center around what it does for the Asian American community. But the “win” Asian-Americans claim the film garners for them is goading, particularly so in the context of the argument they are making about representation. The Asian American community is well-equipped with the tools and the vocabulary to critique appropriation–but in this particular case, they have let themselves off the hook. They are eager to use Singapore as a proxy for themselves when it suits them, when they are just as happy to elevate or otherwise differentiate themselves from “FOBs” (fresh-off-the-boat), Asian people who are not from the right class, in the right job, etc. This has played out infuriatingly in the NYT’s viral #its2016 hashtag a couple of years ago. Then, in a video, were retold a never-ending stream of grating anecdotes: “This guy mistook me for the guy cooking his Chinese food at the takeout counter. I’m a LAWYER”; “My uber driver told me my English was so good, he couldn’t hear an accent at all. Of course, I was BORN IN CALIFORNIA!” Again and again the same pattern emerged, one of substituting the shame of race–whatever the markers may be: accent, class, profession, food– with assertions of citizenship, of productivity, of wealth. In other words, assertions of qualities of not just the well-integrated and adjusted, but of the financially, socially, culturally successful. What do these anecdotes suggest about what we should think of Chinese takeout cooks? Or Asians immigrants (or even visitors) with an accent? What do they suggest about what we think of new immigrants? Of refugees? Of minorities for whom structures, present and past, have made the accumulation of wealth/immigration difficult?

They reinscribe the importance of citizenship, country of nativity, language, productivity, that form the basis for prejudice that these aggrieved persons faced in the first place. When the indignation stems from being confused with them (a Chinese takeout cook, a person with accented-English), it continues to traffic in an us/them binary, one that maintains the same irksome hierarchical structures that discriminate against Asian American people.

The Asian American community was quick (and right) to rush to condemn Oscars host Chris Rock for trotting out Asian children (dressed as the accountants who presumably flubbed the votes that resulted in such a goading skew to “white films”) to land a joke in bad taste at the expense of Asian Americans, even as he was making his case for better and more representation of African Americans during the 2016 Academy Awards amidst the scandal of #Oscarssowhite. Yet, in lauding Crazy Rich Asians for being a watershed moment for representation, Asian Americans conveniently do not see the lack of brown bodies on display, or the brown bodies only appearing in positions of servitude, or, most horrifically, dark bodies used for a breathtaking, cheap moment of racist comedy– Rachel Chu and Goh Peik Lin are shocked and scared by the appearance of turbaned Sikh guards at their car windows when they think they are lost in “the middle of a jungle”—faces emerging out of the dark as if they were predatory jungle animals. Can we not hear EM Forster’s famous phrase of Howard’s End ring out?: Only connect! To easily ignore these slippages and failures of the film constitutes a critical laziness and smacks of moral cowardice.

Asian Americans have taken to social media to hail Crazy Rich Asians as the Asian Black Panther. I can understand the need to feel like one’s identity has been reclaimed, the need to feel like one has been represented in roles that seem desirable or cool or something other than buck-toothed caricatures. I have lived as an Asian person in America for the last ten years; in many ways, the Asian American experience has increasingly become mine too. But not only is this Asian American response an appropriative one as I have explained above, it is profoundly insensitive and damaging. The importance of Black Panther is that, in the imaginary Wakanda, it presents the reparative and redemptive fantasy and potentiality of an Africa that has never been colonized. But it is still an imagined world, built on the a fictitious material, Vibranium, that literally fell out of the sky. Singapore, in contrast, is a real place, with real people–it is, to me, home.  What reviewers laud in Crazy Rich Asians in not an imaginary material, but neoliberal, late-stage capitalism on brash display–not to mention, a wealth that is enabled by Singapore’s colonial past, a past that has been traded in for colonial nostalgia. (There is no sense of postcolonial indignation in Singapore–there is no such critique taught in schools.)

But if the film doesn’t do for Asian Americans what they claim it is doing for them, it is also not doing anything for Asians in Asia. In one of the many tiring scenes where “Asian-ness” is being explained, Peik Lin tells Rachel that she is a “banana,” then goes on to explain what that is—  that old, limp (forgive me) pseudo-joke about being yellow on the outside, but white on the inside. What the show expounds, in the end, is that it is a great time to be a banana. Rachel Chu is a banana and the triumph at the end of the film is the triumph of American exceptionalism and individualism over the “Crazy” Rich Asians. And let’s be clear—the title is meant to be derogatory. It’s not just “crazy rich” Asians, but also “crazy” rich Asians. Kwan’s second novel, “China Rich Girlfriend” confirms this, for in that title, “china” is the modifier.

The film is praised for its representation of complex characters, for finally showing that yellow people have complexity. But what complexity are we given to see? Most of the characters are mostly vain, petty, greedy, materialistic, bitchy, conniving. Here and there, badly behaving Asians are used as a convenient excuse for “complex characters” which parades as a subversion of the stereotype of smart, meek, well-behaved, hardworking Asian. Is this the best that can be done to throw off the yoke of the Model Minority Myth? Are we so starved for representation that bad behavior not only passes for complexity, but is also championed for diversity in representation?

Let’s go to one of the more upsetting scenes of bad behavior by way of returning to the money-phallus. The bachelor party scene ends with the uncaptioned chant “ku ku jiao,” started by Bernard, that mirrors that amazing scene in Sorry To Bother You where Cassius Green is made to perform his race for the pleasure and consumption of a white audience, and ends up yelling “N***** shit, n****** shit, n***** n***** n***** shit” to their delight. “Ku ku jiao” is a term few outside of Singapore would understand, meaning “little birdie” or a little boy’s dick (a different term, “lan jiao,” would translate more like the locker-room jargon, “cock,” but that term is not used)— a painfully pathetic, self-hating dig at Asian male sexuality masquerading as narcissism and machismo.

The delight the rich white yuppies in Sorry To Bother You derive lies in having Cassius yell a literalization of what, to them, he is. For Bernard and the rest of the merrymakers at the bachelor party, this is true too. The next thrust of my point lies in the fact that while he is yelling this, Bernard is carrying a giant canon held at his crotch, a comedic substitute, after all, for the tumescence he does not have. Out of this he pumps –-not fireworks (which the budget of the film must have allowed and the aesthetic of the film must have found appropriate)—but impotent crackling duds that shoot forth and plop lamely into the sea, fizzling out. Before the camera cuts to the next scene, at the height of the “ku ku jiao” chant, he shoots out one last firecracker aimed at a skimpily clad dancer on the edge of the pool and blasts her off stage. Is this comedy? Is the best performance of Asian male sexuality and virility one that must culminate in an act of violence against a woman? Is this how the Asian man wins?

Had he the “ku ku jiao” he wanted to show off, when caught by the paparazzi with the gold digging actress in a later scene, he would not be turning embarrassedly away, tail between his legs, as it were (yes, pun intended). The embarrassment here, therefore, is not that he has been caught having sex (Bernard would love that), but that he has been caught with a small and/or limp dick—the joke, of course, rooted in the stereotype of the emasculated Asian male. To this situation, he turns, and to the eye of the camera and the audience both, offers up his naked ass—a brief moment of nudity that is meant to serve as comic relief.

But it is not really a funny moment. For starters, it occurs at a sort of manic and deranged moment in the film—when Rachel has been told the “truth” about her mother and is running confusedly away, getting lost among and accosted by, (for the first time what really feels like) Crazy Asians. Bernard’s literal undressing then occurs alongside Rachel’s metaphorical denuding and both are quite horrific. Recall, too, for a moment, that when punched by Nick Young as a boy, Bernard “wins” not by returning the punch, but by sitting on him. *insert old locker room joke about checking before sitting down in a steam room lest you sit in another man’s lap.* What passes for comedy is then profoundly homophobic, for it lies in the potential for the (Asian male) body for penetration. As Leo Bersani enlightens us in “Is the Rectum a Grave?” the penetration of bodies (male and female alike) is used too often in cultural representation to suggest a posture of being demeaned or humiliated and its use here therefore is loaded.

Of course, none of these cerebral critiques of the film I have offered yet quite get at the heart of the much more visceral reaction I had. I found myself weeping throughout the film, leaking tears inexplicably. It wasn’t because I was so moved by Rachel Chu’s trials and tribulations and ultimate triumph (which was what? So much homage, after all, to the tired old marriage plot) for Constance Wu’s googly eyes irritated me—her moments of cutesy-ness and self-infantilizing and fawning feeling like some subconscious capitulation to the trope of what a lovable Asian girl is. No, I felt crazed. My impulse upon seeing my little country on screen was to rush forward and cover up the screen, like seeing a sister or a good friend stripped on stage, or, to tear it all down. Again and again, not Gatsby, but that harrowing scene from Darren Aronofsky’s horror extravaganza Mother! flashed in my mind— of Jennifer Lawrence rushing pleadingly after her baby while Javier Bardem (God) tells her that the adoring fans out there just want to see him, just want to love him, just want to worship him. My fellow Singaporeans and my country itself seem to say this too—this is a chance for Singapore to be showcased on the world stage, an “INCREDIBLE BRANDING OPPORTUNITY!” to echo a local politician on the Trump/Kim summit. It doesn’t in fact matter that, in a Bacchic frenzy, in their greed or their love (it doesn’t matter which) they tear and grab at the baby, ripping it apart and eating it up. Again and again as Singapore was put on display, I felt like Jennifer Lawrence, whimpering “he’s mine.. he’s mine..,” anxious for the awful house guests masquerading as worshipping fans not to take her baby.

What saddens me is how ready Singapore is to prostitute herself for attention. What infuriates me is how ready the world is to use Singapore to serve as confirmation for their own ends. Singapore is quite stunning—indeed she has a brilliant shining facade which works as the most perfect magic mirror. Ask Singapore anything and she will show you the best answer: What does a suppression of free speech look like? What does a country with no free and independent media look like? What does a country with high income inequality look like? A prism light show; a cantilevered ship on the top of 3 buildings; skyscrapers; a harbor so busy it looks like its own city at night— Singapore twirling and answering: “me, me, me.”

If the film is a celebration of capitalism call it so, but it is not a celebration of diversity. The galling part of the hype around the film and representation is that it allows one to be taken for the other. For example, Goh Peik Lin’s character need not, for the purposes of plot, have been rich. Her character would have provided a prime opportunity to showcase someone of a different socio-economic class, to highlight Singapore’s wonderful public housing, if, indeed, diverse representation was what we were going for. I know by now it is not.

To praise the show for being “a watershed moment for representation” or the “first of its kind” is to facetiously traffic in false opposites, to be like Foucault’s Victorians who everywhere whisper in hush tones that no one talks about sex. To say that this is the first time Asians have been allowed to be seen in a positive light is to trade on a presupposition that we have not—and that is a lie. To be sure, Hollywood hasn’t always been a great source for representation—but do we expect it to be? In the 80s, Japanese pop culture gained popularity in America and the rest of Asia following its economic boom. In the past decade, the growth of the Korean beauty industry and the Kpop music scene has led to vast changes in the perception of beauty around the world. There are more (east) Asian models on the catwalks and fronting campaigns for luxury goods than ever before. If that is the sort of representation we are seeking, it hasn’t not been there. I’m not trying to say more shouldn’t be done, I am asking for people to be clear-eyed.

And this is what that bewildering opening quote from Napoleon about sleeping dragons reveals. “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep for when she wakes she will shake the world.” Asian people are more interesting now quite simply because China is powerful and has money. What’s that pithy racist aphorism again? All Asian people look alike. The present moment is a time when being a minority can be worn like a trendy skin in certain contexts (this doesn’t mean that minorities are not then discriminated against because the two are not mutually exclusive) and that is happily adopted and used to obfuscate that what we are really celebrating in Crazy Rich Asians is money. If it is a good time to be a banana—yellow on the outside—it is a better time to be gold.

Crazy Rich Asians may have its use for various groups, may enable different things, but let the international community not forget that Singapore is a real place, and it is not there for the use-value other groups can foist upon it. To a country of 5 million people, most of them not Crazy Rich, it is home.

The film is not without its redeeming qualities. To my surprise, one of the movie’s bravest and sexiest scenes is one rife with homoeroticism. After the painful bachelor party scene, the camera cuts to Rawa Island, where Colin and Nick lounge lazily, drinking beer. The scene opens with Colin jesting, “Listen, if it weren’t for Araminta, I’d ask you to marry me!” So much romance after all passing for bromance. Rawa Island is known in the region as a getaway vacation spot for couples. (Listen, I went there a year ago with my husband after we had just gotten engaged and we did the only two things available to do there: we had beers like Colin and Nick, and the other I leave to my discerning reader to fill in the blanks.) The two men sit half naked, perfectly at ease with each other, speaking candidly about their relationships, expressing happiness and due concern for each other, opening up and displaying vulnerability—this might yet be the most healthy portrayal of men (Asian and otherwise) that I’ve seen in a rom-com in decades!—and are, for the first time in the film, actually sexy. Their easy banter and open honesty with each other feels somehow sexier than the prescriptive interaction between the main couple. Sex between the main heterosexual couple is connoted twice in the film but both scenes are clunky and awkward—the first suggests, perhaps, the raunchy fantasy of joining the “Mile High Club,” but honestly, when have collared, long-sleeved silk pyjamas suggested anything other than the uniform of philanthropic old rich men in movies, much less sex appeal?

The film has already done much in generating buzz about race and representation, and has already done wonders for the careers of the Asian actors that have been involved in the film (Henry Golding will star in two more Hollywood films before the year is over, Gemma Chan has now been signed on to the Marvel Universe) and may yet do more—I hope it does. But that conversation should be separate from what the film itself is.

Semper Fidelis or Das Kapital Uber Alles: From Eisenhower to Trump!

War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

— Smedley Butler, War is a Racket (1935)

I don’t think so. I think that the – the hook for many of our supporters was the idea that this was an unusual messenger for an important environmental message. You know, people who support environmental issues are constantly trying to find a way to preach beyond the choir, to reach beyond their base of people who are already on board, and I think one of the things that’s very appealing about the film, but primarily Jerry as a messenger, is that you don’t expect this message to come from a career military person.

And through Jerry, you’re – we’ve been able to reach this audience of military folks who maybe wouldn’t be attuned to the environmental message about the effects of toxins on health and things like that. So I think there was a real appeal to many of those organizations from that perspective.

— Rachel Libert, co-producer of filmSemper Fi

I’m thinking harder and harder about the Continuing Criminal Enterprise that is the Corporate State. Thinking hard about the buffoonery, really, “regular” citizens, and members of the armed services, taking hook-line-and-sinker the foundational belief that it’s we the people, by the people, for the people, because of the people.

How wrong my old man was, 32 years combined Air Force and Army, believing he was upholding some decency, some safety nets for all, old folks homes, jobs for college grads and those without any training. Turning in his grave, absolutely, if he could now witness the evisceration of our post office, libraries, public schools, health care, roads and infrastructure. He fought for government oversight, EPA, FDA, and the rights of nature over the thuggery of madmen and Mafiosi and financial philanderers. He witnessed the abuse and fraud of the US Military Lobbying Corporate Ripoff complex, up close and personal. When he was in Korea, he had the utmost respect for Koreans, on both sides of the line. When he was in Vietnam, he had the utmost respect for the Vietnamese. He taught me the words of General Smedley Butler when I was 12. Now how fucked up is that, man. Living half a century on that graveyard of lies, propaganda and insufferable patriotism.

Daily, that American exceptionalist clarion call is pummeled and delegitimized by purveyors of Capitalism – rapacious, arbitrary, steeped in usury, couched in profits over all, cemented by the few elites and their soldiers – Little Eichmann’s – to define all human and non-human life as anything for the taking, consequences be damned. It’s a bought and sold and resell system, United States. Many times, it’s a rip-off after rip-off system of penalties and penury.

Think of Capitalism as, in spite of the people, against the people, forever exploiting the masses. Daily, I have seen this played out as a kid living on military bases around the world; or in just one of a hundred examples, as a student at the University of Arizona watching white purveyors of capital squash the sacred mountain, Mount Graham, in the name of telescopes and tens of thousands of profits per hour for anyone wanting to peer through the scopes. Sticking to the Sonora, I saw the developers in Tucson and then in Kino Bay, Guaymas, all there to push ecosystems toward extinction and to hobble the people – of, for, by, because – with centuries of collective debt and decades of individual fines, levies, taxes, penalties, tolls, externalities. This has been a Greek tragedy of monumental proportions, my 61 years of hard living, shaped by Marxist ideology and informed with communitarian reality.

Name a system or an issue, and then I quickly and easily jump to the cause and effect of the problem, and searching for intended and unintended consequences, and then comprehending shifting baselines, and then inevitably, realizing the tragedy of the commons tied to anything enshrined in consumer capitalism, and then, finally, acceding to the full context of how exponential growth and the limits of growth all come pounding like an aneurysm into my brain.

Call it death by a thousand rules, death by a thousand loopholes, death by a thousand fine print clauses, death by a thousand new chemicals polluting land, soil, air, water, flesh. Death by another thousand PT Barnum adages from dozens of financial-extracting arenas — “a sucker is born every minute,” all tributes to this casino-vulture-predatory capitalism which is insanity as we go to war for, because, despite it all.

Teacher-journalist-social worker-activist-unionist: Who the hell said I had any place in this society of “money takes/speaks/controls/shapes all,” or the Holly-dirt celebrity that is Weinstein or Rosanne Barr, the lot of them, and the unending perversion of big business-big media-big energy-big finance-big pharma-big arms manufacturing-big war as the new coded and DNA-embedded value system, the existential crisis (hog) of culture, civil society, the commons, community, and nature?

The men and women I work with now, after a cavalcade of careers under my belt, are wounded soldiers, sometimes wounded warriors, and many times wounded children – both the inner child and the literal children of soldiers. We’ve had one-day-old babies and 83-year-old veterans in this shelter. Every type of service, every type of discharge, every kind of military history. Some were never deployed overseas, some were but in support capacities, and others saw combat.

That is the microcosm of society reflected in this homeless shelter. I’ve written about it here and here and here. The prevailing winds of one or two strikes, then one or two bad debts, then one or two evictions, or one or two convictions, and, one or two co-occurring maladies, or one or two levels of trauma, and you are almost out; and mix that up with failed relationships, and capitalism and militarism, joined at the hip like a six-legged frog, and we have homelessness. Living in garages, in mini-vans, on couches, in tents, on floors, in wooden boxes, in abandoned buildings, in cemeteries, in cars.

For veterans, there is some level of dysfunctional help through the VA, the medical and dental system, the psych wards, and with housing vouchers and some debt relief. Thank a veteran for his or her service to the country, well, that’s a sloppy invocation of superficial respect.

The crumbs of the octopus that is capitalism wedded to war trickle down to some sectors of society – those who were diagnosed before 18 with some developmental-psychological-intellectual disability and veterans who served. I am talking about vets who didn’t go full-bore and retire after 20-plus years. These vets sometimes ended up in for four or five years, some a few months, and as is the case, here, the hierarchy of character and demographics kicks in, as veterans deployed to war and those who were wounded in war get a higher level of “benefits” than, say, someone who was in a few months or a year with no splashy combat rejoinder to his or her record.

We have vets in continuous, long bureaucratic lines working on their service connected disability claims, and, it’s sometimes a huge Sisyphus game of producing medical record after medical record going up against the hydra of the US government, Arms Service Committee pols, and the western medical system that was bound for failure after the striped barber pole days ended. The military does not help, denying injuries on the job, in combat or otherwise.

Tinnitus or loss of hearing, well, that’s usually a given after even a few months of service in the military. Knees, hips, feet, back problems. Anxiety, depression, skin issues. Kidney, teeth, TBI issues. PTSD and MST (military sexual trauma). The list is a ten-volume encyclopedia.

What I’ve found is most guys and gals are not wired for the obscene confusion, machismo and endless stupidity of repetition and humiliation of barking dehumanizing orders and tasks coming out of service to our country – all branches of the military make the Sanford Prison Experiment look like a walk in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

A Documentary About Cover-up, Collective Guilt, Toxins in the Water, Death

The precipitating factor behind a review of a 2011 documentary, Semper Fi: Always Faithful, directed and produced by Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon, is I am working with a former Marine client as his social worker. In a homeless shelter for veterans; that moniker – social worker — is a deep one, a cover-all assignment, with wide ranging responsibilities, some anticipated and others surprisingly serendipitous.

His case, age 63, former Marine, in at age 17 with parents’ permission, is complicated – as if the other cases are not. A lot of these cases involve young men and women, virtually boys and girls, getting out of Dodge. Some with a sense of patriotism, for sure, and a few with aspirations of turning the military into a career. But make no bones about it, these people many times got caught up in the rah-rah patriotism of the day, Apple Pie, Mom, Hot Dogs and Football. Some were in it for the macho badge, and others wanted to learn avionics, electronics, logistics and nursing, etc. Many were discharged because of physical injuries or some sort of mental strain, or many were rifted for the unjust downright downsizing.

I’ll call my man Larry, and he grew up on the Oregon Coast, ending up hitching up with the Marine Corps because he wanted out of bubble of the small town and wanted in with a band of brothers.

Today, he is still tall, but a bit hunched over. His face is frozen in a heavy screen of sadness and fear. Both hands he is attempting to calm, but Parkinsonian tremors have taken over; he can’t hold a tray of food and drink, and he has no signature left. He has bruises on his arms and shines from falling over, tripping. He repeats himself, and knows it, telling me his words are coming out slurred.

He spent two years in prison for what amounts to minor (in my mind) medical fraud with his company. Those two years, he tells me, were nirvana. “The prison guards told me they had never anyone say they were glad to be in prison. I told them this was the calmest and most level I had ever been, or for at least years.”

His life was one of overwork, overreach, clients all over the Pacific Northwest, gambling addiction, big money from his business, lot of toys and big home, and children who ended up spoiled and broken as adults. Larry’s juggling a hoarder wife whose mother is dying, a heroin-addicted daughter with a child, another daughter in an abusive relationship, and countless appointments now to the VA, psychologists, counselors, OT and PT professionals, and support groups.

Today, he is quickly slipping into miasma of Parkinson’s, with all the symptoms and negative cycles of someone with Parkinson’s hitting him daily. He barely got a diagnosis, as early on-set, a few months ago; in fact, he’s been living with the Parkinsonian-triggered suite of maladies for up to 12 years, he tells me. “I remember my clients telling me I was repeating myself. I really think the stupid decision to defraud the state for a few hundred dollars was triggered by Parkinson’s.”

He and I have talked to support groups, looked at the literature around Parkinson’s, watched TED Talk’s focusing on the disease, gone to Michael J. Fox’s web site, and just honed in on what his life will be like in a year, two years, and five.

Right now, his Parkinson’s is one of nine major maladies tied to service connected disabilities the VA is now processing. This ties into the movie – Semper Fi – because my client was stationed at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, as part of the Marine Corps where learning the art of war was also combined with the silent spring of water contamination that eventually resulted in diseases that both affected the veterans but also their families, and civilians who used the water, as well as their offspring.

This is a three decades long exposure, 1957 – 1987, with an estimated 750,000 to 1,000,000 people who may been exposed to the cancer- and neurological disorder-causing chemicals. They consumed and bathed in tap water contaminated with “extremely high concentrations of toxic chemicals.”

The documentary follows three main protagonists fighting for their lives, the legacy of loved ones who were affected, and for the truth.

This is Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, and according to the epidemiologists and scientists from the National Academy of Sciences, it is one of largest water contamination incidents in US history. We learn in the film the main carcinogens the people were exposed to — benzene, vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene (TCE), three known human carcinogens, in addition to perchloroethylene (PCE), a probable carcinogen.

The list of physical damage caused by exposure is long — Birth Defects, Leukemia, Neurological Damage, Bladder Cancer, Liver Damage, Ovarian Cancer, Breast Cancer, Lymphoma, Prostate Cancer, Cervical Cancer, Lung Cancer, Scleroderma, Kidney Damage, Miscarriage, Skin Disorders.

My guy Larry is afraid of watching the documentary, as he is now in a spiraling malaise and deep anxiety tied to the reality of what life with Parkinson’s is, and that maybe many of his life decisions, from infidelity in a marriage to spontaneous behavior like gambling addiction may have stemmed from the stripping of his neurological web by these solvents and fuels that were leaking into the water supply, a contamination known by the United States’ Marines.

Knowledge is power but it can be a leveling power, one that forces people to look at the totality of their lives as may be based on a stack of lies and false ideologies. The movie reveals to the audience that this is one of 130 military sites in the USA with contamination issues. Alas, as I’ve written about before, the US military is the largest polluter in the world, and other militaries have the same standards or lack thereof for storing fuel, solvents, cleaners and other chemicals utilized in the war machine of the West.

Three Lives Following the Chemical Trail, Lies and Deceit

The documentary looks at three lives intensely – a 24-year veteran of the Marines whose 9-year-old daughter Janey died of a rare type of leukemia, a man who was born on the base and raised there and then developed male breast cancer, and a female Marine who served years at the Camp and who throughout the film is going through chemo to fight her rare disease.

We see the gravestones at the military cemetery at Camp Lejeune and remarkable typographic evidence of strange deaths – babies buried after a day living, stillborn babies buried, families with two or three deceased individuals, the offspring of serving Marines buried in plots surrounded by others who prematurely died.

Jerry Ensminger, the former drill sergeant, pushes hard to attempt to understand how the Marines could have lied and covered up the years of contamination. He fights to understand how the chemical producers through their lobbyists could hold sway over the common sense duty of protecting the citizens of the United States who swore an oath to defend the US Constitution. In the end, Jerry Ensminger (Janey’s dad), Michael Partain (male breast cancer survivor), and Danita McCall (former Marine enlisted soldier) make for compelling film making, since the project went on for four years.

Here, Rachel, the co-producer, talks about Danita:

The woman who shook her head is a woman named Danita, who we also followed in the film. When we met Danita, she was actually healthy, but shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with cancer that honestly had metastasized so much in her body that I don’t think they could even say what the organ of – you know, what organ it started in. And we began to – in addition to following Jerry and Tom and the others, we also followed Danita as she fought to stay alive, as well as fought to get this issue out.

She did not make it in the time that we were making the film. And neither my co-director or I had ever experienced that in a project we’d worked on, and it was really hard. But Danita felt very strongly that her story should be in the film, and she – even though there were times where she was not feeling so great when we were trying to film her, because she had chemo treatment and whatnot, she really rallied through.

The ultimate sacrifice fighting for your life because of chemical-toxin induced cancers are eating at your very soul while also going up against the PR and hellish propaganda systems that define America, define the powerful, the political, the lobbies, the Captains of Industry, in this case, the chemical purveyors who have been given carte blanc the right to kill entire neighborhoods and classes of people and non-people species because Capitalism is predicated on unfettered rights of any snake oil salesman or demon shyster to bilk, bust, and bill for all the disease they perpetrate. Is anyone with a sound mind going to believe that Agent Orange and PCBs were not already deemed harmful to human life before they were even sprayed on the innocents of Vietnam? Does anyone believe the polluted, lead-flecked water of Flint doesn’t kill brain cells? Off-gassing, Volitile Organic Compounds, plastics, solvents, flame retardants, pesticides, fungicides, diesel fumes, nitrous oxide, fluoride, well, the list goes on and on, and those demons will hide, obfuscate, and downright lie to keep the pennies from Capitalism’s Heaven falling into their fat, off-shore, tax-free bank accounts.

Here, Jerry, talking to C-SPAN:

When any family ever have a child, especially a child, that’s diagnosed with a long-term catastrophic illness, without exception — because I’ve talked to so many other families, when Janey was sic– the first thing after you have a chance to sit down after the shock of the diagnosis wears off is that nagging question: Why? Well, I was no exception.
And I looked into her mother’s family history, my family history, no other child had ever been diagnosed with cancer.

We are talking about over one thousand Freedom of Information requests to have Navy, Marines and other government agency files open for public viewing. The concept of we the people, by the people, for the people – public health, safety, welfare – has never really been a reality, but a myth. For filmmaker Rachel Libert, she too has been caught with wide open eyes around how rotten the systems in place are for supposedly cross-checking and protecting people’s lives:

It’s been eye-opening for me. I think the thing that was probably the most eye-opening – I don’t consider myself a naive person, but I – I actually believed that our regulatory agencies were doing their job and protecting us, bottom line, that things that were really, really harmful and known to be carcinogens wouldn’t really be in our environment, in our water and things. And in making this film, I realized that that system is very flawed and that we aren’t as protected, and that was a very difficult thing for me to accept.

I mean, I certainly didn’t go into it thinking, oh, the government’s perfect and there are no problems, but that was a big revelation.

Again, the film is a microcosm of the world I live in, the world I work in, and the world of a Marxist struggling to make sense of the psychology of power and the impact of that power on the common people. Yes, schooling has helped with the American mythology of greatness. Yes, the Madison Avenue shills have aided and abetted the stupidity of a collective. Yes, the genocidal roots of this country’s illegal origin continue to splay the DNA of Americans. Yes, the food is bad, the air contaminated, the medicines polluted and the human spirit malformed in the collective American household. Yes, those in power are perversions, open felons, war mongers and money grubbers.

But, when you see over the course of four years – these main “actors” in the documentary are not paid – the Don Quixotes flailing at windmills, just replace Camp Lejeune with Love Canal or Monfort slaughter house, or fence-line communities around Houston or the flaming waters of the Cuyahoga River. Just spend a few years studying the largest Superfund site, Hanford in southern Washington. Just spend time looking at the research on Glyphosate (Monsanto’s DNA-killing Round-up). Just delve into the research on EMFs and cancers, or cell phones and brain lesions. Again, this so-called exceptionalist country is a purveyor of lies, purveyor of mentally deranged uber patriotism, and without exception, eventually, anyone going up against the system will quickly hold to him or her self the belief we all have been snookered by the Titans of Industry and the Wolves of Wall Street.

Here, the good Marine, 24 years in, Semper Fi, now a farmer in North Carolina, wondering just what he was fighting for:

Well . . . one thing that they’ve done over the years is that they have obfuscated the facts so much, they have told so many half-truths and total lies, they’ve omitted a lot of information to the media, and now if they were to sit down with me face-to-face, I could show them with their own documents and counter what they’ve been saying, and they don’t want to do that.

I mean, I have been very, very cautious throughout this entire fight to speak truth. I’ve told Mike Partain, when he got involved in it, and everybody else that gets involved in this situation, don’t ever speculate. If you’re talking to the media, if you’re talking to Congress, never speculate. If you don’t have a document out of their own files to back up what you’re saying, keep your mouth shut.

And going back to Mike Partain, when Mike got involved in this back in 2007, Tom was starting to fall out of the hike. Tom’s in his 80s. And Mike was a godsend. I mean, Mike has a degree in history. And he has also got investigative skills, because he is an insurance adjuster. He couldn’t – he couldn’t pay to raise his family on high school teacher’s pay, history teacher’s pay, so he went and got a job as an investigator.

Admirable, the story telling and truth Sather qualities in this film, for sure. The audience gets up close and personal with Jerry and Mike and Danita, and the directors let the soldiers tell the story. We get the cold hard stare down of the military brass. Indeed, for the uninitiated this story is compelling.

But also on the outer edges of this piece are the obscenities of blind obedience to command. There are some ugly truths to being a Marine, of following orders, of sadomasochistic drill sergeants, the culture of rape, the outright racism, and all the attendant issues tied to military service.

This is the fiftieth year after the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. The two or three soldiers who stood down some of the killers and reported the crime were vilified. That bastion of war, Colin Powell, was a junior officer whose job was to hunt down any incriminating evidence against the soldiers who reported the murders. Seymour Hersh won a Pulitzer for his reporting on My Lai. Yet, Colin Powell rose to power, ending up in another war criminal’s administration – Bush Junior. To think of all the illegal wars these soldiers have prepped for and gone to, one wonders if any soldier can believe anything around their sometimes teary-eyed salute the flag patriotism.

The USS Liberty, 51 years ago, and Israel murders 34 sailors, and wounds 171, yet deniability, no repercussions, and here we are, US DoD and US Military are the beckon call of Israel firsters running our government, and the blind allegiance to the apartheid and genocidal state 70 years after forced trail of tears for Palestine, and all those deniers now in positions of Fortune 500 power, and who decide the fate of the plebes, the foot soldiers of industry and military services.

Conversing with my veterans, so many are confused about aliens and Area 54 and reverse engineering from that Roswell kid from space; somehow a Trump is more palatable than an Obama than a Bush. How many times have I been spat upon and cursed when I fought against illegal wars, overt or proxy, in South America, Central America, the Middle East? How many times have I been yelled at for fighting against chemical plants or fighting for clean air, water, soil? How many times have I been called a Pinko Fag for fighting for spotted owls or gray wolves?

As an avowed revolutionary, Marxist, one who has been hobbled by the middling mush that is America, from acidified sea to oil slick sea, I can only say that George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain, respectively, say it correctly about this thing called “patriotism”:

Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it.

— George Bernard Shaw

Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.

— Mark Twain

I’ve got a more horrific story to tell about Larry, my former Marine. Yes, he might get some more service connected disability money coming in for the toxic water exposure he attained in North Carolina while on the Marine Corps base for a few years.

He is now stagnant, fearful of uncontrollable tremors, fearful of not getting words out, fearful of falls, fearful of a life now full of attendants, and as we all are, fearful of ending up destitute (he is in a homeless shelter, readers), and alas, his one asset — his brain — is now fogged and riddled with the bullet holes of anxiety and paranoia.

Yet, his toxic waters story pales in comparison to what happened to him as a 17-year-old at boot camp in Dan Diego. A story so bizarre and troubling, that it’s one the military has dealt with since time immemorial, when the first militaries came about under those pressed into service rules of the rich needing bodies to fight their unholy skirmishes, battles and world wars.

That story and series of human penalties Larry encompasses will come soon, but for now, imagine, a country run by the likes of Obama, Bush, Clinton, Trump, et al. Imagine those swollen jowls and paunchy millionaire politicians. Imagine their lies, their sociopathic inbreeding. Imagine the tortures they foment at night. Imagine these people sending people to war, and imagine the entire lie that is America, the land of the free.

Hell, in my own neck of the woods, Portland, again, we are a third world country when it comes to we, for, by and because the people:

In one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world, the fight for clean water is taxing. From Salem, Oregon to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and from Flint, Michigan to the L’eau Est La Vie Camp in Louisiana, Americans are finding their access to clean water threatened.

Emma Fiala

Inside the Irish Prison System

Michael Inside is a new Irish movie which looks at the prison system in Ireland and the people who serve their time in it. The film is about a young man who is sent to prison for the first time after being caught with drugs he had stashed in his grandfather’s house with whom he shares. In prison he is taken under the wing of an older experienced prisoner who helps him to stand up for himself but also ensnares him in a cycle of violence in the prison itself. We see the emotional and psychological growth and strengthening of Michael with these harrowing experiences. The big question of the film is then: will he become like his father, also in jail, or learn from his grandfather’s advice?

The most important aspect of this new Irish film is its cinematic approach to telling the story. Ireland has a long history of theatre and successful drama which spilled over into its film-making too. Irish films in the past have been worthy and wordy with directors more comfortable with theatrical styles than cinematic imagery. It was also difficult to achieve cinematic lift-off with the gravity of so many winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ireland won four times in the 20th century: W. B. Yeats (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1925), Samuel Beckett (1969) and Séamus Heaney (1995), all of whom wrote plays. Not forgetting, of course, Lady Gregory, John Millington Synge, George Moore, Oscar Wilde and Seán O’Casey. The developing language of cinema filtered slowly into Irish film-making either for reasons of fear of audience reaction (more used to theatre) or a lack of an appreciation of the idea that sometimes less is more.

Michael Inside has at times an almost documentary feel to it in the way the prison and the prison officers are portrayed. They come across as empathetic and generally respectful of the prisoners. The director of Michael Inside, Frank Berry, stated the story-line was “researched with former prisoners” and authenticity was desired even to the point of using former prisoners as extras.

The use of the camera has a Tarkovskian feel with long takes, blurring and choreography before the camera. Some scenes like in the grandfather’s house are performed in front of a stationary camera with minimal lighting and wonderful blocking as actors move in and out of shot during the dialogue. Michael’s life outside of prison seems almost as oppressive as inside. Sparse dialogue, sparse rooms and ennui add to this feeling. The tyranny of montage is felt, though, when Michael goes into his cell for the first time and sits down on the bottom bunk. This would have been a perfect moment to let the camera linger and linger to illustrate the timelessness of prison life. Steve McQueen, the British director, does this brilliantly in Hunger (2008) (also a great prison movie) when he has a fixed camera on one end of a long prison corridor pointed at a person washing the floor and stays on him until he finally gets to the other end. A similar very long take is used in the Irish Traveler film, Pavee Lackeen (2005) to illustrate the difficulty of such basic things as making a cup of tea as we see the young girl go outside and walk to a hose behind a metal fence, fill the bucket and walk back to the mobile home. However, in Michael Inside, it cuts all too soon in the prison cell to the next shot.

Cinema fans who liked A Prophet (French: Un prophète), the 2009 French prison drama-crime film directed by Jacques Audiard will also enjoy Michael Inside. Unlike A Prophet, the protagonist of Michael Inside is exposed to alternative paths for his future as a former prisoner who has studied for an MA and is progressing towards a PhD gives the inmates a talk on the importance of education. This is an important moment in the film as it demonstrates one way with which to break the cycle of violence and transgenerational incarceration. Indeed Michael plans to further his education despite the bias against former prisoners.

Michael Inside is a wonderful film about the Irish penal system, the sparseness of some working class lives and the potential for positive change. The irony of this depiction of working class poverty and hopelessness is the fact that the film is conceived, researched, and acted using the imagination, talents and experience of Irish working class people. It points to a new self-awareness and education happening in sections of Irish society that augur well for the future.