In 2016 the corporate-controlled Democratic National Committee decided to pull out all the stops to prevent insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders from taking away the nomination from their preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton. That decision contributed to the surprise victory by Donald Trump because many of Sanders’ supporters decided not to come to the polls in November. Now it looks like corporate Democrats are repeating the same exact mistake.
In 2009 I published “The Year of Loving Dangerously,” my graphic novel about my anni horribili, 1984-1985. I was expelled from college, fired from my job and evicted from my dorm — and dumped on the streets of Manhattan during a long hot summer in Reagan America. I discovered that sex wasn’t just my favorite thing, it was also good for finding a place to crash. Manslut – that was me.
Year was my first book collaboration. I wrote the text. Spanish artist Pablo G. Callejo, best known for “Bluesman,” did the artwork. The results were spectacular: Callejo is a genius and evoked 1980s New York like no one else could.
There was interest in turning Year into a movie. Also a TV show. You know how that goes. I think the time wasn’t right.
Now, however, everything is coming up 1980s. I keep thinking someone should make a movie or TV show out of it. Not because I want a movie or TV show, which of course I do, but because it was so fucking cool and would make an awesome adaptation.’
So, smart Hollywood peeps, if you’re out there, here’s a few pages. If you want to see the whole thing, ping me by hitting the Contact tab on Rall.com.
Movies are the historical record.
Americans experience the Vietnam War by watching “Apocalypse Now,” slavery in “12 Years a Slave,” and D-Day through “Saving Private Ryan.” A lot more Americans watch historical movies than read history books. Which, when done well, is not a bad thing. I’ve read countless books about the collapse of Nazi Germany, but the brilliantly-acted and directed reenactment of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker depicted in the masterful 2004 German film “Downfall” can’t be beat.
When a film purports to depict a historical event, it becomes the only version of what most people believe really happened. So, as we move further into a post-literate society, misleading historical filmmaking isn’t just a waste of 2-1/2 hours.
It’s a crime against the truth.
The Ava DuVernay-directed film “Selma” is at the center of controversy, both due to its semi-snubbing by the Oscars – viewed as backtracking from last year’s relatively racially diverse choice of nominees – and accusations that it plays loose with history.
Former LBJ aide and Democratic Party stalwart Joe Califano fired the first shot with a Washington Post op-ed. “Selma,” wrote Califano, “falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.”
Robert Caro’s magisterial four-volume biography of Johnson portrays him as a deeply flawed man, but one whose passion to push for desegregation and an end to discrimination against blacks informed his political career throughout his life, though it wasn’t always obvious to his detractors.
It was only after JFK’s assassination brought him to power – actually, a movie portraying Kennedy as reluctant to support civil rights would have been accurate – that he had the chance to push through both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which he did aggressively and quickly, despite what he famously predicted would be the loss of the South to the Democratic Party for a generation or more.
Johnson gave J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI too much latitude, which Hoover used to harass King, but there’s no evidence that, as the movie depicts, it was LBJ who ordered Hoover to send audiotapes of King having sex with other women to his wife. And let’s be clear: every important conversation in the Oval Office was being taped. We have the transcripts. We would know if that had happened.
Califano takes his defense of his former boss too far when he says “[the march on] Selma was LBJ’s idea.” Otherwise, the facts are on his side: the LBJ in “Selma” is not the LBJ King knew.
Fans of the film argue that it doesn’t matter.
“Did ‘Selma’ cut some corners and perhaps tilt characters to suit the needs of the story? Why yes — just like almost every other Hollywood biopic and historical film that has been made,” the media writer David Carr writes in The New York Times.
Yes, in a movie the story is the thing. It’s hard to imagine “The Queen” — about the inner workings of the British monarchy and its relationship to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair in the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana — working without a lot of made-up dialogue between the principals. However, the great detail of these obviously private conversations signals to the audience that they don’t come out of a transcript, and that we must be witnessing a fictionalized account.
There comes a point, on the other hand, where so many corners get cut and so many characters get tilted that a film ceases to resemble history and enters the territory of complete fabulism and, in the case of “Selma” and LBJ, retroactive character assassination.
The clash between MLK and LBJ – King pushing, Johnson resisting – isn’t merely some extraneous detail of the script in “Selma.” It’s the main plot of the film.
It didn’t go down like that, yet thanks to this BS film, a generation of Americans will grow up thinking that it did.
Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post repeatedly calls “Selma” “fiction.” As in: “film and other fiction.” To her, apparently, film is always fiction. But it’s not.
Like books, film is a medium.
Film can be nonfiction.
Film can be fiction.
“Califano’s approach,” she writes, “besides setting a [sic] odd standard for how fiction ought to work…suggests that we should check fiction for inaccuracies.”
As usual, the crux of the debate boils down to an inability to agree on definitions of terms. For those like Rosenberg who believe that everyone knows movies are just for fun, it doesn’t matter that “Schindler’s List” depicts showers at Auschwitz spraying water rather than Zyklon B — even though that never happened, and thus serves to understate one of the horrors of the Holocaust. To the all-movies-are-fiction crowd, “Zero Dark Forty” is cool despite its completely false claim that torture led to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
“This is art; this is a movie; this is a film,” director DuVernay told PBS. “I’m not a historian. I’m not a documentarian.”
That’s sleazy. Truth is, her film is being marketed as fact, as she knew it would be. And it’s doing better because of it.
Audiences need a ratings system to separate films that purport to recount actual historical events from those like “Selma,” which are fictional tales using historical figures as hand puppets.
I suggest that the MPAA institute the following ratings:
Rated H for Historical: a film that makes a good faith effort to recount history accurately.
Rated S-H for Semi-Historical: a film that relies on devices like made-up dialogue and encounters, but whose basic plot line reflects history to the best of our knowledge.
Rated H-F for Historical Fiction: a film in which anything, including the basic plot line, can be made up out of whole cloth.
If the movies are going to lie to me, I deserve to know before shelling out my $12.50.
(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)
COPYRIGHT 2015 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM
“Cinéma Vérité” as Political Propaganda
Paul Greengrass is a gifted director who specializes in historical reenactments, a once marginal genre that in recent years hits the sweet spot, earning critical plaudits as well as bringing in bank (Greengrass’ “United 93,” Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “Downfall,” about Hitler’s final days in his bunker). Greengrass’ latest entry in this field is “Captain Phillips,” a retelling of the 2009 hijacking of a container ship by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks stars in the title role.
Watching this film left me with an uneasy feeling, like I’d digested a delicious meal devoid of nutrition. It was a fun drama. But I didn’t learn anything. Why not?
This is solid Hollywood filmmaking. Tight scripting, sharp editing and unpretentious cinematography deliver a story that keeps you in your seat long after you began having to pee. Hanks delivers one of his finest performances, driving a stake into his rep as an always-playing-himself actor; Barkhad Abdi is a sensational revelation as pirate leader Abduwali Muse.
But what does this film mean? What message does Greengrass convey to his audience?
In random order, here are the takeaways: leadership is tough. Bravery exacts a high cost. In an interconnected world — we watch Phillips email his wife after the pirates’ first attempt to board the Maersk Alabama — it’s nevertheless possible to be alone, isolated and vulnerable. Intermodal transport, an industry in which vast ships carrying thousands of tons of goods are piloted by an unarmed skeleton crew, is surreal. If nothing else, “Capitain Phillips” is worth watching because it opens a window into the lonely lives of the men and women responsible for keeping our store shelves stocked.
Pull out of the multiplex parking lot, however, and you quickly realize the real revelation: “Phillips” is pro-government propaganda.
Greengrass has created the most frightening kind of propaganda — so effective that for most people it will become the definitive historical account of an event. Unlike the hilariously shrill propaganda flicks of the past, from “Triumph of the Will” to Cold War-era artifacts like “Rambo” and “Red Dawn,” the new breed pretends not to editorialize. Affecting a quiet, Zoloft-inflected tone and economical, apparently straightforward scriptwriting, this movie plays it close to the vest, coming off as deadly fair and serious. Which makes it easy to miss what is left out.
This new cinéma non-vérité uses high art to sanitize history in order to elevate the imperialist, militarist geopolitical agenda of the U.S. government in its post-9/11 war on terror.
Kathryn Bigelow never scratches the surface of Osama bin Laden’s motivations in “Zero Dark Thirty.” He’s just a target, a cipher in a beard, so we don’t care when he dies. Her film is thrilling yet vacuous.
It is far from settled history that United Flight 93 was brought down by the passenger revolt — the 9/11 Commission Report leaves open the possibility that it was shot down. But that would prompt uncomfortable questions. Greengrass’ film, which unquestioningly accepts the “let’s roll” scenario, all but sets it in stone for posterity.
Ben Affleck’s “Argo” is devoid of political context, especially the historical basis for the Iranian revolutionaries’ contempt for the United States. Best not to mention the coup, the shah, corruption or torture.
American movies are about choices. Will the protagonist choose right or wrong (and which is which)? In “Captain Phillips,” however, the ethical quandaries rest not on Hanks’ character, who handles his ordeal as courageously and competently as you could expect, but on Abdi’s shoulders. It’s more than a little odd.
“We are just fisherman,” Abdi explains after seizing control of the vessel. Fortunes reverse after crewmen hidden in the engine room capture him and trade him for their captain, who offers them $30,000 in cash and a lifeboat to leave the ship. Disgusted that the Somalis won’t settle for less than “millions” and physically brutalized, Hanks spits “you are not a fisherman!” at Abdi an hour later into the movie.
It’s a puzzling narrative choice. Not only is Abdi’s a supporting role, we don’t see much deliberation. Muse is in it for the big bucks all along. So are his colleagues.
Passing up the obvious chance to use this mother of all culture clashes as a means to discuss race and class, Greengrass has nevertheless succumbed to the hoary colonial instinct to ask, almost out loud, why $30,000 isn’t enough to sate a gang of starvation-thin guys from one of the world’s poorest countries. The closest we get to an answer is a tossed-off aside by Abdi that the fish “left” Somali waters.
The background, mentioned only obliquely in this movie about Somali piracy, is that Somalia’s fishing industry had been decimated. After Somalia collapsed into the sectarian civil conflict in the early 1990s, the absence of a strong central government — coupled with the indifference of the international community — opened a vacuum for opportunists. Foreign trawlers and other vessels dump industrial waste, toxins and even nuclear waste — including uranium — off the Somali coast. Foreign fishing ships use drift nets to steal the fish that survive.
Time magazine reported in 2009 that Somalis turned to piracy after Western ships made it impossible to fish: “A United Nations report in 2006 said that, in the absence of the country’s at one time serviceable coastguard, Somali waters have become the site of an international ‘free for all,’ with fishing fleets from around the world illegally plundering Somali stocks and freezing out the country’s own rudimentarily-equipped fishermen. According to another U.N. report, an estimated $300 million worth of seafood is stolen from the country’s coastline each year.”
Desperate Somali fishermen formed vigilante flotillas to go after foreign fishing vessels. Some robbed the poachers at gunpoint. This turned out to be much more lucrative than fishing. Piracy became a $50 million a year industry.
If Abduwali Muse isn’t really a fisherman, he didn’t have that option to begin with.
Postscript: Somalis who still try to fish are harassed, questioned and detained by American warships assigned to the Horn of Africa to deter pirates. (In “Captain Phillips,” this Navy practice is whitewashed.)
Two or three additional lines of dialogue would have enlightened American movie audiences about the complexity of the piracy issue. Exposing the antagonists’ motivations would have made “Captain Phillips” a smarter movie, a tragedy in which opposing forces, neither side evil, are forced into a clash in which at least one side must die. Greengrass gives us all the moral nuance of cowboy-versus-Injun movie.
“Capitain Phillips” is the triumph of suburban schlubs and high-tech military hardware over hollow-eyed black men in rags, horribly unfamiliar with basic oral hygiene.
By the way, if some of the Maersk Alabama’s crewmen are to be believed, Phillips was a lousy captain who imperiled them by skirting too close to the Somali coast. Deborah Waters, an attorney representing 11 crewmen who are suing Maersk, said: “He told them he wouldn’t let pirates scare him or force him to sail away from the coast.”
Maybe, maybe not. Only those who were there know for sure.
Making films is also about choice.
When you make a film based on history, it’s impossible to include every detail. Nor should you try.
Still, basic background facts are crucial to understanding the event being depicted. Omitting or spinning issues (why Somalis resorted to piracy) strips them of context. Deploying a matter-of-fact tone makes these cinematic lies (because the Somalis are poor and greedy) credible.
It is unforgivable to promote America’s we’re-the-good-guys party line at the expense of the victims of the system. (Muse, politically voiceless in this film, is serving 33 years in federal prison.) Dressing up a perversion of truth in pretty lighting, and stuffing tainted dialogue into the mouths of great actors, results in an affront to art as well as history.
COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL
The US government argues that it possesses “absolute control” over the memories of Guantánamo torture victims because what happened to them was classified — yet it released those “CIA memories” to Hollywood filmmakers. Sure, it’s like something from a Philip K. Dick story. But don’t complain. Content is king again!