They got Al Capone for taxes because the system wasn’t competent enough to nail him for organized crime and murder. Now it looks like Joe Biden is about to be pushed out of the 2020 presidential campaign, but not for his most serious offenses to morality and decency.
Two weeks ago I discussed some of the projects and jobs that, for whatever reason, I never got to do during my career as a cartoonist and writer. The stuff we don’t do, I wrote, defines as much as what we do. This week: my weird stuff that never came together.
Hugh Hefner died in 2017. I was un-sad.
Un-sad is not happiness. It’s feeling neutral when you’re supposed to be unhappy. Hef, who as a young man wanted to be a cartoonist, had bad taste in cartoons and architecture but superb taste in art directors. In the 1990s his charismatic cartoon editor Michelle Urry recruited me to help modernize Playboy’s graphics, whose content and aesthetics were stuck in the 1960s the way The New Yorker looks like it’s still the 1920s. Under Urry’s tutelage I drew scores of sex-themed cartoons with a left-wing social and political bent. I think they were some of the funniest stuff I’ve ever done.
“I love them but Hef hates them,” Michelle told me. “He wants to leave everything the same.” So no commie sex comix. Sadly for real, Urry died prematurely.
One of my oddest aborted projects was a comic strip in which I partnered with another cartoonist to whom I will grant anonymity. Conceived over planter’s punches at a defunct Village bar called the Dew Drop Inn and marketed to alternative and underground newspapers under a pseudonym, “Lil’ Adolf and His Friend Eva” featured the antics of two kids in an American high school facing situations à la Archie and Jughead (drawn a bit like that) with a twist: neither knows they’re clones of a certain German Chancellor and his girlfriend Eva Braun. Faced with a dilemma—homework, bullying, getting picked last in gym class—the pair inevitably resorts to violence. I often decry newspaper editors as a band of boring middlebrow risk-averse Babbitts but in this case I applaud their discretion. Not one paper expressed interest in “Lil’ Adolf.” I am grateful.
My UPN fiasco left a few scars. In 1998 or 1999 Dean Valentine, head of the now-forgotten TV network that aired the “Dilbert” TV show, asked me to develop an animated series to follow “Dilbert” at 8:30 pm. Valentine had seen my cartoons in the Los Angeles Times. While the lawyers hashed out the deal I toiled over plots and character designs. The result would be a show called “Boomerang.”
Whereas “The Simpsons” is about a nuclear family in the suburbs, “Boomerang” would concern a postmodern extended tangled yarnball of relationships between half/stepsiblings and their LGBTQA partners and adopted children and pets living in a sprawling dilapidated Victorian hulk in Newark reflective of America’s splintering socioeconomic infrastructure. Very Gen X.
Six months or so into it, the deal was finalized. I signed a stack of contracts. My lawyer shoved them into a FedEx. And we never heard from UPN again. We called and called…no reply.
Ghosted by a corporation! Now it’s standard business practice. Twenty years ago, though, neither me nor my attorney had ever heard of such a thing. We could have sued for breach of (half-signed?) contract and perhaps won. But I wanted to do another show someday and didn’t want to get blackballed by Hollywood companies.
Two of my TV show pitches attracted high-level interest in Tinseltown, though not as close to those execution copies of contacts at UPN. Aside from the glory, I would have wanted to watch them. That’s my test for cartoons, books, podcasts, whatever I make. If I were a fan, would I want to consume it myself?
“Green”’s premise was simple: if the planet is in danger, if ecocidal maniacs are causing climate change, mass extinctions and possibly the end of the human race, isn’t the right thing to do to murder the bastards? “Green” the series would have been about a “deep green” terrorist organization—think Earth First! meets the Weather Underground if WU had had more members—and a FBI counterterrorist taskforce assigned to find and stop them. I saw it as a political, existential HBO-type show starring brilliant, troubled lead characters.
I scored repeat pitch meetings with Hollywood production companies and a few networks. But interest waned. Calls were no longer returned.
Shortly after the 2000 election I shopped a treatment for “The Bushies,” an animated series about the then-First Family in which all the characters were secretly different than their public personas. In “The Bushies” George W. Bush was a brilliant, soulful intellectual. Cheney was a mushy crybaby. The Bush twins were nefarious serial killers. Like many other L.A. dreams, “The Bushies” died in a major network’s “business affairs” department because some idiot lawyer worried about libel suits.
The Bushies were public figures, as public as could be. This was classic political satire, immune from litigation assuming a Bush was dumb enough to sue. Most countries (France, Germany, England, Russia) had similar comedies mocking their leaders. As usual, the in-house attorney won. Trey Parker and Matt Stone moved quickly with their “That’s My Bush!” for Comedy Central. It was not one of their finer resume entries.
Later in the decade I tried to jumpstart a political animation career with five-minute shorts. I drew and wrote; David Essman animated. We did 35 of them in all. Some still hold up, all are worth watching (the Tea Party one is great), but despite my aggressive marketing campaign I couldn’t sell them to anyone. It’s sad: static political cartooning is dead, Internet companies are obsessed with video but no one wants animated cartoons. My political cartoonist colleagues have had similar lousy results.
One of my most ambitious projects got killed by 9/11.
Less than an hour before the first plane hit the World Trade Center, my train left New York’s Penn Station for Philadelphia. By the time me and my business partner, now a magazine editor, arrived in Philly the Parks Police were shutting down the Liberty Bell. (My first post-9/11 joke: “don’t worry, it’s already broken.”)
We were in Philly to close a $1.5 million deal with a Pennsylvania media investor in Brooklyn Weekly, the alt weekly newspaper we wanted to launch in the borough. At the time Brooklyn still being hipsterized. The 19 hijackers messed it up. As we watched the events on TV the moneyman leaned back into his seat. “Deal’s off,” he announced as he wrote off the nation’s biggest city. “No one will ever do business in New York again.”
“With all due respect,” I replied with nothing-to-lose bravado, “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. They still do business in Hiroshima.”
Osama bin Laden may have done me a favor. Craigslist destroyed the classified ads business that were the basis of the alt-weekly profit model. The dot-com crash pushed the economy into a slump that lasted the rest of the decade. Brooklyn Weekly might have been doomed.
Or maybe not. Brooklyn is different. I could easily see a weekly with a strong political and cultural point of view succeeding now.
(Ted Rall, the cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
The Clash asked. Now I am too: Should I stay or should I go?
Celebrity liberals always threaten to head for the exits if a presidential election doesn’t go their way. Then they renege.
This year is different: some Americans really are leaving.
An early indicator of Trump-inspired flight came on Election Night, when Canada’s immigration website crashed due to visitors from the lower 48. Whether these scaredy-cats are motivated by Trump’s come-from-behind victory — so this is America? — or by the grim reality of Trump’s cabinet picks and executive orders — so he’s keeping his fascist campaign promises? — this is the first time I’ve seen people actually up and go in response to an election.
“Trumping out” is far too tiny of a phenomenon to qualify as an official Thing. By mid-December, only 28 Americans had applied for asylum. But my instincts tell me that’s about to change. And my instincts are pretty sharp: counting yard signs in my swing state/swing county hometown of Dayton, Ohio gave me an early indication that Trump had a strong chance of winning.
If you’ve got some money, college degrees and speak a second language (ahem, French), it’s pretty easy to get into Canada, which has served as our go-to exile since the Vietnam draft dodgers. With help from a lawyer, a friend of mine who said he didn’t want his children to grow up in a fascist country scored residency documents for himself, his wife and kids in just a few months. Canadian colleges and universities are reporting a surge in U.S. applicants — many of whom would likely stay up there after graduation.
I think most people who are eyeing the door are like me, in wait-and-see mode.
Let’s be clear: this isn’t about voting with our feet. If I moved out of the country every time I didn’t like the election results, I’d be gone after every single election, and that includes the local ones. I hate both parties; I hate the entire system. This is about self-preservation: what if some Trump nut takes it upon himself to shoot me over a cartoon? It wouldn’t be unprecedented.
It’s also about practicality. Fleeing Trumpistan would be much easier for me than for most people. I have dual French/EU citizenship through my mom, a status I have maintained in the belief that economies and societies can collapse quickly so it’s good to have an exit strategy. My French is passable. Thanks to the Internet, my career is portable. I could draw cartoons and write columns and publish books from anywhere on earth.
I talk almost every day with a colleague, a conservative journalist, about how we will know it’s time to leave the United States. Not to express disapproval – honestly, who would care? – but to save our skins.
You know that Martin Niemöller “first they came for the…” quote? Political cartoonists know that here, in the U.S. under Trump in 2017, we could easily be the first. So we’re watching closely.
When your government turns psycho, you don’t want to wait until it’s too late to get out. When you ask Jewish Americans what year their family fled Europe to come to the United States, it’s striking how most left before, say, 1936. The Holocaust didn’t technically begin until 1941, but earlier departures were easier — and impossible after World War II began in 1939. On the other hand, moving is expensive. And I’m American. I don’t want to leave. I like it here. Why jump the gun?
I’ve been reading Volker Ullrich’s superb biography Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939. Trumpism isn’t Nazism but 20th century fascism provides some useful tips for America’s descent into whatever the hell this psychotic real estate honcho has in store for us.
As Ullrich reminds us, the machinery of state repression moved quickly after Hitler’s 1933 seizure of power. Censorship, then arrests of left-wing politicians were an early canary in the coalmine. This week we watched Trump’s Republicans silence the unfailingly polite Elizabeth Warren on the floor of the U.S. senate. The president himself personally joke-threatened to “destroy” the career of a Texas state senator as a favor to police, because the lawmaker wants to reform civil asset forfeiture (when cops steal your property and never give it back, even when you’re found not guilty of a crime).
Soon after becoming chancellor, the Nazis began insinuating their one-party state into commerce, punishing businesses they deemed insufficiently cooperative. Also this week, Trump went after Nordstrom’s in revenge for the department store chain’s decision to stop carrying his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line. Trump Administration chief propagandist Sean Spicer defended the president’s bizarre comments, declaring Nordstrom’s decision “an attack on his daughter.”
Should I stay or should I go?
Like porn, we’ll know The Moment Everything Changed when we see it.
The arrest of a politician would be such a moment. As would a “temporary” suspension of civil rights, even/especially if it followed the inevitable next terrorist attack.
I don’t have much use for the reliably impotent corporate news media — indeed, Trump’s win is largely their fault — but as a look-out-this-is-getting-really-real moment, Trump’s relentless beating up on the press makes me incredibly nervous. What will this guy do when the new Left gears up with big-ass protests later this year? Isolated from the rallies from whence he drew his strength, Boy Trump in the Beltway Bubble spells trouble; look for The Donald to wallow in paranoia so deep and dark that even Richard Nixon wouldn’t be able to relate. There he’ll be, surrounded by Steve Bannon and his other pet fascists — no one talking stay calm and carry on, everyone around him egging him on as he lashes out.
If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention. Then again, maybe it’s not as necessary for you to watch the signs as it is for me.
(Ted Rall is author of “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” an examination of the life of the Republican presidential nominee in comics form. You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)
Originally published at Breaking Modern:
The as yet unidentified hackers who broke into Sony Entertainment’s incompetently protected servers have provoked a lawsuit filed by former employees angered by the company’s lack of security, a cluster of gossipy news stories about the quality of the next James Bond film and Angelina Jolie’s professional relationships, and a media ethics debate over whether publishing emails, salary information, movie scripts and other leaked material is effectively aiding and abetting the cyber thieves.
Now a New York movie theater has canceled a showing of Sony’s newest movie in response to a terrorist threat issued by the hackers.
What nobody’s talking about seems like the biggest story of all: the possible motivation of the self-styled “Guardians of Peace.”
Suspicion immediately fell upon North Korea due to the hackers’ complaints about an upcoming film, “The Interview,” which stars James Franco and Seth Rogan. “How bitter fate those who seek fun in terror should be doomed to,” one communiqué declared, referring to the movie’s plot, about assassinating North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.
For what it’s worth, the government of North Korea has officially denied involvement. Seth Rogan believes them. “There’s no way it’s them’ because it seems too savvy of Hollywood politics.”
Regardless of the identity of the hackers, one question worth exploring is: has Hollywood crossed the line?
Political assassination plots are nothing new for American films. Based on the Frederick Forsyth spy novel, the 1973 thriller “The Day of the Jackal” showcased the scheming of a man who tried to kill French president Charles de Gaulle during the 1960s. But the movie came out after de Gaulle had already died of old age.
The Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy “Inglorious Basterds” depicts something that plainly didn’t happen, the arson and machine-gun killing of Adolf Hitler in a French movie theater. And anyway, that was Hitler, only the worst guy ever.
“The gory killing of a sitting foreign leader is new territory for a big studio movie,” Jeanine Basinger, professor of film studies at Wesleyan University, told the New York Times.
It’s kind of fascinating that the American press hasn’t been able to put itself in the shoes of North Koreans, enough of whom obviously support their leader to the extent that he continues to enjoy the tacit consent of the governed.
Imagine, if you can, how Americans would respond – even conservative Republicans – if, say, Iran, Russia, or some other political rival of the United States were to produce a motion picture depicting the violent assassination of President Obama. Many Americans would view such a film, even if it was marketed as a comedy as “The Interview” is, as something just short of an act of war.
Here in the United States, threatening the life of the president is a serious felony punishable by up to five years in federal prison. Why wouldn’t we expect other countries to take the threat against their leaders seriously too?
Americans don’t get that the citizens of other countries are just as patriotic as we are. Just like us, people in other nations don’t like it when we disrespect their leaders.
Not long ago, everyone, including the United States government, understood that treating heads of state disrespectfully exposed everyone’s leaders to the same treatment. Under international law and tradition heads of state have been considered immune from prosecution. Even when the US deposed an unfriendly leader in a coup d’état, such as when Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti in 1986, they facilitated his comfortable exile in places like the French Riviera.
It was the United States that broke this understanding between nations.
It began in 1989, with George Herbert Walker Bush’s overthrow of Panamanian President Manuel Noriega. The first Bush administration treated Noriega like a common criminal, trumping up dubious drug possession charges (a “110-pound” stash of cocaine found in his compound turned out to be tamales wrapped in banana leaves), kidnapping him to face charges in the United States on barely discernible legal grounds, and then sentencing him to two decades in a federal prison.
More recently, Bush the second boxed in former US client dictator Saddam Hussein, refusing to fly him out of Iraq, signed off on a ridiculous show trial conducted by his political enemies and then delivered him from U.S. custody to be unceremoniously hanged to death – while cell phone video cameras rolled – in 2006. Saddam went out looking classy – “Down with the invaders!” he shouted repeatedly before his death — the U.S., not so much.
Then there was the 2011 killing of Colonel Moammar Qaddafi. Again, the United States didn’t leave the Libyan dictator a way out. Instead, NATO fighter jets and an American drone bombed his convoy, causing him to fall into the hands of opposition forces, who killed him.
Given this recent history, it isn’t surprising that Americans don’t see the big deal about a silly comedy movie fantasizing about killing a man they see as a silly neo-Stalinist dictator. But isn’t this just another case of American exceptionalism?
We see the world one way.
No one else agrees with us.
“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