Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Politrix, or “Viva La Revolucion!”

“Hell, I never vote for anybody, I always vote against.”—W.C. Fields
“And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”—Barry Goldwater
“Reality is ultimately that which resists.”—Slavoj Žižek

Perhaps it was Contagion’s B-movie-like distrust of The Man that has caused this rebellious attitude in us, but The United Provinces of Ivanlandia is a revolutionary state!
And lately The National Film Board of Ivanlandia has been screening a variety of films of a strong political nature, usually very mistrusting of the status quo and “business as usual.”

And we can appreciate that—the entire population of Ivanlandia had rotten childhoods, and likes it when sacred cows are turned into hamburgers.

That said, there will be some changes coming soon to this section of the intertubian blogoverse—
For one thing, much of the film, literature, political and cultural content herein has been acquired by the recently incentivized-synergistic corporotron,

What will continue here after the separation of id and superego will be more… I dunno yet.
Freeform? More of an excuse to create Exquisite Corpses or Headline Hit Parades? Maybe bring back the Zexy Replikant of the Veek? That feature was a fan fave, boy howdy!

And as I transition myself from the internet methadone of Il Face`-book, I might be using Ivanlandia as more of a dumping/whining ground. A place to get snarkalicious? A photo of the day? Mayhaps!
Or maybe not.

But one thing’s for certain:
At LERNER INTERNATIONAL, as it’s known colloquially, there will not be as many of these damn megaposts I force myself—and you—through.
A more frequent publishing schedule, and a less scattershot and purposefully obscure art direction are some things that will be strived for.

(I really wished I’d learned more about creating a “fold” back before Blogger threatened to change your layout completely if you only wanted to alter one item. That’s why Ivanlandia’s format hasn’t changed in a long, long time!
It’s my own fault really…)

LERNER INTERNATIONAL will be a much more disciplined operation.

And now some righteous flicks!
Power to the People!
State of Siege (État de Siège; 1972; Costa-Gavras)
State of Siege is a new entry into One of the Best New Old Films Discovered This Year! It is really almost a perfect film for me, all the details and performances just right, with an intelligent script that neither preaches nor condescends.

The film attacks US involvement in Latin America, especially how American “advisors” routinely turn up working with the local secret police on interrogations, and side with the military juntas in all matters. It’s quite critical of US policies, and it’s no wonder State of Siege is not available domestically for home viewing—I caught it via YouTube HERE.

Set in an unnamed South American nation, the film follows
leftist guerillas/revolutionaries, whom the film’s government refers to only as “terrorists” (and the movie’s Senate has even banned the name of the rebel organization from being spoken!), as they kidnap several foreign diplomats as well as an American civilian.
It seems at first that kidnapping the Yankee was a mistake—by all accounts he’s no one important, but it turns out he was the prime target: he has been the head of secret police training programs using torture in several Latin American countries, and now he’s here, en esta tierra sin nombre.
Much of the film centers on the philosophical battle of wills between the professional interrogator and his interrogator, with the rest focusing on the police breaking every law in the book to find the missing American.

Great use of telephoto lenses abound, delivering an unsettling “You Are There” feeling, and the film is
shot in a clinical, almost cold manner, which may appear to be objective, but if anything reinforces the “logic” of the rebels’ arguments.
Not that that’s bad: I agree with this agitprop—the US has done/is doing nasty shit, colluding with horrible, horrible regimes.

That said, the flick is visually exciting and intellectually engaging, full of intrigue and suspense, with compassion for both sides (to an extent).
It’s a damn brilliant piece of filmmaking—worthy of being the successor to both director Costa-Gavras’ Z and screenwriter Franco SolinasThe Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. (Solinas also scripted other agitprop action flicks like Ivanlandia faves like A Bullet for the General, and Burn!)

BTW, State of Siege was filmed primarily in Chile—which roughly one year after the film was released, suffered its own US-backed military coup against its democratically elected government (September 11 means something very different to Chileans), including monstrous cases of torture. Now that’s eerie…

Socio-politically, the National Film Board of Ivanlandia also screened:
Battleground (1949; William A. Wellman) This war movie, set during the Battle of the Bulge and covering the 101st Airborne’s attempts to hold back the Nazis under wretched and freezing conditions, was probably a bold and shocking film when it was first released.
But after seeing so many movies that covers the same topic (essentially a variation on the “lost platoon” subgenre) but more intensely, Battleground feels a tad superfluous—heck, Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets, made two years after Battleground (and while set in Korea, basically tells the same tale), still holds up today!

As one of the bridges between gung-ho war-time propaganda and noirish post-war cynicism in US action films, Wellman’s Battleground is best for buffs of history or war movies.
It’s enjoyable, but not essential, with its “cynical take” a bit lumpy and now heavy-handed.

Executive Action (1973; David Miller) A conspiracy theory “Who Shot JFK?/Behind-the-Scenes at the Grassy Knoll,” this film would be a great triple feature with Robert Altman’s “Nixon Agonistes” Secret Honor (1984) and Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View, the ultimate paranoia/conspiracy film ever—

I haven’t seen Oliver Stone’s lysergic JFK since it was in the theaters, so I don’t think I can compare—but honestly, I prefer Executive Action’s cold detachment, humorless documentarism, and industrial-film level of plotting to Stone’s fireworks and hysterics.

Not that Executive Action can’t be as intellectually histrionic as JFK,
this flick’s as subtle as a bag of bricks—but I like that sometimes, it gets to the point: this film doesn’t present a balanced argument; I’d certainly call Executive Action agitprop—but being straightforward jacks up the intensity, especially as Kennedy dances into the noose, and all other obstacles are removed from the assassins’ path.

This is a film for those who can appreciate sangfroid
Like State of Siege, Executive Action takes a “nuts & bolts” approach: socio-economic and political motivations are given to the regicidal cabal of industrialists, oilmen and other sneaky types, and then the movie goes into a quasi-documentary mode, becoming a “how to coup d’état.” It’s a very matter-of-fact film, like “A Day in the Life of The Parallax Corporation.”

In one of the film’s few examples of wit, secret-shadow-government conspirators Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan chuckle almost with amazement as their plans are routinely aided “unwittingly” by the CIA, FBI and Secret Service, all of whom are at best antagonistic towards POTUS.

Aside: Kennedy’s assassination assured his canonization, but also allowed everybody to pretend to have liked him, and get to jump on the mourning wagon.
In today’s outrageous and shameful political climate, where a maelstrom vomiting hate is considered discourse, it’s good to be reminded that right-wing loons are nothing new, and
how much President Kennedy was actually HATED back in the day.

Support Your Local Sheriff (1968; Burt Kennedy) Seeing this film’s unofficial sequel “first,” as it were, makes me realize that it wasn’t until the later Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) that director Kennedy & star/producer James Garner got the “formula” right: Surrounded by lunatics, Garner’s the calm eye of the storm.
He’s got The Zen Cool and a breezy, yet intelligent unconcern combined with an obvious, but unforced masculinity and solid ethical core: Garner’s character doesn’t care if you spend your money on whores and gambling, but he will punch you out if you’re mean to a dog.

And rather than making a third “Support Your Local Whatever”—maybe “Bushwhacker”?
Anyway, instead of doing that, Garner wisely adapted the formula to a contemporary setting, and TV history was born with The Rockford Files.

As for Support Your Local Sheriff, it has its own merits in addition to Garner’s charm, especially:
—Bruce Dern as a goofball badman (like a stupider version of his biker characters)—his interactions with Garner are classic comedy routines, and Dern does great double-take.
—Harry Morgan as the quasi-Libertarian mayor who regrets that civilization is encroaching on his boomtown: he grumbles that churches will arrive, and that they’ll want to close the whorehouse (platitudes that are incredible coming out of the mouth of the man who was Dragnet’s straight-arrow sidekick, and MASH’s wise Colonel Potter).
—and in a delicious piece of casting, saddle-vet Walter Brennan is the cattle baron squaring off against Sheriff Garner—the grousing villain is more worried about his “eating teeth” getting broken in a shootout than whether his sons are safe.
Casting Brennan was as smart a cross-cultural meta-move as was Mel Brooks’ later casting of Slim Pickens in Blazing Saddles: you need the real deal so the joke has stronger impact.

Zero for Conduct (1933; Jean Vigo) Wonderful, anarchic 40-minute short that Lindsay Anderson completely rips off for If… (And Allan Arkush admits was an influence on Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.)
Somewhere in France, kids (and one sympathetic teacher) ultimately rebel over the arbitrary and callous treatment from the school’s administrators (a wretched collection of greasy pederasts, hypocritical thieves and morbid sadists—ruled over by a vain dwarf!).
—This feels very much like a Bunuel film, like the missing link between his L’age d’Or and Los Olvidados—a feeling enhanced when Zero for Conduct uses various experimental techniques, including animation and slow-motion, to give the situation an almost surrealist touch, and perhaps that’s because a successful rebellion at a children’s school is just a dream?
Wonderful, nonetheless, as
Zero for Conduct takes a very entertaining hot poop on all that is “holy”—Very much worth your time.

Missing (1982; Costa-Gavras) Watched again (since first seeing it on its initial release, and not since) after being so impressed with Costa-Gavras’ State of Siege (see above). But Missing is much different from that film, which while borderline-nihilistic, still celebrated the spirit of revolution—
On the other hand, Missing is heartbreaking and depressing—a sad tale of the innocence lost by a man nearing the end of his life, anchored by performances from a strong Sissy Spacek and an incredible Jack Lemmon.
While set in an unnamed country, State of Siege was filmed in Chile, but Missing is about Chile, yet that country is never named (it was filmed in Mexico, though). Set during the bloody and horrible coup, it’s essentially about a square, very devout Christian businessman trying to find his son—which is why the film succeeds, but also disappoints.

Produced by Universal, a very mainstream company, the movie is to be applauded for not pulling punches in its accusations against US military and diplomats in their ordering the murder of a naïve American schnook. (The Latinos wouldn’t care that he knows anything, they’ve won the civil war; but US is supposed to be neutral, and certainly wasn’t—and this kid knows too much.)
The sanctimonious brush-off Lemmon gets from US officials is emotionally much worse than the brutal blank stares and obvious lies of the junta.

(But I wished this subtext of bad American foreign policy eventually leading us to kill our own children had been explored to further detail, but director Costa-Gavras is primarily trying to touch the audience via the heart more than the intellect.)

The film is almost an anti-procedural, with an investigation that brings up horrible, useless information that clouds more than clears, and
where a violent, surreptitiously-backed, one-sided power-grab that left thousands dead is used as the backdrop and cover-up for the death of a Yankee.

And that’s a gripe I had with this movie, and with an entire subgenre, actually: those people over there, those dark and hungry ones? Yeah, their problems don’t mean jack shit till Whitey shows up.

Now, Missing is the least egregious offender of this sort of condescending Caucasian-centric filmmaking—John Boorman’s misbegotten Beyond Rangoon takes the cake for that one, where nearly all important events in the Burmese freedom movement are meaningless until blonde hottie Patricia Arquette wanders through in slow-motion looking great in a sarong.

Unfortunately, in Missing for the most part, it’s Americans… and then dark-skinned soldiers. We are only given cursory introductions to characters of Spanish and/or Indian ancestry, so we never really meet any Latinos who aren’t brutal thugs wielding bayonets and machine guns.

It’s not that Missing is trying to be part of a xenophobic film tradition—this is more a result of location (and budget): The Mexican government cooperated with Costa-Gavras, and allowed him to use actual Mexican Army soldiers as extras.

But the thing is, most of the regular grunts in the Mexican Army are from either Mestizo or Indian extraction—which generally means they have darker skin than most Yankees, and especially when compared to palefaces like Lemmon and Spacek. Scenes of these two actors being threatened by jabbering little brown men only reinforces the subconscious racism of “US vs. THEM.”

(An interesting factoid: As long as you don’t directly slam them, the Mexican government allows filmmakers to say whatever they want about other Latin American nations. This is why El Jefe’s hacienda is only identified as being in “Latin America” in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.)

The “Only Americans Are Important” syndrome was avoided in State of Siege as star Yves Montand is a Frenchman who hardly looks American (although he was playing one), and the balance between the actors who either looked like descendents of Spaniards or Indians was essentially equal for all characters in the film, whether on the Right and Left.

Because I was so moved by Lemmon’s interpretation of the script, I’m almost loathe to note this as well, but I was especially annoyed by the naivety shown by Lemmon and his son, which bordered on the suicidal!
Of course, that may be part of it—specifically, why the boy is dead—but then Costa-Gavras is being too heavy-handed: Americans, SO naïve! (Of course, since it was a Universal release, maybe CG was trying to make the flick’s message as obvious as possible…)

That all said, Missing is a flick that’s thought-provoking, heartbreaking and disturbing—don’t even think about a happy ending, it’s that fucking bleak. Yes, watch it.


  1. Recently saw "State of Siege" as well and loved it just as much as you! I really wish there were more Costa-Gavras films available on DVD, especially "The Confession". I'm about to get my hands on a copy of his mid 60's murder mystery "Sleeping Car Murders". Hope it doesn't disappoint!

  2. JB: Arrrgh, I'm so stupid--I forgot to mention that Costa-Gavras has made the best adaptation of a Donald Westlake nove, Le Couperet (2005), which is quite political in its own way, criticizing dog-eat-dog free markets. I'd like to see Sleeping Car Murders, too...

    Good luck in finding Michael Winner's The Games--I'd forgotten about it. I need to check out Winner's films again--I think he deserves a career reappraisal.
    And if you get the chance, please visit LERNER INTERNATIONAL!