Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Man of the Year (Conspiração Filmes, Warner Bros. Brasil, Estúdios Mega, Brasil Telecom, 2003)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Saturday, October 14 Charles and I screened an interesting Brazilian movie from 2003 called The Man of the Year, which came out through an intriguing outfit called filmmovement.com, which among other things runs a film-of-the-month club in which they send members a new DVD of a foreign-made or American independent movie. This one turned up in a library sale and the blurb on the DVD cover compared the movie to the nihilistic Brazilian masterpiece City of God, but the two films really have little in common except they’re both set in (or around) Rio de Janeiro and deal with crime. Directed by José Henrique Fonseca from a script by Rubem Fonseca (the director’s father) based on a novel called O Matador by Patricia Melo, the film begins as a sort of black comedy and ends up being a surprisingly successful reworking of both classic U.S. gangster films from the early 1930’s (notably Little Caesar) and some of the most recent efforts in the same genre (the later reels of The Man of the Year owe quite a lot to the 1983 quasi-remake of Scarface). The central character is a Brazilian nobody named Máiquel Jorge (Murilo Benecios), who just before the film begins made a bet on a soccer game with a friend named Robinson (Perfeito Fortuna) in which he promised that if his team lost Máiquel would have his black hair dyed blond. (There’s no indication of what Robinson would have had to do if Máiquel’s team had won.) He goes through with it and immediately falls in love — or at least lust — with the hairdresser who does his dye job, Cledir (Cláudia Abreu, the director’s wife and virtually the only person in the cast I’d ever heard of before), and he asks her out on a date. Only before they get together he stops at the bar where both he and Robinson hang out, wanting to meet Robinson and show him he went through with the bet. Robinson isn’t there, but a nasty character named Suel (Wagner Moura) is. Suel takes an instant dislike to Our Hero and calls him a “fag,” and Máiquel calls him outside the bar for a fight. The next day Máiquel grabs a gun and hunts down Suel, shooting and killing him — Fonseca filho shoots the actual murder in a rather odd, gauzy style that at first made me wonder if this was just supposed to be Máiquel’s dream, but no-o-o-o-o, it’s a real story event. 

Máiquel, who’s never done anything even remotely illegal before, is scared shitless that he’ll be arrested for the murder; instead, everyone in the neighborhood comes up to him and congratulates him for eliminating such an awful person as Suel, and to Máiquel’s astonishment even two police officers, instead of apprehending him, shake his hand and congratulate him for ridding the neighborhood of a particularly nasty crook. Máiquel finds that killing Suel has made him a hero among his peers, and he starts a relationship with Cledir that’s somewhat hampered when the late Suel’s 15-year-old girlfriend Erica (Nátalia Lage) turns up on the doorstep of Máiquel’s apartment and insists that now that he’s killed her boyfriend, it’s his moral duty to take her in and give her room and board. Also one of the neighbors brings over a piglet with the intent that Máiquel will keep it for a while, fatten it up and then make a big celebratory meal out of it. Instead Máiquel decides to make it a pet, naming it “Bill” after U.S. President Bill Clinton, who happened to visit Brazil around this time and get himself photographed on Brazilian TV. He has a bit of a problem with Bill’s (the pig) penchant for chewing up his sneakers, but for the most part he has a pretty good life going except when he has to chase out Erica so he and Cledir can have sex. Máiquel’s next problem comes when he gets a toothache and can’t afford a dentist; he finds one named Dr. Carvalho (Jorge Dória) who, having heard of Máiquel’s reputation fro killing Suel, says he’ll treat Máiquel for free — if Máiquel will kill the person Dr. Carvalho believes dishonored his daughter by raping her. (Later we meet the daughter and, predictably, she turns out to be the sort of person who will do it with just about anybody — though Máiquel at least has the good sense to stay out of her clutches.) Máiquel not only commits the murder but takes over the job at a pet store the victim was working before he was killed. Carvalho then invites Máiquel to meet with two of his 1-percenter friends, and the three basically hire Máiquel to knock off anyone they deem too evil, crooked or just plain inconvenient to live. 

Eventually Máiquel and the gang he puts together to accomplish these murders, backed by Carvalho and his friends, form what’s ostensibly an above-ground “private security” company but is really an old-style “protection” racket, and the company is so sensationally successful that the Rio Chamber of Commerce names Máiquel its entrepreneur of the year and a song about him, “O Matador” (obviously comparing him to a bullfighter), becomes a hit. Only if we’ve seen enough gangster movies in the past we know something is going to derail Máiquel from his ill-gotten success, and that something is his wife Cledir, whom he married after he got her pregnant — and he moved in with Cledir and her parents while still keeping his old apartment as a love-nest with Erica. Cledir asked Máiquel if she could keep Bill the pig, and one evening Máiquel returns home to find that Cledir has open-roasted his pet and put an apple in its mouth to serve it. A furious Máiquel attacks Cledir and bashes her head against the wall, accidentally killing her. Then he buries the body in the backyard of one of his confederates. He tries to console himself with Erica, but in the meantime Erica has been converted by a minister running the Brazilian equivalent of a mega-church and spouts Biblical verses all day and talks about entering a convent. (Yeah, right.) Ultimately Máiquel falls when the man whose backyard he’s buried Cledir’s body in gets busted by the police for having two kilos of cocaine in his car. The cops dig up the man’s backyard searching for more drugs, find Cledir’s body, put two and two together and go out to arrest Máiquel — only in the meantime Máiquel has figured out what’s going on and decides to make his escape by simply dyeing his hair back to its natural black shade, thinking that the cops are going to be looking for a blond. The End.

Charles was upset by the ending, not only by a factual glitch (Máiquel handles the black hair dye with bare hands — the dye would turn your skin at least temporarily black as well, which is why all kits for dyeing hair darker contain disposable gloves and any cosmetologist dyeing someone’s hair would use gloves) but also because one expects a story like this to end with the cathartic death of the gangster à la Little Caesar and both Scarfaces. I wondered if I could have thought of a better ending, and my idea would have been to rip off the 1950 film The Gunfighter: Máiquel is killed by a younger, hungrier punk who wants to steal his bad-ass “rep,” and the young man who killed Máiquel would in turn be hailed as a hero and follow a similar story arc until his own demise at the hands of a still younger gangster who wanted to hijack his rep, and so on … Nonetheless, The Man of the Year is a refreshing film, even though it’s a souvenir of a society in which all the conventional moral rules have broken down, lawbreaking (at least some lawbreaking) is celebrated and both the police and the public at large have accepted the idea that it takes some amount of extra-legal violence to protect people against other forms of extra-legal violence. It’s a genuinely amusing black comedy for the first half and a grim Scarface-like (either one) tale of a psycho gangster getting his comeuppance in the second, and it’s got at least one intriguing credit: the music is by Dado Villa-Lobos, whose imdb page identifies him as “guitar player for Legião Urbano, one of the most important Brazilian rock bands,” but does not say whether or not he’s related to the great Brazilian classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. I quite enjoyed The Man of the Year and can only wonder how many other oddball gems there are in Film Movement’s catalogs!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Doctor Blake Mysteries: “The Tide of the Past” (December Media, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ITV, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I watched one of KPBS’s reruns of a Doctor Blake Mysteries episode from 2014. They’ve been showing this quite interesting Australian detective series featuring Doctor Lucien Blake (Craig McLachlan), the coroner and medical examiner in the small town of Ballarat in the Australian outback in the late 1950’s (the show is a co-production of December Media, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the British commercial network Independent Television, or ITV), who spars with his live-in partner Jane Beazley (Nadine Garner) and his boss with the local police, Chief Superintendent Matthew Lawson (Joel Tobeck). This episode was called “The Ties of the Past” and featured a look into Blake’s ancestry: in previous episodes we weren’t given more of his backstory than the basics — he was born and raised in Ballarat but left to serve as an Army medic during World War II and, even though the show is set over a decade after the war’s end, he’s still suffering from what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder. (He also drinks a lot, which suggests that the writers may be setting him up for an Inspector Morse-like character arc in which he nearly drinks himself out of his job, then recovers, becomes sober and continues, older, sadder and wiser.) 

In this one we’re introduced to Blake’s mother, Elaine Greenslade (Kestie Morassi), a Ballarat-based artist who’s considered a minor talent but one of sufficient local repute that a numter of her works were acquired by the Ballarat museum — only all but one have been taken off the walls and put into storage. The remaining one is a Modigliani-like portrait of Elaine’s friend Agnes Clasby (Helen Morse), and though Elaine is long since dead when this episode begins (though we see quite a lot of her in flashbacks, including some in which a tow-headed kid who’s obviously supposed to be Blake as a child follows her around the house), Agnes is still alive and recognizable as an older version of the woman in the painting. The intrigue kicks off when a life drawing class begins with the “unveiling” of the model from which the artists are supposed to draw — only the model is dead for real, with considerable blood on her body and evidence that she was strangled by a very fine wire used by potters to take their works off the wheel after they’ve been formed. She’s also been posed in the same position as the Ballarat museum’s most famous painting, Beneath the Arena, which depicts a young Christian girl being taken into the underground rooms under the Colosseum after she’s been sacrificed to the lions. 

Later a museum security guard is bribed to steal a painting from it, only it turns out he took the wrong picture and the real one he was hired to steal was the one by Blake’s mother. It turns out that before she married Blake’s dad she dated an artist named David Davies (I of course couldn’t help but notice that Dave Davies was also the name of Ray Davies’ brother and lead guitarist for the Kinks until the Davies brothers had a spectacular falling-out and the band broke up, much like Noel and Liam Gallagher of Oasis), and the Ballarat museum by coincidence is about to host a traveling exhibition of Davies’ paintings. There’s a red herring in the form of the victim’s hot-tempered boyfriend Geoffrey Ledwith (the darkly handsome Dominic Allburn), who as the Ballarat art school’s pottery teacher would have known how to use the wire that strangled the girl, but in the end the killer turns out to be a local collector who wanted the painting by Dr. Blake’s mom because it was actually painted over a David Davies — Davies had given Elaine the painting when they were still dating, only when they broke up and she married someone else, her new husband was fiercely jealous and arranged to sell the Davies to a local rich guy — only mom was determined not to let the Davies go, so she painted her own picture over it and then said it had “disappeared.” The victim stumbled on the Davies work when she accidentally chipped off a bit of Elaine’s painting and saw that another artwork lay underneath it, and she was killed so she couldn’t reveal this to the museum management or the authorities. This was a chilling little program and a nice bit of British (or at least British Commonwealth) mystery writing, and the revelation of Blake’s family history gave the work power and scope.

Monday, October 9, 2017

A Mother’s Revenge, a.k.a. Killer Switch (Indy Media, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched last night’s “feature,” a 2016 Lifetime movie apparently originally filmed under the title Killer Switch but given the more Lifetime-y title A Mother’s Revenge. The central character is Jennifer Clarke (Jamie Luner), a middle-aged woman who travels to Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York to watch her daughter, Katey Williams (Audrey Whitby), graduate from college. While there she runs into Katey’s father, Richard Williams (the drop-dead gorgeous Jason Shane Scott, who quite frankly looks young enough we’d more readily believe in him as Katey’s brother than her dad!), with whom she just went through a contentious breakup: he started an affair with an office intern just four years older than Katey, got her pregnant and divorced Jennifer to marry the mom of his baby-to-be. The intrigue starts when she gets to her room at the Lafayette Hotel, opens her suitcase and finds men’s instead of women’s clothing. Realizing that she got the wrong bag, she calls the airport and finds that no unclaimed baggage remains from her flight, so obviously she picked up the wrong suitcase and some guy got hers instead because the bags looked similar. She arranges with the front desk clerk at the hotel to leave the bag with them so the airline can send someone to pick it up and return it to its rightful owner, but in the meantime she gets a darkly threatening phone call from someone telling her to give him back the bag … or else.

“Or else” turns out to be the kidnapping of Katey from her mom’s hotel room and the threats from the kidnapper, Conner (Steven Brand), to kill Katey unless Jennifer returns the bag pronto. Since she no longer has the bag and the airline has already picked it up, she goes to a tourist store and gets a similar-looking one and some pillows with which to stuff it to make it look full, and then is led by Conner on a merry chase through Buffalo in which she’s obliged to go to various locations, including a disused minor-league baseball field, a history museum, an aquarium and finally the Cave of the Winds at Niagara Falls. In each new location she will find a disposable cell phone on which Conner will call her and direct her to the next place in his “game” — a gimmick one imdb.com “Trivia” poster noted was “borrowed” from the merry chase killer Andy Robinson led cop Clint Eastwood on in Dirty Harry. Jennifer is told that Conner will be watching her throughout and will notice if she isn’t carrying the bag — which becomes a problem when she’s held up on the subway by a hunky-looking robber and she has to take him on to get back both the decoy bag and her purse — and she’s also being chased by the police because Conner has killed her ex-husband Richard (who was hunky enough I wondered if he might be part of the criminal plot, though this time writer-director Fred Olen Ray decided to go for the hunky-guy-as-victim cliché instead of the hunky-guy-as-villain cliché) and framed Jennifer for it, though eventually the detectives pursuing her, avuncular African-American Leland Ford (Gerald Webb) and his white partner Joe Jacobs (Richard Lounello), decide she’s telling the truth. They’re able to obtain Conner’s actual suitcase at the airport and search it, while in the meantime Conner has lured Jennifer to their final rendezvous at the Cave of the Winds, which has been closed for “maintenance” and is adorned with a bunch of highly inflammatory signs warning people of the dangers therein.

The climax takes place at the Falls, where Conner is still playing cat-and-mouse with Jennifer over the fate of Katey, who’s right there — when mom demands the immediate release of her daughter before she hands over the suitcase and Conner toys with her, Jennifer heaves the suitcase over the Falls, Conner screams, Katey runs to her mom and the two try to flee, only Conner follows them and is just about to catch them when he collapses from a well-aimed bullet from one of the cops (they both have their guns drawn and it’s unclear which one shot him, though my money was on Ford) and his body goes over the Falls. Later, in the little tag scene to explain what the bad guy was after even though, as St. Alfred Hitchcock (whose shrine Fred Olen Ray obviously worships at) explained, nobody really cares what the bad guys are after — the characters care but the audience doesn’t — it turns out the suitcase contained $50,000 in genuine cash and $50 million in government bonds, of which the top one was real and the other 49 were counterfeit. (Well, at least it’s a less shopworn MacGuffin than drugs, which were what I was expecting it to be.) Though the plot is preposterous on its face and we’re expected to believe that a middle-aged woman can outrun a male crook, successfully take on a subway stick-up artist and grab his knife, and leap over the fence at the ballpark, for the most part A Mother’s Revenge is actually a quite good thriller in the Hitchcock mode, hardly on the level of the real Hitchcock but keeping the audience (this member of it, anyway) interested and delivering the goods — and Jamie Luner turns in an excellent performance in the lead, her face a mask of grim determination as she goes through the weird psycho games the baddie is putting her through to get her daughter back (even though, like a lot of other Lifetime thriller script writers, it doesn’t seem as if Ray ever decided whether Conner should be a businesslike crook only interested in the money or a psycho getting off on putting Jennifer and Katey in peril and making his victims suffer).

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Stranger in the House (Really Real Films, Two 4 the Money Media, MarVista Entertainment, Lifetime, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was a 2016 Lifetime movie called Stranger in the House (not to be confused with a theatrical film of that same title made a year earlier), a quirky thriller written by Roslyn Muir and directed by Allan Harmon that essentially took a bundle of old Lifetime clichés and jumbled them up at least a bit. Stranger in the House opens with a series of montage sequences explaining how financier Wayne Griegson (John Novak) was involved in a car accident — he survived but his wife was killed — and shortly after that he and his business partner Finch (Michael Kopsa) were indicted for running a Ponzi scheme. They were acquitted, but the blowback from the charge led to demonstrations in the street against them and also to Griegson being barred from the securities business for life. Then the scene cuts to the palatial mansion Griegson retired to, where his daughter Jade (Emmanuelle Vaughn, top-billed) and son-in-law Marco (Matthew McCaull) live with him and have been taking care of him since his accident. Wayne not only needs a wheelchair, he also has an oxygen tank and mask mounted to it — he doesn’t need to breathe oxygen continually but he gets short of breath at times and he needs a quick hit of pure O2 to get over the crisis and stay alive. 

Jade and Marco (whose last name we never learn for sure — during the movie we see someone doing a Web search on him and typing in “Esp-” but getting no farther than that before director Harmon cuts away) have been married less than a year — he’s a construction worker and wanna-be contractor Jade met and had a whirlwind courtship with and they haven’t had time for a honeymoon since they’ve been too busy taking care of Wayne. So they go online to look for a live-in caregiver, and the woman who answers their ad is Samantha (Jordana Largy). She looks O.K. (indeed, she looks so much like Emmanuelle Vaughn that her shorter, slightly curlier hair is really the only way we can tell them apart) but she’s so twitchy that for the first third of the movie it begins to seem like something Christine Conradt would have written and called, natch, The Perfect Caregiver. Jade and Marco go off on their honeymoon just as we get a shot of Wayne and Samantha looking at each other and looking like they’re about to “get close” — and when Jade and Marco return a month later Wayne and Samantha are married. Later Wayne is found dead under mysterious circumstances, and after that it turns out Samantha got Wayne to alter his will so Samantha gets the house and Wayne’s entire fortune except for one insurance policy she lets Jade keep, along with Jade’s mother’s jewelry. “It’s not worth much — she really had bad taste,” Samantha perkily comments, adding insult to injury. Samantha and Jade get into a number of arguments, after one of which Samantha presents Jade with an eviction notice and Jade responds by throwing a book at her — which Samantha uses as an excuse to file charges against her. This involves the local cop, Detective Luke Harper (Dan Payne, not quite as hot as Matthew McCaull but still quite easy on the eyes), who persuades Jade to go to Samantha’s home and apologize to her. Jade does, and the two have wine together, but Samantha gives a very Donald Trumpian response — “I’ll think about it” — to Jade’s request that she drop the charges against her. 

Jade is especially concerned about being criminally charged because she works as an attorney in partnership with a Black woman named Chantal (Karen Holness), whom we realize if we’ve seen more than about four Lifetime movies will ultimately be murdered because she gets too close to the villain’s secrets — though writer Muir at least varies the formula enough that … Anyway, even before the final confrontation between Samantha and Jade, Muir and Harmon have dropped us a big hint that Marco and Samantha are having an affair — we see them nuzzling in the wine cellar and, after Samantha’s final confrontation with Jade, Marco returns to the house and he and Samantha get it on in one of the quirky soft-core porn scenes that give a lot of otherwise lame Lifetime movies a lot of their appeal. We’re obviously supposed to think that Marco and Samantha are involved in some plot to get hold of the Griegson millions — though if that was their aim why didn’t Marco just knock off Wayne and then Jade and get the fortune for himself? Why did he need Samantha’s involvement? Things get even quirkier when Samantha herself is found stabbed to death in her bathtub — a scene so badly cut in that at first we think it’s just a dream of Jade’s that her husband is killing her stepmom, only we soon learn it’s supposed to be a real story event — and they get crazier when Jade is arrested for Samantha’s murder. Fortunately Detective Harper has such a bad case of the hots for Jade that he decides to keep investigating even though the rest of the town’s police force is convinced that Jade did it, and he and Samantha go out together to the home of the woman with whom Samantha used to live. (A police detective going out on an investigatory call with the prime suspect? C’mon, Ms. Muir!) They find a scrapbook containing newspaper stories on the Ponzi scheme allegedly run by Wayne Griegson (ya remember the Ponzi scheme?) and eventually we get the Big Reveal: Marco and Samantha were both adult children of investors who lost their life savings in the scheme, and they met at a creditors’ meeting and hatched this elaborate revenge plan to kill Wayne and get hold of the fortune that had been ripped off from them and all the other investors. 

There’s a big climax in which Marco decides to kill Jade by feeding her wine spiked with an overdose of sleeping pills, only she manages to keep consciousness long enough to sneak a sniff of Wayne’s old oxygen supply (it’s still there?), which revives her enough that after Marco knocks off Jade’s friend and work partner Chantal — she managed to last longer than most of the African-American Best Friends in Lifetime movies who stumble on the Big Secret; most of them get offed about two-thirds of the way through but she survives until the last reel — and eventually Detective Harper comes, rescues Jade and calls in the coroner to take custody of the bodies. Jade decides to sell the big house Wayne Griegson left her and use that and the rest of his fortune to pay off as much as possible to the investors he defrauded, and she leaves town — though there’s a bittersweet leave-taking between her and Detective Harper, who’s clearly hoping for his own reasons that she’ll come back. Roslyn Muir really does deploy some of the Lifetime clichés in some relatively unexpected way, and director Harmon brings an appealing sense of the Gothic to some of the scenes — even though he and cinematograher Neil Cervin are way too enamored of the past-is-brown look: every interior in the movie, no matter how much (or how little) money the characters living there are supposed to have, is bathed in a warm, autumnal glow. It should also be pointed out that Matthew McCaull and Jordana Largy both pronounce the “t” in the word “often,” though Charles would probably say, “The director told them to say it that way so we’d know they were the villains by the bad English they speak!” Actually we know Matthew McCaull is the villain — or we should — right away by how good-looking he is; it’s one of Lifetime’s more monotonous affectations that really hot-looking guys in Lifetime movies are always up to no good (though the almost-as-handsome Dan Payne as the cop does get to be on the side of good). Stranger in the House isn’t as dementedly silly as some Lifetime movies have been, but it’s not exactly a great thriller either; it’s got too many plot holes and bits of bizarre unbelievability, though in some ways the sheer preposterousness of much of it is rather entertaining in and of itself!

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Key Largo (Warner Bros., 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was Key Largo, a heavy-breathing melodrama from Warner Bros. in 1948 that in a sense was a last hurrah for their classic style. It was the last film Humphrey Bogart made for Warners as an exclusive contractee (he had just renegotiated his contract to be non-exclusive and indeed would make only two more Warners films in the eight years left in his career, Chain Lightning in 1950 and The Enforcer — another gangster movie — in 1951), the last film director John Huston made for Warners as an exclusive contractee, and the last film Bogart and his real-life (fourth) wife Lauren Bacall made together (though there would be a fifth Bogart-Bacall joint project, a 1955 TV remake of his star-making movie The Petrified Forest with Bogart repeating his role as gangster Duke Mantee, Henry Fonda taking over Leslie Howard’s role as burned-out poet Alan Squier and Bacall in the Bette Davis role of Gabrielle Maple, waitress and would-be artist; and at the time Bogart caught his fatal cancer Columbia was planning to team him and Bacall in a Cold War spy melodrama called Melville Goodwin, U.S.A. which was ultimately filmed with Kirk Douglas and Susan Hayward as Top Secret Affair). It was also the end of the line for Edward G. Robinson’s long line of gangster roles that had begun when he arrived at Warner Bros. in 1930, got cast as a Prohibition-era beer baron in Alice White’s vehicle The Widow from Chicago and then got his star-making part as Enrico Caesar Bandello in the classic Little Caesar. Though Robinson, like Bogart and James Cagney, got to play a number of parts on the right side of the law (notably his blockbuster hit Bullets or Ballots in 1936), he remained most famous for his gangster parts, and here he’s billed second and playing someone with a similar name to his part in Little Caesar — only instead of “Rico” he’s “Rocco” and instead of a kill-crazy hit-man who gets his fellow gangsters as pissed off at him as the cops are, in this one he’s playing a character based on the real-life “Lucky” Luciano. 

Like Luciano, the fictional Rocco once controlled virtually all of America’s organized crime, used his money and power to get his stooges elected to public office so he could control things and operate with impunity, only eventually he was caught and deported from the U.S. as an “undesirable alien” — “like I was a dirty Red or something!,” Robinson exclaims in disgust, a line that (like much of this movie) is rich in ironies given how many people involved in it were part of Hollywood’s progressive communities. Huston, Bogart and Bacall all had liberal reputations (indeed, they and Katharine Hepburn had been the key organizers of Hollywood’s Committee for the First Amendment, organized in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations into Communists in Hollywood and the resulting blacklist) and Robinson was even farther Left than they; he got himself called before the committee four times and ended up on the blacklist himself until Right-winger Cecil B. DeMille got him taken off it so he could play Dathan in the 1956 film The Ten Commandments. I first saw Key Largo as part of a long-term festival in San Francisco in 1970-71 of Warner Bros. films sponsored by the Surf Interplayers revival house, and at the time it seemed a bit of a disappointment; I thought of it as the sure-fire commercial hit Huston and Bogart had to offer Jack Warner to be allowed to make their immediately previous film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Seen now, it’s a film with some weaknesses but overall it’s a marvelous example of the Warners and Huston styles, a capable melding of the conventions of the gangster movie and the film noir — and watching it a day after Whirlpool (even though it was made a year earlier) it gave the air of the professionals pushing the amateurs and wanna-bes out of the way and saying, “Here’s how a film like this should really be done.” The plot deals with an out-of-the-way resort on the Florida Keys, the Largo Hotel, owned by Johnny Temple (Lionel Barrymore, playing the sort of crusty-old-curmudgeon role he’d been specializing in for decades, especially once his chronic arthritis got so bad he ended up needing a wheelchair — his presence here at least partially makes up for his being passed over in favor of the much weaker, but also much cheaper, Charles Waldron as General Sternwood in The Big Sleep). 

Bogart plays Frank McCloud, an Army major who served in the Italian campaign in World War II with Temple’s son George, who died in combat. Bacall plays George’s widow, Nora Temple, who’s still living at Key Largo with her former father-in-law. Frank has come to the Largo Hotel to hang out with Johnny Temple and share with him information about his dead son, but when he arrives he finds the place is closed to the public and has been taken over by a gang of thugs: Richard “Curly” Hoff (Thomas Gomez), Edward “Toots” Bass (Henry Lewis), Angel Garcia (Dan Seymour, who earned his place in film trivia by being the only actor to appear both in Casablanca and the Marx Brothers’ spoof of it, A Night in Casablanca) and Ralph Feeney (William Haade). They’re alternately serving and being terrorized by a mysterious “Johnny Brown” who’s staying in Room 11 of the Largo Hotel, whom we first meet puffing away on a cigar and sitting in a bathtub with a fan blowing air at him to attempt to cool him off in the hot, sticky Florida heat. He is, of course, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), gangster who’s sneaked back into Florida from his redoubt in Cuba to deliver a mysterious small carrying box containing a “shipment” of something he’s supposed to sell to another crook, Ziggy (Marc Lawrence), before he returns. Key Largo is also being threatened by an incoming hurricane, and the captain of the boat that brought Rocco and crew to Key Largo sneaks away and takes the boat because leaving it in the bay off the key would mean risking its destruction in the hurricane. The basic issue of the plot casts Frank McCloud as a typical Bogart character, disgusted and cynical — he’s upset that the end of the war didn’t bring about the perfect world the politicians who got us into it told him and his fellow servicemembers he would, and as in so many of Bogart’s films starting with Casablanca the question is how long will it take for him to regain his former idealism and go after Rocco, and what’s going to trigger him to do so. (At one point, when Nora is trying to reawaken his idealism by referencing his past as a freedom fighter in World War II, I felt like joking that he’d say, “No, I wasn’t the freedom fighter. That was that other guy, the one who left Casablanca with my girlfriend and left me alone with Claude Rains.”) Like The Petrified Forest, Key Largo was based on a stage play (Paul Muni and Uta Hagen were the original stars) by a “name” writer (Robert Sherwood in The Petrified Forest and Maxwell Anderson here) who was attempting to use a gangster story as a frame on which to hang a lot of metaphors and philosophical musings about the human condition, and James Agee called out Anderson and the screenwriters, Huston and Richard Brooks, on it when the film was new: “I rather doubt anyhow whether gangsters can be made to represent all that [Huston] wants them to — practically everything that is fundamentally wrong with post-war America; so the picture is weak in the way it was obviously intended to be strongest.” 

Nonetheless, what’s wrong (or dubious) about Key Largo pales by comparison with what’s right about it: the leads — including a key character I haven’t mentioned above, Claire Trevor as Rocco’s alcoholic girlfriend and ex-singer Gaye Dawn, whom he sadistically makes sing her old nightclub feature, “Moanin’ Low,” in front of all the other principals as his price for letting her have a drink (he then reneges but Frank gets her the drink, risking Rocco’s wrath, and it’s partly Rocco’s treatment of her and partly the death of two Native American petty crooks, and a police officer who was looking for them, at the hands of Rocco’s gang that propels Frank into action against the gang — are absolutely perfectly cast and totally right for their roles. The camera is kept in almost constant motion (though the fact that virtually all the movie, except for a few establishing shots from a second unit in Florida and a final action scene at sea — stuck for an ending, Huston went for help to director Howard Hawks, who suggested he include the climactic shoot-out at sea with which Ernest Hemingway had ended his novel To Have and Have Not but Hawks hadn’t used in his film version with Bogart and Bacall three years earlier — takes place in two rooms at the Largo Hotel and thereby betrays the piece’s stage origins) and Huston and his cinematographer, Karl Freund (veteran of the German Expressionist classics of the 1920’s and Universal’s horror films in the 1930’s) went out of their way to find oblique camera angles — which pissed off Jack Warner because those took more time to set up and light than the standard angles and resulted in the film going over schedule and budget. Key Largo is also filled with “in” references; when Frank recalls his wartime service with George, the battle he describes is at San Pietro, Italy — which Huston filmed for an Army war documentary during World War II — and when Frank agrees to take Rocco and his gang back to Cuba (fully intending to shoot and kill them all once they’re underway), the boat they use is named Santana, also the name of Bogart’s real boat (though the real Santana was a sail yacht and the one in the movie is a powered fishing boat). 

Though the basic material isn’t anywhere nearly as profound as its makers clearly hoped and intended it would be (Agee, a friend of Huston’s, claimed in his contemporaneous review that “some of the points Huston most wanted to make were cut out of the picture after he finished it”), Key Largo is a solid Hollywood thriller, expertly directed and showcasing its stars effectively, and ending up in an action climax directed well enough that Huston can make us believe in one of Hollywood’s sillier clichés: the lone attacker who goes after the dastardly gang of crooks and, despite being hopelessly outnumbered, nonetheless manages to prevail through sheer star power as well as cunning and guile. One story about its making is that Claire Trevor wanted a voice double for the scene in which he would sing her old cabaret song to the other principals; Huston not only refused but insisted that she sing the song “live” on set instead of pre-recording it and he sprung the scene on her without giving her time to prepare — thereby getting the tense, nervous performance he wanted. (He also deserves kudos for not having Trevor look like the usual slatternly Hollywood portrait of an alcoholic woman: she’s decently dressed, her hair is well coiffed, and only her overall twitchiness and desperation when she demands booze gives it away that she’s an alcoholic.) Visually, Key Largo is everything I was hoping for and didn’t get from Whirlpool; though the hurricane is disappointingly (and unrealistically) short and more could have been made of it, Freund’s lighting and oblique angles and Huston’s high-tension direction create a noir atmosphere even in a story that is a bit too black-and-white (with good-good heroes — despite Bogart’s stock-in-trade moments of disillusionment and doubt — and bad-bad villains) to work as truly great film noir. But overall it’s a crackling-tough thriller of the kind they really don’t make anymore, and there’s one moment in the movie that unwittingly rang all too true today: when Frank is sounding off on how nobody cares about people like Rocco anymore and he’s able to maintain such an air of respectability “he might even get elected President,” of course I couldn’t help bitterly, laconically joking, “He did.”

Monday, October 2, 2017

Whirlpool (20th Century-Fox, 1949)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I looked last night for something from my backlog of recordings from TCM back when I could still make recordings and found an intriguing item called Whirlpool, a 20th Century-Fox film gris (my term for movies that attempt film noir and don’t quite make it) that reunited director Otto Preminger and star Gene Tierney from Laura (though most of Laura was actually directed by Rouben Mamoulian, whose “touch” shows in that film’s intense visual richness, characteristic of Mamoulian’s work and uncharacteristic of Preminger’s) in a wild tale which Charles recalled having read about in books on hypnosis as one of the most flagrantly inaccurate fictional portrayals of it. The plot casts Tierney as Ann Sutton, wife of psychiatrist Dr. William Sutton (Richard Conte, outrageously miscast in a role that cried out for Gregory Peck), who in the opening scene is caught shoplifting a $300 (in 1949 dollars!) piece of jewelry from a store to which she and her affluent husband have a charge account. She’s apprehended in the parking lot by a store security guard and placed under citizen’s arrest, but she’s bailed out — so to speak — by the mysterious David Korvo (José Ferrer), an astrologer, psychic and master hypnotist who uses his powers to latch on to independently wealthy women and suck them dry financially. We later learn that Ann Sutton is independently wealthy but has never been allowed to live a rich-and-famous (or even rich-and-not-so-famous) lifestyle, first because when he was alive her dad wouldn’t allow her to spend any money on luxury items for herself; then when he died he continued his control over her finances by locking up his entire fortune in trusts; and when she married Dr. Sutton he insisted that they live on his money (he didn’t have any to speak of then, though later he became successful and they did) and not touch hers. Supposedly she became a kleptomaniac because as a child the only way she could have anything nice was to steal it, and while she’d stopped stealing after her dad died Dr. Sutton’s demand that they live only on his money reawakened her kleptomania. David Korvo uses his “hold” on Ann to insist that she start dating him — thinking he’s blackmailing her, she writes him a check for $5,000 but he tears it up — and through his hypnotic powers he’s able to get her to sleep (something she’s been previously unable to do) and worms his way into her consciousness until he manages to get her to enter the house of one of his previous con victims, Theresa Randolph (Barbara O’Neil, afflicted by hair stylist Marie Walter with a weird grey streak in her hair that makes her look like the Bride of Frankenstein), whom he’s just killed, so he can set her up for his crime.

Just then Korvo has a medical emergency — his gall bladder goes haywire and he needs an operation to have it removed — and he figures being near death in a hospital bed will give him an unimpeachable alibi for Randolph’s murder. Only he really intends to hypnotize himself to be able to walk out of his hospital bed, leave the hospital and go to Randolph’s house, where Dr. Sutton (ya remember Dr. Sutton?) has persuaded the police detective in charge of investigating the Randolph murder, Lt. James Colton (Charles Bickford), to let him take Ann in hopes that something there will jog her memory and she’ll be able to identify the real killer. There’s also another MacGuffin: large transcription records Dr. Sutton made of his therapy sessions with Randolph, who was one of his patients and who told him all about her run-ins and brief affair with Korvo — only the records were stolen from his office by Ann under Korvo’s hypnotic control. Korvo beats the good guys to the Randolph home and plays the records while waiting for them, and when they arrive he pulls a gun on Ann and tells her he won’t shoot her if she lets him get away — but eventually his medical injuries catch up with him and, after picturesquely dropping blood all over the Randolph floor and letting loose with a wild shot that misses all the other humans in the room but destroys the Randolph record, he dies. The End. Whirlpool started life as a novel by Guy Endore and got turned into a film script by Ben Hecht and Andrew Solt — both writers with far better credits than this one — though because Hecht was not only financially supporting the Jewish guerrillas in Israel in the late 1940’s who were fighting not only the Palestinian Arabs but the British who were still in overall control of Palestine as a protectorate, he was soliciting contributions for this dubious cause from every other Jew in Hollywood and making public statements like it gladdened his heart every time a British solder in Palestine was killed, the British Board of Film Censors refused to let this film be released in the U.K. unless Hecht’s name was taken off it, so on the British prints he was billed as “Lester Barstow.”

Whirlpool is the sort of frustrating movie whose basic plot could have been a weird and compelling thriller if the writers hadn’t piled on one unbelievable situation on top of another, and if Preminger had been able to bring any sense of atmosphere to the direction. Instead he and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller (who’d shown in his credits for more creative directors that he could do atmospherics) shoot virtually the whole movie in even grey tonalities; it’s not until the final reel, starting with Korvo’s escape from the hospital, that Whirlpool even looks like a film noir. About the only thing it has going for it is José Ferrer’s superbly oily performance as the villain — in this kind of story the villains are usually more interesting than the heroes, and that’s true here even more than usual — and even Ferrer looks flummoxed in the later stages by what the writers are trying to make us believe his character would do. (The contortions he goes into as he’s trying to hypnotize himself into being able to walk out of the hospital and drive to the Randolph house without pain make him look like he’s about to turn into Mr. Hyde — and arguably Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde might have been a good role for Ferrer.) Whirlpool is another Otto Preminger loser — the script required visual atmospherics and dramatic subtlety, never directorial tasks Preminger was good at (his best films, Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent, worked largely because their stories didn’t need visual atmosphere) — and though Gene Tierney was one of the few actors who actually liked working for the tyrannical Preminger (they made four films together), the cruelest irony of Whirlpool was that it cast Tierney as a mental patient six years before she became one for real and spent years in therapy, burning through the entire fortune she’d accumulated as a Hollywood star, from which she was bailed out only by marrying a Texas oil multimillionaire and never having to work again.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Doctor Blake Mysteries: “Mortal Coil” (December Media, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ITV, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

About the only thing I got to watch on TV last night — Lifetime was doing an interminable documentary mini-series on the murder of Laci Peterson by her estranged husband Scott (and the ominous decision to charge him with two murders because Laci was pregnant when she was killed — as an ardent pro-choicer I have a problem with anything that hints that a fetus is a separate being that has an actionable right to “life”) — was a Doctor Blake Mysteries series episode called “Mortal Coil.” It begins at a funeral during which the pallbearers are having unexpected trouble with the sheer weight of the coffin — and when they drop it on its way to the grave they find out why: it contains two dead bodies, the one they were supposed to be burying and that of Sid Bartel (Bruce Gleeson), an old handyman in the village of Ballarat, Australia where The Doctor Blake Mysteries are set (Doctor Lucien Blake himself, played by Craig McLachlan, being a young man who grew up in Ballarat, went off to serve as a military medic in World War II, then elected to return and resettle in Ballarat in the late 1950’s). Of course this raises the obvious mystery-type questions: how did Sid’s body get into that coffin, how did Sid die and, most important, was it foul play and therefore something the police should work on finding out and prosecuting? Later the police and Doctor Blake encounter another double-occupied coffin in which the unauthorized occupant turns out to be Martin Callow (Andrew S. Gilbert), owner of the mortuary from which the bodies were supposed to be buried. Doctor Blake, despite the opposition of the local police (who at one point tell him to wait in the police station while they check out the latest lead he’s given them — which, of course, he doesn’t), stakes out the funeral home and finds Martin’s widow Lydia (Esther Stephens) has been having an affair with the mortuary’s delivery driver, which of course leads Blake to suspect that she and the driver conspired to knock off her husband so they could be together. 

But Dr. Blake finally pins the murders on Harold Morris (Dennis Coard), a nasty guy we’ve hated from the moment he was introduced and started bullying everyone, who along with his two sons were once enforcers for an Australian labor union whose job it was to beat up and intimidate scabs. Morris threatens Dr. Blake himself but Blake gets the gun away from him, and just when (in the best-written scene of Stuart Page’s script) Morris has taunted Blake with the idea that Blake doesn’t have the nerve to shoot him, especially since as a doctor he’s pledged to save lives instead of taking them, Blake shoots him — not in the chest but in the knee to incapacitate him so he can be arrested and held in the local hospital by the police. The police finally get the evidence they need to convict Morris when his son Steven (Dan Hamill) turns state’s evidence and confesses his own role in the crimes — the other son having disappeared earlier and possibly, Page’s script hints, himself having been “offed” by his father when he wanted to turn them all in. The motive for the killings, as nearly as I could figure it out, was that Martin Callow had been involved in Australia’s labor wars on the management side and that Harold Morris had a vendetta against him and was determined to kill him — and that poor Sid Bartel, a handyman who still transported himself in a horse-drawn vehicle (itself inspiring some murderous rage among local drivers who found his 2-mile-an-hour cart blocking the way of their cars on the road), was just in the wrong place at the wrong time: he witnessed Harold shooting Martin and therefore Harold shot him too. I have no idea if the history of organized labor in Australia was anywhere nearly as violent as this episode makes it sounds, and despite my opposition to terrorism in the service of any cause I still have a rather clammy feeling about a story in which union activists are the villains, but this was a quite good Doctor Blake episode in a show I’ve come to like for its understated British-style approach to murder (the only on-screen scenes of violence we see are Dr. Blake’s incapacitation of the villain and a few flashbacks representing Blake’s speculations on how the murders might have occurred) and the cleverness of the writing, even though in a few episodes (though not this one) the cleverness has got a bit too clever for its own good.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Live at the Belly Up: Anderson East (KPBS-TV, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a Live at the Belly Up episode featuring singer Anderson East and his band. He was billed as “blue-eyed soul” — i.e., as a white singer trying to sound Black — though his label, Elektra (who signed him after he did two self-produced CD releases), has “typed” him as country since he was born in Alabama (as Michael Cameron Anderson) and now lives in Nashville. Indeed, one of the things I found out about him is that he’s essentially Miranda Lambert’s new boy toy — she not only started dating him after breaking up with Blake Shelton but last July she shocked the country-music world by proposing marriage to him. I’ll give him props for having assembled a marvelously tight band for this performance — though at first I didn’t think much of him either as a singer or a songwriter and, if anything, with his casual dress, scraggly hair and rail-thin frame, he came off like the lead singer in a punk band doing retro-soul as a side project. I must admit that I was put off by the title of his first song, “Find ’Em, Feel ’Em and Forget ’Em,” not only because of the foul attitude towards women expressed in that title but because I suspect that away from the puritanical Federal Communications Commission restrictions on broadcast television, the second F-word in the title is something bolder and nastier than “Feel.”

He did three more O.K. soul romps with similar sentiments, including “Quit You” (though the gravamen of that lyric is that he can’t bring himself to quit the woman he’s singing about), “Only You” (one of those modern-day songs that begs comparison with a classic of yesteryear with the same title — in this case the beautiful doo-wop ballad Buck Ram wrote for his management and production clients, The Platters), and “Always Be My Baby,” before announcing that for his next number he was going to do a love song (“As opposed to all the political songs he’s been doing up till now?” Charles joked). He picked up a guitar and played a ballad called “Lonely,” and while it still had an annoying streak of self-pity (lamenting that his girlfriend has left him and utterly unwilling to accept any responsibility for the breakup), he was much more convincing in this more lyrical mode. Generally Anderson East is better on slow songs, and better when he plays guitar (and his usual lead guitarist switches to lap guitar, a variant of a slide guitar that is generally played sitting down, though the player in East’s band last night was doing it standing up) than when he just sings. After “Lonely” he did a song that the Live at the Belly Up chyron advertised as “She’s Sweet” but which really turned out to be Van Morrison’s “Tupelo Honey” — and while he was hardly at Morrison’s level as a blue-eyed soul artist he did sing the song with distinction (I’ve certainly heard far worse Van Morrison covers, including the awful one of “Wild Night” that was making the rounds about a couple of years ago which so infuriated me I walked into Off the Record, bought the used copy of Tupelo Honey they had and told the man at the counter I needed to get Morrison’s original of “Wild Night” just to clean my ears after the horrible sound of that cover!).

Then he did another soul cover, Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” and while his version was hardly as good either as Floyd’s or the best one by a white artist, Melanie’s cover from the Phonogenic (Not Just Another Pretty Face) album from 1977 (once again Melanie is a woefully underrated artist whom I think of as one of the great white soul voices of the 1960’s, rivaled only by Janis Joplin: if you don’t believe me check out “Momma Momma” from her first album, Born to Be, or “Cyclone” from the 1978 album Photograph), it was appealing — oddly, Charles said he associated the song mostly with a disco version by Amii Stewart in 1979, though if I’ve heard that I certainly don’t remember it! After “Knock on Wood” East did his most “country” song of the night, “The Devil in Me” (which is about him lusting after a minister’s daughter — sort of “Son of a Preacher Man” with the genders reversed), and then his most haunting selection, “What a Woman Wants.” It suffered from the same annoying sexism of most of his songs — the full title is “What a Woman Wants to Hear” and obviously the singer is trying to think of what he has to tell his girlfriend de jour to get her to have sex with him — but it was also lovely and benefited by the way East let his band sit it out and played it with just his own guitar backing. The next song was “Lying in Her Arms,” for which he began it as another solo, then brought in his two horn players (tenor sax and trumpet) to add fills — a haunting effect — and after that he brought in the rest of his band, one by one. Alas, then he put down the guitar and said he was going to do some more uptempo songs — a bit of a mistake since he’s quite obviously more effective on ballads — “Stay With Me,” “Learning (To Be a Man),” unique in East’s repertoire (at least as showcased last night) in a quality of self-reflection rare in his work, and his closer, “Satisfy Me.” Anderson East’s act is an oddball combination of soul, country and rock, and while he doesn’t have that authoritative voice he does quite well with what he has (and I generally liked him better as the evening went on) — I just wish he’d lose the sense I get from some of his songs that he’s just another one of those country boys who treats sex and seduction as a game to be played instead of an expression of love between equals!

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 10: “The Weight of Memory” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was the 10th and final episode of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward documentary series The Viet Nam War, “The Weight of Memory,” which takes up the story from the official U.S. withdrawal of military troops in early 1973 under the Paris Peace Accords to more or less the present. The first half of the program dealt with the final stages of the war, the last two years during which the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN), the military force of the South Viet Namese government, vainly — and, at least in this telling, heroically — tried to resist the onslaught of the North Viet Namese army and the National Liberation Front (the so-called “Viet Cong”) and held out for two years even though the NVA and the NLF were fully armed with Soviet and Chinese weaponry (more Soviet than Chinese because the Soviets had long since enthusiastically accepted North Viet Nam as an ally while the Chinese were considerably warier — a feeling that went both ways since for about 1,000 years before the French conquered it in the 1850’s Viet Nam had been a Chinese dependency, nominally independent but subject to what the Chinese called “suzerainty and tribute” — meaning that the Viet Namese had to accept the Chinese as ultimate authorities and pay them large amounts of money — and the Viet Namese had long enough memories not to embrace the Chinese as friends) while the U.S. Congress voted down any more military spending on Viet Nam and thus neither Richard Nixon nor his successor, Gerald Ford, were able to come up with the equipment and air support Nixon had promised in writing to South Viet Namese president Nguyen Van Thieu to get him to sign the Paris accords in 1973. The war didn’t really stop until the Communists finally took Saigon in April 1975 — and of course Burns, Novick and Ward couldn’t resist a fairly lengthy sequence detailing the fiasco the American evacuation of Saigon became, thanks (at least in this telling) largely to the obstinacy of the last U.S. ambassador to South Viet Nam, Graham Martin, who delayed the evacuation until literally the last days (by which it had become impossible to evacuate anybody by land or through a Viet Namese port — the only thing that could be done in those final days was to fly them out by helicopter, and even that was delayed because the only place the large ’copters could land was the parking lot on the U.S. Embassy grounds, and there was a tamarind tree blocking the way that Ambassador Martin wouldn’t allow to be cut down until literally the final day — whereupon crews had not only to cut down the tree but sweep the parking lot of any debris that might have got sucked into the helicopters and screwed up their engines) out of some crack-brained idea that there was still going to be a South Viet Namese government and he needed to show them that the Americans were still their allies — either that or he just didn’t want to lose “face” by leading a tails-between-their-legs evacuation. Of course, a tails-between-their-legs evacuation was exactly what happened, made even more bitter by the decision at the last minute that since the ships the ’copters were flying too were getting too crowded, they would evacuate only Americans: the Viet Namese who had helped us, either by working as translators or support staff for the U.S. presence or being officials in the South Viet Namese government, were left behind (a shameful practice we duplicated when we more or less left Iraq in 2008 and left our Iraqi support people, especially the translators, to their fate). 

It was a sad ending to an incredibly sad, tragic and traumatic episode in U.S. history — as I’ve pointed out in comments on the earlier episodes, there was a lot of debate within the anti-war movement in the U.S. over whether Viet Nam was a “mistake” or a war deliberately fought as part of U.S. imperialism. As the movement radicalized, its leaders (the ones I knew about, anyway) made it clear that “mistake” was the “wrong” answer and “imperialism” was the right one — though it occurred to me that the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam was both an imperialist war and a mistake: the U.S. spent way too much blood and treasure in Viet Nam than it would have been worth to any rational imperialists (like the French, who had had the good sense to get out after their debacle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954). Once the North won the Viet Nam war — though one of the most tragic moments in this whole long film was one Viet Namese ruing the fact that with the U.S. withdrawal, instead of a struggle for national liberation it was one in which Viet Namese were killing each other (which I don’t think is what Mao Zedong meant when he wrote about “turning imperialist wars into civil wars” — what he did mean was an analogy to Russia in 1917, when Russia’s involvement in World War I led to the collapse of the Czarist regime and a civil war in which the Russian Communists prevailed) — the fabled “dominoes” fell in Cambodia and Laos but no farther. Thailand remained a non-Communist constitutional monarchy (and a favored location for shooting films about the Viet Nam war, notably Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, because it was as close as filmmakers could get to Viet Nam while the U.S. still didn’t recognize or have diplomatic relations with it), and ironically Viet Namese people found themselves at war again when, with the support of their Soviet patrons, they invaded Cambodia in 1979 to bring down the horrendous Chinese-backed regime of Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and the Khmer Rouge. Geoffrey Ward’s script for The Viet Nam War acknowledges that, despite the fears of a lot of U.S. policymakers (especially once the North Viet Namese captured enough classified documents from the U.S. Embassy, despite the efforts of Embassy personnel to destroy them, to piece together the names and locations of most of the Viet Namese people who’d helped the U.S. war effort) that there would be a bloodbath against anyone who’d worked for the South Viet Namese government or supported the U.S. war effort, there wasn’t (as there was in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge’s real or supposed “enemies”), though members of the former South Viet Namese army were ordered into “re-education centers” and told that enlisted men would need only a few days there while officers would require a month. In fact the “centers” were really prisons and the people incarcerated there were held, in some cases, for years — one of the most poignant stories told here was of a former South Viet Namese army officer who was imprisoned in a “re-education center” for nine years, allowed to leave the country when he got out, and relocated to the U.S. and established himself but still, much to the consternation of his family, wants to return to Viet Nam and die there. The program also told of Viet Nam’s fate after the war, in which Viet Namese Communist Party general secretary Le Duan (described throughout the program as the real power behind the throne in the 1960’s even though Ho Chi Minh was the front person for the North Viet Namese government until his death in 1969) took a hard-line policy including the collectivization of agriculture. 

Exactly why so many Communist governments have copied Stalin’s deadly mistake about the collectivization of agriculture when it inevitably leads to under-production and mass starvation and famine is a mystery; there may be advantages to public ownership of industry but attempts to organize farming along industrial lines, whether by Stalinist government fiat or capitalist agribusiness, seem only to demoralize farmers and plunge yields. The result in North Viet Nam — as in the Soviet Union, China and every other country that tried this madness — was a decade-long famine and economic collapse until Le Duan finally croaked and his successors instituted something called doi moi, similar to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in the Soviet Union and Deng Xaioping’s market-based reforms in China, which allowed some amount of private enterprise, encouraged foreign investment and — an irony totally unmentioned here — eventually led to Viet Nam becoming an outpost of multinational capitalism, a pool of cheap labor companies could exploit when they decided that even Chinese labor had got too expensive. (In other words, in Viet Nam as well as in China the structure of Communist dictatorship, especially its suppression of independent labor unions, ultimately became the basis of capitalist dictatorship; the nominal Communists running both China and Viet Nam have essentially turned their countries into giant sweatshops for the multinational business elite.) The film ends with the tale of how relations between the U.S. and Viet Nam were finally normalized thanks largely, Ward’s script argues, to the efforts of three U.S. Senators who had actually served in the Viet Nam war: John McCain (R-Arizona), whose capture as a POW when his bomber was shot down over Hanoi had been a major propaganda coup for the North Viet Namese because he was the son and grandson of Navy Admirals and at the time McCain’s father was the admiral in charge of the U.S. fleet in Europe (this story is told in episode five and the contrast between North Viet Namese propaganda footage of the young McCain with what he looks like now was dramatic); John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), who had been one of the leaders of Viet Nam Veterans Against the War and had given the dramatic Congressional testimony in which he asked the rhetorical question, “How do you ask the last man to die for a mistake?” (words that came back to haunt him when he ran for President in 2004 and Republican propagandists savaged his war record!); and Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska). The film closes with President Obama visiting Viet Nam in 2016 — the first U.S. President since Nixon to do so — and making one of his typical speeches about bringing unity and bridging the gaps between former enemies. 

Like so much of Obama’s rhetoric, this rings pretty hollow in the context of who’s succeeded him as President and the fact that Donald Trump’s whole strategy as a leader, as CNN commentator Chris Cilizza recently wrote (http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/26/politics/trump-nfl-tweets/?iid=ob_lockedrail_topeditorial), Trump “seems bent on reminding us on what divides us rather than what unites us. … Whether he wants to admit it to himself or not, Trump is purposely playing on lingering racial resentment and animus in the country to remind people of what divides us. And he is doing so because he knows it will work.” The Viet Nam war divided this country into two large camps, the people who were horrified at the way the war seemed to contradict our stated ideals of individual self-determination for both people and nations, and those who saw it as a Holy Cause on behalf of Truth, Justice and The American Way and felt that war opponents should at best be forcibly silenced and at worst should be beaten, jailed or even killed. One of the quirkiest things about The Viet Nam War (the movie) is that it’s illustrated just how the divisions within America that emerged in the 1960’s have dominated and defined our politics ever since — and Trump’s election was a huge triumph for the love-it-or-leave-it crowd, who despite Trump’s paucity of any real achievements nonetheless love him for articulating their rage in his rhetoric. In that sense we’re still fighting the Viet Nam war (and the civil rights battles that also took place in the 1960’s), with Trump’s base viewing him as the ideal vehicle to rid the American polity of all those radical Commie nigger and  fag ingrates who “lost” us the Viet Nam war and challenged what they see as the undeniable, unchallengeable “truths” that whites are superior to people of color, men are better than women and Queers are creeps who dwell under rocks from whom our children need to be protected. Just as the U.S. lost the war in Viet Nam but “won the peace” (we turned Viet Nam into an emporium of capitalist exploitation, much the way the South lost the U.S. Civil War but “won the peace” by being able to re-subjugate African-Americans into menial jobs, segregated everything and permanent second-class status), so the American Right lost the war over whether the U.S. should stay militarily involved in Viet Nam but “won the peace” in terms of getting their representatives elected and adjusting U.S. policy as a direct assault on African-Americans, Latinos, women, Queers and whites who reject the “timeless” values of masculinity and militarism as the American political and cultural Right defines them.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 9: “A Disrespectful Loyalty” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “feature” was the ninth and next-to-last episode of the mega-documentary The Viet Nam War by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward, called “A Disrespectful Loyalty” after a statement one of the interviewees, John Musgrave, made about his evolution from front-line soldier in Viet Nam to critic of the war and participant in the famous demonstration at which members of the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War organization threw their service medals over a crudely erected wooden fence blocking themselves off from the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Their original plan, Musgrave mentioned in his interview, was to collect their medals in a body bag and deliver the lot of them to Congress, but the barrier made that impossible, so they threw the medals over the fence and each servicemember made a bitter little speech about how these pieces of metal and cloth, which they had been told meant so much and were such a major validation of their service to their country and their worth as men (I’m saying “men” because the women who served the U.S. military in Viet Nam did so as nurses and in the other traditional “support” category, and the idea that someday American servicewomen would be permitted to see combat would have been regarded as outrageous by people on both sides of the debate over whether the war was worth supporting) now meant nothing, or even less, to them since they’d seen the war as a futile enterprise. This episode took the story from the immediate aftermath of the Kent State shootings in 1970 (which was overwhelming support for the National Guardsmen who had gunned down students in cold blood — the polls registered 58 percent support for the Guard, which as I pointed out in my comments on the previous episode tallied with the 56 percent support for the Chicago police actions against unarmed demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the 57 percent combined vote total for Richard Nixon and George Wallace in the 1968 Presidential election) to the final withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Viet Nam following the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.

One can’t watch The Viet Nam War in the Trump era without realizing how much Donald Trump is the modern face of the reaction that began with the 1968 Nixon and Wallace campaigns, particularly the use of “law and order” as a slogan by both Nixon and Trump, who really meant the same thing by it: a promise to white America to use the full force of law enforcement, backed if necessary by military personnel, to keep Black America repressed, suppressed and oppressed. What was different between Nixon and Trump was that what Nixon said behind closed doors to his favorite advisers — Henry Kissinger, Bob Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell — his vicious references to the “lying media” and the “bums” who were demonstrating against the war, and also all the social anxieties and racist animadversions — Trump has said openly and proudly to rallies drawing tens of thousands of people. Indeed, one of the reasons Trump’s fans love him so much is that he dares to say publicly what they really think, but felt too ashamed of being considered “politically incorrect” to say in public. (Few people know this — and when I tell it to them they’re flabbergasted — but the phrase “politically correct” actually originated in the late 1970’s on the American Left, as a way for Leftists to criticize other Leftists for being too dogmatic in their application of Leftist principles. I know that because I was there and heard the phrase many times before the Right co-opted it and turned it into an attack on all Leftists.) The sheer length and scope of The Viet Nam War has the consequence — intended or not (and I suspect Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are good enough filmmakers that they intended it) — of making the film seem as oppressively long and seemingly endless as the war itself. The ninth episode does seem a bit rushed given all it has to cover — not only in Viet Nam itself (the increasing sense that the people fighting the war had of the pointlessness of it all and the ways they handled that — through heavy use of drugs, particularly marijuana and heroin, and in some cases by “fragging,” i.e. murdering, gung-ho officers who either still believed in the mission or at least acted like it and ordered potentially deadly offensives when the troops cared only about surviving their tours with their lives and limbs intact and then going home) but also at home, with the rising numbers of people demonstrating against the war and the increasing desperation Nixon and Kissinger felt in their desire to have the whole bloody business of Viet Nam over and done with before Nixon came up for re-election in November 1972.

The film mentions the Pentagon Papers and the Nixon administration’s prosecution/persecution of Daniel Ellsberg for stealing them and leaking them to the media — and the almost unprecedented U.S. court ruling enjoining the New York Times from publishing them until the U.S. Supreme Court reversed it 15 days later: the very sort of “prior restraint” censorship the First Amendment was designed to prevent. What it doesn’t mention is that after Nixon organized the “plumbers” to gain information on Ellsberg, including a bombing of the Brookings Institution (which never happened) and a break-in at the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist (which did, but it didn’t find his files), and (not mentioned here) they tried to bribe the judge in Ellsberg’s case by offering him the directorship of the FBI, Ellsberg’s prosecution was finally thrown out of court due to government misconduct. So were the charges against the Weather Underground, the offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) which had come full-circle from opposing the Viet Nam war as an act of violence to plotting and carrying out violent actions themselves, including homemade bombs (though they were such inept terrorists the only people they killed with their bombs were three of their own number in a townhouse in New York City where they were assembling bombs, and a college student in Ann Arbor, Michigan who was studying at 2 a.m. in a library the people bombing it thought would be closed). They also were involved in bank robberies, in one of which a police officer was fatally shot, but for the most part the Weather Underground were among the most incompetent terrorists of all time. As luck would have it, I met and got a chance to interview Mark Rudd, one of the leaders in the student strike at Columbia University in 1968, later a founder of the Weather Underground and still later a fierce critic of domestic terrorism whose advice, he told me, to would-be urban revolutionaries in the 2000’s who might want to follow the Weather Underground’s example was “don’t do it again.” Like Ellsberg, Rudd and most of the Weather Underground members who were arrested and prosecuted were ultimately freed because the government had broken the law itself in gathering evidence against them — though I noted grimly that all the government tactics, including entrapment and infiltration, that had been illegal in the 1970’s were made legal when Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the USA PATRIOT Act in the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

What also doesn’t get mentioned in this show is that the Watergate break-in in June 1972 was not just a scheme cooked up by Nixon’s “Plumbers” because after the failure of their campaign against Ellsberg they had nothing better to do; rather, it was literally the tip of the iceberg, the one part of a giant scheme Nixon and his advisors had to rig the U.S. Presidential election of 1972 so that Nixon would not only win, but be re-elected in such a landslide his legitimacy would no longer be in doubt. Part of the Nixon strategy was to sabotage the campaigns of the more electable potential opponents in the Democratic Party — Senator Ed Muskie, Hubert Humphrey’s running mate in 1968 and the early front-runner for the 1972 Presidential nomination, in particular — so that George McGovern, whom the Nixon people considered the Democrat easiest to beat, would be the party’s nominee. One of the most fascinating clips in episode nine of The Viet Nam War was the appearance of Valerie Kushner, wife of Viet Cong prisoner Dr. Hal Kushner, on the podium of the 1972 Democratic convention giving a seconding speech for McGovern’s nomination; the years without any contact between her and her husband had moved her to the Left (while most of the POW’s wives remained staunch and public supporters of the war and expressed nothing but confidence in Nixon’s tactics for winning the war and bringing their menfolk home), while he had been kept so isolated, not being allowed any contact with his family until he was permitted to record a tape for them just a few months before his release, that on that tape he refers to the child his wife was pregnant with when he shipped out as “he or she” because he had no way of knowing whether the kid was a boy or girl. (It was a boy.) The show covers the denouement of Viet Nam, at least as far as the American involvement was concerned — the negotiators in Paris, Henry Kissinger representing the U.S. and Le Duc Tho representing the North Viet Namese government (both sides deliberately kept the two other parties to the talks — the National Liberation Front and the South Viet Namese government of President Nguyen Van Thieu — out of the loop), cut a deal in October, the North Viet Namese government asked for time to review it, and Nixon responded by ordering the worst bombings of the war on North Viet Nam’s key port city of Haiphong (one person called it “the first bombing ever ordered by tantrum,” to which I could only think, “If you think Nixon’s tantrums were bad, just wait until you see Trump’s!”) as well as on Hanoi, which led to both sides ultimately agreeing to the same deal they could have had in October with that last nasty fillip of bloodshed.

The show also contained a fascinating digression on Jane Fonda — in the middle of the blood and guts Burns and Novick suddenly cut to the opening credits of Barbarella, the sci-fi sexploitation film Fonda and her first husband, French director Roger Vadim, had made in 1968 — and John Musgrave explains that though a number of Left-leaning celebrities from the U.S. visited North Viet Nam during the war, the GI reaction against Fonda was particularly nasty because she had been their fantasy object, the personification of what they’d been fighting for. (What he really meant, of course, was that she’d been their jack-off fantasy; it’s hard to imagine Jane Fonda being to the Viet Nam war what Betty Grable had been to World War II, but that’s what Musgrave was basically saying.) Burns, Novick and Ward also mention Joan Baez’s visit to Hanoi during the war (she made amateur recordings while she was there during the Christmas 1972 bombing and wove snippets of them into a song called “Where Are You Now, My Son?” that took up the entire second side of her album of that title) but do not mention that, while Fonda’s statements in Hanoi (in which she called the U.S. POW’s “war criminals” and called for their trials and even their executions) followed their party line — and, even more infuriatingly for many Viet Nam vets, she was photographed taking a joy ride on an anti-aircraft gun turret that was used to shoot down U.S. bombers — Baez took a different stand, calling the North Viet Namese government out on its political repression and telling them to their faces that just because she was opposed to the U.S. attack on their country, she was not an uncritical supporter of the North Viet Namese Communist government either. Indeed, if there’s any message in The Viet Nam War it’s one of the sheer evil of all war; the segment on episode eight detailing the way North Viet Namese captors treated U.S. prisoners of war was followed by one in which a North Viet Namese recalled how people on her side who were captured were tortured by Americans, often in the same ways (especially electrocution and waterboarding) later used at Abu Ghraib and other locations in which the U.S. held people in Iraq. Many of us in the peace movement slowly reached the conclusion that since our country had gone so wrong in Viet Nam, the side we were fighting must be “right,” and that’s why people in the later peace marches carried North Viet Namese and NLF flags and openly rooted for a North Viet Namese victory.

The extent to which the political and cultural battles from the Viet Nam era are still being fought in the U.S. is exemplified by the reviews on the imdb.com site of the various episodes in Burns’ film by someone calling himself (or, much less likely I suspect, herself) “dncorp,” who’s basically making the arguments supporters of the war have been making from then till now: the U.S. should have deployed everything it had in Viet Nam (the fact that a total war in Viet Nam would have amounted to genocide against the Viet Namese people doesn’t seem to bother “dncorp”); the U.S. military won all the battles in Viet Nam but were stabbed in the back by disloyal or incompetent politicians (does “dncorp” even know that that was also the argument Adolf Hitler used to gain power in Germany — that the German military had won World War I but the disloyal politicians had stabbed them in the back and given up, allowing Germany and its power to be shackled by the Treaty of Versailles?), and that all the people protesting the war should have been rounded up and dumped in the middle of the combat zone, where they could either have taken up guns and found their courage at last or met the brutal deaths he seems to think they deserved. So much of President Trump’s support seems to go back to this atavistic demand for revenge — not only “America, love it or leave it,” but “America, love it or die, and good riddance” — even his recent tweets criticizing African-American players in the National Football League for doing gestures of protest when the national anthem is played before games hearken back to one of the most famous protests in the 1960’s, when Olympic medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms in the clenched-fist Black Power salute during their medal ceremony — and got roundly criticized, including the usual death threats, by the radical Rightists of their time. I’m sure “dncorp” would bristle at being called a fascist, but as Jesus Christ said, “By their fruits ye shall know them” — certainly his ideology, which goes beyond even the usual defense of the war (there’s actually something to the argument that so-called “limited war” is an oxymoron: if a war is worth fighting at all, it’s worth fighting to the max and going all-out to win) to a kind of outraged brutality that’s been at the center of a large part of the American Right ever since and now, with Donald Trump as President and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, is essentially running the country.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 8: “The History of the World” (Flirentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched episode eight of the 10-part Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward (the first two credited as co-directors and the third as writer) documentary series The Viet Nam War. In a way it’s a follow-up to Burns’ earlier mega-epics on the Civil War and World War II (though since World War II was such a huge topic Burns decided to focus on individual Americans who served in the portion of the war in which the U.S. was involved and made the film more personal and less political than The Viet Nam War). Burns’ and Novick’s cause was helped by the fact that so many people from the Viet Nam era are still alive — including the fascinating John Musgrave, who went from gung-ho soldier who was a strait-laced clean-arrow young man, eager to fight the Reds halfway across the world, to increasingly doubtful young man wondering whether the war was worth it, to out-and-out hippie (the closing shot of episode eight, “The History of the World” — a line from one of Burns’ and Novick’s interviewees, who said that the history of the Viet Nam War was a microcosm of the history of the world, which is arguable but also a sad commentary on how much of its history the human race has spent developing new ways, and also new excuses, to kill each other in mass slaughters that, unlike killing in the animal world, have no real point and don’t help us survive as a species — shows Musgrave with a thick head of long, bushy hair, a jolt compared both to what he looked like as a servicemember in Viet Nam and what he looks like now) to philosophical old sage. This episode focused on the Viet Nam conflict itself for the first three-fourths of its two-hour length, and only then did it cut back to the home front, to the growing unrest on the college campuses — especially the mass reaction to President Nixon’s invasion (for which he coined the term “incursion” — I remember Eugene McCarthy joking that the problem with the word “incursion” was it had no verb form: when there’s an invasion, you invade, but what do you do when there’s an “incursion” — you “incurse”?) of Cambodia, which left a lot of Americans wondering why he was expanding a war he was simultaneously claiming to be winding down, and which in turn led to the Kent State killings of four students (one of whom, ironically enough, was not an anti-war protester but an ROTC scholarship student who just got caught in the cross-fire while going from one class to another — which didn’t stop his family members from getting letters denouncing their dead son as just another “dirty Commie” the U.S. was better off rid of) by National Guardsmen firing in strict formation. 

What’s really fascinating about The Viet Nam War viewed through the lens of the Trump Presidency — more even than Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump has turned himself into the personification of the white backlash and the reaction against the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Queer movement, the expansion of the welfare state and the anti-war movement of the 1960’s (which means that The Viet Nam War plays quite differently from how it would have if Hillary Clinton had won last year’s election) — is it shows just how early that reaction solidified. In 1968 polls showed that 56 percent of Americans approved of the heavy-duty police tactics used against peace demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago; two years later 58 percent approved of the killings of students by National Guardsmen at Kent State — and of course in between those two events Richard Nixon and George Wallace between them had received 57 percent of the vote in the 1968 Presidential election to Hubert Humphrey’s 43 percent. Those statistics indicate just how quickly Right-wing sentiment in the U.S. hardened as a result of, and a reaction to, the progressive causes of the 1960’s (with opposition to the counter-culture having basically morphed from anti-hippie, as the hippie lifestyle faded, to anti-Queer, these are still the issues that drive the American Right and helped elect Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes and Trump to the Presidency) and how early the conservative consensus formed that has basically dominated American politics ever since — since 1968 the Republicans have won eight Presidential elections to the Democrats’ five, and they’ve done it largely by appealing to the bloody shirts left over from the 1960’s: anti-people of color, anti-terrorist (replacing anti-Communist), anti-feminist, anti-Queer (replacing anti-hippie) and at least theoretically anti-welfare state (though, as the debacle of the Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, there are a lot of white voters out there who hate the welfare state when it benefits people of color but are just fine with it and will even defend it fiercely when it benefits them). 

“The History of the World” also covered the My Lai massacre, a topic they introduced in an interesting and unusual way; in the interview with Tim O’Brien, a Wisconsin native who served in Viet Nam and later wrote what are often considered to be the best works of fiction to come out of the U.S. experience in Viet Nam, the novel Going After Cacciato (1978) and the short-story cycle The Things They Carried (1990). O’Brien recalled going into a part of southeast Viet Nam the Army called “Pinkville” because it had been a major center of Viet Cong resistance (and of Viet Minh resistance against the French colonizers in the previous part of the war) and found the Viet Namese in the area regarded them with a bizarre mix of hatred and fear he hadn’t encountered in any other part of the country. He eventually learned that the reason was that in 1968, a year before O’Brien got there, the My Lai hamlets that constituted “Pinkville” had been the site of an outright massacre of between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians by a company from the Americal Division led by Captain Ernest Medina and Lieutenant William Calley. The massacre didn’t become common knowledge until 1970, when investigative reporter Seymour Hersh found out about it and was able to acquire sufficient documentation to publish a story, and while 25 U.S. servicemembers were indicted only Lieutenant Calley was convicted (he was essentially made the scapegoat and there was even a hit song glorifying him, “The Ballad of Lieutenant Calley,” set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”).  

The Viet Nam War is an excellent series, and yet it’s also all too faithful to the spirit of the war itself, an extended conflict that just wore down the American people as well as many of the folks on both sides who participated in it. I’ve heard presentations by members of Maoist parties who argue that the biggest single contribution Mao made to Marxist-Leninist theory was working out the strategy for “protracted war,” stretching an anti-imperialist conflict to years or even decades until the war becomes a permanent fixture and the imperialists feel compelled to bog down ever more men and resources until they finally give up and the progressive forces win. It does seem as if the wars the U.S. has got involved in have become ever more protracted until we’ve lost track of the original war aims — as happened in Viet Nam: the series includes a film clip from Richard Nixon explaining that the war goal as of 1970 was not necessarily to “win” it (whatever “win” meant) but to get out in a way that maintained our national credibility intact — which plummeted morale among the “grunts,” many of whom said, “I’m not here fighting and risking my life for the credibility of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.” But we’ve seen the “protracted war” cycle repeat again and again, especially in Afghanistan (where our involvement, dating back from the weirdly misdirected response to the 9/11 attacks — as I told a person who was heckling me during an anti-war demonstration in 2002, “Where did the people who did 9/11 come from? Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Where did we go to war? Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s wrong with this picture?” — has since surpassed the American Revolution and Viet Nam as the longest war in U.S. history) and Iraq (where we essentially destroyed a stable and secular, though insanely repressive, government and midwived the birth of ISIS). 

It’s hard to listen to President Nixon on these film clips saying he wanted to withdraw American troops except as advisors and “trainers” so the South Viet Namese could take up the burden and learn to defend themselves — a strategy that worked short-term for Nixon politically (as more U.S. servicemembers got to go home people — even supporters of the war — felt relieved that they were going home upright and not in body bags) but was an abject failure in terms of sustaining and ultimately “winning” the war — just as it’s been in Afghanistan and Iraq (where in response to the first ISIS attacks the servicemembers the U.S. had so expensively “advised” and “trained” either turned tail and ran or, more infuriatingly, joined ISIS — as ISIS’s leaders had actually advised them to do: “Enlist in the Iraqi army and let the infidels train you on how to fight the infidels”). What’s really sobering about The Viet Nam War is how many of the fights that rocked the nation in Viet Nam are still going on, and how what political scientist Samuel Lubell called The Hidden Crisis in American Politics in his 1970 book of that title — he argued that Nixon was the first U.S. President to deliberately divide the U.S. people for his own and his party’s political gain, confident that he and the Republicans would end up with the larger half and therefore be able to dominate long-term (previous Presidents, Lubell argued, had either sought to unite the American people or, when they divided them — as Lincoln did with the Civil War or Franklin Roosevelt with the New Deal — they did so over matters of principle) — is still going on and has led to our current situation, with President Trump and the Republicans, though a minority of the American people, have shrewdly exploited the anti-democratic features built in to the U.S. Constitution by its framers into a position of absolute political dominance and have become, as Leonard Schapiro called the Bolsheviks in his history of the 1917 Russian revolutions, “a minority determined to rule alone.”