Bonus links: Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies and National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood and “National Security Cinema: The Shocking New Evidence of Government Control in Hollywood—How the US Military and CIA Go About Their Propaganda Operations” and Hollywood and the CIA: Cinema, Defense and Subversion and Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film and “Modern Art Was CIA ‘Weapon'” and “Washington DC’s Role Behind the Scenes in Hollywood Goes Deeper Than You Think” and “Hollywood’s Cave to China on Censorship” and “Booting a Tramp: Charlie Chaplin, the FBI and the Construction of the Subversive Image in Red Scare America”
Link to an article by John Sbardellati & Tony Shaw:
Bonus Links: “Woke Hollywood? The Marketing of Black Panther” and “The Politics of Batman” and War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century and “Making Greater Possibilities Inconceivable: Another Thought or Two on the Logic of Lesser Evilism” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Captain America: Civil War”
Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky
This is the best new(-ish) film I can remember seeing, a fact bolstered by watching the horrendous Star Wars: The Last Jedi at a second-run theater shortly after it. This autobiographical work draws from the second part of The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography (2001), and chronologically follows Alejandro Jodorowsky’s previous film La danza de la realidad [The Dance of Reality] (2013), which also drew from his autobiography. This is not a conventional, “accurate” or “realistic” autobiographical picture. Some scenes are altered from their historical sources, and most of the film represents stylized exaggerations of real-life events for artistic effect. While this can definitely be called Felliniesque — Amarcord, Satyricon and 8 1/2 being perhaps the closest counterparts — everything here is unique to Jodo and nothing can really be said to be copied from Fellini or anyone else. Jodo’s predilection for combining psychoanalysis and shamanism completely and irrevocably marks his own style. But perhaps it suffices to say this is about as good as Fellini at his best.
The film opens with Jodorowsky in his teens, still living in Tocopilla, Chile. Jeremias Herskovits reprises his role as the young Jodo. But his family relocates to Santiago. He develops a love of poetry. Eventually he runs away from home and is taken in by kindred spirits at a kind of artist commune. There he works on his poetry and begins making puppets for a puppet show he presents with a friend. He cultivates relationships with local poets and spends time in bars recreated here with surreal decor. He then is given a loft apartment, by chance, where he comes into himself as a young adult. A particularly moving scene is the very end of the film. This is where Jodorowsky decides to leave Chile for France. His father meets him at the port as he is leaving. In real life, he never saw his father or other family members again. But here, as a kind of narrator, he steps in to ask his younger self to forgive his father and insist on a different interaction with the father character. The film is historical, but also a dialog with the director’s own past, as a kind of quest to confront and overcome his own mistakes. Numerous scenes depart from the way Jodo described them in his earlier book The Dance of Reality. While sometimes that means the filmic depiction is exaggerated, in some instances things are toned down to be more presentable on screen.
One recurring effect is the presence of stage hands dressed entirely in black, including gloves and full-head hoods. These stage hands take things from the actors’ hands and hand them other things. Familiar in theater productions, here the effect is to consciously direct the audience to the symbolic significance of characters’ actions on screen and to heighten emphasis on the characters’ emotional states. Another device used repeatedly is the active unveiling and movement of life-size black-and-white posters of buildings and a train. These convey the past in a kind of distant echo, real yet unreal. They allude to the past while recognizing that events can’t be fully re-created, only conjured up from vague memories from a new perspective. Then the end of the film features a crowd, half dressed in skeleton costumes and half dressed in red devil costumes. The skeletons appear elsewhere in the film too. These images are striking and indelible.
Jodorowsky’s wife Pascale Montandon-Jodorowsky provides lighting, color and costume contributions. All of these aspects are particularly striking and effective. His son Aden plays his teenage self, and his oldest son Brontis reprises his role as his father. Pamaela Flores reprises her role as his mother, again singing all her lines in an operatic style, but she also portrays the poet Stella Díaz Varín, Jodo’s first girlfriend.
This is a somewhat smaller-budget film. Moviemaking is an industrial art, demanding substantial funds. It is simply not possible to realize certain things without money. Jodorowsky is quite open about his outsider status as a filmmaker, and his acceptance that his quest to make art for art’s sake places him squarely in opposition to the profit-focused Hollywood machine. He ran out of funds mid-way through filming Endless Poetry, and raised the remaining funds through a “crowdfunding” campaign. While there is the potential to see his efforts as self-aggrandizing, taking Jodo’s mysticism — drawn from zen buddhism, the tarot, and elsewhere — at face value, he doesn’t hesitate to work on his own personal “inner” growth, or to use himself as an example — good or bad — for others. This attests to some sort of more noble purpose. Returning to the Last Jedi comparison, this film presents a much more worthwhile exploration of a master/apprentice framework, particularly in the way Jodo appears directly as a kind of narrator. The Last Jedi is sub-moronic in that respect, when you get down its anti-zen “striving” narrative. These elements become even more pronounced in later parts of Jodo’s real life.
Jodo is still only part way through film adaptations of the book The Dance of Reality, and that isn’t even counting his other memoirs about episodes of his adult life like The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky. Supposedly he plans a five film cycle, of which this is the second. Though it does seem that the third installment is underway in some form.
Being more about Jodo’s inner struggles to “become himself” when he a teenager, rather than being about his father, makes this just a bit more interesting than its predecessor The Dance of Reality. The visuals are also more extravagant and memorable here. This is why movies are made!
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)
Director: Alan Rafkin
Here is a rather mediocre film that nonetheless features a rather great performance by its star Don Knotts. The basic premise loosely resembles the story “A Fairy Tale About a Boy Who Left Home to Learn About Fear” from Grimm’s Fairy Tales, about staying in a haunted house to win the affections of a girl. Knotts plays Luther Heggs, an inept man working for a newspaper with aspirations to be a photojournalist. Another reviewer aptly described the protagonist as having “delusions of adequacy.” A recurring gag is that as Knotts fumbles about awkwardly and timidly some unidentifiable person in the back of a crowd yells, “Atta-boy Luther!” Knotts’ finest moment comes when the small town he lives in presents a luncheon in his honor and he gives a speech. This speech manages to include a practically exhaustive collection of every inept mistake a nervous presenter can make. Knotts opens speaking in a whisper no one can hear. He talks mostly about writing the speech, without actually saying much beyond that, other than to briefly pander to the audience by expressing support for the military — a complete non-sequitur. His hands tremble uncontrollably while holding his notes. The speech just kind of ends abruptly, without ever having made a point. Knotts is positively brilliant in the scene. As a whole, the film is one of those stiff Hollywood set-bound films that is only slightly more advanced in production values than a television sitcom of the day, and there just aren’t quite enough jokes/gags. But, it is watchable and Knotts shines through the merely passable filmmaking and writing. This also perhaps influenced Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?
La Jetée (1962)
Director: Chris Marker
Chris Marker’s short sci-fi film La Jetée is one of the most remarkable in the genre. The plot is beguiling and the form of the film itself is utterly unique. The basic story involves a hazy childhood memory of the main character in which he was on an observation deck of an airport and remembers seeing a woman and an incident involving a man, which he later realizes was the man dying. A third world war occurs, involving nuclear weapons that produce fallout rendering the surface of the planet uninhabitable. The survivors — presiding over a “kingdom of rats” — live in underground galleries below the destroyed remains of Paris. Scientists conduct time travel experiments on prisoners of war. The main character, who was a soldier during the war, travels back in time and meets the woman from his childhood memory. Then he is sent into the future, to try to enlist help to save humanity of the present. People from the future eventually send him to the past to be with the woman again. But as he runs to her, he is shot by an agent of the present day “experimentators” who followed him into the past. He realizes that his childhood memory was of him witnessing his own death. This time travel story, with slight echoes of Oedipus Rex, became the inspiration of the later feature-length film 12 Monkeys.
The form of the film is even more remarkable than the story. It is almost entirely made up of still photographs artistically edited together. There is just one shot of moving film, showing the woman waking up and blinking. A narrator provides a voice-over throughout the film. There is also music (Euro-classical) and sound effects. But the shots break suddenly, or other times dissolve into each other. The narration and music and sound effects begin and end meaningfully. All of these things are part of the montage, which is astonishingly sublime. The gritty interpretation of the future was greatly inspiring to the so-called cyberpunk subgenre.
Marker was a a multi-media essayist. His friend Alan Resnais had wanted him to work on something with him related to nuclear war in the late 1950s. Marker had to back out, but Resnais’ project ended up being Hiroshima mon amour (1959), with a screenplay by Marguerite Duras. But the theme of nuclear war reappears in La Jetée.
Marker’s film is a swirling vortex of regret, loss, hope, rebirth, deception, love, technological horror, and utopian harmony. A curious part of the story is the way the main character (never given a name) reaches a cautious future society that seems to be flourishing, but he does so from a dystopian present with human society at its nadir. The question is how to break the Gordian knot in which the present seems to make the utopian future possible (The Man Who Fell to Earth would later explore similar themes). What separates this film from so many others is that it suggests that the time travel technology is not what enables the great society of the future. Rather, it implies that human connection is the more important aspect, even as the plot ends with the connection between the two main characters being broken with the man’s assassination.
Although often described as being about a “time loop”, the film is open to many interpretations. Perhaps Roland Barthes’ comment a few years later in Criticism and Truth (1966) is apt: “a work is ‘eternal’ not because it imposes a single meaning on different men, but because it suggests different meanings to one man…” One such interpretation is to look at the film from the perspective of philosopher Alain Badiou‘s concept of an “event”. To simplify this concept, an “event” seems to exceed its causes, and becomes apparent only in hindsight as something new emerges from the multiplicity of possible meanings. It is not unlike a point made in Jorge Luis Borges‘ essay “Kafka and His Precursors” that a great writer’s work establishes his or her precursors in a way that “modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future” — an appropriate analogy here given the similarity in tone of Marker’s film and much of Franz Kafka‘s best writing. There is also something similar in the story line of La Jetée and the later comic book series The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Mœbius, which deals with the difficulty of breaking out of repetition and fatalism, and with heroic self-sacrifice for a greater good.
Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Brad Bird
What is worthy about Tomorrowland is that it starts out as a typical young-adult exceptionalism fantasy, draws in a few action scenes, an unusual blend of futurist and quasi-steampunk elements, and a standard vision of a technocratic utopia, then gets around to critiquing all that. Basically, the premise is that around the turn of the nineteenth century a group of scientists created a utopian society called “Tomorrowland” in another dimension, freed from all the bureaucracy of the “real world.” Frank Walker (George Clooney) lived there as a child, but was exiled and now lives as a recluse on Earth. A robot friend of his Athena (Raffey Cassidy) then recruits a teenage girl (Britt Robertson) to help him get back to Tomorrowland and fix the thing he built that led to his exile. But, what is most intriguing are two things. First, when the trio does arrive in Tomorrowland, they discover that the problem is not really about science and engineering (“fixing” the device that Walker had built), but about politics, and dislodging the essentially corrupt leader in Tomorrowland David Nix (Hugh Laurie) who knew all along — unlike Walker (?) — how the device was destroying Earth. Basically, the trio realize that people are stupid, but, unlike Laurie’s character, don’t feel that widespread human stupidity justifies allowing the destruction of humanity on Earth. And in that process, they basically stage a violent coup — though the film does not explicitly emphasize this aspect of political revolution, it does happen on screen. Then, with the old regime toppled, Walker sets up a program to recruit new people to Tomorrowland, and in a speech he acknowledges that toppling the old regime was the easy part and what comes next, actually building a better utopia, is the hard part. While the film shows this next phase in a very cursory way, and avoids the sort of difficult theoretical aspects of describing how that hard work should proceed, it at least realistically suggests where the hard work must take place. This is a film for young people, and is rather light entertainment, but at the same time the film’s message is a good one (basically Leninist).
Bonus links: “A Brief History of Soviet Hippies” and “The Forms of Capital” and The Consumer Society (“Are they [hippies] not ultimately, from a sociological point of view, merely a luxury product of rich societies? Are not they, with their orientalist spirituality, their gaudy psychedelia, also marginals who merely exacerbate certain traits of their society?”)
It never ceases to amuse me how the insight of philosophy and psychoanalysis that ideology determines what is or is not a “fact” is proven again and again. As Rex Butler put it,
“in the analysis of ideology, it is not simply a matter of seeing which account of reality best matches the ‘facts’, with the one that is closest being the least biased and therefore the best. As soon as the facts are determined, we have already — whether we know it or not — made our choice; we are already within one ideological system or another. The real dispute has already taken place over what is to count as the facts, which facts are relevant, and so on.”
Lenin also wrote (in What Is to be Done?):
“the only choice is — either bourgeois or socialist ideology. There is no middle course (for mankind has not created a ‘third’ ideology, and, moreover, in a society torn by class antagonisms there can never be a non-class or an above-class ideology).”
“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
“How close we could look into a bright future should two, three or many Vietnams flourish throughout the world with their share of deaths and their immense tragedies, their everyday heroism and their repeated blows against imperialism, impelled to disperse its forces under the sudden attack and the increasing hatred of all peoples of the world!”
Bonus links: The Battle of Chile and “A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and ‘The Vietnam War'” and “It’s a Fact: Supreme Court Errors Aren’t Hard to Find” (this article engages in a certain kind of criticism that is largely blind to the issue Butler described)