The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger

The Lone Ranger (2013)

Walt Disney Pictures

Director: Gore Verbinski

Main Cast: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, William Fichtner


The Lone Ranger is a bit like taking every western movie you can think of and throwing it in a blender.  All the little tried and true formulae are called up.  The Searchers, Man of the West, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and especially Rango…  Even when this film is trying to steal from the best, it is done in the most ham-fisted way possible.  Granted, the costumes and such are great.  Still, the less said about this terrible film the better.

Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

MGM

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Main Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Tom Drake


Probably the scariest movie I’ve ever seen. The plot revolves around a family so fearful of any and all changes from their preconceived notions of life in America (without the family ever questioning those preconceived notions) that they are literally doomed to live in the aftermath of the past. Horrifying. A good movie.

Mamma Roma

Mama Roma

Mamma Roma (1962)

Cineriz

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Main Cast: Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo


It is common to look at Pier Paolo Pasolini as a Marxist, but that is inaccurate, or at least, it presents an incomplete picture.  What Pasolini took from Marx was a view of class relations.  That is the focus of his second feature as a director, Mamma Roma.  His directorial debut, Accatone (1961), was a story of a pimp and other people around him at the fringes of Italian society, told in a way that made him an anti-hero.  It drew on the sort of perspective that Jean Genet had developed in writings like Journal du voleur (1949), making an existential transposition of the ideologies of virtue and fulfillment of dominant society to those of vagrancy, theft, and prostitution.  Pasolini, like Genet, made his characters, who by accepted standards were the lowest of low, come across to the audience as sympathetic.  They strove in different ways than “respectable” society, but they struggled and strove nonetheless.

Mama Roma is the story of a former prostitute (Anna Magnani) whose now former pimp is getting married.  She plans to move from the rural backwaters of Italy to Rome and open a fruit stand.  In doing this, she reclaims her 18-year-old son (Ettore Garofolo) to live with her for the first time.  This involves something like a Beverly Hillbillies scenario.  Mama Roma wants to take on a different social position, and to renounce and conceal where she came from.  She comments in the film about how what she did in the past was to make possible her future, for her and her son.  Mama Roma tries to win her son Ettore’s affections.  She buys him a motorcycle.  While they have a fun ride together, it is only at the level of consumer materialism that she can relate to her son.  He ultimately finds material possessions unfulfilling.  Ettore lacks the particular social ambition of his mother, and harbors some resentment that his mother has transplanted him to a city in which he is forced to take on new roles, such as work that does not interest him.  Numerous incidents occur in which he tries to prove his worth to local ruffians and a girl.  This includes a brazenly ill-advised attempted robbery that lands him in jail, at which point an illness takes his life.  In the throes of illness, he repents, in a way, by reaffirming that he is who he is, and should not force himself into the expectations of a social strata that is not his own.  The film ends with Ettore strapped to a table by his jailers, dying with his arms out, implying a crucifixion.

It is clear that Pasolini sees Ettore as the moral center of the film.  He, eventually, takes on what the philosopher Parmenides called the “way of truth”.  Mama Roma’s attempts to take on a new social position, in crummy high-rise apartments, are a betrayal of her rural roots.  She follows what Parmenides called the “way of appearance”.  This is portrayed in numerous scenes in which to take control of situations, or to avoid conflict, she lapses back to her old ways.  In spite of her aspirations, the real Mama Roma is the part of her she denies.  Ettore is pressured to have ambitions, and it is only when thrust into the milieu of city life that he finds himself in despair and ashamed of his roots.  He rediscovers this by the end of the film, but only when his mortality catches up to him.

The script of this film is excellent.  It explores the social field almost like a sociologist.  There is much focus on the idea of social trajectory and momentum, and a rejection of those things at a fundamental level by insisting instead on a kind of radical egalitarianism of singular, unitary social standing.  The film as a whole, though, is something of a failure.  Pasolini was still in his early phase as a director.  The influence of neo-realism is still strong.  But the main problem is that the acting is inauthentic.  Pasolini admitted that Anna Magnani was miscast, because she had never lived a subproletarian existence (her habitus was that of semi-autonomous peasantry and small-scale merchants, who emulate and reflect the lifestyles of of capitalists and the upper middle class).  Magnani was not someone from the rural poor, and therefore she did not know that life.  Pasolini had this to say in an interview:

“Well I’m rather proud of not making mistakes about the people I choose for my films . . . . The only mistake I’ve made is with this one with Anna Magnani — though the mistake is not really because she is a professional actress.  The fact is, if I’d got Anna Magnani to do a real petit bourgeois I would probably have got a good performance out of her; but the trouble is that I didn’t get her to do that, I got her to do a woman of the people with petit bourgeois aspirations, and Anna Magnani just isn’t like that.  As I choose actors for what they are and not for what they pretend to be, I made a mistake about what the character really was, and although Anna Magnani made a moving effort to do what I asked of her, the character simply did not emerge.  I wanted to bring out the ambiguity of subproletarian life with a petit bourgeois superstructure.  This didn’t come out, because Anna Magnani is a woman who was born and has lived as a petit bourgeois and then as an actress and so hasn’t got those characteristics.” Pasolini on Pasolini (1969)

While Mama Roma is engaging in concept, it also is less successful on its own terms than other Pasolini films.  Accatone, for one, provides a more fluid verisimilitude.  Mama Roma is something of a sequel, and suffers from all the limitations that such a label implies.  The bawdy, direct humor of Pasolini’s later films is not yet present either, nor the intellectual commentary in his repurposing of classics.  This is not one of Pasolini’s best films, but even Pasolini on an off day is something.

Ender’s Game

Ender's Game

Ender’s Game (2013)

Summit Entertainment

Director: Gavin Hood

Main Cast: Asa Butterfield, Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld


What a piece of garbage.  This film (based on the book by Orson Scott Card) tries far too hard to incorporate teen and pre-teen appeal, aping Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and The Troll Twins of Underbridge Academy.   The plot is stupid and the characters implausible.  There are many pseudo-intelligent plot devices that are not even a fraction as intelligent as the filmmakers apparently think them to be.  The main character Ender (Asa Butterfield) is closely scrutinized by military superiors who see potential in him.  Yet they go so far as to extrapolate the future of humanity from a five-minute schoolhouse incident in which Ender gets into a fight.  The pop psychology is laid on very thick.  It might have been tolerable if it had any sort of connection to legitimate psychology.  It doesn’t.  Again and again, nothing really adds up.  Why are there a total of four adults in the international military that is trying to save the Earth from aliens?  And why are children, and only children, necessary to their plans?  None of that is explained.  The main character is portrayed like some kind of savant of sorts–recalling Herman Hesse‘s Magister Ludi [AKA The Glass Bead Game].  But there is little attempt at Hesse’s sense of irony.  The film gets a little better at the end, when it tries to find a moral center.  But the ending winds up being much the same as Starship Troopers (1997).  Skip this.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014)

PBS

Director: Ken Burns

Main Cast: Meryl Streep, Paul Giamatti, Edward Herrmann, Peter Coyote


Ken Burn’s documentary of the Roosevelt family, focusing on Teddy, Franklin Delano, and Eleanor, is for the most part the same sort of pablum found in almost all of his films.  It posits the Roosevelts as the greatest political family America has ever seen, and probably ever will see, and the protectors and masters of liberal politics.  If you want a film that questions political dynasties at a fundamental level, or any such critiques, you are watching the wrong sort of film.  As Mason Williams has written, the documentary focuses on the personal somewhat to the detriment on the public aspects of the Roosevelts.  In that sense, it is a film built on a very reductionist, essentialist worldview, not far off from biological determinism.

The film is organized chronologically, beginning with the family’s move to America and their success in business, and then leads into Teddy Roosevelt’s political ascent.  This is followed by Franklin’s political ascent, and then Eleanor’s widow years.

Commentary on Burns’ Jazz still applies:

“By now his technique is as predictable as the plot of an episode of ‘Friends’: the zoom shot on a still photo, followed by a slow pan, a pull back, then a portentous pause — all the while a monotonous narration explains the obvious at length.” Serpents in the Garden

One quirk in this film is the casting for voice actors.  Paul Giamatti portrays Teddy, and he’s a hilariously poor choice.  Nick Offerman seems more apropos.  It may seem like a minor issue, but it sheds light on a problem with the entire project.  The film seems like it fits the facts to the people working on it, rather than the other way around.

We are to believe that the Roosevelts were great due to the individual greatness of people like Teddy, a favored son of a wealthy family with opportunities most would never dream of.  As a portrait of his personality, largely irrelevant to his public legacy, it probably is fair.  There is some treatment of his activism against business — this was the only president to give a speech railing against the “malefactors of great wealth” and back it up with some action.  Though Burns’ stops well short of adopting historian Gabriel Kolko‘s position that Teddy’s administration actual helped big business (to achieve stability) rather than constrain it.  His hubris following his presidency is his undoing, and the film does thankfully look askance at Teddy’s racism and imperialism.

The story of FDR’s life is most interesting in describing the time before he contracted polio.  He was a dandy and a mamma’s boy.  And he was insufferable.  After contracting polio, the narrative shifts to his overcoming the effects of the disease to forge his political career.  It certainly was an achievement.  There is discussion of how his medical condition was concealed from the public with the assistance of the media.  There is, however, a clear bias in favor of FDR, in that the filmmakers clearly see FDR as knowing what is best for the public more than the public does for itself, thereby justifying this media complicity.  One historian after another lines up to emphasize how the media of today wouldn’t do that, and someone like FDR, or Teddy even, would never win a major office as a result.  But they don’t talk about a media “propaganda” model, or campaign financing.  Instead, it is a matter as simple as tabloid journalism focusing on personal ailments and the like rather than the “real issues”.

The coverage of FDR’s presidency is mostly fawning, uncritical gushing.  Ken Burns has always forged a sort of suburban liberalism in his films.  This one is no different.  FDR is presented as the president of the people, the most leftist.  Anyone to the left of FDR is simply ignored.  This is problematic.  There is little to no mention of FDR’s “brain trust” and the assortment of advisors who urged more leftist policies than FDR was willing to accept, often to the detriment of lasting outcomes.  FDR’s programs are praised, criticized for tactical errors but not for being inadequate at a theoretical level.  FDR’s VP Henry Wallace is marginalized, to Eleanor’s chagrin, and Harry Truman is unleashed on the world.  Negotiations during WWII are the most curious part of the film.  Burns’ view of the war is unreliable, and clings to Cold War paranoia.  For instance, there is constant suspicion of Josef Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union.  Stalin’s concern about Western encroachment is dismissed as paranoia.  And yet, history has shown Stalin’s concerns to be entirely justified.  As Burns’ film aired on TV, the U.S. was actively involved in fomenting a coup in Ukraine, to move NATO closer to Moscow and implement a financial takeover.

FDR and Winston Churchill are portrayed as the saviors of the world who defeated the Nazis.  This, again, isn’t particularly accurate.  The Nazis were defeated primarily by the Soviets, in what they called the Great Patriotic War, as the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa.  Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, violating a non-aggression pact with the Soviets, with the largest invasion force ever assembled in the history of warfare.  Over four million Axis troops participated in the invasion.  Over five million Soviet citizens died repelling the invasion.  You won’t hear any of this from the Ken Burns film (details are available, for instance, in Harrison Salisbury‘s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad).  Instead, Stalin is a skeptic holding back Churchill and FDR.  D-Day turns the tide of the war (really, it barely worked, and then, only because of failures of the Axis powers during Barbarossa).

FDR gets very much a pass on his support for the Manhattan project.  Robert Oppenheimer ran the program, and later famously commented that it should have bee shut down “the day after Trinity,” in reference to the test explosion code-named Trinity.  Sure, Truman ordered the bombs dropped not FDR, but he was just carrying to conclusion an FDR program created for that purpose.

Burns is yet another of those “liberals” who asserts that politics should go a certain amount to the center-left and not one step further, with no justification whatsoever for where that line in the sand is drawn.  There are no leftist critics of FDR featured.  The late historian Howard Zinn noted how much of FDR’s presidency can be explained through simple imperialist ambitions.  He also wrote “The Limits of the New Deal” in New Deal Thought (1965):

“When the reform energies of the New Deal began to wane around 1939 and the depression was over, the nation was back to its normal state: a permanent army of unemployed; twenty or thirty million poverty-ridden people effectively blocked from public view by a huge, prosperous, and fervently consuming middle class; a tremendously efficient yet wastefully productive apparatus that was efficient because it could produce limitless supplies of what it decided to produce, and wasteful because what it decided to produce was not based on what was most needed by society but on what was most profitable to business.”

Economist Alan Nasser has written about how FDR worked to undermine Social Security and preserve business profit interests.  FDR was a committed fiscal conservative.  He was not a supporter of social programs.  He was forced to adopt them by popular pressure and unrest.  Burns’ film makes a particularly egregious mischaracterization of the Bonus Army.  These were WWI veterans who protested outside the White house to receive a promised bonus early, in view of the dire circumstances of the Great Depression.  The film mentions them being a problem of the Hoover administration.  This is true, as far as it goes, but the Bonus Army marched again during FDR’s presidency.  The film does not mention this fact.  FDR opposed their demands, and congress overrode FDR’s veto to pay the veterans their bonuses early.

Eleanor emerges as the best of the Roosevelts.  Not only as the lead author of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but also as a voice of conscience against FDR’s crass political machinations.  It is too bad she wasn’t president, or at least that FDR had listened to her and made Henry Wallace his final running mate instead of Truman.  Like the others, her public accomplishments take a back seat to personal details of her life.

So, at the end of the many, many hours of this film, one is left knowing rather little about what the Roosevelts accomplished politically, and is instead given more of a portrait of the lifestyles of the rich and famous who like to dabble in politics.

Redacted

Redacted

Redacted (2007)

Magnolia Pictures

Director: Brian De Palma

Main Cast: Rob Devaney, Daniel Stewart Sherman,
Patrick Carroll, Izzy Diaz


Although director Brian De Palma won accolades in early European film festivals, Redacted was a commercial failure in the United States.  It opened in barely more than a dozen theaters and hardly anyone saw it.  That might be explained — in the post-Jaws manner of direct marketing — that the film wasn’t advertised enough.  Regardless, it remains a difficult film to watch, but is still among the more significant made thus far about the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The film does not devote itself to the reasons for the invasion and occupation, or the political motives for doing so.  Rather, it takes aim at the withholding of the “facts” about what actually was happening during the occupation.  As the film’s title implies, this is partly about the U.S. government covering-up and concealing what was happening, but perhaps more so the role of the media in enabling a deception on the American people who ostensibly enable the war and occupation.  The story is fictional, but was based on real events involving the rape and murder of an Iraqi civilian by U.S. troops.

What has attracted the most attention is the technique of interspersing different perspectives.  The film is presented as if assembled from a video diary by the soldiers themselves, footage from French and Arabic television crews, security cameras, as well as Internet videos.  The notion of presenting multiple perspectives goes back to films like Rashomon (1950), though the extensive use of first-person video recalls the zombie movie Diary of the Dead (2007), which was released a mere week later.  Like that zombie movie, the acting in Redacted has some weak spots, exacerbated by poor casting.

The central plot of the film involves a couple of clearly mentally disturbed soldiers who decide to rape a local girl who passes through their military checkpoint daily.  Although they inform other soldiers in their unit, those others do little or nothing to stop them.  In this way, De Palma frames the plot around something close to Hannah Arendt‘s famous notion about the “banality of evil”, developed when she wrote about the Nazi concentration camp administrator Adolph Eichmann (Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil).  In a historical sense, the rape incident in Redacted resembles the My Lai Massacre from the Vietnam War, a story broken after the fact by independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.  Following the rape, one of the soldiers, who was making the video diary throughout the movie, is kidnapped by insurgents and beheaded on camera, as revenge for the rape and murder (though it is unclear if these insurgents knew that the kidnapped soldier was directly involved).  The highest ranking soldier of the unit reports the incident, at which point his account is suppressed and distorted — this is where the “redaction” by the government occurs.

The film’s harshest judgment seems reserved for the solider making the video diary, who goes along with the others who commit the rape and murders (the girl’s family is also killed) to document the event like a journalist.  Journalists often espouse an “ethics” of non-involvement, in which they act as passive observers and do not act affirmatively to assist their subjects.  De Palma is puts that position up for debate.  The other perspective is that maybe journalists act as collaborators and enablers.  This other point of view has long been espoused outside of mainstream journalism.  Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is perhaps the most well-known formulation..

De Palma’s film was a failure, in the sense that it did not raise awareness of the issues it presents.  And yet, history has absolutely vindicated the film’s perspective.  The Wikileaks organization released a trove of documents about the Iraq war and occupation that contradicted official claims and denials, most famously the “Collateral Murder” video, with an extensive campaign against the leaker Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and the operator of Wikileaks, Julian Assange.  As this review is being written, hired mercenaries who worked in Iraq were just convicted for the Nissour Square Massacre.  Another recent story showed that weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) were found in Iraq, but they were old ones leftover from the war with Iran in the 1980s, and had been made with U.S. assistance.  With this information in hand, De Palma’s film looks like a chillingly accurate portrayal of what can be expected to happen in a military occupation, and how those at the bottom deal with those realities.  This film deserves much credit for extending its moral concern not just to U.S. soldiers but also to the locals subject to the U.S. military’s use of force.

Children of Men

Children of Men

Children of Men (2006)

Universal Pictures

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Main Cast: Clive Owen, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julianne Moore, Pam Ferris


An adaptation of the P.D. James novel The Children of Men (1992), deals with a dystopian near future period in which humans as a species have become infertile.  The film makes heavy use of symbolism, metaphor, and incorporates references to broadly contemporary political situations.  Theo (Clive Owen), an unassuming nobody, is pulled into a conflict by a “terrorist” group “The Fishes”, who are fighting against a fascistic government in England.  The youngest person in the world has just died.  But Theo’s former wife/girlfriend Julian (Julianne Moore), who is a leader of sorts in The Fishes, has come to the know Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey), the first woman to become pregnant in 18 years.  The goal is to get Kee (like “Key”, get it?) and her child to “The Human Project,” a mysterious group supposedly starting a remote colony away from fascistic England.  Theo is a broke hack, grudgingly helping the “terrorists” in exchange for payment. But as he interacts with these terrorists, he is revealed as an apostate activist, tormented by the death of his child years ago, who can’t help but to do the right thing no matter what danger that puts him in.

In an sort of thematic archtype, The Fishes betray their revolutionary intent to internal power struggles of the individuals involved.  Theo and Kee, plus a midwife (Pam Ferris), narrowly escape The Fishes with the assistance of Theo’s elderly hippie friend Jasper (Michael Caine).  The plan is to rendezvous with The Human Project on their hospital boat via a refugee camp — what looks like a concentration camp for all intents and purposes.  Entering the refugee camp, full of “fugees”, the film depicts immanently contemporary horrors, with hooded prisoners subjected to torture, humiliation and execution. The scenes recall Abu Ghraib.  On the way there, scenery of belching pollution coming out of drain pipes and foul gasses emanating from smokestacks implies total environmental collapse as a possible cause for the infertility problem.  Inside the camp, Kee has her baby — will she name it Frolle or Bazooka? — and an insurrection breaks out between The Fishes and government troops.  Brutally realistic scenes of urban combat follow.  Theo and Kee try to reach a rowboat hidden in the camp.  They have the assistance of a surprisingly benevolent ersatz hotel operator who doesn’t speak their language.

No doubt, the film has leftist leanings.  The struggle for power in “civil society” creates conflict, while in the primitive setting of the refugee camp, there are benevolent humans.  This could almost come from something Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote during the Enlightenment.  But the quest to reach The Human Project seems like a step towards something else, something not quite of the Enlightenment.  Going to a colony somewhere out in the sea seems like a rootless new beginning.  The centrality of “fugees” — Kee is one — seems like a rejection of “identity politics” and an assertion that the future–the Human Project’s boat is called “Tomorrow” — must reject a retrenchment of uniformity, exemplified by the fascist English government’s use of concentration camps, and float about on something much looser, something that permits radically disparate elements to coexist.  The common denominators are care for others, generosity, self-sacrifice.  The film is a curiously uplifting message in a world that seems hopelessly and intractably locked into a downward spiral.  What superficially seems like a dumb sci-fi thriller is actually quite an excellent movie, made all the better by uniformly superb acting and the highest technical proficiency.  Hollywood is capable of something good now and again.

Green Zone

Green Zone

Green Zone (2010)

Universal Pictures

Director: Paul Greengrass

Main Cast: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear


Some movies about the Unites States’ second war against former ally Iraq focus exclusively on the bravery, hardships, misfortunes, valor, and other personal experiences of the soldiers.  Examples are The Hurt Locker (2008) and Stop-Loss (2008).  These sorts of films make no attempt whatsoever to contextualize the war.  In The Hurt Locker, the main characters diffuse improvised explosive devices throughout the entire movie.  Why are those bombs being made and planted in the first place?  The movie doesn’t even entertain that question.

Green Zone falls into another category of films that try to explain what the war was about.  Another example in this category is Redacted (2007).  Green Zone is loosely inspired by journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone (2006), which provided an account of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that the U.S. government installed in a heavily fortified city-within-a-city in Baghdad during the war (until June 2004, when the Green Zone was handed over to the U.S. State Department).  The script for Green Zone, however, is fictional.  Paul Bremer, the incompetent neo-con and Henry Kissinger protégé in charge of the CPA (after Lieutenant General Jay Garner was abruptly fired) is fictionalized as Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear).   Chief Warrant Office Roy Miller (Matt Damon) is an outrageously superhero-like soldier who seeks the truth about the war, when his missions to secure materials for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) turn up nothing and he suspects bad intelligence.

The plot is far-fetched, and the timeline historically inaccurate.  Still, the movie has somewhat decent intentions.  Drawing from Chandrasekaran’s book are the major points that Bremer & Co.’s decisions to implement #1 De-Ba’athification (removal of all government officials from Saddam Hussein’s socialist party) and #2 dissolution of the Iraqi Army were monumentally bad decisions, and the idea that the folks in the Green Zone calling the shots lived in a bubble divorced entirely from the facts on the ground outside the well-protected green zone perimeter.  Even in 2014, a decade later, Bremer continues to defend what he did, going so far as to call dissolution of the Iraqi army the best decision he made with the CPA (Losing Iraq).  The movie positions the CIA agent Martin “Marty” Brown (Brendan Gleeson) as a counterpoint figure.  There, the script admirably tries to portray the U.S. government not as a monolithic entity, but subject to competing factions within it, complete with individuals vying for personal advancement and inter-agency turf battles.  There are also heavy-handed attempts to provide an Iraqi perspective, mostly by way of a former Iraqi soldier nicknamed “Freddy” (Khalid Abdalla).  But in spite of those attempts, the plot lurches from one action movie cliché to the next.

Director Paul Greengrass also directed Damon in two Bourne movies, and there are a few too many parallels here for comfort.  There are extended chase scenes filmed with shaky portable cameras and Damon’s character always seems to be a step ahead in ways that strain credibility.  Also, Kinnear has a lackey in the army who unflinchingly carries out orders, even when those include taking out fellow U.S. soldiers.  That is possible, but these soldiers are portrayed as one-dimensional robots, as if Damon’s character is the only soldier in the army with a conscience.  These features create plot situations that clearly lack authenticity.  The tone is frequently of Damon’s character as a truth-machine, pitted against a monster in Kinnear.  This is a little too simple.  Chandrasekaran portrayed the CPA as a corrupt organization that placed loyalty to George W. Bush and his GOP party above actual qualifications or good decision-making.  The later book by Peter Van Buren, We Meant Well (2011), which focused on the U.S. State Department’s bungled, ridiculous efforts at “reconstruction” of Iraq in 2009-10, demonstrates how that same mindset also took hold in the State Department.  It wasn’t a “few bad apples”, it was a spectacle of an immensely and widely corrupt U.S. government trying to “liberate” Iraq from its corrupt government that hardly seemed any different!

This film deserves credit for trying to imbue a Hollywood movie with a realistic perspective of what happened to cause the Iraq war to proceed as it did.  But it also deserves derision for being contrived and implausible, a failure of technique and writing mostly, which directly undermines all attempts to paint an accurate picture of the war.

Zombies, Zombies, Zombies! And Those Who Deal With Them

For decades, “zombies” have preoccupied the makers of films, television shows, comics, and more.  What does this genre have to offer? As we’ll see, there is some excellent filmmaking hidden in this genre, though many attempts to extend it are terrifyingly bad.

I Walked With a Zombie

The earliest zombie films–White Zombie (1932), etc.–were basically typical monster movies, not terribly unlike Frankenstein (1931), or maybe thrillers–like I Walked With a Zombie (1943) that draws on myths of Hatian voodoo.  Some of those movies are well regarded, but the “zombie” element was generally confined to a single character with some makeup that converted him into a monstrous “other” that the protagonist has to confront and cope with.

I am Legend

A book, I Am Legend (1954) by Robert Matheson, had a significant impact on the future use of zombies in film.  As of this writing, three film adaptations have been made: The Last Man on Earth (1964) starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man (1971) starring Charlton Heston, and I Am Legend (2007) starring Will Smith.  While the book and the first movie adaptation relied on vampires rather than zombies, the story structure of having a revolutionary actor (searching for a cure) within an apocalypse of monsters would influence an unknown, independent filmmaker named George A. Romero to run with the idea in a slightly different direction.  The latter two film version tended more toward the use of “zombies” than “vampires”, to some degree at least.  Omega Man is probably the one to watch among them.

This idea of substituting zombies for vampires even shows up in the spirits industry, with the brewery Clown Shoes changing the name of its American Imperial Stout beer from “Vampire Slayer” to “Undead Party Crasher” after a patent and trademark attorney who co-owned a competing business distributing an imported “Vampire Pale Ale” brought a trademark infringement lawsuit.  The new label for the Clown Shoes brew asks if we need the undead and trademark attorneys too.  A werewolf-looking trademark attorney is having a stake driven through his heart in a cartoon in the background.

Let’s get back to cinema though.  The identifiable genre of zombie films–that of the “zombie apocalypse” movie if you will–came into being with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Romero established himself as the undisputed master to the genre.  He made B-movies like director Samuel Fuller or even John Cassavetes, making due with smaller budgets, unadorned camera and editing technique, and minimal technical features like special effects, but packing quite a punch in terms of substantive content.  He delivered “soft” science fiction, in which the suspension of disbelief in re-animated corpses is a tool to explore human relations and the human condition.  But unlike sci-fi films that may have explored similar human issues, zombies presented a rather simple premise that required only a minimal (if central) suspension of disbelief.  There may be zombies, but all else is “normal” in the world.  Romero’s films laid out the basic elements of most zombie films to follow: the “undead” (ghouls) coming back to life for unexplained reasons, slow and staggering movement, the need to destroy the head to incapacitate them, herds or swarms of them moving together, and a taste for human flesh.  Where the early “monster movie” zombie pictures tended to deal with a main character’s terror of the unknown, or perhaps to suggest that monsters may just want to be like “us”, Romero flipped the relationship and suggested instead that maybe “we” are like zombies.  Night of the Living Dead had an existential edge like Sartre’s play No Exit (1944), with its famous assertion that “hell is – other people.”  In all of Romero’s later zombie films, though, existentialism was replaced or augmented by questions of consumerism, class consciousness, political (in)equality, and similar social commentary.

Night of the Living DeadNight of the Living Dead established the frequent zombie moving setting of a sudden onset of people turning into zombies, and a group barricading themselves into a house to survive.  The threat of zombies infecting others in amass outbreak explains itself easily, lending an air of credibility to an otherwise incredible plot device.  Like almost all of Romero’s zombie films, the actors are basically unknown to screen audiences.  He also casts the lead as an African-American, at a time when Hollywood did not do so.  Most characteristic is that Romero portrays U.S.-Soviet Cold War militarism and social authority as the “real monster”.  This placed Romero among the 1960s counterculture, and vaguely attached him to the so-called New Left.  Though he remained an independent force, both literally in the sense of existing outside the Hollywood system, but also symbolically int he ideas presented on film.

There were many subsequent films Romero made in the same milieu as the original Night of the Living Dead.  The first was Dawn of the Dead (1978).  To many, and despite rather poor acting, Dawn is the greatest of Romero’s zombie films.  Rather than retreating to an isolated home, in this instalment the main characters barricade themselves inside a large shopping mall.  The film addresses a legitimate question of realism: what if the government or other people cannot (or simply do not) suppress the rise of the zombies?  What happens over a longer time period?  Of course, people need food and other supplies.  A shopping mall as a mecca of consumerism in the late 1970s is a metanym of consumer culture of the day.  Romero’s biggest achievement is to show the zombies taking on “human” qualities, like trying to go to the mall and mindlessly “shop”.  Unlike the early zombie films, this did not posit that zombies wanted to be like us but that consumerism has become so ingrained in Western culture that not even death and reanimation as zombies diminishes those impulses.  In the 2013 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes the 2011 riots in Great Britain in terms of the inability of the rioters to transcend the predominant ideology of their society, and therefore they act out within that paradigm.  Romero’s mall-bound zombies are a very cynical illustration of the same point.  What also becomes a trend here is the question of collective action.  The onslaught of zombies seems to force the survivors to work together, overcoming whatever objections they have to doing so.  In that, a subtle point is made.  Working together is more effective that working alone (or against each other).  The question is how this can be achieved, and maintained.  King Vidor had already made Our Daily Bread (1934), about people founding a collective subsistence farm during the Great Depression, but a zombie apocalypse provides the basis to illustrate the concept more obliquely.

Day of the DeadDay of the Dead (1985) seemed, for at time at least, to be Romero’s conclusion of a zombie trilogy.  Compared to the first two films, it balances somewhat more refined and modern film technique with more nuanced social commentary.  In this version the zombie apocalypse is well underway.  A band of survivors holds up in a military installation whilst a resident scientist conducts research on zombies that are (with great effort and risk to humans handling them) corralled into a pen prior to the experiments.  The film’s greatest strength lies in the characters.  The conflict between the humans and the zombies is merely the setting to explore the tensions between the humans, with class and almost tribal characteristics dividing many of them.  Soldiers resent the educated scientist’s pursuits.  The civilians and pilots fear the raw aggression and violence of the soldiers.  Men despise powerful women.  Those in a hierarchy abhor democracy.  Another key plot point must be mentioned: Bub.  The scientist at the military facility is experimenting to see if the zombies can be controlled and peaceably integrated into human society.  Bub (Sherman Howard) is his most promising zombie research subject.  While many deride the Bub character (as something like a precursor to Jar Jar Binks of the Star Wars franchise), he represents something completely new for the genre.  This is Romero’s lionization of attempts to normalize the most monstrous.  It encapsulates the utopian heart of his films.  Bub symbolizes a hope and belief that social transformations are possible.  He presents an ideology that comes from the zombies.  But there is another strikingly radical aspect to Bub as well.  He also represents, just oh so slightly, a kind of core goodness of the ordinary man.  While most human survivors (especially the soldiers) want the zombies exterminated, Bub is a test case for overcoming the urge to destroy what is different.  The interpersonal relations of the characters who are trying in varying degrees to come to terms with these ideas is the axis on which the film turns.  Bub may not be a particularly subtle device, but the reactions of the humans around him certainly are.  For these reasons, Day of the Dead may be Romero’s very best.

After a two decade hiatus, Romero came back with three more zombie films:  Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007), and Survival of the Dead (2009).  All three exhibit more self-awareness of their place in the pantheon of zombie films and use humor more liberally than the earlier Romero efforts.  They also update the context by many years, in that like all of Romero’s zombie films they have a contemporary setting.

Diary of the Dead revolves around a group of college students trying to escape and survive from the time that the zombie apocalypse just begins.  One of them is an aspiring filmmaker, and he is making a documentary “Diary of the Dead” to document the apocalypse to counter the false information spread by the mass media, who, on the zombie question, are trying to conceal the nature, extent and origins of the zombie outbreak.  Diary‘s use of first person camera and the importance it places on alternative media are somewhat forced.  The script never convincingly explains how Internet distribution of a guerrilla documentary film would really work, given that it depends on enough of humanity surviving to maintain not just internet communication lines but also electricity.  The use of first person camera to draw in viewers and elicit sympathetic reactions can at times feel like a con job.  Frankly, The Blair Witch Project (1999) beat Romero to the idea, which is better suited to zombies as mysterious monsters lurking in the shadows, used for fright (like an old Jacques Tourneur film) but nothing more.

Survival of the Dead picks up from a minor plot point in Diary in which a small band of soldiers rob the students.  The film revolves around the questions of allegiances and trust, and the interactions not just of individuals but between small groups.  The soldiers from Diary seemed like self-interested rogues in that earlier film, but in the latter are redeemed as altruistic and simply in search of survival.  They eventually encounter bands of other survivors engaged in the vestiges of a kind of family feud on an island.  People who seem trustworthy turn out to be con artists, and others show compassion when it counts.  Intended, perhaps, as the most humane of the Romero films, the sometimes low-rent acting, not to mention the less-developed script, doesn’t always allow the surprise twists in the behavior of the characters to seem convincing.  Survival seems like the least original of all of Romero’s zombie films because the major themes and interactions between characters are fairly familiar ones.  No new perspectives are really made possible by their use in a zombie film.  You can find much of this stuff in plenty of old westerns, for instance, and the westerns are better.

Land of the DeadThis leaves us with Land of the Dead.  It is the only of Romero’s zombie films to feature A-list Hollywood actors (Dennis Hopper, John Leguizamo, Simon Baker, Asia Argento, and even Simon Pegg in a cameo).  Of the “comeback” Romero films, this is easily the best.  The zombie apocalypse has been underway for some extended period of time when the film opens.  A group of people use a train-like armored vehicle called “Dead Reckoning” to go out into zombie-infested areas and collect supplies for a gated island city where humans have gathered.  The city was a luxury condo/apartment highrise complex, and Kaufman (Dennis Hopper) is a man who has set himself up as the sort of CEO dictator of the facility.  He provides amenities such that the rich who live in the highrise maintain their posh standard of living as if there was no zombie apocalypse outside.  The rest of the residents of the island are either servants for Kaufman’s city-state empire, or are confined to make due in a ghetto on the streets of the island outside the main building.  The main characters have varying degrees of awareness–for some, there are awakenings that play out onscreen–of what Kaufman is up to and the cruel mechanisms he employs to maintain the very divided and unequal society on the island.  Many of the main characters take personal risks in order to act with altruism.  And there is constant talk of how to topple Kaufman’s empire to foster equality and fairness, balanced against concern for the collateral effects that a revolution presents.  In a sort of echo of the Bub character from Day of the Dead, Big Daddy (Eugene Clark) is a zombie who somehow intuitively knows how to use the remnants of human society for his own purposes.  He does not need a scientists to teach him how to do these things.  He appears initially at a gas station, and clumsily finds a way to use the gas pumps.  He teaches other zombies, in a way, how to use other tools from the human world.  As the movie progresses, Big Daddy seems to be on a mission to avenge wrongs committed by the humans against zombies.  Much like Yertle, the turtle on the bottom of a king turtle’s tower built of his own turtle subjects in the Dr. Seuss story “Yertle the Turtle” (1958), who says, “we too should have rights,” Big Daddy seems to be presenting the question of whether zombies have rights too.  One of the main human characters ceases fire around Big Daddy, as if to entertain the notion.  The class warfare and inequality of the island city give Land of the Dead much of the same spirit as the earlier Romero movies, even if it also makes overtures to more conventionally polished Hollywood filmmaking technique.  It has the hallmarks of the early Romero zombie classics, and almost like the Nineteenth Century French novelist Balzac, it uses the genre to paint a picture of human society through an assortment of specific interactions of individuals.  The zombies merely provide a shock to the social structure, and empower (or force) the characters to make their own moral decisions in a relative vacuum of social ritual.  Do they recreate what was before or try something else?  Rather than expounding pure theory, Romero provides little set pieces for the characters to make discrete choices.  What makes Romero so unique is that he uses zombie films to show character interactions that place radical options on the table–the sorts of options that are normally omitted through all sorts of ploys like concision, viability, naivety, and the like.  An interesting issue not really addressed by the film is why so many of the characters seem so interested in U.S. currency.  Would people really still honor it?  That’s probably a question for the proponents of Modern Monetary Theory.  Anyway, the only quibble with the film is that Simon Baker seems miscast in the lead role.  He’s a bit too affable.

Shaun of the DeadWhat about zombie movies outside the Romero universe?  There have been many.  Some are actually comedies.  Return of the Living Dead (1985) (and its many sequels) fit the description as comedies.  These films popularized the now-ubiquitous concept of zombies eating people’s brains, not just other parts of them.  And because they were made with assistance from John A. Russo (the co-writer of Night of the Living Dead), they follow much of the basic Romero template for zombie behavior.  Another comedic portrayal of the standard zombie apocalypse theme was Zombieland (2009).  Unlike most zombie films, this was a big-budget Hollywood film.  It manages to have some good gags, while trying hard to appeal to a sort of cynical nerd audience, though also dragging in a romantic subplot that could be borrowed from almost any other genre (which should be happy to be rid of it).  But Shaun of the Dead (2004) is the reigning champ of zombie comedies.  It is a satire of all the zombie apocalypse movies.  Much of the cast of the British sitcom Spaced (1999-2001) appears in one form or another–those actors would go on to make a series of satires of different film genres together.  The gags hit the right notes.  They capture much of what the original Romero movies were about, with witty dialog and excellent performances.  The characters make all the dumb mistakes characters always make in these movies.  The send-up is self-aware and well-informed.

28 Days LaterThe most significant film to break from the Romero mold while still presenting a classic “zombie apocalypse” theme was 28 Days Later (2002).  In this format, the cause of the zombie outbreak is known and explained from the very beginning of the film.  Scientists are conducting biotech experiments that produce uncontrollable rage in test chimps.  Animal rights activists trying to liberate the caged animals inadvertently release the disease into the human population.  The infected are not the slow, lumping zombies of the Romero movies.  The disease causes violent, uncontrolled imperatives to attack living humans.  These zombies move quickly, always at a full run.  They are almost rabid.  The main character somehow survived the onset of the zombie apocalypse while in a coma in a hospital.  He awakens 28 days after the outbreak, hence the title (though inexplicably he awakens in an empty hospital on clean sheets).  He meets up with some other survivors who know how to navigate the apocalypse, as best as they can, and who understand–and explain and illustrate–that any contact with fluids from the zombies or any bites mean infection.  The rest of the film deals with the group of survivors trying to find a military outpost that will protect them from the zombies, and the valor of individuals in the group protecting the others from both zombies and predatory humans alike.  The action is taut–this is as much a pure action film as a thriller.  The characters are believable and compelling.  There is a clear line drawn between good and evil.  Above all, though, this film set out a new set of rules for the zombies in zombie films.  A sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007) was dreadful.  Following the I Am Legend format there is a search for a cure, together with the now typical device of a quarantined city.  Filled with main characters who are (contrary to intent) manifestly unsympathetic, the film basically imploded onto itself and can’t end soon enough.

The Walking Dead (2010- ) was a surprise hit zombie apocalypse TV show, based on a graphic novel series of the same name launched in 2004 by Robert Kirkman.  It is a signature cable channel show.  As broadcast networks focused on cheap-to-produce reality shows, cable networks began to finance lavish dramas with production values approaching Hollywood theatrically-released movies more than standard broadcast TV fare.  This won large audiences.  The Walking Dead is extremely derivative of what came before it.  The premise, as the series begins, is that the main character awakens from a coma to find himself in a zombie apocalypse.  Sound familiar from 28 Days Later?  The zombies are dubbed “walkers” (like in Romero films) and exhibit much the same lumbering movements as all the Romero films.  But rather than have anything good or new to say, the show is mostly a melodrama, that is to say a soap opera.  The setups are implausible.  Many of the characters are inconsistent–constantly changing their personalities just to facilitate a plot twist.  This show is terrible.

Hollywood has tried to catch up (and cash in) on the zombie buzz generated by the success of The Walking Dead, much like they did with a “vampire” fad a few years earlier (yet again, zombies are kind of a second wave after vampires).  Among those efforts is World War Z (2013).  This is a formulaic Hollywood movie through and through.  The main character (Brad Pitt) searches for a cause of the epidemic, and also for a cure.  Every part of the plot follows the “Chekhov’s gun” principle; foreshadowing is absolute and rigid.  The zombies follow the 28 Days Later pattern of being wild and frenzied.  Framing of the action borrows heavily from the disaster movie genre.  The audience is expected to sympathize with the exceptionalism of the family at the center of the story, and multiple deus ex machina plot twists are needed to keep the story moving.  While lavishly produced, with every technical detail nearly impeccable, the story is stupid, derivative and implausible.  At least Hollywood’s last big (non-comedy) zombie movie, the Will Smith version of I Am Legend, required you to suspend disbelief only as to the presence of zombies but not with regard to the actions and emotions of the uninfected human characters. No such luck here.  No, here we get a character on UN-coordinated missions who brings a satellite phone for personal communication only, making no attempt to communicate with the UN regarding his progress other than to fly around the world trying to reach their base and maybe fill them in at that point.  Too bad he did not put the UN on speed dial before he left!

Wholly aside from the movies, “zombie walks,” “zombie pub crawls,” and other such events have arisen with participants donning zombie costumes and makeup.  Some of these are just middle class past times.  But some take up the spirit of the Romero movies by being used a protests against consumer culture, or other things.  In Minneapolis on July 22, 2006 a group dressed up as zombies and lurched through a public festival, with portable audio equipment playing announcements like “get your brains here” and “brain cleanup in Aisle 5.”  The police arrested them, claiming at first that it was for “disorderly conduct” but then later saying that use of the audio equipment constituted the illegal display of simulated weapons of mass destruction (“WMDs”) (yes, the police, and later city attorneys, actually asserted this).  The “zombies” later won a lawsuit against the police, the court saying there was no probable cause to arrest them.

There is certainly more to the zombie phenomenon than meets the eye. For one, there are more zombie films than can be mentioned here.  I didn’t even mention Bruce Campbell movies!  But the pervasiveness of zombies in popular culture makes them worthy of note.  Hopefully, this little primer offers a head start.

Made in U.S.A.

Made in U.S.A.

Made in U.S.A. (1966)

Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France (DVD: Criterion Collection)

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Main Cast: Anna Karina, László Szabó, Jean-Pierre Léaud


As the 1960s moved onward, Jean-Luc Godard’s early style gave way to something new and different.  Made in U.S.A. epitomizes a transitional phase.  It is one of the most visually stunning of his films.  Yet the plot, so much as there is a plot, evidences mostly a set of reflections on politics, society and, of course, cinema itself.  Outlines of the script were adapted (without authorization) from Donald Westlake’s crime thriller pulp novel The Jugger (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark).  Ostensibly, Paula Nelson (Anna Karina) is a reporter investigation the death of Richard P____ (last name always obscured or not given, but a reference to a communist figure).  She maneuvers through a fictional French public housing project on the outskirts of Paris taking its name from the American East-coast casino town Atlantic City.  Really, much of the content of the film makes allusions to the political scandal involving the French secret service allegedly abducting Moroccan revolutionary Mehdi Ben Barka — a leader in the Third World Movement (for general context, read Vijay Prashad’s The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World), an associate of Che Guevara and Malcolm X, and someone compared to Frantz Fanon — and then torturing and murdering him.  Godard drew explicit comparisons to Howard Hawks’ iconic film noir The Big Sleep as an influence on this film.  Though Godard adds a sort of comic book feel, reminiscent ever so slightly of Frank Tashlin, another Godard favorite.

The tone of the film is really its most striking feature.  It never settles into anything comfortable.  The characters drift in a state of confused inquiry.  They look for clues, for answers, but they find nothing concrete.  It is a very Hegelian sort of approach that requires engagement with reality, only to determine “truth”, as it were, in hindsight.  Along the way, just some wonderful set pieces, like the main characters presenting overlapping monologues, Marianne Faithfull singing “As Tears Go By” a cappella in a bar, a tour through a warehouse of Hollywood movie advertising materials, Beethoven blasted out suddenly, a portable tape recorder replaying communist lessons spoken by Godard himself.  And there is color everywhere.  This is a magnificent film for color, commanded as immaculately as Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso [The Red Desert].  The only constant is a feeling expressed through a search for closure.  But the search is purposeful.  There are constant reminders of the crassness of Americanized consumerism in France, but before that can be overcome a sort of resolution of the old ways is entertained.  That quality builds a bridge between Godard’s earlier works, with their explicit engagement with commercial Hollywood cinema, and his revolutionary filmmaking of the coming years.  For instance, this effort can be said to come closer to embracing feminist elements than Godard’s early, somewhat more sexist work.

Filmed in parallel with 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle [2 or 3 Things I Know About Her] this is usually forgotten or considered the inferior of the two.  Yet, it may actually be the better of them.  2 or 3 Things is explicit, almost didactic.  To a tiring degree.  Made in U.S.A. is allusory.  It is a Godard fan’s film.

A DVD edition, the first widespread distribution of the film in the United States some four decades after its French release, offers some valuable extras, including a short documentary (On the Cusp) with interviews of two Godard biographers, Richard Brody (Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard) and Colin MacCabe (Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy), who add a wealth of information about the structure, content and context for the film.  The advance theories about how certain plot elements Godard introduced were vaguely autobiographical.  There is also another short documentary (A Made in U.S.A. Concordance) that attempts to catalog many of the the esoteric references to political and social events and persons in the film.  The subtitle translations are described as “new and improved” but they do play somewhat loose with the dialogue, making it a bit more informal and casual than the original French at times.