Tag Archives: Documentary

Joseph Ramsey – Does America Have a Gun Problem… or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?

Link to an article by Joseph Ramsey:

“Does America Have a Gun Problem… or a White Supremacy Capitalist Empire Problem?”

I find it much harder to look past the problems with Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, but Ramsey offers some extremely interesting observations that don’t really depend on even seeing the film.

Bonus link: “When Liberals Go Wrong”

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology

The Pervert's Guide to Ideology

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2013)

Zeitgeist Films

Director: Sophie Fiennes

Main Cast: Slavoj Žižek


Making a film about philosophy is not an easy task.  The main problem being: how to keep the audience awake?  Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has said that good films can put you to sleep.  But these sorts of films are not always widely appreciated, for very much that reason.

Enter Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Žižek, with a documentary — the sequel to The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) — that makes contemporary philosophy as entertaining and engaging as possible.  Some may say it is still not engaging enough.  But the intellectually curious should find a lot to wrestle with, and at least will walk away with a list of interesting movies from around the world that they have probably not yet seen.  Ultimately, the film paints a beautiful and horrifying picture of how movies stage our dreams, where desire arises, and how ideologies correlate those desires to objective circumstances to create meaning.

Desire comes from the symbol of the “Big Other”: a god, or, in this case, cinema.  It provides meaning to otherwise meaningless, solitary existence.  In Fiennes’ and Žižek’s earlier collaboration, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Žižek said, “Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire – it tells you how to desire.” It would have been helpful to repeat that assertion here, to better explain the new film’s title.  Still, the underlying concepts of importance are revisited here.  A key one involves Žižek’s attempts to philosophically preserve free will, as a small but crucial factor set against a backdrop of philosophical concepts that increasingly explain relationships traced back to determined, objective conditions.

“[M]an is not simply a product of objective circumstances.  We all have this margin of freedom in deciding how we subjectivize these objective circumstances, which will of course determine us:  how we react to them by constructing our own universe.”

The way these objective circumstances are subjectivized is through ideology.

“Ideology is our spontaneous relationship to our social world – how we perceive each meaning and so on and so on.”

But every ideology has to “work as an empty container, open to all possible meanings.”  He illustrates with deft examples from Cabaret (1972) to The Fall of Berlin (1950) how different efforts to portray fascist or communist propaganda can utilize the exact same ideological frameworks, the same “empty container”.  This analysis of ideology can be applied to anything. To look outside this film, take “business management” gurus. They recommend, for instance, setting a big hairy audacious goal, but it should be attainable. This might help explain why business attracts (and selects for) unhealthy people. They seek simple pleasures from defined goals within the existing organization and obtain excess enjoyment from the social prestige and career advancement that comes with achieving those defined goals.

“How come it is easier for us to imagine the end of all life on earth — an asteroid hitting the planet — than a modest change in our economic order?”

He suggests not waiting for such a magical event to produce change from without, but rather,

“It depends on us, on our will.”

“We should draw a line of distinction, within the very field of our dreams, between those who are the right dreams — pointing towards a dimension effectively beyond our existing society and the wrong dreams, the dreams which are just an idealized, consumerist reflection, [a] mirror image of our society.  We are not simply submitted to our dreams – they just come from some unfathomable depths and we can’t do anything about it.  This is the basic lesson of psychoanalysis — and fiction cinema.  We are responsible for our dreams.  Our dreams stage our desires — and our desires are not objective facts.  We created them, we sustained them, we are responsible for them.”

He takes a complex view of desire.

“A desire is never simply the desire for certain thing. It’s always also a desire for desire itself. A desire to continue to desire. Perhaps the ultimate horror of a desire is to be fully filled-in, met, so that I desire no longer.”

There are different ways to control desire.  Žižek is quite explicit about the methods he favors.

“The conservative solution is we need more police.  We need courts, which pass severe judgments.  I think this solution is too simple.”

Taking a page straight from filmmaker John Waters (“I thank God I was raised Catholic, so sex will always be dirty.”), Žižek talks about how religion, using the example of catholicism, puts in place prohibitive injunctions with a hidden message to enjoy transgressing those limits.  This is too simple, though, because it takes away freedom, and responsibility.

“Freedom hurts.  The basic insight of psychoanalysis is to distinguish between enjoyment and simple pleasures.  They are not the same. Enjoyment is precisely enjoyment in disturbed pleasure — even enjoyment in pain.  And this excessive factor disturbs the apparently simple relationship between duty and pleasures.”

Rather than seek something superficial and take unhealthy enjoyment from an excess, Žižek suggests pursuing deeper desires that will likely not be fulfilled and accepting the superficial pleasure that arise along the way.  He cleverly illustrates this while eating a Kinder Egg chocolate candy, the chocolate covering a simple pleasure and the toy inside something further.

Once freedom of this degree is put on the table, Žižek is talking about revolutionary potentials.  These have been tried before, and have failed, but he sees them as still worth pursuing.  On failed revolutions, he diagnoses the problem:  “The dreams remained the old dreams; and they turned into the ultimate nightmare.”  All these examples, with movies, Kinder Egg candies, and so forth, provide easily grasped examples of where the breaking points are among the stuff of everyday life.

This is a well-made film.  Its subject is weighty, yet leavened with the constant references to film and pop culture.  Terry Eagleton, reviewing a pair of later Žižek’s books, wrote that “Academic philosophers can be obscure, whereas popularisers aim to be clear. With his urge to dismantle oppositions, Žižek has it both ways . . . .”  This is precisely the paradox that makes The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology such an interesting film.  We have discussions of philosophy that make substantive points worthy of both academic and unschooled audiences.  And along the way, viewers can enjoy the “simple pleasures” of seeing Žižek dressed up in a ridiculous Stalin costume, or sitting in a re-constructed set of the club from Kubrick‘s A Clockwork Orange (1971).  Viewers unfamiliar with anything Žižek has written or said before should still be able to grasp this film, with some mild effort.  It represents one of the most potent distillations of his philosophical worldview.

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.

Elvis on Tour

Elvis on Tour (1972)

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Directors: Pierre Adidge and Robert Abel

Main Cast: Elvis Presley


An unusual and innovative documentary that chronicles part of Elvis’ 1975 U.S. tour.  It features a “multi-screen” format, with multiple moving images presented simultaneously.  The crew filmed Elvis performing with multiple cameras, and the film frequently presents a given performance from multiple camera angles shown side-by-side, shots of Elvis interspersed with shots of the audience, and clips of similar performances from different shows presented together.  A similar approach was used a few years later in The Longest Yard.  This finds Elvis around the time he was just starting to decline.  He had a successful show in Las Vegas, and had started to take that tour on the road.  He did two shows a night, and the grind of doing a similar show for years on end was taking its toll.  The performances in the film aren’t all great, but there are some good ones–particularly further in.  The filmmakers demanded special access to Elvis, and that results in scenes that show him shuttled to and from shows, harangued by fans, and excerpts from a pre-tour interview.  The filmmakers clearly have no real interest in Elvis’ music, but are looking in on the culture of his fans with a mixture of amusement and condescension.  That’s fine, as far as it goes, because there is no narration or even titles throughout the movie.  Mostly you just see a series of documentary footage clips, though the non-concert footage gravitates toward the craziest fans caught up in a vague cult of personality, without any reference to any discussion of the merits of the music.  What’s interesting is that some of the rehearsal footage shows how much Elvis liked gospel music and how some of the stripped-down rehearsals sounded a bit more interesting that the grandiose treatments on this studio albums and in the live shows.  By 1972, Elvis’ show had settled into a formula, doing mostly the same songs over and over.  He and his band still play them remarkably well, considering.  Yet the more intimate rehearsal performances sometimes reveal something that always seemed obscured on the albums and concerts of the era.