Guantanamo’s Child, Thank You for Bombing, The Hard Stop: Filmmakers take on the global “war on terror” and police violence at home

By Joanne Laurier

8 October 2015

This is the fourth in a series of articles devoted to the recent Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-20). The first part was posted September 26, the second part October 1 and the third part October 3.

The case of Omar Khadr

The “war on terror” is a lying, noxious phrase, endlessly invoked to justify the American ruling elite’s drive for global dominance. This week marks the 14th anniversary of the US military’s invasion of Afghanistan, an exercise in sociocide, which has led to the deaths of tens of thousands and the further laying waste of the already impoverished nation.

The tragic encounter of American imperialism with the Afghan people goes back to the late 1970s, when the Carter administration incited and fomented Islamic fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, as part of the strategy of undermining the Soviet Union. The criminality of US policy in Central Asia knows almost no bounds.

Michelle Shephard and Patrick Reed’s documentary, Guantanamos Child: Omar Khadr, concerns itself with the Canadian-born youth who was captured in Afghanistan by US forces in 2002 during an airstrike and assault that killed all the anti-American insurgents except the grievously wounded, 15-year-old Omar. He was sent to the Bagram Air Base, site of a notorious US prison in Afghanistan, and tortured, before he was transferred to the even more notorious Guantanamo Bay internment camp in Cuba.

Omar Khadr and Dennis Edney

Treated like a “terrorist”—for having fought as a soldier against an invading army—by the criminals in the American government and their junior partners in Canada, Omar, in 2005, became the only juvenile to be tried for war crimes.

In 2010, he pleaded not guilty to “murdering” US Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer during the 2002 firefight. Three months later, he changed his plea, his only means of obtaining release from the Guantanamo hellhole. Over the strenuous objections of the Harper government in Ottawa, Omar was repatriated to Canada in 2012. Since his release in May 2015, Khadr has resided with his lawyer Dennis Edney in Edmonton, Alberta.

As the Shephard-Reed film reveals, Omar Khadr is a remarkable young man, as is his feisty, Scottish-born attorney. Through extensive interviews,Guantanamos Child constructs a nightmarish picture of Omar’s ordeal at the hands of the American military.

Guantanamo’s Child

Although the bright and soft-spoken Omar is forthright in declaring that he was fighting “for a cause: fighting invaders,” the filmmakers are far more defensive about his role. In fact, the initial portions of the documentary tend to take the “war on terror” and the accompanying propaganda campaign at face value, as though “everything changed” as a result of the 9/11 attacks. The implication is that the “Americans” may have overreacted, but they had every right to “defend” themselves.

Any objective examination of the post-9/11 measures by the Bush administration would conclude that the actions corresponded to a long-standing agenda, involving massive US intervention in the Middle East and Central Asia in pursuit of energy supplies and, more generally, American imperialist geopolitical objectives, and that the terrorist attacks merely provided a pretext.

Missing in Guantanamos Child is any reference to the history of the region. There is no indication that the bin Laden forces were financed and encouraged by the CIA. It should be noted that Shepard, who wrote a book in 2008 entitled Guantanamos Child: The Untold Story of Omar Khadr, is the national security reporter for the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s largest daily newspapers.

All in all, it seems fair to argue that documentary reflects the views of that section of the Canadian elite that is not happy with the country’s current relationship with Washington, with what it perceives as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s subservience, and is taking the opportunity to “stick it” to the US over the Khadr case.

In any case, whatever the serious weaknesses of Guantanamos Child, the majority of the film is devoted to allowing Omar to speak openly about his past and present condition—unusual in the pro-war media propaganda world. He has an insightful, mature and cautious voice.

Omar Khadr was born in Toronto in 1986, but spent much of his childhood in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The film briefly discusses his family and his early life.

As Guantanamos Child reveals, after his 2002 capture, the teenager suffered extensive psychological and physical abuse. In one striking scene, a repentant Damien Corsetti, a former US interrogator at Bagram, who was nicknamed “The Monster” for using techniques such as the “Human Mop” (forcing prisoners to wipe up their urine on the floor with their own bodies), movingly talks about how Omar’s youth and bravery humanized him. This contrasts to the self-justifying remarks made by a former CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) official, who features prominently in the film.

Also interviewed are the well-spoken Moazzam Begg and Ruhal Ahmed, both British citizens who bear witness to the horrors perpetrated in American prisons—Moazzam having been incarcerated with Omar at Bagram and Ruhal with him at Guantanamo. In addition, Omar’s mother and sister make critical, but unsurprisingly disoriented, remarks about the invaders.

The film also shows Omar’s amazing fortitude. Despite his age, and imprisonment for more than a decade, he never cowers before his tormentors and their false accusations. He also defied the incredible odds against being released from Guantanamo.

During the 2002 firefight, the Americans inflicted serious wounds on Omar, including two holes in his chest, that would eventually destroy one eye and greatly impair the other. Were it not for the intrepid efforts of Edney—his lawyer who was initially not allowed access to Omar for four years—he would still be locked away as an “enemy combatant” in the internment camp.

These two remarkable individuals and their bond drive the movie, but as well highlight the documentary’s major internal contradiction: Omar himself is prima faci e evidence of the inhuman, illegal nature of the war. Unfortunately, the filmmakers never follow the political logic of the story of their protagonist and the forces who calumniated and tried to destroy him.

Thank You for Bombing

From Austria comes Thank You For Bombing, directed by Barbara Eder (Inside America, 2010), which provides an unflattering portrait of contemporary journalists on assignment in war zones.

Thank You for Bombing

The fiction film comprises a triptych of stories related to the war in Afghanistan. The first concerns an Austrian reporter, Ewald (Erwin Steinhauser), forced by his boss to go to Afghanistan. Clearly suffering from a post-traumatic nervous disorder that has rendered him incontinent, Ewald sees a man at the airport who may or may not have been involved in the murder of his cameraman during the war in Bosnia. Neither his unsympathetic editor nor his sympathetic wife are inclined to believe a man plagued by horrible wartime memories.

The next two segments are indictments of the unrelenting careerism and opportunism of war correspondents. In the first, American reporter Lana (Manon Kahle) will stop at nothing to obtain an interview with two US soldiers in Afghanistan who allegedly have burned copies of the Koran. The episode is based on the incident that memorably set off massive protests in 2012. Lana bribes and cajoles anyone and everyone to obtain what will be a major “scoop.”

The two soldiers, more like caged wild animals, are being held in an isolated bunker by the American military. Lana buys her way into their presence. But after the interview, they turn the tables on her. She allows herself to submit to gross humiliations and a near-rape to get the story. Although a revealing sequence, the encounter between Lana and the two offending soldiers takes on a gratuitous character at a certain point. It does, however, depict a demoralized, dehumanized American army.

In the movie’s final chapter, Cal (Raphael von Bargen), once a respected journalist, is tired of waiting for the bombs to begin falling. He even tries to stage young Afghan boys throwing rocks at American soldiers. A heavy drinker, he gets fired. On a drive in the middle of nowhere, a tragic accident takes the life of his driver, which has little impact on the callous reporter.

Eder’s Thank You for Bombing is rightfully contemptuous of the media, but says little or nothing about the war itself. It is critical of ambitious journalists who use and abuse the native population, going so far as to be grateful for the dropping of American bombs that will devastate the country, thus giving them new headlines. Although an angry protest (one assumes against the war), the movie suffers from a lack of serious context.

During the question-and-answer period after the film’s public screening in Toronto, director Eder explained that the work was based on real incidents that she fictionalized to safeguard the identities of the journalists.

Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol

The talented Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad’s The Idol was shot on location in Gaza, the first film made in the Israeli-devastated enclave in many decades. Other locations included Jenin, Amman, Beirut and Cairo.

The Idol

Abu-Assad’s film is based on a true story. It recounts how, in 2013, 22-year-old wedding singer Mohamad Assaf, from a refugee camp in Gaza, won the second season of Arab Idol, the Middle East version of the American talent show. Assaf became an overnight sensation and was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador.

The movie is very energetic, but a more sanitized and official work than Abu-Assad’s previous films, which include Paradise Now (2005) and Omar (2013). Its best moments portray the monumental difficulties faced by the Palestinian population in Gaza. In one quasi-humorous scene, there is a power outage—obviously a frequent occurrence—when the singer is auditioning via Skype and the generator catches on fire, ending his immediate chances. In other sequences, Abu-Assad’s camera takes in Gaza’s mountains of rubble and destruction.

Getting into Egypt to audition in Cairo obliges Mohamad to scale barbed-wire capped walls, bribe certain border guards and sing verses from the Koran to others, only to find the auditions closed to those who do not already have a ticket. He overcomes that obstacle too. All the while, he recalls the words of his beloved, teenage sister who died because the family lacked the cash for a kidney transplant: “We are going to be big and change the world.”

The film is clearly an attempt to find something uplifting in what is a catastrophic situation. “It’s not just about the winning, but the route to the winning,” says Abu-Assad. “The story of Gaza is very interesting to me. It’s about people who have been collectively punished, and yet they have this will to survive, the will to succeed. It’s a universal theme.”

At the movie’s screening in Toronto, the crowd cheered wildly, identifying with the Palestinian singer’s struggles and triumph. Abu-Assad must be well aware, however, that this is a fascinating but unique incident, which will not in any way change the abominable conditions of the Gazans.

A police murder in North London

The Hard Stop

The Hard Stop is a documentary that explores the murder of Mark Duggan, an unarmed young black man, gunned down by London’s Metropolitan Police in 2011. Directed by British-Ghanaian George Amponsah, the film features two of Mark’s closest friends, Marcus Knox-Hooke and Kurtis Henville, as well as various family members.

The 29-year-old’s killing sparked riots that began in Tottenham, a working class area in North London, and spread across the country.

Amponsah places his film in the context of the coroner’s inquest into the killing, which in January 2014 found Duggan’s death a “lawful killing” although the jurors unanimously agreed that the father of six was unarmed when he was shot.

While showing the conditions and difficulties facing youth in poor neighborhoods like Tottenham, the film does not entirely disassociate itself from the false idea that race is the predominant factor in police violence, even though Duggan’s family is biracial. The uprisings ignited by Duggan’s murder were fueled by the abysmal social conditions and poverty of the entire population, black, white and immigrant.

Laudably, during the film’s question-and-answer session after the screening, Kurtis Henville said that “every life, not just black lives, matter.”

The latest from Michael Moore

Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next is not a much-needed comment on the American government’s never-ending invasions and wars. Far from it. Moore simply tells the generals to “stand down.” The filmmaker then becomes a one-man army that “invades” various countries to appropriate not geopolitical advantage—but beneficial social or political ideas or practices.

From Italy, for example, he takes their lengthy vacations; from Finland, their education system; from Slovenia, free college; from Iceland, the dominance of women in politics and banking (we are told that women’s DNA makes them less aggressive); from Norway, a more humane penal system; from France, gourmet school lunches; from Germany, the ability to confront the legacy of the Holocaust (as opposed to the situation in the US, where supposedly through the prison system the “white man” is once again resurrecting slavery); and from Portugal, the legalization of drugs (Moore happily poses with three cops who look like remnants of the Salazar/Caetano fascist dictatorship).

With the film’s potted racialist history of the US and its view that women should rule the world, Moore has, of course, added identity politics into the mix in his “happy film,” as he calls it.

It is hardly accidental that Moore has been so inactive since Barack Obama took office in early 2009. (Capitalism: A Love Story came out that year.) His new movie is a ludicrous attempt to cover for the Democratic Party, hoping against hope that he can convince it to adopt policies that, he takes pains to point out, all originated in the US. His is the most pathetic and hopeless of perspectives.

Moore has become a sometime critic of the Obama administration, after endorsing the Democratic presidential candidate in 2008 and supporting the auto bailout in 2009, which halved autoworkers’ pay. He is hopelessly tied to the Democratic Party and capitalist politics by a thousand strings. While excoriating Obamacare, for example, as “a pro-insurance-industry plan,” he termed the plan a “godsend” because it provides a start “to get what we deserve: universal quality health care.”

The filmmaker is a compromised and increasingly discredited figure.


The Martian: A modern Robinson Crusoe

By David Walsh
7 October 2015

Directed by Ridley Scott, written by Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir

Veteran director Ridley Scott’s science fiction film The Martian is based on the 2011 novel by American author Andy Weir. In the movie’s opening scene the crew of the Ares III manned mission to Mars is forced to abandon their plans and leave the planet when a severe, hurricane-like sandstorm descends on them. Unavoidably left behind is crew member Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed to be dead after being struck by communications equipment and separated from the others during the storm.

Matt Damon in The Martian

Watney, in fact, survives the disaster and is able to treat his injuries. He finds the living and working quarters the crew had set up (“the Hab”) intact and has enough food for several hundred Martian days, or sols (each sol is some 24 hours, 40 minutes). However, he is alone on the desolate planet, tens of millions of kilometers from home. Watney has no means of communicating with Earth, because of the destruction of the communication gear in the tempest, and the next manned mission is not scheduled for another four years. How can he survive that long and how can he travel to the location of that mission’s landing, some 3,200 kilometers away?

A botanist (and a mechanical engineer, at least in the Weir novel), Watney sets about solving his various problems. He grows potatoes inside the habitat’s artificial environment and begins to modify his only vehicle, a rover, to make possible much longer trips.

Meanwhile, on Earth, satellite photos of Mars make clear to NASA engineers in Houston, Texas that Watney is alive and moving around. NASA director Terry Sanders (Jeff Daniels) orders his staff not to inform the surviving members of the Ares mission, now on board the Hermes spacecraft heading home, that Watney is alive, for fear of distracting them. Watney cleverly locates and digs up the Pathfinder probe, inactive since 1997 and uses it to begin communicating with NASA.

NASA officials and engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California debate various plans for rescuing the stranded astronaut. They agree to send a probe to Mars to resupply Watney so he can last another several years on the planet. In their efforts to speed up the process, however, they take shortcuts that result in disaster. Watney experiences his own disaster on Mars, which wipes out his potato crop.

Kristen Wiig and Chiwetel Ejiofor

Now what? The Chinese space program then enters the picture, as does a young, brilliant astrodynamicist. The Ares III crew itself has a life-and-death decision to make …

Although The Martian grows tedious from time to time in the course of its two hours and 20 minutes, its central motif—the massive effort, which is eventually followed by masses of people all over the globe, to save one man—is a humane and intriguing one. A large number of people cooperate, and not in pursuit of money or celebrity, to save a single life.

In his novel, Weir writes: “If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”

It is moving when the film reaches its denouement and Watney’s fate, along with the fate of the rest of the Ares III crew, is decided. One certainly feels for his situation and emphatically hopes for his safe return.

As opposed to Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón), with its quasi-religious imagery, andInterstellar (Christopher Nolan), with its murky dystopianism, The Martian(aside from one brief flirtation with a crucifix) aspires to be an eminently practical film, with its paean to “Yankee ingenuity” and stick-to-itiveness. Having decided that “I am not going to die on this planet,” Watney sets out his various tasks and performs them, one by one.

Jessica Chastain

The scientific-technical challenges and solutions are interesting, occasionally fascinating: Watney’s agricultural experiments, his discovery of a method to create water, his transformation of his rover vehicle, his retrieval of the Pathfinder probe and his re-establishing of communication with Earth, NASA’s various rescue plans, the final effort to intercept him in space. (The decision to paint the Chinese space program and officials in a positive light, given current US government policies, has to be considered almost an act of bravery.)

Unfortunately, when the film goes beyond the limits of depicting those practical tasks, it falters badly. One of the considerable difficulties The Martian faces is its literary-intellectual source. Weir, the son of an accelerator physicist and an electrical engineer, is a capable organizer-summarizer of materials and problems, and apparently knows his science (according to various publications), but he is not an artistically gifted writer.

Much of the novel consists of descriptions of various physical and chemical processes and Watney’s interventions in those processes, a sort of “How-to” manual for surviving in an enormously hostile environment, interspersed with essentially puerile monologues (Watney’s) or dialogue. The labored “jokiness” is particularly grating.

A few examples:

“Problem is (follow me closely here, the science is pretty complicated), if I cut a hole in the Hab, the air won’t stay inside anymore.”

“I tested the brackets by hitting them with rocks. This kind of sophistication is what we interplanetary scientists are known for.”

“But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil. Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”

“Back on Earth, universities and governments are willing to pay millions to get their hands on Mars rocks. I’m using them as ballast.”

This sort of wittiness, which is genuinely amusing one-tenth of the time, goes on ad infinitum. Along with references to disco music, Star Wars, Iron Man,The Dukes of Hazzard and Three’s Company. Reading the novel is too much like spending a number of hours with a precocious and especially self-approving undergraduate science student who aspires to be a stand-up comic.

It is hard to believe that any human being could go through the terrifying and life-altering experiences Weir describes and remain so unrelentingly shallow. The various astronauts and cosmonauts to date may not have always been the most articulate or cultured individuals, but one has the impression that they responded with considerable seriousness to the immensity of space and the significance of their own activities.

Jeff Daniels

Why the heavy-handed humor in the original novel? Perhaps Weir felt that only through such an approach could he “make the medicine go down,” i.e., render palatable to the public a complex story about the science of space travel and space survival. If that is the case, then he underestimated his audience.

Perhaps more to the point, the contrast between the remarkable scientific achievements, on the one hand, and the unserious depiction of the human interactions, on the other, speaks to an American malaise at present: technological abundance combined with a terrible cultural and intellectual deficiency.

Although Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard, to their credit, have dropped a good deal of the juvenilia and their work has a generally more sober tone than the novel, a portion of the book’s flippancy makes its way into the film too (including at certain critical moments!). Fortunately for the filmmakers, Matt Damon is appealing enough to render some of the silliness unobjectionable.

The screenplay, unhappily, has retained the general flatness of the scenes on Earth, or added its own. Scott has a number of talented performers at his disposal, who struggle to make something of the oddly colorless and often drama-less dialogue and sequences, including Daniels as the NASA chief, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean as NASA mission directors and Kristen Wiig as the agency’s spokesperson. Wiig has almost nothing to do, except occasionally shoot a quizzical or bemused glance at one character or another, in a seeming reference to the comic films she is normally in, but which has nothing to do with The Martian.

In two small parts, Mackenzie Davis (as a satellite planner in NASA’s Mission Control Center) and Donald Glover (as the NASA astrodynamicist) are least touched by the “canned,” bureaucratic character of the NASA-JPL scenes.

Scott has now been making feature films long enough, since the late 1970s, that he is referred to in some quarters as a great director. Such a characterization confuses artistic greatness with canniness and box office success. Scott’s films are essentially products of the Hollywood blockbuster era that began in 1975, albeit seasoned with a somewhat “outsider” (British), quasi-artistic sensibility. Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Hannibal, American Gangster and The Counselor are distinguished by their “dark” and “edgy” visual flair, and often excessive brutality, but not by any important thematic confrontation with contemporary life.

In any event, Scott’s new film portrays a manned mission to Mars some time in the not too distant future. Science fiction indeed! No critic or anyone involved in the production has referred to the fact that the US shut down its manned space effort in 2011 for an indefinite period of time, thanks in large part to budget cuts, an event, as the WSWS noted at the time, of “considerable historical significance.”

Shortly after coming to office, the Obama administration cancelled a project that envisioned a return to the Moon by 2020, followed by a Mars mission using the Moon as a jumping-off point. The WSWS commented that the administration “proposed a manned mission to the asteroid belt by 2025, followed by a Mars flight, but pushed out so far into the future that it amounted to the tacit abandonment of any serious effort at manned space flight.”

The Christian Science Monitor, in July 2014, asked: “Will the US ever have [a] manned space program again?” The article noted that with its Space Launch System, a rocket system designed for launches into deep space, “NASA hopes to take a giant leap into deep space, but the US Government Accountability Office says that the space agency may not have enough money. According to a GAO estimate released Wednesday, NASA may be $400 million short to complete the project.” Billions and billions for the destruction of peoples and societies around the world, but not hundreds of millions for the exploration of space.

Time Out of Mind: Richard Gere as a homeless man in New York City

By Robert Fowler
5 October 2015

Director Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind, with Richard Gere, is a sincere yet flawed film that attempts to portray the struggles of a homeless character named George Hammond.

Time Out of Mind

Moverman’s previous efforts include directing the Iraq war drama The Messenger (his debut as a director) and writing or co-writing I’m Not There (the Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan) and the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy .

In the opening scene of Time Out of Mind we discover a disheveled George Hammond (Gere) sleeping in a bathtub in an abandoned apartment. He is roused by an officious building manager ably played by Steve Buscemi. The building manager insists on removing George as quickly and efficiently as possible, and despite protestations from our protagonist he succeeds in doing so.

After being forced out of the building, George wanders aimlessly throughout the city. He is accompanied by the sights and particularly the sounds of New York, which serve as the film’s soundtrack. Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski chose to shoot Time Out of Mind in what might be considered a neo-realist style, with hand-held and hidden cameras. We hear off-screen conversations from passersby and there are several long-distance shots of George.

One would assume that this is an attempt to depict the isolation that George and so many homeless individuals must feel, but, unfortunately, in this case it comes across as contrived, and in the end creates an unnecessary distance between George and the viewer. One feels Moverman missed an opportunity or perhaps was reluctant to delve more profoundly into the depths of George’s plight.

As the very loose narrative unfolds, we learn that George has lost his job, that his ex-wife is dying from cancer and that he is estranged from his daughter, Maggie (Jena Malone). Along the way he befriends a gregarious African American man by the name of Dixon (Ben Vereen) in a homeless shelter. They soon become an “odd couple” in a rather clichéd fashion. That being said, Dixon, played competently by Vereen, comes across as the more true to life of the two homeless men. He is a former jazz musician who, despite his predicament, is consistent in his liveliness and ability to find humor and hope.

Some of the more authentic moments in the film come in the form of George’s difficulties with government bureaucracies and homeless shelter officials who insist on seeing some sort of identification. One empathizes strongly with George’s frustrations in these circumstances as he desperately tries to remember his social security number, home address, date of birth and other pieces of information, under constant passive-aggressive interrogation from detached bureaucratic mouthpieces. Moverman attempts to balance this with a scene involving a friendlier homeless shelter attendant who pointedly tells George: “I was once in the position you are now.”

George attempts to reconnect with his daughter Maggie on a couple of occasions. First at a laundromat, then in the bar where she works. Again, these moments, although well-intentioned, seem contrived and quite “Hollywoodish” in both their writing and acting. Predictably, Maggie is aloof and embarrassed at what her father has become. However, toward the film’s conclusion, she does have second thoughts about her coldness.

The inevitably repetitive nature of life on the streets is a strong focus of the film. This approach has mixed results. George pleading for change, for example, although quite realistic, failed in many respects as these moments seemed to lack an urgency and desperation. The little money George receives from the streets is spent on alcohol and clothes. There are vague allusions to George having a drinking problem, but for Moverman to harp on this aspect of his personality seems a bit lazy.

Time Out of Mind

Gere’s performance is earnest, but terribly self-conscious. He overdoes the naturalistic grunts and sighs, trying too hard throughout. Perhaps all this “special effort” is unsurprising as Gere had championed the script for many years seeking a suitable director.

Gere found his man in Moverman, who explains in an interview with Indiewire, “The project came with Richard. He approached me, he told me about a script that he had, an old script, and a character that he’s been obsessed with. That’s where the conversation started. In a way the movie came pre-cast. Otherwise, I would never, ever cast Richard Gere.”

According to, the actor was affected by reading Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, “a memoir by a homeless person called Cadillac Man. ‘I loved the book because it was artless,’ Gere says. ‘He didn’t know how to write, and, so, the writing, of course, was wonderful.’ Gere met with Cadillac Man—a meeting that gave the actor the confidence to go ahead with Time Out of Mind. For three weeks, dressed in secondhand clothes, he roamed the streets. He’d scour Dumpsters for food, he’d stand at curbs, he disappeared in the thrum and hustle.”

There’s no reason to doubt Gere’s genuineness or his social concern. Another major film performer, Paul Bettany, has directed a film called Shelter, which opens in a limited run in the US November 13, about a homeless couple in New York (with Jennifer Connelly, Bettany’s wife, and Anthony Mackie)

Moverman further explained, “I didn’t make this film as some homeless advocate who is in the trenches for years, or as anyone with any kind of righteousness or superiority on this issue. I’m just like anybody else, I ignore people as much as anybody else. I think we all live complicated lives and we have lots going on. We have a lot of narratives happening in our hands and strands of communication. Reality is really something that we have to block out sometimes, or we can’t help but block out. I think that the movie opened our eyes, for sure, to noticing people more and to maybe being more conscious about it, which is the only thing you can hope for. It’s not a movie with a solution.”

Nobody is expecting Moverman to offer a “solution” to the crisis of homelessness in a two-hour film but surely an artist can at least offer a strong and clear point of view. Instead, Moverman opts for a false objectivity, convinced, no doubt, that he is showing “life as it really is.” In fact, this passivity is bound up with a certain superficiality, an unwillingness to go terribly deep into the social problem or the character’s psyche.

In terms of the housing crisis, as the WSWS has noted in numerous articles, the spiraling cost of living in New York City has forced thousands of people onto the streets. The official total of those living in shelters is over 60,000.

During Michael Bloomberg’s tenure (2002-2013) as mayor of New York, the homeless population is estimated to have increased somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. After his successor Bill de Blasio’s first year in City Hall, the total number of people sleeping in homeless shelters was 58,469. The number of people currently sleeping on the street on any given night is in the range of 4,000.

The great difficulty in finding affordable housing is obviously a major factor. A recent report on the real estate web site StreetEasy pointed out that it is impossible for a worker in New York making the city’s minimum wage, $8.75 per hour, to find an apartment. Meanwhile, the average sale price of a Manhattan apartment is $1.87 million. According to an article in Forbesmagazine, there are currently 78 billionaires residing in New York City.

At one point in Time Out of Mind, George cries “We don’t exist! We don’t exist!” This is a rare and powerful moment in the film that rings true for thousands and thousands of New York residents. Such have been the devastating consequences of the profit system.

I Saw the Light (Hank Williams) and Janis: Little Girl Blue (Janis Joplin)—Popular music and its discontents

By David Walsh
3 October 2015

This is the third in a series of articles devoted to the recent Toronto International Film Festival (September 10-20). The first part was posted September 26 and the second part October 1.

Country music performer Hank Williams (1923-1953) and rock and roll singer Janis Joplin (1943-1970) were both significant figures in the history of American popular culture. Williams died at 29 and Joplin at 27. Each is the subject of a new film. I Saw the Light (Marc Abraham) is a fictional account of Williams’ life; Janis: Little Girl Blue (Amy Berg) is a documentary about Joplin.

The gifted British actor Tom Hiddleston plays Williams and also creditably sings his songs (musician Rodney Crowell worked with Hiddleston for a month). I Saw the Light follows Williams’ life from his marriage to Audrey Sheppard (Elizabeth Olsen) at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama in 1944 (the owner is also a justice of the peace) to his death, from alcohol and pill-induced heart failure, en route to a concert in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953.

Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light

Abraham’s effort is a fairly standard film biography. It treats some of the ups and many downs in Williams’ life. The singer drank heavily, between occasional periods of sobriety. He was often in pain because of spina bifida occulta, a condition in which the outer part of certain vertebrae is not completely closed. He and his wife frequently fought, over money, over her desire to sing, over his affairs, over her affairs. They eventually divorced, and shortly before his death, Williams married again.

I Saw the Light

Williams had his first big hit with “Move It on Over,” about a man in trouble with his wife, in 1947. In fact, it is an early rock and roll song, one that unmistakably reflects the postwar atmosphere. After a successful stint on the Louisiana Hayride, Williams first performed at the Grand Ole Opry in June 1949, where his “Lovesick Blues” was a triumph. The glory did not last long.

He was eventually fired from the Opry for alcoholism in 1952 and his famed producer, Fred Rose (Bradley Whitford in the film), stopped working with him. His life went from bad to worse … It did not help matters that a quack, who had obtained his “Doctorate of Science” for $35 began prescribing amphetamines, Seconal, chloral hydrate and morphine for the ailing and addicted singer. I Saw the Light fleshes out these various episodes. Hiddleston, Olsen and Cherry Jones as the formidable Lillie Williams, Hank’s mother, all do well. The film avoids painting any of the characters as yokels, but it also avoids saying much of anything about them. This movie is not an immense step forward from Gene Nelson’s Your Cheatin’ Heart, the 1964 film with George Hamilton as Williams and Susan Oliver as Audrey.

Williams was a remarkable singer and songwriter. His lyrics are clever and insightful about everyday life. His liveliest songs “swing” with confidence and swagger, finding a large audience in a population that had endured the Depression and the war and now, with jobs and with some money in their pockets, had no intention of returning to the darkest days of the 1930s—“Move It on Over,” “Honky Tonkin’,” “I’m a Long Gone Daddy,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Mind Your Own Business,” “Why Don’t You Love me,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “Settin’ the Woods on Fire” and more.

In one of the better scenes in I Saw the Light, Williams-Hiddleston is in New York—where he feels like a fish out of water—for the Perry Como television show in November 1951. He speaks frankly to a reporter from a big city newspaper. “Everyone has a little darkness,” he says. Williams refers to the anger, misery, sorrow and shame that everyone feels. “I show it to them [the public]. … They think I can help.”

In another comment, cited by Colin Escott in his biography of Williams, the real-life singer told an interviewer (perhaps the one fictionalized in the film?) in 1951, “Folk songs [which are what he termed his own music] express the dreams and prayers and hopes of the working people.”

This element seems deliberately played down in I Saw the Light. Perhaps Abraham was frightened of making sweeping and too easy generalizations, and unsubstantiated generalizations should obviously be avoided. But Williams was born in immense poverty in rural southern Alabama and grew up during the Depression. His father was a terrible drunk and his mother was not an easy person. He drank, and ultimately took pills, all his brief life to alleviate physical and psychological pain. But his songs reflected something more than merely his own personal distress and striving. Their rhythms and words tapped into the sentiments of large numbers of people.

The film convincingly recreates the physical look of the late 1940s and early 1950s, but pays little attention to the larger forces at work that shaped and propelled Hank Williams and country music in general. One does not really obtain a sense in I Saw the Light of the quality and character of everyday life out of which his songs emerged.

Country music, including its very name, is full of contradictions that deserve to be explored. Like Williams’ family, which moved from rural Butler County to Montgomery, Alabama, a city of 70,000, when the future singer was 13 or 14, the genre was created and developed for the most part by those who were, in fact, leaving the “country.”

As historian Rachel Rubin notes: “In its most important early decades (the 1920s to 1940s), country music told the story of urbanization, and the genre’s relationship to rural living was more a musical epitaph for a way of life increasingly being left behind as both black and white Southerners fled the rural South for the promise of good jobs in the city.”

Neither is the question of Jim Crow segregation touched upon in the film. Abraham’s may have had the healthy notion that I Saw the Light should not become prey to contemporary identity politics, but simply sidestepping complexities is not helpful either.

One of Williams’ earliest influences was the African American street musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, who apparently showed the eight-year-old how to improvise chords on the guitar. Williams had many African American fans. The final shot I Saw the Light is newsreel footage from the day of Williams’ funeral in January 1953 in Montgomery, and one sees many black faces in the crowd milling about on the street.

Claudette Colvin was one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in Alabama. She was arrested for opposing segregation on Montgomery’s buses in March 1955, nine months before Rosa Parks was taken off a city bus by police, sparking the famous boycott. Speaking of her childhood, Colvin told her biographer Philip Hoose, “I listened to the Grand Ole Opry, too. The star of the show was Hank Williams, a famous country singer from Montgomery. When he died, his funeral drew the biggest crowd in the history of the city; Hank Williams’ wife invited the black community to attend since so many of us liked his music, but Mom wouldn’t let me go because the funeral was segregated.”

These are the sorts of fascinating dramas and conflicts that a more serious work on Hank Williams’ life and times might have raised. As it is, I Saw the Light is a pleasant film that does not go terribly deep.

Popular music has played, and continues to play, an immense role in American life. There are many reasons for this, including the extraordinary heterogeneity of experiences, traditions and nationalities that jostle against one another in America and seem worth calling attention to. But is it not possible as well that a population so politically disenfranchised and excluded as the American people must find some outlet, which social democratic, “Communist” or labor parties have provided to a limited extent in other countries, for its feelings and sufferings?

Janis Joplin

Amy Berg is making a name for herself as an interesting documentary filmmaker. Her Deliver Us from Evil (2006), about a Catholic priest who admitted to molesting and raping 25 children, and West of Memphis (2012), about the frame-up of a number of young men for the supposed “satanic” murder of three eight-year-old children, were both systematic and compassionate.

Janis: Little Girl Blue

In Janis: Little Girl Blue, Berg turns to the life and career of singer Janis Joplin, who was immensely popular for the last several years of her life until her tragic demise from heroin and alcohol in October 1970.

Joplin grew up in Port Arthur, Texas, a sea port on the Gulf of Mexico and at the time the center of a large oil refinery network. Her father was a mechanical engineer in the oil industry. In high school, as Little Girl Blue details, Joplin felt persecuted and an outcast.

The civil rights movement and the social developments of the late 1950s and early 1960s were obviously critical to the course of her life. One of her first musical memories, Berg’s film notes, was hearing folk singer Odetta’s version of “Careless Love.” Joplin tried folk singing in Austin, Texas, before first moving to San Francisco in 1963, where she sang but also developed a methamphetamine habit and became “skeletal.”

After a brief period back home in Port Arthur, Joplin returned to San Francisco in 1966 and became the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, a “psychedelic rock” band. A major breakthrough took place at the Monterey Pop Festival, one of the first of the large, well-publicized music festivals, in June 1967, where she sang a memorable version of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain.”

Berg’s film follows the vicissitudes of Joplin’s professional and personal life. She left Big Brother in 1968 and went out on her own as the leader of her own bands. She continued to use serious drugs. A friend says blithely, “We shot heroin for fun.” She eventually took for Brazil to clean herself up, where she fell in love with an American tourist.

Janis Joplin in 1970

Berg treats Joplin’s life with a great deal of sympathy. The singer, who exuded confidence and bravado on stage, was beset by anxiety and insecurity. She told a Montreal reporter in 1969, “Send me your review. I agonize over all of ’em. Man, I’m really neurotic. I really want people to love me.”

Joplin’s recordings are not generally as good as they could be and she tended, as filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker remarks, to “shout and scream.” It will elicit cries of outrage from some, but, in my opinion, there is very little of the “San Francisco Sound” that stands the test of time: too much self-indulgence, too many drugs, too much self-delusion.

However, anyone who saw Janis Joplin in person, especially in a more intimate space, is not likely to forget it. This writer saw her in concert three times in 1968 and 1969, including on a bill with B.B. King only a few hours after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in April 1968. I have never from that time to this seen a performer as generous and as giving—and as vulnerable. One almost inevitably fell in love with her.

Her last boyfriend David Niehaus comments in Berg’s film that Janis “could feel everybody else’s pain.” She could not be oblivious, Niehaus explains, to suffering, her singing represents an “entire honesty.”

Laura and Michael Joplin, Janis’ younger siblings, participated in the making of Berg’s film and are interviewed in it. They were present at the public screenings in Toronto. Each makes a highly favorable impression. They spoke with considerable affection, four decades or more later, about their elder sister. Laura described Janis’ emotional life as a “roller coaster” from early on. She made clear that her sister hated “racism” (Port Arthur had an active branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s) and felt strongly about “integration” and “equality.” Footage of Janis’s mother, after Janis’ death, reading one of her daughter’s letters, is also very moving.

The final and most apt comment in Little Girl Blue comes from John Lennon, on a talk show following Joplin’s death. Lennon observes that no one is asking the most important question, why people take drugs in the first place. He suggests that it comes from a “problem with society. People can’t live in society without guarding themselves from it.”

Gillian Armstrong’s latest film

Australian film director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, High Tide, Oscar and Lucinda) has made an intriguing and original documentary, Women He’s Undressed, about the legendary Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly (1897-1964), born Orry George Kelly in Kiama, New South Wales.

Women He’s Undressed

Armstrong has actor Darren Gilshenan portray Orry-Kelly in various slightly camp reenactments of episodes from the designer’s life. Sent to Sydney by his parents in 1917 to study banking, Orry-Kelly developed a love for the theater, before emigrating to the US in 1922. He shared an apartment with the future Cary Grant, then Archie Leach, in New York City, where they sold ties together.

Orry-Kelly moved to Hollywood in 1931 and eventually found work at Warner Brothers. In the end, he had 300 film credits, including as costume designer for such films as Juarez, When Tomorrow Comes, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Sea Hawk, The Little Foxes, An American in Paris, Oklahoma!, Auntie Mame, Sweet Bird of Youth, Gypsy and Irma La Douce. During certain periods, he worked on as many as 50 films a year.

The talking heads include Angela Lansbury, Jane Fonda and award-winning costume designer Ann Roth, all of whom speak about Orry-Kelly with great respect and affection.

The designer, who was gay in what he described as a “homophobic city” (Hollywood), never found personal happiness. He drank a great deal, and when drunk was apparently “foulmouthed” and “mean.” Orry-Kelly won three Academy Awards for his design work (the most won by an Australian until costume designer Catherine Martin surpassed his total in 2014).

Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach, is a biographical film about the trials and tribulations of American screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976), blacklisted and sent to jail in 1950 as one of the “Hollywood Ten,” screenwriter and directors who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee.


Roach is best known to this point for directing the Austin Powers series of films with Mike Myers and the Meet the Parents series with Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro. He also directed the execrable Borat, with Sacha Baron Cohen. None of this is very auspicious or seems a serious preparation for taking on one of the most complex and fraught political periods in American history.

One’s misgivings are largely confirmed. More can be said about the film when it eventually comes out to the movie theaters, but Trumbo represents the writer (played by Bryan Cranston), a Communist Party member from 1943 to 1948, as little more than a tepid liberal. Granted, the Stalinist party presented itself during this period as the most fervent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and the war effort, but there was more to Trumbo and his adherence to the CP than that. His 1939 novel, Johnny Got His Gun, about a shell-shocked World War I veteran, was a quite ferocious attack on imperialist war and its horrors. In any case, Trumbo is a weak effort.

Sunset Song

More should also be said in the future about Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, based on the well-known 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Davies (The Long Day Closes, The House of Mirth, Of Time and the City) is an immensely sensitive filmmaker, but his adaptation of the novel is oddly dissatisfying.

The story, set in the early 20th century, involves a farming family eking out an existence in northeast Scotland. The patriarch (Peter Mullan) is as hard and unsympathetic as a closed fist. His wife, worn out by painful births, eventually takes her own life and those of her two youngest children. Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), the eldest daughter in the family, is deserted by her beloved brother, the victim of their father’s brutality, who takes off for greener pastures in Canada.

After her father’s death, Chris marries Ewan Tavendale, a young farmer, and the pair spend some happy time together. However, the shadow of World War I falls across this isolated region too. Under the pressure of public opinion and against his better judgment, Ewan enlists and is sent off to France, where he experiences the horrors of trench warfare. When he comes home on leave, he is a transformed human being. One tragedy follows the other. Sunset Song is a lovely film, but its focus and center are not at all clear. The first line of the film, spoken by Chris to a school-friend, is this: “Is your father a socialist?” And a discussion of equality and the French Revolution soon takes place. However, much of the film is devoted to the sadism of Mullan’s character, which the actor, frankly, overdoes and which becomes a bit tedious.

World War I, a central fact of the story (and the period!), one would think, comes in rather late—almost as an afterthought. When a WSWS reporter asked Davies, who seemed somewhat demoralized by the state of the world, at a public screening whether his film was intended to be taken as an “anti-war” statement, the filmmaker looked bemused and replied, no, no, it was merely about “forgiveness” and such. Something is muddled.


New App Lets You Rate and Review Actual Human Beings

Imagine all your worst ideas poured into an app and you’ve basically got it.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / Chaikom

If there is one thing that absolutely no one has been asking for, it is a social media app that lets you rate people as if they were products or restaurants. But a Calgary-based company isn’t letting that major issue get in the way. Instead, it’s developed an app called Peeple, which allows anyone age 21 or over who has your phone number to rate you on a scale from 1 to 5, and to give you a review.

Sounds like just what the Internet needs, right? Another way for people to voice their unfiltered and unsolicited opinions on something — or someone, in this case — just because!

Here’s how this awful, no-good idea, which cofounders Nicole McCullough and Julia Cordray say will launch in November, will work: Users will log into Peeple via Facebook and enter their phone numbers to demonstrate they aren’t bots and to verify their identity. Then, to rate a person, they’ll have to pick a category that defines the nature of their shared relationship: personal, professional or romantic. From there, they can issue a rating and write a review, the way you might on Yelp or Amazon, only about a flesh-and-blood human being.

But wait, there’s more! Even if you don’t sign up for the app, someone else can create a profile for you. According to the Peeple site, “[i]f the person you are searching for is not in the app you can add their name, profile picture, and start their profile by rating them.” All you need is said person’s cell phone number. And once you have a profile in the Peeple app — even one you yourself didn’t create — it’s there for good.

Peeple co-founder Nicole McCullough, speaking to the Calgary Herald, said, “The aim of our platform is to showcase a person’s true character. I came up with this idea over a year and a half ago from wanting to find a good babysitter in my neighborhood. We tend to trust referrals and so we wanted to create a platform that allowed people to refer each other in several different ways.”

“People do so much research when they buy a car or make those kinds of decisions,” co-founder Julia Cordray told the Washington Post. “Why not do the same kind of research on other aspects of your life?”

The short answer is, because people are not cars or objects. Summing a person up on a scale of 1-5 seems irresponsible and overly simplistic, not to mention completely unnecessary. (You want to know what someone’s like? It sounds crazy, but you might try talking to that person.) If, as McCullough suggests, the company was simply interested in creating a means of vetting service providers — e.g., baby sitters — why not build a site like Healthgrades or Rate My Professor, which focus on rating a person in a capacity that it makes sense for a reviewer to comment on, or a potential customer to know? Why would anyone think that essentially inviting any acquaintance — from old lovers to former co-workers you mostly avoided — to weigh in with thoughts on a person is a good idea? Knowing what we know about the Internet, and how people behave online, who wouldn’t see this as a devolutionary step in social media? It’s all just so obviously made to go terribly awry.

What’s more, the Washington Post also notes that, even under the best of circumstances, rating sites and app users exhibit inevitable human biases:

[A]ll rating apps, from Yelp to Rate My Professor, have a demonstrated problem with self-selection. (The only people who leave reviews are the ones who love or hate the subject.) In fact, as repeat studies of Rate My Professor have shown, ratings typically reflect the biases of the reviewer more than they do the actual skills of the teacher: On RMP, professors whom students consider attractive are way more likely to be given high ratings, and men and women are evaluated on totally different traits.

McCullough and Cordray point to Peeple’s terms and conditions, which rule out things like bullying, abuse, hateful content, sexism and more, but I think we’ve all seen how effective that is in practice on any number of sites. Still, there may be one way to avoid the inevitable downsides of this whole thing. Positive ratings will post on a profile the instant they’re submitted, but negative ratings will be withheld for 48 hours while the parties involved attempt to settle the issue. If you aren’t registered for the site, you can’t engage in that process, and your page will therefore only display positive comments. (You can also respond to negative comments, Yelp-style, but I say not registering seems like the best route for everyone.)

Until their launch, McCullough and Cordray are speaking with angel investors and venture capitalists to raise funds. The Post estimates the company is currently valued at $7.6 million.

“Peeple will revolutionize the way an individual is seen in this world through their relationships,” Cordray said to the Calgary Herald. “When social graces are becoming lost to the past, we want to revive this forgotten manner and bring attention to how a person appears to others.”

It’s an ironic statement, considering the app seems to eschew the very social graces Cordray suggests it was created to promote.

Re-released after 40 years: The strengths and weaknesses of Robert Altman’s Nashville

By David Walsh
30 September 2015

Robert Altman’s film Nashville has been playing in movie theaters across the US recently to mark 40 years since its original release in the summer of 1975.

Ronee Blakley in Nashville

The nearly three-hour work follows two dozen characters over the course of several days in the city of Nashville, Tennessee, the official capital of country music. As was his wont, Altman created a rambling, improvisational film, which includes a number of intertwined storylines.

Psychologically fragile country music star Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) is returning to the city and its cutthroat music scene, accompanied by her gruff, controlling manager-husband Barnett (Allen Garfield), after a somewhat mysterious stay in hospital. Various hangers-on and admirers orbit around her. The dreadful Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a veteran country performer, presides over the Grand Ole Opry (a weekly country music concert and radio program broadcast since 1925) and the city’s music industry with an iron fist.

The members of an “alternative” folk-rock trio are in Nashville to record an album. Tom Frank (Keith Carradine), the group’s most prominent figure, pursues or is pursued by several women, including a garrulous British journalist (Geraldine Chaplin), a local matron, gospel singer and mother of two deaf children (Lily Tomlin) and the female singer in the trio, Mary (Cristina Raines), who is currently married to the group’s third member, Bill (Allan F. Nicholls).

Lily Tomlin

A presidential election campaign is underway. The voice of the candidate of the newly founded pseudo-populist Replacement Party, Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), is heard throughout the film, as his campaign van broadcasts his empty, platitudinous message on the streets of Nashville. Two of his representatives, the oily John Triplette (Michael Murphy) from California and local lawyer Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty), are making efforts to line up support in the music world for their candidate. A large outdoor rally for Walker, at which all the singers are set to perform (Barbara Jean has more or less been forced by circumstances to show up, others have been bribed), forms the denouement of the film.

Altman and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury introduce various other personalities in Nashville, including Barbara Jean’s bitter rival, Connie White (Karen Black); a Vietnam veteran still in uniform (Scott Glenn); an older man (Keenan Wynn) whose wife has been hospitalized and his niece, a would-be “groupie,” visiting from Los Angeles (Shelley Duvall); a waitress and aspiring singer, Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles); an African American short order cook (Robert DoQui); an estranged husband and wife (Bert Remsen and Barbara Harris); and a young man from out of town (Kenny Frasier) who carries a violin case and seems infatuated with Barbara Jean. The young man turns out to be her assassin.

One of Altman’s innovations, which has its positive and negative sides, was to encourage his actors to write and perform their own songs in the film (and also contribute lines and entire speeches). In fact, in the end, the best of the music is the most compelling single element in Nashville. The emotion and beauty of certain songs is the strongest proof of the enduring quality of popular music, including country music.

Keith Carradine and Cristina Raines

Altman’s work was shot in the summer of 1974. The resignation of President Richard Nixon took place during the filming. Nashville is permeated, among other things, with moods produced by the Watergate scandal, part cynical, part hopeful. In fact, the film was released in the wake of explosive developments in American life extending back fifteen years or more: the civil rights movement and inner city rebellions, a series of assassinations of major political figures, the Vietnam War and the mass protest movement it provoked, the strike wave that engulfed American industry in the early 1970s and more.

Altman and Tewkesbury set their sights on the emerging celebrity culture in America, a crass and vulgar culture that was reducing country music and politics alike, in the director’s words, to “popularity contests.” At its best,Nashville sets its struggling and often bewildered, but well-meaning, human figures against the hollowness, cruelty and greed of the existing set-up. Altman had his definite weaknesses as an artist and a thinker, but his instincts in regard to authorities of every kind were invariably hostile.

There is a certain prescience in the film, in its attention to the rise of Nashville and the Sun Belt more generally, with their association with “free market economic thought,” parasitic economic activities of various kinds and the move away from industrial production. One commentator notes that the “Sunbelt boom of the late 1970s paralleled the popularization of country music and auto racing [also present in Nashville] … In sum, the Sunbelt became fashionable in the 1970s.” The 1976 election of Georgia’s Jimmy Carter, the first Southerner since before the Civil War who had come to the presidency by election, seems presaged by the film. Moreover, when John Lennon was murdered five years after Nashville’s release it seemed to many horribly like life imitating art.

The director, an inveterate gambler and, at the time, heavy drinker, adopted a semi-anarchistic approach to life and to filmmaking. Actors were brought in at the last moment for key roles. Altman often wrote dialogue for a given scene the morning it was to be filmed. He devised a means, with the help of technicians, of recording the voices of various characters and even “extras” speaking simultaneously. The resulting overlapping dialogue in the final film is a trademark of his. The result, at its best, is a chaotic, amusing tumult in which the many-sidedness and even absurdity of human behavior finds expression.

Certain sequences and personalities stand out. Lily Tomlin’s Linnea Reese conveys sympathy and dignity at every point. It is a remarkable moment when Tom (Carradine), in a crowded club, attempts to reach her over the heads of three other women through a seductive and, presumably, honestly delivered song. A few minutes before, Mary (Raines) has belted out a song, expressing her own feelings for Tom. Critic Andrew Sarris suggested that Tomlin, Raines and Carradine “turn a smoky café into an arena of yearning sexuality.” Later, in bed, Linnea teaches the self-absorbed Tom sign language.

One remembers, with chagrin and pain, the hapless Sueleen (Welles) perform a striptease before a crowd of hooting male spectators at a Walker fundraiser on the promise that she will be allowed to perform with her idol, Barbara Jean, at the upcoming concert.

Henry Gibson

Above all, there is the performance of Blakley as Barbara Jean, in the words of critic Molly Haskell, “a white-clad Ophelia whose psychic disorder is expressed in those odd, uncoordinated hand gestures.” Her on-stage breakdown (based in part on singer Loretta Lynn’s problems) is poignant and believable. The immense, unbearable pressure of “show business” claims another victim. Nothing is more destructive in America than success.

As noted above, the music, intentionally or not, is Nashville’s most enduring and endearing feature, and Blakley, a songwriter and singer, provides the best of it. Along with Carradine’s “I’m Easy” and the trio’s “Since You’ve Gone,” Blakley’s “Tapedeck in His Tractor,” “Dues” and “My Idaho Home” are to a large extent what draws one back to the film time and time again.

Altman and Tewkesbury are quite sharp about certain things. They may have been somewhat easy targets, but the noxious patriotism and piety of the country music establishment were in considerable need of a vehement attack. Haven Hamilton (inspired by the figures of Roy Acuff and Hank Snow, among others), who performs wretched songs about America’s greatness and the virtue of perseverance in public, is behind the scenes a hypocritical, conniving, Machiavellian scoundrel, with considerable political ambition.

The filmmakers were no doubt aware of the warm welcome Acuff, for example, had given to President Nixon on the occasion of the opening of a new, suburban home for the Grand Ole Opry in March 1974, a few scant months before the latter’s departure in disgrace.

Altman’s film came in for fierce criticism in 1975 from right-wing sources. The ideological pedigree of many of those who pretended to be speaking for supposedly caricatured Southerners and the abused country music scene was extremely dubious. Those claims blended in with a general chorus of abuse from openly reactionary defenders of the status quo, deeply offended by Altman’s blows against some of the American establishment’s sacred cows. George Will, already turning out his reactionary rubbish, rejected Altman’s work, with its criticism of “callousness, exploitation, [and the] failure to communicate,” as “not a close approximation” to American life.

Right-wing columnist Patrick Buchanan (a former adviser and speechwriter in the Nixon White House) also denounced the film, for, among other things, depicting country music’s “public patriotism” as “false and phony.” Buchanan argued that Nashville was “a slander on America; it is a notion that lives only in the jaundiced eyes of men like Robert Altman and the artistic and intellectual community that endorses and applauds what he is saying about the United States.” One obviously has to defend Nashville against these claims.

All that being said, and Nashville’s sporadically extraordinary qualities having been recognized, a re-viewing of the film today brings home two central facts: first, that if it was Altman’s intent to create a panoramic view of modern American life, his effort was audacious and entirely creditable; and second, if such was his intent, that he failed, perhaps inevitably, in the effort.

The numerous exaggerated claims made for the film over the decades, that it is “a masterpiece” and “an epic pronouncement on the state of the union,” that “it might just be the greatest American film of all time” and so forth, need to be set aside. Nashville is not a great film; it is one with a good many strengths and a good many weaknesses. It contains intriguing and insightful moments, along with much sloppy, careless and irritating material. Of course, the film’s sharp and persistent contradictions need to be seen within the appropriate context. Altman’s limitations were not entirely of his own making; they were bound up with the state of political and intellectual life.

In any event, too many sequences and characters in Nashville go nowhere. Its first hour meanders somewhat tediously. The satire in the early airport and traffic accident sequences is rather heavy-handed. The film is stretched too thin in its initial portion for the demands being made on it by dozens of characters and situations.

Bert Remsen, a fine character actor, has nothing to do but look grumpy. Until the final scene, Barbara Harris is also essentially given little to do. Jeff Goldblum’s silent Tricycle Man is a mystery that does not interest one. The relationship between Keenan Wynn and his niece never fully convinces. Altman makes Chaplin’s journalist, critic Robin Wood noted, “as idiotic [and annoying] as he can.”

Altman never worked out his attitude toward society and human beings. He passed back and forth, often in the same work, sometimes in the same scene, between compassion and rancid misanthropy. Wood describes Altman’s all too frequent “smug superiority to and contempt for [his] characters.” In Nashville, one is often left uncertain precisely who and what are being satirized and from which point of view. The problem extends to the music. Carradine and Blakley simply go ahead and perform the songs they want to sing, with sincerity. Other numbers, however, hover confusingly (and ineffectively) somewhere between camp and genuine commitment.

As we noted two decades ago, “Unpredictability, instability, the working of chance, spontaneity, arbitrariness, the lack of logic in the universe—these make up Altman’s sensibility.” In contrast to the many stultified products of the Hollywood system at the time, this sensibility opened the filmmaker up to sides of American life—in The Long Goodbye (1972), Thieves Like Us (1974) andCalifornia Split (1974) in particular—that were unavailable to more staid figures.

But all of this had a limit. And when Altman attempted to make a grand statement about American life, to use Nashville and the country music world “as a metaphor,” he inevitably faltered. Nashville demonstrated the limitations of a far too heavy reliance on artistic intuition at the expense of conscious understanding. One cannot stumble upon the truth about a society and its prospects by accident, nor does a major work, as Hegel points out, come to the artist “in his sleep.”

The failure expresses itself in his ambivalent (at best) attitude toward the American people. One has the definite sense that Altman, like many radical intellectuals at the time, blamed the population for Nixon’s electoral victories (especially for the defeat of liberal George McGovern in 1972), and for the general shift to the right taking place by the mid-1970s.

Asked in a 1975 interview whether there were any political figures or movement with which he could identify or sympathize with, Altman replied, “I’m a Democrat, if anything. I supported [Eugene] McCarthy, McGovern, [probably Robert] Kennedy. I was very, very angry from the beginning about people like Richard Nixon. I don’t like [Ronald] Reagan or [George] Wallace.”

He went on, “I think change is going to come through social pressure. The anti-materialist movement [“counterculture”] that took place in the sixties is certainly an expression of that.”

A banal outlook, common to the garden variety American intellectual of a certain type. The difficulty, and it is not Altman’s personal difficulty, is the sharp decline by this time already in the influence of left-wing thought and analysis. The Cold War purges, the alliance of American liberalism with ferocious anti-communism, the decline of the labor movement, combined with the crimes of Stalinism that did so much to damage the standing of socialism in the eyes of millions, all this had taken its toll.

Unlike artists of an earlier age, who followed events with an eye to concrete social relationships, to class association, Altman speaks largely in abstract, vague generalities. He proceeds to blame the population for apathy and for its supposed lack of understanding. “The majority of the people … have done what they have been told they were supposed to do.” He speaks rather contemptuously of those who have “worked for their new Chevrolet every two years and they’ve got their house and their barbecue and they’ve sent their kids to college.” Later he suggests, “That’s what the picture [Nashville] is about, really. The whole point of making political analogies to the country-western stars is the fact that people don’t listen.” This is the language of the middle class radicalism of the time, including the New Left, which wrote off the working class in America as hopelessly backward and inert.

In fact, the American working class had just passed through one of its most militant and combative phases in history. The General Electric strike of 1969-70 lasted 122 days and involved 133,000 workers. In March 1970, 200,000 postal workers walked out, in the first national strike by public employees. In the fall of the same year, some 400,000 General Motors workers stayed out for 67 days. In 1970 alone there were some 5,600 work stoppages and 6.2 million lost worker-days.

The chief difficulty in the 1970s was not apathy, or an unwillingness to do what people were not “supposed to do,” but historically accumulated political problems associated with the continued alliance of the trade unions with the Democratic Party, the very party in which Altman continued to have and to sow illusions. The enormously militant movement of workers reached a dead end because it remained within the confines of capitalist politics and capitalist economics. This gave the powers-that-be a breathing space and made possible the vicious counter-offensive against the working population that began in earnest in the late 1970s.

This historical and social analysis was a closed book to American filmmakers. Behind Altman’s claim, in the same 1975 interview, that he has “high hopes, great expectations,” one feels rather, as Wood describes it, that his “gestures toward a progressive viewpoint thinly conceal despair and a sense of helplessness.”

Nashville is a work full of strikingly, almost provocatively unresolved contradictions, some of them more intriguing and richer than others. Whatever its serious failings, however, one cannot come away from a viewing of the film, and of its climactic assassination scene in particular, without a sense of deep social and moral malaise, of a troubled and tormented society headed, sooner or later, for a breakdown. In that general intuition at least Altman was unfailingly correct.

Rave SWAT Teams

Cops Cracking Down on ‘Evil’ People Who Dance Late at Night

The motion is a reactionary step following the death of two people at last month’s HARD Summer music festival.

Los Angeles, Ca — Last week, local politicians in Los Angeles voted unanimously to create a new police task force that will be entirely focused on electronic dance music events. Earlier this summer, Los Angeles County council members proposed banning these types of events entirely. While that option is still on the table for them, they are now moving to crack down on these events until they are able to initiate a complete ban.

The recent proposal to create a police task force was put forward by county supervisors Hilda Solis and Michael Antonovich. The motion reads “Ultimately, in the interest of public safety, a ban of electronic music festivals at county-owned properties remains a possibility that will continue to be evaluated.”

“I want to emphasize that our efforts around this motion, above all, are about the health and safety of those attending these events. No lives should be lost while attending any music event,” Solis said in a statement.

The motion is a reactionary step following the death of two people at last month’s HARD Summer music festival at the Pomona Fairgrounds.

While deaths at events are a concern, they are largely due to the prohibition of these drugs, which makes them more dangerous. To make matters worse, the zero tolerance policy at events prevents drug users from getting the help they need when something does go wrong.

The development of a rave task force is reminiscent of the fear-mongering propagated about raves in the late 1990s.

In April of 2003, the government passed a law that everyone could agree on, the Amber Alert Bill. The Amber Alert is a notification system that sends warnings about missing and abducted children.

At face value, this seemed like something that was completely positive, and when it comes to rescuing abducted children, the Amber Alert system has surely saved many lives. However, the piece of legislation that put this system into effect is a perfect example of how the government is able to pass unpopular laws, by attaching them to popular bills.

In the case of the legislation that set up the Amber Alert system, there were also completely unrelated issues covered in the bill. For example, hidden deep within the bill was one of Joe Biden’s pet projects, the RAVE ACT, a law that imposes legal penalties on hosts and participants of late night dance parties.

According to the Wikipedia entry for the RAVE ACT:

On Thursday (April 10, 2003) the Senate and House passed the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act (formerly known as the RAVE Act) as an attachment to the child abduction-related AMBER Alert Bill. The language of the original act was changed slightly before the bill was passed without public hearing, debate or a vote.

Festivals and other events are not to blame for overdoses, or other personal decisions that attendees make on their own. This is especially important to consider when the events host anywhere between 10,000 and 100,000 people.

In an area with that many people, as populated as some towns are, it is inevitable that a wide variety of situations can pop up. In fact, any large event that hosts so many people see occasional deaths. Due to the large volume of people, the chances increase that something will go wrong somewhere. This goes for sporting events to parades and other types of events that are considered wholesome and family-friendly.

Some other factors to consider are the many unintended consequences of the drug war, which causes drugs to be more dangerous, and limits harm prevention policies that could be put into place to prevent overheating and drug overdoses.

John Vibes is an author, researcher and investigative journalist.