Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace dramatized in a new television series

By Joanne Laurier
11 February 2016

Leo Tolstoy’s titanic novel War and Peace has received a new adaptation by the BBC and is now airing globally. Directed by British filmmaker Tom Harper, the serialized television production stars American actor Paul Dano and British actors Lily James, James Norton, Jim Broadbent and Stephen Rea in leading roles as part of a large, predominantly UK cast.

Tolstoy, one of the greatest of the great Russian fiction writers of the 19th century, was born in 1828, three years after the Decembrist Revolt in which a group of officers rose up in one of the first open struggles against tsarism. He died November 20, 1910, five years after the 1905 Revolution in Russia and seven years before the October Revolution. Tolstoy’s other great works includeAnna Karenina (1877) and Resurrection (1899).

His epic War and Peace, first published in its entirety in 1869, is set during the period of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) and the French invasion of Russia. It follows the members of several Russian aristocratic families as they seek to survive the confusing, frenzied, bloody times.

The eight-hour miniseries opens in 1805 in St. Petersburg, as Napoleon’s victories and his army’s conquest of significant portions of western Europe are having an increasing impact on Russian life. Many of the central characters are introduced at an upper crust social gathering. Among them is Pierre Bezukhov (Dano), awkward but amiable, and initially a supporter of the French leader: “Napoleon’s a great man! He stood above the revolution, he put an end to its abuses and kept all that was good about it! You see good in revolution, sir? The equality of all citizens, freedom of speech, liberty, equality, fraternity, these are ideas we could learn from in Russia.”

Pierre looks on with disgust at the room’s “overfed aristocrats.” The illegitimate son of a wealthy count, he will soon become the object of intrigue for the sinister Prince Vassily Kuragin (Rea), who makes an unsuccessful attempt to suppress the will that names Pierre the inheritor of his father’s vast estate.

Paul Dano and James Norton in War and Peace

Another guest at the party is Pierre’s friend Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton), the intelligent and ambitious son of retired military commander Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky (Broadbent). Also present are the Rostovs, a noble, but down-on-their-luck Moscow family that includes a vivacious daughter Natasha (James), a quiet niece Sonya (Aisling Loftus) and a son Nikolai (Jack Lowden), who has just joined the army commanded by the veteran General Kutuzov (Brian Cox) (“He’s about the only man in Russia who knows what the war’s about and that includes our glorious Emperor.”). Nikolai’s parents (Greta Scacchi and Adrian Edmondson) are depending on their son to reverse the family fortunes.

Russia is in alliance with the Austrian Empire at this point (in the Third Coalition against Napoleon) and a restless, unhappy Andrei (“I can’t bear this life”)––whose young wife is pregnant––and Nikolai set off for the front. Meanwhile, Kuragin maneuvers Pierre into marrying his morally loose but beautiful daughter Helene (Tuppence Middleton). Her incestuous relationship with her dissolute brother Anatole (Callum Turner) is one indication of her manipulative, deceitful character.

Thus the stage is set for the various personal and political stratagems, unions and disunions, as the epoch of war heads toward its denouement following Napoleon’s fateful invasion of Russia in 1812 and the declaration of war by a reluctant Tsar Alexander I (Ben Lloyd-Hughes). On the eve of the invasion, Napoleon (Mathieu Kassovitz) brags that he has 600,000 men while the Russian army has only one-third that number and lies in shambles.

The mini-series

War and Peace has been adapted by Andrew Davies, best known for his reworking for television of such classics as Pride and Prejudice (1995), Vanity Fair (1998) and Sense and Sensibility (2008). He also wrote the popular British political thriller serial House of Cards (1990). His work on the current production results in a credible condensation of Tolstoy’s massive, complex story, some 1,400 pages and more than half a million words long.

Visually graceful and aided by numerous accomplished performances, this large-scale, high-quality production is, on the whole, a gripping experience.

Lily James as Natasha Rostova

The series paints a picture of a Russian aristocracy in which petty and selfish motives predominate. Andrei Bolkonsky goes off to war primarily to escape a vapid, stuffy life. Nikolai Rostov has other motives: his gambling debts have nearly bankrupted his family. He considers it more honorable to turn soldier than remain in the clutches of a nasty, egotistical mother and kindly, but ineffectual, father. In the end, under pressure from his parents, Nikolai breaks his engagement to the impecunious Sonya in favor of a more advantageous liaison.

Andrei Bolkonsky’s sister, the modest Marya (Jessie Buckley), shows her spiteful landlord coloring when she deals with the serfs on the family estate who refuse to help the household escape from the invading French army. Bellows one angry peasant: “The French will set us free and give us land! What have you ever done for us?”

Unfortunately, the production seems to side with Marya and her self-centered concerns. She is soon rescued from the legitimate wrath of the peasants by the timely appearance of Nikolai and his regiment. It is the one major scene that points to the fact that this parasitical social layer lives off the exploitation and enslavement of the peasantry.

Pierre, the moral conscience of War and Peace, tries to be honest when he sadly admits that “my life is one mistake after another … I wanted to change the world for the better, help my fellow men and look at me a fat, drunken aristocrat who makes a bungle out of everything.” To make amends for what he considers his mistakes, Pierre becomes obsessed with assassinating Napoleon.

In a relatively modest way, the mini-series does provide some sense of the great events that shaped the Tolstoy novel—namely, the aftermath of the world-altering French revolution. The depiction of the Battle of Borodino in September 1812, the bloodiest single day of the Napoleonic wars, with some 70,000 Russian and French casualties, is one of the series’ strongest sequences. Here, at least for a moment, the aristocratic lifestyle is left behind and we see something of the horror of war: men cut in half, doctors sawing off legs, the misery of the wounded and dying. And later there are the horrific consequences for Moscow’s population.

Pierre Bezukhov (Dano) as French prisoner

A duality exists in Tolstoy’s work between sharp condemnations of the aristocratic life and his acceptance of the inevitability of that life. In his remarkable 1908 tribute to the novelist, Leon Trotsky observed that, despite everything, Tolstoy continued to place in the center of his artistic attention “the one and the same wealthy and well-born Russian landlord” as though outside this universe “there were nothing of importance or of beauty.”

The mini-series tends to adopt the same standpoint, which is far less defensible given the subsequent course of Russian and world history. Trotsky noted that at the end of the novel, Tolstoy showed Pierre Bezukhov, “the restless seeker of truth,” as “a smug family man,” and “Natasha Rostova, so touching in her semi-childlike sensitivity,” as “a shallow breeding female, untidy diapers in hand.” The present series does the same, only more so. The final scene grates with its complacency and suggestion that contented family life offers some consolation for the massive destruction and loss of life.

That being said, Davies is genuinely skilled at choosing and adapting enduring, classic works. True, his genre of intelligent costume drama is not the be-all and end-all of artistic effort. One might even say that stylish adaptations like War and Peace have a certain soothing effect on an audience (with the exception of the battle scenes). If we were currently flooded with challenging artistic evauations of the status quo, it is unlikely that such series would receive quite the attention they do. However, given the actual state of cultural affairs, this version of the Tolstoy epic attracts attention for its general intelligence and pleasing aesthetic qualities.

Andrei Bolkonsky (Norton) with his unit

To their credit, the makers of the miniseries have tried to capture certain crucial features of the novel. A naturalness and elegance underscore and heighten the emotional intensity. As in Tolstoy’s narrative, there is truthfulness, a lack of pretension and artificiality: the viewer is engaging with real people, who have real, complex lives and feelings.

In dozens of essays the leading Russian Marxists, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky and others, pointed to the great contrast between the immortality of Tolstoy’s artistic achievement and the poverty of his philosophical and social ideas. The novelist was a pacifist, a believer in “non-resistance to evil,” a conservative anarchist, “a moralist and mystic,” in Trotsky’s phrase, and “a foe of politics and revolution.”

Nonetheless, as an indefatigable social critic, an enemy of cruelty and oppression, Tolstoy played an enormous role in undermining the tsarist regime and the entire Russian social order. Reactionary forces in the former Soviet Union have not forgiven him to this day.

In an obituary, Trotsky magnificently paid tribute to the great writer: “Truth in and of itself possesses a terrible, explosive power: once proclaimed, it irresistibly gives rise to revolutionary con­clusions in the consciousness of the masses. Everything that Tolstoy stated publicly… seeped into the minds of the laboring masses … And the word became deed. Although not a revolutionary, Tolstoy nurtured the revolutionary element with his words of genius. In the book about the great storm of 1905 an honorable chapter will be ded­icated to Tolstoy.”

It would be misleading to suggest that Tolstoy’s fierce indictment of Russia’s institutions is sufficiently present in the War and Peace mini-series. However, its honest presentation inevitably communicates elements of the social critique, and also may lead the viewer to investigate Tolstoy’s work further. That would be all to the good.



The Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar!

The “Passion” of a film studio troubleshooter

By Joanne Laurier 

9 February 2016

Hail Caesar!, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a comedy about the film industry set in the early 1950s. The film is essentially a series of vignettes involving the efforts of fictional Capitol Pictures “fixer” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) to put out various fires at the studio.

Production on “Hail Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” (a film within a film), one of Capitol’s “prestige” pictures, is underway when the movie opens. It is a foolish Ben-Hur– or Quo Vadis– like epic starring Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) as Roman tribune Autolycus, who will ultimately have a sudden, epiphanous conversion to Christianity. (Narrator’s portentous voice: “A new wind is blowing from the dusty streets of Bethlehem!”) Whitlock is unceremoniously drugged and carried off by kidnappers.

Mannix also has to deal with the pregnant, unwed DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), star of aquatic pictures (i.e., a nod to Esther Williams); acrobatic cowboy singing star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) who has landed unhappily in a brittle drawing-room melodrama; and aggressive gossip-columnist twin sisters, Thessaly and Thora Thacker (Tilda Swinton), eternally in search of dirt.

Scarlett Johansson in Hail Caesar!

(The historical Eddie Mannix was the general manager and vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who reported daily to studio head Louis B. Mayer and is famed for covering up the many misdeeds of film stars and other industry personalities. He was reputed to have spied on Mayer for MGM owner Nicholas Schenck in New York, whom the film turns into “Mr. Skank.”)

A devout Catholic, Mannix, who rather too frequently rushes off to confession where he admits to trivial offenses, receives a ransom note demanding $100,000 for the return of Whitlock, in the name of “The Future.” It turns out the star is being held at a Malibu beach-house by a group of Communist Party screenwriters who try to win him to their cause. A “Professor Marcuse,” the venerable sage of the group, also makes an appearance.

Meanwhile, Mannix faces a major life-decision of his own: whether to leave the headaches of the film industry behind for a relative sinecure in the defense industry at aircraft manufacturer Lockheed.

Several confessions and a considerable amount of silliness later, things sort themselves out…

If truth be told, the Coen brothers are best at satire, especially at sending up certain middle class professions, relationships and settings. They are keen observers of social detail, even minutiae. Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading, along with the lighter moments inFargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and A Serious Man make up their most memorable work.

However, the Coens bear the unmistakable marks of decades of artistic-intellectual stagnation and reaction. Whenever they give vent to their social views, the result is confused and misanthropic (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink,Fargo in part, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man), or simply overwhelmed.

In Hail Caesar! both elements are present: the comic-satirical and the seriously confused.

The film enjoyably mocks Hollywood’s sanctimonious attitude toward its own products, including religious extravaganzas and their empty-headed stars (one is presumably meant to think of either Robert Taylor in Quo Vadis or Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur, or both)—although Clooney is a bit strained in the Whitlock role.

George Clooney

In one amusing scene, Mannix brings in Protestant, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Catholic clergy to vet the screenplay, and a theological debate breaks out over Christ’s “parentage” and other related matters. (Rabbi: “God is a bachelor and very angry.”) In another sequence, while Mannix is watching the daily rushes, the raw footage includes a title card that reads: “Divine presence to be shot.” To their credit, the Coens also manage to ridicule Clooney’s final penitent speech before Christ on the cross.

Along the way, they make a point as well (by casting a single black actor as an extra) about the insignificant presence of African Africans in mainstream Hollywood at the time.

The co-directors’ special gifts are on display in their amiable quasi-recreation of the various film types or styles. Johansson, Ralph Fiennes as the effete Laurence Laurentz, Heather Goldenhersh as Mannix’s super-efficient and earnest secretary Natalie, and Frances McDormand as the legendary but accident-prone editor C.C. Calhoun (based on a real figure at MGM), all hit exact notes in relatively small parts. Ehrenreich is rather sweet as the singing cowboy.

Mannix is the pivotal figure here, and Brolin, as usual, offers a remarkable, precise characterization. The semi-comic parallels between the studio “fixer” and the Son of God are fairly obvious. Like Christ, Mannix takes the sins of Capitol Pictures and its personnel on his shoulders. He is also “tempted by the devil,” the Lockheed merchant of death, who proudly shows him a photo of the recently detonated H-bomb as an inducement—and offers him cigarettes (Eddie is desperately trying to quit!). And, in the end, Mannix too proves to be a “savior.”

Where Hail Caesar! weakens considerably, or even falls down, is in its treatment—comic or otherwise—of the more substantive issues. The film is set in 1951 at the height of the Cold War and the anti-communist witch-hunts. (Baird makes an oblique reference to “naming names” at one point.) The Coens seem to be registering, in their own excessively mild and diffuse manner, a protest at the purges.

The group of Communist screenwriters is not presented as some sort of monstrous cabal, but, on the other hand, whatever points are being made about the rather ineffectual group are unclear or blunted. The writers bandy about phrases such as “the system,” “the dialectic” and the “exploitation” of the masses. They claim (and this is underlined as especially ludicrous) to have worked out a scientifically accurate and certain view of the future course of events.

But what is the attitude of the filmmakers toward all this? Are they simply ridiculing the “Marxist” terminology, half-agreeing with it or covertly sympathizing? An indication they are flying blind on these questions is the presence of a Herbert Marcuse stand-in, entirely inappropriate in this setting or crowd. All one senses in the final analysis is that while the Coens are hostile to the blacklist, their overall stance is non-committal and light-minded. And by “light-minded” we do not mean satirical or humorous, but shallow.

Hail Caesar! portrays the Hollywood studio set-up itself in too genial or amiable a fashion, an industry capable of extraordinary viciousness and darkness. The real Mannix, for instance, was alleged to have had underworld connections and covered up numerous violent crimes. There have also been claims that he was mixed up in the murder of actor George Reeves, his wife’s former lover in 1959.

All in all, the Coens’ Hail Caesar! is in its element when it is spoofing the film industry, religion and American institutions generally. The film is at its flabbiest when it turns its attention to Hollywood’s blackest hour.



45 Years: A nightmare on the brain of the living?

By David Walsh
5 February 2016

Directed by Andrew Haigh; screenplay by Haigh, based on a short story by David Constantine

In Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling), a childless, middle class couple living in a provincial English town, are on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary. A large, elaborate party is planned at a historic venue. They are both retired. She was a teacher and he worked his way up from the factory floor apparently to be some sort of a manager.

Out of the blue, Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his former girl-friend, Katya, who fell to her death in the Swiss Alps half a century before, has been spotted, as the result of the impact of climate change on a glacier. She is there under the ice, frozen as she was, as a young woman. How strange it is, he says, that “she’ll look like she did in 1962” while “I look like this.”

The discovery and letter precipitate a crisis in the couple’s relationship. Geoff has been informed about the discovery in Switzerland, he tells Kate, because he is registered as the dead woman’s next of kin—the pair pretended to be married on their travels in the early 1960s so they could always share a single hotel room. Other revelations are even more unsettling, including Geoff’s blunt admission that he would have married Katya had she survived.

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years

He begins to smoke, becomes agitated, investigates traveling to Switzerland. Kate grows increasingly perturbed. Was she his “one and only”? Was she ever enough for him—or at least did he ever think she was? Can she feel the same way about him knowing what he has concealed for decades? The ending is deliberately ambiguous. Presumably, things will not return to the same comfortable groove.

The author of the short story (In Another Country) that inspired the film, British writer David Constantine, based the work on an incident he became aware of 15 years or so again. According to the Daily Telegraph, “Constantine heard of the discovery of a twenty-something mountaineer who had fallen down a glacial crevasse in Chamonix [in the French Alps] in the 1930s. Seventy years on, the retreating ice released its hold on the guide’s body, which the son he had fathered before his death was taken to identify. The shocking sight of his father—perfectly preserved in his prime, while he himself approached his eighties—tipped the son towards insanity.”

It is an intriguing premise, and Haigh does a reasonably good job of exploring it. But 45 Years includes some significant alterations. In Constantine’s story, the couple is considerably older—and his Geoff and Katya were mountain climbing in the late 1930s when the fatal accident took place. That has some importance. Geoff thinks of himself and his girl-friend as having been “brave,” traveling from Germany through Switzerland to Italy (“Hitler where they’d come from and Mussolini where they were going to”)—having “turned their backs on civilization.” Not insignificantly, Katya, an only child, was Jewish.

There is unmistakably a certain historical resonance in the story, and a sharp, deliberate contrast between this possibly “brave” past and the intervening decades of terribly conventional existence for Geoff and Kate and the apparently drab, uneventful quality of their marriage. The “Mr. and Mrs. Mercer” of In Another Country are considerably more stifled and self-repressed than the Rampling and Courtenay characters, and, ultimately, more despairing. At one point, in Constantine’s story, Kate weeps to herself, “for the unfairness,” and thinks, “Surely to God it wasn’t much to ask, that you get through to the end and looking back you don’t fill with horror and disappointment and hopeless wishful thinking? All she wanted was to be able to say it hasn’t been nothing, it hasn’t been a waste of time, the fifty years, they amount to something. …”

Do the changes introduced by the filmmakers matter? Yes, they do, in fairly major ways. Haigh’s Kate Mercer/Rampling is younger, more stylish, clearly more “with-it” in terms of both modern life and her own emotional states. Courtenay, although somewhat befuddled and disoriented, also seems fairly in touch with his own feelings and moods. It is more difficult in the case of the film characters’ marriage to imagine that some powerful undercurrent has been suppressed for more than 40 years, or that the husband and wife might be flooded with “horror and disappointment” at the thought of their lives together.

45 Years

Haigh explained to an interviewer, “I love the idea of them being together for 45 years, but the possibility still existing that it could all break down in a week.” This is a little light-minded. In fact, there are many long-term relationships that would not “break down in a week” in the face of the Katya revelations (which, after all, relate to events before the couple met), or considerably worse. That such disclosures would produce a sudden lurch and upheaval in this particularmarriage seems somewhat out of character and fails to convince entirely. As a result, I found 45 Years less moving than it clearly—and a little too pointedly—intends to be. Rampling is relatively restrained, but I grew a little tired of her moping and her sad face. Oddly, though it does not seem planned that way, Courtenay (a wonderful actor, now 78) proves the more sympathetic figure.

Haigh, in fact, gives the strongest speech in 45 Years to Geoff, who returns from a reunion lunch at his former workplace quite bitter: “You wouldn’t f—–g believe what they’ve done to the place. It’s all been streamlined. My first job on the floor doesn’t exist any more. I tell you, if I was still in management, I wouldn’t have let that happen. And the unions, they don’t give a s–t. Well, maybe they do and nobody takes any notice. … And Len, he’s got a villa on the Algarve [in Portugal]. Do you remember Red Len? We used to call him Len-in, and now all he can talk about is playing golf on the Al-f—–g-garve with his grandson, who’s a banker. Red Len, with a banker for a grandson.”

45 Years and its central motif bring to mind another work, James Joyce’s “The Dead.” But here too the differences are telling. Joyce’s wonderful story, the final and longest piece in his collection, Dubliners (published in 1914), centers on Gabriel and Gretta Conroy, guests at an annual celebration held in January at the home of his aging aunts. Over the course of the evening, Gabriel’s feelings for his wife, with whom he is going to spend a rare night in a hotel, grow in intensity. By the time they reach their room, on a snowy night, he is quite overwhelmed with desire.

Much to his consternation, Gabriel learns that the performance of an old ballad at the party has reminded his wife of a young boy of 17, who loved her and with whom she had been in love years before in another town. The youth, already ill, had come to see her in miserable winter weather and she believes this led to his early death. Gabriel discovers that the memory of the dead boy hovers powerfully over the present. “Gabriel felt humiliated. … While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.”

But Joyce had something larger in mind than merely an individual dilemma. The writer had left Ireland in disgust at its oppressiveness and backwardness in 1904. The “Dead” in the title who weigh so heavily on the living refers not simply to the boy who died tragically and whose memory endures, but to the condition of everyone in the story, the sentimental, nostalgic, self-pitying Irish urban petty bourgeois, “the living-dead who still inhabit a ghost world,” as commentator Charles Peake noted. These are “people who have allowed their lives to be annexed by the dead.” Dublin’s population is paralyzed, living in “a moribund city, where warmth and romance belong only to the memory of the dead who are buried.” Although the story is written with great sympathy for the individual characters, Joyce’s disgust and even horror at the general Irish malaise come through.

Contemporary artists and filmmakers generally ask considerably less of themselves. As a result, the ability of their work to penetrate and influence deeply is sharply limited. 45 Years is intelligently done, but the filmmakers’ reduction of the drama to the fate of a couple of dissatisfied souls takes its toll. The opportunity was there, for example, to consider the influence of memories—or fantasies—about the more “liberated” 1960s on a certain generation, an ongoing and very tangible social phenomenon, but it was not taken.



Racialism, art and the Academy Awards controversy


By David Walsh
30 January 2016

The controversy continues over the failure of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) to nominate any African-American or other minority actors or directors for an award this year.

According to innumerable media commentators, the lack of Academy recognition for several films directed by or featuring African-Americans—including Straight Outta Compton, Creed, Beasts of No Nation and Concussion—is proof of the 6,200 Academy voters’ prejudice; and, still further, that race constitutes the essential foundation of society and its cognition. Therefore, how any given individual understands the world is determined, at the most fundamental level, by his/her racial identity.

The New York Times and its various critics and columnists have been particularly active in advancing a racial-gender perspective in art that has sinister implications.

As to the supposedly snubbed films, both F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton and Ryan Coogler’s Creed are relatively formulaic, individualist “success stories,” with nothing terribly distinctive about them except their immediate settings. The first is a shallow, self-serving work about the rise of “gangster rap,” the second, which has a few modest charms, centers on the training of a young boxer (Michael B. Jordan) for a big match by the aging, ailing Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone).

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, about child soldiers in an unnamed West African country, eventually turns into, in the words of the WSWS review, “a virtually unwatchable catalog of crimes.” Idris Elba, a gifted actor, here plays a conventional psychopathic warlord (Charles Taylor, Joseph Kony, etc.), the sort of figure useful to the proponents of great power intervention. Peter Landesman’s Concussion is a well-meaning, limited film about the severe risks of playing professional football, with Will Smith in the lead role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-American pathologist.

Would nominations of Creed, Straight Outta Compton or Beasts of No Nationfor best picture, Gray or Coogler for best director, or Smith, Elba or Jordan for best actor have been merited?

It is difficult to answer this in the abstract. On the whole, this group of “African-American” films and acting jobs belong to a thick middle stratum of mediocrity, with no special respect for skin color, gender or sexual orientation, that emerges from the American film assembly line each year. These three or four films are neither better nor worse than many of the other 300 or so eligible for Academy Awards. None of them investigates deeply, or even indicates strong opinions about, existing realities for the mass of the African-American population, or anyone else for that matter.

In any event, there is no evidence that racial prejudice had anything to do with the fact that these films and actors were not nominated. A number of Academy members have made their opinions known on this issue, with some feeling. In an open letter published in the Hollywood Reporter, screenwriter Stephen Geller addressed the proposal of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy, to “diversify” the membership and weed out “inactive members.”

Geller, who wrote the script for the adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), challenged the Academy chief’s assumption that those who have not had jobs in the industry for a decade were “responsible for the lack of diversity in the Academy, as well as in the film industry.” He wrote, “There are as many reasons why one doesn’t get an assignment or a film deal as there are reasons why a performer doesn’t get a nomination by the Academy.” He termed the plan to revise the rules concerning diversity “nothing more than a ‘false flag’ issue,” and asked, “What Academy, historically, ever has dealt with contemporary realities? For better and for worse, that has never been its role.”

Documentary producer and director Milton Justice (Down and Out in America, 1986), also in the Hollywood Reporter, referred to the failure of David Oyelowo to win a best actor nomination last year for Selma, writing, “Maybe there weren’t enough actors in the actors’ branch who thought he was good enough to be nominated. I’m not in the actors’ branch, but I certainly didn’t think he was very good in the part.”

Referring to Isaacs’ plan to add more minority and women members to the Academy, Justice asked rhetorically, “If there were more black actors in the Academy, would that have assured David Oyelowo’s nomination? Would it have assured more black nominees this year? Do black people only vote for black people? Did I vote for Sean Penn in Milk because I’m gay?! The whole idea is both insulting to blacks and to the Academy members, who presumably vote on artistic merit.”

Indeed, Isaacs’ plan, praised by virtually every media outlet, is based on a thoroughly reactionary premise, that female or black voters will obediently nominate female or black films, filmmakers and actors. With this move, the Academy is moving in the direction of racial quotas, official or de facto.

The New York Times, as noted above, is at the forefront of the effort to promote the arguments of figures like director Spike Lee and actors Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, who have declared their intention not to participate in this year’s awards ceremony February 28, and to push racial politics in general.

In a January 15 piece, “Oscars So White? Or Oscars So Dumb? Discuss,” theTimes introduces excerpts from a conversation among its chief film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis and critic at large Wesley Morris with this comment: “Are these the whitest Oscar nominations ever? Or just the most recent Academy Award whiteout?”

In the discussion that follows, Scott refers to the “shocking—or maybe not so shocking—whiteness of this year’s field of nominees.” After noting that the Academy has “done a reasonably good job of recognizing black talent” in recent years, Scott observes, “Spike Lee’s lifetime achievement award feels like belated and inadequate compensation for a career’s worth of slights. At the movies, we may be in the age of Chi-Raq and Straight Outta Compton, but the Academy is still setting the table for Guess Whos Coming to Dinner.”

The gravitational pull of his politics—and the fear of offending Lee’s supporters—is decisive here, because if Scott were objective in his artistic assessment, he would recognize that Lee has made a series of incompetently written and directed films, malicious, selfish and backward in their point of view.

Scott later comments, “The Academy’s blunder reflects the structural biases of the movie industry, which in turn reflects deeply embedded racism in the society at large. And no institution is immune.” Dargis chimes in, “My point being that the lived, embodied experiences of the membership greatly matter and that sometimes even the most well-intentioned white people just don’t seethe racism and sexism in front of them.”

It is foul to argue that “whiteness” is the chief difficulty with this or any year’s Academy Awards, and, in fact, to address art and culture in such terms.

The Times ran a piece January 22 headlined “The Oscars and Hollywood’s Race Problem,” by Roxane Gray, which returned to the theme, and another column January 27, “The Oscars and Race: A Stir Over Rules to Change the Academy,” by Cara Buckley.

In the latter, after noting that the number of black acting nominees in recent decades has reflected the percentage of blacks in the general population, Buckley writes, “But the representational proportionality of black nominees applies only to the acting categories. Let’s look at all of the awards the academy doles out, across all categories, and see how they break down by ethnicity. Let’s look at all the films Hollywood churns out and do the same: Few of the roughly 300 features eligible for best picture last year told stories from the points of view of women or minorities. Besides, we’ve been fed narratives from an overwhelmingly white male perspective since Hollywood began.”

Is Buckley, swept away by the self-involved, exclusivist ideas that dominate her milieu and conformist to the core, even aware of what she is saying? That artwork should be categorized and presumably appreciated according to whether it represents a male or female, black or white perspective? Whether she likes it or not, Buckley is setting up this basic standard: women gain more from art produced by women, Jews from work created by Jews, African-Americans from “African-American art,” etc.

The Times columnist categorizes the world in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. She assumes that perspective is framed by race and proceeds to elevate that to the level of a worldview. It is no exaggeration to point out that, in ideological terms, Buckley and others, in their obsession with race, are spouting a conception of society and art identified historically with the extreme right.

The Nazis asserted the existence of distinct “Aryan” and “Jewish [Bolshevik, liberal, degenerate]” cultures, separated out “Aryan music” from “Jewish music,” and so forth. They classified human beings collectively as “races,” with inherited characteristics, as one commentator notes, “related not only to outward appearance and physical structure, but also shaped internal mental life, ways of thinking, creative and organizational abilities, intelligence, taste and appreciation of culture, physical strength, and military prowess.”

Whether they like it or not, those who view art and culture in racial (or gender) terms and make race (or gender) the basis for a theory of aesthetics give credence to and encourage this type of filth.

Serious artwork has an objectively truthful, relatively universal character. None of the great works of art from which men and women, of every national or ethnic origin, learn and gain were created on the basis of racial or gender exclusivism. Such a vile, self-obsessed outlook, shared by the New York Times critics and the upper-middle class advocates of identity politics, is antithetical to genuine artistic creation. Racial, gender and sexual politics have done immeasurable damage to filmmaking and art generally over the past 40 years. Not a single major work or figure has emerged from this subjective, self-centered crowd.

A truly great film performance involves powerfully expressing—through an individual characterization—something profound and concrete about the reality of the times and the nature of the social relationships that shape human psychology. Such a work or performance raises feelings and moods beyond the limitations of the circumstances under which the work was created.

This gives rise to the viewer’s heightened sense of the universal and intensely meaningful quality of a work. It entails an aesthetic-intellectual process on the part of both the artist and the viewer, “reading the secret code inherent in things, people and events” (Voronsky), that is the opposite of self-centeredness and racial or gender restrictiveness.

One can think of many such performances in global cinema, from Anna Magnani in Open City, Jean Gabin in Grand Illusion and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath, to performances in the work of Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Welles, Chaplin, Ray, Fassbinder, Hitchcock, Hawks, Murnau, Keaton, Pasolini and many others.

American filmmaking at present does a generally miserable job of portraying American life. The well-heeled African-American petty-bourgeoisie in Hollywood does not speak for or artistically represent African-American working class life, the life of the overwhelming majority of the black population. The black nouveau riche elements are consumed with hostility and contempt for the “great unwashed.” Nothing would compel such people, who have “made it big,” to direct their attention to conditions of exploitation and social misery.

As we argued in a previous article, the solution to American filmmaking’s “diversity problem” will not come from the entry of directors who differ from the current crop only in their ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. That would simply represent more of the same—more complacency, more self-absorption, more trivia.

To “diversify,” in fact, to revolutionize film and art in our day means, first and foremost, the introduction of great historical and social themes.



Drone, a Norwegian-made documentary: “We just made orphans out of all these children”

By Joanne Laurier
29 January 2016

Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei

Drone, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, about the illegal CIA drone program, has been screened at various documentary film festivals and played in certain theaters in North America.

The use of drones by the United States for purposes of assassinations has greatly increased over the past decade. Hessen Schei’s movie brings together opponents of this specialized killing tool, including authors, commentators, human rights attorneys and investigative journalists.

The real heart and strength of Drone lies in its interviews with two former drone operators from the US Air Force, Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, both young men suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Brandon Bryant in Drone

Bryant and Haas served in time periods that straddled the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. One of Bryant’s entries in his diary: “On the battlefield there are no sides, just bloodshed. Total war. Every horror witnessed. I wish my eyes would rot.”

Hessen Schei presents images and stories focusing on the northwestern Pakistani province of Waziristan, a region that has been a particular target of homicidal American drone bombing.

Reprieve, the British human rights organization whose founder, Clive Stafford Smith, is interviewed in the film, points out: “To date, the United States has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia—all countries against whom it has not declared war. The US’ drones programme is a covert war being carried out by the CIA.”

In the documentary, Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice, further observes that “nowhere has been more bombed by the CIA than Waziristan. The first recorded CIA done strike in Pakistan took place in 2004. The number of those strikes has accelerated.” He calls it “an industrialized killing program.”

In Waziristan, a young drone strike survivor, Zubair Ur Rehman, shyly tells the camera that “the drones circulate 24 hours a day. Two or three at a time. Always two, but often three or four. When we hear the sound of the drones, we get scared. We can’t work, play or go to school. It is only when it’s cloudy that we don’t hear the drones.”

The barbaric strikes, which have increased sharply under the Obama administration, are illegal under international and US law and amount to war crimes. In the Hessen Schei film, Pakistani photojournalist Noor Behram displays his dossier of devastating photographs of child victims of drone attacks: “Every time I sleep, I hear the cries of the children.”

Drone also deals with the attacks on the would-be rescuers of the victims of the drone strikes. This is what the American military refers to as a “double tap.” Missiles are launched, killing and injuring people. Moments later, when nearby residents race to the scene to help the wounded, another round of missiles is fired. As one analyst points out, the US government, in many cases, has no idea whom they are killing.

Aftermath of drone attack in Pakistan

Imran Khan, Chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, affirms that “when people gather round to save the injured [from a drone strike], there’s another drone attack! … You can hear the cries of the injured for hours because no one goes to help them.”

Another of the movie’s commentators emphasizes, “It’s never been easier for an American president to carry out killing operations at the ends of the earth … and when you define the world as a battlefield, it’s a very broad range of operations you can carry out.”

According to Woods: “You’ve got the president signing off on particular death lists; you have the US Air Force flying the drones; the Central Intelligence Agency responsible for the strikes; CENTCOM [United States Central Command] involved in launching and targeting of strikes; NSA [National Security Agency] providing intelligence for strikes … the entire apparatus of the United States government has been bent towards the process of targeted killings over the past decade.”

As a means of recruiting drone pilots, the military has developed “militainment”—war presented as entertainment. In the warped minds of the armed forces’ top brass, video gamers have skill sets that it values.

Former drone operator Bryant, who served as a sensor operator for the Predator program from 2007 to 2011, movingly explains that “I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. … We sat in a box for nearly 12-hour shifts. … We’re the ultimate voyeurs. The ultimate Peeping Toms. No one is going to catch us. We’re getting orders to take these peoples’ lives. It was just a point and click.”

One of Drone’s interviewed experts argues the more distant the perpetrator is from the victim, the crueler the act of killing. The separation in space creates and encourages indifference. He refers to “the psychology of distance.”

Haas, who served in the US military from 2005 to 2011, participated in targeted killing runs from his computer at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada that ended the lives of insurgents and others in Afghanistan some 8,000 miles away: “I joined when I was barely 20 years old. I did not know what I was in for. I thought it was the coolest damn thing in the world. Play video games all day and then the reality hits you that you may have to kill somebody.

“In our control room, they had a picture of the September 11 [2001] plane hitting the second [World Trade Center] building. They make you pissed off all over again just before you go do your job. ‘These guys have to die. These guys deserve to die.’ And you’ve got to make it happen.”

As opposed to the remorse felt by the former airmen, Andy Von Flotow, chairman of Insitu, which builds unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in the state of Washington, was in on the ground floor in the development of drones. He boasts that “we started this unmanned aircraft business in the early 1990s, shortly after GPS made it possible.” His company built a small airplane with a camera on it in 1999 to help tuna fisherman. While the fishermen did not buy the planes, “George Bush took us into his adventures.” Flotow claims that “we have 25 percent of unmanned flight hours in Iraq and Afghanistan. … War is an opportunity to do business.”

One of the most intense moments in the film occurs when Bryant opens up to the filmmakers: “I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. It was horrible. The first time was horrible. The second time was horrible. The third time was numbing. The fourth time was numbing. But of course the first time sticks with you the longest [he describes the procedure]. … Then I watched this man bleed out … and I imagined his last moments. I knew I had ended something I had no right to end. I swore an oath, I did what I was supposed to do. I followed through with it. … It was like an image of myself was cracking up and breaking apart.”

Earlier in the film, he says: “Over the last five and one half years, 1,626 people were killed in the operations I took part in. … When I looked at that number, I was ready to put a bullet in my brain.”

Fellow drone operator Haas discloses that “you never knew who you were killing because you never actually see a face—just silhouettes and it’s easy to have that detachment and that lack of sympathy for human life. And it’s easy just to think of them as something else. They’re not really people, they’re just terrorists.” His military superiors, he remarks, “don’t have to take that shot or bear the burden—I’m the one who has to bear that burden. They don’t have to do the actions or live with the repercussions … and we just made orphans out of all these children. They don’t have to live with that. I do.”

The CIA drones program is global assassination without trial. The operations of this state-run murder machine are kept shrouded in secrecy by the Obama administration. While the outlook of the creators of Drone is not strong—essentially consisting of appeals to the United Nations and the Pakistani government—the movie provides further insight into the lawless and ruthless character of US foreign policy.



A modern Antigone: Son of Saul by László Nemes

By Dorota Niemitz
28 January 2016

Directed by László Nemes; written by Nemes and Clara Royer, based on the book The Scrolls of Auschwitz and various prisoners’ memoirs

Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s debut feature film, Son of Saul, treats almost unimaginable horror: a day and a half in the life of a member of the Sonderkommando [special unit], made up of prisoners who staffed the gas chambers, at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau concentration camp. More than one million people were murdered at Auschwitz from 1942 to 1944, 90 percent of them Jews, transported from all over German-occupied Europe.

Son of Saul

Henryk Mandelbaum, the last survivor of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz, who died in 2008, called the unit members living corpses. Their average life expectancy in the position was two to four months. Under threat of death, the Nazis used them to conduct people to the gas chambers and burn their bodies in the crematoriums.

Most of the death camp Sonderkommando members were Jews. An aspect of the Nazis’ diabolical plan was to make the victims partially responsible for the Holocaust. To other camp inmates they were traitors. Only about 200 of them survived the war.

The unit members had to extract gold teeth, remove jewelry and other valuables, cut hair and disinfect the chambers. After reducing the burnt corpses to ash, they had to throw them into the nearby river. Isolated for fear of spreading panic, they received more food than other prisoners, but had little time for sleep or rest. The work was constant, the tempo brutal. Many, of course, could not cope and experienced nervous breakdowns, some committed suicide. After being forced to cover traces of the Nazi crimes, the “bearers of secrets” themselves were shot.

Nemes’s Son of Saul depicts the events of October 7, 1944, when one of the biggest Sonderkommando uprisings took place. Some 450 out of 663 special unit prisoners took part in the revolt. Learning that they were slated for extermination, the prisoners attacked the SS and Kapos with two machine guns, axes, knives and grenades, killing three and wounding 12 German soldiers, as well as blowing up Crematorium IV. The rebellion was quickly crushed by the SS.

All the insurgents were killed. Those who managed to escape and reach the nearby village, Rajsko, were surrounded in a barn and blown up with hand grenades. Five young Jewish women who worked for the Weichsel-Union-Metallwerke, a munitions plant within the Auschwitz complex, and who had smuggled small amounts of gunpowder to aid the uprising, were later hanged.

Unlike previous portrayals of the Sonderkommando, such as the one in Tim Blake Nelson’s The Grey Zone, which treated the conduct of the individual members as “shameful,” Son of Saul is a sincere attempt to depict the complex reality of the concentration camp and the multiplicity of connections between victims and their oppressors.

Son of Saul

Saul (Géza Röhrig) is a Hungarian Jew who––humiliated and paralyzed in the face of the enormous scale of the hellish mass murder––numbly collaborates with the Nazis to stay alive. After witnessing the murder of a teenage boy who has just arrived in a transport from Hungary, and believing the youth might be his son born out of wedlock, Saul decides to steal the body to ensure the boy’s proper burial.

The recreated reality of the movie is brutally precise and historically accurate. Cinematographer Mátyás Erdély uses a technique similar to that of the Dardenne brothers, following his main character very closely, providing a deliberately narrow field of vision, to immerse the viewer in the immediate surroundings. We can almost smell the dirt on Saul’s body, feel his torment. Screams and moans in Yiddish, Hungarian, Polish, Russian and German substitute for a soundtrack and broaden the imagery’s realism.

Despite the blurry background, we are well aware of what is taking place at all times. It is precisely the lack of details that horrifies the most. Then there are the scenes in which terrible discoveries are subtly conveyed, such as the realization that the mountains of dust shoveled into the river are composed of human remains.

Judaism forbids cremation of the body and treats it as a sin. The corpse needs to be wrapped in a tallit, a special fringed garment, and buried as quickly after death as possible.

Like Sophocles’ Antigone, who defies the tyrant Creon’s edict forbidding the burial of her rebel brother, Polynices, Saul revolts against the brutal laws of the Nazi totalitarian state in defense of human and, to him, divine principles. He knows beforehand the rules and the consequences––his “crime” is conscious and deliberate. Until the very end Saul remains untouched by and indifferent toward the authority that will crush him. Suffering beyond endurance, he accepts his fate: He can do nothing but die.

Saul dies, but all is not lost for humanity. We know the Nazi regime ultimately collapsed, like that of the of the King of Thebes in Greek mythology.

In Son of Saul Nemes accomplishes something rare for a modern artist, skillfully reviving the principles and themes of an ancient drama, sculpting the essence of a human tragedy. The viewer might question the uncompromising religious values Saul stands for. But it is undeniable that his clash with the camp authorities is of immense importance to human beings today who sense the vast gap between their innate sense of “what is right” and the doings of the global rulers.

Son of Saul

Saul is defending an old and annihilated order, now only an unreal shadow. By desperately searching for a rabbi in a world where such an individual’s functions have been obliterated, he seeks to link the nonexistent with the existent. The respect paid to the body of what might be his offspring becomes a symbol of universal honor paid to all those slaughtered and then burnt in defiance of their religion in the inferno of crematoriums. Stealing the boy’s body becomes an act of retribution: the extermination of the Jews will not be completed because something will be left of them, even if in a grave.

In Nemes’s film, there is little room for subjectivity nor much interest in Saul’s individual personality: the man is a universal “self” and represents the community of people caught up by forces bigger and independent of themselves. He is an actor confronted on the stage not only with his oppressors, but with the chorus of camp resistance members who accuse him of “failing the living for the sake of the dead.” One of the chorus members, a Soviet soldier, even kicks him in the gut.

There is something fixated and even psychotic in Saul’s determination. It makes him endanger his own life––and the lives of other––to fulfill his “duty.” Had he not lost the gunpowder due to his obsession with the dead body, would the uprising have been successful?

It is perhaps difficult to identify with the cold, robot-like, half-dead Saul. But it is also difficult to condemn him. His face, although at times it resembles a predator’s, should invoke some compassion. Saul’s condition speaks to something broader than his own individual fate: the wretchedness of all those forced against their will to toil for a system they did not create, merely to survive.

Despite the film’s physical and intellectual constraints, which reduce the conflict largely to the ethical plane and omit any reference to the historical roots of the horrors it depicts, Son of Saul is a valuable artistic achievement. It is a matter of utmost importance that such a work reaches global cinemas. Fascist political tendencies are again on the rise and various European governments are adopting Nazi-style measures against refugees, including the confiscation of their money and valuables upon entry into miserable camps.



Charlie Kaufman’s often charming, moving Anomalisa (and Michael Moore’s feeble Where to Invade Next)

By Joanne Laurier
23 January 2016

Anomalisa, directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, screenplay by Kaufman; Where to Invade Next, directed by Michael Moore


Anomalisa is an adult animated film created with stop-motion puppetry. The film is written by Charlie Kaufman, and jointly directed by Kaufman and Duke Johnson, a specialist in stop-motion animation. It is based on Kaufman’s play, which he wrote under the pen-name Francis Fregoli.


Centering on an angst-ridden, middle-aged self-help author, the movie’s remarkable features have won wide acclaim. Anomalisa collected the first Grand Jury Prize ever awarded to an animated film at the Venice International Film Festival. It was also nominated for a best animated film Golden Globe award and has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Animated Feature category. Produced outside the Hollywood studio system, a portion of Anomalisa’s budget was raised on Kickstarter.

The film uses the voices of only three performers: British actor David Thewlis as Michael Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh as Lisa “Anomalisa” Hesselman and Tom Noonan as every other male and female character. This combination of voices breathing something human and recognizable into the visually arresting, inorganic puppets––made of silicone with 3D printed faces––is eerie and disturbing.

It is 2005 and Michael Stone, the Los Angeles-based author of How May I Help You Help Them? is on his way to Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the keynote speaker at a convention for customer service professionals. From the film’s opening moments, one knows he is suffocating spiritually. While he gives advice to others, he is unable to extricate himself from a profound existential quagmire. He is a man waiting for deliverance, but from what exactly?

On the plane, he reads a crumpled letter sent him 10 years ago by a former girlfriend who lives in the destination city. After a ride in a cab whose driver’s chatter grates on his nerves, Michael checks into the upscale Hotel Fregoli. (Fregoli is a delusional, paranoid syndrome that causes the sufferer to believe the different people he or she meets are in fact the same person who changes appearance or is in disguise.)

In a bland, soulless hotel room, he calls his wife and young son, nicknamed “Slugger.” It is a strictly pro-forma conversation. Michael summons the courage to phone his old lover, who proves to be still traumatized by the abrupt manner in which he broke off their relationship a decade earlier. Their get-together in the hotel bar does not go well and Michael sets off to buy a toy for his son. He ends up in the wrong kind of toy shop––an all-night one for “adults.”


Later, a depressed Michael walks along the seemingly endless, prison-like hotel corridor and passes a young couple in the midst of an obscenity-laden quarrel. Bleakness piles upon bleakness, until he hears an unusual voice. Knocking on a few doors, he eventually discovers the voice belongs to Lisa (Leigh), who is in Cincinnati with her friend Emily to hear Michael deliver his talk.

Lisa, an Akron, Ohio, baked goods service rep, is over the moon to meet the author. She tells him excitedly that his book led to a “90 percent increase” in productivity at her company. Lisa is a shy, small-town girl with a slightly disfigured face (“That’s why I’ve always done phone work”), who has not been with a man in eight years. But Michael is immediately smitten, convinced he has found his muse and the salvation from his desperation. She is both an “anomaly,” a deviation from the norm, at least for Michael, and “Lisa,” hence … “Anomalisa.” Will it work out, or will she end up acting and sounding like everyone else?

Charlie Kaufman has created and directed some original, unusual work. He scripted Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and made his directorial debut withSynecdoche, New York (2008). He is creatively associated with figures like Michel Gondry, director of Eternal Sunshine, and Spike Jonze, director of John Malkovich.

The inventive trio specialize in creating quite personal, often self-reflexive movies that treat individuals afflicted by the alienating character of modern American life. The encroachments of technology often play a role in their efforts. (Jonze wrote and directed Her, 2013, a science fiction work about a lonely, professional letter-writer who falls in love with his female-voiced, intelligent computer operating system.)

In an interview about his new work, Kaufman comments that [a]lienation is a big problem in this culture. I think it has a lot to do with computers and social media, and the inauthenticity of people’s interactions. But we’re going down that road, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Of course, Kaufman seems to forget that Anomalisa is one non-alienating product of technological innovation in alliance with artistic imagination.

Technology is estranging under specific social and historic circumstances. The driving forces behind the current isolating and hostile conditions in America, more than anything else, are the combined effects of extreme social polarization, general economic decline and decay, and the lurch to the right by a widely hated political establishment. The Internet, for example, is not the guilty party here––as global events have already demonstrated, it has as much power to bring people together, and in enormous numbers at that, as to separate them.

There is something a bit shallow in this concentration on modern psychic alienation, which helps explain the tendency of Kaufman, Jonze and Gondry, at their weakest, to focus on the merely eccentric and quirky––bulwarks presumably against the conformism and monotony of contemporary techno-dominated life––as qualities in themselves. Of the three, the French-born Gondry, in The We and the I (2012, about teenagers in the South Bronx), has come closest to showing an interest in the conditions of wide layers of the population in the US.

In any event, Anomalisa is remarkably crafted with some genuinely moving and amusing moments. That Tom Noonan’s voice is used for every personality other than Michael and Lisa creates some delights on its own, including in the brief scene when Michael is listening on his iPod to his favorite opera star, Joan Sutherland, singing an aria—performed (horribly but with great sincerity) by Noonan!

Another inspired sequence takes place while Michael is watching television in his room and we see a quick glimpse of a well-known scene from Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936). Actress Carole Lombard, as a rich, scatterbrained young woman, skips around happily because the man she imagines to be the family butler loves her. Lombard and the other cast members are all puppets, also voiced by Noonan. The Lombard puppet, like the performer herself, is wildly comic. Is there some significance in a reference to a Depression-era film that considered class relations? One doesn’t know. Kaufman rapidly passes on.

The most telling, heart-breaking episode in Anomalisa comes when Lisa sweetly sings a couple of verses of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” The lyrics she sings include these words: “Oh mother dear we’re not the fortunate ones” and “When the working day is done / Oh girls, they want to have fun.” Then repeating a line from the song, she says to Michael: “I want to be the one to walk in the sun.”

It is notable that Kaufman has made Lisa a modest, working class woman from an industrial town––not a jaded cynic like Michael, but someone fresh and open to the world. Hers is the “magic” voice that distinguishes itself from all others in its individuality. (Leigh is magical and brings a lovely theatricality to the comedy-drama.) Lisa is at odds––an anomaly––with officially valued looks and tastes.

The use of puppets underscores Kaufman’s theme of modern alienation. In Michael’s most fragile, distressed moment, a section of his face falls off to reveal a mechanical interior. The character is also plagued by a Kafkaesque nightmare that points to the malignity of celebrity.

A puppet, of course, suggests the existence of a puppet-master. Is Kaufman hinting, or more than hinting, at the extent to which he believes the American population is manipulated from above? In another of Anomalisa’s remarkable moments, during Michael’s eventual address to the convention, he loses composure and goes off script, suddenly blurting out that “the world is falling apart” and that “the president is a war criminal” (the movie is conspicuously set during the George W. Bush administration—do the filmmakers feel the same way, as they should, about Barack Obama?) It is the movie’s only suggestive, but all-too-brief direct reference to bigger social concerns.

Unfortunately, Anomalisa is not consistent in its attitude toward humanity and their difficulties. It veers between genuine empathy, as in the initial scene with Lisa, condescension (other moments with the same character) and near misanthropy (in the case of the talkative cab driver and others). Kaufman has not worked out his views––and it tells, weakening the work.

While a movie with all-too-human puppets (and, like a Mel Blanc cartoon, the voices of only three actors) certainly commands and holds one’s attention, that same element tends to disguise some of Anomalisa’s shortcomings. The fascinating and effective technological paraphernalia operate to make the spectator forget at times that he or she is watching a relatively slight and somewhat incomplete drama. Michael on his own is a rather self-pitying, tedious character. Much in Kaufman’s film is left hanging in mid-air. In addition, one is not quite sure what to make of Anomalisa’s ending at which point Michael suffers from the opposite of the Fregoli Syndrome—that is, the inability to recognize his own friends.

Tellingly, the filmmakers only tentatively or unsatisfactorily address the question Michael asks: “What is it to be human?” They avoid taking a sharp enough look at the social environment, which generates not only psychological but, more significantly, social and political alienation, rooted in the vast class divide, as well as the possibility of mass opposition.

Nonetheless, at its best, Anomalisa suggests that human beings should think deeply about and reflect upon their relations with others. The movie also encourages a much-needed critique of conventional film narrative.

Where to Invade Next

American documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s latest movie is now opening in theaters. The following is a slightly edited repost ing of the October 8, 2015 comment that appeared as part of the WSWS coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Where to Invade Next

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 Where to Invade Next’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. Moving the Democratic Party to the left is the most hopeless and pathetic 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. However, 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 seriously compromised and increasingly discredited figure.