“The Last Waltz” at 40

The Band and their classic movie speak beyond boomer nostalgia

Scorsese’s 1978 movie with Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Muddy Waters appeals powerfully to younger musicians too

"The Last Waltz" at 40: The Band and their classic movie speak beyond boomer nostalgia
(Credit: United Artists)

The consummate musical cliché of the baby boomer era is the big, guitar-wielding encore where a bunch of white men in long hair and casual clothes take turns singing one verse after another of a really long, usually blues-based, song. Sometimes it is followed by a boomer-iffic group hug among presumably straight men.

In its crudest form, this describes the enormous, multi-band, marathon concert that came to be known as “The Last Waltz”: a rock-till-dawn gathering assembled by The Band, a quintet of roots musicians who had once backed up Bob Dylan, to play a farewell show alongside their old boss. Old friends and inspirations like Neil Young, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John and Muddy Waters joined in as well (and, for some reason, Neil Diamond showed up).

As humble as The Band’s identity was — this was a group without a lead singer, after all, and which saw itself as channeling the spirit of the American past even though most of them came from Canada — the concert itself was like the final stand of rock’s royalty. It was a celebration of a legendary group, of the fellowship of the road, of the passing of an era.

But what’s funny about “The Last Waltz,” which was filmed on Thanksgiving 1976 in San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom and released as a Martin Scorsese film two years later, is that it didn’t just engage nostalgic boomers. It spoke to music and film fans — some of whom would go on to become important players in a country-derived tradition The Band had helped inaugurate. Forty years later, it’s still a milestone. 

“Oh, man, it really blew my mind!” said the normally dry Gillian Welch, the pioneering new-acoustic musician, born in 1967, who didn’t hear the original three-LP album or see the film until she was in college. “So much of the music I loved — all in one show. I was unprepared for what it looked like when you played music that sounded like that. They were moving more than I thought. Oh man! They just looked like gods to me. I think it honestly went into me at a cellular level.”

The musician James Felice says he and his fellow Felice Brothers — an upstate New York roots band mostly in their early 30s — saw the film only about a decade ago. “I just remember feeling a palpable sense of awe at The Band’s musicianship,” he said by email. “Each guy was so damn good, and had such unique style and personality, but they made it work perfectly together. They were basically rock and roll superheroes, like ‘The Avengers’ or something.”

What’s surprising about this boomer milestone, made and released before most Xers were out of elementary school — some, because the birth range typically goes from 1964 to 1981, were not born yet — is how the movie connects across generations.

Part of it is just that this concert saw a collection of some of the greatest and deepest musicians of any generation. Some of it is Mojo-magazine-style nostalgia for a more authentic age. “We all romanticize that period so much,” says Taylor Goldsmith, the 31-year-old lead singer of the band Dawes, whose first few albums grew right out of the ground The Band plowed. Some members of Wilco, including bassist John Stirratt, are also major fans of the film and the group.

But part of it may be that “The Last Waltz” and the story of The Band — especially for those who know the whole tale — signified both boomer utopia and Gen X disillusionment at the same time. Nobody was killed, and no one OD’ed on the brown acid. But with one movie, Scorsese and The Band produced Woodstock and Altamont simultaneously. On its 40th anniversary, which sees Rhino reissuing the recording and film in various versions, it’s as ambiguous as ever.

* * *

Around the time of The Band’s Thanksgiving concert (which involved a turkey dinner served to thousands of audience members), the course of rock history was changing in a profound way. The group was retiring partly because its members were worn out from the road, but they also recognized that they were the final gasp of something — of a rock ’n’ roll tradition that was grounded in the Chicago blues, gospel and the rockabilly of the South. (The movie’s inclusion of Muddy Waters, the Staples Singers and their old boss Ronnie Hawkins was in some ways a nod to this.)

So it was not just vainglory to dub the concert “The Last Waltz”: This really was the end of something. Some of these musicians would have late-career renaissances years later — Neil Young and Dylan most notably — but most of them had already peaked artistically by 1976, and even their best work would seem out of place in the new world.

Glam musicians like David Bowie and Roxy Music had electrified young music fans, and made the denim-and-fringed-vest crowd look like backwoods day laborers. The year before the concert, a New York City poet named Patti Smith had released a volcanic debut album called “Horses” that went so deep into feminism and contemporary politics that even Joni Mitchell seemed positively medieval.

By Thanksgiving, history was bending. CBGBs was now more important than the Fillmore West: Its denizens, the band Television, had recorded punk rock’s most poetic LP — “Marquee Moon” — a few months before, and the gawky geniuses of Talking Heads had just signed to Sire. Britain was burning: The Clash and The Sex Pistols had just played a show together in Sheffield. If this new generation had its way, this would be a last waltz indeed. By the time the concert film was released, two years later, punk bands were moving into mid-career (the Clash was dreaming up “London Calling”), and “New Wave” showed a second, more pop-savvy vanguard led by a lanky, bespectacled Liverpudlian who had cheekily named himself for the king of rock ’n’ roll. The Sugarhill Gang would score hip-hop’s first hit with “Rapper’s Delight” just a year later.

This kind of irreverence, aggression and sonic experimentation was most decidedly not what The Band or “Last Waltz” fellow travelers like Eric Clapton or Emmylou Harris or Ringo Starr were about.

Gen Xers and their younger compatriots, though, grew up in a world shaped by punk and hip-hop, and the moussed-out glitz of MTV. And somehow, this earnest, often blues née country née folk-based music, so different from what this younger crowd heard on the radio and saw on television, would make profound sense to some of them. 

* * *

As celebratory as the concert was, as sincere its treatment of the music’s old guard, there was a darkness to “The Last Waltz” that was different from what the group may have intended. Some of the band members were wasted from drugs. The Band’s guitarist and songwriter Robbie Robertson told a backstage anecdote — the film was full of moments where the musicians spun stories from the road — that involved playing with legendary bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson, who would alternate playing harmonica with spitting blood into a can.

Most seriously, perhaps, the members of The Band — after 16 years on the road — hated each other. At least some of the time. Robertson was the only one dedicated to a retirement from touring; the others weren’t as sure. And it didn’t get better when the movie came out. Levon Helm, the band’s drummer and sometime singer, was particularly upset. “For two hours we watched as the camera focused almost exclusively on Robbie Robertson, long and loving close-ups of his heavily made-up face and expensive haircut,” he wrote in his memoir, “This Wheel’s on Fire.” “The film was edited so it looked like Robbie was conducting the band with expansive waves of his guitar neck.”

Robertson was most outgoing member of the group, and an engaging and charismatic storyteller, but at times it seemed like pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson, who both sang as well, were barely part of the group. (Helm and bassist Rick Danko fared a bit better.)

The reality cut against the image of the band, memorialized in part by a bravura chapter in Greil Marcus’ “Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘N’ Roll Music,” as a group of ego-less, passionate friends, singing vocal harmonies that could help the nation heal after the divisions of the Vietnam war.

When Goldsmith saw the movie in 2008, around the time Dawes was recording its debut album, “North Hills,” he saw, mostly, the dream. “You heard that there’s a whole philosophy to the group’s name: The guy who wrote the songs didn’t sing them, and there was no lead singer. It was so democratic. That’s what created the romance. You think of partnerships like Keith and Mick, or Lennon and McCartney. This was like a five-way relationship — that rock ’n’ roll band romance — epitomized in American rock.”

Perhaps appropriately for younger generations that inherited a less innocent nation after the reveries of the boomers, some Gen X and millennial fans responded to the film not in spite of, but because of the pain and tension.

“It made you want to see more of it, because it sounded like so much had been left out,” says Michael Trent of the Americana duo Shovels & Rope. “As much as I hated to take sides,” says his wife and bandmate Cary Ann Hearst, who was won over by Helm’s description of being an Arkansas country boy visiting New York City, “it’s hard not to. But it didn’t change my mind about the movie, or its sweetness.” Shovels & Rope sing a song about Hudson, “The Last Hawk,” on their new album.

As a first viewing of the movie became an obsession for young musicians, their point of view grew more complex. Some learned, for instance, that they were not really hearing what was played that night: Much of the parts were later overdubbed in the studio because the playing was so sloppy. “The more you get to know about ‘The Last Waltz,’ or get to know about Richard Manuel — in the film he’s pretty tweaked out… It was a pretty tragic story,” says Goldsmith. “They seem upset with each other. But it doesn’t make you love them any less.”

The hard tales from the road, the stories of personal tension, and the rigors of the touring life only excited Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings even more. “It means there was all this life behind this one concert,” she said. “You’d drive around for 20 years — yeah, that’s what you’d do. I honestly think it’s altered decisions Dave and I have made. We drive around in a Cadillac, and have been doing that for 20 years. You don’t take a shuttle to the airport.”

The Band — most of whom played with Dylan on his tumultuous 1966 world tour (as “The Hawks), on his epochal “Blonde on Blonde” album, and on the rough home recordings later released as “The Basement Tapes” — certainly had some great years before things all went bad.

But the albums after their first two — “Music from Big Pink” and “The Band” — only occasionally approached the old magic. And post-“Last Waltz,” their solo careers mostly faltered.

Things went from bad to worse. In 1986, Manuel hanged himself after ingesting liquor and cocaine. A heart attack after decades of drink and drugs killed Danko in 1999. Helm ran a series of “midnight rambles” at his farmhouse in Woodstock and made several celebrated albums in his 60s. But cancer took him in 2012. Hudson and Robertson are still alive.

But that’s not entirely all.

My interest in this group, album and film are not entirely archival. As a kid, I was dragged, partly against my will, to see the movie at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge. It was a double feature with “Singin’ in the Rain,” which I knew and loved, but I was, at 10, not the least bit interested in waltzing. At the time I was a pure British Invasion-and-Dylan zealot — the idea that country rock even existed or could be any good had never crossed my mind. My father insisted.

But from the first scenes of backstage pool-playing and the one-two-three punch of Band songs “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Shape I’m In,” and “It Makes No Difference,” my life changed. It took me years to get deeply into alt-country and the blues and Van Morrison, but I was launched on a journey. My dad wasn’t always right, but he often was. I dedicate this story to his memory.

 

Scott Timberg is a staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He’s the author of the new book, “Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.”

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee on the Iraq war and American hoopla

By David Walsh
15 November 2016

Directed by Ang Lee; written by Jean-Christophe Castelli; based on the novel by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk is the latest work from veteran Taiwanese-born filmmaker Ang Lee, probably best known for Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). The new film is based on the novel of the same title by American author Ben Fountain, published in 2012.

The drama takes place in 2004. A unit of American soldiers, who have survived a brief but fierce battle with Iraqi insurgents, are being celebrated as “heroes” on a nationwide tour. Thanksgiving Day finds them in Dallas, where they are to take part in halftime festivities at a Dallas Cowboys football game. Despite the media hoopla and public attention, the group of soldiers is on the eve of being shipped back to Iraq.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), the central figure in the novel and film, is a 19-year-old US serviceman whose effort to save his beloved sergeant (Vin Diesel) in Iraq was captured on film and has earned him a Silver Star. We follow him as he navigates the goings-on at the football stadium, and we also see what he remembers about the battle in Iraq and other recent episodes in his life, including his first visit home since his deployment. His sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), to whom he has been very close, is working on Billy to find a means (medical, psychological) to avoid returning to the war zone. The young man also encounters and becomes infatuated with a Cowboys cheerleader, Faison (Makenzie Leigh).

Accompanying the “Bravos,” as the media has dubbed the group of young soldiers, is a Hollywood wheeler-dealer, Albert (Chris Tucker), who is trying to put together a film deal. The “heroes” are the guests of Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin), who talks cheaply and indiscriminately about God and country. He pompously tells Lynn, “Your story, Billy, no longer belongs to you. It’s America’s story now.” Ultimately, which should surprise no one, Oglesby proves to be a first-class chiseler along with everything else.

Before discussing the substance of Ang Lee’s film, it is necessary briefly to consider its “groundbreaking…technical breakthroughs.” Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk was shot in 3D, in high resolution (4K, or twice the number of pixels, both horizontally and vertically, as an ordinary film) and in “a history-making frame rate” (120 frames per second, as opposed to the normal 24).

According to Billy Lynn ’s production notes: “The movie even set up its own lab in Atlanta in order to process a vast quantity of data, as Lee and [cinematographer John] Toll invariably relied on two cameras running at five times the normal speed with twice the amount of data running on each of those cameras. That translated into twenty times the data storage of a normal high-quality Hollywood film on a daily basis.”

Kristen Stewart and Joe Alwyn

The technology is impressive and certainly deserves to be explored. However, the claim that technical means by themselves will advance cinema is simply unwarranted. Lee comments, “To me, when we see movies, it’s as if we’re watching someone’s story from a distance. My hope with this new technology is that it could allow for greater intimacy, to really convey the personal feelings of a conflicted young soldier.”

It is difficult to know precisely what this means. We are always watching someone’s story from a distance in a film. Greater physical proximity does not necessarily bring us any closer to the truth of someone’s life. For that, social and psychological knowledge are required. Compared to present-day filmmakers, Murnau, Renoir, Eisenstein, Kurosawa, Ford and Chaplin worked with primitive equipment, but they were able to present far richer pictures of life.

Co-producer Stephen Cornwell: “In some ways the language of cinema hasn’t really evolved for a hundred years. The frame rate’s been the same. The way things are performed, spoken and constructed and the way narrative unfolds is something that we’ve all come to accept as norms. And what Ang has done is ask how do we evolve cinematic language to stay relevant, distinct and unique in the post-digital age, in an age where cinema is plateauing, where story telling has become very familiar? To do that, we have to change the way people experience cinema, and that’s what Ang’s reaching for, what we’re all reaching for in this film.”

The problem with contemporary filmmaking is not primarily mechanical or organizational, but artistic and social. Cornwell seems to imply that the present stagnation can be overcome by astonishing technical knowhow. This is obviously not true. What’s needed, above all, is not greater “technologically induced realism,” but greater historical and psychological realism.

Human beings and objects have always appeared to me to be three-dimensional on screen, at least physically. The 3D technology is often a distraction, and it certainly proves so in Lee’s new film. So-called 3D films sometimes appear to be composed of cardboard cutouts standing in front of one another.

Joe Alwyn

Filming Billy Lynn apparently had its peculiarities. Fewer takes were possible, for example, because of the expense. Also, according to the British-born Alwyn, “The cameras were absolutely huge. … Because of how intimate Ang wanted the shots––so close to the faces––you would be performing to the black-matte box around the camera, rather than being able to see the other actors. Oftentimes, you’d just be following bits and pieces of tape, moving around a black space, and delivering your lines to that.” These circumstances may help explain why there is much stiffness and awkwardness in a number of the performances, especially in those of Steve Martin, Vin Diesel and Chris Tucker.

In any event, the filmmakers have done a reasonable job of adapting Fountain’s book, which––as I noted previously––”is not so much a novel about Iraq…as it is a sharp look at phony patriotism, hypocritical religiosity and corporate greed in [George W.] Bush’s Texas.

Fountain notes that the idea for the novel originally came to him at home while actually watching the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day football game in 2004.

“This was three weeks after the general election when George W. Bush had beaten [Democrat John] Kerry. I felt like I didn’t understand my country.” Fountain explains that he remained seated during halftime and “started watching the halftime show—I mean really looking at it. And it’s very much the way I write it in the book: a surreal, pretty psychotic mash-up of American patriotism, exceptionalism, popular music, soft-core porn and militarism: lots of soldiers standing on the field with American flags and fireworks. I thought, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Presumably, writing the novel was a means by which Fountain attempted to “understand” his country. He succeeded, however, only in fits and starts. The book has amusing and useful features. Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk pours a good deal of satirical cold water on the professional sports-military complex, with its unsavory mix of patriotism, meaningless spectacle and violence.

The novel’s generally hostile tone is legitimate, but the targets, including Bush and his administration, are fairly easy ones at this time. In the end, despite its decent intentions, the book is a little too light-hearted and “soft.”

Ang Lee has never appeared to possess a satirical touch. His films have tended toward the earnest and literal. He is a competent, dogged filmmaker, who is capable at his best of shedding light on human relationships and of generating emotion.

The new film alternately and regularly advances toward certain harsh truths and retreats from them.

There are good, serious elements here.

–In one scene, Billy and one of his fellow soldiers, “Mango” Montoya (Arturo Castro), sit and talk with a stadium bartender. The latter is thinking of enlisting, because there is nothing for him in civilian life. They agree that the economic situation is poor and the rich live in another realm from them.

–During a dinnertime conversation at home, Kathryn quizzes Billy about the war, and its purpose. Is it for oil, she asks? Where are those WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] we’ve been hearing about? (In the novel, she says: “Then let me ask you this, do you guys believe in the war? Like is it good, legit, are we doing the right thing? Or is it all really just about the oil?” Billy replies, “You know I don’t know that,” and, later, “I don’t think anybody knows what we’re doing over there.”) Kathryn is the most intelligent, sensitive individual in the film and her antagonism toward official society and propaganda is contagious.

–While the Bravos are sitting around at the stadium at one point, an oilman (Tim Blake Nelson) approaches and commends them on their “service.” Sgt. David Dime (Garrett Hedlund), the leader of the squad, responds with excessive, implicitly bitter and sarcastic zeal to this odious individual, “You keep on drilling, we’ll keep on killing!”

–In the only scene that gives some sense of the reality of the Iraq war and occupation, the squad bursts into a house at night and generally terrorizes the residents. They eventually place a hood on the head of the man of the family and take him away.

–In the incident for which he received his decoration, Billy ends up wrestling with one of the insurgents and cutting his throat. We watch as a pool of blood forms around the dead man’s head. Lee shows this image twice. It is the most disturbing in the film.

–The football halftime show itself is a scathing comment on the cultural-political state of things in America. Destiny’s Child (with a Beyoncé stand-in) and groups of dancers perform, marching bands march, fireworks explode, the Bravos stand at attention or move around in a daze. All the while, Billy recalls the mayhem and death in Iraq. Lee effectively brings to the screen Fountain’s “surreal, pretty psychotic mash-up.” It is impossible not to feel the absurdity and monstrosity of the situation, the horrible reality that America’s rulers are sending young men and women to die to ensure business as usual.

At the same time, unhappily, there are numerous moments and elements that undermine or offset much of what is strong in the work. Lee’s approach is too non-committal in many of the sequences, too “even-handed.” The early portions of Billy Lynn are especially flat. One can also feel where Lee gives in to political pressures, to pro-military, “support the troops” rubbish. The assault in Fountain’s book on the businessman at the center of the whole reactionary business, Oglesby (Martin), is considerably downplayed and weakened. One hardly knows what to make of him in the end. Moreover, the evasive note on which the film concludes, a variation on the “band of brothers” theme, is another accommodation to bourgeois public opinion.

The production notes for Billy Lynn include a comment from Alwyn, whose thrust one suspects reflects Ang Lee’s thinking: “The film doesn’t go into the politics of war or why they guys are fighting over there…but it brings the war home and explores people’s projections on the soldiers rather than getting into the morality and the politics of it so much.”

Yes, and this is the movie’s most damaging failing and what prevents it from being a more consistently powerful and artistically satisfying experience. We will make the point one more time––it is not possible to make a coherent and convincing film about the criminal invasion and occupation of Iraq, with all its devastating and ongoing consequences, without treating in some fashion the driving forces of the war and its broader significance. Every deliberate act of avoidance eats away at the sincerity and depth of a work of art.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/11/15/lynn-n15.html

American Pastoral: A film version of Philip Roth’s novel

By David Walsh
29 October 2016

Directed by Ewan McGregor; screenplay by John Romano, based on the novel by Philip Roth

“Is it not a rare merit to know how to take the measure of one’s epoch?”––Balzac

American Pastoral is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 1997 novel of the same title. Australian director Philip Noyce (Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American) was long associated with efforts to get a film version of Roth’s novel made. When Noyce finally dropped out (for unknown reasons), Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, who also plays the lead role, took over the directing responsibility. This is his first opportunity to direct a feature film.

Ewan McGregor and Dakota Fanning in American Pastoral

American Pastoral, film and novel, follows the life and eventual terrible misfortune of Seymour “Swede” Levov (McGregor), the son of a glove manufacturer in Newark, in the 1960s and 1970s. The Swede obtained his nickname, in Roth’s words, from his “anomalous face,” The “insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blonde born into our [Jewish] tribe.”

Both book and film employ a framing device. When he learns of the Swede’s death from cancer in 1995 at 68, Nathan Zuckerman (David Straithairn in McGregor’s film), a character who appears in numerous Roth novels and often serves as a sort of alter ego for the author, sets out to uncover Levov’s tragic story. Zuckerman serves as our guide and narrator.

The Swede, we learn, fully embraced (and symbolized) the promise of postwar America. A star athlete and “golden boy” in high school, idolized by fellow students and apparently by everyone in his neighborhood, Levov seems destined to lead a charmed existence. He takes over the successful glove-making business from his father, Lou (Peter Riegert), and marries a former Miss New Jersey, an Irish Catholic beauty, Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly). They have a blonde-haired daughter, Meredith or “Merry” (played by three actresses, the final one being Dakota Fanning), and move into their dream home, a large stone house, in “tranquil, untrafficked” (Roth) Old Rimrock, New Jersey. Dawn even decides, as a hobby, to raise cattle.

Merry, however, proves a difficult child. For one thing, she stutters badly. A therapist suggests the girl is intimidated by her good-looking and successful parents, by her beautiful mother in particular. To win attention, to drive Dawn crazy, to manipulate her “perfectionist family,” she stutters. When the Swede points out to the therapist that Merry is made miserable by her stammering, the doctor replies, “The benefits may outweigh the disadvantages.”

All sorts of emotions are swirling around in the Levov family. In one disturbing scene, the 10- or 11-year-old Merry turns to her father and says, “Kiss me, daddy. Kiss me the way you k-k-k-kiss mother.”

As she grows older, under conditions of the growing, homicidal US involvement in Vietnam, Merry’s disharmony with her surroundings and family takes on a more pronounced political coloring. As a young girl, in 1963, she is traumatized by television images of a Buddhist monk in Saigon setting himself on fire in protest against the US-backed, South Vietnamese government. “Doesn’t anybody care?” she wonders out loud. A few years later, she screams at President Lyndon B. Johnson when he appears on the television screen, “Fucking liar!”

Meanwhile, Newark is disintegrating, economically and socially. Large-scale rioting erupts in 1967, and the Swede and one of his black employees do what they can to prevent the company’s building from being torched. Merry, still only a teenager, is more and more restive (and abusive) at home. She begins making forays into New York City, where she evidently meets with “extremist” radicals of one stripe or another. Back in Old Rimrock, she rails against her parents for their wealth and self-satisfaction. Her mother says simply, “She hates me.” Shockingly, in February 1968, Merry plants a bomb in the local post office that kills a man.

The girl goes into hiding from the police and FBI. The Swede looks everywhere for her, to no avail. The ensuing pressures damage both he and his wife. Dawn has a nervous breakdown, and, ultimately, an affair.

Five years later, the Swede finds Merry, now a follower of the ancient Indian religion, Jainism, which preaches non-violence, non-attachment to material possessions and suppression of all desire and will. She lives in filthy, dangerous conditions in an abandoned building in Newark’s inner city. Her father tells Merry that “you have taken punishment into your own hands,” and that the government would not have treated her so badly. He beseeches her to change her conditions, but she is prepared to accept with utter submissiveness whatever fate has in store for her. The perfect postwar existence envisioned by the Swede and his wife has become an unbearable nightmare.

John Romano’s screenplay and McGregor’s film use only a portion of Roth’s expansive novel. They concentrate on the Swede’s refusal, no matter what the circumstances and no matter how insane his daughter seems, to give up on Merry. McGregor and Fanning are moving in their final scenes.

This film version of American Pastoral does not delve deeply into American life and discontent in the 1960s. It tends to take events such as the Vietnam War, the Newark riots, the general crisis of the inner cities, the decline of American manufacturing, Weathermen-type terrorism and other momentous developments largely for granted. They are little more than the scaffolding on which the film attempts to hang its father-daughter love-tragedy.

Since the dramatic social events are hollowed out for the most part, drained of their greatest significance, it is not surprising that the results on screen are limited, generally humdrum and often unpersuasive. It does not help matters that McGregor is a talented but somewhat passive actor, and that he has brought that passivity to his directing. American Pastoral is oddly flat and uninvolving for the most part, despite the convulsions it represents.

The performers do their best. Connelly is fine as the well-meaning, beleaguered wife and mother. She has become a much better actress. Peter Riegert is amusing as businessman Lou Levov, “one impossible bastard,” as his other son, Jerry (Rupert Evans), describes him in the novel. Fanning is very good in those sequences that make sense. McGregor is weaker than usual, but one can imagine that directing his first film must have made serious demands on him. He never strikes one as a Jewish manufacturer from Newark, Nordic-looking or otherwise, nor does the film as a whole smack much of the city or the era.

But American Pastoral is not generally successful because of another, more elemental problem, the novel itself and the fact that it does not genuinely hold together.

American Pastoral

For the most part, American Pastoral is a wonderfully written, rich, funny and deeply sad work. Roth is at the top of his game here. A host of characters make their appearance, and most of them receive humane and understanding treatment, even tenderness, when that is possible. He writes persuasively about relations between the sexes, between the generations, between Jews and Catholics, between blacks and whites. He writes about love and friendship.

Roth writes about many things, including amusingly/painfully about the difficulty of ever getting other people right: “You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. … And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.”

One might argue that Roth’s novel is a profound book about nearly everything except its central subject, postwar American life.

The book simply doesn’t add up. Merry as a character doesn’t add up. It’s not good enough to make her “the monster daughter,” “the angry, rebarbative spitting-out daughter.” The Swede complacently imagines that he can pick up and leave Newark and live in the semi-countryside, with his beauty queen wife, and raise a perfect child, and that everything will go on like that forever. Instead, according to Roth, “the daughter and the decade [the 1960s]” end up “blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking.” The daughter “transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counter pastoral––into the indigenous American berserk.”

The Swede is “our Kennedy,” a man “whose discontents were barely known to himself,” a man awakened “in middle age to the horror of self-reflection. All that normalcy interrupted by murder.” However, it is never entirely clear whether the Swede, in some sense, “deserves” his fate, because he is so deluded and misguided about life, or whether he has simply been unfortunate enough to spawn a psychopath.

In any event, what is this “indigenous American berserk”? Roth won’t agree of course, but what seem to him entirely mad acts of individual violence are nothing more, in the end, than particular expressions of the savagery of social relations as a whole in America. The “most democratic republic” has always generated the most ruthless class struggle, and features a ruling elite that is essentially criminal from head to toe. It is official, everyday, state-sponsored and state-organized violence that powerfully communicates itself and sways the most vulnerable members of American society.

The novel passes lightly over the bloody Newark riot of July 1967, which lasted for six days and brought the National Guard onto the city’s streets. The upheaval is largely seen from the standpoint of the small businessman who fears his windows will be smashed. Roth has the right to adopt whatever point of view he likes, but can he see no connection between the ferocity of the riot, whether he “approves” of it or not, and the general state of American society? (Or was this simply more of the “American berserk”?) Was the turmoil an aberration, a “race riot”––or an expression, occurring in one of the most economically devastated industrial cities, of the real state of things in the country? And social inequality is far deeper and economic decline far more advanced today than in 1967.

Roth waxes indignant at Merry “the murderer.” His attitude toward her is extreme, almost violent. Her actions in the novel are certainly indefensible. But the Weather Underground and similar organizations, disoriented and politically bankrupt, managed to kill a handful of people (including several of their own members) over half a dozen years. The US government and military, on the other hand, murdered 3 million to 4 million Vietnamese and wounded or maimed millions more; destroyed countless villages and communities in massacres such as the one in My Lai; dropped 8 million tons of bombs (more than twice the amount dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II); used 20 million gallons of herbicide, including Agent Orange; shot napalm, which generates temperatures of 1,500°F to 2,200°F, from flame-throwers …

Roth, born in 1933, was shaped by the Cold War, anti-communism, illusions in American democracy and economic might more than he may realize. He did not permit himself in writing American Pastoral to come nearly close enough to the anger and shame that masses of young people in particular felt about the unspeakable crimes committed in their names––and, yes, some did nearly go mad over it.

Sadly, Roth took the easy way out in his often remarkable novel and turned Merry into a one-dimensional madwoman. This was Roth’s “bit of the [liberal-]philistine’s tail.”

WSWS

AT&T, Time Warner and the Death of Privacy

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OCTOBER 27, 2016

By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan

It has been 140 years since Alexander Graham Bell uttered the first words through his experimental telephone, to his lab assistant: “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.” His invention transformed human communication, and the world. The company he started grew into a massive monopoly, AT&T. The federal government eventually deemed it too powerful, and broke up the telecom giant in 1982. Well, AT&T is back and some would say on track to become bigger and more powerful than before, announcing plans to acquire Time Warner, the media company, to create one of the largest entertainment and communications conglomerates on the planet. Beyond the threat to competition, the proposed merger—which still must pass regulatory scrutiny—poses significant threats to privacy and the basic freedom to communicate.

AT&T is currently No. 10 on the Forbes 500 list of the U.S.‘s highest-grossing companies. If it is allowed to buy Time Warner, No. 99 on the list, it will form an enormous, “vertically integrated” company that controls a vast pool of content and how people access that content.

Free Press, the national media policy and activism group, is mobilizing the public to oppose the deal. “This merger would create a media powerhouse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. AT&T would control mobile and wired internet access, cable channels, movie franchises, a film studio and more,” Candace Clement of Free Press wrote. “That means AT&T would control internet access for hundreds of millions of people and the content they view, enabling it to prioritize its own offerings and use sneaky tricks to undermine net neutrality.”

Net neutrality is that essential quality of the internet that makes it so powerful. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality.” After the Federal Communications Commission approved strong net neutrality rules last year, Wu told us on the Democracy Now! News hour, “There need to be basic rules of the road for the internet, and we’re not going to trust cable and telephone companies to respect freedom of speech or respect new innovators, because of their poor track record.”

Millions of citizens weighed in with public comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality, along with groups like Free Press and The Electronic Frontier Foundation. They were joined by titans of the internet like Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Arrayed against this coalition were the telecom and cable companies, the oligopoly of internet service providers that sell internet access to hundreds of millions of Americans. It remains to be seen if AT&T doesn’t in practice break net neutrality rules and create a fast lane for its content and slow down content from its competitors, including the noncommercial sector.

Another problem that AT&T presents, that would only be exacerbated by the merger, is the potential to invade the privacy of its millions of customers. In 2006, AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein revealed that the company was secretly sharing all of its customers’ metadata with the National Security Agency. Klein, who installed the fiber-splitting hardware in a secret room at the main AT&T facility in San Francisco, had his whistleblowing allegations confirmed several years later by Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. While that dragnet surveillance program was supposedly shut down in 2011, a similar surveillance program still exists. It’s called “Project Hemisphere.” It was exposed by The New York Times in 2013, with substantiating documents just revealed this week in The Daily Beast.

In “Project Hemisphere,” AT&T sells metadata to law enforcement, under the aegis of the so-called war on drugs. A police agency sends in a request for all the data related to a particular person or telephone number, and, for a major fee and without a subpoena, AT&T delivers a sophisticated data set, that can, according to The Daily Beast, “determine where a target is located, with whom he speaks, and potentially why.”

Where you go, what you watch, text and share, with whom you speak, all your internet searches and preferences, all gathered and “vertically integrated,” sold to police and perhaps, in the future, to any number of AT&T’s corporate customers. We can’t know if Alexander Graham Bell envisioned this brave new digital world when he invented the telephone. But this is the future that is fast approaching, unless people rise up and stop this merger.

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Michael Moore in TrumpLand grovels in praise of Hillary Clinton

By Fred Mazelis
27 October 2016

Michael Moore in TrumpLand is a bare-bones documentary, essentially the recording of a one-man show presented by the American filmmaker in Wilmington, Ohio earlier this month and released just days later, three weeks before the presidential election.

Moore, who previously backed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and then became a reluctant supporter of Hillary Clinton after she won the Democratic presidential nomination, has now gone all-out to portray the former First Lady and Secretary of State as “our Pope Francis,” a positive standard bearer for the “left.” The man who occasionally used satire and a comic flair to scandalize the corporate and political establishment (Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine) has come forward as the defender of the favored candidate of that establishment.

Michael Moore in TrumpLand

With the message that Hillary Clinton will be the second coming of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Moore has made a movie whose laugh lines fall flat and whose peroration in praise of the voice of Wall Street and the Pentagon is both politically appalling and pathetic.

The premise of TrumpLand is that Mr. Moore, the fearless stand-up comic, has ventured into the lion’s den. Wilmington, a town of some 12,500 in southwestern Ohio, is typical of cities and towns throughout the US where the fascistic candidate of the Republican Party has won support by appealing to the anger and frustration of working class voters who have seen their jobs and living standards decimated in the years since the 2008 financial crash and the decades of deindustrialization leading up to it.

Showing somewhat more flexibility than Clinton exhibited with her notorious comment about Trump voters as a “basket of deplorables,” Moore welcomes both Trump and Clinton supporters, as well as those planning to vote for third-party candidates, to Wilmington’s Murphy Theater. After some lame and reactionary gibes at Trump partisans—referring to “angry white guys” whose “days are numbered”—Moore declares his sympathy with the “legitimate concerns” of the Trump backers.

He warns, however, that while a vote for Trump will be a “human Molotov cocktail,” “the biggest ‘Fuck you!’ ever recorded in human history,” it will “only feel good for possibly a month.” Comparing the US election to the Brexit vote in Britain, he warns that “using the ballot as an anger management tool” will leave working people even worse off than before.

“Can’t we start saying something nice about her?” says Moore. He proceeds to poke fun at right-wing critics on such issues as the 2012 Benghazi attack in Libya, but says nothing about Clinton’s actual record as US Senator and Secretary of State: her notorious gloating about the murder of Muammar Gaddafi, the WikiLeaks revelations of her Wall Street speeches, her appeals for the prosecution of Edward Snowden, and her calls for aggressive military preparations or actual escalation of US intervention in Iran, Syria, China and Russia.

Advocating a vote for Clinton, Moore goes much further in TrumpLand than the bankrupt lesser-evil argument advanced in some quarters. He rhapsodizes about a first 100 days of a Hillary Clinton administration, filled with executive orders that will usher in a new era of social reform. Clinton will stop the deportation of immigrants, rescue the residents of lead-poisoned Flint, release all non-violent offenders from prison and prosecute all police who shoot unarmed black men. Clinton will supposedly “kick ass in Congress”—never mind her constant appeals for Republican support and promises to seek “compromise.”

Michael Moore in TrumpLand

Qualifying his praise slightly, Moore goes on to explain that his dream of Clinton as a reformer isn’t going to happen “without a revolution behind her.” Repeating the argument of Sanders, who shifted quickly from denouncing Clinton as the candidate of Wall Street to boosting her as a progressive champion, Moore calls for mobilizing support to “get behind” Clinton and “hold her” to the promises of the Democratic Party platform.

“If for some reason” Clinton does not deliver, Moore promises, tongue planted firmly in cheek, to run for president himself in 2020.

Moore goes beyond attempting, à la Sanders, to sell Clinton as a progressive alternative. The climax of the filmmaker’s plea on behalf of Clinton in TrumpLand is entirely within the deplorable framework of identity politics.

Running through Moore’s 70-minute show is the theme of Clinton as the first woman US president, and the supposedly earthshaking significance of gender. “Hillary is genuinely the first feminist of the modern era,” he proclaims, after screening a clip of her graduation speech from Wellesley College. Like the current Pope, Moore says, Clinton has “bided her time.” She endured all the attacks as First Lady, the failure of her attempts, supposedly, to secure universal healthcare. Now, however, “the majority gender has the chance to run this world.”

There are millions of young women and men, of course, firmly committed to equal rights, but unimpressed with Clinton or the claims that a woman president will reverse inequality or change the nature of the capitalist system.

Moore does not mention Margaret Thatcher, one of the most significant figures in the social counterrevolution that has been waged by global capitalism for the past 40 years. Nor does he allude to the current or recent female prime ministers or heads of state in Britain, Germany, Finland, Norway, Brazil, Chile, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere.

It is not an accident that the prominence of female leaders coincides with this period of reaction. The politics of identity, based on gender, race and sexual orientation, has been used to cultivate an upper middle class constituency that directly benefits from austerity and inequality, while the vast majority of the population, of all races and genders, suffers the consequences.

Moore is now the proud spokesperson for this brand of politics. His right-wing trajectory is one that has been followed by many others. There is some continuity, however, between his current love affair with Clinton and his earlier middle class radical posture. Even at his best, Moore depicted the working class as victims. Today his assigned task is to convince angry millennial voters who are justifiably disgusted with the two-party system to give Clinton a mandate, not for social reform, but for austerity and war.

WSWS

AT&T-Time Warner merger to expand corporate, state control of media

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By Barry Grey
24 October 2016

AT&T, the telecommunications and cable TV colossus, announced Saturday that it has struck a deal to acquire the pay TV and entertainment giant Time Warner. The merger, if approved by the Justice Department and US regulatory agencies under the next administration, will create a corporate entity with unprecedented control over both the distribution and content of news and entertainment. It will also mark an even more direct integration of the media and the telecomm industry with the state.

AT&T, the largest US telecom group by market value, already controls huge segments of the telephone, pay-TV and wireless markets. Its $48.5 billion purchase of the satellite provider DirecTV last year made it the biggest pay-TV provider in the country, ahead of Comcast. It is the second-largest wireless provider, behind Verizon.

Time Warner is the parent company of such cable TV staples as HBO, Cinemax, CNN and the other Turner System channels: TBS, TNT and Turner Sports. It also owns the Warner Brothers film and TV studio.

The Washington Post on Sunday characterized the deal as a “seismic shift” in the “media and technology world,” one that “could turn the legacy carrier [AT&T] into a media titan the likes of which the United States has never seen.” The newspaper cited Craig Moffett, an industry analyst at Moffett-Nathanson, as saying there was no precedent for a telecom company the size of AT&T seeking to acquire a content company such as Time Warner.

“A [telecom company] owning content is something that was expressly prohibited for a century” by the government, Moffett told the Post.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, in keeping with his anti-establishment pose, said Saturday that the merger would lead to “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” and that, if elected, he would block it.

The Clinton campaign declined to comment on Saturday. Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine, speaking on the NBC News program “Meet the Press” on Sunday, said he had “concerns” about the merger, but he declined to take a clear position, saying he had not seen the details.

AT&T, like the other major telecom and Internet companies, has collaborated with the National Security Agency (NSA) in its blanket, illegal surveillance of telephone and electronic communications. NSA documents released last year by Edward Snowden show that AT&T has played a particularly reactionary role.

As the New York Times put it in an August 15, 2015 article reporting the Snowden leaks: “The National Security Agency’s ability to spy on vast quantities of Internet traffic passing through the United States has relied on its extraordinary, decades-long partnership with a single company: the telecom giant AT&T.”

The article went on to cite an NSA document describing the relationship between AT&T and the spy agency as “highly collaborative,” and quoted other documents praising the company’s “extreme willingness to help” and calling their mutual dealings “a partnership, not a contractual relationship.”

The Times noted that AT&T installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs based in the US, provided technical assistance enabling the NSA to wiretap all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a client of AT&T, and gave the NSA access to billions of emails.

If the merger goes through, this quasi-state entity will be in a position to directly control the content of much of the news and entertainment accessed by the public via television, the movies and smart phones. The announcement of the merger agreement is itself an intensification of a process of telecom and media convergence and consolidation that has been underway for years, and has accelerated under the Obama administration.

In 2009, the cable provider Comcast announced its acquisition for $30 billion of the entertainment conglomerate NBCUniversal, which owns both the National Broadcasting Company network and Universal Studios. The Obama Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission ultimately approved the merger.

Other recent mergers involving telecoms and content producers include, in addition to AT&T’s 2015 purchase of DirecTV: Verizon Communications’ acquisition of the Huffington Post, Yahoo and AOL; Lionsgate’s deal to buy the pay-TV channel Starz; Verizon’s agreement announced in the spring to buy DreamWorks Animation; and Charter Communications’ acquisition of the cable provider Time Warner Cable, approved this year.

The AT&T-Time Warner announcement will itself trigger a further restructuring and consolidation of the industry, as rival corporate giants scramble to compete within a changing environment that has seen the growth of digital and streaming companies such as Netflix and Hulu at the expense of the traditional cable and satellite providers.

The Financial Times wrote on Saturday that “the mooted deal could fire the starting gun on a round of media and technology consolidation.” Referring to a new series of mergers and acquisitions, the Wall Street Journal on Sunday quoted a “top media executive” as saying that an AT&T-Time Warner deal would “certainly kick off the dance.”

The scale of the buyout agreed unanimously by the boards of both companies is massive. AT&T is to pay Time Warner a reported $85.4 billion in cash and stocks, at a price of $107.50 per Time Warner share. This is significantly higher than the current market price of Time Warner shares, which rose 8 percent to more than $89 Friday on rumors of the merger deal.

In addition, AT&T is to take on Time Warner’s debt, pushing the actual cost of the deal to more than $107 billion. The merged company would have a total debt of $150 billion, making inevitable a campaign of cost-cutting and job reduction.

The unprecedented degree of monopolization of the telecom and media industries is the outcome of the policy of deregulation, launched in the late 1970s by the Democratic Carter administration and intensified by every administration, Republican or Democratic, since then. In 1982, the original AT&T, colloquially known as “Ma Bell,” was broken up into seven separate and competing regional “Baby Bell” companies.

This was sold to the public as a means of ending the tightly regulated AT&T monopoly over telephone service and unleashing the “competitive forces” of the market, where increased competition would supposedly lower consumer prices and improve service. What ensued was a protracted process of mergers and disinvestments involving the destruction of hundreds of thousands of jobs, which drove up stock prices at the expense of both employees and the consuming public.

Dallas-based Southwestern Bell was among the most aggressive of the “Baby Bells” in expanding by means of acquisitions and ruthless cost-cutting, eventually evolving into the new AT&T. Now, the outcome of deregulation has revealed itself to be a degree of monopolization and concentrated economic power beyond anything previously seen.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/10/24/merg-o24.html?view=mobilearticle

The 50th Anniversary of ‘The Battle of Algiers’ and the Film’s Impact on the Black Radical Imagination

An excerpt from an important new book on the film.

Photo Credit: YouTube screenshot

The 1966 film The Battle of Algiers is commemorating the 50th anniversary of its release, opening in more theaters across the country. As the Movement for Black Lives continues to disrupt and challenge the status quo, it also worth noting that 2016 is the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Black Panther Party. This edited excerpt from Sohail Daulatzai’s new book on the legacy of the film reveal only part of the influence The Battle of Algiers had on the Black radical imagination. The excerpt is followed by William Klein’s 1971 documentary on former Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver in Algeria.

Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the largest antiwar protest in history took place throughout the world. But to no avail. President Bush dismissed the protestors as “a focus group,” unleashing the bombing campaign that was known as “Shock and Awe.” Soon after the invasion, in late 2003, the Pentagon invited the military brass to a screening of The Battle of Algiers, and the teaser read: ”How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”

Well before the Pentagon screening, both U.S. Army intelligence operatives and the F.B.I. also screened the film in 1970 to try to silence domestic and global threats to U.S. power. The film was used as a training tool by the U.S. military as part of “Operation Phoenix,” and its larger strategy for the “pacification of Vietnam,” while the FBI screened it at the height of its vicious Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which included the destabilization of leftist groups in the United States through the use of targeted assassination, disinformation campaigns, false arrests and the imprisonment of Black Panther Party members, in particular.

While security states were screening the film throughout the world, The Battle of Algiers was also embraced by a range of different leftist groups including the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Irish Republican Army and the Tamil Tigers. In the United States, it was a favorite among the Weather Underground, Arab students organizing in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and later in the 1990s as Chicano activists in Los Angeles mobilized around the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico. In the 1960s and ’70s, the film was required viewing for the Black Panther Party, whose liberationist politics were linked to the anticolonial Third Worldism of Vietnam, Palestine, Cuba, and elsewhere.

This embrace of the film by the Panthers was part of a longer history of Black radical solidarity with internationalist struggles in general, and Algeria in particular. As Stokely Carmichael said, “Black Power means that we see ourselves as part of the Third World; that we see our struggle as closely related to liberation struggle around the world.” And he was far from the exception. Black Panther Party member Kathleen Cleaver said, “From its inception, the Black Panther Party saw the condition of Blacks in an international context, recognizing that the same racist imperialism that people in Africa, Asia, Latin America were fighting against was victimizing Blacks in the United States.”

Writers and activists from Hoyt Fuller to Martin Luther King had expressed admiration and solidarity with the Algerian struggle, viewing Black struggles in the U.S. in the context of anti-colonial rebellion taking place worldwide. James Baldwin also commented on Algeria and France’s brutal colonial war. He made many trips to Paris, and he often made reference to the violent mistreatment of Algerians in Paris, including the infamous Papon Massacre in October 1961 in Paris. Baldwin would write, “Algeria was French only insofar as French power had decreed it to be French. It existed on the European map only insofar as European power had placed it there. It is power, not justice, which keeps rearranging the map, and the Algerians were not fighting the French for justice but for the power to determine their own destinies.”

Malcolm X would also weigh in when discussing policing of Black people in Harlem, “Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state, and that is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state, the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army. … The same conditions that prevailed in Algeria that forced the people, the noble people of Algeria, to resort to terrorist-type tactics that were necessary to get the monkey off their backs, those same conditions prevail today in America in every Negro community.”

Theaters of War

The Battle of Algiers would screen at the New York Film Festival in September 1967, just after massive riots in Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit had rocked the country. As the winds of Black Power began to gust, fanning the flames of urban unrest, Newsweek magazine reported, “Many young Negroes cheered or laughed knowingly at each terrorist attack on the French, as if The Battle of Algiers were a textbook and prophecy of urban guerrilla warfare to come.” Three years later, at a screening of the film at the Thalia on the Upper West Side, the New York Times reported that there was “laughter and applause when bombs planted by Algerian women destroyed restaurants frequented by the French,” and “at one point a cry of ‘the United States is next’ rang through the small movie house.”

The film would also be screened in 1969 at Amiri Baraka’s Spirit House in Newark, New Jersey, which was the unofficial mecca of the Black Arts Movement. Formed the day after the assassination of Malcolm X, and hoping to extend the legacy of his revolutionary spirit, Amiri Baraka and others saw the Black Arts Movement as a vehicle in which poetry, literature, theater, music, and film were central to Black liberation. The Battle of Algiers was part of a series of films and performances that also included the 1964 film The Dutchman (based on Baraka’s play) and the 1968 documentary on the Spirit House called The New-Ark, a triple feature of radical films that reflected the global sensibilities of the era.

Emory Douglas, who was minister of culture for the Black Panther Party, and whose graphic artwork was the basis of the official newspaper The Black Panther, traveled to Algeria in 1969 and was there when Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver emerged in Algiers for the first annual Pan-African Cultural Festival. In my conversation with Douglas, he said that, at the time, The Battle of Algierswas the most influential film in his life, helping to shape his artistic and political vision “because it did what I was trying to do with the Panthers—create a culture of resistance through art.” Not surprisingly, the Panthers would use Algiers as the site to open the first International Section of the Black Panther Party due to their admiration of Frantz Fanon and the Algerian struggle of which he was a part, while in 1970, Francee Covington would write an essay titled “Are the Revolutionary Techniques Employed in The Battle of Algiers Applicable in Harlem?” in the seminal anthology The Black Woman.

The film would also emerge as part of a much covered and controversial 1971 trial in New York City of what was known as the Panther 21, one of whom was Afeni Shakur, mother of hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur, with whom she was pregnant at the time. Charged—and acquitted—of conspiring to explode bombs at department stores, police stations, and other locations throughout the city, the Panthers had reportedly drawn their inspiration for this plot from the film. During the trial, the prosecutor, in an attempt to sway the jury toward a conviction, showed the film to the jurors. Twice during the courtroom screening, when the French offered an Algerian rebel a fair trial, several Panthers laughed at what could only be assumed was the deep irony and parallel nature of their respective predicaments. For some of the jurors, the responses were equally striking. For juror Joe Rainato, this would be his fourth viewing. Another juror, Ben Giles, said the showing “saved me $3.50 because I was going to see it after the trial anyway,” and juror Ed Kennebeck, who was now seeing the film for a third time, said, “The film did more to help me see things from the defense point of view than the D.A. suspected.”

Many Black activists saw in Ali La Pointe a mirror of Malcolm X—both were street hustler who were radicalized in prison and went on to become revolutionary heroes. Lerone Bennett, who was a vocal critic of Melvin Van Peebles’ 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song for what he saw as the film’s troubling and confusing political impulses, said “some will say: ‘you are criticizing the man (Van Peebles) for not filming The Battle of Algiers. How could he film The Battle of Algiers when there had been no battle of Algiers in America?” But that is precisely the point. There has been a Battle of Watts in America, and a Battle of Newark, and a Battle of Detroit. A Malcolm lived in Harlem, a King in Atlanta, and Angela Davis is in a California prison. And it is impossible to make a revolutionary black film in America without taking these realities into consideration.”

This brief alternative history to the film is vital if we are to grasp any lessons from it for today. The screening of the film at the Pentagon in 2003 and the racial logic of the “War on Terror” have sought to control the memory of The Battle of Algiers and, at the same time, have negated the central questions and concerns that decolonization, Black Power and the Third World Project sought to address: structural global inequality, racial capitalism resulting in wealth and resource exploitation of the non-white world; the policing and containment of Black life, continued military interventions into and destabilization of the Third World; and deeply entrenched asymmetries in diplomatic, political, and economic power between the West and the Global South. It is these structural violences that now sit at the heart of the “War on Terror,” and it is their systematic silencing of which The Battle of Algiers continues to be a haunting reminder.

Excerpt reprinted by permission from the University of Minnesota Press from Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue by Sohail Daulatzai (Forerunners: Ideas First series). Copyright 2016 by Sohail Daulatzai.

Sohail Daulatzai is the author of four books including Fifty Years of “The Battle of Algiers”: Past as Prologue and Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop. More of his work can be found at openedveins.com. Follow him @SohailDaulatzai.

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