Chuck Norris vs Communism [2015)

Dear Ilinca Călugăreanu,

You have made a beautiful film.

Which the world needed to see.

And the title made me think it would be imperialist propaganda directed at North Korea.

But I could not have been more wrong.

Because Romania has touched my heart so many times.

And so I am glad to add another name to the list of auteurs.

Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cătălin Mitulescu, Cristian Mungiu…

And now Ilinca Călugăreanu.

Yes, it is only right that a young female director should bring us this story.

This documentary.

Ms. Călugăreanu, born in 1981.

Because this film is very much about the 1980s.

VHS.

Videocassettes.

And the situation in Romania.

Chuck Norris is merely a placeholder.

A meme which has undergone a certain détournement.

But there is no substitute for communism in this tale.

Perhaps, authoritarianism.

You see…

if you tell people to do one thing…and you’re really heavy-handed about it,

they will almost certainly do the opposite.

At some point.

And Ms. Călugăreanu’s very persuasive hypothesis is that videocassettes brought down the Ceaușescu regime.

And so there is very little way around this impasse without talking political economy.

First, let us address the very astute current Russian minister of culture Vladimir Medinsky.

The esteemed Mr. Medinsky has famously (?) called Netflix “U.S. government…mind control”.

Or at least that’s how The Washington Times (who needs the Post?) framed it.

But let’s investigate.

Let’s have Mr. Medinsky’s words and not just a CliffsNotes, elevator-pitch summation of them.

He says [translated],

“And, what, you thought these gigantic startups emerge by themselves? One schoolboy sat down, thought for a bit, and then billions of dollars rained down from above?”

That is pursuant to the funding which helped birth Netflix (and, presumably, other American companies with what Mr. Medinsky feels is a global, insidious reach).

He continues [translated],

“It turns out that that our ideological friends [the U.S. government] understand perfectly well that this is the art form that is the most important…”

Ahh, cinema…

And Vladimir Lenin himself knew it!

Mr. Medinsky then seems to evoke the Leonard Cohen of “Tower of Song” when he says [translated],

“They understand how to enter everyone’s homes by getting into every television with the help of Netflix…”

Leonard Cohen (God rest his soul) said it thus:

“Now you can say that I’ve grown bitter but of this you may be sure
The rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.”

Ah!

What a lyric!!

And that was in 1988!!!

So our director, Ilinca Călugăreanu, knows that of which she speaks.

Because the grip of Ceaușescu was beginning to slip.

But let’s give Mr. Medinsky one more say [translated],

“And through this television, [they get into] the heads of everyone on Earth. But [Russians] don’t grasp this.”

Ok.

Now why was Mr. Medinsky so upset?

Well, because Netflix undertook a vast expansion this past summer.

Indeed, the article from which I’m pirating these quotes (yes, translations are intellectual property) dates from June 23, 2016.

The same article notes pointedly that Netflix’s expansion into Russia, plus a vast number of new territories, means that the streaming service is now available in 190 countries worldwide.

Wait a minute…

How many countries are there, you might ask?  196.  Or 195.

Poor Taiwan, they just can’t catch a break.

So then you might say, well…what the fuck?!?

What countries is Netflix NOT in???

It appears those countries are China, North Korea, Syria, and…Crimea?

Suffice it to say, the international “community” is not unanimous in their appraisal of Crimean statehood.

Is it part of Russia?

Is it part of Ukraine?

What do the words Republic of Crimea even mean if its not an independent country?

Which brings up the specter of “frozen conflict zones”.

I’m guessing that Netflix might be unavailable in Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

But I digress…

Because we are on to more specific matters.

There are at least two major ways in which Americans can view the Romanian communist period as it has been depicted in motion pictures.

First, Americans can sympathize with the repression of the Romanian people.

Any doubters should do a little digging on the PATRIOT Act.

Indeed, the psychosis of surveillance (which is mentioned in Chuck Norris vs Communism) could not field a more forbidding bogeyman than the National Security Agency.

And so, dear peoples of the world, would you feel more or less safe living in the same country in which the NSA is headquartered?

Exactly.

Second, Americans could extrapolate Ms. Călugăreanu’s hypothesis to mean that countries such as China will eventually implode as a result of the fulminating combination of repression and technology (even, perhaps, with a starring role for entertainment).

All of that is to say that movies COULD bring down China or North Korea or even Iran.

[Notice the non-Netflix countries…Syria is without, but apparently Iran does have the service.]

Which is to ultimately say, Mr. Medinsky’s fear is completely warranted.

What is at stake in Russia?

The fall of Putin.

A sea change in leadership.

And I will be quite frank.

There is no doubt that Netflix’s catalog is heavily biased towards globalist propaganda.

One of the most glaring areas is India.

I can’t tell you how many watery, transparent premises there are on Netflix which are some permutation of a young person rebelling against a repressive culture.

It’s almost like they’re churning these formulaic films out in a factory.

Boy marries girl from lower caste.  Mayhem follows.

Girl goes to human rights court.  Happily ever after…

Boy rebels against father’s traditional ways [read:  religion].

I mean, at a certain point it’s just pathetic.

But we must hand it to Netflix for some (SOME) of their selections.

Actually, I have found a good many gems on the site.

But it is a very biased (and historically-uninformed collection).

In general, history doesn’t exist for Netflix.

Unless that history is the Holocaust.

Then, of course, there are a plethora of scenarios to “inform” you about the Nazis.

Make no mistake (my best Obama voice), the Nazis were bad.

Really bad.

But do we need 10 fucking films about the Holocaust?

And if Schindler’s List is the zenith of the genre, God help us…

But I digress again…

Chuck Norris vs Communism is a very beautiful film.

It’s about rebellion.

It’s about the little things we do to assert our existence.

And in this case, it’s about a translator (a voiceover dubbing artist) who reached the hearts of innumerable Romanians.

Irina Nistor.

Whether it was Chuck Norris, or Jean-Claude Van Damme, or Sylvester Stallone, Irina’s voice made the dialogue come alive in Romanian.

But it was a subversive activity.

“Imperialist” films were not allowed in Romania.

But Romania was falling apart.

To take the interviewees of our documentary at their word, their lives sucked…without “video” night.

But we must be clear.

Everything (EVERYTHING) about this enterprise was illegal in Romania.

First, the videos had to be smuggled across the border.

Then they had to be copied and dubbed (voiceover).

Then they had to be distributed.

Then some brave schmucks took the risk of screening these films on their TV sets (for a few lei, of course).

But it was dangerous business.

Especially if you were the kingpin.

So it is then strange to meet this kingpin of video piracy face to face.

Zamfir.

Not the guy with the panpipes.

No, this was Teodor Zamfir.

Made a pretty penny.

But the fascinating thing (by Călugăreanu’s hypothesis) is that he completely changed Romanian culture.

The seeds of revolution were sown by Dirty Dancing, Last Tango in Paris, The King of Comedy

And especially by the action films.

Rocky, Rambo, Lone Wolf McQuade…

And so, if you want to piss off a communist (or socialist, or whatever they’re going by these days), you can go with the familiar tack,

“Didn’t they already try that?  Wasn’t it an immense failure?”

I don’t know.

But I don’t doubt the faces of those who lived through Ceaușescu.

No national cinema has been nearly as effective as the Romanian in communicating to the West just what life under communism was like.

And so Romania becomes our lens into the Soviet Union and its satellite states.

I know there are Russians who fondly remember communism.

Let’s be clear:  capitalism can also suck.

Change and upheaval can be deadly.

They say, “Watch the price of eggs” (to demonstrate how a free market dictates prices).

But we see a very similar discontent in the Middle East.

Is this democracy?

Fuck this!

Yes, America has made some mistakes.

And so we should watch everything with a critical eye.

Be your own critic.

Be like Emerson.

Be bold.

And then double back.

Waffle.

Live by palimpsest.

Because you are the ultimate philosopher.

For your life.

I can’t tell you.

And you can’t tell me.

We have to learn.

It must be the right time.

To receive a particular lesson.

I draw courage from Irina Margareta Nistor.

But most of all, I draw courage from the Romanian people.

Perhaps my country’s Hollywood crap (the stuff I took for granted) was just the stuff necessary in the dark times.

Entertainment.  Ass kicking.  Escape.

But the Romanian cinema of today inspires me beyond words.

And so let us remember, whether we are capitalists or socialists, the price paid by the people of Romania in December 1989.

Was it 1,100 people?

11,000 people?

110,000 people?

It’s troubling that nobody knows for sure.

But even if it was a thousand people.

They didn’t just get trampled by goats or run over by garbage trucks.

It wasn’t a bloodless revolution.

At least 1000 people.

They saw their moment.

They seized on a moment.

They capitalized on their opportunity.

There was something which impelled them not to just sit at home and listen.

I salute these brave souls who went out into the streets.

For a thousand people to have died, it seems rather inconceivable that there wasn’t an attempt made by the government to “restore order”.

That’s the line which can’t be crossed.

That’s when a government has lost its legitimacy.

Some stories are twisted.

And full-blown civil wars do erupt.

But it appears, in the end, that repression lost.

And repression, censorship, and heavy-handed tactics (whether adopted by socialists or capitalists) should, by historical lesson, be most strictly avoided.

It is human nature.

The people will not tolerate being treated like livestock.

And something as seemingly inconsequential as VHS tapes can tip the balance.

-PD

Hudutların Kanunu [1966)

I could have sworn the titles said Hududların Kanunu, but there’s never any mistakes on Wikipedia, right? 

So we are going with Hudutların Kanunu.

The Law of the Border.

And it is such an honor to review another Turkish film.

I must say, this one really “spoke” to me.

Not only does Yılmaz Güney play the lead role of Hidir, but this same actor also wrote the screenplay.

As I watched Yılmaz Güney’s wonderful portrayal of the smuggler Hidir, I was reminded of Antonin Artaud’s acting in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

Güney’s penetrating eyes and stoic face are very similar to Artaud’s physical features.

But not only that.

It occurs to me that Güney bears a striking resemblance to a more contemporary figure:  Vladimir Putin.

This is all the more interesting when one considers that Güney was born Yılmaz Pütün.

Hmmm…

Güney was a Zaza Kurd who apparently got in trouble often with the Turkish government.

He died an early death at age 47 (in 1984).

Whether Hudutların Kanunu is propaganda is beside the point.

It certainly has traits of propaganda films, but it’s such a damn good movie that it doesn’t really matter.

Yes, there is a social justice angle to Güney’s story, but much credit should go to the wonderful directing job of Ömer Lütfi Akad.

Though Güney himself was a director as well, he did not direct this film.

Güney, by the way, had a fascinating life (including an escape from prison in 1981 and a subsequent Palme d’Or at Cannes for the film Yol).

[Sounds a bit like Timothy Leary’s prison-break and rendezvous in Switzerland with Ash Ra Tempel.]

If my numbers are correct, Güney acted in 14 films released in 1966 (!) [including this one] and also directed one as well.

Only one copy of Hudutların Kanunu survived Ahmet Kenan Evren’s 1980 coup in Turkey.

I would describe this wonderful film as being like a 1960s Turkish version of Sicario.

Though The Law of the Border is not a big-budget movie (a military officer comically says “let’s surround them” when he only has three soldiers [himself included]), the film is overall convincing.  It conveys a very powerful story.

As stated earlier, the principal activity at issue is smuggling.

What could be more timely to this day and age?

In the US it is drugs (from Mexico), and in Turkey it is perhaps other things (coming in and out of Syria).

And if the main character looks like Putin?!?

Well, it certainly confuses the meaning, but it still makes it like a Salvador Dalí dream.

It’s like a perfect storm of symbolism.

Furthermore, besides being a film set on a border, a main issue is education in Turkey.

This is, once again, a very timely issue.

As you might have heard last year, there were many protests by high school students in Turkey about the trend of religious schools replacing secular (or science) schools.

Incidentally, our director Ömer Lütfi Akad went to the oldest high school in Turkey:  Galatasaray Lisesi in Istanbul.  The school was started in 1481.

But let me tell you something important…

This film is very entertaining!!!

The gunfights!

Whizz!  Bing!  Pow!

It reminds me a bit of Howard Hawks’ Scarface from 1932.

Also at issue in this film is the concept of change.

Can a person change their beliefs?

Like me…

Can I change my beliefs?

I am 39.

Yılmaz Güney was 29 at the time of this film.

Can we change our beliefs?

And should we?

For Güney’s character Hidir, changing his beliefs is a Herculean effort.

And the moral of the somewhat-propagandistic story is that he’s a hero…JUST FOR TRYING.

He tried to change.

He makes a valiant effort.

A bit like Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction.

This is the challenge for the world.

To look ourselves in our mirrors and make an effort.

Not physically (necessarily), but philosophically.

I’m not here to offer you propaganda.

But I am very concerned with the situation the real Vladimir Putin has been put in in Syria.

Why do we fight? [to echo the old series of American propaganda films from WWII]

We fight for the same reason anyone else does.

Or rather, Putin fights because he has drawn a line.

No more American aggression.

Syria is his line.

It’s not a game.

It’s real blood and real tears.

Proxy wars are not like AGMs (annual general meetings).

They are more like air-to-ground missiles (AGMs).

War is not a strictly academic affair.

It’s messy.  It’s sad.  It’s unnecessary (most of the time).

And the US and Russia have painted themselves into a corner.

That corner is Syria.

Perhaps Hudutların Kanunu is the Sholay of Turkey.

Perhaps it is The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Anatolia.

One thing is sure:  Yılmaz Güney, “the Ugly King” (Çirkin Kral), was a brilliant man.

 

-PD

Ordet [1955)

I’m so scared of life.

So scared of death.

And everything in between.

And so I thank the God of all religions.

My God.  Whom I do not own.  Not mine alone.

Once, an old lady in a corner taught me how to pronounce Søren Kierkegaard.  [Kierka Gourd]

And I delivered a speech of mere seconds…in Denmark…extolling Ordet.

And now we have come full circle.

What was living has died.

And in the spark of a moment is alive again.

That is the miracle of cinema which the auteur theorists captured.

It’s not just the story.  It’s how you tell it.

That spark of manipulating the mystery…the seventh art…cinema…that is authorship.

The breath of life.

Magic.

Yes.

Anything can happen in the movies.

Everything is possible.

The mutants receive new life from David Byrne and Luaka Bop captures a situation à la Yves Klein.

Johannes will often spout out nonsense.  Seemingly.  The insanity of religion.

But few times has the essence of faith been so lovingly portrayed as here.

Certainly Francesco, giullare di Dio.  Rossellini.  Five years previous.

Yes, the jester of God.

I am here for you.  For that very purpose.  My sermon.  Amen.

Now that we finally have a Pope who espouses omnism.

And there are those who would call him antichrist.

Rubbish!

Be like Peter.  Peter Peterson.  Reread the words of Jesus.

It’s all a bunch of unimportant bollocks over which we are arguing.

And meanwhile propaganda puts truth at the service of falsehood.

But I’m just a messed up kid.

I’ve studied too much.

Like Johannes.

I’m delusional.

Especially insofar as thinking I can change anything whatsoever.

What faith!  What insanity!!

No.

I merely have the heart of Mikkel.  The doubter.

And I grow into the form of Morten.  The pessimist.

But what about that magic?

That electric guitar with a lightening flash?  Perfectly synchronized.

Those behind-the-scenes meanderings of God.  A humble god.  Not drawing too much attention.

Yes, that is the sentiment of Inger (Birgitte Federspiel).

Everything we have ever loved.

Taken from us.

Goodbye.

And all the while Preben Lerdorff Rye wanders around as if in a trance.

Exactly like Nicolas de Gunzberg in Vampyr.

Exactly like Falconetti in La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc.

And exactly like the mad saints who penned the great maniacal books.

The Gospel of John (Johannes).  The Word.  Ordet.

And the Book of Revelation.  Dangerous plaything of the lonely.

Harmless psychedelia taken literally.

So obviously a bad trip.  And what a perfect exclamation of fear to finalize the canon.

And how ironic that the futurists have never heard of Giacomo Balla or Carlo Carrà or even Marinetti himself.

Yes.  Not at all ironic.

Dialectic.  Socratic method.  Devil’s advocate.

Unity of opposites.  Heraclitus.  Logos.

I say, my good man…  The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Harrumph!

Is the auto-antonym flammable or inflammable?  Make up your mind!

And cleave TO or diverge like cleavage (literally)?

Which is to say, “defined by its opposite”.

Leadership><Followership.

You’ll end up hating algebra (wink wink).

iff!

(~)

ñot!  Borat.

Bathetic (!)

+ or

with black pieces, mind you:

“1.e4 e5 2.f4 Bc5 3.Nf3 d6 4.c3 Bg4 5.Bc4 Nd7 6.h3 Bxf3 7.Qxf3 Qe7 8.a4 a6 9.b4 Ba7 10.Na3 Ngf6 11.f5 c6 12.d3 h6 13.Nc2 Rd8 14.Be3 Bb8 15.O-O Nh7 16.Qg4 Qf8 17.h4 Ndf6 18.Qf3 Qe7 19.g4 d5 20.Bc5 Bd6 21.Bxd6 Qxd6 22.Bb3 O-O 23.Rad1 g5 24.Ne3 Kg7 25.h5 Rfe8 26.Rf2 Nf8 27.Rb2 b5 28.Ra2 d4 29.axb5 axb5 30.Nc2 Ra8 31.Rxa8 Rxa8 32.cxd4 exd4 33.Kg2 N8d7 34.Qf2 Nxg4 35.Qxd4+ Qxd4 36.Nxd4 Ne3+ 37.Kf3 Nxd1 38.Bxd1 Ne5+ 39.Ke3 Ra1 40.Be2 Rb1 41.Nf3 Nxf3 42.Bxf3 Rxb4 43.e5 c5 44.Bc6 Rb1 45.Ke4 b4 46.Kd5 b3 47.Kd6 b2 48.Ke7 Re1 49.f6+ Kg8 50.Be4 Rxe4 51.dxe4 b1=Q 52.Kd6 Qxe4 0–1”

Will easily lead you to a rather insignificant Rousseau.

A social contract for the turnstiles.

“the things that you’re liable/to read in the Bible”

And yet the tearstains remain on my glasses…

Like a day at the beach.

Long ago.

Salty.

I pray this that and the uttering.

The word.

If it be possible.

 

-PD

El ángel exterminador [1962)

Dear friends…it has been awhile.  And I have been stuck inside a nightmare.

A party, but a nightmare all the same.

On this New Year’s Eve when so many rush to their engagements…I have thanks to give…yet it all seems so surreal.

For many of us we battle mental demons.  Usually, we don’t mean demons literally.  And I certainly don’t.

Yet, the world is so strange that we can’t help wondering whether there is something beyond science which is driving certain events.

These sentiments…these questions, are the stuff of El ángel exterminador.  This is not a relaxing film, but it is absolutely essential.

It is a work of art which is irreplaceable in the global canon of creative thought and philosophy.

Luis Buñuel had immense courage to make this film.  And yet, he was an old hand by this point.

His first film (made in collaboration with fellow-Spaniard Salvador Dalí) was 16 minutes which shook the world:  Un Chien Andalou.  That was 1929.  The slicing of the donkey’s eyeball.  Before the stock market crash.  And verily, the cinematic parallel of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps.

Outrageous surrealism.  Think of his collaborator’s La persistència de la memòria.  The same fount of Freudian cess.  From the pool of the taxed mind comes melting clocks…(and in the case of Un Chien Andalou those familiar ants).  We will always see Dalí as ants…as ants on James Joyce’s egg-yolk universe…Humpty Dumpty having represented the fall of man (“…sat on the wall/…had a great fall”).  [Or as Joyce so singularly put it:  bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!]

Luis Buñuel had the mad genius of Joyce.  In 1930, he followed upon his famous 16 minutes with 60 minutes in L’Âge d’Or.

I had the privilege of knowing Buñuel by way of his first two films and (in bookend fashion) two of his last three films:  Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie (1972) and Cet obscur objet du désir (1977) [his final creation].

But none of this could have prepared me for the devastating, scathing critique of Western civilization that is El ángel exterminador.

The genre known as “comedy of manners” becomes a grotesque apocalypse the hands of Buñuel.  In that sense, El ángel exterminador is closest in spirit (or subject matter) to Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie.

But it is very important to note that El ángel exterminador is operating on multiple levels.

Is it a damnation of the rich?  Sure.

Is it a mockery of polite culture?  Of course.

But the lethargy and incapacitation we see in El ángel exterminador are the result of very mannerly people being reduced to complete inaction because routine convention has been circumvented.  We see the short-circuiting of well-meaning people who do not know how to cope with change.

And on that level, this film is universal.  It just so happens that the overly-precious manners of the bourgeoisie serve best the filmmaker’s purpose.

Not to disappoint the more visually-stimulated among you, but there is no swooping angel of death in this film.  There is, however, a tense, suffocating masterpiece which makes Hitchcock gems like Lifeboat and even Rope look like the products of lazy philosophy in comparison.

One last thought…  For those who think that the wonderfully-bizarre Alejandro Jodorowsky appeared out of nowhere, El ángel exterminador sets the record straight.  Buñuel was taking aim at the impotence of religion before Jodorowsky was in short pants.  In this film we see the kernel of imagery (lambs, a smashed cello, bits of debris…) which would make La montaña sagrada the beautifully freakish creation it is.  Both were, incidentally, shot in Mexico.

Though Buñuel (a Spaniard) and Jodorowsky (a Chilean) came from different corners of the Spanish-speaking world, their lives would both include important time spent in Mexico and France.  Jodorowsky is, in some ways, still the future.  But to know the future, we must first know the past.

 

-PD

 

The Kid [1921)

Sometimes we don’t want to see the same thing again.

I, for example, rewatch movies before writing about them.

I want the impression fresh in my mind.

There’s always something to be said for detached distance from subject matter, but I prefer to experience the film anew if possible.

I had seen Chaplin’s The Kid long ago.  It had impressed me, but something made me a bit wary about rewatching it.

I love Chaplin, but I guess I just wasn’t in the mood.

Today has been a weird day (or “sad and lonesome day” as the Bob Dylan tune in my head has been repeating).

But I went for it.  What the heck!

And I’m glad I did.

I hope I will be able to say the same tomorrow (or sometime this week) regarding another subject.

I am always quite candid here.

I feel it’s my responsibility.  If you study the history of the novel (not that this is a novel) you will notice that writers in the West gradually started to realize the responsibility they had.  I feel that everywhere.  That’s why Facebook is too much for me.  With Facebook I am a howling wreck.  I feel the need to shout from the rooftops anything which might help my fellow humans.  Of course my judgment is not perfect.

But back to my prior allusion.  I made a decision tonight to go see my doctor about changing or adjusting my medications.

Yes, you who might snicker “this guy is crazy” are not totally off the mark.

I have suffered from anxiety my whole life.  Once I recognized it for what it was, my life improved dramatically.  Getting help was a life-changer.

I never had much depression.  Very rarely.  But the last year or so has been different.  For the first time my depression is outpacing my anxiety.

To be sure, I still have significant anxiety issues from time to time, but my depression has been like a blanket of stifling weight.  I feel like a bee drowning in honey.

And so we shall see.  Am I afraid?  Of course.  I’m afraid of change.  Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke.  But I’m afraid it is broke.  Me.  I’m kinda broken.

And so I am saying this because I want other people to get help too if they are feeling the same way.  I know that help can be cost-prohibitive, but taking that first little step is a big deal.

We change.  The medicines we take have to change with us.

It’s scary.  But I am lucky.  Many people around the world have much more serious things to worry about.  They don’t even have a doctor.

And so I hope my visit to the doctor will turn out as well as this reviewing of The Kid.  It is a touching story.  Chaplin is great as always, but Jackie Coogan kind of steals the show.  He’s “the kid”.

This is a cute story which is fit for the whole family.  It just might be the best way to introduce kids to silent films.  The version in the Criterion Collection has a musical score (which makes a big difference).  The score is, of course, written by the multitalented Chaplin.  It was part of the 1971 rerelease of this film.

Thank you to my readers for bearing with me.  I hope I will be more cheerful in the future.  Best wishes to everybody!

 

-PD