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

Numero deux [1975)

Back.  Return return.  Long absence.

Unrestful battle to the death with corporate finance.

And Jeannot mentions Georges.  Beauregard?

Yes, almost certainly.

And so politics becomes sex.  But sex remains politics.  The two phenomena simultaneously.

Like dependent events and statistical fluctuations.

Ah, statistics…

Not the fun stuff of batting averages.  No, we mean correlations and covariance and stultifying minutiae.

And that’s where the money comes from.

Godard after 45 years had finally finished with Paris.  Done.  Fin.

Il y a equals = Grenoble?

A new era with Anne-Marie Miéville.  Sonimage.  Mon ton son image son.

Wordplay cures illnesses.

The glissando of sliding meaning.

Slippage.

I want to write film criticism as if I am writing a viola sonata.  Everything is possible.

Amazingly…amazingly…Wikipedia gives a synopsis.

Thank you kind soul…kind, fastidious soul.

Is it the same in France?  Numero deux est la merde?

Yes, Godard finds a way to shock…again.  Like Salò, but in a mundane grocery store of quotidian pain.

Wordplay and illnesses.

Is it Sandrine Battistella?

Is it Pierre Oudrey?

Are the child actors the best players in this film (in the tradition of Bresson)?

And Alexandre Rignault.  The old man?  I am too lazy.  It is already a service.  Mon beau souci.

The anarchy of breasts.

Both enjoy in different ways.

Pain is not simple.

It was this point at which Godard became a true revolutionary.  With his army surplus jacket.  Inconsequential.

Having survived the revolution.  The upheaval.  To live on into the era of Bruce Lee kicking Chuck Norris’ ass.

We see briefly.

But mainly we see fatigue.  The fatigue of Beethoven.  Facile technician.  Adjusting color timing instinctively.  Habit.

Sometime you must take a break from James Bond to question the fundamental things.

White people problems, they say.

No, I see the same in true cultures…in China…in Africa.

Unique modes of expression.  Unlearning.

The greatest service is to convey the feelings of the film.  If these feelings harmonize with the dissonance of your pathetique lives, then you are like me.  Searching for small miracles.

Actors cannot touch non-actors.  Praise be to actors who appear to have no technique–who appear to be non-actors.

Either way.  Doesn’t matter.  Matters.

-PD

Enter the Dragon [1973)

Hollywood fail.  Yes.  Bruce Lee’s first three films are each better than this hunk of bejeweled shit.  Most notably, it shows how talented Lee was as a director (Way of the Dragon) compared to Robert Clouse.  But then we get the message that Lee was an “uncredited” director on this film.  Is it a reference to the fight scenes and their staging?  It seems, rather, that Lee merely directed the opening sequence of the film under consideration.

Back to Clouse then.  Perhaps his other films were better, but this one really misses the mark.  All of the special details which made The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon such wonderful films are generally missing here.

Don’t get me wrong:  there are great moments within.  When dealing with a talent like Lee, there is always something salvageable.  Yet still, it is mind-boggling to me that the addition of major studio backing (Warner Bros.) only served to dilute the power of what Lee had been steadily building through his filmography.

But of course that would all end on July 20, 1973 when Lee died (just six days before Enter the Dragon premiered in Hong Kong).  Lee was in Hong Kong to dine with Lazenby.  George Lazenby.  The two intended to work together.  Lee met Raymond Chow at 2 p.m. to discuss his next film Game of Death.

Cerebral edema, they say.  Had occurred as recently as two months prior.  Seizures and headaches.  Mannitol.

A headache on the day of his death led to Equagesic (aspirin and meprobamate).  Analgesic/tranquilizer.

Swelling of the brain…  Was his death really an allergic reaction to the tranquilizer component of Equagesic?

A sad day.  Eleven days later his pallbearers included Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Chuck Norris, and George Lazenby.

Yes, there seems to be some dispute between the doctor in charge of autopsy (Donald Teare) and Lee’s doctor in Hong Kong.  It doesn’t really add confidence to the conclusion of the former to note that he (Teare) was recommended by Scotland Yard.  This was, of course, during the 156 years which Britain ruled Hong Kong as a colony (ending in 1997).

Had Lee eaten cannabis or hashish?  Was this the true cause of his death?  Some have claimed that Lee did this regularly to relieve the stress of fame.

Dr. Peter Wu, who had treated Lee two months prior to his death, called Dr. Teare “an expert on cannabis.”  Hmmm…

Teare’s conclusion was that the Equagesic had killed Lee.

I do find it suspicious that Lee died just six days prior to the Hong Kong release of this film.  The $850,000 film would go on to rake in $200 million by 1992.  Less than three weeks after his funeral in Seattle, the film premiered in the U.S.

Clouse would go on to cobble together footage of Lee and a couple of stand-ins for the 1978 release Game of Death.  It is interesting to note that the plot of Game of Death involves an international martial arts film star struggling against a racketeering syndicate.  What is more, this particular plot element seems to have not existed when shooting was done prior to Lee’s demise.  Perhaps Clouse redeemed himself in code???

-PD

Way of the Dragon [1972)

1770.  Beethoven.  Dragon.  If my math is correct.  I was born in the year of the dragon.  Hour of the dog.  For dragon, I will own eccentric.  For dog, sense of justice and lazy.  Bruce Lee was born in the year and hour of the dragon.

Strong.  Intestinal fortitude is usually used figuratively.  Early in this film we might be disoriented by the clumsy, blurred  mise-en-scène.  Indeed, this was Lee’s first and last completed directorial effort.  The beginning doesn’t bode well.  Just like his character, who accidentally orders five bowls of soup, Lee seems in over his head as an auteur.  As his character Tang Lung deals with a seeming case of the shits, the film moves (on the contrary) very slowly.  Not only do we wonder about the technical proficiency of the cinematographer, we experience a claustrophobic hyper-sensitivity to the passing of time.  Mercifully, this is offset by a cinematic tone which echoes Tati’s Playtime.

But the strength builds up.  The film, literally, comes into focus (albeit slowly).  Lee once again plays a similar character to those he delineated in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury.

You must put your hip into it, he says.  Yes.  This is the secret to power.  Leverage.  Chinese boxing.

We are made aware of Lee’s strength on several occasions when he flexes his taut physique.  Suffice it to say that there is nothing slight about the diminutive Lee.  One senses that every square inch of this man is power.  Strength.

Proud.  Nothing is like back home.  Hong Kong.  Rome doesn’t impress Lee.  On one occasion he seems to see things through the eyes of Respighi for a moment, but then makes a flippant comment about a grand fountain.  Tang Lung (Lee) would build over it.  Make money.

But this façade is at odds with the loyalty he shows to his newfound friends in Rome (themselves likewise expats from Hong Kong).

Direct.  Lee begins to direct.  There is a panache in all of his movements…like a lethal Chaplin.

Eccentric.  Can I buy a gun around here?  Yes?  Good.  I’ll whittle some bamboo darts instead.

He moves in squawking orbits.  Distractions.  Diversions.  Like Muhammad Ali with Tourette’s.

Show off.  More like a selective extrovert.  Beware of the quiet ones.  The humble ones.  When they reach their breaking points, God forbid they be the most genius asskickers on the planet.

Lee refrains until his adversaries ask for it.  Backed into a corner, he turns the tables…every time.

Arrogant.  Sometimes…  It takes a Chuck Norris to remind us that there are other masters in the world.  And if we beat them, we salute them.  But he who seeks not money shall have a superior core to the mercenary.  To protect is more powerful than to attack.

Violent.  Damn right!  You want violence?  You’re about to be dealt the quickest administrations of pain you’ve ever seen.  Calling Dr. Lee.  This is where shock and awe comes from.  And machinery/technology will never ascend to the glorious depths of human creativity.  Endurance is in the mind.

Brash.  Occasionally.  The big boss needs to learn.  The big boss hires his murders–his terrorism–his intimidation.  The big boss runs and hides when the fast bullets fly.  But once in awhile the masters of war find themselves in very uncomfortable circumstances.  The teacher does not love war.  The teacher masters war.  The teacher masters the passions of revenge.  Bruce Lee never distributes a disproportionate riposte.

Controlling.  Control.  First, control yourself.  Seek to master yourself.  Listen to your body.  Control what you can control…knowing that the world is chaos…an indeterminate harmony.  Then you will be ready to think on your feet.  You will be ready to invent and improvise like Thelonious Monk.

This is the way of the dragon.

-PD