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

Hateship, Loveship [2014)

This one is a mind-bender.

I must admit…I thought I was watching a Weinstein brothers production.

I know, I know.

But the truth is, I went through several mediocre films to find this gem.

Truly Strange:  The Secret Life of Breasts.  Nope.

3rd World Cops.  ¡Ay, carambas!

The Girl in the Book.  Non.

The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq. Extrême ennui.

Zoom.  Ugh…

Say It Isn’t So.  No thanks.

Lovelace.  Not quite.

And finally the film under consideration:  Hateship, Loveship.

At some point I saw the Weinstein brothers’ names.

I can’t seem to pin it down.

But suffice it to say that it certainly wasn’t in relation to the film under review.

Which is to say, finding a good film can be a lot of work.

And reading this review is probably a lot of work as well.

But I hope I save you some small measure of time.

And perhaps guide you to a cinematic treasure which you might have otherwise overlooked.

I have nothing against the Weinstein brothers.

I know hardly anything about them.

But somehow it stuck.

“I’m watching a Weinstein brothers film,” I thought.

But as this minor masterpiece progressed, I further mused, “My goodness, these guys don’t just make crap with explosions.”

Let’s take a short look.

Inglorious Basterds.  One of the worst films ever made.

The Imitation Game.  Good one.

St. Vincent.  Not good.

Zack and Miri Make a Porno.  Meh.

So I would have been right to be incredulous.

Upon further review.

Considering that the Weinstein brothers have largely saturated the world with unwatchable crap.

But Hateship, Loveship is a different story.

To reiterate, this film has nothing to do with the esteemed Weinsteins.

I’m sure they are honorable fellows.

It was just my tired brain which mistook a very fine film (something which they are unaccustomed to making) for one of theirs.

Indeed, it appears the big cheese responsible for this quite stellar film (which grossed a whopping $80,588 [sic] at the box office) was a chap by the name of Michael Benaroya.

And I can honestly say, whatever he sunk into the project was money well-spent.

The direction, by Liza Johnson, is really remarkable.

A lesser film critic would make some comparison to The Truman Show and call it a day.

But I aspire to more.

The connection is simple.

Jim Carrey (once upon a time) tried to do dramatic acting.

The result was The Truman Show.

A good-to-mediocre film.

He’s probably done other “dramatic” stuff, but I could really give a fuck.

In OUR film, a funny lady tells no jokes.

Yes, not to be too murderously-cryptic…but Kristen Wiig plays it straight here.

And she is fucking fantastic!!!

I don’t know where this side of her acting prowess came from (though I did notice her range in, strangely, a film called Paul [2011]), but I must assume that some of the credit for this performance goes to director Johnson.

But still…Kristen Wiig really nails it here!

It’s one of those strange things…

I kept waiting for her to burst out with some goofy impersonation, but no.

And so this film has a sort of tension to it if you know Ms. Wiig as the brilliant comedienne she is.

The story is hard to sum up.

Scrubbing floors…

Scrub scrub scrub.

Little House on the Prairie.  [d’accord]

Yes.

Wiig’s character is a plain Jane.

She’s a maid.  A housekeeper.

In the beginning, she’s a sort of live-in hospice caretaker.

But I think the best summation for her spirit might be “Protestant work ethic”.

Ahh, that Max Weber chestnut…

It’s a funny thing, though…

Elbow grease so often wins the day.

Indispensable to this tale (back to the movie) is Nick Nolte.

Here is an actor who has aged gracefully.

Like Bob Dylan.

That raspy voice…

He was perfectly cast as a man in need of some housekeeping.

But the really fascinating thing about this movie is the story.

And for that we must thank Alice Munro.

There’s a little bit of stolen identity here.

Internet-age fuckery.

Social engineering (in the sense familiar to “penetration testers”).

Put simply, this film goes because of a scam.

I won’t tell you how.  Or whom.

But it is even more tense and eggshell than waiting for Kristen Wiig to tell a joke.

But none of this would matter were it not for love.

Love is the cocoon which holds everything in.

Here.

That kind of love that makes you pack up all your things and head for the unknown.

That kind of love that makes you break the law.

That kind of love that has you end up in an abandoned motel in Chicago.

Yes, Chicago.

We get some Chicago here.

[Even if the film was shot in New Orleans.  Of which I’m only part certain.]

Our minds are in Chicago.

Because the story tells us we’re there.

And so we fear.

Busstops.

Trips to an unseen corner store.

Under a highway (for God’s sake!).

Love.

And trickery.

It is no innovation to point out that films are trickery.

Most films.

Fiction films.

With actors.

The kind you like.

But the best films make us suspend disbelief.

And this is one of those films.

We believe Kristen Wiig.  We believe Nick Nolte.

We believe the scumbag (played admirably by Guy Pearce).

We believe the cough.

We believe the cocaine on the toilet seat.

Sometimes it’s almost too precious–too perfect.

Too strained to be real.

But Liza Johnson is in firm control of her mise-en-scène.

So while the Weinstein brothers prepare for their “untitled Furby film [in association with Hasbro]”, the damage has already been done.

A little missile of truth has sunk the Hollywood battleship.

If, like me, you want to see something to which you can relate, then try this little slice of awkward loneliness.

Sometimes we just need a goddamned mirror to know we still exist.

-PD

Au Hasard Balthazar [1966)

If life has no meaning, then do not continue to the next sentence.

Thank you.

For those of you still reading.

You must excuse my reliance on 1/3rd of the trivium (to the detriment of the remainder).

It must be rhetoric which I employ.

Like a donkey.

No.

It doesn’t work that way.

But for those of us in poverty and misery.

How do we express our futile existences?

By affirming their meanings.

Their meaningfulness.

You have not worked your whole life for nothing.

You worked to survive.

But you survived for others.

You loved.  You cared.

You were curious.

Too curious to let the human race go.

And so, slow and easy does it goes [sic]…the autumn of your years.

Perhaps.

Another spring.

Hope.  Eternal.

Robert Bresson slips a note under our door.

A key.

At first viewing it is dull.  Ugly.

Like a donkey.

Yes.

But Bresson knew Beethoven.  Concision of expression.

Economy of means.

It is no wonder that we hear Schubert throughout this film.

And no wonder that Schubert is Philip Glass’ favorite composer.

Those ostinati.  Figured bass.

Even simpler than Alberti.

More like a rail fence transposition.

Or a Caesar shift cipher.

Ostinato.  Obstinate.

Like the donkey.

But I have patiently borne the humiliation.

I am still a youthful beast of burden.

And yet I know my hooves.

I am a genius.

A four-legged mathematician.

Give me three digits…and a single digit.

And I multiply.

I fecundate the field with feathery flowers.

Four digits.

Do I hear five?

With a memory like an elephant.

A stare like a tiger.

And a harangue like a polar bear.

But look how he shivers.

The donkey.

So humble as to not say a word.

Perhaps it was the wisdom of salt.

Salt of the earth.

A wise ass.

Yes, forever in trouble.  With my pride.

Getting kicked in the rump.

But these are really nasty assaults.

The other side of James Dean.

François Lafarge as Gérard is a real asshole.

Not enough love at home.

Feels a need to punch donkeys.

[pause]

Quite literally…the world comes to life through Bresson’s filmmaking.

Prostitutes pop up.

Pimps prance and preen.

But here we have “merely” sexual assault.

A first step in losing the ability to feel anything.

Numb.

And we have rape (through allusion, of course).

Gérard toots his horn.

Literally.

The other side of the James Dean coin.

The underside of Jean-Paul Belmondo.

A disproportionate riposte courtesy of the one filmmaker with the balls to be simple.

So simple.

On first glance it is nothing.

A donkey.

But live a few years.

And then revisit.

It is a novel.

It contains everything.

We can’t catch it because it doesn’t pop out at us in color.

One way would be to say that no one has ever looked more sad on screen than Anne Wiazemsky here.

Before Godard.

Perhaps a first conversation.

A nervousness.

It was through Wiazemsky that Bresson told this tale.

To teach the New Wave.

They hadn’t learned all the lessons yet.

He wasn’t done speaking.

The quiet tone of an old man…

I want to tell you more more more.

But this is best secret.

To appreciate the simple things.

Before they are gone.

The patient animals.

So gentle in their existence.

Not presuming.

Not running.  Not hustling.

The pack-animals.

We know this look.

In cats.  In dogs.

This wisdom.

We laugh at their carefree insolence.

But they have shown the way.

Such resilience!

Such love…

And we are taken in.

Our hearts are melted.

Yes.

Few moments in cinema feel more lonely than the end of Au Hasard Balthazar.

It is almost unbearable.

The quiet dignity of humanity being shamed.

How could we ever forget our love.

For even a second.

When we rub two sticks together at such an eyelevel perspective, the meaning of life is very clear.

But unutterable.

 

-PD