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

Trading Places [1983)

At one point in my life I could honestly say that everything I knew about business I had learned from the movie Trading Places.

This film came on TV all the time when I was a kid.

And it never failed to pull me in.

But back to business…it’s that one scene:

coffee, wheat, pork bellies, gold, and (of course) orange juice.

Ok, so I mixed up the order a little bit.

But that’s the “breakfast” of commodities which sits before Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) as he is given a crash course in commodities trading by the Duke brothers (Randolph and Mortimer).

It always made a big impression on me…pork bellies.

And now as I descend from the halfway point of my MBA studies this film carries a richer meaning for me.

The gorilla comes with a bill of lading.

That’s not the type of stuff you catch as a six-year-old.

And I must admit that this film is all the funnier when the expletives are put back in.

And the nudity.

Yes, it was usually the sanitized version we saw on TV.

But maybe sometimes…on a special channel…the real version.

At any rate, this is truly an American classic.

Not least because it was produced by a true American hero like Aaron Russo.

Why do I call him a hero?

Because he stood up for something worth standing up for.

It’s no wonder.

Watching this film.

The agog camera views of the World Trade Center.

But let’s stick to the teaching tool at hand.

Trading Places was just that:  a beautiful teaching tool.

In some ways, therefore, it is aiming at the same thing as Le Gai Savoir.

The particular argument at issue is the famous “nature vs. nurture” debate.

Perhaps my attempt to connect John Landis’ wonderful film to Godard is a bit of a reach, but there is real, American beauty at work here.

Consider, for instance, the opening montage of Philadelphia streets set to W.A. Mozart’s overture from the opera Le Nozze di Figaro.

Notice, if you will, the African-Americans playing basketball with a plastic milk crate attached to a piece of plywood…on a telephone pole.

There are some loving politics at work here.

What we have is a film about unity.  Dan Aykroyd.  Eddie Murphy.  Black and white.

There was a positivity to many American comedies of the 1980s.

I remember hearing “feel-good” used as a descriptor for movies (particularly summertime offerings) more than I care to remember.

But they were “feel-good”.

Trading Places, however, is more than just a feel-good film.

It is a film with a conscience.

That’s what makes it timeless.

I’d like to imagine that Aaron Russo’s conscience was already ticking…ticking.

It wasn’t until later that he made truly political films.

I don’t want to attempt a more profound framing than this thing deserves [too late].

Suffice it to say that Trading Places is as applicable today as it was in 1983.

We may no longer bandy-about the word “yuppies”, but we still have Wall Street.

Perhaps the trading pits and quote boards look hopelessly antiquated now.

But so much transfers.

Exeter.  Harvard.  Winthorpe.

And, of course, kindness transfers.  Jamie Lee Curtis.

So there you have it.

Trading Places is acerbic criticism on race in America.  Racism.  Opportunity.

Eddie Murphy will have you laughing your ass off.

This is truly an indispensable bit of 80s comedy…and so much more.

 

-PD

Les Yeux sans visage [1960)

Loneliness is hell.

An endless cycle of introspection.

As we each make our way through this life.

Every day.

We are judged by our faces.

A face and a mask.

Masked and anonymous.

There is no real point in recounting this tale to you.

If you wish to know it, you will seek it out.

We can whisper the hallowed name of Franju and almost be done with it.

Because I speak to everyone.

I don’t know who will find this post.

From my island I set this bouteille adrift.

Deriving the meaning through impressionist film criticism.

I am not critiquing the film, I’m critiquing myself.

I think, therefore I think I am.

Detour before the bridge.

But I also speak to the cineastes.

And for you I mention Alida Valli.

Because The Paradine Case is one of Hitchcock’s most underrated films.

But the spectacle calls for psychodrama.

Christmas at the zoo.

Christmas on Mars.

A Christmas gift for you.

From Phil Spector.

Sure.

Before there was The Silence of the Lambs.

And even a few months before Psycho.

There was Les Yeux sans visage.

For 1960, this was horror.

But there’s more here.

Like Angela Bettis in May (2002).

Who let the dogs out?

Who set the birds free in Hyde Park after Brian Jones died?

Who cares?

Write loneliness.

Though two roads diverged in a wood.

My face is finished.  My body’s gone.

Ask not what you can do for your country…

You’re not waiting for me to cite Houellebecq.

Because it’s understood.

I want to see the film in the morning light.

At morning sun (harmony in blue).

Morning effect.

Setting sun (symphony in grey and pink).

Grey weather.

Dull day.

Dull weather.

Full sunlight.

Road to Rouen.

Messiaen pulling out all the stops.

Eventually these corrupt regimes collapse.

The rich have the faces.

And there are always hounds of hell.

Echoing in the basements of ultimate fear.

As above, so below.

Caduceus vs. rod of Asclepius.

It is only when one runs screaming from the complex (Snowden) that healing begins.

SecDef Forrestal seems to have almost made it.

Before leaping from the 16th floor of the NNMC in Bethesda.

And yet someone felt compelled to drag Sophocles into the mix.

From Ajax:

“Comfortless, nameless, hopeless save

In the dark prospect of the yawning grave….

Woe to the mother in her close of day,

Woe to her desolate heart and temples gray,

When she shall hear

Her loved one’s story whispered in her ear!

‘Woe, woe!’ will be the cry–

No quiet murmur like the tremulous wail

Of the lone bird, the querulous nightingale.”

Who set the nightingale free?

 

-PD

 

 

 

 

 

 

La Règle du jeu [1939)

I relate to Jean Renoir’s character.  Octave.  Fat, optimistic, and full of regrets.

Jean Renoir was, of course, the director of this film.

Likewise, he plays a very important dramatic role in the production.

I would argue that his role is the most essential of all.

In this film of rich, pithy characters, Octave sticks out like a polished stone.

Not a precious stone.

Simply a smooth, common rock.  A paperweight.  Our anchor.

And this is apparent on first viewing, yet La Règle du jeu necessitates multiple viewings to truly appreciate.

My language is not French.  Yes, perhaps it is my favorite language, but I am indebted to the subtitles.

And La Règle du jeu is replete with overlapping, symbolic dialogue.

But you don’t want to hear such boring play-by-play.

If you are reading, you want something special.

And I want something special when I watch a film.

Jean Renoir (son of the more well-known Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir) delivers a masterpiece here.

There is a Great Gatsby effect which may put off modern audiences of modest means (like myself).

To wit, who wants to hear about rich people problems?

All I can do is urge patience when watching this film.

It may not immediately come off as riveting, but it is well worth it if you stick it out till the end.

What should be pointed out is that Renoir was apparently making a statement about the upper classes which paints them in a not altogether flattering light.

More directly, this film takes aim at the elite and lets ’em have it (but in a very sneaky way).

And yet, it is not all about class warfare.

Far from it.

It embraces and repudiates.

Actions can be deplorable.  But those who commit deplorable actions are still humans.

We all have the capacity within us for unspeakable error.

Few among us truly stand out as regards vice.

But we are all touched by the world.

I estimate it quite unlikely than a truly monastic monk or nun is reading this post.

And if they are, I hope they are brewing up a nice batch of beer in Belgium.

The rules of the game.

The beaters.

Hired lackeys who whack the trunks of trees to drive the animal life out of the forest.

Moving like a line of riot police.

All for the rich to have their fun.

The hunt.

But Renoir is the true artist.

He makes it clear.

The rich aren’t all bad.

The poor aren’t all saints.

Both classes lean to the middle.

There are admirable actions from both sides.

Perhaps the class structure itself is suspect.

Perhaps it is a vestige whose time has come.

But reality is that rich and poor will wake up on the globe tomorrow.

Staggered in times.  Zones.

Rich at their leisure (we imagine).

Poor at the more brutal hours (no doubt).

The poor run around like rabbits chased out of the forest.

The rich sit in their hunting blinds and preach gun control.

The true hunt now is the techno hunt.  The bio hunt.

But a girl and a gun can still carry a movie.

And so, I have rambled enough about La Règle du jeu.  It is truly an indispensable film.

Something about it is almost impenetrable for an English speaker (monoglot) in the 21st century.

And so we hope the French haven’t forgotten their fondateurs like Jean Renoir.

Lessons.  Lessons.

It’s up to all of us to preserve these slices of history.

Yes, it is fiction.  Yet, real life was employed (implored) in the making of this fiction (which seeks to be lifelike).

An endless reflection.

In the hall of mirrors at Versailles.

-PD

Modern Times [1936)

We who have nothing implore you who have much.

I think this might be the message.

And yet, whatever the message, there is no denying the beauty of the department store scene.

The breathtaking Paulette Goddard, a grease-stained child of the streets, asleep beneath a fur coat on a feather bed.

Tucked in by The Little Tramp…only to be ripped from the bedrooms of the rich by that opening whistle.

It was a valiant stand.

At the lunch counter.

Ravenously eating tomorrow’s sandwiches.  A piece of cake.  Eat up!

It is sad.  It brings me back.  To art.  To a time when a meal was a religious experience.

A moment of companionship shared by artists on the run.

But as Neil Young so wisely sings in the song “Ambulance Blues,”…”It’s easy to get buried in the past/when you try and make a good thing last.”

And so The Little Tramp would probably say, “Buck up, cowgirl!”

Indeed, it’s not the end of the world.

It ain’t over till Yogi Berra sings.

And Chaplin sings too.

It’s true!

Up till now he had no voice.

Pantomime.

The purest artist going.

So entrenched that he continued with silent films well after their demise.

Yet this is really a sound film.

And, it really is (also), a silent film.

Most of all, it is a brilliant film!

She sleeps so cozy.  Perhaps.  In Denmark they would comment thusly.  Hyggeligt.

Denmark…where amber washes up on the beach.  Not ambergris…but that too.

No.  Electrum.

And the sheer magnetism of Chaplin.  All a’flurry on his rollerskates.

We “oooh” and we “ahhh” as he rides a wave of serendipity.

It’s not all smooth sailing for The Little Tramp, but it’s always interesting.

And so we can laugh with him.

And we can dream with the auteur Chaplin behind the camera…what vision to concoct such consolation for so many.

I can’t put it any better than that.

-PD

Brewster’s Millions [1985)

If you don’t follow your dreams at least a little bit, you die.

Me and my friends…we tried.

Maybe there wasn’t any friends in reality.

But I was a jerk too.

15 years.  For four years I was a professional musician.

Took 11 years in the minor leagues to get there.

In all honesty, we all have shitty karma.

And so how do we explain the rich and the poor?

Maybe some people didn’t have as good of opportunities as the rest.

We can’t take that for granted.

I ain’t the Pope.

When I was younger I could get down on my knees and grovel, but I threw it all away.

There’s a train (!) going through the goddamned outfield.

Hard not to lose your concentration.

This ain’t no sob story.

I’m the mustache man from way back.

You know the plot.

Well, this film is pure genius.  Forty years after the original?

I say a little prayer for Richard Pryor.

I say a little prayer for John Candy.

And I thank Walter Hill for looking at me askance once upon a time.

Maybe, just maybe.

-PD