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

Moartea domnului Lăzărescu [2005)

They say the British have a peculiar sense of humor.  [Or humour, rather.]

I am beginning to wonder whether Romania has its own brand of comedy which has yet to be fully appreciated by non-Romanians.

That to which I refer is a bit of writing on the Tartan Video box which encases this film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

The line in question reads, “THE MOST ACCLAIMED COMEDY [sic] OF THE YEAR”.

Think of the saddest film you’ve ever seen.  Dying Young?  Schindler’s List?

Ok.  Now, tack on the above.  [the most acclaimed comedy of the year]

I’m beginning to wonder if someone at Tartan Films has their head screwed on backwards.

But let’s be fair:  Tartan Films released one of the most important films of the century so far (12:08 East of Bucharest).

Whatever the case may be, let me be clear that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is (in my book) by no means a comedy.

When I first saw this film it struck me as that which I still regard it:  a sad, sad film.

However, I must point out that this mini-masterpiece from director Cristi Puiu has aged extremely well (unlike the lead character).

The reason this picture is so good is really the immense contribution of Ioan Fiscuteanu and Luminița Gheorghiu.

The late Mr. Fiscuteanu (God rest his soul) gives one of the finest performances in the history of cinema as the titular Dante Remus Lazarescu.  The symbolism of the names should be noted.  Rings of hell.  Ineffective medical systems at the state level.  Heartless bureaucracy.  Song of the South.  Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.  Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder.  And finally, Jesus wept.  Or Jesu swept.  Arise, Lazarus.

The smell…  Ugh.  Yeah…

This film packs a punch.  It is realism.  If you had a hard day at the office, don’t watch this.  Hard day at the coal mine?  Not recommended viewing.

But if you want to see the golden nugget at the center of humanity’s inextinguishable heart, then watch as Luminița Gheorghiu goes beyond the call of duty as nurse Mioara.  She is a paramedic with gall bladder problems.  She and the driver of the ambulance which carts around Mr. Lazarescu make “less than nothing” (to quote the subtitles).

Yes.  You will see the saddest shit imaginable.  You will see an acting tour de force by Ioan Fiscuteanu as what?  An ordinary man.  Age 63.  Headache.  Stomach ache.  Something is wrong.

And.  You will see the real eyes of compassion.  Not too much.  Not too little.  Luminița Gheorghiu.  The nurse who respectfully disagrees.  The nurse who takes insults all night long.  Just to save one man.  Lazarus.

She.  Has to go smoke a cigarette in the kitchen.  The paramedic.  In Russia, every part of the plane is the smoking section.  That was the quote from the inimitable Genghis Blues.  And so.  Romania.  We are not given a year.  A left-running TV offhandedly mentions Timișoara.  Is it the revolution?

What is the ambulance delay?  An hour response time.  In Bucharest!  Pre-Revolution or post-Revolution?

We don’t know.  I don’t know.

Maybe it is left vague on purpose.

In closing, this is a very (very) important film.  It’s like a slap of cold water in the face.  It ain’t pleasant.  This isn’t a fun movie.

But it is wholly worth seeing.  Lead actor Fiscuteanu would be dead within two years.  But you know what?  He did it.  He succeeded.  This is a timeless testament.  Line up Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman…all of them together (at this time) are shit compared to Fiscuteanu’s performance in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.  Only Hoffman has the chops to challenge.  Dustin, it would have to be even better than Rain Man.  Ready thyself if you want to compete with Ioan Fiscuteanu.  It’s gonna take every pitiful cell in your body.  You can do it.  It might do you in.

-PD

A fost sau n-a fost? [2006)

It took me a long time.  To come back to Romania.  Country I’ve never visited.  But in film.

I do not know which Romanian film I saw first.  It may have been 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

It may have been The Way I Spent the End of the World.

You can read my praise for those two perfect films here on my site.

But let me just say that I am honored to finally review what I consider the third perfect Romanian film:

12:08 East of Bucharest.

The Romanian title translates directly as “It was or was not?”

Perhaps a little massaging would render the phrase more like “Was it or wasn’t it?”

And so what is this Hamletesque sentence driving at?

That is the question!

The revolution.  The Romanian Revolution.

In a particular town (Vaslui) was there a revolution or wasn’t there?

While this may sound like a rather dry premise, let me assure you that director Corneliu Porumboiu proves himself to be a master on the order of his countrymen Cristian Mungiu and Cătălin Mitulescu.

Porumboiu is helped by the fantastic acting of three stellar performers.

Mircea Andreescu plays the character Emanoil Piscoci.  Andreescu’s comic timing as the awkward Mr. Piscoci is one of the defining elements of this film.

Also indispensable is Ion Sapdaru as Professor Manescu.  Sapdaru’s desperation and body language also make this film the timeless gem that it is.

Though we may not completely sympathize with his brusque character, Teodor Corban does an admirable job portraying the unifying (and polarizing) Virgil Jderescu.

Finally, I cannot leave out the small-but-pithy contribution of the excellent George Guoqingyun.

[we now interrupt this horribly boring review to bring you the point]

The point?

Black humor.  Bleak humor.  Dark humor.

The town…looks as shitty as my town.  My neighborhood.

There aren’t any explosions.  No CGI.

No superheroes.  In fact, there’s not even a pretty girl with whom to fall in love.

That’s reality right there.  Verismo.

As the snow falls on Vaslui I feel the same desperation I feel on a daily basis.

The cracked concrete of the apartment buildings.  The sad roofs.  From above.

The band is a little out of tune.  Desafinado.  I love them.

This film isn’t like the oblivion of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  It doesn’t have a blooming flower of hope in its heart like The Way I Spent the End of the World.

But it shares with those films a country and a particular way of looking at the world.  Show the bad stuff.

The difference here is, “Show the bad stuff…and then laugh a little.”

A little.

It will still make you cry.

No, it’s not a calculated Italian confection.

This is a beautifully sloppy film.

It’s films such as this which make me push on–which make me keep writing.  I keep hoping.

Porumboiu…your crappy world gives me hope in my crappy world.  Thank you.

-PD