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

Top Secret! [1984)

And so we come full-circle.

As in the olden days.

When we first started.

Writing about spy spoofs.

And this is a doozy!

Val Kilmer’s first film.

As Nick Rivers.

Very much Elvis, but equally Beach Boys (at least on the opening number “Skeet Surfing”).

I would call this style of filmmaking “kitchen sink”.

It was a particular type of American comedy in the 1980s.

Fast jokes.

Set pieces.

Elaborate puns.

General silliness.

The setting is East Germany.

In the time of Markus Wolf and the Stasi.

Wolf retired in 1986.

The year after this film (1985), Vladimir Putin started his KGB career in East Germany.

But let’s talk about more important stuff…like how beautiful Lucy Gutteridge is!

A girl and a gun, said Godard.

And for a sequel, another girl and another gun…

Said I.

Port Said.

Fuad II.

Yes, Ms. Gutteridge plays the stunning Hillary.

Which roughly translates to “she whose breasts defy gravity”.

That’s a direct paraphrase.

What?

We almost get the Lawrence Welk Orchestra doing “Sister Ray”, but Nick Rivers and “Tutti Frutti” is close enough to alienate the visiting Russian operatic singer and his caricature faux-Nazi patron.

General Streck.

Not to be confused with Colonel Sturm or Sergeant Drang.

Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers (David and Jerry) strung us along the whole time.

And they directed a fairly decent film here…the triumvirate.

The Nutcracker turns out to be a ballet of literal protrusions.

The prop room is equally literal.

It’s both Joycean and daft.

But I had some genuine chuckles during this film.

They execute a priest as a demonstration.

And his Latin is a knee-slapping litany.

A greatest hits of that dead language.

Legal.  Medical.  String it together.  Make it flow.

Pig Latin.  Cow Latin.  Pidgin Latin.

Yes Elvis.  Yes Beach Boys.  And yes Beatlemania.

Sullivan.  Hysteria.  Hip sway.  Swooning.

Is it a bit of Fritz Lang with the magnifying glass?

Certainly prefigures the backmasking of Twin Peaks.

Swedish as a backwards language.

Like those hidden messages on (back to the) Beatles records.

I want to live in that loft of that Swedish bookstore…

clutching a volume of Strindberg and holding a Ms. Gutteridge.

How could anyone dream of more than two fireplaces at the top of a firehouse pole?

Many references.  The Blue Lagoon.  When Brooke Shields was just 14.

Like the Podestas, we end up next in the script at a pizza restaurant.

(!)

“Straighten Out the Rug” pulls out all the stops…and all the rugs…like Pejman Nozad on vitamins.

An incredibly detailed mock-up of the prison grounds complete with a toy train.

Bovine infiltration.

Eggs Benedict Arnold.

When instead of hollandaise, they’ve secretly replaced the sauce with Folger’s crystal gravy (on loan from the struggling PepsiCo).

While Trump protestors boycott every snack and cranny of this MNE.

But the dénouement is the underwater saloon brawl.

It is actually artful.  Postmodern.  High art in spite of itself.  Dodoism.

We must not forget the yeoman efforts of the great Omar Sharif in this film.

Sadly, Mr. Sharif passed away just this past year in his home country of Egypt.

At least he did not (presumably) need two hours of surgery to wipe the smile off his face.

“Who do you root for in the Virginia Slims tournament?”

“I always root against the heterosexual.”

“Do you know any good, white basketball players?”

“There are no good, white basketball players.”

All of this from the “Match?  Lighter.  Better still.” line which Robert Shaw sweated out of someone to fool his way into James Bond’s presence and trust for a short time…before he chose fish with red wine.

One wonders whether the East Berliners had the jelly-faced joy of seeing this arrogant Hollywood slap at the time of its release?

Most importantly, “kitchen sink” was the style of the ZAZ directors mentioned previously:  Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker.

Kentucky Fried Movie.  Airplane!  The Naked Gun films (with the exception of the last).

This really is a cute film.

And while most of it would have pushed the envelope for 1984, it would almost be a G-rated movie by today’s standards.

Still, there are some jawdropping moments…such as The Anal Intruder (with the Cuisinart on the shelf [in the jailhouse now]).

Turns out the Christopher Atkins character (played by Christopher Villiers) had gotten all the joys of the Russian sailors who rescued him…including sodomy, Karl Marx, Lenin, L. Ron Hubbard, and one more bloke.

And so we wonder…couldn’t the Butthole Surfers have made it into this film?

Just barely.

Three years later they would drop the masterpiece Locust Abortion Technician.

Ah, the Reagan era…

 

-PD

Иван Грозный Часть II: Боярский заговор [1958)

[IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART II:  THE BOYARS’ PLOT (1958)]

заговор.

It gets many people in trouble.

In Stalinist Amerika.

We don’t know what list we’re on.

We don’t know when our identity has been appropriated.

Or misappropriated.

No man can be prepared for such a state of techno-terror.

And so we clap together our stones of flint.

We eat what we have caught.

We waste nothing.

Because we have offended the great dictator.

14 years in the desert ye must wander.

40?  No, fourteen.

This was The Empire Strikes Back.

There would be no Return of the Jedi.

[and certainly none of the other rubbish]

THis was when intercutting between BW and color was bleeding edge.

And only in the hands of Eisenstein did it work.

This was a voice crying out in the wilderness.

Eisenstein the prophet, predicting.

But a voice as cryptic as Shostakovich.

Today.

We might see the propagandists with their unenforceable contracts give the game away in little breadcrumb details.

To let us know that certain “realities” have been faked.

For our benefit.

And it was ever the same.

That Stalin needed a role to play.

That of Ivan IV.

But what he saw in the mirror displeased him.

And so he smashed that mirror.

Seven years of oprichniki.

1947.

Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.

Houellebecq.  Perec.  Borges.

Finally we get Lithuania.

And Mikhail Zharov with his Elvis eye.

Wasn’t nothing but a hound dog.

An absolutely devastating chess move.

And again.

And again.

Blitzkrieg.

Hansa.  Livonia.

And now the Poles in NATO.

Ah!  …

Always a new wrinkle of literary ingenuity.

Disruptive innovation, gentlemen.

Cheap cheap cheap (funding) ECLIPSE.

<laurels Laurel (MD) laurels CHECK MATE>

I would really like to help you out, but I fear I’m too dumb to do that.

I’m certainly too old.

Because cost accounting must be strictly observed.

And local efficiencies must trump complete conception.

I understand.

It takes many losses to understand the causal mechanism.

The unclaimed coins will indicate our casualties.

And so we finally see that, historically, the CIA has been a crystallization of class warfare.

Operatives, analysts, technicians…were not the dogs of the upper crust.

They were not slaves.

But perhaps now there is a difference.

Not all Harvard grads are created equally.

Epic breaking of the fourth wall.

Brechtian epic.

Identify, friend or foe?

I’m an American.

I like our military.

I respect them.

I like our intelligence professionals.

I look up to them.

I loathe whomever is pulling the really nasty levers.

Whomever is giving the orders.

It’s only natural to look to the top.

And over their shoulders.

Beware of the researchers.

Brothers, do not kill your own.

Sisters, we might not have your erudition and immaculate logic.

Our rhetoric may be daft.

But do not reject us.

 

-PD

Иван Грозный Часть I [1944)

[IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PART I (1944)]

Have you ever used Russian Wikipedia?

Because you can’t just type Ivan the Terrible.

You can’t even type Ivan Grozny.

Not least, you cannot type NBaH rpo3HbIN yactb I.

No, certainly not.

But by that point, you are close.

Funny thing about the Cold War was that it was cold.

No shooting.

At least the big guns.

Boom boom.

It was an economic war.

It would really be unfair to capitalism to claim that it didn’t win.

Ah, good old capitalism.

Capitalism is bad in a lot of ways, but it is an economic beast.

Communism is good in a lot of ways, but it got its butt kicked by capitalism.

But our story predates Marx and Lenin by centuries (even though it was commissioned by Stalin).

What we have here is a masterpiece of Soviet film:  Ivan the Terrible (Part I).

It’s important.  Part I.  Часть I.

Because Часть II wouldn’t appear for another 14 years (Stalin was a fickle patron).

And Часть III would never appear.  [It was destroyed after the director’s death.]

And what a director!

Sergei Eisenstein was a true auteur in every sense of the word.

When he died in 1948, Часть III more or less went with him.

Considering that, it’s amazing that Часть II itself even survived.

It was only the “Khrushchev thaw” which occasioned its eventual release in 1958.

But the year is 1944.

And the year is also 1547.

16 January 1547.

And Ivan (though he doesn’t look it in the film) is 16 years old.

It’s not Reims.

But it rhymes with…Bosco?

If it had a rhyme, Bob Dylan would have smacked it right down in the middle of The Freewheelin‘ or Another Side

Good old Moscow!  Москва́

Something like that…

And so we see a truly riveting coronation (this is not really a spoiler…1547).

We must remember what “the Terrible” meant.

Or means.

As I understand it…it’s neither good nor bad.

Terrible as in terror…but also as in “fear God”.

Perhaps I have botched it.

grozny (miniscule).  As opposed to the capital of Chechnya.

Let me just say this:

Nikolay Cherkasov (in this film) is the spitting image of Nick Cave.

[God forbid an iconoclast get ahold of a spitting image!]

Some might need a further clarification.

I mean the Nick Cave from Warracknabeal, Australia.

Not the one from Fulton, Missouri.

Clear?

“2000 years of Christian history baby/and you ain’t learned to love me yet”

Something like that.

Ivan the Terrible “read that book from back to front”.

“It made a deep impression” (on his forehead).

But they didn’t have BBC Radio 4 in Russia in 1547.

So not even a gift of a chess set could cause Queen Elizabeth to beam a broadcast of Gardeners’ Question Time over to Ivan.

Alas, he was on his own…

Boyars be boyin’ [if you know what I mean].

I must admit, I’m rather proud of myself for figuring this out.

To wit, Михаил Названов looks like Gene Wilder as Jesus.

Tsk tsk, English Wikipedia.

Which is to say, Andrey Kurbsky is played by Mikhail Nazvanov.

Every epic needs a great beauty 🙂

And Lyudmila Tselikovskaya is no exception.

She is chaste (and chased).

English Wikipedia gives no hypertext love.

But there is an article.

She was from Astrakhan.

And here she portrays Ivan’s bride Anastasia.

Such a lovely word…tsarina.

And by Astrakhan we certainly don’t mean Canadian military fur wedge cap.

Clear?

Ivan the Terrible is basically Donald Trump (for anyone needing a reference).

Which is why Stalin identified with Ivan.

Putin is another good reference point.

For that matter, Pavel Kadochnikov’s effeminate, moronic character is a good symbol for the past 16 years of American presidency.  Imagine W. as a metrosexual in 16th-century Russia.  You’ve got it!  16 & 16.

Marriage is the end of friendship (in more ways than two).

And so Philip II, Metropolitan of Moscow heads off to the monastery.

But at this time he was just Feodor Kolychev.

Family Glinski mentioned.  Family Zakharin mentioned.

But the House of Romanov takes an extra effort.

Anastasia’s side.

Do you remember Kazan from Quantum of Solace?

I never properly expressed my admiration for that film.

Tosca in Bregenz.  Exquisite!

Back to Kazan…  Poor saps vs. rich saps.

And military strategy comes to the fore.  That of Ivan.

Their strength was sapped.  One letter from tapped.

That would be Operation Gold!

There’s a Tartar sauce of brutality (?) reminiscent of ¡Que viva México! (remember the horses and the buried guys???).

Same camera angles.

En plein air version of coronation.  The doubters.  Maybe Eisenstein took a thing or two from Welles?

Because Citizen Kane was 1941.

The Soviet Union joined the Allies in June 1941.

Citizen Kane premiered the previous month and would open in theaters across the U.S. the coming September.

So we wonder whether one of the first “chess sets” of understanding was a copy of Welles’ film.

Back to these Tartars.  That’s just the Western version of Tatar.

An extra R (gratis).

You may need some tarragon as well.

It certainly wasn’t “Palisades Park” for these poor Tartars.

No Freddy Cannon sound effects to distract them before being picked off by (demonym-for-people-from-Kazan) arrows.

It’s almost a Thelonious goatee.  Pharaonic.  Sun Ra-nese.

Over and over we hear of Livonia.

Reval (which is today Tallinn, Estonia).

An iron curtain required iron men.

Oprichnina.  A policy.

Oprichnik.  Of the Oprichniki.  Political police.

Oath of allegiance (starting to sound like Dale Cooper).

But lets not get caught up in bikeshedding.

This film is a masterpiece throughout.

 

-PD

The Cat in the Hat [1971)

TV special…

“We interrupt your regularly-scheduled program to bring you a flight of fancy free.”

Dr. Seuss.  SS.  Theodor Seuss Geisel.

If the PhD proves too difficult–too stultifying, then just drop out.  Right?

David H. DePatie.  Friz [sic] Freleng.

Allan Sherman is great as the voice of the title character.  The eponymous feline.

But most interesting is the fish:  Karlos K. Krinklebein.

(!)

You can’t make this shit up.

Krinkelbein?

Perhaps it’s Carlos…

In any case, it’s Daws Butler voicing the goldfish.

Directed by Hawley Pratt (who graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn).

Again with the not making of the shit up.

But most important are the readymade, pre-reified Thing 1 and Thing 2.

Woe unto Thurl Ravenscroft for voicing merely one Thing (Thing 1, mind you!).

He was Tony the Tiger.

(!)

“They’re grrreat!”

The dumbest, most genius tagline ever.

Thou canst not maketh up such as this…on the 400th year of our laird.

The Grinch stole Christmas in 1966.  Right there on CBS.

Thurl crooned “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and became doubly immortal.

Never underestimate Tony the Tiger.

Or the Tourette’s Guy.

Danny.

Anthony L. Six.

A weird last name.

Brilliant!

And Jared.

YouTube diamond.

Back to the cat…our composer Dean Elliott.

Eleven years after composing the score for Sex Kittens Go to College, he was in the animation business (more or less).

To go from Mijanou Bardot (Brigitte’s sister) to the moss-covered three-handled family credenza.

Credenza…altar for food of the elite.  Most elite.  Papal.

With faith (belief), the food taster.  Not discriminating flavor.  Checking poison.

Mamie Van Doren and Tuesday Weld.  Back to the (sex) kittens.

It’s the real deal.  Chuck Jones.  Producer.

Indeed, Siberia.

Indeed.

Sympathy.  And Yerself is Steam.

It’s mania.  It’s depression.

Are you experienced?  (¿With backmasking)

That’s the sombrero psychedelia.

chapka in a shlyapa.

Cat matryoshka.

EmrNyisIdtdGelrMeyA

 

-PD