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

Žert [1969)

It would be, perhaps, best to list this as a Slovak film.

Slovakia.

We always talk about Prague.

But not enough about Bratislava.

Yet all of this would make little difference were this film not notable.

And it is quite notable.

The direction by Jaromil Jireš is admirable.

He plays with time.  A very unusual montage of flashbacks.

Haunted.  Haunting.  Hunted by communism.

This, then, would be a subversive film.

To show the corruption within Czechoslovakia.

To show the nightmare of reeducation.

The term is never named as such, but that’s what it is.

Punitive military service.

The soldiers with no weapons.

Because their country doesn’t trust them with such.

In the mines.

On the ground.

Relay.

Hup hup hup.

Power trip of professional army in service to socialism.

Trotsky is forbidden.

And so is humor.

Don’t make your jokes too pointed.

There’s no squirming out of the fact that you stand in opposition to the ethos of your government.

I.

It may not be a momentous occasion to realize that literature is being made.

For it skips under your nose as mere nonsensical rubbish.

Poppycock.  Hogwash.  Eyewash.

Tropes and memes and drupelets hanging low.  Evolving necks.  Giraffes.

I am of two Yiddish species:

schlub and schmuck.

Unattractive.  Fool.

Me and Josef Somr.  Who lives!  Age 82.

A masterful performance.  As real as my daily routine.

Shirt coming untucked.

I have kept my hair, but his combover parallels my gut (his too).  Sucked in.

Beware of jokes.

You are being watched.

Your letters are being intercepted.

And you will have to answer for your words.

Just what exactly did you mean by, “…” ???

Well, this is Milan Kundera with the story.

And I rebelled all the way.

I drew Baudelaire with lightening bolts.  And chartreuse dreams.

Kundera lives!  Age 87.

Born in Brno. (!)

But let’s back to this love-hate.

Not Mintzberg.

At the same time.

Alternating.  A constant election.

Affinities.

I will achieve 17,000-word vocabulary.  Just you watch.

I almost hate my town too.  I know.

Was I imprisoned?

No.

But I lost music.

Like Ludvík.

The name is significant.

Like lost hearing.

And so the clarinet is indispensable.

I mention Jana Dítětová because she was from Plzeň.

Pilsen.  Pillsbury.

The selfish gene.

Tricked.  Objectified.  MILF revenge reified.

Pithy memetics.

MIKE MILF.

Markéta is significant.

LazarováTwo years previous.

A permanent opium war of mankind.

Opiate of the masses.  Asses.  Snippets of military abuse.

You’ve never seen…like this.

We can still insult liberalism.  And neoliberalism.  And neoconservatism.

We can still find Starbucks artless.  And Subway.

But Wal-Mart passes over to kitsch.  Of which Kundera would understand.

Like Warhol meets Flavin.

All that fluorescence.

Non-stop.

Europe endless.

Schubert.

Dip the waves.

Coyoacán borough of Mexico City.  D.F.  Day effay.

Trotsky died the same year Conlon Nancarrow moved to Mexico.

1940.

And Nancarrow would make Mexico City his home.

Las Águilas.  With his Ampico player pianos.

Ludvík is expelled from his teaching position like Dr. James Tracy.

History is always with us.

We see the corruption of good intentions.

Communism.  Socialism.

Teachers of Marxism.

How the country had slid.

And Věra Křesadlová eats her cotton candy.  Stunning.

We wonder why the movie couldn’t have been about her.

But we needed the schlub/schmuck.

And the attempted suicide with laxatives.

Which is to say, there are far more than six stories in narrative history.

Bollocks Schenkerian analysis.

 

-PD

O slavnosti a hostech [1966)

This is one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen.

Rarely have I seen such uneasiness conveyed through cinema.

The really terrifying part is.

How mundane all of the symbols are.

Is/are.

Insane.

For a moment.

Like the Czech version of Deliverance.

We see “party” in English (in the context of Czechoslovakia), and we think.

Communist Party.

But the slavnosti in question translates to “feast”.

Google tells us.

And Google is never wrong.

Right?

Which is to say.

Hell is a party.

A party from which you wish to flee.

Beggar’s banquet.

There is no leaving communist Romania.

And Czechoslovakia?

I can’t tell you, dear friend.

But we know of the boy who swam the Danube.

Symbolic.

To nonaligned Yugoslavia.

And from there to Italy and Toblerone.

That’s Cum mi-am petrecut sfârşitul lumii.

But what we have here is A Report on the Party and the Guests.

Report.

Also sounds very bureaucratic.  Quintessentially communist.

Let’s take the popular notion that Kafka sums up bureaucracy.

In which work?

The Trial? With Josef K.?

Yes.  This is most applicable to O slavnosti a hostech.

We must learn to speak every language.

Like Pope John Paul II (slight exaggeration).

Because Kafka wrote in German.

Der Process.

It’s a process of ablaut-ish metamorphosis.

Prozess –> Proceß –> Prozeß

swimswamswum

Kafka died in 1924.  Age 40.  My age in six months.

1948/1949 Czechoslovakia becomes part of Soviet bloc.

Comecon.

Not to be confused with Comic-Con.

And never any Poto and Cabengo in San Diego.

Though they be in their own backyard.

Grace and Virginia were superheroes without costumes.

And they had their own language, by golly.

Brings tears to my eyes.

To see them playing potato.

“What are they saying?”

This is the absurdity of blogging about the absurdity of a film inspired by the absurdity of Kafka.

But likely unconscious.

This genius (director Jan Němec) died only a few months ago.

But he gave the world a belly laugh.

And an unnerving masterpiece.

It is not as obviously magnificent as Closely Watched Trains.

But it is supremely subversive.

In a totalitarian state (like Amerika)…which is completely ruled by commodity relations.

This is our last recourse.

England swings.

Like a pendulum.

From the gallows.

Frexit (France leaves NATO…again).

Hexit (Hungary curses continental Europe from Buddhapesht to Bookarrest)

Crexit (Croatia invents new correction fluid for computer screens)

Spexit (Spain certifies that said correction fluid meets ISO standards)

Esexit (Estonia doubles GDP overnight with racy dating service app)

Slexit (a dual rush for the doors by Slovakia and Slovenia)

Rexit (Holy Roman Emperor reestablished in Romania, confined to Bookarrest)

Fexit (Finland engages in creative destruction)

Pexit (Poland and Portugal [in that order] gobble seed with bobbing avian head motion)

Irexit (being both hungry and anorexic [morbidly hangry], Ireland joins the Brits in bolting)

Everyone else stays.

Until the Czexit.  [ooh la la]

Serbia accedes and secedes in same day simply to give the world the thrill of Sexit.

[I know I know]

This is the rearrangement of guests.

So many not at the world table.

In such times.

Only art can explain.

 

-PD