Posts Tagged ‘revisionism’

montana_de_cadaveres_en_un_gulag_sovietico

 

The contradictions of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War

the-simpsons-trump-100-days-video-000

 

Trump likes the guy who did more to commit genocide against native Americans than any other president. Trump is also chronologically-challenged.

Note to President Trump: Andrew Jackson wasn’t alive for the Civil War

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.”

This is in the vein of imagining various alternate histories of the United States.

“He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.”

Jackson was known for his temper and his loyalty to his friends, so this is OK.

“He was really angry that– he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.”

Jackson did not, because Jackson was dead.

“He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.'”

Jackson’s 1830 “Indian Removal Act”

Big, big heart.

trumbo3-510x270.jpg

 

Probably half a dozen die hard extremist, red-brained, seize the means of production, Soviet Union loving, big “C” Communists remain today. And Counterpunch has located one to review TRUMBO.

While cherry-picking the history of the 1930s and 40s, he manages to avoid any hint of any problem with one Joseph Stalin. Wikipedia cites death “estimates ranging from 3 to 60 million” Russians. The totalitarian Big Brother nature of the communist state is of no concern at all to Eric Mann, who’d rather point fingers at the capitalist menace than to provide any fairness or context around these questions.

Trumbo: Hollywood’s Anti-Communist Tribute to Itself

 

maxresdefault (2).jpg

 

Mann provides a script improvement for the film:

“Honey, if you want to share your sandwich, seize the means of production, and smash the capitalist state yes, that would make you a communist.”

 

Well, that helps clarify things.

The world moved on from seizing the means of production for many reasons, some good, some bad. But we are actually quite lucky it did, because centralized state monopoly on the economy is an unmitigated DISASTER!

These big-C lads always revise the history of their own beloved communism to edit out the horrors of the past. I don’t see the need to go too deeply into it, but here is my point:

Three sectors compete in society, the people and their rights; the businesses and their raw materials, transportation and markets; and the government, which may exercise power in any number of ways.

These three sectors are in balance in a well-run society. When that balance is tipped all hell breaks loose. The fascists merge the business sector and the government sector. Benito Mussolini’s vision of the corporate state is–frighteningly–coming to fruition across the western world today. When corporations and government merge, the people suffer. Ask the residents of Flint Michigan about that.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_102-09844,_Mussolini_in_Mailand.jpg

The other imbalance is when the people and the government merge to smash the business sector, that glorious Communist revolution that Eric Mann is peddling today by way of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. This imbalance leads to a government monopoly on the labor market, the food supply, the military, police, water, education–on everything!!! Without that third competing sphere of operations, the government becomes a behemoth that swiftly devours all and descends into an atrocious totalitarian configuration which, ironically, destroys the rights of its own people, tortures, murders and sends them off to prison work camps, and collapses from its own staggering incompetence and bureaucracy.

Thus, the only sane response to these two extremes, fascism and communism, is to keep the balance intact. Government must act as referee, not as monopoly. The people and the businesses must struggle for their interests with clear rights guaranteed by the referee. Everything else swiftly devolves into madness. Sorry, Mann, and sorry Trumbo.

We can do much better, but not what you’re selling.

 

 

the-book-of-daniel

The Limits of Optimism: E.L. Doctorow and the American Left

9780812981179_p0_v1_s260x420

chris-kyle

Max Blumenthal:

Chris Hedges:

Killing Ragheads for Jesus

“American Sniper,” like the big-budget feature films pumped out in Germany during the Nazi era to exalt deformed values of militarism, racial self-glorification and state violence, is a piece of propaganda, a tawdry commercial for the crimes of empire.

Michael Moore:

Michael Moore pours gas on his ‘American Sniper’ firestorm

“Well, who would know better about hating our troops than those who supported sending them into a senseless war Iraq in the first place? And, for 4,482 of them, a senseless, unnecessary and regrettable death,” he wrote.

“If you supported that invasion, if you voted for George W. Bush and the Republicans and Democrats who backed this war, then you are the ones who have some ‘splainin’ to do. Not me. You.”

killanythingthatmoves

We fight fascism here, and this is the front line.

“Citing a recent Gallup poll, journalist Robert Sheer reports that “a majority of Americans ages 18-29 believe sending U.S. troops to Vietnam was not a mistake… the young now approve of an irrational war in which 3.4 million Indochinese and 58,000 Americans died…” Holding steady across the age divide, “70% of those 50 or older… with contemporary knowledge…” retain their beliefs in the war’s essential wrongness. “

The real Vietnam war: Kill Anything That Moves, a new history by Nick Turse is reviewed over at Counterpunch. Using a large cache of firsthand accounts by US soldiers on the ground there, this is the wake up call generation dumbass needs to read.

That said, Michael Uhl’s review of the book is far from flattering, with a sense of the one-upsmanship and infighting of the left.  Uhl, a veteran of the war criticizes the young Turse for his limited knowledge and knee jerk myopia.  More from Vietnam era veterans found at In the Mind Field.

It’s often a thankless job fighting the neo-nazism of the current empire. These aren’t the articles, posts, videos, books and films that draw the big crowds. A video called “Beer Boobs” would probably reach millions virally on Youtube, but the descent of the nation into barbarism, mass murder and totalitarianism fails to attract much notice. They say you get the government you deserve. What does that say about the US public?

“…an old lifer Sergeant Major spoke, pointed to us and very specifically stated, ‘These whining, complaining Vietnam veterans will die off. I want to assure you, we have written the history of the Vietnam war your grandchildren will read.’”

mylai

If you want to hear what a real hero sounds like, listen to helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson’s account of how he stopped the My Lai massacre by turning his helicpter’s guns on the infantrymen massacring women and children.

Argo: Time to Grow Up and Get Angry?

by Kieran Kelley

 

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” – Gloria Steinem.

There have been a number of critical condemnations of the film Argo. The most thoroughgoing that I have read is this one. What seems to me to be missing is any critique that successfully conveys the utter ludicrousness of expecting something other than lying propaganda to come out of a Hollywood film about the CIA in 1979. It is like expecting the Soviets to have made an accurate and unbiased account of KGB activities during the Prague Spring. I saw the preview before the film’s release, and after about 5 or 10 seconds of suspense it became apparent that it was a load of crap – the usual Orientalist stuff, straight out of the Reel Bad Arabs playbook, except with Persians instead of Arabs. The film mirrors the preview – at first it seems possible that one might be about to see a balanced and thoughtful movie, and then… not. Decidedly not.

Let me begin with some historical context. The CIA’s first coup in Iran, considered at the time “its greatest single triumph”,1 brought the Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi to a position of supreme power. The CIA “wove itself into Iran’s political culture”.2 They created SAVAK, a notorious “intelligence” agency, trained in torture by the CIA3 and supported by the CIA and DIA in a domestic and international dissident assassination programme.4 Repression was at its peak between 1970 and 1976 resulting in 10,000 deaths.5 By 1976 Amnesty International’s secretary general commented that Iran had “the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture that is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record of human rights than Iran.”6

Nafeez Ahmed cites the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) who detail an extensive police state of intense surveillance and informant networks and torture “passed on to it” by US, UK and Israeli intelligence. Ahmed quotes the FAS on methods including “electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails.”7 Racism allows commentators such as Tim Weiner to blithely exculpate the CIA of fundamental guilt: “The CIA wanted SAVAK to serve as its eyes and ears against the Soviets. The shah wanted a secret police to protect his power.”8 After all, what could civilised Westerners teach Orientals about torture? But something of the real US attitude to such repression can be seen in the official reaction to the unrest developing in the late 1970s. Aside from US officials consistently urging and praising military responses to protest action, including inevitable massacres,9 the US ambassador objected strongly to a reduction in repression. In June 1978 he reported his finding that, “the Shah’s new directives to his security forces, such as instructions to desist from torture… are disorienting.”10 The funny thing about this was that it occurred after the US had forced the Shah into the liberalisation that set loose the forces that were to rip his régime apart.11 This may seem puzzling, but it made more sense for the US to push Iran into the easily vilified “enemy” hands of an Islamic theocracy than to try to maintain control over a Shah who, however repressive, was determined to develop his populous oil-rich country independently.

That is the key point that you will almost never hear about: the US was sick of the Shah. He had become too nationalistic and developmentally inclined, and they didn’t want him any more. They may not have really wanted a revolution in Iran, but they weren’t going to shed tears over the Shah’s departure. Their main fear was the strength of the secular revolutionary left, which had more popular power than the Islamists (despite SAVAK’s repression) so the US helped nurture the Islamist factions.

The CIA were far from unaware of the impending fall of the Shah’s régime, here is a quote in the film which is an instance of absolute barefaced deception: “Iran is 100% not in a pre-revolutionary state. CIA brief, November first, 1979.” Let’s not be stupid here – it is one thing to claim not to know of an impending revolution, but the film is claiming that the CIA were unaware of a revolution that had already happened. Of course some people in the CIA knew that revolution was brewing and the actual CIA brief was from August 1978 and was plainly dishonest even then. By that stage even the State Department was planning for a post-Shah Iran.12 The revolution had actually happened nearly a year before Argo claims that the CIA believed it wasn’t going to happen (the Shah fled Iran in January, Khomeini returned from exile on February 1). But Argo makers really, really, really want you to “know” that the CIA were caught flat-footed and are willing to go to considerable lengths to make you believe this lie.

There is another deception in the film which indicates a conscious systematic attempt to indoctrinate the audience. Some describe Argo as “well-intentioned but fatally flawed”, but these “good intentions” cannot possibly be reconciled with the disgusting propaganda treatment of the issue of the shredded documents put together by Iran. The documents seized by radicals in the embassy takeover were the Wikileaks of their time. Most seized documents were not shredded and they exposed massive systematic illegality and wrongdoing by US personnel, especially the CIA. They were extremely historically significant. Iran spent years piecing together the shreds and the reconstruction was a major intelligence and propaganda coup. In the film, however, we see a very different narrative played out, and we are shown a set of very different images.

In the film, for some inexplicable reason, there were xeroxed photographic images of the staff who had escaped from the embassy when it was seized by radicals. Could this simply be a cinematic plot device for generating suspense? Not really. Any number of other devices might have been used – such as a dragnet, or informants, or surveillance (mobile or static), signals interception and cryptography. You name it, if you are willing to make stuff up, then there is quite a lot you could make up that would be potentially more suspenseful and, unlike this particular conceit, wouldn’t run such a risk of the audience losing their suspension of disbelief because of such an obvious unrealism.

“Realism”, I should add, is a very import aspect of this film. It is not done in a documentary style, but is presented as a dramatisation of historical events. Let me illustrate with a quote at length from Wide Asleep in America:

[Salon’s Andrew] O’Hehir perfectly articulates the film’s true crime, its deliberate exploitation of “its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological.” Not only is it “a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue,” but “[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.”

Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck’s own comments about the film. In describing “Argo” to Bill O’Reilly, Affleck boasted, “You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it’s a thriller. It’s actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It’s a complicated CIA movie, it’s a political movie. And it’s all true.” He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he “absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story.”

“It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened,” Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo’s BFI London Film Festival premier, “This movie is about this story that took place, and it’s true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we’re taking a cold, hard look at the facts.”

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, “I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that’s another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible — because I didn’t want it to be used by either side. I didn’t want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them.”

To emphasise this point, the initial part of the end credits juxtaposes images from the film with real documentary images. They show how much the actors look like the people they portray. The show how they had faithfully recreated scenes from the revolution. And they show the teeny tiny hands a the poor slave children forced to piece together shredded CIA documents. Wait a second though… don’t the hands in the real photo, despite severe cropping, look more like a woman’s hands? And why would young children be used to piece together valuable and vulnerable documents written in a language that they could not possibly understand?

For some reason the film makers took it upon themselves to invent a whole bunch of “sweatshop kids” putting together these documents. There is no conceivable reason to do so that does not involve conscious deceptive propaganda. In this case, the intent is to make deliberate emotive subliminal association. What do I mean by subliminal? As Joe Giambrone explains:

The father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, wrote in the late 1920s:

The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world to-day. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions. The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” (Bernays 1928)

Bernays noted the “unconscious” character of much film propaganda. It was not necessary to directly state messages, but to let the scenarios and the story world carry the messages in the background. Once immersed in the foreground story — whatever it was — the “unconscious” background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge.

This subliminal quality is praised by Bernays as a positive thing, in his view. This is hardly surprising as Bernays’ concept of propaganda is broad in scope encompassing every medium and method of communication that exists. Bernays’ seminal book Propaganda begins:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” (Bernays 1928)”

Subliminality doesn’t mean that images are flashed too quickly to be noticed, rather that associations are made without conscious thought. It is true that you can find a great number of deliberately concealed images in advertising, but the claim that this is all that constitutes subliminal advertising is itself a deception. Advertising, in particular television advertising, is dominated by subliminal messaging, and it is not about tricky concealment. It uses repetition more than anything else, to make associations between advertised products and services with other desires – particularly, but not exclusively, sexual. If you want to sell a car, you don’t generally use brake horsepower or fuel consumption statistics. You associate it with a lifestyle, with attractive people, with status, with sex, with success, with normalcy, with excitement, with fine wine and food, and so forth. That is subliminal.

Obviously when film makers are unconsciously disseminating their own internalised propaganda they convey such messages subliminally. Subliminal means below the threshold, meaning, in this case, below the threshold of consciousness. This is a very, very significant manner in which an orthodox ideology, such as chauvinist US exceptionalism, is deepened and perpetuated. However the deliberate use of techniques designed to manipulate people by subliminal means can be far more powerful still. As an apposite example, let us examine Michelle Obama’s Oscar night appearance. Some have pointed out that Obama being flanked by military personnel as “props” suggests a desire to subliminally associate the First Lady and the presidency with military virtues. That may well be the case, but think how common it is to see faces arrayed behind political speakers in our times. Every time it is possible to do so nowadays, major US politicians will have a bunch of people in uniform behind them when they speak. But it is not strictly about the association with uniforms. Press conferences often pose colleagues behind the speaker – including military briefings almost as a matter of course – and when politicians speak to political rallies or party conferences, they are framed by a sea of supporters’ faces behind them.

You see, we automatically respond to other people’s facial expressions. In fact eliciting an emotional response is as much a component of facial expression as conveying emotion is, and this occurs subliminally. Now think again of Giambrone’s description: “… the ‘unconscious’ background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge….” The people behind the speaker are being used as a way of evoking an emotional reaction like some science fiction mind control ray. Fortunately, people are fickle creatures and often their reaction to watching the back of a speaker’s head, no matter how eloquent, is to look bored or embarrassed. But clearly the technique is being perfected, and the people chosen are those who can be relied upon to convey the right emotions, hence the predilection for military personnel and partisan enthusiasts.

Similarly, subliminal messaging in advertising and film is often also aimed at a gut level. They are not conveying particular ideas, but emotions. The victim (I mean viewer) can rationalise these emotions any way they might later choose, and the brilliance of the system is that it enlists every victim’s own inventiveness tailored in response to each specific circumstance that might challenge or belie the conditioned sentimental sense of reality. So where does this leave us with regards to Argo‘s mythical “sweatshop kids”? We have precisely four references to them. The first is in our hero’s initial briefing: “The bastards are using these [pause and do gesture to indicate need to
convey novel concept] mmm sweatshop kids.” Nearly an hour later, we are shown about 5 seconds of the “sweatshop”. It actually looks very stupid if you pay attention to it, but it is over too quickly to register (more subliminality similar to that used in The Hurt Locker). What it actually shows, when the camera pulls back to reveal the scene for around one second, is dozens of children aged about five to eight sitting amidst piles of paper shreds. There is an unnatural hush, redolent with a sense of fear. Half of them are just staring into space, and there is no conceivable way that any of them could actually be doing any useful work. Accompanying the scene is one of the 16 tracks on the official soundtrack. It is called “Sweatshop” and here it is:

Note the image chosen for the album cover.

(more…)

ben-affleck-oscar-nominees-luncheon-2013-06

Oscar Prints the Legend:
Argo’s Academy Award and the Failure of Truth

by Nima Shirazi

Originally at Wide Asleep in America

One year ago, after his breathtakingly beautiful Iranian drama, “A Separation,” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, writer/director Asghar Farhadi delivered the best acceptance speech of the night.

“[A]t the time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians,” he said, Iran was finally being honored for “her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.” Farhadi dedicated the Oscar “to the people of my country, a people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

Such grace and eloquence will surely not be on display this Sunday, when Ben Affleck, flanked by his co-producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, takes home the evening’s top prize, the Best Picture Oscar, for his critically-acclaimed and heavily decorated paean to the CIA and American innocence, “Argo.”

Over the past 12 months, rarely a week – let alone month – went by without new predictions of an ever-imminent Iranian nuclear weapon and ever-looming threats of an American or Israeli military attack. Come October 2012, into the fray marched “Argo,” a decontextualized, ahistorical “true story” of Orientalist proportion, subjecting audiences to two hours of American victimization and bearded barbarians, culminating in popped champagne corks and rippling stars-and-stripes celebrating our heroism and triumph and their frustration and defeat.  Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir aptly described the film as “a propaganda fable,” explaining as others have that essentially none of its edge-of-your-seat thrills or most memorable moments ever happened.  O’Hehir sums up:

The Americans never resisted the idea of playing a film crew, which is the source of much agitation in the movie. (In fact, the “house guests” chose that cover story themselves, from a group of three options the CIA had prepared.) They were not almost lynched by a mob of crazy Iranians in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, because they never went there. There was no last-minute cancellation, and then un-cancellation, of the group’s tickets by the Carter administration. (The wife of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor had personally gone to the airport and purchased tickets ahead of time, for three different outbound flights.) The group underwent no interrogation at the airport about their imaginary movie, nor were they detained at the gate while a member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard telephoned their phony office back in Burbank. There was no last-second chase on the runway of Mehrabad Airport, with wild-eyed, bearded militants with Kalashnikovs trying to shoot out the tires of a Swissair jet.

One of the actual diplomats, Mark Lijek, noted that the CIA’s fake movie “cover story was never tested and in some ways proved irrelevant to the escape.” The departure of the six Americans from Tehran was actually mundane and uneventful.  “If asked, we were going to say we were leaving Iran to return when it was safer,” Lijek recalled, “But no one ever asked!…The truth is the immigration officers barely looked at us and we were processed out in the regular way. We got on the flight to Zurich and then we were taken to the US ambassador’s residence in Berne. It was that straightforward.”

Furthermore, Jimmy Carter has even acknowledged that “90% of the contributions to the ideas and the consummation of the plan was Canadian [while] the movie gives almost full credit to the American CIA…Ben Affleck’s character in the film was only in Tehran a day and a half and the real hero in my opinion was Ken Taylor, who was the Canadian ambassador who orchestrated the entire process.”

Taylor himself recently remarked that “Argo” provides a myopic representation of both Iranians and their revolution, ignoring their “more hospitable side and an intent that they were looking for some degree of justice and hope and that it all wasn’t just a violent demonstration for nothing.”

“The amusing side, Taylor said, “is the script writer in Hollywood had no idea what he’s talking about.”

O’Hehir perfectly articulates the film’s true crime, its deliberate exploitation of “its basis in history and its mode of detailed realism to create something that is entirely mythological.” Not only is it “a trite cavalcade of action-movie clichés and expository dialogue,” but “[i]t’s also a propaganda movie in the truest sense, one that claims to be innocent of all ideology.”

Such an assessment is confirmed by Ben Affleck’s own comments about the film.  In describing “Argo” to Bill O’Reilly, Affleck boasted, “You know, it was such a great story. For one thing, it’s a thriller. It’s actually comedy with the Hollywood satire. It’s a complicated CIA movie, it’s a political movie. And it’s all true.”  He told Rolling Stone that, when conceiving his directorial approach, he knew he “absolutely had to preserve the central integrity and truth of the story.”

“It’s OK to embellish, it’s OK to compress, as long as you don’t fundamentally change the nature of the story and of what happened,” Affleck has remarked, even going so far as to tell reporters at Argo’s BFI London Film Festival premier, “This movie is about this story that took place, and it’s true, and I go to pains to contextualize it and to try to be even-handed in a way that just means we’re taking a cold, hard look at the facts.”

In an interview with The Huffington Post, Affleck went so far as to say, “I tried to make a movie that is absolutely just factual. And that’s another reason why I tried to be as true to the story as possible — because I didn’t want it to be used by either side. I didn’t want it to be politicized internationally or domestically in a partisan way. I just wanted to tell a story that was about the facts as I understood them.”

For Affleck, these facts apparently don’t include understanding why the American Embassy in Tehran was overrun and occupied on November 4, 1979.  “There was no rhyme or reason to this action,” Affleck has insisted, claiming that the takeover “wasn’t about us,” that is, the American government (despite the fact that his own film is introduced by a fleeting – though frequently inaccurate1 – review of American complicity in the Shah’s dictatorship).

Wrong, Ben.  One reason was the fear of another CIA-engineered coup d’etat like the one perpetrated in 1953 from the very same Embassy. Another reason was the admission of the deposed Shah into the United States for medical treatment and asylum rather than extradition to Iran to face charge and trial for his quarter century of crimes against the Iranian people, bankrolled and supported by the U.S. government.  One doesn’t have to agree with the reasons, of course, but they certainly existed.

(more…)

Christoph Waltz parodies Quentin Tarantino on Saturday Night Live. Pretty funny.

(Deleted from Youtube)

Go here:

http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/new-tarantino-movie/n32896/
 

 

All the Oscar nominated films are shamelessly promoting themselves prior to the Academy Awards. Don’t know if Django can pull it off, but here’s some of our coverage on the film:

Django: Blowing the Pulp Out of Dixie

Django’s Vengeance: Responding to the Critics

Django Unchained (2012)

 

django_unchained-3

Blowing the Pulp Out of Dixie

by KIM NICOLINI

By now, almost everyone who’s reading this has probably either seen Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and loved or hated it, or feels they don’t need to see it to reach a conclusion. It’s not the sort of film to inspire a mild response. Django Unchained is a blood-soaked and bullet-fueled Spaghetti Western love story that takes on the subject of American slavery by making room for black characters in popular genre films that have predominantly been the territory of whites. Making copious use of the N-word, striking a delicate balance between the use of racial stereotypes and their dismantling, and exploding with blood, humor, violence, and pulp, Tarantino’s latest provocation, a worthy successor to the alternate history of Inglorious Basterds, leaves audiences unsure what to make of it, even as they cheer for its black hero.

Shouldn’t they despise the film for being so irreverent about the subject of slavery, which Hollywood has usually treated with sanctimonious reverence? Or does the film’s cinematic violence (both literally and generically) explode racism and bring the horror of slavery into a new, more visceral cinematic experience of the brutality of America’s role in the slave trade? I’ve seen the movie three times since it was released in December, and I have to confess that I have definitely reached the latter conclusion. I have yet to become bored with the movie. Nor have I been convinced that it’s racist or reactionary as some critics have stated. Ultimately, I see Django Unchained as a triumph against cautious liberal cinema, the safe packaging of slavery into distancing tidy narratives, and the limits typically imposed on black roles in popular Hollywood cinema. Django Unchained gives the audience a black hero who rises not only out of the abomination of slavery but out of the constraints of cinema itself.

Tarantino’s film has no pretense of being a reverent piece of historical cinema or a classic slave emancipation tale. In fact, Tarantino’s tale of slave revenge and romantic love in America’s Antebellum South intentionally disrupts history, much like its predecessor Inglorious Basterds, and blows-up the Big House of cinematic reverence to allow a mass audience to confront slavery and the role of blacks in film, thereby shining much-needed light on a very dark side of American history.

With the gun-slinging Django riding through the landscape and taking down bad white guys (and they are BAD!) to save his love and avenge his abusers, the movie does on many levels play like a mash-up of the Blaxploitation film and Spaghetti Western. Certainly, the movie contains elements of both genres, but it is also so much more. The film could be called a “Spaghetti Southern” (as Tarantino refers to it in the January 2013 issue of American Cinematographer). It takes elements of the Spaghetti Western (which features an outsider in an alien, hostile environment) and relocates them to the American South. What could be more alien in the Antebellum South than a gun-toting free cowboy black man? And what could be more hostile to this improbable icon of liberty than the white men of the South? As in a classic Western narrative, a very clear line is drawn between the “good” (the avenging slave and the man who freed him) and “evil” (the plantation owners and slave overseers) forces at play in the film, and, despite what some of Django Unchained’s critics have said, there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever about who we want to come out on top.

The black hero is Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave who is freed by a German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz in a performance as great as the one he delivers as the slick “Jew Hunter” in Inglorious Basterds). Once freed, Django learns the trade of bounty hunting as a student to Schultz and demonstrates his sharp-shooting abilities as he plucks off any number of bad white guys with clean precision, a skill set he will eventually employ to rescue his true love Broomhilda. Following a classic fairytale structure, Django and Schultz travel to the evil kingdom (a Southern Plantation known as Candie-Land) to rescue the damsel in distress (Django’s slave wife). Leonardo DiCaprio plays the evil king/plantation owner Calvin Candie who gets his rocks off pitting slaves against each other in a blood sport known as Mandigo fighting, in which black men literally fight to the death for the entertainment of whites. And Samuel L. Jackson tears up the screen with his over-the-top performance as Stephen – the Uncle Tom “House Nigger” who is glued to Calvin Candie’s side and proves to be one of the most diabolical characters ever put on screen.

Just summarizing the main actors in the film illustrates the big can of worms contained in Django Uncained. Besides the role of an Uncle Tom, the shocking display of Mandingo fighting and Tarantino’s use of pulp genres like the Western and the Romantic Fairytale to tell a tale of the most brutal institution in American history, we have to take into consideration the use of the N-word which flies as hard and fast as bullets in this movie. I’ve already used the word in referring to Stephen as the House Nigger, and that is only one of multitudes of times the word is fired during the three hours of the movie. Some critics (most notably Spike Lee) have taken issue with Tarantino’s use of the word. How can a white man use the word “nigger” in a film?

Well, if we want to talk about the historical record, a tale of slavery in the South and the racist and violent history of the American economy would be hard to tell without including the N-word, unless the screenplay were as whitewashed as the pristine monuments to white supremacy that Southern plantations were. But whitewashed is exactly what has largely been done to the subject of slavery in film, and it’s about time that someone pulls the white sheet off the face of the subject. Shockingly, because it’s played for laughs, Django Unchained even features a sequence in which members of a proto-Klu Klux Klan are forced to do just that — pull the white bags off their heads. Revealing the ugly and brutal truth of racism means disrupting reverent expectations of the subject by mixing it up with pulp cinema, and that means deploying the N-word in rapid fire as frequently as it was used in the time. To paraphrase renowned slavery scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. from an interview he conducted with Tarantino, to tell a tale of slavery and racism in America and not use the N-word would be to lie. So if we’re going to tell the truth about slavery and racism, the N-word must be spoken. Just to be absolutely clear, then, if I use the word in this essay, it is both because I am quoting the film and the historical treatment of blacks it refuses to whitewash.

Now that I’ve addressed the N-Word, let’s take a minute to think about what exactly Django Unchained is. The film opens in a dark Texas forest with a chain-gang of slaves. The black faces of the men merge with the dark forest, their white eyes glowing in the night. Two menacing white men on horses are leading the slaves to the market to be sold. This scene sets the stage for a traditional emancipation narrative. When Dr. Schultz arrives and frees Django, the camera closes in on Django’s bloody and brutalized ankle. Django’s entire foot and ankle fill the screen as Schultz removes the shackle and “unchains” Django. Django then shucks off his tattered blanket, bares his whip-scarred back and raises his arms in a gesture of freedom and vengeance (e.g. Black Power).

Certainly Django’s scarred and muscle-bound body could be seen as both a fetish object and a stereotype in this scene. This represents the traditional role of black men in film (when they’re not playing subservient emasculated “House Niggers” like Samuel Jackson’s Stephen). If Tarantino shows us this startling and unpleasant image, however, it is in order to set in motion a narrative that will undo racial stereotypes and cinematic expectations. He first creates the stereotypical scenario (the emancipated slave narrative), and then he dumps the black character into untraditional roles (the cowboy, the Western buddy, the chivalrous romantic hero).

Part of the reason Django Unchained succeeds in emancipating itself from the constraints of cautious liberal cinema and its safe historical distancing of the subject of slavery is by emancipating its main character from the trappings of traditional black roles in film. It undoes racial stereotypes by first exposing them and then either dismantling them by creating untraditional roles (Django) or blowing them up entirely (Stephen). Once Django shucks off that blanket and lifts his arms, he also shucks off the traditional emancipation story and everything that is expected from a “safe” film about slavery. Crucially, Django’s role isn’t so much to free the slaves as it is to free the image of the slave from the shackles of both the racism of classic Hollywood narratives and the political correctness of the post-Civil Rights Era.

Once Django Unchained leaves behind the traditional slave emancipation story, the story takes us through a variety of cinematic genres drenched with plenty of blood and humor as Django’s character develops and ultimately triumphs. Django Unchained uses popular pulp genres to take on the deadly serious subject of slavery and the bloody history of the American South. While some have criticized the film for turning the somber subject of slavery into pulp entertainment, the very fact that Django Unchained traffics in “low” stereotypes is what makes it effective. As we follow Django on his mission to save his wife through Tarantino’s network of pulp genres, not only do we grow to identify with Django, but we are able to share in his victory. Sure, guns are fired, walls are splattered with blood, jokes are made, and visceral violence plays before us, but through pulp, violence, and traditional popular narrative devices, Tarantino erases the cautious distance between the audience and his movie’s slave hero. We are able to feel, see and experience slavery without the desensitizing insulation of identity politics. This collapses the distance between the superficial safety of our times and the brutal reality of our history, making the horrors of the past more viscerally real than when they are neatly packaged in cautious historically accurate cinema.

To simply read Django Unchained as a slave revenge/blaxploitation/Western mash-up would short-change all the genre bending the film does to 1) effectively blow the fuck out of black roles in film and 2) make the audience identify with and cheer for the film’s black hero. When Django mounts one of his former captor’s horses and rides into a small Texas town with his emancipator Schultz, the film shifts gears, moving into the territory of the Spaghetti Western. We’ve seen this town before, its old wooden buildings and dirt-filled streets situated in the barren landscape between nowhere and nowhere else. White people walk out of buildings and stand on sidewalks shocked and outraged at the sight of Django riding on a horse alongside Schultz. One of the townspeople whispers, “Look! It’s a nigger on a horse!” When Schultz questions what their problem is, Django blatantly says, “They just ain’t used to seeing a nigger on a horse.”

The doubling of this line, first from the white woman and then from the black man is funny and the audience laughs, but it’s also damn true. Not only are the people in the town not used to seeing “a nigger on a horse,” but neither is the Hollywood audience. The Western is a white man’s genre, but Django rides his horse right through the genre when he rides into the town. This is partly how the film destabilizes white packaging of race in movies and in American history. When Schultz and Django force the town to accept the “nigger on the horse” because he is there as part of “legal business,” the audience also is being asked to accept him. And the audience does. All three times I saw the movie, everyone in the audience – black, white, old, young – cheered for this “nigger on a horse.”

It turns out that Schultz doesn’t just unshackle Django out of the goodness of his heart. Schultz purchases Django (and ultimately his freedom) because it is within his economic interest. Schultz is a bounty hunter, and he needs Django to identify three dirty, rotten overseers – the Brittle Brothers – for whom there is a large bounty on their heads. Django knows the Brittle brothers from his former plantation, because they are the men responsible for whipping him and his beloved wife Broomhilda. Schultz tells Django that he abhors the institution of slavery, but that even he will use it for his economic advantage. Since he “owns” Django, he insists that Django work for him to identify the men who have a large price tag on their heads. When Django asks what a bounty hunter does, Schultz explains that he’s “in the business of selling corpses.”

Coupling bounty hunting with slavery is brilliant. The pairing of these two businesses that trade in human lives underscores the business of violence in this country and the bloody legacy of the American economic landscape. Slavery was an atrocity, an abomination, a dehumanizing and brutal institution that was perceived as acceptable because it was good for “business.” It fueled one of the most successful economic enterprises in American history – cotton. Interestingly, Tarantino also shows how the race card can be thrown out the window, when it is within the economic interest of whites. Everything comes down to business. When Schultz realizes that Django is a perfect shot and that he would make an excellent business partner in the bounty hunting business, race becomes transparent between the two characters.

(more…)

 

Spielberg’s Lincoln and the Resilience of Historic Myths
By Ruth Hull

Think about the word “history” — his story. History is always told by the victors. Victors have the money and power to acquire spin doctors to come up with created history so these winners will sound so good that they are unrecognizable.

Some popular myths (as in not true):

  • Lady Godiva’s ride (sorry),
  • Columbus discovering America,
  • Washington’s cherry tree confession,
  • Betsy Ross sewing the first flag (though she was a successful businesswoman and flag maker),
  • Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address being written on the back of a paper bag,
  • Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation being written to free the slaves,
  • John Wilkes Booth as a crazed lone assassin,
  • Lee Harvey Oswald as a lone crazed assassin,
  • Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq,
  • The killings of Osama Bin Laden by Bush and Obama (in different years), and
  • Obama as a Socialist Muslim (when in fact he is a Christian and an extreme capitalist).

Some even cooler myths that I had never heard can be found at: Debunked Myths about the U.S. Presidents.

With Thanksgiving approaching, some people want to re-create the early days of the early settlers.

Remember Plymouth, a place where the Pilgrims did not land on a rock. There is a commemorative rock there now. Jamestown was founded first.

In Jamestown, one of the more interesting dishes was human beings. Yes, check out Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States.” Many of us were descended from cannibals. Now, while known cannibals like the Jamestown settlers were white, there are no documented instances of non-white cannibalistic societies. Such non-white societies are myths. So maybe a white Thanksgiving isn’t a good idea if you want to keep your body parts.

If you wish to eat like the Pilgrims, make sure you use your fingers. Howard Zinn calls Thanksgiving, “the celebration of the friendly dinner that came before the genocide.” So, in keeping with tradition, have dinner with your neighbors and then slaughter them.

The Lincoln movie by Spielberg also played into historical myths. Sometimes myths are fun. In the case of Lincoln, they were very entertaining. It’s easy to get lost in these myths and some believers are willing to fight against anyone trying to provide them with facts. Though Lincoln scared the South into seceding, he was at best a reluctant abolitionist, preferring an intact Union to freeing even one slave. Occasionally, he would say something to appease abolitionists and then go back to statements expressing his belief in inequality of the races. His letter to Horace Greeley is consistent with this as were his statements in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Emancipation Proclamation, which could have freed slaves in the Union territories but specifically did not free even one slave in the Union. The Proclamation was designed to demoralize the South, against which the Union was fighting while giving the appearance that it actually stood for something. Lincoln opposed interracial marriage. He spoke of deporting the Blacks to Africa and he supported fugitive slave laws. An African-American scholar named Leone Bennett, Jr., wrote a book in 2007 calling Lincoln a racist and documenting his claims directly from Lincoln’s speeches. Mr. Bennett ignored the myth-writers and therefore stirred up a lot of anger among whites who insisted their white President freed the slaves single-handedly. The book is called, “Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream.” Regardless of your feelings about Mr. Bennett, Lincoln’s own words in the Lincoln-Douglas debates and elsewhere show he did not consider himself an abolitionist. While we may wish Lincoln had been a stronger opponent of slavery, we are stuck with the facts as they were. It is hard to think our leaders were so ignorant that they didn’t get that even debating before ending slavery was itself an abomination.

In the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, this is one of the most repeated of Lincoln’s statements. Here in the sixth debate, he is quoting his anti-abolitionist position to prove his consistency on this point.

“After reading I added these words: ‘Now, gentlemen, I don’t want to read at any great length, but this is the true complexion of all I have ever said in regard to the institution of slavery or the black race, and this is the whole of it; any thing that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastical arrangement of words by which a man can prove a horse-chestnut to be a chestnut horse. I will say here, while upon this subject, that I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution in the States where it exists. I believe I have no right to do so. I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together on the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.'” (source)

The Lincoln movie does have a certain amount of charm. The favorite part for Israel’s Likud Party is undoubtedly towards the end. Why would an 1865 Abraham Lincoln be reminiscing about wanting to take off to Israel? The Israeli plug was silly at best. Robert Lincoln refuted the false historical claim that his father was Jewish. The timing of the movie’s opening to coincide with the attack on Gaza was likely something Spielberg didn’t expect, but those in the Israeli leadership, who met with Spielberg, before the filming started, did have choices and they chose to massacre children on the opening weekend.

The movie also diminished the contributions of African-Americans and women in getting the 13th Amendment adopted, making it look as if the Amendment was a gratuity granted to them. In Lincoln, the physical handing of the 13th Amendment document to the African-American love interest of Thaddeus Stevens symbolizes the idea that it was a gift handed down from the Whites as opposed to something the Blacks inherently deserved.

Embellishing to build up our leaders as role models is sometimes considered useful, but not when the admission of teens to college depends on their getting 5’s on their Advanced Placement U.S. History exams. Fortunately for this year’s AP students, there is half a year to dispel the myths of this movie and get top scores. The best prep for that particular AP exam is Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.

Now, while the Spielberg movie mixed myths with history, it left out Lincoln’s opposition to corporate rule and also the special holiday he gave America: Thanksgiving.

Lincoln was theoretically (though this could be another myth) inspired by editorials and letters written by Sarah Josepha Hale, the New England editor of Godey’s Book, to create the occasion. In 1863, after the Battle of Gettysburg, he declared the National Thanksgiving Holiday.

So have a Happy Thanksgiving. If you want to see a movie over the holiday weekend, a good choice is the final chapter in the Twilight series. Breaking Dawn, Part 2, may well turn out to be the best anti-war movie of the year. See it and you will find out why.

Ruth Hull is the chairman of a liberal Democratic organization that is working to move the country towards its true base, the people. She has organized major human rights events and worked with some of the most liberal leaders in America. Her career has included work as a criminal defense attorney, a licensed private investigator, an educator and a writer.