by John Kendall Hawkins
Once a bull hit me across the bridge of my nose and I felt like I was coming apart like a cigarette floating in a urinal. They can hit you on the head and bust your shoes.
- Ralph Ellison, “Hymie’s Bull,” (1938)
On the evening of August 1, 1943, after breaking bread and pulling corks, talking folklore, jazz and blues, with New Yorker critic Stanley Hyman and novelist Shirley Jackson in their Queens apartment, up-and-coming writer Ralph Ellison said goodnight to them and took the train home to Harlem. When he emerged at 137th Street, he walked right into a raging race riot. Fires, massive looting, chaos.
It had begun in the lobby of a hotel, when a Black woman “improbably named Polite” got into a violent tiff with a white cop, and, when a Black soldier intervened, the cop shot him. According to Ellison biographer Arnold Rampersad, “Margie Polite ran into the street screaming that a white cop had killed a black man. Harlem exploded.” Five people died, hundreds were injured, 500 were arrested. The scene inspired artwork, Richard Wright’s Notes of a Native Son, and was seared indelibly into Ellison’s consciousness. A day later, Ellison was called on by the New York Post to cover the event. He observed, wrote Rampersad, that “it was the poorer element’s way of blowing off steam.” Other surrealist details of dissociation and mayhem followed.
Hyman and Jackson eventually moved to Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman had landed a position teaching Folklore at the exclusive womens college there. He quickly became a popular professor (no doubt garnering girly titters as soon he wrote his name on the chalkboard), and hosted many parties at his home. Often while the more taciturn Shirley retired early for the night. Hyman was known for his wit, directness, and honesty. Ellison stayed with the couple for a few months and worked on the story “Flying Home” (Jackson biographer Judy Oppenheimer wrote that Hyman virtually forced Ellison to write the story on the spot) — and the future classic novel of the Black experience in America, Invisible Man. Folklore and music bound Hyman and Ellison together, as well as the common experience of alienation in WASP America (he was Jewish), and Hyman became his trusted penpal and a valued literary advisor throughout his career.
There’s extraordinary dramatic tension and a guiding truth combusting about in the paragraphs above — clear signs of an intense and productive relationship between powerful personages of letters, Hyman and Ellison, and to a lesser extent Jackson — that would have provided a dynamic beginning to the recently released film, Shirley, the so-called biopic of writer, Shirley Jackson, author of the highly controversial tale, “The Lottery.” The movie might have started with the riot (or the railroad Jew being clubbed by “bulls”), but the film production team, including executive producer Martin Scorsese, director Josephine Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins chose a well-trod path, and it definitely made a difference. But not in a good way.
Instead, they produced a script from a ‘creative non-fiction’(CNF) book with the same title by Susan Scarf Merrell, which gave the viewer an almost farfetched sex scene in the first two minutes of the film. Merrell’s CNF tale means she gave herself the liberty to expand on factually-inspired information regarding Jackson’s time living in Bennington as a faculty wife to Stanley Hyman. The most important poetic license Merrell takes is the installation of a young married fictional couple, Rose and Fred, on their way to Bennington to begin a faculty career and temporarily reside with Stanley and Shirley, while they seek their own apartment. The book is told from the point-of-view of 19 year old Rose (Odessa Young), a pregnant, seemingly naive and ordinary person who comes under the spell of Shirley, who is largely depicted as an intelligent, empathetic woman struggling with her writing.
But Merrell’s tale, apparently with her consent, was wildly reconfigured, and, the Rose that rides on the train with Fred (Logan Lerman) toward Bennington in the film is radically different than the Rose who begins her narration in the book: A nice anticipatory train ride to a New England town becomes, in the film, crude. Rose is seen reading the New Yorker edition (June 1948) that contains Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and we watch as her expression becomes ever more delighted at what she’s reading, odd in itself. She finishes and commences a brief exchange with Fred about her reading:
Rose: They stone her to death.
Fred: Are you reading the Shirley story?
Rose: The whole town — even her own children — they all stoned her.
Fred: That’s creepy.
Rose: That’s terrific. (smiles)
A moment later, Rose wants to get her rocks off after reading the story and is moving her hand to Fred’s inner thigh, until they both head back-train and join the Mile Long Club (D = R*T). In the first minute of the film?
Then they get off the train, move through town on foot, pass some boys tossing stones in an alley — one of them wearing an eye patch (which I thought funny) — and then arrive at the Hyman house, in party mode, and pass among others — (spoiler alert!!) Ralph Ellison and his attractive partner. Ellison is shown for 4 seconds. In the whole movie. The first thing I wondered is how the actor playing him, Edward O’Blenis, a breakdancer from the Bronx, would want the credit he’s given at IMDB. 4 seconds? Then, poof, he’s the invisible man again.
It gets worse. Aside from putting the climax at the beginning of the movie, Merrell went along (presumably) with Gubbins’s plan to amp up Shirley’s psychological profile. What is a somewhat eccentric, occasionally snobby, struggling writer, with four kids, in the book, is turned into a kind of childless monster or psychopath undergoing some kind of disturbed withdrawal — until Rose arrives. In fact, Stan (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Shirley come across as a Michael Haneke-inspired couple who like to play with their guests — either of them ruining a breezy conversation at the table with an intentionally barbed and poisonous take-down comment, just to see the reaction of the target. Elizabeth Moss’s Shirley expression, afterward, looking like an impression of Jodie Comer’s Villanelle (from Killing Eve). Speaking of poetic license. At one point, Shirley enquires of Rose at dinner, in front of Fred, if she’d told him she was pregnant before wedding him.
Fred and Rose arrive at a time when Paula Jean Welden, a Bennington student, has gone missing — posters are on trees, there is talk, and Rose, being drawn closer to the mystery that is Shirley, begins to suspect the couple’s involvement in foul play. In the book, Shirley humorously calls herself a witch (her acerbic ways and fiction about horror have put people off); she’s into Tarot, mushrooms, herbs, folklore.
But in the film, she pulls Rose in. She performs a Tarot reading and slaps down three Hanged Man cards in a row; her eyes chill as she gazes at Rose. The latter freaked out by the ‘reading’, and innocently unaware that Tarot decks have only one Hanged Man card, one of the most potent cards in the deck; Shirley is playing Rose and doesn’t tell her what the array means (Nothing) as she continues to hold her wonder. Is she a psycho or a psychic, or both? Shirley plays bonding games, pretending to eat a ‘poisonous’ mushroom to fuck with Rose. They go on a walk in the woods to where the Welden girl was last seen alive and the director fucks with us — Rose and Shirley standing at a cliff’s edge (Shirley holding Rose’s baby), then Rose is gone, then suddenly Shirley’s waking from a dream. She didn’t kill Rose, but we wonder why she’s dreaming of it.
Shirley is not only dreaming of abduction and murder, but writing about it in a new novel. Her struggle with words over, since Rose arrived, like fresh hot blood not felt coursing through her system since, well, the Welden girl disappeared; she rises from her emotional coffin. More games from the director, as Stanley and Shirley seemingly plot the demise of the young couple, including a reference to Macbeth. Stanley asks, now that Shirley is into full time writing again, what will become of Rose? Shirley replies, “What becomes of all wayward girls; they go mad.” And he, taking her advice for Fred — to “give him enough rope to hang himself” (The Hanged Man) — builds up Fred’s hopes for a tenure hire, praising his dissertation, only to intentionally crush him with a savage dinner table attack on Fred’s total lack of “originality” out of nowhere.
It’s at this stage that I stopped caring about what the film was trying to achieve, and I began to ponder again the whole notion of CNF. Stanley is teaching Bennington students at the cusp of curricular change from Canon Great Man-driven works to the postmodern pluralism and relative values. Turns out, there’s more to time’s events than the Mighty Whitey’s control of the historical narrative would imply. Stanley’s posture represents a defense of the Canon, the Old Guard, rejecting the upstart relativism that would overturn the monied tables of the Ivory Tower. And it’s Freudian to boot. Stanley’s is a brief fury, dishonest, and absolutely signifying nothing more than his pathology. As he teaches something as twee as Folklore — and praises the virtues of jazz at his lectures — it doesn’t make sense that he’d defend the primacy of Originality against Derivation, when the universal application of the latter — archetypes, intertextuality — are what he lectures on.
Shirley director Decker totally threw away an opportunity — to be relevant. CNF is a gift from the postmodern Gauds, but she and the writers fell back on old tropes and worn out storytelling. CNF is supposed to help get you where fiction or fact-ion alone is not always quite adequate for the narration; perhaps a little more Dionysian sizzle sauce needs to be added to the Apollonian stir-fry, such as with Irvin Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept.
Even given the obvious fact that filmmaking tells the same story differently, Decker and company left so many opportunities by the wayside to make this film a deeper, more intelligent film about deep, intelligent people. Stanley and Shirley, in real life, represented a mature literary lifestyle, including its critical appraisal, but that’s all absent in Shirley. The film’s not really about Jackson at all. Frankly, as a biopic, the story borders on slander. It vaguely reminds me of the so-called “journalistic” promises of Zero Dark Thirty that, nevertheless, felt it necessary to include scenes with superstitious omens.
Consider some simple enhancements of fact that might have made Shirley a better film. How could Gubbins and Decker not make the town a character? Although they include the Welden disappearance in order to implicitly demonize Stanley and Shirley, they leave out the reality that between 1945 and 1950 five people went missing from the Bennington area, and it became known as “The Bennington Triangle.” It was a small town in which the rocky horror show of “The Lottery” is played out. The story that aroused Rose, appalled most people, with its implications of how people can just turn on each other, and led to subscription cancellations and outraged letters to the New Yorker. Why wasn’t this alluded to? And why not mention Shirley’s arch allusion to John 8:7 — “Let he without sin cast the first stone”?
Back to Ralph Ellison. Another enhancement opportunity lost. It would have been fantastic to have included a scene at the dinner table, or in the parlor, where Ralph and Shirley compared and contrasted, over buffalo wings and beer, themes and devices of their similar short stories, “The Lottery” and the “The King of the Bingo Game.” Both involve forms of scapegoating, entranced communities, and beat-down endings, one involving white small town life and the other a sense that Black Lives Don’t Matter, and both horrifically suggesting depravity at the core of humanity. Though Ellison’s piece was published four years before Jackson’s, such a discussion would have been an excellent use of creative non-fiction in the film.
Even feminism was given a miss. Merrell made it an important discussion point in her book, bringing in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to criticize Jackson’s upper crust tips on homemaking in Good Housekeeping articles, but apparently she lacked the cajones to insist on such a discussion in the movie. Again, the era was the late 40s, when feminism was on the cusp, and it would’ve been meet to hear the couples rumble in the jungle of marriage viability after WWII, especially since they placed such value on “honesty.” But also, and perhaps more tenuously, Shirley (“neurosis”) might have been linked to other prominent female suicidal voices at the time — Anne Sexton (“manic-depressive”), Sylvia Plath (“depression”) — the three forming a Suicidal Poets Society.
Similarly, Erich Fromm taught at Bennington when Hyman was there. It might have been enriching to have had had highbrow collegial banter at a Hyman barbecue during which they jovially discussed The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and played, say, Pin the Tail on the Donkey. That, too, would have been a fine use of CNF.
Where was the discussion of folklore in more detail and music? All we really get is Stanley Hyman as, according to Rose, a potential monster who may have enabled the disappearance of a Welden girl. In real life, Hyman was a known philanderer who slept with many of his students, according to Ruth Franklin, Shirley’s biographer. Rather than masking him a fake monster, why not, in this age of #MeToo, have played up his actual activities. If it’s good enough to show Harvey Weinstein going through his career with a casting couch on his back, why not show the masks the Folklore instructor wore. Again, great CNF. But Decker and Merrell choose to go with a phony affair with elderly-ing librarian. I don’t think so.
Elizabeth Moss seems to be in the running for an Oscar for her role in the film, and, and as far as that role goes, she did a reasonably good job. But I didn’t come away feeling that I knew the real Shirley Jackson better. I’m reasonably certain she wasn’t a psychopath, for instance. And I don’t believe the tale enhanced her fictional body of work either. I don’t really see it as a biopic, but as a facade, with its biographical innards gutted to make way for riffing. It was like a Halloween mask of Jackson. At times, a silly Americanized version of Igmar Bergman’s Persona.
The bluesy soundtrack wasn’t bad though.
By John Kendall Hawkins
In June 1972, Martha Mitchell, wife of US Attorney General John Mitchell, was brutally beaten in her hotel room by a thug hired by her husband to watch over her and prevent her from communicating to the public. Steve King, the man who beat her black-and-blue and had a psychiatrist stick a needle filled with tranquilizer in her cheeky ass, never faced criminal charges, and went on to become, 45 years later, the current ambassador to the Czech Republic — a Trump appointee unanimously approved by Congress in 2017. Isn’t that a kick in the head.
Martha Mitchell was beaten and sedated because she was on the phone to a reporter — Helen Thomas, then of UPI. The phone was literally ripped out of her hand, and out of the wall, the last thing Thomas heard before the disconnection was: “You just get away.” Martha, known as “The Mouth of the South” or as “a real life Scarlett O’Hara” who frankly didn’t give a damn what people thought of her opinions was a “sensation” on the DC social circuit and in the Press. Newspapers could always count on her to come up with some kind of colorful anecdote. But President Richard Nixon hated her and insisted that her husband, John, find a way to muzzle her.
Just after their arrest, Martha had seen one of the Watergate burglars on TV — Jim McCord, a former chauffeur for her children — and was calling Helen Thomas to blow the whistle. Had she been able to communicate to Thomas what she knew of McCord, and his connections to the Nixon administration, the president’s re-election campaign may have unraveled and a second term quashed. Instead, a skittish press, and an unsupportive husband, accepted the premise that she was an unstable drunk having a breakdown. People turned on her, and, as she poignantly describes in an Episode 1 Dick Cavett interview, she was never able to trust people again — a devastating proposition for someone so extraverted. Further, during the interview, she expressed fear of being shot.
All of this powerful political and psychological tension is captured beautifully in the excellent new Epix series, Slow Burn. The series purports to relate important details overlooked or left out of the master narrative about Watergate and the Nixon resignation that has evolved over the decades. Martha Mitchell rarely features in any ‘commemoration’ of the Nixon take-down. And yet, Episode 1 of the series makes an excellent case for how the press betrayed this insider. More importantly, producer Leon Neyfakh, makes sure we understand that there are valuable parallels between the Nixon era and the Trump circus. We now remember Steve King, but Roger Stone, who just received a 40-month sentence for lying to Congress and witness-tampering, also makes a cameo appearance to describe Nixon’s cover-up.
In an interesting symbiotic development, the Epix Slow Burn series is a visual enactment of the prize-winning podcast series by the same name presented by Slate magazine. I watched Episode 1 “Martha”, which is free at the site, then went back and listened to the podcast, which is about a half-hour shorter than the podcast. There are extras added obviously, such as the interview with Stone, and the visual stimulation allows us to see key unfamiliar figures, like Martha, and helps conjure up a photo album of the time. Other figures, like Dick Cavett, Mike Douglas, and old friend Tom Snyder fill in the rough edges of the era. Going back and forth between TV and podcasts, as episodes stream, seems like a winning combination.
The series promises to deliver more of these vignettes and subplots that are off the beaten narrative track — up next is “Losing Ground,” forgotten Congressman Wright Patman’s attempt — way before the Watergate Hearings made Sam Ervin a household name — to force the conspirators to come clean on the machinations behind the break-in and cover-up. Patman, as Chair of the House Banking and Currency Committee, followed the money long before Mark Felt (“Deep Throat”), a disgruntled FBI deputy director, famously insisted that WaPo’s Woodward and Bernstein do the same. Though House Democrats at the time had the numbers to force Watergate conspirators to testify, they declined, and, in a farcical slap at the system, Patman held a hearing and interrogated four empty chairs. Compelling stuff.
Other episodes include “A Very Successful Cover-up,” “Lie Detectors,” True Believers,” “Rabbit Holes,” “Saturday Night,” and “Going South.” Again, all of the podcasts (and transcripts) are available for free online, either at Slate, or other easy-to-find places.
Producer Leon Neyfakh closes out the Episode 1 podcast with this note to the listener, which equally applied to the viewer:
In 1975, Martha got sick. She died the following year of cancer. Afterward, her hometown erected a bust in her honor. And on the bust’s granite pedestal, there was an inscription: “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” In a letter to the editor printed in her local paper in Arkansas, someone wrote, “She was a kind of a dippy saint, a dizzy yet right on the target woman to whom freedom and honesty meant more than protocol and appropriate behavior.”
No doubt, she would have had something choice to say about Trump’s appointment of her attacker to the ambassadorship of the Czech Republic. Fuck Steve King.
By John Kendall Hawkins
By the late-90s we must have sensed that the shit was hitting the fan. The fire at Waco. The Unabomber envelopes. The downing of Flight 800. The World Trade Center bombing. Blowjobs in the White House. Oklahoma City. Tokyo’s subway sarin attack. The Khobar Towers bombing blamed on bin Laden. The ascent of Atlanta’s radio jockstrap Sean Hannity to national status on Roger Ailes’ newly established Fox News Network. OJ taking off the gloves. Rodney King wondering if we could all just get along. Cruise missiles on Bosnia on the eve of Clinton’s impeachment for blowjobs. Distracted from distraction by distraction, as T.S. Eliot famously put it, years before Karl Rove’s prosaic promise to fuck with reality-based thinking in the wake of 9/11.
As if America didn’t have enough problems, a foot soldier in the Army of God was afoot in the wee hours of July 27, 1996 at Centennial Park in Atlanta, where the Olympics were winding up for the night. Eric Rudolph, formerly of the Army of Exceptionalism — he’d been a special ops soldier in the Airborne 101 — was strolling near some benches behind the park, wearing a green backpack. There were dozens of people milling about. Rudolph sat on a bench and surreptitiously opened his backpack and set a timer on a huge bomb and placed the pack under the bench, then walked away hurriedly. No one saw him.
Rudolph rushed to a phone bank outside a Days Inn a couple of blocks away from the park and called in the bomb threat to 911. He used a plastic device to disguise his voice, and then, according to Kent Alexander’s account in the recently released film, The Suspect, the following took place: Rudolph said, “‘We defy the order of the militia …’ Click. The line went dead. The 911 operator had disconnected him.” Disconcerted at not being taken seriously, Rudolph called back, disguising his voice by pinching his nose, and said: “‘There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have thirty minutes.’ He hung up. The call lasted thirteen seconds.” Confusion followed, with the 911 operator unable to find the Olympic Park address. Transcripts show insufficient urgency followed:
Dispatcher: Zone 5.
911 Operator: You know the address to Centennial Park?
Dispatcher: Girl, don’t ask me to lie to you.
911 Operator: I tried to call ACC, but ain’t nobody answering the phone … but I just got this man called talking about there’s a bomb set to go off in thirty minutes in Centennial Park.
Dispatcher: Oh Lord, child. Uh, OK, wait a minute. Centennial Park, you put it in and it won’t go in?
911 Operator: No, unless I’m spelling Centennial wrong. How are we spelling Centennial?
Dispatcher: C-E-N-T-E-N-N-I—how do you spell Centennial?
911 Operator: I’m spelling it right, it ain’t taking.
Valuable time expired, and the bomb squad, when they were finally called to the scene, had insufficient time to properly clear the area before the bomb went off.
At the start of Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Richard Jewell, the title character is followed by the director as he makes his rounds as an AT&T security guard outside a busy Centennial Park. Goofy and overstuffed, he is immediately seen as an oddball. Offering water to a pregnant woman in such a way that, though thanking him for it, she eyeballs him suspiciously. He confronts a group of drinking teens who diss him. On his way to get help, he sees the bomb under the bench. He asks passersby if the pack belongs to them. Alarmed, he alerts the assigned police crew, urging them to take action immediately, seemingly certain the pack is loaded. Bystanders are pushed to safety by Jewell, and others, when the bomb booms.
Paul Walter Hauser plays the complex character of Jewell, who’s not as dumb as he looks (or sometimes acts), and who gets caught up in a media frenzy that is fuelled by the wild speculation of a misinformed newspaper reporter, played by Olivia Wilde, and the entrapping tactics of the FBI — John Hamm playing the principle scofflaw fed. As the world comes at Jewell like a viral contagion, annihilating his privacy and reputation, he is buoyed up by his mother, played by Kathy Bates (in an Oscar-nominated supporting role) and Sam Rockwell as Watson Bryant, his lawyer and friend.
Theres been considerable controversy over the film’s depiction of the newspaper reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC), Kathy Scruggs, played by Olivia Wilde. Eastwood has taken heat for her depiction, but he didn’t write the screenplay. The script is based upon Marie Brenner’s Vanity Fair article, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” and The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen’s account of the bombing and its aftermath — including police investigations and news reporting. Only the latter sets up the scene where Scruggs allegedly received the confirmation from police that Richard Jewell was the primary suspect.
In The Suspect, Scruggs meets up with her source (unrevealed) at a bar — “someone she had known over the years. The source was about as plugged in as it got. She got down to business.” She was seated across from her source, and there was no hanky-panky:
The meeting was strictly off the record—that was understood. They ordered drinks, made small talk. After a few minutes, Scruggs asked the question. Are there any new suspects? Yes, the reply came back. One. “It’s Richard Jewell.” Scruggs’s heart pounded. Bingo. Jewell, the hero. Until now.”
To this day, this source is unknown, although Alexander and Selwen drop a couple of insinuating names in a couple of places.
Compare the Suspect scene above with the screenplay version (45-6) written by Billy Ray. In Ray’s account, Scruggs comes across as an eager beaver, who’ll do anything to get the scoop. Here’s how she’s depicted in the film:
I wouldn’t run it unless I had independent corroboration from a second source. That would put us in a different zone, as you know. (her hand drifting) Tom. You’re about to burst.
She leans in — that open blouse. He’s hard as an anvil.
First time in my life I ever wished I was gay.
Kathy smiles… then Shaw gives it up:
The Bureau’s looking at the security guard. Jewell.
WHOA. Kathy freezes. Did I hear that wrong? Nope. Trying to calm herself, she takes out her notepad.
The scene’s sexual banter is significantly longer in the film. There’s no question that it makes Scruggs look sleazy. But it’s also a condensed, slightly spiced up sum of all parts which Alexander and Selwel suggest throughout The Suspect. Is it Eastwood’s role to change a script for fairness to perceived reality? While Richard Jewell is based on actual events, Eastwood never pretends that his movie is “journalistic,” the way Katherine Bigelow did for Zero Dark Thirty. Did Scruggs sleep with cops to get information? The film says Yes, and The Suspect says Maybe (with a wink).
But Marie Brenner, in her Vanity Fair piece, “American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell,” draws attention to a far more damaging assault on Scruggs’ reputation — the question of attribution in her story on Jewell and her reliance on ‘Voice of God’ journalism. Her lede reads:
The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident that resulted in two deaths and injured more than 100.
Well, says who? Further defamatory sentences follow (here is the article) — without any attribution at all. It’s the Voice of God at work. Ironically, VOG was AJC’s rule: they’d “essentially banned” the expression “sources said” because readers might believe a quote was “fabricated.”
Brenner opens up the possibility that there was no source, per se, at all. And this line is taken further by Alexander and Selwen when they allude to the 1984 LA Olympics Turkish Bus bomb — planted by the ‘heroic’ officer who found the bomb. It may be, The Suspect suggests, that Scruggs had been given the hero-bomb anecdote and ran with it, in her passion to be the one who broke the story. Alexander and Selwen cite previous admonishments: “She was so eager to run with what trusted sources disclosed to her that editors often had to slow her down until she got more corroborating details.” Maybe there was no secondary corroboration.
The worst thing of all is that Jewell didn’t find out that he was a suspect until the AJC piece broke and went wild across the local and national airwaves. Overnight he went from a profile in courage to the profile of a loser — and, if he was imitating the LA ‘bomb hero, not particularly original either. None of it makes Scruggs look good as a reporter. But the AJC, believes the film has gone too far in portraying her as a quid pro quo “floozy,” and in “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” Jennifer Brett complains that the harsh appraisal of Scruggs’ journalism is not balanced. She cites Scruggs’s brother, Lewis, who recalls, “… She was proud the FBI called her about Jewell. She was proud of the way she reported it to begin with.” But she shouldn’t have been proud.
The FBI did a disgraceful job handling the bombing, starting with director Louis Freeh, who micromanaged the investigation, and may have pushed the notion that Jewell be regarded as the prime suspect to his underlings in Atlanta — suspicions drawn from false profiling. It continued with the leak to Scruggs. But the most despicable thing they did was their attempt to entrap Jewell in a fake interview during which they hoped to extract information that ‘only the bomber could know’. Jewell caught on, called a lawyer, and sought solace and protection behind his forceful and articulate mother, Bobi (played by Kathy Bates). Eventually the FBI conducted an internal investigation of their handling of Jewell, although the FBI later admitted, “We never went after the leak.”
Ultimately, it may be that it was FBI director Louis Freeh’s actions that were under-scrutinized in the half-assed investigation that followed. In The Suspect, Alexander and Selwen make clear that Freeh was calling the shots from Washington, and that he may have pushed the ‘bomb hero’ scenario on the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) of the agency, forcing them to push out a false profile — without independently gathered evidence. Scruggs used their “lone bomber” profile, even though she should have known that Jewell couldn’t have been at the scene and making phone calls up the road — at the same time. He would have needed an accomplice, negating the “lone bomber” theory.
Richard Jewell might have perished emotionally or even have ended up imprisoned for the bombing, if not for his mother’s courage and ability to sway the media, as well as Watson Bryant, his lawyer, who is there when Jewell needs him, yanking back the naive and over-talkative suspect from FBI entrapment. Everyone seemed to be coming at him in his 88 day ordeal, before he was cleared. Not only was there the usual swarming rush to judgement, stoked by the sensationalist media, but he was viciously turned on, suddenly going from hero to goat. NBC Late Show host Jay Leno, was particularly horrid, referring to Jewell as “Una-doofus,” while he was a suspect, and calling him later, after he was cleared, “white trash.”
In the end, as we all know now, Eric Rudolph was arrested almost seven years later, for bombing a gay bar and two abortion clinics. In a plea bargain deal, he also copped to the Olympic Park bombing. Rudolph, an ex 101st Airborne special ops soldier, was a survivalist who went on the lam for five years after the Centennial bombing. He claimed that he was motivated in his bombings by hatred of gays, abortion, and general government over-reach. He fit the profile of a “lone bomber”.
Back in Jennifer Brett’s recent AJC piece, “The Ballad of Kathy Scruggs,” which seeks to correct the image presented of the reporter in the Clint Eastwood film, a friend, Tony Kiss, defends Scruggs, “She was never at peace or at rest with this story. It haunted her until her last breath,” Kiss said. “It crushed her like a junebug on the sidewalk.”
It’s ironic that both Jewell and Scruggs had a thing for cops — and in both cases they were let down, at great cost to their lives and reputations. The event produced a convergence of ill-will and evil rarely seen: media manipulations, police corruption, political and social reactionaries, insensitive Late Show jokes, a Christian terrorist who likes to blow people to Kingdom Come, frenzy and sensationalism.
Neither ever recovered. Jewell died aged 44; Scruggs died at 43.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Lots of people think the folk/rock era began when Dylan went electric at the 1965 NewBob Folk Festival. They couldn’t hear his voice over the amped-up instruments. Word is, some folkies went starkers. In the fictional film I’m Not There, sweet Pete Seeger tries to take an axe to the sound, and has to be wrestled to the ground. Some critics wondered whether Dylan’s do was attempted murder or career suicide. Plugged-in Alienation never jangled so many nerves.
Howeer, some others say that folk/rock actually began in the quiet hills of Laurel Canyon a month or so earlier. It still involved Dylan, but as an observer listening in on Roger McGuinn and The Byrds rehearsing “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Said band member David Crosby at the time, “He listened to us play it electric and you can hear the gears turning, you know. He knew he wanted to do that immediately.”
But the story of folk/rock’s beginnings is even more convoluted and intriguing than that. Andrew Slater’s Echo in the Canyon attempts to solve this riddle that nobody’s much given a poop about in decades. But, the thing is, he does it in such a way that the journey is joyous, invigorating and enlightening. He brings in an assortment of legends and their kin to tell the story of the greatest musical era of our times. Oh, what fun it is to see and hear Jakob Dylan, Tom Petty, Brian Wilson, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills, Roger McGuinn, Michelle Phillips, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, Fiona Apple, Beck, Norah Jones, Regina Spektor, Cat Power, Jade Castrinos, John Sebastian, Lou Adler. It’s never dull.
Andrew Slater says that he was watching an old B-movie, Model Shop, from 1969, when it oddly occurred to him: “That movie looked like the sound of The Beach Boys and The Mamas & Papas.” Call it sensimilla synesthesia. The movie features Gary Lockwood lost in the space that unrequited love leaves you in when the rent-a-model you’re attracted to just isn’t in to you. This, coming a year after the homoerotic voice of HAL did shit in the cosmos when “his” love went unrequited and opened up wormholes we may not have recovered from. Pass the bong, please. I never would have seen an explanation for folk/rock coming from this. You mean that black plinthy beacon from outer space was another side of Dylan?
Anyway, Slater, Echo’s director and the former president of Capitol Records, was in a good position to bring together the aforementioned musicians from the early days of the folk/rock era. As the title suggests, Slater makes the place, Laurel Canyon, the hero of the story. This is where it happened, the place where songsmiths came together in a musical mélange that pushed pop music from doo-wop sentimentality to lyrical depth psychology. Or, as only David Crosby could put it, before folk/rock, “It was June, Moon, Spoon. Baby I love you Ooh, ooh. [It] wasn’t ‘Dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.’”
In the 60s, word was that California was the place to be and the place to bee. The Bay area had its attractions and its evils, its ghosts and its upheavals, and was distinct from the sound and the fury of the south, the Circe city, that LA Woman, that Hotel California you could check into but never leave. But Laurel Canyon, we’re told, was none of that. It was a place to malinger, get laid, or try out a new singer and smoke a new hashish grenade. A mind-blowing environment for creative types.
Michelle Philips of the Mamas and the Papas is the first to testify as to the vibe of the Canyon. It was “like a hangout for, ah, bohemians and actors,” she tells us, “It was full of charming little houses and it was a very joyful time.” And Graham Nash was instantly enthralled: “Just driving up those canyons and people pointing out houses of famous people that lived there, Houdini and Tom Mix and Zappa and, you know, it was a fabulous time.” Roger McGuinn adds, “We moved into Laurel Canyon and we just loved the scene there. And a lot of people, a lot of folk singers would come around and play and we’d, you know, get high and stuff. It was… a fun time.” Joyful, fabulous, fun. And that’s how the film plays to us.
We’re provided with a couple of amusing anecdotes of the free-expressionism that ruled Laurel Canyon back in the ‘zen’-then. One is the sight of the chin strip and ‘stached resident Frank Zappa emerging from his home, across the street from Stephen Stills. “Once [Zappa] stood in the middle of the street reading me the lyrics of ‘Who Are The Brain Police’, like Alan Ginsberg.” (Segue) And the other chucklesome moment came when Ringo Starr and George Harrison “drove up to wherever Micky Dolenz lived and Stephen Stills was there and several other people. And they were all being hippies in the nude. And when they saw it was George and I driving they all run in and got dressed!” Nuff seen, nuff said.
Folks were getting together in all kinds of ways, and the recollection of that togetherness is at the heart of Echo in the Canyon. The Byrds listened to the Beatles, and the Beatles listened to Beach Boys, and the Beach Boys listened to Bach, and they all listened to Dylan. The Byrds’ 12-string electric sound wowed the Beatles and Bob. Napoleon in Rags took the new sound to Newport, and George Harrison incorporated the 12-string vibe into the first “folk rock” album, Rubber Soul. The Beach Boys were blown away by Rubber Soul and it inspired Pet Sounds, which, in turn turn turn, inspired the Byrds and the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And so on. They called this process “cross-pollination.”
Tom Petty claims “the Beatles actually started the folk rock in California,” and he tells the story of how John Hall of the Rickenbacker Guitar flew to New York to give John Lennon, who played a Rickenbacker 6-string, a 12-string version, “But George had the flu, the other three had gone out for a photo session, and George nabbed the 12-string. Mm hmm. That changed pop music….” We can only imagine how John Lennon might have changed things had he been in that day.
The Beatles invited the Byrds over to England. During a gig at the Blaises Club “Chris was so nervous he broke a bass string,” says McGuinn. “And nobody ever breaks a bass string, but he did.” The adventure continued with drugs. Dylan had famously turned the Beatles on to marijuana. The night after the Blaises’ incident, McCartney took McGuinn for a ride in his Aston Martin DB5 and they ended up at the Rolling Stones’ house where “they showed us how they rolled joints. And they had a butler that rolled joints and put them on the stairs for them in the morning like the morning coffee!” The next time the Beatles were in California, the Byrds “introduced us to a hallucinogenic situation,” says Ringo.
Brian Wilson loved the Beatles. “I really liked them a lot,” he said, “… one of my buddies…kept playing [Rubber Soul]. and playing it, and I said wow! I couldn’t believe it. That made me write the Pet Sounds album.” Michelle Philips was there to witness how he took that zeal and churned it.
[Brian and Marilyn] lived right down the street from us… And one day I went over there and the whole living room was full of sand…[with] nothing in the living room but a Steinway and a piano bench and just all sand. And I looked at her and I said, what is going on? She said, I know it’s crazy, but he’s writing some great songs.
The ever-influential Pet Songs.
It wasn’t just instruments and harmonies that made the California sound different, but also the universally well-regarded studio engineering that helped bands put out conceptual albums. Brian Wilson discusses how “Good Vibrations” was pieced together through four studios:
Well, each studio is different, you know? Like you can’t… not any one studio’s the same. Western was good for the, ah, instrumentation, like the bass, the drums, guitars. Sunset Sound, I liked their tech piano. I used that on the bridge to “Good Vibrations.” Gold Star was good for just the echo. The echo of Gold Star was good. And RCA Victor, that’s where we did the vocal.
Such knowledge became crucial to bands like the Beatles, after they stopped touring because crowd noise was so loud, they said that they couldn’t hear themselves playing.
One of the other great features of Echo in the Canyon is Jakob Dylan’s covers of period songs, many of which include fantastic female vocal accompaniments. Jade Castrinos on “Go Where You Wanna Go” is as good as it gets. Norah Jones on “Never My Love” shows off her depth and smooth passionate articulation. Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Cat Power. The album would be worth purchasing for these voices alone, but you can hear them for free.
Speaking of Jakob Dylan. He does a marvelous job of attending to the stories of various musicians. He listens keenly and without much interruption. And it adds value. But his personality does shine forth once in awhile, as in this exchange regarding the “Mr. Tambourine Man” rehearsal:
Dylan showed up.
You have to be more specific. No, I’m kidding!
You mean there’s more than one?
Jakob Dylan (laughing)
Bob showed up.
It’s kind of a tender moment. You realize just how impossible it must have been to get out from under the shadow of his super-presence father. Like he knows the viewer’s just waiting for discussions to turn to Bob or a sudden cameo appearance changes the chemistry. Thank Christ it never happened. Jakob shone.
Andrew Slater said, “if Roger McGuinn had just played the opening notes to The Byrds’ debut album and dropped dead, he would have still exercised the most pronounced influence over the folk rock movement in 25 years. And he was right. Because in 1965 when those songs went on the radio, it was the first time a song of poetic depth and grace had become a hit song and it inspired a whole generation
of writers to write differently and to come to California, which gave birth to the Laurel Canyon scene.”
Echo in the Canyon was released last summer in America, but had a very limited distribution. It has recently won some industry awards, including one for best documentary and nods for its sound quality. However, not much marketing has gone into it and it seems destined to become one of those word-of-the-mouth cult favorites. Which is too bad, because it’s so upbeat and we all sure use a hot of that right about now. Never once does that other Dylan make an appearance, so you withdraw from the viewing un-jangled and keeping that sustained high.
It’s available on Netflix (overseas, I had to use a VPN to get a US IP address), but also at a number of other sites, including Vimeo, Apple, and Vudu.
By John Kendall Hawkins
Astmatol : a spasmolytic agent used as a powder or in cigarettes. Astmatol is made of one part henbane leaves, two parts belladonna leaves, six parts Datura leaves, one part sodium nitrate, and three parts water. It is used in cases of bronchial asthma. Smoke is inhaled from the astmatol as it burns.
- The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979)
Terje Toomistu’s Soviet Hippies is a strange trippy film. It’s full of characters coming out of a thaw, as if you were watching George Romero’s zombies in Night of the Living Dead go backwards to where they started from and find themselves in the Amazing Mirror Maze at Mall of America® — liking what they’re seeing for the first time. But one dimension removed.
Coming out of the Cold War thaw was like that. Though the annus mirabilis is most often associated with the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution, both of which happened in November 1989, in fact, revolution was in the air throughout Central and Eastern Europe the entire length of that tumultuous year.
During the first six months in Warsaw and in Budapest, the years-long push for democratic reform had reached a tipping point. In August, Hungary and Austria held snipping ceremonies to cut through the barbed wire fencing dividing their countries and held “Pan-European Picnics” at the breach, through which thousands of East bloc citizens, escaped to the West.
In August, 2 million democracy-hungry people held hands and created a 650 kilometer long “Baltic Chain” through Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In October, many thousands of Leipzigers chanted, “Wir sind das Volk.” And in December, Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were brutally executed by “the people.” By the end of January 1990, just a few months after the wall “fell,” the chimes of freedom were ringing in central Moscow: the first McDonald’s opened — leading to surreally long lines for Western fast food.
In a beerhall somewhere off U-Bahn station Heinrich-Heine-Straße (formerly Neanderthal Straße) someone muttered into his Liebfraumilch, “Schabowski, you dummkopf, you really fucked up this time.” It might even have been Günter himself. Or his drinking pal, Karl Brewski (formerly Brüske).
But long before this exciting thaw took place in the Cold War between East and West, some of the surest signs of returned life came first into the pallid cheeks of the Soviet Hippies that Terje Toomistu documents in her film. In a recent email exchange, Toomistu writes, “The first Soviet hippies that appeared in around 1967-1968 were usually from the families of intellectuals or those who had a powerful position, which ensured their access to foreign information and goods such as records, books, magazines.” But there were also radio stations that brought in Western music, and, in Estonia, where most of this film takes place, residents were often able to access the non-Soviet TV airwaves of Finland.
Music was key, and the first stirrings came as a result of tuning into Radio Luxembourg, where nascent hippies would listen to the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club was a revelation for waking minds), hard rock, blues and psychedelic music, such as Jimi Hendrix. When these tunes moved down from their brains into their fingertips the result, at least in the film, could sound like a unique mash-up of early Beatles experimentation, Cream, and Jimi, as if the Soviets, in their hunger, were gobbling up a Big Mac, fries, chicken nuggets and a vanilla shake at the same time.
Like teens in America and Europe, young Soviet hippies wanted to stand out, dress differently, wear their hair longer and unkempt, and generally vibe that they dropping out and turning on. They were to be, at first, a passive counterculture. Peaceniks in the style of John and Yoko. In America, the length of your hair could establish your political leanings in an instant — crew cut (conservative) to long hair (liberal). The movie and stage play Hair established the symbolism. Easy Rider demonstrated how dangerous hair could be. In the early hippie days of Tallinn, as in New York, the older generation wasn’t always receptive to coiffal challenges to tradition. “We have to cut their hair by force,” one hairdresser from Riga tells us, “or they have to get it cut themselves.”
The individuals depicted in Soviet Hippies were hippies, not yippies. They were drop-outs in a political milieu where excessive material desire was wasted, as there were few ways, for most people to satisfy their wants. Toomistu, who says she was primarily interested in an “anthropological” documentation of these alternative lifestylists, discovered, as she travelled from Estonia to Russia and back, that they had established a social network of like-minded individuals who shared homes in various cities across the USSR. The filming took place in the Ukraine.
Soviet Hippies is full of characters who tell little snippets of their ‘enlightenment’ tales as the film’s narrative progresses. There’s Aksel, who talks of how hearing rock for the first time “made him vibrate.” Old Long from Moscow who recalls how “The overdrive sound started to shake our collective consciousness.” Kolja Vasin of St. Petersburg and proprietor of Lennon’s Temple of Love, saw “something sacred” in the Beatles. Gena Zeitsev from St. Petersburg said the hippies felt “things you were prohibited to feel” by the Soviets. And Sergei Moskalev probably summed up the vibe best: “We lived in a highly regulated society. And any kind of deviance gave you a sense of ecstasy.”
Toomistu says the Soviet hippies were all about “…remaining true to your ideals, values and practicing kindness and love towards each other – which was already a very different emotional stance from the mainstream society. Plus having a sense of participation in the western pop culture and/or spiritual quests. (The Soviet Union was an atheist state.) Not participating in [a] society that seems to be based on lies and pretentious social roles.”
The hippies called the network “sistema” or the system. The film shows them getting together to lay back, listen to some tunes, and get high. LSD was uncommon, but Astmatol, a cigarette with the wacky tobacky combination described in the Soviet Encyclopedia, made into tea, brought welcome hallucinations to numb lives, just as it did to teens in America. “The unifying feature of the movement which hasn’t lost its importance,” says ascetic Aare Loit-Babai is, lighting up, early in the film, “is the non-violent attitude.” These hippies sought “kaif,” essentially the same expansion of the senses that their young counterparts in the West sought. On a visit to Viking, “a legendary hippie in Tallinn,” Loit-Babai voices over an animation of his Astmatol high, in one of the highlights of the film.
But everything changed on June 1, 1971 in Moscow, when a “Union-wide” gathering of hippies convened outside the US Embassy under the pretext of protesting the American war in Viet Nam. Though the Soviet government had given permission to gather and protest, for reasons not fully explained in the film, authorities got spooked by the outburst of loud but non-violent behavior of the placard-bearing protesters and shove came to Pushkin Street; hippies were roughed up and arrested; many were kicked out of school, lost jobs, and at least one student leapt out a window.
Terje Toomistu told me that this was a crucial pivot point for Soviet hippies:
There was a short period of time when the hippie movement became [politicized], and this changed the fate of the movement, pushing it deep underground, making it more radical, drug infused, and distant from any desire for political involvement. I think this is very important to understand and it largely explains the ‘escapist’ drive amongst the hippies during the 1970s.
The hippies had been given permission to demonstrate, so maybe it was the truly American audacity of free expression and the implicit middle finger to authority of happy hippiedom that Soviet officials caught wind of that irked them into action. Or maybe the put-down was CIA-agitated; another chance for Americans to show the world how the Soviets handle freedom.
Nevertheless, throughout the USSR, “socialism with a human face” inched forward toward a centrism, which was meant to be a kind of compromise with the authoritarianism. In short, a chance to purchase more Western goods, more Big Macs, and stuff made in Chinese sweatshops, like Nike shoes and iMacs. In 1989, even Berlin Wall chunks were sold as keychains in department stores. Americans now have their own centrism to worry about — two parties, one vision, and the “lesser-of-two-evils” voting is largely a case of trying to figure out which one of the two will fuck us less for the next four years. And we, too, have long lines for socialist handouts. Sigh.
The multi-award-winning film continues to make the rounds of small (mostly fringe) festivals. It’s quirky, but, as Toomistu has pointed out, it’s also an especially interesting document for those with a cultural anthropology bent. You can view Soviet Hippies at Vimeo on-demand for a few bucks. Those interested in more information on the background of the film-making, as well as aspects of Toomistu’s academic inquiry with the project, can view her TED Talk. Here is a generous sampling of the music soundtrack featured in the film.
By John Kendall Hawkins
“He could see it comin’ through the door as he lifted up his fork.”
Bob Dylan, “Joey” from Desire (1976)
Thirty-five years ago, Sergio Leone’s long, brooding masterwork, Once Upon A Time in America, was released and received mixed popular and critical responses (depending upon which version was watched — the long European version or the much shorter American version). Like his previous award-winning Civil War saga, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, 18 years earlier, themes of brotherhood and betrayal, the fragility of civilization, and the ultimate moral bankruptcy of pursuing money at the cost of humanity.
The one Leone gem ends in a graveyard showdown — imagine the greed implicit in knowing that a pot of gold is buried under one of those graves at, say, Arlington Cemetery and you stand there with a spade determined to dig up every grave to find it; the other ending, a black Mack garbage truck, an implied suicide, and 35 years of shared memories laid to waste. A young Robert DeNiro, playing an old jaded man, looks on, and you can see it sinking in — in to you, the viewer, an epiphany you don’t even want to think about, amplified, in each film, by an almost-cruel Ennio Morricone soundtrack. DeNiro looking to where friend James Wood used to be: You talkin’ to me?
As I watched an old DeNiro, playing an old Frank Sheeran, at home processing his betrayal of old friend Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) — the betrayal amplified by Peggy, his knowing and unforgiving daughter — in Martin Scorcese’s new Netflix film, The Irishman, I remembered that face stare after the garbage truck receding into the darkness. Sheeran had lost his best friend and daughter forever in one action, the murder of Hoffa, a psychic catastrophe so profound that, though a lapsed Catholic, he seeks out confessional absolution — in the end, a stand-up guy kneeling before the ear of an inscrutable God. The mystery of faith. Why have you forsaken me.
That look of unbearable sin, coming after more than three and a half hours of rapt viewing, opened up the caskets of a lot of old memories, related tangentially to the film’s themes. I recalled an early childhood growing up in Boston, the hoodlum “Whitey” Bulger calling the shots in the Irish-American neighborhoods of Charlestown and Southie, depicted in the media like the Nicholson character from The Departed, and his brother, Billy, calling the shots, and packing the groceries, in the Massachusetts senate. There was the morning in the late 60s when, a la Stand By Me, I discovered a bullet-riddled body in the mud behind a bar, a target of the city’s gangland violence, as I walked up Bunker Hill Street to school.
After moving, I remembered briefly attending the Michaelangelo school, not far from that beacon of revolution, the North Church, in the Italian-American neighborhood known as the North End. A kid in one class, a clown, danced around like James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, and reminded me years later of Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. Dove la biblioteca? I repeated, in my best Brad Pitt accent, when my sexy teacher said, “Ripeti dopo di me,” and threw the book at my accent with those deep brown eyes. They were coming by land and sea.
Occasionally, I played street hockey there, in a playground, next to the garage where the Great Brink’s Job was done in 1950, until I wore out my welcome, by returning a hip check up against a chain link fence, delivered by a bully-in-the-making, who thought he was a Bruins enforcer. Turned out he wasn’t, but hadn’t gotten the message. At least, that’s what I tell myself, and what good’s memory if it doesn’t flatter. Rhetorical.
The Irishman is a movie about storytelling, myths, history and memory. Like Leone’s Once Upon A Time, which is based on Harry Grey’s autobiography, The Hoods, which chronicles the doings of Jewish mobsters in Manhattan during the Prohibition, The Irishman is adapted from a nonfiction account of mafia hitman Frank Sheeran’s time with Jimmy Hoffa, titled I Hear You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt. These emphases on Jewish and Irish psyches is a welcome change from the long-stereotyped “thinking” Italian-American hoodlums are dressed in on screen. And Bogart, Cagney, Edward G., and John Garfield drilled each other with cardboard gats throughout my childhood. Still, they could be nasty.
But The Irishman is a story within a story within a story, and then some: There’s Scorcese’s tale to us, the viewer (with our unique responses); there’s Sheeran’s reluctant confessions to Brandt (for a book) and to a priest (for his soul); there’s the memory of confessionals as places of stories that priests (mere humans) must hear and collect (how did they do it?) and absolve (for a week, until the sinner and his voice returns with more); there’s the narrative tension of mafia omerta juxtaposed with Jimmy Hoffa’s bluster, and Sheeran’s agony of being that tension’s middleman; there’s the story of what criminals tell their families and the implicit weight of those stories carried out into the “real” world by the ones they love; intertextuality meets intratextuality; and, there’s the story of all these old actors reuniting for this film, like family.
Early in The Irishman you could almost believe you’re watching an Oliver Stone film, as a case is made that the truth of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is finally being revealed: Mobsters delivered the Illinois vote Kennedy needed in 1960 to win the presidential election, and when his brother, Robert, the attorney general, went after mobsters responsible for his victory, something had to be done. We see these same mobsters, working with the CIA and Cuban exiles in Miami, working to overthrow Castro, to make Cuba safe for casinos and capitalism again, angrily blaming Kennedy for the lack of air support that would have made the Bay of Pigs invasion a success. Something had to be done.
But then you realize Scorcese’s just messing with us, reminding us: It’s only a movie. It didn’t really happen that way. Kennedy had enough electoral college votes to win the presidency– without Illinois. So he owed the mobsters nothing on that account. And according to some plausible historical accounts, regarding the Bay of Pigs invasion (Ike’s idea), Kennedy refused to risk escalating World War 3 we’re in, from a cold war to a hot one by bombing Cuba, so no air support.
And this, too, is just a story — my take on what Scorcese was doing with a screenplay adapted from a book, written by a prosecutor, with an agenda, based upon the ‘confession’ of a conflicted hitman telling tales, drawn from omerta hearsay infused with goombah mysticism. It’s only a movie, but Scorcese is an old man looking back, like DeNiro, at a garbage truck receding, carrying away the past, and you the viewer, if old enough to remember, stuck with that WTF feeling. The nostalgia for a nostalgia you can no longer feel.
Along with DeNiro and Pacino, The Irishman features Joe Pesci (playing a marvelously subdued mobster, Russell Bufalino), Harvey Keitel (mobster Angelo Bruno), Ray Romano (Bill Bufalino), and Ann Paquin (as grown up daughter Peggy Sheeran, who does an excellent job expressing her rage and disgust at what her father represents). The film purports to tell us, finally and definitively, who killed Jimmy Hoffa. But it’s only a story that may or may not be true. Charles Brandt, while convinced that Sheeran killed Hoffa, spends some time in his Afterword and Epilogue somewhat defensively looking for corroborating evidence that his confession was true. Scorcese does the same. I Hear You Tell Stories. Despite Scorcese’s adaptation of Brandt’s account, there are alternative views out there.
The Irishman is about the fall of Jimmy Hoffa; about his charisma and power over the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; and, about how he wielded enormous influence by using the union’s pension fund to get things done, such as start-up money for Vegas casinos. But Scorcese’s Hoffa has serious animus in his dealings with mobsters who con, blackmail and extort their way into power plays. Jimmy believes he’s paid his dues in the Just Is system; he’s climbed to the top through will and skill, without compromising. Pacino plays Hoffa as a tragic figure, full of hubris, going up against the underworld deus ex machina, also uncompromising. Something had to give.
For all intents and purposes, Hoffa effectively disappeared from public consciousness 52 years ago, when he was sentenced to 14 years for jury tampering, fraud and bribery, and that disappearance has become, like Who Killed JFK?, bigger than the man himself. The charges against Hoffa don’t have a lot of moral or operational separation from the mobsters he cinematically despises. Richard Nixon commuted his sentence in 1971 (arguably, because Hoffa’s unions supported his presidential candidacy in 1968), but he was forbidden from pursuing a return to his throne before 1980. By then, it wasn’t his union anymore. He just wouldn’t accept it. But so what. For a young Netflix generation, Hoffa’s rage against the dying of his light only works as Story. We postmoderns can’t relate to it as reality.
And yet, since the days when Robert Kennedy made the dissolution of gangsters his priority, beginning in the 60s under JFK, there seems to have been a steady decline in their influence, or else they’ve changed their game. By the time Frank Sheeran took out “Crazy Joe” Gallo, while he was lifting up his fork at Umberto’s Clam Bar in New York on April 7, 1972 (depicted in The Irishman, and deepening my understanding of the Dylan song), mobsters were already at each others’ throats, having more than their usual intramural gunplay fun, thanks, in part, to the turmoil caused by the passage of the RICO Act, signed into law in 1970 by none other than Richard Nixon.
In 1984, then U.S. Attorney Rudy Guliani went Eliot Ness (channeling RFK) and, setting up a 450-officer task force, went after the so-called “Commission” — five families, based in New York, in charge of organized crime throughout America, including Lucchese, Gambino, Columbo, Bonanno and Genovese. Many high profile arrests and convictions were painted across the pages of the press, some more lurid than others. Guliani even claimed he had the RICO goods on the Clintons. Such RICO convictions paved the way for Guliani’s mayoral ascension. Once his “stoic calm” during the collapse of his city, all around him, on 9/11, made him a hero (somehow) and he was dubbed “America’s mayor,” his reputation was bound to free fall when he became Donald Trump’s legal mouthpiece.
Jimmy Hoffa wasn’t around to watch the collapse of union power in America in the 80s. The idea of “union” seemingly crash-landed in 1981 when President Ronald Reagan, former head of the Screen Actors Guild, fired 11,000 air traffic controllers who went on strike illegally. Rather than planes falling out of the sky, Americans saw Reagan replace the lot of them with new controllers immediately and without much fuss: bringing ka-chingaling on the political cachet front for the newly-elected Reagan, who seemingly manhandled the Left in one fell swoop.
As financial magazine The Motley Fool, put it a few years back:
When Reagan led the Screen Actors Guild walkout in 1952, roughly a third of the entire American workforce belonged to a labor union. Today, about 12% of the workforce is unionized. Corporate profits are at an all-time postwar high as a percentage of GDP, and wages as a percentage of GDP have fallen to an all-time low….
About the only place unions seem to have any real clout any more is in professional sports. Fiscal conservatives have been calling the shots since Reagan.
I’m haunted by DeNiro’s face, as it watches things recede and disappear, not sure if the quiet despair is his projection as an actor, or my projection, looking back at increasingly fathomless memories, as I grow old. The Irishman seems a kind of swan song, not just for the talented ensemble — Scorcese, DeNiro, Pacino, Pesci and Keitel — but for looking at the past. It’s over. America is no place for old white men. No value judgement: Just a fact.
But more, we ignored Ike’s warning: he’d have been dismissed as a conspiracy theorist if he were alive today, saying the same thing. The MIC has won: we are in a virtual coup, with so much of the budget (and so much of that secret) delivered to the Masters of War in endless battle against Terror (Man’s oldest nemesis), and the predators of Wall Street becoming the eyes on the pyramid schemes depicted on every dega dollar. Now there is the Deep State that Snowden says controls us all. We have a president, likened to a mobster (and familiar with mobsters depicted in Scorcese’s film), and once having been sued under RICO for a scam. He is half-assedly befriended and legally protected by Rudy Guliani.
If there’s a black lining to this silver screen gem, it’s that this might end up being one of Donald Trump’s favorite films, despite the fact that it doesn’t feature him in any way. But he’ll be able to read between the lines and express fond reminiscing about broking power, him and Rudy working the postmodern mob.
But Lo! Lady Liberty with her torch was there a moment ago, but disappeared into that black Mack truck passing by, out of which no light can escape.
The Terror Report You Weren’t Meant to See
By John Kendall Hawkins
“If it works, why do you need to do it 183 times?”
- Senator Dianne Feinstein
In 1953, they deposed Iran’s democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadiq, with the help of the British. In the 60s, they were there at the Gulf of Tonkin, false flagging the North Vietnamese; and there pushing exiles onto the shores of the Bay of Pigs, shouting “Cuba Si, Castro No.” In the 60s and 70s, they spied on American activists, violating the Agency’s charter against domestic surveillance, and in 1975 were chastised by Frank Church’s committee. They fomented regime changes in Central America throughout the 80s, leading to Irangate and the Contra-Sandinista standoff. The Gulf War, economic sabotage, MK-ULTRA, intellectual property theft, 70 years of war with Russia (with two-way electoral interference), and spook Duane Clarridge, who helped bring down Chile’s Allende, telling us to “lump it.”
On and on the scofflaws went. Even when they were running drugs, murdering people, or doing porn films with Dolly Treason, nothing seemed to stop them or slow them down. By the time the 80s rolled around I was steeped in Existentialism and throwing away what was left of my faith — attending drive-in movies, with double-bills like: The Passover Plot, followed by Executive Action. You felt like you were sitting in the dark among moral desperados, glocks to their own heads, as, first, Jesus got double-crossed by post-modernism and then Democracy went limp, like a blow-up doll.
And then, in November 1986, while looking for my Lo and Behold, as Bobby Dylan would say, Abbie Hoffman, all grizzled from his underground years, arose like a Finger from the grave, and joined Amy Carter, and 13 others, to fight the CIA recruitment effort at UMass-Amherst, my alma mater. They staged a sit-in and/or blocked the police bus taking protesters away after being arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct — misdemeanors. Five months later, in April 1987, Abbie, reunited with lawyer Leonard Weinglass from his Chicago 8 days, successfully employed the “necessity defense,” and paraded before the jury such luminaries as Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, Amy Carter and Abbie Hoffman, who testified about the moral need to protest against the CIA’s felonious actions abroad.
But, according to the now-defunct Boston Phoenix, the stars of the show were former Contra Edgar Chamorro, who enumerated the Agency’s terror tactics, handing out Psychological Operations, a how-to on how to scare the shit out of ordinary people to gain their “respect” and cooperation. The Contras were told to “create martyrs of our own followers, someone who is well-liked that gets killed in a way that looks like the government did it.” Contra what? Contra anything you please.
Chamorro was followed on the stand by CIA tell-aller (in retirement) Ralph McGehee — who catalogued his personal experiences of the Agency’s atrocities, including torture, rape, murder, disinformation, propaganda, and general deceit. The gloves were off — way off — long before the aftermath of 9/11. The Phoenix describes McGehee’s testimony: “[He] told a CIA joke comparing the Agency’s treatment of Congress to mushrooms. ‘You’re kept in the dark and you’re fed manure,’ he said.” The arrogance and disdain are trademarks — sentiments echoed in Snowden’s memoir, Permanent Record, when he describes how intel operatives saw themselves, a generation later as: “a hermetic power-mad cabal that controlled the actions of America’s elected officials from shadowy subterranean cubicles.” In short, Clarridge-On-Line.
Then the 60s were all over again, the Finger wilted one last time. Abbie sank into a funk and let himself die in April 1989. Why? Who knows. But it may or may not be a coincidence that his death came just after GHW Bush became the first former CIA chief to be inaugurated as president. It must have depressed a lot of activists, when you think about it. I’m still depressed — and increasingly inactive.
The Gulf War followed shortly thereafter, when Sad-um Hussein rebuffed American efforts to make him their “little shoe shine boy” in the region. Other Arabs were offended; things started to happen; Khobar Towers was blown up, producing more than 500 US military casualties; bin Laden was credited with his first Tower take-down. Then, the shoes came back to haunt in 2008 when an Iraqi journalist, uttering epithets better left off family TV (something about Bush’s pet goat), bared his soles at GW Bush during a 2008 post-Shock and Awe Baghdad press conference. Americans took off their gloves; Iraqis took off their shoes; al-Qaeda became ISIS; now look at the world.
The Hell on Earth misery that the CIA served up for so many people overseas, according to the sworn testimony of Chamorro and McGehee, was just a warm-up for the Apocalyptic crusade that has taken out large swathes of the Middle East (and Afghanistan) since, and promises to take out more (Syria, Iran), since the Pearl Harbor-like event that was 9/11. Not only did Cheney try to take off his glove, but the revenge America has wreaked on Terror since has included not just the evil Arabs the CIA says are dashing all around the world wearing suicide vests and clutching children, in a mad dash effort to make Zionist Islam (go with it) seem as bad as — Communism!
The long established 9/11 narrative says that it was CIA head of Counter Terrorism Cofer Black’s dire warnings to Bush of an imminent attack by al-Qaeda that were ignored; he was put in charge thereafter of tracking down bin Laden; he set up the renditions and black sites and torture enhanced interrogation program that followed; he helped found the private CIA group, Blackwater, who are, essentially, a private deployable army ready to act without government oversight, but doing their bidding, like the homo contractus virus Snowden describes, from firsthand experience, in his memoir.
There has been plenty of blowback from the events of 9/11, but perhaps nothing was more controversial than the bear-hug embracing of enhanced interrogation, which, under the guise of righteous vengeance, has brought American consciousness over to the dark side wholesale. We opened Guantanamo Bay and falsely imprisoned and interrogated many people for years having no links to terrorism. We’ve graphically degraded our humanity, and that of others, at Abu Ghraib. We’ve corrupted psychology by trying to spin enhanced interrogation as a scientifically valid method. We’ve allowed the CIA to cover it all up, by destroying videos of the ordeals that would have put the lie to science.
Luckily, it has turned stomachs within the ranks of the CIA. Analyst John Kirikaou was the first to blow the whistle on the evil doings of his agency. In his now well-known 2007 interview with ABC newsman Brian Ross, he wrings hands on behalf of conflicted colleagues, which has resonance for torture-abhoring viewers. He describes how presumed conspirator of 9/11 events Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times, admits he came to see it as not enhanced interrogation but torture, but that it was “necessary” to extract valuable information, and that old “rapport” methods wouldn’t work. Said Kirikaou, “They hate us more than they love life,” and would never give in. Kirikaou told Ross enhanced interrogation worked. Tapes of Zubaydah’s ordeal were illegally destroyed.
Kirikaou’s seeming equivocation — that the enhanced interrogation program worked — flies in the face of the findings by the Senate Intelligence Committee chaired by Dianne Feinstein , which concluded in 2014 that the CIA’s much-ballyhooed enhanced interrogation methods did not work — at all. The most valuable information that may have come from the Zubaydah waterboarding is the purported poetry that Z. wrote to his interrogator’s wife.
Torture by any other name is the subject of the newly-released film, The Report. The film recounts the aftermath of 9/11 and the mobilization of Cofer Black’s gloveless forces as they spread around the globe looking for “terrorists” to round up and/or identify for entry in the disposition matrix that could lead to later CIA drone strikes during the Obama administration. In one scene, Black (played by Ian Blackman) utters his famous quip the scope of American vengeance, “We will not stop until flies are walking across their eyeballs.” And then the superheroes are on their way.
The Report opens by showing how the so-called enhanced interrogation program was put together, and introduced to CIA officers, by contractors. Two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, using powerpoint slides and without previous interrogation experience, bring “learned helplessness” to the table, achieved, they claim, by techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, loud and long noise, insects, and waterboarding, sounding like salesmen for Orwell’s Room 101 Experience (not to be confused with the Jimi Hendrix experience).
Douglas Hodge, who was recently played the evil proprietor of the Black Museum (where torture is also the principal focus) in a Black Mirror episode, is especially effective as sick psychologist James Mitchell. The learned helplessness that Mitchell touts to officers, based on experiments torturing dogs, draws skepticism from the gitmo. Mitchell smiles on, and as he exhausts his techniques, none of them working. He settles on mostly waterboarding, and is involved in the blubbooling of Khaled Sheik Mohammed, the preferred mastermind of 9/11, who is “drowned” 183 times. Desperation sets in as the CIA realizes loud and clear that “enhanced interrogation is only legal if it works.” Despite Kirikiaou’s odd assertion that it worked (Ross interview p.16), the facts speak otherwise.
The money spent on “learned helplessness” amounted to $81 million, plus another $5m as a defense fund, should the psychologists be sued. The program was originally contracted for $181 million, but was terminated due to ineffectiveness. As noted earlier, the CIA videotaped the interrogations and then, when it was clear they were to become the center of inquiry, destroyed them. As with Snowden, it’s almost as if a contractor was brought in to provide plausible deniability should something (inevitably) go wrong, although this angle is not explored in the film. But what’s actually surprising is that, given what Chamorro and McGehee expounded upon about CIA techniques (back when torture was called torture), the CIA ever fell for the crazy-eyed psychologists’ proposed shtick to begin with.
Mitchell and Jessen were never going to be tried and held accountable, because the CIA would claim “national security” interests and close the case down. We know this because that’s what they did to the investigation into the destruction of the interrogation tapes — they quashed the report. And they were determined to do the same to Feinstein’s report on enhanced interrogation techniques — and how they miserably failed. And, consequently, were illegal. The CIA had argued that EIT was the only means to obtain time-critical information from detainees, and wanted to claim, desperate to demonstrate its legality, that countless attacks had been averted thanks to information extracted by EIT. Feinstein (played by Annette Bening) called it all a lie, pissing off John Brennan, who tried to sabotage the Report.
Monk veteran Ted Levine (who is wonderfully remembered for his role as Captain Stottlemeyer in an episode where he shows us how to interrogate a suspect with a potentially smoking gun) does a bang-up job playing John Brennan. Obama’s CIA chief tries to undermine Dan Jones (played by Adam Driver), lead investigator for Feinstein’s committee — and at one point Jones is confronted with imminent criminal action against him when it’s discovered that he has on his computer a classified document. This stratagem backfires and Feinstein realizes that the CIA has hacked into the Committee’s computers (and, later, break into a Committee office, recalling Watergate) in a clear breach of the separation of powers, criminal B&E, and cover-up, for starters. Definitely impeachable offenses.
One has to presume that a breach that serious would have had the approval of President Obama. Since Obama curtailed the EIT shortly after taking office, one wonders what reason he would have had for covering the back of George W. Bush. Maybe it’s because Obama continued the enhancements in the War against Terror in other ways — drones. Instead of rounding up suspected terrorists and housing them in uncomfortable controversial facilities that create a legal and moral crisis for an administration, just pick a kill out of a disposition matrix and joystick command the murder remotely. Just as a lot people never belonged at Gitmo, so, too, a lot of innocent people have been killed because a baddie was in their midst.
The Report closes out on a poignant note, Senator John McCain’s address to Congress following the release of Feinstein’s report. With eloquence and insight, the former POW, and the only Republican who stood by Feinstein’s investigation, reminds Congress and his fellow Americans of their core values — the one’s worth fighting and dying for. Here is his December 9, 2014 speech.
The Report, directed by Scott Burns, is good story-telling. Other than Driver, Bening, Levine, and Hodge, the film’s other stars include John Hamm, Maura Tierney, and Tim Blake Nelson. It appears that for many of the actors it was a virtual gift to the public, as last minute cuts to the budget saw next-to-nothing wages paid to the actors. Director Burns told Vanity Fair, “[The Report]went from having a 50-day schedule to a 26-day schedule, and its $18 million budget was slashed to $8 million…getting Hollywood to get behind a movie like this was difficult.” Like the other recently released film about Deep State corruption, Official Secrets, a film about whistleblowing at the GCHQ (although, ultimately, it’s a whistleblow on the NSA’s role in getting America into Iraq in 2003), The Report takes some of the edge off of one’s cynicism.
Is it enough? Not with Trump, a vocal proponent of torture (not enhanced interrogation) at the helm of the leaky ship of state, and ultimately in charge of the CIA and their policies. But it is a start.
More information on the CIA’s doings over the years can be found in William Blum’s Killing Hope. Here are some chapter samples from Blum’s website.
By John Kendall Hawkins
I’m Jack Johnson, heavyweight champion of the world. I’m black. They never let me forget it. I’m black all right. I’ll never let them forget it. – Miles Davis, A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)
One of the more interesting sub-narratives of Edward Snowden’s recent memoir, Permanent Record, is his discussion of his heritage. His mother descended from the first Pilgrim child born in the New World, not long after their arrival on the Mayflower in 1620. His father’s side featured seafarers, merchants and adventurers. Eventually, his more direct relatives settled in Maryland and with the 1900 acres given them by King Charles II and opened up the Patuxent Iron Works, whose manufacture of cannonballs was later crucial to the War of Independence, and Snowden Plantation, a farm and dairy operation manned by slaves.
As Snowden puts it, “After serving in the heroic Maryland Line of the Continental Army, [my forebears] returned to the plantation and—most fully living the principles of independence—abolished their family’s practice of slavery, freeing their two hundred African slaves nearly a full century before the Civil War.”
The Snowden legacy would take on more irony later when Snowden Plantation was bought out (Ed thinks it may have been “expropriated”) by the government, and Fort Meade, home of the NSA, was built upon it. Permanent Record, in turn, describes the Deep State’s plans and doings to make data slaves of us all. (Snowden confirms that there is, indeed, a Deep State, and that he was once a happy surveillance slaver in it, until he realized the extent of state criminality involved and declared his own war of independence.)
In 1619, about a year before the Mayflower is said to have bashed up on Plymouth Rock, with Snowden’s unmarried relative fending off male Pilgrim gazes, another ship, the White Lion, arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, carrying the first slaves into the New World. These first slaves, some 20 of them, were war-booty from the Congo and Angola. They were put to work farming tobacco and cotton, the New World’s most important products, until sugar boomed about a century later.
According to Timothy Winegard, author of The Mosquito, African slaves,
were ,blockquote>relatively unafflicted by malaria and yellow fever, and simply did not die at the same rate as non-Africans. Their genetic immunities and prior seasoning made Africans an important ingredient of the Columbian Exchange and indispensable in the development of New World mercantilist economic markets.
Sickle cell anemia, Winegard and others point out, the bane of so many African-Americans, was an evolutionary adaptation to malaria that made their resistance valuable to labor-hungry farmers in the New World. The more tobacco, cotton and sugar into signature global products from America, the more African slaves were shipped in to help grow the industries with their free labor.
Around 1820, Harriet Tubman was born to such slaves on a plantation — not terribly far from the Snowden Plantation — near Bucktown in Dorchester County, Maryland. In fact, Maryland was regarded as the then-premiere slave state, prior to Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, which revolutionized the cotton industry and exponentially increased the need for more labor in the Deep South. In Maryland, writes Catherine Clinton in Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, “Cotton was not a cash crop in Maryland, but its plantations produced one of the most invaluable crops for the southern antebellum market: slaves.” Maryland was where future “free” laborers were grown and offered up later for sale to Deep South industrial farmers.
Harriet Tubman had started out her career of resistance to slavery by standing up to a Georgian’s attempts to take her child and flee south. Clinton cites fellow slave Emma Telford’s memoir in describing Tubman’s reaction to such events: “‘She had watched two of her sisters carried off weeping and lamenting.’ Tubman was permanently affected by this episode, as she witnessed the ‘agonized expression on their faces.’” As Clinton draws the picture, when Brodess, the Georgian, approached Tubman’s cabin, “[Tubman] threatened, ‘The first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open’… Such family lore … would have provided Tubman with a powerful example of the possibilities for resistance.”
In the recently released film version of Tubman’s life, Harriet, we are given the merest of glimpses into the horror of these child-parent separations for commercial purposes — the view of humans as chattel, a degradation so dark it represents a kind of core essence of fascism and objectification, later rationalized into a form of guiding principles by such hornéd luminaries as Ayn Rand, Minervan Owl to the neocons. The film would have benefitted from more literally wrenching scenes to establish how recklessly families were destroyed for slaver profit by these evil fools.
While the Tubman story is certainly well-intentioned, Harriet, the film production, seems to have been a mostly profit-driven exercise itself — given the inexplicable pre-production consideration of casting Julia Roberts as Tubman. Or it may have been an even more cynical exercise — creating a controversy to get eyeballs to the cinema so that they could later ‘weigh in’ (for the advertizers) on social media, and in the process drive the film toward a profit. But an essential starting point was missed: international slave trading ended in 1808, and afterward Southern landowners relied on domestic slave production; it became an American phenomenon. According to Clinton, after the law went into effect, the slave population went from 2 million to 3.5 million. Business was booming. There’s the story.
Maryland was the major supplier of homegrown slaves after 1808. Leading up the Civil War it was a growth industry. Harriet Tubman was running away from a farm that derived at least some of its revenue from ‘growing slaves’ and selling them. Tubman refused to live in a reality that destructive. Harriet provides a hint of her sheer determination and will to survive, without real shelter or food, for the 100 miles of her northward pursuit by her owners. The film concentrates on depicting Harriet the character, rather than Harriet the action figure, although there’s plenty of chase scene action. A lot of reaction shots without any direct action. While this helps manage the film budget, it’s not especially effective story-telling.
The film does a rotten job setting up a picture of the Underground Railroad on which Harriet “Moses” Tubman was supposed to be a principal conductor. Many people-stops (safe houses) made up the railroad; people, black and white, willing to risk fines (up to $1000) and jail time (up to 6 months) to help slaves escape to the “free” North. But in the film, Tubman seems to go back and forth from north to south as if by magic: one minute she’s on a plantation pulling people out, the next she’s in Delaware with her charges (70 runaways, by the end). More scenes about the Railroad and its people would have been a good way to build tension toward the fast-approaching Civil War.
In fact, you could argue that the Civil War actually commenced with the congressional passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Essentially, the law allowed slave-owners to go after runaways and retrieve them, like stolen property, in northern, non-slave states — mostly in New England. It provided for harsh penalties for aiding and abetting runaways — again, making a stronger depiction of the Railroad essential. The insidious law was justified by the Constitution, in which Blacks were not regarded as citizens, and which stated that “no person held to service or labor” could escape their servitude by merely running to a free state. Such hostile ‘repos’ had implications for the separation of powers between the feds and states. Harriet barely explores this terrain.
(Indeed, some mention might have been made about Florida, the territory of choice for Deep South escapees until it was purchased from Spain in 1821 — a purchase motivated in large part to stop Florida from being a refuge. With a little sly dialogue, Florida’s present day disenfranchisement of Black voters might have been squeezed in.)
The film also falls short in the Big Picture department, with no explicit mention of the approaching formal declaration of Civil War that Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery, would have seemed to Southerners. Towards the end of the film though, Harriet does make an emancipation proclamation of her own to her former owner, Gideon, who has been tracking her through some woods, arrogantly hoping to finally repo Harriet, but she surprises him and forces him to drop his rifle, dismount from his high horse, and fall to his knees.
It’s an interesting scene:
GIDEON: You bitch! You destroyed my family!
Harriet swings herself onto the horse’s back. She speaks in THE VOICE – it’s her own, maybe it always has been.
HARRIET: You tried to destroy my family, but you can’t. You tried to destroy my people, but you won’t. God has shown me the future, and my people are free. MY PEOPLE ARE FREE!
Gideon watches as Harriet rides off, into the glare of the setting sun.
We don’t know if Gideon repents, as he did in the Bible (something the religious Harriet would have been aware of), and goes back South to help destroy the Baal of the day — the wealth created by slavers off the backs of free labor.
And I guess it would have been asking too much, it may have over-stretched the budget, to at least allude to the complex moral ambivalence of Northerners in the fight to relieve white Southerners of their sinful slaver burden. Not everyone up there wanted to fight in a war to free slaves down under. Lincoln was forced to employ America’s first draft. New Yorkers, for one, rioted: rich people could, and did, purchase there way out of conscription, sending proxies in their place; and, the vast majority white New Yorkers depended on jobs manufacturing raw cotton, sugar and tobacco. Freed slaves were at the vanguard of volunteers to fight the South. Even then, Lincoln had to make them people before they could wear uniforms and carry guns.
It was a Republican who freed the slaves. Some vocal Democrats were against a Civil War, even when they felt animosity toward the character of Southern slavers, whose attitude seemed to be: ‘Keep your hands off my cotton-pickin’ slaves.’
Congressman Clement Vallandigham, for instance, said of the Southern mentality:
And now, sir, is there any difference of race here so radical as to forbid reunion? I do not refer to the negro race, styled now, in unctuous official phrase, by the President, “Americans of African Descent.” Certainly, sir, there are two white races in the United States, both from the same common stock, and yet so distinct — one of them so peculiar — that they develop different forms of civilization, and might belong, almost, to different types of mankind [my emphasis]. But the boundary of these two races is not at all marked by the line which divides the slaveholding from the non-slaveholding States. If race is to be the geographical limit of disunion, then Mason Dixon’s can never be the line.
Meet the Crackers. (But even the way Vallandigham says, ‘unctuous’, is disturbing.)
Lincoln banned public speeches against such a war, and Vallandigham excelled at them. He encouraged draft dodging. He was tried for treason (speaking out), exiled to the South, where rebel soldiers, realizing that he wasn’t opposed to slavery in their states, sent him north, to Canada. He later became the inspiration for the short story, “The Man Without A Country,” by Edward Everett Hale, an evil little tale every American school child learns, without the details. No teacher I can recall ever asked aloud, to pre-pubescent befuddlement, how the fuck could they give the guy 56 years for freely expressing his dismay at his government’s actions? No chance to recant? No mercy? No shore leave? Go figure, she’d say, shaking her head. Kids’ hands over their flag-driven hearts, slowly slipping away.
Four hundred years after the first slave ship arrived at Jamestown, the legacy of slavery endures with all the racial complexities it brings, the endless, almost Sisyphean, fight for social and economic justice, and the ever so subtle battle (and sometimes not so subtle) between accomodation and assimilation — a kind of postmodern master-slave dialectic. Jordan Peele, arguably developing a new film genre — Black political horror — seems to have his hand on the current pulse of that dynamic in Get Out: Blacks still trying to fit in with Whites and their masks (spoiler: the liberals might even be more insidious), and Whites definitely, um, trying to fit into Blacks and their cool-cuz-they-suffered-so-muchness.
There is a darker side to it (as if Peele’s weren’t dark enough) that shows up in “Black Museum,” a recent episode of Black Mirror captured in all its horrific spectacle. It’s almost as if the Cracker that Vallandigham describes opened a museum-cum-arcade that features his sadistic fantasies of domination — an encased holographic Black man being electrocuted over and over forever (like that fascist face-booting Orwell describes in 1984). And white people come from miles around to drop a coin in the slot before the cage to watch him fry. Given the shambles that the health-education-welfare system is for Blacks in America today, as well as their record incarcerations in for-profit prisons, and the debt slavery so many labor under, Black Mirror can seem the truest reflection.
So, there’s no extended vision to Harriet, the movie. It’s a character study on a comic book level — Freedom Illustrated — and you may find yourself comically picturing Julia Roberts in blackface as the lead (Gere as Gideon?), or wondering how different Tarantino would have handled Tubman’s role. There would have been a lot of crumbled Crackers. Would he have featured The Delfonics in the soundtrack? In short, it’s not a riveting film; your mind might wander. But with any luck you’ll spend hours researching all the pertinent historical details left out of the film.
And getting out some Miles for a listen. Because your cool.
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked
— Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma”
SPOILER ALERT — Plot lines of the film Official Secrets revealed.
In May 1989, just a few months before the Berlin Wall fell, the United Kingdom upgraded its Official Secrets Act (OSA). Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, unhappy with the way embarrassing classified information had been leaked to the press during the Falklands War, saw to it that the OSA was tightened up to such a degree that future breachers of government non-disclosure agreements would face serious jail time.
Future whistleblowers would even be limited in their legal defense, as they would be unable to discuss the confidential leak with an attorney. The OSA of 1989 was the stuff of police states.
From John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) to Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”), the Berlin Wall had been regarded by the West as the symbol of the Iron Curtain separating free democratic societies and closed totalitarian regimes controlled by Moscow.
But the OSA suggested that the West had learned the value of deep, unnecessary secrecy. As the East opened up, the West began its movement toward clamping down on privacy and freedom, through the growth of the Internet, leading to the surveillance state we have today.
In 2016, NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, noted this catastrophic irony. Speaking before the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, a disillusioned Drake said,
I never imagined that the US would use the Stasi playbook as the template for its own state sponsored surveillance regime and turning not only its own citizens into virtual persons of interest, but also millions of citizens in the rest of the world.
Of course, it’s not only America that’s gone this route, but the UK (which has the most surveillance cameras turned on its public than anywhere else in the world, bar China), Australia, New Zealand and Canada — the Five Eyes that control world surveillance.
But long before Drake, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and many other whistleblowers and reporters drew our attention to the secret criminal activities of our governments, in our names and against our democratic interests, in 2003, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) translator and analyst Katharine Gun refused to stay silent — non-disclosure agreement or not — while her country was ‘special-friended’ by the US into illegally going to war against Iraq.
Daniel Ellsberg, leaker of the Pentagon Papers that detailed the active US criminality of the Vietnam War, said of Gun’s leak that it was “The most extraordinary leak … of classified information that I’ve ever seen, and that definitely included and surpassed my own disclosure of top secret information….” Gun was trying to stop a war, not end one.
The newly released Official Secrets is a docudrama that tells the story of Katharine Gun’s heroic decision to risk everything (career, marriage, freedom) to blow the whistle on Great Britain’s collusion in blackmailing UN Security Council members into supporting an illegal war (the US and the UK knew there were no WMDs) against Iraq in the spring of 2003.
The US was looking for “legal” cover and was willing to use the NSA and GCHQ’s extraordinary surveillance abilities to find kompromat on UN members to force them to vote Yes on war. This is war criminality — the kind the UN was established to prevent and punish.
Official Secrets is directed by Gavin Hood, whose last major film was the British surveillance thriller, Eye in the Sky (2015). The film stars Keira Knightley, MyAnna Buring, and Ralph Fiennes. It is one of those must-see films that seems almost impossible to find. Cinema runs seem limited. It’s available through Apple, Amazon and Vudu, but, of course, online, your viewing is duly noted and databased.
In a flashback, very early in the film, we see Gun lounging at home watching British journalist
on TV in an with interview Prime Minister Tony Blair. Frost is pushing Blair to come clean about war path allegations that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, and therefore represents a clear and present danger to America and her allies.
The film has very effective editing. Once the viewer is reminded of Blair’s criminal collusion with the Bush administration about WMD in Iraq months before the invasion (here, Gun is heard shouting from the couch in protest of Blair’s lies), we cut to the GCHQ office Gun works in and watch as she reads, for the first time, the document she will leak to the press. The scene enacts two colleagues unhappy with the contents of the document from the NSA, and the first stir of conscience for Gun.
As the memo indicates, the push to go to war with Iraq in 2003, brought in a variety of actors, including “good guys” like Colin Powell, whose favorability among the American populace — Democrats and Republicans alike — was leveraged; he was the lipstick on the flying pig. Still unaccountably, he allowed himself to be the ‘credible’ salesman for a criminal lie. It was a mistake that cost him the chance to be the first Black American president. (Even during the 2016 presidential election, three electors ignored the public vote and chose him for president. Which tells you something about the electoral college process.)
There are a lot of anxious moments depicted in the film — people just not knowing what to do: friends are afraid of being caught up in a situation that could amount to treason; Gun’s husband, a Kurd, is threatened with deportation; newspaper staff fear giving up a cozy relationship with the government; lawyers who tell their clients, ‘I think you might be fucked.’ This is what the criminals exercise and leverage. All the people who signed on to do the right thing as friends, lovers, reporters, and lawyers wring their hands in anguish, while the lying leaders sleep. And Official Secrets makes certain that the viewer knows that the prospect of war with Iraq was “historically unpopular.” It’s a war crime from the onset.
After Gun secrets the NSA memo out of GCHQ she calls a friend, Jasmine, an anti-war agitator, who she knows has press contacts, so that she can get the word out. This is a poignant moment, because implicit is the proposition before the viewer: What would you do? And you can feel Jasmine and Gun’s terror at being caught.
Drake knows how Gun is feeling when it comes to the conflict she has between holding to her non-disclosure agreement and her responsibility to make government accountable for criminal behavior. In a 2014 interview with Federal News Network, Drake said:
Is your non-disclosure agreement, which involves what’s actually classified, does that somehow trump the Constitution and First Amendment? Is secrecy, in this case the trust, even if it’s misplaced where trust becomes loyalty and if you break loyalty, then you get punished, which is sort of like the Omerta pact?
How the film depicts the press is amusing, suggesting a low-level of interest in rocking the ship of state. An Observer journalist named Ed Vulliamy (played by Rhys Ifans) is already working on a lead that supports the suspicion that George W. Bush is aching for an excuse to polish off Saddam Hussein. Nobody wants to touch his copy at the then pro-war Observer. Heading back to the States to track his lead, Ed yells over his shoulder at colleagues, “We’re the press, for God’s sake, not a fucking PR agency for Tony Blair.” Hear, hear.
Later, once the memo gets to the Observer, they muddle over what to do, as the document has come not directly from a GCHQ source but through a notorious intermediary, casting doubt upon the veracity of the memo. When they finally run the story, it is discovered by the Americans that the NSA memo uses British spelling — a secretary’s mistake, it turns out — making American media nervous about picking up on the Observer’s exclusive story. The story founders on the ‘typo’ and causes high anxiety at the paper. Even Gun begins to fear that she risked everything for nothing. Before the newscycle spits out the shaky story, Gun confesses to GCHQ: “I did it. It was me,” Gun says.
After that Official Secrets moves towards Gun’s legal defense. The Official Secrets Act is further spelled out. The harsh realities of the non-disclosure agreements signed amplified by the war with Iraq now underway and the indifference to Gun’s plea for understanding her rationale for whistleblowing become apparent. In the end they come up with a plan: necessity defense.
The necessity defense is a difficult argument to make, because, among other things, the defendant has to make the case that their action clearly supersedes an executive decision, often built upon confidential information the defendant might not be privy to. The defense had to show that by changing the Official Secrets Act in 1989 the Thatcher administration essentially locked in immunity from criminal executive behavior in the future. Further, they could demonstrate that the invasion of Iraq, which the Blair government signed on to, was predicated upon lies (WMD). Further, the NSA memo, with its request for British intelligence-gathering on UN Security Council members, for the purposes of blackmail, left the government open to criminal responsibility for the doings in Iraq.
Gun’s case was dropped by the government.
Gun’s experience and its aftermath raises a couple of important questions still relevant today. How do we strengthen whistleblower laws — internationally — so that otherwise decent, law-abiding government workers, like analyst Gun, are not forced by NDAs to become silent accessories to crime committed by their superiors. Gun was faced with having to live with doing nothing amid reports of the slaughter that Shock and Awe caused. Necessity defenses are not frivolous and should be an option for whistleblowers. Snowden would have a legitimate appeal to such a defense. Also, such trials should be held in neutral jurisdictions, such as The Hague. Real whistleblower trials are political events, not criminal.
Also, it should be noted that so much of what Snowden says in his memoir, Permanent Record, of his self-described Deep State career has the golden ring of truth to it. But his title says it all, really. The government wants to keep a permanent record — a dossier — on every person on the planet connected to the internet. (And the pressure is there to see that just about everyone is enrolled eventually.) As Snowden writes in Permanent Record:
At any time, the government could dig through the past communications of anyone it wanted to victimize in search of a crime (and everybody’s communications contain evidence of something). At any point, for all perpetuity, any new administration — any future rogue head of the NSA — could just show up to work and, as easily as flicking a switch, instantly track everybody with a phone or a computer, know who they were, where they were, what they were doing with whom, and what they had ever done in the past.
This is invasive surveillance capacity almost beyond belief; totally undemocratic — and all kinds of criminal. The NSA attempt to blackmail UN security council members is, as Gun knew, an example of their potential for evil deeds that nobody can stop.
The UK is saturated with surveillance cameras aimed at its population — by one estimate there are at least 4,200,000 cameras or one for every 14 citizens. At one point you could sign on to a now-defunct service (Internet Eyes) to monitor activity online and be paid for it. It’s not just the UK though — in America, there is a site where you can sign up to become an online ‘deputized’ set of eyes on the look-out for immigrants crossing the Mexican border. It’s even worse: another service invites presumably insomniac viewers to check out the live CCTV feeds from IP cameras around the world. We are becoming the beast with seven billion eyes.
Another important point Snowden makes in Permanent Record is that his is the first generation growing up in the post-9/11 world. A world of young people that has lived with mass surveillance its entire life. It has become normalized, institutionalized — a part of keeping Freedom ‘safe from harm’. Sounds sensible, but it’s scary — especially in the scoundrel patriotism it requires you to take refuge in. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former Stasi employees must look on at Five Eyes with penal envy. And we are in danger of getting to that point we see in another film, The LIves of Others, portraying the sinister brutalities of the Stasi, where the logic of our imprisonment is expressed as a contradiction in our introjected daily interrogation by the algorithms of our collective demise.
Meanwhile, speaking of smoking guns, Donald J. Trump continues to dog-whistle his basket-case full of deplorable supporters as he publicly savages the whistleblower who may spell his demise and lead to his impeachment. The unleashed press hounds are baying at the blood-red moon. Ukraine, not Russia, may bring his presidency down. And it remains to be seen whether the spy is a whistleblower or merely another a politically motivated leaker.
Official Secrets is the story of a hero. Like Snowden, Drake and Manning, and all the others who brought attention, at great risk to themselves, we need — of all things — more vigilance when it comes to our freedom and privacy. For inspiration see the film.
NOTE: excerpts from Official Secrets used as part of Fair Use act.
The first landing on the moon – a moment of human grace amidst the otherwise tempestuous doings of the decade — was still a year away when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey premiered in select American widescreen cinemas in 1968. The film brought little enlightenment to the darkness of the era and almost came and went with little real fanfare, except among sci-fi aficionados, some of whom, along with others, were zonked out on psychedelics and puff-the-magic-dragon (wink).
The year 1968 was a particularly ugly snapshot of the human condition: Russian tanks rolled into Prague and installed the Iron Curtain that would stay drawn until the Velvet Revolution two decades later; Paris was consumed with fiery protests, screaming it seemed ‘existence precedes essence’; teenaged soldier Conrad Schumann was making his iconic leap into freedom at the Berlin Wall; the massacre of innocents at My Lai happened; political (RFK) and civil rights (MLK) leaders were assassinated; the police brutality of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago showed the world American Exceptionalism at war with the Ugly American; and the children of ‘free’ world cryed out loud for an end to the war in Viet Nam (that Nobel Peace-prize winner Henry Kissinger had extended for political reasons) . With so much rage consuming the collective consciousness it’s easy to see how a cerebral film like 2001: A Space Odyssey could have gone neglected by the masses busy ‘doing democracy’ in the streets.
Though a Czech sat on the jury of the Moscow Film Festival in 1969 and considered 2001 for a prize, the film didn’t arrive in Prague until a few years later, and there are no ready reports (in English, at any rate) on how it was received in the Kafka-esque environment of the era. Worldwide interest picked up after the film won the 1969 Academy Award for special effects (it was also nominated for screenwriting). Though dated by today’s digital standards, the special effects continue to be the driving force of the film’s appeal as it performs its 50thanniversary victory lap around the globe. It can still be viewed in select cinemas nationwide.
Stanley Kubrick collaborated with Arthur C. Clarke on the screenplay for the film, with the latter’s story, “Sentinel of Eternity,” being the original source of the film’s principal motif. This sentinel is what Asimov describes as a crystalline “signal-sending pyramid” in the tale, a kind of channel-marker that awakens when touched by biological life, with the signal presumably passed back to the Maker. Kubrick altered the sentinel in the story to a black monolith when he couldn’t get the visual effect he desired. The title of the story refers to the archetypal Hero genre passed down to us from Homer – the historical quest for human meaning in the face of the Void, both the cosmos within and the cosmos without. And that is in essence how the story plays out on the screen. You might argue the film begins with the birth of consciousness and ends with its transcendence, a theme totally in keeping with ego experiments of the time.
Structurally, the film has three distinct sections or acts, as well as an intermission toward the end of the second section, before the film’s famous psychedelic effects kick in and the viewer’s mind for a spin. The German philosopher Nietzsche once said (I paraphrase): Man is a bridge between beasts and the Superman, the latter a fully-realized consciousness to be reached sometime in an indeterminate future. Similarly, the film begins with what Kubrick describes as the Dawn of Man: In a kind of wasteland, we see missing-link apes, neither all animal, nor quite yet human, exhibiting little more than a safety-in-numbers pack behaviour to protect an oasis-like watering hole against outsiders. After discovering a black monolith (sentinel) the ape-men appear to be awakened in some mysterious way. One of these apes discovers a tool for smashing heads, both beast and ape, leading to the first domination of others by technology. The sapient ape tosses his bone in the air in jubilant moment of discovery and power.
In Act Two, the airborne bone segues into a spaceship, going from pre-history to Earth-orbiting humans in one fell swoop, cleverly leaving the presumably educated movie-viewer to fill in the wide historical gap unaccounted for, while also seeming to imply that all that millennial bosh of historical events is mere detritus for the human voyage through time. This second section strikes one as a mere bridge to get to Act Three. We’re shown advanced human civilization, man living comfortably in space, but interestingly there is little engaging dialogue, the characters are wooden, the section seemingly in a hurry to sketch a picture of advanced technology on the cusp of the final leg of the human journey. Only one character,Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester),has any life, but he seems to exist simply to lead a lunar expedition, where once again the sentinel is (re-)discovered and the response is transformative, the act ending on a kind of high-pitched wake-up call. So, in a sense, Kubrick returns us back to the original discovery of the sentinel.
The third act moves the viewer further along the technological continuum, humans now travelling in a spaceship hurtling towards Jupiter. While two astronauts lie in hibernation, Frank (Gary Lockwood) and Dave (Keir Dullea) play and converse with HAL, a 9000 series AI system that boasts of its computational perfection, while peering from behind a persona that will soon prove to be psychopathic. HAL lip-reads the men talking about shutting ‘him’ down after he shows signs of potentially-catastrophic judgement lapses. Then an intermission suspends the action. Upon return, let’s just say that one thing turns into another, and Dave is left alone to pass through the “Star Gate” into a kaleidoscopic free-fall toward Übermenschen consciousness.
The Acts are powered by an excellent soundtrack, featuring two Strausses – Richard and Johann. The former’s outstandingly chosen piece, Also Sprach Zarathustra perfectly provides the vibe during the depiction of the ascent of Man. And it’s no mistake that the piece is Strauss’ musical vision of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, a kind of guide or Sherpa in the transition from the Last all-too-human Man to the self-overcoming super-man of the future. Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz is introduced at the moment the thrown-bone becomes a rocket making its way in the starlight toward the waltz-spinning space station, suggesting a bourgeois embracing of technological achievement, not unlike what the Silicon Valley neo-liberals promise humans today.
Many have pondered the meaning of the movie, especially the closing dream-like scenes, ending in a kind of apotheosis or human transfiguration. Kubrick himself, fielding such questions, has likened his film to a Mona Lisa smile, evocative and open-ended, the more you gaze at it, the more it gazes back at you, as Nietzsche might say. The Star Child at the end suggests rebirth. One recalls Carl Sagan’s assertion in a Cosmos segment, a long time ago now, that we humans are literally star stuff. However, one also recalls Nietzsche’s super-human notion of the ‘eternal recurrence’ of all things and his proposed super-human response to something so seemingly dismal – ‘amor fati’. But maybe T.S. Eliot puts it most lyrically and succinctly at the close of his poem “Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
One wonders whether Kubrick would have considered that going too far or not far enough.
If nothing else, 2001: A Space Odyssey suggests the usual cautionary predicaments humans face today as we gain almost phantasmagorical momentum heading toward the convergence with digital machines and the mind-blowing, perhaps super-human consciousness we will need to deal with a quantum future and the concept of multiverses. Of course, all such vision-thinging presupposes that humans can reverse the many excesses of our journey, such as climate change and endless power struggles and lurking pandemics. At times it seems we are closer to a transition back to the First Man than the Last Man, with a soundtrack that features an orchestra made up of a thousand sour kazoos. T. S. Eliot writes about returning to the Beginning again, but he also suggests elsewhere that we end not with a bang but a whimper. The jury’s still out, the bone’s still in the air.