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.
Mind rape and the tunnels beneath the borders of the mind
At the end of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Hundred Blows (les Quatre Cents Coups), there is an amazing, extended tracking shot that begins with the boy protagonist Antoine Doinel’s escape from a youth reformatory, during which the camera follows him as he runs for several minutes. The scene concludes with Antoine reaching the sea and then turning back to the camera, and in the direction of his pursuers and the viewers, for a sudden freeze-frame. When I first saw this movie as an adolescent, the freeze-frame ending was so fraught with resonance for me that I immediately began sobbing as though my heart had been broken.
The documentary The Green Prince, as yet unreleased in the Czech Republic, didn’t produce quite the same profound effect as the Truffaut classic, partly because I’m an old jaded humanist now, but I could feel the same tortured truth tunneling through to me as director Nadav Schirman’s surprisingly eloquent documentary reached its conclusion. For The Green Prince is at heart a morality tale about the crushing power of shame and betrayal, but also of the miraculous, redemptive capacity of trust. Or so, for a moment, it seemed.
Directed by Nadav Schirman
With Mosab Hassan Yousef and Gonen Ben Yitzhak
Because then it struck me that by the time Mosab Hassan Yousef completes the circuit through the unconscious maze of deceit and disloyalty, switching his allegiance from his Hamas-founding father to asserting that he “would die for” his former Shin Bet handler Gonen Ben Yitzhak, he has merely reached that ocean and that moment of freeze-frame inescapabilty. Although Gonen intervenes on Yousef’s behalf, after Shin Bet won’t, he is left beholden to his ex-handler and interrogator, in a bizarre psychological transference that Freud would have been proud to study.
The film is based on Yousef’s memoir, The Son of Hamas.Yousef grew up in the household of a founding member of the organization. “Hamas was not just a movement to us,” Yousef says. “It was the family business. It was our identity. It was everything.” Ostensibly, the memoir recounts how and why he decided to betray Hamas, which his father helped lead, in order to spy for Israel. I haven’t read the book, but in the film the precipitating moment of changed allegiances comes after he has gone to prison for the first time.
What had happened was that Yousef’s father had been arrested at home by Israeli forces and not returned for a year and a half. When he returns home upon his release, he is arrested again after just six hours. This enrages the young Mosab, who virtually worshipped his Dad, and he vows revenge. He is arrested on gun charges and sent to prison. And it is in prison that he recognizes the utter depravity and brutality that drive the soul of Hamas leadership. Suspected Israeli collaborators are tortured, often to death, by Hamas thugs, trying to extract information about networked fellow collaborators. It turns out there is no such network and that Hamas is often torturing for nothing.
Earlier in the film, Yousef alerts the viewer that collaboration with Israel is regarded by Palestinians as a crime worse than raping one’s own mother. It is hard to imagine a more confronting description of hatred than that. This understanding of the level and degree of betrayal involved in collaborating has profound resonances for Yousef himself. For, as he relates in the film, when he was five years old a friend of his father’s chased him down and raped him during an olive grove expedition. This caused a deep rupture in his psyche. “I was ashamed,” he said. “In my society, the more painful thing than being raped is to have the reputation for being raped.”
Consequently, he is forced to suppress his trauma. But no doubt the prison torture of Hamas on Hamas, Palestinian on Palestinian, brought that repressed energy to the fore. Torture is another form of rape, not so much of the body as of the mind. For him, Hamas becomes “cowards in the name of courage.”
A central theme of the film concerns the multiple layers of shame Yousef must cope with to survive. Shame is extraordinarily powerful in directing the energies of the psyche and to the integrity of self-identity. A person who feels deep shame is caught between the pincers of communal rejection, a sense of being kicked out of the human race, which is almost unbearable, as well as a nauseating and incapacitating loathing of one’s own being. As a moral motivating factor, surely shame is far more ‘useful’ than feeling ‘guilty.’
No doubt this is why Yousef breaks down toward the end of the film when he discovers that Shin Bet will not help him after he quits working for them and, after producing a tell-all book, is threatened by the United States with deportation to Jordan, a sure death sentence. He has spent years betraying his father, family, Hamas and fellow Palestinians, tunneling in among them with his lies, in order, he hopes, to save his people greater grief at that hands of Hamas’ brutal authoritarianism and to provide an opportunity for a peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians to germinate. When they reject him, he is back to Shame One.
If the film has a drawback, it is the lack of balance attached to the picture of Hamas’ thuggery. There are indeed theories out there about the cause of the degree of savagery often associated with Hamas militants, and with Islamic jihadists in general, such as the one Judith Butler proffers, which suggests that beheadings are hysterical reactions of grief and rage to being culturally raped by Israelis. But I’m not sure it accounts for the extreme of like-minded violence that occurs in other parts of the Arab world that are not under such pressure, such as in Saudi Arabia, where they seemingly behead at the drop of a hat, so to speak.
Actually, Hamas and the whole Palestinian questions seem to have a parallel in the once-endless evils of Northern Ireland. One might compare the parading Protestant Orangemen of Belfast to the unrepentant radical Zionist settlers of the West Bank. Like the IRA once was, Hamas is split along political and military wings. Like the militant wing of the IRA and horrific blunder in Omagh, Hamas has portioned out episodes of grievous and outrageous violence against their own civilian population. And, of course, religion in each case is key. But the politics are entirely different.
The Green Prince is another one of those award-deserving productions that many people should see but will probably have limited distribution. However, like the recent 5 Broken Cameras (also a somewhat anti-Hamas, pro-Palestinian film) and the excellent Shin Bet documentary, The Gatekeepers, in which former heads of the agency explicitly condemn Israeli policy toward Palestinians and lay the blame on controlling radical Zionists, The Green Prince is well worth going out of the way to see and absorb. These are films whose visceral and narrative power go beyond the exhausting and unending chain of rants, bring clarity and precious elements of understanding to an otherwise incomprehensible saga of destruction. They are a freeze-frame of the soul in crisis.
A lot of people don’t know it, but when Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of North Korea, was a young man he attended a high school in Switzerland, where, among other things, he developed a taste for Western fast foods and a certain degree of proficiency playing point guard for the school basketball team. As with the other kids on the team, he also developed a love of the NBA and its stars. Like just about everyone, Kim was in awe of Michael Jordan’s on-court skill set.
When Kim took over the reins from his deceased father, it was hoped in the West that the young man’s exposure to freedom and capitalist consumption would lead to a greater appetite for both, and a rapprochement with Washington. Surely that was the expectation when Google’s Eric Schmidt and Joel Cohen, along with globalization executive Bill Richardson – all of whom have strong ties to the State department – visited North Korea in January 2013, just before the release of the Schmidt-Cohen futuristic tome, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, hit the bookshelves. One can readily imagine the trio pushing the inevitability of open markets, and trying to ‘honey trap’ Kim by suggesting that if he were to adopt the Google surveillance system Kim could appear to ‘open up’, while continuing to exert total control through algorithms and all-pervasive surveillance. “Works for us,” Schmidt might chirp.
Well, we’ll never know what was said, but it’s clear that the unofficial State department entourage came away empty-handed. And it wasn’t long afterward that tensions were ratcheted up again. And then the mainstream media began to excoriate ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman for traveling to North Korea to indulge Kim’s NBA basketball fanaticism, because, they cried, Rodman should be ashamed for entertaining Kim while a Korean-American, Kenneth Bae, was being imprisoned for alleged proselytizing and Bible smuggling. Rodman’s harassment seemed to have racial overtones, especially given that the Schmidt-Cohen-Richardson trio had barely eked out a pizzicato on Bae’s behalf during their fugal concerto for capitalism.
Shortly thereafter, young Kim went from being a potential reformer to the same old, same old crazy North Korean dictator. Kim played right into the nut job depiction, rattling his missiles; arresting a second Bible-thumper; kidnapping a South Korean movie director and forcing him to make a monster movie; and engaging in risky military escapades on the border.
So that’s the milieu and mood that forms the backdrop of the Goldberg-Rogen film, The Interview.
James Franco and Seth Rogen play best buddies, Dave Skylark and Aaron Rapaport, who produce a TV ‘news show’ that features interviews with celebrities that are gossipy and tasteless. The pair are exceptionally pleased with themselves, like Narcissus and Echo, and especially triumphant after white rap star Eminem comes ‘out of the closet’ during the 1000th episode of the show, causing pandemonium in the public (and in the studio). But when the pair meet up with an old Columbia School of Journalism friend, now a senior producer for 60 Minutes, who mocks the pair’s trash journalism, they are crestfallen. Until…they learn President Kim Jong-un loves their insipid program and wants to meet the pair for an interview. Their jubilation at the prospect of interviewing Kim in Pyongyang bears complexity when they agree to a plot to act as CIA assassins during the interview, during which Skylark is to deliver a lethal dose of ricin during a handshake.
Is the movie funny? The 7.5 IMDB rating would suggest that, yes, it was plenty funny. Certainly, the premise is absurd and comedic, and the acting of the principals was a splendid reach for laughs. And it’s unlikely Rogen-Franco-philes will be disappointed. But how funny it is might depend on whether you find risible a film that begins with a little girl chanting down America, singing her earnest wish for the Land of the Free to perish in “its own blood and feces.” Personally, I was creeped out.
And then after that, well, it became a familiar Rogen-Franco movie. The pair were in the Dumb and Dumber mode. Franco was especially over-the-top pulling Jim Carrey-type faces, and seemingly lampooning a number of famous interviewers, including, it seemed, Jon Stewart. There were some chucklesome moments, but it was definitely a lineup of shtick aimed at young shallow men – guys into the everyday sports argot that includes not-so-secret tasteless sexist jokes (not one woman in the movie had any power not stripped away from her by an objectifying sexual appeal), and there was a tremendous amount of homo-eroticism, involving not just bonding jibes between Franco and Rogen, but also between Franco and Park (who plays Kim), which revolved around how “empowering Katy Perry is” with her lyrical sexual ambiguity, and the relative effeminacy of Margueritas, which Kim’s dad has condemned as a “gay” cocktail (but which film Kim likes, in his secret shame).
Language is coarse and lowest common denominator-oriented. There is comic book horror. There is an awful lot of Asian linguistic parody, which seemed intent on copying the Borat phenomenon of a few years back. Skylark delivers white-appropriated Black hip-hop shoptalk regularly. And Jews may cringe to know that Kim is saved from a ricin death when the leader aborts a handshake when he is told Rapaport, who is intent on following through on the CIA plot (while Skylark becomes best buds with the fat totalitarian), that Rapaport is “a Jew,” causing Kim to cringe. There may be found a lot of hilarity, for some, to discover that Kim “has no butthole. He has no need for one.” When the clownish buddies lose the ricin package, the CIA sends a drone, a la Amazon’s delivery ambitions, with more poison, contained in a phallic device that Rapaport is forced to hide up his ‘butthole’. Essentially, he is forced to rape himself for the viewer’s delight.
I dunno. Sometmes you have to weigh up the costs of the humor versus the karmic gravity of the subject. I enjoy apocalyptic humor as much as the next zombie, and the like, which Rogen and Franco exuded with some delight in their previous film, This Is The End (2013), but I got thrown off by the recent stoush over allegations that North Korean agents hacked into Sony in retaliation for the making of the film, which, even as comedy, has not-so-funny overtones in calling for the assassination of Kim. I mean, deposing ‘dictators’ seems to be an Obama specialty, and little of it has been funny, given the utter chaos the maneuvers have created.
Also, I feel bad for Koreans, North and South. While I haven’t visited the North, I have lived in South Korea earlier in my journeys, and was sometimes overwhelmed by the sense of emptiness and vacated spirit there. After all, the Japanese once literally raped and razed their way through the country with such devastation that Korea became a traumatized wasteland you can still feel. No doubt, the release of the movie by Sony, a Japanese corporation, was especially confronting to North Koreans. That’s if the hacking even took place as advertised; the “breach” certainly boosted the distribution and sales figures for the film.
In a perturbing development, ‘human rights activists’ have vowed to mass deliver 100,000 copies of the film to the North Korean populace by means of balloon, in the off-chance that viewing the film will incite regime-change rioting in the streets. Imagine if the CIA had commenced their toppling of Chile’s Allende democracy with an airdrop of Woody Allen’s Bananas. The propaganda machine is at full throttle, folks.
In the end, if you found it funny that time President Obama told his media guests as a national press dinner that he’d drone to death certain musicians if they made passes at his daughters, then you’ll probably like The Interview and its mindless humor. Me, I keep thinking of the innocent people who’ve been droned, killed without a trial or a warning, including American citizens; and I can’t ever imagine laughing at that.
And I didn’t find it particularly comforting or funny when, after North Korea was publicly (and thinly) accused of hacking into Sony, President Obama said, in all seriousness, “They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose.” No one from the press laughed. Funny, that.