By setting most of Kong: Skull Island in 1975, just days after the end of the war in Vietnam, and by enlisting a Marine Corp helicopter regiment to transport a band of plucky scientists to the uncharted Skull island, Vogt-Roberts makes very clear that he’s not just making a monster movie. Not much for subtlety, the movie practically bludgeons us with its intention to do politics. Its marketing material, its inclusion of a character named after Joseph Conrad, and its plethora of lines aspiring to profundity (“What was this even for?” asks one of the soldiers; “We create our enemies” opines another; “You never come home from war” Hiddleston waxes during a pause in the action) all serve this purpose.
Vogt-Roberts thinks he’s riffing on Apocalypse Now, or maybe Heart of Darkness more directly, and it’s obvious that Kong is supposed to figure in his allegory somehow. But our king of the jungle’s symbolic content is more confused than it is polysemic. By Skull Island’s conclusion there is no question that viewers are supposed to be rooting for Kong as he does battle with both the skull crawlers and Samuel L. Jackson’s deranged Col. Preston Packard, but whether he represents the Viet Cong, or nothing other than himself, is anyone’s guess.
It is also worth noting that while it’s not possible to read this version of Kong as a metaphoric stand-in for black men, the movie has hardly escaped the racism present in earlier incarnations. In fact, this very comparison slips back in by way of the decision to pit the entirely sympathetic giant ape against an ornery Sam Jackson hellbent on revenge. During their showdown the camera zooms in on the furrowed brow of Jackson and then of the ape, asking us to question which them is truly the monster.
And then there are the island’s indigenous inhabitants who get neither names nor lines — though, admittedly, their portrayal is less outright offensive than in the original (which is not saying much).
So, should socialists reject Kong: Skull Island for its inability to shed the racism inherited from its source material? And if so, does this undermine the allure of watching Viet-Kong smash down American attack helicopters? Others have addressed the issues of how to approach contradictory and even downright reactionary works of art more eloquently and at greater length than can be accomplished in this review, so I won’t attempt an answer to these questions.
Suffice it to say that if one goes in to this movie looking for a political perspective to get behind it will sorely disappoint. If, however, you go in looking for giant monsters fighting other giant monsters, Kong: Skull Island will more than meet expectations.
I’m glad that’s cleared up. One can just enjoy a movie and still be a socialist!
Last night I went to a showing of Mr. Mom, the 1983 film about a middle-class man who loses his job and is forced to stay at home while his housewife restarts her job in an advertising agency and becomes a star. I had not thought about this film since I was a kid. And I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by how well it holds up. Keaton and Teri Garr are both great. Martin Mull plays a complete slimeball, which is perfect. Tambor is Tambor. Ann Jillian is a good comic seductress. Christopher Lloyd works very well in a very small role. Of course, the film is notable for its discussion of gender roles in the 1980s and for good reason. For those of you who haven’t seen it or forgotten about it, Keaton plays an engineer of some kind at a Detroit auto plant. He loses his job in the 1980s recession. Teri Garr gave her a previous career working in an ad agency. She manages to restart that career. That leaves Keaton at home taking care of the kids. All hell breaks loose. He loses his identity, she gains hers. He eventually comes to grips with the homemaking but her career is so successful that he feels left out and forgotten, a mirror of millions upon millions of housewives feeling the same. She deals with sexual harassment on the job. Eventually, the film ends (spoiler alert on a 34 year old movie!) in a farcical way that sells out the potential for female emancipation from the home on the job; it’s ambiguous whether Garr will still work but of course Keaton is rehired. It’s still pretty relevant today for a discussion of gender and work. Some of the comedy is pretty silly, but there is certainly nothing wrong with comedy as a way of getting at social problems and it isn’t so silly as to distract from it being not only a socially interesting movie but a good film too (although it doesn’t articulate a mass, class-based, anti-racist struggle against capitalism so what would a Jacobin review say!).
What I found interesting about Mr. Mom is that on top of this, it’s also a key film in depicting deindustrialization as it is happening. While focused on the middle-class and not the line workers, it is telling a very believable story for the early 80s–the disappearance of the auto industry. There’s a scene at a hiring agency with a bunch of manager types all looking for work and swapping recipes becuase they are all at home with no hopes and they laugh at the idea of finding work. To some extent this is a story of the United States in the recession but it’s also a specifically Detroit story as it focuses on the auto industry. Keaton takes pride in designing these cars (can we blame him for the horrible U.S. cars of the 1980s? Certainly it makes more sense than the ridiculous public narrative that the UAW is responsible, as if GM allowed the union to make production design choices) but while car designers will still be needed in the future, they may well not be in Detroit. Those jobs are disappearing, as is the basis of the Detroit economy. This obviously is not the focus here and there’s no discussion of this, but we can certainly read it back into the film.
Anyway, Mr. Mom is actually pretty good, 34 years after its release.
The much beloved host of Turner Classic Movies is dead at the age of 84. Osborne is the kind of person no one can really say anything bad about. TCM is probably Ted Turner’s second greatest gift to the world (outside of his massive conservation efforts in the West). It’s certainly a better gift than the Wolf Blitzer News Network. But Osborne became the real face of TCM, bringing great movies to the broad public without commercials and in an always classy style. He provided great knowledge and great love to the films.
It’s also interesting to me that he came out of Colfax, Washington to become what he became. Colfax is a pretty awful town in southeastern Washington that mostly subsists on wheat farming. It’s true that it is probably the only town in the United States that is presently festooned with flags showing the face of Grant’s corrupt Vice-President Schuyler Colfax, so that’s exciting. But these stories of individuals escaping the deepest recesses of rural America to live these incredibly urbane and interesting lives is interesting.
I see Donald Trump is now president of the United States. When the Trump administration kangaroo courts begin to round up the activists, my advice is not to choose Punishment Park, no matter the prison option.
Last summer, I showed this in my film course. My students HATED it. They felt there was no way this could ever happen in the United States. I am highly curious what the reaction is when I show it this summer.
Wajda’s career is absolutely titanic. His legendary trilogy of World War II-era Poland shot him into the spotlight. A Generation (1955) was a slightly romantic look at the Polish underground and the appeal of Marxism to resistance fighters. Kanal (1956) is a claustrophobic look at the Warsaw uprising, almost all in the canals under the city. Ashes and Diamonds (1958) shows an already divided and increasingly corrupt post-war Poland, even though it is set on the last day of the war, when ideological factionalism and the elimination of threats to the new communist order are taking over. This trilogy, with its eyes wide open honesty about the bravery of the resistant movement and the hard decisions to follow, is remarkable.
The only Wajda film from the 60s I have seen is The Siberian Lady MacBeth (1962), which is excellent although not quite in the same league as his very best. Wajda first came to my attention when I saw his unbelievable Man of Marble (1977), a searing view into the hypocrisy of postwar Poland and the betrayal of the revolution that tells a story of a young idealistic filmmaker (who only owns one set of clothes evidently) and her search to find out about a once idealized and now-forgotten bricklayer, chewed up and spit out by the socialist paradise. Wajda managed to stay in Poland after this, only to follow up with Man of Iron (1981), a follow up film about the Solidarity movement that actually has Lech Walesa in it. This finally forced Wajda out. He moved to France. There, he kept up his films of history and freedom with a biopic of Danton (1983) that might be the best film ever made about the French Revolution. Wajda returned to France after the overthrow of the communist government. His last masterpiece was Katyn (2007), an appropriate film for him as his father was killed there. This is a devastating examination of the erasure of an entire generation of leaders. One wonders what could have been otherwise for postwar Poland.
Wajda consistently made beautiful films about political and personal freedom. His loss is tremendous.
So who is now the greatest living filmmaker? I say it is Martin Scorsese.
Since 2003, counterinsurgency training has become an important field of professional military education, with centers and programs springing up at institutions like the US Military academy at West Point, the National Defense University, and the Naval War College. A search of these institutions’ websites indicates that The Battle of Algiers is a fixture of these courses. At West Point, it’s shown regularly in the French and Arabic programs. A flier for an upcoming screening explained that the film is of interest because it uses “language in a political and military context” and because “the issues faced by the French in Algeria are many of the same issues currently faced by the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.” It’s also shown in courses offered at USMA’s Combating Terrorism Center. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Price told me that he uses the film to illustrate methods such as sector-by-sector containment and the impact of decapitating a movement’s leadership, and as a case study of what works and what doesn’t.
All of the defense professionals whom I spoke with tied their interest in the film to their advocacy of counterinsurgency strategies that emphasize political solutions and reject tactics such as torture. David Ucko, an associate professor at the College of International Security Affairs at the National Defense University, said that he encourages foreign security personnel who are engaged in combating terrorism to focus on establishing political legitimacy. In his eyes, the inescapable lesson of The Battle of Algiers is that if you act as the French did in Algeria, you’re going to lose.
Somewhat contrary to my expectations, these conversations didn’t leave me with the impression that military educators’ approach to teaching The Battle of Algiers is particularly doctrinaire. Price told me that he encourages students to interrogate the concept of terrorism and the definition of a terrorist. He also said that while most cadets identify with the French, some end up taking the side of the Algerian insurgents. Ucko similarly noted that the film helps his students to humanize the enemy.
But if the teaching of The Battle of Algiers in policy and military contexts isn’t closed-minded, it does raise some other questions. To hold that it’s better to win people over with values and ideas rather than by force is good in principle, but it assumes that there are social and political principles that could unite all parties. This seems highly questionable in a situation such as Iraq, where the objectives of the US presence have been far less straightforward than those of the French in Algeria, and where “insurgency” has become increasingly protean.
Another issue is the apparent lack of attention paid to the film as a film — to the questions of storytelling and cinematography that preoccupy cultural scholars. The film seems to be taught in military colleges as a mirror of history, while history is approached as a reservoir of examples from which lessons can be drawn. Ben Nickels, an associate professor at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, observed that this approach is somewhat symptomatic of the field of military history as a whole. Over the last 30 years, military history has all but vanished from the academic mainstream, flourishing only in professional military education, where it has been sheltered from historiographical practices that focus on primary documents as contingent representations.
That is fundamentally true about military history within the academy. As its’ become more isolated, it’s hardly surprising that it would fall further and further behind the rest of the field conceptually. Also, I taught Battle of Algiers in my summer film course a couple of years ago and one of the students, who was an ex-Marine who had gone to Lebanon just after the barracks were blown up, said they watched it back then to understand what was happening in the Middle East. I mean, I think there are things one can learn from films, but it worries me that the leading document to understand the contemporary Middle East within the military establishment is a fifty-year old film made by an Italian Marxist about a secular, nationalist revolutionary movement.
In 1958, Alain Resnais made an industrial film, for whatever reason. Money I assume. Le Chant du Styrène is about plastics. It’s also an absolutely beautiful film, really a wonderful artifact of postwar modernism. Unfortunately, the only copy on YouTube I can find is subtitled–in Spanish. But even if you don’t speak French or read Spanish, you can still follow along as Resnais takes us through the wonderful world of oil-based products.
Many years ago, a historian friend showed me a copy of the British documentary “Show Down at Aspen,” on Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for mayor of Aspen. Finally, I have found it online. This is really fantastic and very much worth your time. It’s NSFW, both because of hippie nudity and drug use. The best part is between about minutes 5 and 10, which begins with a young cop descending on a hippie gathering and smoking some joints with them, followed by some old people talking about the evils of drugs while getting loaded on their drug of choice, booze. Throughout the film, there are surprises, with older people supporting Thompson and younger people who one might even call hippies are voting for the incumbent because they recognize Thompson is unstable and that no one is really getting busted for drugs in Aspen under the current sheriff.
Maybe Bridges absorbed some aspect of this uncertainty, let it grow inside him into a kind of stance against his times. He made a startling number of westerns and neo-westerns in the Seventies, a decade when the western was supposed to be dead — from Robert Benton’s Bad Company (1972), about young, draft-dodging thieves during the Civil War, to Howard Zieff’s Hearts of the West (1975), about an impressionable Depression-era youth who sets off to find the frontier and instead becomes a cowboy movie stuntman, to Frank Perry’s Rancho Deluxe (1975), about a pair of modern-day cattle rustlers. (Even when the films aren’t westerns, they borrow from the idiom: The Last Picture Show lives in the shadow of the genre and the myth of a dying frontier. So does Hell or High Water. Ranger Hamilton is a throwback, but he’s a throwback to something that never really existed. Near the end, we see him come home, and we notice that he doesn’t live in a tent, nor in a room above a saloon, nor on a ranch. Instead, he has a nice, modern house in town, filled with modern conveniences and a big-screen TV.)
Yet Bridges was never really a typical western actor. For most of his career, he had none of the gruffness or stoic, wounded terseness of an archetypal cowboy hero. In fact, he was the opposite. He was chummy, light on his feet, even naïve — part surfer, part tenderfoot. In those early roles, he’s something of a foil for western heroes: In Hearts of the West, he plays opposite Andy Griffith; in Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), he co-stars with Clint Eastwood, who is everything Jeff Bridges is not. His presence is an almost modernizing one, as a bright-eyed but self-aware kid who can see that the world around him is disappearing. A lot of these films end with his character defeated but spiritually intact. Even death passes over Jeff Bridges gently.
I haven’t seen a lot of these films. But I have seen the somewhat bizarre and fascinating utter failure that is the 1979 Winter Kills. In this film, Bridges plays the brother of an assassinated president (a thinly veiled JFK figure of course) who tries to find the real killer. This film includes John Huston as his blue-speaking vile father (awesome), Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milan, and Toshiro Mifune playing Huston’s Japanese servant. And I have to tell you, Toshiro Mifune should play no man’s servant. It’s a disaster of a movie with an out of control cast and like so many mediocre films of the 70s, is certainly interesting.
These movies identify the filmmaker as a student of behavior. But the repetitiveness also has a cumulative power. By the end of each film, you’re overwhelmed by the humanity you’ve witnessed; all those individual interactions, coming one after the other, suggest a world of breadth and density. The word that always comes to mind when I think of these documentaries is voracious: You get the sense that Kiarostami could spend his whole life in that principal’s office, or that intersection, or that classroom, just watching people be. And you might gladly stay there with him, sharing his fascination.
Even in these early works Kiarostami questions form, occasionally undercutting directorial authority and supposed objectivity with clever edits or random digressions that draw attention to the artificiality of his endeavors. But he never undercuts sincerity; rather, the structural and stylistic playfulness always ends up reasserting the dignity of his subjects.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the incredible run of narrative films the director made from the late 1980s through the 1990s. The most seismic of these was 1990’s Close-Up, based on a real-life case in which a poor, movie-obsessed hustler took advantage of a bourgeois Tehran family by pretending he was the celebrated Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami restaged the events of the case, with the real people — victims and perpetrator — playing themselves, and then intercut those scenes with what appears to be documentary footage of the man on trial. Except that the documentary footage itself would turn out to be staged: Kiarostami had scripted the defendant’s lines, as well as the family’s forgiveness; he’d even handled some of the questioning from off-camera. The endlessly fractured perspective complicates our ideas of reality and fiction, of celebrity and identity, of directorial distance and intervention. But unlike so much of what we call “self-conscious cinema,” Close-Up never denies us emotion: At the end, the con man meets the real Makhmalbaf and promptly bursts into tears — a discomfiting and deeply heartbreaking moment. All the frames collapse into one; postmodern need not mean post-human.