Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, 2018)

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Alienation from the Land: The Movie.

The new Frederick Wiseman film is always one of the film events of the year, and this week his new one opens exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum. Wiseman, despite his advanced years, has been one of the most productive American directors of the last decade, with a string of documentary masterpieces (La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, National Gallery and In Jackson Heights are my personal favorites from among his post-2008 work) that would be enough to mark him as one of the finest ever to work in that form even if he hadn’t been making films just as often and just as high-quality since the late 1960s.

Monrovia, Indiana starts with and continually returns to the rich farmland and livestock of the Midwest, worked almost completely by machines. Every turn in the editing shows a population disconnected from their past, from their environment. The landscapes, gorgeous skies and verdant croplands alike, are almost completely devoid of human life. The fascinating and weird diversity of Wiseman’s 1999 look at a small American town, Belfast, Maine, is almost nowhere to be seen, as is the vibrant chaos and struggle of Jackson Heights.

Instead bored students listen to a history lecture about the high school basketball stars of the 1930s. City council meetings vainly negotiate against the totalizing onslaught of cookie-cutter development, development literally severed from the land in that it cannot get proper water service to protect its residents from fire. People eat cheap pizza and drink Budweiser and get tattoos and guns and dock their dog’s tails for no apparent reason (in one of the most disturbing film scenes of the year). President Obama’s assertion about clinging to guns and religion is never far from one’s mind as the film continually circles back to the church, but the solace found there, however real (and that shaft of light shining in the penultimate funeral scene has a beauty the minister’s sermon can’t touch) seems hollow. The young are just as bored with God as they are old white guy basketball. The final shot is as perfect a capper as we’ll see this year.

Looking forward to the sequel, Monrovia, Liberia.

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The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)

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There’s something fitting about the new restoration of John Carpenter’s The Fog rolling onto Seattle screens the day after Halloween. Everything about it is just a little off the beat, a little bit odd. Which is, of course, what makes it, almost 40 years after its release, continue to be one of his better works. It lingers in the back of your brain, long after its brief running time has elapsed. Clocking in at a mere 89 minutes, and taking place over a single 24 hour period in the life of a small coastal community, The Fog is the leanest work of modern Hollywood’s most efficient great director (one of the many qualities that links him to Howard Hawks).

It begins at a campfire, with a village elder (John Houseman in old-timey fisherman drag) telling the story of the tragedy that accompanied the village’s founding exactly one hundred years earlier. Quickly we will learn the truth behind the legend, that the ship that tragically crashed in the fog one night was lured there intentionally, part of a scheme by the great men of the town to steal gold from a rich leper and his diseased companions: they murdered them and built their town atop their ruins. One hundred years later, the dead men return to balance the karmic scale.

Arrayed against the forces of darkness are Jamie Lee Curtis (a hitchhiker passing through town), the solid blond guy she hooks up with, Janet Leigh (wife of a fisherman and leader of the town’s anniversary festivities), Adrienne Barbeau (single mom from Chicago and operator of the town’s radio station/lighthouse) and Hal Holbrook (drunken priest whose grandfather was integral in the murders and whose diary tells the whole secret). They’re all pretty quick to figure out what is happening, though each of them has only a piece of the puzzle. The fog itself, what with its eerie glow and hidden frozen sailors, is pretty obviously the danger.

It’s a simple story built out of small, perfectly crafted suspense sequences. And while a lot of the horror movies of the era, including Carpenter’s own Halloween, seem to be designed in response to second wave feminism and The Pill, with their Final Girls surviving while their more promiscuous friends get the knife, The Fog is part of another strand of New Hollywood horror, one inspired more by the crises of the 1960s (the Vietnam War and its attendant atrocities in particular) and a kind of generational awakening to the sins of America’s past. Nightmare on Elm Street about a suburban lynching, Poltergeist about building suburbia on the graves of our ancestors, and so on. The Fog equates the foundation of the American community with the literal theft of capital, a town built on blood money. But then Carpenter complicates it further. In the film’s final moments, the priest reads the next few pages of his grandfather’s diary and finds out that the conspirators were actually betrayed: they never even got the money they were trying to steal. Their murder was ultimately pointless, their conspiracy undermined from within. But they founded the town anyway. That’s America for you: immoral, cruel, murderous, hypocritical, and totally incompetent.

Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, 2018)

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In July of 1917, 2,00 deputized citizens of Bisbee, Arizona, under direction of the county sheriff (and almost certainly the copper mining interests that ran the town), rounded up at gunpoint 1,200 striking mineworkers, members of the IWW, marched them four miles out of town, loaded them onto boxcars, and transported them into the New Mexico desert, to be left to die in the middle of nowhere. The one-hundredth anniversary of this event, and the town’s attempt at reckoning with it, is the subject of the latest film from documentarian Robert Greene, which opens today at the SIFF Film Center.

Questioning the nature of truth as it is presented in non-fiction film is the guiding mission of Greene’s work, in acclaimed films like Actress and Kate Plays ChristineBisbee ’17 too is explicitly about the recreation of historical events, as the town organizes a kind of dramatization of the Deportation (as it has come to be known), with various townspeople, some of them fairly recent arrivals to the community, some with family members who fought on either side (or both sides) in 1917. We meet the various locals who will be taking part in the reenactment, and learn a little bit about their current lives, though the emphasis is on their thoughts about the strike and its bloody conclusion.

That the consciousness of an American community has not changed much with regard to labor rights in the past hundred years should come as no surprise. But even some of those who say they still support the mining company’s actions notably feel pangs of regret as they watch their fellow citizens rounded up and shipped away. There’s a lot of good old fashioned American excuse-making on the pro-capital side, especially ubiquitous is that most despicable of all arguments: that the actions of these cruel men were on some level acceptable simply because they believed they were doing the right thing. I don’t know where this idea comes from (I suspect Evangelical Protestantism, but I can’t say for sure), that what you do in life doesn’t matter as long as your intentions are good, that any evil is justifiable in the name of belief, but it is long past time it was discarded. Let us send it to the desert to die.

Stories like that of Bisbee are increasingly necessary, not simply for their obvious parallels to the political issues of the present day (Bisbee is only a handful of miles from the Mexican border, and Deportation today has all kinds of new though not-so different resonances). Somewhere in the immediate post-war era, with the mass expansion of public education at the high tide of Cold War propaganda, America lost a sense of its own labor history, of the crimes committed by capital in the creation of our communities and our nation. As the great factory and mining towns that built the foundations for our national wealth have been abandoned over the last 40 years (Bisbee in most respects looks identical to the mining towns my parents grew up in in Northern Idaho), whole generations have been adrift, without a coherent narrative to explain how things got to be so bad or what we can do to get from here to a better place. Watching the residents of Bisbee grapple with basic truths about capital, its exploitation of labor and its manipulation of racism in the creation of an all-white community (the vast majority of the deported mine workers were Latino or Eastern European), one can, with hope, see the beginnings of a reborn class consciousness.

But compared to Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871), which similarly reenacted a historical event and mixed in coverage of the past with discussions among the performers about their own feelings regarding the events they were depicting, highly energized, engaged and informed discussions of labor, sexual and racial politics as they stood in the last century and continued into the present, one can see just how much our educational system, our culture, our politics, have let us down. We’re playing catch-up, but it’s starting to look like we might finally be back in the game.

The 15:17 to Paris (Clint Eastwood, 2018)

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Apparently the latest Clint Eastwood film isn’t considered to be very good. The studio behind it didn’t bother to screen it for critics here in Seattle, and while I haven’t read any other reviews, I’ve been exposed to the usual inane twitter chatter, in this case people seem to be upset about a poster that appears a year before it should have. But the Saturday afternoon show I caught at my local mall was packed, and the audience seemed to be into it, so I don’t know. I liked it, as I’ve liked all of Eastwood’s recent work (I’ve seen all of them going back to 2011). Like his last two films, it’s specifically a look at what it means to be an American hero, more sophisticated than it appears on the surface, while at the same time pandering to the basest levels of patriotism.

The most obviously striking thing about The 15:17 Paris of course is that it is a recreation of actual events performed by the actual people involved in them, a trio of Americans (Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler), two of them serving in the military, who foiled a terrorist attack on a train in France in 2015. The film begins with the prelude to the attack, close-ups of the feet and pants of the terrorist as he walks through the terminal and gets on the train, and we’ll see flashes of the event itself throughout the rest of the movie, but first it skips back in time to when the three met as middle schoolers. This early section of the film is the least interesting, mostly because the script is extraordinarily artless (poor Judy Greer and Jenna Fischer, saddled with lines like “My God is bigger than your statistics!”, which is probably something that that character would actually say, but just sounds phony in a motion picture). But once the kids grow up and the real people take over the roles, the movie takes off.

Stone is the best of them, and his story gets the most focus. He joins the Air Force, utterly sincere in his desire to help people the best way he can, but keeps flunking out of the various specialties he tries. He never does see any action, as far as we can tell, and Skarlatos, also in the military and stationed in Afghanistan, doesn’t seem to be doing much better: the lone scene we get of his deployment is a bit of excitement caused by his leaving his backpack behind in a village. The two men agree to meet up in Germany, and Sadler goes along with them, for the adventure of seeing Europe. Despite the utter ineffectuality of his service thus far, Stone, he tells Sadler, remains convinced that he is meant to do something meaningful in the world, that his whole life has been leading him to a decisive point.

And of course it is. We know that because we know the story already (if we didn’t before walking into the theatre, those flash-forwards have explained it for us). Stone is able to be so convincing in his performance because he isn’t acting, it isn’t at this point a matter of faith or belief for him: he knows for a fact that he will accomplish something great that will save people’s lives. This is different from the kind of performance required of Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, a movie about a man who also believed he was destined to save people, but whom the means of that saving (namely shooting a great many other people) took a toll on his psyche that he himself may not have understood. It’s different as well from the performance of Tom Hanks in Sully, about a different kind of heroism, the pragmatic working class “just doing my job” non-chalance that is the ideal of a different, less faith-based American masculinity. Stone and his friends’ uniqueness is their unwavering confidence, a confidence that comes from knowing that the ending to their story will be a happy one. It bleeds into every scene in the film, whether they’re making smoothies, failing a medical training class, telling lame jokes in Italy or hungover in Amsterdam. An actor could never convey the truth of their belief, only the real people could have done it.

Eastwood doesn’t critique this ideal, this vision of ultra-confident, beneficent American masculinity, as he might have done in American Sniper, depending on who you ask, or as he’s done in films like Unforgiven or even J. Edgar. But he does capture its essence, and that’s not nothing.

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

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Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary about the great American author and essayist James Baldwin is neither a biographical film nor a typical talking head documentary, with various experts and narrators explaining to us, the regular people, the importance of the people and events depicted on screen. It’s an essay film, built around notes Baldwin compiled for a project he ultimately abandoned, a personal history of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, African-American activists who were murdered in the few years between 1963 and 1968. Samuel L. Jackson, in a hushed, yet determined voice, narrates Baldwin’s notes, and Peck freely cuts between them, recited over archival footage both past and present, and images of Baldwin himself lecturing, participating in panel discussions, chatting with Dick Cavett and generally just being himself (the fear in his eyes as he drives around Mississippi street with Evers is palpable, as is his anger at being condescended to by an aged white professor on Cavett’s show). The result is a rambling, discursive film that captures the essential genius of Baldwin’s work, the uniqueness of his mind and the eloquence and power of its expression.

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