No White Saviors Need Apply

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Witty, ironic, meaningful, and delightfully entertaining, Green Book is quite possibly the best movie released in 2018.

It’s based on the true story of African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the unlikely friendship he developed with Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a Copacabana bouncer and self-proclaimed bullshitter. In fall 1962 Shirley hired Tony to be his driver and bodyguard during a concert tour through the South of the Don Shirley Trio, consisting of Shirley and two white string musicians. What follows is a new twist on the old buddy genre as two opposites, one black, suave, educated, and sophisticated and the other white, uncouth, ill-spoken, and street smart, learn to like each other. The two could not be more different, or more written against stereotype.

Shirley is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The name of the movie comes from a guidebook published by the Negro Tourists Bureau from the 1930s to the mid-1960s called The Negro Motorist Green Book. As you can guess, it identified restaurants, hotels, and public buildings that travelers of African descent could patronize. It was demeaning, and the Don Shirley Trio could make three times as much money doing gigs in New York, where they were more accepted and could move more freely. But, like Jackie Robinson before him, Don Shirley was out to make a point and blaze trails. He chose the southern circuit on purpose. Oleg (Dimiter D. Marinov), the bass player, understands. “Genius is not enough,” he explains to Tony. “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”

We also realize that genius is not enough to bring happiness, any more than money is. Shirley is educated, talented, and rich, but he drinks alone. He knows the white European masters of music, but he doesn’t recognize Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, or Sam Cooke. He is a gourmand, but has never tasted fried chicken. He isn’t welcome in the hotel where his companions are staying, but when some men staying at the Green Book hotel invite him to join them for a game of horseshoes, he doesn’t know what to do. “If I’m not black enough, or white enough, or man enough, then tell me — what am I?” he asks Tony in anguish. He is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The acting throughout the film is superb. Ali won a Golden Globe for his role as the regal, impeccable Shirley; his comedic timing for noncomic dialog is perfect, and wait till you see him play the piano! In fact, the music in this film is stunning. Mortensen packed on the pounds and embraced his inner slob to play the lovable, slovenly, totally unself-aware Tony Lip. Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores is so perfect that Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s real-life son and the author of the book on which the screenplay is based, said that he was in tears whenever Cardellini was on camera, because she is so much like his mother. Cardellini is one of those quietly unsung actors who is marvelous in everything she chooses to do. In addition, many of the people in the family scenes are not actors but members of the Vallelonga extended family, and there is an authentic vibrancy as they interact with one another around the table.

Tony is an equal opportunity bigot; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.”

Unfortunately, following the film’s initial praise from critics when it opened and its three wins at the Golden Globes (for Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture) the reputation of this fine film was maligned. Critics recently charged that it’s “racist” and another “white savior story.” Either these people haven’t seen the film, or they don’t understand the “white savior" genre, or they’re terrified to speak out against the progressivist hegemony.

Well, I’m not afraid to speak out. The person who is saved in this film is not the cultured, wealthy, talented black pianist, who hires the bodyguard, pays the bills, and calls the shots. It’s the gauche, ignorant, uncouth, bigoted white restaurant bouncer who takes the job and the orders. And anyone who suggests that any film with a black star and a white star necessarily creates a hierarchy with the black man at the bottom is being, well, just plain racist.

At the beginning of the movie Tony is comfortable in his bigotry. He’s a product of his environment, and his environment has been racist. He’s an equal opportunity bigot, however; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.” Tony agrees to be Shirley’s driver and manage his itinerary, but he flatly refuses to launder his employer’s clothes or shine his shoes. He needs the money the job will provide, but he’s a little embarrassed by the relationship; when someone questions him about it he responds, “He ain’t my boss — I work for the record company!” At his home, when two black repairmen finish a heavy job, Dolores gives them each a glass of water. Seeing this, Tony fishes the glasses out of the sink and drops them into the trash. He will not be putting his lips where black lips have been. Does this sound like someone with a “white savior complex” to you? I think it’s no coincidence that during his concerts Shirley often plays a jazzy medley of songs from South Pacific, one of which bears the lyric, “You've got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made, / And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade. / You've got to be carefully taught.” This film shows that you can be untaught as well.

Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail.

The reversal of stereotypes continues when the well-spoken Dr. Shirley offers to correct Tony’s diction and make him more presentable in fine society, an ironic (and witty) race reversal. He even tries to change Tony’s last name to Valley, “something more pronounceable,” in an ironic nod to the emasculating and insidious practice of renaming slaves for the convenience of the owner when they were purchased. While Tony is the star of the movie, Shirley is the power of the relationship. He even owns a throne.

In every way, Dr. Don Shirley is superior to Tony. He is wealthier, more educated, more refined. He lives in a beautifully appointed apartment above Carnegie Hall and wears immaculately tailored suits, while Tony lives in a small apartment in the Bronx and wears ill-fitting bowling shirts. Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail. Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life. Not willing to share a glass with a black man? By the end of the film he is walking around in his undershorts and sleeping in the same room.

No, the real concern about this film — the true progressivist fear that’s whitewashed by accusations of white saviorism — is that it does not fit the current narrative of blacks as victims who need saving. (Ironically, at the behest of our mostly white legislators.) The hypocrisy is so blatant it’s maddening. Don Shirley’s “sin” is that he achieved success through hard work and talent — yes, by his bootstraps — and that he espoused a philosophy of peaceful resistance. "You don’t win with violence,” he tells Tony. “You only win with dignity.” Try touting that philosophy with activists today.

Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life.

In one particularly poignant scene, Shirley and Tony happen to stop near a field of black laborers to check something in the car. Camera filters intensify the lighting of the scene, mimicking the muted colors of a mid-century painting. No words are spoken, and none are necessary. The laborers stand in the fields picking cotton, dressed in headscarves and calico, while Shirley sits in the backseat of a Cadillac DeVille picking lint from his tailored suit with his soft manicured hands — for one reason: Shirley was given not only a talent for music but also a mother who could recognize it, nurture it and sell it. The key to his success is hinted at in the unsung lyrics of “Happy Talk,” also from the South Pacific medley: “You got to have a dream. / If you don’t have a dream / How you gonna have a dream come true?” Yes, Shirley, as well as the fieldworkers, faced racism and Jim Crow laws. Shirley had to live by the Green Book when he traveled, and he hated it. But he wasn’t victimized by it. He had a dream, and he made it happen.

In sum, Don Shirley’s story does not fit the political narrative of black suppression and victimhood that can only be righted through in-your-face activism and hatred toward whites. We are allowed to admire Black Panther as a strong leader and role model without disturbing the political narrative because he comes from Africa and has not been “tainted” by American sins. But we mustn’t tolerate the example of strong African-American characters without the backdrop of white racism. Thus a central theme of Hidden Figures — a film about the remarkable black women mathematicians who worked in NASA’s space program — deals with the women having to leave the building where they worked to use the colored bathrooms in a distant building, despite the fact that NASA already provided integrated bathrooms at that time. Talk about “demeaning.” Hollywood put them in the colored stalls, not NASA.

Similarly, the story of Don Shirley’s remarkable achievement must be sullied through unfair and untrue criticism of the powerful, witty, uplifting movie based on his life, simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable stereotype. Indeed, I was soundly criticized for praising this film. But I won’t be cowed. And don’t you be fooled: Green Book is quite possibly the best movie you’ll see this year.


Editor's Note: "Green Book," directed by Peter Farrelly. Participant Media, 2018, 130 minutes.



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Maurice Chevalier’s America

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The government shutdown — to what shall I compare it? How about the song that Maurice Chevalier sings in Gigi? Too old to suffer the pangs of love, Chevalier rejoices that from now on there will be

No morning-after surprise,
No self-delusion
That when you're telling those lies
She isn't wise.

America appears to have penetrated those lies about life being unlivable without the federal government. So the affair is over; the government is “shut” — and behold! We eat; we drink; we are even merry.

They are not glad they’re not young anymore; they are angry that they’re not young anymore.

All of us, that is, except politicians still suffering from the delusion that when they’re telling their lies, particularly their lies about their own indispensability, America isn’t wise. Well, she is. But I don’t hear Nancy Pelosi singing, “How lovely to sit here in the shade,” or feeling relieved by the failure of her romance with the voters. Not for her is

The longing to end the stale affair
Until you find out — she doesn't care!

The idea that “she,” America, fundamentally does not care must be grievous, intolerable, even unthinkable to people like Pelosi. Far from feeling grateful that they can go about their business, or even enjoy, like Chevalier, a breakfast “in the shade” — with singing, and a little dance — they clamor to be readmitted to a fraught and failed relationship. They are not glad they’re not young anymore; they are angry that they’re not young anymore. To cite the singer once again: “Poor boys! Poor girls!”




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A Train to Nowhere

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The other day I watched Snowpiercer. I have a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction, and also for stories that illustrate political ideas, and Snowpiercer is both of those. Co-written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the 2013 movie also has a strong flavor of anti-capitalism. Wondering who had picked up on that, I googled “Snowpiercer, Socialism,” then “Snowpiercer, anti-capitalism.”

The socialists had picked up on it. On a web page called Socialist Action (“In Solidarity with Workers and the Oppressed Everywhere”) writer Gaetana Caldwell-Smith calls Snowpiercer “an original, inventive, futuristic work” that pictures “what might happen in the future if the outmoded and anarchistic capitalist system goes on unchecked for much longer.”

On another socialist web page, Jacobin writer Peter Frase calls Snowpiercer an “action-movie spectacle” with “a message of class struggle” that “evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.”

In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet.

Your Film Professor, the highbrow lefty, praises Snowpiercer’s “incredible capacity to cuttingly capture — or ‘cognitively map’ — how our current and future dystopian milieu is informed by our (globalized) capitalism system. . . . The reason this film is just SO important is because it cuts through the fog of ideological distractions (e.g., consumerism, status quo/reformist [capitalistic] rhetoric, patriotism, nationalism, etc.) and didactically spells out the REAL of ruling class ideologies in a way that is to my mind almost miraculous.”

I don’t know about all that. It does tell you how some on the Left think (and write).

Snowpiercer is a science fiction story set on a frozen earth. In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet. But a capitalist named Wilford, who was fascinated with model trains as a kid, had put his corporate fortune into a high-speed train with an enclosed ecosystem: tanks of fish, hooches of chickens, an engine to propel the train and keep the contents warm. For 17 years, Wilford’s shinkansen has been rushing over the world’s continents, one full loop each year, pushing through the wasteland of snow and frozen machines around it. Every human alive is a passenger on this train.

After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but cut some slack for surrealism. The story of Snowpiercer is from a graphic novel, in other words, a comic book. A French socialist comic book. The film is quite well made, and on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) is rated 7.1. That’s not quite up to the 8.2 rating of V for Vendetta, another political tale based on a comic book, but well above the 6.2 for Waterworld (1995).

Snowpiercer’s train comes with a recognizably Marxist class structure. Wilford, the egoistic owner played by Ed Harris, is the deity at the train’s head. Next in line are train cars of sybarites with their club music, dancing, and drug-fueled orgies, then the genteel with their classical music and handmade sushi, then the obedient workers tending the orange groves, tanks of fish, and hooches of chickens, and the smiling teacher (Allison Pill) in the grade-school car of fresh-looking kids. After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end. In Marxist terms, you might think of them as “workers,” but they mostly just suffer. They live in rags and squalor and are terrorized by goons. For food they are issued “protein bars” made from pulverized cockroaches.

And they are the folks the movie is about.

Wilford’s mouthpiece to them is an unctuous woman played by Tilda Swinton, who was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Early in Snowpiercer she instructs the rabble in a style that parodies Margaret Thatcher. “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,” she declares. “We must all of us, in this train of life, remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.”

The society around us has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time.

She holds a man’s shoe and puts it on the head of one of the proles. “A hat belongs to your head,” she bellows. “A shoe belongs to your foot. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.”

And again: “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place.”

Here is the message of the movie. Society — capitalist society — is a hierarchy of assigned privilege.

Well, the society around us is surely a hierarchy, just as its Canadian defender, Jordan Peterson, allows, though he calls it a hierarchy of competence. And it is mostly that, else today’s world would not work. It has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time. Margaret Thatcher was part of the political one percent, but she famously started out as a shopkeeper’s daughter, in what the Marxists call the petit bourgeoisie.

Capitalism is an economic system of private workers and owners who buy and sell in a market, making their own decisions. In Snowpiercer there is no market. Wilfred’s chickens produce eggs, and one of his men wheels them in a cart and gives them away. He doesn’t sell them. There is no buying or selling in Snowpiercer and no money. There is no property other than Wilford’s. The supposed “Wilford Industries” cannot buy or sell anything, because there is no other entity to sell to or buy from.

As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist "Anthem" or "Animal Farm," "Snowpiercer" does seem to be part of something.

Watching Snowpiercer, you can’t help but identify with the lumpen heroes (especially the characters played by John Hurt and Octavia Spencer) who disobey the faux Margaret Thatcher and refuse to remain “shoes” on the godhead’s foot.

But why care about a five-year-old movie that had only a limited release in the United States? Worldwide it did better; in its first year, Snowpiercer brought in $87 million, more than half of what V for Vendetta did. As a business venture Snowpiercer did all right. As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist Anthem or Animal Farm, it does seem to be part of something.

There has been a small upsurge of socialism in the United States. So far it is a pale image of the leftist tide of the 1930s, when private investment had collapsed and millions were out of work. Then it looked to many as if capitalism was finished. In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

Now my hometown, Seattle, has a socialist on its city council. Her supporters are raucous and young, full of resentment of the billionaire rich. Maybe they believe because they read Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but more likely because they have imbibed their history and politics from left-wing teachers, or maybe from graphic novels and movies like Snowpiercer.

In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

But socialism — really? Like Peterson, I want to yell at them: Did you miss the 20th century? And a lot of them did. They are that young.

I lived through the last third of that century as an adult. I saw socialism collapse in Europe, abandoned in China, and decaying in Cuba. Now it is collapsing again in Venezuela. It’s time for the socialists to give up.

All the Left’s bellowing about hierarchies and social classes makes me think of the guys I grew up with. The son of a small-town optometrist became an airline pilot. The son of an aerospace engineer became a sheet-metal worker, then lost it all when he married a crackhead. We are all of retirement age now, though some of us are still working and one, a teacher, has been retired on a fat pension for more than ten years. I have a grade-school friend who lived for years in a ruined trailer and a former colleague who lived for seven years in his truck. Both have now been put in decent housing, courtesy of the welfare state.

The kids I grew up with did not achieve equality, at least not as the Left defines it. They weren’t promised it, didn’t aim at it, and didn’t get it. They went in all different directions. None was assigned his position in life, and most of them, over time, changed what that position was. No doubt some of their paths were shaped by “power relations” under capitalism, and I know some were touched by luck. But where each one ended up depended mostly on the decisions he made, the sort of work he did and how diligently it was done, how much present satisfaction was sacrificed for the future, and, crucially, on whom he married.

Why would anyone think his world is like Snowpiercer?

A software man of the new generation predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I think back to when I was 20, and a student at the university. I used to go on long walks through a city neighborhood with big houses, many of them brick, built in the early 20th century. I was bunking in a rental house shared with other students, eating meals of hot dogs and ramen and working a part-time job for $1.75 an hour. That neighborhood of big homes was a foreign country to me. It would have been easy to think I was looking at the brick walls of an impenetrable class, and that I was doomed to a life of instant noodles. But I wasn’t.

There is another thought, which I heard recently from a software man of the new generation. Noting the divide in his fellows between those with brain work and those living in parents’ basements, he predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I do see the loss of jobs. My health clinic, which used to have a row of clerks checking in patients, has replaced them with touchscreens. The local superstore (which would have been called a department store, years ago) has replaced half of its checkers with touch screens. Several downtown parking garages that used to employ Ethiopians to collect the money have replaced them with card scanners.

Then again, three blocks from my house is a shop that concocts such fluffy desserts as Mexican chocolate pie. A pie from that shop costs $36; a slice, $6. That sort of pie was not available here two decades ago. Nor was nitrogen-infused ale. Or black sesame ice cream. My neighborhood now has artisan bread, artisan ice cream, artisan chocolate, artisan beer and, more recently, artisan spirits. Within a few miles are stores offering artisan cannabis.

A young man I know, the son of a bank vice president, has chosen to be an organic farmer. He shares in an old house on a muddy farm and produces organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef. He sells his artisan hamburger for $6 a pound.

Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

A century ago, a middle-class family here might have a Swedish girl to cook, clean, tend the children, and mend the holes in socks. Now we have au pairs, housecleaning services, gardening services, and (I can hardly believe this) dog-walking services. I even know of a poop-removal service for people who keep dogs in backyards. In my neighborhood the environmentally sensitive no longer put in concrete walkways. They hire Mexican immigrants to put in brick walkways, carefully laying each brick by hand, using no mortar, so that rainwater can soak sustainably into the earth.

Back in the 1970s, my university professor of marketing predicted that the future of consumer products was Miller and Bud, two brands distinguishable only by labels and the ads on network television. All consumer markets were going to go that way, he said. I suppose it would have been the most efficient outcome. But look at the beer shelf at your grocery today. And what has happened to television? Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

The young man selling $6-a-pound hamburger makes far less money than a programmer at Amazon. Probably he officially qualifies as poor. But he is no serf. To him, the programmers working 60-hour weeks are the serfs.

Snowpiercer is, as the socialists say, “an original, inventive, futuristic work,” totally unlike the black-and-white TV westerns and World War II shows I grew up with. I enjoyed it. I cheered for the rebels at the back of the train along with everybody else. I just hope that most of those who saw the film took it as an artisan product of an affluent culture and not as any sort of wisdom on the world around them.




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No Escape from Human Nature

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Are humans instinctively brutal? Do we attend hockey games, boxing matches, and race car events hoping see blood? Do we rubberneck at car accidents hoping to see death? Have we really made no moral progress since gladiator games were used as public executions?

The producers of Escape Room want us to think so. From The Most Dangerous Game (1932) to The Naked Prey (1965) to The Hunger Games trilogy (2012–2015), movies have explored the concept of humans hunting humans and have tapped into the idea of execution as entertainment. And that’s what happens in this movie.

Inspired by the escape-the-room genre of video games, real-life escape room adventures have become popular over the past decade in cities all over the world. Contestants are locked inside a room decorated to resemble a haunted house, prison cell, space station, or other isolated location and are given a time limit during which to discover clues, solve riddles, and find the escape hatch. It’s a fun, socially interactive, real-life alternative to sitting in front of a computer screen discovering clues, solving riddles, and finding the escape hatch.

They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you?

The premise of Escape Room is simple. Six strangers are invited to compete for a high-stakes prize by solving a series of puzzles in order to escape from a series of rooms. Danny (Nik Dodani) is a videogame nerd who has played in nearly a hundred escape rooms before. Zooey (Taylor Russell) is a shy math prodigy with a talent for solving puzzles. Jason (Jay Ellis) is an investment banker with expensive tastes. Ben (Logan Miller) is a stock clerk for a grocery store. Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is an army veteran, and Mike (Tyler Labine) is a blue-collar worker. What has brought these six together? And how will they interact under pressure?

The six soon realize, of course, that this is no game. If they fail, they die.

With its PG-13 rating, Escape Room is high on suspense and low on blood and guts, making it an entertaining film as the audience members work along with the characters to solve the riddles and unlock the doors.

What makes the film interesting are the gradual reveal of the characters’ backgrounds and their interaction with one another as they do what it takes to survive. They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you? They’re all strangers, after all. They only just met, and they have no personal connection with one another. Will self-interest lead to treachery? Or will goodness win out?

You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must.

Despite being driven by self-interest, we still seem to want our heroes to be self-sacrificing — at least in Hollywood. We cheered when Han Solo, that maverick businessman of the cosmos, returned to help the resistance in Star Wars. We took heart when Katniss Everdeen refused to kill her youthful opponents in The Hunger Games. We even approved when Hombre (Paul Newman), the ultimate libertarian hero, reluctantly risked his life to rescue the wife of the thieving, racist Bureau of Indian Affairs agent from the stagecoach robbers.

But in reality, when push comes to shove and our own lives are on the line, what would we do to survive?

I recently listened to The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck, a fictionalized account of the widows of Jewish resistance leaders and their experiences during and after World War II. It’s a sappy, sentimental novel full of 21st-century morality and clichés. For example, Shattuck refers to “racial profiling” when her characters are asked to show their papers, a term that did not exist in World War II. Moreover, her protagonist is cloyingly egalitarian. She comes from an aristocratic background and thus has special access to food and protection. Yet she refuses to accept those special favors, or at least expresses consternation about accepting them. To hell with accuracy; Shattuck seems compelled to imbue her 20th-century protagonist with 21st-century values, no matter what. Such egalitarianism is a fine principle in times of plenty, but when your children are truly starving or threatened by death, you will accept any special opportunity offered to feed and protect them.

Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation.

Actual Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl belies Shattuck’s politically correct fantasy about genteel survival morality in his concentration camp memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl reveals a particularly troubling source of survivor’s guilt — he admits that in order to live through the kind of brutal starvation they experienced in the camps, those who survived had to be ruthlessly selfish at times. There might be one piece of potato in the soup pot, and that one piece of potato would determine who had enough sustenance to survive the march to work the next day, and who would collapse in the snow. You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must to scavenge that bite of potato, reach the warm spot at the center of the mass of prisoners, avoid the front of the line when the camp guards were looking for someone to shoot. You might feel guilty. You might be furtive. But you did it anyway.

In such films as Escape Room, Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation. The hero manages to be self-sacrificing and self interested, to fall on the grenade and make it out alive. And that’s OK. After all, we’re looking for escapism, not realism, in entertaining movies like this one.


Editor's Note: Review of "Escape Room," directed by Adam Robitel. Original Film Production, 2019, 100 minutes.



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Pull the Othered One

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Ominous Parallels?

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A congressman wrote to a friend about an argument on the floor of the House of Representatives:

I never said a word to anybody, but quietly cocked my revolver in my pocket and took my position in the midst of the mob, and as coolly as I write it to you now, I had made up my mind to sell out my blood at the highest possible price.

An historian described the atmosphere in the Capitol in this way:

Recurrently, speakers lashed out in passages that threatened to precipitate a general affray. . . . Practically all members were now armed with deadly weapons. In both chambers, Senator Hammond said, “the only persons who do not have a revolver and a knife are those who have two revolvers.” For a time a New England Representative, a former clergyman, came unarmed, but finally he too bought a pistol. A Louisiana Congressman threatened to fetch his double-barrelled shotgun into the House. Supporters of both parties in the galleries also bore lethal weapons, and were ready to use them.

I quote from Allan Nevins’ The Emergence of Lincoln (New York, 1950; 2.121, 124), the best study I know of American politics in the late 1850s. The passages I cite refer to events of early 1860. In the middle of 1861, such events and the emotions that accompanied them produced their final effect — civil war.

What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history?

Daniel Webster (and many others) had warned that factional disputes, intensified without limit, could result only in catastrophe:

Sir, he who sees these states, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see the heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without producing the crush of the universe. (Speech in the Senate, March 7, 1850)

The warnings were heard and understood; yet, as Lincoln was to say in his second inaugural address, “the war came.”

What produced this awful effect, this war in which a million people perished, and more were dreadfully wounded? What produced this war of limbs hacked off without anesthetic, of towns put to the torch, of economic and psychological devastation on an enormous scale? What produced this expansion of political and military force, much of it permanent, though unimaginable in earlier American history? And what produced the peace that followed the war, a peace in which black people, the objects of the victors’ alleged solicitude, languished in poverty and systematic humiliation, generation after generation? And this sorry peace was inseparable from the war itself.

In the second inaugural Lincoln identified what he considered the causes of the conflict:

Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.

Lincoln’s words impute to the major actors more conscious choice and final purpose than most of them felt. Jostling one another in the pursuit of immediate ends, leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

Let me put it in this way. Suppose you want to effect a violent disruption of human life. Here are some things you can do.

1. Convince yourself that you and your friends are right, entirely, and no one else is right, at all, about anything, thereby creating as many political divisions as possible. Reject any speculation that other people, though wrong, may have serious reasons for being that way.

A flood of propaganda spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so.

2. Try to make sure that the political field is cleared of everyone but deadly enemies.

It is often said, and this is true, that before the 1830s Southerners were in general agreement that slavery was an evil, and many Southerners were more than amenable to limiting and eventually getting rid of it. There is also general agreement that the great majority of Northerners were happy enough to endorse ideas for the gradual abolition of slavery; indeed, every Northern state that started with slavery had successfully ended it. Even in the slave states, there were large numbers of free black people — by 1860, 250,000 of them.

Yet 30 years of being labeled enemies by both the partisans of slavery and the partisans of abolition progressively immobilized the ordinary, mildly well-intentioned middle range of public opinion. A flood of propaganda, emanating from each camp of zealots, spread the idea that no one who disagreed with the latest version of partisan orthodoxy could possibly have any but immoral reasons for doing so. Of the thousands of low points in this supposed dialogue, I will mention one — the political emasculation of Webster, formerly the North’s most admired public figure, at the hands of his fellow New England intellectuals, for the crime of supporting the Compromise of 1850. Thus Whittier, the supposedly gentle Quaker poet, depicting Webster as Satan in hell and Noah in his drunkenness:

Of all we loved and honored, naught
Save power remains;
A fallen angel’s pride of thought,
Still strong in chains.

From those great eyes
The soul has fled:
When faith is lost, when honor dies,
The man is dead!

Then, pay the reverence of old days
To his dead fame;
Walk backward, with averted gaze,
And hide the shame! (Whittier, “Ichabod”)

Note the instructive tone, the ecclesiastical certainty (“the soul has fled”), the moralistic comments and commands. These methods, though repulsive to almost everyone, are necessary to your purpose. You cannot be too self-confident when affixing the mark of Cain. Guard yourself: you must never become conscious of the irony involved in damning people while pretending that they are only worth ignoring.

Leaders on both sides employed political methods that were not intended to produce a war, yet turned out to be the best means of doing so.

3. Once you’ve converted potential collaborators into scorned opponents, and multiplied those opponents, do your best either to silence or to enrage them. Southerners were better at this than Northerners. In the South, the mails were censored to prevent dissemination of anti-slavery opinion, and mobs were formed to rid communities of people who gave signs of being anti-slavery; in ten Southern states, the Republican Party wasn’t even on the ballot. But in the North as well, jurists, writers, and teachers were targets of political correctness. Mobs were raised against “agents of the South,” non-abolitionists were purged from Protestant clergies, and politically active people were hounded into choosing between an official Democratic Party, directed by an incompetent president, which insisted that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled, and a rising Republican Party, which insisted, for opposite reasons, that the Kansas-Nebraska Act be renounced and reviled.

4. Turn marginal positions into moral and political tests. The great issue of the 1850s was the question of whether slavery should be permitted in the Western territories, where no one but wild fanatics had ever believed that slavery could subsist. The North nonetheless demanded that it be banned by act of Congress, and the South nonetheless demanded that it be promoted by act of Congress. Sectional moralists indignantly rejected the Kansas-Nebraska idea, once favored by the South, that the question be left up to the people of the territories. Here was an issue of no practical importance, but it became the test of political viability. Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

5. Try to win, not by debate, but by definition; this is what “principled” people do. To the South and its friends, Republicans were always Black Republicans; that’s what they were. To radical Northerners, all proposals from south of the Mason-Dixon line were by definition products of the Slave Power, which was attempting to spread chattel slavery throughout the North, and ultimately to rule the Western hemisphere. It followed that useful proposals, such as gradual emancipation, which had attracted great sympathy on both sides of the Ohio, were by definition entering wedges of the opposition’s Satanic schemes, to be rejected out of hand.

Emphasizing politically marginal questions makes it certain that marginal politicians will rise to the top; and if trouble is what you want, these people will give it to you.

6. Do your best to promote identity politics — the quest for power considered as a right derived from group membership. Southern partisans applauded the Supreme Court’s bizarre decision in the Dred Scott case, asserting that the Constitution governed everyone but protected only persons of non-African descent, while the cultural leaders of the North assumed that the Constitution was of no effect whenever it contradicted the will of God, which was effectively the will of Northern clergymen.

7. Render yourself blind to your own hypocrisy. The goal of hardcore abolitionists was (hold on to your hat) the secession of the North from the South, an act that would relieve the North of any possible association with slavery. To say that this idea expressed maximal concern for the tender consciences of abolitionists and minimal concern for the welfare of the slaves would be a pathetic understatement. As documented by such historians as Edward Renehan (The Secret Six, 1997), few abolitionists (John Brown was an exception) had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote. Most hardcore abolitionists were also pacifists, advocates of “non-resistance.” Yet when secession happened, they became fervent advocates of violence as a means of crushing the other section’s suddenly illegal and immoral rupture of the union. Southern publicists cultivated a similarly gross hypocrisy — a growing emphasis on the Christianizing and civilizing effects of slavery, amid increasing attempts to criminalize the education of black people and curtail their practice of religion.

8. The fact that you can’t perceive your hypocrisy doesn’t mean that other people can’t; to prevent its public disclosure, you must therefore remove from positions of influence everyone who sees you as you are. Any pretext will do. You can follow the example of the religious proponents of slavery who removed honest preachers from the pulpit, as punishment for being divisive. Or you can take your cue from the religious opponents of slavery, who attacked all who differed with them as foes of Christian love.

Few abolitionists had any respect for actual, living African-Americans. Distinguished leaders of the abolition movement spoke of them in terms I do not wish to quote.

9. Flirt with, encourage, and finally idealize violence. In 1856, Charles Sumner, Republican of Massachusetts, delivered a speech in the Senate that was so insulting to a Southern senator, a person who had aided and befriended him, that Stephen Douglas, listening, muttered to himself, “That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool.” The candidate for other damned fool was Congressman Preston Brooks, Democrat of South Carolina. He didn’t try to kill Sumner, only to humiliate him, but he went to the Senate chamber and assaulted him with a cane. Once he had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded him so badly that he might have died. The response of Southern partisans was to celebrate Brooks’ achievement, often with souvenirs of model canes, as if caning your political foes were an act of Arthurian virtue. In 1859, John Brown’s attempt to abolish slavery by inciting a servile insurrection — a campaign in which the first enemy slain was Heyward Shepherd, a free black man — sent Emerson, Thoreau, and other Best People of the North into paroxysms of idolatry. Their celebrations of Brown were immediately followed by a wave of Southern lynchings of people erroneously suspected of being in league with him. The participants seem never to have regretted their mistakes; it was all in a good cause.

When things have gone that far, what’s left but war? It’s true, few people, North or South, black or white, wanted a civil war; comparatively few people in the South actually wanted secession, and none of them would have wanted it if they’d had enough sense to visualize its consequences. But when zealots who hold political power cannot stand to be in the same room with one another, except when they are armed — physically or rhetorically — with weapons of destruction, the only choice remaining is the choice between peaceful dissolution and civil war. And few people of that kind will settle for peaceful dissolution.

Once Brooks had started, he became more enthusiastic and wounded Sumner so badly that he might have died.

So much for the events and feelings of the mid-19th century. Do they have anything to say to us, about our own time?

You can answer that question as well as I can. The idea of “ominous parallels” is basically a joke — nothing is really parallel in history, and the most ominous thing about purported parallels is probably the strength of people’s belief in them. But alleged parallels can suggest real similarities, however distant — and important dissimilarities, too.

When I compare 1860–61 with 2018–19, one dissimilarity seems especially important: the difference in intellectual culture, historical knowledge, and capacity for complex political thought between the leaders of then and the leaders of now. Seward, Lincoln, Crittenden, Davis, Benjamin, Douglas, Stephens, Houston, and immediately before them, Webster, Benton, Clay . . . We can discuss their delusions, their false perspectives, their sacrifices of long-term to short-term benefits, their strange errors of judgment. But please show me a list of equally intelligent, capable, knowledgeable, or even personally interesting political leaders in America today.

You can’t? That’s what I call ominous.




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Remembering the Great War

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As the world prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I on November 11, 1918, director Peter Jackson accepted a daunting commission: to create a documentary that would honor the soldiers who fought in the trenches, using the original footage that was filmed 100 years ago.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war. Jackson would not interview modern historians about the significance of the war or provide any scripted narration. Instead, Jackson would bring these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

The result is a magnificent piece of work, both in the story it tells and in the technology Jackson used to tell it. This is a film made entirely in the editing room.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war.

To create the storyline, Jackson and his team reviewed over 600 hours of interviews with survivors, conducted during various commemorations of the War to End All Wars. Jackson then began selecting portions of the interviews, taking a snippet here and a snippet there, until he was able to cobble together a narrative line that begins with young 16- and 17-year-old boys sneaking off to lie about their ages in order to join the army; follows them into the trenches, villages, and battlefields; and ends with the survivors returning home, many of them injured, many of them “loony” (an earlier term for PTSD), and many of them (according to one of the narrators) facing employment signs that said “Army veterans need not apply.” Their remembrances, told with voices that are cracked with age, are moving and authentic. No historian’s expertise could tell their story better.

Once the storyline had been established, Jackson reviewed 100 hours of footage from the war, selecting the best scenes to match the narration. Much of the footage was third- or fourth-generation, meaning it was a copy of a copy of a copy, each generation becoming less and less crisp. Much of it was either too dark or too light to be viewed clearly. And all of the movements were jerky and unnatural as the filmmakers had to crank the film through the camera by hand, trying to keep it steady at approximately twelve frames per second, which is only half the number of frames per second that we are accustomed to seeing in today’s movies.

And here is where the magic begins. Jackson used computer technology to add frames to the footage, smoothing out the action and making it feel as normal as any film you would see today. Then he colorized the film, using actual uniforms, tanks, and other artifacts from his own considerable collection of WWI memorabilia to help the artists get the colors just right. Next he enlisted professional lipreaders to figure out what the men were saying in the footage, and hired voice actors from the actual regions of each regiment, so the accents would be authentic. He added sound effects made by recording actual tank movements, mortar explosions, bayonet affixions, and other background noises. Finally, he created a natural musical score largely based on whistling and other natural music of the battlefield. The result brings these antique films to life. We simply forget that cameras couldn’t do this 100 years ago.

Jackson brings these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

I’m not usually a fan of colorization; while it does make a film feel more natural for modern viewers, it neutralizes the skillful play of shadow and contrast designed deliberately and carefully by directors of the ’30s and ’40s. They knew what they were doing, and they did it well. However, in this film the colorization is a masterful addition. It brings out details in the film that in black and white were hidden or completely lost. Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

We also see how terribly young these soldiers were, marching off to war and grinning for the cameras. Although we never know their names, Jackson edits the footage so that several of the men come into view several times, and we begin to identify with them. We see not only the war, but how they lived, what they ate, how they slept, and even how they played. And in many cases, we are seeing them just before they died. It is a sobering, respectful, and impressive film.

They Shall Not Grow Old is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it simply asks us to consider the cost of war — not in the billions of dollars that are spent, but in the millions of lives that are lost. The title of the film is based on a selection from Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance called “For the Fallen,” which has been used as a tribute to all who die in war:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

Lee Teter’s painting “Vietnam Reflections” pays a similar tribute to the fallen, but from a different perspective, that of the grieving survivor. It depicts a man, clearly a veteran though he wears no uniform, mourning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, where the names of all the fallen are etched on a long, low wall deliberately situated below ground level. His head is bowed in quiet anguish, his arm outstretched and his hand leaning heavily against the wall, willing it to reach inside and touch his comrades on the other side. Unseen by him, because his eyes are closed, several soldiers seem to be standing inside the wall, their reflections ghostly as they reach out, hand to hand, to console the man who, having survived the war, continues to carry its burdens. His guilt is understood by the clothing Teter chose to give him. He is dressed in a business suit; the soldiers wear army fatigues. A briefcase rests on the ground beside the veteran; the soldiers carry field kits. The businessman’s hair is flowing and tinged with gray; theirs is dark and crew cut. The fallen soldiers shall not grow old, start businesses, or have children.

 Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

And therein lies the survivor’s grief. “We that are left grow old,” as Binyon says in his poem, but survival is neither a reward nor a relief. It is a burden. Age does weary them, and the years do condemn.

No one knows the true story of war except those who experience it, and even then, it is a private, individual grief that none of them can truly share or understand. Consequently, using the voices of the actual soldiers to tell their story was a brilliant narrative strategy for They Shall Not Grow Old. They speak next to one another, but not in conversation with one another. The viewer remains enveloped in the currency of the story and simply observes their experience without explanation, editorializing, or the distraction of a modern historian’s modern interpretation.

The film is moving and impressive, but you’ll have to find it on Netflix or another platform because its theatrical release was limited to just December 17 and December 27. And that’s a shame, because the moment when Jackson switches from the jerky, original, black and white footage to his colorized and edited version is breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see it on a full-sized screen. If you do see it, make sure you watch the director’s cut with Peter Jackson’s interview explaining how he did it. It’s like listening to a magician’s reveal.


Editor's Note: Review of "They Shall Not Grow Old," directed by Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 2018, 99 minutes.



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