Thursday, October 28, 2010

The IRA, Ralph Nader, the Red Army Faction, Tupac Shakur, Albert Barnes, Orson Welles, & the House of Medici

I've already done recent posts on the movies "Glass: A Portrait in 12 Parts", and "Ink". But we are on something of a roll, great-movie-wise, in our household. In this post I've gathered together seven more little gems that we have discovered, to share with the world.

The films are:
  • The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)
  • Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man (2006)
  • The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)
  • Tupac: Resurrection (2003)
  • The Art of the Steal (2009)
  • F for Fake (1973)
  • The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (2003)
For each of these I have provided an excerpt from a review by someone who, at least in my opinion, really "gets" the film in question. For some strange reason, the first two of these reviews are both from Louis Proyect, a venerable internet institution who also goes by the epithet "The Unrepentant Marxist". However, one certainly need not be a Marxist, unrepentant or otherwise, to appreciate Comrade Proyect's way with words, or his eye for a good movie and what makes it good. Roger Ebert also pops in with a review, as does Christopher Hitchens (does he qualify as a repentant Marxist?), and other lesser known, although no less worthy, writers.

In addition to the review excerpts there are links to the imdb, wikipedia, and rotten tomatoes pages for each film, and, if available, the "official" website for the film, and one or more other interesting (I hope!) links.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley

Excerpt from a review by Louis Proyect ("The Unrepentant Marxist"):

You know that you have entered a kind of parallel universe when you read the first paragraph of the press notes for Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”:
The English ruling class first invaded Ireland in the twelfth century, when feudal barons staked out their territory. Over the centuries English landlords grew rich at the expense of the Irish people.
The irony, of course, is that Ken Loach’s world is real and the world that a typical Hollywood film depicts is unreal.

The specific slice of reality dealt with in Loach’s latest and perhaps greatest film is the Irish war for national independence, and the subsequent civil war between the Irish Free State regular army and IRA irregulars opposed to the sell-out treaty that ended the first war. As in the past, Loach has demonstrated a willingness to scrutinize revolutionary struggles sans romantic illusions. In his 1995 “Land and Freedom,” which dramatized the clash within the Spanish left about how to resist fascism, he staked out a uncompromising socialist position which argued in favor of organizing around class demands.

This is exactly the same outlook that shapes “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.” This is not only of historic interest. Anybody who has been following the recent drift of the Sinn Fein will understand the relevance. Unless the struggle for national independence confronts the domestic as well as the foreign ruling classes, it is doomed to fail.

Links related to "The Wind That Shakes The Barley":

Ralph Nader: An Unreasonable Man

From a review by Louis Proyect ("The Unrepentant Marxist"):

The liberal media’s portrait of Ralph Nader is that of a Jekyll-Hyde. There is a “good” Nader who took on GM, built the consumers’ rights movement, inspired progressive legislation, etc. Then there is the “bad” Nader who somehow out of the blue (bit by a vampire?) decided to help elect George W. Bush. This is explained as a function of his “megalomania” and his inability to see the obvious, namely that the Democrats are better than the Republicans.

In a brilliant stroke, directors Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan include interviews with Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin, two of the more hysterical critics of the Nader campaigns. They serve as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the film reminding the audience of Ralph Nader’s perfidy. They only end up indicting themselves through their willful refusal to acknowledge why Gore lost in 2000. Nader’s campaign manager Theresa Amato presents that case most effectively. Her affable demeanor is in stark contrast to the glowering Alterman and Gore, who spit out their words. She points out that Gore could not even win in Arkansas and Tennessee, the home states of the 2-term incumbent Democrat president and vice-president. She also pointed out that the margin of victory in Florida for Bush was less than the vote totals for a slew of 3rd party candidates. Why blame Nader for “stealing” 527 votes from Gore in Florida when even the SWP candidate received more votes than that?


The film begins with Nader’s famous confrontation with Detroit over safety. We see some amusing old commercials that depict cars as the key to happiness and success with the opposite sex. What they never revealed was how dangerous they were, like unprotected sex with a stranger in some ways. Nader decided to look into auto safety after a classmate and good friend at Harvard was killed in an automobile accident. While Nader was no expert in the matter at that time, he soon became the country’s leading authority and the nemesis of the big three auto-makers.

William Greider and James Ridgeway, two journalists who were instrumental in publicizing his early career, give testimony to his tenacity and his brilliance. Furthermore, both of them–despite their connection to mainstream liberal publications–both understand why Nader decided to risk the enmity of wealthy liberals who were all too happy to back his consumer rights activism but not his electoral bids: he is driven by idealism, not Machiavellian calculation. Ridgeway, who does not mince words, says that people like Alterman and Gitlin are “the meanest bunch of motherfuckers” you’ll ever run into.

Links related to "An Unreasonable Man"

The Baader Meinhoff Complex

From a review by Christopher Hitchens: Once Upon a Time in Germany
(From Vanity Fair, August 17, 2009)

The number of Communist revolutionaries in the world has declined much faster than the number of gangsters and stickup artists, but at the movies it’s still a fairly safe bet that such stories will be portrayed in such a way as to inspire at least a twinge of penis envy. You will know what I mean, even if you didn’t actually bother to watch Benicio Del Toro playing Che, or Johnny Depp taking the part of John Dillinger. It’s a trope that goes back at least as far as Viva Zapata!: the quasi-sexual charisma of the outlaw.

So don’t miss the opportunity of seeing the year’s best-made and most counter-romantic action thriller, The Baader Meinhof Complex. Unlike earlier depictions of the same events by German directors such as Volker Schlöndorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Uli Edel’s film interrogates and ultimately indicts (and convicts) the West German terrorists rather than the state and society which they sought to overthrow.

It does this in the most carefully objective way, by taking the young militants, at least in the first instance, at their own face value. It is Berlin on June 2, 1967, and the rather shabby and compromised authorities of the postwar Federal Republic are laying down a red carpet for the visiting Shah of Iran. A young journalist named Ulrike Meinhof has written a mordant essay, in the form of an open letter to the Shah’s wife, about the misery and repression of the Iranian system. When students protest as the Shah’s party arrives at the Berlin Opera, they are first attacked by hired Iranian goon squads and then savaged by paramilitary formations of brutish German cops. It’s the best 1960s street-fighting footage ever staged, and the “police riot” element is done with electrifying skill. On the fringes of the unequal battle, a creepy-looking plainclothes pig named Karl-Heinz Kurras unholsters his revolver and shoots an unarmed student, named Benno Ohnesorg, in the head.

That is only the curtain-raiser, and the birth of “the Movement of 2 June.” Not much later, the student leader Rudi Dutschke is also shot in the head, but in this instance by an unhinged neo-Nazi. Now the rioting begins in earnest as West German youth begin to see a pattern to events. The shaky postwar state built by their guilty parents is only a façade for the same old grim and evil faces; Germany has leased bases on its soil for another aggression, this time against the indomitable people of Vietnam; any genuine domestic dissent is met with ruthless violence. I can remember these events and these arguments and images in real time, and I can also remember some of those who slipped away from the edge of the demonstrations and went, as they liked to think of it, “underground.” The title of the film announces it as an exploration of exactly that syndrome: the cult of the urban guerrilla.

There was a prevalent mystique in those days about the Cuban and Vietnamese and Mozambican revolutions, as well as about various vague but supposedly glamorous groups such as the Tupamaros in Uruguay. In the United States, the brief resort to violence by the Black Panthers and then by the Weather Underground was always imagined as an extension of “Third World” struggles onto the territory of imperialist North America. Other spasmodic attempts to raise armed insurrection—the so-called Front for the Liberation of Quebec, the I.R.A., and the Basque eta—were confined to national or ethnic minorities. But there were three officially democratic countries where for several years an actual weaponized and organized group was able to issue a challenge, however garbled and inarticulate, to the very legitimacy of the state. The first such group was the Japanese Red Army, the second (named partly in honor of the first) was West Germany’s Red Army Faction, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, and the third was the Red Brigades in Italy.

You may notice that the three countries I have just mentioned were the very ones that made up the Axis during the Second World War. I am personally convinced that this is the main reason the phenomenon took the form it did: the propaganda of the terrorists, on the few occasions when they could be bothered to cobble together a manifesto, showed an almost neurotic need to “resist authority” in a way that their parents’ generation had so terribly failed to do. And this was also a brilliant way of placing the authorities on the defensive and luring them into a moral trap. West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s is not actually holding any political prisoners. Very well then, we will commit violent crimes for political reasons and go to prison for them, and then there will be a special wing of the prison for us, and then the campaign to free the political prisoners by violence can get under way. This will strip the mask from the pseudo-democratic state and reveal the Nazi skull beneath its skin. (In a rather witty move that implicitly phrases all this in reverse, the makers of The Baader Meinhof Complex have cast Bruno Ganz as the mild but efficient head of West German “homeland security,” a man who tries to “understand” his opponents even as he weaves the net ever closer around them. It requires a conscious effort to remember Ganz’s eerie rendition of the part of the Führer in Downfall five years back.)

Links related to The Baader Meinhof Complex:
From a review by Roger Ebert: "This is the one"
(From, dated Nov. 14, 2003)

"Tupac: Resurrection," directed by Lauren Lazin, is essentially the autobiography of a young man who suddenly has to learn how to handle fame, money and power, and whose impulses to do the right thing are clouded by the usual problems of too much, too soon. "I was immature," he observes at one point, and later "I tried to get humble again." He attacked Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy for no good reason. He fought with the Hughes Brothers, who were trying to direct him in a movie. He was accused of rape. He did time behind bars. He was involved in gunplay. He was making millions of dollars and did not fully realize what a target that made him, in a new branch of the music industry where murder was a marketing strategy.

The most important person in his life was clearly his mother, Afeni Shakur, a Black Panther who was in jail when she was pregnant with Tupac, and who later fought and won a battle with drugs; her politics and feminism helped form him, and he talks about how comfortable he is with women, how he understands them, how he was the only male in the family. In the last months of his life, his relationship with his mother is the most positive input he has -- and he knows it.


"Tupac: Resurrection" is about rap music, the forces that created it, and the world it then created. Shakur talks about the experiences and politics that went into his own music, in a way that casts more light on rap than anything else I've come across in a movie. Although rap is not music in the sense that you come out humming the melody, it's as genuine an American idiom as jazz or the blues, and it is primarily a medium of words, of ideology; a marriage of turntables, poetry slams, autobiography and righteous anger.

I remember seeing Vondie Curtis Hall's "Gridlock'd" at Sundance 1996, soon after Tupac was murdered in Vegas. I'd admired Shakur's acting in "Poetic Justice" and "Juice," and now here, opposite the great Tim Roth, he was distinctive and memorable in what was essentially a two-character study. Consider the scene where his character, desperate to get into detox, tries to persuade Roth's character to stab him in the side, and the two get into a hopeless discussion about which side the liver is on.

In the long run Shakur might have become more important as an actor than as a singer (as Ice Cube has). As you listen to his uncanny narration of "Tupac: Resurrection," which is stitched together from interviews, you realize you're not listening to the usual self-important vacancies from celebrity Q&As, but to spoken prose of a high order, in which analysis, memory and poetry come together seamlessly in sentences and paragraphs that sound as if they were written. Let's assume you are a person who never intends to see a doc about rap music, but might have it in you to see one. This is the one.

Links related to Tupac: Resurrection
Tupac Amaru, The Life, Times, and Execution of the Last Inca by James Q. Jacobs

The Art of the Steal

From Robert Zaller's review:
The Pew, the Barnes, and the Art of the Steal:
(from Broad Street Reviews, originally dated 02.02.2010)

The Pew Charitable Trusts, headquartered in Philadelphia, is the eighth-largest charitable organization in the country. It is best known for its opinion surveys, which answer the questions the political and media establishment wish to pose. It distributes its largesse to the arts, which gives it enormous and publicly unaccountable leverage over art institutions and artists alike, including the power to silence criticism of its own activities.

The most controversial of those activities is, of course, the Pew’s takeover of the Barnes Foundation, whose $30 billion art collection is probably unmatched in the world. When the Barnes board of trustees willfully spent down its endowment in the 1990s under Richard Glanton and Bernard Watson (still, by some miracle, its chairman), several institutions stepped in with financial assistance. Only one, however, insisted upon seizing control of the Barnes itself.

This takeover, blessed by a cynical judge (to give him the benefit of all other doubts) and abetted by Governor Rendell, is advertised daily on the hoardings around the Pew’s big hole in the ground on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

Comes now, though, the movie. Don Argott’s
The Art of the Steal, having played to overflow audiences in Toronto, New York, Aspen and Los Angeles film festivals (but not at the Philadelphia festival last October) opens at the Ritz in Philadelphia on February 26, and at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute on March 12.

Argott is an independent filmmaker who saw an important story in the Barnes and wanted to tell it. He approached the Pew repeatedly for its side of the story, as well as Bernard Watson and Derek Gillman, the Barnes Foundation’s current director. No one agreed to participate, although Rendell and former Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher did.

No doubt the Pew saw Argott as a gnat best ignored. The weakness of great power is to consider itself invulnerable. But there’s always a chink in the armor where the truth can enter. And
The Art of the Steal is about to drive a tank through it.

Links related to The Art of the Steal:

From Jonathan Rosenbaum's review: Orson Welles's purloined letter: F for Fake:
(From the Criterion Collection website, dated 25 April, 2005)

There were plenty of advantages to living in Paris in the early 1970s, especially if one was a movie buff with time on one’s hands. The Parisian film world is relatively small, and simply being on the fringes of it afforded some exciting opportunities, even for a writer like myself who’d barely published. Leaving the Cinémathèque at the Palais de Chaillot one night, I was invited to be an extra in a Robert Bresson film that was being shot a few blocks away. And in early July 1972, while writing for Film Comment about Orson Welles’s first Hollywood project, Heart of Darkness, I learned Welles was in town and sent a letter to him at Antégor, the editing studio where he was working, asking a few simple questions—only to find myself getting a call from one of his assistants two days later: “Mr. Welles was wondering if you could have lunch with him today.”

I met him at La Méditerranée—the same seafood restaurant that would figure prominently in the film he was editing—and when I began by expressing my amazement that he’d invited me, he cordially explained that this was because he didn’t have time to answer my letter. The film he was working on was then called Hoax, and he said it had something to do with the art forger Elmyr de Hory and the recent scandal involving Clifford Irving and Howard Hughes. “A documentary?” “No, not a documentary—a new kind of film,” he replied, though he didn’t elaborate.

This sounds like a pompous boast, though, like most of what he told me that afternoon about other matters, it turned out to be accurate. He could have said “essay” or “essay film,” which is what many are inclined to call F for Fake nowadays. But on reflection, this label is almost as imprecise and as misleading as “documentary,” despite the elements of both essay and documentary (as well as fiction) employed in the mix. Welles’s subsequent Filming “Othello” (1978) clearly qualifies as an essay, and this is plainly why Phillip Lopate, in his extensive examination of that form (in Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies), prefers it—citing in particular its sincerity, which the earlier film can’t claim to the same degree. But in qualifying as Welles’s most public film and his most private—hiding in plain sight most of its inexhaustible riches—this isn’t a movie that can be judged by the kinds of yardsticks we apply to most others.

When I wound up getting invited to an early private screening more than a year later, on October 15, 1973, the film was then called Fake. I was summoned to Club 13—a chic establishment run by Claude Lelouch, often used for industry screenings—by film historian and longtime Cinémathèque employee Lotte Eisner, whose response to the film was much less favorable than mine. When I ventured, “This doesn’t look much like an Orson Welles film,” she replied, “It isn’t even a film.” But neither of us had a scrap of contextual information beyond what Welles had said to me, and it wasn’t until almost a decade later that he noted to Bill Krohn, in an interview for Cahiers du cinéma, that he deliberately avoided any shots that might be regarded as “typically Wellesian.” The following year, the International Herald Tribune reported him as saying, “In F for Fake I said I was a charlatan and didn’t mean it...because I didn’t want to sound superior to Elmyr, so I emphasized that I was a magician and called it a charlatan, which isn’t the same thing. And so I was faking even then. Everything was a lie. There wasn’t anything that wasn’t.”

Links related to "F for Fake":
"Elmyr de Hory cheated the world's most famous auction houses."

Peter Bogdonovich retrospective on "F for Fake":

The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance

From The Making of The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance at (for some reason I could not find a useable review for this one!):

The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance was a huge undertaking. Trying to cram some 400 years of the political, religious and Medici family history into four hours was always going to be a monumental task.

Producer/Director Justin Hardy says, "the Medici are worthy of 40 hours, 400 hours" and that as film makers there needed to be some tough decisions made about what was included and what was left out.

"The Renaissance is huge and you have to make painful decisions about what is left out, ultimately the film is a great big colorful version of events."

During the summer of 2002 a 50-strong production crew headed to Italy to shoot the film. They took with them two gigantic trucks crammed with props and equipment to help them reconstruct Medieval Italy and some of the most astonishing art in history.

"We made this film documentarily in and around Florence because those are the accurate places where this story occurred," says Justin Hardy.


The film includes many large scenes throughout the four hours but one of the key scenes stands out for the director as the most daunting. "The murder in the Cathedral sequence which is the highlight of the second hour and in many ways one of the most famous scenarios in Italian history was frankly a terrifying one to undertake.

Justin says he was concerned about recreating a scene which involved 10,000 people without computer animation; therefore, the sequences had to be carefully storyboarded and filmed to give that impression. He was also concerned about being able to shoot the entire sequence in one day.

"Now anyone who has ever made films knows that an action sequence is incredibly complex thing to film because in order to be active it needs to have a lot of shots from a lot of different angles, so you need to have new lighting setups, you need to have people remade up and the whole thing becomes very complicated," he says.

They planned the scene to have more than 50 shots, which was an enormous undertaking when largely using a non-professional cast and a number of complicated stunts.

"On any normal given day in film making you can look to shoot 25 shots. If you're shooting anything more complex which involves action, blood and stunts your down to about 15 shots but we had to shoot 50 in this one day.

"How we filmed those 50 shots in one day with members of the community who, being Italian turned up when they wanted to turn up and drifted off to the bakery whenever they wanted to drift off to the bakery, is frankly a miracle. It's a sequence of which I am very proud," he says.

Brunelleschi's Dome has its own website
Ross King is the author of the book Brunelleschi's Dome