Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Inside Job (2010) The First Day Of School

I wrote this five years ago, right after Charles Ferguson won his Academy Award.  I think I have a pretty good idea now of what Wall Street planned to package and sell next.

Inside Job (2010), Charles Ferguson's exposé of the takeover of American government by greedy financiers, is full of information.  It adds important details to the history of the worldwide financial disaster that triggered the Great Recession, and, even when Ferguson is being redundant, recounting facts that are generally well-known, he's entertaining.  Sunday night, Ferguson won an Academy Award.

The question is:  How relevant is the history of a ponzi scheme that caused a global financial disaster back in 2008 now that the folks Inside Job calls our "Wall Street government" have moved on to undermining civil liberties, torpedoing single-payer health insurance, busting unions and generally shredding the safety net we cobbled together during the Great Depression?


Inside Job (2010) Economic Crisis Film LLC

Will Charles Ferguson's documentary film bring down the Wall Street government?  Will it even break their stride?

I have no doubt that Inside Job will do what film and art are uniquely suited to do.  It will change the way we look at the world.  I don't think anyone who sees Inside Job will ever look at bankers and the finance industry, academia, our government, or the history of America over the last 30 years in the same way again.

Inside Job unfolds like a criminal trial as Ferguson carefully builds a case against the most prominent financial figures in America, many of whom are now in the Obama administration.  By the end of the trial, the verdict of history -- or at least of the historian, Ferguson -- is clear.  The finance industry and the government, on purpose, wrecked the world economy and destroyed millions of lives.

Ferguson's explanation of how subprime mortages were bundled as derivatives, called Collateralized Debt Obligations -- CDOs for short -- and sold in unregulated markets along with Credit Default Swaps -- insurance policies that paid off when borrowers defaulted on the subprime loans in a CDO -- is easy to follow.  Because anyone could buy a Credit Default Swap against a CDO, whether they owned the CDO or not, firms like Goldman Sachs could sell CDOs and bet against them at the same time.  AIG, the main writer of Credit Default Swaps, collapsed -- and got bailed out -- when it couldn't pay off on the Credit Default Swaps it had written.   The financiers held on to the commissions and bonuses they made selling the CDOs and Credit Default Swaps, even after the bubble burst.  The taxpayers held on to the dirty end of the stick.

Ferguson is a skillfull interviewer who balances skepticism with naiveté and knows how to follow up when he gets an opening.  The big names in finance and government were smart to dodge his interviews.  He is especially savage when he unmasks the academics -- the professors of economics and finance -- who sold out to the finance industry, covered up for crooks, and even invented economic theories to justify and defend Credit Default Swaps.

Inside Job is a film in the tradition of documentaries like Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly's Harvest of Shame (1960).  It combines interviews and narration with archival video and photographs to make a point.  It's not particularly filmic, but the cinematography of Svetlana Cvetko and Kalyanee Mam is crisp and sophisticated.  It fits the subject.  The settings for the interviews are well chosen.  A fast-moving montage of mansions, yachts, jets, drugs and whores -- but where were the male prostitutes? -- adds a dimension to the history of the meltdown that was missing from the Congressional hearings on C-SPAN.  To his credit, Ferguson sees Wall Street's obsession with wealth and its use of drugs and prostitutes more as character issues than as moral ones.  And he's not without humor.  The irony of Eliot Spitzer being reluctant to use the personal vices of Wall Street underlings to force them to flip on their overlords is not lost on him, or on us.  Equally ironic is the Bush administration's sacrifice of Lehman Brothers to "calm the markets," like Greeks, sacrificing to Poseidon to calm the seas.  If Inside Job has a weakness, it's in the way Ferguson brings the pain of the financial crisis down to the individual level.  Why interview workers in China when so many workers in the Midwest had lost their jobs?

Inside Job won the Academy Award for Best Documentary this year, but, in spite of Matt Damon's sappy reminder -- delivered as we gaze at the Statue of Liberty -- that "some things are worth fighting for," Inside Job may not accomplish as much as Ferguson hopes.

What we -- the survivors -- need now, instead of warnings and history, are tools.  We need to know how to get on down this Cormac McCarthy kind of road, past the charred, asphalt-covered bodies of the refugees who died when the death ray caught them pushing shopping carts, burdened with their last belongings, along the interstate.  We need stuff we can use.

And we need to know what the overlords -- the financiers who are, as Ferguson reminds us, still in power -- are going to do next.  What will they package and sell to create the next bubble?  Maybe we can get in on the ground floor.

A link to the complete film is here at YouTube.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) Everybody Wins

Whether or not Exit Through The Gift Shop wins the Academy Award for Best Documentary, British artist Banksy's light-hearted romp through the world of underground street art is shaping up as a win for Banksy, for his fellow street artists, and even for the collectors who, according to Banksy, bought $1 million worth of kitsch, conceived and produced with Banksy's help by the documentary film maker turned street artist: Thierry Guetta, a.k.a. "Mr. Brainwash." If the ebay value of the work the L.A. art geeks bought at Mr. Brainwash's massive 2008 Life Is Beautiful show is rising and falling with his fame, the geeks should be in better shape now than they were before Banksy released his chronicle of MBW's rise to stardom. MBW himself has made out quite well. In addition to the cash from his 2008 show, he landed a Madonna CD cover -- thereby meeting the minimum requirement for consideration as a serious graphic artist -- and he treated himself to a NYC show last year. But the biggest winner of all is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' mysterious "demopol", the nominating system that filled the Academy's hand in the category of Best Documentary by including Banksy's comedy among the five contenders.


Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) Trailer banksyfilms

As the voting draws to a close, Academy members can choose from a list of documentaries that includes exposés of the global financial system and the natural gas industry, a film portrait of a rifle platoon on the ground in Afghanistan, and, remarkably, two documentaries about artists and the impact art has on people's lives. One of them is Waste Land (2010), Lucy Walker's sensitive study of Brazilian-born artist Vik Munoz and the catadores who separate recyclables from garbage at Rio's Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill in the world. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is the other one. It is, at the same time, an entertaining recollection and an "exposé" of the art scene. Lucy Walker had to walk a thin line between portraying her subjects and exploiting them. Banksy never had that problem. He just had to have fun.

Exploitation and expropriation is the main -- if not the only -- point to street art, formerly known as graffiti. The streets are the canvas, and, in Banksyland at night, they belong to art and to artists in search of a perfect wall. Exit Through The Gift Shop puts Banksy's permanent mark on street art and the L.A. art scene. It's a clever expropriation of underground street art and the artists who make it, especially Mr. Brainwash, who set out to document Banksy and got documented himself. The streets and street art belong to whomever can control them, and, in Exit Through the Gift Shop at least, Banksy is in full control.

Artists synthesize experience. The successful ones also manage to create self-sustaining systems in which the sale of their work fuels the creation of more work until the balance tips in their favor and they are making enough money to expand the scope of their work. They become a brand. Banksy, of course, is there. He's able to sustain his own work, run an art factory, finance the work of other artists, and move out into new forms. And, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, Banksy has a flair for film.

Exit Through The Gift Shop is the most personal of the documentaries up for an Academy Award this year. It's cinema verité that is exceptionally well done, and it neatly demonstrates the power of narrative to structure time and to entertain.

Banksy has the conventions of the exposé film down pat: the hooded sweatshirt, the pixilated faces, the voice-over that ties fragments of film together. He understands the use of foreshadowing as well as he understands what Tom Wolfe called "le monde", the insular little world of art makers, art dealers and art collectors. The first time we meet Mr. Brainwash, he's pawning off cheap clothes with unusual stitching as expensive designer clothes. The last time we see him, he's just sold a million bucks worth of art that's as questionable, from Banksy's point of view, as the money Banksy forged -- with Princess Di's face in place of the Queen's -- but was afraid to distribute. There is no law against the sale of bad art. As Wolfe famously noticed, le monde is very small, and collectors have always been driven to get in on the ground floor, running the risk of buying bargain basement clothes at designer prices, or near art -- the equivalent of the peripheral junk you pick up when you exit a museum through the gift shop.

But it is the brilliance of his editing, the way he alters reality by juxtaposing events, sequencing and resequencing time and space to sculpt a reality that never was or could be in the so-called real world, that finally sets Banksy apart. Somehow, from fragments of experience, recorded on hundreds of tapes, Banksy pulls together a complete narrative that, really, could not be any other narrative and still fit together so well. What's real and what isn't? Does it matter? I doubt there are two viewers anywhere who would agree on how much of Banksy's documentary is "made up" to provide continuity and context, or just to make a point. (Personally, I doubt Mr. Brainwash's grilling at the hands of Disneyland security after Banksy -- in one of the film's funniest scenes -- inserts a life-size, blow-up doll, wearing a black hood and orange Gitmo jumpsuit, into the Disney landscape. But I enjoy the Disneyland footage anyway.)

If Exit Through The Gift Shop -- and Banksy's work in general -- has a weakness, it's that his work is political. Banksy has a message. It's a cool message, but a message nevertheless, and Banksy has to lock it down. He can't leave room for the viewer to miss the point. He can't chance the kind of complexity that would make his art polyreferential, the kind of work that points to a multitude of things at once. Maybe that kind of work -- work that empowers the viewer to participate more in making the art -- would require Banksy to give up more control of his turf than he's willing to do right now.

And, finally, there is this.  The Life Is Beautiful show's success is all the more remarkable, because it occurs in 2008 when the American economy was already in free fall and the fault line, separating rich America and poor America -- a fissure conservatives had been hammering on since Reagan -- finally split, sending the two Americas drifting apart, though not so far apart that the poor Americans can't still see rich America and the American dream sailing away, forever out of reach.  Will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences be able to ignore that coincidence and judge Banksy's work on its artistic merits alone?

Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Restrepo (2010)


View Larger Map

As you zoom in, the arrow points to the opening of Afghanistan's Korengal Valley at the Pech River, northwest of Asadabad, near the Pakistan border.  The Korengal valley is the location of what has been, arguably, the most documented engagement between U.S. forces and the local Taliban and their allied foreign fighters in Afghanistan.  The fight for control of the Korengal Valley has been recorded in award-winning photographs, a long article in the New York Times Magazine, and, of particular interest, in Restrepo, a direct cinema film by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that's available for sale or rental as a DVD and as streaming video from Netflix and Amazon.  The film won an award at Sundance last year, and it's been nominated for an Academy Award.  There is not a lot of direct cinema around anymore, and this one deals with a serious subject, with life and death decisions.  On top of that, it must have been an exceptionally hard film to make. 

The Hetherington-Junger documentary illustrates the difference between documentary film on the one hand and photographs and print on the other for practioners of the art and for viewers of documentary films as well.  The challenges the film makers face in Restrepo are the same challenges direct cinema and cinéma vérité film makers always face:  telling a story without narration, tying episodes together seamlessly, slapping on enough detail to make the film come to life and give viewers a sense of being there.  In addition, they had to stay alive.












OP Restrepo as it appears in the film.  Whoever shot this scene is outside the outpost, exposed to enemy fire. (Update: Tim Hetherington was killed by mortar fire in Misrata, Libya, 4/20/2011.)

The efforts of the film makers and the film's subjects, the professional soldiers of the Second Platoon of Battle Company, are exceptional, but, as film, Restrepo is not exceptional.  As document, it fills some gaps that photography and print can't fill, and, for a few minutes, it achieves brilliance, but it relies too much on photography, print and a viewer's personal memories to fill the gaps in its incarnation as a 90-minute feature film.  I suspect there is an exceptional 30-minute film buried in Restrepo, but, if it's there, Junger and Hetherington didn't find it.

The experience of art is a collaboration between the artist and the audience, and fragmented videos like Restrepo require viewers to participate to an unusual extent.  The more we know about combat, the more gaps we can fill and the more complete and convincing Restrepo seems, especially as we recall the film a couple of days later, after the images have sunk in.

Restrepo was brought to my attention by a Marine who thought it captured the essence of combat better than any film he'd seen.  He and I are both aware of the movie's many shortcomings, its lack of a central theme beyond the notion that war is hell, its episodic and elliptical nature, the absence of a point-of-view that reveals what the GIs are shooting at -- we see bombs, rockets and mortars going off in the valley, but most of the time the soldiers could be firing their own weapons into thin air for all we know -- but, for him, the personalities of the soldiers make the film worthwhile.  For me, it's the greasy grill in the snack bar, the cramped bunks, the mysterious spotting device that looks like it was covered up to keep us from seeing what it is.  More cerebral than my Marine friend, I admire the idea of OP Restrepo, the gesture, while he admires the spirit of the men who manned the post.

For others, the appeal of Restrepo may lie in the irony of viewing a film about combat in the Korengal Valley, knowing that American troops withdrew from that valley in April of 2010, after entering it 5 years earlier specifically to pick a fight with the Taliban and the foreign fighters there.  America did not stay the course in the Korengal Valley.  Some might say the soldiers and Marines who died there died in vain.  And some might say that the valley is a metaphor for America's war in Afghanistan, a war that is sure to end in some kind of stalemate, with neither the United Nations nor the Taliban winning a clearcut victory.

Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded with U.S. troops in the Korengal Valley off and on during 2007 and 2008.  Other reporters were there at the same time, notably, Elizabeth Rubin.  Her story for the New York Times Magazine, Battle Company Is Out There, with photos by Lynsey Addario,  fills most of Restrepo's gaps.  Indeed, Restrepo works best for me when I think of it as video that illustrates Rubin's article.

Restrepo The Movie, a web site devoted to promoting the film and Junger's book version of the fight for the Korengal Valley, War, has photos of the 2nd Platoon, video interviews, some outcuts from the film and some Hetherington pictures.  A little blog at the site has an entry that reminds us that Juan Restrepo was a real person who died in combat and is remembered and mourned by his family.

Reading the Rubin article and spending some time at the Restrepo web site before you watch the film -- or reading Rubin and visiting the film's web site, then viewing the film again if you've already seen it -- may add to the depth of your viewing experience.  It's something I'd recommend you do.

The web site tells us that Restrepo is "an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you."  And, describing their film -- in all modesty I suppose, --- the directors themselves assure us that: "This is reality."

But the reality is that Junger and Hetherington's cameras do leave the valley.  They go to Italy with Battle Company when the company redeploys, and the film makers take the soldiers of Battle Company into a studio and interview them there.  Ironically, those interviews, those remembrances of combat, provide the glue that holds the video fragments Junger and Hetherington recorded on the ground in Afghanistan together.  And it is the interviews that come just before some fragments of video shot in the middle of operation Rock Avalanche, a six-day fight around the village of Yaka China, that -- for a few minutes -- lift Restrepo to the level of brilliant documentary. 

Like Junger's documentary book, A Perfect Storm, Junger and Hetherington's Restrepo is about death, even to the extent that, if nobody had been killed during the year they spent making the film, it's doubtful Restrepo would have been distributed.   But American soldiers did die in the Korengal Valley that year, and, as he did in A Perfect Storm, although he does not attend their deaths, Junger recreates their dying.  To be sure, Junger does not presume to tell us how it feels to die in combat the way he told us how it feels to drown in A Perfect Storm.  We learn from the soldiers that "Doc" Restrepo, the medic for whom outpost Restrepo and the film are named, was wounded soon after he arrived in the valley and bled to death in a medevac helicopter on the way to a field hospital.  We're not there when Restrepo dies.  But when another soldier, Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle, is killed, we're as close to the action and to the emotions of his comrades as it's possible to get without being there.

There is something uncomfortable -- disrespectful maybe --about deconstructing a film that shows an American soldier dying in a war that is, for some of us, morally, strategically and even tactically ambiguous.  After five years of fighting for the valley, the battleground turned out to be of no strategic value. The tactic of seizing the high ground and setting up an outpost -- OP Restrepo -- to draw the enemy in did not work.  The attack on the outpost never came, and Battle Company's CO, Dan Kearney, was forced to take his soldiers down the valley to engage the Taliban in Operation Rock Avalanche, a long battle that is the climax of the film and the low point of Battle Company's deployment in the Korangel Valley.

Veteran combat photographers used to advise rookies to use fast film, a fast shutter, stop down, focus at 10 meters and shoot anything that moves.  That works to illustrate a story, but to tell a story with pictures, especially one that unfolds over months of fighting, much of it at night, needs a better plan.

Elizabeth Rubin says she went to Afghanistan with a question:  Why, with all our technology, were we killing so many civilians in air strikes?   After a few days, that question sparked others.  Was there a deeper problem in the counterinsurgency campaign?  Why were more American troops being killed every year?

Those questions led Rubin to focus her article on the life and death decisions being made every day in the Korengal Valley and on the man making most of them:  Dan Kearney, the lord of the Korengal Valley.  She follows Kearney through a fire fight that ends with him killing a woman and a child when he destroys a house with armor-piercing missiles, and on into Operation Rock Avalanche, a mission Rubin says many thought insane.  It's during Rock Avalanche that Rubin's rendition of the battle for the Korengal Valley syncs up with Junger's and Hetherington's in her account of the action that cost Staff Sergeant Rougle his life.

I followed Piosa through the brush toward the ridge. We came upon Rice and Specialist Carl Vandenberge behind some trees. Vandenberge was drenched in blood. The shot to his arm had hit an artery. Rice was shot in the stomach. A soldier was using the heating chemicals from a Meal Ready to Eat to warm Vandenberge and keep him from going into shock.

Piosa moved on to the hill where the men had been overrun. I saw big blue-eyed John Clinard, a sergeant from North Carolina, falling to pieces. He worshiped Rougle. “Sergeant Rougle is dying. It’s my fault. . . . I’m sorry. . . . I tried to get up the hill. . . .” Sergeant Rougle was lying behind him. Someone had already covered him with a blanket. Only the soles of his boots were visible.

“There’s nothing you could do,” Piosa said, grabbing Clinard’s shoulder. “You got to be the man now. You can do it. I need you to get down to Rice and Vandenberge and get them to the medevac.” Clinard wiped his face, seemed to snap to and headed off through the trees.

It may be that some day someone like Sebastian Junger or Elizabeth Rubin will write a book, and the electronic version of that book will include hyperlinks to video clips that illustrate the author's prose.  The words and images and sounds will all come together in the same work, a new kind of art that combines the best of narrative, video, photography and sound.

Or maybe we'll have to keep pulling that kind of work together ourselves, creating cathedrals of our own imagining like my recollection of Restrepo, with chapels by Rubin and Junger, stained glass windows by Hetherington and Addario, statues of Restrepo, Rougle, Kearney and Sal Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War, clips from YouTube put up there by GIs -- and, high up on a back roof, a little gargoyle fashioned from these thoughts.

Restrepo is available from Netflix and Amazon.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Gasland (2010) Dick Cheney's Legacy

Every race has a dark horse, running at long odds. In this year's race for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Film, the dark horse may be GasLand (2010), a film by Josh Fox that takes on almost everyone in the Oil and Gas Industry, including George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Halliburton over the use of "fracking" -- hydraulic fracturing -- to extract natural gas from vast deposits all over the United States.

GasLand (2010) HBO Documentary Films Low Resolution Fair Use Video

While he was Vice President, Dick Cheney forced a bill through Congress that exempts fracking from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act. The drillers don't have to tell the public what's in the fracking liquid they mix with water and shoot into gas deposits where it can seep into the water supply or return to the surface, either to evaporate or to be carried off and dumped.

Fox makes the case that fracking injects dangerous chemicals deep underground to break up rock and shale, releasing vast quantities of natural gas, while polluting the water supplies of homes and towns near the wells, which, if natural gas drilling proceeds as planned, will be just about every home and town in America. The industry denies the charge that fracking poisons the environment and the people and animals who depend on the environment for clean water.

Formally, GasLand is about as simple as documentary film gets. Maybe a Ken Burns special, cobbled together from old photos, with voice over and dramatic music, requires less of the film maker, but not much less. The subject of GasLand is Fox and his quest for information about what fracking is and what it is doing to people and the environment. We tag along, learning as we go. The form will be familiar to anyone who has seen Supersize Me (2004), Religulous (2008), or any of Michael Moore's films. GasLand adheres closely to the form. We take a road trip, talk to people who have had their water poisoned by the frackers, see some drinking water catching fire right out of the tap, animals losing their fur, sick people describing their symptoms, big names in the oil and gas industry, including Boone Pickens, refusing to be interviewed, politicians ducking and obfuscating.

Fox has a personal stake in the issue. He owns 14 acres of unspoiled land in Pennsylvania -- his boyhood home -- that the gas industry is trying to lease for $100,000. Fox doesn't try to make the industry's offer into a will he lease or won't he lease cliff hanger. We find out he won't early in the film. The element of suspense in GasLand is situational. The issue of fracking is far from settled. Legislation to undo Cheney's exemption of natural gas drilling from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act is still working its way through Congress, and Pennsylvania and New York are struggling with the problem of how to protect their water supplies from the frackers. All of that counts in GasLand's favor. Timeliness is a plus for documentaries.

Fox is immensely likable. His rap is pleasant, his voice easy on the ears. Strangely enough -- and maybe it's the landscape he's traveling through -- he reminds me of Don Johnson in A Boy And His Dog (1975). That Fox is able to conjure up an apocalyptic premonition of the future, using video of natural gas drillers at work in people's backyards and tap water catching fire, is a sign of his considerable talent.

Nevertheless, GasLand is a dark horse in the Oscar sweepstakes, because it's ahead of its time. To work as exposé, it has to make fracking relevant and build some outrage against the natural gas industry. Two of its competitors, Inside Job (2010) and Restrepo (2010) just have to tap into the outrage over the global financial meltdown and the war in Afghanistan that already exists.

GasLand is available on YouTube here.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Jonah Hex

It's easy to be dismissive of Jonah Hex, Jimmy Hayward's box office flop.



The film grossed a meager 5 million bucks the weekend it opened, far behind Toy Story 3, and was universally panned by reviewers -- and not without good reason.

The plot is trite and hard to follow, the acting average, and most of the time Hayward's visualization of the comic book material is boring. Ironically, Hayward got his start in the Toy Story franchise. He was an animator on Toy Story and Toy Story 2.  But, watching Hayward's Hex, I was reminded of an old friend's put down of Midland, Texas. I spent a week there one night, he told me.

Josh Brolin, a talented and intelligent actor who has been on a roll lately, plods along in the title role. John Malkovitch seems to have dropped in for a couple of disconnected scenes. Malkovich can play villains like Quentin Humbolt, Hex's arch enemy, in his sleep, but there is so little connection between him and Brolin that you have to wonder if they were ever on the same set at the same time.

Megan Fox is billed as a star, but comes across as a bit player, making a cameo appearance. Fox badly needs to make the transition from teenager to woman to put the Transformer franchise behind her, but in Hex she comes across as a kid, dressing up in her grandma's clothes. There is something about her voice that works against Fox. She hasn't learned to make the slight disconnect between her body and her voice work for her the way Monroe did.

Hex won't appeal to fans of the Jonah Hex comic books, either. The writers left too much good stuff out.  Fox's Tallulah Black is a far cry from the disfigured female bounty hunter of the Hex books, and El Diablo and Lazarus Lane, two -- or one, depending on how you look at it -- of the books' most imaginative creations, are missing completely.



Tallulah Black and El Diablo

Unlike Watchmen, the seminal graphic novel that established the form, the Hex books spanned so many years and versions that the writers had to boil the comics down in an attempt to distill the essential Jonah Hex from the books. In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, they invariably chose to use the most hackneyed elements of the comics.

The next blockbuster franchise and comic book superhero turned movie icon won't be Jonah Hex.  And yet, for anyone who is interested in pop culture and genre films, Jonah Hex is an important movie.  Jimmy Hayward has made a very bad film. But, in making it, he has -- inadvertently, perhaps -- tested the limits of turning graphic novels into films. 

Hex looks exactly like what it is, a first film by a director who knows absolutely nothing about the way real people move through real space. It ends up being a jumble of disconnected portraits, shots -- panels, if you will -- and, in memory, exists as an exact replica of a comic book.  Watching Jonah Hex is like spending 90 minutes reading a graphic novel. No one will come closer to literally translating a graphic novel into film than Jimmy Hayward has.

But will anyone want to? Is thumbing through a graphic novel what most of us go to the movies to do?

Genre films, especially action-adventure films, require a compelling narrative and fast action. Action that is suggested by the static panels of a comic book must be realized in film.  If you want to see what happens when a director ignores that basic truth, go see Jonah Hex. If not, save your money and catch Watchmen on cable TV.



The real Jonah Hex

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The West Virginia Mine Wars

The Republicans in Congress are trying to cut the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities out of the federal budget, essentially eliminating all federal support for the arts, including support for documentary films. That's just one more way to stifle independent voices.

At a time when protests -- both non-violent and violent -- are sweeping the Middle East and Africa, and American unions -- supported by college students -- are struggling to fight off Republican attacks on the remnants of the labor movement, let's recall the kind of documentaries public money has helped produce.

Even the Heavens Weep: The West Virginia Mine Wars (1985), directed and edited by Danny L. McGuire, was produced by WPBY-TV and the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority with money from The Humanities Foundation of West Virginia and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It's a simple documentary -- narration, still photos and interviews -- that recreates the beginning of the labor movement in America, and the battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia. It packs a surprising wallop.

In 1921, 10,000 armed coal miners -- many of them WWI vets -- marched up Blair Mountain to get at the coal mines and company towns on the other side of the mountain, triggering the bloodiest fight between labor and capital in America's history. The mine owners defended their mines and shanty towns with 3,000 hired thugs -- armed with rifles, machine guns and a small cannon -- dug in at the top of Blair Mountain, and hired private planes to bomb the miners with explosives and tear gas. Finally, Warren G. Harding sent federal troops to Blair Mountain to disarm both sides. Until the documentary was made in 1985, Blair Mountain had dropped out of American history.


Even the Heavens Weep, WV Educational Broadcasting Authority

Even the Heavens Weep is an important historical document, pulled together from archival photos and news clippings, framed by a good script. The photographs of the working conditions in coal mines before the unions and of the living conditions in the "company towns" at the West Virginia mines are, at the same time, a grim reminder of the past, and a horrifying glimpse into what the future of workers might look like in America, Inc.

Even the Heavens Weep is available from West Virginia Public Broadcasting in Charleston, West Virginia. For anyone interested in the labor movement and in understanding what that movement was originally about -- whether or not you know who John L. Lewis and Mother Jones are or where the name "redneck" came from -- it's more than worth the effort to get it.

It’s hard not to see similarities between the mine owners’ determination to smother the nascent union movement early in the 20th Century and corporate government’s determination to finish off the vestiges of the union movement now.

But it’s even harder not to see the differences. The early unions had the energy of youth and the excitement of their discovery of solidarity and brotherhood on their side, and the course of history was in their favor, even if it took ten more years, the Great Depression and the New Deal to establish the unions. (By the time Roosevelt threw the weight of the federal government behind the unions, every working man and woman in American would be hurting from the economic collapse that followed the drastic consolidation of wealth into hands of a few, privileged Americans that touched off the Great Depression.)

Nowadays, the union movement is on the wane. Fighting to protect public employee unions feels almost like fighting to protect an endangered species. Many Americans are hurting, and, in fact, will never work again. But there are too many Americans who are not hurting this time. The country and the economy is too big for 10,000 marchers to make a difference, even if they were armed — is that even conceivable anymore — and could find somebody to march against. It feels like the only thing left to document is the end of the labor movement in America. And maybe we won’t even bother to do that.

Films like Even the Heavens Weep don't cost a lot of money to make, but they do take time and dedication. And it takes backing to get the kind of interviews with historians McGuire uses to pull the archival footage and photos together. Without the mantle of the CPB, the NEA or the NEH, particularly for young film makers, getting access to credible sources can be extremely difficult --almost impossible -- to do.