Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Book Review: Kardiac Kids: The Story of the 1980 Cleveland Browns by Jonathan Knight

Red Right 88.  Those words continue to send chills down the spines of Cleveland Brown fans.  On a frigid January day at old Cleveland Stadium, the Browns were on the verge of victory in a divisional playoff game with the Oakland Raiders when quarterback Brian Sipe threw an interception that ended their season.  Jonathan Knight's comprehensive account of that season recaptures one of the most exciting years in Cleveland sports.  For three seasons (1978-80), the "Kardiac Kids," consistently pulled off dramatic victories in the closing minutes of their games.  The book makes it clear that while 1980 Browns came up short in the end - they provided their fans with an unforgettable ride that continues to resonate to this day.

During the 1950s, the Cleveland Browns were the premiere franchise of the NFL.  They were a dynasty that won five world championships (this was the pre-Super Bowl era) with a legendary corps of Hall of Famers like head coach Paul Brown, Marion Motley, Otto Graham, and arguably the greatest football player ever - Jim Brown.  In 1964 the Browns trounced the Baltimore Colts 27-0 for yet another championship that few realized at the time - would be their last.  During the 1970s the Browns struggled after a series of bad trades, lackluster draft picks, and injuries.  Cleveland fans were forced to sit back and watch as their division rival the Pittsburgh Steelers went on to win four Super Bowls. 

In 1978, things began to turn around when Browns owner Art Modell hired Sam Rutigliano as head coach.  A longtime assistant coach, Rutigliano revitalized the Browns by building an explosive offense behind the accurate passing of veteran quarterback Brian Sipe.  After a promising 8-8 season in 1979, it appeared the Browns were heading in the right direction for 1980.  And they would not disappoint.  Cleveland, a tough blue collar town, faced high unemployment, racial and ethnic tensions, and a constant target of comedians who taunted their town as the "mistake by the lake," desperately needed something positive to happen for their city.  While it is a cliche that a winning football team will not revitalize a city overnight, it can do much to lift the spirits of people experiencing tough times.

Knight provides a detailed account of every game and some of the drama that went on behind the scenes.  Unlike other "insider" accounts of professional sports, they generally seemed like a good group of guys.  Rutigliano was true players' coach who was respected for his intelligence and willingness to roll the dice when the time called for it.  The 1980 Browns were a veteran team with many players in their prime of their careers.  Lyle Alzado, an acquisition from the Denver Broncos, had a reputation as a loose cannon, but his enthusiasm added a spark to the defense.  Newcomers like tight end Ozzie Newsome and linebacker Clay Matthews made great contributions and went on to become Hall of Famers. Brian Sipe, however, was the leader and rock of the Kardiac Kids who always gave his team a chance to win in the clutch.  He continues to hold most of the passing records for the Browns franchise.

The heartbreaking 14-12 loss to the Raiders ended an era.  In 1981, they fell to 5-11 and went on to suffer a succession of losing seasons.  By 1985, the year the Browns returned to the playoffs, only six players remained from the 1980 squad.  Although the Browns went deeper into the playoffs later in the decade (they lost three AFC championships to the Denver Broncos) the heroics of the Kardiac Kids remain etched in the memories of Browns fans.  Knight did a great job in recapturing the excitement of that year.  The Browns reminded their fans that hard work and a "never say die" attitude can make anything possible.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book Review: Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz

Bob Dylan in America is the book Dylan fans have long been waiting and it is long overdue.  Finally, a distinguished American historian, has placed Dylan within the context of American history.  Other cultural critics, Griel Marcus, in particular, have written first rate books about Dylan, but Wilentz has written something more accessible.  It is a work of popular history in the best sense of the term.

In each chapter Wilentz traces the origins of the cultural influences on Dylan that span all the eras of American history - starting with Aaron Copeland.  Copeland's mixing of classical with folk music marked a precursor to Dylan who blended high and low art.  Although often considered one of the primary icons of the 1960s, Wilentz makes it clear Dylan is child of the 1940s and 1950s.  The Beat literature of Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac were important influences with their electrifying poetry that rocked 1950s America.  Dylan also idolized Woody Guthrie and imitated him early in his career, moved on from him, but the spirit of Woody was always there.  Those sources, however, are only scratching the surface. 

The book's best chapter is on the making of Blonde on Blonde (1966), an example of the multitude of influences on Dylan, but also attests to his own genius.  Recorded in 1965-66, Dylan informed his producer Bob Johnston he wanted "that thin wild mercury sound."  In the summer of 1965 Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited (arguably his best ever) shattered the conventions of rock music and scored a top ten single with "Like a Rolling Stone."  He spent the rest of 1965 touring with the Hawks (a.k.a. The Band) and wrote what became Blonde on Blonde.  His life was moving at a frenetic pace and yet he managed to songs that were "meditations on desire, frailty, promises, boredom, hurt, envy, connections, connections missed, paranoia, and transcendent beauty,"  The sound of the album mixed elements of Chicago blues, folk, British pop, 1950s rock - all the while sounding completely original.  The sessions in New York with the band were disappointing so at the suggestion of Johnson, Dylan recorded in Nashville with seasoned country musicians.  The results were a spellbinding double album with surreal songs that literally sounded like it was 3AM.  Lyrics like "the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face" marked new heights for Dylan. 

Other parts of his career are given detailed analysis as well, especially Dylan's two folk albums of the early 1990s: Good As I've Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993), which offered reinterpretations of now forgotten folk songs rooted in American history.  Dylan recent triumphs, most notably Love and Theft (2001), helped mold Dylan's new perona as a world weary prophet.  His recent albums draw on the rich history of American music, of which his recent Christmas album is a perfect example. At 70, Dylan also draws much controversy over the alleged plagiarism in his songwriting.  Wilentz defends these charges by arguing folk artists steal from each other - it is an old tradition. 

All the chapters are strong on analyzing the evolution of Dylan's art, but little is learned about the man himself.  But this is a fine work of scholarship on a crucial figure of postwar America.  Hopefully, this book will launch a new wave of Dylan studies with a more historical approach.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: Wilco: Learning How to Die by Greg Kot

As the segmentation of popular musical tastes continues on into the 21st century few bands have won as much acclaim and respect than Wilco.  Despite receiving no airplay on mainstream radio their album sales have increased with each album.  Jeff Tweedy, the founder and chief songwriter for Wilco, is often mentioned among the likes of Bob Dylan and Neil Young.  Greg Kot, music critic for the Chicago Tribune, wrote Wilco: Learning How to Die, an account the band at a tumultuous time in their history. Learning How to Die is a fine book on the current state of the record business and a revealing portrait of Tweedy.

The story of Wilco begins in Bellville, Ill, a town in the middle of the Midwest.  In the 1980s High school buddies Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy forged a friendship based on their love of music.  Both grew up in the harsh economic realities that plagued the Midwest in 1980s (and persist into the present) and saw music as a way out.  Together they formed Uncle Tupelo in 1987 and developed a sound that blended elements of punk, country, and folk.  Their 1990 debut album, No Depression, was a collection of ragged tracks that created its own genre of "alt-country." 

 Uncle Tupelo came to prominence in the underground rock scene of the early 1990s, an era remembered for the "grunge" sound from Seattle.  Unlike Nirvana, who's themes revolved around teen angst and outrage at corporate America, Uncle Tupelo wrote honest commentaries on the realities of American life.  Their second LP, Still Feel Gone, dwelt on these themes in a more coherent set of songs.  Tracks like "Gun" and "Looking for a Way Out" captured the banality and emptiness of rural life - minus the romanticism of Bruce Springsteen and more in tone with Sherwood Anderson's novel Winesburg, Ohio. Their next album, March 16-20 1992, was a set of acoustic tracks produced by REM guitarist Peter Buck, in an even deeper examination of American roots music.  Kot goes into detail on the creative and personal tensions that befell Tweedy and Farrar during the making of their final album Anodyne (1993) when both began to write their songs separately. 

Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy
In 1994, Farrar dissolved Uncle Tupelo and Tweedy formed Wilco. Their first album, A.M., was a swiftly recorded set of twangy rock tunes that received a mixed reaction.  With no chance of getting played on the radio, the band toured incessantly and gradually built a fan base.  The addition of multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett gave Tweedy a new collaborator with whom he wrote some of his best songs.  Wilco's second LP, Being There, marked a creative breakthrough, a double album that celebrated 1970s classic rock.

An ongoing theme in the book is personal travails of Tweedy as a suffering artist torn between domestic and career obligations.  After Being There, Wilco embarked on grueling tours that left Tweedy psychologically drained and plagued with migraine headaches.  Long absences from his family also took its toll - along with the usual travails of the road.  During concerts, he took on a new persona, getting confrontational with audiences that didn't take to the music.  Band members grew nervous about Tweedy's increasingly unpredictable behavior onstage.  In 1998, Wilco was asked by British folk rock artist Billy Bragg to contribute music for unpublished Woody Guthrie songs.  These recordings resulted in two albums Mermaid Avenue (1998) and the follow up Mermaid Avenue. II were well received despite recurring conflicts with Bragg.

The release of Summerteeth (1999) and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002) marked new artistic heights for Wilco in the midst of conflicts with their record company and painful personnel changes.  Summerteeth was a pure pop album with some of the most haunting lyrics in recent memory.  Tweedy, worried the songs were too dark in the album's first cut, retreated to the studio with Bennett and added heavy overdubs.  Disappointing sales led their label, Reprise, to demand a more "commercial" sounding album next time around.

The last part of the book revolves around the long recording history of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, an even more experimental effort than Summerteeth.  After Reprise rejected the album the band released songs on their website and it quickly generated a buzz.  Meanwhile, Tweedy replaced drummer Ken Coomer with Glenn Kotche.  After the album's completion Bennett was also dismissed (all of which is chronicled in the Sam Jones documentary I am Trying to Break Your Heart)  Kot is critical of Tweedy's less than diplomatic handling of these changes, but this all falls to the cliches of rock band politics.  Eventually, the album was released on Nonesuch records and proved that music with substance could find an audience in an age dominated by five media companies.  Despite all the turmoil, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is an amazing album.  Although recorded before 9/11, the dark atmosphere of the album fit the country's mood.  Tracks like "Jesus Ect"., "War on War," and "Ashes of American Flags" are filled with cryptic lyrics and a dark foreboding that hard times are ahead - with faint glimmers of hope

Fans of Wilco will enjoy this book since the author is a real fan.  Earlier, I mentioned this was an up close account in the best since of the term since it avoids going into cheap tabloid territory.  It would've been nice to learn a little more about Tweedy's songwriting process and his literary influences.  Also, Jay Farrar leaves the narrative far too soon, a figure just as compelling as Tweedy.  For insights into the current state of the record business the book is first rate. - Wilco performs "War on War" on Late Show with David Letterman

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book Review: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

In 1957, the NY Times declared Jack Kerouac (1922-1968) the voice of his generation after the publication of On the RoadThe Dharma Bums came out the following year and failed to win the literary world over.  While similar in spirit to On the Road, The Dharma Bums is more spiritual.  By the late 1950s, Kerouac, already a legendary figure among the beats, was enamored with Buddhism.  For Kerouac, Eastern religion had the potential to inspire younger people searching for an identity in the uneasy splendor that was post war America.  Now, over fifty years after its publication, it is credited with sparking the New Age movement.

The story centers around two characters and the people they meet.  The narrator is Ray, an aspiring poet, and Japhy, a larger than life poet/Buddhist/zen master.  Japhy is based on Gary Snyder (1930-  ), a poet who lived in a Buddhist monastery and later associate of the beats.  Like Dean Moriarty in On the Road, there is an otherworldly, messianic quality to the character.  Ray is in awe of Japhy and aspires to emulate him.  For a book about Buddhism, however, we learn very little about the religion itself.  Kerouac throws out anecdotes and quotes from famous gurus, but it all feels like a joke the reader isn't in on. 

The "story" revolves around trying to find some form of meaning in the consumerist, suburbanite society that America had become.  Although both characters have a hedonistic streak, Ray's drinking eventually alienates Japhy.  This sadly mirrored the path Kerouac followed after he achieved fame.  This gives the book a melancholy vibe at the end.  But the romanticism in the story, in particular the joy and grandeur of climbing a mountain (the novel's best section) is a joy to read.  Like any Kerouac work it is an experience and although you aren't quite sure what happened - you know something happened.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Review: Libra by Don Delillo

Libra, by Don Delillo, is a work of fiction surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Lee Harvey Oswald is the novel's protagonist.  Libra is not so much an attempt to set the facts straight about the assassination, but a study of how individuals influence the course of history.  Everyday there are countless numbers of amateur historians and conspiracy theorists devote their lives to making sense of what happened on that November day in Dallas.  Libra is a wild ride through conspiracies upon other conspiracies that takes the reader through a labyrinth in a search for truth of some kind.

The story is told through two separate time lines that converge in the final act.  One narrative follows Oswald at various points in his life.  The other timeline follows the conspirators as they formulate their plans.  The historical context for the plot begins with the Bay of Pigs invasion.  In April 1961, only three months into his presidency, President Kennedy approved a CIA operation to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba.  A force of Cuban exiles were ready to lead the invasion with American air support that Kennedy decided to pull at the last minute.  The entire operation was a debacle and the military and the intelligence community never forgave Kennedy.  Cuba became an obsession with them and the primary impetus for the attempt on President Kennedy's life.  Delillo follows a renegade group within the CIA that covertly planned a failed assassination attempt and then blame it on Fidel Castro.

The novel picks in the sections that deal with Oswald.  We first meet him as a teenager living in a Bronx tenement with his mother.  A loner and often the target of bullies who mock his southern accent, he took refuge in the writings of communist revolutionaries Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky.  He blamed the capitalist system for the humiliating conditions his family had to accept.  At 17, he enlisted in the marines and an undistinguished service record.  While he was stationed in Japan he began to learn Russian and made plans to defect.  Why did Oswald enlist?  Delillo portrays him as a conscientious soldier who wanted to learn firsthand the psychology behind an oppressive system.  After wounding himself in a gun accident he was discharged. 

Upon arriving in Russia in 1959, Oswald offered his services to the Soviets.  They gave him a cool reception and suspected he was a double agent.  Nevertheless, he offered them information on America's U-2 spy program of which he knew little.  Unsure of what to do with him they set him up with a factory job in Minsk.  While, there he meets his wife and grows disillusioned with the Soviet system.  Unhappy with his social status he manages to emigrate back to the United States.  Delillo paints complex portrait of Oswald, a tendency towards violence, intelligent, a fixation with guns, and determined to accomplish something important.

Every character in the book is plagued witth paranoia.  They all believed they will change the course of history and yet all feel powerless before the forces that will determine their fate.  This contradiction is best expressed in the David Ferrie character, a hard line anti-communist and amateur astrologer (among other things).  Later in the novel he forms a bizarre friendship with Oswald and offers an analysis of the conspiracy:
Think of two parallel lines . . . One is the life of Lee Harvey Oswald.  One is the conspiracy to kill the president.  What bridges the space between them?  What makes a connection inevitable?  There is a third line.  It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers out of the deepest layers of the self.

This sets the stage the novel's final act as the two lines begin to converge.

In my opinion this was the weakest section of the book.  Without offering plot spoilers, the scenario Delillo imagines is as plausible as any.  But it all seems superfluous since the we already know what happened, the question is how it happened.  The final fifty pages follow another oddball Jack Ruby, who would shoot Oswald three days after the killing of Kennedy.  Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner who was outraged about the assassination took it upon himself to save the city's reputation.  Since Ruby owed thousands to the mob he was caught up in the nexus of mobsters, Cuban exiles, and the CIA - his story is an amusing coda to a very dark novel.

As a prominent post-modern writer Delillo avoids trying to offer answers about the Kennedy assassination.  Post-modernist historians argue that all works of history only exist in the historian's mind.  It is impossible to ever reconstruct a historical event.  There a few flash forwards in the story to CIA archivist in the late 1970s attempting to write the official history and overwhelming number of contradictory facts and strange coincidences left him completely lost.  From hindsight the attacks of 9/11 continue to haunt this generation, but it will never captivate people like the Kennedy conspiracy.  This was something that happened internally and our fascination may tells us more about ourselves than we care to know.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: The Trials of Henry Kissinger

Voltaire once described history as nothing more than a tableau of crime and misfortune -  a view the 20th century proved correct.  The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a polemical documentary that argues that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was guilty of war crimes perpetuated by the Nixon and Ford administrations.  Based on a book by the iconoclastic journalist Christopher Hitchens, the film has commentary from many former aides, journalists, and biographers.  I applaud the film's critical look at American foreign policy, but it betrays its premise because it resembles a show trial and not a fair trial.

For a time, back in the 1970s, Henry Kissinger made international diplomacy hip.  As National Security Adviser to Richard Nixon (1969-74) and later Secretary of State to Nixon and Ford (73-77) Kissinger literally shaped American diplomacy in the 1970s.  Before becoming an international celebrity who dated young actresses he was hardly known outside academic circles.  At the age of 13, Kissinger's family, being Jewish, emigrated from Nazi Germany and settled in New York City. After serving in the Second World War Kissinger studied international relations at Harvard and became an academic star. In the 1950s and 1960s wrote a few bestseller, most famously, Limited War and Nuclear Weapons  In 1968, the president-elect Richard Nixon appointed Kissinger as his National Security Adviser. 
In 1969, Nixon and Kissinger faced a daunting set of international and domestic challenges.  The Vietnam War topped the list.  By that point the war had created a rupture between generations that flared on college campuses.  From a military standpoint, the war was in a stalemate with 100 Americans being killed every week.  Nixon accepted the fact that victory in Vietnam was hopeless.  During the 1968 campaign Nixon stayed silent on his plans for Vietnam, only reassuring the American public he was committed to peace.  Nixon and Kissinger's plans, however, extended beyond ending the war.  They wanted to build a new international balance of power that included the Soviet Union, China, Japan, Western Europe - with the United States as the fulcrum.

The foreign policy accomplishments during the Kissinger years are substantial: negotiating an end to America's involvement in Vietnam (but not the Vietnam War), the opening of China, arms control with the still terrifying Soviet Union, and shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East in the chaotic months following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  They called it detente, policies designed to reduce Cold War tensions.  The documentary focused on three specific areas: Cambodia, Chile, and East Timor.

Cambodia.  In early 1969 the Nixon administration began clandestine bombing campaigns on Cambodia, a sovereign nation, to strike at North Vietnam's supply line.  By 1970, with the peace negotiations going nowhere, Nixon announced on television a ground invasion of Cambodia by U.S. forces.  Members of Kissinger's staff resigned over the decision and the campuses went aflame.  Forty years ago this month four students were killed by the National Guard at Kent St. University.  The Cambodian invasion ended several months later with mixed results, but left conditions favorable for radical elements to take over the government - the Khmer Rouge.  They were a radical ultra left wing faction who seized power in 1975 and forced the entire population into the countryside.  Over one million died in the genocide.  The film places the blame squarely on Kissinger for creating the conditions for the atrocities in Cambodia. 

The other areas covered, Chile and East Timor, are far more complicated.  In 1973, military coup in Chile overthrew Salvador Allende, a Marxist who the administration viewed as another Castro.  Evidence that come clearly shows the CIA played a part overthrowing Allende, aided by American companies who were threatened by the regime.  East Timor, a former colony of the Portuguese Empire, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and absorbed into that country (in 2002 East Timor gained its independence).  The Ford administration provided weapons to Indonesia in their brutal crackdown on East Timor.  For these crimes, should Henry Kissinger face prosecution from international courts for crimes against humanity?

These are serious charges revolve around complicated historical events.  The film view them as cut and dry cases, but the truth is far more elusive.  If the documentary is a trial as purports to be, it is a kangaroo court.  Most of the commentary comes from journalists that dedicated their careers to attacking Nixon and Kissinger.  The only defender from the administration, former Kissinger aide Alexander Haig, seemed oblivious to the consequences of past actions.  No historian who has studied the time period appears in the film to add some balance.  Was this simply an ego trip for Hitchens?

In saying that, I admire Hitchens.  He is one of the great commentators writing in the English speaking world today.  His frequent appearances in television contain more wit that all the godawful commentary infesting the cable news airwaves.  In the past, Hitchens has taken on Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton, and lately all organized religion.  The mainstream media's coverage of American foreign policy is banal and we need journalists like Hitchens to bring light to certain facts.  By his standards, however, every administration since Truman should face the docket.  It is unlikely that any American will in the near future, and that hypocrisy is a problem.  But for America to have a more democratic society, more discussion on foreign policy is something desperately needed.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads by Griel Marcus

In 1965, Bob Dylan wrote his greatest and most memorable song, "Like a Rolling Stone." It was his first major hit, which peaked at #2 on the billboard charts. It ran for nearly seven minutes, something unheard of at the time - or even today. The book puts the song in its historical context and asseses its continuing influence on American history. Marcus's writing takes some getting used to with its improvisational style that seems to mimic a Dylan song. Nevertheless it is a fine homage to a remarkable time period.

1965. The British Invasion had conquered the airwaves. The Beatles were at the peak of their powers. The Rolling Stones mix of blues and sarcasm gave a new edge to rock music. At the center of it all stood Bob Dylan. In early 1965 Dylan released Bringing it all Back Home, his first foray into electronic music. He then toured England where he grew continually bored playing his old material on acoustic guitar. According to Marcus, Dylan considered retiring from music to write novels. In June 1965, he assembled a amazing set of musicians and recorded "Like a Rolling Stone." The song redefined Dylan's sound and pushed the boundaries of popular music.

Marcus reflects on the song's influence on American culture and its connection to American history. He also discusses its effect on Dylan's career and how it became the song that defined him. Dylan still performs the song and is always a highlight of ongoing "Never Ending Tour." For the listener the song takes on a different meaning every time it is played. It is simultaneously an angry song about alienation, but also a celebration of freedom and liberation. Dylan fans will enjoy this book, but I would recommend listening to the classic 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited to make the book easier to understand.

First ever live performance of "Like a Rolling Stone" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Film Review: "Why We Fight"

Perhaps the great paradox of this age it that more information is available to more people than at any time in history and yet the nature of power remains a mystery. Eugene Jarecki's documentary,Why We Fight, is an attempt to understand post 9/11 foreign policy. It is on one level an examination of the military-industrial complex and on another level a critique of the American empire. The right questions are raised but it takes on a little too much - not necessarily a bad thing.

The title is a play on the Why We Fight propaganda series produced by Frank Capra during the Second World War. America's contribution defeating fascism is celebrated as the last "good war." Because every war since remains shrouded in moral ambiguity - to the "Forgotten War" in Korea (1950-53) to the Vietnam War (1965-73) all the way up to current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan - it is a relevant question. The Iraq war and reasons for the invasion are the film's primary focus. While never straying into Michael Moore Fahrenheit 9/11 territory, it is highly critical of the Bush administration (2001-09). And that may date the film somewhat since Iraq appears to be heading towards stability. Few will remember the imbroglio over weapons of mass destruction, but the film dwells on it. History will be kinder to Bush and Company, as is often the case with polarizing presidencies.

But it's all part of a much larger and complex story. Let's start with the military-industrial complex. On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the world changed. The use of a weapon with the ability to destroy an entire city marked the culmination of America's transformation from an industrial juggernaut to a military superpower. Historians refer to this as the birth of the National Security State, a nation on a permanent wartime footing, ready for war anytime, anywhere, or anyhow. So far for five decades America competed with Soviet Union and pushing the world to the brink the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis - that was the Cold War.

Dwight Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, is the film's unlikely hero. Unlikely in the sense that in the 1950s Eisenhower was viewed as the incarnation of bland conformity of that decade. Cultural critics, most notably the historian Richard Hofstadter, ridiculed Eisenhower's apparent lack of intellectual curiosity in his classic book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hindsight has proved his critics wrong on most counts. For eight years he kept the peace and negotiated an end to the Korean War. In 1957, Eisenhower ordered the 101st airborne to enforce school integration laws in Little Rock, Arkansas, a milestone in the Civil Rights Movement. In his farewell address he issued a warning about the growing ties between the military and financial establishments and their influence on congress.
Now to jump ahead to 2010. The Cold War is over. We now live in post-Cold War age and no one really understands it. At millennium's end American seemed untouchable and at the height of its power. Then came the 2000 election, 9/11 terrorist attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and finally economic collapse. So, what happened?

Why We Fight blames the Neoconservatives for just about everything. To their credit, they interview prominent Neocons like Richard Perle and William Kristol to give the opposing view. So, just what do Neoconservatives believe? In a nutshell, American foreign policy must foster the spread of democracy - even through war if necessary. They were the primary advocates of the Iraq war and were later blamed for the chaotic months after the downfall of Saddam Hussein. That angle may date the film since the situation in Iraq has changed dramatically in the past five years.

Despite its somewhat biased viewpoint the film raises some pertinent questions. The viewer hears multiple viewpoints from a diverse group of people. Jarecki calls for a more informed public that is more engaged with politics as the only way to preserve democracy - and that is sound. That is preferable alternative to falling into the abyss of conspiracy theories that only confuse people by their easy answers (but I will admit they are creative). It remains unclear, however, just what the film sees as America's proper role in the world - leave everyone alone? Despite all the anti-Americanism prevalent at home and abroad, America will always have its ideals and it is troubling to imagine a world where no nation carries those values.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Movie Review: The Sorrow and the Pity

The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) is about the elusive search for the truth in the midst of history and memory. Marcel Ophuls 4 1/2 half hour documentary is about the German occupation of a French town during the Second World War. Produced in the late 1960s, The Sorrow and the Pity has an irreverent sixties spirit: a no nonsense approach to the past. At the film's heart is the question: What happens when society collapses?

The history of 20th century France is tragic. The First World War (1914-18) made a wasteland of their countryside and killed off a generation of its young men. In four years of war they fought the Germans to a stalemate, with the aid of their British and American allies. In the interwar period the French built the Maginot line, a series of fortifications along the German border designed to prevent another invasion. Before its completion the Second World War began (Sept. 1 1939) and the German army and forced the French to surrender, thus beginning an occupation lasting from June 1940-July 1944. After the allies liberated the new French leaders formed the Fifth Republic and were determined to preserve their empire. This led to two costly wars in Indochina (1946-54) and Algeria (1954-62) that divided the French people and created further political instability.

After the occupation ended a mystique grew about the heroics of the French Resistance and that the majority of the French, except for a minority of "collaborators," bravely stood up to the Nazis. The reality was far more complicated. In the 1930s the French people were bitterly divided over politics between extremists on the left (communists) and right (fascists). The polarized political situation led to mass apathy and cynicism about their system - and democracy itself. The Germans installed a puppet regime based in Vichy under the leadership of Phillipe Petain (1856-1951), the French hero from the First World War, an octogenarian who was only worked a few hours a day. The film implies that a majority of the French people supported the regime and turned a blind eye to its anti-Jewish laws (the most explosive charge in the film). But many joined the resistance.

Marcel Ophuls, the film's director conducted several probing interviews. His long interview with a German officer of the occupation who still wore his service medals provided the occupier's viewpoint. Anthony Eden, Churchill's foreign minister, is asked difficult questions about British policy during the French downfall, most notably on the infamous attack on Mers-El-Kebir. On July 3, 1940 the British destroyed the French Mediterranean fleet to prevent the Germans from capturing it - killing 1200 French sailors during the bombing. 

Ophuls most moving interviews were with two French farmers who bravely fought in the resistance - their quiet dignity is the backbone of the film. They saw injustice happening around them and decided to do something about it. The Sorrow and the Pity is not a "finger pointing" film, but rather one about empathy and understanding the choices people make under perilous circumstances.

The Sorrow and the Pity tells us history is messy. And that's a refreshing departure in an age of the condensed, user-friendly history fed to the public by the History Channel. The textbook versions of history are no better and are usually misleading, ephemeral, and bland. In the end such treatment does a disservice to those interested in history and for our own political discourse. The price of avoiding the complexity is grave. A first rate documentary.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Review: The Weather Underground (2007)

Terrorism was on everyone'e mind this past decade. It began with the attacks of 9/11 and ended with the failed airplane bomb plot on Christmas Day 2009. The award winning documentary, The Weather Underground, is a somber look at a group of 1960s radicals that resorted to violence. Their rage at the government's persecution of the Vietnam War and frustration with ineffective anti-war movement led to go underground and "bring the war home." In time, the Weathermen hoped radicalize all young people, overthrow the government, and inaugurate a new Utopian society. A tall order indeed. The film combined narration, archival footage, and interviews with former members. At the heart of The Weather Underground is the question of how citizens should express dissent with the government and no clear answers are given. Unfortunately, the film rests on the myths of the 1960s and and a not so subtle commentary on the Bush administration (2001-2009)

The Weathermen were a splinter group of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the vanguard of the campus revolts of the 1960s and 1970s. Created in 1962 in Port Huron, Michigan, they advocated for a new "participatory democracy" and non-violent resistance to war and racism. They spoke directly to a younger generation frustrated with the complacency of their parents towards the Cold War and the struggle for Civil Rights. But it was the Vietnam War that defined them. As the war intensified and the draft calls cut into the middle class the anti-war ranks increased. Some members of SDS favored a more confrontational approach towards the government and they broke away to create the Weatherman (they took their name from the Dylan lyric from Subterranean Homesick Blues, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").

Several figures from the group were interviewed and all have differing views of their past actions. Some have regrets and some do not. From 1969-1975 the Weatherman were responsible for several bombings on government buildings. In 1970, a bomb accidentally went off in Greenwich Village and killed three of its own members. After the incident the group decided to take every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, but they still considered those that disagreed with them complicit with the government. A dangerous line of thinking when one believes they have all the answers, that is a pure terrorist. As the Vietnam War slowly came to an end the Weatherman fell into obscurity.

The film did a fine job of presenting the Weathermen's viewpoint, but is lacking in historical context. They relied on the myths of the 1960s. The first myth is that most young people opposed the war, when in fact most did. More young people went conservative in the 1960s; membership in the conservative student group YAF (Young Americans for Freedom) were higher than SDS. Furthermore, the film gives a superficial depiction of the Vietnam War. It never explains why America was there in the first place, but that it was just a war that most people were against. Another flaw is its depiction of Richard Nixon, showing cherry picked clips with Nixon sounding angry and intolerant. Must every 60s themed film fall back on Nixon as the ultimate bad guy?

At the documentary's heart is the question of dissent in a democratic society. How far should it go? If you disagree with the administration in power, what is the proper course of action? There are no satisfactory answers to those questions, at least I have no answers. From a historical standpoint, America was forged in a violent revolution and rebelling against tyranny is always an admired American trait. Then there was the Civil War (1861-1865), but that was a war to prevent secession, as the South did want to conquer the North. In recent history, there was the 1995 Oklahoma City attacks by a right wing fanatic that despised the government. Dissent is only successful when it has a large following, otherwise they remain on the fringes. Acts of violence on innocent people rarely win people to your cause.

By the end The Weather Underground has the feel of a depressing class reunion. None of them seems too proud of their past actions. One former member, bar owner, Brian Flanagan, regrets his involvement with the group. He sees no honor in the use of violence to make a political point, especially in the wake of 9/11. Others remain committed to various causes and believe that violent change may be necessary. For students or anyone viewing the film, however, perhaps it is better to understand the nature of power before deciding how to dissent. Isn't the entire point of having a democracy?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Review: "The Battle over Citizen Kane"

The PBS documentary "The Battle over Citizen Kane" from the acclaimed anthology series, The American Experience is a compelling snapshot of cultural history. The show depicts the clash between the media mogul William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) and actor/director Orson Welles (1915-1985) over the release of what is universally considered the greatest American film ever made, Citizen Kane. Both men left indelible impressions on their respective eras. Hearst is to American journalism what John D. Rockefeller was to oil, as he controlled a sizable portion of the newspaper industry for the first half of the 20th century. Welles revolutionized American theater and film in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1941, Hearst and Wells, an old man and a young man, clashed over the limits of artistic expression on the eve of America's entry into the Second World War. The film skillfully used narration, photography, and the usual talking head commentary that captures the personalities of two giants.

Hearst holds a dubious place in American history, even more so than most titans of industry. The heir to a mining fortune, Hearst used cunning and wealth to build a news empire. Early in his career Hearst championed the underdog with stories favoring immigrants, the poor, and reformers. In 1898, Hearst favored war with Spain and helped spark a war fever in the country, with outrageous stories of Spanish atrocities in Cuba and their alleged complicity in the explosion of the U.S.S. Maine. After a failed foray into politics, Hearst newspapers turned their focus to sensationalism and celebrity driven stories. In later life, he secluded himself at his Northern California mansion with his mistress, the actress Marion Davies, and held court with the Hollywood elite. The life of Hearst is a metaphor for the corrosive effect of greed and epitomized the worst of American capitalism.

Welles cuts a far more interesting and enduring figure. During his childhood in suburban Chicago Welles was told he was a genius and believed it! In the late 1930s Welles shook up American theater with topical productions of classic Shakespeare plays. For example, he placed Julius Caesar in Nazi Germany. A star of the radio as well, Welles frightened the CBS listening audience in his legendary broadcast of War of the Worlds. In 1939, Hollywood came calling and he signed a contract with RKO that gave him complete creative control. Out of this came, Citizen Kane.

Modern film goers may not be aware the film is inspired by the life of Hearst, although the character Charles Foster Kane has the attributes of other historical figures. In 1941, when word leaked out the film gave a less than flattering portrayal of Hearst, he used all his power to prevent the film from being released. Hearst newspapers were banned from advertising the film and even distributed harsh reviews. Many theaters, under pressure from Hearst, refused to show it as well. Welles threatened major lawsuits on RKO if they caved in. The film was released to generally favorable reviews, but Welles had left a bad impression on the Hollywood elite. Citizen Kane only won one Oscar for original screenplay.

Several books and articles are available explain why Citizen Kane is a great film. The study by New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, The Citizen Kane Book, remains the standard work. I would also recommend the commentary tracks on the DVD with film historian Peter Bogdanovich and the movie critic Roger Ebert. The groundbreaking cinematography and the non linear structure of the film were way ahead of its time. Welles's amazing transformation from an idealistic young man into a cold reactionary is still remarkable. Also, the film is a parable about the nature of wealth and fame in America. The film opens with Kane dying alone inside his mansion is an odd foreshadowing of the demise of future icons like Howard Hughes, Elvis Presley, or Michael Jackson.

My one qualm in the film is its downbeat depiction of Welles. After the controversy surrounding Citizen Kane Welles lost creative control over his films. Amazingly, Welles was planning on film based on the life of Christ with himself in the title role! Eventually Welles left the studio system and became an independent filmmaker - before it was hip. The film implied that his post-Kane career was a downward spiral. Critics now acknowledge later films as masterpieces as well, Touch of Evil and Chimes at Midnight. His work remains relevant and a recent film by the indy director Richard Linklater, Me and Orson Welles, is about his famous production of Julius Caesar. Overall, the is useful in telling the story behind America's greatest film.