Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

Jason Moran: Skateboarding on a Piano

by

Howard Adelman

I will return to my series on antisemitism soon enough, but I must take two detours, one into jazz and a second into the theory and practice of sovereignty based on a conference I attended Friday.

I am not a jazz aficionado. I have no record or disc collection. And though I listen to Jazz FM91 on the radio, I would not say I do it regularly. But I do ensure I get my fix by attending the jazz series at Koerner Hall that Mervon Mehta puts together each year.

It was not always like that. I used to teach in the evenings. In the seventies, after my graduate seminar, I would drop into one of the clubs for one set as a way of unwinding before heading home. I was not a fan of rock and missed many famous concerts – such as the one in 1977 before I moved to Israel for a year when Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones performed and then was busted for heroin possession on an occasion made even more famous because he was consorting with Margaret Trudeau, the mother of our current Prime Minister, who had just split with Justin’s father when the latter was Prime Minister. I missed Richard’s concert at the El Mocambo, even though I often went there when a blues band was playing.

I was not a purist, for I often went to the Horseshoe Tavern on the north side of Queen Street to listen to country, though I stopped when the venue switched to emphasizing punk. I loved listening to the Downchild Blues Band at Grossman’s Tavern in my childhood district on Spadina Avenue between Dundas and College Streets. However, my favourite place was the Chick’N’Deli on Mt. Pleasant just south of Eglington, partly because the scene was so intimate, partly because the venue was en route from Glendon College to my home, but mostly because some of the greatest jazz greats played there.

What takes me down this nostalgic lane was listening last night to one of the most terrific jazz concerts I have ever heard. Jason Moran and The Bandwagon were featured at Koerner Hall last night. The trio, which included Tarus Mateen on the bass guitar and Nasheet Waits on drums, played one tune by Fats Waller, “The Sheik of Araby.” Sometime in the seventies, I had heard Fats Waller play that very tune at the Chick’N’Deli.

However, Jason said that was the tune he was playing. If he had not told me, I would never have known, perhaps the absolute proof that I am not a jazz aficionado. When Fats Waller played at the Chick’N’Deli, it was wild and the place was literally jumping. Jumpin and jivin! But last evening, Jason made the music soar instead. It cascaded up and up. Just when my heartbeat said it could not swirl faster and higher any longer, the music would go up again, faster at even greater heights and with more twists and turns, not once again, not twice again, but four or five times. I thought I would burst.

Jason Mason’s music whooshes and reaches crescendo after crescendo. Evidently, when he was in high school in Texas, he was an avid skateboarder. Jazz music clearly usurped skateboarding because it allowed him to almost escape the pull of gravity and to take us with him. This is not just a metaphor. While Waller would interweave Dixieland and blues, stride and swing, Jason was more of a classical artisan weaver who cut each strip from the trunk of a swamp tree and interwove those strips in new ways by infusing the music with both classical and post-modern atonal elements to create a synchronized whole.

In his porkpie hat and fashionably stubble beard, Jason Mason is a creator not a curator. He gives homage to traditional flare, but with complex rhythms that take you on a roller coaster that is no longer anchored to the ground. Yet he allows you to savour each and every note.

It is hard to choose which was the best number. His piece, Thelonious, that he played last evening was one of Monk’s own compositions. The playing was both a tribute and one personified by Moran. Jason Moran regards Thelonious Monk as the greatest jazz pianist in history. You can listen to a full tribute at http://www.npr.org/event/music/446866440/jason-moran-plays-thelonious-monks-town-hall-concert. By intersecting modernist elements, the composition is refreshed, renewed and reinvigorated in an absolutely new way. It should not be surprising that the first album that Jason released in 2002 was called Modernistic.

Last night, Jason Moran played Body and Soul in a way that took out the conjunction and turned the body into soul. It was like having a religious experience. But his music is also political. He has written compositions to convey the feeling of both slavery in America, apartheid in South Africa and, in the movie, Selma, the struggle against institutionalized discrimination against blacks that continued into the sixties in the United States and has taken new forms since. Moran fuses intellectual analysis with empathetic re-enactment. He will infuse pop genres unfamiliar to me, but also combining African beats and stride. He played a portion of Wind taken from the soundtrack that he wrote for the famous 2016 documentary 13th on race, and incarceration rates in the U.S. injustice system that I have yet to see, but I have read enough about it to know I must watch it. The music he played last night made me move it to top place on my bucket list.

I Ain’t Misbehavin and I Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, but when I do, Sweet Honey Bee in the hands of Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits takes me upward into the clouds to suck sweet nectar from extra-terrestrial flowers. At the same time, like Fats Waller’s most famous tune, the music takes me home, takes me on a nostalgic trip when my first brood were just entering their teens, and when I was totally immersed in my teaching and research career. That is more than a metaphor. Moran and his trio opened with a tune called Gangsters or something – I did not catch the title – or perhaps I heard it totally incorrectly because I was thinking about an Australian mobster and drug dealer by the same name as Jason Moran who had become infamous when I was visiting Australia fifteen years ago before I even became a research professor there from 2005-2008. Until I heard that number, it never occurred to me that jazz could really be about murder and mayhem.

Moran is no gangster. Instead of killing, he is truly a genius well deserving of all the awards he has accumulated, including a Genius Award and MacArthur Fellowship (2010). He has had many nominations and several times won as best jazz pianist of the year. For, in addition to his own original works, he allows artists to be born again in a new way for a contemporary audience. He himself is an artist pure and simple, so it is no surprise that he composes works that accompany art installations and creates video artworks collected by MOMA.

 

If he comes your way, do not miss him.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

A Life of Quiet Desperation – Certain Women

A Life of Quiet Desperation

by

Howard Adelman

Certain Women stars Laura Dern, Michele Williams and Kristen Stewart with Lily Gladstone the only non-star in a starring role. The film is scripted and directed by Kelly Reichardt from an adaptation of two of the eleven stories in Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It and one story from her collection, Half in Love.

Set in Montana with its broad high plains and mountains in the background, other than the absence of any significant traffic, this was not the extraordinarily beautiful Montana we drove through twice in the previous two years. This is a state viewed up close through a triptych of vignettes of the lives of four women living in a state in which Billings with its 100,000 plus souls is a huge metropolis.

Here is the way the film is described in the publicity: “The lives of three women intersect in small-town America, where each is imperfectly blazing a trail.” There are at least four misleading assertions in this one short sentence. The film is about four not three women, though it has three big stars and three stories strung together. Secondly, the lives of the women do not intersect, or barely and tangentially. It happens to be that Laura Dern’s lover in the first vignette is the husband of Michele Williams in the second one. And Laura works in a law office which Lily Gladstone comes across when searching for Kristen Stewart.

Other than these accidental and incidental crossings, there is virtually no intersection and inter-action in the movie. Each woman is akin to the very long train with which the film begins, each with its own engine and each acquiring more and more boxcars or experiences as the engine traverses across the plain. A prominent theme in E.M. Forster’s Passage to India was “only connect.” The theme of this film is “barely connect.” It is indeed a portrait of lonely lives in a lonely landscape in which people live side-by-side, interact functionally, but are imprisoned emotionally. The real depth of interaction is with the landscape which seems to diminish each of them as they experience the impossibility of rising like mountains over what seems like an endless plain.

Third, this is not a film about small-town America, but about small-town Montana where even Wyoming is viewed as foreign territory. Fourth, not one person blazes a trail. It is a film about women “at the end of the trail,” and it is a trail of desperation to escape in a territory which promised escape from the turmoil and troubles of the megalopolis cities of America. But it is a tale of certain women, very specific women, who share one common feature, determination and resilience, able to adjust to changing circumstances by resuming being themselves. They are not shape-shifters, but human beings who spring back to shape as they meet their share of disappointments in life. They are strong, tough, hardy and durable, but also vital and supple, but they are anything but change agents and more like lonely trees growing out of the semi-arid soil of Montana.

The men are another order of being. They seem incapable of hearing, taking advice or instructions from the women or negotiating with them. Laura’s hapless client who has been betrayed by life and an insurance company finally and suddenly accepts in a very short time the advice of a male lawyer offering a second opinion. The conclusion that his legal case was hopeless was the same advice that Laura had been drilling into him for eight months. The old lonely man in the second story agrees to give the pile of hand-hewn stones piled up on his property as the remnants of an old schoolhouse that he inherited when he bought the property to Michele Williams who had been determined to acquire them to build her fantasy house, but only does so when Michele’s husband reassures the old man that he does not have to sell the stones or give them away and, even then, can change his mind at anytime.

Finally, the male students in the small town’s extension class on educational law seem to learn nothing from Kristen Stewart. She is like the talking cereal box in the TV ad representing an insurance company teaching a class of young children about the benefits and security that the insurance company provides. But the children can only ask how the box eats and why he does not have a belly button. The educators cannot deal with the rights of students, but only with issue about their own legal benefits.

The film blazes its message in huge Honest Ed neon lights, but makes a tremendous but very quiet impact because of the subtlety of the details and its minimalist approach. The movie masters the challenge of making the interior lives of these women cinematic. It is a very intimate movie without any intimacy. There is virtually no action, for this is a film about inaction, about stalemates, about people whose lives have been frozen in the winter of Montana. It is a movie that makes boredom interesting by drawing our attention, not to the large picture screen, but to very small revealing moments. There are no technical innovations that I could spot, though plenty of shots of shuffling feet. This is a movie that makes understatement seem like an overstatement.

This is not simply a movie in a low key opposing modesty and restraint to that which is showy, but one that offers three stories of four independent women who live lives of quiet desperation. Subdued is too strong a word for the characters. The tone of each of the three stories is not simply muted, but the sounds slip across the field speckled with light snow and a few piles of hay to feed the horses. We hear the roar of the tractor and the dog barking as it chases it, but like the film, the dog’s bark bounces off the silence and the dog has no destination but to run after the moving tractor. That is about the level of action in the movie. Silence rather than words suffuse the film.

Other than the publicity blurb, I read that this was a film about the pioneering spirit of women when it is anything but. A pioneer explores a new territory, innovates in technology or initiates a new way of thinking. This is a film that makes Montana look old, weary and worn-out.  Every single one of the main characters is at a dead end in their lives. Rather than standing on a frontier, the whole sense of the movie is that they are in a backwater but, relative to the male characters, they come across as having a degree of spirit. Their loneliness is experienced more acutely because the men act out their meaningless lives while the women convey a sense of at least wanting some intimacy.

In the first vignette, Laura Dern is a lawyer observed over a period of interacting with one client, once an artisan carpenter, who has been injured at work but cannot legally pursue an insurance claim because he accepted a small payment from the insurance company. In the second vignette, Michele Williams plays a frustrated wife alienated from her sulky and resentful teenage daughter and living with but estranged from her husband even as the family camps in the Montana wilderness. In the third vignette, Kristen Stewart, the only member of her family who went beyond living off unskilled labour at the bottom of the employment pool, who has crawled up and achieved a law degree, finds that the only job she has been able to land is teaching educational law – of which she knows virtually nothing – to a motley tiny collection of adult students who presumably are educators but with no desire to become educated. Out of loneliness and with nothing to do, Lily Gladstone, who works caring for horses, wanders into her class and becomes enchanted by another female whose disenchantment with life is on full display.

I should not have written that this is a film absent of intimacy. Because there are indeed two dimensions of real intimacy on display. One is of Lily Gladstone with the horses she cares for and her dog. The other is with the landscape. In fact, the landscape is probably the most powerful presence in the movie. There are probably more shots of the spaces than of any of the characters.

There is also a sense that the film is also about the art of filmmaking, a very lonely profession that starts with the filmmaker falling in love with and/or writing a script and spending what seems like an eternity by oneself envisioning and blocking out the film cinematically. Then the director moves onto a different level and shares the activity of making the movie with a very large group of collaborators, only, in the end, to be thrust back onto your own resources and your own loneliness when the editor enters the editing room and returns to communing with himself or herself.

Whereas, Reichardt emerges with a highly successful result, her characters on screen end up facing a future even more bleak and miserable than the one they had when the stories began.

Malignant Narcissism and Epochal Change

Malignant Narcissism and Epochal Change

by

Howard Adelman

We are in the process of an epochal change. Narcissism, as indicated throughout the world, is on the march and in many places – Turkey, Russia, and now the U.S. Malignant narcissists (MNs) occupy the highest political positions in the land and threaten to do so in many other places, facilitated by minor non-malignant narcissists who already dominate the corridors of power. The new media somehow have helped dismantle the institutional intellectual checks that worked and were designed to keep such personalities away from the apex of power. When the personality who occupies the top political office in the land and the centre of political authority, when the self-centredness that was supposed to be the essential character of the economic order – though it was really not – becomes the predominant trait envisaged as dominating all orders, then the seeds of rot and disorder have invaded the central hub to allow destructiveness rather than constructivism to become the order of the day.

Narcissists love themselves more than anything, and malignant narcissists love only themselves or those considered to be reflections of themselves. All energy is expended in self-confirmation rather than in efforts to understand and comprehend the mysteries of the universe. Immune to falsifiability, MNs disparage science, the essence of which is a willingness to be open to self-criticism and critical self-reflection. The MN is very capable of pivoting and tactically adjusting to setbacks, but will never admit that the initiative of the Executive Order on migration was just a terrible and inept expression of governance. An MN not only dislikes restraints and government rules to protect the citizenry in the economic sphere, but he expands this dictum into a transcendental principle of understanding altogether. A new executive order on migration will be written and issued to get around the obstacles, but these are not regarded as constitutional limits on actions, but as barriers to be crushed in due time.

If the empath is inherently shy and is embarrassed by praise, the MN cannot live without it. The thirst for accolades is insatiable in proportion to the distance of any personality traits or accomplishments from deserving such praise. While empaths seek solitude to restore their equanimity, MNs need to surround themselves with courtiers, supplicants and sycophants who are loyal, not to any idea or ideal, but to The Donald.

But what about friends. Brian Mulroney, once Prime Minister of Canada, is a friend of Donald Trump. Whatever his failings as a blowhard, Mulroney was not a self-serving malignant narcissist. Self-serving perhaps, so when I first met him, within 30 seconds he had sized me up and, having determined I was of no use to him, abruptly terminated our contact. The Donald would not have needed that initial handshake to even make such a determination.

Further, an ordinary egocentric character like Mulroney could still bestow US$5 million on Nelson Mandela of the ANC after he was freed from years in prison. An extraordinary person like Brian Mulroney was also one of the rare statesmen who, without fanfare, was the only world leader we knew who wrote two, not just one, letter to President Habyarimana of Rwanda urging him to retreat from the persecution of Tutsis. So why and how could Mulroney be friends with Trump?

Bob Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, is another personal friend of Donald Trump. By virtually all accounts, Kraft is a fair and generous man, highly successful and well loved and respected. During Super Bowl week, he explained his friendship with Donald Trump. “When [Kraft’s wife] Myra died [in 2011], Melania [Trump] and Donald came up to the funeral in our synagogue, then they came for memorial week to visit with me. Then he called me once a week for the whole year, the most depressing year of my life when I was down and out. He called me every week to see how I was doing, invited me to things, tried to lift my spirits. He was one of five or six people that were like that. I remember that.”

This is not a false memory. This is true. And there are many other such testimonies of individuals who have remained loyal to Donald Trump in spite of what they regard as his eccentricities, his bad taste and his often oafish and insensitive behaviour. Further, Trump offers these loyalists, these Red Tories, reasons to identify with his political platform. Kraft said of DT’s planned remake of America’s inner cities: “Working class people and lower income people, we have to help more. They’ve gotten hurt over the last decade a lot. We have to create jobs and a vibrant economy that helps those communities throughout America. I really believe and hope that the new administration is going to do that.”

Kraft is not an empath. He is just a very successful good-hearted citizen who cannot recognize a practiced manipulator for what he is. Kraft can evidently not pick up false empathy, empathy which is practiced as a craft rather than as an expression of the inner soul. The reality is that Trump populates his universe with worshippers, courtiers and billionaires, the later as the necessary icing on the cake to ensure that he can bathe in the shadow of another’s celebrity at the same time as he demands, as he needs, their acceptance and applause. When he interviewed billionaires for important positions in his cabinet, the ultimate selection criterion was not whether their policies were in accord with his or, when different, could be well-defended, but whether they would truly and fully acknowledge DT as leader of the pack.

That is why money matters. That is why glitter matters. That is why gold matters. They are, for a malignant narcissist, the ultimate symbol of success – not academy awards or honorary doctorates, but money. DT has the Midas touch, the golden touch precisely because he cannot really touch or be touched as I noted in an earlier blog discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book XI. What I did not write is that Midas had been very generous and kind to the drunken poet, Silenus. Midas entertained him, wined and dined him and extended to him an unprecedented 10 days of hospitality to an otherwise fall-down-dead-drunk. When Dionysus offered to reward Midas for his generosity and granted him one wish, that wish was that everything he touched should turn to gold, including the presidency of the United States of America. The roses in his huge garden lost their suppleness, their colour and their velvet feel as they turned to gold upon his touch.

And when his daughter came to weep about what had happened to the roses, as in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories, when Midas went to touch his daughter, she too turned to gold. Donald Trump has five children. Some evidently keep their distance or, as much as possible, are kept at a distance. But the three oldest have been converted to the belief that the pursuit of gold is the highest achievement, even though there is no evidence, however accomplished Ivanka Trump may be, that they possess the Midas touch. Trump’s children are props for him, to be cited and used as testaments, for one, to his lack of anti-Semitism. They are the only courtiers he can trust.

But they dare not disabuse him of his deep conviction that he got the most electoral votes ever, that larger crowds attended his inauguration compared to that of any other president-elect. He could not stand, he could not tolerate a blatant visual image that Barack Obama in 2009 had attracted much larger crowds than he had. He had a fit, a temper tantrum, and berated The National Park Commission for issuing false images and pictures. Most of all, he took to task the media with their fact-checking and continual replay of the pictures that told more than a thousand words. The replays only made Trump more furious and he declared open warfare on the false, on the lying, media – with the exception of the small number of TV stations that continued to pour accolades on Donald Trump without reserve.

Most of all, in the central focus on themselves as the reference point for not simply assessing value, but for establishing himself as the ultimate value, Donald Trump offers no praise of past history or even acknowledges it or the institutions developed by that history to protect against the exercise of power by a narcissist. In that sense, he is akin to the empath, but with this major difference. The empath can see and foresee. The Donald can and must play and replay. The more nostalgic, the more comforting, the less challenging, the more often it is replayed. On 20 January 2017 began the first day of the New Common Era and the beginning of draining the swamp into which DT had thrown all of history.

In both the film The Arrival and in the world of Trump, history is problematized. However, whereas in the movie time can run backwards as well as forwards, in the Trump world, linear time is deconstructed into recurring existential moments to create a repeated existential presence, an image of action more akin to the hell Sisyphus suffers in rolling the boulder up the hill, only to have it roll down the next day, making it necessary to repeat the action. Only in this ultimate inversion, this state of hell is depicted by Trumpists as the other side of the Pearly Gates.

Frenetic in motion and in speech, Trump cannot and will not sit still. Most of all, he has to restore his energy as he feeds on the applause of the crowd. But what happens as the applause begins to die out. Desperately, he will search for more rallies in an attempt to still the discontent within. We now live in this inverted world and have passed irredeemably into a new epoch. How can we cope?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda

Vietnamerica: Part II Propaganda – A Distinct Form of Documentary Film

by

Howard Adelman

In part I, I insisted that a good documentary should not be a propaganda film which brackets critical thought in favour of a single message pushing an ideological agenda on the public. When critical thinking is suspended, the documentary becomes a propaganda film. Today I will try to show how 10% of the Vietnamerica documentary that was ideological undermined the narrative of the suffering of the refugees who fled Vietnam.

Yesterday, I focused largely on the central core of the film and to some extend on one bookend, the success stories. Both happened to be military successes, one about the son of a refugee family who became the first Vietnamese-American general, and the other about the Vietnamese-American scientist who led the team that created the bunker buster bomb. This emphasis on militarism and a revisionist version of the Vietnam War opened the film. The film was transformed in good part from a view and record of the horrific experiences the Vietnamese had under the communists and in their efforts to escape, into an explicit propaganda film in defence of the theory that America betrayed its ally, South Vietnam. For it argues that the war had been effectively won when Kissinger was responsible for the stab-in-the-back, not only in abandoning Vietnam, but in refusing to re-equip the South Vietnamese army when China and the USSR were re-equipping the North Vietnamese. This thesis is dubious to say the least.

The film does not try to defend its extreme revisionist view, but simply to propagate the tale as a given. Quite aside from the questionable historical account, the effort to combine a historical propaganda film with a film of the experiences of the Vietnamese boat people allows the former to both undermine and detract from the latter.

There are the obvious readily challenged factual claims. A narrator says that half who fled Vietnam died in trying. If the numbers who fled were about two million, that would mean one million died in the effort to find freedom. But the film itself provides the generally accepted figure of 200,000 to 400,000 deaths. My studies indicate that the number was close to the higher estimate and North Vietnamese repression can be held responsible for at least half of those deaths. But not one million. Further, in the movie, there is no effort to resolve the contradiction in the figures cited. Similarly, assertions that 7 million died in the war are dubious. There is scant evidence to support such claims and virtually all authoritative sources cite a total of about 4 million dead and wounded on both sides, including 40,000 troops and civilians in The Convoy of Tears as civilians and military personnel fled the aggression of North Vietnamese armies as they moved against Saigon during March and April of 1975.

As far as atrocities and summary executions go, these were committed by both sides. The most famous was that of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, Chief of the National Police, whose shooting of a handcuffed prisoner in the head with his 38 Smith & Wesson revolver became an iconic picture for the anti-war movement. The victim was Nguyễn Văn Lém, a member of the Việt Cộng captured in the Tet Offensive. Given the status of the photo, few knew that Lém was responsible for cutting the throat, not only of South Vietnamese Lieutenant Colonel Tuan, but his wife, six children and 80-year old mother. I do not know which side was guilty of the greater number of atrocities, but I suspect it was the Hanoi regime. Lém was captured beside a mass grave that held 34 civilian bodies.

It is easy to hold the Hanoi regime responsible for large numbers of deaths. After their victory over the French in the north and their breaking up the large estates and targeting large landowners, the Hanoi communist regime introduced land “reform.” that is, transferring all ownership of property to the state. Pacification followed. It is estimated that the Hanoi regime over four years killed almost 300,000 North Vietnamese citizens. In the period preceding the attack on Saigon, as suggested above, “Of the 200,000 refugees that fled the Highlands offensive by the North in March 1975, only 45,000 made it to Tuy-Hoa. Many of the 155,000 missing were killed by North Vietnamese troops; others were captured. Rebel highlanders also fired on the refugees, some were mistakenly bombed by government planes, and still others may have been run over by fleeing government vehicles. Some died by drowning and sheer exhaustion.” Of the death toll from one military advance over two months, Hanoi was probably responsible for almost half those deaths.

Thus, an estimate of those killed after the fall of Saigon of 100,000 does not seem so outlandish, especially if one includes in the total not only those executed, but those who were worked or starved to death in the so-called “re-education” camps. Some estimates go even higher. For a breakdown of civilians indiscriminately killed as a result of or consistent with orders from higher command, that is, democide, I use Bob Rummel’s publications in chapter 6 of Statistics of Democide focused on democide in Vietnam over 35 years.

The central issue of the propaganda element in the film is, however, not about numbers, but about the stab-in-the-back explanation of why Hanoi conquered South Vietnam. The propagandistic aspect of the film begins with two so-called authorities featured near the beginning of the film. One is Robert Turner, a Vietnam veteran and Associate Director of National Security Law at the University of Virginia, the university from which he earned his academic and professional degrees. Turner has been a national security adviser to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and testified before numerous congressional committees. Studying his works offers some hint of the weaknesses of his academic input into foreign policy in the United States. His CV is very skimpy to say the least, largely consisting of op-eds, power-point presentations and submissions to government committees.

Turner is most famous for his defense of presidential prerogatives in military matters without the checks of Congress. In contrast to the vast majority of scholars, Turner has argued against the doctrine that “unchecked” presidential power is incompatible with democratic governance. He defends “unfettered” presidential power to be at the heart of the constitution, namely, that the power of the democratically elected “monarch” is unboundaried. This thesis is not accepted as a very serious perspective by the vast majority of established constitutional experts. Here is how he expressed his view. “Congress exceeded its proper authority in several instances related to war powers and intelligence.” Turner especially stressed the issue of intelligence and often cited John Locke’s doctrine (Two Treatises of Government) that success in war, described by him as a state of enmity and destruction, required unity of plan, speed, dispatch and secrecy

Turner is fond of quoting Chief Justice John Marshall on this issue. “By the Constitution of the United States, the President is invested with certain important political powers, in the exercise of which he is to use his own discretion, and is accountable only to his country in his political character, and to his own conscience…whatever opinion may be entertained of the manner in which executive discretion may be used, still there exists, and can exist, no power to control that discretion. The subjects are political. They respect the nation, not individual rights, and being entrusted to the executive, the decision of the executive is conclusive.”

The problem is that secrecy in John Locke applied to implementation not to strategy and direction. The latter required a shared long term and even permanent conviction and shared by the executive, the legislature and the people of a realm. This required articulation and consent, not deceit and surreptitious behaviour. Strategy applies to long term existential threats. Tactics apply to the management and execution of opposing that threat. A State of peace among citizens requires consent. Conduct of a war against an enemy requires secrecy. The issue is always how you combine secrecy with consent and not have secrecy supplant consent. Interpreting the power of the purse and the approval of appointments very narrowly just does not cut how the dialectical dance works.

However, Turner’s interpretation of the last years of the Vietnam War, while influenced by that non-conventional doctrine, is, if that is possible, even more questionable and, I believe, outlandish. Those interpretations can be read in many of his presentations that presumably informed Nancy when she began making the film: “Reflections on the Vietnam War,” given to the Air Force Military Academy in 2010; “The Consequences of U.S. Abandonment of Indochina” given at the Fall of Saigon conference in April of 2010. For more recent references, see Turner’s power point presentations on the net entitled, “Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Indochina (the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution)” given to the National Press Club in August 2014; “The Vietnam War and Constitutional War Powers” (October 2014), “Myths of the Vietnam War,” (2015) and “Views on Vietnam: The Irony of the LBJ Library Vietnam War Summit” (April 2016).

All are part of a revisionist history narrative that is akin to the one Hitler offered to Germans explaining why Germany lost WWI. “I continue to believe,” said Turner, “that a misguided and horribly misinformed Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Indochina, leading directly to the slaughter of millions of innocent lives and the consignment to Communist tyranny of tens of millions more.” Why would you include the testimony of such a questionable authority in a film about the horrible experiences of Vietnamese refugees even if it was somewhat credible? The thesis on the fall of Saigon is a crucial debate and a conflicted issue requiring one form of documentary treatment. The portrayal of the suffering of those who fled is based on a very wide consensus. The cost to credibility of including a thesis about the reasons for the loss of a war in a film about human suffering is enormous.

This is also true of the narrative offered by Lewis Sorley, author of A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. His thesis is bought hook, line and sinker by Nancy Bui and, in the film, is offered in an abbreviated account. She expanded upon this thesis in my discussions with her after watching the film. The Americans and South Vietnam had defeated the Viet Cong, had allowed the South Vietnamese government to once again exercise its authority in the towns and villages, and the South Vietnamese army had by then been so well trained that it could carry the war forward without the use of American troops on the ground. However, Nixon and Kissinger sold out South Vietnam in the Paris Peace Accord of January 1973 and then double crossed the South Vietnamese by not resupplying them with arms and ammunition. This position has some justification, particularly the first of these two propositions. But the argument that in 1972, the Americans had won the war when General Abrams replaced General Westmoreland and shifted the strategy from the pursuit of the Viet Cong and body counts to a war to secure villages is highly questionable. Essentially, the thesis argues that the war had been virtually won by the American and South Vietnamese military and then the victory was squandered by the politicians and diplomats engaged in the Paris Peace Accords and its aftermath.

Colloquially put, the U. S. bugged out. Having gotten the North back to the bargaining table, Nixon and Kissinger cut a deal – the 27 January 1973 Paris Peace Accord – which allowed the North to keep its forces in South Vietnam. 80,000 North Vietnamese troops were permitted to remain in South Vietnam and this number was surreptitiously expanded to over 100,000 troops as Hanoi prepared for its 1975 offensive. The breach in the Accords was never really challenged by the U.S. or the world. At the time, of the 160,000 American troops once in Vietnam, down to 27,000 when the Accords were signed, under pressure from the anti-Vietnam War movement and a cowardly Congress, America cut and ran.

Further, Nixon refused to resume bombing to enforce the Accords. This enabled the North to use the cover of a cease fire to move more men and materiel into the South. Meanwhile, Congress, with bills like the Fulbright-Aiken Amendment, and extensive cuts to the military budget, pulled the logistical rug out from under the South. At the very time that the North was stockpiling arms, supplied by China and Russia, the South was having its supply of arms seriously curtailed. It was South Vietnam’s bad luck, at its hour of greatest peril, to be saddled with a feckless ally. Imagine having to depend on the U.S. for the logistical support which is your life’s blood at a time when it was being run by Nixon and Kissinger at the executive level and by folks like Ted Kennedy in the congressional realm. Sorley, and Nancy Bui in turn, lays much of the blame at the doorstep of the American political leadership.
Who else were the real villains responsible, in this revisionist version, for the fall of Saigon? The media focused on the protesters and the casualties (57,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War). A fickle public led by students and liberals opposed the war. There is no discussion in the film about the bombing of Hanoi, the efforts to destroy the supply lines, the refusal of the Saigon government to recognize the reality of the Viet Cong and the civil war (the Viet Cong are, to the best of my memory) never mentioned in the film.) and the widespread destruction in Laos, the failure to sustain a representative government instead of corrupt dictators or even a disciplined core of army officers – failures that would be repeated again and again for decades after the Korean conflict when America entered a foreign theatre to fight a war.

South Vietnam surrendered on 30 April 1975. America rescued 10,000 Vietnamese linked to the military effort and subsequently took in tens of thousands of others in the next three years, many or most of whom were linked with the American war effort. But in 1978, the Vietnamese government began a much wider and more oppressive regime that first targeted the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam and then spread to all other middle class Vietnamese. The suppression was horrendous and it was in this period that Canada entered into scene to help resettle refugees fleeing communist repression and not just those who lost the war.

Did a film about oppression and flight of refugees have to be combined with an alt-right interpretation of failure in the war? Obviously not. Interpreting the reasons for the fall of Saigon deserves a separate film in its own right. The effort to marry the two related but separate topics gives the impression that the plight of the refugees is merely being used to advance an ideological viewpoint. An excellent and emotionally powerful film about the Vietnamese refugee exodus is, ironically, almost drowned in a propaganda film about the reasons the South Vietnam government fell. I personally was torn between the tears I shed at the horrors suffered by the refugees and the tears I metaphorically shed at this lost opportunity to create an award-winning feature-length documentary. Though a lost artistic opportunity to make a great documentary of the exodus of the Vietnamese boat people does not compare with the real tears I have shed over the years at the suffering of the Vietnamese refugees fleeing a communist regime, nevertheless I was torn between my sadness at the lost opportunity and the revival of my compassion for the suffering and the dead. The film is valuable for attending to the latter. But it is flawed and distorted by advancing a far out historical thesis. And that is a pity.

An Afterword

One final and minor but relevant academic point arose, not in the film, but in my subsequent discussions with Nancy Bui. Nancy contended that the Paris Peace Accord obligated the U.S. to resupply South Vietnam with military weapons. I argued that the Peace Accords only permitted the U.S. to make up for depletions. As I recalled, the Accords stipulated that the U.S. would stay out of Vietnam after the U.S. army withdrew in terms of supplying military troops or equipment, except to replace losses on a one-to-one basis. Nancy insisted that there was no provision forbidding America from resupplying the South Vietnamese Army. I was not sure if my memory was correct and I promised to re-read the Accords to check whether Nancy’s interpretation was more accurate. The point is obviously relevant to a thesis that faults the U.S. for the fall of Saigon in general and for the refusal to re-supply South Vietnam with military arms.

There is some truth in this. Nixon did evidently secretly promise President Thiệu both that America would be able to maintain its logistical advantage and that if North Vietnam breached the agreement, the U.S. would resume bombing the North. However, chapter V, article 15(d) of the Paris Peace Accords provided that North and South Viet-Nam shall not join any military alliance or military bloc and shall not allow foreign powers to maintain military bases, troops; military advisers, and military personnel on their respective territories, as stipulated in the 1954 Geneva Agreements on Viet-Nam. Article 2 of Chapter II specifically stated that, “the United States will stop all its military activities against the territory of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam by ground, air and naval forces.” This was interpreted as excluding the Americans from acting militarily in any way on behalf of South Vietnam.

Further, the Case-Church Amendment approved by the U.S. Congress in June of 1973 endorsed this interpretation and explicitly prohibited further U.S. military activity in Indochina and at a time preparations were underway to impeach Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. When North Vietnam resumed the war and launched the 1975 offensive, the U.S. refused to offer further military assistance and certainly refused to bomb the North. The North Vietnamese succeeded in defeating the South Vietnamese army, not primarily because North Vietnam was being supplied by Russia and China but America was not re-supplying South Vietnam, but because morale in the South Vietnam army had disintegrated, because corruption had eaten away at its soul and because most officers fled the field and abandoned their troops as the North Vietnamese advanced. The North Vietnamese did not have to fight very much to win the war. Replacing equipment was irrelevant when the South Vietnamese army was collapsing and the North Vietnamese were seizing more and more American arms and equipment.

Whether South Vietnam lost the war or the war was lost because the American people and the Congress betrayed and let down their partners is at best a matter of controversy. Dogmatic assertion on one side produced a propaganda film that undermines the documentary on the suffering of those who fled the new totalitarian order.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Vietnamerica Part I

Vietnamerica Part I – a film review

by

Howard Adelman

When I was in high school at Harbord Collegiate, I lived around the corner from my three secular synagogues. I had stopped following the Friday evening and Saturday practices of my Jewish Orthodox upbringing. Going to films, sometimes on both Friday evenings and Saturdays, became my new secular religion. And there were three film synagogues to practice that religion, the Bloor Theatre on the south side of Bloor east of Bathurst (now Lee’s Palace), the Alhambra on the north side of Bloor just west of Bathurst and immediately around the corner from my home, and the Midtown on the north side east of Bathurst, always my movie theatre of choice.

The Midtown was originally built way back in 1913 when my mother was born. It was then called the Madison. During WWII, when I was still a very young boy, it was rebuilt as the Midtown. In the late sixties during the period of the Vietnam War and the start of my academic career, the Midtown began its parallel descent with that war, first renamed the Capri and then the Eden, a showcase for “adult films.” The theatre was rescued by Carm Bordanaro and his family just at the beginning of 1980 when the Boatpeople campaign to resettle Indochinese refugees in Canada came into full swing. Canada, under the Clark government in July of the previous year, had set a target of an intake of 50,000 Indochinese refugees, 21,000 to be sponsored by the private sector matched by the same number by the government plus the 8,000 to which the government had previously been committed. By the end of 1979, the private sponsorship movement had already exceeded its target.

So it was entirely appropriate and historically compelling for the life of that theatre that a new documentary, Vietnamerica, had two screenings at the Hot Docs yesterday. I attended the second in the Ted Rogers Cinema. The Rogers family had donated $5 million enabling the Hot Docs Festival to purchase the building. It is now one of the most comfortable theaters in Toronto and allows Torontonians to see a wide array of documentaries. The movie, Vietamerica, should not be confused with G.B. (Jimmy) Tran’s graphic memoir about his and his family’s fifty-year journey and its experiences in coming to and settling in America called Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey.

Vietnamerica is a feature-length documentary (1.5 hours) on the Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in the United States, focusing mainly on the ordeal they went through, but bookended by the reasons for their flight at one end and, at the other end, their success in the United States. The problem comes in the bookends, though the core of the film could be helped to a degree by cutting some irrelevant segments and providing more clarity on the different phases of the exodus and the very different causes and consequences of each phase.

Instead, there is a compression of the Vietnamese allied with the South Vietnam government who first fled, then the Vietnamese who were ethnic Chinese fleeing ethnic cleansing, then the Vietnamese refugees of property owners and the middle class who fled in an overlapping wave of repression, then the “lingerers” who fled between 1982 to 1988, then those who fled but were repatriated unless they could establish that they were targeted for persecution, then the rescue of the prisoners from Vietnamese jails. All are lumped together. The compressing of different conditions in leaving, in camps, in readiness to resettle, in the availability of relatives to help in sponsorship and, generally, to changes over time in both push and pull factors, led to a somewhat confusing portrait of the exodus.

There were also omissions, but the film was already long enough and I am sure a great deal had been cut. I would have substituted the bookend material with more expansion on the lives of those portrayed so that one could more fully identify with them, on the corrupt role of the Vietnamese military and government officials in accepting gold to facilitate escape, and in the perils to those caught who did not have government protection and their subsequent suffering. But it was not my film.

Scott Edwards is the director with a very minimal filmography. Robert Andrew Bennett and Megan Williams are given credit for the script. These two screenwriters also have a very thin filmography. For the clear and acknowledged force behind the creation of the film has been Nancy Bui, Executive Producer and founder of the Vietnamese American Heritage Foundation (VAHF). Nancy is responsible for a collection of more than 700 oral histories of Vietnamese who were resettled in America. Some of that collection and 200,000 pages of documents and pictures are housed at the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University.

Her driving force brought the film to its realization. I had the pleasure of spending much of the evening after watching the film talking to Nancy and her assistant, discussing the film and, more specifically, my claim that propaganda films are documentaries, but a good documentary should not be a propaganda film which brackets critical thought in favour of a single message. That is, I believe that documentaries should not be a means to push an ideological agenda on the public. When critical thinking is suspended, then the documentary becomes a propaganda film. Many renowned documentalists would disagree. So there are two different questions. To what extend was this film a propaganda film? And to the degree it was, does that make the film faulty?

Nancy, a journalist, fled Vietnam with her two children in 1979. In 1988, she wrote a novel about her experience called Bot Bien, sea foam. But the real impetus for making the film came from an experience with her daughter who came home from school crying because she had received an F on an essay. Nancy had helped her daughter write the history paper on the experience of her own family as Vietnamese refugees coming to America. When Nancy went to remonstrate the teacher, the teacher explained that her daughter received an F because it contained no references. If Vietnamerica is any indication, the essay not only lacked references, but ran contrary to widely accepted interpretations about the war, quite aside from the personal experiences of Nancy and her family. More specifically, the film was made to reflect her viewpoint and to counter the views of many other films, such as, if I recall correctly, one at the extreme other end, Vietnam: American Holocaust, that portrays the Vietnam War as a sustained mass slaughter planned and perpetrated by presidents Johnson and Nixon.

Nancy became determined to provide the documentary background of her record of her and others’ experiences in coming to America and the reasons they came. The oral history project was one result. An award-winning short film, that is at the core of Vietnamerica, was produced, Master Nguyen Tien Hoa. The latter told the story of a Vietnamese martial arts master, Nguyen Tien Hoa, who returns to Southeast Asia in quest of the graves of his wife and children. That film, won a number of commendations, including the Dallas International Film Festival, the Worldfest-Houston International Film Festival and the Asian Film Festival as the best short documentary film in 2015. I am sure it deserved those prizes. But in stretching the film to a feature length and marrying it to a propagandist film on revisionist history with respect to the Vietnam War, the moving story of Hoa becomes diluted and sometimes lost.

The Hoa story forms the heart of the feature-length film and contains its most moving scenes. Hoa describes being tied up when the boat on which he and 75 members of his family and friends who escaped with him was captured by Thai pirates. He sat helpless as the pirates wrenched away his young daughter from her mother’s arms and threw the baby into the sea. Subsequently, helplessly, he was forced to watch the rape of his wife in front of his eyes. That portion of the film is simply excruciating to watch. A climactic moment in the film takes place when Hoa finds the grave of his cousin with whom he spent 18 hours in the sea after he managed to capture a second Thai pirate boat to be used by his family and friends. However, he was swept out to sea along with his cousin when he tried to transfer his cousin with his broken leg to the captured pirate boat. Hoa never saw his family or friends again; they presumably died, numbered among the 200,000 to 400,000 who lost their lives in the exodus.

The showing began with a number of introductory speeches, but one could anticipate the perspective that would predominate in the film when the American anthem alongside the old South Vietnamese national anthem were played and the American flag and the old South Vietnamese flag were much in evidence. There was also a moving one minute of silence in memory of those 200,000-400,000 Vietnamese who perished in their effort to reach safety and freedom from communist rule even though the film at one point claimed that half of those who tried to escape died in the effort – which would mean that a million and a half died instead of 200,000 to 400,000. Other very questionable numbers are cited – 100,000 executed by the Hanoi government, 7 million who died in the war. The movie is “ambitious” in a much more general way. Made at a cost of $350,000, it not only covers the horrendous experiences of selected refugees who came to America, but the selection of those portrayed is interesting in itself.

Hoa is a martial arts instructor who, according to his own testimony, was mentally ill for eight years following his trauma until he reconnected with his martial arts background. According to Hoa, it provided the therapy to get over his trauma. That is a metaphor for the whole film. Hoa now provides instruction in martial arts to young and old as both physical and psychological therapy to help people cope with the struggles in life. The need to resort to martial methods in also the overriding theme of the movie.

For example, the bookend of success stories includes two out of a myriad that could have been selected. One is Nguyet Anh Duong who led the scientific effort to develop the so-called bunker buster bomb that enables the bomb to penetrate deeply into structures before it explodes. Developed for America’s war in Afghanistan, Duong won the Dr. Arthur E. Bisson Prize for Achievement in Naval Technology and the National Security Medal for a significant contribution to America’s national security. Duong is currently the Director for the Borders and Maritime Security Division within the United States Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate.

The other significant achiever represented in the film is General Viet Luong, the first Vietnamese-American general in U.S. history and a child of Vietnamese refugees. Vietnamese have been successful in a myriad of fields, science, the arts, business, medicine and academia. But the film ended up keeping the two samples of military success stories. There are several other stories briefly and even more sketchily told. One was of Thanh Tu Tran, a Captain in the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces and son of a former Prime Minister of South Vietnam who spent fifteen years in a communist prison. Another was a writer who escaped North Vietnam.

In the film, there is a chance encounter between Tran and Vietnamese exchange students at the memorial in Washington to those who died at the hands of the communists. But instead of getting into an interesting discussion of different perspectives and understandings, the encounter dissolves before it ever gets started. That is also true of the historical as distinct from humanitarian aspects of the film.

Last evening, I had a discussion with a resettled North Vietnamese young lady who also saw the film. She came to Canada in 2006, attended York University and now works as a real estate agent. She told me that when she came, she had to learn how distorted her education had been since she had never been exposed to anything but the communist version of what was called the American War. On the other hand, in contrast to my response – I had wanted the intimate moments of individual lives to have been more developed to facilitate greater identification – she was bothered by the intimate individualistic details and thought the film should have attended more to the larger political and military questions. Only half smiling, I suggested that her early collectivist indoctrination was still part of her mental framework.

I attended the film with three other Canadians, all eminent Canadians. We all had the same reaction to one scene in the film in which a Hungarian anti-communist verbally assaults protesters against the Vietnam War who bear his rant in stoical silence as he yells and screams that they all should be hung. We all were repelled by the scene, thought it had nothing to do with the story of the experience of Vietnamese refugees resettling in the West. However, in the interviews afterwards, Nancy told me that among Vietnamese, this was one of their favourite moments in the film. Two interviews I conducted with other Vietnamese who had watched the film confirmed that. Both felt elated when they watched the Hungarian berate the peaceniks. When I pointed out that the Hungarian’s calling for the protesters to be hung was appalling and contrary to principles of freedom, and, in any case, detracted from the film enormously, one Vietnamese viewer conceded my point, but not the thrill he and other Vietnamese had about the scene.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Hell of High Water – a movie review

Hell or High Water: a movie review

by

Howard Adelman

There is a very revealing scene in the movie that we saw last evening, Hell or High Water, directed by David Mackenzie. Jeff Bridges, a crusty retiring Texas ranger, Marcus Hamilton, and his partner, the Comanche Texas ranger, Alberto, played with puritanical stoicism by Gil Birmingham, are riding in their police vehicle attempting to track down two men responsible for a series of bank robberies in western Texas. They are stopped on the highway by old-style cowboys herding their cattle across the blacktop in flight from a prairie grass fire. This is the new West – of oil rigs (and wind energy towers, the latter not seen in the movie because the film was shot in New Mexico). The cowboy tells Jeff Bridges that this is a hell of a way to make a living. “It’s the 21st century. No wonder my kid doesn’t wanna do this shit!”

The movie title harks back to a time when the expression was not “in”, “come” or even the more modern, “through” hell or high water, but just hell or high water. It was a period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when ranch hands drove their longhorns to rail heads through the high water of river crossings rather than travel long distances across a parched landscape to find shallows where they could ford the stream with ease. All obstacles, however high, are surmountable. Attacking them head on is a better choice than the hell of taking a circuitous route. This was the ethos of the cowboy. But it is also the grand metaphor of the film. For these Texan white males, there seems to be only two options – they are either struggling to surmount incredible obstacles or they live in a hell of their own and their society’s making.

Texas may still be gun country, but it is no longer cowboy country. Instead of the broad immense rich blue sky of Texas, black clouds from the grass fire blot out much of the sky. The atmosphere is one of gloom, despair and hopelessness. What we are watching is the death of a whole way of life with its deteriorating small towns and crotchety elders. The Texas of the old West is decaying in full view as we watch the strange beauty of this hard-crusted landscape and the human flotsam left over who spend their time shooting at each other in a state where even old men doing banking carry a gun and are ready to use it. “When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I take along Samuel Colt.” (Dust of the Chase)

In another insightful vignette, the two rangers stop to eat at an old-fashioned restaurant called the T-Bone, evidently the only eatery in town. The crotchety old waitress (Margaret Bowman), who has been waiting tables for eons (the actress is 84 years old and deserves an Oscar for her brilliant brief performance), asks the two what they don’t want. The two rangers look first puzzled and then downright totally bewildered. She says that the only thing they serve is T-bone steak. It comes with green beans and a baked potato. Which of the two choices, if any, does each of the rangers want to leave out? As an aside, the old crone tells them that she once had a customer from New York who asked for trout.

I cannot recall her words disparaging the New Yorker, but I immediately thought of how rural America and the rust belt elected Donald Trump and thumbed their noses at the sophisticates of urban America.

Hell or High Water is a study in contemporary rural cultural geography and in character revealed as much through all the silences as the witty dialogue of Taylor Sheridan’s script. There is almost no plot. Of the two brothers who are the bank robbers, Toby (Chris Pine) is a divorced father with two sons with a sense of his own personal failure. As the movie unfolds, it becomes evident that he is driven by a determination that his own sons will not face the same bleak existence that he and his brother, Tanner, did. The latter (Ben Foster) is an ex-con who served ten years in prison. He “double crossed the State of Texas and they gave (him) a little time.” (Dust of the Chase) He is the wild card of the pair. A sociopath whose only moral compass seems to be loyalty to his younger brother, Tanner is the foil to the deeply pained and suffering persona of Toby, so steeped in guilt and a sense of failing to fulfill his responsibilities. The two rob a series of branches of the West Midland Bank. Two rangers chase them down. The end of Tanner is foreshadowed in the lyrics of Dust of the Chase.

“When the times at hand and I kill a man, I say a little prayer.
I come down from Oklahoma with a pistol in my boot
A pair of dice, a deck of cards and a bible in my suit
How small a part of time we share ’till we hear the sound of wings
I’m lost in the dust of the chase that my life brings.”

That’s it. That is the plot. However, all four characters are united by one theme – they are all lonesome would-be cowboys, except perhaps for the Comanche ranger, who evidently has an extensive and close family off screen, but has to spend his professional life being teased in a politically incorrect manner by Jeff Bridges about his half-breed nature as an Indian and a Mexican. This film pays ironic veneration to stubborn individualism writ large, individualism as atomic as it gets. In the lyrics of From My Cold Dead Hands:

“Do what I wanna do
Say what I wanna say
They wanna take it away
From my cold dead hands
The price of being free
And what it means to me
They wanna take it away.”

It is clear throughout the movie that the ranger, Marcus, really loves his partner, Alberto. That is verified near the end of the movie. But instead of intimacy between the two, there is only mutual razzing and the entertainment of dissing. The two brothers also love one another. In one scene, they even engage in some physical play and shoving. But that is the closest one views any caring between two humans. In another scene, Toby sits in the scrabbly backyard of his ex-wife’s home and talks to his son, from whom he is clearly estranged. Toby asks after his son’s brother (he’s at a friend’s house), but cannot express his deep love for his boys except through his efforts to rob banks to ensure his mother’s ranch, which has oil under its ground, is inherited by the boys, debt free. For it is the bank that is viewed as responsible for his troubles, for its efforts,

“to hold us,
Held by our necks.” (From My Cold Dead Hands)

There is no sense of love between a man and a woman in the whole movie. Near the beginning of the film, the lyrics to Mama’s Love portray the situation of a character who cannot sleep at night when the pain comes out, who has sex only to use a woman. The song begins:

“Something’s got my fear,
And then won’t get through my head,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.
Here I go again,
React without a plan, oh,
But there’s something missing,
There’s something missing here.”

And it is conveyed in the lyrics of You Asked Me To.

“Feel simple love is simple true
There’s no end to what I’d do
Just because you asked me.”

No male-female love, of either son to mother or between a man and his “gal.” Just chasing one’s tail and watching and waiting.

In another scene, the rangers view a tele-evangelist in their motel room. Jeff Bridges opines, “He wouldn’t know God if God crawled up his pant leg and bit his pecker.” In the land of evangelical rural America, there is really no depth of faith, only religion as entertainment. God has become a snake who does not entice men into sex, but bites off a man’s penis.

But there is deep love in the movie, even though it is repressed and deformed. The father, Toby, is devoted to his two boys even though he cannot connect with them. He is attached at the heel to his sociopathic brother. Toby and Tanner clearly love one another and are willing to sacrifice their lives for each other. The two rangers, Marcus and Alberto, even though they pretend to have only disdain for one another, also share a deep love as confirmed in the climatic last scene. When Marcus learns the reason for the robberies, in the post-climactic encounter between Marcus and Toby, Marcus seems to have learned to replace his desire for revenge with a respect and even concern for the bank robber who got away. Toby in turn invites Marcus to drop in to his place in town for a drink.

The devil, as in all the old Western movies, is still the bank, in this case, the Midland Western Bank and the four branches the two brothers rob to “earn” enough money to pay off the reverse mortgage and the back taxes owed by their recently deceased mother, the same Midland Western Bank that moved to foreclose on the mother’s ranch after oil was discovered on the property. The film seems both contemporary as well as lifted from the dirty thirties. The instinct for survival is the dominant motive for living, even when Tanner is engaged in futile self-defence. The brothers simply try to retrieve what they feel is owed them from the institutions that seem to have betrayed them so much. The politics of resentment is on full display.

I cannot recall a film where the movie with such sparse (and very witty) dialogue relied so fully on the soundtrack of songs (evidently available in a separate CD), most by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The songs drive home the full meaning of the movie. The titles are an indication:

1. Comancheria (the original film title, the locale in Texas and New Mexico)
2. Dollar Bill Blues (Tones Van Zandt)
3. Mama’s Room (Aaron Bruno, Jamin Wilcox, Drew James Stewart)
4. Dust of the Chase (Billy Jo Shaver and Ray Waylon Hubbard)
5. Texas Midlands
6. Robbery
7. You Ask Me To (Waylon Jennings)
8. Mountain Lion Mean
9. Sleeping on the Blacktop (Colter Wall)
10. From My Cold Dead Hands
11. Lord of the Plains
12. Blood, Sweat and Murder (Scott H. Biram)
13. Casino
14. Comancheria II
15. Outlaw State of Mind
16. Hate Me (Christopher Fronzak, Sean Heenan, Christopher Link, Nader Salameh and Kalen Biehm)
17. Bakerman (John Guldberg, Tim Stahl and Arthur Stander)
18. Playing the Part (Jamey Johnson and Shane Minor)
19. You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ (Billy Jo Shaver)
20. I’m Not Afraid to Die (Gillian Welch)

The twenty titles alone provide the whole plot and the settings for the various scenes. In the song, Commancheria, a simple chord progression with pauses, carries with it a sense of longing and a lost world. As Alberto, the Comanche ranger, tells Marcus, my people once owned all this land. You dispossessed us and now you are being dispossessed by the oil companies and the financiers.

The lyrics of Dollar Bill Blues start with the chorus:
“If I had a dollar bill
Yes, I believe I surely will
Go to town and drink my fill
Early in the morning.”

The song then refers to a darling as a “red-haired thing” who makes my legs sing and a golden girl mother, whose throat he slit. There’s only going down and no saving of one’s soul.

Hell or High Water is a bleak and melancholic western presented with a sense of humour and irony. Released in August, it is now available on Netflix or I-Tube, I cannot recall which. Much better than a tele-evangelist!

Denial – A Movie Review Part II

Denial – A Movie Review Part II

by

Howard Adelman

When Clinton ended her speech at the Catholic dinner yesterday evening, she recalled her history of empathy for and work with women and children. There is no indication that Trump has any real self-understanding of his serial and compulsive lying. His lying and abusive behaviour are also connected with his absence of empathy for the people taken in by those lies. There is no indication that he ever feels guilty about what he says. He doesn’t need to be provoked to tell a lie and when challenged about the lie, he digs deeper and reinforces the lie instead of backing off. And, as demonstrated in the David Irving trail, he knowingly, willingly and intentionally lies.

Given the state of affairs in the United States where an outright pathological liar can win the primaries and become the Republican candidate, a Sadat stance of hope replacing cynicism is just not on. Further, The barrister and solicitors in Denial both demonstrated that when dealing with pathological liars the best response is to ignore them and not even shake their hand when it is proffered. There is no obligation to be civil to a pathological liar, and when Tom Wilkinson said his strategy was to ignore Irving altogether and engage with him only to get under his skin so he can inflict more and more wounds on himself. Most of all, the movie, Denial, demonstrated the interdependence of justice and truth pursued, not because of principle, but o win, and to do so decisively in a pragmatic way. Since the liar is pathological, it is useless to engage him but it is perfectly legitimate to bait him and trick him into even more damaging utterances.

In 18 days, the election will be over. Hillary Clinton will win by a significant margin. It has been a very long and stressful period so we can look forward to a sigh of relief. But we should want more. We should want to celebrate. By Tuesday evening, we Jews will end the seemingly interminable series of holidays tumbling one after another that began with Rosh Hashana.to inaugurate the new year. Ten days later, we own up to our shortcomings on Yom Kippur and apologize to God and to our fellow humans whom we have hurt deliberately or unintentionally. Now we are in the middle of Succoth, a harvest feast that began five days after the Yom Kippur fast day. On Sunday night, we have another holiday, Shemini Atzeret, a time to tarry just before the finale, the period we are in before the lection in the U.S. either upholds the constitution or sets the stage for its dismemberment on 8th November. On Monday evening, Jews begin to celebrate Simchat Torah honouring the “constitution of the Jews, their bible.

In the American civic religion, it is why the peaceful transition of power and acceptance of the election results are integral to America and any democracy. All must pledge adherence to the rule of law and the transfer of power in accord with the votes of the people. But what happens if the individual who is elected. These are important moments in the lifecycle of a nation and when Donald Trump insists he will hold us all in suspense at whether he accepts the results, unless, of course, he wins.

This shabat we will read chapter 33 of the Torah where God promises to reveal what goodness is and “be gracious – not to anyone – but only “to whom I will be gracious” and to be compassionate to whom I will be compassionate. (verse 19) Donald Trump has indicated no sign that one ought to be gracious or empathetic whit him, since there is little evidence he has empathy and even less that civility and grace are inherent. This is a fundamental lesson also conveyed in the movie.

In the final analysis, both in the American election and in the movie, Denial, truth is fundamental to history as it unfolds and to history as it is recorded. But truth is never delivered as a matter of principle but as a pragmatic prerequisite for sustaining the life of a nation. If someone insists the elction is rigged, if someone insists that the Holocaust is a myth perpetuated by Jews to extract money from the German government, then they attack the foundations of a civil society and not just a political order. Lipstadt was right not to debate facts. And the movie first begins with David Irving propagating his lies and then the scene where Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt takes the position of a Holocaust denier as a teaching device for her students and outlines the four telltale signs of a Holocaust denier, questioning the systematic murder of Jews and the existence of a crematorium, questioning the number of Jews killed, depicting the Holocaust as a myth and explaining the myth as motivated by Jewish greed. Then the two sides clash when David Irving crashes a public lecture by Deborah Lipstadt, challenges her to debate him and waves a thousand dollars in the air offering it as a reward to anyone who can provide even a sliver of evidence connecting Hitler to the Holocaust as we recall Lipstadt’s lesson than there is no direct record of the Holocaust itself.

We live in an age of conspiracy theories and challenges to solid science. Climate change is a myth. The Jews planted the bombs in 2011 in the Trade centre and warned all Jews to no show up for work that day, Muslims danced in the streets of New Jersey when the planes crashed into the Trade Centre, vaccines cause autism. This situation is not helped by false equivalences, when CNN puts up two apologists for lies as surrogates of Donald Trump against two reputable Democrats who try to tell the truth and be analytical. We live in an increasingly postmodern world where truth as the foundation of society has been converted into absolute relativism where every thought is but a subjective opinion, an internet world where crazies and nut cases find each other, especially when led by a billionaire nutbar. When the birther issue conspiracy played itself out, the seeds are already being planted to delegitimize his successor.

As Deborah Lipstadt has written, there are truth, opinions and lies. The deliberate purveyors of lies, like Donald Trump and David Irving, the best way to proceed is NOT to debate him but to bait him and appeal to his ego so he blows himself up. Civility and courtesy demand respect. But there are limits. Pathological liars who have power deserve only disdain. They deserve the contempt Richard Rampton expressed when he refused to shake David Irving’s proferred hand at the end of the trial. But ina addition to outright lies which I have cited, falshoos are spreac by quoting out of context. On Kristallnacht, Hitler evidently did issue an order to stop the madness of burning Jewish synagogues, shops and homes, not, however, because he though such actions were wrong, but because he had been informed that the fires were getting out of control and burning down city blocks.

There is an interesting scene that drifts off into left field in the film when two of the subordinates on the legal team get into a discussion as the male says, to the effect, “Isn’t it enough? Why do we have to keep talking about the Holocaust? Why can’t we get on with just living? This is a belief even more pernicious than the outright liar. Because it undermines like a leaking water pipe from below. His girlfriend rebukes him, too politely, by insisting that if you want to preserve truth, you must fight lies. And you must remember. But the total focus on outright liars and not on the perniciousness

That is the central truth of the Torah which tells the story of many flawed Jews, including Moses. Thank goodness for Deborah Lipstadt who, in spite of her individualism, kept her bonds with that unassailable conviction at the same time as she went along, initially very reluctantly, with the legal team’s pragmatism. Denial is a great film where it was even harder to watch Tom Wilkinson walk around Auschwitz as a memorial site than to see a concentration camp recreated on film as an active killing machine. There is enormous truth in silence and reverence. Denial is also subtle and nuanced and avoids sinking into stereotypes or efforts at reinforcement by showing pictures and videos of the Holocaust. This is a trail picture and Andrew Scott who plays the famous British solicitor, Anthony Julius who was Diana’s divorce lawyer who has a reputation as having a self-serving ego but proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is totally devoted to destroying the credibility of David Irving who is left as the figure standing alone on a branch that he has almost sawn through and Listadt has been saved from disaster by the excellent teamwork of a of a large number of experts and lawyers, researchers and supporters.

There is another scene in the film that bothered me other than the felt need to include the scene of the pernicious young lawyer who wants everyone to get beyond the Holocaust and leave it behind. It is a scene of Deborah Libstadt with the elite of British wealth as she tries to raise money for her defence to spread the economic support widely instead of relying on one or a few large donors. The spokesperson of the group has the effrontery to suggest that the British Jews can live with David Irving so why does she not just settle the case and go back to America. Anthony Julius is just an egocentric self-serving solicitor who is only interested in fame. British Jewish elites are portrayed as sellouts of truth whreas British gentiles emerge as the great defenders.

I wrote most of this and then read a number of reviews. I was surprised to learn that everyone was not blown away by the movie. A few critics were even critical. I want to examine that review to try to explicate the characteristics of a review that is bad, not because the target is bad but because the reviewer is bad. One wrote that patches of the film are so ludicrously hammy, it (the movie) plays like one of those unbearably corny fake films teased at the beginning of Tropic Thunder.” But the scenes are not cited to allow you to falsify the judgment and you feel that the writer is driven more by an effort to be clever and a struggle to comprehend the film and even expose some of its weaknesses.
But the stupidest sentences support the notion that Hare agrees with the Jewish elite that Julius was only defending Lipstadt for his own glory and that, “Hare makes the parallels to the media treatment of Donald Trump during the lection ring loud and clear.” But only to a viewer who is totally deaf. There is a connection clearly between Donald Trump and David Irving, but other than seeing the claque of journalists at the entrance of the trial, no attention is paid at all to how the media covered the trial.

The review I found most appalling was written by Owen Gleiberman, chief film critic for Variety. (11.09.16) He claimed that this courtroom drama was “too muddled to bring its issues to life” and was, “about nothing so much as the perverse, confounding eccentricities of the British legal system” Balderdash! It was not an intellectual riveting thriller. But how could it be when any reasonable well-read viewer already knew the outcome. The challenge was to develop the dramatic line that did not depend on leading up to the conclusion. And it does not.

Rather than being a clockwork system where the verdict can be deduced from the process, this drama builds by concentrating on how the team members interact and the tensions between and among them. The film is NOT a puzzle so the reviewer missed the whole point. It is a film about how people with different interests, different points of view, and different priorities learn to work together to accomplish a valiant task beyond the rach of any one of them. David Irving is the foil in the background, the then celebrated and rich British writer who made his money on Holocaust denial. He is there as a menace standing alone unless addressing his adoring followers and the press. The story is about empathy and human interaction and the need for compromise, including breaking a promise to a survivor to ensure her voice was heard. There is a huge difference between a group of people who bond together to ensure that truth beats a lie and those who bond together on to worship and idolize a lie. It is not that the film is awkward and slipshod is awkward but the review because the reviewer never “got” the film.

The reviewer writes, “He(Julius) refuses to put any Holocaust survivors on the stand, because he says that they’ll be “humiliated” — and the first sign that the movie is heading off the tracks is that Hare’s script barely clarifies what that means. Is Julius worried about the well-being of the witnesses? (He needn’t be.) Or is he worried that their testimony won’t play? (Why wouldn’t it?) But the script clearly articulates why and how they will be humiliated by Irving as a master grandstander who can provoke and prod and build on miniscule failures of memory. He needed to be worried about the well-being of the witnesses, and rightly so. He was worried that their testimony would not play if Irving got “under their skin.” Testimony will not play unless it is both solid and unanswerable. But Irving is very capable of offering supposed answers and discomfiting witnesses.

Just because Lipstadt doesn’t testify does not mean that she is a “passive agent in her own story” because she is not telling her own story, for the core story is about the interplay of a team and how a team works, about the compromises that must be made to ensure that justice and the pursuit of truth work together. But some film viewers are blind as well as deaf. For a film about self-denial to attack denial is not just a clever trick of a playwright but central to the working of politics as Abe Lincoln argued.