Johnny Thunders' band THE HEARTBREAKERS were the epitome of PUNK. They beat Tom Petty to the punch; the band was formed in 1975, a year before Petty used the name. Everything about their aggressive attitude, DIY style, and badass music carried an anti-authoritarian ethic and a streetwise swagger as powerful as a lion in attack mode. Think Iggy Pop. Sure they shared Iggy's taste for heroin; it went with the territory. I just wish there was a photo of Johnny, Iggy, and Miles Davis. That would be some badass shit to see. Of course a guitar duet with Johnny and Keith Richards would be even better. I love Keith Richards's playing but Johnny's playing had more punch, and meaning.
While the average picture might "speak 1000-words," this one spills ten times as much narrative information. Accented with a studded leather dog collar, Johnny's deliberate snarl stands between his bandmates' (Richard Hell, Jerry Nolan, and Walter Lure) sanguine resolve to give the kids what they wanted or, more importantly, needed.
And yes, that's a muthafuckin' yellow Gibson TV Les Paul Junior that Johnny milked filthy hot blues licks like Keith Richards taking a piss. Much blood, beer, and spit was spilled in the name of rock 'n' roll. And that ain't all.
I got introduced to The Heartbreakers in the late winter of 1983 by my soon-to-be Rockin' Dogs bandmates Dave Ellison and Sammy Wilson when they came over to my place on Lorraine Street in San Diego. I was auditioning to be their drummer. I had my drums (a white Pearl kit) set up in my bedroom of the ranch-style house I shared with three roommates. I was a Drama major at SDSU at the time. Sam and Dave handed me a record to put on the turntable. It was a copy of JOHNNY THUNDERS AND THE HEARTBREAKERS LAMF REVISITED." You can guess what the letters stand for. They couldn't be more accurate.
I 'd never heard of Johnny Thunders even though I'd heard of The New York Dolls (Johnny's former band with David Johanson, Sylvain Sylvain, Arthur "Killer" Kane, and the fucking amazing (left-handed) Jerry Nolan on drums). For as much as I thought I knew about music, Sam and Dave were about to throw me into the deep end. They gave me a crash course in punk, country, rockabilly, blues and rock that took me from zero to 60 in about a month. We would sit in my living room and listen to Jonathan Richman, T Rex, The Cramps, The Stones, The Ramones, Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, The Damned, The Sex Pistols, The New York Dolls, The Go-Gos, The Clash, and the list goes on.
We went to see shows together too. I'll never forget going to see Jonathan Richman at SDSU in the downstairs club circa the exquisite "Jonathan Sings" record. We were there in time for the sound check, so we (Sam, Dave, and our bass player Jane Bunting) all sat cross-legged in front of the stage while JoJo got the sound he wanted on the PA. I've never before or since heard of a musician demanding that the volume be turned down, but Jonathan was serious. The show was fantastic. At the end, Jonathan announced he was auditioning guitarists, and anyone who wanted to give it a go could meet him backstage. The four of us went backstage and waited in a long white cinderblock hallway for the few guys standing in front of Dave, who took his opportunity to play Johnny B. Goode, as Mr. Richman requested from each contestant. Dave didn't get the gig, thank God; we needed him for The Rockin' Dogs.
Dave had very specific ideas about music. He later turned my onto Travis Picking, one of my favorite guitar styles to play.
To be continued...
"Get off the phone, there's nobody home, get off the phone, 'cause I don't want you." —The Heartbreakers
Why Brazilian Police and Establishment Media Shook Down and Defamed Olympic Swimmers By Cole Smithey
Remember the reports of the broken bathroom door, and broken mirror, and broken soap dispenser? All lies espoused by the oh-so-reliable Brazilian police who were busy shooting protesters with rubber bullets and killing hundreds of other impoverished Rio citizens as part of the daily violence that goes on in the same hellhole that filmmaker Hector Babenco famously captured in his unforgettable neo-realist drama “Pixote” in 1981. Babenco’s film was, and is, a cinematic plea for an end to an inhuman social system in and around Rio that has blood running in the streets on a minute-to-minute basis. An all too common, and tragic, footnote to "Pixote" came a few years later when the film's charismatic non-professional lead actor Fernando Ramos de Silva was murdered by a cop in the city's litter-strewn streets. Evidently, not much has changed since 1981.
You got played if you’re one of the suckers who bought into the establishment media’s pillorying of American Olympic champion swimmers Ryan Lochte, Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz, and Jack Conger. They fell victim to anti-American public relations attack designed and executed by Rio de Janeiro’s notoriously corrupt police officials. As if ignoring the public robbery of four Olympic athletes wasn’t enough, the Brazilian Police Department exploited the crime to deflect blame and extort money from the victims. The “security guard” bandits were never even named, much less arrested. Here is a criminal international incident twisted to blame American Olympic champions and humiliate anyone who isn’t Brazilian.
An utter lack of editorial oversight and responsibility would be a generous alibi for the thousands of media outlets (American and otherwise) that fell for the Brazilian police's ploy. The first rule of engagement with any media outlet that everything is a lie, and you have to read between the lines to come away with any semblance of truth.
Long story short: a Rio yellow taxi with four American Olympic swimmers inside pulls up to a gas station in the wee hours of the morning. Gas station workers and security guards shark the [obviously drunk] America Olympic athletes desperate to relieve themselves. Bathroom doors are locked. The four young men go behind the station and urinate in the grass.
Let he or she who has not peed upon sage or brush, throw the first stone. If you pretend to feign indignation at four inebriated guys peeing in the grass behind a gas station at six in the morning, you be frontin’ homie.
An armed guard approaches the athletes, presumably in the act of urinating. Lochte plays the punk when he pulls down a paper ad posted on the side of the gas station as he exits the area. The athletes calmly get inside their waiting cab before being ordered out of their taxi by two black-clad men with badges, both waving around loaded guns. Happy 2016 Olympics suckers.
At gunpoint the athletes are made to sit down with their hands raised, execution style. At one point in the video of these events, we see Lochte stand up to argue with the guards holding he and his pals at gunpoint. Brave or dumb. Doesn’t matter. Dude stood up. Ryan Lochte did the right thing in the heat of the moment regardless of how drunk he was. He’s a patriotic hero. You feel me?
An English/Portuguese-speaking man intercedes to translate what the guards are saying to their victims. This ringer tells the athletes that the guards are demanding that each of the four American hostages pay up for damages done to the gas station property. Who knows if that grass will be able to survive so much Olympian pee? The four swimmers forked over whatever money they had, and were allowed to leave. The badges wearing men-in-black used semi-automatic handguns to rob four American Olympic champions at gunpoint, and got away with it Scot-free. You feel me now?
Don’t forget that this was these athletes’ big night of celebration behind a punishing schedule of Olympic heats. Why these Olympic athletes didn’t have proper chauffeurs and official escorts for their big night out on the town remains a burning question that no one in corporate media has thought to ask.
If Lochte and his teammates are smart they’ll hire a big American law firm to sue every single media outlet that libeled them, and also personally sue each Rio police official responsible for the miscarriage of justice and public smearing they committed. If these athletes do follow up in the courts, Ryan Lochte Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz, and Jack Conger could become the most financially successful Olympic athletes in its history.
So what about the legacy of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games? Police officials on an international revenge crusade have reduced that sporting relic to the public mugging, and consequent pillorying, of four of the fastest swimmers in the world. File the 2016 Olympics in the file entitled, “Mistakes to never make again.”
Brazilian politicians and authorities are still smarting two years after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s spying on Brazil’s [now impeached] president Kilma Rousseff. Whether you call Rousseff’s ousting a “soft” coup or a hard one, one thing’s for sure; there was nothing legal or proper about it. At the time, the Guardian news outlet called the situation, “the most serious diplomatic fallout to date from the revelations by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden."
Aside from the monies they extorted, the Rio police’s lust for vengeance derives from the slaughter that their soccer team received at the hands of the German team at the 2014 FIFA World Cup before a crowd of 58,000 in Brazil. The 7 to 1 loss spoke volumes of inconvenient truth about where the rubber meets the road in World Cup soccer.
At the recent Olympics, Brazil’s shootout match victory against Germany, that delivered gold to Brazil’s soccer team for the first time in history, has drawn much suspicion for obvious reasons. Sometimes, winning is losing. Let’s also not forget the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent indictment of Marco Polo Del Nero, the president of Brazil’s soccer federation. Salt on an open wound.
I stopped watching the Olympics the second the story about the robbery of the U.S. swimmers came out. I wasn’t the only one. Brazil sent its message loud and clear, if you come to Rio you can expect to be robbed at gunpoint. The police will then rob you again before they let you leave the country. We know this because they made Lochte’s companions each pay a charity donation in the neighborhood of $15,000. You don’t need to worry about the nature of the unidentified charity; this is strictly a cash deal. False arrest, kidnapping, extortion, and liable per se are just a few of the charges that a large firm of American attorneys should be looking over.
Whether or not you bought into the lies dreamed up by the Rio police, which every media outlet in the world regurgitated like twice-vomited split pea soup, I bet you’re not in any hurry to vacation in Rio anytime soon.
If the shoe were on the other foot, and this same sequence of events played out for a group of foreign athletes visiting a city in America, this automatically politicized narrative would have played out in a very different way. You can bet the gas station guards would be sitting in the pokey, and not the athletes.
Much has been made of Ryan Lochte’s exaggeration of specifics involving the proximity of the gun pointed in his direction, and cocking of said pistol, but there is no question that two guns were drawn and the four swimmers were made to sit down, at gunpoint.
More egregious than Lochte’s enriched telling of events were exaggerations from the Rio police, who stated that the American swimmers had vandalized a bathroom at the gas station. Supposedly, this unruly group of hooligans reportedly broke a door, a mirror, and a hand-soap dispenser broken. That none of this happened didn’t stop every newswire in the world from running the lies. Good luck finding any retractions. What you will find, however, in supposedly respectable news outlets such as the Guardian, is reference to “the Olympic gas station hold-up that wasn’t.” Except that it was a hold-up followed by a police shakedown.
Welcome to Rio, now give us all your cash along with your reputation, and we'll sell you back your passports for $15,000. Don't come back, or [better yet] don't come at all. Brazil's tourism industry will suffer the backlash it deserves.
That’s how much The Los Angeles Times is demanding that I pay them.
After they fired me for phony reasons.
After they published lies about me.
They set out to destroy me, but the truth came out and ruined their plan. So now they’re determined to bankrupt me — by abusing the court system.
One year ago, TheLos Angeles Times fired me in what became known as The Ted Rall Scandal. I’ve been their cartoonist since 2009. Never had a problem. Was never late. Never did anything wrong. My bosses never had a complaint — to the contrary, I received nothing but praise.
What I didn’t know, and my editors didn’t know to tell me, was that the political cartoonist of The Los Angeles Times isn’t allowed to criticize the police. I wish I’d been informed. I have principles, but I also have to eat. If they’d told me the cops were off-limits, I wouldn’t have criticized the LAPD, police brutality, corruption or incompetence. If I’d known that LAPD chief Charlie Beck enjoyed special most favored nation status on the LA Times editorial page, I would have left him alone.
But no one told me. So I did what cartoonists are supposed to do: I criticized and ridiculed and made fun of the cops.
Unbeknownst to me, dark forces were aligned against me.
In 2014, Tribune Publishing, the Chicago-based $499 million conglomerate that was the parent company of the LA Times, brought on a brutal, cynical billionaire named Austin Beutner as its new publisher. Beutner had made his money in the 1990s, raping the ruins of post-Soviet Russia. He had big political ambitions: mayor of Los Angeles, perhaps even governor of California.
Beutner had no experience in newspapers. Probably never even delivered one as a boy. But Beutner had what Tribune wanted: a contact list full of potential investors. As for Beutner, he figured he’d use the paper to make up for his lack of name recognition among voters. It was a match made in hell.
Beutner made good on his promise to bring cash into the troubled Tribune organization by midwifing a deal between his only political ally, the LAPD’s police union (the Los Angeles Police Protective League) and Oaktree Capital, a Beverly Hills based investment firm. The LAPPL moved its $16 billion pension fund to Oaktree. At the same time, Oaktree became the number one shareholder in Tribune. The local police owned the local paper.
The LAPPL made no secret of its appreciation. Weeks after being named publisher, Beutner was given the LAPPL’s 2014 Badge and Eagle Award for “support[ing] the LAPD in all that they do.”
In July 2015, the fuzz called in their chit with Beutner.
As has only recently been revealed by my lawsuit against the LA Times for defamation and wrongful termination, the plot against me began with a conspiracy at the highest levels of city government and the corporate media elite.
Chief Beck secretly met with Beutner. He handed him documents, as well as a CD-ROM containing an audio recording, that he convinced Beutner would be adequate proof that I was a liar and a fabulist, and therefore sufficient legal cause for firing me. And not just for firing me. They wanted to make an example out of me. They were out to destroy me. So they published not one, but two articles — something they’d never done before, ever — calling me a liar.
I was freelance. Why not just tell me I was no longer needed? Because Beck and Beutner thought I’d be a pushover. And because they wanted to send a message to every journalist in Southern California. Don’t criticize law enforcement. If you do, your career will be over.
Times readers have never been told the source of these documents. I would never have found them if I hadn’t filed my lawsuit. In brazen violation of the newspaper’s own rulesgoverning the ethical conduct of journalism (ironically written by the author of the second smear piece, Deirdre Edgar), Beutner and his minion who wrote the first smear piece, editorial page editor Nick Goldberg, protected Beck as an anonymous source.
The key evidence used against me, both to fire me and to use as the focus of two unusual articles published by the Times in their campaign to destroy my journalistic career, was the audio file. It contained about 20 seconds of audible speech and over six minutes of road noise.
That recording, secretly made by a police officer who arrested me for jaywalking in 2001, supposedly proved that I had been treated politely by the cop, not rudely handcuffed as I had written in the Times. Cheap and/or careless, the Times didn’t have the “evidence” authenticated or analyzed. Big mistake.
Driving the point home, the LAPD public information office said that the audio never came out via official means. In other words, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck ginned up the evidence from somewhere else: probably a self-made, crappy dub made by the police officer himself 14 years before. It wasn’t official evidence. It wouldn’t have been admitted in court and it shouldn’t have been used to fire anyone — something a real journalist, not a billionaire financier, would have known.
I eventually obtained a copy of the official audio file from the police department itself via a public records act request. What a difference! It was clean. It looked different. And it wasdifferent. Without any enhancement at all, you could hear an angry crowd of people yelling at the officer about my mistreatment.
By this time, the Times’ ridiculous assault on free expression had blown up in their faces. Social media and the Internet had gone crazy. Journalists of all political stripes had come to my defense. Tribune, knowing that they had screwed up, fired Beutner so unceremoniously that he wasn’t allowed to use his own email account to say goodbye, and was escorted by security guards out of the building.
All I wanted was my job back and a retraction. An apology would be nice too. I don’t know why, even after all this, the Times is fighting this lawsuit. The way they’re acting, you would think that I was the one who had hurt them.
Their latest legal maneuver is beyond belief. Although discovery hasn’t begun yet, things haven’t been going well for them during initial hearings in court. That’s how it goes when you don’t have a legitimate defense for your indefensible actions. So their lawyer is resorting to scorched earth tactics. The last thing they want is for 12 Angelenos to listen to my case, consider both sides, and render justice.
The sleazy move their lawyer cooked up is to file an “anti-SLAPP” motion against me. California legislature passed the anti-SLAPP law to stop the following scenario: “A deep-pocketed corporation, developer or government official files a lawsuit whose real purpose is to silence a critic, punish a whistleblower or win a commercial dispute.” (Those words are by the LA Times’ editorial board, written two weeks after they smeared me!)
I’m not a deep pocketed corporation. I’m not a developer. And I’m not a government official. I’m a critic. So I’m the one this law was designed to protect.
Incredibly, the Times’ lawyer is arguing that I, an individual freelance cartoonist with a five-figure income, is quashing the Times’ free-speech rights! If they convince the judge that they are right, my case gets thrown out and – get this – I’m going to have to pay their attorneys’ fees!
Even more incredibly, they asked the judge to force me to post a $300,000 bond now, in advance, to guarantee their attorneys’ fees if they win their anti-SLAPP motion. She knocked it down to $75,000. But it’s not like the 10% bail that you hear about on TV. I owe the entire $75,000 on or before Thursday, August 18. My lawyers and I prepared a brief to fight it, but because the Los Angeles court system is so backed up, we can’t get a hearing until next summer. So another words, I either cough up $75,000 by next Thursday, or the Times gets away with what they did to me.
If you like to read more about the case and/or contribute to my fundraiser – I am not going down without a fight – please click here or go directly to http://gofundme.com/tedrall.
Thanks to my lawsuit, we know that the LAPD asked the LA Times to fire me as a favor to the cops because I was constantly criticizing them and their police chief. But, as Sartre said, individual actions require accountability. In that spirit, here’s a rogues gallery of the principal players and their roles in the conspiracy behind my firing last July.
LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck
Until a few months ago, when the LA Times was forced to submit affidavits in their defense to my lawsuit for wrongful termination and defamation, Beck’s role was unknown. In multiple articles, the Times was too cute by half, claiming that they had received the sketchy audiotape and the dubious documents from the LAPD. As the following evidence shows, however, the police chief took a break from fighting crime and beating up black people to walk over to the LA Times to complain about my cartoon and accompanying blog in which I described having been roughed up by an LAPD officer who arrested me for jaywalking in 2001:
They say that law-enforcement officers like him work in order to protect our freedoms. But Beck obviously never heard of the First Amendment. The First Amendment doesn’t really protect free-speech as broadly as similar statutes do in other countries, but the one thing that it does do is prevent government agencies – like the LAPD – from interfering with journalism and criticism. Beck hates the Constitution; he is un-American.
If there’s any justice, Beck will soon resign. He and the Times are claiming that he raided the LAPD evidence locker and gave the material to the paper. If that’s true, he should go. However, it looks like he’s lying. Most likely, he got the stuff from the arresting officer’s personal files. Which means that he lied about the stuff being official evidence. In that case too, he should go.
LA Times Ex-Publisher Austin Beutner
As far as I can tell, Beutner is even more stupid than he is evil. And he is evil.
The billionaire who made his bucks raping the former Soviet Union in the 1990s is the guy at the Times who took the meeting with the police chief about little old me. The LAPD police union, the LAPPL, was a major political ally for him, so he kind of had to. However, he also should’ve thought about journalistic ethics. The last thing that the publisher of the paper that covers the police should be doing is hanging out with them. And the very last thing that he should be doing is hanging out with a guy who is asking him to fire one of the cops’ critics.
The reason I say he’s stupid is because it never occurred to him that he might be getting played by the police chief. He took Beck at face value. He wasn’t careful. He just accepted the evidence the cops gave him, handed it over to his editorial page editor, and ordered him to fire me. At least that’s how it looks right now. We’ll learn more during the discovery phase of the pre-trial.
If he’d been a journalist, or knew anything about journalism, or had any common sense, it might’ve occurred to him that the chief of police had a vested interest in getting rid of a cartoonist who keeps making fun of the chief of police. Of course, that would’ve also interfered with his own interest. After all, he was too cozy with the police to say no.
The paper let him go after I was fired.
LA Times Editorial Page Editor Nick Goldberg
Goldberg, the editor of the editorial pages, was a guy I barely had anything to do with. He wasn’t my usual editor. But he supervised my usual editors. He got the order to fire me from Beutner.
Now back in the day, when I started out, if a publisher had asked an editor to do something like this, to fire someone on the flimsiest of evidence, evidence that hadn’t been properly evaluated or analyzed or authenticated, evidence that really didn’t show much at all, said editor would have told said publisher to fuck himself. Probably would’ve resigned. But that’s not what Goldberg did.
Like many newspapermen nowadays, Goldberg was terrified. Most of his colleagues have been laid off. All he wanted to do was to keep his head down long enough to retire. So he was a wimp. When Beutner ordered him to let me go, he said yes sir. Without letting me talk to my editors. And not only that. He signed my death warrant. He signed the first article, the “a note to readers” intended to end my journalistic career.
Within days, Goldberg had in his hand solid proof that everything he had written was untrue. That he had lied for the cops. Even then, he kept quiet. No retraction. No resignation letter. He’s still there, drawing a six-figure salary despite his utter lack of decency.
LA Times Readers Representative Deirdre Edgar
Deirdre Edgar seems like a relatively obscure figure in this whole fiasco. Actually, she’s very important. She wrote the second hit piece against me, the one that came out three weeks after the paper found out that I have been telling the truth and that the cops have been lying about me.
Ironically, she’s the so-called “Readers representative” – the equivalent of an ombudsman at other newspapers. She’s the person who supposed to stand up for journalistic ethics. In fact, when the paper rewrote their ethical guidelines back in 2014, she got the byline.
The irony is that among other things, those ethical guidelines require reporters to give equal time to the subjects of critical articles in order to respond. She didn’t do that. Never called. Never wrote. The same guidelines say that the reporter should meet in person with the subject of a critical article. She didn’t try to do that. There’s other stuff too. Like, you’re not supposed to willfully lie about the subject of an article. Which she did.
LA Times Editor/Publisher Davan Maharaj
Maharaj was the editor-in-chief when all this went down last year. His role at the time remains obscure. Tribune Publishing decided to name him the new publisher after they fired Beutner.
Whatever his role last summer, he has been at the helm since early fall 2015. All the time, he has allowed those two libelous articles about me to remain on the newspaper’s website. This, of course, despite the fact that the information inside them is false and everyone knows they’re false. If this guy had an ounce of integrity, he would resign.
Support free speech! Fight the LA Times’ demand that I pay them $75,000: gofundme.com/tedrall
(Ted Rall is the author of “Bernie,” a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. His new book, the graphic biography “Trump: A Graphic Biography,” is now available.)
The happy footnote to this situation is that Ted did indeed raise the $75,000 to stay in the fight against the LA Times! The battle goes on. Will Ted end up winning the case? Let's just say the LA Times may end up with a new publisher with the last name of Rall.
Black comedy is one of the least mined of all film genres. Many audiences want nothing to do with its dark humor, which in most cases, is meant be disturbing if not disruptive. The codified genre makes visceral and intellectual demands that some viewers find themselves unwilling or unable to go along with. Taboo subjects involving all manner of murder and death frequently come into play. While there are exceptions to the rule (see “King of Comedy”), at least one death must occur (see “Dr. Strangelove”) to meet the transgressive demands of the genre. They don’t call it “Black” comedy without reason.
It is a satirical form that arrived relatively late to cinema. Charlie Chaplin’s “Monsieur Verdoux” (1947) is one of the earliest, if not the first, filmic examples of Black Comedy. Robert Hamer’s “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949) followed just two years after Chaplin’s unpopular film. It’s telling that both films involve serial killers plying their trade for wealth, and social status.
More recent examples of Black Comedies include “Heathers” (1988), “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” (1989), and “Starship Troopers” (1997).
This revolutionary genre can be traced back to literary roots laid down by Jonathan Swift, whose scathing 18th century essays (especially “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick”) shocked many readers to their core. Many people missed the joke. Swift’s keen sense of gallows humor resonates against the 18th century work of the Marquis de Sade, who took fetishistic glee in putting the reader inside the mind, and body, of victimizers on a mission to defile, humiliate, and ruin their captives (see “The 120 Days of Sodom“). Modern authors, such as Vladimir Nabokov (“Lolita”), Joseph Heller (“Catch 22”), and Kurt Vonegut (“Slaughterhouse-Five”), used the darkly comedic form to stunning literary and popular success.
The surrealist movement of the ‘20s and ‘30s contributed heartily to establishing an artistic perspective whose aim was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality” in a revolutionary, anti-political (anarchistic) form in response to the horrors of World War I.
Andre Breton, the French writer and father of Surrealism (see his Surrealist Manifesto), contextualized black humor in his essential book “anthology of black humor” (originally published in 1940), in which Breton places side-by-side excerpts from such authors as Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry, Franz Kafka, Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, and Lewis Carroll.
Black comedy has an intrinsically secular aspect to it because it contextualizes horrific events or experiences in a comic way. This unconventional point of view necessarily insults all organized religion on fundamental grounds.
A death row prisoner, who discovers Jesus after a lifetime spent as an atheist, is the diametric opposite of one who chooses to adopt the personality of his guard as a way of mocking his doomed fate. Both are using their imaginations, but one is taking a much more active role in the part that he plays. Gallows humor is, if nothing else, the ultimate defense mechanism against all form of physical or psychological abuse.
The piece that followed (written by Graham Winfrey) poured praise upon Michael Gingold as a “patron saint of the horror community.” My mind went immediately to the many Fangoria writers who took their assignments from Michael, only to discover that their pay would not be forthcoming. The notoriously passive aggressive, selfish, and narcissistic Gingold would ignore their email requests for what was rightfully theirs. New York is a small town. I’ve heard firsthand stories from Fangoria writers who never received payments that were due them. Michael would pretend to be actively attempting to get writers their money, knowing they would never be paid. Lying to writers to keep them working is about as low as it gets. Throughout it all though, Michael made sure he got paid week after week, month after month, year after year. An ethical editor (and yes such editors do exist) would have done the right thing when faced with this type of untenable situation, and resigned.
Longtime Fangoria staff writers, some of whose lives were effectively ruined after they slogged away for weeks if not months without pay, before finally walking away from a career that evaporated before them.
Who offered support to the unpaid writers on whose backs Michael Gingold rode high and mighty for so many years? Certainly not Guillermo del Toro.
For the record, I did a one-on-one interview with del Toro in Cannes for "Pan's Labyrinth" in 2006, and found him to be a delightful guy.
I posted a reply on Indiewire and on Twitter saying that Gingold was not the saint he was being painted as. “Worm” was the term of art I chose. Immediately, I started receiving Twitter hate messages defending Michael Gingold as “not the guy who signed the checks.” They informed me that Fangoria owner Tom Defeo was the guy to blame.
Another red flag went up. Didn’t these industry “professionals” know the magazine’s managing editor was responsible for all day-to-day operations, including paying the writers? — Evidently not. Why was this cluster of trolls trying to shield Gingold from criticism? If Michael Gingold was the patron saint of independent horror, why would he actively allow writers to be promised money he knew wasn't there? Things didn’t add up.
Suddenly, Twitter locked my account because someone was trying to hack into it. The horror fanboys were coming for me. I had to create a new super-strong password. My attention went back to the IndieWire article. Mitch Davis (“co-director of the Fantasia International Film Festival) is quoted extensively in the piece, painting a picture of doom and gloom for Fangoria for “discarding seasoned writers with so many years of history, knowledge and trust among fans.” That’s all well and good but why, if Davis has so much investment in discarded writers from Fangoria, didn’t he speak up on their behalf until now? Why, indeed.
Like all print publications, Fangoria has been bleeding money for years. As the IndieWire article points out, it “hasn’t put out a print edition since its distributor went out of business in 2015.” How Michael Gingold managed to hang on to a steady paycheck this long, without putting out any print issues in 2016, is a mystery.
The elephant in the room is, of course, why and how Fangoria lost so much financial ground under Gingold’s failed editorial vision for the publication. No one should be praised for doing such an obviously crappy job, regardless of how long he or she milked it.
Whether or not Fangoria’s new Editor-in-Chief Ken W. Hanley can turn the magazine and website into something profitable, remains to be seen. Hopefully, Mr. Hanley will at least see to it that his writers get paid. Either way, with people like Guillermo del Toro and the handful of trolls that came after me on Twitter, I’m sure Michael Gingold will be treated better than he deserves. He’s already gotten way too much out of the deal.
Box office reports that were once the province of trade papers such as Variety and Hollywood Reporter have been used as advertising bait for so long that no one remembers the days when such information was carefully guarded. In no other country are box office receipts used to lure audiences to see movies. If anything, predictions that “Captain America: Civil War” will earn $1.3 billion in the international market, should make audiences want to look elsewhere for their movie entertainment. It’s not as if you the viewer are getting a cut of the profits by purchasing a ticket.
It’s a crass mentality that befits Donald Trump. “See how much freaking money I make. You should want to give me more cash to add to my collection.” The logic is so ludicrous because there is no logic to it. If you’re into paying for public humiliation, there are better ways to get off.
Sites like Box Office Mojo keep running tallies of box office reports as if such information were part of a stock market for readers who can’t invest in it. Sports Betting Dime pits superhero tripe (Captain America) against other would-be Hollywood blockbusters for betting purposes.
Having just returned from the 69thCannes Film Festival, where I watched 23 international films (along with only one Hollywood title — the predictably disappointing “Money Monster”), I can categorically state that Hollywood’s fixation on profit has led to an inauthentic cinema that all thinking audiences should ignore with a vengeance.
When Hollywood dares to brag about how many billions of dollars they made on some superhero garbage, while 50 million America citizens go hungry every day, it’s time to show the industry the door. Boycott Hollywood and its insidious methods of public humiliation. Don’t give these vulgar creators of violence indoctrination pap anymore of your money.
There is plenty of authentic cinema to be had in the form of foreign, independent, and documentary features. Watching countless people being beaten and shot to death to the strains of pop songs in Hollywood films like “Suicide Squad” isn’t just bad for your psyche, it’s a corruption of the human soul. Boycott Hollywood.
Screwball comedies thrived during the ‘30s and 40’s when Hollywood needed to distract an economically impoverished and war-abused populace with flamboyant, romantically playful, movies. It is a form that prizes style over content. There is plenty of calamity, but never any tragedy.
Free-willed female characters were an important aspect of a farce-based genre informed by the plays of Oscar Wilde (“The Importance of Being Earnest”), William Shakespeare (“Much Ado About Nothing”), Noel Coward (“Private Lives”), and George Bernard Shaw (“Pygmalion”).
At a time when many thousands of physically and mentally injured soldiers were returning home from war to be cared for by empathetic female nurses, the cartoonish nature of screwball comedies provided a safe form of escapism.
Still, the genre presents an insatiable fascination with mixing affluent elite members of American society with lower class characters. When William Powell’s Nick Charles shares his wife Nora’s (Myrna Loy) wealth on his old impoverished (read homeless) buddies by inviting them up to a high-society party he and Nora are throwing, we delight in the social contrast.
Sex was notably absent from the innuendo-laden genre, thereby providing a psychological refuge for a large number of soldiers made impotent by the ravages of their wartime adventures. A tongue-in-cheek battle of the sexes supplanted the need for sexual expression. Sustained sexual tension carried the genre’s fundamental form of suspense. It was a place where emasculation could be celebrated. Private time was for flirting, talking, or even singing. The genre sprang up as a direct response to the Motion Picture Production Code (a.k.a. the Hayes Code), which was established in 1930 as a way of defining America’s famously repressive view of human sexuality. Male characters tend to be more naive than their female counterparts.
A common screwball trope revolves around an apparently incompatible couple whose divergent polarities eventually switch to form a magnetic bond. Frequently it is a woman in pursuit of her man, who seals the deal.
The exaggerated genre also gave knowing winks to America’s underground gay culture with a camp sensibility before there was such a thing as camp (see Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” — 1964). “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” can easily be construed as a neo-screwball comedy. Screwball comedy is nothing if not an unintentionally camp style.
Blending farce with slapstick comic tropes enabled Hollywood’s stable of directors (such as Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger) to play fast and loose with social conditions that might otherwise have attracted suspect attention. Class lines could be crossed, allowing lower-class characters equal footing with their economic betters.
Miscommunication, mistaken identities, and casual misunderstandings could reliably be blamed for giving men an excuse to not only don women’s clothing, but also act the part of the opposite sex, however unconvincingly (see Billy Wilder’s “Some Like it Hot”). Like the burgeoning film noir movement of the early ‘40s fast-paced repartee was used to heighten tempo and mask glaringly obvious plot devices. The leopard in Howard Hawks’s “Bringing Up Baby” is hardly a necessary foil for Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant to play off of, but it gives the movie a zippy random excuse for a chase scene to ensue whenever the action starts to flag.
Screwball comedy’s parallel trajectory to film noir petered out in the late ‘50s as the onslaught of television, combined with economic and political changes, sent filmmakers and audiences in new directions. Italian neo-realism and the French New Wave contributed to post-modern sensibilities that blew the world cinema wide open during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Screwball comedy was an all-but-forgotten genre by the time Peter Bogdanovich momentarily revived it in 1972 with “What’s Up, Doc?.” Bogdonavich’s picture represents one of the finest modern updates to the category. Although the Coen Brothers represent modern cinema’s most ardent inventors of screwball comedies (see “Raising Arizona” and “The Hudsucker Proxy”), they have not met with the same level of success.
Back in 1999 I went on a wild and wolly trip on the Karakoram Highway with my friend Ted Rall. Ted was doing a piece for POV Magazine, and needed a travel companion to the lands that Genghis Khan famously conquered. It was an amazing experience that I will never forget. Besides, we bought some awesome rugs while we were there. Anyway, here's Ted's telling of our trip through the Stans.
A slightly longer version of this piece originally appeared in P.O.V. magazine in 1999:
THE KARAKORAM HIGHWAY: The World’s Most Dangerous Roadway by Ted Rall
On your standard map it’s a thousand miles of pavement connecting China to Pakistan. Of course, on that same map New York City is just a black circle with a big fat dot in the middle. The truth is, the Karakoram Highway is a nexus of madness in a place already chock full of every conceivable form of lunacy. Understanding that psychosis, however, requires experiencing it firsthand. In the course of traveling over those thousand miles, my pal Cole Smithey and I braved wild animals, a military coup and a full-fledged invasion by Taliban terrorists.
It was all par for the course for a road trip on the world’s most dangerous highway.
The first thing you need to understand about the KKH, as it’s called on the Pakistani side of the border, is that this expanse of asphalt may well be the most staggering engineering achievement since the Great Wall—1,400 kilometers of two-lane roadway clinging to the side of immense, crumbling mountains, running alongside racing white water rivers prone to flooding and constant erosion, soaring the whole time through elevations anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 feet through areas so politically unstable that it’s impossible to find two maps depicting the same borders dated a year apart. Whereas Germany’s autobahn represents the ultimate triumph of man over nature, on the KKH it’s still up in the air as to which side will win in the end.
The KKH twists and turns through the Pamir, Kunlun, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Himalayan mountain ranges; it’s a geological collision zone between tectonic plates that makes this junction between Asia and the subcontinent the world’s most seismically active place, period. Immense earthquakes that would flatten American cities in seconds are routine; fortunately, there’s nothing much here except animals, a lot of cool history and the highway itself. The mountains are constantly falling apart, and down on, the KKH; rock slides close down the road all the time.
At many points the highway, built from 1966 to 1986 as the result of a diplomatic resolution of a border dispute between Pakistan and China, runs alongside rivers that range from dry washes in late summer to vast, wide torrents during the spring. The rivers eat under the pavement, creating lethal sinkholes. They often close the narrow roadway until they’re repaired—and that can take weeks or even months.
An extension of the Tibetan plateau, nowhere on earth is it so high for so long. This fact makes June blizzards commonplace and forces the closure of the road from October through April or May. Even in the middle of summer it can be closed for weeks or longer. Altitude sickness starts killing people at 9,000 feet above sea level; you’re rarely ever that low on the KKH. In short, the Karakoram Highway is a doomed, psychotic project that may no longer exist as a viable transportation link by the time you read this. But if it does, and you can survive the landslides, terrorists and snow leopards, the Karakoram Highway offers a cat’s-eye view to some of the world’s most dazzling eye candy.
The KKH begins at the Silk Road trading town of Kashgar in western China and ends up in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. Because we went in September, we traveled south (from Kashgar to Islamabad) in order to minimize the effects of the already incipient Himalayan winter; in May you’d want to go the other way. You’ll need visas for China and Pakistan, obviously, but these may be hard to get because the KKH passes through the heart of Kashmir Province, where a war that began in 1947 over a Hindu chieftain’s decision to attach his Muslim region to India seems destined to continue forever.
Getting to Kashgar by air requires so many changes of plane through shitty airstrips that it’s virtually impossible; the most direct overland route from an international airport is the two-days-plus journey from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (that means a third visa). But there’s a catch—in Central Asia, there’s always a catch—the border crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China, through the Torugart Pass, is permanently closed to foreigners. That means you, Americano.
The good thing about Central Asia, on the other hand, is that as it has for millennia along this ancient road between the Western and Eastern worlds, cash opens sealed frontiers. Conversely, the budget-traveler approach is extremely risky; we met a trio of Dutch tourists who took the bus to the border, were released by Kyrgyz customs cops but had failed to arrange for transportation to pick them up on the Chinese side of the old Soviet triumphal arch that’s still there, riddled with bullet holes. The Chinese won’t let you in unless someone meets you and going back to Kyrgyzstan isn’t allowed. The woman and two men we met were in bad shape; they’d been trapped in windswept no-man’s land between minefields at the roof of the world for 29 days with no hope in sight. Severely sunburned, without tents or sleeping bags and totally out of food, they’d been reduced to eating grass and whatever leftovers passing Kyrgyz troops deigned to give them. Without official papers we couldn’t take them with us. For all I know, they could still be up there.
It took three days and cost about $600 for the two of us to get to Kashgar from Bishkek; we hired a pair of Ukrainian guides who knew which guards to bribe and how to bypass the worst police checkpoints on back roads.
Kashgar’s history is remote and romantic, but only the first remains—it’s a shithole. This legendary trading city still draws hundreds of thousands of people from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and western China every Sunday to sell everything from camels to silk cushions to Soviet-made missile detonators in the Muslim Uyghur neighborhood downtown, but the Chinese government has decimated the city’s glorious past with vile concrete apartment blocks and factories that produce a putrid dusty haze that would clog the lungs of the most hardened Angeleno. Moreover, Muslim militants backed by the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan have passed the last few years bombing public buildings and assassinating Chinese officials. This has lead to the city being subjected to a sort of martial law lite.
Try as we did to enjoy Kashgar, Cole was still suffering from altitude sickness encountered at the Torugart Pass. I spent most of the time doubled over with stomach cramps and a brand of diarrhea that’s impossible to explain to the uninitiated. Fortunately the food was so putrid—they wash bowls with filthy cold water and zero soap—that I didn’t mind skipping the local laghman noodles.
We caught the faux-lux “International” bus bound for Sost, Pakistan, the next day, so named because it departs from the former British embassy compound shut down during the 1949 Communist revolution. Trouble began within minutes: A Pakistani smuggler with an astonishing resemblance to Ted Danson ordered me to move my 6’2” frame to the back of the bus so that he and his brother could enjoy my front-seat view. “But I need to stretch my—” I began to reason.
“Hey asshole! What part of ‘no’ do you not understand?” Cole barked from the other side of the aisle at the guy. Danson backed off, but that outburst set the tone for our journey. Here we were on a bus full of pissed-off Pakistanis and Afghans, some of them visibly armed, heading straight into the Kashmir war zone.
Like a hot chick who talks dirty but never puts out, the KKH (the Chinese call it the China-Pakistan Highway, or just the G314) teases drivers with perfectly-maintained pavement—complete with painted markers every tenth of a kilometer—the first few hours out of Kashgar. Then the road enters the immense Ghez Darya River canyon. That’s where road maintenance ends for good, and the KKH really begins.
High-altitude roads often follow riverbeds because they offer the straightest path through mountains; thus the KKH runs alongside massive flows of snowmelt. Rock slides occur frequently; our bus repeatedly had to drive around huge boulders that had fallen thousands of feet down the side of the Pamir range within the previous few days. On the left side of the bus, the road vanished wherever the Ghez made a turn—in a monumental testimony to short-sighted stupidity, the Chinese side of the KKH has no levies to hold back the water. Washouts are indicated by rocks lined up at a 45-degree angle by road workers; rocks are the one thing that aren’t in short supply along the KKH. In a scene out of the classic movie “Wages of Fear,” the bus was forced to go off-road, rocking at wild angles over three-foot rocks at a fraction of a mile per hour, sections of shattered asphalt cracking and falling off into the torrent below. It’s just the water, the mountain and you, and you’re in the middle the whole way.
Judging from their green faces, even grizzled locals seemed not to take these side trips very well. But I was suffering particularly badly, having undergone a hernia operation a month before. You just haven’t lived until you become fully aware of your large intestines, I always say. Passing a vehicle coming from the opposite direction involves a perverse game of Central Asian chicken; both drivers seize the middle of the road and floor the gas. It doesn’t matter if you were both all the way to the right to begin with—you move left as soon as you see the other bastard. At the last possible second before collision (and, according to locals, sometimes afterwards) the smaller vehicle of the two scoots over; it’s not rare for one tire to slip momentarily off the road over nothingness. At blind curves, it’s customary to speed up while honking ominously at whatever might be coming around the other side. Despite its low volume of traffic—it’s not unusual to go hours without seeing anything else—cars and trucks tumble off the KKH every few days.
I didn’t ask about the buses.
Aside from sheer rock faces and incredibly bleak vistas, the mountains are home to some of the world’s most endangered species, including the long-horned ibex, Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards. Man and nature collide in spectacular ways here, as demonstrated by the snow leopard that leapt from its perch on top of a passing Volga sedan a few weeks before our arrival. The animal died on impact, the car was totaled, and there was no word on the driver. But while car and beast routinely mix it up on rural roads throughout the Third World, nothing beats the KKH for sheer volume of animal traffic. You pass herds of goats or sheep every few hundred meters; I lost count of how many suicidal yaks and bulls jumped out in front of us. There are lots of Bactrian camels (they’re of the double-humped variety) too, but they’re smart enough to edge off the roadway when a double-tractor-trailer piled thirty-feet high with God-knows-what passes them at 70.
The Ugly Americans Reach Out
About five hours out of Kashgar, at least 200 miles from the nearest village, we rounded a turn to find a line of trucks at a dead stop. The driver of the one in front of us was fast asleep on a red blanket on the ground. I took this as a bad sign.
We got out and walked ahead; it turned out that someone had abandoned a fully-loaded fuel tanker in the middle of the road on an incline up ahead. As guys have since time immemorial, we carefully examined the situation and pondered how to resolve it.
More accurately, a hundred guys yelled at each other in Mandarin, Uyghur, Urdu and Tajik, which are languages that don’t sound anything alike. Inexplicably, the Chinese men saw the rocks in front of the tires as the main problem—never mind that the thing was parked uphill. The Uyghurs appeared to agreed with Cole’s plan, which was to remove the rocks from behind the tires, thus allowing the truck to go over the edge of the cliff into the Ghez Darya. And the Pakistanis turned to Allah, praying at wildly-divergent angles towards Mecca.
After several hours during which the Chinese occupied themselves by moving the same huge rocks back and forth, but with great enthusiasm, a truck appeared from the opposite direction. The driver backed up and parked just far enough away from the gas truck to make it impossible to hook up a single cable. Then the guys began arguing about how to tie the cable. All in all, the arguing process took four hours. Cole and I shouted and pointed to our watches, which was, I realize now, futile: In Central Asia, nobody’s time is valuable, much less yours.
“This is China!” one guy in a business suit yelled at us while lugging a dusty hundred-pound boulder to the side of the road, evidently to imply that we ugly Americans would do well to mind our own national business. The Chinese guys gave out an exaggerated guffaw. The Uyghurs, who chafe under Chinese military occupation, grumbled ominously, but I couldn’t tell if they were siding with us or merely expressing a general disgust with the situation. Tired, humiliated, and certain that these nimrods were going to blow the KKH into nearby Tajikistan, Cole and I returned to the bus. Somehow the gas truck got moved. This would have made for a better story had it exploded, but life often fails to deliver on desired drama.
Anyway, our sadly low-powered bus rumbled on, dodging goats, boulders, holes and gaudy Pakistani trucks in a furious attempt to make up time. Just before nightfall the Ghez valley opened up into a lush, green plain containing the idyllic ethnic Kyrgyz enclave of Karakul. Karakul features a few hundred people, thousands of yaks and cattle and a few stone houses. Cole passed the two hours we waited there—Chinese army troops were filling in a spot where twenty feet of road had been sucked into the sandy ground—passing out dozens of those free postcards they have in American restaurants downstairs by the restroom to local kids. They featured the cover of the previous month’s Playboy.
Five hours late, exhausted and covered with soot, we slouched into our freezing cold seats as an exquisite blackness enveloped the bus. Suddenly, to the right of the bus over a row of snow-capped mountains, a huge, dazzling light lit up everything. For about a minute a bright yellow ball streaked across the sky perhaps a mile away, a trail of light behind it. Then the meteor was gone, smashed into the countryside in an explosion of fire. OK, so you could see that in Wisconsin, but you could also live your entire life without ever seeing a meteor hit the ground—and I saw mine in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region from my seat on the KKH.
The Rooster Crows For Thee
Everyone has a rooster with his name on it. It’s only a matter of time before you and that rooster come together, and when you do, it’s never a beautiful thing.
I met my cock at 4:30 in the morning after barely four hours of fitful sleep in a dismal dump of a hotel in the backwater hamlet of Tashkurgan, the last town before the border. The rooster kept up the audio entertainment of the program until 5:30, when patriotic Communist songs and news updates, announced by a woman with an amazingly grating voice, began blasting from loudspeakers outside.
The bus picked us up first thing in the morning, and drove us to the Chinese customs office, where every single book, bottle of aspirin and banana on the bus was carefully inspected while every gun and fat wad of cash was duly ignored. This took three hours, during which our driver got nice and loaded out of a brown paper bag. Then we set off across an empty scrub of desert along the bed of the then-dry Tashkurgan River—the bus overheated twice—and climbed slowly up into the Pamir mountains, well into the snow line—and finally, majestically, inevitably—we arrived at the magnificent, wind-blasted Khunjerab Pass. By this point our driver was thoroughly shitfaced, a fact which with I had no problem. I don’t think I could have navigated that bus up those mountains without a little help either.
At 16,000 feet, breathing becomes an exhilarating, triumphant act. The pass marks a change from crumbling Pamirs to stony Karakoram mountains, as well as to far superior road maintenance. The Pakistani side of the KKH features better levies and walls to keep rocks and water at bay, but the flip side of better engineering is greater risk: Here the highway runs anywhere from 500 to 1,000 feet above the river. Glaciers turn the mountains wet, releasing them occasionally in the form of mudslides. Downed power lines criss-cross the road; the bus just drove right over sparking high-tension wires. (I lifted my feet off the floor.) Missing guardrails and telephone poles—and small Muslim death memorials topped with a crescent moon—offer mute testimony to those who came before but never left. Nonetheless, crossing the border into Pakistani-held Kashmir was far more frightening for something else that was missing: no one was guarding the border.
The Khunjerab Security Force outpost, supposedly controlled by the Pakistani army as the main passport control checkpoint, was unmanned. We continued about sixty miles down the road before we encountered a small shack where the bus’ passengers were asked to sign a register book full of phony signatures like “Joe Blow, the Lover Man.” The sleepy guard didn’t even bother to look at our passports; we’d find out why all semblance of authority was missing soon enough. The bus dropped us off at Sost, from which we caught a taxi to the stunning Kashmiri village of Passu. Surrounded by three magnificent glaciers, rope suspension bridges crossing the legendary Hunza River and clouds so close you can actually touch them, our stay at the Passu Inn was a case study in low-tech life. Electricity comes and goes every few minutes; phones actually use a crank! (The phone number for our hotel was 7.) We spent the next morning trekking and negotiated with a surly local jeep driver to take us to Gilgit for $30. We were glad to get out of town; no matter how spectacular terrain is, once you’ve seen it you’re done.
The Passu-to-Gilgit bus ride takes eight hours, but if you use the same jeep driver as we did, you can do it in three. Convinced that he was being underpaid—although our hotel owner said $20 was more like it, he kept saying that some Japanese dude had paid $100 a week before—he drove wildly back and forth like a madman, intentionally skimming the edge of the abyss even when there wasn’t any other traffic. To add to the sense of menace, local children and young men threw stones at us whenever we passed through a village. Cole read some film book (he’s a movie critic); I attempted to look bored while I checked out Rakaposhi Peak (26,000 feet) and the Hunza Valley’s terraced agriculture and stone-lined irrigation canals. Looking for the lost kingdom of Shangri-la? The myth places it squarely in the Hunza Valley.
From the perspective of scenery that you simply can’t see anywhere else, this section is the highlight of the KKH. Europeans with months of vacation to spare spend weeks on side trips to villages off the highway in this region. We drove through a canyon that makes the Grand Canyon look like landfill and limped across roped suspension bridges where half the boards were missing (Cole to me: “So this is it, Ted. It’s been nice knowing you”) across a massive, primordial flow of whitewater as impressive as the Mississippi and the Nile combined. Every few hundred feet signs advise: “Relax—Landslide Area Ends,” but that’s hard to do considering that no one has bothered to post where they begin. Because the Hunza is lined with farming communities, animals become a more frequent driving problem—and because the Pakistanis don’t sterilize their cattle the bulls are both huge and fierce.
The Taliban Attacks
Located at the southern bank of the Gilgit River, Gilgit is the spiritual and political center of disputed Kashmir province and a key stop on the KKH. Violence has been a part of life here since Pakistan and India were partitioned in 1947, and the signs of the cheapness of life are everywhere—starving children and maimed old men line the sidewalks. More than 10,000 people have been shot, bombed and lynched there during the ‘90s alone, which is more than live there now. A stone’s throw from the Line of Control between Pakistani- and Indian-held Kashmir, that rumbling in the distance is just as likely to be mortar fire as thunder.
Gilgit is “The Wild Bunch” meets the bar scene in “Star Wars” set in Kabul. Like Kashgar, it’s a dusty town where Pakistani, Afghan, Tajik, Kyrgyz and Chinese traders can get you anything for a price. There’s no electricity, phone or sewage system; even getting a postcard out requires greasing the proper palms. I liked it fine. Where else can you get your old Doc Martens resoled for a buck, munching a roti while watching wild dogs chew each other’s limbs off in the middle of rush-hour donkey-cart traffic? Still, our objective was the end of the KKH. After a few days of relaxation, we boarded a Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) bus for the 16-hour trip to the capital city of Islamabad.
The first thing we noticed as we assumed our customary spots at the front of the vehicle (we booked early) was the uniformed NATCO soldier riding shotgun—literally. He carried a shotgun right on his lap, occasionally pointing it right at me while chatting distractedly with the driver. He sat at the very front in a special seat, intentionally visible from the road. Then we checked out our fellow passengers. I hadn’t seen such a motley collection of smugglers and scoundrels since, well, the bus from Kashgar. Just outside Chilas I saw the first of several official signs stenciled on the rocky face of the mountain: “Ambush Point: 600 meters.” I asked the soldier about this.
“There are many, many bandits,” he explained apologetically. “Sometimes it’s not enough for them just to steal everything. Sometimes they kill everyone on the bus.”
“That’s a problem,” I said blandly.
“Yes, it is,” he agreed. “Then no one wants to take the bus anymore.”
The Gilgit next becomes the Indus River, home to one of the planet’s great ancient civilizations, and the views alternate wildly between lush green valleys and bleak chalky rocks tumbling off canyon after canyon into oblivion. It’s astonishing, but after a while sensory overload sets in; it’s the kind of experience best digested after the fact.
In any event, the bus blew through one switchback after another until, just as darkness began to fall, things started getting weird. Hundreds of turbaned men carrying rocket launchers, automatic rifles and grenades walked along the side of the Karakoram Highway, dragging ammo behind them on the ground. I recognized their outfits from TV news footage.
“Holy shit,” I realized aloud to Cole. “It’s the mujahadeen.”
A week before we’d left for Kyrgyzstan the Taliban had declared Kashmir an “American-free zone.” They reserved for themselves the right to shoot any holder of a U.S. passport on sight, including diplomats. No one had taken the declaration seriously, especially since the KKH was at least a hundred miles from the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. We found out that night that, in the interim, what had formerly been Pakistani-held Kashmir had become half occupied by Taliban militants. Now I understood why the Pakistan-China border had been unguarded; the Pakistanis had allowed themselves to be “invaded” so that the Afghans could fight their war with India on their behalf without provoking a nuclear confrontation. The Taliban, however, were far less interested in taking on the Indians over territory so barren that fighting has to be suspended every winter than its real goal: turning Pakistan into another Islamic fundamentalist state. They’d earned a rep as the Khmer Rouge of the ‘90s for stoning adulterers to death and denying medical care to women. Now, working in conjunction with a Pakistani general in Islamabad (his coup d’etat went down a few weeks later) they were in position to enforce their previous threats.
The bus crossed the border of the North-West Frontier Province and pressed on into the hamlet of Dasu, the northern section of which had obviously been the scene of fighting hours earlier. Fires crackled in brand-new ruins. Broken glass, from God knows what, was everywhere. An orange glow lit up the windows to the left side of the bus; something big had exploded there. Unattended horses wandered aimlessly through the streets, some bleeding from shrapnel wounds. A woman walked crazily in a semicircle—shock? The body of a man, in the generic brown frocks Pakistani Muslims wear, leaned against a storefront. There wasn’t any blood. Burned-out cars lined the KKH as it passed through what had been the bazaar district. On the outskirts of town, three Taliban soldiers flagged us down by making circles on the road with a flashlight.
In the Third World, military checkpoints are a frequent nuisance, sort of the way bridge tolls are to us. With a full-fledged war going on, two holders of American passports that the Pakistani authorities hadn’t bothered to stamp weren’t going to last long under Taliban occupation; checkpoints were bound to spring up everywhere. The bus stopped and the front door opened. The soldiers gave the driver a big grin. My fellow passengers, who’d been glaring at Cole and I for hundreds of miles, looked entirely too pleased about this development for my tastes. The NATCO soldier got up, looked at Cole and I, and walked to the door. Would we be taken off the bus and shot by the side of the road? It was entirely possible; certainly no one on this vehicle would miss us. I seriously doubted that anyone would ever be punished, or that there’d ever be an investigation. I considered that as bad as dying is, dying far away from home surrounded by people who hate your guts is infinitely worse. I thought about the European Community passport in my backpack (I’m a dual French-U.S. citizen); that red booklet would get me off the hook but, unlike me, Cole didn’t have a backup nationality. I thought about the best arguments I could employ to try to save my life. Finally, I was angry at myself for not preparing properly—we could easily have bought guns in Gilgit, but it hadn’t occured to us.
Then the soldier did something for which I will always be grateful. Wearing a bored expression on his face, he nonchalantly pointed his gun straight at the lead mujahadeen and said something to the driver in Urdu. The bus moved forward, and that was it.
The stretch of the KKH between Dasu and Pattan is notoriously violent even in “peacetime”—a number of Western travelers have been beaten up, robbed and raped there. But the military situation was relatively static; mujahadeen trudged along, too dog-tired to care about anything beyond their next footstep. Civilian vehicles, including small cars and trucks, shared the road with hundreds of refugees going south into Pakistan proper and Afghan soldiers walking towards the Line of Control. Finally, at four in the morning, the road made a sharp southern turn, and the KKH became dark and empty. A farmer’s mule darted out into the street; we hit the sucker doing about 50. Our driver never slowed down.
We had three more hours ahead of us, but I figured that it was OK to try to catch some sleep. I was weak, hungry and still processing my brush with death. The last section of KKH is notable for nothing in particular, which means that the road leaves the mountains, becomes straight and flat and the chances of getting killed by another vehicle or a terrorist or a beast of burden are relatively minimal. If it hadn’t been for the Pakistani film music blaring from the speakers directly above our heads, it might even have been peaceful.
Quentin Tarantino is a national treasure. Unfortunately, Americans don’t much appreciate their great artists. If Tarantino were French, he'd already have a statue. If he were French, film-loving citizenry would flip out (and rightfully so) if the police tried to pull as disgusting an act of character assassination as the libel war police unions are waging against this revered writer, director, and prodigious film historian. There would be protests. Here, alas, nothing.
QT ran afoul of the corrupt Blue Wall of Silence when he spoke out against the ongoing plague of police-committed murders, which occur at an average rate of two to three times every day, at a “Rise Up October” rally in Manhattan.
The Rise Up October rally’s goal was to put relatable life narratives beside the names of victims who get quickly lost and forgotten in the escalating number of citizens shot, Tasered (you can picture the trademark symbol), choked, or otherwise destroyed by America’s highly militarized but poorly hired and trained police officers.
This demonstration was different from a “Black Lives Matter” protest in that it brought together families and loved ones of the victims in order to tell their personal stories about those who were senselessly taken away from them. It was a rare chance for people directly affected by police murders to bear witness. It’s impossible to put too fine a point on the obvious necessity for this forum of social communication, in order to provide people with a communal release of emotion and suffering. People need expression. They must be heard. We must listen. The families of victims such as Eric Garner, Sam Dubose, Antonio Guzman Lopez, Tamir Rice and Walter Scott took the stage one by one to express their grief and share stories of the people they still love.
During the course of the seven-hour march, Tarantino took the stage.
“I got something to say, but actually I would like to give my time to the families that want to talk," Tarantino said. "I want to give my time to the families. However, I do just want to also do want to say, what am I doing here? I’m here because I am a human being with a conscience, and when I see murder I cannot stand by, and I have to call the murdered the murdered, and I have to call the murderers the murderers.”
Tarantino’s impassioned speech clearly came from his heart. It was messy. He was upset. These are the words of a man speaking a sad truth that has been gestating in his mind and gut. Evidently Tarantino’s use of the word “murder” — but really, is there a better word? — hit a nerve with police organizations unwilling to address the crisis at hand in an appropriate, much less ethical, manner.
The police group is calling for a boycott (by police officers) of Tarantino’s hotly awaited Christmas day opener “The Hateful 8.” The alliance is requesting that its officers “stop working special assignments or off-duty jobs, such as providing security, traffic control or technical advice for any of Tarantino’s projects.” One wonders if these guys have lawyers. What if something happened bad to the director because he couldn't get police protection? Their legal exposure could be breathtaking.
Wait, it gets better.
Fraternal Order of Police president Jim Pasco said, “Tarantino has made a good living out of violence and surprise. Our officers make a living trying to stop violence, but surprise is not out of the question. Something is in the works, but the element of surprise is the most important element. Something could happed anytime between now and the premiere. And a lot of it is going to be driven by Tarantino, who is nothing if not predictable. The right time and place will come up and we’ll try to hurt him in the only way that seems to matter to him, and that’s economically.”
The veiled message of inherent violence and intimidation is clear. Surprise? This is like a school bully telling the nerd, “You won’t see it coming, but you will feel it.” Disgusting.
Cops are threatening to “hurt” Tarantino (um, “economically”). I don’t know about you, but the last time I heard someone use “harm” in such a threatening tone, they meant bodily harm, It’s implied here that the director might be in physical danger from the very agencies charged with protecting public safety and paid by taxpayers — like Tarantino.
Now the LAPD is attempting to smear Tarantino’s integrity by claiming that there is “no record” of an arrest for which QT has said he was jailed for eight days for unpaid vehicle infractions. There is an obvious possible explanation for that: Tarantino has repeatedly stated that he was sent to a LA County lockup run by the Sheriff's Department, not the LAPD. Anyone familiar with the LAPD’s well-documented history of conveniently misplacing evidence — including thousands of rape kits — will recognize the “leak” as a hack effort at obfuscation. Is there “no record” of the arrest because someone at the LAPD shredded it? I wouldn’t be surprised.
I also wouldn’t be surprised to see QT’s lawyers begin to open up cans of legal whoop-ass on police unions, and even the LAPD, in the days before “The Hateful 8” opens.
Apparently police union bigwigs have a problem with high-profile celebrities exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Their message is chilling; if you have something critical to say about police officers’ nonstop killing rampage, you have the right to shut the fuck up.
I suppose we’ve learned something about where police leaders fall regarding their would-be regard for the cultural significance of the filmic arts.
Tarantino intended his presence at the Rise Up October rally to open up a public discussion for police departments to engage in, to stem the plague of police killings. Rather than taking advantage of an opportunity to engage in public discussion about ways to correct the ongoing crisis, however, police unions across the country are doubling down on a pattern of murders that cost police departments millions of dollars in settlements.
How can they afford the tab?
The story is as old as the hills: follow the money.
Modern-day police departments are beholden to a myriad of corporations, some backed by the Pentagon. Gun makers, Taser (which also makes body cameras — as used by the LAPD), bulletproof vest manufacturers, and car companies are just a few of the players in the lucrative business of “law enforcement.” The biggest of all may be the prison-industrial complex that has reengineered American society. This matrix of commerce, authority, and power creates an invisible call for a set of lethal and racist ideologies to find their level in personal action.
Corporations instill their personalized fascist ideologies through product placement in police departments that arm, train, and shield their police officers from ever going to jail regardless of how visible their crime. That trend, however, is changing. The Blue Wall of Silence is being peeled away, though incrementally, one layer at a time.
We are seeing more instances where police officers are being charged with murder, as in the Chicago case in which officer Jason Van Dyke was charged for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, albeit a year late.
It’s no accident that you commonly see officers emptying their revolvers, sometimes repeatedly, into their victims. Shooting someone 18 times isn’t just trigger-happy; it is the sociopathic behavior of an insane person pleading for help. These killings affect both sides of the equation — police and civilians. Killing another human being is a terrible thing that no one escapes without the experience etched forever in his or her darkest memory.
To put things in a filmic context, notice when you watch a video of a police shooting someone more than once that it is 1000 times more upsetting than the most gory scene in any Tarantino film.
The Guardian reports that U.S. cops have killed 1,041 people so far this year. Although this is (disgracefully) the first year that such a comprehensive tally has been kept of people killed by police in America, all evidence points to police conducting this level of incremental genocide against its populace for decades.
Wake up, America! Between the mass shooters, white male terrorists, and the cops, your odds are getting worse all the time.
It’s more than a little ironic that New York Fraternal Order of Police leader Patrick Lynch is accusing QT of being a “cop-hater” (Tarantino never said or implied that he hated cops, his films don't depict cops as evil or really much at all, and has denied it) considering that hating the thing that scares the living shit out of most people would be a luxury. Lynch’s choice of words leads the discussion into a confrontational realm that also lets loose a self-reflexive inference to self-hatred. Hello, Sigmund Freud.
Let’s consider the boycott for a moment. There are 330,000 police officers in the country. Even if none of them buys a ticket to the Christmas Day release of a movie for which 100 cinemas have been outfitted with classic Panavision 70 projectors, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of movie lovers worldwide who will queue to see a movie that promises to dominate the 2016 Oscars.
Even if his films aren’t your cup of tea, any movie lover should acknowledge QT’s mastery of writing and directing. His exceptionally original stories expand cinematic language in a myriad of provocative ways. QT hasn’t just reinvented cinema, he has rekindled an ongoing interest in the directors (such as Howard Hawks) that continue to inspire him. Quentin Tarantino is a modern traditionalist. His use of Panavision 70 on “The Hateful 8” creates some of the most beautiful and lush images ever created on film, and by “film” I do mean old-school 65mm celluloid. Magical. The screen image you see is three times more picture than you see with your average film.
There’s a reason that there are so few filmmakers as talented as QT: he’s a one-of-a-kind thinker. In full disclosure, I had the pleasure of meeting Quentin during my first visit to the Cannes Film Festival in 1992. I’d been accepted into the American Pavilion volunteer program only to be cancelled at the last minute (after I’d already booked my flight). I went anyway. After sleeping in nooks and crannies of the Palais in my tux, I got cast in a Gaumout Studios-run program for student filmmakers. Gaumout provided me with food and housing throughout the festival while I worked with a German, Arab, and French crew. Luckily we were given tickets to the world premiere of “Reservoir Dogs.” I went to the much-coveted screening in the Grand Palais with my German co-actor pal Geza, a true force of nature. There’s a YouTube copy of the movie we made online.
I met Tarantino in the press area of the Palais. I introduced myself and told him his “movie kicked my ass” the night before. He laughed with that big hearty snicker and said, “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.” Here was a first-time filmmaker, the same generation and age as me, showing a mind-blowing heist movie in the Grand Palais of the Cannes Film Festival. The energy was electric.
That screening of “Reservoir Dogs” hit me like a combination of “Fists of Fury” mixed up with “The Exorcist.” I felt as though my guts were being torn out of me. It’s interesting to revisit that "brutal" movie and realize how little violence there is on the screen. It’s not what you see; it’s what you imagine.
Police violence is an old theme in the movies, though not Tarantino's. If you watch Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” you’ll notice that Jim Kelly’s character Williams flashes back to the police brutality he suffered on inner city streets as a black man living in urban America. Williams is glad to be in Hong Kong. “Enter the Dragon” was made in 1973.
In 1970, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini spoke about the terrible problem created when impoverished young people take jobs as police officers, only to kill those in their community because they are acting as protectors of a corrupt system. The issue is much more deadly now that police departments act on, and engage, the public as militarized Robocops who escalate benign situations into SWAT team tactical maneuvers like something out of a Terminator movie. There’s a profound paradox in the fact that the lower to middle-class men and women who put on police badges to earn their daily bread are being manipulated by the shrinking economy that corporations pay politicians to squeeze through draconian strategies.
Check out “Across 110th Street” for its gritty depiction of an openly racist police chief lording over Harlem like a walking pariah. (Tarantino used the theme song from the movie for his Blaxploitation homage “Jackie Brown.”)
In his exquisite documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself,” about the significance of LA’s locations in the many films shot there, Thom Andersen discusses the “incremental genocide” of minorities that goes unabated. Andersen points out Ethiopian-born filmmaker Haile Gerima’s 1975 neorealist drama “Bush Mama,” which shows police attacking black citizens on the streets of South LA with lethal force. About the area’s tormented citizens, Anderson states, these are “people made to feel that they live in an occupied territory.” Not much has changed.
Anderson also references Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” a deeply personal film that casts a damning eye on LA’s oppressive daily reality through the eyes of a black family whose father works in a slaughterhouse.
America’s systemic roots in a deadly ideology of colonialist racism has been killing many thousands of minority victims for decades but it is only now, thanks to citizens filming events on their cellphones, that the world is waking up to the scale of atrocities being committed by police officers who may or may not be incompetent, sociopathic, or suicidal. Video has contributed greatly to exposing the type, and scale, of assassinations being committed at an astonishing rate. Still, the crisis is getting worse. It’s significant to note that five-sixths of those people murdered by trigger-happy cops were unarmed. America’s militarized corporatocracy is sending coded mob signals, none of them with an iota of nuance. One of the messages is that police unions are sending is that Americans live in a country occupied by the wealthy, and unless you are one of them, you are not welcome here. Another message is, if you’re not happily siding with every U.S. police officer’s right to kill whomever they want with impunity then you don’t deserve your freedom of speech in the first place. Get in line and salute, asshole, and wipe that dumb look off your face.
This past July, respected veteran editorial cartoonist Ted Rall was unceremoniously fired from his post at The Los Angeles Times after an apparent conspiracy between the LAPD, the city's police union (the LAPPL), and probably the newspaper’s then-publisher/billionaire financier Austin Beutner, worked its intended witchcraft.
A secretly recorded (and almost certainly altered) police audio tape of Rall being arrested back in 2001 for [not] jaywalking in L.A. was illegally passed to the Times, and was leveraged as grounds for termination. The LAPD union website was quick to publish a gloating endorsement of Rall’s firing, which it praised as a potent message to journalists across the nation. (They took it down after the media investigated the story and sided with Rall against the LAPPL and their lackeys, the Times. Certainly, there are those weak-kneed writers, editors, and publishers who will never utter, write, or print a negative comment about this goon squad that makes the Nazis look like a bunch of pussycats. Fear of cops is normal, and even more pronounced under the conditions in which we live.
Less than six weeks after Rall’s unfounded termination Tribune Publishing canned Beutner. In case you don’t know, publishers are very rarely if ever fired. Heads up. While not directly attributed to the fallout from Rall’s firing, after he unequivocally disproved the Times’ false accusation of him misrepresenting his jaywalking story in a blog post containing basic audio forensics his paper ought to have done in the first place, Beutner’s firing will forever be inextricably linked to the Times/LAPD skullduggery.
The cops set out to smear Rall, but it's Rall who came out looking good while the police have egg on their face. Yet they still haven't learned their lesson, as demonstrated by the attacks on Tarantino. But why are they so touchy? It’s ridiculous that the same cop squads that send thousands of their members to Leni Riefenstahl-scale funerals of any of their fallen brothers, are freaking out over QT’s public support for victims (and their families) of police murders at the rally where Tarantino spoke out.
The Guardian reports, “shootings involving Los Angeles police officers have doubled this year” (2015). Maybe the LAPPL should focus on the real problem, not the film directors and cartoonists calling them out on it.
Proving that when you're a hammer everything looks like a nail, PBA President Patrick J. Lynch laid it on thick: “It’s no surprise that someone who makes a living glorifying crime and violence is a cop-hater too. The police officers Quentin Tarantino calls “murderers” aren’t living in one of his depraved big-screen fantasies; they’re risking and sometimes sacrificing their lives to protect communities from real crime and mayhem. New Yorkers need to send a message to this purveyor of degeneracy that he has no business coming to our city to peddle his slanderous cop fiction. It’s time for a boycott of Quentin Tarantino’s films.”
So the filmmaker isn’t a fan of the incremental genocide being committed by cops against blacks. QT certainly isn’t the only American who holds such basic humanitarian views. But it doesn't do any good for good people to remain silent. It’s important that in this dark hour, not only that Tarantino’s fans come out to support him and all that he stands for as a preeminent film artist, but that other likeminded citizens step up to show their support.
Blue privilege rolls on. Blood fills the streets.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGindy announced an “expert’s report” that found “reasonable” the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Rice, armed only with a toy gun, was shot less than two seconds after the officer arrived on the scene.
Two Louisiana State Police officers (Norris Greenhouse and Derrick Stafford) were arrested and indicted on second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder charges for shooting to death Jeremy Mardis, a six-year-old boy, along with his father as they sat in their pick-up truck after being pulled over for no apparent reason.
Theantimedia.org reported that the Los Angeles police union (LAPPL) took umbrage at the creation of a new award intended “to encourage police officers to find more peaceful resolutions to conflicts.” Can’t have that.
In Chicago, the police scandal involving the public execution of Laquan McDonald shows explicitly how the city’s corrupt chain of power reaches right up to the top. If there’s any justice left, Chicago mayor/former Clintion flack Rahm Emanuel’s career is toast.
The American public is in a state of perpetual fear fuelled constantly by daily police-committed murders of civilians. Smart people avoid cops at all costs. Some people are afraid to leave their homes for fear that they might be pulled over and shot like so many others have been. It feels like wartime anywhere you go, even though we supposedly live in a free country, and not just in the slums anymore. America is being occupied by the same systems we built to protect us. There’s no need to worry about robots turning on humanity; cops already have that territory covered.
Tarantino is releasing “The Hateful 8” as a “Road Show” release similar to the glorious way epic spectacles such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Lawrence of Arabia” came out in the days when people got dressed up to go see a movie that came with a program, a musical overture, and an intermission. This nod to cinema tradition provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance to enjoy a long lost aspect of movie culture thanks to a filmmaker just as committed to his audience as he is to the films he makes. Quentin Tarantino wants nothing more than for people to come together to enjoy the magic illusion of movement that only 24 frames per second of celluloid running though a projector can provide.
Quentin Tarantino’s status as America’s most inventive, impassioned, and consistent filmmaker is justified. Even with its (albeit microscopic) flaws, “The Hateful Eight” is more fun and stimulating than any other movie that came out in 2015.
When you watch “The Hateful 8,” pay heed at how Tarantino leads up to the murders that occur with much discussion related to ingrained racist ideologies that persist in America, and are being actively exposed and supported in nearly every news media outlet in the country, Fox News and CNN especially, as well as from faux lefty outlets like NPR. Each death of a character in “The Hateful 8” arrives with a specific narrative theme attached.
The police unions have dared set foot inside Tarantino’s wheelhouse and inside our revered bastion of social discourse, the cinema. It is your civic duty to buy a ticket to “The Hateful 8.” As you watch the film, think about what makes these characters so hateful, and about the culture that made them that way. The discussion is yours — as long as you keep the cops out of it, they don’t want to hear it, and they can hunt you down and ruin your life.
It’s a stretch to call “Mad Max: Fury Road” a Hollywood picture but we'll pretend so the left coast isn’t utterly left out of contributing to the best films of 2015, so far.
5. Ex Machina
Science fiction has been a dying film genre in recent years. Largely this is because there are too few screenwriters or filmmakers with the imaginations to create compelling futuristic stories. Alex Garland has been an exception to the rule.
Smart, sexy, and back-loaded with a terrific twist ending, “Ex Machina” is an elegant sci-fi movie that considers the possibilities of artificial intelligence in thought-provoking ways. The stark narrative is essentially a three-hander for actors Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander to play out their diametrically opposed characters in an isolated “No Exit” game of winner-take-all.
4. Mad Max: Fury Road
“Mad Max Fury Road” makes up for what it lacks in storyline and character development with a groundbreaking blend of feminist politics and action-movie tropes in a broad physical spectacle featuring death-defying stunts atop and between a constantly moving canvas of motor-driven insanity. “Fury Road” is to cinema as the Ramones’s “Teenage Lobotomy” was to rock ‘n’ roll. The picture’s deceptive depth lies in its blistering backbeat of fast-paced action fulfilled by a cast of gnarly Wild West-inspired characters “living to die and dying to live.” A lack of water and oil has turned humanity into hordes of people living by their primal instincts.
Miller proudly announces the movie as a feminist think piece. Charlize Theron’s implacable bionic-armed heroine Imperator Furiosa leads the lion’s share of the action. The steely Furiosa turns a fuel-delivery (via the giant oil truck she drives) into a rescue mission to transport five “wives” to Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne in a franchise return), the demonic despot who controls the flow of water to the starving masses. The Australian filmmaker balances the motherly power of femininity with tougher aspects of womanhood, namely a cold-blooded will to kick serious ass LAMF. Instant cult classic? You bet.
The must-see-documentary at this year’s Cannes Film Festival was Asif Kapadia’s ambitious biography of Amy Winehouse. It’s a devastating look at how some of the people closest to the singer/songwriter contributed to her untimely demise. By sticking with his voiceover-only narration (rather than taking the standard talking-head approach) Kapadia stays out of the way of his fascinating subject. The method is so much the better for rapt audiences to absorb Winehouse’s raw talent and sophisticated mastery of melody, songcraft, and delivery.
Most captivating are studio-recording sessions in which Winehouse delivers her unique voice and phrasing with a stark honesty that charms all. Watching her record her famous song “Back to Black” is nothing short of stunning. A duet recording session with her hero Tony Bennett reveals much about Winehouse’s craftsmanship as a singer and about the high standards to which she held herself. The instant rapport that she shares with a glowing Tony Bennett is a dreamlike moment of musical delight.
2. What Happened Miss Simone?
Director Liz Garbus (“Bobby Fischer Against the World,” 2011) eloquently sets the film’s tone with an eerie quote from Maya Angelou.
“Miss Simone, you are idolized, even loved, by millions now. But what happened, Miss Simone?”
It proves to be a provocative question about a complex woman caught in a web of domestic and social abuse. Through dazzling archive performance and interview clips, and upfront contributions from the likes of Simone’s articulate daughter Lisa, Garbus hits every note in a biography that, like Nina Simone’s dynamic vocal range, goes from gravel to frosting. Intelligent audio interviews allow the outspoken singer to narrate in her own inimitable voice. Documentaries don't get much more intimate than this.
The rich narrative and musical material on display allows Garbus to work the audience into a compulsive lather of mixed emotions. The film flashes to modern day relevance over Simone’s scalding protest song “Mississippi Goddam,” a response to forty churches burned in Birmingham, Alabama.
Simone sings with a fury that explodes, “Alabama’s gotten me so upset, Tennessee made me lost my rest, And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.“
From a political perspective, “What Happened Miss Simone” arrives at a key moment of crisis for Blacks in America, when the ongoing incremental genocide of Blacks is on the rise.
Nina Simone’s definition of freedom rings with the same truth as is found in her music.
“What is freedom? No fear.”
You might read the title “Girlhood” and think that some ambitious (perhaps female) filmmaker is taking on Richard Linklater at his most recent game. Indeed, if you consider Céline Sciamma’s substantial pedigree, as the masterful writer-director behind such youth-centric LGBT triumphs as “Water Lilies” and “Tomboy,” you could arrive at the conclusion that Richard Linklater has been taking some notes from her.
When compared to her first two tour de force films, “Girlhood” reveals itself to be every bit as insightful and authentic a cinematic representation of a personal female coming-of-age experience in modern-day France. For the record, “Girlhood” stands up well opposite Linklater’s “Boyhood” as another essential filmic chapter in the global political, socioeconomic, and cultural challenges facing young people in the 21st century, albeit from vastly different cultural backgrounds. “Girlhood” is a stunner.
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