Category: Film

By the Law

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“The theme of the picture By The Law is alien to our viewer in script and essence. Considering the instances of pathology and hysteria [in the film], it is a sick phenomenon in our cinematography which harmfully affects our Soviet screen.” — A.R.K. (Association of Revolutionary Cinematography), 1926.

“We may be accused of being morbid or misanthropic, but please do not forget that our film is about the modern English middle class–surely the most inhuman of all.” — Lev Kuleshov, 1926.

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It is strange when a 92-year-old Soviet film can say so much about the contemporary world. Class violence, retribution, environmental chaos–all are active ingredients in Lev Kuleshov’s “constructivist Western” By The Law (Po Zakonu). Viewing it today, from what some geologists are calling the Great Acceleration period of the Anthropocene, is like peeking into a creepy apocalyptic window of past and future. Like Marx, the Soviets believed that capitalism would destroy humanity; and lo and behold, here we are, on the way to our own Easter-Island party, with investors buying up escape-pod properties in New Zealand to ensure that this model survives for their entrepreneurial offspring, who will presumably sell shares in the Norwegian Seed Vault.  /communist_rant

The coming of Russian film coincided with the creation of the U.S.S.R., the world’s first modern worker state. It provided the opportunity for a clean break from the literature and drama of the 19th-century, both of which the Soviet intellectuals rejected as bourgeois tools of domination controlled by the aristocracy. With 80% of the Russian population illiterate, it was believed that this new visual medium would usher in a transformative era of avant-garde modernity, offering a conduit through which the nascent nation could educate and galvanize the people. Like rail lines and power grids, film would connect the disparate corners of the Soviet together. It would create social cohesion between ethnic groups and help authorities overcome the huge communication hurdles of time and space.

But things got weird. The period of genuine openness and experimentation was over fast and in steep decline after Lenin’s death. Anything avant-garde suddenly became elite, epicurean and subject to suspicion. Film plots were required to be both entertaining (without being “too American”) and reflect deeper socialist worldviews, a concept called Socialist Realism. Many in the industry, particularly directors, screenwriters, and cinematographers, struggled between these two worlds. Their continued employment and access to funding meant keeping the cultural commissars satisfied with works that met this criteria. As if it wasn’t hard enough making wheat quota subplots stimulating, the films should also be exportable abroad and appeal to international audiences.

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Kuleshov Collective practicing on a rooftop

It was within this confused climate that the Kuleshov Collective, a close-knit group of actors and technicians started by director Lev Kuleshov, set to work on a new project in 1926. (Kuleshov pioneered several techniques of early film montage theory that today would be taken for granted; one is called the Kuleshov Effect, which asserted that one shot placed beside a second can alter a human’s emotional interpretation.) The Collective’s biggest success thus far had been in 1924, with the brilliant satirical comedy The Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, which lampooned both American and Soviet stereotypes equally. But the group was now on shaky ground after its disastrous follow-up, when a long and confusing sci-fi film called The Death Ray was thoroughly hated by everyone. Kuleshov knew that the collective’s next project had to come in on the cheap and be a hit. While it would have been easy to fall back on the safety of West’s comedic formula, he happened across a gloomy story by American socialist writer Jack London called “The Unexpected” and decided to adapt it with screenwriter Victor Shklovsky. Finishing the script in 12 hours, they started scouting locations outside Moscow that could serve as the Yukon. They spotted the “huge and forlorn” pine tree first, near the Tsaritsino ponds. Then the Collective built a small shack on the banks of the icy Moskva River. The majority of the film would be just three actors inside this claustrophobic interior. It would be the cheapest Russian production of all time.

Ultimately, it’s the performances of Aleksandra Khokhlova (as Edith) and Vladimir Fogel (as Dennin) that make By The Law so exceptional. Aleksandra Khokhlova was Kuleshov’s spouse and creative partner. Like the others in the Collective, she had starred in most of his previous films; but unlike the men, she was mercilessly mocked and insulted by critics for her angular looks and skinniness. Lev Kuleshov hit back, saying “The commercial pursuit of beauties and names is none other than hidden pornography or psycho-pathology for which there is absolutely no place in Soviet cinematography.” The best English write-up of the film belongs to American poet Hilda Doolittle, better known as “H.D.”, in the 1928 issue of the film journal Close-Up. Watching the German version Söhne in a Switzerland theater, she described Khokhlova’s performance:

The gestures of this woman are angular, bird-like, claw-like, skeleton-like and hideous. She has a way of standing against a sky line that makes a hieroglyph, that spells almost visibly some message of cryptic symbolism. Her gestures are magnificent. If this is Russian, then I am Russian. Beauty is too facile a word to describe this; this woman is a sort of bleak young sorceress…Her face can be termed beautiful in the same way that dawn can be termed beautiful rising across stench and fever of battle…This sort of raw picked beauty must of necessity destroy the wax and candy-box “realism” of the so much so-called film art. It must destroy in fact so much that perhaps it does “go”, as one of our party said, “too far”.

This notion of “too far”-ness echoes a similar comment made by Cinema Front critic Viktor Pertsov, as noted by scholar Denise Youngblood in her Soviet Cinema in the Silent Era 1918-1935. Pertsov criticized Kuleshov for not guiding the viewer to moral judgment or providing a social key with which to decode the film, which he described as “hermetically sealed.” While meant negatively, today this hermetic sealing is precisely what makes this movie so radically accessible to new viewers. Unlike other Russian films from the period, it ties itself to no historical event or revolutionary act but merely works its way through its own myopic microcosm of greed and madness, close-up by close-up, breakdown by breakdown.

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Aleksandra Khokhlova’s “hieroglyph”

Kuleshov was known for making dangerous physical demands on his actors, although the confined interior of By The Law theoretically made for safer working conditions. The shoot was carefully timed to overlap with a spring thaw and flood event. Actors would freeze, be submerged, and have off-screen airplane propellers blow snow and sleet into their faces. Kuleshov described the expereince in Fifty Years In Films:

Spring came, the ice on the river broke. We went on shooting, but suddenly it became apparent that we were having quite an unusual flood: the river water was inundating the cabin, its level steadily rising. The wet cables produced electric shocks whenever one inadvertently touched them, but Khokhlova affirmed that “electricity made her feel more intensely”. While a close shot was being made, Fogel lay bound on ice in the fire-hose rain and airplane wind for two and a half hours. (p.228-229)

Vladimir Fogel was better known for his comedic roles in hit films like Chess Fever, where his neurotic performance shows his gift for physical comedy. But today, it is his portrayal of the exploited and embittered Irishman in By The Law that stands as his highest achievement. Kuleshov wanted extreme states of being from the faces of his actors. This is why the Collective practiced incessantly using still photographs and études, trying to move beyond the cliched facial expressions so common to the stage. Truly extreme states of being, they believed, could never be attained through psychological immersion. In that sense, they rejected theater theorist Stanislavski’s approach as a mere dressing-up of canned Victorian melodrama. Actors were mechanical beings subject to the laws of science. Ana Olenina summarizes this well in her article “Engineering Performance: Lev Kuleshov, Soviet Reflexology, and Labor Efficiency Studies”:

Kuleshov’s explorations were driven by his conviction that the performer must exploit the abilities of his or her body to the maximum extent and create corporeal spectacles that would strike the audience with their unusualness, dynamism, and perfection in every detail. Thus, the acting études and films created by Kuleshov’s troupe in the 1920s were marked by a clear tendency on the one hand, toward tragicomic grotesque and buffoonery, and on the other hand, toward extreme physical performances (p.300).

Although the end product was criticized for its “Americanism,” it was a big enough hit to prove the end of the Kuleshov Collective, as Fogel and others departed for the stable paychecks offered by the larger Soviet film factories. Fogel would soon play the proletariat couchsurfing homewrecker in Bed & Sofa, followed by The House on Trubnaya. Tragically, he killed himself in 1929, although likely not for the reasons stated by Kuleshov in his memoirs (because of “uninteresting work”). On the other hand, his suicide did coincide with the coming of sound film, a difficult time for all actors but especially international ones. Aleksandra Khokhlova, failing to meet Soviet beauty standards, could only get work in Kuleshov projects. Soon, she would turn to directing films herself, including an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s An Affair of the Clasps (1929), Sasha (1930), and a documentary called Toys (1931).

In closing, the score of this particular DVD restoration deserves mention. The majority of silent films have no remaining soundtrack notes with regard to what should be played during a screening. This is true for By The Law. Most restorations go the safe route and commission a solo piano score, or something orchestral from the time period that fits. Luckily, the Austrian Film Museum decided something different was needed and went with electronic composer Franz Reisecker, who had previously worked on a score for Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin restoration. His dissonant and fractured tones work brilliantly alongside Kuleshov’s images. “I was fascinated with actress Aleksandra Khokhlova, because of her very particular expressive style, and then with the montage and Kuleshov’s highly artificial visual language,” Reisecker said in an interview. “It reminded me of Spaghetti Westerns. I went back to Ennio Morricone’s music for Sergio Leone’s films and developed some sounds based on the bell motif. Then there is a sequence that almost has the character of a dance track when they find gold…and despite the groove there is a hint of threat in the sound.”

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Cast/Crew shot from set of By The Law; Khokhlova in scarf, Fogel in glasses, Kuleshov center left.

Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint

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“It wasn’t me, pal, I ain’t hit no poison shops in years!” – Matt Dillon as Bob, Drugstore Cowboy: Workprint

No film ever shot in Portland has come to personify the city like Gus Van Sant’s 1989 breakthrough feature Drugstore Cowboy. In fact, it holds such a place of prominence that the impatient are already gearing up this month to celebrate its 30th anniversary based on production instead of release date, with screenings, walking tours of locations, etc. The only screenings scheduled so far are for the normal 101-minute version. Van Sant seems to have little interest in re-visiting other cuts of the film, which is understandable. Editors exist for a reason. Anyone who has ever had to sit through an awful “restored” director’s cut understands this. Most works are harmed more than they are helped. In interviews, the sole editorial point of conflict mentioned by Van Sant was his absolute unwillingness to cut William S. Burroughs from the film, as requested by the studio. There were also several moments in his commentary for the 1999 DVD release, done with Matt Dillon, in which he questioned the necessity of a few edits or changes to the shooting script. But overall, he sounded content with his first big-budget Hollywood experience and did not come across as having compromised his vision for the sake of a larger budget.

While the original is a classic now in its own right, a rare alternate videocassette version does exist. Its provenance is sketchy. I’ve owned it for 27 years but have never been able to tell for what purpose it was originally created, and there’s no record of its existence online. It was likely a “workprint” VHS transfer of an early proposed cut, intended for editing. Or maybe it was a rejected alternate version submitted to the studio for review. Whatever its function, it adds around 20 minutes to the film’s running time, while also eliminating or using alternate takes for many scenes that were included in the final Avenue Pictures release (for clarity, I’ll call the two versions Avenue and Workprint from here on). Calling this “Van Sant’s version” would be presumptuous, since I do not know him and have no idea how he feels about the removed content. That being said, the Workprint does feel a lot more like Mala Noche–his previous feature, also shot in Portland–and makes for a grittier and rawer Drugstore Cowboy experience, with no special effects, no sophisticated jazz score, no drug paraphernalia optics, not even credits. Appropriately, the grainy print takes on the aesthetic characteristics of a 16mm afterschool TV parable about the black hole of addiction, shedding the Hollywood glamour sheen for a look that’s pure street, but still saturated in tones of green.

(SPOILERS: Remainder contains details about the added scenes.)

Before I get into the specific differences, a bit of background on the source material. James Fogle was an infamous Pacific-Northwest drug addict and pharmacy thief, and the shooting script was based on an unpublished manuscript of his, which was picked up by Delta only after the film’s success, in 1990. The book is loaded with dialogue, with some passages ridiculously long, stilted, and unnatural sounding. Van Sant and Dillon, in the original DVD commentary, discuss the copious amounts of colorful text written by Fogle and the attempts at condensing that into script form, while retaining some of his key phrases, like “poison shops,” “dope fiends,” and “T.V. babies.” I did a quick analysis, and all of the removed major scenes, and most of the dialogue therein, are present in Fogle’s novel. With the Workprint just passing the two hour mark, in an era when films were rarely over 90 minutes, the cutting of entire sequences was likely to tighten the pace. The same can’t be said for the inclusion of alternate takes and the differences in tone created by those. It seems that at some stage in the editing process, Drugstore Cowboy began to drift somewhat from Van Sant’s comedic intent. These nuances can be subtle and hard to spot; for example, a line delivered by Matt Dillon in Workprint will be hilariously paranoid, while the Avenue cut would utilize an alternate take of the same scene, but with Dillon conveying anger or hostility. Overall, there is an increased 1st-person viewpoint for the Avenue cut, while the Workprint includes more scenes for which Bob’s character would not be present, such as conversations between pharmacists and supporting characters.

Second, there’s the music. Since the videotape lacks credits, for years I struggled to find out what the songs were, and there is still one Hawaiian slack-key guitar piece that I’m unsure about. It’s unclear why some of the Workprint songs were removed from the Avenue cut. Perhaps licensing issues, or maybe they were always intended as placeholders for Elliot Goldenthal’s dissonant jazz cues, which comprised half of the original soundtrack. One sequence in particular deserves mention since it’s the best music-driven montage Van Sant has ever filmed. It occurs halfway through the police’s duplex raid, as Detective Gentry and the cops hunt for the hidden dope stash. Instead of Bob answering Gentry’s question “What’s it gonna be?”–as in, “Will you give us the drugs or will we trash your home?”–there is a long silent pause of apprehension. Then, instead of an answer, Elis Regina’s voice drops from nowhere, and her duet “Águas de Março” with Antonio Carlos Jobim continues over a montage of furniture demolition, the knifing of sofas, the emptying of cereal boxes; there is a brief exterior shot of the shadows of axes coming down in the duplex windows, then a slow pan up a landscape of leftover debris: Coca-Cola bottles, Fidel Castro’s photo, furniture legs, insulation. Van Sant takes his time; nothing is rushed. Brazilian beats and alternating staccato voices are stretched lovingly over the canvas of junky culture. In the Avenue cut, there is just a fade to black after Gentry’s question and a truncated debris shot, without music, ending with the cast sitting nude and covered in blankets for reasons that are vague (since the preceding scene of cops shredding their clothing was removed.) Approaches like this epitomize the difference between the two versions. Maybe it was Hollywood, with one eye on the editing clock. Just as they wanted William S. Burroughs removed, perhaps they trimmed all bits tangential to the storyline. But for this “Águas de Março” sequence, it’s as if, for Godard’s Band of Outsiders, a decision was made to eliminate the dance because it offered little with regard to plot progression. Other great songs forever associated with the film, like Desmond Dekker’s “Israelites”, are still present, albeit less prominently in the mix and as source music in apartment interiors, not incidental cues.

Apart from music, there are several noteworthy added sequences from the novel. Diane’s sister arrives to bring clothing and belittle Bob, which explains their ill-fitting clothes in the Avenue cut. The sister sequence also stands as a nice-if-brief antidote to Bob’s misogyny, and it’s too bad it wasn’t retained. In two other deleted sequences, Diane attempts to score drugs from a doctor, and Diane and Rick establish a plan to continue stealing following Bob’s departure to rehab. Of the alternate takes, the one at the rehab clinic when Bob is being asked questions by the social worker (brilliantly played by Beah Richards) is altogether different, with a slow French New Wave-ish back-and-forth pan as he answers her questions. Another vastly improved sequence is when Nadine asks if the crew can get a dog, thus starting the hex spiral. Canned dramatic music is inserted here, which fits the film’s aesthetic perfectly. “It’s over. We ain’t going to the coast. We ain’t going anywhere,” Bob mutters behind horns, strings, and crashing percussion that sounds like it’s ripped from an old crime procedural. Such incidental music comes up repeatedly throughout. It injects ironic humor, which is fitting since, again, Van Sant has referred to the film as a dark comedy. It’s clear that many funny elements did not survive. Odd lines from the novel that are admiringly goofy in Workprint (“Hot dawg!” is a keeper) are gone from Avenue. It seems that at some point in the editing, as the film became hyperfocused on its protagonist, the decision was made to emphasize his patriarchal toughness and redemption at the expense of junky weirdness and paranoid melodrama.

This shaky redemption is mainly conveyed through the bookending device that both begins and ends the original film. From the outset, in the ambulance, we hear Bob’s half-dead and/or mellowed-out opinions about everyone on his crew as we watch their home-movies running through his brain. We are not allowed to be introduced to the characters through their actions. We must first hear Bob’s impressions of them and how he has come to define their identities, which assigns him an omnipotent God-like quality from the beginning. Conversely, the linear Workprint cut starts in a more egalitarian manner, loud and fast with aerial car shots of the crew en route to the “epilepsy routine”, using an anachronistic Skinny Puppy song that is very far in tone from Abbey Lincoln’s “For All We Know.” It ends cold-stop, in the ambulance, with the celebrated head-shot of Matt Dillon said to be modeled on Andy Warhol’s short film Blowjob. Unlike with the Avenue cut, there’s no rehash of the home-movie at the film’s concluding credits over yet another rehash of “Israelites,” a sequence which always felt to me like a tired Hollywood editing trope, the equivalent of a blooper reel designed to uplift any audience members who may have become depressed after hours of addicts. Interestingly, according to Dillon and Van Sant, the handheld home-movie sequence was shot by the cast post-production and was designed to be used for promotional purposes. (A photo from that day, taken against the famous Lovejoy columns, became the main image on the one-sheet poster). Which begs the question: if this was done post-production and intended to provide advertising fodder, why was it edited into the final release cut? In Workprint, there is no nostalgia, no redemption, no resolution. The end is abrupt and arbitrary. In the book, Bob is dead-on-arrival. The TV Babies win. The hat hex is complete.

NOTE: Workprint version is not available in Watzek’s circulating collection. Screening restricted to Lewis & Clark College community.

Arresting Power

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Portland might be at the forefront of progressive composting, but in terms of racism and police violence against people of color, it is no different than any other urban center in America. The incredible documentary Arresting Power begins with an excruciating play-by-play of the 911 calls leading up to the murder of Aaron Campbell, who, feared suicidal by his family after the death of his brother, was shot and killed as he attempted to defend himself from a police dog attack. It is only the beginning of a long string of examples, some discussed in depth (Kendra Jade, Rickie Johnson, Tony Stevenson, Keaton Otis), others noted in passing between sections, but all where police killed and attempted to justify the use of their excessive violence. As Walidah Imarisha has explored in her examination of Oregon’s racist beginnings, the state was founded as a white refuge and has a long history of exploiting minorities for labor, while not allowing them to settle permanently. The notorious Lash Law was technically on the books until 2001. In the 1920s, Oregon also had the highest per capita membership of the KKK in the nation (approximately 14,000).

In the wake of systemic police violence in Albina, a group of black activists in north Portland founded the NCCF, the National Committee to Combat Fascism, in 1967. Members of this organization (Kent Ford, Percy Hampton) went on to spearhead the Portland chapter of the Black Panther Party. Like the Oakland and Chicago chapters of the BPP, they emphasized community empowerment, self-sufficiency, and public safety within the black community, starting breakfast programs at Highland Community Church and a free health clinic on North Russell, named after Chicago BPP chairman Fred Hampton. The historical incidences described are beyond belief, but the unjustified killings all follow typical patterns of police violence: claims of non-existent weapons, fleeing black “suspects” defined as “threats”, racial profiling and the absolute debasement and lack of concern among white people in authority for black people’s lives. Great sets of interviews with Joann Hardesty (Albina Ministerial Alliance Coalition for Justice & Police Reform) and non-violent protesters attacked and arrested by police during marches for Kendra Jade in 2003 reflect a culture of intimidation and violence used to squelch public dissent.

The directors–Jodi Darby, Julie Perini, Erin Yanke–scratch 16mm film at the sites of the killings just as graphite rubbings are made from gravestones. These segments are used as segues, with names of the victims shown on screen. It is an unsettling and effective method of respectfully acknowledging a list of names so abhorrently long that no single documentary could adequately cover each story and give redress to the social injustices reflected in each. The fact that filmmakers would have to pick and choose from such a long list of “justified” killings is telling and only reinforces the fact that Portland is more concerned with fulfilling the state’s historical dreams of white capitalist enclave and gentrified hi-tech playground than investing in our increasingly displaced and struggling communities of color.

Hearts and Minds

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“For twelve centuries we fought against China. For 100 years we fought the French. Then came the American invasion–500,000 of them–and it became a war of genocide.” — Father Chan Tin

“The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is cheap in the Orient.” — General William Westmoreland

Throughout the late 70s-80s, Vietnam became the focal point for a broad range of American films, some dealing with combat (Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Casualties of War), some with aftermath (Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Born On the Fourth of July), others using it as a setting for adaptations (Apocalypse Now as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Then there was the deluge of POW films from 1983-86, with even Gene Hackman (Uncommon Valor) getting on the solider-of-fortune vigilante bandwagon. Within Reagan’s creepy and bankrupt culture of nationalism, the Vietnam “Prisoner of War” movement went into overdrive, fueled by a fervent anti-Communism permeating the mass media of 1984, the year of Reagan’s re-election. Newt Heisley’s flag image, created in the early 1970s, was suddenly plastered everywhere. In the midst of this, and perhaps as a reaction against it, new documentary forms were taking shape. These new filmmakers were social activists and balked at the notion of a so-called “balance” that they were constantly being accused of lacking. The first was Rafferty-Loader’s Atomic Cafe in 1982, an examination of Cold War hysteria told through an incredible collage of newsreels, educational films, and other “duck and cover” pop culture. The second was Michael Moore’s Roger & Me in 1989, his swan song to Ford and Flint. But both owe much to an earlier, lesser-known 1974 film that Moore has called “not only the best documentary I have ever seen, but maybe the best movie ever.” That film is Peter Davis’s Hearts & Minds.

The impact of the Vietnam War on U.S. policy is well known: it made conscription unsustainable, drafted soldiers being too much of a liability both on the battlefield and once returned home. Reagan’s administration realized indigenous mercenaries like the Contras could be financed, armed, and trained to terrorize their own pro-democratic activists without working-class American youth getting their hands dirty. Until the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, things went totally underground for the better part of a decade, public reaction to Vietnam being a prime reason for this shift in intervention. But until coming across Hearts & Minds, I had never seen Vietnamese villagers speaking passionately about what this war wasn’t (a fight against Communism) and was (the apex of an ongoing Western colonial war of genocide against a people fighting for independence and national unification.) Nor had I heard the view articulated so well by former-Sgt. William Marshall, who lost an arm and a leg and was furious for what his country had drafted him to do in the name of nothing. In many ways, it reminds me of Studs Terkel’s book “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II, which serves as a compendium of human experiences across the board, the quotations around “good war” intentionally ironic. In the same vein, Hearts & Minds could be nested in the same, this being the warm-and-cuddly Lyndon Johnson phrase used to discuss what needed to be done for victory: to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people (which “people” is subject to debate).

The film, shot just as the war was winding down, is a fast-paced compilation of interviews without narration. This was a very rare approach for a documentary on war. Newsreel style was still the norm; think the BBC’s World at War series and Laurence Olivier’s refined narration. By contrast, Hearts & Minds was honest and matter-of-fact, attempting to soften the conflict for no one. It reminds the viewer that war is also about human remembrances and raw emotional experience, not large tactical arrows outlining which division went where and why. The participants run the gamut to policy makers to people on the street, both in America and Vietnam. Infamous “hawks” like Kennedy-aide Walt Rostow openly belittle and insult Davis when he asks for an honest accounting of the conflict’s origins, saying that rehashing that is “pretty goddamn pedestrian stuff at this stage of the game.” He is but one of several who openly assume that their version of the war is the only one in existence, the only one that matters, the only one scholars need concern themselves with for the historical record. Luckily, there are interviews with Daniel Ellsberg (leaker of the Pentagon Papers), Barton Osborn (CIA agent who quit and blew the whistle on covert operations), and a host of others who tossed their bureaucratic careers aside to speak out against the injustice they’d helped to sustain in some way. Alongside these are the stories of two U.S. servicemen: Randy Floyd, an air force pilot who flew 98 bombing missions; and Lt. George Coker, a returning POW who had just spent the majority of the war in captivity. Through great editing, their own perspectives unfold gradually, scene by scene, as do those of dozens of others, like Detroit-born William Marshall, and peace-activist Bobby Muller, who would go on to found the Vietnam Veterans of America.

Most intense are the scenes with the Vietnamese, all of whom spoke up despite very real dangers for doing so (the war was still going on during early filming.) There are the victims: the coffin maker, who looks over his shoulder while speaking; the two sisters, whose prolonged silence and sadness at the end of the scene pushes an intensity onto the viewer which is almost unbearable; the Catholic and the Buddhist, both aligned in their views on the Vietnamese struggle for independence; the angry, grieving father who demands an explanation of what he had ever done to Nixon for him to come there and murder his family; the man who says to a friend, after looking at the camera, “Look, they’re focusing on us now. First they bomb as much as they please, then they film.” Then, there is the lavish country club banquet of the South Vietnamese capitalist class, the recipients of the billions in American foreign aid pouring in, one of which makes the incredible admission that “We saw that peace was coming, whether we liked it or not.” The comment is astounding, delivered without a pause, and really says it all. U.S. corporations can be seen encroaching throughout Saigon: Sprite trucks, Coca-Cola plants, toothpaste billboards with smiling Western women, even the ridiculously out of place Bank of America. Eerily, CBS logos, intended to be a “ubiquitous eye that is watching all”, are ordered left on the bodies of Vietcong corpses by soldiers in the field as an ominous calling card.

In the end, what is so relevant and sad about Hearts & Minds today is the fact that little has changed. The fabrications for foreign invasion by American policy makers continues. Consecutive administrations still lie to keep up some modicum of popular support. The jingoistic hysteria following 9/11 was nothing new, nor was the xenophobic nationalism that accompanied it. Even General Westmoreland’s racist quote has now been uttered in a thousand variations over the past ten years, just replace “Oriental” with “Muslim.” But perhaps most telling are the prescient closing words of ex-bomber pilot and activist Randy Floyd when asked what was learned from it all: “Nothing. The military doesn’t realize that people fighting for their freedom are not going to be stopped by changing your tactics, by adding more sophisticated knowledge. Americans have worked extremely hard not to see the criminality that their officials and their power makers have exhibited.”

Incident at Oglala

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“We’re trying to regain what we had in the past, being human beings and being involved in human society.” – Stan Holder, Wichita AIM leader

During the height of its power and influence, the Black Panther Party was an important symbol to other oppressed people of color, both at home and abroad. Among these was AIM, the American Indian Movement, a group of radical Native American activists who drew inspiration from the BPP’s program of zero tolerance for America’s authoritarian power structures. Like the BPP, AIM had no shortage of historical grievances to add to its agenda. One of their earliest actions, in 1972,  was partnering with other indigenous rights groups from the U.S. and Canada to trek cross-country, from California to Washington, D.C., in the Trail of Broken Treaties. Once there, Nixon refused to meet with them or acknowledge their lengthy list of demands but the protest established AIM as an important new grassroots movement and caught the FBI’s attention. It’s widely believed that the FBI did not discontinue their counterintelligence program following the outing of their murder of BPP leader Fred Hampton in Chicago. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to support the contention, made by Russell Means, Dennis Banks, Ward Churchill, and others in AIM, that the FBI ran the exact same counterintelligence program of informants, disinformation, and “bad jacketing”against the American Indian Movement, tactics employed with such effectiveness against the Black Panther Party in the years prior.

Corruption on reservations was first and foremost on AIM’s agenda. In the lead-up to the most famous AIM occupation, they accused the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of inciting violence and fostering an atmosphere of intimidation and fear on the Pine Ridge reservation as a means of social control, further asserting that this was all done in collusion with the FBI, whose agenda was the splintering and eradication of all radical minority organizations. There was a failed procedural attempt at removing the corrupt head of the BIA, Dick Wilson, who was believed to be responsible for many murders and mysterious disappearances at Pine Ridge, with the help of his security forces. Just like with the BPP takedown by the Chicago police, the BIA–specifically Dick Wilson and his self-proclaimed GOONs (“Guardians of the Oglala Nation”)–became the triggermen for the FBI, working to undermine and destroy efforts of indigenous independence and solidarity.

Things came to a head on February 27, 1973 with the famous Wounded Knee occupation.

Incident at Oglala was the first (and only) mainstream documentary dealing with Native American radicalism in the 1970s. Its scope is focused primarily on the 1973 Wounded Knee occupation and the subsequent case of AIM-member Leonard Peltier and his alleged (and highly contested) involvement in the murder of two FBI agents injured and then killed execution-style in a firefight on Pine Ridge, a case for which he is still serving a life sentence in Canada.

The Murder of Fred Hampton

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Last week’s screening Black Power Mixtape provided an overview of some key players in the black power movement. This week, we will look specifically at the murder of two black activists by the State and the coordinated collusion between the FBI and the Chicago Police Dept. to eradicate the Chicago arm of the Black Panther Party through terror and violence.

On the night of March 8 1971, a handful of activists calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into the federal offices in Pennsylvania and raided file cabinets. The stolen documents they obtained confirmed earlier suspicions of how far the FBI was willing to go to infiltrate and destroy domestic organizations dedicated to issues of human rights and social justice. The FBI’s program went by the name COINTELPRO (for Counter Intelligence Program), and its main target was the Black Panther Party, which it deemed a terrorist organization and a threat to national security due to its calls for black empowerment and especially its anti-capitalism. The FBI used false communications, agent provocateurs, and, with the aid of local law enforcement, assassination to splinter and destroy the organization.

The Chicago chairman of the BPP was Fred Hampton, a charismatic leader whose first arrest in 1968 was for stealing $71 in ice cream and delivering it to children in the neighborhood. Above all, Hampton was a brilliant networker and speaker, a builder of bridges between groups with like social agendas, however tangential. Even among South Side’s apolitical gangs, he worked hard to push the Party’s message of empowerment and community control and actively sought their solidarity and support. Like the BPP more broadly, he saw Socialism as the only answer for working black people in America and championed international unity among oppressed people of color, promising solidarity with any group, black or white, that would align themselves with the BPP’s ideals of transnational liberation for all suffering under capitalism and colonialism.

The FBI decided Fred Hampton had to go. The State would not tolerate a supreme teacher in the mold of OAAU-era Malcolm X, delivering radical messages of global outreach and p.o.c. unity that transcend religious divides. Through a manipulative quid pro quo, they pressured a 19-year-old black man earlier arrested for car theft to act as an informant; William O’Neal gained access to the BPP’s brownstone headquarters and, even more effectively, became head of security and Hampton’s bodyguard. He provided floorplans of the apartment and flagged the location of Hampton’s bedroom.

On December 4, 1969, at 4:30 am, there was a knock on the door of the BPP apartment. Mark Clark, on security watch and armed, walked to the door and asked, without opening, who it was. “It’s Tommy,” a voice said. “Tommy who?” Clark asked. “Tommy gun” came the prearranged cue. Through the door, Mark Clark was shot in the heart and died instantly. As he body convulsed, he pulled the trigger of the gun he was holding as the Chicago Police fired 90 rounds into the apartment. Fred Hampton, who had been drugged earlier by informant O’Neal and possibly never regained consciousness, was badly injured on the mattress in his bedroom; a later autopsy showed that he was killed from two shots fired into his skull at close range, finished off by the cops once inside, who were overheard saying “He’s good and dead now.” With their main target dead, they continued to fire into the other rooms, later charging all of those shot and injured with attempted murder, including Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s 8-mo-pregnant fiancee.

Despite the falsified ballistics tests, Mark Clark’s reflex shot was the only bullet fired by the BPP. Hence, there was no “wild firefight” as reported by the Chicago Police, who quickly held press conferences to laud the great achievements of their officers and proclaim the community safe from the militancy of the Panthers and their dangerous breakfast program for children. Within hours of the assault, the Panthers called in the film crew who had been filming Hampton’s speaking engagements. This team began to make a documentary quite unlike the one they started out to shoot. Their footage, which contradicted accounts given by the CPD and FBI, would further open up massive holes and inconsistencies in the State’s official version of events. Crucially, the Panthers also opened up the crime scene to the public, and over 25,000 Chicagoans filed through to see the blood-stained execution space for themselves, to see the nails in the wall the CPD attempted to falsify as bullet slugs fired from BPP guns. The Chicago Tribune, initially supportive of the police’s version of events, changed their coverage when the amount of contradictory evidence became clear, and their reporting added to the damning documentation already gathered by the BPP and the photographic evidence taken by the filmmakers.

The civil case would drag on until 1982, as the FBI and CPD worked hard to stall the proceedings of the Hampton and Clark families. Two FBI documents obtained in that 1971 classified file theft, including O’Neal’s map of the apartment, revealed his role, and the feds involvement and attempted cover up. In the end, “justice” (if one could call it that) prevailed in the form of a monetary settlement of 2 million. None of the police officers, nor Cook County/State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, and obviously none of the FBI agents, were ever indicted in the murders. The ensuing public scandal did cut short Hanrahan’s political ambitions and facilitated increased black activism within the city, but the Chicago BPP never fully recovered from the blow. It says volumes about America’s political class and the mainstream media’s subservience to it that Watergate became the historic benchmark for the abuse of State power and not COINTELPRO. It seems the state-sanctioned murder of leftist minorities always takes a backseat to hotel break-ins and tape recordings if the political elite are the ones being wiretapped.

I would never say that Fred Hampton is currently in the national spotlight because he is a revolutionary person of color buried and obscured by the white power structures of our nation, his execution a footnote at best within our so-called institutions of higher learning. But the number of times I have seen this documentary and this case mentioned over social media in the past 12 months is more than I have seen in the past 20+ years combined. A new generation of people of color are keeping Hampton’s memory and message alive, screening this documentary in communities, engaging in important conversations, and exposing the continuum of white supremacy and violence that is still a hallmark of American capitalism.

Black Power Mixtape

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Ever since capitalism was forced to shift from slavery to wage exploitation, it has attempted to co-opt and control people of color on a global scale by various means. More often than not, this takes the form of state violence and coercion, and, at least since 1945, the U.S.A. has taken the global lead in this role. Whether targeting domestic radicals at home or indigenous “populists” abroad, who have the audacity to refuse the relinquishing of their material resources for western use, the United States abysmal postwar record is clear. Numbers vary (often because we don’t bother to count), but in Vietnam’s war for independence against western colonialism, it’s now estimated that we murdered around 1,700,000 Vietnamese between 1965 and 1974 (British Medical Journal study, 2008); and that doesn’t take into account the French period back to 1955. Our record in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa from the 1970s until today speaks for itself, and the violence perpetrated among people of color within our own borders has often been called an internal extension of our nation’s external behavior against the southern hemisphere. Throughout social media, the core tenets of white capitalism are now being called on the carpet daily by those it most exploits. The Black Lives Matter movement, like the Black Panther Party before it, is a pivotal moment in the ongoing struggle for social justice in America. They disregard the “rogue cop” fallacy and push issues of police violence further by questioning the processes and the policies. While demanding accountability for the murderers, they go further and point out that these “bad apples” are in fact working as intended, protecting the broader aims of institutionalized capitalism by killing members of a black underclass whose “loosies” somehow challenge the profit margins of U.S. corporations. For this spring’s lineup, Watzek Screens has selected six films covering revolutionary struggle by people of color against capitalist authoritarianism and state violence. Films will cover the Black Panther Party and the FBI’s assassination of BPP members Hampton and Clark, the American Indian Movement’s Wounded Knee occupation at Pine Ridge, and international films on FLN’s fight against the French in Algeria and Vietnam’s war against U.S. dominance. We will end with Arresting Power, the recent documentary on historical police violence against the black community in north Portland.

There really is no single pivotal moment within the Civil Rights movement that led to its ideological diffusion. It was a gradual process throughout the mid-to-late 60s, the culmination of increasing white violence in the face of black non-violence, including the murder of key figureheads MLK and Malcolm X under suspicious circumstances. Although government ties to each have long been debated, hard evidence is lacking, apart from admitted CIA surveillance activities and attempts to actively discredit King with smear tactics. Self-defense, empowerment, and black pride became the new rallying cry for those tired of the absolutism of non-violence.

In the late 1960s, a group of Swedish filmmakers came to the United States to document this nascent black power movement. For whatever reason, the footage they shot ended up unlabeled and forgotten in a Swedish Public Television vault for thirty years, until it was reassembled and released in 2011 as The Black Power Mixtape 1967-75. Its structure is loose by design, allowing large spaces for black activists to speak in their own words, with narration and readings of select texts provided by The Last Poets’ Abiodun Oyewole. A centerpiece is an interview with BPP-member Angela Davis, then imprisoned in California in 1971 on trumped-up, 1st-degree-murder charges for the death of Judge Harold Haley, a charge for which she was later proven not guilty. Like Malcolm X before them, Davis and other Panthers fostered a solidarity between people of color movements worldwide, particularly in Algeria, Angola, and Vietnam. While placing their own struggles squarely within the context of capitalist exploitation of black Americans, they nevertheless made broader connections with fellow victims of imperialism abroad by supporting, however possible, subaltern societies of the global South who had zero voice (at least in the North) and who were suffering horribly under carpet bombing and chemical defoliation.

Mixtape shows the players speaking for themselves in both text and image. Next week’s The Murder of Fred Hampton will get at the heart of the matter, at what can happen to a motivated, charismatic revolutionary of color who works to galvanize an impoverished urban black community around issues of social justice, white violence, and capitalism.