Movies of the Semi-Great Depression

Still from “The Skyjacker’s Tale.”

95 million Americans are out of the workforce, millions are losing their wholly inadequate Obamacare, half can’t afford a $400 emergency and the Satanic minions in Washington DC just approved $729 million more to move the rubble around in Afghanistan. Trump ups the obscene military budget by $56 billion but the righteous US Congress rebels — and increases it to $80 billion. The American monster is hungry, angry, restless for its war fix — what people will it destroy next: Iranians, North Koreans, Venezuelans? There’s no relief anywhere from the madness of America.

It’s a semi-Great Depression and I’m sometimes asked to “resist” by joining Russophobic “progressives” in rallies against “hate” instead of tying protests to demands like: Medicare for all, gut the Pentagram, abolish the CIA, get out of southwest Asia and break up monopolies like Google and Amazon. Call me when the plan is to hang neocons on meat hooks and bankers on lamp posts while singing “The Night They Drove Old Bridgehampton Down.” Otherwise, I’m doing what my mother and grandparents did for five cents each to briefly escape the real Great Depression — go to the movies. Wanna go with me?

500 Years: Life in Resistance: Indigenous Guatemalans do what the lowliest serfs in the world — the American working class — would never do: raise holy hell against their military and government and attempt to hold leaders accountable for war crimes even if it takes decades to bring the perps to justice. The Mayans are inspiring and courageous as they haul US-supported dictator and mass murderer Efrain Rios Montt into court in the last installment of director Pamela Yate’s Guatemalan trilogy. 200,000 Guatemalans killed, entire villages deliberately massacred and many thousands “disappeared,” Rios Montt’s dictatorship was the inspiration for Bruce Cockburn’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” — and guess who Rios Montt attributed his great “success” to? He told ABC News: “Our soldiers were trained by Israelis,” who supplied arms, intelligence and operational training.

Icarus: Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova puts on a slinky dress and picks up the film’s director at a Moscow nightspot and brings him to a hotel room where human chimney Sergei Lavrov jumps out of a closet and drops him with a blast of nicotine smoke as Vlad the Impaler scurries out from a hole in the baseboard and shoots up the poor guy as part of a blood-doping scandal.

Well, that’s the movie I would have liked to have seen. Instead, Icarus is about Vladimir Putin directing the blood-doping of Russian athletes when he isn’t hacking into Hillary Clinton’s emails or laying waste to America’s terrorist mercenary army in Syria. (Last week we learned that McCarthy-ite meatheads Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman are now fronting an all-in-the-neocon-family organization called the Committee to Investigate Russia — Max Boot, David Frum, Norman Ornstein, congressional perjurer James Clapper, etc. — to keep the Russia hysteria on full boil.)

Ingrid Goes West: Cautionary tale about a lying, dog-napping suicidal stalker and her entirely believable success in inserting herself into the lives of a social media star and her hangers-on living la dolce bullshit in Venice, California. We watch in amazement as the resourceful Ingrid joins up with the (it turns out) unhappy, cruel, shallow, tedious people that she’s been following on Instagram. Angelenos will delight in local skewerees like Cafe Gratitude. Can’t think of a better movie about social media.

Unleashed: With a plot that’s been hiding in broad daylight, this tale of a jilted young woman who moves across the country to start anew in San Francisco hit all the right rom-com spots. One night her dog and cat escape from the apartment and are magically transformed into two adult male humans who teach her, anonymously, about love and how to recognize it before transforming back into non-humans. Competing with each other for her attention, the newly-human duo still behave a whole lot like their former selves: the “cat” falls into a job as a very feral runway model and the “dog” is prevailed upon by yuppies in a park to train them on indefatigable running and grabbing thrown objects in their mouths, among other canine pursuits. And, of course, good money is paid for this “coaching.”

Crown Heights: Real paid movie critics — the kind that you and I don’t like because they buttress capitalism — quibbled with this film’s pacing and felt the characters didn’t come alive. However, we mostly only care about whether a film beats the daylights out of capitalism — and this film about a wrongly convicted man sent to prison and the court battle to free him, works perfectly fine.

My gut reaction to Crown Heights was that we whites should be disqualified from having anything to do with determining the fate of black people, whether it’s policing their communities or serving as their judges, juries or wardens. On reflection, though, there are no guarantees: Wilson Goode, former Milwaukee county Sheriff David Clarke and thousands of other black sell-outs also oppress the black working class, keepin’ it unreal for American capitalism which absolutely couldn’t function without them.

Based on a true story (unfortunately), major heroics in Crown Heights are performed by the man’s best friend to free him and he still ends up doing 20 years for a crime he didn’t commit. Eyewitness testimony without supporting forensic evidence is shown to be an open field for cop-induced false confessions and prosecutorial misconduct. An excellent touch throughout is archival footage of assorted enemies of the working class — Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Pataki — spouting off about getting tough on crime. Their racist enthusiasm creates the perfect climate for more innocent people sent to prison. As Malcolm X said: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Sidemen: Long Road to Glory: Although not packing the emotional wallop of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Sidemen gives long overdue props to Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf’s sidemen: Pinetop Perkins, Willie Smith and Hubert Sumlin. What’s jarring about it is comedian Marc Maron’s very white narration, especially when the film has black voices with real presence like Guy Davis. Guess it could have been worse — Obama could have narrated it… Weirdly and sadly, all three of these musical giants died within nine months of each other in 2011.

The Skyjacker’s Tale: Did somebody mention white cops beating black people into giving false confessions? If there was a massacre of white people at a Rockefeller-owned golf course in colonial St. Croix, Virgin Islands in 1972, well, it would be obvious that a local Black Panther organizer must have done it — it just takes a few more beatings to make it true. And even when the cops and prosecutors admit to the torture, well, no problem: the judge lets the case go forward anyway and the all white jury convicts and the defendants go to prison for decades — some are still there — except one, who escapes custody, hijacks an airplane in 1984 to Cuba, serves time for that crime in Cuba and now lives freely there, though still on the FBI’s most wanted list. The skyjacker, Ishmael Muslim Ali, worries in this documentary that Cuba and the US may be getting too chummy and he may get sent back to the belly of the beast. But that’s doubtful with Trump fronting the empire. Bless the empty hole in his chest, Trump’s just not cool like Obama. Trump’s just a flaming siren warning the world, every day, to arm up, be on guard and never trust or cooperate with America.

Detroit: It’s not well known but DW Griffith, Leni Riefenstahl and Allen Dulles had a three-way which resulted in the births of film director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the ruling class tools who brought us The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty and, now, a film with the 1967 Detroit riot as a backdrop.

Hollywood hogs at the torture trough, Boal and Bigelow can always be counted on to give us contextual-less history, one dimensional POC characters and the put-upon goons of empire (cops, soldiers, CIA agents) who just get pushed to the limit by dark-skinned people. After watching two hours of white cops terrorizing and murdering blacks in the Algiers Motel incident, we are stunned to find that the movie ends and there will be no comprehensive look at the working class rebellion that the Detroit police, Michigan state troopers and the Michigan National Guard couldn’t put down. It took the 82nd and 101st Airborne to finally end the uprising. Hollywood wouldn’t want the working class to get any ideas about how much power we really have if we choose to exercise it. Black people exercising their Second Amendment rights is a horror movie all by itself.

An Inconvenient Sequel: I guess we can never have too many scenes of Greenland melting and Houston flooding but this film didn’t feel like a success. I mostly remember Al Gore waddling around to various climate change gatherings and patting himself on the back as a lone I-told-you-so voice — kind of like those awards shows that give something to someone because they’re just about dead.

As with An Inconvenient Truth, Gore never mentions the destructiveness of animal agriculture on the environment, the fact that it contributes more greenhouse gases than all transportation combined. Instead, he turns the spotlight away from wealthier, whiter nations and shines it on poorer, darker coal-burning countries like India, a fact not appreciated by an Indian government representative who calls out the developed nations’ Tocquevillian attitude of: The rich as well as the poor have no right to burn coal. (And Agent Orange can’t even assent to that, believing as he does in making dark Satanic mills great again.)

Like numerous politicians when in office, Mr. Aw Shucks was a neoliberal austeritarian who did nothing to make things better, instead being part of endless planet-destroying and money-wasting wars. At one point Gore picks up a portrait of his anti-Vietnam War father, Senator Al Gore Sr. who, in 1970, was the first Democrat targeted (successfully) for defeat by Nixon’s racist “southern strategy,” a tactic later embraced by Gore Jr. and Bill Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council. It’s that kind of movie. The betrayal of an older leader/politician by their more reactionary offspring — like Jerry Brown — could be an entire movie.

(Everybody’s hysterical about Trump leaving the Paris climate agreement but with no enforcement mechanism and the wealthier nations unwilling to help the poorer ones, it’s nothing more than an AA meeting with impassioned speeches about getting sober — sometime — while washing down coal-fired brownies with light sweet crude in a haze of fracking gas.)

Dolores: The amazing courageous, mostly 1960s and early 70s life of United Farm Workers co-founder (along with Cesar Chavez) Dolores Huerta. A very refreshing thing in the film is that it doesn’t pretend that people can “have it all,” as gripping  interviews with several of Huerta’s often ignored children attest. Huerta was an indefatigable labor organizer, activist, negotiator and strategist who served and lived with the farm workers — but she was severely taken to task for it at the time by family, friends, some comrades, enemies and the media.

As with Crown Heights, there are clips of white politicians (some of the same ones) proudly displaying their racist bloodlust along with the white growers and cops beating strikers, same as it ever was. During a peaceful protest when she’s 58 years old, a cop jabs a baton into Huerta’s chest and breaks several ribs resulting in emergency surgery to remove her spleen and months of hospitalization. Farm workers were murdered just like black and Native activists in the taming of the American working class. Nixon buys thousands of tons of grapes for the US military in Vietnam in a deliberate attempt to crush the farm workers’ boycott.

No film about a 1960s icon would be complete without that icon’s living death and we get that toward the end of the film as the master of war and surveillance, Wall Street bailouts and Main Street foreclosures, the destroyer and mass deporter-in-chief of 2.5 million immigrants, Barack Obama, puts the medal of freedom around Huerta’s neck in 2012, just as he did with Bob Dylan, a perfect platform for the recipients to be strong, demonstrate integrity and class solidarity, rebel, refuse, decline and excoriate Obama’s wars and attacks on the world’s working class. But that’s not who Huerta and Dylan are. That’s who we think they were and wish they were. (Huerta had formally placed Hillary Clinton’s name in nomination at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.) Dylan and Huerta were “honored” in the same ceremony as war criminals Madeleine Albright and Shimon Peres (he did so much for America!) How’s that for in your fucking face — that you, and the things that most people believe that you ever stood for, are completely irrelevant to the current world! You’re so safe that this stooge of billionaires knows that you will be silent about his hopey-changey four year crime spree. The suave condescending last nail in the 1960s coffin even stole “Yes, we can” (“Si se puede!”) from Huerta. What a diabolical Trojan Horse from the capitalist class to the American working class was Obama…

Besides, the UFW story unraveled a long time ago with Chavez engaging in red-baiting, real estate development using non-union construction workers and, in a completely crazed bid to appeal to Filipino-American farm workers, endorsing the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. In the film, the Teamsters sign “sweetheart” contracts with the growers to undermine the UFW but (not in the film) the UFW — bereft of Marx and international solidarity — patrols the US border in 1973 to keep out immigrants. WTF. (A little white boy and his liberal mom in 1960s Ohio dutifully stop buying grapes and believe that vegan Cesar Chavez is the second coming of Jesus, completely unaware of, well, a whole lot, but especially the UFW’s contradictory and reactionary stands on immigration.)

California Typewriter: Warm, completely engrossing documentary about the history of the typewriter, some of its very famous fans (Tom Hanks has 250 typewriters) and a little mom and pop typewriter repair business in Berkeley whose owner frequents flea markets to get good deals for restoration and resale — accompanied by an artist acquaintance seeking typewriters to tear apart for sculptures. The struggling repair and resale shop, the title’s California Typewriter, ends up being saved by online promotions, a website, social media and in-store “type-ins.”

The paper drafts, the staccato keys and the ringing of the carriage are contrasted with the relative silence, auto-correct, lack of satisfaction when the keyboard is struck and the often eternal first and final draft of computer writing. Typewritten pages show the creative process better, says musician John Mayer. Historian David McCullough likes typewriters because they are slower than computers, saying most of his hours of “writing” aren’t spent typing, they’re spent thinking.

The film is a perfect meditation on art, creativity, friendship, collectors, collectibles, the struggle to keep great things in a world which has no use for them and what might be called the “unrealness” and — paradoxically for something that could exist forever — the disposability and meaninglessness of the digital world. It made me think of a related issue: What’s more enjoyable: scrapbooks and photo albums of 35mm pictures or digital computer galleries?

The Farthest: This documentary about the scientists and engineers who worked on the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes had me amazed and choked up from start to finish. Interestingly, The Farthest wasn’t made by Americans but by an Irish director (Emer Reynolds) and crew.

Approved and funded in 1972 by America’s greatest political villain who apparently did the most good (Nixon), the Voyagers launched in 1977 and are now 13 billion miles away, the first human-made objects to leave our solar system and enter interstellar space. When speaking of their work and space exploration, the Voyager engineers become poets. So many fascinating sounds and visuals: raging storms on Jupiter the size of two Earths, Neptune’s moon Triton that blasts icy geysers, the active volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io…

The Voyagers carry the Earth’s greatest hits, the famed “Golden Records” and the directions and record players for any aliens to play them: songs of humpback whales, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” Bach, Beethoven, greetings from humans around the world in 55 languages. There are also 115 images including the Great Wall of China, Jane Goodall and chimps, sunsets, elephants, a breastfeeding mother. As our own solar system will die in two million years, the Golden Records are expected to be the only evidence we ever existed.

All of the information transmitted from the Voyagers is based on less computing power than contained in a hearing aid. Although the Voyagers’ cameras stopped working a long time ago, the probes will send back data for another decade. Carl Sagan had the thought to turn the Voyagers’ cameras back toward the Earth to show a blue dot in the vastness of space, saying, “I think this perspective underscores our responsibility to preserve and cherish that blue dot, the only home we have.”

How do we cherish the blue dot? We first abolish capitalism — and kill any motherfuckers who stand in the way of that. After all the voting and chanting and marching and letter-writing and strikes and sit-downs and die-ins and lobbying and boycotts and consciousness-raising and tax-resistance and self-immolations and the agonizing about nonviolence and peace and fealty to the bogus capitalist-created “law”… the masses are going to understand that, though the capitalist class can commit crimes against the working class and we can commit crimes against each other, it’s impossible for the working class to commit crimes against the capitalist class… We’re going to discover that self-defense always meant killing these bastards immediately before they destroy the blue dot — the head of a pin in a sunbeam — and every angel, real or potential, dancing on it. The capitalists have made it very clear that they aren’t going to stop destroying. Ever. They can’t — their entire system is based on it. What should rational people do with a murderer who’s left a long bloody trail, who tells us he’s going to continue to murder every chance he gets and never stop?

Aren’t you glad at the escapism I provided by going to the movies with me?

Randy Shields can be reached at His writings and art are collected at