Archive for Midnight Express


Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2013 by dcairns


The only downside of coming to America for ten days is that I’ve had to leave behind Oliver Stone & Peter Kuznick’s book The Untold History of the United States. Not because they’d impound me on crossing the border, though that seems conceivable, but because it’s a mammoth doorstop of a thing, if mammoths can be said to have doorstops (paleontologists are divided on the subject).

I’m highly skeptical of Stone as a filmmaker. His screenwriting produced three films accused of racism — MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (Turks); YEAR OF THE DRAGON (Chinese-Americans); SCARFACE (Cubans); it’s possible CONAN THE BARBARIAN was picketed by a few outraged Cimmerians. Of course screenwriters can’t be accused of responsibility for anything in their movies because they have no authority about what goes in ’em. Robin Wood accused Paul Schrader of fascism based on his extensive writing output but I don’t think anything he’s directed really supports that, though Wood made a case for AMERICAN GIGOLO’s homophobic tendencies.)

Shadowplayer David WIngrove is an admirer of SEIZURE, but I’ve only seen the preposterous THE HAND from this period (come to think of it, the Michael Caine character who is so outraged that his barbarian cartoons are being rewritten after his hand is implausibly knocked off by a truck [true!] must be channeling Stone’s rage at getting rewritten by John Milius on CONAN — though he managed to get his response into cinemas a year ahead of Milius’s stimulus).

Then I thought SALVADOR was terrific and highly relevant, but was underwhelmed by PLATOON and since then have only sort-of liked anything from Stone. NATURAL BORN KILLERS has a compelling audio-visual style but is one of the more morally repellent films I’ve seen: though John Grisham’s attempted lawsuit against it was moronic, Stone’s film seems to invite such a reaction.

But I got stuck into Stone’s new book on the recommendation of (clunk of name-drop) Richard Lester, who had seen the TV series and pronounced it “brilliant” a word he does not use lightly (well, he never applied it to me). “I don’t know how he hasn’t been arrested for it.” The good news for non-Stone fans is that probably co-author Kuznick can be credited with the blinding insights, with Stone in charge of presenting them clearly in a way that works for an audience who may know only a little, or else quite a lot of misinformation, about the subject.

I’ve still to check out the TV show — only way seems to be to buy it so I’m waiting for payday — but I’m now fascinated to see what Stone does with it visually. The basic gist of the thing, chapter by chapter, is to present a contrary view to how large chunks of modern US history are understood. This is less the case in (skipping ahead) chapters about the last two presidents, but it’s certainly the case where the authors revisit world war two and the start of the cold war, a part of the book which presents Henry A. Wallace, a largely forgotten vice president, as the hero who could have changed the course of history for the better if democracy had been allowed to triumph over vested interests.

The book is at times heart-breaking, because we’re told that Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and then the cold war, were not in fact necessary. To give you just a small sense of the book, I want to talk about the bomb — because this chapter has haunted me since I read it.

I’d always swallowed the terms of the argument, if not the argument itself, you see. There’s something very compelling about the moral conundrum we’re told faced Truman: invade Japan and face severe casualties from US troops, or drop the bomb and cause many civilian casualties. The obscenity of war means a commander-in-chief is forced to weigh up the lives of friendly combatants versus enemy civilians, and how are you supposed to calculate that.

But this whole argument is academic and irrelevant here because that’s not what happened. George W.H. Bush once credited the atomic bombings with saving “millions of lives.” But the figure Truman claimed was “just” a quarter of a million. And he was lying too — he was provided with all sorts of contradictory figures (how can you be sure anyway?) but the highest was nowhere near that and the lowest was just three thousand.

But playing that game is still assuming that the choice came down to nuking or invasion. In fact, Japan was ready to surrender: they had been putting out feelers to the USSR, in hopes that Stalin could broker a more favourable peace. They were terrified that the “unconditional surrender” Roosevelt had spoken of meant they could lose their emperor. A lot of advisers were telling Truman that a clarification of the terms of surrender could have provoked an immediate favorable response.

Hiroshima did not prompt a surrender because the situation with Emperor Hirohito remained unclear. The Japanese already knew we could bombs cities out of existence since we’d done that to Tokyo, What probably prompted them to down arms was the USSR launching an invasion against them — this caught them between two super-powers, and meant they could abandon all hope of help from that direction. But before they could even respond to this attack, Nagasaki was bombed.

The argument is made, and it convinces, that America wanted to avoid the USSR making territorial gains in the East, and earning economic aid that had been promised for its participation in the war on Japan. Furthermore, General Groves, who oversaw the Manhattan project, was quite clear in his own mind that the goal of the bomb drops was not to affect Japan, but to affect the Soviet Union. The impact of using the atomic bomb would obviously far greater than the impact of merely possessing it — Japan was the USA’s last opportunity to show itself willing to annihilate a whole city with a single weapon.

If you have any more doubts about this, a direct quote from Truman may help allay them: he said that his announcement of the dropping of the bomb was the “happiest” he ever made.

Highly recommended stuff. I’ll be checking out the series.


Guney Toons

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , on August 31, 2012 by dcairns

From an old 1983 issue of Sight & Sound ~

“Don’t feel so bad, Ylmaz, they say that film you’re directing at the moment is going very well.”

To make sense of this, you have to know that Kurdish filmmaker Ylmaz Guney was credited with directing a film while serving a sentence as a political prisoner. Of course, well-meaning liberal middle-class people found this very moving and admirable. The cartoonist, wickedly, is just amused by the absurdity of pretending to direct a film while being banged up in the stripy hole.

I always felt that the artist knew he was kind of being an asshole about this, and that’s what contributed to my indecent amusement at the cartoon. But the more I know of the cartoonist, the less sure I am that he was aware. Certainly, as the director of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, he should have been aware that a Turkish prison sentence is no laughing matter.

Welcome to the cartoons of Alan Parker.

The first reference in this one is Guney again, the second is Werner Herzog, the third I don’t know and the fourth is either (a) every Coppola film, ever, or (b) I don’t know.

Again, the real target is middle-class arthouse filmgoers. I dunno, maybe there aren’t enough cartoons about middle-class arthouse filmgoers. Parker seems to regard them as a worthy target for his satirical pen.

But I thought you’d find this one most interesting of all. “THE FILM CRITIC, FROM THE DIRECTOR’S POINT OF VIEW” probably would be published today, in anything but a tabloid.

“I can only describe it as trying to run a four minute mile with an alcoholic poodle snapping at your ankles and with the ever present fear that David Robinson and Alexander Walker will jump on you in the showers.”

Somewhat homophobic, Alan. I’m also unsure why it’s so INCOHERENT. The title tells us one thing, but the subject of the speech by the baggy man isn’t “the film critic,” it’s “the act of directing a film.” I half-suspect the incoherence is deliberate, a way to divert attention away from the more poisonous elements of the cartoon. “FROM THE DIRECTOR’S POINT OF VIEW” certainly tries to cast the whole thing in a subjective, and yet impersonal light (it’s not Parker himself’s point of view, necessarily, you see).

“Homophobia” is a particularly apt word here, since fear rather than hatred is very obviously at the heart of the text. Parker fears being bummed alive in the showers, yes, but he also fears, in a less symbolic way, being reviewed by gay men who may see things differently from him and not appreciate his directorial choices in PINK FLOYD’S THE WALL or BUGSY MALONE. Does he also fear being reviewed by women, Indians, or anybody who isn’t a baggy, angry man from Islington? Maybe so.

But the confusion goes deeper. The “alcoholic poodles” are presumably meant to be film critics, but then two real human critics turn up to anally violate Alan Parker in the showers, which he fears yet somehow also craves (I’m interpreting freely). “Alcoholic” is simply fair comment on a lot of newsprint critics and journalists, especially at that time, and “poodle” seems like an apt description of the late Alexander Walker in particular: angular, petulant, white-haired and bouffant. But how can he be simultaneously a snapping poodle and a shower rapist? I can’t really fit both images of Alexander Walker together into a single concept of him. Unless Alan Parker wants me to imagine his wet, quivering body being anally violated in the showers by a giant, man-sized poodle with Alexander Walker’s face, sinking its sharp little teeth into his pink, fleshy shoulder, as Ken Russell tries vainly to repel it with a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard. And why would Alan Parker want me to visualize that?

If you’re reading this, Alan Parker, get in touch and explain.