A free way to build your virtual collection, make lists, and share them. It’s your new home on Criterion.com.
Learn More »
The trope of the 1% popularized by the #OWS movement is revelatory because it shatters the blanket of illusion that so-called democracies are classless. The trope of the 1% forces our collective gaze to see how the institutions that are the oceans we swim in, and thus too easily take for granted, actually serve the interests of a miniscule percentage of the population. The trope of the 1% gives us a handle by which we can come to understand why no matter how much hope and change we demand, things continue to deteriorate for the many while the few benefit. This trope of the 1% is the hand pulling aside the curtain to show us the wizard at work.
The system is rigged — the casino always win. The same players can be found gaming the system for their own benefit as far back as people care to look. (Eg: The fortunes that bankrolled the Nazis and profited from their labor camps now bankroll the so-called “War on Terror”.) These are movies by great filmmakers who understand the way things work. This makes them some of the most subversive movies in the collection, because they dare to look at some of the mechanisms of the 1% that game the system, mechanisms that should remain hidden but which they put on film as popular entertainments for all of us to see.
The police are popularly supposed to function as a servant of the community, enforcing the laws for everyone equally for the benefit of society as a whole. However, at a deeper level, the police are the first line of "armed men" intended to defend the interest of the ruling class to maintain society's status quo property relations. (This is why you see police called in to break up strikes and peaceful protests, and never sent to arrest society's most brazen crooks, those who do the greatest harm to the greatest number: white collar criminals. There's a reason why the prisons are filled with the poor, with minorities, with pot smokers, instead of BP and Goldman Sachs executives, or the war criminals masquerading as civil servants past and present.) The function of the police is ultimately to protect the property of the few, not the welfare of the many.
Robocop is a quite brilliant political satire dressed as a brutally funny dark SF farce, wherein Verhoeven takes this tacit function of the police as the protector of private property and foregrounds it. (Of course it's also a compelling story about the martyrdom of a man transformed into a cyborg, but our interests lie elsewhere right now. Verhoeven's movies are always about many things all at once, exploring the fissures of our culture’s endemic psychoses with brutal glee.) Thus the movie functions as an indictment against privatizing what is naturally and rightfully the public's (supposed) first line of defense to protect itself: the "Fourth Directive" essentially makes overt this tacit function of the police as defender of elite interests.
To see just how prescient a movie this was, just do a search on the NYPD's Wall Street "Command Center" and "Paid Detail Unit": essentially the "Fourth Directive" is now official (unspoken) policy. (Or, just think of how the police are used to quash entire populations protesting bankster's onerous "austerity" measures around the world. Examples abound...)
But it’s more than just a story of privatizing the police. It’s a brilliant and compelling story on many levels, with great performances by all, especially Kurtwood Smith as one of moviedom’s best villains. Robocop is one of a handful of 80s Hollywood movies that achieves greatness. It belongs in the Collection.
A successful engineer at a modern factory in industrialized Northern Italy takes the wife and kid on a vacation to meet his family in his hometown in Sicily. The trip home is like a descent into some vaguely surreal, stark, yet lovely little antique world that somehow feels like the outskirts of Hell. (Scorcese's unappreciated minor masterpiece After Hours shares a few structural similarities with this movie.) In this gap between the modern versus the archaic our hero pretends to be visiting heaven, but we sense all along a chasm threatening to open beneath his feet.
What does this have to do with the 1% maintaining their power? Let's just say that our hero is an unwitting but compelled-to-be-compliant pawn of the inscrutable forces arrayed above him playing their own games: whether, most obviously, it's the local Don (the personification of Sicily's putative State); or -- less obviously, but symmetrically suggested -- the corporate forces at his industrial plant that bookend the story. Indeed, perhaps our hero is the personified historical thread connecting the implementation of the overt power relations of old-world mafia to the softer, modern, more "civilized" social power structures of the corporation.
This is a brilliantly structured, brilliantly written, brilliantly filmed dark little comedy that packs a memorable punch. It has one of the most powerful, disorienting climaxes of any movie anywhere of anytime. I dare not reveal it -- the less one knows about what's coming the better.
Mafioso is a masterpiece. As I say in my mini-review: “This may be the greatest narrative movie ever made. I am immensely grateful to Criterion for releasing this diamond!"
Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.
—Otto von Bismarck
Before the titles roll, the movie begins with a prelude almost like a haiku: some businessmen discuss the enormous profits that could come to them by developing the “squalid expanse” of land on which they stand, just north of the city. This lays the groundwork for a fascinating political procedural that takes us through the byzantine workings of networks of corruption on how they come to develop that land.
Once the titles have rolled we witness an incredibly powerful set piece showing the (literal) collapse of a tenement in a poor part of town. (I still marvel at how — long before CG — Rosi was able to film this.) How this tragedy is ultimately exploited by the developers to enrich themselves is the story's engine.
Much of the movie is spent in city council, in backrooms, in boardrooms, in government offices, showing us how parliamentary procedures, departmental protocols, bureaucratic rules, elections, are all just tools to be used either to block genuine inquiry or progress, or exploited to further the ends of vested interests. We are privy to many strategic conversations on how best to advance corrupt agendas. It’s all a game, one which only the corrupt, rapacious 1% occupying the halls of “democratic” power know how to play to win.
This is the only political procedural I'm aware of that shows us exactly how vested corporate interests use democracy to enrich themselves through their networks of influence against the interests of the masses. Rosi underscores his themes like a cinematic free verse poet, unostentatiously using visuals pregnant with resonances that allow the perceptive viewer to make their own connections. Hands Over the City is actually as exciting to watch as it is intellectually stimulating. Rosi shows us with this movie: “see how demoracy works”. It is like watching sausages being made.
I remember how much this movie was vilified when it came out. It obviously hit a nerve. Not only was the film not a hagiographic paean to America's Imperial Ambitions of the time (like, say, Rambo or Predator), nor were its criticism of those ambitions polite or genteel. Walker goes for the jugular, and its aim is true. How dare Cox piss on America's Parade by indicting it as an oppressive colonial power! The film's (intentional) anachronisms and irreverence were used as excuses to vilify the messenger and deter us from attending to the movie's message.
Greedy old fuckface Cornelius Vanderbilt (a gloriously reprehensible Peter Boyle) wants to open a profitable shipping corridor in some fleabag country and deploys a mercenary army comprised of zealots and misfits: the natives are slaughtered; the country is ravaged; a puppet ruler is installed; the puppet gets his own ideas; the puppet is killed. Substitute Haliburton for Vanderbilt, pipelines and opium for transit corridors, Blackwater for Walker, and you have Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, it's kind of a filmic template of what happens to any country unfortunate enough to harbor juicy resources with independent leaders inimical to America's (1%) rapacity.
Thus though Walker is an indictment specifically against America's foreign policy in Central America at the time, it serves just as well to illustrate a general history lesson: imperial adventures serve to advance the interests of the 1%, no matter what convenient justifcations are used. Basically, armies function to open up resistant foreign markets for the 1%. (Google General Smedley Butler if you wish to explore this topic.)
Cox literalizes some metaphors (eg: insanity; cannibalism), which I suppose deeply offended the defenders of the status quo, but which to me are some of the films most powerful moments. Cox, in this film, is a great artist improvising with some filmic elements — composition, acting, history, structure — and it all works beautifully to drive his points home. Plus it has one of the best soundtracks in all of cinema. Everyone involved in making this movie understood what they were doing -- the tone is uniquely cavalier on the surface, but seething just below with righteous rage. Great artists (especially Ed Harris, in an amazing performance) all share the same wavelength in a film that is essentially a communal shriek of outrage that seems playful, but which is deadly serious. No wonder the mainstream critics hated it! It was just too honest, too passionate, too powerful, too irreverent, too close to the bone for them.
Walker is a unique movie, obviously ahead of its time. Kudos to Criterion for resurrecting this important masterpiece!
The 1% do not think like the rest of us. They are raised from birth to believe in their innate superiority. They just naturally expect the world to cater to them. Like any colonizing force, they have developed their own mythology to validate this view of their superiority, one that necessarily dehumanizes The Other on whose necks they stand, thus making their dominance not only natural, but a calling. (Savages, barbarians, peasants, the hoi polloi – whatever you want to call them, they're all somehow sub-human, and thus deserve their oppression.) It's inconceivable that the 1% would dare to think of themselves as equal to anybody but their peers. The Ruling Class, to maintain its position, must divorce itself from the rest of humanity: feelings of compassion, of love for humanity, must be excised from their temperament.
When one of their number, Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, imagines he is Jesus Christ incarnate, preaching hippie love and "bolshie" equality, he is considered insane. When, later, after a traumatic revelation, he begins to imagine himself as Jack the Ripper, a sadistic, cold, but charismatic autocrat — staunch defender of Property — he is then adjudged "sane". The final sequence showing Lord Gurney taking his rightful place in a sepulchral House of Lords is mordant and chilling, a perfect and surprisingly powerful punchline to this dark comedy.
The movie is filled with all sorts of wonderful Brechtian devices: song and dance break out of nowhere; theatrical monologues; histrionic lighting; moments of pure absurdity. They all serve to drive home the fundamental points, and they do so with aplomb. The always great Alistair Sim has some of the funniest lines ever; and Peter O'Toole has never used his hamminess to better effect. It is an immensely entertaining movie, one of the best of those great iconoclastic black comedies that emerged in the cultural thaw of the 60s and early 70s when such movies thrived. Other than the estimable Romeo is Bleeding 20 years later (and, arguably, The Krays), it is a mystery to me why Peter Medak never reached such heights again.
Today the fight is over. Order, work and security will be reborn.
—Marshal MacMahon, before slaughtering tens of thousands of Parisian communards
Long before audiences munched popcorn in darkened rooms watching pretend gladiators hack each other to death on celluloid for our entertainment, people went to colliseums to watch real gladiators hack each other to real death for their entertainment. They were treated to other salutary entertainments during the show, such as watching christians getting eaten alive by starved lions, countless exotic animals slaughtered en masse for fun, and mass executions. Romans called themselves civilized; now we call ourselves civilized because the slaughter we moderns watch for entertainment is play-acted.
That's some progress, I suppose; but two thousand years later the strategy of Bread and Circuses is still going strong: Divert the masses, keep them fed, entertain them with savage spectacle; just leave politics to the responsible adults who have your best interests at heart, ok?
Kubrick’s Spartacus is the most subversive of the panoply of Hollywood epics of the time. As everyone knows, it’s the story of a slave rebellion led by a gladiator who had had enough. One of the biggest fears of the 1% is when their slaves -- who always vastly outnumber their masters (kind of by definition, eh?) -- start getting uppity and don't feel like doing their jobs anymore. One or two get out of line, no big deal -- just make an example of them. But eventually a threshold is reached when the slaves have had enough and realize they have the numbers.
Spartacus is essentially the story of a strike where the workers walk off their jobs, determined to find a way to live a life together peacefully, equitably and with self-determination… You know, Freedom. The owners, the 1%, of course, don’t want this. Thus the entire force of the State is brought to bear down upon them, to punish them and get them back to work. After being screwed in a business deal, the rebellion is brutally put down.
Margaret Thatcher wants us to accept TINA, that “There Is No Alternative”, and the State will do its best to convince us of that. Those who dare to try to live with self-determination outside the 1%’s conception of property relations will find all this talk of Freedom doesn’t apply to them. Indeed, evidence that society can be successfully modeled along more equitable social relations must be expunged, so as to remove even the awareness that alternatives are possible. For a modern example one need only look at how The Paris Commune was brutally put down, with tens of thousands of civilians massacred in the streets by the forces of “order, work and security”. Or, for a contemporary example, one need only look at what happened when people tried to peacefully Occupy their own so-called public spaces…
This movie is more than a metaphor about fascism. This is a movie that lays bare the anatomy of society's hierarchical mechanisms with surgical precision, using its metaphorical setting as a microcosm to reveal the inherent nature of State power. It is unrelenting in its savage injustices, just as the State itself is.
No one, no thing, no class, no gender, can 'have power' unless a set of relations is constituted and held in place: a set of relations that distinguishes between this and that (distribution), and then goes on to regulate the relations between this and that.
Pasolini's film is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of social power ever put onto celluloid: it is a movie about how those sets of relations referred to in the quote above are constituted and held in place. It is a movie about how the vast majority of people allow themselves to become oppressed by a handful of oppressors. I would argue this is the reason people have such an understandably strong reaction to it: the toxic truth behind the graphic iniquities is hard to swallow.
A small group of society's most powerful men ("The Duke", "The Bishop", "The Magistrate", "The President") do whatever they want in pursuit of their pleasure, enlisting others for their ends, whether to enforce their arbitrary laws, or be victimized by them. How? Nothing maintains this oppressive power structure other than those involved in it who make sure that these grossly inequal relations maintain their stability. In showing us with such crystal clarity how such relations are maintained (ie: ever-renewed), he also shows the difficulty in overcoming them. Why isn't there a revolution? Why do the victims submit? For the same reason gladiators fought, witches were burned, Jews were gassed, nukes were dropped, innocents are tortured, banksters prosper as the world pays for their crimes, and drones decimate weddings and funerals a continent away.
That's what Salo is about. As a film, though, it is a tremendous work of art, the most visually sumptuous in this list. Each hateful frame is elegantly composed and carefully lit against settings of creepy, desolate splendor so as to help the knife twist in your heart more easily. There's even humor in the film, funny and black as the void.
This is one of film's greatest masterpieces; but, like the great Marquis de Sade's masterpieces, it must only to be approached by those with an inner eye -- and strong stomach -- prepared for its bitter truths.
Terry Gilliam wraps his profoundly cinematic imagination around Orwell's 1984 and, in making it his own, creates a blackly comic dystopian masterpiece.
If we extend the lessons of Salo to society at large we see that, as Russian novelist Vasily Grossman says, the new state did not require holy apostles, fanatic, inspired builders, faithful, devout disciples. The new state did not even require servants -- just clerks. Happy are the "decent", "normal" people who don't want anything more from life than to accept things as they are: their lives flow seamlessly into the smoothly functioning channels that keep society running. We may point fingers at the handful of zealots who have internalized their "calling" to become society's oppressive "leaders", but the Holocaust (to cite the most obvious example) was made possible by the functionaries and workers who showed up day after day to work diligently at their jobs keeping the machinery of death running smoothly: filing papers, filling out reports, doing cost-benefit analyses, dotting the i's and crossing the t's of the names of the newly dead in their ledgers.
Accepting such systems as normal requires collective self-delusion. In the land of functionaries -- those who exist to maintain the status quo -- only the foolish dare dream of alternate realities. Indeed, those who think for themselves and dare to see things as they are -- the iconoclasts -- become the most dangerous of enemies: they challenge basic assumptions, question authority, and criticize the structural institutionalization of injustice that exists to benefit the 1% (as represented here by Katherine Helmond in her best “venal & oblivious” mode).
Sam Lowry (Gilliam favorite Jonathan Pryce) begins to question some of his assumptions about the way things are after witnessing a tragic, “impossible” bureaucratic error. Increasingly unable to abide the collective self-delusion that is foisted on everyone to keep them compliant, Sam Lowry ventures into fantasies of escape, eventually literalizing himself as an avenging angel battling a personification of the State.
If, as activist Steve Biko famously said, The greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed, then it is in the interest of the 1% to exploit the capabilities of this weapon to its fullest. Most importantly, get the people to oppress themselves: depression, hopelessness, despair, fear, alienation, isolation, self-victimization, anxiety, disconnectedness — all these are the weapons we turn against ourselves by internalizing the seemingly hopeless situation in which we find ourselves. (It's also very profitable for Big Pharma and other for-profit health entities, BTW: mental health is not profitable.) All these feelings are used to keep us apart and compliant so that we learn to accept our place and station in life. We are trained to channel these feelings into interests that the 1% wish us to pursue — shopping, spectator sports, celebrity gossip, alcoholism — because it takes energy, hope and enthusiasm to fight against the oppressive weight bearing down upon us from the "way things are".
A fearful society run as a closed bureaucratic organism will dispatch its security antibodies to eradicate its iconoclastic germs. But dreams cannot be defeated. And so the movie ends on a desolately, bitterly sweet triumphant note — the State may have claimed his body, but Sam's mind does finally escape. (This is probably cinema's best depiction of Hemingway's epigram A man can be destroyed but not defeated.)
The neoliberal utopia that is Brazil is also eerily prescient in the way it depicts new features of our own society that have rapidly become normalized: enemies everywhere, within and without; illegal laws that bypass due process (research the NDAA and be very afraid!); ubiquitous surveillance; militarized police; institutionalized torture; and -- though not normalized yet -- quotidian terrorist attacks (soon, coming to neighborhood near you!). One need only go through a standard Keystone Kops TSA airport screening (pure theatre if ever there was one) to see just how much the world of Brazil has become our own. Welcome to the future.
Hollywood, of course, cannot take Gilliam at full strength, and sought to temper the film’s message. (Criterion’s stellar 3-disc set charts the vicissitudes this film suffered at the hands of just the sort of clerks that inhabit this film.) Brazil may not be Gilliam’s largest canvas (that would belong to the unjustly underappreciated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), but it’s his most intense and fully realized one, making Brazil a tour-de-force more to be experienced than watched. It is also one of cinema’s greatest movies.
...analysis to come... [posted 09/23/13 -- hope to have the write-up by xmas]
...analysis to come... [posted 09/23/13 -- hope to have the write-up by xmas]