Posts Tagged ‘United States’

Hereafter

by Jonas Cukierman

A film with a quiet pace and the prosaic quality of a transcendental 20th century novel, Hereafter also incorporates elements of noir with shadows and angles giving us a glimpse into the minds of the central characters with a discreet yet invasive enough methodology.  Throughout the film there is an unyielding sense of pain which is waiting to be alleviated by self-discovery. In Hereafter the pain the players all battle with is one that crosses our paths without fail.  That pain is the crunch of death.

Marie LaVey (Cecile De France) is a Parisian reporter on vacation on an island somewhere in the pacific rim when a tidal wave suddenly wipes out the resort village where she and companion are staying. As she is swept up in the maelström, she is killed by the rush of the sea. Yet not sooner does Marie see spirits shrouded in light when she finds herself awakening to a disorienting struggle to determine which way is up as she rolls in a vortex of seawater which still has her gripped.

On the other side of the world, Ten year old Marcus lives in London with his identical twin Jason and his junkie mother. One day Jason is bullied by some street ruffians and while fleeing from them is caused to run in front of an oncoming truck and is suddenly killed on impact. When the mother checks into rehab, Marcus is forced into foster care and this is when a sort of globe-trotting quest to find answers begins; when fate will bring several souls in need together and a very deep contemplation from the mind of audiences.

San Francisco

George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a lonely industrial worker with a very special gift.  A reluctant psychic, he gave up honing his abilities long ago in exchange for a quieter life. Taking too much of a toll on his existence, connecting with the dead proved too much, so George now relegates himself to listening to Shakespeare audiobooks read by Derek Jacobi and keeping away from anyone who may want to use him for celebrity purposes, including his brother Billy (Jay Mohr).

While Marie goes on a journey to understand who is chosen to die and who is spared, she seeks advice from the scientific community, with its no-nonsense approach and its rejection of religion, to a more directly emotional experience as she witnesses the suffering of a family as a young loved one slips away in their arms in hospice care.  No matter what, Marie is getting a taste of every point of view whether she believes in one, the other, or some midpoint in the spectrum; especially after being haunted by spirits during her death experience.

Meanwhile Marcus is on an equally exploratory quest in which he is determined to communicate with Jason at all cost.  However, for this he must find a medium which will facilitate such a meeting.  After running into nothing but charlatans and quacks, Marcus reaches a stalemate and come to a dead end…or so it seems.  Then it turns out George will be present at a book signing right in London because, in a strange turn of events,  none other than Derek Jacobi himself is going to be there.  Furthermore, Marie has also published a book and now the very notion of death has breathed new life into the weakened souls of these three sojourners in a monumental act of serendipity.  In a final act of closure, the three protagonists do not escape death, but they sure come to terms with it. And in the end, that is perhaps all we can hope for. Hereafter is not a happily ever after tale, nor is it a glossed-over Hollywood effort which means to idealistically cheer you up. It is an examination about a very real subject with a naturalistic approach from all angles: scientific, medical, religious, spiritual, holistic, superstitious, and most of all familial.

Additionally, it is a work which deals which deals with such a personal topic that it is impossible not to become engrossed in Eastwood’s directorial style.  Rather than observing characters being played out on a screen, George, Marcus, and Marie draw you into the center of their dilemmas which makes for a rather paralytic confusion, which eventually segues into a gradual relief that comes with that very discovery – there’s that word again- and finally coming to terms with a disenchanting subjects.  Eastwood’s storytelling is universal but hardly typical. Highly introspective, not overly dramatic, and unsentimental, Hereafter is an emotional and analytical approach to the destiny we wonder most about.

Victor and Thomas go for a ride.
Victor and Thomas go for a ride.
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Smoke Signals

by Jonas Cukierman

One of the few films directed by a Native American (Chris Eyre), Smoke Signals is a simple story about ordinary people with extraordinary strength.

Upon finding out about the death of his estranged and alcoholic father, Victor (Adam Beach), a serious and angry youth, ventures off the reservation to retrieve his father’s ashes from a craggy and desolate hideaway in the Arizona desert. Alongside Victor is his friend and companion, Thomas (Adam Evans), a quirky and intellectual storyteller-type, who lost both parents in a fire twenty years before. The journey begins with a long bus ride on which Thomas and Victor find out just how different they are. Victor is always stone-faced and reserved, Thomas is the humor and charm that keeps the voyage going even in its darkest moments. One of the unique things about this situation is that Thomas seems to have known Victor’s father better than Victor himself. As the road trip progresses, Thomas delivers uncomplicated but emotionally charged accounts of how his relationship with Victor’s father manifested itself when he was a boy. And the reasons why the man Thomas knew as his surrogate parent suddenly left one day never to be heard from again.

Thomas’ mixture of distressing story threads, interwoven with vignettes of whimsical humor cause a vivid image to be imprinted in the mind of audiences, not to mention Victor. Together, the two young men begin to unravel the truth about what happened on the night of the fire in 1976, and piece together how shame can bring a man to self-loathing. Perhaps for the first time, Victor is able to drop his inhibited roughness, and earnestly respect his father for what he was, and forgive him for the unanticipated departure.

This film not only touches on the delicateness of family complexities and the burden of living with humiliation. It also brings into view how reservations have created a world of squalor, and diminished the number of opportunities available to Native Americans. An especially pivotal view of this ideology is represented in a scene where two young ladies from the reservation pull up next to Thomas and Victor. They tell them not to forget their passport; because going outside the reservation and into the reaches of America is like going into a foreign country…. Words that have an unsettling ring to them.

Smoke Signals is beautifully forceful in telling its story. With strong performances from all of its players, it poises suffering and humor in a refreshing and forthright manner.

Smoke Signals trailer

Elia Kazan and HUAC

by Jonas Cukierman

Of all the directors in Hollywood, perhaps nobody has brought to mind passive controversy, while at the same time gaining the admiration of audiences and peers more than Elia Kazan. Known for his contradictions, Kazan has always been at the pinnacle of duality, playing both defender of the common man and accuser of society for its evils.

When it suited him, Kazan knew how to manipulate people and opinions in his favor.
Finally, it is unmistakably obvious that Kazan was able to speak through his films because he cooperated with The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in smoking out some alleged members of the Communist Party in the United States– members which Kazan himself had once shared equal ideologies with. Now, during the HUAC hearings, spearheaded by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Minnesota , loyalties were tested and Hollywood careers were made and broken.

Gentlemen’s Agreement

1947 was a year in which two significant events occurred in cinematic history. HUAC went after Hollywood and Kazan’s film Gentlemen’s Agreement hit movie screens. This film was symbolic for many reasons. First, it was a film about anti-Semitism hidden in American society. The postwar period was a time of self-denial about the Holocaust, especially where public confrontation of the subject was concerned. Despite the fact that news mediums of every sort provided a daily barrage of information about what had happened in the concentration camps, there was an evasive nature to these reports as “Jews” were rarely mentioned. In one article, reporters from Life magazine, when encountering the liberated camp of Dachau wrote of the “men of all nations that Hitler’s agents had picked out as prime opponents of Nazism.” (Novick p. 65)
Further evidence of sidestepping the “Jewish” issue was present in the radio shows of Edward R. Murrow, which were broadcast shortly after the liberation of the camps. One report described the camp victims merely as “political prisoners”, and not as Jews. (Novick p. 64)
Lastly, though not limited to the findings of Novick, General Eisenhower described the sites he wanted legislators and editors to visit as “German camps in which they have placed political prisoners.” (Novick p. 64)
A possible explanation for American society’s denial of the Jews as Holocaust victims could lie in the notion that during World War II, the United States government, under the scrutiny of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, knew about the atrocities being committed against European Jewry. However, no direct action was taken to liberate the camps until after Hitler surrendered in the spring of 1945. Additionally, it was felt that Jewish Americans had not done their part to push the US government into taking more decisive action in rescuing “Hitler’s Jews.” (Novick p. 37) In a quotation from one of Elie Wiesel’s books, Novick presents one of the best summations about the lack of initiative on the part of Jewish Americans to help rescue the Jews of Europe. “ While Mordecai Anielwicz and his comrades fought their lonely battle in the ghetto under siege… a large New York synagogue invited its members to a banquet featuring a well-known comedian…. The factories of Treblinka, Belzec, Maidanek, and Auschwitz were operating at top capacity, while on the other side of the Atlantic, Jewish social and intellectual life was flourishing. Jewish leaders met, threw up their arms in gestures of helplessness, shed a pious tear or two, and went on with their lives: speeches, travels, quarrels, banquets, toasts, honors….
If our brothers had shown more compassion, more initiative, more daring…if a million Jews had demonstrated in front of the White House…if Jewish notables had started a hunger strike…Who knows, the enemy might have desisted” (Novick p. 30)
Gentlemen’s Agreement thus tackled some very sore issues that were still an open wound on the American psyche. In the film, Gregory Peck is a non-Jewish businessman who conducts an experiment by venturing into various establishments while under an assumed Jewish identity. He first tests his subjects by trying to receive a home loan under a non-Jewish name; the loan is approved. Then, he approaches the same lending institution under a Jewish name and the loan is denied. All of these transactions are of course conducted by mail; hence the lending institution believes they have received applications for a mortgage from two different individuals. Other places he conducts experiments are establishments such as country clubs and hotels, places that at the time were still very racially selective. While all this is going on, Peck’s character runs into trouble on the homefront as well. His love interest is at odds with him because her family does not approve of his pro-Jewish sentiment. In the end, his companion is forced to face her own prejudices and reevaluate what kind of person she really is, and whether or not she is comfortable in her skin. In addition to his other half, Peck’s character’s son is increasingly harassed at school for being a “Jew lover” and is even attacked physically for his father’s ideals. Gentlemen’s Agreement undoubtedly made society answer for its indifference by boldly throwing the injustices of racism in America’s face. On this matter, Kazan was a dauntless spokesperson.

America America

Another account of Kazan’s conflicting ideology was his semi-autobiographical America America. In the story, a boy from Turkey (like Kazan) is bent on going to America and creating a new and more promising life for himself, away from all the fighting and age-old conflicts between the Turks, Greeks and Armenians of his country. He acquires the nickname America America because he reflects the perceived American mentality; success at any cost. However, once he is in US he finds that the American dream is tougher to attain and he is determined to kill for it if need be. In the end, it is his treasured America, which turns out to be as disappointing and racially divided as his native Turkey. But even though Kazan himself did achieve what is arguably the American dream, the lesson learned in America America is one which can be broken down into two parts: a. racism abounds globally and b. the more unscrupulously individuals try to achieve their goals, the more likely they are to bring upon themselves the cutthroat strategy which the American dream of the criminal was built on. However, criminal tactics or not, any mature person can testify to the fact that one man’s oppressor is another man’s carte blanche.

On the Waterfront

The prosperity of the 1950s brought on a wave of conformity and leisurely attitudes to the American ego. Often observed after a war, American ideals would lean toward a less concerned and more self-indulgent mentality. As the phenomenon was observed after the First World War with the “Roaring 20s,” so then would it be after World War II with the “swell” decade. Perhaps this indifference is the reason why in 1954, Kazan decided to rock the boat through another display of strong anti-heroes and lessons of how the other half lived. The abuse of laborers at the hands of their bosses was of course nothing new. Accounts of such abuses were perfectly illustrated in Frank Folsom’s The Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed from 1808-1942. In chapter 23, The Ford Hunger March, Folsom describes the tactics of labor leaders toward their workers as grotesque and vividly real exploitations. The following is a passage from chapter 23 that describes how powerless workers were during a 1932 strike at the Ford plant in Detroit, Michigan. “Contrary to general belief, Ford now paid wages below the average in the automobile industry. To make sure his workers did not join a union, he had in his plants a private police force comprised of professional wrestlers and ex-convicts.” (Folsom p.303). Folsom further demonstrated that since laborers had brought their plight to public awareness, things had changed for the better. Nevertheless, these changes might not have been able to occur without a war that in turn gave the US a new economy. “Since the day when I first published this book, a world war has raged and subsided…a cold war has come and is going…. In that period, the portion of the world economy in which private employers could prevent employees from doing work that needed to be done has grown smaller.” (Folsom p. 433).
On the Waterfront was a reflection of the changes that were occurring and sounded a warning signal that prosperity would not be only for the chosen few. It is no coincidence that in the 1950’s, labor once again took another turn for the better as working conditions improved to a greater extent, and the middle class in the US was growing at a faster rate than ever before.
Being that Kazan had been a member of the Communist Party for a brief period in the 1930’s (a time when the USSR and US were allies), his interests in labor issues went hand in hand with his artistic voice. Members of the Communist Club aspired according to their constitution to abolish so-called bourgeois property, both inherited and acquired and spread it evenly among the masses… (Folsom p.90). Because the US government knew that many followers of the Communist ideology believed in the even spread of wealth (thus intolerant of capitalism), On the Waterfront would have surely set off alarms in the domain of HUAC had Kazan not testified before them three years earlier.

John Rankin and HUAC

In 1947 HUAC began a notorious “witch hunt” against the Hollywood establishment. In his book entitled The Committee, Walter Goodman put much emphasis on John Rankin. A Mississippi representative, Rankin was a raging anti-Semite. Although HUAC is usually synonymous with Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin as its brainchild, it was nevertheless Rankin, who initially insisted on launching the investigation of the motion picture industry, mainly because he knew it would be a good way of going after Jews. Rankin was classed by his colleagues as a much hated, poor and ignorant southern fellow not much smarter than the farm animals which his more affluent contemporaries owned…the fact Rankin despised blacks, Jews, aliens and liberals was his claim to Americanism. (Goodman p. 167). Rankin was thus able to convince Californians who supported his committee that they would be invaluable in helping him search out “one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated to overthrow the government… the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United Stated of America” The hotbed that Rankin referred to was Hollywood. (Goodman p. 172).
HUAC’s investigation of Hollywood may well have been far less impacting had Rankin not been such a seething crusader. Although he only represented a small percentage of people, mainly the disenfranchised of Mississippi, Rankin was known for using words such as “kike”, “nigger” and “Jew-boy” in open debate on the floor of the House of Representatives. Along with the assistance of New Jersey Republican J. Parnell Thomas, the “Rankin Coup” divided groups in Hollywood into two categories: friendly and unfriendly to the committee. (Trumbo p. 10-11).
In the early 1950’s Hollywood was suffering losses on many levels. Actors who chose to take the Fifth Amendment were suddenly unemployable. The Screen Actors Guild would not ask anybody to testify in front of HUAC. However, at the same time, the Screen Actors Guild – or SAG -would not force any employer to hire an actor whom had taken “the fifth.” Furthermore, television was beginning to cut into box office revenues, and at the same time, anti-trust laws were prohibiting ownership of movie theatres by the studios. In all of this turmoil, the hunt for Hollywood members of the Communist Party resulted to be too much for the studios to stomach.
The lack of protection from the studios is perhaps one reason why in 1951 Elia Kazan presented himself before the committee for a second time. This time however, Kazan appeared on his own accord. After witnessing what had happened to the likes director Larry Parks (picture deals cancelled), Kazan went before the committee with the rationale that he regretted his silence during his prior appearance and that secrecy was indeed in the nature of the Communists. Furthermore, although Kazan did not really know too much, he did reveal the names of Clifford Odets (who was no longer in the Communist Party), Morris Carnovsky (who had already taken the Fifth Amendment), and J. Edward Bromberg, (who had already committed suicide). Thus these names were not of much help, but Kazan could now say he had satisfied HUAC by cooperating with them. In addition, Kazan admitted to having briefly belonged to the Communist Party in the 1930’s when he was a member of the Group Theatre in New York. Not only did Kazan appease the committee with his confessions; he also emphasized his contempt for communism.
Finally, Kazan declared that he would continue making films about his moral and social convictions.
While the careers of such figures in stage and screen like Larry Parks, Arthur Miller, Anne Yesgur Kling, and Dalton Trumbo were either destroyed or greatly altered, Elia Kazan would continue to pursue his art due largely to the fact he masterfully manipulated the system in his favor. Although the names he gave were perhaps not very useful to the committee in the end, he managed to look friendly to the HUAC investigation.

Works Cited:

Folsom, Franklin. Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed.
University of Colorado Press, 1991.Niwot, Colorado:

Goodman, Walter. The Committee: The extraordinary career of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1968. New York:

Kazan, Elia America America.
Stein and Day, New York1962. :

Novick, Peter The Holocaust In American Life.
Houghton Mifflin Company, New York: 1999.

Trumbo, Dalton The Time Of The Toad: A Study of Inquisition in America. Harper and Row, 1972. New York: