A Digression on the Cinema and Politics


By Deena Stryker

When I used the advance on my first book, which was a blow by blow account of the making of the Fellini film 8 1/2, to check out the Cuban Revolution in 1963, that led to a switch from writing about the arts to writing about the big picture, I thought I was leaving one passion for another, that there was no link between the two. But now, aside from the fact that everything is interconnected, which I learned long ago, I realize that the contributions of films to politics is signifi-cant, and that, moreover, old films have an eery way of popping up to comment on the news of the day.[tag]

Although Fellini told me in an early interview that it was not the place of film makers to do politics, the culminating episode in 8 1/2 is the construction of a gigantic stairway intended to lead to a spaceship that would take humans to a new planet. Fifty-one years after the film’s debut in 1963, it appears that the search is indeed underway for a planet that could give humanity a new start, as shown by this week’s stunning touchdown of a ‘lander’ on a moving comet engineered by the European Space Agency.

A week or so ago, as the world watched mesmerized by the exploits of the Islamic State, led by a man who calls himself Caliphe, the nation’s premier movie channel, Turner Classic Movies showed Khartum, a 1964 film about the siege of British Mandate Khartoum by an Arab who called himself the Mahdi, and its defense by the reknown Arabist General Gordon. Although the schedules are determined at least a month in advance and probably more, TCM has a way of serving up films that appear to have been chosen as a comment to what is going on in the world on the day they are shown.

In the recent Her, Joachim Phoenix, still hurting from the failure of his marriage to a childhood friend, falls in love with his new ‘female’ operating system. (He is ‘Theodore’, which means ‘God-given in Greek, the OS is ‘Samantha’, which in Hebrew means ‘listen’ or ‘she knows’.) The two-hour plus film is a searing comment on modern man’s (and woman’s) inability to maintain a satisfying relationship with another human, his/her need for an alter ego who is always there when wanted and understands his/her every change of mood.

My latest encounter with a film that appears to have been chosen with exquisite foresight by TCM’s programmers is Meet John Doe. I thought I’d seem every film in which the earthily sexy, yet naive Gary Cooper starred, but I was wrong: John Doe is a baseball pitcher who gets involved with a sleezy newspaper publisher after he supposedly writes a letter saying he is going to jump off a tall building at midnight on Christmas Eve because he is so frustrated with his fellow countrymen. He reads a hack-written speech over the radio so well that John Doe clubs spring up all across the nation. (This was before Franklin Roosevelt got an America mired in the depression – the film dates from 1941 – to declare war on Japan, then Germany, putting an end to the Great Depression.) When the ambitious publisher realizes he has a captive audience, he schemes to have Doe introduce him at a John Doe Convention as the man to vote for in the next election.

What better time to show this film than following the demise of the Democratic Party under the Clintons and Barack Obama, and in tandem with Ken Burns’ series The Roosevelts. As for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, it marks the end of the time when Europe could still emancipate itself from the United States following its dependent status after World War II. In a coincidence worthy of TCM, Europe’s demise coincides with the world’s pivot to Asia. As evidenced this week in Beijing and Brisbane the ‘Atlantic Community’ will be succeeded by what Pepe Escobar, on this site, calls the New Silk Road, a Russia/China condominium that will link old Europe to Eurasia.

Today the news is all about the latest ISIS beheading: the victim was an American aid worker. But if you think ISIS is the only Muslim entity that has practiced modern-day beheadings, you are wrong. The 2007 film The Lark Farm by the Italian Taviani brothers, which I just happened to view last night, shows Ottoman Turkish soldiers sending on forced marches and beheading helpless Armenians in a campaign in which an estimated one and a half million Armenians died between 1915 and 1923, and which as of 2011, was recognized as genocide by twenty-one countries, including Russia, France, and forty-three states of the United States of America. Turkey has still not apologized, its government, together with that of Azerbaijan, still denying it committed a genocide.

Watching the credits of the Taviani film role by, I was struck by the fact that, like most films made in the twenty-eight member state European Union, this one included actors and technicians from several Europeans countries, including Bulgaria, Chechoslokia, Italy, Spain and France. Few Americans realize the breadth of the European Union’s cultural activities – not to mention the higher education programs that enable students to study and spend time in each other’s countries, a natural corollary of the fact that Europeans can live and work freely anywhere in the Union. Americans are dimly aware of the social benefits that go with the welfare state, but I’m certain they haven’t a clue as to the dense network of collaborative entities in every field. (For example, the Media Program of the European Union “provides support for the development, promotion and distribution of European works within Europe and beyond.”) All of this is threatened by the relentless US campaign to turn the European Union into a neo-liberal free-for-all.

In the end, the question is, will Europe’s leaders (aside from Angela Merkel, who sees where the future is located), have to be dragged kicking and screaming from the Atlantic Community before the highly civilized transnational entity they built up over the last fifty years is completely dismantled, leaving it as Asia’s rump instead of its inspiration?