My dad and I love watching history documentaries. He sent me one the other day about Joseph Goebbels, the infamous Nazi propaganda minister.
I learned that, in addition to things like making newsreels and staging rallies and so on, Goebbels also served as a producer on German movies. Think Cecil B. DeMille but a Nazi, and you get a pretty good idea of his cinematic style.
The documentary showed a few clips from a film called Kolberg, an epic war film set in the early 1800s, depicting the German town of–you guessed it–Kolberg withstanding a siege laid by Napoleon’s forces.
I have to say, some of the clips I’ve seen from the film look surprisingly good, from a technical standpoint. Look at this:
The film was intended to boost German morale–it’s supposed to be an Alamo or Thermopylae-like story of a small group of fighters defying overwhelming odds. Goebbels apparently was so hell-bent on making it that he required tens of thousands of German soldiers to serve as extras.
That’s right: between 1943 and 1944, the Nazi-controlled film industry was using military assets to make epic war propaganda films. In case you needed any more evidence that these people were insane.
When the Kolberg was finally released in January 1945, it was a box office disappointment, owing possibly to the weather (winter ’44-’45 was extremely cold) or possibly to the fact that MOST OF THE MOVIE THEATERS HAD BEEN BLOWN UP BECAUSE GERMANY WAS IN THE PROCESS OF LOSING A WORLD WAR!
Anyway, Goebbels was apparently pleased with this thing. Supposedly he gushed after seeing it that the die-hard Nazis who fought to the end would be remembered like the city leaders of 19th-century Kolberg.
I assume a lot of Goebbels’s subordinates knew he was nuts, but just didn’t say anything.
Architecturally, their plan mostly failed since nearly all Nazi-era buildings were destroyed. But it bothers me sometimes how much Nazi iconography persists in modern media. Granted, it is inevitably used as a shorthand for evil, but I fear that sometimes the symbols trump the larger message. SS uniforms, for example, were designed to convey darkness and power, and those things are alluring to some people.
It’s no coincidence that lots of internet trolls use Nazi symbols as avatars, logos etc. Partly this is just because trolls like to be ham-handedly shocking in order to get attention–that’s almost the definition of a troll. But I think there’s also something inherent in the design that strikes a chord–and not a good chord either, but a chord of power and aggression.
I’d never heard of the story of Kolberg before, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve studied the Napoleonic wars more than most. There’s clearly good material here for a drama–indeed, a German writer named Paul Heyse wrote a play based on it in 1865. Heyse was apparently pretty well-respected in his time, because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. The film is based on the play to a degree, although they didn’t give Heyse proper credit because he was Jewish.
I have a feeling I’d rather see Heyse’s version of the story than Goebbels’s. But this is exactly the problem I mean–the pages of History are filled with the words and deeds and icons of psychopaths who wanted to be remembered at any cost, not those of normal people who just tried to do good work.
Kolberg is available online, by the way, but I’m not going to link to it, because ownership of the rights is unclear, and I’m not sure if these are legal.
I remember an episode of The McLaughlin Group from years ago, in which John McLaughlin asked Pat Buchanan “Who won the week?” Buchanan hesitated, and McLaughlin pressed him harder: “Come on, Pat! Someone’s got to win the week!”
Buchanan finally answered that nobody had won the week–“It was a draw,” he explained. McLaughlin let it go after that, though he didn’t seem happy about it.
McLaughlin was a pioneer in this entertaining-but-superficial style of political reporting. But as is so often the case, those who followed the trail have mimicked all of his flaws while picking up none of his entertaining virtues.
And so the political press covers everything with a fast-paced and myopic focus on which groups happen to be winning or losing at the moment. In general, the extent of one side’s win or loss is over-hyped, giving an impression of a more permanent victory or defeat than is warranted.
For instance, remember a month ago when President Trump was winning in the headlines because the press liked his address to Congress? That seems like ancient history now, because all the headlines are about the defeat Trump suffered when his health care bill couldn’t pass the House.
It’s sort of like coverage of a sporting event, except that unlike sports analysts, political pundits tend to assume that whichever team happens to be winning at the moment will continue to do so forever, even if the lead is extremely small.
The real problem with this is not just that leads to absurdly hyperbolic analysis, or even “we have always been at war with Eastasia“-style retconning in the way journalists re-phrase narratives to make them appear consistent.
The movie Jackie is only partially about the title character, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. (Natalie Portman) Ironically, it is categorized as a historical biopic when in fact it is an exploration of public relations, image vs. reality in politics, and, in some ways, the nature of Truth itself.
That does not mean Mrs. Kennedy is not featured prominently–she is in nearly every scene, and often in extreme close-ups. Especially in the film’s opening half, we see her raw emotion in response to the assassination of her husband.
But as the film makes clear from the framing device–a reporter, (Billy Crudup) interviewing Mrs. Kennedy in the days after the assassination–it is focused on the role of media and appearance in politics, and ultimately in history. During the occasionally combative interview, she explains not only her emotional state, but also the ways in which she sought to shape the perception of her husband’s legacy.
This segues to flashbacks, first to a televised White House tour given by Mrs. Kennedy in which she discusses various historical Presidential artifacts which she has restored to the White House. This tour really did take place, and the filmmakers clearly went to some trouble to recreate it.
From here, the film next shows us the fateful trip to Dallas, and Mrs. Kennedy’s grief and horror in the aftermath. But even in these circumstances, political intrigue continues, as we see glimpses of the tension between Robert Kennedy and the newly sworn-in President Lyndon Johnson.
As Robert and Jackie ride with JFK’s coffin in Washington, she asks staff members if they know anything about Garfield or McKinley. They don’t. She then asks what they know about Lincoln, and they respond that he won the Civil War and freed the slaves. She then decides that she will model her husband’s funeral on Lincoln’s, to ensure his memory lives on as Lincoln’s did.
In one memorable sequence, we see her wandering the empty halls of the White House, listening to John Kennedy’s favorite record, the recording of Camelot, while drinking and taking pills as she is overwhelmed with grief.
Planning for the funeral continues, and Jackie makes clear her desire to have a long procession–a grand spectacle, that will capture the attention of the entire nation watching on television, and preserve Kennedy’s legacy. However, the Johnson administration is hesitant to do so, because of the security risk.
When Oswald is shot by Ruby, it confirms the risk to Mrs. Kennedy, and she decides not to have the procession on foot and go by motorcade instead. She shouts at Robert Kennedy in frustration, berating him (and by extension all politicians), for being unable to know what’s going on or keep anyone safe, despite all their power.
But later, as they are sitting in the empty White House, it is Robert’s turn to rage in frustration at the apparent wasted opportunity of his brother’s tragically ended administration. As she listens, Jackie makes up her mind that his death will not be in vain, and goes to Jack Valenti to tell him the procession will be on foot after all.
Valenti tells her that the problem is that foreign dignitaries–specifically, Charles de Gaulle–are afraid of the risk. Jackie replies that she wishes to let it be known that she will go on foot, but if de Gaulle wishes to ride “in an armored car, or a tank for that matter” she will understand, and pointedly adds that she is sure the national television audience will as well.
Bowing to this implied threat of public humiliation, they accede to Mrs. Kennedy’s wishes and proceed on foot.
Interspersed with all of this, in addition to her exchange with the reporter, are scenes of Jackie conversing with her Priest. (The late, great John Hurt). She is understandably having a crisis of faith, and pours her feelings out to him. He tries to console her, but in the end even he can give no satisfying answer to why God inflicts such suffering as has befallen Mrs. Kennedy and her family.
As their interview concludes, the reporter assures her that she has preserved Kennedy’s legacy as a great President. She tells him there’s one more thing, “more important than all the rest”, and relates the late President’s love of the musical Camelot, quoting the lines: “Don’t let it be forgot/That once there was a spot,/ For one brief, shining moment/That was known as Camelot.”
The film ends with this song playing over flashbacks of the White House tour and the Kennedys dancing together.
II. Review; Praise and Criticism
The film is very powerful, but also strangely disjointed. It can be hard to keep track of where action takes place even in the narrow time frame the film covers, so quick are the cuts to different moments.
Early on, there are many tight close ups on the face of the grieving widow, and long scenes of her cleaning the blood from her face and hair. These scenes are shocking, but seemed unrelated to the film’s larger theme.
The best scenes are those of the journalist interviewing Mrs. Kennedy. There is a tension between the two, who seem to strongly dislike one another, and Mrs. Kennedy’s harsh editing and commentary on what the reporter is and is not allowed to print starkly make the point about using the media to create a narrative–a point that seems especially relevant in light of recent political events.
In general, the acting is quite good. Peter Sarsgaard as Robert Kennedy is terrific, Hurt is very good, as he always was, and Billy Crudup is excellent as the journalist. The only actor who did not really seem right was John Carroll Lynch playing Lyndon Johnson, and this was not really an issue of his acting–which was quite fine–but simply his extreme non-resemblance to Johnson. There were times when I did not know who he was for parts of scenes.
This brings me to the star of the piece. Faithful readers know that Portman is my favorite actress, and it is because she is in this movie that I have followed it so closely.
Her performance is very good, and her Academy Award nomination is well-deserved. That said, all the talk that this is the greatest performance of her career is overblown–indeed, I would argue it is not even her greatest performance in a movie released in 2016. Her roles in Jane Got a Gun and A Tale of Love and Darkness (which Portman also directed) allow her far more range and depth.
There is however one very notable feature of her performance which, despite all the press about it, I have not seen mentioned in any reviews. That is the difference between how she plays Kennedy in the flashbacks and in the “present day” interview with the journalist.
In contrast to the panicked, grief-stricken widow of the immediate aftermath, in the interview scenes she seems about 20 years older, even though only a little time has elapsed. Her tongue is sharper and her attitude more bitter. The contrast is very noticeable, and quite effective at conveying the pain Jackie endured.
The single biggest problem with the film is its script. It is not uniformly bad–it is not even mostly bad–but when it is bad, it is absolutely dire. This might be worse than if it had been bad throughout, because it makes the really terrible lines stick out all the more.
At one point, someone advises Jackie to take her children, leave the White House quietly, and “build a fortress in Boston and disappear”.
Who the hell talks like that?
At another point, Robert Kennedy says that walking by the Lincoln bedroom reminds him that “one ordinary man signed an order that freed millions of people.” This is a rebuttal to Jackie saying it feels “peaceful”.
One scene was so bizarre I almost wonder if it really does have some basis in fact: aboard Air Force One, after the assassination, Jackie is asking about the bullet that killed her husband. “It didn’t sound like a .38” she says. “It sounded like a bigger–what do you call it?–caliber, like soldiers use.”
First of all, I find it hard to believe she would talk about the bullet. Second of all, I find it even harder to believe she would be able to tell if it was a .38 or not. And thirdly, if all that did happen, I think she wouldn’t then say “what do you call it” and be unsure of the word “caliber”.
Another example: when Jackie and Robert are walking through Arlington cemetery to select the grave site, Jackie is obviously having difficulty walking through the mud in her high heels. Robert asks her what’s wrong, and she says her shoes are getting stuck in the mud.
There’s no reason for her to say this. It was clear enough to the viewer; so why include the line?
The Priest says lots of things that I highly doubt any Priest would ever say, least of all to the President’s widow. Even the scenes with the interviewer, strong as they are, have some ham-handed lines, such as when he awkwardly raises the subject of the White House tour film that introduces the flashback.
The musical score is just flat-out weird. It is primarily a growling, synthesized noise that is sometimes appropriately foreboding, but at other times is just annoying. Sometimes it overpowered scenes of the grieving Jackie in instances where silence would have been far more effective. (As if to drive this home, later in the movie many scenes have no soundtrack, and these are much better.)
The cinematography, on the other hand, is very good throughout. There are some beautiful shots of Washington D.C. and the White House interior, and the scenes at Arlington are appropriately grim. And best of all is a scene of Jackie and Robert talking about the funeral in the gloomy November twilight. The scenery, make-up, costumes and acting all make it feel very real and immediate.
This all adds up to a wildly uneven picture. Just when it gets good, some jarring line throws it off, and just as it seems about to run off the rails completely, the cinematography or acting grabs your attention again.
I would be tempted to say it’s a mess with great acting and cinematography. If that were all there was to it, I could end the review now and just say, “See it if you are a Kennedy history buff or a Portman fan; otherwise, skip it.”
But that would ignore something. Which brings me to the third and most complicated aspect of this thing…
“It’s a failing show, it’s not funny. Alec Baldwin’s a disaster, he’s terrible on the show and, by the way, I don’t mind some humor but it’s terrible.”
People have again expressed amazement at how thin-skinned the guy is. And he is, but there’s actually a bit more going on here besides that.
SNL isn’t exactly the only shop in the Trump-mocking business. Making fun of the President isn’t a niche or novel concept, and Trump is currently very unpopular. Lots of comics and satirists are mocking him. MAD magazine mocks the hell out of him, and I’ve yet to hear him complain about it.
If Trump were just hellbent on responding to everyone who mocks him, he’d never do anything else. No, he singles out SNL.
I have a theory: NBC, which broadcasts SNL, is also the network that aired Trump’s show The Apprentice. I suspect Trump has some feud with the upper management at NBC, and so is fighting a proxy war against them by attacking one of their shows.
Another frequent target of Trump’s wrath is CNN, which he repeatedly attacks as “dishonest” or lately, “fake news”. But CNN isn’t the only news organization to report negative stories about him–CBS does that too, as does ABC. And PBS does too. (Yes, I know he plans to shut that down, but that’s a standard Republican wish-list item. I don’t recall him tweeting about it.)
It makes more sense once you know that the President of CNN is one Jeff Zucker, who had been President of NBC until a few years ago. In fact, Zucker originally signed Trump for The Apprentice. I don’t know all the details, but it seems likely that Trump had some sort of falling out with him. I hear Trump can be temperamental, believe it or not.
My point is, Trump isn’t just randomly lashing out at any group that insults him. Rather, he is deliberately lashing out at specific organizations tied to people whom he most likely personally dislikes.
I’ve seen three of Moore’s films: Roger & Me, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine.Bowling is technically speaking the worst one, but it’s also by far the most interesting. Because unlike the other two, which are amusing but kind of simplistic propaganda pieces, Bowling is really more of an open-minded exploration of the issues.
It starts out as a propaganda, dark comedy sort of movie, but it actually turns into more of a examination of American culture. At one point in the film, Moore says that people also own lots of guns in Canada , but they don’t have the same crime problems we do. Surely, this point contradicts any gun control agenda he may have. The middle of the movie is very interesting; Moore seems to admit he doesn’t have all the answers, and is actually revising his opinions as he learns more.
Now, towards the end, Moore remembers that he is making a movie, and he reverts to his ambush/ask awkward questions style and it totally doesn’t work and it makes him look like a jerk. It makes for a really uneven movie, but it’s still thought-provoking to watch.
This was the sight that greeted my eyes as I was trying to watch a video on YouTube today. It’s rare to hear Obama attacked for being too pro-Wall Street except in the most progressively liberal–or is that liberally progressive?–circles. But, as far as I am aware, the liberal progressives have no viable candidate in this election. Obama being the more liberally progressive, one assumed they would all line up behind him.
So, I went to the website of the outfit that paid for the ad: “American Future Fund“. Their website says they are “Advocating Conservative, Free-Market Ideals.” So, no Progressive Liberals are these, but Free-Market Conservatives!
They say they’re worried about Money corrupting the political system. Well, so am I. But what is their solution to this problem? How would the free market fix it? There is potential for corruption even in a free market. You need a regulatory body to guard against that sort of thing. But, as Juvenal asked, “who shall guard the guardians?” It’s a good question. Unfortunately, the only answer that a free-market ideology seems to provide is “Government is too big. Get rid of all the guardians.”
This ad is pretty obviously targeted at low-information voters. Whenever you hear people who are not with the “Occupy” movement or some such attacking Obama for being too friendly to Big Business, you have to wonder what’s going on.
In the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, there’s a scene where Chico’s character, Chicolini, is on trial. The prosecutor asks, “Chicolini, when were you born?” Chico answers: “I don’t remember. I was just a little baby.”
It is evidence–not of the President’s foreign origin, but that Barack Obama’s public persona has perhaps been presented differently at different times.
First of all, this is almost certainly true, as it is true of every other politician. How often have you seen a Presidential candidate, on a visit to Pittsburgh say “Go Steelers! I’ll fight for you in Washington as hard as Hines Ward blocks.” and then the next day in Wisconsin say “You know, my mother’s best friend’s brother had a cousin from Wisconsin, and I’ve always had a soft spot for those Packers. How ’bout Aaron Rodgers, huh?”
So, it’s kind of a waste of time to say “hey, look; this guy presents himself differently according to the situation! He is unfit to be President!” They all do that. Even if this isn’t a typo–and it probably is–it’s not important.
I hate the phrase “dog-whistle” used in regards to politics. It’s often used as a cheap excuse to say “well you didn’t say [awful, usually racist thing], but it’s what you meant.” That’s dishonest debating. But in this case, it seems almost like Breitbart.com is actually saying (aside, to conservatives) “Here’s evidence he was born in Kenya.” (aloud, to world in general) “We’re not saying this means he was born in Kenya; we just think he’s a liar!”
Although, at least the allegation that he was born in Kenya, crazy as it is, would be important if true. (Which it isn’t.) It relates to an actual legal issue of his eligibility to be President. The stated allegation from Breitbart.com, in contrast, is a stupid bit of minutiae even if it’s true.
I don’t watch cable news, except when I see a particularly interesting clip from it on the internet that I feel merits writing about. But this Politico article by Keach Hagey indicates that apparently there has been something of a shift in the coverage style of the Fox News channel, a shift that might not be apparent in one clip, but in the general tone of its coverage.
It seems, according the article, that Fox has shifted “to the left”. Of course, as we know, the left-right dichotomy is pretty simplistic, but we know what they mean. As the Politico article describes:
Last week, [Bill] O’Reilly invited onto his show a gay-rights activist to weigh in on Roland Martin’s controversial tweets during the Super Bowl. O’Reilly and Martin may be old foes, but the spectacle of watching O’Reilly, who once compared gay marriage to interspecies marriage, attacking a CNN anchor for being insufficiently sensitive to the feelings of gay people was quite a switch from the tone of two years ago.
Obviously, there’s a bit of opportunism here–it’s a chance to tarnish someone from another network, and that is opportunity that is hard to pass up. But still-quite remarkable. As the article shows, Fox has shifted away from the Tea Party crowd of “two years ago”.
The article goes on to quote a “Cliff Kincaid, president of America’s Survival”, who says things like “‘what happened is they buckled under pressure from George Soros and his operatives to get rid of Glenn Beck.'” in order to explain this development.
This is quite amusing. The Soros conspiracy never fails to provide a handy explanation for things in the minds of some. The general assessment of the situation is something much more mundane: that Fox has made this shift for the sake of broadening its appeal.
I have a somewhat different take on this situation. The obvious point is that, two years ago, the Republicans were basically powerless. They could do nothing except be furious at the Democratic Congress and Executive. And this they did. And it won them the House of Representatives.
Now, because of that victory, they have some share in how the country is run. So, things can’t be quite so apocalyptic as they were when Democrats had all the majorities. Obviously, that would make the Republicans in the House look stupid. Fox has to paint things as somewhat less dire now, for their sake. The Politico article ends by mentioning a Tea Partier who “feels like she hears more apologies for the status quo on Fox these days.”
Maybe this is just a crazy conspiracy theory, as far-out as Cliff Kincaid’s idea. But it does fit the facts. And recall Megan McArdle’s observation, known as “Jane’s Law”, that “the devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.” Now that the Republicans have gained back a share of power, they must become more “sane”.