A Living History of Violence

The Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1995.

Our collective history:

Remember in 1993 when an OB-GYN was murdered by an antichoice terrorist who shot him in the back three times outside of his reproductive healthcare clinic in Pensacola, Florida?

And nothing really changed because—

Remember the next year, in 1994, when a women’s healthcare provider, again in Pensacola, Florida, was walking into work at the very same clinic and he and his bodyguard were murdered with a 12 gauge shotgun at close range by an antichoice terrorist?

And nothing really changed because—

Remember that same year, in Brookline, Massachusetts, when two women’s healthcare clinic workers were murdered by an antichoice terrorist who shot them at work in two separate attacks on women’s reproductive healthcare clinics on the same day, and then the terrorist drove to Virginia to kill more people but got caught after shooting into yet another women’s reproductive healthcare clinic?

And nothing really changed because—

Remember in 1995 when that white supremacist terrorist filled a truck with fertilizer and diesel fuel and drove it up to a Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, lit two fuses, fled the scene, and the truck exploded and killed 168 people, including 19 kids in a daycare?

And nothing really changed because—

Remember in 1998 when a women’s healthcare clinic was bombed in Birmingham, Alabama, killing an off-duty police officer providing security and it turned out the white supremacist antichoice terrorist bomber had also bombed other clinics, a lesbian bar, and the Olympics in Atlanta which injured over 100 people combined?

And nothing really changed because—



That same year, a women’s healthcare provider in Buffalo, New York was murdered at home when he was shot in the throat with a high-powered rifle through a window in his kitchen by an antichoice terrorist?

And nothing really changed because—

There was that one day in 2009 when a women’s healthcare provider was ushering at his church in Wichita, Kansas and an antichoice terrorist walked up to him and assassinated him by shooting him in the head with a handgun?


And no one did anything because—

Remember in 2014 when a white supremacist misogynist drove around Isla Vista, California and killed six people and injured fourteen more, because he had been radicalized to hate women in online misogynist forums?


And no one did anything because—

Remember in 2015 when a white supremacist terrorist walked into a prayer meeting at a primarily black Charleston, South Carolina church and shot and murdered nine people because they were black?

And no one did anything because—


Remember in that same year when an antichoice terrorist attacked a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado and killed three people, including an Iraq war veteran, a police officer, and a woman accompanying her friend to a reproductive healthcare appointment?

But no one did anything? And then—

In 2017, remember when a white supremacist terrorist got on public transportation in Portland, Oregon and started shouting racist slurs at a pair of Muslim women and some men stood up for them and he slashed and killed them with a knife?

But no one did anything? And then—

Later that summer, remember when a white supremacist terrorist used his car to drive into a crowd protesting for racial justice in Charlottesville, Virginia and murdered a woman, the day after a radical white supremacist march where Nazis chanted about replacement theory and the President of the United States said there were “very fine people on both sides?

But no one did anything? And then—

Remember in 2018 when a white supremacist terrorist walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven people and wounded six during morning services because he believed the work of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society “Liked to bring in invaders and kill our people”?

But no one did anything? And then—

Remember in 2019, when a white supremacist terrorist who had been radicalized online on 8chan, the birthplace of QAn*n, walked into a Wal-Mart in El Paso, Texas and murdered 23 people and injured 23 more, and he was targeting Latinos because of his anti-immigrant belief in replacement theory?

But no one did anything? And then—

Remember in 2020 when white supremacist terrorists started showing up in large numbers at state houses and COVID-19 protests and then to Black Lives Matter protests, heavily armed with assault rifles and body armor, and then, seeing that they could walk into the State Capitol building in Michigan, showed up in the gallery fully armed in an attempt to intimidate lawmakers?

But no one did anything? And then local law enforcement treated them as allies? And then—

Later that summer, when a white conservative drove across state lines from Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin with an AR-15 to intervene in a local Black Lives Matter protest and decided he wasn’t safe, so he murdered someone with his gun and when people tried to chase him down and stop him from killing more people, he murdered another person, injured another, and then walked past the police who were continuing to ally themselves with extrajudicial white supremacist groups and assumed he was innocent? And then a jury found him not guilty of murder? And then he continued to be treated like a celebrity by now-mainstream white supremacist conservatives and began to profit off of his celebrity status?

And then no one did anything? And then—

In December of that same year, a right wing terrorist drove an RV into downtown Nashville and detonated a massive truck bomb, demolishing a city block in a major American city because he believed in “long-held individualized beliefs adopted from several eccentric conspiracy theories” and then the FBI said “his actions were determined to not be related to terrorism?

And then no one even blinked because it happened on Christmas morning? And then—

Remember when, only two weeks later, thousands of radicalized conspiracy theorists who had been swayed by the political mainstreaming of QAn*n, stormed the United States Capitol at the behest of the sitting President of The United States and other political leaders, who were using them as a tool to stage a coup by murdering the Vice President in order to stop the ceremonial counting of electoral votes in order to overthrow the results of a legitimate Federal election? And they ransacked the offices of elected officials and beat and injured Capitiol police officers and set up a gallows and took zip ties into the building searching for specific Democratic legislators to abduct and “try”?

And no one did a fucking thing?

And just yesterday, back in Buffalo, New York, an 18 year old white supremacist terrorist posted an online manifesto extolling his now-relatively mainstream white supremacist political beliefs, and then, motivated by his belief in “replacement theory”, which has become a relatively mainstream idea on the #1 rated “news” channel on American television, pulled up to a grocery store with a Bushmaster XM15 with Nazi slogans and racist language written on it and murdered 10 people because they were black, live streamed it on Twitch, and was arrested without injury?

I was trying to remember where I had heard about that gun and it came to me—

Remember in 2012 when a man shot his way into an elementary school Newtown, Connecticut with a Bushmaster XM15 and murdered 20 kids aged 6-7 and six educators?

And then no one did anything?

People seem eager to speak about what peaceful protest should look like, about which political appointees should be protected from hearing from the people and where, about which freedoms are “deeply rooted in our history”, about who should have power and control over women’s bodies, over trans bodies, over LGBTQIA+ lives, over people of color’s lives and prosperity, over what is appropriate history, or gender expression, or love, or a family.

This post has barely scratched the surface of merely the last 30 years of the evolution and mainstreaming of white, right wing terror in this country. It stretches back for centuries.

So– who and what “deeply rooted tradition” does the Supreme Court continue to bolster while tut-tutting us about the credibility of their institution?

And when you open your mouth, when you act, are you standing with that history of violence, murder, and terror, or against it?

You Are The Next Domino

Aside from heartbreak and rage, what more can be said about Vladimir Putin’s criminal attack on a sovereign Ukraine, a blatant attempt to annex a free, democratic nation under a demonstrably false set of manufactured pretexts? I watched translated versions of the nauseating farce of Putin’s “cabinet debate” and his rambling speech establishing his “rationale” for invasion, a pitiful reminder of the pathetic theater that authoritarians undertake to mimic the democratic process as they desperately seek credibility for their criminality.

In the wake of that performance, what to make of the hard work of the American political right to sow a domestic rationale for consent, to continually launder Russian propaganda in an effort to bolster their place in an international authoritarian movement? Or the deliberate attempts by the Republican Party and Trump and their propagandists on right wing media to undermine and weaken NATO, to refuse to lift a finger to support democratic movements for the people of Belarus, or their slavering love for Orban’s control of Hungary, or bringing literal authoritarians into the White House and sending them around the world on missions to undermine democratic institutions? Or Trump’s attempt to withhold military support for Ukraine unless Zelenskyy manufactured lies in order to interfere in our domestic Presidential election? Or, in the wake of Russia’s unilateral annexation of Crimea, modifying the Republican party platform in order to remove military aid to Ukraine because the annexation and Russia backing Ukrainian rebels was “really a problem that affects Europe a lot more than it affects us”? Or taking the stage in recent days to praise Putin’s strength and a 24 hour propaganda TV channel brainwashing generations into believing democracy may not be such a great idea after all?

And what to make of the media making every effort to ensure the “politics” of this movement are seen as legitimate, normal discourse, just one of an equal pair of political ideas that deserves credible engagement, a platform, the benefit of the doubt? Or the leaders on the so-called left and the middle, who refuse to use the power of their institutions to expose the obvious, to give us justice, a counter narrative, or to fight back, despite the fact that, once those institutions are forfeited, they will be leveraged to dismantle the left and middle in favor of authoritarian minority rule?

We are in the midst of a war against democracy, not just in Ukraine, but globally, here, now, and it seems that everyone is under the delusion that Ukraine is someone else’s problem and politics at home is business as usual. But it most certainly is NOT and unless there is real action to stop the authoritarian right, we’ll all find out what the true stakes are soon enough, just as the people of Ukraine are finding out tonight. I cannot stop thinking about them, about how we all failed them. And for that, I am truly sorry. 💙🇺🇦💛

Review: THE BEATLES: GET BACK by Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson’s THE BEATLES: GET BACK

Since a lot of people are doing it, I wanted to get down my own thoughts on Peter Jackson’s masterpiece THE BEATLES: GET BACK, which I had the wonderful privilege of watching with friends this weekend. I wanted to start by noting that I was born in November of 1970*, a few months after Paul McCartney announced that The Beatles had broken up, after the subsequent release of LET IT BE, to a pair of parents who were not really fans of The Beatles— my dad and The Beatles shared a passion for the earliest rock and roll of the 1950’s and both my dad and mom sat out the countercultural revolutions of the 1960s, and especially the music it produced. I don’t know when I first heard The Beatles, but it was certainly as a little boy; I do remember hearing GOT TO GET YOU INTO MY LIFE for sure— probably in 1976 when the ROCK AND ROLL MUSIC compilation was released (I likely heard it on the radio)– but my first recollection is not even The Beatles, it is Wings’ BAND ON THE RUN album which, again, I probably heard on the radio in the summer of 1974 when I was three years old. The only copy of an album by The Beatles in my mom’s house was and remains MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR, which I listened to sometimes.

I also came of age at a time- the early 1980’s- when the music of my parents generation (old time rock and roll on my dad’s side, adult contemporary on my mom’s side) was not something I cared very much about. I can remember all of it, mostly fondly, but my personal musical exploration began, as it always should, when I began making my own choices— metal, then jazz (and prog), then college rock, and then outward from there. As part of that outward expansion, I came back around to The Beatles, who remained ubiquitous on radio throughout the 70’s and 80’s, especially in Michigan, influenced by Detroit’s radio, which was heavily marketing “classic rock” and Motown/ soul to different audiences. In Flint, where I grew up, you had the contemporary rock station WWCK 105.5, the contemporary R&B station WDZZ 92.7, the adult contemporary station CARS 108 (107.9), and then you maybe could pull in WLLZ or WRIF from Detroit. In the early 1980’s, Flint’s local independent station WFBE 95.1 began airing Ben Hamper’s TAKE NO PRISONERS show on Saturday nights, which focused on punk and local bands, and that became the definitive show of the 1980’s for me— I would hide under my blankets and put the radio next to my ear so my parents wouldn’t hear me staying up super late, listening to the radio. On a clear night, you could grab BRAVE NEW WAVES drifting over the border on CBC radio in Canada, another big touchstone for me. 

So, I never had a childhood steeped in The Beatles and their songs were, for me, from another time. I also have never had a sort of Road To Damascus moment with The Beatles music where I became an obsessive convert or did a deep dive into every single aspect of their music and production history (which gauge of strings did George use on his guitar for AND YOUR BIRD CAN SING? I literally could not care less). 

All of that said, I completely get it. Having been a listener to pop since 1970, the dominance of The Beatles’ songs in shaping contemporary music is beyond staggering to even consider— people who love and make music look at that unfathomably great body of work as sacred, a sort of contemporary Sistine Chapel which is to be poured over, examined, a set of problems to solve to figure out how it was done because, in the end, as music, it is breathtaking. Anyone who can’t appreciate what The Beatles created is likely either resentful of their ubiquity or annoyed by the giant shadow they cast over the work of so many others, and I also understand that. But I don’t blame The Beatles for that— they have come to mean so many things to so many people, but what we are left to grapple with are the songs and records which stand both as a towering achievement in contemporary pop music, but also, a narrative, a story, an artistic path from LOVE ME DO to THE END in just eight years, almost impossible to comprehend. Yet there it is, that body of work, and it remains an object of deep fascination and scrutiny because, as music, it means so much and only a very few people have ever achieved anything that comes close**.

The collaborative, interpersonal creative process that allowed The Beatles to happen is essentially the subject of THE BEATLES: GET BACK, which captures just a single month in the life of the band as they record the LET IT BE album, first as a concept for a TV show/documentary/ live concert event which is eventually abandoned, then as the documentation of the recording of the album itself, culminating in the band’s justifiably (and more on this in a minute) legendary final performance on the rooftop of Apple Studios. 

There are some very big choices made here by Peter Jackson, and they were all fine by me: The voluminous footage, which was used to create the sour documentary LET IT BE (which sensationalized the sessions as rife with turmoil, a clear sign of the end, of the band’s impending demise), has been not only restored but “contemporized”, creating images and audio that were impossible with the film technology of the time. This has the effect of creating a sense of immediacy and intimacy for modern audiences that is unlike anything I have ever experienced with footage from this era. Look at Pennebaker’s work on films like DON’T LOOK BACK and ZIGGY STARDUST (both amazing) to see the typical visual and audio limitations of most shoots of the era. While those films achieve intimacy with smaller cameras and crews, THE BEATLES: GET BACK uses the scale of its production to an unprecedented advantage. Say what you want about the film’s cigar-smoking, Libya-obsessed director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, but the man made some massively important choices that allowed this film to happen, and at the top of the list is his decision to go all in on coverage; there were cameras and invasive microphones everywhere, and while that may have been a huge pain the ass for everyone involved, THE BEATLES: GET BACK would not have been remotely possible without the hours and hours and hours of coverage Lindsay-Hogg’s footage provided to Jackson and his superstar editor Jabez Olssen. 

Olssen’s work here is by far the most crucial in reframing this footage and, frankly, re-writing the history of The Beatles. First, by taking footage out of its original linear, temporal context and cutting it into scenes where the audio was from another moment, THE BEATLES: GET BACK leans into the emotional content and heavy interpersonal subtext of the band’s decisive, creative moments. A glance, a smile, the image of a restless hand— these images supply meaning that has been historically unavailable. What this allows, more than anything else, is for Jackson to find the real story here, which is about the love between these artists who, at the apex of their fame and creative flowering, reached an understanding they could not yet articulate that their time together was coming to an end. This is the moment when, just over the horizon, The Beatles will become an impossibility for them, with three incredible songwriters, all of them bursting out in different creative directions that were only made available to them by the fact of their collaboration, unable to articulate the full meaning of what they understood about what was next.

The deep humanity of this specific choice by Jackson puts the film in a class by itself for me— it is a movie that at once shows the jaw-dropping brilliance of what The Beatles were able to create together and makes their dissolution as a band both heartbreaking and comprehensible. One of the most interesting things about experiencing the film for me was orienting myself in the narrative— while I have seen many people reporting that they were deeply moved by watching unbelievable moments in the film’s early episodes, especially intimate moments of creation of songs that are now part of the contemporary music canon (Paul working out LET IT BE in the background while the group chats around him, Paul strumming his bass and just pulling GET BACK seemingly out of thin air, George sharing amazing songs from his masterpiece ALL THINGS MUST PASS to general indifference)— for me it was the interpersonal moments that kept me deeply engaged; the band navigating Paul’s notes to George and Ringo about their playing, John and Paul on secret microphone (hello again, coverage!) discussing how to piece them all back together again, Paul constantly chewing his nails and going slack jawed when things aren’t going his way, John’s use of humor and his emotional intelligence in seeing multiple perspectives, Ringo’s easygoing professionalism, George’s kindness and diligence covering up his wounds. 

For me, all of these moments culminate in the rooftop performance sequence, when the band, unshackled, free from the studio after years of not playing live, finally get to cut loose and everything we’ve seen boiling beneath the surface is cast aside for an all too brief moment of joyous connection between four artists, young men, lifelong friends, who put away the all of the choices that lead them there— the film, the business plans, the recording process — and just let it all go, together. This is the moment that brought tears to my eyes— the storytelling that got us all to that rooftop, knowing what had come before, what it meant to them, the love between them, and the knowledge that, as a simple title note tell us, it would never, ever happen again. A final experience of joyous connection when you see and hear everything, all at once. Like a great, fleeting romantic moment that will never exist again, you look back on it and you understand, you forgive. And then? The end.  

——

*I know some people say Altamont was the official end of the 1960’s, but I always like to outline this chronology of 1970 as a way to frame my birth year:

April 1970- The Beatles announce their break up

May 1970- The Kent State shooting

September 1970- Jimi Hendrix dies

October 1970- Janis Joplin dies

November 1970- I was born

**For me personally, the nine year run Prince had from PRINCE in 1979 to SIGN O’ THE TIMES in 1987 is as close as anyone has ever come. 

Cannes 2021 Journal: Au revoir, Cannes

Le 2021 Palais des festivals (📸 by me)

I was incredibly anxious in making plans to go to Cannes; with the global response to COVID-19 in a constant state of flux, travel requirements changing from week to week, and a great deal of work required at my own Montclair Film Festival, I wasn’t sure I how the trip would go. As the festival grew closer to launching on July 6th, things remained up in the air; the screening schedule hadn’t been announced, the status of vaccinated Americans like me and our access to the festival was undecided but optimistic, and the process for how we would all get tickets to films remained a mystery. Because of my travel requirements, I had to book a flight through London, which I was assured would be fine, but which ended up adding a layer of complexity, COVID testing (despite my vaccinated status), and even more anxiety. There is something powerless about air travel, especially on an international level, where every customs officer has the power to make things difficult, enforce an unforeseen rule, end any plans on the spot. The more people and portals with which I had to interact, the more I feared an insurmountable problem. This much uncertainty? Not my forté.

But from the moment I left JFK on the 4th of July, until the moment I started writing this from a café in the Nice airport in France, everything went perfectly. My planning for COVID requirements was not only correct, but allowed me to move quickly through the system; checking in and customs were a breeze, and my bag was waiting for me on the other side. I grabbed it, hopped the train that runs along the Gold Coast of France, past mansions, beaches, and massive condos, to Cannes, standing against the Mediterranean Sea, hot and steamy under the relentless sun. I walked to my condo, unpacked and settled in, before walking out the door to get reacquainted with the Cannes Film Festival.

I had been to Cannes before, in 1999 and 2000 which, in my estimation, was one of the greatest Cannes programs of all time. Since that time, my festival work, which for decades had been situated in the April-May timeframe, made a trip to Cannes irrelevant and impossible. But those early trips were formative for me, creating a version of the festival that lived on in my memory; jet lag, packed screenings, familiar faces in the crowd, but mostly, the premieres of great films, a program bursting at the seams with the most important and interesting international titles of the year. 

It is funny to think about, but I am almost certain that everyone who programs films looks at the Cannes program with extreme scrutiny and, if they’re honest, a sense of jealousy; with 74 years of institutional work put into creating an event that provides a global launching pad and sales platform for films while elevating the work of film directors into the highest levels of the contemporary arts, this unique blend of glitz, raw business, and extreme artistic seriousness provides Cannes Director Thierry Fremaux with the ability to, for the most part, have his pick of films and talent to attend the festival. It is hard to think of any film or film company that wouldn’t deeply desire the imprimatur of the iconic gold palm imposed over the words Official Selection Festival Des Cannes.

And so, year after year, Cannes reclaims its position at the center of the film world, with its program defining the state-of-the-art in the same way the autumn festivals herald the launch of awards season in the United States. Cannes is far more global than the Oscars, and features its own, highly coveted awards, given by small juries of acclaimed artists, serving as an international counterweight to the Academy. In this way, the festival best serves a certain type of film and film lover; it is driven by and the exemplar of global cinephilia, where the artistic ambitions of the form are placed above (and yet alongside) the business of box office. Typically, Hollywood and Cannes are not aligned , but sometimes, these two worlds come together; Bong Joon-ho’s PARASITE won the Palme D’Or and the Best Picture Oscar in 2019, but that overlap is incredibly rare.

This year, in the midst of planning for the 10th Annual Montclair Film Festival and working to launch our very own six screen cinema in the fall, our own changes in planning and schedule made me believe that a trip to Cannes would be worthwhile again; in the wake of the pandemic, Montclair Film moved our festival to October in 2020 and provided a huge transformation in terms of the films we were able to access, with Best Picture winner NOMADLAND serving as our Opening Night Film, and multiple award winners and nominees participating in the festival. In the wake of the success of that program, which we had worked carefully to position on the calendar in a way that would give us impact without competing with other, more established fall festivals, we decided that October was the right spot for us, and as we began planning for October 2021, Cannes seemed like a good opportunity; I wouldn’t be able to attend my traditional fall festivals (Toronto, the New York Film Festival) because their proximity to our new dates, and with the announcement of our new cinemas, the time was right to go scout films, meet with distributors, and see what a trip to Cannes would mean.

So I went.

From the moment I walked into the small tent where my badge would be printed via a touch screen kiosk in a matter of seconds, to the COVID testing tent I was required to use to gain access to the Marché and certain theaters, to the line of badge holders all eagerly awaiting our first film (Mark Cousins’ delightful retrospective of contemporary cinema THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION), Cannes felt relatively effortless. I never waited more than one minute to get a COVID test and after an early hiccup, my results arrived in time for me to use them (I was negative. Get vaccinated everyone.). No one ever dismissed my clothes or my ticket or did anything more than smile, say a polite word of greeting, and send me on my way. Cannes is known for being finicky, building procedures and processes for attendees— lines, hoops through which to jump, arbiters of what is and is not “acceptable” attire, etc— but the radical change this year that switched off so much frustration was the online ticketing system, which eliminated waiting in line for tickets and allowed everyone to apply for a seat at films by going online.

With attendance down (huge swaths of the world who typically attend were unable to participate this year because of COVID, others chose not to attend because of the overwhelming uncertainty and COVID concerns, all of which is completely understandable), the doors to the cinemas were more accessible than ever before. This was part of my strategy in going; hopeful I could find tickets to screenings because attendance would be more manageable, I found myself granted a ticket to literally every film I could schedule. It was unbelievable. The only struggle I had was making sure my phone had enough power at the end of the day, so I could make my final screening and show my digital ticket to get into the theater.  

As each new morning arrived and I applied online for future screenings, as each e-mail confirmation rolled in after that, as each COVID test retuned a negative result, as I washed and pressed my tuxedo shirt over and over again, I settled into the rhythm of the festival. I took a few meetings, attended a party (outdoors and unmasked, and regretted it immediately), had a lunch here, a coffee there, a dinner with colleagues, but mostly, I dove into film screenings, surrounded by appreciative audiences who, as far as I could see, politely followed the mask mandate and acted with overall courtesy toward the staff and one another.

Once the lights went down in the Grand Lumiere or Salle Debussy (the festival’s largest theaters, where I spent most of my time), everything else- the uncertainty, the anxiety- melted away and I found myself completely absorbed in the films, my long relationship with theatrical viewing instantly re-established. As the program began to reveal itself, right away, an overall mood became clear; the films began addressing human connection and the need for kindness, from romantic and familial relationships to institutional interactions, a cinema urgently advocating for compassion and understanding. The humanist power of movies was on full display right away; maybe it was having been away for so long, maybe I was really tired, but sometimes, the films seem to be in dialogue with one another, pulling me in and framing my thinking as they go.

For me? It was the love affairs that broke the screen wide open again.

Joanna Hogg’s THE SOUVENIR PART II was the best film I saw in Cannes, and it played in the Director’s Fortnight section (which was typically outstanding), and I have to say, it is a huge shock to me that this film was not in competition in the main program. The film picks up immediately after Hogg’s achingly beautiful THE SOUVENIR, in the aftermath of a disastrous relationship, as the film’s protagonist Julie (played brilliantly again by Honor Swinton Byrne) shifts her focus from her loss to discovering her voice as a filmmaker. It was a powerful statement of becoming, a self-portrait of a young artist by her masterful later self, and one that reflexively examined that tension within the structure of the film itself. THE SOUVENIR, as a single film project made up of both parts, is a triumph, and I am eager to watch both parts again, together, in one sitting. Straight onto my personal favorites list.

THE SOUVENIR PART II, by Joanna Hogg

Right behind Hogg’s film on my list was Norwegian director Joachim Trier’s VERDENS VERSTE MENNESKE (THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD), starring a Norwegian actress previously unknown to me, Renate Reinsve who took to the Cannes red carpet (which is broadcast on the screen inside the Palais and provides a ton of pre-show joy to the awaiting audience) as a whirling, twirling burst of bright energy and carried that obvious charisma straight through the film itself. She is a movie star, arriving seemingly fully formed on screen, a modern European actress who seems to be filled with optimism and feeling. The film capitalizes on her performance with a melancomic story of a young woman named Julie who can’t settle into her romantic relationships, but one who clearly imagines herself as the type of person who does. Funnily, I am seeing reviews calling the character “unformed” or “childish” or comparing her to Frances Ha, but for me, that’s very wrong. She’s alive and justifiably uncertain about who and what she wants to be and be with, and just goes about the business of trying things out, like we all do. This movie felt very much like real life to me; real, wonderful characters alive to the continuing possibilities of life. It is judgement-free, compassionate, and a joy. I didn’t see every eligible movie, but if Reinsve doesn’t win the Best Actress award, it would be a crime.

Joachim Trier’s THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD

Trier’s co-writer on THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, Eskil Vogt, wrote and directed a film at Cannes as well, and it was one of the few genre films I was able to see. THE INNOCENTS, playing in Un Certain Regard (the festival’s section for official selections not selected for the main competition), is the story of a group fo small children, living in the same apartment complex, who come to learn of a supernatural connection they share, one which gives them extraordinary powers of communication and destructive force. It also features some heavy duty staged violence against animals and children, which had the audience gasping in surprise, and draws on the relationship between adult power and the way in which kids misunderstand that power when they interact with one another and the world, often turning the tyranny of the adult world into acts of cruelty that Vogt captures with prowling, long lens shots that call to mind recent horror classics like IT FOLLOWS or LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, reminding me that I need to watch more contemporary horror.

THE INNOCENTS by Eskil Vogt

Also in Un Certain Regard and also grappling with childhood cruelty, Laura Wandel’s UN MONDE (aka PLAYGROUND) is the story of a pair of siblings enduring the daily degradations of life in a Belgian elementary school. Shot in a social realist style (think the Dardenne Brothers making SON OF SAUL) that never diverges from the point of view of Nora, a kindergartener whose older brother suffers constant abuse and humiliation at the hands of his classmates. It is very rare to see a film perfectly grasp the emotional life of young kids, but PLAYGROUND absolutely nails it, tracking the mistakes, the attempts at kindness, the meanness and exclusion, and all of the emotions that follow through the beautiful, powerhouse performance of young Maya Vanderbeque, who carries the entire movie on her shoulders and never delivers a single false beat. 

Maya Vanderbeque as Nora in Laura Wandel’s UN MONDE (PLAYGROUND)

Another film about the emotional isolation of systemic abuse, and also in Un Certain Regard, was Sebastian Meise’s GREAT FREEDOM, the story of Hans Hoffmann, a gay man in Germany repeatedly imprisoned over violations to the nation’s infamous Paragraph 175 law, which made homosexual activity a crime (and was utilized by the Nazis to send LGBTQIA+ people to the concentration camps). Franz Rogowsky is an actor who never fails to fascinate with his ability to seemingly haunt the frame, and his work here is yet another in a recent string of outstanding performances, here showing the complex relationship between freedom and the past, and how trauma informs the experience of persecution. 

Franz Rogowsky as Hans in Sebastian Meise’s GREAT FREEDOM

Arnaud Desplechin’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s DECEPTION is a film I have been discussing with Desplechin for many years, one that he had long been seeking to make, and once it began playing, it was clear why; Desplechin has returned to the themes of his best films with this story of Roth’s extra-marital affairs, here presented with such tenderness that I was shocked; Roth’s reputation as an irredeemable misogynist was here transformed through the lens of his equal, a lover played by Lea Séydoux, who understands his desire for her and meets it with her own understanding and power. Of course, the film also proposes that maybe the entire proposition is a fiction invented by Roth to help him understand and invent women as fictions, but that doesn’t distract from the film’s power for me. As always with Desplechin, the spiritual side of his work is boiling beneath the surface of his images and characters, here represented by Roth’s outsider status as a Jewish American abroad. I can’t wait to see this again, a top-tier Desplechin film for me (and I love them all for my own, selfish reasons).

Arnaud Desplechin’s DECEPTION

Wes Anderson’s THE FRENCH DISPATCH arrived with expectations that can only be compared to a new album by a well-established rock star; Anderson’s visual and storytelling style is so consistent, so unique, and so wonderful, there is a fear that any major changes to the director’s signature approach might be alienating or somehow dishonest. Anderson is who he is, a visual stylist unlike any other who relies on the bespoke details of his image making to create a symbiotic relationship with his writing, together creating films that serve both as cinematic homage and something truly unique. THE FRENCH DISPATCH is no exception, a love-letter to the long form journalistic essay writing that shaped the mid-20th century glory days of THE NEW YORKER and other prestigious literary magazines. But the film is also filled with cinematic nods to the French New Wave, films noir, 1930’s comedies, and more. It is an absolute joy to watch, twinned to THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS for me, both films adapting a certain era of the written word that captures the spirit of the times and subverts nostalgia by creating something new.

THE FRENCH DISPATCH by Wes Anderson

And finally, speaking of new, Julia Ducournau’s TITANE was my final film of the festival before heading home. The story of a young woman named Alexia (played with unbelievable power by Agathe Rousselle) who suffers a traumatic head injury and develops into a sociopathic murderer before passing herself off as a young man who had disappeared years ago, TITANE is also the story of radical, physical transformation of the female body into whatever the fuck it wants to be. And it is radical; did I mention the car that impregnates Alexia, in the form of mechanical parthenogenesis that drives (see what I did there?) the story to its almost unbearably moving conclusion? Ducournau’s control of the film’s escalating tensions, purposeful gender confusion, male vanity, and found family is flawless, making TITANE a film that deserves multiple viewings in order to unpack its narrative and visual strategies. 

Julia Ducournau’s TITANE

I could go on and on, and already have; I watched 28 films and for the most part, found something compelling and thought-provoking about each. And there were so many more I didn’t see but wanted to see; festivals are always filled with regrets. As I sit here, having departed Nice, passed through Heathrow in London, and now flying home over the Atlantic Ocean, I’m thinking about how much this festival means to me in the ongoing world of COVID. I know I am landing back in the reality of family life, work, and responsibility, and I can’t wait to replug into my real life. But there is something about Cannes that will continue to frame my inner-life, the interior version of myself that adores sitting in the dark with strangers and giving myself permission and room to think seriously and passionately about cinema, a word I use without reservation. For me, that is the ideal of Cannes, which has once again replenished me and lead me to try to continue to find ways to honor that part of myself in the other areas of my life. I hope to be back soon. 

(Click here For a full list of my Cannes screenings)

Cannes 2021 Review: ANNETTE by Leos Carax

ANNETTE, directed by Leos Carax

Sparks, the endearingly enduring pop duo of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, have created a monumental body of work together for over 50 years, a sort of parallel history of contemporary pop music that exists both within and outside of the structures of genre, style, and stardom. Leos Carax has been operating in a parallel world as well, explicitly so, a master of creating tangible, physical images that are driven by his profoundly visual imagination. ANNETTE, their collaboration in the form of a cinematic opera, is an expression of these synonymous outsider visions, and the tension between the desire for acceptance and the embrace of rejection.

ANNETTE operates as a sort of narrative history of what I can only imagine is the tension at the heart of Sparks as an artistic project; the serious musical ambition and mastery of form that is embodied by Marion Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux, a beloved soprano whose work in the opera brings her global renown, and the dark, confrontational comedy of Adam Driver’s Henry McHenry, who prowls the stage as a form of self-analysis and truth-telling that calls to mind Bo Burnham’s confessional storytelling mixed with Andrew Dice Clay’s intentional, absurdist bomb of a masterpiece THE DAY THE LAUGHTER DIED. The couple, united in love for one another, embody the paradox of mastery and humor, the embrace of the serious and the lowbrow that has both limited Sparks as a commercial project and has given them a profound and sustainable creative career.

Carax, whose films have consistently addressed the complex dance between love, personal integrity, and creativity, seems to be in familiar territory, having created wonderful musical sequences like the classic moment built around David Bowie’s MODERN LOVE in Carax’s 1986 MAUVAIS SANG, the incredible fireworks sequence from 1991’s THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE, or the thrilling, accordion mob cover version of LET MY BABY RIDE from 2012’s HOLY MOTORS.

With ANNETTE, however, Carax takes a different approach, seeming to transform the Mael’s ideas into a set of creative constraints. Carax’s touches are still there, primarily in Adam Driver’s performance, which seems to have taken on the physical requirements in Carax’s films that usually fall upon Denis Lavant, one of the most gifted physical actors of our generation. Here, though, Driver’s physicality is intentionally hemmed in by Carax, who frames the film far more theatrically than the anarchic naturalism we are used to, taking his cues from melodrama and classic cinema to create a more controlled world for his musical fairy tale.

The Maels seem to have also taken the film, which brilliantly lampoons the musical formalism of opera and modern musical theater, as a way to try something different. One of the great things about Sparks is that they use the conventions of pop music- form, length, instrumentation, style, genre- as a playground, infusing their music with humor (both lyrically and musically), repetition (think of BALLS or DICK AROUND), and stylistic wanderlust. But here too, outside of the film’s opening song SO MAY WE START, the Maels put aside expectations, instead sticking to the project, delivering music that relies on full orchestration and lyrical repetition, character themes and reprises; there is hardly a pop song in earshot, and barely a hint of the propulsive electronic instrumentation that shapes much of their best work. 

Here, a quick * SPOILER ALERT* for those interested in seeing the film with fresh eyes (as I always say, it is impossible to talk about a film without talking about it):

But transformation through constraint seems to be precisely the point, and ANNETTE absolutely sticks the landing.  In the film’s final sequence, Annette (to this point played by an intentionally artificial puppet) is transformed into real girl (played and sung beautifully by Devyn McDowell) and Driver’s Henry is also transformed into a stand-in for Leos Carax. In an inversion of the finale of PINOCCHIO, Annette becomes a real girl, not because she finally tells the truth, but because her creator does; Henry stops lying to himself at last through his rejection by his daughter. Long in denial of Annette’s full humanity, and seeing her now as a person and no longer as an extension of himself or Ann, he understands that he has created his own isolation all along. Here, the film’s slow moving evolution of Henry into a simulacrum of Carax himself— first the sunglasses, then the hat, and finally the hair, mustache, and world-weary eyes—arrives both visually and in the form of a song (which, for me, was the highlight of the film), a lament between the newly human child and the director’s Geppetto, who at last gets what he always wanted through the act of creation, only to remain in the prison of his own making, watching the only true thing he ever made carried away from him forever. 

Cannes 2021 Review: THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION by Mark Cousins

THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION by Mark Cousins

The Cannes Film Festival, and its main screening rooms, are housed in the Palais des Festivals, but ask anyone who loves movies— well, anyone who loves a certain idea of what the movies are— and they will likely agree that the Palais is less a palace and something more akin to a temple for true believers, a place for cinephiles to congregate and engage in a complicated relationship with not only contemporary cinema, but with the history of film. No film festival embodies that history quite like Cannes, which has shaped the international conversation around filmmakers and filmmaking for decades; from its elevation of the art of film to a black-tie event to its veneration of a long list of boundary-pushing filmmakers from around the world, Cannes is a festival that not only has the power to enshrine an artist in the history of film, but one that is fully aware of that power, which brings with it the ability to program almost anything it wants, which has come with its own problems; it is incredibly selective and loyal to its past, and when you lean so heavily on your history, problems of inclusion become a whole different part of the story. 

The festival was born in a different social, economic, and historical moment, but so was almost every other institution of power, and so, as it continues to see curation as a part of a continuum, Cannes continues to navigate how to contextualize its relationship to the past in a contemporary moment of long-needed, seismic change, be it access for people who have too-long been excluded from the production and celebration of cinema, to the new battlefronts that are reshaping the future of theatrical moviegoing. This is not a festival about democratic social participation in the movies; it is more akin to evangelism than conversation.

On the other hand, we live in a moment when films need a champion more than ever, and it is hard to come to Cannes as a true believer in cinema and not be moved by the experience. In that sense, the festival’s first official screening— Mark Cousin’s new documentary THE STORY OF FILM: A NEW GENERATION— was the perfect start, a heartfelt benediction for the global community of contemporary cinephiles. As an extension of his multi-part THE STORY OF FILM, the latest A NEW GENERATION follows Cousin’s generosity, curiosity, and passion for the medium in the 21st century, from images and sounds to performances and genres, to create a sort of “state of the art” for modern filmmaking, placing recent films in the context of the past, but also, as a way forward, as a vital and living form.

As a film programmer and someone who has watched and thought about films for decades, no illusions about my own objectivity; there is none. Cinema’s history remains dear to me not only from the perspective of the films themselves— which, I am sure we could all assemble a list of exclusions from this chapter of THE STORY OF FILM that we would have loved to see Cousins address (while retaining admiration for the images, ideas, and interpretations he brings to A NEW GENERATION)— but also on the level of personal and political identity, which Cousins rightly identifies as a sort of “borderless, stateless” globalism, tied together by filmmaking, that unites cinephiles as being, in a sense, a community of people who seek to understand one another through filmgoing and dialogue. Of which, I am 100% guilty as charged. 

In the wake of the pandemic and attending my first in-person film screening in over a year and a half, I was not prepared to be so moved by the experience. I felt fractured; on the one hand, I couldn’t quite believe I was back in a theater, that I was at Cannes again after twenty one years, that I was sitting in the dark next to a stranger from another part of the world, watching a film together, and on the other hand, here was the past twenty years of my filmgoing life, unfolding before me as a sort of acknowledgement of that experience as meaningful, relevant, to be celebrated. I was quietly on the verge of tears and, as the images, rhymes, and Cousins’ soothing narration and love of cinematic ideas unfolded before me, I felt as if we had collectively arrived at a moment of truth not only for the impact of the pandemic on that sacred thing we love, but for cinema culture as a whole. 

Throughout the film, I kept thinking about what was to come at the festival this week, about how A NEW GENERATION was screening in dialogue with Cannes and its legacy and its evangelism, about how this moment would be framing everything I had yet to see, and how those films would also be in dialogue with an unseen future, with the past, an eternal reframing not only movies, but of myself. That anticipation, delivered here in the form of a retrospective from our often cruel and difficult times, felt to me like a real gift, a signpost on the never-ending search to be connected in the dark, to find one another. To breathe together again. And so, maybe, this is just my own way of coming to terms with all of these complications, with my conflicted feelings about all of it, which feels like coming home again. 

Loving & Loathing The NFL Draft

Photo by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash

Despite myself, despite it all, I love the NFL Draft.

The NFL as an entity has a million problems and reasons I cannot stand it, all of it having to do with the League, ownership, management, and especially the culture and narrative that they put out into the world. Sports are a story, tied to geography and family and childhood and team history and players, and the NFL is the biggest league of all in this country; they should be doing a much better job with all of these factors. The reason it is, and remains, hugely popular, aside from these ties that bind people to their teams and rivalries, is, I think, three-fold: 

1. The Game. Football is brutal, but it is incredibly compelling as a game in and of itself because there is so much nuance involved. The more you watch and learn, the more the game comes alive through the ways in which these nuances are illuminated for you as a viewer. Have you ever tried to explain football to a little kid? It has so many weird rules (good luck explaining Illegal Shift or covering up tackles at the line of scrimmage) and while I can no longer imagine a time when I didn’t understand football, I also think the nuances and rules are what keep people away at first, because you watch a snap, giant men smash into each other, maybe you get three yards, or an incomplete pass, or seven yards, and this makes up literally 90% of the game– there is so much to understand. But it is pretty amazing as a game in that way. So good, in fact, that the in addition to the NFL, college football– essentially the league’s farm system– is a multi-billion dollar industry of its own.  

2. The Money. Much like American capitalism, that subsidizes and protects wealth (hello, Job Creators!) while pretending to be a “free market,” the NFL is actually a socialist system masquerading as an elite capitalist system. On the one hand, the sport venerates owners, the billionaires who literally own teams and make upper management decisions within the teams, as being somehow related to the success or failure on the field to the point that they hand the Super Bowl trophy to the owner of the team. Not the team captain, the owner. On the other hand, NFL teams are franchises and so owners have all of their downside protected by the League via the salary cap (the playing field is essentially level for all teams in terms of player salaries), revenue sharing from TV, licensing, merchandise, they receive public subsidies for stadiums from which they get to personally profit, etc. There is NO risk in owning an NFL team– all you have to do is have enough money to own one and then hire good managers and acquire good players and win (not nothing, obviously), but you can also NOT do that: you can stink at the minimum expectations of ownership for generations and still make a ton of money- JUST ASK MY FELLOW LIONS FANS.

Additionally, players can make millions, participate in commercial promotions, licensing deals, etc but their downside is 100% exposed- they are one knee injury away from being out of the league for good, and while contracts have guaranteed money, that is about all a player can really plan for and count on. Still, becoming a millionaire athlete is not the worst thing for players, especially since they, unlike the owners, often come from working class backgrounds and were, in that space, the NFL remains a dream. Have I mentioned the multi-billion dollar business of gambling among fans? Or the way in which the business of football– contracts, free agency, salary caps, trades– are the story of the sport for 75% of the year? The Draft is a part of that, too, of course. Fans at once love and resent this structure- they covet successful ownership and franchises, they hate players making money when they don’t perform, they love when they get a player on a relatively cheap contract and they over perform, etc. Fans *relate* to the business of the NFL and its veneration of ownership because the the NFL, wisely, makes the transactional nature of the day to day business of football transparent as a way of distracting from the obvious truth that it is enriching owners who carry little to no risk. #Merica

3. The Storytelling. This is, for me, the lowest common denominator factor of the NFL– it is a bunch of management in suits deciding to make the story of millionaire players and billionaire owners accessible by turning the league’s “brand” and “culture” into a constant dive into simple, conservative narratives via performative patriotism. It is no wonder that a sport where the business of the game perfectly reflects the economic system of the country that loves it needs to find a way to keep the masses happy and engaged outside of the 60 minutes on the field. And full credit to them: it was successful for a long, long time. But times are shifting and changing and the NFL continues to double down on its old world values, much to my massive personal disappointment. I don’t think the NFL brass wanted the game to become politically polarized, but they have been fostering a narrative that reenforces the inequities of the American system for so long, I don’t think they even realized they were doing it until it was too late (or perhaps the word is “inconvenient”) for them– the system they reenforce is literally the one that they perpetuate in their daily cultural and business practices. The NFL has done such a good job, like America itself, of driving perception away from its true moneymaking nature (subsidizing owners, no downside protection for players, all paid for by the fans to whom they try to pander) that they can prioritize the narrative theater of performative patriotism, crucial to the brand’s storytelling and identity, instead of acknowledging the concerns of their own players and many of their fans. 

Which of course leads me to The Draft. Even though I have a very hard time watching NFL games because all of the conditions above make me very, very disappointed, the one event that really connects all three phases of the NFL’s success is the Draft- it is where the dreams of the players come true, where the work of college football to introduce us to players becomes a story merged with the hopes and dreams of the team’s fans, who see a renewal and possibility in young, talented players. It ties in the very specific, nuanced aspects of the game- why is one player better than another? What “system” does an individual team run and what available players best fit that system? And it is the perfect platform for fan empowerment in the system: we all have our ideas of who is the best “fit” for our teams, if only these jerk owners and the dumb managers they hire would just see it and draft players OUR WAY! Bad drafts define management, as do good ones- it is a referendum on our perception of our team, on the future pain or success on the field that we will endure or enjoy as fans. And for many people, there is nothing more hopeful in America than watching primarily working class kids put on a suit and become rich on live TV. Throw in interest in your college program of choice and tracking where you favorite players land, and it is really another terrific event that enhances the fan relationship to their team, and thus the game, the league, the system. The Draft has become a huge event for these reasons- if it was boring to everyone, it wouldn’t be so popular. 

For me it has one huge flaw, but not a fatal one: Sports media (and thus the League’s) fixation on “human interest” stories among the players, which unfortunately, they tie to personal hardship which, once again, reenforces the idea that players are people just like you and me who have “worked hard” and now get to be “rich” and isn’t the NFL great for making that dream come true? On the one hand, I think that is great for the players. On the other hand, the constant reminder of a kid’s dead relative or how terrible the conditions of poverty are in which they grew up or how their father is incarcerated isn’t quite telling the story they think it is; it is mirroring a broken social system the NFL’s own narrative and fiscal model perpetuate.

Still gonna watch the Draft, tho.

Hoping my #DetroitLions get:

An Offensive Tackle at Pick 7 (Sewell or Slater in that order) or trade down (looking possible).

A Wide Receiver or LB in Round 2

A Saftey or Wide Receiver in Round 3

But let’s see what happens. 

#OneYearAgo

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

One year ago today, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived as reality.

With New York City headed into lock down, and everyone panic buying toilet paper, I decided to head out to the grocery store. I stepped out of my house and the neighborhood was buzzing- lines out the door for restaurants, the outdoor patio at the bar next door full with Happy Hour Friday folks, the grocery store jammed, a huge mixed message of people stockpiling AND out and about and having a good time. Not a mask to be seen then because of the disastrous response of the government in preparing PPE for the pandemic. In fact, they had already started lying about masks in order to help secure enough masks for frontline workers, a lie whose impact would never be fully reversed.

And so, today, the second Friday in March, 2020, is the exact moment I FREAKED OUT, because it was clear I could not be safe in Park Slope. So, we packed up and headed to our small place on the shore the next day, where we stayed for six months. Jessica’s job wouldn’t re-start for six months, school went remote and we decided to stay remote, we had *just* postponed the Montclair Film Festival. Everything that was normal, stopped. Time moved on, sometimes grindingly slow, but sometimes, super fast, days piled upon days, but for all practical purposes, we are still living suspended in that moment, hanging between how we used to live and how we live now.

Soon, states were scrambling to compete with one another on the international market to get the resources they needed to fight the pandemic, because there was NO NATIONAL PLAN to stop it and, facing that devastating reality, the administration decided to pass the buck to the states and cities to manage the crisis– undermining their efforts every step of the way, confiscating PPE, outbidding states for ventilators, demanding political ass kissing in exchange for Federal support– while shamelessly denying reality and making everything much, much worse.

And so, in concert with the transformational horror of trying to figure out how to live with an invisible disease that was taking thousands of lives every day, the obvious, overwhelming trauma of the country was met with an unending stream of lies, lies intended to tamp down any dissent, any criticism, lies that defined a shamelessly criminal administration that had absolutely no plan, no response, a disdain for science, as psychopathic disregard for human life, and a relentless demand that the nation instead spend its time in fealty to bullshit. We didn’t get a chance to truly deal with what was happening to us – to properly acknowledge our reality- because we had to fight a war for the truth at the same time. That war culminated in a clownish attempt to overturn the seating of Joe Biden after his election, from lawsuits argued in the parking lot of a regional landscaping business to a mob storming an under-defended Capitol building to stop the certification of the vote. No consequences. For any of it.

Even today, one year later, the right would rather kiss the ass of a petty, tyrannical buffoon that address the massive damage they have caused. States throughout the nation are undertaking massive efforts to disenfranchise voters so that they can entrench right wing governance for a generation, and hey, I don’t know if you heard, but Texas is open to 100% capacity.

I wrote a while back about how the acknowledgement of our collective trauma MUST be the driving force in healing the country, but here we are, a 1.9 trillion relief bill barely passes without a single Republican vote. There is no one held to account. The Biden administration has turned the tide with the vaccine roll out, and yet, barely a nod toward accountability.

Here we are, one year later, likely still a few months away from some semblance of collective safety, and we remain voiceless, hoping for our collective health. We have barely had the chance to grieve, so many of us have held so much inside, gritting our teeth for one year, waiting for our collective reality to be properly acknowledged, for justice for this absolute fiasco. #OneYearAgo

Book Review: HITLER: DOWNFALL 1939-45

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Tonight, I finished the second part of Volker Ullrich’s incredible biography of Hitler. I finished Volume I: ASCENT 1889-1939 last April, and had to wait until this past fall to get my hands on Volume II: DOWNFALL 1939-45. Both volumes are very different; the first focuses on the political rise of Hitler and the NSDAP (Nazi party) and the second covers Hitler’s day-to-day management of the “war of annihilation” that was WWII. As such, this book is a parade of delusional expectations that almost came true, and a never-ending carousel of military leadership changes, dumb decisions, lies, self-deceptions, and, most troubling, an arms-length distance to the absolute insanity of incalculable human loss.

The book wisely refuses to spend time psychoanalyzing Hitler (let me summarize: psychopath), and instead presents his actions within the social and historical framework in which they took place, with a strong understanding of the man’s duplicity and performative nature as being less symptomatic of some personality disorder and more a toolset deployed, consciously, to manipulate his allies and enemies. The book’s approach makes sense, because as a leader focused on the tactics and strategy of waging war, the tangible, physical reality of the regime’s previously unimaginable crimes were kept at a psychological remove in his life- and so they are in this book. He believed every action was justified, and while Ullrich details those justifications and gives them much needed context, it would be useless to read chapter after chapter with the author arguing with Hitler’s self-justifications. At the same time, it would also be immoral to present them without challenge, so the book does a great job of balancing these impulses and questions.

We stay with Hitler and his routines, travel, and the palace intrigues that he enabled. Huge catastrophes like the Battle of Stalingrad, D Day, and The Battle of The Bulge are covered, but this book is not a book about the individuals on the battlefields, executing the tactics on the ground, although we learn a LOT on a macro, tactical level about how the German Army (aka The Wehrmacht) won or lost battles. No, this is a book about a psychopathic, racist, fanatical anti-semite whose prejudices informed the disaster he made, always blaming others for failure and taking personal credit for success. In that way, it’s a bit of a hard read, because the man was an absolutely giant, self-satisfied asshole, and you get a heavy dose of that, alongside the groveling fealty of men like Joseph Goebbels, whose diaries frame much of the book(s).

There is a powerful section on the Holocaust, which is the scaffolding of the entire book for me, and which frames the massive crimes of not just the SS and the concentration camps, but the extrajudicial murder that, once normalized, was committed by all of the German forces in the Soviet Union, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and beyond. The unfathomable civilian and extrajudicial murder is discussed as being Hitler’s responsibility but also mentions there is no documented “direct order” from Hitler to enact the mechanics of the Holocaust because, as the book makes plain, his stance was de facto in favor of it, and his underlings knew it was what he wanted. In this way, despite innumerable mentions of “a solution to Jewish question,” the unconscionable act of genocide seems to have had little impact on Hitler’s psyche; his entire plan relied upon the death and removal of millions of people from Eastern Europe.

And so, faced with confronting the reality of the Holocaust, if there is one man about whom I wish the book had more to say, it is Heinrich Himmler, who, despite remaining somewhat elusive in the books, was an absolute piece of shit. I could have used more about the mechanics of his actions, but since he was involved in so many massive crimes, many of them undocumented by the official accounts of the regime, I’ll need to figure out how I can find out more and digest the idea of learning more about him.

I was interested in reading these books to give context to the past and to the present and I have to say, I cannot recommend them enough. Combined, not even counting the footnotes, it is a massive read, but I learned a ton I did not know and feel like I have a much better understanding of the era, of the scale of horrors in Europe leading up to and during WWII. What really resonated for me was learning more about The Red Army of the Soviet Union, who essentially saved the world through an absolutely unbelievable amount of sacrifice and loss.

Anyway, I wanted to document why reading these brilliantly written books about so much horror felt necessary, and why, during the pandemic and the second half of the Trumpist years, they gave me so much to consider. So, I’ll end this long post that likely no one is reading, with the final sentences of Volume II:
Hitler will remain a cautionary example for all time. If his life and career teach us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilizing forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism; how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended and some people are granted unlimited power over the lives of others.

Bravo to Volker Ullrich for an unforgettable reading experience.

Trauma

Photo by Taras Chernus on Unsplash

As the United States moves into a new era of governance with a divided Congress and a new Presidential administration under Joe Biden, calls for unity and moving on from the era of Trumpism have reached a fever pitch. The desperation among many for the normalcy of moderate government in the aftermath of the unconscionable catastrophe of the Trump presidency is, in many ways, an understandable reaction to the collective trauma with which we now must grapple; Joe Biden has built his campaign and his self-managed transition on the idea of the nation “coming together as Americans.”  But while nostalgia for a principled, unified past as the basis for future progress is superficially comforting, the reality of the moment demands something else entirely: a reconciliation with the very hard truth that through deep systemic failure, our nation gave near-absolute power to an unqualified, narcissistic, criminal sociopath and, true to his brutal, self-interested nature, he set about the task of dismantling our society, fracturing it into a million pieces. Our ideals are now a broken mirror, shards that reflect deep, longstanding problems which demand redress.

When we think about trauma, we often resort to our understanding of the psychological impacts of violence, repression, and targeting on individuals, a subjective experience based on their personal relationship to the trauma inflicted, wherein the experiences of black men will be different from immigrant children will be different from transwomen and men, etc. Each individual action of repression has a profound impact on each individual person and in this way, our collective ability to deal with the consequences of Trumpism, an ongoing, emboldened cultural identity that only two weeks ago inspired a violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, will require specific action that begins-and only begins- with accountability for those responsible.

But with Trump’s intentional, disastrous failure at dealing with COVID-19 demanding a massive amount of time, money, and social will, there is a real fear that the need to finally confront the pandemic will supersede the necessary reckoning with trauma not only for individuals who have suffered, but for our nation. Already, Republican Trumpist collaborators are threatening that any attempt to bring consequences to bear on those responsible for this sustained attack on our democracy should be rejected in the name of “national healing“, an idea that stands more as a threat than a call for reconciliation. But American needs a bigger, better idea; Trumpism must be systematically dismantled and removed, without compromise, from every legitimate corner of American politics, because Trumpism has proven itself to be wholly incompatible with democracy.

The well-documented phenomenon of social amnesia is a real concern, the “result of ‘forcible repression’ of memories, ignorance, changing circumstances, or the forgetting that comes from changing interests.” The battle for how we remember, process, understand, and overcome the trauma of Trumpism will define how we triumph over it. The first and most crucial step in the formalization of post-traumatic collective memory is to invest in transparency and truth. Troublingly, the failure of the state to restrain Trumpism will require those responsible for this failure to expose their own shortcomings. We know how that will likely go.

Transparency begins with Joe Biden, and yet his calls for unity and the focus on his agenda has frustratingly ignored the lingering impact of the trauma of the Trumpist years. Biden has laughed off Trump and ignored every ridiculous indignity, instead focusing on building his own transition process with seriousness and determination. And though sustaining a transition while an unstable President completely unravels into a pile of self-pitying inaction may be a survival tactic to carry the nation to Inauguration Day, Biden’s refusal to take the need for consequences seriously, his laughing disdain for Trumpist theatrics, feels like one more dismissal of our shared trauma. I’m not sure he understands how deeply the nation has been injured. We need to be heard, to be understood, and to share in the validation and legitimization of our experience. After years of gaslighting and the demolition of belief in the ability of our institutions to stand up to their debasement at the hands of Trump, we need more than just the truth; we must demand that our shared experience is validated and, most importantly, we must see vindication for our belief that our system is still capable of delivering equal justice under the law.

Depending on how the next few months go, how much information is made public and how many crimes go unremarked upon, Biden’s failure to acknowledge the nation’s wounds could be a destructive, foundational mistake that seeks to appease a movement hell-bent on establishing authoritarian, antidemocratic power in the hands of Trumpist Republicans.  As Trump’s disingenuous claims of “election fraud” have ricocheted through public life, the climactic lie of a years-long assault on truth without a single meaningful consequence, the scope of the challenge facing the nation remains daunting; the very freedoms upon which we define our nation have been weaponized and turned against us by a movement that sees freedom solely as a lack of consequence and restraint for powerful Trumpists. And now that institutional power has somehow survived the assault and miraculously shifted, Trumpists are asking us to put the past aside, to forget and move on. Joe Biden seems to want the same.

This would, of course, be a catastrophic mistake. Our collective survival and healing depends on not forgetting. We must  remember everything,  we must not let to go. We must instead experience the catharsis of justice.