Archive for February, 2019

2019 Oscars

I’ve seen all but two of the films in the top categories. The list of nominees is here. I have posts on three: Vice and a single one on Bohemian Rhapsody & A Star Is Born. As for the others, here are my brief takes:

BlacKkKlansman: It’s about time Spike Lee got some Oscar nominations. This is his best film in years—I have admittedly not seen his entire œuvre but know I haven’t missed any masterpieces—indeed since ‘Do the Right Thing’ (which should not only have been nominated for best picture that year but also won it). I did enjoy ‘Inside Man’ and ‘Summer of Sam’ but these were popcorn movies, not political. This one is good, entertaining, and with a worthy message—seen at the end, with the commentary on the present day (Charlottesville, etc)—though not equal to the aforementioned ‘Do the Right Thing’. I hadn’t heard of Ron Stallworth before seeing the film, let alone know of his audacious operation against the Klan. Great material for a screenplay. On this score, I actually had a few issues with Spike Lee, as he takes a four year story—Stallworth joining the Colorado Springs police department in 1975 and infiltrating the Klan in precisely 1979—and compresses it into a single year, and 1972 at that (the year is not mentioned in the film but it’s pretty obvious, as one sees Nixon reelection campaign posters and with the Vietnam War still going). Directors invariably take liberties with the historical record when making a film about real-life events, which is okay so long as there are no egregious or flagrant errors. Spike Lee does not go over the line here but there were still a number of little anachronisms and unlikelihoods that I noted. E.g. police departments, particularly in conservative towns like Colorado Springs, were thoroughly racist in the early ’70s and did not set out to hire blacks until well into the decade, once affirmative action was instituted (and none would have allowed a beat cop to wear an afro); David Duke was not a KKK member in ’72 and Stokely Charmichael was in “exile” in Guinea that year (FYI, he spoke at my college in the fall of ’74 and the audience was mostly white, whereas in the film there is no white in sight at Charmichael’s event); answering machines were rare at the time and the model one sees in the film did not exist then. And then there’s the black student militant and love interest of Stallworth—played by the rather beautiful Laura Harrier—who talked too much like a white person from an educated family (not that there weren’t educated Afro-Americans back then but they didn’t talk like white people among themselves). Her character would make more sense today than in the 1970s. I may be buggering flies here (French expression) and do know that most people don’t care about these things—when they even notice them—but am just sayin’. And one other thing, as pointed out by Howard University communications professor and Huffpost columnist Natalie Hopkinson: Spike Lee is too nice to the police. He cuts them way too much slack. There’s only one outright racist cop among Stallworth’s colleagues, whereas in real life there would have been far more (if not practically all of them). And Klansmen of the time (as in the past and present), whom Lee depicts as bumbling low-IQ losers, were dangerous people and nothing to laugh about. All this said, it’s still a good film and should be seen. And if it wins the Oscar, that will be fine.

Green Book: Just about everyone I know—particularly in France—thinks this one is wonderful, as it is both an amusing—and ultimately gratifying—interracial buddy film but which also reminds us yet again of what a thoroughly wretched place the Jim Crow American South was. I gave it the thumbs up myself after seeing it. I do go for impeccably reenacted period pieces, particularly of historical periods of my youth. And having learned about the Negro Motorist Green Book in the last few years, this hook was of particular interest (and I’ll see any film on race in the US that receives halfway decent reviews). On this, the film disappointed somewhat—the actual Green Book was not its main subject (but is in a new documentary)—but still. I thought Viggo Mortensen was great in his role as Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, as was Mahershala Ali as Donald Shirley. But then a faithful AWAV reader (French) sent me an email about how much he hated the film, shredding it for, among many other things, the superficial and caricatured manner in which it dealt with the grave subject of Jim Crow and the violence that was consubstantial with this. I thought his critique a little strong but the points were well taken. And we both agreed that certain scenes did not ring true, e.g. the Memphis YMCA incident; in real life at that time, Shirley would not have made it out of there in one piece. My AWAV reader followed up in emailing me a critique in the NYT by Oklahoma State University philosophy professor Lawrence Ware, “How ‘Green Book’ gives short shrift to a gay life.” And then a stateside friend with expert knowledge on race in the US—who has avoided seeing the film, as he fears the worst—sent me two must-read pieces on the pic. One is by NYT arts critic-at-large Wesley Morris, “Why do the Oscars keep falling for racial reconciliation fantasies?” The lede: “In many Oscar bait movies, interracial friendships come with a paycheck, and follow the white character’s journey to enlightenment.” Morris’s dissection and dismantling of the Hollywood interracial buddy movie is thorough. The other article is by the Shadow and Act website’s managing editor Brooke C. Obie, “How ‘Green Book’ and the Hollywood machine swallowed Donald Shirley whole,” in which she details the many fictions and inaccuracies of Peter Farrelly’s film—e.g. the relationship between Vallelonga and Shirley did not, in fact, evolve into a veritable friendship—and the vociferous objections of Donald Shirley’s family to the making of the film when they learned how it was going to depict him (the family was not consulted at any point by Farrelly or Vallelonga’s son, Nick, who co-wrote and co-produced it). After reading these critiques, I’ve had to revise my assessment of ‘Green Book’ downward. If Mortensen or Ali win Oscars for their performances, that will be fine (particularly Ali), but not the film itself. [UPDATE: L.A. Times critic Justin Chang has a slash-and-burn post-Oscars piece, “Oscars 2019: ‘Green Book’ is the worst best picture winner since ‘Crash’.”] [2nd UPDATE: NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers has a brilliant, hilarious satire, “White Savior,” of the way Hollywood depicts race relations, as in movies like ‘Green Book’.]

Black Panther: I don’t think there’s been a film in the history of my Facebook news feed over which so much virtual ink has been spilled, notably by gauchiste academics, intellos, and other engagé types. Lefties seemed to like it on the whole and find it entertaining, though assessments of its putative political subtext varied, with, e.g., one Über-gauchiste academic friend, in critiquing the “heroic role by the CIA,” deplored the fictitious Wakandia’s “complicit[y] with US imperial designs…” Lefty suspicions will indeed not have been allayed by the effusive praise of the film in Breitbart, whose critic favorably compared King T’Challa (the Black Panther) to Donald Trump. Sans blague. As I’ve never read a Marvel comic in my life, know nothing of its stories and characters, and quite simply do not bother with such movies, I would not have considered seeing this one had it not been for the buzz in my socio-political-professional milieu and the putative political themes people were reading into the pic. So I saw it, last March. It was entertaining enough, even fun, but overrated, And I deemed that gauchistes and others were seriously over-interpreting it, sometimes laughably so. I archived some twenty-five analyses of the film from various publications and websites, with the view to writing a full post on it, but finally didn’t. Pourquoi faire? Life is too short. As for interpreting the film politically, one friend remarked that it represents “a great triumph of (black) capitalism,” with me submitting that none of the analyses and gauchiste commentaries I’d seen noted that Wakandia was a rentier state—a Dubai in the savanna—that got rich because of a natural resource (the magical vibranium). And the only Wakandians we see are the royal family and its praetorian guard. A People’s Republic Wakandia is not.

The Favourite: I saw this last Tuesday evening, at a multiplex in the center of Paris. The large salle was packed, signifying strong word-of-mouth. I have tended to avoid Yórgos Lánthimos’s films, finding them odd, but as this one was nominated for a slew of top Oscars, I wasn’t going to miss it. A friend later asked me to describe it with just one word. My response: loufoque (zany, wacky, crazy). It’s a black comedy. If one doesn’t know, it’s set in 1708 in the court of the wacky, zany Anne, Queen of Great Britain, and with a bevy of wacky, zany characters. What drives it, though, is the three lead female characters: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), and Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz). They’re terrific—it’s a collective acting tour de force—and the movie is engaging, so I do not regret seeing it, au contraire. I will henceforth be more open to Lánthimos’s films.

Roma: I had to see this on Netflix, as it could not debut theatrically in France in view of French legislation—that imposes a four month delay before movies can go from the cinema to VOD—which was too bad, as it’s a film that should ideally be seen on a wide screen. But better my 42″ flat screen than nothing. The only thing I’ll say about it is that it’s very impressive and on every level: technically beautiful, very well acted, and with a strong, compelling story (of a slice of director Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood in Mexico City, though without him being the protag). I will willingly watch it again. For more on the film, I refer readers to Alma Guillermoprieto’s review in The New York Review of Books—growing up herself in Mexico City at the same general time, it hit close to home for her—and Anthony Lane’s in The New Yorker. If you’ve seen ‘Roma’ and maybe have a reservation or two about it, these reviews will put them to rest.

And then there are these, with nominations in the best acting categories:

The Wife: I’m not going to say much about this one, which I saw in the US last month with my mother, who’s 88, has written a lengthy review of it on her blog, and to which I refer the reader. Just three things. First, Glenn Close carries the film. Her performance is a tour de force, in the absence of which the film would have likely not been nominated for any awards. Second, Glenn Close was too old for the role she was playing. She was 71 when the movie was made and looks it, but when her husband, Joe Castleman (actor Jonathan Pryce), wins the Nobel Prize for literature, in 1992, she could not have been over 56, as she met him as an undergraduate at Smith College in 1958—the dates are flashed on the screen—when he was her professor. And when he won the Nobel, he would have been in his mid 60s—some ten years his wife Joan’s senior—except that Pryce is the same age as Close but looks older. So the ages are way off for both of them, but particularly Close. But critics seem not to have to picked up on this, nor a couple of friends who’ve seen it (the film has curiously gone directly to a streaming service in France, which means that almost no one here will see it). Director Björn Runge could have made them up to look a little younger but maybe he didn’t think of it either. Third, sexism and the (very low) glass ceiling is a leitmotif, with Joan, we learn, a far superior writer to her future Nobel laureate husband Joe, but who sacrificed a career as a writer and in publishing, and gave all to Joe, working in the shadows to advance his fame, and with him basking in the glory and accolades, all while cheating on her right and left. But was this fated to happen? Was she condemned to this subservient role given the ambient sexism of the era? Seeing the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg afterward, who is about three years older than Joan would have been, one wonders, as RBG forged ahead career-wise malgré tout, and ended up we know where. Likewise with one of my professors in graduate school, also older than Joan would have been but never played second fiddle to her accomplished husband and was a major figure in American political science. Joan, as one sees in the latter part of the film, blows a fuse and decides to even the score with her jerk Nobel laureate husband. Too bad she didn’t do so far earlier, as she could have.

If Beale Street Could Talk: Barry Jenkins’s previous film, ‘Moonlight’, was a chef d’œuvre, which any sentient person will readily second. This one may not be that but is still quite good. The cinematography and atmospherics are very Barry Jenkinesque, as is the pacing. And the young couple, Fonny and Tish (Stephan James and KiKi Layne), moved me with their unbending love (a US friend sniffed that they were an “insipid Ken and Barbie couple” but that’s too harsh). And Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King, Best Supporting Actress nominee), is first rate in the role. The film’s value, above all, is in the depiction of the Kafkaesque judicial nightmare which Fonny got ensnared in, which was almost the rule for young black males in the 1970s, when the film takes  place, not to mention afterward (or before, of course), and which wrecked his life, i.e. in sending him to prison for seven years for a crime he didn’t commit. It may not have been director Jenkins’s intention but the film is, entre autres, an indictment of the American judicial practice of plea bargaining, which is happily non-existent in legal systems underpinned by Napoleonic or other such codes. The scene of Fonny’s interface with the cop in Greenwich Village is also bone-chilling. Another reminder of the shit black men in America have had to put up with….

My choices:

As this is not an American film or even in English, it should by all rights not be in this category, but it is and is by far the best of the eight nominees. If not ‘Roma’, then ‘The Favourite’ or ‘A Star Is Born’.

For his lifetime œuvre, not the film (BlacKkKlansman) for which he’s nominated. If not Lee, then Alfonso Cuarón (Roma).

BEST ACTOR: Christian Bale in ‘Vice’.
He killed it as Dick Cheney. Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) is second. Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) is acceptable but absolutely not Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody). Don’t know about Willem Defoe, as I haven’t yet seen ‘At Eternity’s Gate’.

BEST ACTRESS: Glenn Close in ‘The Wife’.
A no-brainer and despite the age thing I discussed above. Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born) and Olivia Colman (The Favourite) are second ex æquo. Yalitza Aparicio (Roma) would be an edgy choice. Can’t speak about Melissa McCarthy, as ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ has not yet opened in France.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Mahershala Ali in ‘Green Book’.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Regina King in ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’.
All the nominees are equally good, actually.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: ‘Cold War’ (Poland) and ‘Shoplifters’ (Japan) ex æquo.
Only if ‘Roma’ doesn’t win best picture (in which case it should this). ‘Capernaum’ (Lebanon) is not a good film. Don’t know ‘Never Look Back’ (Germany).

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2019 César awards

[update below]

France’s Oscars. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday)—two days before the US Academy Awards, as always—at the Salle Pleyel (in the 8th arrondissement). The full list of nominees is here. Leading with ten nominations each are ‘Le Grand Bain’ (Sink or Swim) and ‘Jusqu’à la garde’ (Custody), followed by nine for ‘The Sisters Brothers’ and ‘En liberté!’ (The Trouble with You), eight for ‘La douleur’ (Memoir of War), seven for ‘Pupille’ (In Safe Hands), and six each for ‘Guy’ and ‘Mademoiselle de Joncquières’. I’ve seen most of the films in the top categories. I’ll eventually have separate posts on some of the nominees—the best of them—but, in the meantime, here’s a brief mention of a few.

Le Grand Bain (Sink or Swim), directed by Gilles Lellouche. This was the huge hit comedy in France of the fall—indeed the year—that packed the salles (4.3 million tix sold, i.e. a mega-hit), which the critics (French)—at one with the masses—loved to boot, and that has consequently been nominated for a slew of Césars, including Best Film, Best Director, and four in the supporting acting categories. The pic, with its ensemble cast of A-list actors and actresses (Guillaume Canet and the overexposed Mathieu Amalric play the lead roles), tells the tale of seven sad sacks in their 40s and 50s who are down on their luck—divorced, unemployed, going nowhere in their lives, and/or just washed out, over the hill, and/or out of it—who join a club to train for a synchronized swimming championship in Norway—why not?—where they will represent the French nation, i.e. they will be the national team of France. Sans blague. They’re all out of shape and have never synchronized swam in their lives—some barely know how to swim at all—mais peu importe. Two slave-driving female coaches (Virginie Efira, Leïla Bekhti), who have life issues themselves, set out to whip them into shape. There is no hint that the seven slobs can perform at any level when they arrive at the tournament in Norway, but lo and behold—SPOILER ALERT!—they put on a performance worthy of Olympic champions. Comme ça. The whole movie is a buildup to the crowd-pleasing denouement. Of course. It is, as I read afterwards, a French ‘The Full Monty’ (a film that I have never seen, believe it or not). I think one has to be culturally French from a young age—or just have a sense of humor and taste in comedies different from mine—to appreciate the pic and find it funny, as I simply did not. I mean, it’s okay and all, but nothing more. I may have smiled at a couple of points but no chuckles, let alone gros rires. On this, the handful of US critics who’ve seen it largely share my view. But it will surely win its share of Césars and a Hollywood remake goes without saying.

En liberté! (The Trouble with You), directed by Pierre Salvadori. This one, nominated for Best Film and Best Director, is also a comedy, of the madcap variety. French critics loved it (US critics liked), with audiences rating it not bad to good. The story: Yvonne (Adèle Haenel, Best Actress nominee)—a police inspector in a seaside town near Marseille—suddenly learns that her beloved cop husband, Captain Jean Santi, who was heroically killed in the line of duty two years earlier, was not the squeaky clean, upright police officer of integrity that she believed him to be but rather a sleazy, corrupt ripou, and who had sent an innocent man, Antoine (Pio Marmai, Best Actor nominee), to prison eight years earlier no less. Horrified by the discovery, she sets out to make amends to Antoine upon his release, first via his wife, Agnès (Audrey Tautou, Best Supporting Actress nominee), and with crazy stuff ensuing, and with Yvonne’s colleague, Louis (Damien Bonnard, Best Supporting Actor nominee), who’s secretly in love with her, complicating the situation. The pic does have some amusing scenes—particularly its running gag (repeated several times), in which Yvonne theatrically recounts, and with embellishment, a bedtime story to her young son of one of his father’s/her husband’s more spectacular exploits in catching bad guys—but I found the plot overly complex and confusing. I struggled at times to figure out what was going on. So my verdict is mixed.

The Sisters Brothers, directed by Jacques Audiard. The only thing French about this one is the director, qui n’est pas le moindre d’ailleurs. It’s otherwise 100% American—based on the eponymous 2011 novel by Patrick deWitt—set in the Old West (Oregon and California)—though shot in Spain—during the late 1840s Gold Rush, about two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters (John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix), who are professional killers, both cold blooded—though the latter more than the former, who sometimes has a conscience—and who are hired to track down and eliminate a fortune seeker named John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), but who continually throws them off the scent. It’s well-done, the cast is great, and is thoroughly entertaining but if director Audiard was seeking to convey a message, it escaped me, as I gave the film no thought after leaving the theater (except to recount the spider scene to my arachnophobic wife and daughter)..

Nos batailles (Our Struggles), directed by Guillaume Senez. Olivier (Romain Duris, Best Actor nominee) is a foreman at a big e-commerce warehouse in a town near Lyon, with wife and children, and a normal-looking working class life. And he’s a union delegate, investing time at work defending the interests of fellow workers vis-à-vis management. A good man. But one day his wife vanishes, leaving a note saying she’s taken off, though offering no explanation. She occasionally sends a post card to the family saying she’s fine, though doesn’t say where she is. And that’s that; she’s never seen again. So Olivier is left to raise two young children alone, getting help from his supportive sister and mother, but still having to assume the big responsibility in addition to his day job and union activities. And that’s the film. Critics (French and American) and audiences alike gave it the thumbs way up. But not me. The film certainly has merit but the wife’s disappearance—and, above all, leaving her children—for no apparent rhyme or reason bothered me. Mothers/wives who are overwhelmed with family responsibilities do sometimes blow a fuse and take off for a stretch of time (as, e.g., depicted in the excellent 2017 Georgian film My Happy Family), or seriously contemplate doing so. People need to take a breather and have their own space. But a mother definitively abandoning her children and going incommunicado requires minimal explanation, but which the pic does not give. This is a flaw IMHO. I am, however, clearly in a minority in my mixed feelings about the film..

Un amour impossible (An Impossible Love), directed by Catherine Corsini. I’m in a minority on this one as well, which critics (French and US/UK) and audiences praised mais pas moi. It’s an adaptation of the eponymous, autobiographical 2015 novel by the well-known, très médiatisé writer Christine Angot, whom I personally think is a nutter and a flake. The story, which spans five decades, begins in the 1950s in Châteauroux, where Rachel (Virginie Efira, Best Actress nominee), a secretary from a modest background, meets Philippe, a young litterateur from an upper bourgeois Parisian family. They have a torrid affair—Rachel being beautiful, thus Philippe’s attraction to her—and with a child, named Chantal (Christine Angot, in effect), being the outcome, though Philippe will not a marry Rachel, as, for him, the social class gap (and certain parental objection) is insurmountable. So mother (with help from mamie) raises daughter alone—and with the two naturally being extremely close—though Philippe shows up in Châteauroux every once in a blue moon, to check in on Rachel and Chantal. Rachel, who’s had other prospects, inexplicably remains in love with him for years and never marries. When Chantal becomes a teen and with a literary streak, she seeks out a closer relationship with her absent father and vice-versa, spending time chez lui in Paris. He’s finally becoming the responsible, attentive father, or so it seems, and that she so yearned for. And then everything goes off the rails, as it is ultimately revealed that he has been sexually abusing her, and which exacts its lasting psychological toll, with Chantal, into her 30s, taking the whole thing out on her mother, with whom she breaks off relations. I have no idea what specifically happened to Angot—though could probably inform myself by reading her books and accounts, which I have no intention of doing—but something in this part of the movie didn’t add up, particularly with Chantal’s sudden rejection of her mother, who, at least as far as she’s portrayed in the film, was attentive, loving, and could not be reproached for what happened with the father (except, perhaps, for having maintained a link with him). So I left the theater with mixed feelings. But again, that’s me.

Les Chatouilles (Little Tickles), directed by Andréa Bescond and Eric Métayer. Voilà another movie, this nominated for Best First Film, about sexual abuse of minors, here outright pedophilia, based on co-director—and professional dancer—Bescond’s autobiographical one-woman play. The film goes back and forth between protag Odette as an eight-year-old who wants nothing more than to be a ballerina, and her as a professional dancer in her 20s (Bescond plays the role here), and her trauma of the sexual abuse she sustained as a child by close family friend Gilbert (Pierre Deladonchamps), often when her parents, Fabrice (Clovis Cornillac, Best Supporting Actor nominee) and Mado (Karin Viard, Best Supporting Actress nominee), were in close proximity or had confined Odette to Gilbert’s care (the chatouilles, or little tickles, of the title is what Gilbert told Odette he was doing to her). Adult Odette has Gilbert prosecuted and confronts her parents about their implicit responsibility, as Gilbert was their good, trusted friend. Father Fabrice accepts it—expressing contrition at having seen nothing, or not wanted to—but mother Mado defensively refuses to, going so far to imply that maybe Odette was, at age eight, at least partly culpable, that perhaps she egged Gilbert on. We know that this does happen in real life, that some mothers simply will not be held to account for the sexual abuse sustained by their daughter at the hands of a family member or friend, and practically under their eyes. Reviews of the pic were good, including in the Hollywood press. I go with the general consensus. The film ends with a reminder to the audience that a significant percentage of children—mostly girls, of course—are victims of sexual abuse and that proactive action against the perpetrators must be taken. Bien évidemment.

Amanda, directed by Mikhael Hers. This one is about an early twentysomething named David (Vincent Lacoste, Best Actor nominee), who lives in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, makes a living doing odd jobs, and often helps out his older schoolteacher sister, Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), with her seven-year-old daughter (and David’s niece), Amanda (Isaure Multrier), with childcare, as there’s no father in the picture or, for David and Sandrine, a mother (who lives in London and hasn’t seen them in ages; this estrangement later being explained, unlike in ‘Nos batailles’). But then tragedy hits, when Sandrine is killed in a terrorist attack on picnickers in the Bois de Vincennes, and with David’s new companion, the very attractive Léna (Stacy Martin), seriously injured (the attack obviously recalls what Paris experienced on November 13, 2015). So in addition to the devastation of losing his sister, David now has to inform Amanda of what happened, to help her try to comprehend it and traverse the stages of grief, but, above all, to take full responsibility for her—to adopt her, in effect, as she is orphaned—but for which he is neither psychologically nor financially ready. He has to grow up and fast. It’s a well-done, understated film. Reviews were very good, both French and US/UK, and it did respectably at the box office.

Sauvage (Wild), directed by Camille Vidal-Naquet. Here’s a description culled from the web: “Léo (Félix Maritaud) is 22 and sells his body on the street for a bit of cash. The men come and go, and he stays put… longing for love. He doesn’t know what the future will bring. He stays on the streets. His heart is pounding…” The backdrop of this one, which is nominated for Best First Film, is the underworld of gay street prostitution, which is as glauque as one imagines it to be (as with any kind of prostitution). I’ve seen gay-themed films that are borderline hard (e.g. the first-rate L’inconnu du lac) but this is particularly so, with scenes that are downright pornographic. And violent: not in the blood-and-gore sense but in the interactions among that substratum of gay men. The pic will inevitably be seen almost exclusively by LGBTQs, though may certainly be by others (US/UK reviews are good, BTW). And à propos, I will rate it above Christophe Honoré’s well-received gay-themed Plaire, aimer et courir vite (Sorry Angel), which, with due respect to the good US/UK reviews, left me indifferent,

BEST FILM: Pupille.
This, about the adoption of a baby at birth and the manifold complexities entailed, was the best French film of 2018. Runners-up are the excellent Jusqu’à la garde—about a child custody battle between two divorced parents—and Guy, a mockumentary about a fictitious, over-the-hill crooner in his 70s. ‘The Sisters Brothers’: No. ‘En liberté!’: No! ‘Le Grand Bain’: Inconceivable. I have yet to see La douleur, but which I cannot imagine would finish ahead of the top three above.

BEST DIRECTOR: Alex Lutz for ‘Guy’.
Most of the others are worthy but Lutz should get it for conceiving this original film.

BEST ACTOR: Alex Lutz in ‘Guy’.
Lutz is not even 40 but makes himself up to look like he’s in his 70s. He totally pulls off the role. All of the nominees are good and worthy. This is a strong category this year.

BEST ACTRESS: Cécile de France in Mademoiselle de Joncquières.
She’s stellar in this marvelous 18th century romantic drama. Sandrine Kiberlain, whom I love, is also great in ‘Pupille’ and Adèle Haenel (En liberté!) is excellent in any role she plays (even if the movie in question may not be). A strong category.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Philippe Katerine in ‘Le Grand Bain’.
This is a coin flip with Jean-Hugues Anglade in the same pic, as the other three nominees did not have significant enough roles to merit any award. A weak category this year.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Virginie Efira in ‘Le Grand Bain’.
This is by default, as none of the others deserve it. I normally love Leïla Bekhti but couldn’t stand her surly, insufferable role in ‘Le Grand Bain’. Isabelle Adjani in the trivial ‘Le monde est à toi’ (The World Is Yours) is utterly unremarkable. As for Karin Viard (Les chatouilles) and Audrey Tautou (En liberté!), they’ve had stronger roles. Also a weak category this year.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Dylan Robert in Shéhérazade.
William Lebghil in ‘Première année’ (The Freshman) is also good.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Ophélie Bau in Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno.
Abdellatif Kechiche has launched the careers of several A-list actresses (Sara Forestier, Hafsia Herzi, Adèle Exarchopoulos) and will likely do so for Ophélie Bau. One takes note of the pretty Lily-Rose Depp—whose father is a somewhat well-known American actor—in Louis Garrel’s otherwise forgettable ‘L’homme fidèle’ (A Faithful Man). Likewise Kenza Fortas in the not forgettable ‘Shéhérazade’.

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Jusqu’à la garde’.
If this one wins Best Film—for which it is also nominated—then let it be ‘Shéhérazade’. If L’amour flou wins, I will be scandalized.

BEST FOREIGN FILM: ‘Cold War’ and ‘Une affaire de famille’ (Shoplifters) ex æquo.
If the hugely overrated ‘Capharnaüm’ wins, I will moan and groan.

UPDATE: ‘Jusqu’à la garde’ won best film (deserved), Jacques Audiard best director (inevitable), Alex Lutz best actor (totally deserved), Léa Drucker best actress for her role in ‘Jusqu’à la garde’ (she was good, so yes). ‘Shéhérazade’, about Maghrebi-origin Marseille teenagers at the bottom of the heap, won best first film plus most promising actor and actress (great!). Variety’s report is here.

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‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, as everyone knows, has been a huge hit since its release 3½ months ago—in the US (making over $200M), France (where it’s had 4.3 million box office entrées—which is a lot—and is still playing in several Paris theaters), and elsewhere—and despite the decidedly mixed reviews (French ones were a little more positive than American). And now the pic—and notably lead actor Rami Malek—is winning a slew of awards (Golden Globes and BAFTA, among others) and has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

As a film, I thought it was okay. I had never been a big fan of Queen and probably wouldn’t have bothered with the pic had it not been for my wife, who has long been a Queen fan and was thus eager to see it. I almost entirely associated Queen with its stadium chant songs—’Another One Bites the Dust’, ‘We Will Rock You’—not to mention the inevitable ‘We Are the Champions’—played endlessly after Les Bleus’ 1998 World Cup victory—and which everyone’s heard a hundred thousand times. Learning about the history of the group and particularly lead singer Freddie Mercury (né Farrokh Bulsara)—e.g. I didn’t know he was a Parsi from Zanzibar and who arrived in England only in his late teens—was interesting enough (though the film, one reads, is riddled with historical inaccuracies and untruths). To be honest, I didn’t even remember that Mercury was gay and had died of AIDS in 1991. There are indeed gaps in my musical culture générale. If the film had merit in filling this cultural gap, both my wife and I felt that Rami Malek’s performance was its weakest part—that he’s not a very good actor—and are somewhat incredulous that he’s winning all these best acting awards—and may well win the big one at next Sunday’s Academy Awards. Va savoir.

Continuing with the film’s merit in filling my cultural gap, seeing it prompted me to review Queen’s musical œuvre and reassess my prior view. And I have to say, my assessment has moved up several notches. Queen was indeed a great concert band—with Mercury one hell of a stage performer—and had some very good songs. The film appropriately ends with a reenactment of the June 1985 Live Aid concert, with Queen’s performance ranked in one music industry poll as the greatest live act ever. No less (watch it here; it is indeed something). I also rediscovered ‘Under Pressure’, which Mercury created with David Bowie in 1981. What a great, fantastic, totally excellent song! Check it out in this YouTube mix of Mercury and Bowie (they actually never did perform on stage together).

So yeah, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, a merely okay movie, is indeed worth seeing. I’m certainly glad I did.

Another recent music-themed movie I’m glad I saw—though had planned to from the outset—is ‘A Star Is Born’, the reviews of which were decidedly superior to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the US and good in France. And it was naturally a box office hit (2 million entrées in France). As it’s the fourth remake of the film, or something like that, everyone knows the story. What to say, it’s entertaining, well-acted—Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are tops—and with very good music. The soundtrack deserves every award it will receive. We (my daughter, her bf, and I) enjoyed it. Lady Gaga is a great chanteuse—that we know—but we were impressed to learn that Cooper did indeed sing his songs too. Pas mal. Voilà, c’est tout ce que j’ai à dire sur le film.

On the subject of Lady Gaga, her halftime show at the 2017 Super Bowl may well be the greatest such musical performance—the act and with all the props—I have ever seen. It is quite simply incredible. If you haven’t seen it, watch it here and decide for yourself.

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This just opened in France. The reviews are good to very good—better than in the US—and with friends asking what I think of it (as I saw it in the US last month). My succinct take: the film is brilliantly cast and acted—particularly Christian Bale, whose performance is exceptional—the politics are impeccable—Dick Cheney was/is a right-wing reactionary de la pire espèce, not to mention a despicable human being—and is well-done overall and entertaining, but it’s just a little too un-nuanced and heavy-handed. The pic is a red meat crowd-pleaser for liberals and lefties: agitprop for that very sizable portion of America’s citizenry—of which I am a part—who despised and loathed the Bush-Cheney administration, indeed the Republican Party tout court (don’t even talk about the Trump regime).

Journalist-writer James Mann—who authored the most important book on the war cabinet of Bush-Cheney’s first term—had a spot-on critique of the film, dated December 28th, in The Washington Post, “The Dick Cheney of ‘Vice’ just craves power. The reality was worse.” The lede: “The former veep’s ideological agenda did far more damage than his quest for clout.” The film does indeed focus mainly on personality and gives short-shrift to key historical moments, e.g. the 1990-91 Gulf War—which is barely mentioned—as well as to Cheney’s ideological motivations, which, as we know, were deep, and on domestic policy as well as foreign.

I also had a problem with the implicit suggestion that the Iraq war was driven by oil and Halliburton contracts, which was not only nonsense but stupid, boneheaded nonsense (for my own view of the Iraq war, go here). In short, while Adam McKay’s film may certainly be seen, my assessment of it is mixed.

Another movie about US politics I’ve seen of late is Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, about the sudden demise of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign in May 1987. The film opened in France in mid-January, vanishing from the salles obscures after two weeks (I caught it in the nick of time). Hollywood movies on subjects of little interest to the French public (e.g. baseball, US politicos almost no one has heard of or remembers) usually linger a little longer. The film is based on journalist Matt Bai’s 2014 book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, which chronicles what was the first-ever media-fabricated sex scandal (or “scandal”) that felled a presidential candidate. Bai’s book—which the NYT’s reviewer called “a miniclassic of political history”—is also an indictment of the behavior of the media—the Miami Herald and Washington Post in particular—during the miserable episode. Bai is still indignant three decades later at the media feeding frenzy that ended the political career of the Democratic Party’s most promising politician of the time—and certainly one of the smartest—and its strongest candidate by far going into the 1988 presidential campaign. Hart’s downfall, as Bai wrote in the NYT Magazine, forever changed American politics. And not for the better.

Bai is not the first author to take on the media for its role in Hart’s fall. John Judis published an enquête, “The Hart Affair,” in the July-August 1987 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review—unfortunately not online—which begins:

Sooner or later Gary Hart would probably have destroyed his own candidacy. Hart, the Washington Post‘s Meg Greenfield wrote in retrospect, was “living a life he could not justify or reveal.” But the inevitability of Hart’s political demise does not justify the press’s singular role in precipitating it. In reporting about Hart, the mainstream press departed from its past standards in covering a candidate’s private life and displayed unwonted recklessness in reporting what it had discovered.

We’ll obviously never know if Hart would have self-destructed if he had never crossed paths with Donna Rice in Florida. Perhaps, but perhaps not.

Before the 1984 presidential campaign I was aware that Hart was a senator from Colorado but didn’t know much about him until he emerged as a serious candidate, unexpectedly winning the New Hampshire primary and giving Walter Mondale a run for his money. I wished Hart well at the time—though voted for Jesse Jackson in the Illinois primary in March—as I didn’t find Mondale—a good man and decent liberal—too inspiring, and doubted his chances against Reagan. I was an enthusiastic Hart supporter from the summer of 1986, as he prepared his candidacy for ’88, though was pretty much alone in this among my lefty friends in Chicago, where I was living at the time, who thought of him as a neoliberal (which was absolutely not the case). The one time I saw Hart speak was at a Citizen Action convention in September ’86, at a hotel near O’Hare airport. The reception was indifferent. I remember him speaking, getting no questions, and leaving unnoticed. And needless to say, I was stunned and incensed by the media feeding frenzy over the Donna Rice/Monkey Business business and its denouement, as there was no evidence that Hart had done anything wrong or unethical, let alone illegal. Quel gâchis.

I was reminded of the Hart debacle last November, before hearing about ‘The Front Runner’, in reading an article in that month’s issue of The Atlantic by James Fallows, “Was Gary Hart set up? What are we to make of the deathbed confession of the political operative Lee Atwater, newly revealed, that he staged the events that brought down the Democratic candidate in 1987?” Now James Fallows is quite simply one of America’s best journalists—and has been for decades—whose signature is a mark of quality, and whom I will read on any subject. And while I am allergic to conspiracy theories of any sort, if Fallows is speculating that Hart was indeed a victim of a plot in 1987—that the Monkey Business was a Republican dirty tricks operation and with there being no evidence that anything happened with Donna Rice—then I need to take that seriously. And John Judis, who was a Hart supporter when the thing happened, informs me that a number of level-headed observers have indeed suspected all along that it was a set-up.

I would certainly like to believe the theory but in reviewing the affair after seeing the movie, I don’t know. Hart was, after all, a reputed coureur and there was no reason for the comely Ms. Rice, who had no known political convictions at the time (nowadays she’s a conservative evangelical and Trump supporter), to have paid him a visit at his Capitol Hill townhouse except for we know what. But whatever. It was their private business and no one else’s. In point of fact, the biggest mistake Hart made during the media frenzy was to have abandoned his candidacy, particularly as public opinion was with him. If he had stonewalled the reporters and continued campaigning, he would have likely survived intact—as did Bill Clinton five years later after the Gennifer Flowers eruption.

As for the movie, which covers the final three weeks of the ill-fated campaign, it’s not bad. Hugh Jackman is well-cast as Hart, as is Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee (portrayed by the media at the time as a silently suffering martyr). Leaving the theater I wondered what the point was in making the film, particularly today. Perhaps as a reminder to the Fourth Estate that it is not exempted from critique—for its herd mentality, obsession with ratings, etc—while we’re all celebrating it—and rightly so—in this age of Trump? Whatever the reason, one thing we do know—and do not regret—is that it is no longer conceivable that an American presidential candidate could be driven from a race for having had a sexual relationship with someone who was not his (or her) spouse. Good for that.

Another Hollywood movie with a US politics theme I’ve seen of late is the biopic of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder. This one has had more success at the box office in France than ‘The Front Runner’, perhaps in part because of its title, Une femme d’exception (which is superior to the English one), even though not too many here know who RBG is. The reviews have also been positive, including among Allociné spectateurs, whereas they were mixed in the US. It’s a perfectly serviceable biopic, beginning with RBG—ably played by Felicity Jones—at Harvard Law School in the 1950s as one of the tiny handful of female students, and who had a baby to boot; then the sexism she had to confront in the 1960s, being rejected by major law firms despite her brilliant law school record; career as a professor at Rutgers Law School, where she pioneered the study of gender discrimination; and which ends with her victory in the SCOTUS’s 1975 landmark ruling in the Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld case, for which she wrote the brief. It’s a feel-good movie about a remarkable person, and which, entre autres, shows that women can indeed “have it all”—how I hate that expression (when prefaced with “can’t”)—of leading an exceptional career and doing great things, and while raising a family (having a loving, supportive husband certainly helped).

Someone on Twitter last month made a tongue-in-cheek comment about how nice it would be if we could all subtract one day from our respective lives and add it to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (which would certainly prolong it into the next millennium). We’re all crossing our fingers that she remains in good health to at least January 2021…

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Photo credit: Guy Bop/Sud Ouest

[updates below]

Today is Act XIII—designated in Roman numerals—of the Gilets Jaunes, a,k.a. Yellow Jackets (or Vests), which is to say, this is the 13th Saturday in a row that the movement has held demos in Paris and around France. It’s become routine (with the weekly numbers albeit steadily dropping). The GJ movement is fairly well understood outside France by now, in terms of who they are—lower middle class small town/non-farming rural folk—and what issues initially drove the protests (gasoline taxes, a new speed limit law, cost of living; which have since been superseded by others). The English-language reporting has been quite good on the whole, not to mention analyses from France specialists, a few of which I linked to in December. One of the best Anglophone journalists on the GJ beat, whose reports have been first-rate, is John Lichfield, formerly Paris correspondent of The Independent, now of The Local. Lichfield knows France comme sa poche and his analyses are invariably spot-on. One of his latest on the GJs is a talk he gave in Brussels on January 31st, sponsored by a group called BEERG and which published a transcript on its BEERG Brexit Blog dated February 2nd, which I have copied-and-pasted below (and taken the liberty of correcting a few spelling errors). As I almost entirely subscribe to Lichfield’s analysis, this has spared me from having to elaborate my own. The transcript is lengthy (some 4,400 words) but well worth the read.

I’m sort of glad I didn’t offer my views on AWAV last month, as I posted more than one comment on Facebook expressing my exasperation, indeed fed-upness, with the GJs (here, here, and here), which I pronounced to be—or to have objectively become—a movement of the extreme right, on account of the violence of a significant number of GJs—the Saturday casseurs were not only neofascists, black blocs, and loubards from the banlieues—the proliferation of conspiracy theories among the GJs and which have been rife on their Facebook pages—N.B. without Facebook, the GJ movement would not exist—overt expressions of antisemitism at GJ-occupied ronds-points and gatherings (e.g. here, here, and here), and their hatred of the media, and particularly the all-news TV stations, with only the Russian RT France meeting with approval (this has been widely reported)—though without the saturation coverage of BFM, CNews, and LCI, the GJ movement would have never attained the proportions it has. And to this GJ hatred may be added that of politicians, indeed of the institutions of representative democracy, a.k.a. the Republic. A case in point: the incessant, insistant demand that Emmanuel Macron resign. However one feels about Macron—I am personally not a fan—he was legitimately elected president of the republic for a five-year term. Who do these people think they are to imperiously demand that he pack his bags and quit the Elysée, tail between his legs? To throw the institutions of French democracy into grave crisis and with no clue as to what would come out of it? The verbal violence against Macron was indeed attaining a virulence never witnessed against a major political figure, let alone a president of the republic, since the Second World War. Macron has a number of issues, as it were, and bears some responsibility for the emergence of the GJs—more on this another time—but a lynch mob atmosphere around his person by GJs quickly developed. If Macron had tried to dialogue with a critical mass of GJs on a Saturday in December—of working men and women in their 30s and 40s, indeed older—he would have likely not made it out alive. His physical integrity was indeed in danger.

But it hasn’t only been Macron. GJs who accepted the invitation to meet with PM Édouard Philippe at the Matignon on December 4th renounced after receiving death threats. One of the more moderate public faces of the GJs, the 51-year-old Bretonne hypnotherapist Jacline Mouraud, told Le Figaro (December 7th) that she and her family had received death threats on account of her televised appearances as an informal GJ spokesperson. The climate of intimidation in the movement was palpable.

None of this is acceptable, regardless of the difficult economic situation individual GJs find themselves in. Barely being able to make ends meet—which is the case for the majority of GJs—does not give one the right to smash stuff and threaten people with violence. The abject political inculture of the GJs is breathtaking. A number of intellectuals and high-profile journalists, e.g. Libération’s Jean Quatremer, have been denouncing the GJs for all this since November, drawing historical parallels with the fascist factieux of February 1934 or the Poujadist movement of the mid 1950s, which started out as a non-political anti-tax reaction of shopkeepers and artisans but veered to the extreme right. I didn’t accept the views of the said intellos and journalists at first but then started to get on board. And then my friend Claire Berlinski published a lengthy (6,700 words), somewhat incendiary piece on the GJs in The American Interest on January 21st, expressing her dim view, to put it mildly, of the movement and how it was playing out, and with which I agreed.

But now I have to pull back. J’allais un peu vite en besogne, i.e. I was getting ahead of myself. It was not right to pigeonhole the GJ movement as extreme right tout court. Some of it clearly is but a lot of it is not. The operative word is hétéroclite: politically-speaking, the GJs are made up of men and women who vote for the left and right, or don’t vote at all, in more or less equal proportions. The grab bag of GJ revindications include as many that may be seen as left-wing—particularly the denunciations of the filthy rich and demands for greater redistribution—as right-wing. What is noteworthy, though—and why the GJs cannot be classified as extreme-right—is the absence of immigration and identity in GJ rhetoric. Individual GJs interviewed in the media will say that immigration is a problem—as do the majority of Frenchmen and women—when the question is posed to them—the classes populaires tend not to be cosmopolitan, après tout—but it simply has not been an issue for the movement. Moreover, the quiet, under-the-radar effort by Marine Le Pen and her renamed Rassemblement National to co-opt the GJ movement at the ronds-points appears not to be bearing fruit (and with some RN strongholds, such as the Hauts-de-France region, not having witnessed significant GJ activity). The GJs are allergic to the established political parties, including the RN. If the GJs manage to structure themselves into a lasting movement that contests elections—which is doubtful—it will surely resemble the Italian M5S, i.e. politically unclassifiable.

It is commonplace to refer to the GJ movement as inédit, i.e. unprecedented. There’s never been anything like it in France: a mass social movement in which the urban population is all but absent. There have been plenty of rural movements and protests in the course of history but of farmers and who are concerned solely with farmer-related issues (and who care about nothing else). The GJs are not peasants, as we know. They are the union of non-urban “petits-moyens,” in the words of sociologist Isabelle Coutant, or the “société des petits,” dixit Pierre Rosanvallon, and with a large participation of women (a few of whom have taken part in the violence). The inter-generational character of the GJs is equally noteworthy, forged in the fraternization on the ronds-points (the latter was the subject of a remarkable reportage by Florence Aubenas in Le Monde dated December 16th-17th). The movement has also evolved since November. The GJs were initially over-represented in the “diagonale du vide“—the swath of central France that has suffered population decline and economic stagnation—but the locus has shifted to the southwest and Mediterranean rim. The central role played by local leaders has also been observed, with GJ activity in a given locality dropping significantly with the arrest or departure of the charismatic personality.

I’ll no doubt come back to all this, particularly as teams of social scientists are studying the GJs—whose early findings have been extensively reported in Le Monde—and with edited collections of essays by academics and intellectuals already hitting the bookstores. And then there’s the Emmanuel Macron part of the equation, which I’ll take up soon, as well as some of the institutional revindications of the GJs, such as the citizens’ initiative referendum (to which I am hostile). In the meantime, here’s John Lichfield’s January 31st Brussels talk:

I’m here to explain the Gilets Jaunes. It might be easier to explain black holes. I’ll do my best. But there is no simple explanation of the Gilets Jaunes, no monolithic, single-minded movement, no leadership structure, no single, accepted programme of demands. That’s what makes them fascinating. And baffling. And worrying. I will give you a brief narrative of the story so far. Then I will offer some clues on how to understand the movement. And what may happen next.

Are the Gilets Jaunes just another example of the French being French? Is it all Macron’s fault? Or Putin’s fault? Or is it an internet phenomenon – Facebook populism – which could have happened anywhere? What are the similarities with other populist movements (more…)

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Venezuela and the left

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

I’ve been off AWAV for the past month, which a few friends have noted and asked me about. Pour l’info, I spent two weeks in the US in January (NC & DC), where I inevitably drowned in news about Trump (and the shutdown, Mueller probe, etc)—MSNBC being on every evening chez ma mère, preceded by NPR during the day—though I did try to keep up with the Gilets Jaunes in France, the Brexit psychodrama, and other stories. I have plenty to say about these and will do so in due course, but need to weigh in right now on Venezuela, which is provoking polemics on my social media accounts among progressives and other lefties, a certain number of whom are mouthing rubbish on what’s happening there. Now I do not claim to possess specialized knowledge of that country, loin s’en faut—I have had but two posts on the place in the life of AWAV (here and here)—but that’s okay, as no one else I know or see on Facebook does either. But as a social scientist who has been formatted to think in certain ways, I have a certain respect for specialized knowledge and know how to identify it, and, moreover, to know what is good or valid and what is not. On Venezuela, I will further acknowledge the indirect assistance of the excellent University of Washington political scientist Jamie Mayerfeld, who has been posting tons of good stuff on his Facebook page and with incisive commentary of his own.

One must-read piece Jamie linked to a couple of days ago is a “Letter to a friend on my left,” by Tulane University sociologist David Smilde, who curates the excellent Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America, where the letter appears. It’s dated March 12, 2018, but is entirely relevant today. Money quote:

[T]he idea that the US is the main or even a main cause of Venezuela’s crisis does not withstand even cursory examination. US financial sanctions came into effect at the end of August [2017]. By chance, the recently released ENCOVI survey carried-out its fieldwork in August 2017 just before US sanctions and shows the extent of the devastation. Poverty, in the way the survey measures it, has increased from 48.4% 2014 to 87% 2017, which is astonishing. 80% of respondents said they had eaten less in the previous three months because can’t get enough food. 60% said they had gone to bed hungry at some point in the previous three months because they did not have enough food. 64% say they have lost weight in the past year, on average over 11 kilos.

This is not hard to understand. If you have a fixed exchange rate, emit enormous quantities of inorganic money and have price controls, the combination of inflation, scarcities and contraband is the only possible outcome. You do not need a conspiracy theory to explain something that is fully understandable by just looking at the Maduro government’s destructive policies.

The Maduro government is not the only government to preside over an economic disaster. What makes it different is that it has violated the people’s rights to choose their leadership. In the past two years the Maduro government has: for all practical purposes annulled the democratically elected National Assembly, suspended the presidential recall referendum, unconstitutionally called a Constituent Assembly, stacked the voting bases to ensure a government win, committed fraud in the ANC election (as denounced by Smartmatic, a company with everything to lose by taking the stand they did), changed the voting centers within 48 hours of the October governor’s elections causing mass confusion, committed old fashioned vote-count fraud in Bolivar State.

Now the unconstitutional ANC has moved up the elections, violating Venezuela’s electoral law (which says elections have to be declared 6 months in advance). On top of that all of the most popular opposition figures—Leopoldo López, Henrique Capriles, Freddy Guevara, David Smolanksy, Ramon Muchacho, and more—have been disqualified, jailed or fled the country because of judicial pursuit. The most popular opposition party, Primero Justicia, has as well. I defended Chavismo for many years not because I thought their model of governance was particularly convincing, but because they had the support of the people and an electoral system that allowed people to express that support. But now Chavismo is transparently doing everything possible to undermine electoral institutions so that the people cannot throw them out of power…

Another must-read piece in this vein, dated January 28th, is by Indiana University political scientist Jeffrey C. Isaac, “To hell with Maduro and with Trump: Thoughts on socialism, Venezuela, and freedom,” posted on the Public Seminar website, in which, among others, he skewers the très gauchiste NYU historian Greg Grandin, who has long been a reference for Chavismo supporters on the North American left (Isaac also salutarily lays waste to NYT columnist Bret Stephens and his recent column on Venezuela, which Isaac properly concludes is “a despicable piece of red-baiting [and] also idiotic.”).

Note the Amnesty International report from last September, “Venezuela: This is no way to live,” that Isaac links to.

The reports on Venezuela of Human Rights Watch may also be profitably consulted.

The article (January 28th) by English journalist James Bloodworth in Foreign Policy magazine, “The left keeps getting Venezuela wrong,” is well worth the read. The lede: “Anti-imperialists prefer a Russian-backed dictator to a public revolt.” True that.

And there’s the recent tweet storm by University of Warwick Latin Americanist Tom Long, in which he critiques the “open letter to the United States” on Venezuela signed by some seventy academic gauchistes and other sundry anti-imperialists, among them Noam Chomsky and the inevitable Greg Grandin, for giving Nicolás Maduro “a near total pass” on the current crisis and “saying almost nothing about the Venezuelan government’s role.”

In their open letter, Chomsky and Grandin et al assert that “[i]f the Trump administration and its allies continue to pursue their reckless course in Venezuela, the most likely result will be bloodshed, chaos, and instability.” Yes, indeed. An outright US military intervention would be the height of folly, as The American Conservative’s senior editor Daniel Larison rightly insisted the other day. Not only would it be disastrous, ça va de soi, but would be opposed by the majority of Venezuelans, so David Smilde, citing polling data plus his own research, asserted in a piece in The Conservation dated January 9th.

Retired US Navy Admiral James Stavridis, who was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and Commander of the US Southern Command, has penned a pertinent ‘ideas’ piece (January 31st) in Time magazine, “I commanded the U.S. military in South America. Deploying soldiers to Venezuela would only make things worse.” Dont acte.

It is, in any case, most unlikely that the US will take military action, so says Washington Post editorialist Jackson Diehl in a column (January 31st) that, par ailleurs, grossly distorts Bernie Sanders’s recent statement on Venezuela. Despite the Trump regime’s bombastic agitations of the past two weeks and reinforced sanctions regime, which constitutes “cruel collective punishment” on the Venezuelan people, dixit Daniel Larison, the US has not been the principal international actor in the Venezuelan crisis. The notion that what’s happening in that country is being manipulated by the Yanquis is, in the words of Frédérique Langue of the CNRS-Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent in Paris—and one of France’s leading Venezuela specialists—the product of a “faulty interpretation or ideological parti pris.” The front line international actors are Latin American states in the Lima Group, particularly those that are bearing the brunt of the mass exodus of Venezuelans fleeing the economic collapse of the country (e.g. here, here, and here), which is attaining Syria-like proportions—and is all the more incredible given that Venezuela is not at war.

À propos of all this, see the opinion piece on the NPR website (January 30th) by Amherst College political scientist Javier Corrales, “Foreign forces did not start Venezuela’s transition. Venezuela did.”

Also this one in Mother Jones (January 24th): “Two presidents. Huge protests. Trump saber-rattling. An expert explains what’s happening in Venezuela.” The expert in question is Georgia State University political scientist Jennifer McCoy.

Political scientist Fabiana Sofia Perera, who is presently Assistant Research Fellow at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington, has an opinion piece (January 26th) on the CNN website on “What’s really going on in Venezuela.”

I’m pleased to see that my friend Eva Bellin, who teaches political science at Brandeis University, has a co-authored post (with David Pion-Berlin of UC-Riverside) in WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog (February 1st), “Will Venezuela’s military back—or abandon—Maduro? Here are the 4 things it will consider.”

If one has 25 minutes to spare, Al Jazeera English’s Inside Story of January 29th on the Venezuela crisis is worth the watch (on YouTube). The interviewees are Jairo Lugo-Ocando of Northwestern University in Qatar, and formerly of Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas; Diego Moya-Ocampos, a country risk analyst at IHS Markit in London and a former chief secretary of the Venezuelan Attorney General’s office; and Charles S. Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Venezuela.

Here are a few articles published last year, before the present bras de fer between Nicolás Maduro and Juan Guaidó, that are good for background:

Venezuela’s suicide: Lessons from a failed state,” by Moisés Naím—of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among others—and Francisco Toro—founder of the indispensable Caracas Chronicles website—in the November-December 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs.

A New York Times op-ed by Javier Corrales from last September 25th, “The Venezuelan crisis is part of Maduro’s plan: The president has done very little to solve his country’s collapse. There’s a reason. Economic deprivation helps him stay in power.”

The NYT op-ed, dated last November 7th, by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Dorothy Kronick, is also worthwhile: “The last statesman of the Venezuelan democracy: A restless defender of democratic values, Teodoro Petkoff never stopped criticizing Hugo Chávez’s autocratic tendencies and never gave up on his country.”

One interesting piece is by writer-filmmaker-translator Clifton Ross, “The Bolivarian God that failed,” published February 1st in Quillette. Ross was a longtime leftist activist with a Latin America focus, who reported extensively from the region—particularly Nicaragua and Chávez’s Venezuela, regimes he naturally supported—for lefty publications (notably the ultra-gauchiste Counterpunch), until he woke up and smelled the coffee, became disillusioned with leftist dictatorships—which have turned out to be as bad, when not worse, than the political orders that preceded them—and abandoned his gauchiste politics. His essay is long but worth the read.

The FT’s Brazil correspondent, Andres Schipani, has a useful review (January 29th) of “Seven books that help explain Venezuela’s current crisis.”

Finally, there’s the tweet storm below by The Wall Street Journal’s Latin America editor David Luhnow (click on the icon for the thread).

UPDATE: The well-known economists Francisco Rodríguez and Jeffrey D. Sachs have a sensible op-ed (February 2nd) in the NYT, “An urgent call for compromise in Venezuela: The risk of a winner-takes-all approach in the country’s political crisis is extraordinary. It’s time to seek a negotiated transition.”

See also the very sensible NYT op-ed (January 31st) by University of Wisconsin historian Patrick Iber, “The U.S. needs to stay out of Venezuela: Yes, the country’s people deserve a better government. But Elliott Abrams and John Bolton shouldn’t have a say in what it looks like.”

2nd UPDATE: Stanford Law School professor Diego A. Zambrano settles the matter in regard to the Venezuelan constitution in a must-read post (February 1st) on the Lawfare blog, “Guaidó, not Maduro, is the de jure president of Venezuela.”

3rd UPDATE: James Bloodworth had a fun piece on international leftists and Venezuela, “Six types of ‘useful idiot’,” last June 13th on the UnHerd blog.

4th UPDATE: University of Albany-SUNY sociologist and Latin Americanist Gabriel Hetland has a piece (February 5th) in the très gauchiste Jacobin with exactly the same title as this post, and with which I almost entirely agree.

5th UPDATE: Voici quelques contributions de l’auteur et traducteur Marc Saint-Upéry, qui vit à l’Équateur et a écris un livre sur la gauche sud-américaine: “Venezuela: complots, exode et décomposition,” dans le numéro d’octobre 2018 de CQFD; “Lire le Venezuela: entre «négationnistes» et «euphémisateurs»,” dans Mediapart (7 janvier 2019); et “La gauche et les faux semblants de la crise vénézuélienne,” dans Mediapart (18 mars 2019).

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