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Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category

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

Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good war.” Just about everyone outside the far left—in the US and France, at least—supported the US intervention after 9/11, to smash Al Qaida and eject the Taliban; and, personally speaking, I didn’t waver on this over the years. When it comes to Afghanistan, I have long deferred to the views of two specialists. One is NYU political scientist Barnett Rubin, who quite simply knows Afghanistan better than anyone in the academic world anywhere—and who, in addition, had an Af-Pak policy position in the Obama administration. Whatever Barney Rubin says about Afghanistan, I’ll go with that. The other specialist is the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, whom I started to follow when the Taliban was in power, as he was reporting from Kabul at the time. In his book Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Penguin Books, 2008), Rashid emphatically argued that a fully-funded US/Western/United Nations et al-led “nation building” project could have worked—that the Afghan people in their majority were willing to accept a foreign military presence during the time necessary to rebuild the country—but that the Bush-Cheney administration quickly turned its attention to Iraq and away from Afghanistan. There was a short window of opportunity to make positive things happen in Afghanistan but the US, as is its wont, blew it.

N.B. Barnett Rubin’s latest book: Afghanistan: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2020),

On President Biden’s announcement that the US will entirely withdraw its troops in September, I naturally follow Rubin on this (see, e.g., his United States Institute for Peace Afghan Peace Process Issues Paper of March 2021), as well as Fareed Zakaria—whose analyses are as level-headed and well-considered as they come—in his April 16th Washington Post column, “Biden is right. It’s time to end the forever war in Afghanistan.” (N.B. Zakaria, to his credit, does not speak of “forever wars” in the text of his column, an expression that the sharp MENA specialist Steven A. Cook calls a “cliché” in his latest piece in Foreign Policy). But the smart, erudite, never boring Adam Garfinkle is not so approving of Biden’s announcement, as he spells out in a commentary in The Bulwark (April 16th) on “Leaving Afghanistan: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq.” The lede: “Spoiler alert: This never ends well.” Pessimism over the outcome in Afghanistan after the US departure may indeed be warranted, though it’s hard to see how a prolonged US military presence—and an indefinite Taliban insurgency—could somehow yield a more positive outcome. And particularly as a majority of Afghans, including secular women, are willing to give peace with the Taliban a chance.

And let’s face it: the United States simply lacks the competence and intelligence (in the opposite-of-stupidity sense) to successfully stabilize a country like Afghanistan, as Jason Dempsey—Afghan war veteran and adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security—makes clear in a must-read essay (April 25th) in Politico, “We got Afghanistan wrong [and] what our military misread over the past 20 years.”

On this broad subject, I watched on ARTE last month an excellent multinational/mainly German produced four-part documentary series (which first aired in April 2020) on the past sixty years of Afghan history, Afghanistan: Pays meurtri par la guerre (English title: ‘Afghanistan: The Wounded Land’), with exceptional film footage and interviews. Despite some gaps in the historical narrative it is, from a pedagogical standpoint, the best documentary treatment of that country one will find. Here is a description from a French website (fed through Google Translate and edited à ma guise), with links to the episodes from YouTube (a number of the interviews are in English but the narration is in French):

In four 53-minute episodes, the documentary deciphers Afghanistan’s relentless downward spiral into war and ruin. By way of numerous archives and exceptional testimonies (including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the rival of Commander Massoud; Sima Samar, Afghan Minister for the Status of Women from 2001 to 2003; but also a Taliban, a former CIA officer, and major of the ex-Red Army), it shows how the population found itself entrapped, with hopes and disillusion, by the conflict between the two superpowers of the Cold War and the subsequent civil war involving the Mujahideen and Taliban fundamentalism.

On February 29, 2020, the Americans and the Taliban reached a historic agreement. Can hope for peace finally emerge? What if it came from the oppressed half of the country: women. At the end of the documentary, two speak about this:

Nilofar Ibrahimi, re-elected to parliament in 2018: “I sat at the negotiating table with the Taliban, the Afghan woman is not the same as 20 years ago, they know they can no longer reduce us to silence, this country needs me and hundreds of women like me.”

Shukria Barazkai, also remained in Kabul: “We will solve this problem through discussion and negotiation. Through tolerance and mutual respect. We have the right to disagree but not to kill each other. I learned enormously from this war. We can hit rock bottom, be totally broken, but get up to rebuild our country and ourselves. That’s the beauty of Afghanistan.”

Episode 1 [“The Kingdom”] takes us back to the 1960s, under King Mohammed Zahir Shah, whose reign began in 1933 and during which Afghanistan witnessed its longest period of stability. But there is a big gap between Kabul, where the Westernized elite lives, and the countryside, which has 80% of the population. A severe drought destabilizes the king, who is overthrown in 1973. There is a Communist coup in 1978 and instability begins. On December 27, 1979, the USSR sends its troops to Afghanistan to rescue the Communist regime.

Episode 2 [“The Soviet army”] traces the ten years of war between the Soviet army and the Afghan rebellion, ten years which bled the country dry. Over a million civilians were killed and up to five million crossed the border to seek refuge in Pakistan and Iran.

Episode 3 [“Mujahideen and Taliban”] sees the commanders Ahmed Shah Massoud, an Islamic moderate, and Hekmatyar the fundamentalist engage in internecine warfare, which causes the arrival of a new force in 1996: the Taliban. Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, develops its murderous ideology there. On September 11, 2001, despite Commander Massoud’s warning to the Americans, Al-Qaeda succeeded in carrying out its plan: to strike at the heart of the United States.

Episode 4 [“The NATO troops”] tells about the American and NATO reaction, the collapse in November 2001 of the fundamentalist regime, the hunt for Bin Laden… Democracy emerges, wearing the burqa is no longer compulsory but the extreme poverty and widespread corruption are slowly undermining the country. The Taliban, who had managed to blend into society after their debacle, are regaining ground. And we arrive at today’s deal filled with uncertainties with a thin thread of hope.

A few random comments. First, the images of Kabul in the 1960s and ’70s—of unveiled women pursuing higher education and in the workforce—are a striking reminder of how Afghanistan was modernizing during those decades, without the heavy hand of dictatorship (cf. Iran and Arab states of the era), and what could have been had the country not gone off the rails from 1978 on. Second, it is manifest that the responsible party in triggering the country’s descente aux enfers was Afghanistan’s Communists and the coup d’État they staged in April 1978—their first act being the physical liquidation of President Daoud Khan (who had not been a nasty dictator) and his entire family, including the children. Not an auspicious beginning for a new political order. The Communists were Jacobins on steroids, who, armed with bayonets, were determined to bring modernity to the very conservative rural population whether the latter liked it or not, thus provoking the inevitable, religiously-inspired reaction. As the Communists’ social base was too narrow, the Soviet Union thus made the fateful decision to rescue its client regime from inevitable collapse. Third, the Soviet intervention accelerated Afghanistan’s downward spiral. The US military has killed its share of civilians in its many wars but the Soviet army—which has never paid even lip service to winning hearts and minds—was on another level altogether in Afghanistan. Fourth, the open-ended NATO counter-insurgency was destined to be an unwinnable quagmire—when the short window of opportunity mentioned above passed—in the same way as it was for the Soviets—and for every foreign intervention in Afghanistan’s history. Fifth, the Afghan interviewees in the documentary love their country and profess optimism for its future, however incongruous such sentiments may seem to outsiders. And the women, insisting that Afghanistan has changed over the past two decades, seem not to fear peace with the Taliban, who, they contend, will not try to lock them up as during the 1996-2001 period. Inshallah.

The Soviet army in Afghanistan—specifically, the experience of a Soviet soldier who was captured by the mujahideen—was the theme of a good French film that came out in 2006, L’Étoile du soldat, directed by the prolific filmmaker-journalist Christophe de Ponfilly, who had made a number of reporting trips to Afghanistan (Ahmed Shah Massoud was the subject of at least three of his documentaries). The film, which was shot in Afghanistan and Russia and adapted from the late de Ponfilly’s eponymous novel—itself based on an actual experience of his—is worth seeing (if one can find it).

There have been a dozen or so feature-length films on Afghanistan under the Taliban or post-2001 that have come out over the past two decades (that I’ve seen at least; there are no doubt more but that didn’t make it to France or I somehow missed). The one Hollywood production is German director Marc Forster’s 2007 The Kite Runner, adapted from the best-selling novel by the Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. (As for Mike Nichols’ 2007 Charlie Wilson’s War, which is entertaining and fun, this doesn’t count).

Four films focus on women and their status in that hyper-patriarchal society: Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s 2001 Kandahar, which was shot in Iran and clandestinely in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; the 2003 Osama, directed by Siddiq Barmak, based on a real life story during the Taliban era about an 11-year-old girl in Kabul who passes for a boy in order to go to school but, with the onset of puberty, has her true gender revealed and with not nice things then happening to her; Atiq Rahimi’s 2013 Syngue Sabour: The Patience Stone, which I reviewed here; and the 2013 Wajma, an Afghan Love Story, by Barmak Akram, set among the post-Taliban Kabul middle class and which presents such a bleak picture of the female condition that I tweeted this after seeing it.

These films are all worthwhile, particularly ‘Syngue Sabour’ and ‘Osama’. When the latter came out, we saw it en famille, which provided a pedagogical moment for our then 10-year-old daughter. As it happens, the protagonist—the girl who disguises as a boy—named Nadia Ghulam in real life, is one of the interviewees in the documentary series discussed above, now in her mid-30s and speaking in Spanish, as one learns that, sponsored by a Spanish NGO, she relocated in 2006 to Spain, where she pursued higher education and is now settled.

As for war-related films on the NATO intervention, there have been six by my count over the past decade, with, interestingly enough, only one being American, the very good 2010 Restrepo, but which was a documentary. The others have been European, on the participation of soldiers from other contingents of the NATO coalition, which Americans have only been dimly aware of (if at all). When Trump would go on about the NATO allies not pulling their weight or for freeloading off the US—and whose casualties sustained in this US-initiated war he was certainly ignorant of—I wanted to spit in his face (among the countless times I dreamt of doing such).

Probably the best of these war films is the 2014 German Inbetween Worlds (French title: Entre deux mondes), by Austrian director Feo Aladag—whose excellent 2011 When We Leave, on the subject of honor killings among Turks in Germany, I reviewed here—and that was shot on location in northern Afghanistan, which was kind of a daring thing to do. The reviews in Variety, IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter describe the plot better than I can (as it’s been 6½ years since I saw the pic). The beginning of the latter review merits quoting:

Anyone who believes Western military intervention in Afghanistan is a huge waste of time and lives will probably have their opinion confirmed by Inbetween Worlds, a beautifully shot art house film that takes the audience behind the scenes of a German Army unit defending a village from Taliban attacks. Another viewer could argue that director Feo Aladag shows precisely the opposite: the urgent need for Western and Afghani cooperation to win the conflict, at a time when German troops are preparing to withdraw from the country after more than a decade.

The depiction of the interaction between the Western soldiers and the Afghan villagers, who are supposed to be collaborating with the foreigners against the Taliban but who knows?—there is a manifest failure to communicate, and with the Afghan translator endangering his and family’s lives by the mere fact of having his job—led me, at least, to the first sentiment, of sensing the futility of the NATO engagement

Here are brief descriptions of the other films.

Kajaki (a.k.a. Kilo Two Bravo; in France: En terrain miné), directed by Paul Katis. This one, which came out in 2015, tells the true story of British paratroopers, in 2006, who found themselves trapped in a Soviet-era minefield and with the Taliban lurking in the vicinity. It’s a tense film, well-analyzed in this review in The Guardian by historian and screenwriter Alex von Tunzelmann, “Kajaki – an impressive war movie with questions and ballistic grit.”

A War (same title in France), by the well-known Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm, who has directed and/or written the screenplays for a number of first-rate Danish films and series (including the excellent ‘Borgen’) over the past decade. This one, which was an Academy Award nominee in 2016 for best foreign language film, is similar to ‘Inbetween Worlds’ (though was shot in Turkey and Spain) in depicting the Western soldiers (here, Danes—though it doesn’t matter where they’re from—in Helmand province) fighting an impossible war in a country they don’t understand and whose rural population could not be more culturally alien. And with the inevitable killing of civilians—accidental or deliberate—which happens here. A very good film.

This is actually the second Danish film with an Afghan war theme, the first being Susanne Bier’s 2004 Brothers (Brødre), which I saw when it opened in France and remember thinking good.

Two French films, one Ni le ciel ni la terre (English title: The Wakhan Front), directed by Clément Cogitore, which premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Here, French soldiers patrol a sector in the Wakhan Corridor, near Pakistan, which is relatively peaceful (the pic is shot in Morocco), but one night weird things start to happen and with soldiers vanishing, though not from engagement with the Taliban. The film, which was engaging enough up to this point, albeit somewhat low octane, descends into the supernatural, which, not being a fan of the fantasy genre, I didn’t care for too much. But others may think differently. The cast is good (Jérémie Renier, Kévin Azaïs, Swann Arlaud), as are US reviews, e.g., in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Screen Daily.

The other film is Voir du pays (English title: The Stopover), directed by the sister tandem Delphine and Muriel Coulin, and which premiered at Cannes in 2016. This one I liked more. It’s entirely set in Cyprus, where French soldiers freshly arrived from Afghanistan are “decompressing” at an upscale seaside resort hotel, while attending sessions organized by their superior officers to deal with PTSD and review their recent action in Afghanistan, in which one of their comrades was killed. The protags are two female soldiers—the fine actress Ariane Labed and singer-actress Soko—with one of the film’s themes the uneasy role of women in the army, with its macho, hyper-masculine culture. The thumbs up reviews in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter get it right.

For the record, an Afghanistan war veteran’s PTSD figured in the 2015 Franco-Belgian film Maryland (English title: Disorder), directed by Alice Winocour and which also premiered at Cannes. It’s a slick thriller starring Matthias Schoenaerts (who suffers from the PTSD) and Diane Kruger, though is set entirely on the French Riviera (and mainly in a villa called Maryland), not at all in Afghanistan.

UPDATE: Gilles Dorronsoro of the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, who is France’s leading political science specialist of Afghanistan, has an informative, not-too-optimistic article (April 29th) in the high-quality webzine AOC, “Qui sont les Taliban?” While the Taliban has evolved in certain respects over the past two decades, he observes, notably in attitudes toward technology, it remains rigidly fundamentalist, particularly when it comes to women. And the relationship with Al-Qaida remains largely intact.

2nd UPDATE: Journalist and lawyer Jill Filipovic, who specializes in women’s issues, has a post (April 22nd) on her Substack site, “In the country of men: What does the US owe the Afghan women we’re leaving behind?” In it, she links to what she says is “a really excellent report from the Crisis Group” dated April 6, 2020, “What will peace talks bode for Afghan women?”

3rd UPDATE: Excellent tribune in Le Monde dated May 2-3, by Adam Baczko (CNRS, CERI-Sciences Po) and Gilles Dorronsoro, “La guerre en Afghanistan, première défaite historique pour l’OTAN.”

4th UPDATE: Newlines Magazine—which is new to me and looks to be good quality—has an interesting, knowledgeable article (April 26th) by Austro-Afghan journalist Emran Feroz, “What the CIA did (and didn’t do) in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan: Western leftists think the CIA created al Qaeda by helping the mujahideen shoot down Russian helicopters. They’re wrong.” (h/t Jamie Mayerfeld)

5th UPDATE: Le Monde dated May 30-31 has an enquête by Jacques Follorou datelined Kabul, “Vingt ans après leur intervention en Afghanistan, les Américains s’en vont sur un sentiment d’échec.” The lede: “Privilégiant la lutte contre le terrorisme à la reconstruction du pays, les Etats-Unis ont multiplié les changements de stratégies depuis 2001. Ils quitteront le sol afghan début juillet sans avoir remporté la guerre la plus longue de leur histoire, laissant les talibans en position de force.”

Follorou’s article is followed by a full page interview with Ahmed Rashid, “‘Les talibans n’ont jamais montré la volonté d’aboutir à la paix’.” The lede: “En actant un retrait inconditionnel des troupes américaines d’Afghanistan, le président Joe Biden prend un risque énorme, analyse cet expert pakistanais. Les liens entre les insurgés et Al-Qaida constituent une menace à long terme”…

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Babylon Berlin

This pandemic is becoming boring. Today is like yesterday and each week resembles the last. My agenda has never been so empty, not since I started keeping one in my early 30s. As the American programs in Paris have shut down, I have no classes on that end, and don’t teach at the Catho in the spring. Forays to the supermarket and health-related appointments are noteworthy events, as are webinars and WhatsApp/Zoom/Skype/Viber calls with friends. With restaurants and cafés closed since last October plus the 7 PM curfew, meeting with people or receiving guests chez nous is complicated. And eventual RDVs in a park, weather permitting, have their own challenges, notably if one has to go to the loo (I know people who have left demonstrations and other events in Paris early for this reason alone). So I hardly see anyone in person. But I can’t complain too much, as I have a nice apartment in a nice banlieue, plus a family (at home and nearby) and cat, and know well that countless other persons are in the same boat. Nous sommes tous logés à la même enseigne.

One thing I obviously haven’t done over the past six months is go to the cinema (so there will thus be no Oscars post this week, as I have seen almost none of the films that have been nominated). One consequence is that I’ve watched a number of TV series since the first confinement, including some that have been out for years (e.g. I finally made my way through all seven seasons of ‘The Sopranos’). One that I just finished (three seasons so far, with a fourth to come) is the excellent German series Babylon Berlin—a neo-noir police-political thriller set in Berlin in 1929—which I had bookmarked a couple of years ago following stellar recommendations from highbrow persons I see on social media (it’s on Canal+ in France and Netflix in the US), though what prompted me to start watching was Ross Douthat’s March 30th NYT column “‘Babylon Berlin,’ Babylon America?: How watching a TV show about Weimar Germany can help us interpret our own era.” Not that the conservative Douthat is a reference for me—and here he overstates an eventual parallel with the USA of today—but if he’s going to give the thumbs up to a series on a period of history of interest to me—and which I teach to students—then I do need to check it out.

As I tend not to read reviews before seeing a film or series, I learned afterward, from a post on the Deutsche Welle website, that this one is “the most expensive non-English drama series ever produced,” and certainly the most expensive-ever German one, involving, as Le Monde’s Berlin correspondent Thomas Wieder reported in a dispatch on this “folle série allemande,” 180 days of shooting, 300 sets, 5,000 extras, and a budget of €40 million—not to mention three creators-writers-directors (Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, Henk Handloegten)—and for the first two seasons alone (“Jamais une série télévisée allemande n’avait donné lieu à une telle débauche de moyens.”). It also yielded no less than two reviews in the NYRB (which I entirely missed at the time), one by Noah Isenberg in the NYR Daily dated April 28, 2018, the other by Alessandra Stanley in the May 24, 2018 issue.

It’s a spectacular production indeed. Quoting Isenberg:

The result is a show with lavish production values, a talented cast and crew, and a meticulously reconstructed setting. At its center is Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a handsome young shell-shocked war veteran with a heroin habit, who moves from Cologne to join the Berlin vice squad in its effort to crack a pornography ring. His partner, the hardboiled Chief Inspector Bruno Wolter (Peter Kurth), has an imposing build, a diabolical laugh, and an intimate acquaintance with the city’s criminal world. But the show’s most street-savvy, and engaging, character is Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a determined young woman in a brilliant emerald-green hat who manages to go “everywhere,” as she announces the first time she appears onscreen, climbing up the ranks from temporary typist to detective, despite her lower-class origins.        

Babylon Berlin is based on Volker Kutscher’s enormously successful Gereon Rath mystery series, which was a bestseller first in Germany and now around the world (a graphic novel rendition, by Arne Jysch, appeared in English last month). The show’s first two seasons are drawn largely from Book One, Der nasse Fisch—literally “the wet fish,” a term used by German detectives to refer to an unsolved crime. Kutscher opens with an aptly chosen epigraph from Walter Rathenau, Weimar Germany’s foreign minister, who was brutally assassinated by a proto-Nazi underground terrorist group in 1922: “Athens on the Spree is dead, Chicago on the Spree is rising.” The mix of internationalism, mob violence, and corruption in the world that Kutscher depicts, and the universal language in which it communicates, couldn’t be clearer. “We don’t have it so bad,” insists Bruno Wolter early on in the novel. “We get to gad about the night spots of the most exciting city of the world, which is also the most disreputable.” It’s precisely that combination of the exciting and the disreputable that makes both the novel and the television series so irresistible.

And this introduction to the story by Stanley:

Babylon Berlin is set in the spring of 1929, near the end of the period known as Weimar’s Golden Years—after the worst of the post–World War I hyperinflation and before the Wall Street crash that brought back mass unemployment. Yet the series is exultantly dark. Powerful gangsters rule the streets. Communists and ultranationalists are at war with one another and with the Republic’s fragile democracy. The Nazis are still dismissed as a fringe group. The most imminent threat comes from the Black Reichswehr: military and ex-military revanchists, nationalists, and business tycoons who think the politicians who signed the Versailles Treaty stabbed them in the back. Nightclubs and cafés are full, but sidewalks are lined with crippled World War I veterans begging for handouts; homeless women and children sleep on the street.

Further down:

The heroes and villains of Babylon Berlin of course don’t know that they are dancing on the edge of the abyss. Nazis don’t appear in full until the fifteenth episode, when a mob of brownshirts wearing swastikas harass a Jewish politician. Most of the characters’ movements are viewed in the moment, without the portentous hindsight that hovers over so many films about the period, such as Cabaret. But the warning signs are all there, including the misplaced good faith of German Jews who underestimated the danger lurking ahead. August Benda, the head of the political police, is a Social Democrat and a Jew intent on protecting the Reich from right-wing conspirators, only to discover that the fix is in and goes all the way to the top. A general Benda had hoped to arrest for building up a private army, in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, isn’t worried because he knows he has the support of President Paul von Hindenburg. When the general says with a sneer, “Please leave national matters to the people whose soil you are on,” Benda looks startled. He hasn’t yet heard this kind of anti-Semitism expressed so directly to his face.

Isenberg concludes:

Part of what makes Babylon Berlin so engrossing is that it captures the era with such flair, efficiency, and seeming authenticity—from the scenes of nightlife to those of pitched political battle. Some of the colorful characters that populate the series, such as the crooked military officials and the members of the Schwarze Reichswehr, intent on overthrowing the republic, may be familiar to us from the 1920s canvases of Otto Dix or the political satires of Kurt Tucholsky. The queasy allure of the Weimar period, with its decadence, underlying threat of violence, and palpable sense of gathering doom, has never fallen out of fashion. But Babylon Berlin brings a fresh perspective to images and material that might otherwise seem shopworn, and its frenetic rhythms are particularly apt for a moment when we appear to be dancing our own convulsive tango on the edge of a fiery volcano.

The reenactment of the era is indeed impeccable—there are apparently a few anachronisms, though which only those with highly specialized knowledge, e.g. of gun models, will detect—and a number of the scenes did indeed happen, e.g. the 1929 May Day massacre of KPD militants by the police (though I’m not sure if Soviet agents carried out a massacre of Trotskyists in the heart of Berlin; also, no airplane at that time could have made a roundtrip flight from Berlin to Lipetsk in Russia without a refueling stop; admittedly a detail). The casting and characters are likewise pitch perfect (I personally developed a soft spot for Charlotte Ritter, the aspiring policewoman and flapper-by-night). The cabaret scene of the period is not my tasse de thé but the music and choreography—at the Moka Efti club and on the film set in season 3—are tops (and with Bryan Ferry making a cameo appearance). Keeping up with all the characters in the multi-layered plot is a challenge but one stays riveted. And each of the 45-minute episodes ends on a note that makes one want to see the next.

Peter Tregear of the University of Melbourne has a post in The Conversation on “Babylon Berlin and why our fascination with 1920s Germany reveals the anxieties of our times.”

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Bertrand Tavernier, R.I.P.

He was a reference for all self-respecting cinephiles, and certainly for those who at all follow French cinema (is it possible to be a cinephile if one doesn’t?). Looking over his filmography, of the thirty-odd films he directed since 1974, I realized that there were many I haven’t seen, including some of his most highly regarded (gaps I intend to fill over the coming week, via Netflix and VOD). But those I did see made a strong impression and for the power and sophistication with which they treated social-political-historical themes, e.g. ‘L’Horloger de Saint-Paul’ (1974), a story of a murder, with a subtext of workplace sexual harassment and the left-right political cleavage of the era; ‘Coup de torchon’ (1981) and its depiction of French petits blancs in a village in 1930s colonial Senegal: of lowlife Frenchmen and women who, because they were French and white, were at the top of the colonial social hierarchy; ‘L.627’ (1992), a quasi-ethnographic behind-the-scenes look at the functioning of the drug squad of the Paris police; ‘L’Appât’ (1995), a chilling tale inspired by an actual fait divers, of three youthful Parisians from well-to-do families who, utterly devoid of a moral compass, engage in a crime spree and commit murder. The last Tavernier film I saw, ‘Quai d’Orsay’ (2013), a comedy about a real-life French foreign minister, I loved (and which I reviewed here).

Tavernier was well-known for his progressive political engagements, and on issues important to me, notably the defense of sans-papiers (undocumented migrants, principally from the African continent). He had a high-profile role in the mobilization against the iniquitous 1997 Loi Debré (the big demonstration against I participated in en famille). His 1997 TV documentary ‘De l’autre côté du périph’ (made with his son Nils and which aired on France 2; not to be confused with a 2012 film of the same title) was one of the best of the time on the conditions in the Paris region’s immigrant-populated banlieues. And his 1991 four-hour documentary, ‘La Guerre sans nom’, was the first that gave a voice to French conscripts in the Algerian war, which had ended three decades earlier and for which they were not accorded the status of war veterans, the Algerian war having been officially designated by the French state as a mere “operation for the maintenance of order,” and not a war, despite some 16,000 French soldiers having been killed in combat over its seven-and-a-half year duration. Tavernier’s film—and the book that accompanied it—triggered the process that led to the French state changing that.

Jordan Mintzer, who’s one of the best American critics of contemporary French cinema, has an obituary of Tavernier in The Hollywood Reporter. See also the obits in Variety and The New York Times.

UPDATE: Volker Schlöndorff has a nice remembrance of “My friend Bertrand” on The Criterion Collection website. (Apr. 8th)

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2021 César awards

[update below]

Voilà my annual César awards post, offering an occasion to write about French films of the past year considered to have been the best (not necessarily by me) and to make recommendations. The ceremony is tomorrow (Friday) at the Olympia hall, in what will be a scaled-back affair in view of the pandemic-related restrictions. The list of nominees is here. Leading with thirteen nominations is ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’ (Love Affair(s)), ‘Adieu les cons’ (Bye Bye Morons) and ‘Été 85’ (Summer of 85) with twelve each, ‘Antoinette dans les Cévennes’ (My Donkey, My Lover & I) with eight, ‘Adolescentes’ with six, and ‘La Bonne Épouse’ (How to Be a Good Wife) with five. With cinemas closed last year from March 17th to June 22nd, and then again from October 30th to the present (the virus situation permitting, they will hopefully reopen sometime next month), there were obviously fewer French films in 2020 than usual—and even fewer worth going out of one’s way for (unlike 2019, a great year for French cinema). I’ve seen most of those in the categories below that I weigh in on—in the theater or via streaming—though wasn’t able to catch a few that opened just before the second confinement, or lockdown, and which are not yet available on VOD.

So without further ado, here’s my verdict.

BEST FILM: Antoinette dans les Cévennes (My Donkey, My Lover & I).
This heartwarming comedy, directed by Caroline Vignal, was the best French film of the year in my book, a one-woman show by the excellent, radiant Laure Calamy, who plays a primary school teacher in Paris having an affair with the father (Benjamin Lavernhe) of one of her pupils; the two have plans to slip away for a romantic holiday but he bails out at the last minute, informing her that he is instead going on a hiking trip with wife and daughter in the Cévennes (rugged region in the southern Massif Central, if one doesn’t know it). Upset and on a coup de tête, she decides to go the Cévennes herself and join a hiking group—something she’s never done—in the hope of finding her amoureux, despite him being there with his family. So she rents a donkey—who does not take to her at first, though they ultimately bond—and walks the Stevenson Trail—the story is inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes—meeting friendly people along way and (of course) eventually stumbling across her lover—and his suspicious wife. Une géniale comédie française.

My nº 2 French film of the year—and the runner-up here—is Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait (Love Affair(s)), by Emmanuel Mouret. If you’re a fan of Eric Rohmer’s films (which I am), then you will like this one; if you’re not, then you surely won’t. It’s a Rohmeresque “fresque sentimentale” (there’s no plot to speak of), of materially comfortable Frenchmen and women in their 30s (between Paris and the Vaucluse) exploring the meaning of life and love (and their adulterous affairs or desires, of course), and just talking and talking and talking. The sublime, beautiful Camélia Jordana leads a fine ensemble cast. A highbrow romantic comedy; not one for the masses.

One that is decidedly for the masses is Adieu les cons (Bye Bye Morons), directed by Albert Dupontel, who also has a lead role. This one was a veritable smash box-office hit before the second confinement cut short its run after nine days, and was mystifyingly well-reviewed to boot—and even more mystifyingly nominated for César best film. I won’t bother recounting the ridiculous story or anything else about it, except to say that it’s a slapstick comedy très française and—borrowing from the title—très con aussi. It’s supposed to be LMAO funny—a belly-laugher—but is not, at least not for moi. Question of taste, sans doute. A remark on the English title: “moron” is an unsatisfactory translation of con, which is an essential word (noun and adjective) in the French language (and one of my favorite, along with its derivatives, e.g. connard, connasse, connerie). There is, in fact, not a precise English translation of con, which lies at the intersection of nitwit, idiot, and fool (as an adjective, “fucking stupid” will do).

Été 85 (Summer of 85), by François Ozon, is not con. I’ll see anything by Ozon, though he can be uneven. This one, which opened to good reviews and the usual buzz accompanying an Ozon film, tells the story of a torrid summer romance, in the year 1985, between two teenage boys (16 and 18, the younger one working out his sexuality) in a coastal town on upper Normandy’s Côte d’Albâtre, and which ends in tragedy. The pic was inspired by a young adult novel (Dance on My Grave) Ozon read as a teenager, and which clearly marked him. The acting is good, as is the soundtrack (hit songs of the period), but the film, while perfectly watchable, didn’t do it for me. I thought it overrated. But that’s moi. Others will no doubt think differently.

On the subject of teenagers, there’s the documentary Adolescentes (also nominated in that category), which, so I read, follows the ups and downs of a friendship of two teenage girls over a five-year period. I’ll see it at some point.

BEST DIRECTOR: Emmanuel Mouret for ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’.
Maïwenn is a nominee for ADN (DNA), which has an Algeria theme (so of particular interest to me), but as it opened just two days before the second confinement, I have yet to see it. So I’ll go with Mouret for impeccably executing a Rohmer-like film.

BEST ACTRESS: Laure Calamy in ‘Antoinette dans les Cévennes’.
A no-brainer. Obviously. Camélia Jordana in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’ is second. Martine Chevallier and (especially) Barbara Sukowa are both very good in Deux (Two of Us), playing two elderly women (in an unspecified city, that looks to be Montpellier), who are neighbors on the same floor of a building but, unbeknownst to others, have had a long-standing relationship and whose passionate love for one another has never waned; so when one (Chevallier) suffers a debilitating stroke, the other (Sukowa) is determined to nurse and take care of her, and despite the vehement refusal of the former’s adult children and the hospital director (Léa Drucker). As for Virginie Efira—an otherwise fine actress—in ‘Adieu les cons’, as I couldn’t stand this movie, forget it.

BEST ACTOR: Sami Bouajila in Un fils (A Son).
The Franco-Tunisian Bouajila is excellent in this equally excellent Tunisian film (French co-production) by first-time director Mehdi M. Barsaoui. It’s tough to watch, even painful at moments, but is powerful, and which takes up numerous themes: paternal love, infidelity, patriarchy and archaic laws that ensue, corruption, terrorism, criminal traffickers (of contraband, persons, human body parts…). One of the best films of 2020 (and which made AWAV’s Top 10, needless to say). Lambert Wilson is first-rate as a wartime General de Gaulle in De Gaulle (which I had a post on last June). Niels Schneider is meritorious in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’. As for Albert Dupontel in ‘Adieu les cons’, no. I can’t speak to Jonathan Cohen in ‘Énorme’, as this looked to be one of those grand public comedies that was not worth AWAV’s time.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Émilie Dequenne in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait.’
Dequenne is a fine actress but this one is kind of by default. Noémie Lvovsky and Yolande Moreau are both nominated for their (clichéd) roles in La Bonne épouse (How to Be a Good Wife), a comedy (what else?) set in a rural Catholic girls boarding school in the mid 1960s, that pokes fun at the already old-fashioned gender roles the school (Juliette Binoche as director) strives to indoctrinate the girls into, but which they all cast off—head mistresses and nuns too—in a moment of enthusiasm, as they march toward Paris on rural roads, in a final, groan-inducing scene, to join the May ’68 manifs. I didn’t care for Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s character in ‘Éte 85’. Don’t know about Fanny Ardant in ‘ADN’.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Vincent Macaigne in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’.
Pourquoi pas? Don’t have much to say about this category.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Fathia Youssouf in Mignonnes (Cuties).
A Star Is Born. Youssouf plays an 11-year-old Franco-Senegalese girl in Paris’s 19th arrondissement caught between two cultures, in this coming-of-age film that caused some controversy in the US (though not at all in France) when it opened on Netflix last September; I’ll have more to say about it in a forthcoming post on recent films from France on immigration. Mélissa Guers is deserving in La fille au bracelet (The Girl with a Bracelet), as a teenage girl accused of murdering her best friend; a courtroom drama à la française (set in the Loire-Atlantique), with an original approach; there are a few minor implausibilities but it’s otherwise a gripping, well-done film, and with a top-flight cast (Roschdy Zem, Chiara Mastroianni). Camille Rutherford in Felicità is the devoted but not terribly responsible mother of an 11-year-old girl on the northern coast of Brittany, who is somewhat more mature than her parents. Julie Platon is good as one of the 30-somethings with états d’âme in ‘Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait’. India Hair (that’s a real name) in ‘Poissonsexe’: I didn’t see this one.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Guang Huo in La Nuit venue.
Why? Because I think this is the best movie in the category. Guang Huo—a recent Chinese immigrant in France—plays a sans papiers who works nights as a taxi driver in Paris, in the employ of the Chinese underworld to which he is in a state of permanent indentured servitude; falling in love with an elusive French strip-teaseuse (Camélia Jordana) he ferries around, he decides to extricate himself from his situation, but which is easier said than done; an engaging film, though with a jarring ending that leaves one perplexed. Félix Lefebvre or Benjamin Voisin will likely win for their roles in ‘Été 85’. On Jean-Pascal Zadi in ‘Tout simplement noir’, see below. Alexandre Wetter in ‘Miss’: didn’t see it.

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Mignonnes’ (Cuties), by Maïmouna Doucouré.
On this one, see above. Filippo Meneghetti’s ‘Deux’ would be a worthy winner. Un divan à Tunis (Arab Blues), by Franco-Tunisian director Manele Labidi, is an enjoyable comedy about a Franco-Tunisian-bobo-Parisian psychoanalyst, played by (the Iranian) Golshifteh Farahani (sublime, as usual; and who speaks French with a native French accent), who decides to quit Paris and set up her practice in a banlieue populaire of Tunis, where she meets offbeat people and amusing things happen. Tout simplement noir, a mockumentary by rapper and television/radio personality Jean-Pascal Zadi, who is well-known in certain demographics, received media buzz when it opened last July, with its all-black cast—consisting of cameo appearances of an array of well-known French persons of African and Antillian origin in popular culture and other walks of life—and billing as a parody of a certain identitarian discourse prevalent among black people in France. An edgy comedy and on a hot topic. As the reviews were good to very good, I went to see it with expectations but left the cinoche disappointed. Pas trop drôle, en effet. Barely a chuckle, let alone a belly laugh. Maybe I’ll give it a second chance, but maybe I won’t. I didn’t see Nicolas Maury’s ‘Garçon chiffon’, which opened just before the second confinement.

BEST DOCUMENTARY: Un pays qui se tient sage (The Monopoly of Violence), by David Dufresne.
A powerful documentary about police violence in France, with a focus on the Gilets Jaunes protests. It merits a longer post. Cyrille, agriculteur, 30 ans, 20 vaches, du lait, du beurre, des dettes, by Rodolphe Marconi, is a touching documentary on the hard life of a small dairy farmer; it’s hardly surprising that small farms in France are inexorably disappearing. In La Cravate (The Tie), Mathias Théry and Etienne Chaillou follow the parcours of a youthful Front National militant in the Somme, during the 2016-17 campaign. A film atypical in its structure that may be seen by those with a strong interest in French politics or far right-wing movements.

At least two worthwhile French films from 2020 received no César nominations. One is the Rashomon-like Police (Night Shift), by Anne Fontaine, about three Paris cops—Virginie Efira, Omar Sy (the two are having an affair), and Grégory Gadebois—who are tasked with taking a Tadjik sans papiers (Payman Maadi)—whose political asylum request has been rejected—to CDG airport for deportation. The three develop different feelings as to what they’re doing, which play out as they head to CDG. The sequence with the Tadjik is not entirely credible—particularly the airport scene—but the film is otherwise compelling. An aside: there was clearly a concerted effort via social media by the extreme right—perhaps including cops—to trash the film, reflected in the artificially low notes spectateurs on Allociné (the great majority of trashers certainly not having seen it).

The other film is Les Apparences (Appearances), by Marc Fitoussi, a Hitchcockian-like thriller of a bourgeois French expat couple in Vienna—Karin Viard (tops, as always) and Benjamin Biolay, who’s the chef d’orchestre of the Vienna opera (prestigious position)—with the wife coming to suspect (not without reason) that her otherwise beloved husband has taken a mistress (and within their small community of French expats). And so she tries to get back at him. A slick pic and with a moral of the story: be very careful if you’re going to commit adultery, and be even more careful in having flings with strangers.

UPDATE: ‘Adieu les cons’ won seven awards, including Best Film and Best Director (Albert Dupontel). It looks like I’m in a small minority on this one (also judging from the reactions on Twitter). I was pleased that Laure Calamy and Sami Bouajila won their awards. The Most Promising awards for Fathia Youssouf and Jean-Pascal Zadi were received with bad humor tweets by right-wing racists. Full list is here.

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Best (and worst) movies of 2020

Voilà AWAV’s annual list (for last year’s, go here). This year’s will be shorter than usual, with the pandemic forcing the closing of cinemas in France for over five months all told, in view of the successive lockdowns/confinements: from March 17th to June 22nd and now since October 30th (they may or may not reopen on January 7th). And few American movies opened from June onward—and with only one big-budget Hollywood movie (Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’, which, needless to say, I did not see). I also did not manage to catch a few well-reviewed French and other movies before the sudden imposition of the second confinement. But I did see enough to constitute a list (and which includes Netflix exclusives).

TOP 10:
A Son (بيك نعيش)
Abou Leila (ابو ليلا)
Adam (آدم)
Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało)
Just Mercy
Love Trilogy: Chained (טרילוגיה על אהבה: עיניים שלי)
My Donkey, My Lover & I (Antoinette dans les Cévennes)
Queen & Slim
Song Without a Name (Canción sin nombre)
The Wall Between Us (Zwischen uns die Mauer)

BEST MOVIE FROM ALBANIA:
The Delegation (Delegacioni)

BEST MOVIE FROM ROMANIA:
The Whistlers (La Gomera)

BEST MOVIE FROM SAUDI ARABIA:
The Perfect Candidate (المرشحة المثالية)

BEST MOVIE FROM IRAN:
Yalda, a Night for Forgiveness (يلدا)

BEST OFFBEAT MOVIE FROM MONGOLIA:
Öndög

BEST OFFBEAT MOVIE FROM MOROCCO:
The Unknown Saint (سيد المجهول)

BEST MOVIE FROM SPAIN WITH A SPANISH CIVIL WAR THEME:
While at War (Mientras dure la guerra)

BEST MOVIE FROM MEXICO WITH A CLASS STRUGGLE THEME:
Workforce (Mano de obra)

BEST MOVIE FROM GUATEMALA WITH A MEMORY OF THE 1980s MAYAN GENOCIDE THEME:
La Llorona

BEST MOVIE FROM CHILE WITH A RAGGAETON DANCING THEME:
Ema

BEST MOVIE FROM COLOMBIA ABOUT A SINGLE WORKING MOTHER WHO HAS TO DO IT ALL:
Litigante

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ABOUT THE SEAMY SIDE OF AN INSIDIOUS RIGHT-WING CABLE NEWS TELEVISION NETWORK:
Bombshell

BEST HOLLYWOOD COMEDY MAKING SPORT OF AMERICAN POLITICAL CONSULTANTS:
Irresistible

BEST REMAKE FROM GERMANY OF AN EVEN BETTER SPANISH POLICE THRILLER:
Lands of Murders (Freies Land)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM GERMANY ABOUT AN IRAQI-KURDISH GERMAN SOLDIER WHO GOES TO IRAQI KURDISTAN TO LOOK FOR HER LONG-LOST COMBATTANT SISTER:
Sisters Apart (Im Feuer)

BEST NETFLIX WAR MOVIE BASED ON ACTUAL EVENTS ABOUT AN INTREPID SWAT TEAM OF IRAQI POLICEMEN WHO STOP AT NOTHING TO TAKE BACK THEIR CITY FROM THE ISLAMIC STATE:
Mosul

BEST NOT BAD ALBEIT OVERLY VIOLENT ALGERIAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE MOVIE FROM FRANCE SET IN EASTERN ALGERIA IN 1960:
The Breitner Commando (Qu’un sang impur…)

BEST NOT BAD MOVIE FROM CANADA INSPIRED BY A SOPHOCLES TRAGEDY ABOUT AN ALGERIAN KABYLE FAMILY IN MONTREAL WHICH IS HAVING INTEGRATION PROBLEMS:
Antigone

BEST QUASI-ETHNOGRAPHIC AMERICAN INDIE MOVIE ABOUT A CROSS-CULTURAL MULTI-GENERATIONAL FAMILY IN CONTEMPORARY CHINA:
The Farewell

BEST NOT BAD QUASI-ETHNOGRAPHIC MOVIE FROM BRITAIN ABOUT IMMIGRANT-ORIGIN TEENS IN LONDON:
Rocks

BEST COMING-OF-AGE MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN 11-YEAR-OLD FRANCO-SENEGALESE GIRL IN PARIS NAVIGATING BETWEEN TWO CULTURES:
Cuties (Mignonnes)

BEST COMING-OF-AGE MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN 11-YEAR-OLD FRANCO-RWANDAN BOY IN BURUNDI DURING THE GENOCIDE IN RWANDA:
Small Country (Petit pays)

BEST COURTROOM DRAMA FROM FRANCE SET IN THE LOIRE-ATLANTIQUE:
The Girl with a Bracelet (La Fille au bracelet)

BEST DRAMA FROM FRANCE ABOUT INDENTURED SERVITUDE AMONG ILLEGAL CHINESE MIGRANTS IN PARIS:
La Nuit venue

BEST BIOPIC FROM FRANCE ABOUT A GREAT FRENCH WORLD WAR II HERO:
De Gaulle

BEST BIOPIC FROM BRITAIN ABOUT A GREAT FRANCO-POLISH SCIENTIST:
Radioactive

BEST OKAY HOLLYWOOD BIOPIC ABOUT A ONCE GREAT AMERICAN SINGER NO ONE LISTENS TO ANYMORE:
Judy

MOST PLEASANT LIGHT ITALIAN COMEDY ABOUT THREE RETIREE BUDDIES IN ROME LOOKING FOR A CHANGE OF SCENE:
Citizens of the World (Lontano lontano)

MOST AMUSING LIGHT FRANCO-TUNISIAN COMEDY ABOUT A FRANCO-TUNISIAN PSYCHOANALYST FROM PARIS WHO MOVES HER PRACTICE TO TUNISIA:
Arab Blues (Un divan à Tunis)

MOST FEEL-GOOD FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT A MILLENNIAL WHO RECOUNTS HIS LIFE VIA 25 YEARS OF HOME MOVIES:
Play

MOST NOT-ALL-THAT-FUNNY FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT A BLACK FRENCH HUMORIST-RAP SINGER POKING FUN AT HOW FRENCH PERSONS-OF-COLOR TALK ABOUT THEMSELVES:
Tout simplement noir

MOST NOT FUNNY FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT THREE ECCENTRICS IN PARIS WHO EMBARK ON A HELTER-SKELTER QUEST TO FIND A LONG-LOST CHILD:
Bye Bye Morons (Adieu les cons)

MOST UTTERLY NOT FUNNY FRENCH COMEDY ABOUT THREE WHACK JOBS IN THE HAUTS-DE-FRANCE WHO TAKE ON THE GAFAS:
Delete History (Effacer l’historique)

BEST POLICE DRAMA FROM FRANCE WITH VIRGINIE EFIRA AND OMAR SY IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Police

BEST NOT BAD POLICE COMEDY FROM FRANCE WITH ISABELLE HUPPERT IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Mama Weed (La Daronne)

BEST ROHMERESQUE ROMANTIC COMEDY FROM FRANCE WITH CAMÉLIA JORDANA IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Love Affair(s) (Les Choses qu’on dit, les choses qu’on fait)

BEST MARRIAGE THRILLER FROM FRANCE SET IN VIENNA WITH KARIN VIARD IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Appearances (Les Apparences)

MOST NOT TOO GOOD DRAMA FROM FRANCE SET IN BOSNIA WITH ADÈLE HAENEL IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Heroes Don’t Die (Les Héros ne meurent jamais)

MOST MILDLY AMUSING FLAWED COMEDY FROM FRANCE WITH VINCENT LINDON AND FRANÇOIS DAMIENS IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Mon cousin

MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ON POLICE VIOLENCE IN FRANCE:
The Monopoly of Violence (Un pays qui se tient sage)

MOST OVERLY LONG BUT NOT UNINTERESTING 11-HOUR 4-PART ROAD MOVIE-DOCUMENTARY BY AN EX-COMMUNIST FRANCO-ALGERIAN FILMMAKER THAT WILL LIKELY NEVER BE SHOWN IN ALGERIA:
Israël, le voyage interdit

MOST FRUSTRATING DOCUMENTARY ON CUBA BY A LEFTIST AUSTRIAN DIRECTOR THAT IS DEVOID OF A GUIDING THREAD OR ANALYSIS:
Epicentro

MOST CURIOUS DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE ON THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A YOUTHFUL EXTREME RIGHT-WING ACTIVIST IN THE SOMME:
La Cravate

MOST TOUCHING DOCUMENTARY FROM FRANCE ON HOW REALLY HARD IT IS TO BE A FARMER NOWADAYS:
Cyrille, agriculteur, 30 ans, 20 vaches, du lait, du beurre, des dettes

MOST PEDAGOGICAL DOCUMENTARY BY THOMAS PIKETTY CRITIQUING FINANCE CAPITALISM:
Capital in the Twenty-First Century

BEST MOVIE BY GRETA GERWIG:
Little Women

BEST MOVIE BY SAM MENDES:
1917

BEST MOVIE BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
Richard Jewell

BEST MOVIE BY AARON SORKIN:
The Trial of the Chicago 7

BEST MOVIE BY TODD HAYNES INDICTING CORPORATE MALFEASANCE:
Dark Waters

BEST MOVIE BY AGNIESZKA HOLLAND ABOUT THE NIGHTMARE OF THE SOVIET UNION DURING THE STALIN ERA:
Mr Jones

BEST MOVIE BY CHRISTIAN PETZOLD INSPIRED BY A 19th CENTURY GERMAN FAIRYTALE NOVELLA:
Undine

BEST COLD WAR POLITICAL THRILLER BY OLIVIER ASSAYAS:
Wasp Network

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY SPIKE LEE:
Da 5 Bloods

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY FRANÇOIS OZON:
Summer of 85 (Été 85)

MOST FRANKLY UNINTERESTING MOVIE BY DAVID FINCHER:
Mank

WORST MOVIE SEEN THIS YEAR BY AWAV:
Jojo Rabbit

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A friend (Franco-Algerian) has asked me for my take on the rapprochement between Morocco and Israel, and the role of the United States, i.e. of Trump and his recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara (neither of these developments have been warmly received by Algerians, needless to say). As for the Israel-Morocco aspect of the matter, the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the two states is normal and hardly necessitated US mediation, as they have enjoyed a close, unofficial relationship since the early 1960s—and which became official in 1994 with the opening of liaison offices in their respective capitals (Tel Aviv for the Moroccan one), and while closed by Morocco in 2000, during the second intifada, did not fundamentally change anything. Ronen Bergman has a piece in the NYT on the ongoing 60-year relationship and Yossi Melman writes in Haaretz on how the Mossad, over the same period, built “perhaps the most steadfast clandestine relationship between Israel and any Arab state.”

Morocco’s rich Jewish past and present is obviously the bridge between the two countries—and with Morocco valorizing and promoting that heritage. As one knows, Morocco had, along with Iraq, the largest pre-1948 Jewish population in the Arab world (around 250K), but, unlike Iraq, with Moroccan Jews emigrating pacifically (albeit surreptitiously in the decade after 1956) to Israel over time, with no pressure to leave or flight on account of persecution. And as one equally knows, Israelis with personal or family ties to Morocco (some 10-15% of Israel’s Jewish population) maintain an affectionate relationship with the country and freely travel there—which is unique to Israelis with roots in MENA lands (and despite the fact that the status of Jews in Morocco to the early 20th century was not significantly better than in Eastern Europe). For this reason alone, it makes total sense that the two states would have diplomatic and commercial relations, with tourism, direct flights, and all.

As for the Palestinians, I argued in a social media exchange (with Algerians) that the Israel-Morocco rapprochement won’t change a thing one way or another, though it was observed in a very good 40-minute International Crisis Group podcast conversation—with Rob Malley, Richard Atwood, Dahlia Scheindlin, and Riccardo Fabiani—on “Trump’s Morocco-Israel transaction,” that this will further comfort Netanyahu & Co in their calculation that Israel can normalize with Arab states—as it already has with the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan—without conceding a thing to the Palestinians. Good point. It is increasingly evident, however, that no state—even a powerful one like the USA—or coalition of states can compel Israel to make substantial concessions to the Palestinians that it doesn’t want to make—that it believes will compromise its security and/or be rejected by Israeli pubic opinion. E.g. when I visited the Beit El settlement on the West Bank in 2009 and talked to a few people there, it became clear to me that no Israeli government will ever get those settlers out of there were it to try, that there would be refusal and resistance, and that such would be the case with just about every settlement in the occupied territories. Israel is content with the status quo—which I argued over eight years ago—as are most Arab states in regard to the Palestinians, alas.

N.B. The normalization with Israel by Arab states may not only not prejudice the Palestinians but even work to their benefit, with the UAE and other Gulf states financially supporting the Palestinian Authority, investing, and the like (and which may be part of the deal with the Israelis, who will have an interest in that).

The American aspect of the Morocco-Israel deal is another matter. Not only was the US role superfluous—it was thoroughly unnecessary—but the US got nothing whatever out of it. No tangible US interest is advanced in the two states reopening liaison offices and establishing direct flights. Trump was simply doing Netanyahu’s bidding, to reinforce the latter’s election prospects and further solidify Trump’s evangelical base as he tries to stage an autogolpe before January 20th. Not only can this not be considered a foreign policy triumph for Trump—and it’s likewise with the UAE-Bahrain-Sudan deals—but, in recognizing Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, it’s a big foreign policy blunder and setback for the US. The US thus becomes the first Western state (Albania excepted, if that counts) to recognize Morocco’s annexation of the Western Sahara.

À propos, one notes with interest the left-right consensus on Trump’s action among the handful of US academic and policy specialists of the Western Sahara question. E.g. on the left, the engagé University of San Francisco political scientist (and friend), Stephen Zunes—who’s co-authored a book on the subject—fired off a Washington Post op-ed arguing that “Trump’s deal on Morocco’s Western Sahara annexation risks more global conflict.” Human Rights Watch—which is not stricto sensu on the left (though I’d be most surprised if a single one of its American staff members did not vote for Biden-Harris)—issued a communiqué (in which acting HRW-MENA director and good friend Eric Goldstein is quoted) stating that “US recognition of Moroccan sovereignty doesn’t change territory’s status.” And FWIW, in the Uber-gauchiste Jacobin, Madrid-based writer Eoghan Gilmartin asserted that “Donald Trump has just traded Western Sahara like a Victorian colonialist.”

The left-leaning Scholars’ Circle Interviews has a worthwhile one-hour podcast conservation on the “Western Sahara conflict towards peaceful resolution,” with academics R. Joey Huddleston, Randi Irwin, Stephen Zunes, and Jacob Mundy.

Particularly interesting are the reactions from Republicans. James A. Baker III, who was the UN Secretary-General’s personal envoy for Western Sahara from 1997 to 2004, penned a Washington Post op-ed bluntly stating that “Trump’s recognition of Western Sahara is a serious blow to diplomacy and international law.” And then there’s John Bolton, who knows the WS dossier comme sa poche, with a strongly worded piece in Foreign Policy, “Biden must reverse course on Western Sahara: Trump’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty dangerously undermines decades of carefully crafted U.S. policy.”

Accompanying Bolton on the GOP right-wing is the ultra-conservative Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, who has long felt strongly about the Western Sahara and been a strong supporter of Polisario, and who pronounced Trump’s action “shocking and deeply disappointing,” declaring himself “saddened that the rights of the Western Sahara people have been traded away.” As one learns in an informative dispatch in Axios by Tel Aviv-based reporter Barak Ravid, it appears that a recent dispute between Trump and Inhofe—who otherwise 100% supports the SOB—paved the way for Trump’s gift to Morocco.

Another Western Sahara/Polisario supporter way out there on the Republican right-wing is the longtime Washington conservative operative David Keene—who also happens to be Algeria’s well-remunerated Washington lobbyist—who ran an op-ed in the Washington Times (which is read exclusively on the right) explaining “Why Trump’s deal with Morocco is immoral and shamefully cynical: The people of the Western Sahara had no say in it’s making, another blow against self-determination.”

I find it intriguing that these right-wing Republicans are so harshly critical of Morocco—which has always been such a faithful ally of the United States and the West—favorable toward Algeria—which has had correct to good relations with the US but, while a leader of the non-aligned movement, tilted toward the Eastern bloc during the Cold War—and supportive of Polisario, which has otherwise been a Third World movement of national liberation and identified with the tiersmondiste camp (and with an always large stand at the French Communist Party’s annual Fête de l’Humanité; for pics of the stand, go here and scroll way down). And that these America-firster conservatives should care so much about a sparsely, exclusively Muslim-populated patch of desert in Africa—and as they have not objected to land-grabs elsewhere (e.g. Israel and its neighbors). There is not a single right-wing person in France who would break ranks with Morocco on this question or touch Polisario with a ten-foot pole. Perhaps Polisario has had an effective US lobbying operation (for the anecdote, I was acquainted with Polisario’s Washington representative back in the mid-80s, who was romantically involved with a college friend of mine; he must have been doing a good job).

The most reliable establishment commentary on Trump’s action IMHO is by Christopher Ross, who served as the UN Secretary General’s personal envoy on Western Sahara from 2009 to 2017. Ross was a US Foreign Service officer, spending most of his career in the Arab world (he’s a fluent Arabic-speaker), including as US ambassador to Algeria from 1988 to 1991. Those were my years in Algiers and I saw him a number of times (I was on a Fulbright grant but otherwise had no relationship with the US embassy), at events and dinners, plus a few tête-à-têtes, at the residence and in his office, with him inviting me in to discuss the political situation in Algeria (we were much on the same page, particularly in regard to the rise of the Islamist FIS). Chris Ross represented the best of the US Foreign Service. Voilà his commentary on Trump’s action, posted by Stephen Zunes (Dec. 13th) on his Facebook page:

This foolish and ill-considered decision flies in the face of the US commitment to the principles of the non-acquisition of territory by force and the right of peoples to self-determination, both enshrined in the UN Charter. It’s true that we have ignored these principles when it comes to Israel and others, but this does not excuse ignoring them in Western Sahara and incurring significant costs to ourselves in terms of regional stability and security and our relations with Algeria.

The argument that some in Washington have been making for decades to the effect that an independent state in Western Sahara would be another failed mini-state is false. Western Sahara is as large as Great Britain and has ample resources of phosphates, fisheries, precious metals, and tourism based on wind surfing and desert excursions. It is much better off than many mini-states whose establishment the US has supported. The Polisario Liberation Front of Western Sahara has demonstrated in setting up a government-in-exile in the Western Saharan refugee camps in southwestern Algeria that it is capable of running a government in an organized and semi-democratic way. The referendum proposal that the Polisario put forward in 2007 foresees very close privileged relations with Morocco in the event of independence. It has answered the claim that it could not possibly defend the vast territory of Western Sahara from terrorist or other threats by stating that it would request the help of others until its own forces were fully in place.

It is true that the US has always expressed support for both for the UN facilitated negotiating process and, since 2007, for Morocco’s autonomy plan as ONE possible basis for negotiation. The word ONE is crucial because it implies that other outcomes might emerge and thus ensures that the Polisario stays in the negotiating process instead of retreating into a resumption of the open warfare that prevailed from 1976 to 1991. It was in that year that Morocco and the Polisario agreed to a UN settlement plan that promised a referendum in exchange for a ceasefire. Thirteen years were spent trying to reach agreement on a list of eligible voters, the last seven of them under the supervision of James Baker. In the end, these efforts failed because Morocco decided that a referendum was contrary to its (claims of) sovereignty and, in doing so, got no push back from the Security Council. In 2004, this caused Baker to resign.

The Security Council then substituted direct negotiations between Morocco and the Polisario as an alternative approach. Chaired by three successive UN envoys from the Netherlands (van Walsum), the U.S. (yours truly), and Germany (Kohler), thirteen rounds of face-to-face talks in the presence of Algeria and Mauritania took place from 2007 to 2019. To date, these efforts have also failed because neither party has been prepared to alter its position in the name of compromise. With the resignation of the most recent envoy in 2019 “for health reasons” but more likely out of disgust for Morocco’s lack of respect and efforts to impede his work (as they did with me), the UN Secretary-General is looking for yet another envoy. Those approached to date have demurred, probably because they recognize that Morocco wants someone who will in effect become its advocate instead of remaining neutral and that, as a result, they would be embarking on ‘mission impossible.’

If we are ever to arrive at a settlement, it will be through a drawn-out negotiating process of some kind. President Trump’s decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty destroys any incentive for the Polisario to remain in that process. It also threatens US relations with Algeria, which supports the right of Western Saharans to decide their own future through a referendum, and undercuts the growth of our existing ties in energy, trade, and security and military cooperation. In sum, President Trump’s decision ensures continued tension, instability, and disunion in North Africa.

Pour l’info, my principal source of knowledge on the Western Sahara is Western Sahara: The Roots of a Desert War, by Tony Hodges (Lawrence Hill Books, 1983). It’s a terrific book (reviewed here in the NYRB), the first one to read on the subject, in which one learns, among many other things, that Morocco has no legitimate claim to the WS—historically or legally—and that the Sahraoui people, historically mostly pastoral nomads, were largely sedentarized by the early 1970s, had developed a national consciousness under Spanish colonialism, and possessed all the attributes of a nation deserving self-determination. Whether or not Morocco will ever surrender the WS—I have my doubts—is another matter, but the conflict remains,

The parallel between the Moroccan occupation of the WS and the Israelis in the West Bank-Gaza is evident (Moroccans naturally go ballistic over the comparison). There are similarities and clear differences (e.g. the cultural proximity of Moroccans and Sahraouis is obviously closer), but on the level of human rights violations, Stephen Zunes, whose left-wing credentials are ironclad, asserted on his Facebook page last week that these are “much worse” in the Western Sahara than in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Returning to the subject of Moroccan Jews and Israel, I want to briefly mention two feature-length films I’ve seen on the subject over the past several years. One is the 2010 ‘Où vas-tu Moshé?’ (Where Are You Going, Moshe?), directed by Hassan Benjelloun, who recounts-reenacts the sudden, literally overnight exodus in 1963 of the Jewish community in his town in the Atlas mountains, which he witnessed as a boy. There was no particular problem between the communities, which co-existed cordially, but the deeply religious Jews dreamed of aliyah to the ‘land of Zion’, of which they concretely knew little, and as emigration to Israel was not authorized at the time, the collective departure was organized clandestinely by the Jewish Agency. So one day the townspeople woke up to find that the local Jews were all gone and with their shops shuttered, having slipped out of town en masse in buses in the middle of the night. It’s an interesting, original film, needless to say.

I read about the film when it opened—it came and went—but heard more about it in 2011 from a former Franco-Moroccan student of mine, who happened to be in Israel-Palestine (working with a Palestinian-oriented NGO), who was so impressed with the film (which she had seen in Canada, where it was co-produced) that she took the initiative to promote it in Israel and organize screenings, particularly in localities with sizable Moroccan communities. It received an enthusiastic reception and showed at the 2011 Maghreb film festival in Ashdod, which saw a good turnout.

The other film is a 2012 documentary, Tinghir-Jerusalem, Echoes from the Mellah, by Kamal Hachkar, a Franco-Moroccan public school teacher in Paris, whose family hailed from Tinghir, a town in southern Morocco, from which Kamal’s parents emigrated to France shortly after his birth in 1979 but which he regularly visited on family vacations while growing up. On one visit he learned, to his surprise, that Tinghir had had a Jewish community but which suddenly departed in the 1960s, to Israel, and which the younger generation in the town knew almost nothing about. Fascinated by the discovery, Hachkar decided to research his ancestral town’s Jewish past and make a documentary—he talked about it at a screening I attended in 2013 and heavily promoted the film on Facebook—which involved interviewing inhabitants of Tinghir about their memories of the town’s Jews, then tracking down the latter in Israel and traveling there to meet them. This part is quite interesting. The Tinghir Jews imagined they were going to a mythical Jerusalem in the mythical land of Zion but when they arrived in Israel they were settled in apartment blocks in soulless development towns. It wasn’t what they were expecting. When Hachkar met the Tinghir old-timers in Israel, who spoke with him in Tamazight, they welcomed him like a long-lost member of the family (watch the moving segment here of one of them on a Skype conversation with Hachkar’s father). It’s too bad it’s not likewise with other Israeli MENA Jews and their countries of origin.

Hachkar’s film was shown on Moroccan television in 2012 and screened publicly, provoking a firestorm, with Hachkar and the film denounced by Islamists and others in the anti-normalization crowd, and which was perhaps stoked by Hachkar’s rather manifest philo-semitism. Jamal Bahmad, who teaches at Mohammed V University in Rabat, has an informative post on this from February 2013 in Africultures, “Tinghir-Jerusalem-Tangier: The Jew, the imam and the camera in Morocco.” But that’s all in the past, so says Hachkar—who now lives in Morocco—in an interview last week in the Moroccan Le 360 website, with the film and its message of fraternity no longer arousing controversy. C’est bien.

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Emily in Paris

Taking a break from politics (ouf). This Netflix series has been the talk of the town—ça défraie la chronique—on my Twitter feed over the past ten days among Americans in Paris and other Francophiles, and has received media coverage on both sides of the pond, with reviews and reports in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Financial Times, and New York magazine entre autres, the leitmotif being the torrent of American stereotypes and clichés in the series about the French and France. As for the reaction here in France, it has been, so far as I’ve seen, largely negative (e.g. here, here, here, here, and here)—i.e. the series has been panned across the board—with the prevailing sentiment summed up in a two-minute commentary by France Inter’s Nicolas Demorand last Friday, who, “hate-watching” (his words, in English) ‘Emily in Paris’, slammed it as “un navet, mon dieu quel navet” [navet = a dud, a turkey].

The cleverest, most amusing commentary has come from the University of Cambridge’s Lecturer in the History of France and the Francophone World, Arthur Asseraf, who has been tweet storming on each episode (the first two are here and here).

I personally had no interest in watching ‘Emily’, particularly after reading some of the above-linked articles and following the Twitter reactions, and declared to one friend that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell that I was going to waste my time with this manifest dreck. As I’ve never seen even five minutes of ‘Sex in the City’, creator Darren Star’s claim to fame, there’s no logical reason for me to see this one, even if it has a Paris theme (as if I can’t see Paris every day of the week, on the screen and in real life).

But then last Friday I went on to Netflix to see what was new and, coming across the ‘new & popular’ category, noted that ‘Emily’ was in first place and ranked #1 in France. So I clicked on the trailer, what the hell, just to see. Finding it a total LOL, I thus reflexively, spontaneously clicked on episode 1 and started watching. And, lo and behold, I was LMAO from the get-go. It’s hilarious, the most uproarious comedy I’ve seen since the 2014 knee-slapper Le Crocodile de Botswanga. On the laugh-o-meter, ‘Emily’ is up there with Le Dîner de cons and Didier, indeed Talladega Nights: The Ballad Of Ricky Bobby.

People are missing the point of ‘Emily’. It’s satire, a parody of American clichés of France and the French—and with Emily (Lily Collins, impeccable in the role) the stereotypical twenty-something American woman, full of exuberance and enthusiasm, whom we adore, but ingénue and clueless. I’m amazed that people, and particularly in France, are at all taking it seriously, let alone taking umbrage. It’s total second degree humor. Obviously the series creator knows that one does not light up a cigarette in an office in France, that the workday does not start at 10:30, that concièreges are not always irritable (and where there are still concièreges, as few buildings outside upscale quartiers still have one). And that there would obviously never be a photo shoot of a woman walking butt naked across the Pont Alexandre III in broad daylight. Allez. The clichés are the point. And the joke is on Americans, not the French.

I’ve watched four episodes so far (at 25 minutes or so each, it’s not a huge time commitment). They remain funny, though the laugh-o-meter has dropped a notch. Will see how the series holds up.

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John Lewis, R.I.P.

Everyone is extolling his memory today. Even the Idiot-in-Chief, after a 14-hour silence, felt compelled to have a staffer tweet condolences in his name. That John Lewis was a true American hero goes without saying. To get a sense of his heroism, do set aside two hours of your time and watch the powerful 2010 PBS American Experience documentary Freedom Riders, directed by Stanley Nelson, which may be seen in full on YouTube—and which I just watched myself, having only learned about the film today, via a recommendation on social media.

As one may surmise, its subject is the 1961 Freedom Rides through the South—based on the book by historian Raymond Arsenault—in which John Lewis played a leading role. What incredible courage of the young freedom riders, who knew they were literally taking their lives into their hands once they crossed into Alabama and Mississippi, but refused to cower to the white terror mobs and the local apparatus of state terror that had the mobs’ back. The attitude of the Kennedys—JFK and RFK—toward the Freedom Riders was initially ambiguous, as one knows, but they finally came through in bringing the power of the federal government to bear on Bull Connor, Ross Barnett & Co. One shudders to imagine how matters would have unfolded if Trump and William Barr had been at the helm back then.

There is obviously a slew of articles on Lewis today. The one by The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer is good: “John Lewis was an American founder: Without activists like Lewis and C. T. Vivian, America would remain a white republic, not a nation for all its citizens.” C.T. Vivian, with whom I am not so familiar, was a Freedom Rider with Lewis—he figures in the PBS documentary—and, as fate would have it, also died yesterday.

The Élysée is making sure to recirculate a video tweet by Emmanuel Macron, dated April 25, 2018, showing him warmly hugging John Lewis during a visit to Washington. Sympa.

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Mrs. America

[update below] [2nd update below]

On this Fourth of July, I want to strongly recommend this absolutely excellent nine-episode miniseries that aired this spring on FX on Hulu (in France, on Canal+). The subject is the 1970s campaign against the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, a campaign that was entirely conceived and led by the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly—the protagonist of the series—whose success in scuttling the ERA—which would not have happened without her—consecrated her as one of the most consequential personalities on the right wing of the Republican Party of the past fifty years. Schlafly’s single-minded campaign crystallized the right-wing backlash of the time against the challenges (legal, political, and cultural) to gender hierarchies and the emergence of second-wave feminism (“women’s lib”). The anti-ERA movement was, along with the founding in the mid-1970s of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, an important factor in the polarization of societal/cultural issues in American politics along partisan lines—and of moving the Republican Party sharply to the right on these—and to a heretofore unseen extent. Schlafly’s campaign was, in effect, the opening salvo in the culture war that the American right has been waging against liberals and the left ever since.

Similar left-right divisions existed elsewhere at the time, e.g. in France over the Loi Veil, but attenuated. In the United States, it was the opposite, with the culture wars becoming a salient partisan cleavage.

The series begins in 1971 and ends in 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan. Any American of age in that decade and who had a minimal political consciousness will remember well Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett, who’s terrific in the role), her anti-ERA campaign, and the feminist supporters of the ERA—for Schlafly, the enemy—depicted in the series, notably Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks). The series is indeed as much about them—the “libbers”—as it is of Schlafly and her forces. The casting is impeccable. Absolutely excellent. Likewise with the screenplay and writing. There’s obviously fictionalization of some of the characters and situations, not to mention the dialogue—and a few small anachronisms—but the series hues closely to historical events (and one recalls many of them).

A few comments. First, Schlafly was a well-known personality on the hard right flank of the Republican Party—she wrote a best-selling book in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964—but the GOP of the era was a big tent party that included a sizable moderate wing (plus a liberal one), incarnated in the series by Jill Ruckelshaus—one recalls her husband William, a casualty of Nixon’s October 1973 “Saturday night massacre” at the DOJ—who was a supporter of the ERA—along with most of the GOP when the ERA was initially adopted—and adversary of Schlafly. Ronald Reagan himself hedged on the issue; Schlafly, who strongly supported Reagan’s candidacy in the 1980 Republican primary campaign (after initially backing Phil Crane), was angling to be appointed ambassador to the United Nations, but was passed over by Reagan in favor of the Democrat—and ERA supporter—Jeane Kirkpatrick. A Jill Ruckelshaus or wishy-washy Reagan are obviously inconceivable in today’s Republican Party.

Second, the series shows the importance of Republicans in the South to the anti-ERA campaign, which meant confederate flags, the KKK, and references to white supremacy. Schlafly (who was from downstate Illinois) and others around her were uncomfortable with this and tried to hush it up—as they did with members of the John Birch Society in their ranks—but did not repudiate or try to quash it.

Third, Schlafly, who died in September 2016, was a strong supporter of Trump’s candidacy. The title of her final book: The Conservative Case for Trump. Among other things, she saw Trump as defending and incarnating family values. Of course.

The series trailer is here and here.

UPDATE: To get an idea of what America was like in the mid-1970s—on the matter of race, not gender, and in New York City (not Alabama)—watch the video in this NYT article I came across after posting the above.

2nd UPDATE: On the John Birch Society—then and now—see the article (March 8, 2021) in The New Republic by Rick Perlstein and Edward H. Miller, “The John Birch Society never left: Why it’s foolish to think the modern GOP will ever break with its lunatic fringe.”

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And police racism. The George Floyd murder and subsequent protest movement have reverberated across the globe, as one is likely aware, and particularly in France, beginning with the big June 2nd anti-police violence rally on the esplanade of the Paris Tribunal—organized via social media by a committee led by the family of Adama Traoré, a black man who died in police custody in 2016 (details here)—and followed up by the comparably large June 13th demo at the Place de la République. The June 2nd event took everyone by surprise; and few Parisians would have come across it, the Paris Tribunal being on the periphery of the city (at Porte de Clichy). As Le Canard Enchaîné reported in its June 10th issue, the intelligence service of the Paris Police Prefecture was blindsided by the unauthorized demo, getting wind of it only that morning and projecting an eventual crowd size of 500 to 1,000, when some 23,000 ultimately showed up. Sociologist Abdellali Hajjat, in a Mediapart post reflecting on France’s racism problem, remarked that the June 2nd and 13th events were the largest anti-racism rallies in France since the final day of the famous 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism. Now that’s noteworthy.

So France’s answer to #BlackLivesMatter is now a durable reality, as is the debate over statues and other historical symbols regarding France’s history of colonialism and slavery. As Abdellali Hajjat observes in his Mediapart post, the American protest movement has spawned an internationalization of the antiracist cause. What is striking here in France is the somewhat panicky reaction of politicians and mainstream media commentators, from the right to center-left, with their hoary invocations of the universal values of the hallowed French republican model, which does not recognize the existence of race or ethnicity—unlike the “modèle communautariste anglo-saxon” of the French imagination—so whatever racism that exists in France can only be epiphenomenal, not at all structural. French politicos and pundits—and French people in general—have a hard time dealing with race and ethnicity when it relates to France’s colonial past—epitomized most recently by the disgraceful manner in which Emmanuel Macron spoke on the matter in his televised address this past Sunday (and which 14 prominent scholars with specialized knowledge of the subject properly shredded in a collective tribune in the June 23rd Le Monde).

When it comes to police violence, French commentators are right to say that France is not the USA; as I wrote in my June 3rd post on the George Floyd protests, there is no comparison between the two countries on this score. French police behave in many nasty ways but do not draw their guns and pull the trigger as do their US counterparts. Swarthy and dark-skinned persons in France may experience humiliations or indignities when encountering flics—the contrôle au faciès, which I wrote about eight years ago and is the subject of a Human Rights Watch report released just last week, is an old and never-ending story, and police violence is a reality (and concerns not only members of visible minorities)—but, notwithstanding bavures that end in a fatality, French persons of color do not fear for their lives as do their counterparts outre-Atlantique (for the latest account on this, see the powerful NYT op-ed by Ishmael Reed).

While the French police are less violent than the American—at least when it comes to killing people—they are no less racist in their attitudes; e.g. the well-known pollster and political analyst Roland Cayrol, who is hardly a woke gauchiste, insisted on this himself on France 5 a couple of weeks back. With 54% of French cops reportedly having voted for Marine Le Pen in the 1st round of the 2017 presidential election (she received 21% nationally), why would it be otherwise? In a tribune in the June 10th Le Monde, social scientist Rachid Benzine and Catholic priest Christian Delorme—who was an initiator of the above-mentioned 1983 march—weighed in on the causes of the hostile relationship between the police and the younger generation of France’s visible minorities. Comparing France and the USA, they observe [N.B. for the benefit of non-Francophone readers, the passages below have been fed through Google Translate and edited]:

And even if, in effect, Emmanuel Macron’s France is not Donald Trump’s America, and if the police of the two countries cannot be equated, what is happening in America works like a magnifying mirror of our own reality.

On the quasi impunity of the police, which in France appears almost to be greater than in the USA:

No government in any country in the world can afford to have its police against it, and that is why, almost every time when violence or racist behavior is reported by members of the security forces, the tendency of political authorities is to almost systematically let them off the hook. The judiciary itself, which cannot too strongly oppose the police as an institution, which is its “armed wing,” also cannot allow itself to too harshly sentence police officers or gendarmes [prosecuted for violent behavior].

Overly flagrant behavior is sanctioned on rare occasions and “bad apples” punished, but for forty years there has been, on the part of government officials and the national police [which is under the authority of the Ministry of Interior], a refusal to question the depth of the dysfunctions in the relationship between the police and “youths of the suburbs” (jeunes des banlieues), a euphemism for young blacks and North Africans.

Benzine and Delorme do observe that the police in France, quite unlike their US counterparts, are often afraid to go into the banlieues, less because they fear for own physical integrity than they might wound or kill someone themselves.

They conclude:

It is therefore urgent to call into question the root causes of this divide between the jeunes des banlieues and the police. These are obviously multiple, notably linked to economic disparities and urban segregation. But they have, above all, a historical foundation: that of a French police force which, after the Second World War, was constructed in the fight against Algerians in France who agitated for Algerian independence.

Since 1954 [when the Algerian war of independence began], the relationship between the police and “visible minorities” has not changed. And whether we like it or not, there is a link between the Algerians who were thrown to the Seine on October 17, 1961, by the police, then headed by the sinister Prefect Maurice Papon, and the black or North African victims of recurrent police “blunders.”

It is a legacy issue. It is a problem of colonial and post-colonial culture. It goes beyond individuals and is thus not a matter of indiscriminately condemning people. But if you close your eyes too much about it, the Republic is, as it were, hitting a wall. As we know: fear leads to violence.

The legacy of Algeria. À propos, I am looking at a (448 page) book on a shelf in my study by political scientist Emmanuel Blanchard, La police parisienne et les Algériens (1944-1962) (Paris: Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2011). Vast subject.

It’s possible that I’ve missed it but I have heard or seen no mention in the media debate over the past three weeks of last fall’s hit film, Les Misérables, the subject of which is precisely the relationship between the police and youthful members of visible minorities (mainly black) in the banlieues. The film is, as I’ve written elsewhere, the best in the North/Sub-Saharan African immigrant-populated banlieue ghetto genre in years, if not ever. It was a box office success, with over 2 million tix sold (a lot for France); received stellar reviews; won the Jury Prize ex æquo at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and the 2020 César award for Best Film; was nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature Film; and was just one of those movies people saw and talked about. If one wants to know about the interface between the police and the “jeunes des banlieues,” the scene in the trailer (at the 0:16 mark) sums it up. Such happens every day somewhere in France and has been experienced by countless youthful members of visible minorities.

The film depicts the day in the life of three cops of the BAC (Brigade Anti-Criminalité), whose beat is the Cité des Bosquets in Montfermeil, a Paris banlieue in the Seine-Saint-Denis (the famous “neuf-trois”: the poorest and most heavily immigrant populated department in France): the rookie good cop (actor Damien Bonnard, always first-rate), the bad cop (Alexis Manenti, who won the César award for Most Promising Actor), and the visible minority cop (Djebril Zonga), who grew up in a cité (public housing project) himself (and visible minority cops being a recent phenomenon in France). The BAC, which specializes in muscular interventions in “quartiers sensibles,” i.e. cités in the banlieues, has a terrible reputation with the youths who encounter it; anthropologist Didier Fassin, who gained authorization to embed himself with a BAC unit in the Paris region for 15 months (in 2006-07)—and wrote a book based on his field work—witnessed up close the unit’s “racist discourse,” “discriminatory practices,” “scenes of humiliation,” “abusive contrôles au faciès,” and the like. As for Montfermeil’s Cité des Bosquets, which has been labelled the “worst ghetto in the Seine-Saint-Denis,” director Ladj Ly grew up there, so knows it rather well. Montfermeil is also particular, as it is, minus the Bosquets, one of the most well-to-do (and “white”) communes in the “neuf-trois.” It has also been (along with neighboring Clichy-sous-Bois, where the 2005 riots started), poorly served by public transportation (until the long-awaited extension of the T4 tram line six months ago), thus isolating it from Paris (and employment prospects for Bosquets residents).

I was interested in the Bosquets/Montfermeil side of the film, as I visited that cité once, in 1998, during the campaign for the regional elections that March. I accompanied a candidate, Jamel Sandjak—a well-known personality in the soccer world of the Île-de-France and an activist in the center-left PRG (an eternal junior ally of the Socialist party)—on a campaign foray into the Bosquets. Three things struck me about the place. First, its spatial isolation. We parked the car in a quartier pavillonnaire—a neighborhood of nice, single-family homes—and walked a half kilometer or so, through open terrain, to reach the cité. It was another world from the main part of the town. Second, as it was a Saturday morning and market day, the commercial center of the Bosquets was bustling, with lots of people out and about. No one looked to be ethnically French. I saw one or two “white” persons—who were probably Portuguese or something, not Français de souche—but everyone else was of North or Sub-Saharan African origin (with maybe some Turks and Sri Lankans). The ambiance was North African-Middle Eastern, not at all French. I indeed had the strange sentiment that I was not in France. Thirdly, the physical state of the cité was terrible. It was run down; in short, a slum—and in contrast to the buildings of the bordering cité (Chêne Pointu) in Clichy-sous-Bois, which were freshly painted and looked not bad. In France, the physical upkeep of public housing projects is the responsibility of local government. So whereas Clichy-sous-Bois had a Socialist mayor, who put money into the maintenance of public housing in his commune, Montfermeil’s ultra right-wing mayor, named Pierre Bernard, did the opposite. A royalist and for whom Jean-Marie Le Pen was too moderate (I’m not kidding), Mayor Bernard—who ran on the partisan label divers droite, which signifies way out there on the right—did absolutely nothing for the Bosquets, needless to say. I was reliably informed that young people who ventured in to the center of Montfermeil were made not to feel welcome—the attitude being ‘get back to your ghetto!’

Bernard’s successor in the Montfermeil mairie—who has seven children and hails from the Vendée (you can’t make these things up)—doesn’t look more moderate. And if what one sees in ‘Les Misérables’ reflects reality, the physical state of the Bosquets has, if anything, gotten even worse. One of the salutary aspects of the film is that it doesn’t focus exclusively on les jeunes but also gives attention to their elders. So one sees the BAC cops interacting correctly with the older men—mid 30s and 40s—who run the local kebab joint or have other above ground jobs—or maybe not—many of whom have done time in prison and almost all of whom have found religion (i.e. Islam). The men are the cops’ informal informants as to what’s going down in the cité. The relationship is uneasy but what choice is there. And then there are the bearded, djellaba-wearing salafis—the heavies—who clearly exercise authority in the cité, moral and maybe otherwise, with the cheeky teenage boys behaving deferentially in their presence, and respectfully listening to their entreaties to come to the mosque and learn about religion. As they are key social actors, the cops also have to deal with them. Again, no choice.

What is so exasperating about the maddening French polemicizing over communautarisme—a bogus neologism devoid of social scientific value—is that while politicians and pundits go on about the supposed existence of this phantasm chez les Anglo-saxons and how un-republican French it is, the very thing they execrate has been happening right under their noses in France for decades, and for which those who head the French state have no response apart from empty ideological exhortations and even emptier promises to fight discrimination. Emmanuel Macron and other politicians can denounce “communautarisme“—and now “separatisme,” whatever that’s supposed to mean—but they have no idea what to do about it. They have not a clue as how to change the reality of the Bosquets or all the other such ghetto cités.

If the French political class were serious about tackling the problems in the banlieues, and particularly the execrable relationship between the police and les jeunes, one positive step would be to legalize the consumption and sale of cannabis and other soft drugs, as the French state’s futile, unwinnable war on drugs is responsible for much of the police-jeunes tension (abusive identity checks, muscular interventions of the BAC, etc; again, see the beginning of the film’s trailer linked to above), not to mention the drug-trafficking gangs that rule the roost in so many cités, and with the consequent criminalization of so many youths, who end up with police records, do prison time, and you name it. But for incomprehensible reasons, the very debate over legalizing, or even decriminalizing, the recreational consumption of cannabis—as has happened in many countries and American states—has remained a near taboo subject in France. Emmanuel Macron endorsed decriminalization during the 2017 campaign but dropped the idea once elected. Even the PS has been skittish on the question.

The portrait of France depicted in the film is not all somber. It begins with footage of the wild celebrations that followed France’s victory in the World Cup final on July 15, 2018—and is the image chosen for the film’s poster—which united Frenchmen and women of all origins. As I posted at the time, the jeunes of immigrant origin waved the French tricolore, not the flags of their parents’ countries. It was a gratifying multiracial/multiethnic moment of communion and celebration.

‘Les Misérables’ has naturally been compared to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 landmark film La Haine, which it does take after (and particularly the final scene). ‘La Haine’, which I’ve seen three or four times, was one of the first in the genre and generated a lot of buzz when it came out: PM Alain Juppé deemed it so important that he held a screening at the Matignon and invited his ministers to attend, and Jodie Foster was so impressed with it that she supervised the English subtitling (she’s a perfect Francophone) and fast-tracked its US distribution. The pic has much to recommend it IMO (e.g. the scene of the three buddies venturing into Paris and their behavior at the vernissage is brilliant), but I am not an unconditional fan. First, the wellsprings of “the hate” that is the film’s theme are not made clear. Second, the fact that the three buddies were multiracial—black-blanc-beur (black-white-North African)—privileged a social class reading of the cleavage over an ethno-racial one, when the reality in the banlieues is the precise opposite. Third, the Vincent Cassel character—the “white”—overwhelmed the two others. Moreover, he was Jewish; I’m sorry but the image of the angry banlieue Jew just won’t fly. It’s not credible. There are plenty of Jews (Sephardi, from North Africa) in banlieue cités (notably in Sarcelles and Créteil)—though their numbers are declining as they move/flee to other parts of the Paris region (and some to Israel)—but their teenage sons tend not to hang out with groups of beurs et blacks. ‘La Haine’ was already surpassed in the genre by Abdelllatif Kechiche’s excellent 2003 ‘L’Esquive’ (English title: Games of Love and Chance) and has definitely been by ‘Les Misérables’.

The 1983 March for Equality and Against Racism, mentioned above, also received cinematic treatment, with the 2013 film La Marche, by Belgian director-actor-screenwriter Nabil Ben Yadir and with an ensemble cast of well-known actors and actresses, including Olivier Gourmet, Jamel Debbouze, Hafsia Herzi, Lubna Azabal, and Vincent Rottiers. The film’s release was timed to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the final week of the march, which arrived in Paris on December 3rd and with tens of thousands having joined in, seven weeks after the original 17 marchers set out from Marseille. It received buzz in view of the anniversary and I naturally saw it right away, but it was a box office failure and received middling reviews (here’s a positive US one), with many criticizing distortions or fictionalizations of the event, plus the fact that the film ended with the December 3rd Paris rally and famous audience/photo op with President Mitterrand at the Élysée (this scene from newsreel footage), when this was only the opening act in a new social movement of French-born children of immigrants from the Maghreb. The film did specify at the outset that it was “inspired” by the veritable history of the march, so there was inevitably going to be some fictionalization (notably with the characters’ names), but I thought it hued fairly closely to the historical record, so far as I’ve read about it at least. Lots has been written on the event but, from a social scientific standpoint, the reference is Abdellali Hajjat’s La Marche pour l’égalité et contre le racisme (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2013). Excellent book. As for the film, I didn’t think it bad. If one has any interest in the subject, it may certainly be seen.

I will resist the temptation to go on further on the 1983 march, which was a seminal event. Just a few points. First, the catalyst of the march was the abusive or violent behavior of the police toward les jeunes des banlieues (the epicenter at the time being the big cités in the satellite towns east of Lyon). Thirty-seven years later, nothing has changed on that score. Second, the march may have brought the Maghrebi second-generation (les beurs) to the attention of public opinion, and in dramatic fashion, but the political activism of young Franco-Maghrebis was already intense at the time (and a significant part involving the offspring of Harkis, whose situation had its specificities). Associational life in the banlieues—a good part of which was linked to the radical left—was teeming, though associational activists, notably in the Lyon area, were cool to the march. There was, initially at least, not a groundswell of militant support for it. Third, once the march gained media coverage, the political class, both left and right—save the Front National (1983 was its breakout year)—expressed sympathy for the marchers. That the left was in power was important (the Socialists’ efforts to co-opt and tame the élan of the movement came later). Fourth, the historiques of the 1983 march saw their action as following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. One may also note that the 17 original marchers included two Catholic priests—one the engagé Father Delorme—and a Protestant pastor, and that the Lyon chapter of the historically Protestant humanitarian NGO Cimade played a key role. There was little mention of Islam during the march. Matters are somewhat different today.

À suivre.

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De Gaulle

He’s a leading story in the news today, in France at least. If one needs reminding, today is the 80th anniversary of the Appel du 18 juin, the brief address of the great general—though who was not too well known at that moment—to the French people, from London over the airwaves of the BBC, calling on France to continue resisting the German invaders and not capitulate in suing for an armistice—which is what the newly-appointed prime minister, Philippe Pétain, did four days later (de Gaulle returned to BBC HQ on that day to rerecord the address; listen to it here). As we know, hardly anyone in France heard the address and no recording of the original remains, but, as British historian Julian Jackson states in the opening paragraph of his 928-page biography of the general—called “monumental” and “magisterial” on both sides of the Channel and Atlantic—it was with this that De Gaulle “entered history,” ultimately becoming the greatest Frenchman of the 20th century—though as Jackson reminded the audience on France Inter this morning, it could not have happened without Winston Churchill.

There’s so much to say about Charles de Gaulle—I spend several classes on him in courses I teach on France and 20th century Europe: WWII, Algeria, the Fifth Republic and the 1960s—but will just mention the movie here. Churchill got his with director Joe Wright’s  riveting 2017 Darkest Hour—for which Gary Oldman justly won the Academy Award for Best Actor—entirely set in May 1940, when Churchill, almost seul contre tous, refused to capitulate to Hitler. De Gaulle receives like treatment in Gabriel Le Bomin’s biopic, simply entitled De Gaulle, which opened here on March 4th—two weeks before the beginning of the confinement, when all theaters shut down. The film covers the catastrophic seven weeks of the Fall of France, in May-June 1940, and of de Gaulle, literally seul contre tous, refusing capitulation to Hitler. It’s a movie for the masses and a tad hagiographic—de Gaulle is portrayed as both defender of the honor of France and a devoted husband and father (which he was)—but I liked it all the same. On the Allociné scale, I rated it 4.0 (very good). The historical details are accurate and the acting first-rate, notably Lambert Wilson as de Gaulle, Isabelle Carré as wife Yvonne, and Olivier Gourmet as the hapless PM Paul Reynaud. It’s a well-done film, which did not merit the mixed reviews of US film critics I otherwise hold in high esteem. With cinemas reopening next Monday, its run in France will resume. Trailer with English s/t is here.

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[update below]

That’s the title of a typically excellent essay by my dear friend Adam Shatz, posted on the LRB website on June 5th (it will be in the June 18th issue), in which he weighs in on the events in the US over the past two weeks—and, more generally, on the subject of race in America, on which his knowledge is deep. I would normally say that I could have signed the piece myself, though Adam, as is his wont, includes numerous literary and historical references that are beyond my culture intellectuelle.

One literary personality Adam cites at several points is James Baldwin, which prompted me to rewatch Raoul Peck’s powerful documentary I Am Not Your Negro (available on Netflix in France; in the US, on Amazon Prime and maybe other platforms), which I first saw en salle when it opened here in May 2017. If one doesn’t know the pic, it was inspired by James Baldwin’s unfinished memoir, Remember This House, of his friendship with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, plus letters and notes of his from the 1970s. It’s a reflection on the Black experience in America through the words of Baldwin (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson; in the French version, by Joey Starr), and with impressive archival footage—much of it devastating images of the violence, verbal and physical, visited upon Afro-Americans throughout history by the police and white mobs. I know this history pretty well but still, seeing the latter—the hatred of white mobs, particularly aimed at Black children integrating schools—is quite shocking. I can think of no other comparable experience in any other country.

On this score, Baldwin recounts a story from his youth, in the 1940s or ’50s, of a friendship he had with a blond white girl in New York City, of them going to the movies—in Manhattan mind you, not some town in Tennessee—but how they had to go to the theater separately, as they could not walk on the street or take the subway together; to be seen together in public would have put both at great risk, at the hands of the police or just passers-by.

In no other country would this have obtained (South Africa and maybe a couple of others excepted), and certainly not in France. France has been no stranger to racism, bien évidemment, but there has never been a taboo on interracial love. The documentary has a segment of Baldwin on the Dick Cavett Show, in 1968, where he is contradicted in his views on race in America by Yale philosophy professor Paul Weiss. Baldwin tells him:

The years I lived in Paris [from 1948] did one thing for me: they freed me from that particular social terror which is not the paranoia of my own mind but is visible on the face of every cop, every boss, everybody…

Further along, there are these words by Baldwin (accompanied by the video of Rodney King being pummelled by L.A.’s finest):

I sometimes feel it to be an absolute miracle that the entire Black population of the United States of America has not long ago succumbed to raging paranoia. People finally say to you, in an attempt to dismiss the social reality, “But you’re so bitter!” Well, I may or may not be bitter but if I were, I would have good reasons for it, chief among them that American blindness or cowardice, which allows us to pretend that life presents no reasons for being bitter.

If you haven’t seen ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, this is as good a time as any to do so.

UPDATE: Conservative Never Trumper David French has a post on his blog recounting how he discovered the reality of systemic racism in America.

The founder of the New York real estate company Harlem Lofts, Robb Pair, who hails from rural Virginia—and is the husband of a cousin of mine—has posted a heartfelt video statement on Facebook, “My apology to Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, et al.”

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2020 César awards

[update below]

The French film industry’s carbon copy imitation of the Oscars. The awards ceremony is tomorrow (Friday; it’s normally two days before the Oscars but not this year) The list of nominees is here. Leading with twelve nominations is ‘J’accuse’ (An Officer and a Spy), ‘Les Misérables’ and ‘La Belle époque’ each with eleven, ‘Portrait de la jeune fille en feu’ (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) with ten, ‘Hors normes’ (The Specials) and ‘Grâce à Dieu’ (By the Grace of God), each with eight, and ‘Roubaix, une lumière’ (Oh Mercy!) with seven.

A couple of things. First, I don’t care one way or another about the César awards—it’s just a pretext to write about movies (as with the Oscars, which I care even less about)—but the ceremony will be interesting this year in view of the recent affairs to hit the French film industry: of Adèle Haenel’s bombshell interview last November of the sexual harassment she was subjected to at age 12 by director Christophe Ruggia—as Haenel is a major actress, what she had to say was a big story in the media—and how the film industry missed the boat on the #MeToo movement, and the resignation two weeks ago of the entire board of the César Academy following the open letter signed by 400 filmmakers and actors condemning the Academy’s opacity, elitism, and sexism. Second, there were an exceptional number of very good French films last year, all of which have been nominated for one or more awards. So here goes.

BEST FILM: Les Misérables.
A terrific movie—which I will write about soon—the best of the North/Sub-Saharan African immigrant-populated banlieue ghetto genre in years, if not ever (and it was a big commercial success to boot, with over 2 million tix sold, which is a lot for France). J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy), on the Dreyfus Affair—which I will also write about before too long—is also excellent (and a box office success), as is Hors normes (The Specials), a crowd-pleaser (and box office hit) based on a recent actual story in Paris, of the heroic, almost superhuman efforts of two men (an orthodox Jew and a Muslim, though that’s just a detail, not dwelled upon) who run an association (unlicensed, housed in a Hasidic synagogue) to care for and prepare for adult life severely autistic children and adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds who have been turned out of established institutions, which cannot cope with them, but with the association being threatened with closure by state inspectors (spoiler alert: the ending is happy). Also very good is François Ozon’s Grâce à Dieu (By the Grace of God), about the Bernard Preynat affair, the pedophile priest who sexually abused dozens of boys from the 1970s to the early ’90s in the Lyon area, and of the campaign of three of his now adult victims to bring him to justice—which was achieved shortly after the film’s release—and in the face of stonewalling from the church hierarchy. Likewise with the gritty policier Roubaix, une lumière (Oh Mercy!), described by cinephile and loyal AWAV reader Massilian as a “grand film, without doubt Arnaud Desplechin’s most poignant and heartrending,” and quite simply “excellent” and “formidable.” I was less taken with Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), considered by a number of US/UK critics to be the best French film of the year but that I thought a little overrated. As for Nicolas Bedos’s crowd-pleasing rom-com La Belle époque, also praised to the high heavens by US/UK critics, it was perfectly watchable but didn’t knock my socks off.

BEST DIRECTOR: Ladj Ly for ‘Les Misérables’.
Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache for ‘Hors normes’ are also meritorious. Likewise Roman Polanski for ‘J’accuse’, except that it would, for obvious reasons, be unconscionable for the César Academy to give him the award (and he will wisely not be showing up at the ceremony anyway).

BEST ACTOR: Vincent Cassel in ‘Hors normes’.
I have long disliked Cassel but he is quite simply excellent in this. Also tops are Jean Dujardin as Lt. Col. Picquart in ‘J’accuse’, Damien Bonnard as the good cop in ‘Les Misérables’, and Roschdy Zem as the cop (good) in ‘Roubaix, une lumière’. Somehow I won’t be surprised if Daniel Auteuil gets it for his role in ‘La Belle époque’, as a disabused 60-something illustrator en fin de carrière seeking to rekindle the spark with his wife (a crowd-pleasing theme), played by Fanny Ardant (best supporting actress nominee).

BEST ACTRESS: Karin Viard in Chanson douce (The Perfect Nanny).
I actually did not like this film—a (flawed) cinematic adaptation of Leïla Slimani’s 2016 Goncourt-winning novel—which I found creepy and had me uncomfortable throughout (and not to mention the horrific ending), but Viard’s performance as the nanny from hell is disconcertingly powerful. She’s an exceptional actress. Eva Green is also very good in the very good Proxima, in which she plays a French astronaut training for a mission on the Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station, realizing the dream of her life but which she has to juggle with her responsibilities as the mother of an 8-year-old child. The film—which is technically very well done (and partly shot in Russia and Kazakhstan)—is a tribute to all the astronaut/cosmonaut women/mothers over the years of all nationalities, indeed to all women who have sought to excel in demanding professions and succeeded, all while raising children. The always pleasant Anaïs Demoustier is likewise good in Alice et le maire (Alice and the Mayor), as the earnest, newly-hired normalienne adviser and speechwriter to the ageing longtime mayor of Lyon (played by Fabrice Luchini, whose character rather obviously conjures Gérard Collomb), who was once full of ambition and bubbling with ideas but is intellectually and politically running out of gas and in need of inspiration (which his perky adviser, Alice, provides). I wasn’t too enamored with Chiara Mastroianni in Chambre 212 (On a Magical Night), who plays a late 40ish university professor and femme volage who walks out on her nice guy husband to spend a night in an apartment across the street (on Rue Delambre in Montparnasse, which I’ve been on several thousand times), where she can revisit (in her head) the moments spent with the many men in her life, including a student (Vincent Lacoste) half her age (a fantasy of male directors) and her husband when they were young. The film didn’t work for me. I was also not too taken with the invariably very good Adèle Haenel in ‘Portrait de la jeune fille en feu’, though am pretty sure that she’ll win the award for this.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Louis Garrel as Alfred Dreyfus in ‘J’accuse’.
This is a coin toss, as Grégory Gadebois is also good as Lt. Col. Henry in the same film. Likewise with Swann Arlaud and Dénis Menochet in ‘Grâce à Dieu’. I can’t speak to Benjamin Lavernhe in ‘Mon inconnue’ (Love at Second Sight), as I haven’t seen this one.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Sara Forestier in ‘Roubaix, une lumière’.
Hands down. Also tops is Laure Calamy in Seules les bêtes (Only the Animals), a slick, riveting, non-linear thriller that travels back-and-forth between the rugged Grands Causses in deepest France and teeming Abidjan in the Ivory Coast, and with sudden twists in the plot. Really good movie.

MOST PROMISING ACTOR: Anthony Bajon in Au nom de la terre (In the Name of the Land).
This is a very good film (and was a box office hit) about a farmer (Guillaume Canet) in the 1990s in the Pays de la Loire, who, buried in debt, ends up taking his life; a true story of director Edouard Bergeon (Bajon is him as a teenager) and his father, dedicated to the farmers who, facing financial ruin, commit suicide (and they’re numerous, as we learn in the credits at the end). Alexis Manenti as the bad cop and Djebril Zonga as the conflicted POC cop in ‘Les Misérables’ are meritorious, as is Liam Pierron, the cheeky teen with attitude in La Vie scolaire (School Life), directed by Grand Corps Malade and Mehdi Idir, a first-rate film (and big box office hit), almost documentary-like, about a middle school in Saint-Denis and the interaction between pupils, teachers, and staff. The umpteenth film of the jeunes de banlieue genre but a good one. Benjamin Lesieur is touching as the young Joseph in ‘Hors normes’.

MOST PROMISING ACTRESS: Céleste Brunnquell in Les Éblouis (The Dazzled).
A no-brainer. This 13/14-year-old girl (her age in the pic) is simply stunning in this terrific movie about a devout bourgeois family in the Charente that joins a traditionalist Catholic community, but which turns out to be a cult, with the brainwashed parents under the spell of the community leader-guru (played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin) but the children wiser to what’s going on. Nina Meurisse in Boris Lojkine’s Camille is good in this very good biopic of the intrepid photojournalist Camille Lepage, who was killed in 2014 while covering the civil war in the Central African Republic. A tribute of sorts to the brave reporters who risk their lives informing the world of nasty wars in poor countries that few outside those countries’ regions know or care about. Lyna Khoudri is radiant in Papicha, as a first-year university student in Algiers during Algeria’s 1990s ‘years of terrorism’ (Islamist). And Mame Bineta Sané is memorable in the somewhat surreal Atlantique (Atlantics), set in contemporary Dakar, Senegal, entirely in Wolof and with a migration theme (I was looking forward to this film, which, while good and worth seeing, fell a little short of my expectations).

BEST FIRST FILM: ‘Au nom de la terre’ (In the Name of the Land).
‘Les Misérables’ is the obvious choice but as I’ve already named it Best Film I’m not going to repeat it here. Mounia Meddour’s ‘Papicha’ and Mati Diop’s ‘Atlantique’, though French co-productions, are not stricto sensu French films, so I’m not sure if they belong in this category (I will write separately on ‘Papicha’, in an eventual post on contemporary Algerian cinema). ‘Le Chant du loup’ (The Wolf’s Call) has been well-reviewed but I have yet to see it.

UPDATE: ‘Les Misérables’ happily won best film, Roman Polanski best director (!), Roschdy Zem best actor (deserved, and for his entire career), Anaïs Demoustier best actress (surprising; not an obvious choice), Swann Arlaud best supporting actor (he’s good), Fanny Ardant best supporting actress (pourquoi pas?), Alexis Manenti most promising actor (why not?), Lyna Khoudri most promising actress (nice; A Star Is Born), and ‘Papicha’ best first film (salutary hat tip to the dynamism of contemporary Algerian cinema. which gets little help from the official cultural establishment there). Full list is here.

As for Polanski’s award, this prompted an immediate walkout by Adèle Haenel, followed by Céline Sciamma and others. Polanski is a great director—no dispute about that—and, all things being equal, he did deserve the award for ‘J’accuse’. But all things are not equal and given Polanski’s personal history with women, it was unconscionable to give him the award. It’s almost as if the old men of the César Academy (and maybe some of the old women too) were thumbing their noses at the #MeToo movement. Good for Adèle Haenel.

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2020 Oscars

Voilà my annual Oscars post. I’ve seen all of the films in the top categories that have opened so far in France (or Germany). The list of nominees is here. Here are my brief takes, beginning with the Best Picture nominees.

Ford v Ferrari: Best popcorn movie of the year, not to mention the best on auto racing since the terrific Rush (which is to say, one of the two best movies ever made on the auto racing theme; okay, there’s also Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, so one of the three best). I thoroughly enjoyed it (as did movie-goers in France, who gave it the thumbs way up). It’s a great story (a true one, of course) and with a first-rate cast (Matt Damon and Christian Bale are tops). If you haven’t seen it and can appreciate a well-done, entertaining movie for the grand public, by all means do so; you won’t regret.

The Irishman: I’ve had mixed feelings about Martin Scorsese’s films over the years (having seen all but two or three). Of his gangster pics, I thought ‘Goodfellas’ was excellent (there’s a general consensus on this), though not so much ‘Casino’. ‘Mean Streets’ is a little dated but still worthy (I saw it recently, for the first time in four decades). ‘The Departed’ was okay and all but the Hong Kong original, ‘Infernal Affairs’, did not need a remake. ‘The Irishman’, while not a chef d’œuvre, is up there with ‘Goodfellas’. The story is gripping, the acting exceptional (particularly Joe Pesci; and Anna Paquin’s character—Frank Sheeran’s catatonic daughter—was as it should have been), and one simply does not see the three-and-a-half hours go by. As for the story—of the mob of the era, the heyday and demise of Jimmy Hoffa (played by Al Pacino), and, more generally, of an important slice of American labor history, indeed modern American history tout court—the pic is worth seeing for that alone (here in France, I’ve had to tell people the story of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters, which are unknown). All the characters were real, as the events, though with a few exceptions and one major one in particular, which is the big issue with the film. As one is probably aware (though not in France), Scorsese’s screenplay is based on an account—that of the real-life Frank Sheeran (“the Irishman,” played by Robert De Niro)—that is almost certainly not credible, and particularly in regard to the murder of Jimmy Hoffa. In other words, the story is, at crucial moments, bullshit (on this, see the articles by Bill Tonelli in Slate and Jack Goldsmith in the NYR Daily). Now a movie may recount historical nonsense and still be riveting, top-notch entertainment, e.g. Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’, which is based on a crazy conspiracy theory. And such is the case here. But still. If Scorsese’s œuvre were not driven by a bullshit version of history, he wouldn’t have been able to make the movie, and least not as he did. It’s still a good one, though.

Jojo Rabbit: It takes an addled mind IMHO to conceive of and make a light comedy about the Nazis and Hitler, and with children at the center. What an unpleasant movie, and which is, moreover, not at all funny (I didn’t chuckle even once, let alone laugh out loud). Its Oscar nominations—and particularly for Best Picture—are incomprehensible. That’s as much as I have to say about it

Joker: I was initially not going to see this one, as it’s not the kind of movie I normally see and I have not been a fan of Joaquin Phoenix, but relented in view of the hype. When asked by friends what I thought of it, I replied that it’s both a horrible movie and a very good one. It’s horrible because of the extreme violence—actual and psychological—and from practically the opening scene. The violence and psychological abuse visited upon the Phoenix character, Arthur Fleck, are almost unbearable to watch, and all the more so as Fleck is, in the outset at least, a harmless man with a miserable life and suffering from mental illness plus a neurological disorder (on the mental illness theme and controversy over it, see this piece in The Guardian). Watching cruelty and humiliation visited upon vulnerable persons, I just hate that—though it’s a fact of life (there are so many cruel, sadistic people in this world) and not at all gratuitous in the film. It is indeed central. The ramped-up Bernhard Goetz-style vigilantism that Fleck indulges in after getting the pistol also unsettles—and in part because one feels grim satisfaction, at least initially, in his actions. As for what’s good about the film, there’s first Phoenix’s extraordinary performance. It’s an acting tour de force. Then there’s the image of “Gotham City,” which is, as those over a certain age will readily recognize, 1970s-80s New York City on steroids. It’s been a few decades since one has seen such a dystopian depiction of NYC (recalling ‘The Warriors’, ‘Escape from New York’, even ‘Taxi Driver’). Except that this one is not cartoon-like. The demagogic mayoral candidate—and Fleck’s putative progenitor—could be contemporary (suivez mon regard) and the nihilistic mob at the end—though whose rage against the injustice of the system is comprehensible—is positively Black Bloc-like, though in a polity where there has been a breakdown in state and civil society institutions, and with massive cutbacks in public services (causing Fleck to lose his mental health benefits). If the unspeakable person in the White House is reelected this November and then succeeded by a member of his family in 2024—the system having been thoroughly rigged—then this Gotham City vision could await us a decade down the road. But I digress. On account of these “very good” features of the film, I thus scored it a 4.0 (very good) on Allociné, though won’t recommend it to everyone (and definitely not to my mother).

Little Women: I was not familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s novel (what it’s about) before seeing the movie, which I am not ashamed to admit, as boys did not read such books in my day (and it was not assigned in any of my English classes in middle or high school). I found the first half of the film a little slow-going but got into it in the second. It’s a good period piece (of 1860s New England) and with a fine ensemble cast. And it’s a nice, heartwarming story to boot. So good movie.

Marriage Story: This one has been praised to the high heavens across the board but I frankly thought it overrated. Adam Driver is first-rate and Laura Dern is good, that I will grant, but Scarlett Johansson underwhelms IMHO. Grosso modo, I just didn’t relate to the marriage crisis and the way husband and wife interacted, which just struck me as so American. Their scènes de ménage irritated. I couldn’t imagine French couples acting out in such a manner. But one French friend of my generation liked it (and his wife even more) and with Paris critics and Allociné spectateurs alike giving the pic top marks. So maybe I’m the one who is à côté de la plaque. Go figure.

1917: I’ll see any epic film on WWI—not that many come out—in part because I’ve been teaching the subject (to American undergraduates) for a number of years and have been making the rounds of WWI sites in France (and with some major ones still to go). This one (set in the Pas-de-Calais) is engaging and well-done, and effectively conveys the horrors of the war on the front line, though I felt that the depiction of the trenches was maybe just a little sanitized, that they were in reality more insalubrious. But just a detail. Peu importe.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood: I see everything by Quentin Tarantino, though not everything he does need necessarily be seen. This one was perfectly entertaining—and several notches above the execrable The Hateful Eight—the cast is great (Brad Pitt and Leonardo Di Caprio are fun), and it has its moments, but I gave the pic no thought after leaving the theater. It’s empty calories. So it’s said to be a tribute to the end of an era in Hollywood. Bon, d’accord. Personally I have nothing in particular to say about it. C’est tout.

Parasite: I’m a total outlier on this one, which absolutely everyone—critics, audiences, and friends (with a single exception), and on both sides of the pond—has been showering with gushing, dithyrambic praise. I mean, everyone thinks this a chef d’œuvre. Quite frankly, I’m mystified. I found the pic entertaining enough when I first saw it last spring, with the grifter family adorable in its own way and its con job on the rich family amusing. This part was fine, though nothing to knock one’s socks off IMHO. Pas de quoi en tarir d’éloges. What turned me off, though, was the violent, over-the-top denouement, which I didn’t like, thus causing me to downgrade my score of the pic on the Allociné scale to 2.5 (so-so). The film is, according to critics, a metaphor for class struggle, which is to say, it has a neo-Marxist message. I’ve never thought of South Korea as a class-ridden society—or more than others—mais qu’est-ce que j’en sais? So there are rich people and poor people in South Korea. Quoi de neuf sous le ciel? Class struggle is indeed a theme in some of Bong Joon-ho’s films, e.g. his 2013 ‘Snowpiercer’, which was praised across the board but that I hated. So in view of the gushing, dithyrambic praise of ‘Parasite’—and consequent slew of accolades (Golden Globes, Oscar nominations, etc)—I decided that I should see it again—give it a second chance—which I did last month, at a special screening at my local cinéma municipal. The verdict: I upped my appreciation a notch—to 3.0 (okay/not too bad) on the Allociné scale—but continue to deem it overrated. One thing: as a foreign language film, it does not belong in the Oscars’ Best Picture category to begin with.

And then there are these:

Judy: A biopic of a once-famous, now forgotten American actress and chanteuse, of her profoundly sad life, from cloistered, regimented childhood to alcohol and drug-fueled demise in middle age. One still listens to Frank Sinatra but does anyone Judy Garland? The pic is entertaining enough, though not essential. One may see it or decide not to see it. Renée Zellweger (Best Actress nominee) is very good. She carries the film. The sequences with the gay couple are touching. C’est tout.

Bombshell: A good movie for the grand public of the fetid swamp of Fox News—and the culture of the American right more generally—and, in particular, of powerful, malignant narcissistic men obsessed with their quéquettes (translation here), the despicable male here being Roger Ailes, though to be fair and balanced, this syndrome of course spans the political spectrum and knows no ideological boundaries. An open and shut case for #MeToo. The actresses are all good: Charlize Theron (Best Actress nominee) and Nicole Kidman as Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson, respectively, and Margot Robbie (Best Supporting Actress nominee) as the fictitious Kayla Pospisil (your generic ditzy Fox News blond).

The Two Popes: A remarkable film about the relationship Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins, Best Supporting Actor nominee) forged in the latter years of his papacy with his future successor, the then Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce, Best Actor nominee). The two men are, as one knows, on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum—such as it is in the Catholic church—though the flashbacks to Argentina in the 1970s show the future Pope Francis to have been no leftist. I was thoroughly absorbed in the film. And the performances are first-rate.

My vote:

BEST PICTURE: ‘Joker’.
I hesitated on this in view of its downsides, but such is likewise with the n° 2 choice, ‘The Irishman’.

BEST DIRECTOR: Todd Phillips (‘Joker’).
I would have gone with Martin Scorsese had he not based his screenplay on an account recounted by a mythomaniac.

BEST ACTOR: Joaquin Phoenix (‘Joker’).
Hands down. Adam Driver (‘Marriage Story’) is also worthy. Antonio Banderas (‘Pain and Glory’), while excellent, does not speak English in his movie and which ain’t American to boot, so no to him.

BEST ACTRESS: Renée Zellweger (‘Judy’).
Saoirse Ronan (‘Little Women’) is second. As I haven’t seen ‘Harriet’ I can’t speak to Cynthia Erivo.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Joe Pesci (‘The Irishman’).
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’) is also good. Haven’t seen Tom Hanks in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Laura Dern (‘Marriage Story’).
Sort of by default, as there’s no obvious choice (but definitely not Scarlett Johansson in ‘Jojo Rabbit’!). Don’t know about Kathy Bates in ‘Richard Jewell’.

BEST INTERNATIONAL FEATURE FILM: ‘Les Misérables’.
A no-brainer (I’m also rooting for the home team). ‘Pain and Glory’—perhaps the best I’ve seen by Pedro Almodóvar (I’m normally not a fan of his, so am not familiar with much of his œuvre)—would be worthy. As for ‘Parasite’, see above. I haven’t seen ‘Corpus Christi’ or ‘Honeyland’.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: ‘For Sama’ and ‘American Factory’ ex æquo.
Both are terrific (and which will soon be posted on). ‘Edge of Democracy’ is good. ‘The Cave’ is a superb documentary on Syria, so Robert F. Worth informs us in the NYR Daily, but I have yet to see it.

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Best (and worst) movies of 2019

Voilà AWAV’s annual list (for last year’s, go here). The movies here opened in theaters this year in France. I see a lot of movies in the theater—two a week on average—but inevitably miss a few. As usual, several well-reviewed American movies that have come out over the past couple of months have yet to open in France. For the first time, the list includes Netflix exclusives. N.B. There was a higher-than-usual number of particularly good French movies this year.

TOP 10:
An Officer and a Spy (J’accuse)
Ash Is Purest White (江湖兒女 Les Éternels)
Balloon (Ballon)
Birds of Passage (Pájaros de verano)
Joker
Les Misérables
Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor)
So Long, My Son (地久天长)
The Specials (Hors normes)
The Two Popes

HONORABLE MENTION:
By the Grace of God (Grâce à Dieu)
Only the Animals (Seules les bêtes)
School Life (La Vie scolaire)
Someone, Somewhere (Deux moi)
The Dazzled (Les Éblouis)

BEST MOVIE FROM ALGERIA:
Papicha (بابيشة)

BEST MOVIE FROM TUNISIA:
Noura’s Dream (نورة تحلم)

BEST MOVIE FROM SENEGAL:
Atlantics (Atlantique)

BEST MOVIE FROM URUGUAY:
A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 años)

BEST POLITICAL THRILLER FROM ARGENTINA:
Rojo

BEST POLITICAL THRILLER FROM SPAIN:
The Realm (El Reino)

BEST MOVIE FROM IRELAND ABOUT ECONOMIC PRECARIOUSNESS IN THE AGE OF NEOLIBERALISM:
Rosie

BEST MOVIE FROM SWITZERLAND ABOUT THE VALUE ATTACHED TO HUMAN LIFE IN THE AGE OF NEOLIBERALISM:
Those Who Work (Ceux qui travaillent)

BEST MOVIE FROM GREECE ABOUT A SUBMISSIVE HOUSEWIFE WHO TAKES CHARGE OF HER LIFE:
Her Job (Η Δουλειά της)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT THE CRAP WOMEN HAVE TO PUT UP WITH IN THE WORKPLACE:
Working Woman (אישה עובדת)

BEST MOVIE FROM ISRAEL ABOUT CONSERVING THE MEMORY OF A HOLOCAUST MASSACRE COMMITTED BY AUSTRIANS:
The Testament (העדות)

BEST MOVIE FROM ROMANIA ABOUT CONSERVING THE MEMORY OF A HOLOCAUST MASSACRE COMMITTED BY ROMANIANS:
“I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (“Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari”)

BEST MAFIA MOVIE FROM ITALY:
The Traitor (Il traditore)

BEST CINEMATIC ADAPTATION FROM ITALY OF AN EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY AMERICAN NOVEL:
Martin Eden

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN OVER-THE-HILL POLITICIAN AND HIS EARNEST YOUTHFUL ADVISER:
Alice and the Mayor (Alice et le maire)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ON HOW REALLY HARD IT IS TO BE A SMALL FARMER:
In the Name of the Land (Au nom de la terre)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN INTREPID REPORTER DURING THE SIEGE OF SARAJEVO:
Sympathy for the Devil (Sympathie pour le diable)

BEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE ABOUT AN INTREPID REPORTER DURING THE CIVIL WAR IN THE CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC:
Camille

BEST FRANCO-BELGIAN MOVIE FROM RWANDA ABOUT RWANDAN SOLDIERS IN THE EASTERN CONGO:
The Mercy of the Jungle (La Miséricorde de la jungle)

BEST FRANCO-BELGIAN MOVIE ABOUT A PRISONER IN NEVADA AND HIS HORSE:
The Mustang

MOST MACABRE FEMINIST COMEDY FROM FRANCE:
Rebels (Rebelles)

MOST AMUSING NETFLIX COMEDY ABOUT A 1970s BLAXPLOITATION FILM DIRECTOR:
Dolemite Is My Name

MOST AMUSING ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN COMEDY MAKING SPORT OF THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT:
Tel Aviv on Fire (תל אביב על האש)

MOST LIGHTWEIGHT NETFLIX SATIRE ON HOW ORDINARY PEOPLE ARE SHAFTED BY THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM:
The Laundromat

MOST NOT BAD BY-THE-NUMBERS NETFLIX MOVIE SET IN A PARIS BANLIEUE:
Street Flow (Banlieuesards)

BLEAKEST FILM NOIR FROM CHINA SET IN WUHAN:
The Wild Goose Lake (南方车站的聚会)

MOST TEDIOUS MOVIE FROM RUSSIA SET IN POSTWAR LENINGRAD:
Beanpole (Дылда Une grande fille)

MOST OVER-THE-TOP MOVIE FROM BRAZIL SET IN THE SERTÃO OF THE NORDESTE:
Bacurau

MOST FATIGUING INDIE MOVIE SET IN MY HOMETOWN MILWAUKEE WISCONSIN:
Give Me Liberty

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE ABOUT FORMULA ONE AUTO RACING SINCE ‘RUSH’:
Ford v Ferrari

MOST ENTERTAINING BIOPIC OF A GREAT ENGLISH POP MUSIC SINGER:
Rocketman

MOST ENTERTAINING CINEMATIC TRIBUTE FROM ENGLAND TO A GREAT AMERICAN ROCK MUSIC SINGER:
Blinded by the Light

MOST ENTERTAINING HOLLYWOOD WHODUNIT MOVIE THAT DOES NOT NEED TO BE SEEN UNLESS ONE LIKES ENTERTAINING HOLLYWOOD WHODUNIT MOVIES:
Knives Out

BEST HOLLYWOOD MOVIE WITH MELISSA MCCARTHY AND RICHARD E. GRANT IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Can You Ever Forgive Me?

BEST NETFLIX MOVIE WITH ADAM DRIVER AND SCARLETT JOHANSSON IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Marriage Story

BEST HOLLYWOOD REMAKE OF A GOOD MOVIE FROM CHILE WITH JULIANNE MOORE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Gloria Bell

MOST FAR-FROM-PERFECT HOLLYWOOD MOVIE WITH CHRISTIAN BALE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Vice

MOST FAR-FROM-PERFECT HOLLYWOOD MOVIE WITH VIGGO MORTENSEN AND MAHERSHALA ALI IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Green Book

MOST NOT-PERFECT MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH JULIETTE BINOCHE IN THE LEAD ROLE:
Who You Think I Am (Celle que vous croyez)

MOST DEFINITELY NOT-PERFECT MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH VIRGINIE EFIRA AND ADÈLE EXARCHOPOULOS IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Sibyl

MOST ABSOLUTELY NOT-PERFECT MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH CHIARA MASTROIANNI IN THE LEAD ROLE:
On a Magical Night (Chambre 212)

MOST ONLY OKAY MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH DANIEL AUTEUIL IN THE LEAD ROLE:
La Belle époque

CREEPIEST MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH KARIN VIARD AND LEÏLA BEKHTI IN THE LEAD ROLES:
The Perfect Nanny (Chanson douce)

MOST RIDICULOUS MOVIE FROM FRANCE WITH JEAN DUJARDIN AND ADÈLE HAENEL IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Deerskin (Le Daim)

MOST COMPLICATED COURTROOM DRAMA FROM FRANCE WITH MARINA FOÏS AND OLIVIER GOURMET IN THE LEAD ROLES:
Conviction (Une intime conviction)

BEST MUST-SEE DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE POLITICS OF MEMORY OF THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR:
The Silence of Others (El silencio de otros)

BEST DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE MEMORY OF A DEMOCRACY EMBRACING ASYLUM-SEEKERS FROM A DICTATORSHIP:
Santiago, Italia

BEST MOST MOVING DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE MEMORY OF SUDAN’S INCIPIENT FILM INDUSTRY AND THE POLITICAL SYSTEM THAT PROVOKED ITS DEMISE:
Talking About Trees (الحديث عن الأشجار)

BEST MOST POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE WAR IN SYRIA:
For Sama (إلى سما)

BEST NETFLIX DOCUMENTARY FORESEEING THE FUTURE OF AMERICA’S DEMOCRATIC PARTY:
Knock Down the House

MOST FASCINATING DOCUMENTARY ABOUT AN INDUSTRIAL POTEMKIN VILLAGE DURING THE SOVIET ERA:
The Cacophony of Donbass (Какофонія Донбасу)

MOST UNSATISFYING DOCUMENTARY ABOUT A SMALL TOWN IN THE AMERICAN HEARTLAND:
Monrovia, Indiana

BEST MOVIE BY MARTIN SCORSESE:
The Irishman

BEST MOVIE BY PEDRO ALMODÓVAR:
Pain and Glory (Dolor y gloria)

BEST MOVIE BY ARNAUD DESPLECHIN:
Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, une lumière)

BEST MOVIE BY JEAN-PIERRE & LUC DARDENNE:
Young Ahmed (Le jeune Ahmed)

BEST MOVIE BY KEN LOACH:
Sorry We Missed You

BEST MOVIE BY YORGOS LANTHIMOS:
The Favourite

BEST MOVIE BY BARRY JENKINS:
If Beale Street Could Talk

MOST ENTERTAININGLY TENDENTIOUS MOVIE BY COSTA-GAVRAS:
Adults In the Room

MOST ENTERTAININGLY OFFBEAT MOVIE BY ELIA SULEIMAN:
It Must Be Heaven

MOST NOT-ALL-THAT-BAD OF A MOVIE BY CLINT EASTWOOD:
The Mule

MOST MERELY OKAY MOVIE BY WOODY ALLEN:
A Rainy Day in New York

MOST MIND-NUMBING MOVIE BY JAMES GRAY:
Ad Astra

MOST FORGETTABLE MOVIE BY QUENTIN TARANTINO:
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

MOST PROMISING DIRECTORIAL DEBUT BY HAFSIA HERZI:
You Deserve a Lover (Tu mérites un amour)

MOST UTTERLY FAILED DIRECTORIAL DEBUT BY CAROLINE FOUREST:
Sisters in Arms (Sœurs d’armes)

MOST SOMEWHAT OVERRATED MOVIE BY CÉLINE SCIAMMA:
Portrait of a Young Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

MOST OVERRATED MOVIE BY HIROKAZU KORE-EDA:
The Truth (La Vérité)

MOST FRANKLY OVERRATED MOVIE BY BONG JOON-HO:
Parasite (기생충)

MOST CRINGEWORTHY MOVIE BY FATIH AKIN:
The Golden Glove (Der Goldene Handschuh)

MOST NOT GOOD MOVIE BY RABAH AMEUR-ZAÏMECHE:
South Terminal (Terminal Sud)

MOST INSUFFERABLE MOVIE BY NADAV LAPID:
Synonyms

MOST PREPOSTEROUS MOVIE BY JORDAN PEELE:
Us

A NO DOUBT BEAUTIFUL MOVIE BY TERRENCE MALICK BUT THAT I COULDN’T BRING MYSELF TO GO AND SEE AS IT IS CERTAINLY VERY SLOW-PACED AND WAY TOO LONG:
A Hidden Life

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The 1619 Project

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

If one doesn’t know it:

The 1619 Project is a major initiative from The New York Times observing the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

I read all the articles this past week—those so far published, 17 by my count (the series is ongoing)—some 100 pages printed out (PDF is here), authored by well-known academics (historians and social scientists) and journalists (with the project directed by New York Times staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones). It’s an incredible series. Historian, Holocaust specialist, and old friend Marc Masurovsky described it well on his Facebook page:

A must-read, you have to read this special issue of the New York Times magazine…

It’s a shattering assessment of the history of America—white America—built on the blood of African slaves since 1619. A searing indictment of how American economic growth, political machines, and judicial decisions were rooted in the enslavement of millions of men, women and children. Generations of white businessmen, politicians, scholars, scientists, lawyers and judges, breathed and ate and drank segregationist and racist views…up to this day… and shaped and molded Federal and State policies to satisfy the segregationist agenda.

It makes one rethink what being American really means. And it’s simply frightening and appalling.

Oh, I know! We know the story of slavery and racism. But we really don’t. Please read this! You owe it to yourselves, to our African-American brothers and sisters. I am frankly ashamed that we have to bear this legacy. It’s bad to have committed genocide against the first inhabitants of what came to be known as America. If that wasn’t enough, we had to build the foundations of American democracy on the blood, flesh and tears of slaves. It makes you really wonder who the Bill of Rights was really written for and what that Declaration of Independence really means and for whom.

And no, I wasn’t born yesterday.

As Marc indicates, you may think you know the history of slavery and its legacy but, after reading The 1619 Project series, you realize you really don’t, at least not fully. There’s so much you don’t know or haven’t realized. And to call slavery America’s “original sin,” which just about everyone does, is too easy. It’s a throwaway line. Slavery was America’s crime: it was constitutive of the founding of the United States of America and the legacy of which weighs heavily today—and which is incarnated in the world-view of one of America’s two major political parties. As one reads in the series, the nature of American capitalism, the ideological rejection of universal social insurance schemes (a.k.a. the welfare state) by one of the major parties and the on-going battle over voting rights—making the US an outlier among advanced democracies—et on en passe, is a legacy of slavery and the century of apartheid that followed its abolition.

Sure, lots of countries had chattel slavery—Brazil, the islands of the Caribbean, Arabia, large parts of Africa, Thailand, etc—and which profoundly marked their politics and social structure (Brazil today is a big case in point) but we’re talking about the United States of America here, and where slavery and its legacy had some unique features.

Conservatives have unsurprisingly been flipping out over the 1619 series (a few reactions have been measured, though it’s obvious that most of those who are trashing the series have hardly read any of it). In responding to the conservative attacks, the NYT’s excellent columnist Jamelle Bouie (who has an article in the series) argues that “slavery was not a secondary part of our history: in America, liberty and bondage have always been intertwined.” And The Nation’s Jeet Heer observes that “conservatives’ freakout over The 1619 Project reveals their fear of America’s actual past.” Or, we should say, fear of a changing narrative of America’s past. E.g. some of the series authors refer to plantations as “forced-labor camps,” or “slave-labor camps,” and with all calling slave-owners “enslavers.” I will wager that in a generation, say twenty years from now, this nomenclature will be the prevailing one. An old Southern plantation doesn’t look the same if it’s labeled a “slave-labor camp.” This is, needless to say, deeply threatening to the conservative narrative—and largely white Southern—of American history.

On the question of historical narratives, the NYT published an op-ed on August 21st by writer and cultural critic Lewis Hyde, “How nationalism can destroy a nation,” in which he discusses Ernest Renan’s famous 1882 speech at the Sorbonne, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (What is a nation?)—which is the classic French republican statement on the question—and whose central idea is that of historical narrative and the will of the members of a nation—the nation being an abstraction—to live together (Renan’s “daily plebiscite”). And central to historical narratives, for Renan, is “forgetting,” of an implicit decision by the gatekeepers of the national narrative to gloss over parts of the past—or bury them altogether—that caused members of the nation to kill one another (Renan’s example for France was the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, i.e. the 16th century religious wars of Catholics vs. Protestants). In America, this was slavery and the Civil War. As David Blight and other historians have written, the reconciliation of the North and South was predicated on black Americans—the former slaves—being written out of the American national narrative, and of the Southern view of slavery as a benign institution becoming the dominant one—of the North, in effect, being southernized.

This narrative was blown apart by the civil rights movement, the formal end of legal apartheid in the 1960s, and the according of full rights of citizenship—of belonging to the American nation—to Afro-Americans. And with that, America has once again become a deeply divided society—with a reactionary, southernized Republican Party leading the resistance to this change—such as it has not been since, well, the Civil War.

A few months ago, here in a Paris, I was browsing in a recently-opened far right-wing bookstore. One book I leafed through was a paean to the antebellum South, by the late neo-fascist writer-historian Dominique Venner, the title of which translates as ‘The white sun of the defeated: the epic history of the South and the Civil War, 1607-1865’. In the book he explicitly refers to the United States as being comprised of “two nations”: the North and the South. He was certainly not wrong in describing it that way for the period covered in his book and, I dare say, he would not be totally wrong in it today.

A historical reminder: the United States of America was founded as a nation of white people. The 1790 Naturalization Act, which limited American citizenship to “free white person[s],” was explicit on this. Excluded from American citizenship were, of course, persons of African descent but also the indigenous population (the latter were only granted American citizenship in 1924, with the Indian Citizenship Act). Grounding the race-based conception of American nationality in law was, among others, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Act, with the provisions reaffirmed in the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act; the 1922 SCOTUS ruling Takao Ozawa v. United States, which refused naturalization to Japanese immigrants on the grounds that they were not part of the “Caucasian race;” and the 1923 SCOTUS ruling United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which likewise prohibited South Asian Indians, decreed as non-white, from acquiring American citizenship. The raced-based exclusions of Asians from naturalization were only repealed in 1943 (for Chinese), 1946 (Filipinos and Indians), and 1952 (for all others).

Today is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Paris in WWII by the Free French and United States. Le Monde has a five-minute video on its website entitled ‘Liberation of Paris: why was there not a single black soldier in the military parades?’, even though there were over 3000 African soldiers—principally Senegalese tirailleurs—in General Leclerc’s elite 2nd Armored Division, which spearheaded the liberation of the city. The answer: pressure on the French from the Americans to remove the black soldiers from General Leclerc’s forces.

One of the preoccupations of the US Army during WWII in regard to its black soldiers—as historian Raffael Scheck, interviewed in the above Le Monde video, reminds us—was fraternization with European women—there being no taboo on interracial intimacy in France, Britain, or anywhere on this side of the ocean—and the measures that were taken to prevent this (including court martials and execution of black soldiers for rape, even when more than a few of the accused rapes were, in fact, consensual relationships). The actual consequence of interracial affairs involving black American soldiers was cinematically depicted in the powerful 2017 Netflix film Mudbound, which is set in rural Mississippi in the aftermath of WWII. What happened to the black soldier returning from Europe when his love affair with a woman in Germany was discovered by the local white men was utterly real. Such happened countless times to black men in the South. The excruciating scene toward the end of the film—which is almost unbearable to watch—crystallizes America’s experience with slavery and its legacy. And, one may add, the evil of the white American South.

C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire, pour le moment au moins.

UPDATE: The (surprisingly good) Trotskyist World Socialist Web Site—the organ of a micro-sect called the Socialist Equality Party, heretofore unknown to me—has published lengthy interviews with James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood (here, here, and here), who are strongly critical of the 1619 Project. These three are, if one doesn’t know, major historians of the Civil War (McPherson, Oakes) and 18th century America (Wood), so their views on the question are to be read and pondered.

Prior to the interviews with the august historians, the World Socialist Web Site published (September 6) a hard-hitting critique authored by three highly knowledgeable Socialist Equality Party ideologues, “The New York Times’s 1619 Project: A racialist falsification of American and world history,” which is well worth the read.

2nd UPDATE: On the controversy over the 1619 Project—with Sean Wilentz leading the attack—see Adam Serwer in The Atlantic (December 23), “The fight over the 1619 Project is not about the facts: A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.”

3rd UPDATE: Sean Wilentz, writing in The Atlantic (January 22, 2020), continues his attack: “A matter of facts: The New York Times’ 1619 Project launched with the best of intentions, but has been undermined by some of its claims.”

4th UPDATE: In the Boston Review (January 24, 2020), David Waldstreicher—Distinguished Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York—weighs in on “The hidden stakes of the 1619 controversy.” The lede: “Seeking to discredit those who wish to explain the persistence of racism, critics of the New York Times’s 1619 Project insist the facts don’t support its proslavery reading of the American Revolution. But they obscure a longstanding debate within the field of U.S. history over that very issue—distorting the full case that can be made for it.”

5th UPDATE: Northwestern University history professor Leslie M. Harris, writing in Politico (March 6, 2020), says “I helped fact-check the 1619 Project. The Times ignored me.” The lede: “The paper’s series on slavery made avoidable mistakes. But the attacks from its critics are much more dangerous.”

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The Apollo 11 moon landing

Those over a certain age are remembering where they were when Apollo 11 landed on the moon fifty years ago today. I was 13 and in London, where I had arrived the day before with my family (driving from Italy and France; we crossed the Channel from Calais to Ramsgate, in the hovercraft). We were staying with relatives, on Pennine Drive in NW2, all watching the telly. I remember the first live image of the spacecraft on the ground and, at 2:40 AM on the 21st, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin emerging from the vessel. My mother and I went outside and pointed up at the moon, me excited and probably saying “there they are!”

I likewise remember—as a snapshot image—when the three astronauts came to Ankara, Turkey—where I was living at the time—in October (three months to the day after the landing; it was a sunny afternoon), on their world tour, of them waving to the multitudes from an open-top sedan in the procession down Atatürk Boulevard, the city’s main thoroughfare. A large part of the city turned out to see them.

On the subject, there’s the movie First Man, which opened last October and was nominated for four Oscars (in technical categories, winning one, for ‘best visual effects’). If one doesn’t know it, it’s the first feature-length non-documentary film on the Apollo 11 mission, with Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) at the center. I thought it very good and unexpected in its approach, as director Damien Chazelle opted not to make a classic ‘The Right Stuff’ kind of movie about the heroic march to the moon landing but instead meditate on the extreme dangers faced by NASA astronauts—who were taking their lives into their hands with each mission—and the psychological toll this took on them, their wives, and children (entre autres, the colleagues and friends who had perished in training and test flight accidents, not to mention the Apollo 1 disaster—and whose families were their friends—weighed heavily on all, as NASA in Houston was a tight-knit community). The Apollo missions, including the big one in July 1969, were anticipated by the astronauts and their families not with excitement but stoicism (for the former) and dread (the latter). And exhilaration did not necessarily follow the mission’s success. The subtext: history may be heroic but it is just as often tragic.

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Australia had a parliamentary election on Saturday, if one didn’t know, with the outcome a shocker, as the incumbent conservative coalition led by PM Scott Morrison won against all expectations, the polls having unanimously pointed to a decisive Labor Party victory. One does not have to care one way or another about Australian politics to regret this result, as the very conservative Morrison—who’s a Pentecostal (already one strike against him)—is not good on the climate change issue—which is particularly important there (Great Barrier Reef, etc)—and is downright execrable on immigration, which he was in charge of as a government minister in 2013-14, putting in place Australia’s cruel policy of sending asylum seekers (principally from Iran and Afghanistan) to Christmas Island, Nauru, and Papua New Guinea, where they are kept in what are in effect prison camps for years on end, their asylum applications rejected but with repatriation manifestly inadvisable (if one wishes to read about this—and be indignant—see the reportages by Roger Cohen here and here). Scott Morrison is not a good man.

One of the news articles I read about the Australian election referred to “the cut-throat world of politics in Canberra.” As it so happens, I just watched in the past month—on the recommendation of a political science friend—the full two seasons (six episodes each) of the riveting Australian Netflix series Secret City, which is entirely set in and around Canberra (with a few brief scenes in Adelaide in season 2). It’s all about espionage, geopolitics, and just Australian politics, and boy, it sure is cut-throat, both figuratively and [spoiler alert!] literally. Here’s a brief description from IMDb:

Beneath the placid facade of Canberra, amidst rising tension between China and America, senior political journalist Harriet Dunkley uncovers a secret city of interlocked conspiracies, putting innocent lives in danger including her own.

That’s as much as one needs to know. The screenplay is sophisticated—it’s very well written—the pacing impeccable, and the acting first rate. It’s an Aussie answer to the brilliant French series The Bureau (and is, needless to say, on a far higher level than ‘Homeland’). It’s just all around excellent. In the first season the bad guys appear to be China but that’s somewhat of a ruse, as in season 2 [spoiler alert!], a Deep State theme is developed (yes, there is indeed one Down Under). The message, and which holds everywhere: if you want to know where the real threat to your homeland comes from—to your security and freedoms—look at your own state. The threat is at home.

A sub-theme in season 2 [spoiler alert!] is drone warfare, of Australian military drones in action over Afghanistan and Pakistan, as part of the international coalition in that conflict—and of the PTSD-suffering drone pilot having notched 448 kills, so we learn, not all of whom were Taliban and other bad guys. This reminded me of the 2015 Hollywood movie, Good Kill, by director Andrew Niccol, which, to my knowledge, was the first one of its sort to focus on the ethical dilemmas of military drones, here via the états d’âme of the protag drone pilot, played by Ethan Hawke, who kills people in Af-Pak daily—who may or may not be combattants—whom he sees on his console screen at a base in Nevada, after which he goes home to wife and children in his sub-division. The film deals ably with its subject, though is somewhat marred by a Hollywoodish sub-plot about the protag’s marital problems. Reviews were middling, including in France, but the pic may certainly be seen (and Allociné spectateurs liked it more than did the critics).

On drone warfare and the effects it has on the soldiers who wage it via remote control, see the excellent New York Times Magazine article (June 13, 2018) by Eyal Press, “The wounds of the drone warrior.” And going back a few years: “Confessions of a drone warrior,” by Matthew Power, in GQ; “Everything we know so far about drone strikes,” by Cora Currier, in ProPublica; and Jane Mayer’s “The predator war: What are the risks of the C.I.A.’s covert drone program?,” in The New Yorker.

Back to ‘Secret City’, as much as I liked it I hope it doesn’t go to a third season. It achieved closure at the end of season 2. Nothing is left hanging and it said what it needed to say.

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[update below]

Everyone who follows American politics closely has probably heard about this terrific one-and-a-half-hour documentary, which is streaming on Netflix (the only place to see it; en France il est sous-titré). Its subject is the 2018 primary campaigns of four insurgent female candidates promoted by the progressive PACs Brand New Congress and, above all, Justice Democrats: Cori Bush in Missouri (against the incumbent Democrat, in the congressional district that includes Ferguson), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia (running against Joe Manchin), and Amy Vilela in Nevada (in a CD that includes part of Las Vegas, held by a Republican at the time). Voilà the story, as described on the film’s website:

When tragedy struck her family in the midst of the financial crisis, Bronx-born Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had to work double shifts in a restaurant to save her home from foreclosure. After losing a loved one to a preventable medical condition, Amy Vilela didn’t know what to do with the anger she felt about America’s broken health care system. Cori Bush was drawn into the streets when the police shooting of an unarmed black man brought protests and tanks into her neighborhood. Paula Jean Swearengin was fed up with watching her friends and family suffer and die from the environmental effects of the coal industry.

At a moment of historic volatility in American politics, these four women decide to fight back, setting themselves on a journey that will change their lives and their country forever. Without political experience or corporate money, they build a movement of insurgent candidates challenging powerful incumbents in Congress. Their efforts result in a legendary upset.

The upset was, of course, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning defeat of incumbent Joseph Crowley in the New York primary on June 26, 2018. As AOC was the only one of the four to win–and has since rocketed to star status–much of the documentary naturally focuses on her. She’s fantastic. I just love her (does any minimally progressive-minded person not?). And her story is moving, particularly at the end, on the night of the primary and then with her in front of the Capitol, talking about her father’s final words to her (he died when she was in college). Reviews of the pic are tops, as one would expect (et en France aussi, par ex., ici et ici). The trailer is here. And here is a 23-minute interview with director Rachel Lears—who, pour l’info, has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from NYU—by Cenk Uygur, on the making of the documentary. Do see it, even if you don’t subscribe to Netflix (which may be had for a free one-month trial). This is the future of the Democratic Party.

UPDATE: The Washington Post Magazine (July 10th) has a profile of AOC’s Chief-of-Staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, which is worth the read.

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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:

BEST PICTURE: ‘Roma’.
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’.

BEST DIRECTOR: Spike Lee.
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’.
Obviously.

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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