“How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Social Justice Fascism:” A Comedy-Drama in Four Acts

gish

Cast of Characters:

Actress Lillian Gish
Producer/Director D.W. Griffith
Bowling Green State University administrator (“Mr. Gobsmack”)
Black Lives Matter (BLM) representative
Black Student Union (BSU) representative
Two anonymous soldiers

ACT 1
February 8, 1915: The Birth of a Nation premieres in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.

Lillian Gish: “I don’t know, Mr. Griffith, this moving picture could cause trouble.”

D.W. Griffith: “Oh, come now, Miss Lillian. Just because it depicts the Ku Klux Klan as saviors? This is 1915 and no one cares. Who in Robert E. Lee’s name is this ‘Jim Crow’ fellow anyway? Besides, it’s not my fault…it’s the guy who wrote the book.”

Lillian Gish: “Well, despite the unusual interpretation of history, it is an awe-inspiring achievement. Critics are already calling it a motion picture landmark. It’s a shame sound hasn’t been invented yet, so people would be able to hear my voice.”

D.W. Griffith: “And Lil, you’ve done so well in Birth, I would like you to appear in my next epic project.”

Lillian Gish: “Mr. Griffith! Thank you! My friends back in Ohio will be so thrilled! What is the title?”

D.W. Griffith: “I’m calling it Intolerance.”

griffith

ACT 2
June 11, 1976: The GISH FILM THEATRE is dedicated at Bowling Green State University in northwest Ohio, U.S.A.

Bowling Green administrator: “…And in this glorious two-hundredth year since our nation’s birth, we humbly dedicate this new theatre to two of Ohio’s own, legendary actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish, for their combined 136 years on stage and screen!”

(loud applause)

Lillian Gish: “Thank you, Mr. Gobsmack. I accept this elegant honor in honor of my late sister and myself. Dorothy was a better actress than I, and I only wish she, and mother, could be here to bask in this lovely moment.”

Bowling Green administrator: “And tomorrow we will be presenting you with the honorary degree of Doctor of Performing Arts!”

(more loud applause)

Lillian Gish: “Dear me, you are all so very kind. I have never been a doctor before. By the way, can everyone out there hear my voice?”

ACT 3
February 2019: Black Lives Matter approaches Black Student Union at Bowling Green State University

BLM representative: “Put your smartphone down, brother. We gotta remove another intimidating and hostile name. We’ve been spendin’ time researchin’. Do you know who Lillian Gish is?”

BSU representative: “Uh…doesn’t she have a cooking show?”

BLM representative: “No! She was a white actress from Ohio! Did a bunch of silent films! She was in that film Birth of a Nation!”

BSU representative: “Huh? You mean that racist Civil War movie with Cary Grant?”

BLM representative: “No! You’re thinking Gone With the Wind, and the actor was Clark Gable! (But don’t worry, that movie is next on our agenda.) No, I’m talkin’ ’bout a 1915 film dealing with Reconstruction where the KKK is a hero!”kkk

BSU representative: “Damn! And she acted in that shit?! Yeah, we need to wipe out another name, like Wisconsin did last year with Fredric March. I’m now intimidated by that hostility!”

BLM representative: “Good, glad you agree. Get with those university trustees and tell them to wipe that intimidating and hostile Gish name offa that theatre.”

BSU representative: “Got it covered. And I guarantee it’ll be a 7-0 vote in favor of wiping.  No American college official these days wants to risk being labelled racist. We can’t tolerate our university having a performing arts theatre named after a legendary actress from Ohio who had the intolerance to appear in a racist film 104 years ago. We will wipe!”

BLM representative: “Cool. Her sister Dorothy wasn’t in any racist films that our people can determine—yet—but she doesn’t have a voice in this. This is 2019 and no one cares that her name will also be…uh…whitewashed. Anyway, she was friends with that Griffith guy!”

ACT 4 (Epilogue)
July 3, 2063: Somewhere on a field strikingly similar to Cemetery Ridge near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

First soldier: “I think this battle could be the turning point in the war.”

Second soldier: “You could be right. Finally, the end of political correctness.”

First soldier: “Yep. You don’t need to correct anything when there’s nothing left to correct.”

(fade out)

pickett's charge

Speaking Truth to Power in Tinseltown

Olivia de Havilland portrait

She is 102 years old. Her first screen appearance was in 1935 in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In 1939 she co-starred in one of the most popular films of all time, Gone with the Wind. She was romantically linked with billionaire Howard Hughes, actor Jimmy Stewart, and director John Huston. She has won two Academy Awards for Best Actress, been nominated for three other Oscars, and been awarded or nominated for multiple other acting trophies.

She changed the face of Hollywood in the mid-1940s with the De Havilland Law, which helped terminate the oppressive “studio system” by freeing artists from tyrannical labor contracts.

She was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II. She received the highest order of merit in France, the Légion d’Honneur, from Nicolas Sarkozy. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by George W. Bush. Since 1956, she has lived in the same three-story house in Paris.

Olivia de Havilland is the last surviving actor of 1930s Hollywood, and one of the last of its Golden Age. She’s also the last person one would think would be compelled to file another lawsuit, this one an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. But in these surreal days of infantile tweets by U.S. presidents, when up is down and down is up…anything is possible.

***

In 2017, a mini-series called Feud: Bette and Joan came out on FX Networks. It concerns actress Bette Davis, who was supposedly very feisty, and actress Joan Crawford, supposedly extremely vain (even for Hollywood). The two notoriously clashed during and after the 1962 production of the macabre film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The recent Feud stars Susan Sarandon as Davis, and Jessica Lange as Crawford.

crawford_davis

Movie still from Baby Jane.  Crawford is on left, Davis is on right.

Olivia de Havilland knew and worked with both Davis and Crawford. Her character, portrayed by Catherine Zeta-Jones, narrates Feud. However, de Havilland was never consulted before or during the making of the series.  

I have not seen Feud, so I can’t comment on its artistic merits. But judging from the subject matter, it sounds not unlike most of the glossy soap-opera trash that Hollywood often promotes as serious “drama” today. (According to de Havilland’s 112-page petition, the mini-series is devoted to “the theme of women actors cat-fighting, using vulgar language, and backstabbing one another.”)

Miss de Havilland’s lawsuit argues that Feud and executive producer Ryan Murphy (previous credit: The People v. O.J. Simpson), take considerable liberties with the truth, to put it politely. But this isn’t unusual in Hollywood (or anywhere else, for that matter). Ever since D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915, which depicts the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, historical truth has been a malleable commodity in moving pictures. Usually, the factual acrobatics are for artistic and commercial benefit. Sometimes there’s a political or social agenda involved, as with Griffith’s film.

davis_olivia_Joe Farrington_NY Daily News Archive_Getty Images

Davis and de Havilland during the Baby Jane follow-up, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). De Havilland replaced Crawford early on. (Joe Farrington/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

But sometimes these artistic liberties cross a threshold and create false impressions that have a deleterious effect on peoples’ character. Such is the claim of Miss de Havilland and her legal team.

Specifically, and related directly to her, de Havilland objects to a scene where she refers to her late sister, actress Joan Fontaine (with whom de Havilland had a cold relationship), as a “bitch.” She also objects to a scene where she makes snide remarks about Frank Sinatra’s alcohol use. The fact that Feud is presented as semi-documentary lends additional weight to de Havilland’s grievance.

Now, these Tinseltown skirmishes may seem petty and inconsequential to most of us. We’ve been raised in an age of constant media diversion, where fact and fantasy often coexist and overlap, and where manners are seemingly…well… “gone with the wind.” We live in a much cruder time. But Olivia de Havilland is from an earlier era. A time when unwritten codes of conduct were adhered to, and not everything—whether fact or fantasy—was splashed onto a screen. Freedom of speech and artistic license are one thing. But libeling someone in the name of art is another.

“Tens of millions of people* viewed “Feud,” and for a new generation, most likely all they know of Petitioner is found in the unauthorized lies and mischaracterization of her life, her work, and her nature as put forward in that series…This false portrayal has damaged Petitioner’s reputation.” (from Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, Oliva de Havilland, DBE, Petitioner v. FX Networks, LLC and Pacific 2.1 Entertainment Group, Inc.).

The Supreme Court appeal was filed in September. It follows an original petition in March 2017, which was struck down by two appeals courts, including the California Supreme Court. In both cases, Murphy and FX Networks successfully used the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to justify their “artistic license” to reputedly stretch the truth and stain the character of both living and dead persons.

Photofest

De Havilland, circa 1940 (Photofest)

In earlier essays, longitudes has touched on issues related to the First Amendment, which protects Americans’ freedom of speech, religion, press, and right to peaceably assemble. Television stars and their supporters have flaunted the Constitution to defend the right to employment after employer termination for vulgar, bigoted remarks (Duck Dynasty vs. U.S. Constitution). Armed political activists have clumsily brandished the Constitution while illegally occupying federal land (This Land is Your Land: Domestic Terrorism in Oregon).

We’ve also seen the U.S. Supreme Court misinterpret the First Amendment in order to protect corporations and enable them to donate unlimited amounts of money to the political candidates they hope will serve their purposes (Citizens United v. FEC).

Longitudes is an enthusiastic fan of Olivia de Havilland. Anyone who has seen either The Heiress or The Snake Pit is aware of her immense talent, not to mention her beauty. But that’s not why this blog supports her in her campaign for truth and decency. It’s because the First Amendment was not intended by the Founders to protect businesses like FX Networks from fictionalizing, in a negative manner, the words and actions of people in the pursuit of commerce, and in the guise of “art.”

Unfortunately, judging from certain recent court decisions where the First Amendment is involved, and the unprecedented clout of U.S. industry today, longitudes doesn’t hold out much hope for Miss de Havilland.

Then again—like a rubber ball bouncing between walls in a closed room—American laws have never been fixed, and their trajectories are purely determined by whomever is doing the bouncing at any given time.

Alice in Wonderland play promo card_1933

Promo card of de Havilland in play Alice in Wonderland, 1933.

* Variety magazine reported that 5.1 million people total watched Feud when first broadcast.

(Header photo: Laura Stevens, Variety)

A Review of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

I’ll confess outright that I love Ken Burns documentaries.  I’ve wallowed in Burns’ mammoth definitive overviews of the American Civil War, jazz music, the Old West, the national parks, WWII, and I came very close to the final innings of his mammoth definitive overview of baseball (I started yawning and felt a strong urge for a hot dog and beer, so I missed the last few pitches).

Last year, I read with relish the transcript of his slow-roast of Donald Trump during his commencement address at Stanford University. It was a grand gesture by someone who has strong feelings about America, and it’s not Burns’ fault that the petulant child was elected president. Nobody heeded my  words, either.

Burns has been criticized in some quarters for too frequently spotlighting race and racism. While “The Civil War” and “Baseball” can be excluded from these charges, I feel there is also some validity to them, although Burns would argue the spotlight is necessary.

Nevertheless, he’s been called “America’s storyteller,” meaning he has many great stories to tell about America, glorifying this country and its citizens, whether they be black, white, brown, red, or yellow.

Most recently, Burns applied his wizardry (along with co-producer Lynn Novick) to a mammoth definitive overview of the Vietnam War. Considering that this war is still fraught with controversy, this latest documentary series is maybe his most courageous undertaking.

However… like Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg… this time he was unable to secure the high ground.

Why? Unlike the American Civil War, many people from the Vietnam War era are still alive, and some remember things differently. And unlike WWII, America didn’t win, and we weren’t even the good guys. Some American patriots have trouble with that reality, but it’s reality. Burns is at his best when America is at its most noble. But there was little American nobility with Vietnam.

***

Before I discuss why the patented Ken Burns treatment doesn’t work this time, though, I’ll imitate certain mainstream publications (like Rolling Stone, Time, and Cleveland.com) that treat critical American history as if it’s a Steven Spielberg movie:

“Stunning visual achievement!” “Never-before-seen-footage!” “It will make you weep!” “America’s storyteller has done it again!” “A mammoth, definitive overview that will be discussed for years to come!” “Riveting entertainment!” “America is ready to heal, and Ken Burns is the healer!” “A sexy, action-packed adventure!”

(The last two may  not be valid).

On surface, I will admit, “The Vietnam War” is breathtaking. Burns and Novick unearthed hundreds of striking images and film bits to pull things along.  They present revealing audio of taped conversations from the Johnson and Nixon White Houses that are agonizing to listen to.  We know full well the many lies of Richard M. Nixon.  But these tapes drive home what a devious, worm-like man he was.

Burns and Novick are also masters at taking a person or persons and creating suspense by slowly fashioning a story for them. One of the most memorable is that of the Crocker family. Each time we see the middle-class house with the front porch and American flag, and hear the peaceful music, we know how the story of Denton “Mogie” Crocker will play out, but we’re addicted to the narrative. We’re voyeurs into how the impressionable Mogie, raised on John Wayne movies and Cold War jingoism, becomes a symbol of young patriotic males everywhere, then ends up dying a grisly death on an anonymous hill in a distant land… for nothing.

Then there’s the horrific Nick Ut photo of the naked South Vietnamese girl (her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc) running down the road after being napalmed by a South Vietnamese bomber. Burns takes it a step further and provides a wider landscape. He includes color video footage of the bombing, then people emerging from the fireball, fleeing in terror, with several minutes devoted to the girl, her arms stretched out, the flesh on her back seared.

(Nick Ut/Associated Press)

This rare footage is one of the things Burns is so good at. He stretches the camera frame. He taps our emotions, and we feel the full horror of war through the heart-tugging image of a scarred innocent.

The problem is this: we don’t  see the pilot who pressed the buttons that released the napalm bomb. He’s off-camera. Protected.

***

Burns opens his series with his favorite narrator, compelling counterculture statesman Peter Coyote, intoning that the war was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.”

“Decent people” is a subjective term that probably doesn’t belong in a historical documentary, especially when the “people” are surreptitiously leading a nation down the road to war. But no matter.

“Good faith…fateful misunderstandings.” This editorial, at the commencement of the 18-hour presentation, raises significant questions:

Is it good faith that the U.S. funded a French war effort to colonize Vietnam? Then, later, is it good faith that President Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, and the U.S. Navy created the fiction of a North Vietnamese attack at the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide a legal basis for Johnson’s escalation of open warfare in North Vietnam?

The only “fateful misunderstanding” was U.S. obsession with a fallacious domino theory of Communism. The rest of our early blunders were the direct consequence of Western arrogance. After France’s hundred-year colonization attempt came to a screeching halt at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, America thought it would be easy to slip in and resume the colonization program. But we didn’t call it colonization, we called it “nation-building” and “winning hearts and minds.” We figured the mighty United States of America could easily subdue a backwater jungle country whose ideological leader was a skinny, sickly Asian.

Ho Chi Minh, speaking in Paris in 1920

The misunderstandings came later. We misunderstood our ability to act as puppeteer to a corrupt and inept South Vietnamese government. And we misunderstood the resolve of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.  This time, they were the patriots and we were the redcoats.

Behind the shiny narrative, here’s the hard reality that Burns and Novick were too coy to discuss:

The U.S. invaded and destroyed another country because that other country wanted a form of government different than the one the U.S. was willing to allow it to have.  To prevent that country from exercising the “consent of the governed” that the U.S. deifies as the highest political expression of civilization, the U.S. killed six million Vietnamese, most of them civilians.  That is the number from the government of Vietnam.  The U.S. spent $168,000 for every enemy combatant it killed.  The average Vietnamese earned $80 per year at the time.  To carry out this act, the U.S. dropped 14 billion pounds of bombs on Vietnam, three times more than were used by all sides in all theaters of all of World War II combined. 

The U.S. carried out industrial-scale chemical warfare on Vietnam, spraying it with 21 million gallons of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange.  It destroyed half of the nation’s forests, leaving the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in the history of the world.  When the U.S. destroyed neighboring Cambodia to cover its retreat from Vietnam, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power and carried out the greatest proportional genocide in modern history.  The U.S. dropped 270 million cluster bombs on neighboring Laos, 113 bombs for every man, woman, and child in the country.  Vietnam had never attacked the U.S., had never tried to attack it, had no desire to attack it, and had no capacity to attack it.  All of this was justified through a purposeful campaign of lies to the American people that was sustained by five presidential administrations over more than two decades.   

(from www.commondreams.org)

Instead of “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings,” substitute the above, or similar, as an introduction, and you lay the groundwork for an entirely different documentary. Keep an eye on the reaction of sponsor David H. Koch.

In “The Vietnam War,” Burns presents the micro, but not the macro. He offers numerous anecdotes that imply the war was wrong (big surprise). But we never see just how  wrong it was. In the blur of images, interviews, and stories of valor and personal conflict, Burns doesn’t pull his camera back to offer the big picture. There’s sadness and regret, but only a modicum of rage and disgust. We don’t once hear the phrase “war crime.” He plays it safe, struggling to maintain balance and be all things to everyone, left, right, and center. Unless it’s a dead politician, he’s afraid to offend anyone. Including, perhaps, his hefty financial backers.

Burns had ample opportunity (ten years) to make this more than a standard, albeit glittery documentary on a war, and he could’ve lifted it above a stock reiteration of “hate the war, love the warrior.” For example, he profiles Pascal Poolaw, a Kiowa Indian, who fought in WWII, Korea, and died in Vietnam. “The Vietnam War” totally misses the irony of a Native American waging war on indigenous people for a racist, invading nation that, a hundred years earlier, killed and conquered Poolaw’s ancestors in the name of manifest destiny. Instead, we get a brief and awkward puff piece on a minority who earned a lot of medals and died for his country.

There’s an uncomfortable attempt at equivalency, too. “We called them ‘dinks,’ ‘gooks,’ ‘mamasans,’” Coyote ticks off. Then, as if to, again, provide balance, he continues. “They called us ‘invaders,’ and ‘imperialists.’” The first terms are racist and dehumanizing. The last terms are accurate. There’s no equivalency here.

L to R: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara

And there’s no equivalency between anti-war activists and the so-called “silent majority.” At the end of the documentary, Burns profiles an anti-war activist who breaks into tears and apologizes to vets who were (supposedly) spat on and called baby-killers “and worse.” Yet there is not one bit of video or audio in “The Vietnam War” to substantiate this claim. There hasn’t been any evidence anywhere else, at least, that I’m aware of.

However, there is relentless footage of pro-war Americans screaming at protesters, attacking them, beating them, and berating them as being Commies and traitors… behavior that had its apotheosis in the murders at Kent State by National Guardsmen summoned by Gov. James A. Rhodes of (my home state of) Ohio, who referred to the protesters as “Brownshirts” and “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Where in “The Vietnam War” is the apology from these  people?

***

Maybe the biggest question raised by “The Vietnam War” is this: How do Americans want to remember their history? Do we want it to consist of stories of heroism and hubris, triumph and tragedy? Or merely be a series of episodes, a narrative of people, places, dates and events?

Or do we want our history to also inform our present and help determine the course of our future?

Since Vietnam, we’ve continued to send military “advisers” to third world countries, secretly funnel money and arms, initiate coups, topple regimes we dislike, pursue dead-end policies of nation-building, attempt to “win hearts and minds,” wage war under false pretenses, tax Americans to fund war, alienate civilian populations, and label dissenters as being unpatriotic. The only thing we haven’t done is institute a draft.

But there’s no mention of any of the above in “The Vietnam War.” I guess Burns feels it’s OK to offer a static history, as long as it’s dramatic. He’s America’s storyteller, with many great stories to tell.

***

Here are some links related to this article:

The Nation (a liberal publication)

The American Conservative (a conservative publication)

Nick Turse (author of “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real Vietnam”)

Christopher Koch (the first American reporter to visit Vietnam)

 

“Lincoln”

lincoln

It’s a perfect storm: Abraham Lincoln (our greatest president), portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis (Oscar-winning actor), and directed by legendary Steven Spielberg.  How can you go wrong?

Having seen the film last weekend, not much did go wrong.  The movie LINCOLN is based on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (Goodwin is the redhead with a slight Boston accent who appears on a lot of PBS documentaries, and who occasionally offers pungent historical perspective on Sunday morning news programs).  I hadn’t read “Team of Rivals” so I didn’t know the plot of LINCOLN.  Would it be a full-scale bio-pic, or focus on Lincoln’s relationship with his generals?  Actually, neither.  The movie deals with Lincoln’s efforts to persuade Congress to adopt the 13th amendment to the Constitution – the first amendment in 60 years – and which officially outlawed slavery (the Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential decree that freed slaves in the rebellious states).

The major players here are Lincoln himself, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), radical abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), and Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Straithairn).  All are mesmerizing, but Day-Lewis and Field are absolutely uncanny.  Field conveys the strangeness, paranoia, and fragility that we associate with Mary Todd Lincoln.  And though we obviously don’t have recordings or film of the 16th president, it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on characterization than Day-Lewis’s (who is British, no less!).  His tender voice and touch of a Kentucky accent remain with you long after the movie ends.   Day-Lewis gives us a Lincoln who is profound and sometimes humorous, yet whose seemingly endless patience can be shattered by moments of terrifying anger.  Or in the case of his deceased son, grief.

Spielberg uses lighting that accurately depicts a pre-electric age, and props that convey 19th-century antiquity without being obtrusive.  In one scene Lincoln is holding a mottled notebook.  The colored mosaic pattern on the cover is exactly like old whaling logbooks I’d seen in the maritime library at Mystic Seaport.  And in one of the many stories and anecdotes Lincoln uses to win over critics of the amendment, he uses whale hunting as an analogy, confounding everyone around him!

Just a few criticisms: some of the minor characters seem exaggerated, particularly a couple timid anti-amendment politicians. Also, a few scenes seemed overtly politically correct.  The opening scene has Lincoln being lectured after a battle by a young black soldier.  It may have been intended to emphasize Lincoln’s renowned modesty and liberality, but this would have never happened (the Black Panther Party was still a hundred years away).  And one of the last scenes has Thaddeus Stevens climbing into bed with his black housekeeper, who then recited him the text of the newly-minted amendment.  Although Stevens supposedly did have a common-law relationship with his “quadroon” housekeeper, I thought this was a bit of overkill (though at least one person I know felt just the opposite!).

Other than these small criticisms, LINCOLN was one “whale” of a movie.  Even if you don’t care for history on an intellectual level, this film is a two-and-a-half hour time trip, with great acting to boot.  It’s also a reminder that, as harsh as the political climate in America is today, it was nothing like during the War Between the States.  It’s a small miracle that the country had a man like Lincoln, who physically and figuratively towered over everyone around him.

I give this movie 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.  And if Day-Lewis and Field (and possibly Jones) don’t win Academy Awards, I’ll eat my stovepipe hat.