Originally published in Arthur No. 6 (Sept. 2003)
This Is the Way the World Ends (Or, Don’t Say I Didn’t Try Dystopia)
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum
CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.
DVDs/videos discussed in this column:
o The Dead Zone (1983)—directed by David Cronenberg, written by Jeffrey Boam; based on the novel by Stephen King (Paramount Home Video)
o Starship Troopers (1997)—directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Ed Neumeier; based on the novel by Robert Heinlein (Columbia/TriStar Home Video, Special Edition)
o The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)—directed by Volker Schlondorff, written by Harold Pinter; based on the novel by Margaret Atwood (MGM/UA Home Video)
o Death and the Maiden (1994)—directed by Roman Polanski, written by Rafael Yglesias; based on the play by Ariel Dorfman (New Line Home Video)
o The Designated Mourner (1997)—directed by David Hare, written by Wallace Shawn; based on his play (Image Entertainment)
o The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2002)—directed by Kim Bartley & Donnacha O’Briain (Power Pictures; VHS available for $29.99, please specify NTSC or PAL)
o Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death (2003)—directed by Jamie Doran (Atlantic Celtic Films; VHS available for £19.99/approx. $32.00 from http://www.acftv.net, please specify NTSC or PAL)
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“I only want to say this once: If America insists on flirting with a fascist future, I shall give them one.” —Paul Verhoeven (director of Starship Troopers)
“By the time they came for me because of my liberal views, it was too late—there was no one left to speak up.”
That’s Pastor Neimoller, German Christian cleric, famously lamenting the blind eye he turned toward Communists, Jews and union leaders during their respective Nazi roundups. Words like “Nazi” and “fascist” are loaded ones these days—packed with C-4 and strung with tripwires, to dissuade the hapless malcontent from trampling across them too casually. But a mere 36 months in the life of the republic has turned us into a nation of screenwriters, imagining more and more implausible reversals of expectations in our long march to the third-act twist: stage-managed coronations, Wall Street intifadas, Zionist cabals, prophylactic invasions, the treason of superpatriots. The one thing it teaches you, living here in the heart of Hollywood (as if such a thing exists), is speculative reality: All things are true until they’re not. Best to follow these branches out to their logical ends, lest we be caught unawares.
And so, in curious times such as these, I do what I’ve always done: Turn to the movies. Here are five moments from five films—bleak dystopian visions of an American future, courtesy of a Canadian, a Dutchman, a German, a Pole and a Brit—which these days I find playing over and over in my head. Plus two new documentaries which might explain why. We often find our convictions in popular film, and probably the courage to live by them. If the artists of the age see fit to issue such auguries—field jeremiads from the antennae of the race—then we ignore them at our peril.
The Dead Zone (1983)
David Cronenberg made what turned out to be the best Stephen King adaptation as respite from his more demanding day job. “If you’re used to comedy, The Dead Zone is a heavy picture,” he said at the time. “But if you’re used to Videodrome, it’s not.” Christopher Walken awakens from a coma with the power of second sight, only to face the philosophical conundrum, made explicit in the film, “If you could go back in time—to Germany, say, before Hitler came to power—knowing what you know now, what would you do? Would you kill him?” Hitler appears in the form of populist demagogue and Senate hopeful Martin Sheen, who mixes the whipsnake cracker charisma of his Charles Starkweather-by-way-of-James Dean from Badlands with the quick-tempered, cop-of-the-world bullying paternalism of The West Wing. The result, from his “man of the people” act to the Norman Rockwell-style portraits he poses in front of, is all a little close to home.
The scene in question is a brief 30-second flash-forward, added by Cronenberg (according to screenwriter Jeffrey Boam) to help shift the story to Walken’s point of view. Set incongruously in an Aspen A-frame, lit by a roaring fire right out of Citizen Kane, Sheen and his thug sidekick Sonny flank a general who they are pressuring to place his hand on a laptop scanner, so that they can launch a nuclear first strike.
“You cowardly bastard!” screams Sheen. “You’re not the voice of the people–I’m the voice of the people! The people speak through me, not you! It came to me while I slept, Sonny–my destiny. In the middle of the night, it came to me. I must get up now–right now [quoting Network]–and fulfill my destiny. And you’ll put your goddamn hand on that scanning screen, or I’ll hack it off and put it on for you!”
“May God forgive me,” says the general, complying.
Sheen completes the sequence and goes to the door, as a throng of white-haired men rush pass the armed Marine sentries. “This is not necessary, Mr. President,” one says. “We have a diplomatic solution.”
Sheen fixes them with a thousand-yard stare. “Mr. Vice-President, Mr. Secretary,” he says, “the missiles are flying. Hallelujah.”
Starship Troopers (1997)
On its release, Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant paean to fascist propaganda was lost on critics. What seemed merely a perverse woodenness at the time is on repeated viewings an extremely nuanced social satire of wartime propaganda—particularly the Why We Fight films of WWII—overlaid on a politically correct, gender neutral, genetically maximized future. Lest there be any doubt of their intentions, Verhoeven (whose childhood memories in the Hague include the Nazi occupation and Allied squadrons on fire over the North Sea) and writer Ed Neumeier hammer the point home on the audio commentary of the Special Edition DVD:
“The movie is about the United States,” Verhoeven states unequivocally, “or any superpower, for that sake. One could say it as well about Russia 10 years ago, or China in the future, or for Germany in the past. But it’s certainly also talking about American politics now.”
What resonates most are the interstitial news reports of the military campaign on Klendathu, home of the giant insect invaders from Robert Heinlein’s classic science-fiction novel. “We’ve just landed here on what starship troopers are calling ‘Big K’ with the Sixth Mobile Infantry Division,” an embedded news reporter yells into the camera in the opening scene. “It’s an ugly planet. A bug planet. A planet hostile to—” His commentary is cut short as he is eaten by a huge tiger-striped arachnid. Newsreel footage features patriotic children stepping on cockroaches (echoing the opening scene of The Wild Bunch, where children subject a scorpion to an army of ants, the devouring accretion of history), an enemy of the state (played by Neumeier) executed live on TV, and scientsts probing and torturing a giant “brain bug” (blacked out due to squeamishness from animal rightists). But it’s the zooming, spinning graphics and the recurring, self-precluding tagline—“Would you like to know more?”—that make it, literally, ripped from the day’s headlines.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)
German filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, whose The Tin Drum set the bar on Nazi terror, depicts the Christian fundamentalist state of Margaret Atwood’s feminist novel as an Early American theme park, replete with colonial mansions, red-white-and-blue bunting and public hangings in the town square. Environmental damage has rendered most of the public sterile, and so Natasha Richardson is assigned to the Commander (Robert Duvall) and his barren wife Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway) in a state-sanctioned rite of reproduction. This leads to the inevitable scene (in Harold Pinter’s screenplay) between the younger woman and older man in which political, religious and sexual power are all cross-leveraged. What makes it so creepy is Duvall’s bemused matter-of-factness—a patronizing indulgence right out of Donald Rumsfeld or William Bennett, which masks a subtext of graceless seduction.
“I used to be in market research,” he explains to her during a quiet moment in his study, “then I branched out and became a sort of scientist. Then the guys made their move and asked me to go in with them. I liked most of the things they wanted to do, so that was it. Period.”
“The country was crazy,” he says in response to her questions. “I mean, nobody felt anything—men or women. All they had was—how can I put it?—itches. Sex itches, money itches, power itches. But that’s not enough. There was no common purpose, nothing to believe in, nothing to fight for. Nobody really knew how to feel anything anymore.”
At every step of his speech, his actions contradict what he’s saying—as he moves closer to her, takes her hand, brushes her hair and finally tries to kiss her. He is the perfect bureaucrat turned revolutionary, who imagines himself above his own law.
Death and the Maiden (1994)
Roman Polanski famously lost not only a wife and unborn child to the Manson family, but a mother and unborn sister to the Nazis at Auschwitz. A decade before his reconstruction of the Warsaw ghetto won him an Oscar in absentia, he directed Ariel Dorfman’s play (adapted by Rafael Yglesias) about the aftermath of Pinochet’s 1973 military junta in Chile as a fogbound fairy tale, floating above the specific politics to encompass any right-wing terror state which later thinks better of its excesses. Sigourney Weaver marshals the pluck she once reserved for Alien and its mom in confronting Ben Kingsley, the doctor who once stood by while she was blindfolded, tortured with electrodes and metal bars thrust inside her, and raped 14 times to the strains of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. As she binds him to a chair, he demands to be released. “Are you threatening?” she yells into his face.
“I’m not,” he whines.
“Yes, you were,” she says. “Let me make this clear: The time for people like you making threats is over. Out there, maybe you bastards are still running things behind the scenes, but in here—in here—I’m in charge. Understand?”
The Designated Mourner (1997)
And finally, I think of the final moments from Wally Shawn’s three-handed drama, which chronicles the political decimation of the intellectual class in some weird amalgam of an American, European and Third World state. It’s not even really fair to call this a film at all; it’s a staged reading by director-playwright David Hare at the National Theater in London, with a rather dyspeptic Mike Nichols (of all people) doing for the quisling apologists of lowbrow culture what Andre Gregory once did for the fatuous gadflies of high culture (in My Dinner With Andre). Lighting a small fire at his table at a street café, Nichols recounts how in African tribes, when the last of a clan dies out, someone is appointed to mourn them publicly, since no one from the bloodline remains. “Everywhere I went,” he says, “the leaves had turned–traitors. Had they no shame? …We were all doing better in every way without the presence on earth of our nerve-jangling friends–the dear departed mourners, if that’s the right word.”
By the time they came for me, there was no one left.
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Two new documentaries, both by Celts, present compelling evidence that such concerns are by no means overreaching. In The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, an Irish camera crew who had gone to Venezuela to profile leftist President Hugo Chavez, elected by a landslide in 1998, found themselves trapped inside the presidential palace when a military coup surrounded it with tanks and took over the country and its media. Chavez didn’t endear himself to the Bush claque when he announced that the country’s oil wealth would be redistributed to the four-fifths of the population in poverty (Venezuela is the fourth largest oil exporter, and a member of OPEC), and it probably didn’t help when he showed pictures of Afghan children killed by U.S. bombs on the state-owned TV station. On April 11, 2002, opposition forces rerouted a planned march into the middle of a pro-Chavez rally, where snipers had been planted in hotel rooms overlooking the crowd. Up to 25 people were killed, and private TV stations played endless film loops of Chavez supporters returning fire, blaming them for the carnage—a position parroted by Bush administration spokesman Ari Fleischer and others. (Jesse Helms is shown accusing Chavez of consorting with Colombian narcoterrorists.) But the Irish footage, compiled by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain, taken from a different angle, easily disproves this claim.
By 9:30 p.m., tanks had surrounded the palace, and a military delegation arrived to demand that the president resign. Chavez refused, but agreed to go with the soldiers to spare further bloodshed, and Venezuelans awoke the morning of the 12th to the news of a bloodless coup. Almost immediately, police took to the streets with tear gas and truncheons to quell any resistance. But by 2 p.m. the next day, more than a million Chavez supporters had collected outside the palace. While the opposition leader is on CNN claiming he is in firm control of the country, we see the palace guard stage a counter-coup, government ministers in hiding return to duty, military garrisons call in from around the country pledging their support, and Chavez return by helicopter—all on camera, in more or less real time. The U.S. denied any involvement in the coup, even though an American-registered plane was reportedly sent to fly Chavez out of the country. The best moment is after the provisional government had fled, though. They had emptied out the office safe.
Even more terrifying is Afghan Massacre: The Convoy of Death, a 50-minute documentary by Scottish filmmaker Jamie Doran which has aired in Great Britain and elsewhere, producing widespread outrage. The film concerns the aftermath of the siege of Kunduz in Afghanistan in October 2001, where 7,000 Taliban surrendered to Gen. Rasheed Dostum, the Northern Alliance’s most fearsome warlord–among them American Taliban John Walker Lindh, shown being questioned on-camera. While the U.S. media followed the misdirection of Lindh and his San Francisco hippie entitlement run tragically amok, the real story was what became of those who remained behind. First-hand observers recount how under the direction of American Special Forces, 2-300 prisoners were loaded into the back of individual storage containers on the backs of 25 semi-trucks for a four-day drive to Scherberghan Prison. Afghan fighters were directed to fire through the sides of the containers to ventilate them, killing all in the bullets’ paths; still, as many 150 per container suffocated or died from the intense heat, often having bitten into the shoulders of those around them to quench their intense thirst. Those who arrived dead, injured or merely unconscious were then driven into the desert, where the survivors were shot and buried in a 1,000-square-meter mass grave at a spot called Dasht Leile. Of the 7,000 originally taken prisoner, it’s estimated that approximately 3,000 died while in captivity—a number almost identical to the victims of the World Trade Center bombings.
The film is not so much an investigative documentary as a pre-documentary—a precis for the legal case to be made, if someone would only marshal the international wherewithal. On-camera witnesses appear with their voices electronically treated and faces digitally blurred, with the proviso that “All witnesses have agreed to appear at any future international inquiry to give evidence.” (Two have already been killed, and more arrested.) Human bones and clothing with Pakistani labels can easily be seen strewn across the expanse of the mass gravesite. Even the filmmakers’ own Afghani researcher was savagely beaten, shown on camera bandaged in his hospital bed.
The Red Cross was denied access to the prison for 10 days, and the Pentagon later conducted its own investigation of the incident, exonerating all its personnel. Making the case for the U.S. military is no less than chairman of the Defense Policy Board Richard Perle (since busted to mere “member”), who comes off like a vampire aristocrat: “Obviously, we would much rather be aligned with Mother Teresa, but that isn’t always possible in these situations,” he states, in what should be a T-shirt slogan of situational ethics. So far, this story is virtually nonexistent in the American media.
Why do they hate us?
Because we kill them, I suspect.