Category Archives: Film

Christmas Communists

It’s a wonderful life, isn’t it? Probably not for those who look at the image below and see a room full of communists.

photo from film It's A Wonderful Life

This is from a 1947 U.S. government document about the film It’s a Wonderful Life:

“With regard to the picture ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, [REDACTED] stated in substance that the film represented a rather obvious attempt to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.

“In addition, [REDACTED] stated that, in his opinion, this picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters. [REDACTED] related that if he had made this picture portraying the banker, he would have shown this individual to have been following the rules as laid down by the State Bank Examiners in connection with making loans. Further, [REDACTED] stated that the scene wouldn’t have ‘suffered at all’ in portraying the banker as a man who was protecting funds put in his care by private individuals and adhering to the rules governing the loan of that money rather than portraying the part as it was shown. In summary, [REDACTED] stated that it was not necessary to make the banker such a mean character and ‘I would never have done it that way.’”

Perhaps the same officials, were they alive today, would rethink their view of bankers, once they paid attention to what bankers do, say, the ones at Wells Fargo.


Quotation of the Day

photo from film JeannetteJohn Waters proposes his Top Ten Films of 2018 and adds some commentary.

A surprisingly scary, well-shot, pitch-black comedy about the day all parents in the United States decide to kill their own children. A laff riot!

New Film about Blumenberg

Reports are out that a documentary film is (or is about to be) available, in which three figures travel around Germany tracking traces of the philosopher Hans Blumenberg. The film’s title is Hans Blumenberg: The Invisible Philosopher (Der unsichtbare Philosoph).

poster of Blumenberg film

Blood Money

Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House has little to do with the Shirley Jackson text on which it is based. Perhaps 95% of the material in the Netflix version is not to be found anywhere in the original. It should be labeled as loosely based on the Jackson text, but even that would be hyperbole.

still from the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House

According to reports, Stephen King has declared the Netflix “version” to be a work of “genius.” I’m willing to second that, despite the heavy-handed use of graphic matches, and some crevasses in the new narrative (when numerous workers are at the house to deal with the black mold, etc., why doesn’t the father ask the workers to fix the door to the dreaded Red Room?).

poster from film Blood MoneyThe Netflix tale contains a wealth of virtues, among them the emphasis on a term I thought had been lost to the current generation — “blood money.” A contemporary example of blood money is the Broadway production The Lifespan of a Fact, based on John D’Agata’s capitalizing on the suicide of a 16-year-old boy in Las Vegas. So much of popular culture includes people profiting from others’ misery (murders, rapes, executions, medical tragedies, natural disasters, war), yet it is the rare instance that anyone calls the profiteers on their blood money. From an Anglophone perspective, the etymology of “blood money” can be traced to the 16th century, and is, as one might guess, linked to Judas. That’s the context that might be the most compelling for my purposes.

Blood money is one of the centerpieces of tension among the Crain family members in Netflix’s tale. Denial of blood money becomes a counter-force in the family dynamic, a way for some siblings to distance themselves from the profits that Steven has made writing about their childhood experiences at Hill House. The entire family’s psyche is fraught with ambivalence about the natural and the supernatural, the real and the imaginary, and it is Steven who presents consistently an attachment to reality that challenges the experiences of the rest of his family. It’s the horrific moments that rev up the family’s troubles, moving them to interactions with one another that overcome the energies devoted to the denial of events, real or imagined.

If you haven’t seen the Netflix series, you will not want to read on, because I am about to reveal part of the narrative. Despite the solidarity among Steven’s siblings at the beginning of their refusal of the blood money (the profits from Steven’s book about Hill House), the audience learns in later episodes that some of the siblings do take the blood money. They rationalize the choice through an end-justifies-the-means formula. Those who take the blood money declare that the money is a necessary vehicle to greater goods. The rationale in play is kept private, a sign that those who take the blood money know something is not right about the choice. They try to keep their acceptance of the blood money secret from the rest of the family.

Perhaps in some larger sense, Halloween is all about blood money, the commercialization of death (no particular death). The timing of the Netflix series, a kind of substitute Halloween offering, given that Stranger Things is delayed until 2019, reveals how capitalism doesn’t take a holiday from making thirty pieces of silver from the living and the undead.

Lacrimosa Indeed

A few years ago, I started an essay to unpack the Heideggerian baggage in the film The Tree of Life. If you haven’t seen it, you’re in luck, because the new, longer version is, according to Director Terrence Malick, a different film. The bonus will be that the Criterion Blu-Ray and DVD, which includes restored versions of both the original 139-minute and new 188-minute versions, will be released September 11. After the first version appeared, I gave a talk about it to a small crowd at a university in Colorado. They were, in large part, not amused. At that time, it wasn’t clear how many people, other than unrepentant Malick fans, would ever see The Tree of Life.

When I went back today to look for a clip to post here, I learned that my intended clip lists over 2.5 million views. Likely the musical accompaniment to the clip has more to do with the number of views than the cinematography. It makes me cry to think that I will need to see almost an extra hour of this film to complete my scholarly homework. Should you be in a weeping mode and not have time for 188 minutes of Lacrimosa, you might try dipping into Jan Kochanowski’s Laments.

The door to freedom is on the left

Not since V for Vendetta has a message come across as well for popular culture. Why Snowpiercer is not in the same U.S. theaters with Edge of Tomorrow tells you something about the capitalism that meets its match in Bong Joon-ho’s hands. It’s no accident that the door to freedom is on the left.


A Poverty of Possibilities among the Rich

photo of money - Creative Commons

With an Ivy League education, and years of association with some of the brightest people in Washington, D.C., Tim Geithner is still unable to think of any alternative to what happened in 2008.  He missed one of the lessons of It’s A Wonderful Life, which is that people’s money/labor is theirs, and that the bank is a place where collective wealth exists, and can be used for collective good.  In other words, the achievement of the James Stewart character in the film is to show the viewer how to live without banks and bankers, whose interests have little to do with Bedford Falls.  Geithner has convinced himself, in a grand gesture of rationalization, that no alternative existed, and still does not.

It’s like the power grid. You have to make sure the lights stay on, because if the lights go out, then you face the damage like what you saw in the Great Depression or It’s a Wonderful Life. More people lose their jobs, more people lose their businesses, lose their homes, their savings, and they’re devastated. There is not way to avoid those outcomes or protect people against those outcomes, unless you keep the lights on. That requires doing things that are terribly unfair and look deeply offensive. It looks like you are rewarding the arsonist or protecting people from their mistakes, but there is no alternative.
— Geithner in The Wall Street Journal‘s Money Issue (June 2014)

Slavoj Žižek indicates the same problem is at work with Thomas Piketty’s new book on capitalism. The capitalists don’t know how to do without capitalism.  They are incapable of Hegelian negation.  “[Piketty] accepts, as a good Keynesian, that capitalism is ultimately the only game in town; all alternatives ended up in fiasco, so we have to keep it.”

What’s worse about Geithner is that he knew what he did looked “like the opposite of what makes sense.”  It’s a Wonderful Life, on a most superficial reading, shows neighbors rescuing a neighbor, friends helping friends, townspeople pulling together for a person in trouble.  Those are alternatives that do not make sense to readers of The Wall Street Journal and to Tim Geithner. They cannot leave important financial decisions up to common people who cannot comprehend why anyone would say it’s utterly plausible to do what is “terribly unfair.”