Weekend Reading: April 7, 2017

Screening Room: ‘Oklahoma City’

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In 1995, the biggest domestic terrorist attack in American history to that point took place in Oklahoma City. It wasn’t an isolated incident. Barak Goodman’s documentary shows what lead up to the bombing and along the way provides a thumbnail history of the American white supremacist underground.

Oklahoma City is opening this week in limited release and will be broadcast as part of PBS’s American Experience series on February 7. My review is at Film Journal International:

For all the news ink and televisual garble that was expended on the roiling subculture of American right-wing extremists during the 1980s and ’90s, surprisingly little of that time was spent on their roots in blatantly racist white supremacy. Because the militias’ anti-government and pro-gun rhetoric was louder than its white-separatist ideology, that was the half-story which much of the media led with once the militias’ fantasies of all-out conflict began to spark actual bloodshed. Barak Goodman’s thorough, dramatic documentary about the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist attack doesn’t make that same mistake…

Here’s the trailer.

Screening Room: ‘All Governments Lie’

Yallgovernmentslie1ou would imagine from the title of the new documentary All Governments Lie, that it’s an investigation of, well, government corruption. But that’s only a sideline in this barn-burner about corporate media’s apparent inability to hold those lying politicians to account.

All Governments Lie is playing now in limited release. My review is at Film Journal International:

If you take everything in Fred Peabody’s screed All Governments Lie: Truth, Deception, and the Spirit of I.F. Stone at face value, then you might as well cancel your New York Times subscription. Don’t read the Washington Post either. PBS’ “Frontline” and CBS’ “60 Minutes”? Garbage, the lot of them! That’s the takeaway from this narrowcast documentary, which takes a valid critique of the deadening effect corporate-government synergy can have on mainstream media’s ability to truly afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and undercuts it with poor logic and simplistic argument…

Screening Room: ‘Defying the Nazis’

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On the brink of World War II, a Unitarian minister and his wife were ordered by their community to travel from Massachusetts to Europe with a crucial mission: Help as many refugees escape as you can.

Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, which was co-directed by Ken Burns, is opening this week in limited release. It will be broadcast on PBS September 20. My review is at Film Journal International:

Ringing with a vivid moral clarity, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War is a tightly focused documentary that raises an unusually sprawling number of challenging questions for its audience. Unlike many stories of this kind, the film doesn’t pretend that the choices made by its undeniably brave subjects were easy ones or that a cost wasn’t required for their decision to go willingly into the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe to save whoever they could…

Here is the trailer:

TV Room: ‘The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution’

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If your PBS affiliate shows the series Independent Lens, one of the better non-cable televisual outlets for documentaries right now, tune in tonight for The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. It’s directed by the great Stanley Nelson (Jonestown, Freedom Riders), who turns his gaze to the story of the country’s last great radical movement, and how it was destroyed just before falling apart.

My review of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which played in theaters last fall, is at PopMatters:

At some point, revolutionaries have to decide what else they want to be. Too often, they can’t. That’s why so many successful insurrections end up emulating the very same oppressive regimes they overthrow: fighters are often miserably bad peacemakers. That’s why Che Guevara ran off to die stupidly in Bolivia rather than figure out sugar cane production back in Cuba…

If you’re in the mood, they even put together a Black Panthers mixtape (Bill Withers, Public Enemy, Nina Simone).

Here is the trailer:

Writer’s Desk: Posterity and the Lack Thereof

Yes, Nebraska has writers.
Yes, Nebraska has writers.

Used to be, once a writer’s books went out of print, that was it for most of them. There might be a few copies moldering in a library’s backshelves somewhere, but generally not being out there in a bookstore or taught in a classroom meant that your work was going to be forgotten.

It would be nice to think that in the era of digital publishing, that nobody’s work will ever be forgotten. It will just sit there in the cloud, each bundle of bytes ready for download just in case anybody ever wants to read that 1960s coming-of-age novel or 1920s society-lady memoir or 2010s zombie romance (first in a tetralogy).

That’s not going to be the case for most of us, of course. The average writer lucky enough to get a chance at getting her or his book published will get that one moment of attention (maybe) before returning to the anonymity from whence they came. And that’s okay; one has to make room for the next chap coming down the way.

For some writers, there may be something like this great project from Nebrasksa’s PBS affiliate on “The Lost Writers of the Plains.” Using written and audio essays, they cover everyone from black intellectual activist Bertram Austin Lewis (who fought the good fight on minority inclusion in the academy decades before it was au courant) and Margaret Haughawout (a poet who brought modernist literature and a taste for men’s clothing to her obscure little country college).

Even those lost to time may eventually get one more shot at being remembered.

Department of Soap Operatics: ‘Downton Abbey’ and Decay

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With the premiere of the third season of Downton Abbey, it has become clear that the rest of the show (no matter how long it remains on the air) is likely going to some extent be centered on one thing only: The fighting of rearguard actions against the inevitable march of modernity, dissolution of class barriers, and the wrecking of aristocratic fortunes and the privileges they once bestowed. There will be more of the expected soap opera theatrics—one hopes for a couple good cases of selective amnesia, perhaps an evil twin to Cousin Matthew who pops up after spending a few years debauching in the Far East and now has eyes for Mary—but in the main it will keep coming back to the house, the staff, and the great tubs of money needed to keep it all running.

downton2It’s now 1920 in the show, with the Irish Civil War about to hot up in earnestness, England still mostly devastated from the losses of war, and the Great Depression and World War II waiting just around the corner to knock off what was left of the nation’s imperial largesse that sustains all those estates and their to-the-manor-born inhabitants. History insists that it will come to an end. But for all the show’s characters who carp from the sidelines about the new era and increasing freedoms, it’s clear that going forward the background emotion will be a reactionary sort of nostalgia for a time when servants and the lower classes knew their place. (For all those pining to work downstairs, PBS’s site has a truly horrible quiz here: “Which Downton Abbey Job is Right For You?“)

James Parker has a short, sharp rumination on the show and its “magnificent badness” in the Atlantic. It’s memorable, among other things, for his take on how Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham (“…he has cultivated a strange, plodding denseness and deliberateness, as if the earl is contending with a minor brain injury”). Parker goes on to note, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that no matter how long the show continues, the end fate is certain. To that point, he pulls out a sad little gem from, of all places, Rod Stewart’s autobiography, where the singer is describing a time in 1971 when he and his fiancée Dee Harrington were looking over Cranbourne Court, a Georgian estate west of London they wanted to buy:

Its owner, Lord Bethell … was an English aristocrat fallen on hard times. As he showed Dee and me around the property one afternoon, Dee nudged me and pointed out quietly that his trousers had worn so thin that you could make out his striped underpants through the material.

Safe to say that the show’s creator Julian Fellowes will give the Crawleys a more dignified exit than that. Whether or not they deserve it is another point entirely.