Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 3: “The River Styx” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was the third episode in Ken Burns’ 10-part mega-series The Viet Nam War, “The River Styx,” a title which seemed at first to be crossing his classical allusions — usually the river whose crossing is supposed to seal one’s fate is the Rubicon, not the Styx: the Rubicon was the real river outside Rome which Julius Caesar marched his legions across, thereby essentially declaring war against the Roman Republic, signaling his decision to take power as an absolute ruler, and thereby triggering his assassination — while the Styx was the river that led into the Greco-Roman underworld, Hades, and you usually didn’t cross it until you were already dead. As the show (two hours long instead of the 1 ½-hour length of each of the two previous episodes) wound on, the meaning of the title became more apparent: Burns and his collaborators, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward, were clearly depicting the Viet Nam war as a sort of American descent into hell. They included actual tape recordings of President Lyndon Johnson talking to advisors like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and national security advisor McGeorge Bundy (one wonders what his parents were thinking giving him such a preposterous first name as “McGeorge,” especially since they gave his brother, also a member of the Johnson administration, a normal name, “William”) and his lifelong friend, Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia), whom Johnson remained close to even though they had fought fiercely on opposite sides over the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Johnson knew instinctively what hasn’t dawned on Donald Trump: you don’t personally insult your political adversaries because you may need their vote on the next big issue). 

All the Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon had recording equipment installed in the White House, and sometimes on the phones as well as in person, though all of them from FDR to Johnson had a switch by which they could control the system so they decided which conversations they would record and which they wouldn’t: Nixon seems to be the only President who made his taping system automatic, so it would record everything without his or anybody else’s human intervention. Johnson’s recordings indicate a President deeply frustrated by Viet Nam, not really believing that the U.S. had any business there but feeling hamstrung by the political imperatives of the Cold War not to show “weakness” in the face of self-proclaimed Communists anywhere in the world, no matter how unimportant the region might be by the usual criteria of rational imperialists (i.e., does it have exploitable natural resources, cheap labor pools or markets?). That’s why I’ve often said that my answer to the question often posed about Viet Nam while the war was still going on — was it a “mistake” of U.S. foreign policy or a deliberate act of U.S. imperialism — was it was both: it was certainly an act of imperialism, but at the same time the U.S. squandered far more blood and money on it than was merited by its usefulness as an imperialist possession. (What makes that even more ironic is that, though the U.S. lost the Viet Nam war, they finally won the peace: today nominally “Communist” Viet Nam has, like Bangladesh, become a source of ultra-cheap labor for multinational corporations who decide that even China’s workers are being overpaid.) This third episode finds Ken Burns and his collaborators in more familiar and comfortable territory than the previous two: they can focus on individual battles and even individual soldiers (this is the first Viet Nam War episode that featured what’s become one of the hallmarks of the Ken Burns style: an actor reading, in a sepulchral voice, surviving letters from a participant in the war), where they can get out of discussing the political motives behind the war and focus on acts of individual heroism and bravery … on both sides, for one of the nicest things about this show is the sheer number of Viet Namese Burns, Novick and Ward scored interviews with, on the Northern as well as the Southern side. 

The show has also introduced me to a figure in the North Viet Namese government I’d frankly never heard of before: Le Duan (whose name narrator Peter Coyote pronounces “Lay Zwan”), who was the general secretary of the Viet Namese Communist Party and, Burns, Novick and Ward argue, was the real ruler of North Viet Nam during the mid-1960’s, having relegated the ostensible head of state, Ho Chi Minh, to figurehead status. Le Duan also, it’s argued here, pursued a much harder-line policy than Ho and was more willing to resist direct involvement by the North Viet Namese military instead of keeping up the pretense that the so-called “Viet Cong” (a derisive term coined by their enemies; their official name was “National Liberation Front,” a nomenclature that would be copied by revolutionary movements around the world). Mostly “The River Styx” is an account of the big battles in the war during 1965, including some at places I’d heard of (like the U.S. Marine base at Pleiku, where the first American ground troops landed and from which they operated), others I hadn’t — including Bin Ja, where U.S. troops fought for the first time in Viet Nam under their own command instead of supposedly just “advising” the South Viet Namese. The show concludes with an in-depth account of the fighting in the valley of the Ia Drang River in November 1965 — the first time it was definitively established that North Viet Nam was sending in regular troops from their army to fight alongside the NLF — and it depicted such interesting American characters as Major Charles Beckwith, who asked about the capabilities of the NLF’s fighters said, “I’d like to have 200 of them under my command”; Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who commanded the U.S. forces in the Ia Drang battle and was shown in an archival TV interview; and Joe Galloway, who was ostensibly an Associated Press reporter but got pressed into service when the unit he was covering came under attack and Moore gave him a machine gun and a quick course on how to use it to fight back. 

Interestingly, U.S. reporters in Viet Nam were probably less censored than in any other war, before or since; they didn’t have to submit their copy to military censors before they dispatched it, and all they were told not to do was write about ongoing troop movements or give their exact locations. Indeed, it was precisely because a lot of the reporters in Viet Nam used that freedom to portray the war in strongly unflattering terms that in later U.S. wars reporters were virtually locked in boxes, “embedded” in individual units and forbidden from traveling through the countryside looking for stories. One of the most chilling moments in the film was its inclusion of a famous CBS news report from late 1965 showing U.S. troops invading a Viet Namese village, supposedly in search of caches of equipment and food being used by the NLF, and literally burning down the entire village, setting fire to the thatched roofs with Zippo lighters and destroying the entire food supply on which the villagers were relying. The reporter, a young Morley Safer, concluded his report that with tactics like these “it will be difficult to convince the villagers that we are on their side” — words I remember hearing when I saw the story as it first aired, and which vividly stuck in my mind as endemic of the blinders with which the U.S. fought the entire war. It never seemed to occur to anyone in the U.S. government that if we were really serious about winning the “hearts and minds” of the Viet Namese people the last thing we should be doing was destroying their homes and food supplies; we were so convinced that we knew what was best for them, that anything was better than the presumed horror of living under a Communist government, that they’d just accept us as heroes and liberators. It was an illusion we tragically did not abandon when it turned out so badly in Viet Nam: I can remember President George W. Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, telling the Iraqi people, “We come as liberators, not conquerators” [sic] — a gaffe that led me to joke that Fleischer had been working for Bush so long he was beginning to sound like him. 

This idea that no matter how many unspeakable atrocities we commit against a civilian population, in the end they’re going to love us for it, has haunted us again and again in various military misadventures, including Iraq and Afghanistan (which has now surpassed the American Revolution and Viet Nam as the longest war the U.S. has ever been involved in — 16 years and counting), also places we’ve gone into blessedly ignorant of the local language and culture, and contemptuous of the idea that that might even be a problem. If anything, President Trump’s recent fulmination at the United Nations that he will “totally destroy” North Korea if Kim Jong “Rocket Man” Un keeps acting up is at least being honest — if your leader gets out of line, Trump is telling all 25 million North Koreans, we’re just going to kill you all and we’re not even going to pretend we’re fighting a war of liberation on your behalf. The show also parallels the rise of the U.S. anti-war movement — and the hopes of the North Viet Namese and the NLF that the U.S. anti-war movement would eventually sap the war-fighting spirit of the U.S. and help them defeat us — which is actually how all guerrilla movements work: keep the war going on for so long that ultimately your enemies get tired of it, their populations can’t sustain the effort any longer and therefore they withdraw and let you have your country back. (This was also one of the two things the Confederacy was counting on in the U.S. Civil War: there were two ways the South could have won — either by engendering enough war-weariness in the North that Lincoln would either have been forced to settle or have been defeated in his 1864 re-election bid, or by getting foreign intervention from Britain and/or France the way the U.S. revolutionaries had got from France to win their war in the 1770’s. Indeed, they came closer than a lot of people realize; George McClellan, the Civil War general turned anti-war Presidential candidate, was leading in the 1864 election by such a margin that in August Lincoln was convinced he was going to lose — until Grant and Sherman won such smashing victories on the battlefield in October 1864 that Northern voters realized the victorious end of the war was in sight and decided to stay the course.)

Interestingly, when I looked up episode three of The Viet Nam War on imdb.com the user review that came up was from someone or something named “ducorp” who took the “Democrat” President Lyndon Johnson to task for not having launched an all-out war, including the total destruction of Hanoi and Haiphong, mining the North Viet Namese harbors and committing half a million troops immediately instead of dribbling them in a few at a time — this was a common view among Americans at the time and in 1968 pollsters reported that what a lot of people they surveyed liked least about the war in Viet Nam was the deliberate strategy of fighting a “limited war” — they got people who said, “We should go all out to win in Viet Nam, and if we’re not willing to do that we should get out,” and other people who said, “We should get out of Viet Nam, but if we’re not willing to do that we should go all out to win.” Though the military commanders in the 1990’s proclaimed the (first) Persian Gulf War as the end of what they called the “Viet Nam Syndrome” in the U.S. — the gun-shy unwillingness of the U.S. population to support a war elsewhere in the world for unclear goals and aims — and then-U.S. Army chief Colin Powell proclaimed the “Powell Doctrine” that the U.S. should never again intervene and fight without a clear set of war aims and a willingness to end the war as soon as those aims were achieved, the national trauma of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 changed all that and led us back into the quagmire business in Afghanistan, Iraq (where bringing down Saddam Hussein’s repressive but secular government brought about the formation of ISIS and created more, not less, of a terrorism threat than had existed previously) and now quite likely North Korea, Venezuela, Iran or wherever else the dyspeptic President currently in the White House decides his ego has been bruised so badly he needs to use American lives and treasure to take the miscreants down a few pegs.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 2: “Riding the Dragon” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night KPBS ran the second episode of Ken Burns’ latest magnum opus, The Viet Nam War: “Riding the Dragon,” dealing with the administration of President John F. Kennedy and his role in deepening the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. No one who watches this show is going to think that Ken Burns is depicting the Viet Nam War and especially the U.S.’s involvement in it as morally ambiguous or even heroic: for Burns and his collaborators Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward, Viet Nam was a disaster from start to finish. About the only difference between the case being made against the war while it was still going on (from a peace movement I was proud, even at a tender age, to be part of: my growing up, physically and politically, is so intertwined with Viet Nam and the lessons it taught me about my country and its bias towards imperialism, as well as how badly it does imperialism I can hardly separate my views on more recent American military misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq from the Viet Nam debacle) and the one presented on this series is that Burns takes a pox-on-both-your-houses attitude to the governments of the two Viet Nams created by the 1954 Geneva Agreements, the People’s Republic of Viet Nam in the north and the Republic of Viet Nam in the south. 

There was a tendency, especially as the war wore on, for peaceniks to whitewash the North Viet Namese and see them as “freedom fighters,” ignoring their atrocities and repression against so-called “political enemies” — while at the same time supporters of the war tried to present the Republic of Viet Nam as a democracy when it wasn’t. It was ruled first by Ngo Dinh Diem (and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and Mrs. Nhu, who made both figuratively and literally incendiary comments that only worsened the situation: not only did she respond to the immolation suicides of Buddhist monks in protest against Diem’s Catholic regime by saying she rejoiced at the “barbecues,” which is in Burns’ film, she publicly called on New York Times reporter David Halberstam, who had angered her with his dispatches criticizing the Diem government and the U.S. involvement, would follow the monks’ example), then after Diem was overthrown and assassinated by Viet Namese generals on November 1, 1963 (three weeks to the day before JFK’s own assassination) by a round-robin series of coups and counter-coups involving the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN)’s top generals, and finally after 1965 by Nguyen Cao Ky (who became infamous in the peace movement for allegedly having said, “I have only one hero — Hitler”) and later by Nguyen Van Thieu (about half of all Viet Namese seem to be named “Nguyen,” just as half of all Koreans seem to be named “Kim” — recently, when Charles and I were watching a PBS program and one of the donors was the Park Foundation, Charles joked, “That’s the foundation dedicated to building awareness of Koreans not named Kim”), who took over the Viet Namese presidency in 1967 and made Ky his vice-president; they ruled, sort of, until the entire South Viet Namese government fell in 1975. 

The story of Viet Nam as told in this documentary is a grim tale of Americans blundering their way into a country whose language they did not speak, whose history and culture they did not understand, and which they saw through the illogic of the Cold War, which, in a theory Henry Kissinger called “linkage,” was based on the idea that every struggle anywhere in the world was ultimately part of the fight to the death between American capitalism and Soviet communism. The U.S. ignored Ho Chi Minh’s overtures immediately after World War II because he was a communist, and to U.S. policy-makers at the time (notably President Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, and special advisor George Kennan, author of the “containment” policy by which Communism would be allowed to rule where it had already taken root but the U.S. would fight tooth and nail against its expansion, especially in western Europe and southeastern Asia) that invalidated all his claims to being an independent nationalist. The U.S. got further and further into the war — by the end of the Kennedy administration it had several thousand “advisors” in the country, supposedly there just to train the ARVN and its commanders on how to fight, but they were flying helicopters, bombing suspected enemy positions and actively participating in conflict even though they weren’t yet going into battle on the ground. (That would come later, under Lyndon Johnson.) I remember in my teens and early 20’s having long arguments with friends over whether Kennedy would have cut the U.S.’s losses in Viet Nam and withdrawn if he’d lived: the Burns documentary mentions that there was a plan on the table when Kennedy died to withdraw the U.S. “advisors” gradually until January 1965, but that was predicated on the belief that by then the ARVN would have turned the corner and started winning the war. Those hopes were dashed in January 1963 at the Battle of Ap Bac, one of the “strategic hamlets” the South Viet Namese government built (and drafted forced labor from the Viet Namese peasants to build them) to isolate the rural Viet Namese population behind barbed wire and stakes to keep the National Liberation Front (NLF) recruiters from getting to them and signing them up for the other side. 

What Burns’ documentary doesn’t mention was that this was an idea with an already long and dishonorable history: the first foreign invaders in a Third World country who hit on this strategy were the British during the Boer War in South Africa in the late 1890’s. Only instead of calling them “strategic hamlets,” they called them “concentration camps” — a bit of nomenclature that became decidedly politically incorrect when Nazi Germany appropriated the term (though they meant something rather different by it — first forced-labor camps and then extermination centers). The French had tried something similar in their failed attempt to reconquer Viet Nam between 1946 and 1954, only they called it “pacification” — a word spelled identically (though pronounced somewhat differently) in English and French and which the U.S. used as an alternate name for the program — either way it didn’t freaking work. It only gave Viet Namese peasants even more reason to hate the South Viet Namese government and concentrated the peasantry so NLF recruiters had an easier, not harder, time winning converts. One of the heroes (sort of) mentioned in this program was John Paul Vann, an American military advisor to the ARVN who later became the hero of Neil Sheehan’s book A Bright Shining Lie about the early days of the Viet Nam involvement (he published a book in 1972 about Vann’s role and it was filmed by HBO in 1978, with Bill Paxton playing Vann; the movie got savaged by people who still believed in the cause the U.S. had been fighting for in Viet Nam, whatever it was); Sheehan was extensively interviewed for this program and made the point that Ap Bac was the first time the NLF (or “Viet Cong,” short for “Viet Namese Communists,” as their enemies derisively termed them) staged a full-scale battle instead of just a raid, inflicted heavy casualties and had enough military supplies and modern arms (which came mostly from the Soviet Union and only secondarily from the Chinese — one thing the American war plotters didn’t understand about Viet Nam was that for a thousand years it had been under Chinese “suzerainty,” which meant they basically got to run their own country but had to acknowledge the Chinese as their ultimate overlords and pay them heavy taxes, which had given the Viet Namese a long-term hatred of the Chinese, reason enough that when the Sino-Soviet split occurred the Viet Namese took the Soviet rather than the Chinese side) to be able to fight and win a full-fledged battle and not just a raid. 

Anyway, getting back to my arguments with my friends in the early 1970’s over whether there would have been a Viet Nam War — or at least a major U.S. involvement in it — if JFK had lived a normal span and served two terms as President, it’s always seemed to me that Kennedy would have pursued pretty much the same policies as Lyndon Johnson. By removing Diem in a coup (or at least green-lighting the efforts of Viet Namese generals to do that — JFK had given his O.K. to the coup as long as Diem and Nhu were allowed to leave the country alive, and when they weren’t he was not a happy camper but he regarded himself as stuck with the Viet Namese leadership, even a bunch of generals who had double-crossed him) Kennedy had doubled down on the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. It’s hard to figure out what Diem was doing in his last months in power, when having already lost the peasantry he went after the urban masses, most of whom were Buddhist and resented the way Diem’s policies were blatantly favoring his own religion, Roman Catholicism — but then it’s often hard to figure out the counterproductive policies authoritarians of all stripes (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chávez, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un and, arguably, Donald Trump) fall into when they see their absolute power as being threatened. The important point is that Diem’s fall left South Viet Nam a mess and would have made it even harder for any U.S. President to withdraw — and Kennedy, who was obsessed with China and regarded the Chinese (with some reason) as being on an expansionist tear by which they hoped to conquer and/or bring under their influence all of Asia (including India, with whom they fought at least two border wars during Kennedy’s Presidency), would no more have withdrawn from Viet Nam as he would have patted the East German leaders on their backs and said, “No problem with that wall … ”

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 1: “Déjà Vu” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night PBS debuted the first episode, “Déjà Vu,” of Ken Burns’ series The Viet Nam War. (He actually spelled it The Vietnam War, since “Vietnam” as one word is the usual American rendering, but I remember a UCSD professor whom I met in the early 2000’s who had compiled an anthology of accounts of the war, many of them by people who’d actually fought in it, solemnly telling me that “Viet Nam” — two words, no hyphen — is the correct way to spell that country’s name.) The Viet Nam War featured the usual suspects — Ken Burns and Lynn Novick as the filmmakers, Geoffrey C. Ward as the writer, Peter Coyote as the narrator and a batch of oddball funding sources including the Bank of America and David H. Koch (when I saw that name on the credits I winced, though any thought I might have had that Koch was going to insist on making this a Right-wing propaganda piece was quickly disconfirmed by the content of the show itself) — and the first part was a compelling presentation of the pre-history of the Viet Nam war, starting in 1858 when the French invaded Viet Nam and relatively quickly took it over. Their main interest in Southeast Asia generally and what was then called “French Indochina” in particular was as a giant plantation that would produce rice the French could then sell to other countries in the region, and to that end they ran Viet Nam as a sort of giant plantation, maintaining a puppet emperor to put a Viet Namese face on their occupation and dividing the country into French-owned giant farms where the Viet Namese were forced to work as peasants, frequently starving while the ample food supplies they were producing went to other, more profitable markets. (It’s the same old sad story of all imperialisms.)

The French occupation naturally engendered a nationalist resistance — several nationalist resistances, actually — though the one that became important was the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh (that wasn’t his birth name: one of the things I didn’t know before I learned from this program was that he used about 70 different aliases before settling on that one) and aligned with the Communist movement worldwide because Ho had, as a young man, read Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and call for national self-determination and decided that was the blueprint for struggle in his own country. He actually spent 31 years in exile, from 1910 to 1941, until the German conquest of France in World War II threw the entire French colonial system into turmoil. The Japanese sought to take over all France’s colonial possessions in Asia, and a number of Viet Namese embraced them on the ground that at least the Japanese, as fellow Asians, would liberate them from white rule. When the Japanese proved at least as oppressive colonial overlords as the French — something that Ho hadn’t been surprised about at all — Viet Namese nationalists formed resistance movements and hoped that an Allied victory in World War II would end both French and Japanese occupation and pave the way for Viet Namese independence. As I remember reading in the 1960’s from Robert Scheer’s famous short book How the United States Got Involved in Viet Nam — which became virtually the Bible of the anti-war movement in the 1960’s and published excerpts from many of the cables between the U.S. State Department and its diplomats in Viet Nam that were later included in the Pentagon Papers — Ho Chi Minh actually thought the U.S. would take his side: he deliberately began the Viet Namese Declaration of Independence with the same words as the U.S. Declaration of Independence (the ones about people having certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) and he wrote several letters to U.S. President Harry Truman in both French and English asking outright for his support. The letters never reached Truman: they were intercepted by the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which had already written off Ho as a Communist and therefore someone the U.S. not only wouldn’t support, but would bitterly oppose. The next nine years were a brutal conflict between the French, attempting to reconquer Viet Nam through military means; the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and claiming to be the legitimate government of the entire country; and other Viet Namese nationalists who rejected Communism and wanted independence under non-Communist, non-Viet Minh auspices.

The story that Burns, Novick and Ward tell is one of bitter war and atrocities on both sides — they note that Ho Chi Minh was out of the country for much of this period, vainly trying to negotiate an end to the French involvement in Paris, and the ruler actually on the ground in the Viet Minh-controlled parts of Viet Nam was Ho’s military commander, Vo Nguyen Giap (Coyote in his narration pronounces Giap’s last name as “Zap,” by the way), who was considerably harder-line than Ho himself and ordered some brutal massacres — though the anti-Communist Viet Namese and the French all committed war atrocities of their own, including the conqueror’s ultimate privilege, rape. (There are a lot of reasons to be a pacifist, but one of them is that victorious armies throughout history have almost always regarded the bodies of the females — and sometimes the males as well — of the vanquished as part of war booty, and considered rape one of the perks of victory.) The program deals with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu — in a pattern that would repeat itself when the Americans replaced the French as Viet Nam’s would-be imperialists, the French massed their forces for a conventional battle on the plains while the Viet Minh hid out in the hills, secretly assembled artillery that had been carted up by hand in bits and pieces and then reassembled in place, and shelled the French before the French had the chance to mount the mass attack they’d planned — and the much-misunderstood Geneva Accords of 1954. The Geneva Accords called for a temporary division of Viet Nam into northern and southern occupation zones, the north to be ruled by the Viet Minh and the south by the French, until 1956, when a nationwide election was to be held in which the people of Viet Nam would vote on who should rule the entire country — an election just about everyone involved knew that Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh would win. It also set up a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between northern and southern occupation zones, and allowed anyone in either half of Viet Nam to move to the other within 300 days. What actually happened was that 100,000 Viet Namese moved from the south to the north and 1 million moved from north to south — which was hailed in the U.S. and European media as the Viet Namese people voting with their feet for freedom over Communism.

Robert Scheer’s account was, not surprisingly, quite different: he said the Viet Minh asked their people not to come north because they wanted them in the south to prepare for the elections that were supposed to happen in 1956, while most of the people who went south were Viet Namese who had converted to Roman Catholicism during French rule. Among the most interesting aspects of this documentary were Burns’ and Novick’s judicious use of film clips of future Presidents who would one day have to deal with Viet Nam — John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon — to show what they had to say about the conflict in the early 1950’s; Kennedy’s initial comments were eerily prescient about the U.S. having no national interest in Viet Nam and thereby best off staying out, but his tune changed when the French ultimately withdrew from Viet Nam in 1955 and Ngo Dinh Diem emerged as the first president of the newly proclaimed “Republic of Viet Nam” in the South. Diem was a Roman Catholic who never married and at one point had planned to become a priest, and apparently he and Kennedy bonded over their shared religion as well as Diem’s promise to show Viet Nam in particular and the world in general that there was a “Third Way” Third World countries could follow besides imperialism and Communism. Once in power Diem turned out to be as autocratic as anyone in the North, locking dissenters into concentration camps and summarily executing people. The first episode of The Viet Nam War ends with Kennedy’s inauguration as President and a successful attack by the National Liberation Front (derisively called the “Viet Cong” by its enemies), the guerrilla movement in the South Ho and Giap green-lighted in 1959 after they realized that the national unification elections, which they had counted on to give them power over all of Viet Nam, were not going to happen. The attack killed two of the U.S. “advisors” who were supposedly there to help organize and train the South Viet Namese army, and these 1959 casualties are considered by the U.S. government to be the first Americans actually killed in the Viet Nam war and are the first names on the famous Viet Nam war memorial in Washington, D.C.

Of course I was particularly interested in The Viet Nam War because I have a personal relationship to this history: it was going on while I was growing up (though I missed being vulnerable to the draft by a hair’s breadth: I was subject to the last draft lottery drawing during the war but my birthday, September 4, was 356 in the lottery drawing so I wasn’t in any danger of being sent off to fight in that horrible war) and it had a lot to do with shaping the politics I’ve had ever since, particularly a hatred of Western imperialism and a belief that Third World nations should have the right to determine for themselves what sort of government they should have. I remember being one of the earliest people in my generational cohort to oppose the war, and how classmates who’d once argued with me and given all the usual propaganda justifications for the war — the “domino theory,” the idea that the fall of Viet Nam would bring all Asia under Communist rule and ultimately if we didn’t vanquish the Communists in Viet Nam we’d be fighting them on the California shores — suddenly started turning up in the same peace marches I’d been going to since my mom took me to my first one in 1965, when I was 11. I also remember the arguments between Viet Nam war opponents over whether the war was “a mistake,” an exception to America’s usually idealistic foreign policy, or a deliberate exercise of U.S. imperialism: as the opposition to the war got more Left-wing “imperialism,” not “mistake,” became the answer that was considered “politically correct.” Only later did it occur to me that Viet Nam was both an exercise in U.S. imperialism and a mistake: Viet Nam had virtually no natural resources to speak of, and the cost to the U.S. in both lives and money of attempting to conquer and “pacify” Viet Nam was so far out of proportion to its potential value as a dependency any truly rational imperialists would have abandoned it the way the French had in 1955.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Time Tunnel: Four Episodes (Irwin Allen Productions, Kent Productions, 20th Century-Fox Television, 1966-1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” movie screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) featured four episodes of the short-lived (one season, 1966-1967) TV series The Time Tunnel, producer-director-writer Irwin Allen’s followup to his (at least at first) sensationally successful series Lost in Space — and so similar in its basic formula Allen might as well have called this one Lost in Time. The show’s premise is that the U.S. government has spent $7.5 billion developing a secret project in the middle of the Arizona desert — it’s so secret that a patch of the desert surface opens up to admit people inside its underground headquarters and a Chrysler Imperial limousine delivering invited guest U.S. Senator Leroy Clark (Gary Merrill, Bette Davis’s co-star in All About Eve and her fourth husband), who’s just discovered the secret appropriation for “Project Tic-Toc” in the federal budget (the name of the effort is a perfect example of the weird banality that afflicted a lot of Allen’s projects) and is ready, as head of the relevant U.S. Senate committee, to pull  the plug on it if he doesn’t feel it’s accomplishing anything worthwhile. 

Needless to say, the staffers at the head of Project Tic-Toc (we’re told there are 1,200 people working on it in the bowels of the earth under the Arizona desert but we only see about five of them) are worried about losing their funding, so they respond to Senator Clark’s demand that they project a person through the so-called “Time Tunnel” (a series of concentric rings that’s supposed to look like it stretches to infinity, though despite the best efforts at forced perspective from Irwin Allen and his set painters it’s clearly only about 15 to 20 feet long) and bring him back safely by having one of the engineers in charge of the project, Dr. Anthony Newman (James Darren, in a tight turtleneck sweater and a pair of slacks that shows off a nice ass), leap into the Time Tunnel, which sizzles, smokes and ultimately — in the pilot episode, “Rendezvous with Yesterday” — deposits him on the deck of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912, just hours before the ship is going to have that fatal rendezvous with an iceberg. Another scientist on the project, Dr. Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert — one of the attendees at the screening wondered if he’s any relation to late-night talk-show host Stephen Colbert, but his imdb.com page doesn’t say yea or nay), leaps into the Time Tunnel to try to retrieve Newman but only ends up trapped in there with him, and for the rest of the series’ one-season run the gimmick was that the people back at Tic-Toc Central (including a woman, Lee Meriwether as Dr. Ann McGregor — who’s dressed in the baggiest white lab coat 20th Century-Fox’s costume department could find and she looks so decidedly un-sexy it’s hard to believe that within three years she’d be playing the Catwoman on the 1960’s Batman TV show!) kept trying to retrieve their two errant crew members but just kept depositing them in one new time period after another, always in the middle of some imminent peril that could be advertised in a cliffhanger sequence at the end of each episode to get viewers to tune into the next one. On “Rendezvous with Yesterday” the two run into the Titanic’s captain, Malcolm Smith (Michael Rennie, looking oddly un-alien for Rennie in a science-fiction story!) — incidentally the real Titanic’s captain was named Edward John Smith and usually called “E. J.” — who hears them try to warn him that the ship is headed for an iceberg and it should turn around and reset its course southward to move out of iceberg country. Naturally Captain Smith thinks they’re lunatics and orders them locked up so they don’t scare the rest of the passengers with their doomsday talk. 

They also meet up with a sympathetic female, Althea Hall (played by the beautiful and talented British actress Susan Hampshire), who’s a schoolteacher who splurged all her life savings on a vacation on the Titanic, though she also seems to be working her way across by performing in the ship’s lounge as a pianist (in which capacity she’s playing in a half-ragtime, half-jazz musical style far more characteristic of the mid-1920’s than 1912), and a typically obnoxiously cute movie kid whose family is emigrating to the U.S. from France and who’s sneaking onto the first-class decks to steal leftover food to help feed his family and the other “third-class” passengers (the script, by Irwin Allen himself, doesn’t use the dread word “steerage”). Newman and Phillips stage a sort of coup d’état in the radio room to try to broadcast warnings to other ships that the Titanic is about to sink and will need their help rescuing its passengers, but Captain Smith catches them and countermands their orders. (One of the peculiarities of The Time Tunnel as compared to other time-travel stories is its cheery ignorance of the “butterfly effect”; Newman and Phillips come off as time-traveling Mary Worths attempting to prevent the historical disasters they get beamed into without any thought, except in very rare instances, that if they alter the events of history their own time is going to change in unpredictable and possibly catastrophic ways.) Eventually the Time Tunnel crew beams Newman and Phillips off of the deck of the Titanic just in time to avoid going down with the ship — though before they leave they coax Althea into one of the lifeboats despite her protestations that she has a brain tumor which is going to kill her (one of the reasons she was going to New York was to see a super-surgeon who — stop me if you’ve heard this before — was the only person in the world who could do the operation that could save her life) — only they get dumped into the middle of the American Revolution, complete with red-coated British soldiers shooting at them. Also worthy of note is the music credit on “Rendezvous with Yesterday” to “Johnny Williams,” known today as John Williams and probably the most successful film composer of all time in terms of money and awards — though he didn’t compose all the Time Tunnel episodes, and a lot of them were probably filled out with stock music cues, he did write the sprightly, very John Williams-ish theme song that was used throughout the series’ run (over a set of credits in which the series’ title first appears in mirror-image backwards letters, then rights itself — and even the design of the title as it appears in the credits is an Allen self-plagiarism from Lost in Space).

We didn’t get to see the Revolutionary War episode because, instead of presenting the Time Tunnel shows in sequence, the screening’s proprietor had picked the episodes that had the highest ratings on imdb.com, so the next one we got was “The Day the Sky Fell In.” This beamed Newman and Phillips to Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941, one day before the date that will live in infamy, and Newman had a particular reason to be concerned about Pearl Harbor because his dad, a Naval officer, was serving there on the day the Japanese attacked and was never heard from again. There’s a major glitch in continuity between this episode and the pilot which a number of imdb.com commentators picked up on: in “Rendezvous with Yesterday” we were told that Newman was born in 1938, while in “The Day the Sky Fell In” we were told he was seven years old in 1941 — which of course would put his birth year as 1934. It turns out the young Tony Newman (Sheldon Golomb, later known as Sheldon Collins) is best friends with another kid named Billy Neal (Frankie Kabott) and that night he’s scheduled for a sleepover at the Neals’ home — only the Neals’ home is destined to suffer a direct hit in the attack. The Neals also have a Japanese maid named Yuko (Caroline Kido), who’s still loyal to the Motherland and in league with three plug-ugly Japanese spies, one of whom looked so much like the James Bond villain Odd-Job one viewer at our screening wondered where he’d left his killer hat. They’re determined to keep the secret of the upcoming Pearl Harbor attack, so they knock off the Neals’ butler — who’s Japanese-American but loyal to the U.S. — and capture Newman and Phillips, who are trying (fruitlessly) to warn the U.S. naval officials what’s coming. Eventually, of course, our time travelers escape — though Newman finally learns what happened to his father (he was killed in the attack) and the meeting of the young and the adult Tony Newman has a quirky appeal even though Allen and his writer (Ellis St. Joseph) and director (William Hale) do almost nothing with the Barrie-esque irony of having you meet your younger self. 

Next up on the program was “Devil’s Island,” directed by Jerry Hopper (a veteran of feature-film assignments at Universal) from a script by Bob and Wanda Duncan, which featured Our Heroes being beamed onto the infamous French prison island in 1895, just as Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Ted Roter, later known as Peter Balakoff) arrives there following his arrest on trumped-up charges of treason against France on behalf of … well, in the Duncans’ script it was Germany, though in real life it was Austria. The gimmick this time is that there’s a plan among the other prisoners to get Dreyfus off Devil’s Island (which never happened; he stayed there for two years until the agitation around his case in France got him released to be retried at home) — only it’s a setup by the prison authorities (who speak with some of the phoniest accents ever recorded on film, as if the character actors playing them were used to portraying Nazi German villains and were trying to adjust the accents they’d used for them to sound “French”) so they can end the Dreyfus case once and for all by shooting him “while attempting to escape” (a cover story repeated so often in the history of Mexican political imprisonment it became known in Spanish slang as the Ley Fuga). One of the conspirators, Boudaire (Marcel Hillaire), gets beamed back to Tic-Toc Central via the Time Tunnel (which provoked at least one imdb.com contributor to wonder why the Time Tunnel techs could successfully beam back a person they don’t want while completely missing beaming back Newman and Phillips over and over again), and at first he wants to stay in the U.S. in 1968 instead of going back to Devil’s Island in 1895, but he agrees to return to warn Dreyfus and the others that their “escape” is a setup — but the trauma of dealing with being time-traveled fries his brain and he forgets that piece of information. Eventually Dreyfus himself refuses to leave (in her book The Proud Tower Barbara Tuchman portrays the real Dreyfus as so totally committed to the ideals of the French military he couldn’t believe they would frame him for treason and so Right-wing he was an embarrassment to the French Leftists who had led the effort to re-open his case) and the Time Travelers are beamed back just as the rest of the prisoners have set off on their escape. 

The final Time Tunnel episode showed last night was one of the better ones, “Kill Two by Two,” in which we’re in World War II again — though at its end rather than at the beginning of the U.S. involvement in it. It takes place on the island of Minami Imo, one of two tiny islands off the coast of Iwo Jima which were held by the Japanese and which the U.S. had to neutralize before they could make a successful attack on Iwo Jima itself. It helps that the script by Bob and Wanda Duncan (again, though this time directed by Herschel Daugherty) doesn’t include any actual historical characters: instead it’s a tight little story with just four people on the island, Newman, Phillips and two Japanese, Lieutenant Nakamura (Mako, the very interesting Japanese actor who’s probably best known as the star of the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, his typically quirky attempt to blend American musican and Kabuki theatre to tell the story of U.S. Commodore Peary’s successful opening of Japan to world trade with an all-Japanese, or at least all-Asian, cast) and Sergeant Itsugi (Kam Tong). The quirk this time is that no one at Tic-Toc Central has any clue as to the geography of Minami Ito, so they hit on the idea of recruiting a survivor of the real battle to talk them through the search-and-rescue mission — only the one they get is Dr. Nakamura (Philip Ahn, the fascinating Chinese-American actor who was probably royally pissed off that even 23 years after World War II ended he was still getting casting calls for Japanese officer roles in World War II-set stories! I’ve long thought that if 20th Century-Fox had wanted an actual Chinese actor for their 1930’s Charlie Chan movies Philip Ahn would have been the best choice), father of Lt. Nakamura. There’s a big, obvious casting glitch here in that Ahn looks the right age to be Mako’s father in a conventional time sequence but not when we’re seeing Mako 23 years earlier than we see Ahn — we’d expect Ahn to look more like Mako’s grandfather than his father with that big a time lapse. At first Ahn is unwilling to help the Tic-Toc crew recover their people unless they also bring back his son (which they can’t do because they’re already pushing their equipment to recover two people at once and they’re sure it can’t handle three), but eventually once he realizes what a psycho his son is — Mako’s character is described as someone who’s going out of his way not only to take out as many Americans as he can but to die himself because he was supposed to be a kamikaze pilot, only at the last moment he chickened out and now he’s determined to sacrifice his life to redeem the stain on his honor — he agrees to help, only of course Newman and Phillips get beamed not back to Tic-Toc headquarters in Arizona but to an alien spacecraft (filled with silver people who look all too much like the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz) whose inhabitants are determined to conquer and obliterate all life on Earth. 

Overall, The Time Tunnel emerges as an O.K. series; when it was on originally I just found it confusing (and I rarely watched it because of a factor someone else at the screening mentioned: it was on opposite The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — which though now it comes off as an almost unbelievably tacky James Bond knockoff seemed really cool then, plus I had a boyhood crush on David McCallum and admired Robert Vaughn for being the first major celebrity to speak out against the Viet Nam war). Now The Time Tunnel seems like a quirky mess, very much in the mold of Irwin Allen’s other projects (the movies Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and the Lost in Space TV show, which was cute when it first went on but seemed abysmal after Star Trek rewrote the rules for science-ficton on TV) — oddly the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series, as represented by four episodes also shown at Vintage Sci-Fi, was refreshingly free from the excursions into camp that usually marred Allen’s work, but they, along with the risible plot holes, were all over The Time Tunnel and, even more than most TV series, then or now, The Time Tunnel’s episodes all seemed pretty much the same: Newman and Phillips get beamed back into some immediately perilous past (or, less often, future) situation and play around in it for a while until the people back at Tic-Toc Central beam them out of that one and into another similarly life-threatening environment.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Stranded (Niggeman IndieFilms S.L., Dolores Pictures S.L., Guerrilla Films, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) consisted of a feature, a TV series episode and three shorts, all of them centered around the theme of astronauts stranded on Mars and fighting for their own survival — indeed, the feature was actually called Stranded and was made by a Spanish company in 2002 (imdb.com gives the date as 2001), though the studio scenes were shot in Hollywood and only the location work was done in Spain (in Valencia and on the Canary Islands). Set on a Mars expedition in 2020, Stranded deals with a crew of six astronauts who are stranded on the Red Planet’s surface when their spacecraft — a landing module that’s just detached itself from another craft which orbited Mars to let them out — crash-lands due to a software glitch that interfered with the computer’s instructions on how to land the thing and forced it to crash, meaning it can’t be flown off the planet for a return to the home ship. The mission commander, André Vishniak (José Sancho), dies in the crash, leaving Susana Sánchez (María Lidon), in charge even though she’s blonde, has the appearance of an animate kewpie doll and is clearly the youngest and least mature of the five remaining crew members. 

The others are medical doctor Jenny Johnson (Maria de Madeiros), engineer Luca Baglioni (Vincent Gallo, the only cast member I’d heard of before), geologist Fidel Rodrigo (Joaquim de Almeida — the “m” instead of an “n” at the end of his first name makes me wonder if the Spanish production company borrowed him from neighboring Portugal), and something-or-other Herbert Sagan (tall, blond Daniel Axer, whom I’d like to have seen more of but who disappears fairly early on — and it’s not hard to guess whom writer Juan Miguel Aguilera was paying tribute to with his last name!), and the first part of the movie is a lot of anxious palaver between them over how long they’re going to have to hold out before another ship from Earth comes out to rescue them, since the pilot of their master craft still in orbit around Mars can’t hang around and wait for them because he has no landing craft that can get to them and if he hangs around more than a day or two he’ll miss his launch window for the trip home. Luca, the biggest, most arrogant pig among the dramatis personae (though none of these people are especially likable, which in itself marks this as a modern movie even though it’s already 15 years old), announces that the soonest any ship from Earth can come along and rescue them is two or three years, and they don’t have enough oxygen, water or food to sustain all five crew members that long — so three of the crew will have to exit the spacecraft and sentence themselves to death on Mars in hopes the other two can hold out long enough for Earth to send a rescue ship. What’s more, Luca has made the decision as to who should go and who should stay — naturally he picks himself to survive since he’s the engineer (and he’s also the biggest, most arrogant pig — oh, I said that already) and he says Jenny should be the other survivor since she’s a doctor and therefore has professional skills that can keep them healthy during the wait. 

The other three crew members accordingly say they’re going to “go outside for a walk” (a stiff-upper-lip facing of death whose earliest film appearance I can recall is at the end of the marvelous 1934 James Cagney gangster vehicle He Was Her Man) and Sagan disappears (what happened to him, if writer Aguilera and director María Lidon[1] — so that’s how the blonde kewpie-doll got to be second-in-command! She was directing as well! — ever explained it at all, I can’t for the life of me remember) while Susana and Rodrigo stumble on the ruins of a Martian city, complete with various carvings on the stone wall, one of them being a chevron-like arrow motif that repeats every so often and leads them to a place on Mars where there is actually oxygen in the atmosphere, so they can take off their space helmets and breathe as they could on Earth. Meanwhile, back at the ship Jenny Johnson has discovered that there’s a leak in what’s left of the spaceship, and therefore the craft is losing air at such a rate that instead of two years’ supply left they only have about 12 hours. Luca’s response to this news is that if they’re going to die in 12 hours anyway they should have sex immediately so they can at least go out doing something fun — it’s almost certainly the worst pick-up line of all time — and it inspires this welcome response from Jenny: “You mean to say your enormous talent, your amazing intelligence, can’t find any other solution than for us to die fucking?... Here’s my plan... I’ll get into my pressurized suit and go outside to see if I can locate the leak... You can stay here inside and masturbate until you die of dehydration!” Then she says that they can build a memorial statue to Luca showing him with his pants down and his hands on his dick. At the end Jenny goes out to see if she can find the source of the leak; she can’t, but she receives word from the other two about the pocket of oxygen-bearing atmosphere on Mars and she and Luca (who gets up from under the metallic cloth he’s been using as a bed cover in a way that makes it look as if he indeed took her suggestion that if she weren’t willing to have sex with him, he have it with himself) go out and join the others there — and then the film ends. The general consensus of our audience was that Stranded was the bad version of The Martian, the 2014 film with Matt Damon as an astronaut similarly stranded on Mars (though with two crucial differences: he was alone, and he at least tried to extend his survival time by being resourceful), and while I was a bit disappointed with The Martian (mainly because I didn’t think Damon was an edgy enough actor for the role), it’s worlds better than Stranded.  

Stranded is one of those frustrating bad movies with a good movie seemingly trapped inside it, trying vainly to get out, and one of the things that gets really annoying about it pretty fast is the doom-laden pessimism and hopelessness of Vincent Gallo’s character. Another, related problem is that no one in the crew seems to have any constructive suggestions on how to deal with their predicament: when I heard that they had silicon aboard my first thought was, “They’re complaining about their limited energy — why don’t they make solar panels?” (Enough real spaceships have included solar panels in their designs this should have been a no-brainer, even for as resolute a glass-half-empty fellow as Luca.) That pocket-of-atmosphere stuff was silly even when Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou used it to keep their moon-landers alive in the 1928 film Woman on the Moon (though at least von Harbou was a smart enough writer she had the lunar atmosphere exist only at the bottom of valleys and caves, indicating that the moon’s gravity hadn’t been enough to sustain much of an atmosphere but what there was of one was at least in its geographically lowest portions) and it’s even sillier here — how does the oxygen-based atmosphere keep from blending with the carbon dioxide that’s most of the atmosphere around the bulk of Mars, both in this movie and in real life? Another problem Charles had with the film was the English-language dubbing; the voice actors recited their lines in an emotion-less monotone, and though the DVD being shown gave the options of seeing it in English or Spanish, they did not give the option of watching the Spanish version with English subtitles — and Charles suggested that would be more fair to this film than the dubbed English version (just as that very interesting 1959 German Gaysploitation film The Third Sex from 1959, which we watched ages ago on a VHS from Sinister Cinema, might have come off better in German with English subtitles than it did in the dubbed version our old friends at American International prepared for the U.S. release). There’s nothing wrong with Stranded that a better director, a stronger, better constructed script and a more charismatic, appealing cast couldn’t have cured — the basic premise is an excellent one and could have made a great movie, but it didn’t this time.


[1] — Who took her directing credit under the name “Luna,” so we have a film about Mars directed by the moon.

The Outer Limits: “The Invisible Enemy” (Daystar Productions, Villa Di Stefano, United Artists Television, 1964)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening paired Stranded with a TV episode, three short films and an intriguing “ringer,” a promo reel Paramount prepared for their proposed version of John Carter of Mars, the long-awaited film of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars books whose rights passed from Disney to Paramount back to Disney again, which ultimately made the film but scissored off the “ … of Mars” from the end of the title, thereby alienating science-fiction fans who might have flocked to theatres to see a film of the Burroughs Mars cycle and not attracting anyone else. The version Paramount was contemplating looks, from this promo reel (with some of the special effects, especially the detailing on the CGI of the animal characters, definitely unfinished), pretty much like the John Carter Disney actually released (and lost tons of money on). Easily the most professional piece of filmmaking we saw last night was the television episode, “The Invisible Enemy” from the 1963-65 series The Outer Limits, whose opening sequence I remember more than anything from the shows themselves: the TV image blacked out and an unseen voice started barking at us, “There is nothing wrong with your set. We have taken control” (and at the end the same voice said, “We now return control of your television set to you, until next week at this time, when we return you to … The Outer Limits”). 

This was from the tail end of the series’ run (episode 7 of season 2 originally aired October 31, 1964 — and I suspect that originally showing it on Hallowe’en was no coincidence) and it begins with a prologue showing the M-1, the first manned human expedition to Mars, which carries two crew members, one of whom gets out of the spacecraft, walks across a sea of sparkling sand and is on his radio telling his crewmate that everything’s just fine, when … his voice turns into a scream and then cuts off, indicating his death. The other crew member goes out and meets a similar fate, and then … after the original credits sequence we get a Lifetime-esque title, “Three Years Later,” and three years later the snazzier, more streamlined M-2 is about to land on Mars. Its mission is partly to do what M-1 was supposed to do — examine Mars’s resources to see what human colonizers would have available to them and what they would have to bring, or figure out how to make — and also to find out what happened to M-1. One of the quirkiest aspects of this show is the casting: the mission commander of M-2, Major Charles “Chuck” Merritt, is played by Adam West, who two years later would be Batman on the high-camp 1966-1968 TV version produced by William Dozier, while the mission control scientist is played by Ted Knight, Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show — and he did such a good job as the amiable bumbler Ted Baxter it’s hard to believe Knight as someone who’s supposed to be super-smart. Another is the director, Byron Haskin, who’d already entered Mars-movie hall-of-famedom with the 1953 version of The War of the Worlds and when he made this had just finished Robinson Crusoe on Mars (also with Adam West, though not as the title character!), which Haskin once hailed as the best film he’d ever done, only he hated the awful title its distributor slapped on it and blamed the title for the film’s commercial failure. 

The M-2 contains four crew members instead of just the two that flew on M-1, and they’re solemnly instructed by Mission Control that even if they leave the ship, they’re supposed to remain visible to the people in the ship at all time. Only one of the astronauts, curious about the wreckage of the M-1, goes behind it, out of view of his comrades in the spacecraft, and while he’s out of eyeshot a monster emerges from the “sea” of sand and gobbles him up. The people inside the spacecraft are alerted by his frantic screams in the last minutes of his life that something dire has happened to him, but they have no idea what it was. (One imdb.com reviewer asked why they didn’t carry video cameras with them so they could photograph the menace.) Eventually two of the people on the M-2 are killed by the menace and a third, Jack Buckley (Ricky Solari), goes out in search of the monster and escapes only when he realizes that it can only move inside the sea of sparkling sand — if he can get to un-sandy ground he can escape. Alas, Major Merritt goes out to try to rescue him and ends up stranded on a rock outcropping in the middle of the sand sea, safe from the monster but with no way of getting back to the ship — which is going to be piloted off the planet’s surface automatically within half an hour. The show’s final suspense sequence shows how Major Merritt drips some of his own blood onto his belt and throws it at the monster to decoy it so Buckley will have a chance to escape; then Merritt fires a nuclear-armed bazooka at the monster — only that has exactly the opposite effect intended: instead of knocking off the monster, it splits it open like a starfish and each piece grows into a new one. “The Invisible Enemy” has its flaws, mainly because Adam West is too uncomplicatedly “heroic” an actor to play a man at his wit’s end, desperately trying to survive (and the John Wayne vocal tics he goes into at times don’t help) and the monster itself is one of those hideous papier-maché contraptions that were also frequently the risible “menaces” on the original Star Trek series (which shared at least two key people with The Outer Limits, Robert Justman and Gene Coon, though neither is credited here), but it was still a clearly professional work and the best piece of filmmaking on the program.

Stranded on Mars: Three Short Films (“The Sea of Perdition,” Errant Films, Shadow Theatre Films, 2006; “Last Flight,” New Zealand, 2011; “Last Sunrise,” Johnson-Royden Films, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

In between the Outer Limits episode “The Invisible Enemy” and the feature Stranded, three shorts were shown at the Mars film screening in Golden Hill last night (http://marsmovieguide.com/). The first was The Sea of Perdition, a virtually abstract movie that appears from the comments on it on the above Web site (“An experimental short film portraying a stranded cosmonaut on Mars by cult favorite director Richard Stanley as part of the IBM 1401 - A Users Manual project -- one of five short films based on the 5th act of the album by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson”) to have been essentially a music video of Johannson’s electronic composition. As such it works; as narrative filmmaking it’s a lot more problematic, as a woman astronaut identified by the character name “Sly Delta Honey” (played by Maggie Moor, who’s also one of the three credited writers — though given that about all she does is walk around and give another character a Lesbian kiss, one wonders how much “writing” had to be done on this) walks around a location representing Mars. The Lesbian kiss is delivered to an apparition-like female form that emerges from a Martian lake, and it’s apparently an information transmittal something like the Vulcan mind-meld on Star Trek — what it looked like to me was that the apparition was assuming human form and kissing the heroine so she could download all her memories of her previous life on Earth. Richard Stanley’s direction is abstract and powerful if you like that sort of thing and don’t expect the film to make sense. 

Next up was Last Flight, a title that’s been used for quite a few movies at least since the 1920’s (though sometimes prefaced by the definite article) and in this case represented a 2011 production in which another female astronaut (women are doing considerably better breaking down the traditional sexist barriers in these movies than they are in real life!) is stranded on Mars and is also facing a leaky spacesuit that’s dwindling her oxygen supply down to unsustainable levels, and is walking desperately around the Martian landscape (this one was filmed in New Zealand, where there was enough unspoiled countryside left that it’s where Peter Jackson went to film The Lord of the Rings) until, realizing that there’s no way she’s going to be able to stay alive, as a final act of either desperation or rebirth she plants a bag of Earth seeds she and any other crew members that might have come up with her (we don’t actually see anyone else but we assume she didn’t go up there alone) were supposed to use as the basis for a future colony of Earthlings on Mars, who would naturally need something relatively familiar to eat. Then we see a seagull walking on the ground and I briefly thought writer/director Damon Keen was going to give us a twist-the-knife-in ending in which the seagull was going to dig up the seeds and eat them, though in the end the gull flies away (quite likely stock footage) and we get the impression that Life Will Go On even if Our Heroine’s won’t. 

The last short, Last Sunrise, was a 2014 production directed by John Johnson from a script he co-wrote with Rusty Royden, and like Stranded it was a great idea for a movie that failed in the execution — though much of it was quite creatively done. A number of people at the screening thought it overstayed its welcome — it’s 38 minutes long, an awkward length for any movie (too long to be a short, too short to be a feature) — but I thought quite the opposite: the basic conceit is worth expanding to feature length, especially if Johnson and Royden restructure the script to make the basic conceit clear from the get-go instead of breaking into the middle of their movie to introduce it. The basic conceit that deserves a better (and longer!) movie is that the Mars mission depicted was bankrolled by the Chinese government (though it flies the “flag of convenience” of Micronesia) but also was organized as a reality-TV show called Red Thesis, in which the entire Mars mission is being broadcast to Earth and edited with all the phony suspense points of a real “reality” show. (One of the neatest touches in the Johnson-Royden script — though some of the viewers at our screening were annoyed by it — is the euphemisms for common swear words the astronauts have to use because genuine profanity still can’t be aired on mainstream U.S. TV.) My suggestion to Johnson and Royden if they get the chance to do a feature on this premise would be to start out with their central character, Steven Drake (Gus Novack), dying of a spacesuit leak (another spacesuit leak?) on the Martian surface and continually have to stop his desperate search for breathable air to bark into a portable camera and tell the unseen TV audience what’s going on (before a crude jump cut to a newscaster gave their game away, Johnson and Royden had so carefully concealed that the Mars mission was also a reality-TV show that one thought, “You’d be using up your oxygen supply much less quickly if you’d just shut up!”) — and then the film would flash back to the entire genesis of the Red Thesis reality show and the full story of the mission, including how all but one of its members died (as one person at the screening rather macabrely joked they really did get “voted off the planet”) and how the last one ended up in his predicament. 

There are several features about the show that seemed deliberately annoying, like the nightmarish computer voice that keeps repeating to Drake that his oxygen supply is disappearing due to a leak in his spacesuit (something he already knew and certainly didn’t need to keep being reminded of!) and “Lassie,” a miniature robot Drake tows and/or lets follow him that keeps making continuous measurements of the Martian soil and analyses of what proportions of elements and minerals it consists of. “Lassie” doesn’t look at all canine, but whoever designed it gave it a dog logo that flashes on the bottom of the computer screen listing its measurements and, at the end, it starts barking as a signal, a warning or something. Even more than Stranded, Last Sunrise has the makings of a good movie trapped inside a not-so-good one; done right, the central premise could be a grim satire of the whole idea of “reality” television (I’d love to see someone with the right sort of nerve remake Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None as a spoof of reality-TV shows, with the producers suddenly realizing that all the actors are dying for real during the scenes in which they’re supposed to “die” on screen) and a Hunger Games-like comment on the mores of a society which would put something like this on as “entertainment.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Hand to Hand: A Benefit for Hurricane Relief (Scooter Braun & Bun B, aired September 12, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

At 5 p.m. yesterday I switched the TV on in vain hoping that the much-ballyhooed telethon Hand in Hand, devoted to raising money for relief efforts for Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, would be shown in real time at 5 p.m. (8 p.m. Eastern, 7 p.m. Central). Alas, after competition from the Internet has pushed up the big awards shows so at least we get to see them in real time, we on the West Coast were once again reminded by the East Coast-centric mavens of the media world that we suck hind tit, now and always. So I waited for the show to come on at 8 p.m. on tape-delay (in case you haven’t got the message, I hate tape delays and really resent the way we on the West Coast are made second-class media citizens by the time shift) and in the meantime watched my usual favorites on MS-NBC, Chris Hayes’ All In, the Rachel Maddow Show and Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell — and they seemed oddly relieved to be able (mostly) to stop talking about the natural catastrophes that have been afflicting Texas, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands (ironically the U.S. State Department has been assisting relief efforts to get U.S. citizens off the British Virgin Islands to the north of ours, but it seems no one in the U.S. government was off the block to get help to the residents of the U.S. Virgin Islands, even though they’re legally part of this country, have U.S. citizenship and even have an elected, though non-voting, member of the House of Representatives) and get back to what they really want to talk about: Trump and Russia! Trump and Russia! Trump and Russia! After those three programs (though I bypassed the second half of O’Donnell’s show as usual so I could watch Jeopardy!, in which the woman who’d won the night before successfully defended her championship and this time all three panelists got the Final Jeopardy right and I missed it — the singer who’s won Album, Record and Song of the Year Grammys twice in the 21st century: I guesed Taylor Swift but it was really Adele, which was embarrassing since I have all three of her CD’s), and afterwards I left the TV on NBC to watch Hand in Hand

That turned out to be a major disappointment: though it was billed as a “telethon” it was only an hour long, and though it was blessedly shown without commercial interruptions (thougn one could credibly argue that the entire show was an hour-long commercial for hurricane relief!) there were only seven musical performances, not the long sets by established artists that had given previous aid shows like Live Aid, Live 8 and the 9/11, Katrina and Sandy telethons their sense of scope and power. Instead there were a lot of unidentified stars (almost no one was identified by name on this show — apparently the producers, Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun and Bun B “of the great Texas hip-hop duo UGK,” according to Mikael Wood in the Los Angeles Times (as far as I’m concerned the words “great” and “hip-hop,” the alias for rap used by people who like it, don’t belong in the same sentence, though at least the producers did not include a rap act in the show) getting trotted out to do pretty middle-of-the-road material. It opened with Stevie Wonder, backed by a great Black woman soul singer who was nominally one of his backup voices but deserves a chance to sing leads, doing — not one of his own inspirational songs, like “Higher Ground,” but Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” Wonder began his performance with an odd little speech saying that people who didn’t believe humans are causing climate change are “blind and/or stupid,” a weird thing for one of the world’s most famous blind people to say but indicative of a political subtext that ran through the event (and which Los Angeles Times TV reviewer Mikael Wood made the focus of his article, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-hand-in-hand-hurricane-telethon-20170912-story.html, even though it was considerably more muted than Wood made it seem) — climate scientists have been saying at least since Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago (has it been that long?) that human-caused climate change isn’t causing more hurricanes but is making the ones that would ordinarily occur considerably worse and more damaging. 

After Wonder’s “Lean on Me” came a duet between Blake Shelton and the Black singer Usher on “Stand By Me” (a song with its roots in the Black gospel tradition from which all the pop music of the 20th and 21st centurie — ragtime, jazz, blues, rock and rap — derives), along with Tori Kelly (a Braun client) and the Spanish-language singer Luis Fonsi doing a bilingual duet on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” (Who’d have thought “Hallelujah” — an album track Cohen recorded long after his career peak which was pretty much ignored on its initial release — and not “Suzanne,” which was virtually inescapable in the late 1960’s, would be the song by which Cohen would be remembered after he passed?) It was hardly in a league with the best versions of “Hallelujah” — Cohen’s, Jeff Buckley’s and k. d. lang’s — but it was still effective. After that came one of the high points of the night, Dave Matthews (with, as Charles joked, even less hair than he had at his career peak) performing a solo version of the song “Mercy,” whose pleas to “lift up your heart, lift up your mind” and “we gotta get together” seemed appropriate to the occasion. After that came a performance by an oddly jumbled group of people from Nashville — Darius Rucker, who after the breakup of his pop-rock band Hootie and the Blowfish did a surprisingly successful career transition to country music and became only the second major African-American country star (after Charley Pride), Brad Paisley and Demi Lovato on the Beatles’ classic “With a Little Help from My Friends” — alas, the performance covered Joe Cocker’s sucky version (the nadir of this white guy from England’s ongoing attempts to emulate Ray Charles) instead of the Beatles’ joyous original. Then was the last song, and musical high point, of the evening: another oddly assorted group, this time from San Antonio, Texas, with Robert Earl Keen, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert (so she and her ex-husband Blake Shelton were finally visible on the same show, albeit not only in different segments but from different cities over 1,500 miles apart!), Lyle Lovett and George Strait doing a Strait song called “Texas” whose gravamen seems to be that if Texas hadn’t existed, none of the people singing the song would, either. (I couldn’t help but think of particularly favorite musicians of mine that hailed from Texas, including Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Maren Morris; the first four are long dead but Morris, an incredible talent whose song “My Church” won my heart forever, deserved a place on this show.) I believe (no pun intended) that the version of “Texas” segued into a bit of a different song called “I Believe” (not the horrible piece of pseudo-religious treacle Frankie Laine did his best with in 1953 or the charming faux-spiritual Artie Shaw recorded with Mel Tormé in 1946), but it could have just been a coda, which would shrink the total number of songs performed on this show from seven to six. 

The Hand to Hand telecast was only an hour long, and most of that hour was spent telling presumably moving or heartbreaking stories about the people who had survived the hurricanes, as well as a few who didn’t (including a young mother who saved her son’s life at the cost of her own), of which the one I found most memorable was that of a woman who was about to be evacuated by a helicopter, only she wanted to bring a large bag with her. The helicopter crew member told her she could come but she would have to leave the bag behind because it was too heavy. “But my babies are in there!” she said — and when the crew member opened the bag, it turned out she was right: she had a two-year-old in the bag holding her even younger child. There was also a quirky segment on the evacuation of household pets (or should I be P.C. and call them “companion animals”?), which is actually a relatively new development in disaster evacuations: up until Katrina the standard practice among rescuers was to save the people but tell them to leave their pets behind, but so many would-be evacuees during Katrina flatly refused to leave their animals that disaster relief agencies rethought things and got it through their heads that not only are companion animals frequently virtual family members to whom people get as emotionally attached as they are to their kids, but having their pets with them would be a good experience and helpful for people who’ve been uprooted from their homes and lost all their physical possessions to derive emotional support and get some level of healing going quicker than they could if their beloved animals had been left behind to die. The reported total of donations received from this program was $14 million — though some of those were mega-donations from large corporations (Apple gave $1 million, and I suspect they also donated the computer equipment used to run the call centers, since they certainly looked like Macs), often framed as matching funds to encourage people to contribute. All in all, Hand in Hand was a good show for a good cause but hardly the show it could have been, or as earlier celebrities-coming-together-to-do-good shows have been (despite Bridget Jones’s Diary author Helen Fielding’s slashing attack on them as big-time ego-fests in her first book, Cause Celeb), but it produced some good music and promoted donations to a good cause.

Frontline: “Small Enough to Jail” (WGBH/PBS, aired September 12, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The last TV show I watched last night was a surprisingly compelling documentary on the long-running PBS Frontline series, produced by PBS affiliate WGBH in Boston, called “Small Enough to Jail.” It was about the Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which was founded in New York’s Chinatown in 1984. Its principal founder and first CEO was a Chinese-American attorney named Thomas Sung, and its business plan relied so strongly on outreach to the Chinese-American community that all its ads featured the bank’s name and promotional information not only in Roman letters but Chinese characters: the bank’s name in Chinese was 國寶銀行. According to the Wikipedia page on it, “The founders’ original purpose was to provide banking services to immigrants and local residents of lower Manhattan. As the Chinese immigrant population grew in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the bank retained its original mission, but expanded its size and scope. It now has six branches covering New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.” What made Abacus newsworthy enough to be the subject of a Frontline documentary was that in 2012 the New York District Attorney’s office — then headed by Cyrus Vance, Jr., son of President Carter’s Secretary of State — brought an elaborate indictment against Abacus and 19 of its key officials, mostly centered around charges that the bank had committed loan fraud by giving home loans to people with inadequate capital and its officials had basically demanded bribes from their potential borrowers in exchange for granting these “liars’ loans.” 

The charges were filed against the context of the 2008 meltdown in the housing market in the U.S., caused by the tactics of giant banks like Chase, Citibank, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs in not only granting dubious housing loans to borrowers unlikely to be able to repay them but packaging these loans into so-called “Mortgage-Backed Securities,” which the banks selling them to investors represented as grade triple-A offerings when they were really built on sand, and once the borrowers started defaulting on their loans the value of the mortgage-backed securites collapsed and took the housing-loan sector and much of America’s financial industry with it. The similar shenanigans (though with inflated stock prices instead of housing loans) of the financial industry in the run-up to the 1929 stock market crash and the resulting Great Depression had produced aggressive investigations by the federal government and fraud charges against both the major financial institutions and many of the top officials that had run them. (Indeed, when he was elected President, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed what would now be called a special counsel, New York Judge Samuel Seabury, to oversee these investigations and aggressively nail as many of the big banks’ officers for fraud as he could.) But the government’s reaction in 2008, both under Republican President George W. Bush and the Democrat who replaced him, Barack Obama, was profoundly different; as Neil Barofsky, former head of mortage fraud at the New York U.S. Attorney’s office, said on this show, “[T]here was this notion that we couldn’t bring criminal action against them because the collateral consequences of an institution that was so large, so internationally connected that indicting them or bringing criminal charges against them could wreck the entire financial system.” 

So the only bank anywhere in the U.S. which was charged and brought to trial for loan fraud in connection with the pre-2008 housing bubble was little six-branch Abacus Federal Savings Bank and the Sung family — and while the show includes interviews with some of the prosecutors, including Vance and Polly Greenberg, who actually brought the case to trial (and who in a particularly nasty bit of sore-loserism is shown here after Abacus and its officers were acquitted, when she told reporters, “Abacus was not exonerated ─ not exonerated. Exoneration is when a person is proven innocent. I don’t think there’s anything here that says that Abacus was proven innocent”), it’s clear from director Steve James’ presentation that he regards Abacus as a scapegoat. According to James’ presentation, the New York state authorities went after Abacus because it was literally “small enough to jail” — its successful prosecution and closure wouldn’t shake the world’s financial system the way holding Chase or Citibank or Bank of America or Goldman Sachs would have — and also because it was a bank owned, operated by and serving a community of color. James’ show depicts Thomas Sung as a long-time attorney in the Chinese-American community who had worked himself up from immigrant roots (he was born in Shanghai) and had done a lot of pro bono work, including representing New York’s Chinese-American Association, and had got into banking relatively late in life when he realized that a lot of the people in his community, especially small business owners looking to improve and expand, were being hobbled economically because the big white banks wouldn’t lend to them. So he decided to start a bank aimed at the Chinese-American community, soliciting them to deposit with the promise that their money would be used to help fellow Chinese develop the Chinese-American community economically. 

His role model, intriguingly, was George Bailey, the character played by James Stewart in Frank Capra’s classic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life; he and his wife made a point of watching that film on TV every time it came on and James studs his film with appropriate clips from it. Vance, who comes off in James’ film as the equivalent of Mr. Potter (the villain in It’s a Wonderful Life, played by Lionel Barrymore), is shown in an interview he gave for the film as saying, “I felt that our handling of the bank was consistent with how we would have handled the bank if we were investigating a bank that serviced the South American community or the Indian community. There was nothing different that we did or purposefully designed to treat this bank differently.” What’s amazing about that is the unconscious (at least I hope it was unconscious!) racism he brought to the presentation: notice that he did not say he was treating Abacus the same way as he would treat a bank owned and run by whites, only that he was treating it the same as he would treat any other bank owned and run by people of color. As James unfolds the story, it seems that Abacus’s troubles stemmed from a highly charismatic and apparently successful loan officer they had hired in 2005 named Ken Yu. In 2009 Thomas Sung and his daughters Vera and Jane realized that Yu was using his position as an Abacus loan officer to submit fraudulent applications and sock potential borrowers for bribes to get their loans approved. The Sungs say they themselves reported this to federal authorities and gave them reams of documentation to indicate that this was a problem with Ken Yu and a few other loan officers — but when Vance and his crew got hold of the bank’s documents, they decided to prosecute on the ground that the corrupt loan officers couldn’t have got away with their fraud without the bank’s upper-level management knowing about it. They even issued a seating chart of the bank’s home loan department and offered it as an exhibit in the trial, arguing that higher officials in the bank were sitting close enough to Yu in the office to have uncovered his fraud — as legendary attorney Louis Nizer once acidly joked about another case, “This had gone beyond guilt by association — now it was guilt by proximity.” 

The indictment the New York City district attorney and the tactics he used — inviting reporters to watch a perp walk in which all 19 defendants were taken out of the bank literally chained to each other, as well as doing a plea deal with Ken Yu and making him the star witness at the two-month trial — so appalled one of Thomas Sung’s daughters, Chanterelle, that she quit her job with the New York City district attorney’s office and went to work at Abacus with her father and two sisters, and among other things she masterminded their P.R. strategy to try to get their side of the story out to the media. “Small Enough to Jail” is a tough-minded look at a particularly grim byway of the American financial scandal of nearly a decade ago, and one of its most interesting insights is that many of the so-called “fraudulent” loan documents the prosecutors used against Abacus were created because though their borrowers had assets, many of them were running their businesses “off the books” and hadn’t disclosed all their earnings to the IRS. Thomas Sung recalled one of the loans he was accused of making fraudulently and said it was to the owner of a Chinese restaurant which wanted the money to modernize their kitchen, and he said that no matter what their financial documents said (or didn’t say), he knew they’d be good for the money because he ate at the restaurant regularly himself and he could see how much business they were doing. Abacus’s defense noted that their default rate on mortgage loans was 0.5 percent, one-tenth of the national average, and James claims in his closing credits that all the loans the indictment against Abacus said were fraudulent are now either completely paid off or still performing. “Small Enough to Jail” is a fascinating movie that shows that sometimes the biggest victims of large, predatory capitalism are small capitalists whom it’s easy for authorities to throw to the wolves — and, though James doesn’t really stress the point, it also shows that even in the highest reaches of the Democratic Party in a supposedly liberal city, racism lurks around the corner ready to spread its poison and lead prosecutors to come down harder on alleged wrong-doing if the alleged wrongdoers are people of color.