“Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich”–Obscene Power

Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich is an explosive and deeply disturbing four-part Netflix Original documentary, that spotlights a dark international web of underage sex trafficking.  Billionaire playboy and financier Jeffrey Epstein operated his sick obsession in plain sight. In Filthy Rich we watch this wealthy predator cultivate links to extraordinarily powerful people including current and former presidents and a British prince.  In 2019 Epstein was finally convicted of  sex trafficking and associated crimes after similar charges ended in a widely-criticized plea deal. 

Released this year but filmed before his death on August 10, Filthy Rich underscores the desperation of young girls, often from abusive homes with little recourse for feeding or housing themselves. We see how these girls succumb to the promise of a better life promised by  Epstein and his socialite ex-girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. These now young women  remain traumatized by the assault and abuse dating back  close to 30 years.   Several survivors give harrowing and courageous accounts of depravity, aborted attempts to escape,  and determination to move on.    Epstein’s real-estate portfolio –New York, New Mexico, the US Virgin Islands, London– provided  seclusion from the public eye.  Epstein’s homes were not easily penetrated from the outside. But surveillance systems enabled  video entrapment from the inside.

Several of the survivors display an  incredible lack of awareness and common sense.  They recruit their younger sisters and friends in a sex trafficking pyramid scheme involving payments for bringing in other minors. We witness a  couple of particularly memorable survivors eventually realize and come to understand the immoral power of the rich, who arrogantly believe they can buy other human beings with impunity.  And they did…for almost thirty years.  And still do.

An outrageous plea bargain, together with powerful friends Epstein could blackmail, and corrupt law enforcement protected Epstein from serious criminal sentencing. The first trial in 2005 was half-heartedly undertaken by Florida U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump but resigned within days of Epstein’s arrest in July.)

The FBI is reportedly still investigating Ghislaine Maxwell who ‘facilitated’ Epstein’s depravity, but her current location remains unknown. Even after Epstein was found dead in prison, (purportedly from an apparent suicide), the investigation and prosecution continue.  Prince Andrew, pictured alongside an underage girl and Epstein, has so far refused to appear as a witness before US federal prosecutors pursuing criminal charges against Epstein’s co-conspirators. 

The attorney in charge, Geoffrey Berman, appears prominently in Filthy Rich, as do employees who worked for Epstein at his US Virgin Islands estate.  Also highlighted are the Florida police and FBI officials who were both overruled for their pursuit of this pedophile.  The courage of the women who came forward may, perhaps, not be stamped out this time.

Note:  Available to stream now on Netflix. 

See the Business Insider for a detailed description of Epstein’s playbook for sexual predation using offshore real estate and lavish accommodations to entice young girls to his mansions.  Also CNN footage of survivors’ accounts.

“The Hunting Ground” (2015)–Preying on Our Daughters and Sons

Many college students who have been raped on campus face retaliation and harassment as they fight for justice.  In The Hunting Ground,  the students (mostly female but some male) give a painful, absorbing account of not only their sexual assault but also  the systemic indifference of the college administrations  to whom the victims seek redress.  This callousness is  as devastating and traumatic as the rampant sexual assaults themselves.

In this 103-minute documentary,  college rape is seen from the point of view of the raped student as well as  the faculty and administrators who were called upon to take action. One rapist agreed to be interviewed.  

While college rapists are a small fraction (about 8 %) of students on campus, they are often repeat offenders who continue to rape with impunity, committing 90% of the rapes.  Several women interviewed were raped by the same student.  These repeat rapists are empowered with the knowledge that the college will turn a blind eye.

The documentary follows two former University of North Carolina students who were the first rape victims to use Title IX to fight back.  (Title IX  bans gender discrimination at colleges.)  The failure to comply can result in the withdrawal of federal funding upon which  colleges depend.   To fight for justice and vindication for the indifference of the colleges, the students organize other rape survivors to  file  Title IX complaints.  The use of Title IX in campus sexual assault cases has become a model for rape victims across the country.

 The Hunting Ground goes right for the gut.  Although the palpable trauma of rape survivors is powerful–with barely contained tears, choking, and trembling–it is the in-depth reporting of the inevitable cover-up by college administrators that is sickening and gut-wrenching.    Parents trust  colleges to safeguard their daughters and sons.  There is an implicit covenant to do so.  Why else would parents willingly send their children away?   The brazen breach of that covenant  is more than shameful. Administrators deny culpability.  Former deans and professors who come forward are  retaliated against for standing with the survivors. The police give their side of the story which demonstrates their impotence.   Why are so many covering up the rapes? Money.   Mostly it is about the reputation of the college and the alumni and fraternity donations and the sports team frenzy that brings in millions of dollars. After all, college presidents are hired to raise money. Safeguarding the lives of  our children is secondary.   One hundred thousand rapes per year will occur if university policy and culture don’t change.

The student accounts — delivered in sorrow and rage, but also with a naiveté of the very young and inexperienced– make this imperfect, sometimes plodding documentary a must-watch for its activism and advocacy.

Note: The Obama administration made the issue of campus assault a priority. In 2014, the White House released guidelines strengthening victims’ rights on how campus rapes are to be treated,  Shamefully Secretary Betsy DeVos in May  instituted administrative changes that would make it more difficult for victims to file charges against rapists. Biden is on record to reverse  the new rules which are an obvious effort by the Trump administration to “shame and silence” survivors of sexual assault

David Edelstein, writing for New York magazine, advised parents to watch The Hunting Ground before sending their children to college.  See “College-Rape Documentary The Hunting Ground Plays Like a Horror Movie” February 23, 2015.

The White Ribbon [Das Weisse Band]

            [Guest reviewer  Barbara Artson, author of the novel Odessa, Odessa ]

Director Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009) opens in total darkness. We see nothing but hear only the elderly voice of a narrator:  

“I don’t know if the story that I want to tell you is entirely true. Some of it I only know by hearsay, and after so many years it remains obscure today, and I must leave it in darkness.”

And so the schoolteacher narrator, now an old man, begins his rendering in a series of flashbacks, depicting the mystifying and horrific happenings that transpired in his youth .  There is indeed something rotten in this pre-industrial, ruthless Lutheran culture in a small, agrarian German village shortly before the start of World War I.  .

We encounter the Pastor, his wife and children glumly seated at their dining room table.  They are arbitrarily sent to bed without dinner, but not before being forced to beg their brutal authoritarian father for forgiveness.  A special punishment, ten strokes of the cane, will be meted out and   after their penalty “purifies” them, the pastor informs them that their mother will attach a white ribbon for them to wear, only to be removed when they have proven their trustworthiness. 

Haneke’s films are not easy to watch, nor are they easy to understand. They confront the observer with aging, infirmity, and death (Amour), sexual perversity (The Piano Teacher), a critique of the media and the ways in which we avoid self-reflection (Cache), and hypocrisy (The White Ribbon). Hypocrisy knows no bounds.

The children,  some twenty or twenty-five years later, will return as the Fascists and Nazis of World War II.   They might have asked the forgiveness of their callous, fathers, fathers who perpetrated psychic mortification and corporal violence,  but the seeds of repressed hatred will break through.  

 Heneke maintains that his film is not an explanation for the roots of Nazi terrorism, but the schoolteacher’s claim that his tale “may clarify some of the things that happened in this country,” asserts otherwise.  It seems plausible that Haneke, who grew up with the shame that plagued many of his generation, wrote under the spell of unconscious survivor’s guilt. 

The film, nevertheless, can also speak to us, who, are left in darkness. And weep.

Note: Available on Netflix.


“For Sama”—A Letter to My Daughter

For Sama is the most searing  documentary about war that I have ever seen.  Nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best International Film, For Sama presents some of the most unflinching war coverage and remarkable and courageous footage.   A love letter to her infant daughter Sama,  born in Aleppo,   For Sama is a Syrian mother’s  first-person account of the bombing of her beloved homeland over a period of five years.  Aleppo, at the time, was one of the last strongholds resisting the Assad dictatorship.

Waad Al-Khateab is the Syrian producer, cinematographer and  hero of this documentary. She and her equally heroic husband—a surgeon—stayed in Aleppo through the worst of the battles, although their gut reaction was to flee the war zone with baby Sama. It is a young family’s love story set in the terrors of hell. While her doctor-husband saves countless civilian lives, Waad documents the heart-wrenching horrors that civilians—young and old— experience.   

It is difficult to  pretend there is no place in the world where human beings are being routinely slaughtered after seeing For Sama.  A testament to human resilience and sacrifice for the sake of a community, For Sama is highly recommended in order to understand what really happens in war as we bear witness to pain and unimaginable suffering, both physical and mental.

I challenge anyone to watch this film and not be deeply moved. 

Note:  This film is available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.  There are intensely disturbing images of severely wounded civilians, especially young children.

“Clemency”–No Mercy or Absolution

What’s the psychological and moral cost to a society that administers the death penalty?  That’s the question raised in Clemency, the winner of the Sundance drama award last year. 

So much more than a “death-row drama” ,  Clemency shifts the lens to the impact of  bureaucratized human cruelty:  a scathing portrait of the toll the process of administering an execution has on prison staff. We see how they are not executioners but bureaucratic cogs in a horrible machine of death.

Sixty-something Bernadine (the remarkable African American actor Alfre Woodard in an Academy Award-worthy performance) prides herself  on  her professionalism in presiding over a dozen lethal injection executions. But the compartmentalization of her professional and emotional life is beginning to unspool.  The first half of Clemency focuses on a perfectly impassive blankness and rigidity that masks Bernadine’s emotional self.

She’s experienced something no human should– a dozen times.  The unnerving and opposing forces wrestling inside Bernadine’s mind begin to be magnified as we witness her heartbreaking need for redemption, etched on her face as if her feelings are surfacing for the first time. Something has broken in Bernadine.   And her  marriage to empathetic schoolteacher Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is lost.  She can no longer process her world separate from being a warden.

Clemency‘s central plot includes a death-row inmate’s perspective–Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge in a career-defining performance)–who has been in prison for fifteen years:  accused and convicted of killing a police officer during a robbery.  As his appeals for clemency filed by his deeply committed lawyer (Richard Schiff) have been denied,  Anthony Woods is also complicated and emotionally shut down.    Both Bernadine and Anthony Woods are  maddeningly emotionless  and flawed.   Bernadine’s womanhood and blackness are inextricable from her sense of professionalism, but she cannot be reduced to either.   And Anthony Woods,  a young black man, never rages about possible injustice. The viewer wonders:  Who needs the clemency more?  The warden or the prisoner?  Maybe it’s both.

A lot of performances get praised for subtlety that are merely wooden or impassive. Alfre Woodward is a phenomenon to behold!  With the subtlest of facial movements, she conveys not only what she is feeling but how it feels to be feeling what she has to feel.  In a camera close-up lasting over three minutes, her face held this viewer in a way both unforgettable and unimaginable.   Alfre Woodard is the reason to see Clemency.  She simply possesses the space, the screen, every scene…and your heart.

The Report—An Exposé for Us All

Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (EIT)—is the focus of The Report, a provocative Amazon political thriller.  A Senate staff researcher, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is assigned by Sen. Diane Feinstein (Annette Bening) to investigate  detainees held by the CIA in “black sites”.  A shameful chapter of American history unfolds , where torture was re-introduced as a legitimate tool in pursuit of national security. 

The Report  employs flashbacks of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that are frightening and harrowing. Flashing back to 2001 immediately after 9/11, the anxiety and deep fear of another terrorist attack incites George Tenet to ramp up the Counterterrorist Center at the encouragement of President George W. Bush.  Tenet hires two psychologists, Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, to design torture methods without calling it torture.    The CIA’s intention is to elicit information to capture possible terrorists.   Although both men are psychologists, their educational background, professional training and experience have nothing to do with military interrogation.  Not surprisingly, little useful information was collected.

Nonetheless, the CIA was impressed with the  “menu” of twenty enhanced techniques including waterboarding, sleep deprivation, “stress positions,” stuffing prisoners into small boxes,  and slamming them into walls.

After political maneuvers, attempts at cover-up and threats of countersuits by the CIA,  the Senate intelligence committee releases part of its report in 2015,.  As expected, the Department of Justice tried to table the report.  This time portions of the more comprehensive investigation, totaling 6 million pages, become public.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman,  concludes that “under any common meaning of the term, CIA detainees were tortured.”

Adam Driver and Annette Bening, under the direction of Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Identity”), deliver truly outstanding performances with gripping pacing rivaling the best action thrillers.

Note:   John Rizzo, CIA acting general counsel at the time of Jones’ report, described in his book Company Man, that the techniques were “sadistic and terrifying.”

On October 13, 2015 the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against James Mitchell and Bruce Jensen with regard to the EIT methods they designed,  claiming their  conduct constituted torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and war crimes.  A settlement was reached before trial in August 2017.

None of the major government officials were ever indicted and the subcontracting psychologists who earned $81 million for EIT development and consulting were indemnified by the US government. Some reviews have considered The Report polemical and politically one-sided, but transcripts of the investigation available online speak for themselves.

Happy New Year 2020: The Year of the [Metal] Rat

Happy Chinese New Year 2020!

The Buddha taught rats first, among the animals in the Buddhist pantheon, and rats rank first on the Chinese zodiac. Though people who follow Western animal symbolism do not consider the rat either adorable or auspicious, nevertheless the characteristics of the rat are considered spirited, witty, alert, flexible, and that of a survivor.  The Chinese New Year will begin on January 25, 2020  with the final celebration on  February 11.

The Metal Rat Year is going to be a strong, prosperous, and lucky year for those who conduct financial research and follow through on investments. For investors in  real estate, or venturing on their own to  start a business or to invest money in a long-term project,  major decisions on money matters will affect the entire twelve-year cycle of the zodiac–until 2032.

On the political front, those who fight against corruption will be accused of duplicity and hypocrisy.  Political unrest will continue   and revolutionary disruption of the establishment will gain momentum.  Increased tensions and misunderstanding between allies will occur.

To avoid escalating conflict by unscrupulous populist governments who  overlook or ignore the common interest of society, moderation, patience and compromise must be recognized and practiced.   In addition, all nations must implement strict and disciplinary measures to ameliorate climate change.  Jealousy of those who have polluted the plant will rise.

For more information on the Chinese zodiac and to read your horoscope for 2020, please go to:  https://www.thechinesezodiac.org/horoscope-2020/

My Top 15 Movies and TV Series for 2019

Here are the reviews I wrote this year with the criteria that they were available online or were at local movie theaters, although not necessarily under broad distribution nor widely distributed through move theaters.   Of the 43 reviews, here are my favorites.  Another difficult year to make my listicle.  As in past years, both television and cinema have continued to produce phenomenal story-telling and intriguing characters.

The following list is not ranked, only grouped by genre and date of review.  

INDIES and FOREIGN CINEMA

1) Lo and Behold–Reveries of the Connected World  (January 13 review)

Lo and Behold gives the viewer a spellbinding, lesser-known walk back in time through the birth of the computer and its subsequent impact on our daily lives. We see extremes: medical marvels saving lives or electromagnetic waves that debilitate. Each chapter introduces a different positive or negative dynamic of the internet.

2) Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—The Golden Rule (March 17 review)

What the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? explores perhaps more clearly now than at the time the show was produced is just how revolutionary Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood actually was.  Even through the tumultuous Sixties, subjects of political violence, racial discrimination, and the degrading messages children and adults frequently heard were never side-stepped or sugarcoated.  

3) In Order of Disappearance—Plowing Through Suspense (April 21 review)

In this combination of black comedy and Nordic noir, we are treated to a series of scenes involving gangster mobs, drug trade, a father’s revenge, kidnapping, and snow plowsIn Order of Disappearance is part “Fargo” and part other Coen brothers’ comedic treatment of snow country. 

4)  Which Way Home—Is There One?  (June 17 review)

In this gripping 2010 Academy Award nominated HBO documentary, Which Way Home opens with something large and bulbous floating down the Rio Grande. The viewer soon learns it is a corpse, perhaps that of a child, and an observer comments matter-of-factly that this happens multiple times a day.

5) Always Be My Maybe—Rom-Com at Its Best  (June 22 review)

The Netflix Original Always Be My Maybe gives us a reason for watching rom-coms again. A modern riff on “When Harry Met Sally.” Set in San Francisco, Always Be My Maybe is  a story of childhood sweethearts who go their separate ways only to meet up fifteen years later.  Sasha Tran (Ali Wong) and Marcus Kim (Randall Park) were best friends who, as teenagers,  had sex for the first time and then stopped talking to each other. 

6)  The Farewell—Family Matters (August 5 review)

This comedic drama opens with the tagline: “based on an actual lie.”  The universal theme– of the gathering of a family clan harboring  secrets and lies,  told and sometimes motivated by love.

7) Late Night—Women Do It Right  (November 5 review)

In Late Night   we see a notoriously, male-dominated world of late-night network TV in which a woman–Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson)– is the host of her own talk show.  (Think “The Devil Wears Prada” and Meryl Streep as the “bitch-boss from hell”).

PSYCHOLOGICAL, POLITICAL AND SOCIOLOGICAL

8) The Hate U Give—T.H.U.G. (June 9 review)

Starr Carter,   a sixteen-year-old gifted student, has to adeptly maneuver between two worlds — her poor, mostly black neighborhood and a wealthy, mostly white prep school. Facing pressure from all sides, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what’s right.

9) Rocketman—Seeing the Light Through the Darkness (July 28)

The backstory of Elton John’s childhood is the emotional core defining his self-worth and genius.  Although we soon find out that Elton was a deeply lonely child, unloved by his parents (Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh), but nurtured by his grandmother (Emma Jones), he introduces himself with a lie: “I was actually a very happy child.” 

10)  Joker—No Laughing Matter (October 7 review)

Joker is a   devastating portrait of a rapid descent into mental illness. This Joker, nemesis to the comic book masked superhero Batman,  takes center stage with only a tangential reference to Batman and for good reason.   Now we see the masked Joker as few could have imagined. 

TV and ORIGINAL SERIES

11)   Narcos, Narcos Mexico and El Chapo— Cinema Verite  (February 19 review)

Three Netflix series — NarcosNarcos Mexico and El Chapo– are gritty, raw, and bingeable. Each chronicles the most powerful drug lord and his cartel at the rise of cocaine and marijuana production in Colombia, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

12) Chernobyl—An Ignominious Reaction (July 16 review)

 Chernobyl  is an HBO historical drama  miniseries depicting the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the unprecedented coverup that followed. The  flawed reactor design operated by inadequately trained technicians is jaw-clenching and chilling.  That lack of transparency and flagrant disregard for human life depicts greed, lack of moral integrity, and political corruption.  Chernobyl is a cautionary tale for today’s political climate.

13) La Casa de Papel—”Ocean’s Eleven” on Steroids  (September 2 review)

A criminal mastermind, calling himself “The Professor,” plans the biggest heist in Spain’s history: to storm the Royal Mint and print billions of euros. He recruits eight people who have the criminal talents he needs, knowing they have nothing to lose.

14) Locked Up—Spain’s “Orange is the New Black”  (September 11 review)

Complete with extraordinary writing and plotting, Locked Up‘s main theme is unexpected consequences:  the turmoil of events that turn everything upside down.

15) Queen of the South—Reigning Supreme (October 20 review)

A “Narcos” or “El Chapo”-style drama about the rise of drug lord Teresa Mendoza (played by the exceptional Alice Braga, niece of the renowned actress Sonia Braga),  we see a new first.  Instead of a ruthless kingpin of a Mexican drug cartel like Guzman (El Chapo), we see Teresa Mendoza. She navigates and outsmarts a world dominated by men and machismo to become the queen (or queenpin?) of Sinaloa.

Knock Down the House—A Remodel is Needed

This investigative journalistic  documentary invites the viewer to take a closer look at  four committed women who ran for Congress in 2018: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Maryland, Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia, and Amy Vilela of Nevada. First and foremost, however, Knock Down the House is AOC’s story.  The former bartender from the Bronx turned first-time congresswoman needs no introduction.

Because of director Rachel Lears’s  early access to the four Congressional candidates, she and her camera have been in the war rooms of the campaigns right from the start, making the footage even more compelling.

Knock Down the House movie

From a pool of committed political neophytes, Lears selected four exceptional female candidates — Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, Paula Jean Swearengin and Amy Vilela — each with an emotionally riveting back-story and a politically established, seemingly unbeatable opponent. Their back-stories propelled them into politics.  For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she  had to work double shifts as a bartender to save her mother’s home from foreclosure. After losing a daughter to a preventable medical condition because of lack of health insurance, Amy Vilela became determined to  improve  America’s broken health-care system. Cori Bush, a registered nurse and pastor, was appalled at the  police shooting of an unarmed black man and the resulting army tanks that showed up in  her neighborhood. A coal miner’s daughter, Paula Jean Swearengin, watched  her friends and family suffer from the devastating environmental effects of the coal industry.

Except for AOC, the other three women candidates–although giving everything they had to win—were defeated. With a raw and blistering honesty, we see the camera hover over their physical and emotional deflation after the results come in.  All four were heavily invested personally: “We’re coming out of the belly of the beast kicking and screaming,” Swearengin says.  But ten-year incumbents are hard to unseat.

Ocasio-Cortez, unsurprisingly,  emerges as a telegenic, exuberant force .  She is all that and more.  In the closing credits, we see AOC riding a scooter, circling in front of the Congressional building, enjoying the thrill of her victory  on a crisp, January morning before the swearing-in ceremony.  She’s a television cameraman’s dream:   young, attractive, and charismatic with the emotive,  energetic oratorial skills of a much more seasoned  public speaker. Nothing seems to throw her off her game, whether she’s mopping the floor before distributing leaflets for her campaign or talking with someone who has decided not to vote for her.

Her social media presence alone shows why she has crossed over into pop celebrity, whether she’s tweeting or live-streaming on Instagram while eating popcorn, talking about staying grounded and dancing on YouTube.  She is a media darling and that makes her a political star worth watching.

Knock Down the House will knock you down too—with the energy that these women expended to advocate for change.

Note:  Available on Netflix.

Luce—A Beam of Light?

Luce the movie

The title character, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)  is an all-star athlete and model straight-A student who is expected  to achieve greatness in college. Luce’s  liberal adoptive parents—physician Amy (Naomi Watts) and financier Peter (Tim Roth) adopted Luce when he was a little boy in Eritrea, a boy-soldier who experienced unimaginable horror.

A volatile and incendiary essay he has written for an English teacher, Harriet Wilson  (Octavia Spencer), is brought to the attention of Luce’s parents.  The essay inflames the liberal-minded community and most of all, his English teacher.

Luce’s parents do not know who to believe, –his teacher and school administrators or their son–although their intuition and gut-reaction is to believe their brilliant, beloved Luce.  Other  parents slowly face the same dilemma –who do you believe in the face of unconditional love?  Luce’s personal story unfolds as an attempt to define what is the truth to the listener–the one that is acceptable and therefore believed, or the one that shatters values you deeply hold. 

A sense of sustained menace highlights the central theme of Luce: Do we really know who Luce is and how deeply his traumatic childhood experiences have affected him? 

Luce is a gut-wrenching story of love of child versus love of spouse.  This film is also provocative in terms of Luce’s achievements validating  his  liberal parents’ convictions about social justice and racial equality, about transforming the human soul.   There are no easy answers.

Race and white privilege are examined under a psychological microscope.  Sharp-edged and gimlet-eyed, this is a difficult film that tries to say something nuanced about racism, making for uncomfortable viewing.  Luce  is boldly ambitious in addressing so many questions in one film:  Who is “anointed”  by others to succeed?   The myth of the American dream and succeeding  all on your own, especially in the glowing light of suburbia (Arlington, Virginia), is painfully dissected.

Luce closes with  a chilling and morally ambiguous ending.   The creation of your own ending may depend upon your ethnic identity and how much it has influenced who you are now.  No one person represents an entire demographic and Luce shouts this to the audience loud and clear. 

“You never really know what is going on with people.” (Luce)

Note:  Now available on Netflix.

Indochine (1993)–Heart of Darkness

Indochine is a testament to the hubris and delusions of first French imperialism and then American trauma to follow .The sense of time and place  unfolds in 1930 French Indochina (Vietnam). from the years of French colonial rule to the stirring of a revolution by zealous and determined young Communist idealists,..  

Indochine concludes in 1954 when the French are on the cusp of being forced out by Communist forces after a century of colonization. Seen through the eyes of a rubber plantation owner, Eliane (the ethereal Catherine Deneuve, nominated for an Academy Award for her performance), Indochine is an allegory for the corrupt and depraved. The often opium-smoking French are seen clinging to their delusional belief that they could sustain their dominion over the  impoverished, virtually enslaved Vietnamese.

The narrative is a family drama between Eliane and the orphaned five-year old Vietnamese girl,  Camille (newcomer Linh Dan Pham). who is adopted by Eliane . Indochine has another narrative as well: a love story between a French navy officer, Jean-Baptiste,  and both Eliane and Camille. 

As the struggle against French imperialism grips Vietnam, Jean-Baptiste and Camille have to choose sides.   As the focus shifts to the love story between Camille and Jean-Baptiste, and the awakening of the sheltered privileged Camille to the plight of most Vietnamese Indochine‘s pace deepens and quickens.

The anticolonial revolt plays out in some expected patterns, with the decadence of the dying days of a fading colonial regime.   Old paternalistic, often brutal customs have outlasted their lords and yet the patriarchs (and matriarchs, in this case) adhere tenaciously to property and servants  with a certain stubborn and oblivious pride. They are yesterday’s story, but arenot ready to realize or admit it. 

Indochine is ambitious, gorgeously photographed but also  too slow, too long, and too languishly structured  in the first half of the story. It is not altogether a successful film because of this.   Yet it is still worth seeing, perhaps mostly for implying that the French still do not quite understand what happened to them in Vietnam, and they’re not alone.

Tricky Dick–His Own Fantasy World

Narrated by Anderson Cooper, Tricky Dick is a four-part CNN documentary that  presents  the  lesser-known  story of Richard Nixon’s life and times. The rise, fall and almost unbelievable comeback and final self-sabotage of his political  career are  adroitly deconstructed. Through access to archival footage never before seen by the public, the backstory of Richard Nixon’s complex view of opportunity and ambition unfolds.

The story of Nixon’s aggressive strategy for political success, together with his resentment of the elite and his animus towards the press, minorities, and Jews is a dramatic portrayal of resurrection from defeat and self-destruction.  But the usual reasons for his failures when he was considered unbeatable are laid to rest here.  For example, the televised debate debacle with Kennedy is usually explained as due to  Nixon’s sweat and dourness while Kennedy looked polished, patrician, and relaxed. Tricky Dick’s archival footage, however, reveals that the moderator (Howard K. Smith) thought Nixon was too “nice” in demurring to Kennedy, thus elevating the inexperienced senator.  Smith believed Nixon should have “fought back”, and that was the reason for the subsequent rapid decline in the polls. After the closest presidential election up to that time, defeated but not a quitter, Nixon determinedly runs for the governor’s seat in California,  a major step down from being Eisenhower’s vice president, only to be profoundly humiliated with an unexpected loss.  Nixon retreats from politics for the first time in his life.

Four years after JFK had become president, with the US  in crisis at home and abroad, raging from an increasingly virulent Vietnam War, Nixon senses an opportunity for a comeback. Confident he can shed his loser’s image, Nixon plans his campaign which wins the presidency that should have been his.

As the anti-war movement gains strength, Nixon suspects a conspiracy against him, one he will use any means necessary to defeat. He  isolates himself with a handful of trusted advisors  and prepares for a second term.

In a historic landslide, Nixon is re-elected but shortly into his second term, the cover-up of a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at the Watergate complex starts to unravel his presidency. As the President wages a battle in the press and in the courts, a desperate man becomes his own worst enemy, and movement to impeach begins.

It is the secret recordings in Nixon’s White House, often in the dark of night, along with a few brave whistleblowers and one Deep Throat, that truly are chilling. The perpetual subterfuge and self-loathing also reveal a deeply disturbed and aggrieved man, with flaws that Nixon never realizes he has.  Tricky Dick is a portrait of a power gone unchecked, as we witness his unraveling from his own words on tape. Even if his self-aggrandizing mind has been wrong all along, he doesn’t know it and we are horrified by it.  The parallels with today are frightening.