a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The “Zero Dark Thirty” interbranch torture propaganda war

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th December 2012

…followed by the highest-grossing propaganda effort in history?

The makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” may have just learned that there is such a thing as bad publicity.  Peter Bergen (CNN) reports:

On Wednesday, three senior U.S. senators sent Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Pictures, a letter about “Zero Dark Thirty,” the much-discussed new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which described the film as “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

The letter, co-signed by Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and John McCain (R-AZ), states:

…We understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters. As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the Usama Bin Laden. Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative….

LA Times reporters Zeitchik and Keegan cut to the chase as far as Hollywood is concerned:

…a bipartisan thumbs-down from Washington may dim the once-bright Oscar chances for Kathryn Bigelow‘s fact-based thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden“You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture leads to information that leads then to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. That’s not the case,” McCain said on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” adding that torture had yielded false information from detainees. The former prisoner of war explained that he was speaking out because “movies, particularly by very highly credentialed producers, directors and cast, [do] have an effect on public opinion — not only in the United States but around the world.”

Zeitchik and Keegan continue, apparently not ironically,

The slam — and on a subject as provocative as torture — is part of a public relations nightmare in an industry where perception often trumps reality.

…by which they seem to mean criticisms from the news cycle trumping box office receipts and cinematographic artistry.  If so, karma may be a bitch in this case, given that “perception trumping reality” is what the movie makers (arguably) did to position their movie as an Oscar-bait, kinda-sorta-documentary “based on first-hand accounts of actual events,” mainly-sorta-blockbuster in the first place.

Yet there’s something that doesn’t sit well about the senators’ position here either.  I don’t agree with the Washington Post’s  David Ignatius, who clutches at his pearls and calls  the senators’ letter “intemperate” and suggests the senators’ position “sounds like censorship.”  As to the former: good grief, who cares?  But as to the latter: first, “sounds like” ain’t “is.”  Second, it doesn’t even sound like it: the senators suggest setting the record straight — no more — about the movie’s lack of veracity, as they rightly (I suspect*) see it, on the subject of the paltry role that CIA depravity ultimately played in locating Bin Laden.

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Zero Dark de Triomphe

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th December 2012

Roy Edroso takes on Glenn Greenwald’s recent piece on the upcoming “Zero Dark Thirty” movie, and rightly identifies several passages undermining Greenwald’s claim as “disingenuous” that his piece is all about critical reactions, and not about the movie itself.  Personally I feel like “so what?”   I think Greenwald’s basic point remains valid: many critics essentially said both “whoa, whutta movie! must see!” and “but ya know, it glorifies torture.” And that is indeed another data point for cultural Nate Silvers to add to their estimate of where our national handbasket is headed.

But yeah,  maybe Greenwald jumped the gun a bit by foolishly taking many reviewers at their word instead of waiting to see the movie for himself.  So did I, maybe: I set up a “Boycott Zero Dark Thirty” Facebook page before learning that Spencer Ackerman — a reporter for Wired who has seemed like a straight shooter over the years — argues the movie says that torture wasn’t the “silver bullet” but “the ignorant alternative”  to the kind of detective work that actually did find Bin Laden.

But this is the part of Roy’s piece I want to discuss:

“This is still more proof — as if more were needed — that you shouldn’t bring your political obsessions to the temple of art. It is both more personally edifying and more pleasing to the Muses to approach a work of art as a work of art, however obnoxious it may be to you on other grounds, than to approach it as a political phenomenon.”

Honestly, Roy, I’m sorry: baloney. I don’t have to see Zero Dark Thirty to know — OK, very, very strongly suspect — that it’s “art” the way the Roman Colosseum is art, or the Arc de Triomphe is art, or “Triumph of the Will” is art.

That is to say, OK, sure, it’s a kind of art — but it’s a kind serving to glorify the victories and rulers of the day and validate their people’s faith in them, and it’s fully intended to do so. Such art, unlike, say, “Little Miss Sunshine,” is therefore a political phenomenon too, and is completely fair game for political discussion. For that matter, so is a hell of a lot of the rest of the uplifting artstuff hanging on museum walls or flickering on screens for that matter: it’s what those who are good at saying well-compensated uplifting stuff say or have the power to say.

What is it Bigelow and Boal have the well-compensated power to say? E.g., how do Bigelow and Boal know what they think they know, how does it get that authentic, documentarian feel cinematic art consumers today crave?   Not just “the illusion of real time” in exciting night time raids but the ‘ripped from the headlines’ faithful[ness] to the material’?  Oh, right: they got it spoon fed to them — back when the prospective opening date was apparently advertised as October 12, not December 14.  Do the math.

Greenwald (and I for that matter) may have swung early and missed as far as ZD30 goes, but I’m betting there’s plenty there to hit. One way or the other, we’re on the cusp of our “pass the popcorn” phase of our national dialogue, such as it is, on torture.  Not every story at the intersection of art and politics is “Piss Christ” revisited, or about whether government should pay for controversial art or monitor its content.  Bigelow and ZD30 chose the kitchen, they can’t complain about the heat.  As long as the word “disingenuous” is floating around, it also seems a little disingenuous to claim the most highly anticipated political snuff movie ever is in the  “temple of art,” so leave it aloooooone.

On the other hand, though, I’m not sure about boycotting the thing any more.  It’s probably best to go ahead and see it if you’ve got to scratch that itch, or just to judge what, if anything, is wrong with it exactly.  I guess I do hope many, many Americans don’t enjoy it.

Screening the rushes for Zero Dark Thirty (and making sure there was a group photo).

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One of them “Open Thread” things

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th January 2009

Here’s a place to talk about whatever you want to talk about — maybe one of the “delicious” links to the right, maybe some news item you noticed, maybe your favorite recipe, maybe a movie you liked. It’s the weekend, we’re off to see “Slum Dog Millionaire.” Meanwhile, here’s a trailer for “Revolutionary Road,” which I, for one, thought was great. Tragic; sad; but great.

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FISA in the Bush years — a timeline

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th December 2008

I happen to really enjoy the “Bourne” movie series.  “Identity,” “Supremacy,” and “Ultimatum” are all action-packed, how-will-he-get-out-of-this-one thrillers packing a nicely subversive message: our country’s national security apparatus can be ruthless, lethal, and beholden to nothing beyond its own purposes. Between waterboarding, secret detention sites, and more, that doesn’t seem too far off any more, of course.

No; it’s when the time came to beat American Spooks Gone Wrong that the newest, hippest spy movie franchise on the block just couldn’t keep pace with reality.  Instead, the screenwriters and producers imagined that just faxing the media some documents would win the day. By the time “Ultimatum” came out in 2007, of course, that was clearly not the case, and when I first watched Joan Allen’s whistleblower dial up an unnamed fax recipient, it was all I could do not to yell “My god, no — not the New York Times!” in the theater where I was watching.   In the movie, the supposedly inevitable publication, national scandal, congressional hearings, and perp walks for the bad guys all seemed and seem more fantastical and unrealistic than any number of Bourne-on-five fight scenes could.

The sickening torture and abuse revelations of the Bush years, and the lies that led to a hideously costly war are low standards against which all other scandals pale.  In a certain cold perspective, though, these are (for the most part) “merely” stories about what we are willing to do to other people, far away and out of sight.

By contrast, the NSA warrantless surveillance story is an instructive test case about what we’re willing to do to our very own democracy, rule of law,  and civil liberties when we feel threatened.  Actions in defiance of settled law; a “dare you to mention it” coverup; a newspaper’s decision not to publish a story its reporters had painstakingly assembled; an election “accountability moment” that wasn’t; a legislative branch by turns unwilling, unable, or unwilling and unable to safeguard its prerogatives and the liberties of its people, a judiciary reduced to a spectator’s role; a key campaign pledge abandoned, and over it all, a persistent fog of lies from president to editor to Congress to intelligence agency.  And under it all, a public by turns confused about and uninterested in which of its seemingly esoteric “rights” were being frittered away.

I’ve perhaps telegraphed my conclusion already, but here it is more plainly: while there are a few heroes in the story, this is a test case that our country has failed so far, often in spectacular, bipartisan fashion.

Ever since I saw Lichtblau and Risen — the New York Times reporters who broke the story in December 2005 — speaking to a local group about Lichtblau’s excellent book “Bush’s Law,” I’ve grown fascinated (OK, maybe obsessed) with trying to figure out just what happened, just how badly we failed at preserving the rights our country was supposed to be designed to protect, and just how hard it will be to ever succeed in the country we actually have.

As my resource and yours, I’ve now compiled a fairly detailed timeline in spreadsheet form: “FISA in the Bush years: a timeline of abuses and failures by the executive branch, the media, and Congress.” The timeline juxtaposes information from multiple sources, and links to supporting online documents; whenever possible, I’ve used exact dates, but I’ve estimated the dates and sequencing of many of the catalogued events (such dates are italicized in the spreadsheet).

This effort has a few things going for it, I think. First, it is now reasonably comprehensive, and may be the best reference work of its kind on the web. Second, it’s selected with a view to some of the narratives described above. Third, it remains a work in progress, with your input warmly welcomed. There’s nothing that will be new to everyone about the timeline, but I think even people who’ve followed the story closely may find it valuable. Mainly, I hope that by reminding ourselves of the whole story, we will also see just how the story worked to our disadvantage so far — and maybe how to change the story in the months and years ahead.

In my next post in this series, I’ll look at the New York Times and how it handled its latter-day Watergate. Grab some popcorn, and come along for the ride.

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"Taxi to the Dark Side" wins Oscar

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th February 2008

Ha! “Taxi to the Dark Side” won the Oscar award for best documentary feature. I saw the film last week at a National Archives screening; it is an excellent, thorough, unflinching look at the dark side this administration has turned our country towards.

And we have done better, in more dire circumstances. In accepting the award, director Alex Dibney dedicated the film to Dilawar, the young man who died at American hands in custody in Bagram, but also his father, noting that “My father, a navy interrogator … urged me to make this film because of his fury about what was being done to the rule of law.” As the credits roll at the end of the film, Dibney added a shot of his father saying so. I remember a Washington Post article from last fall where veterans of a World War II interrogation team based in the District made similar remarks.

Naturally, the award was presented to weirdly inappropriate triumphal music, and a clip of Afghans gazing skyward in awe as B-52s circle overhead. But whatever. On a final note: hey, nice going, Discovery Channel! How does it feel to be the a$$h0les who unloaded a documentary for “controversial content” just before it won an Oscar?

NOTES: “noted” — Melbourne Sun, “It’s an Oscar for Eva” (Eva Orner was the documentary’s producer); “weirdly inappropriate” — ThinkProgress has the video of the award presentation and accompanying clip; “article” — “Fort Hunt’s Quiet Men Break Silence on WWII,” Petula Dvorak, 10/6/07: “We got more information out of a German general with a game of chess or Ping-Pong than they do today, with their torture.

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Department of followups — Taxi to the Dark Side edition

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th February 2008

An occasional review of further developments in stuff I’ve written about before.

Discovery is more than the name of their company…, 02/12/08 — “Taxi to the Dark Side” is an Oscar-nominated documentary about torture and other human rights violations by the United States in the wake of 9/11. After acquiring the rights to the movie, the Discovery Channel got cold feet and announced it might not air the documentary, saying thefilm’s controversial content might damage Discovery’s public offering.”

Now ThinkProgress reports that one day before the Oscars, Discovery has sold the movie to HBO, which has said it will be airing it on pay TV in September, and on basic cable in 2009. I suppose it’s better than nothing, but I don’t see pay TV as a particularly promising mass release method for this movie… unless, of course, that’s organized in September. McCain gets mixed reviews in the movie, as well he might — against torture, but for throwing away the key — so I could imagine this being a campaign/cultural event after all.

Kiriakou: apologist or whistleblower?, 12/23/07 — When ex-CIA man John Kiriakou showed up on ABC confirming that the U.S. had engaged in waterboarding, it was a revelation quickly followed by a criminal investigation into whether he had revealed state secrets. But at the time I wondered whether the investigation was serious — Kiriakou’s statements fit comfortably within the “24” scenario, since he claimed valuable intelligence had been gained.

As is well known, CIA chief Michael Hayden subsequently also confirmed that three men — Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim Nashiri — have been waterboarded. In Google searches since then, the dog that hasn’t barked is any further development in the criminal investigation. Kiriakou is slated to appear at the University of Pittsburgh on the topic of “Ethics in Intelligence.” The notice is subheadlined with what seems like the intended takeaway from the affair: Controversial waterboarding technique “probably saved lives, but was a form of torture.”

Some good news, anyway: …. Adel Hamad released, 12/14/07 — Adel Hamad, the Guantanamo detainee from Sudan who regained his freedom late last year, is continuing to press his legal case against the United States, suing for compensation for his 5 year detention — during which one of his daughters died for lack of medicine his wife couldn’t afford any more. The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Beldauf reports that Hamad nevertheless isn’t just suing for the money:

We don’t want animosity, we just want to respect America again,” says Hamad, speaking in English phrases he learned while in prison. “The American conscience and the American people need to return to the great concepts established by the Founding Fathers, of freedom, democracy, equality, and justice. All these values and even the justice system are being shaken, played with.”

Released Sudanese detainee Salid Mahmud Adam was also interviewed:

Asked about the nature of his treatment by Pakistani police, and by Americans at Bagram and Guantánamo, Adam becomes vague. When pressed, he recalls the constant light and noise that deprived him of sleep, beatings, tear gas, pepper spray, attack dogs, the desecration of the Koran, and the “degrading” personal searches in which he was forced to expose himself in front of other men.

“Most of the soldiers there, I doubted they could be from a great nation,” Adam says. But sometimes he would meet an educated soldier, who would “deal with us quietly, kindly,” until that soldier would be ordered to “change his style of treatment.”

NOTES: “film’s controversial content” — ThinkProgress; Christian Science Monitor item on Adel Hamad via Project Hamad

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Discovery is more than the name of their company…

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th February 2008

…it may be the very opposite of what they’re doing.

The Silver Spring, Maryland based Discovery Channel bought the rights to “Taxi to the Dark Side“, a documentary by Alex Gibney investigating the 2002 torture killing of the Afghan taxi driver Dilawar at Bagram Air Base, and the policies that led to it. (Dilawar was chained to an overhead wire, and his legs were subjected to such repeated and heavy beatings and kneeings that the medical examiner described them as “pulpified.”) A trailer for the movie can be seen here; it was shown during the AFI Silverdocs Festival in Silver Spring last year.

Now ThinkProgress reports that the documentary channel heavyweight is dropping plans to air it, apparently claiming the film is “too controversial,” despite the high praise and accolades the film has received, including an Oscar nomination. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Gibney comments:

Torture, even though the Bush administration never uses that word, they say “We don’t do torture,” because they define it out of existence.

He didn’t add that they don’t need an (alleged) documentary television channel‘s help with that. The subject matter of this film could not have come as a surprise to the company. Under those circumstances, buying it, promising to air it, and then reneging on that promise would be an act of censorship that should rebrand the company. Dibney: “In refusing to air the film, Discovery is perpetuating what has become the policy of this government: It is OK to employ torture, just not to show it.”

The Washington Times’s Jennifer Harper quotes a “source close to the situation” as claiming “These statements are both premature and unfounded. A final decision on airing this film by Discovery Communications has not been reached yet.”

I hope they’ll make the right decision — or undo a wrong one. The Discovery Channel and the local AFI Silverdocs festival will lose a lot of their luster if Discovery follows through with smothering a timely documentary — and if activists mobilize to protest that.

NOTE: I’ve posted about Dilawar’s case here and here (“Everybody heard him cry out and thought it was funny.”) The leg-beatings were called “compliance blows” using “peroneal [muscles and tendons attaching to the knees] strikes.” As I wrote at the time: “”Compliance blows” doesn’t sound like bad-apple-talk, it sounds like Pentagonese, don’t you think?”

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America is waiting for a message of some sort or another

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st July 2007

While I’m thinking about what and whether to write, here’s some cool stuff I’ve run across on the Internet and elsewhere lately:

The Civil War in Four Minutes — A video on YouTube showing how the area controlled by the Union and the Confederacy ebbed and flowed during the Civil War. It’s really quite satisfying when Sherman marches to the sea. Yay, Sherman! You go, boy.
UPDATE: Aw shoot, the guy had to pull it. Maybe the Abraham Lincoln Museum will put up a link sometime.

enoweb lyrics : My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. — By “cool stuff,” I mean of course “cool for me,” not necessarily “cool for you.” That said, I’m not alone in thinking this Brian Eno/David Byrne album is simply one of the best ever, period, full stop. The “lyrics” are actually snatches of recorded voices of radio talk show hosts, preachers, politicians, folk singers, and oh, yes, an exorcist.In the spirit of Jose Isaza’s annotations: we recently acquired a car with — gasp — a multi-CD player, with this album now ensconced in the #4 slot. So Maddie’s listened to it now to where she likes it even better than “Remain in Light” (#1) — and was observed declaiming “no will whatsoever… no WILL whatsoever… I mean what you gonna do?” to herself the other day.

Hunting around, I’ve discovered there’s now a “Bush of Ghosts” web site about a re-release of the album, with an essay by David Byrne about the making of the album, and even more intriguingly, a site where you can re-mix tracks from two of the… songs, recordings, whatever, “A Secret Life” and “Help me, somebody”:

In keeping with the spirit of the original album, Brian Eno and David Byrne are offering for download all of the multitracks on two of the songs. Through signing up to the user license, and in line with Creative Commons licenses, you are free to edit, remix, sample and mutilate these tracks however you like. Add them to your own song or create a new one. This is the first time complete and total access to original tracks with remix and sampling possibilities have been officially offfered on line. Visitors are welcome to post their mixes or songs that incorporate these audio files on the site for others to hear and rate.

“Once” — I confess I was reluctant to see this movie, but I found out last night I was wrong. Shot on a shoestring budget in Ireland, it features Glen Hansard (turns out he was also in “The Commitments” a while back) and an equally impressive 19! year old Czech musical prodigy Marketa Irglova. He’s a street performer pining for an old flame, she’s a young mom who wants little more from life than a chance to make music. What’s very cool about this movie is how good and heartfelt and believable the music they make is, and how well it fits the story that goes with it. Justly called a new kind of musical, it’s well worth your time.

Our favorite bookstore, Politics and Prose, just got better: many of the book readings and the subsequent Q&A sessions there can now be viewed online at “”, among them Robert Dallek (“Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power”), Fritz Stern (“Five Germanies I Have Known”), and Christopher Hitchens (“God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”).

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles Mann. The title might as well have added “Everything You Know Is Wrong.” You get a good sense of the book in an Atlantic Monthly article by Mann; I got interested after a glowing description by Teresa Nielsen Hayden (“Making Light”) last year, which you should read both for its own sake and for the comments by her anthropologist, sociologist, ecologist, and etceterologist readers.Mann says two main things in this book. First, there were many more people living in the Americas before Columbus than had been suspected. Second, they had civilizations that were much, much more advanced than had been suspected (by me, at least) — the largest cities on Earth, some of the healthiest people, civil engineering and scientific feats to rival the Old World’s. Check out particularly the stories about Tisquantum (a.k.a. Squanto of Thanksgiving memory), the stuff about khipu, a three (and, including color, four-)dimensional knot-language “like the coding systems used in modern-day computer language,” the story of maize (a prodigious feat of plant breeding), the possible real significance of the huge passenger pigeon flocks of the 1800s, and the bequest of the Haudenosaunee to the ideals America struggles to live up to.The archaeologists, linguists, and anthropologists Mann writes about — and Mann himself — are resurrecting the memory of a huge swath of mankind that was very nearly forgotten or at best given short shrift. This is quite simply the best book I’ve run across in the last couple of years — it’s that interesting, well written, and horizon expanding.

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The Lives of Others

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 26th March 2007

I saw the Oscar-winning German movie “The Lives of Others” yesterday, about the surveillance of a fictitious playwright Georg Dreymann (Sebastian Koch) by East German “Stasi” operative Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe).

The movie — written and directed by relative newcomer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck — succeeds completely in immersing its audience in the fear and omnipresence of the East German surveillance state. The infamous “Stasi” — “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit,” or department of state security — was ruthless, efficient, and perhaps above all else huge, with an estimated 91,000 employees by 1989 — and an additional 100,000 informers on its rolls. Conceiving itself as the “sword and shield” of the state, the Stasi relied on intensive surveillance, lengthy interrogations, secret imprisonments, and that vast network of informants — called “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” or “IM”: unofficial co-workers — to suppress and deter political opposition.

Von Donnersmarck brings a humanistic sensibility to the story; indeed, he says the germ of the movie is not what those who’ve seen the movie might have expected. Instead, it’s the playwright’s moody, sad performance of a lovely piano piece on hearing of the death of a good friend — with the Stasi agent listening in via bugs and electronic equipment. Turning to his girlfriend, the man asks, Could someone listening to such music — really listening — really be a bad person? That in turn was inspired by a story about Lenin related by Maxim Gorky; Lenin, said Gorky, once confessed that he was no longer willing to listen to Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” or he’d just be telling people loving banalities and stroking their heads, instead of pitilessly striking those heads to complete his revolution. Von Donnersmarck resolved to, in effect, force Lenin — in the form of Stasi agent Wiesler — to really listen to that music.

One might argue that’s nice, but potentially also a weakness of the story. Would a top East German security agent really respond to the pathos of a piano piece quite the way Wiesler does? And so what if just one did?

Yet Von Donnersmarck’s script and Mühe’s acting at least make it plausible — a lonely man, rather idealistic in his own way, gradually realizes he may have less in common with his bosses than with his surveillance targets. And I thought it was interesting to notice that Agent Wiesler — in his capacity as an official of the surveillance state, to be sure — is in fact strangely, breathtakingly free to observe, to draw his own conclusions, and then to act on them as he sees fit. Freedom’s diminishment as a whole is achieved, in part, by giving people like Wiesler greater freedoms and greater powers — powers that are generally abused as intended, but perhaps sometimes, very rarely, used differently as well. Freedom doesn’t vanish completely — it shrinks to the size of a headset.

Ulrich Mühe — an East German actor who was himself surveilled, with his wife among the informants — was interviewed for the German movie web site, and asked how he prepared himself for the movie. His answer: “I remembered.” When asked whether the film succeeded in depicting an authentic picture of life in East Germany, Mühe replied:

In my opinion, absolutely. Althought the story is fictional, the film … was able to evoke the climate of repression very exactly (meaning above all without exaggeration). Dictatorship feels like that.

My point with the news items at the top of this post is not to claim the United States is the same as East Germany, but to suggest that we’re not different enough any more to suit me. (True, we have nowhere near the number of political informers in the US that East Germany could “boast” of, but we make up for that with any number of people who excuse and defend steps towards a surveillance state and away from liberty — unofficial state security co-workers indeed.)

Once the Stasi was up and running, it was too late for East Germans to do more than grouse about it — if they dared even do that. At the risk of sounding like Chicken Little or Cassandra, it’s better to nip “Stasi”s in the bud — restrict surveillance to the minimum necessary, prevent fishing expeditions or political abuse, insist on strict judicial and legislative oversight, resist expansions of state surveillance powers. In other words, we must remind ourselves that it is people, not governments, who are endowed with unalienable rights, and that governments are instituted merely to secure those rights — not to suspend, abrogate, or diminish them.

NOTES: Damian TPoD (“Danger West”) was also impressed with the movie and points to a “Fresh Air” interview with director Von Donnersmarck on NPR; this is where I learned some of the background to the movie and about Mühe. For a couple of other worthwhile reviews of the movie see Roger Ebert and Anthony Lane.
EDIT, 3/26: “official” for “functionary,” fifth paragraph.

UPDATES, 3/27: This post is included in a NYTimes “EmpireZone” blog roundup of blog responses to the Dwyer “City Police Spied Broadly…” article. Unofficial — at least, so I assume — state security co-workers commenting there say it’s not so bad that police spied on demonstrators. (Ahead of a ruling party conference.) Also, in a second post Damian TPoD discusses the post reunification part of the movie — which Von Donnersmarck had to argue to keep.
UPDATE, 5/15: Huh. Kevin Drum can’t figure out why Wiesler might have protected his surveillance targets: “There was simply no serious motivation provided for this transformation. It was almost as if the writer figured he didn’t really need to bother.” I respond in comments.

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Pan’s Labyrinth

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th February 2007

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that Mexican writer/director Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” owes at least a nod of recognition to Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The first moments of the movie make clear that things may not end well for its protagonist Ofelia, a young, dreamy girl played with extraordinary assuredness by twelve year old Spaniard Ivana Baquero.

But Pan’s Labyrinth is different from “Owl Creek Bridge” in just how the world of imagination that Ofelia inhabits coexists with the grim world beyond — in this case, Franco’s Spain not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War. Her fairy tale quest — complete with the archetypal three challenges, a failure, a redemption, and a final triumph — is enthralling in its own right and a wondrous, illuminating counterpoint to the real world she, her mother, and her comrades endure. As a result, Pan’s Labyrinth becomes both a spooky, gorgeous fantasy and a serious meditation on power, evil, and resistance.

[Warning: spoilers follow.]

I had not known that after the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War, some people fought on against Franco, all but forgotten by the rest of the world as it descended into war as well. Centered in the mountains of northern Spain — Galicia, Asturias, the Pyrenees — that resistance was hopeless but valiant and persistent, with fighting lasting beyond the end of World War II, and flaring weakly as late as the 1950s and 1960s. (For its part, Pan’s Labyrinth is set in the summer of 1944 — hiding in a cave, guerrillas read a tattered newspaper account of the Normandy landings.) In his acclaimed history of the Spanish Civil War, “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor writes:

Those who had taken to the hills, ‘los hombres de la sierra’, having escaped from prison or labour battalions, formed small, scattered groups which could not communicate effectively. Yet the first examples of resistance to nationalist conquest had started from the very beginning of the civil war. In Galicia, where so many had escaped the brutal Falangist repression, groups had formed in the hills, especially the Sierra do Eixe. […] Most of those in the south were annihilated in 1937, but in the north the struggle continued until the end of the war and beyond. When the Asturias front had collapsed in 1937, over 2,000 soldiers fled to the mountains and the nationalists needed to deploy fifteen tabors of regulares and eight battalions of infantry for many months hunting them down.*

This is the job — even the calling — of Vidal, the Franquist capitan in the movie. Del Toro is excellent at diagnosing him with a few economical shots (and Sergi Lopez is excellent at portraying him): Vidal impatiently glances at his watch as his new wife and stepdaughter make a late arrival; he vigorously polishes his gleaming boots; he admires himself while shaving with a straightedge razor; he meticulously repairs a shattered watch; he revels in machismo and confrontation, he forces himself to disdain pain or fear.

And he’s a monster. While it’s clear right away he’s not going to be a nice dad, he’s more fully introduced to the audience by brutally killing a peasant and his son in the mistaken belief that they’re partisans. (After he leaves the murder scene, another diagnosis: his lieutenants’ eyes meet, and one lifts an eyebrow and exhales a tiny little “puh” as in, “he’s a psychopath, but what can you do?”)

Here and elsewhere, Del Toro’s connection to the horror and comics genre provide this movie with a distinctive visual style. I lack a vocabulary for it myself, so I’ll call it the “wordless ‘reveal’ panel” I’ve seen in graphic novels like Maus — a symbolic, stylish still life or portrait that’s emblematic of the conflicts in the story: the captain slashing his reflection in a mirror, a guerilla leader appearing from nowhere in the woods after the soldiers give up their pursuit.

Del Toro has certainly created one of the most unsettling nightmare/horror sequences I’ve ever seen. Ofelia is given a piece of magic chalk to draw a door ‘anywhere she likes’; once she goes through the door, she’s warned not to partake of a sumptuous banquet she’ll see, but to simply get a treasure and return. When she opens the door she’s drawn, she finds the banquet all right — with a catatonic, pale ogre seated at the head of the table, its eyes on the table in front of him, paintings all around depicting it slaughtering and devouring babies. It is hideous, pure, blind, grasping evil — and it will not remain sightless or motionless for long.

Given that this scene is interlaced with a second one in which Vidal introduces a stuttering, terrified prisoner to the torture tools he’ll be reduced with — within the same walls that Ofelia has magically tunneled to her own confrontation with evil — one sees the outlines of Del Toro’s views. Power hoards, love spends; power torments, crushes, and discards, while innocence sacrifices; systems demand obedience and get it, for the most part; rare individuals choose freedom and honor, even at the cost of their lives.

And the allegories and fantasies of the story are important in making those points. I watched the movie The Illusionist a few months ago, and although I liked it, I still felt I liked the movie I thought I had early on better than the one I eventually got. Unlike that movie, Pan’s Labyrinth wastes no effort explaining its illusions, much less explaining them away. Rather, its fantastical, fairy tale elements just are; they explain and comment on its real world better than that world can itself.

I wonder if there’s another significance to the muddy, mossy, heathen elements of faun and fairy, Pan and labyrinth. In a story of innocence buying innocent life at the price of its own, set in Spain and told by a Mexican filmmaker, one might have expected mystic, ecstatic Christianity rather than the pagan allusions Del Toro uses. But the Catholic Church was part of the apparatus of oppression in Franco’s Spain — collaborating in censorship, monitoring who did and did not show up for Mass, and unabashedly celebrating Franco’s victory despite the many Spaniards who did not. Beevor writes:

On 31 March [1939] Franco’s armies reached their ultimate objectives. ‘Lifting our hearts to God,’ ran Pope Pius XII’s message of congratulation to Franco, ‘we give sincere thanks with your Excellency for the victory of Catholic Spain.’*

As the movie portrays, economically as ever, the Catholic Church sat at the well-laden dinner table with the Franquist captain, murmuring that one ration card per family ought to be enough. I found another item in Beevor’s book that seems germane to Del Toro’s movie. One Major Antonio Vallejo Nagera, a professor of psychiatry, concluded that

…the only way to prevent the racial dissolution of Spanishness was the removal of children from suspect parents to be schooled in nationalist values. In 1943 there were 12,043 children taken from their mothers and handed over to the Falangist Auxilio Social, to orphanages and to religious organizations. Some of these children were passed on for adoption to selected families, a pattern followed thirty years later in Argentina under the military dictatorship there.*

As viewers will see, at least this one despicable, miserable bit of history is turned on its head in Del Toro’s movie.

At the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, a fairy tale narrator speaks of humans leaving “small traces of our time on earth — visible only to those who know where to look.” Del Toro, in remembering the valor of those who resisted Franco’s regime, has shown moviegoers where to look. For that alone, he deserves thanks. To do it so beautifully and so imaginatively, he and his collaborators deserve admiration and applause.

* ‘Los hombres de la sierra’ — Chapter 37, “The Unfinished War,” p. 421. Pope Pius message — Chapter 34, “The Collapse of the Republic,” p. 397. Children taken — Chapter 35, “The New Spain and the Franquist Gulag,” p. 407. All page numbers from the paperback edition of “The Battle for Spain,” Antony Beevor, 1982, 2006.

UPDATE, 2/20: Other reviews: Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post writes, “See it, and celebrate that rare occasion when a director has the audacity to commit cinema,” and Jim Emerson at calls the movie “one of the cinema’s great fantasies.”

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