Category Archives: Film

Friday Film Feature: “The American Ruling Class” (2005)

I saw this movie, The American Ruling Class, directed by John Kirby, a few weeks ago and loved it. It’s utterly contrived, to be sure, but it works. And Lewis Lapham, long time editor of Harper’s Magazine, is perfect for the on-camera narrator role. He’s great, actually. The film follows two freshly minted Yale graduates, Jack Bellamy and Mike Vanzetti, as they move to New York City and experience “the corridors of power.” Lapham is their wizened guide for the two young men throughout the film as they hobnob with the rich and famous and very powerful. It’s a sobering and candid look at what seemingly (nay, really) makes the wheels of this country turn. It’s a semi-musical, too, with a terrific bit by Pete Seeger at the end. And there are superb cameos by folks like Barbara Ehrenreich, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Walter Cronkite, Bill Bradley, Robert Altman, Howard Zinn, and many, many others. Here’s the trailer:

The film is available to stream on Netflix, if you got it, as well as on Hulu for the masses (who have access to the Internet). Check it out. Report back.

Mythmaking and/or Mythpreserving

A while back, and I apologize for not remembering the precise context, Peashoot and I had some sort of discussion/debate that concluded with a welcome envelope in my mailbox containing a short piece on the role of myth in scholarship (author escapes me…Lincoln?).  Anyway, I thought of this recently when I read the news that the History Channel pulled an 8 part, 16 hour (!) bio-pic on the Kennedy family.  Despite spending enormous sums of money and recruiting ludicrously miscast Hollywood heavyweights (Greg Kinnear as JFK? Give me a break), the station pulled the docudrama as unbefitting the “History brand”.   That this decision came from after hearing vociferous objections from the Kennedy family and their acolytes is unsurprising.  

The mythmaking of all things Kennedy began long before Dallas, but it was Mrs. Kennedy who gave it a name in an interview shortly after her husband’s death: Camelot.  Though she later utterly regretted creating this myth, it endures.  Throughout the seventies and eighties, in a more “open” society, many of the untruths regarding the clan (Jack’s supposed vigor, the happy marriage/family) crumbled under the weight of numerous books exposing a more accurate view of the family.  Given that the Kennedy family is possibly the most researched family in American history, it’s hard to imagine something new in the film that mobilized the keepers of the flame to oppose it. 

At this juncture, it’s worthwhile to review some of the revelations of the past forty years (omitting the ridiculous and unfounded):

  • JFK was utterly dependent upon pain killers and cortisone injections to function due to chronic lumbar pain;
  • Ted Sorenson was the author of both of JFK’s best-selling books;
  • Teddy Kennedy was expelled from Harvard for hiring someone to take an exam for him (he was later re-admitted and graduated);
  • RFK quietly arranged with Hoover to escort one of JFK’s paramours, Ellen Rometch, back to East Germany upon learning she was a suspected Communist spy;
  • JFK/RFK authorized wiretapping Martin Luther King suspecting him of being a Communist spy (utterly false, they later regretted doing it);
  • Running what LBJ called a “goddamn murder incorporated” in the Caribbean using the CIA to assasinate suspected Communist revolutionaries;
  • Coordinating the Mafia and CIA in an attempt to whack Castro;
  • Teddy using a backdoor channel to the Kremlin to obtain assurances of cooperation from the Kremlin to help him secure the Democratic nomination and defeat Reagan in 1984.

These facts are well-known and by no means exhaustive and, remember, I omitted the more salacious and unproven charges.  Now, precisely what is it that the clan is trying to protect?  I suspect it is the medium more than the message.  The Kennedys were the first to master the modern age of communication.  Most Americans have an image of them set by bubblegum documentaries and/or film.  That a film — their preferred method of myth preservation — could threaten that image likely posed an undeniable threat.  Let’s face it: though the above enumerated facts are well-documented, they get little mention in the visual media and remained confined in definitive books…cumbersome, 700 page books that few Americans have the patience to read. 

In a quote given shortly before his December death, Ted Sorenson objected that the film contained conversations between himself and JFK that “never happened”.  While understanding his concern, every docu-drama employs this tactic.  Oliver Stone, whose films I enjoy even if they play hard and loose with a lot of facts, attributes absurd dialogue to his protagonists.  I remember when he debuted Nixon the family went nuts.  They were aided by no less than the eminent historian Stephen Ambrose, who in his days at a professor at Kansas State University once shouted Nixon down at a campus appearance.  Stone did not change the script to accommodate the objections of historians, let alone the Nixon family.  Considering dorks like me are the only ones who actually saw that film, I’d say they were overly-concerned. 

Which brings us back to the scrapped mini-series: what dynamite could be in there that we have not heard before?  My guess is nothing.  I bet the movie portrayed the Kennedys as womanizing and power hungry.  But their myth has absorbed those faults; everyone knows about JFK and his affairs and yet it somehow added to his charm.  I surmise it portrayed them as less than the omniscient crusaders for the always good cause that the family has come to rely on from Hollywood. 

A similar situation arose when CBS planned a four hour mini-series on the Reagans.  They received so much blowback from the family that they quietly cancelled it and moved it to Showtime.  Although their Kennedy movie was not worthy of the “History brand” the channel is quietly shopping the picture to Showtime as well.  Apparently recouping some of the film’s costs outweighs the alleged historical inaccuracies which prevented their airing it.  As a final thought, who is the History Channel kidding?  Half the time I check their program guide, I’m greeted with some assortment of the following:  Ancient Aliens, Monster Quest, Ice Road Truckers, et. al.  I understand they have to get ratings to stay on the air, but don’t get sanctamonious about protecting your “brand” when your passing off aliens, monsters and truck drivers as history.

If someone is looking for a good Kennedy film, go no further than Thirteen Days.  Bruce Greenwood gives the best JFK I’ve ever seen and the movie was written by the historians who deciphered the audio tapes (yes, Tricky Dick was not the first to tape everyone).  My only criticisms are Kevin Costner’s horrible attempt to mimic a Boston accent and the acrimony they created between the Kennedy brothers and JCS General Maxwell Taylor.  I can’t suspect they hated him that much since RFK named one of his kids Maxwell Taylor Kennedy.  But that would contradict the myth of the brothers always fighting off the evil military industrial complex.

For what it’s worth, if you want to see the trailer of the film the Kennedy clan sought to destroy, I’ll link it here.  The performances leave much to be desired.

Freewheeling Darjeeling

A visually stunning and historically informative documentary about Indo-Tibetan culture will soon start making the rounds in select theaters across the country. It’s called Journey of a Dream, and it’s about a Tibetan man, Shenpenn Khyamsar, lead guitarist and songwriter for a heavy metal band called Avatara. Khyamsar was born among the exiled Tibetan community in Darjeeling, India, and his story touches upon the ways in which Tibetan history, exile in India, the Tibetan Freedom Movement, Buddhism, and heavy metal music have converged in his life.* The story sends up trenchant messages about the dangers of nationalism, the power of social cohesion, and the capacity of music and art to deliver political critique.  From the looks of the trailer, the film has some pretty interesting history of the rock-n-roll scene in Darjeeling. Check out the trailer here!

The film is set mostly in Darjeeling, the misty mountain hill station of northeastern India. Darjeeling is probably known by most folks nowadays as a type of tea that is grown in the hill terraces surrounding the town. The British established a sanatorium in Darjeeling in the 19th century, and built up the town with British-style schools, summertime political institutions, and many leisure clubs, and the town served as a cool weather retreat from the lowland plains of Calcutta and Delhi, which were too bloody hot in the summers for the British and their woolen attire. They also cultivated (on the backs of Indians and Nepalis in the region) tea plantations in and around Darjeeling, many of which continued to thrive after the Queen officially gave up British colonial rule in South Asia in 1947. Nathmull’s of Darjeeling is a fine example of the thriving tea industry today in Darjeeling.

Darjeeling is a truly beautiful place, one of my favorite in all of India. It’s very hilly, situated just across a small valley from Mount Kanchenjunga (28,225 ft!), with Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and roadside temples peppering the sides of hills, mountain plateaus, and winding footpaths. Today Darjeeling enjoys an interesting mix of British colonial and Tibetan Buddhist architecture, a smattering of Hindu temples and art, a large central square, Chowrastha mall, that hosts speakers and musicians and lots of people just hanging out, not to mention a bustling market that winds along the main pedestrian thoroughfare of the town.

*Khyamsar’s parents fled Tibet following the 1959 “Lhasa Uprising” against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which had previously quashed the Tibetan army at Chamdo in 1950 and proceeded over the next several years to “peacefully liberate” Tibet by trying to annex the country into the PRC. During the 1959 uprising in Lhasa, over 300,000 Tibetans opposing the PRC’s occupation of Tibet surrounded the Dalai Lama’s Potala Palace to protest the PLA’s ongoing military presence in their country. The PLA retaliated with a violent attack on the protesters, reportedly killing 86,000 Tibetans. Many Tibetans, including the current (#14) Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, fled the PLA’s persecution and sought sanctuary in India, with large numbers of refugees settling in the Himalayan towns of Dharamsala in the northwest (where His Holiness presently lives) and Darjeeling in the northeast.