Jordy Cummings says: “I’m writing a book that focuses on what I believe, with input from a lot of people, are the most important anti-war or anti-imperialist films.” Cummings is a Canadian-based writer who seamlessly blends pop culture with political theory in his articles, essays, and “Pure Polemics,” a popular blog he has just revived.
“There have been a few books released over the last couple of years dealing with progressive films – Paul Buhle’s books about the Blacklist, a few others, but none have focused specifically on anti-war films,” he explains.”My intent is to remind film buffs about their favorite movies’ politics and radicals about great films for organizing, with I hope some cross pollination.” To follow is a brief Q&A I enjoyed with Jordy:
MZ: How did you develop an interest in anti-war films?
JC: My politics were heavily shaped by film. I had a very eccentric and left wing high school social sciences teacher, with a cut-out that he made of the five Marx brothers, Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, Harpo…and Karl. On Fridays, we would watch what he believed, or so he said, were historically important films, “Dr. Strangelove,” “Citizen Kane,” what have you. Since then, my passions have been radical anti-authoritarian politics, and film, and they often intertwine.
MZ: When you talk about the concept of “anti-war films,” are you referring to overt political cinema or can it be more subtle than that? In the age of “shock and awe,” is there a place for celluloid subtlety?
JC: There’s a variety of ways to approach the matter, but it can be simplified in terms that a film that can both strengthen the “faith,” as it were, of an anti-war activist, and at the least, turn the pro-war types around, and inspire those on the fence to become historical actors. As you note though, in the age of “shock and awe,” which is really an extension of what Guy Debord calls the “spectacle,” the means of symbolic production (as an aside, I recommend the book by the collective “Retort”called “Afflicted Powers” on how images dominate our consciousness regardingwar) – everything on either side of any war that has been going on in the world right now, from Islamists to Americans to warring factions wherever, has been seen in a movie, and is being re-enacted, whether consciously or not. And this extends to the anti-war movement, which is too caught up in imitating the sixties, and the American sixties at that. One could argue that everything we do is mimesis, to an extent, at least those of us in North America.
MZ: Talk to your average American movie-goer about anti-war flicks and you’re likely to hear Michael Moore’s name mentioned.
JC: I thought “Fahrenheit 911,” despite its flaws (mostly in regards to the anybody-but-Bush stance) was brilliant and important agit-prop, not because it reinforced my faith or yours, but because it was popular and told at least some of the truth. At the same time, I recall that there was some heated criticism of F911 from one of my favorite film artists, Jean Luc Goddard at the time that both of their anti-war films were playing at Cannes last year. So sometimes subtlety, as in Goddard’s far-superior work, doesn’t take into account the urgency of the message, but artists have their own niche. One couldn’t see “Notre Musique” at a Multiplex even if it played there. To our eyes, the Goddard who grew up on film noir and Sam Fuller – American films – seems like “art” so must be segregated to “Art Houses” that are mostly in coastal Metropolises, and even his fans kind of like it that way. So the age of the spectacle, of shock and awe, of “Bombs over Bagdhad” as Outkast presciently sang, nearly negates the notion of a subtle message. On the other hand, plenty of Hollywood films have snuck in a few anti-war, even anti-imperialist plots, subtly but not as a main point to their story. I’m thinking of Star Wars’ most recent episode, or the last few Spielberg films.
MZ: For those not familiar with it, tell us about “Notre Musique.”
JC: Goddard’s film “Notre Musique,” semi-documentary, with Goddard (not unlike Moore, actually) playing a prominent role as himself, taking place in Sarajevo ten years after the siege there, focused on the human toll of war, and particularly the plight of Palestinians, with their great national poet Mahmoud Darwish having very emotional conversations with Israeli women, for example. It also focused on what I was touching on, in regards to how images dominate our lives and how they can be subverted.
All that said, it was more subtle than Moore’s film, which Goddard said was counterproductive, which perhaps it was in a sense, but in others it was not. “Notre Musique” is brilliant but only scratches the surface of JLG. A theorist of great repute, Goddard has made more radical films, in every sense of the word than anyone. I think outside film circles, more needs to be known about the great radical European filmmakers like Goddard, Vischonti, Pontecervo, or Passolini.
MZ: Of course, just because a film uses war as a backdrop doesn’t mean it’s hoping to make a political statement.
JC: One can read one’s own politics into just about anything, like a Rorschach blot. But a truly ” anti-war” work should not necessarily be intended and taken as such, but to classify as capital A anti-war should reinforce faith and convert nonbelievers, as I said. Therefore, we can talk about films like “Platoon” or one of my favorites “Cross of Iron” which show the lives of soldiers on losing sides fighting for the “bad guys” as it were, or we can talk about films like “Coming Home” or “The Men” about veterans. We can talk about even film noir – heavily written by leftists – that came out of the disillusionment of a post-World War II America, or a film like “Taxi Driver” about a Vietnam veteran’s psychosis.
But films like “Apocalypse Now” or “The Deer Hunter” even if they intended to critique the Vietnam War, did not do so. The former portrayed it as a psychedelic mess in which the soldiers could just drop acid, but with no historical context. The latter was arguably a justification, and reactionary at that, with its white workers fighting the yellow hordes, and Christopher Walken being forced by crazed Vietnamese to play Russian roulette. At least, in regards to Nam, “Platoon” and “Full Metal Jacket” (which could both fit any war) don’t decontextualize American imperialism.
MZ: Will your book include comedies like, my favorite, “Duck Soup”?
JC: Nothing shows the absurdity of war like comedy, and one could say that the Marxists – Marx Brothers fans – have plenty of examples, particularly in “Duck Soup” – of American/machismo absurdity and stereotypes. “Duck Soup” is one of the films that I plan on having a longer section, like other comedies, from “The Mouse that Roared” to “Wag the Dog” to “MASH” to the great Argentinean film “Funny, Dirty Little War.” As well, I plan to have shorter capsule” reviews/sections on a variety of anti-war comedies.
As an aside, there is a risk with comedy that people will take the opposite message as what is being shown. Like the Trey Parker/Matt Stone (of “South Park” fame, celebrated by conservatives who take them at face value) films, particularly “Team America.” This is a great comedy, in which American Imperialism is satirized, blowing up the Louvre and all, meanwhile David Horowitz’s fantasmic “network” is shown – Kim Jong Il, Barbara Streisand and Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore as a suicide bomber. Yet audiences tended to take that part of the film as completely realistic. I read it as firmly anti-war, but it could be the other way around, I’m not sure.
MZ: What role can film play in creating a more just society?
JC: If you look at American history, or for that matter Soviet or Chinese or European history, the most critical statements could be made in film, and I think that continues today. People are often more prepared to accept radical messages from popular film than popular literature. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen enough critical statements – unless cloaked in allegory and hard to discern – about the current bout of imperialism, but we see Stephen Bochco creating a TV series about “grunts” in Iraq, with apparently no context whatsoever. Hopefully Hollywood, and the world will start making serious films about Empire, and I’d like to think that I can perhaps have some influence.
Jordy Cummings can be found on the Web at:http://purepolemics.blogdrive.com.
For more on his anti-war film book, please visit: http://www.pressaction.com/news/weblog/full_article/cummings11282004.
Mickey Z. is the author of several books including the soon-to-be-released “50 American Revolutions You’re Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism” (Disinformation Books) and “There is No Good War: The Myths of World War II” (Vox Pop). He can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.
A Declaration Of WarPhyllis Bennis August 31, 2005
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies , is the author of the forthcoming Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power (Interlink Publishing, Northampton MA, October 2005
The Bush administration has declared war on the world.
The 450 changes that Washington is demanding to the action agenda that will culminate at the September 2005 United Nations summit don?t represent U.N. reform. They are a clear onslaught against any move that could strengthen the United Nations or international law.
The upcoming summit was supposed to focus on strengthening and reforming the U.N. and address issues of aid and development, with a particular emphasis on implementing the U.N.’s five-year-old Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Most assumed this would be a forum for dialogue and debate, involving civil society activists from around the world challenging governments from the impoverished South and the wealthy North and the United Nations to create a viable global campaign against poverty and for internationalism.
But now, there?s a different and even greater challenge. This is a declaration of U.S. unilateralism, uncompromising and ascendant. The United States has issued an open threat to the 190 other U.N. member states, the social movements and peoples of the entire world, and the United Nations itself. And it will take a quick and unofficially collaborative effort between all three of those elements to challenge the Bush administration juggernaut.
The General Assembly’s package of proposed reforms, emerging after nine months of negotiations ahead of the summit, begins with new commitments to implement the Millennium Development Goals?established in 2000 as a set of international commitments aimed at reducing poverty by 2015. They were always insufficient, yet as weak as they are, they have yet to be implemented. The 2005 Millennium Plus Five summit intended to shore up the unmet commitments to those goals. In his reform proposals of March 2005, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan called on governments north and south to see the implementation of the MDGs as a minimum requirement. Without at least that minimal level of poverty alleviation, he said, conflicts within and between states could spiral so far out of control that even a strengthened and reformed United Nations of the future would not be able to control the threats to international peace and security.
When John Bolton, Bush’s hotly contested but newly appointed ambassador to the United Nations announced the U.S. proposed response, it was easy to assume this was just John Bolton running amok. After all, Bolton, a longtime U.N.-basher, has said: “There is no United Nations.” He has written in The Wall Street Journal that the United States has no legal obligation to abide by international treaties, even when they are signed and ratified. So it was no surprise when Bolton showed up three weeks before the summit, demanding a package of 450 changes in the document that had been painstakingly negotiated for almost a year.
But, in fact, this isn’t about Bolton. This Bush administration?s position was vetted and approved in what the U.S. Mission to the U.N. bragged was a “thorough interagency process”?meaning the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and many more agencies all signed off. This is a clear statement of official U.S. policy?not the wish- ist of some marginalized extremist faction of neocon ideologues who will soon be reined in by the realists in charge. This time the extremist faction is in charge.
The U.S. proposal package is designed to force the world to accept as its own the U.S. strategy of abandoning impoverished nations and peoples, rejecting international law, privileging ruthless market forces over any attempted regulation, sidelining the role of international institutions except for the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO, and weakening, perhaps fatally, the United Nations itself.
It begins by systematically deleting every one of the 35 specific references to the Millennium Development Goals. Every reference to concrete obligations for implementation of commitments is deleted. Setting a target figure of just 0.7 percent of GNP for wealthy countries to spend on aid? Deleted. Increasing aid for agriculture and trade opportunities in poor countries? Deleted. Helping the poorest countries, especially those in Africa, to deal with the impact of climate change? Deleted.
The proposal puts at great risk treaties to which the United States is already a party, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.N. Summit draft referred to the NPT’s “three pillars: disarmament, non-proliferation and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.” That means that states without nukes would agree never to build or obtain them, but in return they would be guaranteed the right to produce nuclear energy for peaceful use. In return recognized nuclear weapons states?the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia?would commit, in Article VI of the NPT, to move toward “nuclear disarmament with the objective of eliminating all such weapons.” The proposed U.S. changes deleted all references to the three pillars and to Article VI.
The U.S. deleted the statement that: “The use of force should be considered as an instrument of last resort.” That?s also not surprising given the Bush administration’s ?invade first, choose your justifications later? mode of crisis resolution.
Throughout the document, the United States demands changes that redefine and narrow what should be universal and binding rights and obligations. In the clearest reference to Iraq and Palestine, Washington narrowed the definition of the “right of self-determination of peoples” to eliminate those who “remain under colonial domination and foreign occupation.”
Much of the U.S. effort aims to undermine the power of the U.N. in favor of absolute national sovereignty. On migration, for instance, the original language focused on enhancing international cooperation, linking migrant worker issues and development, and the human rights of migrants. The U.S. wants to scrap it all, replacing it with “the sovereign right of states to formulate and enforce national migration policies,” with international cooperation only to facilitate national laws. Human rights were deleted altogether.
In the document’s section on strengthening the United Nations, the U.S. deleted all mention of enhancing the U.N.’s authority, focusing instead only on U.N. efficiency. Regarding the General Assembly the most democratic organ of the U.N. system?the United States deleted references to the Assembly’s centrality, its role in codifying international law, and, ultimately its authority, relegating it to a toothless talking shop. It even deleted reference to the Assembly’s role in Washington’s own pet project?management oversight of the U.N. secretariat?leaving the U.S.-dominated and undemocratic Security Council, along with the U.S. itself (in the person of a State Department official recently appointed head of management in Kofi Annan’s office) to play watchdog.
The Bush administration has given the United Nations what it believes to be a stark choice: adopt the U.S. changes and acquiesce to becoming an adjunct of Washington and a tool of empire, or reject the changes and be consigned to insignificance.
But the United Nations could choose a third option. It should not be forgotten that the U.N. itself has some practice in dealing with U.S. threats. President George W. Bush gave the U.N. these same two choices once before?in September 2002, when he threatened the global body with “irrelevance” if the U.N. did not embrace his call for war in Iraq. On that occasion, the United Nations made the third choice?the choice to grow a backbone, to reclaim its charter, and to join with people and governments around the world who were mobilized to say no to war. It was the beginning of eight months of triumph, in which governments and peoples and the U.N. stood together to defy the U.S. drive toward war and empire, and in doing so created what The New York Times called “the second super-power.”
This time, as before, the United States has threatened and declared war on the United Nations and the world. As before, it’s time for that three-part superpower to rise again, to defend the U.N., and to say no to empire.