PARAMOUNT WINS; WE LOSE

Last Friday a federal judge agreed to the Department of Justice’s petition to “vacate” the Paramount decision. What does this mean? Why should you care? If you aren’t interested in films, or in going to the cinema again once there’s a vaccine, then it doesn’t affect you very much. But if you are still a cineaste, currently obliged to slake your thirst for art online, the decision matters… as we shall see.

The Supreme Court decision in US vs. Paramount Pictures in 1948 broke up the vertical integration of film distribution: the big studios could no longer own cinemas, and exclusively screen their own films. This is why there are cinemas – old, splendidly decorated movie palaces – called the Paramount in some American cities. They were built, and owned, by Paramount Studios, and showed Paramount films. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that studios couldn’t own cinemas, and for 72 years that was the case. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres found “that termination of the Decrees is in the public interest”, and set the Supremes’ decision aside. Judge Torres’ reasoning is bone-headed in many ways, and I don’t understand how a lower court gets to overrule the Highest Court in the Land. But apparently it does, and as of this week, Paramount can be an exhibitor again.

Not that they would want to, especially when all US cinemas are closed. Paramount is only a small studio, a modest beneficiary of this amazing pro-trust US government largesse. The real beneficiary is the mega-studio, Disney, which in 2018 swallowed its rival, 20th Century Fox. Last year Disney movies (which include the Marvel and Star Wars franchises) took forty percent of the US box office. Disney can extract extraordinary terms from theaters: insisting that its films play for X number of weeks, on the largest available screen. Given such power Disney doesn’t need to own theaters. But now it can, if it chooses to. Or if invited to. Last week, the US government ordered the Chinese company Tik Tok to sell its US interests to Microsoft. The AMC theater chain is also Chinese-owned. Disney would no doubt be happy to take it over, in return for generous taxpayer concessions.

“Multiplexes, broadcast and cable television, DVDs, and the Internet did not exist” when US vs. Paramount was decided, Judge Torres wrote. “Subsequent-run theaters no longer exist in any meaningful way.” Clearly the Judge is bang up-to-date on high-tech developments like broadcast TV, and DVDs. But what she says is untrue. There are hundreds of independent movie theaters in the US, which play a mix of “subsequent-run” studio movies, independent, and foreign films.  The Judge’s contention that “consumers” only see films at home after their initial theatrical release is an evidence-free assertion. Has she never been to an art house? Never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

Even before the coronavirus and Torres’ dead-wrong decision, independent cinemas faced new difficulties – thanks to Disney. As this article from Vulture shows, since acquiring Fox, the Disney execs have dropped that studio’s back catalogue into what is apparently called the Disney Vault. Here old Disney (and now old Fox) films are kept in darkness. They are not let out to be screened, or seen, except perhaps at a favored venue such as Film Forum. Decades go by, and no one can see them, until the execs decide it’s time for an “official” re-release. Well, I supposed it’s their business, and looking at the list, pretty much all the films Fox made after Murdoch took over the company are rubbish, anyway. Still, independent cinemas derive a fair part of their revenue from showing old Hollywood movies on the big screen, and their inability to screen a DCP of Alien or Fight Club, say, impacts their finances and their ability to screen foreign, or independent, films. My films!

(The saddest think about the Vulture article is that none of the theater owners interviewed will go on the record about Disney’s business practices. They are all afraid of retaliation, from Disney.)

I see a solution. Rather than litigate separate anti-trust suits to ban the Disney Vault and vertical integration (save that fight for Amazon), the US government simply needs to lower the copyright period, from a ridiculous 95 years from publication, to something reasonable, like 20 years. That way all those great Disney pictures like Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia and Pinocchio will be in the public domain, along with the good movies Fox sometimes made before Murdoch came along.

I’m sure that this will be a priority for President Sanders, once he… oh… wait…

 

REPO MAN POSTERS

Over the years I’ve acquired a small collection of REPO MAN posters – some of them for theatrical or dvd releases, some of them art pieces made by people who were enthusiasts for the film. Some are quite sublime, and others awful. Let’s take a brief trip among my souvenirs…

RM_Poster_1This is the original poster, designed by Universal Pictures. Have you ever seen anything more lame? It looks like a poster for a spin-off of THE WARRIORS. Harry Dean Stanton, the first-billed actor, is stuck in the back behind his car. Emilio Estevez has been given leg extensions. The rays of light emerging from the trunk don’t line up with any source. The dreadful “Meet Otto… he’s a clean cut etc.” attempt at a written explanation of the film betrays the studio’s complete failure to understand it. And worst of all, the title of the film is in the wrong place, too small, in black against a dark background. Why… it’s almost as if Universal didn’t want people to see the film. The producers and I were so annoyed by this that we made a stencil and drove around LA grafitti’ing REPO MAN posters wherever we found them (see below).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA As the reader will note, the explicatory babble has been overstamped with a much bigger REPO MAN logo, in red, and MAY 4, the Los Angeles release date, has also been added. The red has faded now, but was very bright it its day. This is the poster which hangs in the lobby of Melnitz Hall, at UCLA.

RM_Kelly_Neal  A couple of years later, REPO MAN got a theatrical re-release thanks to Kelly Neal, who was in charge of a division of Universal called “Special Handling.” He had two films to deal with, REPO MAN and RUMBLEFISH. He thought the studio had misunderstood both films and mishandled their original releases. He wanted to make new posters for the national re-release, but Universal wouldn’t give him a budget. Somehow he managed to fund a black-and-white one, which completely gets the film.

RM_UK_Poster Universal washed their hands of REPO MAN internationally. Foreign distributors, such as Artificial Eye in the UK, picked it up. REPO MAN became Arty Eye’s biggest money maker, and their poster, while a bit fussy, is closer to the spirit of the film.

RM_Netherslands_Poster Whose poster was this? I’ve been told it’s from the Netherlands, but it might also be part of the growing realm of movie fan art, like the following:

RM_Fan_Art_2  Nice to see Sy Richardson’s character, Lite, celebrated here. And interesting how the artist, like Kelly Neal, relies on an exchange of dialogue as part of the composition.

RM2_Fan_Poster And here’s some fan art for a REPO MAN 2 that never was – featuring a fluorescent Otto, and a score by Husker Du! This was not authorized by the author, but then such art never is. I love the colour scheme.

R-12039470-1558765233-5730.jpegAnd who could forget the tin-box packaging (I know it’s not strictly a poster) of Anchor Bay’s REPO MAN dvd release? With a good US distributor, the dvd did so well that Universal asked Anchor Bay to give it back – someone told me they traded the dvd rights to REPO MAN for the rights to EVIL DEAD 2. And what did Uni do next? They brought a new dvd out via their “indy” subsidiary, Focus Features, packaged like this:

RM_Focus_Features  Ay, ay, ay. Never let a bad idea go to waste! Good to see Jennifer Balgobin made it to the final version, but guys… was this really the best graphic you could manage? The most original idea you could come up with? The Rolling Roadshow showed ’em the way to go a couple of years later, with a tour of films projected on the big screen in the locations where they were shot. They showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST in Monument Valley, and REPO MAN in an LA alley:

RM_LA_Road_Rally_2005  I think the best way to graphically represent a film – a good film, anyway – isn’t with pasted-up pictures of some of the cast, but with a single, strong, unique image. The Rolling Roadshow did it here, in 2005.

RM_Criterion_Poster_2013  Criterion did something along the same lines for their dvd and bluray release in 2013 — with a similar colour scheme (it’s taken from Robert Dawson’s opening credits). Another strong, simple and effective graphic! And, meanwhile, the mad and chaotic school of poster design continues to thrive:

RM_Ghana_Poster  This is the poster from Ghana, apparently. I don’t know the date but the skull with digital mohawk seems to be referencing the Criterion poster. Not sure about those beheadings, either.

RM_HDSfest_Poster And this is my personal fave — the poster from the Harry Dean Stanton Fest in Lexington, KY, in 2019. If I succeed in getting REPO MAN 2 – THE WAGES OF BEER – a-going, this will be our poster.

Stay tuned! And a shout out to my dear pal Pablo Kjolseth of the IFS for turning me on to the Russian Film Hub, where you can see Russian features across the decades, for free. Numerous good pictures here — among them the deeply disturbing COME & SEE, and the brilliant HEART OF A DOG.

 

 

TED CRUZ’S EXCELLENT HOLLYWOOD IDEA

My Republican friends do not like Ted Cruz. They say he is a devious and unpleasant character unpopular within his own party. My Democrat friends do not like Ted Cruz: he is a Republican. Yet the Texas Senator has come up with a proposal which seems eminently sensible. In April he introduced legislation which he called the Stopping Censorship, Restoring Integrity and Protecting Talkies Act – SCRIPTA – which would free Hollywood studios from having to submit to multiple forms of state censorship.

Ted CruzTed Cruz, R-Texas, King of the Talkies (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Rejoice, Hollywood! For surely this is good news. In theory, of course, the studios don’t have to submit to any kind of censorship – not since Roger Corman and AIP broke the back of the Production Code some six decades ago. But in practice, the reader will be shocked to learn, over the last few years Hollywood has been subject to censorship from not just one, but two, powerful sources.

The first is the Pentagon. For, in order to gain access to a smorgasbord of military goodies – tanks, planes, uniforms, permission to shoot at Camp Pendleton – the studios must submit their scripts, and make changes. Let us assume that the scripts are the usual war-mongering, platidudinous balderdash that Hollywood invariably offers up. No matter! The military brass can always identify some problems: too much swearing, perhaps. Or not enough diversity to satisfy current recruitment aspirations. Or no hand sanitizers in the CIA torture chamber. So there will be changes made.

Fair enough. Hollywood isn’t going to make an anti-war movie any time soon so it probably doesn’t matter if TOP BUN 2 puts on a few extra pounds of patriotism. And the rewards are great! Free stuff for the studios! Well, not free, really, as we the taxpayers pay for it. But hey, that’s not what Ted Cruz is complaining about.

Cruz’s SCRIPTA bill points out that, after receiving US taxpayer largesse from the Army or the CIA, the studios shoot part of the picture in China, with Chinese producing partners, and/or distribute the finished film there. And in order to do this, they – you’ve guessed it! – have to submit the script to Chinese state censors. Not just the script – the finished film itself has to be screened for the Chinese censors, and, if required, further changes must be made. An example given in Variety is from TOP BUN 2, co-financed by China’s Tencent Pictures, where the wardrobe department had sewn the flags of Taiwan and Japan on the back of Tom Cruise’s flight jacket. A complaint from China, and they were digitally removed.

The same thing happened on the remake of RED DAWN, where the Chinese invaders had to be digitally converted into North Koreans. Ted Cruz is tired of this stuff, and the way it impacts our “talkies”. His legislation proposes that any film which submits to Pentagon censorship cannot submit to Chinese censorship as well.

Let the bells of freedom ring! Strangely, Variety is less than enthusiastic, reporting that “the Script Act asks American companies to give Congress a list of all titles submitted to Chinese authorities for approval in the past decade for review — “Good luck with that,” laughs one top film executive with deep ties to China — but more troubling is its prohibiting studios engaged in co-productions with Chinese companies from accessing government assets.

“Chinese regulations require that there is only one version of a finished Chinese film, meaning that the version of a co-produced movie released in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere should be the same as the one censored for Chinese audiences.”

It’s worth reading that last sentence a second time, since it appears that the Hollywood studios, in order to gain access to a very large market and make more money — have agreed to submit all co-produced films to worldwide Chinese censorship. So if you make a “talkie” for Disney, and Disney make a coproduction deal with Tencent, Disney must submit your script to the Chinese government for prior approval, and the version that Beijing approves is the one that you must shoot, and the only one which can be screened anywhere.

Possibly, it could be said that Cruz isn’t sincere. That his attempt to save our talkies will go nowhere, and is just part of a bi-partisan campaign of China-bashing. This may be so. Yet it seems to me that Cruz’s proposal is useful, throwing light on a very serious problem: a covert, internationalized film censorship regime. The official journal of our industry doesn’t seem to have a problem with multiple censorship regimes and their impact on the quality of the art, yet only offers up anonymous responses:

“What are they going to do, demand copies of each draft of each movie script? Gimme a break!” laughs one veteran exec.”

But why not? The studios provide the Pentagon with copies of each draft of every script. They provide the Chinese censor with a similar package, and a screening of the finished film. They can deliver the same materials to Cruz’s office. And if this whole deal is just a storm in a teacup, political grandstanding, why can’t Variety find an American producer who’s willing to go on the record, to talk about it?

[Next week I’m going to write about plans for reopening film production during the pandemic. But first I must do more research…]

Oh… if you would like to support independent cinema and watch a couple of my old flicks, the Texas Theatre in Dallas is streaming a double bill of EL PATRULLERO and STRAIGHT TO HELL. Kino Lorber, the distributor, is splitting the gate with them, so as with the IFS and Loft online screenings, your support keeps independent theaters (and distributors) alive! Thank you.

 

THE BEST SITE ON THE WEB

At the start of April, one of the film editors at the English newspaper/website The Guardian asked me to write a piece about what I was doing in the lockdown: what films I was watching, what music I listened to, what I was reading and where I got my news. I wrote the piece (you can read it here) within the required word limit, fired it off to them, and it was published … sort of. What got published was the first half, about films and songs. What got omitted was the stuff I wrote about sources of information.

To be fair, I expected this. The Guardian has become so conservative in its politics that any mention of The Canary, say, will be thoroughly excised. The editor of The Guardian is traditionally a timorous person from a private school, who can be relied upon to shop whistleblowers and quake before the fearsome might of the “intelligence community.” But during the general election campaign, the former newspaper excelled itself in doing its master’s bidding, and going out of its way to stop Corbyn winning a general election: peddling anti-semitism smears and red-baiting one of the very few decent individuals left in English politics. Pretending the Labour leader was a Russian dupe is par for the course for the BBC and the Murdoch press. When The Guardian joined the pack it was a media fait accompli.

One might argue that really it was the Blairite fifth column in the administration of the Labour party which sank the ship. There’s a long article about that here. which discusses an 841-page Labour investigation into its various failings. The leaked document “shows that some of the most senior employees of the Labour Party held its elected leadership in contempt, despised their own party members and even acted in a conspiratorial manner that undermined our 2017 general election campaign.”

So the Blairite faction in the Labour Party preferred to lose an election than win one. Their only goal was to ensure that their own, moderately-leftish, socialist candidate wasn’t elected. Does that remind the American reader of anything? Is there another political party anywhere with an entrenched neoliberal administration who despise their own supporters and would rather lose than see a moderately-leftish, socialist candidate win?

In the general election, the Conservatives didn’t pick up many extra votes. What won it for them were the 800,000 Labour voters who didn’t turn up at the polls. In several cases, anti-Corbyn Labour MPs lost their seats – including the egregious Ruth Smeeth, peddler of the “anti-semitic” calumny against her own party. There are surely numerous reasons why those Labour voters didn’t vote. They may have detested the local candidate that the London-based party imposed on them. They may have opposed Labour’s support of a second Brexit referendum. They may have believed the “anti-semitic” or “Russian agent” propaganda of the mainstream media. They may have felt the opposite, and given up on Corbyn and the party for not responding strongly and forcefully to obvious lies and bullshit. I don’t imagine we shall ever know.

Nor, I suppose, will we ever know why Bernie Sanders threw in the towel so early, in the face of blatant vote-stealing and vote suppression by the Democratic Party. Sure, the DNC were stealing primary votes and making voting difficult, just as they did in 2016. What did he expect? The Coronavirus affects everything, which is why we need a political class who understand the need for universal health care and a minimum basic income. In terms of the presidential race, Sanders was the only candidate close to such positions. Now that he is gone, what professional politician represents us?

Anyway, the point I have wandered from is, if one doesn’t read MSM any more, or watch stupid-ass TV “news”, how does one get one’s information? I have no social media, and a cheery disposition as a result, so I’m reliant on books, of course, and for daily information on those old-fashioned things called websites.

Which news-oriented websites to visit? Here we are in luck. A few years back an “anonymous” propaganda outfit called Prop Or Not was heavily promoted by the Bezos Shopper. Prop Or Not had a website, and the website told you which other websites were secret channels for Russian disinformation. I made a little informational video about the Prop Or Not blacklist, which you can watch here.

Prop Or Not remains entirely anonymous (“an independent team of concerned Americans”) unlike other state-sponsored propaganda outlets like SmellingRat and the Integrity Initiative, which offer contact info. But the Bezos Shopper article promoting their wares turned out to be fantastically useful, as it directed me to several excellent blogs and websites I hadn’t known before.

Of course, antiwar.com and Counterpunch were old favourites.

But have you visited Naked Capitalism? I think this is the most fascinating and useful site on the web. It contains commentary on finance, economics, politics and power. Its valiant team daily scour the internet for articles of interest, commission their own pieces, and provide links. There is always a focus on the environment, a cute animal or plant picture, and an extremely informed and informative commentariat. I love this site, and encourage you to visit it. Thank you, Prop Or Not!

(None of the sites I visit hide behind paywalls. It’s always possible to make a contribution to the project, which I try to do.)

Among the other sites which I mentioned in my [redacted] Guardian piece are Craig Murray’s blog (very valuable news regarding the dreadful trial-by-judge of Julian Assange and the attempted stitch-up of Alex Salmond. The authorities are coming after Craig Murray now, accusing him of contempt of court which means he, like Assange, will be tried by a politically appointed judge, not a jury. He faces two years in jail, with no freedom of speech defence permitted. Please support Craig if you can!), Consortium News, TeleSUR (a Venezuelan daily news site, in English), Mint Press News, The Gray Zone (some excellent reporting from Latin America), and EU Referendum, the site of a pro-Brexit philosanitary expert, Richard North: he is very knowledgeable about the complexities of Brexit (and disease communication) in a way that politicians and the MSM aren’t. And Black Agenda Report! And World Socialist Website! And also Wildfire Today, a very useful site about fighting wildfires, which probably Prop Or Not and The Guardian won’t mind if you visit.

One of the most worrying things about the current crisis – apart from the deaths and the sickness and the loss of jobs and ruin of small businesses – is the way gubmint and the tech companies are taking advantage of it to push their surveillance/censorship agenda. Some of the above sites you won’t find represented on Twitter or Facebook – their accounts were closed a while back. Yes, there is stupidity in the world and on the web, and much of it is amplified by social media, google, and youtube. But to deny dissenting voices the right to speak is worse than stupid. It is criminal. Indeed, in a “free” country it should be considered treason.

Meanwhile, Julian Assange, a journalist to whom all “free” people should be grateful, languishes in an English jail designed for terrorists. He has been convicted of no crime. He is denied access to his lawyers. Brought before the judge, he is confined in a glass box with uniformed guards. Assange_Glass_Box_Belmarsh He cannot hear the proceedings. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture says he is being tortured.

What does The Guardian have to say about this?

Nothing at all.

Fortunately the alternative media do report on Assange’s situation. Mint Press has some good articles, and Consortium News – perhaps the oldest news reporting site on the Internet! – also pays close attention to the journalist / publisher’s plight.

BEHOLD THE SPACE FORCE!

Karl Grossman has written a number of very interesting and enlightening pieces about the US nuclear industry and the corporate/military push to weaponise space. There are numerous funny and absurd pieces already on the internet about the new US Space Force (a re-named branch of the US Air Force with added budget and bureaucracy), especially regarding the contest for its logo and the design of its uniform. I shall not make any such jokes, since I am very much in favour of the wonderful new US Space Force, for reasons which will become clear. Instead I’ll point you towards this piece by Grossman, in which he shows that the Space Force is not the insane, treaty-busting scheme of a lone despot in the White House, but rather a bipartisan project, supported by Republicans and Democrats alike.

It is salutory to think of all the Democrats who made possible this new arm of the US military, dedicated to war in space. In the House of Representatives, 188 Democrats joined 189 Republicans in voting in favour. Only 41 Democrats (including Gabbard, DeFazio, Lee, Jayapal, Ocasio-Cortez and Omar) voted against.

In the Senate, 37 Democrats joined 48 Republicans in ushering in the militarization of the stratosphere. Only four Democrats – the two Merkleys, Gillibrand, and Wyden – voted against. Not wishing to offend anyone, Sanders, Warren, Klobuchar, Booker and Harris did not vote.

Why, the astute reader might ask, do I support this insane plan, a multi-billion dollar boondoggle which will benefit Boeing (poor Boeing! They need our money!), General Electric, and the usual suspects? Because I am a fan of 40s and 50s and 60s science fiction, and novels like The Space Merchants in which everything has been converted into a corrupt, money-making scam? Because I like the visual lines of the orbiting nuclear weapons we see in Kubrick’s 2001, after that memorable cut from the graceful, ape-man bone? Because I like treading on the same rake, and having it fly up and hit me in the face?

Not at all. The Outer Space Treaty (signed by the US in 1967) forbids the placing of weapons of mass destruction in space. The US and the other signators abide by this not because they are good, but because putting nuclear weapons in orbit around earth is simply not worth it. If this were easy to do, by now all the nuclear powers would have done it – and there would be American and Russian and Israeli and Chinese and British and French and Indian and Pakistani nukes circling over our heads now.

Putting useable nuclear weapons in orbit is a huge and difficult project. It isn’t like blasting the Cassini probe – with its 72.3 pounds of Plutonium-238 fuel aboard a Titan IV rocket – into space and hoping for the best (Grossman has an excellent piece about that here). Nuclear weapons like the ones in 2001 would have to be hefted into orbit and maintained there, indefinitely. If the weapons’ orbit decayed, they would have to be destroyed in space. Nukes in space would be a target for any nation which felt threatened by them – just as ICBMs and air bases and submarine pens are now.

Instead, the Space Force will probably aim for full-spectrum dominance – in the unfortunate event of war, or sanctions, or whatever – by taking out some or all of the assets our “foes” currently have in orbit. This will be done, at first, by ground-based missiles, though I imagine Raytheon have a nifty hypersonic missile in the works for later (two trillion dollars! cheap!) Of course, the Space Force will need lots of “eyes in the sky” too (though these will largely duplicate what the NSA and military already have up there), plus “anti-jamming” communications satellites, and there will no doubt be expensive tests of “satellite killer” missiles and “missile killer” satellites, and even of space-based missile interceptors (Grossman discusses the Missile Defense Review here).

Right now it all sounds ever so exciting. Air Force General John “Jay” Raymond has praised “the uniforms, the patch, the song, the culture of service…” And well he might, for he is not only Chief of Space Operations, he is also Chief of the Space Force and Commander of US Space Command, too! And the bipartisan site Defense One wants us to know that “The US Space Force is Not a Joke.” So there. And the US National Guard is asking the Pentagon to create a “Space National Guard” as well.

The wonderful thing about all this is that is it so painless! It doesn’t even have to involve any “nudets”. On the one hand we have a George Lucas/Buck Rogers star wars scenario, with spacepersons, badges, uniforms and songs…

And on the other hand, since all the best science fiction veers towards the dystopian, not the frivolous, we have the likely result: that the US Space Force (or the Russian Space Force, or the Chinese, it doesn’t matter), by accident or design, actually tries to destroy another state’s surveillance or communications satellites. What happens then? The victim state, less technologically advanced perhaps, retaliates with air-burst missiles in the upper atmosphere, a crude but entirely effective way of crippling any satellites (including those “anti-jamming” ones) in the vicinity.

Space debris, we are told, is already a problem. It bedevils the Space Station, and is the starting point of the popular movie, Gravity. If the US Space Force succeeds in its mission, and fights wars in space, Earth will be surrounded by a dense skein of space wreckage. Long distance communication and navigation systems will be degraded. Intelligence and surveillance satellites will be destroyed. For a while there will still be GPS — GPS satellites orbit at higher altitudes than ICBMs can reach, and would need to be destroyed by space launch vehicles, assuming they could make it through the debris belt. Either way there will be no more space travel. Elon Musk and Richard Branson will never fly to Mars.

Imagine, all the clever brains and rare earth metals and fossil fuels currently engaged in blasting stuff into space, being redeployed to more useful activities on Earth.

The astronomers may complain, as will the unfortunates flattened when burning chunks of space junk come hurtling home. But planet-wide, reality-based science and discourse are long overdue, and the US Space Force could be the way to acheive this change of emphasis.

THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH X 2

In 1562, or not long after, Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH. Like most of his large paintings, it was done in oils on wood panels. It isn’t known for whom the work was done. Two centuries later it was hanging in the palace of the Queen of Spain. Today, recently restored, it resides at the Prado, in Madrid. It is both a landscape painting and a memento mori – a reminder of mortality, like the skull which often decorates a painted saint’s hovel, or profound individual’s desk.

But it is more than that. Bruegel had painted landscapes, crowd scenes, and grisly battles before. There was a tradition of “Last Judgement” paintings, in which the dead rose from their graves, the city burned, and Jesus hovered above, in glory. THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH refers to all these things, yet remains strangely original, and unique. Yes, skeletons rampage across the land, slaughtering the living, and cities burn on the horizon. But there is no God in judgement, condemning the bad and calling the good to join Him and his Angels. In Bosch’s triptych, THE LAST JUDGEMENT, the deity appears in two out of the three panels, in bubbles of beatific beauty. He is entirely absent here. This Final Battle is a secular nightmare: death for all, and no exceptions. In its brutal secularity it resembles Bruegel’s SUICIDE OF SAUL, also painted in 1562. The horrors of Spain’s war against the Netherlands may have influenced both paintings.

Bruegel’s wife Mayken gave birth to two boys, Pieter, in 1564, and Jan, in 1568. He died the following year, aged around 40. Both sons became painters. In 1597 (or possibly later) Jan painted a copy of THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH. This passed within a hundred years into the collection of Prince Eggenberg of Austria, and it can be seen in his castle in Graz, today. There is a second copy, probably by Jan, and a third, by Pieter the Younger, both in private collections, invisible to us.

Last September I was invited to screen two pictures at the Film Archiv in Vienna, and took the train to Graz, to see the son’s version of his father’s painting. It is to the two visible TRIUMPHS (one in Madrid, one in Graz) – their strong similarity, and their multiplicity of differences – that I now turn. For Jan Brueghel’s painting is structurally almost identical to his father’s, and different in almost every single detail: like a film re-made, shot-by-shot, with different actors, costumes, and visual effects. Most interesting of all, while Bruegel the Elder’s painting is seen from no one’s point of view, Jan Brueghel’s TRIUMPH provides one horrified spectator.

Both paintings can be divided rather neatly into nine grid-sections. The central section features a skeleton on horseback, wielding an enormous scythe. Behind him, an army of skeletons approaches, and demons drive a wheeled, blazing box.

In the section immediately below this, humans attempt resistance, but fall victim to knives, axes, swords and scythes.

The_Triumph_of_Death_BEST

The bottom left section contains perhaps the richest images: a dying monarch, skeletons seizing money, supporting a priest, and riding a death-cart over living humans while playing music.

In the section above this, humans are drowned in a stagnant pond, and skeletons in shrouds blow trumpets.

The upper left section shows skeletons ringing bells and digging up a coffin. The distant horizon glows with red and black smoke.

In the upper central section, ships are wrecked, skeletons surround a church, and a mass of humans, wielding pikes, ladders and improvised weapons, is caught in a pincer movement by death’s cavalry and infantry.

In the upper right, dead bodies hang from trees and wheels. Skeletons lynch one man and prepare to decapitate a praying victim.

Immediately below, another skeleton army drives men and women into long, coffin-like box. On the roof of the box, three skeletons bang drums and hold the door open.

The_Triumph_of_Death_2

Finally, in the bottom right section, diners are interrupted at their table. A gallant prepares to draw his sword, a skeleton seizes a woman, another presents a skull on a silver plate. Two lovers in the corner play the lute and sing. A skeleton accompanies them with his violin.

All these elements exist in both paintings. But they exist in very different ways. I’ll begin at the left, and make the observation that the copy is slightly larger than the original, and the difference is visible here. Bruegel the Elder’s painting is 117 by 162 cm. His son’s copy is 119 by 164 cm. The copy has a couple of centimeters more sky, and two additional centimeters on the left – so that we see the knee of the skeleton supporting the king, and the entire blasted trunk from which the bells are rung, plus another tree, immediately adjacent – all missing in the older painting, as it now exists. The additional two centimeters make all these visual aspects more pleasing (even an illustration of horrific events can observe the norms of good illustration), so I believe that the original TRIUMPH OF DEATH was “cut down” to fit a particular frame at some point – just as the boards of his TOWER OF BABEL lost 4 cm of height and 8 cm of width at the behest of unknown philistines…

Now, to the changes in Jan’s remake —

Let us start with the most finely-adorned of all the characters: the king. In both paintings he wears a full suit of armor, over which he sports a crown, an ermine collar and a long robe – red in the original, yellow in the copy. The skeleton supporting him holds an hour glass, but in neither painting does the king notice it: dying, his gaze is focused not on the scene, but on the viewer. To his right, a skeleton dips bony fingers into a barrel of gold and silver coins. In the Elder’s version, this fellow wears a rough tunic and some basic armour – a common soldier. In Jan’s, he is naked save for gold chains and a kingly crown. This greedy skeleton also has access to more stuff than in the original – in addition to three barrels of coins, he finds gold and silver jugs, and jewelry. Each painter has taken the same character and made him something different, in class, in style, in aspirations.

Pieter_1

To the right of the money is the most visually vivid difference between the two works: a skeleton clutching a red-robed cardinal – in the original painting, a priest in a blue- green robe. To emphasize the death-bringer’s personalized service, in both paintings he sports a matching hat. Immediately behind this little group passes the death cart, full of skulls. One skeleton rides aboard it, playing the hurdy-gurdy (in the original he appears to be wearing a WW2-era soldier’s helmet, something missing from the copy); a colleague, riding sidesaddle on a wizened, starving horse, holds a lamp and rings a bell. Between them sits a raven; below them, people are crushed beneath the wheels.

Noteworthy here and throughout is the bodily difference between Pieter’s and Jan’s skeletons: the former are usually covered with a residue of dessicated skin, while the latter are pure skeletal goodness (interestingly, sporting an additional pair of ribs).

A figure beneath the horse’s hooves wears brown-red in the first painting, gray in the second: a woman, cutting a thread with shears. Is she Atropos, the third Fate? How many more mythical/religious symbols are there in this bedlam?

Jan_1

Beyond the cart is the pond, or moat, where people are being drowned. The two versions are substantially similar, though here – as everywhere – colour and details of costumes change. A little bridge across the pond leads to what seems to be a mausoleum, where shrouded skeletons are gathered, sounding horns. In the original these characters are boldly painted, and the millstone around the neck of a human victim is very evident. In the copy, they are more sketchy: Jan provides less detail as the scene gets further from our eye. And Jan’s skeletons are noticeably fewer: some fourteen, as opposed to 24 or more – as if the remake couldn’t afford the extras, or the artist sufficient time. This is a pattern which repeats throughout the copy, as we shall see. In the original, a clock or sundial on the mausoleum wall is breached by a skeleton, pointing downward to the number one. In the copy, this skeleton points upward, to the number twelve.

The top left corner of the copy is greatly improved by the uncut visual of the blasted tree, and a better profile of the skeleton graverobber. But the horizon beyond the bells is quite different: a gray-green range of hills, overhung by storm clouds. No cities burn in Jan’s painting.

To the right, the skeleton cavalry emerges from a hillside, to engage the peasant army. In Jan’s copy they are few, sketchily drawn. In Pieter’s original there are dozens of skeleton riders, armed with javelins.

 

The upper centre of depicts the fate of the human horde. In Pieter’s, they are trapped by a wave of skeletons, surging up a curved road from the sea. In Jan’s, the wave is absent: maybe the men will get away! There’s no hope for them in the original, where the road ends at at a church on a barren hilltop, surrounded by scores of horn-blowing skeletons. Elsewhere among the hills, three black skeletons with javelins pursue a running man, graves are opened, and three of death’s agents pause to admire the sea view, with its sinking ships, and blazing wharves. The same three skeletons are present in Jan’s painting: white against a black sea. But Jan’s long view is less apocalyptic – a mere handful of skeletons surrounds the church, only one ship is sinking, and several sails are visible on the horizon. Jan also invents a flock of crows, gathered above his father’s pit of animal bones…

In Jan’s copy, the upper-right sky is storm dark, and its scenes of death and mayhem are if anything grimmer than those in the surreal landscape of his father. Skeletons rush several extra victims towards the gallows here. A black skeleton, almost invisible against the sky, prepares to behead a praying man. Both paintings depict the coffin-shaped box in the same way: an open maw into which terrified people are driven. One naked figure in the original has been clothed by Jan.

The scythe-wielding skeleton is the centrepiece of both paintings, but the demonic hell-box which follows it is quite different. Pieter’s burns more brightly, and is more face-like. It is clearly mobile, advancing on studded wheels. Crows fly out of it (the crows which have alighted on the barren field, in Jan’s painting?) The fires of Jan’s hell-box are darker, and its wheels are almost invisible. It is attended by more demons. To the right of the box, two skeletons catch half a dozen humans in a net. In the copy, they are all white men, two with faces clearly visible. In the original, three of the struggling men are black; a fourth, oddly enough, strongly resembles the English Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

In front of the net, in the right central section, two skeletons drag a wheeled coffin, containing a dead woman and a dead baby, over a shrouded corpse. In Pieter’s version, the skeletons wear brown habits, like a friar’s. In Jan’s their robes are funeral black.

Nearby, cripples and priests are murdered by the skeletons. In Jan’s painting one skeleton actually draws blood from his human victim. Which brings us to the lower right corner, which in both paintings contains the most poignant scenes.

Pieter_2

Here a table has been laid (minimally, with bread and crackers, by Pieter; richly, with meats and pies, by Jan) and the surprised humans have only just become aware of their predicament. A man in fool’s motley tries to hide under the table. Two women attempt to flee: one of the skeletons who detains them wears a fool’s outfit, as well. A young man prepares to draw his sword in vain resistance: in Pieter’s painting his hair is long and dark, in Jan’s it’s short, and blond. Jan’s swordsman looks a little older and is more finely dressed, like his companions: perhaps the changing fashions of the times?

In neither painting does the female lover see the skeleton army: her eyes are on the book (music? The lyrics of a song?) which she and her lute-playing companion share. In Pieter’s painting the lute player has just noticed their personal skeleton, accompanying them on its violin. In Jan’s painting he hasn’t noticed their awful companion yet. In the original, this man is clean-shaven. His mouth is open, his expression one of horror. In the copy, he’s still relaxed, sporting a fine mustache and goatee (it’s been suggested that the model for the lute player was Peter Paul Rubens, though this would date the painting later than 1600).

Jan_2

The musical couple are the last individuals to appear, as we scan Bruegel the Elder’s TRIUMPH OF DEATH. In his son’s copy, there is one additional character. At the foot of his mistress is a little dog, who apprehends, with concern, the entire scene.

 

 

PODCAST

One of the greatest assets of the CU Boulder film program is its International Film Series, curated by Pablo Kjolseth. The schedule is an eclectic mixture of new stuff, narrative, documentary, experimental, foreign, domestic, plus some extraordinarily good, old-time drama – projected on the big screen, in 35mm. This year among other classics they’re screening Joseph Losey’s masterpiece, MR KLEIN, and Films Noir including NIGHTMARE ALLEY and OUT OF THE PAST. If you would like to see/download the schedule, it is here.

But wait! For this is just a preamble to the news that Pablo and I are doing a podcast, which can be found on the IFS website.

I am sure that there are many more interesting and informative podcasts than this, nonetheless here is ours, recorded and edited by a master of martial arts and dubbing, Jason Phelps. Among other things we discuss Harry Dean Stanton’s grave, embarrassing experiences at film festivals, Moviedrome, nuclear war themes in popular music, and Henry Fonda’s love child.

HDS_and_Visitor Harry Dean Stanton’s grave, Lexington, Kentucky

 

FROM THE ALMERIA WESTERN FILM FESTIVAL

This is a brief dispatch from Tabernas, Spain, where the ninth annual Western Film Festival is in progress. Four days of Western features, Westerns shorts, and Western-related events in and around the desert town where I used to live, and where so many great films were made.

And are there still Westerns? Yes indeed. The festival, directed by Eduardo Trias, who was once the director of the Huelva Film Festival, features films from the US, Argentina, France, Brazil, Spain, and Colombia. There are also a pair of documentaries – an Italian one about George Hilton, and a French one about Sergio Leone. I am a guest, screening STRAIGHT TO HELL (which was shot in this same desert, many years ago), and also honoured to be the recipient of the Premio Tabernas de Cine, which includes a handsome trophy, a stay in a delightful cabin in the Fort Bravo Western town, and – splendid to report – a chair with my name on it, on the road into town.

A chair may seem like a strange award, but in fact it is delightful – made of metal, bolted to the ground, it will last a lot longer than I will. And, most wonderful of all, my chair is next to the one awarded to last year’s guest, Claudia Cardinale. So on your next visit to Tabernas you can take your ease with me and Claudia. They are very comfortable!

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THE PARADE

The presentation of the chairs was proceeded by a march through town: locals and festival attendees dressed in the appropriate attire, covered wagons and stagecoaches, and four hundred children. If you have never seen four hundred children, dressed as cowboys and Indians, line dancing on the main street of a Spanish town, come to Tabernas for the Festival next year. It is a fantastic sight.

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THE CHAIRS

In addition to the two shown in the illustration, there are chairs for Terence Hill, George Martin, Enzo Castellari, Sara Montiel, and others who made films here. There is also live music (from Sarah Vista and the Chisum Cattle Co.), and a selection of Western-themed tapas in the local bars. And this morning, when I got up, they were shooting a new Western on the main street of Fort Bravo. I’ve no idea what it is, and the last thing film crews want is to be bothered by someone asking, “Hey, what’s the movie?” But if makes me very happy that Tabernas remains a desired location and that the finest form of cinema is still alive.

Especial thanks to Jose, the mayor of Tabernas, to Rafa, the director of Fort Bravo, and to the marvellous Cristina Serena, whose warmth and personal attention make the whole thing run so beautifully.

Gracias a todos. Gracias.

DODGING THE BULLET XII: PLAN A

The Science and Global Security Program at Princeton University have come up with a short video detailing the possible consequences of a “limited” nuclear exchange, such as the one envisioned by the Pentagon’s Nuclear Operations Report.

The vid is based “on independent assessments of current U.S. and Russian force postures, nuclear war plans, and nuclear weapons targets. It uses extensive data sets of the nuclear weapons currently deployed, weapon yields, and possible targets for particular weapons, as well as the order of battle…”

Words can’t adequately describe this simple four minute film. Please watch it.

DODGING THE BULLET XI: PENTAGON PLANS, & THE TREATY TO OUTLAW NUKES

An article on the Counterpunch site mentions a new Joint Chiefs of Staff report – JP 3-72 – which was briefly posted for public consumption on the Pentagon website. It concerns nuclear weapons, and the US military’s plans for using them.

The report was made available last week – then abruptly disappeared.

Fortunately the Federation of American Scientists had downloaded a copy and have made the Pentagon report available here.

Why not download a copy and have an enjoyable read?

Most of it is waffle and military/bureaucratic doublespeak, as you might expect. But explicit is the notion, expressed for the the first time in some decades, that nuclear weapons may be valuable assets in a “conventional” war. Much is made of the decision to go “NUDET” (the Pentagon’s charming acronym for “nuclear detonation”) being the President’s and his alone. Daniel Ellsberg demolishes that myth in his salutory book The Doomsday Machine.

All this is to make money, of course – there is a good report on which corporations, specifically, profit from nuclear weapons manufacture and suppport, here. The full title is Producing Mass Destruction: Private Companies and the Nuclear Weapon Industry. For Boeing, Lockheed, General Dynamics, Raytheon, Airbus, et al. the Obama/Trump nuclear weapons refurb (costing how much? 1.7 trillion?) and bipartisan support for more of the same, are wonderful things.

Perhaps not so for the rest of us. Natalye S. Baldwin writes a very sensible piece about American complacency in regards to nuclear weapons and the likelihood of nuclear war here. (Of course it is not only people in the U.S. who are complacent about this.) She writes:

“… Both the U.S. and Russia still have over 1,700 nuclear weapons combined on hair trigger alert. With so much antipathy, rancor and distrust having been recklessly stoked by the political class and much of the media toward Russia over relatively minor (and/or false) issues in the big picture – yes, they are minor in the big picture of a nuclear holocaust – don’t give a lot of reason for optimism…”

This invented hostility hostility towards Russia benefits who, exactly? The said nuclear contractors. The “intelligence” agencies, which were in serious disgrace, thanks to Snowden, Wikileaks, and others, prior to the Russiagate invention. The media and political assets of the above. Nobody else that I can think of gains anything from the nuclear weapons complex. We sacrifice our money, our land, and our futures to it, as if to a demon god. Even its “beneficiaries” cannot escape its consequences.

So I can be a little proud, as an Oregonian, that last week Oregon’s House of Representatives voted to approve Senate Joint Memorial 5 (SJM 5), which urges congress to lead a global effort to reduce the threat of nuclear war. Oregon is the the second state in the nation, after California, to pass such legislation in both chambers. The bill passed the Oregon Senate on May 20th. New Jersey’s Assembly has also passed a similar bill.

Meanwhile, eighty one countries have signed up for the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. The Treaty becomes international law – and nuclear weapons states international criminals – when fifty nations sign and ratify it. By March 2020, there were eighty one sign-ups, and thirty six ratifications.

The US and the other nuclear powers will do their best to prevent any of their satraps from ratifying the Treaty. But we are way past half way there! Among the countries which have signed and ratified are Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Austria, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, El Salvador, Bolivia, Palestine, Gambia, Uruguay, Thailand, and Vietnam. The most recent state to ratify is Namibia, which did so during the coronavirus emergency.

[Revised January 2020 to reflect eleven more signed-up countries, and nine more states ratifying the Treaty.]

[Revised again March 2020 to reflect Namibia and Paraguay ratifying the Treaty.]