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.

 

DODGING THE BULLET III: THE ENEMY

If you encounter news about nuclear weapons in one of the mainstream newspapers, or online, or see them mentioned briefly on TV, most likely the focus will be on Iran – which has no nuclear weapons – or on North Korea, which possesses fewer than ten.

We’re warned, by politicians and the mainstream media, of the great danger Iran poses (or would, if it had any nukes), and the existential threat we face from Kim Jong Il’s regime, and the need to maintain crippling economic sanctions against both countries. Think of the grave danger their nukes present! The Iranians have none. The North Koreans have eight, maybe, but no reliable delivery system. While the United States has four thousand viable nukes, almost two thousand of them on operational alert.

So we live in fear.

But fear of what? Fear of imaginary or hypothetical dangers? Or fear, perhaps, of our own political class and military-industrial complex — that they may not be able to maintain their “balance of terror” much longer, and that the nuclear war-fighting structure they have built with our money may yet end up being used.

A nuclear war sparked by accident, by a computer error, or through exasperation and in defense of “credibility” by fallible, not-too imaginative humans, is possible. An English government spokesman put it thus:

“North Korea seem to think possessing a nuclear
weapon makes them safe. In fact it’s the opposite.
Having a nuclear weapon makes them a target.”

That was the then-foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, commenting on a North Korean weapons test. But his statement applies to England too – a major nuclear target for her “enemies” because of her inventory of nukes and the presence of American military bases in the UK.

England’s nukes are aimed, one assumes, at Russia. The Russians know this (almost certainly they know more about English nuclear weapons and war-fighting plans than the English public does), and so they have presumably targeted air bases, power stations, and population centers in Britain, with thermonuclear bombs.

Rich nations which have substantial armed forces and face no danger of foreign military invasion. So they have brought danger on themselves, of an even worse kind, by developing nuclear weapons. As Strath observed, it might only take a dozen bombs to cause societal collapse, a small investment of Russia’s total nuclear capital.

Nuclear weapons invite war in three ways: by their use, by accident, and as targets for other nuclear weapons. As the British foreign minister said, possession of nukes invites preemptive strikes by one’s enemies.

Why do we have enemies? On a personal level I have very few, in fact I cannot think of one. If I encounter people of whom I don’t approve, I move on. There are so many nice people in the world! Why do nations have to have enemies? It might be argued that nations are not people, and can’t be dealt with on the same terms. I would agree: part of the problem is when societies fall for the notion of national “character” and end up acting like a bully or the neighbourhood sociopath.

President Kennedy said:

“No government or social system is so evil that its people
must be considered as lacking in virtue. In the final analysis…
we all breathe the same air… and we are all mortal.”

No nation is inherently bad. When politicians expend energy demonizing a foreign country, intelligence agents and media concubines go to work. Destabilization campaigns – like many government projects – take on a life of their own, and continue long after the politician who initiated them is dead, or in prison. Consider US Caribbean policy: the overthrow of the governments of Cuba, or Nicaragua, were long term projects with military and political support, involved alliances with drug dealers and other mafiosi, and required many media hours and written pieces demonizing the small country’s government, and by extension the country itself.

Fortunately neither Nicaragua nor Cuba was or is a hair-trigger-alert nuclear power. Let us consider Russia: a larger nation with vast resources and its own industrial base. Russia has a much smaller military than the United States, but compensates by possessing nuclear weapons equal to those of the Americans, and 25 times larger than anybody else’s.

Who threatens Russia? Only the United States. And the US’s allies in NATO – nuclear powers Britain and France, plus Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, who store American nukes, plus Poland and the new NATO countries bordering Russia, where the US “Strategic Defense Initiative” is being deployed.

Who does Russia threaten? All of the above, presumably.

Who else do the US and NATO threaten? Pretty much every other country in the world, in the light of the Bush Doctrine, by which President George W. Bush reserved the right to use any and all weapons, preemptively, against any adversary. But this was likely always the case.  And in reality the US and NATO are unlikely to attack Venezuela, or Argentina, or most other countries, with atom bombs. China is a different case, given her great size and economic power, and her territorial claims to Taiwan and elsewhere, which the US disputes. China has a slowly-growing nuclear weapons force, not on hair-trigger alert. China’s possession of nukes is presumably for “credibility” – possessing 200+ nuclear weapons of her own, she is less likely to submit to nuclear blackmail, even by a greater power.

Who threatens Israel, possessor of 80 to 100 nukes? A current nuclear threat to Israel is hard to conceive of. Will other Middle Eastern states acquire nukes to counter a perceived Israeli advantage and assert their “credibility”? Saudi Arabia has close ties to Pakistan and its nuclear-armed military. While western journalists focused on Iran, the Emirates have been developing their own nuclear power capability.

Who threatens India, and Pakistan? Both countries have similarly-sized arsenals, with which they threaten each other. In October 2015, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aitzaz Ahmad Chaudhry said Pakistan was prepared to use “tactical” nukes in a conflict with India. And in April 2016, the Indian Army conducted massive war games – designed to counter nuclear bomb attacks – in the desert bordering Pakistan.

It all sounds so terrible and doom-laden… until you step back and realize that we are only talking a handful of nations here. Some very big nations are included, but there still aren’t very many nuclear-weapons powers.

The majority of countries do not own nuclear weapons and don’t seek to acquire them. It’s possible to be a highly successful and productive nation state without them: Canada, Scandinavia, Japan, Brazil and South Korea all manage this.

“Ah, but Japan and South Korea are protected by the US nuclear umbrella!” This theory as threadbare as the nuclear triad theory or the domino one. Who threatens Japan and South Korea? Presumably China and North Korea. Has the US “umbrella” prevented China and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, or has it encouraged them to do so?

In every case, acquiring nukes or basing your policy around their use makes you a target. It does exactly what you don’t want — it encourages your enemies to acquire nuclear bombs.

Two last ditch arguments in favor of nuclear weapons: Rogue States, and Terrorism.

Kim Ryan and I went to see the Conservative Party shadow defense minister back in New Labour days. He bought us a canteen lunch in the House of Commons and we asked him why London wouldn’t show the way by dumping Trident, taking the high road, saving a lot of money, etc. His answer: “Saddam.” That was the official thinking. What if some foreign dictator got their own nuke, and we had none? They could blackmail us!

This was not profound. It is still very difficult to create a nuclear bomb. This is one reason only national governments with advanced technology have them. Satellites and other intelligence operations give intelligence agencies a very good idea of what is going on, all over the world. It would be impossible for a “rogue state” to develop a nuclear weapons industry from scratch, in secret (unless they already have a nuclear power industry, in which case it’s much easier — as we shall see). And if some foreign tyrant were able to secretly build a nuclear bomb, he or she would still need a delivery system for it to reach its target.

But what if “Saddam” succeeded? What if his boffins built a dirty bomb, and brought it over in a shipping container, and exploded it in one of our cities, like in that Ben Afflick movie, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS? Well, it would be horrible – much worse than the Hollywood nuclear-terror-lite Ben had to stumble through. But it would be a one-off. And the retaliation against the perpetrator state (even absent nukes, the US military would still be the world’s largest, by a massive proportion) would be devastating, non-nuclear or not.

What about nuclear terrorism, then? What if terrorists built a bomb?

Again, building an atomic bomb is very difficult. A greater danger is that a nuke might be stolen, or acquired on the black market — something which can’t happen once they are decommissioned. And again, how does possession of nukes prevent one from being attacked with nukes? In the event of a terrorist attack, possession of nukes by the victim state is a propaganda victory for the terrorist, underlining the nuclear power’s impotence — how can it respond proportionately, using its nuclear might, against a non-state actor?

Nukes are city-busting weapons. They are inappropriate and useless against small networks of individuals who don’t stay in one place or respect borders.

To raise the rogue state or terror argument is to make the case for nuclear disarmament.

(Today the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced it was moving the hands of its “doomsday clock” half a minute closer to midnight.)

 

ADDENDUM TO PART II

Re. Trident

The press has just reported a June 2016 attempt to fire a Trident missile off the coast of Florida, which went catastrophically wrong. The Vanguard-class nuclear submarine, HMS Vengeance, fired a nuclear-capable missile in the direction of West Africa. But a computer malfunction sent the Trident missile in the opposite direction, towards the US mainland. The test was aborted, and the missile destroyed.

Trident missiles cost 17 million pounds apiece, so HM Government doesn’t test them very often.

The Guardian defense correspondent, Ewen MacAskill, writes (Jan 22 2017), “the case made by proponents of the nuclear weapon is that any attack on the UK will result in inevitable retaliation. The whole basis of the argument is undercut if the UK cannot guarantee that it is capable of hitting the right target or even the [right] country.”

HOLLYWOOD AND HITLER

The Guardian reports on a new book by Harvard professor Ben Urwand detailing active collaboration between the Hollywood studios and Hitler’s Nazis. Alarmed by the Nazi reaction to ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (perhaps the only anti-war movie a Hollywood studio ever made), and worried about profits from screenings in Germany, American studio heads – many of them recent eastern European Jewish refugees – enthusiastically worked with Hitler’s censors to alter films or even cancel productions entirely in order to protect access to the German film market. All the studios were guilty, though MGM was the worst, using its tied-up Deutschmarks to invest in the German arms industry.

It’s a disgusting story which I can’t wait to read in full: entirely credible if you’ve had any dealing with the Hollywood studios or their London branch offices, where censorship, appeasement and collaboration have always been the order of the day. The story is also suitably ironic in that it follows another Guardian article – published only a month ago – entitled Be Nice To China, which details the Hollywood studios’ current grovelling to the Beijing regime: self-censorship, re-editing films to remove offensive references to China, and including shots of the glittering skyline of Shanghai. Among recent (and upcoming) studio films re-edited to please the Chinese government are DJANGO UNCHAINED, RED DAWN, IRON MAN 3, WORLD WAR Z, and TRANSFORMERS 4.

I don’t mean to suggest an offensive parallel between the Chinese government and Hitler’s Nazis. But both regimes were/are anti-democratic, and opposed to the freedoms we supposedly fight and die for (especially the freedom not to watch another TRANSFORMERS or Tarantino movie). It’s entertaining to read how the Chinese pay no attention whatsoever to our most important freedom of all – “free trade” – and limit the screening of foreign films in China to 34 films a year. The only way to circumvent the trade restraint (long ago abolished in “free” countries like Britain and Mexico, which are as a result swamped with American film and TV garbage) is to make your film a co-production with Chinese producers: censorship requirements apply in either case.

So it goes, when big corporate money is the only thing that matters and film is no longer treated as a personal statement, or an art.

Many thanks to Jerry Donaghy for the copy of Harry Harrison’s original Plague From Space. I’ve read it and am preparing a comparative essay on this and the subsequent Jupiter Plague, for your and his entertainment. One immediate observation: paperback books in the 1960s had much better cover art than in the 1980s. Why?

Meanwhile, modesty forbids me from sharing this review with you. It’s of a little book I wrote about the parallel lives of President Kennedy and his alleged assassin. It comes out next week in the US, courtesy of Feral House, and in the UK in November. The title is The President and The Provocateur.