Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Glourious Basterds: Stalin Goes from Uncle Nobody Talks About to Reformed Great Leader

While Hollywood continues to churn out films like Inglourious Basterds that seize the low-hanging fruit of Nazi condemnation, a mass consensus so air-tight only Islamo-fascist nutters like Mahmoud Ahmedinjad can escape it, there is a glaring hole in the epicenter of filmdom's oeuvre: Anti-communist cinematography.

It is in this vacuum that Oliver Stone steps in, ready to dispense wisdom on who Stalin really was, what his legacy is historically, and why middle America fails to understand his significance. Here is the Stoner in his own words:

“Stalin, Hitler, Mao, McCarthy — these people have been vilified pretty thoroughly by history," Stone told reporters at the Television Critics Association’s semi-annual press tour in Pasadena. (Stone would ramble on.)

"Stalin has a complete other story (to Hitler's)," Stone said. "Not to paint him as a hero, but to tell a more factual representation. He fought the German war machine more than any single person. We can't judge people as only 'bad' or 'good.' Hitler is an easy scapegoat throughout history and its been used cheaply. He's the product of a series of actions. It's cause and effect ... People in America don't know the connection between WWI and WWII ... I've been able to walk in Stalin's shoes and Hitler's shoes to understand their point of view. We're going to educate our minds and liberalize them and broaden them. We want to move beyond opinions ... Go into the funding of the Nazi party. How many American corporations were involved, from GM through IBM. Hitler is just a man who could have easily been assassinated." [End quote.]

It is good to see that Stone is "beyond good and evil." Deflating Stone's assertion that Stalin fought Nazism "more than any single person" is so easy any undergraduate history major worth his salt could do it by pointing to Stalin's purging of the officer corps in the late 1930s, Stalin's inability to anticipate the Nazi invasion that decimated his air corps, and his vainglorious and wasteful defense of Stalingrad (never mind a more critical account that poses that Stalin probably precipitated Hitler's invasion of Poland with the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop pact). So we should not be surprised if Stone's "artistic stance" turns out to rehabilitate Stalin (who despite Stone's implied assertion has never received a scathing indictment from Hollywood), while smearing American "capitalism" by tying particular corporations to the German Wehrmacht prior to World War II. Despite Stone's pretenses of intellectual sophistication, it is the same old tired "dirty hands" argument that implies that by trading with people who turn out to be evil, this make's one complicit or morally culpable in their evil-doing (despite Stone's objections to the good-evil paradigm).

But why should we care about conspiracy flake Oliver Stone's reinterpretation of World War II, from a point of view that would be the former KGB's wet dream? Because we might be on the cusp of a disturbing shift in Hollywood, from pervasive ignorance of the Soviet Union's track record of atrocities, to redemption and a subtle glorification of the "evil empire."

One might object that the dearth of anti-communist themes in American filmography is just Hollywood being cowardly Hollywood, always churning out fashionable tripe in the interest of making an easy buck. From this point of view, the Nazis are an easier target than communists in American mass culture, due largely (but not coincidentally) to a lack of reportage and historical criticism of communism. But this "that's just capitalism for you" criticism does not hold up to scrutiny, because what drives a healthy film culture is precisely the generation of controversy through stimulating and thought-provoking cinema based on unconventional wisdom.

With that claim in mind, what should we make of Hollywood's failure to address the black record of radical Islam? Though the film industry is showing self-congratulatory cowardice in its reticence to condemn the existential threat of Islam-inspired terrorism, this is more understandable than its dodge of the mountain of evidence that shows that communism is a brutal totalitarian system that leads to mass misery and deplorable human atrocities.

To begin with, the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism is comparatively recent, with only four decades of terroristic savagery, murder, and debauch under its belt, compared to about twice that period of time of human life under the communists' more routinized form of oppression. Yet thanks to the wonders of sub-standard (i.e., government-run) history education, many young Americans fail to recognize that the Muslim fanatics are pikers compared to communist regimes like the Soviets and even the rather festive Maoists. Terrorism, despite its spectacular flashes of barbaric brilliance, is a "weapon of the weak"; though it is more pyrotechnically appealing to the rare Hollywood breed with the moxie to address the subject, like those of the ever-more-wussified TV series 24. And to be fair to Hollywood, jihadists would get quite cranky if Pixar decided to do a cartoon version of Muhammad - The Pederast or The Satanic Verses.

Yet we may still see the occasional thrust into the issue of terrorism in Hollywood, though with the clumsiness of a pubescent boy copping his first feel. Even if we throw out laughable movies like the film-adaptation of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears we are still left wanting with the premises of faithful testosterone-driven flicks like Die Hard. After all, aren't the bad guys in the latter just particularly nasty capitalists from Germany? They could have thrown us a bone and at least given us the Baader Meinhof gang, or one of the Red Army Factions.

But we might be able to chalk up Hollywood's intermittent plunges into portrayals of terrorism to the phenomenon's naturally dramatic and intense nature. Admittedly, it takes a more sustained and perhaps even more droll form of ruthlessness to gather up dissidents and even hapless bystanders and ship them off to Siberian wastes to saw logs and starve to death, all set to the kitschy socialist-realist soundtrack of Devchata (The Girls). But that doesn't make the horrors of life in the gulag archipelago any less poignant or enthralling, if handled delicately.

Yet the American film industry has been more assertive with its handling of terrorism as a tactic, than with the fact that the preponderance of terrorism is committed by fanatical Muslims (and let us not fail to recognize that the vast majority of Muslims refuse to out their brothers in jihad). But let us temporarily forestall judgment on the film industry's spineless submission to Islam, while reserving the retort to those who actually idealize the noble savages to "go fly a kite." After all, we wouldn't want to disabuse Middle Easterners of the impression that life under Islam is anything but an idyllic paradise, and America no better than a disappointing "House of Sand and Fog."

Instead we shall take a look at Hollywood's penchant for anti-Nazi films and contrast how communists are portrayed (or not portrayed) in American cinema.

There is a long tradition of anti-Nazi filmography in the United States, beginning with the World War II blitz of war-time propaganda. Such films as Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator set the stage for a much-deserved antipathy toward Hitler, even as it preached themes that were ironically fascistic in nature (emotion should take priority over rationality; "greedy" self-interest should be subjugated to "the greater good," e.g.).

Anti-Nazi films reached their early summit with Casablanca, though the film only tangentially deals with themes related to Nazism. The rest of the period from the 1940s to the mid-1950s is marked by action-adventure films with Nazis typecast as the omnipresent "bad guys" - John Wayne films like The Sands of Iwo Jima and The Flying Leathernecks being quite iconic.

Anti-Nazi films and mass culture became more creative and even humorous beginning in the 1960s. From Kelly's Heroes (where the cast ironically used Russian T-34 tanks to simulate Tiger tanks, don't ask me where they got them) to Hogan's Heroes, which mocked the supposed ineptitude of the Nazis by conducting an espionage campaign right under the nose of Colonel Klink, the subject matter of Nazism was a more fertile topic for comedy, satire, and ridicule, as the dire threat of the Germans taking over Europe had begun to fade in Americans' memories.

There were still films in the 1960s that took on the Nazis with bravado and pro-American patriotism, "guy films" that gave rise to a new generation of stars like Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton, Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, James Garner, Donald Sutherland, and Steve McQueen. The signature anti-Nazi films between the 1960s and mid-1970s were the dramatic The Great Escape and the raucous The Dirty Dozen.

Beyond the typically stagnant 1970s, and the optimistic and frivolous 1980s, Hollywood again began to produce films that hit the Nazi record pretty hard. The premier anti-Nazi films since the 1990s were the bleak Schindler's List and the sweeping Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg's television series Band of Brothers also provided a visually stunning and compelling narrative to reseat the Nazis as perennial villains in the public's consciousness.

During this period, the filmography of anti-communist films has been like endangered leopards: sparse and spotty, to say the least. The closest approximation to an anti-communist genre America has is the numerous Vietnam films, which tend almost overwhelmingly to be critical of the country's involvement and cynical of war on the whole. The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, despite the whirrs of the bullets and bangs of stuff exploding, are nihilistic and brooding at their cores. And their lack of condemnation for the North Vietnamese is more glaring than a Clint Eastwood scowl.

Even in films where one would think the condemnation of communists is virtually built into the subject matter, such as The Killing Fields, which addressed the murderous regime of Cambodian communist dictator Pol Pot, the narratives tend to fall far short of outright finger-pointing. Much like the kindergarten-level taunt "he who points the finger has three pointing right back at him," films that take on communists usually insinuate that Americans are ultimately to blame for the Marxists' crimes against humanity.

The only other American film or television genre that one could argue has something like the presence of communist bad guys is the action-spy genre ala James Bond. Yet popular action-spy type films and television series of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Bond-film From Russia With Love and the TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., not only declined to cast Russians in the role of arch-villains, but they often placed them on the side of the U.S. through the positing of common supra-national criminal supergroup foes like S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and THRUSH! (In addition, we see the absence of Russian villains in the germane series The Saint, whose Robin Hood-like main character shared the same "steal from the rich to give to the poor" primary motivation as the Caucasian character who inspired Joseph Stalin's revolutionary nom de guerre "Koba.")

On the whole, Soviet arch-villains, if portrayed as villains at all, tend to be of the risible Boris and Natasha - "go get Moose and Squirrel" variety, or types difficult to take seriously like Irina Spalko of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There is a vast sucking abyss of the kind of damning exploration of the Soviet and the Maoist regimes that Hollywood has so hardily rendered up when addressing the Nazis.

More awkward for Hollywood to try to explain is why in the wasteland of anti-communist filmography, there are even films that are sympathetic to communists, and especially Russians. Movies like Stalingrad and Cross of Iron tacitly imply an idolization of Russian sacrifices, omitting that Russia would go on to occupy or control nearly half of Europe after World War II. In fact, Cross of Iron would close with the words of the communist Bertolt Brecht:

"Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again."

Brecht's quote can be taken to mean that the horrors of war will continue on since capitalism, and hence fascism, live on. This simplistic view omits that war is as old as human civilization, and it brushes aside the atrocities and war-mongering of communists themselves (such as the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1919).

Russian films of the 1990s, ironically, despite the Russian population's continuing deification of Stalin, have a much better track record of taking on communists (though few dare uncask the sarcophagus of Lenin to grapple with the dark skeleton inside). Films like Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun and Pavel Chukhraj's The Thief creatively condemn Stalin, most effectively while exploring tropes and metaphors. The absence of Stalin's figure in these films is used as a device to heighten his omnipresent power.

Yet there is no such equivalent to these films in American culture. What is the explanation for this apparently inexplicable gap in cinematographic coverage?

Let us put the two twentieth century brahma bulls of butchery, communism and Nazism, head-to-head in an attempt to draw out how presumably baffling this is. While it is widely acknowledged that the Nazis exterminated about 6 million Jews, and up to a million Slavs and gypsies, it is less known exactly how large a death toll they exacted on the world. If we take the rather simplistic view that the Nazis were responsible for all of World War II's fatalities, since it is irrefutable that they initiated the war, they can be pinned with approximately 50 million deaths worldwide. The Black Book of Communism, to cite one well-known source, shows that by the standards of the Nuremberg trial's definition of "crimes against humanity," the communists have doubled the Nazis on the evil quotient: Communist regimes can be held responsible for 100 million deaths.

So why are there almost no substantive anti-communist films in American cinema? Because the leftists that dominate mainstream culture forbid it. The Black Book of Communism provides the best explanation why:

"In the twentieth century...morality is not primarily a matter of eternal verities or transcendental imperatives. It is above all a matter of political allegiances. That is, it is a matter of left versus right, roughly defined as the priority of compassionate egalitarianism for the one, and as the primacy of prudential order for the other. Yet since neither principle can be applied absolutely without destroying society, the modern world lives in perpetual tension between the irresistible pressure for equality and the functional necessity of hierarchy.

It is this syndrome that gives the permanent qualitative advantage to Communism over Nazism in any evaluation of their quantitative atrocities. For the Communist project, in origin, claimed commitment to universalistic and egalitarian goals, whereas the Nazi project offered only unabashed national egoism. Small matter, then, that their practices were comparable; their moral auras were antithetical, and it is the latter feature that counts in Western, domestic politics. And so we arrive at the fulcrum of the debate: A moral man can have no "enemies to the left," a perspective in which undue insistence on Communist crime only "plays into the hands of the right" - if, indeed, any anticommunism is not simply a mask for antiliberalism (xvii).

American film would take a dangerous turn indeed if it were to go from overlooking the atrocities of communist regimes to pumping out revisionist histories rehabilitating narcissistic, megalomaniacal madmen like Joseph Stalin. If we can take anything away from this brief exploration of the lack of anti-communist films in this country, the rise of a new breed of cinema glorifying communists would not be coincidental, nor would it be the work of a handful of rogue leftists like Oliver Stone. The obliteration of communist atrocities in American mass culture has been willing and systematic. The socialist revisionism in film is being paved by propaganda in the classroom, such as Howard Zinn's The People's History of the United States, now a documentary to be aired on the GE-owned History Channel. The combination of the forces of historical revisionism and outright propaganda is extremely dangerous; taking volatile nations rocked by spiraling economic forces and pushing them into willing totalitarianism.

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