Friday, June 19, 2015

Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy, and the Whitewashing of the Civil War

Hmm, which to choose... such a hard choice
Each year, on January 19th, Robert E. Lee is honored with state holidays and celebrations as many cheer on one of America's most notorious traitors.  It is ever interesting that the many people who celebrate such treason are the first to wave a flag and accuse anyone who disagrees with them of not being a patriot.  If these same people knew of an American military officer who turned against America to fight for another country at war with America, they would surely call him a traitor but when it comes to Confederates, for reasons unknown, this never applies.  Robert E. Lee, make no question about it, was a traitor to the United States of America (he became the military leader of a rebellion against his native country) and we should not, in any way, celebrate this awful man or his legacy.

Now, of course, the whitewashing of the Civil War began the second the war ended and everyone had to scramble to pretend the war was about anything but slavery, despite the fact that they had said slavery was the direct cause multiple times in both secession declarations and speeches leading up to and during the war.  It was around this time that the Confederate generals began their public rehabilitation as well.  Robert E. Lee's rehabilitation took two forms:  One, convince the public that he was really against slavery and, two, explain to all us simple-minded modern folk that, back in the day, love of one's state was the equivalent of the love of one's country.  Both of these ideas have incredible legs on them and can be seen in full view in Ken Burns' overly praised, maddeningly un-probing (especially considering its length), practically Dunning School apologia documentary The Civil War in which historian Shelby Foote flings the same old cowpies about Lee and other Confederates while no one, least of all Burns, questions the authority of this.  Let's take on Lee's opposition to slavery first.

For a good look at how the whitewashing continues, here's the opening line of the section on Lee's views of slavery in the Wikipedia article on him: "Since the end of the Civil War, it has often been suggested Lee was in some sense opposed to slavery." Ah, yes, Lee was in some sense opposed to slavery, or at least it's been suggested.  Let's be perfectly clear on this point before going any further:  One is not opposed in some sense to slavery.  One is opposed to slavery or not.  There are few moral stances in the history of the world with as clearly cut lines of delineation as slavery.  It contains no shades of grey.  The fact that a sub-section about Lee's views on slavery starts out on such a wobbly foundation surely bodes poorly for what is to follow.  And, in fact, it does.  Wikipedia, as well as most every Lee/Confederate apologist out there, quotes the notorious "slave letter" that Lee wrote his wife on December 27, 1856.  The relevant passage:
...In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.
If this is proof of Lee opposing slavery, the apologists are in dire straits indeed.  First, we have Lee proclaiming that, yes, it's evil but, you know, probably worse for white people ("It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race").  After all, aren't the slaves better off ("The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically")?  Why, this whole slavery thing is just a means of teaching them to be better people ("The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things").  And, you know, it's all a part of God's plan ("How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence").  I'd lay down good, hard cash that if someone snatched up Lee and his family, shipped them off to another continent, separated them forever, beat them daily, and subjected them to 16 hour workdays all while changing their names and making clear to them every moment of every day that they were inferior to their captors, Lee wouldn't think it a merciful act of Providence designed to make him a better man.  That his tiny, wretched, logically-challenged brain could not see such an obvious hypocrisy is a good enough explanation as to why he's known for battles in war and not for battles of wits, of which he did not seem to have any.

That horrible, awful letter should be proof enough that this man couldn't think his way out of an ideological paper bag but the apologists also bring up Lee's illegal school for slaves on his Arlington plantation and, of course, the fact that his wife wanted to liberate them to send them back to Africa.  Of course, if he thought they were "immeasurably" better off here (remember how he said exactly that?), and he's not a racist, wouldn't he and his wife want to liberate the slaves and give them all equal rights to live and work here in America?  And the school?  Was it designed to give them a leg up in world of higher education when they left the plantation?  Of course not.  They, like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and other hypocritical slave owners, simply wanted smarter, literate slaves who could read letters, envelope addresses, and menus.

The three main arguments - the letter, the school, and the liberation and deportation - all work remarkably well in support of Lee being a racist and slavery supporter, not the other way around.  But that all pales in comparison to his "terrible choice."  Oh brother, deliver us all from the whitewashed "terrible choice."

The choice I'm referring to is, of course, the Shelby Foote endorsed bullshit that, oh, he wasn't fighting against slavery so much as fighting for Virginia.  Ahem.  When offered command by the president through his advisor Francis Blair, Lee replied, "Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?" Oh, that poor man!  Hey, look, Mr. Blair, I'd sacrifice the slaves, even though I think what's happening to them is ordained by God for their own good, but, I mean, come on, Virginia!

Robert E. Lee was given a choice:  Fight to end slavery, the involuntary capture and subjugation of a human being by another, or fight for Virginia.  He chose Virginia.  You may now commence vomiting.

Oh, and in case you missed it, when offered command he mentioned the slaves in his reply.  Right there at the start of the reply to Blair.  But, no, people, the war wasn't about slavery.  It was about State's Rights.  Isn't it interesting that the war was supposedly about some abstract ideal of state's rights as opposed to federalism and yet the Confederate states were granted far fewer rights than states under the U.S. constitution?  Hell, the Confederate states were even disallowed from abolishing slavery on their own.  If you read through it, you will find that the Confederate constitution , which mentions slavery repeatedly, is all about the power of the central government.  So much for states rights.  And if slavery wasn't the underlying cause, why on earth did Robert E. Lee acknowledge, right at the outset, that "sacrificing" the slaves would defuse the war?  That's what's so maddening about the whitewashing's persistence.  It's so easy to defeat and yet a low-information public just keeps on repeating its claims (and, again, Ken Burns' Civil War is a big part of the problem).

The whitewashing of the causes of the Civil War, its fight, and its aftermath (Reconstruction's history was almost entirely written by an embittered South whose views still predominate) must end and a good place to start is by throwing Robert E. Lee into the historical bin in which he belongs: the one marked for traitors, slavery apologists, and moral cowards.  There is nothing, repeat, nothing ethically or morally admirable about this man.  Nothing.  Let us finally put him in the proper historical perspective and stop celebrating his legacy at once.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

When Even the Basic Language of Cinema Eludes You

I often listen to or read pundit's reactions to movies that fill me with a sense of dread.  Dread because, much of the time, I get the feeling that so many of the learned chattering class understand little to nothing about how movies work.  Especially when it comes to movies acting as ideological lightning rods for one side or the other. Take Zack Beauchamp's dissection of American Sniper from this video on Vox (here's the whole idiotic thing).  It is, sincerely, one of the most wrongheaded dissections of a movie you will ever stumble across.  Within it is such a breathtaking lack of understanding of how cinema works, that I have to use it to get my point across because it's real.  In other words, we sometimes make analogies that take complex issues or ideas to their logical extreme because casting them in the extreme makes them easier to understand.  Here, Mr. Beauchamp has actually done that in reality so I don't have to make up any of it to get my point across. Let's begin.


The first sign of danger comes with this sentence, "but viewers of the movie may be surprised at the way it talks about the Iraq war in general.  From the very beginning of Kyle's military career, it's about a response to terrorism.  He joins the military after we see the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and we see his and his wife Taya's stunned reaction to 9-11."

To anyone who has seen the movie, this is immediately problematic and very manipulative.  On the one hand, the real Chris Kyle did join the military three months after the bombings.  That he didn't join up specifically because of them does not mean in any way that we shouldn't show him reacting to them as that clearly informs his character.  Also, the movie's main concern is the story of Chris Kyle, and since his feelings about terrorists are vitally important to that story, showing this and then showing him join the military is no great cinema sin.  In fact, it's a common device in which the action is reduced to what's important.  Where it gets manipulative is that last part where Beauchamp says, "He joins the military after we see the bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and we see his and his wife Taya's stunned reaction to 9-11" (emphasis mine).  Beauchamp, amazingly, in a video designed to point out manipulation and misinformation on the film's part, immediately manipulates and misinforms.  In the movie, as in real life, Chris was already in the military when 9-11 occurred but the way Beauchamp cleverly, and casually, puts the earlier bombings and 9-11 together, makes it seems like, in the movie, Chris joins after witnessing both of these events.  But this still isn't what I'm getting at.  Here's the biggest problem and the one sadly representative of how too many people approach the cinema in this day and age: Beauchamp thinks the movie is obligated to be an encyclopedia.  He implies that the movie should have given us every detail on what led to the invasion of Iraq.  Hell, he practically says it outright.

He mentions that the Kyles are married and, to quote him directly, "bam, shortly after that Kyle's at war in Iraq.  There's no intervening time spent on George Bush, weapons of mass destruction, or Saddam Hussein.  The implication that the viewer gets is that the invasion of Iraq was a logical response to 9/11."  He then gives us a timeline of what actually happened.  Whew, I was worried there that we'd never know.

For the record, and for anyone whose seen the movie, and for the rest of you who have ever seen a movie, of any kind, there is no such implication, there is simply truncated time.  It's kind of what movies do to avoid running times that stretch into thousands of hours.  There's no implication in Lawrence of Arabia, in the famous cut between the match and the sunrise, that after Lawrence blows out the match, a futuristic teleportation device whisks him away to the middle of the desert.  We understand, even though we don't see it, that papers were signed, preparations were made, he was transferred out of his current unit, transported to his new locale, given a contact, and on and on. And that rather than show all that, David Lean, the director, just took us to the desert. Well, at least, we get that.  Zack might not.

American Sniper is about the Navy Seals sniper Chris Kyle.  His feelings on terrorists and enemies in the battlefield play strongly into his character.  We're not seeing the cut from 9-11 to his wedding to Iraq to implicate a direct connection militarily, we're seeing it to help connect the dots for the character of Chris Kyle.  And here's what is finally so frustrating about all of this: it's pretty goddamned obvious.  Obvious to the point that to see it the way Zack Beauchamp sees it is, honestly, a little frightening.  What in God's name does he expect from movies?  Boyhood must have driven him mad ("The problem with Boyhood is that the filmmakers imply that he aged several years in only a couple of hours, without showing us every incremental increase in height, weight, and beard growth in that time. In actuality, it takes years! [goes to chart showing average growth rate of human male]").

Unfortunately, especially when anything "based on a true story" is a part of the bargain, people expect every detail of every moment to be documented, accurately, every time.  Do filmmakers imply things with edits and story choices?  Of course they do, just as director Clint Eastwood did in American Sniper.  He implied, with those very cuts Beauchamp is talking about, that Kyle saw the world in the blacks and whites of right and wrong.  I got that.  I'm going to give practically everyone else who saw the movie the benefit of the doubt and say they got it, too, because Eastwood communicated it so well.  Except Zack.  He didn't get it at all.  He shouted, "Hey, they're trying to say Iraq was involved in 9-11!"  No, Zack, they're setting up the character. [shakes head and mumbles, "Jesus H. Christ"]

Ever seen Patton?  It's a good biopic of General George Patton as portrayed brilliantly by George C. Scott.  If you take the movie at face value, the German military higher-ups believed that George Patton was running the entire Allied operation.  Every time you see the Germans, all they want to know is what Patton's up to.  I've thought about it long and hard, and I think the reason for that is because the movie's about Patton! Were it about Eisenhower, the filmmakers would have probably focused on conversations the Germans had about Ike.  Just a hunch.  Also, Patton is, in many ways, a despicable character but the movie isn't about how wonderful he was, it's about who he was, and that includes the megalomania.  American Sniper is about Chris Kyle's black and white world and his post traumatic stress.  It's not about the Bush administration, Kyle's own weird lies about bar fights, gas station shootings, and looter snipings, or the lack of connection between 9-11 and Iraq.  It's about Chris Kyle.  The documentary No End in Sight is about all that other stuff.  If Zack would like, he can check that out. Weirdly, it doesn't mention Chris Kyle, or Patton, at all.

Sometimes we want movies to say more than they do, I get that.  But can we at least stop calling movies out for simply following the goddamn basic language of cinema?  I really don't want to start sitting through 10,000 hour long movies because the Zack Beauchamps of the world don't get storytelling.  Movies these days are long enough as it is. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Facebook Conversation: Les Blank, Documentaries, and the Filmmaker's Ego


Doing a TCM writeup of YUM, YUM, YUM! A TASTE OF CAJUN AND CREOLE COOKING from 1990, done by the great Les Blank and damn am I hungry! Seriously, though, you just watch people cook and eat for thirty minutes (it's a short) and it's pretty captivating from start to finish. I really miss documentarians who knew how to take a simple subject and through their *UNOBTRUSIVE* observations, make it fascinating. Les Blank and his kind are sorely missed.
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  • Paul DionneBrian Doan and 2 others like this.
  • Greg Ferrara Also, wasn't joking up top, I'm super hungry now. Everything they make looks fantastic! And I'm including the frogs and the cow tongue.
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs
  • Greg FerraraAnd also, seriously, sooo sick of documentarians who constantly insert themselves into the movie. Blank is there with them the whole time but you only know it from hearing them say things like, "Les, taste this," or something. We don't get a goddamn one-liner filled monologue from Les at the start talking about how he was the weird kid in school who always wanted to try cajun cooking and finally decided to grab his camera and go down to Louisiana to try it. I mean, really, that kind of "making yourself more important than the subject" thing has become a fucking sickness with documentarians. Fucking watch Les Blank and take a goddamn lesson!
    Like · Reply · 1 · 12 hrs
  • Bill Ryan Did you ever see that Paul Williams documentary? If you haven't, don't. I think you'd have an aneurysm within the first ten minutes.
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs
  • Greg Ferrara I didn't but I love docs and lately (as in, the last five years or so) I get through only the first few minutes of most of them because, and I don't think I'm exaggerating here, the first ten minutes or so of at least half the docs out there are monologues by the documentarian about their journey to making the documentary. Jesus, fucking enough already!
    Like · Reply · 1 · 12 hrs
  • Bill Ryan That's exactly what happens in the Paul Williams movie, and in some ways it gets worse from there.
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs
  • Greg Ferrara I'll just save myself the trouble of an angry first ten minutes then and not watch it. I watched the Atari ET game doc about a week ago and barely made it through. The guy who made it thinks he's really funny and clever. The backstory of Atari was the only thing keeping me watching.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 12 hrs · Edited
  • Greg Ferrara Les Blank filming Cajuns cook frogs and crawfish for thirty minutes blows practically every doc I've seen in the 2000s out of the water.
    Like · Reply · 2 · 12 hrs
  • Bill Ryan And isn't that thing only an hour long?
    Like · Reply · 12 hrs
  • Greg Ferrara Yeah, it's around 70 minutes or so. It wasn't worth it but I liked seeing the old footage of the seventies and the history of the company.
    Like · Reply · 1 · 12 hrs
  • Greg Ferrara You learn to lower the bar with these things.
    Like · Reply · 2 · 12 hrs