Tuesday, August 15, 2017

'In the Heat of the Night' & '99 Homes': Exploring Rage In America Though Film

Sidney Poitier & Rod Steiger's characters bid
farewell in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night
Back in late March, just before his brilliant 1967 film In the Heat of the Night was set to open the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood on April 6th, director Norman Jewison sat down with journalist Stephen Galloway to reflect back on the making of the movie for an interesting article published in The Hollywood Reporter. 

On the 50th anniversary of his Oscar-winning masterpiece, Jewison marveled at how relevant his examination of race in America still is today - as he observed:

"I can't believe it's been 50 years. It's amazing how people are telling me, 'You know, that film plays today just as well as it did then.' But I say, 'That's sad. To still have that kind of racial confrontation in America, that's sad.'"

Considering the unrest in Charlottesville last Saturday, the film remains as relevant as ever.

Jewison shared some insights in Galloway's THR article that film buffs would find interesting.

Like the fact that his first inclination was to approach actor Harry Belfonte for the role of African-American detective Virgil Tibbs, but because producer Walter Mirisch had previously cast Sidney Poitier as the lead in the 1963 classic Lilies of the Field (for which he became the first African-American to win Best Actor) Jewison agreed to meet with Poitier - as he told Galloway:

"I met with Sidney and he was so intelligent that I thought he would be brilliant. They wanted me to use George C. Scott [as Sheriff Gillespie], another actor who was very powerful, but I held out for Rod Steiger, I knew Rod was a Method actor. I felt like it would help, to tell you the truth, because Steiger looked like a redneck sheriff."

It was a choice that paid off, Steiger won the Best Actor Oscar, one of five In the Heat of the Night won including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.

In a sad reflection of the times (the film was shot in 1966), Poitier agreed to do the film but told Jewison he didn't want to shoot on any locations in the south because he and Belafonte had had a frightening experience where a car they were in was chased and they were threatened in Georgia.

Larry Gates, Poitier & Steiger in the infamous "Slap Scene"
So most of the film was shot in southern Illinois near the Mississippi River across from Missouri, except for two days of shooting near cotton fields in Dyersburg, Tennessee for the brilliant scenes when Poitier and Steiger's characters Virgil Tibbs and Sheriff Gillespie drive out to visit the wealthy plantation owner Mr. Endicott - brilliantly played by actor Larry Gates.

The scene where Endicott slaps Tibbs and Tibbs slaps him back was pretty intense for 1966 given the tense racial climate of the time - it was a pretty daring, and powerful, choice in terms of the screenplay and the director.

In late 1966 or early 1967 once shooting was done, Jewison happened to meet Bobby Kennedy while vacationing in Sun Valley, Idaho and he described the film to the then-presidential candidate.

Kennedy told him he thought it would be an important film and observed that, "Timing is everything, in politics and in art and in life itself."

Speaking of timing...

On Sunday night after finishing my previous blog about the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, I watched the 2015 film 99 Homes for the first time on DVD.

I found that it helped me to step back and think more deeply about the deep-seated anger and rage driving the Neo-Nazis, KKK members and members of the alt-right who participated in the Unite the Right rally last weekend.

99 Homes just happened to be the next film in my Netflix DVD list, but I found the story's exploration of the rage currently felt by many everyday Americans (of all races and ethnicities) in the wake of the mortgage crisis to be both timely and relevant to the events that unfolded in Charlottesville.

As a screenwriter, I was taught that all good films are rooted in conflict; as the brilliant screenwriting teacher Robert McKee taught me (and many others) years ago, conflict drives the story.

It's the choices the character's must make in the face of that conflict that shape the story and define the film.

In Star Wars Luke decides to join Obi-Wan Kenobi and learn the ways of The Force, in The Godfather Michael Corelone decides to join the family business to help his injured father - you get the drift.

Good films, good screenplays, turn on those character choices - they propel the story off into exciting, unforeseen and sometimes unpredictable directions.

That essential character choice drives both In the Heat of the Night, and 99 Homes, but at the core, I think both films are vehicles for the exploration of rage that affects millions of people.

As director / writer Ramin Bahrani observed in an NPR interview with Kelly McEvers back in September of 2015, 99 Homes is a morality tale, or as he calls it " a deal with the devil film" that examines the question - what would someone do get what they want or protect the one's they love?

Actor Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, The Amazing Spiderman, Hacksaw Ridge) plays Dennis Nash, a Florida construction worker who loses his job in the midst of battling a bank foreclosure on his home - which he put up as equity for an $85,000 loan he can't pay back.

Dennis Nash hugs his mom as they're thrown out
of their house in 99 Homes
In a heartbreaking scene in the 1st act that's almost scarier than a horror film because it's a real scenario, a ruthless real estate broker played by Michael Shannon comes to the Nash home with two sheriffs and a small crew of laborers to serve him his eviction papers and remove Nash, his son and his mother (played by Laura Dern) from their long-time family home.

The family of three have nothing packed and are given minutes to throw some things in Dennis' pickup truck before being forced to watch as the laborers carry everything they own out onto the front lawn as the neighbors stand by watching in horror.

After they find a motel to stay in that's populated by other families who've been evicted from their homes, Dennis goes to confront the laborers who removed his things over some missing tools, he finds himself being offered a job by the same real estate agent who evicted him the day before.

Desperate for money, he makes the devil's deal and the film follows his growing moral dilemma as he gets deeper and deeper into the shady business of making profit off people whose homes have been foreclosed on in an effort to get his family home back.

99 Homes is very much an updated modern take on Italian Neorealist director Vittorio De Sica's 1949 classic film that explores post-World War II Rome, The Bicycle Thief  with it's theme of a young son who looks with scorn upon a desperate father trying to stave off economic ruin who turns into the very thing he despises in a heart-rendering effort to get back what was taken from him.

(If you're interested I blogged about De Sica's 1952 masterpiece Umberto D and the Italian Neorealism movement back in September of 2016)

A familiar sight in America in 2008 - 2012
Director Ramin Bahrani's excellent script dives deep into the various ways that millions of average Americans were preyed upon and pushed to the boundaries of economic ruin as a result of the unchecked greed of the Big Banks who extracted trillions in profit and tanked the economy by gambling with people's mortgages like casino chips.

Only to be bailed out by the same taxpayers whose lives and savings they decimated because they were deemed "too big to fail".

Watching some of the characters in 99 Homes, I could see how the anger, loss and sense of helplessness they felt could drive some people to seek dark outlets to vent their rage.

Against society or, as in the case of James Alex Fields who joined other white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia before he plowed a car into a group of innocent people, injuring 19 and killing a 32-year-old woman - venting their rage against people who don't look or worship like them.

As more information is revealed about Fields, we've learned that his father died before he was born and until very recently he'd been living with his mother in an apartment in Kentucky where they'd moved from Ohio so she could find work.

He joined the Army in August of 2015, perhaps to find purpose or direction, but four months later he was discharged for failing to meet the physical requirements of basic training.

According to various media accounts he'd been most recently working as a security guard, so like millions of Americans he was probably harboring a degree of resentment working a job which probably didn't pay well, or come with benefits like health care.

Apparently he found some solace or sense of purpose with other angry young white supremacists and Neo-Nazi's who were, or felt, disenfranchised from a society which didn't seem to value them; or validate their fragile sense of self.

Thousands of KKK members march on Washington
August 8, 1925
But the idea that scapegoating Jews, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, LGTBQ folks, immigrants, Muslims and liberals as the cause of their perceived problems is just as outrageous as the senseless acts of violence many of them came to Charlottesville to commit.

Historically, America has always seen a spike in racism and white supremacist activity during times of economic crisis, as in the 1920's when KKK membership soared nationwide  - more than 50,000 KKK members paraded in Washington, D.C. on August 8, 1925.

An event that coincided with the U.S. economy beginning to spiral downwards towards the collapse of the stock market, massive unemployment nationwide and the Great Depression.

Sadly, we're seeing that trend towards rage as an outlet, and the normalization of hatred, repeat itself.

As wages remain stagnant, disparity in wealth is as high as its ever been, and the kinds of good paying manufacturing, assembly and heavy industry jobs that once helped the working and middle classes prosper in American, slowly disappear.

Lost to other countries with lower labor costs, or to technology and efficiency that requires less and less manpower; and left holding the bag are millions of disenfranchised Americans of all races, ethnecities and religious backgrounds.

99 Homes director Ramin Bahrani
While some find ways to enter new fields of employment, and some retrain for new careers or learn new skill sets to adapt to the 21st century economy, and some accept what they can get and find ways to cope with the help of family and friends, a small but significant fraction of those people have turned to hate.

Films like In the Heat of the Night and 99 Homes can help us understand where some of that rage comes from, but not enough to explain what we saw in Charlottesville.

Not by a long shot.

As director Ramin Bahrani observed during his NPR interview:

"it doesn't matter what side of the economic spectrum you're on, people are angry. They're angry about banks, they're angry about the government, they're angry about why is it that no matter how hard they work they're not getting anywhere?  They're angry about why is it that they have part-time jobs that don't have benefits? They're angry about so many things. And that's a global anger. And I don't think this is going away. This is just going to be escalating over time."          

Despite the overheated rhetoric of the Unite the Right protesters about "heritage", that rally wasn't about some musty old statue of Robert E. Lee - that rally was about something much darker and far more dangerous.

We as a society, along with our political leadership had better start figuring out what that is and how to confront it - or reality, as we saw in Charlottesville last Saturday, is going to start looking a lot stranger and more dangerous, than any fiction we see on a movie screen.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Out From Under the Rock: Tragedy In Charlottesville

A KKK member at Saturday's Unite the Right rally
As an American who loves his country deeply and cherishes the right to Freedom of Expression enshrined in the First Amendment, few incidents have been as stomach-churning, repulsive and contrary to American values as the display of racism, hatred and violence that erupted in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday.

It could be argued that the vile sickness of white supremacy the world witnessed has its origins in the same state where scores of Neo-Nazis, KKK members and alt-right bigots gathered to unleash their fury yesterday.

It was just about 132 miles southeast of Charlottesville that Dutch traders first sailed up the James River with a group of about 19 African slaves seized from a Spanish ship, and brought them to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619.

Those Africans, brought there to augment the labor force of indentured white servants working to clear land for England's Chesapeake Bay colonies, were just a small portion of the 10 to 12.5 million African men, women and children estimated by the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database to have been kidnapped and transported to North, Central and South America and the Caribbean between the 15th and 19th centuries.

As the fledgling nation's agricultural economy expanded, the need for enslaved African labor exponentially increased, spawning an ideology of white supremacy used, in part, to justify the massive contradiction of a country founded on lofty principles of democracy and religious freedom being built on a foundation of enforced human bondage and suffering that would last over 250 years.

The ideology of white supremacy was necessary to maintain and rationalize not only the institution of slavery, but also the systematic destruction of Native American culture and the marginalization of immigrants.

But even after the abolitionist movement expanded to America from England, even after an estimated 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, even after Jim Crow, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Women's Suffrage movement, the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, the Korean War, the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War - even after all of that, the ideology of white supremacy has festered in this country.

Chief Justice Roger Taney
Of course numerous examples of the U.S. justice system being a willing ally of this ideology throughout the course of American history abound.

There are numerous cases of courts justifying the seizure of Native American lands and the repeated violations of treaties negotiated between various tribes and the U.S. government.

In The People of the State of California v. George W. Hall in 1854 the Supreme Court of California ruled that Hall, a white man convicted and sentenced to death for murdering a Chinese miner named Ling Sing, could not be convicted because Chinese Americans or Chinese immigrants (like blacks and Native Americans) did not have the right to testify against white citizens in a court of law.

Hall had been convicted based on the testimony of three Chinese witnesses.

More famously in 1857, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, writing for the 7-2 majority, ruled that Dredd Scott (an African-American slave who sued his owner Irene Emerson for his freedom after she refused his offer to purchase the freedom of him and his wife Harriet Robinson) had no right to sue in court because "a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S], and sold as slaves" could not be be a citizen regardless of whether he was free.

The Dredd Scott Decision as it came to be known, emboldened southern slave owners who were fearful of the growing abolitionist movement and it served as a landmark moment in the opposition to slavery in the north - it also sparked the Secessionist movement that led to the Civil War five years later in 1862.

More recently, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, the Republican Party has unapologetically and repeatedly tapped into the toxic vein of white supremacy to sew racial divisions as part of a "divide and conquer" strategy used to leverage political power and economic gain.

It was even given the more easily-digestible term "Southern Strategy", which was used by both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in an effort to lure white voters who'd traditionally supported the Democratic Party by using race as a wedge issue.

So while the ideology of white supremacy has been interwoven into the fabric of American history and Donald Trump alone cannot be held responsible for the riots that gripped Charlottesville on Saturday, he none the less "owns" those riots.

From the moment he opened his 2016 presidential campaign by accusing Mexican immigrants of being rapists and drug dealers, he openly tapped into and sought to cultivate, racism and bigotry.

Trump with Neo-Nazi advisor Sebastian Gorka
The central theme of his campaign was rage and fear - the persons to blame for the woes of his support base were always immigrants and people with dark skin.

Not only did he re-tweet statements from known Neo-Nazis and white supremacists, he made some of them his closest advisors in the White House.

Individuals like counterterrorism advisor Sebastian Gorka, whose alignment with Vitézi Rend, a Hungarian Neo-Nazi group, prompted 55 members of Congress to send a letter to Donald Trump urging that he fire the anti-Semite from his staff - calls echoed by various Jewish groups as well as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Or there's senior strategist Steve Bannon who almost single-handedly made Brietbart News a haven for rage-filled white nationalist alt-right haters.

There's also Stephen Miller, a brooding anti-immigrant peddler of bigotry whose personal ethnic and racial bias was on full display during a contentious exchange with CNN's Jim Acosta that made headlines just last week.

Take a few minutes to check out Scott Johnson's article on Miller that was published in the March 29th issue of the Hollywood Reporter - Johnson interviews members of the Santa Monica Synagogue, the progressive temple that Miller's family belonged to when he graduated from Hebrew School back in 2001.

Anti-immigrant zealot Stephen Miller 
As Johnson reported, a number of Jewish people in Los Angeles, including many of his former classmates, are alarmed at Stephen Miller morphing into the face of Trump's anti-immigrant hysteria and bigotry - repulsive traits he was demonstrating back in high school.

Johnson notes that a broad cross-section of Jews in LA recently formed Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ), a non-profit formed in response to the Trump administration's executive actions to put harsh restrictions on Muslims seeking to immigrate to the US.

It's the people like Gorka, Bannon and Miller (and there are others) who surround Trump that have made appealing to white supremacist ideology a central plank of his presidency who bear responsibility for creating the kind of environment where members of the KKK and Neo-Nazis openly tout their support for Trump.

Former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke, who attended the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville on Saturday, actually told reporters that the riot was part of an effort to bring Trump's calls to "take America back." into fruition.

As you know by now, those efforts turned downtown Charlottesville into a scene of violence and death as protesters and anti-racist counter-protesters engaged in periodic fights; some witnesses say police stood and watched when fighting broke out between both groups before the start of the rally around 11am.

A 20-year-old man named James Alex Fields drove a Dodge Challenger into a group of anti-racist counter-protesters at a high rate of speed, injuring 19 people and killing 32-year-old Charlottesville resident Heather Heyer before he attempted to flee the scene.

Vanguard America terrorist James Alex Fields 
According to New York Times article Fields attended the protest as part of Vanguard America, a white supremacist group founded on the belief that "a government based in the natural law must not cater to the false notion of equality."

As the Anti-Defamation League reports, Vanguard America (VA) is an organization comprised mostly of 18 to 24-year-old white men.

According to the ADL the group is aligned with the Neo-Nazi National Front and has been targeting young white men on college campuses and leaving anti-Semitic flyers and stickers at Jewish centers and places of worship.

On July 2nd they hung a banner at a Holocaust memorial in Lakewood, New Jersey.

Tragically, two Virginia State Police officers were also killed when the helicopter they were piloting in the area went down as they were monitoring the riots.

What makes the whole affair even more tragic is the fact that once again, Trump refused to condemn the white supremacists who came from different parts of the country (some armed with semi-automatic rifles).

He had the nerve to trot out his rarely-seen wife Melania to issue a generic statement against violence.

And more troubling, Trump refused to call Fields using his vehicle to try and kill people a terrorist act; when Islamic terrorists mowed people down in London he was quick to call it terrorism.

A young girl holds a "Hate has no
home here" sign on Saturday
But he's yet to say anything about the bombing of the Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center in Bloomington, Minnesota eight days ago.

The void of leadership from the White House and Department of Justice in response to violence by white supremacists during this administration has been glaring and disturbing.

The pain of losing my father to cancer when I was 28-years old remains the most difficult experience of my life.

Born in the segregated south in a rural North Carolina farming community in 1932, he was only 64 years-old when he died - almost a year to the day of his retirement after a long career as an executive with the Boy Scouts of America.

Throughout his life my father had to fight entrenched racial discrimination as a student, professional and family man to achieve the success he obtained.

While I often tell my friends whose parents are still living that I'd give anything to spend just a few minutes talking with my father, I'm glad he's not here to see what's become of the country he loved and proudly served as a soldier.

I'm thankful he's not here to have seen racial hatred crawl out from under the rock and roam the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia in broad daylight leaving injury and death in its wake.

To me it's a relief that he's not here to see the results of a presidency that has made it a policy to try and normalize the fringe views of those who hate others based on their religion, ethnicity or skin color.

A White House aligned with ignorance rather than enlightenment, and hatred rather than love.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A 'Seriously Sick Psyche': Trump's Self-Created Wars

Are North Koreans really threatened by Guam,
an island located 3,000 miles across the Pacific?
To paraphrase an observation I read on Twitter earlier this morning, say what you want about President Obama, no one ever lost sleep worrying about the possibility of war with North Korea.

Trump's erratic statements spooked U.S. financial markets this week even as the Wall Street Journal's Spencer Jakab insisted this morning that markets traditionally ignore North Korea's provocations.

But analysts Gareth Leather and Krystal Tan of the subscription-based independent economic research company Capital Economics warned of the dire global economic consequences of a military conflict on the Korean peninsula.

To say nothing of the impact on Korean civilians who would inevitably be caught in the crossfire, as well as the servicemen and women, on both sides, whose lives would be lost based on little more than empty hot-air rhetoric - and vague threats against Guam, an island located 3,000 miles away from Korea.

Why can't the erratic POTUS just let the North Korea-thing cool down to allow State Department officials, foreign affairs experts and our Asian allies in the region to use diplomacy and negotiation to calm tensions and forge international consensus on a resolution?

It's increasingly clear to most observers that Trump's belligerence, overreaction to North Korean rhetoric and unchecked Twitter attacks on his own allies are evidence of a man willing to do anything he can to distract attention from special counsel Robert Mueller's expanding investigation into Russia's interference into the 2016 presidential elections.

Just consider the past 48 hours; which includes Trump actually thanking Vladimir Putin for expelling hundreds of American diplomatic staff from Russia.

Yesterday Trump openly criticized Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the latest in a series of attacks this week, not only trying to blame the Republican-majority Senate for the fact that not one of Trump's major legislative policy initiatives has been passed - but also insinuating that McConnell should step down from his leadership position.

Mitch McConnell addressing a Rotary Club
meeting back in May
McConnell was back in his home state meeting with constituents at a local Rotary Club in Florence, Kentucky on Monday when he suggested that the stalled White House agenda is largely a result of Trump's own chaotic behavior and his total lack of understanding about how things work on Capitol Hill.

"Now our new president, has of course, not been in this line of work before and I think had unrealistic expectations about how quickly things happen in the democratic process. "

"So part of the reason I think people think we're underperforming is because too many kind of artificial deadlines unrelated to the reality of the complexity of legislating many not have been fully understood."

"May not have been fully understood" is an epic understatement where 45 is concerned.

Now I may not always agree with McConnell on policy issues or personal politics, but he's a man of decency and tact - and I think his comments about Trump were about as direct a rebuke to the White House from the Senate that we've seen in quite some time.

As Leigh Ann Caldwell and Andrew Rafferty reported earlier this afternoon for NBC News, some of the Republican Senate's heavy hitters all released statements of support for McConnell via Twitter, so there's little question McConnell's comments echo the feelings of the entire Senate chamber.

And not just current Republican senators either, former Senators have had enough as well.

This morning Vox.com reported that former New Hampshire Republican Senator Gordon Humphrey, who called Trump a "sociopath" in 2016, published an open letter on Thursday in which he implored New Hampshire congressional representatives to back legislation known as the Oversight Commission on Presidential Capacity Act.

Former New Hampshire Senator Gordon Humphrey 
The act, known as H.R. 1987, was introduced in Congress back in April by Maryland Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin and has a number of prominent Democratic co-sponsors.  

It would establish a commission of 11 bi-partisan members of the House and Senate to determine if the president is mentally fit to carry out the duties of his office.

Humphrey tried to block Trump's presidential nomination in 2016.

As Vox reported, Humphrey also sent an open letter to the Concord Monitor in which he said, in part:

"Donald Trump is impaired by a seriously sick psyche. His sick mind and reckless conduct could consume the lives of millions...We cannot leave our national security and our families' safety in the hands of a president whose poor judgement, belligerence, vindictiveness and reckless impetuosity constitute an indictment of his mental health."

Listening to Trump's comments about McConnell and overheated rhetoric on North Korea this week has given even Trump supporters (like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) pause to wonder about POTUS' mental stability.

Recent poll tracking data from RealClearPolitics shows that his approval rating continues to trend lower while his disapproval rating edges higher.

Former CNN commentator Jeffry Lord
And one of his most ardent mainstream media supporters, former CNN commentator (and resident Trump apologist) Jeffrey Lord was fired by the cable network on Thursday after using the words "Sieg Heil!" in a Twitter response to Media Matters president Angelo Carusone.

Words which normally accompany the Nazi salute and only give credence to allegations of links between white nationalists and Neo-Nazis and Trump supporters and advisers.

Unnamed sources within the White House claimed the FBI's unannounced pre-dawn raid of former Trump campaign official Paul Manafort's home back on July 26th seriously spooked Trump and his top advisors - and caught them off guard as the raids took place 24 hours after special counsel Robert Mueller issued a subpoena to force Manafort to testify under oath in the investigation into Russian interference and collusion.

Given that the North Koreans have been using overblown fiery rhetoric for years, Trump's decision to ratchet up the tension with his amateurish "Twitter diplomacy" is either a reflection of his inexperience with foreign policy and ignorance of the Korean conflict - or his inability to control himself.

Or, perhaps it's simply a reflection of his willingness to do anything, including starting a war with the media, his own political party, or a hostile foreign country, in order deflect attention from an independent investigation into whether he and his campaign staff knowingly colluded with Russia to alter the outcome of the elections that put him into office.

None of those options bodes well for the people of the United States, or the flailing Trump presidency; which increasingly seems like it dwells in some parallel reality.

No wonder he's still talking about Hillary Clinton's emails - he's' just waiting for something to stick to the wall.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Domestic American Threats: Real & Perceived

Bad haircut showdown: Kim Jong-un & Donald Trump
Truth be told, the possibility of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordering his military to lob a mostly-untested intercontinental ballistic missile (with a nuclear weapon they may or may not actually possess) across the Pacific at America's west coast seems pretty slim.

It's doubtful that using a nuclear weapon against the globe's only remaining nuclear superpower over economic sanctions makes much sense, even to the North Koreans.

Especially considering that their recent grandiose posturing and cryptic-but-vague military threats cost them about a third of what is largely considered an already meager global export business courtesy of the harsh package of new economic sanctions overwhelmingly approved by the U.N. Security Council on Saturday.

To me the greater concern in this overblown geo-political hissy-fit is the erratic, narcissistic POTUS, whose tanking poll numbers, growing unpopularity and chaotic crisis-prone White House make pointless macho sword-rattling seems like a golden opportunity to try and kickstart his anemic approval numbers.

With Kim and Trump arguably amongst the most widely-despised leaders on the planet, the bottom line is that, from a PR standpoint, they kind of need each other right now - and melt-downs is what they both know best.

Remember, these are basically two unpopular, authoritarian man-boys with really bad haircuts who were both raised in the isolated cocoon of privilege under authoritarian, domineering fathers.

Kim Jong-un poses with a mobile missile launcher
Neither Kim nor Trump had a lick of political, military or diplomatic experience before assuming public office.

So all their blustery flag-waving and tough talk about unleashing their toys on each other's countries to vent their contrived rage is like global amateur hour rather than seasoned leadership guided by shrewd diplomacy and statesmanship.

Trump's threat to unleash, "fire and fury", issued from the comfy confines of his exclusive 600-acre country club in Bedminster, NJ on day four of a controversial 17-day vacation, (where he's holed up like some golf-junkie on a binge), seems like it was hastily scrawled on a cocktail napkin by his apocalyptic chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Rather than inspire fear, it only seems to have reinforced Trump's reputation as diplomatic neophyte who is so easily goaded and provoked that it'd be laughable if he wasn't the commander-in-chief of my country.

As Republican Senator John McCain observed, "The great leaders that I have seen, they don't threaten unless they are ready to act, and I'm not sure that President Trump is ready to act,"

But to pivot from our not-ready-for-prime-time-president, there are events happening that actually do represent a threat to American's domestic security.

As you may recall, last month the Bakersfield, California chapter of the NAACP utilized a social media campaign to bring global attention to an egregious case of police brutality committed against an innocent 19-year-old girl named Tatyana Hargrove.

Kern County District Attorney Lisa Green
The video interview, in which Hargrove described having been attacked and beaten by members of the Bakersfield Police Department (who claimed to have mistaken the 5'2" girl for a 5'10" machete-wielding bald man with a goatee), which was posted on the Bakersfield NAACP's Facebook page, has been viewed over 7.6 million times by people around the globe.

As MIC.com reported last Wednesday the Kern County District Attorney, Lisa Green, announced that the bogus charges filed against Hargrove by the same Bakersfield PD officers who beat her would be dropped.

The fact that the charges against her were dropped and that public pressure forced the Bakersfield PD to initiate an internal investigation is a reflection of the power of social media and grassroots activism at a time when the White House and Department of Justice have abdicated their responsibility for oversight of local and municipal law enforcement agencies engaged in clear and consistent patterns of bias based on race and ethnicity.

Over 47,000 people signed the Change.org petition calling for the Kern County DA to drop the charges.

But unfortunately, DA Lisa Green also announced that no charges will be filed against the Bakersfield cops who clearly used unjustified and excessive physical force on Hargrove for no reason.

That's a problem that reflects a broader domestic security concern.

Not just for the citizens of Bakersfield, but for Americans around the country of all races and ethnicities.

Because when local prosecutors refuse to bring charges against police officers who violate codes of conduct and use unjustified force to injure or kill innocent civilians, it sends the signal that such behavior is tolerated and acceptable.

People in Minnesota are still absorbing that lesson.

Jordan Norris being tortured with a taser by Cheatham
County deputies while strapped to a chair in 2016
After years of protests and outrage over the unjustified shootings of innocent African-Americans (cases where no charges were filed or officers found liable for taking the lives of civilians), Minnesotans were shocked when Justine Damond, a 40-year-old blond woman from Australia who'd called the cops to report an assault, was shot and killed at point-blank range when she went out and approached their vehicle to speak with the officers.

Did you read the story about 19-year-old Jordan Elias Norris?

After being arrested for felony possession of marijuana for resale, theft of under $500 and vandalism in November of 2016, three Cheatham County Sheriff's deputies (pictured above) strapped the then-18-year-old to a chair and tortured him with a taser multiple times.

On the surveillance video of the incident (it's not that long but it's hard to watch) the sadistic deputy using the taser can be heard telling Norris, "I'll keep on doing that until I run out of batteries."

And, remarkably, he keeps telling Norris to "stop resisting" as he tasers him even though the 18-year-old is strapped to a chair and also being restrained by two other deputies.

Cheatham County Jail
As the Daily Mail reported, the incident occurred in the just-under two weeks that he was being held in the Cheatham County, Tennessee Jail in 2016 before he was able to pay bond and be released - he had more than 40 taser burns on his body when he got out.

Norris has since filed a federal lawsuit against all three deputies, who've all been suspended pending an investigation.

I'm not citing those two cases to indict the thousands of police officers who risk their lives to protect and serve.

Men and women who do it by following the law, respecting people and conducting themselves as law enforcement professionals.

But the reluctance of the justice system to hold the small fraction of police officers who violate people's rights and injure or kill them literally puts innocent American lives in danger.

And that's far more of a threat to domestic American security than a despot in North Korea.

Overzealous police officers have taken more American lives than Kim Jong-un will - but don't hold your breath waiting for Donald Trump to order the DOJ to crack down on bad cops.

We know how he feels about cops who hurt people, but it probably ignites his increasingly narrow base of supporters more to turn Kim Jong-un into the boogeyman.

Let's just hope the military professionals on both sides are smart enough to keep their respective leaders from actually ordering the use or deployment of weapons of any kind to solve this tiresome international pissing contest.

Between the healthcare debate, the opioid crisis and lagging wages for the middle and working class, Lord knows we have enough fish to fry here in the U.S. without getting bent out of shape about a dictator from a failing state who starves his own people, lives in luxury and has turned obtaining a viable nuclear weapon into some kind of fetish.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Dark, Desperate & Divisive: Stephen Miller's Diversionary White House Tactics

Stephen Miller spars with CNN's Jim Acosta
The Trump administration's calculated habit of making intentionally-controversial policy announcements or proposals in order to deflect media attention from the non-stop chaos surrounding the presidency has become the new norm for a White House plagued by scandal.

24 hours before the Wall Street Journal reported that special counsel Robert Mueller was impanelling a grand jury in the Russia investigation, the White House trotted out its anti-immigrant zealot Stephen Miller with fresh red meat for the dwindling Trump supporters.

True to journalistic norms, practices and traditions, it's probably fair to assume that Del Quentin Wilbur, the WSJ reporter who first broke the story about the grand jury on Thursday, contacted the White House on Tuesday or Wednesday to advise them that the story would be published and to seek comment.

The WSJ is now owned by the conservative media mogul / wanna-be kingmaker Rupert Murdoch, so they're certainly not going to randomly blindside a Republican White House with a potentially damaging story - even if Murdoch was notably not a Trump fan during the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination.

So my guess is that the collective braintrust at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue quickly threw together another poorly-planned "policy announcement" (remember the disastrous Muslim travel ban rollout?) intentionally designed to stoke the fear and anger of the approximately 37% of Americans who currently approve of Donald Trump to get them to rally around in the face of the inevitable criticism.

As a detailed comparison of six different presidential approval polls released on Saturday by Nate Silver's FiveThitrtyEight.com shows, Trump is now the most unpopular president in modern American history - take a minute to click the link above, scroll down and look at the sinking green line to see how Trump's approval rating compares to the past 12 U.S. presidents going all the way back to Harry S. Truman.

Republican Senators Graham & Tillis co-authored
bills to block Trump from firing Robert Mueller 
With Trump having already alienated the intelligence community, a number of federal judges around the country and scores of career civil servants who work in the federal government - including many in the State Department, Department of Justice, Department of Education and Environmental Protection Agency to name a few - as the recent healthcare debates have shown, he's now alienating Republican members of Congress who's support he needs to pass his legislative agenda.

Just a day after Stephen Miller's widely publicized confrontation with CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta on Wednesday, the Senate introduced two bipartisan bills aimed at blocking Trump's ability to fire special counsel Robert Mueller - especially given that a grand jury can issue subpoenas.

Make no mistake, the Senate was sending a clear message to the American people, the White House and Vladimir Putin that its members will not be distracted from getting to the bottom of finding out the extent of Russia's interference in the 2016 elections - and to what degree members of the Trump administration colluded with them to undermine fair and democratic elections in this country.

What was particularly troubling about Miller's petulant anti-immigrant tirade during his announcement that the Trump administration was seeking to cut the rate of immigration into the U.S. in half, was the degree to which this administration will sink to deflect attention from the scandal enveloping the White House and it's hugely unpopular part-time resident.

As Brian Lehrer astutely observed on Thursday morning during an interview with American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent, author and CNN commentator April Ryan, CNN's Jim Acosta directly challenged Miller on the motivation behind the Trump administration's latest out-of-left field policy announcement.

White House correspondent April Ryan   
During Miller's response to Acosta's accusation that the desire to restrict immigration to those who could speak English was in fact "racial engineering" , (you should really should watch it if you haven't listened to it), he had the gall to suggest that the Trump administration's latest immigration crackdown was intended to address the disparities between unemployment rates among blacks and Hispanics with a high school education (or less) and their white counterparts.

In response, April Ryan the African-American reporter who Trump famously asked to set up a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus during (what was for Trump) a disastrous press conference back in February, who was in the room on Wednesday during Miller's heated exchange with Acosta can be heard in the background saying, "We've now reached a new low." 

As if Miller's claims that the Trump administration's motivations to impose restrictions on immigrants was some kind of effort to "help African-Americans get jobs" (his words) and assist those blacks and Hispanics with a marginal education and limited job skills while opposing increases in the minimum wage, are some kind of noble goal.

A notion which is laughable considering the Trump administration's wide disconnect with anyone who isn't white and Christian and its open hostility towards immigrants, Muslims, the LGTBQ community and people of color.

During her discussion with Brian Lehrer, Ryan noted that during Miller's strange Q&A on Wednesday she cut right to the chase, asking him point-blank whether the Trump administration was highlighting the black unemployment rate to offer concrete solutions to tackle discrepancies in employment based on race and ethnicity.

Or just a transparent and blatantly self-serving effort to pit one ethnic group against the other.

Former labor official Seth Harris
In response to Miller's erroneous claim, she read Brian Lehrer a quote from Seth Harris, a lawyer who served as the acting deputy labor secretary under President Obama after having spent seven years as a policy advisor in the Department of Labor during the Clinton administration. He noted that:

"While low-skilled immigrants compete against the lowest skilled U.S. workers, mostly not African-Americans, they do not significantly displace U.S. workers - and immigrants are not the cause of stagnant wages."

So as Ryan noted, Miller's efforts to use concern for minority unemployment to justify an attempt to cut the rate of immigration in half was nothing more than an unsubstantiated lie - the latest of many for the Trump administration.

What's also remarkable is the fact that the White House actually put Miller in front of the press to open his mouth in the first place.

Especially given his long legacy of open hostility towards immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities and his cozy relationship with white nationalism.

Stephen Miller literally symbolizes the efforts of the Trump administration to normalize white supremacy by dressing it up in a suit and tie and giving it an office in the West Wing of the White House - Steve Bannon ain't the only one folks.

When you get a chance, take some time to read William D Cohan's recent Vanity Fair profile of Miller; given Miller's position as an influential White House policy advisor and spokesman, I think it's important that people understand just who this guy really is.

CNN's Jim Acosta confronts Stephen Miller 
His accusing Jim Acosta of "cosmopolitan bias" during his tense exchange with Acosta was an overt nod to the alt-right / white nationalist community's embrace of the term as not-so-secret code for anti-Semitism.

As Cohan observes, Miller has been a poster boy of right-wing bigotry for years, when he was a student in high-school in the progressive, wealthy enclave of Santa Monica, California, he was already hard at work.

Demonstrating a disturbing passion for sewing the seeds of the decidedly racist brand of virulently anti-immigrant white nationalism that was on display in his recent verbal confrontation with Jim Acosta over the Trump administration's latest attempt to enact draconian immigration policies.

As April Ryan noted during her interview on The Brian Lehrer Show, Miller has cited at least three virulently anti-immigrant groups classified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center to justify the Trump administration's radical attempts to re-shape immigration policy.

But in the end it's important to note that he embodies the dark, desperate and divisive diversionary tactics of a White House intent on solidifying its credentials with the extremist right-wing faction of American conservatives who see Trump's unhinged presidency as an opportunity to normalize views that are repulsive to the majority of the American people and our allies around the globe.

Repugnant policy stances intended, in part, to distract from the taint of scandal and ethical morass that now defines the executive branch of the U.S. government.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

The AG Hustle

Jeff Sessions addressing the National Organization
of Black Law Enforcement Executives in Atlanta
Now obviously a lot of people in this country, myself included, have taken Attorney General Jeff Sessions to task over the troubling allegations of racism that have dogged him ever since President Ronald Reagan nominated him to be a federal judge back in 1986.

So it was somewhat unusual to see Sessions delivering opening remarks at the annual awards luncheon of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) in Atlanta on Tuesday.

As reporter Dave Huddleston reported for local Atlanta station WSB-TV, Sessions seemed nervous.

According to Huddleston, Sessions stumbled over and mispronounced words at times, I watched a few minutes of the full address on Youtube last night, and while Sessions is not known as a particularly engaging public speaker in the style of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, his opening remarks and attempts at a bit of levity fell pretty flat.

And from a writer's standpoint it was a pretty poorly-written speech overall.

The assembled crowd of African-American law enforcement executives was visibly polite, but clearly subdued and Sessions was obviously uncomfortable - and understandably so.

Those executives were keenly aware of Trump's appearance in Long Island last Friday in front of members of the Suffolk County Police Department where he encouraged cops to hurt suspects being taken into custody like some kind of Third World authoritarian nitwit.

As their Website states, NOBLE represents more than 3,000 black law enforcement executives in the U.S. and around the world, "that represent chief executive officers and command-level law enforcement officials from federal, state, county, municipal law enforcement agencies, and criminal justice practitioners".

Statement issued by Suffolk County PD shortly
after Trump's comments last Friday
So the men and women in that room understand better than most that the implications of a sitting president of the United States endorsing the physical abuse of suspects in custody is tantamount to endorsing the unjustified use of excessive force against people of color.

And they were waiting for Jeff Sessions to address those comments and provide a measure of leadership from the Department of Justice.

But he side-stepped the issue like a ninny and it didn't sit well with that crowd.

In an interview after the event, Perry Tarrant, the National President of NOBLE, made clear where the members of NOBLE stand on Trump's deplorable comments, "We are not thugs, we are professionals." - echoing statements from a number of law enforcement agencies around the country including the Suffolk County PD.

So in his first high-profile appearance in front of a prominent group of African-American professionals, Sessions did almost nothing to counteract the widely-held perception of him as a right-wing bigot loyal to the ideals of the Old South in which he was raised.

This is after all, the same Attorney General who famously began his tenure earlier this year by announcing that under his oversight, the Department of Justice would drastically scale back its role as a watchdog of police departments where racially-biased policing and unnecessary use of deadly force against racial minorities was found to be rampant.

Remember, in a memorandum he issued back in April, Sessions ordered a federal review of scores of consent decrees signed between the DOJ and various local police departments that had been found to have been engaged in consistent patterns of biased policing based on race and ethnicity.

On the very same day of Session's appearance at the NOBLE award luncheon yesterday, Charlie Savage of the New York Times reported on an internal DOJ document indicating a new initiative focused on "investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions".

Do college completion statistics support the existence of
widespread discrimination against white students?  
Meaning that under the Trump administration the Sessions-run DOJ will now shift resources within the Division of Civil Rights towards the investigation of widespread discrimination against white students in college admissions.

Are there cases of white students facing unintended discrimination in college admissions as a result of quotas intended to ensure diverse student bodies in higher education reflective of the broader society?

Of course there are.

But to many observers, such a radical shift in the mission of the DOJ seems based less on fact and sound educational policy than on reactionary conservative ideology.

Especially given the results of a 2016 Pew Research study of college completion rates along racial and ethnic lines showing that "Whites and Asian students completed their programs at similar rates - 63% and 63.2%, respectively - while Hispanic and black students graduated at rates of 45.8% and 38%, respectively".  

And that doesn't mean that it's right or fair to the qualified individual whose college application is denied due to a policy intended to bring a measure of balance to an institution of higher learning after decades of systematic discrimination to qualified students of other races or ethnicities.

But to get back to the issue at hand, it's clear that Sessions, who'd just returned from El Salvador to meet with that nation's Attorney General on ways to combat the notorious MS-13 gang before addressing members of NOBLE on Tuesday, is using his position as the head of the Department of Justice to help jump start Trump's rocky anti-immigration efforts.

Trump's boogeymen? MS-13 gang members
Evidently Trump's recent series of bizarre tweets criticizing his own Attorney General as "weak" and "beleaguered" prodded Sessions to remember that the liar-in-chief expects the Department of Justice to function as an enforcement arm.

Not of the law, but as an enforcer of the right-wing conservative ideology that now defines White House domestic policy.

Is MS-13 is a particularly violent street gang with a nationwide membership?

Sure they are, and many individuals in communities like Long Island have fallen victim to its criminal activities, but as research by FactCheck.org shows, Trump's attempt to paint MS-13 as some kind of existential threat to national security are widely overblown.

But having seen how quickly Trump fired former-FBI Director James Comey, and more recently former Press Secretary Sean Spicer and never-actual Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci, Sessions has been quick to start dancing in tune to White House efforts to play up the threat of MS-13 as a symbolic boogeyman.

Not for the safety of American communities (if that was the case they'd be advocating for sensible restrictions on firearms and mandatory federal background checks on all firearms purchases.)

Instead they use MS-13 to try and justify Orwellian anti-immigration laws and garner support for Trump's beloved wall - which is looking more and more like just another one of the slew of empty bogus campaign promises he used to motivate his disenfranchised base of voters.

That's really why Sessions was speaking in Atlanta in front of NOBLE on Tuesday, but his message was overshadowed by the invisible tension present in the room; which, again, stems from his legacy as a federal prosecutor, and it wasn't lost on the audience.

Spencer Hogue & Evelyn and Albert Turner
As an assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama in 1985, Sessions famously filed 29 counts of voter fraud against three African-American grass roots community organizers, Albert Turner, his wife Evelyn and Spencer Hogue, Jr. - who came to be known as "The Marion Three".

In the 1960's Albert Turner had been a field organizer in rural Perry County, Alabama for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Turner marched with him in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 in support of voting rights - a pivotal event in the Civil Rights movement that helped lead to the passage of the Voter Rights Act of 1965.

As Evelyn Turner recalled in an interview with CNN back in January, she and her husband and associate Spencer Hogue, Jr. had been helping poor rural blacks in Marion, Alabama to register to vote for years when Session sought a grand jury indictment in federal court over 14 ballots that he claimed they had altered.

The jury found them not guilty but the case painted Sessions as a racist who had tried to use his power as a federal prosecutor to intimidate blacks at the voting booth - a dark legacy of the south that continues to this day under the guise of "voter integrity" laws passed by Republican-majority state legislators around the country.

I'd argue that his tenure as Attorney General thus far shows Sessions is really the same man today; albeit with far more reaching power.

Ever since the inauguration back in January, it's been difficult keeping up with the various categories of fallout from the White House because of the constant chaos, rampant ineptitude and jaw-dropping lack of professionalism and ethical standards.

Sessions is not a stupid man by any measure, and he could have used his speech in front of NOBLE yesterday to distance himself from Trump's endorsement of police violence against suspects in custody - but he didn't.

At the age of 71, I doubt this particular leopard has any intention, or desire to change his spots.

And any offense Sessions might have taken from Trump's dim-witted Twitter comments demeaning his tenure as Attorney General were probably just less important than the ideology he's supported all his life.

That's why he's doing the AG Hustle - he believes in the message of the music.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Grizzlies, Aguirre & Fitzcarraldo: The Genius of Werner Herzog

One of the most interesting and unusual interviews I've read recently was journalist Erik Hedegaard's one-on-one with the enigmatic German director Werner Herzog that appeared in the March 24th issue of Rolling Stone.

While film has been a passion of mine for years, it took me awhile to appreciate the work of this truly unique visionary artist.

My first experience seeing Herzog's work was watching the award-winning 2005 documentary Grizzly Man.

A visually and emotionally stunning film that exponentially expanded my perception and understanding of what the documentary genre could be, Grizzly Man was actually recommended to me as a must-see film by director Bryan Singer back in 2007.

Bryan went to my high school and is one of the few actual geniuses I've known personally, obviously I have enormous respect for his knowledge of film so I immediately ordered the DVD on Netflix.

As an animal lover who grew up watching zoologist Marlin Perkins examine animals and their behavior in their natural habitats on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom on television each week, as well as National Geographic specials and nature programs on PBS and Discovery Channel, Herzog's Grizzly Man offered a piercing look into both grizzly bears, and the documentary's subject Timothy Treadwell.

If you've never seen it, Grizzly Man is a fascinating examination of the controversial life and gruesome death of Treadwell, an environmentalist, bear-enthusiast, author and documentary filmmaker who spent 13 years of his life in Katami National Park in Alaska during the summer following and photographing grizzly bears.

Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard 
An eclectic and stubborn renegade who was often criticized by animal researchers and park rangers for disregarding the danger that grizzlies represented, Treadwell claimed that observing the bears in their natural habitat had helped him to overcome alcohol and heroin addiction.

Herzog's documentary uses some of the hundreds of hours of video and still photographs that Treadwell captured during his years of bear observation and study.

And it famously examines the horrifying incident on Sunday October 5, 2003 when both Treadwell and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard were attacked, savagely mauled and eventually eaten by a large male grizzly at their remote campsite dangerously close to an area of thick underbrush criss-crossed by bear trails known as the "Grizzly Maze" on Kodiak Island near the shore of Kaflia Bay.

Male bears there can grow up to 11 feet in height and weigh up to 1,500 pounds.

As Ned Zeman wrote in a 2004 article on Treadwell for Vanity Fair, just a few weeks before he and Huguenard were killed, Treadwell wrote a friend:

"My photographs and stories are looking to the deep and secret world of bears that I do not believe any person has ever witnessed. One day I'll show this work to the public. Until then I'll keep living it."

Werner Herzog's documentary wrestles with the terrifying truth that Treadwell endured hardship, ridicule, suffering and an agonizing death for what he felt was his calling in life.

After reading Erik Hedegaard's revealing Rolling Stone interview with Herzog, I think it's that sense of totally devoting one's self, and dying for, one's passion that drew Herzog to Treadwell's story - and compelled him to write and direct a documentary about his life.

It's a theme he's explored in many of his more than 70 documentary and feature films.

Actor Klaus Kinski as conquistador Aguirre 
As Hedegaard notes, while Herzog has been making films since 1962, the two which really established his reputation as one of the most important figures of New German Cinema (and filmmaking in general) are "biopics" loosely based on the lives of real historical figures, Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982).

After ordering both films on DVD via Netflix, Aguirre, The Wrath of God in particular makes it clear why French New Wave director and film critic Francois Truffaut (director of such masterpieces as The 400 Blows) considered Herzog, "the most important director alive".

The film, hastily written by Herzog over a two-day period after he read about the subject in a book lent to him by a friend, is a fictional story loosely based on the exploits of the real-life Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre, (pronounced Agear-aay) a greedy, violent, power-hungry figure nicknamed "The Madman" who died in 1561 after a failed attempt to proclaim himself the "Prince of Peru" in defiance of Spanish king Phillip II.

Herzog's film is based on Aguirre's part in a failed 1560 expedition down the Amazon and Maranon Rivers in search of the mythical kingdom of El Dorado by 300 Spanish soldiers and hundreds of native Indians who served as porters and laborers.

The brilliant opening scene of Aguirre, The Wrath of God is like pulling back a curtain on time and looking back into the distant past.

A long single-file line of Spanish conquistadors and natives descend down a steep, treacherous path along a mountain that slopes down into a mist-covered jungle valley that looks as foreboding as it does beautiful.

The conquistadors, attired in heavy, long-sleeved clothes, steel helmets flaked with rust from the humidity and armor, and lugging pikes, swords, arquebus (primitive rifles) and large cannon, look totally out of place in the thick green jungle as they laboriously make their way through the unspoiled wilderness with the help of native Indians (some chained) hacking aside the plants, trees and vines to make a path.

Pizarro orders a detachment to scout ahead
Exhausted, lost in almost impenetrable jungle forest and running low on supplies, the film really starts when the expedition's leader Hernando Pizzaro decides to send a detachment of soldiers and natives ahead to scout along a nearby river and report back on what they find.

The film follows the doomed attempts of the detachment as they construct rafts and set off down river where one disaster after another befalls them and disagreement over how to proceed sparks infighting between the soldiers.

One faction is loyal to the detachment's appointed leader Pedro de Ursua, and the other group is led by Aguirre; who uses his dark charisma to persuade them that they can all get rich by finding the fabled lost city of gold and carving their own kingdom out of the jungle.

With the help of his men, Aguirre eventually plots and overthrows Ursua, once under his leadership, the journey becomes a descent into madness, violence and terror that stands in contrast to the beautiful cinematography captured by Herzog during a grueling five-week shoot in the jungles of Peru.

Like Grizzly Man, the theme that dominates Aguirre is 'Man Versus Nature' and it's easy to see why the 1972 film influenced Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 masterpiece about the Vietnam war, Apocalypse Now.

It's also pretty evident that Herzog, like Coppola, was also influenced by Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's story about a man's journey up the Congo River deep into the African continent and his growing obsession that was first published in three parts in Blackwood Magazine in 1899 and later published as a novella in 1902.

Herzog would explore that same premise of a man (some might consider mad) obsessed by a singular vision taking a treacherous journey down a river through the heart of the jungle ten years later with the widely-acclaimed film Fitzcarraldo released in 1982.

Werner Herzog on the set of Fitzcarraldo
In some ways, Fitzcarraldo struck me as a more "personal" film for Herzog.

He is a prolific director of opera as well as films and this film opens with his main character Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald arriving in a Peruvian city in the late 19th century after journeying hundreds of miles from the jungle interior to see an opera performance.

Fitzgerald is played by the star of Aguirre, Wrath of God, German actor Klaus Kinski - recognizable as the chained Russian prisoner in the rail journey sequence in David Lean's 1965 epic film Doctor Zhivago.

In Fitzcarraldo, the main character (based on real-life rubber baron Carlos Fitzcarrald) aspires to make a fortune by transporting rubber from large tracts of nearly inaccessible Peruvian jungle using steamships - but he must first find a passable river route to make it possible.

He also dreams of bringing opera to the rough-and-tumble remote jungle town populated by rubber barons, civil servants, workers, sketchy characters, locals and indigenous peoples - it's like an old western boomtown set in the jungle.

With the help of a loan from his girlfriend played by Claudia Cardinale who owns a brothel, Fitzgerald purchases a shallow-bottomed steamship that can traverse rivers and after fixing it up, he hires a crew and sets off down the river deep into largely uncharted jungle territory inhabited by hostile natives.

After most of his crew abandons the steamship before they get too far into hostile territory, Fitzcarraldo is forced to persuade a tribe of indigenous Indians who speak no English or Spanish he encounters to help him.

Klaus Kinski plays opera in Fitzcarraldo
This film is marked by a surreal voyage along a jungle river with Fitzcarraldo occasionally playing opera on a portable record player to try and ward off hostile natives playing drums while concealed behind trees.

While (for me) the story is somewhat less compelling than Aguirre, the intense cinematography is once again simply amazing and Kinski's performance is genuinely compelling.

If you enjoy film, you must see Fitzcarraldo for the sequence in which Fitzgerald persuades the native peoples to lift the steamship out of the water and transport it over a mountain covered with thick jungle in order to launch it into a nearby river that runs roughly parallel to the river on which they set out in order to find the route he is searching for.

Quite simply it has to be seen, as Herzog literally took weeks filming an actual 340-ton steamship being dragged up the side of a mountain and down the other side - in the film they used a complex system of pulleys along with utilizing the ship's engines to power a cable system that helps pull the ship up the mountain-side.

You've really got to see it to believe it.

With August coming up and many people taking some vacation time, if you haven't seen either of these films I highly recommend you rent Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo for a night on the couch, not just for an escapist film experience.

But to to appreciate two of Klaus Kinski's most intense on-screen performances and the monumental filmmaking effort it took for Werner Herzog to bring these visions to the screen shooting in such remote jungle locations.

Herzog has directed over 70 films, so I'm definitely looking forward to making my way through some of his other documentaries and features - it's a privilege and a creative learning experience to have the chance to explore and appreciate the work of one of the most driven and visionary filmmakers of modern cinema.

Need a break from CGI-laden superhero films lavished with explosions, special effects and gratuitous violence? Herzog is your guy.

He doesn't shirk from portraying violence on screen, but it's always in service to the story - and part of his lifelong effort to probe the darker aspects of the human psyche.

Which, I'd venture, is Herzog's own personal grizzly.