Counter Cultural Programming

Michael Atkinson

<i>Thelma and Louise:</i> An empathic essay about having nothing to lose.

The November firefight approaches and here we are, awash in a media flashflood of press secretary prevarication, corporate indictment dodging and in-your-face presidential lies. Gay marriage is the year’s burning flag used to incite the ignorant, while the pundits lend credence to flat-out absurdisms just by debating them — that Antonin Scalia’s outrageous conflicts of interest may not give the appearance” of conflicts of interest, that Halliburton may not be profiting” from a war launched for its benefit, that The Passion of the Christ may in fact have been divinely inspired. (Certainly, the millions of tax dollars poured into faith-based” institutions and used to buy ticket blocs can be seen as a gift from God to Mel Gibson.) And, of course, the nine-figure White House marketing launch is pure skullduggery, grinning with Christian manifest destiny and transparent jingoism.

What do we do for counter-programming? Don’t rely on present-day Hollywood, that brothel of military celebration and half-measure liberalism. Instead, rent some of these firecrackers, the best left movies ever made, and keep the flags of discontent flying.

Zero de Conduite (1933) With this early talkie, legendary filmmaker Jean Vigo’s lyrical genius reinvents schoolyard rebellion as all-purpose, anti-authoritarian anthem. Essential radical viewing in any year.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) OK, it’s not Christmas and this poor movie may already be bled dry for most of us, but take another look: It’s the most passionate, anti-big business, pro-Socialist Hollywood film until Reds 34 years later. If Dick Cheney overacted more, he’d be Mr. Potter.

Salt of the Earth (1954)Independently made by real union miners and McCarthy blacklistees, this gutsy little epic remains the premier American union film. It met with federal opposition at every step of its production and distribution, and Mexican star Rosaura Revueltas was imprisoned and deported as a Communist. That this landmark is all but forgotten in the mainstream and the anti-union On the Waterfront is consistently celebrated cannot be happenstance.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956÷1978÷1993) This sci-fi nail-biter scenario — made three times in three political climates but never exhausted — stands as a trifold vision of every liberal’s nightmare: the conservative, empathy-free homogenization of society. As walking metaphors go, you can’t get more visceral.

Paths of Glory (1957) One of the very best anti-war movies — Stanley Kubrick doing WWI — and so an eloquent reminder for the home-frontier about artillery-ground soldier meat and self-interested authority.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)The ultimate conspiracy thriller, despite the fact that its sky-high assassination plot — which chillingly forecast Dealey Plaza by just a month — is blamed on Sino-Soviet brainwashers. Here was the first movie to dare suggest that U.S. politics is a parliament of whores and criminals.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)The official antidote for jolly-ho Brit Empire colonialism — here, the white hero is an egomaniacal, exotica-drunk fop, standing in for imperialists everywhere.

Les Carabiniers (1963) International cinema’s premier radical, Jean-Luc Godard, takes a lampooning cudgel to war and patriotism. Simple and merciless.

The Best Man (1964) Master upstart Gore Vidal wrote this election-year dogfight in 1960, but he could be writing it right now. Possibly the least naive American film ever about electoral combat.

The Battle of Algiers (1965) A classic, semi-documentarian portrait of low-intensity,” neo-colonialist warfare from the Arab freedom fighters’ P.O.V. — still pertinent enough to warrant a Pentagon screening late last year.

A Report on the Party and its Guests (1966) A John Ashcroft party film, this Czech parable about informant culture and social oppression is creepy, inexorable and criminally underseen.

Greetings (1968) Brian De Palma’s first film and possibly the most incendiary American youth film of the 60s. Why aren’t there new fist-shakers like this, and audiences for them, today?

Punishment Park (1971) Brit dystopian Peter Watkins prophecizes the Ashcroft effect: Vietnam-era protestors and lefties are arrested, tried tribunally and surreptitiously executed in the desert.

The Candidate (1972) Robert Redford as Howard Dean? This realistic farce plays presidential politicking as media mah-jongg, and the voters lose.

State of Siege (1972) Greek troublemaker Costa-Gavras explores the Tupermaro guerrillas in 70s Uruguay, but the villain is a kidnapped government agent used to initiate right-wing coups.

The Parallax View (1974) A jittery Warren Beatty nightmare — the star’s first liberal statement — about JFK-like assassinations as an integral ingredient in American politics.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974÷2003) Bush Country and low-rung consumerist capitalism have never been so scary; the new remake gets credit for prescience.

The Battle of Chile/​The Pinochet Case (1975÷2001) Possibly the most outraged political document ever made, an on-the-scene, Holy Shit record of the U.S.-supported 1973 coup and its recent denouement. A must-see.

Harlan County USA (1976)/American Dream (1990) Barbara Kopple’s documentaries track the reality of the worker majority struggling to keep their livelihoods and unions.

Network (1976) This screaming Paddy Chayefsky satire is so prophetic — reality TV, punditocracy, news-as-entertainment, etc. — it’s almost redundant. Remake, anyone?

All the President’s Men (1976) Still a sobering view, ratfucking and all, of standard White House bullshit.

Apocalypse Now Redux (1979÷2001) The only, and funniest, American film about Vietnam to acknowledge the conflict’s colonial roots and reality.

Winter Kills (1979) Based on the Richard Condon novel, yet another ludicrous-yet-persuasive burlesque on modern power and the JFK flashpoint; this time, John Huston stars as a diabolical Joseph Kennedy.

Reds (1981) As heartfelt and convincing a pitch for full-on socialism as Hollywood will ever make. Warren Beatty deserved a Nobel.

The Killing Fields (1984) The secret bombings are danced around, but otherwise this portrait of the Khmer Rouge rise is a powerful and convincing view of barbaric upheaval fomented by U.S. meddling.

Salvador (1986) More U.S. meddling in the post-imperial badlands, and full of talk about Reagan-era responsibility.

Walker (1987) Director Alex Cox virtually ended his career with this Molotov-cocktail about the famous U.S. freebooter who took over Nicaragua in the 1850s on behalf of federal greed and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Roger and Me (1989) Michael Moore’s first film. America the unemployed beautiful, outside of the millionaires’ gated communities.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) Margaret Atwood’s bad dream about abortion rights, in which right-wing moralism creates a dreadful future of female subjugation.

JFK (1991) Oliver Stone might not be right about everything, but he’s not crazy. Here are enough cold facts to put you off trusting politicians for a lifetime.

Thelma & Louise (1991) Perhaps it’s time to revisit this feminist self-immolation — perhaps even as an empathic essay about having nothing left to lose.

The Panama Deception (1992) Bush I gets strung out to dry in this Oscar-winner. Data and more data, about an administration virtually identical to the one we have now.

Bob Roberts (1992) In this campaign mock-doc, Tim Robbins masterfully mocks the seductive idiocy of right-wing populism.

Lessons of Darkness (1992) Werner Herzog’s lyrical survey of the burning Kuwaiti oil fields. Unforgettable.

Land and Freedom (1995) Old-school lefty Ken Loach visits the Spanish Civil War and turns out one of the most eloquent films about collective society ever made.

Wag the Dog (1997) The manufacture of consent in action. This was intended as wacky spoof, but all that seems far-fetched now is the notion that we’d bother to fake a war rather than just wage a real one.

Starship Troopers (1997) The decade’s most outrageous satire of American-pop jingoism, bar none. No wonder it was misunderstood.

Bulworth (1998) In a hip-hop context now, Warren Beatty again dares to utter the S’ word and mean it.

The Thin Red Line (1998) Another best” anti-war film, unmuddied by heroism and ruled by irrationality.

Pleasantville (1998) A cartoon metaphor in which underage sex, masturbation and literature destroys reactionary control. We can dream.

Three Kings (1999) David O. Russell’s blessedly disrespectful comedy of Gulf War greed, whose idea of a sentimental ending is the bribing of U.S. officials to let refugees live.

A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) Of the many acidic Iranian films we’ve seen, this one softens no edges about refugee life in Mesopotamia.

La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000) Peter Watkins’ six-hour faux-news report about the nearly forgotten proto-communist uprising is virtually a living seminar in class-consciousness.

Kandahar (2001) A pre-9/11 Afghan voyage by master Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf and a surreal, chador-haunted critique of both Taliban conservatism and Western opportunism.

Bloody Sunday (2002) A minute-by-minute account of the famous Irish massacre. Accurately and furiously anti-British, but a gut-wrenching window on civilian casualties everywhere.

Noam Chomsky: Power and Terror in Our Times (2002) Any C-SPAN lecture would do, but this hit theaters and attacks the War on Terror’s profound illogic.

Bowling for Columbine (2002) The NRA is one of Bush II’s big contributors; this movie should run 24/7 on cable all fall.

The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) He’s been employed by every president since Nixon in one capacity or another, and yet he’s personally responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Let’s take it to The Hague.

In This World (2003) Michael Winter-bottom’s verité day-in-the-smuggled-refugee-life puts you in 15 million people’s threadbare sandals.

The Fog of War (2003) War bureaucrat Robert McNamara double-talks and rationalizes his career on camera, and a few more million deaths are left unaccounted for. This is how government officials live with themselves.

Where to find these films: Good online rental programs include Net​flix​.com or Facets​.org, while cinephiles looking to build their video libraries can turn to DVD​Plan​et​.com, MoviesUn​lim​it​ed​.com, CDUni​verse​.com or Ama​zon​.com, as well as the original distributors, including Facets, First Run/​Icarus Films (www​.frif​.com) and Rhi​no​.com.

Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.