The arrival of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers on a Criterion DVD last Tuesday is one of the most fascinating historical echo events in a long time.
A nearly 40 year-old account of guerilla warfare waged by the Algerian Liberation Front against French colonialists on native soil in the late 1950s, Pontecorvo’s astonishing film is a primer on what U.S. forces are grappling with now in Iraq.
If the movie itself doesn’t make this clear, there’s a 25 minute featurette on the DVD’s third disc that spells it out further. Former anti-terrorism official Richard Clarke, the tough-minded guy who accused the Bushies of bungling the war on terror in his book “Against All Enemies,” discusses the echoes with former State Department expert on counter-terrorism Michael Sheehan and ABC News investigator Christopher Isham.
The parallels aren’t just close, they’re spooky.

Political currents are everywhere this weekend. The election is less than three weeks off, the last Presidential debate happened two nights ago, the bullshit levels are peaking and the bombings in Iraq are happening non-stop. And now there are two big political movies awaiting your attention — Pontecorvo’s and Team America: World Police, an undeniably hilarious comedy that’s essentially a conservative message piece disguised as a satire of Jerry Bruckheimer-type action films.
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The Battle of Algiers would obviously be the cooler thing to watch (it’s totally cooks as a melodramatic thriller), but this is Amurrica, dude…
Shot in 1965 and released two years later, The Battle of Algiers is a fairly even-handed, ultra-realistic account of what was happening in 1957 Algeria. It initially focuses on the recruiting of a young street criminal named Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) by the F.L.N. But as the canvas becomes broader and more painted with observation, the revolution itself becomes the story.
Algiers was scripted and staged with a story, characters, fake explosions and all the rest. But it feels as authentic as the funkiest down-and-dirty documentary ever made…seemingly loose and random, like something caught on the fly.
And it’s not a one-sided account. Pontecorvo is obviously partial to the rebels, but he doesn’t overly romanticize them and he also shows respect for their French opponent- oppressors. The film ends with the rebels suffering a defeat and losing tactical ground, although the French gave up and let Algeria have its independence in 1962.

Algiers basically shows the hellish extremes that dedicated men in such a conflict will resort to when push comes to shove. Bombings, torture, assassinations….nothing is too malicious if the plan is to weaken your opponent’s spirit by any means necessary. Human life is a commodity to be erased at will. And woe to the combatants and their sense of 24/7 hell.
“Five people were killed today when two separate explosions were set off inside the heavily-controlled Green Zone in central Baghdad,” the New York Times reported yesterday (10.14).
“Three Americans were among the dead,” the story went on. “The first blast was set off by a suicide bomber near a cafe. The second occurred in or near a bazaar, or market area, a spokesman for the First Cavalry Division, Maj. Philip J. Smith, said by telephone from Baghdad. It was unclear whether that blast also involved a suicide bomber.”
“The Green Zone is home to the the United States military, the interim Iraqi government and a number of embassies. But it is also home to `thousands of Iraqis,’ Major Smith said.”
U.S. forces in Iraq may not see themselves as the bad guys, and the Iraqi snipers picking off soldiers and blowing up civilians aren’t the good guys…but the whole situation is starting to feel like a lose-lose. We started out as the good guys, but now we’re the black hats — the cultural oppressors who don’t belong, who will leave sooner or later (but probably not for years)…the inspiration for a whole new generation of terrorists.
Admit it — deep down we all know or strongly suspect that the seeds for the next 9.11 are being sewn right now in Iraq.

Criterion’s Battle of Algiers DVD is on the pricey side, but it’s a three-disc set with seven documentaries, so it’s not like they’re ripping you off.
The film itself, shot in black and white, isn’t supposed to look dynamic and sparkling — that’s not the idea — but it looks better than the last time I saw Algiers at the Bleecker Street Cinema 20-odd years ago.
There’s an excellent, too-short testimonial doc on disc two called “Five Directors.” It’s basically Oliver Stone, Steven Soderbergh, Mira Nair, Spike Lee and Julian Schnabel talking about their respect for Pontecorvo’s film, how innovative it was for its time, how relatively recent films (like Soderbergh’s Traffic) have followed its example, and so on. I just wish it could have gone on for an hour or so.

Near-Death Trip

Has a movie or more precisely a DVD ever gotten into your dreams and resuscitated an old nightmare?
This happened to me last weekend after watching James Marsh’s Wisconsin Death Trip, which came out on DVD last Feburary. It’s an adaptation of Michael Lesy’s cult book about an ugly-vibe plague that descended upon the Wisconsin town on Black River Falls in the 1890s. Economic depression and a diphtheria epidemic brought about all kinds of horrors — murders, insanity, infant deaths, etc.
Marsh does a decent job of bringing the book to life (so to speak), although I didn’t like the re-enacted footage as much as the old photographs.

A day or so after watching it, I had a nightmare about something that happened to me in Wisconsin when I was just out of high school. It’s funny how memories from long ago suddenly return and tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey.”
The scariest thing about this nightmare wasn’t the fact that myself and two friends came close to dying in a car crash that almost happened…but didn’t. The fact that this happened isn’t so bad. I can live with that.
The freaky part was re-living that godawful horrifying feeling as I waited for the car we were in — a 1958 Chevrolet Impala convertible — to either flip over or slam into a tree or hit another car like a torpedo, since we were sliding sideways down the road at 70 or 80 mph.
It happened just outside Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. A classmate named Bill Butler was driving, another named Mike Dwyer was riding shotgun, and I was in the back seat. It was 1 am or so, and we were coming from a beer joint called the Brat Hut. We’d all had several pitchers of beer and were fairly stinko.
We were five or six miles out of town and heading south towards Markesan, where we had jobs (plus room and board) at the Del Monte Bean and Pea plant. To either side of us were flat, wide-open fields and country darkness.
Butler, a bit of an asshole back then, was going faster and faster. I looked at the speedometer and saw he was doing 90, 95, 100. I was about to say something when the road started to curve to the right, and then a lot more. Butler was driving way too fast to handle it and I was sure we were fucked, especially with nobody wearing seat belts and the top down and all.

But thanks to those magnificent Chevrolet engineers, Butler’s Impala didn’t roll over two or three times or slam into a tree or whatever. It just spun out from the rear and slid sideways about 200 feet or so. Sideways! I remember hitting the back seat in panic and looking up at the stars and hearing the sound of screeching tires and saying to myself, “You’re dead.”
The three of us just sat there after the car came to a halt. There was a huge cloud of burnt-rubber smoke hanging above and behind us. I remember somebody finally saying “wow.” (Dwyer, I think.) My heart began beating again after a few seconds.
I don’t remember saying much to Butler or Dwyer after the near-accident that night, but I sure feel like saying something now.
I realize I’m a little late getting in touch with my emotions, but if Butler is reading this (he’s alive and well and living somewhere near Redding, Connecticut), I want him to know I’m really furious about this. Butler almost took away my becoming a journalist and loving my kids and going to Europe and everything else, and all because he had some idiotic anger issues and tended to dare-devil it after the ninth or tenth beer.
I don’t know why this is hitting me now, but it is. And it’s not just because I watched Wisconsin Death Trip. That was just the doorway.
Maybe some 17 year-old kid with issues similar to Butler’s will read this and think twice the next time he’s out with friends and starting to tromp on the gas.

Errol Again is pushing those great Errol Morris spots with Republican and independent voters venting their Bush frustrations. I ran this a few weeks ago, but here’s the link again:
Please pass this email on to any swing voters you happen to know. They’re really great spots — brilliant, really. is trying to raise money to get them on television over the next couple of weeks, and you know the rest.

Sex, Death and House Flies

I wrote the following article in ’97 for the L.A. Times Syndciate, and for some reason I have a special affection for it. And since I have to drive up to San Francisco this afternoon (Thursday, 10.14….trying to leave around 2:30 or 3 pm), I’d thought I’d post it just for fun:
Say what you will about Bliss, Lance Young’s film about love and sexuality — that housefly-on-the-fan shot is awesome.
Young marrieds Craig Sheffer and Sheryl Lee are lying in bed and mulling over their troubled sex life. Lee’s psychological history is at the nub. One of her problems is a bug phobia — she’s always scrubbing under the sink and hunting around for creepy-crawlies.
Anyway, the camera rises up from their bed, climbing higher and higher until it comes to an overhead propeller fan. And we suddenly notice a fly sitting on one of the blades.

How did Young get that little bugger to just sit there, waiting for his big moment?
Answer: he was too cold to move because his legs and wings had been numbed because he’d been put into a freezer for five minutes just before Young yelled “action!” Even if he’d been able to fly away he would’ve failed, due to a thread of tungsten wire — thinner than a human hair — tied to his midsection and holding him down.
The one who arranged all this was “fly wrangler” Anne Gordon, whose company, Annie’s Animal Actors, was hired by the Bliss shoot in Vancouver.
The Bliss fly is actually a flesh fly — the kind that feeds on meat, and is about two or three times larger than your average house fly. Gordon bought 100 to the set on shooting day but only used “about a dozen” to get the shot.
A different chilled fly was used per take, she says, because it would be cruel — not to mention impractical–for the same fly to be sent back to the freezer after each shot. The optimum time to shoot a chilled fly is four minutes after the ice chest, she says. They’re usually warmed up and able to fly around after seven minutes.
Another way to get a fly to sit still is to “cover him with a special mixture of milk and honey,” says Mark Dumas of the Vancouver-based Creative Animal Talent. “That way it’ll stay there a while and groom itself.”

The overhead ceiling fan shot was “tough,” says Gordon, and not just because of the fly-preparation issues. She says she felt a bit awkward looking down at a couple doing a love scene all day. “They’re down in the bed doing their thing and I’m up on the ladder,” she says. “They hardly had anything on.”
Of course, the main issue when it comes to bug actors isn’t sex but death — i.e., not getting killed during takes.
The fact that flies are small and pesky and murdered by the tens of thousands each day by humans the world over cuts no ice on movie sets. SPCA rules require that any visible insect used in any shot be treated with the same care afforded to any large animal.
Dorothy Sabey, a Vancouver-based humane officer for the SPCA who watches out for animal safety during shoots, understands the hard realities of insect life. She just wants them suspended during filming. No bugs have ever been harmed on her watch.
“I just have to make sure they can fly away,” she says. Or scamper away. Sabey recalls working on a TV movie that had a scene in which a shoe is seen stepping on a cockroach. Death was averted, she says, by hollowing out the shoe sole “so the cockroach was quite safe.”
It goes without saying that no Bliss flies were sprayed, swatted or flattened during production.
Their safety was matter of particular pride for Gordon. “We cannot kill a fly for any purpose if it’s being used in a shot,” she says. “This rule includes mosquitoes and maggots, even. I know maggots are really awful looking, but then again they’re baby flies.”
As Dorothy Sabey explains, “If any life form is in front of a camera, it’s an actor…and we don’t kill actors, do we?”

Yeah, but we do freeze them. As long as we’re going to get all extra-sensitive and p.c. about it, doesn’t this constitute some kind of cruelty? Would any filmmaker or animal wrangler ever consider putting a dog or a cat into a freezer to keep them still in front of a camera?
“It’s a gray area,” Sabey admits.
Even grayer is the SAPCA rule that after shooting the flies used by the wrangler have to be returned to the storage laboratory from which they’ve been brought.
Given the average fly’s lifespan of about 30 days, the decent thing would be to set them free after putting in a hard day on a soundstage. Instead it’s back to the lab and a convict-like confinement, killing time and just waiting for the end.
Sabey says she’s willing to forgive if a bug is accidentally killed. “If it happens anyway then it really is an `oops’ because everybody tries hard,” she says.
“Of course if somebody kills a fly around the block, that’s different.”

Matt and Trey vs. Liberals

“I don’t think that the celebrity big-mouths know how much political damage do when they publicly criticize the president. I am an average middle-age American who is very likely to vote for John Kerry. I have never before voted for a Republican presidential candidate.
“Are lefty celebrities so egotistical that they think they are actually going to convert Bush supporters to Kerry supporters? They are more likely to do the opposite. I don’t know if you realize this, because you may be so deeply entrenched in the Hollywood scene, but most people are turned off by this sort of celebrity rhetoric. I know I am. They almost make me want to vote for Bush.
“I am not saying that they are or are not well informed. What I am saying is I don’t like to hear what their opinion is regarding political issues. Entertain me. That’s what I want and is the reason I spend my money to see their movies, etc. So please, wake up. Get your head out of the, uhm…sand. Why don’t you write and tell them to just shut up and do their jobs? The people mentioned in your recent column about the new puppet movie are just a bunch of pompous liberal blowhards who need to keep their opinions to their selves. Or I might just change my mind and vote for…” — Thomas Cochrane .
Wells to Cochrane: Yeegods….don’t do it! I hear you, I hear you.

“You’re right on Team America. Some very funny stuff ridiculing the genre, but politically Parker and Stone have their heads up their asses. Their attacks on Hollywood liberals come from the same place as their apparently serious suggestion that `ignorant’ people should stay away from the polls.
“On one hand they attack actors for being ignorant, and on the other for `reading things in the newspaper and presenting them as our own opinions’ (or words to that effect).
“Tim Robbins especially can be awfully insufferable, but compared to an overtly
mendacious Presidental administration, a few mouthy, semi-informed celebs hardly seems like a problem worthy of frontal assault, especially in a movie that seems to find the Team Americans’ bellicosity (i.e. blowing up the EiffelTower and the Louvre to get to a few Arab terrorists) more endearing than upsetting.
“Stone and Parker have always styled themselves as equal-opportunity offenders, but there’s a nastiness to their attacks on famous left-wingers thatv is unrivaled by anything on the other side of the ledger. Michael Moore as a hot dog-waving suicide bomber? Unfair and, more importantly, unfunny. Maybe it’s ridiculous for people to take Sean Penn’s word on what’s happening in Baghdad, but it’s not Sean Penn’s fault that people report what he has to say.
“In a perfect world, Seymour Hersh would be a regular guest on Leno, but that’s not
American culture as we know it. Maybe Parker and Stone should take their own advice and keep mum on things they know nothing about.” — Sam Adams, Movies Editor, Philadelphia City Paper.
“Thank you so much for finally making it perfectly clear: Hollywood types who spout liberal dogma are enlightened icons who should be relied upon for all of our political knowledge. However, Hollywood types who seem to spout conservative views are idiots who are wrong and should be chastised! Why didn’t I see it!?
“Don’t you see that what you are saying in your column is exactly the type of pomposity that Parker and Stone are attacking in their movie? The problem with Hollywood liberals is that they think because they are famous we should care what they think, even worse, that their opinion is the ONLY viable one. That is why regular people, for the most part, wish Sean Penn and company would just shut the fuck up.
“It really frightens me that someone might ir vote for Kerry because Spicolli said them he da man.” — Chris
Wells to Chris: I didn’t say Hollywood liberals are the end-all and be-all. I essentially said the stated reason for Stone and Parker’s trashing them in Team America (i.e., because “they don’t know shit,” as one of them told the New York Post‘s Megan Lehmann) struck me as brusque and short-sighted and slanted.
How does a person acquire enough knowledge about the Bushies and the running of the Iraqi War these days to speak out about same, according to Stone and Parker? Penn went to Iraq before the war and looked around on his own, but they still think he’s an asshole. Moore, Robbins, Garafalo and the others have presumably read up on these topics from books, newspapers, academic authorities, etc. But they can’t speak out about these things because they’re ignorant and/or annoying, according to Parker and Stone.
Given these criteria, you’d think Matt and Trey would also trash 9/11 Republican Ron Silver, since he’s just another actor who probably gets his information from more or less the same sources that the liberal wankers rely on. But somehow I don’t think this will happen. Do you?

“I’ve heard Team America described as an equal-opportunity offender (I haven’t yet seen it), but is it really? I guess a case could be made that Parker-Stone are slamming Bush’s war-waging, but that seems kind of tenuous at best, and, from all I’ve read, the only real-life targets lampooned by Stone and Parker are the U.N. and liberal actors who speak out against the war. The latter seems particularly absurd, as these actors are artists just like Stone and Parker, and who’s to say that only certain artists should express their opinions?
“Artists have a long history of commenting on current events — take Picasso’s Guernica, for example. And it’s doubly ironic that Republicans criticize outspoken entertainers so much (‘no one cares what you have to say!’), but the party has elected far more entertainers into office than have Democrats — Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sonny Bono, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan. I guess actors are only out-of-line when they’re Democrats, huh?” — Kyle Buchanan
“Do a search for ‘South Park Republicans’ and although you’ll find a lot of right-wingers overselling how close South Park is to their thinking, you’ll get a sense of the libertarian place that Parker and Stone are coming from.
“One of the things about youth is that it likes to rebel against whatever it perceives as the prevailing, and often suffocating, culture. In 1968 that meant the Establishment and Suburbia. But for at least a notable minority on college campuses today, the establishment, the prevailing culture is the leftist orthodoxy. It’s
middle-aged professors who hate America and capitalism but have never had a job that wasn’t with the state.
“It’s the victim culture that creates rules for sex which presume male guilt, and speech codes that allow leftists to suppress rightwing views on campus. And it’s the Democratic party rolling over for the RIAA and Jack Valenti (to get to
the issue that really matters– reproductive freedom for my iPod, man!)
“Maybe a lot of that’s exaggerated or simple-minded, but I’ll bet not everything the Yippies said about LBJ would stand up in a court of law either. The point is, if you believe that Saddam rather than Bush comes closest to being another Hitler, and that free-market capitalism and personal responsibility are better systems to live under than hypersensitive, politically correct nanny-statism, South Park has been your show and your way to laugh back at your profs and your extremely serious Chomsky-spouting dorm-mates for a long time.
“The only thing new about Team America is the puppets.” — Mike Gebert


“Love the new site and your ambition. Hope you’re getting some sleep.
“The letter from Kenya made me think that you should have a column alternating with Visitors. Call it Visitations or some such. Have your international readers describe their home towns and the Hollywood and local films that have been shot there.
Heck, get Nebraskans who want to comment on Alexander Payne’s movies–just no one from NY, LA, Toronto or Vancouver. If you archived them by continent, country and city, it would be a fun place to look up before taking a trip abroad.” — Jack Cheng, Boston, MA.