A SEASON AT THE MOVIES WITH OCCUPY ASTORIA LIC
September 1, 2012: This year we’ve sponsored a series of film screenings with discussions, director Q&A and academic presentations. All of these free, public events have so far been held on Tuesday evenings at the Church of the Redeemer, our most gracious hosts. The following guide reviews the 10 movies we have shown so far in 2012, while favoring those films that can most use promotion from us.
If you’re reading this site, odds are good that you’ve already seen the 2011 Oscar winner for best documentary feature, Inside Job, or that you are among the millions who have viewed Food, Inc. By contrast, The Vanishing City and American Autumn are new works that deserve wider audiences, and that we believe have enormous potential to inform and inspire political movement. “Sir! No Sir!” and Wikirebels introduce essential historical lessons that even activists may not know well. The New Jim Crow is establishing a new paradigm on the drug war and mass incarceration but the message is still breaking through to larger audiences.
Fiction is beautiful, but at a time when more people may be learning about the Civil War from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer than from history books, we have chosen to favor documentaries. Many of these films are available for free online – the links are provided – or from subscription services like Netflix. We recommend that you watch them with others, or hold public screenings. We should also tell you that we discovered it was not very hard to arrange Q&A sessions with directors, in person or by Skype.
VANISHING CITY * AMERICAN AUTUMN * THE NEW JIM CROW * WIKIREBELS * “SIR! NO SIR!”
MURDER AT CITY HALL * THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS * HEIST * FOOD INC. * INSIDE JOB
Souvenir progams: June 26 * July 17 * July 31 * Aug 14 * Aug 21
We are accustomed to seeing New York City destroyed by Hollywood monsters. Unfortunately, this disaster movie is all too real. In The Vanishing City, the mad scientists who unleash the monsters are City Hall, billionaire developers, exception-happy zoning boards, and a system of tax breaks for new construction known as the 421a exemption. The monsters are the literally hundreds of new high-rise buildings looming overhead, completely out of proportion to the areas in which they are built.
New Yorkers will find it hard not to weep by the end, once they see the extent of what they are losing, in their own neighborhoods and far beyond: Harlem and 125th Street, fated to become gaudy boxes for Connecticut hedge fund managers. Western Queens, cut off from the river by the rising Great Wall of Condos along the LIC-Astoria waterfront. The West Village, which in the early 1960s successfully resisted Robert Moses’s efforts to literally bulldoze it for a highway, soon to be flattened in a more humanitarian way by NYU, with a majority of the City Council approving the plan. Chinatown, discovered by ambitious developers as a zoning-free zone. Industrial Willets Point, about to be completely wiped out and replaced with Disneyfied housing, all to benefit the hated, Met-killing Wilpons, to whom the city is incomprehensibly awarding the entire area after seizure by eminent domain. Legendary Coney Island, once the workers’ Luna Park, already reduced to a few acres around the Cyclone. Downtown Brooklyn around Atlantic Yards, being transformed into a kind of charmless Mordor by the Rattner plan. The hearts and souls of a dozen other neighborhoods are to be torn out and built over. The eighth episode of New York, the classic historical documentary by Ric Burns, shows how in the 1950s and 1960s the building frenzy orchestrated by Moses and subsidized by the federal government eliminated functional working-class and industrial districts equivalent in area to the parts of Nagasaki and Hiroshima destroyed by the atomic bombs, and ended up creating slums on the far sides of the new highways. After a railroad went under, even the great temple of Penn Station was leveled. The Vanishing City presents an equally harrowing, present-day sequel.
The stunning thing about this hour-long film is that it is as beautiful as it is frightening. The sequences that show the damage done and still underway are ferocious, tragic, poetic. It is a frenzy: More building stock has been added in the last decade than in any other. Over and over, in every neighborhood, opposition arises, always at a late stage, because plans are forged in closed circles long before they are sprung. The politicians, the city bureaucrats, the developers hold bogus hearings to let the people yell and scream, then go ahead with their gigantomania, undeterred. Is it possible for all these different neighborhood movements to join up and cooperate, to stop the breakneck pace of blind growth? That is the question.
Contrary to capitalist ideology, the city is intervening to create a skewed market that favors a handful of real estate moguls over the middle class. Builders of condos for the rich and offices for the banksters get de-zoned and don’t pay property taxes, or receive outright subsidies (“tax expenditures,”) while more and more of the fiscal burden is shifted to small owners who cannot afford it. Living neighborhoods, schools and playgrounds, theaters and hang-outs, and hundreds of small businesses are swapped for high-density monoliths where residents are anonymous to one another. Tens of thousands of people are displaced and evicted as the proportion of affordable housing in the building mix declines. Surrounding rents rise. Those who can’t afford New York should move elsewhere, as mayors from Koch to Bloomberg have famously said, but did they really mean that firefighters and teachers shouldn’t be able to afford to live in the city on $60,000 a year? City policy caters only to the financial sector and the super-rich, otherwise allowing the large service class of the working poor to scratch out a meager living in the in-between spaces. That’s what Citigroup economists have called a “plutonomy.” The city chiefs avoid the provocative label, but what they present as the only viable development alternative to stagnation is bad economic policy, very likely to backfire.
The mayor’s “2030 Plan” foresees adding another million residents in the next 15 years. No one has ever run for office on the idea, but it guides city policy. How will our bursting trains and clogged streets bear the loads? Despite all the subsidies and favors and tax breaks, and despite the billionaire mayor’s spirited ideological defenses of corporatism, the banks and other corporations continue to move mid-level jobs to cheaper locations. No amount of posturing about the city’s prestige and creative atmosphere can alter the bottom line driving that trend. There are enough empty luxury units to house all of the city’s homeless people twice over, and the cranes keep putting up more. Who is going to rent and buy an overflow of overpriced units in a city with a diminishing middle class? If an additional million people are to move in, a large proportion of them will have to be new-arriving working immigrants. How will they afford it? It’s sickening to think that the best possible outcome of the misguided Bloomberg development strategies will be that they’ve us set up for yet another real estate crash. After that, we may have a chance to come up with a rational plan for our city, based on the need for a green conversion that in the future will be as unavoidable as it is today mocked and ignored: reviving local manufacture, harvesting what we can from urban farming and locally produced green energy, seeking a sustainable quality of life for all. Possibly even repurposing some of these blue-glass monstrosities.
The Vanishing City was rejected for broadcast by a major network because it supposedly doesn’t “show enough of the other side.” Which side would that be? The politicians and the developers who always have a platform on the major networks, who either own the corporate media outright or are major advertisers, and whose will is almost never challenged?
This film needs to be seen in every neighborhood of this city, before the qualities that give New York its unique character are made extinct. And elsewhere: With one city as the emotional, closely-studied miniature, what emerges from the film is a sober history that applies equally well to the country as a whole, telling a tale of governments operating as nothing more than bidders for free-floating investment capital, of neoliberalism and 40 years of economic folly.
The directors are happy to travel with their film, when they can. Contact them through their site. They have provided a package that includes sample letters to send to City Council representatives, and lists current contact information (phones and addresses) for the entire New York City Council.
 The term “plutonomy” was introduced by the notorious 2005 memo by a Citigroup global strategist, which in part read: “We project that the plutonomies (the U.S., UK, and Canada) will likely see even more income inequality, disproportionately feeding off a further rise in the profit share in their economies, capitalist-friendly governments, more technology-driven productivity, and globalization… Since we think the plutonomy is here, is going to get stronger… It is a good time to switch out of stocks that sell to the masses and back to the plutonomy basket.”
Set in the autumn of 2011, this is the real history of Occupy Wall Street, the one that not even John Stewart was willing to tell. It makes mincemeat of the most common anti-OWS talking points (see the cartoon by B. Deutsch, below) by showing that the movement has a compelling, realistic, necessary political program. The Occupy protests are a convergence of many energetic movements with related grievances. Occupy is the recognition that class war has always been waged, by an oligarchy on everyone else. It is a realization that the people have a common purpose, a need to fight back against the ruling class. The protests did not spring up from nowhere, and though for now they can be driven from the streets, they will not be going away.
You want a blockbuster? You want thrills? I need to be harsh with you, to save you trouble: Batman is not just fascist drivel. It’s boring. Total Recall is as tedious as watching someone else play a video game for two hours, with the colors washed out. The Avengers runs for three bombastic hours, and it feels like a year of stupid. We could go on with this list. You pay thirteen, sometimes seventeen dollars per butt, and you plop down your twenties for popcorn and corn drinks, and you watch crap.
You can have this baby for free. Put it through your Roku box, or watch it on your precious little phone, for all I care. This work is open source, like the movement to which it is dedicated. Just the opening sequence, wherein Gordon Gekko (Mr. “Greed Is Good”) is thrown into the fiery pits of hell, is worth the price of a multiplex ticket. Of course you should do the right thing, and go to the DVD purchase page, where you can pay anything from $1 to $250 (if you really want to sponsor indie media producers). Even better, you can contact the director, invite a hundred people, and have him as your prize guest, like we did.
Now here’s the press release:
THE NEW JIM CROW
Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
One woman speaks about her book, at a podium, for an hour, and then takes questions. Of the films we showed, this one drew the largest audience, and no one was able to turn away. By the end, you may undergo the same transformation in your thinking that she, too, had to endure:
During several decisive months in 2010, a news crew from Swedish state television follows the guerilla journalists of Wikileaks. The story begins with Julian Assange and other Wikileaks members in Iceland. Rejkavik issues an order to prevent the national television news from covering Wikileaks’ disclosures about the country’s banking scandals. The gagged newsanchors instead take to the air to urge the citizenry to find the suppressed documents on the Wikileaks site. Soon after, the Icelandic government falls and the parliament unanimously votes for a law, proposed by Assange, to turn Iceland into the world’s first “media haven.”
Wikileaks then acquires hundreds of thousands of US documents classified “SECRET.” The first two batches released cover US war action in Afghanistan and then Iraq. The Iraq materials include the horrific “Collateral Murder” video, which shows a US attack helicopter machine-gunning unarmed men in a Baghdad street, two of whom were journalists for Reuters. Passers-by who stop their van and get out to aid the downed men are also strafed to death, without warning. (Viewers should be warned that these scenes are potentially traumatic.) The documents confirm many other atrocities, and reveal a minimum of 15,000 deaths in the course of hostilities in Iraq that had not been previously reported.
The US military arrests Private Bradley Manning as the alleged leaker of these document caches. He has been held in solitary confinement ever since, for almost two years, and his trial is only now about to begin. For many months Manning was forced to sleep in the nude, without a cover, and with bright lights on.
Soon after, the biggest Wikileaks release of all, a set of 250,000 diplomatic cables mostly classified “SECRET,” reveals the State Department’s efforts to manage the US empire over decades’ time. Revelations about the extent of Tunisian corruption help to trigger the Arab Spring. The trove reveals that the US is waging a secret drone war in Yemen, and that the State Department is asking its own diplomats to spy on other diplomats at the United Nations by stealing credit card numbers and obtaining DNA samples. Other documents demonstrate the government’s subordination to multinational corporations, and expose how the US exerts hardball pressure on various states to conform to pro-corporate policies, often demanding they ignore their own laws or drop criminal prosecutions of US nationals. Over and over, the documents show how secrecy is used as a cover for abuses and impunity. The critics however claim the documents are trivial, or else that their release endangers national security; sometimes both claims are made at the same time.
The US establishment enters a period of Wikileaks hysteria. Sarah Palin accuses the Australian national of treason, and says he “should be targeted like the Taliban.” Other politicians and pundits also call for Assange’s death. Government agencies warn employees against accessing the documents, or even reading them in the New York Times. A few private institutions follow suit: a Columbia University Law School dean warns students they might endanger their careers if they read the Wikileaks documents online. Amazon cancels its hosting of the Wikileaks site, and Visa and Mastercard refuse to process contributions to Wikileaks, putting the organization in dire financial straits. Leading security firms provide Bank of America with crude plans for neutralizing Assange and his supporters, like Glenn Greenwald (as is later exposed by an Anonymous hack of their servers). All this ignores that Wikileaks is not the leaker of secrets, only the publisher of leaks, and thus enjoys the same protection of press freedom as the New York Times.
Assange is detained in London for extradition to Sweden, where prosecutors want to question him on sex crime allegations. (Charges have never been filed.) Meanwhile, an American federal grand jury convenes to consider indicting him for espionage. UK extradition processes are slow, unlike Sweden’s. Assange claims that Sweden will hand him over to the United States. In 2012, after losing his final appeal before the UK supreme court, he takes refuge in the Embassy of Ecuador, which grants him asylum in tacit honor of his work against US imperialism. British police surround the embassy and there is a brief threat that the UK will storm the building, in gross violation of international treaties governing diplomacy. As of this writing, the UK has backed down from that plan. Assange is still in the embassy.
The Swedish news documentary Wikirebels does an excellent and fair job in telling this complicated and eventful story up to late 2010, when Manning had been arrested, Assange was first detained, and the State Deparment cables had just been released. It interviews supporters as well as detractors, but is increasingly out of date. If you find a more up-to-date movie that does as well, let us know.
The Wikileaks story raises key questions for our time: What is democracy without transparency? Who decides which secrets to keep? What is the proper role of the media? Is Wikileaks a threat, and if so: to whom? Is Bradley Manning a traitor, a hero, or both?
Here is a short reading list of books and online material relevant to the issue of secrecy and “Top Secret America.” Be sure to read the thought-provoking article quoted above, “Of Wikileaks and Literacy: The Secret Secret,” by Jimmy Johnson in Counterpunch.
“SIR! NO SIR!”
The Suppressed Story of the GI Movement to End the War In Vietnam
Soldiers made up the heart of the anti-war movement that forced the United States to end its military intervention in Vietnam. Americans once knew this. They were able to see it on the street with their own eyes, and read about in newspapers during the final years of what we call the Vietnam war. (The one that the Vietnamese call “the American war.”) This truth has been buried under nearly 40 years of Rambo movies and propaganda about protesters spitting on veterans. The history is revived vividly in “Sir! No Sir!”, winner of the audience award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Golden Starfish Award for best documentary in 2005.
This is not a single-voice documentary. The main film draws on more than two dozen interview partners, and at least as many independent sources of footage from both the war and the homefront. The documentation is imposing. Did you know that by 1970 there were at least 300 underground anti-war publications circulating within the military? You can see the covers of a hundred of them here. (Kids, before blogs, there was this thing called a mimeo machine…) The DVD is recommended for the extras, which cover many essential subjects left out of the main film, and in total are even longer.
From a few dozen courageous acts of refusal in the mid-1960s, within a few years the spirit of resistance had grown so far that the infantry was no longer willing to fight. Anti-war cafes went into business near military bases all around the United States. Dozens of veterans’ groups organized domestic protests. At a 1971 protest in Washington, more than 800 veterans threw their war medals back at the White House. An anti-war counterpart to the USO tour drew tens of thousands of military men to rock-and-roll shows called FTA, which stood alternately for “Free the Army” and “F- the Army.” Thousands of soldiers deserted, while a substantial proportion of those in Vietnam took to hard drugs. The Pentagon eventually acknowledged hundreds of incidents of “fragging” dating back to 1968, in which men killed their officers rather than follow orders to fight. They typically used fragmentation grenades, hence the name.
The GI revolt was the unacknowledged force that compelled Nixon to “Vietnamize” the conflict, because the US could no longer field a reliable army on the ground. Unfortunately, “Vietnamization” also meant that the US escalated its bombing campaigns, which eventually dropped more tons of explosives on the small nation of Vietnam, north and south, than were used in the entirety of World War II, and sought to defoliate the jungle with the deadly Agent Orange. Even then, resistance grew within the Air Force, as the film shows.
Unfortunately, the most important lesson the US military command learned was that it was preferable to raise a volunteer army – to have an economic draft, instead of a forcible one. Also, to conduct hostilities as much as possible by remote control from thousands of miles away, and to exercise stricter control of the press. This is why it is so essential that today’s anti-war movements also study the lessons from our predecessors of that time – many of whom are, of course, still active today.
The film could use a bit more structured chronological telling of the background to war policy: From the US assumption of what was originally an attempt to retain a French colony, to the fake “Gulf of Tonkin incident” that allowed a massive escalation after 1964, to the 1968 Tet Offensive by the Vietnamese resistance, which revealed to the world that the government was lying about how the US was about to prevail. The subsequent revelation of massacres by US forces at sites like My Lai collapsed any remaining myth of humanitarian war.
For those of us not old enough to remember the events directly, “Sir! No Sir!” is not a replacement for reading a few more conventionally-structured histories. Since this is not a book list, however, the recommendation is to also watch The Most Dangerous Man In America, a documentary about Daniel Ellsberg, the Julian Assange of his time (as Ellsberg himself today says). As an expert with the RAND corporation and adviser to Defense Secretary McNamara, his release of the documents known as the “Pentagon Papers” was also essential in exposing government deceptions and helping to bring about an end to the US intervention.
 Of which there are no reliably documented cases whatsoever, as the film establishes in a marvelous interview with a scholar who wrote the only book on the subject. Another war-enabling myth.
MURDER AT CITY HALL
Directed by Geoffrey A. Davis, USA 2007, 26 min.
James Davis was made of stern stuff. As a young adult he walked innocently out of his housing project and was wrongfully accosted, arrested, and beaten by two white police officers. What would you have done? Davis studied hard to become a corrections officer and then a cop, in the hope of reforming the system. He founded a movement against police brutality and neighborhood violence that mobilized marches of thousands of people and was called by its slogan, “Love Yourself Stop the Violence.” He was hired as an instructor at the Police Academy. A passionate speaker, he became a minister and was elected to the City Council from Brooklyn in 2001, from a district with a highly diverse population of blacks, Latinos and Jews. He led a campaign to ban toy guns that are indistinguishable at a distance from the real thing, which had resulted in shootings of children. One day in 2003, when Davis was planning to introduce a bill to confront violence in the workplace, he was shot to death in the City Council chamber by a local political opponent, whom Davis had himself brought into City Hall that day. James’s sad, posthumous distinction was to become the first black man to lay in state at New York City Hall, where tens of thousands came to view him.
Perhaps the most devastated of all by his death was his brother, Geoffrey Davis. Born only eighteen months apart, since childhood they had been inseparably close. Geoffrey, too, was made of stern stuff. Since the assassination, he has devoted himself to keeping his brother’s memory and work alive, and still runs the foundation. The slogan is the same but the organization has been renamed for James. Geoffey has traveled the world as a grief counselor and ambassador of peace to people and communities similarly hit by sudden, incomprehensible violence. Making an amiable and indefatigable impression, always championing hope and charity, wherever Geoffrey goes he screens this 26-minute compilation on his brother’s life and work, which is built around a powerful speech at the annual “Love Yourself Stop the Violence” rally.
THE AMERICAN RULING CLASS
Who is the American ruling class? How does one join them? Lewis Lapham, an essayist worthy of Mark Twain, should know. The editor of Harper’s magazine for more than 30 years, he grew up in a San Francisco old-money family. As a child, brought along to teas with the likes of Allen Dulles and Prime Minister Nehru, he got to watch the creation of the United Nations and the postwar world order. The film, which lays claim to be the world’s first documentary musical, finds Lapham in 2005. A sort of tweed-jacketed Mephistopheles, Lapham takes two Yale graduates of differing temperaments (actually two actors who went to Harvard) on a guided tour to key institutions of power: Wall Street, the Pentagon, Hollywood, the Council on Foreign Relations, country clubs, etc. He introduces them to real-life members of the American ruling class. The boys meet bankers and potentates, and consultants and lawyers to bankers and potentates. Including James Baker, the former Secretary of State and Bush consigliere, the big shots all ritually insist that this country is a democracy, and there is no ruling class. Then they explain how it works. Their careers consistently display a knack for moving seamlessly back and forth between high public and private functions. As the two young men consider what they should do with their own lives, Lapham also introduces them to Howard Zinn, Walter Cronkite, Pete Seeger and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. We meet journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who at the time was working as a waitress on assignment for her book on the life of low-wage labor, Nickeled and Dimed. Soon enough the kitchen staff, the taxi driver, the hotel cleaning lady and what finally looks like the entirety of the US service sector sing a number of the same title, adding up their wages, expenses and tribulations in verse. Ehrenreich explains that the real philanthropists are the ones who work for less than they need to get by, so that the more fortunate are well-served. Other numbers, including “The Mighty Wurlitzer” and “Empire Falls,” as well as a naked rip-off/tribute to Network, are equally memorable. The indescribable result is a cross between C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite and Guys and Dolls.
Who Stole the American Dream?
More than any other film on this list, Heist is consciously action-oriented, and the accompanying website has the activist packages, how-to tips for screenings, and other support material to back it up. The film is a straightforward introductory education on the neoliberal policies that, starting in the 1970s, intentionally made the rich richer, concentrated power in ever fewer and ever larger corporations, and left the working classes in a state of precarity, fear and resignation. The final parts present programmatic alternatives to the corporatist status quo, and ideas for how to get there.
From the website:
Cartels. An overarching theme that emerged during our film series was the increasing concentration of power within each sector of the US and global economies. Capitalism has always tended to consolidate power, but over the past few decades, major markets that once involved 30 or more competitors have been reduced to a half-dozen or fewer. By investing millions in lobbying, campaign finance, and regulatory capture, cartels can control Congress and statehouses and have their executives appointed to run regulatory agencies. Legislative and regulatory control translates into billions in subsidies and favors, and in the case of Wall Street, it has meant trillions. Market dominance also allows cartels to crush competitors, strong-arm suppliers, limit consumer options, flout laws, and act without regard for ecology or human health. Heist shows how this is true of the media (e.g., six corporations control more than 90 percent of broadcast television as well as theatrical movies). Inside Job shows how this is true of finance. Food Inc. shows it for agribusiness and the food production industries.
Wait. Let’s try this a different way: Jesus Christ, at the supermarket even the yogurt has corn syrup in it. The pickles. The ketchup. It’s in the beans. The canned pineapples. The rye bread. Why is that?
Currently the whole film is available online with Spanish subtitles.
How did Charles Ferguson manage to make financial fraud so cinematic? It’s no exaggeration to say that within the first five minutes of this movie, which opens with a few deceptively sleepy scenes in Iceland, we are treated to one of the two most dramatic jump-cuts in the last ten years of film-making. (The other was in the Argentinean feature The Secret In Their Eyes, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, my code of ethics requires me not to give away spoilers.)
Ferguson did not earn his Oscar just by wrapping the financial crisis into an able, engaging history. Anyone who’s immersed themselves in the disaster of the last five years should be familiar with the epic mortgage-backed securities scams and the unsavory characters involved: the mortgage-selling sharks, the title-forging servicers, the market-makers at the heart of darkness and their obedient Igors at the ratings agencies, the career-blinded regulators, the marauding derivatives traders, and the media clowns who pimped the idea that housing prices would grow by 20 percent every year, forever. Flip This House!
Ferguson makes that story come to life, and breaks new ground by also pinning down a few of the academic enablers. In interviews with economists like Columbia University’s Glenn Hubbard – who takes millions in consulting fees from Wall Street and then happens to write papers supporting Wall Street’s interests – Ferguson allows his interlocutors to hang themselves with lengthy equivocations denying their conflicts of interest. By contrast, a simple PR man from the banking association makes a less educated but much savvier impression. As soon as Ferguson has him cornered, he turns to the camera with a winning smile and asks, “Can we turn this off for a minute?” Of course, he meant forever.
Ferguson now has a book out on the same subject, Predator Nation, and by all reports it’s like a set of indictment briefs for the scam’s major criminals. Unfortunately, the law enforcement has been lax, at best. Which is to say, almost non-existent. Or “criminogenic,” to use William K. Black’s phrase.
Unvarnished facts and sound arguments sadly do little to move a corrupt system. That’s why last year, people finally took to the streets.
Now get out there.