T-ride Film Fest

The 33rd Telluride Film Festival And The Sudden End Of The Pence Era

My Favorite New Film:

September 6, 2006 in T-ride Film Fest | Comments (0)

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The way the Telluride Film Festival announced the retirement of Bill and Stella Pence, who helped put it together in 1974 and have kept it together for 33 years, was entirely in character: surprising, original, and artful, with no press conference. On Monday morning people checking the daily posting of reprises found it headed by an unscheduled event: “Ken Burns (Director of ‘THE WAR’) / Bill and Stella Pence (‘WE’RE TOAST!’). (more…)

Go To Telluride, See The World

The 2005 film festival

September 3, 2005 in T-ride Film Fest | Comments (0)


The world comes to the Telluride Film Festival each Labor Day weekend, and my strategy in picking films is to see the world. So I missed the U.S. films “Walk The Line” about Johnny Cash and “Brokeback Mountain” about  gay rancheros but they’ll be in a neighborhood multiplex by Christmas. (more…)

Zen And The Art of “Ghost World.”

Saving Terri Schiavo

March 31, 2005 in T-ride Film Fest | Comments (0)


“Ghost World,” enjoying a revival on the Independent Film Channel, is not about ghosts, not at least about the usual Hollywood ghosts. The 2001 indie is about a precocious irony-spotting new high school graduate, Enid (Thora Birch), trying to stay real in the unreal city of Los Angeles.

The title is what drew me to the film because, as I recently learned, “ghost world” is an expression from early Buddhism. And although I couldn’t find any evidence this was director Terry Zwigoff’s reference, it helped me make sense of his movie’s strange ending. (more…)

Letter From Baghdad

The Telluride Film Festival showed only one film about Iraq

September 7, 2004 in T-ride Film Fest | Comments (0)

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“Gunner Palace,” Michael Tucker’s urgent documentary about American soldiers in Iraq, was premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on Labor Day weekend. Tucker shot most of it in the last 12 months. So it all takes place after “the end of major combat operations.” This and other AFRTS announcements in the name of Donald Rumsfeld are part of the ironic narrative, like the loudspeakers in M*A*S*H.

Tucker is an unknown, a Seattle boatman who took a community college course in digital film editing, bought an HD camera and set out to see what he could see. He went to Baghdad four times the hard way, without military sanction by armored car from Jordan. For two months late last year he lived with the 2/3 Field Artillery batallion – 400 soldiers stationed in the bombed pleasure palace of Uday Hussein, Saddam’s psychopathic first son.

The soldiers in “Gunner Palace” party at Uday’s swimming pool, practice on his putting green, work at their laptops under his high ceilings. They patrol the streets in this dangerous Aadhamiya district of Baghdad in open Humvees, do raids, make arrests. They rescue abandoned babies, talk to school children, restore a hospital. They take hits from rocks, small arms, mortars, RPG’s, IED’s. They always go fully armed. Sometimes they fight. Some die.

Telluride chooses 18 or 20 new films on the basis of artistry, not politics, and this is not a political movie. Of the many films on the Iraqi war that were available this year, the festival organizers chose only this one, a rare unsolicited submission that stood out, according to festival co-director Tom Luddy.

“Gunner Palace” is a digital movie from a digital war. The men and women of the “Gunner” battallion, as it has been known since its creation in 1812, now carry sophisticated electronic equipment, but beneath the night-vision goggles and the wired helmets, they are still soldiers, aware of the fate of soldiers.
And Tucker captured this. But he did it in a new way. Unlike most documentaries, this one makes the camera part of the action. The soldiers were aware of it, especially when they were at rest in Uday’s obscene palace. They began performing for the camera, and, as Tucker discovered, some from this TV generation were natural actors. Their predominant form was rap, and they said things on camera the guise of rap that they would never say in a serious interview. Like:

Yeah, I notice that my face is aging so quickly/
Cuz I seen more than the average man in his 50s/
I’m 24, I got two kids and a wife/
Having visions of them picturing me out their life.

One soldier played the electric guitar. In a scene with helicopters hovering in an orange sky he stands on a palace wall and does a Jimmy Hendrix-inspired version of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

One was beginning a comic routine for the camera when there was an explosion in the background. He turned toward it. He froze. End of joke.

Although Tucker was not “embedded” as a journalist, he had free access to the palace and eventually was trusted enough by the “gunners” to go along on patrols. In the opening scene they are under fire and running.

Tucker, in another innovation for a documentary, narrates in the first person plural – that is, we not they. And his work is a message from the men and women of the 2/3 Field Artillery batallion, a letter home. One soldier looks into the camera and says, “For y’all this is just a show. But we live in this movie.”

Introduced to the Sheridan Opera House audience before the first screening and handed a microphone, Tucker said, “Eight of the people you will see are now dead. . . .” That’s all he could get out. He handed back the microphone.

The Firebombing Of Japan: An Apology

Errol Morris Presents Robert S. McNamara

September 5, 2003 in T-ride Film Fest,U. S. Politics | Comments (0)

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The American firebombing of Japanese cities in 1945 is the defining imagery in the new documentary film by Errol Morris, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons of Robert S. McNamara,” to be released in December by (Catch the irony) Sony Pictures Classics.

This artfully illustrated interview of a man who is a first source on the murderous 20th Century was a must-see at the Telluride Film Festival where, like Morris’ “Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control” a couple of years ago, it received its North American premier. McNamara, now 87, braved the high altitude of the Colorado mountain town and assumed star status, sitting for interviews and Q and A sessions in which he was not always supportive of Morris or his unconventional work.

McNamara was U.S. secretary of defense from January 1961 to March 1968 under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Vietnam was called “McNamara’s War” by Sen. Wayne Morse, D-Ore., one of the few Congressional opponents of the shamefully coerced Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in August 1964, and the label stuck. “In Retrospect,” published in 1995, was McNamara’s apology for Vietnam.

And now, it seems, he’s apologizing for the destruction of Japan’s wooden cities in World War II.

“Fog of War” is the movie based on McNamara’s best seller because he repeats so much of what he wrote there about Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis (“We came that close to nuclear war.”) But the part of the movie about the firebombing of Japan is new. Morris said it astounded him when it came out in the interviews.

In one dramatic sequence, Morris links each of 67 burned Japanese cities to one of similar population in the United States, superimposing the names and staggering death numbers over black-and-white aerial footage from bomber cameras, as the soundtrack with its eerie Phillip Glass score evokes a million distant thumps. The suggestion of terror on the ground is more effective than seeing it close up.

Firebombing, as was discovered earlier in the war at Dresden, Germany, had a number of unpredicted effects, including the depletion of oxygen, destrictive high winds and “conflagration” in which walls of flame perpetuate themselves. Dresden was the setting of a famous novel by Kurt Vonnegut, but except for descriptions scattered in the works of Yukio Mishima not much has been published in the West about the firebombing of Japanese cities — most likely because it was eclipsed by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later in the year, in August 1945.

Richard Rhodes, historian of the atomic bomb, dwelled on the March 9-10 firebombing of Tokyo in order to give some proportionality to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About 100,000 men, women and children were killed outright that night in Tokyo, and another 1 million sustained burns or injuries as 334 bombers dropped 2,000 tons of incendiaries.

The firebombing campaign was designed by Gen. Curtis LeMay, who came up with the idea of using the new high-altitude B-29 bombers to drop clusters of incendiary bombs at low altitude (5,000 feet) where anti-aircraft guns were ineffective. McNamara was a 29-year-old lieutenant colonel, one of a group of brilliant statistical planners recruited from Harvard, serving under LeMay.

In the film, McNamara tells how his group improved the efficiency of bombing of Germany by statistical analysis proving that the 17 per cent rate of aborted missions was due to fear, not to the stated reasons, such as mechanical failure or sickness. He also claims a part in statistical analysis showing that hitting Japanese cities with India-based bombers refueled in China was not feasible.

McNamara’s intellectual contribution to the subsequent firebombing of Japan from Pacific island bases is not spelled out in his comments to Morris, but he does say that when LeMay served under him in the Kennedy administration, the old general commented that if Japan had won the war they both would have been charged for acting like war criminals.

This startling self-indictment, discussed in at least one Telluride apperance by Morris, probably will get more attention once the movie sinks in, but it’s not as sensational as it sounds because the context was that war crimes are defined by whoever wins the war.

McNamara is harsh on LeMay, as he was in the Vietnam book where he portrays the then Air Force chief of staff as recklessly advocating bombing Cuba during the missile crisis and bombing North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the early stages of Vietnam. McNamara stood in the way, but he eventually approved “Operation Rolling Thunder,” the carpet-bombing of the Vietnam countryside, and it looks an awful lot like the firebombing of Japan, as Morris presents it.

Now, McNamara says in the film that as an undergraduate at Berkeley he loved economics, mathematics and, particularly, philosophy, especially ethics, which he said proscribes “duty to society,” meaning your own people. It was a principle that served him well as he rose to power.
As a product of Berkeley and Harvard (MBA 1939), he has praised the 1930’s leaders of the University of California for keeping the liberal campus safe from the then overwhelmingly conservative rural-dominated legislature. Coincidentally, another man of great scientific intellect who was nourished in the same atmosphere at the same time was J. Robert Oppenheimer, also a Harvard product, although they apparently didn’t know each other.

McNamara is a classically ethical man. His confessions regarding Vietnam tell of misinformation, mistakes in judgement and wrong facts, not moral failings in the light of international law. Few audiences could be expected to remember all 11 points of Morris’ title, but the first “lesson” is memorable: in war, you must understand the motives of the enemy. That was the fault in Vietnam. The domino theory (illustrated by Morris’ image of rows of dominoes clicking down across a map of Southeast Asia) was wrong because its propagandists failed to see that the Vietnamese were fighting a war of independence. They were resisting their old enemy China as well as America and, indirectly, the Soviet Union. They were not puppets intent upon spreading Communism. On the other hand, they failed to understand that America did not wish to succeed France as a colonial ruler.

In the movie McNamara, the classical ethicist, often justifies his actions as consistent with American values and tradition. He is not one to seek a higher morality. And so he is not actually doing mea culpas, as some have described his late-in-life apologies. He does not follow the postmodern argument, so clear and persuasive in Samantha Power’s Pulitzer-prize winning “A Problem From Hell,” that genocide is an absolute crime and that America throughout its history has failed even to recognize it.

McNamara in his Vietnam book takes note of U.S. ratification of the international genocide convention but asks how, in cases like the former Yougoslavia, we can do anything about it when intervention infringes on national sovereignty. On the other hand, Power in her book condemns the early inaction of the empathetic but militarily incompetent Clinton administration in the face of Serbian genocide in Bosnia and Clinton’s total inaction in the face of genocide in Rwanda and, yes, Iraq.

McNamara made mistakes, but he was not incompetent. He was not mystified or intimidated by military power. In his government service he was a man of action, and like most mainstream American political figures, including Colin Powell, he had an allergy to humanitarian wars. Which is to say, these guys really hate war except for the cold, hard, unemotional defense of national interests — even if the facts are wrong and the interests entirely abstract, as in Vietnam.

And now, due to McNamara’s testimony via Morris, it must be asked if the facts were wrong in Japan. Another Pulitzer prize winner, Herbert Bix, in his biography of Hirohito, says the firebombings of Japanese noncombatants “qualify as atrocities.” Bix, however, is the first to make the case that not only was the emperor very much in authority over the generals, but he also was not facing reality. Bix returns to a version of the postwar thesis, discarded by revisionist historians who say Hiroshima was the first shot of the Cold War, that it took the combined shock of the new secret weapon plus Soviet intervention to make Japan, in the person of the emperor, admit defeat and surrender before everybody was killed (and the imperial palace destroyed).

In defense of LeMay, and by implication of himself, McNamara tells how a pilot in a debriefing complained that by misusing B-29’s at low altitude the general was responsible for the death of his copilot from small arms fire. The bullish cigar-smoking general, who McNamara recalls seldom spoke in anything but monosyllables, responded angrily that the pilot lost a buddy but the firebombing was saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers preparing to invade Japan.

The belief that the dug-in people would fight to the last man, woman and child has always been the position of those who say President Harry Truman saved a half million American lives by dropping the atomic bombs, and it was Truman’s defense too. The firebombing had already set a moral precedent that mass destruction of cities was OK because all houses were worker houses and all workers were involved in the war effort. So the difference in August was only quantitative.

The quantity was a quantum leap. One bomb killed 140,000 outright at Hiroshima, and kept on killing. Which leads to another of McNamara’s “lessons.” Namely, that rationality cannot save us from nuclear war because as long as there are nuclear weapons, even in a rational world, they eventually will be used.