THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (Dir. Ivan Dixon, 1973, US) – ‘You have just played out the American dream…now, we’re gonna turn it into a nightmare’

spook-who-sat-by-the-door-the-1973-man-threatened-with-gun-00o-ckd

The high point of Blaxploitation political radicalism is commonly signposted with Melvin Van Peebles groundbreaking film – ‘Sweetback’. When considering the limitations of Blaxploitation cinema, the seminal nature of Peebles film should in no way exclusively act as the definitive reference point for the radicalism of the era or black cinema. Released in 1973, The Spook who sat by the door falls under the auspice of Blaxploitation but the political reality with which it dealt, that of black militancy and anti establishment ideology, is an aspect that most films avoided in fear of commercial alienation and criticism from the white establishment. The claim that Blaxploitation offered new ways of representing what it meant to be black in America seems like another liberal oversight considering how many of these films perpetuated a fantasy urban image of a black anti-hero. Many of these so called Blaxploitation films did little to further the political cause of the black communities in America as many of the films were financed by the major studios in a deliberate and premature attempt to cash in on the emergence of a new black audience. With Blaxploitation, the difficulty with articulating a differing ideological perspective, one which was as fiercely radical and uncompromising as that of the values of black revolutionaries, remained worryingly absent from mainstream cinema.

Black actor and film maker, Ivan Dixon’s second film as a director, The Spook who sat by the door, makes for provocative and highly charged viewing today. Yet the explicit political sympathy it shows with the ideology of black militancy and its centrality within the black community as a force of real change continues to be largely responsible for its relative obscurity and marginal status. Written by Chicago based black activist Sam Greenlee, ‘The Spook who sat by the door’, was published in 1968. Greenlee served as a foreign services officer with the US Information Agency between 1954 and 1957. Though his first novel was a work of fiction, it undoubtedly reflected his own personal experience (and perhaps the discrimination he faced) working for an extension of the white establishment. Co-adapted by Greenlee for the screen (he also acted as one of the producers alongside Ivan Dixon), the novel like the film follows the journey of black CIA agent Dan Freeman who uses his training and skills to create a popular black uprising in the deprived ghetto of Chicago.

Post 68, America had been traumatised by a wave of political assassinations including that of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The death of the civil rights movement and the political gap left by the absence of aspiring leaders brought about a period of disillusionment. The reactionary, armed struggle and brand of empowering black militancy advocated by Marxist groups like The Black Panthers questioned the pacifist approach taken by the civil rights activists as somewhat abortive in achieving the ultimate objective of political, social and economic independence and freedom. Rejecting the non-violent ideologies of Martin Luther, black militancy argued that for real change and progress to take place in the black communities it would need to emerge from a collective and somewhat revolutionary attitude towards the oppression of the white establishment.

A handful of films were able to channel such anxieties including the much dismissed and misinterpreted 1973 film, The Spook who sat by the door. The financing for the project came from wealthy black members of the Chicago community whilst Ivan Dixon’s credentials as a black actor and competent director of TV shows secured a distribution deal with United Artists who also agreed to contribute the final share of the budget. On this basis alone, one could argue that Dixon’s film is an independent feature, made outside the sphere of studio interference and described by Greenlee as ‘guerrilla’ film making. Dixon had promised United Artists another blaxploitation film in the vein of his directorial debut Trouble Man but the finished film enraged the studio who gave it a truncated release. Ivan Dixon started his Hollywood career acting as an uncredited student double for Sidney Poitier on The Defiant Ones. Eventually shifting into television, recognition came with Nothing but a Man, an independent film for which he received critical acclaim in the lead role.

Dixon spent much of his career directing apolitical television shows, much of which he has openly criticised as insignificant. His career after The Spook who sat by the door seemed to stall; Dixon accused the FBI of making it difficult for him to find work – his inflammatory political ideals did not go down well with the wider conservative elements of the white establishment. I think the staunch resistance Dixon faced from United Artists when it came to distribution and the suppression of the final film galvanised a mind set which confirmed that it was possible to make a political film but virtually impossible to get it distributed. I suspect this is what largely prevented Dixon from continuing his engagement with political film making. He tried but had failed at subverting the system.

What makes The Spook who sat by the door fascinating viewing today is the film’s uncompromising approach in detailing the ideology of black militancy – the idea of an armed struggle is something that we actually witness and take place in the film. Perhaps the major criticism with the film is Dixon’s over reliance on the trappings of the blaxploitation film – one can see clear evidence throughout of Dixon’s anxiety with making a film that would potentially limit the commercial prospects. Upon the rigorous recruitment procedure, Dan Freeman (Lawrence Cook) is hired to be the CIA’s first black agent and immediately given a redundant, powerless and token desk job. In the sequences in which Freeman interacts with the white establishment, Dixon mocks the Uncle Tom stereotype as our protagonist acts submissively, politely following orders and maintaining his subservient position as the CIA’s pathetic symbol of liberalism.

Though his time at the CIA is a humiliating one, Freeman’s infiltration proves to be worthwhile as he puts to work his skills and knowledge as an agent to instigate a political revolt in his own community. He recruits a mixture of naïve community activists and politicised revolutionaries, teaching them how political resistance must be determined by acts of violent retaliation – he inevitably attracts the support and even consent of the local community who rally around the group’s radical oppositional thinking. For me, this was the most surprising aspect of the film. Unlike most films in which the revolutionary or radical is eventually captured, imprisoned and killed, the ending sees Freeman very much in control of the revolution and prepared to go to any lengths to ensure it achieves the purpose of political emancipation – the CIA and FBI are unable to repress Freeman as he uses their ideas of guerrilla warfare as a weapon against them. The irony here is simply devastating.

Ivan Dixon’s film seems to be a missing link between the work of black film makers in the 1970s and the confrontational politics of a contemporary black film maker like Spike Lee.

CHOMANA DUDI / CHOMA’S DRUM (1975, India, B. V. Karanth)

cd

In Chomana Dudi the sound of the drumbeat never really stops. It is a sound at first made by Choma (Vasudeva Rao in a remarkable performance), the aging bonded labourer and untouchable, used to express the rage he feels about his oppression. But later it appears more frequently, punctuating the narrative, an incessant reminder of feudalism and casestism as perpetual to history. The sound of the drumbeat is one of political impotency; a pathetic cry of futile social conditions from which Choma and his family are unable to escape, no matter what they do. Chomana Dudi is based on a classic of Kannada literature, Choma’s Drum, written by acclaimed novelist K. S. Karanth. Choma’s dream of buying his own land, having toiled his entire life for a despotic, exploitative landlord, is a fatalistic death kneel, conjured from the debauched universe of noir.

Directed by B. V. Karanth (interestingly director Girish Kasaravalli is credited as assistant director) and released in 1975, Chomana Dudi, was part of a Parallel Cinema that transpired in Karnataka in the 1970s, a new wave that often gets lumped in with Indian Parallel Cinema as a troublesome monolithic entity. Of course, there are undeniable frissons and intersections between the regional Parallel Cinema that emerged in the late 60s and early 70s in Karnataka, West Bengal and Kerala. But the Kannada Parallel Cinema, much of it pioneered by Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth seemed to coincide with Benegal’s rural realism in the mid 1970s, forging a path that branched away from more initial avant-garde concerns to a notable ideological engagement with representations of the subaltern; a project that would come to life theoretically in the 1980s with Subaltern Studies.

In part, films like Ankur, Samskara and Chomana Dudi were a return to the questionable neo-realist experiments of the late 1940s and 1950s, notably Do Bigha Zamin and Dharti Ke Lal. However, a work like Chomana Dudi fuses melodrama with a pronounced Marxist address, whereby caste discrimination is brought to light in some impenitent, startling instances. For example, when one of Choma’s sons is drowning, an upper caste villager runs to the aid of the boy. While this is happening someone can be heard shouting that the boy is an untouchable and the villager should not intervene. Having reached the boy, the villager stops and simply lets the boy drown. Choma looks on despairingly. It is an extraordinary sequence, a blunt rejoinder to the horrors of the caste system, articulating a history that still bears a silence around it in Indian cinema.

Although Choma’s beating of the drum acts as a pulse in the film, a symbolic manifestation, his earthly connections to the land imagine the peasant farmer and untouchable as resolutely magical, transcendent and epic. Absent though is any attempt at political resistance, embracing fatalism and futility that is overwhelmingly bleak. Perhaps this best describes casteism but it also problematically situates the lower caste peasant farmer as a politically redundant, subjugated figure with no recourse to implementing social change. In this case, how should we read the final shot of Choma’s drum rolling into the frame: another defeatist aide-mémoire of the supremacy of caste politics that remains intact or the benign trace of an individual, dignified victory against the system?

ARGO (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2012, US) – Cowboys and Indians

Ben Affleck as CIA agent Tony Mendez.


Argo opens with a glib lesson in shoddy Hollywood political objectivity, attempting to tell us that the geopolitical situation of Iran during the American Embassy hostage siege had its demonic seeds in the history of American interventionism. It is one of the few moments in the entire film that we witness a fleeting, if not grudging, attempt at political introspection. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture removes him from the geographical comforts of Boston but does political necessarily indicate a growing up in Hollywood cinema? It certainly has been the case with previous liberally inclined film stars turned directors such as Robert Redford and George Clooney. This growing up from traditional Hollywood film genres to more obscure, difficult and problematic material seems to mark some kind of a painfully superficial transition from an isolationist view of American life to broader transnational politics. Yet the sanitised liberal intentions including the serious subject matter, political context, 1970s period, extended conversation sequences and mixing of visual styles merely propagates a view that the ideological construction of such materials is what makes Argo a historically accurate representation of what is a true story. The problem that many of these so-called Hollywood political thrillers face is that by suppressing accurate and fair political content and context, those doing the re-presenting, namely Americans, engineer a historically biased discourse framed against current anti-Iranian sentiments that are regularly propagated by much of the benign mainstream media. No filmmaker has an obligation to be objective but surely every filmmaker has an obligation to be responsible in the way they represent a nation that is already undergoing a steady process of demonization by the western media. 

Argo fails on a number of political accounts, misrepresenting Iran and the Islamic revolution through a distant gaze that refuses to give the Iranian people an authentic or credible voice and instead disembodies them so their rage merges with familiar news imagery of state repression, executions, fanaticism and religious ideology. The Islamic revolution was a populist one and had widespread support amongst ordinary Iranians yet in the film, Khomeini and the new establishment are viewed with suspicion, derision and contempt by the American liberal gaze. Additionally, the refusal to fully explain the context of the Iran hostage crisis and what the Americans were actually doing in the Embassy smacks of selective amnesia. The mere suggestion of the Americans acting as spies in the Embassy is ridiculed and quickly rendered obsolete. However, by having the Iranians adopt this point of view makes them appear doubly paranoid and simply chasing a blood lust. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo’s rescuing of POWs from a communist prison camp not only resurrected the spectre of the Vietnam War but his total annihilation of the landscape and its people saw a fictional re-enactment of having won a war America had lost. Such fantasy wish fulfilment resurfaces in Argo. The covert rescue operation mounted with the approval of Jimmy Carter in 1980 resulted in failure, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans and one Iranian. A film like Argo helps to conceal such political failures of the past, reconstituting American history and its humanist people working for the most morally deplorable of institutions (The CIA) as triumphalist, heroic and somewhat more liberal than those pesky gun totting incomprehensible Iranians. 

Even more worrying are the final titles, juxtaposing real photos of the event against stills taken from the film so that any questions to do with the truth, reality and authenticity are rendered almost invisible to the ordinary spectator. One leaves the cinema with the message that this is an accurate representation of a true story and categorically stating that Americans and the West are the good guys. But are we really?

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012, US) – ‘America’s not a country, it’s a business…’

Brad Pitt as enforcer/hit-man ‘Jackie Cogan’

‘And to all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope…’         

– President Obama’s acceptance speech, 2008

Killing Them Softly revels in the cynicism of its central character of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit man who stalks the noir lit streets of an urban American society suffering from a monstrous moral and economic decadence. It’s not a fantastical decadence but one rooted in a stark contemporary reality in which the terms recession and capitalism have led to a social crisis of confidence. The absence of morality is nothing new to the crime genre but here it seems to be absolute in the way Jackie views his role of the hit man nothing more than a professional service. With Jackie, all that exists is the job. He has no external life to speak of and trades in death. He also occupies a universe of unsavoury characters that collectively represent a dispiriting American underbelly often found in some of the more nightmarish visions of America from 1970s cinema. The fact that we find no difference between the amorality of Jackie from his victims is what makes the film’s representation of American society so powerfully dark. We have no one to root for in the film and in many ways we become observers rather than traditional participators. Such an observational and at times detached spectatorial position underlines the way director Andrew Dominik chooses to foreground ideological concepts over more visceral conventions associated with the genre. 

Most of the film hinges on extended conversation sequences while in the background we hear America’s transition from Republicanism to Liberalism (punctuated with speeches delivered by Bush and Obama) as a nothing more than historical spectacle, stressing the continuing empty promises made by politicians. In many ways, Jackie is a twisted metaphor for the contemporary entrepreneur and although he deals in death his violent preoccupations are a pale reflection of successive American leaders. However, what separates Jackie from someone like President Obama is the refusal to use hypocrisy as a form of persuasion. For Jackie, his profession as both an enforcer and hit man is devoid of such traditional forms of political hypocrisy; instead he deals in a reality based on choices and ultimatums, thus avoiding any potential personal guilt. In fact, Jackie is unique in the pantheon of cinematic enforcers/hit-men since existentialism is traded in for an ideological bent. Such ideological musings transforms Jackie into a vicious political metonym and repressed voice for disillusionment with the establishment that stretches back to the 1970s. 

Just as The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford offers a revisionist dissemination of the western genre, Killing Them Softly also undermines audience expectations associated with the crime film genre. The plot is perfunctory and offers little variation in what we have seen before in the American crime film. Two desperate criminals hold up a card game run by the mob, resulting in the entrance of enforcer Jackie Cogan who takes on the job of resolving the crime. The film is adapted from a 1974 novel ‘Cogan’s Trade’ by George V. Higgins who also wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Dominik updates the story to 2008 but such prescient political and economic parallels exist between the two eras that I doubt if the film really loses any of the 1970’s context. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, directed by Peter Yates, features one of Mitchum’s greatest performances as an ageing small time criminal who becomes an unlikely police informant. The patina of romanticism often found in some of the more celebrated American crime films is largely absent from the writing of Higgins. Dominik appears to remain faithful to Higgin’s unglamourous depiction of the criminal underworld by opting for a neo noir aesthetic echoing the dirty, bleached out look that defined films such as Taxi Driver, The Outfit and Thief. Absent also is the traditional face of the crime boss who oversees the hierarchical power structure. Such a choice means that the action stays firmly rooted in the urban milieu of peripheral low life characters typically marginalised in crime or gangster films. 

The film isn’t wholly devoid of action, with a stand out assassination sequence involving hypnotic slow motion, shattered glass, shell casings travelling through rain and the sounds of Kelly Lester’s ‘Love Letters’. Perhaps the defining moments of the entire film is the final scene between Jackie and the ‘middleman’ (Richard Jenkins). Staged in a bar and brilliantly juxtaposed to a television set broadcasting the acceptance speech of the newly elected President Obama, Jackie’s cynical diatribe on the state of America as defunct, individualistic and pathologically obsessed with money may seem somewhat polemical and unexpected for a crime film but its power comes from watching A list film star Brad Pitt deliver such words, and all with an eloquence and clarity. With Assassination of Jesse James and last year’s Tree of Life, Brad Pitt certainly doesn’t need to convince the sceptics of his growing capacity as a fantastic actor and Killing Them Softly offers yet another brilliantly charismatic performance, if not, his best to date. As Jackie Cogan, Pitt is scary, charming and deeply pessimistic, modelling his washed out grungy appearance on a decrepit Elvis. 

This is an angry and prescient piece of cinema that could in time be considered a masterful addition to the American crime oeuvre. One of the films of the year for sure.