The New York Film Festival closed a few weeks ago. The eagerly anticipated presidential debates came and went. Today we are faced with the outcome of an existential choice, and I still think of three extraordinary films at NYFF 58, two documentaries and a drama that may or may not offer keen relief to certain features of our national political crisis as just great films.
The MLK / FBI documentary by veteran director / producer / editor Sam Pollard repeats the last decade in the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., ending with his assassination in 1968, a time when our tax dollars signed a campaign to haunt him to monitor, profile, wiretap, blackmail and slander. Today we honor this great American as a peace prophet, as a civil rights hero, as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, for whom we are celebrating a national holiday, but barely two days after his famous “I have a dream” speech in Washington in March 1963. In an internal memorandum of the FBI, King was named "The most dangerous negro of the future in this nation from the point of view of communism, the negro and national security".
Dr. King wasn't the only one spied on by the FBI. By the early 1960s, over 432,000 Americans, including Supreme Court justices, movie stars, philanthropists, and even a first lady (all available from the National Archives), had amassed a host of “subversive” files. This was the premium of a crusade begun in 1950 by Senator Joseph McCarthy, his chief legal advisor Roy Cohn and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to defeat the United States government of communists (Red Scare) and "Sex Deviates" ( Lavender Scare). Hoover himself had written Masters of Deceit, a 1958 book that alerted Americans to the creeping "threat" of communism and urged them to be vigilant against "espionage and sabotage."
Until the FBI Dr. Targeting King as a hidden communist (he wasn't), a decade of research into citizen's sex lives had resulted in countless layoffs and resignations, and created cabinets of secret personal files that Hoover kept in his office – bold folders of typed testimonials , transcribed eavesdropping devices, internal memos, personal letters, bank records, newspaper clippings, photos, etc. Take a look, for example, in the files of the Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana to prove JFK's affair with Judith Exner and Giancana's bed mate. No wonder senators and congressmen avoided crossing Hoover for 48 years while he was holding onto power.
While monitoring King, the FBI encountered Pay Dirt. An incriminating reel of tape arrived at the King family's doorstep addressed to his wife Coretta, along with an unsigned letter speaking for "all of us Negroes" and scourging King as a "total fraud". "You're done," said the letter. “There is only one way out for you. You better take it… ”. (There is evidence that it was typed by Officer # 3 in the Bureau, W. C. Sullivan.) King and his wife decided to ignore the blackmail.
The evidence of King's marital infidelity was undeniable, a fact that the MLK / FBI have faced directly. And that's the superpower of the movie. As Walt Whitman put it, “Am I contradicting myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am tall, I contain a multitude. “We all contain a multitude of selves nested within themselves, public selves and private selves, which in turn can evoke pride or shame. Who among us is perfectly formed? MLK / FBI believe that attacks on Dr. King's character, tied to his sexual self, is a stalking horse, a false pretext that undermines his true greatness as a deeply moral man and political leader for the ages. Coretta Scott King would agree.
(Ironically, FBI eavesdropping on Dr. King's phone calls also provides intimate glimpses of principled thinking. For example, King, in an exchange with close advisor Stanley Levison, pushed against the idea of limiting his efforts to civil rights. He had just made a major speech spoke out against the Vietnam War in New York's Riverside Church, and Levison was annoyed over the phone that King would bite off more than he could chew: "I think I was politically unwise, but morally wise." King replied, "I think , I have to play a role that can be unpopular. ")
MLK / FBI is done flawlessly. You may think you've seen newsreel footage from March 1963 in Washington for Work and Freedom, but until you see the brilliantly edited opening sequence by the MLK / FBI, you won't realize how alive this six-decade-old is. Black and white material can be. The result of digital transmission and restoration of the original film is sharp, clean, and stabilized. It's as clear as looking out the window. This juices out the jolt of familiarity that strikes you when you see not just mixed crowds but handwritten signs that wouldn't be out of place at a Black Lives Matter rally in summer 2020.
While director Sam Pollard is old enough to remember the days of Hoover – still FBI director in 1972 when he took his last breath – he doesn't assume that younger audiences were the 1950s and 1960s fundamentally understands. MLK / FBI describes the chronology and context of the rise of J. Edgar Hoover, the wiretapping of King (authorized by Attorney General Robert Kennedy), and the FBI's incessant dandelion formation over decades of mass media – newspapers, pulp magazines, radio, films, television – whatever made the integrity of the office reproachable for most Americans. Like me, Pollard probably remembers a childhood when little boys across the country wanted to be G-men when they were growing up. (The FBI's third season at CBS premieres on November 17; the spin-off FBI: Most Wanted debuted last January.)
Pollard outlines these unsavory chapters of our history and uses the power of the spoken word. There are no speaking heads in the MLK / FBI. Witnesses, experts and commentators – unidentified – are heard but not seen. As a result, we listen to what they say, not who says it. Only at the end are clips with a lower third dealt with in which the speakers as the author David Garrow (carrying the cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Yale historian Beverly Gage, Andrew Young, King advisor Clarence Identifying Jones, retired FBI special agent Charles Knox, and former FBI director James Comey, who recalls feeling ill the first time he read the above FBI letter to King suggesting suicide.
Which brings me to Bill Barr. No wonder Trump expects Barr's Department of Justice, the FBI and the NSA to pursue and harass his opponents at will. No conspiracy theory is required here – just connect the dots from Joe McCarthy to Roy Cohn, from Cohn to Trump, from Trump and Cohn to Rupert Murdoch and Roger Stone. Like any living Septuagenarian, Trump easily remembers the days when a fraudulent FBI director managed the office like a Potomac branch of the Stasi or when Nixon's Attorney General John Mitchell planned break-ins and hid slush funds. Barr, 70, would share these warm memories. This is the "again" in their MAGA.
The Covid-19 pandemic in the United States shows the folly of over-reliance on the federal government in times of local and regional crisis. If the story of this time is written, its heroes will be governors and mayors who fill the void of leadership when Trump suffocated and his administration gave up its responsibility for organizing a national Covid response. In that regard, Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall is a timely, even uplifting, reminder of America’s capacity for institutional compassion.
Like most Wiseman films, City Hall is a deep dive, a four-and-a-half hour excursion that examines how a great eastern metropolis, Wiseman's hometown of Boston, actually operates in the third decade of this millennium. City Hall is also a portrait of Mayor Marty Walsh, a sincere official who prefers to roll up his sleeves instead of facing television cameras.
Wiseman and longtime cinematographer John Davey, filmed in 2018 and 2019, captured a pre-pandemic Boston in front of masks and social distancing – the once normal world we will live again if fate will. In the short time since the City Hall was shot, we've encountered a deadly virus, nearly a quarter of a million dead Americans, a crater formation in the economy, the slaughter of small businesses, statewide school closings, unimaginable job losses, and political unrest polarization – and parallel to national The tragedy of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and the growing inventory of state murders that sparked an unprecedented explosion of mass protests.
But even amid contagion and social unrest, fires must be fought, potholes filled, rubbish collected, fined and criminals arrested. In depicting the basic services that all city governments must provide day in and day out to ensure the well-being of the public, Wiseman has described a period that is still recognizably similar to our current desperate moment, including toxic politics. At the time of filming, Mayor Walsh, whose parents were Irish immigrants, had already declared Boston a “sanctuary” for undocumented immigrants and retaliated against the White House to defeat Boston – to which Walsh defiantly shot back: “If people want to live here will they live here. You can use my office. You can use any office in (Rathaus). "
Walsh, who survived cancer at the age of 7, is a recovered alcoholic (23 years sober, he tells the public) who lives with his longtime girlfriend. Prior to his election as Mayor in 2013, he served as President of the Laborers' Union Local 223, which he joined at age 21, and chaired the Ethics Committee of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served for 16 years. His personal struggles, his trust in the working class and his Catholic background testify to a sensitive everyman style that is reminiscent of Joe Biden or closer to home. The tip “All politics is local” from Boston's Tip O & # 39; Neill, former US House of Representatives spokesman. Imagine Spencer Tracy in Father Flanagan Mode directed by Frank Capra and you get the idea.
Wiseman films Walsh and teaches a group of senior citizens how not to divulge personal information or fall for internet and phone fraud. Walsh encourages a Latinx engagement group with "You are a diverse community in your community" reminding them that Irish immigrants, like his parents, were once derided as dogs and monkeys; Walsh speaks to a meager gathering of aging veterans at the Faneuil Hall Military Museum, where a WWII veterinarian equates PTSD to "shell shock." A Vietnam vet recalls the nightmare of the incoming artillery, and an Iraq vet with a hole blown into his chest explains why he chose to go back to war and no longer felt in America. Walsh, who relies on years of participating in a 12-step program, asks each of them to contact the Boston Veterans Affairs Office for help. It's an openly moving scene.
There is also Walsh speaking to a group that deals with racial justice. Washington's indulgence in scourging the NRA in front of a crowd of reporters; Address food insecurity at the Greater Boston Food Bank and assist with loading free groceries for distribution; and put on an apron to serve Thanksgiving dinner at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. And last but not least, the cheers in Fenway Park after the L.A. Dodgers' 2018 Red Sox World Series router.
However, it would be misleading to give the impression that sequences with Mayor Walsh are prevalent in the town hall. Over the course of this long film, its appearances are limited and its scenes separated by many others, including periodic montages of street landscapes and intricately framed city buildings against the sky – filmed from the first floor, people and cars cropped to isolate architectural form – interspersed with recurring shots of the brutalist fortress in the town hall and the modern police headquarters made of glass and steel in Roxbury Crossing. But it is Walsh's dedicated and human spirit that sets the tone of the town hall.
Wiseman-style, lengthy community meetings and procedural activities in the town hall itself, a lot of time is spent on the screen: scenes of police officers and city officials at a table coordinating the fight against crime, call center staff making complaints, a meeting of the task force, to prevent evictions, another discussion on homeless services, another planning of social services for the South End, another treatment for mental illness problems, further housing discrimination, and responding to changed rules from Trump's HUD that go against the law about fair living, and so on. Nobody gets up. Nobody draws lines in the sand. At meetings of community lawyers, city bureaucrats, planners, officials and police officers, everyone seems to have their say, everyone seems to be listening to one another.
In the town hall, Wiseman, who works with consummate deliberation, tells us clearly: This is how the government of the people should work for the people through the people. And now that we have seen it, it is up to us to choose leaders who will make this possible in our own churches.
In Chloé Zhao's Nomadland – the latest showcase for Frances McDormand's championship, worthy of a third statuette of the best actress – we land on another planet. One that for me is equally resounding and problematic. Let me try to explain why in one of the most important films of this season I sometimes felt at a distance.
Nomadland has its roots in an exposé of geriatric work by Jessica Bruder, an investigative journalist, author, and associate professor at Columbia School of Journalism, whose findings first appeared as The End of Retirement: When You Can't Afford the Stop Work in the August 2014 issue of Harper & # 39; s.
Brother's theme was the systematic exploitation of retired Americans who had lost everything in the 2008 financial crisis – savings, investments, pensions, homes, even unemployment benefits – and who chose to live on the streets as newly minted "downwardly mobile older Americans" from Hand to mouth, inhabit their RVs, short for recreational vehicles. (Your Harper article has a capsule story of social security and the idea of retirement.) These silver-haired nomads are always difficult to pin down to supplement meager social security benefits (if they're lucky). They roam America and end up in RV parks and campsites and Walmart parking lots while pursuing the prospect of temporary employment. Brother reveals how they were later targeted by Amazon and exploited as comfortable, low-wage seasonal workers. (A motorhome is any road-going vehicle that is equipped as a living area: a motorhome, a delivery van, a trailer or a larger motorhome. Motorhome parks and campsites offer connections for electricity and water overnight, sometimes also for the sewer system Winter gets pretty cold.)
In 2017, Bruder expanded these topics in an article by Wired, Meet the CamperForce, Amazon's Nomadic Retiree Army. a book, Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century; and a 16-minute documentary, CamperForce, produced by Laura Poitras & # 39; Field of Vision (First Look Media). Speaking at the New York Film Festival online press conference, director Chloé Zhao said that after Frances McDormand promptly selected the book, she reached out to direct the 2017 Toronto Film Festival after seeing Zhao's The Rider on the Festival had seen.
Zhao is possibly the most consistent director of non-professional actors since Robert Bresson. The songs My Brother Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017) were both filmed in Oglala Lakota communities on the Pine Ridge Reservation, with only locals playing versions of themselves in stories written by Zhao. In them, she envelops documentary realism in a cinematic-poetic sensuality that Terrence Malick deserves. DP Joshua James Richards' portable widescreen cinematography is the delivery vehicle every time, tracking transients of emotions across stoic faces and the colors of dusk across flat, desolate horizons with equal artistry.
There are many reasons why Nomadland won the Golden Lion for Best Picture at the Venice Film Festival a week before its US premiere at the New York Film Festival. (The City Hall also debuted in Venice.) As a cinematic expression, it's flawless. I have long admired films that entrust the viewer to thread subtle or spontaneous details themselves into a narrative whole, an approach that Zhao developed in all three films. Richards' widescreen camera is still nimble and attentive, perfectly in sync with Zhao's story rhythm and his discerning eye.
This time there is obviously one professional actor in the mix, several in fact. In a role that McDormand wears like a second skin, with a humility that only applies to the grace of God, Fran plays the fictional nomad "Fern", a mixture of brother's subjects and McDormand himself. Among the props that the character Fern uses include photos from Fran's own childhood, a set of plates Fran's father gave her after high school, and a close sister relationship inspired by real life. Almost all of the other roles are played by the real-life RV nomads described in Brother's articles and books using their real names. Zhao lures each of them into seamless, memorable performances. The great David Strathairn plays "Dave" in a supporting role, a nomad who repeatedly crosses paths with Fern and makes her cute despite her apparent lack of interest in allowing anyone to approach her.
Fern's narrative arc, as it is, dominates the film – it's in every scene. McDormand instinctively projects wild independence and inner determination, traits that complemented her hot rage at Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Here, Fern's character is the beneficiary, and she needs him. She is a survivor under reduced circumstances. She's a mystery too, maybe a loner. When I have an argument, Fern sometimes seems more boring than the situation warrants, as if it's her natural predisposition, as she always was. What explains their emotional isolation?
Fern just lost her house, her neighbors and her entire city when it opened as nomad land. This fact is based on the actual closure of Empire in 2011, a small mining town in Nevada's Black Rock Desert with a population of around 465. Like the city, the open pit gypsum mine was owned and operated by the United States Gypsum Company for 63 years. However, the demand for plasterboard dried up when the Great Recession hit the construction industry terribly. USG was bleeding badly in 2011 when it suddenly decided to shut down both the city and mine. In the blink of an eye, a way of life, years of personal relationships, even an entire zip code! In Nomadland, we learn that Fern's late husband, Beau, had worked in the mine, that she had worked in the USG Human Resources Department, and that she was a substitute teacher. that she had taken care of Beau in the hospital and taken care of his morphine drops. Now her entire adult life has been reset to zero. She must live in a cramped, smelly van. How could she not be traumatized? Affected?
In order to take into account the existentialist attitudes of their nomads, Brother Marx's alienation theory takes up: an displaced class of aging workers who have been robbed of wealth, hope, purpose and even self-confidence by capitalist harassment – until the open road does leads revitalization and camaraderie around the campfire. (This last part escaped Marx.) Accompanying it are the scraps of the so-called American social safety net. Another insult to injury is the recruitment of retirees by CamperForce – the name of Amazon's seasonal work program for RV residents – which offers physically demanding low-wage warehouse jobs that are partly – true! – be subsidized by federal tax credits. Basically, you're working cheaply for Jeff Bezos, a 113-time billionaire.
In her films in South Dakota, Zhao resisted the mythologization or romanticization of the American West, avoided clichés and delved deeply into the inner workings of her characters. Both films are based on years of research, with Zhao getting to know their subjects in depth before essentially playing them themselves. In the case of Nomadland, it was Brother who traveled with the nomads she made for three years, traveling 15,000 miles and many evenings in the used van she christened Halen. (Get it? Farns Van is "Vanguard".) It was Brother who hired CamperForce for a week, working with 350 pound Amazon industrial robots, which she compared to the giant Roombas.
In brother's field work, the following has generally proven useful: Their nomads, mostly in their 60s and 70s, are whites with no college education who have done a number of non-professional jobs in their working lives and have encountered ruin, loss or misfortune – death of a loved one People, catastrophic decisions in their personal or financial life, bad creditworthiness, substance abuse, health crises, incapacity for work – and who don't want to burden anyone in their golden years. They are stubborn, individualistic, independent, resourceful, dry, skeptical and persistent. And often funny.
I suspect they don't read a lot of newspapers or watch much TV, although they may listen to the radio if they drive through the Great Plains, the Badlands of Southern Utah, or the Sonoran Desert. Wherever they connect their motorhomes, smartphones and Facebook are their lifelines for the family and the outside world. If that sounds like I'm describing Trump's electorate, yes, I'm going there.
RV life isn't new. With 2,500 miles between American coasts, RVs and wheeled RVs have been featured in American vacation travel for 100 years, as long as there were motels. During the Great Depression, to name just a precedent, cars and RVs were common places to live for people who had lost their homes and livelihoods. One of the colorful characters in both Brother's journalism and Zhao's film is Bob Wells, an RV lifestyle evangelist and passionate anti-consumer, whose long white hair and beard qualify him for a seasonal Santa job. The bold headline at the top of his influential, real-world website, Cheap RV Living.com, is "Welcome to the Best Times of Your Life". Beneath this one asks: "Perhaps you were a gypsy, vagabond or hobo in a previous life …?" The website provides spreadsheets of the cost of “wheel combos” obtained from your vehicle. Wells's annual two-week Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, "Burning Man for Retirement", attracts more than 3,000 people. All knows. There key scenes were filmed in Nomadland.
Brother has argued that given the excessive law enforcement surveillance of driving during black hours, African Americans do not feel safe living in RVs on the street or parking them overnight on Home Depot lots. (You don't notice a lot of Asian or Latin American presence in the RV community either.) A simpler explanation I might suggest is that feathered birds flock. Especially when it comes to camping. If you're careful, you'll see a tattoo of the Confederate flag on someone else's forearm in Nomadland. Why would black Americans want to drink beer around the night campfire with potential armed racists? This is the American West, after all. Let's not do anything else. (Changes may be in the starting blocks, however. YouTube has a growing group of young black van residents, including many women.)
I have aging family members who are part of the RV nation who have traversed the continent for 25 years to sample its vastness and endless raw beauty from the road. I love them very much, although they are also staunch members of the Fox News Nation. This goes for all of her friends on the street and on the go who voted for Trump in 2016 and will do it again. They do not consider themselves racists and abuse the charge. They contain Whitman's crowd.
I would like to believe that my relatives are not among the 56% of Republicans who believe the QAnon theory is largely or partially true, according to a September poll by Civiqs. A recent YouGov poll gave the same result. Perhaps in time we will look back on this period of polarization, paranoia, and complaint as aberration. In the meantime, the family that evades together stays together.
McDormand said nomad land shouldn't be political, and I get it. Like City Hall, Nomadland was filmed before the pandemic. No on-screen social distancing. After watching and admiring this remarkable film, I had to ask myself: would Fern wear a mask?
The release date for MLK / FBI, which is distributed by IFC Films, is January 15, 2021. City Hall is in New York's Film Forum Virtual Cinema from October 28 and in Boston's Coolidge Corner Theater Virtual Screening Room from November 6 available via streaming. Searchlight Pictures' Nomadland release date is December 4th, 2020.