Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Clintonism has nearly destroyed the Democratic Party. Only a revolution from within can lead to its resurrection

This column, which ran recently in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi, is a follow-up and elaboration on an earlier posting in which I declared “Clintonism is dead.” Clintonism—and President Obama’s embrace of neoliberalism was a continuation of it--has nearly destroyed the Democratic Party. The current fiasco—and President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet choices thus far show how much a fiasco this is—brings to mind the 1994 GOP takeover of Congress during Bill Clinton’s first term as president. This is worse, however. Much worse. The Democratic Party’s loss of vision, its Clinton-inspired rootlessness, helped put us in this mess. Only a revolution within the party can lead to its resurrection.

OXFORD, Miss. – I was surrounded by staunch Democrats who knew my leftist leanings and that I wanted Bernie Sanders to win the Democratic nomination for president. The table between us was laden with drinks and food, but the air was thick with politics.

One by one, they made the case how it had to be Hillary Clinton, not a socialist-turned-Democrat like Sanders. One of them was a former Texas congressman with whom I had rarely before disagreed.

“Tell me you’ll vote for Hillary if she gets the nomination,” more than one asked.

It was the pressing question of the late-season Democratic primaries: Will Bernie’s troops support Hillary? I resisted answering long into the evening, but the pressure—or those drinks—finally wore me down. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll vote for her.”

And cast my vote I did—holding my nose--for a seasoned veteran politician backed by deep-pocketed financiers and a Democratic Party establishment that did its best to scuttle Sanders’ primary challenge, and she lost against a foot-in-the-mouth firebrand with zero political experience.

On the morning after election night, having gone to bed before the final results were in, my wife Suzanne woke me with an ominous, “Joe, he won.” For 20 minutes, I tried to rouse myself into the brave new world of the Trump era. It wasn’t easy.

Within 48 hours, I was reading post-Apocalyptic eulogies to the America that was before Nov. 8.

“America died on Nov. 8, not with a bang and a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide,” award-winning journalist and author Neal Gabler wrote. “We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity.”

Gabler wasn’t finished. “Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities?”

It was ridiculous, handwringing, nearly hysterical comments like these that finally cleared by head.

Look, I’ve got no illusions about Donald Trump. His promises to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure at the same time he’s going to oversee a massive tax cut to business and the wealthy ring about as true as Clinton’s election-season conversion on the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.  His treatment of his own workers and contractors put the lie to his self-proclaimed role as champion of the working stiff.

And yes, many of those who voted for Trump are the same racists, neo-Nazis and misogynists who’ve crawled out from under their rocks since election day to taunt and threaten minorities and women.

Still, Gabler and many of the anti-Trump post-election day protesters are wrong when they issue a blanket indictment of all Trump voters, millions of whom voted out of an economic desperation that Clintonite neoliberals ignored for too long.  Those voters are not bigots. Many of them supported Obama in 2012, only to see him buddy up to the same Wall Street insiders and lousy trade deals that were part of the Clinton world. New Yorker magazine reported just before this year’s election that Wall Street executive Thomas R. Nides was well positioned for a place in President Hillary Clinton’s inner circle and possibly as her chief of staff.

At least Trump offered the illusion of change.

Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton looked and talked like a progressive, a politician who cared for the working stiff, the marginalized. Yet, as writer Ben Dickenson has pointed out, “every budget of his administration instigated Reaganite tax cuts, draconian law and order policies, privatization, and tens of billions of dollars on military spending.”

With Hillary’s strong support, Bill Clinton “cut welfare spending, gave tax breaks to corporations and established trade agreements to carve up the world for US business. Promised health reform was abandoned, civil liberties pegged back, and race issues were not addressed.”

Cornel West, in his post-election analysis in The Guardian, summed it up this way: “Trump’s election was enabled by the neoliberal policies of the Clintons and Obama that overlooked the plight of our most vulnerable citizens.”

One of the great ironies of this election is that the Clintons’ “New Democrat” path was initially charted by the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council as a means to recapture the white vote, particularly in the South. The wrongness of that path became crystal clear on November 8 of this year.     

The saddest news from November 8, however, is that working folks likely will still be looking for a leader four years from now, a leader who truly wants to help and this time means it from the bottom of his or her heart.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Indie Memphis: Exploring new ways to tell stories in film, and blurring the line between features and documentaries

(Werner Herzog in 2009. Photo: Nicolas Genin)

MEMPHIS - The German filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose films range from his remake of the early horror classic Nosferatu to his documentary about wild man actor Klaus Kinski My Best Fiend, once had this to say about feature films versus documentaries:

“For me, there is no clear distinction between so-called documentaries and feature films. The boundary is always blurred. … For me, it has always mattered how truth is constituted in images or in the cinema.”

It’s an idea that goes back to the 1930s when the Worker’s Film and Photo League (known as the FPL and recently featured in a Turner Classic Movies showing) and later Nykino and Frontier Films produced film that showed the harsh reality of the Great Depression in a way that Hollywood couldn’t or wouldn’t. Eventually Nykino and Frontier Films pushed the boundaries that separated fiction and nonfiction by incorporating dramatic elements into real-life montages.

Documentaries today are rediscovering some of those old truths articulated by FPL, Nykino and Frontier Films founders Leo Hurwitz, Ralph Steiner and others, according to a panel of current documentary filmmakers at last month’s Indie Memphis film festival in Memphis, Tenn.

“What’s exciting in film now is everything is up for grabs,” said Tom Yellin, co-founder and president of The Documentary Group. In a reference to acting philosopher Constantin’s Stanislavski’s famous concept of the invisible wall separating stage and audience, Yellin said modern-day filmmakers are “breaking the fourth wall.”

“Some of our earliest documentaries were staged,” said Lisanne Skyler, a New York-based screenwriter. “We’re doing it more creatively, dynamically.”

The panelists noted that documentary makers today are breaking away from the “talking heads” style of filmmakers like Ken Burns and incorporating various dramatic elements, animation, and other techniques to tell their stories in fresh and exciting ways. “Bringing animation to a real story can get to a larger truth,” Skyler said.

“It doesn’t mean the old techniques don’t have value,” Yellin said.

“A documentary is about real people,” award-winning documentary filmmaker Jamila Wignot said. “You’re trying to be honest about the real truth of a person. The line is absolutely murky.”

“I come from old school journalism,” Yellin said. “It relies on the integrity of the people making the film about crossing the line. Everyone seeks truth.”

“When I shoot fiction, I make it like a documentary,” Skyler said. “Maybe there’s just more room in documentary to evolve. I’ve come to appreciate a well-structured story. I think documentary has become more personal (with) more expressionistic ways to tell a story.”

“It’s a question of authenticity,” Yellin said. “Character, character development, three-act structures, story arc, all are important in documentary today. … Just because there’s good information, it doesn’t mean there’s a good story.”

I thought about these comments as I listened to the panel and recalled how many of the great film noir of the 1940s and 1950s—The House on 92nd Street, Call Northside 777, The Naked City, and The Wrong Man—were told in documentary style although they dealt with fictional characters.

(Mike McCarthy)

Documentary film was a highlight of the 2016 Indie Film Festival in November. Noted Memphis filmmaker Mike McCarthy, whose credits include feature films like Cigarette Girl, offered his documentary Destroy Memphis, an 11-year project about the ultimately unsuccessful community effort to “Save Libertyland” and its Zippin Pippin ride in Memphis.

“Why not preserve the memory of Elvis Presley in any form or fashion?” McCarthy asked about the amusement park and ride that the famous singer used to enjoy. Despite an intense community-led campaign, the park was ultimately shut down, however, and the ride disassembled and reconstructed in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

(The Rev. John Wilkins, a blues and gospel performer featured in I Am The Blues, performing at Indie Memphis)

Daniel Cross’ I Am The Blues was another featured documentary that told the story of today’s blues artists in the Deep South and their dogged allegiance to an art form that laid the foundations of jazz and rock music.

Another highlight of the festival was Kallen Esperian: Vissi D’arte, a film directed by Steve Ross about Memphis’ own great soprano, Kallen Esperian, who sang with Pavarotti and Domingo before her career tumbled amid a variety of personal battles.

(To the right, Kallen Esperian at the Indie Memphis film festival)

None of these films veered too far from traditional documentary filmmaking. However, they did what all good films do. They sought and expressed a truth in compelling ways. In other words, they told a good story.