Friday, September 23, 2022

Hypocrisy--from Joe Biden to Starbucks' Howard Schultz--is alive and well in the United States

(Martyred labor organizer, troubadour and immigrant Joe Hill)
 

American hypocrisy was one of my German-born mother’s first discoveries of the United States when she arrived with my U.S. Army-veteran father in 1948.  Into the welcoming arms of the Statue of Liberty she came only to find intense discrimination and resentment against immigrants like herself, particularly Germans after a war that had devastated her land and people as well as most of Europe.

 

No matter that she herself had been imprisoned by the Gestapo for her efforts to make lives easier for French prisoners at a camp in La Rochelle, France, where she had been sent by the German government to work. When she arrived in my father’s native South, first in Georgia then North Carolina, she heard a lot about “Southern hospitality” but then witnessed a racism that at times could be as raw and deadly as the racism of the Nazis in Germany.

 

For all its ideals of liberty and equality, the United States remains a nation where hypocrisy continues to reign—certainly at the highest levels of business and government, including Joe Biden.

 

My former University of Mississippi student Jaz Brisack, a Rhodes scholar, was fired in recent days from her job as a barista at Starbucks in Buffalo, New York. The firing was not a complete surprise given the fact she led the successful unionization effort at her shop, an effort that subsequently spread to Starbucks coffee shops around the country and won her nationwide attention as a leading new force in grassroots organizing.


(To the right, Jaz Brisack)

 

An expected firing perhaps, but still it hurt. “I will admit to mourning more than (legendary martyred union leader, troubadour and immigrant) Joe Hill might have approved of,” she told me, adding, however, “the union rolls on!”

 

Starbucks chief Howard Schultz and his team may offer a litany of excuses for their firings—they recently fired a union organizing barista here in my town of Oxford, Mississippi, and notoriously fired pro-union workers in Memphis—but their real reason is they want to purge their shops of pro-union workers.

 

The hypocrisy is that Starbucks has always marketed itself as a cool place to work—hip and youthful and in tune with modern, egalitarian values. Wrong. It’s a union-busting outfit on a par with Walmart.

 

Labor South has been reporting on the war in Ukraine extensively in recent months.  It’s an issue that threatens the entire world, one that pits old Western colonial powers against the Global South as well as against Russia.

 

The proxy war that NATO and the United States are waging against Russia has been planned by the Deep State in Washington, D.C., for years, and its purpose is to destroy the Russian federation and its challenge to U.S. hegemony, a first step in a broader effort that also targets China.

 

You’d think mainstream journalists would at least acknowledge or at least explore this in their coverage, but they’re so imprisoned by the worldview of their corporate owners that real reporting is impossible outside of independent media. The result is an hypocrisy that would be laughable if it weren’t so serious.

 

When Russian leader Vladimir Putin recently announced a partial military mobilization in his country, mainstream media—from the New York Times to BBC and the major U.S. television networks—rushed to report on protests by Russians against Putin’s move.

 

The scale of those protests is likely much more limited than what is being reported, and certainly less than the 70,000 protesters in the Czech Republic earlier this month who called for an end to the proxy war with its devastating economic impact on their lives. You’d never know there was such a protest in the Czech Republic if you didn’t go to YouTube or some other source for independent reportage. The same is true of similar nationwide protests in the United States in recent weeks.

 

Remember the myriad reports of shelling near the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, and the mainstream reports about both Russia and Ukraine charging each other with firing those shells. The answer would come, we were told, once international inspectors arrived to assess the safety of the plant. Well, those inspectors came and not a single mainstream report followed as to which side fired those shells.

 

Wanna know why? It is because the Ukrainians were firing those shells. Of course, they did. Why would Russians fire at a nuclear plant that they already occupy?

 

Phillip Knightly’s 1975 book The First Casualty is considered the classic account of the history of war correspondence. It’s a sad history of more often bad rather than good reporting.  It’s not just because of the “fog of war”. A prime example is coverage of the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s. Many of the reporters there were so enamored of the leftist Spanish Republicans and full of hatred for Generalissimo Franco’s fascist army that they failed to report the brutal murders of thousands of Catholic priests and nuns across the land by the Republicans. Every outrage by Franco’s fascists, however, was dutifully reported.

 

My late mother, Maria Stoller, bless her very religious heart, knew Hitler and the Nazis could be as hypocritical as anyone with all their talk of love for the Vaterland. And she grew to love the people in her new homeland.

 

Well, maybe not all of them. It’s hard to love hypocrisy. In fact, you can’t. Even hypocrites don’t.

 


Sunday, September 4, 2022

A rising consciousness about the Neoliberal Order that dominates the world economy and how it serves the corporate rich and its handpicked politicians but impoverishes everyone else

 

(For the second year in a row, I was asked by the Unitarian Church of Oxford, Mississippi, to give a Labor Day speech, the draft of which I copied below. My topic: Neoliberalism and its effects on working class people

 

An International Perspective on Labor Day

 

From Joseph B. Atkins to the Unitarian Church of Oxford

Sunday, September 4, 2022:

 

It is a pleasure speaking to you again this Sunday just before Labor Day. When I spoke to you last time, I focused on our labor history and traditions in the United States and the religious underpinnings that thread throughout that history.

 

Today I’m going to look at labor from an international perspective, something very important today in view of the interconnectedness of our modern world in nearly every aspect of our lives.

 

We live in a world that today is dominated by a NEOLIBERAL ORDER. What is NEOLIBERALISM? It has nothing whatsoever to do with liberalism or conservatism. What it refers to is an economic philosophy that promotes the following (borrowing here somewhat from the writings of Enrico Tortolano):

 

-       FREE TRADE with as few impediments as possible

 

-       Free movement of CAPITAL across borders

 

 

-       A belief in AUSTERITY as the best path toward economic stability. Witness the EU’s demands of Greece and other countries when they experienced economic difficulty in recent years.

 

-       PRIVATIZATION of public space and services and reduction or ELIMINATION of the WELFARE STATE and its safety net programs

 

 

-       LOW PAY and benefits for workers and RESTRICTIONS on LABOR UNIONS

 

Who is the PRIME MOVER of NEOLIBERALISM in the world today? The UNITED STATES and its surrogate institutions: THE WORLD BANK, INTERNATIOAL MONETARY FUND, THE EUROPEAN UNION, and even NATO, ostensibly a defense military organization but one that has waged aggressive offensive military campaigns in Serbia, Libya, and Syria, and whose expansion since the fall of the Soviet Union led to the current war in Ukraine, a proxy war for the U.S. that ultimately is being waged to preserve a unipolar world of Western dominance unchallenged by Russia or China.

 

(To the right, Bill Clinton)


The cause of neoliberalism rose as a philosophy in the graduate demise of the New Deal era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and aftermath of World War II, the splintering and unraveling of the Democratic Party that began in the 1960s and that reached its nadir under the Clinton Administration, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s that led to an arrogant assumption of the subsequent dominance of GLOBAL CAPITALISM. Much of this history is detailed in the just published book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order by Gary Gerstle.

 

Trade treaties like NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) are essentially neoliberal vehicles to legalize a globalization of free-moving capital that enriches powerful corporations and their friendly politicians but which have had the effect of uprooting millions of workers and small farmers, forcing a mass migration across borders around the world in search of work and sustenance.

 

I wrote about this in my book The Strangers Among Us: Tales of a Global Migrant Worker Movement in 2016. A collection of essays by writers from around the world, including me, the book details lived lives among the world’s 200 million migrant workers, 40 million of whom are undocumented, and most of whom live marginal lives of bare existence in an economy that has awarded untold riches to a few.

 

What the book also details, however, are the efforts of organizations and individuals around the world to give voices to those migrant workers, to work to uphold their rights as human beings. They have had some remarkable successes along the way. Many of these organizations are religious. They include:

 

-       the Asia Floor Wage Alliance in various countries of Asia

 

-       the Alliance of Progressive Workers in the Philippines

 

 

-       the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office in Taiwan, run by a Maryknoll priest and also serving Vietnamese wives of Taiwanese men who are essentially sex slaves

 

-       the Migrant Empowerment Network (MENT) of Taiwan

 

 

-       the Mission for Migrant Workers in Hong Kong

 

-       Transient Workers Count Too in Singapore

 

 

-       And in the United States, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), National Farm Workers, United Farm Workers, and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) union.

 

In researching this book, I traveled around the world from Hong Kong to Singapore and Taiwan, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. These workers are their organizations are up against powerful forces, but, as Gerstle’s book details, the neoliberal world order those forces represent is beginning to crumble.

 

(Bernie Sanders during a labor rally in Clinton, Mississippi)

 

The rise of Bernie Sanders on the Left and even Donald Trump on the Right is a sign of the deep disaffection within the American public with things as they are. So are Black Lives Matter and even the Tea Party. The BREXIT vote by the British people to exit the EU has more to do with that same disgruntlement than it does with an inherent racism or narrow-mindedness.  The rise of the above-mentioned organizations and the remarkable successes they’ve achieved in many cases indicate that neoliberalism’s days may be numbered.

 

Mainstream media, lapdogs rather than watchdogs mostly, essentially carry the water for NEOLIBERALISM, echoing its ideas and beliefs, the policies of its politicians and governments. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the coverage of the war in Ukraine. This tragic war could have been prevented had NATO not broken its promise to not expand to Russia’s very borders.  Then there was the 2014 coup that ousted a democratically elected leader and put Western-looking leaders in power, the betrayal of the Minsk agreement, the threats to the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas. I’m not giving a pass to Russia or Vladimir Putin in this horrible war. However, the truth is Ukraine’s ZELENSKY is a puppet of the neoliberal order. If he weren’t, then why did he recently sign a law that essentially guts worker rights in Ukraine, all in the name of, and I quote, “raising the competitiveness of employers.”

According to OpenDemocracy, “The new law significantly curtails employees’ rights (on working hours, working conditions, dismissal and compensation after dismissal) and increases employers’ leverage over their workforce. … Employers can require employees to do other work not covered by their contract if it is necessary for defence purposes, as long as this work is not detrimental to their health. … One of the most controversial provisions of the bill concerns the ability to involve women in physically strenuous labour and work underground (in mines, for example), which is currently prohibited by Ukraine’s labour laws.“

Where is the push for a negotiated peace in Ukraine? Where is there diplomacy? There is none because the proxy war ultimately has nothing to do with Ukraine. It is about markets, the free flow of capital from the West without interference or competition from Russia and above all China, the reason for the recent and needless saberrattling over Taiwan.

 

Constant war, by the way, is another by-product of neoliberalism. Just consider the 20-year war in Afghanistan, a length of wartime unprecedented in previous U.S. history. War feeds the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about a half-century or more ago.

 

However, again let me say there is a growing awareness, a consciousness, about this neoliberal order, how it serves the wealthy and corporate bottom line but little else. Witness the recent protests in Prague against the Western-and-NATO-dominated leadership of that country. An estimated 70,000 people in the streets protested. A new order is bound to emerge, and it is one that Wall Street and the EU are not going to like at all.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

 

Joseph B. Atkins

Friday, August 26, 2022

Russian dissident journalist and rock music pioneer Artemy Troitsky at the University of Mississippi weighing in on Putin, Ukraine, and rock music in Russia

 

(Artemy Troitsky and Labor South's Joe Atkins)
 

Vladimir Putin’s Russia is “getting similar to the Stalinist period” in Russia’s history, and “the Stalinist period was a nightmare,” dissident Russian journalist and pioneer rock music writer and promoter Artemy Troitsky told students at the University of Mississippi this week.

 

The 67-year-old Troitsky, a sharp critic of the Putin regime whose views have forced him into exile in Tallinn, Estonia, came to Oxford, Mississippi, to visit friends and spoke at my Media History class at Farley Hall on the University of Mississippi campus Thursday, August 25.

 

The war in Ukraine that began this February “is a huge catastrophe to Ukraine but also for Russia,” Troitsky told students and faculty. “Russia has become a pariah state. In the Soviet Union we had several phases—Lenin, Stalin, Brezhnev, Gorbachev. During the Cold War, there was at least a degree of respect (for the Soviet Union as a nation), an enemy, yes, but not a stray dog, a bandit.”

 

(Artmy Troitsky lecturing at the University of Mississippi)
 

Troitsky is a legendary writer and commentator whose efforts to promote rock music in the 1970s made him Russia’s premier music writer and promoter. He led discos at Moscow State University in the early 1970s, played guitar with the rock ban Zvuki Mu, co-founded the label General Records. Over the years he has interviewed musicians such as Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie.

 

Known worldwide for his political views as well as his music writing, he is the author of the classic Back in the USSR: The True Story of Rock in Russia (1988) and other books.

 

Early on, authorities largely ignored rock music as merely Western decadence. Later, as it grew in popularity in Russia, it became more controversial and under the watchful eyes of the powerful.

 

However, it is mostly Troitsky’s political views that have gotten him into trouble. After several lawsuits were filed against him in 2011, musicians helped organize a benefit concert. Twenty-three musicians joined to record an album titled For Troitsky in his honor.

 

Today, he lectures in Estonia, Finland, England, and other countries, and has a music program on Radio Liberty as well as a videoblog.

 

“I’m absolutely sure Ukraine is going to win the war,” he said. “They are hugely motivated. The question is what will happen afterward. Russia cannot win against the whole free world.” However, he added, “Russia will not be occupied.”

 

In my discussions with Troitsky, I told him my own views of the war and the complicity of the United States and NATO in starting the war—the expansion of NATO to Russia’s very borders, the U.S. role in the 2014 coup d’état in Ukraine that ultimately led to the pro-Western leadership of Volodymyr Zelensky, Zelensky’s failure to abide by the Minsk Agreement that would have allowed autonomy in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and eased Russian concerns about an anti-Russian military buildup there. Furthermore, I don't believe Ukraine will win this war. There needs to be a negotiated peace.

 

As Labor South readers know, I’m also concerned about Zelensky’s corruption, the right-wing elements in his regime that recently gutted worker rights in Ukraine. I have no illusions about Putin, however. Putin has gutted press freedom in his country and silenced or jailed his political critics. In the first eight years of his two-decade rule, some 13 journalists were murdered in Russia under mysterious circumstances. These include the crusading Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya, a former colleague of Troitsky’s at the Novaya Gazeta.

 

“You are a dissident in your country, and I am a dissident in my country,” I told Troitsky. 

 

Troitsky looked at me with a silent nod, and we shook hands.

 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

I. F. Stone would have told the truths about the war in Ukraine that mainstream corporate media won't tell

 

(I.F. Stone in 1972)

 

I.F. Stone, the crusading underground journalist who got rejected from the National Press Club for telling truths that mainstream journalists wouldn’t tell, once had this to say about the corrupting influence of close ties between media and government:

 

“You’ve really got to wear a chastity belt to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the Secretary of State invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you’re sunk.” It’s those private lunches and meetings where “highly confidential (and one-sided) information is ladled out to a flattered elite.”

 

For this reason, Stone, who died at the age of 81 in 1989, eschewed press conferences as “brain washings” and power lunches with the powerful. “All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.”

 

Too bad Stone isn’t around any more to prove the lie to much of what is being reported these days about the war in Ukraine. Not since the days of U.S.-led NATO’s invasion of Serbia in the late 1990s has there been such jingoistic reporting from “a flattered elite” ladled with one-sided information.

 

Though the U.S. and European public rarely, if ever, gets a complete, multi-sided view of the war in Ukraine from mainstream media, whether it’s the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, Fox, or the BBC in England, the Ukrainian people themselves know what’s going on. A recent poll showed that 82 percent of Ukrainians, of course, blame Russia for the war, but more interestingly 58 percent of them believe the United States bears responsibility as well. NATO fares little better with 55 percent of Ukrainians blaming it in some measure for the war.

 

Those are not the kind of poll statistics you’ll read about in corporate mainstream media. One has to turn instead to news outlets like FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting) and its newsletter EXTRA!, Consortium News, or to YouTube to see the Jimmy Dore Show or Breaking Points.  Reporters Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Robert Scheer, and Chris Hedges keep the I.F. Stone tradition alive. Not the New York Times or Washington Post, and certainly not MSNBC or Russophobe reporters like Rachel Maddow. Ironically, one of the few mainstream journalists who has truly probed the causes and truths of the war in Ukraine is conservative Fox commentator Tucker Carlson.

 

Let’s have some examples.

 

(To the right, Volodymyr Zelensky)


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ruling Servant of the People party has pushed through legislation in the nation’s parliament that will gut workers’ rights, using the war with Russia as an excuse but continuing the deterioration of those rights that has been a feature of Zelensky’s rule. Not a word about this in U.S. mainstream media. To get that story a reader has to go to a news outlet called OpenDemocracy.  

 

OpenDemocracy reporters Thomas Rowley and Serhiy Guz quote the party’s official line that “extreme over-regulation of employment contradicts the principles of market self-regulation (and) modern personnel management.” Furthermore, the change in labor laws is needed to allow “the self-realisation (sic) of employees and for raising the competitiveness of employers.”

 

This is also the party line of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and European Union, where “austerity” is preached and the taking down of government safety-net programs is demanded when countries, like Greece in recent years, get into economic trouble and need assistance.

 

Where are the ace reporters of the elite media of the United States and Europe when the issue is corruption in Ukraine or the fate of the billions in Western military arms that have been sent into what has been the most corrupt country in Europe? Chronicles journalist Pedro Gonzales has reported at some length on Zelensky’s off-shore financial holdings and his relationship with Ukrainian oligarch/kingmaker Ihor Kolomoisky. Gonzales’ sources included the so-called “Pandora Papers” compiled by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

 

Zelensky’s nationalization of TV news and restriction of opposition parties also received only passing coverage in American media as if such coverage is reserved for the Russian side of the war.

 

FAIR recently published a study that showed the slanted coverage the New York Times has given the war in Ukraine compared to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Ukraine invasion received nearly twice the front-page, mostly top-of-the-fold coverage that the Iraq invasion received in the first months of the two wars.

 

Of course, what’s also missing in the mainstream coverage is a sense of history about what is going on in Ukraine, a detailed explanation of the 2014 coup that forced a Russia-leaning president out of office and replaced him with Western-leaning heads of state and eventually Zelensky. Little attention has been given to broken promises to Russia by NATO not to expand eastward, its betrayal of its supposedly defensive identity in the invasions and wars in Serbia, Syria, and Libya. Remember U.S. threats of war when the old Soviet Union wanted to put missiles in Cuba back in 1962? Of course, it’s a different story when it’s Russia’s reaction to NATO’s threats to arm Ukraine on the Russian border.

 

Mainstream corporate-owned media in the United States are part of the same “Deep State” that has dominated both Democratic and Republican administrations for decades. Their reporters and editors wine and dine with the same Deep State operatives that give marching orders to members of Congress and presidents. The failures of the Deep State in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya in the name of preserving U.S. hegemony matter little so long as the weapons industry is kept happy and prosperous and the dream is kept alive that the United States will remain a shining capitalist citadel that oversees the world.

 

Monday, July 11, 2022

"Elvis" the film tells the tale of a Southern country boy who crossed the racial divide, fused blues & country into rock 'n' roll, then followed his Svengali into a glittering blind alley

 

(A cloth hanging of Elvis I purchased at a roadside stand in rural Marshall County, Mississippi, back in the early 1990s)
 

The lady on the porch of the Tupelo, Mississippi, shotgun house stood in contrast to her surroundings. She looked like the nicely dressed, somewhat stocky, bouffant-hairdoo’d Southern women I used to see on the front steps of the First Baptist Church on Sundays as my family made its way to the Pentecostal Holiness church on the other side of town.

 

This was back in the 1980s, and she was part of the two-lady welcoming committee to the humble birthplace of Elvis Presley. She nodded when I asked her if she was a native of Tupelo.

 

“Did you ever know or see Elvis when he was growing up here?”

 

She shook her head. “No, we never came over to this part of town.”

 

Elvis is much on my mind these days after seeing director Baz Luhrmann’s film Elvis, an $85 million extravaganza that likely will earn twice that or more in box office receipts around the world. Actors Austin Butler as Elvis and Tom Hanks as Elvis’ Svengali-like manager, the ol’ carny Colonel Tom Parker, breathe new life into those familiar protagonists of a much-told story.

 

The kind of sumptuous visual and audial feast we’ve come to expect in a Baz Luhrmann movie, Elvis is simply amazing to the eyes and to the ears. Luhrmann and cinematographer Mandy Walker’s sense of mis-en-scène in the depictions of the juke joints and ramshackle black churches around Tupelo and the throbbing life on Memphis’ Beale Street in the late 1940s and early 1950s is nothing short of thrilling.

 

In a film about arguably the world’s most famous singer, music is central, and Luhrmann and music director Elliott Wheeler create a world where blues and gospel provide a tonal backdrop for the music that ultimately comes out of Elvis. The blues hollers of Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and “Big Mama” Thornton, the soaring gospels of Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe at times blend with the intense modern-day sounds of rapper Eminem and others as Elvis shakes, rattles, and rolls his way from Tupelo and Memphis fairgrounds to the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport to neon-lit Las Vegas.

 

Based on the 2001 book Colonel Tom Parker: The Curious Life of Elvis Presley’s Eccentric Manager by James L. Dickerson, my good friend and publisher, Elvis does a good job probing the toxic relationship that ultimately developed between Elvis and Tom Parker, a Netherlands-born snake-oil salesman and carnival huckster who rose from managing dancing chicken sideshows in Tampa, Florida, to managing country stars like Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow before he discovered Elvis. His demand for total control over Elvis was a huge factor in Elvis’ rise but then also his decline in his later years and in the frustrations and addictions that led to his death at 42.

 

Still, the film’s storyline is flawed in some important ways. Much attention is paid to the influence of blues and black gospel on Elvis’ career. A sharecropper’s son who lived in public housing and whose family depended on welfare, Elvis also grew up listening to Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Williams, like most young Southerners his age. The film depicts Hank Snow as jealous of Elvis and highly critical of the sexual energy his shaking and wiggling on stage created among the legions of females in the audience. However, Snow played a critical role in Elvis’ career by helping him get the RCA contract that led to Elvis becoming a national star.

 

Films today, likes films of yesterday, have great trouble dealing with the poor Southern white. Directors and producers, like journalists and writers and intellectuals in general, can’t rid themselves of the images of the “rednecks” and “white trash” who screamed at blacks and civil rights workers trying to integrate their schools in the 1950s and 1960s.

 

They can deal with the Southern white country boy who crossed the color line, shopped at Lansky’s on Beale Street, and sneaked into juke joints to get the inspiration that led to him singing Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” on his first record. They’re less comfortable with the Southern white country boy who recorded Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” on its flip side.

 

Yet, in the end, it was both those songs that created not only Elvis but also rock ‘n’ roll. There’s a lot of blues in country music. The first great country music star, Jimmie Rodgers, belted out blues after blues, albeit with a twang. Way back in 1980, I interviewed Bill Monroe in his “Bluegrass Special” bus, and the King of Bluegrass talked to me about the blues. “If you are a sad man and you like to hear the blues,” Monroe said, “you can get it out on a mandolin or a fiddle.”

 

Of course, you can also find a lot of country music in the blues as well. Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf used to listen to the Grand Ol’ Opry.  Take Jimmy Reed”s “Honest I Do” or Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry’s “Down by the Riverside” and you get country-infused blues.

 

The magic of Elvis was that he saw value and freedom in that cultural amalgamation, challenged the powerful forces that wanted to stifle it, took it, and made it his own. The world owes him a lot for that.

 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Is Biden's America starting to resemble Germany's Weimar Republic in the 1920s?

 

(To the right, a disabled German World War I veteran begging on a Berlin street in 1923)
 

In the mid-1970s I lived in Munich, Germany, and I used to love to hear Oma and Opa, my German grandparents Josef and Maria Stoller, tell stories of the old days. Still, many of those memories were painful. Tears would run down Oma's cheeks when she talked of the poverty and desperation of the 1920s, a time of out-of-control inflation, rising political extremism, and governmental incompetence.

 

“One day I was walking down a street to our apartment, and I saw a man feeding his horse a semmel (a Bavarian bread roll). I just stood there and watched. I was so hungry and I wanted that semmel so bad.”

 

Those were the days of the Weimar Republic, a period of some democracy in traditionally autocratic Germany but also one of great struggle with the impossibly punitive reparations France’s Georges Clemenceau and other Allied leaders had imposed after World War I. Another struggle was with the monarchal and industrial forces that still wielded power.

 

(A 50 million German Mark issue in 1923)
 

The value of the mark collapsed, inflation raged, and the Weimar government response was to print more money. By 1922, inflation topped 700 percent. “A wheelbarrow full of money couldn’t buy a newspaper,” the Britannica historical website says.

 

As the government floundered in finding solutions, the streets roared with political extremism and conspiracy theories.

 

Am I hearing echoes of the Weimar Republic across the United States today? Inflation, fueled by Western sanctions on Russia, has reached a 41-year high with energy prices rising 34.6 percent in May, fuel oil 106.7 percent, food costs ranging from 10 to 14 percent. The government in Washington, D.C., led by millionaires and financed by billionaires, is stalemated and grossly out of touch. It is willing to send $40 billion to Ukraine, thus further enriching the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about, but unable to agree on spending an additional $10 billion for COVID-19 relief.

 

Crippled Germany saw political gridlock and a succession of leaders take over in the 1920s, but eventually the nation looked to an old war hero, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, to lead it out of its morass. He was 78, the same age as Joe Biden when he became president. A monarchist with hardly a political vision, Hindenburg tried feebly to steer a course through the troubled political waters but, slipping toward senility and under the influence of close advisers, ended up handing the keys of power to the most extremist of all the upstarts around him, Adolf Hitler.

 

Fast forward to Joe Biden, who’s ostensibly holding the fort of America against a return of the autocratic extremist Donald Trump. Yet he has serious trouble getting his program through a divided Congress and is funding a distant war that has nothing to do with American security interests but that is doing serious damage to the nation and world’s economy. Biden talks about democracy and justice and his pro-labor, working class roots. Yet in his heart of hearts, he is a pro-corporate neoliberal whose foreign policies are enriching the rich while bringing suffering to average working class Americans.

 

Biden’s proxy war with Russia in Ukraine is an utterly misguided effort to continue U.S. post-Cold War dominance by weakening and humiliating Russia. It’s not working. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, tired of broken Western promises and continued military encroachment on his nation’s borders, is winning the war in Ukraine that the U.S. and NATO are largely funding. Ukraine is tragically a victim caught between competing world powers.

 

As in the other disastrous wars the U.S. has waged in the last 50 years, its political and military leaders don’t really know or understand their enemy. The same goes for the sycophantic mainstream, corporate-owned media—from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal to network news and CNN and Fox (BBC in England is no better). They are mainly mouthpieces for their government, publishing or broadcasting every memo from Washington or Kyiv whether validated or not.

 

Even when mainstream media begrudgingly acknowledges Russia’s gains—and Putin is close to complete success in the Donbas in eastern Ukraine—they never fail to remind us how Russia failed to take the capital city of Kyiv. They never explore the possibility that Russia did not want to destroy a city that is close to the heart and soul of Russian history and culture.

 

Is there today another parallel to the Weimar Republic in that era’s much-discussed decadence, the drunken orgies and bacchanalia of Berlin’s cabarets that raged while Hitler’s storm troopers tightened their collective fist around the country’s neck? If there is, it can be found among the American oligarchs who fund our politicians, both Democrat and Republican, and engorge themselves with untold wealth that even their counterparts in Russia can’t claim.

 

What are those lyrics from “Willkommen”, the theme of the 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret? “Leave your troubles outside. So life is disappointing, forget it! In here life is beautiful.”

 

Indeed life is beautiful where America’s oligarchs play. But, forget it, those of us on the outside are not “willcommen.”


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Why aren't reporters asking about peace negotiations in Ukraine? Why isn't Joe Biden pushing for peace instead of more weapons?

 

(To the right, a painting of a Ukrainian woman by Ilya Repin, considered by many Russia's greatest painter. Repin was born in Ukraine.)
 

It was the summer of 1992, and the embers of Russia’s 70-year experiment with communism still smoldered. Near Red Square in Moscow protesters called for a return to the glory days of the dismembered Soviet Union. One of the clearest signs of that dismemberment was near the city’s Tretyakov Gallery, where the paint-smeared, uprooted statues of Stalin and other Communist leaders lay helter-skelter on the ground.

 

Our guide, 25-year-old university student Roman Fiodorov, always a sly grin on his face, waxed philosophical. “Systems are different, but people are the same. People just want a (normal) life.”

 

I’ve been thinking back to that trip to Russia that my wife and I made back in 1992. It became an important experience in my life, a turning point, in many ways, prompting me into a years-long obsession with Eastern Europe. What followed were three trips to Poland, other trips to Slovakia, the former East Germany, sponsored visits of students from Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Albania to the University of Mississippi, where I teach. I studied Russian for two years and Polish for one.

 

It also led to a lot of writing, including my first book, The Mission: Journalism, Ethics and the World (2002), which drew comparisons between Eastern Europe and my native U.S. South. I railed in newspaper columns against NATO’s bombing of Serbia in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 allegedly on behalf of the Kosovar Albanians. It was an illegal and unnecessary war given the fact that then-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had already agreed to allow Kosovo autonomy.

 

Watching those developments closely were the leaders of post-communist Russia, which had agreed to the reunification of Germany after NATO promised not to expand eastward. As the years passed, however, Russia also watched as NATO broke its promise again and again, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep, with even Ukraine wanting to join and given encouragement by U.S. officials.

 

Today, Ukraine is the blood-soaked victim of, yes, a brutal Russian invasion but also of the U.S.-led NATO’s relentless push to preserve the United States as the world’s lone superpower and to mock Russia’s security concerns about the Western military buildup on its borders.

 

You wouldn’t know the complex backstory to this invasion by reading, watching or listening to mainstream, corporate-owned media in the United States and Europe. What you get from their alleged journalists is the same old jingoistic claptrap that comes with every war—the demonization of Russia and Russians, even including Russian opera singers and athletes as well as Vladimir Putin, the reporting of every claim from the Ukrainian side and the parroting of endless U.S. military speculation about the war, whether validated or not, and the glorification of so-called heroes like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has repeatedly called for a “no fly zone” over his country and other Western interventions that likely would cause a global nuclear war.

 

Where are the questions from journalists about peace negotiations? To his credit, Zelensky had indicated his willingness to relinquish Ukrainian hopes to join NATO, a key Russian demand, but the last thing the U.S. oligarchs of the military-industrial complex and the Deep State in Washington, D.C., want is any semblance of a Russian victory. What they want are more weapons to be poured into Ukraine, continuing the war until the Russians give up or the last Ukrainian is dead. They want a humiliated Russia that can never challenge the United States’ status as the world’s only superpower. Once they’ve taken care of Russia, then they can focus on China.

 

President Biden seems utterly in the throes of the Deep State, and perhaps now he has been forgiven for ending the war in Afghanistan. Spending billions of taxpayer dollars on weapons for Ukraine goes a long way toward getting forgiveness. By the way, why does the Deep State still have credibility after its dismal failures in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, all U.S. invasions in which oceans of blood were spilled?

 

None of this is to paint Putin as anything but the autocrat that he is. I have no illusions about what lies within his capability. I would likely be in prison if I were a journalist in Russia.

 

Back in 1992, Roman Fiodorov, again grinning, made a comment to us tourists that spoke more truth than perhaps intended. “You Americans,” he said with a shake of his head, as my memory recalls. “Two people are killed in a car wreck and it’s on the front pages of your newspapers. Here in Russia, hundreds disappear in Siberia, and no one says anything.”

 

Friday, March 18, 2022

Ink-stained wretches join baristas and other working stiffs in the call for "Union!"

(To the right, Heywood Broun) 

When highly successful columnist Heywood Broun called for a union of newsrooms workers across America nearly 90 years ago, he reminded his fellow journalists of their misperceptions about themselves.

 

“The men who make up the papers of this country would never look upon themselves as what they really are—hacks and white collar slaves,” Broun wrote in his August 7, 1933, column for the New York World Telegram. “Any attempt to unionize leg, re-write, desk or makeup men would be laughed to death by these editorial hacks themselves.”

 

Those hacks looked down on the unionized, blue-collar printers in the same building, yet the printers earned an average 30 percent more than the reporters and editors.

 

Broun is smiling from heaven these days at the resurgence of union activity in newsrooms across the country. Like their counterparts at Starbucks coffee shops from the East to the West Coast, newsroom working stiffs are brandishing their union cards. The NewsGuild that Broun helped establish has more than 6,300 members who’ve joined in just the past four years. Another 2,400 joined the Writers Guild of America, East, over the past eight years.

 

“I watched too many decent people stripped of their professional dignity,” columnist Mike Kelly of the New Jersey-based The Record told veteran labor reporter Steven Greenhouse. “We were watching out colleagues just pushed out the door willy-nilly and without any warning.”

 

Kelly referred to the standard Gannett company practice of buying newspapers like The Record and quickly eliminating staff. Also swelling the ranks of newsroom union card holders was the COVID-19 pandemic, which proved not only to reporters and editors but to workers around the nation and world that they were less important than the bottom line in the eyes of their employers.

 

A key figure in the growth of unions among newsroom workers is Hamilton Nolan, who now covers Southern labor activity for the Chicago-based magazine In These Times.  Back in 2015, Nolan worked for Gawker Media and led his fellow journalists to make it the first big-sized digital media outfit to unionize.

 

Gawker later had to declare bankruptcy after losing a legal battle with nationally known wrestler Hulk Hogan. However, the unionization of its newsroom inspired similar labor actions across the digital news world as well as at old established outfits like the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.

 

(Jaz Brisack during a visit to Oxford, Mississippi)
 

Young people are leading the way at these news organizations, much as they are at Starbucks, where Rhodes scholar and University of Mississippi graduate Jaz Brisack helped start a union movement that spread from the Buffalo, New York, Starbucks shop where she worked as a barista to other Starbucks stores across the country.

 

Both Nolan and Brisack, a former student of mine, recently stopped in Oxford, Mississippi, to visit this old labor writer to talk about the labor movement in the South. While much attention was paid to the failed union effort at the Amazon plant in Bessemer, Alabama, the media haven’t much noticed other labor activity in the region.

 

Starbucks workers here in Oxford are now calling for a union.  The firing of seven pro-union workers at a Memphis Starbucks has galvanized the movement with the Rev. William Barber leading a recent march in their support. Newsroom workers at newspapers in Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth, Texas, are already unionized and calling on management to finalize contracts.

All three—the Dallas Morning News, Austin American-Statesman and Forth Worth Star-Telegram—have been unionized only since July 2020, the first in Texas in 30 years, and this will be their first contracts.

 

Perhaps in part because of what’s going on inside these and other newsrooms, labor coverage nationwide is on the rise in the U.S. media. Labor reporters, who had almost disappeared from the landscape a decade or more ago, are now back on the beat at at least a dozen or more major news organizations. This may also be a reflection of a recent Gallup poll that shows a whopping 68 percent of Americans support unions despite an overall decline in union membership.


 

As evident with these newspapers and Starbucks shops, the South is seeing some of this rising union activity.  Despite its anti-union reputation, the South has a long labor history that includes the successful organizing of sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Arkansas in the 1930s, Martin Luther King’s support of the ultimately successful unionizing effort among sanitation workers in Memphis in the late 1960s, textile workers' victory in North Carolina in the 1970s, and catfish workers organizing in the Mississippi Delta in the 1990s.


(To the right, a Southern Tenant Farmers' Union poster in the 1930s calling for a strike)

 

Back during the 1930s, Heywood Broun backed up his column with frontline organizing and became a hero of the movement. “I think I could be happy on the opening day of the general strike if I had the privilege of watching (wealthy and influential Establishment journalist) Walter Lippmann heave a half a brick through a Tribune window at a non-union operative who had been called in to write the current (Lippmann’s) Today and Tomorrow column on the gold standard.”

 

Let’s hope Broun’s spirit continues to live and prosper among today and tomorrow’s ink-stained wretches.

 

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

On the differences in filmmaking and storytelling in the 1942 Hollywood film "Moontide" and the 1938 French film "Port of Shadows", both starring French actor Jean Gabin and dealing with working class lives

 

The article below from Labor South's Joseph B. Atkins appeared in the January 5, 2022, edition of Quinn Hough's amazing and innovative online film magazine, Vague Visages, under the headline "The Light of Human Love and Community: On 'Moontide' and 'Port of Shadows'". It deals with the 1942 film Moontide, released 80 years ago next month, and the 1938 French film Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes), both starring French actor Jean Gabin and dealing with working class lives. They provide a fascinating study into the different approaches to filmmaking and storytelling in Hollywood and Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a difference that still exists today.

(A scene from Port of Shadows with Jean Gabin to the right)
 

A change of heart comes to French itinerant seaman and dockworker Bobo as he sips his whiskey with a female regular at the Red Dot Inn. His wandering is over. He’s going back to his ramshackle barge on the California coast, back to Anna, someone once as lost as he was but now a woman who loves him as much as he loves her. So what if a “gypsy is dying, and a peasant is being born.”

 

 It’s a decision that will prompt a deadly encounter with his jealous crony Tiny, but in the end Bobo and Anna marry. He’ll carry her across their humble threshold to live happily ever after.

 

20th Century Fox producer Darryl F. Zanuck saw the role of Bobo in the 1942 film Moontide—this April marks the 80th anniversary of its release--as the perfect vehicle to Hollywood stardom for acclaimed French actor Jean Gabin. No way was the film’s hero, a potential Gallic Clark Gable, going to die at the end. No sad ending for Moontide.


(To the right, a scene from Moontide with Jean Gabin to the right)

 

What a contrast is the ending of another great Gabin film that came out just four years earlier, Port of Shadows (Le Quai des brumes). In this cinematic high point of French “poetic realism,” Gabin’s character Jean is also a wanderer who in the end returns to his equally lost lover Nelly. That act, however, leads to his death at the hands of his cowardly nemesis, the gangster Lucien.

 

Moontide and Port of Shadows offer a fascinating study into key differences in Hollywood and European filmmaking and storytelling during the 1930s and early 1940s, a time when the studio system reigned supreme in Hollywood and war loomed heavily over the European continent. Those differences weren’t ironclad—films had both happy and sad endings on both sides of the Atlantic. Still, they existed and continued to exist in the coming decades despite the overarching influence of commercialism in all cinema.  

 

In Port of Shadows, Gabin’s Jean is an Army deserter in the port city of Le Havre who fatefully encounters the cabaret dancer Nelly, played by Michèle Morgan, at Panama’s, a lonely, seaside bar on the ragged edge of the city.

 


In Moontide, Bobo encounters Anna, played by Ida Lupino, as she attempts a watery suicide. He saves her life and takes her back to his barge, where she’ll eventually find meaning in life again. Her backstory remains a mystery. Tiny, played by Thomas Mitchell, dismisses her as a “hash hustler”. She was a prostitute in the book that inspired the film. Soon she and Bobo fall in love.

 

Both films are suffused in portside fog and shadows, a dreamlike, highly stylized world where crime and danger lurk in those shadows. In each film a loyal dog follows the protagonist, instinctively growling at Tiny in Moontide and at the duplicitous Zabel in Port of Shadows. Zabel is Nelly’s godfather whose lust for her drives him to murder.

 

A bar is important to the action in each film, the Red Dot Inn in Moontide, Panama’s in Port of Shadows. In each film, Gabin’s character leaves his lover behind but then returns to her. Each film features a waterfront philosopher who makes observations about life and love—Claude Rains’ Nutsy in Moontide and Robert Le Vigan’s painter Michel in Port of Shadows before he drowns himself. The backstories of several key characters in both films are simply missing.

 

However, the similarities break down in the hearts and fates of Bobo and Jean. Bobo is a hard-drinking, hail-fellow-well-met kind of guy who even offers to help to his feet the man he just cold-cocked in a bar fight. Jean is a brooding war veteran with a chip on his shoulder, a soldier who saw enough death in “Tonkin” to abandon his outfit.

 

The most striking contrast in the two films, however, comes at the end with the fates of the two wanderers. Unlike Bobo’s happy reunion with Anna, Jean’s return to Nelly provides Lucien an opportunity for revenge for Jean’s shaming of him with slaps to the face in front of not only Nelly but also his fellow gangsters.

 

As did another Marcel Carné-directed film, Le jour se lève (1939), Port of Shadows, both written or co-written by the poet of poetic realism, Jacques Prévert, showcased Jean Gabin’s ability to speak volumes with a simple stare, a curl of the lip, a wordless shrug of the shoulders. Gabin “at his best doesn’t need any dialogue,” film historian Foster Hirsch has said. Both Carné films reflected the somber mood of a nation and a people facing the specter and subsequent reality of Nazi occupation.

 

In fact, the roots of Port of Shadows can be traced to the Neubabelsberg studios of the giant German film company UFA (Universum-Film AG), where initial work was done before Hitler’s propaganda minister, Dr. Josef Goebbels, rejected it as too dark and decadent. Ironically the great French director Jean Renoir would later dismiss it as a “fascist” film.  Only after Carné and Prévert brought it back to France were they able to make the film they wanted to make.


 

Based on a novel by Pierre Mac Orlan in which the action takes place in Paris’ Montmartre and the Lapin Agile cabaret, not in Le Havre, Port of Shadows “was a fairly revolutionary film, both in spirit and in form,” Carné says in his 1996 autobiography. “In that era the theaters were filled to the brim with comedies, musical or otherwise, overflowing with bright sunshine and crawling with extras. And here I was with my empty nightclub, my fog, my grisaille, my wet pavements, my streetlamps.”

 

Assembling a team that included supporting cast members Michel Simon as Zabel and Pierre Brasseur as Lucien, Alexandre Trauner on set design, Eugen Schüfftan as cinematographer, and music by Maurice Jaubert, Carné created a masterpiece that was attacked by the Mussolini press at the Venice Film Festival but which nevertheless won a Golden Lion award for the director. “Port of Shadows possesses nearly all the qualities that were once synonymous with the idea of French cinema,” Luc Sante writes in the Criterion Collection edition of the film. “The philosophical gravity of peripheral characters, the idea that nothing in life is more important than passion—such things defined a national cinema that might have been dwarfed by Hollywood in terms of reach and profit but stood every inch as tall as regards grace and beauty and power.”

 

Decades later American film critic Pauline Kael would call Port of Shadows “a breath of fresh air to American filmgoers saturated with empty optimism.”

 

(To the right Jean Gabin)
 

Gabin’s earlier success in films like Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937) and Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937) got 20th Century Fox’s attention, and its publicity wing pulled no stops in promoting him as a French “hunk” primed to break the hearts of “dreamy readers of lonely hearts columns,” in the words of Gabin biographer Joseph Harriss,

 

Arriving in America along with a wave of other French émigrés in the late 1930s--like fellow actors Michèle Morgan and Louis Jourdan, and directors Renoir, Duvivier, and René Clair--Gabin quickly came under studio control. His contract got him the studio’s top salary, but Hollywood also put an Apache scarf around his neck, coiffed his hair, and put mascara on his lashes. They got him a chauffeur and a yacht. He rented Greta Garbo’s house and committed to intense English language lessons.

 

The trouble was Gabin’s terrible homesickness—he would only make one more film in Hollywood before returning to fight with the Free French Forces. Unlike fellow Frenchmen Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier, he never really adapted to the land or the language. Europe clung to him, as did his mistress Marlene Dietrich. At her wishes, he urged the studio to hire the famous Austrian director Fritz Lang, another émigré, to direct Moontide. Lang only lasted a few weeks, his departure welcomed by Gabin after the jealous Frenchman learned Marlene had once been Fritz’s mistress, too. Archie Mayo took over directing duties.

 

Novelist John O’Hara and veteran Hollywood scribe Nunally Johnson wrote the script for Moontide, which was based on a novel by Willard Robertson. It was “a noirish film resembling the poetic realism of (Gabin’s) recent films in France,” Harriss writes. Still, this was Hollywood where filmmakers faced the sharp eye of censor Joseph Breen and the studio’s razor focus on the bottom-line.

 

Plus, “what does a Hollywood studio, accustomed to creating artificial stars, do with an actor whose charisma, not to mention box office success, derives mainly from his authenticity?” Harriss writes.

 

(Michèle Morgan)

Port of Shadows co-star Michèle Morgan didn’t fare much better in Hollywood. Despite the luxury Hollywood offered—she would live in the same Brentwood Canyon home that later was the site of the notorious Charles Manson murders in 1969—she bristled at efforts to turn her into a French sex kitten, a “phony product” in her words, at  “how much the studio was trying to make her into something she was not,” Harriss writes. She eventually returned to Europe and enjoyed a highly successful career.

           

Trouble haunted the making of Moontide. Marlene, 40 now, was jealous of 23-year-old (and happily married) Ida Lupino. Gabin didn’t like Zanuck or the script. Producer Mark Hellinger liked the film’s darkness but insisted on a happy ending. Amidst it all, Gabin continued having a devil of the time with the English language.

 

Moontide got mixed reviews—critics said it was too slow--and didn’t score high at the box office either. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther liked Gabin better than Moontide. Marlene dismissed it as “an idiotic film” in her 1987 autobiography, and Gabin biographer Harriss called it “an embarrassment” that forced Gabin to overact with “whimsical faces, curiously thrusting out his lower lip to look fanciful while spouting words of wisdom. … The grotesque result is Gabin doing an American imitation of Gabin.”

 

Still, the film had its champions. Although one of film’s most acerbic critics, Manny Farber called it “superb” and “a picture moving and good” that depicts “wonderful movie love.”

 

Today, the tide has turned for Moontide. The criticisms and dismissals that made it “overlooked” for many years are “a pity as the film is actually an intriguing mix of gritty realism and stylish noir, a fascinating meeting of Europe and Hollywood and a curious combination of aesthetic peculiarities and moving performances,” critic Martyn Bamber wrote in Senses of Cinema in 2018. Moontide stands today as “a love story in a noir universe,” says film noir guru, publisher, and Turner Classic Movies host Eddie Muller.

 

“You can understand why the film was not successful, but 65 years later it is fascinating,” Foster Hirsch said in 2017.

 

One reason Moontide may not have resonated with American audiences in 1942 was that, despite the happy ending, they weren’t used to the things it shared with Port of Shadows—the darkness, the dreamlike world (Spanish artist Salvador Dali helped shape one hallucinatory scene depicting a drunken spree by Bobo), the gloomy touch of foreignness that would later become de rigueur in film noir.


(To the right, Ida Lupino in Moontide)


Writer and lecturer Robert McKee described the different attitudes in Europe and Hollywood toward filmmaking and storytelling in his classic 1997 book Story. “Hollywood filmmakers tend to be overly (some would say foolishly) optimistic about the capacity of life to change—especially for the better. Consequently, to express that vision they rely on … an inordinately high percentage of positive endings. Non-Hollywood filmmakers tend to be overly (some would say chicly) pessimistic about change, professing that the more life changes, the more it stays the same, or, worse, that change brings suffering. Consequently to express the futility, meaninglessness, or destructiveness of change, they tend (toward) negative endings.”

 

Surely the legacy of 20th century dictatorships, wars, destruction, political and economic upheaval in Europe helped create a sense of fatalism and the existential absurdities of human life.

 

In the United States, existentialism had to make way for capitalism. Screenwriter and novelist Budd Schulberg points to this in his book Moving Pictures, describing MGM titan Louis B. Mayer’s filmmaking philosophy as early as 1920s Hollywood. “Mayer’s credo was … to give the public what it wanted, right down to that lowest common denominator: the twelve-year-old mind. Family pictures. Romance. Happy endings. Movies could titillate, but in the end husband and wife, or estranged young lovers, must be reunited. That was Mayer’s law. The moral standards of middle-class America must be upheld.”

 

Of course, the bottom line was the foundation of Mayer’s law.

 

“What we have in Hollywood is an artistic medium encased in a business enterprise, and the business enterprise is considered more important than the artistic endeavor,” screenwriter/director Abe Polonsky said in a 1998 interview.

 

Film critic Pauline Kael has also weighed in on the influence of commercialism on how stories are told in Hollywood and what audiences have come to expect from the movies they watch.  “From the beginning, American film makers have been crippled by business financing and the ideology it imposed: they were told that they had an obligation to entertain the general public, that this was a democratic function.”

 

For those film lovers like her who have sometimes wanted more than what “commercialized Hollywood” might offer, Kael said,  Le Jour se Lève and La Grande Illusion restored us.”

 

Recent films such as Netflix’s Worth in 2021 show that remnants of the old Hollywood formula remain. A film about the government effort to compensate the wide range of victims of the 9-11 attacks, Worth is in many ways “an excellent film” but also a “frustrating” and “irritating” one because in the end “it appears to retreat from the implications of the way it’s telling its complex narrative,” film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote for RogerEbert.com reviews. 

 

Worth offers a classic narrative arc in which Michael Keaton’s Kenneth Feinberg turns away from cynicism to a driven commitment to help victims regardless of their status in society. The film ends with a list of Feinberg and his team’s successes in pursuing that goal, as if the issue was largely resolved.

 

A sharp contrast to this conclusion is the ending of Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary Sicko, in which 9-11 victims have to go to Cuba to get the medical treatment they need because they cannot get it in the United States.

 

“The reluctance to tear down restrictive storytelling templates rather than merely jostle them a bit is of a piece with the film’s refusal to really engage with the question of whether a CEO’s life is worth more financially than a janitor’s,” Seitz writes about Worth.

 

Of course, as said earlier, the cinematic divide between America and Europe isn’t ironclad. The New Hollywood films of the 1960s and 1970s broke from the old studio-driven formulas and “brought to the screen a gritty new realism and ethnicity,” Peter Biskind writes in his 1998 book on the era, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. More recently, director Robert Eggers’ moody and dark film The Lighthouse (2019) with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison as two lighthouse keepers hardly offers viewers a happy ending. The two become mad, Dafoe’s character dies, and the film ends with Pattison’s character naked and under assault by a flock of gulls.

 

(Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas)
 

Europeans still make films differently. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas in 1984, for example, is filled with iconic images of the American West—the desert, lonely Western towns, endless highways—yet it is suffused with European sensibilities, from Wenders’ direction to Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller’s camerawork, its slow pace, sparse dialogue, sad and fatalistic ending still hard to find in most Hollywood films.

 

As detailed in Emilie Bickerton’s 2009 book on the history of the icon-breaking film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, European film hasn’t been immune from the pressures of the bottom line. By the 1980s, even the once “troublemaking” Cahiers du Cinéma, a magazine that helped launch the French New Wave in film (ironically itself a movement that paid homage to Hollywood masters like Howard Hawks, Nicholas Ray, and British-born Alfred Hitchcock), had become “a mouthpiece for the market (with) the mind-numbing quality of an up-market consumer report,” Bickerton writes.

 

Ultimately the way of storytelling in films can be problematic on both sides of the Atlantic, McKee says. “Too often Hollywood films force an up-ending for reasons more commercial than truthful; too often non-Hollywood films cling to the dark side for reasons more fashionable than truthful. The truth, as always, sits somewhere in the middle.”

 

Looking back at both Moontide and Port of Shadows after the passage of some eight decades, both films, as different and as similar as they are, provide a satisfying cinema experience. Farber was right to call Moontide a “picture moving and good,” one in which “a quality of human goodness and fraternity” is palpable despite the dangers that also face the main characters. The filmgoer is glad when Bobo and Anna get together, and that’s great if they do live happily ever after. Port of Shadows, as dark and sad as it is in the end, deserves all its accolades.

 

In both films, the light of human love and community manages to break through all that fog, all those shadows, and that light still burns when we leave the theater and step back into our own world.