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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Stalin's funeral, New Deal art, and a...

Screen Grabs: Stalin’s funeral, New Deal art, and a harrowing Mexican fable of unrest

Three new movies seem like history repeating. Plus, an invigorating Legacy Film Festival On Aging

I confess to what turned out to be a widespread form of magical thinking recently: The naive belief that Trump supporters and the extremist right would surely begin slowly coming to their senses after their election rout. Instead, of course, nearly the entire GOP is now signing off on the collective delusion of a “stolen election,” suggesting their vision of the future is one of encouraging further insurrection and the dismantling of democracy. Ergo it seems apt that there’s a sort of cautionary urgency to several new films that both look backward at 20th-century history, and forward to some possible worst-case scenarios for society.

First, it’s worth mentioning a festival of socially conscious films that takes a rare viewpoint: that of seniors. The 10th edition of the SF-based Legacy Film Festival On Aging, which started Mon/24 and continues through Mon/31, offers 11 streaming programs of mixed shorts and features, encompassing both documentaries and narratives. 

Many are about seniors continuing to work and live very full lives at advanced ages: The fictive feature Bellbird focuses on an elder New Zealand dairy farmer; No Time to Waste: The Urgent Mission of Betty Reid Soskin profiles a 99-year-old Black park ranger in Richmond, CA. Margaret Singer: Seeking Light and The Euphoria of Being celebrate nonogenarians still creating art 70-plus years after fleeing the Nazis, while Seniors Rocking finds the Bay Area’s own Anna Halprin choreographing a new dance work for Marin elders. There are also entire programs devoted to the culinary arts, political activism, caregivers, and even senior swimming. For full program and ticket info, click here.


State Funeral

This 135-minute documentary by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa shows all the corners of a vast empire united in public mourning for a late, beloved “father of the people.” One might be touched by this seeming unanimity of grief, but the pristine B&W and color archival footage utilized here without any latterday commentary instead has a chilling effect. That’s because the man being extravagantly grieved from the Caspian Sea to Siberia is none other than Josef Stalin, whose nearly three-decade rule after Lenin’s 1924 death warped the Soviet Union’s idealistic roots into a nightmare of arbitrary and punitive dictatorship. It would only take a few years more for the succeeding government to acknowledge a hitherto-unmentionable truth—that Stalin’s political “purges” and other policies had resulted in as many as 21 million deaths—which admittance allowed the epically slow thaw of the Cold War to commence.

Those unpinnable hordes who died from execution, brutal incarceration, preventable famine, et al. are the elephant in the many rooms of State Funeral. Those lucky to survive Stalin endlessly march past the camera, displaying their grief for the leader who (as one gaseous eulogizer puts it) “opened up our hearts and made us laugh or cry” with his “true love…pure as the morning dew.” There are a whole lot of weeping women in babushkas here. But more often those paying their respects seem dazed, shambling through out of duty, as yet uncertain how to perform or even feel now that ding-dong, the witch is dead. You can perceive, or at least imagine, the disorientation of a pervasive, long-held delusion beginning to fade. 

Meanwhile, however, the spectacle is grandiose, if also bleak, with portly Party officials and their fur-trimmed wives all heavily bundled for early 1953’s winter weather, inside or outside monumentalist architectural monstrosities. The coffin appears to be everywhere—with, grotesquely, a plastic bubble top so the great man’s head can be seen. Even in far-flung oil fields and steppes, citizens are made to stand at attention during heavy-weaponry salutes and whatnot. 

All this official footage naturally strains to maintain various lies, not least “the universal and wonderful happiness of Communism” the deceased had supposedly gifted his nation. Yet there’s an occasional eyeblink glimpse of that image cracking. We spy an incongruously shaven-headed young woman (just out of the gulag?) who’s cut away from before she gets too close to the camera. Then there’s a scary surge in one mob of curious proles—while Khrushchev later claimed just over 100 were trampled or crushed to death amidst ill-controlled funeral crowds, it is suspected the real toll may have been in the thousands.

This weird, dirge-like artifact, whose real drama is nearly all off-screen, provides a disturbing illustration of mass indoctrination by and cult adulation of an authoritarian populist. It’s a lesson that history teaches over and over again. Yet we never seem to learn for long, do we? State Funeral is now available on the streaming platform MUBI. 

The New Deal for Artists

While Soviets were heading into the darkest years of Stalinist persecution, Americans were suffering that still-worst-yet consequence to high capitalism’s regular meltdowns, the Great Depression. Having inherited the catastrophe from prior GOP regimes’ stock market crash-producing speculatory spree, Franklin Delano Roosevelt assumed in 1933 the Presidency he would keep for an unprecedented (and unrepeated) 13 years. He proposed pulling the US from its deep economic slough by a combination of financial-sector reforms, relief for the millions of newly destitute (which included the founding of Social Security), and creating numerous public works programs to turn the unemployed into a societal resource.

Though perhaps more workers directly benefitted from infrastructure construction programs—you know, those things Washington DC can’t ever find funding for today—one big aspect of the Works Progress Administration was its support of the arts. Originally a three-hour 1976 West German TV documentary, Wieland Schulz-Keil’s The New Deal for Artists finally got broadcast on PBS five years later in a 90-minute cut narrated by Orson Welles. That version has been remastered from its 16mm negative and is now available for virtual-cinema streaming from Corinth Films.

From the terrible damage of the Depression, the Federal Art, Music, Theatre and Writers’ Projects coaxed forth an extraordinary flowering of creativity. They not only left behind some of the nation’s most beloved art, but developed young talents that would shape our high and popular culture for decades to come. Though silver-spoon-bred himself, FDR was no policy elitist; he made sure the WPA painters, musicians, writers, actors, dancers, photographers et al. did work that entertained and/or educated isolated communities, and told their hitherto-ignored stories for future generations. 

Thus Dorothea Lange’s indelible images of dustbowl-beset heartland farmers; indexes of folk art, a category that had hardly existed before; travel guidebooks with regional social histories; plays performed to rural audiences that had never seen one before. There was also encouragement of African-American and other minority creatives. Among the legends-to-be that got their start earning $23.86/week for their WPA toil in various media were Zora Neale Hurston, Joseph Losey, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Louise Nevelson, Will Geer, Willem de Koonig, Jackson Pollack, John Cheever, Mark Rothko, Ralph Ellison, Stuart Davis, John Houseman, Saul Bellow, and Welles himself. 

But the “economic royalists” who’d bitterly resented FDR’s policies from the start found an easy target for criticism in the WPA’s artsy side, which admittedly attracted many left-leaning types in an era when Communist Party membership was not uncommon or (yet) publicly demonized. Seizing on the more radical content, particularly in theater works (a children’s play called Revolt of the Beavers anthropomorphized class struggle) and visual art (notably Coit Tower’s interior murals), they succeeded in defunding these short-lived but hugely influential programs by decade’s end—a history that would begin repeating itself in the Reagan era. WW2 and post-war prosperity probably would have killed them off eventually anyway. But their legacy remains remarkable, and New Deal for Artists (which features interviews with several among the personae noted above) is a fascinating flashback to an era of great art amidst great adversity.

New Order

And now for something completely harrowing. The events of Jan. 6 gave Americans a taste of what we always thought “can’t happen here”: A mob of angry goons invading the capital and attempting to overthrow their own government, some of them in collusion with certain among its representatives. Michel Franco’s film imagines something similar happening in Mexico, where of course the underlying social issues and political dynamics would be somewhat different. Nonetheless, his speculative fiction is universal enough in its impact to make your hair stand on end.

Marianne (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) is a young woman of upper-class background who is about to get married, with her extended family, their wealthy/powerful friends and a whole lotta security personnel present in Mexico City for the occasion. Unfortunately for the nuptials, simmering discontent among a fed-up, radicalized underclass has also chosen this moment to boil over. 

By the time the wedding party is invaded by armed combatants, Marianne has actually sneaked out, feeling morally obligated to deliver money for an operation to a beloved, gravely ill former servant. But that mission is doomed to failure as chaos erupts in the streets. And with the military, rebels, police, civilians, looters et al. in a state of collective panic, this bride is about to get caught in crossfire beyond her worst imagining.

A Grand Jury Prize winner at Venice last year, New Order makes the Purge movies look like child’s play in terms of vividly illustrating how economic inequality and institutional corruption might ultimately reduce the most gated community to a war zone. In the end, distinctions between fascism and criminality prove superfluous; brute-force injustice is the only real winner, with rich and poor mowed down indiscriminately. 

A jarringly bold, cruel 85-minute statement, this may not be most people’s idea of “entertainment.” But the way things are headed, it’s a wake-up call whose unpleasantness many would benefit from exposing themselves to. One which reminds that the kind of revolution our increasingly exploitative, stratified globe now courts won’t be triumphant—it will just be bloody ugly. Distributor Neon is currently playing New Order in theaters (Bay Area ones primarily suburban). 

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