Tuesday, January 3, 2017


Year 9, Day 3 - 1/3/17 - Movie #2,503

BEFORE: As I continue reading Carrie Fisher's tell-all book "The Princess Diarist" (it's a quick read, probably two days' time, or a couple of subway trips between Queens and Brooklyn) the connections keep coming, in a year that I dedicated to her a couple of days ago.  Teri Garr from "The Black Stallion Returns" was her co-star in a film called "Mr. Mike's Mondo Video", then of course yesterday's film had Harrison Ford in a small role, and tonight it's Warren Beatty, the star of "Shampoo", which was Carrie's first film.  I'm not sure how much longer I can keep that streak going, but Carrie did work as a script doctor for many films, often anonymously, so who knows how many other films she has a connection to?  

Gene Hackman, meanwhile, carries over from "The Conversation".  And I've somehow also gotten myself in sync with cable programming, which ran "The Conversation" about a day after I watched it, and now I see that "Reds" will be airing on TCM tomorrow (1/4).  Of course, I taped it off TCM months ago, I think they were running a bunch of Warren Beatty-themed films, because I also got "Shampoo" and the political-themed film which I'll watch in 2 days.  I wondered why TCM would run the film again so soon, and not even on a day like May 1 (May Day, or International Workers' Day) or even March 8 (the day the Russian revolution began).  But both TCM and I happened to program the film for the first week of January, I guess because it's a New Year, and we're coming up on the big 100th anniversary of this historical event - March 8, 1917.  

NOTE: In Russia, it's known as the February Revolution, but it began on our March 8.  Russia was still using the Julian calendar at the time, they had not yet made the switch to the Gregorian calendar. Russia didn't change to the new calendar until 1918, after the October Revolution, and what a confusing time it must have been in the late 1800's and early 1900's, when some countries still hadn't made the switch, so I don't know how anyone made travel plans back then - these days we're used to a time-change of just a few hours when we travel, but back then you could go to another country, and it would be a completely different day, or even month, when you arrived!  The U.K. and America had dealt with this issue by skipping 10 days in 1752, but Russia didn't get with the program for 150 more years?  

THE PLOT: A radical American journalist becomes involved with the Communist revolution in Russia and hopes to bring its spirit and idealism to the United States. 

AFTER: So it seems like I've set myself on a study of politics (or is it civics?  I'm never really sure) in these early days of 2017.  First there was the study of arab culture, and the question over who owns the stolen horse in "The Black Stallion Returns".  Then I debated the issues surrounding surveillance issues in "The Conversation", and now it's a full-on examination of the rise of Communism in the Soviet Union. I'm going to stop here and start looking up some things on Wikipedia, because whenever I start trying to discern the differences between Communists, Soviets, and Bolsheviks, my eyes start to glaze over and my mind begins to wander.

OK, some background - World War I, rapid industrialization of Russia, economic collapse, creation of the new social proletariat class.  Got it.  High war casualties, combined with lack of enthusiasm for the Tsar, combined with mass poverty creates a powder-keg situation.  Rallies, strikes, riots.  Then it seems like there were TWO governments after the Tsar was deposed, a provisional government of leftists, chaired by a liberal aristocrat, and a Soviet (council) of Worker's Deputies, called the Petrograd Soviet (ah, so THAT'S where that word comes from.)  Alexander Kerensky, one of the Soviets, eventually took leadership of the Provisional Government, but this was before Lenin entered the scene with his Bolshevik Party, who were Marxists that had split off from the Labor Party in 1903.  ("Bolshevik" comes from "Bolshinstvo", which means "majority")

So in the October Revolution (which again, probably took place in our November) the Bolsheviks took over from the Provisional Government, which led to the creation of the Soviet Union.  (And if "Soviet" means "council", then that was a unification of the various councils, right?)  And the Bolsheviks re-named themselves as the Russian Communist Party in 1918, after they'd taken control of the country.  Whew, that was confusing as hell, but I think ultimately necessary for me to break down and get straight.

The reason this is so hard for me (I think in senior year of high-school, I took "Art History" as a class instead of what was called "Western Civilization", which sounds like it would have covered this somewhat.  So I've been falling back on the fact that I grew up during the Cold War, and thus I've only thought of the Soviet Union one way, the 1970's/1980's way, when they were regarded by the U.S. as the "Evil Empire".  When in fact, there have been a number of changes over the years in the U.S.-Russian relationship, and they're actually more like frenemies, over enough time, if you step back far enough to get a good look.

As this film reminds us, there was a time when many Americans supported the Russian Revolution, even though the U.S. and the Russian Empire were allies in World War I.  But hey, the American Revolution worked out for us in the end, and we supported the French Revolution, so revolution's a good thing, right?  But then, something happened in the U.S. and the Communist Party was forced underground in the 1920's.  So, umm, yeah, congratulations on your revolution, good luck running your new country, see ya later, gotta go.

But by the time World War II rolled around, the U.S. was allied again with the Soviets, was this just because the Nazis were so, so much worse?  Then this was followed by the second "Red Scare" in the 1950's, the McCarthy hearings and so forth, so once again "communism" and "socialism" were dirty words in America - which is all very confusing to me, because we're supposed to be the country of free speech and free thought, but this doesn't seem to apply to thoughts that are against capitalism.  What gives?  We still see echoes of this today, where free speech rules don't seem to apply to anyone who might be a radical Muslim, for example.  Or anyone who wants to talk about birth control, abortion, gun control, or other controversial topics.

Then there was the Cold War, the era I was raised in, where the godless Communists were over in Russia, starving while standing in lines for bread and toilet paper, or eating small children, as we were led to believe, which lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall, (Hurray! We, umm, won or something!) and that led to "glasnost" and "perestroika" and a new era of (I'm going to say...) democracy (?) in the Soviet Union.  In fact, it wasn't even the Soviet Union any more, it was suddenly back to "Russia" and we also had to learn the names of new countries like Ukraine and Belarus and Uzbeki-bekistan.  I'm working part-time for an animator who was born in Latvia, so I hear about this time period a lot, from her point of view.  We're both children of the Cold War, but from different sides of the Iron Curtain, and now we have to deal with the rise of New Fascism (aka the alt-right) in the U.S.

But my point is, the relationship between the U.S. and Russia/USSR is a long and complicated one, which over time has come to resemble an on-again/off-again relationship between two lovers - with, of course, long periods where the two lovers aren't speaking or even in touch with each other.  So maybe this whole thing between Trump and Putin is just another way of the lovers coming together again, like when someone re-marries their ex-wife.  But unlike the glasnost era of the 1980's, when it seemed like Russia was changing to make the relationship better, it now feels like America is the one who has to make the compromises for the relationship to work - like we had to elect a dictator, someone that Russia wants to get into bed with, and we had to start listening to complaints from parts of the electorate (the red states) that the majority of the people (in the blue states) don't usually like to hear, or even acknowledge.  Tough times, to be sure - and with Russia now being blamed for hacking the election, it makes me wonder if this relationship can be saved, or even if it should be.  Can't we just go back to hating Russia again?  It would be so much easier.

But anyway, let me get back to "Reds", a film which is over three hours long, and in my opinion, didn't need to be.  I don't care if someone is Jesus Christ or Albert Einstein, or the most interesting man or woman in the world, we've all collectively agreed that films work best when they're two hours long, or maybe a little over, with exceptions being made for the sinking of the Titanic or anything written by J.R.R. Tolkien.  It's why I've never watched the film "Malcolm X" - it's over three hours long.  I realize a man can live for 40, 50, 70 years, but there's got to be a way to skip over some parts, and get that guy's story down to 2:05.  OK, 2:15 maximum.

So, is the story of journalist John Reed interesting enough to keep me entertained for three hours and 15 minutes?  Hell, no.  Even though he serves as our entry point into understanding very complex Russian politics (I get it, if you can't depict the big, show the little), my limit turned out to be at the 2 hour and 15 minute mark, when I fell asleep.  I woke up briefly and tried to rewind back to where I left off, but then fell asleep again rather quickly.  I had to finish the last hour of the film this morning, before heading off to work.  And ultimately, the payoff just wasn't there.

The story of John Reed is also the story of Louise Bryant, his girlfriend/wife/co-journalist who went from socialite to Socialist, and believed in things like feminism (this was before women could vote in the U.S.) and free love (this was decades before the 1960s).  And much like the U.S. and Russia, they had this on-again/off-again relationship that went on for many years, in several different forms.  Or am I perhaps reading too much into things, and finding symbolism that wasn't meant to be there?  Plus I'm confused why these characters weren't aware of their own hypocrisies, like championing "free love" but then being possessive and jealous when it came right down to it, also acting all "modern" like they didn't need to get married, then getting married.  OK, people are complex, they change over time, but it still seems like the ideals got thrown out the window.  I guess it's like being champions of socialism and the working class, while having both a fancy home upstate AND a beach house.  (And WHY did they want to go and live in Russia, exactly?)

Now, let's discuss the "witnesses", these were people in their 90's who had first-hand knowledge of the life and times of John Reed, some who knew him and Louise Bryant personally.  On one hand, it's very important to include their testimonies, because it's one more way the film strives for accuracy and insight into their very real lives.  But on the other hand, it's one more thing that makes the film much too long, and I couldn't help but feel that there were times it was used as a sort of narrative cheat, as something to cut to any time the story was perceived as starting to drag, or to offer insight on some factoid that maybe wasn't filmed properly or at all.  Who can say?  I'd have to watch a cut of the film without the witness interviews to be sure.  This format, however, has now been copied by reality shows like "Survivor" and "Chopped", where participants talk straight to the camera and are told to describe what the TV viewers just saw in the present tense, even though it's clear that the interview took place hours or even days later, and should rightfully refer to those events in the past tense.

Here's my final take-away on "Reds", based on what happened in the film and what I know about history.  Despite the American support for the Russian revolution, and numerous "red scares" in the U.S. over the years, I think Russian communism and American socialism are two very different animals.  For starters, Russian communism never really worked, especially since it always took place under totalitarian regimes, when theoretically everyone is supposed to be "equal" under socialism, and no one's supposed to be in charge.  In America, the right-wingers point to left-wing ideas and shout "Socialist!" as if that's a perverse word, and enough of an insult to win any argument - but should it really be that way?  In the U.S. we tend to associate socialism with Russia and treat those ideas as if they're the enemy, but that's like comparing apples and oranges.  The fact that John Reed went to Russia and found a different brand of socialism, and couldn't get that brand to catch on in the U.S. should be seen as confirmation of this.

Also starring Warren Beatty (last seen in "Splendor in the Grass"), Diane Keaton (last seen in "The Family Stone"), Jack Nicholson (last seen in "Heartburn"), Maureen Stapleton (ditto), Edward Herrmann (last seen in "The Lost Boys"), Paul Sorvino (last seen in "The Rocketeer"), Jerzy Kosinski, William Daniels (last seen in "Marlowe"), Jerry Hardin, Nicolas Coster (last seen in "The Big Fix"), M. Emmet Walsh (last seen in "Narrow Margin"), with cameos from Ian Wolfe (last seen in "You Can't Take It With You"), Max Wright (last seen in "Grumpier Old Men"), George Plimpton (last seen in "Edtv"), Shane Rimmer, Jack Kehoe (last seen in "Melvin and Howard"), Miriam Margolyes (last seen in "Yentl"), Richard LeParmentier (last seen in "Octopussy"), John Ratzenberger (last heard in "Inside Out"), Dolph Sweet.

RATING: 4 out of 10 interpreters

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