Saturday, September 23, 2017

Live at the Belly Up: The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band, featuring Rick Vito (KPBS, 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched a quite good Live from the Belly Up episode featuring “The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band with Rick Vito.” Mick Fleetwood, you’ll recall, is the drummer for Fleetwood Mac and has had that gig since the band started in 1968 — it was named after him and the original bass player, John McVie, who met in the 1967 edition of John Mayall’s Blues Breakers with lead guitarist Peter Green and decided to form a blues band of their own. They added a young British musician named Jeremy Spencer and the four of them recorded the first Fleetwood Mac album, called simply Fleetwood Mac, at the CBS Studios in London in 1969 for Mike Vernon’s Blue Horizon label. Blue Horizon was a label that specialized in reissuing American blues records, including quite a lot of Elmore James (they licensed the tapes of James’ last sessions in 1963 for Bobby Robinson’s Fire label — Fire was one of only a handful of labels recording African-American music in the 1950’s that was actually Black-owned — and so Elmore James became one of Blue Horizon’s most prolific artists even though he’d been dead for four years when the label was founded), and in recording British musicians who played in the American blues style. (Their biggest acts were Fleetwood Mac and the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, another band formed by an ex-Mayall drummer.) They made three albums with that four-piece lineup, one for Blue Horizon and two for Andrew Loog Oldham’s short-lived Immediate Records label, as well as a marvelous set of recordings, originally issued as Blues Jam in Chicago and later in the mid-1970’s as Fleetwood Mac in Chicago (an obvious attempt to cash in on the later success of a quite different, in both personnel and style, Fleetwood Mac, though anyone who bought Fleetwood Mac in Chicago expecting it to sound anything like Rumours would have been sorely disappointed!), in which the Macsters backed real Black blues musicians from the Windy City. (For me the high point of that album was the appearance of Elmore James’ surviving band, led by saxophonist J. T. Brown, backing Jeremy Spencer on great performances of some of James’ songs.) 

In the early days Fleetwood Mac’s material was almost all blues — either covers of Black blues songs or their own originals written in the same style — until the band in general and Peter Green in particular got to be more experimental and started sniffing around what would eventually become known as “progressive rock.” Green started writing and playing long, atmospheric songs, many of them either outright instrumentals or long jams with just bits of vocal. He also started taking a lot of LSD, and after one of his trips he announced to his fellow band members that from then on he wanted them to take just enough money for bare subsistence, and give the rest away to various charities. Needless to say, the other band members weren’t too thrilled about that, so they fired Green and hired another guitar player, Danny Kirwan, to take his place. Then, just as the new Fleetwood Mac was about to start a major U.S. tour, Jeremy Spencer suddenly became a born-again Christian and quit the group to join the Children of God cult. Since there was no time to break in another new musician and teach him all their material for their tour, the band had to go, hat in hand, to Peter Green and ask him to rejoin — which Green agreed to do, but only for that one tour. Over the next few years the band went through various personnel changes and morphed their music from blues to mainstream rock, and they added the other three members — McVie’s then-wife Christine, Lindsay Buckingham and his then-girlfriend Stevie Nicks — recording another album simply called Fleetwood Mac in 1975 and then following it up with the 1977 mega-success Rumours. The “new Fleetwood Mac” hung together for a while, broke up more due to personal than musical issues, and periodically have re-formed for widely publicized and highly lucrative reunions. Meanwhile, Mick Fleetwood decided to form a side project that would allow him to get back to his blues roots, and the result was the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band — though I couldn’t help but make the joke, when Charles arrived home early on while this show was on, that with his other band Mick Fleetwood gets to play stadia and with this band he gets to play bars. The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is a solid band that puts on a good show and, like the original Fleetwood Mac, relies for material on a mix of Black blues covers (Elmore James in particular) and originals in blues style. 

If they have a weakness, it’s their front man, singer-guitarist Rick Vito, who’s a perfectly competent blues-rock player but one would think that someone with Mick Fleetwood’s prestige and money could get a stronger, more assertive, more charismatic musician. Through much of the show I wondered what this band would sound like with Joe Bonamassa fronting it; though Bonamassa’s e-mails get awfully strange at times he is an excellent player (in a review of one of his own performances on PBS I called him the best white blues guitarist to emerge since the death of Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1990 — has it really been that long?) and a collaboration between him and Mick Fleetwood would be considerably more exciting than the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band as it stands. Fleetwood himself remains an excellent drummer, though when the show opened I was struck by the sheer amount of equipment he had on stage — at least four tom-toms, two or three bass drums and three crash cymbals as well as a set of little bells and a gong that looks like Fleetwood bought it at J. Arthur Rank’s garage sale — and couldn’t help but reflect how much Gene Krupa got out of just a snare drum, two tom-toms, a bass drum, two crash cymbals and a hi-hat. Much of the material the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band played was from Fleetwood Mac’s first three albums — including the song “Black Magic Woman,” which Peter Green wrote for Fleetwood Mac’s second album (Vito mentioned that in the U.S. it bore the title English Rose and the cover shot was Mick Fleetwood in drag — Fleetwood was predictably embarrassed that his band’s front man was reminding people of this) but which didn’t become a huge international hit until Santana covered it (less effectively, I might add, mainly because Carlos Santana, a great technician, simply isn’t as creative or individualistic a guitarist as Peter Green). They began with a song called “Fleetwood Boogie” which I suspect was written especially for this band, then went into a cover of another Peter Green original for the first Fleetwood Mac, a minor hit called “Oh Well,” and then a cover of an Elmore James song called “My Baby’s Hot.” Then they did a medley of two blues songs, “Rollin’ Man” and “Voodoo Woman,” followed by their version of “Black Magic Woman” — which was quite good even though Vito probably didn’t relish having to compete with both Peter Green and Carlos Santana! Then they switched gears for a nice bit of New Orleanian funk called “Lucky Devil,” for which Mick Fleetwood got up from his huge drum set and played another set of drums, and the keyboard player, Mark Johnstone — whom I thought was the best musician in the band next to Fleetwood himself: though he was playing two stacked Roland electronic keyboards he had one set to sound like a real blues piano and the other like a Hammond B-3 organ, so the sounds were authentic and right for the music — doubled on harmonica. 

Later another percussionist, Paulinho Morelli (at least I think that’s the name — he’s not listed on the official Mick Fleetwood Blues Band Web site and I suspect he was a guest the Belly Up Tavern brought in for this gig), took over that second drum set for a long song that was a blend of an instrumental called “Passage East” (which I suspect was a Peter Green composition because it was strongly reminiscent of Green’s more atmospheric instrumentals, both with Mac and on the beautiful 1971 all-instrumental solo album The End of the Game he recorded right after he left the band for the last time) and a song called “World Turning.” The band’s final song (of nine; Live at the Belly Up is one of those TV shows where the number of songs the band is able to squeeze into the hour-long time slot says a lot about their musical style — I’ve seen progressive-rock acts play only four, five or six songs in the slot and pop and blues acts play 12) was the searing Elmore James blues “Shake Your Money Maker,” which Fleetwood Mac played (with Jeremy Spencer on lead vocal and slide guitar) on their first album; Vito was hardly in Spencer’s league, let alone James’, but the message still got through and it was one of the infectious things the band played all night. Live at the Belly Up is one of the most important local resources for live music on KPBS — as the Belly Up Tavern itself remains a huge asset to the local music scene as well as a favored venue for major acts (like Fleetwood and Joan Osborne), as well as their offspring (Willie Nelson’s son Lukas has played a Live at the Belly Up telecast with his band Promise of the Real), doing off-beat side projects. Though not a patch on the Black musicians who created these sounds — in the 1960’s, when I first started listening to British blues records, they sounded a lot better than they do now, when the American originals they were covering are readily available in reissues of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and others — the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is a quite appealing blues-rock act, and the large, grey-haired, grey-bearded Mick Fleetwood himself has the look of an ancient sage behind all those drums, someone who has traveled the world to bring back wisdom in the form of a 12-bar blues.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 5: “This Is What We Do” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched the fifth episode of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick-Geoffrey C. Ward documentary The Viet Nam War (incidentally Charles challenged my insistence on spelling “Viet Nam” as two words, unhyphenated, saying that the Viet Namese consulate in the U.S. uses the “Vietnam” spelling that was commonplace in the American media when the Viet Nam war was actually happening), which was called “This Is What We Do” — after the reminiscence of a soldier who fought in the war who when he complained, early on in his tour, about the inhumane things he was expected to do, was told by his commanding officer, “This is war. This is what we do.” The period covered in this episode was from July to December 1967, during which North Viet Namese Communist Party general secretary Le Duan (who according to this series was the real power running North Viet Nam; by that time, Ward’s script argues, Ho Chi Minh was just a figurehead) decided the North Viet Namese army and their allies, the National Liberation Front (so-called “Viet Cong”) in the south would launch a major offensive starting on the date of the Viet Namese lunar new year, Tet, on January 31, 1968. (Tet was a defeat for the North Viet Namese in military terms but a triumph for them politically: though they weren’t able to bring down the South Viet Namese government or conquer any major cities, they virtually destroyed the support base for the war among the American people, boosted the anti-war insurgent candidacies of Eugene McCarthy — who makes what amounts to a cameo appearance at the end of this show — and Robert Kennedy and brought down Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency. But then, as I’ve pointed out before, that’s how all successful guerrilla armies win: they wear down the will of the occupying country’s people to fight.) 

There were some fascinating stories, including one from Jim Musgraves (at least I think I’m recalling his name right), a quite personable (and attractive, even 50 years later) man from Missouri who like a lot of other boys from America’s heartland bought into the idea that the Viet Nam war was a) a noble struggle against Communism any right-thinking American male of military age would want to be part of, and b) his generation’s opportunity to serve the country the way World War II had been for his parents’ generation. He was so severely wounded in one firefight his chest was literally ripped open, and though he was evacuated by helicopter he was visited by about four or five doctors who gave up on him, saying there was nothing they could do for him — one even asked what religion he was so he could call the appropriate chaplain to give him last rites — until finally he lucked out with a doctor who said, “Why isn’t this man being treated?” Musgraves also said that after his first week in Viet Nam “I never killed another human being” — not because he stopped fatally shooting the people who were shooting at him, or trying to, or might have been there to do so, or even looked vaguely like people who might have been trying to do so, but because he started thinking of them as “dinks,” “slopes” and “gooks” (all terms of abuse that had come from previous U.S. war or racism against Asians — Ward’s narration includes a brief etymology for each) and he could therefore kill them with a clear conscience — just as people on the other side (one of the best aspects of this program is the fact that they extensively interviewed people who fought on the Northern side — even though between them and the South Viet Namese who were also interviewed, and Burns’ and Novick’s decision to give the translations via subtitles instead of voice-overs, leads to an awful lot of Viet Namese on the soundtrack) called Americans “puppets,” “imperialists” and “monsters.” 

The story of the part of the war covered in “This Is What We Do” (a title with an oddly fatalistic air) is one of a steady escalation on both sides, and President Johnson’s response to Robert McNamara’s series of secret memos explaining that the current strategy was not working and the war could not be won, which was to arrange for him to be appointed president of the World Bank and for long-time Democratic fixer Clark Clifford to replace McNamara as Secretary of Defense. It also covered the disputed 1967 election in South Viet Nam, in which the U.S. prevailed on the principal rivals in the government, Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky, not to run against each other but instead to form a ticket with Thieu as President and Ky as Vice-President — and despite extensive election rigging and fraud the Thieu-Ky ticket only got 35 percent of the vote, though without provision for a runoff they were declared elected. (Shortly after the election, one of the rival candidates, General “Big” Minh — who’d also been a player in the period between November 1963 and June 1965 in which there were no fewer than eight South Viet Namese governments — “Musical Governments,” Mad magazine called it — asked for permission to leave the country, and instead was arrested. Some democracy.) The elections were held largely to placate opposition both in South Viet Nam and the U.S.; American critics of the war were wondering why we were being told we were fighting for “democracy” when the local government we were allied with was being run by military officers who’d taken power in coups, and Viet Namese Buddhists (which was about nine-tenths of the country) were once again mounting resistance actions and claiming that they were the victims of discrimination by the Roman Catholic minority who were actually running the South Viet Namese government and had been since the formation of the rump state of South Viet Nam and the installation of its first president, Ngo Dinh Diem, in 1955. 

There is no doubt in my mind that the war in Viet Nam was a misguided misadventure that didn’t even make sense as an act of imperialism — Viet Nam had no resources to speak of (about all that could be said for it in terms of its value in international trade was it was a great place to grow rice), nor was it strategically located in terms of confronting China (as Korea was), and any value it could have had to the international capitalist ruling class was hardly worth the toll in human lives, financial resources and overall national energy the American elite put into it. It will be interesting to see how this series develops — even though, in one of the dorkiest decisions any American broadcasting network has ever made, they’re putting the series on pause for the next few days and won’t resume it until this Sunday night (with “Things Fall Apart,” the episode that will cover the Tet offensive); either way, the conflicts that drove U.S. politics and society apart over Viet Nam — and the other two big things that happened to America, politically and socially, in the 1960’s, the African-American civil rights struggle and the emergence of the counterculture (which in the 1960’s meant the hippies and today mostly means Queers) — still divide the country, and Donald Trump’s election as President was in large measure a triumph of the racist, pro-war and anti-counterculture movement that emerged in the 1960’s on the American Right to support the war in Viet Nam and drive — politically and, sometimes, physically — the war’s likely opponents out of any influence in what went on in American governance and society.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 4: “Resolve” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I once again watched the new episode of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary The Viet Nam War (Ken Burns gets all the credit but the two are listed as co-directors and Geoffrey C. Ward as writer, so it’s really a collaboration among the three of them), which was called “Resolve.” That brought back memories: I’m sure it was the use of that word as a noun during the Viet Nam war (as in, “We have to stay in Viet Nam because we must show our resolve”) that has given me a lifelong allergy to the word “resolve” as a noun. Usually, “we must show our resolve” means “we’re doing something incredibly stupid and pointless and wasteful, but by gad, we’re going to keep doing it!” Ironically, with this, its fourth episode, the Viet Nam War documentary is getting as repetitive as the Viet Nam war itself: a jumble of odd names of people and places, a battle here, a protest there, a student strike in South Viet Nam itself when a popular commander in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN) was fired by dictator Nguyen Cao “I have only one hero — Hitler” Ky; he was also a Buddhist, and apparently Ky, like Ngo Dinh Diem, was a Roman Catholic and was giving Catholics (who, remember, had adopted the religion of Viet Nam’s former imperialist occupiers, the French) preferential treatment in both the government and the military. 

The open unrest in the streets of South Viet Nam’s two major cities, Saigon and Hue, made it even harder for the U.S. government and the war’s supporters to maintain the fiction that we were fighting to protect the South Viet Namese people’s right to “democracy” against the enslavement of Communism. (Historically, ironically enough, there had not been two Viet Nams but three: the country had long been divided into three provinces — Tonkin in the north, Annam in the center and Cochin-China in the south — and interestingly, when Ho Chi Minh first appealed for American aid after World War II he signed his letter not as the actual or would-be head of state of a united Viet Nam but specifically as Annamese.) The period of the war covered by “Resolve” was from January 1966 to June 1967, though it could have been just about any time between the introduction of U.S. ground troops in January 1965 and the Tet offensives launched by the North Viet Namese army in February-March 1968 — the first time they had risked a major conventional offensive instead of grinding the U.S. troops down in one guerrilla firefight after another. Tet went badly for the North Vietnamese militarily — the U.S. and their nominal Viet Namese allies were overwhelmed at first but quickly rallied and retook the territory they had lost — but it was a smashing success for them politically: it basically evaporated much of the support the U.S. population had previously shown for the war and was the final factor in Lyndon Johnson’s determination to bow out of the Presidency and abandon his 1968 re-election campaign. “Resolve” is at its best on the occasions Burns and his team are able to cast Viet Nam as the sort of war they had famously made films about before — the U.S. Civil War and the American involvement in World War II — and one of the most interesting points it made is that both the U.S. officers and the actual servicemembers doing the fighting had been conditioned in their expectations of what war was by World War II. 

The officers, including U.S. commanding general William Westmoreland (whose name I can recall the peace movement caricaturing as “Waste-More-Land”), had come through the ranks and had actually fought in World War II, and the grunt soldiers — especially the ones who volunteered rather than waiting to get drafted (Viet Nam was our last major conscript war and Burns and company really don’t go into the dynamics of the draft and how it actually operated as they should have — ironically, ending the draft has been one of those be-careful-what-you-wish-for-you-might-get-it moments for the American Left, since having a so-called “volunteer army” has actually made it easier, not harder, for more recent U.S. governments to get into and sustain endless wars, while the growing economic inequality of American society and the drying-up of alternative opportunities for upward mobility has meant that the “volunteers” of today’s U.S. military look a lot like the draftees of the previous one: largely working-class or below, and with a far greater concentration of people of color than the population as a whole) — had been conditioned on what “war” was by the memories of their parents and family members who had fought in World War II and how that war had been depicted in movies and on TV. The closest thing so far in this film to a typical “Ken Burns hero” — Denton “Mogie” Crocker, Jr. (his nickname came from his having been such an assertive child his parents called him “our little mogul”), a Midwestern boy (his mom and sister were interviewed for this show) who was so determined to fight in the war that he ran away from home at 17 and refused to return until his parents agreed to sign the exemption that would allow him to enlist before 18 — gets honored here with Burns’ trademarked sepulchral-voiced readings of his letters to his family back home (in which actor Ben Rappoport “played” Mogie) as well as interviews with his survivors. Once he went through basic training he was sent to Viet Nam, but at first he was only given desk work counting the casualties — a job he deliberately screwed up so he’d be fired and reassigned to do what he really wanted, which was actually to fight. Only as he saw what war in general and this war in particular were really like, he began to get disillusioned, and on June 23, 1966 (ironically, his 19th birthday), he was killed when his unit was ambushed. 

One of the quirkier points made in the documentary was that since Viet Nam was basically a guerrilla war (even when the North Viet Namese “regulars” were sent into the country to fight alongside the National Liberation Front guerrillas, they still fought like guerrillas, luring their enemy into devastating ambushes and then slipping into the mountains and blending in with the local population), the usual metric by which commanders determine whether they are winning or losing — how much territory they are holding versus how much the enemy is holding — didn’t apply in Viet Nam. Instead Robert McNamara, who among other bad habits he’d picked up from his long career in the private sector (at Ford Motor Company, where he’d risen to president before taking the job as John F. Kennedy’s, and then Lyndon Johnson’s, secretary of defense) was an obsession with quantification and a sense that any problem could be reduced to a statistical analysis that would in turn generate the “right” solution, decided that the metric for success would be how many enemy fighters the U.S. killed. General Westmoreland regularly talked of the “crossover point,” meaning the point at which the U.S. were killing more North Viet Namese and National Liberation Front fighters than the other side could replace — and in early 1967 he was claiming he’d actually achieved the “crossover point” everywhere except in the northern end of South Viet Nam near the demilitarized zone the 1954 Geneva Agreements had set up to divide the country. As a number of people point out in the show, this emphasis on the sheer number of “enemy” dead as the metric of success led to some pretty distorted command decisions; not only did it mean that battlefield commanders, in their reports to their superiors, counted just about everyone they killed as “NVA” or “VC” whether they had been or not (which was also a convenient way to avoid criticism of killing civilians as “collateral damage” — just define the “enemy” so broadly that civilian deaths virtually ceased to exist), it also meant that in planning actual operations, battlefield commanders deliberately chose tactics that would maximize the body counts whether that made sense either in terms of human cost or simple military effectiveness. 

Another of the anecdotes concerned a young Marine who was shocked that when the U.S. captured NLF fighters who presumably had information as to where the enemy was waiting to ambush U.S. soldiers, they took them in on armored personnel carriers, tied them up and just pushed them off the carriers with no way to break their fall, resulting in a series of cracked ribs and other injuries. The Marine, Ben Earhardt (who was interviewed for the program and was the one who told this story), was about to protest when the superior officer he was going to protest to said that the U.S. spotters who had been responsible for detecting the ambushes had it in for these people because they could have told them where the ambushers were and didn’t, and if Earhardt spoke on their behalf they’d beat him up. (I couldn’t help but reflect, as I had also with regard to the counterproductiveness — never mind the morality, or lack of same — of the tortures inflicted by U.S. servicemembers on similarly detained “enemy fighters” in Iraq — of the lesson British commander John Masterman wrote in The Double-Cross System, his marvelous book about the British success in “turning” virtually the whole German espionage network in the U.K. during World War II, that the most important thing a country fighting a war can do to ensure its success is to treat its prisoners of war decently, respectfully and humanely. Apparently the old you-catch-more-flies-with-honey-than-with-vinegar principle had never occurred to those “spotters” — neither they nor the officers above them got it through their thick heads that they stood a better chance of “turning” the captives and finding where the NVA and NLF forces were by treating them respectfully than by torturing them.) 

One other point about “Resolve” was the way in which, by counterpointing anti-war and pro-war demonstrations in the U.S., it showed how the division of the American population into two strongly opposed camps and the resulting “polarization” of American politics really had its roots in Viet Nam (though I would argue that it was also due to the success of the African-American civil rights movement, which had the unforeseen consequence of dividing white America and giving the Republican Party and the U.S. Right in general the wedge through which they finally destroyed the New Deal coalition and made working-class whites a bulwark of the Republican Party by appealing to their racism and cultural prejudices). We’re still living in the America that was created in the 1960’s by the galvanic shocks of the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam war, and despite a few reversals, the Right is winning that racial and cultural war. Richard Nixon would win the White House through allying with white supremacists like Strom Thurmond and practicing the “Southern Strategy” that essentially flipped the two major U.S. political parties’ traditional positions on civil rights — the Democrats, once the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, became the party of civil rights, and the Republicans, the “Party of Lincoln,” re-invented themselves as the party of racism and white supremacy — and though the Watergate scandal (which was merely the tip of the iceberg of an elaborate plan by Nixon and his campaign people to rig the 1972 election so he would not only win, but win in such a devastating way it would end all challenges to his legitimacy) temporarily derailed the Right-wing revolution in the U.S., it finally came to power under Ronald Reagan in 1980 and, even more forcefully and transformationally, under Donald Trump in 2016.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 3: “The River Styx” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was the third episode in Ken Burns’ 10-part mega-series The Viet Nam War, “The River Styx,” a title which seemed at first to be crossing his classical allusions — usually the river whose crossing is supposed to seal one’s fate is the Rubicon, not the Styx: the Rubicon was the real river outside Rome which Julius Caesar marched his legions across, thereby essentially declaring war against the Roman Republic, signaling his decision to take power as an absolute ruler, and thereby triggering his assassination — while the Styx was the river that led into the Greco-Roman underworld, Hades, and you usually didn’t cross it until you were already dead. As the show (two hours long instead of the 1 ½-hour length of each of the two previous episodes) wound on, the meaning of the title became more apparent: Burns and his collaborators, Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward, were clearly depicting the Viet Nam war as a sort of American descent into hell. They included actual tape recordings of President Lyndon Johnson talking to advisors like Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and national security advisor McGeorge Bundy (one wonders what his parents were thinking giving him such a preposterous first name as “McGeorge,” especially since they gave his brother, also a member of the Johnson administration, a normal name, “William”) and his lifelong friend, Senator Richard Russell (D-Georgia), whom Johnson remained close to even though they had fought fiercely on opposite sides over the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Johnson knew instinctively what hasn’t dawned on Donald Trump: you don’t personally insult your political adversaries because you may need their vote on the next big issue). 

All the Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt through Richard Nixon had recording equipment installed in the White House, and sometimes on the phones as well as in person, though all of them from FDR to Johnson had a switch by which they could control the system so they decided which conversations they would record and which they wouldn’t: Nixon seems to be the only President who made his taping system automatic, so it would record everything without his or anybody else’s human intervention. Johnson’s recordings indicate a President deeply frustrated by Viet Nam, not really believing that the U.S. had any business there but feeling hamstrung by the political imperatives of the Cold War not to show “weakness” in the face of self-proclaimed Communists anywhere in the world, no matter how unimportant the region might be by the usual criteria of rational imperialists (i.e., does it have exploitable natural resources, cheap labor pools or markets?). That’s why I’ve often said that my answer to the question often posed about Viet Nam while the war was still going on — was it a “mistake” of U.S. foreign policy or a deliberate act of U.S. imperialism — was it was both: it was certainly an act of imperialism, but at the same time the U.S. squandered far more blood and money on it than was merited by its usefulness as an imperialist possession. (What makes that even more ironic is that, though the U.S. lost the Viet Nam war, they finally won the peace: today nominally “Communist” Viet Nam has, like Bangladesh, become a source of ultra-cheap labor for multinational corporations who decide that even China’s workers are being overpaid.) This third episode finds Ken Burns and his collaborators in more familiar and comfortable territory than the previous two: they can focus on individual battles and even individual soldiers (this is the first Viet Nam War episode that featured what’s become one of the hallmarks of the Ken Burns style: an actor reading, in a sepulchral voice, surviving letters from a participant in the war), where they can get out of discussing the political motives behind the war and focus on acts of individual heroism and bravery … on both sides, for one of the nicest things about this show is the sheer number of Viet Namese Burns, Novick and Ward scored interviews with, on the Northern as well as the Southern side. 

The show has also introduced me to a figure in the North Viet Namese government I’d frankly never heard of before: Le Duan (whose name narrator Peter Coyote pronounces “Lay Zwan”), who was the general secretary of the Viet Namese Communist Party and, Burns, Novick and Ward argue, was the real ruler of North Viet Nam during the mid-1960’s, having relegated the ostensible head of state, Ho Chi Minh, to figurehead status. Le Duan also, it’s argued here, pursued a much harder-line policy than Ho and was more willing to resist direct involvement by the North Viet Namese military instead of keeping up the pretense that the so-called “Viet Cong” (a derisive term coined by their enemies; their official name was “National Liberation Front,” a nomenclature that would be copied by revolutionary movements around the world). Mostly “The River Styx” is an account of the big battles in the war during 1965, including some at places I’d heard of (like the U.S. Marine base at Pleiku, where the first American ground troops landed and from which they operated), others I hadn’t — including Bin Ja, where U.S. troops fought for the first time in Viet Nam under their own command instead of supposedly just “advising” the South Viet Namese. The show concludes with an in-depth account of the fighting in the valley of the Ia Drang River in November 1965 — the first time it was definitively established that North Viet Nam was sending in regular troops from their army to fight alongside the NLF — and it depicted such interesting American characters as Major Charles Beckwith, who asked about the capabilities of the NLF’s fighters said, “I’d like to have 200 of them under my command”; Lt. Col. Hal Moore, who commanded the U.S. forces in the Ia Drang battle and was shown in an archival TV interview; and Joe Galloway, who was ostensibly an Associated Press reporter but got pressed into service when the unit he was covering came under attack and Moore gave him a machine gun and a quick course on how to use it to fight back. 

Interestingly, U.S. reporters in Viet Nam were probably less censored than in any other war, before or since; they didn’t have to submit their copy to military censors before they dispatched it, and all they were told not to do was write about ongoing troop movements or give their exact locations. Indeed, it was precisely because a lot of the reporters in Viet Nam used that freedom to portray the war in strongly unflattering terms that in later U.S. wars reporters were virtually locked in boxes, “embedded” in individual units and forbidden from traveling through the countryside looking for stories. One of the most chilling moments in the film was its inclusion of a famous CBS news report from late 1965 showing U.S. troops invading a Viet Namese village, supposedly in search of caches of equipment and food being used by the NLF, and literally burning down the entire village, setting fire to the thatched roofs with Zippo lighters and destroying the entire food supply on which the villagers were relying. The reporter, a young Morley Safer, concluded his report that with tactics like these “it will be difficult to convince the villagers that we are on their side” — words I remember hearing when I saw the story as it first aired, and which vividly stuck in my mind as endemic of the blinders with which the U.S. fought the entire war. It never seemed to occur to anyone in the U.S. government that if we were really serious about winning the “hearts and minds” of the Viet Namese people the last thing we should be doing was destroying their homes and food supplies; we were so convinced that we knew what was best for them, that anything was better than the presumed horror of living under a Communist government, that they’d just accept us as heroes and liberators. It was an illusion we tragically did not abandon when it turned out so badly in Viet Nam: I can remember President George W. Bush’s press secretary, Ari Fleischer, telling the Iraqi people, “We come as liberators, not conquerators” [sic] — a gaffe that led me to joke that Fleischer had been working for Bush so long he was beginning to sound like him. 

This idea that no matter how many unspeakable atrocities we commit against a civilian population, in the end they’re going to love us for it, has haunted us again and again in various military misadventures, including Iraq and Afghanistan (which has now surpassed the American Revolution and Viet Nam as the longest war the U.S. has ever been involved in — 16 years and counting), also places we’ve gone into blessedly ignorant of the local language and culture, and contemptuous of the idea that that might even be a problem. If anything, President Trump’s recent fulmination at the United Nations that he will “totally destroy” North Korea if Kim Jong “Rocket Man” Un keeps acting up is at least being honest — if your leader gets out of line, Trump is telling all 25 million North Koreans, we’re just going to kill you all and we’re not even going to pretend we’re fighting a war of liberation on your behalf. The show also parallels the rise of the U.S. anti-war movement — and the hopes of the North Viet Namese and the NLF that the U.S. anti-war movement would eventually sap the war-fighting spirit of the U.S. and help them defeat us — which is actually how all guerrilla movements work: keep the war going on for so long that ultimately your enemies get tired of it, their populations can’t sustain the effort any longer and therefore they withdraw and let you have your country back. (This was also one of the two things the Confederacy was counting on in the U.S. Civil War: there were two ways the South could have won — either by engendering enough war-weariness in the North that Lincoln would either have been forced to settle or have been defeated in his 1864 re-election bid, or by getting foreign intervention from Britain and/or France the way the U.S. revolutionaries had got from France to win their war in the 1770’s. Indeed, they came closer than a lot of people realize; George McClellan, the Civil War general turned anti-war Presidential candidate, was leading in the 1864 election by such a margin that in August Lincoln was convinced he was going to lose — until Grant and Sherman won such smashing victories on the battlefield in October 1864 that Northern voters realized the victorious end of the war was in sight and decided to stay the course.)

Interestingly, when I looked up episode three of The Viet Nam War on imdb.com the user review that came up was from someone or something named “ducorp” who took the “Democrat” President Lyndon Johnson to task for not having launched an all-out war, including the total destruction of Hanoi and Haiphong, mining the North Viet Namese harbors and committing half a million troops immediately instead of dribbling them in a few at a time — this was a common view among Americans at the time and in 1968 pollsters reported that what a lot of people they surveyed liked least about the war in Viet Nam was the deliberate strategy of fighting a “limited war” — they got people who said, “We should go all out to win in Viet Nam, and if we’re not willing to do that we should get out,” and other people who said, “We should get out of Viet Nam, but if we’re not willing to do that we should go all out to win.” Though the military commanders in the 1990’s proclaimed the (first) Persian Gulf War as the end of what they called the “Viet Nam Syndrome” in the U.S. — the gun-shy unwillingness of the U.S. population to support a war elsewhere in the world for unclear goals and aims — and then-U.S. Army chief Colin Powell proclaimed the “Powell Doctrine” that the U.S. should never again intervene and fight without a clear set of war aims and a willingness to end the war as soon as those aims were achieved, the national trauma of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 changed all that and led us back into the quagmire business in Afghanistan, Iraq (where bringing down Saddam Hussein’s repressive but secular government brought about the formation of ISIS and created more, not less, of a terrorism threat than had existed previously) and now quite likely North Korea, Venezuela, Iran or wherever else the dyspeptic President currently in the White House decides his ego has been bruised so badly he needs to use American lives and treasure to take the miscreants down a few pegs.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 2: “Riding the Dragon” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night KPBS ran the second episode of Ken Burns’ latest magnum opus, The Viet Nam War: “Riding the Dragon,” dealing with the administration of President John F. Kennedy and his role in deepening the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. No one who watches this show is going to think that Ken Burns is depicting the Viet Nam War and especially the U.S.’s involvement in it as morally ambiguous or even heroic: for Burns and his collaborators Lynn Novick and Geoffrey C. Ward, Viet Nam was a disaster from start to finish. About the only difference between the case being made against the war while it was still going on (from a peace movement I was proud, even at a tender age, to be part of: my growing up, physically and politically, is so intertwined with Viet Nam and the lessons it taught me about my country and its bias towards imperialism, as well as how badly it does imperialism I can hardly separate my views on more recent American military misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq from the Viet Nam debacle) and the one presented on this series is that Burns takes a pox-on-both-your-houses attitude to the governments of the two Viet Nams created by the 1954 Geneva Agreements, the People’s Republic of Viet Nam in the north and the Republic of Viet Nam in the south. 

There was a tendency, especially as the war wore on, for peaceniks to whitewash the North Viet Namese and see them as “freedom fighters,” ignoring their atrocities and repression against so-called “political enemies” — while at the same time supporters of the war tried to present the Republic of Viet Nam as a democracy when it wasn’t. It was ruled first by Ngo Dinh Diem (and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and Mrs. Nhu, who made both figuratively and literally incendiary comments that only worsened the situation: not only did she respond to the immolation suicides of Buddhist monks in protest against Diem’s Catholic regime by saying she rejoiced at the “barbecues,” which is in Burns’ film, she publicly called on New York Times reporter David Halberstam, who had angered her with his dispatches criticizing the Diem government and the U.S. involvement, would follow the monks’ example), then after Diem was overthrown and assassinated by Viet Namese generals on November 1, 1963 (three weeks to the day before JFK’s own assassination) by a round-robin series of coups and counter-coups involving the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (ARVN)’s top generals, and finally after 1965 by Nguyen Cao Ky (who became infamous in the peace movement for allegedly having said, “I have only one hero — Hitler”) and later by Nguyen Van Thieu (about half of all Viet Namese seem to be named “Nguyen,” just as half of all Koreans seem to be named “Kim” — recently, when Charles and I were watching a PBS program and one of the donors was the Park Foundation, Charles joked, “That’s the foundation dedicated to building awareness of Koreans not named Kim”), who took over the Viet Namese presidency in 1967 and made Ky his vice-president; they ruled, sort of, until the entire South Viet Namese government fell in 1975. 

The story of Viet Nam as told in this documentary is a grim tale of Americans blundering their way into a country whose language they did not speak, whose history and culture they did not understand, and which they saw through the illogic of the Cold War, which, in a theory Henry Kissinger called “linkage,” was based on the idea that every struggle anywhere in the world was ultimately part of the fight to the death between American capitalism and Soviet communism. The U.S. ignored Ho Chi Minh’s overtures immediately after World War II because he was a communist, and to U.S. policy-makers at the time (notably President Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, and special advisor George Kennan, author of the “containment” policy by which Communism would be allowed to rule where it had already taken root but the U.S. would fight tooth and nail against its expansion, especially in western Europe and southeastern Asia) that invalidated all his claims to being an independent nationalist. The U.S. got further and further into the war — by the end of the Kennedy administration it had several thousand “advisors” in the country, supposedly there just to train the ARVN and its commanders on how to fight, but they were flying helicopters, bombing suspected enemy positions and actively participating in conflict even though they weren’t yet going into battle on the ground. (That would come later, under Lyndon Johnson.) I remember in my teens and early 20’s having long arguments with friends over whether Kennedy would have cut the U.S.’s losses in Viet Nam and withdrawn if he’d lived: the Burns documentary mentions that there was a plan on the table when Kennedy died to withdraw the U.S. “advisors” gradually until January 1965, but that was predicated on the belief that by then the ARVN would have turned the corner and started winning the war. Those hopes were dashed in January 1963 at the Battle of Ap Bac, one of the “strategic hamlets” the South Viet Namese government built (and drafted forced labor from the Viet Namese peasants to build them) to isolate the rural Viet Namese population behind barbed wire and stakes to keep the National Liberation Front (NLF) recruiters from getting to them and signing them up for the other side. 

What Burns’ documentary doesn’t mention was that this was an idea with an already long and dishonorable history: the first foreign invaders in a Third World country who hit on this strategy were the British during the Boer War in South Africa in the late 1890’s. Only instead of calling them “strategic hamlets,” they called them “concentration camps” — a bit of nomenclature that became decidedly politically incorrect when Nazi Germany appropriated the term (though they meant something rather different by it — first forced-labor camps and then extermination centers). The French had tried something similar in their failed attempt to reconquer Viet Nam between 1946 and 1954, only they called it “pacification” — a word spelled identically (though pronounced somewhat differently) in English and French and which the U.S. used as an alternate name for the program — either way it didn’t freaking work. It only gave Viet Namese peasants even more reason to hate the South Viet Namese government and concentrated the peasantry so NLF recruiters had an easier, not harder, time winning converts. One of the heroes (sort of) mentioned in this program was John Paul Vann, an American military advisor to the ARVN who later became the hero of Neil Sheehan’s book A Bright Shining Lie about the early days of the Viet Nam involvement (he published a book in 1972 about Vann’s role and it was filmed by HBO in 1978, with Bill Paxton playing Vann; the movie got savaged by people who still believed in the cause the U.S. had been fighting for in Viet Nam, whatever it was); Sheehan was extensively interviewed for this program and made the point that Ap Bac was the first time the NLF (or “Viet Cong,” short for “Viet Namese Communists,” as their enemies derisively termed them) staged a full-scale battle instead of just a raid, inflicted heavy casualties and had enough military supplies and modern arms (which came mostly from the Soviet Union and only secondarily from the Chinese — one thing the American war plotters didn’t understand about Viet Nam was that for a thousand years it had been under Chinese “suzerainty,” which meant they basically got to run their own country but had to acknowledge the Chinese as their ultimate overlords and pay them heavy taxes, which had given the Viet Namese a long-term hatred of the Chinese, reason enough that when the Sino-Soviet split occurred the Viet Namese took the Soviet rather than the Chinese side) to be able to fight and win a full-fledged battle and not just a raid. 

Anyway, getting back to my arguments with my friends in the early 1970’s over whether there would have been a Viet Nam War — or at least a major U.S. involvement in it — if JFK had lived a normal span and served two terms as President, it’s always seemed to me that Kennedy would have pursued pretty much the same policies as Lyndon Johnson. By removing Diem in a coup (or at least green-lighting the efforts of Viet Namese generals to do that — JFK had given his O.K. to the coup as long as Diem and Nhu were allowed to leave the country alive, and when they weren’t he was not a happy camper but he regarded himself as stuck with the Viet Namese leadership, even a bunch of generals who had double-crossed him) Kennedy had doubled down on the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. It’s hard to figure out what Diem was doing in his last months in power, when having already lost the peasantry he went after the urban masses, most of whom were Buddhist and resented the way Diem’s policies were blatantly favoring his own religion, Roman Catholicism — but then it’s often hard to figure out the counterproductive policies authoritarians of all stripes (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chávez, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Un and, arguably, Donald Trump) fall into when they see their absolute power as being threatened. The important point is that Diem’s fall left South Viet Nam a mess and would have made it even harder for any U.S. President to withdraw — and Kennedy, who was obsessed with China and regarded the Chinese (with some reason) as being on an expansionist tear by which they hoped to conquer and/or bring under their influence all of Asia (including India, with whom they fought at least two border wars during Kennedy’s Presidency), would no more have withdrawn from Viet Nam as he would have patted the East German leaders on their backs and said, “No problem with that wall … ”

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Viet Nam War, part 1: “Déjà Vu” (Florentine Films/PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night PBS debuted the first episode, “Déjà Vu,” of Ken Burns’ series The Viet Nam War. (He actually spelled it The Vietnam War, since “Vietnam” as one word is the usual American rendering, but I remember a UCSD professor whom I met in the early 2000’s who had compiled an anthology of accounts of the war, many of them by people who’d actually fought in it, solemnly telling me that “Viet Nam” — two words, no hyphen — is the correct way to spell that country’s name.) The Viet Nam War featured the usual suspects — Ken Burns and Lynn Novick as the filmmakers, Geoffrey C. Ward as the writer, Peter Coyote as the narrator and a batch of oddball funding sources including the Bank of America and David H. Koch (when I saw that name on the credits I winced, though any thought I might have had that Koch was going to insist on making this a Right-wing propaganda piece was quickly disconfirmed by the content of the show itself) — and the first part was a compelling presentation of the pre-history of the Viet Nam war, starting in 1858 when the French invaded Viet Nam and relatively quickly took it over. Their main interest in Southeast Asia generally and what was then called “French Indochina” in particular was as a giant plantation that would produce rice the French could then sell to other countries in the region, and to that end they ran Viet Nam as a sort of giant plantation, maintaining a puppet emperor to put a Viet Namese face on their occupation and dividing the country into French-owned giant farms where the Viet Namese were forced to work as peasants, frequently starving while the ample food supplies they were producing went to other, more profitable markets. (It’s the same old sad story of all imperialisms.)

The French occupation naturally engendered a nationalist resistance — several nationalist resistances, actually — though the one that became important was the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh (that wasn’t his birth name: one of the things I didn’t know before I learned from this program was that he used about 70 different aliases before settling on that one) and aligned with the Communist movement worldwide because Ho had, as a young man, read Lenin’s analysis of imperialism and call for national self-determination and decided that was the blueprint for struggle in his own country. He actually spent 31 years in exile, from 1910 to 1941, until the German conquest of France in World War II threw the entire French colonial system into turmoil. The Japanese sought to take over all France’s colonial possessions in Asia, and a number of Viet Namese embraced them on the ground that at least the Japanese, as fellow Asians, would liberate them from white rule. When the Japanese proved at least as oppressive colonial overlords as the French — something that Ho hadn’t been surprised about at all — Viet Namese nationalists formed resistance movements and hoped that an Allied victory in World War II would end both French and Japanese occupation and pave the way for Viet Namese independence. As I remember reading in the 1960’s from Robert Scheer’s famous short book How the United States Got Involved in Viet Nam — which became virtually the Bible of the anti-war movement in the 1960’s and published excerpts from many of the cables between the U.S. State Department and its diplomats in Viet Nam that were later included in the Pentagon Papers — Ho Chi Minh actually thought the U.S. would take his side: he deliberately began the Viet Namese Declaration of Independence with the same words as the U.S. Declaration of Independence (the ones about people having certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness) and he wrote several letters to U.S. President Harry Truman in both French and English asking outright for his support. The letters never reached Truman: they were intercepted by the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which had already written off Ho as a Communist and therefore someone the U.S. not only wouldn’t support, but would bitterly oppose. The next nine years were a brutal conflict between the French, attempting to reconquer Viet Nam through military means; the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh and claiming to be the legitimate government of the entire country; and other Viet Namese nationalists who rejected Communism and wanted independence under non-Communist, non-Viet Minh auspices.

The story that Burns, Novick and Ward tell is one of bitter war and atrocities on both sides — they note that Ho Chi Minh was out of the country for much of this period, vainly trying to negotiate an end to the French involvement in Paris, and the ruler actually on the ground in the Viet Minh-controlled parts of Viet Nam was Ho’s military commander, Vo Nguyen Giap (Coyote in his narration pronounces Giap’s last name as “Zap,” by the way), who was considerably harder-line than Ho himself and ordered some brutal massacres — though the anti-Communist Viet Namese and the French all committed war atrocities of their own, including the conqueror’s ultimate privilege, rape. (There are a lot of reasons to be a pacifist, but one of them is that victorious armies throughout history have almost always regarded the bodies of the females — and sometimes the males as well — of the vanquished as part of war booty, and considered rape one of the perks of victory.) The program deals with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu — in a pattern that would repeat itself when the Americans replaced the French as Viet Nam’s would-be imperialists, the French massed their forces for a conventional battle on the plains while the Viet Minh hid out in the hills, secretly assembled artillery that had been carted up by hand in bits and pieces and then reassembled in place, and shelled the French before the French had the chance to mount the mass attack they’d planned — and the much-misunderstood Geneva Accords of 1954. The Geneva Accords called for a temporary division of Viet Nam into northern and southern occupation zones, the north to be ruled by the Viet Minh and the south by the French, until 1956, when a nationwide election was to be held in which the people of Viet Nam would vote on who should rule the entire country — an election just about everyone involved knew that Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh would win. It also set up a demilitarized zone (DMZ) between northern and southern occupation zones, and allowed anyone in either half of Viet Nam to move to the other within 300 days. What actually happened was that 100,000 Viet Namese moved from the south to the north and 1 million moved from north to south — which was hailed in the U.S. and European media as the Viet Namese people voting with their feet for freedom over Communism.

Robert Scheer’s account was, not surprisingly, quite different: he said the Viet Minh asked their people not to come north because they wanted them in the south to prepare for the elections that were supposed to happen in 1956, while most of the people who went south were Viet Namese who had converted to Roman Catholicism during French rule. Among the most interesting aspects of this documentary were Burns’ and Novick’s judicious use of film clips of future Presidents who would one day have to deal with Viet Nam — John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon — to show what they had to say about the conflict in the early 1950’s; Kennedy’s initial comments were eerily prescient about the U.S. having no national interest in Viet Nam and thereby best off staying out, but his tune changed when the French ultimately withdrew from Viet Nam in 1955 and Ngo Dinh Diem emerged as the first president of the newly proclaimed “Republic of Viet Nam” in the South. Diem was a Roman Catholic who never married and at one point had planned to become a priest, and apparently he and Kennedy bonded over their shared religion as well as Diem’s promise to show Viet Nam in particular and the world in general that there was a “Third Way” Third World countries could follow besides imperialism and Communism. Once in power Diem turned out to be as autocratic as anyone in the North, locking dissenters into concentration camps and summarily executing people. The first episode of The Viet Nam War ends with Kennedy’s inauguration as President and a successful attack by the National Liberation Front (derisively called the “Viet Cong” by its enemies), the guerrilla movement in the South Ho and Giap green-lighted in 1959 after they realized that the national unification elections, which they had counted on to give them power over all of Viet Nam, were not going to happen. The attack killed two of the U.S. “advisors” who were supposedly there to help organize and train the South Viet Namese army, and these 1959 casualties are considered by the U.S. government to be the first Americans actually killed in the Viet Nam war and are the first names on the famous Viet Nam war memorial in Washington, D.C.

Of course I was particularly interested in The Viet Nam War because I have a personal relationship to this history: it was going on while I was growing up (though I missed being vulnerable to the draft by a hair’s breadth: I was subject to the last draft lottery drawing during the war but my birthday, September 4, was 356 in the lottery drawing so I wasn’t in any danger of being sent off to fight in that horrible war) and it had a lot to do with shaping the politics I’ve had ever since, particularly a hatred of Western imperialism and a belief that Third World nations should have the right to determine for themselves what sort of government they should have. I remember being one of the earliest people in my generational cohort to oppose the war, and how classmates who’d once argued with me and given all the usual propaganda justifications for the war — the “domino theory,” the idea that the fall of Viet Nam would bring all Asia under Communist rule and ultimately if we didn’t vanquish the Communists in Viet Nam we’d be fighting them on the California shores — suddenly started turning up in the same peace marches I’d been going to since my mom took me to my first one in 1965, when I was 11. I also remember the arguments between Viet Nam war opponents over whether the war was “a mistake,” an exception to America’s usually idealistic foreign policy, or a deliberate exercise of U.S. imperialism: as the opposition to the war got more Left-wing “imperialism,” not “mistake,” became the answer that was considered “politically correct.” Only later did it occur to me that Viet Nam was both an exercise in U.S. imperialism and a mistake: Viet Nam had virtually no natural resources to speak of, and the cost to the U.S. in both lives and money of attempting to conquer and “pacify” Viet Nam was so far out of proportion to its potential value as a dependency any truly rational imperialists would have abandoned it the way the French had in 1955.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Time Tunnel: Four Episodes (Irwin Allen Productions, Kent Productions, 20th Century-Fox Television, 1966-1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” movie screening in Golden Hill (http://sdvsf.org/) featured four episodes of the short-lived (one season, 1966-1967) TV series The Time Tunnel, producer-director-writer Irwin Allen’s followup to his (at least at first) sensationally successful series Lost in Space — and so similar in its basic formula Allen might as well have called this one Lost in Time. The show’s premise is that the U.S. government has spent $7.5 billion developing a secret project in the middle of the Arizona desert — it’s so secret that a patch of the desert surface opens up to admit people inside its underground headquarters and a Chrysler Imperial limousine delivering invited guest U.S. Senator Leroy Clark (Gary Merrill, Bette Davis’s co-star in All About Eve and her fourth husband), who’s just discovered the secret appropriation for “Project Tic-Toc” in the federal budget (the name of the effort is a perfect example of the weird banality that afflicted a lot of Allen’s projects) and is ready, as head of the relevant U.S. Senate committee, to pull  the plug on it if he doesn’t feel it’s accomplishing anything worthwhile. 

Needless to say, the staffers at the head of Project Tic-Toc (we’re told there are 1,200 people working on it in the bowels of the earth under the Arizona desert but we only see about five of them) are worried about losing their funding, so they respond to Senator Clark’s demand that they project a person through the so-called “Time Tunnel” (a series of concentric rings that’s supposed to look like it stretches to infinity, though despite the best efforts at forced perspective from Irwin Allen and his set painters it’s clearly only about 15 to 20 feet long) and bring him back safely by having one of the engineers in charge of the project, Dr. Anthony Newman (James Darren, in a tight turtleneck sweater and a pair of slacks that shows off a nice ass), leap into the Time Tunnel, which sizzles, smokes and ultimately — in the pilot episode, “Rendezvous with Yesterday” — deposits him on the deck of the R.M.S. Titanic on April 14, 1912, just hours before the ship is going to have that fatal rendezvous with an iceberg. Another scientist on the project, Dr. Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert — one of the attendees at the screening wondered if he’s any relation to late-night talk-show host Stephen Colbert, but his imdb.com page doesn’t say yea or nay), leaps into the Time Tunnel to try to retrieve Newman but only ends up trapped in there with him, and for the rest of the series’ one-season run the gimmick was that the people back at Tic-Toc Central (including a woman, Lee Meriwether as Dr. Ann McGregor — who’s dressed in the baggiest white lab coat 20th Century-Fox’s costume department could find and she looks so decidedly un-sexy it’s hard to believe that within three years she’d be playing the Catwoman on the 1960’s Batman TV show!) kept trying to retrieve their two errant crew members but just kept depositing them in one new time period after another, always in the middle of some imminent peril that could be advertised in a cliffhanger sequence at the end of each episode to get viewers to tune into the next one. On “Rendezvous with Yesterday” the two run into the Titanic’s captain, Malcolm Smith (Michael Rennie, looking oddly un-alien for Rennie in a science-fiction story!) — incidentally the real Titanic’s captain was named Edward John Smith and usually called “E. J.” — who hears them try to warn him that the ship is headed for an iceberg and it should turn around and reset its course southward to move out of iceberg country. Naturally Captain Smith thinks they’re lunatics and orders them locked up so they don’t scare the rest of the passengers with their doomsday talk. 

They also meet up with a sympathetic female, Althea Hall (played by the beautiful and talented British actress Susan Hampshire), who’s a schoolteacher who splurged all her life savings on a vacation on the Titanic, though she also seems to be working her way across by performing in the ship’s lounge as a pianist (in which capacity she’s playing in a half-ragtime, half-jazz musical style far more characteristic of the mid-1920’s than 1912), and a typically obnoxiously cute movie kid whose family is emigrating to the U.S. from France and who’s sneaking onto the first-class decks to steal leftover food to help feed his family and the other “third-class” passengers (the script, by Irwin Allen himself, doesn’t use the dread word “steerage”). Newman and Phillips stage a sort of coup d’état in the radio room to try to broadcast warnings to other ships that the Titanic is about to sink and will need their help rescuing its passengers, but Captain Smith catches them and countermands their orders. (One of the peculiarities of The Time Tunnel as compared to other time-travel stories is its cheery ignorance of the “butterfly effect”; Newman and Phillips come off as time-traveling Mary Worths attempting to prevent the historical disasters they get beamed into without any thought, except in very rare instances, that if they alter the events of history their own time is going to change in unpredictable and possibly catastrophic ways.) Eventually the Time Tunnel crew beams Newman and Phillips off of the deck of the Titanic just in time to avoid going down with the ship — though before they leave they coax Althea into one of the lifeboats despite her protestations that she has a brain tumor which is going to kill her (one of the reasons she was going to New York was to see a super-surgeon who — stop me if you’ve heard this before — was the only person in the world who could do the operation that could save her life) — only they get dumped into the middle of the American Revolution, complete with red-coated British soldiers shooting at them. Also worthy of note is the music credit on “Rendezvous with Yesterday” to “Johnny Williams,” known today as John Williams and probably the most successful film composer of all time in terms of money and awards — though he didn’t compose all the Time Tunnel episodes, and a lot of them were probably filled out with stock music cues, he did write the sprightly, very John Williams-ish theme song that was used throughout the series’ run (over a set of credits in which the series’ title first appears in mirror-image backwards letters, then rights itself — and even the design of the title as it appears in the credits is an Allen self-plagiarism from Lost in Space).

We didn’t get to see the Revolutionary War episode because, instead of presenting the Time Tunnel shows in sequence, the screening’s proprietor had picked the episodes that had the highest ratings on imdb.com, so the next one we got was “The Day the Sky Fell In.” This beamed Newman and Phillips to Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941, one day before the date that will live in infamy, and Newman had a particular reason to be concerned about Pearl Harbor because his dad, a Naval officer, was serving there on the day the Japanese attacked and was never heard from again. There’s a major glitch in continuity between this episode and the pilot which a number of imdb.com commentators picked up on: in “Rendezvous with Yesterday” we were told that Newman was born in 1938, while in “The Day the Sky Fell In” we were told he was seven years old in 1941 — which of course would put his birth year as 1934. It turns out the young Tony Newman (Sheldon Golomb, later known as Sheldon Collins) is best friends with another kid named Billy Neal (Frankie Kabott) and that night he’s scheduled for a sleepover at the Neals’ home — only the Neals’ home is destined to suffer a direct hit in the attack. The Neals also have a Japanese maid named Yuko (Caroline Kido), who’s still loyal to the Motherland and in league with three plug-ugly Japanese spies, one of whom looked so much like the James Bond villain Odd-Job one viewer at our screening wondered where he’d left his killer hat. They’re determined to keep the secret of the upcoming Pearl Harbor attack, so they knock off the Neals’ butler — who’s Japanese-American but loyal to the U.S. — and capture Newman and Phillips, who are trying (fruitlessly) to warn the U.S. naval officials what’s coming. Eventually, of course, our time travelers escape — though Newman finally learns what happened to his father (he was killed in the attack) and the meeting of the young and the adult Tony Newman has a quirky appeal even though Allen and his writer (Ellis St. Joseph) and director (William Hale) do almost nothing with the Barrie-esque irony of having you meet your younger self. 

Next up on the program was “Devil’s Island,” directed by Jerry Hopper (a veteran of feature-film assignments at Universal) from a script by Bob and Wanda Duncan, which featured Our Heroes being beamed onto the infamous French prison island in 1895, just as Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Ted Roter, later known as Peter Balakoff) arrives there following his arrest on trumped-up charges of treason against France on behalf of … well, in the Duncans’ script it was Germany, though in real life it was Austria. The gimmick this time is that there’s a plan among the other prisoners to get Dreyfus off Devil’s Island (which never happened; he stayed there for two years until the agitation around his case in France got him released to be retried at home) — only it’s a setup by the prison authorities (who speak with some of the phoniest accents ever recorded on film, as if the character actors playing them were used to portraying Nazi German villains and were trying to adjust the accents they’d used for them to sound “French”) so they can end the Dreyfus case once and for all by shooting him “while attempting to escape” (a cover story repeated so often in the history of Mexican political imprisonment it became known in Spanish slang as the Ley Fuga). One of the conspirators, Boudaire (Marcel Hillaire), gets beamed back to Tic-Toc Central via the Time Tunnel (which provoked at least one imdb.com contributor to wonder why the Time Tunnel techs could successfully beam back a person they don’t want while completely missing beaming back Newman and Phillips over and over again), and at first he wants to stay in the U.S. in 1968 instead of going back to Devil’s Island in 1895, but he agrees to return to warn Dreyfus and the others that their “escape” is a setup — but the trauma of dealing with being time-traveled fries his brain and he forgets that piece of information. Eventually Dreyfus himself refuses to leave (in her book The Proud Tower Barbara Tuchman portrays the real Dreyfus as so totally committed to the ideals of the French military he couldn’t believe they would frame him for treason and so Right-wing he was an embarrassment to the French Leftists who had led the effort to re-open his case) and the Time Travelers are beamed back just as the rest of the prisoners have set off on their escape. 

The final Time Tunnel episode showed last night was one of the better ones, “Kill Two by Two,” in which we’re in World War II again — though at its end rather than at the beginning of the U.S. involvement in it. It takes place on the island of Minami Imo, one of two tiny islands off the coast of Iwo Jima which were held by the Japanese and which the U.S. had to neutralize before they could make a successful attack on Iwo Jima itself. It helps that the script by Bob and Wanda Duncan (again, though this time directed by Herschel Daugherty) doesn’t include any actual historical characters: instead it’s a tight little story with just four people on the island, Newman, Phillips and two Japanese, Lieutenant Nakamura (Mako, the very interesting Japanese actor who’s probably best known as the star of the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures, his typically quirky attempt to blend American musican and Kabuki theatre to tell the story of U.S. Commodore Peary’s successful opening of Japan to world trade with an all-Japanese, or at least all-Asian, cast) and Sergeant Itsugi (Kam Tong). The quirk this time is that no one at Tic-Toc Central has any clue as to the geography of Minami Ito, so they hit on the idea of recruiting a survivor of the real battle to talk them through the search-and-rescue mission — only the one they get is Dr. Nakamura (Philip Ahn, the fascinating Chinese-American actor who was probably royally pissed off that even 23 years after World War II ended he was still getting casting calls for Japanese officer roles in World War II-set stories! I’ve long thought that if 20th Century-Fox had wanted an actual Chinese actor for their 1930’s Charlie Chan movies Philip Ahn would have been the best choice), father of Lt. Nakamura. There’s a big, obvious casting glitch here in that Ahn looks the right age to be Mako’s father in a conventional time sequence but not when we’re seeing Mako 23 years earlier than we see Ahn — we’d expect Ahn to look more like Mako’s grandfather than his father with that big a time lapse. At first Ahn is unwilling to help the Tic-Toc crew recover their people unless they also bring back his son (which they can’t do because they’re already pushing their equipment to recover two people at once and they’re sure it can’t handle three), but eventually once he realizes what a psycho his son is — Mako’s character is described as someone who’s going out of his way not only to take out as many Americans as he can but to die himself because he was supposed to be a kamikaze pilot, only at the last moment he chickened out and now he’s determined to sacrifice his life to redeem the stain on his honor — he agrees to help, only of course Newman and Phillips get beamed not back to Tic-Toc headquarters in Arizona but to an alien spacecraft (filled with silver people who look all too much like the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz) whose inhabitants are determined to conquer and obliterate all life on Earth. 

Overall, The Time Tunnel emerges as an O.K. series; when it was on originally I just found it confusing (and I rarely watched it because of a factor someone else at the screening mentioned: it was on opposite The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — which though now it comes off as an almost unbelievably tacky James Bond knockoff seemed really cool then, plus I had a boyhood crush on David McCallum and admired Robert Vaughn for being the first major celebrity to speak out against the Viet Nam war). Now The Time Tunnel seems like a quirky mess, very much in the mold of Irwin Allen’s other projects (the movies Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno and the Lost in Space TV show, which was cute when it first went on but seemed abysmal after Star Trek rewrote the rules for science-ficton on TV) — oddly the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea TV series, as represented by four episodes also shown at Vintage Sci-Fi, was refreshingly free from the excursions into camp that usually marred Allen’s work, but they, along with the risible plot holes, were all over The Time Tunnel and, even more than most TV series, then or now, The Time Tunnel’s episodes all seemed pretty much the same: Newman and Phillips get beamed back into some immediately perilous past (or, less often, future) situation and play around in it for a while until the people back at Tic-Toc Central beam them out of that one and into another similarly life-threatening environment.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Stranded (Niggeman IndieFilms S.L., Dolores Pictures S.L., Guerrilla Films, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s Mars movie screening in Golden Hill (http://marsmovieguide.com/) consisted of a feature, a TV series episode and three shorts, all of them centered around the theme of astronauts stranded on Mars and fighting for their own survival — indeed, the feature was actually called Stranded and was made by a Spanish company in 2002 (imdb.com gives the date as 2001), though the studio scenes were shot in Hollywood and only the location work was done in Spain (in Valencia and on the Canary Islands). Set on a Mars expedition in 2020, Stranded deals with a crew of six astronauts who are stranded on the Red Planet’s surface when their spacecraft — a landing module that’s just detached itself from another craft which orbited Mars to let them out — crash-lands due to a software glitch that interfered with the computer’s instructions on how to land the thing and forced it to crash, meaning it can’t be flown off the planet for a return to the home ship. The mission commander, André Vishniak (José Sancho), dies in the crash, leaving Susana Sánchez (María Lidon), in charge even though she’s blonde, has the appearance of an animate kewpie doll and is clearly the youngest and least mature of the five remaining crew members. 

The others are medical doctor Jenny Johnson (Maria de Madeiros), engineer Luca Baglioni (Vincent Gallo, the only cast member I’d heard of before), geologist Fidel Rodrigo (Joaquim de Almeida — the “m” instead of an “n” at the end of his first name makes me wonder if the Spanish production company borrowed him from neighboring Portugal), and something-or-other Herbert Sagan (tall, blond Daniel Axer, whom I’d like to have seen more of but who disappears fairly early on — and it’s not hard to guess whom writer Juan Miguel Aguilera was paying tribute to with his last name!), and the first part of the movie is a lot of anxious palaver between them over how long they’re going to have to hold out before another ship from Earth comes out to rescue them, since the pilot of their master craft still in orbit around Mars can’t hang around and wait for them because he has no landing craft that can get to them and if he hangs around more than a day or two he’ll miss his launch window for the trip home. Luca, the biggest, most arrogant pig among the dramatis personae (though none of these people are especially likable, which in itself marks this as a modern movie even though it’s already 15 years old), announces that the soonest any ship from Earth can come along and rescue them is two or three years, and they don’t have enough oxygen, water or food to sustain all five crew members that long — so three of the crew will have to exit the spacecraft and sentence themselves to death on Mars in hopes the other two can hold out long enough for Earth to send a rescue ship. What’s more, Luca has made the decision as to who should go and who should stay — naturally he picks himself to survive since he’s the engineer (and he’s also the biggest, most arrogant pig — oh, I said that already) and he says Jenny should be the other survivor since she’s a doctor and therefore has professional skills that can keep them healthy during the wait. 

The other three crew members accordingly say they’re going to “go outside for a walk” (a stiff-upper-lip facing of death whose earliest film appearance I can recall is at the end of the marvelous 1934 James Cagney gangster vehicle He Was Her Man) and Sagan disappears (what happened to him, if writer Aguilera and director María Lidon[1] — so that’s how the blonde kewpie-doll got to be second-in-command! She was directing as well! — ever explained it at all, I can’t for the life of me remember) while Susana and Rodrigo stumble on the ruins of a Martian city, complete with various carvings on the stone wall, one of them being a chevron-like arrow motif that repeats every so often and leads them to a place on Mars where there is actually oxygen in the atmosphere, so they can take off their space helmets and breathe as they could on Earth. Meanwhile, back at the ship Jenny Johnson has discovered that there’s a leak in what’s left of the spaceship, and therefore the craft is losing air at such a rate that instead of two years’ supply left they only have about 12 hours. Luca’s response to this news is that if they’re going to die in 12 hours anyway they should have sex immediately so they can at least go out doing something fun — it’s almost certainly the worst pick-up line of all time — and it inspires this welcome response from Jenny: “You mean to say your enormous talent, your amazing intelligence, can’t find any other solution than for us to die fucking?... Here’s my plan... I’ll get into my pressurized suit and go outside to see if I can locate the leak... You can stay here inside and masturbate until you die of dehydration!” Then she says that they can build a memorial statue to Luca showing him with his pants down and his hands on his dick. At the end Jenny goes out to see if she can find the source of the leak; she can’t, but she receives word from the other two about the pocket of oxygen-bearing atmosphere on Mars and she and Luca (who gets up from under the metallic cloth he’s been using as a bed cover in a way that makes it look as if he indeed took her suggestion that if she weren’t willing to have sex with him, he have it with himself) go out and join the others there — and then the film ends. The general consensus of our audience was that Stranded was the bad version of The Martian, the 2014 film with Matt Damon as an astronaut similarly stranded on Mars (though with two crucial differences: he was alone, and he at least tried to extend his survival time by being resourceful), and while I was a bit disappointed with The Martian (mainly because I didn’t think Damon was an edgy enough actor for the role), it’s worlds better than Stranded.  

Stranded is one of those frustrating bad movies with a good movie seemingly trapped inside it, trying vainly to get out, and one of the things that gets really annoying about it pretty fast is the doom-laden pessimism and hopelessness of Vincent Gallo’s character. Another, related problem is that no one in the crew seems to have any constructive suggestions on how to deal with their predicament: when I heard that they had silicon aboard my first thought was, “They’re complaining about their limited energy — why don’t they make solar panels?” (Enough real spaceships have included solar panels in their designs this should have been a no-brainer, even for as resolute a glass-half-empty fellow as Luca.) That pocket-of-atmosphere stuff was silly even when Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou used it to keep their moon-landers alive in the 1928 film Woman on the Moon (though at least von Harbou was a smart enough writer she had the lunar atmosphere exist only at the bottom of valleys and caves, indicating that the moon’s gravity hadn’t been enough to sustain much of an atmosphere but what there was of one was at least in its geographically lowest portions) and it’s even sillier here — how does the oxygen-based atmosphere keep from blending with the carbon dioxide that’s most of the atmosphere around the bulk of Mars, both in this movie and in real life? Another problem Charles had with the film was the English-language dubbing; the voice actors recited their lines in an emotion-less monotone, and though the DVD being shown gave the options of seeing it in English or Spanish, they did not give the option of watching the Spanish version with English subtitles — and Charles suggested that would be more fair to this film than the dubbed English version (just as that very interesting 1959 German Gaysploitation film The Third Sex from 1959, which we watched ages ago on a VHS from Sinister Cinema, might have come off better in German with English subtitles than it did in the dubbed version our old friends at American International prepared for the U.S. release). There’s nothing wrong with Stranded that a better director, a stronger, better constructed script and a more charismatic, appealing cast couldn’t have cured — the basic premise is an excellent one and could have made a great movie, but it didn’t this time.


[1] — Who took her directing credit under the name “Luna,” so we have a film about Mars directed by the moon.