Why bad movies keep coming out and what to do about it

Unlike the babbling brook of Hollywood – with its suppression of truth, fake heroes and warmongering – a masterpiece, or just a good movie, is unforgettable.

As an inveterate film fan, I turn to the listings every week and try not to lose hope. I search the guff that often passes for previews, and I queue for a ticket with that flicker of excitement that brings to mind matinees in art-deco splendour. Once inside, lights down, beer in hand, I feel hope recede as the minutes pass. How many times have I done a runner? There is a cinema I go to that refunds your money if you’re out the door within 20 minutes of the opening titles. The people there have knowing looks. My personal best is less than five minutes of the awful Moulin Rouge.

The other day, I saw Blue Jasmine, written and directed by Woody Allen. The critics’ applause was thunderous. “A work of brilliance . . . Pure movie-going pleasure . . . Smart, sophisticated and hugely enjoyable . . . Brilliantly funny”. One journalist called it a “miracle”. So I queued for a ticket, even conjuring the wonderful scene from Annie Hall (1977) when Allen, standing in a cinema queue, meets his hero Marshall McLuhan, he of “the medium is the message”.

Today he might as well call up Hans Christian Andersen’s parable about a naked emperor, which applies to his latest “work of brilliance”. By any fair and reasonable measure, it is crap. Every character is cardboard. The schematic “plot” is crude. Two adopted sisters are thrown together implausibly. There is a wannabe politician whose name should be Congressman Stereotype. The script is lazy, dated and patronising. Clearly, Allen wrote it during a night sweat. “If Cate Blanchett doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination,” wrote the Times critic, “then I will eat a Chanel hat.” Actually, Blanchett deserves a Lifeboat medal. She tries and fails to rescue this wreck.

PR has subverted much of our lives, making unconscious acolytes of those who once might have operated outside the pack. The drumbeat of crap movies with big promotional budgets, mostly from the United States, is incessant. The US market share of cinema box-office takings in Britain is more than 70 per cent; the small UK share is mainly for US co-productions. Films from Europe and the rest of the world account for a tiny fraction.

The hype of public relations – Edward Bernays’s euphemism for propaganda – is now regarded as truth. The medium has become the message. David Cameron, a former PR huckster for a media asset-stripper, saw the hyped Fifth Estate, and declared: “Benedict Cumberbatch – brilliant, fantastic piece of acting. The twitchiness and everything of Julian Assange is brilliantly portrayed.” Neither he nor Cumberbatch has ever met Assange; nor has any of the makers of this fiction. Based on a dodgy, axe-grinding book, this DreamWorks juggernaut is a perfidious, unethical exploitation of a man fighting for his freedom, if not his life.

Not surprisingly, Cameron’s government is slashing at the British Film Institute, keeper of the world’s greatest film archive and one of this country’s most liberating institutions. Like the National Health Service, it would not be established today. If you yearn to avoid Hollywood’s “babbling brook of bullshit” (to borrow from Richard Lewis in Curb Your Enthusiasm), join the BFI. As a long-time member and supporter, I am often to be found in one of its acoustically excellent cinemas, seeing films past and present, classics and unknowns, that are reminders of how pleasurable an hour or two in front of celluloid can be. For more than 30 years, my own films have had their premieres here.

The antithesis of Blue Jasmine and The Fifth Estate has just ended a run at the BFI. This is Nothing But a Man, one of only two fiction features directed by Michael Roemer, a German Jewish refugee who grew up in Kent before emigrating to the US. Made in 1964 and set in the Deep South with an almost entirely African-American cast, it is the story of Duffy (Ivan Dixon), a tormented young black man whose life is consumed and distorted by his refusal to accept his “boy” status. Aware that only collective action can beat racism, he is constantly looking for solidarity and failing to find it.

Is Duffy’s anger the product of an obstinate nature or a principled struggle against The Man? In keeping us guessing, Roemer (he wrote the script with Robert M Young) ensures the anger is real, almost a presence in the cinema. Yet it is masked behind smiles; almost everyone in this remarkable film smiles as a way of trapping, if not containing despair. The jazz singer Abbey Lincoln, who plays Duffy’s wife, Josie, is superb at this emotional and political sleight of hand. There is hope, too, but not a driblet of sentimentality.

None of the main cinema chains in the US wanted to show Nothing But a Man. No major distributor picked it up. Like The War Game by Peter Watkins, which the BBC banned for 20 years, Roemer’s film did the rounds of church halls, youth centres and later video recorders. The point about the film is that it is as timeless as its director is ageless. At 85, Michael Roemer still teaches at the Yale School of Art and worries that he could not make “commercial” films that people wanted to see.

He need not worry. A film is judged by how or whether we remember it. Unlike the babbling brook of Hollywood – with its suppression of truth, fake heroes and warmongering – a masterpiece, or just a good movie, is unforgettable. Join the BFI.

johnpilger.com

Film canisters within the acetate vault at the BFI. Image: Getty

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge