Beyond the Multiplex

A hilarious, shocking mockumentary about slavery. The creepy return of "What the Bleep!?" Plus: "The Fallen Idol" rises again.


Andrew O'Hehir
February 9, 2006 5:00PM (UTC)

We can go years at a stretch in America without seeing slavery depicted on film. On one level, that's surprising -- no element of our history could be more dramatic, or more paradoxical -- but on the other hand, what can you expect from a constitutionally amnesiac nation? One could argue that the near-destruction of Native American culture has also been poorly presented on screen, despite the long-established sentimental stereotype of the noble Indian, but let's leave the comparative study for another time. (In contrast, German cinema of recent decades has been positively obsessed with that nation's historical crimes.)

So when Kevin Willmott finally gets a chance to release his mockumentary "C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America," which imagines an alternate America where the South won the Civil War and slavery is established in all 50 states (or more), what happens? Lars von Trier's "Manderlay," the much-debated film set on a Mississippi plantation where slavery has continued -- at the insistence of the slaves -- into the 1930s, comes out at almost the same moment.

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During our conversation the other day in a genteel New York hotel bar, Willmott told me he hasn't seen "Manderlay" yet, but suspects there's more going on than total coincidence. "I think that in times of war and disaster," he says, "in times like we've been living in the last few years, we're reminded of our origins. How did we get here? And how did our origins influence the choices we've been making?"

Willmott, who teaches film at the University of Kansas, has been piecing together "C.S.A." for years, and its central idea goes back almost two decades. He finally premiered it amid the so-called black wave at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004 -- a whole roster of promising films that have, for the most part, failed to find distribution or reach beyond what the biz calls "specialty audiences." It's an uneven film, but also both a hilarious and shocking one; it may leave you weeping with laughter one minute and wanting to storm out of the theater the next.

On the other hand, if you're in the target audience for "What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole," the new director's-cut expanded version of the massive indie hit of 2004, the sense of discomfort may emanate from different sources. Hey, I grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and in a general sense, I'm a sucker for these New Agey zones where science, philosophy and theology begin to merge, at least in some hypothetical or potential fashion. But that childhood also endowed me with a pronounced allergy to purple-clad wackos from Beyond Time who seek to wrap themselves in the raiments of real science.

No skepticism is required for the rerelease of Carol Reed's "The Fallen Idol," a 1948 British film little seen in this country since its original release. Anchored by a canny performance from Ralph Richardson as the raffish butler worshiped by a dreamy little French boy, it's an intriguingly photographed domestic drama with fragments of thriller, ghost story and murder mystery.

"C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America": A story of what-if, or of what actually is?
At the beginning of Kevin Willmott's "C.S.A.," we watch a note-perfect simulation of a typical insurance commercial, showing a suburban family with perfect dentistry enjoying its comfortable but not ostentatious front yard. A little blond girl struggles to ride her bike while the narrator praises Dad as "the master of the house, protecting his family and his property." Yeah, the tone feels just a bit off, doesn't it? And then there's the fact that, on the last word, the camera settles on a smiling black teenager who's cutting the hedge.

You see, we're watching TV in the Confederate States of America, circa 2005, and the Confederate Life Insurance Co. ("For over 100 years -- serving a People") is generously sponsoring the broadcast of the controversial British-made historical film "C.S.A.," which may not be suitable, as an on-screen crawl informs us, "for children or servants."

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"Servant" is the polite term often used for the Negroes owned by many patriotic CSA citizens working to uphold our way of life. Then again, there's nothing wrong with the traditional word, which we see on a later broadcast for the Slave Shopping Network, where you can buy Jupiter and his wife and kids, piecemeal or all together, at a new and reduced price. ("What a litter of pickaninnies she's had," exclaims one blow-dried host. "Aren't they the cutest things you've ever seen!")

There's an awful lot going on in Willmott's film, including an alternate history of America in which the French and British come to the South's aid and the Civil War turns out to have a radically different ending. After that, Abraham Lincoln is tried as a war criminal and exiled to Canada; Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe and thousands of other white abolitionists emigrate; and the U.S. -- sorry, C.S. -- remains neutral in World War II, while officially regretting the Nazi propensity to waste valuable slave labor. (In recognition of Judah Benjamin's service to the Confederacy -- and you can look him up -- Jews are still permitted to live in America, as long as they remain in the reservation area of Long Island.)

Some of that works brilliantly and some of it doesn't; for example, Willmott's parody of a 1940s Hollywood film about American hero Jefferson Davis is rather broad and looks too cheap. But Willmott, as he told me, is much more interested in the "what is" elements of his story than in the "what if." It's not really plausible that the Confederacy could ever have annexed the North, even if it had somehow won its independence. And yes, Willmott depicts the infamous Confederate battle flag flying over the White House (and on the Moon) rather than the real CSA's official Stars and Bars -- but such factitious details are decidedly not the point of "C.S.A."

It's those marvelously convincing commercials, interrupting the faux-Ken Burns flow of the documentary every few minutes, that convey the nightmarish sense that life in the CSA looks pretty familiar. He-men on horseback take a break with Niggerhair cigarettes (once a real brand name). One of those cluttered, chatty trade-school ads promises to put you on the fast track to a career as a slave overseer, Negro breeder or experimental researcher. Wholesome-looking guys in the ad give a big thumbs-up! They're on their way to success!

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"One of the things we try to do in the film," Willmott says, "is ask: 'What country are we living in?' For me, over the last couple of years, it's clearly been the CSA. Are we gonna torture people now? Yeah, I think we are gonna torture people. Are we gonna spy on people now? Yeah, we're gonna spy on people. You know, that's not the USA. That's its evil twin brother."

Of course, the very existence of someone like Willmott -- a black university professor who can make an angry, ruthless satire about American racism with impunity -- suggests that we're still a long way from living in the CSA. (Among other things, race in America today is a far more complicated equation than simply a matter of black and white.) But his larger point is one echoed by many sociologists and political scientists: More than 140 years on, we're still living in the aftermath of the Civil War. And if the South lost on the battlefield, it won at least a partial victory within our national culture.

Are Americans still unwilling to think about how crucial slavery was to the origins of our country, to the Founding Fathers' generation? It seems like you want to take that fact and kind of shove it in our faces so we can't ignore it.

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Well, we've had a constant struggle over this issue since the birth of our country. One of the things I discovered in making the film was that I think we started out as the CSA, not the USA. You've got to admit that when you start the country out by saying, "We're gonna hold onto these slaves," that makes it the CSA. We've been trying to become the USA ever since.

When I was growing up the fact that the Founding Fathers had slaves was seen as kind of an accident. They sold it to you like, they didn't know or they didn't understand. "Oh, my gosh! I've got slaves." Divorcing reality from the myth that we want to believe in is very important. If you're really going to understand the nation today, you have to see that from the very beginning we were in denial. We've been in partial denial ever since. Katrina and those things happen, and it kind of shocks us, at least for a little while, into admitting what's really happening. Maybe that's why slavery is on people's minds.

Another thing that comes up in your film is the question of blood ties between whites and blacks, mostly unacknowledged ones. We pretty much know about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson now. We've acknowledged that Jefferson has generations of black descendants.

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Black people always knew. [Laughter.] And there are also white people who have black ancestors and don't know it. It's a huge part of the American story and we're just now starting to uncover it. When you create a country within slavery -- and it's central to every major event in the founding of the country -- the intertwining of the two is just fascinating. The people who made the major decisions were all slave owners; they were managing their slaves as they tried to build a democracy. We're just now learning how Martha Washington had a half-black sister. [That half-sister, a slave named Mary Dandridge, is believed to have borne a child by her own white nephew, one of the incidents that may have turned George Washington against slavery.]

There's so much of this intermingling, and that's the way slavery worked. If I own a human being, I certainly have access to having sex with them when I want to. That was part of how it functioned. We're just now starting to admit all that and discover the details. It's been there for years, but we've not publicly said it.

It seems like you deliberately stay away from familiar images of slavery: We don't see slaves being beaten or dramatically mistreated in the film. Did you want to focus on what slavery might be like as an economic reality in a modern context?

We tried to make choices that would make slavery real to people, because it is difficult to get your head around it. One statistic I use in the film is the idea that a slave is worth as much as a luxury car would be today. To me, that's not something people understand. OK, a slave is worth some money -- in fact, it's a lot of money. Think of it as a Lexus. If this guy has got 50 Lexuses outside and somebody says, "I want your Lexuses," well, there's gonna be a fight.

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We tend to understand slavery on a superficial, almost stereotypical level. So many of the images of slavery have stopped working for us: We've seen too many dog chases and too many whippings. You don't get a sense of the horror of it anymore. It's connected to what I call "black pain." All of us -- black folks, white folks, everybody -- have just become used to black people suffering. We see too many images of it: black people murdering each other, people starving in Africa. You just become numb to that. It becomes the idea that black people are supposed to suffer, and we've become used to it.

Confederacy buffs on the Internet are attacking you for various perceived inaccuracies, which to me speaks to the fact that they don't want to engage with your ideas. They're upset about you using the wrong Confederate flag.

Is it the wrong flag? No, it isn't. That flag is there because that's the flag we all see and know all the time today. I see it about every week in Kansas. Down South, they see it every day. To me, it's just like seeing the Nazi flag. What is there in that America that you want to hold onto? What is there in Confederate America that was worthy of celebration and honor? I can't find it. We're still trying to hold onto something good about that, and it doesn't exist.

"C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America" opens Feb. 15 at the IFC Center in New York; Feb. 24 in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Calif., and San Francisco; March 3 in Hartford, Conn., and Santa Cruz, Calif.; and March 10 in Grand Rapids, Mich., Madison, Wis., Nashville, Rochester, N.Y., and Tucson, Ariz., with more cities to follow.

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"What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole": Marlee Matlin, some theoretical physics and a load of bull-pucky
I come not to bury the "What the Bleep!?" franchise, but sure as hell not to praise it either. I'd have no problem with the element of rampant, half-wacky speculation at the outer edges of physics in these movies if they came labeled as such. It's perfectly legitimate for ordinary folks to grapple, as best we can, with the mysteries of subatomic physics. And even to observe that the quandaries and paradoxes found down there among the teensiest particles (or waves, or whatever they are) seem to engage hoary philosophical dilemmas about the Nature of Everything and the relationship between Mind and World.

Frankly, I don't even care much that the entire package is brought to us (as John Gorenfeld reported on Salon) by some cuckoo-bird outfit called the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. This is located in Yelm, Wash., and is presided over by a woman named JZ Knight who claims to be channeling an entity called Ramtha, who is 35,000 years old and delivers incomprehensible addresses in a dubious Middle European accent. Or rather, I wouldn't care if the films weren't constructed as rather crude infomercials that try to make it look like the various scientists gathered here endorse Ramtha's views of the universe, whatever they may be.

"Down the Rabbit Hole" assembles approximately the same material as the first "Bleep!?" film, but at greater length (a truly daunting 156 minutes!) and in more detail. This makes it simultaneously more interesting (and in parts more substantive) and more tedious. You can divide this film approximately into quartiles. One quarter of it offers a fascinating survey of bite-size information, mostly legitimate, from the genuinely puzzling world of quantum physics and quantum mechanics. One quarter is speculation, much of it by genuine scientists, about the possible implications of this work for the study of human consciousness and the universe. One quarter is rampant pseudoscience and quackery: the Transcendental Meditation devotees who think they can change the pH of water, or the Japanese doctor who says he can influence the shape of ice crystals by sticking loving or hateful phrases on petri dishes. And then there's the "plot" about the pill-popping photographer (Marlee Matlin) who gets her priorities rearranged by various encounters with the infinite, or something. The less said about that, the better.

I'd like to believe that anyone with an ounce of critical ability can see what's going on here. We go rapidly from the eminent physicist Fred Alan Wolf, or philosopher of science David Albert, discussing the inconvenient fact that the laws of physics seem to operate differently at the microscopic scale, or that subatomic experiments appear to turn out differently depending on how they are observed and recorded, to the dude who can make ice crystals beautiful by loving them. And thence of course to Ramtha, looking like Mrs. Claus gone Nevada bordello madam in her jolly red sweater, explaining how our selfishness is preventing us from, I guess, remaking the universe with our brains.

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There's no question that one of the major sea-changes of our era is coming at the outer edge of science, where research is yielding many more questions than can now be answered, and a certain epistemological humility about the nature of reality (undeniably gratifying to non-scientists) has set in. But here's the thing: The New Age acolytes behind this movie, and similar popularizations, share none of that humility. They congratulate themselves for having glimpsed a "new paradigm" of Universal Oneness, which simplifies both science and spirituality down to fuzzy abstractions, and argue -- OK, what do they argue, exactly?

I'm not quite sure, but I think it has something to do with living an extremely comfortable life on the West Coast, and feeling convinced that you're changing the world by giving money to some weirdo while remaining totally aloof from any boring details of social and political reality. Is that in the ballpark? Again, don't get me wrong: I suspect the New Agers are partly right, and that these scientific frontier zones have profound philosophical implications. But will that make any difference to human life on a starved, overpopulated, depleted and homogenized planet? Maybe if we stick labels with pretty Japanese calligraphy on the people in Darfur, they'll die happy.

"What the Bleep!?: Down the Rabbit Hole" is now playing nationwide.

"The Fallen Idol": A glorious British black-and-white, with shades of Graham Greene gray
My parting wish for all lovers of classic black-and-white cinema is that you get a chance to see Rialto Pictures' beautiful new 35mm print of "The Fallen Idol," an unjustly neglected 1948 British drama by Carol Reed, best known as the director of "The Third Man." As in that film, Reed was working with a screenplay by Graham Greene (adapted, in this case, from his short story "The Basement Room"), and like that picture this is a fine example of British commercial filmmaking at its highest level of craftsmanship.

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This begins with the kind of leisurely build never found in contemporary films, unless through willful artistic abstruseness, and quite honestly most viewers will struggle for a few minutes. We meet Philippe, a lonely boy whose mother is away with a never-explained illness and whose distant dad is the French ambassador in London. His functional father is Baines (Ralph Richardson), the embassy's genial, wisecracking butler, who regales him with stories of warlike exploits among the "blackies" in Africa. (Even without considering the racism, we already feel some ambivalence toward Baines that Philippe doesn't.)

The other member of the household is Mrs. Baines (Sonia Dresdel), a frosty, tyrannical woman who persecutes Phil for petty infractions and, unforgivably, murders his pet snake. As the boy gradually becomes implicated in Baines' adulterous secret and Mrs. Baines' increasingly demented counter-schemes, Reed's point-of-view photography becomes ever more imaginative, capturing the cold, empty spaces of the embassy as a kind of haunted house. At the end of a long, happy day Phil spends with Baines and the girl he says is his niece, there's a bravura hide-and-seek sequence, both hilarious and creepy, that distills all the film's themes into pure pictures.

Oedipal and sexual issues gradually rise toward the surface without quite breaching it (at a police station, when it is revealed who Phil's father is, a Cockney hooker exclaims: "Oh! I know your daddy!"). And as Phil learns more about the puzzling world of adults, he discovers that you can never depend on them: When they tell you to lie and you do it, nobody believes you. But when they tell you to tell only the truth, nobody believes that either.

"The Fallen Idol" plays Feb. 10-23 at Film Forum in New York, March 17-23 at the E Street Cinema in Washington, March 24-30 at the Varsity in Seattle, April 7-13 at the Nuart in Los Angeles, April 28-May 4 at the Lumiere in San Francisco and May 19-25 at the Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass.

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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