They Didn’t Start the Fire

They Didn’t Start the Fire

Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn; Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s After Tiller; Peter Morgan and Ron Howard’s Rush; anniversary wishes to Stuart Klawans from Rabbi Simcha Feffeferman

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There have been bloodier massacres in the recent past, and bigger urban conflagrations, but perhaps no event in living memory has more dreadfully exposed the oldest, deepest rift in America than did the May 1985 police assault on the self-described revolutionary group known as MOVE. By bombing the row house that MOVE occupied and allowing the resulting blaze to burn out of control, Philadelphia’s predominantly white civic authorities killed eleven people, five of them children, and reduced much of a black working-class neighborhood to ruins. The outcome was a catastrophe. The tragedy, though, was the stand-off, which had been building for a decade—or so Jason Osder suggests in his quietly terrifying documentary Let the Fire Burn.

In reconstructing this escalating conflict, Osder has limited himself strictly to the use of period footage, including newscasts, MOVE propaganda films, police stakeout videos and recordings of the official commission of inquiry. His assemblage of these found materials, made with editor Nels Bangerter, begins as if it will be an exposé but soon turns into something more dangerous: a Frankenstein’s monster of documentary filmmaking, patched together from unearthed bits and pieces that fill you with cold horror at their touch.

Here you feel none of the ironic distance that ordinarily opens up in a compilation documentary. Sometimes, as you look at the images from another era, such a film will encourage you to jeer at the clumsiness of the antiquities on display; sometimes, as in The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, you’re invited to dwell with bitter laughter on the reality that was concealed beneath the manufactured lies. Or sometimes the mere existence of the footage may figure as a noteworthy curiosity, as it does in Penny Lane’s current release Our Nixon, which draws many of its images from the Super-8 movies that H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin made during their years in the White House. (The irony turns dramatic: mere hobbyism stumbles into an encounter with obsessive, covert record-keeping.) Even in films that try to close the gap by adding present-day commentaries to the soundtrack, as do Göran Olsson’s The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 and Eliav Lilti’s Israel: A Home Movie, the things you see remain stubbornly bygone.

In Let the Fire Burn, however, the people, places and things on-screen seem uncommonly immediate. The few terse, matter-of-fact titles that Osder occasionally superimposes do nothing to distance the images, which come before you with the air of something irreducible, as if they were not representations of the past but solid pieces of it. A classic faith in the reality of the image is at play here—a recognition, which André Bazin articulated more than half a century ago, that film stock bears the photon trace of whatever was in front of the camera, and so puts us in remote but physical contact with the subject. In the years since Bazin wrote, many people have criticized this notion as naïve; but if so, naïveté can have a power beyond sophistication, as Let the Fire Burn suggests.

Osder bets heavily on ingenuousness by framing his narrative with the videotaped deposition of Michael Moses Ward, the child known in the MOVE house as Birdie Africa, who was one of the two survivors of the assault. Although Ward was 13 at the time, he seems more like a shy 6-year-old in the deposition, answering the gently coaxing interrogator so guilelessly that you adopt his viewpoint as the simple truth. This makes a stark contrast with the “absolute truth” of which two adult MOVE members, LaVerne Sims and Louise James, speak in their scornful, combative, devastated testimony at the commission of inquiry. They continue to believe fiercely in the late founder of MOVE, John Africa, who “exposed the lie in the system.” When the commission’s lead counsel asks James to identify that lie, she replies, bluntly, “You.”

Excerpts from MOVE’s films about itself reveal more about the group’s beliefs and way of life. You see a series of adults in single-minded fealty to “the strategy of John Africa,” and a gaggle of small children—kept naked in accordance with a back-to-nature ideology, and fed only raw foods (which Michael Ward says he disliked)—taught to chant whole paragraphs of pseudo-revolutionary gibble-gabble. On this evidence, MOVE was rude, loud, unsightly, unhygienic, confrontational, muddle-headed and a blight on its neighborhood.

But according to testimony given to the commission by police officer John Cresse, who had watched the group in its early years, MOVE originally was “not violent.” Enter sometime mayor and perennial tough cop Frank Rizzo, in his own mind a defender of civilized values, who is seen in the film describing MOVE as if it were an agent of international communism, and speaking of the police, without hyperbole, as being armed and ready for “war” with the group. Under Rizzo, the police met MOVE’s raucous, chaotic demonstrations with force. MOVE responded with shows of militance (in retrospect, little more than street theater) and threats to use equivalent force. And so the bloody spiral began, until a child at the MOVE house was dead in disputed circumstances, and then a policeman was dead (with the source of the gunfire also in dispute) and an unarmed MOVE member, surrendering after the shoot-out, was stomped to a pulp by a circle of cops.

And so, even though the next mayor was African-American, the pattern was set: futile belligerence on one side, massive firepower on the other. No matter that MOVE’s black neighbors, who found the group intolerable, begged the city for relief, showing that the conflict did not have to be dealt with as racial. The police had made it racial from the start. That was the tragedy; that was how the catastrophe destroyed the homes of the same black citizens the city was ostensibly out to protect. People who think that America is entering a postracial era will view Let the Fire Burn as a period piece. People who think that such mutual incomprehension is still commonplace in our society, and still concludes too often with a black corpse on the street, will watch the movie as if it is today’s news, filmed thirty years ago.

Let the Fire Burn begins its national theatrical run in New York City at Film Forum on October 2 and in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre on October 18.

* * *

Susan Robinson is the soft, reassuring one, always good for a smile and a hug. Shelley Sella is the spare-framed former midwife who has clear eyes and a talent for straight talk. LeRoy Carhart is a trooper who has gone pudgy in his later years but soldiers on without complaint, a wheeled suitcase in tow. And Warren Hern is the tall old curmudgeon, reaching out for a new life and a new family after having been driven inward for years.

These four were associates and friends of George Tiller, the Kansas doctor who was targeted by anti-abortion activists and murdered in 2009. Now Robinson, Sella, Carhart and Hern are the last four doctors in the United States who perform late-term abortions—and they are the subjects of Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s moving documentary After Tiller.

Like the doctors themselves, the film acknowledges the continual threat of death but does not dwell on it. Everyone has more pressing things to think about—on the grand scale, the need to carry on work that no one else is willing to do, and on an immediate level the duty to care for patients who are in terrible need. No evasions are possible. “I think of them as babies,” Sella says at one point, refusing herself the comfort of the word “fetus.” “It’s barbaric, unless you think of the woman’s experience.” With an unsentimental compassion that is again like that of the doctors, After Tiller also shows you some of that experience, whether it’s reflected in the restless hands and feet of women gathered in a support group or in the face of a woman who has just said good-bye to the son she had named Hudson.

If After Tiller does not feel grim, despite the overwhelming presence in it of death and mourning, that’s perhaps because it is so much a film about intimacy and trust—between the doctors and their patients, and between the filmmakers and their subjects. The art of it lies in the balance of the stories that are brought together, but even more in the ability of Shane and Wilson to get close to people—so close that the suggestion of heroism never arises. I suspect the term might embarrass these doctors, after they have let the camera stare at them in their weariness and doubt. But if a willingness to bear extraordinary emotional burdens of one’s own for the sake of relieving someone else’s suffering is a measure of heroism, then After Tiller is a study of people who have earned that word, and shrug it off.

* * *

Peter Morgan is good at writing movies about sparring partners—Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair, for example, or Richard Nixon and David Frost. Ron Howard likes to direct movies full of machinery—sometimes real (Apollo 13) and sometimes metaphorical (The Da Vinci Code). The two filmmakers have now combined to tell a true story, kind of, about the hateful, loving rivalry between 1970s racing champions Niki Lauda and James Hunt, and about the zoom roar ta-pocketa of the Formula One cars they drove. Howard and Morgan call the movie Rush, and that’s pretty much what it delivers, to no greater purpose than one of those five-hour energy shots you can buy at a deli counter, but certainly with no less of a kick.

Chris Hemsworth, best known as cinema’s Thor, has brought his golden mane and chiseled face down from Valhalla to play Hunt, the outwardly insouciant British driver with a reputation for recklessness and high living, and a habit of vomiting before every race. Daniel Brühl, fitted with a cruel prosthesis for his upper teeth, plays Lauda, the precise and humorless Austrian driver with a genius for automotive mechanics and the social skills of a rat, the animal he is often said to resemble. The cars, so far as I can tell, are played by themselves, with great verve.

Rush speeds into theaters at the start of the fall season as if it had “entertainment” painted on its side like a sponsor’s logo. And yet this movie engineered for conventional thrills is also designed to work against convention. It brings you to identify with the homely, uncongenial guy, while prompting you to feel a touch of pitying condescension toward his sex-god rival. The ostensible theme of Rush might be the management of the death wish, but what’s really managed, in a clever way, is commercial cinema’s imperative to be popular.

* * *

It might have been the eerie stillness of the apartment that unsettled me, or the fourth hour of watching Russian sailors voyage into the nocturnal nowhere of an Alexander Sokurov video, but sometime after midnight, when I heard the rapping, rapping, rapping, an intimation of the unearthly crept over my exhausted senses. Gathering my courage, I flung open the door. There he was, somber, ancient and as black as a raven: Rabbi Simcha Feffeferman, spiritual leader of Congregation Anshe Tsurres.

“Rabbi!” I cried. “Why are you here? Why now?”

“I had to come myself to tell you this, young Klawans, and at such an hour?” he replied. “Think. When was the first time you invited me into your movies column—the very first movies reviews you wrote?”

“Of course!” I said, as he padded into the living room. “It’s been twenty-five years this month.”

“So, arithmetic you haven’t entirely forgotten, despite these things you make yourself watch. Twenty-five years you’ve been writing this column. And do you know what that makes you?”

“A senior figure?”

“How about, to be more accurate, something that won’t go away? Warts, coffee stains, credit card debt, anti-Semitism and what’s-his-name, he writes the movie reviews for The Nation.”

“Rabbi, I think it’s unfair—”

“Static cling, technological reductionism, the last guest at the party and you.”

“You come here in the middle of the night—”

Atlas Shrugged, drug abuse in professional sports, these arguments ‘Is Hebrew National really kosher?’ and—”

“Enough! I know, I’ve hung around a long time. But that’s because the editors and readers of The Nation, bless them, have a conviction that it’s good to think about movies. That’s rare today, when so many publications have shoved their long-serving film critics aside, or decided to get by with consumerist blurbs. And do you know something else that’s rare? The loyalty that Nation editors and readers give to their writers. As far as I’m concerned, the only worthwhile thing to say about my twenty-five years is that I’m profoundly grateful for them.”

“So,” the rabbi said, his eyes softening, “it seems you’ve learned something after all.”

“Thank you.”

“Although not,” he added, “about the movies.”

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