LAS VEGAS — Last weekend I attended the inaugural weekend of the First Annual QUARANTINE Film Festival in Our House, as I’m sure thousands of others have been inaugurated across the country over the last few weeks, considering attendance doesn’t require you to leave your own bedroom—if you have a TV in your bedroom, as most people around my age and younger tend to.
The festival started as soon as my wife and I woke up on Sunday and decided we didn’t really feel like getting out of bed. The past couple of weeks have been a long and droning drag, with my wife at her desk downstairs all day, typing and yelling into her phone, and me doing the usual writing at mine while trying to take as big a chunk out of my ever-growing To-Read list as possible. We take a break for lunch and to walk the dog —walk ourselves, too, really— and another break for dinner around seven o’clock, but the rest of the day we keep our nose close to the grindstone. Maybe we’ll trek over to the grocery store to restock supplies, but that’s pretty much as far as we go in terms of getting out of the house and having fun.
So this past Sunday morning I went down to the kitchen to fetch two mugs of Peet’s Coffee Café Domingo blend from the Keurig machine, a pair of brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tarts wrapped in Mylar —letting the dog out back to piss and let off some steam— and headed back upstairs to bed and my wife. Having recently upgraded from a full size after 10 years, our bed now is a king-size platform deal with a mattress that came rolled up in the mail. The sheets are supposedly made of bamboo somehow, and even though they feel like regular old sheets to me, I pretend I feel the difference too whenever my wife mentions it. On the opposite wall hangs a 60-inch Samsung 4K “smart” TV, which has brought my wife and I so many late nights of bliss.
There are countless films to catch at the QUARANTINE Film Festival, hosted by Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and the other streaming services, and divided by theme or genre: political, rom-com, horror, animated, and so on. With the world seemingly ripping apart at the seams, many attendees might opt for the more light-hearted offerings. But when shit hits the fan, I find myself unable to do anything but delve into the shit and the fan. So we went the political route at the QUARANTINE Film Festival in Our House.
First film on deck: Amistad, a 1997 historical drama directed by Steven Spielberg that follows the true story of a Spanish slave ship that was taken over by its cargo of captives in 1839 off the coast of Cuba. The two-masted schooner is captured by a ship of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, a precursor to the Coast Guard, and the slaves are dragged before a judge, resulting in the famed Supreme Court decision in United States v. The Amistad (1841), which found that “these negroes are not slaves, but are kidnapped Africans, who, by the laws of Spain itself, are entitled to their freedom, and were kidnapped and illegally carried to Cuba, and illegally detained and restrained on board the Amistad”—and thus, they had a right to reassert their liberty as free men, by any means necessary.
Probably the most well-known line from the film belongs to Cinqué, the African leader played by Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator, Blood Diamond), who rises to his feet in the courtroom, his shackled hands outstretched, demanding, “Give us free!… Give us free!“
But my favorite part has always been the speech Anthony Hopkins gives as the former president and then Congressman, John Quincy Adams, before the Supreme Court at the end. “The natural state of mankind is instead —and I know this is a controversial idea— is freedom.” He then goes on to talk about the rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence, and what we owe our political ancestors —the Founding Fathers— that we owe it to them, as to ourselves, to fully realize what it means when they swore that “all men are created equal.”
“Give us the courage to do what is right,” Hopkins delivers. “And if it means civil war, then let it come—and when it does, may it be, finally, the last battle of the American Revolution.”
The moral of the story: There’s no talking yourself off a slave ship.
The film calls to mind our second feature, the film that inspired the entire festival—James Cameron’s 1997 epic, Titanic. The organizer —I myself— was recently comparing the U.S. response to the coronavirus pandemic to the bedlam aboard the RMS Titanic as it began its speedy voyage to the bottom of the Atlantic on that frigid night in April 1912. The environment on board the doomed vessel, and its administration both before and after it hit an iceberg, was merely the same as that of the U.S. of A., or even the capitalist System itself, only writ small.
There are, clearly, the three social and economic classes. The Grand Staircase served as the entrance to the first-class area, with its “Turkish baths, indoor pools, exercise rooms, smoking rooms, card rooms, and personal dog kennels for the passengers’ pets.” A first-class ticket cost 2700 in today’s dollars, but you could travel second-class for less than half the price, though with way less than half the luxury and amenities. Second-class passengers were granted access only to private smoking rooms and a library, and unlike the aristocrats and robber barons sailing up top, second class was mostly occupied by academics and middle-class families. Down below sea level rode the third-class passengers, mostly poor immigrants and their families seeking a better life in America.
The ship itself was deemed “unsinkable” by the vice-president of the White Star Line. It was “the largest and most luxurious” ocean liner in the world, “with a double-plated bottom and sixteen watertight compartments” meant to keep the ship afloat in the event of a collision or really rough seas. “Three thousand carpenters, engineers, electricians, plumbers, painters, master mechanics, and interior designers fit Titanic with the latest in marine technology, and the most extravagant fixtures and furniture. Once finished, Titanic’s size and technological advancements were primary reasons why it was believed to be a practically unsinkable ship in the public’s estimation.”
The same has largely been said of America and the Capitalist System. But just as there are flaws in America’s Constitution, and contradictions within capitalism itself, there were also flaws in the ship’s design and construction, the two most glaring being that (1) the bulkheads, which divided the compartments from each other, only extended 10 feet above the waterline—”When it struck the iceberg,” writes Gordon Kelly for BBC, “five of Titanic’s 16 compartments breached, causing the bow to dip, which in turn forced water into the remaining compartments”—and (2) the “reinforced steel plates held together like glue by millions of rivets” became “brittle at ice-water temperatures.” These two features alone, plus the suspect quality of the rivets themselves, made the Titanic quite sinkable, for all the press claiming otherwise.
Critics have pointed to the rudder, too, which was supposedly too small to steer such a massive ship. But really it was that the ship was moving too fast, nearly full steam ahead through a known patch of icebergs. “Bergs, growlers and field ice,” came the warning from the RMS Caronia via wireless telegraph at nine on the morning of the Titanic‘s last day. More warnings of “large quantities of field ice,” “two large icebergs,” “three large bergs,” and “much heavy pack ice and great number large icebergs” flooded the ship’s radio room for the rest of the day —from the Athenia (via the RMS Baltic), the SS Amerika and the SS Californian— but Captain Edward Smith only received one of them, making a minor course correction to the south. Smith, a 32-year veteran of the White Star Line and its most senior captain, was under pressure to bring the Titanic into New York Harbor ahead of schedule, thus creating lucrative headlines for the company.
The ship was cruising at 22 knots, just two knots shy of her maximum speed, when the lookouts up in the crow’s nest spotted an iceberg dead ahead. First Officer William Murdoch tried to port around the floating cay of ice, to the left of it, but the ship was moving too fast to steer with any agility. It took a full 30 seconds just to turn the ship’s tiller, and the ship’s massive engines, churning forward all day, were suddenly thrown into reverse. The Titanic began turning, slowly —too slowly— and the hull ultimately scraped against the iceberg for seven seconds all along the starboard side, just below water, practically slicing the ship’s belly open.
Much like America and its Capitalist System, no?
How many warnings have we received, about growing inequalities weakening the economy, about inflated stock prices, about our failing healthcare system, about the ineptitude and corruption of the federal bureaucracy, about our lack of preparedness in the face of a global flu-like pandemic, about the changing climate? And yet, it’s been full steam ahead since the seventies. We’ve hit an iceberg now and then —one when the dot-com bubble burst ’01, another in ’06 when the housing bubble burst and the financial market sprung a leak— but our country just gets dredged up, patched up, and the engines kept at close to full speed, with the belief that the precious System is too big, too sophisticated, too luxurious, and just too damn impressive to ever sink.
But now we’ve hit an iceberg that looks to sink us for good. And if not, then at the very least our titanic ship of state will never be the same. People are scrambling for lifeboats, hoping to get away unscathed. But lo and behold, there aren’t enough lifeboats —not enough masks, not enough hospital beds, not enough ventilators… take your pick— and so the third-class passengers are locked away below deck, with the waters rising around their ears.
Three out of four third-class passengers died that night, 709 out of the total 1,317 that never made it to New York.
This, too, is America, mirroring the tens of thousands of poor and working-class Americans—many without homes or proper access to health care—who will die in the shadow of “Coronavirus Capitalism,” many of them because they merely can’t afford to take off from work during the 45-day shutdown. The rich, meanwhile, can easily afford to wait out the pandemic in their palatial mansions and even bunkers, fully stocked with top-notch food, entertainments of all kinds, medicines and medical supplies. Or they can take off in G7s to some secluded island, or set sail aboard 300-foot megayachts and spend a few weeks floating in style as well as salud.
In its portrayal of socioeconomics, Titanic pairs well with other movies at the QUARANTINE Film Festival in Our House, especially the Spanish film El hoyo (The Platform in the English-speaking markets) and the South Korean film Parasite (which won Oscars this year for Best International Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture). Parasite caught a lot of flak from Americans who blindly believe that all the best things are made in America.
And though Parasite is a beautiful and powerful film, a much more cinematic film, and therefore completely deserving of the awards it won, I thought El hoyo presented the same basic themes in a more direct and visceral way.
Directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia and starring a cast of brilliant actors us Americans have never heard of, the 2019 film takes place in a prison tower, where each of the 200-plus levels is shared by two inmates who eat whatever is left over from the levels above. Each day a platform in the center is prepared with all kinds of deliciousness and delicacies, but as the platform makes its way down the center, stopping for a moment at each level, with the prisoners on each level gorging themselves with abandon, less and and less food passes on to the levels below, till around Level 130 or so there’s almost nothing left to eat, at which point things get hairy. Each inmate inhabits his or her level for a full month, before being switched either to a higher or lower level—meaning those on, say, Level 150 or below are forced to go a full 30 days without food, unless they can scrounge up something else to nibble on in the lean time.
The moral of the story here is that the gluttony and vindictive selfishness on the upper levels is mostly to blame for the hunger and violence experienced on the lower levels—or, simply put, one type of barbarity above fuels another type of barbarity below. If the prisoners on each level were to show a little consideration for those below them, taking from the platform only what they need for the day, and leaving enough for the lower levels, then there would be enough to go around and, more important, no one needn’t fear being sent to one of the lower levels with no food and a big, hungry celly.
My wife’s cousin told us we should watch V for Vendetta, the 2005 dystopian thriller written by the Wachowski brothers (The Matrix series, Cloud Atlas) and starring the always captivating Natalie Portman (Star Wars, Closer, Black Swan) and the always sinister Hugo Weaving (Agent Smith in The Matrix). V for Vendetta has become something more than a cult classic, the grinning Guy Fawkes mask way more recognizable, especially globally, than, say, the First Rule of Fight Club (another film showcased at the QUARANTINE Film Festival in Our House). Still, my wife and I had never seen the movie—an especially egregious offense on my part, being a lefty who is into politics.
V for Vendetta takes place in London, but the London of some alternate universe, where an authoritarian demagogue has come to power after a deadly epidemic rocked the capital city. The government controls the public by spinning narratives through the news media and maintaining strict curfew and quarantine measures. Enter V, the masked revolutionary who’s a mix between the Joker and Bane from DC Comics, only overflowing with English literature, art, and political philosophy. V plans to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the fifth of November, Guy Fawkes Day, as a symbol of the government he and many of his fellow Brits believe is a liar, self-interested, and homicidal.
V states the thesis of the film in one line: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
Moral of the story: Sometimes you have to fight liars with fires.
I wanted to follow the movie up with a viewing of The Matrix, since both are written by the Wachowskis and both explore anarcho-Daoist themes—”You think that’s air you’re breathing now?”… “Free your mind”… Break free from the Machines that have enslaved us… “There is no spoon”—but by then my wife had had it up to her hair with politics.
So we watched Homeward Bound, the 1993 live-action family film about two dogs and a cat that try to make it back to their owners in San Francisco by crossing the Sierra Nevada. The movie, though seemingly a break from the others, actually carried on with the same political themes. At the start, the Himalayan cat named Sassy (voiced by Sally Field) and the American Bulldog named Chance (voiced by Michael J. Fox) can’t stand each other and are constantly fighting. Chance is a rough-and-tumble shelter dog with little manners and few cares except for eating and getting into trouble, while Sassy is a prissy house cat constantly pampered by her owner—the cat even gets her meals heated beforehand! The two are forced to cooperate by the challenges they face together on their journey home, and by the wise old Golden Retriever, Shadow (voiced by Don Ameche).
Thanks to Shadow, Chance learns to get over the fear of abandonment he developed as a young pup, and Sassy learns that the world is a much bigger place than she ever imagined, and it doesn’t revolve around her either. It’s also thanks to Shadow that the three of them find themselves in such a predicament to begin with, since if it hadn’t been for him breaking out of the pen and showing them how, Chance and Sassy would’ve sat and stayed there, albeit grumbling the whole time.
If only America had a wise old somebody who could break us out of our own confines and lead us back home, or at least someplace better, more loving, than where we’re at now.
We need a Shadow, if not a Cinqué—or even a V.
But first a lot of us need to wake up.