The House I Live In

Inmates in The House I Live In

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

5 December

 

 

Prohibition ends, 1933

On this day in 1933, the USA ended one of its most disastrous experiments. The Volstead Act, or National Prohibition Act, had been passed on 28 October 1919. It banned “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States…” It had required a change in the US Constitution to get the act passed, which the Congress had finally done on 16 January 1919, when it ratified the 18th Amendment. On 17 January 1920, America went dry. Except it didn’t. What happened instead is that the law was widely flouted, especially in cities, where a blind eye was turned to infractions. Alcohol consumption went down in the country as a whole – which pleased those who saw booze as a scourge – but up in urban areas. Huge amounts of smuggling took place, and fortunes were made. Home brewing was still allowed and it thrived, as did drinking in places deemed to be offshore. Eventually a campaign against Prohibition started up, and it looked very much like the campaign for it, with worthies from old families (Rockefeller, Du Pont) and religious organisations spearheading the movement. And similarly it was when women’s groups, in the shape of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, swung behind the Anti movement that things started to move. Key among the concerns of those who were against Prohibition was not a love of alcohol – in fact John D Rockefeller was a non-drinker – it was that the Law itself was falling into disrepute. In 1932 Franklin Roosevelt ran for office, a plank of his campaign being a repeal of the law. On his election Roosevelt set about the drafting of the 21st Amendment, which repealed the 18th Amendment, using the expertise of former Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer to get the Amendment through state conventions (it’s the only Amendment to be ratified in this way), expertise gained by introducing Prohibition in the first place. The lawyers always win, so they say.

 

 

 

The House I Live In (2012, dir: Eugene Jarecki)

Eugene Jarecki’s entirely opinionated documentary tells the story of another form of Prohibition, of the War on Drugs which has been waged since President Nixon first announced it back in 1971. It has cost the USA more than $1 trillion since it was started and in that time illegal drug use has remained entirely unchanged. “What drugs haven’t destroyed, the war against drugs has,” says David Simon (creator of The Wire, former journalist) who sums up Jarecki’s whole stance in one neat pithy sentence. Jarecki uses Simon quite a lot, partly because he is so pithy, but also because he is clearly angry at the sheer stupidity and waste – sending people to prison for getting high, in a country that constitutionally guarantees your right to happiness by any means you choose, that’s got to be wrong. Simon’s presence also allows Jarecki to take a sober, unsensational approach, which really helps in his historical round-up of attitudes to drug-taking. Even if you don’t entirely buy his thesis that laws against drug-taking have historically been laws against ethnic groups (opium because it was associated with the Chinese, cocaine because associated with Negros, hemp because associated with Mexicans), Jarecki makes it clear when he’s laying out facts and when he’s editorialising. And some of the facts are astounding – that five grams of crack cocaine gets you the same sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine (the former used predominately by blacks, the latter by whites). We meet one guy who, thanks to the “three strikes” of President Reagan, is doing life without parole for possessing 3oz of methamphetamine – “I fucked up, but I don’t think I should die for it,” he opines. Jarecki then goes one stage further, into the whole idea of prison as an industry, an industry which deliberately sites its new facilities in dirt-poor towns, gets the town to buy the land, then pays the town rent to stay there – thus making the town a beneficiary of ever-increasing prison populations. Who needs to lobby Congress when people all over the country will do it for you? Jarecki’s overriding message is clear: as with the Prohibition against alcohol, at some point a bad decision has been taken, and now so many people are locked into supporting it that it’s almost impossible to undo. “The drug war is a holocaust in slow motion,” says David Simon. “Kill the poor… that’s what the war on drugs has become.” You don’t get clearer than that.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another essential documentary by Eugene Jarecki
  • Full of the sort of facts you need to know if you’re on his side
  • A brilliant example of telling a story using human interest
  • Highly and unashamedly political

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The House I Live In – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

11 February 2013-02-11

Out in the UK This Week

 

 

 

 

 

Beasts of the Southern Wild (StudioCanal, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

It’s generated a gazillion column inches, tweets and web-posts, and you are now pretty much obliged to see what is effectively a 21st century Huckleberry Finn story, set in the entirely atmospheric waterworld of the bayou below the levees where hardscrabble folk scratch out an existence, preferring near poverty in the Gulf of Mexico to destitution in the big city. Realism and magic realism aren’t natural stylistic partners – scenes of incoming storms ravaging the bayou sit alongside shots of the mythical beast the aurochs – but director Benh Zeitlin gets them to dance using six-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as a bridge. Her performance is Oscar-tipped, though at least 50 per cent of it is clever editing – it’s not really acting when she’s not reacting to another person, is it? Old-bugger carping aside, the acting is super-believable in this poignant one-off of a film, so good in fact that it’s fed all that “poverty porn” criticism, little more than trolling by people who can’t spot the difference between reality and stuff that’s been made up.

Beasts of the Southern Wild – at Amazon

 

The House I Live In (Dogwoof, cert E, DVD)

“Kill the poor – that’s what the war on drugs has become.” Former journalist David Simon, creator of The Wire, is one knowledgeable, erudite talking head among many in Eugene Jarecki’s US-focused, sober, well researched, thoughtful and opinionated documentary that should be compulsory viewing for governments the world over. Whether you buy the central thesis – that drug laws have always been about keeping certain racial groups in check – is immaterial. When the film gets down to the human nitty gritty such as the guy who’s doing life without parole for 3oz of meth (“I fucked up. But I don’t think I should die for it.”) it’s hard not to be convinced, if you weren’t already, that something is seriously wrong with US government policy. And that of the rest of the world, incidentally, since nearly everyone toes the same line.

The House I Live In – at Amazon

 

Elena (New Wave, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

The great Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev specialises in thrillers that look and feel like anything but. Elena, coming after 2003’s The Return and 2007’s The Banishment, is the latest, a completely gripping story of a former nurse, now the patronised wife of a rich older guy, and her entirely feckless son and grandson back in the Stalin-era tower blocks. If this sounds like the set-up to an allegory about the Soviet and post-Soviet state, you’re not wrong. But there’s absolutely no need to engage at that level at all if you don’t want to. Instead sit back and be entertained by Zvyagintsev’s expressive long shots and frugal, crystalline story-telling.

Elena – at Amazon

 

Stitches (Kaleidoscope, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD)

Here’s a low-budget teen slasher movie full of Irish irreverence, played for laughs, and really benefiting from the presence of Ross Noble – a comedian whose surreal, stream-of-consciousness shtick can wear thin after a while. But not here, in fact Noble’s energy is vital in the role of the extremely unpleasant clown back from the dead and out for payback from the kids (now lairy teenagers) who accidentally caused his death some years before. Lots of yuks, most of them very funny, with the slo-mo inevitability and ingenuity of the Final Destination franchise at its best – though I don’t remember anyone in those films having his intestines unravelled like strings of pink sausages. As I say, very funny.

Stitches – at Amazon

 

 

Ginger & Rosa (Artificial Eye, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Such is the prestige of director Sally Potter that she can haul in Annette Bening and Christina Hendricks, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall to fill in tiny supporting roles in a small quiet film that really doesn’t need them. And very off-putting they are too. But once you’ve adjusted the polarising filter on your star goggles, this drama set in the bohemian 1960s London of duffel coats, Dave Brubeck and “Ban the Bomb” marches really takes hold. Elle Fanning and Alice Englert are the titular Ginger and Rosa, a pair of teenagers who have been friends since birth, each now being tugged a different way by politics and hormones. But Alessandro Nivola is the pivot of the drama, playing a 1960s chancer working the zeitgeist entirely for his own shifty ends. It’s a truly excellent performance. But then so are those by Fanning and Englert (and, alright, Bening, Hendricks, Platt and Spall).

Ginger & Rosa – at Amazon

 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Entertainment One, cert 12, Blu-ray/DVD)

Like a throwback to those John Hughes teenage comedies full of smart dialogue and with a soundtrack to match, The Breakfast Club, say, this charming coming-of-age-in-the-80s drama is about clever teenagers learning about, you know, stuff. Pretty in Pink isn’t on the soundtrack but all the rest (Smiths, Bowie, Cocteaus, Dexys doing “Come on Eileen”) are present and correct. Logan Lerman stars as the geeky guy in the yadda yadda plot but the cultural antenna will be twitching as Emma Watson steps out in her first post-Potter role, playing someone on the cute side of out-and-out bitch. Which she does tentatively, ably, perhaps afraid to let rip in case people confuse actor and role. Am I being kind?

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – at Amazon

 

 

Sinister (Momentum, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD/Download)

Ethan Hawke lends some glitter to this very familiar though undeniably upscale horror – haunted house meets Spanish gothic – about a true-crime writer swallowed by the story he’s working on, in the house where the brutal murder of an entire family took place. There’s a nice shot of the family, sacks over their heads, their legs flailing like beetles’, dying as the opening credits roll. Shot on what’s meant to be Super 8 (which features heavily) it’s a tasty opener for a film that isn’t that frightening (OK, a couple of jumps) but does know all about atmosphere.

Sinister – at Amazon

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013