Let the Fire Burn

I got to see Let the Fire Burn at the Little on November 12. It's been a while, but I did want to give it a bit of a review.

It's an impressive document of the misguided actions of the Philadelphia government and police against the MOVE organization that led to them bombing and burning a house in 1985 containing 13 members, eleven of whom perished. In a way, it's a microcosm of war: both are avoidable, expensive, and deadly acts.

The most unique feature of the documentary is the exclusive use of found-footage which was limited to video (with a little 16mm film from an older documentary about MOVE.) Because of this limited perspective, there is very little information available about either MOVE and its purpose and actions, or about the police department and administration. Each side taken in isolation—MOVE changing from a radical urban alternative group to an antagonistic aggressor, and the government of the city of Philadelphia playing by-the-book as a racist regime—provides inadequate information to predict why things happened, but taken as interacting entities, it is more clear. Another way of saying that mouthful of marbles is that neither side was at fault as much as pitting them against one another was.

Director Jason Osder was available through SKYPE to discuss the film and revealed that the decision to go with found footage was partly pragmatic: our eye becomes accustomed to the poor quality of NTSC video unless we get a chance to compare it to modern high definition video. As a result, there are no talking heads to guide our reaction or provide possible answers. Ordinarily, we turn to some kind of expert to offer a possible explanation, but Let the Fire Burn gives no answers. It is the raw autopsy of a terrible moment in history left for us to examine.

And I think because of the lack of opinions, we gravitate toward our own biases. I was kind of surprised that one questioner presupposed it was centrally about racism. I thought it had more to do with the nature of a radical ideology that its ideas could not be articulated in a consumerist vocabulary. Neither interpretation is wrong, but it's interesting how our biases creep in.

Let me go back, now, and ruin the beauty of the movie by giving my own talking-head "expert" explanation.

I found the MOVE organization to be strictly following what we'd call urban gardening, veganism, anarchism, and acquiring goods locally. Rather than struggle in the capitalist/consumerist system that is rigged against both poor people and non-white people, MOVE opted instead to define their own rules. But the capitalist system—well, any social or economic (or socio-economic) system—is poorly suited to accommodating a sub-community whose internal rules are in defiance of the system's fundamental tenets.

This happens all the time with anarchist groups within the industrialized capitalism: anarchism defies the very nature of hierarchical, authoritative rule. The trouble is, most people do not like to admit that hierarchical, authoritative rules is a fundamental requirement of industrialized capitalism, so it's not codified in any laws: no law says you must pay for your own life. But for industrialized capitalism to work, it needs workers who are replaceable so they are valued low enough so the end product's price has a built-in profit—it needs for people to have to pay to exist.

If you think that's unfair, and maybe you could make a better go of it just living off the land and taking your changes, well, you're out of luck. The system goes a little nuts. The police will arrest you for no reason, but because no crime is committed, nobody gets charged with anything. But if you continue with that out-of-bounds behavior, you'll eventually be framed for a real crime. And then if you continue, you'll eventually be killed.

And that's what happened with MOVE. When they were harassed for non-crimes, they persisted. Then they were framed for a crime (specifically: nine people are still in prison, for the murder of one police officer—an impossibility since only one person can murder one other person.) And they persisted, and then were eventually killed. What they were "supposed to do" was to give up on the radical philosophies and get jobs like normal people.

Ten More Movies: October through December, 2013

So here's the last 10 movies I watched …

  1. Escape from Tomorrow at the Little, October 26: Jenn and I went to see this because the description sounded interesting enough: it's about a man who goes with his family to Disney World and his life is thrown into turmoil; the kicker being it was filmed at Disney without permission. Well, it would have been an okay movie if it hadn't had arbitrary plot twists and red herrings all over it. It starts out pretty strong but quickly degrades into an incomprehensible mess.
  2. Inequality for All at the Little, October 30: Jenn and I saw this essay film about inequality in American finances. Not just "some people earn more" kind of inequality, but "400 people earn as much as everybody else combined" kind of inequality (really.) It's ostensibly a documentary that gives former United States Secretary of Labor Robert Reich the ability to explain things from an economists perspective. On the one hand, it's an eye-opening and engaging film, but on the other, it preaches the "business-as-usual" mindset where a strong middle class buys like crazy to keep the economy chugging along to everyone's supposed benefit. But do we really need all that stuff? Maybe the economy can work if a robust middle class was socially conditioned to buy quality, durable products made by workers earning a living with their wages rather than to buy as much of the cheapest slave-labor-produced products one can get jeir hands on.
  3. The Intruder at the Dryden, November 1: This is a brilliant film on the dangers of mob mentality and how easy it is to coerce a mob during a revolution: a rabble-rouser heads to a small town in the south to start a counter-revolution to school desegregation. And it was created by Roger Corman and his brother, Gene at peril to the cast and crew: it was filmed in the south during desegregation (and perhaps, as mentioned by Lori Donnelly at the Eastman House, the only film about the Civil Rights Movement shot during the Civil Rights Movement.) It's a film well-worth checking out.
  4. Let the Fire Burn at the Little, November 12: An impressive document of the misguided actions of the Philadelphia government and police against the MOVE organization that led to them bombing and burning a house in 1985 containing 13 members, eleven of whom perished. Read more in my blog post about it.
  5. Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus at the Little, November 13: This one is about a guy who's a kind-of unlikeable drug thrill-seeker who meets girl who's a kind-of unlikeable modern hippie and they go with three Chilean guys (whose personalities are not nearly as well defined) to partake of a cactus-based mind-altering concoction. Jenn and I went together and, when prompted what I thought of it, I said "it was okay." I stand by that: it's an okay movie. There is some redeeming quality to it, but it's not perfect … you know: "okay".
  6. The Light in the Dark at the Dryden, November 19: Philip Carli spent a significant portion of his introduction trying to set our expectations low enough for this film. It was indeed historically interesting: the fourth and last film made with a not-so-talented actress-as-producer, with not one director signing on for a second film. It's about a fairly pretty (maybe very pretty in 1922, I'd hope) down-on-her-luck woman whose luck turns when a rich woman hits her with her car then takes her in. (Way to go pronouns!) As Carli mentioned, the cinematography is particularly good — and I'm inclined to agree. Also, this restores more than half the footage cut for (apparently) a tale of the Holy Grail. And it's got Lon Chaney, so there's him to watch too. Overall, it's not very good, but historically interesting.
  7. The Internet Cat Video Film Festival 2012 at the Dryden, November 22: I begged Jenn to go see this with the promise we could leave if it wasn't very good. My intention was nefarious: I wanted to see if it was as worthy of the derision I wished to inflict on it. And, well, kind of. It is, indeed, a curated set of clips of funny cat videos from the Internet (see the article at Know Your Meme for a little more information). The selection standards fortunately excluded clips that were extraordinarily low quality, and the clips were, generally, amusing. But really? Clips from the Internet? And comments like that squarely make me one of the fuddy-duddies who deride a new form of entertainment solely because it's new. This is, in essence, a wholly new form of creating short films, although the "new" aspect has to do with sheer quantity: a huge percentage of people now have access to a video camera, and many like to take video of their pets, so it's just a matter of waiting before someone captures something clever. Does that warrant a film festival? (Eh, maybe too soon.) How about two screenings at Dryden Theatre of the world-renowned George Eastman House? And two more for the 2013 festival? I don't know — I don't think so. It all seems like a way to make money since it's amateur, accessible, and popular. (Oh, and we did leave early, so technically this one should count as half.)
  8. Kill Your Darlings at the Little, November 26: Jenn and I decided to see this before we realized "Enough Said" closed that night. The film is quite good — probably more so because I know little of the life of Allen Ginsberg as it's often the mistake made and liberties taken about a familiar subject that distract us from a story. So to go back a sentence: it's about the early life of Allen Ginsberg as he went to Columbia University and met Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. And how his homosexuality blossomed, and how a seldom-mentioned murder surrounded that group of friends. In all it's a captivating story and worth checking out perhaps because you also know little of Ginsberg's life. Or you want to try to unequivocally destroy a connection between Daniel Radcliffe and Harry Potter.
  9. Philomena at the Little, November 27: Jenn and I wanted to see another film, but decided to check this out as an alternative. As it turns out, it was an interesting story and an enjoyable film. Judy Dench is fantastic and Steve Coogan holds his own pretty well at her side. It may help that it's based on a true story, so frequently that lends a bit of realistic serendipity to what can so rarely be written in fiction.
  10. Piranha at the Dryden, December 7: I saw this a long time ago on TV and, perhaps rightfully, didn't give it much respect. But in deliberately watching it on equal footing with any other film, it's really quite passable. The pace is brisk, the plot was interesting in its own cautionary alarmist way, and the acting was adequate to the task. It's not high-art, but a perfectly adequate example of a Jaws-era terror flick.