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Ultra Classics

Recently a friend recommended the Rachel Maddow podcast “Ultra” which chronicles the wild story of the Ultra-Far-Right in the United States of the late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s. The podcast opens on the story of a Minnesota Senator who died in an extremely suspicious plane crash in 1940, it was later discovered that he was deeply involved with Nazi propagandists in Germany, his speeches written by a Nazi agent. My attention was really peaked by a pair of installments in the podcast, one of an explosion at a munitions plant in the early ‘40’s that was followed by three coordinated attacks to other factories a couple of months later, and the story of a screenwriter who transitioned into attempting to become an American version of Hitler, founding an American organization of fascists, the Silver Shirts. Both reminded me of two favorite films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), and Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985).

Hitchcock’s Saboteur very much seems to be directly inspired by events of sabotage on the home front before the US even entered the war. While Nazi’s were attempting to sink their claws in American politics and infiltrating branches of the military and police, Hitchcock had also been making movies trying to talk the US into entering the war and standing up to fascism, most obviously in a speech from Foreign Correspondent where the protagonist speaks directly to the audience about the importance of standing up to fascists. Saboteur places a Hitchcock’s classic “innocent man on the run” in the middle of a fascist plot to sabotage America, from a bombing of a munitions plant, the sinking of a newly christened navy ship and a final standoff at the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Hitch had made movies like this before, when he was in England, just not quite as grand in the spectacle of the final standoff, and would make others after, most notably in North By Northwest. I may have come to enjoy this more than North by Northwest, purely because I have seen this less, the pacing is a little quicker because this is a shorter film, and some of the imagery more memorable. Something about the sets and bright coloring of North by Northwest is a bit too artificial for me.

Mishima is much more of a direct non-fiction film, based on the life of a famous Japanese writer who ultimately started his own army focused on bringing back power to the Emperor by way of a coup attempt. While it is about a real man, a few of the chapters are actually quite fictional from the writings of Mishima and some of his writings are about actual events that were not from his life. The film is bookended with a depiction of his coup attempts that ended with his attempted hari kiri (while in real life he did cut himself, he did not die by his own hand and the final blow came from one of his conspirators who tasked with decapitating him with a samurai sword). Tonally, this feels much like the dread on the day of January 6th, along with the inevitable failure of the attempted overthrow of the government, mainly from the hubristic buffoonery of the attackers. It’s the charismatic leader of a fascist terrorist group that comes from a creative background that links Mishima and the founder of the Silver Shirts that is the odder through line. That leader of the Silver Shirts grew inspiration as a leader from Hitler’s background as a painter before his Beer Hall Putsh, and one of the founders of the current day Proud Boys was a failed stand up comedian and a founder of Vice Magazine. Beware the failed artist with a sense of entitlement… Although, Mishima was hardly a failed artist, he was highly regarded as a writer in Japan and even directed a highly regarded movie. I guess, beware the artist with misplaced confidence and disdain for those they see as lesser.

Ultra is an excellent podcast of the thinly veiled parallels of our past and present threats from fascists and their pawns. It was also a great opportunity to be reminded of a couple of movies from my collection that I greatly enjoy and recommend. Saboteur is the easier film to watch, as much of a spectacle film as 1942 could offer. Mishima is a bit more brutal and more of a challenge to follow the story, although it is visually incredible and a tense experience, heightened by an excellent Philip Glass score.


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