WHEN THE MORAL COMPASS IS SPINNING

Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways for society to recalibrate its moral compass.

Throughout his long career, Sidney Lumet was obsessed with stories of moral courage – the lone individual who has the guts to risk everything and stand up against the crowd for what he/she believes is right.

His own courage and commitment as a filmmaker resulted in 46 Academy Award nominations and 6 Academy Awards, including 4 for Network.

Call us crazy, but here at The Thread, we are actually chumps enough to believe in this stuff. To us, it felt like no coincidence that American Masters chose this moment to premiere By Sidney Lumet.  

It was a great profile, and inspired us to put together this list of Lumet favorites.

lumet BY SIDNEY LUMET (2017)

In By Sidney Lumet, Lumet tells his own story in a never-before-seen interview shot in 2008 by late filmmaker Daniel Anker and producer Thane Rosenbaum—directed by Nancy Buirski.

With honesty and humor, Lumet reveals what matters to him as an artist and as a human being. He talks about his early years growing up in NYC tenement housing where he quotes Brecht: “First feed the face, then tell me right from wrong.”

As a young soldier in Calcutta he witnessed the brutal rape of a young girl by a group of G.I.’s but was powerless to stop it—this criminal act and his inability to stop it shadowed him through his life and his work on the fight for justice.

Lumet often used New York City’s urban spirit to infuse his films with a realism and intensity that kept audiences in suspense while pushing them to consider their own morality.  His consistent dedication to truth and what drives human behavior makes him a unique and philosophical director who is sorely missed.

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12-Angry-Men 12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

In 1956, Reginald Rose and Henry Fonda commissioned Lumet to turn Rose’s Studio One teleplay of 12 Angry Men into a Hollywood movie. Before this, Lumet had only directed TV dramas, but it was this first feature that defined Lumet as one of the industry’s most socially conscious directors. Themes of justice, personal integrity, and radicalism would later appear in the scripts he chose, as well as the people he chose to work with.

In the film Fonda plays Juror 8, who casts the lone ‘not guilty’ vote as he and his fellow jurors deliberate the fate of a young Puerto Rican boy facing the death penalty for his father’s murder. A symbolic counterargument to the witch hunts of McCarthyism, it is also a quest for social justice, this time by way of that iconic American institution – the jury.

Critic Roger Ebert called it “a masterpiece of stylized realism.” Even skeptical New Yorker critic Pauline Kael said that it was, “so sure-fire it has the crackle of a hit.”

Justice Sonia M. Sotomayor has credited it with inspiring her career in law. “It sold me that I was on the right path, “she said. “This movie continued to ring the chords within me.”

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alSERPICO (1973)

Serpico was a police thriller starring Al Pacino, this time in the role of an isolated and intense undercover cop whose radical idealism defines his search for justice as he blows the whistle on payoffs and corruption in the police department.

Based on a true story (written by Peter Maas; screenplay co-written by blacklisted writer Waldo Salt) the movie showed Lumet at his best, filming on New York City streets with a talented crew of actors playing characters in moral conflict and a story that was in perfect sync with the mood of the country.

Lumet has said of Serpico, “I’m not directing a moral message. I’m directing that piece and those people, and if I do it well, the moral message will come through.” Near the end of the film as Al Pacino is testifies before the Knapp Commission, Lumet mentions that he was often criticized for not having a thematic line in his work and for doing many different kinds of movies. “It’s nonsense,” he said. “There is always a bedrock concern: Is it fair?

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dogday DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975) 

“Talk about radical,” says Lumet. “What could be more radical than a guy robbing a bank so that he can get the money to pay for his boyfriend’s sex operation?”

“The thing that I think makes Dog Day what it is Pacino’s performance. Because it could have easily degenerated into a sensational piece,” he says. “We have got to reach, on a fundamental level, into anybody watching this movie, to make them aware of the humanity of these two men. And I couldn’t have had a better person unearth that feeling than Pacino because he is like an open wound up there.”

In the end of this film even the hostages are rooting for them. 

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network NETWORK (1976)

Lumet said of Network, “For me and [writer] Paddy Chayefsky, the network was a metaphor for America and the corruption of the American spirit.” He noted Chayefsky’s prescience and said, “It’s only gotten worse,” at the time referring indirectly to the war in Iraq.

Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch star in this powerful satire of the news industry. When anchorman Howard Beale is forced to retire his 25-year post because of his age, he announces to his viewers that he’s going to commit suicide on his final program. When his announcement looks like it will improve the ratings, the entire event is turned into a garish entertainment spectacle.

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verdict THE VERDICT (1982)

Based on a script by David Mamet. Paul Newman stars as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic Boston lawyer who tries to redeem his personal and professional reputation by winning a difficult medical malpractice case against a large Catholic hospital.

Helped by his assistant Mickey (Jack Warden) and his new girlfriend, Laura (Charlotte Rampling) The Verdict is an outstanding, if not very legally accurate, courtroom drama; his decision to try the case without telling the family of the settlement offer would probably lead to his real-life disbarment.

The central theme concerns a man who overcomes his own impulses toward self-destruction and summons the courage to challenge the system – even though it will inevitably turn him into a pariah.

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Wow…

 LSD is having another moment.  The practice of “micro-dosing” is trending in trendy circles, and Michael Chabon’s wife (a former D.A.) just outed herself in the Sunday NYTimes — “How LSD Saved One Woman’s Marriage.”  — as promotion for her new book on the subject. 

Here at The Thread, we got a little bored with acid after the first 75 or so trips. 

But a few years later — well in advance of the late-arriving micro dosers of today — we discovered that a couple nibbles of a fresh homegrown ‘shroom was almost as good as a strong cup of coffee.

 The release of the new documentary on the makers of Orange Sunshine it seems like a great excuse to take a little trip, if only down memory lane. 

 

  THE SUNSHINE MAKERS.

SUNSHINE MAKERS (2017)

Director Cosmo Feilding Mellon comes by his interest in this subject matter honestly – his mother is the extremely colorful Amanda Feilding — titled British artist, spiritual experimenter and advocate of psychotropic drug reform.  Her Wikipedia entry is an amusing read.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanda_Feilding

In the 1960’s a Brooklyn hippie named Nick Sand and a Berkeley science nerd named Tim Scully teamed up to save the world by inventing and spreading super-pure Orange Sunshine LSD. Their goal was to get the entire world high by producing 350 million tabs.

Unfortunately, the government took a different angle on their messianic mission – the film is billed as “a real-life Breaking Bad for the psychedelic set.”

Reports say the film is not incredibly well crafted, but so entertaining  that you’ll want to see it anyway.

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Image result for orange sunshine movie images
ORANGE SUNSHINE (2016)

 Much better made and even more entertaining, this is the other half of the story, made by acclaimed director William Kirkley (Excavating Taylor Meade), and nominated for the big award at last year’s SXSW.

It’s the story of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a mystical/altruistic band of surfer hippies out of Laguna Beach, CA who executed their own mission to transform the world by becoming one of the biggest drug dealing syndicates ever.  Think 100 million hits of LSD. The Sunshine Makers were the chemists, but it was the Brotherhood that spread Orange Sunshine across the country and around the world.

Although the main players slipped away before the big bust came, most of them were eventually ended up in jail.  But even now, in their 70’s, they maintain that the driving force behind everything they did was not money, but psychic and cultural transformation.

Kirkley really knows what he’s doing – this one is engrossing and really well made — a mix of archival materials and current interviews augmented with a massive amount of perfectly executed re-enactments.

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fear-and-loathing-sunglasses
FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)

Anyone who has had personal experience with psychedelics knows that the effect of a trip cannot be replicated on film; and anyone who hasn’t had that experience probably doesn’t care.

But every couple of years a film comes out that is supposed to capture the experience better than anything that came before.  This year it was Dr. Strange.  In 1998, it was Terry Gilliam’s rendering of Hunter Thompson’s epic drug rage through the rotten heart of the American nightmare — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

There is chasm between the two schools of opinion on this film.  Roger Ebert gave it one star.  But for those who love it, it’s “the best film ever made”.

Gilliam was born to direct this thing, and for us, this is one of Depp’s signature roles, right up there with Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow – and much better than his later and lamer attempt to capture a young Thompson in Rum Diary (skip it).

Personally, we don’t know why anyone would want to take acid in Las Vegas – the hotel check-in scene is case in point, and should be enough to dissuade any sane person.

And we don’t know why anyone would watch this movie more than once.  But you do have to watch it once.

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Across The Universe
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007)

By the early 70’s the cultural effects of LSD had pervaded American society, and the country was as deeply, deeply divided.

It was a wonderful time and it was a horrible time, a time of love, a time of war.  The counter culture was seducing and nibbling away at the status quo – and anybody who was invested in the status quo was profoundly threatened.

The Beatles bridged the turmoil.  Half the country was listening to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, the other to Andy Williams’ cover of “Michelle”.  In 2007 Judy Taymor captured a lot of this (along with some  creative evocations of psychedelia) in her deeply nostalgic and underappreciated jukebox musical Across The Universe.

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American Commune 2
AMERICAN COMMUNE (2014)

LSD did catalyze genuine social change, including more than a few utopian experiments.  The Farm in Tennessee is the best known and most successful of the “hippy communes” that sprung up in the early 70’s.

It was founded by charismatic leader Steven Gaskin who trekked across the country from San Francisco.  300 admirers followed in a motley caravan of vans and old school buses.  They bought 1,750 acres in rural Tennessee, took vows of poverty and set out to live off the land, practicing vegetarianism and optional group marriage. They eschewed personal possessions, birth control, abortion, alcohol, tobacco, and all man-made drugs – except for LSD.  The core group of founders had bonded through common psychedelic experiences, and regarded marijuana as a sacrament.

As cults go, Gaskin’s was tame and well-intentioned.  The Farm went through trials and transitions; but it evolved and is still very much in existence.

American Commune is a documentary by sisters Nadine Mundo and Rena Mundo Croshere — daughters of Jan and Jose Mundo, two founding members who lived on The Farm for over a decade.  Years later, the sisters were both working as producers for MTV, and decided to go back, revisit the site of their childhood and look at the history of the place, fondly but frankly.

For some reason we here at The Thread can’t get enough on this subject.  We highly recommend Arcadia, a novel by Lauren Groff (National Book Award nominee for Fates and Furies) about a kid raised on a Farm-like commune.   And our friend, documentary maker Jonathan Berman, made another great, breezy film called Commune about Black Bear Ranch in northern California.

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Easy Rider
EASY RIDER (1969)

 A dozen movies could have filled this last slot, but we decided to grab the low-hanging fruit.

By the time Wyatt and Billy get to New Orleans, George Hansen (Nicholson) is dead, but they still have the LSD the kid on the commune gave them.  They drop acid with the prostitutes, played by Karen Black and Toni Basil.

As the four of them wander through Mardi Gras and into the cemetary, director Hopper used very simple visual effects to capture the essence of an acid trip as well as anybody before or since. Including the perfectly balanced look of rapture and terror in the famous still above.

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