Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 31, 2019

Standoff at Sparrow Creek; Drugs as Weapons Against Us

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:03 pm

Recently I looked at two films made by first-time directors that are very much worth seeing even if they are somewhat flawed. Let’s put it this way. They will be a much better use of your time than watching “Crazy Rich Asians” or “First Man”.

From the publicist’s email, I had the impression that “Standoff at Sparrow Creek” would be an action film since it involves a cop working undercover in a militia group. The word “standoff” evokes car chases, gun battles, and the like. As such, I avoided watching the screener until finally relenting to assuage the publicist who assured me that it was not what it appeared. I am glad I did since it is interesting, character-driven work that is practically a filmed theater piece. Shot in a single location—a massive lumber warehouse—the film consists almost exclusively of dialogue. It is rare to see a film nowadays that departs from action film clichés. Even with its flaws, which are naturally expected in a first-time film, it is worth seeing on VOD a few weeks after it made a brief appearance at the Cinema Village in New York.

If you are of advanced years like me, “Standoff at Sparrow Creek” will remind you of the classic live teleplays shown on Playhouse 90 or the Philco Television Playhouse. With scripts written by Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, and the like, the emphasis was on suspense—not in the sense of an Alfred Hitchcock movie but more focused on how a conflict would be resolved.

When the film begins, we meet a group of militia members who are shocked to learn that one of them has carried out a terrorist attack on a policeman’s funeral that left dozens dead and wounded. Despite their hatred for “the deep state”, they realize that the consequences would be a cop counter-attack that would leave them in prison or dead. Since an AR-15 is missing from their arsenal, they can only conclude that it was one of their own who was responsible. They assign an ex-cop to interrogate their members since he has the professional qualifications to decide who is lying and who is telling the truth.

The entire film, except for the surprise ending, consists of the ex-cop in dialogue with one militia member or another. The tension mounts as each man is put on the spot for having both the motive and the expertise to carry out an undisciplined offensive. Although the film is far removed thematically from “The Thing” or “Reservoir Dogs”, you will be reminded of the investigation carried out to identify either the space alien or the undercover cop. However, the big difference is that writer/director is not interested in seeing people physically tortured—only psychologically tortured, including both the interrogator and the interrogated.

Writer/director Henry Dunham operated on a budget of $400,000, which sounds like a fortune to most of you but is actually a shoestring budget for a film. In an interview with Film School Rejects, Dunham said: “Back to your original thing, about meeting with all the actors – it was just like I’m going to shoot it like a 70’s stage play. Just simple. I drew the movie out in five books and it’s about 1400 drawings and just sort of showing them everything laid out.” I would only add that it was more like a 50s teleplay even if the filmmaker was too young to have ever seen one.

My chief criticism of the film was its failure to engage more with the politics of the militia movement. Considering the rise of fascist movements in the USA in the past couple of years, it would have strengthened the film to have some deeper engagement with what made these men decide to form a white supremacist militia. Missing this dimension, the film sacrificed social commentary in the interests of individual psychology. In my view, you can combine both.

The other film is “Drugs as Weapons Against Us: The CIA War on Musicians and Activists” that never showed in theaters but became available as VOD two days ago. Check the director’s website for screening information. Despite being mired in conspiracy theory, it is worth watching since well over 75 percent of it is based on historical facts, namely the CIA’s MK Ultra program that involved experimenting with LSD to see if it could be deployed as a military weapon to degrade an enemy’s defenses. Director John Potash based his documentary on a book he wrote in 2015. It was clearly influenced by Martin Lee’s 1992 “Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond” that I read when it first came out. Lee appears in a brief interview in the film but like everybody else shown in the film, excluding one, the interview was lifted from another film or TV news segment.

That exception was Columbia professor Jamal Joseph, whose background was unlike any other faculty member. He was one of the Black Panther 21, a group of men who were convicted of planning a terrorist attack in 1969. Joseph spent six years in Leavenworth, where he earned two college degrees behind bars. Eventually, he ended up at Columbia heading up the Graduate Film Division where he likely ran into Potash.

Potash’s motivation in writing the book and making the film is to show how LSD was used to move SDS away from radicalism and move toward the “Tune in, Turn on, Drop out” philosophy of Timothy Leary whose LSD experiments were done in conjunction with the MK Ultra program. As for the Panthers, the destabilization drug of choice was cocaine. When Huey Newton began pushing cocaine, it was supposedly done on the suggestion of agent provocateurs according to the film.

Some of the revelations in the film are startling, even to someone like me who was familiar with Lee’s book and other drug/subversion efforts mounted by the CIA, including the news reports of Gary Webb about the Nicaraguan contra/CIA drug sales intended to pay for weapons.

For example, Ken Kesey, who proselytized for LSD in the 60s and 70s, was a volunteer with the MK Ultra project when he was a student at Stanford. We also learn that Paul Robeson was never the same after a nervous breakdown in 1961. During a wild party in a Moscow hotel room, he went into the bathroom and slashed his wrists. His son Paul Robeson Jr. believes that this was a result of someone spiking his drink with LSD. Considering the hatred the CIA had for Robeson, I find this entirely plausible especially since the CIA planned to sabotage his speeches by spraying his broadcasting studio with a chemical that would make him suffer similar LSD type hallucinations.

Where I differ from Potash is ascribing the epidemic of LSD trips in the 60s to the CIA exclusively. Since he did not live through the period, he probably didn’t understand that people from my generation wanted to take LSD because it was a chemical version of the spiritual voyages of mystics like Meister Eckhart or William Blake. In 1963, I learned about Bard students who went over to Millbrook, a mansion about a half-hour’s drive from the school where Leary hosted wild acid-dropping parties.

Potash finds it incriminating that the mansion was owned by William Mellon Hitchcock, who was an heir to the Mellon fortune as well as that of William Larimer Hitchcock who founded Gulf Oil. I would look at it somewhat differently. I would see not this so much as a sign that the Mellons were trying to prevent student radicals from becoming powerful but that Billy Hitchcock, as his friends called him, was just a beatnik like the rest of us. Or maybe he was both a beatnik and a CIA asset? Who knows. Watch the film and decide for yourself.



  1. I enjoy your film reviews. BTW I grew up in Hoboken and remember Mayor John J Grogan. I never had the pleasure of meeting his daughter. All the best.

    Comment by Robert Svorinich — February 1, 2019 @ 4:32 am

  2. [P]eople from my generation wanted to take LSD because it was a chemical version of the spiritual voyages of mystics like Meister Eckhart or William Blake … .

    This reflects Louis’s deep and exemplary seriousness, even in youth.

    In my experience there was a wide and fertile field of bullshit reasons for drug use that didn’t rise to that level.

    An acquaintance of mine at Harvard said that the best episode of his “acid” experiences was somehow wandering onto a football field at just the point where the winning side scored the decisive touchdown. He thought the cheers were for him.

    I don’t know what became of this guy, but am guessing that he had a lucrative career as a Wall Street lawyer.

    BTW there’s a persistent tendency to assume that legalizing cannabis/THC (and maybe other drugs) is the harbinger of some “spiritual” Golden Age. I don’t hate cannabis and agree that it should be legal in both the THC-potent and the merely fibrous versions–but the mystical stuff is IMHO on the level of the corporate “guru” crap that has been making the rounds ever since the Beatles. Very convenient for some.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — February 1, 2019 @ 12:41 pm

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