Horns and Halos
posted to www.marxmail.org on March 2, 2003
Co-directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky and now showing at Cinema Village in NYC, "Horns and Halos" is the best documentary I have seen since "Startup.Com," with which it shares some important aspects. Both films revolve around doomed projects: in one instance, a typical dot.com that crashed and burned like so many others in the 1990's; in the other, a Quixotic mission by a small threadbare publishing house to get the troubled George W. Bush biography "Fortunate Son" to market.
The other thing they have in common is two extremely compelling and memorable figures at the center. In "Startup.Com", we meet co-CEO's who were college pals with radically clashing temperaments and ways of doing business. Under the mounting pressure of the dot.com bust, the two lose both their friendship and their business. In "Horns and Halos" the two key personalities are Lower East Side punk-radical Sander Hicks, the President of Soft Skull at the time, and biographer Jim Hatfield, a drawling 40ish Arkansas ex-con determined to hit it big with a tell-all biography of George W. Bush.
The title of the film is a reference to what Hatfield thinks a good biography should consist of. It should include both the good parts (halos) and bad parts (horns) of the subject. As soon becomes clear, this also describes Hatfield himself, who veered wildly from serious investigative reporting to supermarket tabloid sensationalism, all the while straining to contain the kind of criminal tendencies that once landed him in prison.
Lurking in the background are two powerful institutional forces with a full set of horns that emerge as the documentary's true villains. One is St. Martin's Press that symbolizes the bottom-line mentality of corporate America. The other is George W. Bush and his lawyers who after successfully intimidating the prestigious publishing house to drop Hatfield's book assume that Soft Skull will be easier to push around. While the film was made before the recent war buildup, the connections with White House bullying in the Mideast and Europe cannot fail to come to mind. Like the Iraqi people, Soft Skull President Sander Hicks and Jim Hatfield are in way over their heads. During the film, we retain hopes that they will be successful against overwhelming odds but can never shake a feeling that the whole project might eventually come crashing down around their heads.
Although I have met Marxmail subscriber Sander Hicks in person just once, I do consider him a friend and comrade. When he showed up on the list about three years ago, he informed me that Soft Skull had added Marxmail to the recommended links on their website. Eventually I discovered that although he was about twenty years younger than me, he had gone through a similar experience with sectarianism. Like so many other people active in the peace movement and other struggles, this experience had not weakened his resolve to oppose US capitalism.
As a character in the documentary, I discovered a whole other side of Sander that I knew nothing about previously. He is a real battler. No matter how many times he was threatened with legal action and no matter how many times some investigative reporter with loyalties to the Republican Party had uncovered some dirt on Jim Hatfield, he never lost faith in the project. He obviously understood that despite flaws in "Fortunate Son," it was the first book to challenge the prevailing mythology around George W. Bush. It detailed his shady business practices and his chicken-hawk record.
In one memorable scene, Sander provides a biting exegesis of Bush's heavily censored military record that was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. "You see this," he says pointing to a series of blacked-out boxes that indicate a preference for overseas duties, "this shows that he could have possibly chosen to serve in Vietnam--otherwise they wouldn't have blacked out *all* the boxes." In another scene, he is gazing at family photos from the pages of a Bush biography of the kind that Hatfield had decided he would not write, including a daughter of George Prescott Bush. He explains how bizarre it is that they refer to his investment banking credentials, but don't mention that he was arrested for trading with the Nazis.
All the time that Sander was running the Soft Skull business from a terminally funky basement in a Lower East Side tenement, he was working as a super in the same building. He is seen sweeping the stairs or running off to fix a clogged toilet. He is also seen performing on stage with his band "White Collar Crime". On the album "Their Laws Are Dimwit Greed," which is dedicated to Jim Hatfield, Sander expresses the hopes of his generation in the song "White Collar Fight Song". In it you will find a reference to the tension between beatitude and damnation that defines this unforgettable documentary:
the land has brought this moment
her people will feed us fruits
harbor us when we are fugitives
we are working now
day & night
in a breaking light
the sun sets
we are one day closer
for the poor
for the children
for the kids
who hate the system
smash the devil
destroy white collar crime
we are not saints
we are not angels
a humble hard-working
God is just the Idea
in the streets.
Sander Hicks website: http://www.sanderhicks.com/
Soft Skull Press: http://www.softskull.com/
Cinema Village: http://www.cinemavillage.com
Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org