Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 29, 2006

Heading South

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on June 29, 2006

As a rule of thumb, I do not bother to write reviews of bad films, with the occasional exception made for something like Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” with its glorification of the unspeakably evil Howard Hughes. There is even more leniency for independent films, especially those not made in the USA, that at least have the stamp of integrity going for them.

But Laurent Cantet’s “Heading South” was such a real disappointment measured against the director’s aspirations that I feel moved to write about it. After reading the press release, my expectations ran high:

With Human Resources and Time Out, Laurent Cantet has established himself as one of French cinema’s leading screen realists and analysts of social discontent. His third feature — an investigation of sexual tourism — is arguably his most achieved, and certainly his most challenging. The setting is a beach resort in late 70s Haiti, where middle-aged North American women go to be sexually pampered by young black men, rewarding them with economic and quasi-maternal favours. “Welcome to Paradise,“ says the resort’s alpha female Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) to newcomer Brenda (Karen Young), but it’s clear that this is anything but paradise. Outside the hotel’s artificial bubble, the Duvalier regime is in power, and it can’t be long before Legba (Menothy César), the young man favoured by both Ellen and Brenda, falls foul of the all-powerful Macoute militia.

 

Cantet’s decision to make middle-aged women the symbol of colonialism, racism and sexual exploitation could not be more wrong-headed. Rather than appearing as predators, they seem more like desperate and pathetic souls out of a Tennessee Williams play. Furthermore, there is an element of puritanism that makes sexual pleasure, even if purchased on the market, an evil roughly on a par with Duvalierism. The young male prostitutes are depicted as being caught in a vise made up on one side by lonely women on a vacation and Ton Ton Macoutes on the other. This is unbalanced, to say the least.

“Heading South” marks a real drop-off from the achievements of Cantet’s first film “Human Resources,” which I described as “one of the finest movies ever made about the labor movement.”

His next film “Time Out” signaled that Cantet was no longer interested in making straightforward films about social problems but was determined to reveal deeper existential truths, as they put it in educated circles. The protagonist of “Time Out” is an unemployed French executive who is ashamed to tell his family that he has lost his job. He puts on a suit each morning, kisses them goodbye and proceeds to drive around all day killing time. But this is not a simple dramatization of the plight described in Louis Uchitelle’s “The Disposable American”. Cantet uses this situation as a launching pad for a semi-Hitchcockian crime thriller in which the hero cons old friends and business associates into making bogus investments. The Village Voice, long addicted to “subverting” anything as boring as the topic of unemployment, heartily endorsed Cantet’s progress:

“It would be reductive to read Time Out as a parable on the shame of unemployment. Vincent rejects several career opportunities throughout, legitimate and otherwise. A return to the workforce is inconceivable, the ultimate defeat. More to the point, his mounting anxiety notwithstanding, Vincent has earnestly reinvented himself as a petit-bourgeois life-actor, exulting in the thrill of spinning–and existing within–a fiction. But lying is desperately hard work–a bitter irony that does not elude the film.”

Yes, that’s what the world needs, doesn’t it: displays of reinvention and bitter irony. Much more “complex” than boring old tales of men made redundant by the forces of capitalist concentration. That would be so retro, so 1930s.

“Heading South” is based on a collection of short stories by Haitian author Dany Laferrière, for whom sex seems to occupy the place that money occupied in “Das Capital,” based on the evidence of this collection and other works such as “How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired” and “Why Must a Black Writer Write About Sex?” I guess the answer to the last question is that it must sell books that get made into screenplays. In the press notes for “Heading South,” Laferrière states, “We’re dealing with a small group of very rich people who can buy anything, or who think they can buy anything, people or objects, and with others who are ready to sell the only thing they possess, their youth and their body.”

Now I don’t want to sound like I am insensitive to the suffering of the Haitian people, but on a scale of 1 to 10, the problem of spinster schoolteachers from New England (the character played by Charlotte Rampling in a losing effort) paying for sex on the Haitian beaches ranks something like minus five.

In the final scene of “Heading South,” a voice-over of the female characters (plucked clumsily from Laferrière’s prose) proclaims her desire to sexually conquer other black bodies throughout the Caribbean, from Guadalupe to Cuba. Granted that sexual tourism is a problem in Cuba, one might think that it is more than compensated for by free education, health-care and guaranteed employment. I can imagine a hard-hitting film about the problem of sexual tourism, but this film is not one of them–except as an example of what not to do.

Now if I were to make a movie about Haiti, I’d adapt Russell Banks’ “Continental Drift,” one of the finest novels of the 1980s. This is the story of a New Hampshire working-class guy named Bob Dubois who turns to transporting Haitian immigrants ‘illegally’ into the United States out of economic desperation. Although Russell Banks is not Haitian or Black for that matter, his portrait of the dirt-poor Haitian émigré Vanise Dorsinville, who leaves Haiti with her infant son and 13-year-old nephew Claude, is one of the more memorable I have seen in modern fiction.

The book has a cinematic sweep that in the right hands would turn into a “Grapes of Wrath” for the modern age. That, of course, would be too much to expect.

 

June 26, 2006

Warren Buffett largesse

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 11:23 pm

“I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It cost a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s a fantastic brand loyalty.”

–Warren Buffett

====

USA TODAY’ April 13, 1993

Buffett buys a 5% chunk of UST

By Dan Dorfman

Super investor Warren Buffett isn’t a smoker – but he’s apparently been smitten by a tobacco company.

USA TODAY has learned that Berkshire Hathaway, the multibillion-dollar diversified company run by Buffett, has taken a sizable stake – perhaps close to 5% – of UST, formerly U.S. Tobacco. UST, a leading maker of smokeless tobacco (Skoal, Copenhagen) is one of the nation’s most profitable companies.

====

NY Times, June 26, 2006

Buffett Always Planned to Give Away His Billions

By JEREMY W. PETERS

Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and executive, said today that he never seriously considered doing anything with his $44 billion fortune except giving it all away.

“I’m not an enthusiast for dynastic wealth, particularly when 6 billion others have much poorer hands than we do in life,” Mr. Buffett said at the New York Public Library, where he was appearing with Bill and Melinda Gates, the only Americans richer than he is.

Mr. Buffett said on Sunday that he would give away 85 percent of his fortune ­ about $37.4 billion worth of stock in Berkshire Hathaway, the company he runs ­ to five charitable foundations, with the greatest share, about $31 billion, going to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which is dedicated to improving health and education, especially in poor nations.

(clip)

====

Ferdinand Lundberg, “The Rich and the Super-Rich”:

While the largest foundations and flotillas of foundation: have been mentioned, size is not alone important. Smaller foundations act as conduits and control points, useful in sorts of secret business affairs and especially in tax evasion. Nearly every large corporation and many of the large now have their own foundations. And small foundations often suddenly flower into huge growths.

Among other things, as [Congressman Wright] Patman found, foundations can become tax-free receptacles for capital gains. An individual or corporation may have an investment it wishes to liquidate but which stands to incur a huge capital gain on large long-term appreciation. Payment of a capital gains tax may be avoided by turning the investment over to a foundation (no gift tax) and then having the foundation sell the investment (no capital gains tax). The foundation may now lend the entire liquid sum back to the donor at a nominal interest rate (no law requires that the foundations seek maximum earnings), or it may with the untaxed money obtain a controlling block of stock in some company the original donor wishes to control. With this control he can raise or lower the company’s] dividend rate, obtain power over its possibly large cash and management and perhaps even obtain for himself further low-interest loans.

With low-interest loans received, a donor can make lucrative investments. He could, for example, with a loan which he paid 1 percent, itself tax deductible, go out buy tax-free local government bonds paying him a tax-exempt 3 percent.

Let us suppose that an original investment of $10 million was now valued at $100 million. If it were sold it would incur a capital gains tax of approximately $22.5 million. But if were all given to a foundation the foundation could sell and pay no gains tax. Now if the foundation lends the whole sum back to the donor at 1 percent he pays it $1 million a year. And if he makes $3 million on a tax-free investment in government bonds he keeps $2 million annually, tax free. But if he had sold the original amount he would have had only $77.5 million after-tax capital which, invested at 5 percent, would have brought him $3,875,000. After payment of about $2,712,500 (or 70 percent) income tax, he would have remaining $1,162,500 annually or almost a half less than by the first procedure. It was clearly financially advantageous to filter the money through the “charitable” foundation.

If he so desires he can in fifty years build the original sum in his personal name back, all tax free. After fifty years he or his family can possess, in fee simple, $100 million in free new assets and also control the disposition of the original $100 million in the foundation, which may satisfy legal requirements by using its small income to assist crippled newsboys or homeless dogs.

Company

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:01 pm

"Company" is an icy-cold saga of organized crime in Mumbai. Like "A Bittersweet Life" that also was shown at this year's Asian Film Festival, the tragedy flows from a gangster's decision to act morally. In the topsy-turvy world of the mob, showing mercy is a tragic flaw.

At the beginning of the film, we meet Chandu (Vivek Oberoi) and his gang. Until recently, they have been involved with petty crimes in the Mumbai slums. But because of Chandu's obvious charisma and street smarts, he is recruited by a big-time gangster named Malik (Ajay Devgan). Just as India's booming legitimate business has created a demand for labor, so has an increase in criminal activity led to people like Chandu being wooed like MBA's.

The film traces Chandu's rapid rise in Malik's syndicate that is always referred to as "the Company". Both his mother (Seema Biswas) and his wife (Manisha Koirala) understand that his "job" is with the mob, but they accept it as a way of deliverance out of poverty. When Chandu shows his mother around the new and well-appointed apartment he has purchased for her, it is obvious that she is proud of her son, even if his success was achieved through violence.

Unlike other films in this genre ranging from "Godfather" to "Goodfellas," there is very little attention paid in "Company" to the mechanics of crime. Indeed, it is not very clear how Malik's operation actually generates income although old-fashioned extortion seems to be at the heart of it. After the gang relocates to Hong Kong, we do see a number of big businessmen being executed after they refuse to heed Malik's demands for a payoff.

Chandu goes along every step of the way until he is ordered by Malik to carry out a hit on a local politician requested by his corrupt rival in parliament. At the very last minute, when Chandu discovers that the target's children will be killed along him in a kind of collateral damage, he backs out. In this world, however, such a decision has consequences. Eventually, Chandu's fears that he will be killed himself for refusing to carry out orders leads him to carry out a preemptive strike against an associate, even though the gangster was simply trying to act as an intermediary. This act generates a spiraling series of attacks and counter-attacks that will remind you of the conclusion of the Godfather movies, but without making any effort to represent either side as more justified than the other. Coppola's mafia operates on the basis of some kind of feudal warrior ethic, but director Ram Gopal Varma looks at his protagonists more in terms of the business world with its emphasis on the bottom line. As Malik and Chandu carry out their bloody vendetta, they keep mourning the fact that the Company is not what it used to be.

Among the legitimate businesses that the Company has sunk its tentacles into is the Indian film industry. A good part of the film describes the efforts of Malik to cultivate ties with directors and actors in "Bollywood" productions. He seems motivated as much by fandom as he is by a desire to make money.

As it turns out, screenwriter Jaideep Sahni was simply reporting on developments then taking place in India as the South China Morning Post reported on October 8, 2003:

India's 20-billion-rupee (HK$ 3.4 billion) Bollywood film business is in the grip of organised crime. That oft-repeated rumour and accusation was finally given credence through the conviction by a Mumbai court last week of millionaire diamond merchant and film financier Bharat Shah.

"The police have been saying for many years that the underworld has made inroads into the Hindi film industry," said Maharashtra State Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal. "That stands proved now."

Shah was sentenced to one year's imprisonment for concealing information about an extortion racket targeting top film personalities run by an overseas crime syndicate. But since he had already served 14 months in jail, he walked free.

He was acquitted, however, of the more serious charge of being linked to the Mumbai gangster Chhota Shakeel (Little Shakeel), now operating from the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Shah's producer and an assistant were found guilty of underworld links and jailed for six years.

Although few people have met Shakeel, his shadow loomed large over the dramatic, 15-month-long trial. The prosecution, for instance, produced 32 taped telephone conversations between Shakeel and Bollywood notables, including Shah.

Unable to refute the taped evidence, Shah's lawyer told the judge: "Several film personalities have talked to Chhota Shakeel over the telephone. What I am trying to say is that everybody in the film industry is acting under pressure."

India's film business is the world's largest, annually producing around 900 feature films. More than a quarter of these are churned out by Bollywood's dream factories, mostly dewy-eyed melodramas packed with romance, action and lavish musical numbers.

Until recently, however, the government denied Bollywood the official status of an industry, depriving filmmakers of bank loans and keeping corporate investors away.

Producers had little option but to borrow money at high rates from shady businessmen. But a box-office slump in the late 1980s made access to even this kind of finance difficult and brought in organised crime. Gangsters jumped at the opportunity to rub shoulders with film stars.

It is to the credit of the Asian Film Festival curators that they have selected Indian films that are trying to break new ground. Unlike the typical Bollywood film, the four selections have "no singing, no dancing, no mercy." Director Ram Gopal Varma is an outspoken advocate of shaking up the Indian film industry and understands that there is no problem learning from the West, as the occasion arises. When Time Magazine asked him,"What's the future for Bollywood?," he responded:

There's going to be a massive change. A lot of old filmmakers are going to go out of business. Anyone who looks at a film as a formula of one song, two comedy scenes and three action scenes, who doesn't look at the totality of the film, is lost now. Anyone who follows the old prudish traditions, of showing a bush's shaking leaves when they mean people are f—ing behind a tree, is gone. And anyone who doesn't follow the West is gone. For many people in the business, their pride won't let them. But following the West is not surrendering. Following the West, the best of the West, is following originality. Western innovation is superior, and I think we're just beginning to understand that. With my films, I'm targeting the urban multiplexes, the sophisticated media-savvy young crowd. Frankly, I couldn't give a f— for the villages.

June 24, 2006

Ek Hasina Thi

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

For the average cinemaphile, Indian film means either Bollywood epics like "Lagaan" or art movies like "Water." Three screeners graciously made available to me from Subway Cinema, the main organizers of this year's Asian Film Festival in New York, are exceptions to this rule. They are all meant mainly for the local Indian market and address "law and order" themes such as the kind made familiar in Hong Kong cinema. Indeed, the promo page for this film on the festival website describes it as "No Singing, No Dancing, No Mercy."

Last night I watched "Ek Hasina Thi" (There Was a Beautiful Woman) and can happily report that, as is the case with already reviewed Korean, Japanese and Chinese films from this year's festival, India is maintaining the level of excellence I have learned to expect from this part of the world.

Sarika (Urmila Matondkar) is a single woman working as a travel agent in Mumbai. Obviously wary of men in general, she threatens to report her next door neighbor to his wife when he makes unwanted advances on her.

When the handsome Karan (Saif Ali Khan) shows up the next day to book a flight to Frankfurt, she is just as put off by his advances. She refuses a dinner date with him, but finally relents to have tea. He is not easily dissuaded, however, and pursues her relentlessly until she finally breaks down and invites him up to her apartment. In no time at all, they become lovers. But in the back of her mind, there must be a sense that this extremely macho and extremely wealthy man is not to be trusted. However, as is usually the case when you fall in love, you leave your critical faculties at the door.

A couple of weeks into their relationship, Karan asks Sarika to entertain a friend who will be in Mumbai for business. Since he will be out of town himself, he needs somebody to make him feel at home. After Karan's "friend" arrives at her apartment, she makes him a cup of tea which he does not even finish. He announces that he has a business appointment and will see her later in the day.

Up until this point, the film is a fascinating study of sexual politics in contemporary Mumbai, but it shifts gear immediately after Sarika turns on her television an hour or so after the stranger has left, only to discover that he was actually a hitman who was killed during a job.

As she watches the news report on the killing, Karan phones her and pleads with her to get rid of the man's suitcase. She is too much in love and too much under this domineering male's thumb to question him or to even go to the cops. In fact, the cops have come to her. As she is walking down the steps to dump the suitcase, she is confronted by a group of Mumbai's finest who haul her down to the station after discovering that the suitcase is filled with guns and other incriminating evidence.

After Sarika is arrested as an accomplice to the hitman, Karan sends his lawyer to the jail in order to persuade her to leave his name out of it. We soon learn that Karan is a big-time gangster himself and will sacrifice her to stay out of jail. After they convince her that she will do less than a month for the offense if she pleads guilty, Sarika is shocked to discover that she must spend seven years in prison with no chance of early release.

At this point, the film becomes an Indian version of the classic women behind bars flicks of the 1950s, but made far more interesting by director Sriram Raghavan's decision to avoid all the clichés associated with this genre. Suffice it to say that Sarika discovers that she was betrayed by Karan and his lawyer and plots revenge.

From the moment she escapes, the film hurdles forward at a breakneck pace. You feel tremendous sympathy for the wronged Sarika and cheer for her as she foils gangsters and cops alike. As is the case with the Korean "A Bittersweet Life," the Indians have a far better ability to make hair-raising thrillers and for probably a lot less money than the supposed experts in Hollywood.

Interestingly enough, despite his obvious flair for action melodrama, Raghavan told interviewers at rediff.com that two of his favorite directors are Abbas Kiarostami and Krzysztof Kieslowski, who are best known for making art films. One can't possibly imagine Jerry Bruckheimer paying tribute to such artists, let alone having seen their work. I suppose that is part of the reason that Hollywood stinks so bad.

 

Getting under a Timesman’s skin

Filed under: media,racism — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm

NY Times, June 24, 2006

About New York Squeegee Men, Still Around, Still Relentless

By DAN BARRY (in photo to the right)

THE intersection of West 41st Street and Dyer Avenue ranks among the least attractive corners of Manhattan, all bus exhaust and Lincoln Tunnel traffic. The surrounding concrete-and-fencing motif creates a sense of temporary incarceration, with only a sluggish green light to grant parole.

Lingering there Thursday were those simply trying to make a buck. The forklift operator unloading watermelon with balletic turns at the back of Stiles Farmers Market. The construction worker dabbing his trowel like a paintbrush on a canvas of wet cement. And the two men wielding a different kind of utensil with similar aesthetic intent: a squeegee.

“There’s an art to it,” one of the men, Rodney, confided as a green light liberated potential customers. “The faster you are wiping the soap and water off the window, the gooder you are. The fastest can get two or three a light.”

He and his partner, Timothy, referred to themselves as window washers, which might offend those who risk their lives for the viewing pleasure of penthouse dwellers. They both claimed to have been practicing their craft since 1980, which, if true, would entitle them to some kind of squeegee pension, if not a city proclamation for audacious endurance.

Squeegee men? How, how, so last century. It was as if they were unaware of their own extinction: a dodo’s fate that began more than a decade ago with the eradication efforts of an annoyed Mayor David N. Dinkins and then a zealous Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who somehow made them the symbol of a city slouching toward ruin.

Few recall them fondly (squeegee men, that is, not necessarily former mayors). At red lights they violated the space of your Ford or Toyota, slapped gray water on the windshield, interpreted frantic pantomimes of “No, no” to mean “More, more,” wiped away most of the gray and then waited for the pressed buttons of undefined guilt to eject a dollar through a side window’s slit.

They were the city’s unofficial greeters, standing at its portals with squeegees for flags and buckets of dirty water for confetti — until, suddenly, they vanished, dispersed by persistent policing of what the city’s administrative code calls “certain forms of aggressive solicitation.” One or two practitioners resurfaced a few years ago, just long enough to stir some silliness that their presence signaled a crime spike, a lax City Hall, Armageddon.

Amazement, then, rather than nostalgia, prompted a noontime pause to watch Rodney and Timothy in the execution of their rounds. Their retro street theater included acts of traffic-dodging contortion, clownish spills of water and facial expressions that ranged from puppy dog to attack dog.

“We don’t rob, we don’t steal, we don’t sell narcotics,” said Timothy, a sleepy-eyed reed of a man wearing a Yankees jersey. “We wash windows.”

The light turned red and he hustled out to splash soapy-soupy water onto the windshield of a cherry-red sport utility vehicle. His efforts prompted a series of crazed hand gestures within the car that perhaps he interpreted as applause.

Moments later there came fluttering from a side window a small flag of surrender the color of green.

Then Rodney, as brawny as Timothy is thin, took his turn with a gray Honda, only to come away with a sulk suggesting that the driver had failed humankind. “If they say no, don’t do it,” he advised. “You know what? There’s more than one car.”

Soon a white S.U.V. with New Jersey plates found itself being blessed with New York water by Pastor Rodney. “A buck for good luck,” he said, smiling, as the driver pulled away, not.

Rodney and Timothy both reeked of something potent, perhaps an especially bad batch of Old Spice. Now Timothy, swaying slightly, was standing in the middle of Dyer Avenue, directing the traffic that raced desperately to avoid a red light and thus his squeegee.

A blue Grand Cherokee lost the race, and Timothy tried to soothe it with strokes of his slobbering squeegee. The driver, though, wanted no part of Timothy’s cheap comfort and told him so with gesture and word.

“Come on, man,” Timothy shouted, his sleepy eyes awakening with anger.

Soon, though, he was washing another car’s window, oblivious to the green light and the sounding of horns. That was when Rodney ran over to help finish the job. “That’s called teamwork,” said Rodney.

For each window sullied and unsullied, these squeegee throwbacks received one dollar: way too much and yet not enough, it is a toll collected at the intersection.

Email: dabarry@nytimes.com

After reading this, I wrote to Dan Barry:

“Those squeegee guys don’t stink half as bad as your American Psycho/yuppie prose.”

Dan Barry’s reply (apologies for his illiterate lower-case):

wow. i bet you spent all morning coming up with this: nonsensical, with a touch of aggression, and reflective of your failure to read the piece to the end.

all in 14 words.

if you have a cogent point to make, i’ll respond more seriously.

My response:

“Go see the documentary on Giuliani.”

His reply (he must have figured out where the shift key was on his computer keyboard):

Go read the reams of stories I wrote about Giuliani as City Hall bureau chief. Some of them probably helped to inform the foundation for the movie — especially anything about his lousy relations with black leaders in this city. Then go read the many columns I have written about the homeless, the chronically inebriated, the disenfranchised. Then go read my memoir if you’re not yet tired, and find out why “yuppie” is a kneejerk and thoroughly wrong thing to call me.

Enough. Hang in there. Take care.

My final response:

Odd, I couldn’t find anything in the documentary that sounded remotely like this:

The New York Times, October 14, 1998, Wednesday, Late Edition – Final

Day of Adulation in Life of a Dues-Paying Mayor

By DAN BARRY

He began yesterday by reading a children’s book about his homeric mayoral stamina to a cluster of adoring schoolchildren in Manhattan, then ended it by attending the New York Yankees playoff game in the Bronx. But in between, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani managed to make a 90-mile side trip — not to one of the city’s other three boroughs, but to Bethlehem, Pa., a tired steel city in the Lehigh Valley.

The out-of-state stop was purely political in design, a concept not reflected in “A Day in the Life of a Mayor,” the inspirational book that Mr. Giuliani had shared with youngsters shortly before leaving New York City. On this day, a more apt title to the book might have been: “A Day in the Life of a Term-Limited Mayor Currying Favor With Party Bigwigs.”

Then again, a certain innocent appeal would have been lost.

As the Bethlehem Catholic High School band played “Soul Man,” Mr. Giuliani passed under an arc of balloons to speak at a get-out-the-vote rally for local Republicans. Only about 100 people came to a 283-seat hall at Lehigh University for the event, leaving plenty of empty chairs for party loyalists to place their campaign placards. Still, those who did attend gave the guest speaker from New York City a standing ovation, as he once again explained how Republican philosophies had helped him to reduce crime and restore hope.

The visit was Mr. Giuliani’s third out-of-state political trip in as many weeks, the others being to Miami and to Los Angeles; he has also recently traveled to Iowa, South Carolina and Wisconsin, as well as Buffalo. His wanderings serve three purposes: to help fellow Republicans, to try to persuade Republican officials to choose New York City as the host city for the party’s national convention in 2000, and to raise his national profile as he considers his own political future.

But woe unto those who question whether these travels might distract the Mayor from his municipal responsibilities.

“When I’m there I work 24 hours a day,” Mr. Giuliani said, after his speech in Bethlehem yesterday afternoon. “I think my work week has gone from 90 hours a week to 85. I don’t think there’s any risk that the people of New York City are going to worry about how hard I’m working. You go find anyone who works as hard as I do and introduce them to me.”

His comments could have been lifted from the text of “A Day in the Life of a Mayor,” a recent addition to “The Kids’ Career Library Series” that was written by Liza N. Burby. Other books in the series recount the days in the lives of a park ranger, a professional golfer and a sculptor; but the publication of those titles probably did not receive quite as much promotion.

Squeezing himself into a child-sized desk at Public School 234, on Greenwich Avenue between Warren and Chambers Streets, the Mayor turned to a bank of television cameras and about 25 children to begin the reading. He wore a microphone on his lapel, while an aide stood at the ready with a second microphone, just in case one of the children said something cute enough to be captured for posterity.

The book details some of the demands of a particularly difficult job. It describes Mr. Giuliani as waking up each day at 6 A.M., working through lunch, rushing to disasters, finding little time to himself. “During emergencies, the Mayor makes decisions and tries to calm the people of the city,” the book says.

At times, however, it reads like a plea for Mr. Giuliani’s beatification, or at least like a campaign brochure in the disguise of a primer. He is praised for broadcasting his own weekly radio program (“Even though he’s very busy, Mayor Giuliani makes time to do the show.”), even for holding basic staff meetings (“After all, he can’t be everywhere all the time — even though he’d like to be! These meetings help Mayor Giuliani solve problems quickly and effectively ih-FEK-tiv-lee “).

“Mayor Giuliani won two four-year terms,” it says toward the end. “In that time, he has worked hard to cut crime and create new jobs. He loves being Mayor and that he is able to make a difference in people’s lives.”

After finishing his reading, Mr. Giuliani asked whether any of the students would like to be mayor of the city one day. “It’s too much work,” one child answered. “You have to take care of everybody.”

With that validation, the Mayor rushed off to catch a privately chartered jet, provided by Pennsylvania Republicans, to Bethlehem. Awaiting him there was a small but enthusiastic crowd, eager to hear about his urban heroics.

“We’d been looking for a high-profile Republican to come down,” said Mike Crochunis, a spokesman for Pennsylvania’s Republican state committee. “He’s kind of like the Republican who has made Republican principles work in the biggest city in the country.”

With that sort of praise ringing in his ears, Mr. Giuliani headed back to New York City for the rest of a day in the life of this Mayor.

UPDATE (Sent to Barry and the NY Times editor)

Dear Mr. Barry,

I found your anthropological observations on “Pastor Rodney” and “toll” collection at intersections neither clever nor insightful; just smug, supercilious and deeply contemptuous of folks who make more honest a living than some columnists churning out meaningless drivel for a self-absorbed audience.

I don’t live in New York, but coming from New Delhi, where armies of women and children with dirty rags descend upon the motorists at every intersection, I am well aware of what you are talking about. If you are bothered by smelly people forcibly collecting money for unwanted services, you are better off training your guns at the US state using its military might to divert our money to large corporations through this hugely unpopular war. You have far more odious people there, extracting far more money with far graver consequences.

-Shalini Gera Hayward, CA

June 23, 2006

The Sting

Filed under: repression — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

A British citizen who was arrested last August in a sting operation pleaded not guilty Friday to federal charges that he plotted to sell shoulder-fired missiles that he knew were to be used against commercial airliners in the United States, as well as a so-called dirty bomb, to people he believed to be terrorists.

The man, Hemant Lakhani, 69, a London resident of Indian ancestry, entered his plea Friday before Judge Katherine S. Hayden of Federal District Court. The judge ordered that he continue to be held without bail pending an April 26 hearing on pretrial motions.

NY Times, January 10, 2004

In May, a New York cabdriver from Afghanistan was arrested after asking an undercover agent questions about buying enough explosives to blow up a mountain. Prosecutors labeled him dangerous and suggested he might be a terrorist.

Yesterday, the cabdriver, Sayed Abdul Malike, pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Brooklyn to making false statements to F.B.I. agents when he denied during law enforcement interviews that he had been asking about explosives. But he told the judge that there was an innocent explanation.

NY Times, January 24, 2004

About two years ago, a young man using the screen name "akagunfighter" joined a local Islamic Internet chat room.

His real name was Ryan G. Anderson, and he could hardly have been less welcome.

Anderson was arrested yesterday by U.S. Army officials, who say the 26-year-old National Guardsman attempted to communicate and provide intelligence to the al-Qaida terrorism network…

Several sources familiar with the investigation have said Anderson was arrested following a sting operation and that no information was ever passed to the enemy.

Seattle Times, February 13, 2004

Four men have been arrested on suspicion of terrorist offences following a sting operation organised by a Sunday newspaper, police said last night.

Three men were seized in a "pre-planned" operation by officers from the Metropolitan Police's anti-terrorist branch at a hotel in Brent Cross, north London on Friday. The fourth man was arrested later at his north London home.

The sting was set up after a News of the World reporter, posing as a "Muslim extremist", infiltrated a gang which was allegedly trying to buy radioactive material for an unnamed Saudi Arabian man.

The newspaper's investigations editor, Mazher Mahmood, went undercover after claiming to have received a tip-off that a Saudi sympathetic to "the Muslim cause" was willing to pay pounds 300,000 for a kilogram of powerful, radioactive "Red Mercury". The chemical is said to have been developed by Soviet scientists for "briefcase nuclear bombs", but, said the newspaper, "scientists are divided over whether any actually exists".

The Independent, September 26, 2004

ARMED POLICE with bomb-sniffing dogs guarded the federal courthouse in Newark, New Jersey, yesterday as an Indian-born British businessman stood trial accused of attempting to smuggle surface-to-air missiles into the United States to shoot down airliners.

More than a year after Hemant Lakhani was arrested in a hotel suite close to Newark airport on charges of plotting to sell weapons to an alleged terrorist cell in the US, he faces a trial that may last at least 10 weeks. If convicted, Mr Lakhani of Hendon, north London, could face 25 years in prison.

At the time he was arrested, President George Bush hailed it as an advance in the "war on terror". "We got a significant arms-dealer and a dangerous terrorist," the President said. "This is a major step in the global war against terrorism."

Just how significant a catch 70-year-old Mr Lakhani really was will be a focus of the trial. Apparently, he has no criminal convictions and no known ties to terror groups. Friends in London have described him as an ageing Del Boy, after the character in the TV programme, Only Fools and Horses, with a talent more for bungled business deals than international intrigue.

The Independent, January 5, 2005

A Yemeni cleric and an aide who helped finance terrorist groups are as dangerous as the al Qaeda and Hamas terrorists who commit vicious attacks, a federal prosecutor told jurors Thursday.

"Although these defendants did not strap on bombs or fly planes into buildings, they are indispensable to the people who do," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Pamela Chen in closing arguments in the trial of the two men, who were arrested in an FBI sting. "Without the defendants, the terrorists couldn't exist."

Sheik Mohammed Ali Hassan Al Moayad, 56, and his assistant, Mohammed Mohsen Yahya Zayed, 31, are accused of providing material support to U.S.-designated terrorist groups and of conspiracy to provide material support, among other charges. The white-bearded sheik, who comes to court in long robes, was arrested in Frankfurt, Germany, in January 2003. He traveled there to collect a $2.5 million donation for terrorist groups, prosecutors alleged.

The donor was an FBI agent posing as an American sympathizer, and the meeting was a law enforcement sting.

Washington Post, March 4, 2005

IF a mentally disturbed individual, envisioning a nonexistent technology, offers to sell an imaginary bomb to a lawman posing as a member of al-Qaida, is he guilty of attempting to aid and abet foreign terrorists?

In the case of Ronald Allen Grecula, arrested in Houston by FBI agents last week, the answer will determine whether he faces a 15-year prison sentence and a fine of up to $ 250,000.

Grecula, 68, certainly talked the talk in taped conversations with a federal informant and undercover agent, spinning tales of explosives that could level whole city blocks. He likened himself to the Roman rebel Spartacus and repeatedly said he hated the United States and wanted to help its enemies.

The roots of the terrorism case against Grecula go back to his imprisonment in 2002 on the Mediterranean island nation of Malta, where he was arrested for kidnapping his two children from an estranged wife. Grecula told a cellmate he wanted to sell bombs to make money and hire a hitman to kill the wife. After both were released, the former cellmate stayed in contact and eventually notified authorities of Grecula's schemes. The man lured Grecula to meet with the bogus terrorists in Houston, where he was arrested and charged.

Houston Post, May 28, 2005

A martial arts expert from the Bronx and a doctor from Florida have been arrested on charges that they conspired to train and provide medical assistance to Al Qaeda terrorists, federal and local authorities said yesterday.

The men, United States citizens who were identified by the authorities as Tarik ibn Osman Shah of the Bronx and Rafiq Sabir of Boca Raton, were captured in early morning raids in the Bronx and in Boca Raton on Friday, according to Paul J. Browne, a New York City police spokesman.

The arrests came as part of a two-year sting operation that ended with each man facing a single conspiracy charge. While the authorities said that they had no evidence that either man had actually provided support to terrorists, they said they had taped each man swearing his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, Mr. Browne said.

The New York Times, May 30, 2005

The arrest of 17 terrorism suspects in Canada is part of a continuing, multinational inquiry into suspected terrorist cells in at least seven countries, a U.S. counter-terrorism official confirmed Sunday.

The senior U.S. law enforcement official said authorities were combing through evidence seized during raids in Canada this weekend to look for possible connections between the 17 suspects arrested Friday and Saturday and at least 18 other Islamist militants who had been arrested in locations including the United States, Bangladesh, BosniaHerzegovina, Britain, Denmark and Sweden.

The investigation began as separate probes into what authorities believed were localized cells of militant Muslim young men who shared an interest in radical ideology on the Internet and, to a lesser extent, in local mosques and training camps…

Canadian authorities have charged the suspects with various terrorism-related offenses and allege that they had accepted delivery of three tons of the fertilizer ammonium nitrate, which can be combined with fuel to make an extremely powerful bomb.

The Toronto Star, citing unnamed sources, reported that the fertilizer was delivered to the suspects as part of an undercover police sting. When the deal was completed, the anti-terrorism task force moved in to arrest the suspects, the newspaper said. Royal Canadian Mounted Police spokeswoman Michele Paradis would not comment on the report.

Los Angeles Times, June 5, 2006

 

FBI agents backed by state and local law enforcement cordoned off an area of Liberty City, Fla., and made several arrests on Thursday as part of what U.S. officials called a significant terror-related investigation.

There was no immediate threat to Miami, officials said. Formal details on the raid, which apparently focused on a warehouse, were to be released by U.S. officials at news conferences set for Friday in Miami and Washington.

About 20 FBI agents arrived on the scene. They were backed up by state and local police officers.

In a prepared statement, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami said the arrests were made "as part of an ongoing investigation into a terrorist-related matter.

"The individuals arrested posed no immediate threat to our community."

One law enforcement source said authorities arrested seven people who allegedly were conspiring to conduct attacks in the United States _ but that there was no immediate threat.

Five of those arrested are U.S. residents, one is a resident alien and one is an illegal alien, the source told the Miami Herald on condition of anonymity.

Citing an investigation before Thursday's raid, the source said the group talked about an attack on the Sears Tower in Chicago and the FBI building in Miami _ but that they had no "overt explosives or other things."

The group thought that they "were doing (the attacks) in conjunction with al-Qaida" but were really dealing with" undercover law enforcement, the official said.

It was "pretty much talk, we were on top of them," the source said.

Miami Herald, June 22, 2006

June 22, 2006

Welcome to Dongmakgol

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

After halting its anti-North propaganda, South Korea's Unification Ministry has agreed to begin showing some North Korean news programs on its own Web site for local audiences. In recent weeks, the two Koreas have established a new telephone hotline linking their militaries.

North and South Korean athletes will march together under one flag next month at the Athens Olympics. And South Korean economic investment in the North, once mostly limited to a tourism resort near the border region of Mount Kumgang, is now expanding into industry.

–Washington Post, "As Tensions Subside Between Two Koreas, U.S. Strives to Adjust; Thaw Strains South's Alliance with Washington", July 25, 2004

Given these new realities, it should not come as a big surprise that South Korean movies have begun to look at the North in a new way. Evidence of that was on display in "Welcome to Dongmakgol," a film set during the Korean War and shown as part of this year's excellent Asian Film Festival in New York.

Like this year's "Joyeux Noël", "Welcome to Dongmakgol" is a pacifist film about fraternization. What makes it unusual is that it reconciles the opposing sides of the Korean War, a plot that would have been inconceivable in decades past. It also depicts the U.S, as an intrusive bully bent on causing civilian casualties to achieve its geopolitical ends. Obviously, the audience might make the connection with a more recent war as first-time director Park Kwang-hyun does:

It was through the Iraq war that I saw the cruelest violence of war. In this film, I don't favor one side over another and do not hate anyone. I just want people who create war and violence to know the most important thing. Even in the smallest villages, which can easily be ignored, people live there who have hot blood running through their hearts.

–The Desert Sun (Palm Springs), January 11, 2006

Park's film is focused less on individuals than it is on the dynamics between three separate groups: a band of four North Korean soldiers trying to return home, two South Korean soldiers who have become detached from their units (one is a deserter traumatized by his role in blowing up a bridge filled with war refugees), and the bumpkins in a remote mountain village that they stumble across. In addition, there is an American flyer whose plane has crashed nearby and is being nursed by the innocent villagers, who have no idea that a war is going on.

When the soldiers discover each other in Dongmakgol, they face each other off in the village square like gangsters in a John Woo movie. Since they have run out of bullets, there is not much damage that can be done. Unfortunately, they are still armed with hand grenades, one of which–assumed to be a dud–is tossed in the direction of a small corn silo. When it blows up, the corn is transformed into popcorn which falls into the mouths of the always cheerful villagers, who always see the good side of things and of people. It must be mentioned at this point, if it is not glaringly obvious already, that Park is heavily influenced by magical realism. This is a film in which butterflies make frequent appearances and where the village madwoman serves as a kind of one-person Greek chorus commenting on the insanity of war (yes, the film also evokes Philippe de Broca's "King of Hearts".)

Acknowledging their role in destroying the village's corn, the soldiers volunteer to dig potatoes and pitch in with other chores. Early on they exchange their uniforms for peasant togs, an act that prepares them psychologically for dumping their war-induced xenophobia. Eventually they begin to see other without prejudice and even band together in an ultimately self-sacrificing act on the village's behalf.

To the surprise of the film industry, "Welcome to Dongmakgol" became the fourth-highest grossing movie in Korean history and was their Oscar submission last year.

Although it is a failure in cinematic terms, another South Korean release echoes reconciliation themes. When I saw a critic's screening of "Typhoon," the most expensive film in South Korean history, a couple of months ago, I was disappointed by this plodding sea-going espionage thriller. It is the tale of a North Korean who has become a pirate bent on taking revenge against both the North and the South for their role in denying his family refuge and sending them back to the North. Only he and his sister, children at the time, escape a deadly ambush by North Korean soldiers. He becomes a pirate and she becomes a prostitute and drug addict in Russia. The film centers on his plotting and attempts to reunite with his sister.

After the brother buys radioactive material from the Russian mob that he plans to strew across the South from helium balloons controlled by radio transmitters, the only thing that stands in his way is a band of hardy commandos led by a South Korean version of James Bond that storms the pirate's ship during the typhoon of the century. If this all sounds rather cartoonish, it is because it is. Of note is the final hand-to-hand combat between the pirate and the commando on the sinking ship. When the hero has finally killed the bad guy, he says that in another life the two would have been good friends–in other words, the same exact message of "Welcome to Dongmakgol". Like this film, it depicts the U.S. as little more than a malevolent intruder into Korean affairs.

A February 12, 2006 South China Morning Post article titled "Koreans embrace reelpolitik" sums up the cultural and political sea change now taking place:

Basically, North Koreans were evil. With Korea's democratisation, things changed. A screenplay censorship body, part of the powerful Public Ethics Committee, was phased out in the 1980s, granting filmmakers greater freedoms.

The breakthrough film was 1990's The Southern Guerillas. Although they meet a nasty fate, the film featured partisans in Korean war-era South Korea. The main characters with whom the audience identified were all North Korean. The second landmark was Shiri. Unlike The Southern Guerillas, it portrayed modern-day North Koreans. They were shown with not just humanity, but sympathy – even glamour.

The film received the co-operation of the South's National Intelligence Agency. Noted film buff Kim Jong-il, North Korea's leader, reportedly acquired a pirate copy.

The changing portrayal of North Koreans on screen reflects changing perceptions of their brother nation among South Koreans.

As late as the 1970s, North Koreans were depicted in school textbooks as horned devils. Propaganda was eased after democratisation; further major changes took place after long-time opposition leader Kim Dae-jung won the presidency in 1997.

Seoul toned down its confrontational policies against North Korea, opting instead for engagement.

"Since Korea democratised, the true facts about North Korea have become known. We know that their economy is on the verge of collapse, and we have overcome the haunting fear of the Korean war," said Kim Geun-tae, a parliamentarian with the ruling Uri Party.

"I cannot emphasise too much the importance of transparency in South Korea," Mr Kim, a contender for the party's leadership and a future presidential hopeful, continued. "North Korea is no longer our competitor. We have out-competed them, and now it is time to move forward."

June 21, 2006

The Great Yokai War

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

Takashi Miike is not only one of Japan's most interesting film directors; he is also one of the most prolific. Since 1991 he has directed more than 60 films for theater and television. Like South Korea's Kim Jee-Woon, Miike works in just about every genre imaginable. In fact, Miike demonstrated a real affinity for the Korean director by remaking "The Quiet Family," a black comedy about a suicide epidemic at a bed-and-breakfast, as "The Happiness of the Katakuris." He has also directed "Dead or Alive," a gangster film that shares the baroque excess of Kim Jae-Woon's "A Bittersweet Life." These are two directors who have little use for "Less is More" esthetics.

When I learned that Miike's latest film was made for children, I was eager to see how this master of the macabre would put his own particular stamp on the work. Shown at this year's Asian Film Festival, "The Great Yokai War" can be grouped with "Fellowship of the Ring", "The Chronicles of Narnia," and "The Wizard of Oz." It is the classic tale of a humble hero, often a child, who goes off on a quest against Evil.

The hero of "The Great Yokai War" is Tadashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a 10 year old boy who has been chosen to become the Kirin Rider, a warrior that will save mankind from the forces of darkness led by the wizard Kato (Etsushi Toyokawa) and his disciple Agi (Chiaki Kuriyama), a slinky woman in skin-tight white clothing who bears a striking resemblance to the robot in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Indeed, Kato's realm shares the Faustian machine-age qualities of Lang's dystopia. Kato has devised a way to transform the dead bodies of 'yokai' (benign ancient demons) into mechanical monsters that look like those that took over the planet in the Terminator films. As might be obvious at this point, "The Great Yokai War" is a pastiche of Hollywood films, but transformed into something uniquely Miiki-esque.

The first yokai Tadashi meets is a 'sunekosuri', a small, cuddly, furry creature that looks like a second cousin to the Mogwai in "Gremlins". Through most of the film, Tadashi walks about with the sunekosuri wrapped across his head like a fur hat. It is an image that expresses Miike's characteristically deadpan humor and one that subtly subverts the pomposity of this genre, so much in display in the Tolkien films.

As a group, the yokai have the same sort of endearing clownishness as Dorothy's henchmen in "The Wizard of Oz." They include a red-furred sprite who even looks like the Cowardly Lion and a geisha-like creature whose neck extends from her body like a huge snake. When her head finally comes within an inch of Tadashi's face, she licks his face erotically, another sly touch from Miike.

If all this were not enough, "The Great Yokai War" is filled with images that spring from the surrealist classics of Jean Cocteau or Luis Buñuel. The yokai include a speaking door with a mouth and two legs as well as an umbrella man that looks like–well–an umbrella man. Not only do these creatures appear otherworldly, they often use the same kind of pretzel logic as the characters in "Alice in Wonderland." This certainly is a children's film, but one that is not afraid to be disturbing. This, of course, was what made the Grimm brothers' stories so memorable. As opposed to the homogenized pap coming out of Dreamworks, Asian film once again demonstrates its superiority.

June 20, 2006

A Bittersweet Life

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:59 pm

Kim Jee-Woon is one of South Korea's more interesting directors, working in different genres at a uniform level of excellence. His "A Tale of Two Sisters" is a ghost story in the "Ring" tradition, while "The Quiet Family" is a black comedy about a Korean version of the Addams family that moves to the country to run a bed and breakfast. When guests feel inspired one after another to commit suicide in the house, they work overtime to conceal the bodies.

"A Bittersweet Life," his latest, was included in this year's Asian Film Festival in New York. It is a gangster noir in the John Woo tradition that includes familiar elements: a mob enforcer with a conscience, vendettas that spiral out of control and choreographed fight scenes.

In the topsy-turvy world of the Korean underworld, tragedy ensues when a hero decides to act morally. A tragic flaw in this world is not murder, but the refusal to commit murder. Like Huck Finn, who decides to help a runaway slave in defiance of all that is "good" in a slave society, the hero of "A Bittersweet Life" only decides to buck the system as a last resort.

Sun-woo (Byung-hun Lee) is a mob enforcer who has been ordered by his boss Kang (Yeong-cheol Kim), the owner of a hotel called "La Dolce Vita" (!), to keep an eye on his young girl-friend, an accomplished cellist, while he is out of town. If she cheats on him, he must kill her and the lover.

In keeping with Sun-woo's tightly-wound and taciturn character, he does not reveal his growing fondness for the boss's girl-friend either to her or to himself. Despite his rather soft features, he is the quintessential warrior who lives only to serve his boss and to fight. When he eventually discovers the lover at the girl-friend's house, he cannot bring himself to killing them. He only beats up the lover and warns them never to see each other again. To his astonishment, she lashes out at him even though he has spared her life. Since he has never been in love himself, nor even had much experience with women, his surprise is understandable.

When Kang discovers that his underling has disobeyed his orders, he sends out a hit squad to get rid of him. This leads to an escalating series of show-downs that finally culminates in a rousing gun-battle that will more than satisfy any fan of this genre. The main problem with "A Bittersweet Life" is the inability of the main character to express any emotion beyond a desire for revenge. Unlike some of John Woo's memorable heroes, usually played by the gifted Yun-Fat Chow, Sun-woo is a one-dimensional killing machine. In a John Woo film, a relationship would have developed between the enforcer and the girl-friend but Kim Jee-Woon seems much more interested in combat than in human relationships.

This is not to say that such relationships do not occur. There are strong ties between Sun-woo and the boss Kang, who functions as a kind of father figure. At the climax of the film, as Sun-woo holds a gun to the chest of Kang, there is a moment when it seems that he will spare his life out of filial feelings. That does not last, however.

In the concluding moments of the film, Soon-woo reflects on his life: "One morning, the disciple had a dream and woke up in tears. The master came into his room and asked, 'Did you have a sad dream?' The disciple replied, 'No, I did not have a sad dream' The master then asked, 'Then why do you weep in such sorrow?' The disciple replied, 'Because it is a dream that will never come true.'"

If "A Bittersweet Life" ever makes it to a theater in your city, it is definitely worth seeing. Although Hollywood has an undeserved reputation for making action movies, Asian cinema is the place to go for sheer visceral entertainment.

June 19, 2006

A Second Look At The Folk Music Revival

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 1:56 pm

A Second Look At The Folk Music Revival

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald: The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA., 2005, ISBN 0-306-81407-2, 246 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)

David Hajdu: Positively 4th Street, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001, ISBN 0-374-28199-8, 328 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)

(Swans – June 19, 2006) The publication of Bob Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One invites further explorations into the folk revival. In preparing a review of Dylan's luminous memoir for Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy29.html), I read two other books to understand the backdrop. They will now be reviewed here as a follow-up.

One is Elijah Wald's The Mayor of MacDougal Street, an 'as told to' memoir by Dave Van Ronk, a pioneer of the folk music revival who was dying of cancer while the memoir was being written. Despite approaching mortality, Van Ronk's good humor and vitality suffuses the entire book. A life-long socialist, Van Ronk nearly never wrote or sang topical songs. But his memoir reveals him to be an astute surveyor both of American society and of his own modest but important role in catalyzing social change through folk music.

The other is David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street, a study of the relationships between Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and between Richard Fariña and Mimi Baez Fariña, Joan's younger sister. Fariña died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and his wife died of cancer in 2001. Hajdu's first book, a biography of Billy Strayhorn, demonstrated an uncommon ability to place a musician into his or her cultural and social context. While all the portraits drawn by Hajdu are compelling, I will focus on that of Richard Fariña, who is an interesting contrast to Dave Van Ronk.

Although Hajdu's Dylan is the sneering, hostile figure made familiar in the Pennebaker Cinéma vérité "Don't Look Back," the Chronicles reflects a mellower and wiser figure generous to a fault to everybody who he encountered on the way up, most especially Van Ronk:

Dave Van Ronk, he was the one performer I burned to learn particulars from. He was great on records, but in person he was greater. Van Ronk was from Brooklyn, had seaman's papers, a wide walrus mustache, long brown straight hair which flew down covering half his face. He turned every folk song into a surreal melodrama, a theatrical piece — suspenseful, down to the last minute. Dave got to the bottom of things. It was like he had an endless supply of poison and I wanted some . . . couldn't do without it. Van Ronk seemed ancient, battle tested. Every night I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a timeworn monument. Dave sang folk songs, jazz standards, Dixieland stuff and blues ballads, not in any particular order and not a superfluous nuance in his entire repertoire. Songs that were delicate, expansive, personal, historical, or ethereal, you name it. He put everything into a hat and — presto — put a new thing out in the sun. I was greatly influence by Dave. Later, when I would record my first album, half the cuts on it were renditions of songs that Van Ronk did. It's not like I planned it, it just happened. Unconsciously I trusted his stuff more than I did mine.

Van Ronk was born in 1936, an age that gave him some proximity to the tumultuous changes wrought by the Great Depression, including a labor movement that remained restive until the late 1940s. His initial musical affinities, however, were not with the social protest music of a Woody Guthrie or a Josh White but with traditional or Dixieland jazz. Despite lacking a golden throat, his first gigs were as a singer. It was sheer volume that opened up doors, especially in low-rent clubs lacking a sound system. As some wit put it, to quote Van Ronk, "When Van Ronk takes a vocal, the hogs are restless for miles around."

Of course, the folk revival was in itself an attempt to redefine what was beautiful. For every singer with an angelic voice like Joan Baez's, there were others who got by on sheer personality, like Bob Dylan. For a generation that had become jaded by white rock-and-rollers like Pat Boone, having a raspy but genuine instrument was more than adequate. Although there are very few sound tracks on the Internet (other than the 20-second clips at amazon.com) that capture Van Ronk in performance, author Elijah Wald does include Take A Whiff on Me, (http://www.elijahwald.com/whiff.ram) which he describes as a "taste of how Dave sounded in his formative years, around the time he was recording his first Folkways album." It is essential Van Ronk, combining superior guitar technique, unabashed enthusiasm and a keen sense of phrasing — essential for any vocalist.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy38.html

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