Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 30, 2007

Ingmar Bergman 1918-2007

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:34 pm

When I arrived at Bard College in 1961, some of the greatest film-makers of the 20th century were in their prime. It seemed that every month a new film by a Kurosawa, a Bunuel or a Truffaut would show up at the movie theater in Red Hook, a nearby town. But the most eagerly anticipated films were those of Ingmar Bergman who died today at the age of 89. Films like “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Wild Strawberries” and “The Magician” made such an impact on me that I devoted my freshman year “field period” (an intersession that was meant for independent study or internships, etc.) to a reading of Bergman’s screenplays. I was captivated by the kind of dialogue found in “The Seventh Seal,” a film I watched for the first time in over 40 years on the Turner Classic Movie channel a few months ago. Here is a conversation between the Knight Antonius Block (Max Von Sydow), who has lost faith, and the angel of death:

Antonius Block: I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.

Death: But He remains silent.

Antonius Block: I call out to Him in the darkness. But it’s as if no one was there.

Death: Perhaps there isn’t anyone.

Antonius Block: Then life is a preposterous horror. No man can live faced with Death, knowing everything’s nothingness.

Death: Most people think neither of death nor nothingness.

Antonius Block: But one day you stand at the edge of life and face darkness.

Death: That day.

Antonius Block: I understand what you mean.

Although “The Seventh Seal” was made in 1957, it really didn’t hit its stride in the US until the early 1960s. This was when Bergman was at the top of his game. His tales of religious angst and men and women failing to communicate struck a chord with the more literate sectors of American society who had adopted existentialism and psychoanalysis as articles of faith. His films were the natural counterpart to the sort of books that were required reading at Bard College, from Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” to Camus’s “The Rebel”. Bergman’s films were steeped in gloom and preached salvation through faith, even if it was not the conventional faith of the Sunday morning sermon.

By the time that the Vietnam War and the Black rebellion in the US were in full swing, Bergman’s films were a bit passé. A new generation of mostly American film-makers was much better at capturing the contemporary social upheaval such as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” or “The Godfather.” A family drama like Bergman’s 1972 “Cries and Whispers” that took place in a gloomy mansion in the late 1800s almost seemed like self-parody to me, although the critics loved it.

One of Bergman’s biggest fans was Woody Allen who aspired to the Swedish master’s moral and psychological profundity without ever really carrying it off. His 1978 “Interiors” even had a title that sounded like something Bergman would come up with, not to speak of the plot which involved a dysfunctional family. Variety newspaper probably spoke for most critics when it said:

“Interiors” also looks like a Bergman film. Characters are photographed against blank walls, Keaton’s discussions with her analyst appear almost to be a confession into the camera. And the final third of Interiors was shot near the ocean in Long Island and looks like the Swedish island on which Bergman has photographed so many of his films.

Although I had trouble taking the message of the “The Seventh Seal” very seriously when I saw it on TCM a couple of months ago, I remained in awe of Bergman’s cinematography. The climax of the film, which shows a number of the major characters in a dance of death across a hilltop, still sends shivers down my spine. If nothing else, Bergman was a true poet.

While Bergman’s films do have a somewhat dated quality, they have achieved the status of classics. Fundamentally, they are about the longing for transcendence in a society that debases all human relationships and turns everything into a commodity including love itself. In the 1950s, when Bergman was finding himself as an artist, there was a deep sense of pessimism about the power of human beings to transform their world for the better. Unlike the 1930s, intellectuals sought escape in mysticism or adopted existential stances in order to cope with alienation.

Bergman shied away from interviews but in 1964 he made an exception for Playboy Magazine. These words might serve as a credo for what he was trying to get across in his films. Obviously, they will remain relevant in whatever type of society one lives in:

What matters most of all in life is being able to make that contact with another human. Otherwise you are dead, like so many people today are dead. But if you can take that first step toward communication, toward understanding, toward love, then no matter how difficult the future may be – and have no illusions, even with all the love in the world, living can be hellishly difficult – then you are saved. This is all that really matters, isn’t it?

Of course, the big question is how we are to be saved. For those of us who were transformed by the stormy 1960s, that mission will be carried out through the collective efforts of humanity and not a capricious deity.

July 29, 2007

Two documentaries of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:35 pm

A couple of documentaries have come my way that are worth considering. The first of these is “Escape to Canada” courtesy of Disinformation, a left-of-center film distribution company based in Canada. The other is “Primo Levi’s Journey,” which begins a theatrical run at Quad Cinema on 8/17/2007.

“Escape to Canada” is a salute to the Great White North after the fashion of “Sicko” but concentrates on three of Canada’s other assets besides health care–namely gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana and providing a haven for GI deserters from the war in Iraq. Directed by Albert Nerenberg, it is mixes affirmation of 60s counter-culture and cutting-edge political issues. There is a tendency to flatter Canadian bourgeois politicians by comparing them favorably to George W. Bush that borders on Canadian nationalism, but all in all it demonstrates that things are a bit more civilized to the North. The film presents Canada as the ultimate Blue state, to use the political categories operative in the USA. You generally get the impression that the average Canadian shares the values of Madison, Wisconsin students and professors and there’s nothing wrong with that.

On July 20, 2005 Canada became the fourth country in the world to sanction gay marriage. The film profiles Michael Hendricks and René Leboeuf whose successful law suit knocked down existing homophobic institutions. They were married on 1 April 2004 and many USA’ers now go to Canada to become “legal”. That was around the same time that the state of Massachusetts and the cities of San Francisco legalized gay marriage as well. The White House went on a big campaign for “family values” that resulted in retreats across the board in this country. However, despite attempts to organize a “pro-family” movement in Canada, the legislation remained intact. It have been interesting to hear a deeper analysis of why Canada is less fertile ground for religious fundamentalism, but the documentary tends to shy away from such a thing. It is mainly content to tell a lively story in a humorous manner, which is all to the good.

Besides Hendricks and Leboeuf, the other major character dealt with in the film is Marc Emery, the publisher of Cannabis Culture magazine. Emery was a leader of the legalize marijuana movement in Canada that won a significant victory in 2004 but that was eventually reversed. The film makes it clear that the same kinds of forces that operated from south of the Canadian border to oppose gay marriage were at work to make the weed illegal as well. Emery was arrested on July 29, 2005 by the Canadian cops, who were acting on a request from the US DEA who claimed that he was selling marijuana seeds in the US. He now faces life in prison and has become a symbol of Canadian sovereignty. In keeping with its determination to tell lively stories about sympathetic characters, the film does not get into Emery’s libertarian politics. Emery was a founder of the Freedom Party in Ontario that describes itself as in the tradition of Ayn Rand. They oppose bans on drugs, pornography, prostitution, and etc. but advocates privatization of health care–something at odds with Michael Moore’s vision of a more civilized society.

* * * *

I was particularly interested to see “Primo Levi’s Journey” because I knew next to nothing about him except for the fact that he had been a prisoner at Auschwitz and wrote about his experience there in works like “The Periodic Table” and “The Drowned and the Saved.” The film, however, is connected to a lesser-known work–“The Truce”–that Levi wrote after WWII ended. It is a kind of journal that tracks his circuitous journey along with other Italian ex-concentration camp survivors across Eastern Europe, the USSR and eventually back to Italy under the auspices of the Red Army. Interspersing excerpts from Levi’s book, Director Davide Ferrario follows the route that Levi took and interviews a wide variety of people whose lives have been impacted by the end of socialism. Since Ferrario has been connected professionally with experimental directors ranging from Rainer Fassbinder to Poland’s Andrzej Wajda, it is not surprising that the film has a rather oblique quality. Although it is an artful work, it is really not the place where one will find a straightforward narrative of Levi’s life, nor an analysis of the changes that have taken place in the former USSR and the Eastern bloc.

Now that I have begun to get a better handle on Levi’s life and career (he died at the age of 68 in 1987 from a fall down the stairs at his house, probably an accident rather than suicide), I can understand why Ferrario was drawn to his life and work. Levi was very much the intellectual and the observer. His written work was a protest against man’s humanity to man, but it is not put forward as a “solution” to the Jewish question. Unlike other men and women who are associated with the “holocaust industry”, as Norman Finkelstein puts it, Levi was a secular Jew before and after Auschwitz. Moreover, he never saw Israel as a haven against Nazi-like violence–to the point that he signed a statement in 1969 with other well-known intellectuals. When his long-time supporters took exception to this, he stated “Everyone is somebody’s Jew,” and that the “Palestinians are Israel’s Jews.”

There is little doubt that Ferrario is appalled by the end of socialism, despite his refusal to editorialize. He allows Andrzej Wadja to hold forth on the evils of Communist Poland, but this is more than counter-balanced by the voices of ordinary peasants in Moldavia and Belarus who feel that they have been screwed. In the press notes, Ferrario is asked, “After making this film, what is your Idea of Europe?”

He answers, “Very contradictory. Where capitalism (and sometimes democracy) is setting its roots, all that has to do with the past is swept away. Globalization makes everything all the same everywhere.”

That is the message that “Primo Levi’s Journey” communicates, but without hitting you over the head with it.

July 27, 2007

The Housing Question

Filed under: real estate — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

My apartment building

Alison Rogers, the author of “Diary of a Real Estate Rookie,” was asked by salon.com: “Why are we so fascinated by real estate?” She answered:

It’s a sport. It’s like a way of watching baseball where we can see the standings. It’s voyeurism and gossip and social standing and architecture and beauty.

That is why the New York Observer’s real estate section has become one of the paper’s most attention-gathering sections. The paper was once published by insurance magnate Arthur Carter, as was the Nation Magazine. Under his watch, the Observer could be counted on for gossip about the left, including the Nation Magazine’s Eric Alterman who was described in an Observer article as having a “brainy-little-kid quality, with large fish-like eyes behind glasses.”

Under the new owner Jared Kushner, a Zionist with connections to the ultra-orthodox Lubavitcher sect, that tradition continues in–oddly enough–the real estate articles of Max Abelson who reported on July 10th that the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party, a couple by the name of Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters, just sold their West Village loft for $1.8 million. Abelson writes:

If bow-tied, cigar-mouthed Republicans can have nice seven-digit, six-room co-ops, don’t a few old Manhattan communists deserve multi-million-dollar real estate, too?

A two-bedroom loft at 380 West 12th Street, a 109-year-old building on a cobblestone block by the Hudson River, was sold by American socialist leaders Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters. Their buyers, a Sony BMG Music Entertainment vice president and his fiancée, Stephanie Jakubiak, paid $1,872,500.

In analyzing the significance of all this on the SWP mailing list on Yahoo, Richard Fidler pointed out that this was just a case of senior party members enjoying a customary perk:

As I recall, the SWP, looking ahead to their retirement years, purchased condominium apartments that were inhabited by senior staff comrades. In my days in New York, in the mid-1970s, there were a number of older comrades living in such condos on the Lower East Side. These were comfortable but not luxurious apartments in modest high-rise buildings, typical working-class accommodation in that city. But, as I understood it, they belonged to the party, de facto, even though the title may have been registered in the names of individuals.

I once visited some of these “senior staff members” at their apartment in Chelsea, no doubt paid for by my dues. It belonged to resident philosopher George Novack and long-time feminist and anthropologist Evelyn Reed and was not far from my studio apartment in the West 20s. As I recall, it was a cozy one-bedroom that would probably go for $2700 per month today. Evelyn made us watercress sandwiches and gin-and-tonic as we gossiped about personalities in the Trotskyist movement of the 1930s like James Burnham. I felt like I had stumbled into Dorothy Parker’s round table at the Algonquin Hotel.

I could never imagine myself ever living like them. I was 23 years old and dead-sure that the US would become socialist by no later than 1980, 1985 at the latest. I could care less about where I was living and only saw it as a place where I could crash after a full night of antiwar organizing. In my studio apartment, I had a mattress on the floor and a canvas director’s chair and that was sufficient.

Ten years later I had grown tired of not having a place I could call home. I had been pressured into leaving New York City and making the “turn to industry” in Kansas City, my birth place. It turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. One morning as a spot welder was all I needed to convince me that this was not for me. When the turn was first announced, somebody reassured me that I could still be a member of the party if it didn’t work out. When George Novack had washed out of a defense plant, the SWP was quite forgiving. As one of the few genuine intellectuals in the party, there was a place for him. With the super-proletarian atmosphere in the party in the late 1970s, it was clear that there was no place for me. Not that I was a genuine intellectual. I had dropped out of graduate school in 1967 and had never written for the party journal. If I would ever find the time to write anything, it would be the Great American Novel. As should be obvious, I was a slave to illusion even then. If it wasn’t socialist revolution by 1985, it was becoming the next Hemingway. I have learned to settle on being Louis Proyect living under capitalism, snarling at the ruling class all the while. The rewards are much more modest, but at least they can be relied upon.

After saying goodbye to the SWP in late 1978, I moved back to New York and found a beautiful and spacious apartment in a subsidized Mitchell-Lama building on the Upper East Side that I could finally call home. I have been there ever since but face being priced out after the building opted out of the program in 1998. My rent was $640 when I moved in and is now $2300. Despite having an income of more than $100,000 per year (I make $75k and my wife makes about $25k as an adjunct professor), we face being forced out of Manhattan. In some ways, my situation is not that different than those who are being forced out of their homes by the real estate shake-out nationwide. They are victims of a credit bubble, while I am a victim of New York being transformed into a playground for hedge fund managers.

Five years ago I could have bought my apartment at an insider price of $299k. It is now priced at over $700k on the open market. I would have made a killing like Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Water but I simply couldn’t afford it. My mother was still in her house upstate, maintenance for which was costing me about $300 per month on average, my wife was not working, and I had vain hopes that my rent wouldn’t skyrocket after the building exited Mitchell-Lama.

Each day I read the NY Times to find new reports about tumbling real estate prices–everywhere except in New York of course. Five blocks from my building on the corner of 86th Street and 3rd Avenue a new high-rise building called The Colorado is under construction. A huge billboard at the site advertises two-bedroom apartments starting at $1.8 million, the same price that Jack and Mary-Alice sold their condo for.

As part of the class struggle, real estate has a way of impacting peoples’ lives in a fundamental way–where they live. When it comes to jobs, it is somewhat easier to bamboozle the worker–especially in white collar positions like my own. If you get a shitty raise or get fired, it is your own fault. You didn’t “perform” well enough. For blue collar workers, there is no pretense involved. You will lose your job because General Motors needs to improve its bottom line. With housing, you get more or less the same thing. The landlord will raise the rent or the bank will foreclose because it needs to protect the bottom line. It doesn’t really matter to them if you are on the street after living in the same place, as I have been, for the past 28 years.

In the 1930s, long before there were massive trade union struggles, the resistance of working people to eviction manifested itself. On June 3, 1931 the heading of a NY Times article read:

44 Reds Arrested in Eviction Protest
Police Surprise Band of 100 Moving Dispossessed Family Back into Tenement
East Side Crowd Watches
Communists Sing “Internationale” While Undoing Marshal’s Work
All Freed in Night Court

By contrast, today’s foreclosures meet with virtual no resistance. Perhaps that will change when the tempo of the foreclosures steps up.

In another astute observation on workers, socialism and housing, Richard Fidler referred to a series of articles in the SWP newspaper from the 1980s when it was still somewhat readable:

One was ideological: a confusion between what you propose as a social solution for society, and what you may be inclined to do as an individual in actually existing capitalist America. I was reminded of this back in the 1980s when Doug Jenness wrote a series of articles in The Militant on the housing question, based largely on Engels’s wonderful pamphlet on that issue. Doug argued that workers were crazy to buy houses. His argument was not based on the practical economics of home ownership (e.g. the tax deductions for mortgage interest Walter [Lippmann] refers to – something we don’t have in Canada), but rather on the Marxist critique of private home ownership, and the need for social housing, to be regarded as a social right not a property right. Great argument, but as advice for individual workers it substituted abstract theory (“program”) for real life realities.

Turning to Engels’s “The Housing Question,” there’s still a lot that sounds current especially the following, which will assume more and more weight as the housing crisis deepens and a Hillary Clinton takes over the White House:

It is perfectly clear that the existing state is neither able nor willing to do anything to remedy the housing difficulty. The state is nothing but the organized collective power of the possessing classes, the landowners and the capitalists as against the exploited classes, the peasants and the workers. What the individual capitalists (and it is here only a question of these because in this matter the landowner who is also concerned acts primarily as a capitalist) do not want, their state also does not want. If therefore the individual capitalists deplore the housing shortage, but can hardly be persuaded even superficially to palliate its most terrifying consequences, then the collective capitalist, the state, will not do much more. At the most it will see to it that the measure of superficial palliation which has become standard is carried out everywhere uniformly. And we have already seen that this is the case.

July 26, 2007

Hong Kong and Japanse films from 2007 NYAFF

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

In offering the following comments on the one Hong Kong and four Japanese films I saw as part of this year’s Asian Film Festival in New York (I have already written about Chinese and Korean films), I understand that there is only an outside chance that they will be shown in theatres or become available through rentals. However, I do offer them as a reminder of the creativity and intelligence of films off the beaten track. If it weren’t for documentaries and foreign films, I doubt that I would ever have gotten involved with film reviewing, even as an avocation.

Hong-Kong

Directed by Soi Cheang, “Dog Bite Dog” is exactly as the name implies–a brutal struggle between a bad guy and Hong Kong cops. Unlike other films in this genre, Cheang is not interested in showing the more picturesque sides of Hong Kong. Instead he focuses on the seamy underbelly, from garbage dumps to the grimy back lots of warehouses and factories. With unredeemable characters on either side of the law, the ugly scenery serves as the perfect visual backdrop.

Pang (Edison Lee) is a hit man imported from Cambodia who has spent his childhood fighting other children in a grotesque version of “tough men” contests in the U.S. Bred like pit bulls, the boys are kept lean, mean and hungry. Pang, a survivor of many matches, has moved up in the world and now shoots people for a living. In the opening scene at a restaurant, he opens fire on the wife of a Hong Kong lawyer. Still haunted by the gnawing hunger of his youth, Pang wolfs down the food off her plate as she lies dead at the table.

Pang in full combat mode

Pursued by Hong Kong cops in the streets near the restaurant, Pang reveals himself to be a ruthless and efficient killer. Using knives and guns, he leaves one dead cop after another in his wake. Finally, he eludes his pursuers and flees to the outskirts of the city where he happens upon a vast garbage dump, which looks for all practical purposes like an actual Hong Kong garbage dump. There he spots a hut inhabited by a man and woman who apparently make their livings as scavengers. Looking through the window, Pang discovers them having sex. It will soon be obvious that he finds the woman named Pei Pei (Weiying Pei) totally irresistible despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she is as grubby as him.

After the man is done screwing Pei Pei, he demands a meal. When she responds a bit slowly, he begins cursing and beating her. In showing another side of his character, Pang comes to her rescue and chokes the man to death. But as a creature of habit, he cannot show the woman the affection he obviously feels and proceeds to bully her into becoming his accomplice. He is mainly interested at first in getting help in finding the next boat out of Hong Kong. Since he doesn’t speak a word of Chinese, he can only communicate by drawing pictures (one is of a boat, a leitmotif throughout the film), hand gestures or the occasional slap.

The remainder of the film involves their growing affection for each other and finally their love. When the cops hold the woman as hostage, Pang defies the odds to rescue her. No matter how evil he is, we feel sympathy for him in his willingness to sacrifice everything for the woman he loves. As symbols of Asia’s most marginalized social layers, they only struggle for a normal life. Like Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables”, they have to fend off cops bent on bringing Pang to justice. The most determined of them is Wai (Sam Lee), the son of a crooked cop who is trying to redeem his father’s lost honor through his own heroism even when it means breaking departmental rules.

In many ways, this film is simply a reworking of Hong Kong policier traditions handed down from John Woo to Johnnie To. Virtuoso performances by Edison Chen and Sam Lee, who bring a kind of primal intensity to their roles, separate this film from the pack. This is especially true of Edison Chen, whose character really has no lines in the entire film. He must express his feelings through facial expressions, just like in a silent film, and he does it very well.

Japan

While released separately, “Death Note” and “Death Note: The Last Name” are essentially two parts of the same movie. Based on a best-selling manga (comic book), it tells the story of a law student named Light Yagami (Tetsuya Fujiwara) who stumbles across a notebook lying in the street one day that belonged to Ryuk, a god of death. When he takes it home, he discovers that it will allow him to cause the death (heart attack is the default) of anybody whose name is written in the book. As the son of the chief of police and a law student, Light is preoccupied with criminals getting off with a light sentence or going free like O.J. Simpson. Like the Charles Bronson character in the old “Death Wish” movies (but without his guts), Light proceeds to dispatch dozens of criminals by heart attack each day. He becomes known as Kira, the avenger god.

Light Yagami and Ryuk, from the original manga

Ryuk the death god, a 12 foot computer-generated figure, is Light’s constant companion and is one of the most interesting characters in the film. Like the rabbit Harvey who could only be seen by James Stewart, Ryuk is visible only to Light or anybody else who touches the notebook. He has a sardonic sense of humor and a fondness for apples. He accompanies Light everywhere he goes offering critical support for his vigilantism. But when Light begins to kill cops who are on his trail, Ryuk begins to be repelled by his young master and accuses him at one point of being more bloodthirsty than the god of death himself.

Light Yagami is a totally bloodless character. Although he has convinced himself that he is on a mission to uphold justice, he seems more like the youthful killers Leopold and Loeb, who were dramatized in “Compulsion.” They too were law students who turned to crime out of a thirst for power. Like them, Light is a fan of Nietzsche and is seen at one point in the film with his nose buried in “Man and Superman.”

There’s a fascinating article on the Death Note manga in today’s Salon. I concur thoroughly by this observation made by the author Douglas Wolk:

The core of the creeping fear in “Death Note,” actually, is its moral uncertainty: Most of its characters perpetually struggle with doubts over whether they’re doing right or wrong. Light is an unrepentant serial killer, a butcher on an enormous scale, but he isn’t a Freddy Krueger, a monster who represents pure evil, or a Patrick Bateman, a demonic symbol of his age. As coldly manipulative and egomaniacal as he is, he genuinely believes he has the moral high ground, and he sort of has a point — Ohba suggests that Light’s totalitarian world, ruled by a propagandistic TV channel and an arbitrary secret executioner, is in some ways a better, happier world than ours. And over the course of the series, we see glimpses of how the Death Note could be far worse in someone else’s hands; in the books’ only really weak sequence, a corporation acquires a Death Note of its own and uses it to prop up its business interests (by committee, no less).

Like “Death Note”, “Freesia: Bullet Over Tears” is based on a manga. Additionally, it deals with killing as an act of redress. In a future Japan, professional executioners licensed by the state carry out ritual revenge killings. The intended targets are allowed to hire their own armed defenders, also licensed by the state. These killings serve to release pressure in a society that is coming apart at the seams. The ritual might remind one of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” a short story that was required reading for high school students in the 1950s. There are constant riots in the street by people with all sorts of grievances. The cops run from one outbreak to another like the Keystone Cops. Time and place are announced on television and hit-squads descend on a street to ferret out their victims, who are usually pretty bad people who have escaped arrest and imprisonment–just like the characters who succumb to Death Note’s heart attacks.

Mr. Kanou

The film revolves around one of these professional killers, a Mr. Kanou (Tetsuji Tamayama) who is in his twenties and as bloodless as Light Yagami, even more so. Throughout the entire film, Kanou is totally indifferent to danger. Indeed, he is indifferent to just about everything, having been a victim of an army experiment that left him stripped of feelings.

The film is somewhat limited by Kanou’s lack of emotion, but moves along crisply nonetheless through set pieces involving combat between rival squads of executioners as well as being visually striking.

Finally, some words about “Memories of Matsuko,” a film that has the visual “snap, crackle and pop” of the manga-based films discussed above but that is derived solely from the hyperactive visual imagination of director Tetsuya Nakashima. Like his “Kamakazi Girls,” shown at the last New York Asian Film Festival, Nakashima’s latest is filled with pop art/camp sensibility flourishes. Typically, when the main character Matsuko, a woman who is abused by men her entire life, has hooked up with the latest heel, little cartoon bluebirds appear above their heads while an off-screen chorus sings a saccharine love song. Nakashima is heavily into irony, to say the least.

When the film begins, Matsuko Kawajiri (Miki Nakatani) has just died. She was an obese bag lady who is living in a garbage-filled tenement apartment who was murdered by an unknown assailant on the shore of a nearby river that she haunted. Her brother, who leads a conventional middle-class existence, sends his son out to her apartment to clean out the garbage. While there, he comes across various newspaper clippings and old letters that reveal the true story of this woman in a fashion reminiscent of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.”

It turns out that Matsuko was a beautiful young woman who had a good job teaching school. One day, when some money turns up missing, the principal accuses one of her students, a sullen and hostile creep, of theft. In an attempt to cover up for him, Matsuko “borrows” money from another teacher to make up for the stolen funds but gets caught in the act. Not only does she lose her job, the student she was trying to protect tells her to piss off. He was not interested in her protection and would be happy being punished.

From that point, everything goes wrong in Matsuko’s life. She hooks up with a nonstop procession of gangsters, pimps and psychotics who beat her at the drop of a hat. So dependent is she on the attention of a man that she cries out at one point that she would rather be beaten than be alone. Suffice it to say that this is not a very appetizing subject matter for a film, even if the abuse is presented in a black comedy fashion not unlike Terry Southern’s “Candy.”

I found this film thoroughly distasteful but compelling in an odd way. Whatever you want to say about this and the other Japanese films discussed here, they are certainly not interested in lulling the audience with a false sense that everything is right in the world.

July 24, 2007

Life-style of communist leaders?

Filed under: real estate,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 11:37 pm

a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.

–Max Horkheimer

NY Observer, July 15, 2007
Communists Capitalize on Village Sale—Get $1.87 M. for Loft
by Max Abelson

If bow-tied, cigar-mouthed Republicans can have nice seven-digit, six-room co-ops, don’t a few old Manhattan communists deserve multi-million-dollar real estate, too?

A two-bedroom loft at 380 West 12th Street, a 109-year-old building on a cobblestone block by the Hudson River, was sold by American socialist leaders Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters. Their buyers, Sony BMG Music Entertainment vice president Ole Obermann and his fiancée, Stephanie Jakubiak, paid $1,872,500.

 

Jack Barnes

“I don’t want to hurt the sellers’ feelings at all, but they definitely had a funky style in terms of how they did the apartment,” said Mr. Obermann. That means there are sliding stained-glass doors, plus a wall of bookshelves. (Ms. Waters is the president of publishing house Pathfinder Press, which publishes Marx and Trotsky, and Mr. Barnes, too.)

Mary-Alice Waters

“Personally, our tastes are different and we’ll probably do something different,” the buyer said. “It will be open, airy, simple, whereas when it was done 15 years ago there was a lot of light-colored wood shelving.” He’s adding six or so wireless speakers, “a nice music system.”

Edward Ferris of Brown Harris Stevens was the listing broker.

It isn’t clear when Mr. Barnes and Ms. Waters bought the place or how much they paid, but city records date back to 1993, when apartments were massively cheaper.

Unlike most people in six-room lofts, Mr. Barnes once met with Kim Il-sung, the late North Korean president. The leader “conversed with the guests in a cordial and friendly atmosphere and arranged a lunch for them,” a report published by the BBC in 1990 said. “US Socialist Workers’ Party, led by its National Secretary Jack Barnes … presented him with a gift.”

So what is the couple like? “We only met Mary-Alice, and she was incredibly friendly, interesting, had a nice warm way about her, seemed like a very nice woman,” Mr. Obermann said. “She mentioned she really liked to cook, they would have friends over—it’s like a social space.”

Slavery, technical innovation, and the sugar plantation

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 12:04 am

Verene A. Shepherd and Veront M. Mitchell: see capitalism and slavery as intertwined

In the concluding paragraph of my last post on the role of sugar in the transition to capitalism, I alluded to the spread of new technology in the sugar plantations of the British Empire. By comparisons, the “high farming” estates of the British countryside were quite modest. Except for the introduction of turnips and clover in three-field crop rotation, floating meadows and Jethro Tull’s seed drill, British farms were not particularly innovative and when they did incorporate these innovations (which were actually very beneficial from the standpoint of sustainability), it was at the expense of profit. If such farms were the leading edge of capitalism, it was a very odd capitalism indeed.

The anthology “Working Slavery, Pricing Freedom,” edited by Verene A. Shepherd, includes an article by Veront Satchell titled “Innovations in sugar-cane mill technology in Jamaica.” The book evolved out of a series of seminars at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. Shepherd and Satchell are Afro-Caribbeans who are obviously much influenced by the work of fellow Afro-Caribbean Marxists CLR James and Eric Williams. This trend starts off on a completely different premise than Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. Rather than seeing the forced labor and trade monopolies of the mercantile period as “pre-capitalist”, they see it as a necessary first stage in the development of capitalism, a period that Karl Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation.” The high farming of the British countryside belongs to this period as well. Classical Marxism, including the work of Maurice Dobb, always saw it this way. It is only in the Brenner thesis that the colonial world becomes unimportant.

Satchell gets straight to the point in the opening paragraph of his article:

A popularly held view by Marxists and some economic historians is that slavery impeded or retarded technological changes. Innovations, they argue, were incompatible with slavery. This incompatibility thesis is rooted in the prevailing assumption that technological change is synonymous with technologies that are aimed at saving labour. According to the argument, then, in a slave society such as Jamaica’s, with an assumed abundance of cheap coerced labour, it would be improvident to introduce labour-saving devices, as this would result in a displacement of labour. Such displaced labour, without work to fill the resultant leisure time, would engage in revolts and other acts of violence. Since there was not much evidence of the implementation of labour-saving inventions (and given the assumption that an absence of these meant an absence of technical progress), the theory concludes that slavery negated technical change.

This chapter is a contribution to the general debate on slavery and technological changes or innovations in slave societies. By presenting an analysis of empirical evidence of technological innovations which were adopted and adapted to sugar-cane mills in Jamaica during the period 1760-1830, the technical capacity of this Caribbean slave society is highlighted.

In accordance with Sidney W. Mintz, Satchell views the sugar plantation as a factory set in a field. Within this agrarian factory, the vertical three-roller crushing mill was the key machine, as essential to its operation as the cotton gin was to the textile mill. As seen in the drawing below from the late eighteenth century, this was a far more complex piece of machinery than any found on large British farms.

The most complex piece of machinery during the “agrarian revolution” was Jethro Tull’s seed drill seen below.

In keeping with the economic rationality of the sugar plantation, a sword was kept close to the crushing mill in case a slave’s hand got cut in the rollers. It was better to lose a hand than stop production. Arguably, the workers involved with the crushing mill had much more in common with Charlie Chaplin in “Modern Times” than any field hand on a British farm during the same period.

Between 1760 and 1830, the Jamaican Legislature passed 49 bills granting patents for improved methods in sugar and rum production. Of these, 34 were for innovations in the infernal sugar crushing mills. It should be said that there were also many agricultural patents at the same time in the mother country, but they were mostly concerned with how to prepare manure or improve irrigation. Machinery patents were in the distinct minority. The most important patents in Jamaica were undoubtedly those that involved the application of steam power to the sugar mill. It would take at least 30 years for steam power to be as important in the British textile mills, a cornerstone of the industrial revolution.

Eventually they even came up with an invention that would prevent workers’ hands from getting caught in the crushing mill. The so-called “dumbturner” was a circular screen that was attached to the upper and lower frames of the roller and that fed the cane into the crushing mills. The slave owners were forced to devise such a critical part for social and political reasons. Due to the efforts of the British abolitionists, the supply of slave labor had slowed to a trickle. In keeping with the economic rationality of supply and demand, it made more sense to save a slave’s hand. One wonders if the sugar plantation owner had more of a sense of their long-term class interests than the American ruling class that is fighting socialized medicine tooth and nail.

In keeping with the interesting findings in Cliff Conner’s “People’s History of Science,” Satchell reveals that many of the patents were the inspiration of artisans working on the mills, most of whom were slaves rather than scientists off in a laboratory. The slaves themselves occupied a sort of netherworld between abject field work and free labor. Satchell writes:

Nevertheless, slaves were the principal artisans, and they worked in foundries. My considered view here is that the slaves actively participated in inventing new techniques and equipment pertinent to the sugar industry. My position is based on two premises. First (as stated before), slaves were the principal artisans in the island. In Jamaica there was a paucity of White artisans, so there developed an almost total reliance on the artisan slaves. Planters relied heavily on slave labour for all aspects of plantation life; it is for this reason that Douglas Hall concludes that the slave was a ‘multi-purpose tool’.33 Barry Higman notes that at the time of emancipation in 1834 compensation was paid for 17,873 artisan slaves, representing 5.74 per cent of the total slave population. These included blacksmiths, millwrights, coopers, wheelwrights, masons, plumbers, carpenters, coppersmiths and engineers.

Many of these slaves came from an area of Africa that had a highly sophisticated understanding of metallurgy. The West African coast, from which most Jamaican slaves originated, had developed complex skills in working iron and became blacksmiths in the Americas, either free or slave. Their activities included the manufacturing and repair of machinery, as well as making arms and ammunition. One sugar planter reported that his slaves “perform all manner of foundry work the greater portion of which cannot be performed by any other establishment in the island.” Indeed, as the former slaves of Cuba would eventually discover, they could do all this without the plantation owner himself.

July 22, 2007

Sweetness and Power

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Sugar cane: more crucial for the transition to capitalism than turnips?

Despite Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s best efforts to strictly limit primitive accumulation to the “agrarian revolution” in Great Britain as way of setting the stage for capitalism in one country, Marx’s words are rather unambiguous on the matter:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.

From now until the end of the summer, I want to take a close look at what Marx refers to as the “chief momenta.” This will involve a close examination of slavery, sugar production, silver mining, the opium trade, etc.

Sugar in particular occupies an important place in the early stages of capital accumulation in Europe since it, like tobacco and tea, for the first time makes available to the masses what had formerly been a strictly luxury good. Arguably, it is far more important than the turnip–with all due respect to Jethro Tull and company. With their tendency to become addictive, sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, etc. create an extremely dynamic market. As Warren Buffett once observed, “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.”

For an analysis of the role of sugar in the rise of capitalism, there is probably no better source than Sidney W. Mintz’s “Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History,” a book that I keep coming back to. Mintz, who was born in 1922, was part of a group of left-leaning anthropologists who studied with Julian Steward and Ruth Benedict at Columbia University. Two of the well-known Marxists, besides Mintz, who received PhD’s were Eric Wolf and Stanley Diamond.

Sidney W. Mintz

As was the case with Jim Blaut, Mintz’s sensitivity toward to the poor and the oppressed in the colonial world helped ground his research. In January 1948, he went to live with a young sugar cane worker in a shack in Barrio Jauca in Puerto Rico, where he developed a fascination with sugar and with the lives of such workers:

All the time I was in Barrio Jauca, I felt as if we were on an island, floating in a sea of cane. My work there took me into the fields regularly, especially but not only during the harvest (zafra). At that time most of the work was still done by human effort alone, without machines; cutting “seed,” seeding, planting, cultivating, spreading fertilizer, ditching, irrigating, cutting, and loading cane— it had to be loaded and unloaded twice before being ground—were all manual tasks. I would sometimes stand by the line of cutters, who were working in intense heat and under great pressure, while the foreman stood (and the mayordomo rode) at their backs. If one had read about the history of Puerto Rico and of sugar, then the lowing of the animals, the shouts of the mayordomo, the grunting of the men as they swung their machetes, the sweat and dust and din easily conjured up an earlier island era. Only the sound of the whip was missing

Mintz sketches out the early consumption of sugar, which was a commodity as precious as gold. When the Venerable Bede died in 735 A.D., his fellow monks inherited his trove of spices, including a package of sugar. Besides its tastiness, sugar–like salt and other spices–had importance as a preservative. That is why it was important to the Venerable Bede and the average European. Until the “discovery” of the Americas, sugar was a luxury imported good from the East that was largely confined to the ruling classes. In 1288, the royal household consumed 6,258 pounds of sugar. (Does this explain the hit-or-miss quality of the British smile, one wonders.)

When the British East India Company was chartered in 1660, one of its chief goals was to increase tea imports into Great Britain. A century later tea was the drink of choice in Great Britain, even more popular than malt liquor–and considerably cheaper. The rural poor had used malt liquor to moisten their bread, but a tax on malt made it relatively expensive. Meanwhile, factory workers relied on tea and sugar for a jolt that could help them keep pace with the rigors of the assembly line.

Tea, by comparison to malt liquor or gin, was cheap. You just needed sugar to make it more palatable. Hence, the irony that two key consumer goods of the British lower classes–tea and sugar–relied on the super-exploitation of African slaves and Indian plantation workers. This obviously sets the pattern for Wal-Mart today. Sugar also supplied a cheap substitute for complex carbohydrates, just as it does today. Oatmeal porridge was mixed with molasses–so-called “hasty pudding”. Mintz’s description of consumption patterns in the 18th century seem depressingly similar to those today:

The first half of the eighteenth century may have been a period of increased purchasing power for laboring people, even though the quality of nutrition probably declined at the same time. Innovations like the liquid stimulants and the greatly increased use of sugar were items for which additional income was used, as well as items by which one could attempt emulation of those at higher levels of the social system. But labeling this usage “emulation” explains very little. The circumstances under which a new habit is acquired are as important as the habits of those others from whom the habit is learned. It seemes likely that many of the new tea drinkers and sugar users were not fully satisfied with their daily fare. Some were doubtless inadequately fed; others were bored by their food and by the large quantities of starchy carbohydrates they ate. A hot liquid stimulant full of sweet calories doubtless “hit the spot,” perhaps particularly for people who were already undernourished.

Chapter two of “Sweetness and Power” is simply titled “Production” and makes the case that the sugar plantations in Jamaica and other British colonial outposts were forerunners of the modern capitalist factory system even though they relied on slavery rather than wage labor. The Brenner camp sees “agrarian revolution” as the opening stages of capitalism even though it had less mechanization than a sugar plantation and did not really exploit wage labor. Go figure.

By the late 17th century, sugar was a big business in Jamaica, responsible for the generation of 8 million pounds in revenue according to Sir Dalby Thomas, the governor of Jamaica and a sugar grower himself. Today, that would equal about 830 million pounds. After 1660, Britain’s sugar imports always exceeded the combined total of all other imports.

While the typical large farm of the British countryside was a fairly simple operation from the standpoint of machinery and the division of labor, sugar production was a far more complex operation. If the fields were mostly about growing and harvesting cane, the boiling house that could be found on all plantations were on the leading edge of industrial techniques for the time. British Caribbean planters were large-scale entrepreneurs for their time. A work force often exceeded 100 men and women–some free and some slave. Mintz writes:

All the more reason to specify what is meant by “industry” here. Today we speak of “agro-industry,” and the term implies heavy substitution of machinery for human labor, mass production on large holdings, intensive use of scientific methods and products (fertilizer, herbicides, the breeding of hybrid varieties, irrigation), and the like. What made the early plantation system agro-industrial was the combination of agriculture and processing under one authority: discipline was probably its first essential feature. This was because neither mill nor field could be separately (independently) productive. Second was the organization of the labor force itself, part skilled, part unskilled, and organized in terms of the plantation’s overall productive goals. To the extent possible, the labor force was composed of interchangeable units—much of the labor was homogeneous, in the eyes of the producers—characteristic of a lengthy middle period much later in the history of capitalism. Third, the system was time-conscious. This time-consciousness was dictated by the nature of the sugar cane and its processing requirements, but it permeated all phases of plantation life and accorded well with the emphasis on time that was later to become a central feature of capitalist industry. The combination of field and factory, of skilled workers with unskilled, and the strictness of scheduling together gave an industrial cast to plantation enterprises, even though the use of coercion to exact labor might have seemed somewhat unfamiliar to latter-day capitalists.

There were at least two other regards in which these plantation enterprises were industrial: the separation of production from consumption, and the separation of the worker from his tools. Such features help us to define the lives of the working people, mostly unfree, who powered plantation enterprises between the sixteenth and the late nineteenth centuries in the New World. They call our attention to the remarkably early functioning of industry in European history (overseas colonial history, at that). They throw rather provocative light on the common assertion that Europe “developed” the colonial world after the European heartland. They also afford us an idea of the life of plantation laborers, to contrast with that of European agricultural workers and peasants of the same era.

In my next post, I will deal with the question of technical innovation on the sugar plantation. Since it is an article of faith in the Brennerite literature that “precapitalist” institutions such as the sugar plantation could respond to market pressures and consequently introduce labor-saving machinery, it will be quite revealing to look at the actual record.

 

July 19, 2007

Turkish music on WDR in Germany

Filed under: music,Turkey — louisproyect @ 8:27 pm

I have been meaning to say something about German Radio WDR’s Turkish Language programming, which is about 80 percent music and 20 percent news and phone calls from listeners. You can listen to it from Itunes. Just select Radio from the main menu and then International from the radio menu. Once you are there, select News and Music in the Turkish language from Funkhaus Europa, a nickname for WDR. It is simply some of the most fantastic music on the scene today.

Unlike some “World Music” that has broken through to Western markets, Turkish music is pretty much beneath the radar. To an extent, this is a function of the refusal of some of the major artists, including megastar Tarkan who looks a bit like Prince, to tailor their music to foreign ears. You will never hear Tarkan record with Peter Gabriel or David Byrne, nor will you find him including token English language lyrics in the way that Youssou N’Dour does. This does not mean that Turkish pop music is insular. You can not go for more than 10 minutes without hearing a Turkish version of salsa, flamenco or Greek-style Rembétika (keeping in mind, of course, that there was a very large Greek population in Turkey until the ethnic cleansing of the 1920s.)

One of the most interesting examples of Turkish musical cosmopolitanism was Dario Moreno, a Jew born as David Arugete in Izmir in 1921. He died of a heart attack in Istanbul in 1968 and was buried in Israel against his wishes. With albums like “Granada- Adios Amigos”, “Bossa Nova” and “Calypso” to his credit, you can get a sense of his eclecticism. Here’s Moreno performing “Mustafa” from an old movie. It’s pretty campy but a pure delight in the Carmen Miranda vein.

One of the songs I’ve been hearing a lot on WDR is “Bulamadim” (I couldn’t find you) by Ibrahim Tatlises. Tatlises is a hugely popular “Arabesque” performer, which as the name implies is music in the Arabic style. The Youtube video gives you a sense of the over-the-top histrionics of the Arabesque style, which dominates Turkish television. It is the music of the recent Anatolian arrivals to Istanbul, the poor and devout masses who tend to vote AKP. My wife and in-laws really have very little use for Arabesque, which grates on Kemalist sensibilities.

Much of the music is in the sleek style pioneered by Tarkan, which mixes American rock-and-roll with traditional Turkish harmonies. Here’s an outstanding Tarkan performance on Youtube.

Anybody who doesn’t love Tarkan must have something wrong with them.

Finally, the station features “classic” music from the 1980s, including tunes by Sezen Aksu. In a review of “Crossing the Bridge”, a documentary on Turkish music, I cited an article that discussed her political commitments, as well as her great musicianship:

The release of a new album by one of Turkey’s biggest pop stars has prompted a debate on how far Turks dare go in acknowledging their diverse ethnic and religious origins – especially when rebel Kurds are fighting for their own state and the secular establishment feels threatened by Islamic fundamentalism.

The album by the female singer Sezen Aksu entitled “Light Rises in the East” has sold nearly 500,000 copies since it was launched two months ago.

Accompanied by folk musicians of Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Arab and Gypsy origin, the singer has controversially attempted to fuse Turkey’s mixed ethnic heritage in music. Newspapers have called the album a political call for unity. Ms Aksu says she is hurt by the thought of “valuable parts of this country being broken into pieces”.

(The Guardian, September 13, 1995)

Sezen Aksu, like Dario Moreno and Ibrahim Tatlises, is well represented on Youtube. I would recommend a look at her performance of “İstanbul Hatırası” (Istanbul Memories), which is from “Crossing the Bridge.”

If you enjoy this music, I urge you to rent “Crossing the Bridge” from Netflix that I reviewed here. Also, tune in WDR Turkish programming on Itunes. I promise you that you will really be knocked out by it.

UPDATE:

Here’s advice on how to listen to Turkish radio on the Internet without bothering with Itunes from Marxmail subscriber Lüko Willms:

WDR is directly at <http://www.wdr.de>. Serving the largest of the federal states, WDR is the largest radio and TV station in Germany.

“Funkhaus Europa” is No. 6 of the six radio programmes broadcast by WDR. You can get directly to it at <http://www.funkhauseuropa.de>. From there you can select the various languages used, Türkçe, Serbo-Croat, Italiano, Russian, and Kurdish.

The Turkish programming is on the web at <http://www.kolnradyosu.net> or <http://www.funkhauseuropa.de/koelnradyosunet.m3u>

Listen online to the current programming of Funkhaus Europa: <http://www.wdr.de/wdrlive/radio.phtml?channel=fhe> and select between Real Audio and formats for Windows Media player.

If you like Funkhaus Europa, you might like also Radio Multikulti of Berlin, available at http://www.multikulti.de with even more languages and the live stream at <http://www.multikulti.de/_/beitrag_jsp/activeid=719.html>

 

July 18, 2007

In Search of Mozart

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:14 pm


Director Phil Grabsky checking out his subject

This Friday “In Search of Mozart” opens at the Cinema Village in New York City. As the title implies, it is an attempt to come to grips with perhaps the greatest composer of all time who died at the age of 35 in 1791. It mixes interviews with musicologists and performers who all share a love of his music as well as uncommon insights into his particular gifts. While the musical excerpts tend to be on the brief side, the film is “wall-to-wall Mozart” with performances from many of the interviewees including Renée Fleming, Roger Norrington and Lang Lang, the rising virtuoso pianist from China. It is also an old-fashioned travelogue as we follow the same path the young Mozart and his ambitious father took from city to city in pursuit of fame and fortune.

Although this might sound like the typical PBS fare, it is much more interesting and much more human. The Mozart director Phil Grabsky is intent on showing us is not a deity, but a living, breathing human being. We learn that he, like his parents, enjoyed writing scatological letters, filled with references to farting, oral sex and other off-color topics. He was also bent on enjoying the good life, even if it meant going into debt, not unlike millions of Americans today. Although he was prodigious in his output and a total disciplinarian when it came to his craft, he also knew how to relax–spending his afternoons playing billiards or cards.

His life was also filled with conflict. Like many child prodigies, he had to contend with an overbearing father who wanted to use his son as a vehicle for his own ambitions. Unlike many prodigies, however, Mozart handled all this pressure with great aplomb. Even as a very young man, he had a good grasp of human relationships as opposed to the almost “idiot savant” version of Peter Schaffer’s “Amadeus.”

Indeed, he not only had a gift for harmony but also for understanding the human condition from an early age. Operas like “Marriage of Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi Fan Tutti” demonstrate a level of understanding about society that transcends just about everything that preceded it. The librettist for these three masterpieces was Lorenzo Da Ponte, a Venetian who had been born a Jew but converted to Roman Catholicism. Expelled from Venice for his democratic leanings, he ended up in the United States, where he opened a grocery store in the Bowery! Eventually he moved on to better things as a local opera promoter and Professor of Italian at Columbia University in New York.

While “In Search of Mozart” focuses as it should on the music and the details of Mozart’s life, there is an underlying social drama that is akin thematically to “Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”. Like the more plebian characters in these two masterpieces, Mozart was basically at the mercy of his aristocratic patrons for every penny. He was always under pressure to turn out banal entertainments like Divertimentos or other dances for the court (that he always managed to turn into masterpieces), but preferred to compose more ambitious works like symphonies and operas.

Maynard Solomon, founder of Vanguard Records and author of “Marxism and Art: Essays Classic and Contemporary”, summarizes Mozart’s attitude toward the feudal gentry ruling Austria in his superb biography that I have been looking through since seeing the film:

Beyond his fantasies of retribution, Mozart has scant deference for rank or position, whether in the secular or the religious spheres: archdukes, archbishops, emperors, and empresses alike are the subject of his scorn.

He is skeptical of all authority, whether princes, kings, priests, or legislators. He cannot be taken in, as Beethoven was, by benevolent emperors and first consuls, perhaps because he knew these men at first hand in a way that Beethoven did not. “Stupidity oozes out of his eyes,” writes Mozart of his admiring patron, Archduke Maximilian Franz. “He talks and holds forth incessantly and always in falsetto—and he has started a goiter.” Hearing of Empress Maria Theresa’s mortal illness, he is irked that he would have to feign grief: “Next week everyone will be in mourning—and I, who have always to be about, must also weep with the others.” He is, we know, particularly sensitive to issues of economic exploitation: “No man ought to be mean, but neither ought he to be such a simpleton as to let other people take the profits from his work, which has cost him so much study and labor, by renouncing all further claims upon it.” With heavy irony, he writes, “You know well how services are generally rewarded by great lords.” Even Emperor Joseph II, whom he admired and wished to serve, did not escape Mozart’s scalpel: he was characterized as “a skinflint” who “was well aware of his own meanness.” For Mozart, the movers and shakers of society are fallible human beings rather than objects of veneration. He reports that the emperor has a sexual interest in Elisabeth Wilhelmine Louise, the teenage princess of Württemberg: “This affair is an open secret m Vienna, but no one knows whether she is going to be a morsel for himself or for some Tuscan prince. Probably the latter… I am really astonished, because she is, you might say, still a child.”

As a critic of the 18th century ruling class, Mozart would understandably resonate with modern day rebels, especially those who are thinking about ways to sharpen culture into a knife directed at the heart of the capitalist system.

Seven years ago, British Trotskyist Alan Wood wrote an article on “Mozart and the French Revolution.” He noted that the play that provided the libretto for “Marriage of Figaro” provoked bloody riots:

Beaumarchais’ play, which depicted the aristocracy as degenerate, lustful and depraved types, was considered dangerously revolutionary at the time. In one speech his central character, the servant Figaro, dares to state that he is as good as his master. In the years before the French Revolution, this was subversive stuff! So dangerous was it considered that Louis XVI at first tried to have the play banned. Eventually it was put on stage, and its first performance in Paris caused a riot in which three people were trampled to death.

In a five part series of articles occasioned by the composer’s 250th birthday, the World Socialist Website’s Laura Villon makes a number of interesting musicological and political points (the website’s cultural coverage maintains the highest standards, even if the political analysis of questions facing the left tend to the dogmatic.) Among them is the impact of the visit to London on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold, who obviously shared his son’s democratic aspirations:

In April 1764 the family crossed the English Channel and headed to London, where they would stay for 15 months. Within four days, they were warmly received at the English court of the German-speaking King George III and Queen Charlotte.

If Paris was intellectually liberating, London was a social whirl. Leopold took pains to describe the democratic atmosphere in the city’s great public parks. For one shilling, all classes could enter the parks and hear great music. In St. James Park, the King waved to them from his carriage. “Here everyone is equal, and no lord allows any person to uncover before him; having paid their money, all are upon equal terms,” he wrote home to his patron Hagenauer (Gutman 188).

Leopold and his son set out to better their knowledge of English and devoured English literature. He praised the courage of striking weavers who protested their unemployment and poverty in the capital in 1765. He and his family came to see England as a symbol of freedom.

“In Search of Mozart” is an excellent introduction to the music and life of a very great composer. For information on screenings in your own area, check the film’s website which has a trailer.

 

July 12, 2007

Camden 28

Filed under: antiwar,Film — louisproyect @ 6:05 pm

Howard Zinn with director Anthony Giacchino
and director of photography David Daugherty

The Camden 28 were members of the Catholic left who were arrested after breaking into a draft board in the poverty-stricken city of Camden, New Jersey on August, 1971 with the intention of destroying draft records. Anthony Giacchino’s superlative documentary “Camden 28,” which opens July 27th at the Cinema Village in New York City, consists of interviews with the Camden 28 today, as well as film and television clips from the 1960s and 70s that remind us why they would risk lengthy prison sentences to oppose the war–including the pre-credit footage of an American GI setting fire to a Vietnamese grass hut with a cigarette lighter.

Beyond the fascination that the film holds as both a historical chronicle and an insight into the character of some remarkable people, it tells a dramatic story that has almost a Biblical dimension, involving as it does faith and betrayal.

The Camden 28 relied heavily on the technical support of Bob Hardy, a parishioner in the Church led by Father Michael Doyle, an Irish immigrant who was one of the ringleaders. Hardy, a handyman by trade and a Marine veteran, went to the FBI as soon as he discovered Doyle’s intentions and agreed to serve as an agent provocateur. He supplied the plotters with the tools that they needed and the advice about how to break into windows, all at the prompting of the FBI.

But Hardy was not a one-dimensional villain. He was sympathetic to their antiwar beliefs to some degree but felt that breaking and entry violated law and order. The FBI promised him that the 28 would be arrested before the break-in took place and that they would either serve no jail time or very little. When he discovered that the FBI planned to prosecute them to the hilt, he broke with the agency and submitted an affidavit on behalf of the defense revealing the degree to which the conspiracy had been funded and organized by the FBI.

When the case finally came to trial in 1973, the jury found the Camden 28 not guilty on all counts. By this time, antiwar opposition had sunk deep roots everywhere in American society, including this jury room. One of the jurors, a widow who owned a woman’s clothing factory, said “There was a strong feeling among the jurors that they wanted to join the defendants in taking a stand against the war.”

However, the foreman of the jury told the press that it was Hardy’s affidavit that convinced them to return a not guilty verdict. By 1973, government misconduct had penetrated public opinion in the same way that it has today.

A few months before the Camden 28 had been arrested, another break-in had occurred at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. The purloined records had been circulated to the press, revealing a pattern of COINTELPRO illegality, including the use of agent provocateurs like Bob Hardy. The FBI was so incensed by the Media break-in that they decided to apply maximum pressure on the Camden 28 so as to extract the identity of the Media conspirators. This meant using an agent provocateur and pressing for long prison terms. As happens so often in cases like this, it backfired and resulted in the freedom of the 28 and another blow against the war in Vietnam. A jury had decided that when justice collided with the law, it was better to act on behalf of justice. Howard Zinn, who is one of interviewees, testified on behalf of the defense at the trial and explained to the jury that civil disobedience is as American as cherry pie.

In the period that the film chronicles, I was deeply involved with the antiwar movement as a member of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party but felt little connection with the Catholic left or any other practitioners of civil disobedience for that matter. The party had a laser-like focus on mass demonstrations and tended to discount the importance of draft card burning, break-ins at draft boards, etc. Now that I have a broader perspective on things, including the dogmatism of my own organization, I can better appreciate the courage and persistence of the Camden 28, the Berrigan brothers and others.

It would be difficult for anybody watching this very fine documentary not to be reminded of events occurring today, as is probably the intention of director Anthony Giacchino. On a depressingly regular basis, some poor souls are being charged with organizing raids on Fort Dix, plans to blow up the Sears Tower, etc. Without exception, they were being incited by an FBI agent. Entrapment of this sort has a very long and sordid history, going back to the Czar. Needless to say, breaking and entry into a draft board will never be seen in the same light as blowing up a building or bombing a subway, a striking reminder of the difference between the Catholic left and a desperate Islamic radicalism.

While watching “The Camden 28,” I also reflected on the differences between the antiwar movement of today and back then. As has been noted in both the mainstream and radical media, the demonstrations are smaller and less frequent today. There are also obviously fewer acts of civil disobedience today, especially on college campuses. For all of the similarities between the two wars, there is also a key difference. In many respects, the Rumsfeld doctrine was a variation on low-intensity warfare, a strategy devised by the Pentagon to stave off mass demonstrations and civil disobedience as well as the kind of mass radicalization that characterized American society in the 1960s. Warfare “on the cheap,” without the need for a draft, does have a tendency to keep the heat on simmer, but it also has the effect of undercutting the strategic goal of defeating “the enemy.” That is a contradiction for the imperialist bullies to work out. All we can do today is to heighten the contradictions as the peace and justice-loving activists of Camden 28 did in their exemplary fashion.

Film website: http://www.camden28.org/

 

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,035 other followers