Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 30, 2012

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: beatniks,Ecology,fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Reviewed below:

–”Beat Hotel”

–”God Save My Shoes”

–”Surviving Progress”

In catching up with AMC TV’s terrific “Mad Men” series (Season Five began last Sunday), I was watching an episode from Season Two the other night. Peter Campbell, a copywriter from a very Waspy family, went to a doctor with his wife to find out why they were having trouble procreating. Set in 1962, it was natural for the doctor to ask Campbell in his one-on-one discussion with him: “Do you really want to have a child?” Campbell replied vociferously, “How can you ask such a question? Everybody wants to have children.”

As part of its ongoing attempt to reflect different aspects of American society, the show depicts the burgeoning counter-culture—even including the bearded hipster copywriter named Paul Kinsey.

As I watched the exchange between the doctor and Peter Campbell, I could not help but think of the opening lines of one of my favorite poems from the early 60s, Gregory Corso’s “Marriage”:

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries
tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky-

When she introduces me to her parents
back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
should I sit with my knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
and not ask Where’s the bathroom?
How else to feel other than I am,
often thinking Flash Gordon soap-
O how terrible it must be for a young man
seated before a family and the family thinking
We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou!
After tea and homemade cookies they ask What do you do for a living?

For countless numbers of young people, Corso’s poem symbolized an alternative path for living in America by one’s own rules. Instead of buying into the suburban utopia with its split-level houses and two-car garages, we would make life into an adventure—smoking dope, hanging out in Lower East Side tenements listening to Charlie Parker records, working as clerks in bookstores, and trying to finish a novel or that next poem.

Just two nights after watching the “Mad Men” episode I had the exquisite pleasure of watching what might just be the best documentary on the beat generation, a film titled “The Beat Hotel” that opens at the Cinema Village in NY this evening.

Like the Chelsea Hotel in NY in the 1960s and 70s, the fleabag, no-name hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur in Paris became a beacon for cultural rebels during the 1950s. Three of its leading denizens were the aforementioned Gregory Corso, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg who shared his tiny room with Peter Orlovsky.

The film relies heavily on the photographs of Harold Chapman who lived there as well. Chapman also supplies invaluable recollections of what life was like in the hotel, including fascinating details about its seediness. There was only one bathroom on each floor, each featuring a “Turkish” (or squat) toilet that evoked those Gahan Wilson cartoons from an old New Yorker Magazine.

“Beat Hotel” also includes some absolutely fantastic animation based on the paintings of Elliot Rudie who also lived there. Like Chapman, Rudie has plenty of great anecdotes about hanging out with Burroughs and the gang.

The hotel was owned and run by Madam Rachou who was sympathetic to political as well as cultural rebels. During the Algerian war of independence, she provided a haven for leftists being pursued by the French cops.

In contrast to the opulent but spiritually bereft environment of “Mad Men”, “The Beat Hotel” was a fertile oasis that brought great pleasure to the men possessed by a vision of a better world, even if it was not based on any kind of economic or political program. Allen Ginsberg, who put in some time as a copywriter himself, put it this way in “Howl”:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,

Now, 57 years later after this poem was written, young people not that different than me continue to look to the beat generation as an inspiration. They, and people of any other age, should go see “Beat Hotel” to get an idea of how it all got started.

Also opening tonight at the Quad Cinema in NY is “God Save My Shoes”, a fascinating examination of women’s high heels. For those who have read my posts on Sex and the City, both the television show and the universally despised part 2 movie (except for me and WBAI’s resident Marxist film critic Prairie Miller), this review should come as no great surprise. As Karl Marx once said—quoting Roman playwright Terrence—”Nothing human is alien to me”. The same goes for me, including high-heel shoes.

Despite the film’s nod to Sex and the City as having inspired the explosion of sales in high-heels over the past decade or so, it has as much in common with a Modern Language Association convention as it does with pop culture. It interviews Manolo Blahnik, the shoe designer whose beautiful but largely unwearable commodities were favored—if not fetishized—by lead character Carrie Bradshaw. Indeed, the documentary shows outtakes from several fashion shows as runway models trip over their own feet bedecked in 5 inch heel shoes. A similar scene takes place in Sex and the City when Carrie tries modeling as a PR stunt.

Shoe designers like Blahnik are artists in their own right, even if their work might have the effect of confining women just as feet-binding and corsets did in an earlier age, as observed by Valerie Steele, the curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum (a school where my wife has taught political science classes for over 5 years.) In addition to Steele, we hear from Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, whose grasp of the history, the esthetics, and psychological and social implications of high heels is just as penetrating.

The academic experts allow for the possibility that such shoes empower women insofar as they raise their wearers to the same height as men. At the same time they fret over the obvious health hazards and their sexual objectification of women. This contradiction, of course, is at the heart of the film’s message and makes it such compelling viewing.

In keeping with the “Mad Men”/”Beat Hotel” times-are-changing motif expressed above, it occurs to me that the high-heels fad among young women is related in some ways to the almost universal tendency for African-American women to straighten their hair using toxic chemicals as pointed out in Chris Rock’s fascinating “Good Hair”. If the 60s was all about being “natural”, the late 70s onwards is much more about appearance—a repeat of the awful fifties in many ways. Let’s hope that the financial crisis might have a useful side-effect just as the 1930s Great Depression did, namely an impulse toward reexamining what the “good life” is all about.

On April 6th, a week from tomorrow, “Surviving Progress” opens at the Cinema Village in NY, the same locale as “The Beat Hotel”. This documentary can best be described as a look at the same phenomenon covered in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, the tendency of civilizations to destroy themselves over time through unwise economic and environmental practices—but without Diamond’s crappy politics. Probably the first and best overview of this tendency was stated by Frederick Engels in “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man”:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Unlike Diamond, directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks make the link between the capitalist economic system (even though they refrain from using the term) and environmental despoliation. In answering the question why the Amazon rainforest keeps getting chopped down even as it threatens to undermine humanity’s future, they call on left economist Michael Hudson who explains that Brazil was simply acting on the suggestion made by the IMF to pay off debts through the rapid and extensive use of agricultural exports. The general thrust of the film is to put the blame on the international financial system for a possible extinction of life as we know it. What makes this all the more interesting is Martin Scorsese’s role as executive director. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the great artist of personal crime is beginning to understand that the biggest problem is corporate crime.

“Surviving Progress” has a stellar cast of academics like Michael Hudson (Stephen Hawking among them) and people in the political arena charged with the duty of saving the planet from predatory financial interests. Among them is Marina Silva, a Brazilian senator who was formerly Minister of the Environment, who is shown in the Amazon at a logging factory and at the small towns that house the desperately poor loggers and farmers encroaching on the forest. They plead their case, stating that if the Amazon is the lungs of the north, it is also the heart of the Brazilian poor. Without an Amazon to exploit, there is no future for them.

While the film does not get into alternative ways of economic development, it is fairly obvious that the future of the planet can only be guaranteed through the elimination of private property and the profit motive. As Hollywood fictional films continue their sorry descent into the cesspool, we can at least be assuaged by the determination of courageous directors like Mattieu Roy and Harold Crooks to tell the truth without worrying about whether their film will be the next blockbuster. For intellectual and political stimulation, and as well as to respond positively to an imperative to make such documentaries worth making, I urge you to put “Surviving Progress” on your calendar.

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