Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 15, 2013

Three films of note

Filed under: art,Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 8:51 pm

Opening yesterday at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story” combines the strands found in two other excellent documentaries about artists. Like Gerhard Richter who was born one year after him in Germany, the 82-year-old Ungerer knew World War Two horrors firsthand from growing up in Alsace. In Strasbourg, the capital, French citizens were forced to speak German or go to jail. Once France was liberated, there was a drive to destroy German-language books in retaliation. Needless to say, a sensitive young man with a passion for free expression, especially in the arts, would be drawn to the USA, which after the end of WWII had the reputation for being the freest place on earth.

Not long after resettling in New York, Ungerer launched a career as a commercial artist using his particular off-kilter sensibility to make advertisements that belonged in the Museum of Modern Art. His main influence starting out was the legendary New Yorker magazine cartoonist Saul Steinberg whose minimalist style could convey in a few lines what it would take a thousand words to express.

His next step was to begin writing children’s books with the same kind of offbeat sensibility that endeared him to children everywhere. His books were filled with menace and darkness; all reminiscent of his youth in Alsace and calculated as he put it to help them discover the light. His work was a major influence on Maurice Sendak, who is interviewed throughout the film.

In a trip to Texas during the Jim Crow era, Ungerer was shocked to discover separate accommodations for Blacks and whites. That impelled him to begin making art with a message. By the time the Vietnam War started, he was primed and ready to become one of the most original and most trenchant poster artists against American intervention. He held nothing back. Ironically, he attributes his straight for the jugular style to the Nazi propaganda posters he was exposed to as a youth.

Susceptible to all the social upheavals of the 1960s, Ungerer discovered the sexual revolution and wasted no time launching a new career as a master pornographer. His sexually explicit and often sadomasochistic drawings were an acquired taste but nobody could question the power of his art.

Except perhaps for the censors who decided that his children books should be removed from the public libraries and the unofficial black listers who made him as unemployable in the 1960s as a CP’er was in the 1950s. This led him and his family to look elsewhere to make a living. Like Ai Weiwei, the artist profiled in another documentary, Ungerer was persecuted for his un-American values. In some circles, fucking is obviously as subversive as socialism.

Ungerer is altogether captivating subject. The film consists of him reminiscing about his past and brilliant examples of his work, much of it rendered as animation. This is a film that will remind people like me how powerful the transformative movements of the 1960s were and encourage younger people to keep their ammunition dry for the upheavals that are bound to occur down the road, especially those who believe in the revolutionary potential of art.

Also opening yesterday at the Village East Theater in New York is “In the Fog”, a Russian film that is a happy reminder that the Russian film industry continues to rebound nicely from the devastating impact of the Yeltsin years when Hollywood became part of the battering ram of privatization.

Like “White Tiger”, another excellent Russian film I reviewed recently, “In the Fog” is set during WWII but unlike “White Tiger” it does not exactly follow the Great Patriotic War narrative. Instead it is an existential saga that poses the dilemmas faced by men and women forced to make difficult choices under the gun.

Around the time I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism”, an essay that mapped to my own transitional state of mind. I still retained some of the French existential ideas that I had absorbed at Bard College as an undergraduate and others at the New School when I found myself embarking on a new course of revolutionary politics. Sartre’s essay was meant to highlight the difficult choices that people faced that did not lend themselves to a pat Marxist analysis:

As an example by which you may the better understand this state of abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine, who sought me out in the following circumstances. His father was quarrelling with his mother and was also inclined to be a “collaborator”; his elder brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940 and this young man, with a sentiment somewhat primitive but generous, burned to avenge him. His mother was living alone with him, deeply afflicted by the semi-treason of his father and by the death of her eldest son, and her one consolation was in this young man. But he, at this moment, had the choice between going to England to join the Free French Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her to live. He fully realised that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into despair. He also realised that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose.

“In the Fog” is the aptly named story of a Byelorussian partisan who comes to the house of a railroad worker who is believed to have betrayed three other workers who derailed a German train. Since they were hung and he was released, the partisans concluded that he was a collaborator. Part of the human drama involves the survivor arguing with the three fellow workers in a flashback about the drawbacks to sabotage. The Nazis will undoubtedly kill many villagers in retaliation. Do they want to be responsible for their deaths?

This is essentially a two-character film with Sushenya the railroad worker (Vladislav Abashin) trying to convince Burov the partisan (Vladislav Abashin) of his innocence. There is always a sense of impending doom as the Nazi army and the local cops acting on their behalf close in on the men. However, this is not an “action” film but much more about the tensions that exist during a state of war between revolutionary justice and the need for both fairness and mercy. The fine line between the two is often so thin as to be invisible.

“In the Fog” is based on a novel by Vasil’ Bykaw, Byelorussia’s most important author who was a WWII veteran who died in 2003. Like all great movies, I am always motivated to read the novel that they may be based on. Although Bykaw was not that ideological, there is one scene that suggests his judgments about the Stalin era. The bureaucrat who is in charge of the local railroad station is a Nazi flunky who beats the men as the mood hits him. One of the three railroad workers who ends up hung tells the others, “He was the same way under Stalin”.

Just before he died, Bykaw became part of the movement against Alexander Lukashenko, the vile autocrat who ran Byelorussia like the railway boss. Based on the evidence of the moral and philosophical foundations of “In the Fog”, it is not difficult to understand why Lukashenko would have felt the need to suppress the mass movement. As is the case with Tomi Ungerer, the artist is often part of the true vanguard of a revolutionary movement.

Unfortunately I was not able to see “Student” until after it closed at Anthology Film Archive. For those with a taste for politically hard-hitting and artistically daring fare, you can watch “Student” at mubi.com, a fee-based streaming service that might be described as the not-Netflix.

This is a very free adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” with an utterly impassive and mostly taciturn Kazakh student living in poverty while attending a local university. He has a part-time job as a gopher on a movie set that features director Darezhan Omirbayev playing the director of a cheesy b-movie starring the girlfriend of a business/gangster who drives around in an oversized SUV surrounded by hulking bodyguards. When “the student” (Nurlan Bajtasov, his character is never named) accidentally spills tea on her lap, a bodyguard spirits him into a room on the set, locks the door, and beats the living crap out of him.

The next day he attends a college class in which the instructor lectures the students about the need for a society divided into classes with the rich on top of the poor. How else will anything get done without social stratification, she asks. You need to learn how to survive just like animals in the jungle. The strong kill the weak. That is how society advances.

Taking this lesson to heart, the student buys a gun and robs a Khazak version of a convenience store. Unlike Dostoyevsky’s novel, the act has no underlying philosophical meaning. It is just the act of someone trying to survive in the post-Soviet jungle.

Darezhan Omirbayev, who also wrote the screenplay, is obviously angry about what is happening in Kazakhstan. His camera lingers on the sight of the ultramodern high-rises that are home to the country’s petro-millionaires.

In an interview with the director at mubi.com, he was asked:

Dostoevsky’s novel was called “an encyclopaedia of Russian society of the 60s of 19th century”. Did you make it to create something similar about the modern Kazakh society?

His reply:

This is to be judged by the viewers, not by me. I based my film on this novel not accidentally. Marcel Proust said once: “Dostoevsky’s style is a bit clumsy, but the power of his novels is in their compositional harmony and beauty”. And this beautiful composition came thanks to those problems and ideas that troubled Fyodor Mikhailovich. And plus, some prose is very keen to be filmed – and “Crime&Punishment” is among of such. I was impressed much by the sequence where Raskolnikov, having murdered the old X, forgets to shut the door and an accidental person steps in. Also, this novel has a social undertone which is very actual nowadays. The 60s of 19th century were the period of launching capitalism that bred the conflict in a Russian society. The reaction of young minds was quite harsh, and Dostoevsky made it to catch that zeitgeist. The same process is currently going on in modern Kazakhstan: there’s too big financial gap between people and that troubles the youth of Kazakhstan very much.

Indeed.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Another sign of the renaissance of Russian film. Set in WWII, it depicts the moral and strategic conundrums facing partisans on the front lines against the Nazi invasion. Evokes Sartre’s presentation of existential dilemmas facing a French partisan in “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Full review: http://louisproyect.org/2013/06/15/three-films-of-note-4/ […]

    Pingback by The Best and Worst Films of 2013 » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names — January 17, 2014 @ 7:17 pm


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