Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 23, 2012

Neighboring Sounds

Filed under: Brazil,Film — louisproyect @ 10:51 pm

“Neighboring Sounds”, a Brazilian film opening tomorrow at Lincoln Center and the IFC , now joins “Elena” on my short-list for best narrative films of 2012. As gimlet-eyed views of class divisions in Brazil and Russia respectively, they put characters into their social context—a convention of realist art that has gone by the wayside in independent film in the USA, mostly content to repeat stale mumble-core formulas. Realism might be defunct in America but in the rest of the world it is doing quite nicely, a function no doubt of the artist’s sense that not all is right and a duty to tell the truth about it.

“Elena” was a Balzacian tale about a minor oligarch’s conflict with his working-class wife who has demanded that he pay for her grandson’s college education. When he refuses, the consequences are fatal. Most of the film takes place in a sterile ultra-modern house that is second cousin to the absurd abode in Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle”. It would appear that the architect who designed the oligarch’s house in “Elena” must have inspired the designs in the chillingly chic high rises of the Stubal district of Recife that loom large in “Neighboring Sounds”. The first thing you notice is the iron bars of every single window and every single door in each luxury building, leaving you with the nagging suspicion that such protection against the “criminal element” outside amounts to a kind of jail for those living behind them.

As is the case in “Elena”, the visible injuries of class are impossible to ignore. In Brazil, they are compounded by race. The people who own the condos in Stubal are lily-white while the housemaids, valets, security guards, doormen, and janitors come in various shades of brown or Black. The whites rely on those beneath them for their well-being and security but never really trust them. When a condo resident rudely tells a valet whose income is based totally on tips that she doesn’t need him to open her car door, he takes a key when she isn’t looking and scratches the trunk with a smile on his face.

Security is on everybody’s mind. At the beginning of the film, one of the condo’s chief investors, the grandson of the sugar baron who built most of the high-rises, is told by his new girlfriend that someone has stolen the tape deck from her car parked on the street. He goes down to the street and interrogates some of the members of the “informal economy” who rely on his largesse and that of other wealthy residents. Like the woman whose car has been defaced, he just assumes that he is in a position to talk to his inferiors as if he had police powers.

With so much crime on the streets below, the condo residents are persuaded to hire a team of security guards who function as a kind of middle strata between the rich and the poor. They are reliant on the rich for their income and suspicious of the poor who they are supposed to monitor. When they discover a shoeless young boy in a tree in the middle of the night, presumably on a burglary, they force him down, pin him against the wall and allow their chief to punch him in the face. He nonchalantly tells his men that it will teach him not to come back.

If life at the bottom is a brutal struggle to survive, there is not much pleasure being on top either. One of the major characters is a bored housewife who is haunted by a watchdog in the courtyard below that barks incessantly. One night she is so fed up that she buries a sleeping pill in a piece of red meat and throws it into the courtyard below, but only after taking a couple of the same pills herself.

Her running battle with the dog becomes one of the sardonic comic leitmotifs of “Neighboring Sounds”, amounting to a kind of art film version of the Roadrunner cartoons. She sends away for an electronic device that emits a high-pitched noise that is not only painful to the dog but just about anybody within earshot. After her children run to their rooms holding their ears in pain, she sits by the window with a wicked smile not unlike the man who attacked the trunk with a key. Clearly this is a society that is not just fraying at the edges; it is in an advanced stage of decomposition.

Director Kleber Medoça Filho employs a minimalist esthetic throughout that is a bit reminiscent of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki but much more designed to draw the audience in rather than keeping it at arm’s length. By the same token, the Brazilian is much more intent on keeping the characters something of a mystery and leaving you with a feeling that they might act in unpredictable ways. At the very end of the film, we are left with the security guards and the sugar baron standing off against one another like a scene in “High Noon” when the film abruptly ends. You are left to your own devices to figure out how things will turn out.

This is Kleber Filho’s first film but he is no stranger to the film business, having been a critic for the past 14 years and finally deciding that he could do a better job making films than writing about them. He was right.

I urge you to read an interview with the director that appeared in Hammer to Nail film magazine during the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival, most of which deals with his aesthetic choices. But this exchange about social class is worth reproducing in its entirety, if for no other reason than to motivate my regular readers to seek out this edgy and informed social satire:

H2N: In terms of the story and the characters—you’re following this family that is sort of in decline; were you thinking of it… maybe I’m trying to over-explain it, but I was seeing it as the middle class as a whole in decline, as represented by this one family.

KMF: A little bit, but not really. A little bit, because historically that region was always known—or for three centuries was known—for sugar cane plantations. Which means that one of our problems—which maybe we’ve reached the end of that problem and now we’re beginning a new era, with the whole thing with Brazil and the economic boom, and Brazil is growing very fast—so for 300 years we had monoculture. The only thing that came out of Pernambuco, the state, was sugar cane, which means that the money was in the hands of maybe no more than 50 families, which were very rich of course, and over the last 40 years, 50 years maybe, sugar cane production became decadent. And ten years ago it reached a low point, the lowest point probably. So these families of course became decadent. And most of these families still act like they’re royalty, but they’re not. They’ve lost most of their money, property. So in a way, yeah—I think Francisco is a typically decadent child of sugar cane. But I don’t think the Brazilian middle class as a whole is decadent, in fact they are growing and becoming wealthier, and there’s a whole interesting social revolution going on now because the middle class is getting bigger because the lower classes are now becoming middle class, and maybe the upper classes are becoming rich, so it’s like a ladder and people are going up and pushing the people who were in the middle towards the top. So that’s why I said yes and no—yes historically but no in terms of the Brazilian middle class as a whole is not decadent. Maybe it is in terms of values, but I was thinking in terms of the sugar cane families. And you can see that when they go to the plantation. Beautiful place, but it’s falling to pieces. And the old cinema, and the actual processing plants, the mill.

The film will be appearing nationally after the NY debut. Scheduling information is here: http://www.cinemaguild.com/neighboringsounds/playdates.htm

May 14, 2012

Ex-Marxist sociology professor cashes in

Filed under: Brazil,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 5:03 pm

Fernando Cardoso

John Kluge

Today’s NY Times reports that ex-President of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso is being honored (or rewarded?):

The Library of Congress will award the $1 million John W. Kluge Prize for lifetime intellectual achievement in the humanities and social sciences to Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who had a distinguished international career as a scholar before twice being elected president of Brazil. An official announcement will be made in Washington on Monday, with an awards ceremony there on July 10.

The newspaper of record finds Cardoso’s regime most laudable:

Brazil has become the world’s sixth largest economy, having recently passed Britain and Italy, and has a dynamic and growing middle class, numbering more than 100 million. As president from 1995 through 2002 Mr. Cardoso was the primary architect of that rise. He presided over the elimination of hyperinflation and initiated sweeping social investment and income redistribution programs, which his two successors have extended and deepened.

Although Cardoso’s political views are dubbed as “hard to categorize”, the two works of this sociology professor mentioned by the Times sound rather Marxist: “Dependency and Development in Latin America” and “Capitalism and Slavery in Southern Brazil,” that is described as “an examination of how racially based servitude contributed directly to Brazil’s economic and social backwardness.”

This is an irony that is missed by the gray lady—surprise, surprise. A Marxist, or at least Marxish sociology professor, becomes the president of Brazil and a leading advocate of what is popularly known as neoliberalism. Under Cardoso’s two terms (1995-2002), the economy did grow but at the expense of the working class, poor peasants and the indigenous peoples.

In a useful history of Brazil on the Mother Earth Travel website, we get the hard data on Cardoso’s “sweeping social investment and redistribution programs”:

Relatively few Brazilians have benefited from the economy. In a country with some of the world’s widest social differences, grinding poverty and misery coexist with great industrial wealth; 20 percent of the population is extremely poor and 1 percent extremely wealthy. Brazil’s Gini index in 1991 was 0.6366. According to the UN, Brazil had the most uneven distribution of wealth in the world in 1995. The richest 10 percent of Brazilians hold 65 percent of Brazil’s wealth (GDP), while the poorest 40 percent share only 7 percent. Brazil placed sixty-eighth out of 174 countries in the UN’s 1997 human development index.

No other organization articulated the needs of the “other Brazil” better than the MST (Landless Workers Movement) that Cardoso’s cops repressed on numerous occasions. On April 17, 1996 military police killed nineteen landless farmers, who were members of the MST and had been demonstrating for the right to take over an unproductive ranch in Pará, Brazil. In Brazil 90 percent of the population lives on 10 percent of the land, so there is obviously a burning need for land redistribution.

Despite expectations that the “radical” sociology professor who wrote so sensitively about slavery would stand up for the rights of indigenous peoples, encroachment on their land continued under his administration. In the first year of his rule, his Minister of Justice Nelson Jobim turned over Indian reservation land that equaled the size of Rhode Island to 14 ranchers.

In a way it makes perfect sense for Cardoso to be given the John Kluge prize in light of this billionaire’s career. In an October 15, 1989 profile on the tycoon, the London Times reported:

The Kluges again hit the headlines last year when three of their gamekeepers in America were convicted of killing federally-protected hawks, owls and even neighbourhood dogs. Kluge had organised an ‘authentic British shoot’ and invited his friends to come and kill imported pheasant and ducks. He feared his stock of game might be hurt or killed by its natural prey, so he ordered anything that would interfere with the good time slaughtered.

The New York crowd merely guffawed at Kluge’s misfortune with the law, and he was in even greater demand at Manhattan’s most chic dinner tables.

Kluge and his ilk have been labelled the ‘Nouvelle Society’, and nowhere were they more in evidence than at the recent spectacularly decadent seventieth birthday party of Malcolm Forbes in Morocco. Patricia’s fortieth birthday party at the Waldorf-Astoria was not quite on a par, but it was quite an event. From Britain came the Sangsters, the Frosts, Lord Grade but no royals, other than the ex-empress Farah of Iran and her son, Ali Reza (who proclaimed himself shah after his father’s death in 1980, so he is a sort of royal).

Kluge, in his high-living, high-spending manifestation, fits in well with the new breed of celebrity entrepreneur who would make the American tycoons of yesteryear squirm with their brashness. The modern celebrity businessman loves the glare of publicity and the flash of the paparazzis’ cameras almost as much as he loves the money he makes.

It is a world where wealth is not worth having unless it can be flaunted, and where no expense is seen as over the top. In Manhattan, Patricia has organised a three-floor penthouse over her husband’s office which is the last thing in glitz and bad taste: solid bronze electric doors, a waterfall that flows over one balcony, a huge sunken bar and sliding walls that rise between the dining room and the lounge at the touch of a button.

In Virginia, there is a butler imported from England, and black servants dressed in antique livery for the bigger parties. ‘We live like we want to live, and it is nobody’s business but ours, ‘ Patricia replied to a critic of her lifestyle.

Dying at the age of 95 in 2010, Kluge was named the richest man in America in 1986, largely through the profits made in the television business. So, like Alfred Nobel, the arms manufacturer, he set up a foundation to award prizes to the deserving.

The question of Cardoso’s political evolution is intriguing. As the title of one of his books should indicate, “Dependency and Development in Latin America”, he is a “dependency theorist”. As someone who has written in support of dependency theory against its critics in the Robert Brenner school, I suppose I should be embarrassed to be connected in any way with some like Fernando Cardoso.

But it should be understood that like all political tendencies on the left, dependency theory had both revolutionary and reformist wings. Cardoso was a reformist as was Raúl Prebisch, an Argentine economist who Nestor Gorojovsky once described to Marxmail as follows:

Raúl Prebisch was much more than a sell-out, dear Lou!

His origin was the pro-imperialist Partido Socialista of the 20s. He broke with the party and entered the Partido Socialista Independiente of De Tomaso and Pinedo, who provided the think tank for the establishment of the pro-imperialist regulatory regime that was imposed on the country during the early 30s.

During those times, he worked as a primary official of the British imposed Central Bank of Argentina (this Central Bank was the carbon copy of the one that Sir Otto Niemeyer had failed to impose on India!) and from that post he developed a very particular form of Keynesianism, a Keynesianism aimed at keeping Argentina within the bonds of the imperialist regime, not at saving central capitalism from itself.

Later on, Peronism swept away Pinedo, Prebisch and all this host of “pure” technicians of economics (of dependent economics) from the high positions in the financial and economic structure of the Argentinean state, while profiting from these structures to put the state to the service of self-centered economic development. This was an attempt to develop a bourgeois revolution without any revolution, a transformation of the role of the state by modifying the direction in which it moved.

As opposed to figures like Cardoso and Prebisch, the theorists grouped around Monthly Review never lost sight of the revolutionary goal. In their ranks were Samir Amin, A.G. Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein. What some on the right and left shared in common was a professional affiliation with the UN’s Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLA). Both Frank and Cardoso worked there.

In an article on dependency theory that I wrote about a decade ago, I summed up Cardoso’s conversion to neoliberalism as follows:

Cardoso, another ECLA economist, turned his back on dependency theory in the mid 1970s. In a 1976 article (“The Consumption of Dependency Theory in the USA”), he made a number of counter-arguments against the MR school:

1. Capitalist development at the periphery is viable. 2. Underpaying labor in the periphery is not essential. 3. The local bourgeoisie is capable of leading dynamic growth. 4. The penetration by multinational firms does not have political consequences. 5. The only alternatives in Latin America are socialism or fascism.

In any case, after Cardoso “saw the light”, he decided to enter the bourgeois political arena. Here are quotes from his earlier dependency phase and his new, more sophisticated understanding:

“It is not realistic to imagine that capitalist development will solve basic problems for the majority of the population. In the end, what has to be discussed as an alternative is not the consolidation of the state and the fulfillment of ‘autonomous capitalism,’ but how to supersede them. The important question, then, is how to construct paths toward socialism.” (“Dependency and Development in Latin America”)

“I am in favor of deregulating the economy. To put an end to inflation means to deregulate the economy, right? The economists invented indexation of the economy to correct the devaluation of the currency. When inflation disappears, indexation will disappear. As we want to defeat inflation, we will deregulate the economy.” (Oct. 6, 1994, news conference.)

“A real process of dependent development does exist in some Latin American countries. By development, in this context, we mean ‘capitalist development.’ This form of development, in the periphery as well as in the center, produces as it evolves, in a cyclical way, wealth and poverty, accumulation and shortage of capital, employment for some and unemployment for others. So, we do not mean by the notion of ‘development’ the achievement of a more egalitarian or more just society. These are not the consequences expected from capitalist development, especially in peripheral economies.” (“Dependency and Development in Latin America”)

“I am certain we must continue to fight inflation, because inflation is what impoverishes Brazil and the Brazilian people. Inflation causes an unfair distribution of income, it prevents calculations from being made and it prevents domestic and foreign investments.” (Oct. 6, 1994 news conference.)

“Of course, imperialist penetration is a result of external social forces (multinational enterprises, foreign technology, international financial systems, embassies, foreign states and armies, etc.). What we affirm simply means that the system of domination reappears as an ‘internal’ force, through the social practices of local groups and classes which try to enforce foreign interests, not precisely because they are foreign, but because they may coincide with values and interests that these groups pretend are their own.” (“Dependency and Development in Latin America”)

“The international system is a field of opportunities, of resources, that must be sought naturally. We are a great country, with a clear vocation for an active and responsible participation in world affairs.” (“Let’s Work, Brazil”, Cardoso campaign manifesto)

“It has been assumed that the peripheral countries would have to repeat the evolution of the economies of the central countries in order to achieve development. But it is clear that from its beginning the capitalist process implied an unequal relation between the central and the peripheral economies. Many ‘underdeveloped’ economies — as is the case of the Latin American — were incorporated into the capitalist system as colonies and later as national states, and they have stayed in the capitalist system throughout their history. They remain, however, peripheral economies with particular historical paths when compared with central capitalist economies.” (“Dependency and Development in Latin America”)

“The process of liberalization of the economy and opening toward the outside world will continue, not an objective in and of itself, but as a strategic element in the modernization of our economy.” (“Let’s Work, Brazil”)

“We stress the socio-political nature of the economic relations of production, thus following the 19th-century tradition of treating economy as political economy. This methodological approach, which found its highest expression in Marx, assumes that the hierarchy that exists in society is the result of established ways of organizing the production of material and spiritual life. This hierarchy also serves to assure the unequal appropriation of nature and of the results of human work by social classes and groups. So we attempt to analyze domination in its connections with economic expansion.” (“Dependency and Development in Latin America”)

“Privatization cannot be proposed or carried out under ideological banners. Privatization imposes itself in order to increase society’s investment capacity, to increase competitiveness and, where it is the case, improve management. (“Let’s Work, Brazil”)

January 15, 2012

Lula: Son of Brazil; The Robinson Trilogy

Filed under: Brazil,Britain,Film — louisproyect @ 12:00 am

In the press notes for “Lula: Son of Brazil”, screenwriter Denise Paraná, upon whose biography (originally a PhD dissertation) the script is based, advises: “This is not a political film but a human story about overcoming great odds.” Just so everybody gets the picture, director Fabio Barreto replies as follows to the question of why the film ends in 1980, long before Lula becomes president: “Because everybody knows the political life of Lula, but few know his personal life—and that is our focus and what interested us when deciding to tell this story.

In a way the absence of politics goes hand in hand with the creative team’s understanding of Lula’s legacy. With someone so resolutely beyond politics, how could anybody possibly make a political film, as Luiz Barreto states: “I followed Lula’s trajectory since the ‘70’s. I always thought he represented a new alternative in Brazilian political scene, without the left or right ideology, communism or not.”

Essentially, “Lula: Son of Brazil” is the same kind of rags-to-riches story as “Ray”, about Ray Charles, or “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, about Loretta Lynn. Instead of growing up to be a Grammy winner, Lula grew up to be the leader of a major trade union. As the director put it, “This movie is for people to see that even under the worst conditions, we can achieve great things. Lula is a migrant from the Northeast, a former laborer, one of our equals, who persisted, and worked hard, and became President.”

Ironically, despite their best (or worst) intentions, the end product is very much political since it depicts Lula very much as a careerist and an opportunist. He only gets involved with his trade union when his wife dies in childbirth, leaving him at his wit’s end. He tells his mother that he is keeping himself busy with the union just to get his personal tragedy off his mind.

The film creates an interesting tension between Lula and forces to his left and right. Like walking a tightrope, Lula always makes sure to stay on his feet. The right is symbolized by Claudio Feitosa, the piggish bureaucrat who runs the metalworkers union and who co-opts Lula on his re-election slate in order to bring “fresh blood” into the union.

Feitosa would never mistake Lula for his brother Ziza, who is a member of the Communist Party and the metalworkers union. Lula clearly regards his brother as a hothead and impractical but sticks with him through thick and thin. Their close ties are tested during a factory occupation in the 1960s in which a foreman is thrown to his death from a tall parapet in retaliation for the death of a striking worker. Lula recoils in horror, telling his brother that this is not what he believes in.

In another scene, once again involving a militant strike but this time with Lula in command, the workers are urged by him to go back to work. While such a decision is often made after a democratic discussion weighing the pros and cons, the movie depicts Lula as basically making the decision for the workers who are then asked to ratify it. When they accuse him of being a traitor to the cause, he calls a general meeting in which they are asked to vote in favor of his removal if they are unhappy. With absolutely no motivation other than hero worship, one supposes, they decide to keep him on as their Great Leader, chanting “Lula, Lula, Lula”.

The film ends with pictures of the real Lula shaking hands with Thabo Mbeki, Bill Gates and Bono—a perfect image to cap off what we have seen for over two hours.

That being said, I can still recommend the film since it contains some very dramatic depictions of the class struggle in Brazil, no matter the commitment of its makers not to stray in that direction. One scene in particular will be overwhelming. Lula is addressing the workers in a soccer stadium where there is no sound system. Guess how his words make it throughout the stadium? Guess what! He uses the mic check method of Occupy Wall Street long before the technique became so closely identified with the new movement.

You can see “Lula: Son of Brazil” either at the Quad Cinema or at the Lincoln Plaza theater. For all its flaws, it is clearly superior to the currently playing biopic on J. Edgar Hoover–to be sure.

Back in the early 90s, I attempted to come to grips with the problems of “Marxism-Leninism”, the organizational form that had led to sect and cult formations, particularly in the Maoist and Trotskyist movement. I wrote an article titled “Lenin in Context” that looked at alternatives to that model, including the Workers Party in Brazil that had not yet taken power. I first learned about the Workers Party when I was in the Trotskyist movement in the mid-70s when it held out promise for becoming a genuine mass revolutionary party. My disappointment with what it became led me to excise the portion of my article dealing with Lula and the Workers Party. I include it below to give you an idea of the kinds of hope I had at the time. I should add that if there’s anything I have learn in politics over the years, it is the power of big capital to corrupt our movement:

One of the first fresh, new formations to emerge in this generally reactionary period was the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), or Workers Party, of Brazil. Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, a worker and a trade union activist, was part of number of workers, intellectuals, Catholic Church priest-activists who saw the need for a new socialist party in Brazil. They thought the CP and SP of Brazil were too ready to compromise with whichever politician on the scene who best represented the forces of the “progressive” wing of the capitalist class. Another ingredient in the formation of the Workers Party was the conscious leadership of ex-Trotskyists who gave the new group badly needed organizational knowledge. This is the best role for Trotskyists around the world today: to dissolve their parties and help to form broader, non-sectarian formations like the Workers Party of Brazil.

Lula was born in 1945 in the poor northeastern town of Garanhuns, Pernambuco. He was the youngest of 8 children born to Aristides and Euridice da Silva, subsistence farmers. In 1956, the family moved to Sao Paulo, where they dwelled in one room at the back of a bar. They shared the bathroom with bar customers.

At the age of thirteen Lula went to work in a factory that manufactured nuts and bolts. There were 12-hour work shifts at the plant and very little attention paid to the safety and health of the workers. Consequently young Lula lost the little finger of his left hand.

Lula, whose older brother was a CP’er, became a union activist in the early 1970’s. In 1972, he won election to the Metalworker’s Union directory board of Sao Bernando. Three years later, he became president of the union. He won with 92 percent of the vote from the 140,000 members.

In the late 1970’s, a wave of labor militancy swept Brazil under the impact of IMF-imposed austerity. Lula’s union struck the Saab-Scania truck company in May of 1978. It was the first large-scale strike in a decade. Lula spoke to a strike assembly for the first time there. On day one of the strike, workers showed up but refused to operate their machines. The struggle spread to other multinational automobile companies. At the end of the second week, some 80,000 workers were on a sit-down strike. Their strength caught the government by surprise and it could not mobilize the army in time. The strikers won a 24.5 pay increase.

This was the background of the formation of the Workers Party. A founding convention on February 10, 1980 launched the party. Lula addressed the 750 attendees, “It’s time to finish with the ideological rustiness of those who sit at home reading Marx and Lenin. It’s time to move from theory to practice. The Workers Party is not the result of any theory but the result of twenty-four hours of practice.”

At the Seventh National Conference of the Workers Party in May 1990, the party defended socialism without qualifications. The collapse of bureaucratic socialism throughout the Soviet bloc inspired the document appropriately called “Our Socialism”. The party upheld democratic socialism everywhere. The document said, “We denounce the premeditated assassination of hundreds of rural workers in Brazil and the crimes against humanity committed in Bucharest or in Tiananmen Square with the same indignation. Socialism, for the PT, will either be radically or it will not be socialism.”

In section seven of the document, the Workers Party explained its conception of how to build a revolutionary party. “We wanted to avoid both ideological abstraction, the elitist offense of the traditional Brazilian left, and the frazzled pragmatism of so many other parties. A purely ideological profundity at the summit would serve no purpose unless it corresponded to the real political culture of our party and social rank-and-file. Besides, the leadership also lacked experience that only the patient, continuous, democratic mass struggle could provide.”

Compare this with James P. Cannon’s declaration that his minuscule Trotskyist faction was the “vanguard of the vanguard” in 1930. The Workers Party leadership had already led mass strikes against the bosses, broad struggles for democratic liberties and peasant movements, including the one that took the life of Chico Mendoza, a party member. Yet it says that it lacked experience. This type of modesty coming from forces obviously so capable of leading millions in struggle is truly inspiring.

* * * *

If “Lula: Son of Brazil” is an exercise in avoiding politics, then the “Robinson Trilogy” now showing at the Anthology Film Archives until the 18th is an example of what a committed radical filmmaker is capable of given the social and economic crisis of Great Britain for the past seventeen years. Back in 1994, director Patrick Keiller made “London”, a lacerating look at the decay Tory rule left in its wake in the capital city. This first installment in the trilogy was followed three years later by “Robinson in Space”, which despite its title is all about the same kind of decay occurring throughout the country. The Anthology is pairing these two works with Keiller’s latest, “Robinson in Ruins”, that was made in November 2010.

The eponymous Robinson is a fictional character used as a device to structure these sui generis documentaries that owe as much to the written essay as they do to film. In the first two films, the late Paul Scofield narrates along the lines of describing what Robinson saw and did in his travels around the country. The unnamed narrator is a friend of the fictional character Robinson who symbolizes the country’s political and ethical soul. He wanders about taking in the contemporary rot, trying to place it in historical context making reference, for example, to the enclosure acts.

In the last film, Vanessa Redgrave is the narrator, once again giving voice to the fictional Robinson. Rather than trying to describe these unique documentaries, I invite you to look at “London”, the first film in the series. If this strikes you as worthy, then do not waste time. Go to the Anthology and catch all three.

March 23, 2011

I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You

Filed under: Brazil,Film — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

“I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You” is a remarkable film being shown starting tomorrow at one of New York’s most remarkable institutions: Anthology Film Archives. First, some words about the film and then some about the institution.

As soon as I figured out what the film was about, my immediate reaction was to eject the screener from my DVD player. This Brazilian film, co-directed by Karim Ainouz and Marcelo Gomes, has only one character—a 35 year old unnamed and unseen geologist (Irandhir Santos) who is driving around northeastern Brazil in proximity to the site of a new canal that he works on. We see the desolate but beautiful flatlands from his perspective, mostly behind the wheel of a car, while listening to a nearly stream of consciousness voiceover about the people he knows in the region, as well as a woman named Blondie who he has just split up from. I was skeptical that drama could be eked out of what amounts to a single-character screenplay. Thankfully, I was rewarded by one of the more penetrating psychological portraits in a very long time, mixing existential angst with oblique reflections about the impact of environmental change of the kind that is transforming Brazil as radically as China.

In an odd way, the geologist has an affinity for the Brazilian underclass reminiscent of the artist Vik Muniz whose collaboration with the recyclers working in the vast landfill Gramacho elevated them to the same status as the artwork they recreated. Unlike Muniz, however, there’s a psychological gulf between him and the prostitutes, shoemakers and other characters he meets on his peregrinations. They describe their hopes and their fears to him, while he reserves his own for those viewing the film, those privileged to hear his self-doubts and fears.

Much of the film consists of silent vistas of the Brazilian countryside that is about as flat in this region as Texas. Indeed, I had the same sort of forlorn feeling that the geologist had as I used to navigate the back-country roads just beyond Houston in the mid-1970s. Unlike the geologist, I had a sense of solidarity with the socialists I had joined down there, although it was rapidly eroding.

The final scenes in the film consist of the geologist surveying the town that is about to be inundated with water, a necessary result of Brazil’s relentless modernization. He does not render a political judgment on the changes taking place but you cannot be left without a feeling that the changes—that he is in the vanguard of fomenting—leave him as empty as the love affair that has just ended in failure.

Defying conventional expectations of film-making, the directors have found exactly the right venue to present their work.

Anthology Film Archives was founded in 1969 by Jonas Mekas, Jerome Hill, P. Adams Sitney, Peter Kubelka, and Stan Brakhage. The website described this as “An ambitious attempt to define the art of cinema by means of a selection of films which would screen continuously, the Essential Cinema collection was intended to encourage the study of the medium’s masterworks as works of art rather than disposable entertainment, making Anthology the first museum devoted to film as an art form.”

Disposable entertainment, indeed. As I look desperately for a movie in my own neighborhood at the local Cineplex, I often feel as frustrated as trying to find a book to read in an airport magazine stand.

Stan Brakhage died 8 years ago at the age of 70. I saw him present some of his films at Bard College in 1961 and was struck by the audacity of his vision, even if I did not understand the narrative. The experimental film of this period is largely a dead art even though its traces can be seen everywhere, including work such as “I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You”. In an interview with BOMB Magazine, director Karim Aïnouz describes his attitude toward film-making that is very much in the spirit of Stan Brakhage and the other defiantly non-commercial founders of Anthology Film Archives:

TC: You sometimes make short films, as personal exercises leading up to longer work. I saw one of those shorts about a small jail in an arid place and how characters both in and out of the jail relate to that space. Tell me about that creative process.

KA: There is a big contradiction in my relationship to filmmaking. Ultimately film is a means of expression and communication. You do a film so people can see it, and that’s why sometimes I think I’m in the wrong place. I have a really hard time letting my films be public. The film that you mentioned, Happiness Lives Here, was done in 1997 and I never fully finished it. Filmmaking for me relates to writing a diary. It’s a personal expression of what I believe, how I see the world, and how I relate to people. So those short exercises are the part of my filmmaking that I like to keep to myself. I like making feature films for different reasons: communication, working with a crew, making creative partners, and developing a project over time. Filmmaking is so much about the audience and the reception, and yet there’s something very personal about it that I can’t let go of.

Check http://anthologyfilmarchives.org/ for scheduling information on this most interesting work.

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