Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 25, 2014

Irwin and Fran

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 9:23 pm

Like “American Revolutionary: The Evolution Of Grace Lee Boggs”, another documentary about a long-time leftist, “Irwin and Fran” starts with its protagonist Irwin Corey walking down a city street with the aid of a walker. Each film is a deeply touching tribute to a personality who kept true to their beliefs over a lifetime at some personal risk. While Corey’s main emphasis was on making people laugh, there were some who did not find him funny at all. After performing at a fund-raiser for the Foner brothers, who were facing charges of being “subversives”, Corey ended up on the blacklist himself.

Professor Irwin Corey in his prime:

His wife Fran had more in common with Grace Lee Boggs although her loyalties were to the CPUSA rather than the Trotskyist movement. Made 5 years ago, when she was 92 and he was 95, they reminisce about the 1930s. She was out organizing demonstrations against Franco while he was performing in leftwing musicals like “Pins and Needles”. Seen smoking pot (she prefers cigarettes), Irwin says that the CP rejected his membership application. Taking a hit off his pipe, he says between coughs, “They thought I was an anarchist.”

The CP probably had a point. Like Lord Buckley, another comedian I grew up loving in the late 50s, Corey did not tell jokes. Instead he worked in what came across as stream-of-consciousness riffs on high culture, with the emphasis on high. As “the world’s greatest authority”, Corey could be relied upon to mangle references to Shakespeare or the Bible, mocking the sort of people who define the parameters of high culture. In one scene from this deeply touching documentary directed by Jordan Stone, we see Corey in his standard issue frock coat bumming a cigarette from an audience member and then smoking it as if it were a reefer. He quips, “I hope we don’t get arrested”. Considering that this was from 1958 or so, that took a lot of balls.

Irwin Corey was born to a poverty-stricken Jewish family in 1914. So desperate were they that they were forced to put him in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York, the same place that the Trotskyist Sol Dollinger and his brother ended up and for the same reason.

Lenny Bruce considered Professor Irwin Corey, as he was known in performance, as the greatest comedian of his age. When Thomas Pynchon won an award for “Gravity’s Rainbow”, he sent Corey to receive it on his behalf. According to the NY Times, his speech was “…a series of bad jokes and mangled syntax which left some people roaring with laughter and others perplexed.” Over on the Irwin Corey website, you can read a loving tribute to Corey by Kenneth Tynan, one of those people who the comedian likely had in mind when he was telling those bad jokes in mangled syntax: “a cultural clown, a parody of literacy, a travesty of all that our civilization holds dear and one of the funniest grotesques in America. He is Chaplin’s clown with a college education.”

“Irwin and Fran” opened last night at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. If you care about the left, popular culture, and America’s true values, don’t miss this wonderful documentary.

 

February 18, 2014

One rich guy

Filed under: capitalist pig,comedy — louisproyect @ 11:22 pm

February 13, 2014

Sid Caesar, legendary comedian, dead at 91

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:57 pm

Sid Caesar died yesterday at the age of 91. The N.Y. Times obituary (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/arts/television/sid-caesar-comic-who-blazed-tv-trail-dies-at-91.html) pays tribute to his remarkable breakthroughs as a comedian that Alfred Hitchcock compared to Charlie Chaplin and who counted Albert Einstein as one of biggest fans. Speaking of Chaplin and Einstein, a couple of lefties, I can’t say I am surprised that the obit did not pay attention to Sid Caesar’s early leftist affinities. While they never were manifested in his hugely popular TV show, his evolution as a comic was definitely just as much a product of the New Deal popular culture as Pete Seeger’s.

I had pretty strong connections to Sid Caesar even though I never spoke a word to him. This is partly a function of my being a young kid when he used to show up in Woodridge, my hometown, from time to time but also a function of his intimidating presence. He used to show up at the pharmacy next to my dad’s store “strapped”—he was heavily into guns. Plus, he was a big guy who gave off “don’t bother me” vibes. As it turned out, Sid was a health food nut even if he was not above developing a spoof on the bean sprout scene.

I know for a fact that he was a health food nut because the owner of the hotel where he got his start used to call my father up to order his best fruits and vegetables for Sid. This is captured in the excerpt from my abortive memoir below, as well as the leftist connections. (Btw, if any of my enemies—you know who you are—needs wising up, I am posting the excerpt under the provisions of the Fair Use provisions of the copyright laws.)

My first reference to Sid’s leftist past that formed the basis for the comic book passage was prompted by a visit to a conference on the Catskills organized by Phil Brown, a Brown University sociologist whose parents ran a small hotel not far from my home town. The entire report is at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/borschtbelt.htm

Here’s the relevant part:

Most people know about the resort hotels and the famed Jewish comedians who got their start there, including Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hackett among others. What is not so well-known is that the area was a hotbed of left-wing politics. I suppose that wherever Jews can be found there is bound to be left-wing politics, except Israel that is.

Sid Caesar got his start at the Avon Lodge about a mile from my father’s fruit store. His comedy show was the biggest thing on television in the fifties. The writing staff included Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks at one point. Caesar had a violent temper and during a writing session once held an errant writer outside the window of the NBC offices by his heels.

He would come to my village to do some shopping whenever he was upstate for a weekend getaway. Sid was a gun-nut and would always come to town with big revolvers in his holster and a cartridge belt fully loaded. He would spend hours at a time on the firing range at the Avon Lodge venting his rage on tin cans and bottles. When I drove my bicycle down the road near the Avon Lodge, I could always hear him shooting. Ka-boom. Ka-boom. Ka-boom.

The Avon Lodge was co-owned by the Arkins and the Neukrugs. Sid Caesar had married an Arkin. The Neukrugs were rumored to be red. I studied piano briefly with Henrietta Neukrug in 1957 and in the middle of practicing “Row-row-your-boat” one afternoon, I turned to her and asked, “Mrs. Neukrug, are you a Communist?” She glared at me and told me that I was rude. Many years later as my exploits as a globe-trotting radical became common knowledge in town, the Neukrugs decided to turn over a box of Henrietta’s mementos after she died. It included many pamphlets by William Z. Foster, WEB DuBois and Sy Gerson, etc., and a hand-painted portrait of Joseph Stalin. Her family’s gesture meant a lot more to me than the contents of the box.

Here’s the graphic version:

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January 25, 2014

Thoughts on Diana Johnstone and Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala

Filed under: anti-Semitism,comedy,France — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

Over the years I’ve noticed an unfortunate tendency for the left to conduct polemics like an attorney. If someone like Nicholas Kristof is a district attorney building a case against Robert Mugabe, for example, he includes only his misdeeds. Then the leftist will trawl through print and electronic media to prove to the jury—the fence sitting public—that Mugabe is the best thing that ever happened to the people of Zimbabwe. The prosecution will fixate on homophobia and electoral fraud, while the defense will urge the jury to consider the sweeping land reform. Leaving aside Shakespeare’s suggestion as to what should happen to lawyers, it would probably be best for the left—particularly those who see themselves operating under the rubric of Marxism—to adopt a more dialectical approach, one that considers the contradictions and aspires to a higher level understanding.

Those were the thoughts that occurred to me after reading 80-year-old veteran left journalist Diana Johnstone’s defense of the besieged French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala that can be read here, here, and here in chronological order. The lawyer analogy certainly applies here more than in other cases since Dieudonné has been charged numerous times under France’s draconian Holocaust laws. Johnstone writes in her most recent piece in the Counterpunch Jan. 25-26 Weekend edition:

Dieudonné has been fined 8,000 euros for his song “Shoananas”, and further such condemnations are in the offing.  Such lawsuits, brought primarily by LICRA (Ligue internationale contre le racisme et l’antisémitisme), also aim to wipe him out financially.

One line in the chorus against Dieudonné is that he is “no longer a comedian” but has turned his shows into “anti-Semitic political meetings” which spread “hatred”.  Even the distant New Yorker magazine has accused the humorist of making a career out of peddling “hatred”.  This raises images of terrible things happening that are totally remote from a Dieudonné show or its consequences.

Much of Johnstone’s coverage of the case makes excellent points about the Holocaust industry in France in which the state and NGO’s use Hitler’s exterminationist policies as a cudgel to enforce Zionist ideological hegemony.

Since it would be unwise for an attorney to be too obvious, Johnstone does acknowledge one petty crime in the defendant’s rap sheet:

The worst thing Dieudonné has ever said during his performances, so far as I am aware, was a personal insult against the radio announcer Patrick Cohen.  Cohen has insistently urged that persons he calls “sick brains” such as Dieudonné or Tariq Ramadan be banned from television appearances.  In late December, French television (which otherwise has kept Dieudonné off the airwaves) recorded Dieudonné  saying that “when I hear Patrick Cohen talking, I think to myself, you know, the gas chambers…Too bad…”

She considered the gas chambers remark “offensive” but not “typical of Dieudonné’s shows.”

I certainly understand how jokes can be made about extermination. In “Defamation”, a documentary on Norman Finkelstein and Abe Foxman made by an Israeli filmmaker, we see Norman in the stairwell of his building raising his arm in a Nazi salute as unexpectedly as Dr. Strangelove. That’s his way of showing that he refuses to bow down to the Israel lobby. There’s also Larry David who provokes a Zionist neighbor into a screaming fit after he hires a string quartet to play Wagner on his front lawn on the occasion of his wife’s birthday. I know for a fact that my rich uncle Mike wanted to spite my mostly Jewish and Zionist village in the Borscht Belt by buying my cousin Louis a Mercedes-Benz roadster on his 16th birthday back when German goods were verboten. Who are they to tell me what car to buy, he insisted.

There’s only one problem in trying to apply this type of joking across the board. It is one thing for a Jew to make jokes about six million killed; it is another for someone like Dieudonné. As an analogy, when Black rappers use the word “nigger” in a song, it has a different character than when a Klansman would.

Now, I would leave open the possibility that Dieudonné is only “playing” a character with provocative statements about genocide after the fashion of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat but there are some worrying signs that there is more to it than that. Johnstone says that the wisecrack about gas chambers is not typical but how would she characterize the guest appearance of genocide “revisionist” Robert Faurisson during a Dieudonné performance. One can certainly understand Chomsky defending the free speech rights of Faurisson but you judge whether this is what prompted Dieudonné to invite him on stage:

I also wonder what his goal was in the film L’Antisémite that unfortunately was another victim of France’s repressive legal codes. I find Tablet magazine to be an obnoxious purveyor of Zionist propaganda but something tells me that this account rings true:

The opening 2-minute skit of the film consists of a Chaplanesque [sic] newsreel narration set during the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The quivering, grabby hand of a pinstriped inmate extends out from behind barbed wire as the emaciated survivor jostles with a fleshy cigar-smoking capo for attention from the camera. Dieudonné arrives dressed as an American sergeant and throws scraps of food at the beggar, commanding him with a hearty laugh and flash cards to “Mange! Bouffe!” (“Eat! Grub!”) The prisoner then reveals the existence of the gas chambers to Dieudonné. As a kitten laps up liquid from a Zyklon B canister, Dieudonné sniffs at the canister suspiciously and then dabs some on his neck like cologne. Together they sift through the ashes of a barbecue pit. “Chicken?” the skeptical Dieudonné asks. “No, those are children’s bones,” the prisoner tells him. Dieudonné proceeds to sit on a leather chair only to be yelled at by the prisoner “for sitting on my grandmother!” He picks up a chandelier and asks if it too was made of Jewish skin. “Bien sûr,” replies the prisoner before Dieudonné plops it over his head and electrifies him as if in a cartoon. The film also features guest appearances by the aged Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson and ghastly National Front ideological guru Alain Soral.

I don’t know. I think I have a pretty good sense of humor but this sounds like the work of what Bebel called the “socialism of fools”.

Well, maybe Dieudonné cast Soral because he is photogenic or because he wanted to make some subtle satirical point. The historical record is a bit disconcerting. In 2009 the two men ran for the European Parliament elections on the Anti-Zionist Party ticket. Their program was unabashedly pro-Muslim and benefited from Soral’s populist message:

The fight against the rise of commercial globalist totalitarianism which is what the European Union is in reality; the defense of French workers and their rights against the plan for the destruction of our industries, public services, and small businesses by globalized capitalism, hence by the European Union; the return of the State to all large economic sectors, or a well-reasoned protectionism.

It should of course be understood that Johnstone has a soft spot in her heart for the National Front Party in France, whose leader Marine Le Pen she considered a “moderate” among the candidates running in the 2012 elections:

This applies notably to Marine Le Pen, whose social program was designed to win working class and youth votes.  Her “far right” label is due primarily to her criticism of Muslim practices in France and demands to reduce immigration quotas, but her position on these issues would be considered moderate in the Netherlands or in much of the United States.

While Marine Le Pen and Alain Soral were both associated with the National Front, he apparently broke with them on how to regard Muslim immigrants. With respect to the National Front’s demand to “reduce immigration quotas”, Marine Le Pen has a flair for demonstrating her party’s program on keeping the undesirables out. In 2011 she visited Lampedusa, an Italian island that is an entry point for North African boat people. She stated during her visit that Europe’s navies “in reality … should go as close as possible to the coasts from where the clandestine boats departed to send them back.” Lampedusa, of course, was in the news last year for being in proximity to a boat from North Africa that capsized and left 300 dead.

One would think that a man with a Cameroonian father would want to hold National Front politicians—past and present—at arm’s length, given their nativist politics or that they would want to keep their distance from him given his pro-Muslim statements. However, the relationship between Dieudonné and Le Pen the father and Le Pen the daughter is complex, to say the least.

The Financial Times reported that Marine Le Pen agrees with the penalties being handed down against the one-time comedian:

Marine Le Pen, who heads France’s far-right National Front party, prides herself on being a lawyer, and a media lawyer at that. So she has no doubt that chilling anti-Semitic statements made recently by the provocative comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala are actionable under a French law that bans hate speech.

“What he said against Patrick Cohen is against the law, and Mr. Dieudonné knows that perfectly well,” she said last week during a two-hour interview with the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris. “So he must assume the consequences, and he should be sanctioned.”

Yet the father is still on his side apparently:

However, she didn’t deny that he is a friend of her father, who, by the way, is godfather to one of Dieudonné’s children. “One can have a friendship for someone without sharing their ideas, or being condemned in their place,” she added.

If only it were so simple. In fact, her father’s views are not so far from those of Dieudonné, particularly about the Holocaust, a regular theme of the comedian’s routine. Mr. Le Pen once famously dismissed the Holocaust as “a mere detail of history.” In 2012, an appeals court upheld a three-month suspended sentence and a €10,000 fine against Mr. Le Pen for his statement that the Nazi occupation of France was not “particularly inhumane.”

I really wonder what went through Dieudonné’s mind when he decided that Jean-Marie Le Pen was just the right person to be his kid’s godfather. After the French banlieue riots, he had this to say: “Many live by dealing in drugs, or stealing. They have created their own ghettos. We have places where there are no schools, because they have set them afire and the police and firemen are attacked when they go there. Civilization is slowly evaporating from this country.”

I could be wrong but Dieudonné strikes me as the French version of Clarence Thomas or Roy Innis, the former civil rights leader who found it to his advantage to hook up with the Republican Party right. It is a bit harder to place Dieudonné politically on the French spectrum since he tends to be coy about what he stands for, but if you think that he is on the left, then you really have no idea what the left is about.

I want to conclude with what is the most important point of all. It should be obvious that charges against Dieudonné as helping to creating the conditions for anti-Semitic pogroms is utter nonsense. Jews enjoy a privileged position in the entire industrialized world and their elites are deeply embedded with the majority Christian ruling class. The people who have the most to worry are the Muslims in places like France, Spain or Italy who get beaten up or killed by skinhead mobs who are facilitated by the “mainstream” political parties such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front that like the KKK in the United States learned long ago to wear business suits rather than white robes.

The problem is Dieudonné’s amalgam between Zionist and Jew that is exactly the equation put forward by the Abe Foxman’s and Eli Wiesel’s of the world. With so many young Jews on the front lines supporting BDS, the tides are turning against Zionism. The goal of the left should be to deepen the divide between young Jews who understand how rotten Zionism is, not to spread the lie that being a Jew and being a Zionist is the same thing.

Dieudonné’s greatest offense is not that he is anti-Semitic; it is that he is anti-political.

July 31, 2013

When Comedy Went to School

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,Film,humor,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 4:15 pm

Although I am sure that just about everybody will be as enchanted by “When Comedy went to School”—a documentary on stand-up comedians of the Borscht Belt that opens today at the IFC in NY—as me, I have a particular connection to the film as someone who lived in the midst of the resort area in its heyday. The film will give you much more of an insight into this yeasty slice of Jewish life than any fictional film like “Dirty Dancing” can.

A WSJ interview with Robert Klein (it is behind a paywall but can be read through Google News on a search for the article’s title “Borscht Belt, Behind the Scenes”), the film’s narrator and veteran stand-up comic who launched his career in the Catskills, mentions him working at the Alamac Hotel as a lifeguard. My mother was very close to the family who owned the hotel in my hometown and connected me to Kenny Gottlieb, a busboy who worked there. Kenny, who was an opera-loving Amherst student, turned me on to Weiser’s bookstore in N.Y. that was owned by his uncle Sam. Weiser’s was devoted to occult religions and as such was a shrine for Beat poets who went there to gather material on Plotinus, Gnosticism, St. John of the Cross et al. It was after my own visits to Weiser’s in my teens that I decided to become a religion major at Bard College as a latecomer to the beat generation. (Through Google’s long tentacles, I learned that Kenny died in 2009 after flying his Cessna into a hillside in Napa, California.)

Despite the Borscht Belt’s rural location, the “townies” were always absorbing New York’s cultural influences from the young men and women who worked in the hotels. It was at the New Roxy, my friend Eli’s hotel where Rodney Dangerfield used to perform as Jack Roy, where I made contact with Don the lifeguard. I have vivid memories of chatting with Don, who looked like James Dean and screwed half the women who stayed there over the summer, about what he was reading at the time. He turned me on to Genet. I was also turned on to Panamanian Red that I bought from Freddy the waiter. It cost $15 an ounce back in 1961 and one shared joint could put four people on their ass.

Screen shot 2013-07-31 at 12.05.58 PM

You get a flavor of the affinity between the comedians who worked there and the burgeoning bohemian scene from Sandy Hackett, who reminisces about his dad Buddy in the film. It turns out that Buddy and Lenny Bruce, who both got started performing in the Catskills, were roommates in New York. If you knew anything about their respective public personae, it is a little bit like hearing that Charlie Parker and James Brown were roommates. The two comedians lived in a cheap studio apartment in the Village, where they covered the floor with sand in which they planted a beach umbrella. Women were invited up to smoke a joint and enjoy a faux day at the ocean.

For me one of the great pleasures of the film was watching the 87-year-old Jerry Lewis and the 91-year-old Sid Caesar holding forth on their early days in the Catskills in the 30s and 40s. By 1958, the two were king of the motion picture and television respectively. If you went to a premiere of a Martin and Lewis comedy, you’d expect to stand on a line to buy tickets that went around the block. Around the same time Sid Caesar’s “Show of Shows” had a bigger audience share on NBC than Seinfeld. For my money, Caesar’s show was ten times hipper than Seinfeld’s (Seinfeld’s career was also launched in the Catskill’s but at a time when it was on the decline.) It was on the “Show of Shows” where I saw him leading the cast in a parody of what was obviously a Kurosawa movie long before I knew that Kurosawa existed.

Screen shot 2013-07-31 at 11.45.12 AM

At this point, it is worth including the panels above are from my abortive memoir done with Harvey Pekar even though his widow has warned me that I do not have her permission to do so. The shrill and vindictive woman obviously understands nothing about “fair use” laws.

Mel Brooks was among the writers for “The Show of Shows”. Some years later Woody Allen wrote for Sid Caesar TV specials. Both men got started in the Catskills. In a Wikipedia article on Borscht Belt humor, Brooks is included as an example of puns, one of the four dominant characteristics:

  • Bad luck: “When I was a kid, I was breast-fed by my father.” (Dangerfield)
  • Puns: “Sire, the peasants are revolting!” “You said it. They stink on ice.” (Harvey Korman as Count de Money (Monet) and Mel Brooks as King Louis XVI, in History of the World Part I)
  • Physical complaints and ailments (often relating to bowels and cramping): “My doctor said I was in terrible shape. I told him, ‘I want a second opinion.’ He said, ‘All right, you’re ugly too!'” “I told my doctor, ‘This morning when I got up and saw myself in the mirror, I looked awful! What’s wrong with me?’ He replied, ‘I don’t know, but your eyesight is perfect!'” (Dangerfield)
  • Aggravating relatives and nagging wives: “My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.” (Dangerfield). “Take my wife—please!” (Henny Youngman); “My wife drowned in the pool because she was wearing so much jewelry.” (Rickles); “My wife ain’t too bright. One day our car got stolen. I said to her, ‘Did you get a look at the guy?’ She said, ‘No, but I got the license number.'” (Dangerfield) “This morning the doorbell rang. I said ‘Who is it?’ He said ‘It’s the Boston strangler.’ I said ‘It’s for you dear!'” (Youngman)

I don’t care much for the sexist junk about wives but all the rest of it rings a bell and was certainly an influence on my own sense of humor. The Wikipedia summary, however, does not mention what for me is the crowing element of Borscht Belt humor: self-deprecation. Although he was only part of the Catskills in the eleventh hour, Woody Allen was a master of self-deprecation. A typical Allen joke from this period: “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”

Some say that brevity is the soul of wit. For me it is self-deprecation. While I am the target of deprecators near and far, I always beat them to the punch. In order to make my posts on the most abstruse topics palatable to the average radical, I try to thrown in a few jokes like the chopped meat surrounding a pill given to a pet dog.

When I was in the early stages of writing the text for the memoir I did with Pekar, I told him that it would be filled with jokes. I said that it would be in the spirit of the stand-up comedians I used to hear when I was a teen in the Catskills. Too bad it will never see the light of day except for these “fair use” samples. That’s her loss financially and mine creatively. But most of all, it is a loss to her late husband’s legacy that matters less to her than her petty feud with me.

June 24, 2013

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: african-american,comedy,Film,Russia — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

As a wistful look at funeral homes in the Black community, the documentary “Homegoings” that opens today at Maysles Cinema in the heart of Harlem is the perfect companion piece to Spike Lee’s first movie “Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads”. Although Lee’s movie is a fairly conventional crime melodrama with the owners of the barbershop having stolen money from racketeers, it is best when it is about the small talk that goes on in one of the Black community’s longest standing institutions. As two barbers are playing checkers, the subject turns to straightening hair. “Processes ruin the hair and the brain too. That’s why we’ve got so many dumb brothers,” says one barber to the other.

“Homegoings”, a euphemism for death that speaks volumes, features Harlem funeral director Isaiah Owens, a sixtyish man who really brings this ostensibly morbid subject matter to life. An obvious geek when he was young, Owens was obsessed with burying dead animals—frogs, cats, dogs, you name it. He also loved to simulate funerals with miniature objects in the same way that I used to play with toy soldiers, something he reenacts in the course of the film.

Last Thursday I almost ventured down to a “Death Café” in downtown Manhattan, a group that meets monthly to discuss death—obviously. At the age of 68, this is a subject that has more currency than it had when I was 28. Four decades ago I understood intellectually that I was not going to live forever (I can hear many of my readers shouting “Hurray!”) but it was nothing to brood about. Nowadays that’s mostly what I have on my mind, when I am not brooding about the Brenner thesis or the sorry state of Hollywood movies. The NY Times reported on the death café:

Socrates did not fear death; he calmly drank the hemlock. Kierkegaard was obsessed with death, which made him a bit gloomy. As for Lorraine Tosiello, a 58-year-old internist in Bradley Beach, N.J., it is the process of dying that seems endlessly puzzling.

“I’m more interested, philosophically, in what is death? What is that transition?” Dr. Tosiello said at a recent meeting in a Manhattan coffee shop, where eight people had shown up on a Wednesday night to discuss questions that philosophers have grappled with for ages.

The group, which meets monthly, is called a Death Cafe, one of many such gatherings that have sprung up in nearly 40 cities around the country in the last year. Offshoots of the “café mortel” movement that emerged in Switzerland and France about 10 years ago, these are not grief support groups or end-of-life planning sessions, but rather casual forums for people who want to bat around philosophical thoughts. What is death like? Why do we fear it? How do our views of death inform the way we live?

I was not surprised to learn from my friend Jeffrey, who is even older than me believe it or not, that his mind is wrapped around the same questions. I think to some extent this is a function of both of us having parents who went through a fairly lengthy experience being ground down by lengthy illnesses—in his father’s case Parkinson’s and in my mother’s case heart disease. It tends to focus the mind.

In “Homegoings” you get a totally different take on dying. As the title of the movie implies, there is a joy that awaits the average devout Harlemite serviced by Owens’s specialized trade, which involves among other things applying a kind of botox treatment to make a 92 year old dead person look years younger so that the funeral service will be more upbeat. One supposes that this is essentially what religion is about, making you believe that there is everlasting life in heaven. Of course, for those unlucky enough to be raised in a Jewish household, where such beliefs are understated, and beyond that to have matured as atheists, there’s little to console us except the knowledge that we don’t have to worry about going to hell—a real bonus for someone like me.

Now available from Showtime on-demand, “Richard Pryor—Omit the Logic” is a fascinating account of the Dorian Gray-like rise and fall of arguably the USA’s greatest stand-up comedian next to Lenny Bruce. As was the case with Bruce, Pryor’s decline can be attributed to the abuse he took from industry heavies as well as the self-abuse of a major heavy drug habit.

But digging a bit deeper into the Pryor story, I am convinced that the comparison is better made with Miles Davis, another Black artist whose improvisational skills rivaled Pryor’s. What one did with a horn, the other did through stories and jokes.

The documentary is graced by interviews with both the people who knew him as friends or lovers, as well as knowledgeable students of African-American society—most notably Walter Moseley and Ishmael Reed.

The film of course includes footage from nightclub, television and film appearances but it does not try to compete with the 1979 Richard Pryor: Live in Concert or the 1982 Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, a film made two years after he set himself on fire—supposedly a free-basing accident. The film reveals, however, that this was a suicide attempt inspired by Pryor’s watching a newsreel of Buddhist monks setting themselves on fire to protest the American-backed dictatorship in Vietnam in the mid-60s.

The film also goes into detail about Pryor’s decline and eventual death from multiple sclerosis, a disease that for the first time in his life made him dependent on others and very likely for the first time in his life to learn to trust them as a result.

Another documentary available as on-request from a premium cable station (and on Youtube above until the intellectual propery cops find out), HBO’s “Pussy Riot—a Punk Prayer” is both notable as a news story and as human drama. It is also a fundamental challenge to those on the left who would treat Vladimir Putin as some kind of anti-imperialist icon because he is the target of Nicholas Kristof or Thomas Friedman’s abuse. If after watching this documentary, you can still agree with the get-tough recommendations of “leftist” blogger Moon over Alabama, then maybe you should reconsider what it means to be on the left:

Abusing places of worship for a “free speech act”, especially when that act is subjectively blasphemous to the religion, is an infringement of the right of freedom of religion. In my view such an infringement, as in this case, can not be justified by the right of free speech. There are many other places where the free speech can be made. I therefore find the sentence against Pussy Riot quite obviously justified.

This of course is utter nonsense. In 2003 a couple had sex in the pews at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in N.Y. as a shock radio prank. While awaiting trial, the man died of a heart attack—not likely a result of overexertion—but the woman got 40 hours of community service, a proverbial slap on the wrist.

The hostility toward Pussy Riot from some sectors of the left makes you wonder if they were around when Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman were up to stunts like throwing dollar bills on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. These people so anxious to see “law and order” prevail in Russia are nothing less than the purple Kryptonite reversal of the right-wingers who belonged to the Moral Majority.

In actuality, the Pussy Riot performance had little to do with shock radio. Instead, as the documentary makes clear, it was a political act that was cut from the same cloth as the Gezi Park protests in Taksim Square, but even far more engaged with anti-capitalist consciousness.

The background of the three women in Pussy Riot makes this completely clear. Maria Alyokhina, a 25-year-old single mother, was a member of Greenpeace who was active in the protests against the clearing of Khimki Forest that is part of the “green belt” around Moscow, obviously in the same spirit of the Taksim Square rebellion. The forest was to be leveled for an 8 billion dollar superhighway to connect Moscow with St. Petersburg.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is the 24-year-old daughter of an artist who was raised by her ardently communist grandmother after her parents divorced. Combing her father’s esthetics and her grandmother’s firebrand politics, she hooked up with the Voina street-art group that embodies autonomist values, including a “refusal to work” and commitment to provocative actions—thankfully excluding black block type adventurism. The film shows her and a man having sex along with other couples in the Biology Museum in Moscow, an obvious commentary on reproduction.

The thirty-year-old Yekaterina Samutsevich was the third member of the group. She took part in Operation Kiss Garbage that involved “ambush kissing” of female police officers in subway stations from January through March 2011. All told, the activities of the three women were assaults on Russian notions of propriety utterly in keeping with bohemian radicalism going back for more than a century. It was the sort of activism that was a core part of the 1960s but one that is now disavowed by many of the elderly survivors of that period who now equate radicalism with following the foreign policy initiatives of the Putin state machinery.

The film climaxes with the trial of the three women at which the prosecution expects them to grovel before the court in 1930s Moscow Trial fashion. The more they flagellate themselves, the more lenient the punishment. Defiant of the sexist, class-oppressive, environmentally destructive state apparatus, the women do not budge an inch from their principles, as their closing statement to the court makes clear:

Katya, Masha and I are in jail but I don’t consider that we’ve been defeated. Just as the dissidents weren’t defeated. When they disappeared into psychiatric hospitals and prisons, they passed judgement on the country. The era’s art of creating an image knew no winners or losers. The Oberiu poets remained artists to the very end, something impossible to explain or understand since they were purged in 1937. Vvedensky wrote: “We like what can’t be understood, What can’t be explained is our friend.” According to the official report, Aleksandr Vvedensky died on 20 December 1941. We don’t know the cause, whether it was dysentery in the train after his arrest or a bullet from a guard. It was somewhere on the railway line between Voronezh and Kazan. Pussy Riot are Vvedensky’s disciples and his heirs. His principle of ‘bad rhythm’ is our own. He wrote: “It happens that two rhythms will come into your head, a good one and a bad one and I choose the bad one. It will be the right one.” What can’t be explained is our friend. The elitist, sophisticated occupations of the Oberiu poets, their search for meaning on the edge of sense was ultimately realized at the cost of their lives, swept away in the senseless Great Terror that’s impossible to explain. At the cost of their own lives, the Oberiu poets unintentionally demonstrated that the feeling of meaninglessness and analogy, like a pain in the backside, was correct, but at the same time led art into the realm of history. The cost of taking part in creating history is always staggeringly high for people. But that taking part is the very spice of human life. Being poor while bestowing riches on many, having nothing but possessing everything. It is believed that the OBERIU dissidents are dead, but they live on. They are persecuted but they do not die.

Do you remember why the young Dostoyevsky was given the death sentence? All he had done was to spend all his time with Socialists—and at the Friday meetings of a friendly circle of free thinkers at Petrushevsky’s, he became acquainted with Charles Fourier and George Sand. At one of the last meetings, he read out Gogol’s letter to Belinsky, which was packed, according to the court, and I note, with childish expressions against the Orthodox Church and the supreme authorities. After all his preparations for the death penalty and ten dreadful, impossibly frightening minutes waiting to die, as Dostoyevsky himself put it, the announcement came that his sentence had been commuted to four years hard labour followed by military service.

Socrates was accused of corrupting youth through his philosophical discourses and of not recognizing the gods of Athens. Socrates had a connection to a divine inner voice and was by no means a theomachist, something he often said himself. What did that matter, however, when he had angered the city with his critical, dialectical and unprejudiced thinking? Socrates was sentenced to death and, refusing to run away, although he was given that option, he drank down a cup of poison in cold blood, hemlock.

Have you forgotten the circumstances under which Stephen, follower of the Apostles, ended his earthly life? “Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Council. And they put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law.’” He was found guilty and stoned to death.

And I hope everyone remembers what the Jews said to Jesus: “We’re stoning you not for any good work, but for blasphemy.” And finally it would be well worth remembering this description of Christ: “He is possessed of a demon and out of his mind.”

Read full statement.

April 26, 2013

Juan of the Dead

Filed under: comedy,cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 8:46 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition April 26-28, 2013

Cinema in the Service of Revolution

Confronting Polemics With Alfredo Guevara

by LOUIS PROYECT

This week Alfredo Guevara, the father of revolutionary Cuba’s film industry, died of a heart attack at the age of 87. The N.Y. Times obituary was refreshingly honest about the role he played:

A committed Fidelista, Mr. Guevara nevertheless insisted that art should not be subservient to politics.

“Propaganda may serve as art, and it should,” he was quoted as saying. “Art may serve as revolutionary propaganda, and it should. But art is not propaganda.”

Filmmakers credit Mr. Guevara with fending off censors and overseeing films that criticized Mr. Castro’s Cuba. He was at the center of fierce debates between artists and communist ideologues, clashing with Blas Roca, a powerful member of the Communist Party leadership, in the early 1960s in a public row over the role of culture in politics.

“He had to confront a lot of polemic,” Mr. Pineda Barnet said. “And if a polemic didn’t find him, he went looking for it.”

Despite such films as “Lucia”, “Memories of Underdevelopment”, and “Strawberry and Chocolate” that defied characterizations of Cuban cinema as propaganda machines, there is still a tendency to lump Castro’s Cuba with Stalin’s USSR, as if the typical Cuban movie was about a sugar mill meeting its quota. While one would naturally expect this from the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, it is disconcerting to see the same sort of reductionism at play in the writings of one Samuel Farber, a Cuban-American professor emeritus at Brooklyn College and a self-described socialist.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/04/26/confronting-polemics-with-alfredo-guevara/

May 11, 2012

HBO Girls: Hipsterism gone awry

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

Dunham’s Jugs A-Flashin’ Ain’t Gonna Save Girls

The HBO series Girls misfires again in this week’s episode that has viewers pulling their hair out wishing the characters would just stop their whining, grow a spine and grow up. In the wake of the recent backlash, it’s curtains for the series for this viewer (and many others) as the backlash grows.

{Note: I admire all who create. Creating is not easy. Still, when you put something you create into the world you open yourself up to criticism. Girls has been getting a fair share of it as of late, some of it deserved. The following is my opinion, take it for what it’s worth. I believe that Lena Dunham can do better.}

The problem with the HBO series Girls (by creator & star Lena Dunham) isn’t so much the backlash and controversy against the show, although that was on an epic scale. (In case you missed it, one of the show’s writers tweeted insensitive comments that were deemed “racist” which lead to a critique that for a show set in Brooklyn, a very diverse borough, it lacked diversity.) The problem in addition to that is — the show isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. The characters are so pathetic while being so arrogant at the same time that it’s hard not to feel they deserve every horrible thing that happens to them. In short: They act like idiots.

And not the endearing kind.

“Hannah’s Diary” doesn’t show them changing anytime soon. They’re still clueless girls who want us to revel in their cluelessness. They are the kind of moronic idiot that is hired as a nanny, goes to the park to talk down their nose at actual (multi-cultural) nannies, and then loses your kids. Then said nanny goes home to flirt with your husband who tells said nanny that losing children in public “happens to all of us.”

God bless and god help us all but um, cough, no — it does not.

full: http://www.sheknows.com/entertainment/articles/959665/hbo-girls-episode-recap-hannahs-diary

March 17, 2012

Kony 2012 director flips out

Filed under: comedy — louisproyect @ 12:08 pm

http://www.tmz.com/2012/03/16/jason-russell-video-naked-meltdown-kony/

 

February 5, 2012

Jacques Tati: an appreciation

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 10:27 pm

In late 2010 I watched a screener for an animated film titled “The Illusionist”, an homage to Jacques Tati being submitted to NYFCO for our yearly award ceremony. Not only did the film leave me cold, it also left me with a nagging thought: who was Jacques Tati and why was he so admired? “The Illusionist” certainly did not offer any kind of hint, despite its best intentions.

All I knew about Tati when I was first developing a passion for art movies in the early 60s was that he was some kind of clown beloved by the French, just as Cantinflas was beloved by the Mexicans. Also, like Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, he played a character named Mr. Hulot who kept getting in trouble because he either ignored or flouted social convention. Somehow, I managed to go through life without having seen a single Tati film, despite the fact that Andre Bazin ranked him with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton as an all-time comic genius.

A couple of months ago, TCM was airing “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday” and I decided to give it a shot to see what all the hoopla was about. I am glad I did since it was an eye-opening experience in more ways than one. For one thing, the limpid cinematography was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen in a black-and-white film, from Ingmar Bergman to Akira Kurosawa. Beyond that, the comedy had much more in common with Buster Keaton than Chaplin. While I am a fan of both masters, it was Keaton’s absurdist, surreal vision that stuck with me even though I was more partial to Chaplin’s politics.

I am not exactly sure why but the Netflix DVD version that I extracted this clip from abbreviated the speech of the pipe-smoking Marxist to his girl friend on top of the rocks. When I watched it on TCM, I am quite sure he went on at some length spouting a bunch of rhetoric. The character makes another appearance in the film along the same lines and it is just as funny. Tati has as much fun with a Colonel Blimp type character that is always going on at length to anybody who will listen about his exploits during WWI. I don’t think there is much going on here ideologically but works on the level of one of your more sophisticated New Yorker Magazine cartoons.

Tati was from an aristocratic Russian family named Tatischeff that settled in France. Born in 1907, Tati developed into a promising athlete in his teens, eventually becoming a semiprofessional rugby player. After launching a modest career as a film actor in the 1930s, his career was interrupted when drafted into the French army. After the war ended, he formed a film company that produced his first three films, all of which incorporated a theme that preoccupied him throughout his artistic career, namely the empty promises of “modernization”.

In “Jour de fête” (The Big Day), his first major motion picture that debuted in 1949, Tati played Francois, the postman in a tiny French farming village that is hosting a yearly fair. As part of the festival, there is a newsreel shown to villagers that demonstrates the prowess of the American postal service. Rising to the challenge, Francois tries to beat the Americans at their own game traveling about the village at a breakneck speed on his bicycle, all the while declaring “rapidité” to all the bemused bystanders. (This clip is from an Italian-dubbed version of the film that I was able to extract, unlike the French version that can be seen here.

Four years later “Mr. Hulot’s Holidary” appeared, introducing the signature character. Some of you might be aware that British comedian Rowan Atkinson appeared in something called “Mr. Bean’s Holiday” that if meant as homage to Tati scarcely does him justice. As Steve Rose put it in the Guardian:

They’re saying this is Mr Bean’s last appearance, but if Rowan Atkinson hasn’t got the heart to kill off the character, I’ll gladly throttle him by his necktie myself. In a post-Borat world, surely there’s no place for Bean’s antiquated fusion of Jacques Tati, Pee-Wee Herman and John Major? Perhaps he’s a version of British masculinity the rest of the world can relate to.

Unlike Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, Mr. Hulot is not a “wild and crazy” character that is meant to be the butt of the joke. Instead, he is an eminently reasonable and civil character always anxious to please who manages to reveal through unintended consequences the comic idiocy of middle-class life. As Andre Bazin, the legendary editor of Cahiers du Cinema, once put it:

The warmth of Hulot’s characterization, plus the radiant inventiveness of the sight gags, made Les Vacances an international success, yet the film already suggests Tati’s dissatisfaction with the traditional idea of the comic star. Hulot is not a comedian in the sense of being the source and focus of the humor; he is, rather, an attitude, a signpost, a perspective that reveals the humor in the world around him.

I think it is reasonable to state that “Mon Oncle” is Jacques Tati’s crowning achievement. Appearing 5 years after “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”, it is a comic assault on French society’s infatuation with modernism in all its appalling varieties, from glass houses to the latest kitchen gadgets. It is probably safe to say that Tati’s heart was always with the simple values of the French farming village that served as a location for “Jour de fête” even though—ironically—he was always pushing the envelope of film technology. (“Jour de fête” was, for example, the first French film shot in color, using Thomson-color, an early and untried color film process.)

Mr. Hulot is the brother-in-law of a French industrialist who lives in the glass house and whose wife is devoted to the latest electronic kitchen gadgets, most of which fail to work to great comic effects. Mr. Hulot gets a job at the plastic-pipe making factory, only to find that he and the assembly line were not meant for each other. While I have no way of knowing what Tati’s intentions were, this scene appears to be a perfect blend of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”:

Nearly a full decade will pass before Tati’s next film “Play Time” debuted in 1967. This is his most ambitious film, costing millions of dollars to erect a soulless city very much in the spirit of Brasilia and other “modern” monstrosities that were found in the Soviet bloc. Without any connections to the past and in utter defiance of the organic ties that make urban life pleasurable, such cities become oppressive to the human spirit. Even though Tati’s intention was to generate laughs, his deeper goal was to decry the sterility of modern society. In this clip, you see Mr. Hulot wandering about a Kafkaesque super-modern workplace, using what appear to be the first cubicles ever seen in a motion picture, even if they are grotesque caricatures:

Tati’s last film was “Trafic”, made in 1971 as a TV movie to be aired in the Netherlands. It featured the Mr. Hulot character in the unlikely role of a car designer and much of the action takes place on the road. I have to admit that I found it kind of tiresome but it does have its moments such as this (the traffic cop is not Tati) Does the VW at the end of the clip remind you of anything? It should—it is very similar to the boat shark in “Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”:

In one of the more unlikely pop culture partnerships that ever existed, Jacques Tati explored the possibility of making a film called “Confusion” with the rock twosome Sparks just before his death in 1982. Like “Play Time”, it was about a sterile super-modern city. While the film was never made, the band did record the theme song for the film:

What makes this remarkable is how at odds it is with the theme of “The Illusionist”, one in which a vaudeville style magician—a Mr. Hulot character—is being forced into involuntary retirement because of the rise of rock-and-roll. The rock musicians in the film are depicted as complete jerks, projecting as it were a cultural predisposition onto Jacques Tati that did not really exist.

Coming back to “The Illusionist”, I can say that whatever it was, it was not in the spirit of Tati’s body of work even though it was based on a script he wrote. Rather than try to unravel the connections or disconnections between the men behind “The Illusionist” and Tati, I would refer you to a letter that his grandson wrote to Roger Ebert that ends:

If the integrity of my grandfather’s work means anything to you then please take into account the wishes of his only three grandchildren who united stand loyally by their adored mother, the daughter he had heartlessly abandoned as a child and later addressed l’Illusionniste to. Together we ask that you please show moral compassion and chose in the future not to participate in the misrepresentation of our family history to suit the parasitic benefit of others. That Sylvain Chomet, Pathe Pictures, Sony Picture Classics and Les Films de Mon Oncle dare to rub my grandfather’s remorse on our doorstep without respectfully acknowledging the facts is intolerable. The truth deserves a voice so that at the very least we do not forget the sacrifices made by others for our liberty.

Looking at Tati’s body of work, it is hard not to feel that the “good old days”, at least when it comes to film, were really better.

In early December, I watched another award screener for our NYFCO meeting that my colleagues voted best picture of the year: “The Artist”. Like “The Illusionist”, it is an homage to an older genre, the silent film. From the torrent of awards this film has garnered, including one likely from the Academy for best picture as well, you would think that it was what the world was waiting for—the first artistically realized silent film since the days of Keaton and Chaplin. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is a tolerably amusing novelty, but nothing else.

The greatest silent films in the modern era were Tati’s. Despite a plentitude of sounds (like birds chirping, or people making small talk), they were about visual interaction between people, or between people and nature, and especially about the miscues between people and machines.

Tati’s greatest films (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, Mon Oncle, Play Time) are available from Netflix. My suggestion is not to waste your time or money with the “The Artist” but to go to the real thing. Films become classic because they incorporate a superior form of expression, the gift always of an uncommon mind.

In May 1958, Jacques Tati did an interview with André Bazin and François Truffaut for Cahiers du Cinema. At some point, the question of art versus commerce came up. Tati told the two:

I am extremely worried when I see so many good filmmakers who are obliged to submit to all kinds of constraints. Today, all you have are constraints, everywhere. But I was able to make my film where I wanted, in Saint-Maur and I was able to build the house I wanted for Hulot. I think this is important in the end. There aren’t that many countries today where a guy in the movie business can say. ‘”Not only did I make a film, but 1 also made the film that I wanted to make.” Bresson is just such a director, and I love what he does. I find it a shame that he doesn’t make more films.

What is really a shame is that only one door is open to young filmmakers: that of commercial cinema. And this is very dangerous. After Jour de fete, and more so after Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, I had some offers to go and make a Franco-Italian co-production. It was to be called Toto and Tati. You get the idea! I said to myself: “No! Hulot does not have the obligation to be in Toto and Tati” It’s not that Toto is bad: in fact be is a very good actor; but the simple fact that the picture was going lo be called Toto and Tati already tells you more than you want to know. I believe that one’s artistic independence is a must, and it is up to the individual to defend it in all cases.

And yet, it is difficult to resist commerce when you realize that by making one such film or by accepting one such role, you will earn a sum of money that will enable you to change your life a bit, have more pleasures, have your house repainted, even change houses, in this modern world, people are after all, and no matter what, extremely driven by their material needs: money impresses them and in the end they will make quite a lot of concessions—not only artistic ones, alas—to achieve a more luxurious lifestyle. As for me, it is not courage that makes me resist; commercial considerations simply leave me cold.

Words obviously to live by.

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