Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 27, 2015

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 1:06 pm

A Quixotic Longing for a Benign Authority

My Secret Fascination with Michel Houellebecq

by LOUIS PROYECT

I attended the press screening for “The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq” with the expectation that I would learn something about the controversial novelist whose name has become synonymous with Islamophobia. Fully expecting his character (he plays himself) to be a cross between Pamela Geller and Salman Rushdie, I was surprised—if not shocked—to see him rendered as a genial, self-deprecating and altogether likeable individual who wins over his kidnappers in the course of the film. Since the film is fiction, it was up to writer/director Guillaume Nicloux to imagine a writer who met his own ideals—and implicitly that of Houellebecq as well. So instead of imagining the kidnappers as jihadists anxious to take vengeance on a writer who has insulted Islam, they are instead three apolitical but physically intimidating men hired by an unidentified party on a contract basis.

Luc the ringleader is a longhaired Roma with the body of a sumo wrestler who tells Houellebecq that he trained Israeli soldiers in the martial arts including the technique needed to rip off an enemy’s ear, not the sort of person you would want to trifle with. But in a scene that epitomizes the film’s off-kilter comic sense, the tensest moment between captors and captive is over some detail in Houellebecq’s first book—a biography of the Gothic novelist H.P. Lovecraft. Luc insists that the book describes Houellebecq purloining a sweat-stained cushion that belonged to Lovecraft from some museum, which he denies is in the book. As Luc grows increasingly angry at Houellebecq’s denial, the author follows the Falstaffian principle that discretion is the better part of valor and states that he might have forgotten what he wrote after all. Since Houellebecq has the appearance of a Bowery flophouse resident and drinks glass after glass of wine throughout the film (one suspects that it was not grape juice), we suspect that Luc had it right all along.

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March 20, 2015

No Good Men Among the Living

Filed under: Afghanistan,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 4:04 pm

 

Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living”

Eyes Wide Open in Afghanistan

by LOUIS PROYECT

Combining first-rate investigative reporting and a mastery of New Journalism techniques, Anand Gopal’s “No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes” will help you understand the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan as well as introduce you to some of the people whose lives have been torn apart by American occupation. With the same kind of care that a gifted novelist devotes to character development, Gopal renders a Taliban fighter and a husband and wife victimized by Taliban violence in such finely grained detail and psychological depth that you feel as if you have walked in their shoes. This is the result of countless hours that he spent in Afghanistan interviewing his subjects at obvious risk to his life. So committed was Gopal to understanding the human drama in Afghanistan that he learned the Pashtun language before departing for an assignment that would last three years.

Unlike the average journalist who prefers being cocooned in a hotel room with other journalists or embedded with the state power’s military, Gopal has devoted himself to getting the story at the grass roots level, carrying out what might be described as “journalism from below”. I first encountered his reporting in an August 2012 Harper’s magazine article titled “Welcome to Free Syria” that described the flowering of democracy in a poor rural town called Taftanaz, where a farmer’s council had decided that “we have to give to each as he needs.” With all due respect to the Kurds in Rojova, many other Syrians had also been struggling for justice and equality until Baathist violence preempted such a possibility.

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March 13, 2015

The Socially Relevant Film Festival, 2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:12 pm
The Socially Relevant Film Festival, 2015

Films on the Lives of Ordinary People

by LOUIS PROYECT

After being asked to chair a panel discussion on storytelling at theSocially Relevant Film Festival 2015 in New York that runs from March 16 to 22 and previewing a dozen scheduled films, both narrative and documentary, I had an epiphany: “socially relevant” films have a higher storytelling quotient than Hollywood’s for the simple reason that they are focused on the lives of ordinary people whose hopes and plight we can identify with. With a commercial film industry increasingly insulated from the vicissitudes of an unending economic crisis, it is only “socially relevant” films that demand our attention and even provide entertainment after a fashion. When the subjects of the film are involved in a cliffhanging predicament, we care about the outcome as opposed to the Hollywood film where the heroes confront Mafia gangsters, CIA rogues or zombies as if in a video game.

Take for example Eraldo Pacheco, the Chilean sheepherder who leaves his home in the Patagonian region of Chile and travels to Idaho for a three-year contract tending a herd of a thousand sheep. Hard times have forced him to leave his parents, wife and young son behind while he tends to chores not different from those seen in “Brokeback Mountain”. Unlike “Brokeback Mountain”, “Gaucho del Norte” is not a love story but one much more about scraping out a living as a farmworker, the fate that awaits so many immigrants, documented or undocumented. Eraldo Pacheco is an ordinary man but one endowed with extraordinary insights about his fate as a migrant worker, a good sense of humor (he says at one point, “What can be more boring than looking at a sheep’s ass for a living?”), and mastery of a skill that goes back five thousand years. He will linger on in your consciousness long after you have forgotten about Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger.

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March 6, 2015

“Maps to the Stars”; “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn”

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm


“Maps to the Stars” and “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn”

Two Movies About Making Movies

by LOUIS PROYECT

Just by coincidence two new films hold up a mirror to the industry that begat them—and the reflection is not very pretty. David Cronenberg’sGrand Guignol satire “Maps to the Stars” is playing now at the IFC Center in NYC and at art houses around the country–his usual venue. Liv Corfixen’s documentary “My Life Directed By Nicolas Winding Refn” opened on February 27th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and can also be seen on VOD, including Amazon.com. Cofixen is married to Refn, a Danish director who like Cronenberg is famous (infamous?) for making ultraviolent art movies. Both films could be better but if you have the slightest interest in the morbidity of the film industry, as most of my readers do, you’ll want to have a look at them.

The title of “Maps to the Stars” derives from the opening scene when a young and attractive woman named Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) hires a limousine driven by Jerome, who is played by Robert Pattinson. Best known for his performances in the stupefying Twilight Saga series, the young actor has begun acting in Cronenberg features such as this and “Cosmopolis”. It is too soon to tell if he has much more than a pretty face, especially playing Jerome—a pretty face.

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February 20, 2015

Digital Rebellion: the Birth of the Cyber Left

Filed under: computers,Counterpunch,Internet,journalism — louisproyect @ 1:49 pm
Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion”

Can the Net Drive Social Movements?

by LOUIS PROYECT

Largely through the writings and public addresses of David Graeber, Marina Sitrin, John Holloway and others, “horizontalism” became a buzzword to describe various movements over the past fifteen years or so that were inspired by the Seattle protests and marked by direct democracy, communications through the Internet, militant tactics, and a belief that occupations of public spaces could prefigure a future, more just world. Ideologically, anarchism and autonomist Marxism loomed large—understandably so since the “verticalism” of the old Left seemed to have run its course.

As is so often the case, movements and institutions that appear to contradict each other can often be resolved on a higher level. In this instance, given the exhaustion of “horizontalist” initiatives over the past couple of years, an analysis of the contested ideological terrain is more necessary than ever. As a major contribution to the debate, I cannot recommend Todd Wolfson’s “Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left” highly enough. If you read an excerpt from the book’s introduction on last weekend’s CounterPunch, you will understand that the book is directed to the activist left and is not the typical academic work despite the author being a member of the Rutgers University faculty and the book being published by the University of Illinois Press.

Eminently readable, Digital Rebellion is a mixture of reporting and theory all designed to move beyond the horizontal-vertical duality and achieve a synthesis that draws from the best of both worlds. While the words Syriza and Podemos cannot be found in its pages (and of course Podemos was born after the book was published), their presence looms over its pages. As political parties, they were midwifed by the occupations of the horizontalist left–so much so that at least one well-known autonomist has broken ranks and come around to seeing the benefits of wielding state power, hitherto something seen as anathema. Jerome Roos of Roar Magazine, an autonomist stronghold, gave an interview to Syriza in which he said that “Syriza’s radical internationalism is uplifting and a positive contrast to the neoliberal cosmopolitanism of the business class.” These are welcome words indeed.

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February 6, 2015

Tangerines

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Zaza Urushadze’s “Tangerines”

Guns for Hire in Abkhazia

by LOUIS PROYECT

As a peace activist, I have gone out of my way to see films such as “The Grand Illusion” and “King of Hearts” over the years. Largely as a result of Hollywood’s incestuous ties to the Pentagon as reflected in films such as “American Sniper” and “Hurt Locker”, it has been more difficult to see anything in recent years with a pacifist bent except Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July”.

This week I had the good fortune to attend a press screening of “Tangerines”, a joint Estonian-Georgian production that is being submitted as Estonia’s best foreign language film to the 87th Academy Awards ceremony being held on February 22nd. As far as I am concerned, it also deserves best picture, director and actor awards but what would you expect from an unrepentant Marxist after all?

“Tangerines” is set during the war between Georgia and Abkhazia in 1992-93, one that will probably only be familiar to those who keep a close eye on the politics and history of the former Soviet Union but not to the average viewer. It is to the everlasting credit of Georgian writer/director Zaza Urushadze to have made a film that is a universal statement about the evils of war that will be absorbing even to an audience member with scant knowledge of post-Soviet politics. Like William Blake seeing eternity in a grain of sand in his “Auguries of Innocence”, this is a film that will allow you to see the futility of wars of aggression throughout history, and all the more so in an epoch of thermonuclear weapons. As Blake put it in the same poem:

Kill not the Moth nor Butterfly

For the Last Judgment draweth nigh

He who shall train the Horse to War

Shall never pass the Polar Bar

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January 30, 2015

“White God,” “The Turin Horse” and “Au Hasard Balthazar”

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:37 pm
“White God,” “The Turin Horse” and “Au Hasard Balthazar”

The Cinema of Cruelty

by LOUIS PROYECT

As the Academy Awards draw near, it seems appropriate to write about three films light years removed from the Hollywood film industry that are united by the theme of cruelty to animals and that wear their art film credentials proudly (even though one film subverts pulp genres).

One is “The Turin Horse”, the final film made by auteur extraordinaire Béla Tarr over a thirty-seven year career and that is inspired by an anecdote about Nietzsche coming to the aid of a horse being beaten by its livery cab owner. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, he was asked to name a film that had real quality. His answer was Aki Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre”, a film he “really loved”, as did I. ( When the Hollywood Reporter began mentioning that it might receive an Oscar for best foreign language film, Tarr interrupted him:

Who cares about this stupidity? You know what I mean. This kind of quality is not for the Academy Awards. This kind of quality and sensibility is for you and the other people – for personal use. The others are just part of a fucked-up business, which is not my business.

Béla Tarr came to mind after seeing “White God” at a press screening a while back. Directed by fellow Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó, it about the mistreatment of a teen girl’s beloved dog Hagen by various people and institutions. As such, I decided to write about the two films as well as about Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar”, a 1966 film about the abuse of a donkey—a work that I had somehow ignored despite Godard’s comment: “Everyone who sees this film will be absolutely astonished…because this film is really the world in an hour and a half.

full review

Trailers for films under review:

January 2, 2015

Why Selma Matters Now More Than Ever

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:09 pm

A Collective Response to Cop Terror

Why Selma Matters Now More Than Ever

by LOUIS PROYECT

“Selma”, the stunning new film based on Paul Webb’s screenplay and directed by the previously unheralded African-American Ava DuVernay, makes for an interesting side-by-side comparison with Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln”. Both films revolve around the circumstances attending the passage of key legislation affecting Black America: in the first instance, the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery and in the second the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that sealed the doom of Jim Crow, a legacy of white America’s abandonment of Reconstruction.

“Selma”, however, has exactly what “Lincoln” lacked, namely the agency of Black self-emancipation dramatized by the Selma to Montgomery march. If Lincoln was seen as a wise benefactor of a sidelined Black population whose leaders like Frederick Douglass failed to materialize on screen, the prime mover in “Selma” is Martin Luther King Jr. who is played to perfection by David Oyelowo, the actor last seen as a cartoon version of a Black Panther member in Lee Daniels’s “The Butler”. He is far better served in this new film.

Both films pay close attention to period detail and use the speeches that are part of the backbone of American progressive politics, including Lincoln’s and LBJ’s. It is of some significance that the speeches given by King in “Selma” are only approximations of what he said in Selma since the King estate refused to allow the speeches to be used by DuVernay. So she wrote the words herself after steeping herself in the original for months.

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December 26, 2014

Reading Trotsky While Watching Kurosawa

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Kurosawa,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm
In Search of a Marxist Method for Film Criticism

Reading Trotsky While Watching Kurosawa

by LOUIS PROYECT

A couple of weeks ago an Australian friend and fellow Marxist raised some interesting questions about film:

I have just moved to the capital city of the state and attended my first film festival. I have always enjoyed movies but in the past have been living in regional centers.

It got me thinking about what constitutes a “good movie” and yourself and David Walsh are the only two Marxist movie critics I can think of. David never seems to like anything very much and his discussion of culture – which is interesting- relies heavily on Trotsky’s ‘Literature and Revolution’.

I know you have written in passing about the sort of movies you like but wondered if you’d written more systematic about Marxism movie criticism.

Despite having written over nine hundred film reviews in the past twenty years or so, I have never really given much thought to the question of “Marxist movie criticism”.

Unfortunately Walsh has stopped writing film reviews for the World Socialist Website, which for my money was the only thing worth reading there. It’s a dirty little secret but most of the material that appears on wsws.org is extracted from the bourgeois press and then spiked with Marxist rhetoric about how evil the capitalist system is, as if we needed any reminding. I’d rather read the NY Times and make such observations myself.

Unlike Walsh, I stay away from Hollywood films except for the end of the year when I am obligated to watch a sufficient number of films like “Gravity” or “Zero Dark Thirty” to make sense out of the nominations my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) put forward at our annual awards meeting. Most of what I review is either documentaries or gritty neorealist films from “foreign” countries (nothing is more foreign to me than Hollywood) so I have a much lighter burden than Walsh.

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December 19, 2014

My film picks for 2014

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 11:44 am
From “Winter Sleep” to “Particle Fever”

The Year in Film

by LOUIS PROYECT

I deliberately refrained from attaching the word “best” to the films listed below out of consideration that my personal taste weighed heavily. While I would have no problem defending the picks based on artistic merit, there is a subjective factor that is probably no more arbitrary than that reflected in any other critic’s “best of” list even if they are reluctant to admit that personal taste tilted the scale. I can only say that if you have seen and valued films based on my recommendations, then you should look for those listed below in local theaters or on the Internet.

As a rule of thumb, I probably pay less attention to the visual aspects of a narrative film than I do to more conventional dramatic elements such as character development and plot. This meant that I had little use for a film like “Mr. Turner”, a work that made it to many ‘best of 2014’ lists on the basis of breathtaking images of the British landscape evoking the work of the boring and repulsive artist whose life it was celebrating. I could only wonder why Mike Leigh would want to make a film about such a man when you are better off going to the museum and looking at his paintings. My benchmark for such films was “Lust for Life”, the biopic about Vincent Van Gogh that was co-written by Irving Stone, from whose novel the script was adapted, and Norman Corwin. As you may know, Norman Corwin wrote and produced 100 radio plays in the 1930s and 40s, the medium’s golden age. The only images evoked in those classic plays were those that Corwin’s words produced in your mind’s eye.

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