Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 3, 2015

Native Land

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,workers — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm
A Triumph of the Cultural Front

On Native Land

by LOUIS PROYECT

Recently I have begun a project that should be of some interest to radicals, particularly film buffs like me. I will be creating a database of links to radical films that can be seen on the Internet for free, or for a nominal fee. Most of these films will be viewable on Youtube but one that I saw this week is available on veoh.com, a Video streaming website that is part of qlipso.com, a social networking company that was launched out of Israel. My advice is to not let this stand in the way of watching “Native Land”, a 1942 documentary co-directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, two leading figures in the Communist Party-led cultural front that was so brilliantly analyzed in Michael Denning’s “The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century”.

The film was a virtual who’s who of the CP artistic community. In addition to Hurwitz, who was blacklisted during the 1950s, and photographer Paul Strand, who was not a party member but embodied their esthetic, it featured Paul Robeson as narrator and music by Marc Blitzstein best known for his musical play “The Cradle Will Rock” that was directed by Orson Welles. (In 1999 Tim Robbins directed a serviceable film based on the play’s difficulties getting staged.)

“Native Land” consists of a series of dramatic reenactments of how corporate America used gun-thugs and spies to crush the trade union movement, especially in the Deep South. The technique might be familiar to you if you’ve seen Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” or Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx”, which had actors reprising the alleged crimes of real estate heir Robert Durst. In one reenactment, Howard Da Silva plays a snitch named Jim hired by the bosses to secretly take down the names of trade union members for blacklisting purposes. (This was a time when the CIO was nothing close to the immensely powerful machine it would become.) There was an immense irony in this since Da Silva was a CP’er who was blacklisted in the 1950s. Jim’s fellow spy was played by Art Smith, another victim of the witch-hunt whose career effectively came to an end in 1952.

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June 26, 2015

New York Asian Film Festival 2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:57 pm
The New York Asian Film Festival 2015

Turning Oppressive Reality Into Great Art

by LOUIS PROYECT

In 1956, when I was 11 years old, I saw my first Japanese film or more accurately a parody of a Japanese film shown on the Sid Caesar show. Called “U-Bet-U”, it was obviously a take-off on “Ugetsu Monogatari”, a 1953 film that along with “Rashomon” helped introduce Japanese films to American audiences.

Three years later I saw the original at a special screening at my local high school one evening. My mother had heard that it was a masterpiece and brought me there to see an alternative to Martin and Lewis comedies and John Wayne westerns. I can’t say that I understood “Ugetsu” but it was my first inkling that a hipper world existed. The appearance of the SUNY New Paltz film professor who came there to introduce the film made more of an impression on me than the movie. With the suede patches on his tweed sports jacket and his closely cropped beard, he was the first bohemian I had ever laid eyes on.

Fast forward two years later and I am a freshman at Bard deeply immersed in some of the greatest films I have ever seen, including masterpieces made by Akira Kurosawa who was in his prime. Ever since those days, Japanese films have remained the gold standard for me, joined in later years by those made in China and Korea. I was never quite convinced that Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient” was correct in its projections that the East would become a global hegemon just as it was before Europe’s rise in the 15th century, but when it comes to film, I need no convincing—most often after I have seen some of the films offered at the annual New York Asian Film Festival whose latest installment runs from June 26th to July 11th (http://www.subwaycinema.com/nyaff15/). The four films under review below should persuade anybody in the greater New York area to check the schedule and buy some tickets. If the term “race to the bottom” is most often associated with factories moving to Asia, suffice it to say that it is just as applicable to the current morass in a bottom-line oriented Hollywood.

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Trailers for reviewed films:

Whistleblower — unavailable with English subtitles

June 12, 2015

Jurassic World

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:38 pm

The T-Rex Blues

Mindless Entertainment While Awaiting the Next Mass Extinction

by LOUIS PROYECT

Hard on the heels of “Mad Max: Fury Road”, George Miller’s attempt to exploit the success of his previous three films in this series, come “Poltergeist” and “Jurassic World”, retreads of two vintage films with a Stephen Spielberg imprint and playing at your local Multiplex (“Jurassic World” opens everywhere tomorrow). Spielberg wrote the screenplay for “Poltergeist” in 1982 and directed “Jurassic Park” in 1993. Haven’t had your fill of remakes? Then put “Terminator Genisys” on your to-see list. Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in the title role (you were expecting Ryan Gosling maybe?), you would have to adopt a suspension of disbelief to regard this 67-year old actor of being capable of terminating anything except an appointment with his urologist.

In technical terms, some in the film industry distinguish between remakes and reboots (or retools). A remake is fairly close to the original, like Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” while the other approach involves a new interpretation entirely—the most egregious case being the monumentally stupid “47 Ronin”, a travesty that starred Keanu Reeves as the leader of a samurai suicide mission. The only suicide worth considering is that risked by a serious film buff as a reaction to this CGI-laden mess that includes a shape-shifting monster. The inspiration appears to be the Hercules films rather than the austere 1962 classic “Chūshingura”.

After having been besieged by fans of “Mad Max: Fury Road” as a snob with a prejudice against action films for dubbing it “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, I wish I could make amends by saying that “Jurassic World” was “fresh”. Unfortunately, it shares the same flaws as the other film, namely a tendency to make such retreads only faster and louder than the original, as well as stripped of character development and wit.

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June 5, 2015

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism

Filed under: Counterpunch,humor,Pekar,transition debate — louisproyect @ 3:56 pm
The Tide is Turning

The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism

by LOUIS PROYECT

Although I’ve written thirty-five articles about the origins of capitalism over the years, I never suspected that my first for CounterPunch would be prompted in a roundabout way by my relationship with a topless dancer forty years ago.

In the middle of May, I blogged an excerpt from an unpublished comic book memoir I did with Harvey Pekar in 2008. It covered my experience in Houston in the mid-seventies, part of which involved an affair with a comrade who had been dancing in Montrose just before I arrived, a neighborhood that mixed bohemia, gay and topless bars, and apartment complexes geared to swingers in double-knit suits.

About a week after the excerpt appeared, someone directed to a Facebook page that belonged to a well-known ISO dissertation student who having posted a link to my blog frowned on the idea that I would write a memoir without ever having done anything. Since the memoir was written under the direction of Harvey Pekar, who toiled for decades in obscurity as a file clerk in a veteran’s hospital in Cleveland, I doubt that the student had a clue about the memoir’s intention. It was not a saga about exemplary deeds in the revolutionary movement but recounted instead the humdrum life of a rank-and-filer who felt deeply alienated by what amounted to a cult. Plus, lots of jokes. After all, it was a comic book as Harvey insisted on calling his work.

Parenthetically I would advise against reading the blog of someone you hate. It is bad for your mental health. As a recommendation to the young dissertation student or anybody else with a grudge against me, let me paraphrase what Jeeves said to Bertie Wooster, substituting “Proyect” for “Nietzsche”: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.”

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May 29, 2015

Acting for Your Life on LA’s Skid Row

Filed under: Counterpunch,poverty,real estate,theater — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm
Humanizing the Lower Depths

Acting for Your Life on LA’s Skid Row

by LOUIS PROYECT

James McEnteer’s “Acting Like it Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department”  is a complex study of an acting company made up mostly of L.A.’s Skid Row residents. With the company serving as the book’s hub, there are spokes radiating outwards to the political and social structures that put this remarkable story into context. If William Blake saw the World in a Grain of Sand, James McEnteer sees the broader problems of gentrification, police state harassment of the poor, CIA complicity with illegal drug trafficking, and the crisis of the health system as topics worthy of dramatizing by those who are its victims, the dwellers of one of the United States’ most infamous “left out” neighborhoods, but a place that despite its sorry appearance was a real estate investor’s dream.

As a New Yorker, I could not help but notice the resonances with my own city where the poor and the homeless confront the same daunting odds. McEnteer mentions in passing that Henrietta Brouwers, the companion and artistic partner of John Malpede, studied under Augusto Boal, the Brazilian director who founded the Theater of the Oppressed. As it turns out, Boal was a permanent fixture of the Brecht Forum in New York until his death. It was there that he operated “a rehearsal theater designed for people who want to learn ways of fighting back against oppression in their daily lives” in the same way that Malpede’s LAPD functioned in Los Angeles. Just six years after Boal’s passing, the Brecht Forum shut down because it could no longer afford to pay the exorbitant rents that the real estate market dictated.

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May 15, 2015

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

Filed under: anarchism,Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 12:56 pm
Monkeywrenching the Machine

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

by LOUIS PROYECT

Fifty-three years ago, long before I had heard of Edward Abbey and Abraham Polonsky, I saw a film titled “Lonely are the Brave” that was based on Polonsky’s adaptation of Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. The film remains one of my favorites of all time with Kirk Douglas’s performance as a fugitive on horseback trying to elude a sheriff played by Walter Matthau permanently etched into my memory.

Many years later I would have the pleasure of hearing Abraham Polonsky speak at Lincoln Center at a screening for “Odds Against Tomorrow”, a film for which he wrote the screenplay three years before “Lonely are the Brave” but for which he did not receive credit. Using a “front” of the sort Woody Allen played in Walter Bernstein’s very fine movie about the witch-hunt, Polonsky was taking a first step toward reestablishing himself as a screenwriter.

In the panel discussion following the screening, Polonsky was asked whether he had problems writing a script with criminals as central characters when he spent so many years in the Communist Party and still retained progressive politics even after his resignation. He replied that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system.

“Lonely are the Brave” was by contrast a film with a most sympathetic character, a cowboy named Jack Burns who provokes a bar fight just to land in jail to help break out his old friend, a sheep rancher who has been arrested for sheltering undocumented workers from Mexico. I had no idea at the time how radical the film was, an obvious result of Edward Abbey’s ability to make such an outlaw look like a saint compared to the corporate malefactors that were destroying America’s greatest asset: its wilderness.

The very fine new documentary “Wrenched” that is available from Bullfrog Films is a loving tribute to Edward Abbey’s life as an artist and activist as well as a very astute assessment of Earth First!, the radical environmentalist group that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. Directed by ML Lincoln, a young female director and activist since her teens, it is a follow-up to her first film “Drowning River” that recounts the struggle against the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona that found a fictional counterpart in Abbey’s most famous novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, from which her new film derived its title.

We learn that Abbey, who was born in 1927, became drawn to anarchism at a very early age under the tutelage of his aptly named father Paul Revere Abbey who was both a socialist and an anarchist—and obviously from a different ideological tradition than the one to which Abraham Polonsky belonged. As he matured and began to develop his own worldview, the son obviously aligned completely with anarchism, a result of his commitment to preserving wilderness—a goal unfortunately that has not been fully appreciated by Marxists, as I will explain later on.

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May 1, 2015

Trial by Fire in Syria

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:39 pm
Returning to Homs

Trial-by-Fire in Syria

by LOUIS PROYECT

Recently published by Verso Press, Jonathan Littell’s “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising” is welcome both as an important document of Syria’s trial by fire as well as an indication of this august publisher’s willingness to break with the pro-Assad consensus that prevails on the left. Although Littell’s chronicle is hardly the work of an FSA partisan, he at least puts a human face on a movement that so many were willing to reduce to one fighter’s shocking act–eating the heart of a fallen Baathist soldier.

Written between January 16 and February 2, 2012, Littell’s notebooks are literally that, a day by day diary of what he saw and what he did in Homs, a city that was a citadel of resistance to Bashar al-Assad, particularly in the working-class neighborhood of Baba ‘Amr, where Littell spent most of his time.

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April 17, 2015

Water, capitalism and catastrophism

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,fracking,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

Living Under the Shadow of a Sixth Extinction

Water, Capitalism and Catastrophism

by LOUIS PROYECT

Two films concerned with water and environmental activism arrive in New York this week. “Groundswell Rising”, which premieres at the Maysles Theater in Harlem today, is about the struggle to safeguard lakes and rivers from fracking while “Revolution”, which opens at the Cinema Village next Wednesday, documents the impact of global warming on the oceans. Taking the holistic view, one can understand how some of the most basic conditions of life are threatened by a basic contradiction. Civilization, the quintessential expression of Enlightenment values that relies on ever-expanding energy, threatens to reduce humanity to barbarism if not extinction through exactly such energy production.

This challenge not only faces those of us now living under capitalism but our descendants who will be living under a more rational system. No matter the way in which goods and services are produced, for profit or on the basis of human need, humanity is faced with ecological constraints that must be overcome otherwise we will be subject to a Sixth Extinction. Under capitalism, Sixth Extinction is guaranteed. Under socialism, survival is possible but only as a result of a radical transformation of how society is organized, something that Marx alluded to in the Communist Manifesto when he called for a “gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

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April 10, 2015

Slave Rebellions on the Open Seas

Filed under: Counterpunch,slavery — louisproyect @ 4:27 pm
Slave Rebellions on the Open Seas

The Black Struggle Against Slavery

by LOUIS PROYECT

Greg Grandin’s “The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World” and Marcus Rediker’s “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom” share both subject matter—slave rebellions on the open seas—and an unabashed commitment to the Black freedom struggle. Beyond the fortuitous combination of topic and political passion, however, the greatest reward for any reader is how both authors make history come alive. Despite their remoteness in time and place, the stories they tell have an obvious affinity for the Black struggle today as a new civil rights struggle takes shape to secure the final victory sought by ancestors Babo and Cinque.

“The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World” is an exploration of the events that inspired Herman Melville’s “Benito Cereno”, an 1855 novella about the ruse orchestrated by slaves fifty years earlier to convince Captain Amasa Delano, a distant relative of FDR, that their vessel remained under their ex-master’s sway. This excerpt from Melville should give you a flavor of this droll and macabre tale:

Three black boys, with two Spanish boys, were sitting together on the hatches, scraping a rude wooden platter, in which some scanty mess had recently been cooked. Suddenly, one of the black boys, enraged at a word dropped by one of his white companions, seized a knife, and though called to forbear by one of the oakum-pickers, struck the lad over the head, inflicting a gash from which blood flowed.

In amazement, Captain Delano inquired what this meant. To which the pale Benito dully muttered, that it was merely the sport of the lad.

“Pretty serious sport, truly,” rejoined Captain Delano. “Had such a thing happened on board the Bachelor’s Delight, instant punishment would have followed.”

At these words the Spaniard turned upon the American one of his sudden, staring, half-lunatic looks; then, relapsing into his torpor, answered, “Doubtless, doubtless, Senor.”

If Grandin’s history is a fitting counterpart to Melville’s fiction, a work of high culture for the ages, we can see “The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom” as a necessary corrective to Stephen Spielberg’s pop culture film that like his “Lincoln” told a tale of paternalistic white intervention when the real history would have revealed something much more like self-emancipation.

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April 3, 2015

The Hand that Feeds

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH WEEKEND EDITION APRIL 3-5, 2015

Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick’s “The Hand That Feeds”
The New Face of the American Class Struggle
by LOUIS PROYECT

A 1954 film titled “Salt of the Earth” told the story of a courageous strike by the mostly Mexican-American zinc miners against a ruthless corporation that was based on a 1951 strike in New Mexico. Produced by Paul Jarrico and directed by Herbert Biberman, two Hollywood blacklistees, it was remarkable for both its power as film and for its fearless radicalism in a time when the left was being hounded out of existence. It derived much of its strength from the casting of New Mexican miners in leading roles, such as Juan Chacon, the president of a miner’s union, as a strike leader. And of critical importance in a time when reaction was running full throttle, the film depicted a victory of workers against insurmountable odds, just as had taken place in 1951.

I could not help but think about the 1954 classic when watching a screening of “The Hand that Feeds”, a documentary that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. If “Salt of the Earth” was a fictional film based on the facts of a real life strike, “The Hand that Feeds” is by contrast a factual film with all of the heartrending drama of a fictional film blessed with a “star” who led a struggle of twenty workers at Hot and Crusty, a bagel shop that was a stone’s throw from Bloomingdales in New York. In a panel on storytelling I chaired at this year’s Socially Relevant Film Festival, a documentary filmmaker explained that casting is as important for the documentary as it is for narrative films. One cannot imagine better casting for this documentary than the mostly undocumented Mexican workforce at Hot and Crusty, starting with Mahoma López, the 2014 counterpart to the Juan Chacon of sixty years ago.

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