Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 20, 2015

Still Alice

Filed under: aging,Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

“Still Alice” is now the fourth narrative film that I have seen dealing with Alzheimer’s and by far the best. (Brief summaries of the other three appear at the end of this review.) Starring Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a 50-year old Columbia University linguistics professor with early onset, the film is blessed by an exceptionally intelligent screenplay and direction by the late Richard Glatzer whose wife died of ALS. Some critics feel that his own family tragedy helped him shape the material but probably the most important element was the novel upon which it was based.

Written by Lisa Genova in 2007, the novel not only benefited from the author’s expertise as a neuroscience researcher with a PhD from Harvard but her familiarity with the mandarin life-style of her characters. Given the main character’s lofty perch in an Ivy League school, her husband’s own privileged status as a medical researcher, and their familiarity with Manhattan’s exquisite but pricey restaurants and other luxuries, her descent into an illness that would rob her of both her livelihood and—worse—her identity is unimaginably steep. In a key scene, when she and her husband are at their Hamptons summer home, she wets her pants because she cannot remember where the bathroom was.

Moore’s performance won her an Academy Award for best performance by an actress in 2014 and was one I would have supported if I had seen the film that year. Now that is available on Amazon streaming, I cannot recommend it highly enough. At the age of 55, Moore manages to convey the desperation of a world-class intellectual trying to keep her wits about her in the face of insurmountable odds. Her life begins to revolve around her IPhone, which is used to remind her of how to bake a cake or to take the pills she needs for a suicide when the smart phone no longer can bail her out.

Alex Baldwin, who plays her husband, is also very good as a man who does his best to run interference for his wife but finally comes to the sad realization that nothing will make up for her not being able to recognize her own daughter after she has seen her perform in an off-Broadway production of a Chekhov play.

Given the ineluctably predictable nature of the disease, any such film will lack the suspense element that is found in most tragedies. Indeed, it is open to question whether a film about Alzheimer’s can be called a tragedy since it lacks the “fatal flaw”, especially hubris, which is common to the classic tragedy from Sophocles to Shakespeare.

Some scholars believe that King Lear suffered from dementia although it impossible to pin down which kind. What made his downfall a tragedy was not his illness but his hubris, demanding more from his daughters than they were willing to give. There is an element of this in “Still Alice” to be sure. Alice constantly nags her youngest daughter Lydia (played superbly by Kristen Steward, the star of the insipid Twilight vampire movies) about abandoning her career as an actress and doing something more practical. When Lydia finally makes it relatively big in a Chekhov play, mom cannot recognize her—at least momentarily.

While the film is primarily a character study of how a dreaded illness takes down a very successful and self-possessed overachiever, it is also has universal meaning for any human being, particularly those over the age of sixty. 1 out of 9 Americans over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease, increasing to one out of three over the age of 85. Scary odds. A week ago on the first night of my wife’s arrival at her parents’ home in Istanbul, her 87-year old father wandered off and ended up in a neighborhood far from home. When it became obvious to a young couple on a bus that he was lost, they were fortunate enough to find his phone number in one of his pockets. He is safe and at home now, much to my relief.

I hold out hope that my mother’s genes will hold me in good stead. Just a few days before her death in 2008, she was as lucid as ever. It was her circulatory system that was her undoing, an outcome of the wrong foods and a long time lack of exercise. Of course, sooner or later something will do you in whether it is Alzheimer’s, a circulatory system collapse, cancer or some other event associated with being in the “mortality zone” as Tom Brokaw put it in a column dealing with his battle against multiple myeloma.

In one key scene, Alice bemoans the fact that she has Alzheimer’s rather than cancer since at least cancer will not rob you of your identity. It is a disease like no other in that it transforms you into a stranger as if a zombie has taken possession of your body. Perhaps the best way to describe films such as “Still Alice” is as a subcategory of the horror movie with the monster being made up of the plaque in your nervous system rather than one stalking you with a butcher knife.

Other films in this genre:

The Savages”: a brother and sister cope with an ailing father in a nursing home. It is bittersweet comedy/tragedy directed by Tamara Jenkins who had the experience of putting her own father into a nursing home when she was in her 30s. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney turn in fine performances as the feckless brother and sister. The DVD can be purchased for pennies on Amazon.com.

Away from Her”: Based on an Alice Munro short story, the wife has entered a nursing home and soon falls in love with another Alzheimer’s patient leaving her husband in the lurch. When he visits her, she has no idea who he is and prefers the company of her new companion. I found the film preposterous but you can make your own evaluation through Amazon.com streaming.

Memories of Tomorrow”: A Japanese film about a successful and hard-driving “salaryman”, who the disease takes down, just like Alice. It is much more of a love story than a tragedy since he depends on a newly kindled relationship to his long-neglected wife to help him through his vicissitudes. Ken Watanabe, one of Japan’s best-known actors, plays the lead character. It is a very fine film that can be only be seen through a Netflix DVD rental.

July 13, 2015

Court; A Hard Day

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:58 pm

New Yorkers have an extraordinary opportunity to see Asian films at their best this week. Opening at the Film Forum on Wednesday July 15th is “Court”, an Indian film about a judicial system that functions as an arm of the police by making it impossible for radicals to enjoy the rights of legal protection supposedly guaranteed in a democracy. In a real sense, the title of the film might have been “Kangaroo Court”. Two days later the Korean film “A Hard Day” arrives at the Village East. Once again if we play with titles, it has an affinity with “A Hard Day’s Night”, Richard Lester’s classic about the Fab Four given its comic inventiveness and visual panache—all the more surprising since it at first blush it seems like just another policier.

If you walked into the theater in the middle of one of the frequent courtroom scenes in “Court” without knowing anything about the film in advance, you might assume that it is an Indian documentary in the Frederick Wiseman cinéma vérité style. It lacks the melodramatic style of something like “A Few Good Men” or “Erin Brockovich”. With almost no rhetorical flourishes of the sort that would help some actor get singled out for a best acting award, most of the dialog sounds exactly what you would hear if you were serving on jury duty. There is minutiae about evidence and instructions from the judge who looks like the human equivalent of the dormouse in Alice’s tea party. You almost expect him to fall asleep at his bench.

Director Chaitanya Tamhane explained his approach in the press notes:

When it came to shooting these scenes, we wanted to maintain a certain distance and objectivity. Instead of fiction films of the genre, which often aim for a subjective experience, we referred to documentary footage of actual trials. Since you cannot get permission to shoot in an actual courtroom, we had to build a set, which recreated the atmosphere of a lower court. No photography or documentation is allowed in the courts, so the production designers had to work from memory and rely on the notes they had made secretly while attending trials.

The matter-of-factness of the film actually serves to accentuate the human drama not only of its main characters but the state of justice in India as a whole today. In the opening seen that takes place in a Mumbai slum, a protest rally featuring the song performance of a 65 year old radical is broken up by the cops who charge him with arrest for abetting the suicide of a sewer worker.

In court the DA pins her case on the testimony of an eyewitness who claims that the radical singer Narayan Kamble (played by Vira Sathidar, a long-time leftist and trade union leader) sang a song urging sewer workers to kill themselves because that would be the only solution to their misery. The eyewitness turns out to be someone the cops have lined up in previous cases to tell any lie that would help convict a leftist.

Vivek Gomber plays Kamble’s lawyer Vinay Vora, an aging bachelor whose parents nag him to get married and who leads a humdrum life outside of the courtroom, falling asleep in front of his television most nights. In one very unusual scene that lasts for about five minutes, you see him shopping for groceries. Going against ordinary expectations of most courtroom dramas, nothing happens in the store except him putting food and drink into a cart. In a Hollywood film, you would expect an assassin to open fire on him with bullet riddled-bottles and cans falling to the floor to the accompaniment of a hard-driving film score. As it turns out the quotidian nature of his shopping roots the film in reality and makes the courtroom scenes that more dramatic.

Vinay Vora is the hero of the film alongside his client, two men who are willing to defy India’s wretched court system. For his part, Kamble is stoical about the prospects of spending time in jail awaiting the outcome of the trial since he understands the costs of challenging the status quo. His lawyer, like most committed to human rights, is willing to go the extra mile to help his client, including putting up the bail money that comes out of his own pocket.

In a way, the director has taken on the same kind of responsibility as the defense attorney by making such a film, one that puts the spotlight on judicial abuses in a country that supposedly adhered to democratic norms.

In a statement that illustrates the director’s commitment to making a film about Indian realities in Mumbai, he emphasizes the need for verisimilitude:

Each character in the film belongs to a different, and culturally peculiar reality of the city. These cities within a city co-exist in a densely packed metropolis and yet, they never overlap with each other. The film tries to depict these gradations whenever we see people outside of the courtroom. In fact, when we decided to show the public prosecutor’s personal life, we tried to recreate a Mumbai that was part of my childhood memories, from the 1990s. And this is a Mumbai that does not exist anymore. The pace of transformation and so-called ‘development’ is so rapid here, that certain people and their Mumbai will soon become extinct. A few of the old chawls (the traditional tenement buildings that house the working class) that we shot the film in, were razed just two months later in order to make place for new high-rise buildings. So for me, COURT is also an attempt to capture the memory of some of these people, as they struggle to survive.

In other words, this is not “Slumdog Millionaire”. It is instead a film about India today from a perspective that takes the side of the oppressed. It is worth seeing not just for its politics but for its superb acting, done exclusively by non-professionals. Dispensing with conventional understandings of how to make a courtroom drama, Chaitanya Tamhane has redefined the genre as well as making a damned fine film in the process.

At the risk of sounding like a mainstream film reviewer whose blurbs appear in commercial, I must states at the outset that “A Hard Day” is the first laugh-out-loud comedy I have seen in years. That is also a roller coaster of a cops-and-robbers ride is almost incidental.

Whether or not it was director Seong-hoon Kim’s intention, he has made a film that has the comic sensibility of Buster Keaton at his best. Despite all the hand-to-hand combat and convoluted plotting that are staples of the Korean crime movie, this is a film that has the same kind of visual imagination and comic genius as “Sherlock Jr.” or “The Cameraman”.

A brief description of the opening minutes should give you a feel for the offbeat humor of “A Hard Day”.

On his way to his mother’s funeral homicide detective Go Geon-soo swerves his car in order to avoid hitting a dog that is in the middle of the street. Unfortunately, this leads him into hitting a pedestrian instead. Since he has had a drink earlier (Korea’s drunk driving laws are apparently very stringent), he feels the need to conceal the body. He is not aware at the time that the pedestrian was not only already dead but a gangster wanted by the police.

He stuffs the body into the trunk of his car and resumes his ride to the funeral parlor where a stroke of brilliance hits him. He will insist that he be allowed to spend an hour with his mother’s casket in order to experience some personal moments of grief, a ploy that will allow him to dispense of the other body–killing two birds with one stone.

Borrowing his daughter’s GI Joe type toy, a soldier crawling on his belly that is activated by remote control, he ties one end of a rope to the dead man’s leg and the other to the toy soldier and sends it into the vent of the funeral parlor that connects to the room where his mother’s casket resides. Once inside the locked mortuary, he activates the toy soldier that begins its descent down the air vent. Once it arrives at its destination, the mourning detective can then pull the body down into the air vent and then finally concealed into his mother’s casket.

Suffice it to say that one mishap after another takes place in this scene, reminding you of silent comedy at its best.

I should add that the film does not only evoke Buster Keaton (or Laurel and Hardy for that matter); it will also remind you of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s relatively obscure works “The Trouble with Harry” that also had a corpse serving as a MacGuffin, the term used for an object in a plot that helps move the plot along. It is usually an inanimate object like the Maltese Falcon but it can also be a human being—as long as he or she is dead (“Weekend at Bernie’s” was another film using such a MacGuffin but by no means as good as Hitchcock’s.)

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 27, 2015

Runoff; Our Daily Poison

Filed under: Ecology,Film,food — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

Two recent films deal with a topic that is central to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in the midst of, namely the toxic chemicals that are intrinsic to industrial farming, the gains of the so-called Green Revolution.

The first is a narrative film titled “Runoff” that opened yesterday at Village East in New York. It is about the struggle of a family-run farm to stay afloat as agribusiness closes in around them. Their income comes from the crops they sell, including at a roadside stand of the type that was ubiquitous to the upstate NY county I grew up in, and farm supplies—mostly pesticides and herbicides that modern farming relies on.They are just one step ahead of bank foreclosure and forced to consider breaking the law in order to come up with the funds necessary to stay afloat.

The second is a documentary titled “Our Daily Poison” that is available as a DVD from Icarus films. Although it is an English-language feature, it was directed by a French woman named Marie-Monique Robin who also wrote a book of the same title. It is an investigative report on the incestuous ties between big business and the government regulators who are charged with protecting the public when in fact they are far more interested in protecting profits.

In “Runoff”, the questioning of chemicals is only implicit as the husband and wife lead characters rely on questionable sales to keep a roof over their head. As mom-and-pop business owners, their nemesis is not the agricultural-chemical complex but a competitor that has systematically wooed away all their old customers and is now angling to buy their land from beneath their feet. After a banker pays them a visit to demand the mortgage payments they owe him, the wife decides to resort to desperate measures. She agrees to dispose of chemicals illegally on behalf of a farmer who used to be their customer in order to save him some money. The money she makes from dumping the chemicals into a nearby river will help keep the roof over her head and presumably allow the family to continue doing a business that although legal is a crime against nature and humanity.

Director Kimberly Levin was trained as a biochemist and worked in Kentucky where the film was made on a shoestring budget (she also attended NYU film school.) She had a project lined up with HBO that starred James Gandolfini as a mob-affiliated New Jersey restaurant owner who becomes a government agent conspiring against North Korea (shades of “The Interview”) but his death put a kibosh on it. Maybe her enthusiasm for that project carried over into this film since dumping toxic chemicals into a river is so…Tony Soprano.

I can recommend this film but only as a fascinating study of how farms operate today. Filmed on location near Louisville, chemicals seem ubiquitous with an airplane crop duster reminiscent of “North by Northwest” and the male lead injecting hogs with antibiotics administered through something that looks like a pistol.

In a way, the film reminded me of “Promised Land”, the Matt Damon vehicle about fracking that deliberately avoided any kind of “message” about the dubious technology but preferred to tell a story about how the main character got deceived by a company plant whose dishonest advocacy undermined a local struggle against fracking. As an unrepentant Marxist, I guess I prefer the message.

Message aplenty is what lies in store for you in “Our Daily Poison”, a movie whose title should tell you were its heart is.

The film is divided roughly into three parts. The first takes you to a farming region in France where the director grew up and where local farmer’s health has been ravaged by exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides (mushroom killers) whose use became widespread after WWII when the Green Revolution arrived in France as part of a Marshall Plan meant to bring prosperity to farmers and the people who consumed their products. Of course, a certain amount of prosperity was enjoyed even if it cost people their physical well-being. We meet a group of farmers who have been plagued by one health problem or another, including Parkinson’s which seems to be an epidemic among those who used chemicals.

Part two shows the impact of the crops that come out of industrial farming on the general public. In some truly eye-opening scenes, we see the director pressing regulators in the FDA or their European counterparts to defend their arbitrary guidelines for ADI (Admissible Daily Intake). This is the amount of chemicals you can ingest with your apples or green peas, defined as a percentage of your body weight. The Europeans, despite their reputation for being less bought off by evil corporations, are much worse than the Americans with people serving on regulatory bodies who are serving as consultants to outfits like Monsanto.

Part three deals with chemical additives that become part of the circulation of commodities after they are harvested, either as sweeteners, preservatives and the like as well as the plastic that encases them.

One of the more egregious examples of how government and big business conspire against the consumer is how Donald Rumsfeld greased the slids that made the deployment of aspartame on a massive scale possible. That word might not ring a bell but you probably know it as Nutrasweet, the sweetener in Diet Coke, a drink that will never pass through my lips again, and a million other foodstuffs.

A Huffington Post article on all this is quite useful:

In 1985, Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle, the chemical company that held the patent to aspartame, the active ingredient in NutraSweet. Monsanto was apparently untroubled by aspartame’s clouded past, including the report of a 1980 FDA Board of Inquiry, comprised of three independent scientists, which confirmed that it “might induce brain tumors.” The FDA had previously banned aspartame based on this finding, only to have then-Searle Chairman Donald Rumsfeld vow to “call in his markers,” to get it approved. Here’s how it happened:

Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president January 21, 1981. Rumsfeld, while still CEO at Searle, was part of Reagan’s transition team. This team hand-picked Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., to be the new FDA commissioner. Dr. Hayes, a pharmacologist, had no previous experience with food additives before being appointed director of the FDA. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Reagan issued an executive order eliminating the FDA commissioners’ authority to take action and Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame in food sweetener. Hayes, Reagan’s new FDA commissioner, appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry’s decision. It soon became clear that the panel would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision. So Hayes installed a sixth member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then personally broke the tie in aspartame’s favor.

One of Hayes’ first official acts as FDA chief was to approve the use of aspartame as an artificial sweetener in dry goods on July 18, 1981. In order to accomplish this feat, Hayes had to overlook the scuttled grand jury investigation of Searle, overcome the Bressler Report, ignore the PBOI’s recommendations and pretend aspartame did not chronically sicken and kill thousands of lab animals. Hayes left his post at the FDA in November, 1983, amid accusations that he was accepting corporate gifts for political favors. Just before leaving office in scandal, Hayes approved the use of aspartame in beverages. After Hayes left the FDA under allegations of impropriety, he served briefly as Provost at New York Medical College, and then took a position as a high-paid senior medical advisor with Burson-Marsteller, the chief public relations firm for both Monsanto and GD Searle. Since that time he has never spoken publicly about aspartame. FYI, here’s Rachel Maddow on Burson-Marsteller: “When Evil needs public relations, Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.” Evil, thy name is chemical food additives.

In the closing moments of the film that was shot in Orissa, an Indian state, I found myself troubled by the implications of its critique of industrial farming—not that I would ever take the side of Monsanto but finding myself wondering about how we can move to a healthier world.

It seems that the people of Orissa never get cancer. That we are told is a function of their healthy lifestyle—they grow their own food and have no environmental problems to deal with like air pollution from factories or automobiles. What the film does not mention is that nearly 3000 farmers committed suicide in the last 10 years, victims of the same sort of economic desperation depicted in “Runoff”. Nor does it consider what it means for the world to adopt the mode of production in a place like Orissa even if it means avoiding cancer. Minutes after watching the film, I told my wife that for people accustomed to urban life in an industrial society, where cancer is a virtual epidemic, the life of an Orissa farmer might be a fate worse than death.

Somehow there must be a resolution of the environmental/capitalist crisis that promotes healthy living in a setting that is far less “advanced” than the one that we live in now. Surrounded by luxury buildings in New York City that are becoming homes to Russian oligarchs and CVS stores on every block, that would be the best outcome for me even if it was a disaster to the superrich who live a few blocks to the west of me on Fifth Avenue.

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 19, 2015

The Economics of Hollywood

Filed under: economics,Film — louisproyect @ 2:17 pm
An Irreversible Road to Ruin

The Economics of Hollywood

by LOUIS PROYECT

The name Edward Jay Epstein might ring a bell as the author of Inquest, a 1966 tracing of Oswald’s footprints prior to the JFK assassination. After reading his The Hollywood Economist 2.0: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies published 49 years later, I am left with the feeling that he has uncovered a more serious if less violent crime: the degradation of American film by an industry much more committed to the bottom line than culture.

While I have written over the years about how commerce trumps art, including for CounterPunch and Class, Race and Corporate Power , I now understand the nuts and bolts behind commerce’s triumph. Epstein describes in meticulous detail that would make a CPA envious exactly how we have descended from “Citizen Kane” to films such as “Transformers” shown at multiplexes. Ironically, it was the latter day versions of William Randolph Hearst—the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane—who transformed the film industry into what it is today, a globalized behemoth that not only churns out films geared to children and teens but one that appeals to their basest instincts, the equivalent in some ways of selling crack cocaine to high schoolers.

Epstein, who is ten years my senior, probably mourns the loss of great filmmaking as much as me or anybody who was blessed with the opportunity to live through the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was not just that it was it home to Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Preston Sturges and Stanley Kubrick. It was linked to palatial movie theaters that evoked cathedrals, including the six thousand seat (!) Roxy Theater in New York that Epstein alludes to on page one. I remember traveling to New York to see a movie at the Roxy in 1955 with my mother who promised that it would be the experience of a lifetime. It was like a Catholic family visiting a shrine for a miracle that some saint had performed.

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June 16, 2015

The Tribe

Filed under: disabled,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:14 pm

In my freshman year at Bard College in 1961, I took a writer’s workshop with celebrated beat poet Robert Kelly who gave an assignment that all of us had trouble with, namely to write a short story without any human beings as characters. It was obviously some sort of technical challenge that we had trouble wrapping our heads around, even if it perhaps was designed to get us to think outside the box.

That was my first reaction to “The Tribe”, a Ukrainian film that opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in NY. I knew that the characters are deaf teenagers in a boarding school in Kiev but I hadn’t anticipated what was in store for me as the film started at a press screening. It began with this announcement:

This film is in sign-language. There are no subtitles or voice-over.

What could possibly have made the director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiiy decide to take this approach? To rise to a technical challenge of making a “silent movie” that defied the audience to not understand a single word being exchanged by the characters? My initial reaction was to bolt from my seat and return home but since I had traveled almost an hour from my Upper East Side apartment to the Film Forum in Soho, I sighed and decided to stick it out.

Not only did I stick it out for the entire 133 minutes, I found it to be a most compelling drama that draws you into the lives of its characters, all of whom are nonprofessionals and deaf.

Although the story is centered in a boarding school, the film will remind you of any number of those that take place in reformatories such as “Dog Pound” or “Bad Boys”. In such films, there is always a newcomer to the prison who despite himself ends up in a struggle with the alpha males who bully and steal from those beneath them in the hierarchy.

“The Tribe” begins with its hero Sergei showing up at the boarding school, where he is shaken down by the gang that runs the institution with the blessings of the administrators. They take him behind the school where out of sight he is forced to strip and surrender any money that he has brought with him to the school. Sergei takes this in stride since he understands that he is outnumbered.

A few days later, the same gang members summon him to a clearing near the school where he is forced to defend himself from their blows. Despite once again being outnumbered, he fights back effectively and nearly throttles the leader of the pack. His fighting skills are so impressive that they recruit him into the gang. Always accepting things almost fatalistically, Sergei accepts their invitation and joins them in nightly excursions to a nearby truck stop where two girls from the school are prostituted to the drivers with the full cooperation of the administrators who get a cut of the proceeds.

Complications arise when Sergei falls in love with Anya, one of the two girls he has been pimping. She is so hardened by her experience in the school that she finds his affection almost incomprehensible. Mostly it is lust that opens her up to him rather than love.

Throughout it all, you understand everything that is going on even though you have no idea what they are saying to each other (unless you understand sign-language.) As a mixture of pantomime and silent film without the titles, the story is communicated by the actions of the characters and amplified by the body language and facial expressions that accompany the “dialog” as the director points out in the press notes:

I never considered the idea of making this film with hearing actors. It would have been an entirely different kind of film. The body language, the sign language they use is natural for them, and it is very individual; much more individual than French, Russian or German spoken by a particular person. People who speak out loud use only facial muscles to pronounce their speech, while deaf people use their entire body to communicate. To me, this is what makes this group unique and extremely interesting.

The press notes also indicate that “The Tribe” resonated with the Euromaidan protests that were taking place just under 10 miles from the filming.

Most of the shooting took place on the outskirts of Kiev, in the district where I spent my childhood. Previously, it was named after Stalin, and even now it’s called “Stalinka”. Most of the buildings here were built by German POWs after WWII. This proletarian district, built mainly of red brick, resembles some of the buildings in New York. Shooting began prior to the protests in Ukraine and completed after the Russian invasion in the Crimea. Our work was quite tense. Some cast members, including actors, participated in protests and street clashes in their spare time. Some days we had to cancel shooting because of road blockades, as the cars with our equipment simply could not get through to the set. Ironically, the producer and I live just four kilometers away from the Maidan.

Finally, as was obvious to anybody familiar with the history of Ukraine, the story had a lot to with the protests even though it never alluded once to the hierarchy that obtained under oligarchic rule:

A boarding school is better than just a school because it is a closed system, which––like a prison––can be perceived to be a metaphor of the state even if that isn’t the intention. The Tribe is, to a certain extent, a metaphor of the arrangement of the Ukrainian state, at least the pre-revolutionary Ukraine. And the arrangement of the state of Ukraine was based on the principle of a Mafiosi group.

For those with an appetite for the fresh and the challenging film (ostensibly those who tend to agree with my reviews), my strongest recommendation for “The Tribe”, a sign of the indomitable character of the Ukrainian artist.

Finally, and once again from the press notes, biographical information on the two lead characters:

Grigoriy Fesenko (Sergei)

Fesenko was born in 1994 in Kiev. His mother is a cleaner, his father is unemployed, and there are three children in their family. Fesenko will graduate from a school for children with hearing impairments this year. He’s interested in everything associated with street culture, and is a graffiti artist, parkourist, and roofer. Currently, his future plans remain unknown. He had previously spent some time playing on one of the Kiev sports society’s deaf football teams, but abandoned football when he was cast in The Tribe.

Yana Novikova (Anya)

Novikova was born in 1993 in a village near the small Belarusian town of Gomel to hearing parents. She became deaf at the age of two weeks due to illness, and her younger sister also became deaf in early childhood. She studied at a boarding school for children with hearing impairments, and loves to dance, draw, and practice pantomime. After graduation, she went to Gomel, where she enrolled in the College of Engineering. After studying for a year, she realized that engineering was not for her. Novikova loves cinema and has dreamed of acting since her childhood. After she heard about the casting call for a small quota of deaf actors from Theater Rainbow (Ukrainian Society of the Deaf) at the Kiev Theatre Academy, she dropped out of college and went to Kiev for the audition. Theater Rainbow did not accept her application, but she was noticed by director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, who invited her to the casting call for The Tribe. During the audition, Novikova utterly eclipsed all other participants.

After she was cast, Novikova lived in Kiev in a rental apartment for three months. She took part in the pilot shooting of The Tribe, despite the fact that she didn‘t know whether or not she was approved for the leading role until shooting began. She is currently living in Kiev and pursuing acting full time.

 

June 12, 2015

Human Rights Film Festival 2015

Filed under: Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 9:54 pm

Last night the Human Rights Watch Film Festival opened in New York. Judging by the four films I saw in advance, my recommendation is to look at the schedule (https://ff.hrw.org/) and buy tickets for some of the best political films being made today. Whatever you think of HRW, this is a project that puts it best foot forward whatever mischief it has been up to in Venezuela or elsewhere.

Additionally, I will be saying something about a documentary titled “Welcome to Leith” that is playing in Brooklyn tonight at 9pm, admittedly a little late in the game. However, even if you can’t make it to the screening, you should keep an eye out for the film that chronicles the attempt of neo-Nazis to take over a tiny village in North Dakota that was a virtual ghost town.

“3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets”

This is the definitive critique of “stand your ground” laws based on a white man’s killing of a Black teenager in Jacksonville, Florida not long after the Trayvon Martin killing. Jordan Davis was sitting in the back seat of an SUV with his friends in the parking lot of a strip mall listening to rap music while another friend was in a convenience store picking up some items. Just after Michael Dunn pulls up alongside them to allow his fiancée to pick up some wine in another shop, he asks them to turn down the music, which they do. Jordan Davis, however, takes offense and turns the radio up again. Words are exchanged at that point back and forth until Dunn takes a revolver out of his glove compartment and fires 10 bullets into their car, killing Davis. After his arrest, he offers an alibi that Davis was holding up a shotgun that he planned to use against him. So he was killed in self-defense.

The film consists mostly of filming in the courtroom and interviews with Jordan Davis’s parents and the friends who were with him that day. Director Marc Silver also had access to Michael Dunn’s fiancée whose testimony was critical to the outcome of the trial. At the risk of violating the usual spoiler alert strictures, I can say that she put morality above personal loyalty.

“No Land’s Song”

One of the results of the Islamic hijacking of the Iranian revolution in 1979 was the banning of female singers in public unless men accompanied them. Composer Sara Najafi was determined to challenge and overturn this sexist measure by organizing a concert in Tehran that brought together some of the country’s most talented female vocalists that would be backed by Iranian and French musicians who would travel there to show their solidarity.

The film is a mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. When you hear the singers perform, you will be deeply moved by the Iranian style that deserves a wider audience both here and in the country where it originates. Due to the obstacles posed by American controls over artist visas since September 11th, we have been robbed of the opportunity to hear some glorious music.

The controls in Iran are just as baleful but driven by medieval attitudes rather than xenophobia. In some shocking scenes, we see Najafi making the case for female performances to a high-ranking mullah who babbles on about the danger of men being sexually aroused by the voice of a woman.

Ayat Najafi, the brother of Sara, directed the film. This is not the first film he has made about the oppression of women in Iran. Seven years ago he directed “Football Under Cover” about the first match of a female team in Iran with a visiting team from Germany. While some of the worst features of the Ahmadinejad regime are gone, the struggle continues to put men and women on an equal footing. For those who are inclined to support the “anti-imperialism” of the Ahmadinejad wing of the Iranian ruling class, the film should go a long way to clarifying the issues. As Emma Goldman once put it, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

“The Trials of Spring”

This is the definitive examination of the Egyptian political landscape in the aftermath of the Tahrir Square protests that gave the country so much hope. Both the men who gathered at the protests and the forces of law and order saw the degradation of women as key to maintaining the status quo.

The main subject of the film is Hend Nafea, a young feminist and revolutionary who was put on trial for her role in a peaceful demonstration that was attacked by al-Sisi’s goons. Nafea is a living symbol of the Egyptian revolution that was victimized for no other reason than demanding equal rights for women. Despite their differences over Islamic theology, the elites in Egypt and Iran share a belief that women are inferior to men.

The film will give you a strong sense of how Egyptian youth became confused over the presidency of Mohamed Morsi. While there is little doubt that the coup was a terrible blow to the nation’s hopes, there were ample signs that the Muslim Brotherhood had little commitment to women’s rights.

Gini Reticker has focused on women’s rights in previous films. Her “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” told the story of women who organized a peace demonstration in war-torn Liberia at great risk to their life and freedom. If you believe that women’s rights is inextricably linked to the overall struggle for human rights and social change, this film is a must-see.

“The Wanted 18”

In the first Intifada, the people of Beit Sahour in the West Bank decided that they would embark on a program of self-sufficiency that would be a kind of forerunner to the independent Palestinian state that they were struggling for.

This entailed the creation of a small-scale dairy farm that would be made possible by the purchase of 18 cows from an Israeli kibbutz that was less hostile to Palestinian aspirations than the Likudniks. The dairy was so successful that the IDF occupying forces was determined to shut it down since it was supposed to be a security threat. I know that this sounds like a Joseph Heller novel or MASH but this actually happened.

Codirected by Amer Shomali, a Palestinian artist, and Paul Cowan, a Canadian, the film reflects the absurdist element of what took place and uses Claymation to dramatize the cows’ reaction to the conflict that is taking place around them. The film also opens on June 19th in NY (Cinema Village) and LA (NoHo 7).

“Welcome to Leith”

This is showing tonight at 9pm at The Old American Can Factory on 232 Third Street. Leith is a tiny village of 24 residents not far from the booming gas fields of North Dakota. In 2012 Craig Cobb showed up with a plan to make Leith the epicenter of White Nationalism in the USA by buying up land and electing his allies to the Town Council. Despite the reputation of rural America as a backwater of racism and reaction, the village rejected him like a healthy body resisting a virus.

The film was co-directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, who raised $60,000 through Kickstarter to make it possible. It is just one of the more recent examples of how low-cost digital filmmaking funded through the Internet can serve as leading edge social commentary. While Hollywood withers on the vine, radical documentary is flourishing thanks to the computer revolution.

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.

read full article

June 7, 2015

Charlie’s Country

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 8:50 pm

Opening last Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in NY, “Charlie’s Country” is now the fourth film I have seen that stars Australian aboriginal actor David Gulpilil who I first saw in “Walkabout” back in 1971 when he was 18 years old. Now 65 he is just as capable of conveying the psychological depth of an indigenous person as he ever was, in this case more essentially since he is the co-author of the screenplay.

Directed by Nicolas Roeg, “Walkabout” depicted the complex interaction of a young white brother and sister stranded in the outback with an aborigine out on a rite of puberty testing his ability to survive in the wilderness. As a perfect complement to his first film, the latest shows him returning once again to the bush but more as someone in the twilight of his life in a search of a more meaningful existence but one that has been destroyed by the white Australian colonizer.

Charlie lives in a native settlement that has all the same problems as an Indian reservation in the USA: drugs, alcohol, unemployment and despair. In the beginning of the week, Charlie gets a public assistance check and then spends it before the week is up. His days are spent wandering about his village aimlessly or shooting the breeze with other village elders.

In a manner that will remind you of Ferguson, Missouri or any other city where poor Black people are policed by white cops in an oppressive fashion, the local cops–all white Australians–treat their subjects with a mixture of paternalism and brutality. After Charlie and a crony go out into the bush to hunt a buffalo, they are stopped by the cops on the way back to the village and have their car, guns and game seized for lack of a proper license. A few days later, Charlie decides that he will have the last word on hunting and fashions a spear in a manner that has been handed down for generations among aboriginal people for millennia. On his way back to the bush for another hunt, the cops apprehend him and seize his spear because it is a “weapon”. I could not help but be reminded of the Baltimore cops chasing after Freddie Gray for carrying a concealed pocketknife.

Throughout the film, Charlie longs for nothing more than a return to traditional life, which the script makes clear is unattainable. This is the tragedy not only of Charlie but an entire race of people who were victims of genocide. As someone who has paid close attention to the anomie and suffering of Blackfoot Indians both through my research and by what I saw in visits to reservations in Montana and Alberta, I was struck by the similarities. When the game wardens arrest Charlie for hunting on land that belonged to his people for ten thousand years, I remembered that the same thing happened here:

By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.

By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty.

Like the American Indian, Australian aboriginals are facing a daunting task of trying to recapture a hunting and gathering ethos when capitalism has virtually destroyed such a possibility. Ironically, it is exactly a return to a precapitalist ecosocialist balance that will make the survival of both “advanced” societies.

I strongly recommend this film and any other that David Gulpilil has appeared in, including the two that I have reviewed: the 2002 “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and the 2007 “Ten Canoes”.

“Rabbit-Proof Fence” depicts the flight of two young girls from a residential school that was intended to forcibly assimilate native children in the same way that took place in the USA and Canada as I indicated in my review:

Since Molly (Everlyn Sampi), who is 14 at the time of the movie, her 8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) are all “mixed breed” children, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Aboriginal Protection Act, which more properly should have been called the Aboriginal Genocide Act.

Since one of the goals of the legislation was to place such children in residential schools where “primitiveness”, including their native language, will be indoctrinated (or beaten) out of them, it would certainly qualify as genocide in terms of the United Nations. Article II of the UN Convention on Genocide stipulates that “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” for the purposes of assimilation qualifies as genocide. Despite the paternalistic language of the Australian drafters of this legislation, they had much more in common with Heinrich Himmler who stated: “I consider that in dealing with members of a foreign country, especially some Slav nationality…in such a mixture of peoples there will always be some racially good types. Therefore I think that it is our duty to take their children with us, to remove them from their environment, if necessary, by robbing or stealing them…” (Telford Taylor, “Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials”, p. 203. This was cited by James Michael Craven in an indictment of residential schools in Canada.)

In one particularly chilling scene, A.O. Neville, the Australian in charge of removing such children from their parents and played to perfection in an understated fashion by Kenneth Branagh, lectures a group of genteel white women about the goals of the policy. Pointing to three large pictures of Aboriginal children on the wall–a full-breed, a half-breed and a quarter-breed–he explains coolly that in another generation all the “blackness” will have been bred out of them. At the residential schools, not only would they learn proper English. They would be taught useful skills, such as how to clean the houses of their white Australian masters and care for their children.

By contrast, “Ten Canoes” dramatizes aboriginal life prior to the arrival of the colonizers—a time of spiritual and physical well-being even if it lacked the “conveniences” of modern life. In “Charlie’s Country”, Gulpilil’s character does not bother keeping his cell phone charged because he has so little use for it. As he says through most of the film, the old ways were better—a sentiment that inspire “Ten Canoes” as well as I indicated in my review:

The story of “Ten Canoes” has a shaggy dog quality. With narration by David Gulpilil, it is far more interested in depicting the “undramatic” diurnal existence of his people. The opening scenes, for example, depict a group of Yolngu men stripping bark from trees deep within the swamp, carrying them back to their village on their heads and preparing it to be turned into canoes. As they go about their chores, they joke with each other and gossip about village life.

We soon learn that the young and unmarried Dayindi (played by Jamie Gulpilil, David’s son) lusts after the youngest of the three wives of Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurrdal). When village elder Birrinbirrin (played by co-producer Richard Birrinbirrin, a Yolngu artist and conservator of indigenous culture) discovers this, he spins out a long tale that amounts to a film within the film about their ancestors from 10,000 years earlier who get involved with similar conflicts over women.

The Aesopian moral of the story is that you are often better off making do with what you have. The general picture of Yolngu mores that emerges from the film is that strife is to be avoided at all costs. When one of Dayindi’s ancestors kills a man from another village in a jealous rage, the rival camps agree to a “payback”, which involves the killer dodging spears thrown by the aggrieved villagers. This “eye for an eye” ritual is understood by all Yolngus as a way of avoiding more costly wars.

“Ten Canoes” can be seen on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LqIWW5UGl1s) while “Rabbit-Proof Fence” can be seen there as well for only $2.99 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNbPPVetLCw).

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