Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 22, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

I went to see “Mad Max: Fury Road” in 3D with no other intention except to kick back and enjoy some mindless entertainment. Mindless it was—entertaining, not so much.

Fifteen minutes into the film, it began to dawn on me that nearly the entire film would consist of Mad Max behind the wheel of a truck fending off the bad guys to the accompaniment of a film score with the same percussive phrases being repeated over and over again like a needle stuck in a record groove. The combination of the roar of the automobiles, the gunfire and the bursting bombs, and the insistent music that was meant to remind you of how exciting the whole thing was made it impossible to hear the dialog—such as it was. In an interview with the NY Times, director George Miller was asked about the near absence of dialog. His reply:

I was very influenced by a book written by the critic Kevin Brownlow called “The Parade’s Gone By.” He said the main part of the parade has gone by the advent of sound in cinema. This new language that we called cinema had mostly evolved in the silent era. What differentiated it from theater were the action pieces, the chase pieces. And I really got interested in that. Hitchcock had this wonderful saying: “I try to make films where they don’t have to read the subtitles in Japan.” And that was what I tried to do in “Mad Max 1,” and I’m still trying to do that three decades later with “Fury Road.”

With all due respect to George Miller, I don’t think that Alfred Hitchcock should be taken too seriously on this. While nobody can gainsay the visceral pleasure of watching Cary Grant fighting with James Mason in Abe Lincoln’s nostril, that scene from “North by Northwest” hardly stands on its own. It was the dialog between Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint that gave the film its panache:

Eve Kendall: How do I know you aren’t a murderer?

Roger Thornhill: You don’t.

Eve Kendall: Maybe you’re planning to murder me right here, tonight.

Roger Thornhill: Shall I?

Eve Kendall: Please do.

Violent clashes such as those that take place in this film and others of this ilk made by J.J. Abrams, Michael Bay and just about any other based on Marvel comic books are exciting but only in small doses, functioning in a way like sex scenes. But who would want to have watched Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider fucking for 90 percent of “Last Tango in Paris”? That’s the problem with “Mad Max: Fury Road”; there’s too much of a good thing.

George Miller’s first installment in the Mad Max series was made in 1979. Despite his reputation for making post-apocalyptic films with some kind of message about gas and now water disappearing, his main motivation for using a future world as a backdrop was his worries that an audience would find all the road kill unbelievable. As it turns out, Miller—who was a doctor in an emergency ward in Sydney at the time tending to exactly the kinds of accidents depicted in the film—decided to set it in a dystopian future in order to make the story more plausible. Like the most recent film, the first one was pretty much unrelieved highway mayhem with very little character development (none actually) and dialog.

It was with the 1981 “Road Warrior” that Miller began to hit his stride. Mad Max becomes a kind of mercenary fighting on behalf of the good people defending a small-scale oil refinery against marauders after the fashion of “Seven Samurai” that his talents as a screenwriter and director begin to emerge. What I remember most about the film was Mel Gibson’s interaction with the feral youth and his deadly boomerang. Watching his joyous reaction to the music box that Mad Max gives him was worth the price of admission.

The masterpiece, of course, was “Beyond Thunderdome”, which once again had Mad Max interacting with children and was justifiably celebrated for the casting of Tina Turner as Aunty Entity, the chief of the bad guys.

In doing some research on Miller, who is just about my age, I was startled to discover that he is not limited to the Mad Max series. He directed “The Witches of Eastwick”, a witty tale based on a John Updike novel about the devil—played to a tee by Jack Nicholson—seducing three women. He was also screenwriter and director for “Happy Feet”, one of the finest children’s movies I have ever seen.

Just a final word on the politics of the film. The Internet has been abuzz over a controversy about the film’s “man hatred”. Apparently some idiots from the “men’s rights” movement are upset with the supposed feminist message of the film. Since Eve Ensler, the author of “The Vagina Monologues”, served as a consultant on the film, we are led to believe that it was a statement about gender equality. Since Charlize Therzon’s character fights side by side with Mad Max with about as much effectiveness and has antagonized the bad guys’ chief by attempting to rescue a group of women forced to bear his children after the fashion of ISIS, we are led to conclude that this is a film with a message.

I do think that Miller is capable of making a film with a message. “Happy Feet” was sort of a penguin’s version of “Billy Elliot”, making the case that there’s nothing wrong with a boy wanting to dance. The only message I got out of “Mad Max: Fury Road” is that a fool and his money are soon parted.

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


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.

Read full article

May 12, 2015

Three Hot Docs films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:21 pm

Despite the fact that the three documentaries under review here have already been shown at the Hot Docs Film Festival that ran from Apr. 23 to May 3 in Toronto, they deserve your attention since there is every possibility that they will be shown at other festivals and—best of all—receive distribution at finer movie theaters. As is so often the case, the documentary is a worthy alternative to the rancid feature films churned out by Hollywood if for no other reason that they are grounded in reality and as such tend to engage with the sort of issues that engage my readers. To wit, “Peace Officer” is about the militarization of police departments in Utah; “A Sinner in Mecca” is about a gay Muslim on a hajj; and “Speed Sisters” is about three young Palestinian women who have become famous for racing cars in the West Bank and elsewhere. Not only are these three films penetrating looks at social reality, they are entertaining especially for their ability to tell stories about remarkable individuals—a task that commercial filmmaking subordinated long ago to special effects and cheesy formulas geared to the adolescent mind.

“Peace Officer” begins with its subject William “Dub” Lawrence emerging from a septic tank with some wadded toilet paper wrapped around a pump—not exactly a scene that promises anything to do with SWAT teams and their abuses, although Lawrence goes on to say that cleaning septic tanks is a more honorable profession than politics. As the former sheriff of Davis County in Utah, an elected post, he is certainly qualified to make such comparisons.

In 1974, Lawrence decided that Davis County, which is in the northern suburbs of Salt Lake City, needed a SWAT team. As the film explains, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) units were created first in Los Angeles by Darryl Gates in the aftermath of the Watts riots in 1965 as a kind of heavily armed response to that urban uprising and others that might ensue such as the 1974 shootout with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) that had kidnapped Patty Hearst.

Fast forwarding to 2008, Lawrence—long since his departure from police work—was horrified to discover that the very SWAT unit he had created had taken the life of his son-in-law, a 36-year-old firefighter named Brian Wood who had physically assaulted his wife during a mental breakdown and was threatening to kill himself with a revolver inside his pickup truck. The cops held a press conference after his death claiming that he had shot himself in the heart but a skeptical Dub Lawrence eventually discovered that he was shot by a sniper cop during a frenzy that had been mounting ever since the SWAT team surrounded the distraught target of a mission utterly unlike the confrontation with the SLA or any other urban uprising that the SWAT teams had been created to overcome. What Lawrence discovered to his dismay is that the cops had begun to think of themselves more as soldiers putting down an enemy combatant rather than peace officers in the film’s title.

After analyzing the evidence of spent bullets and their trajectory at his son-in-law’s house, Lawrence charged the cops with not only lying about how Brian had died but of covering up their extrajudicial killing. The cops had claimed that he was a threat to both them and to the neighborhood as if the dozens of heavily armored and armed marksmen could not contain a single man with a revolver.

So traumatized by his son-in-law’s killing and the example that this botched military intervention had set, Dub Lawrence made himself available to other families that had lost a son or daughter to SWAT teams, including Matthew Stewart, an army veteran who had been growing marijuana in his basement for his personal use. The cops came to his house in the middle of the night, just as American GI’s had done in Iraq as standard practice, and began firing their weapons at him when they spotted him with a revolver in his hand, evidence in all likelihood of Stewart defending himself against a home invasion. In the melee that followed, one cop was killed by “friendly fire” and Stewart shot one other. Charged with murder, Stewart hung himself in a jail cell rather than face execution or life imprisonment—all for growing weed in his basement.

Dub Lawrence’s son-in-law and Matthew Stewart were about as “white bread” as you can imagine and cut from the same all-American cloth as other Utah natives but ultimately victimized by the same homicidal tendencies that have been on display in Ferguson and elsewhere as the film makes abundantly clear. On November 23rd 2014, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that cop killings in Utah outpaced drug, gang and child-abuse homicides.

Now 70, Dub Lawrence has become a fearless, principled and savvy critic of the illegal and fatal police practices that have sparked a new civil rights movement. As the “star” of this documentary, this defender of the idea that the first obligation of a cop is to “keep the peace” is a real hero as opposed to the never-ending references to cops as heroes in the mainstream press.

As is so often the case with documentaries, they have only an outside chance at theatrical distribution. It is my hope that not only will it make it to the usual venues but also get picked up by the broader movement and shown at college campuses and high schools where the new activists involved with “Black Lives Matter” can be found. This is a film that holds out the hope that a broad-based movement committed to the right of a citizen to live in peace and to be protected from death squads in uniform will be respected.

I urge you to check the screenings page for “Peace Officer” from time to time to see if it is arriving in your neck of the woods since this is about as timely and as moving a documentary film as you will see this year or any year.

In 2007 Parvez Sharma, a gay Muslim originally from India, made a film titled “A Jihad for Love” that was the counterpart to “Trembling Before G-d”, a documentary about gay orthodox Jews trying to reconcile their faith with their religion’s official homophobia. Sandi DuBowski, who directed “Trembling Before G-d” served as Sharma’s producer so the two films were obviously linked in the minds of both parties.

Sharma has followed up with “A Sinner in Mecca”, a very personal film about basically the same subject but focused on his own experience. It cuts back and forth from New York City, where Sharma lives with his husband, and Saudi Arabia where he has gone for a hajj. Despite his faith, he has trepidations about traveling in Saudi Arabia where supposedly you can be beheaded for being gay as the film asserts in the opening moments. It must be said that although gays are hounded and frequently receive corporal punishment, some experts claim that beheading or any other form of capital punishment does not take place.

In a way, this was not something that the director had to worry about since he was in Saudi Arabia to pray and not to play (especially since he is happily married.) Indeed, the primary emphasis is on the rituals that attend a hajj, something that ultimately makes the film so compelling.

Poised on the razor’s edge, we accompany Sharma in places such as Medina, Mecca and in the desert as he tries to fulfill his obligations as a Muslim all the while second-guessing his faith, especially when he slaughters a goat as the culmination of his spiritual cleansing. In his blood-spattered garments, he wonders what this has to do with holiness.

This is a particularly important question facing all the “sky religions” that originate from the Old Testament. As the film explains, this Muslim ritual is tied to the story of Abraham and Isaac (referred to as Ishmael in Islam). God instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son but at the last minute told him that he was only testing his faith and to sacrifice a goat instead:

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

I never considered this strange biblical tale until I began reading Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” at Bard College as part of my voyage through existential literature. As it turns out, you can read the entire text at http://www.whitenationalism.com/etext/fear.htm. Although the owner of the website does not explicitly state what this ghastly tale has to do with white nationalism, you can surmise that as a defense of blind obedience to God, it strengthens the case that authority in and of itself is a good thing. As a guide to spirituality—whatever that means—it seems useless.

Despite all the attempts to wed “sky religions” with progressive values, it is always tales like Abraham and Isaac or God visiting plagues on the Egyptian people for the misdeeds of the tyrant who ruled over them that make me leery of all the god stuff. I can understand Parvez Sharma’s need for faith but ultimately the only belief that can sustain me as I grow older and more thoughtful about the big questions of life and death is that our salvation is in revolutionary change even though that requires a greater leap of faith than any story in the bible.

As might have been expected, the women who race cars in “Speed Sisters” are hardly involved in anything resembling Le Mans. The cars they drive are indistinguishable from ordinary road cars except for the fact that they have been stripped of extra weight and have souped-up engines.

The races are based not on head-to-head competitions on an oval track or a racecourse such as Le Mans but in contained spaces not much larger than a football field where the driver has to navigate through narrow paths on frequent right angles without straying off course. It is roughly analogous to an event like Le Mans as a miniature golf course is to the Masters in Augusta.

The three women in “Speed Sisters” are hardly what you imagine as the typical Palestinian. They are relatively affluent and altogether secular. Their main obstacle would seem to be the sheer difficulty of paying for a mixture of profession and hobby. The chief reward appears to be trophies they receive for turning in the best time at one of these events.

That being said, they run into the same challenges as any Palestinian, including hours spent trying to get through a checkpoint or dodging rubber bullets or tear gas during one of the many confrontations between activists and the IDF.

The story being told in “Speed Sisters” is not the same as a typical documentary about the Palestinian struggle but rather one of a group of women trying to achieve normalcy in highly abnormal conditions. As such they have an affinity with the gay people lining up to get married in “A Sinner in Mecca” during one scene taking place in New York that includes Parvez Sharma standing on line with his husband to be.

In trying to make it as a racer, the women have much in common with their counterparts in NASCAR country except for the fact that they are living under an occupation. Parvez Sharma makes films about gay Muslims being accepted on their own terms, including his own mother who was pleading with him to “find a nice girl” until her death from cancer.

As a dimension of revolutionary change in the 21st century, isn’t it about time we recognized that when people struggle to enjoy the same rights as those afforded to white, heterosexual Christians, the results can be explosive? That’s the ultimate contradiction of the struggle for democratic rights that the left has to cope with if it is to have any impact on the social struggles in the Middle East for sexual and political freedom.

May 10, 2015

Accident at Indian Point

Filed under: Film,nuclear power and weapons — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-10 at 3.25.37 PM

Just by coincidence, I got an email this morning from Michael Meeropol at the very minute I was watching a TV news report on an accident at Indian Point nuclear power plant. His email had nothing to do with the accident but it reminded me that I had planned to say a word or two about his daughter Ivy Meeropol’s documentary on Indian Point that I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival last month.

I should mention that this is not one of my favorite film festivals because a few years ago I was prevented from seeing a documentary about herring—of all things—by the festival staff because I had neglected to register for that showing but one later in the week. Even when the publicist intervened to tell them I was okay, I still could not get past them—as if I had a suicide bomb under my shirt or something.

There’s a certain irony, of course, in Ivy Meeropol making such a film since her grandparents were none other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the subject of her first documentary in 2004. As the “atom spies”, they were charged with giving Russia “the secret” of how to make a nuclear weapon. For the longest time the left upheld the analysis of Walter and Miriam Schneir that they were wrongly accused. When it was revealed that Julius was passing information to the Soviets, the left had a feeling of being had. I always felt that the best tack would have been for them to admit it and defend it as necessary for the survival of the USSR. My strong suspicion is that if the Soviets lacked such a self-defense, WWIII would have taken place in the mid-50s with genocidal results.

As for the accident, a representative from Entergy, the vultures who own the plant, told viewers that the transformer fire took place in a building separate from the reactor and posed no danger (except of course, for the toxins that poured into the air and the water). CNN’s report was par for the course:

A transformer failure at the Indian Point nuclear power plant caused an explosion and fire at the facility Saturday evening, sending billows of black smoke into the air near Buchanan, New York.

The fire broke out on the non-nuclear side of the plant, about 200 yards away from the reactor building, according to Entergy spokesman Jerry Nappi.

“The fire is out and the plant is safe and stable,” Nappi said. Federal officials said one reactor unit automatically shut down.

Meeropol’s film had unprecedented access. Not only does she take you through a guided tour of the innards of Indian Point, she was also able to take her crew through the Fukushima wreckage in what was obviously a risk to her health and safety. In addition, she managed to gain the confidence of the guy at Indian Point who was responsible for maintaining safety in the same fashion as Jack Lemmon in “China Syndrome”. Since the guy rides a motorcycle to work rather than a Prius, that struck me as less than reassuring.

Gregory Jaczko

Corey Stoll

The star of the movie is Gregory Jaczko, who was chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who bears a striking resemblance to the actor Corey Stoll who played the Congressman was used as a tool by Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”. While not quite an anti-nuclear convert after the fashion of Jack Lemmon’s character, Jaczko became convinced after Fukushima that tighter safety standards were required in the industry. For this, the NRC decided to dump him but not on the basis of his call for safer procedures but for alleged misconduct as a manager. After he was dismissed, they were able to document that none of the charges such as verbal abuse to underlings had any merit. It was simply the case that the industry, including Entergy, did not want to pony up the extra money to make the plants safer.

There is some question whether any amount of money could make Indian Point safer. By everybody’s admission, the plant was already obsolete in the 1970s so not only were power transformers ready to blow, so was just about everything else in the plant. The New York Daily News, a rightwing tabloid, reported four years ago:

Federal inspectors found “near-miss” accidents at Indian Point on the Hudson and 13 other U.S. nuclear power plants last year, a watchdog group charged on Thursday.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, based on Nuclear Regulatory Commission data, claimed that “many of these significant events occurred because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems.”

In the inspection of Indian Point about 25 miles from New York City, NRC auditors found that “the liner of a refueling cavity at Unit 2 has been leaking since at least 1993.”

The USC report charged that “By allowing this reactor to continue operating with equipment that cannot perform its only safety function, the NRC is putting people living around Indian Point at elevated and undue risk.”

In addition to interviewing industry officials and Indian Point personnel, Meeropol put the spotlight on an activist named Marilyn Elie, a retired schoolteacher who lived only a few miles from Indian Point. Understandably, she and other local folk would worry about a potential Chernobyl in their midst. For that matter, given the plant’s proximity to New York City, all of us should get involved with shutting the plant down since a catastrophe just thirty-five miles from Manhattan would be a threat to our lives as well.

As someone with a longstanding concern about saltwater and freshwater life, I was particularly outraged by the plant’s cooling method, which is to suck in water from the Hudson to cool the reactors and then cycle it back out to the river at many degrees higher than is safe for fish. In fact, this is the Achilles Heel of the plant. It has been denied a license renewal because the water cooling technology has been deemed inimical to the river’s health and safety—leaving aside the whole question of a Fukushima type meltdown. Given the likelihood that Entergy will not spend the money to replace the cooling system and that Governor Cuomo is opposed to it in toto, there is a good chance that the reactor will be history after 2015. Let’s hope that Meeropol’s documentary gets shown on PBS, where it will scare the bejeezus out of New Yorkers who wouldn’t cotton to the idea of a Fukushima type meltdown ruining their runs in Central Park and Sunday brunches at outdoor tables.

Speaking of which, the film took us on a tour into the area where spent fuel rods are kept. This, to put it as gingerly as possible, is a disaster waiting to happen. Jonathan Alter, a Newsweek reporter of longstanding and hardly a Marxist “catastrophist”, informed his readers of the risk:

The nuclear crisis at the Fukushima reactors has set off calls to close nuclear power plants around the world. But closing reactors alone would do nothing to address what caused the real damage in Japan—the spent fuel rods that are supposed to be cooling in pools. When three of the seven pools were damaged, and in one case entirely drained, by the tsunami, the spent rods began emitting high levels of radiation.

The United States has about 100 such spent fuel pools. I visited one a few years ago at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which sits up the Hudson River in Buchanan, New York. Indian Point is back in the news because it operates a mere 35 miles outside New York City. More than 20 million people live within a 50-mile radius of the plant. Getting out in the case of a disaster would be a nightmare.

Getting in wasn’t easy either. But after taking a course called “radiation training,” undergoing a “dose assessment” (to be measured against my readings afterward, which showed less exposure than to an X-ray) and passing a written test on how to handle myself in a confined space, I was finally allowed to enter the facility. Clad in the jumpsuit, helmet, goggles, and booties made famous by Homer Simpson, I expected to be transfixed by the fully operating core of the reactor just a few feet in front of me.

Instead it was the 38-foot-deep pools, with the spent rods lying at the bottom, that scared me. Unlike the reactor, the pools aren’t “hardened targets” protected from earthquakes or terrorists by a concrete containment dome. At least at Indian Point, the pools lie in bedrock. In the Fukushima facility, and at many American plants, they are above ground, with roofs not much thicker than those at your local swim meet.

I learned that day of a process called “dry cask storage” that seems to offer a safer alternative. In dry casking, a technology that dates to the 1980s but has only been adopted in recent years, the rods are housed outdoors in storage pads 3 feet thick and 100 feet by 200 feet wide. While this sounds promising, it turns out dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.

Dry casking at Indian Point and other American nuclear power plants is a supplement to the pools, not an alternative. Only in Germany have they moved to replace the exposed pools altogether.

At Indian Point, authorities only began dry casking in 2008 because the pools were so crowded that there wasn’t room for newly spent rods coming out of the reactor. According to Entergy, the company that owns the Indian Point plant, “reconfiguration of the spent fuel pool is not part of the dry cask storage project.” In other words, the pools won’t be drained any time soon, at least not intentionally.

Finally, I recommend that you acquaint yourself with the Riverkeeper website, a group that has been spearheading opposition to Indian Point and whose members are given a platform in the documentary. I especially urge a look at their “Ten Reasons to Close Indian Point” that should gain the widest attention alongside Ivy Meeropol’s documentary.

May 7, 2015

Neglected masterpieces of cinema

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:46 pm

Screen shot 2015-05-07 at 3.44.20 PM

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The latest issue of Class, Race and Corporate Power is now online. Founded by Ronald Cox, a professor at Florida International University, it is a bold attempt to create a unified voice for academics and non-academics on the left as an Open Access journal—in other words, one that does not make use of dead trees and that costs $35 per issue.

The journal includes peer-reviewed articles and non-peered as well, such as the one I have in the current issue titled “Neglected Masterpieces of Cinema”. A while ago Ronald asked to write something on the top radical films. My response was to adapt ten reviews that I had posted over the years that met two criteria:

  1. The films should be ones that the average leftist might not be familiar with, such as—for example—“Crimson Gold”, the 2003 Iranian film that is a lacerating critique of class inequalities and religious authoritarianism that was like others directed by Jafar Panahi almost certain to get him arrested and banned from making films.
  2. The films should also be available through online streaming, either for free on Youtube or at places like Fandor.com, one of the alternatives to Netflix that I have recommended to CounterPunch readers.

The abstract for the article is as follows:

This article will acquaint you with ten of the more important leftwing films I have reviewed over the past sixteen years as a member of New York Film Critics Online. You will not see listed familiar works such as “The Battle of Algiers” but instead those that deserve wider attention, the proverbial neglected masterpieces. They originate from different countries and are available through Internet streaming, either freely from Youtube or through Netflix or Amazon rental. In several instances you will be referred to film club websites that like the films under discussion deserve wider attention since they are the counterparts to the small, independent theaters where such films get premiered. The country of origin, date and director will be identified next to the title, followed by a summary of the film, and finally by its availability.

I would only add that I am currently in the process of expanding on this list by going systematically through the more than 900 film reviews I have written in the past 20 years or so and culling together all those that meet these criteria. As far as I know, there is not a resource on the Internet like this and it is high time that it be made available. Not only will I be listing films that I have reviewed but others that are available online. Also, those that require membership in Fandor.com or any other membership service will be excluded. The overwhelming majority of the films will be freely available on Youtube. Right now I am in the middle of ferreting out American films. This will give you a sense of where I am going with this. I’ll bet you haven’t seen half of these:

  1. Tell them Willie Boy is here
  2. Lonely are the Brave
  3. Bad Day at Black Rock*
  4. Our Daily Bread
  5. The Big Clock
  6. The Emerald Forest
  7. Metropolis
  8. Counsellor at Law
  9. Lion of the Desert

May 4, 2015

Marlon Brando and Gillo Pontecorvo

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

(In another chapter in Marlin Brando’s “Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me”, he says that if he hadn’t become an actor, he would have made a good conman because he is such a convincing liar. There are many details in this account that do not ring true but they remain fascinating as tokens of Brando’s psychological/political makeup.)

ASIDE FROM ELIA KAZAN and Bernardo Bertolucci, the best director I worked with was Gillo Pontecorvo, even though we nearly killed each other. He directed me in a 1968 film that practically no one saw. Originally called Queimada!, it was released as Burn! I played an English spy, Sir William Walker, who symbolized all the evils perpetrated by the European powers on their colonies during the nineteenth century. There were a lot of parallels to Vietnam, and the movie portrayed the universal theme of the strong exploiting the weak. I think I did the best acting I’ve ever done in that picture, but few people came to see it.

Gillo had made a film I liked, The Battle of Algiers, and was one of the few great filmmakers I knew. He is an extraordinarily talented, gifted man, but during most of our time together we were at each other’s throats. We spent six months in Colombia, mostly in Cartagena, a humid, tropical city about 11 degrees from the equator and not far, I thought, from the gateway to Hades. Most days the temperature was over 111 degrees, and the humidity made the set a Turkish bath. Gillo’s first shot was from the window of a tiny cubicle, supposedly a prison cell in an old fort, with the camera looking down on a courtyard where a prisoner was being garroted. When I saw that Gillo was wearing a heavy winter overcoat, I couldn’t believe it. With the movie lights blazing, it must have been over 130 degrees in the room. But he filmed take after take and never removed his overcoat.

“Gillo,” I finally asked, “why are you wearing that heavy coat?” He was drenched in sweat. “Gillo, why don’t you take off?” He shrugged, pulled his collar up, looked around and said in French, “I feel a little chilly, I don’t know why. I’m afraid I might get a cold.”

“That coat’s not going to help you. If you’re ill there’s no sense in weakening yourself more by losing all that fluid.”

“I’ll be all right,” he said and turned away.

I walked over to one of the members of the crew and said, “Unless he’s getting the flu, he’s doing something very strange, He’ll exhaust himself and pass out from the loss of so much perspiration.” During the next break, Gillo came outside and I noticed that he was wearing a pair of brief blue trunks underneath the over coat. An odd combination, I thought, swimming trunks and an overcoat in this heat? While I was watching him, he pulled a handful of small objects from one pocket of the coat and shifted them to the other. I went over and asked him, “What are those?”

“Do you believe in luck?” Gillo asked.

“You mean fate?”

“Luck, fortuna.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess so. Some days you feel lucky, some days you don’t.” He dug his hand into his pocket and pulled out a small piece of plastic that looked like a curly red chile pepper. “What is that?” I asked.

“A little something for good luck. Touch it,” he said, adding that it would bring good luck to the picture.

I did, and asked where his good luck charm came from.


“What do charms like that cost?” “Nothing.” He reached into his pocket again, brought out dozens of little chile peppers and gave me one. He seemed happy that I’d accepted it, and said I’d helped assure that the picture would be a success.

I’ve since met other Italians who won’t go anywhere without a charm in their pockets, but Gillo took superstition to cosmic heights. One of his friends told me that he always wore that overcoat whenever he directed the first shot of a new movie, and insisted that the same prop man be in the shot wearing the same pair of tennis shoes. He was the man who was strangled in the first scene, and the tennis shoes had been painted to look like boots. On Thursdays, I was told, you must never ask Gillo for anything because if he refused you it would bring him bad luck. He also never allowed the color purple to appear in his pictures, or for that matter anywhere in sight, because he considered it bad luck. His obsession over the color was limitless; if he could, he would have obliterated it from a summer sunset.

Gillo was a handsome man with dark hair and beautiful blue eyes who came from a family of diverse accomplishments; one brother, he told me, had won the Stalin Peace Prize, another was a Nobel laureate, and his sister was a missionary in Africa.

Despite his warehouse of superstitions, Gillo knew how to direct actors. Because I didn’t speak Italian and he spoke little English, we communicated mostly in French, though a lot of it was nonverbal; when I was in a scene, he’d come over and with a small gesture signal “A little less,” or “A little more.” He was always right, though he wasn’t always clever about knowing how to stimulate me to achieve the right pitch. He was a good filmmaker, but he was also a martinet who constantly tried to manipulate me into playing the part exactly as he saw it, and often I wouldn’t go along with what he wanted. He approached everything from a Marxist point of view; most of the people who worked for him thought this dogma was the answer to all the world’s problems, and some of them were sinister. They were helpful to Gillo, but I didn’t much care for them. Some of the lines he wanted me to say were straight out of the Communist Manifesto, and I refused to utter them. He was full of tricks. If we disagreed, he sometimes gave in, then kept the camera running after saying “Cut,” hoping to get me to do something I’d refused to do. In one scene I was supposed to toast Evaristo Marquez, the actor playing a revolutionary leader who was my foil and the hero of the picture, but Gillo didn’t want me to sip from my drink after the toast; I was to spill my wine onto the ground as a snub while Evaristo sipped his. At that moment in the picture this gesture did not seem to me to be consistent with my character, and so I refused to do it; I wanted to really toast him. Gillo let me do it my way, then kept the camera turning after the take was over and got a shot of me throwing my drink on the ground because I thought we had finished the shot. When I saw the picture, this was the shot he used.

In another scene on a very hot day, when I was wearing only shorts and a jacket for a shot above the waist, Gillo wanted me to say something I didn’t want to say and made me repeat the scene over and over, thinking that he would finally exhaust me and I’d do what he wanted. But after about the tenth take I realized what was going on and asked the makeup man to get me a stool. I strapped it to my rear end and continued doing the scene my way, then after each take lowered myself onto the seat and pretended to be reading The Wall Street Journal, which Gillo detested as the symbol of everything evil. After scores of takes, he finally gave up; I’d worn him out.

Most of our fights were over the interpretation of my character and the story, but we fought over other things, too. Gillo had hired a lot of black Colombian extras as slaves and revolutionaries, and I noticed that they were being served different food from the Europeans and Americans. It looked inedible to me and I mentioned this to him.

“That’s what they like,” Gillo said. “That’s what they always eat.”

But the real reason, a member of the crew told me, was that Gillo was trying to save money; the food he was giving the black extras cost less. Then I learned that he wasn’t paying the black extras as much as the white extras, and when I confronted him about it, he said that if he did the white extras would rebel.

“Wait a minute, Gillo; this picture is about how whites exploited the blacks.”

Gillo said that he agreed with me, but he couldn’t back down; in his mind the end justified the means.

“Okay,” I said, “then I’m going home. I won’t be a part of this.” I went to the airport at Barranquilla and was about to get on a plane for Los Angeles when Gillo sent a messenger with a promise to equalize the pay and food.

Making that movie was wild. Everybody smoked a strong variety of marijuana called Colombian Red, and the crew was stoned most of the time. For some reason making a movie in Cartagena attracted a lot of women from Brazil. Dozens of them showed up, mostly upper-class women from good families, and they wanted to sleep with everybody. After they went home, some told me, they intended to see a doctor who would sew up their hymens so that when they got married their husbands would think they were virgins. The doctors in Rio must have made a lot of money from that movie.

My truce with Gillo didn’t last long. Although he raised the pay for the black extras and briefly gave them better food, I discovered after a few days that they were still not being fed the same meals as Europeans working on the picture. We were shooting scenes in a poor black village; the houses had mud floors and stick walls, and the children had distended bellies. It was a good place to shoot because it was what the picture was about, but heartbreaking to be there.

“You can’t feed these people that kind of crap,” I told Gillo. This time he ignored me, so I got everybody on the crew to pile their lunches against the camera in a pyramid and refuse to work.

Gillo came up to me angrily with his team of thugs and said, “I understand you’re dissatisfied with lunch.”


“What would you like to have for lunch?”

“Champagne,” I said, “and caviar. I’d like to have some decent food, and I’d like it served to me properly.”

Somewhere Gillo found a restaurant that sent my meal to the set, along with four waiters in red jackets with dickeys on their chests and napkins over their arms. When they set up a table with linen and silver and candles, I said, “No, the candles shouldn’t go there; they should go here, and the forks should go on the other side of the plates.” Then I touched the bottle of champagne and said it wasn’t chilled enough. “You’d better put it on ice a little longer.”

I fussed with the table setting while the crew and people from the village gathered around to watch with their arms folded. In their eyes I must have been the epitome of the self-indulgent capitalist who wanted everything. Gillo sent a publicity photographer to take a picture of the event, and herded some black people into the background. After everything was arranged perfectly, I searched the crowd for the poorest, sickest, unhappiest-looking children I could find, invited them to sit at the table, and then served them the meal. The people cheered, but as far as my relationship with Gillo was concerned, the episode made the situation worse.

We continued to fight while other problems came up: a key member of the crew had a heart attack and died; the cameraman developed a sty and couldn’t do any filming; the temperature got even hotter, with all of us working long hours and flirting with sunstroke. The few union rules in effect were much more lenient than they were in the United States and every-body’s temper was short. I also found it increasingly amusing that a man so dedicated to Marxism found it so easy to exploit his workers. Meanwhile, Gillo’s superstitions knew no bounds. If somebody spilled salt, Gillo had to run around the table and throw more salt on the ground in a certain pattern dictated by him; if wine was spilled, he made the guilty party dip a finger in the wine and daub it behind each ear of everyone at the table. It was sad but hilarious. I began doing things to irritate Gillo, asking him for favors on Thursdays, wearing purple and walking under ladders; once I opened the door of my caravan, shone a mirror on him and yelled, “Hey, Gillo, buon giorno,” and then smashed the mirror. In Gillo’s eyes breaking a mirror was a direct invitation to the devil to enter your life. Once he raised his glass at lunch in a toast and said, “Salute.” I raised my glass while everybody drank, then spilled my wine with a flourish on the ground, which to Gillo was the supreme insult. He got a gun and stuck it in his belt, and I started carrying a knife. Years before, I’d practiced knife-throwing and was fairly accurate at distances up to about eighteen feet, so sometimes I took out my knife and hurled it at a wall or post a few feet from him. He shuddered slightly, put his hand on his waist, rested it on the butt of his gun and then eyed me sternly, letting me know that he was ready for battle, too.

One day when we were having one of our arguments over how the movie should be played, I screamed at him at the top of my lungs, “You’re eating me like ants . . . you’re eating me like ants.” I didn’t even know it was coming out of me. It made him jump nine feet in the air. Another day, we came close to a fist-fight over a scene showing four half-naked black children pushing and pulling the headless body of their father—the man garroted in the first scene—home to be buried. Gillo shot part of the take in the morning, then adjourned for lunch. When I returned to the set afterward, he wasn’t back yet and the wardrobe lady was holding one of the children in her lap.

“What’s the matter with the boy?” I asked.

“He’s sick.”

“What is it?”

“He vomited a worm at lunch, and he has a very high temperature.”

“What’s he doing here then?” I said. “Where’s the doctor?”

She said Gillo wanted the boy to finish the scene because if he didn’t he would have to find another child to play the part and lose part of a day’s shooting.

“Does he know he’s sick?”


I called a doctor and told him to get to the set as fast as he could. When he arrived I said, “Take my car and get this kid to the hospital right now.”

When Gillo returned from lunch, I was steaming and so was he because I had sent the boy away. We came within inches of mixing it up; only the fact that he was shorter than me kept me from punching him. Several days later I couldn’t take Gillo or the heat anymore. I needed a vacation. People were dropping like flies from illness and exhaustion. I drove to Barranquilla and left for Los Angeles at four A.M. A day or two later, I got a stinging letter from the producers saying that I was in breach of my contract, and that unless I returned to Colombia immediately, they would sue me. I wrote back demanding an immediate apology for their preposterous accusations—all of which were true—and said I couldn’t possibly think of returning after being so excoriated; my professional reputation was at stake. I knew the producers’ threats were empty because I had learned long ago that once filming starts, the actor has the edge; too much money had been spent to abandon the project; and even if they could win a lawsuit it would take years to adjudicate, by which time all the money they’d invested on the project would be gone. If he knows what to do, the actor can get away with almost anything under these circumstances. Most of them are too intimidated to do anything, but I wasn’t.

After a five-day vacation and a letter of apology, I told the producers I would finish the picture, but only in North Africa, where the climate was more pleasant and the terrain and set-tings similar. They agreed, if I would just return to Colombia for a few more shots. I didn’t want to see the country again, but I agreed to go. They booked me on a Delta Airlines flight from Los Angeles to New Orleans and a connecting flight from there to Barranquilla. When I walked onto the plane at Los Angeles International Airport, I asked a flight attendant, “Are you sure this is the flight to Havana?” She opened the cockpit door and told the captain, “We’ve got a guy out here who wants to know if we’re going to Havana.”

The captain said, “Get him off the plane, and if he doesn’t leave tell him we’ll have the FBI here in two minutes.”

“Oh, please,” I said, “I’m awfully tired.”

The flight hostess, who didn’t recognize me, said, “Get off the plane, buddy.”

I was delighted because I was in no hurry to go back to Colombia, so I ran down the ramp at full speed to the con-course. As I sprinted past the check-in desk one of the agents said, “Is there anything wrong, Mr. Brando?”

“No,” I said, out of breath, “they just seemed a little nervous, and I don’t want to have any extra trouble and worry on the flight.” Then I ran like a gazelle, expecting the agent to telephone the pilot and say, “You just kicked a movie star off the plane.” Sure enough, an agent was waiting for me as I tried to sprint past the ticket counter.

“Mr. Brando, we’re awfully sorry,” he said. “We didn’t know it was you; please accept our apologies and go back to the plane. They’re holding it for you.”

“No,” I said. “Not now. I’m terribly upset. I’m usually nervous about flying anyway, and if that pilot is so nervous I don’t think I’d feel safe flying with him . . .” The story made the papers and the airline apologized, but did give me a longer vacation because there wouldn’t he another plane out of New Orleans for Barranquilla for three days. Unfortunately, they chartered a special plane to meet me New Orleans and I had to return to Colombia after only two days.

All of the above to the contrary, however, Gillo was one of the most sensitive and meticulous directors I ever worked for, that’s what kept me on that picture because, despite the grief and strife, I had the deepest respect for him. Later, when I anted to make a movie about the Battle of Wounded Knee, he was the first director I thought of to do it.



April 24, 2015

The Political Economy of Fashion

Filed under: fashion,Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm
The True Costs of an Aesthetic

The Political Economy of Fashion


Perhaps there is no better example of Karl Marx’s “fetishism of commodities” than the clothes we buy. Since “Capital” refers almost continuously to the textile industry that was the lynchpin of the burgeoning capitalist system, this makes perfect sense. As Sven Beckert, the author of the highly acclaimed “Empire of Cotton”, put it in aChronicle of Higher Education article in December, 2014, the raw material and the manufacturing system it fed were midwives to a global system that continues to punish the workers who reamain its captives:

Just as cotton, and with it slavery, became key to the U.S. economy, it also moved to the center of the world economy and its most consequential transformations: the creation of a globally interconnected economy, the Industrial Revolution, the rapid spread of capitalist social relations in many parts of the world, and the Great Divergence—the moment when a few parts of the world became quite suddenly much richer than every other part. The humble fiber, transformed into yarn and cloth, stood at the center of the emergence of the industrial capitalism that is so familiar to us today. Our modern world originates in the cotton factories, cotton ports, and cotton plantations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Not very much has changed since Karl Marx wrote about the textile industry except the geography. In the 1840s it was the factories of Birmingham, England and the cotton plantations of the slave states that were connected. Today it is China and India that are the largest producers of cotton, while the textile mills are no longer in the countries that were in the vanguard of capitalist development. They have relocated to places like Cambodia and Bangladesh, the places that director Andrew Morgan visited in the course of making “The True Cost”, a documentary that opens on May 30 (see http://truecostmovie.com/ for screening information).

If not a documentary, the 2014 biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” is a very truthful account of the 20th century’s most famous high fashion designer. Now available on Netflix and opening as well at the Film Forum in New York on June 25th, the film is well written and acted, and is a good complement to the aforementioned documentaries.

As someone who owned a YSL suit many years ago, and who has a bottle of cologne with his imprint even now, I suppose I can be considered partial to the subject. So be it.

Thanks to this film, I have a much better idea of the man than the one I had when I would glance at his name in a gossip column where he was so ubiquitous in the 70s and 80s, cheek by jowl with Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, and other beautiful people.

Despite his sybaritic appearance, Yves Saint Laurent was a tortured soul through most of his life, especially in 1960 when he was drafted into the French army that was then trying to suppress a revolution in Algeria, Saint Laurent’s place of birth in Oran, 1936. Singled out as a gay man, he was tormented in basic training so much so that he ended up in a mental hospital where he received electroshock treatments. It is the trauma he suffered here that was likely responsible for the alcoholism and drug addiction that haunted him until death.

read full article

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


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 15, 2015

Adalen 31

Filed under: Film,Sweden,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 4:48 pm

After a number of false starts, I was finally able to upload Bo Widerberg’s “Adalen 31” to Youtube, a film that I saw when it came out in 1969 and that has lingered in my memory all these years. The title is a reference to a general strike in the Adalen district by paper mill workers in 1931 that led to the first in a series of Social Democratic governments that for many people defined the word socialism. What I took away from the film, besides its stunning artistic power, was the idea that there was a dialectical relationship between revolutionary struggle and reform. If not for the four men and one young girl who were shot down in the village of Lunde on May 14, 1931, it is altogether possible that the modern Scandinavian welfare state never would have been born.

Yesterday I watched the film for the first time in 46 years and realize now why it has stuck with me. Despite the languid and pastoral quality of the first two-thirds of the film, which typified Widerberg’s “Elvira Madigan” made two years earlier, the final third is a powerful recreation of the armed attack on a demonstration that resonated with the struggles taking place around the world in 1969. And it will resonate now with people watching it for the first time who have the Marikana massacre fresh in their mind, or any other military attack on protesters in the Middle East and North Africa.

The film opens in the house of Harald Andersson, a man who has been out on strike for a number of months. He has three sons, the eldest of whom is named Kjell and is in his late teens. Kjell plays trumpet in the trade union marching band but probably prefers playing jazz.

The primary drama in the film revolves around Kjell’s romance with the daughter of one of the paper mill owners, a blonde girl named Hedvig who is troubled by the bitter strike but not to the extent of breaking with her father.

Widerberg is obviously interested in tensions between the personal and political since another story line involves Harald giving first aid to a wounded scab worker in his home. When he is confronted by his fellow trade unionists, he makes the case that violence undermines their cause and insists that negotiation was the only way forward.

When the army is brought in to defend the scabs’ barracks, the union organizes a march on their stronghold with the marching band in the front ranks playing the Internationale. In an interview with the NY Times’s Mel Gussow in October 1969, Widerberg revealed that 3,000 extras were used in the scene and that he developed the action just two hours before shooting began.

Despite the absence of the word Communist throughout the film, there is little doubt as to the affiliations of the leadership of the strike and many of the rank-and-file workers. Axel Nordström, who served 2 ½ years of hard labor for his role as a strike organizer, was a Communist member of Parliament from 1937 to 1940. In an article on the Adalen general strike that appeared in the Swedish section of Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (http://www.marxist.se/artikel/adalen-31-det-vi-aldrig-far-glomma), there’s a report on the killings that day from Harry Nordlander, a member of the Communist youth group in Adalen:

As we approached the ferry pier near the meadow, where we said that we would turn, a soldier on horseback charged us. The rider shouted something and then fired his gun over his shoulder, probably frightened by a banner that fluttered. Some of the marchers saw bullet holes in the banner. Then we heard clearly a loud command: Fire! The bullets began to whistle through the air. They did not come from the front, but from the side a few yards from the lead.

Then we saw how one of the musicians rushed forward in the hail of bullets and blew “cease fire” [recreated by Kjell in the scene]. The guns fell silent. It was the young Communist Vera who showed courage and presence of mind to stop the killing. But there were already five comrades dead or dying and several more wounded. One of those killed was a young girl who stood in the garden at the side of the road. Her name was Eira Söderberg and was a member of our youth club in Svanö.

 The best account of the Adalen struggles can be found on the Global Nonviolent Action Database located at Swarthmore University. Interestingly enough, Axel Nordström is cited in this article as being opposed to violence against scabs—this despite the fact that the CP’s were aligned with the Kremlin’s ultraleft turn at the time:

In the fall of 1930, the management of a sawmill in Lunde in the Ådalen Valley announced wage cuts for all workers. In response the laborers began a strike.

The workers continued their strike through the fall, shutting down the mill. The director of the Lunde mill also had investments in two pulp mills in nearby towns. In January 1931 the laborers in these two mills began a sympathy strike. Meanwhile workers and management held ongoing negotiations.

Axel Nordström, a communist leader, was one of the leaders of the strike campaign and the workers also had ties to LO.

On May 12, when management called in outside strikebreakers to commence work in the three mills, the strike leaders immediately put up fliers against the strikebreakers. These fliers also called for further protests, work stoppages in other industries, mass demonstrations, and a meeting scheduled for the next day.

The county government ordered police to protect the strikebreakers and sent several officers to the meeting. At the meeting Axel Nordström called for demonstrations, but did not condone violence against the strikebreakers. The strikers decided to march and demonstrate at one of the mills where workers were holding a sympathy strike. Once at the mill another leader spoke and a band played the workers’ theme song. The demonstrators there decided to get rid of the strikebreakers.

Police asked Nordström to prevent the protesters from hurting the strikebreakers, but he was no longer in control of the situation. Demonstrators pulled strikebreakers from the mill, and inflicted some minor injuries. The strikers then chose to hold another meeting the next day and follow it with a march to the mill in Lunde where the strike had begun. They continued protests that day, throwing stones at the strikebreakers’ barracks and knocking out electricity for the city of Lunde.

Bo Widerberg is pretty much a forgotten figure today with very poor representation on the usual sources. None of his films are available on Netflix or Amazon, and in the well-stocked Columbia film library you can only locate “Elvira Madigan”. Despite the fact that his films are now in the public domain, the only one that could be seen previously on Youtube was “Joe Hill”, a 1971 film about the martyred IWW member who was born Joel Emanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden.

Widerberg died on May Day 1997, a symbolic date for the radical filmmaker who was born into a working-class family in Malmo sixty-six years earlier. He started off as a film critic professionally, creating controversy with his 1962 book “The Vision of Swedish Cinema” that took aim at Ingmar Bergman and his followers for being “preoccupied with problems that didn’t interest me and my generation of comrades.” He found that the Sweden Bergman represented was “not contemporary at all”.

Clearly Widerberg was tuned into the Marxist detective novel authors that I wrote about for CounterPunch back in September 2014. Fortunately his 1976 “Man on the Roof” that was based on the Martin Beck novel co-authored by Marxist husband and wife writing team Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall can be seen with English subtitles at Daily Motion, something that I hope to see along with “Joe Hill” the first chance I get.

April 9, 2015

Black Souls

Filed under: crime,Film,Italy — louisproyect @ 8:59 pm

In American popular culture, the mafia gangster is either a tarnished hero like Don Corleone or a likeable lowlife like Tony Soprano. But for Italians, he is a much more malevolent figure especially as seen in a number of art films that are often infused with the leftist and neorealist traditions of the postwar period. More importantly, it is much harder for the average Italian to cheer for Michael Corleone taking revenge on a crooked cop and rival gang leader or Tony Soprano’s malapropisms when the mafia has functioned so often as a rightwing death squad.

In Paul Ginsborg’s Marxist-oriented “A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics 1943-1988”, there’s an account of the mafia’s attack on a peasant protest in Villalba in central Sicily in September 1944. This was a village dominated by a mafia boss named Don Calò Vizzini, who had returned as part of the Allies entourage. Vizzini was among the gangsters who supposedly helped prepare the American invasion alongside Lucky Luciano and others.

The local CP leader, a man named Girolamo Li Causi, had asked for permission to hold a meeting in the village square. Vizzini granted permission but only if there was no talk about land reform or the mafia. Ginsborg quotes fellow Marxist Carlo Levi on what took place there:

Causi began to talk to that little unexpected crowd about the Micciché estate, about the land, about the Mafia. The parish priest, brother of Don Calò, tried to drown Li Causi’s voice by ringing the bells of his church. But the peasants listened and understood: ‘He’s right; they said: ‘blessed be the milk of the mother who suckled him, it’s gospel truth what he is saying.’ By so doing they were breaking a sense of time-honoured servitude, disobeying not just one order but order itself, challenging the laws of the powerful destroying authority, despising and offending prestige. It was then that Don Calò,. from the middle of the piazza, shouted ‘it’s all lies!’ The sound of his cry acted like a signal. The mafiosi began to shoot.

Fourteen people were wounded that day, including Li Causi.

There was peasant resistance in Calabria as well, the “toe” of southern Italy that appears to be kicking the island of Sicily. A 1945 CP report indicated that they had built peasant leagues with 40,000 members in Calabria, the very region that is the locale for “Black Souls”, an Italian film that opens at the Angelika and City Cinemas in New York tomorrow and at the Nuart in Los Angeles on April 24.

The blackness alluded to in the title is not skin color but the evil that dwells in the heart of brothers Luigi and Rocco Carbone. The two gangsters come from the town of Africo in Calabria, where their older brother Luciano raises goats on a picturesque mountaintop. Luciano’s son Leo, who is in his late teens, wants nothing to do with goats and only dreams of becoming an apprentice to Luigi and Rocco who run their drug importing business out of Milan.

When a traditional rival of the Carbone family, a local saloon-keeper in Africo, insults them, Leo arms himself with a shotgun and blows out his windows in the middle of the night. This is hardly the kind of offense that leads to gang wars of the sort that dominate American films but is in fact typical of what has turned much of southern Italy into a blood-soaked battleground.

If you are expecting Godfather type action of the “going to the mattresses” sort, not only won’t you find here but you shouldn’t. The violence in “Black Souls” is like that takes place over turf control by the Crips and the Bloods or the kind that has forced so many young people to flee El Salvador and Honduras. It is Luciano’s hope to dissuade Leo from a life of crime even though he knows it is a losing battle. The boy worships Luigi who is both charismatic in his own slimy fashion as well as filthy rich.

“Black Souls” is based on a novel written by Gioacchino Criaco, who was born in Africo and a lawyer who returned home to write about his region’s troubles. Like Juarez in Mexico, Africo is one of Calabria’s most dangerous spots. The film benefits from the casting of Giuseppe Fumo, a local nonprofessional, as Leo. He must have known from first-hand experience the tragic attraction that the mafia has for youth with an uncertain future.

Criaco is far more interested in the family drama that pits brother against brother for the soul of a young man than in the social and economic forces that have given birth to the mafia. Before long, I will be researching Italian films about the mafia that draw from radical and neorealist traditions but do not hesitate to recommend “Black Souls”, a film that is uncompromisingly bleak but truthful. It is blessed by a good script and fine performances. There’s not much more than one can ask for nowadays.

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