Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 23, 2014

A couple of great dance scenes in New Wave films

Filed under: dance,Film — louisproyect @ 8:04 pm

At some level what makes films great defies analysis, especially the sort of bullshit you are going to hear from a Film School “expert”. While watching the scene below from Marco Bellocchio’s “Fists in the Pocket”, I was both reminded of another iconic dance scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders”, made a year before Bellocchio’s, but struck by the difference. Although both dance scenes reflect the pure joy of dancing, there is a world of difference socially. Godard’s dancers are bohemians, while Bellocchio’s are petty-bourgeois, the very people he was skewering in this debut film.

The two men seen at the beginning are brothers. The dark haired guy is Augusto, a self-employed and completely no-nonsense guy anxious to move out of his mother’s villa and the company of his siblings—two brothers and a sister—who are epileptics, unemployed (unemployable is more like it) and constantly getting into trouble. The clip comes from a full version of the film that is available only with Spanish subtitles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5emT2n0HMY).

The blonde guy is Alessandro, a ne’er-do-well and the real anti-hero of the film. Augusto warns him to stay out of trouble at the party being thrown for his fiancé, particularly to lay off the booze.

The couples are doing a cha-cha-cha, a dance very popular in the late 50s and early 60s. I learned to do it at a boy scouts dancing lesson. The key scene comes toward the end as Alessandro sits by himself, wondering what he is doing there. The dancers come in and out of view. It is pure magic.

Immediately below is the scene from “Band of Outsiders”. Rather than try to “explain” it, as if it needed an explanation, I will allow New Yorker film critic Richard Brody to do so. It’s not so much that he is wrong; it is that he overdoes it after the fashion of all film school professors.

New Yorker, April 5, 2013

Behind the Scenes of an Iconic Godard Scene

Posted by Richard Brody

It’s one of the iconic scenes of the modern cinema, part of a movie that its director has called one of his worst and to which he soon responded with a work of analytical and politicized modernism. But the scene itself is, in its way, a surprising work of modernism—I’m referring, of course, to the line dance done in a café by Anna Karina, Sami Frey, and Claude Brasseur in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Band of Outsiders”—and this clip, of its production (that my colleague John Bennet sent along), suggests a practical basis for its most original fillip of invention.

First, the substance of the clip itself (the commentary and interview are in French, unsubtitled). The commentator says that the cast and crew have gathered to shoot the scene “in a bar at Vincennes, at the busiest hour,” which explains why a crowd of onlookers is pressing close to the rail that separates the rest of the café from the part, right nearby, where the shoot is taking place. Godard himself hosts the television report like a sort of puckish master of ceremonies, doing the clap himself and calling the second take (“the sound was bad, it’s for television”). The interviewer asks Godard about the title of the film: “Why do your characters form a band of outsiders—in other words, how do they distinguish themselves from others?” Godard answers, “I’d say rather that they are normal people; people distinguish themselves from them.” He says that the movie is based on a “fait divers” (“news in brief” or “crime blotter”), and adds, “I wanted to call it—it could as easily be called ‘Fait Divers.’ ”

The dance starts two minutes in; it’s fascinating to note that the café patrons press so close to it and all the more remarkable to hear the music on the jukebox to which they’re dancing—John Lee Hooker’s “Shake It Baby” (thanks to Shazam, as John let me know). Compare the sequence as seen in the finished film (which isn’t the same take—it features more patrons and a busy waiter in the background). The music that’s heard on the soundtrack is composed by Michel Legrand and is conspicuously dubbed in—and the dance doesn’t catch its beat perfectly, or, rather, vice versa. I wonder whether the question was one of rights—whether the production (and the movie has an American producer, Columbia Pictures) was unable or unwilling to get rights to the song, or whether Godard himself (who was administering the hundred-thousand-dollar budget through his own production company) had little interest in doing so.

I can’t help wondering whether, since the music is dubbed in, so are the claps, foot-stamps, and finger-snaps (because, of course, if another piece of music was playing in the café, there would be no way to remove it from the soundtrack while keeping the other ambient sounds)—or whether, for the take used in the film, there was no music playing at all, and the trio did their dance to the time of music playing in their minds. It would be all the more remarkable, inasmuch as none of the three actors—they’re now all in their seventies—is a trained dancer (they rehearsed that scene every day for a month before filming it).

In any case, the greatest flourish in the sequence is one involving the soundtrack. The music cuts out, and Godard speaks, in voice-over: “Now it’s time to open a second parenthesis, and to describe the emotions of the characters.” It cuts out three more times, and here’s what Godard says about each of the characters. First, Brasseur’s: “Arthur [Brasseur] keeps looking at his feet but he thinks about Odile’s mouth, about her [or, maybe, his] romantic desires.” Then, Karina’s: “Odile is wondering whether the two boys noticed her two breasts, which move beneath her sweater with every step.” Finally, Frey’s: “Franz is thinking of everything and nothing. He doesn’t know whether the world is becoming a dream or the dream, a world.” And that’s what distinguishes this notable sequence from its imitators and tributaries, whether scenes by Quentin Tarantino or by Hal Hartley or this one, from a movie I’ve never seen, “The Go-Getter,” by Martin Hynes.

For that matter, it distinguishes the scene from so many scenes in so many films where so many filmmakers are so concerned with bringing out their characters’ emotions solely by means of action. The fussily naturalistic framework of most movies by most filmmakers is more or less rendered obsolete in advance by this little scene. Filmmakers unwilling to break the sacrosanct continuity of action compel themselves to reveal character through action—and little is more tiresome in movies than scenes showing action that is supposed to reveal some aspect of character. That’s why many movies—and many wrongly hailed—give a sense of being constructed as illustrations of script elements, the connections of dots planted in just the right place to yield a particular portrait. Godard’s example is as much a lesson in substance as in style—in composition through fragmentation, in expression through directness and audacity, of artistic impulse combining with necessity as a means to enduring innovation. Whatever an experimental film might be, this sequence is one—it’s an experiment the discoveries of which have yet to be fully assimilated by the world of filmmakers, almost half a century later.

 

Bellocchio Versus the Barbarians

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Italy — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

One of the Left’s Greatest Film Directors

Bellocchio Versus the Barbarians

by LOUIS PROYECT

From April sixteenth to May seventh, the Museum of Modern Art is presenting a retrospective of the work of Italian director Marco Bellocchio, one of the great film directors of the Italian left. As with Bertolucci, Pasolini, Visconti and Pontecorvo, Bellocchio’s films are intensely political as well as artistic triumphs. Born in 1939, Bellochio, a friend of Pasolini, joined the Maoist Union of Italian Communists (Marxist–Leninist) in 1968, a sect whose newspaper bore the title popular in those circles: “Serve the People”. His motto would ultimately be “Serve the Audience”.

Bellocchio was always far more interested in human drama than propaganda. Made one year before he joined the Maoists, the narrative film “China is Near” is anything but propaganda if you take Pauline Kael at her word (and who wouldn’t?). She describes the film’s Maoist anti-hero Camillo, who is committed to sabotaging his older brother’s campaign for municipal office on the Socialist Party ticket, as a “prissy, sneering despot” and “a seventeen-year-old seminary student turned Maoist who looks the way Edward Albee might look in a drawing by David Levine.” The film derives its title from graffiti scrawled by Camillo on the walls near his brother’s campaign HQ.

If you have access to Hulu Plus, I recommend a look at “Fists in the Pocket”, Bellocchio’s debut film. Made in 1965 when he was only 26, it is deeply influenced by Godard and Buñuel. Like “China is Near”, the film is about a family at war but the story has only a tangential relationship to Italian society. Living in a decrepit villa in the Italian Alps, a blind matriarch has four grown children living under the same roof with her. A good Catholic, she tries to maintain her sanity in the face of nonstop quarrels, often turning violent, and tearful reconciliations among her troubled brood. The oldest son is the only one gainfully employed, while his younger sister and two younger brothers spend their days alternating between juvenile pranks and coping with the epileptic seizures that run in the family. Alessandro, one of the younger brothers, has the devilish soul and self-loathing of a Karamazov brother. He plots to kill his mother, himself and his two other epileptic siblings in order to allow the oldest brother to live a normal life. I should add that this is a comedy and a very good one at that.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/23/bellocchio-versus-the-barbarians/

April 21, 2014

The return of Stefan Zweig

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Jewish question,literature,war — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Counterpunch April 21, 2014

Madness and War

The Return of Stefan Zweig

by LOUIS PROYECT

When a publicist from IFC invited me to a press screening of Patrice Leconte’s “A Promise” (the film opens Friday in NY), I could not resist. Leconte was one of my favorite directors and I considered his “Ridicule” a masterpiece. Since IFC described “A Promise” as a tale about a young man of humble origins taking up a clerical post in a German steel factory at the beginning of WWI, it sounded as if Leconte had returned to the concerns of “Ridicule”, a film that pitted a minor aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France against the snobbery and authoritarianism of Louis XIV’s court. It seemed all the more promising (no pun intended) given the screenplay’s origins as a Stefan Zweig novella titled “Journey into the Past”. I was aware that there was something of a Stefan Zweig revival afoot, reflected by Wes Anderson’s homage to him in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and new editions of his fiction and nonfiction work from both New York Review of Books and Pushkin Press, a boutique publisher specializing in fine literature.

This much I knew about Stefan Zweig. He was the quintessential fin de siècle author from the quintessential fin de siècle city—Vienna. He was a pacifist who opposed WWI and a Jew who fled Nazi Germany. He was also connected to a wide range of intellectuals and public figures, ranging from the Zionist Theodor Herzl to Richard Strauss, the German composer who had an ambivalent relationship to the Third Reich but who stood by Zweig when it came to including his librettist’s name in a programme. He was particularly close to Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler and Romain Rolland, three other key figures from fin de siècle Vienna. After relocating to Brazil, Stefan Zweig and his wife committed suicide together. Like fellow Jew Walter Benjamin, he succumbed to despair.

read full article: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/21/the-return-of-stefan-zweig/

April 17, 2014

Vanishing Pearls; Bad Hair

Filed under: energy,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

At the risk of stretching a point until it breaks, both films under review bear on the relationship between race and petroleum. “Vanishing Pearls”, a documentary opening on April 18th at the Imagenation in New York and Downtown Independent in LA (nationwide screening info is at http://www.affrm.com/vanishing-pearls/), looks at the plight of the largely African-American oyster fisherman of Louisiana who have been screwed royally by BP and their henchmen—witting or unwitting.

Since “Bad Hair” (Pelo Malo) is a Venezuelan narrative film about a 9-year-old biracial boy living in Caracas with his mestizo mother and since the Tribeca Film Festival where it is being shown is a platform for films from a left perspective, one might assume that it would be full of positive references to the benefits accrued from petro-development. In fact, just the opposite is the case. The protagonists of Mariana Rondón’s very accomplished film appear totally untouched by the Bolivarian revolution. Despite my commitment to the goals of the Venezuelan government, I could not help but be troubled by the reality depicted in Rondón’s film. Notwithstanding the doubts it raised in my mind, I strongly recommend it as a neorealist examination of the lives of poor people in Caracas, and particularly as a study of the challenges that Junior, its 9-year-old hero, faces in a society where homophobia still looms strong.

If you’ve grown sick of those BP commercials about how the Gulf coast has “returned”, generally shown to the point of saturation on Sunday morning news shows, as well as those full-page ads in the NY Times about how poor BP is being robbed by unscrupulous lawyers, “Vanishing Pearls” is a film that that will provide some satisfaction since it nails the criminal corporation to the wall. Written, directed, and produced by Nailah Jefferson, a young African-American female from New Orleans in her debut production, it profiles a group of oyster fishermen from Pointe a la Hache taking the lead of Byron Encalade, a sixtyish boat owner whose family, neighbors and friends have been ruined by BP’s greed and neglect.

The film is both a fascinating history of an important element of the Black struggle in the Deep South and a study of the environmental impact of unregulated oil drilling in a state where criminal outfits like BP run the state government like a puppet on a string.

Alcalade’s ancestors started out as sharecroppers on sugar and cotton plantations. When Black Louisianans first broke into the oyster fishing business, it was also as sharecroppers. A wealthy white man would pay for the boat and the gear and hire Black crews to operate them. Based on the haul, they would earn a percentage of the profits, just as if the oysters were cotton. Eventually, however, they were able to put away enough money to buy their own boats and become independent small entrepreneurs.

Oyster fishing was one of the prime casualties of the chemical dispersants BP sprayed into the Gulf waters to mitigate the effects of the disaster. In a very real sense the cure was more harmful than the disease since the oil was simply broken down into smaller droplets and floated to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where it could destroy the habitat not only for oysters but other marine life.

Jefferson did not manage to get interviews with the openly nefarious BP corporate heads and the politicians they own but did get plenty of time with two men who were supposedly on the side of the fishermen. One is Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who is supervising payments from BP and who has an alarming tendency to sound and look like a bald Donald Rumsfeld. Feinberg was also the lawyer who managed payouts to the victims of Bernie Madoff. After seeing his double-dealing with the oyster fishermen, you pray that he would end up in a cell next to Madoff. Essentially, most of the fishermen took one-time payments of $25,000 from BP in exchange for agreeing that they would make no further claim. Since all were out of business for months after the BP spill and economically distressed, the payoff was effectively a form of blackmail. Feinberg made no effort to force BP to look after their long-term interests. Feinberg’s firm was paid $850,00 per month for its services. After a couple of months showing its pro-corporate bias, BP rewarded it with a raise to $1,250,000.

The other unwilling villain is a scientist named Wes Tunnell who wrote a report in three days effectively underscoring BP’s claim that things would return to normal by now. At one point he tells Nailah Jefferson that the spill amounted to a cup of coffee being spilled into the New Orleans Superdome, seen from an aerial mounted video camera.

The press notes for “Vanishing Pearls” reveals how Feinberg and Tunnell worked as a tag-team:

By December, many of the fishermen were in dire and desperate straights. Suddenly, Feinberg and GCCS decided to issue “emergency funds” as Christmas neared. This move was not without one small caveat – getting the funds required waiving all rights to bring a suit against the BP oil company. The gravity of the struggling that many of the fishermen had to deal with led many to take the settlement offered in the hopes that they would be able to save their homes and businesses.

Amidst this mess, in 2013, the documentarian decided to contact Feinberg to try and get some answers. Strangely and without hesitation, he agreed to meet with her. It was revealed that BP had begun to urge Feinberg to halt claims payouts all together. They had paid for a “scientific study” and based on the resulting report, BP felt “the areas affected by the spill had recovered and the economy was improving.” The biased report had been commissioned by GCCS and was the sole instrument used to stifle claims. The reality of the situation was quite different, it had been over the stated two years and the oyster beds had not regenerated themselves, the fishermen were still out of work, and recovery claims were still not being paid. Feinberg remained ambivalent. He offered no apology and simply stuck to his ludicrous story that “everything would come back.”

Ms. Jefferson has made a very compelling documentary on a shoestring budget. Considering the fact that Barack Obama has given BP a green light to continue drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, this film arrives at a time when it is most needed. My recommendation is to check this film out and to tell your friends about it.

Marta has her hands filled raising her son Junior and another baby son in a Caracas high-rise that has seen better days. She has just lost her job as a security guard and is scraping by as a maid. In an early scene, she asks Junior to scrub the walls of a Jacuzzi in a middle-class apartment. Yielding to temptation, he fills the tub, strips down to his underwear, and reclines beneath the soothing waters until the matron of the house spots him. Chagrined by her son’s fecklessness, Marta returns home where the conflict between mother and son continues.

Like the women in Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair”, very likely a partial inspiration for Rondón’s film, Junior is obsessed with his “bad hair”, the curly legacy of his Black father who was killed by gang members in their typically lawless neighborhood. While fleeing from his Black identity, Junior seems equally gravitating toward some early form of Gay identity, or at least that is Marta’s fear based on his love of singing. What can be more gay, after all, then a 9 year old loving to sing?

Marta’s mother-in-law is okay with his gay tendencies since that would protect him from gangsters. Who would find a reason to shoot a gay man? When Marta leaves the boy with his grandmother while she is out job-hunting, the stay is always crowned by her tending to his hair with a blow dryer. When he all set to get a photo id for school, she gets the bright idea to adorn him in a costume she is sewing together that is similar to the one worn by a popular singer. It goes one step further than Elvis’s costumes in Las Vegas. It is a gold lamé dress that Junior rejects with the words: “I am not a girl”. If the film is influenced by Rock’s documentary, it also bows in the direction of “Billy Elliot”, a British narrative film about a young boy who prefers ballet to boxing, defying his coal miner father’s homophobia.

The film depicts a daily life that is not only untouched by socialism, but by any of the social safety nets of a welfare state except for the local clinic that is free. Marta keeps bringing Junior in the hopes that the doctor can figure out what is making her son “queer”.

There is little doubt that Rondón takes the Bolivarian revolution with a grain of salt. The film is set in the final months of Hugo Chavez’s illness and she includes footage from Venezuelan television of that time when people were praying for the president or shaving their heads in solidarity. She leaves the impression that the people view him as a semi-divine benefactor.

As might be expected, the film has generated a fair amount of controversy in Venezuela. Caracas Chronicles, an anti-Chavista website, has taken the director’s side. While keeping her distance from the violent street protesters, she blames the country’s polarization for the way that her film has been used as ammunition against the government.

Wikipedia reports that “In 2007 she directed and produced Postales de Leningrado (Postcards from Leningrad), an autobiographical film (her parents were members of the Venezuelan guerrilla movement Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN).”

It is a little hard for me to glean her politics from this film other than to say that it is best seen as a study of sexual and racial paradoxes in a country trying to move forward as best it can under very difficult circumstances. As film, it is deeply involving and worth seeing whatever its political orientation, especially for the performance of Samuel Lange Zambrano as Junior, about as fine as one from a child actor as can be imagined.

 

April 11, 2014

No God, No Master

Filed under: anarchism,Film,repression — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

Although marred by a clumsy script, weak character development, tone-deaf dialogue, implausible coincidences, amateurish acting, and an obtrusive film score, “No God, No Master” is one of the more important films showing in New York right now. What saves it is the theme, which is the historical background to the Palmer Raids of 1919 that led to the arrest and pending deportation of 10,000 Americans in the aftermath of an anarchist bombing campaign meant as retaliation for the Ludlow Massacre of 1914.

Among the historical figures that are depicted in the film are:

  • William J. Flynn, the chief of the bomb squad in New York where most of the action takes place
  • J. Edgar Hoover
  • Mitchell Palmer
  • John D. Rockefeller
  • Emma Goldman
  • Carlo Tresca, the anarchist leader who served on the Dewey Commission to clear Leon Trotsky of the charges leveled by Stalin
  • Sacco and Vanzetti
  • Louise Berger, an anarchist who plotted to kill Rockefeller
  • Luigi Galleani, one of Berger’s co-conspirators

As you sit watching the film, you forgive all the miscues since it is mostly faithful to historical details except for one just barely forgivable peccadillo. Played by the incomparable David Strathairn, William J. Flynn is depicted as a free speech liberal challenging Palmer and J. Edgar Hoover on the need to deport radicals simply for their ideas. The connections to today’s world are palpable.

The film was actually made in 2009 and only found a distributor five years later. One supposes if Green made a mumblecore movie about a couple of college drop-outs who decide to become pimps, it would have been jumped on immediately. Of course, it is up to malcontents like us to patronize the Quad Cinema in New York where it opens today so that Hollywood understands that indie films about serious topics have an audience.

April 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney, Master of Putting On a Show, Dies at 93

Filed under: Film,New Deal,obituary — louisproyect @ 12:22 pm

NY Times, April 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney, Master of Putting On a Show, Dies at 93

Mickey Rooney at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif. in 2012. Credit Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Mickey Rooney, the exuberant entertainer who led a roller-coaster life — the world’s top box-office star at 19 as the irrepressible Andy Hardy, a bankrupt has-been in his 40s, a comeback kid on Broadway as he neared 60 — died on Sunday. He was 93 and lived in Westlake Village, Calif.

His death was confirmed by his son Michael Joseph Rooney.

He stood only a few inches taller than five feet, but Mr. Rooney was larger and louder than life. From the moment he toddled onto a burlesque stage at 17 months to his movie debut at 6 to his career-crowning Broadway debut in “Sugar Babies” at 59 and beyond, he did it all. He could act, sing, dance, play piano and drums, and before he was out of short pants he could cry on cue.

As Andy Hardy, growing up in the idealized fictional town of Carvel, Mr. Rooney was the most famous teenager in America from 1937 to 1944: everybody’s cheeky son or younger brother, energetic and feverishly in love with girls and cars. The 15 Hardy Family movies, in which all problems could be solved by Andy’s man-to-man talks with his father, Judge Hardy (played by Lewis Stone), earned more than $75 million — a huge sum during the Depression years, when movie tickets rarely cost more than 25 cents.

full article

I wrote this on August 8, 2000:

Babes in Arms

As you can well imagine, this recent bit of nastiness involving my free speech rights has left me feeling stressed out. So, taking a break from my usual Saturday night routine of poring through leftist journals while listening to Bel Canto opera on my stereo, I turned on the 1939 film “Babes in Arms,” starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, based on the Rogers-Hart plan and directed by Busby Berkeley. This film combines Busby Berkeley’s “rags to riches” ethos and popular front sentimentality. Anybody who wants to understand the 1930s through the prism of popular culture should rent this garish little jewel without delay.

Mickey Moran (Rooney) is an adolescent songwriter and aspiring director whose vaudevillian father is unemployed. His girl friend is Patsy Barton (Garland), who likewise comes from an impoverished show business family. All of their friends are in the same boat. The film opens with Moran and Barton performing the great Rogers-Hart tune “Good Morning” to a couple of stony-faced music publishers, who are trying to make up their mind whether they will buy the song or not. When they tell the boy that they will pay $100 for it, he faints. After coming to, he rushes home to turn the check over to his desperate parents.

His parents have figured out a scheme that will solve their financial woes. They will go on the road again with an old-time vaudeville show. When the kids suggest that they be brought along as part of the act, they are turned down. Their role would be to stay at home to watch over things.

This sets in motion the basic plot of just about every Rooney-Garland vehicle. They decide to put on their own show, which will be called “Babes in Arms.” Late at night, after the youthful crew of singers and dancers have embraced Rooney and Garland’s proposal, they march down main street singing and dancing, while carrying torches. Their excitement culminates in a bon fire in a deserted square. Since this scene was shot at the same time Nazi torch-light parades were a daily occurrence in Germany, one might surmise that the film-makers were subconsciously reflecting the kind of warped sense of “volkish” optimism at work in the Third Reich. We do know that the director Frank Capra, another quintessential depression era popular front figure, was an admirer of Mussolini, who had managed to get the trains to run on time. Oddly enough, the original inspiration for Hitler’s torch-light rallies were American football pep rallies that he learned about from an aide, who had been educated at Harvard.

After the cast is assembled, Moran makes the decision to use Dody Martin (Leni Lynn), a new arrival in town, for the lead female role instead of his girl-friend. Dody is a stand-in for Shirley Temple, and a risible figure in the film. She is surrounded by a retinue of butlers and handlers. When Moran has dinner with her at her mansion, the audience sees the opulent settings from his point of view. The class differences are palpable as the boy apologizes for his squeaky shoes.

When the show debuts on an outdoor stage, we see another side of 1930s popular culture, which was unfortunately on display almost universally. The opening skit is “Oh Susannah” performed in blackface. This kind of racist “humor” was a stock element of many 1930s musicals and comedies, including those made by the leftist-leaning Marx brothers. Fortunately a rain storm comes along and forces the show to close in the middle of the “coon show.”

After a few trials and tribulations, the youthful troupe receives some funding and they present a show which provides the climax of the film. It is a rather grotesque but musically effective production number featuring Mickey Rooney as FDR and Judy Garland as his wife Eleanor. They sit on what amounts to a throne in the middle of a stage, while various characters plucked from the fabric of American society plead their case. A “hillbilly” needs to be rescued from bankruptcy. You shall receive it, says FDR. An unemployed worker demands a job. He too shall receive it. The curtain falls with flag waving and patriotic high spirits. Despite the reputation 1930s films enjoy as being socially aware, this was the extent of it far too often.

April 4, 2014

Noah

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,religion — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

Noah, Revised

A Hard Rain

by LOUIS PROYECT

More Tolkien than Torah, Darin Aronovsky’s “Noah” is a cinematic tour de force that combines breathtaking CGI-based imaginary landscapes with a film score by Clint Mansell that hearkens back to Hollywood’s golden age of Bernard Herrmann and Max Steiner. Even without a single minute of dialog, the film achieves the mesmerizing quality of Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, especially the last installment Naqoyqatsi, the Hopi word for “Life at War”.

Like other films that view the bible as a theme to riff on in the manner of Miles Davis improvising on a banal tune like “Billy Boy”, Aronovsky takes the material of Genesis 5:32-10:1 and shapes it according to his own aesthetic and philosophical prerogatives. As might be expected, the Christian fundamentalists are not happy with the film since it turns Noah into something of a serial killer on an unprecedented scale, acting on what he conceives of as “the Creator’s” instructions, namely to bring the human race to an end. Religious Jews who have a literalist interpretation of the bible have been far less vocal, no doubt a function of the Hasidic sects viewing all movies as diversions from Torah studies. (For those with unfamiliarity with Jewish dogma, the Torah encompasses the first five books of the Old Testament that are replete with fables such as the Great Flood, many of which have inspired some classic cinematography, such as Charlton Heston splitting the Red Sea.)

Unlike the fable it is based on, Aronovsky’s Noah never received instructions about being fruitful and multiplying. His intention is to leave the planet to the animals and wind down the human race’s participation in the tree of life, to use the title of Terrence Malick’s overrated 2011 film. In my view, Aronovsky has much deeper thoughts and more sure-handed cinematic instincts than Malick could ever hope for. To pick only one scene, the massive moving carpet of animals headed toward the Ark is a CGI tour de force. Instead of a stately procession in circus parade fashion, it is more like a zoological tsunami that anticipates the great tsunami soon to follow.

read full article

The Unknown Known; Watermark

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Iraq — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

Two legends of documentary filmmaking have seen better days. Last November I was disappointed to see Frederick Wiseman take the side of the university administration in its attempt to thwart student protests over escalating fees. If anything, Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”, opening at theaters everywhere today, is even more of a failure. It allows Donald Rumsfeld to defend himself for 103 minutes with hardly any tough questions from Morris, his interlocutor. And when he does stray into Mike Wallace “Sixty Minutes” territory, it is always with the absence of a follow-up. Indeed, the closest resemblance is not to Mike Wallace, but to Charlie Rose or Larry King, the masters of softball interviews.

The new film is obviously modeled on Morris’s 2003 “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” that gave the Johnson administration’s Pentagon boss a platform. That film was somewhat easier to swallow since it demonstrated that the war-maker was suffering from some pangs of conscience, including a scene with him weeping—one that it was easy to describe as a display of crocodile tears.

That was to be expected with a war in which American imperialism was the clear loser. With Iraq, there is no abiding sense that the Pentagon’s nose was bloodied. In fact, the main point that Rumsfeld makes throughout the film is that it was worth it, even going so far as to insist that there was no deliberate attempt to con the American people into believing that there were weapons of mass destruction.

On top of the ideological self-justifications, there is the added ordeal of putting up with Rumsfeld’s personality. He is one of the more insufferably vain and boring personalities that has ever emerged out of the military-industrial complex, an ambitious hustler who started out as a Nixon administration operative and moved upwards and onwards to the heights of the Pentagon under George W. Bush. With his cold smile and “gee whizzes”, and “goshes”, you hope for something—anything—that will knock him back on his heels. Needless to say, this is not to be expected from Errol Morris.

Morris and Rumsfeld even managed to frustrate the Washington Post, a pillar of the establishment:

In the film, Morris quotes a 2003 Washington Post poll showing that 69 percent of Americans believed Hussein was involved in 9/11, then cuts to Rumsfeld suggesting the same at a news conference when he sarcastically rejects suggestions to the contrary. “It isn’t a confrontation in the sense of [me] saying, ‘You’re wrong,’ ” Morris said. “But, golly gee whiz, it’s all there.”

If Morris’s oblique strategy invites frustration, so does Rumsfeld’s seeming inability or unwillingness to confront the implications of his policies and actions, whether they have to do with interrogation practices at Guantanamo Bay or the planning of the war itself. Whereas “The Fog of War” presented a fascinating portrait of McNamara as a historical figure reflecting, often painfully, on the events he witnessed or authored, in “The Unknown Known,” Rumsfeld often offers vague, inconclusive cliches: About Vietnam, he says simply, “Some things work out, some things don’t. That didn’t.” About Iraq, “Time will tell.”

In attempt to better understand the career of the much-heralded Errol Morris, I checked Wikipedia and was startled to discover that the “edgy” documentary filmmaker lost his edge long ago:

Although Morris has achieved fame as a documentary filmmaker, he is also an accomplished director of television commercials. In 2002, Morris directed a series of television ads for Apple Computer as part of a popular “Switch” campaign. The commercials featured ex-Windows users discussing their various bad experiences that motivated their own personal switches to Macintosh. One commercial in the series, starring Ellen Feiss, a high-schooler friend of his son Hamilton Morris, became an Internet meme. Morris has directed hundreds of commercials for various companies and products, including Adidas, AIG, Cisco Systems, Citibank, Kimberly-Clark’s Depend brand, Levi’s, Miller High Life, Nike, PBS, The Quaker Oats Company, Southern Comfort, EA Sports, Toyota and Volkswagen. Many of these commercials are available on his website.

Finally, it is necessary to take stock of the Errol Morris legacy. Giving scumbags the right to hold forth unchallenged for over a hundred minutes has been seen in two other highly regarded films. The first is “Act of Killing” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/07/20/fact-versus-fiction-in-three-new-films/), a film that Morris actually co-produced and that gives Indonesian death squad leaders a chance to tell their part of the story, as if there was one. The other is “The Gatekeepers” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/01/31/the-gatekeepers/), an Israeli documentary that gives a platform to the Zionist entity’s military judges, a bunch of disgusting war criminals who go unscathed.

Don’t bother with this crappy movie. You can watch FOX-TV for free.

“Watermark” is the second film I have seen that is based on the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian who specializes in landscapes of the most sterile and industrialized places on earth, particularly in China where the government is on a forced march to “modernize”. His first was the aptly named “Manufactured Landscapes” that I reviewed in 2007, about which I said:

He is not the typical photographer. As a teenager, he worked in automobile assembly plants and gold mines in Northern Ontario. Although he refrains from editorializing in his photographs (as does this very fine documentary), it is very clear that he is appalled by this spectacle of “progress”. In one scene, he shows a neighborhood in Shanghai that has been razed in order to make way for spanking-new high rises, with the exception of one old house whose elderly female inhabitant refuses to move. The high rises were simply built around her. The million or so villagers who were about to lose their homes because of the construction of the mammoth Three Gorges Dam had no choice. The film shows them being paid by the government to demolish their homes to make way for the new reservoir that will be created by the dam.

In “Watermark”, he returns to the same preoccupations but more closely focused on the rivers, lakes, and underground reservoirs and the communities they serve that are jeopardized by unsustainable practices such as China’s megadams and irrigation dependent on the Ogalalla aquifer.

There are interviews with people whose lives and culture are deeply intertwined with traditional and more sustainable use of the water systems such as Chinese abalone fisherman who work communally and a Native American from northern British Columbia.

As in Burtynsky’s first film, the footage is ravishingly beautiful even when what is being seen threatens the health of the planet, such as the Chinese megadam. There are also some fascinating meditations on the special power of water, as a scientist notes that without water there cannot be life itself. For a plant or a human embryo to grow, it needs water. In fact, the amniotic fluid an embryo grows in is like a tiny ocean. Another scientist observes that water owes its existence solely to the accident of a comet—a huge snowball in effect—colliding with the planet earth billions of years ago.

March 29, 2014

Action movie cliches

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:02 pm

See cliche #10 below

Okay, let me start with a spoiler alert, not that it will make much difference to my regular readers. This is something that happens at the end of Liam Neeson’s idiotic “Taken 2”, whose only redeeming feature is that it was filmed in beautiful Istanbul. Neeson, playing an ex-CIA agent, is alone with the father of an Albanian gangster he killed in “Taken” who has vowed to kill Neeson in revenge. You know how those Albanians are into vendettas, right? Anyhow, Neeson gives him his gun and offers him a choice: “You can continue the cycle by killing me or resolve it by putting the gun down.” After saying that, Neeson begins walking away. You know how those dirty Albanians are, right? He aims the gun at Neeson’s back and opens fire but nothing happens! The chamber is empty! Neeson throws the bullets on the ground and then puts a patented CIA death grip on the Albanian’s face and the movie ends. I said to myself as I watched this scene, “Self, haven’t you seen the empty chamber scene a hundred times before”? At least one other critic (http://www.thelondonfilmreview.com/film-review/review-taken-2/) has taken note of the clichéd character of “Taken 2”, writing that it was “determined to tick a box for every action movie cliché going”.

So, off the top of my head, here’s the most overused action movie clichés I’ve run into over the past 50 years or so. This includes westerns, war, spy, crime, science-fiction and horror movies.

1. The empty chamber – described above.

2. Throwing up at the sight of a mutilated corpse – Typically, a rookie cop seeing his first dead body turns away in horror and then begins puking. This may have had some impact when you first saw something like this in 1965 or so but after seeing it a thousand times your tendency is to yawn.

3. “You don’t have to do this” – a plea that a man or woman makes to a killer who has a pistol trained on them. Why can’t they say something like this instead? “If you don’t shoot me, I’ll promise to be your best friend”.

4. Car crashing into a fruit stand – probably first seen in an Indiana Jones movie. The fruit goes flying everywhere and the peddler, usually wearing a fez and mustache throws up his hands in dismay. Time to retire this.

5. Guy being chased or chasing someone in the street straddles the hood of an oncoming car and bangs on it a couple of times for emphasis – clearly related to #4 above. This should be retired as well.

6. Villain smacked with a shovel or some other heavy instrument but not finished off – this usually happens with about 10 minutes left in a horror movie. A serial killer has been knocked over the head and the heroine (usually) stands over him with the shovel or club in her hands. And then walks away toward freedom. Of course, you know that with 10 minutes left in the film Jason or Freddy will reappear for the final showdown. Whenever I am watching such a scene with my wife, we look at each other knowingly and say something like “She should smash a cinder block on his head until his brains spill out of his broken skull”. No such luck.

7. Trying to escape in a car from the villain – There are different versions of this. In most instances, just before the heroine (usually) turns the key, the killer busts the window open and grabs her by the throat. In a variation on this, she is so spooked that her trembling hands can’t get the key into the keyhole. Or, the engine won’t start after she turns the key. Boring.

8. Corpse materializes in a well or some other body of water – In escaping from the villain, there’s often a scene where the hero or heroine ends up in a well or body of water, the more fetid the better. 9 out of 10 times the skeletal remains of his previous victims will float to the surface.

9. Soldier within weeks of honorable discharge gets a bullet in the head – That’s a staple of war movies since the 1940s, as far as I know—granted that I am old but not old enough to have seen them when they first came out.

10. Gangsters versus gangsters, or cops versus gangsters train guns on each other in close quarters in anticipation of all hell breaking loose – This is a staple of Hong Kong movies, especially John Woo. Following Tarantino, his British and American imitators recycled this plot staple and turned it into a cliché.

March 26, 2014

Return to Homs

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 5:22 pm

“Return to Homs” has the distinction of not only being the first documentary made about the Syrian revolution but also being a work of great sensitivity, political insight and courage. I saw it last night at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the annual New Directors/New Films Festival and urge New Yorkers to see a screening at 9pm tonight at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. (The festival is jointly produced by MOMA and Lincoln Center.)

It is fairly easy to understand why this would be the first major documentary to emerge after three years of war. To start with, it is not easy to gain entrance to Syria through the normal channels. One must assume that director Talal Derki, a Syrian who lives in Germany, came across the border “illegally”. And once he was there, he took great risks in filming in an extremely dangerous location. From August of 2011 to August of 2013, he was on the front lines of the action in Homs with Syrian fighters being wounded or killed all around him, including some of the young men featured prominently in his film. But perhaps the key reason is that American documentary filmmakers, despite tacking to the left, saw little motivation in taking up the cause of “jihadists”. Not long after the early halcyon days of the Arab Spring, a consensus arose that the rebels were no better than the regime that they sought to overthrow. So naturally it would take a Syrian filmmaker to step forward and make the case for his oppressed countrymen. Abandoned by most of the world, including the left, it is up to the Syrians themselves to determine their own future.

In the opening scenes of “Return to Homs”, we meet the two young principals, star soccer goalkeeper Abdul Basset Saroot and media activist Ossama al Homsi. Both are paradigmatic figures. Basset leads mass rallies in the spring of 2011 in the streets of Homs using the distinctive Syrian call-and-response style. Meanwhile, Ossama is everywhere with his Sony video camera capturing the people as they dodge the snipers’ bullets while protesting peacefully. One might easily surmise that Ossama was a member of a Local Coordinating Committee, a grass roots network of young activists who used Youtube and social media to get the word out.

After Baathist killers cut down one too many peaceful protesters, the young men in Basset and Ossama’s circle decide to arm themselves and defend the movement. Ossama, however, feels that this is a mistake. Peaceful protest must prevail against all difficulties. Basset makes the case that most Syrians made, however. Even though taking up arms created its own risks, it was being forced upon them. They had no choice.

Once that decision was made, Homs became a living hell. Armed with nothing more powerful than AK-47’s and RPG’s, Basset and his comrades stood off tanks, jets, and heavy artillery. In excruciating detail, we see entire blocks of apartment houses turned into rubble, including those of Basset and Ossama. We see them in their former living rooms and kitchens, gazing at the wreckage. Ossama looks in vain for a filter for his Sony and only manages to retrieve a coffee mug. Both young men find themselves on the run as the siege of Homs tightens it grip. A sense of desperation develops even though Basset and the other young fighters vow to fight on despite all odds. In thinking about an analogy for their situation,  cities like Leningrad and Stalingrad during WWII, when Hitler’s forces killed both by bullet and by starvation, came to mind.

On February 12, 2014 the NY Times reported on the extraordinary achievement of “Return to Homs”. Using professional digital cameras and some Sony Handicams, the sort of modest device you bring with you on vacation, director Talal Derki and his fellow Syrian co-producer Orwa Nyrabia covered the critical phases of the struggle in Homs using their electronic gear in the same way that John Reed used his typewriter in Mexico and Czarist Russia. So modest were their means that they even lacked a credit card to pay for the registration fees at the Sundance Film Festival. Fortunately the organizers waived the fee.

When in Homs, they recharged their phones and laptops from car batteries and portable gasoline generators. They risked their lives to sneak past army checkpoints, and when things turned too deadly to continue, they taught Basset and his comrades how to use the Handycams. The footage was then smuggled out.

Of particular interest was the willingness of two veterans of the American film industry to show solidarity with Orwa Nyrabia when his life was in danger:

Mr. Nyrabia was detained at the Damascus airport on Aug. 23, 2012, and later accused of making a film with a terrorist. He was held for three weeks by military intelligence in an underground prison, he said, thrown together with 84 younger Syrians, most of them conscripts apparently reluctant to shoot fellow Syrians. “They had blinked before shooting,” he said.

His fellow inmates were deferential, Mr. Nyrabia said. “They wouldn’t make me queue for the bathroom because I was considered very old.” [Nyrabia is 36!]

Mr. Nyrabia, who now lives in Berlin, attributed his release to pressure on the Syrian government from international publicity about his disappearance. A group of prominent filmmakers and Hollywood celebrities including Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, along with members of 24 international and American cinema associations and unions, signed a petition demanding that the Syrian authorities free Mr. Nyrabia.

While Syria’s government routinely ignores demands by Western political leaders, Mr. Nyrabia said, “when it’s De Niro or Scorsese, that’s embarrassing.”

It is too bad that the American left has less interest than such luminaries in showing such solidarity.

One can only hope that general distribution of “Return to Homs” might help to change some minds. It is about as powerful a testimony to the heart and soul of one of the great revolutionary struggles of the past half-century, as determined in its own way as the Vietnamese fight to rid its country of colonialism. When you see a young man like Basset with no military training  challenging a tank with nothing more than a machine gun, you understand that freedom is more precious to him than life itself.

In the Q&A, director Talal Derki mentioned that his next film will be about Syria’s struggle against a new threat that is as inimical to freedom as the Baathist dictatorship: the Islamic fundamentalists of ISIS and similar militias. Since he will be at the Q&A tonight as well, I urge New Yorkers to try to make to Lincoln Center. It will be your film experience of the year.

 

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