Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 27, 2015


Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 6:07 pm

Opening at the Cinema Village in New York today, “Stink” is a documentary that examines the health hazards of chemical additives to a wide range of consumer goods and particularly those that are intended to make something smell good. Unlike food products that are now required to disclose their ingredients such as the percentage of saturated fats or cigarettes that carry a warning about the possible risks of cancer, you can sell kids’ pajamas laced with chemicals to such an extent that they positively reek when taken out of their package.

That was the discovery made by Jon Whelan after buying pairs for his two young daughters from Justice, a clothing store geared to the kid’s market. When they complained to him that they had a chemical odor, he decided to track down the cause. He was particularly worried about chemicals since his wife died from breast cancer at a very young age. His first step was to contact people at Justice to find out exactly what was causing the odor and was shocked to learn that they were not obligated to disclose the source.

Eventually he sent the pajamas to a laboratory and the results confirmed his worst suspicions. Made in China (no big surprise there), they were laced with a flame-retardant that was supposedly intended to protect children but without any understanding of the collateral damage a carcinogen can do. The story of how clothing, furniture, rugs, drapes, bedclothes, etc. became drenched with flame-retardants is an interesting one. Some years ago researchers discovered that people falling asleep with a lit cigarette caused most house or apartment fires. When a new cigarette was developed with chemicals that could prevent such an accident, it was rejected because of their somewhat unpleasant taste. So instead the tobacco and chemical companies came up with a new game plan. They persuaded manufacturers to add flame-retardants to a wide range of products, including the pajamas that Jon Whelan’s children would not wear.

As he began his investigation into unregulated chemical additives, the first thing he learned is that a pleasant fragrance trumps health under capitalism. If you opened the cabinet beneath your sink, you’ll learn that just about everything there is laced with crap that is bad for your health. For example, I use Dawn dishwashing detergent made by Proctor and Gamble. On the label it says “original scent” but I’ll be damned if P&G will tell me where that scent comes from. In one confrontation with a chemical industry lobbyist, Whelan asks if arsenic were responsible for a product’s scent, would he favor disclosing the ingredient. The lobbyist evades his question by saying that is up to the FDA or EPA to check on such matters. Since P&G is not obligated to tell these agencies—weak as they are—what they put in Dawn, you are shit out of luck.

Dawn, by the way, hypes their “environmental” credentials on their website as is customary nowadays. They have tips on recycling but not a word on the health risks involved with using it every day.

“Stink” is done in the Michael Moore style with Jon Whelan and his camera crew stalking one industry scumbag or another. While he lacks Moore’s patented shambling, neo-Will Rogers style, he more than makes up for that with his single-minded passion. When you lose a mate at such an early age (Heather Whelan appeared to be in her late 30s when she died), you obviously come to a project like this with a sense of somber dedication.

As might be expected, the film benefits from a wide range of experts like Arlene Blum who could be the subject of a documentary in her own right. Born in 1945, she led an all-woman’s ascent of Annapurna that was the first successful American attempt. In 1960, she requested to join her first mountain climbing expedition but was told that she was welcome to not come past the base camp where she would “help with the cooking.” (Wikipedia)

After earning a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry at UC Berkeley in 1971, she began the research that would result in the regulation of two cancer-causing chemicals used as flame-retardants on children’s sleepwear. In 2007 she co-founded the Green Science Policy Institute in order to deploy scientific research on behalf of human health and the environment.

As you might expect, all the people who are on the other side of the divide from the CEO of the Justice clothing stores to a Democrat in California named Cal Dooley who served in the House of Representatives from 1993 to 2005. Three years later he became the CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC) that is primarily responsible for lobbying against legislation that would curb toxic chemical additives even though they claimed that they never did. In 2012, the Chicago Tribune did a series of investigative reports on how big chemical got its way:

Citizens for Fire Safety is the latest in a string of industry groups that have sprung up on different continents in the last 15 years — casting doubt on health concerns, shooting down restrictions and working to expand the market for flame retardants in furniture and electronics.

For example, the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, based in Brussels, may sound like a neutral scientific body. But it was founded and funded by four chemical manufacturers, including Albemarle, to influence the debate about flame retardants made with bromine.

Albemarle’s global director of product advocacy, Raymond Dawson, said in blunt testimony before Washington state lawmakers in 2007 that the forum is “a group dedicated to generating science in support of brominated flame retardants.”

An official from Burson-Marsteller, the global public relations firm that helps run the organization, said the bromine group is not misleading anyone because regulators, scientists and other stakeholders are well-aware it represents industry.

Does the name Burson-Marsteller ring a bell? It should. They have been behind some of the biggest cover-ups for the past 50 years. I am no fan of Rachel Maddow but she nailed them pretty good in August of 2012 (Wikipedia):

  • Who’s Burson-Marsteller? Well, let me put it this way — when Blackwater killed those 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad, they called Burson-Marsteller. When there was a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, Bobcock & Wilcox, who built that plant, called Burson-Marsteller.
  • [After the] Bhopal chemical disaster that killed thousands of people in India, Union Carbide called Burson-Marsteller. Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu — Burson-Marsteller. The government of Saudi Arabia, three days after 9/11 — Burson-Marsteller.
  • The military junta that overthrew the government of Argentina in 1976, the generals dialed Burson-Marsteller. The government of Indonesia, accused of genocide in East Timor, Burson-Marsteller.

November 21, 2015

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:15 am

“Frame by Frame”, which opened at the IFC Center in New York today, is a portrait of Afghanistan’s photojournalists who take their life into their hands every time they go out into the streets to take pictures, especially when they show the human toll of suicide bombings since showing the consequences of Taliban terror might be a death sentence.

It was not just that the Taliban was opposed to showing their brutality. When they took power in 1996, all photography was banned including family portraits, wedding portraits, and art photography as well. When they were ousted in 2001, a media revolution broke out that created a real demand for those with photojournalistic skills, including the four subjects in the film:

Farzana Wahidi: a woman who despite being allowed to go to school when the Taliban ruled, managed to get one in Canada. A lot of her advocacy is involved with women’s rights. In one of the key scenes in “Frame by Frame”, we see her in the burn unit of a hospital in Heart, a city that has the highest incidence of self-immolation in the country much of it having to do with the despair of living in a country with such a grim outlook. After cajoling with a doctor to get permission to film, he remains resistant since the publication of photos from the ward would likely lead to the Taliban or its allies showing up to kill him.

Massoud Hossaini: Hossaini won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for the image of a girl crying in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing of an Ashura ritual in which Shi’ite men flagellate themselves to mourn the killing of Mohammad’s grandson in 680AD. It is a reminder of how insane the divisions are in the Muslim world when such a ritual can generate a massacre. Hossaini is seen photographing another self-flagellation a year later, a sign of progress in Afghanistan where few can be seen.

Najibullah Musafar: Trained as a painter, he took up photography to document Taliban atrocities. Becoming a partisan of the anti-Taliban resistance, he embedded with the Northern Alliance in 2000 to document what he saw as war of liberation. Perhaps the only flaw in this very revealing documentary is its failure to identify the factors that led to the Taliban reconstituting a new threat today.

Wakil Kohsar: Kohsar’s focus is on Afghanistan’s lower depths. He goes out each day to photograph drug addicts, beggars, and anybody else whose life has been destroyed by a war that has been going on for the better part of 35 years.

Co-directed by two young women Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli, it is a testimony to the vitality of documentary filmmaking as an instrument of social change in the modern epoch. After looking at some raw footage of street life in Afghanistan in 2012, Bombach became “insatiably curious” about the country and resolved to make a film there. She sold her car and emptied her bank account to get the initial funding.

Their “crew” in Afghanistan consisted of the two women and a driver they hired to take them about. Considering the obstacles that the four subjects of the film have to face on a daily basis, it is a miracle that the film ever got made.

Highly recommended.

Also opening today is “Kingdom of Shadows”, another film made in a war zone, in this instance the drug war in Mexico with a focus on Monterrey, the capital city of Nuevo León that has become the site of more “disappearances” than either Pinochet’s Chile or Videla’s Argentina.

Ironically, the Zetas, one of the drug gangs running amok in Nuevo León, has a number of members who were former cops or soldiers  trained in the Schools of the Americas alongside Pinochet and Videla’s goons.

Like “Frame by Frame”, “Kingdom of Shadows” benefits from the “casting” of three subjects who illustrate different aspects of the drug wars and the disappearances epidemic. All three make for compelling story telling.

We meet a Texas rancher named Don Henry Ford Jr. who appears to be about my age and blogs as the Unrepentant Cowboy of all things. Facing unbearable economic pressures in the 1970s, including an $800,000 debt that he had no possibility of repaying, he began smuggling marijuana into Texas from Nuevo León. In those days, he says, nobody carried a weapon and everybody trusted each other, including a man who became a close friend. The friend, like many who became drug barons, had no way of making a living except by wholesaling drugs just as Ford had no way out of economic catastrophe except as a retailer. With an amiable manner reminiscent of Willie Nelson and a shrewd assessment of the insanity of imprisoning people for selling drugs (half the prisoners in the USA are guilty of nonviolent drug offenses), Ford draws you deeper and deeper into the film’s overall message every time he appears.

When you first see Oscar Hagelsieb, he is tooling down a highway on a Harley “hawg” with ape-hangers. Despite his heavily tattooed, outlaw appearance, he is an officer in the drug interdiction unit of the Homeland Security office in El Paso, Texas where he grew up as the son of undocumented immigrants. As is the case in Mexico, selling drugs was the best way of moving up the economic ladder. For Hagelsieb, becoming an undercover cop was an alternative to crime. It would seem that making drugs illegal has generated a boom industry in both crime and crime prevention. If there is anything that symbolizes the irrationality of capitalism, it would be hard to find anything that tops this exercise in futility.

Finally, there is Consuelo Morales, a Catholic nun based in Monterrey who organizes mothers to press for the return of their disappeared children, even if it is only their bones.

The film, which is playing at Cinema Village and also available on VOD, was directed by Bernardo Ruiz who is committed to making films about the dysfunctional relationship between Mexico, the birthplace of his father, and the USA, where his mother was born. He describes his goal in the press notes:

My perspective is that the people of Mexico can’t fix this problem entirely on their own. Like Oscar says in the film, we in the United States need to think about our responsibility in this conflict as consumers of narcotics. Don would say that the violence stems from the fact that narcotics are illegal. Either way, what we find in Mexico is a perfect storm where corruption, intimidation and this huge appetite for drugs in the United States come together. It’s really all those things, and it’s not as if all of this is happening thousands of miles away from the United States. It’s happening just south of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Also highly recommended.

Finally, and also highly recommended, is “Drone” that opened as well today at the AMC Empire 25 in New York.

As the title implies, this is about the new technology that is being used for a very old purpose, to kill the natives in distant lands with impunity. Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei, a young Norwegian woman, it combines interviews with a wide range of authorities including the Pakistani and British lawyers fighting to ban their use and to compensate the victims in North Waziristan who have been “collateral damage” of the war on terror. In one striking statistic cited in the film, there have been only 49 Al Qaeda “operatives” killed out of the more than 2,300 victims. Part of the problem is the unaccountability of the CIA program that does not require the spooks to name the men they have targeted–basically extrajudicial killings. As one expert points out, Obama was anxious to stop arresting terrorist suspects; instead he would use drones to kill them without the need for inconvenient trials. Basically we are dealing with what Clarence Thomas called hi-tech lynchings but in fact rather than his rightwing fiction.

The star of the film is Brandon Bryant, who operated behind the console of a drone targeting computer monitor at an air force base in Nevada and who was thoroughly traumatized by the experienced, even to the point of suffering PTSD. Bryant’s problem is that he had a shred of humanity something his commanding officer utterly lacked. Just as he was watching a missile blasting the “enemy” for the first time, the officer yelled “Kaboom” at the top of his lungs just for fun. What a depraved world we live in when advanced technology goes hand in hand with frat boy pranks and mass murder

Another compelling testimony comes from Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson who during a 31-year career in the US army served as chief of staff to US Secretary of State Colin Powell. In an Al Jazeera article dated May 6, 2013 Wilkerson began by referring to a book that I regard as essential for understanding the “war on terror” especially in a period when the air forces of four different nations are bombing in Iraq and Syria against “terrorists” with collateral damage to hospitals, schools, apartment buildings and god knows what else:

Akbar Ahmed’s The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, should be required reading for American soldiers, citizens and, above all, every member of the Obama administration.

Written from the perspective of both an academic (Professor Ahmed is a leading anthropologist) and a government official (he was political agent to South Waziristan, in Pakistan’s Federally-Administered Tribal Area, and Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland), as well as with the inestimable passion of a poet (in both written and visual verse), this book provides critical insights into how US Cold War tactics opposing communism have transmogrified into tactics opposing terrorists.

I quite agree with Wilkerson as should be obvious for my review of the book that appeared in Critical Muslim:

We live in a period of such mounting Islamophobia that it became possible for Rush Limbaugh, one of the most venomous rightwingers in the U.S., to make common cause with Global Research, a website that describes itself as a “major news source on the New World Order and Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’”. Not long after the Sarin gas attack on the people of East Ghouta, Global Research became a hub of pro-Baathist propaganda blaming “jihadists” for a “false flag” operation. Limbaugh, who claims that there is no such thing as a “moderate Muslim”, touted a Global Research “false flag” article on his radio show demonstrating that when it comes to Islamophobia the left and right can easily join hands.

Therefore the arrival of Akbar Ahmed’s “The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam” is most auspicious. It puts a human face on the most vilified segment of the world’s population, the “extremist” with his sharia courts, his “backwardness”, his violence, and his resistance to modernization. The central goal of Ahmed’s study is to subject the accepted wisdom of the punditry on both the left and right, which often descends into Limbaugh-style stereotyping, to a critique based on his long experience as an administrator in Waziristan, a hotbed of Islamic tribal “extremism”, and as a trained anthropologist. Reading “The Thistle and the Drone” can only be described as opening a window and letting fresh air and sunlight into a dank and fetid sickroom.


November 14, 2015

Three films of note

Filed under: Brazil,Film,immigration,workers — louisproyect @ 11:18 pm

Opening at the IFC Center on November 20th, “Mediterranea” is a timely narrative film about immigration, an issue that has been dominating the media for the past year or two. In this instance, the characters are not political refugees but a couple of brothers from Burkina Faso who are trying to make to Europe in hope of a better life.

While most people who have been following the immigration story are aware that the voyage across the Mediterranean Ocean on rickety boats has cost the lives of more than 2000 people this year, the film dramatizes the hazards that must be faced even before they reach the boat. The two brothers, Ayiva and Abas, join a group of about twenty people who must reach their point of departure in Algeria by first traveling through the Libyan desert. Relying on a guide who they are told to trust implicitly, they are ambushed by Libyan bandits who obviously got tipped off by the guide. They are ordered to surrender their hard-earned cash and other valuables. When one man begins complaining loudly even as he has complied with their demands, he gets a bullet in the head.

Eventually the two brothers make it to Italy—just barely—where they make their way to a small town in the countryside where they hope to hook up with other Burkina Faso immigrants. After being warmly greeted in town by their brethren, they are escorted to their new home—a room in a shantytown hovel. Between the two brothers, there are conflicts over their situation with Ayiva seeing the glass half-full and Abas seeing it as ninety percent empty.

Like most of the other male immigrants, they end up as farmworkers picking oranges for an Italian family that looks upon them kindly but patronizingly. The grandmother insists on being called Mother Africa while the teenaged granddaughter turns over a carton of oranges because she is feeling bitchy. Her father is fair to his workers but only so far as it goes. When Ayiva practically begs him to help secure the papers necessary for permanent residence, the man lectures him about his grandfather who relied on nobody except his family when he came to the USA.

The film is remarkable by staying close to the realities of immigrant life without resorting to the melodrama that many of these types of films deem necessary. It is about the daily struggle to make a living in difficult circumstances and the small pleasures that come with the gatherings of fellow Burkina Faso men and women at night as they share drinks, listen to Western music, and shore each other up for the next day’s travails.

The press notes indicate how the director came to make such a film:

It would be pretentious on my part to claim that I have experienced anything remotely close to what the immigrants are experiencing —I can only be an outside observer here. However, because of my own background, I could approach the story of African immigrants in Italy with some personal connections. My mother is African-American and my father is Italian. And I’ve always been very interested in race relations, with a particular interest in the role of black people in Italian society. So when the first race riot took place in Rosarno in 2010, I immediately went down to Calabria to learn more about the circumstances that lead to the revolt. It was an event of historical proportions because it opened up for the first time the question of race relations in an Italian context. So I started talking to people and collecting stories about their lives. I settled there permanently and began to think about a script.

Although it should not be a factor in either reviewing or seeing this exceptionally well-made and politically powerful film, a few words about Burkina Faso would help you understand why such people would take the arduous trip across the Mediterranean to an uncertain future.

In 1983 Captain Thomas Sankara, who was to Burkina Faso as Hugo Chavez was to Venezuela, led a popular revolution in Upper Volta, a former French colony. Once in power, he changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso, which meant “Land of Upright Men”, and embarked on a bold series of social and economic reforms targeting the country’s poor, especially the women. Called the “Che Guevara of Africa”, he consciously modeled his development program on the Cuban revolution.

Unlike in Venezuela where Hugo Chavez was saved from a coup attempt by the power of the people, the Burkina Faso experiment had a tragic outcome. Blaise Compaoré, acting on behalf of Burkina Faso’s tiny but powerful bourgeoisie and their patrons in France, overthrew Sankara in 1987.

For the next twenty-seven years Blaise Compaoré created the conditions that forced people like Ayiva and Abas to risk everything on a voyage that could cost them lives at worst and at best to end up picking oranges for minimum wages. In 2006 the UN rated Burkina Faso as 174th in human development indicators, just three places from the bottom. With cotton plantations dominating the rural economy, the country is locked into the traditional neocolonial, agro-export dependency.

Last year when Compaoré proposed a change to the constitution that would allow him to run for office once again after the fashion of Robert Mugabe, the country erupted in protests and he fled the country. In the aftermath, there have been various attempts by military figures to run the country temporarily until elections were held next year. Suffice it to say that none of them measures up to Thomas Sankara. One hopes that the same kind of courage and determination that led the characters in “Mediterranea” to make the arduous trip to Italy will serve to make Burkina Faso the “Land of Upright Men” once again.

Following in the footsteps of this year’s “A Second Mother”, a Brazilian film about class divisions between master and servant in a wealthy household, “Casa Grande” incorporates much of the same tensions and even a central character—a teenage son who is uncomfortable with privilege.

In “Casa Grande”, which opened yesterday at the Cinema Village in New York, we meet Jean the teenage son early on as he sneaks into the bedroom of Rita, one of the family’s two maids. Overloaded with raging hormones, he can barely restrain himself as Rita—a beautiful young woman—tells him about a tryst she had with a motorcyclist whose name she did not even know. He took her to an alley, lifted up her skirt, and began kissing her bottom. As Jean begins to make a move on Rita, she holds him off and sends him back to his room—the only power that she can exercise in a house where class privilege is on display every minute of the day.

Hugo, Jean’s father, is impatient with Jean who has a slacker temperament. It is not just that the youth is unmotivated, although that is a problem, it is more that he is not very smart—the same flaw that existed in the young man in “A Second Mother”. That does not stand in the way of the close relationship he has built with the hired help and in fact makes it more possible. For someone barely capable of passing Brazil’s onerous entrance exams for college, there is little point in pretending that he is something other than a kid who likes music and women. When Severino the chauffeur drives him to school in the morning, the main topic of conversation is how to “score”. It is clear that Jean has much more of a rapport with the driver than his martinet of a father who expects him to join Brazil’s bourgeoisie.

This is a bourgeoisie that Hugo is barely clinging to having lost his job as an investment adviser and who is now deeply in debt, so much so that every penny must be accounted for in Casa Grande. Before the family gathers for dinner in the evening, he reminds them to shut out the lights in their room before they sit down at the table. We eventually learn that Hugo, despite all his displays of privilege, has not paid the servants for the past three months and that he will be forced to sell their mansion in a gated community designed to keep out people from the lower classes.

When Jean develops a relationship with Luiza, a young woman of mixed ancestry, race joins class in forcing Jean to decide where his loyalties lie. The main topic of conversation at dinner gatherings is Brazil’s new affirmative action law that will allot 40 percent of the posts in many public institutions to Black or brown people, including Luiza. When she insists to Hugo that she deserves a spot in college because of the new law’s commitment to compensating for slavery, he spits out that he earned his place in society. Nobody ever gave him anything.

His place in society is exactly what is in jeopardy now. Although the information will be familiar to Brazilian audiences, I had to research the nature of Hugo’s immanent downfall on the net. It seems that he owned thousands of shares in OGX, the second largest oil and gas company in Brazil after Petrobras. This is a company that would go broke eventually because of the mismanagement of its CEO Eike Batista, who was an even bigger screw-up than Hugo.

In 2008 Forbes listed Batista as the 8th richest man in the world. Five years later he would be ruined because OGX was pumping only 15,000 gallons of oil out of the ground rather than the 750,000 it predicted. This year Brazilian cops seized seven cars from Batista, including a white Lamborghini Aventador, and all the cash he had left.

If you want to understand the turmoil in Brazil today, there’s no better place to go than the Cinema Village to see this brilliant dissection of a society falling apart at the seams.

Finally, there’s “Barge”, a 71-minute documentary showing tomorrow at the Bow Tie Chelsea Cinemas on 260 W 23rd St, between 7th and 8th Avenues as part of the NY Documentary Film Festival that runs until the 19th (the schedule is here: http://www.docnyc.net/schedule/).

In this marvelous work by Ben Powell, we accompany a crew as they navigate the Mississippi River from Rosedale, Mississippi to points northward. The film alternates between gorgeous vistas of the river, the men at work on the boat, and interviews that you have to strain a bit to understand since the drawls are so thick you can cut them with a knife. (Will Patterson’s minimalist film score is a winner, the best Philip Glass-inspired work I have heard in decades.)

The interviews are what make this film stand out. If you have read Studs Terkel’s “Working”, you’ll get an idea of what inspired Ben Powell to make such a film. In a period when workers are undervalued, you’ll be impressed with how the crew see themselves—as men who help keep the country going. One nails it this way: most of everything you touch gets there on a barge, including the concrete of the sidewalks you walk on and the plastic your groceries are packaged in. With so much of American society consumed with “making it” on an individualist basis, it is great to see a collectivist ethos that goes back centuries at least.

November 6, 2015

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:07 pm

Almost as if he were making amends for his last documentary that implicitly took the sides of the U. Cal Berkeley administration against students protesting a tuition hike, Frederick Wiseman’s “In Jackson Heights” is a throwback to the sort of film that made him special. It is a passionate embrace of the downtrodden and the persecuted in a Queens neighborhood that most Manhattanites will have ever stepped foot in. Indeed, even for myself—a devotee of New York neighborhoods where you’ll never find a CVS, a Banana Republic or an HSBC branch—Jackson Heights is almost as faraway and as exotic as Timbuktu. Perhaps the best thing you can say about “In Jackson Heights” is that after seeing the film you’ll want to get on the number 7 train and take the 20-minute trip out to Queens to see it for yourself.

Ironically that physical closeness to Manhattan is what is threatening to turn it into the next Williamsburg, Park Slope or Hoboken. Much of the film is devoted to strategy meetings with Latino small businessmen trying to figure out how to prevent the real estate developer steamroller from gentrifying their neighborhood and turning them into casualties of a process that is making most of greater New York unaffordable.

The villain in the documentary is the Business Improvement District Board, the unseen committee of rich bastards whose goal is to replace all the bodegas with a Whole Foods and every affordable apartment building with sterile-looking, glass-walled condominiums as the Daily News reported on July 23, 2014:

The protracted battle to create a business improvement district along a 20-block stretch of Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights has turned nastier still.

Merchants organizing against the BID have expressed fears that the BID would drive up their rents. More recently, they have argued that the lengthy ratification process has been undemocratic.

“They are pressuring us because they want us to vote yes,” said Sergio Ruiz, the owner of a bakery and grocery store on Roosevelt Ave., in a subtitled video recently posted on the Queens Neighborhood United Facebook page. “When I didn’t say yes, I couldn’t sign.”

Wiseman also provides a platform for Jackson Heights’s LGBT activists, including a charismatic transgender Latina (most of the principals in the film are Spanish-speaking) who leads a protest outside a Latin-owned restaurant that refused to serve her (obviously not everybody who is Latino is enlightened.)

Jackson Heights is probably the most ethnically and religiously diverse neighborhood in the entire city, with Latinos constituting the majority. But the film spotlights other groups including Muslims from various parts of the world who are content to live in exactly the same way they did before economic hardship forced them to come to the USA. You see children being drilled into reciting Arabic words just the way I was drilled into learning Hebrew about the same age. Let’s hope they’ll learn what the words mean. I never had a clue about what I was reciting, which is just as well I suppose.

Frederick Wiseman is 85 years old now and a testament to how making art can keep a person alert and productive late in life. I only hope that writing about the art that people like Frederick Wiseman and others are making will keep me half as fit as them.

“In Jackson Heights” opened at the Film Forum in New York on Wednesday. Highly recommended.

“Song of Lahore” is now the third documentary I have seen this year that deals with the state repression of artists. Considering the fact that “Trumbo” opened today as well, there must be something in the air. When filmmakers decide to put their hearts into such a cause, it must mean that they are carrying out the role of an informal vanguard—in many ways eclipsing the so-called ideological vanguard organized in tiny sects.

Lahore had long been a cultural center of South Asia, long before Pakistan was constituted as a nation. In the 1950s and 60s, musicians trained in a hybrid of classical and popular style made good livings providing the musical background to the film industry, the local version of Bollywood.

But when General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq seized power in a coup in 1977, one of the first things he did was institute Sharia law and cracked down on both film and music that were considered un-Islamic. Not surprisingly, a broad section of the Pakistani ruling class decided to foster the same tendencies in Afghanistan.

The film begins with interviews of a number of musicians in their 50s and 60s who are Pakistan’s version of Dalton Trumbo but without the possibility of using a “front”. When you are an actor or musician, it is impossible to hide your identity when you are on stage.

Eventually Izzat Majeed, a wealthy fan of Lahore’s musicians, decided to launch a new production company called Sachal Studios that would revive their musical legacy. While they were eager to make their music available again in an environment someone less repressive than under Zia-ul-Haq, they faced a problem. The years of malign neglect had eroded the fan base. Young people found themselves adapting to Western popular music, something that in itself is not necessarily bad. After all, cultural globalization helps to spawn new forms of art. When Cuban sailors brought their records to the Congo in the 1950s after all, it gave birth to Soukous, the Congolese rumba.

Indeed, the Sachal musicians calculated that their best bet was to synthesize the native style with American jazz, a move that was not that far-fetched since most of the practitioners were mesmerized by the performances of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong et al who were jazz ambassadors in years past. But the musician who inspired them most of all was Dave Brubeck, whose “Take Five” was the best-selling jazz single of all time. Wikipedia explained how Brubeck created the piece:

Brubeck drew inspiration for this style of music during a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of Eurasia, where he observed a group of Turkish street musicians performing a traditional folk song with supposedly Bulgarian influences that was played in 9/8 time (traditionally called “Bulgarian meter”), rarely used in Western music. After learning about the form from native symphony musicians, Brubeck was inspired to create an album that deviated from the usual 4/4 time of jazz and experimented with the exotic styles he had experienced abroad.

As it turns out, Lahore flourished as a cultural center from the onset of Mughals rule. Who are the Mughals, you ask? Well, they were the Turkic-speaking clans of the Mongol Empire—that’s who. As Turks inspired Brubeck, so did his music inspire the Pakistanis.

The film concludes with a triumphant visit of the musicians to New York where they performed with Wynton Marsalis’s big band at Lincoln Center. The film opens at the Angelica Theater in New York on Friday the Thirteenth. Take it from me, this will be your lucky day to see this marvelous film.

Now 61 years old, Michael Moore has been making documentaries since 1989. All of them, including “Where to Invade Next” that opens everywhere in December, are very entertaining and politically on the left. However, the latest film makes me wonder if he is running on vapors.

Knowing nothing about the film except the title, I thought it would be in the same vein as “Fahrenheit 9/11”–war in far-off lands. As it turns out, it is much more like “Sicko” even to the point of being plausibly titled “Sicko Part Two”. If you’ve seen “Sicko”, you’ll recall that it is a tour of European countries where socialized medicine rules. And as he leaves France or England on the way to his destination, he asks why can’t the USA have the same system.

This is the same formula in the new film except it is devoted to a Grand Tour where the European nations are more civilized on a range of other issues. For example, French school kids have great lunches prepared by a skilled chef. When Moore shows them pictures of American cafeteria food, they blanch. Used to drinking water with lunch, he offers one student a can of Coke. She politely takes a sip and then puts it aside.

Portugal no longer jails people from taking drugs. Sitting down with a cop, Moore asks what he would do if he told him that he had a bag of cocaine in his pocket. The cop’s reply: nothing. Norwegian prisoners, except in maximum-security institutions, have the keys to their own cells. In Italy they seem to have five weeks of paid vacation at least.

What is missing from the film is any reference to counter-indications. For example, the words “austerity”, “immigrants” or “ultraright” are not mentioned once. A day after I went to a press screening, I saw a NY Times op-ed that put French beneficence into context:

WHEN I moved to France 12 years ago, it was like arriving in an unfriendly paradise. Sure, hardly anyone spoke to me. But there was national paid maternity leave and free preschool. Practically everyone seemed to agree on the need for strict gun laws, and access to birth control and abortion. Not only did the whole country have health insurance; most undocumented immigrants could get medical and dental care free. (Cruelly, their thermal bath cures weren’t covered.)

But what the headlines don’t say is that daily life in Paris, and in most French cities, is also full of pleasant multicultural experiences. My local cheese stand is owned by a Moroccan lady who’s married to a Serb. My children have public-school classmates who speak Chinese, Italian or Arabic at home. At my twins’ recent birthday, a table of kids descended from Greek, Lebanese, Portuguese and American immigrants insisted on singing “La Marseillaise.”

So when hundreds of thousands of migrants began arriving in Europe, I assumed that France would be welcoming.

It wasn’t. President François Hollande said in September that France would take in an additional 24,000 refugees over the next two years. In a national poll afterward, 70 percent of respondents said 24,000 was “sufficient” or “very sufficient,” and half said they would refuse to accept refugees in their own city.

In the very same edition, the NY Times reported on a French mayor who was once a member of “Reporters Without Borders”, a group that you would think that Michael Moore would strongly identify with. It turns out that the mayor has become a turncoat:

In a past life he was France’s leading advocate for journalists, fighting to spring them from dictators worldwide, a fearless defender of freedom of the press on four continents and a hero to free-speech advocates.

That was then. Now, Robert Ménard, the man who founded Reporters Sans Frontières — Reporters Without Borders — has become a symbol of right-wing extremism in France.

No longer a journalists’ advocate but the mayor of the largest city under far-right control in France, he says there are too many immigrants in his town, too many veils, too many Muslim children and too much culture that is not French.

Mr. Ménard has ordered the laundry off the window ledges, the satellite dishes off the roofs and Syrian refugees out of public housing. He has counted the Muslim children in schools here — a strict no-no in secular France — and increased police patrols on horseback in this whitewashed old Mediterranean city of 70,000 people, high unemployment, high poverty, narrow stone streets and medieval churches.

How can you make a film that ignores such a development? I guess you’ll have to ask Michael Moore himself, a guy who begged Ralph Nader not to run in 2004. You would think that after making a film titled “Capitalism: a Love Story” he would have come to the point of thinking in systemic terms. Unfortunately, Moore has shown very little ability to understand why austerity exists or why it is utopian to expect the USA to adopt socialized medicine or prisons where the inmates have keys to their own cells. It is much more likely that France and Norway will go the route of the USA in a race to the bottom unless the working class wakes up from its slumber and grabs the bosses by their throats and forces concessions from them. We need filmmakers who can throw cold water in their faces right now, not to foster illusions in a welfare state that will come into existence because rich people see it as “good for the country”.


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:29 pm

Why “Trumbo” is One of the Most Important Films Ever Made

When I ran into a fellow member of New York Film Critics Online last night following the press screening of Trumbo that opens everywhere on November 6th (unlike most films that I review, this one gets full-page ads in the NY Times), he asked me what I thought. My response: “If you can see only one film this year, it should be Trumbo. Furthermore, if you can see only film for the rest of your life, it might also be Trumbo, a desert island selection next to Citizen Kane orModern Times.

This is a film that obviously matters a lot more to me than the average Hollywood film that has become not only distressingly escapist but poorly made as well, the quality of which tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of money it costs to make. Making a biopic in 2015 about the famous blacklisted screenwriter with a cast of notables including Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad in the lead role should get the attention of any CounterPunch reader but when such a film is so head and shoulders over every American film made this year in terms of direction, screenplay, acting, incidental music, and costume design, it becomes one for the ages.

read full review

October 30, 2015

Sembène and the Spirit of Rebellion

Filed under: Africa,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

Saul Bellow once asked tauntingly “who was the Zulu Tolstoy” in an obvious dismissal of African potential. Considering the career of filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, who is the subject of the great documentary “Sembène” that opens on November 6th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York, you would conclude that the potential is enormous, held back only by what Andre Gunder Frank once called the development of underdevelopment.

Although I have been following Sembène’s film career for decades, “Sembène” offered new insights into what a genius he was. Born in 1923, his father a fisherman, Sembène fell in love with movies at an early age after seeing scenes of Jesse Owens’ track victories in Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi Olympics documentary. “For the first time,” he told the LA Times in 1995, “a black honored us by beating whites. . . . It became the film for the young people of my generation.” We can be sure that this was not Riefenstahl’s intention.

Sembène quit high school after punching out a teacher who had hit him first. He then joined the Free French army during World War II. After the war he became a rail worker, participating in an epochal Dakar-Niger railroad strike in 1947-48. After stowing away in a ship to France, he became a longshoreman in Marseilles and a member of the French Communist Party.

In France he started writing fiction in order to depict the reality of modern African life that could best be represented by the African. As the documentary points out, he was to become a modern version of the griot, the travelling storyteller who was to Africa as Homer was to the Greeks. Indeed, the real question is “who was the African Homer”, not Tolstoy. The answer is that Ousmane Sembène comes pretty close.

His first novel “The Black Docker” was published in 1956. But in the early 1960s, Sembène decided to turn his attention to filmmaking (“the people’s night school”) because most Africans were illiterate and could only be reached with this medium. His films would follow the same road as his writing, to offer an alternative to Tarzan movies and garish epics like “Mandingo.” “We have had enough of feathers and tom-toms,” he said.

read full article

October 29, 2015

Three documentaries

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:08 pm

“The Price We Pay”, which opens tomorrow at Cinema Village in New York, is the first film that hones in on a deeply entrenched weapon of financial mass destruction, namely the use of tax havens by corporations like Amazon, Apple, and other behemoths of the “new economy”.

While capitalism has always been a global system, advances in automation have made it possible for multinationals to operate almost exclusively outside of the borders of the nation-state. This means, for example, that Apple can produce all its hardware in China while software development remains in Silicon Valley. “The Price We Pay” begins with footage from the Senate investigation of Apple that took place in 2013 that was also featured at the end of Alex Gibney’s excellent documentary on Steve Jobs. In the hot seat is CEO Tim Cook who is getting dressed down by Senator Carl Levin looking balefully down at him through eyeglasses roosting uneasily at the tip of his nose.

Apple had adopted “The Double Irish” strategy, something that requires three companies to pull off. Apple (or Google et al) licenses its intellectual property to a subsidiary based in Ireland. That company connects to an offshore entity in the Cayman Islands for instance, which then licenses the patent rights to another Irish company. The second Irish company receives income from the first but its taxes are low because the royalties and fees paid to the first Irish company are deductible expenses, so no taxes are paid on them. Meanwhile, the U.S. company doesn’t pay any Federal taxes on the income from the Irish companies because the earnings were not made in the U.S. Get it? Well, if you don’t, that’s because you don’t have a battery of tax lawyers and accounts to figure things out for you.

So, the practical effect of all this is to “starve the beast” as Grover Norquist put it. Tax revenues become so depleted that universities are “forced” to use adjuncts. Want to make a decent income in the new globalized economy? Forget about art history or philosophy. Get a degree in tax accounting and you are set for life.

The film is distinguished by expert testimony from the leading lights of NGO’s committed to reform such as Wallace Turbeville of Demos, a former Vice President at Goldman-Sachs. All of these people who have had senior positions in such places became turncoats because they believed that the current system is unsustainable. Like so many liberals, including Bernie Sanders, they are worried about how offshore havens are “silently killing our middle class” as the film’s subtitle puts it.

I can recommend “The Price We Pay” as the best documentary I have seen on the machinations of the financial elite since Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job”. Unlike Ferguson’s film, this one deals with a capitalism that is supposedly in a post-crisis mode. Indeed, we are probably witnessing a new normal since both parties are committed to maintaining the status quo. Furthermore, even if Bernie Sanders were elected president by some miracle, there is little he could do to turn the clock back to the time depicted in the early moments of the film when happy wage-earners were washing a station wagon in the driveway of a split-level home in someplace like Cleveland or Detroit. The idea that such cities can become economically viable once again is a utopian fantasy.

How did it come to this? As the film points out through graphics and from testimony from the likes of Thomas Piketty, a social contract was broken in the 1970s when the ruling class put profits first, even if it meant turning its back on the American or British workers whose labor in steel mills or coal mines had made them so wealthy. A new economy had few loyalties to the nation-state, in a way confirming both David Harvey’s analysis of capitalism and putting the kibosh on reformist schemas that welcomed Obama as the next FDR. For the foreseeable future, we will be seeing Herbert Hoovers in the White House, whichever party wins the election.

This was dramatized in a key scene when Sam Holloway, an African-American firefighter from Chicago, recounted what Mayor Rahm Emmanuel told a gathering of firefighters following the death of a number of their brothers in a burning building. After uttering some mealy-mouthed condolences, Emmanuel brought up the topic of the need to cut pensions to balance the budget, In the Q&A, Holloway suggested that a better approach would be to push through a Tobin Tax since Chicago banks were doing great. Emmanuel said he would oppose such legislation, as would just about every politician in Washington.

One of the more interesting aspects of the film was its explanation of how places like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands became tax havens. It turns out that the collapse of the British Empire made this possible. As “independent” countries, such islands in the Caribbean were able to serve as fictitious nation-states that gave multinationals the leverage they needed to cheat the population of the countries they were based in. So, in effect, decolonization led to a massive expansion of imperialism. Capitalism is never at a loss for dialectical contradiction after all.

Director Harold Crooks put it this way in the press notes:

The film illustrates how the tax haven system originally put in place by City of London bankers in former colonial dependencies as a replacement for the British Empire is today an unregulated “space of money”. Through this space beyond democratic control flows over half the world’s stock of money, multinationals’ profits and vast amounts of private wealth. But as we reveal this “offshore” world is a legal and accounting fiction. The Caymans and other major tax havens could disappear under the sea without losing their rank as major financial centers. They are artifices that allow their corporate clients to be “citizens of nowhere”. The untaxed trillions of dollars booked here – the so-called “missing” wealth of nations – remains under the control of global finance and big business, which leverages its financial power to dismantle the progressive taxation and social security that once assured rising 20th century equality.


Put yourself in Angel Cordero’s shoes. When he was 25 years old back in 1999, he and his brother joined a group of people who were watching an altercation in progress in his neighborhood in the Bronx.

Moments later, the cops appeared on the scene and arrested him for stabbing the man who lay bleeding on the sidewalk. But the perpetrator, a well-known drug dealer and petty thief in the neighborhood, had fled during the melee when cops were pushing people around, as they tend to do. The net result is that Cordero, who had never been arrested before, was charged with attempted murder and sentenced to a thirteen year prison term, this despite eyewitnesses telling the jury that he was innocent.

Even more horribly, when the guilty man feeling remorseful over an innocent man doing time for his crime stepped forward to confess, the judge refused to act on his admission and kept Cordero in prison for the full length of the term.

The documentary “Coming Home” begins with his release from prison as his wife and 16-year-old daughter try to catch up with a man who had disappeared from their life. The wife is ready to pick up with where they left off and their joy at being reunited is palpable.

However, the daughter who was raised by family friends in Florida is conflicted. Although she is happy that her father has finally been released from prison, the absence from her life has caused an estrangement that is difficult to overcome. In a number of scenes between father and daughter, you are struck by their emotional honesty—something that is rare to find in narrative films and that is a reminder of why documentaries remain truer to authentic human relationships in an age of terminal escapism both in the films and in life in general.

Another important player in the film is the man who finally came forward with the admission that he was responsible for the stabbing. Serving time in the same prison at one point with Cordero, he meets with him in a tense confrontation that could have led to violence. It is a testimony to the possibility of redemption that no violence occurred and that the two were finally able to reconcile.

Of course, there is very little possibility of redemption when it comes to the courts and the police department as is indicated in one shocking act of injustice after another, the latest instance being a cop manhandling a teenage girl in a South Carolina classroom.

Director Viko Nikci deserves a lot of credit for making such a film that puts a human face on the crime and punishment controversy that is polarizing the American conversation. Getting the principals of this film to reveal their innermost feelings to the cold and clinical eye of a camera is no easy task. “Coming Home” is a powerful drama about simple people who had the misfortune to be swept up by police actions that could be described accurately as that of a mob. The film opens tomorrow at the Village East Cinema in New York and at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles on November 13th. Strongly recommended.

“The Royal Road” is an hour-long documentary that might be described as an experimental film–the type of offering you would expect to see at Anthology of Film Archives that opens tomorrow.

My first reaction was one of puzzlement since it dispensed with all of the conventions you find in both documentaries and narrative films. My interest was piqued by the publicist’s invitation, which stated:

A cinematic essay set against a contemplative backdrop of 16mm urban California landscapes, “The Royal Road” offers up intimate reflections on nostalgia, the pursuit of unavailable women, butch identity and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo alongside a primer on Junipero Serra’s Spanish colonization of California and the Mexican American War. Featuring a voiceover cameo by Tony Kushner.

Although that sounded intriguing, especially the business about Serra who has just been made a Saint by the new progressive pope over the objections of California Indians who resented his forced assimilation of their ancestors into the Catholic faith and the brutal punishment meted out by their Spanish overlords.

However, the film consisted visually of a series of California landscapes mostly in urban settings absent of people. Director and narrator Jenni Olson, a lesbian deeply involved with film activism, is present in a voiceover that begins with the opening frame and continues during the entire film. Her words can best be described as a mixture of a Spalding Gray type monologue and reflections on California history, all worked into the fabric of film history–her speciality. For example, it turns out that Junipero Serra created a mission that figured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”. For Olson, the connection between the film and the new saint is over memory. Her abiding interest is in the presence of the past and the role of nostalgia, one that she associates with Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past”. She points out that Kim Novak’s character was named Madeleine, just like the cookie that triggered Swann’s recollections in the beginning of Proust’s masterpiece.

If you are up for some offbeat film fare, have a look at “Royal Road”. The film won me over, something I would not have expected in the first minute or two.


October 24, 2015

The Pearl Button; Bering: Balance and Resistance

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

Opening yesterday at the IFC Center in New York, Patricio Guzman’s “The Pearl Button” is my pick for best documentary of 2015 and very possibly the best I have seen in the past decade. Guzman, a Chilean born in 1941, is best known for his documentaries about the Allende period, including “The Battle of Chile” that I saw forty years ago when it came out and the 2004 “Salvador Allende” that I reviewed eight years ago. Since my view of the director’s work was informed by these newsreel-like films, I was not nearly prepared for the astonishing experience of a work of art that combined politics and art and that can be likened to Eduardo Galeano at his best. Narrated by Guzman, “The Pearl Button” is a meditation on the ontological mystery of water, the extinction of the Patagonian Indians who had a unique connection to the ocean, and the persecution of Allende’s supporters whose corpses were often dropped by helicopter into the very waters of the Pacific Ocean that the indigenous peoples regarded as essential to their being.

The eponymous pearl button is a reference to Jemmy Button, as the British colonizers called him. He was a Patagonian Indian that Captain Fitzroy of the HMS Beagle—the same ship that Charles Darwin sailed on–brought back to England in 1830 under circumstances typical of the unequal power relations of the day and that continue now. When the natives stole one of Fitzroy’s boats, he took a group hostage. Jemmy’s price was that of a single mother of pearl button. Christianized forcefully, dressed in respectable garments (his people preferred to walk about unclothed with their bodies painted), and taught English, he was nothing more than a kind of curiosity for the British to gawk at. Once he returned home, he discarded their clothing and sought to be reintegrated with the Yámana people who never quite accepted him. Being lost between two worlds, as we shall see in the discussion of another film below, is generally the fate of indigenous peoples today unfortunately.

When Guzman learned that the Chilean government had commissioned a task force to retrieve the bodies of Pinochet’s victims, he went along to film their work. As was the custom, Pinochet’s goons tied the corpse to a six-foot section of rail to weigh it down in the Pacific. On one dive, the cops retrieved such a rail but the corpse had washed away long ago. The only thing remaining was a shred of the victim’s clothing and a single mother-of-pearl button.

As a kind of prelude to these stories, Guzman explores the significance of water—a part of nature that it is all too easy to take for granted. It turns out that if had not been for the landing of a comet on earth quite by accident billions of years ago, the oceans might not have come into being. The director interviews a number of scientists who appear to be on the same political and artistic wavelength as him. They explain that water permeates everything we see and touch, including our own bodies, the soil, the sky, and the food we eat. Citing scientist Thedor Schwenk who founded the Institute of Flow,a research center on water, Guzman notes that “…the act of thinking resembles water due to its capacity to adapt to everything. The law of thought is the same as that of water, always ready to adapt itself to everything”.

Such observations are accompanied by the stunning images of the heavens, the oceans and the earth as only a gifted director could summon. His words, spoken slowly and clearly in the tone of a seer, the film score and the images combine to both educate and inspire.

The high points of the film consist of a group of elderly indigenous survivals of the genocide including Gabriela Paterito who speaks in her native tongue. They believe that there were eight thousand Patagonian natives in the 18th century with only twenty surviving including Paterito who is described in the press notes:

Gabriela was born near an island called “Calao”, in the Picton fjord. She is about 73 years old. She learnt to row and dive under water when she was just six years old. Gabriela travelled hundreds of miles in a canoe, from Punta Arenas to the Gulf of Penas together with her family. She’s the last descendant of the kawéskar ethnic group, able to recount her life and that of her family with total lucidity and precision. Thanks to her son, Juan Carlos Tonko, who has brought Gabriela’s life into the public eye, it is no longer one of anonymity. She lives in Puerto Eden and earns a living making handicraft. During the filming we met other of her fellow countrymen, Alfredo Renchi, Francisco González and Yolanda Mesier.

The connection between the Indians of Patagonia and the socialists in Chile could not be more obvious. We learn from Guzman that among the accomplishments of Allende was a kind of affirmative action for indigenous peoples, a policy that must have angered a ruling class that like those throughout the Americas considered them to be less than human. As Thomas Jefferson put it, “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Although unfortunately I am a bit late on this, Lourdes Grobet’s “Bering, Balance and Resistance” that premiered this morning at the Margaret Mead film festival at the Museum of Natural History, is a perfect companion piece to “The Pearl Button”. If it ever shows up in your neck of the woods or on television, grab it since it is very much in the tradition of Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” but like many of the films about Inuit today is much closer to the truth.

The film documents the daily existence of the people who live on the Little and Big Diomede Islands who have been there for more than ten thousand years. Modern civilization so to speak has separated them, however. Little Diomede is American territory and Big Diomede is Russian. If Sarah Palin lived in Little Diomede, her comment about being able to see Russia would be true.

Interestingly, the native peoples refer to themselves as Eskimos, not Inuit, thus showing a certain indifference to political correctness. That being said, they are completely committed to preserving their traditions that are under assault from capitalist society. One man in his forties observes that when they had native dances in the local assembly hall in the past, you could not find a seat. Today the hall is half-empty for such events. Children do not speak their native tongue, watch television addictively, eat canned food and talk about relocating to Nome where assimilation can be consummated.

There are elders who are intent on preserving what they call their “subsistence” way of life. They are dubious about Christianity even though that is the only religion in both islands, something that must be reassuring to both the Russian and American yahoos who see eye-to-eye on the church. Those old enough to have lived before “civilization” settled in report that in the old days there was no money. They went out on hunts together and shared what they killed. They made everything they needed and exchanged fur or carvings for manufactured essentials such as knives or guns. You can see a couple of men in their thirties, veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, going through the steps of a hunting dance that was probably performed ten thousand years ago.

Their way of life and that of the Patagonians is what Marx called primitive communism. In order to assimilate hunting and gathering societies into bourgeois society, force is necessary as well as ideological pressure. The tragedy of the Inuit, who were separated by dint of the conventions of the modern state system, is that they are caught between two worlds.

But so are we in a very real sense. Our fate is to live in a system based on commodity production that is undermining our very existence as I pointed out yesterday in my review of “Racing Extinction”. The goal is the same as it was when Engels wrote “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”: to unite the disdain for money that most people in Grobet’s film share with the modern productive forces that capitalism has forged.

October 23, 2015

Racing Extinction

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

The Politics of Extinction

Those dolphins that are slaughtered end up in Japanese supermarkets labeled as whale meat. Technically, this is true since dolphins are small whales. But the meat is hazardous to one’s health. Laced with mercury, an inevitable by-product of factory emissions, they can potentially cripple or kill you.

To his everlasting credit, Louie Psihoyos joined Rick O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer and subject of his film, in guerrilla raids on the dolphin killers using hidden cameras rather than AK-47s. “The Cove” can be seen on Youtube  for just $1.99 and is must viewing for anybody concerned about the massive threat industrial-fishing poses not only to the whales but to humanity as well. If the ocean becomes empty of sea-life, the earth itself is threatened since there is a delicate balance between the two biospheres.

This is essentially the theme of “Racing Extinction”, a film that Psihoyos has been working on for the past six years. I saw it on Wednesday night at a press screening introduced by Susan Sarandon and the director. He warned the audience that the film was a bearer of bleak tidings but that it was not too late to avert a Sixth Extinction, the subject not only of the documentary but one omnipresent in print and electronic media.

Read full article

October 18, 2015

The Connection; Jason and Shirley

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:59 pm

Last December I reported on the ongoing restoration project at Milestone to make the groundbreaking films of Shirley Clarke available again as DVDs. I mentioned that I saw one film of hers as a young man that made a big impression on me:

The first and last time I saw a Shirley Clarke film was in 1961. As the title implied, “The Connection” was about junkies. It also happens to be the first restored film in the Milestone project. It is a truly amazing film that I can remember scenes from to this day. It has an improvised feel as the cast sits around in a tenement apartment waiting anxiously and even desperately for the heroin pusher “Cowboy” to arrive. Clarke’s boyfriend Carl Lee played Cowboy. He was the son of Canada Lee, a veteran African-American film actor who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. “The Connection” had to battle the censors to be shown in NY. They objected to the frequent use of the word “shit”, even though it was only referring to the drug.

About six months ago Milestone sent me a review copy of “The Connection” that I cannot recommend highly enough for young people today trying to get a feel what it was like to be a cultural rebel 54 years ago. Since McCarthyism was still a powerful lingering presence in American society, rebellion tended to adopt cultural forms including for director Shirley Clarke who had basically filmed Jack Gelber’s off-Broadway play. Six years later both Clarke and I would be fully immersed in the Vietnam antiwar movement, a path followed by many people from our generation.

Having see this film once again, I am struck by how bold an undertaking it was. In addition to using the word “shit”, the film fearlessly depicted the sleaziness of junkie life. Leach, whose apartment serves as a drug den for the cast, has a boil on his neck that is lanced by his fellow junkies. As a cockroach crawls across the wall, Clarke’s camera trails each step. One junkie is showing puking in the toilet—a scene of course that became a cliché in the 1980s. You see Leach sticking a needle in his arm later in the film. When I saw it, I resolved to stick to marijuana. For me, it was traumatic enough to get a vaccination. Who needed to be stuck on a daily basis?

Notwithstanding the importance of Clarke’s contribution, it was Jack Gelber’s play that blazed the trail she followed. Although Gelber’s play was deemed avant-garde at the time, it was clear to me at the time and even more so now seeing it anew that it was deeply influenced by Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh”, a play set in a saloon rather than a junkie’s apartment. The two plays serve as a rotating platform as each actor gets up to tell his story about addiction. (It should be mentioned that O’Neill’s mother was a morphine addict, as reflected in the autobiographical “Long Day’s Journey into Night”.

Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theater staged “The Connection” in 1959. Like Clarke, they too would become Vietnam antiwar activists. Most of the cast would appear in Clarke’s film, including Carl Lee as Cowboy, the dealer that the characters await anxiously as the play begins. Lee would marry Shirley Clarke and appear off-screen in “Jason and Shirley” that I reviewed last December. Lee was a heroin addict himself and died of an overdose in 1986.

Among the junkies awaiting the arrival of Cowboy, who is their iceman in a very real sense, are jazz musicians who perform throughout the play. Jackie McLean, who plays alto sax in his very Bird-like fashion, was a junkie just like Lee so the play has a vérité that other films would not dare at the time. It would be like casting a junkie in “A Hatful of Rain” or “The Man with the Golden Arm”. Hollywood would certainly not permit that although they obviously had no problems with alcoholics like Errol Flynn. As one character says toward the end of the play in reply to another’s question about why heroin was made illegal: “They wanted to protect us from ourselves”.

Gelber died in 2003 at the age of 71. He never wrote a play that was nearly as successful as “The Connection” but I am tempted to track down his 1968 “The Cuban Thing” that was based on his journalism in Cuba during the 1950s. Wikipedia states:

Produced at Henry Miller’s Theatre, the play was controversial for what some believed was a favorable portrayal of the communist leader Fidel Castro, when the Cold War was going strong. This interpretation sparked large and sometimes violent protests by Cuban exiles and others against the production, and the play ended its run after only one night.

It also states that Gelber signed the “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” pledge in 1968, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War. Starting to see a pattern here? Clarke, Proyect (a 16 year old beatnik in 1961), Beck/Malina, Gelber… Maybe the way things are going, you’ll see all those Brooklyn hipsters at the barricades in a few years. I hope I live long enough to see it.

“The Connection” is available as a DVD or streaming on Amazon.com.

Among the characters in Gelber’s play are a stage director and his assistants who serve to set the whole thing up as a play within a play. As a slight modification to suit her medium, Clarke turns the director into a film director with a cameraman who is unseen until the very end (a very young Roscoe Lee Brown.)

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 6.57.36 PM

A good part of the dramatic tension in the film lies in the characters’ resentment of the film crew who they see as voyeurs exploiting their misery for “art”. Ironically, that is exactly the premise of Stephen Winter’s “Jason and Shirley” that premieres at the MOMA tomorrow.

Winter is of mixed Jewish and African-American background and is also gay. So for him, the Shirley Clarke/Jason Holliday connection is of key importance. To reprise my December write-up:

Jason Holliday was a 43-year-old hustler who Clarke interviewed in her penthouse apartment at the Chelsea Hotel on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. The Chelsea is a landmark hotel that was home to legendary bohemian and leftist figures in its heyday, including actor and filmmaker Frank Cavestani who I interview below. Jason was a friend of Carl Lee and Clarke even though he had given plenty of reasons over the years to make them wonder why. The final 15 minutes or so of the film are a kind of psychodrama as Carl Lee asks Jason repeatedly why he betrayed him.

Made 4 years before the Stonewall Uprising, “Portrait of Jason” is—as far as I know—the first film to give an openly gay man an opportunity to talk about his life and his sexuality. For nearly his entire time on camera, Jason laughs hysterically as he alternately downs cocktails and smokes joints. His performance reminded me of the cover of the old Lester Young record: “Laughing to Keep from Crying”.

To put it bluntly, Winter’s goal was to redeem the reputation of Jason Holliday and to trash that of Shirley Clarke and Carl Lee who come across as bullies. Sarah Schulman, the lesbian novelist and long-time activist, co-wrote the film with Winter and Jack Waters who plays Jason. Clarke is depicted as a variation on the film director in “The Connection”, someone who sees her subject as a means to an end—her own success. There is wrangling over Jason getting paid and in the closing credits Winter states that he considered legal action against Clarke who supposedly stiffed him.

Lee (Orran Farmer) comes across as a sadist who derides Jason for being a loser, something that Clarke harps on in the beginning of the film. She rubs the fact in his nose that Lee is appearing in a Shakespeare play while he is off trying to land gigs doing a drag queen performance in Village clubs.

I can recommend this film even though I didn’t like it very much—in fact in some ways I hated it. The performances are excellent and the film has an electricity generated from the tension between the characters that existed in Clarke’s original film and even made more palpable. If you accept that it is using the characters as a platform for the director’s resentment over what took place in a 1967 film, there will be no problem. He says up-front that he is creating fiction. I couldn’t agree more.

Next Page »

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,925 other followers