Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 19, 2014

My film picks for 2014

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 11:44 am
From “Winter Sleep” to “Particle Fever”

The Year in Film


I deliberately refrained from attaching the word “best” to the films listed below out of consideration that my personal taste weighed heavily. While I would have no problem defending the picks based on artistic merit, there is a subjective factor that is probably no more arbitrary than that reflected in any other critic’s “best of” list even if they are reluctant to admit that personal taste tilted the scale. I can only say that if you have seen and valued films based on my recommendations, then you should look for those listed below in local theaters or on the Internet.

As a rule of thumb, I probably pay less attention to the visual aspects of a narrative film than I do to more conventional dramatic elements such as character development and plot. This meant that I had little use for a film like “Mr. Turner”, a work that made it to many ‘best of 2014’ lists on the basis of breathtaking images of the British landscape evoking the work of the boring and repulsive artist whose life it was celebrating. I could only wonder why Mike Leigh would want to make a film about such a man when you are better off going to the museum and looking at his paintings. My benchmark for such films was “Lust for Life”, the biopic about Vincent Van Gogh that was co-written by Irving Stone, from whose novel the script was adapted, and Norman Corwin. As you may know, Norman Corwin wrote and produced 100 radio plays in the 1930s and 40s, the medium’s golden age. The only images evoked in those classic plays were those that Corwin’s words produced in your mind’s eye.

Read full article

December 15, 2014

Sony versus North Korea

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm

In the hack of the century, Sony Corporation emails were released to the media with shockingly inappropriate statements made by studio executives about their employees and public figures, including President Obama.

Despite Hollywood’s tilt toward the Democratic Party, private communications reveal contempt for the chief executive who is the butt of stupid racial jokes. Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal, two extremely powerful Sony execs, exchanged email on their way to a fundraiser for Obama at Jeffrey Katzanberg’s mansion in November 2013.

Pascal: “What should I ask the president at this stupid Jeffrey breakfast?”

Rudin: “Would he like to finance some movies.”

Pascal: “I doubt it. Should I ask him if he liked Django?”

Rudin: “12 YEARS.” (A reference to “12 Years a Slave”.

This is the same Rudin who bragged about his ”The Manchurian Candidate” being ”a very, very angry movie”, one that is “honestly distressed about a lot of things going on in the country right now” in 2004. In 2013, when Hollywood was coming out with some tame “social” dramas like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Rudin described this as “fantastic news for those of us who love trying to make them and have to fight hard for those opportunities” as if Wall Street would tremble at the prospects of Leonardo Di Caprio crawling across the floor after taking Quaaludes.

Meanwhile, Pascal is a major donor to the Democratic Party who is married to Bernard Weinraub, a former business reporter for the NY Times. One of the hacked emails revealed an exchange between him and Maureen Dowd over the proposed content of an article she was writing about “an old boy’s network” controlling Hollywood. There was agreement between Dowd and Weinraub that the article should not be “too antagonistic”.

One imagines that this would have meant sweeping some revelations, courtesy of the hacked emails, under the rug:

1) Men are paid more than women

Sony’s 17 biggest-earning executives are predominantly white men. According to a spreadsheet called “Comp Roster by Supervisory Organization 2014-10-21,” Amy Pascal, the co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment is the only woman earning $1 million or more at the studio.

2) It’s not just executives

Sony paid Jennifer Lawrence less than it paid Christian Bale or Bradley Cooper, her co-stars in last year’s hit movie “American Hustle.” Lawrence was paid 7 percent of the movie’s profit, while Bale and Cooper received 9 percent, according to emails sent to Pascal.

The emails contain unflattering comments about Hollywood superstars like Angela Jolie, who is referred to as “a minimally talented spoiled brat”. I think I’ll offer critical support on this.

The hackers call themselves the Guardians of Peace, a fairly obvious reference to the North Korean government’s likely role in organizing the hack. It was angry over the new film being produced by Sony titled “The Interview”, a “comedy” about a couple of American TV reporters being lined up by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un when they gain access to him under the guise of doing an interview. Ha-ha-ha. Dan Sterling, who wrote jokes for Jon Stewart, was the screenwriter. Ha-ha-ha.

As it turns out, Scott Rudin produced another “comedy” about North Korea, this time demonizing Kim Jon-il, the current dictator’s father. Titled “Team America: World Police”, it was supposedly a satire on American military power. It incorporated the “edgy” style of “South Park”, the cable TV show written and directed by Trey Parker, the film’s director/writer. In my CounterPunch review of a J. Hoberman book, I referred to the long time film critic and scholar’s take on Trey Parker’s film:

In the service of human interest, Team America recruits a replacement commando from the Broadway hit Lease. (He’s first seen singing “Everybody Has AIDS.”) His job is acting, something that intrinsically amuses animators Parker and Stone. Their marionettes vomit, bleed, and explode into organ parts. Indeed, these puppets show more guts than the filmmakers, who direct their fire at very soft targets: French and Egyptian civilians, a Communist dictator, and a bunch of Hollywood showboats. Despite some pre-release Drudge-stoked hysteria regarding an “unconscionable” attack on the administration, no American politicians appear in the movie. (The movie has since garnered Fox News’s seal of approval.) Nor do any media moguls. The filmmakers never satirize anyone who could hurt their career—not even Michael Moore enabler Harvey Weinstein.

When a Sony executive learned that the film concluded with a graphic depiction of Kim Jung-in’s head being blown to bits, he rightly worried that North Korea might be prompted to respond. After he asked the film’s creative team to tone down the conclusion, co-star Seth Rogen blew his stack over the threats to artistic freedom as revealed in a hacked email: “This is now a story of Americans changing their movie to make North Koreans happy. That is a very damning story.” This is the same Seth Rogen, by the way, who made headlines defending Israel against the BDS movement a few months ago.

In today’s NY Times, there is little interest in trying to understand why North Korea was moved to hack Sony emails (although I would have been overjoyed to see them under any pretext). Instead, the emphasis is on Japanese fears about the rogue state:

While many Americans seem to see North Korea as too distant to keep them awake at night, many Japanese see it as a very visible threat. Until three decades ago, North Korean agents occasionally snatched people off beaches in neighboring Japan to serve as Japanese-language teachers, and long-range North Korean rockets on test runs still fly ominously over Japan’s main islands.

Now I wouldn’t put it past the North Korean government to commit any number of heinous acts, but I wonder what the real story about “snatched people” is in light of this report from the March 11, 2002 NY Times:

In court, Meguni Yao, the former wife of a Japanese leftist, said that when the couple lived in North Korea during the 1980’s, she tried to lure lonely Japanese students, some of them studying abroad, to North Korea. There they were to either join a government-supported ”Japan Revolutionary Village” or to train North Korean spies for work in Japan.

Is it possible that the “abductees” were simply young Japanese leftists who made the mistake of relocating to North Korea? Who knows?

What I do know is that North Korea has ample reasons to be afraid of and angry at both Japan and the USA. Keep in mind that Japan colonized Korea in 1910 and imposed a vicious regime that even the anti-Communist south regards as a stain on the country’s history. Korea was a source of raw materials and cheap labor, corresponding to the model identified in Lenin’s essay on imperialism. During WWII up to 200,000 Korean women were forced to become prostitutes to serve the Japanese army, euphemistically called “comfort women” while twice that number of men were sent to work in Japanese war plants against their will. Meanwhile, after the fashion of Nazi German’s Dr. Mengele, the Japanese experimented with captive Koreans in Unit 731, as Nicholas Kristof reported in the March 17, 1995 NY Times:

He is a cheerful old farmer who jokes as he serves rice cakes made by his wife, and then he switches easily to explaining what it is like to cut open a 30-year-old man who is tied naked to a bed and dissect him alive, without anesthetic.

“The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down,” recalled the 72-year-old farmer, then a medical assistant in a Japanese Army unit in China in World War II. “But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming.

“I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped. This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.”

Whatever other sins he is guilty of, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the ruling dynasty in North Korea, deserves historical accolades for driving the Japanese out of Korea. For this transgression, he was punished by the USA that under the fig leaf of UN-sponsored conflict resolution, invaded Korea and killed 290,000 North Korean soldiers and was responsible for nearly 3 million civilian casualties in the south and north combined. That is about 10 percent of the total population in 1950. Can you imagine how the USA would react if a country that had invaded and killed 30 million of its citizens would react to a “comedy” that climaxed with the assassination of its president? Of course, that is completely hypothetical question given the fact that the USA has ruled the world for the better part of a century. Eventually that will change under the impact of economic transformations that will render the imperialist monster toothless—the sooner the better.


December 12, 2014

We are the Giant; Maidan

Filed under: Film,middle east,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 11:15 pm

Two documentaries open in New York today that provide a close-up look at the Arab Spring and Euromaidan. If you think that these upheavals were plots concocted by the CIA to weaken Iran and Russia, you will benefit from watching both since they present flesh and blood human beings in struggle rather than geopolitical abstractions–chess pieces being moved across a board. For those who identify with the struggles and have offered solidarity in one way or another, the films will help sustain you in these most trying of times when dark reaction rules almost everywhere.

Playing at the Cinema Village, “We are the Giant” focuses on the anti-government protests, both peaceful and violent, in Libya, Syria, and Bahrain. While there is little to distinguish the ideals and self-sacrifice of the protagonists in each arena, those from the first two countries are regarded by much of the left as tools of American imperialism while the Bahraini activists get a clean bill of health purely on the basis of not opposing an ally of Putin’s Russia. Such a litmus test of course does not do justice to the human beings risking their lives for the right to express their ideas without being tortured or killed. It is indeed ironic that a left so aroused at the new revelations about CIA torture managed to overlook how Gaddafi and Assad opened their torture chambers for the victims of the CIA extraordinary rendition program.

A Libyan man named Osama living in the USA and enjoying the good life has a 21-year old son named Muhannad who decides to join the armed struggle against Gaddafi. As is the case throughout the film, there is hair-raising footage of protests and street fighting. Muhannad, who has no previous military training, gets a crash course in how to fire an automatic weapon and soon becomes the bravest and most dedicated fighter. Like most young men and women who joined the rebellion, there was a failure to come to terms with both the military odds against them and the daunting tasks of building a new society out of the wreckage left by 40 years of dictatorship. Muhannad was willing to take the risk simply on the basis of knowing what life was like under Gaddafi. Students were tortured or killed for undertaking the most modest steps toward democracy. In risking his life to secure a measure of freedom, he did not ask for a promissory note that the new system would not bring along a new set of ills. While the film makes no comments on post-Gaddafi Libya, it is only people intoxicated by their own ideology who will reduce Muhannad to a symbol of US global domination.

Post-Gaddafi Libya is often held up as a poster child for what might happen in Syria if the “moderate” rebels prevailed as if anything could be worse than the prevailing conditions where barrel bombs are routinely dropped on outdoor markets and working class apartment buildings. Activists Ghassan and Motaz favored peaceful resistance and were key media activists in the early stages of the revolution when the masses took to the streets just as they had throughout the rest of the Middle East and North Africa. The film depicts in graphic detail how peaceful marchers were shot down in the streets. Even as Syria has descended into a hellish war of attrition with jihadists threatening to impose a Salafist regime as evil as Assad’s “secular” nightmare, Ghassan and Motaz continue to support Gandhi-type nonviolent resistance.

For me, the final section of the film that deals with Bahrain was most revelatory. Two sisters Maryam and Zainab Al-Khawaja share their father’s commitment to nonviolent struggle. As soon as the Arab Spring reaches Bahrain, he returns from exile and becomes a pivotal figure. Unlike Libya and Syria, Bahrain was an ally of the USA and the film shows John Kerry glad-handing a Bahraini despot while the father is facing 12 years in prison for speaking up against the dictatorship. The two sisters are powerful tribunes for a society trying to live in freedom and security. If you like me have only a sketchy idea of what the struggle in Bahrain has been about, “We are the Giant” will spur you to find out more and to join the solidarity movement to free their father and the rest of a long-suffering population.

“Maidan”, which opens today at the Film Society at Lincoln Center, is a strict cinema vérité production that adopts the fly-on-the-wall perspective of Frederick Wiseman. However, unlike Wiseman who tends to pan his camera on rather quotidian locales such as high schools or hospitals, director Sergei Loznitsa—a Ukrainian—and his crew are immersed in the Euromaidan protests and could not portray normalcy even if they intended to. From the opening minutes of the film, you realize that you are in the crucible waiting for sparks to fly.

In some ways, the film has the character of a live feed on the Internet as you simply watch people gathered together in an immense crowd or fighting with the cops. The obvious purpose is to allow you to make up your own mind about what was happening there rather than to impose some kind of ideological framework with facile conclusions such as the kind RT.com is famous for.

Although I have obviously made up my mind about the Euromaidan protests, I will reprise what I gleaned from Loznitza’s footage. To start with, the speakers at the early, peaceful rallies were decidedly non-ideological. The most common themes were redemption of the Ukrainian nation and the need to lead normal lives, with ample appeals to the crowd’s Christian beliefs. When speeches were not being made, folk singers were raising spirits with patriotic tunes that the crowd sang along with. If there were fascists on the stage, the film either made sure to ignore them or—more likely in my opinion—there were none to be found.

Undoubtedly the fascists did play a role in the street fighting as Yanukovych sent the cops out to clear Maidan of protestors, just as his Chinese counterparts are doing now in Hong Kong. But it is unlikely that any ordinary Ukrainian who was there simply to fight for the right to protest cared much who was fighting the cops or what they stood for. Since Svoboda and Privy Sektor were better organized than those who came to Maidan to protest the regime as individuals, they were able to control the facts on the ground. Despite this, Ukrainians continue to vote for centrist politicians no matter the RT.com inspired warnings about an immanent fascist takeover.

While RT.com ratchets up its rhetoric about the fascist threat posed by the Ukrainian government, the French National Front campaigns with funds it borrowed from a Russian bank at the behest of Vladimir Putin, something that the pro-Putin left is indifferent to.

Director Sergei Loznitsa is a skilled documentary filmmaker who has excelled in narrative films as well. If you ever get the opportunity to see his “In the Fog”, grab it since it is a perceptive look at how Byelorussia, another “lesser nation”, fared under Stalinist rule during WWII. Its hero is a railway worker who faces threats from Nazis and Communist partisans as well. Based on a novel of the same name by Byelorussian author Vasil’ Bykaw, it depicts the difficulties of making moral choices in a world where immorality prevails—in other words, a film very relevant to our situation today.

December 11, 2014

My list of the 100 greatest films

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:18 pm

A while back Jeff St. Clair asked some CounterPunch contributors for a list of what they considered to be the 100 greatest films of all time. I put this together pretty much off the top of my head and not in preferential order. I would say that those that came to mind first probably rate the highest, particularly “Sansho the Bailiff”, which I consider the greatest film ever made. Have you seen it? If not, put it on your bucket list. I saw it in 1961 and it has haunted me ever since. I notice, btw, that there were 101 ilms in my list–I am not sure why. In any case, you can take these to the bank.

  1. Sansho the Bailiff
  2. Weekend
  3. Seven Samurai
  4. Battle of Algiers
  5. Wages of Fear
  6. Dr. Strangelove
  7. Battleship Potemkin
  8. Berlin Alexanderplatz
  9. Jules and Jim
  10. Chinatown
  11. Modern Times
  12. Metropolis
  13. Napoleon
  14. Lola Montes
  15. Lonely are the Brave
  16. Tokyo Story
  17. The Wind Will Carry Us
  18. Godfather, part 2
  19. L’Atalante
  20. Salt of the Earth
  21. On the Waterfront
  22. Los Olvidados
  23. Bad Day at Black Rock
  24. Princess Mononoke
  25. Peppermint Candy
  26. The Shining
  27. Hari Kiri (the original)
  28. The Grapes of Wrath
  29. Nothing But a Man
  30. Sherlock Jr.
  31. Psycho
  32. The Seventh Seal
  33. Annie Hall
  34. Reds
  35. The Leopard
  36. L’Avventura
  37. Winter Sleep
  38. Yol
  39. Camp de Thiaroye
  40. The Sting
  41. McCabe and Mrs. Miller
  42. A Walk in the Sun
  43. Not One Less
  44. Pather Panchali
  45. Yojimbo
  46. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
  47. Sunset Boulevard
  48. Sullivan’s Travels
  49. La Dolce Vita
  50. Morgan!
  51. Heaven’s Gate
  52. The Grand Illusion
  53. Zero for Conduct
  54. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie
  55. Contempt
  56. Way Out West
  57. Some Like it Hot
  58. Seven Days of the Condor
  59. Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  60. A Night at the Opera
  61. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday
  62. One-Eyed Jacks
  63. Nuts in May
  64. Pat and Mike
  65. Tell Them Willie Boy is Here
  66. Gun Crazy
  67. Breathless
  68. Riff-Raff
  69. The Palm Beach Story
  70. The Singing Detective
  71. Bob Le Flambeur
  72. A Better Tomorrow
  73. Johnny Guitar
  74. Rififi
  75. Kanal
  76. The Bicycle Thief
  77. Ikiru
  78. Hearts and Minds
  79. How to Train Your Dragon
  80. Open City
  81. 1900
  82. Crimson Gold
  83. In the Year of the Pig
  84. The Wide Blue Road
  85. Ceddo
  86. The African Queen
  87. Army of Shadows
  88. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence
  89. Shoot the Piano Player
  90. Au Hasard Balthazar
  91. The Harder They Come
  92. Strangers on a Train
  93. From Here to Eternity
  94. A Streetcar Named Desire
  95. Memories of Underdevelopment
  96. Z
  97. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
  98. A Separation
  99. The White Balloon
  100. Wild Strawberries
  101. Andrei Rublev

December 10, 2014

Winter Sleep

Filed under: Film,Turkey — louisproyect @ 5:07 pm

For regular readers of my film reviews, you are probably aware that I have referred to Turkey’s Nuri Bilge Ceylan as one of the world’s greatest filmmakers. After seeing “Winter Sleep” (Kış Uykusu) yesterday, I am ready to upgrade him to the greatest filmmaker today, the only one that can be compared to the masters I encountered in the early 60s: Godard, Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, et al. Unlike any film I have seen in recent years, “Winter Sleep” is as complex and as literary as the classics of a bygone era. In many ways, it is the Turkish equivalent of a Chekhov play with the added visual dimension of the mind-bending landscapes of Cappadocia, the ancient region in Anatolia where houses and temples were carved into the mountains.

Most of the action in “Winter Sleep” takes place in the Hotel Othello, one of the Cappadocian dwellings that grow out of a cliff like a mushroom from a tree. Since the film is a meditation on good and evil, the hotel is named appropriately. Aydin, its owner, is a member of the local village’s elite. He inherited the hotel from his father and a number of the rental properties that poor villagers struggle to afford. Despite the reputation of Turkey’s supposedly booming economy and the governing AKP’s charitable beneficence, it had a GINI coefficient in 2012 only 2 points more equitable than El Salvador’s.

In an early scene, Aydin (played by Haluk Bilginer, a veteran of 55 films) is in the front seat of his hotel’s SUV being driven back to the Othello from the nearby village by his driver/desk clerk Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan), when out of nowhere a rock crashes into the car’s window nearly forcing it to veer off the road and into a serious accident. The assailant is a young boy who Hidayet pursues and finally captures.

They then take the captive youth back to his meager home, one of Haydin’s rental properties, where they meet his father and uncle and soon learn that the boy threw the rock because the family—5 people crowded into 3 small rooms—has just lost their television to the debt collectors Aydin’s lawyer sicced on them. For the rural poor, a television is one of the few pleasures that they can count on.

Ismail, the boy’s father, is in no position to pay the back rent, let alone the broken window. We will eventually learn that he is an ex-convict who cannot find work. As Aydin and Hidayet are setting down the terms for repairing the broken window, Ismail smashes his fist into his own window and barks at the two men: Now, we are even.

Despite and perhaps because of Aydin’s efforts to remain calm and affect a lofty and patient attitude, Ismail reaches the boiling point and tries to physically attack his landlord and driver until the uncle, a man called Hamdi hodja (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç), separates them. Hamdi is everything that Ismail is not, a perpetually smiling and subservient sort used to bowing before the wealthy and the powerful. A few days after the confrontation, he brings his nephew to the hotel to beg forgiveness and have him kiss Aydin’s right hand, a ritual act in Turkey’s Anatolian hinterlands. Sick from pneumonia, the boy collapses in the act.

Aydin lives in an aesthetic cocoon as remote from Ismail’s world as the ex-convict is from his. He spends his days in his study writing articles for the local newspaper on the need to “improve” the local village spiritually and ethically. His writings are laced with platitudes and betray a Pecksniffian sense of his own superiority.

There are two women in Aydin’s life, both very much tuned in to his arrogance and sterility. One is his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), just a few years younger than him, and the other is his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) who is about half his age and lives in her own quarters at the hotel. In the earliest scenes between Aydin and them, there are signs of friction but barely anticipate the dramatically explosive scenes in which the two confront him over his failings as a human being that are implicitly connected to his class status. Although not a political director/screenwriter in the narrow sense, Nuri Bilge Ceylan is about as clear as one can be on such matters without descending into propaganda.

In much the same way as Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard”, this is a tale about the futility of the lives of the rich and the poor alike. In its monomaniacal determination to preserve its class status, the Aydins of the world are impoverishing themselves spiritually and ethically.

“Winter Sleep” won the prestigious Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It opens at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York on December 19th. Running at over three hours, it is a throwback to the epic films of the 1960s, especially those Marxist films that depicted the same sort of class divisions such as Bertolucci’s “1900”. Among all the films being made today, it is a testament that the Grand Tradition is still alive, even if the terrain has shifted eastward. Ceylan is a gifted dramatist and cinematographer with a unique vision of the crisis we face today in a world that is divided between Aydins and Ismails. Despite its narrow focus on a small group of people, it is a story that reflects the greater drama involving billions today. It is a masterpiece in my opinion, a word I do not use lightly.

December 9, 2014

Who says old school New York leftism is dead?!

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:38 am

Over the weekend kudos sprang forth from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the New York Film Critics Online, which includes writers from such delightfully varied publications as the New York Observer, BET.com, SpiritualityandPractice.com and, the Bagger’s favorite, theUnrepentantMarxist.com. Who says old school New York leftism is dead?!

full: http://carpetbagger.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/12/08/for-best-actor-and-actress-no-consensus-among-critics-groups/

December 2, 2014

The Shirley Clarke Restoration Project

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

Recently I had the good fortune to watch two DVD’s from Milestone that are part of an ongoing restoration project for the entire Shirley Clarke oeuvre, the legacy of an avant-garde film and video maker from the 1950s through the 80s. Generally I am leery of the hyperbole that abounds in the arts section of the NY Times but I think that Manohla Dargis was not exaggerating when she wrote: “Dancer, bride, runaway wife, radical filmmaker and pioneer—Shirley Clarke is one of the great undertold stories of American Independent cinema.”

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.

What I remember most about this great film that was essentially a filmed version of Jack Gelber’s off-Broadway play was the band that played on the same stage as the actors, just to their left and within the audience’s view. It was led by Freddie Redd and featured Jackie McLean on alto sax. They were great.

Milestone sent me DVD’s for Clarke’s 1967 “Portrait of Jason” and “Ornette Coleman: Made in America”, her last film made in 1985. Clarke died that year from a stroke just before her 78th birthday. They are documentaries that are as much about Clarke’s particular esthetic as they are about their fascinating African-American subjects.

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”.

In his descriptions of how he assumed various identities to make himself acceptable to whites and straights, I kept thinking of Jean Genet’s “The Blacks”. For a perceptive analysis of the film, I recommend Richard Brody’s article that appeared in the New Yorker Magazine in April 2013.

Ingmar Bergman called Portrait of Jason “the most extraordinary film I’ve seen in my life.” It is available from Milestone for $23.96.

After watching the Ornette Coleman documentary, I scratched my head trying to figure out how I had not managed to see it when it came out nearly 30 years ago since I was a huge Ornette fan. So was Shirley Clarke obviously.

The film is mostly straight-ahead documentary with interviews of Ornette Coleman and an impressive cast of people commenting on his place in American music. Among the most interesting was George Russell, the jazz pianist who died five years ago. Russell, like Coleman, was a very cerebral and innovative composer who was up to the task of explaining what made Coleman special. I was also interested in what the late Robert Palmer had to say. Palmer, a musician himself and expert on the blues, moved into the apartment I left empty in Hoboken when I moved to Manhattan to join the Trotskyist movement. Shortly after I left Hoboken, Palmer started a band called the Insect Trust that was largely made up of my neighbors in 39 Second Street, just a stone’s through from the Hudson.

He died much too young of liver disease in 1997 at the age of 52.

To put Coleman’s extraordinary ascent to the first ranks of serious music, however you want to classify it, Clarke casts a young Black boy as Coleman in his early years in Fort Worth, Texas. We see him strolling silently around his old neighborhood as Coleman’s bluesy saxophone plays in the background.

Most of the film is devoted to Coleman performing in various venues, which is probably the most compelling reason to see the film. It is also an opportunity to hear the great but enigmatic figure talk about the problems that face all artists who dare to challenge the orthodoxy. In Coleman’s case, this meant risking beatings at the down and dirty nightclubs he performed in first coming up. On more than one occasion an angry audience member broke his saxophone.

It took 20 years for the film to be completed as Don Snowden explained in the LA Times:

Clarke was a dancer who studied with Martha Graham before she moved out of performing and into the movie world in the late ’50s. She became well known in independent film circles in the early ’60s for her films “The Connection” and “The Cool World” before directing a 1964 documentary on poet Robert Frost that won an Academy Award.

She met the saxophonist through a mutual friend, Yoko Ono, during a mid-’60s Parisian sojourn. When an independent New York producer approached Clarke to do a movie about jazz, she embarked on a film centered around Coleman’s decision to use his 11-year-old son Denardo as the drummer for his group.

But the original project foundered in 1969 when the producer disliked a partially completed version of the film. Clarke engineered her firing from the project to avoid being liable for $40,000 in expenses and the footage spent the next dozen years gathering dust under people’s beds.

The experience shook Clarke so much that she abandoned films for the fledgling video field. Video techniques played a central role in assembling and completing “Ornette: Made in America.”

“Video allows for an emotional response on the part of the person editing,” Clarke said. “What’s going to change is that you’re going to have the same kind of freedom that actors have on stage, yet you can record it. It allows the film maker to stay in the creative process longer.”

The film project was resurrected in 1983 when the Caravan of Dreams Performing Arts Center in Fort Worth, Tex., opened its doors by engineering Coleman’s first hometown appearance in 25 years. Producer Kathelin Hoffman formed a production company to capture the event and Coleman suggested that Clarke be contacted.

“Ornette: Made in America” can be purchased for $23.96 from Milestone.

Frank Cavestani on Shirley Clarke, the Chelsea Hotel, and movies


November 28, 2014

Arrogance, Propaganda and Fabulation at the New York Times

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,journalism — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

Inside the Grey Lady


For most CounterPunch readers, Judith Miller is the name that springs to mind if asked to identify the New York Times reporter discredited by articles written during the early days of the “war on terror”. As it turns out, she was not the only one to lose a job over bogus reporting. The other disgraced reporter had no particular ideological stake in Dubya’s wars but his fall from grace says as much about the Grey Lady’s overblown reputation as hers. I speak of Jayson Blair, the subject of an intriguing documentary titled “Fragile Trust” that originally aired on PBS and that can be purchased from Bulldog Films, an outlet for radical documentaries (in line with their politics, they offer the film to activist and advocacy groups at a reduced rate.)

In the April 26, 2003 NY Times, an article titled “THE MISSING; Family Waits, Now Alone, for a Missing Soldier” appeared under Blair’s byline. It told the story of a Chicano mother agonizing over the disappearance of her 24 year old son Edward in Iraq, where he was serving as an Army mechanic.

The opening paragraph in the article–“Juanita Anguiano points proudly to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet in its red case and the Martha Stewart furniture out on the patio. She proudly points up to the ceiling fan”–bore a striking similarity to one by Macarena Hernandez that had appeared a week earlier in the San Antonio Express-News. Hernandez had written: “he points to the pinstriped couches, the tennis bracelet still in its red velvet case and the Martha Stewart patio furniture, all gifts from her first born and only son.” Other similarities abounded.

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Trailers for reviewed films:

November 23, 2014

Three great animated features

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:58 pm

Although I will be nominating the three films reviewed in this article for NYFCO’s best animated features of 2014, they could easily be considered the three best—period. I only regret not having nominated “How to Train Your Dragon” in 2010, a film that far surpassed NYFCO’s choice, “The Social Network”. What, you haven’t seen “How to Train Your Dragon”? What’s wrong with you?

Even though I am approaching my seventieth birthday, I still get the same pleasure watching “cartoons” that I got when I was ten years old. Back then, this meant Warner Brothers—the gold standard for kiddie fare that adults could love as well. Back in the 1950s, there was always a cartoon before the main feature—as well as a newsreel and a travelogue. Along with Mad Magazine, Borscht Belt standup comedians, and comic books, the Warner Brothers cartoons that were produced by men such as Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones shaped my worldview. They never talked down to the juvenile audience but assumed that what made them laugh would also make a 10 year old laugh.

Clampett, in particular, was willing to push the envelope as Wikipedia reports: “Clampett was heavily influenced by the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, as is most visible in Porky in Wackyland (1938), wherein the entire short takes place within a Dalí-esque landscape complete with melting objects and abstracted forms. Clampett and his work can even be considered part of the surreal movement, as it incorporated film as well as static media.”

I could never get enough of “Porky in Wackyland”. Here’s a clip:

Brilliant, simply brilliant. You can watch the whole thing here.

Not long after “The Lego Movie” came out, I remembered reviewers describing it as subversive. For example, Jeff Myers of the Detroit Metro Times wrote:

The Lego Movie’s desire to inveigh against social conformity turns into a plea for collectivism. It’s a message that will inevitably send the blood pressures of FOX News pundits through the roof.

You might ask yourself what a movie about a kid’s toy could possibly piss off FOX News. To start with, this is hardly a commercial for Lego, a case of product placement gone wild. In essence, it is a film that uses a toy as a metaphor for the lives we lead today, just as was the case with the Toy Story franchise that—in case you didn’t know it—is some of the most brilliant filmmaking in recent years. The characters are toys but they are also recognizable stand-ins for recognizable types in capitalist society.

The hero of the Lego film is a construction worker named Emmet Brickowoski who builds hi-rises in Lego City. Emmet is the ideal member of a consumer-oriented mass society indoctrinated to love his job, the music he listens to on his car radio, and the TV shows he watches when he gets home—all the products of a conglomerate run by President Business (Will Ferrell). Lego City might be described as a kindler and gentler version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a place where workers are not beaten into submission but instead obey willingly. The closest analogy might be Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”.

President Business is not satisfied with the warm and fuzzy totalitarian society he presides over. He is determined to destroy the initiatives being taken in other cities where freedom and creativity are treasured as reflected in the novel use of Lego blocks. Think real estate developers in New York City replacing 19th century architecture and gardens with high-rises and CVS pharmacies.

As happens in so many animated features, our hero is unprepossessing. Like the hero of “How to Train Your Dragon” who has an aversion to using violence, Emmet has neither the brains nor the strength to take on President Business. Of course, he rises to the occasion just as one might expect given the hoary tradition of children’s fairy tales like Jack and the Beanstalk, as well as cartoons, their modern counterpart.

If “The Lego Film” were just another underdog defeating an evil demon story, there wouldn’t be that much to recommend it but the big story is how much the film recreates the surrealist imagination and sheer lunatic comedy of Warner Brothers in its heyday. Of more recent vintage, its closest relative was the “Yellow Submarine”, another animated feature that was filled with visual puns and madcap logic.

“The Lego Film” proceeds at a lightning pace and might leave a 10 year old asking you every five minutes what something meant. I only regret not having a child who could have watched the film with me and whose questions I could have answered. The film is a virtual banquet of irreverent pop culture references that only a grownup child like co-director/co-writers Christopher Miller and Phil Lord could have come up with.

“The Lego Film” is available as a DVD from Netflix or streaming from Amazon. If you have HBO, you can watch it there on demand. It is simply not to be missed.

“The King and the Mockingbird” opened last Friday night at the Francesca Beale Theater in Lincoln Center. In some ways, it might simply suffice to say that the film was co-written by director Paul Grimault and his long-time associate Jacques Prevert, the man who wrote “Children of Paradise”, voted “Best Film Ever” in a poll of 600 French critics and professionals in 1995.

Based on a Hans Christian Anderson story, the film pits a chimney sweep and a shepherdess who have sprung to life from paintings on the wall of King Charles who is always referred to as Charles V + III = VIII + VIII = XVI. Like President Business, the King is a control freak. Having decided that the shepherdess must become his bride, he sends out his cops to root out the rebels in the same fashion as “The Lego Movie”. Most of the two films involves Keystone Cops chases involving leaps of the imagination as well as leaps off of castle ledges.

Like “The Lego Movie”, “The King and the Mockingbird” is a film that can be enjoyed by kids from six to sixty as the cliché would have it. Despite being a French film, it is distinctly American in many ways, with a Mockingbird who will remind you of the crows in “Dumbo”. Yes, I know, Disney used racial stereotypes but as comic figures they were done brilliantly.

Like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the mockingbird is a perfect symbol of rebellion. He refuses to kowtow to the King and does everything in his power to aid the young couple trying to escape from his grip.

Grimault and Prevert were ideally suited for this material. They began work on the film in 1947, the first full-length animated feature in French history, and only completed it in 1980. This is an exceptional opportunity for New Yorkers to take in a film with great historical significance in newly restored version.

Grimault and Prevert first met each other in the October Group, artists committed to agitprop in the early 30s about which Claire Blakeway wrote in “Jacques Prévert: Popular French Theatre and Cinema”:

Of all the groups which proliferated in France, the Groupe Octobre was perhaps the most successful example of political theatre to emerge during the 1930s. Performing in factories, parks, at open-air fétes and political rallies (organised by the Federation of Workers’ Theatres of France) and in the working-class banlieues, of Paris (including Asnières, Sesnes, Noisy-le-Grand, and Villejuif) it attracted large proletarian audiences. Bussières recalls that at one performance which took place at Avenue Wagram, the Groupe October played to an audience of some twenty thousand people.

Prevert asserts:

‘The Groupe Octobre (. . .) snow-balled, people who had attended a performance were very impressed, they spread the word, and in this way the audience grew bigger and bigger. I never saw a Groupe Octobre performance take place in front of an empty auditorium, never! It was free, admittedly, but this was not the only reason that people came.’

So, as you can see the same spirit of subversion found to a lesser degree in “The Lego City” (how could it have been otherwise in a Hollywood film?) finds full expression in a French film. As has always been the case, the French workers and artists are in the vanguard.

I received “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” from GKIDS, a distribution company promoting it for awards consideration. Unfortunately, the film, which appeared in theaters last month, it is not available yet as a DVD rental or streaming. But keep your eye out for it since it is simply the most beautiful animated film I have ever seen and beyond that an exploration of deeply spiritual questions that touched even me, a man who tends to sneer at anything remotely “spiritual”.

What the film reminded me of was the importance of such questions before I took a detour on the Marxist road away from the concerns of my late teens, when Alan Watts and Kenneth Rexroth meant much more to me than Karl Marx. If Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” touched you, as it did me in late adolescence or any time in your life for that matter, then it will speak to you. It deals with some of the most basic questions of mortality and its transcendence, giving questions of the meaning of life a palpable reality that they will never get in the standard religious or philosophical tract.

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is adapted from a tenth century Japanese folk tale called “The Tale of a Bamboo Cutter”, the nation’s earliest extant literary narrative. One day an elderly bamboo cutter comes across an incandescent bamboo shoot that contains a tiny likeness of a princess. When he brings it home, it comes to life in the form of an infant that he and his wife raise as if it were their own. Unlike other children, the girl other kids call “Little Bamboo” grows by leaps and bounds. As another sign of her powers, the cutter discovers another incandescent bamboo shoot that is filled with precious jewels–riches that will help him raise his daughter in the capital city, where she will marry into aristocracy.

“Little Bamboo” has no interest in wealth or status. She is happier in the countryside playing in the forest or running around with her friends. Her father, however, is intent on her becoming an aristocrat since that will give him entrée into a world he covets. He hires a tutor who instructs “Little Bamboo” on the finer points of becoming a member of high society, which means doing everything she loves to do, including running and laughing.

This is a film that some children might find too slowly paced or dealing with questions remote from their own experience. My recommendation is to get your hands on it when it comes out and let them watch it as an experiment. If they love it, it will show that you have been a good influence on them since it is a work of transcendent beauty.

Isao Takahata, a 79-year-old who decided to become an animator after seeing “The King and the Mockingbird”, directed “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”. In 1971, he made an animated version of “Pippi Longstocking”, another tale of a plucky teenager that was the primary inspiration for Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander. Takahata has collaborated with Hayao Miyazaki, another legendary anime director, on several projects.

The highly informative Wikipedia article on Takahata states: “Takahata has been influenced by Italian neorealism, Jacques Prévert, and French New Wave films during the 1960s. Bicycle Thieves has been cited as specifically influencing 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. These influences make Takahata’s work different from most animation, which focus on fantasy. His films, by contrast, are realistic with expressionistic overtones.”

“The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” is his first film in 14 years and likely one that will define anime as a major art form for the foreseeable future. Although I am generally averse to using superlatives, this film is of profound beauty and significance and I urge my readers to keep your eye out for it in the coming months. I will be sure to give you a head’s up when it becomes available.


November 21, 2014

The Business of “Art vs. Commerce” in Hollywood

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:55 pm
Alejandro Iñárritu’s “Birdman” and Alex Ross Perry’s “Listen Up, Philip”

The Business of “Art vs. Commerce” in Hollywood


Starting around this time each year I try to catch up with the American narrative films that I anticipate my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online will be considering for awards at our yearly meeting in early December. Unlike those who get paid to review junk like “Horrible Bosses 2”, I write about films that my colleagues tend to ignore. As one fellow pointed out a couple of years ago, he never reviews documentaries because his readers do not go to see them.

For the most part, the films that I put on my list are those that are likely to make the final cut at the NYFCO meeting. These tend to be those that the New Yorker Magazine and other arbiters of middlebrow taste deem “intelligent” and “daring”. Inured as I am to such judgments, I see watching them more as a chore than anything else. All in all, it reminds me of the cramming I did in for high school geometry finals.

This week I made time in my busy schedule for “Birdman” and “Listen Up, Paul”, films that have main characters involved with making art. In “Birdman”, Michael Keaton plays the former star of the Birdman movies now in his sixties who is directing a Broadway play based on Raymond Carver’s short story collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. The eponymous antihero of “Listen Up, Paul” is a young novelist who develops a friendship with an older novelist clearly based on Philip Roth. With allusions to Raymond Carver and Phillip Roth, what could go wrong? Clearly we are miles ahead of “The Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” but when you start a thousand miles behind the marker set by a Stanley Kubrick or an Alfred Hitchcock, the prospects are guarded at best.

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Trailers for films under review:

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