Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 28, 2014

John Wick

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:36 am

I wasted $11 and more importantly two hours of my precious time watching “John Wick” this afternoon, a film that has an 86 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and raves from the Boston Globe (“It’s all sharp stuff from Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad, and Reeves finds decently tailored material in their mix of busy physicality, spare drama, and wickedly dry humor.”) and the Chicago Sun-Times (“Stahelski has created an impressively distinctive, self-contained world for John Wick that emphasizes sophistication and stylishness”). Well, don’t believe the hype.

“John Wick” stars Keanu Reeves in the eponymous role as a professional killer who has retired after his wife died of some unspecified illness. After Russian gangsters steal his car and kill the puppy his late wife left him for companionship, he sets out on a course of bloody revenge.

Such a well-worn theme of a professional killer coming out of retirement must rely on writing and performance to stand out from the crowd. Done right as in Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven”, it can be memorable. That film was noteworthy for emphasizing the vulnerability of the main character. His frailty and his being past his prime made the climax all the more powerful as Eastwood blasts a saloon full of bad guys to kingdom come.

In “John Wick” the hero is much more like The Terminator. When a powerful gangster learns that his thuggish son has killed Wick’s dog (the lout did not know that he had preyed on a legendary executioner nicknamed “the Boogyman” who used to work for his father before retiring), he sends a hit squad of a dozen men out to Wick’s ultramodern and luxurious house as a preemptive measure. In a kind of scene that gets repeated 4 or 5 times for the rest of the film until it gets to the point when you feel like yelling “enough already”, Wick kills them all and is not even scratched in the process. If you want to see Keanu Reeves shooting people in the head for an hour-and-a-half, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I think most of the critics got suckered into raving about this film because they had never been exposed to the films that it rips off, namely the Korean revenge genre. The film was co-directed by David Leitch, who worked as a stunt man in 81 movies before getting behind the camera, and Chad Stahelski, who started out as a kick-boxer before becoming a stunt man himself and appearing in his own 71 films. So with them, you should not expect Merchant-Ivory, not that I am a big Merchant-Ivory fan. In fact, despite my preference for coming-of-age narrative films made in Turkey or Marxist agitprop documentaries, there’s nothing I love better than mindless action films—provided they are done right.

The script was written by Derek Kolstad, who had only two credits before this—VOD movies starring Dolph Lundgren, the woefully untalented hulk who played Drago, the Russian boxer knocked by Rocky Balboa.

But the real template for “John Wick” is the Korean revenge film that compared to this effort is like putting John Coltrane next to Kenny G. Over the past twenty years or so, Korean film studios have turned out one noirish classic after another, all revolving around a man or woman who has been wronged so grievously that their mission to take revenge has an ineluctable logic that gains momentum like a locomotive engine burning a mixture of kerosene and nitroglycerine.

The best of them can now be seen on Netflix: “I Saw the Devil”. This is the story of a Korean spy whose wife is murdered in the first 5 minutes of the film. Despite his unimposing appearance, he is just as fearsome as John Wick. There are a lot of bad guys who get killed but it is a lot more substantial than the Hollywood cheap imitation. Forgive me for self-plagiarism but this is my review from February 15, 2011.

Two new South Korean movies deepen my conviction that this country is producing some of the finest in the world. Furthermore, one of them, “Poetry”, is directed by Lee Chang-dong who I am now convinced should be grouped with the greatest directors of the past half-century, including Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembene and Akira Kurosawa. Given the names of these three directors, it should be obvious where my preferences lie. I have a deep love for films that display an affection and respect for the salt of the earth, especially when they reach the level of fine art.

While not quite ascending to this rarefied level, Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil”, which opens on March 4th at the IFC Center in New York, is a roller coaster ride of a thriller that features two of Korea’s top actors in a cat-and-mouse revenge tale of the kind that Korean audiences dote on. Kim is a master of genre-bending, with a horror movie (A Tale of Two Sisters) and a “Western” (The Good, the Bad and the Weird) that takes place on the Mongolian steppes in the 1930s to his credit.

“I Saw the Devil” is a mixture of Hollywood serial killer movies, particularly those based on the Hannibal Lecter tales, and a genre that is unique to Korea in many ways, the revenge tale that was perfected by Park Chan-wook in his Vengeance Trilogy, of which “Oldboy” is the most popular installment.

Choi Min-sik, who was the tormented victim seeking revenge in “Oldboy”, plays Kyung-chul, the serial killer in “I Saw the Devil”. The husband of the woman he has killed in the opening moments becomes his relentless pursuer seeking revenge. When a search party turns up his wife’s severed head in the marshes not far from Kyung-chul’s home, Soo-hyun (played by Lee Byung-hyun, a star of “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird) vows to make the killer suffer just as much as his wife did in Kyung-chul’s torture chamber. Soo-hyun is surely capable of inflicting such punishment since he is an elite special agent of the Korean security forces. It turned out that Kyung-chul picked out the wrong person to kill.

Not only is Soo-hyun determined to track the killer down, he will not be satisfied by taking his life. Instead, after he finds and beats him into unconsciousness, he puts an electronic tracking device down his gullet that will allow him to follow his every step. When the spirit moves him, especially when Kyung-chul is about to take a new victim, Soo-hyun steps in and delivers a new round of beatings to the mystified serial killer. How does that guy keep finding me?

Director Kim Jee-woon proclaims deeper philosophical goals for his latest genre-bender, even quoting Nietzsche in the press notes: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes into you.” But—thankfully—the film is much more about action than meditation. From the moment it starts until its macabre conclusion, this is an exciting, often darkly comic, movie that Hollywood is no longer capable of making.

If you are looking for an escapist joy-ride that will send shivers down your spine, then I can’t recommend “I Saw the Devil” highly enough.

October 24, 2014

Red Army; Wild Tales

Filed under: Film,Russia,sports — louisproyect @ 7:22 pm

The other day I saw a couple of films at the Sony screening room that were being released through Sony Picture Classics, an autonomous division catering to the “art-house” market. Both were very good.

“Red Army” is a documentary about the legendary Russian hockey team of the pre-Perestroika era that reflected the USSR at its best and worst. It consists mainly of interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, arguably one of the greatest hockey players of the past half-century as well as an extremely witty and insightful interviewee as deft before the camera as he was with a hockey stick.

Director Gabe Polsky was using the fate of Russia hockey as a symbol of Communism’s contradictions and how they were unsuccessfully resolved in the favor of capitalism. Clearly Polsky has learned from Werner Herzog, having served as his producer on the 2009 narrative film “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”. The two men obviously have the same off-kilter view of the world based on this new film for which Werner Herzog returned the favor, serving as co-producer. Like Herzog, Polsky includes some elements that guarantee that the audience will understand that something is being filmed, in his case showing some of his assistants setting up gear and including Fetisov’s admonitions to stop filming since he has to take a phone call. For documentaries, it is the equivalent of breaking through the “fourth wall”.

The film will appeal to people who are still trying to figure out what happened to the Soviet Union and the nature of Putin’s Russia today, as well as hockey fans. In fact the film, which opens on November 14 at the Empire 25 Theater in NY, will have a nationwide rollout in January that will be pitched to sports fans. It has been many years since I watched hockey but followed the NY Rangers in the early 70s when it was led by Rod Gilbert, a speedy forward who turned up as a fellow resident of my high-rise on the Upper East Side.

The film begins with Fetisov reflecting on the state of Soviet Russia when he was a 9-year-old boy trying out for the Russian Army youth team. He tells Polsky that 25 million of his countrymen were killed and that most of the country was destroyed. (Stock footage depicts the horror.) When the country began rebuilding, the new apartment buildings were barely sufficient. It was normal for 3 families to share a 400 square foot apartment. Despite that, Fetisov said that he was happy. There seemed to be enough food to eat, even if you had to stand on line. Of course, once markets were introduced the lines disappeared but hunger became widespread.

Fetisov was a protégé of Anatoli Tarasov, the coach of the Red Army hockey team and the man widely considered the father of Russian hockey. Fetisov joined the team in 1976 at the age of 19, playing defense and learning the skill of passing, something Tarasov saw as fundamental to the game. For Tarasov, hockey as a kind of chess game in which sharing the puck was fundamental.

Indeed, when he was demonstrating to his players how to move forward on the ice, he often illustrated with chess pieces. He was also convinced that ballet exercises could make his players more nimble on the ice, as the film demonstrates from archival footage. By the time that Fetisov began playing on the Red Army team, Tarasov had acquired a huge beer belly. Watching him demonstrating some steps to his team is like watching the hippopotamuses dancing in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”.

Despite losing to an inferior American hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, a loss that inspired the chauvinistic chant “USA, USA” that has tainted every game since including table tennis, the Red Army team rolled over every professional hockey team that they faced over the years. Tarasov’s goal-sharing methods were superior to the individualistic style of the West. Although the film is far too subtle and skeptical about socialism for that matter to point out that the collectivist culture might have something to do with that, you can’t help drawing such a conclusion.

After Perestroika, it became possible for Russian hockey players to turn professional in the West. Fetisov and other Red Army superstars took high-paying jobs but were not shown to their best advantage since the teams were all based on the individualist model.

It was only when the Detroit Red Wings recruited Fetisov and a cadre of ex-Red Army players that they were able to cash in, winning the Stanley Cub in 1997 and 1998.

I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It is a very sharp analysis of the Communist experience by a director who not only studied at Yale but also was on their hockey team. As the son of Russian immigrant parents, he has just the right background for drawing all the human drama out of the Red Army story. His statement in the press notes indicates the outlook that was clear to me but one that he did not want to beat over the audience’s head:

When I was at Yale, I studied politics and history and learned about the unusual role sport played in the Soviet Union. The Red Army team was designed as an instrument of propaganda to prove the superiority of the Soviet system. The country’s investment in the team’s success was massive. The demanding lifestyle and oppressive circumstances under which the players trained were a reflection of broader Soviet society. It became clear to me that the Red Army’s style of play, too, was significantly informed by the country’s ideology. Much like Communism, there was little emphasis on the individual. Those who became heroes earned as much money as teachers. Priority was placed on serving your teammates and your country, and expressing individuality or questioning authority was forbidden.

“Wild Tales” opens on February 8th. It is an Argentine narrative film directed by Damián Szifron that he described in the following terms:

I frequently think of Western capitalist society as a sort of transparent cage that reduces our sensitivity and distorts our bonds with others. Wild Tales presents a group of individuals who live within this cage without being aware of its existence. But at that point where most of us would repress – or get depressed – these people shift into gear.

Although I loved the film, I don’t think it had much to do with “Western capitalist society”. Basically it is a dark comedy about people going to extreme lengths to destroy each other in the fashion of classic Warner Brothers cartoons but without any hero like Bugs Bunny to cheer for. Instead it is like watching Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd trying to blow each other’s brains out with shotguns.

The film consists of six chapters, each one set up as elegantly as an O. Henry short story and an ending that serves as poetic justice for the miscreant characters. In “Road to Hell”, road rage turns into an elemental battle for survival pitting an Audi-driving yuppie against a hulking rural bumpkin who refuses to allow his wreck of car to be passed on a mountainous road. Not long after the yuppie passes him by, making sure to curse him out as he passes, he gets a flat tire next to a bridge over a mountain stream. When the bumpkin catches up to him, all hell breaks loose, including him taking a dump on the Audi’s hood. As the violence escalates, you will not be able to keep your eyes off the action. It is akin to not being able to avert your eyes from a highway accident except one that is far more entertaining.

I will only add that the final chapter, titled “Till Death to Us Part”, is about a Jewish wedding party that will remind you of the great Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner vehicle “War of the Roses” with bride drawing almost all the blood. It is obvious to me that the guests are Jews even though this is not a point made specifically. Since the director (and screenwriter) has a last name that is a dead giveaway for his Jewish origins, this is a conclusion I feel safe drawing.

Both films are worth putting down on your calendar.

October 21, 2014

Kill the Messenger

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,journalism,nicaragua — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

Given its Hollywood provenance, I expected very little from “Kill the Messenger”, a film starring Jeremy Renner as reporter Gary Webb, who after exposing the CIA’s role in facilitating Nicaraguan contra planeloads of cocaine into the USA was martyred by forces more powerful than the modest San Jose newspaper where he worked, particularly the CIA and the Washington Post, a “newspaper of record” that had a long history of covering up for the CIA no matter the reputation it earned through the Woodward-Bernstein reporting on Watergate.

Given Renner’s role as an action hero in Katherine Bigelow’s awful “The Hurt Locker” and more recently as a successor to Matt Damon in “The Bourne Legacy”, I fully expected “Kill the Messenger” to figuratively inject steroids into Gary Webb and turn him into a combination of an investigative reporter and superspy. To the contrary, the film is restrained in its presentation of Webb and the forces aligned against him. The real drama is not of the conventional car chase variety but those that take place in the conference room of the San Jose Mercury News as Webb fights to defend his integrity from hostile forces outside the paper and a management all too willing to bend under the pressure.

The film was of particular interest to me since I had spent three years on the board of Tecnica, a volunteer technical aid project for Sandinista Nicaragua, until it succumbed to the same enemies that conspired against Webb: a reactionary presidency abetted by a Democratic Party that shared its ultimate goal—to crush a revolution—while differing only on the rhetoric put forward to achieve that goal. In the late 1980s the Washington Post was all too willing to stump for the contras despite its liberal reputation as Noam Chomsky reported in “Necessary Illusions”:

In April 1986, as the campaign to provide military aid to the contras was heating up, one of the [La Prensa] owners, Jaime Chamorro, wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post calling for aid to “those Nicaraguans who are fighting for democracy” (the standard reference to the U.S. proxy forces). In the weeks preceding the summer congressional votes, “a host of articles by five different La Prensa staff members denounced the Sandinistas in major newspapers throughout the United States,” John Spicer Nichols observes, including a series of Op-Eds signed by La Prensa editors in the Washington Post as they traveled to the United States under the auspices of front organizations of the North contra-funding network.

In fact the reputation of Bob Woodward was inflated to begin with, as I pointed out in a Swans article in 2005:

In 1987, Woodward wrote Veil: the Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987, a book that had all the trappings of investigative journalism — especially the title. It was based on the career of William Casey, the CIA director who was a key figure in Reagan’s illegal wars. Although the book was filled with all sorts of lurid revelations (Casey thought Reagan was lazy, the King of Saudi Arabia was a drunk, etc.), it really didn’t get to the heart of why these wars took place and, more importantly, how to stop them.

The book generated some controversy that must have been a painful reminder of the Janet Cooke fiasco. An interview with the dying William Casey, who supposedly “confessed” all his contra-arms dealings to Woodward, was filled with so many inconsistencies and vagueness that the book was widely discredited. In addition, Woodward was accused of withholding important information just as he has done more recently. In Congressional hearings, Lt. Col. Oliver North testified that Casey was in on the diversion of funds from the beginning. If Woodward had Casey’s confession months before North testified, it would have been a major scoop for the Post had he come forward as well as a powerful blow against the illegal conspiracies being hatched during the Reagan presidency. But he held back in order to coincide with the publication date of his book.

Turning to the film itself, it benefited—as all good films do—from a strong screenplay written by Peter Landesman based on Webb’s 1999 “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion”. Landesman was an investigative journalist before he became a screenwriter, including time spent in places like Pakistan and covering matters such the illegal arms trade and sex traffickers. So he knows the territory and brings a verisimilitude to the story that might have been absent if developed by an industry hack straight out of film school. Landesman’s co-writer Nick Schou also has a lot of credibility as the author of “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Epidemic Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb”, a Nation Magazine book. Schou is the managing editor of Orange County Weekly, a sister publication of the Village Voice that has somehow retained some of the integrity that was present in this alternative weekly’s roots. So, all in all, the creative team behind “Kill the Messenger” are our kinds of people.

The film begins with Webb reporting on the abuse of drug dealer property seizure by California cops, something I am intimately familiar with since my cousin Joel lost the home in upstate New York that he built with his own hands after a police raid on his property uncovered about a hundred marijuana plants he’d grown for his personal use.

On the strength of his reporting, Webb is approached by the girlfriend of a Nicaraguan émigré drug-dealer who wants his help in exposing courtroom irregularities, including the role of his accuser, a big-time dealer who is a DEA informant notwithstanding the millions of dollars he made and continues to make in the drug trade.

With a grand jury transcript that accidentally came into her hands, Webb begins a search in Los Angeles and then proceeds to Nicaragua to uncover the conspiracy that allowed planeloads of cocaine to be exported to the USA in order to raise funds for the contra killing machine.

His articles on the “Dark Alliance” make him a celebrity overnight, earning him appearances on “Nightline” and profiles in major newspapers everywhere. His reporting also sends shockwaves through the Black community suffering from an epidemic of crack cocaine. Meetings are held in South Central LA and elsewhere demanding a satisfactory explanation from the CIA. Six months after the CIA director John Deutsch speaks to an angry audience at one of these meetings, Bill Clinton fires him.

This is the real drama of “Kill the Messenger”, recreating these events without the slightest degree of exaggeration. It is a film that you can recommend to friends and relatives for Chomskyian type insights while they are being entertained. I use the word entertained in the most conventional sense since this is a brilliantly acted, directed and plotted story. The direction is of some significance since Michael Cuesta most important work prior to the film was the HBO series Showtime that is a nasty piece of Islamophobia from what I have heard.

The third act of the film consists of a counterattack by the CIA and the Washington Post that ultimately destroys Webb’s reputation, his career and his life.

Throughout the entire film, Jeremy Renner turns in a bravura performance as a fairly conventional man put into utterly unconventional circumstances. Right now he is my pick for best actor, to go along with my pick of “Kill the Messenger” for best film of 2014.

In 1999, the same year that Webb’s “Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion” came out, Jeff St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn published “Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press”, a book about Gary Webb’s crusade to tell the truth.

When Webb killed himself in 2004 after finally being worn down by the smears and the loss of income, Jeff and Alex wrote a memorial that read in part:

Trashed by the CIA’s Claque

Gary Webb: a Great Reporter

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN And JEFFREY ST. CLAIR, DECEMBER 13, 2004

News came over the weekend that Gary Webb had died Friday from a gunshot wound to the head in his home in Sacramento, California. It appears to have been self inflicted. The news saddens us, and rekindles our anger at the fouls libels he endured at the hands of his colleagues.

Webb was a great reporter whose best-known work exposed the CIA’S complicity in the import of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s, during the US onslaught on the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. His devastating series Dark Alliance, published in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, provoked a series of wild attacks in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Washington Post, purporting to demolish Webb and exonerate the Agency.

The attacks were without merit, but the San Jose Mercury News buckled under the pressure and undercut its own reporter with a groveling and entirely unmerited retraction by its publisher. It was a very dark day in the history of American journalism. We described the entire saga in detail in our book Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press which sets the story in the larger context of the Agency’s complicity in drug smuggling since its founding.

Their article also reprises something that Webb wrote for CounterPunch in 2001. If there’s anything that makes me prouder than contributing to the same magazine that Gary Webb wrote for, I can’t think of it.

March 21, 2001 Silencing the Messenger Censoring NarcoNews by Gary Webb CounterPunch

Not long after I wrote a series for the San Jose Mercury News about a drug ring that had flooded South Central Los Angeles with cheap cocaine at the beginning of the crack explosion there, a strange thing happened to me. I was silenced.

This, believe it or not, came as something of a surprise to me. For 17 years I had been writing newspaper stories about grafters, crooked bankers, corrupt politicians and killers — and winning armloads of journalism awards for it. Some of my stories had convened grand juries and sent important people to well-deserved jail cells. Others ended up on 20/20, and later became a best-selling book (not written by me, unfortunately.) I started doing television news shows, speaking to college journalism classes and professional seminars. I had major papers bidding against each other to hire me.

So when I happened across information implicating an arm of the Central Intelligence Agency in the cocaine trade, I had no qualms about jumping onto it with both feet. What did I have to worry about? I was a newspaperman for a big city, take-no-prisoners newspaper. I had the First Amendment, a law firm, and a multi-million dollar corporation watching my back.

Besides, this story was a fucking outrage. Right-wing Latin American drug dealers were helping finance a CIA-run covert war in Nicaragua by selling tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods in LA, who were turning it into crack and spreading it through black neighborhoods nationwide. And all the available evidence pointed to the sickening conclusion that elements of the US government had known of it and had either tacitly encouraged it or, at a minimum, done absolutely nothing to stop it.

And that’s when this strange thing happened. The national news media, instead of using its brute strength to force the truth from our government, decided that its time would be better spent investigating me and my reporting. They kicked me around pretty good, I have to admit. (At one point, I was even accused of making movie deals with a crack dealer I’d written about. The DEA raided my film agent’s office looking for any scrap of paper to back up this lie and appeared disappointed when they came up emptyhanded.)

To this day, no one has ever been able to show me a single error of fact in anything I’ve written about this drug ring, which includes a 600-page book about the whole tragic mess. Indeed, most of what has come out since shows that my newspaper stories grossly underestimated the extent of our government’s knowledge, an error to which I readily confess. But, in the end, the facts didn’t really matter. What mattered was making the damned thing go away, shutting people up, and making anyone who demanded the truth appear to be a wacky conspiracy theorist. And it worked.

October 20, 2014

The Hacker Wars

Filed under: computers,crime,Film — louisproyect @ 3:22 pm

The “Hacker Wars” opened at Village East Cinema last Friday and is playing through Thursday. This review is a bit belated but I do want to urge New Yorkers to check out the film since it puts a spotlight on figures in the Anonymous movement that were of some significance despite being obscure to many of us, including me. The film also hints at why the “Hacker Wars” were lost, an outcome that is in many ways parallel to the demise of the Occupy movement, its second cousin.

Let me start off by saying that it took me a while to warm up to this documentary since director Vivien Lesnik Weisman made the decision to adopt an MTV type aesthetic that made use of exceedingly short fragments of the various principals speaking about their experience as hackers that must have been calculated to appeal to a younger audience that ostensibly lacked the patience to hear someone speak for a lengthy period—like five minutes or so. When you superimpose a hip-hop soundtrack over the interviews, it becomes rather annoying to an old fogey like me.

That being said, there’s some important material in the film that must be considered by a left that has grown accustomed to the Guy Fawkes mask-wearing activists who made up the rank-and-file of both Anonymous and Occupy, many of whom were self-professed anarchists.

The film is basically a profile of three victims of the war on hactivism: Andrew Alan Escher Auernheimer—aka “Weev”, Jeremy Hammond, and Barrett Brown. All have spent time or are spending time in prison for their role in Anonymous and its ancillary cabals. And all of them leave something to be desired as personalities and activists.

Weev was a member of Goatse Security (GoatSec), a small band of hackers that was part of the constellation of groups that were either part of Anonymous or “fellow travelers”. Considering the fact that Anonymous was not a membership organization as such, it is hard to pinpoint the various convergences between people like Weev and the network. His biggest hack was uncovering a flaw in AT&T security that made the e-mail addresses of iPad users easily accessible.

As a kind of black Kryptonite evil version of Abby Hoffman, Weev fancied himself as a joker, assuming the guise of Internet troll. When you come across the term in the film, it is important to note that this is not the same thing as, for example, a libertarian making himself a nuisance on Marxmail until he gets the boot. For Weev, trolling means harassing people mercilessly.

A lot of Weev’s shtick is badmouthing “Kikes”, “fags” and “niggers”, behavior that the film puts the best positive spin on, as a form of ironic social commentary on hypocrisy. But there’s probably an aspect of this that the film neglected, no doubt a function of its general affinity for hactivism.

While the film was obviously made some time ago, I wonder how director Weisman would have responded to Weev’s article this month on the neo-Nazi website “The Daily Stormer” titled “What I learned from my time in prison”.

I’ve been a long-time critic of Judaism, black culture, immigration to Western nations, and the media’s constant stream of anti-white propaganda. Judge Wigenton was as black as they come. The prosecutor, Zach Intrater, was a Brooklyn Jew from an old money New York family. The trial was a sham…The whole time a yarmulke-covered audience of Jewry stared at me from the pews of the courtroom. My prosecutor invited his whole synagogue to spectate.

Maybe there’s a joke there but I don’t get it.

The documentary gives equal time to Barrett Brown, who was not a hacker but rather a kind of journalist/advocate for the movement, with credits in Vanity Fair and other mainstream outlets. Brown is a serious journalist, having written on a wide variety of topics including creationism. (He is the co-author of “Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design and the Easter Bunny”.) But he is also something of a provocateur, although not so nearly as toxic as Weev. He is a long-time junkie and styles himself as a latter-day Hunter Thompson, even though that is my take on him rather than his or the film’s. A press conference he gave while taking a bath, for example, was pure Gonzo.

Brown has had a host of legal problems, largely tied to his complicity—at least as charged by the government—with Anonymous hacks. He also had charges of threatening an FBI agent, mostly stemming from a rant he made against the agent and his family in a drug-induced haze. He is all in all a much more fetching personality than Weev.

Finally, there’s Jeremy Hammond, who worked closely with “Sabu”, the tag used by Hector Xavier Monsegur. Sabu was part of the hacking group Lulz Security, commonly known as LulzSec, another part of the loosely-knit Anonymous network. The group’s biggest assaults were on communications megacorporations such as Sony and Fox News—much of it very high-profile even though LulzSec only consisted of six members.

In 2011 Sabu became an FBI snitch within 24 hours of being arrested. In the raids that followed from his becoming a rat, both Hammond and Brown became victims. The FBI, the judiciary and rightwing TV and radio have all lauded Sabu.

In a fleeting moment in this documentary, you see a cadre of hactivists sitting around bemoaning the arrests and pretty much agreeing that it destroyed Anonymous. I suspect that as long as Anonymous refrains from targeting American corporate behemoths, it will be able to raise hell in foreign countries, particularly those that are not American favorites.

After watching the film, it occurred to me that the lack of transparency and accountability in Anonymous as well as the black block wing of Occupy pretty much guaranteed the demise of dead-end anarchist tactics. The Guy Fawkes masks probably belong in the attic just as tie-dyed t-shirts and Nehru jackets ended up there by the time of the Carter presidency.

One final word on director Vivien Lesnik Weisman. She is a Cuban-American with a somewhat famous dad, Max Lesnik who scandalized the gusano community in Miami by rejecting its terrorism and advocating rapprochement with the Cuban government. His daughter made a documentary about him titled “The Man of Two Havanas” that unfortunately appears not to be available anywhere. This is from a Democracy Now interview with Weisman and her father:

AMY GOODMAN: Vivien, why did you do this film about your dad?

VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Well, first I wanted to explore my relationship with my father. It’s a personal film, as well as a political film. But my dad is — he has one passion, and that’s Cuba. So in order to understand my father better, I had to understand his passion. So therefore I went to Cuba. I got to know my country, the Cuban people, and was immersed in all the information about the terrorist groups that had targeted him throughout my childhood.

AMY GOODMAN: Had you understood this through your life?

VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Well, I was aware when I was growing up that we were bombed and that there were drive-by shootings in our house, and I lived in a constant state of siege, like a war zone. And Orlando Bosch —

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re talking about here in the United States, when you lived in Florida.

VIVIEN LESNIK WEISMAN: Yes, that’s in Miami. And we were targeted by these people, the anti-Castro terrorists. And the two names, Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know those names, because they were constantly being discussed. And one of the groups that targeted my father was under the umbrella terrorist group that Orlando Bosch headed.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Max Lesnik, as Vivien — in this film, The Man of Two Havanas, you, Little Havana in Miami and Havana, Cuba, as she tells the story, you were one of the revolutionaries with Fidel Castro. Describe your early years in Cuba before you split with Castro.

MAX LESNIK: I was a young leader of Ortodoxo Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Of the Orthodox Party?

MAX LESNIK: Orthodox Party, the same party that Fidel Castro belong at that time. I met Fidel in the University of Havana, year 1949, where I was only 18 years old. Fidel was maybe 20, 21. Both together fought — not the revolution, but in some way I started with the student movement fighting for reforms and going to all — the way the student at that time in Cuba did, fighting the police.

Then happened something incredible. At that time, Cuba was a democracy, but with defects, corruption, but democracy like your organization Democracy Now! But that system was overthrown by Batista. He was a sergeant in the ’33 revolution, and then he took power by arms in 1952. Then happened to Cuba the worst thing that can happen in a democracy: the overthrow of the system by a military group of — commanded by Batista, that was a senator at that time.

Then after that, the only way to change the situation is through the arms, because Batista don’t permit any play in democracy or something like free expression. Then Fidel went to hills in Oriente province, the most — the Oriental section of the island. I was related to the group that went to the center part of the island, the Escambray Mountains, and by that time we fought for two years as guerrillas, combatant. Then, the first of January, Batista left the country, and the revolution took power.

AMY GOODMAN: You were the first person in Havana of the group?

MAX LESNIK: I was one of the first —

AMY GOODMAN: Before Fidel Castro got there?

MAX LESNIK: Before Fidel. Fidel arrived to Havana in January the 8th, but I was in Havana the day that Batista left, because I was going forth from the Sierra to the city to organize the clandestine movement, and then Batista left the night of January the 1st, and then I go openly to the radio station and television station. I suppose I was the one of those who appear on television telling Batista left and we are here. In reality, only were a lot of people like milicianos in the city of Havana, but the rebel army was in Oriente and in Las Villas. I was alone fighting the government, because they was afraid that it’s true that I say that we have an army here, that it’s [inaudible] in a way functioned the joke.

October 17, 2014

Nazi Germany and the Swedes

Filed under: Fascism,Film,Sweden — louisproyect @ 2:53 pm
Neutral on a Moving Train

Nazi Germany and the Swedes

by LOUIS PROYECT

In the course of researching my CounterPunch article on TV adaptations of Swedish Marxist detective novels, I became familiar with the looming presence of Nazi sympathizers in Sweden like the monstrous Vangers in Stieg Larssen’s Dragon Tattoo novels.

Just this week I viewed press screenings for two new films that focus in on another aspect of Swedish political history, the country’s longstanding neutrality that goes back to the early 19th century and that became widely known and respected during the Vietnam antiwar movement, when Prime Minister Olof Palme marched alongside the North Vietnamese Ambassador to the Soviet Union Nguyen Tho Chan.

“Diplomacy”, that opened on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 at the Film Forum in New York, is set during the final days of WWII when Swedish Consul General Raoul Nordling tries to persuade Nazi General Dietrich von Choltitz not to blow up Parisian landmark edifices. “The Last Sentence”, available as a DVD or On Demand from Music Box Films, is a biopic set during the later years of Torgny Segerstedt, a newspaper editor who was famous for excoriating Adolph Hitler until the Swedish prime minister, deciding that the country’s neutrality was being undermined, clamped down on Segerstedt, confirming the precept once again that truth is the first casualty of war.

read full article

trailers for films under review:

October 10, 2014

Why you should junk Netflix

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 10:55 pm
And Start Watching Films with a Brain and a Heart

Why You Should Junk Netflix

by LOUIS PROYECT

If any further evidence of the uselessness of Netflix was needed, I refer you to the recently concluded four-picture deal with Adam Sandler, who is to movies as Danielle Steel and Ken Follett are to the novel. Did you ever forget to bring a book with you on a long airplane trip and stop in at an airline terminal to look for something to read? Wall to wall Steel and Follett, right? Bummer. That’s the same reaction I have been having lately looking for something to watch on Netflix. That is not to speak of the cheesy menu that basically propagates the same junk across “Popular on Netflix”, “Recently Added” and “New Releases”. A quick look there turns up “Jackass presents: Grandpa” and “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner”. Considering the fact that most Netflix subscribers have never heard of Kurosawa or Godard, it is quite a statement that “The Coed and the Zombie Stoner” only garnered one and a half stars, an inflated grade considering the fact that you can’t rate something as zero stars.

As a sop to the art house crowd, one supposes, Netflix is also releasing the sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, a film that has all of the superficial characteristics of Hong Kong cinema but none of the substance, least of all the nimbleness of the classics like the 1978 “Drunken Master” starring Jackie Chan. Ang Lee should have stuck to what he knows best, tales of anomie in the aging yuppie milieu.

I just checked the archives of the Marxism list and discovered a message I wrote in 2006 recommending Netflix followed by an enthusiastic New York Times article that compared the service favorably to Blockbuster. That was true. Of course a sharp stick in the eye would have been better than Blockbuster as well.

read full article

trailers for films discussed in the article:

Waiting for August

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:16 pm

Opening today at the Quad in New York, “Waiting for August” is a cinema vérité Romanian documentary about seven children fending for themselves while their mother works as a housekeeper in Italy in order to provide the money the family needs to stay afloat. The father is unaccounted for—we don’t know if he is deceased or has simply bailed ship.

Like the best cinema vérité, especially early Frederick Wiseman, the film is making a point about society but without being too obvious about it. The subject under consideration is the precariousness of post-Communist Romania. At one point, just before Christmas, the children, who range from 15 to 4 by all appearances, are chatting about the upcoming holiday. One of the older children says that the TV will be showing pictures of that guy who was killed around Christmas time years ago. Who do you mean, asks the other? Ceausescu is the reply. He was the dictator under Communism when we had it so bad. You had to stand on line for bread rations. The irony is not lost on the audience who cannot help but be dismayed by the thin line that separates the seven kids from disaster. When you see a ten year old cutting potatoes for dinner, you wonder how long it will take for her to cut her hand. That is the feeling you are left with throughout the film. The suspense is whether they will all make it safely until August, when mom returns.

Seen in economic terms exclusively, a capitalist ideologue might argue that the film makes the case for capitalism since the kids use cell phones, watch cable TV, Skype to their mom on the family computer, and have the bare necessities for staying alive, including food, clothing and a roof over their heads. But crowded into no more than four rooms, their only pleasure besides their own companionship is watching soap operas on TV and passively taking in other electronic diversions on the computer. If Communist austerity was made possible by police repression, capitalist austerity is maintained by the free market—especially in labor as mom—like so many other Romanian parents apparently—is free to work in Italy to keep her children under the same roof. We learn that a nun who is aware of the family situation is on the verge of calling in the authorities to have the children put into an orphanage. It is not too hard to understand how so many young woman from Eastern Europe end up in the sex trade after seeing “Waiting for August”.

Not everything is grim in this documentary. In fact you are impressed with the strength and the love of the older children who function as surrogate parents. It can only make you feel, however, that they are losing the freedom of normal children who are able to make their lives their own growing up.

On the film’s website (http://waitingforaugust.be/), the 33 year old director Teodora Ana Mihai explains her motivation for making the film:

My parents fled Romania in 1988 and were granted political asylum in Belgium. I stayed behind as a guarantee for the secret services that my mom and dad would return: it was the only way for them to flee the country. In the absence of prospects, parents sometimes take risks whose consequences are difficult to calculate in advance. In the end I was lucky: about a year later, after some diplomatic interventions, I was able to leave Romania too and was reunited with my parents. But that one-year absence during my childhood left a significant mark on me.

I remain in close contact with my country of birth, intrigued and preoccupied by its current fate. It’s this connection with Romania that made me realize that, in a way, history is repeating itself there. The difference is that children are no longer left behind for political reasons, but for economic ones. The impact on the child though, remains the same.

The economic migrants are occasionally given a voice by the media, but we hardly ever hear from the young ones left behind. That is why I wanted to tell their story – the story behind the story.

But telling the story of children who are left behind by their parents is a delicate matter. It is a taboo in practically all cultures, as no one is proud of ending up in such circumstances. It was not an easy task to find a family who were not only expressive enough, but who also agreed to be filmed in an open, uncensored way.

As is the case with so many Romanian narrative films like “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”, this documentary turns a gimlet eye toward the contradictions of post-Communist society. Is there an alternative to Communist police state austerity and the insecurities of capitalism? One imagines that director Teodora Ana Mihai hopes that her audience will be inspired to answer that question for themselves, a question that most of Eastern Europe and the entire planet ponders much of the time in an epoch of declining economic expectations.

October 7, 2014

Hunted: the War Against Gays in Russia

Filed under: Film,Gay,Russia — louisproyect @ 7:04 pm

Thirty years ago when I was working closely with Peter Camejo on getting the North Star Network off the ground, I totally agreed with him that the left should not be divided on historical questions like when and if the USSR became capitalist. Or on international questions such as whether to support Eritrea or Ethiopia, etc. You can obviously have sharp differences that must be debated openly but they are not “split” questions as is the norm in the Trotskyist movement.

After watching “Hunted: the War Against Gays in Russia”, I am not so sure any more, at least on the international question. This 48 minute documentary that can be seen on HBO Go, a streaming service available to HBO subscribers, left me in a complete state of rage both for what is happening to Russian gays but also for the open affection for Vladimir Putin that exists on wide sectors of the left.

Needless to say, the Western left would never support a politician who was responsible for fostering a war on gays in the USA or Britain. Furthermore, in all of the pro-Putin propaganda in the “anti-imperialist” left, you will never see him applauded for his anti-gay legislation that serves as legal cover for the vigilante movement exposed in the HBO documentary. That instead is what you will hear from the rightwing movements that also back the Kremlin, including just about every neofascist group in Europe, including Jobbik, Golden Dawn and the National Front in France. They love Putin because he stands up for “traditional values”. One imagines that in their heart of hearts, the “anti-imperialists” have no problems with crackdowns on NGO’s that defend gay rights in Russia since they are obviously a necessary defense against plots concocted in the basement of the State Department by George Soros, Nicholas Kristof and Samantha Power. After all, if you were going to make a choice between gays being forced to drink piss by skinhead vigilantes and coming down on the same side of an issue as Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, you’d naturally opt for gays drinking piss.

Fortunately, you can see the documentary as well on Youtube. This is identical to what is being shown on HBO but with a different narrator:

The film will give you a good idea why a sixteen-year-old gay youth sought political asylum in the USA. Here on an exchange program, the boy decided that he would stay in the USA rather than put up with the kind of bigotry seen in the film. Tass said that this was all the result of a gay cabal and Russia said it would no longer participate in the exchange program.

Directed by Ben Steele, the documentary takes a look at two of the major vigilante organizations in Russia, Parents of Russia and Occupy Pedophilia. Leaders of both groups were more than willing to allow the cameramen to film every one of their attacks. Naturally, this would be the case since the cops are their accomplices.

To give you an idea of how the cops operate in tandem with the ultraright, you see gay rights activist Yekaterina Bogatch hounded by the cops for simply standing on the sidewalk holding a sign calling for equal treatment of all citizens. If she had put the word gay on the sign, she risked arrest.

Parents of Russia is a group that is dedicated to exposing gays by putting information about where they live, etc. on the Internet. Yekaterina Bogatch, a schoolteacher, is one of their prime targets. They want her fired from her job even if she is straight. Gay teachers, who are not even involved with protests, have just as much to worry about since Parents of Russia deems them as pedophiles.

That is basically the strategy of the vigilantes, the Russian Orthodox Church and Putin’s base of support in elected officialdom. Although laws against homosexuality were lifted fifteen years ago, the attacks are mounted as against pedophiles rather than gays. Occupy Pedophilia is a prime example. It tells Steele that is only after pedophiles but in the one entrapment scene that involves their activists openly tormenting a gay man they have lured through the Internet, there is not the slightest evidence that pedophilia was involved.

I have often scratched my head trying to figure out the attraction that Putin has for the “anti-imperialist” left. It reminds me of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night Dream” when Puck puts a potion in Titania’s eyes. Upon waking, she falls madly in love with Bottom, a man whose head has been replaced by that of a donkey. Who has put such a potion in the eyes of Pepe Escobar, Andre Vltchek and Michel Chossudovsky, I ask you?

For an unrepentant Marxist like me, the Russia I adore is the Russia of the 1920s when laws against homosexuality were not only lifted, there was a pervasive sense that sexual freedom and socialism went hand in hand. Ironically, despite the Workers World Party’s tendency to fall in line behind the Kremlin, one of their activists has written some very useful material on sexual freedom in the early USSR:

During the 1920s, in the first decade of the Russian Revolution, signs that the struggle to build socialism could make enormous social gains in sexual freedom–even in a huge mostly agricultural country barely freed from feudalism, then ravaged by imperialist war and torn asunder by civil war–were apparent.

The Russian Revolution breathed new life into the international sexual reform movement, the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement, and the revolutionary struggle as a whole in Germany and around the world.

It was a historic breakthrough when the Soviet Criminal Code was established in 1922 and amended in 1926, and homosexuality was not included as an offense. The code also applied to other republics, including the Ukrainian Republics. Only sex with youths under the age of 16, male and female prostitution and pandering were listed. Soviet law did not criminalize the person being prostituted, but those who exploited them.

For example, author Dan Healey states, “The revolutionary regime repeatedly declared that women who sold their bodies were victims of economic exploitation, not to be criminalized, and campaigns to discourage them from taking up sex work were launched.” The growth of prostitution had of course been spurred by the chaos and dislocation of people accompanying war.

Historian Laura Engelstein summarizes, “Soviet sexologists in the 1920s participated in the international movement for sexual reform and criminologists deplored the use of penal sanctions to censor private sexual conduct.” (“Soviet Policy”)

In 1923, the Soviet minister of health traveled to the German Institute for Sex ual Science and reportedly expressed there his pride that his government had abolished the tsarist penalties against same-sex love. He stated that “no unhappy consequences of any kind whatsoever have resulted from the elimination of the offending paragraph, nor has the wish that the penalty in question be reintroduced been raised in any quarter.”

Also in 1923, Dr. Grigorii Batkis, director of the Moscow Institute of Soviet Hygiene, published a pamphlet titled “The Sexual Revolution in Russia.” It stated, “Soviet legislation bases itself on the following principle: it declares the absolute non-interference of the state and society into sexual matters, as long as nobody is injured, and no one’s interests are encroached upon.”

And the pamphlet spelled this out clearly, “Concerning homosexuality, sod omy, and various other forms of sexual gratification, which are set down in European legislation as offenses against public morality–Soviet legislation treats these the same as so-called ‘natural’ intercourse.”

October 5, 2014

Purgatorio; Algorithms

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

“Purgatorio”, a documentary about the horrors of contemporary Mexico as the title would imply, opened on Friday night at the Cinema Village in NY (and opens at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on the 10th). Like last year’s “Narco Cultura” (http://louisproyect.org/2013/11/24/three-documentaries/), it is a deeply pessimistic but compelling work that emphasizes the POV of the average citizen rather than academic experts who might have insights on the intractable character of the Mexican drug war and the massive emigration to “El Norte”.

For example, one of the characters we meet in Rodrigo Reyes’s film is an eccentric Texan whose mission in life is to walk through the brush frequented by Mexicans headed toward the border in order to pick up their rubbish, like empty water bottles or articles of clothing. As Reyes follows him about on the well-beaten trail, the man reflects on “illegals”, saying at one point that with all the resources in Mexico (oil, gold, etc.), the country could enjoy prosperity. They should stay at home and clean up their country was his advice.

Reyes, a 31-year old who was born in Mexico City and who despite having a degree in International Relations, was not that interested in the specific international relations that Mexico has with the USA. One supposes that a filmmaker has to make a choice when he or she sets about to make such a film. One that is geared to socio-economic analysis might not deliver the punch that something like “Purgatorio” can, a film that like Dante’s masterpiece is intended to engage more with the heart than the brain.

Reyes’s strategy is to take us to the front lines of the drug war and the border crossings to show us what the actors on the ground face as they struggle to survive. One of the most gripping scenes takes place toward the end of the film as we watch a 45-year-old grandfather, who says that his life is about nothing but work, scales a 25 foot high fence as if he were in a high school gymnastics class, but only on the third attempt. For him, scaling the fence is not exactly a transition into Paradise but at least an exit from the Inferno.

In another memorable scene, we encounter a group of boys who mug in front of Reyes’s camera, each one taking turns naming and imitating the sounds of their favorite weapon: AK47, AR15, 9MM pistol, sniper’s rifle, etc. Most 12 year old boys are fascinated with guns but it is only in Mexico that in a few short years many will be making a living using them to kill.

There is no gainsaying Reyes’s ability to present gut-wrenching anecdotal material but we are still waiting for a film that explains how Mexico became such a “failed state”, one that also showed the potential for renewal and transformation as well. One that would introduce the audience to Zapata and Pancho Villa, the EZLN, and the insurgent electoral campaign of Mexico City’s mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

If I was much younger and more of a professional filmmaker than an amateur critic and videographer, I’d do something that explored Mexico’s radical traditions. This article on Mexico on the left would be a good place to start for someone with those kinds of qualifications: http://louisproyect.org/2013/06/07/mexico-and-the-left/.

Opening at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on October 17th and the Quad in New York on October 24th, “Algorithms” is a portrait of two young men from India who compete in international tournaments for blind chess players.

As someone with serious eye problems and a lifelong passion for chess, the film was one I naturally looked forward to screening. It has the same kind of rooting for the underdog quality as “Brooklyn Castle”, the 2012 documentary that followed kids from a working-class public school who compete with those from elite institutions but in “Algorithms” the competition is mainly with their own disabilities than with sighted competitors.

Since chess is such a visually oriented game (or sport, as some would argue), one wonders how a blind person can make any headway. The film shows how it is done. It is all done by touch, just like braille. The white pieces have a tiny nipple at the top and each space has an aperture in which each piece is placed. As two blind players compete, you see each one fondling the pieces before making a move.

Although the film does not deal with the question of blind-sighted competition, Charudatta Jadhav, a blind adult who serves as surrogate father and tutor to the boys, was a chess champion who did well in competition with sighted players.

Perhaps the film, which was shot in black-and-white for reasons not obvious to me, was more interested in exploring disabilities and their transcendence than the game of chess. Like “Brooklyn Castle”, you get absolutely no sense of the games the boys participated in. While it would obviously take up too much time to follow each move, it would have been of great interest to see the last four or five moves. That’s what made the Bobby Fischer documentary such a memorable film.

For those who follow chess, you probably are aware that there is a new world champion—Magnus Carlsen who defeated India’s Viswanathan Anand. India has a very ambitious chess training program, one that no doubt explains why it pays attention to the disabled player as well. The game originated in 3rd century AD India where it was called chaturaṅga. From there it emigrated to Persia, where it was called chatrang. When I studied Turkish, I learned that the word for chess was satranç, pronounced satranch.

Over the past 50 years or so since I have been playing chess, I am not much better than I was at when I began. But my passion for the game continues unabated. If you are one of those people who love the game like me, I recommend “Algorithms”. It is probably the kind of sport that will survive the abolition of capitalism. Unlike football that leaves you with brain damage, a life-long engagement with chess will sharpen your mind—unless you are me, of course.

October 1, 2014

Abraham Lincoln Brigades Archive 2014 Human Rights Documentary Film Festival

Filed under: Film,Stalinism,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

Last night I saw “Red Father” and “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” at the Institute Cervantes in New York, two of the entries in “Impugning Impunity”, theAbraham Lincoln Brigades Archive (ALBA) Human Rights Documentary Film Festival that ends today. Based on the quality of what I saw yesterday, you might want to take advantage of today’s screening of documentaries on the impact of Israeli occupation on Bedouins and on the activist break-in at FBI offices in Pennsylvania in 1971 that led to the exposure of the Cointelpro. Scheduling information is here: http://www.alba-valb.org/programs/human-rights-film-festival/

It is no secret that the  ALBA, like most projects with such a provenance, has a solid base of support in the Communist Party and its periphery. As I gazed about the audience waiting for “Red Father” to begin, I felt young again by comparison. The average age appeared to be about 75 and most probably went through the experience at one time or another of selling the Daily Worker.

Despite this, Tova Beck-Friedman’s film was a searching examination of what it meant to be a life-long Communist and not at all an exercise in feel-good nostalgia like the documentaries “Seeing Red” or “The Good Fight” that featured Spanish Civil War veterans like Bill Bailey. As much as I loved those films, I was glad to see the CP rendered accurately, warts and all.

“Red Father”, however, did not demonize the CP. In its portrait of Bernard Ades (pronounced ay-dis), a Jew from a wealthy family who grew up in Baltimore and joined the party shortly after the Great Depression began, was simultaneously the best and the worst of his generation. A man of extraordinary principle and courage, he became an attorney dedicated to defending the African-American poor against a racist judicial system, including its ultimate weapon, the lynch mob.

This article from the November 28, 1931 newsweekly “The African-American” documents the case that is at the heart of “Red Father” and shows him demonstrating the mettle that convinced many Black Americans that the CP was their best friend in the struggle against racism.

Screen shot 2014-10-01 at 1.43.52 PM

Seven years later he ended up fighting in Spain against Franco’s counter-revolutionary army, once again showing great courage and dedication to the cause.

Throughout the 1930s, the party was at its height. If you didn’t bother paying close attention to the Trotskyist press, the USSR and its allies could easily be seen as the saviors of humanity. Indeed, it was exactly such a messianic belief that led party members like Bernard Ades to stick with the party until the bitter end, even after it became common knowledge that Jews were victims of discrimination in Russia and that the “socialism” being built had little to do with the democratic aspirations of the communist movement through most of its history.

As a sympathizer of the CP and a member of a youth group in its periphery, Ben Ades’s daughter Janet, who is featured prominently in the film and who spoke during a Q&A after its screening, had the misfortune to get romantically entwined with a comrade who had visited Hungary shortly after the Soviet invasion in 1956 and was shocked to see elementary socialist principles trampled underfoot. When Janet began repeating what she heard from her boyfriend, her father was chagrined enough to enroll her in a study group that was meant to cure her of bad ideas.

In the Q&A, Janet Ades was crystal-clear about her respect for her father’s dedication and for the need for social justice. What she would not accept, however, was the CP’s military like discipline that forced its members to go along with every twist and turn, always accepting the Kremlin’s word as if it were the Vatican. Indeed, like all members of religious sects, the practice of shunning was used to enforce a monolithic culture.

She added that it was not just the CP that had such a suffocating atmosphere. She alluded to a young man she met in a hospital once whose first name was Karl. Out of curiosity, she asked if he was named after Karl Marx. He laughed and said yes, proceeding to tell her his life story. His father was a member of the Trotskyist movement in Utah who had made a mistake like hers taking up the cause of Hungarian workers. She did not mention what got Karl’s father shunned, but eventually he left the movement in disgust. I commented from the floor that I probably knew his father since he was one of hundreds who had to put up with shunning in the SWP, a party that was created as an alternative to the “bad” CP.

I am not sure where or when this eye-opening documentary will be shown again but will make sure to let you know about it in advance. Educational institutions can purchase it from Dark Hollow films for the customarily prohibitive price. http://www.darkhollowfilms.com/our-films

Finally, I recommend Dan La Botz’s article on the film that appeared on New Politics.  Dan concludes and I concur:

This well-done documentary will be of particular interest to those who want to better understand the history of the Communist Party of the United States and international Communism, as well as to those interested in American Jewry. As a teacher of college courses in American History, I would certainly use it in my upper division classes. The film which is being independently distributed will be shown in the fall at the University of Minnesota Law School and to the Minnesota Association of Black Lawyers and in the week of November 10 at Baruch College of Performing Arts.

Pankaja Brooke’s “You’re the Enemy – Welcome Back!” also deserves the widest viewing. Brooke went to Vietnam and interviewed a group of Vietnam veterans to returned there to atone for their misdeeds by getting involved in various projects that benefit a country still feeling the lingering effects of a genocidal war.

I was shocked to discover that over 100,000 people died as a result of stepping on unexploded landmines and bombs left over from a brutal war, also that over 3 million have suffered birth defects or illnesses caused by exposure to Agent Orange. To her credit, Brooke spent time visiting clinics and orphanages devoted to caring for Agent Orange victims, whose care and treatment costs an economically devastated nation millions of dollars each year. If there was any justice, the USA should have paid reparations for the damage it did to people and to precious resources.

Fortunately, Brooke’s documentary can be seen on Vimeo and I recommend it strongly:

https://vimeo.com/88987769

As a group, the Vietnam veterans—all about my age—show America at its best, just as Bernard Ades’s service in the cause of the Spanish Republic did. Next year I will be posting an announcement about the next ALBA film festival. The people who put it together should be commended for fighting the good fight as well. My recommendation is to visit their website (http://www.alba-valb.org/) and stay informed about this excellent resource for human rights and social justice.

 

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