Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 21, 2015

The Maids

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:19 pm

Maid to Order: Scenes of Class Struggle in the Household

August 8, 2015

We Come as Friends; Tango Negro

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

Premiering on Friday, August 14th in New York, two documentaries perfectly illustrate the unequal exchange between colonizer and colonized. To use a word coined by Malcolm X, “We Come as Friends” that opens at the IFC Theater highlights the “vulturistic” assault on the newly formed state of South Sudan by both the West and China in search of oil, cheap land and any other wealth that can be extracted in a 21st century version of what Karl Marx called primitive accumulation. In contrast to the baleful impact of capitalist exploiters, “Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango” that opens at the MIST theater in Harlem (46 West 116th Street) reminds one of the beneficial legacy of Africa in the New World. While few people need to be reminded of how the music of slaves was essential to the emergence of jazz and the blues, “Tango Negro” proves that without the African drum, the seemingly purely European tango never would have been born. This is obviously a result of Buenos Aires being mostly Black in the 1830s and 40s according to the people’s history from below that this remarkable film features.

Although director Hubert Sauper describes “We Come as Friends” as cinema vérité, it is not of the Frederick Wiseman fly-on-wall-variety. Sauper’s presence is felt in every frame as he chats somewhat noncommittally with the aforementioned vultures—UN officials, Chinese oil refinery workers, Christian missionaries, and Texas biznessmen—reveal their desire to do well (profiting) by doing good in South Sudan. Although he has no speaking role in the film, the oleaginous visage of George Clooney is part of this rogue’s gallery.

Although I have never bothered to watch one of those idiotic “Making of” features on HBO that give you the lowdown on how some piece of crap Hobbit movie was slopped together, “The Making of ‘We Come as Friends’” would be something I’d give my eyeteeth to see (what are eyeteeth anyway?) Sauper flies from one location to another in a tiny single-engine plane named Sputnik that has room for a crew of three and that looks like something a strong gust of wind will blow it out of the sky. If you have the slightest inkling of what a project it is to get film made anywhere, the idea that “We Come as Friends” ever got made at all is miraculous as Sauper relates in the press notes:

At times, it was even challenging to find the basics – food, water, or a safe place to sleep. Some of the film crew fell deadly ill from malaria and tropical parasites. And my co-pilot, Barney, was shot at by a gang of ten armed men, disguised as fake police. This hold-up ended with two people dead, all our film equipment stolen and a whole house destroyed by bullets.

Throughout it all, Sauper retains his aplomb as he asks one scumbag after another what they expect to accomplish in South Sudan. So startling are some of the exchanges that you almost wonder if he convinced his interviewees to recite lines he gave them to look bad. For example, he is in the rec room for Chinese oil drillers as they are watching an old episode of “Star Trek”. They begin riffing on the idea of space exploration and the need to go to other planets with adequate weaponry so that when they are setting up for mineral extraction they will be able to fend off hostile aliens, thus evoking the plot line of “Avatar”. As is always the case in these scenes, Sauper expresses no outrage and simply asks them to continue. The end result is that they are hoisted on their own petard.

In contrast to the colonizers, the colonized are under no false illusions. Time after time, they recount their suffering and pessimism about “development” even as South Sudanese officials—the comprador bourgeoisie—blather on and on about the wealth that will accrue to their countrymen. One man promotes the idea that investors be given free land to build airports since it will provide jobs. When Sauper asks what kind of jobs, the man pauses for a second and then replies that airports need people to clean them.

In a scene that will remind you of how Manhattan was “sold” to the Dutch, an elderly tribesman shows Sauper a contract he signed without understanding what it meant. It allows a Texas company to have a lease in perpetuity on hundreds of thousands of acres that belonged to a group of native villages in order to “develop” the land and extract any minerals therein. Meanwhile villagers here and everywhere else that he visits are being evicted from land they lived on for a thousand years in some cases.

The film was the first time I had found myself thinking more deeply about what was happening in Sudan. As long ago as 2004, I had my doubts about the alliance between the USA and the rebels in the south who were trying to liberate their country from the admittedly oppressive Arab ethnic group that rule from the North. In a review of “Lost Boys of the Sudan”, I noted:

The SPLA became the beneficiaries of President Clinton’s largesse in 1996, when $20 million in military aid was sent to Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, who were assisting the Sudanese rebels in much the same fashion as what took place in the mid 1960s. This was justified as part of the war on terror and had about as much basis in reality as this year’s war on terror. Just to show his dedication to Christian rights, Clinton bombed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical company in the country two years later.

In a reply to a couple of Clinton officials who were defending the bombing in the pages of the neoliberal New York Review of Books, Smith College professor Eric Reeves makes a point that sounds eerily similar to those that are being made continuously over the unilateralism that was on display in Iraq:

More consequentially, Benjamin and Simon give no sign of having considered the real issue in the al-Shifa episode; they never seriously ask what evidentiary standards should have obtained to justify an attack on Khartoum. Instead, they vaguely declare that “the perception of imminent danger was sufficient to overcome these concerns” (i.e., concerns about attacking a country on the basis of clandestine information in pursuit of “a strategy of preempting threats”).

Around this time, the Sudanese rebels became the favorite cause of Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who has been spending the past six months or so it seems castigating the Cuban government for repressing dissidents. Many of his columns were focused on the alleged enslavement of Christians:

Actually, when I started writing about the slaves of Sudan in the Voice about six years ago, the beginning of the New Abolitionist movement was driven by the American Anti-Slavery Group, headed by Charles Jacobs, who first told me of the horrors in Sudan.

“There was also a young graduate student at Columbia University, Sam Cotton, who traveled to black churches and newspapers around the country to spread the liberating word. In Denver, Barbara Vogel told her fifth-grade class that slavery was not dead, and those kids began collecting money to free slaves in Sudan through Christian Solidarity International. Other schoolchildren around the country joined in.

There is not so much attention paid nowadays to the problem. This might be a consequence of John Garang’s manipulation of do-gooders anxious to purchase the freedom of Sudanese slaves under false pretexts. A February 26, 2002 Washington Post article reported:

The highly publicized practice of buying the freedom of Sudanese slaves, fueled by millions of dollars donated by Westerners, is rife with corruption, according to aid workers, human rights monitors and leaders of a rebel movement whose members routinely regard slave redemption as a lucrative business.

“The more children, the more money,” said Mario Muor Muor, a former senior official in the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA), the leading southern rebel group in Sudan’s 19-year-old civil war. Insiders say that SPLA commanders and officials have pocketed money paid to buy captives’ freedom and in some instances stage-manage the transactions, passing off free southerners as slaves.

However sordid all this might be, the Christian people of the south deserve the best. One can only hope that oil proceeds are truly used for the benefit for the entire country and that people like Peter and Santino can enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future in their homeland.

As it turns out, I was overly optimistic as is so often the case with Marxists. As the film amply demonstrates, the humanitarian cause that people like George Clooney took up was a velvet glove concealing the iron fist of colonialism. If you want to get an idea of what is happening today in South Sudan (besides seeing this truly remarkable film), I urge you to read Nick Turse’s article in TomDispatch.com:

When South Sudan broke away, it took much of Sudan’s oil wealth with it, becoming sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer behind Nigeria and Angola. In taking those resources out of Bashir’s hands, it offered the promise of more energy stability in Africa. It was even expected to serve Washington’s military aims — and soon, the U.S. began employing South Sudanese troops as proxies in a quest to destroy Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army.

That was the dream, at least. But like Washington’s regime change and nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan, things soon started going very, very wrong. Today, South Sudan’s armed forces are little more than a collection of competing militias that have fractured along ethnic lines and turned on each other. The country’s political institutions and economy are in shambles, its oil production (which accounts for about 90% of government revenue) is crippled, corruption goes unchecked, towns have been looted and leveled during recent fighting, the nation is mired in a massive humanitarian crisis, famine looms, and inter-ethnic relations may have been irreparably damaged.

On a happier (if not joyful) note, “Tango Negro” is a celebration of Black culture in places where few suspected it existed. If the distinctly non-African sound of the bandoneon (an accordion) puts a white stamp on this deeply nostalgic musical and dance form, Juan Carlos Cáceres, who is the star of this film and who died in April of this year at the age of 79, demonstrates that the rhythm is distinctly African.

Cáceres was a man of many talents. He came to Paris just before the May-June events of 1968 as an accomplished artist and musician. But not long afterwards, he began a career as a musician and musicologist with a focus on the culture of the Río de la Plata that flowed between Argentina and Uruguay. It was along this riverbed where most people of African descent, both free and enslaved, made home. He became an expert in playing and analyzing the distinct art forms of the region, including the tango, the milonga and candombe. The candombe is as closely related to native African ritual performances, as is the rumba in Cuba or the samba in Brazil.

As a pioneer of the study of the African roots of the tango and an able performer, Cáceres is an ideal personality to weave together all the different strands of this story. He performs with many younger musicians, including at the climax of this stunning film an Argentine woman who is a descendant of slaves and a passionate defender of Afro-Argentine culture. She sings as Cáceres plays the piano with a troupe of white and Black musicians ending the film on a rapturous note.

The film was directed by Dom Pedro, an Angolan, and will enrich the brain as well as the heart. Furthermore, if you haven’t seen the new Harlem with its excellent assortment of restaurants and other varieties of nightlife, this is a good place to start.


August 2, 2015

Still the Enemy Within; Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:31 pm

While nominally covering seemingly divergent topics—the failed 1984 British coalminers strike and the rock-and-roll scene in pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia—two documentaries end up having much more in common than meets the eyes. “Still the Enemy Within”, a DVD available from Bullfrog Films (reduced rates for activist groups), is a kind of oral history with miners and their supporters recounting what it was like to go up against a Prime Minister who was determined in advance to break their union, arguably the most powerful in Britain. Also an oral history, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” allows some of Cambodia’s leading rock musicians of the 1960s and 70s—now about the same age as the coalminers—to recreate a world that like pre-Thatcher Britain was crushed underfoot but in the name of Communism rather than TINA. (The film becomes available on August 4 through iTunes, Google Play, Amazon.com, Vudu, Cinema Now and Vimeo on Demand.) Taken together, both films help us understand the bleak conditions that we face today.

As inspiring as “Pride” was, the film sidestepped the sorry end to the coalminers strike that was in some ways understandable since its purpose was to celebrate the solidarity that developed between gays and socially conservative workers. “Still the Enemy Within”, whose title derives from Thatcher’s epithet directed at the miners, pulls no punches. Watching it will evoke the same sorts of anger that many now feel over the capitulation of Syriza in Greece even though there’s little apparent similarity between Alexis Tsipras and the president of the miners union Arthur Scargill. Indeed, one might argue that if Tsipras had adopted the same sort of militant stand as Scargill, the results would have not been that much different given the relationship of forces.

If you want to understand how we ended up with the austerity regime that prevails in all industrial countries in the West and in Japan, there are a number of strikes whose outcome would determine economic conditions for decades to come. As is obvious the bourgeoisie won them all and plunged us into a world resembling the 1890s in many ways. When American airline controllers went on strike in 1981, Ronald Reagan fired them on the spot. Four years later meatpacking workers organized by P9 went on strike against Hormel. After 10 months the strike came to an end under conditions almost identical to those faced by the British miners: a lack of solidarity from other workers, bureaucratic treachery, media lying and governmental scorched earth tactics.

In 1990 I saw Barbara Kopple’s documentary on the P9 strike. If many ways, this is was the same kind of film as “Still the Enemy Within”, an unstinting portrayal of a heroic attempt for working class demands against a sadistic enemy. Roger Ebert’s description of the film could easily be applied to “Still the Enemy Within”: “This is the kind of movie you watch with horrified fascination, as families lose their incomes and homes, management plays macho hardball, and rights and wrongs grow hopelessly tangled…The people in this film are so real they make most movie characters look like inhabitants of the funny page.”

The miners interviewed in “Still the Enemy Within” are the salt of the earth (yes, I have the 1954 film in mind). They are class-conscious to a fault and were utterly aware at the time of the stakes of the struggle. If they won the strike, the working class as a whole would benefit. If they lost, their jobs would be lost and Thatcher would have a green light to attack other unions.

Starting with their wives who became front-line fighters in the struggle, the miners eventually became a cause for others in British society who understood what Thatcherism meant. The film has an eye-opening interview with Mike Jackson, a veteran of the gays and lesbian support group whose character was featured in “Pride”. While those who are familiar with this story will find Jackson’s reminiscences fascinating, what really intrigued me was the support that miners received in British Black nationalist circles. Archival footage of Black leaders stating their support for the miners will command your attention.

Ultimately the strike failed because miners in Nottinghamshire refused to go out with their brothers. Unlike the Welsh, Scottish and northern British miners, those in Nottinhamshire, which is in southern England, earned higher wages and worked in better conditions. Since the bosses had ordered miners to produce a huge inventory of coal before they went on strike, they were able to rely on that reserve and continued production in Nottinghamshire to keep factories going. When striking miners decided that shutting down steel production would help throttle capitalist production, they formed a picket line at Orgreave—a steel coking plant in South Yorkshire. This led to a brutal police attack on the miners that is shown in gut-wrenching detail in the film. It was the utter smashing of this mass picketing and growing desperation of workers who had been on strike for the better of a year that finally led to scabs getting a foothold in the mines and—finally—their surrender.

My only question about the film is its failure to interview Arthur Scargill who is now 77 years old. I would have loved to get his take on why the strike failed. He is vindicated toward the end of the film when a Nottinghamshire miner, who lost his job not long after the strike was broken, admitted that Scargill had been right all along.

“Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” can serve as a companion-piece to “The Last Reel”, a narrative film I reviewed for CounterPunch on June 26th  that celebrated the golden age of Cambodian film. As a loving tribute to Cambodian pop, “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten” will be a pure joy to amateur musicologists everywhere. As I sat spellbound watching performers from the late 50s to the eve of the Khmer Rouge entry into Phnom Penh, I kept pausing the film to search for clips of the artists on Youtube—largely to no avail. If there’s no other reason to watch “Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten”, it is to savor performances of Cambodian musicians playing in the style of Santana, Afro-Cuban (cha-cha-cha was huge in the early 60s) and the Beatles.

In my view, there is such a thing as benign globalization. For example, the soukous style that became dominant in the Congo was an adaptation of Afro-Cuban music that Congolese musicians heard when Cuban sailors would play 78s for them when they were in Kinshasa. Cambodians were open to all sorts of influences, including Johnny Halliday the French rocker who was basically an Elvis imitator.

Some of the greatest Asian musicians of the period were notable for blending Western sounds with native traditions, especially Sinn Siamouth who was as huge in Cambodia as Elvis was in the USA. He started off as a Frank Sinatra type crooner but was determined to become a rocker in the 1970s, more or less like Miles Davis going electric.

It is a total trip to watch archival footage of Cambodians doing what looks like the twist but with their own inflection, mostly involving arm movements borrowed from native folk traditions. The film is a glowing tribute to the universality of art.

This was something that the Khmer Rouge could not abide. Long hair, Western music, and urban life were considered decadent. Some musicians cut their hair and lied about how they earned a living—others who were too famous like Sinn Siamouth were simply executed on the spot.

As used as we are to the idea that radical Islam is prone to such cultural slaughter, we should never forget that the Khmer Rouge dipped into the Stalinist arsenal to force their warped vision on Cambodian society. Back in 1982 when I was working to build the North Star Network, I ran into a comrade who had left the SWP and seemed the kind of person who would be interested in what Peter Camejo was up to. But he said no thanks, the Khmer Rouge had persuaded him to avoid radical politics. Fifteen years later I heard the same thing from a well-known journalist of the left whose cynical nature interacted with genuine loathing of what took place in Cambodia convinced him that radical politics were not for him. (He eventually joined a socialist group after figuring out that capitalism was no bargain either.)

The film is also a useful introduction to the politics of Cambodia at the time with particular attention paid to Norodom Sihanouk who was a capable musician as well as being a patron of the arts. In the 1970s most on the left considered him something of a buffoon but the film reveals a leader who looks quite good in comparison to the run of the mill ruler in Asia today, including Vietnam.

It took director John Pirozzi ten years to make this film, a product of love and dedication. It is worth posting his statement from the press notes since they are a testament to the sheer will that was required to turn his passion into art:

I knew from the beginning that I wanted the film to reflect the wide range of artists/music that was Cambodia’s popular music scene during the 60’s and 70’s. As we began collecting music it became apparent that there were many artists with their own unique styles making large quantities of high quality music. The problem was there was nowhere to turn for information about them – no books, no magazine articles, no primary research material. Nothing.

I started with a handful of singers’ names and began interviewing people whose recollections were foggy at best. They had gone through incredible hardships, suffering through a harsh civil war and then the brutal Khmer Rouge era where their very identities had nearly been erased. It took shooting 75 interviews in 4 countries to be able to piece this story together.

On the surface there was very little visual representation of Cambodia’s golden era, as it has come to be known, to be found. It’s astounding to think that most of the archival material detailing this crucial period of Cambodian history had been destroyed.

So finding the necessary materials needed to tell this story became a daunting challenge. Many people, who care deeply about Cambodia and its popular music, began to surface with bits and pieces of the puzzle. Meeting so many of these generous people and collaborating with them became a big part of the process. It’s something that I feel very fortunate to have experienced.

– John Pirozzi, 2014

July 20, 2015

Still Alice

Filed under: aging,Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 3:24 pm

“Still Alice” is now the fourth narrative film that I have seen dealing with Alzheimer’s and by far the best. (Brief summaries of the other three appear at the end of this review.) Starring Julianne Moore as Alice Howland, a 50-year old Columbia University linguistics professor with early onset, the film is blessed by an exceptionally intelligent screenplay and direction by the late Richard Glatzer whose wife died of ALS. Some critics feel that his own family tragedy helped him shape the material but probably the most important element was the novel upon which it was based.

Written by Lisa Genova in 2007, the novel not only benefited from the author’s expertise as a neuroscience researcher with a PhD from Harvard but her familiarity with the mandarin life-style of her characters. Given the main character’s lofty perch in an Ivy League school, her husband’s own privileged status as a medical researcher, and their familiarity with Manhattan’s exquisite but pricey restaurants and other luxuries, her descent into an illness that would rob her of both her livelihood and—worse—her identity is unimaginably steep. In a key scene, when she and her husband are at their Hamptons summer home, she wets her pants because she cannot remember where the bathroom was.

Moore’s performance won her an Academy Award for best performance by an actress in 2014 and was one I would have supported if I had seen the film that year. Now that is available on Amazon streaming, I cannot recommend it highly enough. At the age of 55, Moore manages to convey the desperation of a world-class intellectual trying to keep her wits about her in the face of insurmountable odds. Her life begins to revolve around her IPhone, which is used to remind her of how to bake a cake or to take the pills she needs for a suicide when the smart phone no longer can bail her out.

Alex Baldwin, who plays her husband, is also very good as a man who does his best to run interference for his wife but finally comes to the sad realization that nothing will make up for her not being able to recognize her own daughter after she has seen her perform in an off-Broadway production of a Chekhov play.

Given the ineluctably predictable nature of the disease, any such film will lack the suspense element that is found in most tragedies. Indeed, it is open to question whether a film about Alzheimer’s can be called a tragedy since it lacks the “fatal flaw”, especially hubris, which is common to the classic tragedy from Sophocles to Shakespeare.

Some scholars believe that King Lear suffered from dementia although it impossible to pin down which kind. What made his downfall a tragedy was not his illness but his hubris, demanding more from his daughters than they were willing to give. There is an element of this in “Still Alice” to be sure. Alice constantly nags her youngest daughter Lydia (played superbly by Kristen Steward, the star of the insipid Twilight vampire movies) about abandoning her career as an actress and doing something more practical. When Lydia finally makes it relatively big in a Chekhov play, mom cannot recognize her—at least momentarily.

While the film is primarily a character study of how a dreaded illness takes down a very successful and self-possessed overachiever, it is also has universal meaning for any human being, particularly those over the age of sixty. 1 out of 9 Americans over the age of 65 has Alzheimer’s disease, increasing to one out of three over the age of 85. Scary odds. A week ago on the first night of my wife’s arrival at her parents’ home in Istanbul, her 87-year old father wandered off and ended up in a neighborhood far from home. When it became obvious to a young couple on a bus that he was lost, they were fortunate enough to find his phone number in one of his pockets. He is safe and at home now, much to my relief.

I hold out hope that my mother’s genes will hold me in good stead. Just a few days before her death in 2008, she was as lucid as ever. It was her circulatory system that was her undoing, an outcome of the wrong foods and a long time lack of exercise. Of course, sooner or later something will do you in whether it is Alzheimer’s, a circulatory system collapse, cancer or some other event associated with being in the “mortality zone” as Tom Brokaw put it in a column dealing with his battle against multiple myeloma.

In one key scene, Alice bemoans the fact that she has Alzheimer’s rather than cancer since at least cancer will not rob you of your identity. It is a disease like no other in that it transforms you into a stranger as if a zombie has taken possession of your body. Perhaps the best way to describe films such as “Still Alice” is as a subcategory of the horror movie with the monster being made up of the plaque in your nervous system rather than one stalking you with a butcher knife.

Other films in this genre:

The Savages”: a brother and sister cope with an ailing father in a nursing home. It is bittersweet comedy/tragedy directed by Tamara Jenkins who had the experience of putting her own father into a nursing home when she was in her 30s. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney turn in fine performances as the feckless brother and sister. The DVD can be purchased for pennies on Amazon.com.

Away from Her”: Based on an Alice Munro short story, the wife has entered a nursing home and soon falls in love with another Alzheimer’s patient leaving her husband in the lurch. When he visits her, she has no idea who he is and prefers the company of her new companion. I found the film preposterous but you can make your own evaluation through Amazon.com streaming.

Memories of Tomorrow”: A Japanese film about a successful and hard-driving “salaryman”, who the disease takes down, just like Alice. It is much more of a love story than a tragedy since he depends on a newly kindled relationship to his long-neglected wife to help him through his vicissitudes. Ken Watanabe, one of Japan’s best-known actors, plays the lead character. It is a very fine film that can be only be seen through a Netflix DVD rental.

July 13, 2015

Court; A Hard Day

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:58 pm

New Yorkers have an extraordinary opportunity to see Asian films at their best this week. Opening at the Film Forum on Wednesday July 15th is “Court”, an Indian film about a judicial system that functions as an arm of the police by making it impossible for radicals to enjoy the rights of legal protection supposedly guaranteed in a democracy. In a real sense, the title of the film might have been “Kangaroo Court”. Two days later the Korean film “A Hard Day” arrives at the Village East. Once again if we play with titles, it has an affinity with “A Hard Day’s Night”, Richard Lester’s classic about the Fab Four given its comic inventiveness and visual panache—all the more surprising since it at first blush it seems like just another policier.

If you walked into the theater in the middle of one of the frequent courtroom scenes in “Court” without knowing anything about the film in advance, you might assume that it is an Indian documentary in the Frederick Wiseman cinéma vérité style. It lacks the melodramatic style of something like “A Few Good Men” or “Erin Brockovich”. With almost no rhetorical flourishes of the sort that would help some actor get singled out for a best acting award, most of the dialog sounds exactly what you would hear if you were serving on jury duty. There is minutiae about evidence and instructions from the judge who looks like the human equivalent of the dormouse in Alice’s tea party. You almost expect him to fall asleep at his bench.

Director Chaitanya Tamhane explained his approach in the press notes:

When it came to shooting these scenes, we wanted to maintain a certain distance and objectivity. Instead of fiction films of the genre, which often aim for a subjective experience, we referred to documentary footage of actual trials. Since you cannot get permission to shoot in an actual courtroom, we had to build a set, which recreated the atmosphere of a lower court. No photography or documentation is allowed in the courts, so the production designers had to work from memory and rely on the notes they had made secretly while attending trials.

The matter-of-factness of the film actually serves to accentuate the human drama not only of its main characters but the state of justice in India as a whole today. In the opening seen that takes place in a Mumbai slum, a protest rally featuring the song performance of a 65 year old radical is broken up by the cops who charge him with arrest for abetting the suicide of a sewer worker.

In court the DA pins her case on the testimony of an eyewitness who claims that the radical singer Narayan Kamble (played by Vira Sathidar, a long-time leftist and trade union leader) sang a song urging sewer workers to kill themselves because that would be the only solution to their misery. The eyewitness turns out to be someone the cops have lined up in previous cases to tell any lie that would help convict a leftist.

Vivek Gomber plays Kamble’s lawyer Vinay Vora, an aging bachelor whose parents nag him to get married and who leads a humdrum life outside of the courtroom, falling asleep in front of his television most nights. In one very unusual scene that lasts for about five minutes, you see him shopping for groceries. Going against ordinary expectations of most courtroom dramas, nothing happens in the store except him putting food and drink into a cart. In a Hollywood film, you would expect an assassin to open fire on him with bullet riddled-bottles and cans falling to the floor to the accompaniment of a hard-driving film score. As it turns out the quotidian nature of his shopping roots the film in reality and makes the courtroom scenes that more dramatic.

Vinay Vora is the hero of the film alongside his client, two men who are willing to defy India’s wretched court system. For his part, Kamble is stoical about the prospects of spending time in jail awaiting the outcome of the trial since he understands the costs of challenging the status quo. His lawyer, like most committed to human rights, is willing to go the extra mile to help his client, including putting up the bail money that comes out of his own pocket.

In a way, the director has taken on the same kind of responsibility as the defense attorney by making such a film, one that puts the spotlight on judicial abuses in a country that supposedly adhered to democratic norms.

In a statement that illustrates the director’s commitment to making a film about Indian realities in Mumbai, he emphasizes the need for verisimilitude:

Each character in the film belongs to a different, and culturally peculiar reality of the city. These cities within a city co-exist in a densely packed metropolis and yet, they never overlap with each other. The film tries to depict these gradations whenever we see people outside of the courtroom. In fact, when we decided to show the public prosecutor’s personal life, we tried to recreate a Mumbai that was part of my childhood memories, from the 1990s. And this is a Mumbai that does not exist anymore. The pace of transformation and so-called ‘development’ is so rapid here, that certain people and their Mumbai will soon become extinct. A few of the old chawls (the traditional tenement buildings that house the working class) that we shot the film in, were razed just two months later in order to make place for new high-rise buildings. So for me, COURT is also an attempt to capture the memory of some of these people, as they struggle to survive.

In other words, this is not “Slumdog Millionaire”. It is instead a film about India today from a perspective that takes the side of the oppressed. It is worth seeing not just for its politics but for its superb acting, done exclusively by non-professionals. Dispensing with conventional understandings of how to make a courtroom drama, Chaitanya Tamhane has redefined the genre as well as making a damned fine film in the process.

At the risk of sounding like a mainstream film reviewer whose blurbs appear in commercial, I must states at the outset that “A Hard Day” is the first laugh-out-loud comedy I have seen in years. That is also a roller coaster of a cops-and-robbers ride is almost incidental.

Whether or not it was director Seong-hoon Kim’s intention, he has made a film that has the comic sensibility of Buster Keaton at his best. Despite all the hand-to-hand combat and convoluted plotting that are staples of the Korean crime movie, this is a film that has the same kind of visual imagination and comic genius as “Sherlock Jr.” or “The Cameraman”.

A brief description of the opening minutes should give you a feel for the offbeat humor of “A Hard Day”.

On his way to his mother’s funeral homicide detective Go Geon-soo swerves his car in order to avoid hitting a dog that is in the middle of the street. Unfortunately, this leads him into hitting a pedestrian instead. Since he has had a drink earlier (Korea’s drunk driving laws are apparently very stringent), he feels the need to conceal the body. He is not aware at the time that the pedestrian was not only already dead but a gangster wanted by the police.

He stuffs the body into the trunk of his car and resumes his ride to the funeral parlor where a stroke of brilliance hits him. He will insist that he be allowed to spend an hour with his mother’s casket in order to experience some personal moments of grief, a ploy that will allow him to dispense of the other body–killing two birds with one stone.

Borrowing his daughter’s GI Joe type toy, a soldier crawling on his belly that is activated by remote control, he ties one end of a rope to the dead man’s leg and the other to the toy soldier and sends it into the vent of the funeral parlor that connects to the room where his mother’s casket resides. Once inside the locked mortuary, he activates the toy soldier that begins its descent down the air vent. Once it arrives at its destination, the mourning detective can then pull the body down into the air vent and then finally concealed into his mother’s casket.

Suffice it to say that one mishap after another takes place in this scene, reminding you of silent comedy at its best.

I should add that the film does not only evoke Buster Keaton (or Laurel and Hardy for that matter); it will also remind you of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s relatively obscure works “The Trouble with Harry” that also had a corpse serving as a MacGuffin, the term used for an object in a plot that helps move the plot along. It is usually an inanimate object like the Maltese Falcon but it can also be a human being—as long as he or she is dead (“Weekend at Bernie’s” was another film using such a MacGuffin but by no means as good as Hitchcock’s.)

July 3, 2015

Native Land

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,workers — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm
A Triumph of the Cultural Front

On Native Land


Recently I have begun a project that should be of some interest to radicals, particularly film buffs like me. I will be creating a database of links to radical films that can be seen on the Internet for free, or for a nominal fee. Most of these films will be viewable on Youtube but one that I saw this week is available on veoh.com, a Video streaming website that is part of qlipso.com, a social networking company that was launched out of Israel. My advice is to not let this stand in the way of watching “Native Land”, a 1942 documentary co-directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, two leading figures in the Communist Party-led cultural front that was so brilliantly analyzed in Michael Denning’s “The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century”.

The film was a virtual who’s who of the CP artistic community. In addition to Hurwitz, who was blacklisted during the 1950s, and photographer Paul Strand, who was not a party member but embodied their esthetic, it featured Paul Robeson as narrator and music by Marc Blitzstein best known for his musical play “The Cradle Will Rock” that was directed by Orson Welles. (In 1999 Tim Robbins directed a serviceable film based on the play’s difficulties getting staged.)

“Native Land” consists of a series of dramatic reenactments of how corporate America used gun-thugs and spies to crush the trade union movement, especially in the Deep South. The technique might be familiar to you if you’ve seen Errol Morris’s “The Thin Blue Line” or Andrew Jarecki’s “The Jinx”, which had actors reprising the alleged crimes of real estate heir Robert Durst. In one reenactment, Howard Da Silva plays a snitch named Jim hired by the bosses to secretly take down the names of trade union members for blacklisting purposes. (This was a time when the CIO was nothing close to the immensely powerful machine it would become.) There was an immense irony in this since Da Silva was a CP’er who was blacklisted in the 1950s. Jim’s fellow spy was played by Art Smith, another victim of the witch-hunt whose career effectively came to an end in 1952.

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June 27, 2015

Runoff; Our Daily Poison

Filed under: Ecology,Film,food — louisproyect @ 10:35 pm

Two recent films deal with a topic that is central to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in the midst of, namely the toxic chemicals that are intrinsic to industrial farming, the gains of the so-called Green Revolution.

The first is a narrative film titled “Runoff” that opened yesterday at Village East in New York. It is about the struggle of a family-run farm to stay afloat as agribusiness closes in around them. Their income comes from the crops they sell, including at a roadside stand of the type that was ubiquitous to the upstate NY county I grew up in, and farm supplies—mostly pesticides and herbicides that modern farming relies on.They are just one step ahead of bank foreclosure and forced to consider breaking the law in order to come up with the funds necessary to stay afloat.

The second is a documentary titled “Our Daily Poison” that is available as a DVD from Icarus films. Although it is an English-language feature, it was directed by a French woman named Marie-Monique Robin who also wrote a book of the same title. It is an investigative report on the incestuous ties between big business and the government regulators who are charged with protecting the public when in fact they are far more interested in protecting profits.

In “Runoff”, the questioning of chemicals is only implicit as the husband and wife lead characters rely on questionable sales to keep a roof over their head. As mom-and-pop business owners, their nemesis is not the agricultural-chemical complex but a competitor that has systematically wooed away all their old customers and is now angling to buy their land from beneath their feet. After a banker pays them a visit to demand the mortgage payments they owe him, the wife decides to resort to desperate measures. She agrees to dispose of chemicals illegally on behalf of a farmer who used to be their customer in order to save him some money. The money she makes from dumping the chemicals into a nearby river will help keep the roof over her head and presumably allow the family to continue doing a business that although legal is a crime against nature and humanity.

Director Kimberly Levin was trained as a biochemist and worked in Kentucky where the film was made on a shoestring budget (she also attended NYU film school.) She had a project lined up with HBO that starred James Gandolfini as a mob-affiliated New Jersey restaurant owner who becomes a government agent conspiring against North Korea (shades of “The Interview”) but his death put a kibosh on it. Maybe her enthusiasm for that project carried over into this film since dumping toxic chemicals into a river is so…Tony Soprano.

I can recommend this film but only as a fascinating study of how farms operate today. Filmed on location near Louisville, chemicals seem ubiquitous with an airplane crop duster reminiscent of “North by Northwest” and the male lead injecting hogs with antibiotics administered through something that looks like a pistol.

In a way, the film reminded me of “Promised Land”, the Matt Damon vehicle about fracking that deliberately avoided any kind of “message” about the dubious technology but preferred to tell a story about how the main character got deceived by a company plant whose dishonest advocacy undermined a local struggle against fracking. As an unrepentant Marxist, I guess I prefer the message.

Message aplenty is what lies in store for you in “Our Daily Poison”, a movie whose title should tell you were its heart is.

The film is divided roughly into three parts. The first takes you to a farming region in France where the director grew up and where local farmer’s health has been ravaged by exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides (mushroom killers) whose use became widespread after WWII when the Green Revolution arrived in France as part of a Marshall Plan meant to bring prosperity to farmers and the people who consumed their products. Of course, a certain amount of prosperity was enjoyed even if it cost people their physical well-being. We meet a group of farmers who have been plagued by one health problem or another, including Parkinson’s which seems to be an epidemic among those who used chemicals.

Part two shows the impact of the crops that come out of industrial farming on the general public. In some truly eye-opening scenes, we see the director pressing regulators in the FDA or their European counterparts to defend their arbitrary guidelines for ADI (Admissible Daily Intake). This is the amount of chemicals you can ingest with your apples or green peas, defined as a percentage of your body weight. The Europeans, despite their reputation for being less bought off by evil corporations, are much worse than the Americans with people serving on regulatory bodies who are serving as consultants to outfits like Monsanto.

Part three deals with chemical additives that become part of the circulation of commodities after they are harvested, either as sweeteners, preservatives and the like as well as the plastic that encases them.

One of the more egregious examples of how government and big business conspire against the consumer is how Donald Rumsfeld greased the slids that made the deployment of aspartame on a massive scale possible. That word might not ring a bell but you probably know it as Nutrasweet, the sweetener in Diet Coke, a drink that will never pass through my lips again, and a million other foodstuffs.

A Huffington Post article on all this is quite useful:

In 1985, Monsanto purchased G.D. Searle, the chemical company that held the patent to aspartame, the active ingredient in NutraSweet. Monsanto was apparently untroubled by aspartame’s clouded past, including the report of a 1980 FDA Board of Inquiry, comprised of three independent scientists, which confirmed that it “might induce brain tumors.” The FDA had previously banned aspartame based on this finding, only to have then-Searle Chairman Donald Rumsfeld vow to “call in his markers,” to get it approved. Here’s how it happened:

Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president January 21, 1981. Rumsfeld, while still CEO at Searle, was part of Reagan’s transition team. This team hand-picked Dr. Arthur Hull Hayes, Jr., to be the new FDA commissioner. Dr. Hayes, a pharmacologist, had no previous experience with food additives before being appointed director of the FDA. On January 21, 1981, the day after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, Reagan issued an executive order eliminating the FDA commissioners’ authority to take action and Searle re-applied to the FDA for approval to use aspartame in food sweetener. Hayes, Reagan’s new FDA commissioner, appointed a 5-person Scientific Commission to review the board of inquiry’s decision. It soon became clear that the panel would uphold the ban by a 3-2 decision. So Hayes installed a sixth member on the commission, and the vote became deadlocked. He then personally broke the tie in aspartame’s favor.

One of Hayes’ first official acts as FDA chief was to approve the use of aspartame as an artificial sweetener in dry goods on July 18, 1981. In order to accomplish this feat, Hayes had to overlook the scuttled grand jury investigation of Searle, overcome the Bressler Report, ignore the PBOI’s recommendations and pretend aspartame did not chronically sicken and kill thousands of lab animals. Hayes left his post at the FDA in November, 1983, amid accusations that he was accepting corporate gifts for political favors. Just before leaving office in scandal, Hayes approved the use of aspartame in beverages. After Hayes left the FDA under allegations of impropriety, he served briefly as Provost at New York Medical College, and then took a position as a high-paid senior medical advisor with Burson-Marsteller, the chief public relations firm for both Monsanto and GD Searle. Since that time he has never spoken publicly about aspartame. FYI, here’s Rachel Maddow on Burson-Marsteller: “When Evil needs public relations, Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial.” Evil, thy name is chemical food additives.

In the closing moments of the film that was shot in Orissa, an Indian state, I found myself troubled by the implications of its critique of industrial farming—not that I would ever take the side of Monsanto but finding myself wondering about how we can move to a healthier world.

It seems that the people of Orissa never get cancer. That we are told is a function of their healthy lifestyle—they grow their own food and have no environmental problems to deal with like air pollution from factories or automobiles. What the film does not mention is that nearly 3000 farmers committed suicide in the last 10 years, victims of the same sort of economic desperation depicted in “Runoff”. Nor does it consider what it means for the world to adopt the mode of production in a place like Orissa even if it means avoiding cancer. Minutes after watching the film, I told my wife that for people accustomed to urban life in an industrial society, where cancer is a virtual epidemic, the life of an Orissa farmer might be a fate worse than death.

Somehow there must be a resolution of the environmental/capitalist crisis that promotes healthy living in a setting that is far less “advanced” than the one that we live in now. Surrounded by luxury buildings in New York City that are becoming homes to Russian oligarchs and CVS stores on every block, that would be the best outcome for me even if it was a disaster to the superrich who live a few blocks to the west of me on Fifth Avenue.

June 26, 2015

New York Asian Film Festival 2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:57 pm
The New York Asian Film Festival 2015

Turning Oppressive Reality Into Great Art


In 1956, when I was 11 years old, I saw my first Japanese film or more accurately a parody of a Japanese film shown on the Sid Caesar show. Called “U-Bet-U”, it was obviously a take-off on “Ugetsu Monogatari”, a 1953 film that along with “Rashomon” helped introduce Japanese films to American audiences.

Three years later I saw the original at a special screening at my local high school one evening. My mother had heard that it was a masterpiece and brought me there to see an alternative to Martin and Lewis comedies and John Wayne westerns. I can’t say that I understood “Ugetsu” but it was my first inkling that a hipper world existed. The appearance of the SUNY New Paltz film professor who came there to introduce the film made more of an impression on me than the movie. With the suede patches on his tweed sports jacket and his closely cropped beard, he was the first bohemian I had ever laid eyes on.

Fast forward two years later and I am a freshman at Bard deeply immersed in some of the greatest films I have ever seen, including masterpieces made by Akira Kurosawa who was in his prime. Ever since those days, Japanese films have remained the gold standard for me, joined in later years by those made in China and Korea. I was never quite convinced that Andre Gunder Frank’s “Re-Orient” was correct in its projections that the East would become a global hegemon just as it was before Europe’s rise in the 15th century, but when it comes to film, I need no convincing—most often after I have seen some of the films offered at the annual New York Asian Film Festival whose latest installment runs from June 26th to July 11th (http://www.subwaycinema.com/nyaff15/). The four films under review below should persuade anybody in the greater New York area to check the schedule and buy some tickets. If the term “race to the bottom” is most often associated with factories moving to Asia, suffice it to say that it is just as applicable to the current morass in a bottom-line oriented Hollywood.

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Trailers for reviewed films:

Whistleblower — unavailable with English subtitles

June 19, 2015

The Economics of Hollywood

Filed under: economics,Film — louisproyect @ 2:17 pm
An Irreversible Road to Ruin

The Economics of Hollywood


The name Edward Jay Epstein might ring a bell as the author of Inquest, a 1966 tracing of Oswald’s footprints prior to the JFK assassination. After reading his The Hollywood Economist 2.0: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies published 49 years later, I am left with the feeling that he has uncovered a more serious if less violent crime: the degradation of American film by an industry much more committed to the bottom line than culture.

While I have written over the years about how commerce trumps art, including for CounterPunch and Class, Race and Corporate Power , I now understand the nuts and bolts behind commerce’s triumph. Epstein describes in meticulous detail that would make a CPA envious exactly how we have descended from “Citizen Kane” to films such as “Transformers” shown at multiplexes. Ironically, it was the latter day versions of William Randolph Hearst—the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane—who transformed the film industry into what it is today, a globalized behemoth that not only churns out films geared to children and teens but one that appeals to their basest instincts, the equivalent in some ways of selling crack cocaine to high schoolers.

Epstein, who is ten years my senior, probably mourns the loss of great filmmaking as much as me or anybody who was blessed with the opportunity to live through the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was not just that it was it home to Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Preston Sturges and Stanley Kubrick. It was linked to palatial movie theaters that evoked cathedrals, including the six thousand seat (!) Roxy Theater in New York that Epstein alludes to on page one. I remember traveling to New York to see a movie at the Roxy in 1955 with my mother who promised that it would be the experience of a lifetime. It was like a Catholic family visiting a shrine for a miracle that some saint had performed.

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June 16, 2015

The Tribe

Filed under: disabled,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:14 pm

In my freshman year at Bard College in 1961, I took a writer’s workshop with celebrated beat poet Robert Kelly who gave an assignment that all of us had trouble with, namely to write a short story without any human beings as characters. It was obviously some sort of technical challenge that we had trouble wrapping our heads around, even if it perhaps was designed to get us to think outside the box.

That was my first reaction to “The Tribe”, a Ukrainian film that opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in NY. I knew that the characters are deaf teenagers in a boarding school in Kiev but I hadn’t anticipated what was in store for me as the film started at a press screening. It began with this announcement:

This film is in sign-language. There are no subtitles or voice-over.

What could possibly have made the director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiiy decide to take this approach? To rise to a technical challenge of making a “silent movie” that defied the audience to not understand a single word being exchanged by the characters? My initial reaction was to bolt from my seat and return home but since I had traveled almost an hour from my Upper East Side apartment to the Film Forum in Soho, I sighed and decided to stick it out.

Not only did I stick it out for the entire 133 minutes, I found it to be a most compelling drama that draws you into the lives of its characters, all of whom are nonprofessionals and deaf.

Although the story is centered in a boarding school, the film will remind you of any number of those that take place in reformatories such as “Dog Pound” or “Bad Boys”. In such films, there is always a newcomer to the prison who despite himself ends up in a struggle with the alpha males who bully and steal from those beneath them in the hierarchy.

“The Tribe” begins with its hero Sergei showing up at the boarding school, where he is shaken down by the gang that runs the institution with the blessings of the administrators. They take him behind the school where out of sight he is forced to strip and surrender any money that he has brought with him to the school. Sergei takes this in stride since he understands that he is outnumbered.

A few days later, the same gang members summon him to a clearing near the school where he is forced to defend himself from their blows. Despite once again being outnumbered, he fights back effectively and nearly throttles the leader of the pack. His fighting skills are so impressive that they recruit him into the gang. Always accepting things almost fatalistically, Sergei accepts their invitation and joins them in nightly excursions to a nearby truck stop where two girls from the school are prostituted to the drivers with the full cooperation of the administrators who get a cut of the proceeds.

Complications arise when Sergei falls in love with Anya, one of the two girls he has been pimping. She is so hardened by her experience in the school that she finds his affection almost incomprehensible. Mostly it is lust that opens her up to him rather than love.

Throughout it all, you understand everything that is going on even though you have no idea what they are saying to each other (unless you understand sign-language.) As a mixture of pantomime and silent film without the titles, the story is communicated by the actions of the characters and amplified by the body language and facial expressions that accompany the “dialog” as the director points out in the press notes:

I never considered the idea of making this film with hearing actors. It would have been an entirely different kind of film. The body language, the sign language they use is natural for them, and it is very individual; much more individual than French, Russian or German spoken by a particular person. People who speak out loud use only facial muscles to pronounce their speech, while deaf people use their entire body to communicate. To me, this is what makes this group unique and extremely interesting.

The press notes also indicate that “The Tribe” resonated with the Euromaidan protests that were taking place just under 10 miles from the filming.

Most of the shooting took place on the outskirts of Kiev, in the district where I spent my childhood. Previously, it was named after Stalin, and even now it’s called “Stalinka”. Most of the buildings here were built by German POWs after WWII. This proletarian district, built mainly of red brick, resembles some of the buildings in New York. Shooting began prior to the protests in Ukraine and completed after the Russian invasion in the Crimea. Our work was quite tense. Some cast members, including actors, participated in protests and street clashes in their spare time. Some days we had to cancel shooting because of road blockades, as the cars with our equipment simply could not get through to the set. Ironically, the producer and I live just four kilometers away from the Maidan.

Finally, as was obvious to anybody familiar with the history of Ukraine, the story had a lot to with the protests even though it never alluded once to the hierarchy that obtained under oligarchic rule:

A boarding school is better than just a school because it is a closed system, which––like a prison––can be perceived to be a metaphor of the state even if that isn’t the intention. The Tribe is, to a certain extent, a metaphor of the arrangement of the Ukrainian state, at least the pre-revolutionary Ukraine. And the arrangement of the state of Ukraine was based on the principle of a Mafiosi group.

For those with an appetite for the fresh and the challenging film (ostensibly those who tend to agree with my reviews), my strongest recommendation for “The Tribe”, a sign of the indomitable character of the Ukrainian artist.

Finally, and once again from the press notes, biographical information on the two lead characters:

Grigoriy Fesenko (Sergei)

Fesenko was born in 1994 in Kiev. His mother is a cleaner, his father is unemployed, and there are three children in their family. Fesenko will graduate from a school for children with hearing impairments this year. He’s interested in everything associated with street culture, and is a graffiti artist, parkourist, and roofer. Currently, his future plans remain unknown. He had previously spent some time playing on one of the Kiev sports society’s deaf football teams, but abandoned football when he was cast in The Tribe.

Yana Novikova (Anya)

Novikova was born in 1993 in a village near the small Belarusian town of Gomel to hearing parents. She became deaf at the age of two weeks due to illness, and her younger sister also became deaf in early childhood. She studied at a boarding school for children with hearing impairments, and loves to dance, draw, and practice pantomime. After graduation, she went to Gomel, where she enrolled in the College of Engineering. After studying for a year, she realized that engineering was not for her. Novikova loves cinema and has dreamed of acting since her childhood. After she heard about the casting call for a small quota of deaf actors from Theater Rainbow (Ukrainian Society of the Deaf) at the Kiev Theatre Academy, she dropped out of college and went to Kiev for the audition. Theater Rainbow did not accept her application, but she was noticed by director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy, who invited her to the casting call for The Tribe. During the audition, Novikova utterly eclipsed all other participants.

After she was cast, Novikova lived in Kiev in a rental apartment for three months. She took part in the pilot shooting of The Tribe, despite the fact that she didn‘t know whether or not she was approved for the leading role until shooting began. She is currently living in Kiev and pursuing acting full time.


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