Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 13, 2014


Filed under: art,Film,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 5:42 pm

Altina Schinasi, the subject of the documentary “Altina” that opened yesterday at the IFC in New York, was like Peggy Guggenheim—a member of the Jewish haut bourgeoisie who opted for a bohemian life in the arts.

The daughter of a Turkish Sephardic Jew who made a fortune in the nascent machine-rolled cigarette industry after migrating to the USA in the 1890s (his factory was on 120 and Broadway, now the location of Columbia University Teacher’s College and my old office), she lived a life of great privilege. The 35-room Schinasi mansion, now a New York City landmark, is and was the only privately owned and fully detached home in the city.

Inside the Schinasi mansion

Her entry into the art world was through the back door. She made a name for herself as a window dresser in New York’s chichi department stores and from there into fashion design. Her biggest achievement was the harlequin eyeglasses that became a fashion accessory for women defying Dorothy Parker’s doggerel: “Men don’t make passes at women who wear glasses.”

Like many wealthy Jews, her sympathies were with the left. This, of course, was still at a time when a sense of noblesse oblige existed and before the state of Israel converted this layer into the equivalent of Good Germans.

She became close to Georg Grosz, the German expressionist painter and Communist after he went into exile in the USA and won a nomination for best documentary of 1960 about Grosz’s struggle against Nazism. During the worst days of the Red Scare, she hid blacklisted director John Berry in her Beverly Hills mansion until he could make a getaway to Europe.

After completing this film, she turned her attention to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Freedom March, for which to she acquired film rights. Vittorio De Sica, the Italian director of “The Bicycle Thief” and a Communist sympathizer, was to direct the film. But since the civil rights movement remained controversial in the early 60s, she failed to line up funding.

Her most celebrated artwork, once again eschewing the rarefied atmosphere of the galleries, was her “chairacters”, furniture that had a vaguely erotic feel as the image below would indicate:

Peggy Guggenheim had the reputation for having a ravenous sexual appetite and supposedly slept with 1,000 men in Europe. Altina Schinasi was probably a runner-up if we take the word of her last husband at face value. Her last husband Celestino Miranda, a decades-younger Cuban refugee she had taken on as a studio assistant, tells us that she was a tiger in bed even in her seventies. Altina Schinasi died in 1999 at the age of 92. This remarkable documentary will give you a flavor of the Jewish wealthy when they were at their best.

September 5, 2014

Dock Ellis documentary; Rocks in My Pocket

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

If you are a sports fan like me, you are probably aware that Dock Ellis was a very good African-American pitcher who revealed that he once threw a no-hitter while he was high on LSD. That story gets a lot of play in the uneven but worth seeing “No No: a Dockumentary” that opens today at the Village East in New York and can be seen on VOD as well (full screening schedule is here: http://www.nonoadockumentary.com/).

As someone who took LSD once (that was enough for me), it was hard for me to believe that anybody could have thrown a no-hitter, let alone stopped himself from tearing off his clothes and eating grass off the infield turf. In fact, Wikipedia reports that his teammates did not take this tale seriously: “John Mehno, a reporter who had ‘extensive interactions’ with Ellis over his career, was skeptical about many stories told by Ellis, including the LSD no-hitter. Mehno said that he has not found a teammate who would corroborate the story.”

There’s also a tendency to view Ellis as a political rebel since he had a reputation for standing up to authority, especially owners and managers. Since his career overlapped with the “sixties”—1968 to 1979 specifically—you can understand why he might be associated with someone like Mohammed Ali, who also had a reputation for being “outrageous”. (I should add parenthetically that the “sixties” are in scare quotes because in reality it was much more the period between 1965 and 1975.) However, Ellis was not the sort of man who would speak at a Black power or antiwar rally, even though—as the film reveals—he got a letter of support from Jackie Robinson that was admittedly much more about Ellis’s spunk than willingness to take up political struggles. His most notable plunge into social issues was around sickle cell anemia, a disease that affects Blacks disproportionately (something that is not even mentioned in the film.)

Indeed, my own take on Ellis is that he had much more in common with a rock musician than a civil rights activist. His transgressions were much more about personal freedom than challenging racism. For example, when he showed up for practice in hair curlers, the Pirate manager told him to take them off, which he refused to do. The right to wear hair curlers won. In another showdown with another manager, Ellis challenged the orders that players could not drink at a hotel bar since that was properly the domain of the manager and the owners. While there was a large element of paternalism involved here, it was not particularly directed at Black players.

One can understand why Ellis would choose to fight over this since he was an alcoholic and a drug addict for the entire time he played professional ball. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2008 even though he had been sober for many years. With respect to drugs, his drug of choice was methamphetamine, the “greenies” that team trainers handed out like candy before a game. Ellis explains that pitchers were particularly prone to taking them since throwing a strike required tremendous concentration. Of course, that fact makes the likelihood of pitching a no-hitter on LSD almost laughable.

Once you put aside all the urban legend qualities of the Dock Ellis story, you are still left with a fascinating story about baseball during its last golden age—the period that coincided with the sixties radicalization. Ellis played for the Pittsburgh Pirates Black and Brown (Latino) players like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell and Al Oliver dominated the team. A number of them offer their heart-felt reminiscences of Ellis, who was universally beloved. The film also hears from former wives and other family members who stuck with him even when he was out of control. He was much better on the mound than he was at home or hotels.

Just after he retired, he went into rehab and conquered his demons. That led him to become a drug and alcohol counselor, a second career that he took very seriously.

I can recommend the film as a walk through memory lane, when baseball was at its peak and when Black and Latino players were in the spotlight, from Reggie Jackson to Roberto Clemente (Jackson was both Black and Latino.) These were larger than life personalities who were the opposite of a mush-mouth like Derek Jeter. Among them there was nobody more colorful than Dock Ellis, so much so that Donald Hall, a former poet laureate, decided to write a book about him, “Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball”.

To conclude on a related note. If there was ever a baseball player that deserved a full-scale documentary, it was Roberto Clemente who died in a plane crash delivering emergency aid to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. PBS made one a while back that can be ordered here: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/clemente/. Here’s an excerpt from a pdf of the show:

David Maraniss, biographer: Clemente was interested in more than sports. He was very political. And one of the people he admired most in the world was Martin Luther King. The one time we know that Dr. King went down to Puerto Rico, Clemente sought him out and spent most of a day with him, took him to his farm.

Robert Ruck, historian: Because he’s in the black community and because he’s traveling around it’s clear at that time that this is a guy that’s interested in what’s going on around him and has opinions about that. He’s not only an observer, he’s somebody who’s passionately connected to what’s going on. He’s talking about those things. He’s arguing about those things.

David Maraniss, biographer: It goes back to the way they were treated in spring training when they were on those buses going from one town to another and the white guys would go into a restaurant and bring back sandwiches to the, Clemente and a few blacks and Latinos. That was not going to fly with Clemente.

As a rule of thumb, when I watch a screener of a film scheduled to an art house like the Film Forum that I don’t care for very much, I will say nothing. In rare instances, when I moved to write about such a film, I will not post a “rotten” review to Rotten Tomatoes since I would prefer to use such a potentially damaging weapon against some Hollywood blockbuster. “Rocks in My Pocket” is one of those films.

Opening today at the IFC, this is an animated film whose unremitting grimness is only relieved in the final ten minutes or so when the director/screenwriter, upon whose life it is based, tells us that it is her art that has kept her from hanging herself long ago.

In the first five minutes Signe Baumane, a Latvian-American animator with all sorts of credentials in the film business and in the academy, tells us through an animated figure of herself that she has been grappling with the problems of suicide for the longest time. Her biggest issue appears to be how to deal with the likelihood that her piss and shit will come pouring out of her reflexively as the noose tightens around her neck. The excrement is depicted graphically multiple times in a cartoon reenactment of her suicide.

Once we are past that bit of business, we are given what amounts to a family history that dwells at length on the mental illness of her grandmother—the film’s major character—and her female descendants. In a nutshell, men in particular and a male-dominated society victimize the women after the fashion of Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” but the tale is told without Plath’s quirky dark humor. There are attempts at such dark humor but they fail miserably. As a writing instructor at NYU once told our class 40 years, comedy is much more difficult to write than serious drama. If you need any confirmation of that, just look at the last 15 Woody Allen films.

Even more problematically, the animated characters do not speak to each other. Instead Baumane’s voice-over tells you what they did and what they thought. For the entire 90 minutes of the film, her voice never quits. This decision was enough to torpedo the film, even if it had Sylvia Plath’s deeper awareness of the human condition and of woman’s oppression.

Baumane grew up in Latvia. In addition to her cousins who were plagued by depression and even more serious mental illnesses, the other major victim was her nation that suffered from Russian domination. Since the publicity for the film played up that connection, I was anxious to see it as another take on the “satellite” country experience. Unfortunately she really had no insights into Soviet society. Her biggest complaint was that Soviet psychiatrists fed pills to mental patients, as if that was an experience unique to Stalinist society.

I think that depression and mental illness are matters that deserve to be covered in an art film. I hope that Signe Baumane got something out of making it, even if it left me more depressed than I have been in years.


August 21, 2014

Three narrative films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 10:38 pm

While none of the films under review here will make it to my top five of the year list, I can recommend them as having something of interest to real film buffs. Not surprisingly, none were made in the United States, where filmmaking—along with everything else—is going down the tubes.

The first is “Starred Up”, a British film that opens on August 27th at the IFC and at the Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center. “Starred Up” is prison slang for a juvenile offender who has been transferred to an adult facility because of chronic bad behavior.

Wikipedia reports that there have been 239 prison films made since 1929, including such favorites as “Each Day I Die”, “Bird Man of Alcatraz” and “Cool Hand Luke”. Filmmakers keep returning to this genre because it lends itself to the kind of climaxes all blockbuster movies aspire to—a prison break, a riot, a redemption of an unredeemable character, an execution, etc. If there’s a risk of being subjected to a stream of clichés, you have nobody but yourself to blame since probably every plot and character permutation has appeared in the 239 films in this category.

“Starred Up” is far more committed to realism than the average prison film. Indeed, if it weren’t for the very heavy working-class British accents (the film would have benefited from subtitles like Ken Loach’s “Sweet Sixteen”), you would think that you were watching one of those MSNBC Saturday afternoon reality shows set in prison. Filmed in an actual prison, “Starred Up” makes a genuine effort at conveying both the tedium of prison life as well as its stormy violent interludes. In one scene the main character fights off six cops who enter his cell to take him off for punishment, just as occurs on the MSNBC shows. Like the long-running “Cops”, there certainly is drama involved in police or guard combat with the criminal element. While MSNBC and “Cops” never show cops as sadistic lawbreakers, that is exactly what you will see in most prison films that from the very beginning, starting with “I was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, take the side of the victimized prisoner.

Eric Love is a 19-year-old with a hair-trigger temper and a talent for fisticuffs to back it up. Played by Jack O’Connell, Eric is a young man who treats everybody as a potential enemy including his father Neville (Ben Mendelsohn) serving a long stretch in the same prison.

Anything and everything will set him off. Early on he beats a man half to death over a misinterpreted offense. When the guards come to haul him off to solitary confinement, he fights them to a standstill. Perhaps because of his youth and perhaps because of the challenge of reaching someone who appears unreachable, the prison psychotherapist (Rupert Friend) intercedes and recruits him to his ongoing group therapy sessions.

Eric is at first cynical about the therapist and refuses to take it seriously. But the other prisoners, who are Black and old enough to be his father, manage to get him to lose the attitude. Suffice it to say that this is not a “redemption” tale. Things conspire against such a pat ending, including his out-of-control father and the corrupt prison administration.

The best thing about the film is Jack O’Connell’s performance one—in a nutshell—that is more convincing than any I have ever seen from an actor. The ultimate anti-Jean-Claude van Damme performance, so to speak.

Jonathan Asser, a British poet and performance artist who was asked to do a show at the young offenders prison in Feltham, wrote the screenplay. Once he was exposed to prison life, he transitioned into a career as a therapist just like the character in the film whose methods were the same as the ones he used. Although the screenplay is rough around the edges, the film is a compelling portrait of society’s outcasts. To Asser’s credit and to the credit of everybody who took part in the film, this is one prison film that stands out from the pack.

Salvo opens up tomorrow at the Howard Gilman Theater in Lincoln Center. The title might evoke the gunplay that occurs in this film about a mafia hitman, another well-worn genre, but it is rather the first name of the character we meet in the truly exciting first five minutes of the film.

Salvo Mancuso is the driver/bodyguard for an aging Palermo don who kills five attackers in a bid on his boss’s life. As he stands before the sole survivor, who he has shot in the leg, he demands the name of the man who has organized the hit. Once he has extracted the information by squeezing on the bullet wound, he places his hand over the man’s forehead like a priest giving benediction—and then puts a bullet through it.

The next day he sneaks into the house of the boss’s rival and discovers that the sole occupant is the gangster’s sister, a beautiful blind woman. After he gags her and ties her up, he lies in wait for her brother’s return. After he arrives, Salvo dispatches him with ease—he is a master craftsman at his trade. But instead of killing his sister, he puts her in the trunk of his car and drives her to a hideout in the countryside where he buries her brother. For the next few days, he looks after her intermittently but without anything that would betray his attraction to her. As the film reaches its climax, we learn that he has violated his boss’s instructions to kill her as well as fallen hopelessly in love with her.

The plot owes much to Hong Kong cinema where hitman often have hearts of gold buried beneath a stony demeanor and fists of steel. But this is not a Hong Kong type action film. It is much more like the underrated George Clooney vehicle “The American”, a film in which he plays a moody assassin who would seem far more at home painting nudes in a garret on the Left Bank and drinking absinthe.

The film has an esthetic that is one part classic Antonioni and one part Calvin Klein commercial. There is not much in it that is believable but it is a visual feast with a knack for the unexpected, like a scene in which eats tuna out of can in the kitchen of his temporary host. This is the Sicilian mafia, after all, not the New Jersey nouveau riche.


I have subsequently learned that Salvo was played by Saleh Bakri, a Palestinian. Here is an excerpt from an interview he gave to the Conversations with Palestine website:

LMaDO: Israel calls itself the “Jewish State”, the State of and for the Jews even though more than 20% of its population is Palestinian. You’ve partly answered and it’s very interesting to hear your views, but you’ve received awards from Israel, as an Israeli actor. So are you a Palestinian or an Israeli actor?

SB: I was born a Palestinian and will remain a Palestinian. I don’t believe that I could even be called an Israeli or that any Palestinian could be called Israeli because first of all Israeli is an hebrew name and I am not Jewish, I am Arab. It’s like calling Muhammad-Moshe. It cannot happen. It’s something that is not related to me in any way. Above all, Israel is not something that I feel any attachment to, anything good towards. It destroyed my life, my father’s life, my family, my nation’s life. And it’s still destroying it. I have nothing in common with this destruction, this racism, this separateness, this injustice. It’s the opposite, I care about Palestine as a place for everybody, as a place that was never Islamic, Christian or Jewish. Palestine was always a place for everyone, for every religion. It’s a shame that this place that has so much history and energy can be occupied by one religion. It should remain for everybody.

Finally, there is “The Auction”, a French Canadian film that can be described as a twist on the King Lear tragedy. The main character, a 63-year-old man named Gaby, owns a farm in the Quebec countryside where he raises sheep and lives in splendid isolation with his pet dog. His only friend is his accountant who has just brought over a computer that will help Gaby manage his finances. He has about as much interest in the computer as he does in the modern novel. This is a man close to the roots—at least that is our first impression.

He receives a visit from his daughter Marie who lives in Montreal with her younger sister Frederique resides as well. Like most young people with a hunger for art, culture and wine bars, a farm is a good place to leave behind. Marie has bad news. She is divorcing her husband and will take over their house, where she will live with her two young sons. But there’s a hitch. She needs $200,000 to become the owner. Could Gaby put up the funds, she asks. Since the two daughters never bother to visit or even to phone their dad, you would think that he would tell her to get lost. That is what a modern-day King Lear would do.

But Gaby immediately decides to sell the farm and move into a senior citizen’s complex in the nearby town where he would look for work. Not only will he give up the independence he once enjoyed but the company of his pet dog that he decides to put down.

As a taciturn and expressionless personality, it is hard to read Gaby. Is he doing this out of love for his daughter or is he simply tired of mending fences, shearing sheep, and tending to the never-ending list of chores that comes with farm ownership. It is to the everlasting credit of this remarkable film that you are never quite sure. Long after you have seen the film, you will be thinking about the remarkable main character.

“The Auction” can be rented from FilmMovement.com, one of the “alternatives to Netflix” I wrote about last Friday.

August 14, 2014

Two films to be avoided like they were Ebola

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:09 pm

Last night I got an email from Harvey Karten, one of the founders of New York Film Critics Online and an all-round great guy, who asked me why I walked out of the press screening for “The Notebook”, a Hungarian film based on a novel by Ágota Kristóf. I also had a bad experience the same day with a press screening for “Expedition to the End of the World”, a Danish documentary opening at the Film Forum on August 20. It irked me so much that I emailed NYFCO colleague Avi Offer, who was at the screening, to get his take.

Generally I don’t bother writing “rotten” reviews of such films on Rotten Tomatoes, since I prefer to cut indies, foreign films and documentaries some slack. From time to time, when a publicist for such films will write me to ask what I thought the day after a screening, I might say that I didn’t care for the film at all but will refrain from trashing it on Rotten Tomatoes. When it comes to big budget crapola like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, it’s no holds barred.

After I wrote Avi Offer a quasi-tweet that “Expedition to the End of the World” was a “terminally crappy film”, he wrote back that he was “constantly wishing that Werner Herzog were the director instead!” Since the film was a fatalistic shoulder-shrugging affair about the extinction of the human race due to climate change, I might have been more amenable if it at least had Herzog’s knack for story telling and vivid characterization that is present in both his narrative and documentary films. But the film was bad both in terms of message and presentation.

“Expedition to the End of the World” is about the voyage of a three-masted schooner to the northeast coast of Greenland to study the geology and biology of a region formerly inaccessible. With global warming, it has become possible for such a ship to get through waters formerly blocked by ice floes.

The press notes quote a geologist who was part of the team: “Life on earth will survive us. We’re but a parenthesis in the development of the earth. And most likely a very short parenthesis.” Very likely this is the same geologist who explains that the bacteria contained in the permafrost will come to the surface once global warming reaches its peak toward the end of the 21st century. Human beings might perish but the bacteria will go on. This sense of impending doom is shared by just about everybody on board but there is not even the slightest expression of anger or dismay. The crew might be described as anti-catastropism writ large.

It might have been a better film if at least we had a better idea of what they were trying to find out. We see them hacking away at rock formations or depositing dead fish into containers for future laboratory examination but there is no attempt to make any sense of their activity. Nearly the entire film is devoted to the men (and one woman) doing pretty much the same thing a bunch of vacationers would be doing on one of those “see the wilderness” tours advertised in the back of National Geographic, like taking target practice with high-power rifles (they were meant for defense against polar bears that have largely disappeared due to habitat change), skimming rocks, sightseeing, playing a banjo, etc.

When they are not hanging out and having a grand old time, they are sitting around the galley dining table and philosophizing about existence, something that led Avi Offer to comment: “I thought it was never going to end when they started talking about the meaning of life!”

You can get a sense of director Daniel Dencik’s priorities from the short bios he put together on members of the crew:


Before he became one of the world’s greatest artists, he had the brown belt in karate. Before that, he was a squatter in Germany. He loves Slayer, Sarajevo and Strawberries.


Ideally she would be piracy. She is driven by an uncontrollable love for her animals, which she can only keep track of with her microscope.

Dreadful, just dreadful.

“The Notebook” was even dreadfuller—yes, I know, that is not a word. So much so that I walked out after a half-hour. Let me provide the gory details on what led up to me bailing out.

This is the story of 13-year old twin boys living in Budapest whose father is in the Hungarian army. So unconcerned about historical context, the screenplay makes no effort to explain that Hungary was allied with Nazi Germany during WWII.

When he returns from the front for a brief visit, the two boys are happy to see him and sad to see him go off to the battlefield once again. In his absence, they are instructed to enter everything that happens into a notebook that he bestows on them, along with two brown scarves.

Just after he leaves, their mother puts them on a train with her to escape Allied bombing of Budapest. Their destination is her mother’s tiny farm in the countryside far from the devastation being visited on the city in 1944.

Grandma is one of the most absurd caricatures I have run into in a film in a very long time. She greets her daughter and her two grandchildren with a long stream of invective. What did you do with the other kids, she asks? The mom says she only had the two boys. Oh, replies grandma, generally when a bitch has pups she drowns those she can’t take care of. In one of the film’s constant tendencies to depict unnatural reactions, the mom takes all this in stride. Evidently grandma hates her daughter with a passion, but no explanation is offered.

Perhaps she is just a misanthrope since after mom goes back to Budapest, she beats the children every day and twice on Sunday. On their first night there, they are forced to sleep outside. On the next day, when they are finally allowed into her filthy hovel, they learn that they have to do chores in exchange for food, including chopping firewood and other menial labor that the boys carry out dutifully. They become slave labor in effect.

Eventually they develop a strategy that will allow them to tolerate her beatings. They will beat each other to “toughen” themselves up to the point where her fists can be laughed off. We see the two boys beating each other with sticks and belts until they collapse to the ground, blood pouring from their nose and mouth. Just like the “Itchy and Scratchy” cartoons Bart and Lisa Simpson love.

Many years ago Esquire magazine used to run parodies in which a fairy tale would be retold in the style of famous writers. As “The Notebook” unfolded, I felt that I was watching Cinderella rewritten by Cormac McCarthy. This is a tale that is unrelentingly sadistic and ice-cold but salvaged—in the eyes of many—by its art-house flourishes. The twin boys are meant to be compelling after a gruesome fashion, like the “kid” in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” who would plunge a knife into your ribs if you caught him in a bad mood.

Last August Slavoj Žižek raved about the novel to Guardian readers as part of a series described as “a book that changed me”:

The Notebook tells the story of young twins living with their grandmother in a small Hungarian town during the last years of the second world war and the early years of communism. The twins are thoroughly immoral – they lie, blackmail, kill – yet they stand for authentic ethical naivety at its purest. A couple of examples should suffice. One day they meet a starving deserter in a forest and bring him some things he asks them for.

When we come back with the food and blanket, he says: ‘You’re very kind.’

We say: ‘We weren’t trying to be kind. We’ve brought you these things because you absolutely need them. That’s all.’

If there ever was a Christian ethical stance, this is it: no matter how weird their neighbour’s demands, the twins naively try to meet them. One night, they find themselves sleeping in the same bed as a German officer, a tormented gay masochist. Early in the morning, they awaken and want to leave the bed, but the officer holds them back:

‘Don’t move. Keep sleeping.’

‘We want to urinate. We have to go.’

‘Don’t go. Do it here.’

We ask: ‘Where?’

He says: ‘On me. Yes. Don’t be afraid. Piss! On my face.’

We do it, then we go out into the garden, because the bed is all wet.

I am glad that I walked out before the twins pissed on the Nazi officer’s face.

Zizek concludes his article:

This is where I stand, how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would have been a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.

Actually, there is some evidence that the super-star Elvis of Marxism achieved his goal some time ago, according to Lingua Franca:

Zizek says that he deals with student inquiries in a similar spirit. “I understand I have to take questions during my lectures, since this is America and everybody is allowed to talk about everything. But when it comes to office hours, I have perfected a whole set of strategies for how to block this,” he says with a smirk. “The real trick, however, is to minimize their access to me and simultaneously appear to be even more democratic!” Initially, Zizek scheduled office hours immediately before class so that students could not run on indefinitely. Then he came up with the idea of requiring them to submit a written question in advance, on the assumption that most would be too lazy to do it (they were). Zizek reserves what he calls “the nasty strategy” for large lecture classes in which the students often don’t know one another. “I divide the time into six twenty-minute periods and then fill in the slots with invented names. That way the students think that all the hours are full and I can disappear,” he explains.

Looks like someone else needs to get pissed on…

August 8, 2014

Alternatives to Netflix

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:45 pm

One of the four excellent films reviewed below.

I’ve Got a Home Cinema Jones…

Alternatives to Netflix


Living in New York and being press credentialed, I have access to foreign films, offbeat indies, documentaries—often connected to festivals–that never make their way to smaller cities and towns. That is one of the benefits still extant in a city rapidly being converted into a hedge fund Sodom and Gomorrah.

There is Netflix, of course. It does manage to include some offbeat items that unfortunately are the proverbial needles in a haystack. To address the needs of the serious cinephile, some websites have emerged over the past decade or so that take us into account. As opposed to Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus and Vudu that are accessible through a Smart TV, a Roku box, or a similar device, these websites can only be streamed to your computer. However, if you own a flat-screen TV with HDMI input, with which such TV’s are generally equipped, all you need to do is connect your computer to the TV and voila.

This is not an exhaustive review of all the websites that are alternatives to Netflix but they are among the most popular. Vyer and FilmMovement generally offer films that are not available on Netflix. But they have smaller inventories in comparison to Fandor and MUBI that do overlap to some extent with Netflix. However, Fandor and MUBI are not loaded down with the garbage on Netflix so it easier to find something worth watching, as is the case with two of the films I review below. Just out of curiosity, I checked to see if they were on Netflix and they were (“Sous les bombes” and the William S. Burroughs documentary). That being said, I never would have found them there since Netflix in its pandering to Cineplex tastes would have no incentive to highlight them.

All but one (FilmMovement) have trial memberships so it is worth checking them out to see which one most nearly meets your needs. I will say this, however. If you are a serious film buff without an art house in your city, you will find that the monthly fee that compares roughly with Netflix is well worth the price of admission. Plus, you can make your own popcorn at home without the tablespoons of salt that Cineplexes and most art house popcorn drench theirs in.

read full article

August 4, 2014

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

“The Winding Stream” opens today at the Elinor Bunin Theater at Lincoln Center. Simply put, it is the greatest documentary about musicians I have ever seen. The title of the film is a song made famous by the Carter Family, the subject of the film. But more broadly, it is about the great folk tradition of the Appalachian Mountains. In a period of deepening hatred and violence, watching a group of musicians expressing what is truly great about the USA is reason enough to put this film on your calendar. If there is anything civilized about this festering wound of a nation, it is that it produced musicians like the Carter Family.

Do not disturb my waking dream
The splendor of that winding stream
Flower in my canoe, his eyes they looked me through
That someone there with golden hair
Is very much like you

My knowledge of the Carter Family was probably about the same as most of my readers. I bought a copy of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle be Unbroken” in 1972 that featured Mother Maybelle Carter along with other country music pioneers. Then, 32 years later I saw Reese Witherspoon playing June Carter in “Walk the Line”, the Johnny Cash biopic. Neither the record nor the film prepared me for the astonishing story of arguably some of the most important musical pioneers of the 20th century.

Alvin Pleasant (AP) Carter grew up in rural Virginia and had much in common with many of his neighbors: deep religious faith, a love of music, and grinding poverty. When he wasn’t eking out a living as a farmer, he was performing at local dances and supplementing his income selling fruit tree seedlings door-to-door.

One day as he approached the home of a potential customer, he heard a young woman named Sarah Dougherty singing a folk song. When he came face to face with her, he knew that she would be his wife. What he didn’t know right off the bat was that she would become part of a trio called the Carter Family. AP’s cousin Maybelle would join him and his wife and start performing locally as the Carter Family. But they were not making the kind of money that would allow them to quit their day jobs. Indeed, for most local musicians performing was a sideline to farming, preaching, or other traditional ways of making a living.

That all changed when music producer Ralph Peer came down South to recruit local talent for a burgeoning recording industry that considered such music marketable. This was before the term country music was coined. Instead the Carter Family was playing what was called old-timey music. In 1927 Peer set up a temporary studio in Bristol, Tennessee and auditioned the Carter Family, who knocked him off his feet. In many ways this was the forerunner of the Sun Sessions of the 1950s that featured Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis et al. Not only was the Carter Family discovered at the Bristol Sessions; so was Jimmie Rodgers. After signing contracts with Peer, the Carter Family became full-time professionals.

The next big breakthrough occurred in the late 1930s when they were featured on XERA, a “border radio” station in Mexico along with some of the younger members of their extended family, including June Carter. The segment on their stint there is mind-boggling. Border radio came into existence when entrepreneurs felt thwarted by the 60 thousand kilowatt ceiling on radio transmitters. One of them was a physician named John Brinkley who upped the ante by creating a 250 thousand kilowatt transmitter that could reach not only the USA but also the entire world. As one interviewee put it, that was the Internet of its day.

Brinkley was able to launch the station with funds he made from a lucrative practice that amounted to the Viagra of his day. He earned millions performing surgery on men that involved putting a goat’s gonad nearby their testicles. Among the amazing film clips included in the documentary is Brinkley delivering a spiel about removing the hood of a clitoris so a woman could enjoy full sexual stimulation. Well, at least he helped the Carters reach millions.

The documentary moves along with interviews of Carter Family relatives, including Johnny Cash who appears to be close to the end of his life based on his snow-white hair and frail demeanor. In contrast to the morbid quality of his final great recordings, he is positively rapturous about the impact that the Carters had on him, long before he met June.

It also benefits from some very savvy commentary from musicians in the Carter tradition, including Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who adored Mother Maybelle. You see some amazing performances from the assembled musicians as well as footage of some incredible performances they were part of, including a duet of Hank Williams and Anita Carter, June’s sister.

I could write another thousand words about this amazing film but will leave it like this. If you get yourself over to Lincoln Center and begin watching it, a smile will come to you immediately and even stay with you hours after it ends. You could see one on my face now as I finish this review.

Five years ago I posted a Dossier on FBI entrapment in “war on terror” prompted by what had happened to four men in Newburgh who were arrested by the FBI for their alleged role in a plot to attack Riverdale synagogues and fire a missile at airplanes on the Stewart Air Force base tarmac. The NY Times displayed some skepticism about the arrest. An FBI agent provocateur had no luck recruiting men from a local mosque who regarded him as suspicious. Instead he approached someone who had only a fleeting connection to the mosque and who was more interested in a quick buck than in jihad. In claiming that the four men were Islamic terrorists, the District Attorney did not let the facts get in the way:

Law enforcement officials initially said the four men were Muslims, but their religious backgrounds remained uncertain Thursday. Mr. Payen reported himself to be Catholic during his 15-month prison sentence that ended in 2005, according to a state corrections official. Mr. Cromitie and Onta Williams both identified themselves as Baptists in prison records, although Mr. Cromitie changed his listed religion to Muslim upon his last two incarcerations; David Williams reported no religious affiliation.

Now, five years after their arrest and five years into their 25-year sentences, HBO has begun airing a documentary titled “The Newburgh Sting” that is both a stunning exposé of the entrapment but a timely warning to all people involved in social struggles to maintain a watchful eye against those who urge “more revolutionary” actions such as planting bombs. From the looks of things, they are likely to be FBI operatives.

Much of the film consists of footage that was recorded by hidden FBI cameras to make its case. There is something both pathetic and comic about the discussions that take place between the “brains” behind the conspiracy and his unwitting dupes. Sadly, the four men, who are not very bright, show little appetite for killing anybody and are far more interested in talking about what they are going to do with the money they make. As happens universally in such cases, there was less than a zero possibility that any of them would have gotten involved in such a plot if the FBI had not set the gears in motion, particularly a Haitian youth who was barely capable of taking care of himself even if he had a bankroll. The NY Times reported:

Payen, described as a nervous, quiet sort who took medication for schizophrenia or a bi-polar disorder, was unemployed and living in squalor in Newburgh. His last arrest, in 2002, was for assault, after he drove around the Rockland County village of Monsey, firing a BB gun out of the window — striking two teens — and snatching two purses. A friend who visited Mr. Payen’s apartment on Thursday said it contained bottles of urine, and raw chicken on the stovetop.

For those of you who are HBO subscribers, you are probably aware that it has supplanted PBS as a primary source of cutting edge documentaries. It broke the story on the West Memphis Satanic Cult miscarriage of justice and is continuing in that vein with “The Newburgh Sting”.

“The Newburgh Sting” can be seen on-demand from HBO now. If you are not a subscriber, I suggest you find a friend who is or find a new friend with one if necessary. This is an important film. And if you can’t make such a connection, I urge you to go to the film’s website (http://www.thenewburghsting.com/) and find out how you can get involved in reversing the railroad convictions of four young men whose main offense is being gullible and desperately poor.

Finally, while on the subject of PBS’s failure, I can at least recommend a documentary titled “Fallen City” that can now be seen on their website until August 28: http://www.pbs.org/pov/fallencity/

It was directed by Qi Zhao, who served as executive producer for “Last Train Home”, a powerful study of the hardships faced by factory workers forced to leave rural poverty.

“Fallen City” looks at the plight of three families in Beichuan, a small city that was totally destroyed in the Sichuan province earthquake of 2008 that killed 69,195 people and left 18,392 missing.

Initially I was disappointed to discover that the film says nothing about the failure of the government to enforce earthquake-resistant building codes but was finally able to accept it on its own terms as a study of how people cope (or in some ways, not cope) with a terrible disaster. All families lost love ones in the earthquake and have been barely able to move forward. In one case, the loss of a beloved daughter has left a husband and wife incapable of bringing a new child into the world.

The director’s statement on the website linked to above should give you a sense of his motivation in making the film:

I’ll remember for the rest of my life the day when I arrived in the worst-hit city in the earthquake zone, Beichuan. The wreckage was greater than anything in a Hollywood disaster film. Survivors stumbled along with their belongings in baskets; a lady was crawling among the debris of a school, crying for her only son. A man was begging rescuers to stop digging him out because he would rather die with his wife and child, who lay beneath him; a young boy was checking every body bag for his parents. Sirens screeched, helicopters deafened, smoke and dust mixed with the smell of rotten corpses and disinfectants. For a while, all I could do was cry. But then, my instincts led me to film very wide and long shots, slowly and quietly. It was the only way to make sense of the turmoil, and it captured the soul of the disaster.



July 26, 2014

The Kill Team

Filed under: Afghanistan,Film — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

Arguably, the only good things to come out of the war in Afghanistan are the more than 30 documentaries depicting the American role as nothing less than heinous. Joining “Restrepo” and “The Tillman Story” in the top ranks is “The Kill Team”, which opened yesterday at Lincoln Center (full schedule information, including a nationwide rollout is here: http://killteammovie.com/see-the-film).

Dan Krauss’s documentary has an eerie resemblance to the tale told by Oliver Stone in “The Platoon”. An idealistic young Floridian named Adam Winfield joins the army to “do some good”, which in his mind meant helping villagers build wells and roads while protecting them from the Taliban.

Calvin Gibbs, his sergeant, has other goals, which are best indicated by the skull and crossbones tattooed on his calf. After being assigned to his unit, Winfield learns that Sergeant Gibbs, who has served in Iraq where he obviously learned his tricks, is determined to add notches to his gun barrel whether or not his victims are Taliban or not. Winfield is horrified to witness Gibbs killing an Afghan in cold blood and then planting an AK-47 near his dead body, after the fashion of New York cops planting a pistol on someone they have just blown away. Afterwards he cuts off the man’s finger and adds to a necklace he has fashioned, reminiscent of how Indian scalps were collected in the Wild West.

When Winfield begins to tell other men in his unit that he can’t abide such killings, and even urges his ex-Marine father to contact military investigators, Gibbs gets wind of his subordinate’s intentions and warns him that he will be next if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut.

If you have seen “Platoon”, you will recognize the similarity to the conflict between the character played by Charlie Sheen and his murderous sergeant played by Tom Berenger. Unlike “Platoon”, the two men in Krauss’s films are nowhere near equal. Winfield was about 100 pounds when he was enlisted, so light that he drank a gallon of water just to make the minimum weight while his sergeant was over 200 pounds.

Pressure built on Winfield to the point that he finally relented and joined Gibbs’s death squad for one hit that was eventually discovered during an investigation about hashish smoking in his unit.

Most of the film consists of testimony by Winfield and the men in his unit (except for Gibbs) who while not being proud of their role in the killings argue that this is what the army is about. It was Winfield’s misfortune to be caught in an untenable situation, one in which he would be a loser whatever choice he made. If he succumbed to Gibbs’s pressure, he would become a killer himself. If he became a whistle-blower, he would be killed.

The main message of the film is that the real kill team was not the group under Gibbs’s command but the entire military. It is to director Dan Krauss’s credit that he has made a highly dramatic and necessary documentary. It will make you both sad and angry, just the way that the long, long war in Afghanistan does.

Highly recommended.

July 18, 2014


Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 11:51 am

Conquistadors as Liberators?

The Mad, Mad Mayan World of Mel Gibson


Since I doubt that any CounterPuncher would be inclined to watch Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” except on a dare, I almost decided not to include a spoiler alert. Gibson’s reputation precedes him, so much so that I avoided watching the film for the longest time. On a particularly arid cable TV and Netflix evening a month or so ago, I decided to give it a shot partly out of boredom and partly out of morbid curiosity.

I will give the devil his due. Gibson threw caution to the wind and made a movie that defied conventional Hollywood studio expectations. This is a tale set some time in the distant past in the Mayan empire of Central America that pits a classless hunting and gathering society against Mayan class society, with Gibson standing up for the primitive communists—as Frederick Engels dubbed such peoples.

Ironically, the film echoes “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” with the hunting and gatherers living in a state of peace and harmony soon to be threatened by a technologically more advanced society but one with more retrograde values. Also, like the original “Planet of the Apes” that starred Charlton Heston, “Apocalypto” relies on a deus ex machinasurprise ending that is intended as a commentary on civilization and progress.

The plot of “Apocalypto” is quite simple. Within fifteen minutes after the beginning of the film, a Mayan raiding party attacks a small village living in Yanomami-like simplicity deep within the rain forest, killing women and children wantonly. The men are then put in chains and led off to a Mayan city, where they are doomed to be sacrificed to the gods in the grizzliest fashion. A high priest cuts open the captives’ chests one by one and plucks out the still-beating heart to the adulation of the Mayan masses.

Gibson makes sure to make the Mayans look as scary as possible, with tattoos and piercings in such abundance that you might think you are in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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July 11, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”; “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:41 am

Counterpunch WEEKEND EDITION JULY 11-13, 2014

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2”

A Survival Guide to Summer Blockbusters


“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “How to Train Your Dragon 2” are sequels to two films that made it to my five best list in years past. Two nights ago I attended a press screening for the first film that opens everywhere on Friday, while the second I saw in a neighborhood theater as probably the only person eligible for senior discount to have done so. The films deal with a question that is at the heart of the human condition under late capitalism, namely how to relate to animals—the quintessential Other. Of course, dragons never really existed but in the animated feature they have much more in common with horses and dogs. Even though they breathe fire and can fly, they turn out to be anxious to be domesticated, the conceit that makes the animated feature so endearing—even to an old crab like me. Unfortunately the Dragon sequel is not nearly so good as the first in the series, a victim of Hollywood’s lust for profits. But the Apes movie fares much better, to the point of topping the original. Of course, leaving James Franco out of the sequel would guarantee that.

For those who did not see the first film, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a canny fictionalization of the questions posed in the documentary “Project Nim”. Franco plays a scientist attempting to teach the chimpanzee Caesar how to communicate after the fashion of the experiments conducted by Columbia University professor Herb Terrace on Nim Chimpsky from an early age. The animal was named after the MIT linguist who was firm in the belief that only human beings can use language, either spoken or signed.

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July 9, 2014


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

This is the third and final installment on the 2014 NY Asian Film Festival.

Tonight’s feature “Firestorm” is a Hong Kong policier that can best be described as 118 minutes of blazing machine-gun battles between cops and gangsters rendered as artistically as a Balanchine ballet.

Veteran Hong Kong actor Andy Lau plays Inspector Lui (no relation), who seeks to capture or kill a gang that picks out targets on the basis of how “exciting” they are. It turns out that armored cars are their favorites, just as lions prefer wildebeests. In each of the robberies about as many bullets fly back and forth as in the Battle of the Bulge.

These gangsters are merciless. How merciless, you ask? Merciless enough to toss a 10-year-old girl out a 3rd story window as her father watches helplessly. That was his punishment for being a snitch.

Caught in the middle is a guy named Bong who upon getting out of prison returns to gangster life despite the threat that poses to his marriage. This is about as much human drama you are going to get out of a Hong Kong flick that makes “Kill Bill” look like an Eric Rohmer story. Gordon Lam plays Bong. Like Lau, he is a veteran of Hong Kong gangster movies well known to those addicted to the genre like me.

Alan Yuen wrote the screenplay and directed “Firestorm”. You almost get the sense that he was trying to establish a new benchmark for wild shoot-outs, one that would make John Woo retire from filmmaking or at least stick to Chinese counterparts of Eric Rohmer.

The climax of the film lasts for about 20 minutes and includes a mind-boggling exchange of gunfire that sets off a huge gas main explosion that leads to a sinkhole swallowing up cops, cars, buses, subway trains, and countless law-abiding citizens. It is the most breathtaking series of images I have seen since the closing moments of Takashi Miike’s “Dead or Alive” in which a standoff between a cop and a gangster leads to a nuclear Armageddon.

You will likely forget about “Firestorm” the minute you leave the theater but while it is rolling, you will have as much fun as if you were on a roller coaster. I loved it.

Check http://www.filmlinc.com/films/series/new-york-asian-film-festival-2014 for time and place.


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