Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 23, 2009

Radiant City; The Unforeseen

Filed under: Ecology,Film,Koch-Lorber — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

Two powerful documentaries about the social and environmental impacts of suburban sprawl are now available on home video. The first, “Radiant City“, combines the documentary form with some surrealistic touches in an effort to show how far removed a vast subdivision of Calgary is from the title of a 1935 Le Corbusier book: “La Ville radieuse“, or radiant city. The second is “The Unforeseen“, which explores a struggle that took place in Austin, Texas about 25 years ago between environmentalists and some truly villainous real estate developers. If these two movies do not convince you that suburbia is no longer sustainable or worth sustaining for that matter, then nothing will.

“Radiant City” is a story narrated by members of the Moss family who live in one of the oversized new homes in a vast subdivision that is utterly devoid of trees. The houses seem as if they were dropped from helicopters onto barren tundra, with no more than 10 or 15 feet separating each house. Apart from the occasional swimming pool and strip mall, there is not a single amenity associated with urban life. The two Moss children escort the viewer around their neighborhood making sardonic observations. We follow the boy to the top of a cell phone transmitter tower where the rooftops of what Malvina Reynolds once called “little boxes” can be seen in all directions, except these boxes are rather large. He tells us that he can’t stay in the tower too long because it will fry his brain and maybe cause a tumor.

The father admits that the subdivision is sterile and depressing but confesses that he had no alternative. If he wanted to live in a more traditional suburban or urban neighborhood, he would have had to accept far less space. Ironically, the creation of such oversized houses has led to an increasing atomization since such subdivisions foster a retreat to one’s own house where recreation (video games, cable TV, etc.) are geared to the family unit rather than the community as a whole. For that matter, there really is no such thing as community in the subdivision even though its inhabitants keep using the word.

One of the experts on urban malaise interviewed throughout “Radiant City” is James Howard Kunstler – the author of “The Geography of Nowhere,” who co-director Jim Brown acknowledges as a major influence. In an interview that can be read in the press notes section of the movie’s website, Brown explains his purpose in making such a movie:

Suburbs promise the good life – but they don’t deliver it. They promise community but in fact they atomize people into weird anti-communities. Walk down a street in a recently built suburb – and it’s so eerie and quiet. There’s nobody on the streets. No birds because there are no trees. Sprawl eliminates the features that make communities distinct. Unique local characteristics disappear in a strange monoculture. As we approach an age of resource scarcity – suburbia is the worst possible model for urban development. It overtaxes our dwindling supplies of petroleum and water. But I I don’t think it will change until we’re hit with a real crisis, and it may already be too late. India and China are racing to copy us, but there’s still no real will here in the West to change. We’re not ready to turn the corner yet.

“The Unforeseen” pits local Austin residents committed to the traditionally laid-back, nature-worshipping life style of this truly beautiful city and real estate developers bent on turning it into another Houston or Dallas. As someone who lived in Houston, Texas in the early 1970s on assignment with the Socialist Workers Party (trust me, that’s the only way I would have ended up there) and who had occasion to visit Austin from time to time, I can assure you that it was like going from hell up to heaven. With its sterile subdivisions, parking garages and strip malls, Houston, Texas might be considered as a sister city to the Calgary of “Radiant City”.

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Gary Bradley, an ambitious real estate developer who built a 4000-acre Circle C Ranch subdivision just outside of Austin, just on the brink of the Savings and Loan crisis which destroyed him. As interviewee Bill Greider explains the real estate bubble of the early 1990s, you are struck by how similar it is to the one today. In either case, you are dealing with a financial industry that has convinced itself that there will be an inexhaustible market for suburban housing and shopping centers that will reach to the moon and in both cases the finance/construction tower of Babel comes crashing to the ground.

Before the crash, Bradley enters into an alliance with another real estate developer to take on the local environmentalists who question the benefits of suburban sprawl, especially the impact it will have on Barton Springs, a local waterhole that has been a Mecca to local residents for generations. That developer is none other than Freeport-McMoran, the multinational corporation that operates a gold mine in Papua, New Guinea that has been responsible for dumping a mountain of waste into local streams. In other words, the perfect company to turn Austin into a toxic dump.

Dick Brown, a lobbyist for Freeport-McMoran, is interviewed throughout the movie making the case for “property rights”, all the while working on a plastic model of an F-16 fighter plane. It is hard to tell which is more off-putting, the spectacle of a grown man playing with such a creepy toy or his defense of profits above people.

The movie also features interviews with Robert Redford, one of the movie’s producers, who used to visit Barton Springs as a child and still has vividly pleasant memories of those days. He also has fond memories of Los Angeles in the early 1940s before it too became like Calgary and Houston. Although I don’t have much use for celebrity liberals in general, I found his observations truly affecting since they jibe with my own reflections on a golden age that has disappeared. Even though my own home town remains as rustic and under-populated as it was in the 1950s, the local lake has been destroyed by “development”, i.e., sewer drainage.

While I was watching the two movies, I could not but help make the connection with indigenous peoples who lived near Calgary and Austin, one group I know through direct contact and the other through scholarly material.

Calgary is in Alberta, the home of the Blackfoot reservation that lies on the border with Montana. I visited the reservation about 10 years ago and got a chance to see first-hand how American Indians lived. No matter how impoverished, they still valued community (and communal values) in a way that the contemporary suburban dwellers of Calgary cannot.

Meanwhile, I am finishing a reading project that has lasted nearly 6 months that is focused on three tribes of the Southwest: the Comanche, the Apaches, and the Quechuans-all of whom are represented as savagely dangerous “Others” in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian”. Suffice it to say, the Indians of the 18th and 19th century should not be romanticized in “noble savage” fashion, but up until they were fully integrated into the capitalist economy that surrounded them, they knew how to live in harmony with nature. At the risk of sounding reactionary, I would argue that we have to learn such lessons from the savage or die at the hands of civilized capitalist excess.

January 15, 2009

Cautiva; The Monastery

Filed under: Film,Koch-Lorber — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

(Both movies are available from Netflix)

Although the 2003 “Cautiva” shares a plot very similar to the 1985 “The Official Story”, there is one crucial difference. In “The Official Story”, the adopted daughter of desaparecidos parents is only 5 years old and is too young to be emotionally torn apart by the knowledge that her adoptive parents were part of the system that killed her birth parents. Most of the drama in the 1985 Argentinean movie revolves around the mother’s mounting feelings of guilt and her eventual break with her husband, a conservative businessman.

In “Cautiva”, the adopted child is a teenager whose world is torn apart when she discovers that she is the daughter of desaparecidos as well. The movie begins by placing Cristina Quadri (Bárbara Lombardo) into her social context. She is an utterly conventional girl who goes to Catholic school and has just celebrated a birthday thrown by her adoring parents, who she adores in turn. Her family life can be described as one of utter middle-class normalcy.

A few days after her birthday party, Cristina is summoned to the principal’s office at school in a fashion that has all the mystery of Kafka’s “The Trial”. There she is introduced to a deputy of a federal judge who has been instructed to bring her to the judge’s office. He cannot tell her why she is being brought there, nor can she inform her parents of her destination. At the judge’s office, the mystery is lifted. It turns out that Cristina is actually Sofía Lombardi, the daughter of two architect parents who were killed in a local prison during the “dirty war”, and the court intends to turn her over to her grandmother who she has never seen. A blood test has revealed that she is indeed related to the grandmother and not her adoptive parents. As soon as Cristina hears this shocking news, she bolts from her chair, runs out of the judge’s office and out of the courthouse.

After she returns home, she is assured by her parents that there must be a mistake. Her father, a retired cop, curses the judge and promises to clear things up through connections he has in the legal system. But eventually the police show up at their house armed with a court order to bring Cristina to her grandmother, a woman named Elisa Dominich (Susana Campos).

Consumed with grief at being torn from the only parents she has ever known, Cristina holds Elisa at arm’s length and views living with her at first as practically living in captivity. The judge has given her strict instructions against returning home, warning her that her adoptive parents might even face jail terms if they open their doors to her. As much as justice was being served by returning Cristina to her blood relatives, there is a great degree of unintended pain associated with a separation that is bound to impact an adolescent much more so than any other age group.

Eventually Cristina begins to spend time in her blood mother’s bedroom, which has been preserved as a kind of altar by her grandmother. As she spends more and more time there, she begins to feel a deepening affinity for the woman who undoubtedly gave birth to her. When a schoolmate whose father was “disappeared” introduces Cristina to the prison nurse that was present at her birth and who then turned her over to her adoptive parents illegally, Cristina finally decides to accept her new identity and go forward in life as Sofía Lombardi.

While this ending cannot exactly be described as “happy”, it is by no means typical of what has happened in Argentina since the restoration of democracy. The epilogue to “Cautiva” states that of the tens of thousands of desaparecidos, only 87 children have been returned to blood relatives. And just as importantly, the epilogue states that not a single person responsible for murder or torture during “the dirty war” has been punished.

Much of the work of returning the estimated 500 children to their blood relatives has been assumed by Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, whose website explains:

History of Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo

Children Who Disappeared or Who Were Born in Captivity

The drama of children who disappeared in our country, the Argentine Republic, is one of the consequences of the National Reorganization Process enforced by the military dictatorship, which ruled the country between 1976 and 1983.

These children are the children of our children, who have also disappeared. Many babies were kidnapped with their parents, some after their parents were killed, and others were born in clandestine detention centers where their mothers were taken after having been sequestered at different states of their pregnancies.

We, the babies’ grandmothers, tried desperately to locate them and, during these searches, decided to unite. Thus, in 1977, the non-governmental organization called Abuelas (Grandmothers) de Plaza de Mayo was established, dedicated specifically to fighting for the return of our grandchildren. We also relentlessly investigated our children’s and grandchildren’s disappearances, in hopes of finding them.

Although the documentary “The Monastery” has absolutely no connection to the concerns that are typically addressed in my movie reviews, I can recommend it wholeheartedly. Rather than spend time trying to tell my left-oriented readership why it is worth their while, I will simply post Stuart Klawans’s brief review that appeared in the August 23, 2007 Nation Magazine. I agree with every word of it:

Of all the odd tasks people have undertaken in the movies–from setting the speed record for visiting the Louvre to building an opera house in the Amazon jungle–none is stranger than Jørgen Vig’s project in The Monastery. An octogenarian bachelor, long retired from a career as a university librarian and priest, Vig has installed himself in a crumbling, leaky, unheated castle that he bought cheap many years ago in Hesbjerg, far out in the Danish countryside. Now, he thinks, maybe he’ll hand this property to the Moscow Patriarchate so his castle can become the first Russian Orthodox monastery on Danish soil.

It’s all true. Directed and photographed by Pernille Rose Grønkjær, The Monastery is a sly, quiet documentary about Vig’s scheme and how it changes him, once the Patriarchate sends Sister Ambrosija as the head of a small delegation to live in his castle. Did Vig offer the property just to have such companionship? If so, he’d never admit it. Thin, stooped and toothless, with his face entirely circled by a wispy mane of white hair and his oversize eyeglasses propped far down his nose, Vig claims never to have felt love, or to have wanted to feel it. “I suppose I’m deformed in some way,” he says, with the frankness of a curmudgeon for whom all questions are settled. But you can sense his excitement as he cleans up in anticipation of the nuns’ arrival. (He does all the work himself.) And you see how respect, curiosity, gallantry and resentment mingle in him when the much younger Sister Ambrosija walks in and starts giving orders. She is taking charge of two wrecks: the building and Vig.

With its perilous castle in the forest, its creaky old wizard and intrepid heroine from a far-off land, The Monastery has been likened to a fairy tale. Grønkjær herself has made the comparison–but she’s had the wisdom to let those in the audience enter the enchantment gradually, in their own time. A popular selection on the festival circuit, The Monastery begins a US theatrical run on August 29, at Film Forum in New York.

(Both of these movies have been released on home video through Koch-Lorber)

January 2, 2009

Making of; 9 Star Hotel

Filed under: Film,immigration,Islam,Koch-Lorber — louisproyect @ 11:49 pm

Today someone named Doug complained on my blog about the 2008 movie consumer guide. Apparently I was shirking my responsibilities to the Palestinians:

Yes, let’s discuss films. Meanwhile, Mr Marxist, no-one would know from this web-site that the Israelis have been committing war crimes in Gaza.

At the risk of angering my sectarian critic even further, I am going to review two more films today. One is titled “Making Of” and was made in Tunisia in 2006. The director is Nouri Bouzid, who has explored issues of Islam and politics over a 30 year career.

“Making Of” tells the story of Bahta, a 25 year old break dancer who falls in with jihadists who plan to turn him into a suicide bomber. The other is a documentary titled “9 Star Hotel” that features a group of Palestinian undocumented construction workers who live in packing crates in the hills overlooking the fancy hotel they are working on.

Perhaps I am a sybaritic sell-out, but I always thought that I had an obligation to alert the left to such movies, which constitute the overwhelming majority that I write about. If the left has an obligation to tell the true story about what is going in Gaza, it also has a similar obligation to make as many people as possible aware of movies that present an alternative to the mind-numbing, reactionary junk coming out of Hollywood. For as long as I have been a member of New York Film Critics Online, I have always seen my role as ferreting out and calling attention to movies like “Making Of” and “9 Star Hotel”. My colleagues, who mostly do not share my politics, appreciate that I have made this my calling even if some dogmatic Marxists do not.

As many of you are aware, hip-hop culture has diffused all over the world, including Tunisia apparently. When the movie begins, we see Bahta (played brilliantly by Lotfi Abdelli who has a passing resemblance to the young Eric Bosogian as well as his feral energy) leading his crew to their destination, a large tunnel that is ideal for break dancing. On their way there, they spray-paint their “tags” on fences and walls. Just as Bahta is in the middle of a dance routine, the cops raid the tunnel and haul everybody off to jail. This is not the first time that Bahta has been arrested, as the cops remind him.

Bahta’s dream is to go to Europe, where he can make it as professional dancer. A Tunisian “coyote” warns him that since it is much more difficult to get into Europe after September 11th, the costs of transit have gone up considerably. The movie takes place during the fall of Baghdad in 2003, when the “war on terror” has made the trip even more difficult. Since Bahta is virtually penniless to start with, his chances are dim at best.

After his father catches Bahta in the act of stealing from an elderly relative who lives with the family, he whips him with a belt. Without income, it is impossible for him to sustain a relationship with his girlfriend Souad (Afef Ben Mahmoud), who is also tired of his hip-hop life-style and run-in’s with the law. After Bahta and his crew confront Souad’s new boy-friend, the cops come and run him in once again. His cousin, who works as a cop, has a soft spot and invites him to crash at his place until his parents are no longer steamed at him.

The next day Bahta is inspired to don his cousin’s uniform and bursts into a local coffee shop filled with card playing, hookah-smoking regulars. Now it is Bahta’s turn to play the role of a cop after the fashion of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony”. It is the most powerful scene in the movie and is played to the hilt by Lotfi Abdelli as a kind of wild postcolonial soliloquy.

After getting himself worked up into a kind of cold frenzy, Bahta tells the men (and more importantly himself) how things work in modern Tunisia:

The rule of law reigns in this country.

We give you a bit of democracy and what have you done with it?

We’re watching you.

I’ll give you all a passport. No more illegal immigration.

Tomorrow you can pick up your visas, go to the embassy. They’ll welcome you with open arms. And pick up your visas, go to Europe. There you’ll find a rich blond and marry her. Marry, sort out your papers, but no naughty stuff.

Two of the men turn out to be members of a jihadist cell who are impressed with Bahta’s performance, so much so that they decide to introduce him to their leader, an avuncular stonemason who takes Bahta into his household in an attempt to purify him, which first of all means no more break dancing. It helps the stonemason make his case when he begins to put substantial amounts of money in Bahta’s hands.

At various moments in the movie, Bahta breaks out of character and becomes an actor named Lotfi who argues with a director named Nouri (played by director Nouri Bouzid) who has cast him in the main role in “Making Of”. This 4th wall type stratagem appears frequently in French New Wave film, an obvious influence on Nouri Bouzid. At first I found it jarring, but soon grew accustomed to it, so much so that it almost became incidental to the main narrative. The main purpose of these interludes is to allow director Nouri Bouzoud and Lotfi Abdelli to argue about what kind of impact the movie will have on Islam and Arab society. You can see them wrestle with this question in an interview that comes with the DVD:


“9 Star Hotel” could be the definitive documentary on undocumented workers even though it involves Israelis and Palestinians rather than Mexicans in California or Texas. This should not come as a big surprise since in many ways Israel is a homunculus for the United States, creating a hell on earth for the displaced aboriginal people. When asked by Ha’aretz, whether the expulsion of Palestinians was necessary, ex-leftist historian Benny Morris answered:

That is correct. Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.

The Palestinians in “9 Star Hotel” are constantly being hounded by the Israeli cops even as the capitalist class finds their low-wage labor essential to its expansionary plans. The hotel is being built in Modi’in, a planned city with sterile-looking buildings that seemed dropped on the hilly location as if from flying saucers. It is a perfect metaphor for the Zionist project.

The Palestinian construction workers trod up the side of a steep hill overlooking Modi’in each night to cook and eat dinner communally and make small talk about the lives they have left behind. For entertainment (there is obviously no electricity or running water), they play tunes on their cell phone or sing to each other, sometimes with a fellow worker playing the flute. One of the high points of the documentary is an improvised poetry/song recitation which involves the universal questions of love, life, and loss.

In one scene, they study the goods that one of the workers has retrieved from a nearby garbage dump that he plans to bring back to his village in the occupied West Bank. He has found a toy truck that his younger brother will play with. Other than such scavenging, the only thing that they take from Israel is their meager wage that will help keep a family from starving. In most cases, they are the only breadwinner.

“9 Star Hotel” showed on PBS last July and you can watch the entire movie on their website. Included on the website is an interview with the director Ido Haar, who like just about everybody involved with the production is Israeli. PBS describes the documentary as “non-political” but I would say that it will leave the viewer with one and only one conclusion, namely that Israel is making life hell for the Palestinian workers-no matter the original intention of the director.

(These movies were released by Koch-Lorber and are available from Netflix.)

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