Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 25, 2014

Smoking hot soap operas

Filed under: Counterpunch,popular culture,television — louisproyect @ 12:01 pm

Smoking Hot Soap Operas


For most of my life I have remained immune to the dubious charms of the soap opera, either the daytime or evening varieties.

In the 1970s and 80s when shows like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” captivated the nation, I much preferred to listen to the radio. TV held very little interest for me except for football games on Sunday or shows like “All in the Family” that spoke to American social realities.

More recently a couple of evening soaps struck a chord in a way that nothing in the past ever did. I say this even as the creative team behind them would most likely disavow the term soap opera. After making their case to CounterPunch readers looking for some mindless entertainment (god knows how bad that it needed in these horrific times), I want to offer some reflections on why this genre retains such a powerful hold.

A couple of weeks ago, while scraping through the bottom of the Netflix barrel, I came across “Grand Hotel”, a Spanish TV show that has been compared to “Downton Abbey” on the basis of being set in the early 20th century and its preoccupation with class differences. Having seen only the very first episode of “Downton Abbey”, I was left with the impression that it was typical Masterpiece Theater fare, where class distinctions mattered less than costume and architecture.


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June 3, 2014

Long Live the Jewel Box Revue

Filed under: african-american,Gay,obituary,popular culture — louisproyect @ 3:43 pm

On Thursday the NY Times reported on the death of a legendary African-American lesbian and gay activist:

Storme DeLarverie, a singer, cross-dresser and bouncer who may or may not have thrown the first punch at the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, but who was indisputably one of the first and most assertive members of the modern gay rights movement, died on Saturday in Brooklyn. She was 93.

I encourage you to read the entire obituary but want to hone in on one paragraph:

There was a long period in Chicago, where, she told friends, she was a bodyguard for mobsters. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s Ms. DeLarverie was the M.C. of the Jewel Box Revue, billed as “an unusual variety show.” She dressed as a man; the rest of the cast members, all men, dressed as women. One of the show’s stars was Lynne Carter, a female impersonator who later performed at Carnegie Hall.

As it turns out, I had an encounter with one of the male cast members when I was about 10 years old. This is from the abortive memoir I did with Harvey Pekar (relax, Joyce, this is considered “fair use”):

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 9.33.59 AM

The Kentucky Club was a hot spot in my little village that drew vacationers from all through the Borscht Belt. Buses used to drop off women from the local bungalow colonies and small hotels to take in what amounted to the original La Cage Aux Folles. They loved the Jewel Box Revue, especially the surprise ending when it was revealed that the male MC was actually a woman—Storme DeLarverie.

I refer to the dancer as Miss Vicky but in reality that was just a name I gave the man who was sitting next to my mother. In all likelihood it was probably Don Marshall, one of the few Black men performing in drag at the time (I couldn’t find his stage name).

Since I was only 10 years old when I met Don Marshall, I had no idea what being gay meant although I was quite puzzled to see a man wearing a dress. I barely could conceive of a man and woman having intercourse, let alone people of the same sex. A couple of years later I’d find a copy of “Marital Hygiene” in my parent’s dresser and things would become much clearer.

The best introduction to gay performers can be found at http://queermusicheritage.com/, with news, for example, on the bearded cross-dresser Conchita Wurst who won the Eurovision Song contest. For information on the Jewel Box Revue, go to http://queermusicheritage.com/fem-jewl.html.

On December 4, 2012, Wayne Anderson, a LGBT rights activist and gay veteran of the U.S. Army, wrote about the revue in the Huffington Post. The opening paragraphs:

In 1939, during a time when gay people were viewed as abhorrent subversives and a threat to society, two gay lovers, Danny Brown and Doc Benner, created and produced America’s first racially inclusive traveling revue of female impersonators. It was staffed almost entirely by gay men and one gay woman and was known as the Jewel Box Revue. In many ways it was America’s first gay community.

A recent and insightful paper (http://www.lvc.edu/vhr/2012/Articles/dauphin.pdf) by Mara Dauphin argues that the early drag/female impersonation revues of the 1940s and 1950s were “highly instrumental in creating queer communities and carving out queer niches of urban landscape in post-war America that would flourish into the sexual revolution of the sixties.” And though there were other popular female impersonation clubs, such the famous Finnochio’s in San Francisco and the infamous mafia-owned Club 82 of New York City, with the exception of the Jewel Box Revue, all the revues were operated and controlled by straight people, who were not always very gay-friendly (a notable exception being the Garden of Allah cabaret in Seattle, which featured the Jewel Box Revue as their opening-night act in 1946). Robin Raye, who performed in several early establishments, including Finocchio’s and the Jewel Box Revue, once said of Mrs. Finocchio, “I don’t think she liked gay people, but she certainly knew how to use them.”

In 1955 there were very few out of the closet gays and lesbians. However, there were very many ways in which homosexual identity was conveyed under the radar. I would strongly recommend Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet” for more on this, which can be seen on a Netflix DVD or Amazon streaming.

But for me the closest anything came to an open portrayal to a mass audience at the time was professional wrestler Ricky Starr who wore ballet slippers and minced around the mat before, during and after bouts. He used to toss miniature ballet slippers to the audience as a ritual before each bout. Years later, after Stonewall, gay men would tend to eschew the queen identity but in 1955 it was safer since it was seen more as being a “sissy” then being a “pervert”.

Here’s Ricky versus Karl Von Hess, who some regarded as a Nazi-identified wrestler but who had much more to do with traditional Prussian values.

I recommend a look at Sharon Glazer’s “Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle” on Google/Books. This is a scholarly analysis of the sport that in my view was a lot more entertaining in the 1950s than it is today. Here she is on the classic Starr/Von Hess contest:

Starr’s performance especially his taunting of von Hess, is explicitly (homo)sexual. He wiggles his buttocks under the other wrestler’s nose while pretending to straighten his shoe, performs a series of pelvic thrusts, and hops on and off von Hess’s back, controlling his opponent with apparent ease and leading the commentator at one point to worry half-seriously about the network censors: “Mr. Starr is just loosening up. Nothing wrong with that. With he would loosen up out of camera, though. This is a family network, you know.” As Starr continues, the commentator informs us that Starr was taught his moves by an old (male) burlesque star who went by the name of “Toots” and that: “This program [is] sponsored by bumps and grinds incorporated.” Von Hess snarls and plays it as straight as a villain can under the circumstances. Clearly the loser in the fan sweepstakes as well as the match, he is finally defeated by Ricky Starr’s rapid and proficient series of drop kicks. In a coda to the match, von Hess gets into a slugfest with the referee, which ends when Starr intervenes on the ref’s behalf, taking a hit himself in the process.

Glazer’s scholarly treatment of professional wrestling is matched by Amber Clifford’s dissertation “Queering the Inferno: Space, Identity, and Kansas City’s Jazz Scene” that will be published soon as a book. You can look at it on Google/Books as well. Here is Amber on Storme DeLarverie:

A clear example of how this silence about sexuality is prevalent in the history of male impersonators lies in the story of Storme DeLerverie. DeLarverie worked as a female singer in night clubs before joining the Jewel Box Revue in 1955. The Jewel Box Revue was a female impersonation floor show and touring act. Founded originally in Miami in 1939, the Jewel Box relocated to New York in 1955, where the Jewel Box had its base ofoperations until it closed in 1973. DeLarverie was the only female in the show, and the only African-American member of the Jewel Box Revue. [I have contacted Ms. Clifford on my contact with Don Marshall.] She joined the show as a male impersonator and emcee and gave birth to the Revue’s tagline “25 men and a girl.” Photographs of DeLarverie from the Jewel Box Revue program show a slender African American who looks liken a young man in a slim cut suit and tie, cl close-cropped hair and an inscrutable look, holding a cigarette on a pinky-ringed left hand. The caption reads “Miss Storme Larverie The Lady Who Appears Be a Gentleman”. Throughout the program, photographs of female impersonators show them in both costume and masculine street-clothhig. No such juxtapositional photographs of Storm DeLarverie appear.

Research about Storme DeLarverie and her work with the Jewel Box illuminates several aspects of Jacobs’s biography. First, according to scholar Elizabeth Drorbaugh, DeLarverie avoided any gendered or sexualized labels. DeLarverie’s cross-dressing helped spatialize her as ‘family” in the world of gender impersonation, a position she did not wish to endanger by discussing her own desires shares commonalities with Jacobs, who entered her work as an impersonator after a stint as a singer. Jacobs, perhaps, felt included in the community at Dante’s [a Kansas City drag club], the world she “learned a lot from,” and did not want to endanger that world by revealing her own sexual desires, whatever they were. Another aspect of this question of identity is pivotal to understanding the subjectification of gender impersonators, we cannot forget that they were performers. According to Drorbaugh, performers of gender impersonation resisted being read as one gender or another, preferring ambiguity to identification.

One can certainly understand the need for ambiguity in 1955. The homophobia was so intense you could have cut it with a knife. Let me conclude with another snapshot from my youth:

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 11.31.17 AMScreen shot 2014-06-03 at 11.31.30 AM


May 23, 2014

Godzilla; Captain America

Filed under: Film,popular culture — louisproyect @ 9:45 pm

Godzilla, Captain America, Fukushima and Drones

Filming the Fear Index


Taking a break from my customary fare of small-budget radical films that get short shrift in the mainstream media, I decided to check out “Godzilla” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, two films playing at Multiplexes everywhere. While my primary motivation was to soak up some mindless entertainment, there was the added incentive of the films as apparently having something in common with my regular agitprop diet.

Director Gareth Edwards told the Telegraph that his remake of Godzilla was supposed to reflect the questions that the incident at Fukushima raised. This would not be the first attempt by Edwards to use a monster movie as a vehicle for politics. Filmed near the Mexican-US border, his 2010 “Monsters” was widely interpreted as a comment on the immigration debate.

As for Captain America, he is trying to preempt a cabal taking over the planet through the use of drones. Sound familiar? Well, this is what co-director Joe Russo told the NY Times: “We were trying to find a bridge to the same sort of questions that Barack Obama has to address. If you’re saying with a drone strike, we can eradicate an enemy of the state, what if you say with 100 drone strikes, we can eradicate 100? With 1,000, we can eradicate 1,000? At what point do you stop?”

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December 28, 2013

The Hunger Games and radical politics

Filed under: Film,popular culture — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

From what I’ve heard from some people on the left, the price of a ticket for a Hunger Games flick will give you the same experience as watching “Salt of the Earth” or the “Bicycle Thief”. I gave it a shot last year without spending a penny. After putting on a DVD screener the studio sent me to review for the 2012 NYFCO awards meeting, I hit the eject button after 15 minutes or so. I guess the best thing you can say about it was that I stayed with it longer than “Django Unchained”. What could others see that I could not, I wondered.

Ted Glick raved: “I was surprised to find that, in addition to another impressive performance by Lawrence, the movie was also about oppressed people rebelling against hunger, poverty and a brutally repressive government, and it was well done.” But then again this is the same Glick who picked David Cobb over Ralph Nader in 2004.

Then there’s Donald Sutherland, who plays the evil dictator in Hunger Games. He was written up in the Guardian calling for a revolution:

Donald Sutherland wants to stir revolt. A real revolt. A youth-led uprising against injustice that will overturn the US as we know it and usher in a kinder, better way. “I hope that they will take action because it’s getting drastic in this country.” Drone strikes. Corporate tax dodging. Racism. The Keystone oil pipeline. Denying food stamps to “starving Americans”. It’s all going to pot. “It’s not right. It’s not right.”

Of course, some cynics might devalue his words simply on the basis of where they were uttered: “We are high up in a Four Seasons hotel overlooking Beverly Hills, sunlight glinting off mansions and boutiques below, an unlikely cradle of revolution.” The cheapest room at the Four Seasons costs $605 per night, hardly the sort of place that would qualify as a new Smolny Institute.

Then there’s Frank Giustra, whose Lionsgate studio made the film. Think he would be interested in fomenting a revolution, particularly one that was going to throw a monkey wrench into projects like Keystone? Check this out then:

Frank Giustra – key power broker and close colleague of former President Bill Clinton – has taken a seat on the Board of Directors of U.S. Oil Sands, an Alberta-based company aiming to develop tar sands deposits in Utah’s Uintah Basin.

U.S. Oil Sands – in naming several new members to its Board – also announced it has received $80 million in “strategic financing” from Blue Pacific Investments Group Ltd., Anchorage Capital Group, L.L.C. and Spitfire Ventures, LLC.

The funding will help get the ball rolling on “tar sands south,” a miniature but increasingly controversial version of its big brother to the north, the Alberta tar sands. Giustra will likely help in opening the right doors for tar sands industry interests in the United States.

In the same way that I sat through “Django Unchained”, as necessary for a survey on slavery films, I decided to watch Hunger Games, part one and part two. My goal is not to spend that much time on the films themselves but to take up the question of why so many superficially “radical” films set in some future dystopia have been coming out of Hollywood in the recent past.

But to take up the films as art, generously speaking, you have to start with where they fit in. In my view they have much more to do with the teen romance market that includes the Twilight series than they do with a film like “Elysium” that was also greeted with much fanfare from the left. In fact that probably explains why “Catching Fire” (part 2 of the Hunger Games) has generated nearly 251 million dollars in profit, while “Elysium” is still $22 million in the red. A 15-year-old girl can go see “Catching Fire” without caring a lick about a youth-led uprising. She’s there to see a hunky boy making out with Jennifer Lawrence while her aging uncle who was in Columbia University SDS can see it for its “politics”. Then there are the 15-year-old boys who like it for the video game type violence. Clever marketing all in all.

I think unless you have been in a coma for the past 2 years, you probably know what the film is about. It is set sometime in the distant future when a failed uprising against the rulers of America has been defeated. The winners live in the capital of Panem, a city that looks something like the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz”, while the losers live in 12 different districts that look like the coal town in “How Green was My Valley” or where the Joads came from. The winners dress like they were in the court of Louis IV while the losers wear clothes that might be carrying a Carhartt label. While there are no specific references to the sexual preferences of the people who live in the capital city, most of the men will remind you of the lead characters in “La Cage aux Folles”, pretty much like this:

The hunger games are yearly events in which each district sends two youngsters off to the capital to participate in gladiator fights to the death until only one is left. The winner gets off with their life as well as some prize money. Suzanne Collins wrote the first of the novels that the films are based on in 2008. She said that she got the idea from watching a reality show like Survivor while the war in Iraq was still going strong. Some wonder if she plagiarized the Japanese movie “Battle Royale” that has a similar theme but she states she had never seen it. (“Battle Royale” does not try to make any overarching social statements and is little more than an hour and a half of nihilistic gore.)

The Hunger Games is a trilogy. The first installment is titled “Hunger Games” and the second, now playing in theaters everywhere, is titled “Catching Fire”. The last is titled “Mockingjay” and should come out in the next year or so. Like the Twilight vampire novels and Harry Potter, these sorts of multi-part oeuvres are made to order for a Hollywood studio’s financial department. You get the 15-year-olds to show up religiously, and can even expect them to go to see the same film multiple times. This is what struck me last night as the final minutes of “Catching Fire” were unfolding. I had no idea what was going on when around a dozen people rose from their seats and started streaming for the exits. Now that’s the way I felt 15 minutes into the film. What could have taken them so long?

When the closing credits began appearing out of the blue, I figured it out. These were people who were watching the film for second or even maybe the third time. What could possibly have gotten into them? But considering the popularity of professional wrestling and “Dancing with the Stars”, I should know better than to ask that question.

The first installment of Hunger Games concludes with its heroine Katniss and hero Peeta both surviving the gladiator games. When they announce that they’d rather commit suicide than fight each other, the rulers decide to spare both their lives in accordance with the TV audience’s wishes. So disgruntled is President Snow (Donald Sutherland) by their lack of a killer instinct that he plots to return them to a special hunger game that includes past winners, sort of the kind of contest seen in “Project Runway”, a far better show in my view.

To put it bluntly, “Catching Fire” is basically a repeat of “Hunger Games” except nearly an hour longer. While the movie was wending its way toward its conclusion, I found my mind drifting off to old girl friends. (Don’t mention that to my wife.)

In terms of both politics and entertainment, I found “Elysium” a lot more compelling. That, as you might know, is another futuristic dystopian piece with a lot more solid connections to the way we live now.

When I thought about the Hunger Games films, “Elysium”, that was preceded by “District 9”, a dystopian film set in South Africa also directed by Neill Blomkamp, as well as others that have hit theaters in recent years, I wondered what it all meant. Like the Hunger Games films, “Elysium” and “District 9” were hailed as the filmic equivalent of a Molotov cocktail.

The always useful Wikipedia tells us (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_films) that hundreds of such films have been made since the early 50s starting with “1984”, a prototype for everything that followed. Nearly all of them portray a future society ruled by a cruel dictatorship employing capricious and violent tactics to keep the masses in line. Interestingly, the first film in this mold was made decades earlier and is arguably the best: Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”.

Despite their abundance, none has had the slightest impact on changing American society in the way that a documentary can. Despite Michael Moore’s dreadful Democratic Party politics, a film like “Roger and Me” opened our eyes to the greed and depravity of General Motors. When I was growing up, you could take the slogan “What’s good for GM is good for America” seriously. After “Roger and Me”, you could not.

There’s another reason that an audience seeing “Catching Fire” would make few connections with American society today. Despite the moral turpitude of its rulers and the ruling class it represents, it is a parliamentary democracy resting on a consensus around the belief that success is a function of your own talents and nothing else. When you lose a job, you can get pissed off at the system but you see yourself more as a victim of circumstance rather than a member of a social class in specific kind of relationship to another social class that has interests opposed to your own. Ironically, most Americans are okay with survivor of the fittest, as long as you don’t have someone like President Snow forcing villages to turn over a couple of kids each year as if it was for an Aztec type human sacrifice ritual.

Bourgeois democracy is a perfect instrument for class rule. That is why I always scratch my head over those who see fascism around the corner when someone like Richard Nixon is in the White House. Why would you use the iron fist to rule the workers when their open consent guarantees systemic stability?

I’ve heard from so many people that the Hunger Games films will have the same kind of radicalizing effect on young people that Peter Camejo’s speeches had in 1968. If so, I find no evidence of that in a forum dedicated to discussion of the Hunger Games books and movies at http://www.reddit.com/r/Hungergames/. I searched in vain for anything about relaunching the Occupy movement. Mostly, this is what you will find:

Katniss talks about this rhyme that her father used to tell her sometimes, and she also talks about how it had a dark connotation that she only realized later in life. Also her mother got angry at her father for singing it to Katniss. That’s about all I understood about that rhyme. In a series in which just about everything has symbolism, what is the symbolism/significance of this? Also why does Katniss’s mother gets so angry about it?

But the one post that suggested to me that the film was much more about style than substance was this:

Screen shot 2013-12-28 at 3.36.11 PM

October 18, 2013

A pervert’s guide to Zizek

Filed under: philosophy,popular culture,postmodernism — louisproyect @ 3:12 pm

Counterpunch Weekend Edition October 18-20, 2013
Elvis is on the Screen!
A Pervert’s Guide to Zizek

Full disclosure: I have written at least ten critiques of Slavoj Zizek over the years so I approached the new documentary “A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology” with some skepticism. Despite this, I found much of it entertaining and even a little enlightening. At two hours and thirty minutes, however, it begins to lose its charm especially since the film is essentially one long lecture by the man called the Elvis of cultural theory. As is the case with all super-stars, critical self-reflection goes by the wayside when adoring fans surround you all the time telling you how great you are. It probably never entered the mind of director Sophie Fiennes (sister to actor Ralph) that the film was a half-hour too long and least of all that of the Slovenian Elvis himself.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/10/18/a-perverts-guide-to-zizek/

October 23, 2012

Joaquin Phoenix appearance on the David Letterman show

Filed under: Film,popular culture,psychology — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

From Christopher Glazek’s “Phoenixes: Hollywood’s Children” in the Summer 2012 edition of N+1:

“I’ll never forgive Joaquin Phoenix for overshadowing Two Lovers,” complained Richard Brody, the New Yorker’s film editor. He wasn’t the only one offended by Phoenix’s hijinks. In February 2009, shortly after the release of Two Lovers, Phoenix appeared on David Letterman’s show to promote the movie. By that time, however, he had transformed into something different from the hunky specimen of the Two Lovers trailer. As he slid into a chair opposite Letterman, bearded and glutted, chewing gum and wearing sunglasses, he looked less like Johnny Cash than a cross between Borat and Slavoj Zizek.

Phoenix’s comportment was equally bizarre—he was hostile, shaky, and seemingly on the verge of tears. He appeared either drugged or insane, or both. He insisted that he was serious about his rap career—he would perform under the handle “JP”—and asked whether Letterman would book him as a musical act. Caught off guard, Letterman fought back. “Tell us about your time with the Unabomber,” he suggested. Phoenix responded with scary silence.

Eventually, Letterman showed a clip from Two Lovers, a film in which Phoenix plays Leonard Kraditor, a young man suffering from bipolar disorder. In his review of the film, Richard Brody called Two Lovers “majestic,” deeming it the fourth-best movie of 2009, tied with Judd Apatow’s Funny People. Two Lovers begins with a botched suicide attempt. After Kraditor’s fiancee discovers the couple is at risk for conceiving a child with Tay Sachs disease, she leaves him; Kraditor decides to jump off a bridge. The bridge isn’t very tall, and he survives. In the weeks that follow, Kraditor is confronted with two women apparently meant to correspond to the two poles of his personality: the wild side—played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who delivers an older, frumpier version of the crazy-person performance she gave eight years before in The Anniversary Party—and the subdued side—played by Vinessa Shaw, whose character is the scioness of a Jewish dry cleaning fortune.

Neither manic nor depressive, Phoenix’s Kraditor charms his love interests with arty oddness, conveying depths of sensitivity familiar to fans of Russell Crowe’s performance as the schizophrenic game theorist John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. Deferring to a Hollywood tradition, Two Lovers in effect confuses bipolar disorder with Asperger’s syndrome, a condition that wouldn’t undergo its own official glamorization until later that year with the Hugh Dancy star vehicle Adam.

Phoenix told Letterman he hadn’t bothered to see Two Lovers; Letterman huffed at what he took to be Phoenix’s charade. At the end of the interview Letterman said with disappointment, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.”

But Phoenix really was there, and it’s tempting to believe he was telling the truth. To those familiar with the rhythms and cadence of actually existing manic depression, Two Lovers, otherwise a schmaltzy trifle, is indeed quite painful to watch. The irony is that at the same time Phoenix was badly impersonating a crazy person on screens across America, he was very successfully and disturbingly imitating a crazy person in his everyday life. The footage collected in I’m Still Here cannot be described as a mockumentary, not in the genial manner of a Christopher Guest project. In their zeal to uncover the “truth” behind the film, the critics missed the movie’s deeper truth: I’m Still Here exposes its audience to a spectrum of anger and pathos that forestalls the literal-minded question of whether Phoenix’s performance was motivated by a genuine mental breakdown, or by the impulse to recreate such a breakdown and map its public consequences.

The film’s effect is distressing. Its reality-style scenes resemble footage from Jackass or Cops rather than the fastidiously wrought images we associate with “cinema”—but instead of inducing the usual schadenfreude, these pranks leave the viewer feeling prickly and unnerved. The creatures who slither around Hollywood are insulated by fame, not oppressed by it. They worry about each other, not the public. Like other tacky rich people, they live in large and unglamorous structures in the hilly sections of Los Angeles. Actors, PR professionals, club promoters, TV reporters, hangers-on, and YouTube critics are all shown to be callow predators who flatter the powerful and devour the vulnerable.

In other words, Hollywood is exactly as depraved as any other sector of society.

“I live a really boring life,” Phoenix told a reporter in 2007. “I’m much more cliched, pathetic, and pretentious than you would probably give me credit for.”

Critics resented the stunt because they thought Phoenix and his codirector Casey Affleck were having a laugh at their expense. They were right to feel targeted, wrong about the hoax. There’s no cynicism in I’m Still Here. The film is an act of revenge.

January 5, 2012

The House He Lived In: Conversations with Fred Baker

Filed under: Film,New Deal,popular culture — louisproyect @ 7:29 pm


Last June I attended a memorial meeting for film-maker Fred Baker, best known for his documentary “Lenny Bruce Without Tears”. As is customary for such events, others and I spoke about our connections to Fred. I said that when I first met Fred I was struck by his off-the-cuff observation that a revolutionary party could only be built out of a mass movement, something that had taken me over a decade to figure out. I also described Fred as a shining example of America’s bohemian underground that has been around since the days of Walt Whitman, a kind of permanent opposition to the dominant racism and imperialism that might be repressed from time to time but that never dies.

In 1996 I sat down with Fred for a series of videotaped interviews that covered his remarkable life as an actor and filmmaker. Born in 1932, Fred’s life straddles the CP-inspired Popular Front culture of Paul Robeson and the sixties counter-culture. Indeed, people of Fred’s age were a kind of transmission belt between the two periods, never giving in to the soul-destroying 1950s. Singing in leftwing choruses in the early 40s, staging a draftee’s Yossarian-like resistance to the Korean War, performing in musical comedies in the 1950s, launching a career as a pornographer in the 1960s, and making leading edge films in the 70s until his last year on earth—all this was part of his remarkable story.

At the memorial meeting, his partner Beverly mentioned that in the course of organizing his library on behalf of the Smithsonian, she discovered the 1996 videotapes. I became inspired to turn them into a Vimeo production on the Internet, something I am sure that Fred would smile down on from Red Heaven while sitting on the cloud next to Paul Robeson. Getting close to retirement, I hope to find more time for the oral history type videos that a modest camcorder, tools like Final Cut Pro and the Worldwide Web make feasible. The last time I spoke to Fred, I told him that I would like to sit down with him and get him up to speed on what can be done. He died before we could get together but I’d like to think that the DIY sensibility of Youtube and Vimeo was in many ways descended from his pioneering work and other guerrilla film and video makers of the 60s and 70s, including his good friend Frank Cavestani and Frank’s wife the late Laura Kronenberg Cavestani.

From time to time, when I get a nagging feeling that it is a little late in life to become a videographer, I am reminded of Fred Baker who did not let HIV, emphysema, and a host of other illnesses brought on by old age get in the way of his own productivity. Weeks before his death, he was all fired up about a documentary he was doing on striped bass fishermen on the Hudson River nearby his son’s home in New Windsor. Fred was a fireball up until the day his heart finally stopped ticking. At the memorial meeting his son-in-law described going to a jam session with Fred on a Saturday afternoon, where he could play drums. Drumming had been a passion of his since the age of 8 when Pearl Primus, an African-American dance counselor at Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, a leftist summer camp, introduced him to the instrument. His son-in-law said he practically had to run to keep up with Fred on the sidewalk, even as Fred was forced to lug an oxygen tank on wheels behind him for his emphysema.

As pleased as I am with the video, that only scratches the surface of Fred’s remarkable life. These resources help to complete the picture:

Fred’s blog

Fred Baker Film and Video

On the Sound, a jazz dance film by Fred Baker

Movie People: At Work in the Business of Film, edited by Fred Baker and Ross Firestone

Finding Fred Baker: a film thesis project by Daoud Abu-Baker

My article on Fred Baker

My review of “Assata”, Fred’s last film

Acting on the Web: a website by Frank Cavestani for aspiring actors. I met Fred through Frank, whose connections to the both of us are covered in the video.

Garin Baker online gallery of fine art: Socially aware and artistically powerful works by Fred’s son.

January 1, 2011

Reflections of a baby boomer

Filed under: beatniks,popular culture — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

Baby boomer Louis Proyect

Technically speaking, I am not a baby boomer but feel qualified to say a word or two about the article Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65 that appears in today’s NY Times. It was written by Dan Barry, a character I had a run-in with back in 2006 when he wrote a stupid attack on “squeegee men”, the intrusive beggars that persuaded so many Manhattan liberals like Barry to vote for Giuliani.

The article defines baby boomers as those who turn 65 in January. Born on January 26, 1945 I have my 66th birthday to look forward to. When I was born, my father was over in Belgium dodging Nazi bullets in the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned, I was 6 months old and something of a challenge to him. They say that when a father is not around for a child’s birth, he is likely to feel more remote. Not having more than 15 minutes conversation with dad in my entire life, I imagine that this was true in our case.

The article is focused on how my generation is hitting the brick wall of old age:

This means that the 79 million baby boomers, about 26 percent of this country’s population, will be redefining what it means to be older, and placing greater demands on the social safety net. They are living longer, working longer and, researchers say, nursing some disappointment about how their lives have turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity.

So, then, to those who once never trusted anyone over 30: Raise that bowl of high-fiber granola, antioxidant-rich blueberries and skim milk and give yourself a Happy Birthday toast.

The article cites Steven Gillon, the author of “Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America” as some kind of expert. Barry sums up Gillon’s analysis as follows:

Previous generations were raised to speak only when spoken to, and to endure in self-denying silence. But baby boomers were raised on the more nurturing, child-as-individual teachings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, and then placed under the spell of television, whose advertisers marketed their wares directly to children. Parents were cut out of the sale — except, of course, for the actual purchase of that coonskin cap or Barbie doll.

“It created a sense of entitlement that had not existed before,” Mr. Gillon said. “We became more concerned with our own emotional well-being, whereas to older generations that was considered soft and fluffy.”

The boomers may not have created rock ’n’ roll, but they certainly capitalized on its potential to revolt against parents. And they may not have led the civil rights movement, but they embraced it — at least, many of them did — and applied its principles to fighting for the rights of women and gay men and lesbians. They came to expect, even demand, freedom of choice; options in life.

Some of this makes sense but all in all I prefer an analysis that adheres much more closely to the ebb and flow of history. Furthermore, I would not even begin to try to do what Gillon did, namely summarize an entire generation that—after all—includes both George W. Bush and me. Instead I will put my own personal story into the context of what happened in America from my birth date until today in as few words as possible. I am after all writing a blog entry not a book.

When I was around 14 or so, I began to become aware of both class and physical differences between my classmates, most of whom were Jewish like me. Many had parents in the hotel business and could afford to go to Miami Beach in December. They returned with suntans that they wore proudly to school like Gucci bags. Now that I am in my old age, I too enjoy such a distinction! It also mattered a whole lot what kind of car you drove. My father, who owned a fruit and vegetable store, owned a Chevy Biscayne while the kids who went to Miami Beach had parents who drove around in a Cadillac or a Buick. Adding to my resentment was how many got cars as gifts for a sixteenth birthday. They would drive around in a Chevy Impala convertible while I burned in my pedestrian envy.

Even worse, I was cursed to be a shrimp. Too small and too uncoordinated to make the basketball or little league baseball team, I began to feel left out. Although I wanted nothing more than to be in with the in crowd, I began to think in terms of an alternative life-style even at the age of 14.

In 8th grade, we had a social studies class that was taught by Bob Rosenberg, a New Deal liberal whose sister Cissie was an open member of the CP. One day Bob was telling us about a new book called “The Status Seekers” by a guy named Vance Packard that described how America was a land where the pursuit of money and power led people to live empty lives in the suburbs. Indeed, this was the reality that the TV series “Madmen” hones in on. While listening to Bob, I had an epiphany. This was exactly the world that my classmates and their parents lived in and that excluded me, largely out of an accident of birth. Perhaps had I been 6 inches taller and owned a Chevy Impala in which to tool around, none of this would have entered my mind.

All across America, there were people just like Louis Proyect who were feeling like outsiders. Even some tall, wealthy, muscular white kids felt the same way. Not long after Bob had brought “The Status Seekers” to our attention, I came across an article about the Beat Generation in Time Magazine. It began:

In the smoke-filled cellar cafés and cold-water flats of San Francisco’s waterfront and Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the word these days is “beat.” Patriarch and prophet of what he calls “the beat generation” is a 35-year-old writer named Jack Kerouac, whose recent novel On the Road (TIME, Sept. 16) chronicled the cross-country adventures in cars, bars and beds of a bunch of fancy-talking young bums. Last week, in newspaper interviews with TV’s Mike Wallace, Novelist Kerouac and equally beat Poet Philip Lamantia explained that beatness is really a religious movement.

Interrogator Wallace asked San Francisco Poet Lamantia to explain two of his lines: Come Holy Ghost, for we can rise/ Out of this Jazz . . .

Said Lamantia: “You have to be pure. You gotta get through this life without getting hung up. That’s the whole question—not to get hung up …”

W. What is getting “hung up”?

L. Freezing. Freezing from others, from yourself, from the Holy Spirit. If you’re hung up, you can’t love, or care for others.

W. Why are so many members of the Beat Generation bums and tramps?

L. Oh, you see, Christ says go out and find the bums . . .Find the blind and the cripples . . . Christ invites everyone, including the outcasts. So there’s no contradiction at all between Christ and a bebopper and a hipster . . .

It was only when I was in my fifties that I learned that Bob Rosenberg’s sister was a CP’er and that he probably had been some kind of fellow traveler until turning into a liberal and a cynic. As for Lamantia, he was a member in good standing of the Surrealist movement that received much of its impetus from artists with Trotskyist politics, including André Breton. The late Franklin Rosemont, a premature boomer like me who tried to revivify the movement just around the time I was being radicalized by the war in Vietnam drew upon Lamantia’s expertise, as I recounted in a 2002 article:

A few months ago I posted an article about “Surrealism, Freud and Trotsky” that relied heavily on Franklin Rosemont’s collection of Andre Breton’s writings titled “What is Surrealism.”

This Pathfinder book belongs on the shelf of anybody who is interested in the intersection between revolutionary politics and avant-garde art and literature. Now thanks to Autonomedia Press (and especially editor Jim Fleming–a Marxmail subscriber who sent me a review copy), we have a volume that belongs on the same shelf. I refer to “Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings and Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States.” Edited and introduced by Ron Sakolsky, this volume contains articles that originally appeared in the journal of Rosemont’s Chicago Surrealist Group titled “Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion,” and kindred publications.

In my first article, I mentioned that surrealism had taken root in the USA in the 1940s largely through the auspices of a magazine titled VVV. Among the editors was Martinique poet and playwright Aimé Césaire who articulated a surrealist version of Black Nationalism that influenced many black intellectuals, including esteemed contemporary African-American historian Robin D.G. Kelley whose articles can be found in “Surrealist Subversions.”

Another editorial board member at VVV was Philip Lamantia, who was to become best known as a leading figure of the new poetry of the 1940s and 50s that included the beats and the San Francisco Renaissance writers. It would not be much of a stretch to argue that Lamantia represents a link in the chain between the counter-culture of the 1930s and that of the 1960s. He eventually hooked up with Arsenal, along with fellow beat poet and African-American Ted Joans.

It is also not too far of a stretch to see Rosemont’s journal as constituting a link between an important sector of the contemporary radicalization that began in the 1960s with earlier strands going back to the 1930s and earlier, with the left wing of the beat generation constituting an important bridge between the two epochs.

This is a point that can’t be stressed often enough. The values that Gillon described as characteristic of the baby boomers–freedom of choice; options in lifehave nothing to do with being born in 1946. Instead they are the values of the permanent underground in the USA that goes back to the post-Civil War era and that arose as a left-bohemian opposition to the dominant mammon-worshipping culture.

Immediately after WWII there was a rapid expansion of the economy and a fierce repression of left-wing intellectuals that led to a retreat of the left cultural opposition. But it managed to remain intact despite McCarthyism and looked for “fresh blood”. It found support in the folk music revival as well as the post-beat generation movement that had spread across America. By 1961 it was ready to listen to anti-capitalist views about the malaise that affected so many of us, even though it would take the Vietnam War to finally open my eyes.

In my own life, politics has taken priority over personal options. I never considered going to live in a commune in Vermont or seeking enlightenment through one or another religious discipline. However, I do accept that if I had not been radicalized by the war in Vietnam and by working in Harlem for the welfare department, I easily could have gone that route.

I am somewhat at a loss to understand how young people feel nowadays. While there are obvious attempts to defy convention through personal appearances from tattoos to piercing, I wonder how many teenagers feel as alienated from the mainstream culture as I did in 1958.

Perhaps the one advantage we had was coming of age when the country’s economy was running on all eight cylinders. If you graduated college in 1965, you never had to worry about finding a job. The NY Times had 10 pages of classified ads geared to college grads—no experience necessary. Mostly, we didn’t bother looking there because it was so easy to pick up a job as a clerk in a bookstore or a record shop that paid well enough to cover your rent in an East Village tenement. Nowadays, college students must fret over whether a business degree will get them an interview at some disgusting financial institution.

I hold out hopes that a new radicalization will serve as a battering ram against the very forces that Vance Packard wrote about in 1958. As member of a generation now entering wintertime and beyond, my fondest hope is to serve as Lamantia did for my own generation 50 years ago. And, in my fondest hopes there is the possibility that some day we will be in the majority and allow the worshipers of Mammon to fall into the minority where they belonged all along.

March 24, 2010

Zizek embarrassments

Filed under: cuba,Film,popular culture — louisproyect @ 6:21 pm

I am not sure that Slavoj Zizek has the same cachet with Marxist graduate students he had about 10 years ago, but in case there are some readers of the unrepentant Marxist who fall into that category, let me draw your attention to two items—one about Cuba and the other about Avatar—that might give you pause for thought. Although I no longer have the kind of visceral dislike for his ideas and personality I once did, every once in a while he can really get my dander up.

A couple of weeks ago Derrick O’Keefe sent me a link to a Youtube clip  of Zizek speaking on “The Future of Europe” at a conference in Slovenia. Someone must have asked him about Cuba during the Q&A since his potshots  seem to have little to do with the topic at hand unless he was trying to warn the audience about the dangers of “stagnation” and “gulags” that might attend a Cuban-style revolution in Europe.

It appears that our Lacanian theorist took a trip to Cuba a while back and didn’t like what he saw very much, to put it mildly. He was struck by all the “poverty”, “stagnation” and “inefficiency” that he interpreted as the Cuban leadership’s attempt to prove its “authenticity”. No, I am not making this up. Just watch the Youtube clip and see for yourself. As a professional psychoanalyst, as Zizek described himself, the only explanation for this kind of “renunciation” was a kind of self-destructive mental illness. For Zizek, the effects of an American embargo and the need to spend a disproportionate amount of the national treasury on weaponry becomes a form of anorexia, as if Fidel Castro viewed consumer goods and creature comfort as “bourgeois”.

Zizek also urges those in his audience to see the “gulags” in Cuba. I am not sure whether the psychoanalyst, film critic and fan of Lenin has read much about Cuba, but the island has been invaded by an expeditionary force organized by the USA and suffered billions of dollars of war damages during Operation Mongoose. It has also had to put up with a domestic opposition financed by the USA ever since the revolutionaries took power. Any other country that had to face such mortal threats would have been far more repressive than Cuba, including the USA which put Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during WWII simply for being Japanese.

Out of curiosity, I did a search on “Zizek and Cuba” in google/books and came up with a  reference that helped put his Youtube utterances into perspective. In “Welcome to the desert of the Real”, a group of essays meditating on 9/11, Zizek describes a “paradox” in which the main result of the revolution is “to bring social dynamics to a standstill”. If you’re a bit puzzled about what exactly this standstill involves, he would tell you that it is the “1950s American cars” you see everywhere. Someone with the barest curiosity about Cuba might know that the island places much more emphasis on other forms of “social dynamics” than automobiles, including a biotechnology industry second to none:

Cuba’s biotechnological capacity places it in group four of the World Health Organization’s five categories. To reach group five, which is formed only by the eight top industrial economies, Cuba must produce at least 20% of the 260 basic materials. It regularly produces 18% of these and certainly has the scientific ability to produce the others with biotech methods.

Cuba also has 160 distinct research and development units and over 10,000 researchers through out the country

According to Cuba’s own figures, as well as those provided by scientists and engineers, both from Cuba and other countries, the Cuban government has spent approximately $3,500 million dollars in this industry since 1986. The return of such investment has been approximately the sales of $200 million dollars in vaccines and medicines. The production for domestic use has been almost nothing, since the Cuban people lack the most basic medicines. [LP: An assertion that unlike those made previously is not backed by data. The fact is that Cuba's infant mortality rate and average life expectancy match those of Canada. If it lacked "the most basic medicines", this could not be possible. In any case, the hostility toward Cuba expressed by this assertion, if anything, would add weight to the previous comments about biotechnology.]

Unlike the Lacanian, Cuba seems to have its priorities straight.

Turning now to his review of Avatar, it must be said that his leftist attack on the movie that appeared in the New Statesman is familiar by now, coming rather late in the game, and with the by-now obligatory mention of Dances with Wolves:

The utopia imagined in Avatar follows the Hollywood formula for producing a couple – the long tradition of a resigned white hero who has to go among the savages to find a proper sexual partner (just recall Dances With Wolves)…

Avatar’s fidelity to the old formula of creating a couple, its full trust in fantasy, and its story of a white man marrying the aboriginal princess and becoming king, make it ideologically a rather conservative, old-fashioned film. Its technical brilliance serves to cover up this basic conservatism. It is easy to discover, beneath the politically correct themes (an honest white guy siding with ecologically sound aborigines against the “military-industrial complex” of the imperialist invaders), an array of brutal racist motifs: a paraplegic outcast from earth is good enough to get the hand of a beautiful local princess, and to help the natives win the decisive battle. The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man’s fantasy.

Oddly enough, this analysis was embraced by David Brooks of the NY Times, an op-ed columnist with a long history in the neoconservative movement:

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

Zizek scolds Cameron for not having made a movie that the indigenous peoples of Orissa could relate to. These are the Indian poor who are being displaced by mining companies that Sanhati activist Siddhartha Mitra reported on at last week’s Left Forum.  Zizek writes:

So where is Cameron’s film here? Nowhere: in Orissa, there are no noble princesses waiting for white heroes to seduce them and help their people, just the Maoists organising the starving farmers. The film enables us to practise a typical ideological division: sympathising with the idealised aborigines while rejecting their actual struggle. The same people who enjoy the film and admire its aboriginal rebels would in all probability turn away in horror from the Naxalites, dismissing them as murderous terrorists. The true avatar is thus Avatar itself – the film substituting for reality.

Despite Zizek’s animosity, there is evidence that the super-exploited do connect to the movie.

Ironically, the Chinese workers and peasants who are being robbed of the social gains of the Maoist revolution that these very Naxalites identify with do feel a connection as the Christian Science Monitor reported:

The plot of “Avatar,” on the other hand, could be seen to parallel all sorts of contemporary Chinese problems. The tale of a people threatened with eviction by outsiders in search of minerals could, for example, be thought to echo the plight of the Tibetans.

But the similarity that resonates with ordinary Chinese is between the invaders’ rapacious attack on the Na’vis in “Avatar” and greedy property developers’ routine evictions of householders and farmers in China to make way for new buildings.

Such evictions are the most common cause of violent disturbances in China, according to official statistics.

“Avatar is a successful model in … fighting against violent demolition and we can learn from it in both the strategies and tactics,” wrote one blogger.

Some protesters have already used the movie to draw attention to their plight. One blog carried a photo of a building under construction in the southern province of Guangdong draped with banners proclaiming, “We are innocent Na’vis on the planet Pandora” and “The Avatar reality show is on.”

Meanwhile Evo Morales, a leader of indigenous peoples in Bolivia who became president on a leftwing program, relates to Cameron’s “racist” movie as well:

“LA PAZ, Bolivia — Bolivia’s first indigenous president is praising “Avatar” for what he calls its message of saving the environment from exploitation.

A self-proclaimed socialist, Evo Morales says he identifies with the film’s “profound show of resistance to capitalism and the struggle for the defence of nature.”

Finally, the Palestinians have found the movie’s message and imagery relevant enough to appropriate for a novel demonstration:

September 22, 2008

Jesse James: the myth and the man

Filed under: african-american,parliamentary cretinism,popular culture,racism — louisproyect @ 12:49 pm

Jesse James: The Myth And The Man
by Louis Proyect

(Swans – September 22, 2008)   After watching a DVD of The Assassination of Jesse James last November in anticipation of the yearly New York Film Critics Online awards luncheon, I was struck by director/screenwriter Andrew Dominik’s version of the famous 19th century outlaw. As played by Brad Pitt, this Jesse James was an unpredictable psychopath who reminded me of another character Pitt once played, the serial killer Early Grayce of Kalifornia.

Just after the movie ended, I searched for a review of a Jesse James biography that I had posted to the Marxism mailing list some years ago and that had remained in the back of my mind. This “revisionist” treatment of the bandit who loomed as an American Robin Hood in the popular imagination turned out to be T.J. Stiles’s biography Jesse James, about which Janet Maslin had this to say in the October 10, 2002, Sunday Book Review:

T.J. Stiles went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., a town famous as the site of the James-Younger Gang’s final showdown. Not until much later would Mr. Stiles realize what deep interest the place held for him. He is now the author of a fascinating revisionist biography of Jesse James, one that takes issue with the traditional image of the “Wild West outlaw, yippin’ and yellin’ and shooting it out with the county sheriff,” and with the folk-hero notion of James as a prairie Robin Hood.

In place of that, Mr. Stiles sees something more troubling and complex: “a transitional figure, standing between the agrarian slaveholding past and the industrial, violent, media-savvy future, representing the worst aspects of both.” In his intricate, far-reaching portrait of this legendary desperado, Mr. Stiles presents James as a Confederate terrorist caught up in the wild political turbulence of his times. In the secessionist stronghold of Clay County, Mo., “he learned that his enemies were not invading Yankees, but the men who lived next door.”

If T.J. Stiles had a personal connection to the James gang through Carleton College, so did I. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri, which is just south of Clay County, where Jesse James was born and raised. I always found it hard to reconcile my birth state’s geographical location with the existence of Confederate guerrillas and decided to read T.J. Stiles’s book to help me understand Civil War Missouri and to separate the man Jesse James from the myth.

As an amateur but scholarly film critic, I also wanted to survey Jesse James movies in order to see how he was depicted in popular culture over the years. This article is the fruit of that labor. It also led me in directions that I had not anticipated. To put it as succinctly as possible, the career of Jesse James and men like him had a profoundly reactionary and racist effect on American politics that continues to this day. It might be said that the two-party impasse of today grows out of the hell raised by Jesse James and his gang over 130 years ago.

The Wikipedia article on Jesse James lists 27 movies on the outlaw, including two silent movies starring his son Jesse James Junior! But the movie that had the biggest impact in establishing Jesse James as the American Robin Hood was the 1939 Jesse James, a production featuring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as his brother Frank. Since it was written by Nunnally Johnson, who would go on to write Grapes of Wrath two years later, it should not be surprising that the James brothers had a lot in common with Tom Joad, the Okie hero played by Henry Fonda. In both movies, the narrative pits misunderstood farm boys against the rich and the powerful. There are also echoes of Grapes of Wrath with Jesse James’s mother played by Jane Darnell, Tom Joad’s mother in Grapes of Wrath.

Central to the narrative of the 1939 movie is a struggle between powerful Yankee railroad barons and humble, mostly ex-Confederate, farmers defended by the James brothers. It was no accident that this conflict was played up since it is easier to identify with men and women fighting against a rapacious rail baron rather than for the preservation of slavery. In this movie and virtually all Jesse James movies, even the revisionist Brad Pitt opus, slaves are nowhere to be seen.

Well, not exactly. The James brothers have a loyal servant named Pinkie who used to be a slave until the rotten Northerners upset the apple cart. Played for laughs by Ernest Whitman, Pinkie is a shuffling, grinning racist stereotype straight out of Gone With the Wind, also made in 1939, where Whitman played a Carpetbagger’s partner — a villain in this racist classic.

Another important character is Major Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull), a newspaper editor who champions the James brothers’ fight against greedy railroad barons. This fictional character was clearly based on Major John Newman Edwards, a Confederate veteran and journalist who founded the Kansas City Times and who devoted himself to promulgating the myth of Jesse James as chivalrous fighter against Yankee oppression.

Apparently one American who made the connection between the 1939 movie version of Jesse James and contemporary struggles against plutocracy was folksinger Woody Guthrie, who like Tom Joad hailed from Oklahoma. Guthrie composed an ode to the bandit after seeing the movie. His lyric includes the following:

It was Frank and Jesse James that killed many a man,
But they never was outlaws at heart;
I wrote this song to tell you how it come
That Frank and Jesse James got their start.

They was living on a farm in the old Missouri hills,
With a silver-haired mother and a home;
Now the railroad bullies come to chase them off their land,
But they found that Frank and Jesse wouldn’t run.

Even before he had a chance to see the movie, Woody Guthrie was talking it up in the Daily Worker, the voice of the Communist Party:

Jesse James is a good picture –‘Course I have to wait till it gits down to the dime shows, but it’s a good picture anyhow — (After all, I reckon a dime is worth 40c to me… they must be awful scarce. I see where the Finance outfits are charging four bits for a dime.) The Railroad Racketeers hired Hoodlums & Thugs to beat and cheat the farmers out of their farms — and make em sell em for $1 an acre. Frank & Jesse robbed the train to get even. They robbed it so often that the engineer was disappointed on days they coodent get there.

Concurring with Woody Guthrie’s take on the famous bandit was one Earl Robinson, the Communist songwriter best known for The House We Live In. As cited in Irwin Silber’s Songs of the Great American West, Earl Robinson accepts the Robin Hood version:

He stole from the rich and he gave to the poor,” they sang in later years…. And the folklore was based on fact. There wasn’t much point to stealing from the poor. Not unless you could work out a system the way the landlords did. And Jesse undoubtedly gave to the poor, and won loyalty, safety and shelter in times of need.

To the hard-pressed plains farmers of the 1870s, Jesse James indeed may have appeared as the agent of destiny’s vengeance. The outlaw’s victims were usually those twin traducers of the farmers’ labor and land — the railroads and the banks.

The legend of Jesse James loomed large in Woody Guthrie’s imagination. Not content to liken him to Robin Hood, he eventually wrote another song that implicitly compared Jesus to Jesse James. Based on the melody and lyrics of the traditional Jesse James ballad, Guthrie commemorates suffering scapegoats:

One dirty little coward called Judas Iscariot
Has laid Jesus Christ in his grave
He went to the sick, he went to the poor,
And he went to the hungry and the lame;

This is a variation on the original:

It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward,
I wonder how he did feel,
For he ate of Jesse’s bread, and he slept in Jesse’s bed,
Then he laid poor Jesse in his grave.

In 1972, it was much harder to sustain these misty-eyed Popular Front illusions in Jesse James. After five years of brutal war in Vietnam, the U.S. had become a lot more hard-edged and cynical. That mood was reflected in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, an altogether forgettable movie based on the James gang’s ill-fated robbery attempt on a Minnesota bank tied to an abolitionist politician.

With Robert Duvall playing Jesse James as a kind of wanton thug, it points more in the direction of historical accuracy but as is the case with all movies based on the bandit, there is no attention paid to his white supremacy. Directed and written by Philip Kaufman, the movie has much in common with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Missing entirely from Kaufman’s version is any sense of Jesse James the historical figure. Unlike the rather crude figure played by Robert Duvall, the Jesse James of history had a very real sense of his historical purpose. The motivation to go hundreds of miles to Minnesota to rob a bank had less to do with access to money and more to do with a kind of last hurrah for the Confederate cause. James was a fully conscious counter-revolutionary and the Northfield bank was a symbol of Yankee domination.

Some films do try to tie Jesse James to his bushwhacker past. In Missouri, slavery was permitted as a result of a rotten compromise that was supposedly designed to preserve the Union. When the Civil War broke out, militias fought to determine whether the state would be free or slave. The pro-slavery militias were called bushwhackers and were led by men like William Anderson and William Quantrill of Quantrill’s Raiders fame. Pro-Union militias based in Kansas, a free state, were called Jayhawkers.

In 1950, Audie Murphy played Jesse James in Kansas Raiders, a movie that treated the Jayhawker-Bushwhacker struggle as essentially one over clashing visions of a “way of life.” Like just about every such movie, the daily lives of Missouri slaves do not enter the picture. The movie revolves around the relationship between Jesse James and William Quantrill played by Brian Donlevy as a kind of gentleman soldier who functions as a surrogate father to Jesse James. The dramatic conflict flows from Jesse James’s growing disgust with the killing of unarmed civilians. Initially, Quantrill encourages such behavior since his underlings demand blood vengeance, but eventually grows more inclined to adopt Jesse James’s Geneva Conventions approach to conducting war. The movie has nothing to do with the real lives of Quantrill and Jesse James, as we will soon see.

Although Jesse James does not appear in Ang Lee’s 1999 Ride With the Devil, it certainly deserves mention here as a serious if completely misguided bid to dramatize the Bushwhacker-Jayhawker conflict. Like the young and rather chaste character played by Audie Murphy in Kansas Raiders, Tobey Maguire of Spiderman fame is cast as Jake Roedel, a 19-year-old son of an abolitionist German farmer who decides to join up with William Quantrill to defend the Southern “way of life.” Once again, slaves do not enter the picture. The movie is close in spirit to the 1950 Kansas Raiders with the central drama revolving around Jake Roedel’s struggle to break with the Bushwhackers after seeing Quantrill’s brutality in action, especially in Lawrence, Kansas, the scene of a horrific massacre.

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel Woe to Live On, the movie is riddled with foolish inconsistencies and unexplained behavior. There is no attempt to explain why the son of an abolitionist father would join up with a pro-slavery militia, especially since he is the butt of xenophobic cracks the minute he joins their ranks. They call him Dutchy in reference to his German heritage but much worse depending on the amount of alcohol they have in their bloodstream. It also makes very little sense for somebody to risk his life on behalf of a “cause,” when there is no material interest in doing so. The men who joined Quantrill owned slaves. They bitterly resented the Yankees who would rob them of their property. Without such property, Jake Roedel is an unlikely recruit.

Even more muddled is the inclusion of a former slave named Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright) who fights alongside his one-time master in Quantrill’s guerrillas. He is motivated to do so because of his love for the man who always treated him like a brother. Now it is true that blacks were part of the Confederate army toward the end of the Civil War but almost exclusively as valets and cooks, etc. Unfortunately, with the exclusion of any black slaves as characters in this film or any other based on the Jesse James legend, the net effect is confusion especially since Daniel Holt has so little to say about why he would want to be surrounded by racists who see him as subhuman. Nor does it try to explain why his master would fight for Quantrill after emancipating his slave. The movie is mostly about male bonding rather than anything else. For Ang Lee, the Missouri wars were about “America’s Bosnia,” a telling failure to understand the underlying class issues. A struggle to abolish slavery has little to do with ethnic-based militias fighting over territory, except in the mind of a confused postmodernist director.

Jesse James was born in 1847. His father was a preacher and hemp farmer named Robert James who left his wife Zerelda and family behind in 1850 to join the California gold rush. After he died out west, Zerelda remarried twice. The second marriage was to a physician named Reuben Samuel, who began farming with Zerelda soon afterwards. Farming was very lucrative in that period, especially when you could rely on the unpaid labor of Africans. Understandably, Zerelda became passionately devoted to the cause of slavery since her very livelihood depended on it. In all of the Jesse James movies, she is depicted as a doting and benign figure, but after reading Stiles you gather the impression that she had more in common with Ann Coulter.

Under the terms of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, slavery was permitted in a state whose economic foundations were quite different from that in the Deep South where very large plantations existed. The typical slave-owner tended to be like the James/Samuel family but just as committed to preserving the system as the Southern Bourbon class. It should also be stressed that the party in Missouri that fought most vigorously to protect the interests of slave-owners like Zerelda James Samuel was the same Democratic Party that has just nominated Barack Obama.

Once the Civil War began, Missouri turned into a battlefield between slave-owners and radicals. Unlike the war that raged toward the Eastern seaboard, the fighting was often done by “irregulars,” especially on the pro-slavery side. It also often spilled over the border between Missouri and Kansas, a free state. One of the early combatants was John Brown, who led an attack on slave masters four years before the war began.

Frank James, Jesse’s older brother by four years, joined a pro-slavery militia in 1863. After Union soldiers led an attack on the James/Samuel farm in search of Frank James, Jesse decided to become a combatant himself at the age of sixteen.

Despite filmic accounts, Jesse James did not take part in the Lawrence, Kansas, massacre although Frank James certainly did. On August 18, 1863, Quantrill’s Raiders conducted what can only be described as a terrorist attack on the abolitionist center, where black troops were recruited on behalf of the Union cause. Over 200 men and boys died that day. One of Quantrill’s men was heard to say, “One of them damned nigger-thieving abolitionists ain’t dead yet. Go and kill him.” This bit of dialog and nothing like it was ever heard in a Jesse James movie to be sure.

Eventually both of the James brothers joined William T. Anderson’s militia. Nicknamed Bloody Bill, Anderson was infamous for taking the scalps of his victims, civilian and military alike. Anderson led an attack on Centralia, Missouri, on September 27, 1864, that had all the earmarks of the Lawrence raid. They wreaked vengeance on an outnumbered Federal troop guarding the town. Stiles writes:

The bushwhackers now celebrated, becoming “drunk on blood,” Goodman [a Union sergeant] thought. Pool danced across a cluster of bodies, hopping from one to the other. “Counting ‘em,” he explained. The rebels walked among the dead, crushing faces with rifle butts and shoving bayonets through the bodies, pinning them to the ground. Frank James bent down to loot one of the corpses, pulling free a sturdy leather belt. Others slid knives out of their sheaths and knelt down to work. One by one, they cut seventeen scalps loose, then carefully tied them to their saddles and bridles. At least one guerrilla carved the nose off a victim. Others sliced off ears, or sawed on heads and switched their bodies. Someone pulled the trousers off one corpse, cut off the penis, and shoved it in the dead man’s mouth.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/lproy47.html

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