November 8, 2014
September 19, 2014
For the average person the early death of Stieg Larsson must have come as a disappointment since that meant that the fourth Dragon Tattoo novel would remain uncompleted, the last in a series that were perfect reading on the bus or subway going to work. I understood how they might feel since I once missed my stop while reading the account of the petite but potent Lisbeth Salander beating up a 300-pound biker and stealing his Harley-Davidson.
But after reading Jan-Erik Pettersson’s “Stieg Larsson: the real story of the man who played with fire”, I felt a keener loss, that of a man who I never met but now miss as a comrade in the fight against a decaying capitalist system. I was always aware that Karl Stig-Erland “Stieg” Larsson, who died at the age of 50 from a heart attack on November 9, 2005, was a member of the Trotskyist movement–as was I–but never knew much about what he did in between the time he left the movement and began writing the novels that made him famous. I was under the impression that he made his living as a journalist but that would be like saying that John Reed did so as well. Like so many journalists with integrity over the last 100 years, Stieg Larsson aimed his words like a Molotov cocktail at the forces of capitalist reaction. If anything, the exploits of Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hero of his novels, pale in comparison to the life that the author led.
I picked up Pettersson’s book (used copies sell for a penny on Amazon.com!) primarily to get a handle on how Sweden moved away from the welfare state in the 80s and 90s and on how those changes impacted the Marxist detective novel writers I wrote about inCounterPunch recently. While the book provided valuable information that allowed me to put someone like Henning Mankell, the creator of the Wallender novels, into context, the story of Stieg Larsson began to captivate me, so much so that I decided to write this article as a way of paying homage to this extraordinary human being. The facts about Larsson’s life that follow come from Pettersson’s book; the analysis you can blame on me as always.
September 12, 2014
CounterPunch WEEKEND EDITION SEPTEMBER 12-14, 2014
For fans of Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo novels and the film adaptations both American and Swedish it inspired, I have good news about similar crime stories that appeared on Swedish television originally and that can be seen on Netflix, Amazon and on other commonly available sources.
For reasons to be explained momentarily, there are good reasons why Marxists like Larsson decided to write what can arguably be called pulp fiction. Foremost in Larsson’s mind was the need to create a nest egg for his long-time partner who unfortunately has run into conflicts with Larsson’s father and brothers over the author’s estate. (Larsson, who died unexpectedly from a heart attack, did not leave a will.) While there are undoubtedly sharp observations about the dark side of Swedish society in his novels, his main goal was to tell compelling stories with memorable characters. If that is the sort of thing you are looking for in popular culture, then the existence of other Swedish works in this genre should be most welcome.
September 10, 2014
From “Stieg Larsson: the Real Story of the Man Who Played With Fire” by Jan-Erik Petterson:
ABOUT A WEEK AFTER THE FIRST Swedish anti-Vietnam War demonstration and the same year the Swedish police were nationalized, the detective story Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo was published. This was the book which was to introduce the revolution in Swedish detective fiction and without which Jan Guillou’s Hamilton books, Henning Mankell’s Wallander series and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy could probably never have been written.
Sjowall and Wahloo threw out the old props of the ingenious sleuth assembling the suspects in the manor house library and instead placed the real, unromantic, crime-solving police centre stage.
Roseanna was just the start of a carefully devised plan. The man-and-wife team had decided they would produce exactly ten novels over ten years, published under the collective rubric of The Story of a Crime. The books would use the detective story format to reflect and analyse contemporary Sweden. More than that: they would, in Per Wahloo’s words, ‘rip open the belly of an ideologically impoverished society’.
Per Wahloo had already had some novels published, mostly political thrillers, but Maj Sjowall, who worked for the weekly press, was new to fiction. Both were politically committed and way to the left of the ruling Social Democrats.
Their views were not entirely surprising, even though several years ahead of their time. But the literary venture was a bold one. Crime fiction was middle class. In the circles they moved in they certainly got no brownie points for writing in that medium. Even from a commercial perspective, thrillers were no guarantee of success. The publishing director at Norstedts, Lasse Bergstrom, wrote in his memoirs, Bokmarken (Bookmarks), that he was rather disappointed when Wahloo, whom he already knew well, came to the office with Maj Sjowall to propose their project.
`But my disappointment was in total ignorance of what was to come,’ was his later terse comment on his reaction at the time.
Sjowall and Wahloo wanted to try something new, something daring and unexpected. To hell with traditions, even those of the Labour movement. They would write for a broad public and make it so easy and exciting that the bitter pill of the authors’ social critique would slide down without meeting any resistance.
And weren’t class divisions in society a crime in themselves, anyway? And shouldn’t they be depicted as such?
From Sjowall—Wahloo onwards, the Swedish crime novel — oddly enough given its context — has been a genre with a strong tendency to the Left.
Fortunately for the authors, it was as if the era itself was crying out for a fresh sort of literature. The expansive, realistic, elaborate epic felt played out. What was needed now was something more in keeping with the pulse of the new decade — edgy, nerve-tingling, straight to the point.
At that period, the documentary form predominated in all the arts. Truth carried more weight than fiction. Within the space of a few years the book market was flooded with current affairs and reportage. Sjowall—Wahloo, despite opting for the novel, were in perfect accord with the trend. Their blow-by-blow accounts of meetings in police headquarters, interrogations of witnesses and suspects, post-mortem reports and so forth convinced the reader that these procedures were completely true to life.
Such devices would go on to become the staple for all Swedish crime writers.
Sjowall and Wahloo were aware too of crime fiction traditions other than the Swedish, just as Stieg Larsson was thirty years on. In the USA Dashiell Hammett had introduced the hard-boiled school of crime fiction with his novels about the private detective Sam Spade. Hammett was an anti-fascist and member of the American Communist Party, and wrote about a society that seldom showed any mercy to anyone born on the wrong side of the tracks. And in France Georges Simenon had created his Chief Superintendent Jules Maigret, who not only solved crimes but also sought to analyse their cause and was able to feel sympathy for the perpetrators.
Sjowall and Wahloo had found a useful model in the American crime writer Ed McBain and his novels about the 87th Police Precinct in the fictional town of Isola. McBain depicts the cops Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling and their laborious daily grind confronting a criminality of steadily increasing ruthlessness. These books were fine examples of the police procedural, detective stories where the efforts of the team are much more important than an individual detective hero’s flashes of insight. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo decided to learn from McBain and even translated some of his books into Swedish.
Roseanna introduces a Swedish police team at the Homicide Bureau in Stockholm. They are Detective Inspector Martin Beck (later superinten-dent and head of the National Homicide Bureau of the Central Bureau of Investigation) and his assistants Lennart Kollberg and Fredrik Melander. The cast is gradually augmented: Gunvald Larsson, Einar Minn, Ake Stenstrom (who is murdered in the fourth book and succeeded by Benny Skacke), and also Stenstrom’s former girlfriend Asa Torell.
This is the team that battles to solve various crimes and more often than not succeeds. Yet in the final analysis they always lose. In contrast to the crime stories of the 1950s, no equilibrium is restored in the police procedurals of the 1960s and 1970s. Society itself is constantly producing new and more serious, more audacious and better-organized types of crime. The Sjowall—Wahloo books are not reading matter for the optimistic.
These novels are about the triumphs and impotence of the collec-tive. Young individualists and careerists who are too self-important are bullied and cut down to size, not least by Lennart Kollberg. But the biggest difference of all in comparison with earlier crime novels lies in something more elusive: in the language, the style, the atmosphere:
The little black car hurtled forward through the darkness precisely and implacably, as if it were a weightless craft in space.
The buildings tightened along the road and the city rose up beneath its dome of light, huge and cold and desolate, stripped of everything but hard naked surfaces of metal, glass and concrete.
Not even in the city centre was there any street life at this hour of the night. With the exception of an occasional taxi, two ambulances and a squad car, everything was dead. The police car was black with white fenders and rushed quickly past on its own bawling carpet of sound.
The traffic lights changed from red to yellow to green to yellow to red with a meaningless mechanical monotony.
Here, at the beginning of The Abominable Man, the authors manage to get everything into one short sequence — the forward movement, the suspense of the thriller, the doom-laden feeling of imminent calamity, together with an evocation of the new Swedish capitalist society as they see it — cold, desolate, inhuman.
Something really had happened to Swedish crime fiction.
THE SJOWALL-WAHLOO BOOKS were written from the outset in a restrained objective style, but by degrees the text became more inter-spersed with ironical and critical comments on everything from beer prices and fashions to government foreign policy and the incompetence of the police force and its top management.
What the authors diagnosed in the mid-1960s was a welfare state degenerating, no longer class-equalizing but class-dividing, where people were oppressed by assembly lines and rationalizations, where original residential town centres were being demolished and the urban populace pushed out to so-called dormitory towns.
And the social drama was escalating as the volumes were being written. Vietnam demonstrations were attracting thousands of participants, police and demonstrators clashed, a tennis tournament in Bastad between Sweden and Rhodesia was disrupted by riots, a students’ union building in Stockholm was occupied, a wave of wildcat strikes hit the whole country, the Establishment was rocked by the IB Affair of secret service malpractice, and a hostage drama on Norrmalmstorg and a terrorist attack on the West German embassy brought Stockholm to the attention of the world.
Politics had moved out on to the streets. Violence was making itself felt.
The authorial voice became more explicit as The Story of a Crime progressed. At the very end of the last volume, as some of the main characters are sitting playing party games, it becomes over-explicit:
They all turned their papers over and drew more squares. When Kollberg was ready, he looked at Martin Beck and said, ‘The trouble with you, Martin, is just that you’re in the wrong job. At the wrong time. In the wrong part of the world. In the wrong system.’
‘Is that all?’
‘More or less,’ said Kollberg. ‘My turn to start? Then I say X. X as in Marx.’
This final scene in The Terrorists is dated 10 January 1975. Four months later NLF troops marched into Saigon and the USA left Vietnam. The war that had brought the youth of the West to their feet was over. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge took power and ushered in a period of unimaginable terror.
The Left to which Sjowall and Wahloo felt they belonged was about to experience disillusionment and factionalism. Nothing was straightforward any more. The unique combination of anger and hope that had swept the emotions along during the dramatic years when The Story of a Crime was being written was gone, never to return.
Maj Sjowall and Per Wahltio had wanted to write for the people and not for the Swedish Academy or the broadsheet newspaper critics. As a result they became the critics’ favourites, which was to have a decisive impact on the Swedish crime novel. Because it was this interplay of effective popular storytelling, widespread media attention and positive reactions on the arts pages that brought the Swedish crime fiction vogue into being and allowed it to flourish.
With the praise came honours and prizes. In 1968 the authors received the Edgar Allan Poe Award, the highest accolade for a crime novel, for The Laughing Policeman. Now even the most dismissive of readers could bury themselves in a Martin Beck police thriller with a clear conscience.
It was not long before the Sjowall—Wahloo police team progressed into the film world. Martin Beck has been played by such stars as Keve Hjelm, Gosta Ekman, Carl Gustaf Lindstedt and Peter Haber. A German version of The Man Who Went up in Smoke featured Derek Jacobi in the role of Beck. Walter Matthau was given the part in the Hollywood version of The Laughing Policeman and Jan Decleir in a Dutch film of The Locked Room.
Ironically, it has only been in later years, with the industrial production of Martin Beck films on standardized thriller lines (twenty-six so far) that the protagonist has become well known to a really wide audience. Yet the Martin Beck and Gunvald Larsson we meet there have almost nothing in common with the classic detective story characters that Sjowall and Wahloo created.
July 25, 2014
CounterPunch WEEKEND EDITION JULY 25-27, 2014
In Defense of “Grand Hotel” and “Revenge”
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.
June 3, 2014
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”):
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:
May 23, 2014
Counterpunch Weekend Edition May 23-25, 2014
Godzilla, Captain America, Fukushima and Drones
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?”
December 28, 2013
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:
October 18, 2013
Counterpunch Weekend Edition October 18-20, 2013
Elvis is on the Screen!
A Pervert’s Guide to Zizek
by LOUIS PROYECT
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.
October 23, 2012
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.