Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 28, 2014

Fallen City

Filed under: China,television — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

This shows tonight on WNET in NYC at 10pm. Check your local PBS station to see if it is being screened in your city. This is from the PBS website:

http://www.pbs.org/pov/fallencity/film_description.php

Even for a country historically plagued by earthquakes, the 2008 quake in the Sichuan province was devastating. Nearly 70,000 people were killed and thousands more were missing and never found, making it the deadliest quake in the country in three decades. The old town of Beichuan, home to 20,000 people, was reduced to rubble. Fallen City is a revealing account of contemporary China’s response to the disaster: Within a scant two years, the government built a new and apparently improved town close to the old Beichuan.

Fallen City is the haunting story of the survivors, whose grief over the past and anxiety about the future cannot be resolved in bricks and mortar or erased by cheerful government propaganda about “the new Beichuan.” In today’s China, even the worst disaster can be an occasion for celebrating the country’s achievements and its anticipated great future. Yet in China, as elsewhere—and as movingly captured by Fallen City—suffering in the face of death and displacement follows a path determined more by humanity’s search for meaning than by the politics of the day.

—-

The film is the first directed by Qi Zhao, whose last credit was executive producing “Last Train Home”, about which I wrote:

“Last Train Home” is the latest movie that departs from the globalization-is-wonderful ideology of Thomas Friedman, Jagdish Bhagwati, and other prophets of neoliberalism. Some are fictional, such as “Blind Shaft”, a movie about miners forced to work in virtual slavery. Others are documentaries like “Still Life” that depict the loss of livelihood and ties to the land that the Three Gorges Dam posed.

Directed by a Canadian Lixin Fan, whose last film “Up the Yangtze” explored the same issues as “Still Life”, “Last Train Home” focuses on a single family whose life has been torn apart by China’s rapid industrialization.

Changhua Zhan and his wife Suqin Chen both work on sewing machines in a typical export-oriented factory in the Guangdong province. Each New Year’s holiday, they take a train back to their rural village to see their teenaged daughter Qin Zhang and her younger brother Yang Zhang. This is not as easy as it seems since there are far more people trying to get a ticket than are available. The train station is a sea of humanity with cops and soldiers trying to keep order. Although the film does not comment on why this is the case (it sticks to a cinéma vérité format), it strikes this reviewer as the likely outcome of a society that no longer places much emphasis on public transportation as it once did. (There are signs that this is beginning to change recently, but one doubts that it will have any impact on the poorer migrant workers for a while.)

full: http://louisproyect.org/2010/11/28/last-train-home/

I expect this to be a very important film.

July 25, 2014

Smoking hot soap operas

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

Smoking Hot Soap Operas

by LOUIS PROYECT

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.

 

read full article

February 17, 2014

Ed Murrow must be spinning in his grave

Filed under: media,television — louisproyect @ 2:24 am

January 13, 2014

“Girls” promo

Filed under: humor,television — louisproyect @ 7:19 pm

September 30, 2013

The cinematography of “Breaking Bad”

Filed under: technology,television — louisproyect @ 9:40 pm

After having made 28 videos, most of which were made with a prosumer JVC camera that cost me $3000, I have a pretty good idea of the capabilities of digital video and its limitations.

What you can’t get in the run-of-the-mill videocam is the ability to control depth of field as you would with a SLR camera. In other words if you were recording a baseball game, the catcher and the pitcher would get the same degree of focus. If you are using a film camera or the newer and rather expensive videocams that incorporate Digital SLR, you can manipulate the depth of focus for dramatic effect, such as zeroing in on a character. This image from an article titled “Using Depth of Field For Storytelling” should illustrate the effect:

Last night when I was watching the final episode of “Breaking Bad”, it hit me what made the cinematography of “Breaking Bad” so riveting. It eschewed the narrow depth of focus illustrated in the image above even though it was using film. Instead, this was the typical image:

You’ll notice that everything has the same focus. The effect is usually unsettling since it is basically the perspective of the human eye rather than the camera. Neither the objects in the foreground nor background are emphasized. It gives you the feeling of being a fly on the wall. It also lends itself to the non-judgmental POV that made the show so interesting.

An interview with the cinematographer for “Breaking Bad” makes a series of interesting points. The show avoided the use of hand-held cameras, especially in action scenes. By now, the shaky images meant to convey an excited state are a cliché that every smart cinematographer should avoid. The one who worked on “Breaking Bad” was exceedingly smart.

The other thing noted in the article is the use of natural light. The scenes of the New Mexico desert and the streets of Albuquerque are as important to the show as Bryan Cranston’s facial tics and stammer. If you want to see where he picked up these tricks, just watch Laurence Olivier in “Marathon Man”.

September 19, 2013

Under the Dome

Filed under: literature,television — louisproyect @ 4:54 pm

Counterpunch September 19, 2013
Remarks from an Ecosocialist

Under the Dome

by LOUIS PROYECT

In 2003, after the National Book Foundation presented Stephen King with a distinguished career award, a big hue and cry went up from all the snobbish critics and authors who regarded him in much the same way that Dumbo was viewed by the other elephants. King’s acceptance speech was an eloquent testimony to his belief in a people’s art:

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: “What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” And that’s always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I’ve told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.

Most people are aware that King writes horror stories but the reference to the muckraking Frank Norris hints at a side of the author that many of his fans never considered. King is also an outspoken liberal who takes on social and political issues but without the sterile didacticism so pervasive in leftist fiction.

When I discovered that CBS had adapted “Under the Dome” as a 13 episode series, whose finale aired last Monday night, I was eager to watch it not only as a long-time King fan but as an ecosocialist anxious to see how what some regarded as a parable on the environmental crisis would play out. Although I had not read the novel, I assumed that with King serving as executive producer it would ensure that the TV series would remain faithful to the novel. But only after watching the finale, a dreary conclusion to an altogether dreary series, did I begin to consider the possibility that King’s intentions would be subverted by another big-name executive producer: Stephen Spielberg as well as the show’s major creative force, one Brian K. Vaughan.

Before dealing with the novel and its original agenda, some thoughts on what was likely the worst adaptation of the author’s work ever made. Since King is on record as hating Stanley Kubrick’s masterful “The Shining”, I would love to get him alone for five minutes to find out why he did not leave this TV show on the cutting room floor in its entirety.

“Under the Dome” sticks to the premise of the novel, namely that a mysterious transparent dome lands on a town called Chester’s Mill cutting it off from the outside world. Nobody can get in and nobody can get out. If you were unfortunate enough to be on the perimeter of the dome at the moment it landed, you would be sliced in two. Each week the show begins with the shot of a cow being cut right down the middle and a small plane bursting into flames as it crashed into the dome. It goes downhill from there.

read full

June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini, dead at the age of 51 from heart attack

Filed under: obituary,television — louisproyect @ 12:19 am

New York Daily News, June 19, 2013

James Gandolfini dead at 51: ‘Sopranos’ star suffers massive heart attack in Italy

‘Everyone is in tears,’ a source close to the Emmy Award-winning actor tells the Daily News.

By AND / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 7:30 PM

Actor James Gandolfini is dead at 51. A source tells the Daily News he suffered a massive heart attack in Italy.
 James Gandolfini, the New Jersey-bred actor who delighted audiences as mob boss Tony Soprano in “The Sopranos” has died following a massive heart attack in Italy, a source told the Daily News.

“Everyone is in tears,” the source close to the 51-year-old TV tough guy said.

A press-shy celeb who got his start as a character actor and became famous relatively late in his career — thanks to his breakout role on “The Sopranos,” Gandolfini has largely avoided the spotlight since the last season of the beloved show aired in 2007.

The burly Westwood, N.J. native has appeared in several supporting roles since then, playing the director of the CIA in “Zero Dark Thirty” and the gruff blue-collar father of a wannabe rock star in “Not Fade Away” last year.

Gandolfini hit Broadway in 2009 with the Tony Award-winning comedy “God of Carnage.”

“I seek out good stories, basically — that’s it,” he told The Star-Ledger last December.

“The older I get, the funnier-looking I get, the more comedies I’m offered. I’m starting to look like a toad, so I’ll probably be getting even more soon.”

Gandolfini’s wife, former model Deborah Lin, gave birth to a baby girl last October. The couple married in Hawaii in 2008.

Gandolfini — who spent part of his early career supporting himself as a bartender and nightclub manager — also has a son with his ex-wife, Marcy Wudarski.
His first break came in 1992 when he landed a role in a Broadway version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” that starred Alec Baldwin and Jessica Lange.

Smallish parts in major films followed — Gandolfini played a submarine crew member in “Crimson Tide” in 1995 and a gangland bodyguard in “Get Shorty” the same year.

Fame came for the Italian-American actor after 1999, as “The Sopranos” garnered critical acclaim and cult popularity on its way to becoming a TV classic.

Gandolfini won three Emmy Awards for his sparkling depiction of protagonist Tony Soprano, a mobster trying to balance the mundane stresses of family life and his unusual occupation: organized crime.

* * * *

Swans

The Sopranos, Capitalism And Organized Crime

by Louis Proyect

November 15, 2004   

“A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as commodities. . .The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.; and all these different lines of business, which form equally many categories of the social division of labour, develop different capacities of the human spirit, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them.”

—Karl Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value

Having just completed its fifth season on premium cable station Home Box Office, “The Sopranos” has garnered well-deserved accolades for innovative writing, directing and acting. Along with other HBO series such as “Sex and the City” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it is continuing evidence of premium cable’s ability to rise to the standards of golden era television. Before rampant commercialization took over in the early 1960s, network television pioneered breakthrough weekly dramatic series such as Playhouse 90 that drew upon gifted playwrights, many of whom like Walter Bernstein had been blacklisted from the film industry.

HBO shares the social and political vision of television’s early days. “The Sopranos” offers up sharply observed insights about American class society reminiscent of Theodore Dreiser’s naturalistic novels. Revolving around the character of New Jersey crime boss Tony Soprano and his friends and rivals, the series makes clear that criminality is deeply engrained in American society. It also reveals that Tony Soprano has the same hunger for social acceptance as any other ‘nouveau riche.’ Ironically, his criminal mystique seems to open up more doors for him in polite society than the barbecues and church donations he lavishes on his New Jersey bedroom community.

“The Sopranos” can be categorized with other post-Romantic and post-Affluent Mafia narratives. By post-Romantic we mean the following. As in the case of Mike Newell’s film “Donnie Brasco,” the main characters lack the Corleone family’s charisma. Rather than appearing as a sort of chivalric order with the sense of noblesse oblige of Coppola’s “Godfather,” Soprano and his crew would steal from their own mothers. In addition, like the character Lefty Ruggiero played by Al Pacino in “Donnie Brasco,” they are always under constant pressure to make ends meet. In the post-affluent world of “The Sopranos,” just as is the case in any small proprietorship today, sales quotas in a framework of declining market share have to be met. But the gangster has the added complication of being continuously hounded by the feds. When an underling cannot come up with Tony Soprano’s share of gambling profits, he might get a broken nose. In the straight world, the consequence might be a loss of a job and economic collapse. Who can say which is worse?

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art10/lproy20.html

October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween

Filed under: humor,television — louisproyect @ 11:32 pm

September 18, 2012

A conversation with Jeffrey Marlin and Richard Greener

Filed under: bard college,television — louisproyect @ 5:44 pm

Now into the middle of the third season of “Mad Men” on Netflix, I continue to be bemused by the lofty critiques of the show in places like the London Review of Books and the journal that inspired it, the New York Review of Books. In the October 2008 LRB, Mark Greif complained:

Mad Men flatters us where we deserve to be scourged. As I see it, the whole spectacle has the bad faith of, say, an 18th-century American slaveholding society happily ridiculing a 17th-century Puritan society – ‘Look, they used to burn their witches!’ – while secretly envying the ease of a time when you could still tie uppity women to the stake. If we’ve managed to become less credulous about advertising, to make it more normal and the bearer of more reasonable expectations, perhaps in 50 years’ time viewers will look back on the silly self-congratulatory subtexts of Mad Men, shake their heads, and be grateful that gender and sexual tolerance have likewise been normalised.

In February 2011, Daniel Mendelsohn told NYR readers that the show was pretty much a load of crap:

The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

He also repeats Greif’s charge that the show maintains an ill-deserved superiority complex:

To my mind, the picture is too crude and the artist too pleased with himself. In Mad Men, everyone chain-smokes, every executive starts drinking before lunch, every man is a chauvinist pig, every male employee viciously competitive and jealous of his colleagues, every white person a reflexive racist (when not irritatingly patronizing). It’s not that you don’t know that, say, sexism was rampant in the workplace before the feminist movement; it’s just that, on the screen, the endless succession of leering junior execs and crude jokes and abusive behavior all meant to signal “sexism” doesn’t work—it’s wearying rather than illuminating.

When I first posted about Mad Men, after viewing the entire first season, I defended it against such charges, drawing upon my experiences at Metropolitan Life in 1968, on the very floor that served as a backdrop for Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment”. If you’ve seen “The Apartment”, you’ll recognize the similarities between it and “Mad Men” right off the bat. This is no accident since Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, counts this movie as one of his prime influences:

Billy Wilder wrote it with I. L. Diamond – this is like one of the great writing teams of all time, and just the cinema in it, the stuff that’s done…I’d like to claim a relationship to ‘Mad Men’ for that, too. Spoiler alert: Things like the champagne cork going off and you think it’s a suicide. The tennis racket. The compact with the crack in it. The restaurant with the drinks in it. How things are shaping up ‘cookie-wise.’ That’s a contemporary movie. People were seeing people that they knew. It was done in a very sort of classic kind of way. It’s masterful storytelling.

That’s my relationship to it: that it’s one of my favorite movies. I saw it and realized that it was the apex of a period that I had already been fascinated with. I loved the characters, and just writing-wise I always try and emulate that kind of storytelling, where the payoffs are visual and there’s a lot of misunderstanding, but they’re believable. And the bad guys have a reason for what they do. And casting. Do not forget who Fred MacMurray was when they put in that part. The grimiest guy that he had ever been was in ‘Double Indemnity.’ He was the schmuck in that. In this thing he was really a dark character.

If I was really a bit young to be a character in “Mad Men”, that can’t be said about my two old friends from Bard College I interviewed above. A good five years older than me, they are exactly the same age as the junior copywriters who would have worked under the lead character Don Draper.

Both of them had a connection to advertising, one brief and one fairly long term. Jeffrey Marlin’s first job was as a copywriter for a direct mail outfit. Trudging off to work in an office each day (one likely much smaller than Met Life) persuaded him to look for a gig that he could do at home. This led to a very long career with Xerox Learning Systems that ended a few years ago. I understand what went into this decision psychologically since I used to return home from Met Life each day wondering whether I would be able to do this for the rest of my life. Fortunately I found computer programming less of a drag, if not something akin to playing games, than just about any other corporate job.

Richard Greener’s long career in radio started off selling advertising but evolved into a management position, including serving as president of WAOK in Atlanta, a Black radio station that he helped to push in a progressive direction—including sympathetic reporting on Sandinista Nicaragua.

But a good friend of Richard and Jeffrey probably epitomized the “Mad Men” ethos a lot more than either of them. Leonard Leokum, who died about five years ago, was the son of acclaimed author Arkady Leokum and a figure without about the same clout in the advertising business as Don Draper. Although I never really knew Leonard, I used to get a chuckle out of Richard and Jeffrey referring to him as the brains behind the Juan Valdez coffee commercials. We differed on the “political correctness” of the ad, with my friends making the case that Juan Valdez was a subtle symbol of Latin American national aspirations.

In my interview with Jeffrey and Richard, they told me that they had no interest in the show with Richard adding that it would probably make him sick to watch it. After doing the interview, I reflected a bit on the show and what is probably its greatest failing, something not truly addressed in the LRB and the NYRB articles—namely the absence of any character working in the industry who saw through its bullshit.

“Mad Men” has a character or two who spout Marxish comments about advertising but are mainly portrayed as hypocrites whose leftist politics are disjoined from ethical lapses of one sort or another. There are also some characters who seem aware of the beat generation but again don’t truly “get it”. In Bob Dylan’s words:

Something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones

Well, there were people who knew what was happening, especially Jeffrey and Richard (and Leonard as well, I’m sure). At some point during my retirement, I plan to do a series of interviews with ex-SWP members who will be willing to share their experiences with the young activists of today, just as I benefited from conversations with George Novack back in 1967.

But I doubt that any conversation I have with them will be half as stimulating and as eye opening as that I had with Jeffrey and Richard.

By Jeffrey Marlin:

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/10/11/the-right-by-jeffrey-marlin/

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/11/30/eleven-thoughts-on-the-jewishnational-question/

Jeffrey Marlin has also just released a 1300-page opus on Amazon Kindle. It’s entitled Tales of the Great Moral Symmetry, by J. Marlin, and includes five complete verse-novels: The Three Wicked Pigs; Jack and the Time Stalk; Boots: By Puss Possessed; The Outlaw Rumplestiltskin; and Snow White and the 7 Deadly Sins. You’ll find some more-or-less progressive social commentary around the edges, and whether or not it’s your idea of great literature, I can guarantee you’ve never read anything like it. Comrades with Kindles may want to have a look.

My review of Richard Greener’s “The Knowland Retribution: the Locator”:

http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2007/04/02/richard-greeners-the-knowland-retribution-the-locator/

May 11, 2012

HBO Girls: Hipsterism gone awry

Filed under: comedy,television — louisproyect @ 2:47 pm

Dunham’s Jugs A-Flashin’ Ain’t Gonna Save Girls

The HBO series Girls misfires again in this week’s episode that has viewers pulling their hair out wishing the characters would just stop their whining, grow a spine and grow up. In the wake of the recent backlash, it’s curtains for the series for this viewer (and many others) as the backlash grows.

{Note: I admire all who create. Creating is not easy. Still, when you put something you create into the world you open yourself up to criticism. Girls has been getting a fair share of it as of late, some of it deserved. The following is my opinion, take it for what it’s worth. I believe that Lena Dunham can do better.}

The problem with the HBO series Girls (by creator & star Lena Dunham) isn’t so much the backlash and controversy against the show, although that was on an epic scale. (In case you missed it, one of the show’s writers tweeted insensitive comments that were deemed “racist” which lead to a critique that for a show set in Brooklyn, a very diverse borough, it lacked diversity.) The problem in addition to that is — the show isn’t as funny as it thinks it is. The characters are so pathetic while being so arrogant at the same time that it’s hard not to feel they deserve every horrible thing that happens to them. In short: They act like idiots.

And not the endearing kind.

“Hannah’s Diary” doesn’t show them changing anytime soon. They’re still clueless girls who want us to revel in their cluelessness. They are the kind of moronic idiot that is hired as a nanny, goes to the park to talk down their nose at actual (multi-cultural) nannies, and then loses your kids. Then said nanny goes home to flirt with your husband who tells said nanny that losing children in public “happens to all of us.”

God bless and god help us all but um, cough, no — it does not.

full: http://www.sheknows.com/entertainment/articles/959665/hbo-girls-episode-recap-hannahs-diary

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