Dear Dave Lindorff,
January 31, 2006
Posted to www.marxmail.org on January 31, 2006
“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was directed by Andrew Adamson, who also directed “Shrek”–another children’s film that is meant to appeal to adults. The film was co-produced by Disney and something called Walden Media, which was founded by Philip F. Anschutz, a fundamentalist Christian supporter of the Republican Party and the CEO of Qwest. The avowed purpose of Walden is to spread morally uplifting films to children, especially those with a Christian theme, even if they are contained subliminally as they are in the Chronicles
This is a story of four children–two boys and two girls–living in London during WWII. Their mother ships them off to the countryside in order to escape Hitler’s bombs. They are put up in a labyrinthine mansion owned by an aloof professor that is tended to by his irascible maid.
One day as the bored children are playing hide-and-seek, the younger girl discovers a wardrobe closet to hide in. As she burrows through the fur coats stored there, she eventually tumbles into a snow-covered forest just beyond the closet’s exterior. There she meets a faun who has been instructed to kidnap her by the wicked White Witch who rules over this realm called Narnia. If she was accompanied by a pet dog, one can imagine her declaring, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in England anymore.”
Although C.S. Lewis was converted to Christianity by fellow Oxford don J.R. Tolkein and was obviously inspired by the Fellowship of the Ring, the more obvious literary antecedent is “Wizard of Oz”. Instead of being transported into a parallel universe by a tornado, these children have a much less arduous path: through the back wall of a closet. Once there, they have to complete an identical mission: kill an evil witch. In “Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy joins forces with a three anti-heroes, while in the Chronicle the children are allied with Aslan, the lion king of Narnia.
C.S. Lewis’s film is drenched with Christian symbolism. Although Christ is often symbolized by a lamb, he is also the Lion of Judah. Under the grip of the White Witch, Narnia has not enjoyed a Christmas for 100 years–although there’s plenty of snow. If the White Witch is killed, you see, the snow will end and spring will happily begin. In order for all this to transpire, it is necessary for prophecies to be fulfilled. In one of them, Aslan will have to sacrifice himself in order that one of the children, who has betrayed the others by going over to the White Witch, be redeemed and saved from death at her hands. (Although the White Witch is supposed to represent consummate evil, it was hard for me to work up a head of lather since she is played by Tilda Swinton, one of cinema’s most appealing personalities.)
The film is pretty slow going until the final fight scene between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil. Despite being eminently Caucasian herself, all of the White Witch’s minions seem to be rather dark-skinned, just as the Orcs were in “Fellowship of the Ring.” Gosh, I wonder why.
If it is meant as Christian propaganda, one has to wonder if it is subverting its own goals through the inclusion of witches, fauns, centaurs and other creatures drawn from the ranks of mythology. Furthermore, the return of Christmas in this tale seems closer to the pagan roots of this holiday than to celebrating Jesus’ birth. After all, putting up a pine tree as a symbol of the oncoming spring would owe more to Nordic ritual than the sort of austere Anglican theology favored by Lewis.
In any case, I doubt that any child will be converted to Christianity as a result of watching such a film. Speaking for myself, I found it entirely harmless just as I find films based on Tolkein and L. Frank Baum harmless.
I do confess that there is something that does bother me a bit. Baum, you will recall, was a newspaper man in South Dakota a decade before writing “Wizard of Oz.” In editorial after editorial, he lashed out at the Lakota people and wrote the following on the occasion of the death of Sitting Bull:
“With his fall the nobility of the Redskin is extinguished, and what few are left are a pack of whining curs who lick the hand that smites them. The Whites, by law of conquest, by justice of civilization, are masters of the American continent, and the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians. Why not annihilation? Their glory has fled, their spirit broken, their manhood effaced; better that they die than live the miserable wretches that they are. History would forget these latter despicable beings, and speak, in later ages of the glory of these grand Kings of forest and plain that Cooper loved to heroism.
“We cannot honestly regret their extermination, but we at least do justice to the manly characteristics possessed, according to their lights and education, by the early Redskins of America.”
Which brings me back to Philip F. Anschutz, the Christian co-producer of “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Five years ago, he was the CEO of an oil company before moving on to communications. In this capacity, he decided that oil profits were far more important than the rights of the same race that L. Frank Baum defamed.
“As remote as this place seems here in south-central Montana, a rambling valley of sagebrush and towering rocks far from any town, one is never truly alone. Looking on from scores of vantage points are colorful images of men and animals, among other illustrations, that were painted on the rock walls perhaps 1,000 years ago.
“Indian tribes that trace the presence of their ancestors here say they believe the spirits of their elders remain, making these 4,200 acres about 50 miles south of Billings a sacred place to them. Their name for Weatherman Draw is Valley of the Chiefs, and their oral histories teach that even enemies dropped their weapons to share the valley in peace.
“Yet now, the valley and its fading ancient art are at the center of a major conflict, one of the first that illustrates the kind of dispute that erupts when the nation struggles to balance energy needs with environmental and cultural concerns.
“In time, the conflict here might provide a model for resolving similar conflicts throughout the West.
“Just a quarter-mile from the heart of the valley, a Denver company, Anschutz Exploration, wants to explore for oil. Company officials say the valley might sit atop as many as 10 million barrels — 420 million gallons — making it a welcome addition to the country’s fuel supply, said Bill Miller, a company vice president.
“Anschutz is owned by Philip F. Anschutz, one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen and a major Republican donor.”
“For more than seven years his oil company sought permission to drill here. But it was not until February, after President Bush took office, that the Bureau of Land Management approved one exploratory well.”
(NY Times, June 22, 2001)
Fortunately, the Indians and their environmentalist allies were able to block Anschutz’s blitz. Now, there’s a drama that cries out for a cinematic treatment. We do face moral challenges in today’s world, but the real heroes are those who fight real world corporate domination, not fairy tale witches and gremlins.
January 30, 2006
As a work of Marxist philosophy, Philosophical Arabesques can rank with such classics as Engels’s Anti-Duhring or Lenin’s Materialism and Empiro-Criticism. It is an attempt to defend Marxism as a philosophy against a wide range of opponents, from 19th century idealism to the kind of obscurantist mysticism that was being churned up by capitalism in its death throes. As Bukharin put it in his introduction:
Today’s working-class hero is totally unlike the young ignoramus in Fonvizin, who asked, “Why do I need to know geography, when carriage drivers exist?” [A reference to an 18th century play.] It is the workers’ enemies who are playing the role of ignoramus. It is they who are increasingly turning their backs on the intellect, which refuses to serve their ends. It is they who snatch up stone axes, the swastika, the horoscope. It is they who are starting to read haltingly from the book of history, sounding it out syllable by syllable. It is they who pray to stone goddesses and idols. It is they who have turned their backs on the future, and like Heine’s dog, to which they have fitted a historical muzzle, they now bark with their backsides, while history in turn shows them only its a posteriori. Fine battles are now breaking out amid the grandiose festivities, and conflict envelops all areas.
In everyday language, idealism is a good thing. When you are an idealist, you live by your convictions and not by mercenary considerations of private gain. In philosophical and political terms, idealism has an entirely different meaning. It is simply the system of thought that Plato introduced and that has held sway until Marx’s materialist challenge of the mid-19th century. Fundamentally, idealism posits a world of transcendent ideals or essences that exists independently of the material world. The job of the philosopher is to penetrate into this higher reality, just as it is the job of the politician to shape society after its hallowed image.
Throughout the book Bukharin pays tribute to Hegel who, despite being in the idealist tradition, understood that the Ideal was constantly changing as history moved forward. It was not static, but something that was subject to an unfolding dialectic. Despite Hegel’s refusal to take the logical next step and challenge the fundamental precepts of idealism itself, he opened the door to Marx and Engels who saw the material world as having primacy over ideas and not the other way around. Bukharin put it this way:
The dialectical movement of ideas that is found in Hegel, and that reflects real movement in idealist form, contains elements that are highly valuable. These are the ideas of universal relationship, of movement, of change, and the forms of this movement; here the division, or self-differentiation, of the whole, the revealing of opposites and their interpenetration, serve as the motivating principle. This is the great revolutionary side of Hegel that is restricted and smothered by the elements of idealism and by the idealist conception of the world. All form is understood here in its movement, that is, in its rise, development, downfall, and extinction, in its contradictions and the resolution of contradictions, in the rise of new forms and the revealing of new contradictions, in the peculiarities and qualities of new forms, which again and again become subject to the process of change. The great contribution made by Hegel lies in this fearlessness of thought that encompasses the objective dialectic of being, nature, and history. The basic dialectical contradiction of Hegel’s own system, a contradiction noted by Engels, led to the system’s collapse, and gave rise to a new historical unity, at a new stage of historical development, in the dialectical materialism of Marx.
In recalling the cultural and psychological mood of the period of Bukharin’s final years, it is important to note the utter collapse of scientific and rationalist thinking across the board. While a belief in Platonic ideals might in and of itself be harmless, the rancid offshoots of idealist thought defended by fascist intellectuals demanded a rebuttal. The collapse of the capitalist economy and the failure of socialist revolution in Europe provided a fertile ground for all sorts of reactionary mystification. Bukharin’s arguments were like a bracing glass of cold water thrown in the face of a dying culture, as Christopher Caudwell, a casualty of the Spanish Civil War, would put it.
January 29, 2006
Posted to www.marxmail.org on January 29, 2006
Shortly after dropping out of the Trotskyist movement in 1978, I embarked on a systematic reading project of the world’s greatest novels. Since I had made the decision to begin writing fiction myself, I wanted to learn the craft from the masters. Additionally, I wanted a change of pace from the hard-core Marxist literature I had been reading for 11 years. (Within two years, however, I had returned to radical politics, largely under the impetus of the Central American revolution.)
I soon discovered that some of these masterpieces left me cold, including those written by Henry James, Joseph Conrad and especially Jane Austen. Although I would never deny that they were great writers, their words did not resonate with me. After reading 50 or so pages of “Pride and Prejudice,” I found myself wondering what all the hype was about. I was left cold by an endless round of country balls, dinner parties and dialogue that always sounded self-consciously arch.
To illustrate: Elizabeth Bennett, the major character who is based on Jane Austen herself, is in one of her frequent ‘cutting’ exercises with Fitzwilliam D’Arcy–reminiscent of an old Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movie. Like Hepburn and Tracy, these two spend most of their time hating each other until they finally discover that they really are in love. (I myself had a different take on the matter. In my experience, people generally start off in love and then discover that they really hate each other, especially after being married for a few years–excluding me of course.)
“I am perfectly convinced by it that Mr. Darcy has no defect. He owns it himself without disguise.”
“No”‘ — said Darcy, “I have made no such pretension. I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. — It is I believe too little yielding — certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of others so soon as I ought, nor their offences against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. — My good opinion once lost is lost for ever.”
It is to the credit of the 2005 production of “Pride & Prejudice” that it has converted a skeptic like me to the cause of Jane Austen despite such unnatural dialogue. It of obvious to me now that such dialogue is exactly what makes Austen special, especially after you get a good sense of who the characters are. Admittedly, like single malted scotch, it is an acquired taste. Although one cannot say for sure that the film is faithful to the novel, it at least has the merit of making me want to take another stab at this classic. With its sumptuous cinematography and first-rate acting, this is a film that can stand on its own. Considering the fact that this is director Joe Wright’s first film, this is quite an achievement.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, who is probably the best-known radical film reviewer in the USA as well as a classmate of mine from Bard College, didn’t find the movie faithful to the novel at all:
“Carnage is inevitable when breaking down a big novel, but the new film sends Austen’s tale through a terrible mauling. Characters are brutally sanded down, softened, or rounded out in the most boring ways to forgive them their foibles and resolve their conflicts. There are fewer secrets, smaller revelations, less suspense. The best example is the almost total effacement of weak, wicked Mr. Wickham, the object of Lizzie’s early misguided affections. In the book Wickham is the catalyst for the ways in which Darcy is misunderstood, then redeemed, and through whom Lizzie learns to temper her brash opinions.”
I suppose that Jonathan is correct but since I haven’t read Austen’s novel, I didn’t feel the same outrage over what appears in his eyes as a moustache drawn on the Mona Lisa.
Jane Austen’s world is that of the agrarian bourgeoisie. Although some Marxists regard them as prototypical capitalists, it is difficult to find them doing anything productive in her novels, least of all “improving” their land. They are far too busy doing a gavotte or engaging in clever repartee to actually figure out ways to increase crop yield.
Of course, Jane Austen was never really interested in how such people actually generated wealth. She was far more interested in what they did in their leisure hours, especially as it related to the question of social conduct. “Mansfield Park” is a novel about a young woman who relies on the support of her uncle–an absentee plantation owner in Antigua. In this case the discrepancy between the getting and spending of wealth is so extreme that Edward Said is forced to address it in “Culture and Imperialism”:
“According to Austen we are to conclude that no matter how isolated and insulated the English place (e.g., Mansfield Park), it requires overseas sustenance. Sir Thomas’s property in the Caribbean would have had to be a sugar plantation maintained by slave labor (not abolished until the 1830s): these are not dead historical facts but, as Austen certainly knew, evident historical realities. Before the Anglo-French competition the major distinguishing characteristic of Western empires (Roman, Spanish, and Portuguese) was that the earlier empires were bent on loot, as Conrad puts it, on the transport of treasure from the colonies to Europe, with very little attention to development, organization, or system within the colonies themselves; Britain and, to a lesser degree, France both wanted to make their empires long-term, profitable, ongoing concerns, and they competed in this enterprise, nowhere more so than in the colonies of the Caribbean, where the transport of slaves, the functioning of large sugar plantations, and the development of sugar markets, which raised the issues of protectionism, monopolies and price–all these were more or less constantly, competitively at issue.”
“Pride and Prejudice” is an early work that ostensibly would avoid such moral dilemmas. At worst, someone watching the film might feel revulsion over the ostentation it celebrates. D’Arcy lives in a house that looks as large as the British Museum. Although the average movie-goer, having bought in to some degree to the value system of PBS’s “Masterpiece Theater,” might look forward to such a visual spectacle in the same way that Woody Allen fans swoon over the penthouses ubiquitous to his films, somebody like me or the late Edward Said might regard them as a waste of treasure.
Once you get past the aristocratic trappings of Jane Austen’s world, you find yourself in a very familiar world, namely that of the anxious middle-class family. The Bennetts have 5 unmarried daughters including Elizabeth. The plot revolves around the need described in the very first sentence of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
As man pursues woman and woman pursues man in this film, it is never far removed from an underlying pecuniary drive. Almost every character except Elizabeth and D’Arcy is preoccupied with the income of their potential mate. This is a world which is never far removed from Engels’s observation in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”: “Monogamy arose from the concentration of considerable wealth in the hands of a single individual man-and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and of no other.”
In “Pride and Prejudice,” the character who demonstrates this tendency in its purest form is the Reverend William Collins who shows up at the Bennett household one day with the intention of marrying one of the daughters, which one seems relatively unimportant to him. His real aim is to add a female body to his household so as to satisfy expectations of how a minister should fit into society at large. He puts it this way: “My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly — which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness.”
When his preferred Bennett daughter is not available, he turns his attentions to Elizabeth who is the proudest and most independent of the lot. When she turns down Collins’s proposal (he is played flawlessly by Tom Hollander, a gifted comic actor), he dismisses this as coquettery–whereupon the feisty Elizabeth sets him straight:
“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”
“Upon my word, Sir,” cried Elizabeth, “your hope is rather an extraordinary one after my declaration. I do assure you that I am not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time. I am perfectly serious in my refusal. — You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so, — Nay, were your friend Lady Catherine to know me, I am persuaded she would find me in every respect ill qualified for the situation.”
Elizabeth’s steadfast refusal to become an accoutrement to a bourgeois household has rightfully been identified as a kind of proto-feminism. Although this perception might be assumed to be associated with recent MLA conferences, it actually dates back at least to 1938. That year Mona Wilson wrote in “Jane Austen and Some of Her Contemporaries”:
“…I wanted to express my conviction that her name should be linked with that of the great Vindicator of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft, and that the ‘vis comica’ of the one has been as powerful an agency as the ‘saeva indignatio’ of the other.
“Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft were bent on the destruction of the ‘…milk-white lamb, that bleats for a man’s protection,’ and the evolution of the rational woman.”
(“Pride & Prejudice” is now available online and at most video stores. The novel is available in hypertext at: http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/pridprej.html)
January 27, 2006
Last night Cliff Conner spoke at the Brecht Forum about his new book “People’s History of Science”. He sent me a copy of his talk that can be read at: http://www.marxmail.org/cliff_conner.htm.
Here is an excerpt:
With regard to the past, I’m trying to show that science was not created out of the minds of great individuals, but was always a collective endeavor, and that the collective always included large numbers of working peoplepeople who worked with their hands as well as their minds. The traditional way that history of science is discussed is in terms of the contributions of individual geniuses like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, or Einstein. I’m not trying to say that what those famous figures did was useless or uninteresting, but that there is much, much more to the history of science than that. And it’s that “much more” –the collective contributions of many, many anonymous people –that has traditionally been ignored. Some of the examples that I cite are not of anonymous people–a few of their names have actually been preserved in the historical record.
An example is Onesimus, the African slave responsible for introducing the knowledge of smallpox prevention to North America early in the eighteenth century. Onesimus’s contribution represented a major leap forward in the science of epidemiology. But he didn’t create the knowledge he transmitted; that was produced by the experimentation of who-knows-how-many thousands of his African forebears, whose names, of course, are unknown to us. I tell Onesimus’s story in the book, but his name has to represent those anonymous Africans as well. The same is true of Tupaia, a Polynesian navigator whose name we happen to know because it was recorded in Captain Cook’s journals. Tupaia and a few others have to stand in for the many generations of Polynesian navigators whose knowledge of the Pacific enriched the sciences of oceanography, geography, and cartography.
There’s a new website associated with the book with ordering instructions at: http://www.peopleshistoryofscience.com/
I have begun reading it for a review in Swans. Although I have only gottento close to the end of the first chapter, I can recommend it as deeplyilluminating and inspiring work. This book is a must.
January 26, 2006
The latest Nation Magazine has a long and disgusting article titled “The New Face of the Campus Left” hailing something called Campus Progress, a student organization set up by the Center for American Progress (CAP). Campus Progress sees itself as an alternative for students who are “sick of what the left is doing–they want to walk to class without being handed a flier about a rally or vigil.”
Dems Pick Kaine for State of Union Response; What the Hell Are They Thinking?
by Arianna Huffington
So the Democrats have chosen Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to deliver the party’s response to President Bush’s State of the Union speech. Chalk up another one for the What the Hell Are They Thinking? file.
Don’t ask me why, but I actually watched Kaine’s inaugural address on C-SPAN, and I was stunned to hear him dare compare the cause of Virginians like Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to our cause in Iraq: “They stood here at a time, just as today, when Virginians serving freedom’s cause sacrificed their lives so that democracy could prevail over tyranny.”
Iraq as a war to ensure that democracy can prevail over tyranny is George Bush’s talking point. God help us if it’s also the talking point of the man the Democrats have chosen to respond to him after the State of the Union.
And during Kaine’s run for Governor, he adopted another Bush talking point — that it would send “a horrible message” to “cut and run” in Iraq. Could that be any further from Murtha’s message that Iraq has become a civil war — a civil war being inflamed by our continuing presence?
Gay Marriage Ban Advances Toward Va. Referendum
Md. Lawmakers Offer Similar Bill
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006; A01
RICHMOND, Jan. 25 — The state Senate all but guaranteed on Wednesday that Virginia will hold a November referendum on whether to amend its 230-year-old Bill of Rights to bar same-sex marriages.
The Senate voted 28 to 11 to follow the House of Delegates in approving the amendment. Though each chamber still must pass the measure adopted by the other, their wording is identical and support among the senators and delegates is strong.
“The family is the foundation of our society, and it’s been based on a union of a man and a woman since the inception of marriage,” said Del. John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake). “A constitutional amendment . . . will protect that.”
At the Capitol on Wednesday, hundreds of supporters of Equality Virginia, the state’s leading gay rights organization, vowed they would defeat the amendment.
“There are tens of thousands of people . . . prepared to fight this so-called marriage amendment,” said Dyana Mason, executive director of Equality Virginia.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) does not have to review the amendment resolution. He could veto a separate bill that specifically calls for the November referendum, but press secretary Delacey Skinner said he will not do so.
“The governor’s position is that a marriage is between one man and one woman,” Skinner said.
January 24, 2006
Posted to www.marxmail.org on January 24, 2006
“Nada+” (Nothing More) is the latest in a series of Cuban films such as “Strawberries and Chocolate” and “The Waiting List” that satirize bureaucracy. These films are the most effective rebuttal to claims in both the conservative and liberal press that Cuba is a totalitarian dungeon. Indeed, “Nada+” is irrefutable evidence that the main challenge to bureaucratic stupidity and oppression comes from the government itself, since without government funding such films would never see the light of day.
What better symbol of bureaucracy is there than the post office, which serves as the setting for “Nada+.” Carla Perez (Thäis Valdés) is a young, beautiful and supremely bored clerk who spends each day rubberstamping incoming mail while listening to music on a portable radio at her desk.
To relieve the tedium, she has begun to steal letters in order to get into the lives of the writers, who function as characters in soap operas for her. Taking things one step further, she begins to write back letters to the sender in the name of the original recipient. But her letters are more compassionate, more loving and more sensitive than anything that they would be capable of, with an impact that is often highly dramatic.
One of the unsuspecting recipients is a Cuban equivalent of Doctor Phil, who has an afternoon talk show proffering advice to the unhappy, but he himself is far more tormented than any of his callers. He throws a tantrum one day at Carla’s office when no letters are found in his mailbox, accusing the workers of stealing his mail. In this instance, however, Carla had nothing to do with it. Taking pity on him, she decides to write him a fan letter assuming the identity of one of his viewers. So deeply moved is he by her words that he confesses to his audience that he has been living a lie, tears off his toupee and attempts to strangle himself with a microphone cord!
Carla’s nemesis is Cunda (Daisy Granados), a glowering and humorless manager in her middle ages who has been sent into the postal station to impose order and discipline on an anarchic workforce that is suspected of stealing stamps and office supplies. Eventually Cunda gets wind of the fact that Carla has been pilfering mail and is determined to catch her in the act.
Carla would be all too happy to put this behind her. Her parents have moved to Miami and she is awaiting a visa that would allow her to join up with them. The only incentive for her to remain in Cuba is a relationship she has developed with César (Nacho Lugo), a young mail carrier who has begun to pass letters on to her even though it jeopardizes his own career–such as it is. He is far more interested in listening to hard rock on his Walkman than anything else. Carla and César would appear to represent the hopes and frustrations of ordinary Cubans who remain indifferent to socialist propaganda, especially when it comes out of the mouth of a snoop like Cunda. Without giving away too much of the plot, suffice it to say that love conquers all.
While fascinating as a document of how Cubans live today, “Nada+” is even more valuable as pure entertainment. Director Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti has incorporated elements of British director Richard Lester’s work, especially “Hard Day’s Night”. Like Lester, Malberti has reintroduced elements of classic silent comedy. Many scenes in “Nada+” look like they came from a Charlie Chaplin movie. Malberti also has introduced a clever cinematographic technique. While the film is nearly entirely in black and white, he occasionally introduce a colored animated object into the scene, like a butterfly or a rainbow.
For Marxists, the postal service will always be thought of in two ways. On one hand it was for Lenin a symbol of socialism’s potential. In chapter five of “State and Revolution,” Lenin wrote:
The development of capitalism, in turn, creates the preconditions that enable really “all” to take part in the administration of the state. Some of these preconditions are: universal literacy, which has already been achieved in a number of the most advanced capitalist countries, then the “training and disciplining” of millions of workers by the huge, complex, socialized apparatus of the postal service, railways, big factories, large-scale commerce, banking, etc., etc.
On the other hand, it has become a symbol of bureaucratic oppression, especially when workers are subject to speedup as is the case in capitalist countries. “Going postal” has become part of the vocabulary in the USA as enraged workers come to work and gun down supervisors. Whatever boredom and alienation Carla and César face, it is a leisurely one as is generally the case in Cuba today.
“Nada+” is available at your better video stores and on the Internet. It is a must for anybody trying to understand Cuban society while enjoying belly laughs at the same time.
January 21, 2006
Posted to www.marxmail.org on January 21, 2006
Last night I continued making headway into a backlog of screeners that film publicists had sent me as long as two years ago. While I tend to not write anything about a bad film, it is probably worth saying a word or two about three that I discarded midway through viewing since they demonstrate a kind of malaise in English-language independent film. The fourth, a small jewel from Tajikstan, shines by comparison.
“A Love Song for Bobby Long” stars John Travolta as an aging alcoholic college professor in New Orleans who sits around in a ramshackle and cavernous house with his cronies talking about life and death. Based on a novel by Ronald Everett Capps, it is meant to evoke Tennessee Williams or Carson MacCullers but mostly it evokes yawns. When a movie consists of nothing but conversations, they’d better be pretty damned good conversations. It can be done, of course. “My Dinner With André” was nothing but Wallace Shawn talking with Andre Gregory over dinner. But that was co-written by Shawn and Gregory, two major talents, and directed by Louis Malle. Enough said.
“Stage Beauty” is a historical costume drama based on the life of Ned Kynaston, one of the last male actors to play females in Restoration drama. I assume that it was trying to explore issues of gender in the same fashion as the superlative “Orlando,” another British product. But when a couple of young women introduced themselves to Kynaston as his “biggest fans,” the anachronism was so violently pronounced that I threw myself across the bedroom floor, tore the DVD from the player and set fire to it.
“Beyond the Sea” is directed by and stars Kevin Spacey as Bobby Darin. This biopic is a clear effort to break through genre conventions found in the highly overrated “Ray” and “Walk the Line.” It uses all sorts of “breaking the fourth wall” techniques to dig deeper into the lounge singer’s identity. In one scene, as the mature Darin is making a film about himself (a film within the film within the film), he is confronted by himself as a boy. All this gimmickry cannot substitute for a solid script. I’ll let my favorite critic Mr. Cranky have the final word on this: “And here’s the real problem: Bobby Darin just doesn’t seem that interesting. Spacey wants us to think Darin had some profound influence on music, but I didn’t see it. So he made it big with ‘Splish Splash.’ That’s not exactly Beethoven’s Fifth.”
“Angel on the Right” was written and directed by Jamshed Usmonov. It was filmed in 2002 in his home town in Tajikstan and includes many townspeople in starring roles. By coincidence, the plot is similar to “All for Zucker,” another study of post-Communist life. Like Zucker, the main character Hamro (Maruf Pulodzoda) has huge debts that he is desperate to pay off. Both have very few redeeming qualities, but are transformed after a fashion as they go through their respective ordeals.
Hamro is a small-time gangster who has been lured back from Moscow to his native village under false pretenses. Led to believe that his mother is on her deathbed, he resolves to spend the money necessary to repair her house so she can die in peace–above all she needs a wider front door that can accommodate her coffin. We soon discover that her illness was nothing but an act, something that might have been evident from what the doctor–a willing participant in the ruse–has told him: she is suffering from “acute Oriental acidilipus.”
Hamro’s troubles take a turn for the worse when a posse of local men shows up at his mother’s house with the son he has abandoned. Take him, they demand. When Hamro puts up his fists to fend them off, a martial arts expert they have recruited just for the occasion beats him to a pulp. From that point on, Hamro is tailed around by the sweet-faced boy who he holds at arm’s length. His tentative reconciliation with the boy and his mother unfolds in unexpected ways in a film that is determined to avoid sermonizing of any sort.
The title of the film comes from Moslem lore. It is believed that there is an angel on every human being’s left and right shoulders that respectively record one’s sins and good deeds into a book during a lifetime. If the book of sins is heavier than the book of good deeds, you will go to hell. If vice versa, you go to heaven. It is the strength of Usmonov’s film that one can’t be sure where Hamro is ultimately destined to go. Movies succeed when they can portray human nature in all its complexity. Whatever the shortcomings of this modest film, it surely stands out on the ability to render a singular human being with all his strengths and weaknesses.
The contrast between Usmonov’s film and the three others could not be sharper. One is left with the feeling that there is a kind of inverse relationship between money and art. The more money one has to throw around, the worse the product. It is a sign of the dying culture of Anglo-American imperialism that even films that ostensibly go against the commercial grain are burdened by an inability to deal with the real problems of real people. There are millions of Hamros in the United States and Great Britain who could be the subject of a serious film but somehow directors and screenwriters don’t have the eyes to see them.
“Angel on the Right” is available in DVD at your better video stores and online. It is well worth seeing.
January 17, 2006
(I’ve been “tagged” by Barkley Rosser, who posts on Max Sawicky’s website, for a game called the “meme of four”. Although I don’t quite understand the purpose of this exercise and doubt I will tag anybody else, here goes.)
Four Jobs You’ve Had
1. Welfare Worker
3. Computer Programmer
4. Spot welder
Four Movies You Could Watch Over and Over
1. Godard’s “Weekend”
2. Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”
3. Reed’s “The Third Man”
4. Warren Beatty’s “Reds”
Four Places You’ve Lived
4. Kansas City, Missouri
Four TV Shows You Love to Watch
1. Sex and the City (even in reruns)
2. Desperate Housewives
3. The Sopranos
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Four Places You’ve Been on Vacation
3. Los Angeles
Four of Your Favorite Foods
1. Barbecued beef Korean style
2. Spaghetti with pesto sauce
3. Brisket sandwich from a good Jewish deli
4. Bean burrito
Four Places You’d Rather Be
(NYC, where I currently reside, is my first choice.)
1. San Francisco
3. Izmir, Turkey
4. Los Angeles
Four Albums You Can’t Live Without
1. Mahler’s Third Symphony
2. Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”
3. Youssou N’Dour “Emigre”
4. The Fall “Hex Enduction Hour”
Four Vehicles You’ve Owned
1. Jawa motorcycle
2. 1968 Dodge Dart
3. 1973 Datsun
4. 1966 Chevrolet Impala