Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2006

Four Documentary Shorts

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:13 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on March 31, 2006

Four documentary shorts nominated by this year's Academy Awards can be seen now at NYC's Cinema Village and in other theaters around the country. They all involve topics of interest to progressives.

The first is titled "The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang-Bang Club." It is a profile of a South African photojournalist who committed suicide two months after winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He was 33 years old at the time of his death. Although it is impossible to fully convey the complexities of such a character in a 27 minute film, suffice it to say that Carter was a tortured soul who always questioned the ethics of his profession even though it was clear that he hated oppression of all sorts. When he was in the Sudan taking pictures of starving villagers, he apparently had little interest in what became of an emaciated girl who was standing practically under the shadow of a vulture after capturing her on film. Some of his colleagues actually compared him to the vulture, even though this is not mentioned in the film. Shortly before taking his life, he wrote "I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners . . . "

The next film is titled "God Sleeps in Rwanda" and it is a grim account of life for women in post-Genocide Rwanda. It reveals that in a bitterly ironic twist, women have enjoyed a certain kind of emancipation in this period since they have been called upon to take jobs formerly restricted to men. Given the shortage of men following the bloodbath, women have become farmers, cops, judges, medical practitioners, etc. Women have responded in unexpected ways to the brutal consequences of rape, which was a central feature of the Hutu assault. Some mothers, who lost all their children to mob violence, have decided to give birth to children fathered by Hutu militia men. They explained that all children are innocent and are in need of love. When contrasted to the sanctimony of the anti-abortion Christian right in the USA, such women are a tower of virtue.

"The Mushroom Club" is an extremely powerful study of the lingering impact of radiation on the lives of people in Hiroshima today. Although modern Hiroshima seems little interested in what happened in 1945, there are activists and victims of the bombing who will not forget. We learn that there was a big problem with denial on the part of the Japanese government which refused to acknowledge that birth defects were a product of radiation. An elderly Japanese man, whose wife was pregnant in 1945, describes the burdens of raising a disabled child with no financial support from the authorities. On a more positive note, the film demonstrates that such children are making the best of their lives today, just as disabled people have learned to do worldwide under the impact of a new social movement that fights for their rights.

The last film won the academy award for best short documentary. "A Note Of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin" tells the story of the grand master of radio drama. During the 30s and 40s, Corwin wrote, produced and directed dozens of radio plays that featured some of the outstanding talent of that era, including Orson Welles, Charles Laughton and Gary Cooper. Although the film does not really provide much in the way of political context, it is obvious that Corwin was a product of what Marxist scholar Michael Denning called the "Cultural Front," which was the extremely broad movement of artists and writers grouped around the CPUSA and the Roosevelt administration.

His 1939 "They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease" is a stinging attack on Italian fascism inspired by Corwin's reaction to his reaction to Mussolini’s son, a pilot, exulting over bombs dropped on the Ethiopians. He described the sight of the exploding bombs as "beautiful" in much the same way that the Robert Duvall character claimed that he loved the smell of napalm in the morning in "Apocalypse Now."

Corwin was hired by CBS along with Orson Welles and John Houseman in 1938 in order to bring quality drama to the air waves. Welles and Houseman were associated with the left-leaning Mercury Theater. Corwin had come to CBS's attention after producing arts and poetry programs on WQXR in New York.

Corwin would enlist the talents of a virtual who's who of the cultural left in the 1940s, including E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, Earl Robinson, Millard Lampell and Josh White. In 1947 he produced "Hollywood Fights Back" that was an early response to HUAC witch-hunting. The Hollywood cast included Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, and Burt Lancaster. From New York: John Garfield, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, and Senator Wayne Morse.

In a few short years, Corwin's career was over. The documentary attributes this to his inability to find himself in television, a new medium, in more or less the same manner one might surmise that Buster Keaton failed to adapt to "talkies".

I can only wonder, however, if the witch-hunt had more to do with his declining fortunes.


Corwin survived all that and is still alive and active at the age of 95. He teaches journalism at the University of Southern California and attended the Academy Awards this year where he was photographed with George Clooney, who in his own way is demonstrating that Hollywood still fights back.

Norman Corwin website: http://www.normancorwin.com/

Screening information: http://www.apollocinema.com/oscars06/showtimes.asp


1 Comment »

  1. I had the pleasure of interviewing Norman Corwin twice for my book, WORDS AT WAR (Scarecrow Press, 2002). See my website http://www.HowardBlue.com

    WORDS AT WAR discusses in depth the war related work of Corwin and his fellow radio writers, Arch Oboler, Arthur Miller etc. It also discusses how many of these writers and various progressive actors too were red-baited or blacklisted after the war.

    Howard Blue

    Comment by howard blue — May 22, 2007 @ 12:48 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: