Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 7, 2006

Television shows about Jimmy Hoffa and Joe McCarthy

Filed under: repression,television — louisproyect @ 11:27 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on April 7, 2006

I just returned from watching a little under an hour and a half of truly gripping old TV shows at the Museum of Television and Radio in NYC as background research for an article I am writing on TV and the McCarthy era. I got the idea around the time I received a review copy of Stephen Fleischman’s “A Red in the House”. Fleischman went to work for CBS in the 1950s when he was in the CPUSA. I wanted to review his book in conjunction with “Goodnight and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s excellent 2005 movie about Edward R. Murrow taking on Joe McCarthy. Although I initially wanted to deal with Fleischman’s book and the film, other materials will eventually enter the mix from Walter Bernstein’s “The Front” to books by and about Fred Friendly and Murrow respectively.

When I was reading Fleischman’s book, I was intrigued by references to a show he produced about Jimmy Hoffa that featured an interview with Trotskyist leader Farrell Dobbs. I had never seen the show, nor could I remember the SWP making a big deal out of it at the time. I wanted to see that show as well as the March 9, 1954 “See It Now” show that confronted McCarthy and that was kind of a centerpiece of Clooney’s film.

“Hoffa” appeared on ABC News Closeup in 1974. The difference between it and the typical night time “news” show nowadays is dramatic. To begin with, minus commercials, it runs at 51 minutes and 12 seconds. On primetime television today, you can expect 12 minutes of commercials–a 3 minute increase. That might not sound like much, but try sitting through 3 minutes of laxative ads sometime and you’ll get the idea. (The Murrow show was 26 minutes without commercials.)

To give you an idea of what ABC news shows are about today, here are some recent offerings from Primetime News gleaned from their website:

–Man Accused of Illegally Harvesting Dead Bodies

–Woman Who Escaped Polygamous Sect Revisits Past

–Hollywood Elites Shudder as ‘Fixer’ Charged With Wiretapping

–The Music Industry’s Dirty Little Secret

But the really striking thing was the complexity of the analysis, which was obviously a function of Fleischman’s political acumen. This was not just a documentary on “Hoffa” but the quintessential study of the corruption of the American labor movement. It was also a powerful attack on the shady methods that the government used against Hoffa as well as a defense of his place in the labor movement as a determined defender of the basic economic demands of the workers he led.

The interview with Dobbs took place when he was 67 and still in full command of his powers. It was a pleasure to see him hold forth with an interviewer who obviously knew how to ask the right questions. The interview was preceded by Hoffa’s fond recollections of Dobbs and his comrades Vincent and Ray Dunn as mentors. He freely admitted that without the precedent of Dobbs organizing regionally across state lines, he never would have enjoyed the success that he did.

The interviewer asks Dobbs to comment on Hoffa’s version of a bit of Teamster history, when Tobin sent him in to clean out the Trotskyists in the Minneapolis union local. With a shark-like grin on his face, Dobbs says that Hoffa could only succeed with a little outside help–namely the Republican Governor of Minnesota, the Democratic President of the USA, the FBI, the local cops and the Department of Justice who were all determined to throw the antiwar socialists out of the union on the eve of WWII.

Even though Fleischman’s background was in the CP, he seems to have shifted to the left after leaving the party and focusing on a career in television. This was manifested in this particular show by his willingness to attack sacred cows like FDR and Bobby Kennedy, whose hounding of Hoffa comes across as a personal vendetta.

Even more outrageous are the legal subterfuges that landed Hoffa in prison, which involved illegal surveillance of the sort now associated with the “war on terror.” The most outrageous bit of federal behavior was associated with the provisions of his commutation in 1968. After leaving prison, he discovered that he would be prevented from engaging in union affairs until 1980. But the release papers he signed made no reference to that provision. If he knew that at the time, he never would have signed them. He would have been eligible for parole in 1971 and able to get back into union affairs without the commutation.

Charles Colson, the man who cooked up the commutation dirty trick would himself be in prison within the year.

Watching the famous “See it Now” broadcast is really illuminating, especially in light of the challenges to academic freedom being mounted by David Horowitz and the now daily revelations of a White House using the constitution as toilet paper.

Although I will have much more to say about this when I sit down to write my review of “Goodnight and Good Luck,” Murrow and Friendly seem mainly interested in defending the innocent victims of McCarthyism rather than actual Communists who were being thrown in prison or fired from their jobs.

For example, Murrow demolishes McCarthy’s amalgam between Alger Hiss and Adlai Stevenson, who were connected somehow through their prior association with the Institute of Pacific Relations. Murrow tells the audience that the IPR also included Herbert Hoover. What does not enter the equation is Alger Hiss’s guilt or innocence. It is assumed that he is a bad guy, but not somebody with genuine ties to good guys like Adlai Stevenson or Herbert Hoover.

The same thing happens with Reed Harris, who is shown being grilled by McCarthy. It seems that Harris wrote a book in 1932 defending the right of Commies to teach at places like Columbia, where he was a student. Now, before McCarthy, Harris says that he no longer holds that view:

“Mr. Chairman, two weeks ago, Senator Taft took the position that I took twenty-one years ago, that Communists and Socialists should be allowed to teach in the schools. It so happens that, nowadays I don’t agree with Senator Taft, as far as Communist teaching in the schools is concerned, because I think Communists are, in effect, a plainclothes auxiliary of the Red Army, the Soviet Red Army. And I don’t want to see them in any of our schools, teaching.”

Full: http://www.honors.umd.edu/HONR269J/archive/Murrow540309.html

Despite both the flaws in both the original “See it Now” production and Clooney’s representation of it, I will maintain that Murrow acted in a principled and courageous fashion. More to come.

Who Killed the Electric Car?

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm

Although I don’t recall hearing the word capitalism mentioned once in “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, it is hard to imagine a recent documentary that makes the case against this irrational system as well. Like the documentary “Mondovino” that makes the case against monopoly capital by examining the wine industry–something not usually associated with multinational depredation–“Who Killed the Electric Car?” deals with a seemingly innocuous case study. Why should anybody care that General Motors produced an electric car in the early 90’s and then decided to cease production? It is to the credit of director Chris Paine to not only explain why we should care, but to provide a concrete example of why the capitalist system is so inimical to the long term interests of humanity.

EV-1’s on parade

Using the investigative journalist techniques of a television show like PBS’s “Frontline” (producer Jessie Deeter is a veteran of the show), as well as its somewhat prosaic style, the film interviews a range of transportation experts as well as people who owned the GM EV-1. Among the first group is Ralph Nader, who is as eloquent as ever. The second group includes director Chris Paine, who owned an EV-1 and has never gotten over what amounts to a GM seizure of his leased car.

From their testimony, one is left with the inescapable conclusion that the automobile industry in the USA is subject to irreconcilable contradictions between the industry’s drive for profit and the ordinary citizen’s need to enjoy clean air and to get from point a to point b efficiently. Furthermore, although the film does not explicitly deal with the current crisis of the automobile industry, it certainly suggests that it was inevitable.

In 1992 the California legislature passed a stringent new law based on recommendations from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). By 1998, 2 percent of all new cars sold would have to be pollution-free, which translated to electric vehicles. The percentage would then increase year by year. Although the percentage might seem small, it involved a major cost for the manufacturers since a sizable investment would have to be made for the startup manufacturing facilities whatever the number of cars sold.

Behind these regulations was an understanding that California air was becoming unbreathable. When University of California scientists did postmortems on 100 seemingly healthy young accident victims, they found that 80 percent had serious lung abnormalities and 27 percent had severe lung lesions.

There was not only the immediate threat to one’s lungs; there was also the overarching problem of global warming that had to be addressed. With its vast quantity of internal combustion engine-based transportation, California was a major contributor of greenhouse gases.

Despite its reputation as being technologically backwards, General Motors began producing what everybody, and most especially its owners, regarded as one of the greatest cars ever. The EV-1, which was sold through Saturn dealerships, was both beautiful and fast. Fully charged, it could go 60 miles. For the average urban driver, this was more than adequate. It was also trouble-free. When a battery is the source of power, you don’t have to worry about changing oil filters, let alone spend money on tune-ups or replacing engine parts. In an interview, an auto mechanic who had worked on EV-1’s says that his hands never got dirty.

In essence, this benefit to drivers was exactly what sealed the doom of the EV-1. It turns out that much of General Motors’s profits were derived from the sale of such parts through its Delphi division. After selling a car, there would be a steady stream of revenue as the hapless driver would be forced to spend thousands of dollars on tune-ups and spare parts.

General Motors was not the only corporation that felt threatened by the electric car. The oil companies soon became partners in a conspiracy (yes, the word does apply here) to abort the EV-1. Using their influence on the California Air Resources Board, whose chairman James D. Boyd was on the payroll of a Hydrogen car R&D firm–a competing but ineffective technology–they were able to succeed in having the clean air regulations enacted 4 years earlier scrapped. Boyd’s wife Catherine Reheis-Boyd, was chief of staff for the Western States Petroleum Association and the industry’s registered lobbyist in Sacramento. Although the film does not make the charge, I have no problem doing so: it is safe to assume that Boyd was chosen for the job of running CARB in the same way that George W. Bush puts people in charge of agencies. They must pass the test of knowing where their master’s class interests lie.

Even after the EV-1 met with huge enthusiasm by purchasers early on, GM refused to market the car effectively. It was basically an orphan commodity. Despite this, a kind of subculture grew up around the car that included a number of Hollywood personalities, from Mel Gibson on the right to Tom Hanks on the liberal left. But the real activism to keep the car alive came from ordinary people who believed in the car and whose beliefs can be found on the EV-1 Club’s website: http://ev1-club.power.net/.

The film makes a couple of political mistakes that should not detract from its overall value. It tends to overestimate the Carter administration’s (and by implication Democrats in general) to clean air and the environment. The film relies heavily on interviews with a Carter EPA official, who blames Bush and the oil companies for the death of the electric car. If anything has become clear, it is that the commitment of politicians such as Carter and Gore to “Green” values is mostly verbal.

Finally, the film depicts consumers as being culprits along with GM and the oil companies. By not understanding that electric cars were a better choice than the SUV’s they seem to have an almost sexual attraction to, they amount to “Red State” fools in the Thomas Frank mold. One wonders if the otherwise perceptive film-makers spend much time watching television. During an hour or so of primetime, one is bombarded with ads for SUV’s, including GM’s Hummer which in an unintended irony is depicted as the offspring of a Godzilla-like monster and a giant robot.

“Who Killed the Electric Car” is scheduled for theatrical release later this year and is a must for anybody with a morbid fascination with the irresolvable contradictions of the capitalist system.

Other electric car websites:

http://www.ev1.org/

http://dontcrush.com/

http://www.pbs.org/pov/borders/2004/air/air_ev1.html

 

April 4, 2006

Buffalo Boy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:01 pm

"Buffalo Boy" has the distinction of being both an art film and one of the few originating from contemporary Vietnam. Based on short stories by Son Nam, it is a coming-of-age tale about Kim, an impoverished buffalo herder. It was Vietnam's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film category at this year's Academy Awards.

It is set in the 1940s and was filmed in the southernmost tip of Vietnam, where flooding was a fact of life. At the start of the film, we see Kim (The Lu Le, a nonprofessional like everybody else in the cast) and his parents looking over their flooded farmland. This land and their two water buffalo are their sole means of producing the necessities of life. Although water is a bringer of life, it can also mean death for such peoples. The water-logged land cannot produce crops, nor can it produce grass for the water buffalo that are near starvation.

Kim then decides to join up with a group of buffalo herders, who are in search of dry land and grass. Their trek pits them against both hostile nature and men. They have to compete with other herders for a meager plot of grass and against each other within the group. Their leader Kap is a rapist and a bully, who has earned the right to lead them not by wisdom but by a kind of Hobbesian cruelty.

The only real solidarity among the buffalo herders takes place at the bottom. Kim befriends a Khmer youth reunited with a Vietnamese wife and young child that he had been forced to abandon. The warm bonds that form between the two men and the woman and child are an exception to the general pattern of cruelty and selfishness that would appear to characterize Vietnamese peasant life in this film. Kim also develops a close relationship with an elderly peasant husband and wife who become surrogate parents. Their deaths, like those of his own father, serve as desolate reminders of how unforgiving society and nature can be in this remote and desperately poor marginal area of Vietnam in the 1940s, itself a marginal country.

There is little sense in the film of why people have so little hope. In one brief scene, the buffalo herders are extorted by Vietnamese cops who are serving in the French colonial administration. In another scene, Kim and his Khmer friend are considering going north to escape the floods that make their lives miserable. They reject the idea because all the land to the north is owned by landlords who would make slaves of them. They prefer freedom even if it means being subject to the whims of nature.

While watching the film, I was reminded of B. Traven's "Jungle Novels" that chronicle the harsh lives of ox herders and other debt peons in pre-revolutionary Mexico. The ox herders are among the most oppressed figures in Mexican society, who only slightly more elevated than the beasts of burden they tend to. In "Trozas," Traven describes the lives of "monteros", the lumberjacks who were completely reliant on the animals:

"The oxen hauled, and the troza began to move. An important job for the boyero, as Andres told Vicente, was to make sure the chain always lay under the troza where it was attached with the hooks. If the troza turned so that the chain came up to the top, the troza must be turned again with the next haul so that the chain was underneath again. For it was only when the chain was below the chuzo that the chuzo, the point, rose, otherwise it bored into the ground. The boyero couldn't simply stroll along beside it as he could with a carreta. The troza had to be lifted every time with the iron hook that Andres carried in his hand. The point got caught in tree roots, which stretched all over the trail"

Full: http://www.swans.com/library/art9/lproy08.html

Unlike B. Traven, however, the director/screenwriter of "Buffalo Boy" avoids any reference to the larger economic and political context of the life of a herder, except for those alluded to above. He is far more interested in the visual and dramatic aspects of the story rather than anything else. Indeed, the most powerful elements of the film are visual as we see the characters set against a gorgeous but waterlogged landscape. Although the film costs under a million dollars to make, it has the impressive production values associated with much more expensive films.

Director Minh Nguyen-Vo grew up in Los Angeles. After earning a doctorate in Physics at UCLA, he switched careers and started making films. From interviews given at the time of the film's release, it is obvious that he is an anti-Communist. He told www.kamera.co.uk that "In the forties, young men felt suppressed by the external force of Communism. They were also not strong enough to resist the French force of colonization. They had no way of showing masculinity, resulting in rival gangs, clashing between herdsmen, and fighting with women."

Despite his rather limited political understanding, Minh Nguyen-Vo is clearly sympathetic to his characters and has an artist's flair for Vietnam's beauty. This in itself should be sufficient to recommend this film now available in DVD.

April 2, 2006

Whisky

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:18 pm

"Whisky" is a most unconventional Uruguayan film that played in art houses two years ago. Using minimalist techniques associated with the U.S. filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and Finland's Aki Kaurismaki, it tells the story of Jacobo Koller (Andrés Pazos), a sixty year old Jewish man who runs a tiny ramshackle stocking factory in Montevideo with three female employees. Two operate the ancient machines. The other is his faithful assistant Marta (Mirella Pascual), who is nearly as old as Jacobo and attends to his every need.

Jacobo's mother died a year earlier and it is now time for her unveiling, a Jewish custom that mandates the placing of a tombstone over the departed family member's grave. For this occasion, Jacobo's younger brother Herman (Jorge Bolani) will be coming up from Brazil where he runs his own stocking factory. Since Jacobo apparently feels ashamed of his bachelor existence, he persuades Marta to pretend that she is his wife during his brother's visit.

The plot has obvious similarities to "Go For Zucker," last year's film from Germany that also involves a reunion of two Jewish brothers and an element of deception, in this case one brother–a Communist and an atheist–representing himself as devout in order to satisfy the requirements of his recently departed mother's will. Unlike this film, the humor in "Whisky" is bone dry. It also does not involve farcical plot twists–the story moves along in a linear fashion not unlike the aging machines in Jacobo's workshop. Finally, there is no epiphany in the final scene as the characters reconcile with each other. The Jacobo we meet at the beginning of the film–taciturn, depressed and aloof–is the same Jacobo that we see at its conclusion.

A Ben Katchor cartoon

In many ways, the film has the same wistful but downbeat charm of Ben Katchor's cartoons. Katchor is the artist laureate of New York's Jewish past, a world of kosher restaurants, garment shops, and aging men strolling along empty streets. Directors Juan Pablo Rebella and Pablo Stoll, who share screenwriting credits with Gonzalo Delgado, are not Jewish. In explaining their motivation for making such a film, Pablo Stoll told Artificial Eye:

"We are neither 60 nor Jewish nor do we have a stocking factory. When we wrote the script, we started to realize that perhaps these characters were not much different from ourselves. That we were not altogether so far from these three types of loneliness. That they could be a projection of ourselves, of what we might be in twenty, thirty years. Behind the mask played by Jacobo, Herman and Marta, we come face to face with our fears."

The film's title is the Uruguayan version of "cheese," a word that photographers ask their subjects to say just before he takes the shot. When Marta suggests that she and Jacobo have a wedding picture taken to be placed prominently in his apartment to create the proper illusion, he agrees. When Jacobo and Marta smile for the photographer, it is practically the only time that they appear happy.

The final third of the film takes place in Piriápolis, a seaside resort that has the ambience of pre-gambling casino Atlantic City. On Herman's suggestion, the three go to the resort as the Koll family did when they were young. They pass their time walking along the beach under a gray wintry sky, listening to karaoke performances in their seedy hotel's nightclub or playing 'foosball'. When Jacobo places his hand on Marta's to show her how to play the game, it is about as close as he comes to intimacy in the entire film.

It is not too difficult to understand Jacobo's sad demeanor after learning that he lived with his aging mother as her health was failing. The apartment is filled with signs that he had to nurse her, including an oxygen tank. We also discover that Herman abandoned their home and left her care to his older brother. Jacobo's iciness toward his brother throughout the film probably flows from his sense of being betrayed.

We say probably because Jacobo is not one to reveal his feelings. Nor is Marta, who seems to accept her assignment acting as his wife with the same placid willingness as she does any task at their workplace. Ironically, it is this very distance that the filmmakers impose between their characters and the audience that makes the film challenging on its own terms. We find ourselves trying to understand what makes these unusual characters tick. Why do they act the way they do? Why is Jacobo so reluctant to open up emotionally?

Over and over again, I keep discovering that films about such marginal but interesting characters can only be made in 'marginal' countries like Uruguay, Turkey, Iran, Korea or Argentina. As Hollywood continues along in its feckless manner, playing its violin like Nero, we must turn to the barbarians at the gate for signs of true humanity.

Whisky is available now in DVD from your better video stores and on the Internet.

Whisky website: http://www.whisky.com.uy/

Ben Katchor website: http://www.katchor.com/

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