Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 11, 2006

“The Right” by Jeffrey Marlin

Filed under: middle east,zionism — louisproyect @ 7:08 pm

The Right

 

Life is sacred

Within the tribe;

I have a right

To defend myself

And mine.

 

I want the city

You live in.

Raise a hand,

Leave an arm behind.

Never imagine that I will neglect

The right to defend myself.

 

Whoever dug the hole

In the ground,

The water comes to me.

Test the boundary I have set

And ready yourself to understand

My right to defend myself

 

And all that comes to me.

 

Do not afflict me

With threatening language.

Do not oppress me

With murderous thoughts

Lest I rise up and exercise

The iron right to defend myself

Against the buzzing of flies.

 

I walked the road

To Gehenna and back and

Here’s what I learned

In the darkness:

How to run blitzkrieg,

Study genetics;

Trumpet my right to defend myself.

 

Against the judgment of mankind,

Seethed in its detestation,

Always, above limitation,

I will defend my right.

October 7, 2006

The Queen

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:43 pm

Shown on opening night at this year’s NY Film Festival, still in progress, Stephen Frear’s “The Queen” dramatizes the conflict between the royal family and newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair over how to ‘manage’ Princess Di’s funeral. The Queen wants nothing to do with it, since Di–as she puts it–is no longer part of the family and more importantly disdains public demonstrations of any sort of emotion, including grief. Sensing an opportunity to cement his popularity with Great Britain’s voters who are possessed by Di’s death, he pressures the Queen to become part of a carefully orchestrated mass ritual.

In other words, this is a film without any attractive characters.

It is to Stephen Frear’s great credit that he turns this material into a bone-dry comedy of manners about the rich and the powerful. Integral to the film’s success is the arms length treatment of the two main characters–Blair and Queen Elizabeth–who take on an almost Brechtian detachment. Since conventional expectations might revolve around a “happy ending” that would transform the Queen into a grieving monarch in tune with her subjects’ hopes, Frear is all too happy to defy them, especially since it is obvious from the beginning that the monarchs are as static as museum pieces.

Indeed, the film is much more successful than either Masterpiece Theater or the typical Ivory-Merchant production in terms of capturing the opulent but stifling life-style of the aristocracy. Balmoral, the Scottish retreat where much of the action takes place, has about as much vitality as Count Dracula’s castle. We see the Queen, the princes and the Queen mother engaged in various leisure activities like hunting stags or walking their dogs with a perpetual frown on their faces. When you are born into such wealth, there never will be a sense of newly discovered joy.

No matter how jaded they are, they constantly worry about losing their position. Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who comes across as both dimwitted and an opportunist, confesses to Tony Blair at one point that he fears the assassin’s bullet. When a car backfires at one point, he flinches. This is the kind of suble humor that is found throughout the film. Prince Philip is an even bigger nincompoop than Charles. Played by well-traveled American character actor James Cromwell, the Queen’s husband rails at the prospect of attending a funeral service for Di since it will be overflowing with actors and homosexuals.

Queen Elizabeth is played by Helen Mirren, one of Great Britain’s most capable actresses. She embodies the role to such a degree that one feels in the presence of the Queen herself, with her singularly unpleasant hauteur. She certainly will be nominated for an Oscar for this performance.

Equally convincing is Michael Sheen’s Tony Blair, who comes across as the quintessential Labour Party hack blathering on about the need to “modernize” Great Britain. This agenda evidently requires getting the royal family to buy into his proposals or else, as he warns them, becoming historical relics. The only character in the film who is put off by his Machiavellian overtures to the Queen is his wife Cherie (Helen McCrory) who reminds him that Labour MP’s have a thing for the monarchy no matter their republican rhetoric.

Although the film is very much a kind of time machine trip back to the month of Diana’s death and funeral service, the climax of the film brings us up to date. At the Queen’s office for a meeting (he has to observe various obsequious rituals like bowing before entering and never showing his back), Blair grins at the monarch and states that things seem to have worked out for the best. She looks back at him in her most icy manner she can assume and reminds him how horrible the whole experience was. When she strolled past the floral offerings at Buckingham gate, she saw messages attached to them excoriating her. Those messages were symbolic of the population’s fickleness. One day they might love you but that love can turn easily to hate. This certainly was a reference to Blair’s situation today.

Frears is an interesting director, all the more so for working in different genres. He is obviously best known for his work in British film, like “My Beautiful Laundrette” but he is also the director of “The Grifters”, a noir based on a Jim Thompson classic.

The screenplay was written by Peter Morgan, who also has co-writing credits for “The Last King of Scotland,” a film now in local theaters based on the life Idi Amin.

Finally, Mirren’s participation is of some interest since her background is so at odds with the character she played. Born Ilyena Lydia Moronoff, she is the daughter of a Russian-born violinist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. But earlier on, he was a cab driver to make ends meet, as is the case with so many Russian émigrés. He was also politically to the left and participated in street fights with Oswald Moseley’s fascist followers. Even though she has become a Tony Blair supporter, Mirren has long-standing ties to various liberal “do good” causes of the type that Princess Di was associated with, like Oxfam’s campaign against the arms trade, opposing the Asian sex-slave trade and the brutalization of Ugandan children.

Earlier on, she was even further to the left running as a Workers’ Revolutionary Party candidate for elections to the council of Equity, the actors’ union, in the late 1960s. This was at the time when this group included Vanessa Redgrave in its ranks, who was another celebrity who fell prey to cult leader Gerry Healy’s unlikely charisma. As they say, there will always be an England.

October 5, 2006

Tony Judt update

Filed under: middle east — louisproyect @ 2:28 am

A few weeks ago I wrote an attack on Tony Judt’s errant musings on Marxism in the New York Review of Books. It would be remiss of me to not mention that Judt has also been sticking it to the Cruise Missile Left as well as doing some yeoman work on the Middle East around the question of the Israel Lobby.

In a September 21 London Review article titled “Bush’s Useful Idiots,” Judt has these pithy words on the Paul Berman-Christopher Hitchens axis of evil:

It is the liberals, then, who count. They are, as it might be, the canaries in the sulphurous mineshaft of modern democracy. The alacrity with which many of America’s most prominent liberals have censored themselves in the name of the War on Terror, the enthusiasm with which they have invented ideological and moral cover for war and war crimes and proffered that cover to their political enemies: all this is a bad sign. Liberal intellectuals used to be distinguished precisely by their efforts to think for themselves, rather than in the service of others. Intellectuals should not be smugly theorising endless war, much less confidently promoting and excusing it. They should be engaged in disturbing the peace – their own above all.
After reading this article, Doug Henwood interviewed Judt on his radio show and you can listen to it here.

The London Review also has word about a debate that Judt participated in that fortunately can be seen online.

In March this year the London Review of Books published John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s essay ‘The Israel Lobby‘. The response to the article prompted the LRB to hold a debate under the heading ‘The Israel lobby: does it have too much influence on American foreign policy?’. The debate took place in New York on 28 September in the Great Hall of the Cooper Union. The panellists were Shlomo Ben-Ami, Martin Indyk, Tony Judt, Rashid Khalidi, John Mearsheimer and Dennis Ross, and the moderator was Anne-Marie Slaughter. The event was greatly oversubscribed, so we are delighted to announce that a video of the event, produced by ScribeMedia, is now available to view online.

Apparently, Judt has become an unperson in the eyes of the Antidefamation League, a Zionist outfit, as I learned this evening from a post to Doug Henwood’s mailing list by Doug himself and a communication from Doug Ireland:

SPEAKER PRESSURED

 Journalist Charles Class sends this letter by Tony Judt, the NYU Professor and Middle East Expert: “I was due to speak this evening, in Manhattan, to a group called Network 20/20 comprising young business leaders, NGO, academics, etc, from the US and many countries. Topic: the Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy. The meetings are always held at the Polish Consulate in Manhattan I just received a call from the President of Network 20/20. The talk was cancelled because the Polish Consulate had been threatened by the Anti-Defamation League. Serial phone-calls from ADL President Abe Foxman warned them off hosting anything involving Tony Judt. If they persisted, he warned, he would smear the charge of Polish collaboration with anti-Israeli antisemites (= me) all over the front page of every daily paper in the city (an indirect quote). They caved and Network 20/20 were forced to cancel. Whatever your views on the Middle East I hope you find this as serious and frightening as I do. This is, or used to be, the United States of America

Tony Judt

Things seem to be polarizing rapidly in the USA…

October 3, 2006

Politicians, consultants and the class struggle

Filed under: Film,Latin America,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

In 1993, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus came out with “The War Room,” a cinema vérité behind-the-scenes examination of how James Carville and George Stephanopolous helped Bill Clinton get elected president. Last year Rachel Boynton’s “Our Brand is Crisis” came out as a virtual sequel. Using the same basic technique as Pennebaker-Hegedus, Boynton followed around Carville consultants as they helped to elect Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada (“Goni”) president of Bolivia in 2005. Seeing the two films in tandem, as I did last night, highlights the flaws in the Pennebaker-Hegedus “fly on the wall” approach as well as demonstrating the bankruptcy of horse race style politicking, especially when applied to a predominantly poor and class conscious society like Bolivia’s.

 

James Carville

It is extremely difficult to figure out what point “The War Room” is trying to make. Although the film makers are obviously sympathetic to Clinton and his two consultants, they studiously avoid any temptation to allow them to speak directly to the camera about what motivates them. As someone who has heard James Carville speak eloquently (but without much depth) about the problems of American society on the Don Imus show, this dimension is utterly lacking in the film. Instead it is entirely taken up with the messy technical details of how to cultivate Clinton’s image in such a way as to boost his poll numbers, exploit weaknesses in George Bush ’41’s campaign, etc. It is the stuff of Sunday morning television talk shows during an election year and something I have about as much interest in as buying jewelry on the Home Shopping Network.

At the conclusion of the film, after Clinton has been declared winner, Carville tells his assembled troops how they have made history by taking the election process and returning it to the people, holding back a sob in the process. I was struck by how much this reminded me of the maudlin displays in the locker-rooms of the victorious football or baseball team that has won a championship. I almost expected somebody to pour champagne on Carville’s head.

That being said, “The War Room” offers the same kind of entertainment value as the couple’s documentary on Al Franken that I reviewed recently as well as Pennebaker’s premiere film on Bob Dylan, “Don’t Look Back”. Sensing the sort of low-level bad taste in the mouth feeling left by their work, Dylan disavowed the entire project.

James Carville is on camera throughout the film. With his reptilian smile, Machiavellian amorality, and down home Louisiana way of expressing things, he comes across as a wonkish rogue not much different from the man he was trying to elect. Stephanopolous, a Columbia University graduate who was 31 at the time, is clearly smitten with Clinton. His college president manner and his unctuous deference to Clinton is singularly off-putting. One supposes that Pennebaker and Hegedus found him both charming and repellent, just like Bob Dylan.

I suppose that the greatest merit of “The War Room” is that it is a good introduction to “Our Brand is Crisis,” a superior film in every way. Unlike Pennebaker-Hegedus, Rachel Boynton has a definite point of view, although it is expressed primarily by the scenes included throughout the film. The first image one sees is a bullet-riddled corpse on the streets of La Paz, a victim of police violence. Toward the end of the film, on the very same streets, we see a protestor shouting, “Gringo Asshole, Step Down!” (directed at President Goni) and obviously a sentiment she agrees with.

 

Goni

At key scenes in the film, Boynton asks Jeremy Rosner, the key Carville consultant assigned to work with Goni, why he failed. Since he is far too arrogant (like the candidate he worked for) to examine himself critically, it is left up to candidate Evo Morales and ordinary Bolivians to answer this for him. Such is the utter hubris of the Carville consultants that they never seem to understand that the camera is revealing them to be complete assholes.

Tal Silberstein, a former adviser to Ehud Barak, is one such consultant. In a meeting with Goni and his advisers, he tells them that the Bolivian press must be “fed spinach”, which is good for them, rather than milk shakes and hamburgers, which is not. Assuming that Silberstein was being paid $500 per hour for his services, one can only conclude that American imperialism was ever so ingenious in figuring out ways to screw its neighbors to the South. Later on, he advises the Goni campaign to “go negative” against their main rival Manfred Reyes Villa, which means running ads that he lives in an expensive house and has ties to the military. Although this seems to have worked for Goni, the Carville consultants failed to pay attention to what Goni was supposed to stand for. Within a few months, demonstrators were marching on the capitol demanding his ouster.

Jeremy Rosner is the perfect symbol of liberal bad faith. While acknowledging in “politically correct” fashion that the Bolivians have been robbed of their national sovereignty and their minerals going back 500 years, he cannot conceive of the possibility that Goni intends to keep that system going. Most of his annoyance is directed against Evo Morales, who he accuses of having all sorts of “wild” ideas about nationalization. That being stated, he also understands that Goni’s “capitalization” program (a term for privatization) has caused the greatest crisis in the country in over 50 years. That essentially is the conundrum of bourgeois politics in Bolivia. It cannot help but admit that the country is in dire straits, but refuses to consider solutions that fall outside of its orthodoxy.

Goni is a singularly repellent figure. With his European features and his English pronunciation of Spanish (he grew up in the United States), one can understand why people marched in the streets and set up roadblocks to bring his government down. Not only were they getting stabbed in the back by multinational corporations, the man doing the sticking didn’t even look or sound Bolivian. In one memorable scene, he meets with female Bolivian journalists who share his mistrust and fear of the poor. One confesses that the first protest “terrified” her.

When Goni is asked by a Bolivian reporter if the spectacle of poor people marching in the streets moves him, he answers that he will not behave like the mother who only takes notice of a child when it throws a tantrum. That exchange encapsulates the class divide that brought Bolivia to the brink of revolution.

As an added bonus, Boynton’s film is a good introduction to recent Bolivian politics, particularly the importance of using the profits of natural gas sales to fund basic human needs. Goni and then the vice president who succeeded him were overthrown because they proposed that natural gas be exported out of Bolivia through Chilean pipelines, a step that was anathema to the country’s masses. Chile was historically seen as Bolivia’s oppressor, for the simple fact of denying it an outlet to the sea as the result of a 19th century war. The Bolivian people are revealed in this film as determined to nationalize this precious commodity and to exploit it for the common good. God have pity on any politician, Bolivian, Brazilian or American, who gets in their way.

October 1, 2006

Man Push Cart

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:50 pm

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYGZwU11TV4&feature=kp

I am beginning to feel a bit like a latter-day Diogenes wandering around with a lamp looking for a honest movie. Following up on my unhappy encounter with “Little Miss Sunshine,” I took in “Man Push Cart” last Friday night. These are two independent American films that have garnered rave reviews. I guess that when it comes to movies and politics, I obey some kind of strange compulsion to think for myself.

“Man Push Cart” sounds like my kind of movie. It is a study of a Pakistani operator of one of those ubiquitous stainless steel coffee and donut carts all over New York, mostly run by recent immigrants from Asia. As someone with a long-standing curiosity about the hidden economic life of this city, I was anxious to see if the film revealed any deep secrets.

Unfortunately, the director Ramin Bahrani, a 30 year old Iranian-American graduate of Columbia University, had very little interest in the underlying social reality. The push cart vendor was merely a convenient symbol for his own existential outlook, borrowed liberally from Albert Camus. In an interview with New York Magazine, Bahrani explained what inspired him to make “Man Push Cart”: “When Bush began to bomb Afghanistan, I realized that all the Afghans I’d ever known were pushcart vendors in New York City. Then I began to think of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, and pushing these carts seemed like a modern-day version.”

For those unfamiliar with Camus’s pop philosophy, Sisyphus is mythical Greek King who pushes a huge boulder up a hill only to find that it rolls back down on him as soon as he has reached the top. That is his punishment in hell. For Camus, this was an apt symbol for what he considered to be the futility of radical political change. The 1950s mixed liberal politics with “hip” existential posturing and Camus’s tract could be found next to “Catcher in the Rye” on the bookshelves of millions of undergraduates, including mine.

The best that can be said about Bahrani’s films is that it kept me in my seat 10 minutes longer than “Little Miss Sunshine.” Given my impatience with crap, this is an achievement of sorts, I suppose.

There are two fundamental problems with this overhyped movie. The first has to do with the main character. The second has to do with verisimilitude, a necessity for any film that even begins to base itself on the lives of ordinary people. It is one thing for a Quentin Tarantino film to come up with implausible twists. For a would-be neorealist film aspiring toward heartfelt sympathy for the downtrodden after “The Bicycle Thief,” it is a strategic error.

The vendor, named Ahmad, is played by Ahmad Razvi, an actual coffee cart vendor who Bahrani met out in Queens in a pastry shop. Razvi, who is from Pakistan originally, operated a cart 8 years earlier. In the film, the character is a former pop singer who came to America with his wife and son in order to start a new life. They are separated when the film begins. His economic hardship and his family woes have left Ahmad utterly disconsolate and incommunicative. This is, of course, not a problem for real people in real life, but it subverts the artistic goal of the director by making a cipher the pivotal character of his film.

Ultimately, all good drama is character driven. When you start with a compelling character, like Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” the plot unfolds through his or her contradictions with other characters and with society as a whole. (Bahrani claims that Scorcese’s masterpiece is a major influence. It doesn’t show in my opinion.) It also generates memorable dialog because the exceptional character has exceptional things to say. When you elect to build your story around a taciturn and passive individual like Ahmad, there is no momentum to keep the narrative going.

Shortly after the film begins, Ahmad takes a job moonlighting as an apartment painter for a successful Pakistani businessman named Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval). During a break, Mohammad tells him that he recognizes him from a CD he owned back in Lahore, and then asks him how he ended up as a pushcart operator. That, of course, is an opening for what could have been a powerful scene if Ahmad would have been permitted to recount his sorry descent. Instead, he shrugs his shoulders and states that it is too complicated a story to get into.

Bahrani much prefers to tell his story in visual terms. Rather than wasting 5 minutes allowing his character to fill in the audience on what it means to be a recent immigrant to New York City, he trains his camera on Ahmad pushing his cart silently through the downtown streets or trudging home with a propane tank under his arm. Admittedly, these images have some power when you first see them, but after the fifth iteration they get tiresome.

I walked out before an abortive romance develops between Ahmad and a fellow street vendor for the simple reason that she lacks crediblity. He meets Noemi (Leticia Dolera) running a newsstand one day and strikes up a conversation. She informs Ahmad that she is a college-educated translator from Spain who is betwixt and between. To get straight to the point, it is virtually excluded that such a person would be behind a newsstand counter in New York. These newsstands are always owned and operated by Arabs, Indians or Pakistanis just as barber shops (as opposed to hair salons) are run by Bukharan Jews and dry cleaning shops and fruit-stands are the property of Koreans. The trades and small businesses have historically been the bailiwick of recent immigrants who open up the doors for countrymen. If I were making such a film, I would have opted to explore this subculture rather than create a alternative, fictional reality. Whether Ramin Bahrani was consciously aware that he was defying the laws of New York society is another question. My guess is that he was so preoccupied with making philosophical observations that he never bothered to think in these terms.

If I were teaching film, I’d have my class sit through screenings of Bahrani’s film and “Crimson Gold,” an Iranian film directed by Jafar Panahi and written by Abbas Kiarostami. “Crimson Gold” also features an impassive central character existing on the margins of the urban economy–specifically a pizza pie deliveryman named Hussein who is suffering from shellshock brought on during the Iran-Iraq war. The character is played by the late Hossain Emadeddin, a schizophrenic who Panahi discovered on the streets of Tehran.

There’s a key scene that brings Hussein together with a wealthy countryman, just as occurs in “Man Push Cart.” He delivers a pie to a palatial apartment occupied by a character identified in the cast credits as “The Rich Man” and played by Pourang Nakhael. The rich man proceeds to spell out his frustration with life in Tehran, brags about his sexual conquests and showers hospitality on Hussein who remains silent the entire time. Despite his silence, he remains a powerful dramatic contrast to the utterly narcissistic rich man and as such reminds us of the class divide in current-day Iran. As one might expect, Kiarostami puts powerful words in the rich man’s mouth.

If Bahrani wanted to say something about how the bombing of Afghanistan resonated with pushcart vendors in New York City, it was certainly lost on me. If I were to write such a screenplay, I would have included scenes that reflect the sense of looming victimization that must afflict a Pakistani like Ahmad. That story still remains to be written.

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