Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 4, 2007


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:02 pm

In September 2005, Stephen Soderbergh’s “Bubble” premiered simultaneously in theaters, and on DVD and cable. I didn’t pay much attention to the film at the time except to take notice that much of the action takes place in a doll factory. Soderbergh is well-known for glitzy entertainments like “Oceans 11” but he has also made some serious groundbreaking films like “Good Night and Good Luck” that dramatized the confrontation between Edward R. Murrow and Joe McCarthy, and which was understood as a critique of how the media failed to challenge Bush’s war in Iraq. Even when he has been less successful with films such as “Syriana”, you have to give him credit for tackling big issues. I imagine that something like “Oceans 11” constitutes his “day job” while most of his passion is directed toward offbeat works such as “Bubble”.

Rose, Martha and Kyle in the doll factory lunchroom

It is also worth mentioning that “Bubble” was produced by HDNET, the cable TV company run by Mark Cuban, who also owns the Dallas Mavericks. Before HDNET got into the production business, Cuban co-produced “Good Night and Good Luck.” Clearly he has an interest in how news is produced. Besides “Bubble,” HDNET was responsible for “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “The War Within”, which was about the planning of a terrorist attack in New York by a Pakistani. “The War Within” generated a lot of controversy because it was deemed far too sympathetic to the main character.

I finally got around to watching “Bubble” last night, courtesy of a screener from Magnolia, a distribution company for edgy, independent films. Although it has problems, it is certainly worth renting. It is one of the few movies–and perhaps the only one–that I have ever seen about the working poor in the USA and specifically white workers. It is an unsparing look at the lives of factory workers whose wages are just above the minimum wage, can’t afford automobiles, shop at Walmart and eat McDonalds. As part of his commitment to authenticity, Soderbergh filmed on location in Parkersburg, West Virginia and at the Lee Middleton Original Dolls factory in Belpre, Ohio, just across the state line. This is a typical non-unionized small shop that workers are increasingly forced to seek out nowadays as big steel, auto and mining jobs disappear.

There are three non-professional actors in the lead roles. Martha is an overweight middle-aged woman who drives Kyle, a high school dropout, back and forth from work each day. He has a second job in a shovel factory, but still can’t scrape together the money to buy his own car. He lives in a mobile home with his mother, while Martha lives and cares for her elderly father in a modest single-family home with furniture that has Walmart written all over it. As in keeping with the on-location versimilitude of the film, the homes of the characters are their actual homes in real life.

Martha is played by Debbie Doebereiner, who manages a Kentucky Fried Chicken in real-life, while Kyle is played by Dustin James Ashley, who was training to be a computer technician when the film was made. As the film unfolds, most of the dialog between Kyle and Martha consists of hum-drum matters about what they will do on the weekend, the job, etc. This led critics to complain about how boring the film was. To the contrary, I found it completely riveting in the same manner of an Edward Hopper painting. Since the daily lives of the working poor is so hidden from view (except in something like Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickle and Dimed”), a film that describes that reality has a bracing quality no matter its other flaws.

If the dialog lacks the kind of sparkle found in an Oscar Wilde play, it should be understood that they are the actual words of working people. The actors were asked to improvise their lines based on an outline supplied by Coleman Hough, the screenwriter who had also written “Full Frontal,” another Soderbergh film. Hough hails from the South and was eking out a career as a poet and short-story writer before moving to Hollywood where she ran into Soderbergh. Her sensibility has remained distinctly non-Hollywood.

Conflict enters the picture in the form of Rose, an attractive single mother who is a new hire at the doll factory, assigned to airbrush the dolls’ faces. She is played by Misty Wilkins, a hair stylist in real life.

Eventually, she and Kyle begin to spend more time together and finally decide to go out and have some beers together. On that night, Rose asks Martha to baby sit for her. When Rose returns later, her ex-boyfriend bursts into the apartment and accuses her of stealing money and marijuana. After a moment or two of them yelling at each other–with Martha sitting chagrined on the sofa–Rose manhandles her ex out of the apartment.

The next day cops find Rose dead on the living room floor. Somebody has strangled her and Kyle, the ex-boyfriend and Martha are all suspects. Critics were understandably peeved when this murder mystery did not involve the kind of bravura twists and turns found in Agatha Christie but clearly did not understand what Soderbergh was up to. This is much less of a murder mystery than it is a chronicle of working class life–with its frustrations, alienation, boredom and desperation. It is to his credit that he carries it off, despite some serious flaws that mostly have to do with its unsatisfactory ending. Without revealing too much about it, I would only say that lacks credibility. Perhaps the film would have fared better if it has dispensed with such a melodramatic event and stuck with the daily drama of survival.

February 3, 2007

NACLA, Michael Coppedge and “political risk” in Venezuela

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Latin America — louisproyect @ 5:46 pm

For the first time in many months, I took a look at the latest issue of NACLA–a journal on Latin American politics that was launched by 60s radicals but today is anything but. Despite the presence of contributions by some decent people, like William Robinson who used to write for the radical American newsweekly the Guardian, it contains an article that can best be described as disinformation.

Michael Coppedge advises on “political risk” in Venezuela

Titled “In Defense of Polyarchy,” and written by Notre Dame Professor Michael Coppedge, it states:

I recognize that Hugo Chávez, or his candidates or proposals, have won at the polls consistently and repeatedly since 1998 (although if the government had not delayed the recall referendum by more than a year, he would have been voted out in 2003). But polyarchy requires more than winning elections, even though some in the U.S. government sometimes forget this when it suits their purposes. Polyarchy also requires holding fair elections, and there have already been some abuses of this in Venezuela: physical intimidation of opposition voters at the polls; preferential registration of likely Chávez voters, including some noncitizens; and possible small-scale electronic fraud. And there are good reasons to believe that future elections will not be fair, if the government needs them not to be fair. There has been proof that voting machines can be used to invalidate the secret ballot if the government wants to do that. There is now an unreasonably partisan electoral council that has repeatedly shown that it does not make fair decisions, and the courts are stacked in a systematic way so that it’s impossible to turn to them to appeal these decisions of the electoral council. For all these reasons, there are questions about whether future elections will be fair.

As is so often the case with these sorts of scholarly pieces, it is difficult to figure out where the author is coming from ideologically. A check of Professor Coppedge’s CV at the Notre Dame website provides some background.

In 2005, Coppedge was a “Member of expert group advising academics contracted by USAID to do a quantitative assessment of its Democracy Promotion activities”. Great, just what NACLA needs–contributors who consulted with USAID on “democracy promotion”. Anybody who has followed Venezuelan politics over the past 5 years knows that the USAID has funded and advised anti-Chavez groups. What audacity. Coppedge writes about the threat that Chavez poses to Venezuelan democracy when he is on the payroll of an outfit that has promoted coup attempts repeatedly.

In 2004, Coppedge advised Gerson-Lehrman Group’s Policy & Economics Council on political risk in Venezuela. Gerson-Lehrman Group (GLG) is in the business of providing risk assessment to hedge funds and other institutions, just the kind of background that prepares one for writing for a radical (well, erstwhile radical) journal. The Lehrman in Gerson-Lehrman is Lew Lehrman, the New York state billionaire who has funded rightwing causes for the past 20 years or so.

Lew Lehrman’s brother is on the board of this outfit. On the board of director’s page, we discover that “Thomas Lehrman is Director of the Office of Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism in the U.S. Department of State. Previously, he served as Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and as a professional staff member on the President’s Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction.”

For his part, Mark Gerson is an old hand at rightwing causes. When his alma mater Williams College interviewed the “risk assessment” entrepreneur, he revealed the conversion that was no doubt helpful in making connections in all the right places eventually:

The weekly meetings of the James A. Garfield Republican Club were immensely helpful in our intellectual developments. It was like Alcove 2 in City College when many of the neoconservatives attended there in the 1940s. Everyone was well-informed and intellectually serious; when you came to a meeting of the Republican Club, you were expected to have read The New Republic, Commentary, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The American Spectator and anything else of note at the time.

Aporrea.org, a pro-Chavez website, reported on GLG’s activities in Venezuela:

Este es el caso de la empresa consultora de Otto Reich, cuyos informes sobre Venezuela son utilizados por su discípulo en el Departamento de Estado, Roger Noriega, para definir la política exterior hacia Venezuela, y de la firma “Gerson Lehrman Group” (GLG), que comenzó a elaborar recientemente un informe sobre el futuro de Venezuela, su situación política y las posibles repercusiones que ésta podría tener sobre el mercado petrolero para un “cliente” de fondos de inversiones.

Roughly translated, this states that GLG was preparing a report on the future of Venezuela, with an eye towards any repercussions that an excess of democracy might have on the world petroleum market. One wonders if Professor Coppedge provided some input to this report, using his political science training to assign a quantitative risk to such an eventuality. I hope that GLG paid him well for his professional services. In today’s day and age, the kind of imperialist-minded rats that pop up in John Le Carre’s fiction demand top dollar and Professor Coppedge deserves every drop of blood money that comes his way.

February 2, 2007

Was Allende too radical?

Filed under: cruise missile left — louisproyect @ 4:50 pm

Although I don’t consider the Euston left to be genuinely leftist, I try to keep up with their deliberations since they function as a kind of volunteer think-tank for the people who run Great Britain and the United States (even if this means taking anti-nausea medication before reading Christopher Hitchens). As Michael Corleone said in “The Godfather”, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”.

Marc Cooper: Allende had only himself to blame

There’s a yahoo mailing list called DemocraticLeft, whose archives are public and that I like to check once a day as part of my tour of the Euston wing of the Internet. It was launched about 5 years ago by the red-baiting teacher’s union bureaucrat Leo Casey in an effort to create a pole of attraction for what would emerge as the Euston left. The fact that there are only 163 subscribers should give you some indication of the market demand for this kind of sniveling, rightwing Menshevism.

There are basically two ideological tendencies at work on DemocraticLeft. The first is full-tilt liberalism of the sort represented by Danny Postel, the editor of the website Open Democracy that receives funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and other well-known friends of the left. The other is a sort of toothless social democracy that feels the need to pay lip-service to class politics when the list liberals go too far. For the past week or so, these divisions have been exposed over Chavez’s turn toward the left, which has upset the bourgeois press and their friends at Open Democracy and elsewhere. Michael Hirsch, who is on the editorial board of the left-Shachtmanite New Politics, has defended Chavez in the most begrudging terms, while Marc Cooper has been leading the charge to denounce him as an enemy of democracy.

Over the past day or so, the discussion has shifted to comparisons between Chavez and Allende. Since Cooper was a translator for Allende, he is seen by other people on Casey’s mailing list as some kind of authority on Chilean politics. In my view, the fact that he lived and worked in Chile during Allende’s term in office makes him as much of an expert as Thomas Friedman was on the Middle East, having lived in Lebanon from 1979 to 1989.

Although I consider Cooper to be almost as discredited at Hitchens, and hardly worth a blog entry, he did put forward a truly rancid analysis of why Allende fell that deserves some commentary. In the course of the discussion, Cooper raised the idea that Allende provoked a coup by going too far–a startling assertion given Allende’s notorious faith in the political neutrality of the Chilean army. This led Hirsch to ask: “But if you believe –all in all- that a coup was inevitable, what does the lesson of Chile say about the capacity of a social democratic movement to ever rule a capitalist nation peacefully while also engaging in redistributive policies.”

Cooper’s reply was breathtaking in its groveling before bourgeois rule:

Indeed, if the UP had been content with that which was, in reality, its reformist and social democratic political traditions, the government might very well have survived. Problem is, once in power, it all went to our heads (myself included) and –of course– when you actually start expropriating the factories, seizing the land and broadening the power of the bottom half of the population you ought to damn well be prepared for a counter-attack. Allende’s policies went well beyond reformist redistributionist measures. Many of the UP’s policies started to profoundly and radically alter social and economic relations and were — by definition– extremely polarizing. In short, we learn very little about social democratic possibilities for success from the Allende experience because that’s not what it was.

It is clear from what Cooper has written on his own blog that he considers any government to the left of Lula or Bachelet as too far left. It is important to understand that Cooper’s hostility to Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales has a class basis. As is the case with many ex-leftist journalists who grow fat and complacent feeding at the trough of publications like the Los Angeles Times or the Atlantic Monthly–two of Cooper’s venues–they tend to act as watch-dogs for American corporations even as they continue to tout their leftist credentials. During the 1960s, people like Irving Howe and Michael Harrington attacked the antiwar movement using phraseology from their radical youth. It is of course too bad that we are stuck with the likes of Hitchens and Cooper to carry on in that tradition, a sure sign of the decline of the West.

To begin with, the USA and its Latin American hired guns often overthrow elected governments even if they pass Cooper’s litmus test. In 1965, LBJ sent the Marines into the Dominican Republic to “rescue” the people from a bogus Communist conspiracy. This meant overthrowing the democratically elected Juan Bosch, who might be best described as the nation’s Adlai Stevenson.

To blame Allende for provoking the rightwing is a stunning act of political bad faith, all the more so for somebody with the reputation (admittedly undeserved) for being a partisan of the martyred Chilean president.

I suppose that it was only a matter of time before Cooper would piss on Allende’s grave in this fashion. For Cooper, Chavez is an enemy of the free press in Venezuela. In the early 1970s, the same exact charge was leveled at Allende. El Mercurio, the CIA-funded newspaper in Santiago, promoted a coup against Allende in the same exact fashion as the private TV stations called for the overthrow of Chavez.

In June 1973, El Mercurio ran an advertisement declaring Allende to be in violation of the constitution and that openly called for insurrection. On June 21, Allende charged the newspaper with subversion and ordered it shut down. However, an appeals court ruled against the government and El Mercurio once again began calling for the violent overthrow of Allende’s government. Needless to say, the very same arguments that Cooper used against Chavez were used by Allende’s enemies back then. He was trying to impose a Cuban-style dictatorship, etc. One imagines that if Cooper were as fat and complacent in 1973 as he is today, he’d have made the same CIA-inspired arguments against Allende.

On the question of Allende “expropriating the factories”, I imagine that this is a reference to nationalizing American copper mines in 1972. Considering the fact that the USA launched an economic war against Chile 2 years before such a measure took place, one can only conclude that Cooper has an addled sense of cause and effect. Upon hearing the news that Salvador Allende was elected president of Chile in 1970, Edward Malcolm Korry, the US Ambassador to Chile, warned that “not a nut or bolt shall reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and all Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty.” One supposes that Allende should have not taken office in order to stave off deprivation and poverty. Of course, it was deprivation and poverty that caused the Chilean people to vote for Allende in the first place, so one wonders what the real alternatives were.

Perhaps the Chilean people could have all gone to journalism school in the USA and gotten well-paid jobs writing anti-Communist propaganda for the Los Angeles Times and Atlantic Monthly like Cooper did. Then they too could take junkets down to Las Vegas where they can piss away thousands of dollars, go deep sea fishing or collect antique cars. Competition to become media lap dogs is obviously intense, but the rewards are great for those willing to swallow their principles.

February 1, 2007

Two French films of note

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:57 pm

While working my way through a backlog of screeners, I came across two French films that are now available in DVD and worth tracking down.

Starting with André Téchiné’s 2004 “Les Temps qui changent” (Changing Times), I would urge you to disregard the cover photo of co-stars Catherine Deneuve and Gérard Depardieu that suggests nothing more than a saccharine October-October romance. Although the main story line does involve their relationship, there is much more going on, not the least of which is a perceptive look at the ethnic, cultural and psychological contradictions in contemporary Morocco between “West” and “East”.

In an odd way, Téchiné’s film is very much a post-9/11 work even though the “war on terror” takes place mainly in the background. Typically, the scenes put the characters’ personal difficulties in the foreground, while some reminder of global conflict is taking place in periphery of the scene. With a film whose main characters are involved with electronic communications in one form or another, it is no coincidence that background information comes in the form of a news report on the invasion of Iraq, etc. We are constantly reminded of a “year of living dangerously” even though the characters themselves spend more time in the sack than on the battlefield.

Antoine Lavau (Depardieu) has lined up a job as a construction supervisor in Tangier in order to get close to Cécile (Deneuve), a woman he had an intense relationship with in his twenties and who he still is in love with. He is heading up a crash project to build the headquarters for a television network that will compete with al-Jazeera. Meanwhile, Cécile is the host of a Tangier radio program that appeals to a mixed French and Arab audience. She is married to Nathan (Gilbert Melki), a Moroccan doctor many years her junior.

Around the same time that Antoine arrives in Tangier, Cécile is visited by her son Sami (from a previous marriage to another Moroccan), his Moroccan girl-friend Nadia (Lubna Azabal), and her 9 year old son Said (Jabir Elomri), who live together in Paris. Nadia is addicted to various kinds of pain-killers and sits around in a haze in Nathan’s house. Meanwhile Sami immediately looks up his old Moroccan boyfriend, Bilal (Nadem Rachati). When they reunite, Bilal tells Sami that “You’re half Moroccan, half French, half man, half woman. It must be difficult knowing who you are.” This obviously gets to the heart of the movie.

Nadia has a twin sister named Aicha (also played by Azabal), who has very little use for her. Aicha is an observant, scarf-wearing Muslim who works at the local McDonalds–another aspect of the film’s globalized North Africa.

Since André Téchiné is gay himself, that probably explains the authenticity of the relationship between Bilal and Sami. André Téchiné’s best known film is “Wild Reeds”, another love story that uses global politics as a backdrop. The opening scene is of a wedding that takes place in 1962, near the end of the war in Algeria. The groom was a French soldier serving in Algeria, who confesses to a former teacher in the CP that the marriage was only means to get a leave. He begs the teacher to hide him so he won’t have to return to the fighting.

I can vouch for “Changing Times” and “Wild Reeds” and imagine that Téchiné ‘s other films are worth seeing as well.

* * * *

The 2005 “La Moustache” is directed by Emmanuel Carrère and is based on his novel of the same name. It is an unsettling film about an architect who undergoes an identity crisis of Kafkaesque proportions. Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into a cockroach. When Marc Thiriez (Vincent Lindon) shaves off a moustache that he has worn his entire adult life, his wife and friends insist that he has never worn a moustache. So even though he is the same person, his identity has changed as much as Gregor Samsa’s.

At first he shrugs this off as an elaborate practical joke, but soon grows weary of their stubborn refusal to fess up. Starting with an initial mixture of bemused annoyance, he soon assumes a growing obsession and anger. At one point he rummages through a garbage can in the alley below his fashionable apartment building and retrieves the shaved moustache hairs as proof to his wife. Her reaction is one of alarm, as she begins to worry about the sanity of her husband.

Eventually, as he becomes more and more obsessed, his wife and friends arrange to have him committed to a mental hospital. As he overhears their conversation from the staircase overlooking the living room about the necessity of hospitalizing him (she only worries whether a straitjacket will be necessary), he throws on some clothing and dashes past them into the rainy night.

From there he books a flight to Hong Kong, where he makes a concerted effort to prove to himself and to others that he is who he is, moustache and all. While this all sounds like a Monty Python sketch in some ways, it is much more than that. It really addresses who we are as human beings and how other people know us as individuals. It is a deeply ambiguous film that defies conventional expectations. Look for it in all the usual venues.

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