Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 14, 2007

Live-in Maid

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

“Live-In Maid,” (Cama adentro) which played briefly at the Film Forum in New York this year, is now available in DVD from Netflix and your better video stores. Set in Argentina during the depths of the economic crisis in 2001, it revolves around the relationship between Beba Pujol, an elderly upper-middle class divorcee who is becoming increasingly pauperized, and Dora, her maid of thirty years. Written and directed by Jorge Gaggero, it is a supremely insightful study of class relations and psychological dependency.

We first encounter Beba, a well-dressed prepossessing figure, striding into a pawn shop with a teapot on behalf of a fictional neighbor who has a broken foot. When the pawnbroker tells her that he can only offer a few dollars, she remonstrates with him: “But, this is English China.” In these few words, she symbolizes the snobbery and illusions of the Argentine upper class. A few days later, Dora replenishes her boss’s whiskey supply (she has become an alcoholic under the impact of pauperization), by pouring domestic booze into the empty British bottles once again in deference to these faded aristocratic aspirations.

Dora, however, is not a prisoner of such illusions. If Beba is a foolish Quixotic figure bent on living in the past, her maid is a Sancho Panza figure who is constantly reminding her superior of life’s brutal realities. When a phone goes dead, Beba blames it on a thunderstorm while Dora suggests it is the failure to pay a bill that is the cause.

Besides Cervantes’s “Don Quixote,” “Live-In Maid” also is reminiscent of Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard,” a play about a ruined aristocracy that lives in the past. Their illusions are symbolized by the cherry orchard that was the crown jewel of an estate that has been sold to investors, while for Beba it is her oversized apartment that plays the same role. Your first reaction to seeing it is to wonder why a single woman would need a seven room apartment, not to speak of her utter reliance on Dora who she orders about as if she were a monarch. You cannot suppress a feeling of disgust when you see her demand that Dora bring her a cup of tea or a glass of whisky on a nearby table. You want to say, “Get off your lazy ass and get it yourself.”

Given the nature of domestic wage servitude, a form of labor exploitation that has one foot in slavery or feudalism, it is no surprise that Dora shows infinite patience in dealing with Beba. Precapitalist paternalism fosters a kind of dependency that makes the worker feel like a family member. Even though she hasn’t been paid in months, she has continued to stick with her until the last moment, when she is packing her things and moving to the countryside to live with her boyfriend Miguel, an amiable house-painter.

While not giving away too much, suffice it to say that there is a role reversal between the two women in the final moments of the film.

Beba is played by Norma Aleandro, a distinguished seventy-one year old veteran of Argentine film and theater. During the late 1970s, she was exiled to Uruguay because of her dissident political views. Later she moved to Spain and did not return to Argentina until 1982 when the military junta fell.

Her best known performance was in ”The Official Story,” the Academy Award best foreign-language film in 1985, where she plays a teacher whose life falls apart after learning that her adopted daughter was the child of political prisoners murdered by the military. It was this performance that convinced Gaggero to persuade her to play Beba.

Dora is played by Norma Argentina in her first acting role. When Gaggero issued a casting call for the role, he said he was looking for someone with no acting experience but who had been a maid. That was just one of the jobs the 59 year old had held. She showed up at the audition in bleach-stained blue sweat pants and convinced Gaggero that was just right for the role. Ironically, she held Norma Aleandro in awe in a way that mirrored the relationship between the two characters they played, at least in the early years of their relationship. Norma Argentina soon discovered that Norma Aleandro was no snob and was happy to treat her as a fellow professional.

In an interview with the N.Y. Times, Gaggero explained his motivation in making such a film:

”All over Latin America, not just in Argentina, houses are designed with a room for a live-in maid, for women who postpone their own lives for the sake of others and become consumed by a household,” Mr. Gaggero said. ”The relationship between a maid and her employer has elements of class conflict, but it is also symbiotic, and I felt that had never been adequately portrayed, either on television or in film.”

Strongly recommended.

December 12, 2007

Fifth Day of Peace

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm


Bruno Dorfer

Rainer Back

German deserters executed by a Nazi firing squad after the Nazis had surrendered!

Last September I wrote a post on my blog titled “With Apologies to Paul Verhoeven” that took a new look at the conclusion of his 2007 film “The Black Book,” one in which the Nazis executed a deserter in newly liberated Holland. Although I am willing to believe the worst about the allies, I found it hard to believe that they would have permitted the Nazis to assemble a firing squad after their army had just been defeated. Not long after dismissing the ending of “The Black Book” as over the top (Verhoeven, after all, has never been accused of excessive restraint), I learned that he was basing his ending on a historical incident, as recorded in “The Myth of the Good War”, by Jacques Pauwels. Pauwels wrote:

[I]t is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!

My post prompted Zoltan Matheika to recommend “The Fifth Day of Peace,” which he described as “a fairly good (IMHO) Italian-Yugoslavian movie from 1969 about the death of those two German deserters.” I finally got around to ordering it from Netflix and concur with him that it is “fairly good.” I also read military historian Chris Madsen’s account of their execution that is available here.

The “Fifth Day of Peace” was originally titled “Dio è con noi”, God is with us in Italian–a stronger title that evokes Bob Dylan’s “With God on our Side.” Directed and written by Giuliano Montaldo, it is in full accord with Pauwels and Madsen’s analysis of a West that was beginning to see the German army as a potential asset against Soviet power. Montaldo’s leftist credentials are fairly well established. He was an apprentice to Gillo Pontecorvo, the director of “Battle of Algiers” and started out as an actor in Carlo Lizzani’s “Achtung banditi!,” a 1951 film that celebrated the Italian anti-fascist resistance. Montaldo’s best-known film is the 1971 “Sacco and Vanzetti,” scenes from which appear in Peter Miller’s documentary of the same name.

The two German deserters in Montaldo’s film are Ensign Bruno Grauber (Franco Nero) and Corporal Reiner Schultz (Larry Aubrey). Grauber is depicted as driven half-mad by the war and the strait-jacket of military service. He is the quintessential anti-authoritarian personality, evoking Jack Nicholson’s Randle McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Despite his refusal to conform to the expectations of the Third Reich, he is not really political. Throughout the film, he rants at the Nazi brass and their Canadian captors. He is the prisoner of the Nazis, while they are the prisoners of the Canadians. In keeping with the historical record, Montaldo accurately describes the Canadians as relying on the Nazi brass to keep order within the detention camp.

Reiner Schultz is much less the rebel. He continues wearing his uniform long after Grauber has ditched his and when the two of them are commandeering a Dutch farmhouse at gunpoint in search of food, Schultz destroys a radio that is blaring news about the allied victory. Even when Schultz proclaims his innocence in a Nazi court martial, that is not enough to assuage the judges who condemn him and Grauber to death by firing squad.

Captain John Miller, the Canadian officer in charge of the camp, is played by Richard Johnson, a veteran of B movies and serviceable in the role. Miller is in a constant battle with Col. von Bleicher, his Nazi counterpart, over who is in charge. Von Bleicher insists on retaining a strict military hierarchy in the detention camp, even though the Canadians see them more as prisoners. When Miller tries to assert his authority over one or another matter, von Bleicher organizes his men in protest. When von Bleicher argues that he should be allowed to execute the two deserters, Miller will hear none of it. He only relents under pressure from a British General who advises him that there are new enemies from the East that must be defeated. Communist subversion rather than Nazi territorial ambition is the new challenge.

Madsen explains why the Canadians were so anxious to accommodate the Nazis. The relationship of forces was not so heavily in favor of the allied victors so that they could reduce to German army to a herd of atomized prisoners. He cites a military report titled “Surrendered Enemy Personnel [SEP]”:

[I]n view of the very large numbers of GERMAN troops now surrendering ARMY COMMANDS are authorized to place such troops in the status of “Disarmed GERMAN Forces” as contemplated by paragraph 2″C” and other pertinent paragraphs of ECLIPSE memorandum No 17. Under provisions of the foregoing memorandum these GERMAN forces will NOT be characterized as “PRISONERS OF WAR”. After disarmament these surrendered German units may be kept organizationally intact and to the extent deemed advisable and practicable by ALLIED COMMANDERS required to administer and maintain themselves.

Madsen also makes clear that the Nazi troops were being held in reserve against the Soviets:

[K]ey British figures maintained secret plans for the enormous number of German prisoners of war. On 1 December 1954, Prime Minister Winston Churchill clarified, in the British House of Commons, the situation at the end of the war: “No trouble could in any case have arisen with the Soviets unless they had continued their advance to a point at which they forced the breaking out of a new war between Russia and her Western allies . . . we should certainly in that case rearm the German prisoners in our hands.”86 Churchill and other important officials in the British government remained distrustful of Soviet intentions; again and again, the Russians appeared to disregard the terms of the Yalta Agreement. Thus, in Churchill’s view, surrendered German troops, kept in existing German military formations, represented a safe card for the British position. In the event of new hostilities, vanquished German units and British military forces would have combined against an offensive Red Army.

While I can recommend “Fifth Day of Peace” (the US title, by the way, is a reference to the fact that the Germans were executed five days after the German surrender) as an antidote to the feel-good nostalgia of Ken Burns’s recent PBS documentary and Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, one only wishes that director Giuliano Montaldo had based one of his characters on Rainer Beck, whose story might have been an inspiration for a movie unto itself. Beck was not the typical Nazi soldier. He was both a Jew and a social democrat, although Masden does not really explain how he managed to keep his identity a secret from the German brass. Masden writes:

Beck perhaps maintained the strongest reasons for rejecting German military institutions. From Hitler’s ascendency to power in 1933, the Nazi regime had persecuted his family. The reasons were obvious: Beck’s mother was Jewish, and his father, Max Emil Beck, a decorated World War I veteran, was compromised by a position as Social Democratic police president of Gleiwitz during the Weimar Republic. When Beck was drafted into the Kriegsmarine in 1940, he already possessed an overt hostility and contempt for the National Socialist state. Upon meeting his fugitive sister in 1941, the young man despondently declared: “If I wear the German uniform I am a bastard. If I don’t wear it, I am a bastard just the same.” Strong anti-Nazi views dictated Beck’s eventual departure from the German armed forces. The arrival of Canadian soldiers in Amsterdam seemingly promised a new beginning from a dreadful past.

Unfortunately, holding strong anti-Nazi views at a moment when the Cold War was being launched was no protection against the executioner’s bullet.

December 8, 2007

Holy Modal Rounders…Born to Lose

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 4:24 pm

Steve Weber and Peter Stampfel  in 1963

Now that I have gotten the Hollywood blockbusters off my plate, I can get back to the kind of film that I am truly interested in. Now playing at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, “The Holy Modal Rounders… Bound to Lose” is a documentary about a seminal psychedelic country-rock band that reached a modicum of success in the 1960s, but as the film’s title implies went downhill from there. Oddly enough, it reminded me of “Tis Autumn”, the Jackie Paris documentary that I reviewed a while back. Like the Holy Modal Rounders, Paris’s career never went anywhere after initial success. One supposes that directors Sam Wainwright Douglas and Paul Lovelace were drawn to the Rounders for the same reason that the director of “Tis Autumn” was drawn to Jackie Paris. In analyzing promising but ultimately futile careers, you get insights into the tragic flaws of the principals and the corrupt star-making machinery of the capitalist entertainment industry that work together to undo all but the most ambitious and talented.

The Rounders’ shining moment occurred during the movie “Easy Rider” when Jack Nicholson was riding off with Dennis Hopper (who is interviewed in the film about this very instance) and Peter Fonda to the tune of “If You Want to Be a Bird” from their 1969 album: “The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders.”

If you want to be a bird
Why don’t you try a little flying
There’s no denying
It gets you high
Why be shackled to your feet
When you’ve got wings
You haven’t used yet
Don’t wait for heaven
Get out and fly

Like countless other young people, I owned Holy Modal Rounder records in the 1960s. They were linked in my mind with Country Joe and the Fish, the Wretched Refuse String Band and the Fugs. Indeed, the two leaders of the Rounders–Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber–played in the Fugs for a while, along with Luke Faust–an original member of the Holy Modal Rounders who was my upstairs neighbor in Hoboken, New Jersey. All of these bands had one foot in the folk music revival of the late 1950s and the emerging drug subculture of the 1960s. It is of some interest that their first record, made in 1964, was the first to use the term “psychedelic”. Like Roky Erickson, the lead singer of The 13th Floor Elevators and subject of another “whatever happened to” documentary, Stampfel and Weber were adept at capturing the mood of the period, which Weber articulates as one of drugs, partying and “carpe diem.”

What gives the film poignancy is Weber’s insistence on continuing to live as if he were in his twenties. I was shocked to discover that Weber was only 56 at the time when the film was being made in 2002. Toothless, his greasy white hair tied into a pony-tail, and emaciated, he looked for all the world like he was in his seventies. Just as was the case with Jackie Paris, the average fan had assumed that he was dead. Having spent his entire adulthood taking hard drugs, drinking heavily and smoking cigarettes left him a physical and psychological wreck.

Peter Stampfel, his co-leader, managed to land on his feet after ten or so years abusing speed, his drug of choice. After he met his wife, who ran a small publishing house, Stampfel went to work for her as a copy editor and continued to keep the Rounders going. Playing at small bars and concert halls around the country, he did it entirely out of love for the music and not to get rich and famous–goals that had clearly become unachievable. Robert Christgau, the highly respected rock critic of the Village Voice, pays Stampfel (and Weber) the ultimate compliment by describing them as doing something completely unique and creative even if their music is not marketable.


Stampfel and Weber today

Although they have known and worked with each other for nearly 50 years, Stampfel and Weber have a way of getting on each other’s nerves often to the point that they appear incapable of performing together any longer. This conflict, shown on camera throughout the movie, gives it its dramatic tension. Along with Stampfel, we begin to lose patience with Weber who has a habit of screwing up just when success is virtually guaranteed.

The film consists of Rounder performances from the past and from the present, along with interviews with a host of fascinating commentators. We hear from playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who was a drummer in the band in the 1960s, as well as friends and relatives of the musicians.

Stampfel and Weber are currently estranged from each other, but you can hear Stampfel and other musicians with an affinity for the Holy Modal Rounders performing during each screening at the Anthology Film Archives. Check here for more information.

December 7, 2007

2007 Film Notes

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:29 pm

Tomorrow New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) convenes to vote on best movie, actor, etc. for 2007. NYFCO currently has 27 members, including Rex Reed who writes for the New York Observer and who was a frequent guest on the Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was the host. In the past few years, NYFCO awards have been getting a fair amount of press coverage since movie reviews on the Internet are becoming more and more of a factor in ticket sales.

Roger Ebert may be endangered, Entertainment Weekly on its way to extinction. Have you noticed how many no-name critics are suddenly serving up pithy opinions about movies, books, music, and video games on the Net?

Amazon.com may have been one of the first sites, in the mid-1990s, to allow its users to share their thoughts about a book, just below the venerable Publishers Weekly or Booklist write-up. Now, such sites as Blogcritics.org collect reviews written by bloggers, and Apple’s iTunes Music Store allows users to share their iMixes lists of favorite songs on a particular theme, like “NJ Best,” a selection from Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and other musicians with roots in the Garden State.

“The cultural influencers are changing,” says Brian Kalinowski, chief operating officer of Lycos, the Waltham Internet portal. “Expert opinion in the media used to drive culture. Now, it’s peer recommendations.”

Already, consumers can sample a broader range of critical opinion on the Internet some of it relevant and thoughtful, covering products that wouldn’t ordinarily be reviewed by the mainstream media, and some of it biased or one-dimensional. (“This game rocks!” ) And marketers, such as movie studios and book publishers, are trying to figure out how Internet tastemakers figure into their relationship with their customers.

–The Boston Globe, April 30, 2006

Although most of my reviews are about obscure documentaries and independent fictional films, particularly those made in Asia, I try to keep up with what’s coming out of Hollywood, especially as the NYFCO awards meeting draws near. Over the past couple of months, I have received over 50 DVD’s from the publicity department of major studios for review. I have not been able to get to all of them, but here is a brief review of those that I have seen–including those that I already saw in the theater. Most of the films are not currently being show in theaters today, but I expect that they will be available from Netflix before long. At the end of this post, I will show you my ballot for the NYFCO 2007 awards–for what it is worth.

Best of the pack:

1. Into the Wild–reviewed here.

2. Before the Devil Knows You are Dead
This is a crime story involving two brothers deeply in debt who decide to rob their parents’ jewelry store. It has some elements of “Fargo”, but is not played for laughs. The script is by Kelly Masterson, who was a theology student before becoming a screenwriter. The fact that he had to knock on doors for seven years before the film was produced might tell you something about how awful Hollywood has become. Thank god that Sidney Lumet, the 83 year old veteran director, decided to work on it. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the older and more ruthless brother and Ethan Hawke the younger and weaker one. They are simply terrific, as is the story.

3. Gone, Baby, Gone
Although Ben Affleck has gotten terrible press (and deservedly so) for his acting jobs in recent years, he did an excellent job directing this film based on a novel by Dennis Lehane that Affleck adapted. Lehane also wrote the novel that Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” was based on. As you might know, Lehane’s novels use the gritty, Irish-Catholic, crime-ridden world of Dorchester and South Boston as a backdrop. In this film, Casey Affleck, Ben’s younger brother, plays a private eye who will supplement the police investigation of a kidnapping. The kidnapped child is the daughter of a junkie who stole money from a dealer. The film is both highly effective as a conventional crime story and as an exploration of deeper moral issues, especially one that involves the near impossibility of doing the right thing in a situation that defies easy black-and-white resolution.

4. Michael Clayton–reviewed here

5. The Namesake
Based on a popular novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, it is a family chronicle involving Indian immigrants trying to adapt to American society. The son is named Gogol Ganguli after his father’s favorite author–hence the film’s title. Gogol is caught between two worlds, especially when it comes to choosing between American and Indian women. “The Namesake” proceeds at a leisurely pace and does not have any kind of histrionics–in keeping with the customary restraint of the Indian family at the core of the film. It takes a while to build momentum but pays off in the end.

6. A Mighty Heart–reviewed here

7. The Hoax–reviewed here

8. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
I plan to write about this and a number of Jesse James movies after finishing T.J. Stiles’s excellent debunking of the Jesse James legend, but can report now that this is a reasonably entertaining affair. Robert Ford is played by Casey Affleck, who I nominated as “breakthrough” artist in my NYFCO poll. Brad Pitt does an excellent job bringing out the psychopathic character of Jesse James in the same fashion as he did in “Kalifornia,” another movie in which he played a serial killer.

* * * * *

Middle of the Pack (These are films that I managed to watch until their conclusion–mostly out of morbid curiosity. Since my standards are so exacting, this does amount to a kind of recommendation, like damning with faint praise.)

1. The Brave One
Jodie Foster as a combination of Bernhard Goetz and the character that Charles Bronson played in the “Death Wish” movies. After Foster and her boy friend are attacked–him fatally–in Central Park, she gets a gun and becomes a vigilante, inadvertently at first. Since this New York City appears worse than Baghdad today, it is hard to take seriously. I only stuck with it because Foster can make any movie interesting.

2. Atonement
An overblown mess based on Ian McEwan’s 2002 novel. A young man from the lower class falls in love with a woman from the gentry before WWII. For reasons not worth going into here, the woman’s younger sister, an aspiring writer with an overheated imagination, falsely accuses him of being a rapist and he is forced to enlist in the army. The middle section of the film is set in Dunkirk with the dregs of the British army being forced to retreat back across the channel. This is somewhat ironic since McEwan, a diffident supporter of the war on terror, got the opportunity to see something analogous in Basra just 5 years after writing “Atonement”.

3. Eastern Promises
I actually wasted 7 dollars (senior admission price!) on this nonsense. As a big fan of David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen, who combined to make the reasonably entertaining “A History of Violence”, I had high hopes for this. Mortensen plays a Russian gangster living in London who becomes friends with the nurse caring for an infant delivered from an unconscious and hemorrhaging fourteen-year-old mother who had been raped by a fellow gangster. None of the actors playing the gangsters are native Russians so their delivery reminds me a bit of Boris and Natasha in “The Bullwinkle” cartoon shows of yore. Leaving aside the delivery, the drama is a second-rate version of “The Godfather”.

4. There will be Blood
This is based on an Upton Sinclair novel about evil oilmen in California at the turn of the century. It opens in theaters during Christmas week. The director is a 37 year old named Paul Thomas Anderson whose best known credits are “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights,” a movie based on a porn star. He seems totally uninterested in politics and based his screenplay on the first 150 pages of Sinclair’s novel. In the novel, the father is estranged from his son who has become a radical and sides with striking oilworkers. In the movie, the son hates his father because an accident at an oil rig has left him deaf. Well, that’s what we are led to believe in the absence of any other plot elements. The movie is mostly about the oilman Daniel Plainview, who is played by Daniel Day-Lewis. He has captured Anderson’s attention in the way that William Randolph Hearst captured Orson Welles’s attention in “Citizen Kane”. However, Anderson is no Welles, to put it mildly. Daniel Day-Lewis looks like and sounds like the evil water works magnate that John Huston played in “Chinatown”, another movie about rotten millionaires in California. If Anderson is no Orson Welles, neither is he a Roman Polanski. He should stick to subjects that he is more familiar with, like the comedy “Punch Drunk Love” that he did with Adam Sandler. Apparently, Anderson is a huge fan of Adam Sandler. Poor Upton Sinclair. He deserved better.

5. La Vie En Rose
Biopic about Edith Piaf. In keeping with the convention, the movie is one long series of scenes showing the great singer as a selfish, drug-addled, mean-spirited creep. Critics fell over themselves in praise of the star Marion Cotillard, who basically did an Edith Piaf imitation rather than convey the inner spirit of the singer. That is obviously the fault of Olivier Dahan, who wrote and directed it. Dahan pays no attention to Piaf’s role in helping young artists like Yves Montand since that would have interfered with his aim in turning Piaf into a kind of pathetic gargoyle. Like Upton Sinclair, she deserved better.

6. Zodiac
Despite lavish praise from the critics, this movie based on the unsolved San Francisco serial killings from the 1960s left me cold. Directed by David Fincher, it is less about detective work than it is about obsession. Jake Gyllenhall plays an illustrator at the SF Chronicle who becomes consumed with trying to identify the killer. I became consumed with trying to stay awake during this 158 minute movie. It was like watching paint dry.

7. 3:10 to Zuma
Russell Crowe plays a bandit that a deputy (Christian Bale) is escorting to a train destined for prison. He has to fight off members of Crowe’s gang. That’s about it. It is lovely to look at (lots of sunsets, mesas and cactuses) but completely boring. The director James Mangold also directed the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line”, for what that’s worth. I didn’t hate either movie but felt utterly disappointed.

* * * * *

Losers. These are films that I could not find the inner resources to watch for more than 10 or 15 minutes.

1. Knocked Up–reviewed here

2. Things We Lost in the Fire
Stars Halle Berry as the widow of the character played by David Duchovny, whose best friend–a junky loser–moves in with her after his death. I found the situation totally unbelievable and the characters precious in a sort of second-rate version of an Ang Lee movie. The always canny Slant Magazine described it thusly: “With all the characters busily turning their lemons into lemonade, this film risks little and demands nothing from the viewer save tears of empathy.” I once told Ed Gonzalez, my NYFCO colleague at Slant Magazine, that he should receive combat pay for being forced to sit through such dreadful messes until the closing credits. No amount of money could persuade me to do so.

3. Talk to Me
Biopic about a Black radio DJ from the 1960s named Petey Greene, an ex-con who is played by Don Cheadle. The film is really quite bizarre, using implausible situations to move the plot forward. The movie, at least the 15 minutes that I could bear, has a musty quality as if you have stumbled into one of those 1930s Mickey Rooney movies in which Andy Hardy overcomes all adversity to stage a hit musical in his home town.

4. Redacted
DePalma has made a faux documentary that is obviously inspired by “The War Tapes”, which was the result of putting video cameras in the hands of actual GI’s in Iraq. As is with the case with just about all DePalma movies, there is a Grand Guignol quality that makes you feel that his GI’s stepped out of the final moments of “The Shining”. This sort of bent aptitude can come in handy when it comes to movies about Al Capone, but hardly does justice to the true conditions of GI’s in Iraq, who are inspired more by the prospects of a college loan than torture and murder. For that kind of documentary to succeed, it would require putting video cameras in the hands of the architects of the occupation–not the hapless souls who carry it out.


* * * * *

New York Film Critics Online 2007 Awards Nomination Ballot

NAME: Louis Proyect

Breakthrough Performance (name actor/film)

1. Casey Affleck (Jesse James; Gone, Baby, Gone)

2. Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild)

3. Kal Penn (The Namesake)

Supporting Actress (name actor/film)

1. Sarah Silverman (I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With)

2. Amy Ryan (Gone, Baby, Gone)

3. Zuleikha Robinson (The Namesake)

Supporting Actor (name actor/film)

1. Tom Wilkinson (Michael Clayton)

2. Casey Affleck (Jesse James)

3. Ethan Hawke (Before the Devil Knows You are Dead)

Screenplay (name film)

1. Into the Wild

2. Before the Devil Knows You are Dead

3. Amu

Cinematography (name film)

1. Into the Wild

2. No Country for Old Men

3. There Will be Blood

Film Score/Music (name film)

1. There Will be Blood

2. Into the Wild

3. Eastern Promises

Debut Director (name directors/film)

1. Shonali Bose (Amu)

2. Molly Bingham, Steve Connors (Meeting Resistance)

3. Henriette Mantel, Steve Skrovan (An Unreasonable Man)

Director (name directors/film)

1. Sean Penn (Into the Wild)

2. Ben Affleck (Gone, Baby, Gone)

3. Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You are Dead)

Actress (name actor/film)

1. Angela Jolie (A Mighty Heart)

2. Tabu (The Namesake)

3. Konkona Sen Sharma (Amu)

Actor (name actor/film)

1. George Clooney (Michael Clayton)

2. Brad Pitt (Jesse James)

3. Philip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows You are Dead)

Ensemble Cast (name film)

1. I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With

2. The Namesake

3. Amu

Picture (name film)

1. Into the Wild

2. Before the Devil Knows You are Dead

3. Gone, Baby, Gone

Foreign Language (name film)

1. The Host

2. Zebraman

3. Illuminated by Fire

Documentary (name film)

1. Sicko

2. Meeting Resistance

3. An Unreasonable Man

Animated Feature (name film)

1. Ratatouille




December 4, 2007

The Hoax

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:36 pm

From Clifford Irving’s website

Although it has some significant problems, I can recommend “The Hoax” as an entertaining take on perhaps the greatest literary hoax in history. Adapted loosely (its very looseness undermines the film) from Clifford Irving’s book of the same title, it shows how McGraw-Hill and Life Magazine were conned into publishing Howard Hughes’s autobiography. The joke is that that Hughes had never even met Irving, who was supposedly going to turn the addled billionaire’s remembrances into prose.

The hoax occurred in 1971 at a time when all of the major institutions of bourgeois society were being stressed by the war in Vietnam and the Black liberation struggle. To establish the context, the film utilizes archival footage of demonstrations from the period. It was indeed fitting that the hoax involved Howard Hughes since he was a symbol of the corruption, greed and misuse of power that flowed from Nixon’s White House.

You can’t get any sense of Hughes’s dark side from the 2004 Martin Scorsese film. Except for his obsessive-compulsive disorder, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hughes is a conventional hero totally free from the flaws that are found in a typical Scorsese subject. In my review, I tried to fill in the background:

In 1951, just as the witch-hunt was gathering steam, Hughes fired Paul Jarrico who was hired to write the screenplay for “The Las Vegas Story,” an RKO film. Jarrico had been subpoenaed by HUAC to testify about Communist subversion in Hollywood. Bill Gay, one of many Mormons hired by Hughes to look after his affairs, said, “He felt that communism versus free enterprise was such an important issue in our time. [It was] one of the few issues in his life he felt that strongly about.”

Clifford Irving is played by Richard Gere and Alfred Molina is cast as his co-consipirator Dick Suskind, who provided much of the research for their bogus book. Both are excellent, given the limitations of the screenplay by William Wheeler who should have stuck more closely to Irving’s book. Originally hired as a technical adviser, Irving abandoned the project after figuring out what they were trying to do. His version of the parting of the ways can be read on his website:

I was hired by the producers as technical adviser to the movie, but after reading the final script I asked that my name be removed from the movie credits. I didn’t want anyone to believe that I had contributed to such a historically cockeyed story where the main character, almost by coincidence, happens to bear my name. It’s hard to believe that sophisticated Manhattan publishers would fall for the nonsense this guy spouts in order to convince them that the moon is made of Stilton cheese.

As played by Richard Gere – an actor I admire – Movie Clifford is desperate and humorless, a washed-up hack writer who lives in a conservative New York suburb. In fact I had a multi-book contract with my publisher and enjoyed the good life on Ibiza, a sunny Mediterranean island where I owned a beautiful fifteen-room farmhouse. Movie Clifford has the energy of a not-too-bright psychopath. If I were that man, I’d shoot myself.

Essentially, “The Hoax” portrays Irving as driven more by greed than anything else. A big paycheck supposedly motivated him rather than the challenge to make rich and powerful people look like fools. In the final analysis, Irving had more in common with Alan Sokal, another famous hoaxer, than the grubby figure Gere portrays.

After having a look at Irving’s book, I have decided that he concocted his scheme in the spirit of Abby Hoffman, who advocated “revolution for the hell of it.” Irving got involved in this hoax just for the hell of it and not like New Republic reporter Stephen Glass who fabricated stories to advance his career, as dramatized in the movie “Shattered Glass”.

Irving (and Suskind) wrote an autobiography that they surely knew would be revealed as a fake and lead to economic ruin. Even if they convinced themselves starting out that they never would get caught (they assumed that the publicity-shy Hughes would never blow the whistle), they must have realized the enormous risk they were taking.

I doubt if there is anybody in Hollywood who would have been up to the task of transforming Irving’s book into a screenplay unless one could resurrect Billy Wilder. As a master of dark comedy and social observation, he would have been able to get the scenes between Gere and the white shoes publishing executives just right. As the mastermind behind “Some Like It Hot,” another film involving a hoax of a sort, Wilder was the last in a great line of screwball comedy directors and writers who could have done justice to Irving’s story.

Oddly enough, Richard Gere’s Clifford Irving reminded me a bit of the crooked cop he played in “Internal Affairs”. Living beyond his means, the cop becomes corrupt in order to support an upper-middle class life-style a cop’s salary would not support. By relocating Irving to suburban New York rather than the bohemian Ibiza where he lived, and by making him more desperate for money than he actually was, the film Irving’s maneuvers reminded me of the crooked cop. Irving certainly deserved better for in the final analysis his interest in writing the fake autobiography was art rather than commerce.

Irving and Suskind made the calculated decision to turn Hughes’s life into a work of fiction. They decided at the outset that the reclusive billionaire needed to be more interesting and more sympathetic. Unlike Scorsese, who chose to emphasize the daredevil aspects of Hughes’s life, Irving decided to transform Hughes into a kind of counter-culture figure in tune with the 1960s. In doing so, he drew upon his resources as a novelist. One of the key passages in his book about the hoax revolves around the writing session Irving had with Suskind that would render Hughes as a kind of voyager in pursuit of Enlightenment–a fictional flight if there ever was one.

An unlikely seeker after Eastern wisdom

As background, Suskind picked up some books on Eastern philosophy, including one written by the Beatles’s guru of the time. What they came up with was a total joke, but one that the publishing executives did not get:

The yarn we had concocted was wild enough to satisfy even the insatiable appetite of the people at McGraw-Hill for the outré; but it read like a dime novel. There was Howard, fifty-five years old, tormented by self-doubt, looking for “answers,” standing on the steps of the Ganges at Benares with the stench of the burning ghats in his nostrils. He sees a couple of fakirs—one who has stood on one leg for so long that the other leg has withered; the other fakir has blinded himself by staring at the sun hour after hour with open eyes. Howard is horrified and disgusted.

“But these are not the true holy men,” Howard’s guide tells him. “You must visit my father, Ramaprasad. Unlike these sad creatures, he is a repository of the true wisdom of the East.”

And so Howard visits the white-haired patriarch, Ramaprasad (the name of a 16th-century poet we had pulled at random from a book called Hinduism), in a village near Benares, and is astounded and impressed by the aura of serenity that surrounds him. He sits at the old man’s feet, literally and figuratively, for an indeterminate period (I said it should be two weeks; Dick insisted on a longer stay; I prevailed with the argument that if anyone at Life checked the chronology of those years, the longest unaccountable period would be two weeks) and learns to grapple successfully with the problems of the “self,” to tear aside the veil that separates him from the real, the true, the whole Howard Hughes.

Howard returns to visit Ramaprasad again, about a year later, and finds him dying of cancer. He sits the death-watch, donates $500,000—anonymously—to establish the Ramaprasad School of Eastern Studies—”it’s still there in India,” Howard says, “but you’ll have trouble finding it”—and returns once more to the United States, no longer a man divided against himself but prepared to cope with anything, including the loss of TWA and a $137-million judgment.

As I read this passage to myself at work the other day, I began laughing out loud. It is really too bad that the screenwriter and director of “The Hoax” failed to bring scenes like this to life.

On Clifford Irving’s website you can download the introduction and first chapter of the Howard Hughes autobiography. In the introduction there is a clue that Irving left that any shrewd editor might have understood as a confession that the book was a hoax:

In 1969 I published my first nonfiction book, Fake!, the true tale of an expatriate Hungarian art forger named Elmyr De Hory. My father gave me a list of “well-connected” friends to whom I should send copies; he badgered me, as fathers do, and I took the line of least resistance and faithlessly promised, as sons do. He died in June of 1970 and shortly afterward, feeling remorseful about unfulfilled promises I had made him, I mailed copies of the book to a few people on the list. Howard Hughes was among them. I included a note reminding Mr. Hughes where and when we had met, and then I forgot about it.

Five months passed before I received an undated letter on yellow lined legal paper, the kind you can buy in any office supply store. The scrawled handwriting was firm extended well over the ruled left-hand margin the way a schoolboy might write if he were getting down toward the end of the pad. It said:

Dear Mr. Irving — Thank you for the gift of your book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Your inscription was very thoughtful.

I find myself deeply interested in the fellow you have written about, despite a natural inclination to the contrary. I cannot help wondering what has happened to him. I would hate to think what other biographers might have done to him, but it seems to me that you have portrayed your man with great consideration and sympathy, when it would have been tempting to do otherwise. For reasons you may readily understand, this has impressed me. I do remember your father and I was sorry to learn of his passing.

Yours truly, Howard R. Hughes

Now if I had been presented with an autobiography by Howard Hughes in which he reveals himself as a kind of 60s counter-culture figure, I would have eased my foot off the accelerator. But if I then discovered Irving was selected by Hughes on the basis of his prior book, which was about the most famous art forger in the 20th century, I would have slammed my foot on the brakes.


In my search to get to the story behind “The Hoax,” I also picked up a copy of “Fake! The Story of Elmyr De Hory” from the Columbia library. As a long-time student of the vagaries of the art market, I was stunned by the book’s ability to get to the essence of how the art markets function. Basically Irving argues, in sympathy with the outlook of his subject, that it was market demand that assured De Hory’s success, just as the publishing industry would salivate a few years later over the prospects of a blockbuster Howard Hughes autobiography. Unlike McGraw-Hill and Life Magazine, there was never any serious effort on the part of art galleries and museums to divest themselves of De Hory fakes since too much was at stake, as the master forger explained to Irving:

Really, it’s just incredible that someone like a Picasso, a living artist—between two cigarettes he makes a little drawing and that is transferred immediately into gold. John Paul Getty is supposed to be the richest man in the world, but in a given year, if he wanted to, Picasso could make more money than Getty. He can make a line and sign his name to it and get cash for it in five seconds by just picking up the telephone. Fantastic! It’s a situation unparalleled in the history of art or commerce. I heard a story from [his henchman] Fernand Legros that he sent one of my Picassos to Picasso for an authentication, and Picasso, who wasn’t quite sure, asked the man who brought it, ‘How much did the dealer pay for it?’ The man mentioned a huge amount, maybe $100,000, and Picasso said, “Well, if he paid that much, it must be real.”

“The whole situation today,” Elmyr continued, “was built up artificially over the years by a group of art dealers around the world. The public has been completely duped. And now the dealers are forced to keep up the market because there’s so much money involved. That’s one of the reasons that Fernand Legros will never be transferred to a French or American court and have to defend himself—because it would do terrible damage to a big, big business. Not only the interests of the great galleries, which are worth billions, but also the interests of museums, public institutions who have paid fabulous prices over the last twenty years, and often with public money. Also the great fortunes, like Ford and Rockefeller and Du Pont in America, have spent immense sums on paintings, on the recommendations of experts and museums, as an investment. They all want to keep their investment secure in the same way the stock exchange wants to keep blue-chip stocks secure —they don’t want that they should stumble down like in Wall Street in 1929. And in the kind of scandal that could be created in front of a court by a Fernand Legros—who will accuse, who will not hesitate to accuse, two dozen big dealers who helped him sell paintings, two dozen experts and four dozen big museums—these things will come stumbling down. It would be a 1929 crash for the art world.”

In 1974 Orson Welles made his last film, a documentary titled “Vérités et mensonges,” which was released as “F is for Fake” in the US. It is a marvelous meditation on fakery with three representative figures: Elmyr De Hory, Clifford Irving and Orson Welles himself.

Orson Welles in “F is for Fake”

Throughout the film, Welles keeps performing sleight-of-hand tricks as well as his own version of an art hoax involving a seductive young woman pulling the wool over Picasso’s eyes. No doubt, Welles must have been thinking about De Hory’s observations about Picasso being potentially richer than Getty. But the real hoax was his “War of the Worlds” radio show that made his career. Unlike Irving or De Hory, who both spent time in jail, Welles became rich and famous.

After Welles’s career took a nosedive, he must have had agonized about the meaning of fame and success. In one of the most telling scenes in “F is for Fake,” we see him strolling in front of Chartres Cathedral as the camera pans across the magnificent sculptures and stained glass windows. Welles comments that nobody knows who made this cathedral, one of the greatest works of art in human history. Implicitly, Welles was calling for an art that is divorced from the marketplace–a challenge that will exist as long as there is private property. One can only wonder if Welles had another great director in mind when he included this section:

I want to be one of the artists of the cathedral that rises on the plain, I want to occupy myself by carving out of stone the head of a dragon, an angel or a demon, or perhaps a saint, it doesn’t matter. I will find the same joy in any case. Whether I am a believer or an unbeliever, Christian or pagan, I work with all the world to build a cathedral because I am artist and artisan, and because I have learned to draw faces, limbs and bodies out of stone. I will never worry about the judgment of posterity or of my contemporaries; my name is carved nowhere and will disappear with me. But a little part of myself will survive in the anonymous and triumphant totality. A dragon or a demon, or perhaps a saint, it doesn’t matter.

–Ingmar Bergman

December 1, 2007

Alexander Cockburn gets Spiked

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:28 pm

Last June in a commentary on Alexander Cockburn’s global warming denialism, I mentioned that Zbigniew Jaworowski, one of his “experts”, had written for Spiked Online as well as Lyndon Larouche’s magazine “21st Century Science & Technology”. Like Lyndon Larouche, Frank Furedi, the top guy at Spiked Online, was once a Trotskyist politician. There are no illusions that Larouche has any connections to the left nowadays, but our boy Alexander still has trouble understanding that Furedi broke his ties to the left as well. In the latest issue of the Nation Magazine, he has an attack on recycling (unfortunately only available to subscribers) that starts as follows:

Two years ago some smart leftists here put together an event called the Battle of Ideas, and the mix of provocative themes, well-run panels and competent speakers worked out well. I was invited to speak at a couple of sessions in the third Battle at the end of October and was happy to find its organizers threading a sane course past the rocks on which left-organized confabs usually founder: viz., endless mastication of the obvious, marked disinclination to address any new ideas, overblown preachments to the converted. In fact, on the surface at least, this didn’t seem like a particularly “left” affair, which probably explains why that weekend a thousand people were milling around the Royal College of Art, next to the Albert Hall.

One might assume that Alexander had about as much curiosity in uncovering the origins of the conference he spoke at as he did in finding out about Zbigniew Jaworowski’s long-standing connections to Larouche. If he once conjured up images of an intrepid investigative reporter, now he seems more like the dormouse at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party:

“The Dormouse is asleep again,” said the Hatter, and he poured a little hot tea upon its nose.

The Dormouse shook its head impatiently, and said, without opening its eyes, “Of course, of course; just what I was going to remark myself.”

Now if I had been invited to speak at the Battle of Ideas conference in London, the first thing I would want to know is who was running it. As it turns out, I have been keeping track of the organizers for over 10 years at least–now affiliated with Spiked Online–and would like first of all to disabuse Alexander of the notion that they have any connection to the left–at least any left that normal people would want to be associated with. You have to ask yourself what kind of “leftists” would cosponsor events with the public relations firm Hill-Knowlton as they have in the past.

Hill-Knowlton: friends of Alexander’s new friends

Among the conferences cosponsored by Spiked and Hill-Knowlton was something on “The Future of Energy” that included Spiked online contributor Joe Kaplinsky worrying about “a crisis mentality overplays the actual problem of global warming; and on the other hand, this sensitivity to risk limits our ability to explore energy alternatives.” Just like Zbigniew Jaworowski, Kaplinsky believed that Chernobyl had “led to an increase in public sensitivity rather than an actual increase in risk, yet it hindered the nuclear option dramatically.”

Although the people involved with Spiked are by no means as nutty or as dangerous as Larouche, they agree with the American cult that the environmentalist movement is a threat to progress. How Spiked evolved in this direction is a lesson in the hazards of an undialectical approach to Marx’s writings, especially those sections of the Communist Manifesto that stand in awe of the achievements of the bourgeoisie. If it made sense after a fashion to consider the unification of the nation-state through railroads and telegraphs as a first step in creating the objective conditions for socialist revolution, it is simply madness to provide public relations–either paid or unpaid–for the corporations that Hill-Knowlton shills for.

A Hill-Knowlton client

Although Hill-Knowlton’s clients include some of the sleaziest corporations in the world, including McDonald’s, their most famous client was the US government that hired them to promote support for the first war against Iraq. They worked closely with the Citizens for a Free Kuwait, one of whose members testified before Congress: “I volunteered at the al-Addan hospital. While I was there, I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where . . . babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the babies on the cold floor to die.”

We know now that this was all a lie. Nothing like this ever happened.

Once upon a time, the people around Spiked would have been on the forefront exposing such disinformation. One of them, in fact, spoke alongside Alexander as he reports:

One panel I eagerly attended, “Recycling Is a Waste of Time,” featured a German, Thomas Deichmann, describing the insane recycling regulations now beleaguering the citizenry of Frankfurt. The case for efficient incineration, he asserted, was overwhelming. Most recycling is an utter waste of time, economically unsound and without benefit for the environment. “We should,” he counseled urbanely, “be thinking of more interesting things.”

Deichmann once made an important contribution to exposing Hill-Knowlton type lies during the war in Bosnia. At the time, he and the other Spiked contributors were putting out a magazine called LM (which stood for Living Marxism, a philosophy that they were already starting to ditch) that took a strong position against Nato intervention. Deichmann wrote an article proving that the Bosnian Muslims were not being kept in a concentration camp, as Independent Television News (ITN) had alleged. So enraged was ITN by LM’s challenge to accepted orthodoxy that they sued the magazine for libel and won in a British court, where laws tend to favor the plaintiff. This forced LM to shut down and when it reappeared as Spiked Online, there was no effort to represent it as Marxist, either living or dead.

For the most part, Alexander’s complaints about recycling stem from the kind of curmudgeonly, contrarian stance that he has been perfecting for the past 10 years or so. It shares Spiked Online’s libertarian and individualistic values, but not their enthusiasm for unbridled capitalist growth, which is for the most part indistinguishable from the Cato Institute.

In his flirtation with the populist right in the US, Alexander is somewhat coy about drawing hard lines between their beliefs and his own. One imagines that he finds the same thing seductive about Spiked Online, which is also cultivating ties to the right. Most of the Spiked contributors are cagey about their pro-capitalist convictions, which might have the effect of frightening off possible future collaboration with a useful idiot like Alexander Cockburn.

If Alexander had taken the trouble to delve a little further into the writings of the crew that was now the apple of his eye, he would have discovered jewels such as this bit of public relations (paid or unpaid?) on behalf of a Hill-Knowlton client:

The king of fast food was Ray Kroc, who realised that the restaurant set up by the McDonald brothers in California in the Fifties would fit in with the American desire to eat out, but without the formality that Europeans were used to. He worked with, then bought out, the brothers and through a ruthless approach to sales and a thoroughly efficient operation, McDonald’s gave people quick, cheap, tasty food and revolutionised the food business.

I guess if contrarianism is your cup of tea, then why not write love poems to the toxic fast food giant. Speaking only for myself, I’d rather get water-boarded than pimp for McDonald’s. There was a time when Alexander might have been able to sniff out what lurked beneath the “leftist” surface of a publication like Spiked, especially when Counterpunch was cheering on Jose Bove only 6 years ago:

Bove didn’t gain international attention until August of 1999, when he and three of his compatriots, armed with a tractor, pick axes and chainsaws, attacked and destroyed a McDonald’s under construction in his hometown of Millau. Bove denounced McDonald’s as purveyors of la malbouffe (bad beef). He said that McDonald’s was merely a symptom of a larger problem, global corporations forcing genetically engineered or processed foods down the throats of unwilling farmers and consumers. “The WTO and the corporations are telling us what to eat.” Bove said. “In France, no one agrees with this.

Well, who knows? Maybe Alexander will come around to Spiked Online’s zest for McDonald’s. I have seen stranger things in politics, especially from Nation Magazine writers. Just take a look at Christopher Hitchens.

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