Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 29, 2010

The Trotsky

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:11 pm

Back in 1980, a year after I had quit the SWP and had begun making plans to write fiction (foolish me), I took a writer’s workshop at NYU with a third-rate spy novelist named Roy Doliner. But there’s one thing he said that sticks with me. He said that comedy is much harder to write than serious fiction. You can learn the craft of writing, more or less, but you can’t learn to be funny.

That observation was confirmed once again by Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky, a movie being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival and downloadable from Time-Warner Cable for $5.99. I knew in advance that I would probably hate it but paid the download fee anyhow, mostly out of curiosity.

Back in the late 80s, I got an invitation to see the documentary Pictures from a Revolution about Sandinista Nicaragua made by Susan Meiselas at a theater down in Tribeca. Most of the people standing on line looked like they lived in Tribeca, a trendy neighborhood sought after by Wall Street brokers who considered themselves bohemian. This was not as far-fetched as it sounds. I was working for Goldman-Sachs at the time and always got a sardonic laugh at the Barbara Kruger teletype art piece on the cafeteria wall that had a series of messages like “I shop, therefore I am”. For the self-esteem of boho financiers, it was essential to cultivate such an image. My guess is that The Trotsky is a movie made for such people, at least those who still have jobs.

The movie’s anti-hero is a 17 year old Canadian Jew named Leon Bronstein who has the delusion that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. He is played by Jay Baruchel, a 28 year old actor who looks nothing like a 17 year old but who does have star power. His specialty is playing John Hughes-type youthful misfits. He starred in I’m Reed Fish, a movie about a “quirky” small town DJ. Tierney made the correct decision in casting Baruchel since his movie is much more about being quirky than being political. In the entire 120 minutes there is not the slightest indication that the main character has any commitment to or grasp of Trotsky’s ideas. Instead his “Trotskyism” is designed to spawn comic situations that include hitting on a woman 10 years his senior because her name is Alexandra. Since Trotsky’s first wife was ten years older than him and named Alexandra, Leon feels that destiny is calling and stalks her namesake.

The other thing that my writing instructor said that made sense was that there are only a dozen or so plots extant in the world literature and nearly everything is a variant on those plots. Think “road travels” and you get Huckleberry Finn, On the Road and Thelma and Louise. The precedent for The Trotsky is obvious when you think in terms of delusional idealist heroes making fools of themselves tilting at windmills. If that isn’t obvious enough, I am referring to Don Quixote. I doubt that director Jacob Tierney had Cervantes’s tale in mind, however, when he wrote his derivative teen comedy. Probably he was thinking about Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment, the 1966 movie that starred David Warner as the failed artist with a Stalinist mom who spends most of his days fantasizing about being Leon Trotsky or highland gorillas. Now, that was a funny movie.

Whether or not Jacob Tierney saw Morgan is almost immaterial since his main inspiration is the glut of teen comedies that come spewing out of Hollywood on a regular basis, either mainstream efforts following in John Hughes’s footsteps or “edgy” independent movies like Juno or Rushmore. Indeed, although not having seen Rushmore, it sounds very much like an influence on The Trotsky. The movie’s eponymous hero, like Leon Bronstein, pursues an older woman, feuds with his school’s headmaster, and engages in outrageous extracurricular activities.

In The Trotsky, the hero has an obsession about starting unions. In an early scene, he pisses off his father after leading the workers in his garment plant on a hunger strike to form a union. We are supposed to laugh at this scene because the workers appear content in their job and because Leon’s inflamed rhetoric and pose-striking are at odds with the reality in the plant. Jacob Tierney, the son of a successful liberal-minded film producer, clearly has not stepped foot in a garment plant lately, places that are not so nearly as clean and benign as the one depicted in his film—nor are the workers so contented.

This comic situation is repeated throughout the rest of the movie as Leon persuades fellow students that they need a union. The headmaster and his assistant, two people who are obviously familiar with the 1960s—perhaps as activists, resist his efforts. Once again, the students fall in line like sheep behind the delusional hero who has leadership abilities totally at odds with his obvious psychological problems.

One 1960s activist eventually comes around to supporting Leon’s dubious cause even though he initially regards him as Quixotic. This is Frank McGovern (Michael Murphy) an American draft resister about my age who had become a kind of William Kunstler-type lawyer in Canada. When Leon approaches him to support the unionizing efforts at his father’s plant, McGovern sends him on his way, understanding that the youth is living in a fantasy world. At the end of the movie, in a showdown with the cops and school administration, McGovern backs Leon. Supposedly he is the “best hope” for the new generation. The whole thing has an utterly pat quality, like the moralizing conclusion of a situation comedy during prime time.

In an interview with Daemon’s Media website, Tierney talks about the inspiration for his singularly unfunny and apolitical movie. My rude comments are interspersed:

In truth I was really moved as a teenager by Ken Loach, by his movies and particularly ‘Land and Freedom’ which I saw when I was like fifteen. [When I was like fifteen? Ah, a highly revealing turn of phrase from this show business insider.] It just made the biggest impression on me. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I was a very serious teenager, very engaged and I wrote a lot and I was probably a bit boring. [And still are.] I wanted to make a movie about socialists in high school, something really revolutionary, something that basically felt like ‘Land and Freedom’ a bit. [Why not make a documentary about Canadian Indians fighting to defend land claims? That would require a level of political commitment and understanding that surely did not exist.] I wrote that script and it was about a bunch of kids in high school trying to get the Spanish Civil War added to their curriculum. It was just so bad and so boring, and I was like, ‘Fuck me. I am not Ken Loach.’ [Yes, and you were like ‘Fuck me. I am not Ken Loach’. God help me from cell phones and people who speak this way.] Then what ultimately happened is that I was reading it one day and I started to laugh because I thought, ‘Who the fuck talks like this? This is insane. You would never be able to listen to someone talking to you like this in real life.’ I thought that was kind of funny as an idea. ‘I like to laugh.’ Then the other shoe dropped and the tone of it came really naturally to me from that point on, when I kind of gave up the idea of trying to be Ken Loach. I still wish I could be. [Maybe you just shoot for being funny.]


  1. Your curmudgeonhood has reached new peaks, the movie looks awful, but I’d imagine that a good portion of the people who view it might be interested enough to do a quick Wikipedia of Leon Trotsky. I don’t think that’s doing a disservice to one of history’s finest men.

    Comment by Bhaskar — April 29, 2010 @ 6:39 pm

  2. I tend to disagree with Bhaskar, this Tierney sounds like a fucking tosser.

    Comment by Steve — April 29, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

  3. The absurdity of the worm trying to be God- borrowing Maslow’s phrase- is very funny, and there’s a lot in trotskyist practice that’s funny. But it takes a lot more focus and integrity then the pomos have to bring this out.

    By the way, Louis, when is that graphic novel Harvey Pekar is doing about your experience in the SWP supposed to be coming out?

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — April 29, 2010 @ 8:13 pm

  4. From an interview with Harvey Pekar:

    One of the best things I ever did is called “Huntington, West
    Virginia on the Fly” which is sort of biographies of friends of
    mine, but they’re told from my point of view. That was supposed to
    come out in September, but now, for all intents and purposes, it’s
    just gotten indefinitely postponed. I have another one that I
    wrote for Random House called “The Unrepentant Marxist” which is a
    biography of a guy I met in New York who was a member of a
    Trotskyist organization for a really long time, and he put up with
    a whole lot of bullshit until he finally got to where he couldn’t
    take it anymore. I’m really interested in that stuff. It was
    apparently accepted but I don’t know when that’s supposed to come
    out. I don’t know if I’ll live that long.

    full: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=24421

    Frankly, I don’t know if I’ll live that long myself. The artist
    told me that it was supposed to come out in 2011 but I don’t like
    the way that this sounds. Oh well. Harvey does have a contract with
    Random House and is notoriously focused on getting paid, after
    having spent a life working on a low-wage job.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 29, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

  5. Louis… The Harvey Pekar book will be released eventually. Only “A list” titles reach store shelves inside 18 months. If he sold it, they’ll print it. We’ll all live long enough for this.

    Comment by Richard Greener — April 29, 2010 @ 10:08 pm

  6. The union scene made me think of Confederacy of Dunces. The idea of contented garment workers is enough for me — pass.

    Comment by Rojo — April 29, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

  7. This guy sounds so, like, whatever. Actually the film sounds quite derivative of the pretty bad 1997 Australian “comedy” about Stalinism, Children of the Revolution, which I reviewed at http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/15685.

    There seems to be something of a sub-genre of the “quixotic quest” narrative structure Louis identifies that I call American Quirk. Like most genres there’s original and derivative, good and rubbish. Rushmore like all of Wes Anderson’s stuff is funny and original.

    Comment by Nick Fredman — April 30, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

  8. Tierney’s father is a succesful producer, not director, and produced the film.

    Comment by CASTELLIO — April 30, 2010 @ 5:59 pm

  9. Wow, even the trailer is unwatchable.

    Comment by Howard — May 1, 2010 @ 12:11 am

  10. ‘The Trotsky’ manages the astounding feat of being both ultraleftist and bourgeois at the same time. It’s essentially an ultraleftist take on two fairly bourgeois genres — romantic and teen comedies.

    Leon Bronstein fits most negative steryotypes of trotskyists in mainstream culture. As such, he’s not a very likeable character. He’s also not particularly enlightened when it comes to relationships with the opposite sex — his attempts to seduce Alexandra are a bit creepy, and halfway through the movie I actually came to the conclusion that Alexandra was a more revolutionary character than Leon beause she resisted his advances — an illusion that lasted until the end of the movie when Alexandra falls for Leon.

    To those on the left who either were ultraleftist trotskyists, or who know or have known current or former ultraleftist trotskyists, the film way come across as funny, not because the jokes are well written, but because we know the absurdity of this ultraleftist trotskyism as an actual tool for affecting real change in the world we live in.

    Comment by Tim — May 22, 2010 @ 4:08 am

  11. […] for a deadly serious appraisal of Leon Trotsky, his life and ambitions, this is not that film (FAO: boring trot blogs). But for what The Trotsky is, a quirky high school comedy in the vein of Wes Anderson, […]

    Pingback by Scottish Socialist Youth » The Trotsky — November 8, 2010 @ 12:16 am

  12. I found it quite entertaining!

    Comment by Paolo — November 24, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

  13. For those who didn’t know, Leon Bronstein was Trotsky’s birth name.

    Comment by Tom Cod — November 2, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

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