Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 23, 2011

The Whale

Filed under: animal rights,Film — louisproyect @ 7:24 pm

I weighed the pros and cons carefully before deciding to review “The Whale”, a documentary that opens today at Cinema Village in New York. The publicist’s email described it as “Set on the rugged western coast of Vancouver Island and narrated by Ryan Reynolds, THE WHALE describes what happens when Luna, a baby orca, gets separated from his family and unexpectedly starts making contact with people along a scenic fjord called Nootka Sound.”

This sounded an awful lot like the sentimental movies about human-whale (or dolphin) bonding that had little interest for me, starting with “Free Willy”, a movie I confess never having seen. (Just by coincidence, a movie titled “Dolphin Tale” opens today as well, a fiction film based on the true story of a dolphin that after suffering an injury to its tail in a crab net was nursed back to health by a sympathetic marine biologist.)

On the plus side, the film got thumbs up from Ric O’Barry, the star of “The Cove”, a documentary about the Japanese slaughter of dolphins that I considered one of the best of 2009. Beyond that, I was curious to see what the film might have to say about human-animal communication in light of the movies I wrote about recently dealing with the dysfunctional relationships between man and chimp. Just last Monday the New York Times reported on an experiment that sounds just like the one in “Project Nim”:

OFF THE BAHAMAS — In a remote patch of turquoise sea, Denise L. Herzing splashes into the water with a pod of 15 Atlantic spotted dolphins. For the next 45 minutes, she engages the curious creatures in a game of keep-away, using a piece of Sargassum seaweed like a dog’s chew toy.

Dr. Herzing is no tourist cavorting with marine mammals. As the world’s leading authority on the species, she has been studying the dolphins for 25 years as part of the Wild Dolphin Project, the longest-running underwater study of its kind.

“I’m kind of an old-school naturalist,” she said. “I really believe in immersing yourself in the environment of the animal.”

Immerse herself she has. Based in Jupiter, Fla., she has tracked three generations of dolphins in this area. She knows every animal by name, along with individual personalities and life histories. She has captured much of their lives on video, which she is using to build a growing database.

And next year Dr. Herzing plans to begin a new phase of her research, something she says has been a lifetime goal: real-time two-way communication, in which dolphins take the initiative to interact with humans.

Up to now, dolphins have shown themselves to be adept at responding to human prompts, with food as a reward for performing a task. “It’s rare that we ask dolphins to seek something from us,” Dr. Herzing said.

But if she is right, the dolphins will seek to communicate with humans, and the reward will be social interaction itself, with dolphins and humans perhaps developing a crude vocabulary for objects and actions.

Other scientists are excited by the project. “‘Mind-blowing’ doesn’t do justice to the possibilities out there,” said Adam Pack, a cetacean researcher at the University of Hawaii at Hilo and an occasional collaborator with Dr. Herzing. “You’ve got crystal-clear warm water, no land in sight and an interest by this community of dolphins of engaging with humans.”

If anything, the scientists in “The Whale” have just the opposite intention of those experimenters. Their goal is to reduce human-orca (also called killer whales) interaction to a minimum since the experience has been that such interaction is always at the expense of the dolphin or whale (they are the same species actually) since they have no idea of the threat a boat propeller poses.

We meet the orca named Luna in “The Whale” when he is only two years old and has been accidentally separated from his family in Nootka Sound on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island in Canada. This is likened by the film’s creators to a child getting lost in a supermarket in one of the few concessions to anthropomorphism in this engrossing film.

The orca is an intensely social animal and in such instances one that is separated (called a “transient” by marine biologists) is known to seek out companionship from human beings. In Nootka Sound Luna got into the habit of approaching boats and ships and behaving like what can only be described as a puppy. In scene after scene, we see the huge mammal approaching a boat and to be petted or played with. It also played games, like balancing driftwood on his head.

Seeing the risk of such interaction, scientists and government employees working in the sound decided that it would be necessary to steer the public away from Luna even if it left the animal forlorn and bewildered—in other words, in the same emotional state as Nim Chimpsky who was abandoned to a shelter by Columbia University psychologist Herb Terrace. Or, for that matter, Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”.

Not everybody was willing to accept this quarantine, especially the Indians who lived on Nootka Sound and regarded Luna as a kindred spirit and very possibly the reincarnation of a recently deceased elder.

Ultimately it is the lack of pat solutions that makes “The Whale” so compelling. Unlike “Free Willy” or “Dolphin Tale”, there is no happy ending tied together with a red ribbon. Despite its sweetness (occasionally veering off into sentimentality), the film is a struggle to come to terms with what now appears insoluble, namely the clash between commercial development and the animal kingdom. Luna’s story is only a subset of the larger story about the looming extinction of whales. This is a particularly intelligent species that has only inhabited the planet for 50 million years. By comparison, we are interlopers.

If you’ve seen “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, you’ll remember the scene in which Caesar is stunned to see another captive—an orangutan—using sign language from behind the bars of his nearby cage. Where did you learn that, Caesar asks? The orangutan—named Maurice—replies “In the circus”. With Caesar leading the revolt, Caesar and all the other captive simians gain their liberation. No longer would they be held captive in medical laboratories or circuses just for the benefit of homo sapiens.

In reality, the revolt of the orca and the orangutan has been ongoing. In Jason Hribal’s excellent “Fear of the Animal Planet: the Hidden History of Animal Resistance“, there’s a chapter titled “Monkey’s Gone Wild” that sounds like a scene out of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. We learn of Ken, an orangutan held captive at the San Diego Zoo who when young would unscrew every nut he could find in his nursery and then remove the bolts. After he grew up, he was transferred to the Heart of the Zoo exhibit where he was caught throwing rocks at a television crew that was filming the neighboring gorillas. When he ran out of rocks, he started throwing his own shit!

In the next chapter titled “Slippery When Wet: Sea Mammals Dream of Freedom”, Hribal reports on the rebellions of the apes’ equally intelligent cousins. In a Counterpunch article that predated his book, Hribal reported:

Two weeks ago, an orca named Kasatka intentionally grabbed and pulled her trainer underwater twice-nearly killing him in the process. Kasatka is a performer for Sea World Adventure Park, San Diego. She is one of seven orca entertainers at the Southern California park. With operations in five other US locations, Sea World and Busch Gardens are owned by the Anheuser-Busch corporation. Indeed, as Susan Davis demonstrated in her Spectacular Nature (1997), these flagship zoological parks are corporate enterprises: for-profit businesses.

According to a park official, the Sea World orcas perform as many as 8 times per a day, 365 days a year. The Kasatka attack happened during the final daily show. As for the performances themselves, they are finely choreographed and composed of several acts. Each is highly complex in its routines and challenging in its stunts. These shows require skill, patience, labor, and hours of weekly practice. The orcas are, in every sense, performers and entertainers.

Yet much more is happening at these zoos and aquariums than just production and profit, more than just performers, spectacle, and captive audiences. For Kasatka’s action on that day was not a unique incident. It was the third such public act of violence involving herself. In 1999, she attempted to bite this same trainer during a show. He only escaped with all his limbs fully intact by quickly jumping out of the pool. After this event, Kasatka was sent, as stated by a park spokesman, “back for some additional training and behavior modification”-for in 1993, there was a similar bite-attempt. In fact, two years earlier, her father, a performer at Sealand of the Pacific in Canada, killed his trainer during a show. Resistance at zoological institutions occurs far more often than most people know.

Hribal concludes his article with the following observation:

In order to see the world from Kasatka’s perspective, three facts need to be considered. First, there are no recorded incidences of orcas “in the wild” attacking humans unprovoked. This is an institutional problem. Second, Kasatka and other performers have a long history of attacking trainers. Resistance in zoos and aquariums, in truth, is anything but unusual. Third, the zoological institutions themselves have to negotiate with their entertainers to extract labor and profit. Indeed, animal performers have agency, and zoos have always (privately, at least) acknowledged this. Therefore, the next time you hear about an orca attack, don’t dismiss it from above: “Animals will be animals.” But instead, look from below: “These creatures resist work, and can occasionally land a counterpunch or two of their own.”

This is in accord with what I read in an email from the publicists for “The Whale” just two days ago:

Statement by Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm,

directors of THE WHALE, about the dangers to humans of orcas in captivity:

(Documentary is narrated by Ryan Reynolds, due in theaters in NY on Sept 23

and LA and additional markets on Sept 30, http://prodigypublicrelations.us2.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=bb410deada8b6b607f204f67f&id=6d92694251&e=82c2bc3c32)

“The OSHA hearings on trainer safety at SeaWorld have sparked a discussion about the effects of captivity on orcas and the dangers they pose to humans in those situations.

Our film, The Whale, shows the gentleness and apparent friendliness of a wild orca toward humans. We think that this kind of non-aggressive behavior toward people can only be expected in non-captive situations. We believe that captive orcas will inevitably show occasional and unpredictable violence toward the humans who maintain their captivity.

Having spent two years directly observing a single wild orca on the coast of British Columbia during the making of The Whale, we believe strongly that captivity must be torture for any orca and will continue to generate unexpected dangerous and occasionally deadly interactions between orcas and humans.

The amount of ocean space used daily by the orca we watched, whom humans nicknamed Luna, was vast. He would often travel 50 nautical miles or more in a single day, and he used an area of several square miles in size as a home base for fishing and daily living. He explored that area extensively every day.

In addition, we listened to him with an underwater microphone frequently, and heard him making almost continuous sounds, from calls and whistles to frequent echolocation clicks and buzzing. In a concrete tank orcas must find those sounds ineffective and bothersome.

Our observations of Luna make it clear that orcas are highly intelligent and adaptable animals, therefore we can imagine that they could learn to cope in some ways with the constraints of captivity, in the same way that humans learn to survive in inhuman conditions such as solitary confinement. However, some humans cope better than others in those conditions and almost none are free from terrible adverse reactions to those situations.

To us it is certain that orcas must be under extremely high levels of continuous stress when confined in enclosures that look big to us but must seem tiny to them. It is amazing that there aren’t daily incidents of harm to people who participate in keeping these animals under such unnatural constraints. We can only guess that the reasons such incidents are not more frequent is that orcas are highly cooperative animals by nature and that they try to be cooperative even with the beings that imprison them.

Imprisonment of humans inevitably results in psychological problems and in regular outbursts of violence as humans lose control in their frustrations at incarceration. Orcas are not humans, but they share certain brain structures and emotional responses that somewhat resemble those of humans.

Therefore it seems inevitable that holding orcas in captivity will always result in a certain amount of dangerous and sometimes deadly interactions with the humans who work with them. That the orcas manage to control their frustrations as well as they do only makes the times they don’t less easy to predict and more likely to be dangerous, because these events will always be unexpected. The only predictable thing is that these terrible events will happen.

In the wild, orcas are stunningly unthreatening to humans. But we believe, after spending two years watching a wild orca live in freedom, that in captivity, orcas will always be dangerous in unpredictable ways.”

September 22, 2011

Dance Interlude

Filed under: dance — louisproyect @ 3:53 pm

September 21, 2011

Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today

Filed under: Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 6:52 pm

When I think back on my favorite directors from what I consider the golden age of movies, roughly the end of WWII to early 60s, there are a few things that they seem to have in common. Firstly and most importantly, they are humanists. Although only some share my leftist sympathies (Kurosawa, Ray, De Sica), they all sought to give meaning to the lives of ordinary human beings through their work. Additionally, they were very much engaged with their national culture even though none could be described as nationalistic. Their films were very much concerned with traditions that united their countrymen culturally. This frequently meant using dialog that was drawn from the vernacular. Finally, they navigated easily between high and low culture. They sought the widest audience without watering down their art form. In a very real sense, they were following a path that Shakespeare had pioneered in Elizabethan England.

Alas, the golden age is no more. These great directors are all dead now and Hollywood’s heavy commercial hand has been felt across the planet, especially in the age of globalization. There is at least one happy exception to this sorry trend, however. For people who have been reading my film reviews over the past few years, you will know that I regard Korean films among the best in the world today. Not only that, they are a welcome throwback to the Golden Age with their humanism, their engagement with indigenous traditions and culture, and their ability to entertain while reaching the greatest heights of artistic achievement.

I urge my fellow New Yorkers to see for themselves how great Korean cinema is today by attending the Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today series at the Museum of Modern Art that begins tomorrow and extends through October 2nd.  Yeonghwa is the Korean word for film, “a good word for cinéastes to know, given the Korean film industry’s success at festivals and among critics and audiences worldwide” as the Korea Society’s website describes it. The Korea Society has curated the festival, as well as a number of others I have attended in the past few years.

I had a chance to preview three of the films that are part of the MOMA program and my high expectations were met in spades.

The first was “Rolling Home with a Bull (Sowa Hamkke Yeohaenghaneun Beop)”, a picaresque tale about the thirtyish son of small farmers who decides to sell his father’s ox, an animal that the old man clings to despite the mechanization sweeping the Korean countryside. Two years ago I reviewed “Old Partner“, a documentary that featured an old couple just like the parents of the young lead character in Rolling Home that I likened to Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, written in 1750 as a kind of resigned protest against industrialization.

(The trailer below and for “Hanji” later on lack subtitles but are included to give a feel for the cinematography.)

Sun-ho (Gan Young-Pil) absconds with the family ox one morning and departs for the auction yards where he hopes to make good money. He is sick of farming and aspires to the literary life (he competes in a local poetry contest). His parents tell him that he is wasting his time and urge him to get rid of his books. Furthermore, like the worrying parents of all single men and women everywhere in the world, they keep trying to fix him up with the nearest available women—in this case blind dates with local Vietnamese and Laotian women.

Sun-ho is not interested in women, still carrying a torch for the one who dumped him for his best friend seven years earlier. While he is on the road trying to find a customer for his father’s ox, he gets a call from her. Her husband has just died and she wants him to take part in the mourning. This leads to major emotional complications for Sun-Ho who still resents her, especially when she makes overtures to him on the very day of her dead husband’s cremation.

Somewhere toward the middle of the movie, it takes a magical realist turn with the bull becoming a vehicle for Buddhist meditations and imagery. Although this ordinarily just the sort of thing that would make me squirm in my seat, I loved every minute.

“Rolling Home with the Bull” is funny, smart, and dramatically compelling. The acting and writing are first-rate. Put that one on your list for sure.

“Hanji (Dalbit Gileoolligi)” was directed by Kwon-taek Im who was born in 1936, has over 100 films to his credit, and is considered Korea’s leading director. The IMDB biography on him states:

He grew up in the southern city Kwangju, where he completed senior high school. His family suffered considerable hardships and losses in the Korean War, so he had to move to Pusan in search of work: he was a labourer before trying to start a business recycling US Army boots into shoes.

Considering the life he has led, no wonder Kwon-taek Im has much more to say as a film-maker than the young UCLA and NYU film school graduates that are dominant in Hollywood today.

Hanji is artisanal paper of the kind that feudal records were maintained on. It is a dying art in Korea that is subject to the same kinds of globalization pressures as the ox-dominated agriculture in the countryside. The Korea Society website notes:

A bunch of lunatics try to make paper that supposedly lasts a thousand years in the middle of the night,” says Im. “It’s madness. We Koreans export electronic goods and cars, but we are losing some important assets, which are cultural treasures like hanji.

Im’s film is both a mind-expanding introduction to the art of making such paper of the kind that you might see on a Korean version of PBS as well as a compelling drama about the lives of the people who are part of this cultural tradition.

The main character is a low-level civil servant named Pil Yong (Park Joong Hoon) who is charged with heading up a project to make the hanji business profitable by drawing in local experts to work on restoration of court records from a medieval dynasty. As he gets deeper into the project, the commercial aspects become less important to him. In a nutshell, he is on the cusp of the same “modernization” dilemma facing Sun-Ho and his bull. Both movies are terrific introductions to Korean art and culture and cannot be recommended highly enough.

Finally, I refer you to “Dance Town”, the third in a “town trilogy” directed by Jeon Kyu-hwan, a master of urban anomie and displacement. (The entire trilogy is being shown at MOMA.)

Like “Journals of Musan”, another South Korean film that showed at the MOMA a few months ago (one that I regrettably missed), this is a bold departure from the narrative that when North Koreans defect to the South they will find paradise.

Jung-nim Rhee (Mi-ran Rha) is married to a North Korean man who appears to have no complaints about the system other than it declares imports illegal that he deems a necessity for his lifestyle and that he can afford. This includes skin cream for his wife and pornographic videos for the two of them.

When word gets out that he is buying banned goods, he decides to defect to the South. Jung-nim goes first on a Chinese ship while her husband makes plans to join her.

Rhee is a quiet, reserved person who accepts the apparent generosity of her new hosts even when they are as boorish as the security official who debriefs her, calling her at one point “my little commie”.

A solicitous female whose job it is to welcome new arrivals into their state-funded apartments shows her about the new digs, eager to make Rhee comfortable. But as soon as she gets down to her car in the parking lot, she snoops on Rhee through a hidden camera that transmits to her laptop.

Rhee soon becomes part of a labor force in the South that treats its “liberated” brethren from the North not much differently than Mexicans are treated in the U.S. She begins working in a steam laundry, a decidedly downward position from her life in the North. And even more disastrously, she becomes something like prey for the degraded sexual appetites of the men she meets.

“Dance Town” is relentlessly downbeat but dramatically compelling. In many ways, it struck me as inspired by Theodore Dreiser even though I doubt that the director had the novelist in mind. When an artist decides to take on the underside of his or her society without mercy, you are likely to end up with something like “Jennie Gerhardt” or “Dance Town”. Long live naturalism!

September 20, 2011

Obama’s faux left turn

Filed under: Obama — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Since the White House has figured out that any bipartisan legislative attack on working people will fail, largely because the Republicans would oppose any proposal put forward by Democrats even if involved replacing FDR’s face on the dime with Ronald Reagan’s, it has submitted one that is calculated to win liberal support. With Obama’s re-election hopes riding on wooing them back, it costs little to make “populist” sounding noises that will never be realized. A round-up of the liberal punditry reveals a mood of rejuvenation:

On the Huffington Post Robert Reich writes:

So the really big fight — perhaps the defining battle of 2012 — won’t be over Medicare. It won’t even be over Obama’s jobs program.

It will be over whether the rich should pay more taxes.

The president has vowed to veto any plan to tame the debt that doesn’t increase taxes on the rich. The Republicans have vowed to oppose any tax increases on the rich.

It’s a good fight to have.

William Greider, like Reich a frequently tough critic of Obama, told Nation Magazine readers: “The word is out in Washington. When the president announces his deficit-reduction proposals next week, he will definitely not suggest any hit on Social Security nor any increase in the eligibility age for Medicare. That’s a small victory for reason and social equity.”

Markos Moulitsas, a key player in the “Netroots” support for Obama in 2008, blogged on Daily Kos:

Now, finally, he’s taking a hardline approach to a negotiation. He’s making a forceful defense of a truly progressive approach to deficit reduction. He has drawn lines in the sand with veto threats. My initial and usual skepticism was (finally!) unwarranted. This is good stuff. Is it too little, too late? Nope. It’s never too late. We’ve still got over a year until the next election. In politics, that’s a lifetime and then some.

But if you really want to get a feel for the liberal cheering squad that will be assembled for the 2012 Obama election campaign, you really need to read this exchange between Rachel Maddow and Michael Moore (this comes from Lexis-Nexis; the MSNBC transcript will be available in a day or two at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32390088/):

MADDOW: You have been saying President Obama does not fight hard enough for what he believes in. You have been making this case for a long time — I think since earlier than a lot of other people were making it. When I heard the speech today, I was really happy I was having you on the show. I wanted to know if you feel better about his tone these days.

MOORE: I felt instantly better. So, it doesn`t take much for me.


MOORE: That`s another good thing about liberals. That`s just how easy we are. Just a little — you referenced us as being treated sometimes by the mainstream media as extraterrestrials. Well, you put a few of those Reece`s Pieces out in front of us and we got a whole bag of Reece`s Pieces today.

By the way, the American public loves E.T. So, as beloved as E.T. is, I think the American public is actually, as you`ve pointed out many times on this show, much more liberal than the Beltway pundits give America credit for being. When you look at the actual issues, the American public takes the liberal position on the majority of them, whether being against the war, whether it`s equal rights for women, whether it`s a strong environmental laws.

In last month`s poll, for the first time ever, 54 percent of Americans saying that they believe gay marriage should be the law of the land.

So, Americans are actually quite liberal even though they may not call themselves that. And I think what happened today was exactly what we`ve been wanting President Obama to do. And he has to do more of it.

He`s — the problem with the base, with you mentioned Move On not knowing what to do next year. In the end, the people who are members of Move On, the Michael Moores out there, are going to, you know, vote for Barack Obama.

That really — his problem isn`t me or Move On so much as it is all the people who voted for him in `08 who may vote for him again. They probably won`t vote for the Republican. But they`re not going to go out and bring 10 people to the polls with them. They`re not going to be excited about voting again. And that`s where it could really hurt him.

So, this thing that happened today is very exciting and to have him just repeat over and over again, I will refuse to let these Bush tax cuts for the rich continue, I will refuse to rebuild this country on the backs of the poor and the middle class, that is music to my ears. We should have heard this from day one. I`ll take it on day 900 if that`s when I get it.

When I read this sort of thing, I can’t help but think of the battered wife syndrome. Here you have 3 years of abuse—including what a new book by Ron Suskind describes as a hostile environment for women like Christine Romer at the White House—and the batterer is ready to be forgiven after he brings home a box of chocolates.

You can bet that between now and election day in November 2012 there will be a rising crescendo of the need to “stop Perry” (or Romney) that will draw in not only professional liberals like Rachel Maddow but segments of the “radical” movement like those who joined up with Progressives for Obama in 2008. The pressure will be insurmountable as the Republicans will mount an aggressive campaign incorporating “tea party” demands and rhetoric. If Obama is re-elected, he will continue governing from the right just as he has been doing since 2009. The only hope for American workers is continued gridlock in Washington that will undermine any attempts at a “grand compromise” that will lead to the elimination of Social Security and other provisions of the New Deal.

Perhaps the most stupefying defense of Obama as class struggle fighter comes from David Corn who told Mother Jones readers that the president was daring the Republicans to knock the chip off his shoulder:

Which brings me to the one sentence in the White House fact sheet that is in boldface: “The President will veto any bill that takes one dime from the Medicare benefits seniors rely on without asking the wealthiest Americans and biggest corporations to pay their fair share.”

This is known as a message. Obama is saying that he won’t take anything away from Medicare beneficiaries—and he’ll continue to point out that the Republicans are on record as supporting ending the Medicare guarantee for seniors.

This is quite a state of affairs when a leading liberal views Medicare cuts as permissible as long as they are accompanied by a bunch of scumbag hedge fund managers paying the same tax they paid before George W. Bush’s cuts. How is it a “fair share” when someone making 500 million dollars a year is asked to pay an extra five percent in taxes while Medicare patients are being asked to pay higher premiums as the NY Times reported today:

President Obama’s budget director said Monday that the president’s new deficit-reduction plan would impose “a lot of pain,” and that is clearly true of White House proposals to cut $320 billion from projected spending on Medicare and Medicaid in the coming decade.

Mr. Obama proposed higher premiums and deductibles for many Medicare beneficiaries and lower Medicare payments to teaching hospitals and rural hospitals. He would start charging co-payments to frail homebound older people who receive home health services. And he would reduce the growth of federal payments to states for treating low-income people under Medicaid.

The White House said Mr. Obama’s proposals would cut $248 billion from the projected growth of Medicare in the next 10 years, while shaving $72 billion from Medicaid and other health programs. A large share of the Medicare savings would, in effect, be used to pay doctors, who would otherwise face deep cuts in the fees they receive for treating Medicare patients.

While I am obviously in better shape financially than most people on Medicare (I signed up early this year but am still on my employee health plan at Columbia), the idea of paying more for an increasingly inadequate health plan really galls me.

On Saturday night I was on the phone with my old friend Richard Greener, the author of the Locator novels that are being turned into a Fox TV series starting in January. As a heart transplant recipient, Richard is pretty familiar with health and insurance issues.

Besides his heart issues, Richard has had some serious eye problems as well. Like his heart condition, one of them was congenital: he was born blind in one eye. More recently he began to have problems with blurred vision in his good eye. After learning that he had a cataract, he scheduled surgery—one of the most common procedures in the medical field. As it turned out, it got a bit complicated because the medication he takes to allow the heart to operate in what amounts to a foreign body will also act against the anti-inflammatory drugs taken routinely after cataract surgery.

Given his rather frail state, Richard has a lot to be thankful for. He left for a vacation in Europe yesterday and will be coming up to NYC in December to publicize the TV show. He told me that he will be making an appearance on the Letterman show. Given Letterman’s quadruple bypass a few years ago, I expect plenty of graveyard humor. On the ocular front, Richard told me that he is seeing better than ever.

When I mentioned to him that I would be needing surgery for cataracts in both eyes at some point, he warned me what to expect as a Medicare patient. Apparently they will not permit surgery under Medicare unless the cataracts exceed a certain size. It doesn’t matter how blurry your vision is as long as the cataracts are within their defined acceptable limit. I imagine that with the direction things are going in this plutocracy we are living under, I’d better start shopping around for a seeing-eye dog before the year is up.


September 17, 2011

Silent Souls

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:57 pm

Regular readers of my movie reviews know that I tend to shy away from anything that can be described as “poetic” even though in a previous lifetime that would have been exactly my cup of tea. Too many wars and too many crushed revolutions have tended to inure me to nothing except dry analytical exercises on the workings of capitalism and only those films that make the case for its abolition either implicitly or explicitly. So when I got a press notice for a Russian film titled “Silent Souls” that describes the plot as a road movie centering on a burial ritual according to Merja culture, that of an ancient Finno-Ugric tribe from Lake Nero, I almost decided to pass on it. As a long-time advocate of socialist modernization, I doubted that the film would be of much interest to me even though I tend to see just about any film coming out of the former Soviet Union as a way of keeping tabs on the erstwhile Marxist experiment.

I am happy to report now that “Silent Souls” is a brilliant work of art and that its poetic representation of Merja culture is something that transcends national boundaries and ideology just as any great art should. It opened yesterday at the Angelika Theater in NY and will open at the Laemmle in Los Angeles on September 30 and should not be missed.

Its artistic achievement is all the more impressive since director Aleksei Fedorchenko and screenwriter Denis Osokin are working with defiantly mundane material. Virtually a two-man cast with very little dialog, the setting is Central Russia in the dead of winter amidst aging factories, ramshackle houses and bare trees. The two main characters are as one with the landscape. We are first introduced to Aist (Igor Sergeyev), a balding middle-age man who works as a photographer at a paper factory as he returns home with a pair of buntings, sparrow-like birds that he has purchased at the town bazaar. The next morning he reports to work and is summoned to meet with Miron (Yuri Tsurilo), the plant manager who is also his friend.

Miron takes Aist to the roof of the plant and pours vodka for the both of them. As he takes a sip, Timor, who is balder and older than Aist, informs him matter-of-factly that his wife Tanya (Yuliya Aug) had died the night before and that he needs his help in cleaning the body and preparing it for a traditional Meryan funeral, which entails a home-made cremation on a bonfire near a site that has symbolic value for the deceased—in this instance a lake where they honeymooned.

Much of the film consists of the two men driving along desolate looking highways with the corpse in the back of the car with few words passed between them. As they make their way toward their destination, where the body will be rendered into ashes, Aist’s reflections on Meryan ways are heard over the soundtrack accompanied by Andrei Karasyov’s haunting film score that will remind you of some of the neo-romantic work of Eastern European composers such as Arvo Part.

We also see flashbacks of Miron and Tanya in their married life. Although she—like the two men—is nothing to look at, their passion is much more palpable than anything I have ever seen on the screen from some of Hollywood’s more beautiful but sterile specimens.

“Silent Souls” eschews cheap cinematic techniques and draws you in slowly but inexorably. When you learn about the complex ties between the two men and the woman toward the end of the film, it comes as no great surprise even though it has a shattering impact.

The film has a dreamlike quality even though nothing happens out of the ordinary, even if that ordinary is based on the experience of the Merjan people who can best be described as having the values of a long-lost tribe with strong ties to the earth and the water. Like the celebrants in Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”, the Merjans are in touch with patterns of existence from our earliest ancestors. Dressed as they are in modern clothing, it is not hard to imagine the characters in bearskins with their bodies painted blue dancing around a ritual sacrifice to the gods.

Director Aleksei Fedorchenko hardly has the background that would prepare him for such a flight of the imagination. He was trained as an engineer and worked on space wars type projects in Sverdlovsk before becoming an economist at the Sverdlovsk film studios. His first feature film was “First on the Moon”, a mockumentary about a 30s Soviet landing on the moon that can be seen on Youtube. I doubt that it will be anything except a compelling work of art.

September 16, 2011

Lifestyles of the rich and infamous

Filed under: capitalist pig,Libya — louisproyect @ 1:55 pm

Pythons, parties and offshore accounts: Life among Libya’s elite

Hannibal Gaddafi’s abandoned laptop contains snapshots of the dictator’s playboy son and his entourage

By Kim Sengupta

The Independent, Friday, 16 September 2011

Libya’s rebels were yet to make the military breakthrough which would see his father swept from power but Hannibal al-Gaddafi was taking the precaution of reviewing his finances. There was a bank transfer for $14,999,920.82 (about £9.5m), another of $6,439,201.76, and a third, more modest one of $3,233,434.10. He was, one could assume, reassured about having enough put away for rainy days ahead.

The documents, with details of accounts in Paris, Panama and Tunis, were found by The Independent on a laptop belonging to the fourth son of Muammar Gaddafi, abandoned as he fled with his family from his mansion in Tripoli. The papers show the sheer extent of wealth Hannibal Gaddafi had accrued while working as a “consultant” to Libya’s national shipping corporation. Many of the transactions involve Amen Bank and the North African International Bank, both based in the Tunisian capital, and the company Indotex SA based in Panama. Others go through a myriad of institutions before ending up at accounts at tax havens.

Hannibal Gaddafi, his wife Aline Skaf, a former model from Lebanon, and their two children have sought refuge in neighbouring Algeria along with other members of the Gaddafi family. The new Libyan government has demanded that Algiers send them back to face charges, including theft of state assets.

Hannibal’s opulent home was among those raided by local people and revolutionaries after the fall of Tripoli. Young fighters wandered around the villa or lounged on the Italian sofas. Empty bottles of Dom Perignon and Johnny Walker Black Label whiskey lay scattered on cracked glass tabletops.

The photographs detail Hannibal Gaddafi’s lavish lifestyle, sailing on one of his yachts and getting ready for flights on a private Gulfstream jet, and the phalanx of staff to look after the family, including one of Shweyga Mullah, an Ethiopian nanny who has later discovered severely burned, the result, she said, of having boiling water poured over her by Aline Skaf for failing to keep the children quiet.

This was just one of several occasions that Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife had been accused of assaulting those who worked for them. In 2008 they were arrested in Geneva on charges of “bodily harm, threatening behaviour and coercion” against two members of staff. Gaddafi’s regime retaliated by imprisoning two Swiss businessmen and cancelling contracts with Swiss firms.

The following year police in London were called to Claridge’s Hotel in the early hours of Christmas morning after the management were alarmed at the sound of a woman screaming. Aline Skaf was discovered bleeding heavily and taken by ambulance to hospital where she was treated for facial injuries. Soon afterwards Hannibal Gaddafi threw a party for his wife in New York where the cabaret was provided by Beyoncé.

Some of the pictures on the laptop were taken at another party, in Cairo, with belly dancers and a well known Egyptian singer providing the entertainment. Aline Skaf sits arms entwined with her husband, with a bruise on her face.

September 15, 2011

I am interviewed by Richard Estes on KDVS radio

Filed under: media — louisproyect @ 5:55 pm

Early Chicano rockers

Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 4:02 pm

(I’m pretty sure that’s Alan Freed second from the left at the table and also that this is a clip from the 1956 movie “Go Johnny Go”.)

September 14, 2011


Filed under: Film,Latin America — louisproyect @ 6:55 pm

Opening at the IFC Center in NY Today, Pamela Yates’s “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator” is an ambivalent but powerful documentary by the same woman who directed “When the Mountains Tremble” in 1982. That film about Guatemala’s guerrilla struggle that featured Rigoberta Menchú’s testimony is essential viewing for those wanting to understand the Central American revolutions of the 1980s, especially when it is watched in tandem with Susan Meiselas’s “Pictures from a Revolution”. (“When the Mountains Tremble” can be seen on Youtube just below, while Meiselas’s film is available on Netflix, including a streaming version.)

While not a “repentant” work, there is a general sense of dismay in Yates’s latest film that can be attributed to the terrible genocidal toll taken on the Guatemalan people in the 1980s and the ability of the top military brass to remain off the hook until now, General Rios Montt in particular.

The documentary is focused on the struggle of the survivors of the massacres to get justice, particularly from the Spanish judiciary that has played a role in indicting Chile’s Pinochet. Much of the film is set in a courtroom where testimony is presented against the murderers in uniform who dare not leave Guatemala for fear of being arrested like Pinochet.

Pamela Yates becomes a key witness to the prosecution, at least through the medium of her film and her outtakes that include damning admissions from different military men, including Rios Montt who tells the young film-maker in 1982 that he “controls everything”, in clear contradiction to the defense subsequently mounted that out-of-control troops—a la Lieutenant Calley—were responsible.

As anybody familiar with Guatemala’s recent history can tell you, the same problems that provoked an armed struggle still exist. Landlords still own nearly all the land and the government is ill-disposed to challenging them. Even with the election of “reformist” politicians, the tight control over the army and police is wielded by the rich who would likely resort to genocide if their rule was threatened.

While the film is not agitprop (how could it be under the circumstances?), it is essential viewing for those trying to make sense of what happened in the 1980s when President Reagan gave military and political support to the worst gang of murderers seen in a generation. It is difficult to watch the grinning General Rios Montt without shouting out in anger against the movie screen. The only consolation is knowing that film-makers of conscience like Pamela Yates and the Mayan people of Guatemala will not rest until he receives justice.

September 13, 2011


Filed under: music — louisproyect @ 7:00 pm

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