Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 12, 2012

The Forgotten Space

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

New Yorkers have an extraordinary opportunity to see one of the most explicitly Marxist documentaries of this or any other age. Not surprisingly, “The Forgotten Space” will be showing at Anthology Film Archives, a showcase for the political and aesthetic leading edge for four decades. Opening on Wednesday February 15, it is simply not to be missed.

Directed by Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, the film is a probing examination of modern-day transportation systems like container ships that make global trade possible—their impact on workers, the environment, and more subtly the quality of life for city-dwellers living under its influence. When the Communist Manifesto first appeared in 1848, most on the left would have agreed with its authors that the development described in these words was deeply revolutionary:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

While no doubt agreeing with this observation, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch look at its dialectical negative, namely the tendency for capitalism to destroy human bonds of solidarity in its inexorable drive to turn the entire planet into a marketplace. On the film’s website, the directors lay out their perspective:

First and foremost, globalization is the penetration of the multinational corporate economy into every nook and cranny of human life. It is the latest incarnation of an imperative that has long been accepted as vital necessity, even before economics could claim the status of a science. The first law of proto-capitalism: markets must multiply through foreign trade or they will stagnate and die. As the most sophisticated of the 17th century defenders of mercantilism, William Petty, put it: “There is much more to be gained by Manufacture than Husbandry, and by Merchandize than Manufacture. A Seaman is in effect three Husbandmen.” (Political Arithmetick, 1690).

The contemporary vision of an integrated, globalized, self-regulating capitalist world economy can be traced back to some of these axioms of the capitalist “spirit of adventure.” And yet what is largely missing from the current picture is any sense of material resistance to the expansion of the market imperative. Investment flows intangibly, through the ether, as if by magic. Money begets money. Wealth is weightless. Sea trade, when it is remembered at all, is a relic of an older and obsolete economy, a world of decrepitude, rust, and creaking cables, of the slow movement of heavy things. If Petty’s old fable held that a seafarer was worth three peasants, neither count for much in the even more fabulous new equation. And yet we would all die without the toil of farmers and seafarers.

Covering just about every corner of the world, the film puts us in touch with the humble people who keep the machinery of trade going. They show us Filipino women who occupy the public space near a Hong Kong bank the one afternoon a week away from their jobs as maids. They play cards, gossip, make barbecue, and feel like free human beings rather than domestic slaves. They evoke Marx’s words in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

the worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. He is at home when he is not working, and not at home when he is working.

They interview an Indonesian who works on a massive container ship, forced to go to sea after being unemployed for a year. He describes life on the ship, which consists of repainting rusted areas on a daily basis. There is little of the 19th century romanticism attached to a job like this, a complaint heard as well from a Dutch locomotive engineer who feels more like a cog in a machine than like Casey Jones.

While alienation is bad enough in itself, the more destructive aspect of global transportation systems is its tendency to accelerate the destruction of traditional societies and convert villagers into super-exploited assembly like workers. Without container ships, there is no supercharging of the Chinese economy, nor the transformation of Walmart into the 18th largest corporation in the world.

The directors not only question the dubious benefits of globalization socially and economically; they find its cultural legacy almost nonexistent. As a critic of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, I was delighted to see the museum eviscerated in the documentary. They reveal that the titanium metal used in most of the museum’s undulating exterior was bought dirt-cheap from the former Soviet Union during the “shock therapy” of Yeltsin/oligarchic rule. A Basque cultural critic tells us that the museum was virtually inflicted on the city, funded publicly but accountable only to its private owners, who count on Spain’s largest steel company for sponsorship.

Ironically, one of the directors—Allan Sekula—is the awardee of a Guggenheim fellowship. Biting the hand that feeds it, the film describes Guggenheim as a mining company that profited from the exploitation of Mexican and Chilean workers.

His co-director Noël Burch was born in San Francisco in 1932 and moved to France at an early age where he became a film theorist. As a committed Marxist, he has no problem ignoring the precept of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer: “Movies are for entertainment. If you want to send a message, send a telegram.” Considering the state of the world, it is not surprising that the local Cineplex features one escapist piece of crap after another while an intrepid but obscure theater like Anthology Film Archives is happy to show the unvarnished truth. The best thing you can do is go see “The Forgotten Space” and tell your friends about. (Schedule information is here.)


  1. I actually have a preference for one piece of escapist crap after another – I spend my days as an activist wading through torrents of information about how the world is going to shit – but this sounds really good! Thanks I’ll look out for it.

    Comment by Ben Courtice — February 12, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

  2. You know something, Ben, I love escapist movies and have spent a considerable amount of time this week while I am on vacation checking out the local Cineplexes for a couple of hours of diversion. I saw “Woman in Black”, “Chronicle”, and “The Grey”, none of which delivered the goods even though “Chronicle” had its moments. Will probably report on them in a couple of days, but more of a consumer’s guide than my usual review.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 12, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

  3. I hope to see this. I dropped Netflix, which was my only chance to see anything as I live in a small rural western town. But I am going to sign up again to see this. Thanks for the review.

    Comment by Sheldon — February 13, 2012 @ 3:38 am

  4. Sent this to friends in NYC. Thanks for the heads up. Noel Burch’s family, fellow CP members, were taken in by my wife Michele’s parents Harry and Jo Rhodehamel and lived with them for several years during the late 30s and 40s. Noel, who has lived in Paris since he was 18, along with his brother, were Michele’s virtual siblings in her childhood. I’d like to get a copy of this for her – it’ll never be shown in these parts (remote Northern California), nor on Netflix.

    Comment by Ralph Johansen — February 13, 2012 @ 4:37 am

  5. Why won’t Netflix offer it Ralph?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 14, 2012 @ 2:42 pm

  6. I don’t know, of course. I doubt that it will be available soon, because that seems to be the way of Netflix, and probably not at all, because it’s not mainstream enough. Certainly not in the format that I get for $7.99, which does not include dvds by mail – only what, as I remember it, is called streaming.

    Do you have better information than I have?

    Comment by Ralph Johansen — February 14, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

  7. Thanks Louis. It’s also great to have someone with perhaps a bit more time than me, who can let me know in advance which pieces of escapist crap are actually watchable escapist crap! I appreciate the mix of reviews and political battles…

    Comment by Ben Courtice — February 15, 2012 @ 10:49 am

  8. Here’s how Variety typically pecksniffs The Forgotten Space (“drowned amid very tired Marxist theory. Despite winning the Horizons Special Jury prize in Venice, this “film essay” will quickly fall into a forgotten space of its own”): http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117943696?refcatid=31.

    This is on the documentary’s website, where they don’t appear to be very huffy about what Variety has to say about them. Besides, they’re up and running – how long was it that we couldn’t even get a look at The Salt of the Earth?

    Comment by Ralph Johansen — February 15, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

  9. Ralph raises an excellent point about the politics of film distribution in a capitalist society, hardly an example of the free market at work but rather more like the sinister forces at work in the film: “Who Killed the Electric Car” which, if there were any justice in the world, would be shown to & discussed by all high school freshmen who are of age to begin Driver’s Ed.

    Mr. Tucker, the famous American automobile builder of the 50’s, not to mention John DeLorean in the 80’s, have testified how far from the “free market” is getting an automobile built in America.

    Like Chomsky has rightly always argued, “protectionism” is the rule while talk of “free markets” is strictly clever propaganda for the gullible. So clever, he said, that even “Goebbels would’ve been proud.”

    The Pat Tillman Story was another movie consciously killed for box office play. Michael Moore once commented that the only reason he finally finagled Warner-Bros to tepidly distribute “Roger & Me” is because they were so greedy they thought they could make a quick buck even though the underlying message undermined their long term interests.

    A great book could be written on this subject.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 16, 2012 @ 12:39 am

  10. […] joining The Robinson Trilogy  and The Forgotten Space is Art is … the Permanent Revolution opening today at the Quad Cinema in New York. To get […]

    Pingback by Art is… the Permanent Revolution « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — March 2, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

  11. […] A penetrating examination of global transportation systems that make profits for Walmart while destroying the fabric of civilized life (Source: Proyect, 2012a link) […]

    Pingback by theforgottenspace — November 3, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  12. […] 9. The Forgotten Space – Hardcore Marxist film about the worldwide transportation system and its awful impact on people and nature. (reviewed at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/the-forgotten-space/) […]

    Pingback by Best films of 2012 « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 12, 2013 @ 2:45 pm

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