Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 8, 2014

The Tower; Pelican Dreams; Death Metal Angola

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:16 pm

My initial reaction to the unsolicited DVD screener for “The Tower”, a German film about life in the East under Communism, was to ignore it just as I have managed to do without other such films like “The Lives of Others” and “Barbara” that seek to educate its audience about how awful the Stasi was. My preference was for “Goodbye Lenin”, a film that climaxed with the televised speech of a new socialist head of state that would make the dying Stalinist mother of its hero feel like everything had been worth it. She died without realizing that her son had written it and that the head of state was someone he paid to recite it. As I said in my Greenleft review, the speech was “a heartfelt plea for an egalitarian society based on human need rather than private profit.”

“The Tower” was based on a 2008 novel by Uwe Tellkamp, an East German who was imprisoned for refusing to attack a demonstration in October 1989. It appeared originally as a German television movie in 2012 and can now be seen in two different versions. One is two hours long and opened at the Cinema Village in NY yesterday. The original TV miniseries is three hours long and premiers on VOD on November 11. I would recommend going with the three-hour version since even that seems to skim over important details that were likely in the novel.

My second reaction after seeing “The Tower” was to not bother writing about it since it was pretty conventional fare, practically a nighttime soap opera about a privileged Dresden family that had an ambivalent relationship to the Stalinist police state. The father is a surgeon who is frustrated with the failure of the state to keep his facilities up to snuff and his teenage son is at a boarding school where essay tests require you to provide an answer to the question of how socialism defeated capitalism historically. Needless to say, all of the Stalinists in positions of authority are cardboard figures who fail to live up to the ultimate requirement of good fiction, namely to create antagonists just as complex as the protagonists.

While the family members are butting heads with the Stalinist goons, another drama is taking place on the human level as they would in any society whatever the means of production. Dad has been carrying on a long-term affair with a secretary at the hospital who has borne his daughter. The tensions between the two over whether he will leave his wife are about as much drama you are going to get out of this flaccid offering.

What makes it interesting is the attention to detail by a man who was intimately familiar with the bureaucratic nightmare of East Germany. When the son is caught reading “Mein Kampf” at his boarding school, he is summoned to appear at a hearing and faces possible expulsion. He had no interest in the book that belonged to another student but was only thumbing through it idly when a teacher caught him in the act. His defense was that he was trying to understand the class enemy better—it worked. The general impression you get from watching “The Tower” is that people went around mouthing empty Marxist platitudes in order to survive in a system that could not tolerate a contrary opinion. Of course, that happens in Trotskyist sects as well not to speak of bourgeois society when it is in the grips of war fever like the 1950s and once again after 2001.

I finally decided to write about “The Tower” this morning when I learned that this is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that is dramatized in the final moments of the film.

Throughout “The Wall”, material deprivation is a constant preescnce, from electricity blackouts to a shortage of medical supplies. In a society where such goods are effectively rationed, a bureaucracy is necessary to make sure that they are distributed evenly—at least that is the ideal. What happens in practice is that those that oversee distribution not only get to the head of the line but take more than their fair share. When I first ran into a Trotskyist in the autumn of 1965, this was how it was explained to me after I brought up the long lines for consumer goods in “socialist” countries as if this was more important than nuclear war breaking out over Vietnam.

After the Berlin Wall fell, the lines disappeared and a Stalinist bureaucracy no longer dictated wages or prices. They could rise and fall according to the market. So a surgeon like the philandering dad in “The Tower” no longer had to stand in line and had the freedom to go wherever he wanted in search of the highest paying job. That’s the libertarian ideal.

However, the markets have a different logic just as onerous. You may not have to stand on line but neither are you entitled to a weekly supply of bread or cooking oil. If your wages force you to choose between one or the other necessity, that’s just tough. More importantly, if you lose your job, that’s the price of living in a system where labor mobility is of the essence. Of course, a surgeon is more mobile than a subway conductor or a nurse.

“The Tower” comes out at a most inopportune time. Austerity is general throughout Europe and there are signs that it will only deepen. Three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama wrote “The End of History”, a book that argued that liberal democracies would prevail for centuries to come.

Twenty years after “The End of History”, Fukuyama changed his tune. A 2012 article in Foreign Affairs posed the question “Can Liberal Democracy Survive the Decline of the Middle Class?”. The article is laced with references to Karl Marx, all part of the author’s effort to render him obsolete but not without open admissions that the Old Mole might be burrowing beneath:

The sociologist Barrington Moore once flatly asserted, “No bourgeois, no democracy.” The Marxists didn’t get their communist utopia because mature capitalism generated middle-class societies, not working-class ones. But what if the further development of technology and globalization undermines the middle class and makes it impossible for more than a minority of citizens in an advanced society to achieve middle-class status?

I’d say that the “middle class” (working people actually) have every right to take up arms against such a system and dedicate themselves to achieving one that replaces it with one that is in the words of the young protagonist of “Goodbye Lenin” “an egalitarian society based on human need rather than private profit.”

Recently there was a spate of articles about the possibility of 1,300 bird species facing extinction due to environmental degradation. The articles referred back to reports on BirdLife International, an important resource for those concerned about the state of an animal that evolved from the dinosaur, a comparison that was made early on in particular about the creatures of “Pelican Dreams”, a very fine documentary that opened yesterday at the Angelika Film Center in New York, and at the Royal, Playhouse 7 and Town Center in Los Angeles.

“Pelican Dreams” was directed by Judy Irving who also made “The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” in 2003, another excellent documentary about birds native to the Bay Area.

The first half of “Pelican Dreams” is a kind of personal testament of the filmmaker to a bird that has been her totem with the power to foment reoccurring dreams of her flying like one. The film begins with an unsettling image of a young pelican on the Golden Gate Bridge that has somehow lost its way. If not for a group of men shielding the bird from oncoming traffic, it surely would have become a casualty.

Irving nicknames the bird GiGi after Golden Gate and tracks her recovery from some unspecified disorder at a nearby shelter. As we learn from the documentary, the Brown Pelican that is indigenous to the Bay Area and the West Coast generally has had a hard time of it in recent decades, saved from extinction in the 1960s only as the result of a ban on DDT.

While the extinction of any bird would be a huge loss, there is a particular charisma about the pelican that in many ways evokes the pterodactyl and that would make its loss all the more bitter. With its long beak and wingspan, often approaching seven feet, it is a sight to behold.

If DDT is no longer a threat, there are other threats to its being, most of all the pollution that is turning all our oceans into cesspools. The pelican eats fish that are tainted by toxic chemicals or falls victims to oil spills that make its feathers incapable of providing insulation against cold water.

As both a marvelous visual panorama of a photogenic animal and an urgent message about the need to confront the mounting environmental crisis, “Pelican Dreams” is a must-see.

“Death Metal Angola” opened yesterday at AMC Burbank 8 Town Center in Los Angeles and is scheduled to screen at the Cinema Village in New York City on November 21, the same day it is available as VOD on ITunes.

In the 1950s merchant seamen from Cuba brought Afro-Cuban records with them to African ports. The music made such a hit on the locals that it inspired a new style called Soukous that eventually swept the continent, a product of benign globalization.

Today there is no need for foreigners to step foot in Africa in order for new sounds to take root. With the Internet, you have the cyber equivalent of those old merchant vessels. In Huambo, an Angolan city devastated by the civil war, an ISP employee and heavy metal guitarist began blogging about rock and roll and about death metal in particular. That led to an explosion of interest in the genre and a spate of new bands.

This genre originated in Norway and then migrated to Sweden where young men on both the left and the right embraced it. As I pointed out in an article on Swedish Marxist detective novelists, the fascist movement in Sweden was organically linked to fascist metal bands.

In Angola the music has exactly the opposite significance than it does in Scandinavia where it is more nihilistic. In a country devastated by war, it has become life affirming and positive no matter how much the lyrics are consistent with those in the North about death and hell and the like.

The stars of the documentary are a couple totally into death metal, a guitarist named Wilker Flores and his partner Sonia Ferreira who runs an orphanage for 55 kids taken in from the streets, many of whom lost parents in the terrible civil war.

The director’s notes indicate how the film took shape:

A few years ago I was traveling through Angola researching a film about a railway when I stopped at the one cafe that served a decent cup of coffee in the bombed out former capital of Huambo. A young man in a blue button down oxford shirt and tiny dread locks waved me over. I sat with him for a while and chatted. We talked about what I was doing there and I asked him about himself. He said he was a musician. Oh really? I asked, what do you play? He looked me right in the eye and said “Death Metal.” Stunned, I asked him if he would play for me. He got very excited and said he’d find an amplifier somewhere and that I should meet him later that night at “the Orphanage” and slipped me the address. I assumed it was some sort of club. However when I arrived in the middle of the night to what seemed like an abandoned milk factory in the middle of nowhere, it was clear that this was no club. There he was, Wilker Flores, the young man with a blue Oxford, tiny dreads and an electric guitar, surrounded by 55 orphaned boys who called this place home. Syphoning electricity from the neighbor, Wilker proceeded to play one of the hardest and harshest impromptu concerts imaginable lit by nothing more than the head lights of van.

The film is largely about Wilker’s efforts to organize the first death metal concert in Angola. As such it is a genre that will be familiar to those who have seen documentaries about the Stones, the Beatles or Metallica. In addition, it is a story of Africans trying to take control of their lives and move toward a better future. Enough said.

7 Comments »

  1. The link between DDT and birds dying was never definitively made. DDT was banned and birds kept dying, populations never recovered.

    http://dwb.unl.edu/Teacher/NSF/C06/C06Links/www.altgreen.com.au/Chemicals/ddt.html

    What did recover were bed bugs — which reappeared with a vengeance after being considered eliminated — and malarial mosquitoes that have killed hundreds of thousands of children in Africa and Asia.

    We can directly blame non-Marxist environmentalists. Though they were probably happy since they usually push the Malthusian “overpopulation” argument too.

    Comment by Paul Peirce — November 9, 2014 @ 2:23 am

  2. Botswana apparently also has a pretty big metal scene: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/atlas-hoods-botswanas-cowboy-metalheads

    Comment by Jonathan Koch — November 9, 2014 @ 7:30 am

  3. Peirce, you are a fucking idiot. DDT was only supposed to be banned for spraying on crops, not in bedrooms. Rachel Carsons made exactly that distinction. Now go back to Frank Furedi and his corporate libertarian cult.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 9, 2014 @ 1:31 pm

  4. Hey Paul. Turns out that the Chevy Corvair was overall a really damned good car. But doesn’t that miss Ralph Nader’s real point about holding corporations accountable for automobile safety?

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — November 9, 2014 @ 2:43 pm

  5. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War and I was actually taught in school that lines proved the failure of Communism. How things have changed. Lines (for iPhones) now prove the success of capitalism.

    Comment by srogouski — November 9, 2014 @ 7:19 pm

  6. The point of course is that DDT had nothing to do with bird deaths. Birds died in areas without DDT and before and after it was used. See the heavily cited scholarly article I posted.

    How about addressing that? Or are insults all you are capable of?

    Comment by Paul Peirce — November 10, 2014 @ 1:49 am

  7. Look, asshole, I understand where you are coming from. You reek of Spiked Online. Go away. I am not interested in having a discussion with you about pesticides, atomic power, GMO, global warming denialism, or anything else. Scientists disagree about DDT. I can post links to articles that draw different conclusions.

    Leaving aside the question of what caused pelican eggs to be abnormally thin, you don’t get it about using it for malaria. Mosquitos develop a resistance to DDT and other chemical pesticides, which causes a larger amount of toxins to be put into the soil that leech into the water. Unless there is another way of dealing with insects than the standard model, the environmental crisis will deepen.

    Now shut the fuck up and get lost.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 10, 2014 @ 1:59 am


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