Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 1, 2016

Notes on the 2016 Academy Awards

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

My interest in the Academy Awards was heightened this year by nominations for a number of films I deemed exceptional such as “Carol”, “A Bridge of Spies” and above all “Trumbo”. I was also curious to see what Chris Rock would have to say about Hollywood racism.

The Academy Awards are mostly of interest to me as a barometer of mainstream tastes, especially how it relates to a few categories that are more important to me than the “craft” awards such as special effects, etc. that the dreadful “Mad Max: Fury Road” swept up. For me, films are mostly about drama so naturally I would hone in on best picture, screenplays, foreign film, and documentary.

I was not surprised to see “Spotlight” named best picture since it helped to burnish the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) that had fallen on hard times in the wake of complaints about Black actors and directors being neglected. This is a film about how Boston Globe investigative reporters broke the story of Catholic Church sexual predation, just the kind of “message” movie Hollywood can show off. Not only did it win best picture, it also got the award for best screenplay based on original material.

“Spotlight” inevitably draws comparisons with Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men”, a 1976 film that starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who covered the Watergate scandal. If you’ve never seen the film or saw it forty years ago as I did, it is worth watching on Youtube for only $2.99.

It will reveal a much more textured and dramatically intense approach to the same sort of material. I especially recommend a close look at the 10 minutes or so of Redford and Hoffman doing the initial spadework on the story beginning at 25:00. When the reporters get a stack of White House communications to review, they are nearly as tall as Dustin Hoffman. You then see an overhead shot of the two poring though them one at a time. Pakula had a flair for deep state intrigue with “The Pelican Brief” and “The Parallax View” to his credit. So it is no surprise that he turned the Watergate scandal into a real thriller.

By comparison, Tom McCarthy, who directed and co-wrote “Spotlight”, has a rather modest background with “Win Win” his best known film, which is about a lawyer becoming a surrogate father to a teen wrestler from a troubled family. Co-author of the screenplay, Josh Singer told Creative Screenwriting magazine that their goal was not to expose the Catholic Church: “This story isn’t about exposing the Catholic Church. We were not on some mission to rattle people’s faith. In fact, Tom came from a Catholic family. The motive was to tell the story accurately while showing the power of the newsroom – something that’s largely disappeared today. This story is important. Journalism is important, and there is a deeper message in the story.”

As it happens, Singer wrote the screenplay for “The Fifth Estate”, a film about Julian Assange that can only be described as a hit job. From my review:

“The Fifth Estate” is a throwback to vintage anti-Communist films of the 1950s with their customarily ruthless, fanatical, and megalomaniac villains—the kind who are capable of saying things like “the future belongs to us, you pathetic fool”. In fact just a decade earlier the same kind of character showed up in Hollywood movies but brandishing a swastika rather than a hammer-and-sickle.  You’ll be reminded most of all of the 1955 “My Son John”, with its arrogant and intellectual lead character who returns from a visit to the USSR with a glassy-eyed belief in the superiority of Communism. By contrast, Daniel Domscheit-Berg (played ironically by Daniel Brühl, the star of “Goodbye Lenin”, an exercise in Ostalgia) is much more in tune with reality and always clashing with Assange (played by an actor with the thoroughly Dickensian moniker Benedict Cumberbatch).

It is obvious that Singer and McCarthy found the Boston Globe’s standards much more in keeping with their own, even if Joann Wypijewski found them questionable at best:

And I am astonished (though I suppose I shouldn’t be) that, across the past few months, ever since Spotlight hit theaters, otherwise serious left-of-center people have peppered their party conversation with effusions that the film reflects a heroic journalism, the kind we all need more of.

I don’t believe the claims of all who say they are victims – or who prefer the more tough-minded label ‘survivor’ – because ready belief is not part of a journalist’s mental kit, but also because what happened in 2002 makes it difficult to distinguish real claims from fraudulent or opportunistic ones without independent research. What editor Marty Baron and the Globe sparked with their 600 stories and their confidential tip line for grievances was not laudatory journalism but a moral panic, and unfortunately for those who are telling the truth, truth was its casualty.

Leaving aside the question of whether the Boston Globe was carrying out a “moral panic” crusade of the kind that landed nursery school teachers in prison for supposedly carrying out Satanic sex orgies with toddlers (which I am fairly sure it was), if there were crimes—as also surely there was—I would have written a script that depicted flashbacks of Catholic priests forcing themselves on choir boys. That would have been the kind of film that had the dramatic impact that this one sorely lacked but then again McCarthy and Singer were not into “exposing the Catholic Church”, god forbid.

Winner of the best adapted screenplay, “The Big Short” was based on Michael Lewis’s nonfiction account of the 2008 financial crisis. The title is derived from the main characters’ bet that the housing securities bubble was about to burst. When you are “short” a security, it means that you expect its value to decrease.

Among the principals engaged in a gamble that paid off handsomely, there is Michael Burry (Christian Bale). He is an eccentric genius addicted to playing the drums and listening to heavy metal who was exceptionally good at studying data. His goal was simply to make money and nothing else. In contrast there is Mark Baum (based on Steve Eisman and played on Steve Carrell) who while making the same kind of bets was constantly decrying the subprime mortgage market as socially wasteful. He is about as much of a hero as can be found in the film.

Thanks to Yves Smith, we can get the real scoop on what a bunch of scumbags Adam McKay’s film was about:

Eisman recognizes that the subprime market is a disaster waiting to happen, a monstrous fire hazard that, once lit, will engulf the housing market and financial firms. Yet he continues to throw Molotov cocktails at it. Eisman is no noble outsider. He is a willing, knowing co-conspirator. Even worse, he and the other shorts Lewis lionizes didn’t simply set off the global debt conflagration, they made the severity of the crisis vastly worse.

So it wasn’t just that these speculators were harmful, and Lewis gave them a free pass. He failed to clue in his readers that the actions of his chosen heroes drove the demand for the worst sort of mortgages and turned what would otherwise have been a “contained” problem into a systemic crisis.

Leaving aside the film’s spuriously “progressive” message that was the natural partner to McCarthy’s “Spotlight”, there is the question of its value as film. Suffice it to say that Adam McKay sought to shape it as satire. Based on his trail of lame output (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Step Brothers), he should have stuck to material better suited to his talents whatever they are, humor  not being one of them.

Very briefly on “Amy”, which was voted best documentary. This is a sad tale of the decline and eventual death of British soul/jazz singer Amy Winehouse. It received a 96 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was obviously the kind of film that reflected AMPAS taste. I nominated “Sembene”, “The Pearl Button” and “We Come as Friends” for a NYFCO award and would have been deeply shocked if any of them got an Oscar and maybe almost as shocked if a single member of AMPAS ever saw any one of these amazing films with a deep social consciousness as opposed to the preening liberalism of the Hollywood establishment.

And finally, there is “Son of Saul”, a Hungarian film that I did not see since I have less than zero interest in any dealing with the Judeocide. Named the best foreign film, it is a “revisionist” take whose main character is a Sonderkommando, a relatively privileged Jewish prisoner whose job it was to dispose of gas chamber bodies. I have no plans to see the film but did notice a critique in the usually reliable Los Angeles Review of Books that struck me as plausible:

Saul and the other Sonderkommando remain largely emotionless, simply completing their tasks and avoiding any questions about their actions. But Son of Saul makes a crucial mistake in its representation of these actions. Saul takes neither interest in larger questions of survival nor seems compelled by the labor. He instead participates in the film as if part of a video game–like infrastructure: go to X location, retrieve Y object, meet with person Z, your rabbi is in another grouping. Nemes latches onto just one idea that the literature on the Holocaust has produced: the extreme automation and robotic elements that Sonderkommando faced.

But one wonders if in doing so, he misses the chance to understand the role of the men as active participants in their own repression. He creates Saul’s psychology in a rather binary way: either he would be completely interested in everything around him or completely disassociated from the world. The distortion of the environment, its increasingly shallow focus, becomes an extension of this binary.

Turning to Hollywood racism, Chris Rock was the perfect MC for the Academy Awards since he essentially played the role of court jester. Historically, the court jester was able to say outrageous things while sitting on the king’s lap. Rock did that to a tee.

He was picked to host the ceremonies long before the protests about exclusionary practices developed. Like many other court jesters before him, including Jon Stewart and David Letterman, the job is to be daring but not too daring. While focusing mostly on Hollywood racism, Rock also attempted to make it seem as though the protests were the bailiwick of wealthy and powerful figures like Will Smith.

You gotta figure that it happened in the 50s, in the 60s — you know, in the 60s, one of those years Sidney didn’t put out a movie. I’m sure there were no black nominees some of those years. Say ‘62 or ‘63, and black people did not protest.

Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time, you know? We had real things to protest; you know, we’re too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.

Hmm. I’ve heard this sort of thing but not sure where. Oh, I just remembered. This is the kind of thing that “Marxist” Walter Benn Michaels has been writing for years, namely that “bourgeois” African-Americans are those who care most about diversity, not the downtrodden Blacks who can be united with poor whites on a class basis.

I have a different take on this. From the 1930s to 1950s, the omnipresence of Stepin Fetchit type characters helped to make lynching easier. If you dehumanize Blacks in a Hollywood movie, it facilitates lynching. Isn’t that obvious?

Ultimately, Hollywood racism has a class basis. The studios are interested above all in the bottom line. It prefers white actors because it is easier for the largely backward Cineplex audience to identify with a Brad Pitt or a Leonardo Di Caprio. Despite the liberal pretensions of Hollywood, the institutional racism that pervades the studio would not be allowed on Wall Street where most firms have affirmative action programs. As Walter Benn Michaels accurately points out, this is a means of social control. Getting a few Black faces in upper level positions at Goldman Sachs means that the overall task of cooptation is made easier. But to oppose affirmative action on the basis of some sort of faux Marxism is tantamount to turning back the clock to the days of Stepin Fetchit when Blacks knew their place. I suspect that the protests around the Academy Awards exclusionism has a lot to do with the protests against police killings, something that Chris Rock seemed to grasp:

Thing, you know, this year, the Oscars, things are gonna be a little different. Things are going to be a little different at the Oscars. This year, in the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies.

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