When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, I got weekly reports in the New York branch about the frictions within the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee that had been founded by A.J. Muste. This was the first incarnation of the three-legged stool that made up the Vietnam antiwar coalition in its early stages, with representatives from the SWP, the CPUSA and the pacifist movement working together despite significant ideological differences.
Most of the names that cropped up in these reports were in the deepest recesses of my memory but when I heard that a documentary had been made about Mayer Vishner, the son of a Jewish garment worker who I remembered as a very young and talented leader of the pacifist wing of the coalition, I was interested to see the film that opens at the Cinema Village on Friday in the same way I looked forward to seeing Bert Schultz’s “Fordham SDS”. Vishner eventually hooked up with Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to form the Yippies, a group far more interested in making a splash than moving the masses. They were mistaken but so were we in many ways. It is a miracle that all of us came together against the war.
Unlike the people that Bert interviewed, who largely lived fulfilling lives after “the 60s” came to an end, Mayer Vishner was one of its casualties. Like his friends Abby Hoffman and Phil Ochs, Vishner had trouble adjusting to post-radicalization realities. And like Abby and Phil, he would commit suicide but only after years of coming close to the precipice but not jumping. Indeed, “Left on Purpose” is mostly devoted to the 64-year old basket case arguing with the filmmaker and his close friends about whether there was any purpose to him living any longer. The very end of this grim but deeply dramatic documentary shows his corpse atop the bed in his filthy walk-up apartment on West 4th and MacDougal Streets, the heart of the Greenwich Village of yore when Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs and Dave Von Ronk could be heard on an almost weekly basis.
The title of the film is a double entendre. It refers to Vishner’s lifelong leftist commitments as well as his determination to purposely leave a life that consisted of continuous and deep depression, loneliness and an alcohol addiction that had led him to drink quart after quart of beer, even during filming. During most of the shooting, he is clad only in a filthy t-shirt, inevitably one with a political message, and underwear. With his massive beer belly, stringy gray hair flowing from a bald head down to his shoulders, the film’s subject holds forth about the inevitability of suicide amidst the filth and clutter of a tiny apartment. Within the first few minutes of the film, you cringe at the appearance of the man and his apartment and find yourself wondering why an experienced filmmaker would descend into this man’s personal hell.
As the film progresses, you are not exactly identifying with Mayer Vishner but at least grappling with the problems that almost everybody faces as they get older. Vishner has not been in a relationship for decades and is tormented by loneliness. He goes out to a wedding in Berkeley with his cousin, who is about his age, marrying a woman also about his age. He tells filmmaker Justin Schein, “What’s the point? In a few years one or the other will be forced to become a caregiver for an infirm spouse.”
Throughout the film, we see Vishner remonstrating with friends, including Schein who has become a lifeline, about the ineluctable necessity of ending his life. They tell him that he still has a lot to offer, including his work in a nearby community garden where he has sought respite from depression for 30 years by growing vegetables. There is also his political legacy that he can impart to the young but we learn that part of his isolation stems from an utter failure to keep up with the social media that younger lefties thrive on. Despite owning a computer, he has no clue how to use it.When he offers Occupy activists the organization of a phone tree, they look at him as if he stepped out of a time machine.
The film is a companion piece to “Honey”, a 2014 Italian narrative film about a young woman who is a licensed euthanasia administrator, typically serving terminal cancer patients and the like. When she runs into a man who tells her that he is simply tired of living, she adamantly refuses to help him end his suffering. This would not only be a violation of her license but something that she finds objectionable on existential grounds. Life is worth living, she insists on telling the old man who has a lot more to live for than Mayer Vishner. As “Left on Purpose” winds down, we realize that he has won the argument against his friends—including the director. After dropping off his cat, his only companion, with a friend in Texas, he returns to New York and swallows a bottle of Secanols.
Despite the grimness of the subject matter, “Left on Purpose” is touching and deeply relevant to the eternal problems of aging and death that everybody faces at one point or another as Vishner reminds a friend at one point. As a portrait of man who lost much of the purpose for living after the 60s wound down, the film will be compelling to any of my readers who identify with my own confrontations with the grim political situation we have been facing for decades now. If Vishner lacked the inner resources to keep on with the struggle, we at least understand what wore him down. Fortunately for me, the only death I seek are those of the monsters who are responsible for the oppressive system we are forced to live under and not my own—as inevitable as it is.
Also opening on Friday at the Lincoln Plaza is another documentary film about a deeply political Jew but on the other end of the spectrum, in this instance a top leader of the anti-Semitic and fascist Jobbik party in Hungary who is “outed” by a disgruntled member of the party as the grandson of a Jewish woman who was in Auschwitz. Since Jewry is based on matrilineal descent, he is found “guilty” of violating one of his party’s chief principles—the need for racial purity.
As vice-president of Jobbik and founder of its Stormtrooper-like militia, the Hungarian Guard, Csanád Szegedi was a Holocaust denier. The Guard itself was modeled on Hungary’s Arrow Cross, a pro-Nazi party guilty of killing thousands of Jews during WWII. Always on the lookout to increase their numbers, Jobbik officials toyed with the idea of retaining Szegedi as a member since it would make them look more “tolerant” but the ranks of the party were so racist that Szegedi was instead drummed out.
Much of the film shows him in consultation with a Hasidic rabbi who persuades him to renounce his fascist beliefs and accept being a Jew. Showing a remarkable ability to adapt to changed circumstances, Szegedi goes whole hog and becomes an Orthodox Jew putting on tefellin each morning, a leather strap that you wind around your arm down to your hand and that is terminated by a tiny box with a fragment from the Torah. Just after I was bar mitzvahed back in 1958, my father told me that I had to go to morning services in the synagogue and wear tefellin, something I had never done before. I found it so alienating that I not only stopped going to morning services but bailed out on Judaism for the rest of my life.
Szegedi is paraded around to Jewish organizations and synagogues where he talks about his conversion to Judaism and how he came to renounce fascism. Some in the audience find that this was hard to believe. How does someone who has been a fascist since his teens go through such a rapid change of heart? During a reception after one of his talks, a man asks Szegedi’s rabbi how do we know he is not still a Nazi. The rabbi replies that he is a Jew and must be accepted as such. If he has Jewish blood, he is a member of the tribe. The man asks, “A Jewish Nazi?” The rabbi replies, “Yes, a Jewish Nazi but nevertheless a Jew”.
It reminds me why I left all that behind me nearly sixty years ago.