Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 8, 2017

Requiem for a running back

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,sports — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

In choosing the title “Requiem for a Running Back” for her profoundly moving documentary about football and CTE, director Rebecca Carpenter, the daughter of its subject Lew Carpenter, might have had the 1956 teleplay by Rod Serling in mind. Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” starred Jack Palance as the boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, who is at the end of his career and already showing signs of dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk syndrome”. In telling the story of her father, who was a halfback with the Green Bay Packers and other teams from 1953 to 1963, she conveys the same kind of dramatic intensity Serling brought to his teleplay. As is so often the case, the truth of a documentary reaches heights that no fiction can reach. The film, which opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, now has the inside track for my pick as best documentary of 2017.

Jack Palance played Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, someone for whom boxing was all he ever knew and terrified of trying something new—so much so that he signed up for a fight even though doctors warned that it might kill him. After Lew Carpenter’s football career came to an end, he started a new career as a coach under Vince Lombardi who he idolized. As he approached middle age, Carpenter began to exhibit the traits that all CTE sufferers display: loss of memory, depression, fits of anger, and intellectual deficits. But when he was coaching, they were kept under control. It was only when he could no longer coach that they escalated radically to the point of breaking up his marriage and creating a deep estrangement with his daughters, one of whom was Rebecca Carpenter destined to graduate from Harvard University and begin a career in television, film, and education. With a mission to discover who her father was through interviews with former players who knew him probably better than she did—his surrogate sons—and her obvious grasp of the art of the documentary, she has made a film for the ages.

Lew Carpenter was born in 1932 to dirt poor farmers from Hayti, Missouri but grew up in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas. He understood that unless he made a career in football, he’d end up chopping cotton like his parents who lived in a shack. After starring on the University of Arkansas team, he began his career with the Detroit Lions and then moved on to the Green Bay Packers. Despite the director’s obvious aim in putting football out of business, she has made a point of communicating what makes the game so fulfilling for those who play it, including Green Bay Packer wide receiver James Lofton who was coached by Lew Carpenter. Lofton makes clear that even though both Lombardi and Carpenter could be as mean and even as degrading as a drill instructor, he and his teammates looked at them worshipfully because they helped them excel. He describes professional football as a place where ethnicity and class make little difference because the sport is only interested in what you can bring to the game. In fact, the same thing can be said about the military.

Carpenter also interviews a number of medical researchers who testify as to the indifference of the owners about the health of the men who toil for them. When Houston Texans owner Robert McNair described the protests of men like Colin Kaepernick as “inmates running the prison”, he blurted out what has been true for a very long time. In one eye-opening interview with attorney Ed Garvey, who represented the players in a number of confrontations much sharper than that going no now, we learn that they insisted on using AstroTurf even though it risked injury to the brain. At one point, an owner growing tired of Garvey’s advocacy warned him that for only a $100 he can find someone to stuff his corpse into a trunk.

In keeping with the most recent research on CTE, Carpenter reveals that some experts do not regard concussion as its cause. It happens that although Lew Carpenter endured the usual number of collisions on the field over a 10-year career, he had never suffered from repeated concussions. It is entirely possible that he was a victim of “brain slosh”, a term used by some medical researchers to describe the effect of having a brain floating normally in cerebrospinal fluid and not connected to the skull being hurled against it when a player is tackled. No helmet can prevent this. Furthermore, it is also possible that it is only exposure to “minor” hits during a career in football can be the culprit. That is why some analysts are predicting the demise of the game.

In one of the more jaw-dropping interviews in Carpenter’s film, we hear Mike Ditka state that if he had a son, he would not allow him to play football—the very same Mike Ditka who was once described by Mike Duerson as a coach who never “gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching.” Although it is understandable why Carpenter would find Ditka’s renunciation of football worth filming, it must be said that the grizzled icon of brutality on the football field has not seen fit to defend Colin Kaepernick’s protest as Dave Zirin pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Ditka is the guy who berated his own Bears players for not crossing a picket line when the NFLPA was on strike in 1987. He’s the guy today who—after a lifetime of supporting right-wing candidates—shills for another dubious product: Donald Trump.

And now, true to form, he’s coming out against Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. On Friday, he said on the Shan & RJ radio show, “I think it’s a problem. Anybody who disrespects this country and the flag. If they don’t like the country they don’t like our flag, get the hell out. My choice is, I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on,” Ditka said. “I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now, if they don’t want to look for them then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work. If you don’t work, that’s a different problem.”

Eventually, professional football players will connect the dots between the racism of a Robert McNair and the continuing efforts of the owners to shortchange the former players who are in desperate need of support as they wrestle with the onset of early dementia and the other demons CTE submits them to.

The Disaster Artist, what a disaster

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:53 am

I’m doing something I haven’t done in years—write about a film I walked out on.

I had my doubts about “The Disaster Artist”, a film that was shown at the Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) this year since it was produced and directed by the insufferable James Franco who was also the film’s costar. The film is based on a true story—the making of “The Room”, which some say is the worst film ever. I thought that perhaps it might have the affectionate touch of “Ed Wood”, the vehicle for Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Hollywood’s worst director especially since New York Magazine’s Jada Yuan said, “it may soon join Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in the ranks of great movies about terrible movies.”

Things started off inauspiciously when I showed up at the Tribeca Screening room 10 minutes before the film started and was asked by the guy at the door to id myself since my name wasn’t on the list. Proper id in this instance meant providing the email id or the name of the publicist who sent me an invitation to the screening that I rsvp’d to. Since I don’t own (and won’t own) a smartphone, I told him I had no idea who it was but he could check my name on Rotten Tomatoes and see that there are 1300 of my film reviews. Showing a rather low level of comprehension, he asked me once again for the email or name of the publicist who contacted me. “Look”, I said, “do you think that I would come down to the Tribeca Screening Room in a driving rain in order to jeopardize Robert De Niro’s security? What is the deal with De Niro and security, I began to rant. Five years ago I showed up at a Tribeca Film Festival screening on the wrong day to see a documentary about sea life ecology and was blocked from taking a seat by a security guard. Even when the publicist vouched for me, the security guard not only insisted I leave but put his hand on a pistol in his holster to show that he meant business—a Travis Bickle telling me to get lost. I guess they couldn’t take a chance on a secret al-Qaeda operative bombing their screening room.

I walked out of the film after 20 minutes. Instead of seeing anything remotely as charming as Timothy Burton’s “Ed Wood”, I was exposed to what would have been a 103-minute version of an SNL sketch like “Wild and Crazy Guys” or “The Roxy Guys”. These are the 5 minute patented comedy routines in which two supremely stupid but self-confident stooges embarrass themselves to get laughs out of a studio audience and the millions of TV fans who enjoy satire based on punching down. Despite the shots that Chevy Chase took at Franco or that Alec Baldwin takes at Trump, most of SNL consists of laughing at rather than with ordinary people living in the USA. Not only is it elitist, it is dull.

As tedious as those SNL sketches were, they were at least relieved by some funny moments especially with talents like Dan Ackroyd and Steve Martin. What you get with “The Disaster Artist” is the mockery of losers but without the yucks. A deadly combination.

James Franco plays Tommy Wiseau, who was an aspiring actor that met Greg Sestero in an acting class in San Francisco in the late 80s. He is played by Franco’s brother Dave. After meeting each other, the two hooked up and decided to make a movie of their own since nobody auditioning them in Hollywood thought they were any good. Wiseau, in particular, was horrible. The running gag in “The Disaster Artist” is Wiseau reading lines in a thick accent like “the wild and crazy guys”. When the casting director tells him to drop the accent, he replies “what accent?” As it happens, Wiseau was a Polish-American and had an accent. Somehow, I don’t find jokes about having an accent that amusing in 2017.

Everything in “The Disaster Artist” is totally exaggerated. I am willing to believe that Wiseau and Sestero had no idea how limited their abilities were but Franco is determined to make them look even more stupid than the characters in those SNL sketches and even coming close to the performances of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in “Dumb and Dumber”.

For example, when Wiseau is casting for “The Room”, he has women being asked to act as if they were eating a melting ice cream cone while they are a cowboy on horseback. We are supposed to laugh at her look like she is performing oral sex. It is hard to tell whether Franco wanted to dumb down this scene for a teen audience or whether he has the sensibility of a 16-year-old himself. I simply don’t care to find out.

The screenplay for “The Disaster Artist” was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the team responsible for the 2009 “Pink Panther 2” that got a 12% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. One critic wrote, “I have seen taxidermy livelier than this moribund mess which further sullies the reputation of everyone associated with this unwelcome sequel.” I only wish that “The Disaster Artist” was half as good.

The irony is that in spoofing what some critics regard as the worst movie ever made, James Franco has made the worst film of 2017.

November 7, 2017

Review: Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality”

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

(Posted with the permission of the journal Socialism and Democracy, where it appeared in the April, 2017 edition.)

The 12 articles in this book address a topic made acute by the Great Recession of 2008. From Thomas Piketty’s Capital to Bernie Sanders’ campaign speeches, the issue has been examined from many different angles but not with the sharp Marxist focus of an economist who understands what inequality means on both a theoretical and a personal level, having grown up in a hardscrabble company town in Pennsylvania.

Written in language that ordinary workers could understand, each chapter is filled with data illustrating the ever-widening gulf between the 1% and the rest of us. Chapter two, which has the same title as the book, documents the great divide between the plutocracy and the average American in jaw-dropping detail. Using the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality with 0 being a state of perfect equality and 1 tantamount to total inequality, Yates observes that the numbers have been moving steadily toward 1 for the past four decades. In fact, the Gini coefficient of the Roman Empire not long after the death of Jesus was more equal than the US today. With Jesus preaching that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” one can understand why opposition to the status quo has reached a religious fervor today. As a socialist, Michael Yates tends to look askance, however, at Great Men who would be saviors of the poor and the working class. In the final analysis, it is up to those who sell their labor power to transform society and make wage slavery a thing of the past.

Globally, the numbers are damning. About 40 percent of the world’s population lives on $2 per day or less. The richest 9 percent gets about one-half of the world’s income while the bottom half gets 7 percent. The wealthiest 80 individuals own as much as the poorest half, some 3.5 billion people. While many are on the edge of starvation, a man with a billion dollars in the bank could spend $10,000 per day and would not exhaust his funds until 274 years had passed.

Beyond the book’s value as a source of powerful arguments based on hard data, it is like everything else that Yates has written – an eminently readable work that can even be described as entertaining in the fashion of a Jonathan Swift essay. Shunning the pedantry of many economists, including those on the left, and drawing upon a lifetime of experience dealing with the boss whether in a coal company town or in academia, Yates has some sharp observations rendered in anecdotal fashion.

Chief among them is an incident that occurred on a nature hike near Santa Fe, about 7000 feet above sea level. Yates and his wife ran into another group of hikers that included an older man who struck up a conversation about what brought Yates to Santa Fe. He explained that he was collecting material for a travel book written from the viewpoint of an economist – the superlative Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue. When asked what he had observed to that point, Yates replied: environmental degradation, suburban sprawl and growing inequality. This did not sit well with his interlocutor who came across like Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. For him, everything was getting better. People were living longer and getting healthier. As a sign of what capitalism could bestow, “Almost everyone in the country lives within an hour of a Wal-Mart Supercenter.” Eventually, the Panglossian fellow was revealed to be an economist, just like Michael, but with a difference. As a conventional member of the Dismal Science profession, he was used to covering up for the ruling class through the application of “neoclassical” theory.

While the statistics in The Great Inequality will leave you feeling angry and ready to make a revolution (if you hadn’t reached such a state long ago), the discussion of the daily assaults on the spirit and body for those who sell their labor power will push you over the edge for sure. Chapter five, aptly titled “Work is Hell,” examines factory and office existence today, suggesting that even if the Gini coefficient was 0 – in other words, pure equality – there would still be compelling reasons to abolish a system based on the private ownership of the means of production.

I was struck by the mention of a certain class of workers who might not be thought of ordinarily in terms of Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, namely the crews of cruise ships that take people down to the Caribbean islands. They tend to be people of color from poor countries that do the most backbreaking work. If they are injured on the job, they must pay their own way back to their homeland even if better care is available in the US. It is quite a comment on the values of Nation Magazine that it has used Holland America for its fundraising cruises with the leftist glitterati. Holland pays its largely Filipino and Indonesian crew $300 per month for a 10- to 13-hour workday, seven days a week. In addition to screwing its workers, their ships constitute an ongoing threat to the environment. In just one violation, Holland dumped 20,000 gallons of raw sewage into the waters off Juneau, Alaska.

While it is only hinted at in The Great Inequality, there are political imperatives that flow inexorably from the economic miseries it describes. At the very top of a page titled Issues, you can see a link to the section “Income and Wealth Inequality” that states: “The real median income of male workers is $783 less than it was 42 years ago; while the real median income of female workers is over $1,300 less than it was in 2007.” But in the very next sentence, you discover the Achilles Heel of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign: “That is unacceptable and that has got to change.”

But how has that got to change?

By endorsing Hillary Clinton, who gives speeches to Goldman-Sachs for $225,000 a pop, Sanders was talking out of both sides of his mouth. This was obvious even to those on the left who found his campaign inspirational. In an article for New Politics titled “True Confession: I’ve Lost that Bernie Feeling,” Michael Hirsch lamented that Sanders let the plutocrat off the hook.

Bernie stoked a fire under millions of Americans but couldn’t muster campaign 2.0 beyond a fund-raising bonanza (no small thing) and promises of a confection of free stuff courtesy of the state, yet with too little attention to Hillary’s and Bill Clinton’s role as abettors of the very corporate oligarchy he so despises and has otherwise sketched so well.

After a yeoman job of revealing the economic divide in the US, Yates has begun to connect the dots between politics and economics, an obligation that faces everybody who considers himself/herself a socialist. In an April 30, 2016 article for Truthout titled “Let’s Get Serious About Inequality and Socialism,” Yates makes the case for socialism – not the Swedish model that no longer exists but the classless society envisioned by Karl Marx that remains just as necessary for humanity and nature as it was in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the reality is that many of Sanders’ leftist supporters have modest aims, believing that the most we can hope for is to take the first small steps to be like Denmark or Sweden. But those who believe that only gradual, piecemeal changes can occur are, in my view, embracing a dead-end strategy for achieving socialism. There are those of us who believe that, if we are radically prepared for it, sudden, revolutionary change could usher in the dream of a classless society – one that is egalitarian, radically democratic, with a surfeit of leisure, and with collectively provided goods and services. For us there is but one choice. Hold fast to our vision, put our shoulders to the wheel, and struggle on.

Reviews of other books by Michael Yates:

Naming the System

In and Out of the Working Class

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back

November 4, 2017

The Kremlin/social media controversy

Filed under: Russia — louisproyect @ 10:12 pm

Frankly, I have stayed away from an articles or TV news segments dealing with the Russia/social media controversy since it seems so pointless. Russian trolls and bots are here to stay, even as the NY Times admits in video titled “How Russian Bots and Trolls Invade Our Lives — and Elections”. They do recommend, however, warning about such interference in our wonderful open society by looking for clues that would reveal its Russian origins:

  1. If the timestamp on the post is during working hours in St. Petersburg, that’s a red flag. (What if it is someone with insomnia?)
  2. Posting dozens of items a day. (That would account for 90 percent of the people on Twitter, I’m afraid.)
  3. Look for alphanumeric scrambles in a user id. (Again, that sounds like a lot of the Twitter accounts I’ve run into.)
  4. Google the profile picture. (If it is an attractive female, it is likely a photo of a German supermodel according to Ben Nimmo, an expert on these matters apparently.)
  5. Look at the language. If there are grammar mistakes, it might be a Rooskie. (The Times supplies an example: “So, let me get this right” As it happens, this was deemed grammatically correct by Grammarly so maybe they are Russian agents themselves?)

What I still don’t get is the purpose of this intervention. If it is to win a new Cold War, as Clint Watts, an ex-FBI agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, it is difficult to understand why the Kremlin paid for Facebook ads that took both right and left positions. The Washington Post, which has been fixated on Russian meddling with MSNBC running a close second, tried to explain:

The batch of more than 3,000 Russian-bought ads that Facebook is preparing to turn over to Congress shows a deep understanding of social divides in American society, with some ads promoting African American rights groups, including Black Lives Matter, and others suggesting that these same groups pose a rising political threat, say people familiar with the covert influence campaign.

“Is it a goal of the Kremlin to encourage discord in American society? The answer to that is yes,” said Michael A. McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who is now a director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “More generally, Putin has an idea that our society is imperfect, that our democracy is not better than his, so to see us in conflict on big social issues is in the Kremlin’s interests.”

I try to imagine the high-level strategy meeting that took place between Putin and the top guys in the Foreign Intelligence Service:

Putin: So, gentlemen, why exactly are we giving equal time to fake BLM and white supremacy ads?

Colonel Badenoff: We believe this is the best way to win the new Cold War. After the USA gets bogged down in bitter divisions, the BRICS will become the new hegemon.

Putin: Okay, just make sure to make it sound real. No alphanumeric scrambling or German supermodels.

If Russia was trying to make an impact on American politics, the $100,000 it spent would have the effect of a mosquito bite on an elephant. Just compare that to the budget of the Trump and Clinton campaigns: $81 million. Not only that, Russian ads taking both sides of a divisive issue would be like knocking down an open door. Most people get their ideas from outlets like AM talk radio for the right and CNN or MSNBC for the liberal left. Once they have made up their mind about immigration or cop killers, it is doubtful that looking at a Facebook ad will intensify their feelings.

I have a somewhat different take on the question of Russian interference than others on the left, especially from those who have defended the Kremlin’s wars in Syria and Ukraine. While I don’t particularly care about some stupid Facebook ad, I do resent the role played by Russian media in covering up for Russian war crimes. In the past six years, there have been countless posts on Twitter and Facebook defending Russian intervention. Unlike trolls and bots, the authors of such material do not use German supermodels as profile photos. RT.com has made it possible for people like John Pilger, Tariq Ali, Max Blumenthal, Seymour Hersh, Robert Parry, Vanessa Beeley and Robert Parry to defend the dictatorship’s scorched-earth tactics.

There is no question that the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC are lying, warmongering, neoliberal sacks of shit but it does not help the left to go on RT.com to back Putin. Of course, when you are in it for the money like Max Blumenthal, there are incentives to twist the truth into a knot.

Finally, on the question of “social media”. I regard Twitter as inimical to the exchange of ideas and an important element in the dumbing down of American society—unless you use it for nothing except linking to an article posted somewhere else. Given its 140 character limit, it is next to useless and can lead to disastrous effects on leftwing professors who use it to ventilate. When they get in trouble at their university for some rant about Donald Trump or whatever, they always end up trying to explain what they really meant. Maybe they should have been blogging in the first place like Juan Cole or Michael Roberts if the intention was to raise the level of consciousness.

Facebook is a bit better but not by much. By and large, people write things off the top of their head and without the care you see on a mailing list or the comments section of a blog. The other day, someone challenged my interpretation of fascist economics by referring to Pinochet’s failure to privatize the copper mines. I replied that this was a very interesting point and invited him to expand on it as a guest post on my blog. He declined my invitation.

I have 2,249 friends on FB and 911 followers on Twitter while following 273. Of all these 3,000 souls (taking overlap into account), I probably know 50 or so as genuine friends, even if the friendship is based only on email exchanges. What exactly is “social” about all this? I have no idea.

Back in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg began working on the software that would become Facebook. It was intended for use by college students and hardly in line with what it eventually became:

We had books called Face Books, which included the names and pictures of everyone who lived in the student dorms. At first, he built a site and placed two pictures, or pictures of two males and two females. Visitors to the site had to choose who was “hotter” and according to the votes there would be a ranking.

Somewhere along the line, it became practically universal and a tool of activists such as during the Arab Spring. I value it today for connecting people and have found it essential for sharing ideas and information about Syria. But is that “social”?

Back in the 60s, there was no Internet. People got together in meetings and discussed strategy for the antiwar movement, the woman’s movement, etc. We are in an odd place today. Very little takes place face-to-face but people are checking their iPhones or laptops all day long for new stuff on FB, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. I sometimes go for weeks without getting a phone call and personal interaction is even less frequent. As social media explodes, society becomes ever more atomized and incapable of mobilizing against the threats to our survival.

Is it possible that this was the original intention? Just asking…

November 3, 2017

Five Absorbing Documentaries From Bullfrog Films

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 6:30 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 3, 2017

Unless you live in a major city like New York with its arthouse movie theaters, most of the documentaries I review will be beyond your reach. Furthermore, even if you live in such a city, you might be tempted to see something like “Wonder Woman” rather than a documentary about climate change on Saturday night when you are looking for entertainment or even a escape from thinking about impending catastrophes. This is a loss to you as well as the people who make such films since they often have to practically mortgage their homes to finance the production. Perhaps I am speaking mostly for myself, but I find most documentaries ten times more engaging than the standard Cineplex fare for the simple reason that the people featured in such films are just like most CounterPunch readers—trying to survive in an increasingly desperate world.

Fortunately for you and the courageous men and women that make such films, there are a small number of distribution companies that make them available as DVD’s or VOD after their initial theatrical or festival run. It is safe to say that they—like CounterPunch—are not in it for the money. One of the pioneering companies is called Bullfrog Films that operates out of Oley, Pennsylvania and that got its name from a nearby pond that spawned a noisy chorus of bullfrogs. The Bullfrog founders confess that when they came up with the name 30 years ago, they did not foresee that even frogs would be threatened by environmental contaminants. For both personal and societal reasons, the company is dedicated to distributing films about ecology, energy, indigenous peoples and the like. In this review, I will be covering five documentaries that have just become part of their catalog.

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Trailers for films covered in this review:

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November 1, 2017

A Gray State

Filed under: conspiracism,Film — louisproyect @ 9:59 pm

Directed by Erik Nelson, “A Gray State” is a documentary about a man whose dark soul clearly piqued the interest of Werner Herzog, the film’s executive producer. Nelson produced Herzog’s “Grizzly Man”, another documentary about psychic disintegration, so the two obviously share the same sensibility. If you are a fan of Herzog’s work, this could not be a higher recommendation for “A Gray State” that opens on Nov. 3rd in NY (Cinema Village) and Nov. 24th in LA (Laemmle’s Music Hall) followed by a national release.

Its title is derived from that of the stillborn fictional film by David Crowley who killed his wife, their 5-year old daughter and then himself in January 2015—leaving behind words scrawled in his wife’s blood on the living room wall: “Allahu akbar”. His inability to finish the film, or even get a sizable chunk of it done, was probably one of the main factors leading to the tragedy. Using a film journal that Crowley left behind as a kind of suicide note, Nelson paints a picture of someone breaking down psychologically like Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance in “The Shining”. In contrast to Stanley Kubrick’s classic, “The Gray State” is far more chilling because it is about real people. Indeed, David Crowley is someone immediately recognizable to those following the rise of the alt-right. In the crowd-funding that led to the film’s trailer that went viral on YouTube, its success was virtually guaranteed since Alex Jones was one of its most ardent supporters.

David Crowley’s “Gray State” was a mash-up of conspiracist memes about globalism, the Deep State, out-of-control cops, and government snooping culminating in a civil war between men inspired by Rand Paul’s ideas on one side and the American military with FEMA leading the charge on the other. The trailer for the film evokes “Red Dawn”, except that the bad guys speak American rather than Russian.

Born in 1986, Crowley was one of those men who joined the military shortly after 2001 as part of the war on terror. Tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan turned out to be a disillusioning experience. In Afghanistan, he told a commanding officer that he could not feel responsible for another’s soldier’s life and was reassigned to sorting mail.

On leave from the military in Texas, he met a woman named Komel at a Waco bar and the two felt an immediate attraction to each other. Despite being the daughter of a well-to-do Pakistani immigrant, Komel was totally assimilated into American culture and open to the kind of adventurous, edgy existence that the free-thinking David Crowley sought.

After his discharge, she followed him up to Minnesota, where he enrolled in the Digital Video and Media program at the Minnesota School of Business, a for-profit school like so many that exploited veterans anxious to find a career outside of the military. After found guilty of ripping off students with illegal 18 percent tuition loans, the school was closed down in 2016.

While the film does not dwell on this, I suspect that a large part of Crowley’s difficulty in finishing the film was a lack of screenwriting skills. It is difficult enough to write a good screenplay, even if you have years of experience behind you. Just go see a recent Woody Allen movie and you’ll see what I mean. Judging from the trailer of “Gray State”, it looks like Crowley learned how to pull together some snazzy action scenes but probably had no idea about how to tell a story or create characters who could interact meaningfully with each other.

He certainly couldn’t have created such characters based on his own marriage since it was a case study in a failure to communicate. Just a month after meeting Crowley in the Waco bar, Komel accepted his marriage proposal. In the old days, they used to call that falling in love with a uniform. My mom made that mistake when she met my dad in Kansas City during WWII after he began attending Friday night kosher dinners at her mom’s house.

The marriage started off on a high note when Crowley became the charismatic figure addressing fellow libertarians at crowd-sourcing gatherings for his film. Articulate, muscular and handsome, he soon had them eating out of his hand. Unfortunately for him, the grueling task of writing a screenplay turned out to be a bridge too far. The final half of the film depicts him breaking down over an insurmountable task and, even worse, taking his frustrations out on his wife who had no idea that his disintegration would lead to a bloodbath. One can almost imagine her happening upon the screenplay he was working on, which only consisted of the words “All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy” repeated ten thousand times.

In looking over the press notes for the film just now, I was pleasantly surprised to see that director Erik Nelson had “The Shining” in mind when he was asked about the beginnings of “A Gray State”:

I became aware of the story of David Crowley as a random news item. When I read a description of who he was and what he was doing, out of curiosity, I went to his Gray State website and saw his trailer, and, more importantly, a lot of the promotional materials he had shot of the making of this film. Concurrently, I was aware that his death was immediately being characterized by some conspiracists as being a SEAL Team 6 helicopter-ninja-hit, and I’ve always had a fascination with that kind of subculture in America.  When I produced Grizzly Man, I went out after subject Timothy Treadwell’s material, brought it back and put it together, and negotiated the rights for it, and was prepared to direct the film myself. I brought the idea of a narrative feature to Werner Herzog and he said, “That’s fine, but what about the documentary you are doing? Who’s doing that?” And I said, “I am.” And Werner said, “Well, what would you think about me directing the documentary?” I had the idea that I could direct a good documentary, or I could have the chance to produce a great one, and I just knew that Werner, combining his prowess, his myth and his persona with the material could result in something special. But I always felt I sort of had missed the opportunity to do the film myself, so I was looking for a story similarly striking to that, and when you discover it, you know it. This story felt, to me, like it could have the appeal of a psychological horror narrative like The Shining or Fatal Attraction. Within four days of the news breaking, I started reaching out through intermediaries to Crowley’s family, and there was a year hiatus while the police report was being prepared.

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Ben Norton and Yassin al-Haj Saleh

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 4:56 pm

I sometimes wonder if people hate Ben Norton for his Assadist propaganda or more for his careerist “Road to Damascus” conversion that turned him into the kind of ideologue he once denounced. After taking a job with Salon in 2015, he dumped previously held positions opposing Assad and soon became one of his most fervent supporters in partnership with Max Blumenthal who went through the same kind of evolution.

To cover his tracks, he systematically deleted all traces of the old Ben Norton. However, like all criminals, he left a clue behind:

That’s dated November 29, 2015 and clearly endorses the analysis of Yassin al-Haj Saleh.

But this year he sings a different tune:

Of course, Twitter is the perfect medium for slandering people. Saleh is an exceedingly obscure figure in the Western media despite Norton’s attempt to turn him into something like Brandeis professor Kanan Makiya who was frequently cited as an Iraqi supporting regime change in 2002.

As for Erdogan’s “leftist paradise”, who knows what Norton is trying to say here. The implication is that Saleh is some kind of supporter of the AKP. Naturally, when you write a bunch of bullshit in 140 characters, you can always claim that people misread what you wrote. Just ask George Cicariello-Maher or Donald Trump.

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