Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 13, 2017

The Standout Films of 2016

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

One of my picks

The Standout Films of 2016

As most of you probably know, Netflix no longer bothers with the offbeat films I tend to review, either as DVD or streaming. Since my reviews cover documentaries, foreign films and American indies that tend to be shown in art houses like New York’s Film Forum, I always regret that my readers living in cities or towns where there is nothing but Cineplexes are forced to choose between multimillion dollar movies about space aliens or Judd Apatow comedies.

The good news is that Amazon and ITunes have picked up the slack. Although I hate Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook just as much as the next person, I am glad that these types of art house films can now be seen in the same year they premiered for between $3.99 and $5.99 in these venues.

I tend to avoid identifying “best of” movies or directors after the fashion of the Academy Awards and only take part in New York Film Critics Online yearly awards meetings because members are expected to take part. This week’s Golden Globe awards ceremony pretty much sums up why the whole thing turns me off. Although I managed to sit through “La La Land” that walked off with the lion’s share of the awards, I found it far less interesting than the narrative films listed below that were diametrically opposed to Damien Chazelle’s sugar-coated retro-musical.

The twenty films listed below were among the best that I saw this year but I would be loath to sort them in order by preference rather than alphabetical order. Competition of this sort always turned me off whether it is for the Nobel Prize (good for Dylan to avoid the tuxedo and gown spectacle) or even for the Isaac Deutscher Prize. I wonder sometimes what Trotsky’s biographer would think of Marxists competing with each other for a £500 prize. Or Leon Trotsky for that matter, who is history’s greatest loser in some ways. I tend to identify with losers so I guess I’ll never fit into an American society that now has its President the host of “Apprentice” where “losers” are humiliated for failing to come up with some “winning” strategy for selling junk of the sort that Trump’s Empire is built on.

All of the films below can be seen on Amazon streaming and probably ITunes, although I haven’t checked that out. By and large, they are released to both platforms at the same time. That is why, interestingly enough, that Amazon is not part of the menu that comes with Apple TV, Tim Cook’s rip-off of the Roku box.

Needless to say, none of the documentaries likely made it to cities and towns that lacked an art house. Most of the narrative films are those that were also released in such theaters with a few exceptions made for two films that deserve being singled out: “Free State of Jones” that I consider a political and artistic breakthrough and “Snowden”, Oliver Stone’s best work in many years.

Finally, I include a brief excerpt from my review of the films with a link to the full review.

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December 30, 2016

Alone in Berlin; Sophie Scholl–the Final Days

Filed under: Counterpunch,Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

Alone, Resisting the Nazis

Seven years ago, when I heard that Hans Fallada’s novel “Alone in Berlin” had been translated into English, I immediately borrowed a copy from the Columbia library and began reading about the elderly couple who had secretly distributed anti-Nazi postcards in public places after their only son had been killed in combat during the German invasion of France in 1940. As the novel was 544 pages and had to compete with other reading tasks that had higher priority at the time, I was forced to put it aside after 60 or so pages.

After seeing a press screener for the film based on the novel that opens at the IFC Center in New York City on January 13th, I plan to take the book out again and give it my highest priority. That’s what a powerful film will do—inspire you to read the original, in this case a work based on a true story.

As the film closes, you will see a dedication to the couple that it was based on: Otto and Elise Hampel, a working-class couple (he was a factory worker; she cleaned apartments) that composed postcards calling for the overthrow of Hitler and left them in public places around Berlin. They were eventually caught, tried, and beheaded in Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison in April 1943. The title of Fallada’s novel was meant to convey the determination of the couple to act against Hitler, even if they were “alone” in doing so. As Fallada’s character Otto Quangel tells his wife Anna once they begin their fearless but desperate campaign, the death of their son—their only reason for living—has left them free to act in an unfree society. More existential than political, their choice was the only one that presented itself to Germans of conscience in 1940, when support for Hitler was at its height.

Made in France but using English actors, the film benefits from a first-rate screenplay co-written by director Vincent Perez and the husband and wife team Achim and Borries von Borries (Achim wrote the very fine screenplay for “Goodbye, Lenin!”, a film that had the nerve to find good things to say about Communist East Germany). Perez, of Spanish descent but who grew up in Spain, started off as an actor and given his being cast in the lead role of Ashe Corven in the dark thriller “The Crow: City of Angels”, you might wonder what drew him to this project. The press notes explain why:

For Perez, Fallada’s book had great, personal significance. On his father’s side, Perez’s family is from Spain. His grandfather fought for the Republicans against Franco’s Fascist regime during the Spanish Civil War and was executed for it while his family on his mother’s side is German and fled Nazi Germany. “My mother was born in 1939 but they, like many millions, joined the Exodus, walking for five years, then coming back after the war,” he explains. “When you have German blood it raises so many questions I needed to find the answers to, and through that book I found some amazing things. Reading Fallada forced me to build up a family history.”

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December 23, 2016

FDR and the Little Steel strike

Filed under: Counterpunch,New Deal,trade unions,two-party system — louisproyect @ 4:57 pm

FDR and the Little Steel Strike

Frank in particular has built a virtual career out of making such points. In April 2016, he gave an interview to In These Times, a citadel of such hopes, titled Thomas Frank on How Democrats Went From Being The ‘Party Of The People’ to the Party Of Rich Elites  that was based on his new book Listen, Liberal, which argues that the Democrats have gone from the party of the New Deal to a party that defends mass inequality. In the interview Frank chastises Obama for not carrying out a new New Deal despite having control of Congress. “He could have done anything he wanted with them, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt did in the ’30s. But he chose not to.”

For many on the left, particularly the DSA and its journalistic sounding boards such as Jacobin, In These Times and Dissent, FDR is an icon who embodies their hopes for what they call socialism, a Scandinavian style welfare state that ostensibly put the needs of the workers over the capitalist class. While likely admitting that this is not the socialism that Marx advocated, they certainly are right that a reincarnated New Deal would be better than Donald Trump or the corporatist presidency of Barack Obama. Whether that would be feasible under a capitalism that has been leaking jobs to automation and runaway shops for the past 40 years is debatable. Many on the left have argued that it was WWII that lifted the USA out of the Great Depression rather than any New Deal program.

But the gauzy, halcyon portrait of the New Deal does not stand up to the reality of the Little Steel Strike of 1937 that is the subject of Ahmed White’s magisterial The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America that I discussed in a previous CounterPunch article focused on identity politics and the racism endured by Black steelworkers. For those new to the topic, “little” refers to the group of companies that blocked the CIO from organizing its workers, as opposed to US Steel, the “big” company that had they had come to terms with in March 1937. Little Steel consisted of Republic Steel Corporation, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company and Inland Steel Company. Despite being called “little” in comparison to US Steel, each ranked among the hundred largest firms in America.

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December 16, 2016

All That Hollywood Jazz

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,music — louisproyect @ 3:59 pm

All That Hollywood Jazz

Let me start with my own connections to jazz that run as deep as those to Marxism and film, the other two passions in a long and largely quixotic lifetime. In the summer of 1961, just before I headed off to Bard College for my freshman year, I sat at a table in a pizza parlor in the Catskills enjoying a pie with my buddies when someone put a dime in the juke box to play a tune that left me thunderstruck: Miles Davis playing “Summertime”. That it was on a juke box in 1961 should tell you something about the difference between now and then.

After finding out more about Miles Davis, I began taking jazz records out of the well-stocked Bard music library and became conversant in the music of the day, which was arguably jazz in its classic period with hard bop and the West Coast style prevailing but with the avant-garde making its first appearances. In my freshman year, I heard the Paul Bley quartet in concert featuring saxophone player Pharaoh Sanders whose “sheets of sound” paved the way for the New Thing a few years later. As New Thing icon Albert Ayler put it, “Trane was the Father, Pharaoh was the Son, I am the Holy Ghost”.

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December 9, 2016

Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness

Filed under: Counterpunch,drugs,Latin America,television — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

Narcos and the Story of Colombia’s Unhappiness

Notwithstanding my advice to CounterPunch readers to junk Netflix, it is still worth the membership fee for many of the European television shows they reprise such as Wallander and for their own productions such as Narcos that I have been watching for the past several weeks. As you may know, this series now in Season Two is about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellín cartel that shipped billions of dollars worth of cocaine into the USA in the 1980s, and who is played brilliantly by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura.

Narcos has very few deep insights about the social and economic context for the rise of the drug industry so why would a Marxist film critic recommend it? The answer is that it is vastly entertaining and has enough background about the Colombian political context of the 1980s to motivate reading about the “war on drugs”. Like the “war on terror” and the Cold War that preceded it, it was one in a series of conflicts that were designed to mobilize Americans against a dreaded enemy after the fashion of the permanent warfare in Orwell’s 1984. When a population grows restive over declining economic prospects, what better way to suppress resistance than to redirect anger against an external threat? Indeed, you will find striking affinities between the hunt for Pablo Escobar and the one for Osama bin-Laden.

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December 2, 2016

Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

Filed under: Counterpunch,New Deal,racism,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-6-14-08-pm

She argues that affirmative action divides the working class

Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers

It goes without saying, that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans – all of that is ENORMOUSLY important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen. But it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.” That is not good enough. I have to know whether that Latina is going to stand up with the working class in this country and is going to take on big-money interests. And one of the struggles that we’re going to have…in the Democratic Party is it’s not good enough for me to say we have x number of African Americans over here, we have y number of Latinos, we have z number of women, we are a diverse party, a diverse nation. Not good enough!

As someone who had little use for Hillary Clinton or any Democrat for that matter, there was something a bit troubling about the “class trumping identity” plea since it reminded me of contradictions that have bedeviled the revolutionary movement from its inception. While the idea of uniting workers on the basis of their class interests and transcending ethnic, gender and other differences has enormous appeal at first blush, there are no easy ways to implement such an approach given the capitalist system’s innate tendency to create divisions in the working class in order to maintain its grip over the class as a whole.

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November 25, 2016

Don’t Think Twice

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

“Don’t Think Twice:” Art is Socialism, Life is Capitalism

When I posted my movie consumer’s guide for 2012, among the recommended films was “Sleepwalk With Me”, a quirky “indie” film based on the real life career of Mike Birbiglia, a self-deprecating, mildly amusing standup comedian who is a sleepwalker. Among the things we learn about him in this modest work is that unless he spends the night in a sleeping bag atop a bed, there is a chance that he might walk out a second story window as he once did.

After getting an invitation from a publicist to see his latest film “Don’t Think Twice”, I was eager to see it based on his earlier work. On one level, it is the same kind of breezy entertainment as “Sleepwalk With Me” but on a higher level it is a dark and deeply perceptive meditation on the phenomenon that William James described in a letter to H.G. Wells in 1906: “The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That — with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word success — is our national disease.”

Birbiglia stars as Miles, the founder and director of an improvisational comedy group called The Commune that performs in a theater named Improv for America. While there is nothing overtly political about the group’s performances, their improvisational techniques suggest a certain kind of value system familiar to those of us who lived through the 60s:

1/ Say Yes: Always accept your partner’s cue on stage to move the improvisation forward.

2/ It’s All About the Group: The individual is subordinate to the collective performance. Stardom is frowned upon.

3/ Don’t Think: This is about getting out of your head and acting on your impulses. It is also a reference to the film’s title, one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs that we hear in the closing credits of the film.

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November 18, 2016

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:20 pm

The Radical Internationalism of Stefan Zweig

 

Poorly served by Wes Anderson in the “The Grand Budapest Hotel” as a comic-opera figure in line with the director’s overripe pastel-colored sense of whimsy, Stefan Zweig now reappears in a thoughtful and dramatically compelling new film titled “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” that is Austria’s Official Academy Awards Entry for Best Foreign Language film. It will certainly garner my vote for the New York Film Critics Online awards meeting in early December.

Directed by Maria Schrader who co-wrote the script with Jan Schomburg, it is structured as a five-act drama with each act centered on a pivotal moment in Zweig’s life in exile, all but one taking place in Latin America where he still enjoyed a lofty reputation. For Zweig, the 30s were an ordeal both for being forced into exile from his beloved Vienna and for having to deal with a painful reality that literary fashion had passed him by.

Despite a certain Zweig revival that counts me and CounterPunch editor Jeff St. Clair as standard bearers, the critical establishment today would likely agree with earlier critics who found Zweig far inferior to Thomas Mann, the only German-language author to exceed him in sales. For example, Michael Hoffman treated him contemptuously in the pages of the London Review of Books:

Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing. He is the one whose books made films – 18 of them, and that’s the books, not the films (which come in at a stupefying 38). It makes sense: these are hypothetical and bloodless and stiltedly extreme monuments and monodramas for ‘teenagers of all ages’, as someone said, books composed for the bourgeoisie to give itself culture or a fright, which needed Hollywood or UFA to make them real, to give them expressions, faces, bodies, rooms and dialogue; and to drain some of the schematic grand guignol out of them.

As is so often the case, when a novelist writes for the public rather than the critical establishment, there will be such disapproval.

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November 11, 2016

Barry

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Obama — louisproyect @ 4:21 pm

Obama and the Common Affairs of the Whole Bourgeoisie

Around this time every year I begin to be deluged by DVD’s and Vimeo links geared to the sort of middle-brow films that Hollywood studios submit for consideration to members of New York Film Critics Online for our annual awards meeting in early December. If you’ve ever seen something by Merchant-Ivory, you’ll probably know the kind of movie I’m talking about.

When Netflix sent me an email with a link to “Barry”, a biopic about Obama’s time at Columbia University that premieres on Friday, December 16, 2016, my first reaction was to put in the trash just like one of those solicitations I used to get from Nigerian generals before SpamAssassin kicked in.

But since it was received so close to election day, I decided to watch the film and give it the spanking I am sure it would deserve as well as use it as a peg for some ruminations on the Obama presidency and the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Studio boss Sam Goldwyn once said “Just write me a comedy. Messages are for Western Union”. Although I don’t write films, I do like to review them and wouldn’t dream of not including a message while I am at it.

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November 4, 2016

The Descent of the Left Press: From IF Stone to The Nation

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,journalism — louisproyect @ 4:28 pm

The Descent of the Left Press: From IF Stone to The Nation

Just about fifty years ago when I was becoming politicized around the war in Vietnam, I began searching desperately for information and analysis that could explain why this senseless war was taking place. After taking out a subscription to I.F. Stone’s Weekly that an old friend had recommended, the scales began to fall from my eyes. Isidor Feinstein Stone, who died at the age of 81 in 1989, began publishing his newsweekly in 1953 during the depths of the cold war and witch-hunt. Actually, the cold war had recently become hot in Korea and Stone had the courage to write antiwar articles that conceivably could have landed him in prison.

A year later, I let my subscription to Stone’s weekly lapse since I had joined the Trotskyist movement, whose newspaper The Militant brooked no competition. When you joined a group like the Socialist Workers Party, you felt like you were a chorus member in “West Side Story”:

When you’re a Jet,
You’re a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin’ day.

You’re never alone,
You’re never disconnected!
You’re home with your own:
When company’s expected,
You’re well protected!

As it happened, I eventually felt so disconnected that I severed my ties in 1978 and began a two or three-year process getting my bearings. Part of that involved looking for leftist analysis that did not bear a sectarian stamp (I.F. Stone had stopped publishing in 1971). That led to a subscription to The Nation magazine that I found essential to my deprogramming. When a new issue arrived in my mailbox, the first page I always turned to contained Alexander Cockburn’s “Beat the Devil”. With the wars in Central America heating up, his blistering attacks on Ronald Reagan were as valuable to me as Stone’s on Vietnam.

As I became more deeply involved with Central America solidarity, it seemed to make sense to contribute to The Nation as a sustainer. Over a two or three-year period, I must have sent in over $500 but found my enthusiasm waning after Bill Clinton became president in 1993. Three years after his election, I cancelled my subscription having grown tired of how The Nation tailed after him, just as they are doing today with his wife and presumptive next president.

As iconic periodicals, the two are the subjects of documentaries I looked at this week. Directed by Fred Peabody, “All Governments Lie” is a tribute to Stone and to the men and women who follow in his footsteps (ostensibly) and that opens tomorrow at the Cinema Village in NY and the Laemmle Music Hall in LA. It is a survey of leftist electronic and print publications with which most CounterPunchreaders are probably familiar, ranging from Democracy Now to TomDispatch. For some reason, the one publication that is arguably more rooted in the I.F. Stone tradition than any other is omitted: CounterPunch.

Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation was made in 2015 and can now be seen on iTunes for a mere $4.99. Directed by Barbara Kopple, who has come a long way since her first film “Harlan County USA”, has essentially made the kind of film that big corporations commission as a public relations outreach—something like Bill Gates would have paid Ric Burns to make. If your idea of film entertainment is listening to Katrina vanden Heuvel, Eric Alterman, Rachel Maddow and Rick Perlstein telling you how great the magazine is for 93 minutes, it is just what you asked for. I suffered through it because I think that the left has to contend with The Nation baring its fangs on behalf of a Hillary Clinton vote. It helped me to understand how such a reactionary politician can be endorsed by a magazine that has such an exaggerated view of its progressive credentials by seeing its principal personalities preen in front of Kopple’s camera. To call them lacking in self-awareness would be the understatement of the year.

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