Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 19, 2017

Documenting Discontent: Talking With Jamsheed Akrami About Iranian Cinema

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 3:16 pm

Three years ago Jeff St. Clair affixed the title “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” to my review of the Iranian director’s 1999 masterpiece “The Wind Will Carry Us”. I, of course, would not only answer yes to his rhetorical question but would go one step further and argue that Iranian filmmakers collectively have been making the greatest films for the past 30 years at least. They are the equivalent of the French nouvelle vague of the 1950s and early 60s but paradoxically produce great films under the heavy constraints of a clerical state that not only puts obstacles in their path but drives some of the elite figures into exile or in the case of Jafar Panahi kept under house arrest.

Recently I was fortunate enough to view four documentaries about Iranian film by Jamsheed Akrami, a Professor in the Communications Department of William Paterson University in New Jersey, that were made between 2000 and 2013 and are now available from Arab Film Distribution, which markets DVDs to institutional customers such as university libraries and film departments.

The price is too steep for the average CounterPunch readers but I strongly urge film professors, Mideast studies faculty members and any other academics concerned about the problems of artists in an authoritarian society to set aside money for the films when they are preparing their budget for the next fiscal year. Akrami, who has a supreme mastery of Iranian politics and cinema, is an accomplished interviewer who adroitly blends the words of these stellar filmmakers with excerpts from their work that are spellbinding.

Although I have reviewed well over twenty films by Iranian directors since the early 2000s, including nearly every film Abbas Kiarostami has made, and have read scholarly treatments on Iranian film, I was surprised by how little I knew while watching Akrami’s documentaries. Even if you have never seen an Iranian film, the documentaries will still engage you intellectually and politically since they relate to the nagging problem of artistic freedom globally.

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May 12, 2017

Andrzej Wajda, Art and the Struggle for Freedom

Filed under: art,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH
May 12, 2017

“Afterimage” opened theatrically in NYC at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on May 19th, to be followed at the Laemmle Theaters in LA a week later. Made in 2016 by Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his ninetieth year and just before his death, it incorporates the dominant theme in a filmmaking career going back to 1955—namely the Polish national struggle that has been defined by its relationship to Russia for hundreds of years.

“Afterimage” is based on historical events surrounding the Stalinist persecution of Władysław Strzemiński, an abstract artist who paid dearly for speaking out against Socialist Realism in 1950, just as the Polish United Workers’ Party was consolidating its grip on the nation. Strzemiński, who lost an arm and a leg as an officer in WWI, never let that disability stand in the way. In 1918, he attended classes at the First Free State Workshops (SVOMAS) in Moscow, where he first made contact with Casimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. He became Poland’s most passionate advocate of Russian futurism and returned to his country in full support of the Russian Revolution and the bold artistic experimentation of the Communist nation’s heroic early years.

In 1945 he co-founded the State Higher School of the Visual Arts (SHSVA) in Lodz, where he lectured on art theory and history. The school created a Neo-Visual Room that displayed a collection of his work that was based on the theory of Unism that was a synthesis of 20th century modernist trends, including Constructivism. This was a movement initiated by Vladimir Tatlin in 1913 for which art and revolution were mutually reinforcing. The Constructivists sought to make art accessible to the public and frequently created works for public festivals and street designs in the 1920s. For Strzemiński, this aspect of Constructivism was less attractive—no doubt a function of the USSR having turned into a Stalinist nightmare for workers and artists alike.

Unism stressed the complete unity of paintings based on internal laws emerging from visual affinities regardless of their origins. The title of the film originates from the importance of afterimages in this theory. As Strzemiński tells his students in the early moments of the film, they are what is left in the imagination after you close your eyes. Indeed, one of his experiments was to record optical impressions caused by looking at the sun such as the 1948 painting “Sun’s Aftersight. Woman at the window”.

The film begins brilliantly with Strzemiński customarily sitting on the floor of his apartment on the upper floor of a drab building in Lodz while he works on his latest canvas. All of a sudden a massive red sheet as tall is the building is draped across the edifice and covers his windows, robbing him of the necessary sunlight the “afterimages” artist relies on. He rises himself clumsily upon his one good leg, takes up his crutches and opens the windows. Without bothering to see what the red fabric was all about, he takes a kitchen knife and cuts large holes in order to continue with his work. Seconds later, we see what he took a knife to—a monumental portrait of Stalin. That was just the beginning of his clash with the New Order.

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May 5, 2017

Last Men in Aleppo

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 1:56 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MAY 5, 2017

Winner of the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, “Last Men in Aleppo” opened yesterday for a week’s run at the Metrograph in New York. It will open on May 18 at Laemmle’s in Los Angeles, with a nationwide rollout and VOD to follow. Nominally covering the same terrain as the 41 minute “The White Helmets” that was voted the best short documentary by the Academy Awards, this is a much darker film reflecting the desperation of people facing the imminent collapse of a rebel-controlled area that might have contained 250,000 people. The film was directed by Firas Fiyyad who was in attendance for the Q&A at the Metrograph last night. He was jailed twice and tortured during the early days of the Syrian revolt. The guards told him: “You’ll have double the amount of torture because you’re a filmmaker.”

Fiyyad filmed in East Aleppo throughout 2015 and 2016 often facing the same risks as the White Helmets who were singled out for attack, just like the local hospitals. If the goal was total war to stamp out terrorism, why not snuff out those responsible for saving lives? If a three-year old might grow up to join al-Qaeda, isn’t it better to take preemptive action?

The film follows two White Helmets on their daily rounds. Khalid is a clean-shaven, chain-smoking bear of man with two young daughters he dotes on. Apparently he is one of the infidels that managed to avoid the jihadists in East Aleppo described by Charles Glass in a New York Review of Books blog: “Yet many Aleppines say that government control relieves them of the jihadists’ obsession with requiring men to grow beards and women to cover themselves, banning cigarettes, forcing them to pray, and other intrusions into their private lives.” Like many others who view Assad as a lesser evil to the “jihadists”, the former Newsweek journalist can be relied upon to bend the truth in the interests of the war on terror.

Khalid’s partner is the twenty-something Mahmoud, who has lied to his parents about his whereabouts. He reassured them that he is in Turkey but has remained in East Aleppo because he sees saving lives as his duty. Repeatedly, we see Khalid and Mahmoud digging people—both living and dead—out of rubble. Modest to a fault, Mahmoud does not want to come across as a hero. When he visits one of the people he saved, he sums up his feelings: “I didn’t like that, I’m not going to visit anyone again because I feel like this is showing off, showing these people that I saved their lives and I’m not like that.”

When they are not at work, they chat about their situation with a mixture of sardonic humor and gloomy resignation to their fate. Trying to figure out why they stay, Khalid volunteers this assessment: it is better to live under siege and face death than in a refugee camp. This does not stop him from imploring an unnamed man to help smuggle him and his family into Turkey. Ultimately, Fiyyad’s film is a portrait of men living on the edge rather than a paean to the Syrian revolution that many Syrians, including Khalid, consider a lost cause.

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April 28, 2017

Jeffery Webber and the Pink Tide

Filed under: Counterpunch,Latin America — louisproyect @ 12:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH APRIL 28, 2017

Left Power in an Age of Capitalist Decay

On February 28th I got email from a Pluto Press representative about a new book by Jeffery Webber titled The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same: The Politics and Economics of the New Latin American Left that seemed very timely. Pluto did not quite come out and say it but the book appeared to be an obituary on the Pink Tide.

Since I remembered the sharp exchanges between Webber and Australian Socialist Alliance member and Evo Morales supporter Federico Fuentes in the pages of the British SWP’s theoretical magazine, I was curious to see what Webber had to say. As a self-described Marxist critic of the Bolivarian revolution and left-leaning governments in Brazil, Chile and Argentina, Webber would seem to be vindicated by recent events. Argentina and Brazil had new rightwing governments. Bolivian voters had rejected a referendum that would have permitted Morales to run for a fourth term and Lenin Moreno, Rafael Correa’s successor, was elected in Ecuador by the narrowest of margins. Finally, Venezuela was coming apart at the seams. Since I had written reviews of three books by Hugo Chavez’s one-time economic adviser Michael Lebowitz and a biography of Chavez by Richard Gott, it was the right time to revisit the 21st century socialism question.

Jeffery Webber

Although Webber’s book purports to be unified thematically, it was not written from scratch. Instead, it is mostly a patchwork of  articles that have been published in JSTOR type journals such as The Journal of Agrarian Change. I was hoping for a systematic analysis of the Pink Tide but instead discovered an intelligent but frequently mistaken collection of chapters having little in common except the author’s rejection of a project with a clouded future.

The two chapters titled “Global Crisis and Latin American Tendencies: The Political Economy of the New Latin American Left” and “Contemporary Latin American Inequality Class Struggle, Decolonization, and the Limits of Liberal Citizenship” were newly written for the book and amount to an ideological frontal attack on the Pink Tide governments. Despite my disagreement with Webber’s analysis, I strongly recommend that people grappling with the political crisis of left governments in Latin America buy his book and pay close attention to his arguments. There is a dialectical contradiction between his views and those of the pro-Chavez left and a resolution on a higher level is only possible by engaging with both sides of the polarity.

Like many with sympathies for Trotskyism, Webber is always on the lookout for latter-day Kerensky’s. If you read him carefully, you will understand that Hugo Chavez’s election in 1998 repeated the early stages of the Russian revolution when both the rich and the poor rallied around the Social Revolutionary Party leader who made promises about a better future for all even if he secretly sought to keep Russia part of the capitalist system. Like many on the left, Webber considers elections to be a trap. Instead he identifies with “extraparliamentary forms of social struggle—road blockades, strikes, land occupations, worker takeovers of abandoned factories, protests, and even quasi-insurrectionary waves of mass action that toppled neoliberal governments in Argentina, Bolivia, and Ecuador.” In other words, these were the real revolutionary movements that could have seized power if only they had a party to represent them rather than ones led by scheming, neoliberal fakers like Chavez, Morales and Correa who “bent over backwards to capitulate to capital and ensure market confidence”. If neoliberal governments were toppled, the new ones remained neoliberal even if as they were leavened with populist good will and generous social programs. As a title of the book, “The Last Day of Oppression, and the First Day of the Same” pretty much says it all. Like the classic Who song, Webber wrote something so we won’t get fooled again.

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April 21, 2017

Citizen Jane; The Activists

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:08 pm

Counterpunch, April 21, 2017

Documentaries That Punch

As a rule of thumb, political documentaries work best when they have a hero and a villain just like in narrative films. One of the most memorable examples is Michael Moore squaring off against Roger Smith in “Roger and Me”. Granted, the richer and more entrenched in the Democratic Party Moore has become, the more the likability factor has worn off. But back in 1989 who could not love the shambling son of an auto worker trying to track down and confront the corporate boss responsible for shutting down the GM plant in Moore’s home-town and other rust belt cities?

You can see the same sort of human drama in “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” that opens on April 21 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York and on VOD platforms. Citizen Jane is Jane Jacobs, the author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” that was published in 1961 and was in its way as important as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” that was published a year later. If Carson’s book was a clarion call for preserving the integrity of the natural world, so was Jacobs’s book a call for preserving the integrity of the urban world, specifically New York City.

Jane Jacobs’s Roger Smith was Robert Moses, the “power broker” profiled in Robert Caro’s 1975 classic who was a symbol of the corporate-driven agenda of “urban renewal” that ran counter to Jacobs’s vision of urban spaces that grew organically from the bottom up, just like the flora and fauna of “Silent Spring”.

There were ties between Smith and Moses that might not be obvious at first glance but ultimately the “power broker” and the GM CEO shared a vision of American cities that privileged the automobile and saw the expressway connecting suburbs to the heart of the city as a kind of economic bloodstream that could make America great. Alfred Sloan, who was the CEO of GM in its early years, was deeply hostile to FDR and joined the American Liberty League, which was 1930s equivalent of the David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity.

But as WWII broke out, GM’s new CEO William Knudsen became Secretary of Defense just as his successor Charles E. Wilson would become under Eisenhower. The internecine ties between GM, the national-security state and the post-WWII economic recovery helped crystallize a “golden age” that both Michael Moore and Donald Trump in their own way seek to resurrect: the Chevrolet and the suburban tract home as the divine right of workers.

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April 14, 2017

Glory

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,former Soviet Union — louisproyect @ 1:11 pm

Corruption and Poverty in Bulgaria

Bykov has described his film as a treatment of the central dilemma facing his country: conscience versus survival. Now playing at the Film Forum in New York is a Bulgarian film titled “Glory” that is closely related to Bykov’s film thematically. Like Nima, Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) is a humble worker—a railway lineman who we first see setting his watch meticulously to a radio announcement before going off to work. This is important because linemen must be aware of the exact time to the second to avert oncoming trains.

After synchronizing his watch, Petkov meets up with his co-workers on the railroad tracks they are assigned to maintain. Walking a few dozen or so yards ahead of them, he stumbles across a most remarkable find: millions of dollars in Bulgarian currency strewn across the tracks—its origin unknown. Unlike the rest of his crew or most Bulgarians for that matter, Petkov thought the natural thing to do was contact the police.

His altruistic act turned him into an instant celebrity, something that the state railway corporation—the Bulgarian Amtrak in effect—decided to turn to its advantage. The head of its PR department is a woman named Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva) who is the quintessential post-Communist hustler. Her main interest is to make an amalgam of this most unusual worker’s idealistic behavior with that of the crooked top executives she serves.

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March 31, 2017

Pop Cinema: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:13 pm

COUNTERPUNCH MARCH 31, 2017

Each year I review over 100 films with most of them being the kind that show up in art houses: leftist documentaries, foreign-language films, American indies and the like. In November, I start catching up with the films that major Hollywood studios are pushing for NYFCO awards such as “Moonlight”, “Brooklyn”, “Spotlight” and other high-minded products that are geared to college-educated, NY Times reading, PBS subscribers. It is what you might call the Merchant-Ivory trade.

But what I really love and rarely write about are the horror and action films that dominate the multiplexes, mainly because they are so crappy. For example, I can’t get enough of “Alien” type films where a plucky band of space travelers must fend off some deadly creature that is killing them off one by one. One such film titled “Life” opened this week and could only muster a 66 percent fresh ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Generally, anything under 98 percent is usually enough to make me walk out on looking like the subject of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, so there was no point in spending $12 on a geezer ticket for a movie that the generally reliable Slant Magazine characterized: “If you ever find yourself in outer space and the only person talking any sense is Ryan Reynolds, locate the nearest escape hatch.”

Through pure serendipity, I saw five films recently that except for one might be of interest to CounterPunch readers. The four that made the cut are apolitical except for the one at the top of the list, but can at least function as escapist fare for that segment of the population that is burdened by angst over the President from Hell. If you’ve spent all week long passing out leaflets in the bitter cold (do activists do that nowadays?), you might as well treat yourself to a film in which the monsters are purely celluloid.

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Trailers for films under review:

March 17, 2017

Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015

Filed under: Counterpunch,journalism — louisproyect @ 3:09 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, March 17, 2017

Scialabba for the Defense

Four years ago I reviewed George Scialabba’s For the Republic: Political Essays in CounterPunch and am pleased to now review his latest collection Low Dishonest Decades: Essays and Reviews 1980-2015, whose title is borrowed from W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”, a poem written on the eve of WWII:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Although the book stops a year before Donald Trump’s election, there is no better way to understand this low, dishonest president than by reading Scialabba’s take on those who paved the way for him, especially Ronald Reagan. While I certainly understand how surprised some Americans are by Donald Trump’s awfulness, as if he was some sort of historical deus ex machina, I cannot escape a sense of déjà vu as if the years 1981-1989 were being replayed. Are we being forced to endure horrible reactionary presidents for all of eternity like Bill Murray enduring Groundhog’s Day? God help us.

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February 24, 2017

Bitter Harvest

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor

“Bitter Harvest”, opening today at the AMC 25 Theater in New York is the first narrative film treatment of one of the 20th century’s greatest human disasters, the death by famine of millions of Ukrainians due to Stalin’s forced collectivization. The Ukrainians call this the Holodomor. The subject matter alone would make this film worth seeing, no matter your take on what is arguably a highly-charged question for many on the left. Beyond that, it is a dramatically compelling film about the life of a prototypical young Ukrainian from this period, a young man named Yuri (Max Irons, the son of Jeremy) who is torn between the peasant life of his native village and the allure of cosmopolitan Kiev where several his friends have gone to become part of the socialist experiment. For Yuri, Kiev is a place where he can also develop as an artist under the tutelage of instructors imbued with the revolutionary fervor of the pre-Stalinist USSR.

Filmed in the agricultural heartland of Ukraine, “Bitter Harvest” begins with a depiction of the daily lives of peasants that in the 1920s followed patterns that had existed for hundreds of years. It is circumscribed by the growing season, the harvest, religious observations and festivals. Considering the deep roots of Ukraine’s agrarian society, there would be clashes with the new communist authorities under the best of circumstances.

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February 17, 2017

In Dubious Battle

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

Steinbeck’s Red Devils

When I received email from a publicist announcing the premiere of a film based on John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” directed by and starring James Franco that opens on Friday, February 17th, I knew at the outset that this would not be in the same league as John Ford’s 1940 masterpiece “The Grapes of Wrath”. Everything I have heard from Franco in the past five years or so persuades me that outside of acting he overestimates his talents, whether it is writing poetry or teaching classes in the NYU film school. If he wants to become a renaissance man, it would probably be best for him to stick to projects he is qualified for, like being named the face of Gucci’s men’s fragrance line.

Like most people I suppose, my knowledge of Steinbeck is based on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men”, a novella I read in high school. The publicist provided a synopsis of the film: “In the California apple country, nine hundred migratory workers rise up against the landowners after getting paid a faction of the wages they were promised. The group takes on a life of its own—stronger than its individual members and more frightening.” I said to myself that even if Franco makes a mess of this Steinbeck story, it would still be worth watching for the subject matter alone. Guess what. I was wrong.

Steinbeck’s novel was based on historical events. In the early 1930s, farmworkers in California fought pitched battles with the agribusinesses we became familiar with in the 1960s when the UFW was fighting to organize farmworkers in the lettuce fields and grape vineyards.

The earlier strikes were organized by the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union (CAWIU). Franco stars as Mac McLeod, a Communist organizer who has taken raw CP recruit Jim Nolan (Nat Wolff) under his wing. The two of them head off to the fictional Torgas Valley, where they begin working at an apple orchard owned by Bolton, an old-school capitalist pig reminiscent of C. Montgomery Burns on “The Simpsons”. Not long after starting work, they learn with the rest of the men that their pay will been cut from 25 to 20 cents per hour. They can take it or leave it. Robert Duvall, a long-time Republican outlier in Hollywood, was cast as Bolton. No method acting preparation was required from someone who belonged to a labor-hating political party.

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