Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 16, 2018

2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:02 pm

Lou Andreas-Salome, Paul Ree, Frederick Nietzsche

COUNTERPUNCH, March 16, 2018

CounterPunch readers in the Greater New York area should bookmark the 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival website and try to make it to tonight’s 7 PM screening of “Lou Andreas Salomé: The Audacity to be Free” that opens the festival. If you’ve seen and appreciated “The Young Karl Marx”, I can assure you that this German-language biopic will remind you that the genre is still capable of providing first-class entertainment and substance unlike Hollywood biopics about industrialists or self-destructive musicians. I saw press screenings for this film as well as very good documentaries about the Armenian diaspora and how eugenics was practiced at Ellis Island that reconfirmed the value of a film festival I have been covering for CounterPunch since it began in 2015. This year, the films are being shown at the Cinema Village, an outstanding venue for better quality films over the years.

The photo at the top of the article depicts in rather sadomasochistic terms Lou Andreas Salomé applying the whip to Paul Rée and Friedrich Nietzsche. This photo, whose taking is a key scene in the film, is provocative enough on its own terms to deserve pride of place in a photography museum. However, the story behind the photo deserves a full recounting, which is the purpose to a large part of Cordula Kablitz-Post’s 2016 film, finally viewable in New York—and hopefully across the USA before very long.

Like Alexandra Kollontai and Victoria Woodhull, Lou Salomé was a transformative feminist figure who challenged oppressive patriarchal norms. Although she was not a revolutionary, her boldness and independence arguably exceeded that of any woman from her time. Living between 1861 and 1937, her path crossed with some of the most important men of her generation. Besides Nietzsche and Rilke, she was one of the first women ever to practice Freudian psychoanalysis. If anything, her connections to Freud (possibly sexual as well as professional), Nietzsche and Rilke indicate a breadth of learning that is unrivaled. In every sense of the word, she was a renaissance woman equally conversant in philosophy, literature and psychology.

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March 9, 2018

The left and East Ghouta

Filed under: Counterpunch,Syria — louisproyect @ 2:58 pm
East Ghouta
COUNTERPUNCH, March 9, 2018

While reports filter out of East Ghouta about suffering on a massive scale reminiscent of the siege of Leningrad in 1941, some on the left support Assad’s war crimes because they see them as necessary for winning the war on terror just as Germans supported the war on Bolshevism back then.

Three of Assad’s leading defenders are associated with Alternet’s Gray Zone, a project initiated by Max Blumenthal who was soon joined by Ben Norton and Rania Khalek in churning out talking points for the Baathist dictatorship. Perhaps the rumor mill’s whispers are correct that the Gray Zone has gotten the axe. That would explain why the three have used other mediums to defend a harsh but necessary siege.

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March 2, 2018

The Arab-Jew: Caught Between Warring Identities

Filed under: Counterpunch,Jewish question — louisproyect @ 5:00 pm


Nearly five years ago I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “Voices of the Mizrahim” that discussed “Forget Baghdad: Jews and Arabs – The Iraqi Connection”, a documentary that featured four Jewish members of the Communist Party in Iraq who became part of the “population exchange” associated with the creation of the state of Israel.

All four never stopped feeling like Iraqis after becoming Israeli citizens. In addition to the four, the film includes commentary on the phenomenon of the “Arab Jew” by NYU professor Ella Shohat who was born to Jewish parents in Baghdad and has written eloquently about the problems of divided identity for over thirty years. (The film can now be seen on Vimeo for only $5 and is well worth it: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/forget).

A generous collection of her articles are now available from Pluto Press in On the Arab-Jew, Palestine and Other Displacements that is of enormous importance in understanding not only the tragedy of the post-1947 “population exchange” but the ethnic conflicts tearing apart the Middle East and North Africa today.

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February 23, 2018

The Young Karl Marx

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 23, 2018

Raoul Peck’s “The Young Karl Marx” opens on Friday, February 23 at the Metrograph in N.Y. and the Laemmle Royal in L.A., with a national release to follow. It is the story of how the youthful Marx and Engels became fast friends and worked together as a team to overcame the obstacles they faced in order to build the first communist organization in history based on a scientific analysis of the capitalist system. For millennia, the lower classes had always dreamed of overthrowing their oppressors and creating a new world based on freedom and equality but it was only in the 1840s that a theoretical basis for such a transformation was developed. At the risk of neglecting to add a spoiler alert, the film ends happily with Marx and Engels sitting down at a table to crank out the Communist Manifesto with Jenny Marx beaming down on them. That was a happy ending to the film even though capitalism lives on ghoulishly 170 years later. So, it is up to us to write our own happy ending today.

Much of the two hours of “The Young Karl Marx” entails events that will not be familiar to most people, including even someone like me who has been involved with Marxist politics since 1967. Adhering to the highest standards of historical accuracy, Peck and co-screenplay writer Pascal Bonitzer, who was the editor of Cahier du Cinema from 1969-1985 during its most rigorously Marxist phase, created an ensemble case that included characters such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Wilhelm Weitling, Arnold Ruge, Moses Hess, et al. Except for Proudhon, who perhaps some CounterPunch readers might recognize as a founding father of anarchism, these men are cloaked in obscurity today even though they were major political figures in the 1840s.

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February 14, 2018

Tehran Taboo; Mehrdad Oskouei retrospective

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 6:47 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 14, 2018

If you want to understand the social contradictions in Iran that lead to periodic explosions like those that took place recently, there is no better resource than Iranian film. Often risking repression, which at its most extreme cost the life of environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami, filmmakers put a spotlight on the grievances of large parts of the population, especially women and those who have not benefited from the wealth-producing oil rentier state.

New Yorkers have an unparalleled opportunity to see Iranian film at its best this month from two unheralded directors. On February 14th, the Film Forum will be showing “Tehran Taboo”, a noirish animated feature by Ali Soozandeh who lives and works in Germany after leaving Iran in 1995 at the age of 25. I have no doubt that “Tehran Taboo” will get my nomination as both best foreign-language and animated film for 2018. It is the story of three women dealing with different aspects of a suffocating patriarchy and one young man trying to live the life of a free artist in an unfree society. On February 23rd, the Anthology Film Archives will be showing a retrospective of Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentaries that address Iran’s deep-seated gender and class injustices. While Iranian film is best known in the West for the narrative works of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi, Oskouei deserves pride of place alongside such masters. His work has appeared at over 400 film festivals in over 50 countries and earning him over 90 awards, so it is high time for a retrospective here and now.

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February 9, 2018

A Sniper’s War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 9, 2018

“A Sniper’s War” just premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and will next be seen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana on February 23rd. Although I doubt that many of my readers will be in Missoula for the festival—or for any other purpose—I still want to call attention to a film that should eventually and hopefully make it into theatrical distribution before too long. This is a first-time work by a young filmmaker that shows remarkable courage, talent and perseverance in painting a portrait of a Serb volunteer who came to the Donetsk People’s Republic to defend his socialist beliefs. Whether or not those beliefs were grounded in reality is not really a question the film sought to answer. Director Olya Schechter simply wanted to tell the story of a man nicknamed Deki who was poised on the razor’s edge between duty to a higher cause and murder.

Early on in her powerful documentary, we see Deki showing photographs on his smart phone of the devastation wrought by NATO in Belgrade. There are bombed out buildings that by any definition were the result of war crimes. Behind him on the wall is a banner from the former Soviet Union of a hammer and sickle poised above a red star. Later on, we hear him and fellow separatist fighters mourning over the loss of Communism that they blame on NATO and Western imperialism. Deki is nostalgic for a system that provided free health care and education in Yugoslavia, as the militia members nod in agreement. The men are not ultra-nationalist special forces “volunteers” hoping to reabsorb the whole of Ukraine into a new Russian empire. Instead, they are the salt of the earth of Eastern Ukraine: middle-aged schoolteachers and coal miners.

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February 2, 2018

The best films of 2017

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:19 pm

My sentimental favorite

To repeat what I said in last year’s selection of the best films available as VOD (video on demand), Amazon continues to provide access to those that show up originally in obscure art house venues in the largest cities and nowhere else. The rental fee ranges between $3.99 to $6.99 and is worth every penny.

Despite the decline of such theaters as I pointed out in a recent CounterPunch article, the on-line availability of leading-edge independent, foreign-language, and documentary films is greater than ever. In the 1950s and 60s, arguably the golden age of film, your only opportunity to see something like Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” was to live in a city where it was playing. And even if you did, it might have been impossible for you to fit it into your schedule. That’s the demand for which a revival house like The New Yorker or Bleecker St. Cinema began to meet decades ago.

In 1985, the video shop revolution began with the opening of the first Blockbuster. Now, for the first time, you could go rent a VHS for “Yojimbo”, even though it was more likely that you’d rent it from the video store equivalent of The New Yorker, which in the Big Apple was a place called Kim’s Video and Music that shut down in 2014, a victim of Amazon just like the massive record shops Tower and J&R. Who knows? Maybe in ten years every capitalist commodity can only be ordered from Amazon. At that point, we should arm the workers, seize power, nationalize it once and for all, and exile Jeff Bezos to that space station colony he is obsessed with.

With the steady improvement of bandwidth and the convenience of devices such as the Roku box, it has reached the point where many of these envelope-pushing films can be rented not long after they premiere in an art house. In fact, most of the films I review were seen on Vimeo, a streaming site that is essential for the film industry’s publicity departments.

This year’s selection of ten narrative and ten documentaries was drawn from an especially rich pool. While Hollywood continues to decline, such films trend upwards—a function no doubt of living in a time when the social and economic crisis creates an enormous magnetic pull on filmmakers with a conscience. No matter how bleak things seem, let’s support such films since it is better than cursing the darkness.

The list below contains a link to and excerpt from my reviews.

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January 26, 2018

Act and Punishment

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:55 pm


On August 22, 2012, my first article on CounterPunch appeared. Defending Pussy Riot against those on the left who supported the arrest of the three punk rockers who had been jailed for singing (or yowling) “Mother of God, chase Putin away” in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, my article began:

Given the sharp divide on the left between those who consider the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) governments to be the first line of defense against Western imperialism and those who take the sides of the victims of such governments even when the U.S. State Department takes up their cause as well, it should not come as a surprise that the Pussy Riot trial has become a litmus test. Support for Pussy Riot is a sign that you are catching Christopher Hitchens flu or worse.

That was the first in a series of 243 articles appearing under my name at CounterPunch that comes full circle today with a review of “Act and Punishment”, a 2015 documentary on Pussy Riot that can now be rented on Amazon.

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January 19, 2018

Morality Tales on the American Malaise: the Films of Rick Alverson

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:44 pm


Each November and December NYFCO members like me receive dozens of DVD screeners from film studio publicists that are meant to help us decide on our yearly awards. In order to help me participate meaningfully in the deliberations, I prioritize the films that are likely to be finalists, namely the big-budget Hollywood films from Sony, Fox, et al. This has meant that the kinds of films I prefer to cover get left in the lurch, particularly those that are sent from Magnolia, a conscientious distributor of quality films for various art houses around the country. I invite you to visit their website, which for a modest $4.99 per month allows you to see some first-rate films like “Entertainment” that was included in the 2015 batch that I only got around to seeing recently. To get straight to the point, Rick Alverson, the director of this dark character study of a middle-aged comedian playing to tiny and indifferent audiences in forlorn Southern California towns, is a major talent that deserves far more attention than any of those forgettable Hollywood blockbusters that routinely get awarded. He is a 47-year old Richmond native who has his fingers on the pulse of a dying civilization and is not afraid to tell the truth even if it is one that might not soothe you like the typical Saturday night escapist fare. Indeed, the last two films made by Alverson might be understood as a morality tale on how comedy itself might be key to the malaise that has gripped America for decades and shows no sign of letting up.

What follows is a survey of all of four films that have been made by Alverson since 2010, all of which are available as VOD. Having seen them over the past week or so has left me feeling like I have been through the mill, just like the four men at their center. Despite having a different life experience than theirs, I can share the existential crisis that has overcome them all, against a backdrop of a country that Robinson Jeffers described in “Shine, Perishing Republic” as settling “in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire”.

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January 12, 2018

Bitter Money; Pow Wow

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:05 pm


Later this month, Lincoln Plaza Cinema will be shutting down not because it could not sell tickets for its middle-of-the-road art movies but because Milstein Properties decided not to renew its lease. Milstein claims that after major construction repairs to the high-rise above the screening rooms in the basement are complete, the space will be reserved for another theater. It is likely that it will not be owned by Dan and Toby Talbot, the husband-and-wife team who founded Lincoln Plaza in 1981.

Dan Talbot, who died last month at the age of 91, was a vanguard figure in New York’s arthouse cinema. He founded the New Yorker theater on the Upper West Side in 1960 and it soon became a shrine to revivals of classic films like “Citizen Kane” or the latest Kurosawa or Fellini. After graduating NYU, his first gig in the film business was writing reviews for The Progressive, a pacifist magazine based in Wisconsin.

This is by no means a scientific finding but Googling “Louis Proyect” and “Lincoln Plaza” returns 879 links, nearly all to my reviews. At the top of the list is my article on “Lifta”, an Israeli film that broaches the possibility of reconciliation between Zionists and their Palestinian victims. I had never considered this before but my colleague in NYFCO Jordan Hoffman saw the theater as catering to the sensibilities of elderly liberal Jews on the Upper West Side in a Village Voice article about the closing of the theater:

The concession stand sells popcorn and Milk Duds, but also smoked salmon sandwiches. This is the neighborhood of Zabar’s and Barney Greengrass and the JCC Manhattan and a block ceremonially named Isaac Bashevis Singer Boulevard. This Christmas, the neighborhood Jews, ordained as they are to go to the movies and then hit a Szechuan Palace after, included Lincoln Plaza in their ritual for the last time. A final congregation at the Ciné-gogue. It’s a Shanda [shame].

It is unlikely that anything like the New Yorker or Lincoln Plaza will ever be launched on the Upper West Side again because real estate has become prohibitively expensive in Manhattan. In an article on the closing of Lincoln Plaza in the New Yorker magazine, film critic Richard Brody said that new theaters will likely be found downtown where real estate is still relatively affordable. But even there, the prospects are guarded as evidenced by the closing of Landmark Sunshine at 139 East Houston St. this month, which was sold for $31.5 million to East End Capital and K Property Group, who will presumably turn it into condos up above and a CVS or health club on the street level. With the proliferation of health clubs in NY and the demise of arthouses like Lincoln Plaza, we will end up with 6-pack bellies galore and plunging literacy.

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