Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

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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February 10, 2017

Land of Mine

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 1:59 pm

Nazi Youth as Human Mine Detonators

In “Land of Mine,” Danish director Martin Zandvliet has defied conventional thinking on this historical episode and made the best narrative film I have seen this year, one that I recommend highly to CounterPunch readers. It opens on Friday at Laemmle’s in Los Angeles and at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza in New York with a national rollout soon to follow.

The film has the same white-hot intensity as the 1953 “Wages of Fear” classic that had a couple of men driving trucks filled with dynamite up a treacherous mountainous road to be used to stanch an out of control oil well fire. Yves Montand, one of the drivers, carries out his assignment with great aplomb while his partner is paralyzed by fear. As each obstacle is faced on their way up the mountain, the tension mounts.

Defusing a bomb has the same sort of built-in drama. I found myself covering my eyes every time one of the Nazi POW’s was unscrewing a fuse. If you understandably don’t care much about whether such people live or die, be prepared to have your expectations turned upside down as the film progresses.

Between 1942 and 1944 Germany built the Trump-like Atlantic Wall designed to thwart an Allied invasion from Great Britain. This was a massive system of fortifications along the coast of continental Europe and Scandinavia with Denmark expected to be a likely landing for invasion forces. The country had more landmines per square foot than any other location along the entire European coast.

Written by the director, the screenplay has the audacity to accurately portray the Germans as teenagers who had been dragooned into service toward the end of the war to replace the seasoned troops annihilated in Russia. Like Yves Montand, who sought nothing more except to live for another day and enjoy the reward he got for delivering the dynamite, these boys wanted nothing more except to go home and pick up where they left off.

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February 3, 2017

The Founder; Joy

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:44 pm

Drive-Thru Capitalism: Ray Kroc, Joy Mangano and the American Entrepreneur as Schemer

As briskly paced and entertaining biopics, the 2015 “Joy”, which can now be seen on HBO, and “The Founder”, playing now at multiplexes everywhere, have much in common. They are celebrations of an entrepreneurialism seemingly at odds with the sense of “carnage” alluded to in Donald Trump’s inauguration speech. As rags to riches tales, they hearken back to one of the foundational myths of American capitalism, the Horatio Alger novels of the Gilded Age that would have you believe that perseverance and ambition could overcome any obstacle.

Joy is Joy Mangano, the inventor of the self-cleaning mop that she considered to be the housewife’s savior. She got the idea while wringing out an old-fashioned mop with her hands. After being cut by a glass shard hidden within the mop, the light bulb went on over her head. What if a lever at the top of the mop could accomplish the same task safely by squeezing the cotton strings remotely?

The Founder is none other than Ray Kroc, the man who launched a thousand McDonalds starting in 1954 after discovering the original store in San Bernardino, California that had been started by brothers Richard James “Dick” McDonald and Maurice James “Mac” McDonald. While the film does not mention the word, they had applied Taylorism to the drive-in restaurant business with all its advantages to the employer and imposing all its ills on the employee. In this generally upbeat film, the employees are extras. Fundamentally, the film is about Ray Kroc figuring out ways to push the brothers out of the business while retaining the brand name. At the end of the film, after they have been cheated and cast aside, Dick asks Ray Kroc why he ever felt the need to involve them in a franchise operation. Since he saw the method they were using to turn out burgers and fries as if they were Model-T’s coming off the assembly line, he could have gone ahead without them. Michael Keaton, playing Kroc with considerable flair, tells him that nobody would have gone to a Krocburger restaurant—too Slavic. But McDonalds? That evokes Americana.

The films have a very clever approach. They allow the audience to simultaneously cheer for the lead characters while maintaining a sense of superiority. Much of “Joy” consists of Mangano making a breakthrough at QVC, the predecessor to the Home Shopping Network, a channel that practically defines tackiness.

Making her debut selling her mop on QVC, she freezes up in front of the lights just like Ralph Kramden did in that classic Honeymooners episode when the bus driver stammers helplessly in front of the cameras with the Swiss Army Knife-like Handy Household Helper clutched in his fist. Norton tries to help him out by offering a cue. “Can it core a apple?” (Not a typo!) Poor Ralph Kramden remains frozen like the proverbial deer in the headlights and ends up going back to his bus route on Monday morning, the eternal proletarian loser.

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January 27, 2017

The Politics of a Punch: Richard Spencer and the Black Bloc

Filed under: black bloc idiots,Counterpunch — louisproyect @ 5:59 pm

The Politics of a Punch: Richard Spencer and the Black Bloc

Unless you do not own a computer or have been in a coma for the past week, you are probably aware of alt-right leader Richard Spencer getting punched in the face by a man dressed in black bloc garb. For a beleaguered left, this became as inspirational as the appearance of a silhouette of Jesus on the sidewalk created by bucket of paint dropped accidentally from the top floor of a building under construction would be for Christians. In either case, there is little connection between overcoming the evils of capitalism or Satan but it matters little to those desperately in search of a victory.

One of those believers is Natasha Lennard who wrote an article for The Nation breathlessly announcing “Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched—You Can Thank the Black Bloc”. For Lennard, the punch was a “transcendental experience”, akin to watching Roger Federer. Not being a tennis fan, it is a bit hard for me to relate to this. Maybe if she said it was like watching Muhammad Ali deck Joe Frazier, it would have had more resonance but Spencer hardly seemed worse off 15 seconds after the punch.

Lennard was not only a reporter; she was a participant in a black bloc action that consisted of 500 people, the largest she bragged since the antiwar protests ten years ago. I suppose if the USA had the same population as Iceland, this might have been impressive. I admit that if the goal is to run around in black clothes and break windows that number might count for something. Leonard describes the experience as if it were akin to a Sufi ceremony rather than a political protest: “You don’t know who does what in a bloc, you don’t look to find out. If bodies run out of formation to take a rock to a Starbucks window, they melt back to the bloc in as many seconds. Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty.” Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty? I hate to sound like an old stick in the mud but knocking over a trash can happens all the time in my neighborhood as drunken 24-year old Ivy League graduates pour out of sports bars late Saturday night.

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January 20, 2017

Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?

Filed under: Counterpunch,television — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?

Season one of “Sense8” has been completed and season two has just started. The show’s title is a play on the word “sensate” that means being perceived through the senses as should be obvious from its spelling. However, the word takes on a heightened meaning as the eight leading characters are endowed with special powers that allow them to share each other’s field of vision from thousands of miles away and even be transported from long distances to share thoughts with their cohorts and assume their identity at critical points. Most frequently this involves a skilled martial arts fighter inhabiting the body of an unskilled member of the group in order to ward off an attack by gangsters, assassins or other miscreants. Think of Woody Allen becoming Jackie Chan temporarily and you’ll get both the action and comic possibilities of this conceit.

The eight leading characters are:

1/ A female DJ from Iceland who works in London, hangs out with drug dealers, and eventually becomes the love interest of the character below.

2/ A NY cop who is haunted by the image of a woman committing suicide (she turns out to be a tormented fellow sensate.)

3/ A safecracker from Berlin named Wolfgang who becomes part of the octet’s muscle-on-demand just like the cop.

4/ A Korean businesswoman who is also a highly skilled martial artist and rounds out the Sense8 special forces.

5/ A woman from India working in the pharmaceutical industry who on the eve of her arranged marriage becomes drawn to the safecracker through sheer sexual magnetism.

6/ A Mexican movie star famous for his macho roles who is a closeted gay.

7/ A transgender woman named Nomi who is a blogger and hacker in a lesbian relationship with an African-American. She is played by Jamie Clayton, a trans woman who has acted in such roles since 2010.

8/ A Kenyan minibus driver whose vehicle is nicknamed “Van Damme”, after the action hero he idolizes. He is constantly being rescued in confrontations with Nairobi gangsters by the Korean woman who kicks ass like it is going out of business.

On the most basic level, the message of the series is human solidarity as the eight grow closer and closer based on their commonly shared gifts as well as the need to offer emotional support to each other. If the Kenyan is incapable of delivering a karate chop he is certainly able to console the Korean woman who has been sent to prison unjustly for embezzlement. He is just as likely to show up in her prison cell as an avatar as she is in a seat next to him on his minibus.

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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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