Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 11, 2017

A Taxi Driver

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 2:26 pm

Opening on August 11th at the AMC Empire 25 in NY and the same day nationally, “A Taxi Driver” is a South Korean film based on an important event in the country’s history. In 1980, during a rebellion in Gwangju against a recent military coup, a German reporter named Jürgen Hinzpeter came to South Korea to cover the rebellion but had no way to reach the city except by cab since all public transportation had been shut down by the military. Even a cab would have trouble getting through since all the major roads had been blockaded. It was up to a cab driver named Kim Sa-bok to drive the reporter into Gwangju, taking dirt roads to bypass the military guards. As a result of Hinzpeter’s film footage of the occupying military’s massacre of up to 600 people, the South Korean government was perceived worldwide as a bloody dictatorship.

This is not the first South Korean film to dramatize the Gwangju uprising. In 1999 I reviewed “Peppermint Candy”, a film I included in my list of the greatest 100 ever made. Yongho, The anti-hero of “Peppermint Candy”, is a businessman who has had a long history of malevolent behavior, including serving as part of the assault on Gwangju. From my review:

Peppermint candy is something that Yongho is especially fond of. His first love is Sunim, who works in a candy factory. When he is in the army in 1980, she sends him candy to remind him of home and her love. One night his company is rousted from bed in the middle of the night for some sort of mysterious engagement. The sergeant abuses the men, calling them “bitches,” as they struggle to get their gear together. When Yongho’s peppermints pour out of his knapsack, the sergeant punches and kicks him because candy is not allowed.

The soldiers are dispatched to Gwangju, where students and workers have been protesting for democracy. Yongho, a raw recruit, kills a young student who is not part of the protests. She has wandered into the confrontation, just trying to make her way home. Besides this young woman, every other woman he knows on more intimate terms is treated badly by Yongho who treats the opposite sex as objects to be fucked and then ignored.

 

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August 4, 2017

Machines

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,india — louisproyect @ 5:32 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, August 4, 2017

CounterPunch readers who follow my film reviews probably are aware that I avoid superlatives. That being the case, when I tell you that “Machines”, a documentary that opens on Wednesday August 9th at the Film Forum in New York, is the most powerful Marxist treatment of labor exploitation that I have seen in 25 years of reviewing film, you’d better believe me.

This is the first film ever made by Rahul Jain, a 25-year old Delhi-born director who originally considered titling the film “Machines Don’t Go On Strike”. Filmed almost entirely in a vast dungeon of a textile mill in Gujarat, it is hard not to see the workers as being an extension of the machines they operate. Marx described such factory life in Chapter 10 of V. 1 of Capital, titled “The Working Day”:

It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is given to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery.

This is exactly what you see in “Machines”, a process in which workers are slaves to the machine. It is what Charlie Chaplin depicted comically in “Modern Times” and Fritz Lang depicted more darkly in “Metropolis”. As long as capitalism exists, this is the fate of the working class. In the USA, many workers wax nostalgic for the $20-40 jobs that prevailed in the 60s but for the Gujarat textile workers, the hope is for an 8-hour day and a wage that enables them to send a bit home to their family, some living thousands of miles away. Most of them appear to be ex-farmers who have been crushed by debt and drought. In the decades before Marx was born, it was the Enclosure Acts that accomplished the same results. Peasants were robbed of their means of self-subsistence and forced into the textile mills of Birmingham and Manchester that William Blake referred to as dark and satanic.

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July 28, 2017

Sled Dogs

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

On a free association basis, when you hear the words “dog abuse”, the first thing that comes to mind are pit bulls being trained to fight each other. Next would be Michael Vick’s conviction for both raising dogs for that purpose and killing those that were deemed inadequate to the task. “Sled Dogs”, which opens Friday, July 27th at the Cinema Village in New York and elsewhere later on, will leave you shocked at how the same sort of cruelty has been going on since 1964 in Alaska under the auspices of the Iditarod, a dog-sledding race that covers a thousand miles from its start in Seward in the south to the finish line in Nome in the northwest.

Not only are animals sickened onto death in this 1000 mile spectacle, they are culled from kennels devoted to training such dogs just as they were in Michael Vick’s kennel. If a dog in a sledding kennel was not equal to the task of pulling a sled, it would be terminated. Besides detailing the horrors associated with sled dog competition, “Sled Dogs” raises important questions about the relationship between humanity and animals. Are they simply property that an owner can dispose of at his discretion when they cannot fulfill his profit-making expectations?

The Canadian government ruled that they were indeed property in a landmark case that is examined in Fern Levitt’s powerful documentary.

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July 21, 2017

Taxi Searchers

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 2:40 pm

I had never made the connection between John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” but found myself saying “of course” after Stewart pointed out that both involve anti-heroes trying to “rescue” women who don’t really feel any such need. Another important insight found in Taxi Searchers is their proximity in time to two important reversals of imperial fortune. Ford’s film was made just two years after the French were defeated in Vietnam and Scorsese’s came out just a year after the Vietnamese kicked the imperialists out once again.

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July 20, 2017

Clancy Sigal (1926-2017)

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,literature,obituary — louisproyect @ 1:28 pm

I just learned on Facebook from Clancy Sigal’s wife Janice that he has died. Born in 1926, he was an important voice of the left and well known to CounterPunch readers for his many contributions over the years.

Although I never met Clancy in person and regret not having done so, I considered him a real friend like others I have met and communicated with through email and Facebook. It was Clancy who initiated contact with me 14 years ago over a cringe-worthy matter. I had written a hatchet job on a film titled “Frida” about the artist Frida Kahlo that must have gotten under the screenwriter’s skin:

When I write film reviews, I try to apply the dictum of my late father who used to say, “If you can’t say something good about a person, say nothing at all.” I made an exception last week for “The Quiet American”, which I regarded as a disappointment both in terms as an adaptation of Greene’s novel and the novel itself.

Now I turn to an all-out disaster, although like “The Quiet American” it received rather favorable reviews when it came out. “Frida” is a really stupid biopic based on the life of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist and feminist icon who was married to Diego Rivera, the famed muralist. Since it touches on modern art and includes Leon Trotsky as a character, two subjects close to my heart, it is necessary for me to address the profound injustice done to them and to the rather interesting personality of Kahlo herself, who is reduced in this film to a cursing, drinking and brawling eccentric whose motivations seem driven more by her sexual/reproductive organs than her brain.

The screenwriter was Clancy Sigal.

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July 14, 2017

Andrzej Wadja’s Search for Freedom

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 12:26 pm

When Andrzej Wajda died last year at the age of 90 after having just completed “Afterimage”, he was one of the last of the great auteurs of the 60s and 70s, leaving only Jean-Luc Godard (now 86) the sole survivor. Demonstrating their appreciation of his role in this golden age of cinema, the European Film Academy presented Wajda with a lifetime achievement award, only the third director to be so honored after Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. His body of work would be a topic in itself worthy of consideration by CounterPunch readers but beyond his achievements as a filmmaker there is something else that recommends his films, namely their focus on one of the big political questions of our epoch–especially after a full century. What was the impact of the USSR on its own people and those like the Poles living under its control? Widely recognized as an anti-Communist director, he might be a polarizing figure to many who see the geopolitical divide as demanding alignment with the Kremlin—either pre or post-Communism. As such, his work demands attention, however you stand on this question insofar as his reputation and influence will persist long after his death. Was Wajda an enemy of communism or was his mission to create films that transcended narrow ideological considerations?

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July 7, 2017

Battlefield Poland

Filed under: Counterpunch,Poland — louisproyect @ 12:59 pm

Stalin and Ribbentrop

In a speech given by Andrzej Wajda to a conference on his work at the University of Lodz in 2001, he spoke about the importance of a national cinema. Given the near-hegemony of Hollywood, one might say that national cinema has seen its day. In the post-WWII period, a number of directors emerged who, paraphrasing Shelly, became the unacknowledged legislators of their nation. Satyajit Ray in India, the Italian neo-realists, Akira Kurosawa in Japan, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and the French auteurs, all were shaped by their experiences of WWII and their hopes that cinema could help to form a new identity out of the ashes of bombed cities and the mountains of skeletons left behind by the fighting.

For Wajda, the challenge was not just speaking for the hopes of the Polish people but in helping to form a national identity that had been suppressed since the early 1800s. In a subsequent CounterPunch article, I will provide a guide to Wajda’s most important films that are relatively easy to access as Video on Demand (VOD) but in order to make sense of his work, it is essential to preface it with a brief overview of Polish history in order for a left audience to properly grasp the mission Wajda set for himself as a director.

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June 30, 2017

Sex, Repression, Censorship and Lady Macbeth

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:43 pm

When I received word from a publicist that a new film titled Lady Macbeth based on Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella, Lady MacBeth of Mtsenk, would be opening on July 14th, it motivated me to attend a press screening and to dig a bit deeper into the controversy unleashed by Shostakovich’s 1934 opera adaptation of the same work. I also discovered that Andrzej Wajda had made a film based on Leskov’s novella and since I have written about Wajda for CounterPunch and plan to write some more, it seemed worth my while to see his version, which fortunately is online with English subtitles. For those who want to delve into the tangled history of all this, you can also read Leskov’s novella and see a film production of Shostakovich’s opera that was banned in the Soviet Union for decades. In its entirety, the Lady Macbeth saga ties together sex, politics and art in a most provocative manner and will leave you marveling over how this lurid tale that was originally published in Dostoyevsky’s magazine could have such staying power.

Although not so nearly as well known as other Russian novelists of the 19th century, Leskov was held in high esteem by Tolstoy and Chekhov. In a useful entry on Leskov, Wikipedia notes that although he was angry over social conditions in Czarist Russia, he thought that education rather than agrarian revolution was necessary. His debut novel No Way Out was a dark satire on a feckless socialist whose comrades were amoral crooks using political agitation for personal gain. The Russian social democratic press was outraged over the work and wrote articles charging the author with being a police agent. Eventually some of the more enlightened intellectuals of the left revised their opinion, especially Maxim Gorky who saw him primarily as a social critic.

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June 23, 2017

Hitler and the Lone Wolf Assassin

Filed under: Counterpunch,Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JUNE 23, 2017

Before the opening titles roll for “13 Minutes”, we see a kneeling man in a suit and tie holding a flashlight in his mouth crouched down in some kind of tunnel, looking for all the world like an engineer fixing a faulty electrical circuit. We soon learn that he had gained access to the inside of a hollow pillar at the rear of the stage in the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich, Germany where Adolf Hitler launched his abortive “beer hall putsch” in 1923. The man was connecting a detonator to a massive pile of explosives and his goal was to blow Hitler to kingdom come during his speech later that day commemorating the putsch.

The date is November 8, 1939 and Georg Elser is a factory worker from an impoverished background preparing to do what the students of the White Rose group and the Operation Valkyrie Generals failed to do: overthrow the Nazi system. My first reaction to the film was to see it as a more nuanced and realistic version of Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” but was stunned to discover after consulting Wikipedia 10 minutes into the film that it was based on historical events. George Elser was a real person and the attempt on Hitler’s life did take place. The führer managed to avoid being killed only because transportation snafus made it necessary for him to leave Bürgerbräukeller 13 minutes before the bomb went off.

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June 16, 2017

The Perils of Sectarianism

Filed under: Counterpunch,Islam,middle east — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

Throughout the Middle East, sectarianism is a problem that has existed for decades but more recently has reached catastrophic dimensions with ISIS declaring just about ever religious rival as a takfiri. This has led to stoning, beheadings, the rape of Yazidi women and an iron enforcement of sharia law that makes every person living under its sway worried about becoming the next victim of its religious enforcers.

While ISIS was a virulent strain of sectarianism from its outset, you also see a level of brutal and relentless warfare between the majoritarian Sunni sect and its rivals in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere unknown in the past, no matter how sharp the differences over who inherited Mohammad’s mantle of authority. For people who have more than the usual interest in Syrian politics, the problem of sectarianism is particularly acute since the early days of the revolution were largely devoid of such conflicts.

Addressing the need for serious scholarship on the origins of these seemingly intractable fissures, Nader Ashemi and Danny Postel have put together a collection of articles by experts in the field that is must reading for both those within the academy and those working for the cause of peace in the Middle East. Ashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Postel is the Center’s Assistant Director. I have been in contact with the two authors over the past six years and have had a high regard for their scholarly integrity and even more so after reading their Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.

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