Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 17, 2020

The best films of 2019

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 9:39 pm

What a genuinely radical movie looks like:

COUNTERPUNCH, JANUARY 17, 2020

This is now the third “Best of” survey I have posted to CounterPunch. It might be subtitled “The anti-Oscar awards” since none of the films listed would have ever been nominated for an award in the Tinseltown-dominated ceremony.

As was the case in my 2017  and 2018 “Best of” round-ups, these are all films that were screened originally at art houses in New York or Los Angeles but can now be rented for less than $5 on Amazon Prime. Thanks to Jeff Bezos (and for little else), they enjoy a second life.

As a member of New York Film Critics Online, I receive well over fifty DVD’s at year-end for consideration of an award in our December voting. This allowed me to evaluate the kind of films that dominate the Academy Awards. Except for “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story”, I found them uniformly dreadful. Among the most disappointing were “Parasite”, “Joker” and “1917”  that each will likely walk off with a wheelbarrow full of Oscar statuettes.

Continue reading

January 15, 2020

Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 12:01 am

Last November, I discovered a new source of progressive documentaries in New York as a result of covering the Other Israel Film Festival at the Marlene Meyerson JCC. Now, only two months later, the JCC is presenting another important film festival called the Cinematters: NY Social Justice Film Festival. Opening this Thursday and running through Monday, January 20th, it features nine documentaries with one narrative film on the closing night, the newly released “Harriet,” a biopic about Harriet Tubman. After having seen five of the documentaries, I recommend the entire film festival to New Yorkers since it is an antidote to the mind-numbing crap featured in your local cineplex. Given the political stakes we face in a decaying capitalist society, these are the sorts of films that help orient you to the real struggles taking place in the USA.

Scheduling/ticket information is at https://jccmanhattan.org/arts-film/film/cinematters

“American Muslim” encapsulates the spirit that guides these JCC programs. Focused on the Muslim-dominated neighborhoods of New York City’s outer boroughs, it integrates questions of faith, social identity and political imperatives in a period of rising Islamophobia. Adam Zucker, a 61-year old Jew, was inspired to make this film as a way of challenging Trump’s agenda by introducing viewers to the city’s Muslims, about whom he knew next to nothing starting out. In a profile that appeared in the Times of Israel, he said, “New York has a very large Muslim population, and I am a lifelong New Yorker, but I hadn’t really met any Muslims.” The same goes for me and probably many of you.

The film takes us on a tour of Sunset Park, Bay Ridge, Jamaica, and Ozone Park, all of which have substantial Muslim populations. The first thing you will learn is that most come from South Asia rather than the Middle East. Among them is Shamshi Ali of Jamaica, Queens, an Imam who emigrated from Indonesia, a nation that has more Muslims than those in the entire Middle East. We discover that the film got its title from his observation that pressures to unite as Muslims in the USA for political reasons create a dynamic where your country of origin and its culture will begin to matter less. Like the American Christian or the American Jew, the American Muslim will become a unified body. More importantly, it is likely to be a progressive-minded component of a society that needs all the help it can get. Reaching out to Jews, Ali confesses to Zucker that it sometimes feels like he is spending more time in synagogues building bridges to Jews that reject Donald Trump than he does in mosques.

We also hear from Debbie Almontaser, another Muslim on the front lines fighting on behalf of immigrant rights and the broader struggle against racism. A Yemeni-American, she lost her position as principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the city’s Arabic-themed school, after she was defended the use of the word “intifada” as a T-shirt slogan. Like Shamshi Ali, she is knowledgeable about the true spirit of Islam and the reactionary tendencies imposed on it by conservative elements, especially patriarchal norms that prevented women from driving cars in Saudi Arabia until recently.

As for the true spirit of Islam, you can see it manifested by the outreach program of Mohamed Bahi, an Algerian-American who founded and still directs Muslims Giving Back, a volunteer effort located at the Muslim Community Center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Bahi organizes fund-raisers for newly arrived Muslim immigrants at the community center, including, as the film shows, Syrians that just arrived from Turkey. Fled might be a better word than arrived since the Turks were hostile to them despite sharing Muslim beliefs. Originally from Aleppo, life had become unbearable until they arrived in Sunset Park just before Trump’s Muslim ban. Destitute, they ended up sleeping on the floor until Bahi arrived one morning with a truck full of furniture. Bahi believes that Islam is more about deeds than beliefs, a lesson lost on the nativist Turks, Bashar al-Assads and Mohammad bin Salman.

Like Flavio Alves’s narrative film about a transgender female, “Changing the Game” is a much-needed documentary that will open your minds to one of the most despised minorities in the USA. In this film, we meet a trans male and two trans females who are high school students competing in wrestling and track respectively. As you may know, this has become a major controversy lately as parents of cisgender athletes demand their expulsion from competitions. Mack (born Mackenzie) has been forced to compete with cisfemales even though his deepest desire is to wrestle other boys. That mattered much more to him than becoming the 110-pound class Texas state champion in 2017 and 2018. What makes this film so great in addition to the utter honesty and magnetic personalities of its principals is the support they get from their parents or, in Mack’s case, the grandparents who adopted him after his mom could not provide adequate financial support. They are quintessential Red State personalities but utterly on his side. The grandmother is a cop and the grandfather is a good old boy in bib overalls but don’t let their appearance fool you. Every word out their mouth spells compassion in capital letters.

We also meet Sarah Rose Huckman, a cross-country skier from New Hampshire. Referring to the state’s motto “Live Free or Die,” Sarah insists that her only wish is to be free to live her life without putting up with ignorance and hatred. That’s also the wish of Andraya Yearwood, an African-American runner from Connecticut, a state that permits trans teens competing in sporting events based on their sexual identity. Considering that 40 percent of all trans teens attempt suicide at one point in their lives, Connecticut’s attitude is most welcome. Even more welcome is Michael Barnett’s film that deserves the widest possible audience in a period of deepening intolerance. Rated 100 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, this documentary deserves its accolades.

Like “Changing the Game,” “The All-Americans” focuses on teen athletes targeted by Donald Trump’s bigoted administration, in this instance Mexican-American high school football players in East Los Angeles.

Each year, there is a big game called “The Classic” that pits two traditionally Mexican-American dominated high schools against each other, Roosevelt and Garfield. If playing football is a daunting task for any student trying to keep up with geometry, even more daunting is staying a step ahead of La Migra and helping your parents make ends meet in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. In addition to being a traditional sports documentary of the kind that would be produced by ESPN, it is a guided tour of a neighborhood like those we see in “American Muslim”. Although I’ve been to LA at least 15 times in my lifetime, I’ve never gone far from Hollywood, just as I’ve never been to Sunset Park or Jamaica in New York City.

Like the best documentaries, “The All-Americans” opens your eyes to peoples you’ve met and places you’ve never been. When I used to come back from Nicaragua in the 1980s, I was always struck by how despite being materially poor, the country was spiritually wealthy. As soon as I got off the plane, I was always reminded that it was just the opposite of the USA—materially rich and spiritually impoverished. After you’ve met the football players and their families in “The All-Americans,” you’ll understand why Trump wants to build a wall. It will be the only way he and his bigoted supporters can slow down the eventual and inevitable salvation of the country.

“Always in Season” is a study that reinforces the conclusion of Project 1619 that racism is in the DNA of the USA. It is both an investigation of the possible lynching of Lennon Lacy, a 17-year old African American teen who was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina, on August 29, 2014, as well as an overview of lynching in the USA.

This is a debut film by Jacqueline Olive, an African-American filmmaker with fifteen years of experience in journalism and film.

Lennon’s mother Claudia and his brother Pierre insist that he had no reason to kill himself. So do his classmates and friends. The only people who are fixed in their opinion about this being a suicide are the local cops, no big surprise there.

In addition to covering the events that took place prior to August 29, 2014, Olive shows us the yearly reenactment of a notorious lynching that took place at the Moore’s Ford Bridge near Monroe, Georgia in 1947. Like the Civil War reenactments that has men dressing up like Yankee or Rebel soldiers, these reenactments have white men and women playing those who shot two married black couples in 1947, also played by local blacks. They were tied to a tree while a white mob shot them sixty times. After the pregnant wife of one of the men was dead, a racist carved a fetus out of her womb.

To show that some whites have repudiated the past, one of the women reenactors was the daughter of a KKK member and takes part as an act of solidarity. After seeing her father participating in a lynching when she was three years old, she decided that racial hatred was not in her DNA, at least.

Unsurprisingly, the cops have refused to reopen the mysterious hanging of Lennon Lacy as well as deciding in 2015 that there were no sufficient grounds for prosecuting anybody involved with the Moore’s Ford Bridge murders.

Directed by BBC reporter Leana Hosea, “Thirst For Justice” is as timely as the other films reviewed above. It is about the contamination of the world’s waters with spotlights on three occurrences. First, uranium waste seeping into the water of New Mexico’s Navajo peoples; second, lead in the water of Flint, Michigan; and finally, the petroleum industry’s forcing American Indians to abide by the presence of a pipeline funneling fracking output through the sacred Standing Rock burial grounds.

With a clear identification with the struggles against the polluters, Hosea interviews activists and victims of the contamination. In New Mexico, the contamination led to a cancer epidemic while in Flint, it led to neurological illnesses, especially in children.

In a Close-Up Culture interview, Hosea is asked what inspired the film. Her reply:

This journey really started in 2010 when I first visited the South West to do a story for the BBC on the proposed resurgence of uranium mining in the Grand Canyon area.

As part of the report I visited the nearby Navajo reservation, where I heard there had been some historic uranium mining from the 1940’s to the 1980’s. But nothing prepared me for what I saw.

Communities were living amidst some 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and piles of waste. When the uranium price crashed in the mid-1980’s the big mining companies declared bankruptcy and left behind piles of mine waste and open pit mines, which filled up with rain water. Children swam in them and the sheep – the food staple of the Navajo – drank the water and so did the people.

Helen Nez, now an elderly lady, told me that her sheep were born with deformities, some without eyes. Then her children were born with a DNA depleting disease and died painful deaths at a young age.

Instead of investigating environmental factors, the white doctors told her it was because Indians practice inbreeding and labelled the disease Navajo neuropathy. This disease has now been linked to uranium contamination.

I had an interview with a lady one morning, but she didn’t turn up. With the roads as terrible as they are on this impoverished community, I assumed she had got a flat tire and didn’t think anything of it. But a week later I found out she had died the morning of our interview of kidney cancer. Drinking uranium contaminated water has been linked to kidney disease and reproductive cancer.

I knew this story was big and that I needed to spend more time to investigate it to do it justice. Soon after I returned to London as I got a BBC posting to the Middle East – just in time for the revolution and spent a number of years there. But I didn’t forget my time on the Navajo.

As I have said on numerous occasions, the people who make such films are the true vanguard of our time. My only hope is that the rest of the left can catch up with them. Without major financial backing assured, they risk arrest or hardship in making films at a place like Standing Rock, where journalists were considered enemies. Leana Hosea was arrested there and can likely be expected to be arrested again in some other filming project where the class struggle is at a fever pitch, god bless her.

January 12, 2020

1917

Filed under: Film,imperialism/globalization,WWI — louisproyect @ 9:33 pm

Unlike WWII, films about WWI tend to be bitter antiwar commentaries. This includes the 1930 “All Quiet on the Western Front, the 1937 “The Grand Illusion,” one of the greatest films ever made, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 “Paths of Glory.” Since WWI was such an obviously imperialist affair, it would be difficult to represent it as a heroic defense of freedom—even if the propaganda surrounding the war tended to make the “Huns” a demonic force.

Since, as Alexander Pope put it, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, it was no surprise that Sam Mendes would make a film titled “1917” that, while not nearly an attempt to turn the two British soldiers it features into freedom-fighters, does make their efforts to warn off their comrades from a surprise German trap look like a noble sacrifice.

“1917” is basically a two-character drama. As the film begins, we meet Blake and MacKay, two young lance corporals in a British unit embedded within a trench. The commanding officer calls in Blake, who has map-reading expertise, to lead a two-man operation that will inform another unit that the Germans are preparing a deadly trap. Blake has an added incentive to go on this mission since his brother is a soldier there. He is told to pick out someone to accompany him and he chooses MacKay, who has seen intense combat in trench warfare prior to this and earned a medal for his valor. Blake factors this into picking a seasoned soldier even if MacKay has lost his appetite for combat and, moreover, in seeing the medal as anything special. He tells Blake that it is just a ribbon.

The film evokes any number of smash hits in recent years that must have persuaded the Golden Globe judges to name it best film of 2019. The Golden Globe is made up of foreign correspondents in the USA whose taste, like the Academy Award judges, is mostly in their mouth. With separate awards for drama and comedy/musical films, “1917” won best drama although I guffawed at it a number of times. In 2018, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was named best dramatic film, one I bailed on after 15 minutes.

First and foremost, “1917” tries to stir the same emotions produced by “Saving Private Ryan,” Stephen Spielberg’s tribute to the “greatest generation.” Like the two lance corporals, Tom Hanks and his men are trying to locate Private Ryan before he dies in combat like his three brothers. It also assumes that people would buy tickets to a film that promises the same flashy but empty battlefield scenes shown in “Dunkirk,” which director Christopher Nolan shot in 65 mm large-format film stock. Finally, it has the same kind of plot that worked so well in  Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Revenant.” For most of that film, the main character, a hunter played by Leonard DiCaprio, is trying to get back to civilization after being mauled by a bear. On his own for the most part, the drama is generated by DiCaprio trying to avoid American Indian warriors or hunger on the barren plains of the north during wintertime. In “1917,” except for banal conversation between the two lance corporals, they are mostly like the main character in “Revenant”, just trying to stay alive to deliver their message rather than being delivered from wilderness hazards.

If Nolan relied on a wide-screen perspective to wow his audience, Sam Mendes uses another technological trick to keep your eyes glued to the screen. The film is shot in a single take from beginning to end, something that I only realized after reading about it after the screening. The goal was to immerse you in the experience of the two soldiers even though for me it was much more like a video game. I have to add that I have never owned one but looked over my wife’s shoulders as she played them on her new iPhone after she begin using it for the first time. Typically, the hero of a video game—often a soldier like in Mendes’s film—has to pass through increasing difficult stages in order for victory to be declared. In a video game, this involves fire-breathing dragons. In “1917,” it involved dastardly Huns. She got bored with these games after a month, just like I got bored with “1917” after 15 minutes.

In a crucial scene, “1917” veered off into the propaganda realm. Blake and MacKay have taken temporary respite in a French farm that, like much else in no-man’s-land, is depopulated. From inside a barn, they watch a dog-fight between two British biplanes and one German that is shot down. The flaming plane heads straight for the barn in just one of many artificially choreographed “thrilling” scenes and crashes just in front of the two Brits. Showing the true mettle of the civilized Anglo race, Blake climbs on the burning wreckage and rescues the German pilot who takes out his knife and stabs his rescuer to death. From that point on, MacKay is forced to soldier on alone.

In addition to getting a Golden Globe award for best dramatic film, Sam Mendes picked up best director. In my view, the most appropriate award for Mendes is most confused motivation for making a film last year. In an article about the film in the NY Times last month, Mendes made the senseless, imperial bloodbath sound like a noble cause:

After directing the James Bond movies “Skyfall” and “Spectre,” Mendes was having trouble mounting a new film project. His agent Beth Swofford suggested that he explore the World War I stories he had once told her. In 2017, a year after the Brexit vote, Mendes found further inspiration. “I’m afraid that the winds that were blowing before the First World War are blowing again,” he said. “There was this generation of men fighting then for a free and unified Europe, which we would do well to remember.”

Is this guy for real? Those winds that were blowing had to do with blocs of capital defending their narrow class interests. Germany allied with the Ottoman Empire for narrow economic gains such as providing easier access to its African colonies and to trade markets in India. Meanwhile, the Ottoman ruling class picked Germany as an ally but might have just as easily teamed up with England, which was not open to such alliance. Wikipedia states that Talat Paşa, the Minister of Interior, wrote in his memoirs: “Turkey needed to join one of the country groups so that it could organize its domestic administration, strengthen and maintain its commerce and industry, expand its railroads, in short to survive and to preserve its existence.” That’s what WWI was about, not “fighting for a free and unified Europe.”

As for England, it demonstrated an uncommon disregard for the lives of its soldiers in real life as opposed to the myth-making of Mendes’s film. As lionized in both “Darkest Hour” and “Churchill”, the Tory politician deserves a thorough debunking, especially for his role in the Gallipoli disaster. Convinced of their military (and likely racial) superiority, Churchill ordered British troops to land on Ottoman soil Normandy-style, where they expected the enemy to flee for its lives. Led by Australian and New Zealand troops, they were annihilated by Turkish troops led by Mustafa Kemal. The British lost up to 20,000 men in June/July 1915, while the entire campaign to open up a safe passageway between England/France and its Russian allies cost the lives of 53,000 British and French soldiers. Which leads me to mention another key film about WWI futility. Now available on Youtube for $2.99, Peter Weir’s “Gallipoli” features Mel Gibson as a doomed soldier in the 1981 film, a time when he had not drunk the Christian/rightwing Kool-Aid. He remarked at the time, “Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war.”

Dirty little trench war. That says it all.

 

January 10, 2020

Earth

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 10:17 pm

A case can be made that Nikolaus Geyrhalter is the most important living documentary filmmaker. As well, a case can be made that his latest film “Earth” (Erde) that opened today at the Anthology Film Archives in New York is his most important. As the film begins with a panoramic shot of the San Fernando Valley in California, the following words scroll across the screen: “Every day 60 million tons of surface soil are moved by rivers, wind and other forces of nature. Humans move 156 million tons of rock and soil per day, making humankind the most decisive geological factor of our time.” With this as a preface, Geyrhalter then takes us on a world tour of major excavation sites with closeups on the machinery and the women and men who operate them. On his last stop that he makes in Fort McMurray, Canada, he will not be able to film machine dreadnoughts because the tar sands extraction bosses prevent filming. However, in a perfect denouement to a film made to arouse public opinion against unbridled capitalist development, he walks the outskirts of the drilling sites with two Dene Indians whose land has been despoiled by fracking.

My first exposure to Geyrhalter’s work was in 2006 when I saw “Our Daily Bread”, an ironically titled film that takes us into the assembly-lines of meat and poultry factories, as well as the greenhouses and fields of agribusiness, where Taylorism reigns supreme. A decade later, I reviewed “Homo Sapiens” that like “Our Daily Bread” lacked narration. As a general strategy, Geyrhalter is a strict believer in showing rather than telling. In the case of “Homo Sapiens”, we see the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. You surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located.

Perhaps as a result of the environmental crisis, Geyrhalter’s latest abandons the austere cinéma vérité technique of the earlier films and has him interviewing workers participating in the massive assaults on earth in the name of progress. While by no means as intrusive as Michael Moore, he is clearly interested in drawing out whatever pangs of conscience they have about being accessories after the fact in what threatens to become the Sixth Extinction.

The interviewees are a varied lot. A heavy equipment operator in the San Fernando Valley, who is leveling mountains to make way for a new development of tract housing, shopping centers and other symbols of civilization, is not particularly perturbed. If the choice is between flattening a mountain and the preservation of nature, he shrugs his shoulders and tells Geyrhalter that it is necessary since people need a place to live. If you live in California, you are probably aware that suburban sprawl is bringing mountain lions, bears and other wildlife to the brink of extinction. The worker probably understands this with a fatalistic acceptance of this eventuality made easier by good pay.

In Italy, Geyrhalter visits a marble quarry where he meets a worker who has other motivations for working there besides money. He tells the filmmaker that because the work is so dangerous, he gets an adrenaline rush everyday he is there. It has the same effect on him as a drug. On the weekends, when he is away from work, the peace and quiet leave him feeling empty.

At Rio Tinto, an open-pit copper mine in Spain, he encounters workers who, despite making a livelihood in one of the most ecologically destructive forms of mining, reassure Geyrhalter that their advanced machinery is not harmful to the nature around them and remind him that copper is necessary for electricity. We can’t go back to living in caves, after all. They sound like the grinning Koch Industry workers featured in their employer’s TV commercials.

In the first sign that Geyrhalter is ready to confront such lies, he also interviews Luis Iglesias Garcia, an archaeologist whose interest in the mine is scholarly rather than commercial. Since Rio Tinto goes back to the Roman Empire that mined silver and copper from the ground beneath them, he is on the lookout for any relics that are dug up by accident. He does not see much of a future in copper mining or any other of the earth transformation projects the film casts its eye upon:

I don’t think that Earth is giving us anything easily. We extract everything in a way, you mentioned blasting before, that is rather violent. Extracting anything from the soil is a really violent process. It is quite aggressive. Everything related to resources is done with violence. Either we change our business model to a concept that is more in line with nature conservation and the rational consumption of resources, or this system will not exist much longer. Clearly, we can either change or vanish.

Humankind doesn’t learn, neither from history nor from anything else. I don’t know why.

The archaeologist is far more detached from the murderous assault on the planet than the two Dene Indians we meet in the final episode. They have been told by the authorities not to eat more than one or two fish a month since the river that runs through their reservation has been contaminated by the toxic byproducts of fracking. Jean L’Hommecourt tells him: “For me in my culture being a Dene means people of the land, so we are of the Earth and we need the Earth to survive, to exist as a human being. In our culture we believe that every element of Earth has a spirit.”

In the only visit where mining is not currently taking place, Geyrhalter goes to a salt mine in Wolfenbüttel, Germany that has been converted into a repository for nuclear power plant radioactive waste. When they first began storing drums of the toxic byproducts in the sixties, the engineers thought they were living up to governmental regulations. The salt mine must be resistant to hazardous accidents or human malfeasance for a million years. Less than fifty years had gone by when they learned that ground water seeping into the mine would risk eating away the drums and causing a Chernobyl type disaster. During his visit, he met with the man and woman in charge of relocating the drums who did not seem sure what guarantees there could be for safe storage for the next million years anywhere on earth. Maybe it’s up to Elon Musk to transport the drums in a rocket up to Mars after he has built a brand-new world for humans there.

In an interview with Geyrhalter in the press notes, he considers such a quandary:

Germany is still trying to find suitable storage facilities. We are really talking here about our treatment of the Earth’s surface on a massive scale. It’s not just that we take things out: we also bury things inside it. You have to bear in mind that in 100 years we have created nuclear waste that will remain radioactive for the same length of time as the total history of mankind on our planet. We can’t escape from the problem of nuclear waste – but we still don’t have any concept for getting rid of it. The problem horrifies us, and we wonder how such a situation could come about… while we constantly benefit from the advantages it gives us. Just becoming outraged about things is too easy. Each of my films contains criticism of civilisation, and at the same time I would like people to understand why things are the way they are… because the population of the world is about 7.5 billion people. We can try our best to live in a way that reduces our impact, that postpones the destructive process, but essentially the world works the way it works. And apparently, unfortunately, it only works this way – no other way.

I don’t blame Geyrhalter for his fatalism. Many mornings, I wake up feeling this way myself especially after watching a few minutes of CNN. The reason things “are the way they are” is capitalism, not overpopulation. Capitalism creates commodities that can generate profit, whatever their impact is on the planet. Ironically, population growth is accelerated by capitalist-imposed poverty. Peasant families tend to be large because the children become unpaid labor. In countries that are prosperous, population tends to be stable or even decline. In any case, the answer to our problems is the intelligent use of resources. Geyrhalter may not be the person to listen to when it comes to the broader questions of ecological living but his films are a wake-up call for what awaits us as our unintelligent ruling class plunges us into ruin.

December 20, 2019

Ovid: a Netflix for the Left

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:44 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 20, 2019

After reading the reviews below, you’d likely agree that Ovid is an invaluable resource for the left. Launched on March 22, it aggregates films from eight different cutting edge film distributors, including some whose documentaries and narrative films I have reviewed over the years: First Run, Bullfrog, and Icarus. These are the kinds of films that show up in art houses like the Cinema Village in NY or the Laemmle in Los Angeles but generally for a week or less. They may show up on Amazon or iTunes, but you will never get a head’s up as you would if you were an Ovid subscriber. The main benefit of subscribing for $6.99 per month (a real pittance) is the convenience of having an intelligently organized website that categorizes films geared to its intended audience. While Netflix groups film by genres such as horror or crime, Ovid groups them, for example, by “Don’t Mourn, Organize.” In that category, you can find “No Gods, No Masters: A History of Anarchism,” “Eugene V. Debs: American Socialist,” and the 1967 groundbreaking documentary “Far From Vietnam.” In addition to such radical documentaries, you will find avant-garde narrative films from Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, and Marcel Ophüls. So, don’t hesitate. Ovid is the Netflix the left has always needed, supporting evidence from the reviews beneath…

Continue reading

December 6, 2019

Daniel Isn’t Real; Assimilate

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:49 pm

In October, I blogged about Martin Scorsese’s put-down of Marvel Comics films. Lest anybody mistake my own views for his, I am a big fan of a slew of super-hero movies with Deadpool, Logan and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman at the top of the list. You might even say that Scorsese is on shaky ground taking aim at genre films since he is so associated with gangster movies. Of course, it is not genre films itself that are the problem. Instead, the litmus test is quality. What Scorsese was getting at, but did perhaps not make as clearly as possible, was the assembly-line character of Marvel Comics films with all three Iron Man films a prime example of catering to the lowest common denominator.

Among my favorite genres is the horror movie. Today, a very good one is opening at the Cinema Village in New York. Titled “Daniel Isn’t Real”, it is drawn from a novel titled “In This Way I Was Saved” by Brian DeLeeuw who adapted it for the film. It is a story about the ostensibly harmless imaginary friend that many children have until reality kicks in. In this instance, however, the friend is not exactly imaginary and certainly not harmless.

Luke is an only child whose mother is cold and emotionally unstable. One day, Daniel materializes in their house out of nowhere and becomes his best friend. They have sword fights with brooms and other games most boys love to play when very young.

It is only when Luke has gone off to college that Daniel reenters his life. As a freshman, Luke is fairly typical. He is lonely, insecure and depressed. When Daniel shows up again, it is with an agenda. He will become Luke’s adviser, showing him how to score with co-eds and cut a new image as a self-assured, if not cocky, BMOC.

Daniel is played to the hilt by Patrick Schwarzenegger, the Terminator’s son. His character is perfectly Mephistophelean in keeping with the generally malevolent nature of his relationship to Luke. As the two become more and more interdependent, Luke begins to resist the homicidal intentions of his adviser. To break his resistance, Daniel eventually takes over Luke’s body after the fashion of “Invasion of the Body Snatcher”. The film ends with a duel between the two youths over good and evil, just as took place between Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Although I generally don’t refer to film producers in my reviews, it is worth pointing out that in this case it is the same team responsible for “Mandy”, a great B-movie starring Nicholas Cage. Like “Mandy”, “Daniel Isn’t Real” is a low-budget independent movie that relies more on smarts than on CGI to make its point. If only Iron Man et al were in the same mold, I’d have much more time for Marvel Comics cinema.

Among the most copied horror genre films is the 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that has inspired two very good films, one with the same title that starred Donald Sutherland in 1978 and another with a new name—the 2007 “The Invasion” starring Nicole Kidman. This week I watched another remake of the film titled “Assimilate” that opened without much fanfare this year and has thankfully become available on Netflix.

Randy (Calum Worth) and Zach (Joel Courtney) are two high-school students bent on making a viral video about their boring home town. They have an idea that people will find such a film irresistible since it will be from their jaded point of view that marks them as rebels in Trump territory. They walk around with mini-cams that allows them to capture the mundane musings of the town folk.

We get the first inkling that things might be headed off into body-snatching territory when we see a young boy being towed behind his mother on the sidewalk across the street from our intrepid filmmakers. He keeps saying at the top of his lungs, “You’re not my mother.”

Like in the original film, those whose bodies have become hosts to the space invaders sound “normal” if being normal means speaking in an affectless tone and walking around stiffly. The net effect is watching Peter Buttigieg in a CNN debate. The technique for “assimilating” a new human being is different than the seed pod used traditionally in such flicks. Instead, the space aliens set loose a cross between a rat and an oversized scorpion. Once it takes a bite out of the victim, a new body takes shape separately while the old one drains into nothingness.

What makes the film work is the growing sense of desperation as the two boys and their female comrade Kayla (Andi Matichak) try to save the world while everybody they know and love (sort of) gets transformed. The film is a good way to get your mind off the world’s troubles. As escapist entertainment, it is superlative even if you’ll probably have forgotten about it in a day or two.

 

November 29, 2019

The Irishman

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,trade unions — louisproyect @ 3:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 29, 2019

Two days ago, I received a DVD for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” that lets me off the hook. I will be nominating it for best film of 2019, with it even edging out some of the foreign language films I prefer. (The overhyped Korean film “Parasite” does not make the grade.) The title refers to Frank Sheeran, an Irish-American Teamster official with mob connections who confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa. Robert De Niro plays Sheeran and Al Pacino plays Hoffa. Rounding out the major roles is Joe Pesci, who retired from acting in 1999. Scorsese and De Niro persuaded him to play Russ Bufalino, the mob boss whose brother Bill was the lead attorney for the Teamster’s union. These characters and just about every other featured in the film were historical figures. As is generally the case with Scorsese’s flicks about real people such as Jake LaMotta, Howard Hughes, et al., you’ll find few major fictional characters.

Continue reading

November 26, 2019

The Garden Left Behind

Filed under: Film,transgender — louisproyect @ 6:19 pm

For most people on the left who are supportive of transgender rights, including me, there’s still little understanding of the realities of transgender life. Having gay friends and comrades is ubiquitous but unless you count a transgender person as part of your social circle, your knowledge tends to be based on what you’ve read about the well-known such as Chelsea Manning. To get that understanding, there’s no better place to start than Flavio Alves’s “The Garden Left Behind” that will be available as VOD on December 13th (Amazon Prime, iTunes, etc).

It stars Carlie Guevara as Tina Carrera, a transgender, 20-something, undocumented Mexican immigrant living and working as a gypsy cab driver in Queens, a far cry from the superheroes, mafia gangsters, ingenues, and cops that you can see in the typical Hollywood movie. Even though Tina’s grandmother Eliana accepts her without qualifications, she still calls her Antonio, a function more of long-time family ties than prejudice.

Tina’s dream is to become qualified for the hormone treatments that will make bring her body into alignment with her mind. To be eligible, she has to be cleared by a licensed physician who can properly evaluate whether there’s a case for gender dysphoria, a condition that describes the distress a person feels due to a mismatch between their gender and biological identities. Dr. Cleary, Tina’s doctor, is played by Ed Asner who turned 90 this month and is as great as ever playing a professional who can be patronizing and caring at the same time. In one scene, the two discuss what it means to be happy. After posing the question to her, she puts the ball back in his court: she asks what makes him happy. His answer focuses on family and career. Why it is so difficult to understand that Tina’s dream is simply to live as a woman if that would make her happy? If this physician who has been treating such people for decades can be so uncomprehending, what can we expect from the rest of society?

Despite her being in limbo between two sexual identities, Tina has a boyfriend who presumably accepts her on her own terms. Ostensibly straight, Jason is a successful professional who finally takes her out to dinner after months of intimacy. When Tina texts him the good news that Dr. Cleary has given her the green light for hormone treatments, he cuts her out of his life. We can only assume that it was her androgynous qualities that turned him on.

This is not the only man who has ambivalent feelings toward Tina. When she shops at a neighborhood bodega, the cashier named Chris gazes longingly at her but must conceal his feelings in order to maintain his friendship with a group of local youths who jeer at Tina whenever they see her walking down the street. The boys play baseball together and hurl homophobic insults toward each other in typical locker-room fashion, even if they sense that Chris is different.

The only man who seems able to connect with her in the way that all transgender people would welcome is Kevin, the owner of a neighborhood bar. Played against type by the 62-year old Michael Madsen, his character epitomizes the decency that many New Yorkers exhibit. When he mentions to her that he needs to hire a new bartender, she offers herself as a qualified applicant. Without blinking an eye, he tells her to get behind the bar and make a Manhattan, which she does effortlessly. The job will pay better than driving a gypsy cab and all bodes well for her future.

Her abuela (grandmother) Eliana, however, does not like living in Queens and would like to return to Mexico where life is easier and where she can tend to the garden she left behind. Since Tina has lived in the USA since the age of six and enjoys the fast-paced and open-minded atmosphere of NYC, she does not share the same longings.

We soon discover that despite Kevin and other good-hearted New Yorkers, there are many filled with hatred toward the “other”. When the target is both trans and a Mexican immigrant, the hatred is multiplied. A transgender Latina woman named Rosie has been beaten up by the cops and Tina is drawn into a movement to halt such attacks. To cast the movement activists and Tina’s best friends, director Flavio Alves took the extraordinary measure of hiring transgender people to play these parts. He also drew in transgender people into the making of the film. It is also worth noting that funding for the film came from an eBay campaign, the first of its kind.

In an interview with “Eye for Film”, Alves, a Brazilian who came to the USA for political asylum, described his motivation for making such a film:

Just like all my films, The Garden Left Behind is about marginalised and overlooked members of our society. When I was making this film I thought yeah, let’s try to tick as many boxes as possible, because it is hard to be a trans woman but it is much harder if you also happen to be undocumented, you know? Especially in the US, there are so many people who flee persecution, especially from Central or South America. They come to the US and they don’t have the papers. They live among us and it’s very sad, you know? At one point in my life I was undocumented, so I know what it’s like to be an outsider and that’s the reason why I made this film… I feel that it’s my obligation to bring to the forefront stories that reflect not only my experience but the experience of marginalised communities.

On December 13, look for “The Garden Left Behind” on VOD. It is my choice for one of the best films of 2019 and will likely be yours as well.

November 16, 2019

Rojo

Filed under: Argentina,Film — louisproyect @ 9:58 pm

Now available on Amazon Prime for a $4.99 rental, “Rojo” is an Argentine film set in a provincial small town in 1975, a year before the coup that toppled Isabel Perón. Despite the obvious hatred director/screenwriter Benjamín Naishtat has for this coup and all other manifestations of rightwing terror, it is not agitprop by any imagination. Instead it is a thriller with absurdist elements reminiscent of Buñuel but more in terms of laughing to keep from crying.

The film opens with a lawyer named Claudio (Darío Grandinetti) sitting by himself in a crowded restaurant studying a menu. He is then accosted by a younger man who basically asks him to give up the table to him if he couldn’t make up his mind about what to order. They go back and forth, with the younger man growing increasingly hostile. Finally, Claudio gives up his seat but does not leave the restaurant. Instead he leans against a wall about fifteen feet from the interloper and proceeds to lacerate him verbally, accusing him of not being raised properly by his parents, etc.

The man leaps from his table after hearing Claudio’s lawyerly prosecution and begins assailing everybody seated at their tables, yelling at the top of his lungs, “You are all Nazis” until he is thrown out. Claudio now returns to the table and is soon joined by his wife, who is habitually late.

After dinner, they return to the parking lot and begin driving off until they are blocked on the driveway by the man who was thrown out. After he hurls a rock through his window, Claudio goes off into the darkness to punish his assailant. Catching up with him, his plans are spoiled after the young man pulls a pistol out of his pocket and trains it on him. Within a minute or two, the man, who is obviously unhinged, instead shoots himself in the head. Still breathing (or wheezing to be exact), he remains alive if mortally wounded. Claudio makes a decision that will haunt him until the film’s stunning climax. Instead of taking him to a hospital emergency ward, he drives off into the desert and drags his still breathing body into the bushes. This act, while not exactly homicide, epitomizes the moral unaccountability of middle-class Argentineans. It foreshadows their willingness to put up with the growing militarization of the country and eventually the coup that turned their country into a living hell a year later.

I strongly recommend renting “Rojo”, which is one of the best narrative films I have seen in 2019, as well as the interview director Benjamin Naishtat gave to Filmmaker magazine.

Filmmaker: Tell me about some of the stories contained in Rojo. Claudio and one of his colleagues get involved with a house that was burnt down, mysteriously — it begins to dawn on the viewer that leftists may have lived there before the “accident.”

Naishtat: Researching Rojo was easy because many of the stories are from my family. My grandparents and my father were visiting the city of Córdoba in 1975; they were leftist militants, and my grandmother was a prominent union lawyer. She was disappeared into a secret prison, and her house, my family house, was torched. My father escaped before a commando unit came to his house, and he had to flee. He lived 10 years in exile, which is how he met my mother, in Paris—another exile. Some of the pictures in the house are from my family.

November 13, 2019

Cardin, Halston, St. Laurent

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 11:51 pm

Before my wife became a tenure-track professor in the Economics and Business Department of Lehmann College/CUNY in New York (now successfully completed), she was an adjunct at the Fashion Institute of Technology, a SUNY school that was a first choice for many aspiring designers—many of whom were contestants on Project Runway.  In Project Runway, there were dozens of entrants but only one won the grand prize after weeks of contests involving, for example, making dresses out of paper shopping bags, etc. She was curious about how their work stacked up against other aspiring designers, all of whom hoped to get the first prize, $100,000 plus having a collection of their work showcased during Fashion Week in New York. My wife also enjoyed watching designer clothing being made since she is a stylish dresser unlike the women I knew from my Trotskyist days who would consider owning a Michael Kors handbag tantamount to crossing a picket line.

So what does this have to do with me? In the course of watching Project Runway, I became a devoted fan. Back in 2010, I wrote about a spin-off of the show titled “On the Road with Austin and Santino” that followed two finalists around the country designing a wardrobe for plain janes. I wrote:

The last episode…was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a  mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.

With Project Runway under my belt, I made a point of reviewing any film featuring haute couture designers, including a Karl Lagerfeld documentary, one about Valentino Garavani, and a CounterPunch review (!) of a narrative film about Yves St. Laurent.

Recently, I got my hands on three documentaries about the designers mentioned in the title of this article, including a documentary on Yves St. Laurent made by Olivier Meyrou in 2007. Titled “Celebration”, it was suppressed by his estate until now since it depicted a frail and pathetic 71-year old man in the early stages of dementia, but who was still capable of mounting one of his memorable shows.

Still alive at 96, Pierre Cardin is arguably the most important designer of the 20th century. “House of Cardin” was shown as part of the DOC NYC film festival and will likely make it into theaters sometime in 2020. For most people, including me, Cardin was only a brand name (I have his cologne, so there), but this fascinating documentary puts him into the larger context of social history.

To start with, his father was a wealthy landowner in Italy of French descent who moved back to France in 1924 because he opposed Mussolini. He apprenticed for a clothier at the age of 14 and then left home to work for a tailor in Vichy in 1939. After the war, he moved to Paris where his burgeoning career including designing the costumes for Jean Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast”. Cocteau, an open homosexual, introduced the drop-dead handsome young Cardin to other gay film makers, including Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti with whom he had flings as the nonagenarian designer recalls with a smile.

To put Cardin into cultural context, he was a futurist in the tradition of both Italian and Russian artists of the early 20th century. His dresses and gowns employed stark geometric patterns that were a break with the frilly designs of the past favored by the bourgeoisie. These outfits on display at the Museum Pierre Cardin in Paris are typical.

In the 1960s, Cardin’s clothing was favored by the young and the rebellious who had money, of course. Once he introduced an affordable prêt-à-porter (ready to wear) line, his clothing became as popular as Levi jeans. Among the people who loved Cardin’s fashion were the Beatles who make a pitch for him here.

At one point Cardin refers to himself as a socialist designer, although I think he is going a bit overboard there. Perhaps if the capitalist class was made up primarily of homosexual dress designers, we’d be better off at least on the basis of all the films I’ve seen about this wing of the bourgeoisie. Dare I call it progressive?

Now available on Amazon Prime, “Halston” tells the story of Roy Halston Frowick, who was born in Des Moines in 1932, the son of a typical corn belt family. Like Pierre Cardin and just about every male designer I’ve seen in a documentary or on Project Runway, he showed an affinity for sewing and designing from an early age.

After moving to New York in 1957, he became the head milliner (hat designer) at Bergdorf-Goodman where he became friends with Andy Warhol, a window-dresser at the time. Later on they would reunite as Studio 54 regulars in the 60s. Halston, who had dropped the first and last name, became famous for designing the cloth dress and hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration in sharp contrast to the mink coats other wives were wearing. Like Pierre Cardin, Halston had an aversion to haute bourgeois pretensions.

Once he gained fame for his hat designs, he went out on his own and became one of America’s most popular dress and gown designers. If Cardin was influenced by futurism, Halston made his mark by designing clothing that women felt comfortable in, almost like sleepwear. Often made out of a single piece of cloth, they never made a woman feel constricted. They were almost like the gowns of Greek and Roman antiquity. Here’s some examples:

 

Like Cardin, Halston wanted to reach as many customers as possible. Partly to make more money but also because he was no elitist. He made a deal with J.C. Penny for a ready-to-wear line that appalled Bergdof-Goodman’s management so much that they dropped his upscale line from their store. Cardin went through a similar experience. In 1959, he was expelled from the Chambre Syndicale for launching a ready-to-wear collection for the Printemps department store, but was soon reinstated.

In the 1960s, as his fame grew, his company was made offers that he couldn’t refuse. The Halston name and his business were purchased by Norton Simon, Inc and then by Esmark Inc. He was under enormous pressure to pump out designs for the sake of their bottom line but he grew frustrated by corporate interference. They were looking for someone more along the lines of those who made their mass marketing products,  but it was impossible for Halston to abandon the imperious stance of a star designer, all the more so since he had a major cocaine habit.

Finally, Esmark got fed up with him and changed the locks in his office in 1984 so that only those vetted by them could gain entrance. He could not even start a new business in his own name since Esmark had a lock on it as well.

Just four years after he was fired from Esmark, he learned that he had HIV and moved out to San Francisco to live with his brother. Until his death in 1990, he remained reclusive and was at least able to reunite with a family who loved him without qualifications.

Just acquired by KimStim, a leading-edge film distributor based in Brooklyn, “Celebration” will likely be available as DVD or VOD before very long. (Check their website for information).

We hear very few words from Yves St. Laurent in this cinéma vérité film but plenty from his one-time companion and business partner Pierre Bergé who functions pretty much as his care-giver in this poignant 74-minute documentary. At one point, he works with St. Laurent to prepare for the delivery of a speech thanking industry figures for one of his many awards. Bergé reminds him to stand up straight and to smile. For the entire film, we see a grim-looking St. Laurent who almost always had a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. Since his fingers tremble, that’s probably easier for him.

The film is not so much about the fashion business as the other two films. Rather, it documents the ravages of old age and fading glory. My suggestion is to watch in in tandem with the narrative I reviewed for CounterPunch. While it was also painful for its depiction of how the French military made Yves St. Laurent suffer as a draftee during the French-Algerian War, it also shows his creative prowess that made him legendary in fashion circles. Like “Halston”, it is for rent on Amazon Prime.

 

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.