Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 13, 2017

In the Fade

Filed under: Fascism,Film — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

Last Sunday I took part in the yearly awards meeting of NY Film Critics Online. The winners are here. I was generally okay with the choices except for “Mudbound” and “Lady Bird” that I considered overrated. But then again, I consider capitalism overrated.

When it came time to vote for best foreign language film, I had to ask a colleague what “In the Fade” was about, the hands down winner. He told me it was about a German woman named Katja seeking justice after a bomb kills her Kurdish husband and their young son. Oh, that one. I had completely forgotten about it. That’s what happens when you get to be my age.

At first, the cops conduct an investigation assuming that the man was killed for political reasons but change gears after it becomes clear that he was no activist despite his Kurdish origins. Next they surmise that it might have been a hit carried out by the Turkish, Kurdish or Albanian mafia since he had once spent four years in prison for a drug trafficking conviction. Katja tells them that he would not jeopardize their lives by dealing drugs. She added that she suspected it was Nazis who set off the bomb on the doorstep of the street level tax processing office he worked out of in a neighborhood that was home to many immigrants.

It turns out that she was right.

I am glad that my NYFCO colleagues chose this film otherwise I probably never would have bothered to watch the DVD that I received from Magnolia, the film distribution company behind it. I have seen nearly every film made by the Turkish director Fatih Akin who grew up in Germany. Except for “The Edge of Heaven”, I had rated them all as “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes but was put off by the mediocre 55% “fresh” rating there for “In the Fade”. As a rule of thumb, I generally find any film with those kinds of numbers not worth bothering with, even if directed by someone for whom I generally have a high regard.

While I still might have picked “Happy End” and “Other Side of Hope” over it, it is top-notch Fatih Akin and it doesn’t get much better than that. Akin is a politically committed filmmaker who often gets bad reviews because he defies conventional tastes. For example, his “The Cut” also received a mediocre rating (58%) on Rotten Tomatoes but I saw it anyhow since it was about the Armenian genocide. Needless to say, when a Turkish filmmaker makes such a film, he deserves our support. Not only was it a much-needed plea for justice for the victims, it was also a well-made film as I pointed out at the time.

I will have some comments on the negative reviews of “In the Fade” made by some leftist critics after making my own case for the film that should be available as VOD before long.

Most of the film is set in a courtroom where the lawyer defending the accused neo-Nazi husband and wife team is as disgusting as them. Since there is a mountain of evidence linking them to the bombing, his defense revolves around making Katja look bad. In her testimony, she identifies the wife who left a bicycle carrying explosives in front of her husband’s office. This links her to her husband whose garage was filled with bomb-making material.

Early on, even before the bombing, we learn that Katja liked to get high. There is nothing genteel about her. Her body is covered with tattoos and she likes to dress in all-black punk rock attire. It was natural for her to hook up her Kurdish husband since he sold drugs on her college campus. Despite their rebellious appearance, both had lived staid middle-class lives for many years even if that includes recreational drugs.

The lawyer defending the neo-Nazis successfully wins an acquittal by making the case that she was too high on the day of her husband’s death to really be able to recollect the appearance of the woman who planted the bomb. Devastated by the decision, Katja then begins to explore ways that she could make them pay for their crime even though that entails becoming a killer herself.

Katja is played by Diane Kruger and would have earned my nomination for best actress of the year if I had seen the film in advance of the NYFCO meeting. Torn apart by both grief and rage, her character requires her to convey those emotions without melodrama. Kruger delivers such a performance in spades.

Fatih Akin decided to write the screenplay for “In the Fade” after seeing a similar miscarriage of justice in Germany. In 2000, die Dönermorde–the kebab murders—began taking place in immigrant neighborhoods just like the one depicted in “In the Fade”. The Guardian reported:

In the beginning, they were known as die Dönermorde – the kebab murders. The victims had little in common, apart from immigrant backgrounds and the modest businesses they ran. The first to die was Enver Şimşek, a 38-year-old Turkish-German man who ran a flower-import company in the southern German town of Nuremberg. On 9 September 2000, he was shot inside his van by two gunmen, and died in hospital two days later.

The following June, in the same city, 49-year-old Abdurrahim Özüdoğru was killed by two bullets while helping out after hours in a tailor’s shop. Two weeks later, in Hamburg, 500km north, Süleyman Taşköprü, 31, was shot three times and died in his greengrocer’s shop. Two months later, in August 2001, greengrocer Habil Kılıç, 38, was shot twice in his shop in the Munich suburbs.

The victims were Turks living in Germany just like Fatih Akin and the killers were members of the National Socialist Underground (NSU) that the cops failed to pursue. Instead, just as was the case in Akin’s film, they tried to persuade Enver Şimşek’s widow that the Turkish mafia was responsible.

The assassinations continued in seven different German cities for six years and the cops were unable (or refused to entertain the possibility) that they were connected. Like the southern cops during the days of Jim Crow (and, sadly, even now), there were well-grounded suspicions that the German cops were looking the other way when the racist attacks were taking place. A member of the German intelligence service was at the scene when one of the murders took place and others involved in the investigation were German KKK members.

In 2007, as investigators began to suspect ties between the cops and the NSU, the police department shredded files pertaining to the recruitment of fascists as snitches. Were they covering up evidence that such recruits were actually being used as death squads? After Der Spiegel learned that the officials ordering the shredding were in the BfV (the German counterpart of the FBI), it wrote:

For intelligence officials, investigations into the files have become increasingly embarrassing. The documents make clear just how chaotic the situation related to purging and exchanging files had become. This has resulted, for example, in discrepancies between the list of files that BfV officials sent to Saxony and the list of those that have now turned up there.

These new reports might very well lead the parliamentarians on the investigative committee to wonder whether additional files with possible relevance to the NSU trio have also been destroyed. One list itemizing the deleted files indicates that a comparatively large number of dossiers related to right-wing extremism were destroyed after the terror cell had resurfaced. The itemization says that there were seven cases of document destruction in November 2011, 12 for December and seven more in early 2012.

Given the rise of the neo-Nazi AfD in Germany, Akin’s film is not just ancient history. It is a warning that new threats to immigrants can be posed by shadowy ties between the state and those determined to reinstate the Third Reich.

Out of curiosity, I wanted to see how so many Rotten Tomatoes critics failed to appreciate “In the Fade” when it clearly lived up to the honor given to it by NYFCO members. I was stunned to see that two of them were leftists like me, or at least claimed to be.

Dennis Schwartz complained, “What is not mentioned is that the greater threat to the population is from Islamist extremists and not neo-Nazis.” Huh? Maybe if Schwartz were a Muslim in Germany, where AfD is on the rise, he’d have a different outlook. Out of curiosity, I checked Schwartz’s background and to my astonishment discovered this: “The critic who influenced him the most was Walter Benjamin, not a film critic but one of the truly great literary critics of the 20th century. The lesson to be learned from him and other serious critics is that all true art is subversive and unsettling.” Maybe Schwartz wasn’t aware that Benjamin killed himself rather than being returned to Nazi-controlled France in 1940? Talk about the betrayal of the semi-intellectuals.

Then we have Richard Porton who complained about Akin being “heavy-handed”. His “ultra-schematic plot foregrounds evil neo-Nazis with a yen for terrorism”. Porton a NYU film studies professor who wrote “Film and the Anarchist Imagination” for Verso and articles for leftie publications like Cineaste and In These Times. Since Porton has also written that “Battle of Algiers” is one of the 10 greatest films ever made, I wonder why he didn’t complain about it featuring evil French officers torturing Algerian captives. On second thought, who cares? The one thing that “In the Fade” cannot be accused of is heavy-handedness. Despite the temptation presented by the neo-Nazi characters and the failure of the criminal justice system in Germany, this is a film mostly about the emotional turmoil of a widow. I didn’t have to be lectured about the evils of fascism but I did get a lot out of the dramatic recreation of what one of the widows of NSU’s victims had to endure. That’s why Akin chose the words of the song “In the Fade” by Queens of the Stone Age for the title of his film rather than those of Martin Niemoller of “First they came for the Jews” fame.

Cracks in the ceiling, crooked pictures in the hall
Countin’ and breathin’, I’m leaving here tomorrow
They don’t know I never do you any good
Laughin’ is easy, I would if I could

Ain’t gonna worry
Just live till you die, want to drown
With nowhere to fall into the arms of someone
There’s nothing to save I know
You live till you die

 

December 8, 2017

Dunkirk; Darkest Hour

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, December 7, 2017

Thanks to my membership in New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO), I am the recipient of a virtual wheelbarrow of DVD’s sent out by studio publicists hoping to sway my vote for best movie at our annual awards meeting on December 9th. These are generally films I tend to avoid through the year so I look forward to seeing them if for no other reason to help me pass judgment on the likely finalists in our deliberations. No obscure neorealist, radical, foreign-language films are likely to make the cut.

It turns out that two of the films are set in 1940 and have to do with the evacuation of British soldiers from Dunkirk, a city on the coast of France. The first is Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”, a film that I would never spend good money to see since I detest his work. It is still playing in theaters everywhere. The second is “Darkest Hour”, a biopic about Churchill that opens on December 21. Like Nolan, director Joe Wright is English. After seeing the two films, the only award that I would consider making is for best work by a makeup artist. Whoever turned the lean and angular Gary Oldman into the spitting image of Churchill in Wright’s film deserves one. Needless to say, Oldman did not have to work too hard at conveying Churchill’s character since he is every bit as racist and reactionary, stating in a 2014 Playboy interview that Mel Gibson’s reputation as an anti-Semite was unfair but to be expected in a “town run by the Jews”.

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December 1, 2017

Sins of the Flesh

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Is the appearance of distinguished Egyptian film noirs set during the Tahrir Square occupation but made only after the revolution’s collapse an anomaly? When you consider the origins of the genre in Hollywood, maybe not so much. A number of such films had heavy CP/leftist participation and reflected a mood of disillusionment over the failure of WWII to bring genuine peace. The Cold War was just beginning and Reds in the movie industry were apprehensive about the future. Given the trajectory of the Sisi regime, one can understand a similar mood overtaking the Egyptian intelligentsia, including its filmmakers.

Only four months ago, I reviewed “The Nile Hotel Incident” that was so immersed in the noir sensibility that I compared its hard-boiled detective lead character to his Hollywood forerunners:

With his basset hound features, Fares will remind you instantly of Victor Mature or Robert Mitchum, two film noir icons who often played the same kind of role: a tarnished, world-weary detective walking a tightrope between the needs of honest citizens who have been wronged and the powerful elements of Egyptian society who use the state to protect their interests—including the cops.

This is a cop who starts off being just as venal as everybody else in the state apparatus but becomes transformed during a murder investigation that pits him against a top player in the Egyptian bourgeoisie. The film climaxes with Fares getting caught up in the Tahrir Square occupation. It can now be seen on Vudu and Amazon and well worth the $4.99 rental fee.

Directed by Khaled El Hagar, “Sins of the Flesh” is a dark and steamy love triangle as the title implies and a kissing cousin of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. In that 1946 film, the ruggedly handsome CP’er John Garfield played a derelict who ended up working at a diner and falling in love with the wife of the older, genial and plump owner named Nick who the two decide to kill. That is the skeleton of the plot of “Sins of the Flesh” but one with much different muscle and flesh enclosing it.

As the film begins, we see a young man named Ali (Ahmed Abdala Mahomud) running as fast as his feet can carry him on a country road late at night. He and all the other prisoners have just been freed from prison by a truckload of anti-Mubarak rebels. It is March 2011 and the Arab Spring is on.

The breathless Ali finally reaches the farm where his cousin Hassan and his wife Fatma live and work. He begs his cousin, the counterpart of Nick, to let him stay on the farm and work alongside him. If he is caught as an escapee, he will be thrown back into prison or worse. Hassan reluctantly agrees to shelter him despite his and his wife’s worries that he will only bring them trouble as has always been the case.

That night as Hassan goes about setting him up in a spare room in their humble quarters that lack electricity and other modern conveniences, Ali takes the young and beautiful Fatma in his arms and kisses her passionately. Despite her very real commitment to her older and plain-looking husband, she cannot forget that Ali was her first love even though she’d rather have forgotten him after he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for killing a local man who kept forcing himself on her.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe the film as being more about a rectangle love affair than a triangle since there is one more side, an old man named Mourad who owns the farm and lords over the three in the same way that the rural landlords have ruled since feudalism. Hassan, Ali, and Fatma grovel before Mourad and call him “master” while he treats them with total contempt.

Mourad has other properties and lives in opulence not far from the farm where he visits occasionally to bark orders at Hassan and Ali. Fatma is treated differently because he lusts after her but is not sure how to find the opportunity to do a Harvey Weinstein on her. That day arrives when he spots Ali and Fatma making love from afar. He makes a mental note of that incident and only decides to exploit it after Hassan supposedly dies of a heart attack from an overdose of Viagra that Mourad has provided him. Cornering the submissive Fatma, he browbeats her into confessing that she and Ali suffocated him to death. Unless she submits to him, he will send the cops after Ali.

Mourad does not only dominate his farm laborers. He locks his college-age son and daughter so that they will be prevented from joining the Tahrir Square protests. At the dinner table, he warns them that the revolution will end badly. The more we see of Mourad, the more we realize why the Egyptian bourgeoisie stood behind Mubarak for so long, and General Sisi afterward.

The director’s statement in the film notes are worth quoting in toto:

Four characters live on a remote farm, away from the actual crises, and no actual realtime images of the revolution are shown. However, the events taking place at the farm reflect what is happening in the country.

The main character, Fatma, represents the struggle of Egyptians. She is torn between tradition, represented by her husband Hassan, the guardian of the farm, a need for rebellion and renewal represented by her lover Ali, Hassan’s cousin, who escaped from prison, and the corruption and greed of the rich elite, symbolised by the owner of the farm, Mourad.

The whole film was shot in one location, a farm in the desert and we used only natural lights like fire and lamps, no electricity. The film went through a rough time with Egyptian censorship for its political theme and was only allowed to be shown to audience 18 years and older. Since the film came out in Egypt last month, it has created huge outrage from some critiques and some audiences but also created lots of debates in Egyptian television and media regarding the rights of freedom of expression for artists, writers, film makers, etc… Five years after the Egyptian revolution, and these debates are still going on….

“Sins of the Flesh” opened today at the Cinema Village and is worth seeing both as a thrilling film noir as well as a study of class relations in Egypt. It is being distributed by ArtMattan, the same people who have been organizing African Diaspora Film Festivals in New York for about as long as I have been writing film reviews.

The 2017 film festival began on November 24th and is scheduled to continue until December 10th. I invite you to check out the schedule here that includes films like “Sins of the Flesh” as well as some other excellent works I have reviewed in the past, including “Gurumbe”, a film about Afro-Andalusian culture, as well as “Mama Africa”, a documentary about Miriam Makeba. Both are outstanding and representative of the sort of films that the good people at ArtMattan make available to New Yorkers in the know.

 

 

On the Other Side of Hope; Happy End

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 2:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, DECEMBER 1, 2017

 

The films of Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki and Austria’s Michael Haneke have nothing in common stylistically but do share a loathing for European bourgeois society. Their latest films additionally share a concern about one particular aspect of that decaying world, namely the persecution of immigrants. Kauriskmaki’s “The Other Side of Hope” that opens today at the Film Forum in New York is about the struggle of a Syrian refugee from Aleppo to survive on the hostile streets of Helsinki. Haneke’s “Happy End” is mostly about a bourgeois household coming apart at the seams but the climax of the film includes African immigrants from the refugee camp near the Calais entrance to the Eurotunnel crashing a fancy banquet. The effect is the same that Buñuel sought in “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, an attack on the complacency and moral rot of the rich. “Happy End” opens on January 22nd at the Film Forum as well as the Lincoln Plaza in New York. Both films are artistic triumphs as well as devastating blows against a world that is rapidly going mad.

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November 17, 2017

The Mighty Atom

Filed under: Catskills,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 17, 2017

When I was about ten years old, my mother took me to see the Mighty Atom’s legendary strong man act at the Panoramic Health Farm, a bungalow colony he owned in Woodridge, New York—my home town that was described by the leftist PM newspaper as a utopia in the Catskills in 1947.

I watched in awe as the 62-year old, 5’4”, 145-pound bearded man with shoulder-length hair perform the stunts that had been part of his repertory since the 1920s such as bending nails with his teeth and an iron bar across his nose. In his prime, he could pull a fire engine with his hair or twist horseshoes into a pretzel. In fact, until his death at the age of 84 in 1977, he continued to perform. The new documentary “The Mighty Atom” that became available as VOD (iTunes, Amazon and Google Play) on November 14th points out that on the day he died, he walked from room to room in the hospital performing for fellow patients to lift their spirits. After his last tour through the wards, he laid down on his bed and passed on.

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November 15, 2017

Mr. Roosevelt

Filed under: comedy,Film — louisproyect @ 7:51 pm

With the subject of male comedian bad behavior being discussed widely under the impact of Louis C.K.’s masturbatory aggressions, it is a relief to see what a female comedian is capable of. After walking away from C.K.’s tasteless and singularly unfunny train wreck of a movie “I Love You, Daddy” with a bad taste in my mouth, Noël Wells’s “Mr. Roosevelt” is a reminder that sexism in the film and television business is not only a crime against women but against all humanity for preventing the cream from rising to the surface. Wells is not only ten times smarter and funnier than C.K. but a welcome relief from the dyspeptic and misogynist strain that is found not only in C.K.’s work but across the board with male directors and screenwriters like Judd Apatow, Woody Allen, and James Franco.

Wells not only wrote the screenplay for “Mr. Roosevelt” but stars as Emily Martin, a young woman living in Los Angeles trying to make a career as a comic actor with mixed results. Rather than supporting herself as a waitress, she does film editing by day, a job that supposedly gives her the freedom to make it to auditions during working hours. This is essentially how Wells operated until she was discovered by SNL, where she became part of the cast in 2013 but not kept on after that. Another boneheaded move by Lorne Michaels, especially in light of Wells’s killer impersonation of Lena Dunham.

One day Emily gets a phone call from Austin, Texas, where her hopes for a career in show business began. After the call ends, she turns to her boss and says that a medical emergency requires her to fly to Austin immediately. In the next scene, we see her rush into a hospital and tells the receptionist breathlessly that she is there to see  Mr. Roosevelt. The receptionist informs her that it is too late to see him. He died earlier that day. It is only a minute later that we discover that Mr. Roosevelt was her pet cat and that he was at a veterinary hospital being treated for a kidney ailment. Since I have developed a deep affection for the Norwegian Forest Cat that is a guest in my apartment, I can totally empathize.

Mr. Roosevelt was not the only loved one she left behind in Austin. He was kept by her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune), who was trying to make it as a rock musician in a city filled with many such hopefuls. Perhaps being more realistic about his prospects, he stayed behind in order to weigh his options in a place where the arts were increasingly being replaced by high technology firms and real estate developers.

When she spots Eric in the waiting room, she runs up and throws her arms around him, partly to be consoled for the loss of her beloved Mr. Roosevelt and partly because of lingering affections. Within seconds he pushes her back for a good reason. Also in the waiting room is his new live-in girlfriend Celeste who symbolizes everything that she hates about the new Austin. Celeste works in high technology developing social media platforms for corporate customers and embraces the creepy New Age mentality found among the entrepreneurial class in Silicon Valley. Her yuppie values have even been embraced by Eric who now keeps his guitar stashed in a garage behind the house that he and Emily used to live in together. Music is part of the past. His new dream is to become a real estate agent and become part of Celeste’s world.

The clash between Celeste and Emily over Eric’s affections and over commerce versus art drives the narrative forward. Mr. Roosevelt is scheduled to be cremated in a couple of days and the couple iinvitesEmily to stay in their guest room until then. Over those two days, the confrontations between Emily and Celeste reach a comic crescendo during a brunch to memorialize Mr. Roosevelt’s passing. Drunk and sick of the new Austin, Emily grabs the urn containing Mr. Roosevelt’s ashes, runs out of the house, gets on her bicycle that had been sitting in the shed next to Eric’s guitar, and pedals away madly with the attendees in pursuit.

When Emily is not battling Celeste and arguing with Eric about his conversion to a New Age yuppie lifestyle, she is hanging with old Austin’s denizens who are depicted with great affection but with warts and all. When Emily has a one-night stand with a pothead, she takes umbrage at his comment about her being “quirky”. Why am I quirky, she asks. That is a word reserved for men. If I was a man, you wouldn’t call me quirky. You’d call me “eccentric”. He replies that maybe the right word is “bitch”. I’d give anything to see Noël Wells being interviewed about Louis C.K. and sexism in the comedy business.

“Mr. Roosevelt” will receive my nomination for best first film by a director in the NYFCO awards meeting in early December. It will also likely be nominated for best female actress and screenplay. Right now, it has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and unlike most hyped films really deserves it.

In spirit, the film is closely related to Mike Birbiglia’s “Don’t Look Twice”, a 2016 film about the hardscrabble life of people in the lower tiers of the comedy business. Just like Birbiglia, this is a world that Wells knows firsthand. And just like Birbiglia, she has made it to the upper echelons. And, finally, like Birbiglia, she has not lost her humanity—unlike Louis C.K.

“Mr. Roosevelt” opens at the Arena Cinelounge in L.A. on November 17th and at the Landmark Sunshine theater in NYC on the 22nd. It is not to be missed.

 

November 12, 2017

I Love You, Daddy

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:18 pm

As a credentialed film critic, I had the dubious distinction of being among the privileged few able to see Louis C.K.’s “I Love You, Daddy” that was supposed to premiere this month until the masturbation story broke. After saying something about the film, I’ll offer some thoughts on Louis’s downfall and those of other A-List celebrities.

While the film has the look and feel of Woody Allen’s 1979 “Manhattan”, being shot in black-and-white and never straying far from the one-percent lifestyle of its characters (the Hamptons, Upper East Side, etc.), it is much more of an extension of C.K.’s FX cable TV series “Louie” in terms of its dramatic focus. He plays the same basic character—a hapless single dad trying to cope with his daughters’ wayward behavior. The only difference is that the daughter in the film is a 17-year old that is on the verge of becoming the girlfriend of a 68-year old director that has made a habit of dating teens. If you’ve seen “Manhattan”, you’ll remember that Woody Allen’s character was dating a 17-year old (Mariel Hemingway).

Despite the very contemporary feel of the FX show that has been canceled just like the film, it is in many ways a throwback to the situation comedies of the early 60s, which frequently depicted a father trying to figure out how to solve a problem involving a teen daughter or son. “Father Knows Best”, “Leave it to Beaver” and “My Three Sons” were typical. The big difference between then and now is that “Louie” had no pat solutions to a family crisis, like when his 11-year old daughter Lily is caught smoking pot. Unlike Robert Young in “Father Knows Best”, Louie smoked pot when he was her age as well so lecturing her from on high was out of the question.

C.K.’s character is Glen Topher, a highly successful TV comedy writer and producer but with the same exact foibles as his much more economically insecure stand-up comedian avatar in the FX series. The Woody Allen character is named Leslie Goodwin and played faultlessly by John Malkovich in his characteristic reptilian manner. He is not a neurotic Jew but a Christian sybarite after the fashion of Vicomte de Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons”.

When Topher and his daughter China are invited to a party in the Hamptons, Goodwin slithers up not long after spotting her. Within days, he has invited her to come to Paris with him as part of a group of young admirers. It seems that everybody is in awe of Leslie Goodwin, including Glen Topher whose first reaction was to scrape and bow before the legend. After all, he was a mere TV comedy writer while Goodwin likely amounted to another Ingmar Bergman in this fictional world as is the case with Woody Allen in the real world.

From this scene onward, the film consists of father and daughter confronting each other over her stubborn refusal to stop seeing Goodwin or Topher and Goodwin having words over the same issue. When Topher reminds Goodwin that he would be having sex with a minor, he replies “a minor what”. Since none of you will likely be able ever to see the film, it is no spoiler to point out that China is hardly damaged by the encounter, no more so than the Mariel Hemingway character in “Manhattan”.

As might be expected, some of the critics have savaged the film as Louis C.K.’s veiled attempt to defend his perversions. Richard Brody of the New Yorker Magazine wrote:

The result is, in effect, an act of cinematic gaslighting, an attempt to spin the tenets of modern liberal feminism into shiny objects of hypnotic paralysis. The movie declares that depredation is liberation, morality is tyranny, judgment is narrow-mindedness, shamelessness is creativity, lechery is admiration, and public complaint is private vanity.

I strongly suspect that if Louis C.K. had not been outed as a sick exhibitionist using his clout in the industry to force himself on women, these words would have never been written. Indeed, a New Yorker profile on Louis C.K. written in 2013 compared him to the great Russian novelist Gogol:

If C.K. is a feminist, or has a contribution to make to gender theory, it may be in his studies of the body. More likely, this relentless exploration of physicality is his rendition of Gogol. In a recent “questionnaire” for Vanity Fair, he named Gogol as a favorite author. This choice is particularly suggestive when you consider that, of the literary moralists he tends to favor, Gogol is the only one who’s also a comedian (his other favorites: Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Richard Wright).

I have to admit that if I had heard nothing about the masturbation scandal, the film would have evoked nothing but a big ho-hum. The truth is that despite being billed as a comedy, there is not a single minute that is funny. Like the FX show, it is bogged down in lead-footed dialogs between the major characters and is reminiscent of the “problem dramas” you see on the Lifetime cable network. Or, for that matter, despite being a warped homage to “Manhattan”, it is much more like Woody Allen’s later movies that are ponderous morality tales such as “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. Louis C.K.’s greatest crime after forcing women to watch him whack off is losing his sense of humor.

On almost a daily basis lately, there are reports about some Hollywood celebrity or another being called out for sexual offenses. It reminds me quite a bit of the Catholic Church scandals of the 1990s. If the priests took advantage of children as authority figures, in the TV and film industry it was the ability of men like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K. and Brett Ratner to affect the careers positively or negatively of female actresses that kept the lid on the abuses for so many years.

In a way, it is the mirror image of the scandals at Fox News that involved rightwing gentiles. This time it is liberal Jews that are getting nailed. What do they have in common? Power.

The “casting couch” has been around forever. Ever since the days of silent films, men like Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack Warner and Howard Hughes slept with starlets in exchange for helping them get cast in a movie. Although I am no expert on this aspect of Hollywood, I can’t imagine such figures masturbating into a potted plant like Harvey Weinstein did while blocking the door. It makes you wonder if sex was the purpose of such behavior. It is possible that the sole purpose was to punish women for ever having rejected Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K. Considering the way Weinstein looked and C.K.’s needy persona, they must have had their fair share of women telling them no—not ever.

The best analysis I have read of this aberrant behavior is an interview with sex therapist Alexandra Katehakis titled “Why Men Force Women to Watch Them Masturbate”:

What are the psychological motivations behind it?

I don’t know what it’s like to hold a penis and do that. But from what I know about men, it does make them feel powerful. He’s got his prey in the corner, which provides a kind of a gratification. There’s also something inherently really primitive and childish about forcing a woman to watch you masturbate. It’s almost like “Look at me.” And there’s the possibility that he feels wanted, as disordered as that might sound. He might feel like she’s here and she’s seeing me and she wants me. But the fact that she’s also scared and humiliated makes him feel powerful and aroused. There is a sense of power, plus a hostile revenge. That combination is what creates the high for this particular act.

Another element to consider is the nature of the entertainment industry itself, which has managed to sidestep the affirmative action that has become universal in corporate American and enforced by Human Resources departments anxious to avoid bad publicity and hefty legal fees. A place like Goldman-Sachs, where I used to work, had a glass ceiling for women but you’d never see Robert Rubin jerking off into a potted plant.

Despite its liberal pretensions, Hollywood is a place with deeply reactionary social relations. Just keep in mind that the most respected liberal director in the industry is one of the most backward as was pointed out in a comment on my blog:

[Oliver] Stone’s films are noteworthy for the machismo that runs through them, all the way back to “Platoon” and “The Doors”. “The Doors” provides some great insight here, given that the subject, Jim Morrison, is not political, revealing the hypnotic machismo that Stone centers at the heart of American culture. The movie comes across as a love letter from Stone to Morrison. Stone’s personalized political vision is one where mass political organization and radical feminism have no place because the ultimate objective is the empowerment of a hypermasculine leader capable of positively transforming society from above.

So, it’s predictable that Stone would be seduced by Putin. He’d probably make a movie about Putin if he could find the financing for it. The flip side of Stone’s political homoeroticism is the hostile gay stereotypes that he presents in “JFK”. He would also present women in the same way if he found a place for them in his movies.

Oh, did I mentioned that Stone has been caught up in the web as the NY Daily News reported just a month ago?

While Oliver Stone defended Harvey Weinstein amid more than a dozen allegations of sexual harassment and assault, a former Playboy Playmate accused the “Platoon” director of sexual assault.

Carrie Stevens, who was best known as Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in June 1997 but also had several small movie and TV roles, claimed Thursday that Stone had grabbed her breast at a party.

The 48-year-old model told the Daily News that she was at a party at producer Ted Field’s home in honor of Stone more than 20 years ago when Stone walked up to her standing by the front door.

“He was really cocky, had this big grin on his face like he was going to get away with something,” Stevens, who was 22 at the time, told The News.

At that point, Stone “reached out and…honked it like a horn,” she said, describing him as “an immature guy in elementary school who snaps your bra.”

 

November 10, 2017

Intent to Destroy

Filed under: Armenians,Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:05 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, NOVEMBER 10, 2017

Joe Berlinger’s reputation rests on a number of documentaries about the injustices of the judicial system including a trilogy about the trial and imprisonment of three teens in West Memphis, Arkansas falsely accused of taking part in a Satanic ritual murder of three 8-year old boys. Next came “Crude”, a film about the struggle of indigenous peoples in Ecuador to make Chevron pay for the massive despoliation of their land and water. It should not come as a big surprise that an American judge declared Chevron innocent of all charges.

His most recent film opens on November 10th at the Village East in New York and the Laemmle in Los Angeles. Titled “Intent to Destroy”, it is an examination of the Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1916 and that left just under 300,000 survivors out of a population of 1,700,000 in the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire. As opposed to the Nuremberg trials that punished the Nazis and the allied powers insistence that reparations be paid to Israel, the Armenians were left with nothing. This is a sorry confirmation of the historical law that victorious nations never have to pay for their crimes. Despite being on the losing side in WWI, the Turks found themselves in the envious position of being a geopolitical asset in the hands of the West for quarantining the USSR and as a launching pad for Middle East incursions. Even Israel found Turkey to be a convenient ally. When a bill was introduced in Congress some years ago condemning Turkey for genocide, Abraham Foxman opined, “I don’t think a bill in Congress will help reconcile this issue.”

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November 8, 2017

Requiem for a running back

Filed under: Film,health and fitness,sports — louisproyect @ 9:08 pm

In choosing the title “Requiem for a Running Back” for her profoundly moving documentary about football and CTE, director Rebecca Carpenter, the daughter of its subject Lew Carpenter, might have had the 1956 teleplay by Rod Serling in mind. Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” starred Jack Palance as the boxer Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, who is at the end of his career and already showing signs of dementia pugilistica or “punch drunk syndrome”. In telling the story of her father, who was a halfback with the Green Bay Packers and other teams from 1953 to 1963, she conveys the same kind of dramatic intensity Serling brought to his teleplay. As is so often the case, the truth of a documentary reaches heights that no fiction can reach. The film, which opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in New York and the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, now has the inside track for my pick as best documentary of 2017.

Jack Palance played Harlan “Mountain” McClintock, someone for whom boxing was all he ever knew and terrified of trying something new—so much so that he signed up for a fight even though doctors warned that it might kill him. After Lew Carpenter’s football career came to an end, he started a new career as a coach under Vince Lombardi who he idolized. As he approached middle age, Carpenter began to exhibit the traits that all CTE sufferers display: loss of memory, depression, fits of anger, and intellectual deficits. But when he was coaching, they were kept under control. It was only when he could no longer coach that they escalated radically to the point of breaking up his marriage and creating a deep estrangement with his daughters, one of whom was Rebecca Carpenter destined to graduate from Harvard University and begin a career in television, film, and education. With a mission to discover who her father was through interviews with former players who knew him probably better than she did—his surrogate sons—and her obvious grasp of the art of the documentary, she has made a film for the ages.

Lew Carpenter was born in 1932 to dirt poor farmers from Hayti, Missouri but grew up in nearby West Memphis, Arkansas. He understood that unless he made a career in football, he’d end up chopping cotton like his parents who lived in a shack. After starring on the University of Arkansas team, he began his career with the Detroit Lions and then moved on to the Green Bay Packers. Despite the director’s obvious aim in putting football out of business, she has made a point of communicating what makes the game so fulfilling for those who play it, including Green Bay Packer wide receiver James Lofton who was coached by Lew Carpenter. Lofton makes clear that even though both Lombardi and Carpenter could be as mean and even as degrading as a drill instructor, he and his teammates looked at them worshipfully because they helped them excel. He describes professional football as a place where ethnicity and class make little difference because the sport is only interested in what you can bring to the game. In fact, the same thing can be said about the military.

Carpenter also interviews a number of medical researchers who testify as to the indifference of the owners about the health of the men who toil for them. When Houston Texans owner Robert McNair described the protests of men like Colin Kaepernick as “inmates running the prison”, he blurted out what has been true for a very long time. In one eye-opening interview with attorney Ed Garvey, who represented the players in a number of confrontations much sharper than that going no now, we learn that they insisted on using AstroTurf even though it risked injury to the brain. At one point, an owner growing tired of Garvey’s advocacy warned him that for only a $100 he can find someone to stuff his corpse into a trunk.

In keeping with the most recent research on CTE, Carpenter reveals that some experts do not regard concussion as its cause. It happens that although Lew Carpenter endured the usual number of collisions on the field over a 10-year career, he had never suffered from repeated concussions. It is entirely possible that he was a victim of “brain slosh”, a term used by some medical researchers to describe the effect of having a brain floating normally in cerebrospinal fluid and not connected to the skull being hurled against it when a player is tackled. No helmet can prevent this. Furthermore, it is also possible that it is only exposure to “minor” hits during a career in football can be the culprit. That is why some analysts are predicting the demise of the game.

In one of the more jaw-dropping interviews in Carpenter’s film, we hear Mike Ditka state that if he had a son, he would not allow him to play football—the very same Mike Ditka who was once described by Mike Duerson as a coach who never “gave a damn about the players or their injuries when he was coaching.” Although it is understandable why Carpenter would find Ditka’s renunciation of football worth filming, it must be said that the grizzled icon of brutality on the football field has not seen fit to defend Colin Kaepernick’s protest as Dave Zirin pointed out in a Nation Magazine article:

Ditka is the guy who berated his own Bears players for not crossing a picket line when the NFLPA was on strike in 1987. He’s the guy today who—after a lifetime of supporting right-wing candidates—shills for another dubious product: Donald Trump.

And now, true to form, he’s coming out against Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protests. On Friday, he said on the Shan & RJ radio show, “I think it’s a problem. Anybody who disrespects this country and the flag. If they don’t like the country they don’t like our flag, get the hell out. My choice is, I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on,” Ditka said. “I see opportunities if people want to look for opportunity. Now, if they don’t want to look for them then you can find problems with anything, but this is the land of opportunity because you can be anything you want to be if you work. If you don’t work, that’s a different problem.”

Eventually, professional football players will connect the dots between the racism of a Robert McNair and the continuing efforts of the owners to shortchange the former players who are in desperate need of support as they wrestle with the onset of early dementia and the other demons CTE submits them to.

The Disaster Artist, what a disaster

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 1:53 am

I’m doing something I haven’t done in years—write about a film I walked out on.

I had my doubts about “The Disaster Artist”, a film that was shown at the Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) this year since it was produced and directed by the insufferable James Franco who was also the film’s costar. The film is based on a true story—the making of “The Room”, which some say is the worst film ever. I thought that perhaps it might have the affectionate touch of “Ed Wood”, the vehicle for Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Hollywood’s worst director especially since New York Magazine’s Jada Yuan said, “it may soon join Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in the ranks of great movies about terrible movies.”

Things started off inauspiciously when I showed up at the Tribeca Screening room 10 minutes before the film started and was asked by the guy at the door to id myself since my name wasn’t on the list. Proper id in this instance meant providing the email id or the name of the publicist who sent me an invitation to the screening that I rsvp’d to. Since I don’t own (and won’t own) a smartphone, I told him I had no idea who it was but he could check my name on Rotten Tomatoes and see that there are 1300 of my film reviews. Showing a rather low level of comprehension, he asked me once again for the email or name of the publicist who contacted me. “Look”, I said, “do you think that I would come down to the Tribeca Screening Room in a driving rain in order to jeopardize Robert De Niro’s security? What is the deal with De Niro and security, I began to rant. Five years ago I showed up at a Tribeca Film Festival screening on the wrong day to see a documentary about sea life ecology and was blocked from taking a seat by a security guard. Even when the publicist vouched for me, the security guard not only insisted I leave but put his hand on a pistol in his holster to show that he meant business—a Travis Bickle telling me to get lost. I guess they couldn’t take a chance on a secret al-Qaeda operative bombing their screening room.

I walked out of the film after 20 minutes. Instead of seeing anything remotely as charming as Timothy Burton’s “Ed Wood”, I was exposed to what would have been a 103-minute version of an SNL sketch like “Wild and Crazy Guys” or “The Roxy Guys”. These are the 5 minute patented comedy routines in which two supremely stupid but self-confident stooges embarrass themselves to get laughs out of a studio audience and the millions of TV fans who enjoy satire based on punching down. Despite the shots that Chevy Chase took at Franco or that Alec Baldwin takes at Trump, most of SNL consists of laughing at rather than with ordinary people living in the USA. Not only is it elitist, it is dull.

As tedious as those SNL sketches were, they were at least relieved by some funny moments especially with talents like Dan Ackroyd and Steve Martin. What you get with “The Disaster Artist” is the mockery of losers but without the yucks. A deadly combination.

James Franco plays Tommy Wiseau, who was an aspiring actor that met Greg Sestero in an acting class in San Francisco in the late 80s. He is played by Franco’s brother Dave. After meeting each other, the two hooked up and decided to make a movie of their own since nobody auditioning them in Hollywood thought they were any good. Wiseau, in particular, was horrible. The running gag in “The Disaster Artist” is Wiseau reading lines in a thick accent like “the wild and crazy guys”. When the casting director tells him to drop the accent, he replies “what accent?” As it happens, Wiseau was a Polish-American and had an accent. Somehow, I don’t find jokes about having an accent that amusing in 2017.

Everything in “The Disaster Artist” is totally exaggerated. I am willing to believe that Wiseau and Sestero had no idea how limited their abilities were but Franco is determined to make them look even more stupid than the characters in those SNL sketches and even coming close to the performances of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in “Dumb and Dumber”.

For example, when Wiseau is casting for “The Room”, he has women being asked to act as if they were eating a melting ice cream cone while they are a cowboy on horseback. We are supposed to laugh at her look like she is performing oral sex. It is hard to tell whether Franco wanted to dumb down this scene for a teen audience or whether he has the sensibility of a 16-year-old himself. I simply don’t care to find out.

The screenplay for “The Disaster Artist” was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the team responsible for the 2009 “Pink Panther 2” that got a 12% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. One critic wrote, “I have seen taxidermy livelier than this moribund mess which further sullies the reputation of everyone associated with this unwelcome sequel.” I only wish that “The Disaster Artist” was half as good.

The irony is that in spoofing what some critics regard as the worst movie ever made, James Franco has made the worst film of 2017.

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