Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 24, 2016

My Father’s Vietnam

Filed under: Film,Vietnam — louisproyect @ 3:03 pm

Over the years there have been any number of narrative films about Vietnam veterans ranging from the sensationalistic Rambo series to quieter and more serious films like “In Country” or “Coming Home”. As for documentaries, they tend to be made under the impact of the antiwar movement such as “Winter Soldier” or harrowing tales of survival like “Return with Honor” or “Little Dieter Loves to Fly”, both of which are focused on the ordeals of POW’s.

If you’ve seen these sorts of films, you’ll have a little bit of trouble getting the hang of “My Father’s Vietnam”, a documentary that premieres on VOD today, a deceptively modest but powerful work that combines stock footage, family photos and interviews with a number of veterans who were connected in some way with a man named Peter Sorensen whose son Soren directed the film.

The documentary begins with an epigraph drawn from a letter Ernest Hemingway wrote to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1925 that “war is…the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material and speeds up the action and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” This of course is not only appropriate for the experience the film contemplates but the particular connection made between Peter Sorensen and another soldier named Loring M. Bailey Jr. who was killed by an IED in Vietnam. Sorensen and Bailey, known to his friends as Ring, were white, middle-class and well-educated men who became friends at Officer’s Candidate School after joining the army in 1968 and discovering that they shared a love for Hemingway.

Either of them could have figured out a way to stay out of the military as I and most people from their milieu did but they joined mostly as a way of fulfilling a necessary obligation. Neither were particularly gung-ho but there were factors that likely influenced their decision. Sorensen came from a long line of military men, including the director’s great-grandfather who is seen in a Danish army uniform at the beginning of the film, looking for all the world like a cast member of a 19th century operetta.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.23.28 AM

Ring Bailey’s father, who died in 2010 at the age of 96, is interviewed throughout the film. He was a lifelong employee of the Electric Boat division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut where he designed warships. Unlike Peter Sorensen, who describes the Vietnam war as imperialist toward the end of the film without using the word, the elder Bailey says nothing about the war itself. His thoughts are riveted on his dead son who was lost to this senseless war at the age of 24 back in 1969. At one point, when you see him with an American flag lapel on his suit jacket, you assume that he was likely part of Nixon’s “silent majority”.

The other figure with a key role in the film is Ring Bailey’s brother-in-law Rik Carlson, who was an SDS member the year that Bailey was killed. He had a beard and shoulder length hair at the time with a willingness to do anything to oppose the war, including risking arrest for putting oil drums in the Connecticut River that were supposed to look like mines just after Nixon mined Haiphong harbor. Despite his hatred for the war, he loved his brother-in-law and remains haunted by his death. Forty-seven years after his death, he can’t help but cry over his loss.

Peter Sorensen is a thoughtful and reflective man whose recollections anchor the film. He had hopes of being a journalist before enlisting and actually realized them in the military after being reassigned to a media unit after writing an article about a battle with the Vietnamese. He tried to arrange a transfer for his friend Ring Bailey who was killed before it could come through. Like Rik Carlson, he can’t get the dead man out of his memory.

Soren Sorenson decided to make the film in order to figure out what made his highly introverted father tick. To some extent, this was a change of personality that followed the trauma of Vietnam. He suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome for years without understanding what was bothering him. In being interviewed by his son, he probably experienced a catharsis similar to those who have had successful psychotherapy.

For his part, Soren Sorenson was inspired to make the film to understand what made his self-contained father break down into tears at the Maya Lin Vietnam Memorial in Washington when he accompanied him at the age of 8. It disturbed him to see a strong man sob.

My own father, who died in 1970, was in the thick of the most brutal American campaign in Europe during WWII—the Battle of the Bulge. I could never get him to speak about it and doubt that having a video camera would have made much difference. For him, as it was for most GI’s, the war was such a horror show that he would not want to relive the experience even if only in his mind. He came back from Europe with the hope of enjoying a normal life and a modicum of security. The post-WWII boom fulfilled his wishes up to the point when LBJ escalated the war and turned me into a revolutionary. I sometimes wonder what he would make of the world today, with its ever-increasing insecurity for people like him and its non-stop imperial wars. I suppose he would have remained tight-lipped as ever, the characteristic of a man who simply lacked the perspective to put everything into context. As for me, I have that perspective but would have much preferred to have been untouched by the war that forced me to dig deeply into the question of why it began in the first place. Although Trotsky was misattributed by the wonderful leftwing novelist Alan Furst, I was impacted forever by these words: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

May 20, 2016

Almost Holy

Filed under: Film,religion,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 4:12 pm

Opening today at the Village East in New York is “Almost Holy”, a documentary about a Ukrainian pastor named Gennadiy Mokhnenko who created the Pilgrim Republic, a home for drug addicted street kids in Mariupol in 1998. Mokhneko is a larger than life character with an absolute conviction that he is doing the right thing even if it involves what amounts to vigilantism. When he goes into a pharmacy that has been selling opiates to children and reads the pharmacist the riot act, you tend to view him in a positive light especially in a society like Ukraine where the cops are frequently nothing but criminals themselves. Although Jesus Christ was only a figure of legend, it is remarkable to see a contemporary Christian trying to emulate that side of the son of god who drove the money changers from the temple.

The film is also of interest as a running commentary on the civil war in Ukraine as Mokhnenko has to dodge rockets and artillery attacks to continue with his mission, which mostly consists of going into what amounts to the Ninth Circle of hell to reach 13 to 17-year-old boys and girls who are living in abandoned buildings or shacks with needle tracks running down their arms and nothing to live for until their next fix. Mokhnenko lays it on the line: Come with him to the Pilgrim Republic if they want to live. Oddly enough, it evokes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line in Terminator 2 especially since Gennadiy Mokhnenko looks like he is carved out of granite.

The film is a good companion piece to “The Tribe” that I reviewed almost a year ago. Like “Almost Holy”, it was set in a home for Ukrainian society’s marginalized youth—in this instance deaf teenagers who were trapped into gang life and prostitution by the men who ran the institution. Although it would have been obvious to anybody following the recent history of Ukraine, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiiy made it explicit in the press notes:

A boarding school is better than just a school because it is a closed system, which––like a prison––can be perceived to be a metaphor of the state even if that isn’t the intention. The Tribe is, to a certain extent, a metaphor of the arrangement of the Ukrainian state, at least the pre-revolutionary Ukraine. And the arrangement of the state of Ukraine was based on the principle of a Mafiosi group.

In “Almost Holy”, the children are victims more of neglect than direct exploitation by Fagin like characters. They have run away from impossible situations at home, usually the result of having alcoholic and abusive parents. Indeed, the social portrait that emerges is the same as Russia during Yeltsin’s rule when Jeffrey Sachs’s shock therapy was destroying the economy and driving millions of Russians into drug and alcohol addiction. Now that Sachs has recast himself as an “anti-imperialist”, he would obviously side with the Russian special forces that were bombing Mariupol when the film was being made. In a CNBC article, he justified Russian intervention in the Ukraine using the favorite talking point of the “realists” like Stephen F. Cohen or John Mearsheimer:

Some claim that each country has the “right” to choose its own military alliance: that this is simply Ukraine’s choice to make. Yet the U.S. has never allowed its own neighbors like Cuba (or Nicaragua, Granada, and several others) to choose their own alliances. To claim to Russia that Ukraine’s membership in NATO is Ukraine’s decision alone is the beam in the eye of the West.

So there we have it. If it was all right for the USA to blockade Cuba, it was also all right for Russia to launch a separatist war.

Apart from what it says about life in Ukraine, the film is documentary at its finest. Director Steve Hoover starts with a compelling main character, something that is essential to the success of most documentaries, and uses the camera and film score to sustain your attention for the film’s entire 100 minutes. This is a morality tale that will force many of my readers, who like me tend to be atheists and skeptical of organized religion except for the Latin American liberation theology current, to engage with a personality who in many ways has more in common with the Christian right in the USA. Gennadiy Mokhnenko is not a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church but a Protestant sect. For that matter, he doesn’t appear to be functioning as a pastor but much more as a kind of community activist. It should also be understood that he is an anti-Communist, endorsing at one point the trashing of a Lenin statue. As the son of factory workers, he probably came to resent not only the social distinctions of Stalinist society but its failure to at least satisfy the needs of the population as it reached its terminal stages in the 1980s.

In doing some background research on the director, I discovered that I had reviewed his last documentary, which was titled “Blood Brother” and had a main character resembling Gennadiy Mokhnenko:

When I first heard that the documentary “Blood Brother” was about a young American going to India to work with HIV-positive orphans, the first thing that entered my mind was “another Mother Teresa”. The only question is what would motivate someone to take what amounted to a vow of poverty and devote himself to people he barely knew and who were in such desperate straits. Was it religion? Was it a kind of AIDS activism that was prevalent in the USA during the early years of the outbreak?

It turns out that the protagonist, a lean and handsome youth named Rocky Braat who grew up in Pittsburgh, remained as much of a mystery as the film ended as when it began. This, however, is what makes it appealing. You are both impressed with his dedication but at a loss to figure out what makes him tick. In an age when people his age are desperate to find a job—any job—it is a mystery (in the original sense) as to why Rocky would reject that path and choose to live a Christ-like existence. As the press notes state: “Rocky endures a daily diet of rice, a rat infested hut, visa problems.”

Upon further investigation, I discovered what motivated Hoover to make “Blood Brother” and why that troubled some critics. It turned out that Braat and Hoover were both members of the evangelical Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ, which is part of the International Churches of Christ. This is a church that deploys missionaries and proselytizes for beliefs that are probably not that far from Gennadiy Mokhnenko’s. Although it has no connections to the rightwing fundamentalists who follow politicians like Ted Cruz, it is not exactly an institution that most film critics would feel sympathy for.

Writing for PBS’s POV blog, Tom Roston offered a carefully nuanced assessment of “Blood Brother” and its ties to the International Churches of Christ:

Hoover says he did not have a Christian agenda making the film. It’s up to you if you want to connect the dots the way I have. But, I should add, these questions become more pointed when you remember that the credits direct viewers to the charity LIGHT. Is there an appropriate amount information provided by Hoover’s documentary, or even on LIGHT’s website, to make an informed decision to donate? Presidential candidate Barack Obama had to answer for his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He confronted those issues and was able to move on — and get elected. Hoover might not want us to go there, but I think this is the price of membership in his church.

I hope three things come from me raising this issue. One, that we can have a constructive discussion about when and whether a filmmaker’s personal life is relevant to a discussion about his or her film. Two, if Hoover puts himself in his next film, about a rogue Ukrainian priest who goes to extreme measures to get drug-addicted youth off the streets, that he considers acknowledging his past doing similar work and mentioning how his faith relates to how he tells that story. And, third, that Blood Brother gets that Oscar nomination. Hoover is a good filmmaker and Blood Brother‘s cause, as it is presented in the film, is more than just.

Keeping this background in mind, it is appropriate to quote Steve Hoover from the film’s press notes as to “mentioning how his faith relates to how he tells that story.” It is also a fascinating account of what it meant for Americans to make a film in a war-torn nation:

The journey of this film began in 2012 when some of my co-workers were commissioned to do a promotional video in Ukraine. While in Mariupol, they met Gennadiy Mokhnenko and spent a few days with him. After listening to his stories and witnessing his amorphous work, they returned with enthusiasm and proposed doing a feature length non-fiction film on Gennadiy. I wasn’t interested in the idea until they shared raw footage with me and further explained some of the context. I was struck by the character of Gennadiy.

Once in Ukraine, we encountered many challenges, the most obvious being that we don’t speak Russian. With the exception of the main subject’s broken English, almost all of the dialogue was Russian. While shooting, we relied heavily on a translator, observation and the main subjects’ limited explanations of events. We had four cameras; two of them were constantly rolling. We committed to filming everything we possibly could, which made for a difficult but rewarding post process.

My life has changed radically throughout the making of this film. Formerly, I was Christian, or I at least identified as one, but I no longer am. There’s a lot to the story. I was raised in a religiously apathetic, broken, Catholic family. I converted to a nondenominational church in college. To me, faith was a solution to the existential confusion I found myself in after a long, overindulgence in psychotropic drugs, which spanned my adolescence. As a teenager, I was obsessed with hallucinating and the drugs were boundless. The faith eventually helped me to pull myself together, giving me guidance, discipline and a moral framework, all of which I didn’t really have beforehand. It also dispelled an attraction I had to heroin. I had never used heroin, but I was always seduced by the idea and a step away from it, along with several friends who came to die from overdoses. My college roommate at the time was dealing and coaxing me with free dope. He has since overdosed and died.

Gennadiy’s former work with drug addled street kids in Ukraine struck a chord with my darker past. Had I been born in Mariupol, Gennadiy would have had me by the collar. I found deeper interest however, not in the kids I empathized with, but in a character I didn’t understand. The story could have gone in many different directions.

Eventually, I found myself standing in a van while our crew was being attacked by an angry Pro-Russian mob in Ukraine. I was both terrified and calm. I knew that if we made it out of the situation, my life would change – this time in a different way. Up until that point, for several years I had resisted coming to terms with the fact that my beliefs had changed. My cultural liberalism didn’t align with the faith, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze it in. I had grown weary of the behavior and practices of the church that I was a part of and increasingly uncomfortable with the social pressures that some of the members were asserting on me.

The van broke through the mob and after a short car chase, I found myself resolute. I would embrace my worldview and move on. I spent the remainder of the year, mostly alone with the edit. Working on the edit of the film was a means of catharsis for me.

Though the making of this film had a distinctive effect on my life personally, this is definitely not a call to action film; if anything, it’s more of a portrait. It is something to look at, reflect on and discuss. In light of current events, I hope it gives people a reason to research the conflict in Ukraine. Although this film isn’t designed to be a political tool, it has obvious relevance to the turmoil between the EU, Russia and Ukraine and offers some context. The film could develop additional relevance as the conflict progresses.

While the film was in development, I was told by different establishments that there was some controversy surrounding the film. Some felt the portrayal of Gennadiy was too objective and people wanted to know “how the director felt about him.” Some liked Gennadiy, while others were disapproving. I believe Gennadiy is confounding, so I wasn’t comfortable telling people how to think and feel about him. I wanted to show the complicated nature of this character and the world he lives in.

May 10, 2016

In the Land of the Headhunters

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 1:31 pm

Catching up on some screeners that have been piling up on my shelves for at least two years, I watched “In the Land of the Headhunters” yesterday, a film that despite its lurid title is as important to film scholars and students of American Indian history—both professional and amateur (like me)—as “Nanook of the North”.

It was made in 1914 by Edward Curtis, a famed photographer of American Indians, who recruited a cast of Kwakwaka’wakw Indians for a fictional film about love and war between rival clans set in the pre-contact era. If the name of the nation is unfamiliar to you, its handicrafts are likely not. These are the people who created the mammoth totem poles in their homeland in British Columbia as well as other striking works of art made of wood or feathers. The film is much more interesting as a display of Kwakwaka’wakw art and dance than as a narrative. While native peoples in the Pacific coast of Canada had been forcibly assimilated into white society by this point and had even adopted Anglo names like Stanley Hunt, who starred as the warrior Motana, the film is fairly scrupulous about depicting their early history authentically—mostly as a result of Curtis relying on co-director George Hunt, the brother of the star and a village elder.

Curtis is a fascinating character. At one point I had his The North American Indian on my bookshelf at home until I was forced to sell off a bunch of my books to focus on those that required immediate attention. In 1906 J.P. Morgan gave Curtis $75,000 to document native peoples photographically, a sum that would be at least $1.5 million today. This is an example of his work, a Cherokee mother and her baby:

Curtis hired Frederick Webb Hodge as a research assistant. At the time Hodge was one of the country’s top anthropologists who developed close ties with Franz Boas, a fellow scholar at Columbia University with whom he shared a commitment to understanding “primitive” peoples in relative terms, rejecting stereotypes about one race being more “civilized” than another. Despite the title of Curtis’s film, it was clear that he had absorbed Hodge’s values. Like “Nanook of the North”, this is a loving tribute to a people that were truly free and in harmony with nature. Like Robert Flaherty, Curtis veers in the direction of “noble savage” romanticism but given the racist portrait of American Indians in Hollywood films back in 1914 and for the better part of the following century, such films were badly needed.

As it happens, Boas was also a student of Kwakwaka’wakw culture and played an important indirect role in the making of “In the Land of the Headhunters”. George Hunt, Curtis’s co-director, was a consultant to Boas when he was doing field work in British Columbia. He and his brother were members of the Tinglit nation, one that shares many of the cultural norms of the Kwakwaka’wakw people, especially the totem poles. Boas taught Hunt the Kwakwaka’wakw language and he then helped to collect artifacts for display at the 1893 World’s Fair where a replica of a native village was built and where 17 members reenacted daily life in the spirit of Curtis’s film.

Unfortunately, Boas being a product of his time insisted on the Kwakwaka’wakw maintaining an appearance that they had abandoned long before 1893. This meant requiring them to wear their hair long just as was the case in Curtis’s film. In an astute commentary on Boas’s flaws, Douglas Wax, a radical anthropologist and director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame (!), pointed out how Boas ended up reinforcing social Darwinist ideology despite his “cultural relativism”:

Likewise, Boas’ Kwakiutl were performing rituals that at home were no longer practiced, and which had never been intended for the kind of display expected at the Exposition. Curtis Hinsley writes that “They were aiding Boas in his effort to recapture a presumed pristine, pre-Columbian condition” (350), a state of affairs that sat well both with Boas’ scientific predilection—later realized in his advocacy of “salvage ethnography”, the attempt to reconstruct as much as possible of a tribe’s pre-contact culture before its adherents disappeared under the onslaught of Western civilization—and the nationalist leanings of the Exposition’s directors, who wanted the ethnographic exhibitions to form a sort of “baseline” against which the modernity of Anglo-America could be measured. Ironically, in their quest for greater authenticity, the anthropologists of the Bureau of Ethnology and the Peabody often ended up inventing native culture for the natives themselves. R.H. Pratt, head of the Carlisle Indian School, later recalled of the Chicago exposition that “In some cases the ethnologists… had to show the Indians how to build and dress because none of the present generation in such tribes knew” (In Rydell 1984: 252 n. 51). The focus on the enactment of the past, coupled with the insistence that Indian culture was only “authentic” insofar as it was free from the “taint” of Western civilization, had the effect of presenting Indian culture as something static, unchanging, and doomed to disappear. There was no room in either the dominant evolutionary paradigm of the day or the germinal cultural relativism just beginning to take shape for Indian cultures that continued to exist and to adapt to the changing world around them.

None of this should dissuade you from watching “In the Land of the Headhunters” on Amazon streaming or a version sans musical background on Youtube. For only $3.99, the Amazon version is well worth it as a complete work of art as the trailer above would indicate.

 

May 4, 2016

Sin Alas

Filed under: cuba,Film — louisproyect @ 5:23 pm

Sin Alas (Without Wings) is a flawed film made in Cuba by a young American who has a real flair for cinema—for Cuban politics and history much less so. The film is based on a Jorge Luis Borges short story titled “The Zahir”, which is about how its narrator became obsessed with the zahir—an Argentine coin that he associates with the Arabic word meaning “visible” or “evident”. For the Arabic-speaking masses, it summoned up the power of certain objects to have “the terrible power to be unforgettable, and whose image eventually drives people mad.”

After reading “The Zahir” prior to writing this review, it dawned on me why I never felt motivated to read Borges. The story is a study in erudite obscurantism of the sort that can fuel a thousand literature dissertations and one screenplay that had trouble deciding whether to be consistent with Borge’s ultra-subjectivism or to tell a story about life in Cuba today with all its social contradictions. In trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, director Ben Chace ended up with an interesting failure. If his ambitions exceeded his talents, at least you can admire a film that took considerable risks on behalf of a decidedly uncommercial project. If nothing else, the film is a stunning look at Havana street-life today, something that is surely worth the $4.99 to see it on Amazon or ITunes where it premieres today.

The main character in Chace’s film is Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), a seventy-year old who used to write dance reviews for Bohemia, a Cuban journal of the arts and culture. As the film begins, he sits on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building he took over from his father, an accountant with an American agribusiness who fled the island immediately after the revolution triumphed. Unlike his father, Luis stuck around since as he puts it, “I wanted to see where this thing was going”.

As he reads Granma, he discovers that a dancer named Isabela Munoz (Yulislievis Rodriguez) he had a brief affair with in 1967 has just died. After going to her funeral, he begins to become haunted by the strains of a tune that he remembered from the days he spent with her but cannot place. It becomes his zahir, so to speak.

To help him track down the composition, he recruits his oldest friend Ovilio (Mario Limonta), an accomplished guitar player who has the brilliant idea to walk around Havana asking oldsters like them if they can “name that tune” as they put it in a popular 1960s TV show. The chemistry between the two veteran Cuban actors and the obviously nonprofessionals they interact with on the streets is what makes the film so memorable and bordering on greatness.

What undercuts its success is Ben Chace’s sketchy understanding of Cuban history and politics since 1959. Although he is a minor character, Isabela’s husband—a top Cuban military officer—is rather cartoonish. At one point, Vargas tells Ovilio he was taking a big chance having an affair with his wife since such a big shot could have had him killed. This sounds much more like the sort of thing that might have happened when Batista was in power. If Chace had simply said that the man could have had him fired from Bohemia, it would have been much more plausible.

Another false note occurs when in the lobby following a performance by Isabela, her husband questions whether the ballet was “revolutionary” enough since it romanticized the sort of domestic strife that could be found in any Havana neighborhood. Vargas remonstrates with the officer, telling him that art has its own imperatives and must only be judged on its basis to stir the emotions. One wonders if Chace has any real familiarity with Cuban art and culture, which departed from socialist realist norms from its birth. Cuban ballet has never been under the thumb of bureaucrats, nor has any other art form.

To give Chace his due, he has Isabela arguing with Vargas over the possibilities of leaving Cuba where they could enjoy a life together. She says that she is too committed to the revolution which allowed a poor girl from the provinces to become a successful artist.

There are inklings that the director, who also wrote the script, was sensitive to the pressures on Cuba that might make such a rags to cultural riches impossible in the future. A minor subplot involves a married couple from Vargas’s building named Yuni and Katrina who have been forced to live with her mother due to insufficient funds. Yuni drives a pedicab and can hardly make ends meet, while Katrina works in a restaurant owned by one of Cuba’s emerging petty bourgeoisie. As he begins to put the make on her, Yuni makes plans to leave Cuba by boat. An entire film could have been made about Yuni and Katrina, one that would have been an important artistic intervention into the key question facing Cubans today—namely whether it will be possible any longer for someone like Isabela Munoz to make the transition from an impoverished countryside into the top ranks of Cuban dance.

In an interview with the Hollywood Times, Chace sounded really good on the responsibility of artists, particularly those from the USA, to tell the truth about Cuba. Even if he succeeded only partially, he deserves our respect.

That’s the strange thing, and no one gets it. No one knows what the hell’s going on down there. I wanted to just show what people were going through and hopefully show that there’s just a lot of culture and humanity and great stuff there that in a way is suffering because of our ignorance of the situation. You know if we knew how fucked up it was down there we’d try to do something to change it but no one understands that we’re just given propaganda on all sides. We’re given this very thin and shallow idea of what is going on in Cuba you know? It’s like some woman dancing, Fidel, and what else do we know about it? A couple old cars. No one really knows what the daily struggle down there is like for people and my film I think touches on it, I think I did an okay job with this one character, but it goes deeper than that. You kind of have to go, and even if you go you have to spend a lot of time to get to the truth of it because people won’t say things out loud, there’s so much implicit stuff and there’s so much that you can say out loud and stuff you just have to witness. To me, it’s a labyrinth that’s why when I was like Borges, I was like what can I do to describe this, I need like a labyrinth blueprint to like tape images to and collect this thing and hopefully it will come close to representing something about the reality of that place.

April 30, 2016

East of Salinas

Filed under: Film,immigration — louisproyect @ 9:54 pm

Bullfrog Films is a small-scale film distribution company in rural Pennsylvania that is dedicated to works made by directors and screenwriters with a social conscience. I try to spread the word on their latest offerings since they generally have relevance to the struggle against capitalist exploitation. “East of Salinas” is a case in point. Aired originally on PBS, this fifty-three-minute documentary focuses on a family of undocumented farmworkers from Mexico who are struggling to survive against impossible odds in the town where John Steinbeck was born and where much of his fiction was set. The star of the film is a fourth grader named José who is a poster child for the intrinsic values of such people who are demonized as rapists, gangsters and drug dealers by Donald Trump. José loves school, respects his parents, and puts up with all sorts of indignities with great aplomb given his youth.

The fourth grade teacher is Oscar Ramos, who like José grew up in a family of undocumented farmworkers. From an early age Ramos had a burning ambition to be a schoolteacher. Watching him inspire and challenge a class made up of children like José is one of the film’s greatest pleasures, even if much of it leaves you with a feeling of bitterness over how poor people have to put up with terrible living conditions, job insecurity and the constant threat of la migra. These are people who work 10 to 12 hours a day chopping lettuce so that you can enjoy a nutrient-free salad with dinner, while they are often forced to survive on rice and beans dispensed by church pantries.

Director Laura Pacheco, a trained anthropologist, gave an interview to PBS that while not mentioning Donald Trump offered one of the main reasons this documentary should be shown in classrooms around the country now:

I think East of Salinas should be required viewing for every candidate! Immigration is indeed such a hot topic now – and finding a path towards citizenship for the 11 million undocumented is more important now than ever. But what we really hope is that people who see the film are able to put aside their politics for an hour and settle into Jose’s story. His hope for his future is heartwarming.

There are 2 million kids like Jose in America. They all want to contribute and make their communities a better place. America is full of opportunities and I hope after seeing East of Salinas, the door to providing these opportunities to kids like Jose will open a bit wider. I think because we’ve focused on one story and stayed away from polarizing politics, the film can be used to encourage a different conversation around immigration reform.

For rental information to institutions and individuals, go to http://www.bullfrogfilms.com/catalog/eosa.html

April 22, 2016

Hockney

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

“Hockney” opened today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and at Metrograph in New York, and at Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles. It is an exquisitely beautiful documentary about one of the world’s most respected artists who was born into a working class family in Bradford, England seventy-eight years ago. He shares that background with Andy Warhol whose father was a coal miner from Pittsburgh. Like Warhol, David Hockney is gay with the major difference being a willingness to represent the male figure erotically but by no means as daring as a Robert Mapplethorpe photo.

Essentially, Hockney’s paintings are a throwback to the 19th century, concentrating on portraits and landscapes but done in a way that is distinctly modern. Whether you have never seen his work or are familiar with it like me, the film is a totally engaging museum-like tour of paintings that are a feast for the eyes. As a human being, Hockney is by no means exceptional. His life is all about his work and completely absent of the kind of drama Van Gogh or Basquiat experienced. Unlike Picasso, who he regards as his major influence, he never painted anything like “Guernica”. Even during the depths of the AIDS epidemic, his paintings were more mournful than angry. Oddly enough, his only other “social” concern has been about tobacco, a weed that he is devoted to. Early in the film, he states that he is often tempted to put up a pro-smoking billboard in health-conscious Los Angeles.

His most representative work is devoted to swimming pools in Los Angeles. Notwithstanding the seeming banality of the subject, each one transforms the material into something that becomes as sublime as Monet’s lily pads. Despite the contempt that many people hold Los Angeles in, Hockney was smitten with the city from the start. He explains that it had the aura of motion pictures that mesmerized him in his humdrum home town in the 1950s. Born in 1937, he describes himself as belonging to the “pre-TV” generation. Going to the “pictures” was a big occasion for him and his parents so the idea of being near Hollywood inspired him.

He was also drawn to the beach and surfer world like a moth to a flame. There were obvious homoerotic reasons for that as well as his fascination with the interaction of sunlight and water, something that was reflected in all of his landscapes that have the ability to render a reality more real than reality itself.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of the film is Hockney’s ability to explain how he has evolved as an artist and even more importantly to communicate the spirit of his work. In one memorable moment, he muses on the famous swimming pool paintings. When you see someone standing next to a pool about to dive in, you see his or her dappled reflection in the water. The contrast between the two representations of the human form are meant to create a kind of dynamism that gives the images much more interest than their ostensibly mundane origins. Hockney is very articulate and intelligent so listening to him is an experience that no museum tour can compare to.

Despite his advanced years, Hockney remains active in his studio. Always one to borrow eclectically from the various techniques other artists have introduced, his latest work contains images captured on the IPhone and IPad. For a glimpse into his work, I strongly recommend a visit to http://www.hockneypictures.com/.

 

April 15, 2016

Green Room

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:56 pm

Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room” opened at theaters everywhere today and will surely be on my best five films of 2016 when NYFCO’s awards meeting convenes in December. Saulnier was the director of “Blue Ruin”, a 2014 film that led me to nominate Saulnier as best new director that year. Like “Blue Ruin”, “Green Room” is an ultraviolent art film that puts Quentin Tarantino to shame. Like his feckless “The Hateful Eight”, Saulnier’s film takes place in a confined space, even more constricted than Tarantino’s blizzard-besieged cabin. It is the proverbial green room, a place you have probably heard mentioned on late night talk shows where a guest hangs out until it is time for them to go sit on the sofa next to Johnny or Dave or whoever.

The green room in Saulnier’s film is in the basement of a music club in rural Oregon owned by a neo-Nazi named Darcy Banker played by Patrick Stewart in an obviously outrageous bid at casting against type. I can’t say that it is entirely successful since Stewart is just a bit too familiar from Star Trek and the X-Men films. If you had never seen him before, that’s not a problem but the role would have been ideal for someone like Dennis Hopper or Michael Shannon quite frankly.

In between sets, the film’s good guys hang out waiting to be called on stage. They are members of a punk rock band called the Ain’t Rights that has seen better days. They travel around in a beat up van and often resort to siphoning gas from cars they stake out in strip mall parking lots. When the mohawked promoter who signed them up for their last gig is remorseful over the paltry proceeds, barely enough money to buy a tankful of gas and lunch at Burger King, he tries to make amends by lining them up another gig at the neo-Nazi hangout. The pay is good ($350), but he advises them not to talk politics.

Upon arrival, they are escorted to the green room by a guy who looks like a member of the type of groups Morris Dees exposes for a living. Once they settle in, they figure out that they are in enemy territory. There is a big confederate flag on the wall and Nazi regalia all around the room. Since they are punks, they are not the type to rein in their beliefs. The first number they perform once they get on stage is the Dead Kennedys anthem “Nazi Punks Fuck Off”:

Nazi punks
Nazi punks
Nazi punks fuck off

You still think Swastikas look cool
The real Nazis run your schools
Theyre coaches, businessmen and cops
In a real fourth Reich you’ll be the first to go

The audience does not quite storm the stage but probably would if such songs continued. Showing a willingness to play to the crowd, our musicians continue with less provocative material.

After the set is over, they return to the room and are shocked to see a dead woman sprawled on the floor with a knife sticking out of her skull. Standing over the dead woman is her friend and the man who likely killed her. Expecting the cops to come and sort things out, the band members stick around for the time being, a decision firmed up by a hulking member of Darcy Banker’s entourage who trains a nasty looking pistol on them, ordering them to stay put. Eventually they learn that Banker and his henchman have plans to kill them as well since they are witnesses to a crime of passion carried out by one of his gang members.

As the band members begin to figure out that they are dead meat, they lock the door and barricade it from the neo-Nazis assembling in the hallway. The rest of the film consists of action inside the green room and the club involving guns, knives, iron bars, fluorescent light fixtures, fire extinguishers, killer dogs, mike stands, and just about everything else up to the kitchen sink. As such the film is less about the clash between anarchists and reactionaries than it is about survival against overwhelming odds. Ultimately “Green Room” is much more like an episode of “The Walking Dead” but directed by Akira Kurosawa or Sam Peckinpah than a didactic bid to save the world.

Pure escapism and not to be missed.

April 14, 2016

“The Measure of a Man”; “Class Divide”

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:09 pm

Two films are playing in New York theaters that go straight for the jugular vein of capitalism. One is a French narrative film titled “The Measure of a Man” that opens tomorrow at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Metrograph (a new downtown theater committed to noncommercial film). The other is “Class Divide”, a documentary about gentrification in Chelsea that opened yesterday at the IFC Center. In addition to packing a powerful anti-capitalist message, they are fine art directed by directors with outstanding track records. So they come with the highest recommendation.

The man referred to in the title of Stéphane Brizé’s narrative film is Thierry Taugourdeau, a 51-year old machine operator who has not worked in 20 months after his boss moved his factory to a third world country where labor was cheaper. In essence, Thierry is an Everyman for the world we have been living in for the past 25 years or so. He is played by veteran French actor Vincent Lindon who is the only professional in the cast. Everybody he interacts with are nonprofessionals who have the same kind of job their characters have in the film. A young and attractive female banker who advises him to sell his apartment so he can pay off debts is a real banker. A job counselor at the unemployment office who is more sympathetic to his plight but is incapable of matching him to a job that his skills qualify him for since all the manufacturing plants seem to have grown wings and flown to south Asia, Mexico or Eastern Europe is a real unemployment counselor.

The film is structured as a series of encounters between Thierry and those who enforce the rules of bourgeois society. In one scene that rips away at your guts, he has a Skype interview with the boss of a company that needs someone to work on a machine that he has had experience with but not the latest version. When asked why he hasn’t studied the procedures for the latest machine, Thierry explains that he couldn’t afford the instruction manuals. Since the boss is a millionaire, this excuse hardly matters. Why can’t everybody take the same kind of initiatives he did in becoming rich? He can’t help resist telling Thierry that his resume needs work. It doesn’t really make clear who he was—as if someone desperate to begin working again on a factory floor needs to prepare a CV geared to a management job. The interview ends with Thierry being told that there is only a slim chance of getting the job.

Like most people without income, Thierry is behind the eight ball on anything involving money. His family always looked forward to weekends at a mobile home they own in a park near the ocean but now they are forced to sell it. In another gut-wrenching scene, he and his wife show it to potential customers who try to pressure them into selling it significantly beneath the market price. For all we know, they could be real estate vultures looking to resell it at a higher price. After being told by the prospective customers one time too many that he will breathe a sigh of relief once it is off his hands, he keeps a shred of dignity intact and refuses to sell.

Stéphane Brizé has never made a political film before. His last film was a family drama about a truckdriver and his mother who have a strained relationship, one that I did not see. Nor have I ever seen any of his other films. While not being known as a writer or director of political films, he has made one for the ages. The screenplay was co-written with Olivier Gorce, whose past body of work was also relatively apolitical. Apparently, the social and economic changes taking place in France in line with those that have precipitated the Sanders campaign in the USA have reached an intensity that men like Brizé and Gorce cannot ignore.

In an interview contained in the press notes, Brizé describes his goal in making such a film:

Q: Would you call this a political film?

A: Yes. “Political” in the sense of “organization of the polis,” or city. I looked at the life of a man who gave his body, his time, and his energy, to a company for 25 years before being left on the sidelines because his bosses decide to make the same product in another country with cheaper labor. This man is not kicked out because he didn’t do his job well. He’s kicked out because some people want to make more money. Thierry is the mechanical consequence of a few invisible shareholders whose bank accounts needed a boost. He is the face of the unemployment statistics we hear about everyday in the news. They might take up two lines in the paper, but behind them are human tragedies. On the other hand, there was never any question of using tear-jerking clichés either. Thierry is a normal man – even though the idea of a normal man has taken a beating these past years – in a brutal situation: he has been unemployed for 20 months since his factory shut down, and is now obliged to accept just about any job he can get. And when this job places the individual in a morally unacceptable situation, what can he do? Stay and be an accomplice of an unfair system, or leave and return to a precarious and unstable life? That is the heart of the film. A man’s place in a system.

A while back I had a beer with a member of Socialist Alternative in which I asked some questions about how they were organized (I was interested to see how it compared to Leninist groups I was more familiar with.) One of the questions was where they had headquarters. To my astonishment they had none in Manhattan. After seeing Marc Levin’s “Class Divide”, I understand why. Chelsea, which is basically the west 20s in Manhattan, was once a home to the Brecht Forum and CISPES. Such groups would not be able to afford a closet in an office building there now. It is amazing that Monthly Review is still there on West 29th street, not far from the action in “Class Divide”. Paul Sweezy must have signed a 200-year lease. If he were still alive, I wonder what he would make of the neighborhood that in the span of about ten years has become the most expensive in the city in what can only be called hypergentrification.

The neighborhood began to change when the High Line was finished. This was an elevated railroad track that wended its way through the industrial core of the neighborhood in the days when manufacturing rather than FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) dominated the NY economy. Abandoned for decades, it was turned into a park along tenth avenue in 2009. Clustered around the High Line are ultramodern high rises that are occupied by the superrich, 40 percent of whom are oligarchs from China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and all the other usual venues. The film reveals that the latest and most luxurious apartments have their own swimming pools and attached garages that allow the residents to transport their Lamborghinis up and down in elevators to and from street level. It is as if the architects had been inspired by a Scrooge McDuck comic book from the 1950s.

Nestled within this one percent of the one percent neighborhood are the residents of a housing project called the Chelsea-Elliot Houses whose residents are interviewed throughout the film on what they make of their new neighbors, particularly the Avenues private high school that cost $45,000 per year and many of whose students live in the new Chelsea luxury buildings. Ironically, the students are acutely aware of the class contradictions including a 17-year old Turkish girl named Yasemin Smallens who was inspired to create a project called 115 Steps that attempted to bridge the gap between the students and the residents of the housing project who live right across the street from the school.

The principal of the school was Chris Whittle, who is interviewed throughout the film. He was partners with Benno Schmidt Jr. in setting up something called the Edison Schools that now serves 450,000 students around the world in schools like Avenues. When he was President of Yale University, Schmidt embarked on a program to reduce the size of the faculty. In a 2002 article for CounterPunch, Carol Norris reported on Edison’s modus operandi:

Take for example the 20 poorest schools in Philadelphia that were privatized–handed over to Edison Schools Inc., because the city had no clue what else to do with them. Then the stock market fell and Edison’s shares plummeted. So big trucks came and took the kids’ textbooks, lab supplies, computers and musical instruments. Edison was hard up for cash. Rotten break for the kids. But at least, as Edison’s founder Chris Whittle so cleverly and very seriously suggested, they weren’t forced to work in the school’s offices as free child labor. (In a school of 600, he cooed, this free child labor would be equal 75 adults on salary.) So, the kids, with no school equipment, might as well go home and watch a lot of TV and dream of the day when their Social Security gets privatized.

As you might have guessed, Whittle is a walking encyclopedia of progressive sounding platitudes. With his ever-present bowtie and unctuous self-regard, he reminds me of Bard College’s Leon Botstein.

The most attractive people in “Class Divide” are the residents of Elliot House who are acutely aware of the class divide indicated in the film’s title. The most captivating of them is an 8-year old girl named Rosa who has more personality than any human being should be entitled to. In one interview, she talks about how thrilled she would be to meet Beyonce. When she asks Marc Levin which singer he’d love to meet in person, he answers (reasonably) Billie Holliday. Rosa says, “Oh, I’ve never heard of him.”

 

April 10, 2016

The films of Steven Soderbergh

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 4:32 pm

Steven Soderbergh

Perhaps no other director epitomizes the tension between art and commerce than Steven Soderbergh who retired recently after twenty-four years of filmmaking. In a widely discussed farewell address to the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival in April, Soderbergh identified some of the tendencies that had finally convinced him to retire, mostly focused on the difference between “movies” (commerce-driven) and “cinema” (art-driven). Apparently, the possibilities of making “cinema” (think in terms of Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa et al) are constrained now more than ever. When Soderbergh refers to baseball below, there is a certain irony since his geeky image belies his proficiency as a baseball player when young, good enough to consider becoming a pro until he learned that he was not that good. When he took an alternative professional route, cinema was the beneficiary.

When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience I thought was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This is like trying to hit a thrown baseball – but with another thrown baseball. That’s why I’m spending so much time talking to you about the business and the money, because this is the force that is pushing cinema out of mainstream movies. I’ve been in meetings where I can feel it slipping away, where I can feel that the ideas I’m tossing out, they’re too scary or too weird, and I can feel the thing. I can tell: It’s not going to happen, I’m not going to be able to convince them to do this the way I think it should be done. I want to jump up on the table and scream, “Do you know how lucky we are to be doing this? Do you understand that the only way to repay that karmic debt is to make something good, is to make something ambitious, something beautiful, something memorable?” But I didn’t do that. I just sat there, and I smiled.

Those “scary” and “weird” ideas that put off audiences accustomed to the usual juvenilia can be found in “Side Effects”, his last film targeted for theatrical release (his Liberace biopic for HBO came after it.) Like most Netflix subscribers, I am always on the lookout for new releases that merit more than three stars. When I noticed that “Side Effects” garnered 4.3 stars, my interested piqued. And when I discovered that Soderbergh directed it, the deal was closed. The Soderbergh brand was a guarantee that the film was worth watching, whether or not it died at the box office.

Soderbergh told the San Francisco gathering that the marketing might have been wrong: “There was a very active decision early on to sell the movie as kind of a pure thriller and kind of disconnect it from this larger social issue of everybody taking pills.” In fact it was both a Hitchcockian thriller with overtones of “Vertigo” as well as a commentary on the widespread use of antidepressants, with each intertwined strand dramatized powerfully. One can easily imagine the late Alexander Cockburn finding much to admire in the film given his take on such substances in the April 2nd 2005 CounterPunch:

As Prozac came off Lilly’s research bench and headed for the mass production line psychiatrists labored to formulate a multitude of bogus pathologies to be installed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, whose chief editor in the 1980s was Robert Spitzer MD, an orgone box veteran and adept copywriter skilled at minting new ailments for late twentieth-century America and sanctioning treatment, medication, state funding for the requisite pills (no expensive consultative therapy) and reimbursement by insurance companies.

Rooney Mara plays a chronically depressed female patient who begins using a new medication prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law). The drugs have a side effect—some patients experience sleepwalking. When her husband arrives home at three in the morning, he spots her dicing carrots in the kitchen as if in a trance. When he tries to gently wake her from an obvious sleepwalking bout, she plunges the knife into his midsection repeatedly until he is dead.

When the media blames her psychiatrist for prescribing an insufficiently tested drug, a scandal deep enough to jeopardize his career, he launches an investigation that will remind you of Jimmy Stewart trying to get to the bottom of Kim Novak’s mysterious suicide. It is top-flight cinema from beginning to end.

With an amazing variety of genres directed by Soderbergh over the years, ranging from low budget and almost experimental films like “Bubble” to the expensive and mindlessly entertaining Danny Oceans movies designed to make money, it is a challenge to define the typical Soderbergh work. In preparing this article, I watched Soderbergh’s very first film “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” upon which his early success rested. Despite the fact that there were no mysterious homicides in the film, it shared with his latest the theme of couples failing to communicate. There are more dysfunctional couples in the Soderbergh library than any other filmmaker I can think of, excepting Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. A writing instructor at NYU once told me that there are only ten plots in all of literature (including screenplays) with, for example, the same road story found in “Huckleberry Finn” as well as “On the Road”. Soderbergh, who experienced a brutal divorce in 1994, obviously feels an affinity with the “bad marriage” story that can be found in its initial incarnation in the biblical tale of Adam and Eve as well his last film made for TV, the Liberace/Scott Thorson saga.

After “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, Soderbergh made a series of indie type films that died at the box office and left him questioning their artistic merit as well. This led to a personal and artistic crisis that focused his mind on the movie/cinema dichotomy. In his indispensable “Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film”, Peter Biskind reports that when Soderbergh decided to make “Out of Sight”, a film based on an Elmore Leonard novel reminiscent of Tarantino (of course, Tarantino will just as easily remind you of Elmore Leonard), it was after concluding that his indie films were too “cold” and “cerebral”. He told Biskind: “My apprenticeship is over, and if I’m going to become something other than an art house director, it’s time to step up.”

While “Out of Sight” was a box office success, it was merely a prelude to “Erin Brokovich” and “Traffic”, smash hits that catapulted Soderbergh into the Hollywood elite; he became a bankable director who was the counterpart of the actors who became part of Soderbergh’s repertory company, including George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Matt Damon.

This is probably not where Soderbergh expected to end up when he was a teenager in love with art film. In a revealing interview titled “Toward a Universal Cinema” that appeared in the September 2010 World Policy Journal, the director described his original inspirations:

I was attending this laboratory school on the Louisiana State University campus and had access to a lot of films that under ordinary circumstances I never would have been exposed to. I was hanging out with these college film students and seeing movies from all over the world, in addition to classic American films. Watching “8 1/2,” or “Blowup,” or “High and Low” at 14 and 15 is a really extraordinary experience. They imprint you in a way that’s unique, you’re such a sponge at that age.

This would explain his affinity for cinema as opposed to movies, but he was never a film snob. He explained:

I think it resulted in my work having this funny combination of both aesthetics—there’s a very American desire to entertain and to tell a story, but there’s also a very European approach to style and character that is obviously influenced by those early experiences.

One cannot be sure that story-telling is uniquely “American” when considering a film like “High and Low”, but at least we can agree that Soderbergh has successfully balanced a career in movies as well as cinema, sometimes combining the two in a work like “Traffic”, sometimes going for the uncompromising independent cinematic vision of a film like “Che”, and sometimes cooking up a fun-filled money-maker like “Oceans 11”. Unlike Quentin Tarantino, Soderbergh never appeared to be competing for auteur status. For most of his career, he has simply sought to make well crafted, entertaining films of the sort that Hollywood once cranked out with regularity. With his self-effacing personality and his general aversion to venues like David Letterman’s sofa, Soderbergh is the consummate professional putting all his energy into filmmaking rather than cultivating entourages or inspiring articles in People magazine.

Biskind surmises that Soderbergh identifies with Sidney Pollack based on a remark made on a panel at the 1997 Hamptons Film Festival: “I want to know who’s gonna be the next Sidney Pollack”. Rather than reading Soderbergh’s mind, it might make sense to connect him with Richard Lester since he wrote a book titled “Getting Away With It” in 1999 that is made up primarily of interviews with the director of “A Hard Day’s Night” and many other mainstream films, such as “Superman II”.

Lester is a very witty interviewee but the book is also a must-read based on Soderbergh’s own off-kilter remarks. His introduction is both brief and hilarious:

Brief desultory discussion of forthcoming manuscript’s inception, purpose and potential audience. Self-deprecating remark. Amusing anecdote with slightly serious undertone. Awesome display of ego disguised as humility; joke about same. Transparently hollow thanks to contributors and collaborators.

There are also some priceless entries from the director’s diary:

Monday, 25 March 1996. Baton Rouge/Paris

On the plane. Hard to believe it was almost a year ago to the day we began shooting Schizopolis. Across from me is a couple that I’m assuming must be Famous, because they look the they must be Famous, I’m not sure how to explain that – it’s just an energy or something. The woman very tall and striking, and the man is taller still and sporting a short bleached-blond haircut. They are dressed in really great clothes and appear to be very much in love and I’ve decided that I hate them.

One of the benefits of making box office smashes like the Danny Ocean films is that they allow you to recycle the big bucks into cinema rather than movies. Soderbergh and Clooney formed Section Eight productions in order to fund films that the studio establishment ignored and to avoid the bullheaded cuts often required by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax. They saw Section Eight as a compromise between cinema and movies. From Biskind we learn that Clooney saw it this way: “Why can’t we do the aesthetic that came from [the ‘70s]? We just try to push an indie sensibility within the Hollywood mainstream.”

One of the projects they took on was Todd Haynes’s “Far From Heaven”, a profound examination of race and class that was inspired by Douglas Sirk’s 1950s “women’s films”. It starred Julianne Moore as the wife of a closeted gay executive who begins spending too much time with the handsome African-American son of their former gardener. The only problem was that Haynes had already spoken to Harvey Weinstein who assumed that he had a lock on the film.

When Weinstein learned that another studio was making the film with Soderbergh as executive producer, he phoned Haynes to bawl him out: “WHAT? YOU FUCKIN’ MADE YOUR DECISION? You fuck, you didn’t fuckin’ give me a chance to fuckin’ talk to you?”

Although Miramax was responsible for distributing “Sex, Lies, and Videotape”, the Weinsteins began to view Soderbergh as a lost cause after it was followed by a string of commercial and critical flops, from “Kafka” to “Schizopolis”. When he showed up at the Miramax party after the 1997 Academy Awards on the invitation of Anthony Minghella, the director of “The English Patient” that had garnered a fistful of Oscars, he was denied entrance to the VIP section, where he spotted Minghella through a glass partition. Inside a big-screen TV played excerpts from Miramax’s biggest hits, including “Sex, Lies, and Videotapes”.

The only mystery is why Steven Soderbergh stuck around Hollywood for as long as he did. Perhaps this excerpt from his farewell speech says it best:

But before we talk about movies we should talk about art in general, if that’s possible. Given all the incredible suffering in the world I wonder, what is art for, really? If the collected works of Shakespeare can’t prevent genocide then really, what is it for? Shouldn’t we be spending the time and resources alleviating suffering and helping other people instead of going to the movies and plays and art installations? When we did Ocean’s Thirteen the casino set used $60,000 of electricity every week. How do you justify that? Do you justify that by saying, the people who could’ve had that electricity are going to watch the movie for two hours and be entertained – except they probably can’t, because they don’t have any electricity, because we used it. Then I think, what about all the resources spent on all the pieces of entertainment? What about the carbon footprint of getting me here? Then I think, why are you even thinking that way and worrying about how many miles per gallon my car gets, when we have NASCAR, and monster truck pulls on TV? So what I finally decided was, art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being – literally seeing the world the way they see it.

April 2, 2016

Nanook of the North, revisited

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 5:12 pm

Introducing a screening of Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 masterpiece “Nanook of the North” at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York on March 3rd, 2013 Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq–there to provide musical accompaniment– warned the audience that her people were not cheerful despite the words that appear near the beginning:

The sterility of the soil and the rigor of the climate no other race could survive; yet here, utterly dependent upon animal life, which is their sole source of food, live the most cheerful people in all the world–the fearless, lovable, happy-go-lucky Eskimo.

When Flaherty began filming, the word documentary did not exist. If required to depict the Inuit in cinéma vérité fashion, the director would never have bothered since his professed goal was to show the Inuit as they lived before they became corrupted by outside civilization. This meant, for example, directing Nanook to hunt seals with a handcrafted harpoon rather than a rifle that was customary at the time.

In a 1990 documentary titled “Nanook Revisited” that does aspire to historical accuracy and that is unfortunately only available from research libraries today, the production team went to Inukjuak, the village in northern Quebec where Flaherty shot his film, to interview relatives of Nanook’s contemporaries as well as knowledgeable villagers. The manager of the local television station Moses Nowkawalk was both amused and annoyed by inaccuracies. For example, Flaherty had Nanook looking mystified by a phonograph player and taking a bite out of a record but Nowkawalk points out that the villagers had been listening to records for years. A cruder version of this scene took place in the 1980 narrative film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” with Kalahari Bushmen worshiping a Coke bottle tossed out of a airplane.

Much of “Nanook of the North” involves reenactment. For example, one of the most memorable scenes depicts Nanook building an igloo in the way it was done from time immemorial. After the job is completed, the family streams in and waits for night to descend. They tuck themselves into bed (a platform of snow covered by fur) looking as blissed out as models in a Sleepy’s mattress commercial. Since it would have been impossible to film inside the dark interior of an igloo, Flaherty instructed Nanook to create only half of one, leaving the interior exposed to light as well as bitter cold. Despite the “cheerful” look of its inhabitants, they are suffering—all for the cause of cinema.

The greatest fiction of all were the characters themselves, who understood that they were actors in a drama built on the premise that they were living the lives of their ancestors. Nanook, which means hunter in the Inuit language, was actually named Allakariallak. His two wives in the film were not really his. Instead, during the course of filming they became Flaherty’s mistresses, one giving birth to his son Josephie with whom Flaherty never made contact.

Paddy Aqiatusuk, who became a soapstone sculptor of international renown, eventually adopted Josephie Flaherty. In 1953 the Canadian government forced Paddy’s family and two other families to relocate to Ellesmere Island at the far northern reaches of Hudson Bay. Although only 87 Inuit were exiled, the cruelty and the racism matched that of the forced march of the Cherokees to Oklahoma known as the “trail of tears”.

In another documentary committed to the accurate portrayal of Inuit life titled “Martha of the North” (available on streaming from the National Film Board of Canada for $2.95), we learn about the suffering of those Inuit families. The Martha of the title is Josephie’s daughter and the main subject of the film. She is visiting Ellesmere Island for the first time since her childhood exile. After Martha Flaherty reached adulthood, she became one of the Inuit nation’s leading activists for human rights. One can understand the passion of her commitment given the terrible injustices she faced as a child.

The Canadian government, and more particularly the Royal Mounties who supervised the relocation, had a reductionist view of Inuit life. Since the natives were accustomed to frigid conditions and to hunting, why would they object to being moved further north?

For a companion guide to “Martha of the North”, it is difficult to imagine anything more sensitively written and well-researched than Melanie McGrath’s 2006 “The Long Exile”. Here she describes the initial reaction of Paddy and other Inuit to their new surroundings:

And so the days passed and after the second or third week of patchy hunting and endless trips into the mountains for ice and heather, Paddy Aqiatusuk, as camp leader, came to the conclusion that the Lindstrom Peninsula was unsurvivable. He had serious misgivings about the camp’s ability even to survive the winter unless they were moved. The shale beach was too narrow and steep and the sheer cliffs behind made it impossible to watch for caribou or polar bears. There was no proper water source and insufficient heather or plant material for fuel.

Growing more and more miserable with conditions on Ellesmere Island, Paddy convinced his stepson Josephie to join him in the far north. While Josephie was happy to be reunited with Paddy, he was appalled by conditions that forced him and his family to take desperate measures. With food in short supply, the Inuit families began to take long treks on a daily basis to find quarry. On one such trip, the two young sons of Thomasie Amagoalik fell through thin ice and drowned. Meanwhile Josephie brought his young daughter Martha with him on polar bear hunts, as she recounts in the documentary. It was a miracle that she managed to survive such ordeals. When game was not available, the Inuit had no other choice but to dig through the garbage dump of the Royal Mounties looking for scraps just like homeless people. In a very real sense, they were homeless.

If the “trail of tears” was a nation-building exercise on the part of the young and imperial-minded American neighbor to its south, Canada had similar ambitions. In 1953 the Arctic was a contested region with various great powers seeking to control as much territory as possible in the hope that precious resources were in the offing. In the forced settlement of Inuit families to the far north, the Canadian government hoped to establish a legal territorial claim through facts on the ground. This race is ongoing. In September 2012, a Russian submarine lowered a “holy memory capsule” blessed by an Archbishop into the water near the North Pole in a similar bid.

The “scramble for the Arctic” was a typical colonizing project. In “Nanook and His Contemporaries: Imagining Eskimos in American Culture, 1897-1922” (Critical Inquiry, Autumn 2000), Shari Huhndorf cites an article by Admiral Peary published in the December 1903 National Geographic:

As a matter of prestige [gaining the Pole] is worth while….

As a matter of patriotism based upon the obligations of our manifest destiny, it is worth while. The North American world segment is our home, our birthright, our destiny. The boundaries of that segment are the Atlantic and the Pacific, the Isthmus and the Pole…. Believe me, the winning of the North Pole will be one of the great milestones of history, like the discovery of the New World by Columbus and the conquest of the Old by Alexander…

Let us attain it, then. It is our privilege and our duty. Let us capture the prize and win the race which the nations of the civilized world have been struggling for for nearly four centuries, the prize which is the last great geographical prize the earth has to offer… What a splendid feat for this great and wealthy country if, having girdled the earth, we might reach the north and south and plant “Old Glory” on each Pole. How the imagination stirs at the thought!

Robert J. Flaherty, an Irishman, came to Canada in the same spirit. Before he became a filmmaker, he worked for a mining company surveying the land for marketable resources. In the course of his travels, he became infatuated with the Inuit and then decided to make a film about them. Combining art and commerce, he received funding from the Revillon Frères fur company in the same way that a documentary about the Olympics might get financial backing from Nike today.

At the turn of the twentieth century, there was fascination with the Inuit who were considered unspoiled by an industrial society that was becoming less free even as it was capable of producing consumer goods by the truckload. The Inuit were seen as “noble savages” who were not only capable of living off the grid but being “cheerful” all the while. But in reality they were integrated into capitalist property relations just as most native peoples of Canada were. Companies like Revillon Frères relied heavily on the Inuit or the Blackfoot Indians to hunt and trap beaver and fox for the European luxury market. During the Great Depression, the price of fox pelts declined drastically, throwing the Inuit into economic ruin.

For people like Robert Flaherty, there was a tendency to view the Inuit as they used to be rather than as they were. While he was much more respectful toward them than Admiral Peary who regarded them as childish and backward (even as he relied on them to survive in the far north), he could not accept them on their own terms.

If Flaherty was a product of his age, the same can be said of the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, from whom a more enlightened attitude might be expected. Despite his professed objection to racism, Boas paid Admiral Peary to bring some “specimens” back to New York where they could be studied at the Museum of Natural History. Like Napoleon Chagnon’s Yanomami, the Inuit were supposedly a people who were a throwback to the stone ages even though they were accustomed to trading furs in exchange for steel knives and rifles. When the Inuit began dying from diseases for which they had no resistance, a survivor demanded that his father’s bones be returned to their homeland. Boas could not be bothered, telling a reporter “the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.”

Is it any wonder why Tanya Tagaq did not feel cheerful?

As part of a worldwide resistance to white domination, native peoples have been fighting for their rights everywhere in the world, including the Inuit. Among their greatest grievances was the exile to Ellesmere Island. In 1987 the Inuit filed a claim against the Canadian government seeking $10 million in damages and an apology. After stonewalling for over a decade, the government acceded to all the Inuit demands. On August 18, 2010 the Minister of Indian Affairs wrote:

We would like to express our deepest sorrow for the extreme hardship and suffering caused by the relocation.  The families were separated from their home communities and extended families by more than a thousand kilometres.  They were not provided with adequate shelter and supplies.  They were not properly informed of how far away and how different from Inukjuak their new homes would be, and they were not aware that they would be separated into two communities once they arrived in the High Arctic.  Moreover, the Government failed to act on its promise to return anyone that did not wish to stay in the High Arctic to their old homes.

Of even greater significance was the creation of the province of Nunavut on April 1, 1999. This new Canadian province that included Ellesmere Island was to be the homeland of the Inuit people with their language enjoying the same status as English. Not long after Nunavut came into existence, a staff member of Nunavut Arctic College showed up on the Marxism mailing list I moderate. As someone sympathetic to indigenous struggles, I welcomed him eagerly. He identified the issues that confronted the Inuit historically in a post to the list:

The Hudson Bay Company from the UK was concerned with furs and instant wealth.  The original banalities of the original investors (aristocracy) couldn’t see the usefulness of Canada as a land, what they wanted was trading posts to supply the wealth from the north. The different clergy came along too, hanging on the coat-tails of mighty in order to establish their own bridgehead. There have been many stories told of sexual abuse of aboriginal kids who were forced away to residential schools by the clergy. They were forbidden to use their own languages and mistreated in different ways.

As a symbol of Inuit self-determination, Nunavut is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of a nation seeking to define its own culture and economic destiny. Although it was not intended to be a corrective to “Nanook of the North”, the 2001 narrative film “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (available from Amazon for a used DVD at around $6) was the first ever to be made by the Inuit. It is based on a tale handed down through generations via oral traditions. The screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq, who died in 1998 before the film was completed, gave an interview to Nancy Wachowich, a Scottish professor. In response to her question about whether the film will be different from others made about the Inuit, he replied:

There are a number of differences between what we are doing and other movies that have been produced regarding our Inuit culture. This movie will be based on an Inuit legend, and also it is all going to be in Inuktitut. And also, all of the actors will have to be Inuk. No Japanese or whoever else who pretend to be Inuit. You know. It will be done the Inuit way. We want things presented in the movie the way they would have happened in real life. That is what we are going to do.

It will be done the Inuit way. That would be the best way to bring the Nanook saga to a just conclusion.

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