Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 11, 2019

Chained for Life; Depraved

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:40 pm

Two films open this week that challenge the idea that “normalcy” has anything to do with virtue. “Chained for Live”, which opens at the IFC in NY today and at the Landmark in LA on Friday, is inspired by Todd Browning’s “Freaks” but without the carnival sideshow vibe that made the original such a cult hit. Directed by Aaron Schimberg, who was born with “a gaping hole” in his face that was surgically repaired, it confronts conventional expectations as he explains in the press notes:

When disfigured characters are seen at all in films (usually played by handsome actors with disfiguring latex), they are trotted out to play monsters or objects of pity, made into vessels for the symbolic expression of cruelty, sin, villainy and other ills. “Bitter defectives,” as a character in my film says. Even when they’re portrayed sympathetically, they function only to impart inspirational lessons to the able-bodied people who encounter them.

“Depraved”, which opens at the IFC on Friday, is based on the Frankenstein story but, like “Chained for Life”, leaves you with the feeling that it is normal people who must be feared. It is directed by Larry Fessenden, who is hands down the smartest and most socially aware director of horror movies today. Made in 2007, “The Last Winter” was about global warming. This film was way ahead of the curve given the occurrence of five category five hurricanes in the last 3 years as compared to the zero count between the time “The Last Winter” was made and 2016.

“Chained for Life” is a movie within a movie. It is set in a hospital that has been rented out for the filming of an art-house version of “Freaks”. They are put through the paces by a pretentious German director who struck me as either an intended or unintended send-up of Werner Herzog, who has made a number of films about abnormal people. One that certainly must have violated Schimberg’s sense of fair play was the 1970 “Even Dwarfs Must Start Small” that depicted a group of dwarfs in an institution on a remote island rebellimg against the guards and director (all dwarfs as well). Vincent Canby said, “Herzog is a highly skilled director, but his images, because of their essential meaninglessness, become their own reason for being, “indistinguishable from its Germanic, side-show spectacle, as if it were a movie that had been conceived by the same kind of perverse, uninvolved intelligence that had created the world of the film.”

The plot of the movie in the movie revolves around the a doctor who is experimenting on dwarves, giants, conjoined twins, etc.–the same kinds of people who were featured in “Freaks”–in order to develop a procedure that will allow his blind sister to see again.

Among them is Rosenthal, who is the hero of the movie and a hero in real life as well. He is played by Adam Pearson, a British citizen who suffers from neurofibromatosis. This is an illness in which non-cancerous tumors grow in the nervous system. That would ordinarily be bad enough in itself but it has the added curse of disfiguring your face and skull. Pearson has been very active in speaking to young people against bullying.

What he has to put up with in the film is not bullying but patronizing insensitivity that is highlighted in a scene during a break when the actor playing the mad doctor says all sorts of stupid things in the course of taking a selfie with him. As Schimberg and Pearson certainly understand, actors and actresses are not the smartest people around. The film begins with a quote from Pauline Kael, the long-time critic of The New Yorker, a magazine that epitomized superficial notions of beauty both in its advertisements and its middle-class values:

Actors and actresses are usually more beautiful than ordinary people. And why not? Why should we be deprived of the pleasure of beauty? It is a supreme asset for actors and actresses to be beautiful; it gives them greater range and greater possibilities for expressiveness. The handsomer they are, the more roles they can play…Actors and actresses who are beautiful start with an enormous advantage. because we love to look at them.

Aaron Schimberg refutes this quote through the humanity of the people he has cast. This is a film that not only rejects Hollywood superficiality but is a joy to watch.

Returning from an evening of love-making with his girlfriend, Alex, a handsome, self-involved yuppie computer programmer, is knifed to death on a dark street in New York City. Some days later, he is resurrected (or more accurately, his brain is) in the body of a man who has been stitched together by Henry (David Call), a medic who had served in Iraq and who is suffering from PTSD. Tormented by his failure to save the lives of fellow soldiers in Iraq, he is determined to develop a procedure that combines medication and body parts to bring them back to life. There is no Igor in this film. The only people who know about this latter-day Frankenstein’s experiments is his girlfriend (Ana Kayne) and his old friend and business partner Polidori (Joshua Leonard) who is far more interested in making money than saving lives.

When the “monster” wakes up, Henry begins to orient him to his rebirth. He tells him that he is Adam, named obviously after the first man. Over the next few months, he begins to develop Adam’s skills, which involve doing simple jigsaw puzzles at first and then moving on to ping-pong.

Polidori, who is ethically and psychologically depraved, decides to take Adam for a night out on the town, which means going to dance clubs, doing coke and drinking. After seeing scantily clad women for the first time, Adam decides he needs a mate just as was the case in the 1935 classic “The Bride of Frankenstein”. As was the case in this film, “Depraved” ends up with a bloody confrontation between the “monster” and his creators.

In the press notes, Fessenden describes his goals in making such a film:

In most versions of the story, the doctor is repulsed by his creature and rejects the thing he brought into this world. Since I don’t deal as much with physical deformity in the portrayal of the monster, I focus on Henry’s ambivalence about his responsibilities after proving he is capable of creating life. It seems we rarely anticipate the repercussions of scientific advancements; we simply pursue them regardless of consequence. And our wars leave collateral damage in their wake: veterans with PTSD, societies ravaged, environments wasted.

Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” in 1818, the year of Karl Marx’s birth. The underlying theme of the novel is that challenging nature, like bring someone back to life through a collection of body parts revived by electricity, can lead to disasters. Is it any wonder that the title of the novel has been appropriated to describe GMO as Frankenfood, for example.

Rejecting these fears, the Marxist scientist J. B. S. Haldane wrote in 1924: “There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion.” Perhaps so but under capitalism it is almost predictable that every scientific breakthrough, including nuclear energy most of all, will be a perversion.

 

September 6, 2019

Crimes of the Criminal Justice System

Filed under: african-american,Counterpunch,crime,Film,prison — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, SEPTEMBER 6, 2019

Your first reaction to the concurrence of three online films about the racist abuses of the American criminal justice system might be to attribute this to pure happenstance. However, given the objective reality of the increasing legal, moral and political rot of the police, the courts and the prison system, it was inevitable that filmmakers of conscience would feel impelled to respond to the crisis. In other words, we should not speak of happenstance but ineluctability.

Made for Netflix, Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is a docudrama about the Central Park Five, a group of African-American teens who spent up to twelve years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Running on HBO, “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” is a documentary about a Jamaican soccer coach accused of the murder of the 12-year old son of his ex-girlfriend in Potsdam, New York. Like the cops in DuVernay’s film, their investigation is filled with irregularities intended to help convict a Black man. Finally, there is “Free Meek” on Amazon Prime, another documentary, this time about a successful rapper from Philadelphia who is hounded by an African-American female judge determined to keep him on probation for the rest of his life for a crime he supposedly committed when he was 19-years old. Like the Central Park Five, his main crime in the eyes of the cops was being Black. As is so often the case with such victims, having Black cops, judges or prison guards does not make much difference to people of color being cast down into the system of hell they maintain.

Continue reading

August 27, 2019

The Load

Filed under: Film,Yugoslavia — louisproyect @ 7:16 pm

No other European nationality has been demonized more in the recent past than the Serbs. Starting with the war in Bosnia in 1992 and continuing through the war in Kosovo that lasted until 1999, they have been depicted as fascist monsters. The demonization finally relented when President Milosevic was ousted in a coup in 2000. And nowhere is the demonization more pronounced than in cinema where Serbs have been given more or less the same status as Arab terrorists. The most extreme of these films was “Welcome to Sarajevo” that I reviewed in 1997:

To prove how inhuman the Serbs are, the film includes a horrifying scene. A bus carrying the orphaned children out of Sarajevo into the safety of Italy is stopped at gun-point by ranting Serb soldiers. They board the bus and take Muslim babies with them, presumably to be barbecued and eaten later. It is astonishing that “Welcome to Sarajevo” puts forward the notion that the Serb army would exterminate innocent children in this manner. The real crime of “ethnic cleansing” was beastly enough, but it was designed to carve out pieces of Bosnian territory in order to exclude one ethnic group or another, not exterminate them. While the Serbs were certainly more aggressive than the Muslims, both sides took part in the blood-letting.

Even the Nazis got a better treatment than this in “Das Boot”, the 1982 film about a German submarine crew. After more than a dozen films that portrayed Serbs as mustache-twirling villains out of central casting, there is a new film that opens Friday at Lincoln Center, which departs from the official version. Directed by a 34-year old Serb named Ognjen Glavonić, “The Load” tells the story of Vlada (Leon Lucev), a 40-something man paid to transport a truckload of goods across the border from Kosovo into Belgrade during wartime. The publicity likens the film to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “The Wages of Fear” but it is not at all like this. Although you are reminded of the war continuously through burning wreckage both on the road and near it, it much more about the quiet acceptance of a man forced to take risks to put food on his table. Back in Belgrade, he has a wife and son who await his return. The road to Belgrade is fraught with danger but Glavonić has not made an action film. Instead, he has created an existential tale set against the backdrop of war but it is the man’s soul that concerns him, not his heroism.

Even though we have no idea what “the load” in the back of the truck consists of, we do know that is connected to the war since armed detachments of Serb fighters meet him at either end. Most of the film consists of Vlada and a 19-year old hitchhiker named Paja (Pavle Čemerikić) exchanging small talk as they wend their way northward. Tired of the war and an uncertain future, Paja is on his way to Munich. Vlada is both happy to have some company on the trip but occasionally irritated with the youth who probably had no business being in the truck. Probably the most telling scene that distinguishes this film from run-of-the-mill action movies takes place when Vlada is standing near his truck on the side of the road when a police car pulls up with the lights flashing. If this was a conventional film, he would have overpowered the cop and shot him with his own gun. As it happens, the cops were fellow Serbs who waved him along after he shows them a written order from the men who hired him. We can assume that they were Serbian military brass.

Cinematically, “The Load” is as bold as its subject matter. Using a palette of olive drab and gray, the film assumes a melancholy tone in keeping with the narrative. There is no film score, only the continuous sound of the truck’s engine that creates a mood more effective than any music.

It is only in the final 15 minutes of the film that the Serb identity begins to be foregrounded. Vlada discusses the family’s situation with his wife and his son Ivan (Ivan Lučev) who have grown weary of NATO bombing. He urges them to find a place to stay in the country that is less of a target. He will rejoin them after one last trip from Kosovo to Belgrade. A conventional film might have Vlada killed off just like Yves Montand in “The Wages of Fear” but director Ognjen Glavonić has something else in mind as the press note’s interview would indicate:

I didn’t want to make an action movie. I didn’t want to have hundreds of different shots and camera angles, as it was more important to spend that time with him and the sound of the truck, to see what he sees and to feel what he feels. This film is defined by two words: isolation and occupation. When he steps out of the truck cabin, he steps into a territory that’s occupied by war: the bombs, gunshots, noise, but also the fear and paranoia, which has already awakened in people. Which is why Vlada always goes back to that truck.

Resolutely determined to avoid action film conventions as well as pat political commentary, Glavonić does come up with a rather poignant depiction of Serb resistance to NATO bombing. It is not a spoiler alert to state that it is a virtual “fuck you” to the bombers rather than a missile taking down a plane.

August 23, 2019

Time Thieves

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:30 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 23, 2019

As I have pointed out in previous reviews, Icarus, the New York film distributor, is far and away the most important source of anti-capitalist documentaries. In keeping with their commitment to class struggle cinema, “Time Thieves”, their latest, hones in on the ways in which the capitalist system makes us slaves to the clock.

When I worked at a Boston bank in the early 70s, I kept Marx’s words pinned to my cubicle wall:

The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.

–Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844

At the start of “Time Thieves”, we see people of all ages at leisure enjoying themselves. After a minute or so, we see another cross-section of humanity trudging off to work or to school as narrator Sarah Davidson comments: “Under capitalism, time has become a resource with a huge economic value. And those profiting from it want as much of our time as possible. They even steal it from us.”

Director Cosima Dannoritzer begins by showing the chaos that ensues when a new restaurant billed as completely staff-less opens up. Patrons save money by preparing the meals themselves, going one step further than the automats that enjoyed a heyday in the 30s through the 50s. In the kitchen, it is a miracle that those conned into trying this out did not lose a finger or suffer third-degree burns. I say conned because we soon learn that a restaurant workers union staged the whole thing to illustrate the importance of having trained professionals doing the work.

Continue reading

August 20, 2019

Quentin Tarantino, Eileen Jones, and the perils of film school theorizing

Filed under: Academia,Film — louisproyect @ 7:06 pm

Eileen Jones

The first inkling I got that Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was grist for the university film department mill was a comment by FB friend Greg Burris:

So I was thinking about the film. DiCaprio’s character is the linchpin. He’s a mess, full of doubt and loathing and insecurity. But he has two doubles full of confidence and alpha-white male security. The first double is his screen persona, and we clearly see the difference between his pathetic self and his macho alter-ego in the scene where he keeps forgetting his lines. When he is in character, he is bold and strong, but when he breaks character, his nervous stutter returns. DiCaprio’s second double is Brad Pitt’s character–the working class hero. Nothing fazes him. Not even Bruce Lee! Pitt is like a 1969 version of his character from FIGHT CLUB. He is the macho, suave, uncomplicated, masculine ideal–a mythic image required by both films’ neurotic protagonists (Norton in one, DiCaprio in the other).

It continues in this vein, top-heavy with interpretation but very little effort made in judging the film as either art or entertainment. When I read his post four days ago, I made a mental note to myself that he must be either a film student or a film professor. Going back just now to retrieve his post, I discovered that I guessed right. He teaches at the American University in Lebanon, with his web page stating that he “a film and cultural theorist whose work focuses on race, media, and emancipatory politics, particularly in the context of the U.S. Black freedom movement and the Palestinian liberation struggle.”

I had no plans to mention him in this post but when I spotted a FB link to Eileen Jones’s article on Tarantino’s film on Jacobin in the same vein, I decided to offer some thoughts on the kind of approach both film professors take (she is a lecturer at UC Berkeley) especially when some potshots I took at her this morning aggravated Ron Cox, a political science professor who must have felt defensive about my admittedly rude remark about academic film theory:

Another reason to hate Jacobin. What its resident film critic Eileen Jones has to say about the Sharon Tate character in Tarantino’s latest. The ecstatic representation of utopian possibility? You can only write such bullshit when you have a job as a lecturer on film at UC Berkeley:

She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Ron remonstrated with me:

A lot of people I know, who live and work far away from the university, love this film, for many of the same reasons expressed by the critic. I tend to agree with her, though I liked David Edelstein’s review better. With all due respect to you, Louis, not every one who disagrees with you is a shill or tool of institutional conformity. I like a lot of what you write, but disagree with just about everything you said about this film. I judge a film based on how I feel when I watch it. That means: am I “into it” or not, and then I try to strip out everything else, including what other people said about it. I was “into this” all the way through. Loved it.

I told Ron that he is entitled to be “into” Tarantino’s film. As I tried to make clear in my review, I was “into” “Inglourious Bastards” and every other film he made up to that point. My reviews are not intended to warn people off from Hollywood films, for that matter. I usually go the entire year ignoring them until November when I get a batch of screeners from publicists to influence my vote in the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Up until that point, my reviews are heavily focused on documentaries, foreign-language films and American indie films that tend to be neglected.

Let me now turn to Jones’s article that will allow me to make some basic points about film journalism. To start with, it has to be said that Jacobin is an academic journal in many ways even though it is not behind a JSTOR paywall. Like Jones, most of its contributors are either professors or grad students. Of the five featured articles on the Jacobin website right now, four have been written by academics and the fifth is by Meagan Day, a Jacobin staff writer. (That does not included Jones’s article that appeared on August 6th.)

Titled “Go Ahead, Take the Adventure of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”, Jones’s article is a defense of Tarantino’s film against the attack made by people on the left, including The New Yorker Magazine’s Richard Brody who Jones quotes: “If only the old-line Hollywood people of the fifties and sixties had maintained their pride of place — if only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the kingdom hadn’t been handed over to the freethinkers and decadents of the sixties—-then both Hollywood and the world would be a better, safer, happier place.”

In my own review, I did not try to judge the film’s politics since that is a fool’s errand when it comes to Tarantino. Brody’s review was not nearly as vitriolic as that of the unnamed critic cited at the beginning of her review who reviled it as “just another white man’s nostalgia film.” As it happens, that’s just a made-up quote by Jones. You can’t find any review with such a formulation. In fact, of the 15 percent of critics on Rotten Tomatoes who deemed the film “rotten”, not a single one attacked it from the left, including mine. For example, Gary Kramer of the left-leaning Salon (even if slightly) complained mostly about the violent ending that was “more graphic and over-the-top than it needs to be.”

One can understand why Burris and Jones would find so much grist to chew over in this film since the subject matter is film itself. It draws a distinction between the classic Hollywood westerns and a new era that is marked by the arrival of Roman Polanski, who lives next door to the has-been actor Rick Dalton, played by Leo DiCaprio. Here’s Jones sinking her teeth into the film metanarrative:

The same turmoil that’s diminishing Rick’s fame is creating opportunities for upcoming stars like his next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and European new wave talent like her husband, Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), whose hit film Rosemary’s Baby has taken Hollywood by storm. There’s a certain controversy about the way Tarantino conceived the third lead role of Sharon Tate, with its relative lack of dialogue. But the character of Sharon is key to the impact of the film. She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Since Tarantino was six years old in 1969, I am not sure he understood the period well enough to represent his Sharon Tate character as “the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility…opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval.” That sounds much more like Jones’s projection of her own analysis on a inkblot test of a movie that most critics regard as more ambiguous than Tarantino’s usual fare. As for Jones, who was probably born after 1969, you have to wonder what gave her the idea that “social upheaval” had anything to do with Sharon Tate. I am reasonably confident in describing Tate as the typical Hollywood starlet who would end up seated next to Johnny Carson talking about her next film as opposed, for example, to Jane Fonda or Jean Seberg who took courageous stands in favor of peace and Black liberation that very year.

For that matter, Tarantino has a squirm-inducing scene in which Tate shows up at a theater showing her latest film and inveigling free admission from the ticket clerk and manager since she is in the film. She sits in the audience enthralled with her scene in the movie. If you extracted this 10 minute portion of the film and showed it to people who knew nothing about Tarantino, they’d probably conclude that they were watching a complete airhead.

It is difficult to pin down what Tarantino was trying to say about American society or film, a function of his knack for writing screenplays that come from the gut rather than the brain. Given the ambiguity of this latest film and its filmic subject matter, it will likely be discussed in film departments all across the country when the fall term begins.

Ambiguity is made to order for film theorists. In 1930, William Empson wrote a book titled “Seven Types of Ambiguity” that became a handbook of New Criticism. Poems were not studied to see what made them work as art but what hidden message they concealed. New Criticism was made to order for modernist poetry with TS Eliot, WB Yeats and Ezra Pound offering up works that defied easy explanations of the sort offered for Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Even if New Criticism no longer enjoys the hegemony it once had in the literary world, its precepts seem to have been adopted wholesale by film theorists.

Pop Culture is especially made to order for the leftwing film theorist since its hidden meanings might be excavated in order to raise social consciousness about the class struggle dagger concealed in the velvet glove. With millions eventually going to see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, just imagine the impact the film will have on the uninitiated if the buried meaning Jones mines from it is true:

Such lively film history do-overs have had a pop kinship with left-wing cinema since the 1920s, when Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov sought to demonstrate as kinetically as possible how films could imaginatively manipulate representations of contemporary as well as historical reality, in part to show its malleability and embolden a revolutionary vision of the world. This new take on 1969 in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, which emphasizes the opening up of radical possibilities instead of closing them down, helps us reflect on the way we’ve received that landmark bit of history through media up to now. And it evokes our own discouraging state of affairs in 2019, also a time of stubborn stasis resisting immense turmoil in the culture, as well as what looks like bad prospects for the survival of the movie industry.

Grouping Tarantino with revolutionary Russian filmmakers of the 1920s is utter nonsense. Eisenstein and Vertov made films that championed socialism. They never would have worked for someone like Harvey Weinstein. Jones says that “this new take on 1969” opened up radical possibilities rather than closing them down. Really? In the final scene, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) takes a woman in Manson’s gang and bashes her head against a brick wall until her brains spill out while Rick Dalton (Leo DiCaprio) uses a flame-thrower on another. Is this supposed to represent “radical possibilities”?

In Bhaskar Sunkara’s “The Socialist Manifesto”, the radical movement of the 1960s is covered in a single page out of 400. The idea that a contributor to Jacobin can extract some sort of radicalism out of a Tarantino film that is a mixture of nostalgia and hyper-violence is another sign of the magazine’s myopia. I can’t imagine what these people think about 1969. At least when I was their age, I was fortunate enough to listen carefully to what people like Farrell Dobbs and George Novack said about the 30s. They, after all, lived through it.

All I was expecting out of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was a good time. Judging by the 90 percent empty seats in the Cineplex I attended, I suspect the word-of-mouth is not that great.

Let me be brief about my own approach to film journalism. For me, the screenplay is essential. I hearken back to Aristotle’s “Poetics”: “The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place.” What is the plot in Tarantino’s film? For the better part of two hours, a couple of Hollywood professionals sit around reminiscing about the good old days. Afterward, one of them runs into a member of Manson’s cult who takes him out to the ranch where they are based. Suspicious of the “hippies”, he checks in on the old man who it belongs to that he knows from the days when he worked as a stunt man on films made there. In the final fifteen minutes of the film, he smokes an LSD-laced joint and gets stoned. In such a state, he still manages to get the best of 3 Mansonites who have barged into Rick Dalton’s house rather than Polanski’s next door. That’s about it.

As for Aristotle’s emphasis on character, there’s virtually none of it outside his two leading men. Maybe there was more of it in the offing in the original script. According to the actor who played Charles Manson, “He did cut quite a lot out of the film. The stuff I got to do in that was lighter and more of a fun tone…” Manson? Fun tone? Maybe it was just as well it was left out.

As I said in my CounterPunch review, not a single character other than the two male leads has any kind of substance. The Manson cult is lacking in character development, except for the under-age nymphet that the stunt man drives out to the ranch. Even in her case, she is monotonically offering up her body to him like a sex robot they use in Japan.

Jones is not bothered by the insubstantiality of Manson’s character: “Tarantino’s Manson makes only the briefest appearance early on near the Tate-Polanski house, looking for Terry Melcher, but he haunts the film via the periodic reappearances of his followers acting on his instructions as they thread their own dark way through the narrative.” This is deeply problematic. In “Inglourious Basterds”, the counterpart to Manson is a Nazi officer played by Christof Waltz who is essential to the film. His sneering, self-justifying but always captivating manner is the perfect foil for the band of heroes who, unlike Cliff Booth, know exactly what their goal is—to save humanity, not just drive off hippie home invaders.

Once Tarantino decided on this plot, he might have found himself out of his depth. To turn the Manson cult into flesh-and-blood human beings rather than grotesque monsters would be a real challenge. If I had written the screenplay, I would have spent a lot less time with the camera trained on the nearly homoerotic bonding between Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The film would have gained a lot from showing exactly how Manson was able to turn women into his willing slaves through his warped charisma. By elevating him into a more significant figure, the final showdown might have had more power. But that’s just me. I’m not a Hollywood screenwriter, only a blogger. I prefer it that way since I would never want to make the kind of films The Weinstein Company produced, no matter the pay.

August 16, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 4:11 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 16, 2019

After being sorely disappointed by Quentin Tarantino’s last two films— “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained” —I decided to wait for a studio screener of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in November. This is when I customarily get freebies from studio publicists hoping to influence my vote in NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December. But when I discovered that the film had antagonized some people on the left, I decided to get a senior’s ticket to see for myself what was going on.

Tarantino has the distinction of being the only filmmaker whose entire corpus I have seen. Since he has made only 8 films in the past 27 years, that’s a relatively easy task. Unlike Woody Allen, who churns films out like they were made on an assembly line, Tarantino takes his time. As for time itself, you can say that it erodes the talents of even the greatest artists. In the case of Hollywood legends like Woody and Quentin, the erosion process combines with their control of every aspect of film production to degrade the quality of the product. Who would dare say anything about the Emperor’s New Clothes?

After Tarantino left The Weinstein Company in the aftermath of #MeToo’s spotlight on Harvey Weinstein and joined the Sony Corporation, he was guaranteed full control over “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. That’s too bad because someone might have vetoed the film’s co-star Brad Pitt playing a stunt man whose claim to fame (or infamy) was killing his wife and then being found not guilty in OJ Simpson style. Why was he cleared, you ask? You won’t find the answer in Tarantino’s film. Maybe he lost the pages of his script answering this question one morning on the way to the studio and forgot all about it.

Continue reading

August 2, 2019

Piranhas; Gomorrah

Filed under: Counterpunch,crime,Film,mafia — louisproyect @ 3:45 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, AUGUST 2, 2019

Opening today at the Howard Gilman Theater in Lincoln Center, “Piranhas” is a coming-of-age film about 15-year-old wannabe gangsters living on the mean streets of Naples. It is based on a fact-based novel by Robert Saviano titled “La Paranza dei Bambini” that means “The Children’s Gang”, a much better title for a very good film.

Saviano also wrote another fact-based novel titled “Gomorrah”, which the 2008 film of the same name was based on. If Alexander Stile’s “Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic” is the key text for understanding the Sicilian mafia, Saviano’s novels play the same role for the Camorra, the Naples-based mafia that is arguably more embedded in the Italian corporate state than its rivals and more destructive. Unlike the Sicilians, the Neapolitans do not have a hierarchical structure in which a top don controls the clans beneath him. More horizontal than vertical, the gangs in the Campania region of southern Italy are notorious for the bloody feuds that drive the narratives of films based on Saviano’s novels. This review will take up the two aforementioned films as well as “Gomorrah”, the two-season Italian TV series on Netflix that is based on Saviano’s novel with alternating directors, including Claudio Giovannesi who directed “Pirhanas”.

Continue reading

July 23, 2019

For Sama

Filed under: Film,Syria — louisproyect @ 6:18 pm

Opening on Friday at the Quad in New York and at the Laemmle in Los Angeles, “For Sama” is a documentary filmed and directed by Waad al-Kateab, the young mother of Sama, a baby girl born during the siege of East Aleppo. Waad was married to Hamza al-Kateab, the head doctor at the only still-functioning hospital–the other 8 had been bombed into oblivion by Syrian helicopters and Russian jets. With his medical credentials, it would have been easy for Hamza to pick up and move to another country where he could have enjoyed a comfortable life with his family. Instead, Waad and Hamza remained because even under the darkest days of the siege, they continued to believe in the original goals of the Syrian revolution, namely to live a life without fear of being jailed, tortured or killed. Like millions of others, they were determined to overthrow  corrupt, mafia-like family dynasty. The film is titled “For Sama” because as Waad says in the final minute of the film, it was worth enduring all their suffering in the hopes that her children and those of other Syrians could realize their dream.

Despite the crushing of the resistance in East Aleppo and the regime’s apparent reconquest of most of Syria, the dictatorship has an uncertain future. In an important article for the New York Review of Books titled “Between Regime and Rebels: A Survey of Syria’s Alawi Sect”, Elizabeth Tsurkov reveals how even the most reliable base of the dictatorship has gotten so little out of this hollow victory:

Although Alawis are overrepresented in the ruling elite, this does not translate into any alleviation of their generally deprived circumstances. Those with ties to the ruling family, whether through tribal or business dealings, are rich, while most Alawis live in underdeveloped villages. Unlike the Sunni underclass, which largely resided in rebel-held territory, Alawis—who cannot afford to emigrate, enroll in university to defer their service, or bribe their way out of military service (or into noncombat posts)—reside entirely in regime-held territory, where the draft is imposed and enforced through routine raids and at checkpoints. “Many Alawites would love to be exempt from military service,” said Kheder, the university student,“but they cannot afford it so they go [and serve].

“The rural areas lost so much,” he added. “Every family hangs the pictures of their martyr with neon lights around the photo. You could count at least ten to fifteen martyrs in every neighborhood of every village.”

Using what appears to be rudimentary film-making tools (a hand-held Sony semiprofessional camera), Waad has made one of the finest documentaries about this generation’s Spanish Civil War. If there is any place on earth that resembles Guernica, it is East Aleppo that was the victim of the same kind of asymmetric warfare Franco unleashed on the Spanish democracy. For anybody who still has lingering doubts about the kind of brutality to which the dictatorship resorted, her footage of aerial bombardment will leave you cringing.

Since her place was with her husband, the sight of the dying and the dead being brought to his emergency ward will also leave you feeling overwhelmed. Most of the victims appear to be children rather than militia members. When a helicopter drops a barrel bomb that spews ball bearings and steel fragments in a 360 degree pattern, it is almost inevitable that children playing in the street will end up as a casualty.

Despite all the suffering, there is a feeling of solidarity and hope that pervades the film as Hamza, Waad and their friends and comrades celebrate weddings, birthdays and other get-togethers that demonstrate their stubborn belief in keeping liberated East Aleppo together.

Waad and Hamza buy a house with a garden in the backyard. When a missile lands next door, the plants he has begun to grow are casualties as well. Seeing the glass as half-full, a necessity for life in Aleppo, he brushes aside the debris and waters the surviving plants. Like their baby daughter, the plants are a symbol of fertility and a better future.

Despite the bleak situation facing Syrians inside and outside the country, “For Sama” is a wake-up call to the solidarity movement that the struggle continues. The film is a closing of the curtain on the last act of the revolution but given the failure of the regime to provide a decent life to its people, even those that supposedly are his main base of support, it is inevitable that a new revolution will arise phoenix-like out of the ashes.

In the press notes, Waad makes her statement:

This is not just a film for me –it’s my life. I started capturing my personal story without any plan, just filming the protests in Syria on my mobile phone, like so many other activists. I could never have imagined where my journey would take me through those years. The mix of emotions we experienced – happiness, loss, love – and the horrific crimes committed by the Assad regime against ordinary innocent people, was unimaginable… even as we lived through it.

From the beginning, I found myself drawn to capture stories of life and humanity, rather than focus on the death and destruction which filled the news. And as a woman in a conservative part of Aleppo, I was able to access the experiences of women and children in the city, traditionally off limits to men. That allowed me to show the unseen reality of life for ordinary Syrians, trying to live normal lives amid our struggle for freedom.

At the same time, I continued living my own life. I married and had a child. I found myself trying to balance so many different roles: Waad the mother, Waad the activist, Waad the citizen journalist and Waad the Director. All those people both embodied and led the story. Now I feel those different aspects of my life are what gives the film its strength.

I want people to understand that, while this is my story and shows what happened to me and my family, our experience is not unusual. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians experienced the same thing and are still doing so today. The dictator who committed these crimes is still in power, still killing innocent people. Our struggle for justice is as relevant today as it was when the revolution first began.

July 19, 2019

“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians”

Filed under: Fascism,Film,genocide,Romania — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Unless you are an aficionado of foreign films, it is likely that you are not aware that Romania has become one of the leading centers of avant-garde cinema. Like France in the late 50s and early 60s, a nouvelle vague movement in Romania appears to have come out of nowhere. Among the best known Romanian directors is Cristi Puiu, whose 2005 “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” set the standard for the country’s great leap forward. Like every other Romanian film I have seen since 2005, Radu Jude’s “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” is both politically and artistically stunning. Using techniques that were pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard in the 1960s, Jude has confronted Romania’s blind spot, namely the widespread refusal of its citizens to acknowledge its military’s responsibility for murdering over 100,000 Jews in 1941 when it was allied with Nazi Germany. Known as the Odessa Massacre (Odessa was within Romania’s borders at the time), it was seen by some historians as the beginning of the holocaust.

Despite the gravity of the subject, Jude decided to make a black comedy and even more remarkably succeeded beyond anybody’s expectations—including mine. In my review of “Vice” in today’s CounterPunch, I dismissed Adam McKay’s film as a jokey biopic of Dick Cheney that undercut the film’s aim of showing that the architect of the invasion of Iraq was some kind of monster. I regarded the film as an unintentional repeat of Mel Brook’s “Springtime for Hitler”.

The film’s title comes from a speech by Ion Antonescu, the prime minister of Romania in 1941, who defended the bloodbath in a 1946 war crimes tribunal as a necessary defense against the Jews. After becoming obsessed with the Odessa massacre, a young and attractive theater director named Mariana (Iona Iacob) has assembled a large cast of amateurs to help reenact the event in the central plaza of a small town. Like the Civil War battle reenactments in the USA, her goal is authenticity even at the risk of offending those who watch it. Authenticity does not just entail using uniforms and guns from a local military museum. It entails a simulation of Jews being herded into a wooden building that is then set on fire.

To get an idea of Jude’s willingness to break with commercial filmmaking’s strictures, he has a scene that lasts for a good five minutes that is about as “uncinematic” as can be imagined. In a Facetime conversation with a male friend in Austria, who was working there because of the poor local economy, they start off making small talk, including Mariana’s invitation to show him her “cunt”. From there, the conversation begins to switch over to her new project that he has some doubts about—it seems like everybody in Romania except her questions the need for such a reenactment. To help him understand her motivation, she reads him an extended passage from Isaac Babel’s “The Odessa Tales” that is set in the final days of the Russian Empire. The passage is a graphic description of the misery of Jewish peasants and the utter contempt a Russian officer has for them.

In another break with commercial filmmaking, Jude has Mariana squaring off with a town official who is okay with the reenactment, just not the Jews being exterminated since it might upset the children. This evolves into a long debate about the morality of war in which the official resorts to “Whataboutism”, the casuistry associated with the Assadist left in which the killing of Syrians is counterbalanced by the Western slaughter of Vietnamese, et al. Since every country has blood on its hands, why make Romanians feel guilty?

In the press notes for this film, that has the inside track for my nomination of best foreign language film of 2019, the director made this statement:

Thinking about our dark history makes one look back with the horrified gaze of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history, whose “face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” opens today at the IFC Center in NY and at the Laemmle next Friday in Los Angeles.

I should also mention that I reviewed Jude’s “Aferim!” in 2015, another outstanding film that I described as follows:

“Aferim” is a vernacular term meaning something like “Bravo” that is heard from its characters throughout the film. It is obviously related to the Turkish word “aferin” that is part of the term “aferin sana” that means “good for you” and that my wife often says to me after I tell her I have been published in some high-toned journal.

It is used with irony in Jude’s film since everything is marked by degradation of the most appalling nature. It is the story of a father and son who are seen riding across a desolate plain on horseback in their search for a runaway slave. The father, named Constandin (Teodor Corban), is a constable and his son Ionita (Mihai Comanoiu) an unpaid assistant. The story evokes a John Ford western except in this instance the posse is wicked and the runaway slave, a Roma named Carfin Pandolean (Toma Cuzin), is their better. In fact, the higher up you are on the social ladder in feudal Wallachia, the closer you are to savagery.

“Aferim!” can be rented on iTunes for $4.99. It is also available for free on Amazon if you take out a trial subscription to the Sundance cable channel. In either case, it is a memorable film and an excellent introduction to Romanian film.

 

Vice; The Loudest Voice

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,television — louisproyect @ 3:02 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 19, 2019

Two of the more infamous Republican Party operatives have become the subjects of biopics within the past year. In “Vice”, a 2018 film now available on Amazon streaming, Adam McKay portrayed Dick Cheney as a cynical opportunist who was both responsible for the “war on terror” and the extension of executive power that enabled the Bush White House to suspend habeas corpus. Currently running on Showtime, “The Loudest Voice” examines the life of Roger Ailes as a modern-day equivalent of Citizen Kane if Orson Welles had portrayed his fictionalized version of William Randolph Hearst as a monster straight out of his mother’s womb.

The two subjects have quite a bit in common. To start with, they were both products of an America that Norman Rockwell once painted but no longer exists. Growing up in Casper, Wyoming, Cheney enjoyed life in “The Oil City” that was ranked eighth overall in Forbes magazine’s list of “the best small cities to raise a family.” Ailes hailed from Warren, Ohio, a mid-sized city like Casper, that like the rest of the pre-Rust Belt region relied on manufacturing to provide the solid middle-class existence portrayed in Rockwell paintings. His father was a foreman in Packard Electronics, a subsidiary of General Motors. Just like Michael Moore, whose father worked for GM in Flint, Ailes idealized the Warren of his youth, seeing it as a place where motherhood, apple pie and the flag reigned supreme. Like Steve Bannon, Ailes’s right-populism revolved around the notion of making a new world of Warrens possible by keeping out immigrants and toughening up trade policies long before Donald Trump became President.

Continue reading

Next Page »

Blog at WordPress.com.