Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 14, 2019

Yomeddine; The Third Wife

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 8:35 pm

Under consideration are two films made by NYU film school graduates that are flawed but worth seeing. Opening at the IFC in NY and the Laemmle on May 31st, “Yomeddine” (Arabic for Judgement Day) is an Egyptian road movie made by Abu Shawky about the quest of Besha, a 40 year-old garbage dump recycler who lives in a leper colony, to find the father who abandoned him when he was 10 years old. Besha is played by Rady Gamal, a severely disfigured, non-professional leprosy survivor. Opening tomorrow at the Film Forum in NY, “The Third Wife” was made by Ash Mayfair, who, despite her name, grew up in Vietnam. It is based on the story of the arranged marriage of both her grandmother and great-grandmother and specifically the great-grandmother’s experience in a polygamous marriage in 19th century Vietnam.

“Yomeddine” can rightly be accused of sentimentality and the cheap exploitation of victimhood but I was moved by the film much more than any narrative film I have seen this  year. The fact that it gambled on featuring an actor who is the diametrical opposite of the eye candy men and women who sit on the couch next to Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon tends to make up for obvious flaws. Maybe, the film works for me since I see Egypt today as a country flawed by plutocracy and repression. With a lead character willing to confront prejudice on every front, it evokes the stubbornness that allowed millions to stand up to Mubarak.

We first meet Besha scrounging through the garbage trying to find odds and ends that he can sell for a pittance. One of the items he keeps to himself, an old-fashioned Walkman-style portable cassette player that he brings to his wife who is dying from some unspecified illness in a local hospital.

Several days later, she is dead. A Christian like him, her burial is attended by Besha’s Muslim friends who love him like a brother despite his constant gruffness, an understandable defense mechanism for someone whose affliction has a mythical quality reminiscent of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Despite the fact that medicine has eradicated the disease, his scars frighten everybody who sees him, except for his friends and fellow sufferers.

A few days later, his mother-in-law shows up and asks him to accompany her to the gravesite. Since his wife was a mental patient who had never mentioned her family or perhaps much of anything about her past, Besha wonders how her mother was notified about her death. It turns out that the Egyptian bureaucracy excelled at record-keeping, perhaps a legacy of colonialism. This leads him to successfully track down his own records and find the location of the family that abandoned him.

With that information in hand, he loads up all his belongings and puts them in the cart he uses to lug stuff from the junkyard to sell. With his beloved donkey forging ahead, he sets off on an odyssey that is about as unlikely as David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” that depicts the true story of Alvin Straight’s 1994 journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower. Like other road movies such as “Tom Sawyer”, “On the Road” or “Easy Rider”, Besha has a companion—someone just as much of an outcast as him. Known by his nickname Obama, he is a 10-year old Nubian orphan who is as much of a diametrical opposite of his namesake as Besha is of the Hollywood actors who go out on tours to promote some crappy film. Played by Ahmed Abdelhafiz, also a non-professional, he steals many scenes, including one when he does an inspired dance to a pop tune played on Besha’s salvaged Walkman.

On route to Besha’s home town, they run into both hostility and solidarity—just like in “Easy Rider”. The film is an affectionate look at Egypt’s underbelly and includes a cast of non-professionals just like the two co-stars, including a man with amputated legs who chases Besha away from begging on the street corner he claims as his own. The actor, like Rady Gamal, is an actual disabled person and an amazing talent. Good for Abu Shawky for having the courage of his convictions to make such a film.

If you liked “Roma”, there’s a good shot that you’ll also like “The Third Wife” since the film’s aesthetic and story are similar. Like the housekeeper in “Roma”, the 14-year old child-bride is utterly dependent on a wealthy family that takes her for granted. As May (Nguyen Phuong Tra My) is the third wife of a wealthy farmer (thus the film’s title), she is barely beyond childhood and even becomes more like a daughter to the first wife rather than a rival. Throughout the film, she has very little dialogue just like the housekeeper in “Roma”.

In fact, there is very little dialogue at all in the film that seeks to extract drama from the physical interactions between characters that is mostly sexual in nature but curiously lacking in ardor. On their wedding night, the wealthy farmer sucks a raw egg off of May’s navel before he deflowers her. The scene has a ritualistic character but does not convey the sexual aggression that is left implicit. Indeed, despite the brutal patriarchy that permeates the social relationships on the farm, there is a languid and emotionally constrained quality to the drama that belies the director’s clear hatred for what women had to endure in Vietnam.

Ash Mayfair is very much a visually-oriented director just like Alfonso Cuarón. So there are many lovely shots of caterpillars, rivers, flowers, and other natural objects. Indeed, for the first 10 minutes or so of the film there was not a word of spoken dialogue. I almost thought that I had ended up watching a silent film. Perhaps it could have worked as one since the actions carried out by the characters speak for themselves. Ash Mayfair more or less conveys this approach in the film notes:

In terms of aesthetics, the visual choices of The Third Wife are largely informed by the landscape and cultural traditions of northern Vietnam, the birth place of my great- grandparents. Nature is a dominant symbolic force closely tied to spirituality and religion. People’s lives and habits were informed by the movement of the sun and the seasons. It was therefore important to portray this using as much natural light as possible. Our Director of Photography went through a lot of experiments using live fire for lighting during night time scenes because I did not want any artificial feeling to permeate the frame. Consequently, The Third Wife has a painterly approach to cinematography . The stillness of most of the composition comes from the desire to make every frame as close as possible to a watercolor painting.

Not exactly the aesthetics that register with me but if this sounds like it would with you, the film is definitely worth seeing.

May 10, 2019

The Serengeti Rules

Filed under: Ecology,extinction,Film — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

It would be difficult to imagine a more timely film than “The Serengeti Rules”, which arrived at the Quad Cinema in NY today and opens at the Laemmle in L.A. next Friday. Last Monday the UN released a report that made front page news everywhere. The Guardian led with these paragraphs:

Human society is in jeopardy from the accelerating decline of the Earth’s natural life-support systems, the world’s leading scientists have warned, as they announced the results of the most thorough planetary health check ever undertaken.

From coral reefs flickering out beneath the oceans to rainforests desiccating into savannahs, nature is being destroyed at a rate tens to hundreds of times higher than the average over the past 10m years, according to the UN global assessment report.

The biomass of wild mammals has fallen by 82%, natural ecosystems have lost about half their area and a million species are at risk of extinction – all largely as a result of human actions, said the study, compiled over three years by more than 450 scientists and diplomats.

“The Serengeti Rules” is a profile of a group of scientists that could be described as the most renowned of those who helped create the momentum behind the UN Report. Now in their seventies by all appearance, they were focused on researching biodiversity and formulating methods that could be used to preserve it. They sought to prevent species extinctions that was a sine qua non for preventing the extinction of the biggest threat to biodiversity on the planet today—us. It is a deep irony that homo sapiens can either destroy the planet or save it, all a function of its ability to grasp the need for a socialist victory over the ruling class that threatens every living thing.

The ecosystems being impinged upon today have been with us for millions of years. In each instance, there are animals that the scientists in “The Serengeti Rules” describe as a keystone species. Remove any one of them and life all around them can die. Bob Paine, a U. of Washington ecologist, is widely credited as the discoverer of their role in ecosystems. In a 1966 paper, he presented evidence that when a starfish is removed from a tide-pool, it rapidly becomes a dead zone of the kind that the Great Barrier Reef is turning into. When a starfish disappears, the mussels that are part of the ecosystem soon devour all the kelp and thus make it impossible for other marine life to feed and to reproduce.

Following in his footsteps, other scientists identified keystone species that tend to be predators. In the past, scientists looked at the creatures at the top of the food-chain as being dependent on life beneath it. At the bottom level, there was vegetation. At the middle level, smaller animals such as deer ate the vegetation. The lions, tigers and cougars at the top then ate the deer, and so on. Paine and the other ecologists we hear from in the film conducted experiments revealing that it was the other way around. Remove the predator at the top and everything beneath it dies. Since the predator at the top is most susceptible to human interference, the threat to biodiversity must be reduced by reducing in turn the murderous footprint of farmers, ranchers, miners, and logging companies in places like the Amazon rainforest.

On another topical note, the NY Times reported 4 days ago that one of the most emblematic predators in the world is in danger of extinction:

The Sundarbans, 4,000 square miles of marshy land in Bangladesh and India, hosts the world’s largest mangrove forest and a rich ecosystem supporting several hundred animal species, including the endangered Bengal tiger.

But 70 percent of the land is just a few feet above sea level, and grave changes are in store for the region, Australian and Bangladeshi researchers reported in the journal Science of The Total Environment. Changes wrought by a warming planet will be “enough to decimate” the few hundred or so Bengal tigers remaining there.

Toward the end of the film, one of the profiled scientists described the explosive, uncontrolled and largely counter-productive growth of algae and other plants or animals resulting from a keystone species absence as a “cancer”. I have no idea whether he was influenced by Joel Kovel’s writings but when I heard him draw this analogy at the Brecht Forum 30 years ago or so, it was an epiphany. Capitalism produces tumors, in effect. Fracking, pesticides, industrial fishing trawlers, plastics in the ocean, pig waste in the rivers of the Carolinas, palm oil plantations in Indonesia, and greenhouse gases. All this stuff that is associated with late capitalism will end up killing us by killing the biodiversity we ultimately rely on.

The Winter 2019 edition of Socialist Forum, the magazine of the DSA, is a special issue on ecology. Among the articles is one titled “Ecosocialism: Dystopian and Scientific” by Matt Huber, which dismisses the importance of biodiversity. Since it is the only one that is so obviously alien to Green thought, it might be regarded as an outlier. However, Jacobin saw fit to publish an article in their special issue on ecology by Leigh Phillips that has the same “productivist” abuse of Marxism. Invoking Frederick Engels as his inspiration, Huber writes:

Last year in the New Left Review, Troy Vettese argued for austerity (or what he called “egalitarian eco-austerity”): the program includes energy rationing, compulsory veganism and turning over half the planet to wild nature (a proposal he takes from reactionary sociobiologist, E.O. Wilson).

I would urge you to read Vettese’s article, which thankfully is not behind a paywall. It is in the spirit of “The Serengeti Rules” and must-reading in order to understand the crisis we face. Here is the reference to Wilson. Despite the fact that his sociobiology is toxic, Vettese’s use of his research seems incontrovertible:

The principal cause of extinction is habitat loss, as underlined by the recent work of E. O. Wilson. Though notorious in the Reagan era as the genetic-determinist author of Sociobiology, Wilson is first and foremost a naturalist and conservationist. He estimates that, with a decrease of habitat, the sustainable number of species in it drops by roughly the fourth root of the habitable area. If half the habitat is lost, approximately a tenth of species will disappear, but if 85 per cent is destroyed, then half the species would be extinguished. Humanity is closely tracking this equation’s deadly curve: half of all species are expected to disappear by 2100. The only way to prevent this is to leave enough land for other living beings to flourish, which has led Wilson to call for a utopian programme of creating a ‘half Earth’, where 50 per cent of the world would be left as nature’s domain. Even though much has been lost, he argues that thirty especially rich biomes, ranging from the Brazilian cerrado to the Polish-Belarussian Białowieża Forest, could provide the core of a biodiverse, interconnected mosaic extending over half the globe.footnote10 Yet, at present only 15 per cent of the world’s land-area has some measure of legal protection, while the fraction of protected areas in the oceans is even smaller—less than 4 per cent.

Finally, with respect to Frederick Engels, Huber describes him as a likely supporter of his understanding of farming that might have been picked up by watching Monsanto commercials:

Today, virtually every “input” into industrialized agriculture is one that saves labor. Tractors plow and plant and chemicals do the “work” of weeding, killing bugs, and fertilizing the soil.

One supposes that Huber has never read Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” but those of us who have will understand the need for a film like “The Serengeti Rules”, the need to see it, and finally the need to become part of a movement to prevent the Sixth Extinction:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Visit https://www.theserengetirules.com/ for resources on biodiversity.

 

April 27, 2019

Joseph Brant: the Mohawk who fought with the British against George Washington

Filed under: Film,indigenous — louisproyect @ 9:00 pm

I was astounded to learn in Allen Young’s memoir that Sullivan County, which was the heart of the Borscht Belt where we both grew up, was named after General John Sullivan who was directed by George Washington to annihilate Mohawk villages for supporting the British. The Mohawk were led by Joseph Brant, whose birthname was Thayendanegea.

The Mohawk were part of the Iroquois confederation that included the Onondaga, the Seneca, the Tuscarora, the Oneida and Cayuga. The failure of the six nations to reach an agreement about supporting the British led to strife and the eventual collapse of a confederation that Benjamin Franklin lauded as a model that the colonists could emulate after becoming independent. Despite the use of the term “Ignorant Savages” that was meant more as a dig at his colleagues, it was clear that Franklin considered the Iroquois to have achieved a model state, even if on a small scale:

It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of Ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union, and be able to execute it in such a Manner, as that it has subsisted Ages, and appears indissoluble; and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies, to whom it is more necessary, and must be more advantageous; and who cannot be supposed to want an equal Understanding of their Interests.

Lewis Henry Morgan wrote a book in 1877 titled “Ancient Society” that also viewed the Iroquois confederation positively. His work had a major influence on Frederick Engels who cited it at length in “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Although he did not use the term, he was describing what is commonly known as “primitive communism” and taken as proof by Marxists that humanity can live in a classless society:

No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

My interest in the indigenous peoples of New York State was kindled initially by learning that the Munsee Indians were dominant all through the Catskills. Since I have begun a film titled “Utopia in the Catskills”, I was committed to telling their story. After I learned that my home county was named after a military officer who ethnically cleansed the state of Mohawks, I decided to look more deeply into their story as well, even if technically speaking they were to the north of the Catskills.

Since my film is both a series of interviews and a collage of pre-existing films, including “Last of the Mohicans” that did feature a tribe native to the Catskills, I decided to track down any films about Joseph Brant. I was able to discover the two above and was not surprised to discover that both are deeply flawed but worth watching.

“Divided Loyalties” is by far more grounded in Joseph Brant’s real history and the internecine divisions within the Indians, the British and the colonists. Essentially, Brant threw in his lot with the British because the colonists were far more of an immediate threat to Mohawk interests. As occurred throughout the New World, settlers impinged on native lands, even when a treaty should have protected their claims. In 1768, the Iroquois and the British signed a treaty at Fort Stanwix that would protect the Six Nations territory. Sir William Johnson, an Irish official of the Crown assigned to Indian affairs, was instrumental in drafting the treaty that met the expectations of the Indians—at least based on the wording. Johnson was the common-law husband of Joseph Brant’s sister Molly and sympathetic to Iroquois interests, even to the point of learning the Mohawk language and customs. In both films, he is a major character and the relationship between Brant and Johnson drives the narrative forward.

The British exploitation of the Mohawks as a military asset is reminiscent of Lord Dunmore and the Ethiopian Regiment. Dunmore promised to free any slave who fought for the Crown. In a 2013 post, I cited Gary B. Nash, a “revisionist” whose take on the American war of independence is decidedly devoid of the patriotic junk we all learned in high school and that the Communist Party sadly dispensed when Earl Browder was the CPUSA’s chairman and infamous for declaring that Communism was 20th century Americanism:

Within several months, between eight hundred and one thousand slaves had flocked to Dunmore, and many hundreds more were captured while trying. Many of them, perhaps one-third, were women and children. Mustered into what Dunmore named the Ethiopian Regiment, some of the men were uniformed with sashes bearing the inscription LIBERTY TO SLAVES. The slaves of many of Virginia’s leading white revolutionary figures now became black revolutionary Virginians themselves. They soon formed the majority of Dunmore’s Loyalist troops. Commanding the Ethiopian Regiment was the British officer Thomas Byrd, the son of patriot William Byrd III, one of Virginia’s wealthiest land and slave owners.

It is clear from both films that the British were unreliable allies. They did little to protect the Six Nations from settler encroachment and likely would have allowed it to continue if they had defeated George Washington. That being said, the Mohawk had every reason to ally with the British who never were as open about killing indigenous people as the Founding Fathers.

Don’t ever forget what Thomas Jefferson, whose name adorned the CPUSA’s school for many years in New York, said: “This unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have by their unexpected desertion and ferocious barbarities justified extermination and now await our decision on their fate.”

Meanwhile, George Washington’s orders to General Sullivan included this: “The immediate objectives are the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops in the ground and prevent their planting more.”

And even Ben Franklin, who extolled the democratic character of the Iroquois confederacy, came up with this in his autobiography: “If it be the design of Providence to extirpate these Savages in order to make room for cultivators of the Earth, it seems not improbable that rum may be the appointed means.”

April 26, 2019

The Biggest Little Farm; Lobster War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,farming,Film,water — louisproyect @ 12:50 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 26, 2019

Two new documentaries tackle the all-important question of our age, namely how humanity and nature can co-exist in a period of insurmountable capitalist contradiction, especially when humanity takes the form of small businesspeople hoping to exploit natural resources under duress.

Opening at The Landmark at 57 West on May 10th, “The Biggest Little Farm” is a stunningly dramatic portrait of a husband and wife trying to create an ecotopian Garden of Eden forty miles north of Los Angeles. (Nationwide screening info is here.)

Idealist to a fault but utterly inexperienced as farmers, they encounter one obstacle after another in the hope of doing well by doing good. Essentially, they discover that by creating a bounteous yield of edibles destined for the organic foods market, they also attract a plague of gophers, coyotes, starlings and snails that see their farm as a dinner plate. Trying to balance their ecotopian values with the appetites of the animal kingdom becomes an ordeal they never anticipated.

Utterly indifferent to ecological values, the lobster fishermen depicted in Bullfrog Film’s “Lobster War: The Fight Over the World’s Richest Fishing Grounds” are family and village-oriented. As long as they can haul in the valuable crustaceans and keep themselves and their respective towns in Maine and Canada prosperous, nothing much else matters. Not being able to see outside the box, they symbolize the short-term mindset of the ruling class. If lobsters become extinct because of unsustainable practices, the fishermen might turn to other profitable marine life. But when all animals become extinct except for rodents, pigeons and cockroaches, homo sapiens will be next in line.

Continue reading

April 19, 2019

Instant Dreams; Be Natural

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 11:27 pm

Just by coincidence, two new documentaries do justice to two important but neglected figures in photography and motion pictures. “Instant Dreams”, which opens today at the Village East in New York and next Friday at the Laemmle in L.A., is tribute to the Polaroid camera that has been superseded by digital cameras, even if the question of whether newer technology is really superior to an older one artistically. In many ways, despite the convenience of CD’s, vinyl sounds better since analog is closer to the way we actually perceive reality. “Be Natural: the Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché”, which opens at the Laemmle today and at the IFC in New York next Friday, is a loving and inspired tribute to the first female director in history. Executive produced by Robert Redford and Jodie Foster (who also narrates), it establishes her as a major influence on film art with geniuses like Sergei Eisenstein and Alfred Hitchcock counting her as an important influence. If you appreciate photographic art and film aesthetics, these two documentaries are well worth your time.

“Instant Dreams” begins with Edward Land, the father of Polaroid technology, walking through a vast warehouse ruminating on the breakthrough his camera represents. Pulling a wallet sized Polaroid camera out of his raincoat, he asserts that this camera will allow you to capture every eventful moment in your daily life. Although it seems rather quaint to hear this now, it must be stressed that a billion Polaroid cameras were sold in their heyday, including to me who appreciated their ability to take photos that could be put immediately into the hands of Nicaraguans.

The film focuses on three people for whom the camera is indispensable, even if the instant film it relies on are growing scarcer and scarcer.

Working at Polaroid from 1977 until the company folded, MIT-educated organic chemist Stephen Herchen worked closely with Edward Land as chief technology officer. When the film begins, he is bidding goodbye to his wife as he sets off to Germany to reverse engineer Polaroid film to make it available again to people who own Polaroid cameras. He is very much the counterpart of people who have launched new boutique vinyl LP companies to satisfy the needs of people like me who own turntables.

Stefanie Schneider is one of the photographers who continues to work with a Polaroid. Indifferent to “leading edge” technology, she actually prefers to use expired Polaroid film since the distortions they impart become part of the art. She refers to a Japanese word for imperfection that has a loaded meaning. It is only by seeing the imperfect that we can develop a true appreciation for perfection. In 2014, she constructed an art piece titled “29 Palm, CA” that explored the dreams and fantasies of people living in a trailer community in the California desert. We see her using her camera taking shots of the desert landscapes around her as well as several ethereally beautiful women who act out their fantasies before her camera.

Finally, there is Christopher Bonanos, the author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid” who is best equipped as an editor of culture and technology stories at New York Magazine. He has many insights about what made the Polaroid so special, including its ability to create a bond between strangers. When you take a photo of one, there is always that minute or so until the picture emerges when a conversation can crop up.

“Instant Dreams” is the first film made by Willem Baptist, a Dutch director who explained why he made the film in the press notes:

What is it that makes Polaroid photo’s so special? First there is the remarkable process. Then there is the image with its unpredictable colors, unusual frame, the atmosphere of the image. A captured reality that seems more special than real life, and immediately becomes a treasured memory. That there’s only one copy of it enhances the feeling of authenticity. A Polaroid photo is infused with an air of artistry and mystery.

As a filmmaker, I am always searching for that intangible magical feeling. I struggled for a long time with the digital images I had to work with and tried various ways to alter them into something else so they wouldn’t be that digital. Maybe it’s because I have the experience of shooting short films on S16mm celluloid. Gradually I realized that these feelings weren’t some sort of nostalgia or that it was just a filmmaker’s thing. Millions of people give their iPhone photos a filtered look with apps such as Instagram, as if reality just doesn’t speak enough to our imagination.

Born in 1873, Alice Guy-Blaché trained to be a secretary, a job that was deemed suitable for middle-class women at that time. After being hired at Gaumont Studios in Paris by Léon Gaumont, one of the partners of an early film studio that competed with the Lumière brothers, she figured out the film business quickly enough to make a convincing case that she could make them herself. In no time at all, she began making films that were utterly unlike typical fare of those days. To start with, her watchword was “Be Natural”, an instruction that went against the grain of histrionics typical of most silent films. Also, she was an open feminist who had the audacity to make a film titled “The Consequences of Feminism” in 1906 that depicted a world in which women were sexually aggressive and men stayed at home doing housework.

A decade later she made “Shall The Parents Decide” that tackled sexual inequality and reproductive rights. Co-written by Guy-Blaché and activist Rose Pastor Stokes, it was supposed to be screened at the opening of a Margaret Sanger clinic but was preempted by Sanger’s arrest.

The film has generous excerpts from her films that have a particular comic flair that will remind you of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Alice Guy-Blaché was a great genius and director Pamela B. Green deserves applause for rescuing her from obscurity.

March 29, 2019

Screwball

Filed under: drugs,Film,sports — louisproyect @ 7:48 pm

Opening today at Cinema Village is a documentary titled “Screwball” that takes a light-hearted look at the performance enhancement drug (PED) scandal that led to the suspension of Alex Rodriguez in 2014. Most of the film consists of interviews with two of the principals: his supplier Tony Bosch reminiscing about the affair and a naïf named Porter Fischer, who introduces himself as a professional tanner and who purloined files from Bosch’s Biogenesis Labs office in order to pressure Bosch into repaying a $4000 debt. As a comic device, there are reenactments of the various players in this scandal by young boys who appear in baseball or business suits, fake mustaches, fake tattoos, etc., and whose dialog is supplied by adult voiceover. All of this takes place with a film score that sounds like the accompaniment to a slapstick comedy, which in many ways it is. Despite the comic intent, there are some genuinely dark aspects including the revelation that Bosch went to prison not so much for supplying A-Rod and other professional baseball players but for supplying PED’s to high school kids who needed them to compete at  a level necessary to get an athletic scholarship. With Bosch often injecting them with their parents’ consent, you get a feel for the generally depraved character of athletic competition, especially in Florida, where Biogenesis was based.

The first wave of steroid abuse was connected with their fairly open use in the Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire era. After they and other players were outed by José Canseco in his 2005 book “Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big”, it became too risky to use PEDs openly since drug tests were routinely required. Tony Bosch, a Cuban-American living in south Florida who operated an anti-aging clinic, had devised a protocol that kept drugs beneath the level that could be detected in a urine sample. Once the word got out, players flocked to his clinic to get a leg up on other players, especially fading stars like Alex Rodriguez.

Bosch wore a lab coat and a stethoscope in his office to give the impression that he was a physician. His degree came from a medical school in Belize that was not even up to the level of a diploma mill. Tony Bosch was the slacker son of a licensed physician who made himself available to his son for signing prescriptions. As shady as his father was, he was not nearly as criminal as his cousin Orlando Bosch, who in addition to being a physician was a Cuban counter-revolutionary who bombed a Cuban civilian airliner, killing all 73 people on board.

As his business expanded, Bosch partnered with a tanning salon chain run by two brothers. The idea was to draw people in who could get fitter and tanner under the same roof. This was Florida, after all.

The real question is how such a business could get a foothold in Florida. In my review of “American Relapse”, I pointed out that drug rehab centers in Florida do not require a physician to be on staff. This is the true of anti-aging clinics, as well. They will inject steroids into anybody’s arm as long as they have cash on the barrel.

This is what you’d expect in a state with a governor like Rick Scott.

Gov. Rick Scott took responsibility? No, he took $300 million | Randy Schultz

South Florida Sun Sentinel

October 2, 2018

By Randy Schultz

When the federal investigation of Rick Scott’s former hospital company became public in 1997, the board of Columbia/HCA forced him out. Scott left with $300 million in stock, a $5.1 million severance and a $950,000-per-year consulting contract for five years.

What does Scott call that? Taking responsibility.

The governor’s new Senate campaign ad again seeks to rewrite the history of Columbia/HCA, which Scott founded in 1987 and led as CEO. Indeed, the ad is titled “responsibility” and compares Scott’s actions to those of “strong leaders.”

In its settlement with the government, the company admitted to 14 felonies related to fraudulent billing and practices. Most happened under Scott’s leadership.

Read full article

March 22, 2019

Tigerland

Filed under: animal rights,Film — louisproyect @ 7:58 pm

As the title suggests, “Tigerland” is a documentary about the efforts in both Far Eastern Russia and Bengal, India to prevent tigers from going extinct. It opens today at the Monica Center in Los Angeles and at the Cinema Village in N.Y. next Friday. It will also be available as VOD on the Discovery cable network tomorrow. As a genre, it resembles what you would see on channels like Discovery, Smithsonian and National Geographic. However you decide to see this beautiful but worrisome film, it is worth your time because it gets to the heart of the species extinction that confronts humanity today. As a symbol of wilderness, probably nothing can top the tiger, a creature that inspired William Blake to write:

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

At the start of the 20th century, there were 100,000 tigers living across Asia. Today there are less than 4,000. The same socio-economic forces that are acting to exterminate them are arrayed against us. The loss of forests across Asia not only threatens tigers but us as well since forests absorb greenhouse gases. With people like Modi, Putin, Trump and Jinping in control of natural resources, including tigers, our days are numbered.

When the film starts, you do a double-take since it shows a tiger walking through deep snow. After a minute or so, you learn that this is a Siberian Tiger—one of the few of the species living outside of India and Southeast Asia. Pavel Fomenko operates a tiger preserve in the Bikin National Park funded by the World Wildlife Fund.

In the years following the collapse of Communism, poaching became a major problem in Russia. Since there is a market for tiger organs as sexual potency aids in China, just as there is for rhino horns, tiger numbers fell precipitously. The film does not identify Putin as helping to reverse this trend but if he was, that’s one good deed in his sorry life.

Much of the film is devoted to Fomenko’s team trying to track down two tiger cubs who were separated from their mother. She was taken into the tiger preserve after attacking and eating a couple of dogs in a Bikin village. They finally succeeded in reuniting the family but nearly at the cost of Fomenko losing his life. When tending to the cubs, the mother smashed through a fence and mauled him badly. Fomenko said: “The tigress is not to blame. This is typical behavior of a predator defending its offspring.” If there is any hope for Russia, a country even more warped by consumerist appetites than the USA, it is that there are people like Pavel Fomenko living there.

The Bengal segment of the film features conservationists Amit Sankhala and Jai Bhati, the grandson and great-grandson of the original “Tiger Man of India,” Kailash Sankhala. Kailash Sankhala was motivated to campaign for the protection of tigers when he became Director of the Delhi Zoological Park in 1965. Appalled by the willingness of the government to promote hunting safaris that were drastically reducing the number of tigers, he took on the political elite that was fixated on “development”. This meant turning the habitat of tigers into plantations or mining sites, while coveting the foreign currency pouring in through big game hunting expeditions. Fortunately, he found a sympathetic ear in Indira Gandhi who pushed through legislation banning the killing of tigers.

It should be mentioned that the Indian gentry was just as bad. It was as addicted to killing tigers as Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway were to killing animals at the top of the food chain. One of the more disgusting historical footage seen in the film is an Indian hunting expedition that culminates in the killing of a tiger. As the creature lies dying on the ground, it is shot several more times at close range and topped off by the elephant ridden by some Mughal wannabe stomping on the head of the dead tiger. Seeing this, I was reminded of Bruce Cockburn’s “If I had a Rocket Launcher”:

I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate
I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states
And when I talk with the survivors of things too sickening to relate
If I had a rocket launcher, if I had a rocket launcher
If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate

The film was directed by Ross Kauffman, who won an Academy Award for “Born into Brothels” and produced by another Academy Awardee Fisher Stevens, who helped make “The Cove” possible. “The Cove” was a powerful documentary that helped to put a stop to killing whales for Japanese grocery stores. Let’s hope that “Tigerland” will help shore up the resistance to killing tigers.

 

March 15, 2019

Ben is Back; Beautiful Boy

Filed under: Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 12:51 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 15, 2019

Given the enormity of the drug crisis in the USA, particularly centered on opioid overdoses that are the largest cause of death of people under the age of 50, it was inevitable that Hollywood would begin to produce “problem” movies such as “Ben is Back” and “Beautiful Boy”. It also just as inevitable that such films would be based on the suffering of well-to-do families and suffused with clichés.

“Ben is Back” stars Julia Roberts as Holly Burns, the matriarch of a generally happy family eagerly awaiting Christmas day, the happiest time of the year, especially if you live in the suburbs and have lots of money to lavish on presents. Pulling into her driveway with a carload of gifts to place under the Christmas tree, she sees the ghost of Christmas past, namely her college-aged son Ben (Lucas Hedges) who has cut short his stay in a drug rehabilitation facility to return home from the holidays.

The entire family treats Ben as if he was the scariest ghost showing up in Scrooge’s bedroom. He is there not to remind them of their lifetime of sins but the pain he has visited on them in the past as an opioid addict. Hoping to enjoy a happy time with the family, he is put on the defensive by his mom’s insistence that he take a drug test in the upstairs bathroom right off the bat. As he pees into a bottle, she stands behind him with her arms folded to make sure he is not turning in a fake sample.

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March 8, 2019

Socially Relevant Film Festival 2019

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:36 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, MARCH 8, 2019

Beginning next Friday on March 15th and lasting until March 21st, the SR Socially Relevant Film Festival in New York will be offering a welcome respite from the violent, comic-book, escapist, and misogynist films appearing in your local cineplex. I have been covering the festival each year since it began in 2015 and am happy to report that this year’s offerings remain at the high level founder Nora Armani has maintained over the past four years.

SR’s mission statement states that it “focuses on socially relevant film content, and human interest stories that raise awareness to social problems and offer positive solutions through the powerful medium of cinema. SR believes that through raised awareness, expanded knowledge about diverse cultures, and the human condition as a whole, it is possible to create a better world free of violence, hate, and crime.”

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March 7, 2019

3 Faces

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

For those who appreciate the kinds of films that get recommended here, there is very good news. Jafar Panahi’s “3 Faces” opens tomorrow at the IFC Center in New York. I consider Panahi to be the greatest living filmmaker and this his greatest film. He is not only a master filmmaker, he is also the main voice of the Iranian democratic movement working in the arts. For his outspoken defense of the Green Movement and the democratic rights in general of Iranians, he was arrested for making propaganda against the Islamic Republic in 2010 and sentenced to 6 years in prison. Additionally, he was banned from making films for 20 years and from giving interviews to foreign media.

In a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities, he continued to make films under very difficult circumstances including the 2011 This Is Not a Film that was shot on a digital camera in his home during his house arrest. With “3 Faces”, he has returned to the form that made him famous. Like his 1995 premiere film “White Balloon”, it is an affectionate look at traditional society in Iran but like his 2003 “Crimson Gold” and the much sharper 2006 “Offside”, it contains his ongoing critique of Iranian society. If in the past he targeted the Islamic morality state apparatus, in this new film his focus is on the age-old patriarchal norms of the countryside that help to keep the clerics in power just as is the case in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. What gives “3 Faces” its power is the ambivalence Panahi feels toward traditional society. It inspires his art at the same time it underpins a social and political system that tried to ban his films.

The film begins with Jafar Panahi in the driver’s seat of a car playing himself, while in the front seat next to him sits a well-known actress named Behnaz Jafari who is also playing herself. As they head down a highway at night, Jafari is watching a video that was sent to Panahi but really intended for her eyes. A young woman in a remote village in the Azeri region of Iran has decided that her family’s refusal to allow her to go to a conservatory in Tehran makes life not worth living. We watch her advance toward a noose hanging from a branch in a cave, placing it around her neck, and finally jumping to her death or so it would seem.

Panahi and Jafari are driving toward the village of Saran in the East Azerbaijan Province to discover whether the aspiring actress named Marziyeh Rezaei (also played by herself) is really dead or whether she has faked a suicide to get the attention of the two powerful celebrities.

Most of the dialog in the film, except that between the three principals identified above, is in the Azeri dialect of the Turkish language that only Panahi and Marziyeh understand. Much of the film consists of Panahi chatting with elderly residents of Saran who are obviously nonprofessionals and likely played by the actual men and women living there.

When Panahi and Jafari stroll through the local cemetery to see if they can find a fresh grave for Marziyeh, they are startled to see an octogenarian woman lying in an open grave with a candle in her hands. She explains that she is rehearsing for her funeral but gives no indication that her death is imminent. The candle is meant to keep snakes away at night, a scourge that God visits on the wicked. Are you wicked, Panahi asks, you seem to be without sin. She replies that god only knows.

Another old-timer, a man in his 70s by the looks of his grizzled face, has a chit-chat with Jafari late at night in the village. He has come back from his new son’s circumcision with the boy’s foreskin in a small cloth sack. A wide-eyed Jafari asks what he will do with it. He explains that if you bury a boy’s foreskin near a penitentiary, he will grow up to be a criminal but if you bury it near a university, he will grow up to be a doctor or an engineer. Like Panahi and the old woman in the open grave, she takes it all in without scoffing. Later she presents the foreskin and an accompanying letter to Panahi from the old man that he should present to an actor from the golden age of Iranian film. When Jafari tells him that the actor is out of the country, he asks if Panahi can present it to him the next time he is traveling abroad. She explains that the Panahi is not permitted to leave Iran and the actor is not permitted to enter the country. This is about as close as the film comes to commenting on the repressive norms of the Islamic Republic.

The film wrestles with the dichotomy between traditional values and the urgent need for modernization. An elder tells the famous director and actress that Marziyeh was “empty-headed” and that acting was not going to be of much use in a village that is desperately in need of doctors. Look around, he tells them. There is a satellite dish on every house that allows them to see Jafari’s TV shows but no place to go if you become ill.

In a way, the real star of the film is the village of Saran itself that is nestled on a mountaintop and whose homes and streets look pretty much like they looked a century ago. If Iran ever becomes a thoroughly modern republic based on the right of women to live fulfilled lives, there has to be a way for the solidarity of village life to continue. As someone who grew up in a village of 500 people nestled in the Catskill Mountains, Saran resonates with me. My village has been savaged by the collapse of the tourist industry but perhaps Iran can mediate between tradition and modernity in the future. What it certainly doesn’t need is a bullying imperialist power like the USA to foist its own warped ideas about “modernity” on a people who have one of the oldest civilizations on the planet.

 

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