Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 19, 2017

One of Us; Jane

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

After I described “Baby Driver” as a supremely stupid movie on Facebook, someone wrote that “I knew its was something of a love project for edgar wright, so i just turned my brain off rather than wait for any quirky humour to arise.” What a coincidence. After seeing the two documentaries reviewed below, I said to myself that they were superior to “Wonder Woman” and “Baby Driver” because they made me think. For many people, especially those who prefer Hollywood blockbusters top-heavy with CGI such as “Wonder Woman” or car chases such as “Baby Driver”, the goal is to stop thinking. They are escapist fare while my deepest need is to be engaged with social realities. This can mean watching a narrative film like “Menashe” that made me think about the contradictions of Orthodox Judaism but there are far too few narrative films worth watching, especially in 2017 that has been a plague year for Hollywood, as Daniel Defoe would have put it.

Turning to the first documentary, “One of Us” is an examination of three young people who left ultra-orthodox Hasidic sects and that is closely related to “Menashe”. Although Menashe was sorely tested by the demand the sect elders put upon him as a single father to award custody of his young son to his brother-in-law, he was not likely to leave the Hasidic world. Ironically, the Hasid (Menashe Lustig) who played Menashe was an Internet personality with a considerable following on Youtube where his Yiddish-language comic riffs on Hasidic life persuaded the film’s director that he would be ideal for the part.

As is made clear by Ari, the 18-year old who we see being shorn of his peyot (sidelocks) in a barber shop, it was an encounter with the Internet that convinced him to leave his sect. He refers to Wikipedia and Google rapturously. It was a miracle that all the world’s knowledge was accessible to him at his fingertips.

We see a clean-shaven Ari in Gap-style clothing sitting in a park in the middle of Hasidic territory in Brooklyn gazing at his laptop when he is approached by a bearded Hasid in the standard black frocks. He begins by asking Ari if children can access the Internet from within the park, to which he replies “of course”. This leads quickly to a discussion about the threats to Hasidic life posed by all the bad things on the net and why Ari has decided to throw in his lot with the outside world. Why didn’t he want to be “one of us” as the Hasid puts it, from which the film derives its title?

The film includes footage of a remarkable rally that took place at Shea Stadium in Queens in May 2012, where a Hasidic leader referred to young children getting iPads or iPhones in anguished tones as if they decided to drink milk with meat. The NY Times reported on how difficult it would be for the community to swear off the Internet:

For an event billed as taking aim at the Internet, signs of the digital age seemed to pop up everywhere.

On a No. 7 train headed toward the stadium, several men wearing the clothing of the ultra-Orthodox whipped out smartphones as soon as the subway emerged from the East River tunnel, poking at e-mail in-boxes and checking voice mail messages.

Several opponents of the rally gathered outside the stadium, including a crowd that stood by police barricades holding signs that read, “The Internet Is Not the Problem.”

Like Ari, Luzer was seduced into leaving the Hasidim but by another snake in Eden, namely Blockbuster video where he used to rent DVD’s before Netflix obsoleted the chain. He used to rent 3 or 4 DVD’s and sit in a shopping mall parking lot to watch them in his car. When a cop thought he looked suspicious, he asked him what he was doing. When Luzer told him he was watching a movie, the cop asked why he didn’t do it at home. Because I can’t was the answer.

Now 32, Luzer is trying to make it as an actor. He divides time between LA, where he lives in an RV, and NYC. We see him visiting Monsey, NY where he is now persona non grata and not even permitted to see the two children of his previous marriage. Ironically, the town is named after the Munsee Indians who were ethnically cleansed from NY in the same way that Palestinians have been driven out of Israel.

The third subject is a woman in her mid-30s named Etty who despite being in early 30s has seven children. She has separated from her husband who was introduced to her through an arranged marriage, just as was Menashe’s recently deceased wife. In the case of the fictional Menashe and the real-life Etty, there was no love in the marriage but even worse for Etty, it led to a decade or so worth of beatings and humiliation. For Etty, there is also custody battle but one that she is likely to lose just like Menashe. A civil court in Brooklyn is likely to side with the husband as is usually the case with Hasidic divorces since the community exerts influence through bloc voting.

Like Ari and Luzer, Etty is appalled at the willful ignorance of the Hasidim as well the sexism that facilitated the oppressive household conditions she lived under. She shows us a book her daughter uses in a religious school that embodies Hasidic backwardness, including the blacking out of young girl’s faces who are depicted in the book’s graphics. It reminded me of the intervention my grandmother took but in the opposite direction. She altered a photo of my great-grandmother to block out the religious head covering she was wearing. My grandmother was religious but she had no use for shtetl backwardness.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 1.16.35 PM

“One of Us” is reminiscent of “Trembling Before God”, a 2001 documentary about gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews that adopted secularism because the homophobia in the community became unbearable. If you don’t mind Portuguese subtitles, the film can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ts7bhOau0Wc

As they say, 90 percent of the success of a documentary involves the selection of attractive and interesting subjects. On this basis, “One of Us” succeeds admirably and will certainly gain my vote for best documentary in 2017. It can be seen at the IFC Center in NYC starting tomorrow as well as on Netflix.

Also opening tomorrow at the Landmark theaters on both West 57th St. and East Houston St is “Jane”, a biopic documentary about Jane Goodall, the woman who studied chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania starting in 1960 when she was 26 years old. Recently National Geographic that funded her studies came across an archive of film footage from Gombe that they turned over to Brett Morgen who would be responsible for molding them into a documentary. “Jane” consists of this footage with commentary by Jane Goodall who is now 83 years old.

As someone who was enthralled by Goodall’s “In The Shadow Of Man” when it came out in 1974, I was looking forward immensely to this film. I was a bit disappointed because the focus was much more on her life story rather than her research. For example, there is only about a minute or so showing a chimpanzee fashioning a twig into a tool to extract termites from their nest. When I read about this in her book, it made me rethink what I had read in Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”:

Labour begins with the making of tools. And what are the most ancient tools that we find – the most ancient judging by the heirlooms of prehistoric man that have been discovered, and by the mode of life of the earliest historical peoples and of the rawest of contemporary savages? They are hunting and fishing implements, the former at the same time serving as weapons. But hunting and fishing presuppose the transition from an exclusively vegetable diet to the concomitant use of meat, and this is another important step in the process of transition from ape to man.

Despite her lack of a college education and specialized training, Louis Leaky decided to send his secretary Jane Goodall to Tanzania because he thought that most animal behavior scientists would carry too much intellectual baggage with them and not be able to allow the chimpanzee’s behavior to speak for itself.

Leakey had come to the conclusion that studying chimpanzees would give us insights about homo sapiens. Much of what Goodall saw did have relevance, especially the use of tools and how mothers looked after their children. In addition to Goodall, Leakey also recruited Dian Fossey to study gorillas.

What I did find somewhat troubling, however, was the footage of what Goodall referred to as a virtual war between rival bands of chimpanzees that she regarded as proof that warfare is in our genes. Obviously, this is consistent with the sociobiology of Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond.

As was the case with the use of fashioning twigs, the film spends only a few minutes reviewing the so-called war. One supposes that the director had to make a choice. Given the standard 90 minutes or so allocated to a feature film, you could not tell both her life story and do justice to her in-depth research.

As soon as I returned home from a press screening and did some searching on chimpanzee wars. I recommend the articles in Scientific American written by John Horgan who speculates that the aggressive behavior might have even been triggered by Jane Goodall feeding bananas to the chimps in order to bring them closer to her husband Hugo van Lawick’s camera, as is seen in “Jane”. In an article titled “Quitting the hominid fight club: The evidence is flimsy for innate chimpanzee–let alone human—warfare”, Horgan writes:

The first lethal gang attack was witnessed in 1974 at Gombe, after Goodall and her co-workers had spent 14 years closely observing chimpanzees. Goodall, who began supplying bananas to chimpanzees in 1965, once expressed concern that the feeding “was having a marked effect on the behavior of the chimps. They were beginning to move about in large groups more often than they had ever done in the old days. Worst of all, the adult males were becoming increasingly aggressive. When we first offered the chimps bananas the males seldom fought over their food; …now…there was a great deal more fighting than ever before.” (This quote appears in Sussman and Marshack’s paper.)

Chimpanzees throughout Africa are also increasingly threatened by poachers, farmers and other humans. Ian Tattersall, an anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, told me that chimpanzee violence is “plausibly related to population stress occasioned by human encroachment.” In other words, outbreaks of lethal violence among chimpanzees may stem primarily from environmental and even cultural factors. Wrangham himself has emphasized that chimpanzees display “significant cultural variation” in tool use, courtship and other behaviors.

My advice is to see “Jane” for some thought-provoking material to chew over as well as spectacularly beautiful cinematography produced by van Lawick, widely considered the greatest photographer of wildlife in Africa. If you, however, are interested in escapist entertainment, there is always “Wonder Woman”. You can leave your brain at home.

October 14, 2017

Wonder Woman

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:49 pm

Feeling like Diogenes carrying around a lamp trying to find an honest man, I futilely search Amazon Prime and Netflix for 2017 films to nominate as best film, director or screenplay in conjunction with the NYFCO awards meeting in December. Based on recent results, including “Wonder Woman”, it appears that the flame in my lamp has died.

With a 92 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and only $5.99 to rent on Amazon Prime, I hoped that “Wonder Woman” would pass muster. I wouldn’t have spent $12 for a senior ticket at the local cineplex but six dollars won’t break the bank. I understood that a lot of the left took strenuous objection to an Israeli IDF-supporter cast in the leading role but I wasn’t sure whether an American actress would be carrying lighter baggage. I say that as someone with a fondness for Israeli couscous, so there. If the film was at least some old-fashioned fun, why not? After all, there’s nothing more racist and reactionary than the Indiana Jones franchise, right?

There are many things wrong with the film but chief among them is to use WWI as a historical setting with the Germans being cast as stock character villains. Like most of these youth-oriented films based on apocalyptic showdowns between good and evil, dramatic impact rests on the need for a bad guy with heft. An emblematic figure would be Ian McKellen as Magneto in the X-Men films or Lex Luther in Superman. Indeed, in the original comic book story that the film is adapted from, the setting is WWII. The author was both a patriot who hated Nazis and who hoped to deliver a feminist message.

A Syfy.com journalist endorses the time-shift since it supposedly avoids the reductionism associated with films that feature Nazi bad guys.

But World War I has largely gone unromanticized in mainstream American culture the same way World War II has. The internecine politics of the first modern war make it less ripe as a narrative to distort, lacking figures and sides easy to slot into the roles of heroes and villains. It simply can’t be twisted to serve the narrative need of the aforementioned rah-rah media narrative the way World War II can be.

On the other hand, Breitbart is annoyed because it failed to live up to their American nationalist expectations:

So, why the big switch? Why take the character originally introduced as a true American fighter of the Nazis and push her backwards into a whole other era in a war the U.S. had much less to do with when all was said and done?

It’s likely for the same reason that the new Wonder Woman will be dressed in a drab costume of earth tones instead of the red, white, and blue suit we are all used to. Today’s filmmakers want to erase as much of America from Wonder Woman as possible.

What the Syfy journalist missed was the obvious tropes about German perfidy redolent of the Nazi regime. Their troops are led by a stick figure named General Erich Ludendorff who might as well have been shouting “Heil Hitler” at the drop of a hat or telling Wonder Woman “Ve haf ways of getting information.” His chief assistant is a Spanish chemist named Isabel Maru, aka Doctor Poison, who is working on a formula to turn mustard gas into a super-weapon that could lead to the extinction of the human race, even if it was originally intended to be used against the British. Since this character first appeared in a WWII Wonder Woman comic, you would be led to believe that she was a premature Falangist. Her weapon is obviously a stand-in for the atomic bomb and consistent with the film’s pacifist message. Doctor Poison, like most of the secondary characters in the film, is underdeveloped. Facially scarred by experiments on herself, she wears a Phantom of the Opera-like mask to cover the scars. You have no idea why she ever involved herself with such a project since neither personal gain nor ideology ever enter the picture. All we know about her is that she has this thing about developing weapons of mass destruction. That’s what happens when you use WWI as a template. Motivation goes down the drain.

There is, of course, another way of seeing this choice. Starring alongside Israeli actress Gal Gadot, Chris Pine plays American spy Steve Trevor who has absconded with Doctor Poison’s notebook. Pine says that it was a great decision to use WWI since the helmets and uniforms look really cool. Pine graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2002 with a B.A. in English. Maybe you should think twice before sending your kid there.

The film opens with Trevor’s plane crashing into the waters off of the Greek island of island of Themyscira, where the Amazons have been living for millennia. They were sequestered there by Zeus who had plans to make one of its denizens the future killer of Ares who had pissed him off when gods ruled the earth rather than man. It seems that Ares, the god of war, was intent on using war itself as a way of solving the “human problem” and hoped to recruit his long-lost sister Diana (aka Wonder Woman) as a comrade in this cleansing operation.

After Diana rescues Trevor from the water and discovers that WWI is at full tilt, she convinces him to lead her to the outside world in order to kill Ares who she holds responsible for this war and all others. Obviously, the film is not too heavy into political economy. The climax of the film that must have cost $25 million in special effects alone consists of her and Ares throwing army tanks and other massive projectiles at each other. If this is your thing, be my guest. I preferred “Menashe”, a Yiddish-language film about a single dad Hasidic Jew trying to retain custody of his young son.

For many critics, the film was a feminist breakthrough. It was directed by a woman named Patty Jenkins, whose last feature film was “Monster”, a 2003 biopic about the prostitute and serial killer Aileen Wuornos, hardly a resume that would have led to a summer blockbuster like this. The screenplay was written by Allan Heinberg, a gay man with both film and comic book credits. His “Young Avengers” included two gay characters. With a creative team like this behind a film with a pacifist message, it was likely to garner favorable reviews from liberal or leftist critics. Sojourners, a liberal Christian magazine, effused:

Wonder Woman marks a feminist milestone, too, one that feels like artistic justice: it’s the first major superhero movie to feature a female hero, and the first to use a female director, Patty Jenkins.

But it’s also a mission statement. In addition to being about feminism and patriarchy-smashing, Wonder Woman is a movie about the hunger for justice for all oppressed people, women included. It tackles sexism, racism, and the horrors of war, all tied up in a mightily entertaining summer blockbuster package.

If only that was true. Sigh. I have heard such claims made on behalf of any number of blockbusters, including “The Hunger Games” and even films I considered progressive such as “Avatar” and the new Planet of the Apes movies. I doubt that any of them will ever have the impact of a documentary. Maybe this year I’ll stop wasting my time searching Diogenes-like for a worthy narrative film and just nominate 3 documentaries for best movie of 2017.

September 29, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:58 pm

One of the primary imperatives of the Hollywood film industry is to make money, just is it would be for laxative or automobile manufacturers. Unlike the lonely art of literature that only requires a computer or typewriter to get started (or even a pen or pencil for the Luddites among us), film-making is an expensive proposition. The average budget for an independent film is $750,000, something that is beyond the means of most aspiring filmmakers. For the big production companies that will spend $80 million for a film like “American Made” that opens today, the emphasis is on hiring “bankable” stars like Tom Cruise who plays the drug dealer and Oliver North operative Barry Seal. That $80 million was almost as much as Congress voted for Nicaraguan contra funding in the year that Seal was involved in a sting operation against the Sandinistas.

Once you have the bankable star, you need to consult with the studio’s top financial geniuses who likely will recommend bankable genres that are geared to the youth market that will see a film multiple times and that consumes large boxes of popcorn given its youthful appetites. Just yesterday, when I went to see the film that is the subject of this review at a Manhattan AMC Cineplex, I decided to pick up a small box of popcorn even though I knew it was be deluged with salt—a means of luring me back to the concession stand to slake my thirst. When the concessionaire told me that it would cost $8.37, I decided against the purchase since the raw materials only cost AMC ten cents.

The youth market is drawn to two kinds of films like moths to a flame. The first are those that are based on Marvel comic books and others in this vein. The second are sequels to a successful film largely based on the Marvel comic book or videogame sensibility such as Transformers or Mortal Kombat. Closely related to this genre are remakes of classic films such as Star Wars or The Magnificent Seven that are generally inferior to the original.

Ostensibly a remake product of the bookkeeping mentality, the film I saw yesterday was the third in a recent series of Planet of the Apes films. Since I had not seen a single Hollywood film this year, I realized that I would look like an interloper at the December NYFCO awards meeting unless I came up with a few plausible nominations. Unlike my colleagues, most of whom are trying to make a living as reviewer, I am under no obligation to see something like Transformers. In fact, when I received a pass years ago to see films being shown at AMC theaters after becoming a member of NYFCO, I almost never used it.

Despite having all the earmarks of Hollywood commercialism, “The War for the Planet of the Apes” is a singular instance of art trumping commerce.

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September 22, 2017

Let if Fall; The Force

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:47 pm


Perhaps nothing illustrates the lawlessness of law enforcement in the USA more than the spectacle of cops in St. Louis shouting “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they arrested people protesting the not guilty verdict of white police officer Jason Stockley, who had been recorded telling his partner that “we’re killing this motherfucker, don’t you know,” just minutes before firing five bullets into the body of an African-American youth named Anthony Lamar Smith in 2011. It did not matter to the judge that Stockley had fired his pistol at Smith, whose car he had overtaken in a drug bust pursuit, just six inches from his body—a clear indication of premeditation. Nor did it matter that the pistol that had been found in Smith’s car was likely planted since it only had Stockley’s DNA on it. Since Stockley had waived the right to a jury trial, it was up to Judge Timothy J. Wilson to render a verdict: not guilty. Considering Wilson’s reputation for being fair, you can only conclude that he was simply adapting to the racism that pervades American society, especially the criminal justice system.

Two recent films help to place this by now predictable outcome into perspective. Both put a spotlight on the police forces in Los Angeles and Oakland. Despite California’s liberal reputation, its cops act as if they are reporting to Bull Connor. As Malcolm X once put it, everything south of the Mason-Dixon Line is the South.

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September 20, 2017

Elizabeth Blue; Thy Father’s Chair

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

The two films under review are about people living at society’s margins and not the flashy superheroes you are used to seeing in summer blockbusters about space alien invasions or super-spies but both are two of the better films I have seen in months and a testament to the integrity of their respective creative teams. In a period of commercialism running rampant, symbolized most of all by the garish and murderous clown in the White House, “Elizabeth Blue” and “Thy Father’s Chair” are reminders that humanism is still alive in a dying empire, at least in the world of cinema.

For the longest time, films about schizophrenics have tended to be horror stories like “Psycho” or Grand Guignol tales like “Shutter Island”. Given the cheap exploitation of a serious illness, we are thankful for a film like “Elizabeth Blue” that offers a fictional tale deeply engaged with the real medical challenges facing its victims. And we should be doubly thankful that first-time feature director/screenwriter has done it so well, making him the inside track for my nomination as top new director of 2017 when NYFCO has its awards meeting in December.

The hope of all schizophrenics is to live a normal and productive life, which is shared by Elizabeth who we meet as she is being discharged from a psychiatric ward. She is a young and attractive woman who had a career as an editor before the first in a series of psychotic breaks. Perhaps this time things will turn out better since she is soon to be married to a handsome young man named Grant who has accepted her illness in the spirt of the “for better or for worse” marriage vow.

To help her along, Elizabeth and Grant meet with a psychiatrist who prescribes a number of medications that will help relieve her of the symptoms that bedevil all schizophrenics. Despite Alfred Hitchcock’s lurid (if even cinematically memorable) tale, most are of no danger to other people. Instead their most frequent victims are themselves since the psychological torment often leads to suicide.

In Elizabeth’s case, you see a highly realistic portrayal of what typically happens. Auditory hallucinations take the effect of disembodied voices telling the schizophrenic that they are worthless and that they do not deserve to live. If this happens infrequently, one might assume that these attacks can be relieved through medication and the support of family or a future husband like Grant. But when it is incessant, it can reach the point where the illness can totally incapacitate the sufferer.

Elizabeth is played by Anna Shafer, who is superb. Her shifting moods and hallucinatory episodes are played most effectively without the need to exaggerate the emotional reactions to the horrors that such a patient would be enduring. In an interesting casting coup her mother, who in layperson’s terms might be seen as having driven her daughter crazy, is played by Kathleen Quinlan, who was the schizophrenic patient in the 1977 “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”.

Success stories for this illness are infrequent. Among them are Tom Harrell, the jazz trumpeter, or the late John Nash, whose battles were dramatized in “A Beautiful Mind”. They also include director/screenwriter Vincent Sabella who as a schizophrenic himself knew first-hand how to dramatize the inner life of a schizophrenic as well as the medical regimen that is necessary to stay afloat. He has not only contributed to cinematic art but to the ongoing support campaign for a much stigmatized part of society. 3.2 million people suffer from the illness in the USA and most are regarded as either a danger to society or not worth supporting through a social safety net, even with its gaping holes. “Elizabeth Blue” is a stunning drama that will help to shed light on an illness that deserves to be understood dispassionately and without prejudice.

“Elizabeth Blue” opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in NYC. Highly recommended.

Opening on October 13nd at the Cinema Village in NYC and at the Laemmle in LA a week later, “Thy Father’s Chair” joins “Menashe” as a penetrating look at the orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. While not Hasidim, twin brothers Shraga and Abraham are about as close as you can come. They worship in a Hasidic synagogue and wear full beards and the black suit and white shirts that are a virtual uniform in this world.

But unlike the Hasidim, they are not only bachelors but living in a completely degraded state. They are alcoholics and living in filth in an apartment that is so insect-ridden and malodorous that the upstairs neighbors in the building they own have gone on a rent strike until the mess is cleaned up.

That indeed is how the documentary starts with the Israeli owner of a specialized cleaning company and his Black and Latino workers tackling a job that would make the ordinary person gag. There is garbage strewn across the floor in every room and a kitchen and bathroom that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in a decade.

The two sixtyish brothers are a distinct NYC type that you read about every so often, the pathological hoarder who we only find out about after they die. The smell of the decomposing body prompts the neighbors to call the police and attend to the body and the filth the dead man left behind.

On October 19, 2015 I blogged about this phenomenon after reading a story in the NY Times titled “The Lonely Death of George Bell”, a morbidly fascinating article that included this:

The two men foraged through the unedited anarchy, 800 square feet, one bedroom. A stench thickened the air. Mr. Plaza dabbed his nostrils with a Vicks vapor stick. Mr. Rodriguez toughed it out. Vicks bothered his nose.

The only bed was the lumpy foldout couch in the living room. The bedroom and bathroom looked pillaged. The kitchen was splashed with trash and balled-up, decades-old lottery tickets that had failed to deliver. A soiled shopping list read: sea salt, garlic, carrots, broccoli (two packs), “TV Guide.”

The faucet didn’t work. The chipped stove had no knobs and could not have been used to cook in a long time.

Instead of decades-old lottery tickets, the twin brothers have tons of Judaica that has accumulated alongside old newspapers and magazines, as well as junk they picked up off the street. If cleanliness is next to godliness, these brothers had no hope.

To me the most interesting aspect of the film is the clash between the Israeli and the two old-school Brooklyn Jews who probably spoke Yiddish growing up. At one point, Abraham asks him whether he believes in god. The Israeli says he doesn’t. Interestingly enough, the old observant Jew says that he is not sure he does himself. As a secular-minded take charge guy, the Israeli immigrant is an obvious contrast to the kind of shtetl life that Israel was meant to replace, including the Yiddish language. Why he has moved to the USA would probably be a good subject for another film.

This is a cinéma vérité that shows the influence of Frederic Wiseman and the Maysles brothers as the co-directors openly admit. Despite the advantage that a Jewish director, such as the one that made “Menashe”, would have in securing the agreement of the twin brothers to be filmed, it is instead a Spaniard named Alex Lora and an Australian named Antonio Tibaldi who made this extraordinary film. I can’t imagine how they ever hooked up with the Israeli cleaning contractor or the two lost souls who they have rescued from obscurity. Their readiness to make a film in the midst of such squalor shows a dedication to film art that most men and women could not muster.

Highly recommended.

September 16, 2017

Red Trees

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

When I received an invitation from a publicist to review “Red Trees” that opened yesterday at Lincoln Plaza and Quad Cinema in NYC, I was initially undecided since the documentary was about surviving the holocaust. Having seen dozens of films, both fiction and nonfiction, about this crime against humanity starting with Alain Resnais’s 1956 documentary “Night and Fog” that I saw as a college freshman in 1961, I was not sure what more could be said. I finally decided to review the film since it was produced by Charles S. Cohen who owns the Cohen Media Group and Quad Cinema. Over the years I have developed a deep respect for Cohen Media Group films and those shown at Quad Cinema. Suffice it to say that “Red Trees” meets the lofty standards set by Mr. Cohen, who decided to produce the film after seeing a shorter version.

Although the images summoned up the word holocaust are black-and-white photos and historical footage of skeletal victims at Auschwitz, “Red Trees” is instead a lyrically evocative picture of the world of the Czechs both past and present as director Marina Willer and her father Alfred visit the places where he grew up. Even when he recalls terrifying moments, his daughter never forgets that the overarching purpose of the film is to convey the joys of civilized life in places like Kaznêjov and Prague where the Willer family prospered economically and culturally until the Nazis began their brutal occupation in 1939.

The Willer family was a paradigm of secular and educated Czechoslovakia, in no way different from the Christian elite. Indeed, the contribution that the patriarch Wilem was making helped the family become one of the twelve that survived the genocide. He was an industrial engineer who developed the process for manufacturing citric acid, a chemical key to preserving food. Even with this to his credit, he narrowly escaped being sent to a concentration camp. The film cites Hitler’s words in 1933: “If science cannot do without Jews, then we will have to do without science for a few years.”

His son Alfred was born in 1930 and demonstrated an talent for art that was as formidable as his father’s was for science and technology. Not long after he began painting landscapes, the teachers noticed that the trees were red—a dead giveaway that he was colorblind. This did not dissuade him from a life in the arts and eventually becoming an outstanding architect. The title of the film refers both to his minor disability as well as his and his daughter’s belief that skin color should not matter when it comes to human relations. After obtaining passports in 1947, the Willers headed for Brazil, a country that symbolized the kind of racial diversity these progressive Jews believed in and that is now under mounting attack across Europe and the USA. Although the main purpose of Marina Willer’s film is to tell her family’s story, you can’t help but think that it is 2017’s most important anti-fascist statement.

I kept thinking of Stefan Zweig as the film unfolded. He lived in Vienna that like Willer’s Prague was a symbol of civilized European values. And like Willer, he chose to live in Brazil, emigrating there in 1940, not long after he had narrowly escaped Hitler’s death squads. In 1941, he wrote “Brazil: Land of the Future”, a book that saw his new adopted homeland as free of Europe’s “race fanatics”, its “frenzied scenes and mad ecstasies of hero-worship”, its “foolish nationalism and imperialism” and its “suicidal fury”. As it turned out, Zweig’s despair, and his wife’s, over the horrors overtaking Europe became too much of a burden. They committed suicide a year later, becoming Hitler’s victims just as much as those who died in concentration camps.

Marina Willer made this film as a way to get closer to her father, who had never spoken much about his ordeals as a Jew in Prague during WWII. In making the film, she was able to piece together a story that is as much a commentary on the suffering of the Jews as it is of the general problem of people being driven from their homelands because of ethnic or racial hatred or–even worse–murdered. In the press notes, she says, “Red Trees is a personal project that merges the story of my family with something that’s really universal—what’s going on today with the world’s refugees. The story becomes much more relevant because of the refugee crisis. The point of telling personal stories is that they become universal, and we can learn from history to not make this mistake again.”

Now based in London, she drew upon the cinematographic talents of her Brazilian countryman César Charlone, who won an Academy Award for “City of God”. They filmed in abandoned factories where her grandfather worked and in synagogues that contained the names of all the Jews who had died in concentration camps. Suffice it to say that Marina Willer’s background as a designer and Charlone’s stunning visual acuity make watching this film something like a visit to a museum.

In addition to telling her family’s story, we also learn about Czechoslovakia’s resistance to Nazism that includes a closing credit to some of the country’s resistance fighters. When I was very young, WWII was still very much alive in the minds of my parents and their generation, including those who scheduled what we saw on television. In the mid-50s, something like “Hogan’s Heroes” would have been totally unacceptable. Instead, we saw “The Silent Village” that can now be seen on Youtube. This British documentary made in 1943 told the story of Lidice, a Czech town that was wiped off the face of the map because it was accused of supporting the resistance fighters who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, considered the main architect of the holocaust. After he was killed, Hitler ordered the execution of every male adult in Lidice and that the women and children be sent to concentration camps. Afterwards, every building was burned to the ground and salt was spread across the soil in order to prevent anything from growing again. As Marina Willer points out, many villages and towns were renamed Lidice in solidarity with the victims as were newborn children. It may be said that if “Red Trees” had a subtitle, it would be “Lidice”.

The film ends with the words of Alfred Willer that are germane to the social crisis we face today. “I have never understood an attachment to one nation, one culture. We are a mixture, and in this there is beauty. I’m Jewish, Protestant, Catholic, Czech, German, Brazilian, English– I’m everything. What a salad.” What did Stalin call such people? Rootless cosmopolitans? People such as Stefan Zweig and Alfred Willer were naturally drawn to places like Vienna, Prague and Rio de Janeiro where their catholic and progressive sensibility could flourish. Ultimately, this is the task we face today and one that “Red Trees” undertakes, to make a world where cosmopolitanism reigns supreme.


September 8, 2017

Trophy; Company Town

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Long before the threat of large scale animal extinction became front page news, a film titled “The Roots of Heaven” appeared in theaters back in 1959. This was a John Huston film based on a Romain Gary novel about a small band of outsiders, as Godard would put it, who conduct nonviolent guerrilla warfare against elephant ivory poachers in French Equatorial Africa. It was the first film I ever saw that gave me a sense of the joy and honor of political resistance.

Three years later, a book titled “Silent Spring” began to be serialized in the New Yorker that linked the looming extinction of large-scale predators like the condor to the use of DDT in killing the pests that fed on crops in places like California. When the eagles or condors fed on the toxin-laden insects, their eggshells became too thin to bear offspring, The underlying message of Rachel Carsons’s book was that capitalist development threatened not only animal life but that of humanity itself.

Opening at the Quad Cinema in New York today, “Trophy” poses the provocative question of whether big-game hunting in Africa is the best way to save elephants, rhinos, buffalo and other endangered species. Focusing on South Africa and Zimbabwe, the film interviews white ranchers who have discovered that there is big money to be made by allowing hunting safaris to pay up to $250,000 for killing an elephant on their land. So much money can be made that these former masters of the native peoples began raising endangered species rather than cattle. Like many whites who were part of the colonial elite, they have a fondness for the Africa of yore when elephants and rhinoceros roamed freely in great numbers like bison in the northern Plains.

The directors of “Trophy” were wise enough to avoid editorializing. They pose questions that you most wrestle with. What are you to make of John Hume at his rhino ranch about a 100 miles east of Johannesburg where he keeps 1,500 rhinos protected from poachers, part of which involves armed guards patrolling his vast holdings? Hume also dehorns the beasts to make them less valuable for the sordid trade that capitalizes on the irrational beliefs of the Chinese and Saudi rich that the horns are an aphrodisiac. Hume is licensed to sell 264 horns per year to anyone in South Africa, the revenues of which helps him pay $170,000 per year on security.

We also see a Texas sheepherder named Philip Glass who is life-long hunter and devout Christian (clearly not the Jewish composer who wrote “Tefilim”) who has paid big bucks to go on his yearly hunting safari on private lands where large animals are sheltered from poaching. We see him tracking down a massive and elderly lion that he has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of killing. He sees himself in the same way that Theodore Roosevelt or Ernest Hemingway saw themselves when the white race ruled the world, enjoying the privilege of killing massive amounts of wildlife. Standing over the lifeless lion, he begins to shed tears and talk about why creationism must be true. God’s obvious plan was to have man enjoying dominion over the animals. Just as the case with John Hume, the money that Glass paid goes to protect other lions and other endangered species lucky enough to be spared the bullets from his high-powered rifle.

The most interesting interviewee in the film is Craig Packer, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota and director of the university’s Lion Center. Packer places the dwindling numbers of large-scale predators in the same context as Rachel Parsons—victims of capitalist development. In a New Yorker profile on Packer that was triggered by the killing of a protected lion by an American dentist, he defends the need for trophy hunting as a necessary evil:

It is his position, as the story begins, that the lions of the Serengeti need sport hunters to survive; that Cecils must die if prides are to endure. The lions’ existential threat is not American machismo but the slow spread of traditional cattle ranchers, some of whom have been forcibly removed from their lands in order to make room for game parks, and who will poison or spear cattle-killing lions with or without government sanction. The semi-nomadic Maasai kill lions that kill their livestock, kill lions that kill their children, and kill lions to prove themselves brave. That more than a quarter of Tanzania has been given over to hunters means that it has not been given over to people trying to make a living—so there is still hope for the lions within. “Take away the incentive for hunters to grow a healthy crop of lions, and the king of beasts would be eliminated from most of its remaining range,” Packer argues, recalling the early days of his monomaniacal quest to save Tanzania’s remaining animals. “Lions needed trophy hunting as much as trophy hunting needed lions.”

Over on CounterPunch, there is another perspective. Past and present members of Survival International who oppose traditional conservationist groups, especially for the premium they put on police action against poachers, have written articles against both trophy hunters and attempts to sustain nature preserves. As long-time defenders of indigenous rights, they obviously hope to keep pastoral peoples like the Masai masters in a state of nature even if that impinges on that of nature itself. For Stephen Corry, indigenous peoples are elevated over trophy hunters because they are tied to the land in a way that no safari ever could be:

Other big game hunters really should be grappling with a monumental theological crisis around subsistence hunting. On the one hand, they’ve always opposed it because it reduces “their” game, but on the other hand, tribal hunters surely deserve recognition as the original authorities, the respected “elders,” as it were. After all, tribesmen are infinitely more expert than anyone else at tracking and stalking, they have a much deeper understanding of their prey, and are far more respectful towards the animals – aspects which are also engrained in the beliefs of the big game hunters. Tribesmen are also of course highly skilled at making their own weaponry and, most importantly, their communities are better conservationists than anyone else.

This strikes me as a romanticized version of tribal life that has little resemblance to African realities. Lions, elephants, rhinoceroses et al are dwindling in numbers in part because their habitat is being encroached upon by subsistence farmers whose cattle are being eaten by lions or whose crops are being trampled by elephants. They have no interest in an ecological balance with such beasts who are regarded as a nuisance in the same way that a cattle rancher in Montana regards wolves as the enemy. Also, by chopping down trees and clearing bush, they are destroying the habitat of large animals in the same way that replacing the prairie with wheat killed the bison just as efficiently as rifles.

For a solution to these contradictions on top of contradictions, it will have to begin with a vastly ambitious reorganization of our relationship to nature, starting with a more equal distribution of people and resources between town and countryside. Subsistence farming is on the increase in Africa because there are so few jobs in the city. If labor could be better integrated into the production of use values in cities with a much lighter footprint than today’s Johannesburg, tribal peoples would not feel the need to kill elephants or to destroy the plant life they subsist on.

“Trophy” does not and really cannot address the future world that is so necessary but it is a powerful examination of the current hell we are living in.

“Company Town” made me so enraged at the Koch brothers that I went to the Lincoln Center website to track down the names of people on the board of directors to send a mass email denouncing them for taking money from the men who were responsible for a cancer epidemic in Crossett, Arkansas. After cooling off, I decided that my time would be better spent advising my readers to see a powerful documentary that takes up one of the most outrageous cases of environmental racism that can be imagined.

In 2005 the Koch brothers bought Georgia-Pacific that produces a wide range of commodities based on timber. This includes paper goods like Brawny, Dixie, Angel Soft, Quilted Northern and Vanity Fair that you should not buy under any conditions. It also produces a wide range of chemicals. The biggest G-P plant was in Crossett, Arkansas and employed a largely African-American workforce from the town and the surrounding Ashley county that began to suffer from a cancer epidemic clearly related to the plant dumping toxic byproducts into the soil and earth around the plant—illegally.

The star of the film is a retired African-American G-P worker named David Bouie who is also a pastor in a Crossett church. When people living on the streets in his neighborhood began dying one by one, he began looking into the possibility that toxic dumping might have been responsible, especially since nearby streams that were formerly clear and pure now were filled with gunk whose odor could make you gag.

He teamed up with a local woman who was a river-keeper for local streams in the same that Pete Seeger was for the Hudson, as well as environmental scientists to prove that G-P was acting on Koch brothers behalf to boost profits at the expense of the well-being of people living in Crossett. Most importantly, a whistle-blower from G-P came forward to tell Bouie and his fellow activists that company policy was to dump chemical byproducts into the streams and fields near Crossett under the cover of night.

Eventually they teamed up with EPA officials, who happened to be African-American just like most of the people working at G-P. Let’s put it this way. If they weren’t getting paid off by the Koch’s, they were doing the best they could to make such an impression.

In one scene that makes you want to scream, the local activists and G-P management were supposed to have a phone conference but at the last minute G-P bailed. When Bouie expressed his dismay at their refusal to discuss how toxic dumping could end, the EPA chief tells them that it might be a good idea to be less aggressive. After all, he advises, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Granted that the Koch brothers are like houseflies, this was obviously a way of telling them to accept the status quo, including more cancer cases.

The Crossett case has been widely covered in the press. I strongly advise you to see the film at Cinema Village but if that is not possible because of prior engagements between today and the 14th, I urge you to read Jane Mayer’s article that appeared in the New Yorker a year ago. (). Titled “A Whistle-Blower Accuses the Kochs of “Poisoning” an Arkansas Town”, it is likely one that Lincoln Center’s board members chose to ignore. Mayer is the author of “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”, an investigative report on the Koch brothers and their cohorts. She writes:

In June, Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the billionaires Charles and David Koch, launched a new corporate public-relations campaign called “End the Divide,” to advance the notion that Koch Industries is deeply concerned by growing inequality in America. An ad for the campaign urges viewers to “look around,” as an image of an imposing white mansion is replaced by one of blighted urban streets. “America is divided,” an announcer intones, with “government and corporations picking winners and losers, rigging the system against people, creating a two-tiered society with policies that fail our most vulnerable.”

The message was surprising, coming from a company owned by two of the richest men in the world, who have spent millions of dollars pushing political candidates and programs that favor unfettered markets and oppose government intervention on behalf of the poor. But no trouble appeared to have been spared in the commercial’s creation. It features a cast of downtrodden Americans of all colors and creeds. To portray corporate greed, it includes a shot of a Wall Street sign, followed by a smug businessman looking down at the camera, dressed in a flashy suit and tie. But, according to Dickie Guice, who worked as a safety coördinator at a large Koch-owned paper plant in Arkansas, the company need not have gone to such lengths. Instead of scouting America for examples of social neglect, the Kochs could have turned the cameras on their own factory.

This summer, Guice decided to speak out about the paper mill in Crossett, a working-class town of some fifty-two hundred residents ten miles north of the Louisiana border.* The mill is run by the paper giant Georgia-Pacific, which has been owned by Koch Industries since 2005. According to E.P.A. records, it emits more than 1.5 million pounds of toxic chemicals each year, including numerous known carcinogens. Georgia-Pacific says that it has permits to operate the mill as it does, and disputes that it is harming local health and safety. But as far back as the nineteen-nineties, people living near the plant have described noxious odors and corrosive effluents that have forced them to stay indoors, as well as what seems to them unusually high rates of illness and death. Speaking by phone from his home, in Sterlington, Louisiana, Guice pointed the finger directly at the mill’s owners, and described a corporate coverup of air and water pollution that he says is “poisoning” the predominantly African-American community.

Guice made his début as a whistle-blower in a new documentary film, “Company Town,” about the pollution of Crossett, which premièred in June at the L.A. Film Festival. Natalie Kottke-Masocco, the film’s director, and Erica Sardarian, its co-director, spent some five years in Crossett, and over time they coaxed Guice to go on camera. “I was warned that I’d never get hired again,” he told me, when I asked why he was coming forward. “But I thought, What the heck, what are they going to do, kill me? It had to be done.”

As Guice tells it, he started working at the Crossett plant in February, 2011, when Larco Inc., a local heavy-equipment and construction firm, where he worked, was contracted by Georgia-Pacific to handle disposal of the paper plant’s waste. According to Guice, the contract called for his company to spread two hundred thousand cubic yards of “ash” dredged from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill’s sediment ponds across four hundred acres of property that it owned in the town. He says that Georgia-Pacific supervisors told him to spread the waste in layers in pits that were sometimes forty feet deep, and then to cover it with six inches of dirt, “so that it looked like a regular piece of land.” The land often flooded, Guice told me, and runoff would flow into trenches that fed into a local creek, which ran behind a residential area. He said that Georgia-Pacific would also dump “big plastic tanks” of untreated liquid waste. “It looks like brown liquor,” he said. “And steam comes up from it, sometimes all day.” Within a few months of starting at the paper plant, Guice said that he fell ill from exposure to the waste, developing respiratory problems. “My doctor told me to get out of there,” he said. “But I needed that job.”

August 24, 2017

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis

Filed under: Argentina,Film — louisproyect @ 9:13 pm

Opening tomorrow at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and to be followed with a DVD/VOD release this November, “The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis” is an Argentine film that might have easily been titled “Dark Night of the Soul”. Its eponymous main character is a middle-aged man living a life of quiet desperation. A glorified Bob Cratchit, he toils away as a bookkeeper in a small company whose hope for being promoted was dashed in the beginning of the film. Meeting with the boss, he learns that his payment for being a valued employee is a box of groceries, not the coveted promotion.

Just before returning home, he receives a phone call from a woman he hasn’t spoken to in decades. She wants to meet with him to get his authorization for a poem he wrote long ago when they were classmates in college. That is the pretext for the meeting they have in her car. She has learned from her husband, an air force officer working in counter-intelligence, that two people will be picked up that later that night to meet the fate that twenty thousand Argentinians have already met in 1977: Desaparecido.

She writes down the names and the address of the man and the woman on a piece of paper and instructs him to commit it to memory. After testing to see that he has done so, she crumbles the paper into a tiny wad and swallows it.

Finally grasping the gravity of the task put before him, Sanctis demurs. He cannot be of help. He honestly wonders why he would be asked to risk his life for two people he does not even know. The connections between the two, the woman who has summoned him out of the blue, and Sanctis are tenuous at best. Yes, he did write a poem glorifying the life of urban guerrillas but that was long ago when he was an impetuous youth. Now he is a settled and undistinguished middle-class man facing the usual challenges of any breadwinner. Why would he risk his life for two total strangers, when he no longer has the revolutionary beliefs of his college days—no matter how shallow?

These were the stakes doing politics in Argentina. Three years before the challenge faced by Francisco Sanctis over this long night, I was living in Houston and reporting for the SWP majority in a faction fight about guerrilla warfare in Argentina. The SWP supported a group led by Nahuel Moreno that had a similar orientation to our own, namely one of mass action based on student and working class youth. The other faction was led internationally by Ernest Mandel and supported a group in Argentina that was kidnapping bank executives and hijacking trucks.

Argentina, unlike the USA, had a radicalized working class that was a big threat to the country’s bourgeoisie and Washington. When a leader of the group we supported was on a speaking tour in the USA, he stayed at my apartment. Each night as we headed off for an event, we checked my car for bombs. This was in 1975.

A year later there was a coup in Argentina that smashed the guerrilla groups and drove the orthodox left underground. Henry Kissinger learned about General Videla’s seizure of power two months before it occurred. He gave the gorilla his advice: “The quicker you succeed the better … The human rights problem is a growing one … We want a stable situation. We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help.”

“The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis” describes the tension that existed throughout society even when those like the film’s main character were doing their best to keep a low profile. As the film proceeds, we see him wrestling with the decision about what to do against a backdrop of darkly lit streets, neon lights and barking dogs.

Humberto Constantini

The film is based on a novel of the same title by Humberto Constantini who knew this terrain quite well. Born to Italian-Jewish parents in 1924, he joined the CP in his twenties and fought against the Alianza Libertadora Nacionalista, a violent anti-Semitic fascist group. In the sixties, he became disillusioned with Stalinism and began to gravitate toward the Cuban leadership, particularly Che Guevara, a fellow Argentinian. He was active in the revolutionary movements of the 1970s and somehow managed being “disappeared” like fellow writers Harold Conti and Roberto Santoro.

After watching the film, I was motivated to take his novel out of the Columbia library. As good as the film was, nothing can compare to this unheralded revolutionary writer:

Now, as by degrees he begins connecting with reality, he has the feeling of having been thrust into a time outside time, into an interlude of daydreams and preposterousness, with addresses learned by heart, bits of paper burned to ash, vague husbands serving in Air Force Intelligence, bureaucratically planned kidnappings for three or maybe four in the morning, and mysterious informers who practice yoga and body expression. An interlude during which not he but another Francisco Sanctis, much more adrift, naive, and susceptible to bamboozling than the present Sanctis or the one who at five that afternoon received a telephone call at Luchini & Monsreal, would have committed an endless series of blunders, acting exactly the way one acts in dreams, accepting without question and as perfectly normal the most unparalleled facts and details—a toothbrush that’s also an aunt; a fish that slips off a hook, makes its way across a room, and utters threats in the voice of Father Cioppi; a four-eyed roly-poly girl who’s also an absolutely stunning dish; an optician’s receipt that must pass through ritual fire; a pair who will be brought in by a goon squad this very night. The matter deserves at least a half-dozen deep breaths and several minutes of calm meditation.

Films can do many things but they will never achieve the power of written language.


August 21, 2017

Mama Africa

Filed under: Africa,Film,music — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

If “Mama Africa”, the fine new documentary about Mariam Makeba, was nothing more than a compilation of her performances going back to the songs she sang in Lionel Rogosin’s groundbreaking anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa” in 1959, it would be well worth seeing. But it is more than that. It is a portrait of a leading Pan-African activist who deserves to be ranked alongside Paul Robeson as a tireless fighter for human rights for all people.

In a way, Rogosin’s film launched her career as a freedom fighter since everybody involved with it understood the risks they were taking. She only appeared briefly on stage, and sang two songs lasting four minutes but made such an impression on those who saw “Come Back, Africa” that she was invited to perform in London and New York, where she met and impressed Harry Belafonte who had by now established himself as an outspoken opponent of Jim Crow. He helped her get her first recordings made, “The Click Song” that was based on the highly percussive Xhosa language and “Pata Pata”, a dance tune she considered superficial.

One of the things that struck me about early her professional history is how much it overlapped with the folk music revival that to a large extent relied on great musicians like Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte who had been part of the Communist Party’s cultural milieu. Songs like “Wimowe” (The Lion Sleeps at Night) were often performed side-by-side with “This Land is Your Land” and “We Shall Overcome”. By 1959, the battle against Jim Crow in the South and apartheid in South Africa were closely linked in the minds of young people like Joan Baez or Peter, Paul and Mary.

Mariam Makeba was not in South Africa when the Sharpesville Massacre occurred a year later. She was anxious to attend the funerals of two family members were victims of the racist cops but discovered that her passport had been revoked. Like Paul Robeson, she had become an unperson. Because of the massacre and the violation of her right to travel freely, Makeba became even more outspoken and dedicated to eliminating apartheid.

Indeed, the film is social history as well as a personal history of Marian Makeba. As the Civil Rights movement gave way to the Black Power Movement, Makeba’s path crossed that of Stokely Carmichael, the leader of SNCC who had coined the term Black Power and become a leading Black nationalist and afterwards a Pan-Africanist who adopted the name Kwame Ture. After Carmichael and Makeba married in 1968, her songs took on a sharper political edge and were performed at rallies in the USA and Africa.

The film benefits from interviews with some of the key people who knew her as fellow musicians or activists. We hear from her bass player and drummer from the early 60s who offer thoughtful assessments of her as a person and a musician. She was beloved by everybody, especially for her readiness to prepare an elaborate meal on a moment’s notice. We also hear from her grandson Nelson Lumuba Lee who fleshes her out as a personality. He states that the accidental death of another grandson at a young age from accidentally swallowing some pills left her disconsolate and probably made performing and activism more difficult, especially as she grew older.

Makeba was able to return to a free South Africa in 1990 and became an enormous influence on younger female vocalists who pay tribute to her in the film. Indeed, it is hard to exaggerate the impact she had on African music and politics. It must be said, however, that Hugh Masekela, her most famous collaborator has a dim view of South Africa today, describing it as a neo-colonial state dominated from the West and the East.

“Mama Africa” was directed by Mika Kaurismäki, the older brother of Aki Kaurismäki—my favorite director. Mika directed a wonderful film titled “The Girl King” that I also recommend highly. It is the story of the lesbian Queen of Sweden who was tutored by Descartes—no that is not fiction! It can be seen for a mere $1.99 on Youtube.

Unfortunately, a disabled Macbook prevented me from posting this review until today but I urge my readers to try to attend a screening as indicated below:

Parkway Theater, Baltimore – 8/18 to 8/24

Austin Film Society – 9/23 & 9/30

Virginia Film Festival – 11/10 & 11/12

IFC, New York City –1/19/18 to 1/25/18

Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, Toronto – 2/27/18

I would also advise checking the distributor’s website to check about other screenings.

August 18, 2017

California Typewriter; The Shopkeeper

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:22 pm

Two documentaries have come my way that raise important questions about the digital revolution as well as providing much more entertainment than Dunkirk and Detroit put together, even if this might be a case of setting the bar too low.

“California Typewriter” is a beautiful homage to the antiquated machine that people my age used long before personal computers took over while “The Shopkeeper” is a nostalgic look at the recording industry in its prime and how streaming services like Spotify and Pandora threaten to pauperize performing artists to the point of making them as antiquated as a typewriter. The shopkeeper in question is Mark Hallman, the founder of the Congress House, the longest continually operating recording studio in Austin, Texas.

However, both films hold out the possibility of keeping such “relics” alive since as Camus once said, “Every act of rebellion expresses a nostalgia for innocence and an appeal to the essence of being.”

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