Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 12, 2018

Milford Graves: Full Mantis

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 5:52 pm

At the Left Forum in June, I had the great fortune to attend a panel discussion on the the Free Jazz movement of the 60s and 70s that included people like Archie Shepp, Pharaoh Sanders and Joe McPhee, one of the panelists. For me, this was the high point of the weekend since the “new thing” jazz of the 60s and 70s was close to my heart. As I told the speakers, when I entered Bard as a 16-year old in 1961, I was disaffected from the materialism and conformity of American society but could not figure out how to challenge it. In my freshman year, I heard Pharaoh Sanders in performance with other members of the Paul Bley band that blew my mind as they put it.

I have had the even greater fortune to have just seen “Milford Graves: Full Mantis” that opens tomorrow at the Metrograph in New York. In March 2017, I reviewed a documentary titled “I Called Him Morgan” that I described as the best film ever made about a jazz musician, in that instance trumpeter Lee Morgan who died tragically much too young after his girlfriend gunned him down in Slug’s in a fit of jealousy. He had rebounded from years of addiction, largely through her support, and was enjoying a revival. His loss was a crushing blow to the art of jazz.

I can now say that “Milford Graves: Full Mantis” is just as great a film but one that is filled with joy. Although they were contemporaries, Lee Morgan belonged to the hard bop school that preceded the Free Jazz movement percussionist Milford Graves pioneered. If heroin addiction was an epidemic during the bebop era that lasted roughly between WWII and the mid-60s, the Free Jazz movement was much more about finding transcendence through Black nationalism and spirituality, with Milford Graves a prime example.

You realize that you are about to meet an extraordinary figure as the film begins with the camera panning over Graves’s bookcase in his house in Queens. Coming into the foreground are Friedrich Engel’s “Dialectics of Nature” and Hermann von Helmholtz’s “On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music”. Most of my readers will undoubtedly know who Engels was but Helmholtz loomed large in Graves’s evolution as a musician and a medical researcher. Wikipedia describes him as a researcher who sought to provide a theoretical basis for human physiology:

In physiology and psychology, he is known for his mathematics of the eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, perception of sound, and empiricism in the physiology of perception.

In physics, he is known for his theories on the conservation of energy, work in electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, and on a mechanical foundation of thermodynamics.

In terms of the “mechanical foundation of thermodynamics”, you can obviously understand why Graves would keep a copy of “The Dialectics of Nature” alongside Helmholtz. Key to Graves’s approach to our world is the interconnectedness of all living things. In his backyard garden, he makes the case that plants are not passive organisms. Photosynthesis is a process that has much in common with our own biological cycle. Drawing close to a plant, he states that its leaves waving in the wind create low-frequency sounds that can be heard with the right equipment.

For Graves, equipment is not just the drum kit that he performs on throughout the film. In his exploration of the sonic aspects of the human body, he has built up an elaborate array of electronic measuring devices including an electronic stethoscope. Browsing in the medical shelves at Barnes and Noble many years ago, he stumbled across an LP titled “Normal and Abnormal Heart Beats” that led him on a journey to discover the affinity between heartbeats and drum rhythms. Even more remarkable, he discovered a kind of harmony in heartbeats based on their oscilloscope variations. These explorations led to a Guggenheim grant in 2000.

The best way to describe Milford Graves is as a Leonardo Da Vinci of our time. In all of my encounters with larger than life figures over a sixty year period, I have not seen anybody with as restless a mind and as gifted artistically as Graves. A case can be made that he is the most influential musician of the Free Jazz movement with his full-time professorship at Bennington College from 1973 until becoming Emeritus in 2011 as a sign of his stature.

“Milford Graves: Full Mantis” consists almost entirely of filmed performances of Graves and interviews at his home in Queens. At the age of 76, his intellect and his philosophical acumen strike me as the benefits of living a life in which your talents are matched to your ambitions. If we didn’t live in such a warped society, most people would be able to enjoy the kind of life that Graves has led if only on a more modest scale. The other reaction one might have to this film is a deepening sense of the injustice in this world where a Black skin precludes developing the kind of career that he has enjoyed. Probably the worst thing about capitalism is that it robs us from benefiting from the other Leonardo Da Vinci’s that the Black, Latino and working class world might have produced.

Finally, tribute has to be paid to director Jake Meginsky who has made a film that rises to the Olympian stature of its subject. For aspiring documentary film makers, this film bears repeated viewings since it shows how sensitive camera work and fully engaged interviewing techniques can produce great art. Meginsky is a drummer himself who was an aficionado of Milford Graves and later became a technician assistant to Graves at Bennington. This is the first film he has ever made and has the inside track for my NYFCO ballot as best debut as director of 2018.

 

 

July 6, 2018

The Citizen

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:30 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, JULY 6, 2018

When I was in high school, I had a very good English teacher who after assigning Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” warned us to pay careful attention to the pistols in Act One that Hedda Gabler shows off to a houseguest. They were inherited from her father and supposedly useful for killing time in a stultifying bourgeois household. Whenever you see a pistol or a knife in a play early on, he told us, that creates an uneasy foreshadowing of their being used in the final act. The titular character, bored and frustrated in the same way as Madame Bovary and other Victorian-era housewives, does end up shooting herself in the head.

At the beginning of “The Citizen”, a Hungarian film directed by Roland Vranik that opens today at the Metrograph theater in New York, we meet the main character Wilson Ugabe, a refugee from Guinea-Bissau, being grilled by a Hungarian immigration official, a member of a three-person panel, to determine whether he is entitled to become a citizen. “Tell me something about Hungarian art in the Renaissance.” “Do you remember what the Corvins were?” “Humanism”? Wilson remains silent, as you’d expect from having to take the Hungarian version of a test African-Americans took during the Jim Crow era to become registered to vote.

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July 5, 2018

A Skin So Soft

Filed under: Film,health and fitness — louisproyect @ 5:15 pm

Although it is far afield from the sort of film I tend to review, I would be remiss in not recommending the documentary about body-building titled “A Skin So Soft” that opens at Anthology Film Archives tomorrow. Given its subject matter, you’d think that the Anthology that shares my overall political/artistic preferences would be the last place in the world to show a film having anything in common with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Pumping Iron”. In fact, it does have little in common and is much more of an edgy art film that is totally riveting.

This is a 2017 documentary directed by director Denis Côté that focuses on six body-builders in Quebec who we see on their daily rounds, either lifting weights or walking their dog. Unlike “Pumping Iron”, we hear almost nothing from the principals except for very mundane chatter with their wives or the people they are training, who in two instances are their wives.

The overarching theme of “Pumping Iron” is male aggression, with Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno facing off. In “A Skin So Soft”, it is mostly camaraderie with a strong sense that the men are almost like sculptors using their bodies as raw material. Their pursuit is not so much a worship of masculinity but of beauty. Despite the sheer strangeness of seeing biceps the width of automobile tires, you never get the vibe that these are steroid-gobbling creatures ready to beat a stranger to a pulp.

Indeed, the rituals of depilation, oiling, and posing have the aura of beauty contests rather than gladiator contests. At the end of the film, the six men go off to a country retreat at the director’s expense apparently to swim, sunbathe and relax. Despite the homoerotic suggestion of this scene and other scenes, it is much more like young boys at summer camp.

Director Denis Côté is an extraordinary talent and I hope to track down more of his films. Once again, you will be richly rewarded by a trip downtown to Anthology Film Archives for a screening of “A Skin So Soft”.

June 22, 2018

A Nikolaus Geyrhalter Retrospective on DVD

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 3:54 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 22, 2018

If the goal of a film, whether fictional or documentary, is to show rather than tell, then Nikolaus Geyrhalter is in a class by himself. Born in 1972, the Austrian documentary filmmaker has 52 credits to his name. Six of his greatest works have now been collected into a DVD set that is available from Icarus, a distributor of leading-edge, left-of-center films based in Brooklyn (where else?).

My initial exposure to Geyrhalter was back in 2006, when my review of “Our Daily Bread” referred to its preference for “showing” rather than “telling”:

“Our Daily Bread” studiously avoids editorializing of any sort. The images themselves are sufficient to reveal food production as a mix of Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and Frederick Wiseman’s “Meat,” a 1976 documentary about the livestock business that “Our Daily Bread” clearly reflects. The main difference between Wiseman and Geyrhalter is that the latter eschews sensationalism of all sorts. While his film might lack the visceral impact of Wiseman’s, it is arguably more persuasive because it depicts the food industry as somehow inextricably linked to advances in technology and science. Geyrhalter challenges the audience to reject the paradigm set forth in his film. In so doing, they might be rejecting civilization as we know it.

A decade later I saw another Geyrhalter film titled “Homo Sapiens”, that like “Our Daily Bread”, defiantly lacked a single spoken word either by through narration or dialog. Nor is there a film score, one of the more annoying and omnipresent presences in documentary films today.

This silent film, however, did not need much “telling” since the images and haunting background sounds spoke for themselves. You see the detritus of cities and towns that have lost their raison d’être, namely their role in the circulation of capital. Once again, sans narration, you can only surmise that the abandoned hospitals, factories, schools, jails, laboratories, forts, etc. were abandoned because they became redundant just like the homo sapiens who lived and worked in the cities and towns where they were located. You get some of the same feeling of desolation and loss traveling around Sullivan County where I grew up—the Borscht Belt. When I strolled around the ruins of the once glamorous and thriving Nevele Hotel in Ellenville, I could not help but feel that I was in a kind of graveyard.

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June 15, 2018

The Chinese Exclusion Act; The Unafraid

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 12:25 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 15, 2018

Since nativism is largely responsible for the election of Donald Trump, the left is obligated to understand its roots as well as the impact it is having on those who are its most visible victims. Two new documentaries will help us develop both the historical and personal dimensions of the great stain across the body politic that has existed almost since the beginning of what Robinson Jeffers called our “perishing republic”.

The Chinese Exclusion Act” premiered last month on PBS but is thankfully available now on-demand. Directed by Ric Burns, it is not filled with the sort of flag-waving liberalism found in his brother Ken’s work. It is a history of a racist immigration law that was passed in 1882 and remained on the books until it was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943 when China became a key ally in the war against Japan. FDR knew full well how embarrassing such a racist law would appear in Asia, especially when Japan was pushing anti-colonial rhetoric as part of its Co-Prosperity Sphere. Using the standard Burns brothers documentary techniques the film paints a portrait of the real contribution Chinese labor made to economic development, all the while struggling to overcome white racism, including that of trade unions and political parties upholding the rights of the “working man”.

To be shown at the Human Rights Film Festival in New York on June 21st, “The Unafraid” derives its title from the chant of DACA students sitting in at a state college in Athens, Georgia: “We are undocumented; we are unafraid!” It tracks the struggle of four high school seniors brought to the USA from Mexico as young children to now overcome the obstacles they face in one of the country’s most viciously anti-immigrant states. They formed a local activist group called Freedom University that sought to end the punitive practice of forcing undocumented students to pay non-resident tuition fees even though they lived nearly their entire lives in Georgia. Coming from hard-pressed families barely scraping by, the non-resident tuition fees costing triple what residents paid stood in the way of getting a college degree.

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June 8, 2018

Human Rights Film Festival 2018

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,human rights — louisproyect @ 8:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 8, 2018

In advance of the 2018 Human Rights Film Festival that opens on June 14th, I was able to preview three scheduled documentaries that would be of great interest to CounterPunch readers both for the subject matter and for their artistic merit. Given Hollywood’s indifference to character development as it pursues blockbuster ticket sales based on special effects and car chases, your only recourse is to watch films like “The Distant Barking of Dogs”, “Naila and the Uprising” and “The Silence of Others” that are deeply humanistic treatments of people living through the real dramas of our epoch, namely the struggle to live in a free and just society.

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June 1, 2018

The Last Witness

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Poland — louisproyect @ 1:35 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, June 1, 2018

Now rentable on iTunes, Amazon and other VOD platforms for $5.99, “The Last Witness” is a narrative film about the Katyn massacre of 1940. This joint Polish-British production is well worth seeing both for its dramatic power and for its probing examination of how England served Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism by covering up the massacre that left 22,000 elite members of the military, academy, church and legal professions secretly buried in the forest near Smolensk, even after the Cold War had begun.

This is now the second film about Katyn I have reviewed for CounterPunch, the first being Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 “Katyn”. Like Wajda, the director and screenwriters of “The Last Witness”—Piotr Szkopiak and Paul Szambowski—are Polish nationalists. For the Poles, the 1940 occupation and mass murder of the country’s elite has cast a shadow over their history just as the 1932-33 famine does for Ukrainians.

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May 18, 2018

First Reformed

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film — louisproyect @ 2:36 pm

For most film buffs, the movie “Taxi Driver” and the name Martin Scorsese are inextricably linked. But for me, the essence of a film is the screenplay. It all goes back to Aristotle who in defining tragedy in “Poetics” placed plot and character at the top of the six necessary ingredients (the other four are diction, thought, spectacle, and melody). Martin Scorsese did not write the screenplay for “Taxi Driver”. It was written by Paul Schrader, who also wrote “Raging Bull”. If there is anything that defines these masterpieces, it is the brilliant storytelling (plot) and character development of the screenplay (think Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta). Scorsese deserves credit for helping Robert De Niro fully realize two memorable characters and creating the spellbinding background against which they stand (think of spectacle as cinematography and melody as film score) but without Schrader’s screenplay, it would have been all for naught.

In addition to being a screenwriter, Schrader was also a director—sometimes with mixed results. I am pleased to report that his latest film that opens nationwide today is not only his greatest achievement but one of the great American films of the decade. “First Reformed” tells the story of Toller (Ethan Hawke), the grief-stricken pastor of the eponymous upstate N.Y. Protestant church who delivers sermons to less than ten people on an average Sunday. The drawing card for the church is not spirituality, but its status as a landmark building that draws tourists, including some that can be persuaded to buy a coffee cup, baseball cap or t-shirt from the church’s tiny souvenir shop.

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May 11, 2018

Capitalism: a Horror Movie

Filed under: Counterpunch,economics,Film — louisproyect @ 4:46 pm

As part of its special series celebrating the 200thbirthday of Karl Marx between May 18-22, the Anthology Film Archives will be screening “Capitalism”, a 320-minute, six-part documentary that is both supremely intelligent and briskly entertaining, on May 20th at 3:45. Directed by Ilan Ziv, the founder of Icarus Films, it is like no other film I have ever seen about the horror we face in our daily lives that is much more frightening than slasher movies like Halloween or Friday the Thirteenth. After all, the idea of nuclear holocaust or global warming—just two of the threats we face from an economic system gone mad—are not something a plucky hero or heroine in a John Carpenter movie can stave off.

The film operates on two levels. It is both a history of how this system came into existence as well as a profile of the men who have put themselves at its service ideologically (Hayek) and those who either fought against its worst abuses (Keynes) or hoped to abolish it altogether (Marx).

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May 4, 2018

Angels Wear White

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:05 pm

Purely by coincidence, “Angels Wear White” bears a striking resemblance to last year’s “The Florida Project”, a film I nominated for best of 2017. Like “The Florida Project”, most of the action in “Angels Wear White” takes place in a motel—in this instance on a seaside resort in southwest China’s that is bathed in sunlight. Like Sean Baker, the director of “Florida Project”, Vivian Qu’s film revolves around two women dealing with class and sexual oppression. Baker’s characters were a single mother forced into becoming a hooker out of economic desperation and her six-year old daughter who is the charismatic gang leader of the motel’s bored and restless children. Finally, like the “Florida Project”, “Angels Wear White” is an outstanding film that has the inside track for my nomination of best foreign language film of 2018.

In “Angels Wear White”, we first meet Mia who is subbing at the reception desk for her friend Lily who has a date with her boyfriend. Mia’s regular job is cleaning the rooms, doing the laundry and other menial tasks. On her lonely shift (the tourist season has not yet started), a middle-aged man approaches the desk with two young girls wearing white naval-style school uniforms in tow, with one of them wearing a blonde wig. Mia doesn’t bother to ask the man, who registers for adjoining rooms, what he is doing with the children since we can assume that such questions are not often asked in China, especially by a housekeeper who lacks a proper ID. Not long after the girls order four beers, Mia is at least concerned enough to keep an eye on the video security monitor. When she sees the two girls pushing the man out of their room, she decides to film the confrontation on her smart phone—an act that sets the narrative in motion.

Eventually, the children’s parents discover what took place and bring them to a clinic where an examination reveals that they have been raped. They oscillate between rage at the children for acting like sluts and at the man who took advantage of them.

It turns out that he is the police commissioner and a powerful figure in the small town, which obviously puts constraints on the investigation that begins after the medical exam. A lawyer for the prosecution contacts Mia about what she saw that night but is frustrated by the young woman’s reluctance to share information. Her boss, who understands power relations in the town, has warned her that she will be out of a job if she doesn’t keep her mouth shut. Since Mia is only 15 years old (played by the 14-year old actress Vicky Chen) and lacks a proper ID that would allow her to apply for other jobs, she is as vulnerable as the two children.

The girl in the blonde wig is named Wen. Like the waif in “The Florida Project”, she simultaneously street-smart and innocent. When her friend tells her in the clinic that their hymen has been broken, she asks, “What’s a hymen?” Tired of being rebuked by her mother who throws out her age-inappropriate garb and the blonde wig, she runs away and crashes at her father’s house. He is in the lower ranks of the village’s social order but determined to see that Wen get justice. Except for the prosecution attorney and Wen’s father, everybody seems willing to let bygone’s be bygone, especially since challenging the authority of the police commissioner leads up a blind alley. Even the parents of Wen’s friend are ready to accept his promise of a payoff in exchange for dropping the case.

If the story sounds like it is the Chinese counterpart to #MeToo, that is only part of the story. It is equally the story about those millions of workers, both men and women, who lack the protections afforded those with proper identification. In effect, they are internal undocumented workers. Known as the hukou system, it serves as both a social security number and an internal passport. Lacking proper documents, a migrant worker suffers super-exploitation in much the same way undocumented workers suffer in the USA. In Beijing, there have been raids on neighborhoods where migrants live that are as vicious as those on the refugee camps in France. The NY Times reported on November 30, 2017:

“Starting from today, demolish what can be demolished, don’t wait until tomorrow,” Wang Xianyong, a district official in southern Beijing, said in a speech to officials that leaked onto the internet. “If it’s demolished today, then won’t you be able to get a good night’s sleep?”

Initially, city leaders ignored the complaints from the displaced migrants. But as images of expelled workers dragging their belongings along streets on freezing nights appeared on social media, they ignited an unusually strong public backlash. Even some state-run news outlets have chimed in to criticize the rushed demolitions.

In the press notes for “Angels Wear White”, the director recounts her inspiration for making the film:

Once during a scouting trip, I saw a young girl, 8 or 9 years old, playing alone on a long flight of steps against a hilltop. It was approaching dusk and the area was deserted. The girl was happy to see us and volunteered to be our model as we shot videos of the area. She told me that her parents, migrant workers from a faraway province, were still at work; that her home was in a basement at the bottom of the hill; that she had no friends. She didn’t want to see us leave, and asked if we’d be back the next day. Are the young girls fine? I often wonder.

The film opened today at the Metrograph, NYC May 4 and will open in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Music Hall on May 18.

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